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Friday, July 29, 2011

J.K. Rowling announces Harry Potter e-books

Fans lamenting the end of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and the subsequent movies can rejoice.

British author J.K. Rowling announced her new website project, Pottermore, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Thursday. For the Pottermore project, Rowling has written new material about the characters, places and objects in the Harry Potter stories. By Akira Suemori, AP

British author J.K. Rowling announced her new website project, Pottermore, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Thursday. For the Pottermore project, Rowling has written new material about the characters, places and objects in the Harry Potter stories.

By Akira Suemori, AP

British author J.K. Rowling announced her new website project, Pottermore, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Thursday. For the Pottermore project, Rowling has written new material about the characters, places and objects in the Harry Potter stories.

The boy wizard's creator, at a news conference in London this morning, announced that she will share extensive new material on the Potter saga on a new website, Pottermore, that will go live in October. The site will launch in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish, with more languages to follow.

"No author could have asked for a more wonderful, diverse and loyal readership," Rowling told fans in a YouTube video also released this morning.

"I'm thrilled to say that I'm now in a position to give you something unique, an online reading experience unlike any other. It's called Pottermore. It's the same story with a few crucial additions. The most important one is you. Just as the experience of reading requires that the imaginations of the author and reader work together to create the story, so Pottermore will be built in part by you, the reader."

One of the biggest announcements related to the website is that the Potter books will for the first time be available in e-book form.

"Digital generations will be able to enjoy a safe, unique online reading experience built around the Harry Potter books," Rowling said. "Pottermore will be the place where fans of any age can share, participate in and rediscover the stories. It will also be the exclusive place to purchase digital audio books and for the first time e-books in the Harry Potter series. I'll be joining in too because I will be sharing additional information I've been hoarding for years about the world of Harry Potter."

The new material will include more details on the characters, objects and places in her beloved series.

"Fans are really excited," says Andrews Sims, editor of the fan site. "It's a pretty big day for Potter fans to hear so much from J.K. Rowling and see this project that's going to be coming out later this year."

Pottermore, Sims says, "is a step toward a Potter encyclopedia that fans have wanted for a long time. The exclusive content is definitely going to get a lot of people using this. It's a cool way to reveal all this new information that she's been quote unquote hoarding."

On Rowling's equally big news that her books will now be available in digital form, Sims says: "Fans have wanted Harry Potter e-books for a long time. I'm glad they're finally doing it because this is obviously one of the greatest book series of all time, and now it's available for a lot of people who want to experience it through an e-reader."

Edward Drogos, senior site editor for, another fan site, says he'll be first in line to buy the e-books and read them on his iPad. "This is an amazing addition to what Jo (Rowling) has already created for us."

Of Pottermore, Drogos says, "Jo has come up with something fans are simply going to love. We all want more information about Harry Potter. Seeing all this extra information and material that she's had in her head for the past 13 years -- that's what I'm most excited to read and experience."

Pottermore, it was also announced, is being developed in a partnership with Sony and will be an outlet for Sony products designed for Potter fans.

A news release distributed after the news conference explained that on the Pottermore website "the storyline will be brought to life with sumptuous newly-commissioned illustrations and interactive 'Moments' through which you can navigate, starting with the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's) Stone. On entering, you choose a magic username and begin your experience. As you move through the chapters, you can read and share exclusive writing from J.K. Rowling, and, just as Harry joins Hogwarts, so can you. You visit Diagon Alley, get sorted into a house, cast spells and mix potions to help your house compete for the House Cup."

Key features of the website, according to the news release, will bring to life both the Sorting Hat and Ollivanders experiences from her books "by revealing the questions asked by the Sorting Hat — which places newcomers into their Hogwarts houses according to their characteristics — and the magic behind the Wand Chooser — which finds the right wand for each user from over 33,000 possible combinations."

Beginning today, fans can submit their e-mail addresses on in order to be contacted by the site following the opening of registration on July 31, Harry's birthday. On that date, an online challenge will be launched in which the first million people to complete their registration will gain early entry into the website.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New Tom Clancy novel ripped from the headlines

By Craig Wilson, USA TODAY

You might as well be reading today's paper. Terrorism. Pakistan. Navy SEALS. They're all here in Tom Clancy and Peter Telep's Against All Enemies, which enters USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list at No. 2. Clancy returns with a tale of a terrorist bombing in Pakistan which sends a former Navy SEAL into the mountains to uncover the culprits. But what he finds sends him halfway around the world to America's border. "Tom's novels have always been prescient, whether they were about technology or military tactics or geo-political maneuvering," says his editor, Tom Colgan. "(Here) he examines the unacknowledged war on America's doorstep, the bloody slaughter perpetrated by the Mexican drug cartels. Tom brings his unique Clancy twist to the story and warns us about the potential disaster a destabilized neighbor poses to the U.S."

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Harry Potter e-books plan worries bookstore owners

NEW YORK — Author J.K. Rowling has joined the 21st century on her own special terms.

British author J.K. Rowling poses for photographers as she announces her new website project Pottermore at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on June 23. Akira Suemori, AP

British author J.K. Rowling poses for photographers as she announces her new website project Pottermore at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on June 23.

Akira Suemori, AP

British author J.K. Rowling poses for photographers as she announces her new website project Pottermore at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on June 23.

One of the world's most famous digital holdouts, Rowling announced Thursday that a new interactive website,, will be the exclusive seller of the e-book editions of her iconic Harry Potter series. The news is a landmark for the growing electronic market, especially for the relatively small number of young adult e-book fans, and an unwelcome surprise for the traditional stores which helped sell hundreds of millions of Potter novels.

"Bricks and mortar stores are taking a lot of bullets and there's a limit to how many bullets we can take," says Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn, one of more than 200 independent sellers of e-books through Google. "If the sellers of the Rowling e-books are saying they don't need bricks and mortar stores, then that's the result you'll get."

Jon Howells, spokesman for Britain's Waterstone's chain, said the Harry Potter book launches, which for years drew thousands of fans in wizard garb to midnight store openings, "have become the stuff of legend at Waterstone's and other booksellers."

"We're therefore disappointed that, having been a key factor in the growth of the Harry Potter phenomenon since the first book was published, the book trade is effectively banned from selling the long-awaited e-book editions," he said.

Tom Turcan, chief operating officer of Pottermore, said Rowling wanted "to make the books available to everybody, not to make them available only to people who own a particular set of devices, or tethered to a particular set of platforms."

During a press conference in London on Thursday, Rowling cited the special bond she has had with fans online and said she was "phenomenally lucky in that I have the resources to do it myself and therefore I got to do it, I think, right."

"I think this is a fantastic and unique experience that I can afford in every sense," she said.

E-books have jumped from less than 1 percent of total sales four years ago to more than 20 percent. Children's books are catching up as the Kindle, Nook and other devices become cheaper and touchscreen readers such as the Nook and the iPad enable illustrated stories to be available in digital form. Potter books remain steady sellers four years after the series ended, especially as the final movie approaches, and publishers believe the e-books will be as revolutionary for the digital market as the paper ones were for the traditional market.

"The Potter books took children's books in general to another level and we've never gone back," said Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children's Books. "And I think the news today could be the tipping point for 8-to-12-year-old market."

Pottermore is far more than a retail outlet. The site lets fans delve into Harry Potter's beloved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They can shop for wands in Diagon Alley, travel to Hogwarts from the imaginary Platform 9 3/4 at London's King's Cross train station and be sorted into Hogwarts school houses by the perceptive Sorting Hat.

Along the way are wand fights, games and new information about characters beloved around the world, including Harry's boorish relatives, the Dursleys. The website also features 18,000 words of new Potter material from Rowling, who said it will have "information I have been hoarding for years" about the books' characters and settings. The level of detail gives Potter fans new reasons to obsess over the wizard and his friends. The final Potter movie, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," opens in July.

"I go into ridiculous detail about wand woods," Rowling said.

A beta version of the site launches July 31, Harry Potter's birthday, and the e-books become available in October under an unusual arrangement. They will be sold directly from Pottermore, with Rowling's longtime publishers, Bloomsbury Publishing in the United Kingdom and Scholastic Inc. in the United States, sharing revenues. Scholastic and other publishers have long sold books directly to customers, but through their own websites. And they traditionally have made those releases available to retailers, too.

Children's booksellers have extra reasons to worry. Potter books remain a rite of passage among young readers, one that often includes a visit to the local store. That initiation may now happen online.

"It's one thing if an individual sells book on her own, I can understand that," says Ann Seaton, manager of Hicklebee's Children's Book Store in San Jose, Calif. "But it did sort of surprise me that the publisher would cut us out of the loop. That makes it hard for us.

"We have sold a huge amount of Potter books," she said. "And we were one of those stores that had the midnight parties when a new Potter book came out. I don't think we'll be having a party for the e-books."

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

It's a James Patterson double scoop at bookstores

James Patterson, who has broken most bookselling records, is about to try something his publisher believes has never been done before: release two new books on the same day.

Patterson: One for adults, one for kids. Deborah Feingold

Patterson: One for adults, one for kids.

Deborah Feingold

Patterson: One for adults, one for kids.

Patterson's murder thriller, Now You See Her, written with Michael Ledwidge, goes on sale Monday encased in a narrow wrapper that urges: "While you're here, don't forget the kids."

It shows the cover of Patterson's other Monday release: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, written with Chris Tebbetts and illustrated by Laura Park, aimed at readers 8-12.

Patterson, who has had 19 titles hit No. 1 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list in the past decade, says he can't remember who suggested the dual release.

"But it's a good way to remind parents that it's part of their job to find books their kids will enjoy," he says. "Books that they'll finish and say, 'Give me another one.' Reading is a kind of muscle you need to use."

Patterson says his son Jack, 13, who has turned into a voracious reader after a slow start, inspired him to write for kids, including sci-fi series Maximum Ride and Daniel X, and to create a website,, which Publishers Weekly praised as "clearly not a cynical ploy to sell more of his own books."

Middle School is designed as if it's written and drawn by an artistic/mischievous student out to break every school rule.

Patterson says there's a "connection" to Jeff Kinney's best-selling series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but his inspiration was Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an award-winning 532-page kids' mystery set in Paris, told with 300 pages of drawings, photos and old movie stills. (The Martin Scorsese film releases Nov. 23.)

"That took the ceiling off for how the visual stuff can enhance the text," he says. "That got me going."

Not that there are signs that Patterson, 64, is slowing down.

He has five more novels out this year, three for adults and two for teens, but may end his Maximum Ride series.

More kids' books are coming, he says, including a Middle School sequel and a new series with a girl detective, written with Maxine Paetro.

His growing list of collaborators raises questions about his role. Last month at a sold-out reading in New York's Lincoln Center with Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians), a young girl asked Patterson why he didn't write more books by himself.

He said he has too many ideas to keep up with if he worked alone, adding, "There is nothing that I put my name on that I don't put through several drafts."

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Find the great outdoors inside these kids' books

The outdoors, from baby blue jays to baseball, figure in four new books for young readers, from preschool to high school. USA TODAY takes a look.

Like a tamer 'Wild Things'

The Woods, written and illustrated by Paul Hoppe (Chronicle, 36 pp., $16.99, for ages 4-8, * * * out of four): In a gentle variation on Maurice Sendak's classic adventure/nightmare Where the Wild Things Are, the young unnamed narrator of The Woods can't find his favorite stuffed bunny at bedtime. That leads him into the woods, which seem to sprout right in his bedroom. The brave narrator encounters bears, dragons and monsters, although none, it turns out, should scare even the youngest readers. Paul Hoppe's text and watercolors make for comforting bedtime reading.

Finding nature in the city

My Baby Blue Jays, by John Berendt (Viking, 32 pp., $16.99, ages 5-8, * * *): Wildlife adventures can be found anywhere, even in Manhattan. Best-selling author John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) spent a spring photographing one of nature's miracles on his 86th Street balcony, where two blue jays were building a nest. It was soon home to three baby blue jays, which learn to fly the hard way and seem to be unperturbed by their personal photographer. Nature (and Disney movies) can be cruel, but Berendt's blue jays find nothing but blue skies in the big city.

Covering historical bases

First Pitch: How Baseball Began, by John Thorn (Beach Ball Books, 40 pp., $19.99 hardcover, 14.99 paperback, ages 9 and up, * * *): Young baseball fans ready for revisionist history can learn much from John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, who writes, "Saying Abner Doubleday invented baseball is as ridiculous as saying the moon is made of green cheese." In an illustrated, kid-friendly episodic history, Thorn traces the evolution (rather than creation) of baseball and celebrates unsung pioneers such as Doc Adams, who, in about 1850, invented the idea of shortstops, and Octavius V. Catto, a 19th-century combination of Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr.

Rough seas for this teen

Sharks & Boys, by Kristen Tracy (Hyperion, 264 pp., $16.99, ages 12-18, * * 1/2): At 16, Enid thinks she has problems: Her mom and philandering dad are in couples therapy, and her boyfriend wants a "break," which, she hopes, doesn't mean a "breakup." Driven by suspicion and jealousy, Enid ends up as a stowaway on what was supposed to be an all-boy sailing adventure. A storm turns it into a high school version of Survivor, without the cameras but with a lot more reality. The sitcom-like dialogue becomes deadly serious as Enid learns, "Life is not fair. This world will swallow anyone. Even if you know how to swim."

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Glenn Beck is back on best-seller list

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

Glenn Beck, the darling of the Tea Party, is losing his show on Fox News (he says he jumped; New York magazine reports he was pushed), but he continues to build his media empire online, on radio and in books. Beck's The Original Argument: The Federalists' Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century, a paperback original, lands on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list at No. 5. It's his seventh book in the top 10 since 2007. Beck's Christmas novel, The Snow Angel, is out Oct. 25. And in partnership with Simon & Schuster, Beck's production firm is starting its own imprint, Mercury Ink. Its first title, out Aug. 9, is a young adult thriller, Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans, who self-published The Christmas Box in 1993. A year later, it hit No. 1 on the list.

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More books for fans of Louisa May Alcott

By Carol Memmott, USA TODAY

Fans of Louisa May Alcott can rejoice. Last year's The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees is new in paperback from Berkley. It's a perfect summer read. And Susan Cheever's Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography is out Nov. 8 in paperback from Simon & Schuster. Here's my review. In other news: two more books inspired by Alcott are new to stores. Louisa and the Missing Heriress by Anna Maclean, a paperback re-issue from Obsidian of a 2004 hardcover novel that is the first in a series of mysteries starring the clever Alcott as a daring sleuth. The plot: Alcott takes on the role of amateur detective after the body of her friend Dorothy Wortham is found floating in the Boston harbor. A second novel in the series, Louisa and the Crystal Gazer, will be published next February. Also new to stores: The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly from Touchstone. The author re-imagines the lives of Jo March's descendants. If these books don't satisfy ultimate fans, re-reading Alcott's books is recommended.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review-a-Day for Fri, Jun 24: The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe's Families After World War II

by Tara Zahra A review by Mark Mazower

No sooner had I finished this fascinating book than I remembered the shattering scene in Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise when the teenage orphans whom a fatherly priest has been shepherding to the safety of a secluded chateau suddenly turn on him like a pack of wolves and stone him to death. It is an unforgettable moment that seems to sum up all the madness of France's panic in the summer of 1940. But in its almost Jacobin ghoulishness, the event is also mysteriously implausible.

Now, after reading The Lost Children, it seems more decipherable. Throughout the war and after it, Europeans were completely obsessed with the fate of children. Everything -- the health of society, the prospects for democracy, the future of the nation itself -- was believed to depend on their well-being. And so much threatened their tiny souls: the war destroyed hearth and home, forced families apart, and flung people together in temporary alliances that could not last. In her portrayal of the precise moment when civilization collapsed, revealing its most treasured possessions to be no more than a bunch of feral psychopaths, Nemirovsky captured the deepest anxieties of her generation.

Tara Zahra, a historian who made her name writing about the ambiguities of nationality in Czechoslovakia, has now added an important contribution to the growing literature on Europe's reconstruction after World War II. Children -- what was happening to them as a result of the war, and what to do with them after it -- turn out to have been at the epicenter of what she terms a "psychological Marshall Plan." Through the arguments about children we come to learn much about postwar Europe's state of mind.In fact, the intense debate about how to care for children and bring them whole out of the war's devastation was already underway before the end of hostilities.

The wartime anxiety articulated by Suite Francaise also permeated the Czech fortress ghetto TerezĂ­n, where Jewish educators debated the appropriate pedagogy for the children in their care. And this was just the beginning. After the war, the arguments intensified. Should children be brought up as self-reliant individuals, or were they to see themselves as part of a collective? If the latter, was their natural unit the family or the nation? This dilemma posed itself with special force for Jewish children, because so many families had been destroyed, so many children were left parentless, and the chances for any resumption of Jewish communal life in Europe seemed remote.

But it was not only Zionists who sought to claim children for their national cause. With the credibility and the prestige of Europe's nation-state model challenged by the experience of Nazi rule, most political activists keen to guarantee the rebirth of their nation at liberation regarded children as a precious resource. Several decades of demographic scaremongering had not helped. Orphans in particular found themselves fought over in a fashion not so different from the way Nazis had tried to claim blue-eyed and blond-haired Polish children during the war. But now the children in question were born to German women and French soldiers, and it was the French authorities who sought to bolster their war-torn country and weaken the boches by grabbing children for themselves.

To Germany's east, Czech officials acted similarly, and one of the many virtues of Zahra's pan-European optic is to reveal the persistence of nationalism across the continent at the war's end and the relative insignificance of the ideological divide of the Cold War in this moment of reconstruction. Czechs and Poles were as anxious to claim children as the French were, and for similar reasons. In every case, of course, it was a matter of the right kind of children: Jewish babies or black babies were not wanted, and a government might at one and the same time be trying to keep half-German babies in and push Jewish children out.

Another theme that runs through Zahra's book is the mistrust that officials, psychologists, and activists shared for parents. This was not just a matter of pursuing orphans: most of the children in displaced persons camps, for instance, had one or both parents and other close relatives alive. But could parents themselves be trusted to live up to their ethical and psychological responsibilities (this was where many of the professionals had their doubts), or to bear their responsibilities to the nation? Thus the postwar years saw two contradictory trends: on the one hand, the revival of a discourse of familialism that made the nuclear unit the core of social stability and ultimately turned the 1950s into the most conservative decade of the century; and on the other, the emergence of a new state activism that supervised parents and children alike, and intervened in unprecedented ways in their personal affairs.

The most extreme form that this intervention took was kidnapping, something we associate with the Nazis' Germanization campaign in occupied Poland in particular. The shadow of Roald Dahl's Child Catcher -- immortalized in the film version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang -- hangs over these pages, especially as the organized seizure of children continued after the Nazi defeat. Zahra tells several extraordinary stories. In 1946, a few Polish Jewish survivors criticized Zionist representatives who had spirited off their children from communal children's homes in order to smuggle them into Palestine against the wishes of their parents; but despite their protests, they failed to secure their return.

Another episode comes from France a few years later, in the so-called Finaly case, where a tug-of-war over two Jewish boys between their surviving relatives and the Catholic creche headmistress who had sheltered them degenerated into outright abduction by the Church, which smuggled the boys into Spain. The case made national headlines and led some observers to fear another Dreyfus affair until the boys were returned to their relatives in 1953, a decade after their parents, who died in Auschwitz, had parted with them. One thinks, too, of the accusations of child abduction leveled by both sides in the Greek civil war; the so-called "child-gathering" of the leftist rebels, who spirited thousands across the Albanian frontier and into a life behind the Iron Curtain, remains contentious to this day.

Zahra is especially good at tracing the connections between pedagogic theories and nationalist politics, and her rich source basis allows her to demonstrate the ubiquity of the problem. Was there anyone in the 1940s who did not worry about Europe's future in terms of its children? And yet the children themselves are only an intermittent presence in these pages, entering as a source of strife and disappearing once the conflict over them is resolved. Compared with some recent popular histories, their voices are infrequently heard here, and as a result one cannot help but wonder whether all this anxiety about their psychic resilience was really warranted.

There is not much worth reading on the long-term impact of wartime on children, but what there is suggests that kids are on the whole a tough lot, able to thrive in the most extraordinary circumstances and with a remarkable capacity to develop their own sense of what is happening to them. Perhaps, from the child's viewpoint, Nemirovsky's kindly priest-guide and Dahl's sinister Child Catcher were two sides of the same coin. On the basis of this book, there would be much to support such a view: when World War II ended, it was the adults who were lost.

Mark Mazower teaches history at Columbia University.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Review-a-Day for Sat, Jun 25: Haunted Houses

by Lynne Tillman A review by Jill Owens

Even working at Powell's, surrounded by books, every once in a while I'll be blown away by an incredible author that I've somehow just missed, despite years of glowing reviews and critical praise. If I'm lucky, that author will have multiple books, giving me a new vein of backlist to mine. Such was the case this week with Lynne Tillman and her 1987 novel Haunted Houses, which I would have continued to overlook if Richard Nash's new publishing company, Red Lemonade, hadn't recently republished it. (I'd argue that you should take a good look at any book Red Lemonade puts out; their other title I've read, Vanessa Veselka's Zazen, wowed several of our staff and is currently one of our New Favorites.)

Told in alternating chapters in the voices of three girls whose lives never intersect but who nevertheless struggle with the same problems -- sexuality, art, money, culture, self-invention -- Haunted Houses is three variations on a coming-of-age story. Friendships, particularly intense and overwhelming ones, feature prominently in the novel. So do family ties and the kinds of early, fierce bonds a person makes when they're very young. Tillman's subject is essentially the ways we form our identities, and she is most interested in those spaces where the self blurs into or onto someone else.

Tillman's writing is astonishing. There's no other word for it. You could classify her along with writers like Joy Williams and Lorrie Moore, or perhaps even some of Joyce Carol Oates's early, best short fiction. But, her voice is singular and remarkable and honest, precise and metaphorical without being in the least showy or clever. I couldn't put the book down and was carried along as much by the language as the characters. One example that perfectly encapsulates awkward boredom:

"Let's go see a movie at the museum." Felix was looking at his foot and muttering to himself. "This is boring," Jane protested. "It's raining, you're looking at your foot, I have to read some stuff I don't want to... " "And... ?" Felix asked. "And nothing."

There were a few, maybe twenty more minutes of this kind of nothing that occurs between people who spend a great deal of time together and probably shouldn't.

Here's another wonderful sample of Tillman's not-quite stream-of-consciousness prose:
She hated the way people's faces looked as they cried. Faces contort, crumple. They compress as if protecting themselves, pulling themselves in. The eyes shut tight. What we take as the person's personality seems to recede. People look as if they're being hit even when they're not being touched.
The epigraph Tillman chose goes some way towards explaining the title and encapsulating her subject: "We are all haunted houses," which the poet H. D. wrote in Tribute to Freud. Character, not plot -- or rather, character as plot -- is the backbone of Haunted Houses (even though at one point, Grace ironically complains, " people write stories about people who don't do anything?"). Tillman's created a remarkable piece of art. I am thrilled that I get to read more of her work, now that I've found her. spacer

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Review-a-Day for Thu, Jun 23: The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century

by Scott Miller A review by Elinor Langer

Even without the intrinsic draw of the 1901 presidential assassination that shapes its pages, Scott Miller's The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century would be absorbing reading. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal with a flair for presenting complicated issues and personalities as an intelligible whole, Miller examines the social, economic and political forces that underlay the transformation of the U.S. after the Civil War from a feeble newcomer in world affairs to the global power we know today in a way that keeps you learning and turning pages at the same time. Rewarding as it is to be able to grasp at last such late 19th-century mysteries as the monetary debates that have befuddled college students ever since, what makes the book compelling is neither the narrative nor the explanations but the sense of familiarity that pervades it all. Indeed, so many of the circumstances and events of the earlier time have parallels in our own that the experience of reading it is practically eerie.

The key to the similarities between then and now lies in the "historic shift in the role of business in American politics" in the 1896 election. Rich Democrats supported Republican William McKinley, corporations made direct contributions for the first time and millionaires marched in the streets of New York. That was all to defeat populist orator William Jennings Bryan, who proposed to take the U.S. off the gold standard to provide the farmers and workers who were his followers with more money. And money they badly needed.

"For every tycoon smoking cigars wrapped in hundred-dollar bills ... there were tens of thousands of ... workers for whom life was simply a battle for existence," Miller writes. In this period of huge industrial expansion, it was not unemployment, but wages too low to provide even a fully-employed laborer with enough income to feed a family that was to blame. "'I don't live. I am literally starving,'" a Cincinnati cigar maker told an interviewer who asked how he supported his wife and three children on $5 per week. The same interests that benefited from the unequal distribution of wealth at home also benefited from the acquisition of territory abroad, as the U.S. took over from defeated Spain its former colonies, including Cuba and the Philippines, along with the bitter insurgents who had launched the anti-imperial struggles in the first place.

But it is in the details as much as in the larger framework that some of the most striking echoes seem to lie.

It is impossible to read about the strong-arming corporate-guarding Pinkertons of the past without the strong-arming corporate-guarding Blackwaters of the present springing spontaneously to mind. Anarchist theorist Johann Most's handbook on explosives, The Science of Revolutionary Warfare, is right at home on the Internet. Emma Goldman's lover Alexander Berkman was a Russian anarchist and not a Muslim terrorist, but his doubly-failed plan to blow himself up with nitroglycerine after assassinating Pennsylvania steel magnate Henry Clay Frick reads like today's suicide bomber headlines. The hunt for Philippine guerilla leader Emilio Aguinaldo who "would time and again slip through [the] fingers" of the Americans pursuing him was led by the very general who had led the hunt for Apache Chief Geronimo, the recent code name for Osama bin Laden. That water torture was first used by American soldiers to coerce information from Aguinaldo's followers makes it all the more chilling.

Historical analogies are both irresistible and inexact, and Miller has wisely chosen to let them speak for themselves, but he has made his point. The fatal encounter of McKinley and friendless anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Buffalo, N.Y., fairgrounds was a singular occurrence, but it was embedded in the life of its times. What readers take away from this lucid and disturbing book will inevitably vary with what they bring to it in the first place, but one possibility is, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer -- and sometimes the poor even get mad."

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Friday, July 15, 2011


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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

THE DEAL FROM HELL: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers

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Monday, July 11, 2011

MARTIAN SUMMER: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission

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HAVANA REAL: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

MANANA FOREVER?: Mexico and the Mexicans

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Friday, July 8, 2011

THE STORY OF CHARLOTTE'S WEB: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic

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Thursday, July 7, 2011


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Wednesday, July 6, 2011


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Monday, July 4, 2011

MRS. MATTINGLY'S MIRACLE: The Prince, the Widow, and the Cure That Shocked Washington City

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Sunday, July 3, 2011


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Saturday, July 2, 2011

WALKING TO HOLLYWOOD: Memories of Before the Fall

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