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Books, authors and all things bookish
In Amy Bloom's 'Lucky Us,' sisters remain plucky in face of tragedy

"There is no such thing as a good writer and a bad liar," Amy Bloom wrote in her 1999 short story "The Story," which remains my favorite of all her work. It's a vivid bit of double vision, Bloom commenting on the process of storytelling even as she engages in it, and it suggests an edge, a brittle humor that I associate with her. In "The Story," Bloom describes a widow, coming to terms with new neighbors she calls the Golddust Twins — until, halfway through, she changes direction, bringing her narrator out from behind the fictive veil. "I have made the best and happiest ending that I can in this world," the character (who may or may not be a version of Bloom) announces, "made it out of the flax and netting and leftover trim of someone else's life, I know, but made it to keep the innocent safe and the guilty punished, and I have made it as the world should be and not as I have found it." I kept thinking about "The Story" as I read Bloom's new novel "Lucky Us," looking for its bite. This...

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'Excavation' digs up memories of an illicit child-teacher relationship

When she was just 13, Wendy Ortiz began to learn important lessons about love, honesty and human depravity. She was a precocious eighth-grader, and she was about to fall under the spell of her 28-year-old English teacher. "Jeff Ivers," as the teacher is known in Ortiz's new memoir (it's not his real name), was at once charming and manipulative. Almost immediately, he seized on his student's desire to be a writer — she'd already produced a handwritten novel — to get closer to her. "Mr. Ivers wants you to call him at home," a classmate tells her. "Here's his phone number. So you guys can talk about your book." "I didn't question why my friend had my teacher's phone number," Ortiz writes. "All I could think about was when." "Excavation: A Memoir" (Future Tense, $15 paperback) is Ortiz's account of the events that unfolded after she called Jeff back. Ortiz, now 41, is a San Fernando Valley-raised poet, essayist and literary activist. "Excavation" is her first book. It's a work of...

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'Close Your Eyes' looks at normal moments amid nuclear horrors

Chris Bohjalian is a master of depicting the small moments — the inevitable routines — that follow in the wake of a trauma. In "The Light in the Ruins," an 18-year-old girl crafts clothes for two dolls as she watches Axis warplanes fly over Tuscany. In "The Double Bind," after a young woman is assaulted, she returns to her swimming routine. In Bohjalian's latest, "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands," a 16-year-old girl named Emily Shepard makes her way around Vermont after a nuclear reactor melts down and blows up. Emily lies, pops Oxies, steals, has sex with truckers and takes a 9-year-old boy named Cameron under her wing as she struggles to survive and avoid authorities. But Bohjalian somehow diffuses the drama, allowing Emily to narrate her own story in a matter-of-fact manner, describing small moments of normalcy that fill in the gaps between horrific events. At a shelter for teenagers, Emily assesses a friend's makeup: "Andrea often looked like she'd been sleeping in eyeliner — which...

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Frank O'Hara's 'Lunch Poems' -- at 50

Frank O'Hara's “Lunch Poems” (City Lights: 86 pp., $14.95) — which has just been reissued in a 50th anniversary hardcover edition — recalls a world of pop art, political and cultural upheaval and (in its own way) a surprising innocence. Wide-eyed, curious, off-the-cuff, O'Hara drops names and jots down the most mundane experiences: buying a hamburger or a malted, wandering through Times Square. “Everything / suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of / a Thursday,” he writes in “A Step Away From Them.” A line like this, and its attendant sensibility, first made me, made many of us, want to write poetry. And yet, it’s a mistake, I think, to believe O’Hara tossed off the poems in this collection, despite their stunning, offhand grace. How else do we account for the formalism of pieces such as “Alma” and “On the Way to the San Remo,” poems that are anything but improvised? This is among the most vivid charms of the book, that it moves back and forth between styles, points-of-view, that it...

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'Unruly Places' is a guide to weird, ruined and wonderful spots

I've been to only three of the "unruly places" featured in Alastair Bonnett's terrific new book (the City of the Dead in Cairo, the "Time Landscape" in Manhattan, and International Airspace). If that seems a low number, bear in mind that other locations include Pripyat, the town adjacent to Chernobyl; Hobyo, a "feral city" in Somalia run by pirates; the Labyrinth, a series of tunnels under Minneapolis; and a traffic island in Newcastle, Britain. "Unruly Places" consists of 47 short chapters, each concentrating on a specific location. Bonnett himself has certainly not been to all of them because some exist only temporarily or, in certain cases, not at all. A professor of social geography at Newcastle University (convenient for that traffic island), Bonnett is a psycho-geographer and a self-described "topophile," or lover of place. The more curious the place, the greater his love. However, as he explains in his introduction, he hasn't chosen the locations in the book because they're...

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Oooh: 'Fifty Shades' trailer hits the Internet

How long will it take the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trailer to rack up a million views? Less than a day, most likely. As of this writing, it has clocked almost 700,000 since debuting on the "Today Show" on Thursday morning. This "Fifty Shades" trailer provides the longest glimpse fans have gotten so far of the hotly-anticipated movie adaptation of the erotic novel. Earlier this week, the trailer was teased with a mini-trailer of its own, but the film won't come to screens until Valentine's Day 2015. The book about the affair between BDSM-enthusiast billionaire Christian Grey and naive college student Anastasia Steele, was a mega-bestseller. It, and its two sequels, "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Fifty Shades Freed," made author E.L. James vault from obscurity to become the top-earning writer of 2013, making an estimated $95 million. Chalk up part of those earnings to a lucrative option for the film. Bestselling books have proved to bring in big box office receipts -- think Harry Potter and...

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Jim Ruland's 'Forest of Fortune' brilliantly taps casinos' irony

Things are rotten in the state of Thunderclap. Or at least they are rotten for the people who wash up at the remote, desert Indian casino somewhere in the mountains inland of San Diego in Jim Ruland's masterpiece of desperation, delusion and misdeeds, "Forest of Fortune." Meet: Pemberton, a recovering alcoholic, drug addict and ad man who goes to the reservation for a job at the Thunderclap Casino. It's his last chance to pull his life together. Meet: Alice the traumatized Indian slot-tech who might be having grand mal seizures or might be experiencing visions. Either way she risks losing her mind or her job or both unless she can figure things out. Meet: Lupita the successful slot junkie who plays (and usually wins) slots at Thunderclap and whose adulthood rivalry and tension with her younger sister haunts her past and present. Get to know the supporting cast of misfits, crooks, junkies, tweakers, gambling addicts and thugs — Denise, Mike, O'Nan, D.D. and the rez-gangsta-rappers of...

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'Tigerman' finds Nick Harkaway in retro superhero mode

Nick Harkaway's fiction grapples with the curious power of genre fiction's cheap, potent end, from the post-apocalyptic kung fu of "The Gone-Away World" to the clockwork bees and London gangsters of "Angelmaker." His third novel, "Tigerman," sets the familiar elements of gaudy old superhero comic books — utility belts, kid sidekicks, secret identities — against the background of the British empire's dying gasp. That gasp is the "Discharge Clouds" of dangerous gases erupting from beneath the former British territory of Mancreu, a lawless little island in the Arabian Sea that's scheduled for imminent destruction. Mancreu's harbor hosts a "Black Fleet" of ships that are up to no good, and the semi-official duty of Tigerman's buttoned-up, burned-out Bruce Wayne type, a British military man named Lester Ferris, is to look the other way. Ferris is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, now serving as the Brevet-Consul to Mancreu; his job is to be visibly British and not make waves of any kind....

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Are you a book hoarder? There's a word for that.

How many books is too many books? What makes you a book hoarder? What do you do when you have too many? In Japanese, there’s a word for it: tsundoku. It’s a noun that describes a person who buys books and doesn’t read them, and then lets them pile up on the floor, on shelves, and assorted pieces of furniture. Frank Rose had a tsundoku problem. After he retired several years ago from his job as a state employee -- he lives in Sacramento -- he accelerated his purchases. Two years ago, he told the Friends of the Arden-Dimick Library in Sacramento that he’d donate his books when he died, the Sacramento Bee reports. By this summer, his collection had grown to 13,000 volumes. Finally, this month, Rose, 85, decided he didn’t want to wait any longer. Library volunteers this week began packing the books -- 500 boxes' worth. It was the biggest donation in the library’s history. A library official told the Bee that “we’re glad he didn’t have to die to give it to us.” “I bought all of them, so...

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Arianna Huffington shares her way to 'Thrive' at meditation studio

As Ariana Huffington writes in “Thrive,” her latest book, she has joined the masses of people trying to slow down, meditate and find an alternative to the harried, no-sleep route to success. Or, at least, those who are talking about it. On Tuesday night, she joined a packed meditation salon full of women -- well dressed and painted toenails all -- and men in rows of black meditation chairs at Unplug, a meditation studio on L.A.’s Westside, to talk about the book. Unplug’s founder, Suze Yalof Schwartz, interviewed Huffington, the president of the Huffington Post, and then Huffington’s sister, Agapi, led everyone in a silent meditation and Huffington signed copies of the book. Sleep, Huffington said, is lacking for so many people that if one types into Google the phrase “why am I so ...” the No. 1 and No. 2 prompted responses are “so tired” and “always tired.” “It’s kind of sad and depressing, to the point where being tired is the new normal,” she commented. Huffington said her change...

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David Shields takes over Dazed magazine -- for the day

Wednesday morning on the website of the British arts and culture magazine Dazed, David Shields curates a group of writings (essays, poems, journal entries) that foreground “the question of how the writer solves being alive.” The contributors are Wayne Koestenbaum, Sarah Manguso, Ander Monson and L.A.’s own Maggie Nelson — four writers I admire quite a bit for, in Shields’ words, “possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art.” He continues: “I no longer believe in Great Man Speaks. I no longer believe in Great Man Alone in a Room, Writing a Masterpiece. I believe in art as pathology lab, landfill, recycling station, death sentence, aborted suicide note, lunge at redemption. Your art is most alive and dangerous when you use it against yourself. That’s why I pick at my scabs. … I wanted literary collage to assuage human loneliness. Nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn’t lie about this — which is what makes it essential.” In many ways, then, this is part...

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Man Booker longlist announced: First global list embraces America

The first-ever global longlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced Wednesday, and includes four Americans. For 2014, books written in English and published in Britain were eligible, regardless of the author's nationality. Americans on the list are Joshua Ferris, Karen Joy Fowler, Siri Hustvedt and Richard Powers. Joseph O'Neill, who lives in New York, was also longlisted but as an Irish American had already been eligible for the prize. All told, the longlist has six Britons, four Americans, one Irish writer, one Irish American and one Australian. Previously, only authors from Britain, the Commonwealth nations, Ireland and Zimbabwe were eligible. When the change was announced last year, some in the British literary world expressed concern that British writers might be shortchanged by the expansion, shouldered aside by the larger American publishing market. The significant presence of American authors on the list may give them cause for continued concern. ...

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