Mason, Dixon and the complexities of history
Boundaries: How the Mason-Dixon Line Settled a Family Feud and Divided a Nation by Sally M. Walker (Candlewick, $24.99).
Sally M. Walker’s history of the Mason-Dixon line for young adult readers (‘tweens and teens) is as comprehensive and as intriguing as any good history book. 
Not only does Boundaries deal with the actual work of setting a line between North and South—and Walker thoroughly explains the significance of that in and of itself as part of the lead-up to the Civil War and the immense technical feat for Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon—but she also takes the time to explore geography, religion, politics, sidereal time, and the ongoing disputes between several states about exactly where the borders were and who had the right to collect taxes. 
In short, it shows how interdisciplinary the study of history always is, thus making it a useful resource and a fascinating example of writing for youth. While this will mostly be of interest to librarians and history teachers, if there’s a young history buff in your life, Boundaries would make an excellent gift. 

Mason, Dixon and the complexities of history

Boundaries: How the Mason-Dixon Line Settled a Family Feud and Divided a Nation by Sally M. Walker (Candlewick, $24.99).

Sally M. Walker’s history of the Mason-Dixon line for young adult readers (‘tweens and teens) is as comprehensive and as intriguing as any good history book.

Not only does Boundaries deal with the actual work of setting a line between North and South—and Walker thoroughly explains the significance of that in and of itself as part of the lead-up to the Civil War and the immense technical feat for Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon—but she also takes the time to explore geography, religion, politics, sidereal time, and the ongoing disputes between several states about exactly where the borders were and who had the right to collect taxes.

In short, it shows how interdisciplinary the study of history always is, thus making it a useful resource and a fascinating example of writing for youth. While this will mostly be of interest to librarians and history teachers, if there’s a young history buff in your life, Boundaries would make an excellent gift. 

How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future

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Taking on the boys’ club
The Blazing World: A Novel by Siri Hustvedt (Simon and Schuster, $26).
Are women artists discriminated against?
Any woman who has made art and attempted to be taken seriously would probably think “yes” and say “no,” if only because complaining about the “boys’ club” is enough to get your work further marginalized, if not outright ignored. But those of us of a certain generation have seen all-too-often the dismissiveness that accompanies the work, not only of women, but of anyone who isn’t part of that “boys’ club.” 
Of course, that’s all anecdotal—until we take into account something like the VIDA count in the literary world, or perhaps use the Bechdel Test in film.
In Siri Hustvedt’s most recent novel, a visual artist, Harriet Burden—she goes by the name “Harry,” but everyone knows she’s a woman—is the widow of an art dealer. Fed up with the status quo, she begins to exhibit her works under the names of male accomplices, always burying clues to her real identity. In a neat post-modern trick, the novel is styled as an artistic biography of the late Burden as written by an art professor. 
The Blazing World is literary, but not inaccessible to those of us who know nothing about fine art. It’s also not a polemic; Harry isn’t a terribly pleasant woman and she knows it, and her final work of art is the perpetration of a hoax on the art world (most of which refuse to admit it!), which isn’t kind at all no matter how much the members of that club might deserve it. 
But she does pay a price for it. Great insight always comes with a price.

Taking on the boys’ club

The Blazing World: A Novel by Siri Hustvedt (Simon and Schuster, $26).

Are women artists discriminated against?

Any woman who has made art and attempted to be taken seriously would probably think “yes” and say “no,” if only because complaining about the “boys’ club” is enough to get your work further marginalized, if not outright ignored. But those of us of a certain generation have seen all-too-often the dismissiveness that accompanies the work, not only of women, but of anyone who isn’t part of that “boys’ club.” 

Of course, that’s all anecdotal—until we take into account something like the VIDA count in the literary world, or perhaps use the Bechdel Test in film.

In Siri Hustvedt’s most recent novel, a visual artist, Harriet Burden—she goes by the name “Harry,” but everyone knows she’s a woman—is the widow of an art dealer. Fed up with the status quo, she begins to exhibit her works under the names of male accomplices, always burying clues to her real identity. In a neat post-modern trick, the novel is styled as an artistic biography of the late Burden as written by an art professor. 

The Blazing World is literary, but not inaccessible to those of us who know nothing about fine art. It’s also not a polemic; Harry isn’t a terribly pleasant woman and she knows it, and her final work of art is the perpetration of a hoax on the art world (most of which refuse to admit it!), which isn’t kind at all no matter how much the members of that club might deserve it.

But she does pay a price for it. Great insight always comes with a price.

Mark Twain, NorCal, and America’s literary style
The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff (The Penguin Press, $27.95).
My interview with Ben Tarnoff is the lead feature in today’s Sacramento Bee. 

Twain wouldn’t have become Twain without his experiences in Northern California and his participation in the literary scene that Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard helped create, argues Ben Tarnoff in “The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature” (The Penguin Press,$27.95, 336 pages),
Tarnoff, a San Francisco native, writes about American history for Lapham’s Quarterly and has been praised by The New York Times for his use of biography as a way to show the development of historical change. On Wednesday he will read from “The Bohemians” at Time Tested Books.
“The discoveries (Twain) made in the West,” said Tarnoff, “the type of discoveries that he later used to transform American literature – this deeper use of dialect, this rich irony, this rambling tableau – all of this was something that other writers of the community, particularly Bret Harte, were interested in and were trying to develop on their own.”

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/04/22/6341256/books-the-bohemians-looks-mark.html#storylink=cpy


Tarnoff will read and sign copies at Time Tested Books, 1114 21st St., Sacramento, tomorrow night at 7 p.m.—make sure to say hello when you see me there.

Mark Twain, NorCal, and America’s literary style

The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff (The Penguin Press, $27.95).

My interview with Ben Tarnoff is the lead feature in today’s Sacramento Bee. 

Twain wouldn’t have become Twain without his experiences in Northern California and his participation in the literary scene that Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard helped create, argues Ben Tarnoff in “The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature” (The Penguin Press,$27.95, 336 pages),

Tarnoff, a San Francisco native, writes about American history for Lapham’s Quarterly and has been praised by The New York Times for his use of biography as a way to show the development of historical change. On Wednesday he will read from “The Bohemians” at Time Tested Books.

“The discoveries (Twain) made in the West,” said Tarnoff, “the type of discoveries that he later used to transform American literature – this deeper use of dialect, this rich irony, this rambling tableau – all of this was something that other writers of the community, particularly Bret Harte, were interested in and were trying to develop on their own.”

Tarnoff will read and sign copies at Time Tested Books, 1114 21st St., Sacramento, tomorrow night at 7 p.m.—make sure to say hello when you see me there.

Noir in need of an update
The Shadow Volume Three: The Light of the World by Chris Roberson, Giovanni Timpano and Alex Ross (Dynamite Entertainment, $19.99).
The Shadow meets his doppelgänger in this action-adventure comic: A religious fanatic who is doing the work of “the light” when she murders—with a sword—practitioners of sins. In fact, it’s a bit like a comic book version of Se7en, much lighter on the gore and sex and heavier on the not-so-witty repartee.
Frankly, relaunching the Shadow in contemporary times would hold more interest, because even as the Shadow is mocking the Phantom Lady’s Manichean world-view, he’s kinda got one himself. While the ’40s noir approach is interesting, it doesn’t give the story much room to grow, and the dialogue is really hard to take. 
Fortunately, the art makes up for that, and given that the Shadow stays in, well, the shadows while the Phantom Lady is the agent of the light, there’s a lot of contrast to play with.
And another thing: The secondary character Margo Lane—the Shadow’s “girl Friday”—is actually the most interesting character here, next to Shrewy the taxi driver. Let’s see some more of that!

Noir in need of an update

The Shadow Volume Three: The Light of the World by Chris Roberson, Giovanni Timpano and Alex Ross (Dynamite Entertainment, $19.99).

The Shadow meets his doppelgänger in this action-adventure comic: A religious fanatic who is doing the work of “the light” when she murders—with a sword—practitioners of sins. In fact, it’s a bit like a comic book version of Se7en, much lighter on the gore and sex and heavier on the not-so-witty repartee.

Frankly, relaunching the Shadow in contemporary times would hold more interest, because even as the Shadow is mocking the Phantom Lady’s Manichean world-view, he’s kinda got one himself. While the ’40s noir approach is interesting, it doesn’t give the story much room to grow, and the dialogue is really hard to take.

Fortunately, the art makes up for that, and given that the Shadow stays in, well, the shadows while the Phantom Lady is the agent of the light, there’s a lot of contrast to play with.

And another thing: The secondary character Margo Lane—the Shadow’s “girl Friday”—is actually the most interesting character here, next to Shrewy the taxi driver. Let’s see some more of that!

Belief in all its variations
Acts of God: Stories by Ellen Gilchrist (Algonquin Books, $23.95).
The National Book Award-winning Ellen Gilchrist (Victory Over Japan: Stories, 1984) returns with a collection of stories that directly address belief and the meaning of life and death. These are not simplistic stories, though readers may be deceived into thinking so by Gilchrist’s plain style. Instead, we spend a great deal of time among the people of the Southeast and Southern Midwest in dire circumstances—several of the stories center around Katrina and are set in Mississippi and New Orleans—as they face extraordinary circumstances.
In the title story, Will and Amelie McCamey, an elderly couple, resist their children’s efforts to circumscribe their lives for their own safety, as so many elderly people do. That their adult children are right about their safety is irrelevant; instead, the pair set an example of both how to live and how to die. 
In “Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas,” a tornado in a small Arkansas town leads five teenagers from Fayetteville to offer their help, driving over in an old Jeep. It’s distressing work and they’re good kids, but they have a hard time when bodies are being pulled out of wreckage. They find a baby still alive—a miracle—and reunite him with his father. But it’s the after-effects, the self-consciousness of having been part of a “miracle,” and the way it makes the kids want to be kinder and stay closer together, even as the world itself is pulling them apart.
Two stories in a similar vein, “Collateral” and “High Water,” are set around Hurrican Katrina. In the first, Carly, a young widowed single mother and a National Guard First Responder, is called to active duty to deal with Katrina. She’s in the Guard to pay off the student loans that made it possible for her to become an accounting professor at the University of Arkansas, but she’ll miss teaching her first class. The precision with which she deals with classes, setting up her son’s care at his grandparents, and getting herself ready to go is amazing—and the general response to her is one of pride that she serves. She’s competent and no-nonsense, proud of her son and determined to make a good life for him. But her boyfriend is a drunk who cheats on her when she’s working in New Orleans, and she breaks up with him as soon as she gets back. Then she meets a man she really likes, a divorced father with a son younger than hers, and they hit it off, and have a whirlwind courtship. Is Carly’s good fortune the result of a life well-lived, or of divine intervention? Gilchrist leaves it to us to decide. 
In “High Water,” a pair of L.A. paramedics vacationing in New Orleans decide not to evacuate for Katrina because they’re having fun. Instead, they ride it out in the oldest apartment building in the French Quarter. They do fine, but then end up volunteering at Tulane Medical Center when the streets start flooding from the lake side. On a break, they loot a Walgreens for supplies and take them back to the medical center—where they’re greeted as heroes. In the meantime, Dave, the narrator, is falling back in love with Dean, his roommate. This love story leads to Dave’s final judgment:  Some people are terrible, and lie and cheat and plot to steal, while others “carry morbidly obese patients up six flights of stairs so they can be medevaced to hospitals and kept alive to eat another day.”  
"The human race," he says. "You have to love it and wish it well and not preach or think you have any reason to think you are better than anyone else." It’s the sort of spiritual insight that the people Gilchrist has created are likely to make, whether they’re middle-aged women looking after each other during a terrorist attack at Heathrow Airport, resolved eventually by a Vanderbilt alumna’s observation, "We were Americans, for God’s sake, we weren’t in the habit of being afraid.”
The hilariously epistolary story, “The Dogs,” contains a series of communiqués that show us the gradually declining civility of relationships among neighbors, while “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath” is an insight into how one particularly well-adjusted woman deals with a chronic, crippling disease.




The final two stories, “Jumping Off Bridges into Clean Water”  and “Hopedale, a History in Four Acts,” take on the interesting task of covering entire lifespans within the form of the short story. It’s a challenge, but one Gilchrist rises to; there’s an artistry in the way she crosses decades in a sentence and yet does not leave anything out. 
These are warm stories, with an honest view of humanity that still leaves room for optimism, and as such, they will no doubt be enjoyed by all but the most misanthropic readers.

Belief in all its variations

Acts of God: Stories by Ellen Gilchrist (Algonquin Books, $23.95).

The National Book Award-winning Ellen Gilchrist (Victory Over Japan: Stories, 1984) returns with a collection of stories that directly address belief and the meaning of life and death. These are not simplistic stories, though readers may be deceived into thinking so by Gilchrist’s plain style. Instead, we spend a great deal of time among the people of the Southeast and Southern Midwest in dire circumstances—several of the stories center around Katrina and are set in Mississippi and New Orleans—as they face extraordinary circumstances.

In the title story, Will and Amelie McCamey, an elderly couple, resist their children’s efforts to circumscribe their lives for their own safety, as so many elderly people do. That their adult children are right about their safety is irrelevant; instead, the pair set an example of both how to live and how to die. 

In “Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas,” a tornado in a small Arkansas town leads five teenagers from Fayetteville to offer their help, driving over in an old Jeep. It’s distressing work and they’re good kids, but they have a hard time when bodies are being pulled out of wreckage. They find a baby still alive—a miracle—and reunite him with his father. But it’s the after-effects, the self-consciousness of having been part of a “miracle,” and the way it makes the kids want to be kinder and stay closer together, even as the world itself is pulling them apart.

Two stories in a similar vein, “Collateral” and “High Water,” are set around Hurrican Katrina. In the first, Carly, a young widowed single mother and a National Guard First Responder, is called to active duty to deal with Katrina. She’s in the Guard to pay off the student loans that made it possible for her to become an accounting professor at the University of Arkansas, but she’ll miss teaching her first class. The precision with which she deals with classes, setting up her son’s care at his grandparents, and getting herself ready to go is amazing—and the general response to her is one of pride that she serves. She’s competent and no-nonsense, proud of her son and determined to make a good life for him. But her boyfriend is a drunk who cheats on her when she’s working in New Orleans, and she breaks up with him as soon as she gets back. Then she meets a man she really likes, a divorced father with a son younger than hers, and they hit it off, and have a whirlwind courtship. Is Carly’s good fortune the result of a life well-lived, or of divine intervention? Gilchrist leaves it to us to decide.

In “High Water,” a pair of L.A. paramedics vacationing in New Orleans decide not to evacuate for Katrina because they’re having fun. Instead, they ride it out in the oldest apartment building in the French Quarter. They do fine, but then end up volunteering at Tulane Medical Center when the streets start flooding from the lake side. On a break, they loot a Walgreens for supplies and take them back to the medical center—where they’re greeted as heroes. In the meantime, Dave, the narrator, is falling back in love with Dean, his roommate. This love story leads to Dave’s final judgment:  Some people are terrible, and lie and cheat and plot to steal, while others “carry morbidly obese patients up six flights of stairs so they can be medevaced to hospitals and kept alive to eat another day.”  

"The human race," he says. "You have to love it and wish it well and not preach or think you have any reason to think you are better than anyone else." It’s the sort of spiritual insight that the people Gilchrist has created are likely to make, whether they’re middle-aged women looking after each other during a terrorist attack at Heathrow Airport, resolved eventually by a Vanderbilt alumna’s observation, "We were Americans, for God’s sake, we weren’t in the habit of being afraid.”

The hilariously epistolary story, “The Dogs,” contains a series of communiqués that show us the gradually declining civility of relationships among neighbors, while “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath” is an insight into how one particularly well-adjusted woman deals with a chronic, crippling disease.

The final two stories, “Jumping Off Bridges into Clean Water”  and “Hopedale, a History in Four Acts,” take on the interesting task of covering entire lifespans within the form of the short story. It’s a challenge, but one Gilchrist rises to; there’s an artistry in the way she crosses decades in a sentence and yet does not leave anything out. 

These are warm stories, with an honest view of humanity that still leaves room for optimism, and as such, they will no doubt be enjoyed by all but the most misanthropic readers.

It’s dark, it’s violent—it’s a narco-corrido 
100 Bullets: Brother Lono by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (Vertigo, 16.99).
The 100 Bullets anthology series tends to be very dark and very violent—but that’s a given, with a title like 100 Bullets. It’s pulpy and full of people who really deserve to get one of those bullets—but it also calls into question any easy moralizing about violence to which we might be prey.
And, in the case of this particular installment, it also calls into question the very possibility of redemption. Can bad people—or even desperate people who have committed bad acts—be saved? The priest, Father Manny, who runs a church-sponsored orphanage to care for the children left behind in the trail of Mexico’s narco-violence, definitely believes so, and that’s why he’s been working with Brother Lono, an only-recently-reformed and thoroughly tortured soul. 
Meanwhile, a drug gang run by a pair of merciless and never-seen twins wields its violence on the area, but—so far, at least—they’ve done nothing more than donate to Father Manny’s orphanage. It’s been off-limits.
But with the arrival of a new nun and rumors of a DEA informant, that’s all about to change. Ultimately, Father Manny’s knowledge of what Brother Lono is capable of—gleaned in the confessional—will win out over his hope for redemption for the big man—but perhaps violence is necessary, like fire, to cauterize particular brands of evil.
Or at least this graphic novel might lead us to believe. It is pulpy noir in the fullest sense of the word, extremely violent, and—like most of the entries in 100 Bullets—not inclined to optimism about the human condition. All that is balanced by some extremely well-paced story-telling and art that ups the adrenaline at just the right moment. It’s not for the squeamish, but it is packed full of thrills.

It’s dark, it’s violent—it’s a narco-corrido 

100 Bullets: Brother Lono by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (Vertigo, 16.99).

The 100 Bullets anthology series tends to be very dark and very violent—but that’s a given, with a title like 100 Bullets. It’s pulpy and full of people who really deserve to get one of those bullets—but it also calls into question any easy moralizing about violence to which we might be prey.

And, in the case of this particular installment, it also calls into question the very possibility of redemption. Can bad people—or even desperate people who have committed bad acts—be saved? The priest, Father Manny, who runs a church-sponsored orphanage to care for the children left behind in the trail of Mexico’s narco-violence, definitely believes so, and that’s why he’s been working with Brother Lono, an only-recently-reformed and thoroughly tortured soul. 

Meanwhile, a drug gang run by a pair of merciless and never-seen twins wields its violence on the area, but—so far, at least—they’ve done nothing more than donate to Father Manny’s orphanage. It’s been off-limits.

But with the arrival of a new nun and rumors of a DEA informant, that’s all about to change. Ultimately, Father Manny’s knowledge of what Brother Lono is capable of—gleaned in the confessional—will win out over his hope for redemption for the big man—but perhaps violence is necessary, like fire, to cauterize particular brands of evil.

Or at least this graphic novel might lead us to believe. It is pulpy noir in the fullest sense of the word, extremely violent, and—like most of the entries in 100 Bullets—not inclined to optimism about the human condition. All that is balanced by some extremely well-paced story-telling and art that ups the adrenaline at just the right moment. It’s not for the squeamish, but it is packed full of thrills.