The Event Report That Wasn't - Marjane Satrapi

The first event of Seattle Reads Persepolis with Marjane Satrapi was tonight at the Lake City Branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Yours Truly trundled up north with a sketchpad, prepared to make a patented Crappy Drawing (tm). But even twenty minutes before the event began, the room was packed to the gills. Standing room only. MORE than standing room only, standing room only plus people sticking their heads in the windows. The sign posted said the room was legal for 55 people; there were probably twice that many crammed inside and as many outside as well.

I had a good spot right outside the door due to my early arrival. But first some horrible woman squeezed in front of me and got in my way. Then Satrapi started to read. She was sitting down, so I couldn't see her at all, and the gain on her mike was very low, so she was inaudible. I left. I bet she sells a lot of books, it was quite a crowd!

It was not very good planning to put her in such a small room for her first event in the area. I just hope nobody pulled the fire alarm.

I'll catch her at one of the later events - maybe one with a larger venue like Town Hall.

Great Book: Oedipus the King, by Sophocles

And now, for the rest of the Oedipus story.

Oedipus is now known to most modern readers through Freud's Oedipus Complex, "a male child's unconscious desire for the exclusive love of his mother. This desire includes jealousy towards the father and the unconscious wish for that parent's death.". Colloquially it's most often used in a salacious context to indicate sexual desire for a parent.

Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. But he didn't do it on purpose. Perhaps that makes the use of his name in this context, for those unacknowledged shameful drives, even more appropriate. As a youth Oedipus was told he would kill his father and marry his mother; horrified, he fled his home and his adoptive parents. On the road he encountered Laius, his father, and slew him after an argument. Proceeding to Thebes, he saved the city from the Sphinx and was rewarded with the hand in marriage of the recently widowed Queen, Jocasta - his mother.

The first play of Sophocles tells the story of the discovery (the big REVEAL!) of this sin. Oedipus' ignorance is played to the extreme. He doesn't know that he was adopted, he doesn't know that the man he killed on the road was the king of Thebes, and he doesn't know that he's the biological child of his Jocasta and Laius.

When the play opens, Thebes has been struck by a plague. An oracle tells Oedipus that the citry is being punished because the murderer of Laius has not been brought to justice. Oedipus, silly fool, promises loudly that the evildoer will be found and punished. He has opportunities to take the hint and drop the whole thing, but he just has to keep asking questions. Let the snowball begin!

First he realizes that he is the murderer. Then he finds out that he was adopted. THEN he finds out that he is the baby boy that was supposed to be exposed by that shepherd - the son of Laius and Jocasta. Woops, he actually DID murder his father and marry his wife. Then Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus puts out his eyes with her jewelry. The end.

He didn't know. He didn't know! Oedipus didn't mean for this to happen. He left home because he was trying to prevent it. But his path was set, and there was nothing he could do to avoid his fate.

Although we're less likely to marry our mothers these days, family curses are still around. Children act out their parents' sins, abusers abuse in their turn and the cycle continues. And huge weight, dragging each generation down.

So where did it start? I knew there had to be a reason. Who earned the curse for Thebes?

Laius, Oedipus' murdered father. He was famous in anitquity for raping his (male) student, Chrysippus. As punishment, the gods sent the Sphinx to Thebes and forbade him to have children.

Laius disobeyed the command in a drunken stupor and thus Oedipus was born. Given the discalimer 'in a drunken stupor', and Jocasta's age (probably early teens, if she was young enough to bear Oedipus four children later?), I assume this was another rape. After consulting an oracle, Laius ordered the infant exposed in the woods to die.

So rape is the crime that Oedipus is working under. He was probably conceived in rape and his father was a famous rapist.

Poor guy never had a chance.

Last Chance to vote.....

Today is your last chance to vote for the best American work of fiction published in the past 25 years.

Tomorrow I will start counting the votes.

Great Book: Antigone, by Jean Anouilh

This week is Greek Week and we are reviewing Sophocles' Oedipus plays, and Jean Anouilh's Antigone. And by we I am I.

Unlike March's Aristophanes trilogy, these are not funny and there are no crab people and they will probably never be adapted by Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

To begin: Antigone, by Jean Anouilh. I read this in the original French in high school. I can see why my teacher selected it. It's got nice clean language, and Antigone's impassioned rejection of Creon's strictures is exactly the kind of teen rebellion we should have gone for. From what I remember we just thought she was stupid. The revolutionary spirit was long dead by 1992!

What I am wondering, after reading the introduction to this translation, was why my French teacher, a French native who was seventy years old if she was a day, never mentioned that this play was originally produced during the German occupation of France and was really about Hitler. What was she thinking? Did she think we wouldn't care?

Maybe she was right. Maybe we wouldn't have cared.

Anouilh's Antigone is a re-telling of the last of Sophocle's trilogy dealing with the royal family of Thebes and deals with only a thin slice of the Oedipal story.

Digression: I once filed papers for a very large company that had an employee whose first name was Antigone.

Antigone is a teenager. She's one of the children of the incestuous marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta, who are dead. Her two brothers are also dead. They killed each other instead of themselves which made for a nice change (killing each other or suicide being the two alternatives for members of this family) except that in the process they waged a really long war and got a lot of people killed.

Since everyone else was dead, Antigone's uncle Creon took the throne. He's got a son, Haemon, and a wife, Eurydice (but not the same chick who Orpheus crushed on, and they thought there wasn't enough intermarriage in the family so Haemon is engaged to marry Antigone, who is both his first cousin and his cousin once removed.

Antigone opens shortly after peace has been restored to Thebes. Creon has buried one of his nephews, but ordered that the body of the other be left outside the city walls to rot.

This is bad. Why? Well, here's another thing my high school French teach didn't bother explaining. If you're not buried properly, your spirit doesn't go to the underworld, but wanders around unhappy and lost forever.

Antigone, who loved her brother even if he was a total jerk, decides that Creon must be defied, as he is breaking the laws of the gods! She sneaks out and says the magic words over her brother's body and scatters dirt on his body.

She is caught, of course. But she has no regrets, will not bow her head to an illegal authority, etc. Creon says 'fine, then' and has her buried alive (I love those ancient Greeks). He changes his mind at the last minute, but it's too late. She's killed herself. Then Haemon kills himself. Then Eurydice kills herself. If Creon was any kind of sensitive individual he'd kill himself, too, or at least gouge his eyes out, but he's got to be the grown-up around Thebes once again, SOMEONE has to run the city, so he just continues to live his sterile, loveless life.

Creon tries to convince Antigone that her brother was not worth sacrificing herself for, but she rejects this reasoning; her rebellion is not on behalf of Polyneice. So why? She seems to rebelling for the sake of rebellion alone.

Her theme song would by 'My Generation' by the Who. She's intent on dying before she gets old.

Reading Journal Entry: Wild Robert, by Diana Wynne Jones

OK, we round off Diana Wynne Jones week with one last YA fantasy novel, Wild Robert. This one is quite a bit shorter than her usual works, and aimed at younger readers. THe main character is Heather, who lives in a castle that's a tourist attraction. And she hates tourists. So she asks the local ghost to take care of them and gets more than she bargained for.

Robert was buried 350 years ago and thinks the castle belongs to him now. And he can do lots of fun magical stuff like turn rowdy teenagers into nymphs and satyrs, and turn annoying tourists into sheep, and magic the portraits down from the walls. Heather spends a whole day trying to keep him away from her parents and then - and then that's the end of the book. Rather unsatisfying, really.

And there weren't any murderous relatives at all! Except for all of Robert's relatives, who tried to kill him, but they all stayed off-stage, so they don't really count.

Next week we'll deal with lots more murdering relatives - Anouilh's Antigone goes up against Sophocles' Antigone, with more! more! MORE! violence and suicide from the ruling family of Thebes!

Reading Journal Entry: Unexpected Magic, by Diana Wynne Jones

A collection of short stories and a novella by the Divine DWJ. Most are short, fun shots - more grounded to the real world than her longer fantasy fare. Some personal moments as well. I enjoyed the novella, Everard's Ride, very much, but I really expected something more from the resolution.

Very few murderous relatives in this one. Plenty of cousins, I mean, but not so much members of the immediate family.

If I had kids, I would probably buy this. It's a hefty volume, and the number of stories makes it well worth cover price.

Reading Journal Entry: Drowned Ammet, by Diana Wynne Jones

Drowned Ammet is the direct prequel to The Crown of Dalemark, which I won't be reviewing this week. It was the first of the Dalemark books that I read, and I disagree strongly with the reviewer from the School Library Journal who deems it 'unlikely that those who haven't read the first three books in the series will be willing to unravel the labyrinthine plot.' I didn't even realize there was a previous book untiel recently.

But that's not the book we're talking about. In Drowned Ammet, we meet three young kids growing up in Holand; Mitt, the son of a farmer, and Hildi and Ynen, members of the ruling family. Holand is in the south of Dalemark, which means that it is ruled by an iron first! In this case the iron fist supplies some, but not all, of the requisite homicidal family members. Mitt becomes involved with a revolutionary group, Hildi is engaged against her will to a foreign prince, and the
real trouble starts when the Count is murdered by someone else entirely.

Who is Drowned Ammet? Ammet is a local god who is trhown into the bay each year. He's very helpful.

It's a fun book, but I didn't find the way Mitt's family woes resolve themselves to be particularly realistic.... seemed a bit over the top, to be honest.

Reading Journal Entry: The Merlin Conspiracy, by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones Love-Week continues at Book of the Day with The Merlin Conspiracy.

Merlin isn't a who, though,in the Islands of Blest. It's an office, recently vacated and now occupied by someone who is up to no good. Roddy, a young page travelling with the King's Court, must discover her magical powers! And foil the evil plot! While not-flirting with an attractice teen boy from another universe!

Nick Mallory is the teen boy in question, who gets himself lost among worlds and embroiled in the mess. Nick and Roddy take turns writing chapters. Good voices.

And again with the Britishness: Nick at one point says 'it was like a whole train of pennies dropping on my head.'. Now that's a nice image, and not one you'd find in an American book.

This appears to take place in the Chrestomanci universe, but that's not really laid out - and the book suffers for it, I think. I prefer when things make more sense and we know the mechanism for the magics. The time travel really threw me for a loop when keeping track fo what was going on.

Solid work!

Reading Journal Entry: Cart and Cwidder, by Diana Wynne Jones

The DWJ binge continues this week, with a digression to Ancient Greece/occupied France later on to assuage my conscience.

I love her writing, but to be honest, I'm running through them because I have too many library books out again and I need to turn these around.

Today's book is the first volume of the Dalemark Quartet, a young adult fantasy series set in a vaguely Dutch-ish type area.

There's a North, which is progressive and educated and free, and there's a South, in which the humble wholesale peasants are ruthlessly stomped on by their nasty mean Earls. Bad earls! Bad! Bad!

DWJ explores this dynamic (and associated revolutionary tendencies) in all four of these books. Although #3, The Spellcoats, doesn't really fit with the others, I can't criticize it's inclusion because I think it's one of her best works.

Cart and Cwidder follows a minstrel family in their path through various villages and small towns of South Dalemark. Clennen is the exuberant leader of his little family band, but each of them has their own talents and helps with performances. They occasionally take paying passengers north, and this year they've picked up an unpleasantly grumpy teen named Kialan who Moril and Brid, Clennen's younger children, take an immediate dislike to.

But the show must go on. Even after Very Bad Things start happening.

I really enjoy the intrinsically British nature of her work. Sure, it's set in Dalemark, but don't let that fool you. The dialogue and Jones' distinctive voice are firmly rooted in the British fantasist tradition that includes Pratchett and Gaiman and for that matter Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The personal transformations of her characters are on occasion a tad heavy-handed, I admit. But they always flow naturally from the story and plot in ways that many authors can't achieve.

Peculiarity: am beginning to notice a pattern of books about young kids who must discover that their family members don't really love them, or don't love them well enough. Conrad's Fate. Howl's Moving Castle. Cart and Cwidder. Drowned Ammet. The Lives of Christopher Chant. Charmed Life. Etc.

On the one hand, this does make for a story that any kid can sympathize with. The idea that one's horrible family members actually are out to get one is a sure-fire winner. See: Harry Potter. On the other hand, when you read ten DWJ books in a row it gets a bit monotonous. After about 6 you start to figure out that it's really Aunt Edna who's the baddie.

Update on the alt.list

A big, big thank you to everyone who has commented and emailed me with their votes for the best work of American fiction in the past 25 years. I am a bit behind in replying to all the emails I got over the weekend but I have been amazed, gratified, and very pleased with the response I got from my latest round of emails. THANK YOU!

I'm counting votes as fast as I can. The final list of winners will be announced after May 31st. I'll try to post some interesting tidbits about how the voting is leaning before then.

Reading Journal Entry: Stopping For A Spell by Diana Wynne Jones

A collection of three short stories bound into a slim hardback volume. Each exhibits Jones' magical touch. Aimed at younger audiences than her typical novel-length works, and instead of exploring a fantasy world, these deal with the interjection of a bit of magic into our ordinary lives. Two feature living furniture (including the absolutely priceless Chair Person); another a SuperGranny. Very funy, perfect for bedtime stories.

The Alternative List: Explanation and FAQ

So, as regular readers will know, I am compiling an alternative list of best American fiction published within the last 25 years, because the recently released New York Times list was unsatisfactory for many reasons. The most relevant of which is that they surveyed a bunch of 'writers, reviewers, and critics' who are all OLD MEDIA!

Screw that.

My goal is to survey litbloggers and gather nominations for an alternative list, as I detailed in my original post.

I've received many responses, but not enough to rival the New York Times' 'couple of hundred' sources.

No clear leader has emerged.

I've just sent emails to another hundred-odd bloggers asking them for their nominations. And a lot of them are going to be at the BEA. So I'm going to extend the voting time until the end of May.

However you came across this post, I want your vote. Here's the FAQ.

1) Why did you email me?

Because you have a literary blog.

2) Do I know you?

Probably not. Vote anyhow.

3) But I'm not American!

That's OK by me as long as you have an opinion.

4) Can I nominate anything or does it have to be respectable?

You can nominate any book that is American, fiction, and was published within the past 25 years. Except for The Da Vinci Code.

5) Why can't I nominate The Da Vinci Code?

Because I hate it and I am making the rules.

6) I want to nominate something that was published 28 years ago. Can I?

Sure. But it won't win. And who wants to vote for a loser?

7) I want to vote for more than one book. Can I?


8) I already voted but you emailed me again!

Sorry about that. Maybe I lost your vote or made a mistake. I am trying to email everyone back to confirm their vote.

9) Can I ask other people to vote?

Yes, please do! Anyone who has a blog and blogs about books can vote. Please pass it along to as many people as possible.

10) I co-edit a blog that has more than one contributor. Can we all vote?


11) How are you keeping track of the votes?

With the magic of spreadsheets.

12) Why didn't you email me with an invitation to vote?

I tried to email everyone whose blog is listed on the Complete Review. But there were many blogs where I could not find an email for the author. And if the blog was very out of date, I did not send an email. Or maybe I just missed you. Sorry! Vote anyhow!

13) How can I vote?

Email me at mapletree antispam at Include your vote and any comments. Please also include the name of your blog and tell me how you would like to be referenced when I publish the whole list. Or just post in the comments thread in this post or this post.

Reading Journal Entry: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

I've firmly resisted the David Sedaris lovefest until now. But some friends convinced me that he was worth reading (personal gushing is so much more effective).

Dress your Family is a collection of short stories about the Sedaris family. It's good stuff. Short little stories that seem to go nowhere but end by socking you in the gut. Easy to read, but images that stick with me.

Event Report: Paul Rieckhoff at the University Book Store, 5/17/2006

Paul Rieckhoff is the Executive Director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He's been getting a lot of press/media appearances lately as part of the launch of his book Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight For America From Baghdad to Washington.

He appeared on The Colbert Report last week and, I thought, made a good showing. This week he's hit the Al Franken Show, Diane Rehm Show, Hardball, etc., etc. Seems like he's been hitting the road hard. He's even got a website for the book, and an up-to-date blog about his tour, which I will check out tomorrow to see the event from his point of view.

There was a pretty good turn-out at the UBS, more than thirty people? He talked a little bit about the IAVA and his war experiences, told some funny war stories, and read a couple passages. Interspersed: pointed political comments which provoked murmurs of agreement from the crowd.

He's a huge guy, over six feet tall and maybe 280 lbs of solid muscle. Young. Shaved head and a chin that you could crack nuts on. Very impressive physically and mentally.

A Crappy Drawing (tm) of Paul Rieckhoff at the University Bookstore.

Reading Journal Entry: Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynn Jones

I did mention that I was on a DWJ kick, right? And I've got more where these came from.

Conrad's Fate is one of DWJ's newer entries in the Chrestomanci series. Christopher Chant, our hero from Book 2, makes an appearance as a supporting character here, but the main story is Conrad's. He's about twelve, he has a magician uncle and a radical feminist author mum, and he'd really like to go to high school but he just has to kill someone first. He's got bad karma, you see. There's someone he was supposed knock off in his past life, and unless he takes care of the problem in this one, he's toast.

I like the Chrestomanci universe a lot. This story doesn't really have that special 'spark' that would make me fall in love with it, but it's still four out of five stars, and as solidly crafted as I expected.

Reading Journal Entry: Archer's Goon by Diana Wynne Jones

I decided to go on another Diana Wynne Jones binge this week.

She's a British fantasy author who writes delicious young adult books.

Archer's Goon is about Howard and his family problem. He comes home one day to find a Goon sitting in his kitchen - a Goon sent by a mysterious entity names 'Archer' who wants two thousand from his father. Now. It's overdue.

But we're not talking pounds, we're talking words. Quentin Sykes is a novelist and he's been turning two thousand words periodically over to a government official as part of a 'deal' that was just a joke to help him get over writer's block - or so he thought. But Archer's Goon won't go away, and the Sykes family gets pulled further and further into an imbroglio involving powers they don't understand.

Very good, very fun, and kept me from guessing what was really going on until almost the very last minute.

Reading Journal Entry: The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler

The subtitle of The Long Emergency is Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, but it's really about Peak Oil. Peak oil = we are going to run out of oil, and it's already started.

Now, as it happens, I am predisposed to be charitable towards this idea. But the sloppy thinking in this book completely failed to convince me of anything. I became more skeptical instead of less as a result of reading it.

Kunstler blames oil for World Wars I and II, for the rise of communism, for the fall of communism, and for the Great Depression (this was my first clue).

After that the man starts abusing the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy. I quote:

"Entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, says that the change in state in any given amount of energy flows in one direction, from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused or dispersed and spread out."



"Simple, ordered flows drain entropy faster at a faster rate than complexly disordered flows (...) which is why a Wal-Mart economy will bring us to grief more rapidly(....)"

Wrong again. You don't get to apply thermodynamic laws to economic theories.


...the earth is a closed system(....)

No, no,NO!

Given the number of inaccuracies and exaggerations I found in areas I am knowledgeable about, I am completely unwilling to give any credibility to his somewhat hyperbolic assertions concerning topics I'm not knowledgeable about.

I can't recommend this book; in fact, I think the slandered concepts it contains might want to rise up and strangle the author to prevent him from hurting others.

Event Report: Eric Schlosser at University Book Store 5/13/05

Eric Schlosser appeared at the University Book Store this afternoon to promote his newest book, Chew On This, a kids book about food that follows in the path blazed by his super-best-seller Fast Food Nation. The goal of the book, he explained, is not to tell kids what to eat but to tell them what they are eating.

That's not what he started with.

What he started with was an invitation for audience members to approach him for discussion after the event or ask questions during the Q&A period if they disagree with him.

Because apparently some people who disagree with him have taken to exercising different tactics. They have (allegedly?) written defamatory letters to schools hosting him and arranged protests and leafletting. There's a whole new website devoted to refuting him. These groups have alleged that he is anti immigrant, that he advocates drug use for children, that he is a communist.

This comes after a Wall Street Journal article (swiftly denied by the parties named) revealed internal memos from McDonald's telling franchise owners how to respond to publicity surrounding the book and the upcoming movie version of Fast Food Nation, including plans for a 'truth squad' to discredit 'the message and the messenger'. McDonald's swiftly denied that the memos had any basis in truth. But hey, look at this, it's all happening exactly as outlined.

Schlosser seemed unintimidated and determined, definitely on the defensive. He announced that at every signing he has done so far about the book, there has been someone from the meat-packing industry in the audience - sometimes a person he recognized and approached, other times someone who approached him and self-identified. And he wanted that to happen again today. He had an intense look in his eyes, scanning the crowd as if to pick out the 'mole'. Suddenly I put a different construction on the presence of the uniformed security guard standing obtrusively nearby. I wouldn't be surprised to learn he's received physical threats in the last weeks.

Schlosser moved on to the content of the book and held up an illustration of the cutting edge marketing technology in fast food these day - MRI testing for kids. Not to see if they're sick - to see which ads make the 'brand awareness' area of the brain light up the most. That's gotta be good for you. What executive dreamed this up, and how long ago did they sell their souls to Satan?

Unfortunately at that point I had to sneak out so I missed the rest of the talk. I popped back in later and he was still signing books, an hour and a half after the start of the event. I guess he really connected with the (large) crowd.

A Crappy Drawing(TM) of Eric Schlosser at the University Bookstore on May 13, 2006

Let's do this thing

I have read none of the books on the recently released New York Times list of the 'best works of American literature published in the last 25 years'. This makes me feel inadequate, so naturally I seek for alternative explanations that will place the blame squarely on the list, as opposed to on myself.

After a little digging, I find one. Via The Elegant Variation I found this mediabistro rant. The New York Times surveyed a list of a couple hundred a couple of hundred prominent "writers, critics, editors". But those judges are entirely old media. No bloggers! We have been snubbed!

I nominate myself as the conductor of a similar survey among authorities of the blogosphere. I will be emailing prominent literary weblog owners and asking them to nominate "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." Criteria for inclusion: you must have a blog that writes about books.

Or, since this is an inclusive era, you can add a comment or email me at mapletree spam Identify yourself by your online screenname and 'site' of residence and I will include your vote.

May the best book win!

Reading Journal Entry: Three Ultimate Spiderman Graphic Novels

Is it cheating to review graphic novels? On the one hand, they go down very quickly. On the other hand, to exclude them from my review process would be to deny their integrity as a valid art form. Plus, it's convenient. Convenience wins.

Marvle has a line of Ultimate comics that feature the regular Marvel characters and 'reimagine' them. In some cases they are put into a more adult situation - for example, in the Ultimates Universe, when the Hulk goes berserk, large numbers of people die.

The Ultimate Spiderman comic, which kicked off the new line, seems aimed at younger readers altogether; not just younger readers than the other Ultimate lines, but younger readers than the 'regular' Spiderman comic. In this universe, Peter Parker is still in high school instead of being a grown up married man. Lots more soap opera potential (as Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada recently commented.

I frankly don't see the point of this comic - it's just a retreading of earlier storylines, without the additional edginess that the other Ultimate books take advantage of. It might be interesting to those who are unfamiliar with the character except from the recent movies. But I'll pass from here on out.

Oh my.

What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? asks the New York Times.

I have read none of these books.

Great Book: Fateless by Imre Kertesz

It didn't occur to me until I finished this book and read the author bio (Nobel laureate 2002) that this work about the Holocaust might be on the Great Books List. And it is, because all the works of all the Nobel Laureates are included. That makes this the first Great Book I have read by mistake.

Fateless was this month's selection of the Jewish Book Group I've joined. It's the story of a 15 year old Hungarian Jew who is sent to Buchenwald.

It's a frightening story not because of the horrors he witnesses but because it's so believable. I connected with it more than any other holocaust novel I've read. I recognized many of my own least favorite personality traits in Gyorg, the protagonist, who clings to his rationizations as long as possible.

At the outset of the book he is still ensconced in his regular life in Budapest. His father is about to go to a concentration camp, but Gyorg reacts with the lack of feeling common to the teeange self-centered mindset - in fact, the first half of the book reminded me strongly of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, which features a compassionless autistic teenage protagonist.

Gyorg's father leaves. His life goes on. Until the bus he takes to work is stopped one morning and all the Jews are told to get off.

As the German machine grinds slowly onward, gathering Gyorg's friends and various other innocents in its maw, he clings to his sense of denial as long as possible. There's never a moment where he despairs or rages or fears for his life. Instead he expects his German captors to be reasonable and makes every allowance, mentally, for them. His arc from aspiring model prisoner to desperate near-animal is a short one, hinging on food; starvation and injury turn off that over-active brain before he can plumb any emotional depths.

Gyorg is lucky. He is assigned to a medical division (in a way I don't really understand) and survives the camps. He returns home at the end of the war an empty shell. The only thing he is sure of is that there is no logic or ulterior meaning to the world; there is no fate; it's just putting one foot in front of the other until you die.

A bleak book. Too believable for comfort.

Advance Review Copies

A controversy about sales of ARC's has erupted at Smart Bitches.

Event report plus: Post Secret 5/10/06

Frank Warren, the creator and curator of the PostSecret project, appeared today at the Elliott Bay Book Company.

I'm a big fan of the website. I read it every Sunday when he posts new secrets. It's a fascinating community project and one of a number of websites dependent on user-generated content.

Secrets posted range from the humorous to the tragic and are often miniature works of art, a little glimpse into a stranger's soul.

Warren spoke for about thirty minutes to a standing-room-only crowd. He discussed the origins of the project (originally conceived of as local and short-term). He read some of the postcards he had to omit from the PostSecret book for copyright reasons, and some of the stories people have told him about their experiences with the project. He talked about the therapeutic value of having secrets and sharing them.

Warren has become heavily involved with a national suicide prevention hotline; many of the postcards he receives deal with depression or other mental health issues. 1-800-SUICIDE has star billing on the blog (which is otherwise free of ads) and PostSecret sponsored a fundraiser for the hotline a few weeks ago when it was in danger of closing - within days over 900 donors had raised $30,000 to ensure the hotline's continued existence. Impressive.

The PostSecret book is as beautiful a volume as its contents deserve, really wonderfully designed and produced. HarperCollins did a great job with it. It's fascinating; the same appeal as Griffin and Sabine. You are reading other people's mail, but more so.

This would make a great gift for the goth teen in your life.

A Crappy Drawing of Frank Warren at Elliott Bay Book Company on May 10, 2006

Event report: A Conversation With Madeleine Albright May 9 Town Hall

Madeleine Albright appeared last night at Seattle's Town Hall in an event sponsored by the City Club of Seattle.

This is the second event I attended at Town Hall, the first being Gay Talese last week. It's a great space, very classical.

Dr. Albright is touring to promote sales of her newest book, The Mighty and the Almighty, about the role of religion in diplomacy. I read and loved her memoir Madam Secretary. She's such an inspiring figure. I really respect her.

So, apparently, does everyone else in Seattle. This was a sold-out event. Dr. Albright was greeted by a standing ovation (where do you go from there?) and the event was punctuated by applause whenever she dropped an especially savory bon mot about the current administration. The nostalgia was almost palpable.

There were two comfy-looking chairs onstage for Dr. Albright and Michael Kinsley, who provided the 'con' part of the versation. Their exchange lasted about forty minutes. Following which, Dr. Albright signed books for many of her adoring fans (including me). I hadn't intended to buy a book, but I caved at the last minute and made sure I sat in the right place so I could jump into the head of the line when it started to form.

Got home around 9:30 well pleased with the way I spent my evening.

A crappy drawing of Madeleine Albright and Michael Kinsley at Town Hall in Seattle on May 9, 2006

Great Book: Asimov on Numbers

A collection of seventeen essays about numbers and mathematics from that great polymath of the twentieth century, Isaac Asimov.

The Master has a way of explaining complicated concepts compellingly by relating them to common experiences, and he doesn't fail to deliver when it comes to numbers. But this isn't any kind of coherent treatise; instead it's a collection of separate explorations of our numeric quirks.

These essays were originally published in the 1960's and they are charmingly dated both scientifically and culturally. Some astronomical information is now out of date. Asimov cheerfully and unapologetically uses the Western names for places (when's the last time you heard someone refer to 'Formosa') and the term 'Mohammadans'.

Asimov is an easy and amusing prose writer. It's easy to see why this ended up on the list of good books to read on vacation. On one level I am a little disappointed that my first 'great book' by a great science fiction writer is neither science fiction nore particularly substantial. On other levels I must be satisfied that Asimov is represented by what he does best, an engaging work of popular science.

I grew up with the man; I have some small affection for him. If I had to pick authors who served as 'mentors' to me, as referred to in that article in the Guardian about men's favorite books, Asimov would probably be on the list. I didn't just read his seminal science fiction works (short and long) but also (over and over) his edited collections of short YA stories, his joke collectionsm his guide to the Bible, and so on, and so on.

But like all of those great male science fiction authors I grew up with (excepted Larry Niven) he died before I could get around to telling him how awesome he was.

A couple years ago I found out the proximate cause of his death. He died of AIDS, contracted from a blood transfusion during a bypass operation. His family didn't reveal his condition until ten years after his death. An interesting, and no doubt agonizing, choice.

Reading Journal Entry: Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Poking around E. George's website after finishing With No One As Witness, I found out she'd written a book about writing.

I happen to think she's a pretty good writer, despite the puzzler of an end to that one, so I decided to check it out.

Solid practical advice. Helped me figure out a personal creative problem. Reccomended.

Event report: Gay Talese at Seattle Town Hall May 3rd

Gay Talese came to Seattle Town Hall* on Wednesday to promote his new book, A Writer's Life. I was tipped off by a review in the Seattle Times.

Gay Talese was a bit older than I expected, but he's still looking good. He was wearing an impeccably tailored three piece suit. You don't see many men look so elegant these days. I guess since his father was a tailor, it's in his blood.

I arrived shortly after the doors opened. The audience was sparse at first but thickened up to a respectable level - not crowded - by 7:30.

Talese began by speaking about the way he became a journalist, a trajectory from a small-town southern New Jersey high school paper to the New York Times via Arkansas. He reminded me of Clark Kent; very much a mild-mannered reporter. He was self-deprecating and funny in a gentle way, describing himself as a mediocre student who was 'not really good at anything'.

He talked about the way he worked, the stories he's told and the people they belong to. He spoke a great deal of his parents.

I bought two copies of the book. Both are intended as gifts. I read through the first fifty pages or so waiting for the event to start. It seems to me from the material I read (and the reviews as well) that Talese only gets to his own story in a very roundabout way. He seems to think of his own story as a compendium of bits of other people's stories; even though the book is titled A Writer's Life, it's about a lot of other people instead of him.

Talese was a perfect gentleman to those attending - he signed books without complaint and talked patiently to everyone who wanted personal advice and encouragement.

I enjoyed the event but it's striking me as I write this that Talese has achieved my worst nightmare.

It's not something I often admit to myself, but one of my fears is that I will end being a supporting character in someone else's life. Talese made his life about all these other people. And he did it on purpose.

*you don't ever want to type 'seattel town hall' into Google at work and click on the first link that comes up. Trust me.

Great Book: The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway: voice of the 'Lost Generation', war hero, legendary drunkard, and dead ringer for Saddam Hussein.

Check it out:

No? Just my imagination? Never mind then.

It's hard for me to grab hold of Hemingway. He had such a tremendous influence on American writing of the past hundred years. It's like trying to see air.

The language is spare, almost skeletal in places. Non-descriptive and loaded with details at the same time.

The Sun Also Rises is about Jake, who suffered an unfortunate injury during World War I, and a bunch of expats that he hangs out with in Paris and other places.

Jake is unhappy because he is in love with a woman who sleeps with other men, and he can't do anything about it. Jake heads off on a fishing trip with one of his buddies, and finds some healing; then he gets dragged off to Pamplona for the bull fights with a group of soap opera characters straight out of sophomore year in college. It would be ridiculous if they weren't so real.

Brett, the lady love, is incapable of having a happy relationship and knows it. She sleeps around, attempting to convince herself she's having a good time, but each affairs ends with a crash and a bang and more unhappiness. Her fiance is a drunken bankrupt who uses alcohol and bad manners to disguise his anger at her infidelity. Her erstwhile lover Richard Kohn is a possessive lout and a bully. She collars a nineteen-year-old bullfighter, but he wants to turn her into a Spaniard.

Meanwhile Jake puts the sex drive he hasn't got into being an aficionado of the bull fights, but betrays even that when he faciliates Brett's seduction of the pure, innocent, graceful Romero.

Everyone in the book seems so injured I had to wonder whether this is commentary about the effect of the war on the survivors. And then the last sentence pulled it all together for me in a wonderful way. A real 'Aha!' moment.

"Oh, Jake," Brett said," we could have had such a damned good time together."
"Yes," I said, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Jake's injury is really just an excuse for both of them to avoid putting their emotions to the test. What about the [sychological inflicted by the war that have caused all the disabilities and disfunction they are immersed in? Is that trauma also an 'explanation' for flaws that would have existed anyhow, a crutch and excuse for self-crippling behavior that's rooted more deeply?

Reading Journal Entry: The Last Word, by N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright was recently brandished at me in an internet discussion about the historicity of Jesus. So I went to the bat library and reserved everything he'd written, with the intent of demolishing the argument of someone I've never seen, whose opinion I do not particularly respect.

Two weeks later I've only got one book back, it's about something totally different, and the argument is long over. I read it anyway.

The Last Word is a book about scripture and how Christian authorities and lay people should treat scripture in their decision-making process. It's quite a slim little volume, and it leans heavily towards the 'tell' end of the 'show/tell' spectrum. Long on argument, short on supporting evidence.

This seems to be because it's written to the 'choir', so to speak. This is intended strictly for Christian, and mostly for Christians who are already well-educated about the history of the Church.

I'm the one (educated) but not the other (Christian) so this was pretty much a waste of my time.

More POD shenanigans.

While writing my review of A Feast For Crows I stumbled across this puzzler:

It's a unauthorized chapter by chapter 'analysis' of A Feast For Crows, available through Amazon as an e-book.

Apparently this guy has written similar unauthorized guides to the Half-Blood Prince and Dan Brown's upcoming book.

This strikes me as questionable.

I haven't seen the text so I can't say how much original material they contain.

But given the recent brou-ha-ha over the Star Wars fan fic sold on Amazon, broken by Lee Goldberg, I have to wonder where the line is.

Reading Journal Entry: A Feast For Crows by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin's sweeping saga has been the latest big thing in fantasy for several years now. The ending of the first volume, A Game of Thrones, upset me so much I put it down and waited a year before picking up the sequel. That's always a good sign.

The key to his popularity is three-fold: one, the complexity of the work - a richly detailed pseudo-medieval setting, ambiguous characters, multiple players with multiple goals. Two, a ruthlessness unmatched in other fantasy authors (with the single except of Mary Gentle); the man does not mind killing off those major characters that you like so much. Three, pretty dragons!

Unfortunately all three factors are a bit wacky here. The dragons have escaped altogether, into the next book. What was a healthy sense of violence towards his characters has turned into a tendency towards resurrection and trick endings. And the complex framework has spiraled out of control, plotlines and viewpoints multiplying without rhyme or reason.

I am trying to picture Martin writing this book and my mental image is of him wrestling a bear. Which would be something tosee, because he's quite hairy.

I'm afraid he's a victim of B.A.D.: Big Author Disease. It's happened to some of the giants of the field. Bradley, Heinlein, McCaffrey, Jordan. Something happens to certain authors once they reach a certain type of success. I don't know what it is. But someone who previously might have turned out neatly-plotted fast-paced volumes suddenly starts producing monstrous obese books that clearly need to be edited to within an inch of their lives.

And yes. It is nippletastic.

Reading Journal Entry: Tam Lin, by Susan Cooper, Hutton

Tam Line the second, by British fantasy powerhouse Susan Cooper, illustrated by Warwick Hutton.

This retelling features a Margaret instead of a Janet, and doesn't really have much over the Yolen version. Hutton's watercolors are airy and translucent - not really to my taste, to be honest, except for a lovely forest glen. They made the whole story seem unsubstantial to me.

I like the font.... faint praise.

Stupidest Viswanathan post ever

From Malcolm Gladwell, an apparently otherwise intelligent human being:

When Doris Kearns Goodwin borrowed, without attribution, from a history of the Kennedys for her history of the Kennedys, that's serious. She's a scholar. And we have an expection of scholarship that it is supposed to reflect original thought. We have no such expection for genre novels, Harlequin romances, slasher films, pornos, or, say, the diaries of teenagers.

It is worth reading, I think, the actual passages that Viswanathan is supposed to have taken from McCafferty. Let's just say this isn't the first twenty lines of Paradise Lost.
Calling this plagiarism is the equivalent of crying "copy" in a crowded Kinkos.

Reading Journal Entry: Tam Lin by Jane Yolan and Charles Mikolaycak

I'm still chewing my way through George R. R. Martin's latest.

Meanwhile here's my take on a version of Tam Lin. I was looking for the modern re-telling written by Pamela Dean, which comes highly recommended. Instead I ended up with two picture books, one by fantasy author Susan Cooper and one by fantasy author Jane Yolen. Excuse me, are there any female fantasy authors out there who haven't written a version of Tam Lin? Anyone? Anyone? Maybe J. K. Rowling can tackle it after she finished the next Harry Potter book. Which, by the way, I'm quite ready for.

Tam Lin is a nice fairy tale; unusual in that it's got a female heroine. Janet (or Margaret) is impregnated by a strange man when she transgresses on haunted ground; she must rescue her lover from the elf queen before he is sacrificed to the devil.

Yolen's take is pretty straightforward, with bold, stylized art by Mikolaycak. I love the swirling tartans that Janet and Tam wear. They completely won me over. What can I say, I'm a Scot at heart.

The style is reminiscent of Mucha, which I intend as a compliment.

Desperately seeking tickets

The Locus Awards Ceremony is in Seattle, June 16th to 18th.

I did not buy tickets right away and now they are sold out.

I really, really, really want to go.

If you know anyone who has tickets to sell, please let me know.