Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Downhill

One of the more commonly used methods to figure out if an unknown book is for you is the first page test. Or first chapter. Or, occasionally, the first sentence test. It's this little bit of security before buying a book - can I even read a little of it without puking? It works pretty well, for the most part. I'm a fan. But sometimes... sometimes it goes wrong.

I'm reading a book now that passed the preliminary test. And it was on sale. An unheard-of publisher (possibly independent or self-published?), a book I'd never heard of before, a strong opening chapter, and an interesting synopsis... I bought it and immediately dove in. The thing is, for the first two or three chapters, I was really into it. The topic is something very relevant to my life right now, but from a different angle - at once something I know nothing about and something that consumes my day-to-day life. In other words, a seemingly perfect combination for a novel that is clearly very much based in fact.

But the book, like so many others, began to go downhill. Whether or not it will ultimately disappoint, I don't know - I have another quarter left to read out of this fairly small book. Another evening or two, I expect to be done. But now, approaching the end without approaching the feeling of an ending (there is no sense in the writing that a climax is to come), I find myself angry at the author. Because when you start out so strong, it's infinitely more disappointing to see the inevitable downfall.

Sometimes books go bad because of their characters. The characters are flat and don't evolve throughout the book. Sometimes it's the plotting that kills a book, just going nowhere. And sometimes, a few sad, painful times, it's the writing. And not all the writing, just small parts. Take the above example - the writing is good when describing situations and actions. Characters are believable, easy to imagine. Two problems:

1. The characters all, with a single exception, speak in the same overly fancy, unrealistic voice. They speak unnaturally, using stiff phrases and drama to emphasize their emotions. Ultimately hard to swallow. Only one character (a friend of the narrator) sounds different, most likely because he fits a common stereotype - humorous, casually charming, loyal, kind. He sounds like one would expect him to sound. The narrator, and every subsequent character, sound like they're having too much fun using vocab words.

2. Plot points and scenes that serve no purpose in furthering the story. Intentionally explicit scenes are clearly meant to spice up the story, but the impression is one of awkwardness and sensitive subjects are completely ignored for in-your-face sexual style story-telling.

Two examples for one specific book, but every book that finds itself going downhill has different frustrating points. Most books have it, but sometimes it really jumps out - the small things that turn a book from great to simply mediocre. On rare occasions, you can set aside the downsides, chalk them up to style or say they pale in comparison to the glaring positives, but sometimes there's just a downfall and every time I find myself disappointed like new.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Young folk

The last couple of weeks have seen the rise of two lists that have been making the rounds, two lists not of books but rather of authors: the New Yorker's 20 Under 40, which was promptly followed by a Telegraph British equivalent.

One of the main differences between the two lists is the issue of "origin", a reflection of the respective country and culture. The New Yorker, for instance, feels the need to point out just how diverse the origins of its authors are:
The fiction being written in this country today is not necessarily fiction set in this country, or fiction by writers who were born in this country. Although all the non-native writers on our list have made a home for themselves in North America—some moved here as children, some as adults—the diversity of origins is striking: Nigeria (Adichie), Peru (Alarcón), Latvia (Bezmozgis), China (Li), Ethiopia (Mengestu), Yugoslavia (Obreht), and Russia (Shteyngart).
These authors write of their diversity from a very American viewpoint, at once a huge plus and equally limiting. Much in the same way, it's written to an American audience (though the list includes Canadian authors). Nonetheless, they're doing what literature needs more of - diversity. It is worth noting the New Yorker's particular insistence to emphasize this notion - a magazine choosing to highlight the fact that their top American 20 Under 40 authors are from varying backgrounds (though all are, essentially American).

The Telegraph
, meanwhile, downplays its own efforts at creating such a list, assuming because it does not resemble the American counterpart, it is less effective:

So with these potential problems in mind and in the hope of unleashing a debate similar in ferocity to the one triggered by the New Yorker, we are pleased to unveil our list of writers. We have used the same selection criteria as the New Yorker – all these writers are under 40 and all, with two exceptions, live in Britain – at least most of the time. But we haven’t controlled the types of writing, or worried about whether writers stand in some way for different experiences of Britishness. And we have frankly failed, if it matters, to achieve a gender balance – 13 out of the 20 are men – and most of these writers are white. But in other ways we have striven to be diverse, refusing to overlook excellent science fiction and genuinely good thrillers.

And yet that last sentence is key. The Telegraph includes authors that aren't just "genre-bending" (as the New Yorker puts it), but authors that do not strictly write in the so-called "literary fiction" category. Or perhaps it's just China Miéville who doesn't strictly fall into this category (or any category, for that matter...), but even the presence of this 100% not "literary fiction" writer makes the Telegraph's list diverse in a way that the New Yorker's just... isn't. The Telegraph offers the possibility that true talent might lie beyond the established novel and "literary" format. It's an important distinction.

The next difference is raised by the Telegraph itself:

The lists generated by the New Yorker and Granta are interesting as much for what they reveal about a country’s fiction as about the concerns of a writing generation. Though creative writing courses such as the pioneering one at the University of East Anglia have taken off in Britain, their presence is nothing like as pervasive as that of institutions such as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the States. [...] It is notable that most of the writers on the New Yorker list came though a creative writing programme – and many now teach on one.
The question of creative writing courses is a fairly interesting one in itself and deserves individual attention. Still, the notion that creative writing courses are far more established in the U.S. doesn't actually show a difference in the writers, but in the culture and the accepted writing style. Again, this deserves its own discussion, but the rise of widespread creative writing courses, degrees, workshops, programs, etc. is clearly reflected in the style of books represented by the New Yorker as opposed to the Telegraph.

There are smaller, finer issues to be found in each list. Ultimately, these are two lists that paint a fairly broad picture of North American and U.K. authors. The authors' youth is both a help and hindrance to them - while some of these authors are established, their reputations are far from set in stone. Both lists are have merit, and while I don't take to heart too much of what is said (I will not be surprised if some of these authors publish, shall we say, bad books), I recognize some great names already. For that, kudos.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bookmarking 17 - Kokopelli

Kokopelli is not a very old god, but he's quickly grown to be one of the most special and beloved bookmarks I have in my collection.

The myth of Kokopelli has followed me since childhood, when my 3rd grade class was taught the myth and a teacher I quite admired came dressed in funny clothes tooting away (terribly) on a cheap plastic recorder. The myth reemerged later that year, as I delved deeper into Native American mythology, and once again in later years when I found myself getting into music.

Last summer, crossing the U.S. from coast to coast, I found Kokopelli in the Mount Rushmore gift shop. Like all items in said store, Kokepelli was not... economical. Still, the beautiful colors, the texture, the sturdiness, the comfortable design, and even the informative accompanying description made splurging almost necessary.

Kokopelli has since gone on to reside in several interesting (good and bad) reads including a serious stint with Blood Meridian. He is currently on an enjoyable ride with a young adult adventure epic.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Explain this

Explain this to me, please. In the past couple of months, I have heard endlessly of the battle between the iPad and the Kindle, Apple and Amazon, the death of eReaders, the survival of eReaders, the Kobo, the Libre... everything. And yet this surprising piece of news somehow eluded me: Sony Readers have dropped in price. Quite significantly. Sure, there's a sale going on making each Reader $50 cheaper than even the lowered price, but until it ends (tomorrow, if I'm not mistaken), that's a $100 drop from the still quoted numbers of $300 for the Touch Edition and $400 for the Daily Edition. It's possible, of course, that I simply haven't noticed this change, but once again I find it strange that everywhere I turn I see articles about the iPad and Amazon, yet a pretty relevant piece of news like this has been glossed over...

It's been this way for months, essentially. Even long before the iPad came out, there was always buzz surrounding "New! Exciting! Kindle-Killer! Apple-Eater!" eReaders. Buzz that almost immediately faded. Recall the initial glow surrounding the release of the Nook. There's still some buzz, yes, but it's subdued, gentle now. And the COOL-ER? Do you hear of that one any more? Same for Sony Readers, almost always ignored because they don't seem to mesh well with views on where eReaders will go (which always leads back to... Apple!).

I've complained about this in the past, and I realize that the free market/press is as it is, but there's something so grossly unfair that every little blip written by any random journalist about the future of eReaders (whether positive or negative) gets blown way out of proportion, but legitimate eReader news - price updates, actual market changes (not just speculation) - just isn't published...

And for the record, I found out about the price drops by visiting the Sony website. I've yet to find any news links to it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Dry Results, part 2: The Blog (continued)

The first half of part 2 can be found here, and a compiled list of results is located here!

Book clubs:

Truth be told, I really didn't expect these numbers. Only 31% of bloggers were part of a book club in the past year, while 68% were not (and 1 participant declined to state). My impression had always been that, despite my disinterest in the field, most book bloggers actively participated in book clubs. Perhaps a distinction was made between online book clubs and the flesh-and-blood variety? Or perhaps book clubs simply aren't ubiquitously popular. 31% is a respectable sum, after all.

Book giveaways:
A not so surprising set of numbers, on its own. 34% of book bloggers never give book away on their blogs, 37% have the rare, yearly giveaway, 19% conduct once or twice a month giveaways, 6% have giveaways 3-5 times a month, and 1% are frequent book giveaway-ers at 6+ giveaways a month. 3% declined to state.

Giveaway types:
Another set of fairly balanced results, with the possibility of multiple answers - 31% give no books away, 35% give away ARCs (advance reading copies), 49% give away personal copies of books, 48% host publisher giveaways, 5% listed other and 2% declined to state. Interestingly enough, the number of those who give no books away did not exactly match the previous result - 31% as opposed to 34%.

Receiving ARCs (advance reading copies):
There were a few interesting freehand responses to this question, a rather surprising occurrence. 16% of survey participants receive no ARCs, 21% receive the rare advanced reader's copy while 17% receive 5-10 books a year. An additional 17% get 11-20 ARCs, and a solid 26% get at least 21 ARCs a year. 4% declined to state. Comments left, however, indicated that there was a slight problem with the phrasing of this question - more on that later.

Social networking:
And now for something a little different. First off, 8% of respondents are not registered in any kind of book-oriented social networking sites, clearly a book blogger minority. In the bookstore/exchange sites, the numbers are mostly expected: 45% of survey participants are registered at Amazon, 24% at BookMooch, a small at IndieBound, and an additional 18% at Paperback Swap. Meanwhile, in the more social networking area, 24% of respondents are members of Shelfari, 65% at Goodreads, 57% at LibraryThing, and 40% at Book Blogs Ning. 7% filled in "Other", offering sites such as Bookblips, Twitter and Facebook, including many others (more on this later). 1% declined to state. The fun thing about this question is that it became something of a race as more and more book bloggers filled out the survey. What exactly was the race? Stay tuned!

eReaders:
Guess what, fellow book bloggers? You know all those "eReaders are taking over!" articles? Book bloggers are pretty serious readers, and yet a clear majority of 71% do not own any kind of eReader. Meanwhile, among those who do, there is a fairly obvious leader, though not by as large a margin as one might expect: Amazon's Kindle 2 leads the pack with 8% of respondents owning one. Meanwhile, 4% own the Kindle 1 and 2% own the Kindle DX. iPhone eReader apps seem pretty popular too: 5% have the Kindle app. 5% have different eReader apps. In Sony land, the PRS-500, PRS-505, and PRS-300 all received 2% ownership. The PRS-700 and PRS-600 both received 1% popularity. 1 respondent owns a Sony PRS-900. 1%, meanwhile, own the Barnes & Noble Nook. 3% own other eReaders, listing examples like Aluratek's Libre or Elonex's eBooks, two eReaders I personally had never heard of. It's important to keep in mind a few points which will be developed further in later posts: 1. The survey was pre-iPad, so results might be a little different today, 2. People upgrade eReaders and in several cases, people who had one eReader also had another (this applies for apps as well), and 3. Many, many participants felt the need to comment on their desire (or lack thereof) of purchasing eReaders. But more on these topics later.


This, meanwhile, concludes the official "Dry Results" part of the book blogger statistics. Apologies for the delay - results may be slow to come out, but they will all eventually be published. Once again, feel free to link and discuss these numbers. Tune in in the next couple of weeks for the next rounds of stats.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Disappointed now

I'm reading much slower these days than ever before. Someone once told me that the way to truly enjoy and appreciate literature is to take it in slowly and that there's no way someone can appreciate a book when speed reading, a point I have tried to take to heart ever since. But slow reading doesn't always translate into better appreciation of the written word. Sometimes it's just a boring book that's a struggle to get through.

Yesterday, I found myself asked about my current read. I commented vaguely that it was merely "okay", not an excellent book but not terrible. And suddenly I realized why earlier that day, when a colleague asked for a book recommendation, I was stuck. Because in the last six months, I have read around 30 books and only 3 of these have been truly worth mentioning. It's not that the books are all terrible, exactly. In fact, only one book was purely bad, while a few others were just disappointing. There's a fine line, though, between good and excellent. A line that recently, no one has crossed.

Last year was rich in terms of book quality. I read some excellent books. But suddenly finding myself not in a reading slump, but in a bit of a reading flatline, I have to wonder what's changed. Is it that I'm picking books differently? I've started going based on very specific recommendations and reviews - perhaps my opinions don't mesh so well with these reviewers? Or perhaps it's all just bad luck. It's mostly been the random finds that have disappointed.

This last week has seen windfall book-buying, stories from all across the globe. Almost all purchases are essentially long-shots and random buys. In some cases I knew of the author or heard of the book, but for the most part, I went with my gut. Adventurous reading. After I finish this somewhat boring book, I'll start on the fresh buys. Because out of so many new books, one of them has to get me excited. And isn't that what good literature is all about?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Amazon review of the week

Though originally found as a review of Meir Shalev's "A Pigeon and a Boy", this review could essentially fit in anywhere:
I read this for a book club.I felt like a school kid who had to read an assigned book they otherwise would'nt choose.It was different.Not terrible but odd.I found out at the club meeting the final third was even odder than the two thirds I'd had time to read. I didn't finish.
The comparison between book club choices and school reads is interesting, and quite unlike any book club philosophy I've ever encountered until now. "Buckeye book lover" implies that there's a similar effort problem - you don't always read something good, but you feel compelled (or are required) to finish the book. It's an interesting comparison, worthy of further analysis.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bookmarking 15 - History

If I remembered the story behind this bookmark, this post would sound a little different. But I don't remember that, and the stories behind this bookmark have nothing to do with the long-forgotten day I got this clip. But there are other stories, quiet and almost insignificant, but they build a small history.

There's the story of the time I left this bookmark sideways in a book, keeping tab of the exact line I was at. The book ended up forgotten at the bottom of a bag, tossed around for several weeks until I found it. The page with the clipped on bookmark had a fine tear and the line I had so wanted to preserve was suddenly the most difficult to read, crumpled and ruined.

There's the story of how this used to serve as the "long-term" bookmark - books that I expected would take a while got this one because it was least embarrassing and, with its fairly sturdy plastic, didn't run as high a risk as breaking or getting ruined such as most of the other bookmarks.

And then there's the story of how this bookmark used to be part of an unofficial set - I owned several bookmarks with similar black clip bottoms, and yet years later I find that only this one has remained in my collection. The others have disappeared with time.