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Selected Media Coverage: January 25, 2007

Literary Ambition Without Borders
01/25/2007 - Washington Post (cir. 724,242)

SAN FRANCISCO / Academy of Sciences' new chief sees learning curve and big challenges
01/19/2007 - San Francisco Chronicle - Online (cir. 243,333)

Crayon Maker Changes Name to Crayola
01/18/2007 - Yahoo! News (cir. )


Literary Ambition Without Borders
01/25/2007 - Washington Post (cir. 724,242)


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With 'Sacred Games,' an Expansive Vikram Chandra Couldn't Contain Himself

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007; C01

OAKLAND, Calif.

Not long after he'd finally completed a draft of his massive new novel, "Sacred Games," Vikram Chandra found himself immersed in a painful literary task:

He had to try to make the thing shorter.

After all, it wasn't supposed to be 900 pages long.

When he started, Chandra thought he was writing "a small, local crime kind of story." It would confine itself to maybe 300 pages and one geographic locale, the Indian city of Mumbai. It would be the sort of tale where you begin with a couple of dead bodies "but the solution is straightforward and it works like a mystery."

Right. Seven years later, he and his wife, Melanie Abrams -- also a writer -- found themselves experimentally excising whole chapters, looking to reduce the weight of the Victorian-size literary thriller Chandra had produced instead.

"Sacred Games" relates, in alternating chapters, the life story of a legendary Indian gang lord and the efforts of a relatively low-level Mumbai police inspector to investigate his death. After retreating to a heavily fortified bunker, the gangster has shot himself, along with a female companion. The fate of the city formerly known as Bombay -- and perhaps the rest of the world -- rests on the inspector's ability to figure out why.

Not much to cut there. But what about the series of what Chandra has labeled "insets," lengthy chunks of back story intended to widen and deepen the central narrative? Might they be cuttable, Chandra and Abrams wondered?

No, they weren't. Without them, "it became to me a flat book," Chandra says.

So he gave up and sent it to his agent.

Who sent it on to a batch of New York publishers.

Who, instead of balking at the length, launched a bidding war that ended with the sale of North American rights for $1 million to HarperCollins.

Which gave "Sacred Games" the Full Marketing Monty. "AN EPIC NOVEL OF CRIME, FAITH, FAMILY AND DESTINY," shouted the outsize type on the advance reader's edition, which also promised that the publisher would spend $300,000 to promote the book.

Hype at this volume can sometimes backfire, distracting attention from the work itself. Veteran critic Sven Birkerts, for example, weighed in with a Boston Globe piece that devoted far more space to the marketing effort (which Birkerts viewed with cynicism) than to assessing "Sacred Games."

In this case, however, a bit of rhetorical excess may be appropriate. For Chandra's book is beyond the merely ambitious. It's the latest, fattest example of what might be called literary globalization -- a 900-page manifestation of the worldwide trend toward culture, commerce and seemingly everything else becoming interconnected.

When Birkerts finally settled in to read "Sacred Games," he wrote (approvingly) that it transported him to "some phantasmagoric, confusing, reeking, corrupt, overheated, overpopulated elsewhere, a Mumbai of the mind, with characters who surprise me with their look and sound, their twists of behavior." And it's true that Chandra offers sensory descriptions and dialect-laced dialogue that evoke a unique city.

Yet a crucial thing to understand about Chandra's Mumbai is that it is not entirely exotic to American readers anymore.

The basic nature of the Mumbai underworld, it turns out, parallels that of the Hollywood gangster movies that Indian mobsters sometimes like to watch. Mumbai's horrific bouts with terrorism resonate in ways that require no explanation. Chandra characters, like so many players in the real economy, slip easily in and out of ports of call such as Dubai, London and Singapore.

What's more, the fundamental theme of "Sacred Games," symbolized by the inspector's ever-expanding investigation, is the individual's struggle to make sense of a networked world where cultures blend and clash, money and politics respect no borders -- and a plot thread that begins amid the chaos of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan can end, half a century later, in an upstairs bedroom in a Maryland suburb.

But hey: If all this makes your head hurt, there's another, simpler way to approach Chandra's opus.

Just keep your eye on those two corpses he started out with.
'A Huge Cultural Meeting'

"It's been completely insane," Chandra is saying of the past year or so of his life. "Not just editing the book and trying to get it into shape, but also we got married -- and we actually did it twice. We had a Jewish ceremony in L.A., where her parents live, and then we all flew to India and did it again."

He laughs at the memory. Matrimonial globalization, on top of everything else.

He's a round-faced man of 45 with a warm smile and wavy dark hair. His American book tour is about to begin (he'll read at the Baileys Crossroads Borders tonight and at D.C.'s Politics and Prose tomorrow) but right now he's talking in a recently purchased bungalow just across the city line from Berkeley, where he and Abrams teach creative writing at the University of California. The house is a bit sparsely furnished: When the couple moved west from the District in 2005 -- Chandra taught at George Washington for nine years -- they lost many belongings in a truck fire.

How did he go from a childhood shuttling around India, where his father worked in the chemical industry, to an adult life shuttling between the United States and Mumbai, where he now spends roughly five months a year?

It may have started with his first story, published in a school magazine when he was 11.

He'd grown up watching his mother, now a well-known Indian screenwriter, writing plays at the kitchen table. She wrote in Hindi, but Chandra says it never occurred to him to write in anything but English, the common tongue of his upscale, multi-ethnic schoolyards.

"We were aware of the colonial history of the language," he says, "but always, I had a feeling that it was also one of my languages."

His mother would have preferred he become a doctor or an engineer, because she knew how hard it was to make a living as a writer. But Chandra found himself applying to schools with writing programs in the United States. Accepted by Ohio's Kenyon College, he felt so isolated that on Sundays he'd drive with South Asian friends to a nearby ridge where they could pick up a radio station that offered sounds of home.

"We sat there in the snow," he recalls, "drinking coffee and listening to this Indian music, awash in nostalgia."

From Kenyon he triller plot.

It meant giving Singh lesser cases that involved him in different kinds of transnational phenomena -- the influx, say, of poverty-stricken immigrants into Mumbai. It meant writing those apparently digressive "insets," including one 53-pager that draws readers deep into the stories of two minor characters after the main plot has climaxed. Even his wife thought that one could be cut.

And why not? We're talking 900 pages here!

The novelist of globalization explains:

That final inset, he says, was a way to recognize those on the margins of his narrative -- people who played roles in the larger story, but who've been "forgotten by history." He needed to show how "this new India that we're all building" had left a lot of Indians behind.

Chandra is on sabbatical this year, but he has no plans to stop teaching. And he intends to keep shuttling between the increasingly connected yet still separate worlds of Berkeley and Mumbai.

"It's a kind of purposeful alienation," he says, "that allows you to see everything new."


SAN FRANCISCO / Academy of Sciences' new chief sees learning curve and big challenges
01/19/2007 - San Francisco Chronicle - Online (cir. 243,333)


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Gregory Farrington, a chemist and the former president of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, was named Thursday to be the new executive director of the California Academy of Sciences.

Farrington, 60, takes over the 154-year-old institution at a critical time -- just as the first layer of concrete is being poured for a distinctive 'living roof' atop the academy's new museum complex being constructed in Golden Gate Park.

He will start work Feb. 26, officials said, succeeding Patrick Kociolek, who stepped down in June to resume his work as a researcher involved in the academy's extensive collection of single-celled algae, or diatoms.

Farrington said the academy's $429 million museum construction and relocation project is just the beginning of a complicated transition. The museum has been housed temporarily in a leased building downtown, offering dinosaur exhibits and some live specimens from the academy's Steinhart Aquarium, but only hints of its ambition for the new site in the park. 'There are several layers of challenges,' Farrington said. 'How do you define a 21st century science museum?' He said he considers that an open question, which he plans to investigate as his first major task. 'I'm going to be a student for a while,' he said. 'I intend to listen to a lot of people.' Farrington was the unanimous choice after a six-month international search.

Academy trustee William Patterson and the academy's board chairman, Richard Bingham, announced the decision Thursday and joined Farrington for introductions at the downtown museum. 'We wanted to make sure we were positioning the place for change,' Bingham said. 'We want to reflect the changing nature of science, and we also need to ensure that visitors see enough change to want to return, maybe more than they have in the past.' Officials expect to draw about 2 million people the first year in the new museum complex, due to open in 2008, but anticipate a drop thereafter as the novelty of the Renzo Piano-designed architecture wears off.

The three academy officials sat on risers in front of the museum's display of African penguins Thursday afternoon, discussing how to compete for public attention. Behind them, the penguins dove and swam.

A 4 1/2-year-old visitor, Amelia, gave one clue when she was asked why she was staring at the penguins. 'They waddle,' she said. Farrington said that underscored the continuing appeal of real nature. 'It's transfixing,' he said. 'Web sites don't replace penguins.' Farrington's research credentials and experience leading a well-regarded university convinced trustees that he was the ideal combination of 'science literacy' and administrative ability.

He completed eight years last June as the president of Lehigh, in Bethlehem, Pa., before he took a new position, based in London, overseeing the university's global programs.

Previously, he had served 19 years at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, including appointments as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and director of a laboratory for research on the structure of matter.

He earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Harvard University after graduating with a degree in chemistry from Clarkson University. His wife, Jean, is a former librarian who has worked in fundraising at Lehigh.

They will be moving from London to San Francisco, Farrington said -- a big move, but a fairly simple matter compared with the academy's multimillion-dollar move at Golden Gate Park.

E-mail Carl Hall at chall@sfchronicle.com.


Crayon Maker Changes Name to Crayola
01/18/2007 - Yahoo! News (cir. )


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EASTON, Pa. (AP) -- As CEO of the nation's best-known crayon maker, Mark Schwab is tickled pink -- or is that magenta? -- about Binney & Smith's decision to take the name of its iconic product, Crayola.

The name change, effective Jan. 1, was celebrated Thursday as Schwab unveiled a new sign at the company's headquarters plant 60 miles north of Philadelphia, where 13.5 million crayons are churned out every day.

Because Crayola is one of the nation's most recognized brands, it made sense from a marketing standpoint to drop the comparatively obscure Binney & Smith name, Schwab said.'What it really helps us do is be recognized for who we are,' he said. 'We're known as Crayola. That's the brand that children, moms, parents and teachers really associate us with.'Crayola was launched more than a century ago by cousins Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith, who started out making red oxide pigments for barn paint, carbon for black automobile tires and slate pencils for schools.

They soon identified a market for affordable wax crayons and in 1903, Binney & Smith sold the first box of eight for a nickel.

Alice Binney, Edwin's wife, coined the Crayola name by joining the French word for chalk, 'craie,' and 'ola,' short for 'oleaginous,' or oily, because crayons are made from petroleum-based wax.

Binney's great-granddaughter, Sally Putnam Chapman, said her ancestor wouldn't have minded the loss of the Binney & Smith name.'Edwin Binney wanted to further his company and expand it, and I think he would have agreed the best way to do it is to switch over and let it become Crayola,' said Chapman, 69, of Fort Pierce, Fla., whose father was on the company board of directors and who grew up with 'stacks and stacks' of Crayola products.

James Maskulka, a marketing professor at Lehigh University, said the changeover to Crayola LLC allows the company to streamline and simplify its marketing.'People don't connect with Binney & Smith, they connect with Crayola,' he said. 'In branding, simplicity is the key. People understand Crayola, and that's why they're doing it.'Binney & Smith became a subsidiary of privately owned Hallmark Cards Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., in 1984.

Despite ever-increasing competition from video games, talking dolls, kid-proof digital cameras and other high-tech toys, Schwab said the company recorded its highest sales ever in 2006. Although Crayola does not divulge profits, he said revenues grew between 13 and 19 percent to more than $500 million last year.

Innovations to Crayola's venerable crayons, markers and pencils -- they now come in washable, twistable, erasable and scented varieties -- as well as popular new products such as Color Wonder and Color Explosion have helped the company keep pace, Schwab said. The company also makes Silly Putty.'Children have a lot of choices,' he said. 'We are seeing our products not only doing well at retail, but we're hearing back from the consumer. They're having fun.'While other industries have become almost completely mechanized, crayon making continues to be labor intensive.

Inside the plant Thursday, Becky Snyder worked at a 50-year-old labeling machine, scooping up as many as 300 crayons at a time and quickly scanning them for defects before depositing them in a plain brown box for delivery to the packaging department. Chipped or cracked crayons are removed and melted down into another batch.'This is a job that still needs a personal touch,' said Snyder, 54, whose headband, T-shirt and socks perfectly matched the red-violet shade of the crayons she was inspecting.

The name change, effective Jan. 1, was celebrated Thursday as Schwab unveiled a new sign at the company's headquarters plant 60 miles north of Philadelphia, where 13.5 million crayons are churned out every day.

Because Crayola is one of the nation's most recognized brands, it made sense from a marketing standpoint to drop the comparatively obscure Binney & Smith name, Schwab said. 'What it really helps us do is be recognized for who we are,' he said. 'We're known as Crayola. That's the brand that children, moms, parents and teachers really associate us with.' Crayola was launched more than a century ago by cousins Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith, who started out making red oxide pigments for barn paint, carbon for black automobile tires and slate pencils for schools.

They soon identified a market for affordable wax crayons and in 1903, Binney & Smith sold the first box of eight for a nickel.

Alice Binney, Edwin's wife, coined the Crayola name by joining the French word for chalk, 'craie,' and 'ola,' short for 'oleaginous,' or oily, because crayons are made from petroleum-based wax.

Binney's great-granddaughter, Sally Putnam Chapman, said her ancestor wouldn't have minded the loss of the Binney & Smith name. 'Edwin Binney wanted to further his company and expand it, and I think he would have agreed the best way to do it is to switch over and let it become Crayola,' said Chapman, 69, of Fort Pierce, Fla., whose father was on the company board of directors and who grew up with 'stacks and stacks' of Crayola products.

James Maskulka, a marketing professor at Lehigh University, said the changeover to Crayola LLC allows the company to streamline and simplify its marketing. 'People don't connect with Binney & Smith, they connect with Crayola,' he said. 'In branding, simplicity is the key. People understand Crayola, and that's why they're doing it.' Binney & Smith became a subsidiary of privately owned Hallmark Cards Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., in 1984.

Despite ever-increasing competition from video games, talking dolls, kid-proof digital cameras and other high-tech toys, Schwab said the company recorded its highest sales ever in 2006. Although Crayola does not divulge profits, he said revenues grew between 13 and 19 percent to more than $500 million last year.

Innovations to Crayola's venerable crayons, markers and pencils -- they now come in washable, twistable, erasable and scented varieties -- as well as popular new products such as Color Wonder and Color Explosion have helped the company keep pace, Schwab said. The company also makes Silly Putty. 'Children have a lot of choices,' he said. 'We are seeing our products not only doing well at retail, but we're hearing back from the consumer. They're having fun.'

Posted on Thursday, January 25, 2007

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