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Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Study in Sherlock

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Narrative of John Smith

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

On Conan Doyle

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Monday, December 26, 2011

DRAWING POWER: A Compendium of Cartoon Advertising 1870s-1940s

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

A TRAIN IN WINTER: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Masters of Mystery

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

BETWEEN HEAVEN AND MIRTH: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Chris Matthews tackles ‘Elusive’ JFK

A different perspective on our 35th president, by the host of MSNBC’s Hardball .

Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's Hardball, doesn't throw readers any real curves in his new biography of John F. Kennedy.

In fact, the usually pugnacious TV commentator sometimes seems like he is playing softball with his subject matter, pitching his account of JFK's personal and political history down the broad ideological middle.

Matthews, like millions of Americans, clearly still feels the spell cast by JFK even now, nearly a half century after his assassination.

PHOTOS: John F. Kennedy's life and legacy

Still, it's sure to be a hit with readers who love the inside baseball of politics and the Kennedy cult of personality.

"My fascination with John F. Kennedy has remained an abiding one," Matthews writes. "He is avatar and puzzle, a beacon and a conundrum... Anytime I've ever met a person who knew him — someone who was there with JFK in real time — I crave hearing his or her first-person memories."

Those memories begin with Jack's childhood, especially his school days at Choate, where he showed the first signs of being "two Jacks." One was "sunny and full of good humor," the other lonely "with a craving for company" and "already a victim of persistent ill health."

Most significantly, he was already proving ambitious. From the start, it seems, he was ready to lead, to be "his own man," to go against the grain of established authority, even as he appropriated or transformed some of its conventions, and to throw off family ties that might bind him while still paying homage or making use of them as the mood struck him.

The biography also offers evidence that JFK's "Ask Not" speech might have originated with his headmaster at Choate; pulls the curtain back on some behind-the-scenes shenanigans at the now-iconic 1960 TV debates with Richard Nixon; and recounts a post-Bay of Pigs chat with Gen. Douglas MacArthur that seems straight out of Dr. Strangelove.

Matthews boldly states in his preface: "I believe I've come to recognize, and even unearth, key clues that help explain the greatness and the enigma of Jack Kennedy."

But, as Matthews also notes, Kennedy's key adviser and legendary speechwriter Ted Sorensen once said: "I never knew everything about him. No one did. Different parts of his life, work and thoughts were seen by many people — but no one saw it all."

Even JFK's wife, Jacqueline, couldn't know "that elusive man, unforgettable man," as she called him. Not completely.

And based on everything Matthews tells us, that's exactly the way Jack Kennedy wanted it.

View the original article here

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best from indie publishers in 2011

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

Small, independent book publishers, like Two Dollar Radio in Columbus, Ohio, or Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, tend not to get as much attention as indie music or indie movies, which have their own cable TV networks.

But boosted by online bookselling, which makes it easier for small publishers to distribute their works, there are hundred of independent publishers across the USA. Two magazines are devoted to reviewing books from independent publishers: ForeWord, a semi-monthly, and Shelf Unbound, an online magazine, which has just released a list of its top 10 books of 2011. (USA TODAY will list our favorite books of the year in late December).

Here's what Shelf Unbound likes best from indie publishers in 2011:

-- Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat (Princeton University Press) -- A collection of personal essays on writing and exile by the celebrated Haitian-American writer.

-- Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Coffee House Press) - A comic debut novel that explores the authenticity, or inauthenticity, of our relationships to art and to each other. The main character is a young poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid.

-- Quiet Americans by Erika Dreifus (Last Light Studio) -- Short stories that examine the effect of the Holocaust on generation after generation, from prewar Berlin to the present.

-- Airplane Novel by Paul A. Toth (Raw Dog Screaming Press) -- A 9/11 novel narrated by the South Tower, who details his birth, life, and death.

-- The Samaritan by Fred Venturini (Blank Slate Press) -- A sci-fi, coming-of-age tale featuring a character who discovers he has the ability to regenerate his own organs and body parts.

-- Damascus by Joshua Mohr (Two Dollar Radio) -- A novel about the Iraq War seen through various viewpoints, including a pathetic dying man, an alcoholic semi-prostitute, and a naïve performance artist.

-- Iraq: Perspectives, photographs by Benjamin Lowy (Duke University Press) -- A collection of photographs of both daily life and the terror of warfare, taken through the windows of a Humvee and through military-issue night vision goggles.

-- Repeat It Today with Tears by Anne Peile (Serpent's Tail) -- A novel that deals with incest featuring a girl who grows up desperate for the love of her perfect, absent father.

-- Exit by Nelly Arcan (Anvil Press) -- A novel that explores depression and suicide, completed a few days before Arcan, who had written four previous novels, killed herself at age 36.

-- The Final Appearance of America's Favorite Girl Next Door by Stephen Stark (Shelf Media Group) -- A sexy, edgy novel about love, loss and multiple realities.

View the original article here

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Katherine Heigl lands a Plum role in 'One for the Money'

LOS ANGELES – For years, there was one mystery author Janet Evanovich couldn't crack — finding the right Hollywood actress to embody Stephanie Plum, the crime-solving heroine of her best-selling books.

Author Janet Evanovich, right, saw Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum, but had no say in her casting. The film is due Jan. 27. By Larsen & Talbert, for USA TODAY

Author Janet Evanovich, right, saw Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum, but had no say in her casting. The film is due Jan. 27.

By Larsen & Talbert, for USA TODAY

Author Janet Evanovich, right, saw Katherine Heigl as Stephanie Plum, but had no say in her casting. The film is due Jan. 27.

A major break occurred when Evanovich saw 2008's 27 Dresses, notably the scene in which Katherine Heigl's straitlaced character rushes from a bar cursing at the top of her lungs.

Discussing the moment with Heigl for the first time during a joint interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Evanovich explains that, right then, everything clicked.

"I just knew it," Evanovich says to Heigl. "From that instant, you were Stephanie Plum to me."

In January, Heigl, 33, will be Stephanie Plum to the rest of the world when the film adaptation of the first novel in Evanovich's series, One for the Money, hits theaters. Seventeen years after the book was released, the actress will finally put a face to the lingerie saleswoman turned bounty hunter who has sparked a behemoth 80 million copies in book sales (including nine No. 1 USA TODAY best sellers) and an audience of die-hard fans.

"I don't know why it took so long, but as far as I'm concerned, the search is over," says Evanovich, 68, who last week released her 18th Plum novel, Explosive Eighteen (Bantam, $28). "Every time I write Stephanie Plum, it's going to be Katherine Heigl's face there. She totally nailed it."

Amazingly, Heigl's casting had nothing to do with Evanovich's 27 Dresses epiphany, because the author had relinquished any say in production matters when she sold the rights to One for the Money before it was published in 1994. Despite the early sale, there was no concrete movement on a film adaptation for years. Evanovich continued churning out new, increasingly successful novels, while actresses' names occasionally surfaced as potential players — none to the author's total satisfaction.

Fans wanted Bullock

"Every now and then, I would get a phone call that would be: Jennifer Lopez is going to be attached to this," says Evanovich, clearly unimpressed. "Or Reese Witherspoon. There was never anybody really there." Her fans clamored for Sandra Bullock. "They could see her with the dark hair. And she has great comic timing."

The author, who was a successful romance writer before moving to mystery writing in the early '90s, never had a Hollywood personality in mind for the sassy character she was creating. Stephanie Plum featured a little bit of Evanovich herself and some of her daughter Alex, then 20. But that changed once she set eyes on the former Grey's Anatomy star.

"I had been going around to everybody saying Katherine Heigl has to be Stephanie Plum, and then one day, I got that phone call saying that it was Katherine," says Evanovich. "I was like, 'Oh, my God.' "

On the set of 2009's The Ugly Truth, producer Gary Lucchesi had presented Heigl with a copy of One for the Money. The avid reader was hooked.

"Two months later, someone was able to get me to come out of the bedroom after I had gone through 10 books," says Heigl. "(They are) so addicting."

Lucchesi and Lakeshore Entertainment acquired the rights with their choice, Heigl, to star as the unemployed Plum, who takes a job as a rookie bail bondsman hunting down a cop accused of murder. The suspect happens to be her hunky ex-boyfriend (Jason O'Mara). The View's Sherri Shepherd was cast as Plum's street-level informant, Lula, and screen legend Debbie Reynolds signed on as kooky Grandma Mazur.

But a major hurdle lay ahead: Fans were not pleased that Heigl is famous for her blond hair while Plum is a brunette.

"They had a hard time with it because (Heigl's) blond," says Evanovich. "But 90% of them were just so excited that the movie was going to get made."

Heigl tried dyeing her hair, but then had to go to a plan B to get the desired look. "I wigged it," she says. "Sorry."

Hair done, Heigl moved onto the finer aspects of bounty-hunter training. She took her first trip to a gun range, where she proved to be a sure shot. ( "I called my dad and kept my target to show him," she says, beaming). Producer Lucchesi says Heigl also showed impressive skill behind the wheel of a 3-ton, stick-shift truck in another scene.

Still, there were some low points while delving into the New Jersey crime business, such as Handcuffing 101. "Ugh," says Heigl. "I could never get that smooth handcuffing motion."

Even tougher was her first on-camera accent — and a broad one, to boot.

"It was nerve-racking," says Heigl. "There were moments I saw it wavering. I'm normally the jerk in the audience who goes, 'Blah, they totally lost the accent there.' This was karmic."

Her attention to detail also played into her dedication to keeping the movie true to the book.

"I became very possessive of Janet's material," says Heigl. "I was really loud about how important it was to honor the book."

Mutual fans became friends

Evanovich, meanwhile, stayed in the dark during the film process. "I always felt once it goes into movie land, the book belongs to someone else," she says.

So neither producers nor Heigl had any idea what Evanovich would think once she finally saw the completed film. Evanovich concedes that she, too, fretted about the final result and put off the screening for months.

"I was terrified to see it," says Evanovich. "But when I did, it was everything I could have wanted and more. I was almost in tears when the movie ended. I was so relieved."

The author's stamp of approval caused the filmmakers to literally pop the Champagne.

"That was the best call we got in the entire process — that Janet loved the movie," says Heigl, exhaling dramatically. "We were like, 'Thank God!' "

Movie wrapped, Heigl reached out to Evanovich, and the two immediately talked over the phone for an hour and a half for the first time about everything from dog rescues to kids. This led to an instant e-mail relationship.

"I get the funniest, quippiest e-mails from Janet, none of them appropriate for sharing," says Heigl. "I don't have to censor myself. I can just be me."

"That's another thing we have in common," adds Evanovich. "I'm from New Jersey. I have an extensive vocabulary. I'm totally politically incorrect."

After their first in-person meeting for this interview, the two fast friends even escaped back to Heigl's Los Feliz, Calif., house for a home-cooked meal that lasted late into the evening. Evanovich reported back that she was especially tickled when the Hollywood star searched in vain to find all the ingredients for a martini.

"It was like Stephanie searching through her apartment for a Snickers bar," says Evanovich. "I knew she was one of us.

"She had the vodka, she had the chilled glass, but she couldn't find the vermouth," the author adds. "It showed the human side of a person who has a lot going on in her life."

The ingredients for a suitable martini were eventually found ("She located an olive, and we were good to go," says Evanovich), and now the duo feel they have the ingredients for future Plum adaptations for the screen. With 18 novels in the can (and counting), it could lead to unlimited possibilities.

Or a new set of problems, since Plum remains 32 years old throughout the series — a tough feat to mimic, even for Heigl.

"You'll have to go to the gym and no Cheetos," says Evanovich.

"This could be a dilemma. I'll have to keep my face frozen with Botox so I can be ageless for years," jokes Heigl. "Jason (O'Mara) and I were talking about it. It's like, 'Oh, my God, if we do all 18 of these books, how old will we be? How will we pull this off?' "

"But if we shoot six at a time," she adds in a light-bulb moment. "There we go."

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Give thanks for 'Gabby,' other new audiobooks

Traveling over Thanksgiving? Here are four new audiobooks to help the hours fly by.

New audio books: 'Battle of the Crater'; 'Midnight Rising'; 'Gabby'; 'Destiny of the Republic.'

New audio books: 'Battle of the Crater'; 'Midnight Rising'; 'Gabby'; 'Destiny of the Republic.'

New audio books: 'Battle of the Crater'; 'Midnight Rising'; 'Gabby'; 'Destiny of the Republic.'

Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope
Written and read by Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly. Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.99, unabridged, 11.5 hours. Rating: * * * out of four.

This audio will put any irritation caused by holiday traffic jams in perspective. Effectively read by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, Gabby is a powerful story about Jan. 8, 2011, the day the vivacious Arizona politician was shot in the head. Six people died, including a little girl.

The listener learns quite a bit about politics, the Southwest and the space program, as well as the couple's backgrounds, careers and marriage, but the audio's real impact is the way it never soft-soaps the damage a bullet to the brain does. In harrowing detail, Gabby captures Giffords' injuries and her struggle to regain her life and health.

In a halting but clear voice, Giffords reads the final chapter.

Destiny of the Republic
Written by Candice Millard; read by Paul Michael. Random House Audio, $40, unabridged, 10 hours. Rating: * * * out of four.

Candice Millard's The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt's voyage down a South American river, ranks as one of the most haunting and insightful works of history in recent years. The material in her new book — about the 1881 shooting of President James A. Garfield by a madman named Charles Guiteau and Garfield's prolonged death resulting from medical ineptitude — lacks River of Doubt's drama.

Nonetheless, Destiny of the Republic displays Millard's energetic writing and rare ability to effortlessly educate the listener. And the narration by Paul Michael is appropriately zesty, living up to the subtitle: "A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President."

Millard weaves together a fractured nation still recovering from the Civil War, the bitter machinations between the two parties, and the efforts of inventor Alexander Graham Bell to discover a non-invasive method to find the bullet inside the dying president, who had been fatally infected by the germs of his doctors as they probed.

Midnight Rising
Written by Tony Horwitz; read by Daniel Oreskes. Macmillan Audio, $39.95, unabridged, 11 hours.
Rating: * * * ½ out of four

How to explain our ceaseless obsession with the Civil War? Is it that we find solace by reflecting on past crises that the nation survived? Or is it more simple: The Civil War remains the most compelling period in American history?

Here Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, takes on the fiery and complicated John Brown who led the Oct. 17, 1859, raid on Harpers Ferry. (Union officer Robert E. Lee would capture Brown and his fiery allies.) Horwitz does a particularly good job in depicting the profound divisions between North and South, while Daniel Oreskes gives his full measure of drama to the narration.

The Battle of the Crater
Written by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen; read by William Dufris. Macmillan Audio, $44.99, unabridged, 12 hours. Rating: * * * out of four.

Whether you agree with Newt Gingrich's political views or not, the former speaker of the House and current Republican presidential candidate is passionate about American history. Witness the novels about Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor and Valley Forge he and Montreat College history professor William Forstschen have penned.

Now they return to the Civil War and the catastrophic 1864 Battle of the Crater. Trying to seize Petersburg, Va., Gen. Ambrose Burnside attempted to tunnel his way to victory. The result was the brutal slaughter of new Union African-American troops. William Dufris provides a lively narration and handles a variety of accents.

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E-book edition of 'Fahrenheit 451' released

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

Try to burn this version of Fahrenheit 451.

Publisher Simon & Schuster today releases the first e-book edition of Ray Bradbury's classic 1953 novel set in a future where reading is outlawed and firefighters burn books.

In print, the novel has sold more than 10 million copies, been translated into 33 languages and remains a standard in high school English classes.

A graphic novel version, illustrated by Tim Hamilton, with an introduction by Bradbury, was released in 2009.

Francois Truffaut directed the 1966 movie adaptation, his only English-language film, staring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie.

In announcing the new publishing agreement that covers digital rights, Simon & Schuster's Jonathan Karp called it was a "wonderful opportunity" to bring the novel "to new generation of readers and in new formats."

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Monday, December 12, 2011

‘Prague Cemetery’ is a dark place

Historical thriller revolves around 19th century intrigue in Europe .

Umberto Eco's latest work is rife with fabrications, conspiracy theories, fakery, espionage and political drama. Already a best seller in Spain, Italy and other countries, The Prague Cemetery is a well-executed thriller set in late-19th-century Europe. This is Eco's first novel in seven years. It's provocative and suspenseful, and it's already drumming up controversy.

The enigmatic protagonist, 67-year-old Simone Simonini, is a detestable anti-Semite, misogynist and all-around misanthrope. His maxim: "I hate therefore I am." He earns his living in Paris as a master forger of documents (not to mention as a murderous spy). "It's a marvelous thing creating a legal deed out of nothing," he boasts, "forging a letter that looks genuine, crafting a compromising confession, creating a document that will lead someone to ruin."

Although he becomes enmeshed in the political intrigue of the day — including the Dreyfus Affair and the Paris Commune — it's no surprise that Simonini is such a solitary figure. "Whom do I love?" he asks. "No one comes to mind." His vitriol veers from alarming to comical: "The German lives in a state of perpetual intestinal embarrassment due to an excess of beer and the pork sausages on which he gorges himself." At least Simonini, who expresses love for nothing but devouring gourmet cuisine, is compelling in his repugnance.

Interestingly, Eco notes in an afterword that Simonini is the only fictional character in the novel. All the others — such as Sigmund Freud and Alexander Dumas — actually existed, or are carefully drawn amalgams of historical figures.

At the opening of the novel, in 1897, Simonini feels disoriented and agitated: his memory seems to be slipping, and he starts to feel his identity blurring with the Abbé Dalla Piccola, a cleric who may or may not be entering his home and writing entries in his diary.

The core of the novel is the infamous historical document known as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," purported to be a Jewish plot to take over the world — and revealed to be a forgery (in this story, one perpetrated by the evil Simonini himself). This text fueled the actions of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists of the era, and would later influence Hitler.

Don't be mistaken: The Prague Cemetery is no Dan Brown thriller. It's a dense, multilayered mystery, steeped in arcane historical fact. Coming from the erudite author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, that's to be expected. Eco's latest is a complex exploration (and indictment of) xenophobia and religious fanaticism, revealing how certain events and widespread beliefs led to horrifying acts of persecution and war.

Occasionally, this dark narrative gets bogged down in esoteric asides on theology and more. Yet despite its challenges and its rather contemptible protagonist, The Prague Cemetery is edifying and thoroughly worthwhile. That it is historically accurate makes it all the more chilling.

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Top weekend book picks: Chris Matthews, Gabby Giffords

What should you read — or listen to — this weekend? USA TODAY's top picks for book lovers include two new titles dedicated to JFK. Plus, during holiday travel season, consider tuning in to the audio editions of Gabby Giffords' and Newt Gingrich's new books.

The host of MSNBC's 'Hardball' goes back to the president's childhood in 'Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.'

The host of MSNBC's 'Hardball' goes back to the president's childhood in 'Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.'

The host of MSNBC's 'Hardball' goes back to the president's childhood in 'Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.'

Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero

By Chris Matthews

Simon & Schuster, 406 pp., $27.50, non-fiction

Like millions of Americans, Chris Matthews is still fascinated by President John F. Kennedy nearly a half century after his assassination.

In this new biography of the "elusive" JFK, the host of MSNBC's Hardball goes back to Kennedy's childhood to discover what made the future president the man he was. There were always "two Jacks." One was "sunny and full of good humor," the other lonely "with a craving for company" and "already a victim of persistent ill health," Matthews writes. And Kennedy was ambitious, if ever enigmatic.

USA TODAY says: *** out of four. "Sure to be a hit with readers who love the inside baseball of politics and the Kennedy cult of personality."

•11/22/63 byStephen King

Scribner, 849 pp., $35, fiction

Craving more about JFK? Then Stephen King's time-traveling thriller should fit the bill. Schoolteacher Jake Epping is whisked back in time to try to prevent Kennedy's assassination. Can Jake keep Lee Harvey Oswald from squeezing the trigger in Dallas?

USA TODAY says: * * * * out of four. "King's latest epic is as fascinating as the premise sounds. … It is not typical Stephen King. It is extraordinary Stephen King."

• The Prague Cemeteryby Umberto Eco

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pp., $27, fiction

Umberto Eco's first novel in seven years - a best seller abroad — is a literary thriller set in late-19th-century Europe. Its protagonist is a detestable anti-Semite - and a master forger of documents (not to mention a murderous spy).

USA TODAY says: *** out of four. "It's provocative and suspenseful, and it's already drumming up controversy."

•Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hopewritten and read by Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly

Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.99, unabridged, 11.5 hours, non-fiction

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, tell the inspiring story of Giffords' road to recovery since she was shot in the head by a would-be assassin. Kelly reads most of the audio book, but Giffords takes over in the final chapter.

USA TODAY says: *** out of four. "A powerful story … In harrowing detail, Gabby captures Giffords' injuries and her struggle to regain her life and health."

•The Battle of the Craterwritten by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen; read by William Dufris

Macmillan Audio, $44.99, unabridged, 12 hours, fiction

When he's not running for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich (with writing partner William Forstschen) pens historical fiction. Their latest, about the catastrophic 1864 Battle of the Crater during the Civil War, will appeal to history buffs.

USA TODAY says: *** out of four. "William Dufris provides a lively narration and handles a variety of accents."

To read full reviews, go to

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

For Betty White, it's still all happening at the zoo

NEW YORK – Betty White says she once had a friend named Gita. An Asian elephant who, like many elephants, "liked to have her tongue slapped," says the actress, 89. "And I was happy to oblige her."

She's just ducky: Betty White with a Mandarin duck at the Central Park Zoo. By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

She's just ducky: Betty White with a Mandarin duck at the Central Park Zoo.

By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

She's just ducky: Betty White with a Mandarin duck at the Central Park Zoo.

White's here at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan to be interviewed about her new, illustrated book, Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo (Putnam, $26.95).

But after a few questions about the book, White has one of her own: "Can I see the animals?"

The zookeepers are happy to oblige. White is a longtime trustee, benefactor and volunteer at the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens. In New York, she gets to feed fish to sea ducks and cradle an African pygmy hedgehog and a Mandarin duck. She addresses them as "darling" and "baby."

Zookeeper Josh Sisk asks White not about her 64-year-long TV career but about the L.A. Zoo's new Sumatran tiger cubs born in captivity in August.

"We lost one," White says, as if announcing a death in the family. "But the other two are doing fine."

On an hour-long visit to the zoo, White shows few signs of her age. She asks for an arm to lean on going up and down stairs, but on a day that begins with TV appearances, she looks unstoppable.

Despite her life-long fascination with animals, White has never been on a safari in Africa or Asia.

"Who has the time?" she asks. "I've got too much work to do." Besides her latest role as a judgmental Polish caretaker on the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland (its third season starts Wednesday), there are plans for an NBC reality show, Betty White'sOff Their Rockers, with elderly pranksters, and a TV special marking her 90th birthday Jan 17.

Retire? "I don't know that word," she says. "I'm having too much fun working."

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Agatha Christie remains at the top of the mystery heap

Agatha Christie, Britain's queen of mystery, may have celebrated her 120th birthday last year, but HarperCollins, the famed mystery writer's global publisher, isn't blowing out all the birthday candles just yet. The old gal is partying on, right along with her creations, Miss Marple and Detective Poirot.

British actress Julia McKenzie stars as the beloved spinster sleuth Miss Marple in three new episodes of the popular Agatha Christie?s Miss Marple series. ITB for Masterpiece

British actress Julia McKenzie stars as the beloved spinster sleuth Miss Marple in three new episodes of the popular Agatha Christie?s Miss Marple series.

ITB for Masterpiece

British actress Julia McKenzie stars as the beloved spinster sleuth Miss Marple in three new episodes of the popular Agatha Christie?s Miss Marple series.

And why not? More than 4 billion of her comfy mystery novels have been sold. And counting. She's only outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare. Not bad company.

The Christie celebrations continue this month:

•John Curran's Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making ($25.99), on sale Tuesday. It's the follow-up to the Christie historian's 2010 Secret Notebooks. It includes even more unpublished works, letters and archival papers, including a look at the master's final unfinished novel.

•A new edition of Agatha Christie: An Autobiography ($29.99), also out Tuesday. The book, first published in 1976 shortly after her death, has been out of print several years. The new edition comes with a CD featuring commentary from Christie herself.

• More than 80 of Christie's novels will have been reissued and repackaged in paperback ($12.99) by fall of 2012. Half have already been released.

So why does Christie, who began her career in mystery writing with 1920's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (a Hercule Poirot story), still resonate today? No mystery at all, really.

"Readers still like the world she created, one with recognizable characters in a recognizable setting, one that is momentarily invaded by murder but has order restored by the intervention of The Great Detective," says Curran.

Christie remains popular on the TV screen, too, with Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot returning to PBS' Masterpiece in 2013.

"It's very possible that Agatha Christie might account for more hours from a single writer on Masterpiece than any other," says Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton. "And they're all winners … the stories do well generation after generation."

Curran, who is writing his doctoral thesis on Christie at Trinity College, Dublin, says Christie's success is due to the fact that not only was she "accessible" but prolific.

"You can read a different title every month for seven years."

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

'Ed King’ reimagines ‘Oedipus Rex’

It sounds like an ambitious — or arrogant — gimmick: Re-envision the quintessential tragedy, Oedipus Rex, as a contemporary novel.

But in Ed King, David Guterson succeeds in recasting one of literature's most haunted and vaunted tales as a plausible page-turner — no small feat considering that any high school English student knows how the story ends, and that on its surface, the patricide-incest plot reads like something more worthy of daytime TV than a library shelf.

Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) shifts the setting from Thebes and Corinth to Seattle and Portland. The Pacific Northwest may have never been ruled by a monarchy, but it's arguably under the thumb of something far more powerful: technology. So what does Guterson turn his titular protagonist into? An Internet billionaire.

Like his ancient predecessor, Ed King was born to a man of dubious morals, Walter Cousins. The product of statutory rape, baby Ed is dropped off on a doorstep by his biological mother, Diane, and soon adopted by the relatively upright King family. He acts out in adolescence — engaging in a doomed drag race involving not chariots but a BMW and a GTO that results in the death of you-know-who — but channels his competitive smarts toward a career in computing, emerging as the "King of Search."

(Indeed, where King falters is Ed's all-too-swift skip from high school dope fiend to Stanford math star to master of the virtual universe.)

A compelling metaphor is at play: As Ed uses the very engine he created to search and search for answers about his past, he finds that there is no algorithm to predict the path of fate. His pet program Cybil proves as limited, and ultimately dangerous, as pop culture's most infamous computer, HAL.

Through a taut 300 pages, Guterson deftly weaves the trajectories of mother and son toward their inexorable collision but — gratefully — doesn't linger on too many gratuitous gory details. He also upends the ending slightly, invoking another flawed figure, Icarus, perhaps a bit obviously.

But what's more interesting than the Greek stories Guterson draws from is the composite portrait he sketches of America's modern mythical demigods, the tech-titans. (Even Ed's company, Pythia, sounds mythical.) There are shades of Steve Jobs and his adoptive beginnings and untimely end, Bill Gates and his fully wired fortress — and most remarkably, the ruthlessness shared by both.

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TV spots hint at what's to come in new 'Girl' film

By Carol Memmott, USA TODAY

Have you noticed the TV spots that have started airing for the upcoming film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? You would have seen one last night during The Walking Dead.

Sony Pictures has released three TV spots as it actively promotes its film version of the Stieg Larsson novel starring computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and disgraced investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

The 2009 Swedish film, starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, did very well in its American release and around the world. Sony's film, starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig, has fans of Larsson's Millennium Trilogy wondering how the American version will fare in comparison. The film opens Dec. 21.

The novel continues to sell well. It's currently No. 25 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list. It's spent 132 weeks on the list since 2008.

For a look at the TV spots, here's a link to

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Monday, December 5, 2011

War, fashion in ‘Time in Between’

Sira Quiroga is a young Spanish dressmaker engaged to a solid suitor when a suave typewriter salesman upends her life.

Spain is being upended by a civil war and the new regime's growing alliances with Nazi Germany. But The Time in Between will appeal more to fans of romance novels than the serious spy reader. Think John LeCarre-lite.

First-time novelist Maria Duenas has drawn a memorable character in Sira. Smart, gutsy and resourceful with a Scarlett O'Hara-like ability to whip up designer duds on a moment's notice, Sira has spunk. Over the 600 pages of her saga, Sira gains and loses a small fortune, is dumped by her cad of a lover in Morocco, runs guns to get the cash to start her life anew and becomes couturier to the Nazi wives stationed in Madrid. Urged on by her friend, the real-life British spy Rosalinda Fox, Sira, too, aids the British cause.

An international best-seller, The Time in Between — not the most memorable title — provides a lush travelogue of early-20th-century Madrid, Tetouan, Morocco and Lisbon. From a terrific opening line to the final page, chapters zip by at a pulsing pace. Time is aimed at female readers or the rare metrosexual who won't be put off by lines such as "my impeccable makeup didn't allow her to see the distress that her words were causing."

Looking for a breezy read about the Spanish Civil War and the early days of World War II? This could be your book. But after 600 pages, the reader is left with the feeling this novel is more girlish and glib than gripping.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Michael Cannell shows why drivers took racing to ‘The Limit’

Most books about auto racing are lucky to find a lonely place in the garage propping up a worn piston. But The Limit deserves a spot in the library, if not — soon enough — on the DVD rack.

Subtitled Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, Michael Cannell's narrative rides in the shadows of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken in the way it introduces a fascinating cast while reviving a time and place in which death danced with glory.

Such scope surely contributed to The Limit selling pre-publication to Sony Pictures and Tobey Maguire. He has plans to produce and star as The Limit's protagonist Phil Hill, a cerebral talent from Los Angeles who, for a brief shining moment in 1961, reigned as the world's top race-car driver.

In often jaw-dropping detail, Cannell explores both Hill's triumph as well as the grizzly world that was auto racing in an age before safety concerns. (Italy's fabled Mille Miglia race was shut down in 1957 only after a driver was cut in half by his loosened hood as his car obliterated nine spectators.)

Were yesteryear's drivers brave knights on metal steeds, or just plain nuts?

Cannell makes the argument for the former, describing British ace Stirling Moss as "flinty-eyed and muscled, with almost superhuman discipline," someone with eyesight "so acute that he could … scan the crowd for pretty girls while entering a curve at 85 mph."

Given that bravado — not to mention a lack of seat belts — it's little surprise a key character in The Limit is the Grim Reaper.

Between 1957 and 1961, 14 drivers were killed. (In the modern Formula One era, no driver has died since 1994.) Everyone from newspaper editors to the pope lambasted motor racing. But what Cannell makes clear is that for a generation of young men for whom the decimation of World War II remained vivid childhood memories, racing's risks built character in a nuclear age with no dragons to slay.

Or, in the words of Hill's fair-haired, high-born rival, the impossibly named and ill-fated Count Wolfgang von Trips, "Danger and fear have become anonymous and invisible — radioactive clouds floating around us. That doesn't change the fact that there are people who thirst for action … who are born to fight."

With characters like that, Cannell could have skipped the book and himself gone straight to a screenplay. Fortunately for the literary-minded, he has sketched out a dizzyingly macho world in which humans and machines were savagely pushed to their limits. Too bad the title Mad Men was already taken.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Joan Didion on the death of her only child

Didion follows “The Year of Magical Thinking” by writing about her late daughter .

In 2005, Joan Didion published a remarkable, unflinching portrait of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death two years earlier of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne.

At 71, he had a heart attack shortly after the couple visited their daughter, hospitalized in a coma. Later, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael improved, but shortly after Didion finished her book, Quintana died of complications from pancreatitis. She was 39.

"That would take a whole other book to do," Didion said at the time. "It's not a book I'm ready to write." Nor was she sure "what form it will take."

At 76, Didion has written that book, Blue Nights. Despite writing that is lovely and wrenching, it is disappointing.

In Magical Thinking, Didion, a novelist, screenwriter, essayist and reporter, put all her talents to use exploring what she called "the shallowness of sanity" after her husband's death and her only child's illness.

It won the National Book Award, reached as high as No. 16 on USA TODAY's Best-selling Books list and was adapted as a one-woman Broadway play with Vanessa Redgrave.

Blue Nights is less focused. It's filled with unanswerable questions. It's less about Quintana, named after a Mexican town, than it is about Didion's growing sense of fraility.

The comparisons to Magical Thinking are inevitable but perhaps unfair. The earlier book also celebrated her husband's life, in the way that the best funerals can be celebrations.

For a parent, the death of a child, at any age, is different.

"When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children," she writes. Then she adds, "I just said that, but what does it mean?"

Which leads to other questions for parents: "Are we saying what it meant to us to have them? What is meant to let them go? Are we talking about the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable? About the whole puzzle of being a parent?"

Quintana was adopted, which poses more questions about the "muddled impulses of adoption."

For the child, Didion asks, "If someone 'chose' you, what does that tell you?

"Doesn't it tell you that you were available to be 'chosen?"'...Are we beginning to see how the word 'abandonment' might enter the picture?"

Didion is at her best on medicine as an "imperfect art," and how doctors retreat into jargon, but she leaves Quintana's illness as a vague mystery.

She writes about "the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children...the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them."

Blue Nights is opaque, as if Didion was never able to decide what form this book should take.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writers are stars of the story in four new bios

Four major novelists —Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens— are the stars of the story in new biographies. USA TODAY takes a look.

And So It Goes:

Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

By Charles Shields

Henry Holt, 513 pp., $30

* * * out of four

Having tackled the reclusive Harper Lee in Mockingbird, his first major biography, Charles Shields now takes on Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007 at age 84. The result is an engaging, surprising and empathetic page-turner that will make you want to reread Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Like Joseph Heller and J.D Salinger, Vonnegut was shaped as a man and as a writer by serving in World War II. Shields explores that experience but also probes Vonnegut's Midwestern roots. The descendant of once-wealthy German-Americans who built Indianapolis, Vonnegut grew up overshadowed by brilliant older brother Bernard, a top scientist. The upside was Vonnegut's exposure to science and machines, which inspired his fascination with how technology affects humans. Though he became the counterculture's Mark Twain, fame, money and his difficult second marriage — to Manhattan photographer Jill Krementz— left Vonnegut lonely and often alienated from friends and family. — Deirdre Donahue

Virginia Woolf

By Alexandra Harris

Thames & Hudson, 170 pp., $24.95

* * *½ out of four

In her introduction to Virginia Woolf, young English scholar Alexandra Harris presents her lively little volume as a "first port of call for those new to" the formidable British novelist (To the Lighthouse). And she hopes to set off "fresh ideas" in those already passionate about Woolf. She accomplishes both in this wonderfully nimble book, which is easily accessible to newcomers and surprisingly enriching for the acolyte. Deftly weaving biography with astute readings of Woolf's fiction, Harris paints a perceptive portrait of the writer (who famously drowned herself in 1941 at age 59) as a romantic who embraced life. Exhibit A: Harris' convincing case for Woolf's underappreciated wit and humor as a novelist. Afraid of Virginia Woolf? You won't be after reading Harris's warm, charming study. — Jocelyn McClurg

Tolstoy: A Russian Life

By Rosamund Bartlett

Houghton Mifflin, 454 pp., $35

* * *½ out of four

Rosamund Bartlett, a British expert on Russia and Chekhov, distinguishes her biography of the great author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina with material unfrozen after the U.S.S.R.'s dissolution. Titanic Tolstoy (1828-1910) becomes, in her telling, human. The reckless aristocrat, gambler, hunter, womanizer and soldier grew to be a vegetarian and advocate for the poor and illiterate. He gave away money, property, even the copyright to his oeuvre, and adopted a Christian philosophy of non-violence that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Then he fled the Orthodox faith, which — in his final decade — excommunicated him. Bartlett dwells on his extravagant fathering of 13 children and details how he neglected them. This literary lion loved his land, she tells us, but loathed its government. Bartlett portrays Tolstoy, above all, as the epitome of Russia. — Jerelle Kraus

Charles Dickens: A Life

By Claire Tomalin

Penguin Press, 527 pp., $36

* * * out of four

The life and works of Charles Dickens (1812-70) continues to fascinate other writers. Claire Tomalin, a British biographer of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Dickens' mistress, actress Nelly Ternan, does better on Dickens' complex life, filled with contradictions, than on his literary imagination, which created epic novels including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, delivered in monthly installments. As a reporter, then novelist, Dickens, who went to work at 12, "saw the world more vividly than other people, and reacted to what he saw with laughter, horror, indignation — and sometimes sobs," Tomalin writes. Parts of her biography should provoke those same reactions in readers. — Bob Minzesheimer

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Prince Philip bio explains the crankiness

No wonder he was cranky.

Spare a little sympathy for Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, famous for his irascibility and bizarre, occasionally offensive remarks in public. "If you stay here too long you will become slitty eyed," he was once heard to remark to a British student in China.

PHOTOS: Prince Philip: A royal life

Yikes. But as Philip Eade's new biography details, the little Greek princeling had a calamitous early life, filled with drama and multiple tragedies. He lost his home, his name and identity, his family and many of his close relatives by the time he was a teenager. Then his wife became Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and he lost his job in the British navy, consigned from that point to play a supporting role, fathering her heirs, staying out of politics, organizing her palaces, and always walking a few paces behind her for the rest of his life.

This he has done, quite splendidly, but Eade shows what a frustrating struggle it has been for a smart, robust, take-charge alpha male to tamp down his natural instincts and personality. Philip has a temper, can't bear fools and says so. He's as likely to scoff at clucking about the terrible things that happened to his family.

'You are where you are in life so get on with it' is his philosophy," Eade quotes an old friend saying of him. "He never let misfortune cloud his life."

But what a lot of misfortune. It goes some way in explaining why Philip sometimes seemed wrong for the part of royal consort. Much of this is not news to Brits; Philip, who just turned 90, has been married to their queen for 64 years, making him the oldest and longest-serving consort of a British sovereign in history. But this is the first Philip biography to focus on his first 32 years, before his wife was crowned.

Americans, however, may be confused by the maddening entanglements of Philip's extended European family and his ethnic and royal connections. Eade does an admirable job explaining all this.

Philip, though born (in 1921 on Corfu) a prince of the now-exiled Greek royal family, is not Greek; he was mostly Danish (the Greeks recruited his grandfather, a Danish prince, to be their king in the 19th century), with German and English thrown in. Like his wife, he is a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. He speaks no Greek, and though he was said to look "like a Greek god" when he was young, because he was so tall, blond and good-looking, in fact, he looked Danish. When he married Elizabeth in 1947, he renounced his Greek citizenship and Greek church and became British, Anglican and a royal duke.

When Philip was a baby, the Greeks got fed up with his family and ran them out of Greece. Subsequently, his mother, Alice, had a nervous breakdown and ended up in an asylum for years. His father drifted away to a mistress in Monaco, where he drank and gambled his way to an early death. His four older sisters married Germans, some who later became Nazis (which was awkward even though Philip fought on the Allied side in WWII). One sister and her entire family later died in a horrific plane crash.

Shuttled around to various relatives and boarding schools in Germany and Britain, Philip grew into a tough young man mostly raised by his English royal relations and marinated in the British navy. He adopted the name of his maternal uncle, the endlessly ambitious Lord Louis Mountbatten (the original German name, Battenberg, was changed during WWI), who helped him get cozy with his distant cousins, the British royal family. Princess Elizabeth, five years his junior, met him when she was 13 and promptly fell in love. He did not but he came round.

Now, four children, eight grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and thousands of public appearances later, Philip is as familiar a presence as the queen herself. If he is occasionally viewed with exasperation, he is also increasingly seen as crucial to her success. "He helped to make her what she's become," Eade quotes a diplomat saying. "We are extremely fortunate that he married her."

When the queen goes, the British no doubt will grieve deeply. This book suggests that when Philip goes, they may find themselves just as mournful.

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New in paperback: 'Sing You Home' by Jodi Picoult

Novelist Jodi Picoult's 18th book, 'Sing You Home,' is now out in paperback. Washington Square Press

Novelist Jodi Picoult's 18th book, 'Sing You Home,' is now out in paperback.

Washington Square Press

Novelist Jodi Picoult's 18th book, 'Sing You Home,' is now out in paperback.

Critic's Pick:Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult (Washington Square Press, $16, reprint). USA TODAY's Jocelyn McClurg called this best-selling novel about a woman's fight for gay rights "an immensely entertaining melodrama."

Also recently released:

Decision Points by George W. Bush (Broadway, $18, non-fiction, reprint). The former president's memoir, in which he looks back at defining moments.

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (Random House, $15, fiction, reprint). A young Serbian doctor is the star of this National Book Award finalist.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Book) (Grand Central, $16.99, non-fiction, reprint). All the answers, in one handy volume.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (Vintage, $16.95, non-fiction, reprint). A history of America's "Great Migration" of blacks from the South to the North.

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris (Random House, $18, non-fiction, reprint). The third and concluding volume of Morris' Teddy Roosevelt biography.

Decoded by Jay-Z (Spiegel & Grau, $25, reprint, non-fiction). An expanded version of the rapper's best seller.

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, $14.99, fiction, reprint). Jackson Brodie is back on the case in Atkinson's mystery.

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Actor James Garner pens a memoir

James Garner's memoir is as easygoing and plain-spoken as his acting persona. The Norman, Okla., native, now 83, obviously wouldn't have it any other way.

From Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford on TV — his two signature roles — to The Great Escape's Hendley The Scrounger and The Americanization of Emily's Charlie Madison, the hustler on the big screen, Garner has personified what he describes as "the reluctant hero." He's cool and calm on the outside, but deep down he's a good-hearted maverick. When pushed, he will shove back. He's particularly wary of bullies and bigots, and proudly recalls attending the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, and to this day remains "a bleeding-heart liberal."

Garner recounts growing up fast and hard in Norman during the Depression. In fact, "he was abused, lonely and deprived," as his wife, Lois, succinctly puts it. No wonder Garner (born Bumgarner) escaped to Hollywood after serving in Korea — but not to become an actor. He was just looking for decent, honest work. He fell into acting serendipitously when he ran into fellow Oklahoman Paul Gregory, a producer and agent, who signed him.

Garner had the good fortune to work with Henry Fonda on Broadway in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (where, as a silent judge, he learned the craft of listening). Later, when actor/director Charles Laughton took over the production, he told Garner that he needed to overcome his fear of being bad. It was a revelation.

But stardom came to Garner on the small screen when he appeared in Maverick from 1957-60. The hit series turned the Western upside down with irreverence. Garner played the con artist with a sense of humor and a code of honor, and the image stuck.

He then honed his persona on the big screen in two World War II dramas: The Great Escape (1963) and The Americanization of Emily (1964). Although the popular Escape is best known for Steve McQueen's famous motorcycle jump, the dramatic highlight is the tenderness displayed between Garner and Donald Pleasence.

Meanwhile, Emily deservedly remains Garner's favorite film, about a coward who ironically becomes a hero. Co-starring Julie Andrews, who also reached new dramatic heights, the brilliant but unsuccessful anti-war drama was scripted by the great Paddy Chayefsky, who had a poetic flair for dialogue.

"Audiences have come around to it, and it's now a cult favorite and a minor classic," Garner says. "Unfortunately, it hasn't put war out of style."

And, unfortunately, Garner is a little too hard on himself about his best scene (a 12-page speech against sentimentalizing war).

However, The Rockford Files (1974-80) embodies everything that Garner represents. His iconoclastic and likable private eye survives every crisis thrown his way. But Garner's devotion to the successful Rockford was more than just an acting job: He also produced it with his own company. Fittingly, it's the highlight of this memoir as well as his career.

Bill Desowitz covers movies for indieWIRE and his blog, Immersed in Movies (, and is writing a book about the on-screen evolution of James Bond from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Stephen King’s creativity lights a dark day in Dallas

Early in Stephen King's new novel about a man going back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy, readers must suspend disbelief and buy into the concept of time travel. Some readers might have to suspend disbelief just to buy an 849-page book, but it's recommended in this case. King's latest epic is as fascinating as the premise sounds.

Jake Epping, a 35-year-old high school teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, learns from his friend Al Templeton, owner of Al's Fatburgers, that the burger joint's pantry is a time-travel portal. Step through it and be instantly transported to 11:58 a.m., Sept. 9, 1958.

Al had been using the portal to buy ground beef at 1958 prices before deciding a nobler use is to change history for the better. But Al has cancer. With his dying wish, he enlists the reluctant Jake to save JFK, thus the book's title, 11/22/63.

Yes, 1958 is five years before Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy. Part of the brilliance (and heft) of this compelling novel is that Jake has to live in the past for five years, eventually moving to the cozy town of Jodi, Texas, where he teaches high school and keeps tabs on Oswald. It's during those years that this historical fiction, so seamlessly blended with science fiction, transforms into an endearing love story when Jake falls for the pretty new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill.

While King is not the first to rewrite the Kennedy assassination via time travel, his storytelling is so persuasive and captivating that it makes originality seem overrated.

King makes the story all the more plausible by having fictional characters and real people in Dallas interact. And he accurately portrays retro details from the late '50s and early '60s. In a time when a gallon of gas costs 19 cents, Jake buys a '54 Ford Sunliner convertible, tunes to the Everly Brothers, and heads south toward Dallas, facing detours all the way.

But Jake's target never detours from Oswald.

In the story's rush to the climactic ending, Jake frantically limps against the clock toward the inevitable moment when Oswald squeezes the trigger from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.

Readers will be reminded of the suspenseful tension of King's horror tales. But 11/22/63 is no nightmare. It is not typical Stephen King. It is extraordinary Stephen King.

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‘Out of Oz’ gives ‘Wicked' series a proper send-off

The fourth and final book in the best-selling series reimagining The Wizard of Oz .

Gregory Maguire's "The Wicked Years" series ends just as the journey of its source material began, with a motley crew traveling down the Yellow Brick Road.

It's not Dorothy in the lead this time around, however — although the girl from Kansas does fittingly play an important role in Out of Oz, the fourth and final volume of the fantasy series Maguire began with Wicked in 1995. The star of this final chapter is instead Rain, the granddaughter of the green-skinned, animal-loving outsider Elphaba.

Wizard of Oz fans know Elphaba, of course, as the Wicked Witch of the West. Yet things aren't exactly giddy anymore in Munchkinland 18 years after the "Matter of Dorothy," when a house was dropped on Elphaba's sister and Elphaba herself melted after Dorothy threw water on her. The Munchkins and others are engaged in a brewing civil war with the Emerald City and "Loyal Oz," led by the emperor — and Elphaba's brother — Shell Thropp.

The self-possessed but good-hearted Glinda — the other star of Wicked — and her staff in Munchkinland are invaded by military forces from Emerald City, and in the novel's overlong beginning sequence, she discovers little Rain can't read but seems to have a natural talent when it comes to a magical book of spells once owned by Elphaba.

The novel picks up when Rain joins with a nomadic group including a crass dwarf and Brrr, aka the Cowardly Lion. They head away from the impending war to find Rain's long-lost parents, and she finds her true power while making allies of the animal and human variety.

In four books, Maguire has expanded the mythology of Oz from L. Frank Baum's books and created a land that's just as rich as Middle-earth or Narnia, and balances the serious with the sublime, especially in its Harry Potter-esque phrases such as "Virus Skepticle's bentlebranch folly." His prose is inviting to new readers, and the author cleverly inserts nods to the 1939 Judy Garland movie and even The Wiz for those obsessed with flying monkeys and Munchkins.

While it meanders at times, Out of Oz is a satisfying finish to the "Wicked Years" saga.

View the original article here

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Best-selling writer Malcolm Gladwell by the numbers

Happy holidays, Malcolm Gladwell fans. Little, Brown is releasing Malcolm Gladwell: Collected: The Definitive Editions, a boxed set of his game-changing best sellers The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers. To mark the occasion, a look at the author by the numbers.

By Brooke Williams

489: Total number of weeks Gladwell's four books, including What the Dog Saw, have spent on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list.

6: Top rank reached on list (Blink on Jan. 27, 2005).

$80: Price of the new boxed set.

48: Gladwell's age.

3: Countries Gladwell has lived in. He was born in England to a British mathematician and Jamaican psychotherapist. They later moved to Canada. Today Gladwell lives in New York City.

10,000: In Outliers: The number of hours needed to gain mastery of something. For example, the time The Beatles spent playing in Hamburg, Germany. Gladwell's 10,000 hours: a decade spent at The Washington Post.

1996: Year Gladwell joined The New Yorker.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

'Olivia' picture book series to continue next fall

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

Olivia, the bossy, headstrong yet charming pig with a passion for fashion and ballet, will have something new to rant about.

The 11th book in Ian Falconer's best-selling picture book series, Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, will be released next fall (2012), publisher Simon & Schuster announced today.

Falconer, in an interview, didn't want to give away too much of the plot, but did say, "Olivia is not one of the fairy princesses."

In fact, he added, the book will feature a rant by Olivia "against the girly Barbie doll culture that so many young girls seem to be gravitating to these days."

Falconer, 52, is a theatrical set and costume designer who also draws covers for The New Yorker magazine. His first book, Olivia (2000), grew out of a Christmas gift that he drew three years earlier for his real-life niece, Olivia Crane.

Even at 3, Falconer told USA TODAY in a 2003 interview, "the real Olivia could argue, stonewall, bulldoze or filibuster her way through any inconvenience to achieve her goal. And always in the nicest way."

The real-life Olivia is now in college, he reports.

And Olivia, a pig who shows no signs of aging, "has evolved into a person who's even more complicated than my niece."

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

BINOCULAR VISION: New & Selected Stories

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Friday, November 18, 2011


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