Tuesday, September 30, 2008

From outer space to the wild west

I love a good anthology - it's the perfect way to be introduced to a ton of new authors without having to commit first to a long novel. You always find something you never expected in these collections and usually walk away with at least a couple of writers you've never even heard of that now are among your favorites.

I reviewed two very different anthologies in Bookslut last month Starry Rift edited by Jonathan Strahan and Cowboy Stories from Chronicle Books with illustrations from Barry Moser. Here's what I had to say in that review:

In Rift, Strahan has collected an excellent array of science fiction and fantasy authors to write for teens. You have some usual suspects here: Neil Gaiman, who uses a list format for “Orange,” a creepy story about sibling rivalry that is also very funny; Kelly Link with a first contact/superflu combination in “The Surfer” that manages to be a decent coming-of-age tale as well, and Cory Doctorow with “Anda’s Game” which is an excellent look at how gaming can be used for bad purposes. I do feel that he falters a bit by trying to make Anda’s struggle also about obesity and diabetes; both the threat of illness and the solution were far too pat and Anda’s attention was always more focused on the game than her health; the story would have been better served by not forcing that message, but it is still a great techno adventure of the type Doctorow excels at.

I liked Scott Westerfield’s colonization story “Ass-Hat Magic Spider” a lot and hope people can enjoy what he is saying here rather than wasting time wondering about a boy who likes Charlotte’s Web. Margo Lanagan said in the brief note for “An Honest Day’s Work” that it was partly inspired by whaling ports, but I kept thinking about Gulliver’s Travels; it’s creepy in the best possible way and classic Lanagan. Finally, Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Sundiver Day” is a very prescient view of siblings left behind in war; the SF twist is a good one but the emotion is what really comes through. There’s nothing in Goonan’s story that is out of place in 2008, other than the science which if it was here I’m sure some lost little sister somewhere would be trying to use. There are ten other stories in the collection by great writers like Ann Halam, Garth Nix, Ian McDonald and Alastair Reynolds. All in all it’s a wonderful introduction to many authors in the genre and comes highly recommended.

Swinging 180 degrees, Cowboy Stories contains mostly reprints and excerpts although there are a few new stories as well. Barry Moser’s engravings can not be over-praised here; he is a perfect artist for westerns and each of his full-page illustrations elevates the stories they accompany. As for the stories themselves, the classics are well represented starting with a chapter from Shane that would make anyone want to run out and read the book (and please also rent the movie). Larry McMurty is here with Lonesome Dove and there is short story from Louis L’Amour, “The Gift of Cochise.” This one includes a powerful female character and I will confess it was one of my favorites.

A bit of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage is here (of course) and also Elmore Leonard’s complete “Three Ten to Yuma” as well as Annie Proulx’s look at range life in “The Blood Bay” and Dorothy M. Johnson’s funny and unexpected outlaw tale (with another excellent female character), “I Woke Up Wicked.” This one made me think of Maverick a bit; it just had that sense of fun, even when things got serious.

There are 21 entries in this collection and as evident from those already mentioned, the range is immense. From Stephen Crane, Max Brand and O. Henry to excerpts of Judy Blunt’s memoir, Breaking Clean and Tom Groneberg’s Secret Life of Cowboys, the publisher has done an excellent job of bringing together a great mix of old and new. Any teen with an interest in Americana, the frontier or classic westerns is going to love this and I hope it finds a wide audience.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Required Reading: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

The Great Gatsby
is a classic tale of lost love, old money vs. new money, and a green light. Set in 1922 and published in 1925, this novel wholly captures the era Fitzgerald called "The Jazz Age" - the time between World War I and the Roaring Twenties.

With its straightforward depiction of disturbing relationships, brilliant narration, and beautiful language, The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels of all time. I hope that this post will encourage you to pick up the book, whether or not you've read it before, and see it with a fresh set of eyes.

Why I Think It's Great

I was a junior in high school when I first read The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing flowed, creating a beautifully tainted stream in which troubled characters tried desperately to keep their heads above water. I was most captivated by Nick Carraway, the character who narrated the story while everyone (Nick included) stumbled through fabulous parties and fierce parries, both physical and verbal. I loved the book so much that I waited years before I read another Fitzgerald book. I didn't want to hold it up to Gatsby, to compare the two books outright.

I do, however, easily see Gatsby in a lot of other stories. I created a Gatsby category at my blog so I could tag posts whenever I mentioned Nick, green lights, or tragedies in pools.

The novel is populated by imperfect characters who are fractured, careless, and heartbroken. Daisy, Tom, Gatsby - they're all broken, selfish, and greedy to different degrees. There are no heroes here. No one is blameless. Daisy wants her daughter to be a perfect little fool, and indeed, that's what Daisy herself is, if you think about it. Meanwhile, she calls her husband a hulking brute, and that's Tom, with his utter lack of shame. Gatsby wanted so much to impress and attract Daisy that he created a whole new persona. He moved so that he could be near her, yet he was reluctant to approach her.

Consider the tragic outcomes of their not-so-secret relationships. Some characters are victims of accidents, unexpected or otherwise, but perhaps, even then, some would argue that they are victims of their own making. The book makes it clear that money can't buy happiness, and that dishonest actions such as lying, cheating, and misleading others can have horrible consequences.

Nick, one of my favorite narrators ever, gets caught up in all of the mess, yet is removed from it just enough to guide readers through it. I don't feel as though he's an unreliable narrator, and I don't think he lied about anything that happened. I believe that he relayed his own thoughts and experiences. He observed what he did and shared what he saw and heard, revealing to readers the events of the story. He, like everyone else, is admittedly fallible, but he considers himself to be pretty truthful. I love this line:

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. - Nick, Chapter 3

Great Quotes

Last year, I opened The Great Gatsby to look up one particular line of dialogue, and I ended up reading the entire novel again in one sitting.

In addition to those I've already sprinkled throughout this piece, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

There was so much to read, for one thing . . . - Chapter 1

It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. - Chapter 1

"It takes two to make an accident." - Jordan, Chapter 3

"Well, suppose we take a plunge in the swimming-pool? I haven't made use of it all summer." - Gatsby, Chapter 5

From Book to Film

When we studied The Great Gatsby, my English teacher informed us that we'd watch the film after we finished the book and our subsequent essays and tests. When the promised day came, she popped in the VHS tape of the 1974 film. The first few scenes played out on the small television tucked in the upper corner of the classroom - and then my teacher hit the fast forward button on the remote. "I don't like Robert Redford," she said by way of explanation as we watched the first party at Gatsby's house zip by us on the screen. Shortly thereafter, she stopped the tape, turned the lights back on, and moved right along onto something else.

I apologize on her behalf: I'm sorry, Robert Redford. I will watch your performance as Nick someday, Sam Waterson. I have every intent to watch the 1926 silent film and the 1949 version as well.

"No . . . I just remembered that to-day's my birthday." - Nick, Chapter 7

Earlier this month, I quietly celebrated my birthday. I received a coupon entitling me to a discount off of a DVD purchase, and I - gasp! - used it. Yes, I actually bought something. What did I select as my treat? The 2000 A&E version of The Great Gatsby, which I had watched and enjoyed when it first aired. Paul Rudd was simply brilliant as Nick. I already thought well of him as an actor, so to see him bring one of my favorite characters to life was absolutely fantastic.

Sounding Off: What Others Had to Say About The Great Gatsby

In preparation for this piece, I posted a notice at my blog asking for opinions on Gatsby. The responses I received were varied, and I'll share them all now, even the comments from a friend who worried I'd be upset after I learned of her dislike for the book. She has nothing to fear; I understand that not everyone loves the book as much as I do. That was the point of this post: to give other readers the opportunity to express what they did or didn't like about the book. Educators, students, authors, bloggers, and librarians all weighed in.

I was fortunate when it came to reading Gatsby - it wasn't disemboweled through analyzing. I got to do an independent study my senior year - I chose the book - I chose the topic to write about - I sat through no lectures - and I finally really, truly figured out symbolism. It's made all the difference.

- Jackie, librarian

I love referencing Gatsby, which I've read about a dozen times and taught to sophomores in spring 2007. Here is my favorite analogy: Elvis Presley was a lot like Gatsby - desperately seeking the approval of the Memphis old money types, who loved to come to his parties and take his presents of cars and jewels and whatever, but who never fully accepted him as one of their own. He was new money, and a rock-n-roller, and though they enjoyed the spoils of his wealth, they still looked at him with disdain.

- Lara M. Zeises, author and teacher

I love Gatsby. I fell in love with this book, and with Fitzgerald, when I was 16. My mother than read it and discovered an authentic portrait of [Fitzgerald] in the back of an antique shop, covered with dust. She bought it, had it restored, and it hangs in my parents' living room. He was a Princeton student when it was painted. He was gorgeous.

- Beth Kephart, author

I liked Gatsby when I read it in high school, but I loved it when I went back and read it as an adult. I think a certain amount of life experience deepens the meaning in a lot of ways.

Incidentally, an English teacher friend of mine who has taught the book several times, was convinced that Coldplay's song "Yellow" was about Gatsby because of the lyrics and the symbolism of the color yellow in the book. I've since heard that the song was inspired by the phone book, but when I went to see Coldplay in concert and they got to that part of the beginning of the song where the electric guitar kicks in all loud and wailing, the stage was flooded with green light, which I think gives my friend's theory some credence.

- Ali

Gatsby stands as my favorite American novel of all time. To me, it's forever contemporary even though it was written in the 20's. As a writer, I appreciate its crafting - so many wonderful stories abound about F. Scott's editor Maxwell Perkins and all the revisions he made Fitzgerald do. It shows. Tightly crafted. Every word a pleasure. Tiny moments even, like when Nick describes Daisy's "wedding cake" of a ceiling and then in the next chapter juxtaposes Myrtle living in "one slice" of a row of apartments.

Nick is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Tells us he's "the most honest person he knows" and then proceeds to watch and participate in all the down and dirty that comes with unbridled wealth. Gatsby wants Daisy so much he's willing to morally bankrupt himself. [Recently I read] an editorial by Charles Krauthammer, referring to the possiblity that Obama (who I like, by the way) might really be just a mysterious Gatsby - the man no one truly knows but everyone wants to, the man who goes to his own parties but never really participates.

I could happily go on and on. It is a miracle of a book. Those last lines, "And so we beat on..." bring tears to my eyes each and every darn time.

- Joy Preble, author

It's been ages since I've read it, but I remember reading The Great Gatsby for the first time as a very intense experience. I disliked every character in that book passionately, especially Daisy, which actually turned out to be one of my favourite things about it. I love it when fiction provokes and Gatsby certainly does that. And the writing is incredible, of course.

Sometimes I'd hate [Nick], and then I'd turn the page and [think], "Oh, Nick, I like you." And then I'd turn the page... It just went up and down. I think a lot of that has to do with the other characters, actually, and my dislike for them. I often [thought], "Just walk away from all of this, Nick, before it's too late." Ultimately, though, I can't imagine a better narrator, and even when I didn't like him, I wanted him to keep telling the story.

I really need to pick it up again, and see what I take from it the second time around...

- Courtney Summers, author

I read The Great Gatsby about once a year. It is, without a doubt, one of the best books ever written. I think [Nick]'s the most likable unreliable narrators ever.

- A.S. King, author

I spent a weekend this summer in Newport exploring the mansions where the film version was shot, and then watched the movie [1972 version] the following night. Hubby fell asleep. I got depressed.

- Mitali Perkins, author

Required Reading: Why Gatsby?

I could go on and on about the symbolism in the story, or talk how and why this book is still taught in English classrooms across the country and around the world, but I'd rather let the novel speak for itself and let you, the reader, think of it what you will.

Tell me: Why do you think Gatsby should be or is required reading? Please leave a comment below.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Extracurricular Education: How to Fake the Numbers

Among a small handful of books that I consider essential, Darrell Huff's 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics is the one probably best suited to our current political and financial situation. While all of my English teachers in high school were (rightly) flogging Strunk and White, both my math teachers and my history teachers should have been forcing us to purchase our own copies of Huff's book. I'm even slightly chuffed my Journalism teacher never mentioned this book.

In the introduction Huff points out that "This book is a primer in ways to use statistics to deceive. It may seem altogether too much like a manual for swindlers." But he is quick to note "The crooks already know these tricks; honest men must learn them in self defense." Indeed, in these days of politicians claiming media bias (when the media doesn't agree with them) or in financial meltdowns where numbers so huge no longer shock our senses, it takes an extra bit of mental jujitsu to not be confused by numbers casually tossed around without question.

In a very approachable manner Huff tosses out examples of how statistics are molded and shaped to mean whatever the bearer wants them to mean. The problem may not even be in the inaccuracy of the information given but in the information not included with the data. One of Huff's examples is a simple coin toss experiment where the result of ten flips yielded a different result than the traditional assumption of a 50% draw for either side of the coin. Reporting 80% heads isn't factually wrong, but it isn't statistically correct, and Huff is thorough in explaining how to root out the fault in the data.

At the very end Huff includes a chapter called "How to Talk Back to a Statistic" that provides five simple questions any citizen can ask when confronted with a statistical number presently plainly as fact. The one thing a lie cannot withstand is a question, and under the weight of five questions a statistic should reveal itself quite plainly.

For another take on a similar topic, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper
by John Allen Paulos specifically looks at the way math and numbers are used in news stories. Using some very simple math Paulos examines advertising claims, electoral shenanigans, examines the true cost of last savings-and-loan bailout, and basically will leave you unable to see or hear a number used without wondering what else is behind it.

The problems with the use and abuse of statistics and numbers in our daily lives should be a call to arms against apathy. Too often I have heard adults, when confronted with contradictory information, simply choose a side and call the other side liars. I also hear a lot of people use the words "bias" and "agenda" interchangeably when listening to politicians and news reports when all that was required was a little scratching at the surface, a simple question of source. It makes me wonder if the reason my teachers in school weren't pushing books like these on us was because they weren't a little afraid they'd have to answer a lot of questions themselves about the efficacy of those standardized test scores, or about how those test scores were averaged, and why, if this information is out there, do people keep falling for the same old statistics?

How to Lie With Statistics
by Darrell Huff
W.W. Norton 1954

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper
John Allen Paulos
Anchor Books 1995

Friday, September 26, 2008


Carl Hobbes is not a terrorist. All he did was hack into Fort Knox—just to see if he could—but the US government tracked him down and offered a deal. If he'd answer some questions, he wouldn't be prosecuted and extradited to the United States for a trial. What they didn’t tell Carl was where the interrogation would take place: in Icecore, also known as the Guantánamo Bay of the North. It doesn’t matter that he’s only seventeen years old and a British citizen.

At Icecore, prisoners are kept in cages. Soldiers think Carl is a terrorist and have no problem roughing him up. His interrogators think he's lying about why he really hacked into Fort Knox.

If Carl ever wants to leave Icecore alive, he'll have to do it on his own. But how can a prisoner escape from an Arctic jail in the middle of nowhere when the temperature is always below zero degrees?

Action-packed and full of twists,
Icecore delivers on its promise of excitement and thrills. It's similar in some ways to Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, in both politics and the hacker-imprisoned-by-the-US-government plot, but with fewer technological digressions. Each book has its own merits and flaws, but if you've enjoyed one, you should consider trying the other. If you haven't read either and are simply looking for a book with lots of action, Icecore is the one to go for.

Icecore was published in the United Kingdom under the title Inside the Cage with a different cover. Much more attention getting, and a pretty accurate representation of the book, too.

Icecore by Matt Whyman
published in the US by Atheneum
ISBN: 9781416949077

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

Reviewed by Steven Wolk.

As children get older there comes a point when we start to hear the phrases "boy book" and "girl book." Sadly, this reading gender label is occurring younger and younger. It’s not uncommon to hear eight year-old boys shunning a book because it's a "girl book." So, it thrills me when a young adult novel comes along with a female protagonist that will equally appeal to boys. I have zero doubt that if a boy were to begin The Adoration of Jenna Fox they would get sucked into it like a black hole.

From the first few pages there is a deeply unsettling tenor to this story. Two weeks prior Jenna Fox had awakened from a yearlong coma. There was an accident. Two of her friends may have been involved. She used to live in Boston but now lives in California. Her father still works in Boston. Her grandmother, Lily, lives with them but Jenna can sense she does not like her own granddaughter. Her relationship with her mother is perfectly Arctic. And Jenna remembers none of these people; or the accident, or Boston, or toddler words such as apple or jump. Jenna’s life is a torment.

In a sense, science is a character in this book, and more specifically medical science and the moral questions of how far science – and people – should go to keep someone alive. And what even constitutes a someone. A brain? A body? A soul? Bits of DNA? A trillion synapses firing in your head?

Jenna Fox is a mystery, a futuristic medical thriller, a family drama, and a deeply philosophical tale of who we are and the boundaries of science, all tightly wrapped into a story chock-full of lush words and splendid images and captivating characters. Early on Jenna meets her neighbor, Mr. Bender, an environmental artist. He explains: "I create art from found objects in nature." Isn't that fantastic? How many environmental artists do you meet in life?

If there is one element in the book that gave me pause it would be the ending. Is it possible that the author just pulled a thematic rug out from under me? As I read this book my mind absolutely boiled with the possibilities for teachers to use this story to have kids explore the ethical dimensions of science, how people (and government) choose to use (and limit) science, and who and what makes us. But the ending opens up an entirely different debate. What, exactly, is this grand story really about? Maybe, just maybe, it's more about what we would do for someone we love and our own survival. And that, for all of you boys out there, does not make this a good book for girls – it makes it a great book for human beings.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

So You Want to Rule The World: Part 4

“Presidential elections are planned distractions,
To divert attention from the action behind the scenes.”

If you want to rule the world, you’re going to have to know how it actually works. You can’t take over the planet if you don’t know who you’re taking it over from.

So, how can you find out what’s going on behind the curtain?

The first place to start is “Freakonomics.”

cracked the code on everyday stuff, like the secrets of real estate agents and Sumo wrestlers.

The idea here is that if you keep your mind open and get good data you can find out what’s really going on.

For example, you’d expect that a real estate agent would want to sell your house at the highest price, right? That way they get a higher commission. But when the Freakonomics guy ran the numbers he came away with a different conclusion.
And you wouldn’t think a Sumo wrestler would throw a match would you? Again, run the numbers and you might be surprised.

The book is fascinating, but understanding Sumo wrestlers isn’t going to get you any closer to ruling the world. The BIG IDEA is understanding that there’s more to the world than what we think. Reading the book is like seeing behind the Matrix for the first time. It’s all in the numbers.

If you can find an old copy of “The Screwing of the Average Man,” it‘ll open your eyes, too. It’ll show you how many people are dipping into your wallet -- and maybe even give you ideas about how to dip into other people’s wallets.

If you’d rather read some fast-paced fiction, try “The Pelican Brief.” The idea here is to show how, with billions of dollars at stake, a company might almost invisibly reach out to control Washington. Not take over, just take a little action behind the scenes to make the game come out their way.

Burning Bookmarks

In celebration of Banned Books Week (September 27 - October 4) - have a burning bookmark from Gama go:

Diving into a smoldering summer novel?

Browsing through some incendiary literature?

Give the book burning bunch something to get hot about with this flaming placeholder.

Measuring 7" x 3.75", this stylized flame is screen-printed onto die-cut clear flexible plastic.

Wedge this die-cut plastic flame snugly between the pages of your favorite edition of "Fahrenheit 451" and let it illuminate you quickly to your saved spot.

(Link via Boing Boing)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Superheroes of Olympus

When Guys Lit Wire came into being, my pledge to all the fine contributors to this blog---and its readers---was to cover those picture books that are really aimed at older readers, and today's spotlighted book is one of the year's best examples of this: a picture book best geared at pre-teen readers and up. Teens who are fans of graphic novels will be particularly attracted to the title, Charles R. Smith Jr.'s The Mighty Twelve: Superheroes of Greek Myth (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, March 2008), illustrated by American comic book writer, artist, and illustrator P. Craig Russell, best known (arguably) for his collaborations with writer Neil Gaiman. It's an introduction to Greek mythology with poems and comic-book-style illustrations, an innovative blend of the ancient and modern-day. It's the gods and goddesses of Olympus---in all their impressive, superhuman glory---depicted as "muscle-bound Greek gods...heroes and villains with flowing hair, ripped bods and strategically draped togas—or, in Zeus's case, a well-placed eagle's wing" (straight from Publishers Weekly's mixed review of the title).

Smith welcomes us to Olympus before Zeus even appears:

"Welcome to the world
of immortal men and women,
the gods and goddesses of Greece
who rule their dominion
from high on Olympus,
their eternal home,
above Grecian mountaintops
and clouds where each throne
and shines
and puts on display
the personality of all
Olympians while they
or play,
cause chaos
or say
wicked words that
lead many astray."

We then meet Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Cerberus, Hermes, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Athena, Medusa, Hera, and...whew, Dionysus -- all followed by a "Who's Who" (complete with fun facts and listings of each god's or goddess' Special Powers/Weapons/Tools) and a bibliography for further reading.

I think there are some flaws in this one: The meter in many of the verses is sometimes a bit off, too forced or structured awkwardly, as the School Library Journal review noted, and "confusingly verbose" -- though, Kirkus writes,
"{s}till, an emphatic, beat-heavy read-aloud of the verses may provide the more memorable experience here for young audiences." In fact, at Smith's site, readers can hear him read some of the poems in just this manner.

But this book still packs a punch in many ways, primarily its success in making Greek mythology accessible to more reluctant readers who may otherwise turn away from the topic -- and even very eager ones who enjoy their comic books. (In a detailed May '08 interview with Kelly Fineman at Writing and Ruminating, Smith shared, "{w}ith so many books out there about the Gods and Goddesses, I knew that {analogizing them to superheroes} would help it stand out, but also reflect what the poems talked about. The idea came from my love of comic books as a teen and my interest in Greek mythology.") With Russell giving them the ripped bodies and long, flowing, wind-swept hair of the superheroes many comic book readers can't get enough of, there will be those who argue the superficiality of it all. But (and, to be sure, I'm simplifying matters), there will always be those students who can read but don't---or at least prefer their graphically-sequenced novels or comic books over straight-up novels or thick, verbose non-fiction titles---who are going to favor Smith and Russell's contemporary take on Greek mythology to, well...Edith Hamilton.

Or, in the words of Publishers Weekly again, "Smith and Russell make the pairing of classical material and a comics-like format look completely natural, with a gee-why-didn't-we-think-of-that simplicity." Gee, I am glad they thought of that. Recommended for comic book lovers everywhere.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Swords: An Artist's Devotion

I have a 17-month-old son, and one of the observations I often hear from other parents is, "Oh, a boy... anything you give them, they turn it into a weapon." This usually accompanies one of two unreconcilable pieces of advice: 1) "so it's even more important that you never give them toy guns and swords!" or 2) "so don't even bother trying to keep them away from toy guns and swords, because it doesn't matter."

I won't pretend to analyze whether that's nature or nurture, or whether it's even true. But I gave my son a big stalk of celery last week, and within about 30 seconds he was chasing the cats, bellowing and swinging it around like a claymore.

Like a lot of my friends growing up--and, frankly, to this day--my reading definitely has included books about swords (and guns, and Civil War battle tactics, and the historical evolution of polearms and tanks and... hmmm, maybe there's a pattern here). So when I got my hands on Swords: An Artist's Devotion, I couldn't put it down. And then I only parted with it because a couple friends who were reading over my shoulder (yes, both guys) kept bugging me for it.

Swords is technically "suitable for ages 9 and up," but Ben Boos (the author and artist behind it) has said he intended the book for all ages--especially gamers and anyone else who thinks that swords are as cool as he does.

Boos quit his job as a video-game artist (working on a few different titles in the Diablo series for Blizzard) to write and illustrate Swords. If you compare the art in, say, Diablo or WoW to the art in the magazine or banner ads promoting those games, you can imagine that working within the tiny, pixel-by-pixel constraints of an actual game can be kind of limiting. So Boos wanted to cut loose with a whole new level of detail--and that's what you get in this, what's essentially a really beautiful art book.

The dozens of almost absurdly detailed sword illustrations (along with tons of sketches) are the star of the show here, but Boos adds a bunch of cool historical details, too--everything from an excerpt from Beowulf (with an accompanying sketch of Hrunting!) to explanations of Damascus steel, Korea's Silla knights, and the favored weapon of the landsknecht mercenaries (that would of course be the Katzbalger, which means both "cat gutter" and "suitable for the fight").

Readergirlz offer Night Bites for Teen Read Week

In honor of Young Adult Library Services Association's (YALSA) Teen Reed Week October 13th-17th, readergirlz is hosting Night Bites, a series of online live chats with authors at the readergirlz discussion forum, every weeknight that week starting at 6 PM PST/9 PM EST.

Guys, readergirlz isn't exclusively for girls - in fact, some of our "regulars" at the forum are male, and our Night Bites lineup includes male authors, such as Christopher Golden - so don't be shy! Come on over and see what's what. We'd love to see GuysLitWire folks come hang out at the forum and participate in the chats.

Check out the lineup of authors participating in Night Bites.

View the awesome Night Bites poster.

P.S. Next month, in addition to Night Bites, readergirlz is spotlighting Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Rock on!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bands on the Road

The upcoming book Bands on the Road: the Tour Sketchbook features sketches and memories from members of Belle and Sebastian, Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, The Hives, Interpol, The Killers, Maroon 5, and more. "The contributing musicians were asked to think about something in the past that had an important impact on them, a person or event that still resonates, and to draw it. The resulting sketches and their connected stories reveal a personal dimension to their lives that no interview ever could."

Entertainment Weekly has a sneak peek.

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher

The following book is recommended for photographers and fans of photography, guys interested in history/archaeology, and those interested in exploring the possibility of the existence of something commonly known as pixies or faeries. But this is no girly fairy tale.

What The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher seems to be: a straight-up account of a modern writer and photographer, David Ellwand, finding evidence of the existence of actual pixies or faeries. Inside an old, locked wooden box he finds hidden near the ruins of a decrepit house, Ellwand discovers the story of Isaac Wilde, a nineteenth-century photographer who has left a journal, some photographs, some artifacts, and a wax recording. Wilde accompanied an archaeological dig during Victorian times, and they delved inside a barrow that should not have been disturbed.

What The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher is: A graphic novel of a different kind, in which the visuals are all (or mostly) photographs or photographs of objects. The photographs are produced through a variety of media, including daguerrotypes and more. The details of what philosophical societies during the time of Queen Victoria were like are spot on, as are the descriptions of the Victorian fondness for "science" and archaeology. This one will leave you wondering what was real, and what was fiction, and where, exactly, that line blurred.

When I say that "you simply must see and read" this book, I don't mean that you'd only believe it if you read it. I mean GO READ THE BOOK.

But really, first I ought to tell you why, and before telling you why, I should probably tell you a bit of the what. Also, I have to divulge my particular bias, which is in favor of the notion of fairies/pixies living in the barrows on the English Downs (a la Tolkien and Pratchett).

The what

This graphic novel contains photographs by David Ellwand (some of people, some of objects, some of sketches). These aren't just any photographs. Some of them are from highly modern equipment, but a number of them are from very old processes involving glass. Some are even daguerrotypes, positive images made using silver and mercury. The front matter, located in the back of the book, bears this notation about the photos: "The photographs were created with magic and necromancy." Having seen the book, I believe it.

On the inner title page, the book bears this subtitle/legend: "Being an investigation into the life and disappearance of Isaac Wilde, artist and fairy seeker". The written text is split into three parts: the first is from "David Ellwand's personal journal with additional notes from his photographic notebook"; Part Two bears this subtitle -- "Being a complete transcript of the phonograph recordings of Isaac Wilde documented here alongside photographs of the contents of the wooden box"; and Part Three is the remainder of David Ellwand's personal journal.

Image of two-page spread from part I of the book

David Ellwand spins a story about a mysterious happening on the Downs of England, a land of flint and chalk and barrows, referenced by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring as the Barrow Downs, and spoken of with humor and affection by Terry Pratchett in The Wee Free Men and its two sequels. While walking one day, Ellwand found a "devil's eye", a round piece of flint with a hole worn in the center, through which (as anyone who has read The Spiderwick Chronicles or seen the movie can attest) one can see fairies. Come to think of it, Gaiman borrowed that device in Coraline, but I digress. Returning to the area, Ellwand eventually found himself drawn to an old house, eventually finding a heavy wooden box, once the property of Isaac Wilde.

Ellwand documents the contents of the box, which include old wax phonograph recordings. With help, the phonograph recordings were salvaged and recorded to CD, then transcribed for inclusion in the book. Because of the use of photographic evidence and journalistic reporting techniques in the first part of the book, it is easy to allow oneself to believe that the contents of the book are true, which makes it particularly intriguing, in my opinion. The middle part of the book is a transcript of the recordings, accompanied by materials which are alleged to have been the finds and creations of the fictional Isaac Wilde, a photographer hired by a fictional Victorian-era archaeologist named Gibson Gayle to document an archaeological dig on the Downs. Wilde includes stories learned from some of the locals, who believe that pixies inhabit the mounds on the Downs (as the Nac Mac Feegle do in the Pratchett books). The pixies photographed by Wilde, however, dress more like Victorian gentlemen and less like the Celtic warriors in Pratchett's books.

It turns out the Gayle is a ne'er-do-well who belittles Wilde, and Wilde is a good guy who, through the use of his own devil's eyes, has seen the fairies inside the dig, and tries to get Gayle to leave the place (and the fae) alone. Rumor has it it's a bad idea to piss off the fairies. You'll have to read the book to see what can happen if one does.

Two-page spread from Part Two, with text and photographs by "Wilde"

The Why

The photographs in this book are genius, pure and simple. Not just the photos, but their carefully crafted subject matter as well. Want to see a photograph of a 7-inch suit of armor made of mussel and oyster shells? A splinter-sized sword made of fossils? A helmet made of a snail shell and some bird feet? How about a wooden mask with real teeth and devil's eyes? And I can't tell you what the final photograph in the body of the book is, but underneath the flap is something magical. You know you want to see it.

Plus, the history/mystery that is the core of the book is built up cleverly, with credibility carefully crafted from the nested narrative and the photographs. This one sucks you in, and doesn't let go. (It also doesn't take particularly long to read, if I'm being truthful, but that's neither here nor there.)

Bringing the Boy Home

N.A. Nelson's debut novel, Bringing the Boy Home, is all about adventure. Set partly in the Amazon jungle, partly in the United States, it is the story of two young men of the Takunami tribe and their experiences as they approach their coming-of-age rituals on their thirteenth birthdays.

At the age of six, Tirio was cast out of his community because of a physical deformity. One day, his mother took Tirio to the river, watched him clamber into his "corpse canoe" and then pushed the boat into the waters of the Amazon, believing that she was sending him to his death. According to Takunami beliefs, Tirio was not strong enough to become a warrior because of his disability, and so he had to be sacrificed to uphold his family's honor. But he did not die. He was found. Adopted by an American anthropologist, Tirio grows up in the United States, but he never forgets his birthplace, and though he is happy and loved, he longs to return to the jungle to prove his strength. More than anything, he hopes to have the chance to complete his soto seche tente, the sixth-sense test that all Takunami boys must pass in order to meet their father and be recognized by the tribe as a worthy warrior.

Nelson's tale really rips along, with short chapters that alternate perspectives between Tirio's story and Luka's, a Takunami boy who is in the midst of training hard for his sixth-sense test. Without giving too much away, I thought it was clever the way the author brought the two narratives together at the end of the novel without really forecasting where things were headed. Of course you're quite curious to figure out the connection between the threads of the novel as you read along, but I didn't anticipate how things eventually turned out.

The evocation of the setting is particularly satisfying. The intensity of jungle life, and the challenges of survival under such dangerous conditions adds greatly to the overall tension of the plot. The story was inspired by the author's visit to Brazil, and her appreciation of the diversity of the plant and animal life and the various Amazon communities as well. The Takunami tribe is imaginary, but Nelson has created an entirely believable culture that feels complex, exotic and intriguing. As further proof of her passion for this part of the world, Nelson is donating some of the profits to the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT). Cool, yes?

This is a book for anyone who is after a classic adventure tale, and who enjoys survival stories with extreme settings. Bringing the Boy Home won the 2005 Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Contest, introducing us to a writer to watch.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

John Kessel begins the remix--a short story playlist

There was a time when short stories were the best thing going in fiction. Well-honed, beautifully crafted stories that pulsed with mystery or adventure, or hinted at fantastic worlds and future possibilities were the mainstay of fiction.

But that all happened sometime long before I was born, because when I was in school, searching around for something to read in bookstores and libraries, the only short stories I found were boring. As in, nothing happened. And stories that might have been interesting were eviscerated and served raw, guts flailing all about, by my mediocre English teachers in class.

The good news is, short stories are back. For the past fifteen years or more, incredible short stories in which plot is as valued as tone have made a resurgence. The big problem, though, with so many good stories out there, is “how to begin?” It’s like with music: you don’t want to go out and slog through an entire catalog of albums put out by every band you’ve recently heard of. Instead, you download or hunt down a song here or a song there. Or, even better, a friend hands you a CD mix with the best new sounds they’ve discovered.

All this came to mind as I read several collections of short stories this summer, most notably The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, by John Kessel. I’d like to paint a brief picture of the collection, but then what I really want to spend time doing is creating the most awesome story mix ever!

John Kessel is a gifted, brilliant writer whether he’s creating his own worlds or playing in the worlds of others. And while his award winning cycle of stories called "The Lunar Quartet" is in this collection, I find myself most drawn to his inventive explorations of fictions we thought we’d left behind, whether it’s two criminals stumbling into Oz, with all its possibilities of wealth and freedom, or the relentless, unforgiving promise of redemption in a sequel of sorts to Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, or even the bizarre confluence of Doctor Frankenstein and Mary Bennett in a “but of course!” story called Pride and Prometheus.

The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories is published by Small Beer Press, a fantastic printing house run by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant. One of the best things SBP has done for the world, however, is publish the stories of Kelly Link herself. She is an amazing short story writer, rightfully compared to the likes of Kafka and Borges. Her magical stories have appeared in possibly every great collection of short stories published in the last ten years. The good news is, many of her best stories will now be available in a widely distributed collection marketed toward young adults, titled Pretty Monsters, after the only original-to-this-volume story included.

Thus, we come to my Short Story Mix CD, which begins with my favorite Kessel and Link stories:

Catskin, by Kelly Link (story excerpt and audio recording)- This is my favorite Kelly Link story, maybe because it was the first I ever read. Originally published in the first Michael Chabon edited issue of McSweeney’s, it shares space with lots of great stories.

A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor (full text)- The classic, which is awesome, especially because it leads into:

Every Angel is Terrifying, by John Kessel (audio recording)- See above for why this is so great.

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, by Randall Kenan — This story saved me from a life of loathing reading. I was in the middle of grad school and felt like my classes were sucking the life out of my love of stories. This story, from the excellent collection by the same name, blew me away and brought me home again.

Speckled Trout, by Ron Rash— I love southern tales, and this one, about the brutal realities of the rural south, kicks ass. From Rash’s collection Chemistry and Other Stories. Ron Rash can best be understood by saying aloud the title of his collection of short stories: The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina. You can't beat that with a stick.

Poachers, by Tom Franklin—Where Rash deals with a south caught in the struggles of a reality it almost cannot understand, Franklin crawls around in the soil of the South’s mythologies, real and imagined. This is long-novella length-but worth every word. Especially if you like taut, suspenseful tales of vengeance. You can find this in a number of anthologies, but if you find it in the collection by the same name, you can read his introductory piece, which is as fine a bit of nonfiction about hunting, fathers, growing up, and the south as you're ever likely to find.

The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe (full text here, among other places)- Speaking of southern writers telling tales of vengeance, this is the classic example. Poe can be good and bad. When he’s bad, he’s really bad. But when he’s good, oh it’s sweet, like a fine wine.

Anda’s Game, by Cory Doctorow (full text)– On one hand, this near-future SF tale is a kick-ass tale of a girl surpassing every task set before her, much to the chagrin of those who thought they could control her. On the other, a brilliant lesson in global economics as taught by 12 year olds.

The Sloan Men, by David P. Nickles (full text and audio)- Awesome, creepy tale that plays with our expectations of horror, especially Lovecraftian, otherworldly, soul-sucking horror and how little it compares to the true horrors of the human heart.

The Wilds, by Julia Elliot— This is only available in the recent Fantastic Women issue of Tin House, but it is not to be missed. Elliot demonstrates why you don’t need a fantasy setting or a horror tale to show that teenage desire is magical and terrifying.

The Big Rock Candy Mountains, by Andy Duncan— Another one a little tough to track down. I think this has only been printed in the journal Conjunctions 39th issue, called “The New Wave Fabulists.” If the story weren’t so unique, it’d be a clarion call for hobopunk science fiction. A classic "watch what you wish for” tale.

The Comet, by W.E.B. duBois (excerpt) Yes, this is a strange outlier. I recently picked up the first volume of the SF/Fantasy/Speculative Fiction collection Dark Matter, edited by Sheree Thomas, which explores the rich history of black SF writing over the past century. I was so surprised to see a story by Du Bois here, that I couldn’t help but read it. An excellent demonstration of what I said when I started: there was a time when well-honed, beautifully crafted stories that pulsed with mystery, adventure, fantastic worlds and future possibilities. But I hope you see from these stories (and others as you might encounter as you search these out) that the time to which I refer just may be now.

Edited to add a picture and this note: feel free to argue other authors and stories--like any mix, this is just what's striking me right now. I couldn't find space for Margo Lanagan, and how do I get folks to find The Voluntary State, one of my favorites by good friend Christopher Rowe? (Ah, the old Sci Fiction website, what a great place you were...)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Interview with Harry Markov

I first talked to Harry Markov--a 19-year-old college student from Varna, Bulgaria--about a year ago on a web forum dedicated to fantasy writing and writers. I’ve never met him face-to-face, but every email makes it feel like he’s in the room with me. Bright, opinionated, and almost impossibly energetic, he has the sort of personality no mere internet can hope to contain.

Harry has a total inability to sit on the sidelines. After reading his first urban fantasy novel a couple years ago, he started writing his own. Instead of reading book reviews, he started his own website, The Temple Library, to do his own reviews and author interviews. And when he couldn’t find a local community that shared his love of literature, myth, and fantasy, he got to work helping build one on-line.

Every time I hear from him, Harry’s always elbow-deep in some new project. Earlier this month, I talked to him to see what he’s up to now.

Kristopher Reisz: So did you grow up in Varna or recently move there for college? And what’s your major?

Harry Markov: I was born and bred in Varna. Bulgaria’s a small country and I have had the fortune of being raised in its most beautiful and clean city. The architecture is amazing and there are so many spots in the summer that can give you ideas to write or the angles to take the perfect photo.

As of this year I will be a college man in the University of Economics in Varna, the weirdest choice, because all year long I was planning to study in either Denmark or Holland. In the end due to financial issues in my family I settled in for studying in the same city. Not exactly exciting, but at least good enough for me to write and try for the next level in the publishing business. My bachelor is in international relationships of economics and it offers a lot of diversity in master degrees and career choice.

Kristopher: International economics is a very practical choice for somebody with such artistic leanings. Are you taking any literature courses or ever consider a liberal arts major?

Harry: The first answer would be no. Writing can never be taught. You can teach elements like proper grammar and stylistic rules like omission of repetition, refining sentence structure and learn new words and terms in literature. The best thing would be to analyze other works from the genre you would try to write. But if you don’t have the storyteller spark inside, it’s pretty much pointless and it’s time consuming, costs money and the results are vague. I have motivation issues, when it comes to writing and if writing is transported into a classroom atmosphere or the likes with a schedule and assignments, I’d pretty much leave it for several years. This I realized recently though.

When I was 17 I wanted to move to the US into an arts college somewhere in the middle states and learn how to be a writer and when I graduate a nice publishing house would take me on we would be best friends forever. Reading several author blogs the next year told me that a solid day job is a must and that publishing is a slow process. So I scratched that thought and economics it was. People deal with disappointment all their lives and if by 18 you haven’t realized that life usually laughs out loud on the floor at your plans, you are screwed. I caught on that to make something out of my dreams I needed a solid back up plan, before I get burned.

Kristopher: Let's talk about Temple Library. How did it come about? You also have a personal blog and write posts for Urban Fantasy Land. Do you want to say anything about those projects?

Harry: Temple Library Reviews developed more like a whim, which stuck around, on the basis: I see, I like, I think I can do this. I was already comfortable with blogging with [my personal blog] Writing Chaos that is Me. There is nothing more to tell about it. If you ever want to read about how many topics a person can whine or squeak, then hop on board. Finding the crowd interested in literature and writing, offered new sites and links to click, so in time I discovered a new community. One doing reviews and seeing how they got free books in exchange for reviews,

Before Temple Library Reviews I have done only three reviews in my life and they were for Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin’ Book Reviews. I still contribute there, although sometimes I forget I have to cross post reviews we don’t match. But I do read it frequently, just forget to cross post. Bad memory. Theresa is an amazing person and hooked me up with the first titles to review, even though it wasn’t the perfect match. It is important to have some titles before hand starting a review blog, if you are doing it solo. For me there is another challenge. There are not many publishers willing to send books overseas.

Urban Fantasy Land is the most recent addition to my blog madness. I am definitely happy that the amazing Lindsey and Lisa welcomed me with open arms and now put up with my silence due to brain exhaustion. When my day job is resolved with I hope to have more time to scavenge the internet for the tidbits, those gals usually post on their blog. Sounds interesting, but it’s a great time investment and with writing and other responsibilities, it’s all about priorities.

Kristopher: What's your favorite types of books to read and/or review?

Harry: When it comes to novels I have no definite taste. Every genre is as good as another. Recently literary fiction and the classics have been pulling me. I have some books by Paulo Coehlo and Murakami I wish to read. What attracts me is an eccentric story line; characters, who are far from normal and insight into the human nature.

Kristopher: You've also mentioned a novel you're working on. How’s that going?

Harry: You really don’t want me to start explaining about my project. I can go on and on and on about it. The genre is urban fantasy and the title is Forged in Blood. It’s a part of a trilogy actually; The Crimson Chronicles. I couldn’t do a proper hero for this story, so I changed it to a heroine, who is a demon human hybrid, has addictions to various pills and suffers from schizophrenia. Her main power is her affinity to using Blood Magic; both rare and not well looked upon discipline. The novel itself is 95% finished and by the 31st will be wrapped up in a first draft. I will have one hell of a time editing, since in the US, where I most likely will try to get publish views explicit behavior by 18 year olds as illegal. September I will outline the second novel and a new more devious and daring project Car Crash Dummy. My writing schedule is ludicrous.

Kristopher: What's the first urban fantasy you read, and what attracts you to the genre? Can you name some of you favorites and why you like them?

Harry: Urban fantasy has been a special treat ever since I was a child and they aired cartoons about magic in the big city and the likes. X-Men, although super heroes, are for me one aspect of the UF genre. When it comes to novels, I read my first early 2008. It was Stray by Rachel Vincent and since then I was introduced to the whole scene in literature. Needless to say I was amazed that I could miss something as big.

Favorites? Mhm. I haven’t read as much as I would have liked to, so let’s see. Rachel Vincent for her originally portrayed Pride interactions modified for human shapeshifters. Karen Chance for the excess in mythology used in her books and the action conjured with it. Finally Vicki Pettersson for her mind staggering world building skills in creating a story, characters and powers so new it’s frightening. In UF titles I seek titles that can offer originality, creativity, world building and magic.

Kristopher: Beyond urban fantasy, anything else you think people should read?

Harry: I don’t think anyone should read anything just because somebody else says it’s good and that you necessarily have to. This is the system of literature in school and I haven’t been left with very pleasant notions or memories from the books I should have read.

However if we are to talk what from my point of view what would improve someone’s grasp over literature and widen their horizons, that’s quite different. My emphasis for anyone would be to go back to the classics, world classics, their own countries’ classics. My favorites so far have turned out to be the British novels from the Victorian era and some Italian works. But I am always willing to read Russian, French, German, Japanese works. Back in the day, when cultures functioned in their own border lands and there was no easy access to one another, the classics recorded their respectful national identity. Back then there were no “save the world from ____ (insert your choice)” and definitely no hand to hand combat or anything, what we see in thrillers, horror, action books, fantasy. Characters and their worlds were the driving force. From writer perspective this is a great start to learn about characterization and human relationships.

Modern literary fiction, which in my little head is the offspring of the classics, shows the human psyche in the modern era, where human interaction exists in so many forms and still manages to be fractured. Humans have never been easier to shatter than they were in history, because everything was simple. Now with psychology so many psychological disturbances have been discovered. Everyone has one or another problem with himself on a personal level and to explore these dimensions through someone else’s world is breathtaking. You can reflect on oneself and get some writing tips as well.

So to stop rambling I would have to say that diversity is everything. You should never let yourself get stuck in a rut. Read everything, be it thrillers, romance, erotica, textbooks, nonfiction, essays, poetry, mystery… etc etc etc.

Kristopher: What's the Bulgarian fantasy/ sci-fi community like? Is there a book, comic, or anything that's big in Bulgaria that we might have missed over here?

Harry: Demographically speaking we have a 7 million nation. 35% from those 7 million are in their late teens and early twenties. From these people I haven’t met many that share the same interests as me. The fantasy community here is small and undeveloped, since most are scattered across the country. I never found the necessity to find a community in Bulgaria, so I am a bit in the dark.

You couldn’t have missed anything, since we don’t have a native market. Everything is translated from West and East and sold here as well. The only novels you could have missed are some Russian novels, but I don’t follow that scene much.

Kristopher: So do you have anything else in the works that I don’t know about?

Harry: Writing wise I’m at the beginning of a poetry book. People say I am good at it on a certain website for poetry and those are talented people. So I decided to do a lengthy collection of poems viewing myths and tropes through a more abstract aesthetic point of view.

I am also saving money for a professional camera. The prices have dropped recently for a functional semi-professional and professional cameras and the photographer in me definitely wants one. And finally with an artist friend of mine I am working on a short webcomic based on a novella I still have to write and publish 2008 with my electronic publisher Mystic Moon Press. But right now the whole project is on hiatus.

Kristopher: With all of that and school and a day job, how do you ever get any sleep?

Harry: Who says I do everything at one time? My day job was only for the summer. September is my vacation month. October is school and I tend to put some projects on hiatus, while I work on something else and then move back to the previous ones. It has to do with me easily getting bored. I need a lot of pit stops along the way. That is why my novel wasn’t completed by May. I am a lazy bum. If I never get my 8 hours I am incapable of anything.

(Cross-posted at Kristopher's blog.)

Higher Learning #4

Welcome to the September Higher Learning column! In Higher Learning, College Guys talk about what they're reading, what they read in high school, and what books are important to them now. Now that the semester has begun, I was able to meet with my interview subject in person. Joey is a second year student at Grinnell and plans to be an English major.

Joey went to small religious high school in Tennessee before entering Grinnell College in 2007. He's interested in writing, literature, and Classics. Thanks for talking to Guys Lit Wire, Joey!

Kelly Herold: What are you reading at this very moment?

Joey: Other than reading for classes, I'm reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid. My mom sent it to me because she thought I'd like it.

Kelly: Is The Reluctant Fundamentalist typical of the books you like to read?

Joey: Yes, it is. I like books that deal with political situations and with religion, but in fiction. I prefer fiction to Non Fiction.

Kelly: Okay, let's go back to Middle School. What were you reading in, say, sixth or seventh grade?

Joey: Well, I started reading Harry Potter in fifth grade, so I was reading that a lot. In sixth grade, I read His Dark Materials. In Middle School, sometime in the eighth grade, I started reading Stephen King. It seemed more rebellious to carry a King book around with you. (Kelly: I'm with you, Joey. King was my YA too.)

Kelly: What was the first life-changing book you read? A book that made you think 'Wow' for the first time when reading?

Joey: Definitely 1984. And I didn't read it until I was a Junior in High School. I mean, I'd always loved reading, but 1984 really wowed me with how far-reaching Orwell's messages are.

Kelly: What about High School? What did you read for school and what did you think about required reading?

Joey: Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, especially early on. We also read Lord of the Flies during my sophomore year (a choice my teacher gets questions about every year). During the last two years of High School, we read plays (The Glass Menagerie, A Street Car Named Desire), Wuthering Heights, The Scarlett Letter, The Awakening. We also read some Poe now and then, which I really liked because I was into Stephen King. I liked most of the books we read. Except for one: The Age of Innocence. I didn't like the social politics in that one.

(Kelly: At this point, Joey and I had a discussion about how amazing his high school English teacher is. Look at those choices!)

Kelly: Did you do much reading for fun when you were in high school? What did "reading for fun" mean to you?

Joey: I looked for classic novels. It was fun to carry a book around that you were supposed to read. And I did read them! And liked them. I read Steinbeck (East of Eden remains a model for me when I'm writing short stories) and Hemingway. I really liked the Nick Adams stories and The Old Man and the Sea. I read Ayn Rand--The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I read James Joyce. We read parts of Ulysses in class, but I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on my own. I also read some Non Fiction. I carried around End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the End of Reason (Sam Harris) for a long time and would read and reread parts from it that impressed me.

Kelly: You read a lot of serious literature. What do you read for fun--when at the beach, for example?

Joey: I still like Stephen King. Sometimes I'll return to Garth Nix or Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series. I also have been reading Virginia Woolf, especially over the summer. Reading her short stories was fun. I also read To the Lighthouse over the summer. I had a really boring job, the night shift in a video store. Sometimes I wouldn't see a customer for three or four hours.

Kelly: Okay, last question: Young Adult literature--ever heard of it? What is Young Adult literature?

Joey: Our library had a Young Adult section. That's where I found His Dark Materials, for example, and Sabriel, and the Lost Years of Merlin series. But then I moved on to Steinbeck and King.

Unexpected plants

I fell madly in love with A Field Guide to Surreal Botany and write all about it over at Chasing Ray. Check it out if you have an interest in plants of a fantastical kind described by authors who are smart and funny at the same time, and in all the right ways.

This is wildly unique writing folks - don't miss it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Are You Ready for some Football?

Fall means football. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, my attention turns to the gridiron. Watching football has its many pleasures, but the season is short. Quite often, I need more football to feast upon when a game is days or months away. It’s at these times that I usually turn to sportswriters, bloggers, and screenwriters. Newspapers are still publishing sports journalism, but it’s sometimes infuriating to read. Sports bloggers tend to focus on sports personalities rather than the game itself. Football on the screen varies from bad to worse. (I know of two exceptions, which are noted below). On a rare occasion, you can find a good football book. Novelists and non-fiction writers are more often drawn to baseball and golf. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps the pace of the game itself allows a viewer to get down a page or two between pitches or putts. Nevertheless, here are my three favorite football books.

Friday Night Lights:
Some people have seen the movie, and many more have seen the excellent NBC drama by the same title. Did you know that both the movie and the television show are based on the non-fiction book Friday Night Lights by Pulitzer Prize-winning author H. G. Bissinger? The book is about a small town in west Texas that loves its high school football team, the Permian Panthers. Actually, love is not a strong enough word. Devotion is more like it. That kind of devotion leads to some negative consequences. The scene that Bissinger portrays is breathtaking. For what it’s worth, the television show on NBC is excellent (especially the first season). Though it doesn’t come close to the exquisite detail in the book.

I Am Third:
To be honest, I didn’t know that this book existed until a few years ago. Again, this book of non-fiction was the source material for a movie. When I was very young, I saw the movie Brian’s Song, and I cried through the entire second half of the movie. In fact, most men will readily admit to crying during this movie. It’s about the unlikely friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo and the challenges they face together. Sayers wrote I Am Third after his dazzling career with the Chicago Bears. The book is wider in scope than the movie. It covers Sayers’ childhood and his rise to NFL greatness. And it draws in the heart-breaking story of his relationship with his teammate Piccolo. Suffice it to say that if you put this book down (or reach the end the movie) without shedding a tear, you are one tough customer.

Never Die Easy:
Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo played well before my time. Sure, I’ve seen game footage from those years, but I grew up watching number 34, Sweetness himself, Walter Payton. I loved Payton for his ability to lift the entire team on his shoulders, his ballet-like moves to evade defenders, and his powerful determination to never go out of bounds. Payton held for some time the NFL record for most yards rushing. Many, myself included, consider him the greatest to ever play the game. If you have any desire to play the game of football, you must learn about Walter Payton. His motto, “Never die easy,” meant that he didn’t give up when things got tough. In 1999, Payton learned that he was dying of a rare liver disease. In his autobiography (published after his death) Payton relates how he tried to never give up when facing challenges in life, and when he faced his most difficult obstacle--this disease--he struggled with how to approach it. Never Die Easy is a moving portrait of a man who was truly inspiring. In a time when our sports culture is lacking in men to look to for inspiration, it’s good to remember that some, like Payton, truly earned the privilege of being called a hero.

Here's a YouTube video tribute to Payton and then Sayers:

The "Jackie Robinson of auto racing"

From the latest issue of Booklist, here's a review of a truly amazing sounding book (and story):

"Wendell Scott had a background similar to many of his contemporaries in the stock-car racing circuit of the early 1950s: an impoverished childhood; a rebellious streak; an aversion to mill, mine, or farm work; an affinity for cars; and some experience as a moonshine driver. Biggest difference? Scott was black. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in a liberal northern city with the backing of the formidable Branch Rickey. Scott was virtually alone and competed throughout the South in a climate of often-dangerous bigotry. He weathered epithets from fans, competitors who would slam his car into the wall, and promoters who refused to pay him his winnings. But his biggest hurdle may have been his lack of sponsorship money for most of the two decades he drove on the circuit. When he retired, in the early 1970s, he had not collected any six-figure purses or million-dollar endorsement deals, but he had earned the respect of his peers and even NASCAR fans, who, some say, made Scott second in popularity to Richard Petty. Donovan, a two-time Pulitzer winner and amateur race-car driver, interviewed Scott extensively over the last 14 months of his life. He also interviewed more than 200 other individuals, including Scott’s widow and children. The result is the gripping story of a fascinating, brave man who deserves serious recognition for his solitary accomplishment. Proving the Pulitzer selectors knew what they were doing, Donovan has produced one of the most compelling sports biographies of this or any year. A must-read for NASCAR fans."

Hard Driving
, by Brian Donovan, is available now.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Grey Areas of History

This review has also been cross-posted at Readers' Rants.

"Rebel or Redcoat, there were none who needed to use us sufficiently to save us."

In the Author's Note to M.T. Anderson's Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, it states that "our Revolutionary forefathers espoused a vexed and even contradictory view of liberty." This second volume in the biography of Octavian--an imaginary character--takes place during a very real historical time period, one which the author has meticulously researched and depicted in all its contradictory glory...and ignominy.

Volume II brings to vivid life the idea that the patriots who fought against the British during the Revolutionary War were not necessarily the united front of politically idealistic, intelligent, salt-of-the-earth, clever, just, and resourceful Paul Revere clones that we tend to envision. In fact, the story of our country's early origins was—of course—complex and multifaceted, its residents a diverse but also strangely skewed cross-section of early settlers from across the Atlantic. And, of course, many of those residents did not consider "liberty" to include people of African descent; though they may have espoused liberty for all men, the definition of "men" might vary depending on whom you asked.

This volatile sociopolitical situation is, in many ways, embodied in the story of Octavian Gitney. At the beginning of this second volume, he is once again fleeing the College of Lucidity, this time carrying his former teacher—and current co-conspirator--Dr. Trefusis upon his shoulders. The two soon learn of a proclamation by Lord Dunmore offering freedom to any slaves who defected to join the British forces.

Octavian—certainly anything but a slave, in his own mind—decides to join the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, but in the strange times of the Revolution, nothing is quite as it seems, and war is not necessarily the righteous, clear-cut battle of oppressed against oppressor. For a young man coming of age, the imposing principles of slavery and racism, liberty and self-government, sometimes take a back seat to issues of friendship and trust, love and family and identity. For Octavian, the lofty and the worldly are all hopelessly intertwined.

Octavian Nothing: Volume II is an epic, provocative and eye-opening look at what history might have been like—indeed, probably was like—during the Revolution. As in Volume I: The Pox Party, Anderson's use of language is amazing, creating a character who is both incredibly intellectual but also an authentic product of his time. (And, if you're like me, and you shamelessly delight in appropriately used but seldom-seen vocabulary words, this is a smorgasbord of delectable morsels.) Fans of the first book won't be disappointed by this conclusion of Octavian's saga. Look for it in October 2008.

Quotes and comments herein are based on an uncorrected proof.