LibraryThing: five million books.

The fine LibraryThing site has reached a milestone: they now have five million users’ books catalogued.  That’s a lot of people typing away to keep track of their books online.  They’re coming to you from beautiful downtown Portland, Maine; a big hand for LibraryThing.

Continue reading “LibraryThing: five million books.”


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. 

Continue reading “Welcome back.”

Some recent posts from the old Condalmo.


Just finished the "Author" chapter – and I use the term "chapter" loosely, as I suspect Mr. Dixon would prefer* – of Stephen Dixon’s I.

But what’s he going on about?  I. isn’t his initial ("I am not I.," he’s tempted to say, but that’s not the person he’s writing this in

… is the sort of meta talk talk talk he’s got going on in this chapter – in all the chapters, really – a woman accuses him of nearly running her over, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, and he retreats into his head, dissecting the incident, exploring all the angles of the incident from multiple points of view.  He questions her version, he questions his version; he questions the notion that there can be one version.  In another chapter, he turns the situation on its head, right in the first graf –

He tries to put himself in her position.  She asked that a number of times:  "Try.  Then maybe you’ll change how you treat me." So, in his mind he has her condition.  Confined to a wheelchair, has to be helped in and out of bed and often fed.

The stories/chapters in this book connect together slowly, as you read through – there’s no instant snap of connection, as with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, where you suddenly get it.  Dixon gives you bits and pieces, but it can be like trying to put together a puzzle where some of the pieces are reversed – light where it should be dark – and though you know what the premise is (says it right on the back:  "I. is about a man raising two young daughters while caring for his wife, victim of a debilitating disease, her health and mobility worsening monthly.") you get these reversals, these stories about stories that are ancillary to the "main storyline" – which seems to be the point with I. The above quote is from the "The Switch" chapter, which is a prime example – he imagines everything reversed, and it’s a fantastic look at everything he is not as a caregiver; you get nuances on top of nuances, and yet it’s written in plain prose.  The devil is in the details, but it’s not the usual sort of descriptive details – setting, emotional states, etc. – it’s the details of everyday life, the stuff other writers don’t include. 

It’s a fantastic read. 

I’m realizing this post is less about the "Author" chapter than I intended, but I’ll come back to that later.

* Actually, I doubt Mr. Dixon would care.  From that interview I recently posted about, he doesn’t seem to care whether we see these as chapters or stories; he probably cares even less about writing about his writing in general.  God love him. 


This is one of Murakami’s earlier works, and it shows at times, with clunky writing in places that feels a little bit like he was trying to find "the writer’s way" to phrase a description or bit of dialogue.  Where later stories seem effortless, at times this feels a bit forced.  It also drags a little bit, about halfway through, during a section where two of the main characters are making their way through a lengthy underground passage.

There – I said it, and I’m glad.  All in all, though, this is a good book.  Two narratives that seem quite different eventually connect – no surprise there, but it is interesting how he explores the workings of the mind.  (The writeup on the back cover is a little bit on the horrid side – honestly, "cyberpunk"? – and it gets worse from there.) You see him touching on some of the themes of isolation and searching for meaning that he develops further in – well, most of his work.  Like a teenage Murakami effort.


Nice article/interview this morning on the "phenomenon" of ChickLit, how it has (the author posits) shouldered aside the literary fiction being put out there by female writers.  There’s some backlash from the ChickLit writers – they’re swinging their purses at Aimee Bender at all of her readings.
Excerpt one:
It is indeed true that many women — myself included — can viscerally identify with the problems chick-lit heroines face. I will never again sign up to deliver snacks to my son’s school without thinking ruefully of Allison Pearson’s "I Don’t Know How She Does It," in which would-be mistress of the universe Kate Reddy finds herself smashing in store-bought mince pies in the middle of the night to make them look homemade. Nonetheless, the cry that chick lit deals with real women’s concerns in a relatable way while literary fiction spins off into greater degrees of irrelevance is somewhat disingenuous.
First, it is not as though literary fiction doesn’t — at least some of the time — trawl the same terrain as chick lit, though Weiner is not wrong when she says the stories tend to not end as happily. But perhaps more important, the formula of chick lit itself — with its comedic farce and fantasy solutions to real-life problems — ultimately undercuts its claim to social relevance. Super-consumer Becky of Sophie Kinsella’s "Shopaholic" series never files for bankruptcy protection. Kate Reddy quits her job and moves to the country with her family only to find — lo and behold — a small toy factory in need of saving. Deus ex machina and coincidence reign in the world of modern gal fiction.
Excerpt two:

OLEN: What, if anything, is wrong with chick lit?

MERRICK: We all need light reading, light entertainment from time to time–I’m certainly not against that. You will see me at the gym with Us Weekly now and then. But there is an amazing flourishing of women literary writers at the moment that is being obscured by a huge pile of pink books with purses and shoes on the cover. Women readers are having a hard time finding substantive reading material because of the dominance of these narratives.

I just find it absurd when ChickLit authors compare themselves to – I’m going to go ahead and say it – real authors, writing with some level of depth about lives and what happens to real people.  The argument that these books are "trying to engage with real women’s lives" is no less a fantasy than the amazing coincidence of the hapless toy factory owner.  It’s books for the dull who enjoy getting to feel less stupid for a day.  You don’t see US magazine whining on about how nobody takes it as seriously as Harper’s; US knows its place, knows its audience, and is comfortable with that. ChickLit writers seem to be lacking the self-esteem for a similar level of comfort.

Ask your parents if they remember a time when losing a vote meant that you lost.  Let’s pass down memories of this time to future generations.  Dollars to donuts says if Joementum had narrowed the gap between him and Lamont by another three or four percentage points, he would have demanded a recount.  Instead, he plans to run as an independent.
Who, exactly, is he reaching out to?  The Democrats have made their choice:  Ned Lamont.  Is Lieberman looking for a "gimme" so he can try just one more time to convince Connecticut voters that he’s the best man for the job?  Or does he think that he’s more likely to get more votes from a pool that includes Republican voters and Democrats than just a pool of Democrats – the party he ostensibly represents?  Is Joe addicted to power?  Does anyone believe that Lamont’s team actually hacked Joementum’s site, given the revelation that the Lieberman team payed about as much for their campaign site as I pay for this site? 
These days, it’s all about second chances.  It’s all about doing what you think is right, regardless of the will of the people you represent.  Joe, you serve at the pleasure of the people.  Or at least you did.  Go home.
Note:  posts like this are what sank former blogs of mine – endless forays into the world of politics.  The Fall-like air outside today, combined with the heady thrill of seeing an ass defeated in a primary, has stirred up some baaaaaaaad impulses. Somebody stop me.  Thank you.

TRE points us to an interview with Stephen Dixon.  He chose this excerpt ; I’m going with this one, in keeping with a previous post here: 

Your work is rich with highly distinctive dialogue—your characters talk in voices quite similar to one another, and to that of your narrators.  Why do they speak this way?  Do you worry that switching from unique voice to unique voice might break the flow of your narratives?  Or do you mean to show that all characterizations are reflections as much of the author as of the characters themselves?

I don’t agree that my characters talk in voices quite similar to one another. I try to make each voice distinct. If I haven’t done that, then I’ve failed in a way. My women don’t talk like my men and my men talk differently from one another. I have a sense, when I’m writing, of what each character is and the way he or she speaks, and I try to get that on the page. Certainly, all my characters are not reflections of the author. Where’d you get that? The voice of my characters is not mine.

Kick!  Slap!  Pow!  Boffo!
(While exploring the archives there, I came across this interview with Paul Auster, circa The Book of Illusions.  Some good weekend reading.)
I sent out the following e-mail this morning to a number of lit-blog operators that I frequent:

Hi. I run the tiny litblog Condalmo.  In the past, I’ve wondered on the site about the apparent lack of interest these days from the general reading public in the short story form.  Given the much-documented shorter attention span of Americans today, as compared to pretty much any time in the past, wouldn’t it make sense that the short story form would be the ascendant medium through which people read?  Why are short story collections the awkward little brothers of novels, both on the review pages and among readers? 

So, given my own lack of insight, I decided to pick some of the blogs I read most often and write to you to get your thoughts on the matter.  I’ll post them on my own site and hopefully get some discussion going around the matter.  Any time you could spare to write a bit on the issue would be greatly appreciated, and of course I know time is hard to come by, so I thank you in advance for any you can spare.

I’ll post the responses here; I also welcome any thoughts from readers – e-mail me at the address found on the right.  Thanks.

Amazon UK has all the goods.  You had me at "Mr. Blank," Paul.  Give us a kiss.

An old man sits in a room, with a single door and window, a bed, a desk and a chair. Each day he awakes with no memory, unsure of whether or not he is locked into the room. Attached to the few objects around him are one-word, hand-written, labels and on the desk is a series of vaguely familiar black-and-white photographs and four piles of paper. Then a middle-aged woman called Anna enters and talks of pills and treatment, but also of love and promises. Who is this Mr Blank, and what is his fate? What does Anna represent from his past – and will he have enough time to ever make sense of the clues that arise? After the huge success of "The Brooklyn Follies", "Travels in the Scriptorium" sees Auster return to more metaphysical territory. A dark puzzle, and a game that implicates both reader and writer alike, it is an ingenious exploration of language, responsibility and the passage of time.

This, from, from a UK Auster site, from some Spanish dude on the inside track:

"Paul Auster’s next novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, is a coming back to characters and situations of Auster’s past books in a quite confusing way. Travels in the Scriptorium is the title of the second novel of Martin Frost, the main character of The Inner Life of Martin Frost; If you remember, The Inner Life… is one of the movies filmed by Hector Mann and the only one that David and Alma watch at the end of the novel ‘The Book of Illusions’. It is as well the title of one of Mann’s movies that burn into the fire before David can see it. According to one south-american newspaper, El Mercurio, Auster said: "I finished a small book around a month ago, maybe the strangest novel I ever written. The characters are characters of my last books that are coming back. I often ask myself what happens to them after the novel ends."

The owls are not what they seem.
Hot on the heels of Pynchon preview mania, Amazon UK offers up this glimpse of HM’s next novel, apparently arriving around June 7 of next year:

The midnight hour approaches in almost empty all-night diner. Mari sips her coffee and glances up from a book as a young man, a musician, intrudes on her solitude. Both have missed the last train home. The musician has plans to rehearse with his jazz band all night, Mari is equally unconcerned and content to read, smoke and drink coffee until dawn. They realize they’ve been acquainted through Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister. The musician soon leaves with a promise to return before dawn. Shortly afterwards Mari will be interrupted a second time by a girl from the Alphaville hotel; a Chinese prostitute has been hurt by a client, the girl has heard Mari speaks fluent Chinese requests her help. Meanwhile, Eri is at home and sleeps a deep, heavy sleep that is "too perfect, too pure" to be normal; pulse and respiration at the lowest required level. She has been in this soporfic state for two months; Eri has become the classic myth – a sleeping beauty. But tonight as the digital clock displays 00:00 a faint electrical crackle is perceptible, a hint of life flickers across the TV screen, though the television’s plug has been pulled. Murakami, acclaimed master of the surreal, returns with a stunning new novel, where the familiar can become unfamiliar after midnight, even to those that thrive in small hours. With "After Dark" we journey beyond the twilight. Strange nocturnal happenings, or a trick of the night?

Actual synopsis, or a trick of the night?

… well, that’s pretty much the whole thing.  The website doesn’t say if it’s an excerpt from BSG or not:

David Mitchell, Ander Monson, Lauren Redniss, W.S. Di Piero, Laurie Sheck, Andrey Platonov, Olga Zondberg, Christopher Sorrentino, Nam Le, Mary Mattingly, Amy Leach, Maile Chapman, Bin Ramke, Corinna Vallianatos, Srikanth Reddy, Cesar Vallejo, and more. On: The Ziegfeld Follies, sicarios en Medellin, the dramatic life of the sea cucumber, motherhood, marriage, murder, Kurt Waldheim, Migraine Mike, a shipwreck, a Macedonian officer, a Russian home for a queen bee, and, finally, the death of death.

So, wait and see, I guess.

Continue reading “Some recent posts from the old Condalmo.”