Saturday, January 31, 2009

We all want to help Buddha feel better, don't we?

My favorite headline of the week:

"Buddha feel better when youth throng bookshops and not malls"

So, was this an insight gained through deep meditation? Not really. Judging from the article to which the headline was attached, the "Buddha" referred to is actually Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal in India, and the occasion for his remarks was the opening of the 33rd Kolkata Book Fair. "I'm not against shopping malls," he clarified, "but I feel good when I find young men and women thronging bookshops." Evidently the Kolkata Book Fair must be a fairly prominent event -- this was the 33rd edition -- because one of those present for its opening was Alexander McCall Smith, author of the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series.

For more about how to make Buddha feel better, you can consult this article from the Press Trust of India. And if you meet Buddha on the road, tell him we have a pretty good section of Buddhism titles at Accent on Books.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

"Runs. Ah, runs."
For some reason, the final words of Rabbit, Run have stayed with me all these years, decades after I first read the book in high school. Maybe the idea of a man desperately trying to escape what he saw as his dead-end life held a strong appeal for my teenage self. For whatever reason, it was my introduction to a writer whose uncanny way with words has repeatedly astonished me over the decades, especially considering the volume of his output.

Updike, who died Tuesday, was probably most closely identified with the four "Rabbit novels," and similar books portraying the disquiet and frustration simmering below the pavement of the suburbs. Yet, in the middle and later part of his career he also wrote novels laid in Africa, South America, the historical past, and, in one case, the future. And, of course, in addition to his novels, his more than sixty published volumes include short stories, poetry, essays, and literary and art criticism.

Considering Updike's longtime close association with The New Yorker, it isn't surprising that that magazine's website has an extensive tribute to him at the moment with remembrances from, among others, Joyce Carol Oates, E. L. Doctorow, Richard Ford, Paul Theroux, and Julian Barnes. There is also a list of more than 800 pieces Updike wrote for the magazine, many of them freely available online.

Elsewhere, there was this tribute from Philip Roth, one of Updike's few contemporaries who rival his literary eminence: "John Updike is our time's greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Newberys, Caldecotts, and a Whole Lot More

It may not have the cachet of the Oscars or the Golden Globes, but for children's books authors and illustrators one of the most eagerly awaited events of the year is the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association, when announcements are made of the winners and finalists for a number of awards.

The best known of these are the Newbery Medal, which goes to the author of "the most distinguished contribution to children's literature," and the Caldecott Medal, which goes to the illustrator of "the most distinguished American picture book for children." (There are "honor books" -- or runners-up -- for each award.) This year's Newbery Medal went to Neal Gaiman for his novel, The Graveyard Book. Gaiman, a well-known writer of fantasy and graphic novels for adults, showed he could write for children as well with his imaginative novel of a young boy raised by ghosts. The Caldecott Medal went to Beth Krommes, the illustrator of The House in the Night, a dreamlike book with a poetic text by Susan Marie Swanson.

There are a number of other awards bestowed as well, with some books winning multiple honors. One of those multiple winners was a particular favorite of mine: We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. This beautifully written and magnificently illustrated book won the Coretta Scott King author award, was a runner-up for the Coretta Scott King illustrator award, and was the winner of the Robert F. Sibert medal. The King awards are given to outstanding African American authors and illustrators, and the Sibert medal is for the most distinguished "informational book" for children.

A complete list of the various award winners can be found at the ALA's website.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Of Charlton Heston and Chicken Pox

Speaking of the power of reading fiction (see previous entry), Ann Patchett believes in it. This is hardly surprising since she's a novelist herself. (Her acclaimed works include Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, and Run, all available at Accent on Books.) She is also a member of the board of the Nashville Public Library and, according to a piece she recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal, she's seen first hand the increasing interest in reading in general and fiction in particular. "We are a hardy bunch, we readers," she says. "The rumor is we'll play around with a Kindle or an I-Book for awhile but eventually give up on the whole endeavor, the logic being who would want to read a book when there are so many enticing video games to play and Web sites to surf. But I'm more of the Charlton Heston school: you'll get my paperback of One Hundred Years of Solitude away from me when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands."

As for the generation now coming to adulthood, yes, they are the generation of the iPod and the smart phone, but they are also the generation of the midnight Harry Potter parties -- a hopeful sign since, Patchett says, "Like the chicken pox, getting infected by the desire to read is best when it hits us early."

Ann Patchett's article can be found here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The First Reader

Now that he's got a new job, Barack Obama might find his reading time somewhat curtailed. ("Hey, Cabinet Secretaries, talk amongst yourselves -- I'm finishing the new Toni Morrison.") While this may be necessary for the country it may be frustrating for Obama, and a loss for the publishing industry, which has repeatedly picked up -- and jumped on -- hints regarding what he may be reading (an example being an entry on this blog last May).

Obama is obviously not the first President who's a reader, and, indeed, comparisons between him and his immediate predecessor on this count may be somewhat overstated. Yet, as Michiko Kakutani recently pointed out in a New York Times article, there may be a difference between the type of reading Obama and George W. Bush are attracted to, and its purpose. At least as President, Bush seemed to gravitate towards what Kakutani terms "prescriptive" reading: books pushing a particular policy or philosophy towards which Bush was already gravitating. Obama, with his more literary bent, seems drawn toward philosophy, as well as fiction, literature and drama, which has the purpose of teaching more how to think than what to think. This type of reading both reinforces, and is reinforced by, Obama's own experiences as a writer.

How this will affect his Presidency remains to be seen, of course, and would probably be impossible to measure anyway. Yet Obama's reading background seems, to me, at least to be encouraging. Acquiring information is one thing. Knowing how to evaluate it, and what to do with it, is quite another.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Inaugural Poet

Robert Frost. Maya Angelou. Miller Williams. Elizabeth Alexander joined that list when she became the fourth poet chosen to write a poem for a presidential inauguration and read it at the event. She was selected in December to participate in President-elect Obama's inauguration this coming Tuesday.

This will not be Alexander's first connection with politics. Her father, Clifford Alexander, served as Secretary of the Army and Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her brother Mark has been an important advisor to the President-elect. However, this is not simply a case of political patronage, as Alexander is an esteemed poet whose choice for this honor has been widely praised. Her five collections of poetry include a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and she has won numerous awards and fellowships. She is currently a professor of African-American Studies at Yale University.

Upon learning of her selection, Alexander released a statement which read, in part, "...I understand that as a country we stand poised to make tremendous choices about our collective future. The distillation of language in poetry, its precision, can help us see sharply in the midst of may conundrums....Poetry is not meant to cheer; rather, poetry challenges, and moves us towards transformation. Language distilled and artfully arranged shifts our experience of the words -- and the worldviews -- we live in."

More about Elizabeth Alexander can be found at her website. Her inaugural poem is scheduled to be released in book form in early February, and will be available at Accent on Books.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

John Mortimer, 1923-2009

John Clifford Mortimer always wanted to be a writer and an actor. But his barrister father strongly discouraged it, telling him, "My dear boy, have some consideration for your unfortunate wife...[the law] gets you out of the house." So Mortimer became a lawyer instead, in 1948.

That hardly stopped his writing career, however. For the next 35 years Mortimer managed to follow both paths, practicing law and writing for the stage, screen, and television, as well as novels. (He retired from his law practice in 1984.)

Though his works were varied and numerous he is best known in this country for creating the barrister Horace Rumpole, immortalized on television by Leo McKern. Rumpole began life as the lead character in a single television play, which was later expanded into a television series, as well as a number of novels. The most recent novel, Rumpole Misbehaves, came out in paperback this past November and is available at Accent on Books.

John Mortimer died earlier this week after a long illness. He was 85. A BBC obituary can be found here.

Said Mortimer's longtime friend and neighbor, the writer Melvyn Bragg, "There was a whiff of erudition and scandal always around John and it was completely seductive and he'll be badly, badly missed."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Now In Paperback: Asheville, The Mughal Empire, & The Monkey King in Heaven

Waiting for the paperback? Here are a few titles for which you need to wait no longer.

Time Is A River, by Mary Alice Monroe. This South Carolina author has developed a growing audience through novels such as Sweetgrass and The Beach House, and her children's book, Turtle Summer. In her latest novel, set in the Asheville area, a woman recovering from illness finds healing and strength when she discovers the diary of a legendary and scandalous figure from the 1920's. Available in both trade and mass market paperback.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. A rare book expert has been given a job to work with a priceless Haggadah, and we discover the volume's remarkable history, from Seville in the 1480's to Sarajevo during World War II. Brooks' previous novel, March, won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Translator, by Daoud Hari. I wrote a blog entry last August about this compelling Darfur memoir. It's now available in paperback.

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie. The Mughal Empire and Renaissance Florence are connected through the adventures of an intrepid traveler and a mysterious woman. Another audacious, captivating and magical work from the remarkable Rushdie.

The Great Awakening, by Jim Wallis. Wallis is a leading figure in the Christian evangelical community, and his earlier book, God's Politics, became a central work in the recent debate over the place of religion in American society. This new book moves the issues forward as Wallis proposes seven commitments people of faith can make to help create a more just world.

Long Time Leaving, by Roy Blount, Jr. Possibly no other contemporary writer has more easily -- or more hilariously -- crossed the Mason-Dixon divide than this master essayist. If you only know Blount from his radio work, pick up this anthology of his recent writings to discover what a national treasure he is.

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. At Accent on Books we don't carry a large number of graphic novels, but this one is a breakthrough: it was a finalist for a National Book Award, and it was the first graphic novel to win the Printz award, which can be considered the "young adult Newbery." In it, the experiences of a Chinese-American boy trying to fit in at his new school are compared to the efforts of the Monkey King trying to join the immortals in heaven. Fascinating and innovative.

Speaking of the Newbery Award, the two most recent winners are now in paperback: Susan Patron's 2006 novel The Higher Power of Lucky; and, from 2007, Good Masters, Sweet Ladies, poetic portraits of medieval life by Laura Amy Schlitz.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A "New" Tolkien, and Pooh: The Sequel

Word came from England earlier this week of two books due to be released later this year which each have a connection to the work of very popular 20th century authors.

First came the announcement of the release of yet more early writings from J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings. In this case it's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, a retelling of Norse legends in narrative verse that Tolkien worked on in the 1920s and 30s. (As it happens, I'm working on a play about Gudrun, so I have a personal interest in this.)

Separately, it was announced that the estate of A. A. Milne has for the first time authorized a sequel to The House at Pooh Corner. It is called, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, and the author is David Benedictus, who in the past has worked with the Milne estate on audio adaptations of the original Pooh books.

There is no word yet as to when these books will be published in the United States, but it is presumably only a matter of time before they are available in this country and, of course, at Accent on Books.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I guess God wasn't part of this conversation....

It appears Neale Donald Walsch has made a wee mistake.

Walsch, author of the megaselling "Conversations With God" series of books, recently posted an essay on, a popular spiritual website. In it, he wrote of an incident that occurred twenty years ago at his son's kindergarten Christmas pageant.

Or did it?

Turns out Walsch's essay was an almost verbatim copy of an article by a writer named Candy Chand which was first published ten years ago in the magazine Clarity, and has been republished several times since. When Chand became aware of Walsch's essay she contacted Beliefnet, who removed the article from their site pending an investigation.

Confronted with the evidence, Walsch apologized for the "serious error," but said his appropriation of the material was unintentional. He said he had written and told the story so many times over the years that he had somehow "internalized it as my own experience." "I am chagrined and astonished that my mind could play such a trick on me," he added.

His explanation, however, did not fill Candy Chand with the Christmas spirit. "I'm not buying it," she said, and added that she found it odd that the man who had engaged in so many conversations with God had forgotten the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."

When Walsch offered to resign from Beliefnet's roster of bloggers, the website promptly agreed.

A New York Times article on the controversy can be found here. Beliefnet's statement on the matter is here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

New Arrivals: Larks, Termites and Loony Bins

Now that the holidays are over, what better way to start the new year than with a new book? While winter is a relatively slow time in the publishing world, new works do continue to appear. Here are a few of the latest now on the shelves at Accent on Books (hardcovers, unless otherwise noted).

Lark & Termite, by Jane Anne Phillips. The first book in nine years from this wonderful writer. It's a novel set in the early 1950's, with a narrative that alternates between West Virginia and wartime Korea. The title characters are sister and brother, part of a most unusual family.

Things I've Been Silent About, by Azar Nafisi. This new book by the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran provides background and context for the earlier work, which inspired and fascinated countless readers. Here, the focus is on her childhood and her family, a group of brilliant but flawed individuals dealing with both the richness and the compromises of life before, during and after the Islamic revolution in Iran.

Promises of Change, by Joan Medlicott (paperback). The eighth book in the ever-popular Covington series, by the Barnardsville writer who has developed a national following. Change indeed is in the air when Max's estranged son Zachary arrives in Covington from India with his pregnant wife, Sarina. Medlicott's many fans will find their favorite characters challenged in new and intriguing ways.

Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin. "Autism made school and social life hard, but it made animals easy." This quote from Temple Grandin sums up the fascination and admiration she inspires as a person with autism who has become one of the nation's most renowned and respected experts on animal behavior. Her latest book is an eminently practical volume about how to treat animals -- pets, farm animals, wildlife -- in ways that respect their needs and well-being rather than just our own.

Voluntary Madness, by Norah Vincent. Three years ago, this intrepid journalist created a sensation with Self-Made Man, her chronicle of disguising herself and living eighteen months as a male. While the experience produced a bestselling book, it also led to a deep depression, and a "year lost and found in the loony bin" (to quote this book's subtitle). Vincent recounts her experiences of that year and her encounter with mental health care in America, both as a patient and as an observer.

Eclipse, by Richard North Patterson. Patterson has long been known as a writer of intelligent and politically engaged thrillers, and his latest is no exception. It's the story of a California lawyer who travels to Africa to defend the leader of a protest movement against murder charges. Nationalism, geopolitics and the world's dependence on oil all come into play in a book full of both ideas and page-turning excitement.