Thursday, September 29, 2011

Poem of the month

Lo, this land that lifts around it
Threatening peaks, while stern seas bound it,
With cold winters, summers bleak,
Curtly smiling, never meek,
'Tis the giant we must master,
Till he work our will the faster.
He shall carry, though he clamor,
He shall haul and saw and hammer,
Turn to light the tumbling torrent,—
All his din and rage abhorrent
Shall, if we but do our duty,
Win for us a realm of beauty.

Master or Slave - Bjornstjerne Bjornson

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saturday, September 24, 2011

News and views - a short roundup

A few stories and bits of news that have caught my eye this week:

* Goodreads launched its recommendations feature, finally convincing me to try to use the site properly. The functions seem so far only mildly impressive, but certainly better than some of the other sites I've seen. So far, I'm enjoying the organization process and am wondering how best to arrange my books within shelves. The fun of the recommendation feature will come later, perhaps.

* After years of lagging behind competitors on the library front, Amazon has at long last enabled a Kindle library option. Now, if only they could get rid of the DRM...

* A bit of unrelated commentary: over at A Dribble of Ink, Aidan posts about the UK release of the third book in David Anthony Durham's Acacia trilogy - or lack-thereof. It would appear that the series' UK publishers have decided that the earlier books were not strong enough sellers to warrant the release of the third book, leaving fans hanging. I have to wonder: in the case of a clearly planned and designated series (one with an obvious ending, like a trilogy), it seems somewhat unfair of the publishers to decide not to publish the last book. Even if the series has been relatively unsuccessful (something I'm not quite qualified to comment on, having no understanding of marketing or sales), there are people who want to read the rest of the series. Assuming you own exclusive rights, withholding the book seems just... wrong. The book is still available in the US (and can therefore be acquired in the UK, with a bit more effort required), yet this idea that publishers can withhold publication of the final book in a trilogy seems like one of those glitches in our current publishing system that should definitely be smoothed out.

* Finally, Scott McLemee wrote a great piece on Three Percent's published collection of rants and essays about publishing (The Three Percent Problem). Though I have yet to cough up my three dollars to purchase the actual eBook, having read most of Chad Post's essays and rants over the years, I can vouch for the fact that he's always interesting and raising important topics. (article hat tip, Three Percent)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Comparing minority Romania

I just started reading Herztier (The Land of Green Plums in English) by Herta Müller and I find myself repeatedly thinking one completely unjustified, unrelated thought - this book is the grown-up alternative to The White King. Or a complementary novel. Something of the sort.

I loved The White King. It's a good book, well-written and finding the perfect balance between child and adult without restricting itself to one particular audience. It's a book that educates and enlightens, all while telling a good story. Written by an author belonging to the Hungarian minority in Romania, it describes a child's life in totalitarian Romania in the late 80s. On the other hand, The Land of Green Plums is written by a member of the German minority in Romania. It's about young men and women growing up in the shadow of WWII during the 70s and 80s, life in totalitarian Romania.

It strikes me as odd, first of all, that my only literary knowledge of Romania is seen through the eyes of minorities. Not necessarily bad (in fact, there is something far more enlightening about this somewhat skewed view), but worth noting. More to the point, I'm noticing that as the book progresses, the dark undertones of the story become far more pronounced. Müller introduces her characters as sketches at first, gradually filling them in. It's disconcerting and quite enticing. I'd normally call this a risky move on the author's part, but Müller handles it deftly and so far (about a third of the way through, meaning there's still plenty of room to go wrong...) it's working quite well. I'm hooked, certainly.

It's these dark reflections, this adult-minded depression and gloom that makes it quite obviously different from The White King. For all the pain and sadness that book had, there was a thread of childish hope and optimism throughout. Even the wonderful downer ending did not leave the reader completely at a loss and just sad - there was something behind the pain. There was hope. The Land of Green Plums doesn't really have that. There's just an unrelenting sea of struggles and sorrows. Maybe in the end, it really is all about the child-vs.-adult mindset. Maybe the adults in The Land of Green Plums are watching the kids in The White King and thinking to themselves, "Just wait a few years, kids. Soon, you'll all be as depressed as we are..."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why I still have hopes for Sony - eReader updates and other things

It's well documented that I like Artemis, my Sony Touch Reader. Certain features - like double-tapping an unfamiliar word - have become so engrained in my mind that I sometimes try to double-tap print words. I love that it's a touch screen, I love that I can take notes, I love that I use it as a notepad when I don't have any pens nearby, and I love that it gives me access to hundreds of free books I might otherwise not be able to get my hands on.

It's also pretty well documented that I don't really like the Kindle. I don't like Amazon's business approach, I don't like DRM, I don't like the sticky-fingers attitude Amazon adopts, and I don't like the bloated eBook prices in relation to paperbacks (a statement against all eBooks, actually, but Amazon is king of the hill in this case so they can suffer my wrath).

Glaring, glare-y Artemis
Since I bought my Artemis, the eReader world has seen a few drastic changes. At the time my model (the PRS-600 Touch Edition) came out, the Kindle 2 already had 3G internet. No wi-fi. The Nook was only a rumor. Tablets weren't being marketed as potential eReaders. And most important of all: they were expensive. My 6", internet-free, somewhat glare-y little device cost $300. Granted, it quickly paid itself off. But compared to the $150 we see today for comparable models... that's one serious price cut. The only eReaders that cost upwards of $200 until now were the tablets (which aren't really eReaders anyways), Sony's high-end 3G model, and the Kindle DX (which is still the most expensive mainstream eReader out there, bizarrely priced at $379, much higher than similar models). Basically, eReaders got a lot cheaper.

New products joined the game. The Nook is a spiffy eReader but perhaps because I'm used to Sony's interface, I couldn't quite get used to it. Particularly noteworthy is the Nook Touch, again - a  worthwhile device, but one that feels to me like a cheaper version of the Sonys (no stylus, less convenient interface, smaller, awkward page-flip buttons...). All the Nook owners I've met have been immensely satisfied (like most eReader owners). The Kobo came out as well, consistently marketed as a small-brand, slightly cheaper alternative to the other eReaders.

Then there's the Kindle 3, and though it's a good product, I personally dislike it. I don't like the structure (the bulky keyboard still seems so out of place) and I don't like Amazon's business approach. But again, technically speaking, it's an almost ideal eReader. Still problematic to share eBooks, still problematic to check eBooks out of the library, still the DRM thing... but if none of these things bother you (and they don't seem to bother most people...) then the Kindle is a satisfactory plug-and-play eReader. Meanwhile, there are the tablets (any of 'em), which aren't actually eReaders, but a lot of people use them for that purpose.

All this time, people laughed at me. "You have a Sony?" a wannabe eReader developer mocked me a year ago (it should be noted that his product never actually materialized in the market... and probably won't). A colleague with a Nook teased me as well: "No internet, glare, and super expensive... boy, were you gypped!" All along, I defended my choice and Sony as well, wondering why they took such a lackluster approach to their marketing. It's lazy marketing, pure and simple - nobody ever even heard about the price cuts or about the new models. Why would they? Kindle! Nook! Kobo! Overpriced and lacking internet, the Sonys just couldn't compete.

The new Sony Reader Wi-Fi - drool-worthy
But holy cow does this new Sony model bring it. I mean, bring it. Glareless touchscreen (but stylus included, unlike the Nook), wi-fi, ePub-friendly, eBookstore access and library check-out access. At the end of the day I bought Artemis for the library option, for the ability to check books out straight to my Reader without having to be in the same county/country as the library. It's been Artemis' most wonderful asset. Being able to check books out directly through the wi-fi--that's a drool-worthy notion in its own right; toss in the ability to use Wikipedia on any word or phrase and I'm halfway to my wallet.

So, I still have hopes for Sony. The Reader Wi-Fi (as it's called) looks awesome and I can't wait to play with it once it comes out. The only real downside is that my Reader is still wonderfully alive and kicking at 2 years of age; I somehow don't think Artemis will be as excited by the Reader Wi-Fi as I am.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sigh, Amazon - recommendations

Today, we highlight one of the face-palming, head-banging, sigh-causing things that Amazon, this once-actually-kind-of-chill (maybe when I was like, ten...?) bookseller, does.

So years ago, I wrote a modestly negative review of People of the Book. There were some good points, though, so when forced to give the book a rating, I chose 2.7, or, 3 stars. Now, Amazon understands a 3-star rating to be a negative review. Look up reviews, you'll see the glowing 5-star review as compared with the less-than-gushing 3-star. 3 stars and under counts on the "negative" end of Amazon's scale.

So why, can someone explain to me, did Amazon send me an e-mail recommending some book called The Oriental Wife? The book looked boring and not to my taste so I opened the e-mail. Lo and behold: "Customers who have purchased or rated People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks might like to know that The Oriental Wife is now available."

Amazon. Really. By your own standard, I didn't like People of the Book. Do you really think I'm going to buy a book that you claim is similar to something I didn't like? This is just another form of your crappy bookseller recommendations, except this time with even less thought...


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why does it always have to be chess?

Literary Pet Peeve #2: Chess as the marker of intelligence

You know that thing where authors try to write realistic teenagers? Yeah, so despite the fact that almost every author in existence was, at one point, a teenager (I have my doubts about a very specific few...), most authors seem incapable of capturing the true essence of the teenage years. Part of it may have to do with the fact that the teen brain is almost like that of an adult, but with a bunch of obvious childish flaws (forgive me - I speak as someone only starting to get over this serious and potentially harmful affliction...). Whatever the cause may be, some authors use a few "handy" tricks to bridge the gap between their teenage reader and the adult mind. This typically comes in the form of intelligence. Think about it. How many less-than-average teenagers have you encountered in literature (young adult or otherwise)? They're almost always just a bit cleverer than your average kid, just a bit more intelligent.

And all too often they play chess.

Chess. I mean, seriously, why does it always have to be chess? The amount of books I've read that use chess as symbolism for the cleverness and talent of their young protagonist is... high. Very high. It's frustrating, if only because it's a cheap trick: a writer who has to elevate their character to above-average intelligence just to make them sound "realistic" is a bad writer. And chess is pretty much the cheapest way to accomplish this.

In general, the use of chess in literature is to indicate growth and intelligence. I mean, I get it. Chess is a logical game. It can be wonderful symbolism for certain thought-processes, for how certain characters think. But it's not the only way. You know what else works? Computer strategy games. Risk. In fact, I want someone to write a book in which a character is analyzed and developed throughout a game of Risk. Seriously. That would be awesome. Chess may have once been wonderful symbolism, but use of it today feels trite and inappropriate. Such a shame - I actually always liked the game...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Justifying and dismissing hypes

Remember months back, when I wrote a quick post about different types of hype? One of my final conclusions was that based on the different types of hype, I might be convinced (or dissuaded) from reading certain books. I started thinking about this again after each of my siblings briefly asked about my opinions on two young adult phenomena (in two separate incidents). The first was Twilight. The second, The Hunger Games.

I remember Twilight from back when it first came out. My local (beloved) Borders gave it super-hype treatment, placing the then-still-attractively-original covers in prominent placement in the young adult section. Like any good 14 year-old bookworm, I approached the display. Read the dust jacket description. Wrinkled my nose. Bought other books. Left the store. A few months later, noticing that the display was still there, I read the first few pages. Still lame, I thought, abandoning the book. It should be noted that I remember nothing of what I read. But I remember thinking to myself, "Okay, not the book for me." On the other hand, when The Hunger Games came out I thought, "Cool concept but I bet everyone is totally overreacting". The basic premise intrigued me. How couldn't it? Vaguely sci-fi, heavy plotting, kick-butt story... exactly the kind of escapist young adult book I'd be bound to enjoy.

It's that fundamental difference that highlights why I refuse to read Twilight but had no problem "giving into hype" and reading The Hunger Games. The basic premise of Twilight bores the pants off me. The Hunger Games, meanwhile, hooked me. Whether it's marketing (because seriously even The Hunger Games has too much stupid romance and love triangles) or simply my tendency towards gorier stories or really that the stories are so different... I don't know. I only know that at the end of the day I read and can vaguely recommend The Hunger Games to specific people whereas very little will succeed in getting me to read Twilight.

At the end of the day, hype succeeds only if we have a shred of curiosity regarding the book. There are some books so far outside my interests that it doesn't matter how much hype they get... I'm not likely to read them. Hype backlash and all that. But if I'm even just a tiny bit interested in the premise or the plot... that's enough. That's enough to convince me that maybe the book is worth reading, even if it often isn't. So yes - I'll continue to dismiss Twilight in spite of its popularity because it holds little interest for me, and I'll continue to defend my choice to read the enjoyable-if-flawed The Hunger Games because it has a cool premise and one of my favorite teen-girl main characters in a while (even if all the other characters in the series feel pretty flat and wooden). The marketing and the type of hype really do make a difference.