Sunday, January 22, 2012

2011 Nat'l Book Critics Circle nominees

From the LA Times Jacket Copy blog at

"The National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its 2011 book awards at a public ceremony on Saturday in New York City. Two Southern California writers are among those up for the awards, which will be presented on March 8 in Manhattan.

"It Calls You Back," an intergenerational tale of life in and out of Los Angeles gangs by Luis Rodriguez, a follow-up to his classic memoir "Always Running," is among the finalists for autobiography. Jonathan Lethem, who holds the Roy E. Disney Chair in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is a finalist for his collection of critical essays, "The Ecstasy of Influence." Another finalist, the novel "Stone Arabia" by Dana Spiotta, is set in the San Fernando Valley.

Awards will be made in six categories: fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, poetry and criticism. For 37 years, the National Book Critics Circle has annually presented awards to books of excellence. Previous winners include Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, John Ashberry, Jennifer Egan, Alex Ross, Roberto Bolano, Susan Sontag, Martin Amis and Junot Diaz.

The 30 2011 NBCC finalists include many who have been previously recognized for their work: two Pulitzer Prize winners, one winner of the Booker Prize, two previously NBCC award winners, and one author who has received the National Humanities Medal. Yet the NBCC board also recognized two debuts: Teju Cole's novel, "Open City," and "Pulphead," a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

L.A. Times book critic David L. Ulin and staff writer Carolyn Kellogg sit on the 24-member board of the National Book Critics Circle.


Teju Cole, "Open City"

Jeffrey Eugenides, "The Marriage Plot"

Alan Hollinghurst, "Stranger's Child"

Edith Pearlmam, "Binocular Vision"

Dana Spiotta, "Stone Arabia"


Amanda Foreman, "A World On Fire"

James Gleick, "The Information"

Adam Hochschild, "To End All Wars"

Maya Jasanoff, "Liberty's Exiles"

John Jeremiah Sullivan, "Pulphead"


Diana Ackerman, "One Hundred Names for Love"

Mira Bartok, "Memory Palace"

Luis Rodriguez, "It Calls You Back"

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, "Harlem is Nowhere"

Deb Olin Unferth, "Revolution"


Mary Gabriel, "Love and Capital"

John Lewis Gaddis, "George F. Kennan"

Paul Hendrickson, "Hemingway's Boat"

Manning Marable, "Malcolm X"

Ezra Vogel, "Deng Xiaoping"


David Bellos, "Is That A Fish In Your Ear"

Geoff Dyer, "Otherwise Known As the Human Condition"

Jonathan Lethem, "The Ecstasy of Influence"

Dubravka Ugresic, "Karaoke Culture"

Ellen Willis, "Out of the Vinyl Deeps"


Forrest Gander, " Core Samples..."

Aracelis Girmay, "Kingdom Animalia"

Laura Kasischke, "Space, In Chains"

Yusef Komunyakaa, "The Chameleon Couch"

Bruce Smith, "Devotions"

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo (Norwegian crime)

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

I've heard his name over and over, but this was the first Nesbo title I've read.  Part of the draw was that it seems like everyone who reads his books raves about the detective Harry Hole, who features in several of the books.  I like characters who show up in series.  Arkady Renko, Kurt Wallander, Kinsey Milhone, Harry Bosch...all of these become so familar in series form that you can almost know how they think.  (I dropped the Javier Falcon series after awhile...just too gory, too ick!) 

So, I wasn't disappointed with The Redbreast, if anything, I was a bit surprised at just how complicated the storyline was. Nesbo mixes present day Norway with WWII fighting by Norwegian soldiers, and strings a thread from the fighting to a present day assassination attempt.  Stolen identities, a manipulative Secretary of Foreign Affairs, a group of skinhead Neo-Nazis, a rare rifle from South Africa, and departmental battles keep the narrative moving all over the place.  There is never a point when the reader can claim "I figured it out!"  Okay, maybe Bernadette could, but other than way.

I'm not going to go into a formal review....I picked this up as part of my goof-off time reading and enjoyed it.  It's won of ton of awards, and for once I'd think someone could make a movie of this rather than the inevitable Larsson books.  Great mystery, great series, good stuff!

Purchased at the Book Exchange in Los Osos, California.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Grip, A Memoir of Fierce Attractions by Nina Hamberg

"I had to search for my voice.  It was hiding."

Yes, memoir.  It's important to note that because reading this feels much like a novel.  I was turning pages quickly, anxious to see what happened next.  Being that it is nonfiction, however, makes it that much more frightening. 

While the book is focused on violence committed against one woman, specifically, it raises questions about women and violence in general, especially in regard to victimization.  What makes someone a victim?  And does that label mark someone forever?

In the book, Hamberg recounts a childhood that isn't all bad.  Her parents don't get along, but she seems to have the necessities of life.  As she gets older, her parents divorce, and life gets far more complicated.  Yet, that in itself is not unusual either.  What is unusual is the attitudes that surround her life, especially when she seeks help from those most trusted to her and most responsible for her safety.

The first incident is a Peeping Tom outside her bedroom, rattling the windows.  She seeks help from her brother in another room, who ignores her pleas for help.  In the morning, footprints are visible.  Her sense of security was shaken, and the only question asked of her was "are you going to obsess about this all day"?  Not long after, she thought there was an intruder, and the police were called by her mother.  They didn't investigate much, just assuming she was jumpy.  Even her mother regarded her with "the same kind of tight smile she used when I was six and knocked over a glass of milk at the dinner table."

Shortly after this, Hamberg was attacked by a man in her bed who eventually stabbed her and left.  When the police came, they seemed disinterested in investigating the crime--they were sure it was an unhappy boyfriend that was responsible.  The perpetrator has never been caught.

What makes the book so riveting isn't that these crimes occurred-we are all exposed to endless reruns of Law & Order that spill the gory details.  More interesting is how Hamberg's family dealt with her.  Her mother was, for the most part, inconvenienced by her daughter's troubles, and any time they discussed them she either implied that her daughter was imagining things or she would flirt with the police officers who responded.  The attack that left Hamberg scarred turned into a situation where the mother made it all about herself and her own distress.

Hamberg then makes a conscious effort from then on out to protect herself, including becoming trained in self-defense.  Yet even with her physical power increased and her mind practiced on how to recognize and avoid harm, she discovers that those skills aren't enough.  As a film student, she rails against what is essentially a tradition in her classes: exploitation and violence of women as a way to generate interest.  Her classmates attempt to outdo each other in horrific scenes, that all are labeled as art so as to avoid censorship.

Even in her personal life, despite her awful experiences and a world-view that is wise to danger, she finds herself in precarious situations.  So awful that I didn't want to read any further.  I really wanted to put it away, because the nature of evil against women and children is not pleasant.  And I did, for a day or two. Yet I picked it back up, because I think there's a more serious question involved that needs to be evaluated.  Beyond what happened to her on an event by event basis, what about her emotional anchorage?  Where was her family?  Why were they so quick to demean her by ignoring her and minimizing events? 

As a parent, I had to continue to ask myself, why did no one listen?  Is there something I could be doing that is preventing me from hearing what my children are trying to tell me?  Especially mothers of daughters:  how much active listening takes place?  Could it be that our modern lives are so crazy busy and stressful that we tune out anything that could be "bad", just to avoid dealing with it?  Or does the violence we see thrown at us on television (Law & Order again) desensitize us to danger that could be present in the real world?

All the questions raised by this book make me think it would be valuable to use in a school setting.  In today's fractured families, perhaps there is a need for some sort of curriculum to let young women know that they are not crazy, not imagining things, and that they can reach out for help if others let them down.  Most of all, I appreciate that this book gives a former victim a voice: so often perpetrators of violence minimize their actions, or blame someone else (usually the victim), or manipulate the facts to portray themselves differently.  In fact, many criminals manage to use the same tactics as Hamberg's family (disinterest and distraction) to get away with terrible crimes. 

Seeing Hamberg step away from this pattern and how she did it is the takeaway that could be useful to many women. It's not a formula book, there's no "do this and you'll feel better".  But reading how she came through these experiences emotionally stronger makes for powerful reading.

Special thanks to Anna Shay of Route One Press for the Review Copy.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Irish Journal by Heinrich Boll (travel memoir)

Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz

At a pub before evening mass, Heinrich Boll observes a shrewish woman harassing and threatening a hungry child that she thinks is using too much vinegar on his chips. By chance Boll notes that "the savior was approaching"...a banged-up brute who pretends to kiss her hand, offers her a ten-shilling note, then interjects, "May I request you, Madam, to regard these ten shillings as sufficient payment for the six drops of vinegar?"

The woman takes the money, embarrassed, and the man left her with one last reminder, "May I moreover remind you that it is time for the evening service? Please convey my respectful regards to the priest."

Oh snap.  Such a moment captured is one of the unforgettable scenes in Boll's Irish Journal, a collection of essays he wrote about his visit to the Emerald Isle in the 1950s that comes across much like a love letter to the Irish people.  In the event above, he doesn't just leave it at his own observation, he brings it to the reader's consciousness, by making us wonder about the benefactor:

"The man who lives poetry instead of writing it pays ten thousand percent interest. Where was he, the dark, blood-stained drunk, who had had enough string for his jacket but not for his shoes?"

Just outside, in the same scene as above, he depicts the buildings:
"King John's Castle reared grimly out of the darkness, a tourist attraction hemmed in by tenements from the twenties, and the tenements of the twentieth century looked more dilapidated than King John's Castle of the thirteenth; the dim light from the weak bulbs could not compete with the massive shadow of the castle, everything was submerged in sour darkness."

The image he creates mixes characters caught between faith and tradition and modern change, yet still capable of vast generosity in the face of poverty.  Anger mixes with empathy, and somehow the way he connects the fight over "vinegar" to the "sour" light makes it contain so much depth.  And of course, the bum's reminder to the woman about mass, a dig at her less-than-charitable spirit, shows how Boll could see the irony in the situation.

Many of the images that Boll writes about are not far off from our pop culture image of Ireland, a place romanticized by many as a place of quaint cottages and endless green.  (Those of us unfortunate enough to have seen the film, PS I Love You have further embellished that image with scenes of Gerard Butler and Jeffrey Dean Morgan meandering the countryside, spilling charm everywhere.  Neither of whom are Irish.) Having come off a semester of Irish Studies, I realize that the reality is far different, yet the timing of Boll's trip and his ability to write about the people of Ireland without delving into the politics make this a lovely read. 

In "Skeleton of a Human Habitation", Boll writes of the abandoned village he discovers on a walk with his family.  "Everything not made of stone gnawed away by rain, sun, and wind--and time, which patiently trickles over everything; twenty-four great drops of time a day, the acid that eats everything away as imperceptibly as resignation."  He describes the village much as a human body, with spine and heart and limbs--he puts the church as the head.  He observes that the town has been left alone and not plundered, and how the doorways and walls, while decrepit, still remain.  Only his own children, outsiders (the Bolls are German), attempt to raze what they can.  It seems that he's making a distinction between the identity of a nation towards its own things, and notes that "this, then, is what a human habitation looks like when it has been left in peace after death."  How many places permit this return to the soil?  Is it perhaps that the soil feels alive, a dignified presence deserving of respect?

Boll draws attention to generous train conductors that help out when they can't change money, and good-hearted people determined to help without question when they are short on funds.  He even describes something quite new to me:  the private drinking booth.  Inside it's leather curtain, "the drinker locks himself in like a horse; to be alone with whisky and pain, with belief and unbelief; he lowers himself deep below the surface of time, into the caisson of passivity, as long as his money lasts; till he is compelled to float up again to the surface of time, to take part somehow in the weary paddling: meaningless, helpless movements, since every vessel is destined to drift toward the dark waters of the Styx." 
Incidental details make Boll's journeys rich, and he describes them in a voice that is simple and clear.  I say that because I've been recently reading other German authors, namely Bernhard, Kafka, and Trakl, and at times I feel frustrated by my lack of understanding.  At the time I was reading this, Irish Journal, I also read Boll's The Bread of Our Early Years, just to see how different his memoir voice was from his narrative voice.  Both are deep reads, full of subtle clues, yet with surprisingly uncluttered prose.  Fortunately, Boll wrote a great many titles, and I'm eager to delve into more. 

As a side note, I found it interesting that the translator was the same for both books.  This led me to discover that Leila Vennewitz was pretty much the only English translator for Bolls, and received numerous awards for her translations.  In an interview in 2006, she stated that "she had always wanted to be a translator, she never made a major blunder in her work, she never had much trouble with editors and she preferred to take her time on each project. Vennewitz preferred to view the translator as "the boss," not unlike an orchestra conductor. She never had an agent and she pioneered the ability of translators to gain copyright for their own translations. She maintained she had always followed the early advice of a fellow translator: "Be bold." (BCBW 2007 archive, "Translation")

It should be said that while the essays were written in the 1950s, he did add an Epilogue dated 1967.  In this, he does acknowledge more of the political problems that were developing and the change present all over Europe, but seems focused on not taking a political position.  He has a bit to say about how the birth control pill will change Ireland, and it struck me as a bit unexpected, maybe naive.  Because of his love of all things Irish, especially the children, I wonder if he was heartbroken when some of the little children he so admired died in hunger strikes years later.  How pained he must have been.

From this all, of course, Ireland is still number one on my wish-list destination, and Boll's personal biography is the next thing I'm going to hunt for.
Special thanks to Nathan at Melville House for the Review Copy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Soundtrack of our Books" - article on coordinating music with literature

On the Millions website (, you can find all sorts of book-related discussions and reviews.  The following link is particularly intriguing. Sharon Steel wrote about publishers and authors who propose playlists that are directly (or indirectly) related to their characters and books.

What do you think?  Would you want your e-reader to pop up with music at certain moments of a scene?  Do you want to know what music the author was inspired by?  Is music too personally subjective to have presented as part of the 'package'?  In my case, I hate it when a book cover shows an actual person;  it interferes with how I picture things.  Along that line, I don't think I'd want a music tie-in necessarily...and I would especially dislike being pushed to understand a character by listening to their music (I would want that to be the writer's job).  Wouldn't it open up a whole new industry, catering to book interpretation, which would then be subject to costing the reader money?  Optional, maybe.  But required? No way.


Monday, January 9, 2012

The Joy of Books video..and why my Kindle can't dance

Sort of the coolest thing online, IMHO...  This was on Jason Boog's Galleycat blog this morning.

My Kindle can't dance.

Surface Effects in Winter Wind, poetry by Tobi Cogswell

"Where kisses are given
and kisses received,
the charted course of
coffee and the smell
of jasmine outside
sweet as gold."

---from "This Kitchen"

Real people inhabit the world of Tobi Cogswell's poems in her collection, "Surface Effects in Winter Wind"---they breathe, eat, and sleep in a dreamy reality made beautiful by lovely word choices and unique images.  I loved the sense of life that the poems contain.  Not always happy life, but a life that is never lived with reluctance.

The most revealing is "Family Portrait," where Cogswell begins with the flat image of a staged family portrait: "They are frozen in time, not like the peeling wallpaper behind them, ticking off the years with nonchalant carelessness."  But she doesn't leave it there, in the place where "affection is not present."  Instead, she reveals what is happening off-camera and how the family history goes far deeper than the surface picture.  They are examined in past, present, and future, revealing that while "they are clean, stiff, poor and worn as the shirts", their future holds a certain stability made apparent in the sauce "always on the stove, the smiles always just out of reach".  In just a few verses, she's recreated their legacy and proved to be far more accurate than any superficial portrait could ever display.

The subject of family comes up often in her verses, such as when a generous tip becomes an emblem of "a good kitchen table with smiles, a pinch or two and misbehaving" in "Saturday at the Farmer's Market".  This poem journeys from the noisy market to a private room, capturing the sounds that start with a crowd full of noise that decreases incrementally until the last stanza is simply a whisper. She contrasts dandelions with roses, talks of music and avocados, and reveals a core of affection that travels the entire route.

"The Boy at Cannon Beach" is probably my favorite, simply for the images of a foggy California beach, with a sky like a "sodden marshmallow".  In it, a solitary boy, lost in thought, explores the beach in that singular way that can never be explained; a stream of consciousness that can be imagined but never shared or understood.  He examines "the hands that will save him, his own private clock in his own human time". As he continues, "damp footprints remind him and everyone that we love the best we can and then we're gone". The universal nature of the sea, the way it invites somber reflection and daydreams, seems to contrast with the what we may imagine as immature-the nature of a child-leaving us with a complicated depiction of age and time.  And given that the image is one of quiet, it's only afterwards that you realize she never actually uses the words "silence", "quiet", or "alone".  It's all inferred, not by synonyms but by images. 

The entire collection features a thread of romance that appears as a confident assurance of loyal companionship.  A hasty gambler, an angry waitress, and images of bacon make surprising appearances in poems that never feel too precious or aloof, but explored with warmth.

Special thanks to Kindred Spirit Press for the Review Copy.

Sick of the word "awesome"? He is too....,0,246046,full.column

A British poet makes an excellent point about the pervasive use of a meaningless word...Los Angeles Times link.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

January 2012 Australian Literature Challenge from Reading Matters

If you haven't signed up for the continuing Eastern European/Russian Reading Challenge for 2012 here, or the amazingly ignored 2012 Mediterranean Review Challenge (also here), shame on you!  Get with it!  You know you need that push to read more!

Russia is big this year:  Book Expo America made it the theme. The Mediterranean region is also full of topical events.  Jump in!  See the tabs up above for links to enter...

Now, if you'd prefer less committment, Kim at Reading Matters is hosting an Australian Literature Month Reading Challenge for January.  Just one month to read one or twenty titles from Australian authors or set in AU.  Sign up here:

Best of all, she has these cute little badges to show participation (you can select one or all of them):
I went with the Kookaboora bird...he looks like he's got some serious attitude!  Anyway, see the link to read instructions and find out titles you may enjoy.  A few that I'd recommend are below:

Murray Bail, Eucalyptus.  A quiet, peaceful book about a botanist determined to keep suitors away from his lovely daughter.  The games he plays rebuff most men, but she manages to keep amused in her own way.  Sweet, lovely, beautiful.  Textual Xanax.

Tim Winton (any and all).  Cloudstreet is probably his most famous, and appropriately so. Some scenes of pure joy and utter heartbreak, mixed with complicated times and intertwining families.  Dirt Music and The Riders are both my favorites too.  Breath was so-so.  Blueback was preachy. The Turning is an excellent collection of short stories, as is In the Winter Dark and Minimum of Two.  (Reviews of these are on the tab above for fiction, if you want more details)

The True Story of the Kelly Gang is a classic, you can't miss with it.

So, get out that new calendar and try to fit in more literature.  Your brain will get a break from ugly reality, you'll explore new places, learn some Aussie slang (just don't EVER EVER suggest putting a shrimp on the barbie---Aussies are not amused by Crocodile Dundee impersonators).

Tuck a paperback in your tote, or buy a Kindle and fill it up.  Just having it with you increases your reading all the more.  Even audiobooks count, so fill up a long commute with an audio book!