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Quite the World, Isn't It?

National Book Award finalists named

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 National Book Awards finalists (see any of your personal favorites on there?):

FICTION
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton &
Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

NONFICTION
David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search
for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf)

YOUNG PEOPLE'S LITERATURE
Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)

POETRY
Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press) Read More 
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Terry Teachout on Louis Armstrong

Every now and then a nonfiction writer gets lucky and stumbles across a treasure trove previously unavailable to other writers on a topic. That happened to Terry Teachout, the (sometimes controversial) culture critic for the Wall Street Journal and an inveterate blogger.

Teachout's trove? The private tape recordings of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, which imbue his new biography of "Satchmo" with an intimacy not available to earlier writers on Armstrong's life. He talked about it with me for a profile that went live yesterday at Publishers Weekly.
“To people who know about Armstrong in the general way that most of us know about Armstrong, I think they're going to be surprised by a lot of this book,” Teachout says, pointing to Armstrong's own underappreciated skills as a writer (he wrote two memoirs), his dealings with the Chicago mob, his pot smoking, or that his “career was short-circuited because of lip damage that caused him to withdraw from performing for years before he became famous.”
Armstrong led a fascinating life, and was one of the first African American artists to enter mainstream pop culture. The book is due out in December - PW targets the book industry, so these pieces are published before books go on sale. So plenty of time to put it on your holiday list. Read More 
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On Ishiguro, and the pitfalls of unresolved fiction

My review of Kazuo Ishiguro's collection of short stories, Nocturnes ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer today, and I ended up disappointed with the book.

A recurring theme in Ishiguro's work is the enigma of unresolved plots, and unresolved relationships. He takes slices of lives and weaves broader stories from them, most successfully in Remains of the Day. But reading a series of short stories that all end in various shades of ambiguity just gets tiring. Rather than waiting for a surprise, you just wait for the end, like the train getting into your local station. You know it will get there, and you know when, so it's awfully hard to get too fired up about it.  Read More 
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Hadrian, before the wall and after

Postings, as you may have noticed, have been light around here lately. I have a little over two months to go before submitting The Fear Within to my publisher, Rutgers University Press, and so have been nose deep in communists, anti-communists and all sorts of post-World War Two dramas.

But I'm nearing the end of some non-research reading that is quite good - Anthony Everitt's Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome, which came out earlier this month. Ancient Rome is one of the gaps in my reading/knowledge bank, so I've found this to be quite illuminating. Relying heavily on primary sources, Everitt has written an engaging history depicting life in the Roman Empire leading up to Hadrian's rise, and then his leadership that brought about a rare period of stability - and some notable atrocities, particularly against Jews who were staging an uprising in the Middle East.

The New Yorker found fault with Everitt's relatively limited details on Hadrian himself, though the brief review points out that there isn't much material available. Historians are inherently limited by the material, and it's hard to fault Everitt for the paucity of details preserved over the centuries. And the book is touted as the first in-depth look at Hadrian in some 80 years, which in itself makes it worth a look.

So if you're interested in ancient history, this would be a good book to pick up. If you're interested in history and, like me, don't have a grounding the Roman Empire, this can help fill a gap. Read More 
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Celebrate Banned Books Week: Read something radical

There are many anomalies in American life, but one that has always stymied me is the compulsion by some to try to ban books. Usually it's social conservatives fearing Little Johnny or Suzie might encounter some naughty bits in a novel. But sometimes it's progressives offended -- or fearing to offend -- by inappropriate depictions of minorities.

Neither is defensible. In fact, I can't envision any reason why any book should ever be banned by any entity. Culture thrives through the exchange of ideas, the good and the bad, and if a writer has penned objectionable material then attack the thinking behind it, don't just try to hide the idea away. We learn through discussion. We grow through peaceful resolution of conflict. We mature as a society by looking outside rather than walling off our minds -- and those of our children.

So celebrate Banned Books Week, which begins today, by buying and reading any of the books found in this rather chilling map of local fights over books. Then make sure your child reads it, and talk about why some might want that book banned. And, more importantly, why it shouldn't be. Read More 
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On Dan Brown, and megabooks

Today's Los Angeles Times carried a piece I wrote on Dan Brown and the impact of his The Da Vinci Code tied to the release tomorrow of his new novel The Lost Symbol.

The story doesn't get into all the conspiracy stuff and fanciful embrace of occasionally indicted history, but looks more at the state of publishing, and what The Da Vinci Code did.

It really was a remarkable mass-market cultural phenomenon. There are some 81 million copies of the book in circulation worldwide. That's not Harry Potter numbers, but it's still one hell of a hit.

Prime evidence that Brown has touched the central nerve of Middle America: Last week NBC's "TODAY Show" did a "Where's Matt Lauer" knock off, sending the co-host to different sites from the book and setting them up as clues. That was followed by a Q&A and excerpt Sunday in Parade magazine, the newspaper insert. It was the fist tome the magazine had excerpted a novel in its 68-year history.

Obviously, I need to find a way to include the Knights Templar and the Masons in my books ... Read More 
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The Gloves Off Economy: A survey of how things got brutal

Last Winter and into the Spring I worked under a contract with four advocates/academics* who had written and/or co-edited a book called The Gloves-Off Economy: Labor Standards at the Bottom of America's Labor Market. It's a collection of articles by labor economists and others looking at how the low-wage sector of the economy had eroded or stagnated, and the forces that brought it about.

My part of the project was to take the book and rewrite and condense it into a more accessible report, taking the highlights and hopefully putting it in a form that would find wider distribution among policy makers. Here it is, free for the downloading.

It was an intriguing project to help out on. I was familiar with many of the conditions detailed in the book, but learned a lot about how these conditions came to be, and the repercussions of the declining power of unions, the surge in cheap immigrant labor, the steps being taken to organize and improve the lives of the lowest-wage earners, and strategies for leading businesses to realize that paying the lowest wage possible isn't always the best way to run a business. Or, more broadly, to contribute to society.

Give it a read. And feel free to post comments about it below.

* They are:
Annette Bernhardt
Heather Boushey
Laura Dresser
Chris Tilly
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Up to my elbows in Communists

It's been hot here in Southern California -- distractingly and hillside-burning hot, with four wildfires racing through the mountains above Los Angeles and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

None of them are near us, but there's always a "there but the grace of God" feeling when these things start roaring to life. Our house is in the heart of suburbia, but we're close enough to a wildlife area - a very parched-looking wildlife area - to wonder whether some day it will be our turn. It has come close before, neighbors tell us.

It's hard to write when the temperature is in the mid-90s and the breeze feels like someone has just checked to see if the cookies are done (we don't have air conditioning). Add to that the desire to keep checking the TV for fire updates. But as an early riser, at the computer before the sun is up and the heat begins building, I'm still making good progress on The Fear Within. I'm about to get the prosecution rested (in May of 1949), and then I lurch into the defense, a five-month drawn-out attempt by the leaders of the Communist Party to persuade the jury that they were standing up for the common man, not fomenting revolution.

We all know how that turned out. Read More 
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New piece on Maile Meloy's collection of short stories

Today's LA Times carries my profile of author Maile Meloy, and her new collection of short stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, which has been getting rave - and deserved - reviews from all quarters.

I'd read some of Meloy's short stories when they appeared in magazines, such as The New Yorker, but had never read any of her books. After barreling through the new collection, I went back and read her two novels, as well (I have yet to get through her first collection, Half in Love, but plan to). Here's a snippet from my profile:
"The strength of Meloy's stories lies in their touch of the familiar. She moves among sibling rivalry and adultery (several times), but also writes about a young woman's murder and her father's drive to learn the details, which become knives to his heart. Another story details a grandmother's drop-in visit to her grandson -- who believed the woman had died long ago. The stories share a rootedness, a sense that these could be real. And as in real life, sometimes endings are beginnings, certitude becomes tenuous and ambition can, on the cusp of attainment, turn out to be whim."

We met in the back yard of a friend of Meloy's in Beverly Hills, a wonderful space of mature trees, a small cluster of fruit trees, a pool and a pool house. Way out of both of our rent ranges but it was the perfect backdrop for some photos she was having taken to go with an article in another publication.

It was an enjoyable interview. Meloy is smart and understated - must be the Montana roots - and has a refreshingly direct way of discussing her work. The more time I spend talking with fellow writers the less I miss the gamesmanship that came with interviewing politicians.

So give the story, and Meloy's collection, a read. And check out her linked novels, too. Read them in chronological order - Liars and Saints first and then A Family Daughter - for the full effect.  Read More 
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Obama's beach reads - not so trashy

The Obamas are on Martha's Vineyard - summer camp for the rich and famous - and spokesman Bill Burton earlier today gave reporters the list of books Obama brought along to read during the week.

We'll skip right past the blatant omission of Blood Passion - we can be adult about this - and look at the list itself:

- Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded
- David McCullough's John Adams
- Richard Price's Lush Life
- Kent Haruf's Plain Song
- George Pelecanos's The Way Home

Pretty ambitious. CNN counted it up: 2,300 pages in all. I bet he skips some parts. But I'm also heartened to see the range of interests. Though you have to wonder how much of these books he'll actually get through. Let's see, big plans, limited time, something has to give. Where have we heard this before? Read More 
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