Monday, August 31, 2009

Plot is back

Author Lev Grossman talks about plot. Literary novels often turned away from the straightforward concerns of storytelling; writing became what was good for you, rather than what you enjoyed. Maybe things are changing?

LG: It's not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it's something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly? Part of the problem is that to find the reason you have to dig down a ways, down into the murky history of the novel. There was once a reason for turning away from plot, but that rationale has outlived its usefulness. If there's a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot... More.

Kids reading, a different perspective

This is an interesting follow-up, also from the NY Times, to our last post. What's wrong with teachers just getting kids to read? Beats kids not reading, right? Whether or not kids should read the classics (or maybe we should say "classics") is an interesting point, but just having kids read has to, at some point, be the priority.

NYT: The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools... Starting this fall, the school district in Chappaqua, N.Y., is setting aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders to read books of their own choosing... More.

Reading for points

This is a rather disturbing article in the NY Times, about how kids get points for reading books. Nothing wrong with kids reading books, but the question is raised about the quantification of the process. Gossip Girl = 8 points, Hamlet = 7 points?

NYT: Accelerated Reader, introduced in 1986, is currently used in more than 75,000 schools, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The Web site for Renaissance Learning, which owns the program, describes it as a way to build “a lifelong love of reading and learning.” As a novelist and mother of three passionate readers, I’m all for that. But when I looked closer at how the program helps “guide students to the right books,” as the Web site puts it, I was disheartened... More.

Ragtime revisited

E. L. Doctorow has a new novel out. The L. A. Times was not enthusiastic about it (which won't stop me from reading it anyhow, given the ELD is one of my favorite writers), but they then went back and looked at Ragtime, their praise for which was ebullient. Makes you definitely want to read that one, anyhow. (By the way, I hear they're reviving the Broadway play, which was not bad, but it wasn't the book.)

LAT: Freud and Jung travel together through Coney Island's Tunnel of Love. Pierpont Morgan causes himself to be locked one night in the Great Pyramid at Giza, where he is attacked by bedbugs...To make something never made before, yet comfortable and familiar, strange yet not estranging: there's a death-defying trick, the kind of escape from mortality the long-gone Houdini will relish... More.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The American McGirl

The American Girl book series seems to have a girl for everyone. We love any series that gets kids reading, so even though the following story may not be to our personal taste (I haven't had a McDonald's meal since 2008, and then there was the one before that in 2007...), it's fine with us.

Amazon Daily: With so many great restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries in Seattle, my family rarely visits fast-food chains. But there I was, yesterday, in the McDonald's drive-thru, ordering a Happy Meal. Not for the Chicken McNuggets, mind you, though it was lunchtime. The real reason we were in line was for the American Girl toy... More.

The kids are all writing

We worry so much about kids today. We hear all sorts of things (much of it absolute nonsense) about the death of literacy. This article in Wired may change your thinking.

Wired: As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can't write—and technology is to blame... An age of illiteracy is at hand, right? Andrea Lunsford isn't so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose... Her conclusions are stirring. "I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says... More.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Domenick Dunne by Tina Brown

Probably the absolute perfect person to write a remembrance of writer Dunne is editor Brown of The Daily Beast.

TB: What does it take to be a great social chronicler? Perhaps one of the key attributes is an understanding of what it feels like to fall from grace. Dominick Dunne, the best-selling novelist and defining voice for so many years of Vanity Fair magazine who died of cancer Wednesday at 83, was living proof that the best qualification for a writer’s life is a checkered past... More.

A Human Rights anthology

We learned about this book via ArtsJournal. A group of important authors are celebrating the Declaration of Human Rights by contributing their work to it.

From the Guardian: Top authors around the world, from Joyce Carol Oates to Henning Mankell and David Mitchell, have come together to mark 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, penning short stories inspired by each of the declaration's 30 articles. Some of the writers taking part, including Dorfman and Paulo Coelho, have experienced human rights violations first hand: all have written their stories for free, with all royalties to go to Amnesty International... More.

National Reading Group Month

Got a reading group? Want to start one? National Reading Group Month is coming up, and there's an org site coordinating it.

NRGM: Reading groups are proving that good books bring people together. National Reading Group Month salutes reading groups. It fosters their growth and promotes the love of literature. It's an opportunity for reading groups to reflect on their accomplishments and plan for the future — the perfect time to join or start a group... More.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Books on EMK

Amazon has a nice roundup of books (including the forthcoming memoir) on Senator Kennedy.

Amazon reviews the classics

Humorist Joe Queenan in WSJ provides a take on the Amazon reader reviews, some of which are not so reliable.

JQ: Here ordinary people get to voice their opinions, acting as cultural watchdogs to shield their fellow book lovers from duds...Beholden to no man, cloaked in anonymity, they do not hesitate to take even the brightest stars —Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster, Dan Brown—to task. This is what makes citizen reviewers such a welcome addition to the body politic: Their courageous sniping from behind the bushes... More.

Another meditation on e-books publishes an article by illustrated book publisher Mark Batty on the future of e-books. Given that Sony has just announced their updated machine, we consider this article both timely and smart. In essence, Batty tells us not to throw our printing presses away just yet.

MB: There is no doubt that the Kindle, and its competitors, have caused a minor revolution in consumer access, purchase, distribution and how books are read. But e-books still represent a very small, though growing, portion of all the books out there. (Sales may grow this year to 1% of the total.) That e-books are so small is not surprising. Books on paper have been sold for 550 years. That's a long time to grow, even in the most sluggish categories, and it's a long time to get the product right and consumers comfortable with it... More.

Author Tracy Kidder interviewed

Kidder has a new book entitled Strength in What Remains. PowellsBooks has an in-depth interview with the prize-winning author.

Powells describes the book: Kidder's incredibly moving and vivid new book, Strength in What Remains, follows and accompanies Deo, survivor of the genocide in Burundi who came to America in the '90s to make a new life for himself. Though Deo had little money and no English language when he landed in New York, he eventually found his way to Columbia University and medical school. Through his account of Deo's remarkable journey, Kidder makes the abstract achingly personal and showcases a genuine hero. Beautiful, heartbreaking, and inspiring, Strength in What Remains is some of Kidder's finest work yet... More.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Remembering Elmer Kelton

An old friend has passed. I met Elmer when I was fresh out of college, working on Western novels at Doubleday. He was smart and fun and a hell of a writer. I was happy when I arrived at RD to learn that we were using a lot of his work here, and he was very popular with our readers. The Washington Post has an excellent obituary.

WP: Unlike many writers of formula westerns over the years, Elmer Kelton avoided the lure of sagebrush nostalgia and the easy indulgence of Old West cliche. Nobody gets shot in a Kelton novel -- which are often set in the modern West -- and his cowboys and ranchers are not mythic heroes on horseback. "I can't write about heroes 7 feet tall and invincible," Mr. Kelton liked to say. "I write about people 5-foot-8 and nervous." More...

Finishing your novel

Writers might be interested in this site (via Publishing Perspectives). Writer and teacher Timothy Hallinan gives a most useful (and comprehensive) guide to getting the job done.

TH: I’ve been writing novels (and teaching about writing novels) for twenty years, and one thing I’ve learned is how to finish. I’d estimate that 98% of all the novels people begin are never completed. Every person who abandons a book feels that he or she has a good reason, but my experience suggests that most of those books could have been finished – the writer just came up against something he or she couldn’t handle. This section is about how to handle those things. It’s about starting with a good idea, developing it, and moving your story ahead until you reach the end... More.

Jeannette Walls profile

The author of The Glass Castle, and the soon-to-be-published Half Broke Horses (which will appear in Select Editions) is profiled by Publishers Weekly.

PW: Jeannette Walls says the first time she read the finished version of her bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2006), “I was like, 'Dang, I got a weird life! Nobody's going to be able to relate to this! Everybody's going to think I'm just a poor white trash loser.' But the shocking—and gratifying—thing was how many people have understood what I was trying to say.” More...

Monday, August 24, 2009

David Sedaris as DJ

Essayist Sedaris was guest host on KCRW, talking about and playing some of his favorite music. The link, via Open Culture, also connects to some other Sedaris readings.

Jerry Pinkney interview

Artist Jerry Pinkney has won numerous prizes for his wonderful work. His latest book is The Lion & the Mouse. Publisher's Weekly has an interview discussing that book, among others.

JP: When I decided that the Serengeti was the right place for this story, I was able to go into my library and find many books about that part of the world. The setting helped me give a back story to this fable and opened the book to other possibilities. I took little steps, added giraffes and elephants, and eventually the pictures revealed nature in its full-blown beauty.... More.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking returns!

An old book from one of our favorite people in the universe is now at the top of the bestseller lists!

NY Times:
Almost 48 years after it was first published, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child is finally topping the best-seller list, bringing with it all the butter, salt and goose fat that home chefs had largely abandoned in the age of Lipitor.... More.

B&N Rediscovers series

We saw posts on this a couple of places, so we'll just send you to the source. Barnes and Noble has announced a new series of books that it calls B&N Rediscovers. We're all in favor of it, although our personal business is new discoveries. But we like older books too, especially older books that may have undeservedly fallen off the radar.

Here's the page link.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Love the book, love the movie

Amazon's blogs provide us with a fun list of the best 15 movies made from classic books.

Amazon: Given that 2009 opened with a thrilling Masterpiece Classic line-up including a highly vaunted new production of Little Dorrit, and given that the year is slated to close with Guy Ritchie's highly anticipated new Sherlock Holmes (not to mention looking ahead to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in 2010), I thought I’d take stock of those nineteenth-century stories that have been brought to film over the past century or so.... More.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The process of writing

Author Jonathan Tropper, via PowellsBooks, discusses his writing process. A fun piece.

JT: I can't work in my house because I'm devoid of any semblance of discipline and I'll end up changing light bulbs or watching television or playing the piano, or cleaning out my desk. I don't have a typical day, because of said lack of discipline. Without structure, I'm worthless, so I try to treat it like a regular job, get to my desk by nine and put in a full day. But the muse won't always cooperate and she will never be coerced. Sometimes she'd rather take a nap, or see a mid-afternoon movie... More.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Textbook buyer's app

We were just speaking of textbooks as e-books. Here's an iPhone app that helps students find the cheapest version of the textbooks they need, new, used or electronic. It's called Bigwords, and we learned about it via Brave New World.

BNW: The app collects the details of all the books the student needs and then searches against some 30 sources and identifies the best deal, factoring in shipping costs and discounts etc. The purchase can be then completed through the app or on the student can email their selection and complete the purchase on a PC via a link in an e-mail sent by the app... More.


We all seem to have bought into the idea that textbooks will be the first overall win on the e-book front. They sound like the perfect cheap solution for the exactly right market. But maybe that win isn't as close as we assume. Mashable posts a fine, thorough article on the subject.

Josh Catone: For higher education students who spend an average of $702 per year on course materials, mostly textbooks, the prospect of going digital is an appealing one. Among the theoretical benefits of digital textbooks is the possibility of significant cost savings due to lower overhead costs — bits are cheaper than printed pages, after all. Unfortunately, students shouldn’t chuck their backpacks any time soon; there still exist some major hurdles that digital textbooks must overcome before they widely replace traditional, printed textbooks on college (and high school) campuses... More.

Rock music books for young adults

Experience demonstrates that one of the hardest groups of people to get into a book are teens. And I fear that once we lose them, they're gone forever. Maybe this list from the L.A. Times might help.

L.A.T.: A rock and roll soundtrack gets teenagers through their ups, their downs and their angsts. It may evolve from classic rock to grunge to emo to pop to punk and beyond, but it's a lasting, rebellious fixture. So it should come as no surprise that novels for young adults are as steeped in rock 'n' roll as teenagers themselves. Cecil Castellucci, author of five books including the rock novel "Beige," picks eight novels with characters whose lives are changed by (turn that down!) music... More.

The Magicians

Here's a book you won't find in Select Editions, because it's just not our kind of book. But that doesn't mean it's not my kind of book. I've already started pushing it to friends, and you probably will too. It's a hoot.

Lev Grossman, via John Scalzi: What if, as a high school senior, you discovered that there was a secret college for magic, serving only the most brilliant kids in North America? This is in the real world, our world, the one with cell phones and the Internet and Dancing with the Stars and all the rest of it. A lot of things would be different... More.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Mad Men Book Club

Samuel P. Jacobs has a hoot of a post over at The Daily Beast, which he calls advice on reading like a Mad Man. It is a list of the quintessential books of the period of that TV show by the quintessential authors of the day. It will make you feel either very old or very young, and definitely very out of it.

A classic book on a classy team

This article was too good not to share, although its connection to books is a little weak. Still, it does review a couple of new books, and refers back to Arlene Croce's masterpiece. And it gives us a chance to relive in print, for a moment, the glory of Fred and Ginger.

New York Times; Only in the 1960s did the Astaire-Rogers duets first receive serious critical attention as great choreography. In 1965 Arlene Croce, who until then had been best known as a film critic, founded Ballet Review magazine (which flourishes still), and one of her two remarkable contributions to the first issue was the essay “Notes on La Belle, La Perfectly Swell, Romance.” (It was republished in 2008 in Robert Gottlieb’s “Reading Dance” anthology.) In 1972 Ms. Croce followed this with one of the best-loved works in dance literature, “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book.” In prose that perfectly rises to the thrill of these classics, she herself produced a classic... More.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wikipedia facts

I have a night job coaching a high school debate team. For us, a couple of years ago Wikipedia was a suspect source of dubious information. Today, it is anything but, and the old-fashioned print encyclopedias have had their day. The Brave New World blog posts an appreciation.

BNW: In 8 years the people’s encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, has changed collective reference and how we collaboratively edit and manage complex works such as encyclopaedias. Gone are the large sets of tomes bought by parents in the hope that their children may benefit. Now Wikipedia is one click away, free and with over 10 million registered members, 17 million pages, a network of over 13 million articles in hundreds of different languages, it truly is the people’s reference work... More.

Sequels by somebody else

The recent case about the "sequel" to The Catcher in the Rye started a lot of talk about intellectual property at a lot of different levels. Charles McGrath's NY Times article is a good summary of what happens when, and why we sometimes do want to see our favorite characters brought to new life.

CM: The urge to write sequels and prequels is almost always an homage of sorts. We don’t want more of books we hate. The books that get re-written and re-imagined are beloved. We don’t want them ever to be over. We pay them the great compliment of imagining that they’re almost real: that there must be more to the story, and that characters we know so well — Elizabeth Bennet, for one, or Sherlock Holmes, who has probably inspired more sequels than any other fictional being — must have more to their lives... More.

Thoreau and Walden

Walden has to be one of the most unread books ever assigned in high school (despite being probably the book most often assigned in high school). PowellsBooks has a short, insightful appreciation.

Powells: As many critics have pointed out, Thoreau didn't really go off into the wilderness. The land on the banks of Walden Pond on which he squatted and built a crude cabin was within walking distance of Concord, and train tracks were only half a kilometer away. He wasn't much of a woodsman; one reason he wasn't too welcome in Concord proper is the previous year he and a friend had inadvertently started a forest fire that burned 300 acres (they were trying to cook fish they had caught).... More.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Shakespeare (?) for kids

This is either a really good idea or a really bad idea. We'll have to wait and see. A British film group is going to produce six adaptations of Shakespeare plays, as musicals, for kids. Judging from the article in Variety, they will all be in 3-D. This is, I hate to say it, eye-popping news. "Hamlet" lends itself to a 3-D treatment. The producers hope to include a ghost that hovers in front of the aud's eyes, cannon fire that flies into the auditorium and a sword fight that appears to happen all around viewers... More.

Textbooks for rent

Textbooks have always been incredibly expensive. In my day you simply bought them (new or used), then sold them back (used). A lot of money changed hands, but the college bookstore seemed to come out best in the transaction. Now publishers are looking to rent directly to students, according to the NY Times.

NYT: With college textbooks often costing more than $100 apiece...many students try to save by buying used books or ordering books from overseas, where they can often cost half the domestic price. Many students also resell textbooks at the end of the academic year, feeding the used-book market. Besides giving students a new option, rentals give both publishers and textbook authors a way to continue earning money from their books after the first sale, something they do not get from the sale of used textbooks... More.

Photos of writers' writing spaces

Via Boing Boing we learned of, a project devoted to photographs of fantasy and science fiction writers. Some of these places are too messy to even think about writing. Some of them are pristine beyond imagining. All of them are fun to look at. Check 'em out.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Godfather, 40 years later profiles the, uh, godfather of Mafia books. As they say, don't expect it to be the same as the movies.

WSJ: In 1969, an obscure middle-aged novelist and pulp magazine journalist named Mario Gianluigi Puzo hit the literary jackpot. He wrote "The Godfather," he later told Larry King, "to make money." By his own admission, it wasn't well written. "If I'd known so many people were going to read it," he famously said, "I'd have written it better." More...

Free audiobooks

We just heard about this site, LibriVox, offering free audio of public domain books. You might want to check it out.

Making books look good

Walt Shiel in View from the Publishing Trenches explains what goes into making a book. It's a great explanation demonstrating that it's more than just printing up a manuscript.

WS: Book design requires an analysis of the manuscript, its tone, and its intended audience. And a review of many other factors...Some self-publishers cringe at the prices quoted for book design and typesetting. That’s usually because they don’t understand the amount of knowledge and craftsmanship that makes the difference between an acceptable book and a beautifully designed and typeset book...More.

Travis McGee revisited

There was a short period where the National Book Awards covered genre writing. In 1980, the mystery award went to John D. MacDonald's latest Travis McGee novel. Author Glen David Gold writes a wonderful appreciation of MacDonald on the book awards website.

GDG: The plots are happily serpentine, the attitude engagingly hardboiled, but what brings the reader back is McGee's increasingly involved -- and heartbroken -- asides about the state of humanity. These books aren't just mysteries, they're investigations into the soul... More.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Books are not music

From Open Culture, "Top Ten Reasons Why the Kindle Won't be an iPod for Books."

For instance:
4) Holding 100 albums in your hand is great. Holding 100 books? Not as much. More...

Thomas Pynchon, video and music (and book)

The notoriously reclusive Pynchon has been outed as the narrator of the video trailer for his new novel, Inherent Vice. You may have already seen it, as it's gone viral pretty quickly. Amazon has posted a nice summary of the situation, and additionally, a playlist of 60s and 70s songs inspired by the novel. Very entertaining. Here's the link.

The Hugo Awards

There's a lot of talk about the Hugos, which were awarded last night. Some of the nominees are bloggers, needless to say, and have had their own concerns leading up to the event. The best novel award went to Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Meanwhile, Amazon has published a list of all the winners going back to 1953. Very obliging of them!

Coetzee reads his own work

The New York Review of Books has published a podcast with J. M. Coetzee reading from his novel Summertime. Take a listen.

When do you find time to read?

This article from Booksquare focuses nicely on a big issue. The biggest competition for our book-reading time is not other reading, but life in general. And sometimes one wonders if publishers are doing the right things in making it easy for those of us who want to read books to actually do it. The world is changing. Are publishers on board with the changes?

Booksquare: The competition for books isn’t necessarily other books as much as everything else in life. Given all the demands readers face, I am amused by publishing people who insist on “preserving the value” of what they publish. I’d be more sympathetic to this argument if publishers could make it less patently obvious that “value” often means “supporting our pricey, risky business decisions”, such as paying million dollar advances for books about cats…More.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Scams aimed at writers

Writer Beware is a site hosted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (and recently joined by the Mystery Writers of America, as noted in Publisher's Weekly). The headline on the site page explains: Warnings About Literary Fraud and Other Schemes, Scams, and Pitfalls That Target Writers.

We would say that anyone trying to break into publishing should check out the underside of the industry. There are people out there who want nothing other than to take your money. Don't let them do it. And kudos to these writers' groups for supporting this site.

The World According to Garp

The series from the National Book Awards folks on previous winners has been continuing apace. This one stopped us because it was such a book seemingly of the moment. I mean, at some point everyone was not only reading Garp, but claiming it was the best thing they'd ever read. This was back in 1980. It does bring one back.

Fiction judge Craig Nova writes: The test of whether a book is any good, at least as far as Matthew Arnold was concerned, is how it stands up to the withering assaults of time. The current moment, as we seem to have to learn again and again, while seeming real, is often the essence of distortion. Need I say more about this then to mention bell bottom pants or Grunge? ... I am happy to report that not only has The World According to Garp stood up to the horrifying evaluation of Matthew Arnold's test, it has gotten better. The book has genius... More.

Monday, August 10, 2009

An author comes to town

Via Maud Newton, an article in Harper's collecting journalist reports of an author tour. The tour took place in 1882. The author was Oscar Wilde. (You need to be a Harper's subscriber to read the whole article.)

As MN quotes, here's what Ambrose Bierce had to say about the English man of letters: The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it — says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. More...

Powell's books

This time I'm not pointing to some other post. I was just out in Portland and went to Powell's for the first time. And second time. And third time. Can I say that this is the best bookstore in the world? The last thing I needed to do on vacation was stuff my suitcase with books, but Powell's made me do it. I would walk along and see a shelf with books by a favorite author, with a card telling me that if I liked this author, I had to go check out this other author... Not to mention the mix of hardcover, paperback, used and new: you buy it in the version you most want to have, at the price you want to pay.

If you're anywhere in the northwest, get yourself to Powell's. And bring a suitcase.

The Man Booker Prize

We're back from vacation, thumbing through items we may have missed. It turns out that the Man Booker fiction prize longlist was announced while we were away. The Man Group is an investment management business that supports the arts. The prize starts with a longlist, goes on to a shortlist, and finally, in October, a winner. They're not the kind of books we do at Select Editions, but it's fun to track the literary side of the street.