The Print-Digital Divide: Are You Choosing a Side?

What is it about ebooks that’s so contentious? How can they send some people into rhapsodies that used to be reserved for TiVo, while others claim they’re a sign of the impending apocalypse?

Whether you’re an avid reader or a writer, you surely know this battleground, perhaps have claimed one camp over the other. Maybe you’re with the guy who said his brain would explode if he had to listen to book-lovers extol the smell of musty old tomes one more time. (Which cracked me up despite the fact that I’ve made that argument more than once or thrice.)

Superhero Vela Kurv. Image by Victor Ishimura. All rights owned by Riley Rose.

At the West Hollywood Book Fair, I sat next to a good friend at the Digital Publishing panel, and the two of us couldn’t have been further apart. Riley Rose owns several e-readers, loves them, and has published her own series of sci-fi, action-adventure ebooks, Vela Kurv, on Amazon’s Createspace, Smashwords and Lulu. Rose could anchor a panel on ebook publishing, navigating the myriad options and publishers, and how to handle the technical aspects, including promotion. She practically did after the panel, when she was deluged with questions from the audience.

Thinking about our divided opinions made me want to explore both sides further. What I discovered – after a lot of reading and research – is that the pros and the cons of ebooks are not nearly as easily defined as each side would like to think.

Small Presses & Self-publication

The head of Jaded Ibis publishing, Debra Di Blasi, in the latest issue of Poets & Writers, says she founded her company because books by innovative writers “were deemed unmarketable” by traditional houses.

Note she’s not talking about books that aren’t good. What she’s lamenting is that many traditional publishers, operating on slim margins, find it next to impossible to take on books that appeal to smaller, or niche, audiences.

Di Blasi is able to pay her authors a percentage that’s far higher than most big publishing companies: “at least 40 percent of net royalties,” according to Poets & Writers.

For both these reasons – the ability to tell different kinds of stories with unique characters and the potential for greater control and returns – many authors are choosing to self-publish rather than engage even the boutique publishing firms.

Like my friend, Riley Rose, who created a nontraditional sci-fi heroine – Vela Kurv is a woman of color of Amazonian proportions – tens of thousands of authors took to self-publishing their books last year.

Ebooks offer these writers far more options at better margins than going the print-self-publishing route. Plus, the technology allows unique ways to market these books to audiences that might never come across them otherwise. In the past, Rose has been able to provide potential readers with a free download sample of her Vela Kurv series. Through Dec. 31, 2012, she’s offering a coupon for a discount at purchase from Smashwords, which I’m pleased to pass along to you:

Vela Kurv Legacy Series, Part I (Smashwords BYCAB Edition – The Scintillate Seed to Vela Kurv) Your coupon code is NL99M (not case-sensitive).

Vela Kurv Legacy Series, Part II (Smashword BYCAB Edition – The Wiles of Vela Kurv) Your coupon code is XA58Q (not case-sensitive).

(Per the FTC, this is not a paid endorsement. It’s a friend-endorsement.)

Try arranging something like this with a print book, print sample chapter and a printed coupon in a bookstore…

What’s lovely about the existence of ebook publishing is that it makes the storytelling community more vital for everyone – readers and writers, alike – simply by offering more options.

Portability

This one’s a no-brainer – you can add more books without lugging around more weight. This is why ebook readers are great for commuters, travelers and parents of cranky toddlers. Forgot to bring a book? Just download one.

A device would’ve come in handy when I was touring the Greek islands a couple of years ago. I finished the books I’d packed long before we reached our final destination of Santorini. Once you’re ferrying between islands on the Aegean Sea, there aren’t a lot of shops that carry English-language books – and the ones that do charge a hefty price in euros. I think I wound up paying €17 for a paperback of Dexter by Design.

There’s just one tiny, little problem (which, admittedly, only happens occasionally)…

Access

Sunset over Santorini in the Aegean Sea. Photo by Vickie Bates.

If you can’t power your device or find network access, then you are truly stuck. Not only do you not have something to read, all those apps and games and emails you planned to have fun with? It’s Game Over there, too. You’ll be just like me, wandering around Santorini, willing to pay anything for something to read.

On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than wanting to read a new book right now and having to wait for a bookstore or library to open and then discovering they don’t have it.

With ebooks, if you devoured The Hunger Games and love-love-loved it, you can download Catching Fire and dive right back in to the world and characters created by author Suzanne Collins. You just finished Pride and Prejudice and you’re wondering why it took you so long to discover Jane Austen? Click on Sense and Sensibility or Emma or check out her unfinished works, and you’ll be transported back to her world within seconds.

Backlighting

I feel like Bill Maher saying this, but: Stop pretending a downside is a feature, people!

At the end of the day, an e-reader is yet another screen glaring back at you – just like your computer, laptop, tablet, phone and TV. Don’t you get enough of this? When you go to bed at night and close your eyes, what image does your retina retain on the inside of your eyelids? Let me guess: It’s a dark rectangle with a glowing screen in the middle.

Books don’t need special backlights. You can read them in the sun, you can read them indoors, you can read them at night, you can read them under a lamp, by candle or flashlight. Five hundred years of engineering has gone into optimizing the perfect “device” for reading: It’s called a book.

Early Adoption

The thrill of early adoption is that you get your hands on new stuff that (you hope) does new things in a new way. The downside is that you wind up like a TiVo fanatic: you pay an exorbitant fee for something – like a DVR – that now comes free or at greatly reduced cost. (And in order to justify the expensive outlay, you wind up blathering about it to all and sundry, like a walking advertisement.)

Getting too attached to the latest whiz-bang, backlit reading device comes with a downside. It may not be around for long.

It took 20 years to get from the “Star Trek” tricorder to the first commercial tablets; another 10 for Apple to introduce the Newton; and 14 more for the first Kindle to arrive. All sorts of advances in technology may change ebooks and the digital reading experience in ways even Gene Roddenberry couldn’t have dreamed of.

Google already is working on creating the smartphone/tablet experience in glasses – maybe you’ll be reading novels that way in the not-so-distant future. Or, better yet, perhaps there’ll be a 4D experience that takes anything you want to consume – TV show, movie, concert, class, book – and projects it precisely where you want it to be, at any distance or angle that you desire, while you do the dishes, tuck in a child at night, or lounge in bed. Perhaps it’ll even flip pages or channels based on your eye movements.

– – – –

When I started writing this piece, I honestly thought I knew how it would end, that my arguments for print books would win out over ebooks. But, in researching the subject, I find it more nuanced than good/bad or new/old. It’s turned into more of an exploration than a debate, for me. And it’s grown much longer than I expected. In Part Two, I’ll look at pricing, multimedia, deep versus distracted reading, and more.

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think about ebooks and print books, which reader you prefer (or not), and what you predict the future of reading might hold.

Of Spies, Sisters and the Old Switcheroo

Ian McEwan, photographed during the 2011 Paris book festival. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of November’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the McEwan book and the Bean play and borrowed the rest from my local library. All 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

November
6 down, 1 to go!

REVIEWS

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
It is 1970s London, a time of austerity, attacks by the IRA, and three-day work weeks. Serena Frome is lucky to land a job with MI5, despite the fact that she “didn’t use, and hadn’t even heard, the word ‘totalitarianism.’ I probably would have thought it had something to do with refusing a drink.”

Serena’s is no Ian Fleming or John le Carré tale, however. After months toiling in obscurity, her first real assignment is to vet writer Tom Haley, his short fiction and journalism, and report back to MI5 whether she thinks he’s ideologically sound enough to receive funding (funneled through a literary foundation to make it look legit) – a gamble on his future output and whether it’ll hue to the party line.

At this point, the reader familiar with McEwan’s work will note that Haley’s short stories are McEwan’s (wink). Because Serena is “the basest of readers,” only interested in stories with protagonists like herself, she doesn’t have the kindest words for Haley’s sexually depraved characters and “tricksy” plots, and her observations seem derived from those (few) less-than-favorable reviews of McEwan’s first collections (wink, wink).

Serena earns points for signing up Tom for project Sweet Tooth, but commits the ultimate indiscretion by falling in love with him. Much of the middle section of the novel deals with Serena’s inner debate over telling Tom the truth and her doubts that they can have a genuine long-term relationship while she keeps such an insidious secret:

“I was tumbling through dimensionless space, even as I sat smiling demurely in a Brighton fish restaurant. But always, at the further edges of thought, was that tiny stain. I generally tried to ignore it, and I was so excited I often succeeded.”

Turns out Tom has surprises up his sleeve, too. The financial windfall allows him to finish a novel, much like The Road, which proceeds to win a major literary prize (just as The Road did), while McEwan dissects the bleakness of the novel (wink, wink, wink) in the guise of Serena’s MI5 handlers, complaining that their largesse has been used to fund a novel that criticizes, rather than celebrates, western society.

Meanwhile, Tom finds himself giving readings with McEwan’s friend Martin Amis (wink, wink, wink, wink), as the young Amis makes his dazzling literary debut with The Rachel Papers.

But Tom’s fame won’t be of the same order as Amis’. Still, he gets the last wink in Sweet Tooth, which veers a bit too close to Atonement, with its twisty, epistolary ending. Depending on whether you loved or hated Atonement (I’m the latter), the final chapter will send you back to the beginning of the book, desperate to re-read and reassess, or it’ll make you want to heave the bloody thing across the room.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré
It’s taken me a while to warm to le Carré. All that Cold War-mongering seemed of my parents’ generation.

But, when the remake of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” appeared last spring, I saw it twice and enjoyed the nuanced storytelling. Reviews tended to zero in on le Carré’s “peel-back-the-onion-layers” approach. That tactic – which keeps you on the edge of your seat – is in full form in le Carré’s third novel, published in 1963, which brings the reader up to date on British intelligence characters, introduced in his first novel, like Control, George Smiley and Peter Guillam, as well as their is-he-or-isn’t-he arch-enemy Hans-Dieter Mundt, an East German assassin.

Le Carré’s protagonist this time is Alec Leamas, back in England after a disastrous stint in Berlin, where the agents he was running were picked off, one by one, by someone on the eastern side of the Wall, most likely Mundt.

The first part of the novel involves Leamas establishing his cover, disgraced and fired from “the Circus,” le Carré’s nickname for British intelligence, and drifting until he winds up in jail.

The second half involves Leamas’ undercover assignment, pretending to go over to the Dark Side and reveal the Circus’ trade secrets. It’s an art, trying to convince the enemy that you’re one of them:

“They would expect him to be afraid; for his Service pursued traitors as the eye of God followed Cain across the desert. And finally, they would know it was a gamble. They would know that inconsistency in human decision can make nonsense of the best-planned espionage approach; that cheats, liars and criminals may resist every blandishment while respectable gentlemen have been moved to appalling treasons by watery cabbage in a departmental canteen.”

What sets le Carré apart, of course, is his time in the trenches, working for the MI’s 5 and 6 during the Cold War. But real-world experience doesn’t guarantee good writing, and that’s le Carré’s other secret weapon. It’s his ability to set the scene with perfect detail (“She reminded Leamas of an old aunt he’d once had who beat him for wasting string.”) – this is what makes the subterfuge so thrilling, when the reader realizes she or he has been set up to believe one thing when what’s really true is quite another.

Le Carré was one of the early writers to cast the Cold Warriors in ambiguous terms; the West wasn’t always moral and expediency shaded intelligence operations.

After all, Leamas notes, “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too…people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London, balancing rights and wrongs?…This is a war. It’s graphic and unpleasant because it’s fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it’s nothing, nothing at all beside other wars – the last or the next.”

I’m looking forward to reading more about the Circus’ tiny wars – and, next time, I’m going to start at the beginning.

(A footnote: Wikipedia informs me that le Carré, whose given name is David John Moore Cornwell, has a son from his second marriage, Nicholas Cornwell, whose pen name is none other than Nick Harkaway…)

The Photograph by Penelope Lively
Kath is gone. Wife to Glyn, sister to Elaine – so beautiful that no one paid attention to anything beneath the surface. But when an old photograph reveals her involvement with another man, Glyn is forced to reevaluate: “suddenly everything has to be looked at in a different light.”

That’s inconvenient for Kath’s older sister because, in death, Kath had become “biddable…docile, as she never was. She comes and goes, and sometimes she comes when she is not wanted, but she is under control.”

For Glyn, a landscape archeologist, the past he thought he’d laid to rest must be sifted through again; old territory rediscovered and remapped. “Why? Why? Why?” Glyn wants to know. “Motive is all. Motive is clarification. Motive explains. Motive soothes, perhaps.”

Glyn’s need to unearth the truth disturbs the foundations of Elaine’s relationship with her husband Nick and with Kath’s beloved niece, Polly. Even people peripheral to Kath’s life are shaken up.

Without Kath to blame and interrogate, all they have left is their own behavior to examine and the memories aren’t always pretty:

“Elaine finds other Kaths crowding in. These Kaths are not clear and precise, they do not say anything that she can hear, they are not doing anything in particular; they are somewhere very deep and far, they swarm like souls in purgatory, disturbing in their silent reproach.”

It’s a premise along similar lines to Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, winner of the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and a tale equally stunning, heartbreaking and well told. This is the second Lively novel I’ve read in the span of several weeks and just as delicious. With more than a dozen other novels to her credit, I’m looking forward to reading more from this great writer.

Sister by Rosamund Lupton
“Grief is the ultimate unrequited love,” shares the minister at Tess’s funeral. “However hard and however long we love someone who has died, they can never love us back.”

Cold comfort to Tess’s older sister, Beatrice, who’d always felt that looking after Tess “is an essential part of my job description.”

Bee’s sense of failure is overwhelming, and it turns Lupton’s Sister into a memento mori:

“I threw everything we had together – the strong roots and stems and leaves and beautiful soft blossoms of sisterhood – into the earth with you. And I was left standing on the edge, so diminished by the loss that I thought I could no longer be there. All I was allowed to keep for myself was missing you.”

Despite the sadness, there’s an urgency about Sister that kept me reading this debut novel late into the night. The suspense, when Tess goes missing and Bee jets back to London to find her, drives the reader on – long past the point when the plot becomes ridiculous.

I’d been warned by a review that this was the case. It’s no spoiler to let you know that Tess is found dead in an abandoned park lavatory because the main thrust of the novel is Bee’s single-minded pursuit of justice for Tess, who she believes was murdered. The police and everyone around Bee are convinced it was a suicide and that Bee just can’t bring herself to admit this fact.

Standing up for her belief brings Bee a sense of self-confidence she never knew she had:

“That’s how I’d been living my life, in tiny measured doses. But your death was a vast sea, and I was sinking. Did you know that an ocean can be seven miles deep? No sun can penetrate that far down. In the total darkness, only misshapen, unrecognizable creatures survive, mutant emotions that I never knew existed until you died.”

But, it also puts her at risk of meeting the same fate, since whatever evil force overtook Tess is still out there. This is where Sister breaks apart entirely. Like a TV procedural, there are many false leads, people with suspicious motives to be questioned and set aside. Unfortunately, the author’s decision to bring a big pharmaceutical company and its clinical trial into the mix ultimately does the plot in. Just like Ann Patchett’s laughable State of Wonder, where Big Pharma Is The Bad Guy, Lupton hasn’t a clue how clinical trials are managed and regulated. For lack of research, a well-paced, well-written plot unwinds into sheer silliness.

Next time, let’s hope Lupton sticks with what she knows, which includes a stunning poetic ability to define a character’s heart and soul.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
This guy Portnoy sure does complain a lot. He complains about his mother. He complains about his girlfriend (“Who sets off inside me daily explosions of disapproval, hourly thunderclaps of admonition!”). He complains that the world doesn’t cater to his every need. He complains enough to fill an entire book.

As Rabbit Run was in 1960, Portnoy’s Complaint was considered groundbreaking in 1967. I’m old enough to (barely) remember ’67 and the times as they were a’changing, but reading this in the 21st century is a bit disconnective, which is unfortunate. It’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t remember the ‘60s understanding exactly what’s going on. And it would be a shame to bypass such great writing, such a great character, because it feels like we’ve met him before. If that’s the case, it’s because Roth made him up first.

Roth tackles Portnoy in first person, and he’s perfectly realized in voice and action. Since it’s the ‘60s, Alex is still in thrall to Freudian theory, and here he is, complaining to his shrink about his mother:

“The great dark operatic themes of human suffering and passion come rolling out of those mouths like the prices of Oxydol and Del Monte canned corn! My own mother, let me remind you, when I returned this past summer from my adventure in Europe, greets me over the phone with the following salutation: ‘Well, how’s my lover?’ Her lover she calls me, while her husband is listening on the other extension! And it never occurs to her, if I’m her lover, who is he…? No, you don’t have to go digging where these people are concerned – they wear the old unconscious on their sleeves!”

It comes as no surprise to learn that Portnoy’s favorite word in the English language is “indignation.”

Portnoy reminds me of that line in a Barenaked Ladies song: “If you think growing up is tough/then you’re just not grown-up enough.” In the end, he feels so real, you want to lecture Alex, just as Naomie did:

“‘Do you know,’ she said, and without a trace of charity, ‘there is something very wrong with you.’”

If only he knew, Portnoy would complain about that too!

One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean
I had the pleasure of catching this British import when I was in New York City in August. The play is uproarious. Reading the book brought it back to life and demonstrated how a beautifully crafted structure can support the anarchic talents of an actor like James Corden, who plays Francis Henshall, the One Man of the title.

Playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Bean’s farce allows the improvisational brilliance of Corden, till now content to play sidekick in U.K. television’s “Gavin & Stacey,” to come to the fore. Here, he takes on the role of the Harlequin, a man driven by base urges, causing chaos, but no less than the characters around him.

“Yes, the fourth wall is violated in improvisation with theatergoers,” notes The New York Times review, “the most delicious I’ve ever seen on Broadway.”

I agree. Outside of “Arcadia,” this is hands down the best evening I’ve had on Broadway in decades (and that includes plays by Wendy Wasserstein, whom I love, and seeing Whoopi Goldberg in the revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum…” in which nothing funny happened).

Bean updates a commedia dell’arte classic, “The Servant of Two Masters” by 18th century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, setting “Two Guvnors” in early ‘60s Brighton.

Rachel Crabbe’s boyfriend, Stanley, has just murdered her twin brother, Roscoe, in a knife fight. They flee to Brighton, under separate cover, with Rachel dressed up as Roscoe in order to take the heat off her beloved. (But the newspapers have already published an artist’s impression of what she’d look like as a man and a friend warns her: “You ended up looking a bit like Ringo Starr, who’s already been arrested twice.”)

Rachel is determined to collect a large debt, owed to Roscoe, which will allow the runaway lovers to hide out in Australia.

“Australia!” wonders her friend Lloyd. “Oh my God, no, that’s really terrible. Why Australia? Do you like opera?”

Meanwhile, Francis has lost his gig with a skiffle band (a lively skiffle band plays onstage as the audience finds its seats before the play begins, at intermission, and at scene changes). Broke and hungry, he accepts Rachel/Roscoe’s offer of a week’s work in Brighton, but all he can think about is fish and chips, and he doesn’t get paid until the end of the week.

Enter Stanley, who also needs an assistant while on the lam, and who’s willing to pay Francis by the day.

Now all Francis has to do is keep both guvnors in the dark about his double dipping, keep his duties straight, and remember that he’s engaged in yet another deception, playing his doppelganger Paddy, in order to impress a dame, called Dolly.

“So, do you see how commedia dell’arte works?” Francis addresses the audience as the Second Act gets under way. “In the first half I’m driven by my animal urges, hunger, but in this second half, because I’ve eaten, I am humanized, civilized, and I can embrace the potentiality of love. Which, in this version, is expressed as a leg-over in Majorca.”

Corden puts his portly frame to perfect use throughout, but perhaps best during the first bit of improv, when Francis tries to lug Stanley’s steamer trunk into the hotel. He can’t budge the obstinate trunk for trying and resorts to calling two beefy members of the audience up on stage to help him. There’s a brief mention of audience improv in the book. What ensued on the night I attended was 20 glorious minutes of comedic riffing – the word “side-splitting” comes to mind – and this was his second show of the day!

See this wonderful version of a comedy classic if you have a chance and, if not, the book sure looks good from here.

Here, There and Everywhere

Today’s NaBloPoMo writing prompt asks you to describe your favorite place to read. This is another tricky one – I love to read everywhere.

Sure, like a lot of folks, I spend most of my reading time on the couch, in an easy chair or in bed before I go to sleep (or when insomnia wakes me at 3:30 in the morning).

My fondest place to read is my porch in New Hampshire. It’s got a variety of comfy seating and plenty of natural and artificial light. There’s a troupe of chipmunks doing acrobatics on the terrace, cicadas in the forest, the gentle breezes of summer.

One of my favorite summer reading spots – my New Hampshire porch.

Mainly, it conjures memories of my mom and stepdad, both avid readers, and time we spent together on the porch, each of us with a nose in a book. Even though we were occupied with our own adventures or treatises on history or science or politics, we were united by the joy of reading.

But I can read anywhere. As a child, I read in the garden, at the library, in my treehouse, during recess, while watching TV or listening to music. (I don’t really do the latter anymore.)

For 13 years in San Francisco I took public transit because I didn’t have a car. I learned to read on buses, lurching through traffic with poor shocks, and on the smooth tracks of the Muni. I read in drafty subway stations and at drizzly bus stops.

I read queuing for everything from prescriptions to concert tickets. I do copious amounts of reading in waiting rooms and doctor’s offices. I’ve mentioned I suffer from chronic pain, which makes me more vulnerable than most to the invasiveness of medical procedures since my nervous system has no more resistance after 12 years of 24/7 pain signaling. If I’ve forgotten to bring something to read, and there are no magazines, I’ll resort to signs on the wall, brochures, exhortations to wash your hands, anything, just to keep my mind off what’s about to be inflicted upon me.

Words themselves are a comfort. They’re what my brain pretty much wants to be working on, puzzling over and discovering all of the time. So, I’m happy reading, and I’m happy reading anywhere.

How about you? Do you have a favorite chair, beach, library or other secluded spot for reading?

Back on Track with the Brits

Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan, NW, Zadie SmithI thought August and September’s reading challenges were going to undo me – though I love reading too much for anything to change my relationship with books for very long, even books themselves.

Reconnecting with my long-time appreciation of British writers (and one San Franciscan who obviously adores books) got me back on track. Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of October’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the first three books and borrowed the last from my local library. 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

October
4 down, 7 to go!

REVIEWS

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Strange things are afoot at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, and Clay Jannon, the clerk on the shop’s graveyard shift is ready to ignore his boss’s warnings, embark on a hero’s journey, win the girl, and solve a centuries-old mystery.

Robin Sloan’s first novel is that rare thing: a celebration of both the book and the new technology that sometimes threatens to obliterate physical books. And it’s all wrapped up in the kind of adventure pre-teens dream about while reading sci-fi/fantasy serials.

Whether you love The Old Curiosity Shop, Sherlock Holmes mysteries or newer-fangled fare like Nick Harkaway’s, you’ll appreciate this tale, which is perfectly set in a post-bubble San Francisco.

There’s a girl – Kat – a lover of all things data. “I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype,” Clay moons after their first meeting.

Kat works at Google, of course, and is ready to throw considerable computing resources at the baffling code Clay discovers in the books on the shadowy back shelves of Mr. Penumbra’s store.

“A fellowship of secret scholars spent five hundred years on this task. Now we’re penciling it in for a Friday morning,” Clay observes. But the project unexpectedly pushes Kat and Clay apart and threatens the future of the bookstore, its owner and his loyal patrons.

I can’t say much more without revealing the intricacies of a fun caper.

As with many first novels, there were a few moments the reader may take issue with, such as:

  • the over-reliance on an already ubiquitous, real-world brand (Google) to drive a fictional plot (it makes the novel feel like one of those stories paid to be written around a brand; imagine a less-cool brand, like Preparation-H, mentioned so prominently and frequently, and you’ll understand why it’s so distracting);
  • [SPOILER ALERT: Jump to Bullet 3, if you don’t like learning even small plot points] there’s a whopper of a mistake regarding the code in Mr. Penumbra’s books, which is supposed to be virtually indecipherable. This is where the real-world brand truly draws the reader out of the story. The code is so simple that the drama of dragging Google into the plot (yeah, right, Google, which lives and dies on speed-of-service, would allow its search engines to grind to a halt for 3 seconds while it tries – and fails! – to decode the books) makes the story unrealistic – and even fictional universes need to feel realistic;
  • the writing gets the job done, but is so plain, the plot occasionally loses its sense of awe right when it needs to be suspenseful or astonishing (you may want to weigh this comment against my review of Harkaway, which follows).

Sloan saves the good stuff – the eloquence – for the very end (literally the last few paragraphs). It’s lovely (especially a turn of phrase like “the right book exactly, at exactly the right time”), but I wish he’d trusted himself more as a writer to, as Annie Dillard advised in The Writing Life: “give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.”

The last page augurs good things and perhaps great books from Sloan in the future. Anyone who loves and respects books this much while reveling in all the advances that new technology provides is worth watching.

For you fans of fantasy/sci-fi fiction: The jacket of the hardcover glows in the dark! Wicked cool (and a bit eerie the first time you realize your nightstand lights up like the tiny core of a nuclear reactor).

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
After the tommy-gun prose of Nick Harkaway, Sloan’s just-the-facts approach was actually appealing. Interesting that Harkaway writes a blurb on Sloan’s dustjacket. Ideally, they’d be merged, and Sloan’s DNA would bring brevity and calm to Harkaway, while Nick’s traits help Robin develop a sense of daring and wonder.

At 478 pages, Angelmaker is actually 20 pages shorter than Harkaway’s previous work. But it feels eons longer.

The protagonist is Joshua Joseph Spork (remember that name…), scion of a British gangster, who rejected dad’s criminal legacy and inherits instead his grandfather’s clock-repair business.

Joe is “the man who arrives too late. Too late for clockwork in its prime, too late to know his grandmother. Too late to be admitted to the secret places, too late to be a gentleman crook, too late really to enjoy his mother’s affection before it slid away into a God-ridden gloom. And too late for whatever odd revelation was waiting here. He had allowed himself to believe that there might, at last, be a wonder in the world which was intended just for him. Foolishness.”

That moment of quiet reflection will be Joe’s last. The past quickly endangers the present as Joe inadvertently sets off an old clockwork-like device, built by his grandparents, that unleashes hives of mechanical bees (yes, you read that right) into Europe’s airspace. The Apprehension Engine was supposed to bring truth and peace to the world – as if that’s what premiers and tyrants want:

“To the leaders of the world, though, they are bad bees. They are bees of aggression, not bees of honey and peace. They are evil bees, and cannot be tolerated.”

Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World also featured a massively destructive weapon, and its purpose was clear. The origins, construction and uses of the Apprehension Engine are anything but, and the novel takes several long diversions to offer up the WWII-era exploits of a friend of Joe’s grandmother, a spy, who barely survives an attempt to rid the world of evil dictator Shem Shem Tsien (remember that name…).

“Before [Joe] can even reach for that future, or one like it, he has to climb on top of the rubble of the past and see what the world actually looks like.”

This is true, as far as this tale goes, but unfortunately the stakes in Angelmaker aren’t as directly related to our central character as they were in The Gone-Away World. There are a lot of peripheral characters and their random business – all insisting they owe allegiance to Joe, who we’ve never seen earn it, simply because he’s his father’s son. That would be a father who never comes into play in the plot.

This novel should be 40 pages shorter, at least, and would be if Joe’s name wasn’t constantly bandied about. Sadly, Harkaway is not a writer to say something once when it can be fussed and fidgeted over 10 times: “The Spork boy? Joe Spork? Why didn’t you say so sooner, you bloody fool! Joe? Joe! Joseph! Get in here and give me a kiss!”

Most writers are taught to dispense with the Hello-how-are-yous and get to the point; for Harkaway, they’re golden opportunities to run his protagonist’s name into the ground:

– “Don? It’s Joe Spork.”
– “Joe? Joe Spork? Oh, for God’s sake, little Josh?”

This has progressed to other characters, too. Shem Shem Tsien, whose name is already redundant, is AKA the Opium Khan AKA the Khaygul-Khan and AKA a bunch of other names by the time the book’s done. Joe’s grandmother has several monikers. There are three Bethanys at Nobelwhite Cradle, the fixer’s office Joe turns to for help – each, of course, has another name.

And Polly Cradle, Joe’s love interest, is AKA The Bold Receptionist. But it’s never that simple in Angelmaker: “Not Pollyanna. Polly, like Molly. Molly like Mary. Mary like Mary Angelica…,” muses Joe, realizing he knew her as a child.

As with The Gone-Away World, there’s a major twist late in the game. The problem, I think, for this novel is that the twist happens to a character we don’t care about. In his first book, a shocking revelation changes the game and ups the stakes for the protagonist. With Joshua Joseph Spork and his bees, the sting doesn’t leave the reader itching to know more.

NW by Zadie Smith
NW stands for northwest London; in NW, Zadie Smith is focused on the community living in council estates (government-subsidized housing) further north and west of now-trendy Notting Hill and Islington.

While many residents are immigrants from Jamaica and Africa, a certain mindset feels long-entrenched here. Two bright young women, Leah and Natalie, use education to find their way out of the estates. But they never quite escape the idea of – to use that lovely British expression – who they are when they’re at home. Family and community have claims on their identities.

Leah, in particular, is struggling with expectations that her relationship with Michel move to the next stage despite her desire to keep things just as they are, without a baby. Here is Leah at work, surrounded by a pregnant co-worker and colleagues who’re already moms:

“A room full of women laughing. Some shared knowledge of their sex to which Leah is not party. She puts her hands either side of the bump, and smiles, hoping that this is the sort of thing that normal women do, women for whom trying is half the fun and ‘you’re next’ does not sound like the cry of a guard in a dark place.”

It’s thrilling when a writer is this good at placing you in the mind of her protagonist, and I wish I could tell you there was more of this in NW.

Meanwhile, Natalie, a lawyer, is “living the dream” with a banker husband and two children, yet keeps finding ways to destroy everything she has built.

If that synopsis sounds coherent, the book is not. It’s suffering from three major flaws:

  1. There is far too much dialogue to really get to know and understand the characters deeply.
  2. The entire second section of the book is a series of short blurbs about Leah and Natalie (185 in total), bits and bobs of background detail.
  3. We are too often in the heads of characters we don’t care about, who have little relationship to Leah, Natalie or the plot.

Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, about a family living in the rarified academic community around Harvard, was a tour de force of writing, characterization, ideas.

NW is a collection of notes on character, scraps of dialogue. Sadly, they are too jumbled to suss.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively
Now here is an author, masterfully moving characters through a story, connected by a simple, but poignant idea: that one seemingly insignificant event can turn the trajectory of many lives.

It begins with a purse-snatching that leaves widowed Charlotte injured on the pavement, £60 poorer and forced to recuperate at the home of her daughter, Rose, and Rose’s husband. Inadvertently, the thief has set the dominoes in motion and – though they fall – the outcome brings pleasant surprises as often as hard tumbles.

Rose manages cheerfully with the inconvenience of Charlotte, even though it means the occasional missed day of work as an assistant to “his lordship,” Henry, an aging academic. Henry’s career-woman niece, Marion, substitutes just fine for Rose at one of Henry’s luncheon lectures and, in turn, her life becomes a series of turbulent episodes thanks to a chance encounter at the event.

Like many of these characters, we meet Marion at the point when she must figure out whether change is for the better or worse.

“What has happened?” wonders Marion. “My life is in upheaval, and all because of a man I met at a lunch, and something called the financial downturn…Am I making a ghastly mistake? Am I going to regret this? But you have to be flexible, swerve off course if it looks right – I’ve not done it enough, I’ve just plowed ahead. And anyway I was swerved. Things happened.”

Having been quite literally swerved, Charlotte copes with her new circumstance by turning to books.

“She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience. Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.”

Someone else in Charlotte’s life is near starvation: Anton, one of her English-as-a-second-language students. Every moment he struggles to learn English keeps him from pursuing his profession in his new country and, with Charlotte no longer teaching, he falls further behind. Charlotte agrees to tutor him at Rose’s house, and this small change in routine brings Anton to the brink of a new life while Rose must consider the cost of breaking up her old one.

“All meetings are accidents really,” Rose supposes. “They might never have happened.” From Charlotte’s “transitory, intimate” encounter with a mugger, Penelope Lively weaves a beautiful tapestry of lives transformed by joy, fear, love and loss.

More November Writing Sprees

If you’re ready to write your wrist off in November, but a novel just isn’t your thing, consider these options:

NaBloPoMo

According to sponsor BlogHer, National Blog Post Month, “is a bloggy response to book writing’s NaNoWriMo.”

The goal is to blog for blogging’s sake, once a day. BlogHer has a sign-up page and offers blogging prompts to get you typing. Sign up by 11 p.m. EST on Nov. 5, and you’ll even have a chance to win prizes if you’ve been blogging daily.

The Naked Writer Project

Got more than enough work on your plate in November (and a minivan-full of relatives arriving for Thanksgiving)? Do you just like to watch?

No judgment here!

Writer Silvia Hartmann has exposed her entire creative process for readers who’d like to see a novel-in-progress. My Social Media Club Editorial Board buddy, the awesome Syed M. Raza, clued me in to The Naked Writer Project.  Hartmann is using social media (mainly Facebook, as well as Twitter) to alert readers when she’s on Google Drive, writing the next section of her novel, a fantasy fiction called The Dragon Lords.

Hartmann got her title from reader suggestions – and she’s used the Google Drive platform to solicit feedback as she goes along, so the novel continually evolved for Naked Writer Project participants.

Related post:

A Cornucopia of Virtual Storytelling – NaNoWriMo and Twitter Fiction Festival

 

Is Digital the Future of Publishing?

Did you know that the average amount of money earned by authors who self-publish ebooks is $10,000 and that half of all ebook self-publishers earn a mere $500?

The E.L. Jameses are few and far between, according to the panel I attended on digital publishing at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 30.

This was the 11th year for the WeHo Book Fair, which offers an eclectic bag of panels on fiction, memoir, food, mystery, sci-fi, LGBT, poetry, and screenwriting, as well as talks by authors writing for toddler, tween and teen audiences. This year’s event, for example, featured Susanna Moore, Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy, Marianne Williamson, Saturday Night Live’s Rachel Dratch, and Deepak Chopra.

The panel on digital publishing was moderated by the Los Angeles Times’ Carolyn Kellogg and featured authors Samantha Dunn and Anna David, and Dan Smetanka, editor-at-large for Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press.

Both authors have ventured into ebook territory – and the publisher, as well – still, the reviews were fairly muted on the advantages for writers and the publishing industry. While the benefits of digital in terms of price, portability and instant access seem clear for readers, ebooks are causing upheavals to longstanding practices in the publishing industry.

The Digital Publishing panel at the 2012 West Hollywood Book Fair (l – r) Carolyn Kellogg, Samantha Dunn, Anna David, and Dan Smetanka.

Dunn was approached by an ebook publisher about digitizing her back catalogue. While this makes older work available for new readers to discover in ways they couldn’t in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, the panel members noted that unless an author is prepared to publicize back catalogue, no one else will.

Kellogg, who writes about books and publishing for the Times, was clear that critics won’t review older titles. (Even newly released ebooks have a hard time finding their way into traditional, print-based book reviews. Kellogg observes that in 2011 there were some 211,000 self-published ebook titles and an equal number of print books. It would be impossible for reviewers to cover all of these.)

Smetanka said the same was true for marketing.

“All marketing is tied to [new release] print books,” said Smetanka. “The only marketing for ebooks is a price discount, which gets the consumer used to discount prices. You’re training the consumer to put a low price on fine art.”

At the same time, the ebook, with its steep price discounts, is negatively influencing sales of trade paperbacks. In the old publishing model, new titles were released and promoted in hardcover, then, when demand dropped off, they were released as paperbacks. The lower-priced paperback format typically encouraged another surge in sales.

In the new model, inexpensively priced ebooks compete with the hardcover release, making the paperback, which is still typically priced higher than the ebook, uncompetitive. “The market just isn’t sustaining all three formats,” said Smetanka.

It’s clear that with the advent of both digital publishing and digital tools for self-promotion, the burden is frequently the author’s to do everything from finding the right publisher to marketing and maintaining interest in a book.

David has ventured into Amazon’s Kindle Singles, a new publishing format for shorter-form works of about 5,000 – 40,000 words, ideal for essays, extended magazine articles, short stories and novellas. You’ll see on David’s website that her Kindle Single release Animal Attraction is free. So, while many of these digital publishing platforms promise a greater percentage of sales or royalties to the author than traditional publishing contracts, it’s a little hard to imagine how $00.00 gets divvied up between publisher and writer.

Both David and Dunn have websites. Dunn has used things like book parties to generate word of mouth to sell books. In addition to trying Kindle Singles, David has a blog, contributes to a podcast and has built a Twitter following.

Still, every one of these marketing tools has its drawbacks (especially in terms of time for upkeep) as well as its plusses.

“Ashton Kutcher has almost 12.7 million Twitter followers,” said David. “They may watch his TV show, but his last movie bombed. I have 50,000 Twitter followers, but they’re not all willing to buy my book.”

In other words, digital followers and fans may be quite happy consuming your work for free, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a willingness to pay for it.

The upshot is that there are no tried-and-true answers. From choice of publishing format to types of marketing, what worked for E.L. James may not work for a memoir, a literary novel or an investigative journalism piece.

Everyone on the panel agreed on one thing, though: Quality matters. Before you focus on publishing and marketing, writers in the audience were encouraged, make your writing the best it can be.

Samantha Dunn’s books include: Failing Paris, Not by Accident (Reconstructing a Careless Life), and Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation.

Anna David’s books include: Party Girl, Bought, Reality Matters, and Falling for Me.

This Is Teen Read Week, Oct. 14 – 20

The only trouble with being a teen, besides just about everything, is that there’s a tendency to roll one’s eyes at things organized by adults with good intentions around your age group. Especially when the actual word “teen” is invoked people of that demographic tend to get a bit stroppy.

The problem, I think, is not so much the effort put into such things as the drastic differences within the age group – between 13 and 19 (middle school and college), a lot of changing and trying things on for size and growing out of things takes place. Most of it completely out of your control, or so it seems. And so older members may feel this teen stuff isn’t for them.

The good news is reading breaks all those boundaries.

All this to say a theme week kicks off today and continues through Oct. 20, called “It Came from the Library…Dare to Read for the Fun of It,” and it’s about celebrating reading for fun and taking advantage of the many forms of books and content offered at libraries – from ebooks to zines to graphic novels and old-fangled print versions.

Sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association, the earnestly named Teen Read Week is now a teenager itself at 14. Libraries offer special events for teens to encourage reading and the use of library resources for fun, study and exposure to new worlds and ideas.

For parents, aunts, uncles, godparents, family friends, teachers and anyone else who has the great good fortune to spend time around humans of the teenage persuasion, the American Library Association reminds you that Teen Read Week is also an opportunity to let libraries, schools, booksellers, and other community organizations know how you feel about the need to support programs and services for teens.

There’s a forum, videos, a badge, a blog, event calendars and tons more resources and information on the Teen Read Week website.

What are/were the favorite books of your teen years?

A Challenging Month for My Reading Challenge

Even though I said right from the beginning that I wanted some flexibility in a reading challenge, September was the month where I just couldn’t get my selections sorted and keep my reading on track, and so my scorecard only shows three books completed over four weeks.

Most of my lost reading time was due to this little guy during the first week of the month. But I lucked out when I picked up Salman Rushdie’s memoir and Lisa Cron’s writing book. They’re just the kind of treats – great writing, thrilling adventure, juicy details, motivational – that make you fall in love with reading (and writing) all over again. They helped me feel renewed for October.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of September’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought all three books. Two 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

September
3 down, 11 to go!

REVIEWS

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
It would be comforting to believe that 1989 was a simpler, less violent time, but, as Salman Rushdie reminds us in his memoir, the “terrorism-by-fatwa” sponsored by Iran in the wake of publication of The Satanic Verses left many people, in both Europe and the Muslim world, dead and injured – even if it, thankfully, failed to destroy its primary target.

The past is prologue, Rushdie quotes Shakespeare in his epigraph, and he likens his troubles to the first crow that appears in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” before the beating wings of thousands cast a frightening shadow over the world.

“Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance,” Rushdie writes. “It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know…A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent.”

The memoir unfolds chronologically, detailing the historical origin of “the satanic verses” debate within Islam and the ideas that became the novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie notes, a bit miffed, that when the book first came out, it received some indifferent reviews and was dissed as a story you couldn’t follow past page 15.

Then came the death warrant from a dying Ayatollah Khomeini, urging the faithful to make the author (and anyone else responsible for publishing and selling the book) pay. The book found its place in history.

Thanks to a dedicated protection squad, loyal friends and a good sense of humor, Rushdie survived nine long years as a hunted man. He shares the claustrophobia and deep frustration of being essentially under house arrest despite being the victim rather than the perpetrator of terrorism.

It’s a long book, but reads like a political thriller, partly because it’s told in third person.

Along the way, we learn about the efforts of free speech groups, booksellers, organizations dedicated to intellectual freedom, nations and individuals to alternately shame Iran or rally moderates in the Iranian government to remove the bounty on his head.

“He wanted to speak, too,” he says, “for the idea that liberty was everyone’s heritage and not…a Western notion alien to the cultures of the East. As ‘respect for Islam,’ which was fear of Islamist violence cloaked in Tartuffe-like hypocrisy, gained legitimacy in the West, the cancer of cultural relativism had begun to eat away at the rich multicultures of the modern world…”

Gradually, he begins to emerge, often in the United States, where he was allowed to move freely, without bodyguards tracing his every step.

Rushdie’s writing on his attempts “to defend the book against the burners of books” is eloquent throughout. In a 633-page memoir, though, there were a few areas that needed editing.

It’s interesting that the media characterization Rushdie repeatedly strained against was the idea that he is a less than pleasant person. He defends himself, then provides picayune details that highlight the inadequacy of others, including close friends.

There’s the moment where Ian McEwan defends him in the press, writing about standing in his kitchen with Rushdie, hearing a news story about a group condemning the author, and gets the group’s name wrong. Understandably, Rushdie was taking copious notes about his ordeal. It doesn’t mean everyone did. Calling out such a minor error is just picky.

There are scenes that exist only because a bold-faced name appears in them. One, also involving McEwan, describes two separate visits to get takeaway with the Atonement author and seems to be there only because Rushdie wants to insult the Thai proprietor’s English pronunciation. (Yes, he does the whole insulting Ls-pronounced-as-Rs bit.)

Petty and pointless, these vignettes diminish his dignity when his arguments for tolerance are otherwise so profoundly moving. It’s in these latter moments where the writing takes wing – not like the harbinger crow of “The Birds” – but with a soaring appeal to great ideals:

“We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirize them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times. We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically, or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to re-tell and re-make the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom.”

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
I was three-quarters of the way through Chapter 1 of Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story when I realized what wasn’t working with a short story I’ve been stuck on for years. I filled up my white board three times with notes, a new outline, and a stronger sense of what’s at stake for my protagonist. When I was done, it was clear new scenes had to be written and that my opening had to go.

As Cron notes, a story needs to grab readers from the very first line and make them feel there’s something important about to happen: “This means that whether it’s an actual event unfolding or we meet the protagonist in the midst of an internal quandary or there’s merely a hint that something’s slightly ‘off’ on the first page, there has to be a ball already in play. Not the preamble to the ball. Not all the stuff you have to know to really understand the ball. The ball itself.”

I was hardly through the first chapter, but it put me back on track – got me sitting down to write my story again!

I’ve mentioned I’m a little leery of spending more time reading books about writing than doing the writing itself. But Wired for Story is more like the reference book you keep at your desk to remind you of what you need to focus on than the book you read for inspiration and then let gather dust on your shelf.

I’d taken a class several years ago with Lisa Cron at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program and found her an astute reader. What a pleasure to discover she’s a great writer, too. With concepts from neuroscience and psychology, she provides tremendous insight into how our brains are hard-wired for storytelling – “what, specifically, the brain is hungry for in every story it encounters” – and what that means for writers who want to hook the reader with memorable characters, coherent themes, exciting conflicts, and endings that feel earned.

Cron, who has worked in publishing, and as an agent, producer and story consultant in the film and TV industries, is especially good at breaking down the key components of stories we know, such as Gone With the Wind and “Sullivan’s Travels,” to provide specific examples. Checkpoints at the end of each chapter serve as user guides for revision.

She also makes sense of the rewrite process and is wonderfully encouraging about the payoff of perseverance – “Butt in chair. Every day. No excuses. Ever.” – which ultimately enables the writer’s vision to be experienced by readers.

This is one writing book that’s a great read and a valuable deskside reference.

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
I ordered this novel from the U.K. (it publishes in the U.S. in February) because it’s been longlisted for the Man Booker prize and the story, about inventing a teleportation device during the rise of the Third Reich, sounded intriguing. Instead it left me baffled. How did this poorly plotted, tediously paced story ever find its way into the hands of Booker judges, much less make the list?

It’s 1931 Berlin when Beauman introduces us to Egon Loeser, whose not-so-subtle surname describes his protagonist’s trajectory in love, career, friendship and life. There’s nothing driving this character. Even his use of drugs like cocaine and ketamine doesn’t fire him up.

There’s an ingénue, “It Girl” Adele Hitler (no relation; like bad punk rock, it’s there purely for shock value, not clarity or insight), whom he chases from Berlin to Paris to Pasadena, which is supposed to propel the plot, but only detours it. At one point, Loeser is blackmailed by a spy who nevertheless gives him six months to come up with the goods. Six months? Way to build tension!

There is a section entitled Four Endings, which are more like appendices, providing minor additional details about various characters and taking the plot back to 1691 and forward to 1947, 1962 and 19310 – a long, long way to go for very little.

Job-wise, Loeser is mildly interested in recreating a device by a famous Italian set designer, Lavicini, that was meant to teleport actors from one part of the stage to another and instead wound up destroying a theater and apparently taking the lives of dozens of audience members.

This sounds like it’s going to fulfill the promise of the title, but the potential for mystery is dropped as quickly as it’s brought up while the reader trudges through almost a decade of boring details before Loeser begins to do anything remotely related to wooing Adele or investigating the possibility of a modern teleportation device. During long years of inaction, he willfully ignores what’s happening to friends back in Berlin, particularly his Jewish mentor, and ultimately he and the book shrug off the massive destruction of lives brought about by the Nazis.

At one point, when the plot transports us to the past, we hear Lavicini tell his biographer: “…the hero of a successful play must be a man the audience would be happy to invite into their homes for supper. Otherwise no one will want to sit through the whole thing. Your ‘hero’ who abandons his friends to their deaths – he doesn’t sound like that sort of man.”

Exactly.

Like many of the characters in Chuck Palahniuk’s books, Beauman seems deliberate in his invention of a protagonist the reader despises (under interrogation, a government official asks, “Mr. Loeser, one last question. Why are you such a total prick all the time?”). Which begs the question: Why would anyone, writer or reader, spend their precious time on such a character?

30 Years of Defending Intellectual Freedom

The 30th Banned Books Week begins on Sunday, Sept. 30, shining a bright light on the liberties represented in the U.S. First Amendment.

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment,” wrote Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, “it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

For the past three decades, the American Library Association, along with booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers of all stripes, have used the last week of September to highlight the value of free and open access to information.

This year’s commemoration is Sept. 30 – Oct. 6 and features:

There’s a helpful page on the ALA website explaining the difference between banned and challenged books and why certain books are challenged.

Many of the books frequently challenged are ones you’d expect to encounter in high school: The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Call of the Wild (see a longer list of challenged classics). This attempt at censorship in schools, I think, is a distinct danger because if you encounter ideas that challenge or confuse you, it seems to me there’s no better place to do so than in a classroom, where you have the ability to discuss these concepts, ask questions, listen to other points of view, and share or reassess your own.

Have you ever read a banned or challenged book? How will you commemorate Banned Books Week?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“When friends asked what they could do to help he often pleaded, ‘Defend the text.’ The attack was very specific, yet the defense was often a general one, resting on the mighty principle of freedom of speech. He hoped for, he often felt he needed, a more particular defense, like the quality defense made in the cases of other assaulted books, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Ulysses, Lolita; because this was a violent assault not on the novel in general or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words, and on the intentions and integrity and ability of the writer who had put those words together…and so, for many years, The Satanic Verses was denied the ordinary life of a novel. It became something smaller and uglier: an insult.”
~ Salman Rushdie, from his memoir Joseph Anton

It’s Library Card Sign-up Month!

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when the American Library Association sponsors Library Card Sign-up Month to remind kids and parents alike that the best resources for homework and life can be found at your local public library.

But you can do so much more than borrow books or look up online references with your library card. In fact, the ALA has this nifty slide show with 60 Ways to Use Your Library Card. Check ‘em out!