Thursday, January 25, 2007

Awards: Borders Original Voices

The awards honor "emerging and innovative" authors and musicians. Winners receive $5,000. Borders store employees and corporate office employees made nominations; winners were selected by a panel at the corporate office. The following were the four book winners of the 2006 Borders Original Voices Awards, with comments from the selection committee:

Fiction: The Brief History of the Dead (Knopf). "A powerful first novel. The language was poetic and the intertwining stories were the most lyrical accounts of death ever read."

Nonfiction: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (Houghton Mifflin). An "extraordinary story of the 1935 Dust Bowl."

Children's picture book: Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins). "A cute, playful story with a lot of colorful vocabulary making it fun to read aloud. It's the perfect book for parents and grandparents to read to the aspiring princess in their lives."

Young adult: Dairy Queen by Catherine Murdock (Houghton Mifflin). A novel about "a young girl learning to be comfortable with herself while juggling caring for her uncommunicative family, boys and sports."

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Barbara Seranella

I'm sad to say that Barbara Seranella passed away on January 21 after a long hard fight. Many members of the mystery community feel the loss and have posted their thoughts on various mystery related listservs. They have been collected in a lovely memorial posted here:

Another reason I love Boston...
Tobin wants a city poet, if council's not averse
By Matt Viser, Globe Staff January 24, 2007

O Mayor, my Mayor!
Or: To get betimes to Boston town, I avoid the I-90 connector.

Saying it is time to update the extensive but somewhat musty canon of poetry about Boston, a city councilor is proposing that a poet laureate be appointed to record in verse the ins and outs of local life.

In addition to composing works about Boston, according to a proposal by Councilor John Tobin, the city's poet laureate would be charged with educating the public about the ancient art form. He or she would also compose poems for functions such as the State of the City address, swearing in municipal officials, and high school graduations.

"It would bring another special quality to major city events and chronicle the everyday happenings of the city, from a poetry point of view," Tobin said.

According to his measure -- which he has asked a local poet to put into verse for presentation to the City Council next week -- Boston's poets laureate would be selected by a committee of city officials and representatives from arts communities. They would serve terms of one or two years. Tobin said he is unsure yet whether there would be a stipend.

Despite a rich tradition of poetry in New England, neither Boston nor Massachusetts has had a poet laureate. But in recent years, cities across the country increasingly have been designating official bards, possibly a reaction to war and a widespread sense that these are momentous times.

"People are searching for something that has some more meaning to it," said Doris Stengel, president of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies.

Thirty-nine states have poets laureate , and in the last year St. Paul, Vancouver, and Santa Fe have all established poet laureate positions. Legislation pending in the Massachusetts House by Representative Paul K. Frost, an Auburn Republican, would create a state post.

The quality and prestige of the positions seem to vary across the country, as does the pay. The poet laureate in Denver gets a $2,000 stipend, while the position in Queens, N.Y., is purely honorary.

There has been controversy. A New Jersey poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, was asked to resign after he wrote a work titled "Somebody Blew Up America" that some considered anti-Semitic. When he refused to resign, the Legislature eliminated the position.

Tobin said he wants Boston's poets to have the authority to write about whatever they want, even if that involves negative imagery or emotions, for instance, violence in Roxbury or resentment in Allston over Harvard's expansion plans.

"They would capture moments in time," Tobin said. "It's kind of a chronicler of events that happen in the city."

Boston has a long history of poets who have used the city as their muse . Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem about the USS Constitution in 1830 that was credited with saving the ship. Walt Whitman wrote "A Boston Ballad," and T.S. Eliot wrote "The Boston Evening Transcript." Robert Lowell's mournful lament "For the Union Dead" features images of digging an underground parking garage at the Common and industrial decay in South Boston.

John B. Hynes, Boston's mayor in the 1950s, wrote a 13-stanza poem titled, "Boston." ("Don't you love this city with its wrinkled brow/ And its streets laid out by the wandering cow?")

Local poets are excited about the idea of creating a poet laureate job, but say the position should be structured to allow the poets to write about what inspires them, not just ceremonial events.
"Very often when a poet writes something on deadline, it doesn't really work out," said Benjamin Paloff, poetry coeditor at Boston Review, a literary magazine.

One challenge, some say, would be in filling the new position . The area is full of poets, but Cambridge is considered the hotbed.

"If you just want to do people who reside in Boston, it may be harder than you think" to find one suitable for the job, said Jeff Robinson, founder of the Lizard Lounge Poetry Jam and host of the biweekly radio show "Poetry Jam" on WMBR-FM (88.1).

Some area residents aren't so sure about the whole idea.

"I don't even know what that is," said Dave Hutchinson, a downtown worker ordering coffee at Starbucks.

"It's nice and makes everybody feel good, but there are telling things that need to be addressed before something fluffy like this," said his friend Kevin Cronan.

"I'm sure there will be opposition to this," Tobin said. "And knowing how smart Boston is, it will probably be in poetry."

Matt Viser can be reached at

Tobin wants a city poet, if council's not averse - The Boston Globe

Monday, January 22, 2007

Raves For Sale
How to buy a favorable book review
By Bonnie Goldstein

Posted Friday, Jan. 19, 2007, at 3:43 PM ET

Vanity presses for amateur writers who want to see their manuscripts in print were once limited to a small group of publishers. The service, now called "books-on-demand" or "print-on-demand," has proliferated in the digital era.'s recently acquired print-on-demand division,, offers several tiers of publishing programs with menus of services starting at $99.

The most interesting add-on BookSurge offers is, for $399, a personally crafted review written by "New York Times bestselling author, Ellen Tanner Marsh." (Ellen Tanner Marsh's bodice-rippers Reap the Savage Wind and Wrap Me in Splendor graced the New York Times trade- paperback bestseller list in 1982 and 1983.) Not surprisingly, many BookSurge titles boast enthusiastic reviews by Marsh. "For anyone seeking a health program that really works ... a motivating and significant book," Marsh gushed about The Beer Drinkers [sic] "Diet". "We are drawn into this seaboard existence, seeing the stars pronging the sails at night, the flying fish that land on deck, and even the birds that fly, unaware, into the mast," Marsh cooed over The Last Voyage of the Cosmic Muffin. Some of these paid-for raves turn up on Amazon. "This well-organized, fun and fact-crammed guide will make any parent a hero … exploring and enjoying all that Long Island has to offer," Marsh enthused about Be the Coolest Parent on Your Block: Your Guide to Long Island and the Internet For Families

To read the rest of the article, see a sample review and an email about how authors may "help" with the wording of their review, go here:
Article URL:

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Astonish Me

No one was more excited than I was when Maureen Corrigan of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” described Alice McDermott’s new novel as “astonishing.” Several years ago, overwhelmed by the flood of material unleashed annually by the publishing industry, I decided to establish a screening program by purchasing only books that at least one reviewer had described as “astonishing.”

Previously, I had limited my purchases to merchandise deemed “luminous” or “incandescent,” but this meant I ended up with an awful lot of novels about bees, Provence or Vermeer. The problem with incandescent or luminous books is that they veer toward the introspective, the arcane or the wise, while I prefer books that go off like a Roman candle. When I buy a book, I don’t want to come away wiser or happier or even better informed. I want to get blown right out of the water by the author’s breathtaking pyrotechnics. I want to come away astonished.
Thus, I was overjoyed to get the great news about McDermott’s “After This,” because while I’d heard wonderful things about her previous books, I could not recall anyone anointing them “astonishing,” which meant that I never bought any. Having recently picked up Alice Munro’s new story collection, “The View From Castle Rock,” which The Seattle Times described as “astonishing,” and the Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s “Slow Man,” deemed “an intense, astonishing work of art” by no less an arbiter of taste than O, The Oprah Magazine, I was rounding out the year in solid fashion with a troika of masterpieces that promised to be nothing short of astonishing.

These are good times for the astonishable reading public. Among the masterpieces by Orhan Pamuk, who won last year’s Nobel Prize for literature, was “The New Life,” described by The Times Literary Supplement as “an astonishing achievement.” Pamuk’s Nobel coincided with the premiere of a Court TV series based on James Ellroy’s “My Dark Places,” a book that had been quite accurately described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as “astonishing ... original, daring, brilliant.” Not long before, Ayelet Waldman came out with “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” which, while apparently not astonishing in and of itself, did include a character that the novelist Andrew Sean Greer described as “astonishing.” Then, Abigail Thomas published “A Three Dog Life,” singled out by Entertainment Weekly as “astonishing,” and an “extraordinary” love story — “Grade: A.” Personally, I find the Grade A business redundant; if a book is astonishing, you’re obviously not going to give it a B.

The Book Review itself has not been hesitant to use the word “astonishing,” which appeared recently in reviews of books by Thomas McGuane and George Pelecanos. Some people may protest that it’s ridiculous to make book-buying decisions purely on the basis of a single adjective. I could not agree more. But let me stress that while I buy only books that have been designated “astonishing,” I do not buy every single “astonishing” book.” For instance, Kurt Eichenwald’s “Serpent on the Rock” may very well be the “astonishing inside story of a blue-chip Wall Street firm whose massive securities fraud decimated the savings of a half a million people,” but that wording was supplied by the author’s publisher, not by some amazingly sophisticated person at O or Entertainment Weekly. So it could be a case of an entry-level cheerleader in the publicity department choosing the word “astonishing” when “hair-raising” or “jaw-dropping” might have been more appropriate.

For similar reasons, I shied away from M. T. Anderson’s “Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation,” even though it won last year’s National Book Award for young people’s literature. Just because the author himself uses the term “astonishing” to describe his subject doesn’t automatically make the book astonishing; it could be merely stellar, sensational, breathtaking or un-put-downable. For somewhat different reasons, I avoided Kate Atkinson’s “One Good Turn,” because even though it was described as an “astonishing thriller” in an ad in The New Yorker, this assessment came from one Linda Grana of the Lafayette Bookstore in Lafayette, Calif. Linda Grana may be a critic of the first water, on the same level as Samuel Johnson and Dale Peck, but if the word “astonishing” does not appear as part of a review by a designated cognoscente in a mainstream publication, I do not buy the putatively astonishing product. I can’t be buying books just because somebody in a bookstore somewhere said they were astonishing. I’d go broke.

One personal idiosyncrasy is that while I adore books that are astonishing, I do not feel the same way about other genres. Films as varied as “The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “The New World,” “Catch a Fire” and “World Trade Center” have all been labeled “astonishing,” but for me the word does not resonate in a celluloid context. And while it may be true that “Half-Nelson,” “Gabrielle” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” are all astonishing motion pictures, I have not seen any of them, as I personally do not enjoy “astonishing” motion pictures.

I prefer movies that are haunting, visually sweeping, mesmerizing or thought-provoking, and am highly partial to films that take no prisoners, challenge me in a way a good piece of speculative fiction should, or make me want to stand up and cheer. “The Squid and the Whale” did not make me want to stand up and cheer, even if Laura Linney is a national treasure; it was the kind of film that did in fact take prisoners. I feel the same way about music; I don’t care how astonishing Maurizio Pollini’s technique is, particularly when he’s playing Lizst’s Sonata in B minor; pianists with astonishing technique are a dime a dozen. Anyway, I prefer pianists who play with icy, laconic detachment.

Are there ever times when I worry that my obsession with the word “astonishing” prevents me from buying a great book? Sure. But, the truth is, if nobody describes a book as astonishing, it probably isn’t astonishing, and if it isn’t astonishing, who needs it? Marilynne Robinson’s long-awaited “Gilead” has been described as “poignant,” “absorbing,” “lyrical,” “meditative” and “perfect.” It’s also been called “magnificent,” a “literary miracle,” “Grade A” and, yes, “incandescent” by Entertainment Weekly. But nowhere have I seen anyone officially call it “astonishing.” I’ve already explained how I feel about incandescent books; if I had a nickel for every incandescent novel I’ve ever read, I could retire tomorrow. But I don’t, so I can’t. First book that doesn’t leave me astonished, your mistake; second book that doesn’t leave me astonished, my mistake. Sorry, Ms. Robinson, close but no cigar.

Joe Queenan’s most recent book is “Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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