Archive for April, 2010

April 18, 2010

Scrawled in the Margins, Signs of Twain as a Critic


By the end of his life, Samuel Langhorne Clemens had achieved fame as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, a globe-trotting lecturer and, of course, the literary genius who wrote “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and other works under the name Mark Twain.

He was less well-known, but no less talented, as a literary critic. Proof of it has resided, mostly unnoticed, in a small library in Redding, Conn., where hundreds of his personal books have sat in obscurity for 100 years. They are filled with notes in his own cramped, scratchy handwriting. Irrepressible when he spotted something he did not like, but also impatient with good books that he thought could be better, he was often savage in his commentary.

Read more in the New York Times



Little-known 90-year-old wins $100,000 poetry award

Eleanor Ross Taylor, born in 1920 in North Carolina, has been given the American Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly award


With most of her work out of print until last year, 90-year-old American poet Eleanor Ross Taylor probably thought her days of winning literary prizes were over. Not so: Taylor has just been announced as the winner of the American Poetry Foundation’s $100,000 (£65,000) Ruth Lilly award for a poet “whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition”.

Read more …


 All first works of fiction, including novels, short story collections and novellas, written in English by a woman of any age or nationality and published as a book in the UK, are eligible. The emphasis of the award is on emerging talent and the evidence of future potential. The winner will receive a £10,000 bursary funded by Arts Council England which is intended to help the winning writer pursue their work with greater freedom.

The 2010 shortlist is:

Jane Borodale – The Book of Fires (HarperPress) – British

Irene Sabatini – The Boy Next Door (Sceptre) – Zimbabwean

Evie Wyld – After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Jonathan Cape) British/Australian

The judges for the 2010 Orange Award for New Writers are:

Di Speirs (Chair), Editor – Readings, BBC Radio 4

Rachel Cooke, Writer and Columnist, The Observer

Bernardine Evaristo, Novelist, critic and winner of the 2009 Orange Prize Youth Panel award for Blonde Roots

The Award was launched in 2005 in partnership with Arts Council England. Renewing their commitment to the partnership with Orange in 2008, Arts Council England committed a further £30,000 over three years (£10,000 per year) for bursary awards for the winners of the Orange Award for New Writers. By offering a bursary to a novelist or short story writer for her first publication, the Arts Council is able to support the professional development of a writer at a crucial stage in her career.

Authors who have written their first work of fiction can be entered for both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Orange Award for New Writers in any given year.

The winner will be announced at the Orange Prize for Fiction award ceremony which will take place on 9 June 2010 in The Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, central London.

The Desmond Elliott Prize 2010 Longlist Announced 

The writers longlisted for the prize include high-profile advertising guru David Abbott, acclaimed poet Jacob Polley and critic and academic Matthew Reynolds. Several of the books in contention reflect the colourful travels of the writers who have lived in countries across the globe, from Nigeria to Hong Kong, France to China. All the writers now live in the UK, but many have drawn on their experiences of living abroad.
The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott (MacLehose Press, Quercus)

Before the Earthquake by Maria Allen (Tindal Street Press)

The Hungry Ghosts by Anne Berry (Blue Door)

Rupture by Simon Lelic (Picador)

The Shadow of a Smile by Kachi A. Ozumba (Alma Books)

Talk of the Town by Jacob Polley (Picador)

The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Designs for a Happy Home by Matthew Reynolds (Bloomsbury)

Beauty by Raphael Selbourne (Tindal Street Press)

The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw (Atlantic Books)

The longlisted books span the globe taking the reader from the prisons of Nigeria to colonial unrest in Hong Kong. Maria Allen, who spent much of her life living in Italy set her novel in southern Italy, and Anne Berry who moved to Hong Kong at the age of six, has the Japanese occupied Hong Kong of 1942 as the backdrop for her story.    
Crime and punishment feature strongly in the longlisted books, particularly in Matthew Reynolds’ The Shadow of a Smile; Simon Lelic’s Rupture; Raphael Selbourne’s Beauty; Jacob Polley’s Talk of the Town and David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player.
Of the ten contenders there are two women and eight men, and four of this year’s ten books come from independent publishing houses.
Acclaimed author and journalist Elizabeth Buchan chairs this year’s panel of judges and is joined by James Daunt, founder of Daunt Books, London’s independent bookselling chain, and William Skidelsky, Literary Editor of
A shortlist of three books will be announced on Wednesday 26 May. When narrowing the list to a shortlist of three books, the judges will be looking for a novel of depth and breadth with a compelling narrative. The work should be vividly written and confidently realised and should contain original and arresting characters. Entries have been considered from all fiction genres.
The winner of the 2010 Desmond Elliott Prize will be announced on Wednesday 23 June at Fortnum & Mason, Desmond’s ‘local grocer’, in London.

Flyaway by Suzie Gilbert

Posted: April 13, 2010 in Book Reviews

Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings

by Suzie Gilbert

“Wildlife rehabilitators find themselves … faced with a … skeptical public, many of whom seem to believe that wild animals are little more than programmed robots. Some loudly and indignantly question why rehabbers “waste” their time with animals when they could be helping people …”

– from Flyaway

My house feels like an animal sanctuary, and I’m not talking about the homo sapiens living inside. There’s a space underneath our porch that’s been home to at least three families of skunks (yes, it STANK), and now our second or third round of foxes.

The skunks, despite the smell, were an entertaining lot. One year they, for whatever reason, decided to grab hold of the Christmas lights, dragging them into their little den. I told my kids they were using them to light their tree, and we got kick out of that mental picture. Once the holiday was over we pulled the lights out. They were a little chewed, and a lot stinky, and had to be thrown out. But for a month or so it seemed pretty hilarious.

In honor of Gilbert’s book, I also have a bird story to share. Every year we put out two hanging baskets, again on our porch. For three or four years running a little brown bird with a sort of rosy red stomach (smaller than a robin) built a nest in one of them. Then, one year, we put out the baskets later than usual. One day I heard a tap, tap, tapping on the window looking out on our porch. On it was sitting that little bird – or its twin. It went on for days. Then, we put out the hanging baskets. And the bird built its nest once again. Coincidence or a little bird saying, “Hey! Where’s my basket?!”

You tell me.

Suzie Gilbert’s book is filled with stories any wildlife and/or nature lover will identify with. Doubtless this group will find it as entertaining as I did. Those who love biographies with a lighter spin (i.e., not of the “My life was a living hell” variety) will enjoy the frequently humorous prose.

I was especially glad I read it while recovering from knee surgery. Why? Because I needed something upbeat and well-written to pull me out of the “this sucks!” doldrums.  And Flyaway certainly did that.

But perhaps the best thing about this book is its avid championing of the cause of animal rehabbers, a dedicated and selfless lot who often don’t get the credit they deserve:

“Critics may look for numbers, but from that point of view all nonprofit work is the veritable drop in the bucket. Millions are under seige; what’s the point of helping fifty, or a hundred, or a thousand? The point is in the value of the individual, and in the ensuing ripple effect. The drop in the bucket is the convulsing mockingbird; the ripple effect is that a woman brings it to a rehabilitator, who convinces the woman to stop using pesticides on her lawn, and the woman returns home and convinces her neighbors to do the same.”

– from Flyaway

If I thought I had a real life “animal house,” Gilbert’s book shows she’s beaten me by a mile. Her whole family was engaged in her drive to save wildlife – especially birds, but occasionally another species. If they hadn’t been on board I can’t imagine how she’d have done all the laudable work she did. I have a feeling her enthusiasm would still have been there, but her family really deserves much credit for their hard work, too.

I give my full recommendation for Flyaway, the best nonfiction book about animals I’ve read since James Herriot’s All Creatures series, and best nature book since Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  In the spring, when the birds are coming back, its especially good reading.

And who knows? Maybe it will inspire more people to get into animal rehabbing. I have a feeling Suzie Gilbert would find that most pleasing of all.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 Reprint edition (March 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061563137
  • Visit Suzie Gilbert’s website  for more info.

    I thought I was in Nirvana when, during my library tour the first day I started working here, my supervisor told me, “And you can take a book off the new books (pre-catalogued) shelves to read, as long as  you bring it back the next day, before it’s missed… I do it all the time.”

    While I’ve never taken her up on that (because I’m afraid I’d forget, or neglect, to bring it back the next day), I’m often one of the first to pounce on an interesting brand new book coming into the system – post-catalogued. My itchy HOLD finger can’t help it. If it’s a book I’ve read rave reviews about, or that just plain sounds interesting, in goes my library card number and on hold it goes, plopping on my desk in mere days. Such a sweet sound – almost as good as the sound review books make landing in my inbox at work or on my porch at home. What tips the scale is the review books don’t have to be returned.

    My itchy HOLD finger is activated, oh, probably three or four times a month (for new books I mean, we won’t mention older books…). Occasionally a little more, okay. I admit it. So often, at any given time my desk could serve as a decent New Books shelf. Only I’d bite anyone daring enough to peruse it.

    As for the patrons? If they’re as on top of what’s new and upcoming as I am they can put a copy on  hold too, yes? Usually a new book is on order by several libraries; it’s not like these go undiscovered by the majority of libraries in the system.

    So, I view this as a privilege of the profession, a profession in which perks get fewer and further between the more the economy takes a dive. As long as I try to be a little more conscientious about returning the newer books on time, is it so bad I put holds on multiple On Order books? Again, it’s not as though the patrons can’t do the same…

    Then again, as a staff member I get preferential treatment. My hold comes first, then our own library’s patrons. It’s only once our patrons have all had a turn that our books go to other libraries. By setting things up this way, is the library not telling me “Go ahead and put holds on new materials! We love you! We need you to read, read, read and be up on all the new books!”?

    Methinks it becomes an abuse of power when it comes to putting holds on book after book after book that’s On Order, getting several brand new books at a time, essentially blocking patrons from getting a chance at them first. Do I do that…? Well.  OKAY! Sometimes I do! But there are just so many good books out there. And. I. Want. Them. All.

    As a librarian, I pay no fines for overdue books. Another bonus that makes me clap and screech like a little girl. I, ahem, try not to abuse that… Well, no, not really. I know I do abuse it, and too often. And, yes, maybe I put holds on too many new materials. Specifically books, hardly ever anything else like DVDs, unless it’s a family-appropriate film – which there are all too few of – we and our kids can watch together. We’re always on the lookout for those, and the library gets multiple copies, unlike most of the books I’m interested in (non-bestsellers).

    It’s only recently I’ve started feeling any true compunction about my itchy hold finger. I guess you could say it started around the time our head of circulation sent ’round a general email to all employees regarding checking out too many new materials, not giving the patrons first crack at them. Coincidence? Not out of the realm of possibility. Though the big neon arrow he installed above my desk is a little distracting.

    So, how ethical is it for library employees to place holds on new materials the very second they see they’re either on order or somewhere in technical services being processed? When is it okay, and when does it become a transgression, an abuse of privilege?

    I honestly think I’m too blinded by sheer lust to answer this question without prejudice. Since I was a child – and a member of a monthly mail order book club that kept me watching for the mailman as though I were a dog, eager clamp onto his leg – books have been one of the few pure joys in my life, which I’m sure is true of a number of our patrons, too. A brand new book is intoxicating, filled with possibility… But sharing is also a virtue, something we should never let our greed eclipse.

    So, what’s the solution? When are we justified in using our ME FIRST! power, and when does that become an abuse of the system?

    I’ll think about it, and you think about it. If you have anything to share, please do. Just don’t beat me to the HOLD button and no one gets hurt…

    The Graveyard Book

    by Neil Gaiman

    Remember when you were around age 12 or 13, before life became  cluttered with boring adult things like paying bills, doing laundry, and making meals? Reading was so different then, a whole other experience.

    At that age I could curl up with a book and be so into the story it would block out all the rest of the world. It was transporting. I literally did not hear what went on around me. Must have driven my family nuts, but it was worth every precious minute.

    Once I had children everything changed. I still read, of course, but through conditioning one ear became permanently attuned to listen for a crying baby, or a disaster connected with said crying baby –  like falling and crashing noises,  never a positive thing.

    It’s a habit I still can’t shake, though my “baby” is now 12. Crying noises have, with some exceptions, been replaced with a combination of video game sound effects, a blaring TV and a constant stream of consciousness rambling about school, video games and complaints a brother or sister is LOOKING AT ME MAKE HIM/HER STOP!!!

    No matter how gripping a plot, completely falling into a story has become a rarity. A true loss. A big part of what made reading such an obsession all my life was taken away; I could no longer completely lose the world in a book, falling down the rabbit hole with Alice, desperate to know what would happen next.

    But… Over the weekend I had a breathtaking experience, a short but intense period in which the whole world – outside of a book – completely disappeared. I was reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, a novel meant for children aged 9 – 12, but never mind that. It was so magically wonderful I felt the same absorption I had as a child. I carried it with me everywhere, even walking around the house. Family members would talk to me, but had to repeat themselves two or three times before I finished a paragraph and could look up, impatience written all over my face.

    I took it with me in the car (I wasn’t driving, in case you’re worried…), on the way to my in-laws’ for Easter. And I finished on the trip there, feeling bereft once I’d turned that last page, devastated to have left the world of Nobody (“Bod”) Owens and the spirits in the cemetery, his constant companions since he was a toddler.

    Immediately, I turned around and told my sons (my daughter, at 16, doesn’t enjoy fantasy), “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!,” with enough volume and conviction they looked up from their gaming systems, surprised  to learn the book that had so absorbed me was aimed at their age group, that this was what had made mom bump into doors reading and walking simultaneously.

    I wanted them to experience the same feeling, to know what the unbreakable spell of reading an exceptionally gripping book felt like. My feelings of irritation with the internet and gaming age came to a head, realizing the activity of reading – so important to me at their age – wasn’t anywhere near as vital to them as it had always been to me.

    They’d been involved in books before (the Tunnels series, and before that the Calvin and Hobbes collections of cartoons), but connecting them with riveting books became more and more difficult the older they got. Gone were the days we’d come to the library every couple weeks, walking out the door with armloads of books they’d pore over for hours. Now it’s all gaming all the time, no matter how I try to push reading. It just can’t compete with crashing cars, visual stimulation happening in front of them rather than in their own imagination.

    But with Neil Gaiman, maybe they’ll turn a corner. I’ll require they read the first chapter or two, crossing my fingers it captures them the way it did me. And from there? Gaiman’s written so much more, so many graphic novels that seem a good transition from loud visual stimulation to using more imagination.

    Being a librarian, it makes me feel a failure I can’t convince my children reading is transporting. Not with all the competition out there. And they’ve just never been as drawn to it was I was, growing up in a bustling suburb at a time when the digital age has completely changed life as we knew it. I was raised in a rural community, a tiny, quiet town that bored me to tears. Without books I’d have been lost. But I had a library card, and spent every dime of my allowance on books.

    I wonder, would my priorities have differed had I grown up in this century as opposed to my own? I’d like to think not, but I can’t say for sure.

    One thing I do know, though it’s hard getting through to kids it’s also crucial to at least try to raise them as readers. Even if they only read on electronic devices, I don’t care. Reading is reading. And I want them to experience every bit of it while they can, before their own lives shift to adulthood and all the responsibilities that come with it.  Maybe the key is to read books aimed at them, finding those that rivet me. Maybe there is still hope they’ll put down the games and pick up books. At least I can’t say I didn’t try.

    Reading level: Ages 9-12

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher:HarperCollins; Later Printing edition (September 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060530928