Reading like a writer.

A review in the Sunday NYT of the new Francine Prose book.

And as a general reminder, days that are too busy to allow for lengthy posts will often find worthy reading updates in the "Updates from others sites" column, on the right.  Have a good weekend.

Continue reading “Reading like a writer.”

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Podcast book club, user-driven.

A nice idea sullied by my horrible subject choice there.  Click here for the goods.  Excerpt:

My idea is to produce an audio montage of readers talking about a single book, and I have chosen Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro as the very first audio book club selection. To this end, I have set up a voicemail phone number through Yahoo (isn’t technology astounding?). So, if you have anything at all to say about Never Let Me Go, please call (415) 992-8622 and leave me a message!

Tell me whatever you want about the novel. Tell me what you liked, what you disliked, or just your reactions. What made you think? What images or words stuck with you? Read me passages from the book. Tell me your name, or not (if you do leave your name, I will credit and thank you in the audio production). Feel free to be creative. This is all new to me, so I don’t really know what to expect. Hopefully, something fun and interesting, something that is distinctly the product of a community of booklovers, will result.

Continue reading “Podcast book club, user-driven.”

Nick Hornby’s Guide to Being An OK Guy.

Others have already linked to and hashed over Nick Hornby’s "How to Read" article published at the Telegraph over the weekend. 
Who cleared that gigantic author photo?  It’s really enormous.  If you’re on a 56k modem, don’t even bother clicking on the link.  Big bald noggin. 
Hornby launches into a tepid defense of The Believer‘s policy of being "one tiny corner of the world… in which writers could be sure that they weren’t going to get a kicking" – in other words, either praise the book or don’t turn in the review.  As has also been covered extensively, and quite well, elsewhere:  examining what does and does not work well in a book isn’t a kicking, it’s thoughtful reviewing.  Having a problem with needlessly crass take-downs, fine; having a problem with pointing out a book’s flaws, not so fine.
The Believer has a mission to bring the love of books to the forefront.  Which I don’t entirely disagree with.  OK, they go a bit overboard in damning any reviews that aren’t lovefests, but they seem intent on lifting up the book as an item of joy.  Some of the books they’ve put out are as enjoyable to look at and hold as they are to read.  The 826 work they’ve sponsored – can’t talk trash about that.  A lot of folks have turned up their noses at the McSweeney’s magazine, but they’ve put out some good stuff amongst the irony-soaked smirking pieces. 
But that’s just the first part of this Hornby essay.
His editors at Believer were getting irked with his reviews that were taking any negative tones.  "So what to do?  My solution was to try and choose books I knew I would like."  OK, buzzer going off here.  This is the person who eats the same three meals every week, who has always bought their clothes at the same store and always will.  You don’t want to take a chance on something you might not like?  Why?  Life’s too short, I know, for books you just don’t like, but not taking chances is a recipe for an extremely vanilla life.  I’m not sure how many pages is a good number to give a book before deciding there are better ways to use your time, but eliminating an entire category of book ("contemporary literary fiction" in Hornby’s case, which is a pretty damn broad category that includes a lot of fine writing and stories) seems to be putting the cart before the horse.  I was turned off on the first few pages of Cloud Atlas, but I stuck with it, and now I want a Cloud Atlas tattoo.  Patience landed me one of the best reads I’ve ever had, with all kinds of writing styles.  Section one’s writing was not something I would normally read. 
No, Nick, best-seller lists cannot be admitted as evidence.  "The literary novels that have reached a mass audience over the past decade or so usually ask readers to look through a relatively clear pane of glass at their characters".  True, I suppose.  And "New Kids on the Block" were also wildly popular and certainly not opaque or challenging.  Given Mr. Hornby’s well publicized eclectic music tastes, this sort of statement from him is baffling.  There’s a joy when that revelation comes to you, when you figure out what a piece of music or a story is trying to do. 
And yet. 

And boredom, let’s face it, is a problem that many of us have come to associate with books. It’s one of the reasons why we choose to do almost anything else rather than read; very few of us pick up a book after the children are in bed and the dinner has been made and the dirty dishes cleared away.

We’d rather turn on the television. Some evenings we’d rather go to all the trouble of getting into a car and driving to a cinema, or waiting for a bus that might take us somewhere near one.

This is partly because reading appears to be more effortful than watching television, and usually it is; although if you choose to watch one of the American HBO series, such as The Sopranos or The Wire, then it’s a close-run thing, because the plotting in these programmes, the speed and complexity of the dialogue, are as demanding as a lot of the very best fiction.

One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they’re hard work, they’re not doing us any good.

He’s got a point here, if we’re looking at getting more people into the joy of reading.  While not true for me, it’s obviously true for a majority of people in this country that they love their television.  They feel personally insulted by people that would suggest that television watching is a dullard’s waste of time, and don’t like the suggestion that they’re stupid because they don’t curl up with a book every night. 

Guilty as charged.  I know I’ve made that statement, or something like it, and I offer no defense.  But Hornby’s insistence that the book world is divided into books that grab you, and books that are so difficult to read that they "make you weep with the effort of reading" them – come on, Nick – there’s a whole lot of middle ground. 

So I’m conflicted about this whole essay.  Yes, anything that gets people reading is good.  No, people should not just pick up the "clear window panes" of the book world, the books they know they’ll like by the authors they already know.  How will that get more people reading?  How does that work, mathematically?

Let me be clear (I know: too late).  I’ve read Stuart Woods.  (I hope you don’t know who I’m talking about – and that right there says something too, doesn’t it?)  I know that everyone in the Spider Man comic books now knows who he really is, and I know why, and I understand the repercussions.  I’ve read stacks of science fiction drivel in my time.  I also think that if we limit ourselves to the books that provide immediate gratification, we’re denying ourselves part of the quality of books that differentiate them from television.  Sometimes, the hard work pays off.

Murakami Roundtable/Review of “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”/Other goodies

The Fall 2006 issue of The Quarterly Conversation is up and running.  Lots of the usual goodness, plus an extended look at Haruki Murakami, including essays, a dictionary, and a review of "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" by yours truly.  It’s a great collection of stories, though maybe as a whole a bit weaker than The Elephant Vanishes.  It felt like a tying up of loose ends, collecting together all the stories in one place that had been floating out there in magazines and such – which, I suppose, is true of most collections of stories; but, some of the stories are kind of weak, which adds to that feeling.  Still, a highly recommended book to check out.  Literally, if you have a good library nearby.

Continue reading “Murakami Roundtable/Review of “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”/Other goodies”

Booksellers Falling? The answer is in Al Capone’s vault.

An article today at Alternet about Why Booksellers Are Going Belly Up.  The article is largely a puff piece, with a whole lot of pontificating about 60’s liberal hippies and the failure of the capitalist state to carve out a little nook for the bookstore.  There’s little examination of the independent v. chain store models, though some blame is laid on the decision of some independents (Peet’s is given as an example) to become chain stores.  Why?  Because you lose cred if there’s more than one bookstore with the name?  If a bookseller makes a business decision that will allow him/her to sell more books to more people, how exactly is that bad?  It’s bad if it fails, but that is a risk of business, isn’t it?  We also get some examination of the loss of the statement as a status symbol a book can make, with the author pointing to the good ole days when reading The Monkey Wrench Gang while thoughtfully stroking your goatee was a sign of intense coolness; apparently, the book has ceded this position to technology, which means you should put down Black Swan Green because a Blackberry is more likely to get you laid.

The article is written as though the author was trying to reach a certain word count, which is too bad, because it’s a good topic.  There are some interesting statistics, though – 1 in 2 Americans buy one book a year.  (What exactly this means is confusing – does that mean that fewer than 1 in 2 buy more than one book a year?  At any rate, it sounds bad, so in it goes.)  Certainly bad is the figure of 14% illiteracy in our country, which is sickening.  (Click here every day – free – to do something about it.) 

There isn’t a lot in the article that my sarcastic summary here doesn’t cover, but it’s worth a read anyway, if only to prime you for the comments section.  Around 60 comments and counting; some of it with interesting points that the article missed.

Welcome back.

To those of you who arrived here through my e-mail, or the MetaxuCafe post, welcome.  Some of you may have visited my old site on occasion.  I had the old site hosted through Blogger, and last week the site disappeared.  I contacted Blogger three times with no response.  So – bye, Blogger.  It was fun.  Now it’s serious. 

Posting here may be light until I get everything running again. 

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