Archive for ‘Books’

December 4, 2010

THIS Reads: e-Hoarding the Best Online Lit Mags

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

A couple of months ago I explained in THIS Reads how my library is home to an exhausted number of big-name titles and not so many lesser known, underdog books. Believe it or not, the problem is still troubling me. No, I haven’t been brainwashed by Penguin and Random House into zombie-walking to the nearest Chapters or some other chain store looking for the ex-president’s memoirs. And no, it’s not an odd catch-22 that I’d like to go out and pick up a copy of The Sentamentalists, the biggest small press book in a long time (although if you happen to miraculously find a copy, I’d love to borrow it once you’re finished).

No, the only problem troubling me is that I can’t find enough independent literature. I’ve become a bloodhound sniffing out anything under the radar. I thrive on the minnow-like, unheard author’s view of the sharks and whales in the rest of the sea. I obsess over the small press.

Lately, in order to feed my habit, I’ve taken on a risqué lifestyle quite frowned upon in the current reality TV age: hoarding. But my home isn’t billowing with pocketbooks and paperbacks. I want to avoid all the dirty stares. So, I’ve come up with the perfect little secret – the big “H” without any of the kickback – e-Hoarding. I’ve taken to spending many late nights turned early mornings searching the web for any sort of underground-lit I can find. And this month in THIS Reads, I’m going to let you in on some of the best online literature collectives I’ve found so far. I must say, in terms of niche writing, finding stuff that’s brand new and fresh is easiest through online journals. How ironic, you’re reading one right now.

Without further ado, I give you my e-picks of the month:

PANK – This is one of the best free literary magazines I’ve come across. They publish monthly with tonnes of new poetry and prose from writers worldwide. But that’s not saying much once you read a bit of PANK – the stuff they put out is very high calibre. Contemporary, relevant, cutting edge, the best adjectives represent what PANK is all about.

Abjective – Along the same lines as PANK, Abjective e-publishes great fictional prose and poetry, but there’s a catch. Abjective comes out weekly with only one piece of either poetry, prose, or creative non-fiction. It’s a stripped down literary ‘zine – the only thing on the site is the current piece and a minimalist description of the Abjective manifesto. If anything, it keeps you on your toes in anticipation for the next issue only every few days away.

My e-journeys in the past month have also brought me to Mel Bosworth’s Grease Stains, Kismet, and Eternal Wisdom available as a free e-book (yes, free!) at Brown Paper Publishing. The short novel of about one hundred pages is an interesting read, it definitely doesn’t bore with its parameters of lust, drugs and borderline insanity. But I won’t ruin it for you because you can, just as easily as I did, read it yourself.

Oh, and keep reading this, it’s also free, independent and full of great writing.

December 3, 2010

THIS Reads: Classics for Kids

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BY SWEETMAN

Serial books are terrific gifts because they can be given individually over the years or as a set, particularly if there’s more than one young reader in a household. Individual books by a multitude of young adult authors – the genre churns out more books than I can follow – I like to give for gifts as well. A few timeless and enjoyable old school books impart a love of reading thanks to the excellent caliber of writing. They are true gifts to bestow upon young readers.

E.B. White
White is one of the most eloquent and writers I have ever read. He has a wonderful way of writing incredibly appealing novels for children that avoid the pitfalls of “writing down” to young readers. His stories include The Trumpet of the Swan, Stewart Little, and, of course, Charlotte’s Web. These classics should probably be given with a box of tissues.

Roald Dahl
What fun it is to read novels from a child’s point of view about evil villains (and villainesses) when you’re a kid. Roald Dahl’s children’s stories are full of dark humor, mistreatment and peril – and kids love it. These short, funny and very engaging books for young readers are hilarious to read out loud. Dahl, a disciplined father of five, allegedly regaled his children with these dark tales at bedtime before writing them as novels. Some classic Dahl favorites include The Gremlins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Reading shaped my life when I figured out the beauty of words on a page. I was never without a book, hence I was rarely bored (although I was almost always late.) Of the all the books and authors mentioned above, Roald Dahl probably influenced me the most. I love dark humor, I adore an evil villain and the best stories for me are where good conquers all. I never consciously reflected on the influence, though I named my sons James and Charlie.

Many, many of these stories have been made into movies, some good, some not so good but they are nothing in comparison to the actual novels. So give books this season and give the gift of reading. Kids today are so connected, scheduled, sheltered and overloaded with electronics that they need the freedom of imagination and to learn that the power of words has the ability to take you anywhere.

Read Sweetman’s previous THIS Reads: Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Twihards

photo: July

December 2, 2010

THIS Reads: Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Twihards

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BY SWEETMAN

Are you wondering what to give the tween or teenager in your life? Think books. Reading is a gift that never stops giving. Give books, real books, not anything electronic – kids today suffer from waaaaaaaaaay too much electronic crap cluttering up their brains. The act of reading sustains the brain’s ability to solve logic problems and operate on a higher level of processing and reasoning. And there’s nothing like the physical reminder of a thoughtfully given book.

I am not well-versed in books for babies, toddlers or young children although I’ve had two babies (then toddlers then young children). It’s been my limited experience that “popular” and “educational” are somewhat less satisfying for both parents and children. I always leaned toward the classics and books about trucks because I have two sons. Whatever you give to a toddler or non-reading child, make sure it’s something that you’ll love reading over and over and over again, too.

For school age to young adult, here’s what not to give: any of the Twilight books. I know they have a legion of followers breathlessly fainting into the pages because Edward is so amazing and Bella is so amazing and the Twilight books are so amazing and there you have it: indoctrination to repetitively bad writing. Let the tween or teen borrow Twilight from a friend or the library and let’s stop shoving money into Ms. Meyer’s overflowing coffers. There are far better things to read:

C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia
A classic masterpiece, Lewis’s seven book series takes the reader into the fantastic world of Narnia. Four children – Peter, Susan, Edward and Lucy Pevensie – find the magical world of Narnia through a wardrobe in Professor Digory Kirke’s mansion. In Narnia they join forces with the noble Aslan to save the wintry world from the evil White Witch. Readable chapter books for even the youngest children, The Chronicles of Narnia series has widely influenced and guided the talents of many influential authors, musicians, directors and artists since they were published in the 1950s.

J.K. Rowling, The Harry Potter Series
We can’t thank J.K. Rowling enough because she didn’t just ignite the spark of love for reading in young people: she set the house on fire. The Harry Potter Series, seven epic novels about Harry Potter, Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft, and the battle of good versus evil, have become instant coming-of-age classics. J.K. Rowling masterfully narrates an epic and, at times, very dark tale full of memorable characters in a magical wizarding world. These books are excellent on many levels and the writing is superb. I confess I was reluctant – no disdainful – of the books when they first came out because I had no interest in the magical world of wizardry. Fantasy was not my genre but my sister gave a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stones to my youngest son for his 5th birthday. It was a gift that I believed was a curse because I had to read it out loud to him. However, before the first chapter ended I was hooked and waited as anxiously as all the other Harry Potter fans for the next installment. I read each word of all seven books to my youngest son, a literary experience like no other in my life.

Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Thirteen quick-paced, sharp and witty books chronicle the adventures of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, beginning with the fiery deaths of their parents and propelling them through a number of unfortunate events as they are pursued by their distant relative, the evil Count Olaf. The books in A Series of Unfortunate Events are cautionary tales with dark Grimm undertones but they are clever and engaging. It’s a series that is sure to develop and secure a young reader into a life of good reading.

In tomorrow’s THIS Reads, Sweetman discusses more beloved children’s books by Roald Dahl and E.B. White.

photo: Stephanie Skidmore

November 30, 2010

Fiction + Hollywood = A Very Beautiful Love Affair?

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Hollywood films frequently borrow from literary (and sometimes not so literary) writers. This year, everything from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, graphic novels Tamara Drewe by Posy Simonds and the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Elizabeth Gilbert’s heartfelt memoir Eat, Pray Love and the biopic on Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” appeared on the silver screen.

What’s missing from this list? A little Gothic romanticism perhaps?

Indie filmmaker Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) has a new adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre set for release in March 2011 and starring Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland,” “The Kids Are All Right”), Dame Judi Dench (does she really need an introduction?), Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds”), and Sally Hawkins (“Tipping the Velvet,” “An Education”).

Since the last good film adaptation of Gothic fiction was Alfred Hitchcock’s take on Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” let’s hope that Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre” doesn’t disappoint. Check out the trailer below.

 

 

The other Hollywood-Book news is James Franco – actor, writer (his short story collection Palo Alto was published in October), PhD candidate in English literature at Yale, MFA student, performance artist, soap opera star and visual artist – is confirmed to host the Oscars with Anne Hathaway who, as far as we know, is only an actress. After hosting the Oscars, Franco will bow out of attending any post-award parties to clime Mt. Everest, end world hunger, negotiate a renewed cease fire between Israel and Palestine and rescue a kitten trapped in a tree.

November 29, 2010

Book Review: Descendant by Bob Freeman

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DESCENDANT
by Bob Freeman

Belfire Press
(August 2010, $14.99, 332 pages)

Descendant, the first in a new occult fiction series by Bob Freeman, is divided into two sections, Book One and Book Two, with a rather complicated storyline. Book One begins with Dr. Landon Connors embarking on a difficult astral journey to contact a demon. Afterward, he has a brief conversation with an unusual companion, setting the tone for a story filled with fallen angels, werewolves, zombies, vampires, and other evil creatures seeking to bring about the downfall of humankind. Dr. Connors, a powerful magician, is informed that he has been summoned to a crime scene at a cabin he owns. The cabin is a way station for the Nightstalkers, a group that fights evil without government sanction. He meets Agents Wolfe and Crowe for the first time (but not the last), and together they try to track down a gargoyle in the immediate area.

Wolfe and Crowe are part of the Paranormal Operations Division of the FBI and frown upon the activities of the Nightstalkers. While Wolfe can cast spells and travel through the astral plane, she is not nearly as powerful as Dr. Connors, which is one of the reasons the doctor has been asked to assist them. Crowe has his own special talents and is one of the undead and he shares his unique tale with Connors. This is the first time I’ve read a story with a zombie for a main character that was not about a zombie apocalypse. They leave Connors to tidy up the loose ends and move on to their next investigation. The two agents travel from one monstrous crime scene to another, usually located in small Midwestern towns with long supernatural histories. They are expected to eliminate the threat, and cover up the real events with a fabricated explanation.

Book Two includes even more complex characters, such as Father Rainey and Mr. Drake. Both characters were briefly introduced in Book One and prove to be critical connections to the various rituals that the agents have been investigating, including a horrific satanic ritual and a meddlesome family that seem tied to everything that has gone wrong.

Until I reached Book Two, I thought this was just a random assortment of paranormal crime investigations by two FBI agents, Wolfe and Crowe. As I continued reading, each chapter revealed another mystery that guides the two agents further into a tangle of demonic scheming. I was drawn into the ritualistic drama leading up to a confrontation of biblical proportions, when all the secrecy is stripped away and a plot to unravel the world is finally divulged. While this novel could be a stand-alone – no wicked cliffhanger or blatantly open ending – Freeman plans to follow it with more in the Wolfe and Crowe series.

Descendant is not a story with an occult theme; it is a fictional novel based on Freeman’s detailed knowledge of the occult, with extensive terminology and background information. Freeman is the founder of the paranormal research group, Nightstalkers of Indiana. He is also a member of the Aleister Crowley Society and the Indiana Horror Writers. More can be found about the author at his website Occult Detective.

Ursula K. Raphael

November 18, 2010

Book Review: Inside the Mirrors by Jason R. Davis

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INSIDE THE MIRRORS
by Jason R. Davis

CreateSpace
(December 2009, $13.99, 386 pages)

Inside The Mirrors by Jason R. Davis reminded me of classic horror: scary without excessive gore. This story crawls into your head and makes you leave the light on after you’re done reading. The plot centers on Rob Alleto, a Chicago cop who believes that moving to a small town would lead to a safer environment for himself and his family. When an evil spirit attempts to possess Rob’s neighbors through their mirrors, he discovers that there are things far worse than street criminals. As more people fall under the control of the “Winago,” all the plants and animals begin to die and even the buildings appear dilapidated overnight. Rob soon wishes he had never left Chicago.

The prologue grabbed my attention immediately with a man unexpectedly falling off a silo, but my interest began to fade with the drawn out raid on a meth lab. I understand that the author was trying to give us some background on Rob’s injuries and his decision to leave Chicago, but when I’m expecting horror, I don’t want to feel like I’m reading something from the crime genre.

Quickly after the raid, the story picks up pace with Rob in the hospital thinking about his upcoming move to a small town where he will work as a deputy. His wife, Robyn, along with their son, Jake, take care of packing for the move so the family can leave immediately after Rob is released from the hospital. The first chapter ended with a frightening surprise that hooked me for the rest of the book (sorry, anything more would be a major spoiler).

The following chapter switched point of view to two boys, Aaron and Josh, as they ventured into an abandoned house where a family murder took place. Only someone like Davis, with his great knowledge of horror, could write with terrifying suspense, one where you’re screaming at the characters, “don’t go into the house!”

The next jump in point of view is to a homeless drifter, Coolidge, who sees a grotesque dead man appear out of nowhere. The dead man tells him to go home and continues to stalk and torment Coolidge until the drifter ends up in the same small town that Rob has moved to, which is when the various viewpoints begin to converge in the town of Standard.

Davis, the Director of the Chicago Horror Film Festival, self-published this debut novel and the final copies are riddled with typos. However, the raw editing doesn’t disrupt the flow of the story. Once all the major characters are in place, Davis takes his readers on a thrill ride through hell in the disguise of small town drama. The harder Rob tries to make sense of everything, the faster his life falls apart around him. Lots of people die, and a major sacrifice is needed to stop the Winago from overwhelming the entire town. When you’re done reading this book, you won’t want to linger in front of your mirror.

You can find out more about this new author, and his many ongoing horror projects, here.

-Ursula K. Raphael

 

photo: Elliott Pics

November 18, 2010

Small Book Wins Big Prize: Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists Snags the Giller

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists winning the Giller Prize, Canada’s highest literary achievement, does more for CanLit than for Skibsrud. That’s taken lightly though, because the young, thirty-year-old author of a highly esteemed novel will feel the Giller effect of worldly recognition and mass sales in the ball park of 75,000 copies. But even that sounds miniscule compared to the real story behind The Sentimentalists. When this novel was first published in 2009 by Kentville, Nova Scotia micro-press Gaspereau Books, it was in a wiry run of 800 copies.

That’s what makes this year’s Giller so unique in the world of CanLit, and so groundbreaking. The Sentamentalists is the smallest book ever to win the prize, which pays a pleasant $50,000, and beat out two big commercial novels, David Bergen’s The Matter With Morris and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel. Winter’s novel was also nominated for the Writer’s Trust and Governor General’s awards. Last year’s Giller winner was long time CBC newscaster Lynden MacIntyre for his widely successful novel The Bishop’s Man. In its fifteen year existence, past Giller winners include Alice Munro, Joseph Boyden and Margaret Atwood. No one saw the major literary award centering in on something as obscure as Skibsrud‘s novel, an account of her father’s life as a soldier in the Vietnam War.

At the same time, The Sentamentalists contended with other underdogs, including Sarah Salecky’s This Cake Is For The Party and Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, two considerably smaller books, thought their quantities were at least in the thousands when recommended by the jury.

Once the 2010 Giller longlist was announced, Gaspereau owner Andrew Steeves turned down commercial offers to mass produce copies of The Sentamentalists. “If you are going to buy a copy of that book in Canada, it’s damn well coming out of my shop,” Steeves proclaimed in an interview with the Globe and Mail. He’s since changed his tune, telling the press on Monday that Vancouver publishers Douglas & McIntyre will be producing 30,000 paperback copies by the end of the week, with an additional 20,000 lined up when demand bubbles again.

Also currently hitting the news is a dash of Giller controversy. Ali Smith, British author and one of the three Giller jurors this year, reportedly tipped off a publishing friend during the middle of deliberations about her love of Skibsrud’s novel. The National Post reported that Smith’s friend, Tracy Bohan of The Wiley Agency, may have taken the advice a little too seriously, because she sold foreign printing rights of the book to a UK Random House imprint with a release date set for next March. Giller president Jack Rabinovitch acknowledges the information sharing was out of line, but was done innocently.

Meanwhile, Steeves at Gaspereau in Kentville, Nova Scotia is trying to keep his head above water while pumping out 1,000 hand-printed and hand-bound copies a week, with enough on backorder to keep them in business until e-books really do take over the world. Oddly enough, The Sentamentalists is available online as an e-Book from Kobo. Since the announcement of Skibsrud’s win last week, Amazon.ca has her novel topping the bestseller list ahead of Keith Richard’s Life and George W. Bush’s Decision Points. Beating out famous names like that is no little feat.

November 14, 2010

Book Trailer of the Week: The Boombox Project

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Lyle Owerko’s photography collection The Boombox Project, released by Abraham Books earlier this month, documents the iconic machine and the people who were central to hip-hop, rock & roll, and punk movements of the 1970s and ’80s. With a forward by Spike Lee, the collection also features commentary from LL Cool J, DJ Spooky, Fab 5 Freddy, and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, among others. What’s great about this book trailer is that it reminded us Daft Punk’s music video for “Da Funk,” directed by Spike Jonze.

November 10, 2010

The Very Writerly President

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Just in time for the Republican and Tea Party sweep of congressional and gubernatorial seats, former United States President George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points was released to enormous media hoopla today. Back in May, The Huffington Post invited folks to photoshop their own titles and covers for the book. (Personal favorite: #10) In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani says that Decision Points “lacks the emotional precision and evocative power” of former First Lady Laura Bush’s memoir Speaking from the Heart. Between the two, Kakutani says save your money and your time for Laura’s memoir over George’s.

November 6, 2010

Writers Pick Their Faves

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Like that old question asked of Catholic priests, “To whom does the confessor confess?”, writers are often asked to name authors and novels that have influenced their work or, at the very least, left an impression upon them. Here are some links to a few of our favorites.

Julia Glass’s most recent novel The Widower’s Tale was published in September. Not to be pinned down by the enormous task of selecting the ten best novels ever, Glass instead lists “ten terrific works of fiction” she’s read in the past year.

DC-based wonk newspaper the Politico asked writers at a recent PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction gala to recommend books for President Barack Obama. Jane Hamilton suggested Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (but not its more recent companion Pride and Prejudice and Zombies ) while Audrey Niffenegger opted for George Orwell’s 1984. ZZ Packer referred the president to DC writer Edward P. Jones’s novel The Known World and to Toni Morrison’s latest A Mercy. For the presidential daughters she recommended Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

NPR’s column “You Must Read This” presents conversations with writers about the books they love to read and recommend. In case you were grasping to fill out your reading list, “You Must Read This” is a springboard with old and new recommendations – including many surprises.

New York Magazine’s the Vulture has the most fun with authors recommending books. Some of our faves include Myla Goldberg’s Tales About Friendship Betrayed and Sam Anderson’s Anti-Franzen Novels.

November 5, 2010

Video of the Week: Book Dominoes

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We’re not going to lie – this video from the Arizona-based bookseller Bookmans is pretty awesome.

November 3, 2010

THIS Reads: NaNoWriMo Killed the Literary Star

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

I always find myself frustrated by all the books I’m not reading. My “to read” list is always miles longer than the list of books I’ve finished. Compounding my frustration is that I’m a slow reader. I have friends who readily soar through three or four books each week and, unless all I do is sit in a chair for six hours a day intently focused on one book, knocking through multiple titles only days apart is something I rarely accomplish.

Then again, at least I’m reading, right? In an article at Salon in which she rails against National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Laura Miller complains that there aren’t enough readers and far too many writers. And while there are statistics revealing that many folks in the U.S. spend more leisure time watching television or using a computer than reading, I don’t believe the argument that there is a dearth of readers in the U.S. People are reading; what people are reading has changed.

In the age of technology, reading occurs outside of books with an increasing frequency, something Miller doesn’t acknowledge in her article (which I “read” online although, because it doesn’t occur between the pages of a bound book, might not count as actual “reading” in Miller-world). Each Sunday I read the New York Times Book Review, in print; I try to read most of the New Yorker each week. When I travel, I frequently pack back-issues of magazines and literary journals I’ve been meaning to get around to and haven’t: Bitch, Poets & Writers, Zone 3, Zoetrope, The Normal School. I don’t work at a typical desk job, but if I did, I imagine that a chunk of my day would be spent reading articles and blogs online. Does all of this, because I’m not purchasing my reading from a traditional bookstore or downloading it on a Kindle, mean I’m reading-deficient?

To be fair, Miller’s article mostly deals with the reasons why someone shouldn’t participate in what she calls the “self-aggrandizing frenzy” of NaNoWriMo: “…while there’s no shortage of good novels out there, there is a shortage of readers for these books.” She’s right: getting published is not half as hard as getting someone to purchase your book, read it, and recommend it to others who will also purchase it once you’ve been published. And it’s true that few authors are commercially successful. But reading novels and writing them isn’t a zero-sum game.

Maybe I’m touchy because I am participating in NaNoWriMo and I take it personally that Miller refers to writing as a “narcissistic commerce,” even if I’m not sure where the “commerce” part comes in. If I’m supposed to be getting wealthy from all this, I wish someone would have told me long ago so I could have the last laugh over my friends who elected law and business school.

Miller implies that Wrimos (NaNo parlance for participating writers) aren’t reading any books or, at least by her judgement, not enough of them. I disagree with this assumption, too. Maybe Wrimos aren’t reading the same types of books Miller would read (she goes on a long rant against self-help books in her article) but reading is reading, regardless of the material. And, unless it’s Nicole Richie’s latest novel, I don’t think reading in all its many forms is making anyone more stupid.

So in addition to all the magazines, lit journals (both in print and online), book reviews and newspapers this particular Wrimo has read over the last month, I also enjoyed Julia Glass’s novel The Widower’s Tale, a story shaped by four voices that represent various corners of modern American culture. Set against the backdrop of eco-terrorism, limousine liberals, and a longing for the past in the face of rapid change, Glass succeeds in illuminating the darkest corners of our hypocrisy and hopes, all with her characteristic tenderness and humor.

Leslie Marmon Silko has been a favorite writer of mine ever since I read Ceremony. The Turquoise Ledge is her first book in ten years and a beautiful memoir that fuses elements of her family’s mixed-race heritage with Native myths and reflections on the natural world. Her imaginative storytelling travels across boundaries of time to share aspects of her life as they are remembered; for example, her first divorce is discussed alongside the eradication of the Laguna language.

University of Chicago historian Thomas C. Holt presents a generational and nuanced portrait of African-Americans in Children of Fire, a uniquely framed history that traces the shifts in culture, policy, and social norms that have defined race relations and institutions of oppression in the U.S. from when the first Africans were sold in Jamestown in 1619 to the election of President Barack Obama. Holt’s history reminds us that lives mired in history as it is lived are far more complex and dynamic than the flattened accounts textbooks would have us believe. I don’t generally read histories but appreciated Holt’s perspective and sharp narration. Children of Fire is a long book but it doesn’t lag.

Finally, confidential to all the Wrimos clattering away at their keyboard out there: Carolyn Kellogg is on our side.

November 2, 2010

Book Review: What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman

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WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER
by Howard Norman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
(October 2010, US$25.00, 256 pages)

At the beginning of Howard Norman’s What Is Left The Daughter, Wyatt Hillyer, a teenage boy recently orphaned by double parent suicides, embarks on an apprenticeship to his uncle Donald as a toboggan maker. Odd, but these two scenarios are more closely knit than you may think. They set up the depressing chain of events that this World War Two era novel follows.

Written as a letter to Wyatt’s long-lost daughter Marlais, this novel’s most striking trait is its focus on tragedy-touched characters. The fatal theme flourishes quickly, once Wyatt is moved from Halifax to Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, a small town in the maritime province where his aunt and uncle live. Here, Wyatt reunites with Tilda, his adopted cousin whom he secretly loves. Also in her late teens, Tilda decides to become a professional mourner – yes, she weeps alongside deceased loners whom no one else will pity. In diverse representation, Wyatt isn’t the only one full-up on sadness. The man Tilda eventually marries is Hans Mohring, a German exchange student of philology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

And then there is Tilda’s father, Wyatt’s toboggan-making mentor Donald, overcome with paranoia caused by German U-boat attacks off Canada’s east coast. Donald withdraws from the family, gives up the sleigh racket, and starts bunking alone in his work shed like a soldier. On her last night in town before travelling to Newfoundland on a family visit, Wyatt’s aunt Constance, Donald’s wife, breaks the shield and sleeps with Donald between walls tacked up with war stories from the newspaper.

Things climax when a German torpedo takes out a ferry with Constance onboard. With this, Donald’s hate for Hitler peaks; his paranoia proves its worth. He even goes as far as smashing his beloved Beethoven and Bach gramophone records, the ones that always got caught in the last groove before the needle could lift: a broken record repeating its last note over and over again, like the newspaper and radio reports Donald couldn’t ignore.

In one last, foul move, Donald tricks Wyatt into inviting Tilda’s German husband, Hans, to their house, apparently to make peace. Instead, Donald’s rage overpowers wit when he kills Hans with a steel toboggan runner. Daughter takes on a small town, court drama feel for a couple chapters. Donald gets life in prison for the murder; Wyatt receives a couple years for his involvement.

Upon his release, Wyatt slowly becomes part of Tilda’s life again and one night they conceive a child: Marlais. However, Wyatt is once again abandoned when Tilda moves to Denmark with Marlais, and until the point that the book is written—March 27, 1967—Wyatt goes without seeing his daughter for nearly thirty years. The story ends with Wyatt encountering more death (from both important characters and not), old friends, and living his life as a dedicated gaffer at the Halifax Harbour.

Daughter is a bleak and empathetic story, dissolved slightly with pockets of classic, uppity, home front war era scenes. To Norman’s credit, there are many unforeseen right turns that follow constant tragic foreshadowing. From page one, death is on the mind, and the avenues in which the theme is experimented with are not obviously revealed. Like any wartime novel, Daughter does have flavours of stories told once before. Hitler’s encroach on Middle Economy, even though he and his troops are distant, is represented only by a foreign sit-in. When it’s revealed that there are Nazis posing as RMC soldiers roaming around Nova Scotia and that a friend of Wyatt’s was attacked by them, you start to sympathize with Donald, the unabashed defender of reasonable revenge. Although he sacrificed an innocent bystander, he had the right intention. I guess that’s the worth of any good war novel: breaking down misconceptions loaded with controversial politics.

John Coleman

November 1, 2010

THIS Reads: Sense and Serendipity

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

I find it interesting how we stumble over the things we end up reading. What makes us pick up a certain newspaper, magazine or book, only to have it become one of our favourites? In hindsight, I sometimes realise odd licks of fate that initially guide me to a certain trend in writing, only to view it later as something monumental. For instance, I’ll always remember the cornerstone novel in my life being Orwell’s 1984. I first read it on a philosophical whim when I was thirteen years old; I was coming of age and getting interested in world politics, and had heard how prolific was the novel’s satire of modern democratic society, derived from a premonition. I not only fell in love with Orwell (since having read most of his catalogue), but 1984 influenced my perception of the world. Whenever I reminisce on how I forged my left-wing, anti-establishment, down-with-globalisation ways, I often think of how trapped Winston Smith is, constantly evading Big Brother, and how the thought of becoming him forever changed my outlook.

It seems like lately, in a much less momentous way, I have oddly stumbled over more reading when titles jumped out at me for some reason and became some of my favourites. Here are a few that I have tripped over in the past few weeks.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
I fell upon Packer while reading an article about the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list in this a few months back. Skimming through the finalists, the words Drinking Coffee Elsewhere pulled me in for a couple of reasons. One: It reminded me of the movie “Coffee and Cigarettes,” one of my favourites, a documentary about rock and roll warlords. Two: Because it sounds so good (I know, but if you share this sentiment, you know what I mean). Thankfully, the witty title of this collection of stories was not a guise to lure in readers, only to have them disappointed at some lame, poorly written life story. Contrarily, ZZ Packer’s style is sensational. She not only attacks identity and gender theories, racism, and other contemporary controversial topics in Coffee, but does it with some of the best writing I’ve ever read. I highly recommend.

Anton Chekhov
I recently reviewed a book of modernised Chekhov tales and while doing so realised that I had never actually read anything by Chekhov. It’s hard to say this as an English major, but true. I had only heard of his prowess – how he is the best Russian story writer of all time and second to Shakespeare in the world-scope of bards. And, I’m pretty sure a few Simpsons episodes are taken straight from Chekhov‘s pages. Needless to say, I had to do some buffing up. What I mainly love about Chekhov’s over two hundred stories (and a number of plays) is the focus on everyday life. Whether drawing characters from working class Russia or writing about important national landmarks, Chekhov had an unbelievable knack for depicting reality in a highly important era.

Death In Venice by Thomas Mann
The other day I was reading the arts section of the newspaper and came across a review of a new opera in Toronto, Death In Venice, based on the novella by Thomas Mann. Once again, and I don’t know why, this title leapt off the page at me. I instantly hit the library. Now, if there is one thing I love about literature, it’s being able to get entranced by writing. Venice opens with its hero Gustav von Aschenbach taking a very Poe-esque walk by the cemetery where he bumps into an eerie stalker. From this, I was hooked. But the story is more than a Gothic stroll; it deals with everything from ancient philosophy, Shakespearian tragedy and the Narcissistic archetype. Check this out if you enjoy quick reads and allusion rich literature requiring an afternoon or two full of research.

October 31, 2010

Book Review: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse by Bud Hanzel and John Olson

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THE DO-IT-YOURSELF GUIDE TO SURVIVING THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
by Bud Hanzel and John Olson

Hanson Press, Inc.
(August 2010, $14.95, 160 pages)

The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse by Bud Hanzel and John Olson and illustrated by Mark Stegbauer, comes with a guarantee of “double your money back” if you do not survive the zombie apocalypse after reading the book. From here on out, the tone is set. The humor of this guide is one of the few things that sets it apart of from the many others that have been published in the past few years, though I’m still waiting for someone to write one for kids! If you look past the funny cartoons and the hilarious sarcasm, you will find that this book has actual info that could be used in a zombie apocalypse.

The ZTA (Zombie Transforming Agent) is a blanket description for all possible sources of infection, and the introduction into the hot topics commonly found in zombie forums/websites:

• Varying speeds of the undead
• Effects of climate/environment on “zombie un-life expectancy”
• Whether or not the person’s spirit is trapped in the body of the zombie

I’ve read so many zombie survival guides that much of the information wasn’t new to me, and some of it actually struck me as bad advice. For instance, police stations and firehouses were recommended as places to go. However, zombiephiles know that a rescue station with even one infected person on the inside can quickly become a death trap. However, I did like the idea of a warehouse club store as opposed to the famous mall idea. And, unlike Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide, there were excellent pictures of assorted weapons for those who lack the familiarity.

After all the zombie info, “the plan” follows. If you disagree with any part of the plan, you are directed to Appendix E for a detailed explanation of the consequences. I found the section describing the many types of crosshair candidates (those people likely to get killed due to stupidity in a zombie outbreak) extremely amusing, as well as realistic. Stegbauer’s artistic talent and comic book-like illustrations really shined in the Do’s and Don’ts section.
My absolute favorite parts of this guide were Appendixes C and D. The former is a “shovel blade cookbook” complete with a list of staples and preparation tips. The latter is a wide-ranging list of references to increase your survival knowledge.

The major oversight of this guide is the lack of survival tips for parents (“save the babysitter” did NOT cut it); some parents can’t even manage a trip to the grocery store or a domestic flight, so they need all the help they can get in an outbreak. I wish someone would write one specifically for parents, or even one for the kids of zombiephiles, but – at the very least – a separate section should have been written on that particular aspect.

All things considered, this guide is definitely worth adding to your zombie genre collection.

Ursula K. Raphael

October 30, 2010

THIS Reads: Have a Booktacular Halloween!

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BY SWEETMAN

Shortening days, a nip in the air and wind that promises to find a way to chill your bones: oh yes, it’s time to hunker down in the dark, quiet night with a good ghost story and hope the creaks and rustles you hear are the usual sounds that always happen when night falls and the house settles. Yes, you better hope for that. And shut your eyes tight when you think you see a shadow pass your door because it’s probably the headlights of a car driving by or the stupid cat creeping around. Yes, you better hope for that too.

A good ghost story has a delicate way of easing a reader into a terrified state. It is a subtle art that raises the pulse and sends chills down the spine. A good ghost story makes the reader leave the light on long after the book is closed, moved off the night table and thrown into another room. A good ghost story stays with the reader for a long time and quite often begs to be re-read despite the lost sleep.

I usually dig out a book of ghost stories when the leaves begin to change. Halloween is my favorite time of year, I love to be scared – not terrified, just scared in a fun way that I know it’s going to end. Unfortunately, many of these ghost stories don’t exactly end when the story is over. They do linger and pop into my head at the most unfortunate times, like when I’m throwing laundry into the dryer late at night and I suddenly have to run up the stairs because something was there.

I am always on the look out for great ghost stories. I’ve read a lot of horror, terror and slash-and-kill stories, all of which never have the same chilling effect. These stories and collections are by far the best I’ve read.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Penguin, 1959)

Hill House, an eighty year old mansion, has been rented by Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator who hopes to confirm the existence of the supernatural. He brings along three “assistants:” Eleanor, Theodora and Luke. They were chosen by Dr. Montague because they have all had previous paranormal experiences.

Hill House is the protagonist in Jackson’s slightly dated but extremely well-written novel. It is eerie and cold, awake and watchful from its blank windows, “a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, nor a fit place for people, for love or for hope.” It is full of odd angles and sudden cold spots as well as mysterious noises. As the characters settle in, the house begins to play upon their fears. None of the characters experience the same fright, which makes each terror a singular event with the other characters wondering what is happening.

Jackson masterfully plays upon the psychological terror of the unknown. The eeriness of the novel crept up on me. While there is never a clear, defined event to confirm the presence of ghosts or the paranormal, the hints and individual interpretations of phenomena are by far more scary. It is a chilling novel despite the occasional stilted dialogue, one that I was certain wasn’t frightening in the least when I started out reading it on a cold night but soon decided it was best read during the daylight hours.

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James (Penguin Classics, 1898)

Henry James wrote one scary novella in The Turn of the Screw. Instead of blatant ghoulies and ghosties, this is another eerie tale of psychological terror and is well worth the concentration it will take to get the hang of Henry James’s style of writing.

A governess agrees to take charge of two orphaned children and moves to the countryside from London to find herself with two charming but odd children and a surly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who readily gives over the children. The governess is also most entirely alone with her charges and has been instructed by the children’s uncle that he is not to be bothered.

The tension begins when the governess starts seeing a young couple around the property. They appear at random times and seem to cause no interest or concern in any other occupants of the house. The governess becomes convinced they are the ghosts of the former governess, Miss Janse, and her illicit lover, both of whom, she learns from Mrs. Grose, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Things get a bit creepier when the governess becomes convinced that the children are seeing the ghosts as well.

This is Gothic writing at its best. Fear and tension build in the governess’s evolving awareness of the of the evil surroundings she has found herself. James is masterful in the implication of doubt: is the governess overreacting or are these frightening things really happening?

The Aspern Papers, though not a ghost story by any means, is the story of an obsession and a very quick read. It is well-written and very readable and I highly recommend it as a nice follow up if you want to get the eeriness of The Turn of the Screw out of your head.

SPOOKY New England: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore by S. E. Schlosser, illustrated by Paul G. Hoffman (Globe Piquot, 2003)

This is a collection of strange happenings, weird tales and ghost stories gathered from towns and places all over New England. Some are very old and familiar, some are obscure and quite chilling. Schlosser has a simple style and an easy way of drawing the reader into the stories. It is something of a travel book as well, especially if you are interested in ghost hunting. I have several, creepy favorites: “The Man Who Could Send Rats,” “The Black Dog Of Hanging Hills,” and “The Lady in Black.” The wood cut illustrations are clever and well done. Schlosser has created a regional series of spooky stories which has an appeal for those in the areas of which he gathers his tales.

Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft, illustrated by August Derleth. (Ballentine, 1987)

H.P. Lovecraft, the Über master of modern horror, earned that reputation for a very good reason. His stories are legend for their psychological thriller elements. His protagonists are rational, normal human beings who are placed in the incomprehensible and inconceivable and his stories are disturbing, weird and unsettling. Edgar Allen Poe was an obvious influence. He loves to play with the unknown, which I believe is one of the most terrifying elements in a scary story. This compilation is an excellent grouping of his “bests,” although read through in one sitting they can become formulaic and predictable.

A few of my favorites from this collection of short stories and novellas are:

– “The Rats in the Walls”: an inherited ancestral mansion has walls filled with scurrying rats.
– “The Picture in the House”: a house of refuge in a rainstorm has a disturbing picture on the wall.
– “In the Vault”: a grave digger has to dig himself out of a crypt.
– “The Whisperer in Darkness”: a scientist goes to Vermont to disprove the existence of fairies.
– “The Haunter of the Dark”: a writer creates a horrible being that can only live in the dark.

Lovecraft, practically unknown in his lifetime, set the stage, tone and a very high watermark for today’s horror writers.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (Bantam 1962)

This was my first horror novel and boy, did it do a number on me as a kid! Not only did it fill me with ideas regarding the significance of dates and hours of birth but I developed a belief in the powers of inanimate objects and it forever changed the way I feel about carnivals, carny folk and tattoos.

The story takes place in a small town that is preparing for the arrival of a carnival with fliers advertising “Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.” The two heroes, best friends Jim and Will, who were born two minutes apart on either side of Halloween, discover this is no ordinary carnival when they sneak out in the middle of the night to watch it set up. When they begin investigating during the daylight, they notice very strange things about the rides and the effect it is having on the townspeople.

Bradbury’s carnies are perfect, creepy, sleezy, dark and skeevy. There’s G. M. Dark, the tattooed freak, and his evil partner, J. C. Cooger. The carnival is also populated with The Dust Witch, a blind fortune teller, The Skeleton and Tom Fury, the dwarf. These are the carnival people you can’t resist but who fill you with terror and dread if you find yourself alone in their presence. A merry-go-round and a house of mirrors will never be the same after you read this novel.

Something Wicked This Way Comes, a classic tale of good and evil, is well written and the Gothic horror theme works well in its small-town setting, proving that even wholesome places are vulnerable to evil forces.

My, my, my how the cold winter nights will fly as you settle down with these stories and hope for spring.

October 28, 2010

Book Review: Darwin’s Dreams by Sean Hoade

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DARWIN’S DREAMS
by Sean Hoade

May December Publications LLC
(September 2010, $12.95, 200 pages)

Religion and science have struggled to coexist throughout history, especially when Charles Darwin introduced his theories of evolution and natural selection. To this day, creationism and evolution continue to be the topic of great debate, which makes Darwin’s Dreams a poignant novel illustrating the inception of Darwin’s famous theory.

Darwin’s Dreams is a fictional story based on the real voyage of the HMS Beagle from December 1831 to October 1836. This was actually the second survey expedition of the Beagle under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy. During this time in history, command of a ship could lead to overwhelming stress and despair, as in the suicide of FitzRoy’s own uncle. In addition to his personal need for a traveling companion, FitzRoy felt the expedition would benefit from the addition of a geologist. After being turned down by two others, FitzRoy’s superior, Captain Beaufort, received recommendations for the young Charles Darwin.

Hoade begins his vision of this historical endeavor with the first meeting between FitzRoy and Darwin while the Beagle is docked in Plymouth, England in 1831. During this conversation, FitzRoy warns Darwin, “Whatever you put into your head, the spirals of vertigo will whip into the most vivid images while you sleep.” This excellent foreshadowing by Hoade sets the premise for the novel; the author creatively uses dreams to convey the thoughts and emotions that Darwin experiences on his journey, both on the Beagle, and afterwards, when Darwin writes about his overseas experiences. Hoade uses the interlude dreams to divide the chapters, propelling the reader forward from 1832 in Brazil to the Down House in 1865, and laying out the path that eventually leads to the publication of The Origin of Species.

Hoade demonstrates the depth of his philosophical background by deftly describing famous writings of well-known philosophers and scientists, such as Gottfried Leibniz and William Paley, and through his interpretation of Charles Darwin’s subconscious. The visions Darwin experiences while he sleeps illustrate, not only what he has been reading, but also the reasoning behind his deductions and the influence of the great thinkers. Anyone familiar with classic writings of philosophy will recognize the works that Hoade incorporates into the story of Darwin’s inner struggle between science and religion. Some of my favorite dream interludes were The Ark, with an interesting explanation of mythological creatures and dinosaurs, and The Hindoos, who are able to literally see the connection between every living soul through “mesmerization.”

In addition to Darwin’s Dreams, Sean Hoade is the author of the noir-thriller, Ain’t that America. Hoade teaches English and creative writing and his short stories, poems and cartoons have been published internationally. He is currently at work on a graphic novel, teaching an online writing class, and making waves in the zombie community with his horror shorts. He loves to receive email from his readers.

Ursula K. Raphael

October 25, 2010

CanLit Award Predictions

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

CanLit awards season is heading into its last few weeks (our big three prizes will all be handed out by mid-November). Thus, it’s time for predictions, and, if you are a real lit-junkie, some serious bets. First, a few quiet observations.

What everyone is perhaps not so quietly talking about is Kathleen Winter’s triple nominations for the Giller Prize, Governor General’s Award and Writers’ Trust prize for her novel Annabel. It is Winter’s debut novel after her 2008 Winterset Award winning short story collection boYs.

Feeling two-thirds the heat as Kathleen Winter is Emma Donoghue, up for the Writers’ Trust and GG for her novel Room. The novel was also short-listed for the Man Booker earlier this fall.

There are lesser hopefuls that may surprise Canada with a big win after all. David Bergen’s new novel The Matter With Morris has had its share of recognition this season. It is up for the Giller and may just take the cake out of Winter’s mouth.

That said, it would be doggishly ironic if Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is For The Party won the Giller. This is her debut work and has created considerable buzz in critic’s circles. Perhaps if the GG and Writer’s Trust accepted story collections, it would also approach taking those awards.

On to my predictions: be warned, the following is purely unfounded speculation.

On November 2, Michael Winter’s The Death Of Donna Whalen will win the Writers’ Trust award for fiction. In non-fiction, Sarah Leavitt will win for her graphic memoir Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me.

A week later on November 9, Emma Donoghue will win the Giller Prize for Room.

And in mid-November the Governor General’s Award for fiction will be presented to Kathleen Winter for Annabel. In non-fiction, Allan Casey will win for Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada.

October 24, 2010

Book Trailer of the Week: It’s A Book by Lane Smith

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Lane Smith’s charming picture book for children, It’s A Book answers the questions of our time: what is a book? What can it do? Why should I read it?

October 22, 2010

NaNoWriMo: What the Hell Was I Thinking?

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

In the past, I’ve toyed with participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) but have always found an excuse: November’s too busy, I’m in the middle of a project, I’m spending every waking hour of the entire month washing my hair.

Then Lars happened.

I’d completely forgotten that NaNoWriMo was approaching when Lars asked me, in September, if I planned on participating this year. Caught unawares by his Canadian charm, I couldn’t think of a good excuse. Even my previous year’s handy, ready-made put-offs evaporated.

Why is my resistance so weak to you, Lars?

So now I’m participating in NaNoWriMo. This means that during the month of November, my goal is to produce a 50,000 word novel alongside thousands of other writers (called “wrimos” in the NaNoWriMo parlance). I calculated this out: if I’m going to meet my goal of 50,000 words, I must write approximately 1,666 words each day for thirty days. That’s about three, single-spaced pages of a novel on a daily basis.

Scratch that. My goal for the month of November is not to go crazy trying to write a 50,000 word novel.

The main problem is that I’m a slow writer because my self-editor kicks in far too frequently. Even if I write three pages (or more) a day, I’m just as likely to delete 80% of my work the next day. I get stuck in the synonym mud of finding the perfect alternative to the word “bitter.” I work and re-work dialogue between characters and, sometimes, entire characters themselves. I tend to write fiction that is less action-orientated and more literary, where characters have an argument on one page and spend the next forty pages reflecting on it.

Also, I’ve never written a novel before. Not a real, grown-up novel. I wrote “novels” all the time when I was a child, but these were mostly fifty page rip-offs of whatever Nancy Drew or Boxcar Children book I’d recently read. Once in a while I’d get smart and rip-off Katherine Patterson or Mary Downing Hahn but, generally, I’d go the commercial route with easily marketable mysteries. My writing focus is on short stories, many of which undergo three or four complete revisions before my first reader ever sees a draft. I guess the question is, can a short story writer produce a fifty thousand word novel in just thirty days?

I don’t fool myself that this novel will be anywhere near good. No one will ever read it because after November, I’ll paw through its carcass for salvageable phrases and then delete the remainder without mercy. In all likelihood, this “novel” will reflect the various curse words I pitch at my computer screen as I sit down to advance my literary, people-in-a-room-thinking plot one word at a time.

So what’s the point of participating in NaNoWriMo?

For one month, I can try something I’ve never done before and can do it in the company of the very active NaNoWriMo group in my region. While I’m suffering, so will thousands of others and, in an odd way, that provides great comfort. I have permission to shut-off the self-editor that lives in my head. And Lars has promised me cupcakes. Isn’t that reason enough?

 

To join Lacey in her NaNoWriMo adventures, sign up to participate and then search for her under the username “laceywritesanovel.”

October 21, 2010

Book Review: The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar

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THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH: THE SECRET LIFE AND SERIOUS ART OF PATRICIA HIGHSMITH
by Joan Schenkar

St. Martin’s Press
(December 2009, $40, 704 pages)

Before you think you are going to settle down for a glimpse at what made Patricia Highsmith tick, prepare for a chronologically challenged, confusing and often repetitive narrative of the ins and outs of obsessions, ruminations, ideas and idylls that gave Highsmith’s novels like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train their stylized edginess and cold calculation.

Patricia Highsmith the Writer was a woman to admire: she wrote in a straightforward yet brutal manner that pulls the reader right into the hard heart and cold soul of her protagonists. It is thrilling to become immersed in Highsmith’s novels because she had a grip on bad that made it so good. While difficult to categorize her in a specific genre, she was a pioneer. Highsmith may be best known for her Ripley novels but her body of work includes twenty-two novels, eight short story collections, a suspense writers instruction guide and a book for children. She published a ground-breaking lesbian novel The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952.

Patricia Highsmith the Woman was, quite possibly, someone best avoided. Labeled a psychopath and a “black cloud,” she was a raging alcoholic for most of her literary life. In many ways her art imitated her life – or at least the dark recesses of her psyche. She believed life didn’t make sense without a crime in it. In her one of her many self-observations she stated, “If I were to relax and become human, I could not bear my life.” A talented but flawed Miss Highsmith, indeed.

Joan Schenkar tasks the reader mightily as Highsmith’s biographer. She forgoes the traditional chronological approach and instead groups the book into Highsmith’s themes/obsessions: How to Begin, A Simple Act of Forgery, La Mamma, Les Girls, Alter Ego, Greek Games. Nine divided parts jump into different times and places in Highsmith’s life. It is a meandering wander, a hippy Christmas that is difficult to follow and makes for unsettled reading. Schenkar’s method is the polar opposite of her subject; Miss Highsmith kept detailed lists, diagrams, maps and charts throughout her life. Schenkar’s unusual style does allow one to flip through the book without really missing a beat. Unfortunately, it is a beat that resonates with an uneven repetition of themes regarding Patricia Highsmith’s internal drives, which were apparently fueled by alcohol and cigarettes. There were women – many women – and occasionally a few men, in addition to her racist attitudes and actions, her aversion to comfort, avoidance of truth, self-history revision when convenient and an intense desire for privacy. Ah yes, and the collection of three-hundred snails Highsmith kept as pets. Highsmith loved snails because of their ambiguous shell and difficult gender identification. When bored at a dinner party, as she often was because she disliked food, Highsmith would pull a snail out of her purse or bra and play with it on the table cloth.

The eight years Schenkar spent perusing 18 diaries, 38 cahiers (writer’s notebooks) and 8,000 pages of her unpublished work sit uneasily in nearly 700 pages. Patricia Highsmith’s personal thoughts and opinions are not pleasant places to linger, despite her talent. It is disturbing to see her age ungracefully from svelt sphinx to a craggy, hunched gargoyle. Phobias and fantasies become more prominent in her later years. After reading her biography, it can be safely said that one of Highsmith’s most admirable qualities of character is that she wrote about her demons rather than acting upon them.

Sweetman

October 19, 2010

Book Review: The Countess by Rebecca Johns

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THE COUNTESS
by Rebecca Johns

Crown
(October 2010, $25, 304 pages)

The Countess opens with a passage from the Brothers Grimm tale Snow White, which serves as a bit of foreshadowing of Bathory’s jealous rages. The story begins with a letter Reverend Zacharias writes to a colleague that describes his failed attempts to convince the countess to repent of her crimes. He also mentions his discovery of personal letters written by Erzsebet Bathory to her only son, Pal. The story of her life is told through these letters, and paints a less dramatic picture of her activities than any other Bathory novel I have read.

Erzsebet has been sealed away in a tower in her own castle, with only a small space through which to pass her food and drink and take away her chamber pot. To pass the time, she writes to her son about her life, hoping to enlighten Pal to the dangers around him. She shares a story about a horrific punishment her father carried out against a gypsy while she was a young girl. She moves through stories of her arranged marriage, her affair, and the death of her husband.

I was halfway through the book when I wondered if there would be any mention of the crimes that inspired all the legends that surround her name. Eventually, she does use severe punishment for her servants, justifying her actions by explaining how lazy and insolent they had been, “rutting” with stable boys and stealing from the household. However, aside from the extreme and brutal beatings, usually with a whip, the punishments are not described in much detail and are hardly mentioned.

The transitions from one chapter of her life to the next are separated by accounts of what is happening to her in the tower as she writes to her son. What she says and does elicits little sympathy, however, as she sounds very much like someone who is self-centered and living in her own little world. Even though she speaks a great deal about her relationships with those around her, she gives very little consideration to their thoughts and feelings. If someone does something she doesn’t approve of, Erzsebet assumes it is a personal attack on her happiness. The more she accuses others of being jealous and malicious, the more she appears to be a sadistic and cold-hearted woman.

I thought this was the blandest account of Bathory that I have ever read; every scene seemed to lack any real emotion, which was unusual, considering that Bathory is telling her own story. I’m not sure if the author’s intention was to portray Bathory as a different sort of monster than the usual bloody tales. Despite her unlikeable character and her atrocious attitude towards others, this novel is worth reading at least once if you are interested in a new perspective of the life of Countess Bathory. Readers will either love it or hate it – there’s no middle ground with this book.

However, don’t mistake my disliking of the character’s attitude for a disliking of the author’s writing style. Rebecca Johns has vastly improved her story-telling since her debut novel, Icebergs. Johns also maintains a blog called Illiterati, featuring an exclusive interview with the deceased Bathory.

Ursula K. Raphael

October 18, 2010

Halloween Book Review: Monstermatt’s Bad Monster Jokes

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MONSTERMATT’S BAD MONSTER JOKES (VOLUME 1)
by Monstermatt Patterson

May December Publications, LLC
(September 2010, $12.95, 166 pages)

Know someone who is into everything and anything to do with monsters? If this person is also the type who looks forward to Halloween more than any other holiday, then I have the perfect gift suggestion for this October: Monstermatt’s Bad Monster Jokes Vol. 1. The monsters aren’t bad but rather the jokes are…intentionally. This book is the gift of self-torment, kind of like Jackass-meets-literature for horror fans (you know, “insert pencil into eye” kind of torment).

The introduction by Joe Moe describes the development of Matt’s love of cheesy jokes, and points out that Matt lives and breathes monsters as an FX monster mask sculptor and horror host. Kyle Kaczmarczyk, the illustrator for this joke book, also adds a tale of his personal experience with Matt and includes a brief explanation of how this collaboration came to be.

The jokes include all the traditional monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy, as well as aliens, zombies (of course! why else would I be reviewing this book?!) and superheroes. Matt even goes to town on the Jersey Shore cast, True Blood, Star Wars, and, sadly, the Human Centipede (which has traumatized me for life – Google the movie at your own risk, and have a bucket nearby to puke in). Some of the jokes are the kind my five-year-old likes to tell me and some of them are the kind of jokes you could share if you want to alienate people who annoy you.

Example of child’s joke:
Q: What moon phase will turn a baker into a Werewolf?
A: A “Croissant” moon!

On the other end is anything from the song parody section that is sure to kill your social life – you might even be able to get yourself arrested and/or committed, and no one will ever ask you for anything ever again.

One of my personal social life-killing favorites:
Q: What do you get if you cross a British sci-fi TV show and a Dr. Seuss book?
A: Horton hears a Dr. Who!

I really enjoyed reading this assortment of bad jokes, some of which aren’t quite that bad, and I don’t think any household should be without a copy this Halloween! You can see how insanely talented Matt is here.

– Ursula K. Raphael

October 16, 2010

Edna Staebler Award Winner

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BY JOHN COLEMAN

This week, Kitchener, Ontario author John Leigh Walters was awarded the 2010 Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction for his first book A Very Capable Life: The Autobiography of Zarah Petri.

Walters’ A Very Capable Life is the story of his mother, Zarah Petri, and her life as an immigrant during the twentieth century. Walters is being heralded for mastering the first-person autobiography of another person. He writes Petri’s stories in her voice, from her point of view, and creatively reinterprets landmark twentieth century events through her perception.

Now retired, Walters hosted and produced television shows in Canada and the United States for most of his life. Most recently, he hosted a program on CTV in Waterloo.

The Edna Staebler Award, established by Staebler in 1991, annually acknowledges the best first or second non-fiction work of an author that significantly portrays Canadian culture or takes place in a Canadian locale. The winner receives $10,000 from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Wilfrid Laurier University recently published a collection of Staebler’s diary entries entitled Must Write.

Edna Staebler was one of Canada’s most well-known writers, regarded widely for her Mennonite cookbook series Food That Really Shmecks. She also wrote for popular Canadian magazines Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Reader’s Digest and Star Weekly. In 1996 she was awarded the Order of Canada.

October 15, 2010

Video of the Week: Emma Donoghue

by thiszine

In the video below, Emma Donoghue reacts to a creative book display at the Next Chapter Bookshop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and discusses her book Room with an audience gathered for a reading.

Room was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.