New books by Amy Tan and Daniel Alarcon


Books by the Bay: Amy Tan and Daniel Alarcon release new novels

By Georgia Rowe

Correspondent, San Jose Mercury News

Posted:   10/30/2013 12:00:00 AM PDT

New novels by authors Amy Tan and Daniel Alarcón, the second volume in the autobiography of Mark Twain, and a co-biography of Carol and John Steinbeck top the latest releases from Bay Area authors. Also on the list: a “kind of” memoir by “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams.

  • “The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan (Ecco, $29.99, 608 pages.) Amy Tan returns this month with a sweeping new novel, the San Francisco author’s first since 2005’s “Saving Fish from Drowning.” “The Valley of Amazement” is the epic story of three women: Violet, a courtesan in a first-class Shanghai brothel; daughter Flora, abducted as an infant; and Violet’s American mother, Lulu. The action moves between Shanghai’s teeming city life to a quiet village in rural China, and a rapidly changing 19th-century San Francisco; as always, Tan’s principal thematic concerns — family relationships across the generations, women’s struggle for independence, the intersections between old and new cultures — come to the fore. She will discuss the book at a City Arts and Lectures event Dec. 3 at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.
  • “At Night We Walk in Circles” by Daniel Alarcón (Riverhead, $27.95, 384 pages.) Daniel Alarcón’s new novel is an engrossing story of oppression, artistic freedom and the power of language. Set in an unnamed Latin American country and recounted by an unidentified narrator, it follows a young actor named Nelson. In his early 20s as the book begins, Nelson lives a life of quiet desperation — caring for his widowed mother, envying his absent brother, and sleeping with his faithless girlfriend, Ixta. His life takes a radical turn when he joins Diciembre, a guerrilla theater group preparing to mount a provocative play titled “The Idiot President.” The ragtag company goes on tour, and the play has an incendiary effect. In the tradition of great Latin novelists, Alarcón’s writing captures the small details of everyday life — and the momentous events that can change the world. He will read from the book Nov. 9 at Diesel, A Bookstore in Oakland.
  • “Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 2” edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith (UC Press, $45, 733 pages.) It’s probably safe to say that no American author liked to talk about himself as much as Samuel Clemens. In this hefty book — which follows the hugely successful Volume 1, published in 2010 by UC Press — Clemens, aka Mark Twain, tells his story and more. Meticulously researched and annotated, it reveals the many facets of Twain: shrewd observer, social critic, wily self-promoter and unrelenting satirist. It’s also a mesmerizing account of the author’s era. Twain seemed to know everyone in it — politicians, actors, newspapermen and notorious women — and he’s never at a loss for words to describe them. “Vol. 2” is a remarkable achievement.
  • “Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage” by Susan Shillinglaw (University of Nevada Press, $34.95, 352 pages.) John Steinbeck is back in the news — the “Grapes of Wrath” author is the subject of a new biography by Jay Parini, and he’s seen from another aspect in Susan Shillinglaw’s “Carol and John Steinbeck.” Carol’s the focus, and Shillinglaw — resident scholar at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and professor of English at San Jose State — draws a compelling portrait of this intelligent modern woman. John and Carol lived in San Francisco, Pacific Grove and Los Gatos — their friends included writer/mythologist Joseph Campbell and composer John Cage — and Carol acted as her husband’s muse, editor and principal critic; steered him toward writing about social justice; and suggested titles such as “Of Mice and Men.” Like many women of her era, she lived in her husband’s shadow. However, her contributions are well-documented here.
  • “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life” by Scott Adams (Portfolio Penguin, $27.95, 256 pages.) As every “Dilbert” devotee knows, cartoonist Scott Adams is a very big success. In this amusing new memoir, though, Adams recounts the failures that made him who he is. From unhappy office boy to investor and sometime inventor (one of his creations was a burrito called the “Dilberito”), he recounts his experiences and offers advice. Some of his suggestions (“Goals are for losers”) are simply hilarious. Others — even as he mocks the reader for taking advice from a cartoonist — make perfect sense.

Pulitzer Prize winner Oscar Hijuelos dies

Oscar Hijuelos, Pulitzer-winning author of ‘The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,’ dead at 62


Pulitzer-winning author Oscar Hijuelos, shown here at a reception for the Hispanic Heritage Awards in 2000, Hijuelos died of a heart attack in New York City, on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, while playing tennis. (The Associated Press)

The Associated Press By The Associated Press The Associated Press
on October 14, 2013 at 11:14 AM, updated October 14, 2013 at 11:22 AM

NEW YORK — Oscar Hijuelos, a Cuban-American novelist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” and whose work often captured the loss and triumphs of the Cuban immigrant experience, has died. He was 62.

Hijuelos died of a heart attack in Manhattan on Saturday while playing tennis, according to his agent, Jennifer Lyons.

“The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” became a best seller and earned him international acclaim. He won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1990, making him the first Hispanic writer to receive that honor.

The novel tells the story of two Cuban brothers who journey from Havana to New York to start an orchestra. At one point in the story, the brothers appear on the television sitcom “I Love Lucy,” which starred Lucille Ball and her Cuban bandleader husband, Desi Arnaz. The book was eventually turned into a movie starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas.

In his 2011 memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes,” Hijuelos writes of how he struggled against being labeled an “ethnic” writer and notes that even today there are few other Latinos whose work, despite the considerable number of talented authors, has been awarded the same recognition.

After a trip with his mother to Cuba as a young child, he became ill with a kidney disease and was hospitalized for a year, during which he loses his Spanish-speaking ability, and never truly recovers it.

“For the longest time, all I would know was that I had gotten sick in Cuba, from Cuban microbios, that the illness had blossomed in the land of my forebears, the country where I had once been loved and whose language fell as music on my ears,” Hijuelos writes. “Of course, diseases happen anywhere, and children get sick under any circumstances, but what I would hear for years afterward from my mother was that something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process of my healing, would turn my own ‘Cubaness’ into air.”

It was an experience of displacement and a never-ending inability to reach an identity he inherits that many Cubans of his generation can understand. It also defined much of his development as a writer, as he initially hesitated to embrace his story and that of his family as a source of inspiration for his fictional characters — too ashamed to put them on paper, believing the world was indifferent to his tale.

Hijuelos was born and raised in New York City and enrolled in local community colleges where an array of early writing teachers — Susan Sontag, Donald Barthelme, and Frederic Tuten — encouraged him to continue to pursue his craft. He was also exposed to Cuban and Latin American writers including Jose Lezama Lima, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes, whose work inspired him.

His other novels include “Our House in the Last World,” ”Empress of the Splendid Season,” ”Dark Dude,” ”The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” and “A Simple Habana Melody.” He was also received the Rome Prize and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.


Associated Press writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.

Nicholas Sparks: The Longest Ride

Book Talk: Nicholas Sparks on telling stories through text, film

Billy Cheung Reuters12:06 p.m. CDT, October 10, 2013

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Nicholas Sparks, best-known for telling poignant love stories through his novels and their adaptations to film, has written another book, “The Longest Ride,” which shot straight onto the U.S. bestsellers list.

“The Longest Ride” chronicles two relationships in parallel – one that is emerging while the other is completed. Like “The Notebook,” “Message in Bottle,” and “Safe Haven,” his latest novel is slated for the big screen with a nationwide release planned for Valentine’s Day weekend 2015.

Sparks spoke to Reuters about the book, bull riding and storytelling through text and film.

Q: Did you intend to write dual stories at the novel’s outset?

A: For “The Longest Ride,” I knew what I wanted the final two chapters to be. I knew the twists that I wanted to have happen and how it would unfold. I knew how I wanted readers to feel when they closed the pages. If this is the end, how do I get there? At that point, I engage in a process of trying ideas in my mind and work backwards. There are going to be two stories to pull off the ending that I want.

I wrote the story of Ira and Ruth first, about 150 pages broken into seven sections of 20 pages each. Then I set it aside on the desktop of my computer. Then I wrote the story of Luke and Sophia, up to the point where the two stories intersect. Then I wrote through the end. I had the two earlier sections and put the novel together … Happily, there was no editing involved in the transitions.

Q: One of the characters, Luke, is involved in bull riding. Do you have experience riding a bull?

A: I have been to rodeos and am one of those people who watches bull riding on (cable channel) TNT. My sister, who passed away, used to live on a ranch. The ranch in the novel is based on that. Her husband, Bob, had been in rodeos …

I supplemented this with a great deal of reading. I probably read eight books on rodeo in general, some stretching back to the 1980s, because I wanted to get Luke and his father’s story right. I also watched numerous YouTube videos on bull rides. You add all that together to create a world that feels real – real enough that the Professional Bull Riders said it was the most accurate portrayal of bull riding in any novel or film that they have ever seen.

Q: Art becomes an important part of the characters’ lives. Do you collect art personally?

A: I have some art, but I am a hobbyist. I would not consider myself an expert but in the course of writing this novel I became very familiar with the various movements in American Modern Art from 1900 onwards.

Q: What should readers take away from your latest novel?

A: I want characters to have voices that feel authentic, unique, honest, fresh and original – all at once. Part of that authenticity is evoking genuine emotion across life – the sadness, passion, love, sense of loss, missed opportunities, and confusion even. All of this helps us realize that our choices do impact the lives that we eventually lead.

Q: Given that a number of your novels have become films, what do you think about other forms of media as you write your novels?

A: When I am in the process of conceiving a story, I make sure it can be told with words and pictures. The story has to be creative, original and interesting in both areas. Many stories get rejected because they feel derivative.

However, once I have a story that meets criteria for both mediums, from the moment I start writing, I only think about the novel. At that point there is no guarantee that the story will ever become a film but it will be a novel.

I consider myself foremost a novelist with the intent of crafting stories that people will remember.

(This story is refiled to correct planned release date of movie to February 2015 instead of early next year in second paragraph)

(Patricia Reaney and Christopher Wilson)

52 Books in 52 Weeks, Week 26: The Halfway Mark

From the Huffington Post:
By Catherine McKenzie
Posted: 07/07/2013 12:57 pm

Twenty-six weeks ago I set myself a task: I would read a New York Times Bestseller a week and blog about it in the hopes of re-connecting myself to popular book culture and (hopefully) read some great books.

It hasn’t quite worked out as I planned.

First off I didn’t account for the fact that books often stay in the number 1 spot for more than a week (the original plan was to read the #1 book each week). That was easy enough to adjust for: I could just take a book off another list (the New York Times now has a lot of bestseller lists, from e-books to YA, etc.), and sometimes I threw in a wildcard book just to mix it up.

As the weeks went on, though, I began to encounter a few deeper problems: books I couldn’t finish, books I wish I didn’t have to read, books whose popularity I couldn’t understand. What was this crazy task I had assigned myself, I wondered, and how was I going to keep it up all year?

On the other hand, I encountered several books that I absolutely loved and might not otherwise have read. And it’s those books that keep me going. It’s those books that make this project worth it, and if you haven’t read these books, you really, really should:

Week 1: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn I’ve read this book three times in the last year, and if that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is. The premise is simple – a wife disappears on her 5th wedding anniversary and the husband is the prime suspect – but the execution is anything but. A must read.

Week 4: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan . The story of the Van Goethem sisters, one of whom was Degas’ inspiration for his sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, it is set in Belle Époque Paris and is a mix of true details of about the sisters — all ballet dancers of varying success — and a true-life murder mystery that existed in Paris at the same time. Well written, evocative. It has stayed with me.

Week 7: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. This book made me ugly cry and I’ve read it three times as well. I can still quote many, many lines from it. Brilliant.

Week 16: The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison. A book I called “perfect” in my review, this is a poignant (and funny) exploration of the importance of family set against a very possible reality: a popular high school teacher finds himself the subject of a (false?) YouTube video that shows him assaulting a student. Written with amazing (and enviable) assurance, The Banks of Certain Rivers explores themes of memory, loss and redemption with grace. My favorite book so far this year.

Week 20: Divergent by Veronica Roth. A book I never would have read if not for this project, I actually it better now than when I initially reviewed it, perhaps because I read the second book and am now eagerly awaiting for the third in the series. Dystopian YA might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want to give it a chance, this is a good place to start.

On so, onwards. I got mired in Week 26’s pick (Dan Brown’s Inferno, another DNF, and lost a week climbing the Grand Teton in Wyoming (yes, for reals), so week 27 and 28’s pick are Curtis Sittenfeld’s new book, Sisterland.

Back to work. I mean, reading.

Adam Johnson wins 2013 Pulitzer Prize in fiction

Read about the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in fiction here.

And here’s the article:

Alumnus of creative writing program wins 2013 Pulitzer Prize in fiction

04/26/2013 02:25 pm

Florida State University’s Department of English is widely recognized as one of the best in the nation. That golden reputation was burnished recently when an alumnus of the department’s creative writing program won one of the most coveted of all literature prizes.

“My time at FSU was very important and formative for me — I was lucky to have an amazing set of teachers and peers, and the support to get a great deal of work done,” Johnson said.

Adam Johnson, who earned a doctorate in creative writing from Florida State’s Department of English in 2001, learned on April 15 that he is the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his novel “The Orphan Master’s Son.”

Johnson is now an associate professor of English with an emphasis in creative writing at Stanford University. His novel, published in 2012 by Random House, deals with intertwined themes of propaganda, identity and state power in North Korea. Johnson provides a “riveting portrait of a world rife with hunger, corruption and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love,” according to the publisher.

In one of many glowing reviews of the novel, The Washington Post stated that “Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mâché creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable.”

“We are all incredibly proud of Adam for both the artistic achievement of ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ and for the recognition that this novel has earned,” said Florida State English Professor James Kimbrell, director of the university’s creative writing program. “That it has now garnered a Pulitzer Prize brings us great satisfaction and, no doubt, will inspire FSU creative writing students for generations to come.”

For his part, Johnson said he remembered his time at Florida State, and in Tallahassee, fondly.

“My time at FSU was very important and formative for me — I was lucky to have an amazing set of teachers and peers, and the support to get a great deal of work done,” he said. “I truly found my voice in Tallahassee, and I really do treasure those years: readings at The Warehouse, gathering for workshops, thinking about stories as I rode my bike down the St. Marks Trail.

“I miss you, FSU!”

Florida State English Professor Emeritus Janet Burroway, who served as Johnson’s dissertation director, praised him as “truly talented.” 

“He arrived at FSU with everything he needed: voice, style, command and a prodigious imagination — the Miracle-Gro of imaginations,” said Burroway, who was nominated in 1970 for a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Buzzards.” “‘Teaching’ him was a matter of asking a few questions and identifying favorite phrases. The only advice I ever gave him, really, was at his dissertation orals when I said, ‘There is no way you can fall short. The only danger is over the top.’”

Robert Olen Butler, Florida State’s Francis Eppes Professor of English, taught Johnson at McNeese State University in Louisiana before joining the faculty at Florida State.

“In the three years I taught Adam in Louisiana, I was particularly struck by his ravenous engagement with life experience,” said Butler, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993 for a collection of short stories, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” “As impressed as I was by his emerging talent in the workshop, it was his avid exploration of everything from cockfighting to zydeco music that spoke to me of his nascent genius.”

The Joseph Pulitzer Medal

FSU’s creative writing program, located within the College of Arts and Sciences, has long been recognized as one of the nation’s best, especially in its graduate programs. In 2007, the program was ranked in the top five doctoral programs in the country by The Atlantic magazine, which also ranked it in the top 10 all around for graduate creative-writing programs.

More recently, FSU’s creative writing program fared well in the 2012 Poets & Writers survey of doctoral programs in creative writing, ranking No. 2 in the nation overall and No. 1 for “Creative Writing Job Placement Rate.”

“We take a great deal of pride in these rankings, especially in a less-than-stellar hiring climate,” Kimbrell said. “This is what happens when you mix exceedingly talented students with faculty who are committed to both the artistic growth of these students and their professional development. You don’t just graduate from Florida State and find yourself on your own; we stick with our students for the long haul, and that has made all the difference.”





2013 Oregon Book Awards announced

Literary Arts congratulates the winners of
the 2013 Oregon Book Awards!

Allen Say of Portland
Drawing From Memory (Scholastic Press)

Ruth Tenzer Feldman of Portland
Blue Thread (Ooligan Press)

Kent Hartman of Portland
The Wrecking Crew (St. Martin’s Press)
Storm Large of Portland
Crazy Enough (Free Press)


Andrea Stolowitz of Portland
Zachary Schomburg of Portland
Fjords Vol 1 (Black Ocean)

Ismet Prcic of Portland
Shards (Grove/Atlantic)


Cheryl Strayed of Portland
Wild (Knopf)

Larry Colton of Portland

Oregon Battle of the Books

Writing in the news: English books becoming less emotional

According to a study referred to in this New York Times article by Jennifer Schuessler, English-language books are becoming less emotional. The only exception: Words relating to fear are on the increase.  The study looked at “broad emotional shifts across decades” and found that “‛happy’ and ‘sad’ periods coincided with historical events.”

Does that mean we’re living in a fearful decade? If we are,  would it be wise for writers to write about fear?