Archive for November, 2007

NBCC Announcement

Posted: November 30, 2007 in National Book Critics Circle

National Book Critics Circle Launches Monthly Best Recommended List
Posted at 8:28AM Friday 30 Nov 2007

WHAT IF A BEST SELLER’S LIST was made up of books people read rather than books they simply bought? What if it was a list of books you just had to read rather than books that were just good reads. And what if the people recommending those books weren’t sales clerks and publicists but award-winning poets and readers?
These are the utopian ideas that prompted the National Book Critics Circle to create a monthly Best Recommended List. Polling our 800 members, as well as the former finalists and winners of our book prize, we asked, What 2007 books have you read that you have truly loved? Nearly 500 voters—from John Updike and Robert Hass to Carolyn Forche, Anne Tyler, and Cynthia Ozick—answered the call.

Starting in 2008, we plan to offer our Best Recommended List every month. Here is our inaugural list, with the five top vote getters in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry listed in order of votes received.

Fiction

1. Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead)

2. Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (Farrar Straus & Giroux)

3. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (HarperCollins)

4. Philip Roth, Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin)

5. Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (Graywolf)

Nonfiction

1. Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (Knopf)

2. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (St. Martin’s)

3. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (Metropolitan Books)

4. David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts (HarperCollins)

5. Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes (Doubleday)

Poetry

1. Robert Hass, Time and Materials: Poems 1997–2005* (HarperCollins)

2. Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems: 1956-1998 (Ecco)*

3. Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)*

4. Rae Armantrout, Next Life (Wesleyan University Press)

5. Mary Jo Bang, Elegy (Graywolf)

*There was a three-way tie for first place in poetry.

Click over to the NBCC blog, Critical Mass, for a complete set of lists, a complete list of voters, comments from voters, and recommendations from the recommended. For further information, please contact NBCC President John Freeman at Jfreeman4@nyc.rr.com or 646-246-8565.

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Kindle-ing the Fire?

Posted: November 20, 2007 in Hot Book News

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I hate to say it, but this things sounds kind of… kind of… Cool. I’m as much pro book as the next person, in fact, I’m more so than most. The litany of book-related things I’ve done grows almost daily, and I make no secret about my passionate love of books. But this new e-book device is the first one I’ve seen that makes my “One-click” finger twitch. It hasn’t ordered the thing, but it is twitching.

I didn’t want to be converted, and I’m not saying I am yet, but I’ve been reading about this device in a few places. Of course, the Amazon site makes it sound like a work of perfection handed down by the gods. They would, now, wouldn’t they… They’re the ones who are financially invested in this thing. Other places haven’t been quite as glowing. One review I read yesterday slammed the thing, saying it’s doomed from the get-go since people won’t spend $ 400 for it. That is a pretty hefty outlay of cash, but it also includes lifetime wi-fi. When you think about it like that, well… It’s not so bad.

The Kindle supposedly emulates the printed page better than any electronic unit to date. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t speak to that. The reviews say it eliminates the issue of eye strain, a common complaint from those who read computer screens for extended periods of time (see: Guidarini, Lisa).

I wish I’d have been picked to test this unit. Heretical though it is, it does sound like a compelling little contraption. But will it threaten the book? Now that I don’t see, especially considering Amazon comes out and tells us the price for this unit won’t be decreasing. The cost is prohibitive. You can buy books one at a time, or borrow them through your library, and pace your spending. Forking out $ 400, then having to pay $ 10 per book for the e-books is a lot more sobering than plunking down the $ 30 for a hardback book at Borders.

But cool? Yeah, it has that factor. If you read the marketing blurbs you’ll see what I mean. It has a lot of neat capabilities.

Still, it’s an electronic unit, and not a paper and glue book. I’m still pretty fond of those paper and glue units. You can’t replace the feel of them, the smell of them, the satisfaction of turning the page, and the wonderful sound that makes. That sound lulls me. It has since I was little, and my mother used to read to me almost every night. Equally satisfying is having bookshelves, with rows of beautiful spines and cover art to admire. You can’t run your hand down the spine of an electronic contraption. It’s not the same thing.

The aesthetic beauty of the printed book is a thing removed from any electronic device. That’s what Jeff Bezos, and the other investors, either don’t get or don’t care about, if it means making more money. As a companion to the printed book, the Kindle sounds great. But don’t be looking to push the book into extinction or those of us with a vested interest will have to start an uprising. Now, that’s a promise.

At $ 400 a crack, I don’t think we need start the revolution just yet. My prediction is this thing will ultimately fail, just like all the other e-book readers have before it. The sticking point will continue to be the price, and those who truly love books and reading, and are passionate about the subject, will keep buying books.

If you agree with me, make sure you don’t forget that. Keep buying books, and vote with your money. After all, that’s what speaks loudest, when you come right down to it.

Long live the book.

HarperTeen Writing Contest

Posted: November 20, 2007 in Library, General

Please pass this along to any teen writers you know:

HarperTeen Writing Challenge

Share your story for a chance to win a $5000 cash prize!

Submit your original writing (a short story, poem, or song) between now and January 7, 2008 and you will be entered for a chance to win. A panel of HarperTeen judges will select the 10 most original and creative pieces, but it will be up to the MySpace community to decide who wins!

Need help? Check out HarperTeen’s MySpace blog and forums for writing tips and advice from authors and editors.

I’m running away this weekend, going on a retreat to a hermitage in northern Illinois. There’ll be no turkey for me this year, no cranberries and no sweet potatoes, either. I’ve elected to pack up and hit the road, travelling to a place called Christ in the Wilderness, located in Stockton, IL.

Christ in the Wilderness, despite the obvious religious inference, isn’t about religion per se. It’s a retreat located on forested acres, a place to be solitary and get back to nature. The hermitage features modern cabins, equipped with small kitchens, a bathroom with a shower, a bedroom and a small living room area. The cabin I’m staying in also has a screened porch, though I can’t count on the weather cooperating well enough for me to use that perk.

The main purpose of the weekend will be to get away from it all, and spend four days in complete solitude. The forested land will provide me with more hiking than I’ll ever possibly want, and if the weather’s good I’ll hopefully get some decent photos of the Apple River Canyon area.

It’s been a busy year, to put it mildly. Four days of resting and recharging are just what the doctor ordered. I’ll be doing some reading and some writing, but mostly I’ll be getting away from it all.

I’ll let you know if I recommend the place, once I’m back and readjusted to urban life. I understand there are no dangerous wild animals around the area, so barring any unfortunate episodes I predict it will all go well.

Enjoy the holiday, and may your turkey be plump. All the best to you and yours this Thanksgiving weekend.

“What is There to Do in Mississippi?”

It’s not about desire,

this land that pulls us in

and gets us lost on back roads

til we come to an impassable bridge

at midnight by some bayou.

Our headlights useless, we just

sit silent

where kudzu looms like velvet

to swath and choke the pines.

Crickets chirr. Spring peepers

clamber to crescendo in the waters.

Later we touch. I hold your face in my hands

and my body comes alive

like those crickets in the kudzy.

But now we sit not touching in the car.

The singing night pours down around us.

Great splayed towering leaves

begin to teach us our oblivion.

– Used with permission, from Blue Window: Poems by Ann Fisher-Wirth

Los Angeles: Archer Books, c. 2003

An Interview with Poet Ann Fisher-Wirth

LG: What is it about Mississippi that is conducive to staggering talent?

AFW: Violence, beauty, suffering, ongoing conflict, a sense of loss, a sense of community, a sense of God, a sense of history. The Blues, liquor, a natural world so fertile and rich and semi-tropically tangled that it constantly reminds human beings they are not the measure of things – until, that is, they clearcut the woods, drain the marshes, poison the lakes and rivers. Damage. More damage. Repression and its underlying wildness. Orality: the voice, singing, telling stories, or just passing the time of day. A sense, far more than in many places, that literature matters.

LG: How would you describe your poetry, and the themes running through it?

AFW: I write most often in free verse, though I also write prose poems and have started experimenting from time to time with sonnets. My poems vary quite a bit: some are fragmentary and experimental, and take the form of sequences or daybooks; others are much shorter and more linear. I write about all sorts of things. Some of my work may be described as ecopoetry, including a recent poem/prose poem sequence “Dream Cabinet,” which I wrote in the summer of 2006 while visiting a tiny island called Fogdö in the Stockholm archipelago. I also write about family, motherhood, marriage, sexuality, art, literature, travel. Recently I’ve been writing about my Army childhood, including a chapbook-length sequence of poems set in Japan, called “Slide Shows.” Since I have lived all over the world, especially in Mississippi and California, my poems are located all over the world, especially in Mississippi and California. All my poems are influenced – though sometimes imperceptibly – by my thirty years’ practice (and now teaching) of yoga.

LG: What authors have most influenced you?

AFW: In high school, in 1960’s Berkeley, I was in love with T. S. Eliot, whom I thought I could make happy. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Dylan Thomas were my first favorite poets. I received an excellent liberal arts education at Berkeley High, Pomona College, and Claremont Graduate School, and I will always be grateful for it; canonical literature in English from the medieval Anons through the high Modernists was my bailiwick. I also studied history, religion, and theater, all of which gave me a wonderful foundation for teaching and for life. However, my education left out a lot: most women writers, contemporary writers, and non-white writers. On my own, I began to discover many new voices in the 1970’s, and a lot of gaps in my own life –between diapering babies and reading poetry, for instance – began to close. But probably the single writer who has influenced me most over the years has been William Carlos Williams, whose work I discovered while studying for comps in graduate school. Reading him, and then writing a dissertation which became a book on him, revolutionized my idea of writing and its relationship to life.

LG: What books are you reading currently? Which would you recommend?

AFW: I’m always reading a lot of different books at the same time. For one thing, I reread the books I teach, every time I teach them. So last week I read Kafka’s The Trial and some of Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, and this week I am reading Camus’s The Stranger and some of Eliot’s poems. Next up are Toni Morrison’s Sula and Carolyn Forché’s The Country between Us. Also I’m reading Forché’s Blue Hour and The Angel of History, Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red, Terrance Hayes’s Wind in a Box, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and Sheri Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank. I’d recommend all these books; it is a pleasure to be in their presence. Two powerful books I finished recently, and strongly recommend, are Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Jan Tomasz Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne. I’ve just begun to explore the poetry of John Kinsella, and I’m informally collecting ecopoetry from around the world. I have to admit I’m also a magazine and mystery novel junkie, and hope to begin a Ruth Rendell mystery soon. I’m married to a man who is as big a bookworm as I am; as a long-term project he is reading me the Icelandic sagas and a book of Celtic myths and folktales.

LG: Do you have a set writing schedule?

AFW: I should have a set writing schedule, but I don’t. Nor do I have rituals, really: no rows of sharpened pencils, no absinthe, no rotting apples in a desk drawer. I like to sit with my feet on my desk and listen to music, or scribble down bits of imagery and stray language as I walk through town or in the woods. Often I write at a computer, though I do also keep scraps of paper or journals. When I am teaching, my time for writing becomes very broken up. On the other hand, I’m rarely not thinking about writing or dealing with writing—my own or someone else’s.

LG: Why is poetry intimidating to so many? What is it about the genre that can be so off-putting?

AFW: Poetry is intimidating first because it’s often badly taught, and second because our culture does not value it. All little children love poetry: nursery rhymes, jump rope rhymes, nonsense rhymes. However, as children go through the many versions of the American school system, they become alienated from poetry. They give away their own power to love it, and begin to think of it as something to fear, something that someone else (the teacher) knows about, something that communicates in needlessly difficult ways, something that has little to do with “real” life. Furthermore, the ways of knowing and being that poetry offers are not valued in our society; poetry is not about beating out the competition, getting the right answer, maximizing profit, or dominating the world. I grew up in the 1960’s. I believed then, and have always believed, that many aspects of our society systematically starve people’s abilities to experience and treasure emotion, wildness, beauty, playfulness, and imagination. And yet, as we saw in the outpouring of poetry that covered the walls of New York after 9/11, poetry never fails us. We turn to it in our deepest, most joyful or desperate moments: birth, marriage, catastrophe, death.

LG: What are you working on currently?

AFW: I have recently finished a book manuscript of poems, called Gift, and I’m sending it around. I’ve begun to gather poems for what I think will be two manuscripts: one called “Sweetgum / Liquidambar” and the other called “Dream Cabinet.” But these are in the very early stages. LG: Have you written, or considered writing, in any other genres? AFW: For many years I wrote academic literary criticism. I have published a book titled William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature (Penn State University Press), and many articles on various American writers, especially Willa Cather and Cormac McCarthy. I’ve also written several articles of ecocriticism – on Faulkner, Linda Hogan, Rick Bass – and a long essay titled “The Authority of Poetry,” which will be published soon in Europe and Canada. I write prose poetry as well as poetry, and occasionally I write familiar essays. With one of my daughters, the poet Jessica Fisher, I’m working on a collaborative piece for a forthcoming anthology; our piece is called “Mother Daughter Mother Daughter,” and I think it will be beautiful.

LG: Finally, what’s your favorite poem of all time? Why does this work speak to you?

AFW: There’s no way I could choose one favorite poem. Here are a few: John Keats, “To Autumn”; George Herbert, “The Flower”; William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”; Dylan Thomas, “In My Craft or Sullen Art.”

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Ann Fisher-Wirth teaches poetry and environmental literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS. She is the author of two volumes of poetry, Blue Window: Poems (2003) and Five Terraces (2005), as well as William Carlos Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature (1989). She and her husband, Peter Wirth, have five children.

Man Asia Award Winner

Posted: November 12, 2007 in Hot Book News

Chinese literary sensation wins Man Asia award

Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Monday November 12, 2007

Guardian

A controversial Chinese tale of environmental destruction, spiritual freedom and the threat modernity poses to the nomadic way of life has won the first Man Asia literary prize. Wolf Totem was written by a retired professor under the pseudonym Jiang Rong, because of its sensitive subject matter and the author’s chequered history, which includes a spell in jail after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
The novel, which will be published in English next year, was chosen to win the inaugural award from a shortlist of works by five Asian authors.

Adrienne Clarkson, the chair of the judging panel, called Wolf Totem “a passionate argument about the complex interrelationship between nomads and settlers, animals and human beings, nature and culture. The slowly developing narrative is rendered in vivid detail and has a powerful cumulative effect. A book like no other. Memorable.”

The novel is based on the author’s experiences as an intellectual in the inner-Mongolian grasslands during the 1966-76 cultural revolution. It extols the virtues of Mongolian nomads, who find a balance in living with nature, even with the wolves that prey on their herds. This way of life is threatened by the materialism of the Han ethnic majority, who bring environmental destruction and an oppressive political culture that is the antithesis of the free nomadic and wolf-like spirit.

Jiang, 61, whose real name is Lu Jiamin, was unable to attend the ceremony in Hong Kong because of ill health, but in a statement he said he had spent 30 years thinking and six years writing the novel.

Wolf Totem is a publishing phenomenon in China, where it has sold two million legal copies, along with an estimated 10 times that number of pirated books. It has been the subject of literary debates, management motivation courses and military training lectures. Even the propaganda minister has praised its style, something which may have saved it from a ban.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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It may be prudent to sidestep any questions as to taste, when it comes to the topic of Borat. If you can actually use the words “taste” and “Borat” in the same sentence, that is, without having to evoke a clause from the Geneva Convention or something.

Or, maybe I won’t evade the topic, actually, considering the profession I’m in (or studying to be in, to be more technical), and my hardline stance against censorship. But I will, in this case, tread lightly out of respect for the sensibilities I can understand being a little threatened by such an obnoxious character as Borat.

Objectionable humor notwithstanding, his book, or, more accurately, the book Sacha Baron Cohen’s character inspired, landed on my desk this morning. It came to me via Random House, whose publicity department sent it out to me for potential review on my other blog. However, no interview with Sacha Baron Cohen is likely to be forthcoming here. For one thing, he doesn’t need the publicity. For another, he’s out of my reach without benefit of some really Herculean effort, and frankly, I’m too busy right now for anything that single-minded and time consuming.

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I’ve seen the film inspired by Cohen’s character. I have a pretty tough hide, so it didn’t offend me, but that’s not the case for everyone. I wouldn’t even say I recommend the film, except to others similarly impervious to any kind of insult whatever. I’d recommend it to armadillos without equivocation, but to anyone else I’d probably pause a really long time before admitting what I personally thought of it. It’s just that weird, and unclassifiable. I know, there’s so much in it to offend, but it offends everyone pretty much equally. If you offend everyone equally, you essentially offend no one.

Or something like that.

Borat’s “travel guide” will be out in bookstores tomorrow. I’m one of the lucky (?) elect to have it in my hands today. If you enjoyed the film you’ll definitely enjoy the book. If you didn’t? Well, you may not want to put this one on your holiday list.

I hope you like very much!