"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Monday, December 26, 2011

Hijacking your reward circuits

Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.
Article in Vanity Fair.

Technology is changing, but fashion, weirdly, is not, and don't forget the drop in violent crime as former bad guys are riveted to their seats playing video games.

Maybe it's Internet Compulsion Disorder. Article in The Atlantic.

The right swipe on the touch screen in Angry Birds delivers an instant hit. The constant updating on Facebook pages with interesting tidbits from friends generates the warm feelings that come from close engagement with the "in" crowd. MeetMoi.com will link you up with "singles within a few miles from you who can meet you tonight" -- no need to go through eHarmony's tedious process of communicating with someone before a face-to-face meeting.

Yes, everything is getting faster and more addictive, and now even old-fashioned online dating sites are too slow! It's funny to think people are meeting in the same kinds of clothes, tho. Anything new since fleece? Should we all go back to wool sweaters? Tie dye? Big shoulder pads? Reading and writing books instead of quick online articles and blogs? Web surfing is fun, all those quick, little satisfying facts, such as that fashion has not changed very much lately.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Amazon, for $5

“The law has long been clear that stores do not invite the public in for all purposes. A retailer is not expected to serve as a warming station for the homeless or a site for band practice. So it’s worth wondering whether it’s lawful for Amazon to encourage people to enter a store for the purpose of gathering pricing information for Amazon and buying from the Internet giant, rather than the retailer. Lawful or not, it’s an example of Amazon’s bare-knuckles approach.” Scott Turow's reply to Richard Russo. Amazon's Jungle Logic.

By now, everyone has probably heard of Amazon's "promotion" in which we are encouraged to shop in a physical store but then buy the item from Amazon and receive a $5 discount. It seems most people feel that this is not only fighting dirty, but it's an example of the 800-lb gorilla fighting dirty. The authors Russo asked agree, calling it, "scorched-earth capitalism" (Dennis Lehane) and "invasive and unfair" (Stephen King).

Writer and bookstore owner Ann Patchett said, "There is no point in fighting them or explaining to them that we should be able to coexist civilly in the marketplace. I don’t think they care. I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Publishers Weekly... and crime

My mechanic recently reminded me of that scene in The Graduate when Benjamin is informed that the future is in plastics. I was paying with a different kind of plastic at the time.

The literary future, at least near the top of this list, seems to be in crime fiction:


1. "Explosive Eighteen" by Janet Evanovich (Bantam)

2. "11/22/63" by Stephen King (Scribner)

3. "The Litigators" by John Grisham (Doubleday)

4. "Kill Alex Cross" by James Patterson (Little, Brown)

5. "V Is for Vengeance" by Sue Grafton (Marian Wood)

6. "Micro: A Novel" by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston (Harper)

7. "The Best of Me" by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing)

8. "Zero Day" by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing)

9. "Devil's Gate" by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown (Putnam Adult)

10. "The Christmas Wedding" by James Patterson, Richard DiLallo (Little, Brown)

11. "IQ84" by Haruki Murakami (Knopf)

12. "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes (Knopf)

13. "A Dance with Dragons" by George R.R. Martin (Bantam)

14. "The Snow Angel" by Glenn Beck and Nicole Baart (Threshold Editions)

15. "The Marriage Plot: A Novel" by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)

List from HuffPo.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cultivating Vonnegut

Somehow, I thought he had that hair his whole life. Like Einstein.

"As the publication date drew near for Slaughterhouse-Five, on which Vonnegut had worked, fitfully, for 20 years, he brooded over his author photo. He was clean-cut, clean-shaven, a bit paunchy—in 1969, an unlikely candidate for cultural eminence. He decided “to cultivate the style of an author who was in.” “To meet the expectations of his audience was key,” Mr. Shields writes. “He lost weight, allowed his close-cropped hair to become curly and tousled, and grew a moustache. … He looked like an avant-garde artist and social critic now, not rumpled Dad-in-a-cardigan.” His upper lip would never reappear. Slaughterhouse-Five became a number-one New York Times best-seller, and its tousled (not rumpled) author became an icon of the counterculture."

New bio out, story at NY Observer.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Neil Gaiman on the Simpsons = Awesome

The episode is free on hulu for a few more days. I've linked it from the Huffington Post. The Book Job. I love the way they drew him, and the episode is awesome -- from the keeled over lit majors to the tuna salad and beyond.

Interview with Neil.

“Truthfully, the real-life me almost never hangs around in Barnes & Noble-like bookstores waiting to find a group of local townsfolk who have decided to write a pseudonymous young-adult fantasy series, offering my services — and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t be doing the catering!”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Stephen King and home heating oil - Do they mix?

Apparently. Salon (and others) reports that his charitable foundation is donating $70,000 to help Maine residents pay for heating oil now that state aid is being cut. The foundation will match individual donations to that level.

Zen of Writing is happy to note that 11/22/63, King's latest book, is on our reading list. 11/22/63 has made the year's top books' lists at the New York Times and the Globe and Mail, and no doubt many other best-of lists as well.

Support Independent Bookstores! And Small Presses!

From Salon:

"An independent bookstore brings a lot to a city or a town: a showroom for the latest literary releases, an auditorium where authors share their work and meet their fans, a bookish environment in which to sip coffee and a fun place to browse in the 20 minutes before the movie starts. But what’s less immediately visible is your local bookseller’s expertise and influence when it comes to introducing great books to your community and, ultimately, to the world."

And, I'd like to add, consider books from smaller presses as well as those from big publishers. Lots of fascinating, hard-to-categorize books fall through the cracks because books often need to conform to genre categories or big publishers won't touch them. Smaller presses do a great job of keeping these books alive.

Poets and Writers magazine has a convenient database of small presses.

Books that have come from small presses include:

The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books). I loved this book, set in a sodden, futuristic Bangkok.
Tinkers, by Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize winner (Bellevue Literary Press).
The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions).
Out Stealing Horses (Graywolf Press).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pasta and Murakami's Tokyo

My theory is that Haruki Murakami loves pasta. First, there's all the spaghetti getting boiled in his books. Now, in 1Q84, Tengo orders seafood linguine at the Nakamuraya cafe with Fuka-Eri, whose book he is going to rewrite.

Unless you are familiar with Japanese cafes, or perhaps with Beard Papa's, the cream puff franchise, you might not picture the cafe correctly. Very bright, bright lights, bright colors, more fast food-looking than a place to eat linguine. That's the coffee shop, anyway, above. There are apparently several eateries under the same roof. Shinjuku Nakamuraya.

I'm a Murakami fan, so I enjoyed the pics at the NY Times. Murakami's Tokyo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Arsenic and Jane Austen

Interesting theory that the novelist was either murdered with arsenic or, more likely, poisoned accidentally. Arsenic was prescribed for various ailments at the time.

It's a debilitating poison that does not kill that quickly. I remember meeting someone whose spouse tried to kill him that way, but his doctor figured it out in time. Unfortunately, it ruined his health, anyway. Amazing that it was once prescribed as a medicine.

Novelist Ann Patchett Opens Bookstore

Because she really did not want her hometown, Nashville, to be without one. The Nashville metro area has 1.5 million people and would have had only specialty, used and religious bookstores, along with two Barnes and Noble branches in the suburbs and one Barnes and Noble college bookstore. That's a lot of people to be without an independent bookstore.

Advice to small bookstores:
Put the children’s section as far away from the front door as possible. Hang signs from the ceiling, and customers will buy whatever is advertised on them. And make your store comforting and inclusive, smart but not snobby.

NY Times article.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Eye Candy of Occupy Wall Street

Here here and here.

Literary Supporters of Occupy Wall Street

Here are the As:

* Laurie Abraham, author of The Husbands and Wives Club
* Susan Abulhawa, author of Mornings in Jenin
* Kevin Adams, author of Continuous Life
* Lorraine Adams, author of Harbor
* Pip Adam, author of Everything We Hoped For
* Nancy Agabian, author of Me as Her Again
* David Agranoff, author of The Vegan Revolution with Zombies
* Rose Aguilar, author of Red Highways
* Sergio Alejandro Aguillon-Mata, author of Quien Escribe
* Joe Ahearn, author of Five Fictions
* Steve Ahlquist, author of The Oz Squad
* Manan Ahmed, author of Where the Wild Frontiers Are
* Elisa Albert, author of The Book of Dahlia
* Malaika King Albrecht, author of Spill
* Michelle Aldredge, editor of Gwarlingo
* Alma Alexander, author of The Secrets of Jin Shei
* William Alexander, author of Goblin Secrets
* Tariq Ali, author of The Duel
* Dee Allen, author of Boneyard
* Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina
* Steve Almond, author of Letters from People Who Hate Me
* Eric Alterman, author of What Liberal Media?
* Andrew Foster Altschul, author of Deus Ex Machina
* Ivy Alvarez, author of Mortal
* P.F. Anderson, editor, MLA Encyclopedic Guide to Searching and Finding Health Information on the Web
* Natalie Angier, author of Woman
* Jessica Anthony, author of The Convalescent
* Nick Antosca, author of Fires
* Joyce Appleby, author of The Relentless Revolution
* Debby Applegate, author of The Most Famous Man in America
* Philip Appleman, author of Perfidious Proverbs
* Giovanni Arduino, Mai Come Voi
* Meakin Armstrong, editor, Guernica
* Katie Arnold-Ratliff, author of Bright Before Us
* Rilla Askew, author of Fire in Beulah
* James Atlas, My Life in the Middle Ages
* Shaun Attwood, author of Hard Time
* Margaret Atwood, author The Handmaid’s Tale
* Esmahan Aykol, author of Hotel Bosphorus
* Anne Aylor, author of The Double Happiness Company

For the rest of the alphabet: OccupyWriters.com

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why I Am Addicted to the Internet

It's not rewiring for the information age, it's just that the information age is so much... fun. Well, a certain kind of fun. It does feel like a waste of time if you spend all day at it, whereas a good book never feels like a waste of time.

"...the biggest surprise, and the one most relevant to current debates, is a “revolutionary” experiment Linden discusses near the end of his book. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health gave thirsty monkeys the option of looking at either of two visual symbols. No matter which they moved their eyes to, a few seconds later the monkeys would receive a random amount of water. But looking at one of the symbols caused the animals to receive an extra cue that indicated how big the reward would be. The monkeys learned to prefer that symbol, which differed from the other only by providing a tiny amount of information they did not already have. And the same dopamine neurons that initially fired only in anticipation of water quickly learned to fire as soon as the information-providing symbol became visible. “The monkeys (and presumably humans as well) are getting a pleasure buzz from the information itself,” Linden writes.

"If this discovery proves reliable, it implies that the Internet doesn’t change our brains at all, for good or for ill. It doesn’t damage brain areas, destroy links between parts of our brains, or grow new areas or connections. What the Internet does is stimulate our reward systems over and over with tiny bursts of information (tweets, status updates, e-mails) that act like primary rewards but can be delivered in more varied and less predictable sequences. These are experiences our brains did not evolve to prefer, but like drugs of abuse, they happen to be even better suited than the primary reinforcers to activating the reward system. So if you find yourself stopping every 30 seconds to check your Twitter feed, your brain has no more been rewired than if you find yourself taking a break for ice cream rather than celery. Picking the more rewarding stimulus is something our brains can do perfectly well with the wiring they start out with."

How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good
By David J. Linden

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Margaret Atwood: Alternative Worlds and Changing Our Own for the Better

"Margaret Atwood and Canopy are piloting a new highly advanced species of paper with galactic potential for business and communities, and superhuman capacity to protect endangered forests.

"Second Harvest Paper is made without any harm to fragile forest ecosystems. It contains only straw left over from the grain harvest, and recycled paper. It is the next step forward in Canopy’s campaign to reduce the stress of paper production on our endangered forests.
Canopy Presents...

"A Limited Special Edition of Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds
First Book Ever on Straw Paper in North America!"

There's a link to purchase the book. Unfortunately, it costs $100, tho if waste straw were used to produce paper in any volume, it would cost a lot less than wood pulp paper. I ordered the conventional book from Barnes & Noble. I'm not sure we have to worry as much about books using up trees as about unnecessary things like junk mail, even other disposable paper products -- napkins, toilet paper, paper towels, that could better be made with straw.

On the subject of alternative worlds, such as in Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood and The Handmaids's Tale, Atwood rocks. I'm sure this collection will be as fascinating as her Negotiating with the Dead, which I recommend as highly as possible.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A small, normal thing: Bookstore in a tent

After the Fukushima disaster washed 230,000 books out to sea, the owners of the bookstore reopened in a tent in response to local demand. Mainichi Daily News.

"Between May 16 and 21, the couple opened a temporary bookstore using a 2-ton truck... at a parking lot of an auto retailer along a prefectural road, which had escaped major damage. A total of 3,000 people visited the tentative bookstore in six days, resulting in 2.05 million yen in sales.

"In July, the Chidas started to run a tented bookstore every Friday through Sunday. Once again, many people flocked to the bookstore from their shelters.

"Kai Onodera, 11, an elementary school student in Kesennuma, bought two manga titles at the makeshift bookstore on the evening of Sept. 18. The tsunami had claimed the lives of his grandmother and aunt and destroyed his home. It was four days after the magnitude-9.0 quake struck that he was reunited with his parents who were taking shelter at different places. Since his family moved into an apartment far from his school in April, Kai has no friends to hang around with in his neighborhood.

"'When I'm reading manga, I get amused and distracted, if only for a little while,' Kai said with a smile."

People living in refugee shelters are buying books -- I can imagine how important that small return to normalcy is for them, after the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdowns. Browsing and buying books must seem so reassuring, especially as the problem is far from over.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Occupy Wall Street has its Own Library

Occupy Wall Street Library (OWSL)

I've tried not to get too political with this blog, so I haven't been posting about Occupy Wall Street, much as it does my heart good. I'm happy to be able to report that there is a free lending library available to demonstrators. Click the link to get a look at some of the titles. The books are all marked "Occupy Wall Street Library" or "OWSL" on their edges.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fiction: Because Real Life Sucks!

25 Depressing Photos of Closed Bookstores

The atmosphere of bookstores, the cleverness and fun, the love of words and books, the dedication and knowledge of the bookstore owners and employees... will be missed. It's hard to believe indie bookstores are going the way of the dinosaurs, but they are. Borders is gone, too, tho Barnes & Noble seems healthy enough.

Friday, September 9, 2011

New Jersey teens can't read Norwegian Wood

Murakami's novel of love and mental illness, because parents complained of drug and sex scenes.

They can still read Town of Cats, an excerpt from his new novel, IQ84, which will be out next month. This excerpt deals with a young man's relationship with his difficult father, and uses the device of a story -- a man lost in a town of cats -- within a story to illustrate that this weird, not self-created predicament is "the place where he is meant to be lost." His life, in other words. Teens should identify with that, no?

I loved the excerpt and am impatient for the book to arrive.

Meanwhile, I will have to be content with this Q&A with the author on Town of Cats in the New Yorker.

I could also read Murakami on talent, focus, endurance -- what writing has in common with running.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Reading

The New Yorker recommends Six Shorts to Read During a Hurricane. Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph Conrad, Lydia Davis, Kerouac and Rimbaud get mentions. Stormy settings and descriptions.

Or, you could try Ten Novels About Solitude.

And if you prefer earthquakes to hurricanes: Timequake, After the Quake, Fault Lines and Earthquakes. There are buy links at the New Yorker site, but be warned: Fault Lines is about economics and Earthquakes is a kids' book. I'd go with the Vonnegut or the Murakami.

My choice for Hurricane Irene weekend is Paula Fox's Desperate Characters. The title suits practically any situation. And, I hear the author will be at the Brooklyn Book Festival in September.

Friday, August 26, 2011

How Stephen King Really Got That Way

I loved this article at Shelf Awareness about King and the bookmobile lady who gave him Lord of the Flies, due out in a new edition with his introduction:

"Do you have any stories about how kids really are?" She thought about it, then went to the section of the Bookmobile marked Adult Fiction, and pulled out a slim hardcover volume. "Try this, Stevie," she said. "And if anyone asks, tell them you found it yourself. Otherwise, I might get into trouble."

In On Writing, King mentions The Inheritors and Pincher Martin, also by Golding, both of which I read on his recommendation, and which are worth reading, even if not as compelling as Golding's more famous book. In The Inheritors, Golding imagines early human species interacting and competing. In Pincher Martin, a man has two lives, one with pinchers. Odd little book, but one which would almost certainly have gotten more attention if published today. I was happy to find both of these and I hereby pass on the recommendation.

As far as King's work, my favorites are Different Seasons, especially Apt Pupil, The Long Walk and The Stand. The Mist is a great story, too.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Publishing is Not Dying

And the biggest surprise is adult fiction, the market for which has grown in the last couple of years. More adults are also reading YA fiction, which is fiction with young characters. It's often written more simply than adult fiction, which can mean it's an "easier" read, but can also mean it lacks the pretentious ambitions of "literary" fiction. Note that I'm not saying that ambition is wrong, just that pretentious attempts at originality are hard to read.
“We’re seeing a resurgence, and we’re seeing it across all markets — trade, academic, professional,” said Tina Jordan, the vice president of the Association of American Publishers. “In each category we’re seeing growth. The printed word is alive and well whether it takes a paper delivery or digital delivery.”

One of the strongest growth areas was adult fiction, which had a revenue increase of 8.8 percent over three years.
NY Times.

The article has inspired a rollicking discussion in the comments, with readers asserting things such as, they will not buy e-book readers until they have chosen "One App to Rule Them All"; that reading YA is like eating Snickers; that adults stopped reading deeply at age 12; that ebook readers may well go through the same technology changes as computer disks, and nobody can read 5 1/4" disks any more, so why not stick with real books unless for traveling light? That last is a good point. Current ebooks might be the 8-track tapes of the future.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Never Finished, Only Abandoned: Artists and the Perfectionism Trap

A WSJ article on the newly restored Orson Welles film has us thinking about perfectionism.

"Any form of limitation, obligation, responsibility or enforced duty was intolerable to him, rendering him claustrophobic and destructive." That's the wrong kind of perfectionism, and it led, as it usually does, to disaster.
The article goes on to chronicle how he lost credibility with Hollywood because of his demands for unlimited tolerance and funding, and had to go the indie route, where he did not have sufficient resources to realize his vision.

With writing, it's more a time issue. We haven't got forever to finish a work, even if we haven't got an entire cast and crew standing by. I find that "limitation" can be freeing, when you commit to a form, a plot or a deadline, even. Then you just do it. Which is not to say every work must fit the same form or any particular form.
The wisest artists are the ones who finish a new work, walk away and move on to the next project. Whenever a colleague pointed out a "mistake" in one of Dmitri Shostakovich's compositions, he invariably responded, "Oh, I'll fix that in my next piece."

I think we have to accept that what we do is the best we can do at the moment. That's hard, because not only do we see it, but our audience also sees that this is the best we can do. We have to own our limitations and move on, and in creative work it's so subjective. Almost no matter how well you do, there will be some who don't like it. But endless revising limits our output and experimentation, which in turn limits innovation. The article's author, Terry Teachout, says perfectionism begins with indecision, but it's just as likely they are the same thing, not being able to decide which way to take a piece, how much to polish, if it is done, etc. Perfectionism is there at each stage.

And, it's not just in writing and making art. I had this issue when training for martial arts tests, and waited too long for my first level black belt. An instructor explained that to me, saying, "if your test is perfect, you waited too long." It only has to work, and this is something much less subjective in martial arts than in art, writing, film, etc.

We have to make sure our standards work, that they contribute to our output.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Is there a book in it?

I was reading a literary agency website, and found this:
There's a cartoon that shows two women nursing cocktails and one is saying to the other: "I'm marrying Marvin. I think there's a book in it."

Which got me thinking if that's a good question for writers to apply to all the things we do. Is there a book in it? Or maybe there's a book in everything? I remember one of my writing students who was a great writer, beautiful voice, good storyteller, but she was convinced there was nothing interesting about her life. And there are others, not in my class, but I've heard, who are convinced everything they do is fascinating. Somewhere in the middle is the book. A good deal of what we do can be told in a way that makes it fascinating to a reader, but there's a lot to be said for adventure, too. Btw, who's Marvin?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Neil Gaiman is NOT a pencil-necked weasel

Says your mama. Or the mama of the Majority Leader of the Minnesota State House of Representatives. At the Huffington Post.

Everyone be nice. It's Minnesota.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gatsby wasn't that difficult, was it?

There is, apparently, an "intermediate reader's" version of The Great Gatsby, the great, and short, novel by Fitzgerald.

Roger Ebert is incensed: "There is no purpose in 'reading' The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald's novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald's style--in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look." The Chicago Sun Times blog.

And, "Any high-school student who cannot read The Great Gatsby in the original cannot read."

"When he later found out that the Tarner edition was actually for foreign students, he was unrepentant: 'Why not have ESL learners begin with Young Adult novels? Why not write books with a simplified vocabulary? Why eviscerate Fitzgerald? Why give a false impression of Jay Gatsby?'" From the Guardian.

I have to agree here. Of all books, it hardly seems that Gatsby needs to be simplified, even for ESL students. Just read slower. It's a short book. The vocabulary isn't obscure. They can always turn Infinite Jest into a Reader's Digest book, haha. Ebert makes the single point needed here, that unless you actually read the book, you have not read the book. So why pretend? Might as well read magazine articles or lit essays. What is the real goal here, other than making some money off a text in the public domain by creating one's own version of it as a textbook? I don't know how damaging it is to readers, I suspect not very, but it does seem pointless and dumb, and possibly barbaric, as Ebert says.

Incidentally, "barbaric" was originally used to describe people who did not speak the local language, but whose speech apparently sounded like "bar bar bar." I highly doubt that the ESL students involved actually wanted anyone to rewrite an English language classic in babytalk. So, the intermediate version would, in the original usage, be pandering to their presumptive barbarism, rather than actually barbaric.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Book Blurbs on Amazon

Amazon is offering extra promotion to authors who will blurb books from its imprints.

Amazon Publishing has already shown little interest in industry traditions, and The Observer has now learned how Amazon is looking to revolutionize the process of getting author blurbs: provide a review for a book on an Amazon imprint and Amazon will give the reviewer — and his or her book — extra promotion as a thank you.

At the NY Observer.

Opinions are divided seemingly along the lines of those who benefit from this and those who don't, judging by the two agents quoted in the article. Have to see how it all turns out before deciding, but I think it may backfire on the books blurbed. People won't believe the blurbs, eventually. Kind of like the 5-star reviews on Amazon now, many of which seem written by authors' friends and relatives. I know some readers dismiss the 5-star reviews unless they are particularly in-depth.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Book Frisbee

Hilarious book reviews from Amazon, via the Publishers Weekly blog.

"It is an excellent candidate for book frisbee on a sunny afternoon in the park."

But while you're at it, please do not overlook the reviews for the Steering Wheel Laptop Desk, also on Amazon.

"Thank you Wheelmate for providing a big breasted woman with the support she needs whilst driving! Goodbye to those pesty backaches. Hello to well rested breasts after a long road trip."

Sunday, July 3, 2011

And the future of books is...

Paperbacks that are smaller than e-readers. Called flipbacks, they have small, landscape-oriented pages printed on fine paper, to take up less space. At Abebooks.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why Not Write About Sex?

Well, because it might be crass:

First, that not all writing about sex is meant to titillate. There are other reasons to describe what people do in bed. Not all of these reasons are vulgar or crass. To my mind, a conventional sex scene, say in an airplane novel (“as she raised her hips and guided him into the hot wet center of her,” etc., etc.), is indeed crass. But is it crass—is it meretricious—to write honestly about the mess and complexity of the individual libido? Not to me. What’s vulgar is an airbrush. What’s really vulgar is a sex scene in borrowed language, where the characters are stripped of individuality and the situation has no moral depth. I hope we don’t publish anything like that.
The Paris Review blog.

This reminded me of Mario Vargas Llosa's indictment of porn in The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. I'm paraphrasing, but his point is that it's so non-individual, so off-the-rack, that it really isn't interesting. So, writing about sex, to transcend the crass and pornographic, has to have original language, well-written individuals, moral depth, and honesty as far as messiness and complexity. It has to be recognizably about the people involved. Okay. I get that. No thinly disguised wish-fulfilling, no use of sexual conquest just to pump up two-dimensional male characters or diminish two-dimensional female ones. Or vice-versa, altho it's usually not the case, anyway.

Summer Book Recommendations

From the people who are concerned that we are missing almost everything (see previous post from NPR): NPR Summer Reading Lists. I have put a few on my list already, science fiction, literary fiction, crime fiction, etc. A friend tells me that the best guarantee of book sales, outside of becoming an Oprah pick, is a mention at NPR. Maybe that is why so many of these titles show up in my library's system already. I'm sure the librarians are NPR fans. I plan to buy some titles, borrow some, and maybe clone myself so I can read them all.

Speaking of science fiction, I just (finally) finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, the sci fi classic. Set in an abbey after the nuclear apocalypse, the centuries pass while the brothers try to make sense of the past, prevent a recurrence in the future, and preserve the "Memorabilia" and Apostolic Succession, that is, the Catholic succession of priests, on another planet, if necessary.

Let's not forget what Junot Diaz is reading this summer.

Here are Oprah's suggestions, which include at least one from NPR's list and one from the NY Times'.

What are you reading this summer?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How to Live a Creative Life

You are going to have to ask yourself, at every turn: is this project making me smarter, or making me stupider. Is this job stoking my fire, or burning me out? How do I top this? How can I learn from this? How do I produce my best work in this kind of environment? Should my next set of projects build up from what I’ve already done? Or do I need to branch out, go sideways, and push myself to try something new, that I’m less comfortable with.

Think carefully about how you spend your time, because your work isn’t like other people’s work. There isn’t a hard line between uptime and downtime. Your brain is always working, and what you experience in your downtime influences the quality of what you do when you’re on task. Be mindful of what you’re getting out of the time that you spend. Does your downtime refresh and recharge you? Or does it narcotize you? Does it spark new ideas? Or do you find yourself thinking, “well, there’s three hours of my life I’m never getting back.”

Ringling College Commencement Speech, 2011. Thanks to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Barnes & Noble Surprise

Barnes & Noble, through its combination of physical bookstores and bn.com, remained the largest outlet for the sale of trade books in 2010. That was one of the first findings from Bowker’s annual rollup of its monthly book consumer tracking program, PubTrack Consumer. According to PubTrack, B&N’s share of spending on trade books rose from 22.5% in 2009 to 23.0%; sales exclude used books. While B&N held onto the top spot, Amazon showed the strongest gain in the year, capturing 15.1% of print trade book dollar sales in 2010 compared to 12.5% in 2009.
From Publisher's Weekly, via Laurie McLean.

This from back in March. I just saw it, and have to say it surprised me that Amazon did not hold the top spot. I guess all the actual bookstores work in Barnes & Noble's favor. And, probably the fact that their membership deal with preferred shipping is only $25 a year compared to Amazon's $79. Their prices are usually around the same. I'm happy that there is at least one venue for physically handling books before I buy them that is not going under. Even Borders was doing a reasonable share of business. This has me scratching my head and thinking about buzz vs. facts.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stop daydreaming and get to work

It's like your teachers said. Fantasy makes your dreams less likely to come true.

Positive fantasies "'make energy seem unnecessary' say Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen. 'By allowing people to consummate a desired future,' the researchers explain, 'positive fantasies trigger the relaxation that would normally accompany actual achievement, rather than marshaling the energy needed to obtain it.'"

But only positive fantasies. If your daydreams feature worrying that you'll never achieve your goals, that's supposed to energize you. According to this research, pessimists should be more successful than optimists, no?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Missing Almost Everything

"Consider books alone. Let's say you read two a week, and sometimes you take on a long one that takes you a whole week. That's quite a brisk pace for the average person. That lets you finish, let's say, 100 books a year. If we assume you start now, and you're 15, and you are willing to continue at this pace until you're 80. That's 6,500 books, which really sounds like a lot."

Then when you add music, movies, etc. All the time not spent doing what we love... It's a thinky piece about how things have to be chosen, how we choose them, how and why things fade -- because of new things, because of all the access we supposedly have to everything, via the internet, Netflix, etc.

It's worth following the link to Ebert's article, or follow it here. Which illustrates for me that things fade also because times and people change. Nobody wants to read all the old books, see all the old movies. I don't have that much interest in all of what Ebert mentions. I do appreciate more than just Howl in Allen Ginsberg's work, and I read Flaubert, Murdoch, Borges, Nabokov, Stendhal. Ebert says his goal is "to enjoy reading." I think that's the point. If you enjoy focusing your reading on a theme, becoming an expert, or if you read what you like, whether you read widely or narrowly, you have to trust yourself and just go. Otherwise, you risk spending too much time thinking about it when you could be reading, going to concerts, movies, etc.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bookstores to Visit

Really beautiful. Slideshow.

The Montague Bookmill, pictured, is one of the four (of 14) I have been to.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Go the Fuck to Sleep

The "children's" book for tired parents became a bestseller a month before its release, thanks to a pirated PDF (which I read). It's also gotten a "significant" film deal, which I can't say I understand, but, whatever. The text consists of four-line poems ending with a variation of "Go the fuck to sleep." The illustrations are typical of childrens' books. One of publishing's little mysteries, I guess.

Read about it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Writer's Block by Flaubert

"I don't in the least know how to set to work to write, and I begin by expressing only the hundredth part of my ideas after infinite gropings. ...For entire days I have polished and repolished a paragraph without accomplishing anything. I feel like weeping at times. You ought to pity me!" Gustave Flaubert to George Sand.

The George Sand-Gustave Flaubert Letters, free on Google Books. The letters are beautiful, too.

Interesting that Flaubert compares the novelist to God: "I even think the novelist hasn't the right to express his opinion on any subject whatsoever. Has the good God ever uttered it, his opinion?"

Thursday, March 31, 2011


The typewriter undergoes a renaissance. I tried to learn to type on an indestructible manual typewriter -- haven't seen one of those old war horses in ages -- tho I did not do much typing on it. The keys would all bunch up as if the machine were frustrated with an inept user and throwing its hands in the air. The first typewriter I loved was a big old IBM correcting Selectric, blue, with interchangeable type balls and changeable pitch. So I totally understand wanting one of these, manual or electric. As well as a tablet PC, a Nook and a cellphone that takes hi-def pix.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Shed of One's Own

Writers' writing spaces. Including Virginia Woolf's -- who apparently had a shed of her own.

I really like the idea of a writing room built on a turntable to follow the sun.

When Librarians Go Wild

They launch a boycott.

Divorce and Longevity at the WSJ

The best childhood predictor of longevity, it turns out, is a quality best defined as conscientiousness: "the often complex pattern of persistence, prudence, hard work, close involvement with friends and communities" that produces a well-organized person who is "somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree."

The Wall St Journal review of The Longevity Project, in which we are informed that a parental divorce in childhood shortens the child's life -- or did, anyway. This study was from a time when divorce was really a social disaster. Also, there is no way to compare the result of a miserable, non-divorced childhood had the parents not divorced. So, bearing in mind that there are lies, damn lies and statistics, this looks like an interesting book:

"...chipper types were also more likely to die from homicide, suicide or accident. Of course, the authors don't suggest telling happy kids to wipe the grins off their faces..."

So, conscientious, obsessive, prudent kids live longer... or does it just seem longer?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Keeping in Touch

I just renewed my domain name, ZenofWriting.com -- altho this blog is accessible also by zenofwriting.blogspot.com -- while wondering how the readership numbers compare with Facebook friends who actually read my (usually non-blog) posts.

Well, I'm trying to keep in touch. Soon, I'll have to put pages of my novel up on lampposts...oh, wait. Someone has already thought of that.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Brave New Orange Juice

This is a bit depressing:

Most are surprised to hear, for instance, that the big brands [e.g., Tropicana, a Pepsi company and Minute Maid, owned by Coca-Cola], which market their product as “pure” and “simple,” add flavor packs to their juice to make it fresh.

Flavor packs are fabricated from the chemicals that make up orange essence and oil. Flavor and fragrance houses, the same ones that make high end perfumes, break down orange essence and oils into their constituent chemicals and then reassemble the individual chemicals in configurations that resemble nothing found in nature. Ethyl butyrate is one of the chemicals found in high concentrations in the flavor packs added to orange juice sold in North American markets, because flavor engineers have discovered that it imparts a fragrance that Americans like, and associate with a freshly squeezed orange.

Freshly squeezed orange juice tastes fresh naturally, and some supermarkets do sell it. However, “from concentrate” and most “not from concentrate” orange juice undergo processes that strip the flavor from the juice. The largest producers of “not from concentrate” or pasteurized orange juice keep their juice in million-gallon aseptic storage tanks to ensure a year round supply. Aseptic storage involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so the juice doesn’t oxidize in the “tank farms” in which the juice sits, sometimes for as long as a year.

, by Alissa Hamilton.

I guess we have to squeeze our own oranges, now. Most disturbing is the fact that these facts are hidden from us, that a product that contains "flavor packs" can be sold as pure orange juice. I thought we had laws regarding that... hello?

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Dogs of Fiction

Not just "books about rascally lovable mutts and bad dogs that impart life lessons to simple-minded human masters." A fun look at books by and about dogs.

Which are not my favorite dog books, anyway. This list is not exhaustive, but it's a look at the uses writers have for dogs. Sci fi dogs, best friend dogs, wise dogs, foolish dogs, dogs who capture the imagination.

The Awesome Future of Literature

Some more links in the ongoing gender discussions, from Monkey Puzzle Press.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

What would you expect a dog to write about?

His favorite dog food brand? Even Teddy Kennedy's dog was just a dog, altho he was also a humanizing influence. Everyone liked him, even Republicans who were battling Senator Kennedy's initiatives.

Cute article about intern's dog impersonation.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Editors are Timid; Ebooks are Shorter; There is No E-reading in Cafes

The dystopian future is here.

Timid editors. And, I might add, most likely underpaid. Yet, "Books remain a pocket of air in an upturned boat." Jeanette Winterson, quoted in the article at the Guardian.

Are ebooks getting shorter because of smaller devices, or smaller attention spans? NY Times.

"Many indie New York City cafes now heavily restrict, or ban outright, the use of Kindles, Nooks and iPads." o rly? y is that? Does this make sense? Is it the love of books? The resistance to the spelling butchery that goes with texting? Can you even do that with a Nook? Also at the NY Times.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Responses re; Women Writing and Getting Published

Responses are flying in. It's good to see this topic generate such a flurry of articles and discussions. My writing group is abuzz.

Here is Katha Pollitt, at Slate.
"As in those studies that show men overestimate the number of women in a group—one-third feels like half, half feels like a majority—a big piece by a woman two years ago feels like it was published last week, and one or two pieces by women feels like half the magazine."

Kind of like how racist whites feel about blacks moving into the the neighborhood, eh? If you look at the weak rebuttal in Tin House, the argument there, that they had a women's issue in 2007 -- over three years ago -- fits perfectly with Pollitt's argument.

Here is Percival Everett on The Great American Novel.
"I do not believe that apparent authoritative literary voices of validation would ever make such a grand claim about a novel written by a woman. I say this because I believe there are many novels by women that are about the same sort of world as presented in Freedom. Sadly, the culture usually calls these books domestic or family sagas. Are the novels of Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson and Mona Simpson any less white and middle “American” than Franzen’s? They are certainly at least every bit as literary and arguably better written, whatever that means. And they do not suffer the needless verbosity of Freedom. Were a woman to use so many additional words, the prose would be called floral or poetic or maybe even excessive."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

If a woman writes a book, will anybody read it?

A lot of attention lately to the disparity in publishing and reviewing between men and women. Do men care what women think? Will they read books by women? (No, apparently.) What is the reason for the disparity? Can women write as well as men? Are women overlooked more often? Pushed into chick lit categorization which turns men off? Not as concerned with international espionage and warfare? Or is it the male literary establishment hanging on by its fingernails? Why will a woman buy a book by a misogynist and/or with misogynist characters, but Jews, blacks, men and other groups largely boycott authors bigoted against themselves?

I don't want to summarize these really good articles, linked below. I think they reward reading and thought. The comments, well, some are really good, but this kind of subject tends to bring out the haters and the bigots, too. And the hidden bigots, who claim to be fair while they hold you back because you're just not as good... It's chilling, but I suppose just another example of people's rotten manners on the internet. Commenters' rage?

I wanted to say a few things that I have not seen anywhere else. One, that the establishment, any establishment, tends to defend itself from all comers. Even the literary magazines, often run by graduate students, favor male writers over female. The editors are largely male -- is it competitiveness? Is it scarier to compete with women? Because, you know, pretty soon if you let women in and blacks in and Native Americans in, let alone other ethnic groups, they will want the editorship, too. (And the Paris Review might become the Native American Women's Menstrual Review, or something, right?)

Is that why the establishment prefers its own? They don't question the gross unfairness at the bottom of it all? They embellish the status quo?

Life, Keith Richards' book, which I am reading right now and totally love, is very clear on this issue vis a vis rock and roll. At one point a group of legal big shots sat down with the Stones to ask what they wanted -- as if facing dangerous revolutionaries. Keith says it was a real eye-opener to him, how threatened they felt, how invested in a shaky status quo that must change. I think he told them they were dinosaurs, deal with it.

One thing I'd like to share is from a creative writing class years ago. We had an assignment to write about our mothers, and woman after woman wrote about a dissatisfied, critical, unhappy woman. A man in the group commented, "Another hard mother," after one of these. His story was nothing like that. Which made me wonder then and now if mothers share their unhappiness mainly with their daughters. If legions of dissatisfied women somehow transmitted their lack of self-worth or were jealous of their daughters' opportunities, or just passed on bad beliefs?


Is there a glass ceiling for women writers?

Why are literary hard-hitters male?

Vidaweb survey, with thanks to Amy King.

Gender Balance, at the NY Times blogs, with links to other articles.

Women are underrepresented in literary publishing because men aren't interested in what they have to say -- Laura Miller at Salon.

It's not just writers. Women are under-represented on the radio, too.

And the solution is: How to Publish Women Writers.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Who Says Artists Have to Make Money?

"You have to remember that it's only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.

"This idea of Metallica or some rock n' roll singer being rich, that's not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I'm going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?"

Francis Ford Coppola.

I guess he is making money selling wine, but you'd think he had enough money from the Godfather movies.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It's Cold, Zen Cold

Dongshan said,
“Why don’t you go where there is no cold
or heat?”

The monk said,
“Where is the place where there is no
cold or heat?”

Our first inclination is to say, Not here. And try to get away, sit by the wood stove, get a plane ticket to the Caribbean. But, of course, that wouldn't be very Zen. At ZenPeacemakers.org, roshi Bernie Glassman's order.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nabokov Knew His Butterflies

He was right about their appearance on this continent, it seems, and, according to the NY Times, we have the Russian Revolution to thank for his not becoming a full-time lepidopterist.

It fascinates me -- the juxtaposition between brilliant writer and lepidopterist. Why that should be more striking than poet and doctor (William Carlos Williams) or poet and insurance executive (Wallace Stevens), I am not sure. Maybe because Nabokov did not need it as his day job? It was not his day job, but another thing he loved. Butterflies are gorgeous, but he killed a lot of them, loving them as he did. Kind of like Humbert Humbert "killed" the thing he loved...creepy.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Keeping Books Out of Landfills and the Secret Threat of E-Readers

Sounds like a good idea. Someone will buy them. Like me, e.g. Buyer of Used Books at yard sales, etc. Even if I and everyone else who can switches to Kindles and Nooks, there are still people off the grid who will appreciate actual books for a few more years, I think. And I really have no plan to switch exclusively (or at all, to be honest) to any kind of e-reader anytime soon. I have too many real books backlogged.

That said, I spent a very pleasant half hour talking with a knowledgeable clerk and playing with the Nooks at Barnes & Noble the other day. The color Nook is definitely nice. The black and white one had side buttons I found annoying, as they have functions that you can trigger unintentionally. As soon as you try to bend the Nook like a paperback, okay, admittedly not a good idea for an expensive electronic item, there goes the page... I'm not used to handling books *that* carefully, tho I guess I could get used to it. I don't beat my books up, either.

Devotee friends claim their Kindles are great for travel, and I don't doubt it. I have lugged novels and guidebooks back and forth on long trips -- not always the same books, as I often leave the old and cannot resist the new when I'm in another country and not sure the same title is available back home. You can't duplicate that situation with an e-reader. So, are e-readers part of the whole world getting to be the same, then? Is that their secret threat? Amazon and Barnes & Noble just following GAP, Old Navy and other big retailers? Am I surprised? Are you?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Put Up Your Dukes and Write

Kerouac's letter to Brando, asking him to make a movie of On the Road, and play Dean to Kerouac's Sal. I guess the most interesting part of this is that Kerouac chose Brando, a sex symbol at the time, to play real-life sex symbol Neal Cassady. The letter was found among Brando's files after his death. Click on it to get a larger version.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Steve Almond on the Arizona Shooting,

the movement toward fascism, hatred of anyone who disagrees with you and the hateful comments right wing readers have spewed at him. This article and its links should be required reading. Why is it that the insatiable rich can convince right wing American working people that a more egalitarian system of medical care is an assault on their freedom when it's actually saving them money and not harming their medical care?

The historian Robert Paxton, who studied Europe during World War II, defined fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy, but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

Steve Almond at the Rumpus.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Irish, Italian, Brown, Zombies, et al.

Reading outside your comfort zone to be a better person... list of 2011 reading challenges.

My favorite, and it's not an easy choice with Chunksters and Quirky Brown competition, is your very own To Be Read pile challenge. Read twelve of those, one a month. Of course, I do this anyway. The real challenge would be not to add to my TBR pile in 2011. I have over 100 on the TBR list. At the rate of only one book a month, it's like making minimum payments on a credit card balance. Hm, I have til Jan 15 to sign up...

Which twelve books shall I rescue from the pile of the unread? Actually, from the several bookshelves of the unread. Madame Bovary, the Aveling translation (I hope different translations count) will be on the list I think.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Snow Haiku

From readers of the NY Times.

Here's one that is not about last month's blizzard and lack of trash pickup:

In falling snow
a red bird sings
a song without a name

— Ben Connelly

and here is mine:

snow falling softly
lightly, covers the dog's coat
until he shakes