Monthly Archives: October 2010

PW Best Books 2010: Duncan the Wonder Dog

Calvin Reid -- October 29th, 2010

You know something’s up when someone grabs your arm and says, “have you seen the book at the AdHouse table?” I had just walked onto the exhibition floor of the Small Press Expo, a highly regarded indie comics festival held in the DC area in September, and that was my introduction to Adam Hines and his new book Duncan the Wonder Dog, a 400 page graphic novel of such eye-popping visual intricacy and invention, narrative complexity and deep, persuasive characterization that it’s hard to believe it’s the young author’s first published work.

Everything about the book throws you for a loop. Duncan the Wonder Dog is set in a world where animals can talk. But they don’t just talk; they argue, debate, ponder and, ultimately, force the world of humans—from household’s with pets to farmers and live stock and animals in the circus—to negotiate their relationships with the sentient animals in their midst. Hines has created a work of speculative fiction, set in an otherwise naturalistic world, where animals can verbally assert a sense of agency (or babble in small talk about the weirdness of humans) and can deliver moral arguments expressly intended to force humans to reflect on their treatment of animals. No, it’s not a PETA-driven screed for animals rights, though there is a clear narrative strand focused on brutality and even bigotry towards animals. The book seems to use the relationship of animals and humans as a canvas of moral culpability—how one life, no matter the species, defines another by the historical power relationships between them—and provides a constantly shifting but coherent point of view as it surveys a variety of characters central to Hines’ narrative. And as we meet each of these characters, their personalities and their acts enlarge our understanding of this unusual but totally familiar world.

There’s Voltaire, a shockingly intelligent orangatang that runs a major coporation; Tivona, a TV journalist in an ambiguous relationship with Voltaire; Jack, an FBI agent assigned to investigate a series of terrorist bombings; Aaron Vollman, a government bureaucrat who directs an agency that oversees animal control; and Pompeii, a psychotic simian murderer politicized by rage and human arrogance. These are just a few but these characters and many others bring this powerful and imaginative narrative to life in a book that is both vividly narrated and rich in illustration, drawing and composition.

Although the work is rendered in a moody gray-scale, Hines uses awkward but emotional figurative drawing and a multimedia technique that features collage, type, dense cross hatchings and photos as well as a densely cluttered panel grid—his tiered and clustered panel compositions are clearly influenced by the work of cartoonist Chris Ware—to give this work impressive visual depth, atmosphere and variety. Although it is an experimentalist work that seems to randomly drop the reader into a sucession of complex and ambiguous events, the book is also serious about presenting a lively and sharply delivered philosophical dialogue as well as the sometimes violent consequences of that debate. Yes, it’s a comic book and a talking animal comic book, to boot—a kind of ironic reflection on the comics medium’s legacy of talking animals—but Pompeii ain’t Magilla the Gorilla and this book ain’t for the kids. Don’t take my word for it. The book will be published this month by AdHouse Books. Buy a copy and see for yourself.

The PW Morning Report: Friday, Oct. 29, 2010

Craig Morgan Teicher -- October 29th, 2010

Today’s links:

Take Our E-reader Poll: Do you have plans to buy and e-reader for yourself or someone else this holiday season?  We’ve been running this poll since yesterday, and so far more people will be buying dead tree books than any e-reading device. How about you?  Weigh in before we close the poll and conduct our sophisticated analysis!

Tolstoy After 100 Years: It’s the Tolstoy centennial, and HuffPo has six essential reading recommendations to help you remember Russia’s great novelist.

Spook-E-books: Stephen King on E-reading. From the WSJ.

On Teaching Writers: The Millions wonders what’s lost and gained when teaching writers in the context of a creative writing class.

Anti-Amazon: Brooklyn-based indie press Melville House has pulled out of a translation prize because Amazon is backing it. From The Bookseller.

Atwood’s Unusual Book Tour: This is a bit old, but interesting, about Margaret Atwood’s unusual, eco-friendly book tour, with a film crew in tow. From CBC, via The Rumpus.

Will You Buy An E-Reader As a Holiday Gift?

Craig Morgan Teicher -- October 28th, 2010

It looks like the 2010 holiday season will once again be all about e-readers.  B&N just introduced the Nook Color, Apple is filling stores with iPads, and folks interested in getting into e-readers have lots of choices.  We’re curious as to whether PWxyz readers will be buying e-readers for others or for themselves as gifts.  We hope you’ll respond to the poll below and tell us if you think you’ll be stuffing stockings with e-readers.

PW Best Books 2010: Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak

Parul Sehgal -- October 28th, 2010

Yellow Dirt
Judy Pasternak (Free Press)

Here are the facts:

In the summer of 1943, surveyors from the Manhattan Project began poking around a Navajo reservation that blanketed parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. They were looking for uranium. They found it. Navajo miners blasted open the mesa and hauled out the rock, with its trademark golden veins, with their bare hands. When mining stopped in 1969, the Navajo built homes from discarded blocks of ore. They drank from makeshift lakes, empty pits filled with rainwater. They started to die. Stomach cancer rates on the reservation were up to 200 times higher than normal on average. Babies were born with their fingers fused together in claws, a syndrome doctors began to call Navajo neuropathy. There was no restitution, no adequate effort at cleanup. They are still dying.

Here is the story:

If the facts can be condensed into a paragraph, the story is bigger, baroque, and, at its heart, lies a betrayal.

From 1930-1960, the cold warring U.S. sought to stockpile uranium. When white men were seen sniffing around the reservation, the tribe’s patriarch, Adakai, knew they were after the leetso (“yellow dirt,” the Navajo word for uranium). There was longstanding bitter blood between the tribe and the U.S.—the people had only recently been foisted off their ancestral lands to this reservation. Adakai instructed his people to keep their mouths shut about the leetso on the mesa. But the patriarch’s son (who else?), Luke Yazzie, motivated by patriotism and a generous finder’s fee, disagreed, disobeyed, and blabbed.

From this almost Biblical betrayal, the story becomes mazy; we enter a Kafkaesque world of double-talking government bureaucracies (the acronyms abound!), all intent on concealing the dangers of radiation from the Navajo—one group told the miners that handling uranium was not only safe but fortifying.

It’s an outrageous story, but Pasternak tells it with restraint (she can resist the overheated language I can’t); she is sensitive but unsentimental. And she has the courage to leave the story overgrown, the truth hard-won and ambiguous. This is no Erin Brocovitch with easily identifiable heroes and villains.

We tend to think of the American abuse of indigenous people as a shameful chapter in history—something painful and protracted, yes, but finished. But Pasternak’s is a modern story. It (and so many other stories–see the controversial Canadian Tar Sands issue) is still unfolding; the exploitation of native peoples is still very much a part of our national narrative. Pasternak’s book breaks the silence of the Navajo’s suffering and tells us the truth about ourselves; this is investigative journalism at its most necessary.


The Future of Politics and Prose

Craig Morgan Teicher -- October 28th, 2010

When Carla Cohen, co-owner of the venerable D.C. indie bookstore, died earlier this month, the process of finding a buyer for the store was already under way.  Cohen and Meade, her partner in the business, had promised customers to find a buyer for the store who would continue it’s mission to create a rigorous community for book lovers in our nation’s capital. This weekend, the Washington City Paper ran a lengthy story about the search for a buyer for the store. The story seeks to explain what a store like P&P is worth in today’s climate. It’s an interesting take on the current state of the indie bookselling economy.  Here’s a little preview, but you should check out the whole thing.

Politics and Prose has all those attributes in abundance. Which explains the sort of literary exceptionalism that has at least some fans convinced that the store will never meet the same grim fate as former local rivals like Olsson’s or the Trover Shop. “We have built the community and the community has built us,” Carla Cohen used to say. That community, forged in significant part by the store’s once-novel, now-standard tactic of turning itself into a forum for author events and discussion groups, is valuable. Meade told the Times this summer that she thought Politics and Prose was worth “somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.” She now dismisses the remark as an “off-the-cuff” estimate. When you look at the numbers, you’ll see why.

The PW Morning Report: Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010

Craig Morgan Teicher -- October 28th, 2010

Today’s links!

Writing Life: The Daily Beast speaks to Keith Richards’ co-writer.

Whiting Winners: Here are the winners of this year’s Whiting Awards for emerging writers. From the NYT.

Traveling with Apps: The NYT also takes a look at some travel guides in app form, which, it concludes, still don’t work as well as a book.

Beatrix iPad-er: Check out the Peter Rabbit app for iPad. A pop-up book and then some.

Patterson Sells 1 Million: James Patterson has become the second novelist–after Stieg Larsson–to sell 1 Million Kindle e-books.  Big surprise. From Deamon’s Books.

Kobo Now Selling Digital Magazines and Newspapers

Craig Morgan Teicher -- October 27th, 2010

Today, Kobo, the e-reader company formerly known as Shortcovers, announced that it would now sell magazines and newspapers through its store in addition to e-books.  Starting today, these periodicals will be available for purchase and reading not only on Kobo’s e-reader device, but also through its apps for various mobile devices.  Kobo is also offering a free two-week trial subscription for periodicals.

This news follows Amazon’s announcement last week that it would make periodicals sold through the Kindle store available on its apps as well as on the Kindle device itself.  Previously, periodicals were only available on the Kindle device.

Here is the list of U.S. and Canadian publications currently available on the Kobo platform:

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Scientist, The Seattle Times, Wilson Quarterly, Foreign Affairs, American Scholar, China International Business, Columbus Dispatch , Guideposts, Harvard Business Review, National Review, New York Observer, PC Magazine, Publishers Weekly, Reason, The Christian Science Monitor Daily Briefing, The Nation, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Regina Leader-Post, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Vancouver Province, Vancouver Sun, Victoria Times-Colonist, and The Globe & Mail

Webcomic Fans Boost Self-Published Book to Amazon’s #1 Spot

Rose Fox -- October 27th, 2010

Yesterday was MOD-Day: the release day for Machine of Death, a collaboration among several popular webcomic artist/writers and their fans. The idea started with a Dinosaur Comic by Ryan North:

North’s message board rapidly filled up with ideas for “machine of death” stories. North soon teamed up with David Malki ! (of Wondermark) and Matthew Bennardo to make the book a reality. They solicited material, winnowed the submissions down, found other artists to illustrate several of the stories, and started to shop the manuscript around. That was when the problems started:

Stephen King isn’t in this book. Neither is Dave Eggers or Neil Gaiman or Nick Hornby. Nobody would buy this little book full of stories from nobody famous, we were told. We talked with six different agents who fell in love with this book; one even fell deeply in love and tried her hardest to sell it to anybody who would listen. One editor at a publishing house told us “Let me be blunt: I love this premise; I love this project; I want to read this book [...] the sample stories included in the proposal are really very strong, and if they’re all that good, then this is a genre anthology of high literary quality.”

But it was 2008, 2009. “The economy,” we were told. “And it’s an anthology.”

…We didn’t want to sell ebook rights; we wanted to release the ebook for free as a PDF. We didn’t want to sell audio rights; we wanted to record the audiobook ourselves, and release it for free as a podcast. Movie rights remain with the authors — if you love one of the stories in this book and want to make a blockbuster film from it, contact the author and give them the money. We’re not in the middle.

And we live on the internet enough that we knew we could sell this book.

So October 26th was declared MOD-Day, and a plan was formed: to get the book into Amazon’s #1 bestseller spot for just one day, and prove that a bunch of indie misfits could make a successful book.

This plan worked so spectacularly that as of this writing, mid-day on October 27th, the book is still in Amazon’s #1 bestseller spot, along with being #1 in science fiction anthologies and #2 in literature and fiction (#1 is John Grisham’s The Confession). Malki ! calls this “so far beyond amazing that I don’t have words for it. It is incredimazing. It is trementacular. It is absocrazifreakiperfluously staggerblasticating.”

Continue reading

PW Best Books 2010: The Heir

Rose Fox -- October 27th, 2010

The HeirI’ve been editing romance reviews at PW for nearly three years now, which means I’ve read a whole lot of historical romance novels. I’ve become very familiar with the standard set-ups, the faux-period language, the spunky heroines and brooding heroes, and the authors’ struggles to make racist, classist, sexist history interesting and appealing to modern readers.

In some ways, Grace Burrowes’s debut novel, The Heir, buys into these conventions: the villains are utterly villainous, the hero (Gayle Windham, earl of Westhaven) is rebelling against his parents’ longing for him to marry, the heroine (Gayle’s housekeeper, Anna Seaton) is sharply intelligent and elegantly feminine. What set it apart–and what will get me to reread it, though my reading time is so limited that I almost never reread anything anymore–are the language and the connections between the characters.

It helps that the book is 480 pages long, while most mass market romances are in the 320-page range. Rather than filling the space with plot twists, Burrowes develops an astounding variety of relationships. Gayle’s interactions with his parents and brothers (one legitimate, one not, and two recently deceased–including the older brother who was supposed to inherit the title that Gayle is now saddled with) include affectionate gibes, occasional out-and-out fights, and heartwarming kindness when it matters most. Much of Anna’s behavior is motivated by a deep and protective love for her deaf-mute sister and doting grandparents. And most unexpected and charming is the snarky friendship that Gayle shares with his ex-fiancée and her husband, on whose hospitality he must unexpectedly rely when he falls ill while traveling:

[Viscount Amery] surveyed the man dripping on his couch. “Westhaven?”

“Amery?”

The earl’s voice was a croak, but one that conveyed a spark of pride.

“If you insist on attempting to travel on in your condition,” Amery said, “I will send a note forthwith to your father, and tattle on you. I will also hold you up to my daughter as a bad example, and worse, my viscountess will worry. As she is the sole sustenance of my heir, I am loathe to worry her, do I make myself clear?”

[The viscountess adds,] “Douglas, you can’t let him travel like this.”

“Using the third person,” the earl rasped from the couch, “when a man is present and conscious, is rude and irritating.”

“But fun,” Amery said.

It’s such a joy to find dialogue like this in a historical novel: not at all an Austen knock-off but also at least relatively true to its ostensible time and place, and sounding like it’s spoken by real people who have real history together and don’t feel any need to recap what everyone knows already. Even with an extra 160 pages to fill, Burrowes knows what to leave out.

The deft use of language is especially impressive in a debut. I look forward to seeing what else Burrowes has up her elegant muslin sleeve.