Posts tagged ‘Books’

February 14, 2011

Book Review: A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

by thiszine

A WIDOW’S STORY: A MEMOIR
by Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco
(February 2011, $27.99, 432 pages)

It is a rare opportunity to gain an honest glimpse into the private life of a public persona. When it happens, the reveal is often surprising because the discovery of the “real” life is quite different from the character known to the public. Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir of her husband’s unexpected death and the aftermath of grief over her loss is a deeply personal and honest look at her submersion into the ill-defined world of present-day widowhood.

In 1961, after a brief courtship and at the tender age of 23, Oates married the love of her life, Raymond J. Smith, in Madison, Wisconsin. Their marriage was her foundation for nearly 50 years. In her private life, she was Joyce Smith. She and Ray shared a deeply loving marriage marred by few upheavals, trials or separations. Their academic careers mirrored, they often taught in the same universities or at colleges located close together. In 1974 they founded a literary magazine, The Ontario Review and its publishing house The Ontario Review Books. Ray left academia to become editor of The Ontario Review and while Joyce continued to teach and write, she also took on the role of an associate editor. Their union, by her own definition was, “a marriage of like minds.”

A Widow’s Story begins with Ray’s hospitalization for pneumonia at Princeton Medical Center. Ray, an editor, runner, writer and husband, had been in good, if not excellent health, for all of his 68 years. His bout with pneumonia, requiring hospitalization, was unexpected but not catastrophic. Both patient and wife expected a speedy discharge with life quickly returning to its happy and peaceful domesticity. Oates was blindsided by the rapid decline of her husband’s illness: heart arrhythmia, admission to the Cardiac Care Unit and the close monitoring of low oxygen levels. Throughout, she expected that he was going to rally and return to his usual healthy state. However, within the week Ray was dead of a rare but deadly hospital acquired infection, E coli bacterial pneumonia. Ray’s sudden, brutal and unexpected death unceremoniously threw Oates into a panicked state of widowhood. She tried desperately to comprehend the wrenching loss of her husband.

Oates’ widowhood is dark, full of grief and provides a frank look at the abyss of absence. Her observations mirror some of the bleak themes she has explored in her own writing as her author-self, Joyce Carol Oats, to whom she refers to as JCO. A Widow’s Story is deeply personal and painful to read because it describes a wrenching end of a loving marriage. We as readers experience a Pandora’s Box of the unexpected and unwanted as she writes about the aftermath of death and of a life she never expected, wanted, or planned.

Ray was her life. They had only each other; there were no children, just two cats and a garden, (mostly Ray’s cats and Ray’s garden). She compartmentalizes the year following his death into 5 distinct periods of time: I. The Vigil, II. Free Fall, III. The Basilisk, IV. Purgatory, Hell, V. “You Looked So Happy”.

Oates is brutally honest with her reflections and recollections and she writes with a rawness that thankfully lacks self-deprecation or the canonization of the departed. She is truthful in her fear that she may not be able to carry on and writes poignantly about the difficulty of daily tasks and of wearing a brave face. Equally, she’s brutally honest about her perception of living up to others’ expectations of her as The Widow. Her grief does not follow any predictable stages. She is able travel and give speeches within a week of Ray’s death but she is unable to write. She cannot sleep, although she is perpetually exhausted. She keeps an exact inventory of pain pills, anti-anxiety pills and sleeping pills and, in the beginning of her life without Ray, she thinks often of making a quick and peaceful exit from her own painful existence. She has flashbacks of his death, she dreams that he is alive and she feels she is being watched by a reptilian creature who wants her to die. This honest recount of raw grief is painful, wrenching and lonely.

A Widow’s Story is not only a memoir; it is also a social commentary on widowhood in the 21st century where there are no set rules. The formalities that mark the phases of widowhood are nebulous and isolating. Oates finds herself buried in food baskets she can’t consume and plants she can’t care for. She is never able to write acknowledgements of Ray’s death nor can she even pick up the phone. Her most uplifting and meaningful correspondences are via e-mail. Oates takes a very difficult look into the modern age of widowhood, speaking to the greater societal issue of avoidance and of the compartmentalization of people who are no longer part of what was once a comfortable whole.

Yet, A Widow’s Story is not without humor and light: lives well-lived and full of love must have their glory. Thankfully, Oates reveals many of her beloved husband’s traits, characteristics and talents. She is able to describe the Ray she knew, lived with and loved for almost 50 years. She recognizes that while it is painful to imagine the loss, it is also an honor to share in the life. Her year ends with hope and with a small kernel of insight which reveals that grief, even fathomless and unimaginable grief of love lost, is worth wading through. Life will go on.

Sweetman

January 10, 2011

Whitewashing History In Mark Twain

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BY SWEETMAN

Mark Twain has been surrounded by controversy since he began publishing his writing. Witty, satirical and irreverent, William Faulkner hailed him as “the father of American literature.” Twain was born in 1835 and died in 1910, and his novels and essays were a reflection of his life and times. Twain’s writing is often light and humorous but he was equally infamous for his penchant to delve into sobering societal hypocrisies and inhumanity toward others.

For these dark themes, Twain’s most notable novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) have been mired in controversy over the appropriateness of teaching them to young readers. They have been banned from libraries, schools and curriculum since they were first published. The controversy surrounding Twain’s these novels still rages into the 21st century; his two most famous novels still rank in the top 100 of the American Library Association’s most frequently challenged and banned books.

Enter Auburn University Professor Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar who decided, after forty years of studying and teaching the writings of Twain, to change the content of both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His changes substitute racially derogatory words for African-Americans and Native-Americans for, in Professor Gribben’s opinion, the more socially acceptable 21st century terms “slave” and “Indian” (wouldn’t “Native American” be the more politically correct version?). He reasons that by substituting the n- and i-words for more socially acceptable words he is eliminating “preemptive censorship” of the novels and thus preventing further cries of inappropriateness in public schools. Professor Gribben defends his edits as offering to teachers and general readers “an option for a more palatable reading experience.”

Well doesn’t that just make altering a dead author’s work The Right Thing To Do! And maybe the politically correct white-washing of Classic American Literature will revise our unsavory and uncomfortable history of slavery, segregation and racial inequality!

Censorship is censorship. No matter how earnestly one feels he/she is defending an author, alteration of the author’s final text to make it more “palatable” to the masses is censorship. Mark Twain did not use the word “slave” 219 times in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and no amount of good intention by Professor Gribben gives him the right to change Twain’s work. Furthermore, using a less inflammatory yet definitively wrong word as the substitution for a highly offensive, racially charged word sets Professor Gribben squarely on a path of whitewashing then rinsing an unfortunate part of American History.

There is a word for Professor Gribben’s particular brand of censorship as he is not the first well-meaning expert to try to gloss a work of literature to make it less offensive. Thomas Bowdler, an English physician, decided to expurgate the works of William Shakespeare and Edward Gibbons to render them more appropriate for the delicate eyes of 19th century women and children. His edits were soundly ridiculed and rejected. The term bowdlerize is now eponymous with literary censorship.

Gribben’s bowdlerization of Twain’s writing is an act of incredible vanity. During a reading as part of the NEA’s Big Read Program in Alabama, Gribben read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and routinely substituted “slave” for the n-word to make for a more comfortable reading. Apparently Professor Gribben liked the swap so much that he is perfectly comfortable tweaking Twain’s works in writing to make it easier on our modern eyes.

Censorship of Twain’s novels does both the author and the content of the novels a tremendous disservice. It is impossible to know if Mark Twain would make politically correct changes to his novels today and we can only guess what he would want. Twain wrote in the vernacular of the time. The derogatory slang use of the n-word in the 1870s is not burdened with the unspeakable weight that it carries in the 21st century. Yet that unspeakable weight is the burden of a society that has to live with the acts and deeds of its predecessors, like it or not. Difficult as it is to read, write and speak, censorship of a novel that reflects true historical times does not protect or teach young readers and bowdlerizing literature to make reading more palatable teaches nothing.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are tremendous novels with a sad truth still present today: our capability for committing inhumane acts. As a society, we haven’t changed enough to read Twain’s novels with any historical distance. To the contrary, the power of Twain’s writing has drastically changed to make his words uncomfortable, taboo and unspeakable in classrooms. Expunging those words changes nothing within our present culture. It’s just censorship.

January 8, 2011

Book Review: This Book Is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson

by thiszine

THIS BOOK IS OVERDUE: HOW LIBRARIANS AND CYBRARIANS CAN SAVE US ALL
by Marilyn Johnson

Harper Perennial
January 2011 (paperback), $14.99, 304 pages)

I’ve often wondered what would happen to libraries in a world with instant online access, so I selected This Book Is Overdue with high expectations. Marilyn Johnson begins with a brief historical example and an explanation of how librarians have helped libraries (and, especially, their patrons) adapt to this ever-changing online environment.

The first few chapters are full of stories from librarians illustrating their invaluable knowledge that a computer alone cannot provide, from helping the unemployed create resumes (usually people who have never even heard of resumes) to making themselves available to answer questions 24/7 through web blogs. The chapter, “Big Brother and the Holdout Company,” was extremely disturbing. I didn’t know about the gag-order on librarians during the debates on the U.S.A. Patriot Act until I read this book. If you value your privacy and you live in the U.S, you will find this chapter relevant to your life. Similarly, the chapter “Gotham City” was a fascinating revelation into information about librarians not known outside the field.

Another chapter, “How to Change the World” showed how some librarians use technology to improve the quality of life in less-fortunate countries. Though interesting, this chapter didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the book because it was focused mostly on available technology – not unlike an infomercial. I almost felt like I was reading another book entirely.

After that, the author seemed to wander away from the direction she established in the beginning. She spends several chapters making a big deal about librarians who don’t look like the stereotype: blue hair, tattoos, using obscenities, etc. Had Johnson stuck to the transitional experiences of librarians, especially in regard to the modernization of libraries and librarians’ personal dedication to sharing knowledge, instead of sensationalizing the career by discussing topics like librarians who enjoy swearing, I wouldn’t think this book was such a huge disservice to librarians and library science.

I want to make sure people understand that my review is not a reflection of my opinion of librarians (I worked in a library for nearly five years). Unfortunately, This Book is Overdue lacked a serious focus, and strayed from the product description. Instead, if you love libraries, Library: An Unquiet History is a better choice.

– review by Ursula K. Raphael

January 6, 2011

Book Trailer of the Week: Charles Jessold, Considered As Murderer by Wesley Stace

by thiszine
December 25, 2010

Don’t Read These Books: Our Least Favorites of 2010

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BY THIS ZINE STAFF

“Best Of” and “Favorites” lists have been coming out all month long (we published our own yesterday), but what about the worst books of the year? For a cheat sheet on which books to avoid, check out our least favorites of 2010.

 


JOHN COLEMAN
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
A good attempt at a fresh Holocaust story, but the book’s hefty devotion to an inner-story play turns it into a train wreck. Martel should have done like his character and written an essay on revitalising Holocaust representation instead of attempting to depict it.

C by Tom McCarthy
McCarthy needs to get out of the Victorian era if he wants the new generation to read his books.

In addition, John’s “on the fence” about David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris : A relevant and needed look at the lives of war parents. Although not as drab as Martel's 2010 offering, there are times when Morris whines about his life in excess. If you don't want to read about male menopause, don't read Morris.

 

SWEETMAN
Sweetman’s 2010 Hit List – because some books are just so much fun to hate!

The Entire Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer
Dreadful with dull teeth. I never thought I’d get tired of seeing the word sparkling. I reviewed them on my blog but don’t feel you have to read the ranting – just believe me, I loathed it to the point that Stephanie Meyers really, really, really, really hates me – oh, sorry, I start to write like her when I think about the books!

The Help by Katherine Stockett
A young white woman in the 1960’s in Mississippi is the only person on the planet who strives for racial equality in really annoying Suthun’ patois. Took the book clubs by storm and took every ounce of Sweetman’s will to not throw it against the wall because she was reading a friend’s copy.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
Cursed with Jane Austen praise, Ms. Goodman fell far short of any Austen comparison. A long, overwrought, drivel about…well there were a few cookbooks in there somewhere.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
I was disappointed in this quick read due to the lack of depth. It read like a condensed version of a more substantial novel.

House Rules by Jodi Picoult
I can’t honestly comment on this because I didn’t finish it. Ms. Picoult appears to have a burning desire to write about the wrenching societal dilemma of the moment with as much engaging flair as the list of ingredients on a cereal box.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
I was confused, disappointed and felt stupid because I just could not get into this book! Was it the translation? The violence? The irrelevant details? The boringness? What did I miss? See the movie.

The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar
Boy did I struggle with this biography of writer Patricia Highsmith! Call me rigid and inflexible but I find it easier to read a biography in chronological order and found myself wanting to call up Ms. Schenkar to ask her if that would have been so difficult given the maniacally rigid order that Miss Highsmith reportedly kept of her life and writing.

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Ugh Ugh Ugh.

 

URSULA K. RAPHAEL
One of the biggest waste of trees that I’ve ever read was This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson.

Want to know why? Read Ursula’s review, forthcoming in our blog.

 

LACEY N. DUNHAM
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
All the hipsters and Brooklynites will hate me for this one but I found Auster way overrrated, especially after I considered the superb meta-fiction of Mark Z. Danielewski and read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas about a month after I finished The New York Trilogy.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
A sort-of sequel to Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero, which so perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the ’80s, Imperial Bedrooms attempts a Raymond Chandler-esque noir and fails to hit anywhere near the mark. While the prose keeps very much to Ellis’s typical style, he can’t seem to successfully merge the type of provocative writing from which he’s largely built his fame and the type of genre writing perfected by others.

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
Shriver’s novel, shaped by the issue of health care in the U.S., was released shortly before the eventual passage of actual health care reform (or Obamacare, depending on your politics). In a novel so carefully wrought, so precisely personal, it’s too bad So Much For That’s stiff prose and exhausting machinations of plot lacks the muckraking ululations for change.

In the Land of Believers by Gina Welch
Welch’s undercover foray (as a writer, not a journalist) into the world of Evangelism at the Thomas Road Baptist Church (founded by Jerry Falwell) offers strong writing but lacks new insights into the life and beliefs of Evangelical Christians and certainly doesn’t add much to the conversation between Evangelicals and non-believers. Walking a fine line of respect for her subjects, Welch eventually comes clean to her friends at Thomas Road that she’s an atheist who doesn’t need Jesus to save her soul, but only after her book contract is wrapped up and her editor gives the green light.

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
So little action occurs in the first two-thirds of Kostova’s novel that even the overarching sweep of a mysterious woman inching the narrative forward is too minuscule to make me care about what is, ostensibly, the real story that happens in the last hundred or so pages. Even when the mystery is resolved, there is no satisfaction in the predictable ending, nothing that makes the long wait through six hundred pages pay off. Without any real definition to her characters, a lackluster plot, and an ending the fizzles rather than bangs, Kostova delivers a wholly forgettable book.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
Ugh, this was awful. I mean, seriously, terrible. It reads fast and still I couldn’t get through it. Yet, it seems to be popular among book clubs, which is why I don’t belong to any book clubs.

December 24, 2010

Our 2010 Favorites

by thiszine

BY THIS ZINE STAFF

Yes, it’s the time of year to reflect on our favorite books of the year. We asked our staff to give us some insight on what they’ve loved this year from what they’ve read. Keep in mind, not all the books were necessarily published in 2010, just enjoyed in 2010.

 

 

 

NICHOLAS Y.B. WONG
Louise Gluck’s A Village Life, no doubt about it.

 

JOHN COLEMAN
This Cake Is For The Party by Sarah Selecky is a great contemporary vision of mid-life Canadians’ issues, written with the sharpness of a sword.

The Sentamentalists by Johanna Skibsrud Giller Prize-winning novel, showing underdogs can dominate Can Lit, in both style and subject matter.

 

SWEETMAN
I love to love books more than I love to hate them – honest! My “Top Shelf” books for the year include:

-Stoner by John Williams
This was the best book of 2010 and possibly one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

– Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne
A travel book from the seat of a bicycle, Mr. Byrne’s essays and observations while on his bike were insightful, interesting, funny and evocative. A great book to take-along for intermittent reading.

– First Lessons in Beekeeping by C.P. Dadant
This beekeeping book was written in 1917, revised and rewritten over the years by Dadant’s descendants, has everything for every level of beekeeper. One of the best beekeeping books out there.

– Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
It held up despite the controversy, Franzenspec and Oprah. Dragging parts aside, Freedom was well done.


– Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
This book was placed in my hands by a bookstore manager and it was possibly the best novel of 2010 that I’d never heard about. I completely lost myself in this beautifully written novel.

– Tinkers by Paul Harding
This small novel, elegantly written, is a hefty, substantial read and has stayed with me since I finished it.

– Up In the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
My finest library find of 2010, this a collection of stories about New York city from the 1930s and 1940s that are so well done, I traveled back in time with these stories in my hands.

– The Man In The Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
The prequel to my second-favorite novel of 2010, this is the story of Betty Feathers, wife of Old Filth. Jane Gardam is one of the most insightful, sharp, skilled and brilliant writers I have had the pleasure to happen upon.

– The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam
This collection of stories demonstrates the versatility and wit of my new favorite author.

– Old Filth by Jane Gardam
I finished this book wishing I hadn’t read it so I could enjoy it again. This was the first Jane Gardam novel I read and, as you can see by my list, I couldn’t get enough of her. Old Filth was her masterpiece. A close second to Williams’ Stoner for me.

 

LACEY N. DUNHAM
My favorite book of the year was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is the type of novel that converts you to an author and leaves you determined to read everything he’s ever published. This novel is the type of meta-fiction that puts Paul Auster to shame: clever, beautiful, and intricate without descending into flashy showmanship. My other favorites of the year include:

– Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in our Times by Eavan Boland
An autobiographical meditation on the act of writing poetry as an Irish woman, Boland’s breathtaking prose and shrewd synthesis of the traditions of poetry, both as a male pursuit and as a political act in the Irish tradition, is required reading for women as readers of good poetry and literature and for women intent on carving themselves a name as a writer.

– A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
The story of five generations of women unable to reconcile the dissatisfaction with their lives to their heritage as progeny of a revolutionary, Walbert reaches forward and backward in time to shape this vibrant, richly expressed narrative through each woman’s voice.

– The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Set in post-WWII England, the myriad specters that haunt Waters’ novel – social class, class envy, sexual repression, and the rapidly changing world – are vibrantly rendered as the isolated and suffering gentry family at the tale’s center witness increasingly violent and preternatural acts. The Little Stranger is a chilling Gothic novel enveloped by beautiful prose that imbues the malevolence with careful restraint.

– Wolf Hallby Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel utilizes every aspect of history to re-create a vivid world while providing dramatic tension from a contemporary vantage point and knowledge of history. Her prose is perfect. Her themes ring true to the current political climate (and, one suspects, to every political climate).


– The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
Mengestu’s novel is set Washington, DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood which, as a DC resident, I thought I knew well. Reading Mengestu’s novel taught me how wrong I was. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is more than an immigrant story: it’s a novel about missed opportunities – in relationships, in life – and the inevitability of, sometimes violent, change. What is gentrification if not sanctioned class violence against the less privileged? And in a country built by immigrants, how does the contemporary, unfiltered immigrant experience compare to the mythology of America’s promise? Mengestu speaks to both of these questions in this stunning, beautiful novel.

– Tinkers by Paul Harding
For the first 40 or so pages of Tinkers, I was unconvinced that Paul Harding should have won the Pulitzer for this father-son novel. However, as the two stories about father and son enter the same frame the magic of Tinkers comes through in its striking imagery and gentle pacing that quietly build momentum through to the powerful ending.

 

photo by Ethan Anderson

December 21, 2010

Book Trailer of the Week: Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

by thiszine

A novel about revenge, old age, and Southern charm, Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is due from Doubleday in February 2011.

December 17, 2010

Book Review: Laidenn The Dark Elf by Lyle Perez-Tinics

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LAIDENN THE DARK ELF
by Lyle Perez-Tinics

CreateSpace
(November 2010, $8.99, 134 pages)

The great thing about zombie authors is their dedication to the genre. Just when I think they have reached the limits of the imagination, I stumble upon something that expands zombie fiction into other genres – engulfs them, really. NOM NOM NOM! While other genres add glitter to their monsters, one author has brought the zombie culture to the North Pole.

When I read the introduction to Laidenn The Dark Elf by Lyle Perez-Tinics and realized that I would be reading a story about vampire snowmen and zombie elves, I didn’t know whether to laugh or beat myself with my laptop. After carefully noting that Perez-Tinics loves Christmas and the holiday season, I decided to approach this book with the same seriousness I would give to any fantasy tale. Keep in mind, this is young adult fiction, with the goal of appealing to both children and adults, so not quite as dark as you might expect, and age appropriate for grade school and up.

There are Light Elves and Dark Elves. The Light Elves make the toys and are enjoying a well-deserved night off at an enchanted amusement park when Laidenn realizes that they are about to be attacked by vampire snowmen. Perez-Tinic’s talent for detail shows when Laidenn prepares to fight with bags of salt. As Laidenn tries to make the other elves aware of the impending danger, we learn more about how light and dark magic work at the North Pole. We also discover that there are actually two different breeds of vampires as well.

I laughed at the description of the horrible things that took place in Santa’s workshop, such as Barbie heads with Ken bodies! Santa defends his workshop with the stealth and swiftness that would make Van Helsing proud. Don’t let the fat, jolly appearance fool you – this Santa has the moves of a warrior. He also has command of zombie elves! This is the Santa I want at my house.

When I read Laidenn The Dark Elf to my five-year-old (we’re talking about a kid who has already acted in a zombie film), he thought this would make a great movie and I agree. (Maybe a joint Pixar and Full Moon production?) This is a great holiday story for the whole family, especially if you’re already fans of the classic monsters: vampires, zombies, and the like. I know Christmas will never be the same at our house again.

Lyle Perez-Tinics is the writer and creator of UndeadintheHead.com, a site dedicated to zombie books and the authors. He dreams about opening a bookstore filled entirely with the horror genre. You can contact him at Contact@undeadinthehead.com or follow him on twitter www.twitter.com/Lyleperez

Ursula K. Raphael

December 17, 2010

Little Librarians or Little Monsters?

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

Little Librarian is a DIY kit with the tag line: “Be a real librarian. Just add books!”

Although I think it’s awesome that there’s a toy aimed at turning children onto reading books (the type without batteries or screens) I feel this item should also come with a warning: USE OF THE LITTLE LIBRARIAN PERSONAL LIBRARY KIT COULD TURN YOUR CHILD INTO A LITTLE MONSTER. PURCHASE AT YOUR OWN RISK.

I love librarians. I love libraries. I love librarians and libraries so much that when I was eleven, I geeked out in the stationary supplies aisle of Wal-Mart and purchased a pack of 3 x 5 unlined index cards, a blue plastic index card filebox, a black sharpie, Scotch tape, a rubber date stamp, and a hot pink stamp pad. At home, I took the items to my bedroom and glued an index card into the back of all my books, writing in the neatest handwriting I could manage “RETURN BY” at the top of each one. I reinforced the spines with the Scotch tape and tested the rubber date stamp on sheets of my father’s tax return.

I own a lot of books and at age eleven, this habit was already well on its way to becoming an obsession. Because my middle school had no library, my peers frequently asked to borrow books from me and, always happy to lend them, I was frustrated that many were not returned, or were returned in poor condition. My solution: create a formal lending library.

The next time a classmate asked to borrow a book, I went home and filled out an index card with her name, the title of the book, the date borrowed and due date. I filed the card in my blue filebox and stamped the due date in the book. I was officially in the non-profit business of running a library.

I began to lend out three or four books each day, sometimes to kids in other classrooms whom I didn’t even know. R.L Stine and Christopher Pike were popular authors, so I created waiting lists for especially sought after titles. The American Girl series of books that I’d outgrown a year or two before were frequently requested; less popular were Scott O’Dell and Paula Fox. I lent Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Even The Boxcar Children found new life among my classmates.

Whenever I delivered a book, a single sheet of paper was tucked into its pages: the borrowing rules. Based on the rules of the actual library, I had typed my list of rules on my electronic typewriter and assumed that anyone receiving a sheet with the word “rules” in bold at the top would adhere to them.

Thus began my first lesson as a little librarian: people do not follow the rules.

Books were returned after the due date and were sometimes damaged: covers bent or torn, pages dog-eared, crumbs scattered in the spine. I prided myself on taking excellent care of books and their mishandling at the sticky fingers of my peers angered me. Fortunately, the borrowing rules had delinquents covered.

Per the rules, I was already charging a fine of 10 cents per day for each overdue item. Why not fine people for returning books in a damaged condition? I re-typed the borrowing rules and began to collect payments. Frequent violators had “DO NOT LEND” scrawled across their borrower’s card. Friends were granted clandestine extensions and had their fines forgiven. Boys I liked were secretly moved to the top of waitlists.

At home each night, I sorted through my filebox, checking on upcoming due dates and noting who had outstanding fines. At school, my classmates crowded around my locker as I pulled their book requests from my backpack.

Then it happened. As I would learn two years later from my history teacher Mr. Meiner, absolute power corrupts absolutely. My library was so successful, I doubled the fines. Friends were no longer given amnesty. I spent my lunch period demanding payments. Having learned a thing or two about boys, girl were automatically placed first on all waitlists. Students began fighting over the books as I pulled them from my backpack each morning. My friend Angela had a borrowed a very popular R.L. Stine from me and it was subsequently stolen from her. I still made her pay the late fee and, because book was never found, the $4.99 to replace it.

I can’t recall exactly who or how or why but, eventually, my library was shut down. My rubber date stamp fell to disuse and the stamp pad dried up. The index cards became flashcards for memorizing war battles in social studies class. The blue filebox was tucked into my closet to gather dust. Years later, the R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike books were donated to the town library (I kept Nancy Drew, Scott O’Dell, and Paula Fox), where they were sold for twenty-five cents each at the annual library book sale.

December 15, 2010

Man Asian Literary Prize Longlist Announced

by thiszine

The 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize longlist was announced on Tuesday. The longlist nominees are:

Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu
Way to Go by Upamanyu Chatterjee
Dahanu Road by Anosh Irani
Serious Men by Manu Joseph
The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair
Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna
The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe
Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa
Monkey-man by Usha K.R.
Below the Crying Mountain by Criselda Yabes

The list includes 1994 Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe and represents fiction writers from countries as disparate as India, China, the Philippines and Japan. This year’s judges are Monica Ali, Homi K. Bhabha and Hsu-Ming Teo. Finalists will be announced in February and the winner will be named in March at a ceremony in Hong Kong.

The Man Asian Literary Prize was founded in 2007. Awarded annually to an Asian writer, the Man Asian Literary Prize is given for the best novel either written in or translated into English.

December 14, 2010

Book Review: The Matter with Morris by David Bergen

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THE MATTER WITH MORRIS
by David Bergen

Harper Collins
(September 2010, CAN $29.99, 254 pages)

A link is drawn between Morris Schutt, fifty-one year old writer and main character of David Bergen’s Giller Prize-nominated novel The Matter With Morris, and Haggai, whom Bergen’s third person narrator tells us is “a less than minor prophet [. . .] who in the Bible gets two chapters.” The image of Haggai – a silenced prophet – is a lot like Morris. Once a syndicated columnist read by people worldwide, he loses his writing contract when his thoughts turn sour. Wouldn’t yours after your son dies at war?

Indeed, the matter with Morris and the Schutt family is the death of their son and brother Martin while serving in the Canadian army in Afghanistan. The fallen infantryman haunts this text; his absence tears apart a modern family along with their aging home. Solemnly, Morris and his wife, Lucille, part by way of a death they never expected. And Morris holds squalid relations with his daughters: Meredith, a working class mother with a grudge toward her selfish father, and Libby, a distant teen too smart to be trapped by adulthood’s hypocrisy. In a touchingly realist depiction of the new millennium as war era, the Schutts are today’s army family strewn by tragedy.

Living alone in a condo, Morris is patted down by moral anguish. Museless and desperate, he focuses on his life’s worst moment: a father-son huff, daring Martin to join the army. To boot, Martin was killed accidentally by one of his own men. For Morris, it’s just as well as pulling the trigger himself.

Mentally and spiritually unhealthy, Morris copes through self-destruction. Most pertinent of all, he is hooked on a woman’s touch and hires prostitutes to relieve his inner tension. There is also Ursula, an American reader of Morris’s column who, too, lost her son to war (in Iraq). Ursula and Morris become intimate pen pals, and eventually meet. Contemplating his choices in a hotel room as Ursula sleeps, Morris yearns for the solace he is searching for. Eventually, he does declare a breaking point. Things will change, he will get his family back, even if it takes some extreme measures.

Bergen admits in Morris’s afterword to borrowing ample inspiration from Cicero, Plato, Socrates and Bellows when creating Morris’s deep philosophical rhetoric. For some readers, his pondering of freedom, humanism and rabid individualism may seem pretentious, constantly lathered on without letting the last big question settle. However, I empathise with the abstractness needed to make sense of this character’s gall-filled world.

This empathy solidifies in many scenes that war parents and families can relish in. “[Morris] had heard of the Highway of Heroes near Toronto,” Bergen writes in sardonic prose, “he wondered how it was that he had come to live in a place where a fallen soldier was driven ignominiously past warehouses and big box stores.” Revenge is also offered through Morris’s habitual letter writing, one to the Prime Minister and another to the company who manufactured the gun that killed Martin. Morris notes the absurdity of sending a letter that will never be read, nodding at Bergen’s apostrophe technique and the simple closure the act offers.

Aside from lashing outward, Morris’s hurt drives hard toward nihilistic tendencies too. His son’s death causes him so much despair, loneliness, inadequacy, guilt, and scepticism, it’s no wonder he contemplates suicide more than once. His existential traits, borrowed from Kafka and Kierkegaard, lead him to declare solitude and to have feelings of despair and worthlessness. Don’t worry Morris, we hear your story, along with the 152 lonely Canadian fathers that live it every day. It’s the bleak story of modern global politics and its disastrous impact on the family. And, it’s something Bergen obviously wants us to consider.

John Coleman

December 13, 2010

Book Review: The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

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THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR
by Allegra Goodman

The Dial Press
(July 2010, $26, 416 pages)

I waited several weeks for my turn to throw myself into The Cookbook Collector because the wait-list at my library was that long. Was it NPR’s palavering reviews which bestowed the crown upon Allegra Goodman’s not-so-humble head as the modern-day Jane Austen? An honor Goodman neither accepted nor declined, she just side-stepped by stating she had many, many influences and inspirations, not just Jane Austen.

Hmmmm, not too modest for such high praise, I thought but I didn’t want to begin in the wrong frame of mind. I wanted The Cookbook Collector to be great. It was important for me as a Janeite and because 2010 was the summer of Franzenfeud, when Jonathan Franzen reigned supreme. There was a dire need of a strong female novelist to knock Jonathan Franzen out of his Ivory Tower. Alas, Ms. Goodman comes up decidedly short.

The Cookbook Collector is a confusing ramble into the decline of the shallow and greedy days of the Dot Com boom. The central characters, Emily and Jessamine, are sisters with opposite personalities and lifestyles around which this story — no, make that multiple stories or, better yet, multiples of multiple stories — revolve. Emily is a smart, reserved and successful CEO of a start-up on the brink of becoming incredibly successful while making her incredibly rich. Jessamine is the artistic, philosophic and free-thinking perpetual student/vegan who makes the reader wonder if she’s about to wander right off the pages of the novel in pursuit of a butterfly. Emily is focused and driven; Jess is scattered and flighty.

Their stories take the reader back and forth from West Coast to East Coast on a wild roller coaster ride of an IPO and up to the top of a protected Red Wood tree. Enter an array of characters, each with their own subplot: Emily’s ruthless and brilliant fiancee CEO, Jonathan, who just needs a set of jagged teeth and some fins to complete his image; Jessamine’s sanctimonious tree-hugging beaus; their father and his second family, Hassidic Bialystok Jews (also bi-coastal!); software programmers and their messy affairs; their dead mother who wrote the girls birthday letters until their 25th birthdays; a woman with a valuable cookbook collection looking to make a sale; and George Friedman, the bookstore owner and collector of valuables, he’s also a jaded Microsoft millionaire that delights in perpetually jabbing Jess with his wry insights into her chaotic life and loser boyfriends. The story shoots between Yorick’s, an antiquarian bookstore where Jess works at an hourly rate while Emily is prepared to rake in millions as CEO of her wildly successful company Veritech.

If that’s not confusing enough, throw in the Dot Com crash and 9/11, mix it with love, loss, more love, more loss, some misunderstandings, inconceivable connections that neatly wrap up all the loose ends and a happy ending for one, a sad new beginning for the other. Unfortunately, this is no modern Sense and Sensibility. It’s a distracting and predictable yarn that reaches far and wide but lacks heart and soul that allows the reader any satisfaction in its boring and overwrought finish.

The Cookbook Collector is loaded with inconsistencies that yanked me right out of the story. For example, the birthday letters from the sisters’ dead mother, an artistic woman, are written on the computer. This was designed to add depth to the story but was actually one of several events that brought my reading to a screeching halt. The time frame for the story was 1999. Was Microsoft Word around 20 years before the story took place? Wouldn’t a woman writing birthday letters for her daughters to read after her death prefer the touch of handwritten letter? Then there was George Friedman, the wealthy proprietor of Yorick’s antique bookstore. Curmudgeonly and jaded at the ripe old age of 39, he had lived through the hippy days of the 60s and 70s then landed a job at a little company known as Microsoft… wait a minute… a hippy in the 60’s? He was just born if he was 39 years old in 1999! Emily’s fiancee Jonathan owned one of the first Blackberrys, which sent me off to Google the history of the Blackberry. This is the first novel I’ve ever made the effort to factually verify.

It is also one of a very few novels I’ve continued to read after giving up on it out of sheer spite, which was probably a good thing for the author. Allegra Goodman had passages of stunning writing scattered throughout The Cookbook Collector but those brief and rare interludes simply hinted at her potential and provided nothing to improve her story. I bestow upon Ms. Goodman a quote from Jane Austen regarding The Cookbook Collector: “Commonplace nonsense but scarcely any wit.”

Sweetman

December 9, 2010

From Milan to Michigan: The American Horse at the Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

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BY URSULA K. RAPHAEL

Most people would probably think that Milan, Italy and Grand Rapids, Michigan don’t have anything in common, but they are the only two cities that have the world’s largest horse sculptures (of equal size) designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. Milan has “Il Cavallo.” Da Vinci’s “The American Horse” can be found at Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan (halfway between Chicago and Detroit).

Larry ten Harmsel, the historian for Meijer Gardens, presents us with The American Horse (August 2010, Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, $11.99), the story of how this great horse came to be. He is also a member of the Sculpture Advisory Committee and describes in vivid detail how “The American Horse” has helped Meijer Gardens become one of the world’s premier cultural institutions.

The first chapter touches on the creations of this 132 acre site, which includes boardwalks and nature trails that lead through small forests and wetlands, complete with native wildlife, as well as greenhouses, sculpture loops, and an amphitheatre. Fred and Lena Meijer donated the original 80 acres garden park and many of the permanent sculptures. In addition to the generosity of the Meijers, volunteers, members and visitors have helped Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park become a wondrous experience of art and nature blended together.

Subsequent chapters give the history of the horse going back more than 500 years. Initially planned as a life-sized equestrian statue, changes were constantly being made. While waiting for the needed bronze, Da Vinci completed “The Last Supper.” Due to complication, namely the Second Italian War, the horse was never actually made. The non-profit organization Leonardo Da Vinci’s Horse, Inc (LDVHI) resurrected the long-lost project. Eventually, Nina Akamu, a sculptor who had studied in Italy, became the creator of a model based on Da Vinci’s notes and sketches.

Included in this monumental story of art, history and determination, Larry ten Harmsel references many other beautiful pieces added to the Sculpture Park over the years, including “Mad Mom” by Tom Otterness and temporary exhibits like “The Thinker” by Rodin. It has been completely awe-inspiring to bring my five-year-old son to Meijer Gardens since he was a baby – one of his first words was “Da Vinci.” One of the most wonderful aspects of Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is that it is constantly changing from one season to the next, year after year, so no two visits are the same, as aptly proven by the breath-taking photographs included in ten Harmsel’s book.

I highly recommend adding Grand Rapids, Michigan (home of Art Prize, incidentally) to your list of must-see cities, and pick up a copy of The American Horse while you are there.

The gift shop at the Meijer Sculpture Park & Gardens accepts orders via phone and will ship the book upon request. Please visit the gift shop website for more information or call 616-975-3176 to order.

December 6, 2010

10 Facts About Books You Won’t Read in a Book About Books

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December 6, 2010

THIS Reads: Welcome to the Nerd’s House

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

That I am a book nerd should not come as a surprise to any of my friends or to anyone who reads this ‘zine’s blog on even the occasional day. I’ve loved and treasured books since I was a little child and I definitely have a pack-rat complex to keeping books: it’s nearly impossible for me to give any away. Library book sales, garage sales and bookstores are my Achilles’ Heel. Doing laundry in my apartment building is dangerous – the giveaway shelf is next to the laundry room and I almost always return to my apartment with a stack of excellent literature cradled in one arm, the detergent and laundry bag dragging from the other. Random House’s The Library of America imprint is for me what Manolo Blahnik was to Carrie Bradshaw.

At least books aren’t cocaine, otherwise, I’d have a very serious problem.

Earlier this summer, I decided to reorganize the bookshelves in my apartment. I pulled all the books from their shelves and separated them by category: novels, short fiction, poetry, plays, young adult and children’s, essays and memoir, biographies, books about writing, gender and sexuality, general history, philosophy, education policy, and miscellany. I reserved one entire bookcase for books signed by the author. Segregating my collection began as a restless summer activity borne from a desire to fit all of my recently acquired books onto the shelves but ended as an peek into my personal interests – and surprised even me.

I knew I owned hundreds of novels (219 when I counted them at the start of this project) and nearly a hundred (98) short fiction collections. What surprised me was how many books on education policy I still own (approximately 50) and, even though I am no longer a teacher, the plethora of children’s and young adult books I kept (somewhere around 150). I own much of Orhan Pamuk and Annie Dillard’s ouvre, both fiction and non-fiction (and for Dillard, poetry), which is something I hadn’t realized prior to my project. I own two copies of Bitch Magazine’s “best of” collection, Bitchfest (oops!). Previously, I never classified myself as a reader of memoirs, biographies, or writers’ letters and journals but my collection includes everything from Guy du Maupassant and Eduardo Galeano’s histories cum memoirs to Antonina Fraser’s letters to her husband, Harold Pinter, to the hilarious memoirs of John Waters and Dan Savage.

I stopped counting individual books after the fiction was shelved. I estimate that my apartment holds about 1,100 books. Many of the books I collected while growing up and later as a college undergraduate are boxed away in the basement of my parent’s house where I estimate there are another 500 or so books tucked beside my father’s weightlifting equipment from high school and my mother’s Singer sewing machine.

While sorting through my beloved treasure, I realized I acquire many more books than I could possibly read in my lifetime. As my two cats jumped between the naked shelves, excited for their temporary playground, I wondered if I should give up my books, donate them to a library or home for the elderly or sell them on e-Bay for a decent sum of money. And why shouldn’t I? Despite the number of books I read each year, I hadn’t read half of the ones I own. Why keep my sprawling collection intact when I could just as easily borrow from the library or download them on an e-reader that takes up a sliver of the space? After all, I live in Washington, DC where rents are high and apartments (at least what I can afford) are tiny. My books crowd bookshelves, the dining room table, the bureau in my bedroom, my desk and both living room end tables.

Shortly after, I ran into a woman who frequently purchases books from the same independent bookstore where I shop. I had once asked her how many books she thought she owned and she gave a shrug when she said, “I don’t know. Four or five thousand, maybe.” She only purchases hardcover first editions. It’s her beloved quirk because, unlike most book collectors, she doesn’t keep them in pristine condition. She lives in an apartment, too, and told me she stacks her books in waist-high piles that she pushes together and covers with un-hemmed fabric to make tables.

I asked her why she doesn’t sell them or give them away. I imagine her apartment as a landscape of colorful spines, books pressed against walls and tumbling into the hallway. “They’re mine,” she said simply. “They’re who I am.”

I returned home that night and looked at the piles of books scattered around my apartment, my project half-completed before my crisis of faith. I opened a grocery bag and dropped in ten books for a donation to a charity that collects books for deployed U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently, there’s a lot of down time for reading in the desert. The rest of my books I tucked lovingly away on my bookshelves. My books are part of me, part of my identity. Walk into my apartment, browse my bookshelves, and you’ll know who I am.

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 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.