October 30, 2009
Between the fall of 2005 and the winter of 2008, photographer Michael Forsberg traveled thousands of miles across 12 states and three provinces – from southern Canada to northern Mexico – to gather the photographs for his new book, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, underwritten by The Nature Conservancy and published by the University of Chicago Press.
The 12″ x 11″ book showcases more than 150 original photographs and includes a foreword by former United States Poet Laureate and Nebraska resident Ted Kooser. Essays among the photographs are by Dan O’Brien and chapter introductions by David Wishart.
Forsberg writes on his website: “The overriding goal of my work is to photograph and build appreciation for what is left of the wild Great Plains, trying to capture on film the fierce spirit and the unique and often overlooked beauty of the creatures and landscapes that still make up these wide-open spaces.”
October 28, 2009
Fans of The Phantom Tollbooth, a children’s book first published in 1961, will be glad to hear the duo that created it — Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer – are collaborating once again. According to Publisher’s Weekly, their new children’s book – The Odious Ogre – will arrive next year, fall 2010.
The Phantom Tollbooth has remained in print all these years, selling millions of copies. When it first came out in 1961, its original price was $3.95. Unfortunately, my childhood copy didn’t travel with me into adulthood. That scarce first edition in good condition now prices in the high ranges of 200 times the original price, and more.
In case you haven’t read The Phantom Tollbooth or have forgotten the story, here’s a summary:
A boy named Milo, bored to frustration with his life, thinks everything is a waste of time. A tollbooth magically appears in his bedroom, and he drives a toy car through it, entering a strange land. Dictionopolis (a place of words) and Digitopolis (a place of numbers) are among the places Milo encounters. There is also the Sea of Knowledge as well as the Foothills of Confusion, the Island of Conclusions, the Doldrums, and the Mountains of Ignorance. Milo is tasked by a king to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason. His traveling companion is the watchdog Tock. He helps to settle the war between words and numbers.
There are terrific, memorable passages and quotes in The Phantom Tollbooth, such as: “Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.” More quotes can be found at QuoteLand.
It appears that The Odious Ogre will also play with a theme of words. Publisher’s Weekly reports: “The ogre, for instance, has an impressive vocabulary, ‘due mainly to having inadvertently swallowed a large dictionary while consuming the head librarian in one of the nearby towns.’” That said by Michael di Capua, whose Scholastic imprint is publishing the book.
October 27, 2009
It’s Halloween week, and I just finished reading the first chapter of The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks by Max Brooks. Yes, I put down a literary novel to read about the undead fighting the Romans in A.D. 121 Caledonia.
Then I turned to The Werewolf’s Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten by Ritch Duncan & Bob Powers.
Should I be bitten by a werewolf, I needn’t worry. According to the guide’s press release, “…for the first time ever, there’s a book to help you through this hectic adjustment period, providing step-by-step instructions for a smooth transition into your new existence as a dangerous, flesh-hungry shape-shifter.”
And here I was worried about H1N1.
I’m not a horror genre reader, and this rubbish is the last I’d ever read, driven to it on an island where there are no other books. I realize this is humor. Tongue-in-cheek. But I might suggest these books are a case in point for the bloated book industry’s problem with gout, racing to publish books not of quality but based on popular ideas. The junk food of reading.
Imagine the editors had spent their time working on scary books along the lines of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Tales and Poems, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Perhaps I’m being too harpish. One could read the The Werewolf’s Guide and make the ever useful excuse: “I just read this book and I think I’m a werewolf. I must stay home.” Also, one could take The Zombie Survival Guide to the office and place it obviously on the desk for that subtle message. It comes with handy Zombie Survival Mini Note Pads.
October 24, 2009
When the National Book Awards (NBA) ceremony takes place on November 18, there will be an extra, one-time award given for The Best of the National Book Awards Fiction. It will come from the 77 fiction books that won the National Book Award from 1950 to 2008. (Some years, there were 2 winners.) This “Best of” award celebrates the NBA 60 year anniversary.
Much of the selecting has already taken place. There’s now a shortlist of six (below) that were determined in a vote by writers connected to the National Book Foundation. Then the public voted on this six, selecting the winner to be revealed November 18. Details about the process are on the Foundation website.
- The Stories of John Cheever (National Book Award, 1981)
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1953)
- Collected Stories of William Faulkner (1951)
- The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (1972)
- Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1974)
- The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1983)
All the NBA fiction winners since 1950 are listed in a colorful display of dust jackets on the Foundation’s site. I love to see how many books I’ve read on lists such as this. Here are some I haven’t read that I’ll be adding to My Reading Table. I mention some finalists that didn’t win, of note.
The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter (1961 winner)
Richter won over John Knowles for A Separate Peace and Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird.
Morte D’Urban by JF Powers (1963 winner)
Powers won over Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools and Dawn Powell’s The Golden Spur.
The Eighth Day by Thorton Wilder (1968 winner)
Wilder won over William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Garden of Earthly Delights.
Augustus by John Williams (1973 winner)
Williams won over Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story.
Dog Soldiers by Irving Stone (1975 winner)
Stone won over Toni Morrison’s Sula and Philip Roth’s My Life as a Man. He shared the award with Thomas Williams, below.
The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams
The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald (1980 winner)
I don’t recognize any of the finalists that lost this year: Lucille Kallen for Introducing C.B. Greenfield, William X. Kienzle for The Rosary Murders, Arthur Maling for The Rheingold Route, Lawrence Meyer for False Front.
October 21, 2009
A few months ago, Two Dollar Radio sent me three paperbacks. On top was Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog, a reissue from the 1960s. I didn’t recognize the Two Dollar Radio imprint, with the tag “Books Too Loud to Ignore,” and grossly assumed in my haste that all their books were reissues.
Then I began to see this unusual name for a publishing house appear in various publications. I realized my mistake.
This independent publisher in Granville, Ohio, had reissued Wurlitzer’s cult novel this year after last year successfully publishing Wurlitzer’s new novel, The Drop Edge of Yonder. The two other books they had sent me — Some Things That Meant the World to Me by Joshua Mohr and The Shanghai Gesture by Gary Indiana — were new 2009 releases.
Around the time all this was happening, the publisher and editor-in-chief Eric Obenauf sent me an email, introducing himself and Two Dollar Radio (TDR). Shortly after, I met him and his wife, Eliza, TDR’s editor and art director, for coffee.
Eric and Eliza are young, smart, hard-working and visionary. And their publishing company, that originated in Brooklyn four years ago, isn’t some idealistic lark. It’s grounded in a model followed by other small publishers to be “aesthetically consistent, editorially adventurous, and manageably tiny,” as reported by The Village Voice.
The books they publish reflect the taste and expertise of Eric, a dark and gritty kind of theme. They are not for every reader, but they are unique and loud enough to be getting attention in The Washington Post, The Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe.
Along with finally becoming familiar with Two Dollar Radio, I came to understand this: No matter the persistent, annoying clamor that print is going away, it’s not going away and it won’t go away because of independent publishers like the Obenaufs and Two Dollar Radio.
According to Eric, the book business was “never intended to function on the present bloated scale.” This he states and elaborates in “The Revenge of Print,” a reality check on the current publishing climate.
In addition to the books mentioned above, the Obenaufs suggested I read:
I Smile Back by Amy Koppelman (2008 pub date)
From the back of the book: “We live in an era that believes in the idea of rehabilitation and counts on the possiblity of redemption. The thing is, not everyone gets better and even those who find salvation often leave a wake of destruction behind them.” And Publisher’s Weekly said, “This crushing novel…is a shocking portrait of suburban ennui gone horribly awry.”
1940 by Jay Neugeboren (2008 pub date)
From the Los Angeles Times: “In ’1940′ — his first novel in 20 years — Jay Neugeboren traverses the Hitlerian tightrope with all the skill and formal daring that have made him one of our most honored writers of literary fiction and masterful nonfiction. This new book is, at once, a beautifully realized work of imagined history, a rich and varied character study and a subtly layered novel of ideas, all wrapped in a propulsively readable story.”
October 19, 2009
I thought so until I leafed through this book sent to me by the publisher.
It contains more than 200 spelling tests and quizzes. And it’s small enough to slip into a bag, briefcase or purse to fill those unexpected nothing moments usually entertained by mindless checking of one’s Blackberry or iPhone.
This new spelling adventure by David L. Grambs and Ellen S. Levine – subtitled Killer Quizzes for the Incurably Competitive and Overly Confident — has driven me into enough doubt to make me thankful for spellchecker and my Oxford American Dictionary.
The book’s introduction says a random survey of 2,500 people between the ages of 18 and 60 found that 40 percent of them couldn’t identify the correct spelling of questionnaire.
OK, I know how to spell questionnaire, but multiple choice tests scramble my brain. They were the bane of my youth. (No fair, I say! Ask me to write it down or spell it out loud and I’ll get it right.)
Spelling, as the authors point out, disregards age, gender, diplomas, professional titles, haughty accents and literary and literati snobbery. “… the well-read are not always the well-spelled,” they emphasize.
Give it a try with these examples from the book. You are to choose the correct spelling. (Here’s a link to dictionary.com, in case you become dazed and confused.)
Obviously, word addicts will love this book. I don’t happen to be one, but I know someone who is. With the holiday season approaching, it will be a great gift.
FYI: My spellchecker picked up the misspellings in the above bulleted list; however, it identified all the words in the second bullet point as wrong. One, though, is indeed correct, proving we can’t depend on spellchecker. BTW, passementerie is a “decorative textile trimming consisting of gold or silver lace, gimp, or braid.” (Thank you Oxford American Dictionary.)
October 16, 2009
Two books about book cover design and illustration caught my attention in a recent article in the London Review of Books.
They’re published by U.K. houses surveying their early golden years of book design and illustration up to the present. Book covers used to be designed and illustrated based on the book’s overall aesthetic. There was an integrity to the wholeness of the book as an art object. In some cases, the design branded the publisher or author, which today is true for Milton Glaser’s designs of Philip Roth’s book covers. But Roth is a literary institution and such branding doesn’t happen like it used to. Nowadays the priority for cover design and illustration is to grab the shopper’s attention in the mega bookstore.
My curiosity about these two books was simply to get a look inside. So I searched online and found the following.
Penguin By Illustrators is created by The Penguin Collectors Society* in the U.K., which sells the book. The website says, “This is not a definitive or comprehensive history of the use of illustration on and within Penguin Books; but it does cover virtually the entire period from Penguin’s tentative, and then formal abandonment of purely typographic covers in the mid 1950s – right up until the present time.”
I found examples of the illustrations on the blog of a U.K. designer.
Eighty Years of Book Cover Design by John Connelly is Faber and Faber’s look-back. In The Guardian’s review last summer, one of the best comments recognizes how we’ll react to the changes through the years:
“Whether you regret or applaud what you see happening probably depends on when during the last 80 years you began to read.”
Examples of what’s inside the Penguin book are presented on The Guardian’s website in a slide show of 18 covers from 1934 to 2008. It includes William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Keep in mind these are British authors and covers for the British editions of their books. The American covers are different.
*Correction made from The Penguin Society to The Penguin Collectors Society.
October 14, 2009
It never fails. I’m always disheartened by the list of National Book Award fiction finalists. Rarely have I read all of them, and some years I don’t even recognize them. This year is no exception.
I’ve read two of the 20 finalists in the four categories announced earlier today:
- One is Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips, a novel I panned, citing too much atmosphere and character development and not enough connected drama. It’s on the fiction list.
- The other is Stitches, the extraordinary graphic memoir by David Small that I wrote about on TLC. It’s on the Young People’s list. (I’m thinking the publishers submitted it in this category because, as a graphic childhood memoir, it had more of a chance here than in non-fiction.)
Along with feeling disheartened, I also usually have no desire to rush out and read the fiction I’ve missed. I’m not sure what this annual lack of excitement is all about. Despite its return this year, I’ve decided to jump in and read two of the fiction nominees – American Salvage and Let the Great World Spin — and one poetry book, Speak Low, prior to the award announcement date, November 18.
Visit the National Book Foundation’s site to get descriptions and more information about all 20 finalists. I’ve listed them here for quick reference:
American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
Far North by Marcel Theroux
Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook by David M. Carroll
Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species by Sean B. Carroll
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles
Versed by Rae Armantrout
Or to Begin Again by Ann Lauterbach
Speak Low by Carl Phillips
Open Interval by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy by Keith Waldrop
Young People’s Literature:
Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose
Stitches by David Small
Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor
Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia
October 12, 2009
Yesterday, I finished reading Michael Greenberg’s new book, Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, published by Other Press. It’s a collection of his columns that have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement from 2003 to 2009.
Compilations like these — a gathering of career work — don’t tend to impress me. They can be dated in relevance and have the taste of leftovers, something that had more vitality in its original, fresh presentation. I also have had my fill of writers’ expositions about their trade.
Nevertheless, having read Greenberg’s excellent Hurry Down Sunshine, the memoir of his daughter’s “crack up” (as he refers to her psychotic episode), I knew he had the talent to be different with this kind of book. Greenberg’s got an edgy individualism that came through in the memoir. Indeed, as I learned in Beg, Borrow, Steal, when Greenberg was 15 years old, his father told him he had more guts than common sense.
My instinct proved correct: This is a delightful journey through a well-lived life in New York City. The 44 chapters-once-columns stand alone and yet, pulled together, flow like a river of many surprises. They are about a writer’s life — not the trade, as I mistakenly assumed – vivid anecdotes extracted from the jobs, friends and family, let alone the unexpected, in his native New York.
Speaking of jobs, from the moment he decided to be a writer (and not go into the family scrap metal business), Greenberg vowed to be his own boss. He’s worked as a street vendor, chauffeur, waiter, interpreter, ghost writer and cab driver, among other money-earning ventures that allowed him time to write.
The chapters are short, up to 5 pages each, and loud with wit, wisdom and irony. Many are simply perfect. All are rooted in his native New York. My favorite is #12, “Notes of an Anti-Traveler.” Greenberg chronicles his daily commute as a joke on himself, “an attempt to make a virtue of the fact that I hadn’t ventured more than fifty miles from New York City in almost a decade.” What he discovers is the happy intensity of being still. For that, Mr. Greenberg, I thank you.
On his website, Greenberg provides a clever interactive map of his New York, with original fine art and selected excerpts.
October 10, 2009
Marie Ponsot’s newest poetry book, Easy, is due to be published by Knopf this month. Ponsot is in her late 80s, with five previous poetry books to her name. She’s won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and I have a feeling, from what I’m reading about this new work, it could be stunning.
I’m not familiar with Ponsot, so I found two of her earlier works in the online catalog of a nearby library. I stopped there on the way to my workout to pick them up. Evidently, I didn’t read the fine print on the catalog results page because the library’s Information Man said the books had been discarded.
What’s surprising is not the obliteration of the books, rather my standing like an immovable ape in front of the man’s desk, waiting for another answer.
I’m well aware libraries discard (please, deaccession) their books for reasons of bad condition or no readership. But I simply couldn’t digest what he was saying. I wanted to read Ponsot after my workout. I wanted another answer. Couldn’t he offer a banana and say, “Let me check in the back,” like a store clerk? Or, look up availability at another library? Or, even commiserate over the horror of getting rid of a book I wanted?
I said the word “discard” three times, stalling, and then announced, “She has a new book coming out this month,” as if that would highlight some shame on his part.
I later found one Ponsot book at an out-lying library that will transfer the book to my neighborhood library. By that time, though, I’ll have Easy in hand and, if it’s as good as I hope it will be, then I’ll be shopping for first editions of her other books.
October 8, 2009
The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) is in the midst of celebrating its 35th anniversary on the NBCC blog Critical Mass. Past and present NBCC board directors, members and award-winners are posting commentary, including authors and poets Katha Pollitt, David Lehman, E. L. Doctorow, John Ashbery and more. This week my post, “The Discerning Voice,” appeared with this esteemed group.
The National Book Critics Circle has been a gathering place for book critics since 1974. Here is a membership for what many believe is a dying breed, with the advent of casual commentary at bookseller websites and the pervasive layoff of newspaper book critics. Yet the NBCC and its members are more important now to book lovers, shoppers and readers than ever before, which is a topic in my post on Critical Mass.
October 6, 2009
The winner of the U.K.’s Man Booker Prize was announced today: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
The winner will be announced November 18.
The NBA website says 193 publishers submitted 1,129 books for the 2009 awards and then breaks them down into the categories, as of August 13, 2009:
- 236 for fiction
- 481 for non-fiction
- 161 for poetry
- 251 for young people’s lit.
The National Book Award can be fun for the surprises that often make the list of nominees and the controversy that can unfold.
Last year questions flew about Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country. (It won for fiction.) In 2004, the nominees were virtually unknown and many booed and hissed. One critic called them “narrow-minded nominations.”
Also in the archives of NBA surprises is the 1987 winner Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann over the favored Beloved by Toni Morrison. The literary community was stunned.
I studied with Heineman in graduate school while he was writing the winning novel. I wrote congratulations, and Larry responded in a long letter that described the awards dinner, including this:
“…I went not expecting anything at all, just a bit of recognition as a nominee, a very good dinner sitting next to my editor who I get to see very rarely, and a business meeting with my agent the next morning. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t win the thing, much to the consternatoin [sic] of the NY Times.”
October 4, 2009
Two soul-stirring essays by Philip Connors: One in The Nation (March 2009) and the other Issue 8 of n+1 (Fall 2009). The Nation’s essay is about the life and work of Norman Maclean, author of the classic fly-fishing novella, “A River Runs Through It,” made into a movie directed by Robert Redford. The n+1 essay is about the suicide of Connors’ brother Dan, who shot himself with a semiautomatic rifle. He was 22-years-old.
Connors writes in a seductive tone, offering vulnerable information about himself while presenting engaging biographical information about his subjects. That’s especially true in the n+1 essay, “So Little to Remember,” capturing Connors’ struggle to understand why his brother killed himself. Connor writes, “He made a statement of thundering finality and left no means of answering it.”
These well-written essays evoke the complexity of the individual, a love of life and a deep need to understand it. The Nation essay, “A Tough Flower Girl: On Norman Maclean,” inspires me to re-read “A River Runs Through It,” as well as to check out McClean’s Young Men and Fire, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. In The Nation, Connors writes:
“It’s not as if Maclean didn’t know his stories were strange. He often said he wrote them in part so the world would know of what artistry men and women were capable in the woods of his youth, before helicopters and chain saws rendered obsolete the ancient skills of packing with mules and felling trees with crosscut saws. Artistry, specifically artistry with one’s hands, was for him among life’s most refined achievements. As he says in the opening pages of “A River Runs Through It,” ‘all good things–trout as well as eternal salvation–come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.’”
n+1′s contributor bio for Connors says he’s at work on a book about his time as a fire lookout. I’ll be on the literary lookout for it.
This post was updated 4.10.11 with edits that tightened the copy, refreshed the hyperlinks and removed one photo. Philip Connors’ book Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout was published this month (April 2011) by HarperCollins.
October 1, 2009
I made some purchases in a used bookstore recently. As I headed toward the door, the store owner quipped that it won’t be long before stores like his become extinct, thanks to the Google Book Project.
I sure hope that’s not true. One of my great escapes is getting lost in a shop filled with used, old and/or rare books. Time and worries vanish. His concern is real, though. The proposed Google settlement would allow Google to sell out-of-print books still under copyright in digital format on the Internet. Why would anyone need to go to a used bookstore? he asked.
Because many of us will still want the hardbound book and will pay the extra cost for it, I replied, but I don’t think it made the bookshop owner feel better. He asks everyone who enters his store if they want to buy it.
Here are three books I brought home with me:
Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York
by Gail Parent
This 1970s best-seller was on the syllabus of one of my college lit classes along with Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and Mary McCarthy’s The Group. I wasn’t looking for it, but what a fun surprise to find it.
Parent’s story was made into a film in 1975 that wasn’t near the success of the book. The New York Times film critic wrote this great first line: “Something disastrous happened to the heroine of Gail Parent’s funny novel, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, on her way to the silver screen.”
Erdrich is scheduled to give the keynote address of the Kenyon Review Literary Festival on November 7 at 8 pm in Kenyon’s Rosse Hall. The lecture is free, but tickets are required to manage the limited space. Erdrich is the 2009 recipient of the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement.
Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon
This is a 1984 collection of early stories Pynchon wrote between 1958 and 1964. In the introduction, Pynchon speaks of middle-aged tranquility, “…in which I now pretend to have reached a level of clarity about the young writer I was back then.”
He adds, “It is only fair to warn even the most kindly disposed of readers that there are some mighty tiresome passages here, juvenile and delinquent, too.”