Thursday, May 31, 2007

Book-burning Bookseller

Mo. man burns books as act of protest - Yahoo! News

Okay, now I understand the bookseller's sense of protest at a world seemingly in decline, but couldn't he have given me a call? I would have taken them off his hands. But burning them? Come on.

Meanwhile, it's book sale time for my local library district again. Let's see how I make out this time.

Book Review: Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I remember once, many years ago, attempting to read this novel and finding it simply unappealing. Something about Humbert's smug attitude bothered me. I failed, then, to see the humor in it. But when I gave it a go this time (in my attempt to tick off all the classics I'm somehow gotten this far without reading), I immediately fell into it. The sense of play in this novel is extreme and aesthetics take a great priority. Humbert himself is an aestheticist, thus his preference for the pristine physical form of the nymphet. But don't let us forget that our narrator is also a madman. His narration attempts to play up his mental malady, but it becomes apparent. to the reader through other means. He is obsessive, single minded, and illogical. Reason often takes a backseat to impulse. And yet we read on because we somehow find him likable. Grotesque, but likable.

Lolita is as salacious as it is made out to be. I certainly understand why many would have trouble with this book. But this is not erotica. The details given are not mean to entice but to show enticement. Someone with a defensive moral center is not likely to make it too far through these pages before chucking it out an open window.

The novel, though, goes quickly from a "novel of rapture" (as it says on the jacket of my edition) to a detective story, to a simply sad final third that demonstrates Humbert's pathetic nature. And while I could have read a hundred more pages of the first section, this remains one of the best books I've ever read.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Favorite Fonts

I've been a Garamond guy since I first started using a PC. It is quiet, small, and understated--sort of how I like my fiction to be. It makes less demands of the reader than, say, Times New Roman, which sort of screams 'Do you hear what I'm saying?'

I am surprised, though, by the authors in this article who prefer to work with Courier. Sure, some of it comes from a nostalgia for the click-smack sounds of an old typewriter. but they also point to its temporary look. Courier does not look like something you'd read in a book and therefore looks less fixed. This should make it ideal for drafts.

I have some nostalgia for typewriters too. Somewhere there is a picture of me at age 5 or 6 with my brand new typewriter delivered by Santa. He even typed me a letter that still sat in it. That probably went a long way towards instilling this need to write, to see words of my own creation on the page.

When I finished my first book-length manuscript (a god-awful thing I'm sure it was), written out long hand, that second draft was completed on an electric typewriter. Those were the starving artist days. I'm sure the heat had been turned off and I was keeping warm with the assistance of discount whiskey while blasting away at that machine.

And then I moved on to one of those word-processors, a stand-alone unit that worked in ASCII that was really more frustrating than anything. And when it printed it was a really painful sound, so mechanical the sound of each letter smacking the paper at regular intervals.

Then I moved on to the PC and I know we should all be grateful for how they have eased the revision process, but I still cannot compose--or do not like to compose--on the computer. I need that slow pace of the pen scratching on paper. Though, when I do type that second draft into the computer, I'll have to consider using Courier.

It would make my manuscript much longer, I suppose.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

What Makes a Book Successful

In the New York Sun, David Blum writes in "How Not to Write a Bestseller" about how the highly praised novel Then We Came to an End by Joshua Ferris was not a success because it never appeared on the NY Times bestseller list. The hardcover book, though, is already on its fourth printing. That sounds like success to me. Bestseller status isn't required for a mid-list book to be successful and profitable. But expecting it, a book by a first-time author, to sell like James Patterson is idiotic.

The fact is that there are difference audiences for books. Smart audiences don't drive the bestseller lists. They don't. The majority of books bought and sold are very predictable and tested books. James Patterson does not require a good review in the NYTBR to sell a lot of books. People who read Patterson or David Baldacci (numbers 1 and 2 on the NY Times Bestseller Hardcover Fiction list as I write this) are not turning to the NYTBR to read about new books. The reviews that praised Ferris's book certainly garnered it more sales than it would have seen otherwise, but a review also let's people know something about the books (besides the subjective thumbs-up or thumbs-down) that helps them decide whether they might be interested in reading it. Ferris's book is written in that annoying "Rose for Emily" collective perspective. My guess is that this turned some readers off and, I'll admit, has made me a little reluctant to read it.

Blum's article goes on to make some great points about bookselling that I absolutely agree with:

What if bookstores created sections devoted to that week's best-reviewed books? Or posted positive reviews alongside the books themselves? That way, book reviews (even those that appeared only online) would be easily accessible to those most likely to buy books — people already browsing in the bookstore. Right now, bookstores place all their marketing muscle behind bestseller lists, meaning that prize positions get awarded to those who've already won the horse race. Even movie theaters operate according to more democratic principles than that. Shouldn't good bookstore placement go to good books? Just a thought.

But that would require that bookstores care more about selling interesting books more than they care about selling what they know will sell. They don't. Yes, this idea would likely sell more mid-list books, and more books I'm interested in, but they might sell less books overall.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Literary Criticism and Lost at Powells

How come I've just now found out that they've been posting about Lost at the Powell's blog? Intelligent and researched, puts all those fan sites to shame. Except for Lostpedia, of course.

Book Review: Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel by Amy Hempel

In a recent Barnes & Noble Meet the Writers interview, Chuck Palahniuk
said that he rips off every word from Amy Hempel. This might explain why I enjoyed her work so much more than his. Imitation retains its false nature. Hempel's works are indeed electric and, though one can see influential, guiding hand of Gordon Lish, they are unique. These stories are at times short, sparse, and severe, but they are not reminiscent of Raymond Carver. The wit displayed in these stories is amazing. They are amazingly quotable. Unfortunately, I was reading a library copy and couldn't pickup my pen to mark it up. I was anticipating purchasing the paperback edition, but because the hardcover continues to sell the release was pushed back.

In the end, though, most of these stories are like nouveau cuisine. The items are small, the presentation is exciting, and the tastes are unique and amazing, but in the end they are not entirely satisfying.

What the Candidates Are Reading

Finally, someone (the AP) is asking the Presidential candidates the important question:

What is the last work of fiction you've read?
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden: "Runaway Jury" by John Grisham.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd: "The Broker" by John Grisham.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards: "Exile" by Richard North Patterson.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich: "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama: "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: "The administration's energy plan."
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback: "The Dream Giver" by Bruce Wilkinson with David and Heather Kopp.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani: "The Beach House" by James Patterson and Peter De Jonge.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: "My oldest son's screenplay."
California Rep. Duncan Hunter: "The Democrats' proposal to balance the budget."
Arizona Sen. John McCain: "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: "Term Limits" by Vince Flynn.
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo: "An Inconvenient Truth" by Al Gore.

Really? Obama and McCain are the only ones reading interesting fiction?

The Publishing Crap-Shoot

This very interesting article from the NY Times on the business of publishing and the unpredictability of it seems to forget one thing: it's art. We're not talking about manufacturing and selling widgets. No one decides whether they "like" a widget in the same way they like or dislike a book. In fact, I'm afraid that publishing is actually too much like a traditional industry, always trying to repeat and copy its previous successes. Certainly, if editors were to only select books because they believed they would be "successful," many great books would never be published. Great books are not always successful. And the successful book isn't always what one would think might be successful.

I do think, though, that publishing as a whole would gain if it were more responsive to the audience. As the article points out:

Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.

Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.

The article is most interesting when it talks numbers. $25,000 paid for "The Nanny Diaries. $8 million for Charles Frazier's follow-up "Cold Mountain." And 750,000 copies of it printed,with only 240,000 sold. That means the company hasn't even (and probably never will) recoup the advance.

All of it tells me that there is room in the industry for a new business model, something outside of digital or print-on-demand. I think there remains away to make publishing traditional printed books profitable.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Michiko doesn't like the new DeLillo

I'm not surprised. Michiko Kakutani doesn't seem to like too much that I might like. Might these reviews be better if written by someone who actually enjoyed the book?

Instead of capturing the impact of 9/11 on the country or New York or a spectrum of survivors or even a couple of interesting individuals, instead of illuminating the zeitgeist in which 9/11 occurred or the shell-shocked world it left in its wake, Mr. DeLillo leaves us with two paltry images: one of a performance artist re-enacting the fall of bodies from the burning World Trade Center, and one of a self-absorbed man, who came through the fire and ash of that day and decided to spend his foreseeable future playing stupid card games in the Nevada desert.

Maybe she misses the point here? Isn't it saying more about today's world that the only answer a man can find for these times is to play "stupid card games?"

At least I know not to be dissuaded by this review.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bill Richardson's Job Interview

Bill Richardson is the sad sack of the Democratic contenders for the nomination, but I like the guy. He strikes me as sincere and too smart for the job, but humor should score him beaucoup points.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Parker Posey: “She makes coffee nervous.”

I love Parker Posey. If she's in a movie, I know I should see it (even if it's Josie and the Pussycats). There's Party Girl, Tales of the City, and of course The House of Yes. It's nice to see her getting some attention in the New York Times:

Even in a supporting role Ms. Posey can move people to the edge of their seat and set them to biting their nails. When she played Tom Hanks’s antic girlfriend — she’s the one who gets dumped — in “You’ve Got Mail,” he said of her character, “She makes coffee nervous.”
“She can walk the line between pathos and comedy like no one else I have seen,” Ethan Hawke, who appeared with her in “Hurlyburly,” said. “Parker, I think, has a little punk rock in her.”
“There is something positive, kind of kooky and completely entertaining about her,” Ms. Cassavetes said. “When you walk around with Parker, people walk by and figure out who she is, and you can hear them say it. ‘I love Parker Posey.’ “
As my daughter sings, "ring-a-rosie, parker posey, ashes ashes, allfalldown."

Hempel's Way

While things around here remain hectic, and my eyes hang out of my sockets perpetually, I'm trying to finish Hempel's collection. This article (Hempel lives to write, writes to live) gets it right and will hopefully inspire me to get the darn thing finshed, when my hands aren't tied up trying to burp the boy.

Lish believes that writers don't succeed because of talent, but because of will: You become a great writer by wanting to be one. Drive, will, character, "all of which Amy has," Lish says. Hempel remembers how hard it was at the beginning, how she wondered if she should even be writing.

"And then I think of a sentence I really like," she says, "that I'm proud of having worked really hard on.

"Emily Dickinson once said that when a poem works, it felt like the top of her head was coming off. My own personal way — wait that's three words for one word," Hempel says, stopping, correcting herself. "My way of knowing the sentence just really lands is if I get a little bit teary. Not that it's sad, but something is struck just right. And it can be funny and I get teary."

That sounds about right.