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?

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.

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.

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?

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