A Little Serendipity with Your Reading

Night FilmMy hometown library posted this serendipitous game for readers:

  • Grab the book you’re currently reading
  • Turn to page 52
  • Share the 5th sentence in the comments

I’m currently reading Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Here’s the sentence, which I kinda love:

“Tea doesn’t make a dent in the man.”

What are you reading these days? And what’s happening on page 52?

It’s National Library Week, April 14 – 20

PrintIt’s National Library Week, April 14 – 20, and this year’s theme is “Communities matter @ your library.”

The American Library Association (ALA) is celebrating the 55th National Library Week, which highlights the value of libraries, librarians and library workers.”

“Libraries today are more than repositories for books and other resources,” notes the ALA. “Often the heart of their communities, campuses or schools, libraries are deeply committed to the places where their patrons live, work and study. Libraries are trusted places where everyone in the community can gather to reconnect and reengage with each other to enrich and shape the community and address local issues.”

Here’s this year’s schedule of events for National Library Week:

National D.E.A.R. Day – National Drop Everything and Read Day – April 12 

Every year, D.E.A.R. takes place on April 12, to commemorate Beverly Cleary’s birthday. Cleary is the author of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, which gives a shoutout to Drop Everything and Read. I love the idea that there’s a day dedicated to putting aside everything else and encouraging individuals to read and families to read together. D.E.A.R. Day is sponsored by the National Education Association, the PTA and the Association for Library Service to Children, among many others. Looking for an excuse to read? This is it!

National Library Workers Day – April 16

Today is all about recognizing those often-unsung heroes: your local library staff. Don’t forget to honor your friendly neighborhood librarian by visiting the NLWD website and using the Submit a Star feature!

National Bookmobile Day – April 17

Bookmobiles have made a difference in the lives of generations of people in far-flung communities, as well as the young and elderly. Honor the efforts of these dedicated library volunteers who work so hard to enrich lives through reading.

Celebrate Teen Literature Day – April 18

There’s a vibrant and burgeoning Young Adult books genre, and Teen Literature Day is just the opportunity to support libraries as the help connect teens with books, DVDs and digital resources to share the love of reading. Learn more at the Young Adult Library Services Association wiki.

Sex, Data and the Single Woman: Review of “Data, A Love Story”

Valentines image by Vickie Bates.“Where were the soul mates we were promised on all the websites and in the commercials now playing on TV?,” wondered Amy Webb after too many dates with men who high-fived her and lied about their jobs and marital status.

Returning home after the worst date of her life, Webb opened a bottle of wine, grabbed her computer and pulled an all-nighter, analyzing the algorithms of online dating sites and her own heart.

She wrote a list of traits she wanted in her ideal man that was 72 items long and vowed to “exhaustively” vet potential suitors before going on a date.

Her sister warned her against such a detailed approach: “Trying to find a husband who fits the exact list of what you want is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Webb responded: “It’s dead easy to find the needle. You hack the haystack.”

But, her list was just the start. After designing Mr. Right, Webb realized she needed to understand her competition before she could win the guy. And that’s when lightning struck.

“It was a simple, obvious solution…I needed to outperform all of the possible profiles in JDate’s database. I had to know what kind of women were my competition, what they looked like, what they wrote, and how they interacted with [men]. In short, it was time to join JDate as a man.”

Webb’s just-published memoir, Data, A Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match, explains how her love of numbers and sticking to a system landed her the man of her dreams. The book also takes a humorous look at how men and women communicate and the best way to create a personal brand to “market” yourself to potential mates. As you can imagine, I was in communications-marketing-data geek heaven reading this.

A Method to Her Madness

Webb carefully charted everything the most popular women on dating sites were doing – from how often they used flattery to the length of their profiles, the amount of time they’d spend instant-messaging with potential dates, and the types of photos they used.

She even noted how the women described themselves and their lives. Here, for example, are the 10 words popular women used most often:

  • Fun
  • Love
  • Laid-back
  • Laugh
  • Optimistic
  • Adventure
  • Easy-going
  • Outgoing
  • Down-to-Earth
  • Pleasure

It turned out, the vaguer women were, the better. “I learned that leaving off potential unknowns at the beginning would eventually help me get further into the dating process,” Webb writes. Turns out, guys like a woman of mystery.

With data in hand, she created the ultimate profile and pictures for herself and got back in the dating game as a woman. She faithfully rated every potential match and – here’s the kicker – never went out on another bad date.

Data, A Love Story is a breezy, fascinating, non-math-intensive read for singletons who’ve found themselves at the whim of online dating algorithms. Math geeks may love it, too, but Webb kindly keeps the story of her love life moving through the main part of the memoir and saves the statistics for the appendices.

“What first lured me to online dating was the promise of using math to identify my perfect match,” Webb notes. “To me it made perfect sense that data and math could do a much better job of bringing together compatible people than hope, fate, and a few Friday night cocktails.”

It adds up, but Data, A Love Story primarily stands as a testimony to a woman who dared to declare what she really wanted and was fearless in calculating the answer that made her happy. High five, Amy Webb, high five.

Related:

If you’re in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 26, Social Media Club – LA presents a panel discussion with the heavy-hitters of online dating and social networking. They’ll be talking about going beyond creating websites and apps to generate long-term community engagement using social media and more. Copies of Data, A Love Story will be raffled to lucky winners at this event. Details here.

Read an excerpt of Data, A Love Story on Slate.

You’ll find more on Webb’s Tumblr: http://www.datalovestory.com/

Everyone’s a Winner!

Congratulations to all of the winners in No Bad Language’s first book giveaway:

  • Please Look After Mom (1 and 3) to Debra L. (1 F) and Clearly Kristal (4 F)
  • How It All Began (2 and 4) to Liz P. (2 F) and Cheryl F. (3 F)
  • Power Questions (1, 3 and 5) to Heather S. (1 NF), Eric S. (3 NF) and Jim W. (4 NF)
  • The Lost City of Z (2) to Rita W. (2 NF)
  • The Art of Immersion (4) to Mary T. (5 NF)

I got a very nice note from one of the winners, who commented, “I NEVER win!” And this is the reason I added two additional copies of the novels to the prize pool.

In December, I attended a couple of professional organization holiday parties. Despite buying a series of raffle tickets literally as long as my arm, I went home prize-less after the first party, while the tables to my right and left took home two and four prizes each. At the second party, the emcee assured us that the number of prizes pretty much corresponded to the number of raffle tickets in the drawing. With four tickets left to draw, neither I nor my guest won.

So, with a palpable feeling of “I NEVER win” still hanging over me, I felt the entry pool was small enough that I couldn’t bear to tell anyone they’d lost. Please don’t sue me!

I would like to give special recognition to Power Questions co-author Jerold Panas, who donated three copies of his terrific guide to improving the quality of any conversation in business or in life. Jerry also took the time to autograph all three and his generosity is greatly appreciated.

A Computer Selected the Winners

I used the List Randomizer at random.org to ensure fairness. Here’s how that worked if you’re curious:

  • Every valid entry was assigned a number based on the order in which people entered. These are the numbers that appear after the names in the winner’s list above.
  • One list comprised only those folks who were interested in winning nonfiction prizes; the second list was for people interested in winning a novel. These are the letters that appear after the winner’s names above.
  • There were two lists of books, as well: nonfiction and fiction. Each book was assigned a number, shown above.
  • Then, I let the computer do the randomizing.

Here’s the computer’s verdict (winner’s entry numbers are in the first column with the book number in the second column):

Winners of nonfiction prizes in No Bad Language book giveaway.

Winners of nonfiction prizes in No Bad Language book giveaway.

Winners of fiction prizes in No Bad Language book giveaway.

Winners of fiction prizes in No Bad Language book giveaway.

A big “thank you” to everyone who entered. Look for another giveaway next year!

2013 Youth Media Award Winners Announced Today

The American Library Association’s 2013 Youth Media Awards were announced this morning from Seattle, including recipients of the distinguished Newbery, Caldecott and Coretta Scott King book awards, among other honors.

This year’s winners include The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (Newbery Medal), This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (Caldecott Medal), and Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America by Andrea David Pinkney (King Author Award). Here’s the complete list.

Each year, the ALA honors books, videos and other materials intended for children and teen readers and viewers. The awards “guide parents, educators, librarians, and others in selecting the best materials for youth,” according to the ALA website.

“The awards encourage original and creative work in the field of children’s and young adult literature and media.”

If you’d like to see the hour-long event, check out the ALA Youth Media Awards archived webcast.

For background details on each award, click here.

Book Giveaway to My Wonderful Blog Readers!

No Bad Language Book GiveawayUPDATE: Thank you to all the entrants! The giveaway is now officially closed. Winners and their prizes will be announced soon. 

In appreciation for your kind support during my reading challenge last year, I’m giving away 2 novels and 4 nonfiction books from my Best of 2012 list (and one from my 2011 list) to lucky readers.

Here’s what you have a chance to win:

Fiction

Nonfiction

How to Enter

In the Leave a Reply/Comment section of this post, please tell me:

  • your favorite book of 2012, and
  • which category you’d prefer to win in: fiction or nonfiction

Please include a valid email address or Twitter handle. (These are only so I can contact you if you win. I never use or spam email. If you’re nervous about this, please feel free to connect with me on Facebook, where you can use private email.)

Restrictions

I wish I could include everyone in this giveaway, but:

  • you must be a U.S. resident to enter
  • you must be 18 years of age or older

One entry per person please.

Deadline to Enter

Noon on Monday, January 28, 2013

Details, Details…and Disclaimer

The winners in each category will be selected at random from all valid comments via random.org.

A valid comment includes answers to both questions, a way to contact the commenter via email or Twitter, and belongs to a U.S. resident who is 18 or older.

No Bad Language will pay all costs associated with shipping and handling. Books will be dispatched to winners via the U.S. Postal Service at book rate, which may take up to 5 weeks for delivery.

Copies of Power Questions were kindly donated by one of the authors and his publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The rest of these books were purchased by me as a way to say “Thank You” to you. There is no cost to you; the prize value of each is approximately $15 plus shipping and handling, all paid for by No Bad Language.

Standard disclaimer: Some of these books may contain concepts, descriptions and/or language that could be considered mature in nature. All contents are the creation of the authors; this blog and its owner are not responsible for the material or points of view presented in these books.

If you have questions, please leave a reply below, and I’ll respond as quickly as possible.

Best of luck! Tell your friends!

Short Lists Announced for Asian and Arabic Literary Prizes

It’s an exciting day for world literature, as short lists for both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction were announced today. The judges’ selections include novels from Tunisia, Malaysia, Iraq and Pakistan.

According to the Man Asian Literary Prize website, this year’s short list, winnowed from a pool of 15, “champions a debut novelist alongside a Nobel laureate, translated work as well as original writing in English, and includes smaller regional publishers as well as larger international houses.”

The five short-listed novels are:

Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Pakistan)
The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami (Japan)
Silent House by Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia)
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (India)

Visit the Man Asian Literary Prize website for descriptions of each novel.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is sponsored by the Booker Prize Foundation and aims “to reward excellence in contemporary Arabic creative writing and to encourage the readership of high quality Arabic literature internationally through the translation and publication of winning and shortlisted novels in other major languages.”

A long list of 16 was announced in December. The six novels chosen for the short list are:

Ave Maria by Sinan Antoon (Iraq)
I, She and Other Women by Jana Elhassan (Lebanon)
The Beaver by Mohammed Hassan Alwan (Saudi Arabia)
Our Master by Ibrahim Issa (Egypt)
The Bamboo Stick by Saud Alsanousi (Kuwait)
His Excellency the Minister by Hussein Al-Wad (Tunisia)

You’ll find descriptions of each book on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction website.

Winners will be announced on March 14 and April 23 respectively.

I already have The Garden of the Evening Mists on my nightstand, and I’m looking forward to reading more from both of these lists.

How about you? Which of these honored books might make it onto your reading list this year?

What I Learned from Reading 55 Books in 52 Weeks

My original goal was to read 52 books in 52 weeks last year. By the numbers – here are the results of my 2012 reading challenge:

2012 Reading Challenge Summary

I’d completed smaller reading challenges before – finishing John Updike’s Rabbit series in the course of a summer, reading a book I didn’t like by a certain deadline – but never so many over such a long period of time.

Chris Lam’s blog, What I Run Into, made me consider it; bumping into Chris at BlogWorld and hearing her enthusiasm for the endeavor gave me the encouragement (and some of the finer details) I needed.

So, 2012 became my year of reading in new, richer and more diverse ways. In large part, it was because I’d made a public declaration of the whole thing on my blog and, with other people’s interests in mind, I didn’t simply reach for books that matched my own tastes or do as much re-reading. And that was a good thing; it pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me more about character, plotting and critiquing in fiction and why it’s important not to meander and include every last detail when writing a nonfiction book or memoir.

Some things had to happen to accommodate my year of reading differently:

  • Fairly early, I recognized that my interest in older books didn’t necessarily translate; I began making an effort to incorporate at least one recently published book into my challenge each month, so my reviews reflected what you might find in bookstores.
  • I cancelled Netflix, and I don’t see it coming back in the future.
  • I joined Amazon Prime, which cost $79/year, but gave me free shipping on virtually everything I ordered and free streaming videos. (This is not an endorsement; I’m just reporting on a personal choice I made to facilitate faster reading.)
  • Magazine reading suffered significantly in 2012; I’m particularly looking forward to becoming reacquainted with my love of The Economist in ’13.
  • TV-watching diminished accordingly – I quite happily gave up vegging in front of shows I didn’t really care about, just to occupy my time. I had a schedule to stick to, so the TV got turned off and I read a lot more. (This is a habit I hope to keep in the new year!)
  • I deliberately didn’t read certain books this year. Right before I started the challenge, I’d completed the almost-1,000-page 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. There was no way I’d choose a book even half that length in 2012, which left out a lot of great books I was interested in reading.
  • Likewise, there were reference books and a couple of textbooks I wanted to read to refresh my skills, and I had no time for them.
  • I finally, finally, learned to set aside a book if it wasn’t a good read (those are the two unfinished books you see on the chart above; they aren’t included in the total of 55). I can walk out of a bad movie, I’ll pounce on the radio dial when I don’t want to listen to a song, but I’ve always given books the benefit of the doubt and kept plugging away at ‘em, no matter how many years it took or how miserable it made me. Critic Joe Queenan apparently is the same way: He says he once started a book in 1978 and finished it 34 years later “without enjoying a single minute of the enterprise.”

My Best of 2012 List

When you read 55 books in a year, some stand (way) out. Here are the ones that made the best impression on me in 2012:

Fiction

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin
Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares
How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Memoir

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Allison Bechdel
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

Nonfiction

The Social Media Strategist: Build a Successful Program from the Inside Out by Christopher Barger
Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

I’ll admit there were points along the way when I felt not that I couldn’t accomplish this challenge, but that 55 seemed like a low number. I’m a slow reader. I spend a good deal of time making sure what I’m reading really registers. I haven’t ever been able to scan.

Queenan, it turns out, is on board with this. In his charming essay, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” he observes, “I do not speed-read books; it seems to defeat the whole purpose of the exercise, much like speed-eating a Porterhouse steak or applying the two-minute drill to sex.”

Like Queenan, I plan to continue to be part of the “slow reading movement,” taking maximum enjoyment from the things I read, even if it means my book-completion totals for the year remain down in the double-digits.

The thing I learned that will be most helpful to me in the future is the practice of reading one book at a time – especially if I’m on deadline to write a review, for example – because that focus is what kept me on track and ensured the completion not just of my weekly selection but of the entire year’s challenge.

Am I taking a vacation from reading?, you may wonder. Nope. I finished my 55th book of 2012 at 11:38 p.m. on Dec. 31. It was the harrowing The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. I didn’t want to go to sleep with those images in my head, so I grabbed the most lighthearted, fun book I had, Jennifer Weiner’s The Next Best Thing, and dove in, reading well past the changeover to the new year and into early morning.

I plan to keep going, minus imposed deadlines. This year, I’m mulling over a more personal challenge around my journal writing. This is writing I do just for me. I’ll let you know when I define that pursuit more clearly, but I won’t be publishing what I’m doing this time.

How about you? Are you planning a reading or writing challenge in 2013? What are you most looking forward to? What are you dreading?

Check back! Book Giveaway: starting Jan. 17, 2013 – As an appreciation for my readers who put up with this year-long reading challenge, I’m going to give away selections from my 2012 favorites list.

Listening and reading that inspired me this week:

NPR’s “Monkey See” gang discuss their reading, listening and TV- and movie-viewing resolutions for 2013 on the latest edition of their “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast.

One of the BlogHer bloggers offers a fantastic round-up of different types of reading challenges – from all-novels to getting through serializations – in this post. Beware! It may set you off on a reading challenge this year.

December’s Dyspeptic Dystopias, Plus the Search for the El Dorado of the Amazon

Photo by Vickie Bates.

December’s reading. Photo by Vickie Bates.

We’ve reached the end, Dear Readers, and I’m thrilled to tell you that I achieved my 2012 reading challenge – finishing at least 52 books in 52 weeks! Thank you for taking this journey with me.

I’ll save the musings on What I Learned from Reading 52 Books in 52 Weeks for a later post. Though the book-lovers among you might want to note that when it does appear, that post will involve a reader giveaway of some of my favorite books of 2012.

I would like to thank the amazing Chris Lam, the woman behind the terrific What I Run Into blog, who introduced me to annual reading challenges in the first place and provided long-term inspiration. Chris recently completed her own challenge, reading 50 in 2012. Go, Chris!!

Standard disclosure: I bought the Meek book, borrowed The Flame Alphabet from my local library, and received the other two as gifts. All four are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

December
4 down, 52 + 3 completed!

REVIEWS

The Heart Broke In by James Meek
A novel about rock ‘n’ roll and science? You’d think I’d be in geek heaven. Except rarely have musician characters been done so wrong – these are the rockers who should hope to die before they get old.

The scientists hardly fare better. As with the ludicrous plot of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and the recent movie “Contagion,” we get another piece of popular culture depicting researchers who test vaccines on themselves.

It’s beyond absurd for any number of reasons. I’ll list just three:

  1. It doesn’t translate that a vaccine that’s safe and works in one person will ever work for another human being (that’s why regulatory agencies mandate clinical trials).
  2. Even if you were going to test a vaccine on yourself, you’d try it on mice first to make sure it was safe because…
  3. You don’t want your lead researcher, who’s trying to stop a deadly contagion, to die suddenly, taking all her knowledge with her and setting back progress by months if not years.

The novel suffers from being in the heads of too many characters. We’re not with the main characters long enough to get close to them. After darting from perspective to perspective, the reader finds herself in the head of a peripheral character – the mother of one of the scientists – on page 231. In a 401-page novel. This is too late to introduce a new point of view, which is dropped anyway, just as suddenly as it appeared.

Bec, the valiant malaria researcher, is given a variety of motivations for everything she does yet none are believable. She discovers a parasite that may or may not guard against malaria, but the side effects bring on sudden blindness. She names the parasite after her father, a hero soldier, and deliberately infects herself with it. Her admiration for her dead father – and her inability to let go of the living parasite that now bears his name – is supposed to be her rationale for not taking medicine to kill the parasite, which is causing said blindness, so that she almost kills Alex, the man she loves, in a car accident. She continues to refuse to take the medicine, even when Alex asks her to, even when they try to get pregnant. Right. Because that would happen.

Alex, meanwhile, is the unlikely scientist and former drummer for a ‘70s-style band, led by Bec’s brother, Ritchie, and his wife Karin. Ritchie is the target of a labored blackmail scheme by a tabloid editor who used to be in love with Bec. While Bec’s parasite drama unfolds, we get chapter after chapter of Ritchie sweating it out as he waits to see his name smeared in the Fleet Street rags. One reason this never happens is because the blackmailer at first gives him a year to cough up something nasty about his sister to save his own reputation. When that time runs out, the blackmailer gives him several more months. A daily tabloid?! Never in a million years.

Okay, but is fiction supposed to be realistic? Don’t we read to escape ordinary life? And don’t we want authors to create never-before-realized new worlds for us to explore? Yes, yes and yes. Fiction doesn’t always have to be about real life, but when a writer devises a story, he must choose to set it in the world we live in (realism) or some other world (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). Whichever he chooses, the bargain he makes with the reader is to establish the rules of that world. That’s the fourth wall Meek keeps breaking. We’re in our present, everyday world and characters need to act and react in ways that make sense for their own motivation and for the world; they can’t do things just because it’s convenient for the author. For example, the only reason Ritchie has more than 12 months to deal with his blackmailer is because the author has nothing else for the character to do while he plays out Bec and Alex’s love story.

I read this novel back-to-back with The Flame Alphabet (reviewed below) which offers a world like ours, perhaps slightly in the future or diverted a bit from history as we know it. It was difficult to read because the author places us so firmly in that world that he never breaks the fourth wall – we’re there, the world is different in small ways all around us, and we’re never jerked back to our own world for a little respite or explanation. We have to figure it out as we go along. That is the best kind of reading, tough though it may be, because it assumes the reader has the intelligence to understand what’s going on. Meek is trying so hard to push us along the tracks that he doesn’t recognize the train is derailed.

Supremely Successful Selling by Jerold Panas
(I received a free review copy of this book from the author. Opinions my own.)

You’ve heard of the Horse Whisperer? Jerold Panas is the Customer Whisperer.

Don’t let the title of this book fool you. In Supremely Successful Selling, Panas has written a guide for anyone, in any role or industry (and those trying to land a job), who wants to engage effectively with stakeholders or needs to make the case for a product, service or initiative.

In his 14th book, Panas outlines the key attributes of a successful salesperson, features lessons from the Great Ones – among them Mary Kay, Stanley Marcus (Neiman-Marcus) and Melanie Sabelhaus (who went from IBM to second-in-command at the Small Business Administration) – and provides proven techniques from a lifetime spent “making the sale.”

Panas probably would dismiss that nickname, Customer Whisperer, because he firmly believes the role of a salesperson is to listen, rather than talk.

“You’ve heard about salespeople who talk too much,” he writes. “But you have never heard about a salesman who listens too much.”

Listening creates rapport, according to Panas, and it’s only when a salesperson strikes up an honest and long-term relationship with a potential buyer that she or he can learn what the customer really needs.

“In order to listen the sale, you talk during the presentation for 25 percent of the time. The likely buyer talks for the balance, 75 percent of the time,” he notes.

Throughout, Panas reminds the reader that selling isn’t an end unto itself: “Your job is not to make a sale. It is to make a friend and a life-long customer.”

He dedicates several chapters to nurturing good customer relationships – “stewardship” – and focuses on the critical role of ethics in selling. “Integrity isn’t important – it is everything,” he insists.

“It can’t be just a win for you…That’s not integrity selling. It must be a win-win,” he writes.

With short, focused chapters, lively writing, and excellent case studies from companies of all sizes, Supremely Successful Selling inspires while presenting a detailed path to follow in your own work.

The appendix includes a list of 12 objections to getting a visit with a potential buyer and how to overcome them, as well as a variety of sample letters requesting a visit.

Throughout, Panas is clear that a primary success factor for any salesperson is doing your homework. I can’t think of a better way to get started than to add this book to your required reading list.

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
You generally know when you’re in the presence of an original mind, and that is the case with Ben Marcus, who has written a post-apocalyptic horror story about a contagion that makes children’s voices fatal to adults.

The narrator, Sam, struggles with his love for his wife, Claire, wasting away before the onslaught of their daughter Esther’s words; wrestles with his limited understanding of the toxicity and clings to a desperate hope that science, medicine, the authorities, someone, will figure out a cure.

“All the guidance I knew was written for unexceptional times,” he admits.

Most of all, Sam struggles with faith: “One’s faith was meant to yield actionable material at times like this, I always thought, when one’s own imagination had failed, when nothing seemed possible. Wasn’t this why we accommodated an otherwise highly irrational set of beliefs?”

Horror begets tragedy as dying parents begin abandoning their toxic offspring, who seem to be “launching ammunition” from their faces. Tragedy begets more horror as children are first “voluntarily quarantined” and, later, branded “medical waste,” rounded up and imprisoned, until adolescence makes them susceptible to the voices of the young, too. And there is still more horror to come.

Reading this story is, as a friend once said about Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “unrelenting.” Yet there’s beauty in the writing and twisted insight in the creation of this world and the enormity of the loss – of loved ones, knowledge, sharing, thought – that it endures.

“It was early December. Year of the sewn-up mouth. The last December of speech. If you were not a child, safely blanketed in quarantine, bleating poison from your little red mouth, you were one of us. But to be one of us was to be something so small and quiet, you may as well have been nothing. If we had last messages, we’d crafted them already, stuffed them in bottles, shoes, shot them out to sea. Words written for no one, never to be read.”

“This is a plague among cavemen,” another character warns Sam, “and soon we’ll only be grunting to each other about it.”

I felt a bit of a caveman reading this. Whether it was my lack of knowledge about the Bible and religious practices and stories or the author’s vagueness about this world that seems a lot like ours yet veers slightly from our present-day experience. Some scenes repeat, sections go on longer than they need to, there seems to be a Chuck Palahnuik-like need to design technological objects with flesh-and-blood components – it is not an easy read. I’ll warn you: I like dystopias, but I’m not a fan of horror, and this novel, with its allusions to pogroms and concentration camps and its direct use of the Jewish faith, driven underground and blamed for the outbreak, made me queasy.

But on the whole, it is, as Michael Chabon says in his book jacket blurb, “something new and unheard of.” If you’re looking for a challenging read, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet is it.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
How fitting to end my reading challenge as it began: with a book recommended by my Brazilian friends. And The Lost City of Z was equally as exciting as Equator.

How did I not know this astounding tale of adventurer Percy Fawcett?

Fawcett is to the Amazon what T.E. Lawrence was to the desert peoples of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. He is largely responsible, in his work for the Royal Geographic Society at the turn of the last century, for mapping the territory between Bolivia and Brazil and presenting a more up-to-date view of the Amazon, its indigenous people and its ecosystem.

View of Amazon basin forest north of Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Phil P. Harris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

View of Amazon basin forest north of Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Phil P. Harris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 1900s, the prevailing view of the Amazon was that small tribes clustered around the Amazon River and its tributaries, relying on it for food and supplies from colonial outposts. Fawcett believed a once-great civilization had populated the interior, away from the rivers. He wove tales akin to those about El Dorado, painting a picture of a city dripping with gold, abundant in food, rich in culture. Most people thought he was nuts.

Scraping by – funds for exploration were far easier to put together for the more romantic Antarctic explorations of the era – Fawcett still managed six expeditions before his final, fatal one.

One of his best attributes was a willingness to learn as much of the Amazon Indians’ dialect – and inquire about the languages used deeper in the rainforest, in areas he wanted to venture – and a fierce moral code that made him insist upon meeting new tribes without his weapons (at a time when most white Amazon explorers turned guns on the Indians as a show of force).

As a result, Fawcett trekked farther into the Amazon than any explorer before, mapping the landscape and bringing back scientific knowledge to a world eager to learn about this wild land with 20-foot snakes, crocodiles and strangling vines.

“Fawcett’s ability to succeed where so many others failed contributed to a growing myth of his invincibility, which he himself began to believe,” author David Grann notes.

Fawcett and his eldest son disappeared on a 1925 trek into the heart of darkness, leaving his widow and their two younger children in poverty. Yet the mystery – the Fawcett party’s remains have never been located – sparked a century-long quest by thrill-seekers (known as “Fawcett freaks”) determined to find out what happened and locate Fawcett’s so-called Lost City of Z.

“Despite the passage of time and the diminished likelihood of finding him, some people seemed to grow more rather than less fanatical,” Grann writes. “For decades, they had pestered the Society for information, concocting their own bizarre theories, before setting out into the wilderness to effectively commit suicide.”

Grann is one of those drawn to retracing Fawcett’s final steps, despite the fact that he estimates almost 100 explorers have lost their lives over the years.

I won’t spoil the ending for you because Grann’s journey is as thrillingly recounted as the best adventure stories, like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. Along the way, he discusses both the history and the current state of the precarious Amazon territory. He also restores Fawcett’s rightful position as a modern-day Byrd, Livingstone and Shackleton.

It’s a hard irony that Fawcett’s vanishing may have done more to revive interest – scientific, ecological, anthropological – in the Amazon than his mapping expeditions. Late in the story, a scientist tells Grann that, “like the theory of who first populated the Americas, all the traditional paradigms had to be reevaluated,” including whether a wondrous ancient city like Z might once have thrived deep in the jungle.

A fantastic adventure, made all the more thrilling for being true.

The Print-Digital Divide, Part Two

Moby-Dick

Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” a book with heft. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Two friends walk into a bookstore. One clutches a digital reader to his chest and rhapsodizes that it’s changed the way he reads forever. His buddy ignores the techno-wizardry on display and heads straight for the shelves, breathing in the intoxicating combination of paper and ink, cracking the spine, and enjoying the heft of a printed book in his hands.

They might as well be carrying different banners – Romulan versus Federation, House Stark instead of House Lannister, Red Sox versus Yankees, Beatles or Rolling Stones, Ahab and the White Whale.

Sterile vs. Visceral

In Part One of this discussion of ebooks vs. print books, I mentioned I’d laughed when a digital advocate derided book-lovers for going on and on and on about the smell of books. I get the joke. The smell isn’t really what makes a book a book or what gives us joy from books. And when we print fans talk like that we have a tendency to sound as tweedy as Giles when he asks Willow to “wrest some information from that dreaded machine.” (Although he does make an excellent case that “if it’s to last, the getting of knowledge should be smelly.”)

Critic and essayist Joe Queenan counts himself among the book-sniffers. In a beautiful paean to the printed word, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” Queenan argues, “People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.”

“My philosophy is simple,” he continues. “Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.”

I find Queenan’s essay eloquent, but I also can’t disagree with “The Medium Is the Message,” a recent article in Poets & Writers, which notes that “for the past five hundred years or so we’ve generally accepted a single version of what a book is, what it looks like, and how it is consumed.”

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, we read scrolls, painted on cave walls and told stories around the fire. Technology has always transformed human stories. Ebooks are just the latest blip on the continuum of our history as story-consumers.

Pricing

This is where ebooks have print books beat hands-down. Virtually all of the digital publishers are undercutting the pricing of new hardcovers and eating into the market for new-release paperbacks, too.

All well and good, you may think. But the cost of books isn’t entirely the result of the real-world materials that go into creating them. It covers marketing, certainly, but also the salaries of editors and other staff at the publishing house who nurture manuscripts and authors alike as a book goes through months of edits and rewrites.

“We’re not talking about that anymore,” noted Samantha Dunn, one of the writers on the Digital Publishing panel at the WeHo Book Fair. “Those traditional hurdles to publishing: getting an agent to fall in love with you and your book. Finding an editor to work with.”

Carolyn Kellogg, Samantha Dunn, Anna David and Dan Smetanka speak at the Digital Publishing panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

What she’s referencing is the price of quality. Editors push writers in ways writers can’t push themselves – editors are there to spot plot holes, poorly written sections, superficial characters, and they help writers clean up those problems to achieve more masterful prose.

With 211,000 self-published titles in 2011 (and just as many print books published through traditional means), how do you find books that are well-written, well-edited and worth your time?

Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times was very clear during that panel discussion that traditional critics won’t touch self-published books – there are too many and critics don’t have time. So who helps you sort the great from the dreck?

Now your mileage may vary, but my personal choice is to rely on traditional publishing houses, traditional marketing and the critical review process. My time is valuable. I don’t have hours to dedicate to poring over hundreds of thousands of links in an electronic database, trying to figure out what might have the potential to be decent. And when I do have a spare moment to read, I want to spend it on the good stuff, not mentally copyediting and grammar-checking sloppy prose. I do enough of that at work.

Multimedia

There are very cool things happening in ebooks. Because devices connect to the Internet, readers can follow links from the text, hear a song that a character is listening to in a story, play with interactive treasure maps, or engage in social reading by viewing the parts of a story that other readers have already highlighted.

In that P&W article, Di Blasi talks about the fact that Jaded Ibis “publishes each of its titles in four editions: as an e-book, a black-and-white paperback, a full-color paperback, and a special edition, which can range in form from a snow globe filled with the words of a novel to a book including a page of sealed mud to…clay tablets.”

She predicts gaming-based novels will supersede literary fiction, noting that her company already publishes an app-novel that looks different each time it loads.

“The probability of coming across a page illustrated in the same way you’ve seen before is close to one in 350 million,” she claims.

That’s great news for people who want those experiences – all of which sound fantastically fun and interactive. But, let’s be clear about our terms: these aren’t books, they’re book art and they’re book apps.

And there is a difference.

Neuroscientists are starting to explore the way the brain experiences reading. Early experiments show profound differences between deep and distracted reading. There’s no two ways about it, when you click a link and leave the story, when you allow technology to play a song rather than using your imagination to bring it to life, you’re engaged in distracted reading.

One study suggests that deep reading activates the brain more globally and involves the regions responsible for “movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.”

If you’re an avid book reader, you have no trouble recognizing this state of mind – it’s enchantment. You’re literally held in a trance by story because you’re so deeply engaged.

I think understanding these differences is important because it allows you to choose the kind of experience you want, or even need, to have. If you’re reading something that involves a lot of new vocabulary or industry jargon, it’s immensely helpful to be able to tap a word and be taken to a definition – the speed of ebooks enables this quickly, so you can incorporate what you’ve learned back into the flow of the paragraph.

If you’ve just bought the latest Nick Harkaway novel, you may prefer enchantment, as the author creates a vivid and fantastical world for you to get lost in.

More important, to my mind, than which medium you choose is the fact that you have choices.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Publisher Dan Smetanka made the point during the WeHo Book Fair that different people read for very different reasons, and they also have differing preferences for the form that reading takes. Smetanka said he believed all sorts of media should be available to meet everyone’s needs.

Marc Hirsh’s excellent essay, “The Critical Tyranny of ‘You’re Doing It Wrong,’” on NPR’s Monkey See blog, strikes a similar vein.

“The reason You’re Doing It Wrong is troublesome,” writes Hirsh, “lies in its tyrannical underpinning, dictating the way popular culture must be consumed, often for no reason beyond a belief that the writer is the only one enjoying an experience properly (or even at all)…There’s no acknowledgement that different consumers might have different needs and responses.”

“One important distinction,” Hirsh adds. “You’re Doing It Wrong is different from The Way You’re Doing It Has Consequences. When book-sniffers worry that the medium and experience they love is being threatened with extinction by the advent of e-readers, that’s perfectly valid.”

That’s pretty much where I net out. Even though my personal choice remains old-fashioned print books, I’m perfectly happy if you love your Kindle/iPad/Nook/Surface/Tricorder. The advent (and the advocates) of ebooks shouldn’t demand the extinction of print books. Ebooks and print books are not the same thing – the new version doesn’t preclude the existence of the old one, the way advances in microchips make old processers obsolete.

So let’s agree to get along and not knock anyone who’s enjoying the wonders of reading, no matter how they do it. There are bigger battles to focus our collective energy on – literacy and supporting libraries (whether electronic or brick) and fighting censorship – than what or how people are reading.

Related posts:

The Print-Digital Divide: Are You Taking a Side? (Part One of this series)
Is Digital the Future of Publishing?