Friday, December 31, 2010

5 quotes that serve as examples for why this book is incredible

The book in question: Wolf Hall.
Further information: This book will be finished by today. If I need to stay awake until tomorrow morning - I will finish this wonderful book to-day.

In no particular order:
1. [Cromwell to his son] "I once heard him say I looked like a murderer." Gregory says,"Did you not know?" p. 527

2. [following a Seymour family scandal, Cromwell to Anne Boleyn] "And the daughter? Jane, is it?" Anne sniggers. "Pasty-face? Gone down to Wiltshire. Her best move would be to follow the sister-in-law into a nunnery. Her sister Lizzie married well, but no one wants Milksop, and now no one will." p. 297

3. [to a newly married fifteen year-old who is not permitted to be with his equally young wife] "Be reasonable, my lord. Once you've done it, you'll want to do it all the time. For about three years. That's the way it goes." p. 518

4. So day by day, at his request and to amuse him, he would put a value on his master. Now the king has sent an army of clerks to do it. But he would like to take away their pens by force and write across their inventories: Thomas Wolsey is a man beyond price. p. 50

5. "Do you know what Chapuys is saying about you? That you keep two women in your household, dressed up as boys." "Do I?" [Cromwell] frowns. "Better, I suppose, than two boys dressed up as women. Now that would be opprobrious." p. 388
It should be noted that only two of these quotes were pre-picked for this post. The remaining three were found just by opening the book to random pages. I suspect I could find an excellent quote from just about every page of this book. But that will be discussed a little later...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book of the Month - really recommended?

It's not often that someone around me raises a bookish topic of discussion, but yesterday a question arose, one that got me thinking quite a bit. I was asked regarding an article that explained that when a bookstore has a list of "recommended reads", the books are not necessarily really recommended by the staff, that often these are simply books that publishers want to push. The well-read questioner was surprised by this and wanted to know if this was something well known.

My answer was, somewhat sadly, yes.

Publishers have their own reasoning behind what books they decide to massively publicize. I'm never going to be able to comment on what decisions are behind this but I can point out what I have noticed myself in this wide world. Look at Amazon's monthly recommended reads. Vine Members will easily be able to identify a large number of the books they were offered last month suddenly pumped and marketed as that month's "recommended reads". Really? Does staff at really think that these books are worth reading, or is it simply worth it for them to sell them?

One also notices rather quickly how sometimes rather well-established titles (by a few months) can make the lists. Why? Because the book has suddenly become popular (or has won an award) and is now worthy of being massively publicized. Recommended? Very possibly. Necessarily really the staff's recommended pick as best book of the month? No.

The original question posed to me was one born of innocence. When one is unaware of such publisher techniques, it's easy to believe that these are truly the "best" books. Imagine - most of us don't know a lot of things about the products we buy. The same can be said of the book industry. It's somewhat disturbing to learn for the first time that the books you buy based on bookstore (online or real, indie or giant) recommendations are mostly fueled by book exposure and publisher pushes.

Does this mean we stop paying attention to recommended reads? I don't think so. Good books make it to these lists. That's a fact. Not always, but sometimes. The lesson to be learned, though, is to take so-called "recommendations" with a grain of salt. Perhaps even several.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bilinguals have it tough

Being bilingual has its downsides. I'll read a great book, look to share it with a world of readers and find that the book is, unsurprisingly, not offered in English. Unfortunately, one of the better books I've read in the last six months falls into this category. Though the author has actually been translated into English, I have only read his most recent novel from 2008 (and am currently reading a collection of short stories from several years ago). The author in question is Israeli author Amir Gutfreund, the not-yet-translated-into-English books in question are When Heroes Fly and The Shoreline Mansions.

Though When Heroes Fly is not a perfect book (way too long, random ending takes the book in a completely different direction, though I ultimately didn't mind too much), it's a winner. The book does what many modern Israeli novels try to do - show the development of the relatively young country alongside that of its characters. The children are conveniently born at such an age that they are meaningful ages for each of Israel's (many) wars - children for the victorious Six Days War, teens during the pain of the Yom Kippur War, and serving as soldiers in the 1982 Lebanon War. This puts them in the right place at the right time for many of Israel's major events, finally having them disenchanted or struggling adults in the more modern era.

Though I can easily find fault with the book (others have liked it a lot less than I), it's the kind of book that should be translated into English. Some good books can survive in their own languages just fine, but ones that do a good job of painting a portrait of their culture and nation deserve (to an extent...) the opportunity to spread that word. It's true that Israel is surprisingly well represented in the Anglo reading world, but it's disappointing that I have to wonder how long it will take Gutfreund's wonderful book to reach the Anglo-centric world. Our Holocaust is still in print (also - surprisingly) and seems to have been well received in the U.S. This makes me hope that the 667-paged heft of When Heroes Fly will reach readers soon.

In the meantime, I've started The Shoreline Mansions - and also stopped (for those wondering, this is the short story collection I mentioned a few days ago). Why would I set aside one of the best short story collections I've read in a long time? For the simple reason that I don't want it to end. I have stopped just about halfway, at the start of a story that has already caught my attention (and keeps nagging me back to the book). I was convinced that I needed to read more Gutfreund after loving When Heroes Fly - now five stories into this collection, I want to ensure that I have further Gutfreund before I continue. Our Holocaust seems like a good next destination.

And, thankfully, one I can discuss with you all.

A treat from me to you: a translation of the opening of "Clocks", one of the short stories from The Shoreline Mansions. Gutfreund writes most of these stories from the side, having first person narrations telling the reader about the main characters. I admire his writing style and am impressed by how engaging it is. And the fact that the following story is not about the grandfather's death. So, for your reading pleasure, a small taste of this author's writing.
Grandpa died. A man turns into memories.

In one moment, everything that would have been possible in a normal coming week will no longer be. From now until forever, the threads of our memories will escort us, one end at the moment of Grandpa's death and the other going with us, wherever we go. Grandpa will belong to us. With the years (they will come), the threads of our memories will get tangled, will tear, will rip. The memories we'll compare with each other in twenty years won't even resemble Grandpa.

Our mother doesn't cry. She sits on her chair in solemn clothes, gazing at the row of mourners.

The well-worn phrases - 

"We liked him."
"Who would have believed?"
"He will be missed."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some days are for books

This weekend was the first in a long time that felt good for reading. True, I still haven't finished the collection of short stories I'd been reading fairly steadily the last week, but only because I don't yet have another book by the same author. I'm rather taken with the author - I'll finish only when I know I have where else to go to. Meanwhile, I read two fairly easy, enjoyable books over the weekend.

It's easy to dismiss easy reading. We often confuse "good" literature with "difficult" literature. It's not something so easily defined. It's not as if we say that any difficult book is excellent, but so many of the books we deem to be "classics" and "worth reading" are... difficult. Is it a backwards case? Do we comfort ourselves after reading difficult books, by saying that, "Well, it's a classic. It's an important read," or is simply that the more complex a book is, the better it is? Or none of the above? (probably the latter answer...)

I have nothing against hard books. True, it's easier to burn out when reading them, but there's a wonderful sense of reward when one finishes a long, complex book. I can't pretend I don't relish that feeling. And yet... sometimes a reader needs to relax. After months of struggling with reading (I've had little time or desire in the last two months to read very much, and as such I've read maybe 3 books), it's nice to get into a flow of reading.

Last weekend I began reading the lovely short story collection (I'll be writing more about it later, and will explain its anonymity) and reread a favorite book (that is still amazing - more on this later). I spent the week continuing to crawl through North and South, reading a few pages every evening. Finally, Friday and Saturday I sped through those two easy reads. Great works of art? Questionable. But they both helped clear my head and today I picked up the heft of Wolf Hall at the library. The librarian smiled as she handed it over and said, "This one needs to be back within the month. No renewals." Staring at the fat paperback as compared to my other (slim) choices I replied, "I guess I better start with it then..." We'll see how that plays out.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Homemade eCovers

Long story short: my operating system can no longer use Sony's eReader library program (and good riddance, too...), leading me inevitably to Calibre. By resetting my entire Reader to Calibre's way more convenient standards, I've been finding myself having a jolly good time with the new order. One aspect of this is finding covers for all my eBooks.

The problem is that almost all of the freely available fiction on the web (my only source for eBooks) is extremely old (thus the copyright has expired). A lot of these books don't have normal covers. Same for various free short stories and self-published stuff. This is where it gets fun. Books need covers. So what if there are no good options? Let me have a crack at it!

I don't have much (any) artistic talent. I don't have particularly complex picture editing programs. But here's a glimpse of some of the covers I've made the last couple of weeks, for your entertainment:
Sci-fi/fantasy/other collection

Favorite to make - short stories
Mythology/folklore collection
My favorite homemade cover (original photo here):

And these two, that actually look a little like textbooks I've had in the past. It begs the question though, why I ever downloaded these books from Gutenberg... Picking out these pictures was cool, though (physics and chemistry), and it was plenty nice trying to decide exactly which color shade and font (sadly limited with the new operating system...) fit the book best.

This is fun.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Distinguishable publishers

I respond to this New Dork Review of Books post about whether or not readers notice who publishes the book they're reading at a bit of a delay, but after starting to write a whole essay in the comments box underneath the post, I figured I should instead organize my thoughts properly and respond in kind.

Greg Zimmerman essentially wondered whether or not the publisher of the book you're reading affects whether or not you'll read it. It's a thoughtful, interesting post in which he concludes that there's one such publisher for him (McSweeney's), and later in the comments (after numerous readers named their own publishing favorites), that most readers have the one. Still, the ultimate conclusion seemed to be that readers don't actually pay too much attention to the publisher.

But I disagree. And I also agree.

Greg rightly raises the idea that readers can't name who published their favorite book of the year. This is true in the U.S. or Britain, where there are hundreds of publishers and publisher imprints to keep track of. It's true that most readers don't consciously pay attention to publishers. A reader won't reject a publisher because they're the same guys that published that piece of crap book last year. We're not aware enough for that. But to suggest that aside from one favored publisher we don't pay attention... I say: nonsense.

These are only three examples of publishers, but with each one it's fairly easy to identify the "brand" (so to speak). First up: Vintage. Easily distinguishable for me based on book shape, paper type and overall aesthetics, I have found that Vintage books are often good. And I have found that I'm also more likely to pick one up because of that previous sentence.

NYRB Classics
NYRB Classics: a little more obvious. This publisher makes certain its books all have the same general design and feel. Heavy cream paper, wonderfully distinct spines, brightly colored blurbs and titles and that most distinguishable title box on the front cover. So easy to spot on the shelf, even without the little trademark NYRB oval at the bottom. A 100% success rate with this publisher so far, and dozens of good words from various bloggers. How can I miss this one?
Lastly, one publisher that while not entirely identical in style (the way that NYRB books are...), every reader will always recognize. Who doesn't notice that small, often orange penguin peeking up at them from the spine? Who doesn't spot the placement of the penguin somewhere on the front cover, the words "Penguin Classic" stamped across the front, "Penguin Modern Classic" scrawled across the back, or even just the standard symbol glued anywhere on the cover? Always distinct, always obvious. You always know when it's this publisher, whether you like their translations and editions or whether you don't.

This game can be played with just about any publisher. The fact is that no matter what we tell ourselves, we recognize publisher brands. We typically know exactly who published a book as we hold it, turn its trademark pages, and bend its distinct cover. One only need look at how each reader has that favorite. And then another favorite. And then another.

Greg is right: most of us probably can't name the publisher of our favorite book from last year (actually, I can. Vintage: The Master and Margarita), but that doesn't mean we don't subconsciously care. I'll be more interested in anything NYRB or Open Letter publishes because I've had good experiences with them in the past. I know I love Oxford World Classics editions translations and annotations, even if their aesthetics aren't amazing. Penguin Classics can be a hit or a miss, but I do like Penguin's young adult imprints. Does this mean I'll buy every book by the publisher? Absolutely not. Do I take into account these things when debating whether or not to buy a book? Probably a lot more than I think.

A few more examples of easy-to-distinguish publishing houses:
Open Letter
Oxford World's Classics (old editions)
Persephone Books

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Young[er] folk

I don't know whether to be intrigued by this or disturbed by the potential for gimmicks (via Bookshelves of Doom).
Medallion Press has started a new fiction book line called Ya-Ya, focused on “young adults writing for young adults.” The imprint will focus on authors aged 13-to-18-years-old. The line will publish books representing a variety of fiction genres in both print and eBook format.
Huh. Much as I understand the desire of many young 13 year olds to get published and much as I hesitate to automatically dismiss young authors aged 17-18, I can't help feel like this is one grand-e gimmick, waiting to cash in. I know this may not apply to all, but it's kind of hard to write quality literature when you've barely even lived your life. More importantly, I think a large part of the creative process is the editing stage. If you're 13, chances are you haven't had much of an opportunity to mull over the "terrible" stuff (in your mind) you've written in order to fix and improve it. And that's a big part of what writing is.

I'm not saying there can't be young authors. I'm not saying there can't be amazing young authors. I've read some wonderful teen works (almost all have been shorter fiction - poetry and short stories), but it's rare. And anyways, that's what the internet is for. There's a lot to be said about teen authors, but right now I look at this story and feel uncertain. So I suppose this sounds like a cool, zingy idea for publishing, but boy does it also sound like one fat gimmick.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pretty and pointless?

This is an interesting article:
Though you won't find it in Webster's, there's a word to describe the kind of meticulously constructed writing that bores even its author. A "bore-geous" novel is one that is packed with gorgeous, finely wrought descriptions of places and people, with entire paragraphs extolling the slope of one character's nose, whole chapters describing another's perambulations through a city. These novels are often historical or set in foreign lands, their bore-geousness inspired by the author's anxiety about making an unfamiliar world feel convincing and true. It's not that the sentences aren't well-constructed, even lovely. They are. That's part of the problem. Bore-geousness happens when you are writing beautifully but pointlessly.
I've never read anything by Ayelet Waldman - I cannot say if she writes bore-geously or if she does a good job of staying out of that pit. Still, I have to give her props for coining a wonderful term and also for pointing out a problem that I think is really hurting literature today.

Waldman isn't entirely accurate on one count: I don't think these novels are more likely to take place in foreign lands or be historical (those are separate genres that, true, are mostly defined by this kind of writing, but the writing is not exclusive to it). On the contrary. I think that a large portion of the so-called "literary" fiction genre is filled with this kind of writing. Gorgeous, flowing, positively enchanting... until you reach the end of the 400 paged book and have no idea what it was about, no connection to the flat characters, and no idea why this book has won dozens of accolades.

If this was rare, I'd forgive it. If it was obvious, I'd be even quicker to ignore it. The fact is, though, that this phenomenon repeats itself often... and we fall for it. Readers fall into these pretty, empty stories and it doesn't matter that there's little content and meat, we eat it up because we like the way the writing sounds.

Waldman's best point is made in the last paragraph: "Good writing can and should be beautiful, but it must never be only beautiful." Well said.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Before I revisit those mountains...

Did I hate or like this one?
In sixth grade, my class was told that for our sci-fi/fantasy unit, we would be reading John Christopher's (and I now discover that's a pen name...) "classic" - The White Mountains.

This voracious reader, well versed at the time in young adult appropriate sci-fi and fantasy books, was outraged. "What is this book?" I complained to the teacher. "There are so many amazing sci-fi and fantasy books out there, they have to pick this tacky, stupid looking book?" She sighed and nodded in agreement. "Yes, I really don't understand why we study this."

Retrospect tells me that my teacher probably disliked the book in part because I can't recall a single female character in it (so even if there were girls, fact is that I don't remember them!). A forgivable sin (to a degree...), but when teaching a class split half girls half boys, it really doesn't make sense to read a book like this. Then again, my complaints stemmed from an entirely different realm. I wanted to read books like The Giver again (I'd already read it at a different school the year before and had seen the impact it had on the class), or A Wrinkle in Time and books along those lines. What was this ancient book being thrust upon me? (Ancient being, of course, entirely in comparison to all my 10-11 years of life. Then again: 1967 publication year. Come on, guys.)

I remember a lot more from this book than I should. I remember some joke about "Jean-Paul" sounding like "Beanpole", evil tripods, steel caps... But I remember hating the book. Or at least saying I hated it. And then promptly reading the two sequels.

Here's where it starts to get fuzzy. Why would I read not one, but two sequels if I actively didn't like the book? I'm lead to believe that I probably liked the book reasonably enough (or was intrigued by the premise, or wanted to be friends with one of the characters - who knows), otherwise I wouldn't have bothered with sequels. It's strange though, the tricks memory can play on you. I look at the cover of The White Mountains (and subsequent sequels) and feel queasy. A hint at an ultimate disappointment? No, I remember being riveted at the end of the third book (by one particular, entirely spoiler-filled scene). Nausea due to the hideous covers? Hmm...

I'm looking forward to revisiting The White Mountains (and sequels). The fact is that I barely remember anything from them (some flashes here and there), so it's like coming anew. Maybe I'll see what my teacher couldn't as to why we read this over other sci-fi books (though I doubt it...). Maybe I'll find a great sci-fi classic. Or maybe I'll realize that I hated this book for good reason. We'll see.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Good literature is not disappearing

I've discussed this in the past, but there's this myth in publishing (and in the literary world in general) that there was once a literary golden age and that we are now far away from it, in a world where literature is allegedly disappearing and that quality means nothing, all that matters is sales and profits. When I want to shoot this claim down, I always find myself lacking concrete ways to explain myself. Then I found this quote:
"That view [that books must stand or fall on its own merit] is as extinct as the post-chaise and the packet-ship--it belongs to the time when people read books. Nobody does that now; the reviewer was the first to set the example, and the public were only too thankful to follow it. At first they read the reviews; now they read only the publishers' extracts from them. Even these are rapidly being replaced by paragraphs borrowed from the vocabulary of commerce. I often have to look twice before I am sure if I am reading a department-store advertisement or the announcement of a new batch of literature."
Modern complaint? No, this would be from "Expiation" by Edith Wharton (a gracious tip of my hat to Levi Stahl of Ivebeenreadinglately for posting this). There are two fascinating points in the entire quoted passage Levi Stahl chooses to highlight. The first is what I have displayed above - the so-called golden age of literature and lovers of literature - and the other is the matter of publishing crap. Both stem from the same general idea that there was once this wonderful age for literature, where people read only the very best books and publishing was a glorious industry that fulfilled the wishes of its noble customers and that's how the greatest books ever were published. And they lived happily ever after.

Except when you start to think about it a little more in depth, it makes no sense. Not that such a golden age could exist, but rather the realization that it hasn't. Not yet, at least. Or maybe it's been going on all around us. Or something like that.

My favorite example of this is  in Of Human Bondage. Philip laments how Mildred reads trashy books. Based on the publication date of Of Human Bondage and Wharton's own time, I'd have to guess that she's referencing the bygone days that are sadly mentioned in Of Human Bondage. Not proof against a golden age, perhaps, but evidence. Hints. A nice reference point.

So generations of authors and readers have felt that an age of quality literature was coming to an end. Today we see the dawning of an eReader age and mark that as the doom of literature as we know it. I don't just mean books, I mean literature. I have read many a blog posts about how technology is ruining our ability to enjoy quality literature, how soon all books are going to be gimmicky or "enhanced eBooks", distracting us further with extras that aren't actually books. Who knows - maybe these fears are founded. But I for one doubt that quality literature will cease to exist (just as I don't believe that print books will ever disappear).

Is good literature getting hard to find? Maybe. Does that mean it no longer exists? Absolutely not. I may not read many new excellent super-hyped novels these days, but I have read several excellent new novels from around the globe in a variety of genres, regardless the praise and attention they've received. A reader just needs to know how to look. Just as we find numerous excellent books from the time Wharton complained about the death of quality literature, the next generations will find our gems. We need not stress so much.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Divided over Daniel

Which plot is your favorite?
Once I first realized the brilliance of George Eliot's pen in late 2007, I decided this was one of those authors I'd have to read through and through. I started this project with the absolute understanding that it could take decades, but I'm taking it easy. The first three came in quick succession; it's been a while, though, since the last. That last was the wonderful Daniel Deronda.

Yeah, the one that most people think isn't so hot. Allow me to elaborate.

Daniel Deronda is not my favorite of the three Eliot novels I've completed thus far. It cannot compare to the concise excellence of Silas Marner. Not that it isn't very good as well, just that it's absolutely impossible to compare the two works (and I enjoyed Silas Marner a smidgen more...). There's something special about this fat novel, though. It is, to be quite frank, the exact opposite of Silas Marner. Where the latter is a small, compact book and perfectly sculpted, Daniel Deronda is overflowing, even bloated. More specifically, it's redundantly large in the eyes of many readers.

Daniel Deronda is one of those books with two entirely different plots going on within its pages: the Gwendolen sections and the Jewish sections. In the eyes of most readers, it's the Gwendolen story that holds the book. Commenter LilyDale over at the Guardian wrote almost 2 years ago the following (often echoed) statement:
"The problem is not that the Jewish sections are Jewish, it's that they're bad -- boring, didactic, unsubtle -- while Gwendolen's sections are some of Eliot's best work."
The thing is, I don't really agree. Yes, Gwen's part of the book is the more dramatic one if looked at a certain way. It's got a lot more action, a lot more story and a lot more... well, drama. But it's Daniel's search for understanding in Judaism that makes Daniel Deronda an interesting book. It really is a bit of a slow read, but I must disagree: the Jewish sections are far from boring in the strictest sense of the word. Unsubtle, perhaps, but there is something fascinating in the blatantness Eliot gives that story.

I am well aware of the fact that part of my fascination with this book is my interest in Eliot's interest in Zionism and Judaism. It's easy to forget that the book was published in the 1870s, not that long before the Dreyfus affair and in the midst of Jewish integration in the general European world. Is the writing clunkier than Eliot's mastery in Silas Marner? Quite. Does it matter? Well... to many it does. As that old Guardian article points out, the book is a divisive one. Many readers express dismissal of the entire Jewish story, preferring Gwendolen's story by a wide margin.

There's so much to this book. Positive, negative... I can think of many parts that made me cringe, scenes that had me at the edge of my seat, and moments that made me wonder why it had taken me so long to get to George Eliot. It seems a shame that most readers would rather Daniel Deronda be something it is not - half the book and heavily edited. At the end of the day, it's a good book (or two books, depending on how you look at it...). Enough said.

For now...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Forgotten and forgettable
There's something fun about combining the librarian fun of sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing with the nostalgia of Good Books for Kids. Searching for all sorts of kid classics brought to mind memories of a simpler reading era and made me wonder at the books I used to read. And then, a strange realization - I could not remember half of the stories of the books I read, but I could remember pretty much if I liked them or not.

Frindle? Kid renames the pen a "frindle", right? A power struggle with the teacher? I think, not sure. Liked the book a lot. Love That Dog? Written in weird prose, I think, and absolutely terrible. Hated it. Donna Jo Napoli's books - each reasonably good, none that really jump out. Louis Sachar? Can pretty much do no wrong. Just Ella - some loophole at the end, no? Whatever - great story, a lot of fun.

Anybody sensing a pattern as to what is remembered here?

It begs the question, though: how well must we remember books? And what counts as remembering a book? As I read Madeleine L'Engle's An Acceptable Time (another sequel in the Time Quartet/Quintet/Trilogy, if Many Waters is excluded...), I once again felt that I must have read the book at some point (I do believe a friend lent it to me...), but I could not remember anything. Not one scene, not one moment. I remembered vaguely that there was a character who was kind of evil and that's about it. Turns out the book is still fairly forgettable, even nine years down the line.

An Acceptable Time is the exception. I couldn't remember anything about the book, but with so many other kids books, I can vaguely recall scenes and certainly how I felt about it. Place this alongside my strengthening memory of books I've read in recent years. Is the difference the time? I don't think so. Books I've read more recently I've also summarized and reviewed in my own personal journals (or online). I'm not surprised that I've forgotten these books, but rather that the emotions tied to them are so strong. The mind is a fascinating thing.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lessons from L'Engle, part 1

One of the most influential books on my childhood was definitely A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I need only count the number of times a day I find myself thinking about the characters, the plot, the friend I grew close to due to our shared interest in L'Engle's Time Quartet, and various quotes from the book. Perhaps with the exception of Harry Potter (and perhaps even without!), no book has ever been so important to me. Certainly not in the same way.

A Wrinkle in Time influences how I read even today. Science fiction space travels? Dimensions? Time, space, shifts and moves... All of my understanding - all of my imagining - stems from one "children's" book. When I read nonfiction about dimensions and theories of the shape of the universe, it's L'Engle's world that comes to mind. L'Engle's was not the first sci-fi book I read, but it was the first to make me wonder how much of the book's content was actually true. Few books today inspire me so.

There is one scene in A Wrinkle in Time that I remember most vividly. It is not my favorite scene, it is not the most dramatic, and it's definitely not the best written, but it's the most interesting two pages I think I've ever read. The kids - Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace - are receiving an explanation of the "tesseract". I won't spoil the surrounding scene (which, in addition to the quote below is curiously fascinating) for those who haven't read this excellent book (I  encourage you, though, to run out and read it immediately!), but ultimately this is an explanation of plausible space travel in L'Engle's world.
"You see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who's right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across." Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together. "Now, you see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "he would be there, without that long trip. That is how we travel".
As a child, I found these lines to be interesting. Cool, even, with the little drawings of hands bringing the skirt together. With time, though, the scene seemed to grow more and more. Today it stands in my mind as clearly as if I read it daily. The description following this scene, where the children are asked "What is the first dimension?" leading through to the fifth is uniquely L'Engle - though science discusses various similar topics on occasion, I have found that dimensions are always defined in my mind word for word as L'Engle described them. When reading Flatland (I have been slowly, slowly, slowly reading that small book, every month or so taking in a little alongside my other reads. Eventually I will finish it. Quite nice, actually.), my imagination kept showing me three children and three women discussing dimensions. The children are lines. The women are cubes.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Leslie Burke

In a recent set of interviews and application psych tests, I found myself faced with a question that has stumped me for years now: Name and describe a fictional or historical character you admire and respect. It's always difficult with historical figures, because the ones I know most about are either inherently evil or malicious (or at least are perceived as such), or entirely ubiquitous. Instead I take this as an opportunity for literary fun, where the first concern is that of audience. Who am I writing this for? From the first instant, I find myself limiting my options. It can't be a character with too grim a setting, because this is ultimately an  application. Just as television's most popular bookworm Rory Gilmore once commented, you can't write down Sylvia Plath for all your admiration, because that leads to the question of: "So do you also want to shove your head in an oven?" The more you know about an author, the more you realize that it's incredibly difficult to admire and respect them. I turn to fictional characters and then the trouble begins...

You can't pick something too common, like Hermione Granger (for all her wit and bravery), nor can you pick a character too tortured to truly be respected, like Ender. It has to be a reasonably well established book, can't be so obscure the reference is lost on the examiner, but also can't be so common the choice shows nothing of your personality. Almost all adult characters are deeply flawed in some way (that is, of course, one of the measures by which we hold quality literature these days) and are therefore tricky, complicated choices. Oh, and this choice is in the midst of timed testing.

And so it came to be that Leslie Burke was my choice as character of the decade.

Are you scratching your head? Leslie Burke, Leslie Burke. The girl from Bridge to Terabithia? Yes.

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books I like recommending to just about every kid I come across. It's far older than I am and by the time I read it, it had shown that it could survive generation shifts with kids still appreciating it. Heck, even scenes like all the kids wondering at the fact that Leslie's family doesn't own a TV set are still relevant today. It's a story suited for both boys and girls, tough and sporty at times while magical and emotional at others. More to the point, it's a well-written book with believable, breathing children characters that handles difficult topics with ease.

Back to Leslie. The tragic heroine of Bridge to Terabithia, the imaginative, spunky, sporty, intelligent and all-over adventurer Leslie. Independent by the standards of the town she lives in, unconventional as compared to Jess (the primary character in the book), and fiercely driven, she is given the rare opportunity of playing out only childhood virtues, never reaching adulthood faults. Her flat curiosity in religion, for instance, is intriguing - she does not seek it for herself, but wonders at the lure it poses for others around her. She is nonchalant (we must assume, based on her character) when posed with the childish question, "But what if you die?", still clearly detached from the standard beliefs that bind the other characters. Hers is a world built on imagination and creativity of her own. She needs little else.

The problem is that precisely because Leslie cannot grow up, nor can she develop much in the confines of a children's book, she is almost too good to be true. Her good nature is sincere, but innocent. Her attempts at bonding with the school bully fixate around the fact that she's willing to talk to her, to hear of her troubles. But what if Leslie was only a few years older and the trouble appeared to her as dark as it truly is? With a childish innocence, Leslie can help and coax the anger out of a young woman who, given the few facts we have, has every right to be angry. If she understood the gravity of the situation, would she be able to help quite as much? I very much doubt it.

Even so, I can think of few characters who even ten years down the line have affected me so, without having had to reread the book dozens of times (once or twice, perhaps, but not much more... I'm due for a reread). If ever a young girl to set an example for boys and girls everywhere, it is the figure who is marked by tragedy, whose good nature, spunk and imagination can inspire just about every child. It should not be so surprising, then, that it's Leslie Burke's character who I respect and admire. Even if I seemed to outgrow her a long time ago.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Where have all the adventures gone?

It has not been so many years since childhood, and yet I've found myself in the last few years growing very distant from the books that I always found to be best as a kid. No, I don't mean laugh-out-loud hilarious books like the Wayside series, or the enjoyable simplicity of a good-vs.-evil fantasy. I mean the backbone of my childhood reading - the adventure book.

The last couple months have seen me trying to regain some of the childhood magic. When I was a kid, it wasn't so much fantasy that drew me in, or historical fiction, or otherworldly humour - it was the pure, clean adventures that the stories were built around. I look at favorite books like The Count of Monte Cristo, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and sequels, The Golden Compass and Harry Potter, all the way through Ender's Game and The Neverending Story: granted, most of these are fantasy or science fiction, but they all have at their core a sense of adventure and action. Some of my favorite books as a kid were historical fiction books that took me on crazy, sword-fight filled adventures, on crusades, to the farthest reaches of the earth, and back again. Books like A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. Books whose names have long faded from my memory.

It is true that for the most part, adventure stories link into fantasy. It's a curiously disappointing case, actually. I look at my possibly favorite book ever The Count of Monte Cristo and see that here is absolute adventure. Swords and bad guys and fighting and drama - all neatly labeled as a classic and therefore totally legitimate to read. It's a sprawling mess of a book, diving from one story to another, from one persona to another and that's where the fun is. In the story. In the adventure.

But this is getting hard to find. Today I look for adventures in young adult fantasy - great books like Jonathan Stroud's excellent Bartimaeus series, the exciting fun of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, the constant movement of Kenneth Oppel's Airborn (Matt Cruse) books - and find that these, while enticing in their action-filled adventure plots, are sometimes lacking in the more subtle story-telling fields that come with books that are more geared for adults (Bartimaeus is definitely the exception). Completely understandable, of course, but this doesn't diminish the disappointment entirely. Meanwhile, why must I suspend reality entirely just to get a bit of a jolt? Can't there be a good adventure story that does not detach itself from reality by living in the fantasy or sci-fi realms? And is high quality?

I recall when Lev Grossman complained that books today lack sufficient plot. He was right to a degree, but also wrong (and the argument would have been better felt had it come from an author whose attempt at writing an adventure book had been less mediocre) - it is not wrong for readers today to prefer the subtleties of character based novels and books that deal more with emotional development than plot development, but Grossman's point can be well taken if looked at the matter of adventure stories. It is rare (but not impossible ) to find a good quality, deeply written adventure novel today. And as a fan of the genre, it's a true shame.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pictures or words

This is weird. The New York Times wrote up a piece about picture books - the recent trend where kids start with chapter books earlier and seem to forsake new and shiny picture books. It's weird for a few reasons. First is the impression I get from the article that there are experts who think that picture books are good for children's development. Uh... yeah. Then there's the idea that it's a bad thing to have kids reading chapter books at earlier ages. It's mentioned, as if in passing, and is sadly what I take away from an otherwise interesting article. So, a few thoughts.

To begin with, I think it's great that the incredibly high prices of hardcover picture books is mentioned. I remember sometime when I was in second grade and already hooked onto chapter books, there was some picture book that looked really nice. I remember picking it up, flipping through its glossy, lovely pages and then - oh, $20. Um. No. Children's books are gorgeously made, all shine and gloss but the price tag scares off so many kids and parents that just don't see the point. Not in the book, but in owning it. Besides, libraries always wrap them up in that awesomely crunching plastic.

I also find the notion that there's something wrong with declining sales to be most fascinating. The article points to the fact that classics are still bestsellers - books like Dr Seuss, and others of that ilk. Maybe - and I find this more plausible and worthy of separate discussion as I think of it - parents prefer buying their young children the books they themselves know and love from childhood. If I had to buy kids books today with no prior knowledge, I would be wary of new releases mostly because I'm fairly wary of just about everything publishers give me these days. That and the recent fad of having too much message in kids books. Or too little. Or just having lame kids books. But it's been a while, so I'm sure I'm missing out on a lot of great books. Isn't the fact that I'm wary like this, though, an indication of what parents might be thinking? Could low sales just be due to consumers preferring what they already know?

As for kids reading chapter books earlier, I gave up the picture book almost entirely by the end of first grade. Not everyone in my class was like that, but the avid readers among us wanted to move upwards to chapter books as soon as possible because it was more challenging, and more to the point - more suited to what we wanted. "The Magic Tree House" series was perfect because it had everything I could ever imagine - books, history, adventures, knowledge, science, mysteries and more. I learned so much with small books that made me feel like I was swallowing up large tomes, like were always shown in the occasional pictures scattered throughout the books. Reading chapter books was reading independently - reading picture books is to this day associated in my mind with early childhood, learning to read, and bedtime stories.

Picture books aren't going out of fashion and there's absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging kids to read independently at younger ages. I think there's some bad marketing going on, that prices are too high, and that parents are taking it safe. Parents shouldn't push their kids to chapter books before they can actually read, but it's definitely an important step and second grade is exactly the time to make it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Abandonment issues

The last few weeks, a book has sat on my desk looking at me with woeful eyes. This debut novel, which sounded really cool and came on sale, was my choice read about a month and a half ago. I started reading, got about 120 pages in (out of 350 or so) and just... stopped. Frustrated by the unbelievable dialogue, bored by a story that was dragging on for way too long, it was very easy to set the book aside (I should note that this book is not available in English and should never be).

I'm not one of those readers that abandons books. I keep bookmarks deep in books I've set aside years ago, convinced one day I'll go back and finish the job. Meanwhile, I've been dipping in and out of several books over the last few months. Books I really like, but ones that just take a little more time and space to read. And then... this. A book that obviously had potential but I lost interest so quickly that the thought of reentering it seems like a waste of time. Why bother?

Everybody has their own rule for abandoning books. Some do a 100 page test. Others can abandon books much more quickly, within the first pages. Others still are like me - leave no book abandoned. But the last few months have seen a sharp rise in the number of books I've read even as the time for reading has gone down significantly. Why? Because I've recognized two important facts: 1. Sometimes it just isn't a book's time, and 2. If a book has been consistently bad, the likelihood that it will turn around in the second half doesn't justify the effort.

It saddens me to say it. Abandoning a book is a failure. It's spitting in the author's face. Now I know that if the author publishes another book, I'm not even going to bother. Perhaps rightly or wrongly. A man poured his soul into his debut novel and I'm giving it up before we even get to the alleged plot (I blame the editors so badly here - this book could have been good with a lot of cutting). But yes - I'm giving this book up. At this point in my life, it's not worth it. And it's definitely not worth feeling guilty over.

But this will not become my new policy. I have no intentions of taking the bookmark out of My Name is Red, nor of saying that I'm not currently reading Nobody's Home (but seeing as the latter is essays, I really don't feel like I've set the book aside; this is just how I read essay collections...). I have simply reached the conclusion that there is one book that was not worth my time for clear reasons. Will I review it even though I didn't finish? Yes. And the question: can I even review a book I have not completed? But that's a story for another time.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

[insert publisher] [insert verb] [insert stupid thing]

A few things regarding this story.

I know a lot of people liked Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss (I didn't. At all.), but holy cow: 2.5 million dollars advance? For a book? Haven't publisher learned their lesson by now? Does anybody else remember that story about that book that got something like a million dollar advance and then nobody really bought it? (uh... uhh... um. [response: The Kindly Ones]) Not that this will be the case with Desai - I'm certain the cover will have a bland but pretty cover and will advertise loudly and prominantly that Desai is the author of the Booker Prize winning yawn-fest - but it seems like such a foolish, pointless move. Publishers repeatedly complain that their industry is struggling with the advancements of technology and with falling sales. Seems like pointlessly expensive advances on books that may or may not be good aren't helping (I offer the poor reception Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil got as an example of this).

Some people may call this a gamble but on the short run they're wrong. Knopf will make money - rest assured. The book will be hyped and people will buy it, just like people ultimately buy almost every massively hyped book (I'm thinking books like The Passage or Freedom). The question shouldn't be about whether or not Knopf will be able to sell the book with the title that sounds kind of like The Inheritance of Loss (oh, right... The Loneliness of Sonia and Sunny...), but whether or not the book is really worth the hype. This being Desai's second novel, fans of The Inheritance of Loss will almost certainly pay up (no matter what reviews say: again, see Beatrice and Virgil). Again the question: should they?

At this point I cannot judge the quality of a book I have not read. Again, I wasn't a fan of The Inheritance of Loss so I'm a little biased against Kiran Desai, but it frustrates me to know that publishing honestly believes that high publicity advances and paying lots of money for books that will short term rake in cash is the right way to go. If Knopf pays so much money for one book, doesn't that mean that they're less able to publicize and prop up new authors? If they pay fewer advances and let the public decide how much money the author deserves (based on how well the book sells, also relatively under the publicist's control...), doesn't everybody win? And don't they learn from past mistakes? I mean, seriously guys - hasn't history taught us that high advances don't guarantee a good book? A bestseller, maybe, but I do believe we should expect only the highest quality literature from our publishers. Sadly, I'm starting to think that's only wishful thinking.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Annoyance of Amazonian proportions

When people ask me if I dislike Amazon, I find myself struggling to explain my issues with the website that for so many years has been my primary source for books, discs, and DVDs (as well as potato peelers, utensils, bedsheets, and more). I can't easily go into my dislike of their pricing methods, or the way I've always felt the reviews are slightly skewed (in this, though, I suppose I have only myself to blame). Disliking their "Best of the Month" feature is a matter of my own personal taste, and my personal views on the Kindle are perhaps not singular, but are not shared by most. Then, of course, a story like this comes along (via A Momentary Taste of Being).
Eric Engleman, who covers Amazon for TechFlash and the Puget Sound Business Journal, reported yesterday on a six-year-old patent, granted last week, which, according to Engleman, “describes a system of paying to electronically preview ‘one or more chapters, sections, pages, paragraphs, or sentences from a work’ with variable fees based on the genre or publisher, or ‘consumers’ past viewing behavior or purchases.’” Amazon, at least according to the language of this patent (which credits Amazon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos as one of its inventors), expresses concern that the current preview model—which includes an especially handy word-search function—may discourage customers from actually buying books.
I suppose I'm so frustrated by this story because it looks like just another example of Amazon trying to charge for ridiculous things (or, additionally, charge excessively). I am saddened to think that Amazon's latest money-making patent might actually work, much in the way their setting of eBook prices (unfairly high, no matter what publishers would like to think) lead consumers to getting used to something pointlessly and unfairly expensive.
As was mentioned at The Book Bench (and A Momentary Taste of Being), there is much stupidity in this move. When I go to a bookstore, pick up a book in my hands and plop down on the floor, I get to flip through as much of the book as I want. Heck, I can always finish the book if that's my aim, even if I don't for fear of this. Charging for something so limited as a ten-page preview is just... dumb. Worse is the idea that people will in fact chalk up money for such a scam. While Amazon is clever for trying to cash in on convenience, it seems inappropriate to constantly be coming up with new ways to limit our access to knowledge. This also seems like a foolish move from a practical standpoint. I have purchased numerous books based on the fact that I could preview them. I won't pay to preview - I just won't buy.

For all the price "friendliness" of Amazon, the convenience of having books shipped straight home, and the many years of loyal use, I have to say - this time, guys, you're going too far. It won't be worth it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The internet, touch screens, and personal preference

A couple weeks ago, I got a phone call from a relative asking me about eReaders. The relative, knowing my interest in the matter, wanted to know if it was worth it getting a Kindle. Then, a few days ago, I found myself discussing the matter again, looking at the development of the market over the past year. Finally, later that evening I saw this article detailing the price drops in Sony Readers (I own a Sony PRS-600; now known, I suppose, as an "old Sony Touch Edition"). So now, a recap of the last year in eReaders.

Since I purchased my Sony Touch Edition a year ago, the eReader market has changed drastically. The day following my purchase saw price drops in Kindles, from the then-standard $300 to $260-$280. The Nook followed suit, and by March 2010, most eReader prices hovered around the $250 mark. April saw the launch of the iPad, which had for so long captivated the minds of tech enthusiasts, as well as eReader junkies. The iPad proved to be a very different product, though, far more multi-purpose than the single-track eInk eReaders many found to be so useful. And far more expensive, at around $500. Still, following the release of the iPad, eReaders went through another few sets of changes - a few more eReaders on the market, significant price cuts, and a couple months ago prices stood at around $150-$200 for standard eReaders (Sony's Daily Edition remained more expensive). Then the Kindle "3" came out, and now a new set of Sonys. So where do we stand?

Simple. It all depends on your needs, and while eReaders these days are significantly better (and better priced) than they were one year ago when I made my purchase, the products are still far from perfect and each of the major eReaders has its flaws.

Amazon Kindle 3 - The most popular eReader by far (thanks in part to Amazon's ubiquity as an online bookseller, as well as aggressive marketing), the Kindle 3 is a good product alone (internet access, note-taking ability, convenience), but falls short on several counts. First is Amazon's closed format and the refusal to move to the popular, open ePub format. This places a lot of books and digital libraries out of Kindle users' reach, though they for the most part don't know it. Problematic, too, is Amazon's "sticky finger" issue - the ability to wipe books from devices, to keep track of notes made in the margins, etc. The somewhat bulkier design (and difficulty in actually taking notes) adds to a device that is very good, but technologically frustrating.

Barnes & Noble Nook - The Nook gets a lot of press but doesn't actually seem to be that common or popular. As a device, it comes off as a bit awkward - two screens: one for reading, and a touch screen for maneuvering - and also as somewhat simple. It has internet access as well, but reviews indicate that it's clumsy and somewhat slow. I don't know as much about it, but it benefits from having friendlier eBook rules - the ability to lend books, ePub, etc. The Nook costs about as much as the Kindle.

Sony Readers - Sony is still sort of out of the loop. Coming as the only major (if you can even call it that...) eReaders to offer touch screens, it falls short on other counts. The two new updates of the Touch and Pocket Editions leave out internet access (silly, in my mind, if they already have the technology...) but updates screens and maintains the incredibly comfortable note-taking abilities that make the Touch Edition very useful and convenient (hopefully reduce the slight glare as well). Sony continues to embrace ePub and the Overdrive Digital Library, leading the way in digital lending (and thus leading the way in free eBooks!), even as their digital store is awkward and disorganized. Sonys still cost more, but their prices too have dropped significantly over the past year and will likely return to market levels within the next few months.

Apple iPad - Not a real eReader. Used as one, but it still doesn't really qualify. I recent read an article (I can't find it now...) that suggested that the year long price drops in eReaders were as a result of the iPad. While I'm certain the iPad helped, I find myself again needing to point out that the devices aim to do completely different things. People haven't stopped buying eInk eReaders because they can get tablets. I think all that's been said until now proves this.

The gist - As I told my relative (and now you, dear readers), it all depends on what you need and what you want. For readers like myself who refuse to buy eBooks due to ridiculously high costs, the Sonys are still good, even if they annoyingly don't offer internet and demand a higher price (overall it pays off, by the way). Sony's point seems to be that a touch screen is the replaceable equivalent of internet, but they're wrong. The ability to access 3G or wireless internet makes eReaders convenient on a very different level. But that's not important for everyone (especially people who don't want internet access guzzling their battery life...). The Nook is also a good choice, even if in this case the inability to take notes evens out with the lack of internet in the Sonys. Then again, someone might want something simple, organized, and cheap. The standard. In which case the Kindle isn't that terrible - it's just not for me. If you don't care about closed formats, the Kindle is clearly a successful and popular product. I don't believe most Kindle owners actively dislike their Kindles. Then again, I don't believe most eReader owners actively dislike any of their eReaders. I certainly like mine.

Touch screens, open format, internet, price... Buying an eReader today means taking into account many different variables, far more than a year ago. Today would I be so quick to buy an eReader? No. But it's an interesting, growing market. And that, I think, is worth something in itself.

Monday, September 20, 2010

To love thyself...

A subsection of the gender debate that arose following the raving New York Times review of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" is a small aspect of the New York Times bias: the tendency to love - and glorify endlessly - novels that embody the alleged "New York" attitude and frame of mind. It is not surprising that the New York Times unabashedly loves books about itself, books that fit its own view of life. Unfortunately, this does not always pan well for readers. Setting aside the whole discussion of whether or not the NYT dislikes female writers, I have to wonder why exactly it is that they actually like New York authors. Oh, there are the obvious reasons. People like books they can relate to and presumably New Yorkers have some kind of shared experience that makes them more likely to relate to books about... well, themselves.

I recall something I kept encountering in reviews of "Olive Kitteridge" - that the book embodied the "small town" attitude well. Furthermore, this was often mentioned as one of the possible reasons it won the Pulitzer, which states in its mandate something to that extent. The need to have a book actively identify with a certain group of people is not a new concept, but recently I've noticed that with New Yorkers, it's significantly more pronounced, perhaps simply because the NYT carries a lot more weight than most other newspapers. But what does this say about us as readers, if we simply like what is familiar to us in attitude and mindset? Shouldn't we be broadening our horizons?

This is not to say that the NYT (or any publication, for that matter) is exclusive in liking books only from its own region. As Teresa of Shelf Love so eloquently wrote on the matter of the gender debate: "Imbalance may exist, but it’s an imbalance, not an automatic shunting to the corner." In the case of authors like Franzen (and Lethem, and others I don't want to list now because it'll make my head pop), the NYT displays, yes, its absolute bias for books about itself - books that the reviewers can relate to, that speak to them, that they like. Because when a newspaper reviewer raves about a book, it's not actually the paper that loves the book, but the reviewer - a person who clearly has some kind of attachment to the book.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I like books that don't take place in our modern world - sci-fi, classics and the like. I invariably find myself reading books that do not have defined Anglicized characters. The problem seems much less pronounced with other countries perhaps because I am less familiar with them, but when reading a book like the decidedly mediocre "The Emperor's Children", so highly praised by the NYT back in 2006 I find myself seeing exactly how a NYT reviewer will love the book, even as I - a non New Yorker, amateur (ahem) reviewer - don't.

I have read very, very few books about my own hometowns. The few books I have read have always thrilled me with the sense of self-reference (Hey, that's my high school! I live off that street!) but also turn me off a little. Why should I read about my own existence? I'd much rather see someone else's. I suppose the NYT doesn't agree with that idea.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Name game

We talk about cover art a lot and how that helps determine our opinion of a book ("Don't judge a book by its cover!" even though we all do), but what about the title? How often does the title draw you in and tell you, "Okay, there's a book I need to read"?

If you're me, often.

I recently purchased Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Enemies, A Love Story", several months ago I read a book called "A Honeymoon in Space", and my obsession with Primo Levi began with the title "The Periodic Table". More often than not, I find myself wanting to read a book because of its title, not so much because of its cover art. Even though I know that typically both title and cover are strongly influenced by the publishers, I can't help but feel that the title says more about the book than a picture ever could.

The thing is, a title can also drive me away from a book. Cutesy titles can be endearingly humorous at times, but often it's titles that are too self-referential or pretentious that make me want to throw the book against a wall. Then there are titles that stretch on for too long and have nonfiction subtitles: "Actual title regarding phenomenon or important character: A Blah's Blah-blah with Blah-blah blah" (find the nearest nonfiction book to you, whether memoir or not; chances are it has a subtitle that fits the bill).

There are formulaic titles too, just as there are formulaic, standard covers. I once encountered on a blog (and now unfortunately cannot find...) a list of words commonly found in historical fiction titles. The blogger cynically said you could take just about every combination of two words on the list and come up with an existing historical fiction novel. The same goes for many ambiguously titled "literary fiction" novels (mentioned here and discussed a little more at length).

This time ignoring the lack of wisdom in titling books so in line with formulas, I have to wonder how much other readers are influenced by titles. I find that a book with a punchy title can entice me even as the summary, the cover, or other factors might not. For example, my decision to read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian before The Road was perhaps strengthened by the fact that Blood Meridian sounds way cooler based on title alone (it should be noted that I still have not read The Road, which kind of has a lame title). This was also the case with my choice of Meir Shalev's A Pigeon and a Boy over the much less intriguingly titled The Blue Mountain (which has a significantly more interesting name in the original Hebrew: A Russian Novel. Still not as good as A Pigeon and a Boy, but not so boring either).

Ultimately, one of the most important aspects of a book is its title. This is how we remember the book, how we classify it, how we categorize it, and how, in a sense, we define it. Too often I find myself forgetting the exact title of a book because it isn't memorable, or doesn't encompass the book well, or simply makes no sense. This in turn affects my feelings toward the book itself - a book that has an unmemorable title is bound to be an unmemorable book. And though a good title doesn't necessarily imply a good book (The Yiddish Policemen's Unit comes to mind...), a strong title can urge me to pull an unexpected book off the library shelf (The Inverted World) and lead me to a world I would have most likely ignored otherwise.

As for me, I intend to continue seeking out cool titled books. Because hey - who doesn't want to read Captain Blood?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A couple confusing clichés

Last year before reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was told that the book is impossible to set aside. Almost everyone I knew who had read it recommended it wholeheartedly and when I needed a book for a trip I was taking, I decided to bring Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece. Turns out everyone was telling the truth - I started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude on the afternoon flight home and was barely able to set the book aside for dinner and sleep. I finished the book the following morning.

The situation I faced with Love in the Time of Cholera (the predictable, cliched second pick for García...) was quite different. It's García's writing I like, in a way I can't really put my finger on. Few writers make me enjoy language quite so much as García, and I like that. On the other hand, I found myself occasionally struggling with the story of this modern classic. Everybody positively loves Love in the Time of Cholera... so why did I only like it? See, much as I like intricacies and complexities, and time jumps and character jumps... I wasn't too into all the characters. In fact, I suspect I liked some characters more than I was supposed to (for the sake of the narrative, that is). There were short moments (short!) that I even felt like skimming through boring passages.

I suspect that because I liked One Hundred Years of Solitude so much and expected a lot from Love in the Time of Cholera, I was disappointed. It's unfair to judge a book by what it isn't - I've said this before and I'll say it again. Still, it's not that I disliked the book. Heck, I even liked it a lot! Its only problem is that it didn't flow as I hoped it would. How do I judge a book like that?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Numerical update

Almost a year after purchasing my Sony Reader, I have read over 30 digital books thanks to the device. And this not counting essays, poems, short stories, assignments, proofreads, textbooks, newspapers, magazines, etc. All for free.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Censorship, youth, and a few pretentious comments

I think I've mentioned before that I don't like banning books. I don't really thing anyone who claims to truly love the written word can. I don't like the idea of censorship in high schools, and I don't like the idea of hiding bad things. So I should really hate this story, right? (via Guys Lit Wire)
Apparently, a middle school librarian saw my name on the roster and decided my presence would somehow negatively affect her students. I’m not sure how that is possible. Maybe she thinks I sweat “edgy and dark.” (Are those things catching?) Anyway, she went to a couple of parents with her concerns. I’m guessing she knew the exact ones who would raise a stink, and they did. They went to the school board, and the superintendent, Guy Sconzo, decided to uninvite me. (He says I was never invited, but I was!)

Then Mr. Sconzo went on to say that there are so many authors they could never have them all at their Teen Lit Fests. Like I’m just another author. (Oh, except one that apparently gets under people’s skin.) I am not just another author. I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day. An author who tries to dissect those problems, look for reasons, suggest solutions, show outcomes to choices through characters who walk off the page. I’m an author who cares about her readership in a very real way. I am thoughtful, respectful of my readers, and not afraid to tell the truth.
A few things. First, Ellen Hopkins is an author I've never read. Not for lack of awareness - I have long seen her fat, indeed "edgy" looking books perched on library shelves - but simply because her style did not appeal to me and I'd heard that the books were a little in-your-face, not something I typically like. Even so, all I have to do is read Hopkins' post to realize the foolishness in this situation.

But I want to focus on something else entirely that bothered. Censorship is obviously problematic and complex, but this story rubbed off me the wrong way mostly because of something Hopkins wrote. To highlight the quote that set me off: "I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day."

Hold on a sec. Again, I've never read anything by Hopkins, but for an author to say something like this is taking popularity and annoyance at an injustice a little too far. Hopkins was essentially rejected by a middle school librarian, one who presumably turned to parents of middle school students, parents of children who really should not be reading Hopkins' books. Yes, the School Library Journal recommends Crank for 8th grade and up, but there's a clear distinction in what a 13-14 year old can read and what a 11-12 year old should have access to. The transition into 8th grade and a true teen mentality is surprising, even as these ages appear close to each other. Problematic, then, that 7th and 8th graders share a library. So yes, the librarian was absolutely wrong for proposing to uninvite Hopkins, but Hopkins is wrong to assume that her books are geared for that audience. And to dub yourself "the voice of a generation" is a little full of yourself.

For an interesting view on the actual matter (not my disappointment in one author's self-love), I hand the stage over to Pete Hautman, an author I quite like and admire. The matter of censorship in this case is complex and confusing, and while I don't always agree with what Hautman and Hopkins say on the matter, I think their takes are important.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Guys and girls, part 1 (of many)

All posts relating to the book blogger survey can be found under this tag. A compiled list of results can be found here.

As some readers may remember, the very original question standing behind the book blogger survey was the question of "Male vs. Female", a question seemingly answered by the survey: the dry results found that 83% of respondents were female, and 17% were male. As I mentioned in that post, the numbers vaguely resembled (without matching) my estimations (60% female and 20% male, with the remaining 20% set aside for shared blogs and authors of unknown gender. The immediate question following the simple answer was, however, how does everything break down? Are some bloggers more prone to certain things than others? Are misconceptions (for instance, I have long held the idea that women book bloggers are more community oriented) simply grounded in stereotypes ? Time to find out. (note: some images may be small or unclear. Click on images to enlarge.)


Compared here are the age breakdowns by gender. The first noticeable distinction is the lack of significantly young men - 18 to 24 year olds account for 10% of respondents, while the majority find themselves in middle age, totaling to 54% between the ages of 30 and 49. Women, on the other hand, are a little more... predictable. The graph shows a simple bell curve, where the largest age group is 30-39 with 35% of respondents. Meanwhile, 16% of respondents are under 25. When looking at the percentages, one must keep in mind that the overall number of male respondents was significantly lower than that of female, and therefore all statistics should be taken with a grain of salt. It's hard to calculate accurate statistics with only 50 respondents that fall into this category, but we shall try anyways.

Literary background:
An interesting thing about men that has little to do with this particular subject - male respondents seemed to offer fewer decline to state answers. Of course this could be due to the fact that far fewer men responded. Carrying on... literary backgrounds. The statistics here are quite interesting, actually. Women follow the general trend fairly reliably - 40% with "literary" degrees, 40% having taken college courses, and 17% having only the basics. With men, meanwhile, just under half took college courses, while again 40% have "literary" degrees. Only 12% come with the minimum.

Rather different results. 56% of men never participate in memes, while only 18% of women never do memes. For women, the numbers are fairly evenly spaced with 30% doing 1-2 memes a week, 19% 1-2 a month, and 25% 1-2 a year. 5% participate in memes 3-7 times a week, as opposed to 0 male respondents. These numbers indicate rather clearly that memes are far more common among women book bloggers than men, though men are not entirely averse to it. Still, an interesting distinction.

Book tours:
Interesting to note: these graphs, when looked at in bar graph form, look very similar. 55% of female book bloggers participate in no book tours, as opposed to 88% of men. 4% of men for each of the other options - in this case, 1 respondent for each case. Women, meanwhile, are slightly more varied - 11% participate in 4 or more, 17% in 2-3, and 16% in 1 book tour. Taking into account the significantly smaller number of male respondents, though, the two graphs appear to be quite similar. A clear majority don't participate in book tours while the remaining split up fairly well regarding how many tours they do.

Due to the lengths of these posts, the remaining statistics will be published in further installments. I would also like to apologize for the delay in getting these statistics out - there were numerous glitches and delays in both the analysis process and the process of actually getting these graphs into a readable format. Most of the information is now ready and results should come out at a much quicker rate. Thank you for your patience!