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.