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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Scott Turow, and Innocent

I had a chance a few weeks back to interview Scott Turow via Skype (great invention, that) about his new novel, Innocent, his resumption of the life of Rusty Sabich, the main character in 1987's breakthrough legal thriller, Presumed Innocent. My story is in today's Los Angeles Times, so I won't get redundant here.

But what i found most appealing about the new novel was Turow's ability to resume Sabich's life without seeming to have missed a beat. It helped, no doubt, that all of Turow's novels are set in fictional Kindle County, and that he has used Sabich as a side character in some of those works.

But it was the consistency of both style and character that really stood out for me, which I wrote about in a review for the Cleveland Plain Dealer (not online yet). The book is worth picking up. Read More 
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Bruce Chatwin's On The Black Hill

Margaret is out of town for a few days - she and two friends took a short cruise down to Ensenada, Mexico - and the boys were both out at theater events Friday night. So it was me, the dog, a cold beer, and Bruce Chatwin's acclaimed On The Black Hill, a novel I'd tucked away long ago and never got around to cracking.

I'm very glad I finally got around to it. The novel is set in rural Great Britain, on a farm that straddles the British and Welsh border. It traces the lives of two main characters, twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin who, for a variety of reasons, make their farm their de facto Elba (there's a lovely set piece in the plot about their refusal to serve in World War One, part of an important but largely forgotten aspect of that era).

The novel, Chatwin's debut (it won the 1982 Whitbread First Novel Award), dissolves a bit at the end as Chatwin brings the characters into contemporary times, and it reads as though he just ran out of ideas of what to do with them. But it's not a fatal flaw, so rich is the rest of the book as it delves into class (and a bit of race), dreams and the reality of hard lives. Chatwin always had a keen eye for details, and for description, as in this bit about a walk up craggy Black Hill with their grandfather:

Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every no and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid.

They liked to pretend that they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms' fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. Everything was calm and damp and cool in the green shade. Toadstools reared their caps through the dross of last year's growth; and the wind whistled far above their heads.

They lay on their backs and gazed at the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky; at the zig-zagging dots which were flies; and, way above, the other black dots which were the swallows wheeling.
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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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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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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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Pat Conroy's South of Broad

My review of Pat Conroy's new novel, a long time in coming, is in today's Los Angeles Times. The short version: Disappointing.


The book is called South of Broad, for the upscale neighbor of mostly old money in Charleston, South Carolina. Conroy creates a network of characters who all serve a narrative function, but most of them feel more like cutouts than full=fledged people. And as I write in the review, Conroy's wonderful and powerful narrative voice seems to have lost its vigor.

Which is disappointing. Conroy, at his best, writes with a captivating sense of lyricism, a flow of language and rhythm that wraps you up and takes you, usually, to the Deep South.

But he's much drier here, his powerful muscle gone lax, as I note in the review. Part of the problem is the plot focus itself, which turns on the arrival of the devastating Hurricane Hugo, and a twist in which an AIDS patient draws the gaggle of friends to San Francisco for a rescue. Combined, it just feels like last decade's novel.

Loyal Conroy fans will likely quibble, but the book just doesn't hold up to The Prince of Tides or Beach Music, two of his more recent works. Even without comparing South of Broad to those bar-setting works, the new novel just doesn't engage as it should. Again, a point made in the review, Conroy doesn't propel you through his story so much as he drags you, and it takes some patience to get to the end.

That's never a good feeling when you're reading a novel by someone you know to be a gifted storyteller. Read More 
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A father, a Secret Son and roots of extremism

I'm about half a lifetime behind on my reading, it seems, due primarily to working on The Fear Within, which has me digging into old newspapers and reportage, trial transcripts and memoirs of Communists and anti-Communists, plus doing the freelance stuff (among other time-consumers). So my time for personal reading is pretty narrow.

Which is why I'm so late to the game in writing about my friend Laila Lalami's novel, Secret Son,, which tells the story of Youssef El Meki, raised in a Casablanca slum not knowing that his mother has lied to the world about being widowed. Youssef does indeed have a living father, and how that discovery is made and its impact on Youssef's life propels the book. The key undercurrent: An exploration of how young Muslims can become radicalized.

This is a strong book. Not as good, I don't think, as her collection Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits, which I thought was a remarkable debut. To my eye, Secret Son lacks the scope of the short stories in Hope, a function no doubt of focusing on one main story line as opposed to the intertwined lives of the characters in Hope. But it's still a good read. I recommend you grab both books and read them in succession.

And then wait impatiently for Lalami's third book, whatever and whenever that may be.

Secret Son has been widely, and generally quite positively, reviewed and the New York Times posted the first chapter as kind of a quick peak. Saves you time in the aisle of your favorite (and hopefully independent) bookstore.
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Pat Conroy, Richard Russo and other authors to look for

One of the many benefits of spending a few days at BEA is the chance to mingle with sorts of folks, from buyers for libraries to authors to behind-the-scenes publishing folks. The whole point, of course, is to see what's coming out over the next nine months or so. So here's a highly distilled list of things -- mostly big books -- I'm looking forward to. I'll add more later.

-- Pat Conroy's South of Broad, which I've just finished reading (it's out in September). I've always liked Conroy's narrative power, and the lyrical embrace of language. He's a true southern storyteller and writes, in fact, the way he speaks (I interviewed him years ago for The Detroit News). I don't want to say too much about the new book, his first in 14 years, because I'm reviewing it for the LA Times. But I'll link when the review runs.

-- Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, due out in August. I've enjoyed most of his books, which are infused with an affectionate but skeptical look at the joys of smalltown life, and about the pervasiveness of the past. That said, I didn't think he carried off his last novel, . I have higher hopes for this one, which he sasy began as a short story and then just took off.

-- Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood, unfortunately, wasn't available here as a galley, so I'll have to try to wrest one out of the publisher before it comes out in September. It looks to be an interesting take on human nature, part sci-fi, part fantasy.

-- Michael J. Sandel's Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?, based on his hugely popular lecture at Harvard. I suspect this will hit a few bestsellers lists. It doesn't have the drama of The Last Lecture, but in an era in which our national sense of justice has been sorely tested -- from Guantanamo Bay to the Wall Street and banking bailouts -- this is a subject of great interest. Read More 
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Road trip -- NYC

I'm in New York City for a few days, staying with a friend in Brooklyn and then moving to a hotel in Manhattan while attending/covering the annual Book Expo America (BEA), the trade show for the publishing industry.

It's a massive gathering of book publishers and book buyers (mostly commercial and for libraries) focusing on books to be published late summer trhough the fall/winter season. This is my fourth or fifth time -- I lose track -- and it's always a lot of fun, if a bit overwhelming. Among the notable authors on tap: Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Pat Conroy, Tracy Kidder and rockers Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) and Clarence Clemons ("The Big Man" sax player from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band).

I'll be posting a bit while here, and will also be contributing to the Los Angeles Times' book blog, Jacket CopyRead More 
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Smear campaign allegation leads to poet's resignation


UPDATE: Ruth Padel now says she tipped off journalists to the old harassment complaint. So much for the early denial ....

Ruth Padel, the first woman to ever be elected Oxford Professor of Poetry, has resigned the post over allegations she was involved in a smear campaign that earlier led fellow poet Derek Wolcott, a Nobel Prize winner, to withdraw from consideration.

The smear campaign involved anonymous letters detailing a sexual-harassment allegation against him from 1982, while he was teaching at Harvard. Padel denied involvement in the letter campaign, but stepped down anyway.

And I thought presidential politics was a full-contact sport.  Read More 
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