Archive for May, 2012

Paywalls, ebooks, and making way in a digital world

May 25, 2012

My distaste for Amazon’s foray into publishing has made it into a number of posts, but the only alternative I keep spouting is, “Go to Barnes and Noble!” (Or their website). But this isn’t exactly breaking new ground for publishers, and finding a way to stay afloat in a changing world. Then I came across this today. Now, magazines/newspapers are clearly a different beast from book publishing, or at least they have become different, but there is something that seems stunningly similar: the distribution/pay models being pushed by outside companies (Apple, Amazon) do not make a lot of money for the producers of the content. The NY Times went behind a paywall and, as far as I know, have done pretty damn well with it. I pay for it, and I love the coverage they provide. Now, the Financial times have pushed away from the Apple store, set up their own ap, and are enjoying a booming success.

I wonder if this is something the publishing industry could learn from.

Set up their own aps, allow people to subscribe to them for X dollars, distribute some works through digital serials, give access to extra materials, etc. In other words, customize their brands, personalize their products, and provide materials that go above and beyond the books themselves. Is it more work? Oh, hellz yeah. Could it pay off big? Yes. It could also give control back to the publishers. And if they are really afraid Amazon won’t play along, so what? I’m sure Barnes and Noble would be more than willing to find a way to co-exist with such an environment if it meant it could strengthen the prospects of their brick and mortar stores. Independent book stores would probably be all for it, if it meant they had a stronger ally in fighting off Amazon. I have a feeling even a lot of the authors themselves wouldn’t mind getting into something where they could have a stronger impact on the end product and its distribution/marketing/etc.

Maybe none of this is possible, but I want to see the publishing industry not get steamrolled by the digital walmart. And I wouldn’t mind shelling out $5 a month to Penguin if they provide the right content.  Give me serialized novels from up and coming writers, give me interviews with writers and editors,  or notes/revisions kept by the writer, etc.  I don’t know what all, but the possibilities are endless. Give me a reason to give you my money, Publishing Industry. I give a damn about books, and I want you to stick around.

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey – review (spoilers)

May 22, 2012

The first time I tried reading this, I couldn’t get into it. I don’t know why, but something just turned me off. Strangely, I was able to get into the follow up novel, Kill the Dead. Maybe it has been his Twitter feed, but something made me go back and give Sandman Slim a second look. There’s really very little to add to the blurbs on the cover. William Gibson describing it as the best b-movie he’s read in a long time fits perfectly.

It makes me think of a Clint Eastwood western. James Stark, aka: Sandman Slim, carries himself like William Munny, killer of women and children, except he’s the killer of demons, hellions and everyone who betrayed him 14 years before and got him sent down to Hell.

Now, beneath the pulpy wonder of it, there is a religious bent to the work that goes beyond the obvious set dressings. To be up front, I’m not a religious person, I don’t know the Bible, a lot of things that may have stood out to other people I likely missed entirely. There is also the chance that I am entirely off on this. But I think James Stark is a modern re-creation of Christ. This is something that gets lost insanely easily in Kadrey’s rough and tumble epic. The only thing that stuck out to me and which I could never let go was that Stark was closing in on his 33 birthday when he finds his way out of Hell and begins his quest for vengeance. Looking back on it now, I have to wonder how many stories of Jesus find their way into Sandman Slim that I was, frankly, too ignorant to pick up on while reading it.

there are some more basic connections to be made, though. One is the basic timeline of Stark. I don’t recall ever hearing of Jesus in his twenties, working a waiter job, living off his tips, and trying to figure out if the little booth where the money lenders set up shop is a vestibule or an atrium. Stark’s twenties are erased by spending those years in Hell.  Also, we find out that Stark is somewhat divine, he confronts false gods, in like seventy different forms, and he begins assembling a group of followers.

 

I wish I had more to say about Sandman Slim. It’s a ridiculously fun read, that pulled me up way past my bed time and was entirely worth it. Beyond reading anything into the text, Kadrey’s writing is fast paced and fun. Once you get into it, you want to stick with it, you want to finish it, you want to know what happens because you give a damn about the characters. Kadrey. Is. Fun.

Maybe the Jesus thing is way way off, but if it is there, I enjoyed Kadrey’s Jesus parallels far more than Faulkner’s.  If you’re curious and have some extra funds to throw around, here is the Barnes and Noble link. If you’re curious and don’t have the extra funds, head to your library. I also read Aloha from Hell, so expect another review up soon, and the fourth Sandman Slim novel, Devil said Bang, is nearing publication. I know Aloha is just as enjoyable as its predecessors and I’m looking forward to DSB.

House of Holes by Nicholson Baker – review (adult content)

May 9, 2012

Most books have a little, fancy fonted script on them that says “a novel” or stories.” Nicholson Baker’s book has a book raunch on its cover. It lives up to it.

I’ve tried to come up with something more to say, to find a reason for its blatant sexuality beyond it wanting to be blatantly sexual and revel in all things lascivious. I can’t. Maybe I didn’t pay close enough attention, and just missed it. Maybe I got too distracted by the rows of meatsticks, the stacks of boob fat and the buckets of come (though not “cum”) that litter each story. This isn’t to say the entire novel isn’t without substance. There are people looking for love, looking for connection, and looking for themselves. the ubiquity itself of the sex may form a comment of its centrality of our lives. Either in its abundance or its absence, its joy or its perversity, it plays a key, if not central, role in defining who we are. What Baker is possibly doing is pushing that to the front and center, where it can’t be ignored, and letting loose with a bevy of language to make its unsettling presence slightly more palatable.

It is Baker’s vocabulary and verbal ingenuity that really carry the novel. He doesn’t hide behind it. Every term I used above, he uses in the text, and it never comes off as the author attempting to shirk the reality of his material. Instead, “boob fat” is partly humorous but also straightforwardly honest. Meat stick is exactly what it is. The term is ridiculous, flaunting its physical reality in a way a more clinical term like “breast” or “penis”  can’t embody.  In this way, House of Holes avoids being pornographic. While the visual material wouldn’t make it past an MPAA board without an X,  the language moves it beyond the bounds of a common smut novel. Baker’s playful inventiveness allows him to be straightforward in a way that allows Sex to be the focus but to also lose its taboo. Instead, its position in the makeup of our lives can be seen more directly, more clearly, and perhaps more honestly. Humor makes sex approachable, and Baker goes out of his way to make every meatstick and boob fat immeasurably approachable.

It should be noted that the House of Holes isn’t free. It’s definitely a for profit venture. However, it should also be noted that the for profit parts seems to largely rest on the male partakers. In payment for the services of the House of Holes, men literally lose arms, balls, and heads (and not just the south of the shoulders variety).  While the men losing body parts seems part for parcel at the House of Holes, the only criminal in the book is the Pearloiner, who steals women’s clitorises.  And I don’t recall any moment where a woman is forced to lose a body part, especially a sexual one, as a form of punishment or payment. There is a clear double standard at work, despite women getting just as much (if not more) sexual enjoyment from their stays at the House of Holes as the men. Is Baker saying that women need to be encouraged to embrace their sexuality more, so using it as a punishment (in any form) is verboten? At the same time, is he saying that men perhaps cater to their sexual cravings too readily, and need to be reigned in a bit?

I realize now that I’ve went on for a good while after saying that I wasn’t sure what the novel was about or where additional meaning could be culled from.Looking back on it, I’m not sure how much is real and how much is my invention,m  or perhaps all literature is the sum of what we pull out of it (and put into it).

 

Here’s the book at Barnes and Noble. As always, I’d encourage you to go to a real book store in your neighborhood and get it-and not just browse it so you feel more comfortable ordering it online later. With bookstores being a bit of a dying breed, I’d encourage the use of B&N.

Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard – review

May 3, 2012

Kingdom Come is the last novel published by the late J.G. Ballard. I get the impression the guy is huge in Europe, but he doesn’t get much press at all around here, and his books were always difficult to find. Still, I have his collected stories sitting on my shelf, and I was pushed to read Crash after seeing Cronenberg’s film adaptation of the same name. while I wasn’t overly familiar with Ballard, I knew enough to give this book a shot when I saw it sitting in the “new” section at the library.

The writing itself is good. You want to keep reading when you start, which is always a good thing. The story is engaging. The characters are interesting. However, there’s something that kept getting in my way of really enjoying the book. I know it was originally published in 2006 in England, and I have no idea when Ballard started writing it. Even in 2006, though, the death of the mall has been readily apparent in the United States. Now they don’t even build big in-door malls, or at least I never hear  of them being built. Instead, there are these bizarre shopping “villages”  that fore you to traipse about in all sorts of weather to get from Bath and Body Works to Macy’s, constantly going from ear numbing winter cold to blistering in-door heat, or scorching summer sun to crushing air conditioning in the summer. even while walking around these relatively new constructions of consumerism, I’ve seen a growing number of stores going dark, then remaining dark (and these stores are usually book stores, unfortunately. Electronic stores seem the next to go).  The shift to the digital market place has been in gear for years, since well before 2006 (I know, I was buying stuff off Ebay in the mid-late 90s when it was strange and new).

Now, the mall is clearly  a literary device, and it probably shouldn’t have pulled me out of the story as much as it did.  It was the embodiment of consumerism,  its greatest cathedral, and it was there to give this intangible idea a physical body. This tangibility would have been a bit more difficult to achieve with a website. However, the face of consumerism now is a website, but not just one website, but a plethora of website. Everything from Amazon to Overstock, Ebay to MyHabit and the bundles of smaller websites and specialized websites and particular store websites make up our shopping experience now. The only thing that I consistently go to a store for now is for the groceries, but it is difficult to see Ballard’s idea of people coming together to blindly worship their consumer gods in the produce aisle.

still, the idea that people are substituting buying their Birkenstock for spiritual fulfillment can hold, and it is perhaps the next step beyond, it’s consumerism risen from the grave as Richard Pearson, the protagonist of the novel, gravely foretells at the end of the novel.  So, maybe Ballard is really writing a history, like the boring flipside to the Wall St. 1980s. While Michael Douglas was the poster boy for the rampant Rich Get Richer and Damn The Bodies I Step Over On The Way Up (yeah, that ended up much longer and awkward than I anticipated when I started), Ballard’s Metro-Centre is the posterboy for suburbia.  It’s where everyone goes when they want to leave their cordoned off sleeping quarters to venture back towards the city, but in an entirely safe and sanitized way, so they can spend some money and feel a bit better about themselves. But that’s so 90s and 80s.

So, do I think Ballard was on to something about the fetishization of consuming?  Honestly, no, not really. For one, as I said, the mall has kind of went by the way side, and I think the cultishness of everything purchasable isn’t as tangible as the novel makes takes it, nor do I think it’s an overly likely outcome. Also, I think we’ve already seen a backlash against it with younger people. In the United States, automakers have had a growing fear that the teens, 20 and 30 somethings will increasingly turn away from owning cars (or at least big expensive ones with high profit margins) and turn ever more towards mass transit, because they value their internet more than their vehicle. We see it in changing housing decisions, proliferation of electric vehicles and support for alternative fuels and energy sources, in the growth of the knitting world, and community gardens. In short, young people aren’t as interested – as a group – in buying as much crap as their parents and grandparents (except me, I love to shop).

still, it’s a good read, and despite how implausible I find it in retrospect, it still achieves that suspension of disbelief where it seems entirely possible that all of the neighbors will begin going to the mall, and wandering through Nordsstrom’s seeking epiphany at the perfume counter. And there is a certain degree of what Ballard is saying that you can see in society, that still makes you go, “Maybe…” From people filing lawsuits over not being able to buy their ebooks cheap enough to the marauding of stores going out of business, and willing to fork over gobs of cash on “deals” that discounted less than a store’s normal discounts, people love to shop, and they love the idea of paying less than they think they should. And malls really are the last of the great enclosed spaces that seek to awe the eye. Sports stadiums can be massive and in-door, but they always lack the gaudy exhibitionism of the shopping mall. If there was anything around today that could be compared to a cathedral it is the shopping mall. Unfortunately, they are much like the real cathedrals – empty, visited more for curiosity and a misguided sentimentality than out of innate compulsion or necessity.