Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Loss of Book Culture

June 14, 2014

I was showering this morning when I started thinking about a coupon I’d just gotten from Barnes and Noble in my email for 15%  off a purchase, and how I probably wouldn’t get to one of their stores regardless. I used to live in Borders. I loved Borders. Their stores made sense to me, and I would make sure I went at least one a week just to browse. That doesn’t happen any more. Part of it is the lack of proximity. I now have to drive at least a half hour on the expressway to get to either a Barnes and Noble or a Books-a-Million, the latter of which is really more of a reincarnation of Media Play than a bookstore. Now, a half hour isn’t a ton of time. It’s not so far out of my way that it would preclude me from doing something I really wanted to do.

Which is part of the problem now. Going to a book store isn’t something I really want to do. And it hasn’t been since Borders shut their doors. This isn’t a knock on the remaining book stores. All of them have their positives, and can be very nice places. I just have no interest in going.

So I wonder how many more out there are like me. Former book people, maybe even current book people (the library now stands in for my book browsing fix), who just do not feel the same pull to go into a bookstore and just browse. With the collapse of Borders, among others, how many of us were turned into the cold and ended up finding other fires to warm ourselves by? I miss Borders. A lot.  The world of books hasn’t been the same since, no, not even with little indie bookstores that all us feel bad for not supporting better.

And then there is the elephant in the room, Amazon, which has been in the news lately for trying to badger Hachette into a poor deal for the publisher. If we’re going to think about book culture, going to the stores, wandering around, flipping through pages, Amazon is the antithesis of this. Yeah, you can sometimes browse a few digital pages, but you don’t have the other people wandering the aisles, you don’t have the clerks willing to offer advice and suggestions, you don’t have the communal coffee shop-ish area, you don’t have any real interaction. You have point. You have click.  You have no community that exists in any real tangible sense.

Maybe society is changing away from the sort of experience I have noticed myself dropping away from. This could be just a single story in a larger movement.  I miss my Borders, though.

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Well, Russia is batshit crazy.

May 20, 2014

It’s always a weird experience when reality broadsides non-reality. While bitching about the US and throwing around Orwell references is a bit of a past time of mine, they’re never something so unflinchingly accurate that I stop and think, well, hell. They’ve gone and done it. Well, Russia has gone and done it. They’ve outlawed swearing. In and of itself, this is ridiculous, and it goes right in line with the fear Russia has shown towards how people communicate (Pussy Riot, anyone?) and people expressing themselves.  Layered on top of this is my reading Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik daily in the bathroom. In it, one of the things the government has done is ban swearing. not just in media, but in every day life by everyone.

now, Russia is most certainly a bit batshit crazy with this. Sorry if you’re Russian and I offend you, or if you are really against swearing and you fully embrace this law, but it’s nuts. It’s also not what I really thought about when I had these pairs of experiences come together. instead, it was of convergence.  it seems life is a series of convergences where two things come together and bounce off of each other to either explain each other or deepen each other or destroy each other or what have you. Humanity isn’t expanded or contracted in a vacuum.  Another example would be Stephen King’s old short story Rage which seemed to predict the rise of school shootings/violence (I don’t believe King allows the short story to be published any more, which I don’t believe is necessarily a good or bad thing, but I do believe the story isn’t among his best, so maybe it’s best to be taken out of circulation for that reason alone. Another example would be Star Trek and how the technology that appeared so futuristic has started to converge with the present to the point where new movies can’t really keep up technology wise. The things that once seemed so out there are now in our living rooms and it’s to the point that only the big things, the interstellar space travel and transporters, are the things that remain truly out of reach right now (but for how long?).

But to go back to Stephen King and his short story, as I said, he has since removed it from the rotation. If you want to read it, you have to dig up an old copy of the Bachman Books (which I have, because I went through a massive Stephen King phase and it was at just the right time when a ton of great used book stores still existed in the area I lived).  He pulled it from circulation because it was reported that a kid who committed violence at school – I think he shot people, but I’m not entirely sure – had reportedly read it, and King felt some measure of responsibility.  Which I also don’t want to go into except in how it may have affected his writing since. He already pulled this one short story. Has he shelved ideas since? Have novels moved in different directions? Even if he doesn’t consciously think about it, could it be something that slides in, subconsciously moving his stories? Who knows. It was just something I was thinking about.

But how will we or Russia react to convergences such as between Russia’s new ban and Sorokin’s work? Will there be similar convergences and what will spring from them? Just my twenty minute take this morning.

The Great American Novel, or just read The Great Gatsby

February 20, 2014

David Ulin offers a rebuttal to Lawrence Buell salon piece over the idea of the Great American Novel.  I get what Ulin is saying, but I’m not sure I agree with the reality of it. Celebrating our differences, embracing multiculturalism, and appreciating that the backgrounds and experiences of everyone in our society are diverse  and wide-ranging  are all true, good, earnest, whatever things.  I’m not knocking them. At the same time, I think there are some things that sit at the foundation of all our lives. All of us want some level of professional success that provides for a relatively stable life. How each of us defines stable and success might be different, but I think the majority of us want to achieve that for ourselves. We want to be productive. We want to accomplish something. We want to make connections with people. Big, broad things. For me, the Great American Novel tries to find how those things work in America, how we try to blend them together, how our ideas of accomplishment, stability, family, etc. is unique from Japan or France or India. Not better, but different. And I think this changes over time. If we want to say Huck Finn was a Great America Novel, it was great for the time it came out, the time it encapsulated, and the life it represented. Is it the Great American Novel of the “Now?” No, I don’t think so, despite it still staying something to us today about how we interact with each other and how we confront race.

The one book that stands out, for me, is The Great Gatsby. A novel of one character recklessly charging towards wealth and status in the hopes of finding love, only to be confronted with the hollow vacuousness of those he pursues and to eventually find his own death. All witnessed by the midwestern everyman who steps back at the end, sees the horror of it, and retreats to the heartland. It is an aspect of society I think we’ve seen repeated over and over again, in various forms from westerns to mafia movies to wallstreet.  It speaks to an idea of balance in success, weighing the costs of professional/material success versus the damage we do to ourselves in many intangible ways.

I think to dismiss the idea of the Great American Novel solely because we are a nation of differences (superficial and otherwise) or that people tend to drift towards White Guys being the recipe for the Great American Novel is a bit too careless. In an effort to dismiss the idea, it falls into a similar trap as those trying to aggressively sell the idea. Instead, the idea of the Great American Novel is something that should be explored, and that difference cultures in the United States should attempt to appropriate for themselves. While I think there are aspects of The Great Gatsby that transcends boundaries, I think the same could be said for Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Instead of dismissing the Great American Novel because of our differences, we should use it to illustrate the unity in those differences.

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett

February 17, 2014

I’ve never delved much into steampunk, the most involved I’ve gotten is probably the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki and about fifteen minutes of Wild Wild West. I think Wild Wild West sort of ruined it all for me.  So picking up Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl was somewhat of a new experience for me, at least partially egged on by the title, the cover, and my wife’s obsession with theming our kid’s room around steam punk. Right now the room is mostly just orange. Not sure where she’s wanting to go with it, really.

But back to the novel. It’s really a blender full of tropes and ideas. We have Bram Stoker, Lady Bathory, mummies, an ancient weapon fueled by who knows what, dirigibles, the aforementioned mechanical girl, and a boy being thrown into adulthood as he…well, seeks adventure. So, what is Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl? (another question might be why I’m asking this question, why do we have to categorize it and why can’t it just be what it is and put afloat on the sea of Isness, and maybe I’ll get to that later) Well, as I said, it’s definitely steam punk, as it twists history over on itself, pushes forward with advanced steam and other technologies and just generally has a helluva lot of fun with itself.  It would be tempting to call it a metanovel, considering Bram Stoker plays a central role, and Sherlock Holmes is hinted strongly at. I don’t think it really fits, though.

I think it is really just a lot of fun. Barnett writes a quick, funny, human tale of the defining of humanity, self-perception, and ravenous frog faced carnivorous children of an Egyptian goddess. What more could you really ask for?

But to revisit this idea of why I (or we, as I think all of us do ask this question to a differing degrees) do we ask what a novel is? Is it scifi? Is it fantasy? Is it a murder mystery? Is it literary?   I think part of it is to create a personal shorthand for ourselves to easily delineate our likes and dislikes, for ourselves and for others. If you have  read some political thriller novels and you absolutely hate them, you can pretty safely cross that entire genre off the list of stuff you should aggressively pursue to read more of. It also gives you a quick way of telling someone else that you might not be the biggest Grisham fan.

A slightly more controversial aspect might be that it also infers some degree of quality or goal to the writing. When someone hears “scifi” and then they hear “literary” I would take a wild stab in the dark that the expectations for each would be markedly different. While it would be unfair to think of a “literary” work being of higher quality than scifi, I think it’s a common perception. Is it deserves? I am not entirely sure, but literature does have the benefit of a far larger backlist to draw from. Though part of that surely derives from the malleability of literature to eventually envelop anything deemed literary enough to fit. Old tails such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf would seem to have more in common with modern fantasy than what we would think of as literature, but I think they fall more accurately beneath the umbrella of the latter. Literature, the sort that is always  capitalized, has the benefit of being able to acquire anything for itself.

If labeling a novel, such as Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, a steampunk novel, am I helping or hurting it? I am accurately describing it. If you have experience with steampunk and know what to expect when seeing the term, then Barnett’s novel is certain to not disappoint. But it could just as easily foster some negativity because either a dislike for steampunk or a misconception of what steampunk is, or for another of a variety of reasons.

The short answer is I don’t know, but probably a bit of both. for what it’s worth, though, Gideon Smith is a wonderful read. It’s quick. It’s inventive. It’s fun. It makes me think strongly of how I felt about Nick Harkaway’s Gone Away World. Here’s the B&N link.

Dead Set by Richard Kadrey *spoilers*

January 17, 2014

I’m not sure there is a whole lot I can say about Dead Set that has not already been said by other reviewers or  Kadrey’s fans, but I’ll try to say something.  From a quick Google search to make sure I was not entirely delusional, there is a definite Alice in Wonderland feel to the piece. By feel, I mean it seems to follow large chunks of Carrol’s story as a map guide. There is the swallowing of a pill – a candy given to Zoe during a metaphysical trip to Iphigine (apologies for any spelling mistakes, as I’m going from memory on them). There is a travel down a rabbit’s hole, as Zoe physically wanders through the sewers to make a literal, physical trip to the land of the dead. There is bizarre, dream like landscapes, twisted and contorted, as well as human/animal hybrids, and strange malformations. There is angry queen who rules over the land, who Zoe must take on and defeat in a far more literal and violent fashion than Carrol provided us.

This is not a bad thing. I am not saying it is derivative, but Kadrey fits himself in nicely with the history of of stories of people journeying to distant, fantastic lands (think Gulliver. think road novels.) and coming back changed, grown, to see the world differently, usually for the better. The journey Zoe takes allows her to move past the death of her father, who she saves, along with pretty much everyone else, in Iphigine, and to connect again with her mother, to push past the barriers constructed by their grief and loss. She does not just view her mother differently, though. Returning from her trip to the dead, from defeating a queen, she approaches life more confidently. She has less fear. She sees people as people instead of as groups of definable types, as she was prone to do earlier in the novel when she began her first days at a new school.  For the first time since her father’s death, perhaps in her life (who knows – the novel doesn’t specify, though she at least had a couple of friends from her previous school), she is able to not just seemingly connect with a person or two at arm’s distance, but to welcome them into her life whatever the repercussions may be (even liking them).

where I think the novel succeeds most gloriously is its portrayal of Zoe’s mother. Here is not a willfully neglectful parent. The newly single mother concentrating solely on her new life, leaving her daughter to fend for herself.  No, the mother is portrayed as a mother, albeit one who is suddenly confronted with a myriad of difficult choices and conflicting priorities, who is doing the damned best she can. And her daughter is really not very helpful being so closed off. This provides one of the few tripping points I had with the novel, though. Instead of allowing the mother to just trust her daughter at the end, when she is given this spectacular story of why and where she’d been for a week, Zoe must have proof. And gets it with a polaroid of the vengeful son seeking retribution for Zoe having killed his mother, the queen. A final physical confrontation between the two? Fine, I guess. It’s needed. But it felt a bit tacked on, a bit unnecessary. And Zoe having to have proof to convince her mother she had t old the truth weakens the mother a bit, right at the end when it was most unnecessary. But then adults are supposed to be ineffective and somewhat impotent in these stories. If they were not, then there would be no coming of age, no growing up, for the main characters.

All in all, it’s a good read. It’s a bit of a departure from the hard, nasty fun of Kadrey’s Sandman novels, but clearly exists within the same universe, the same dimensional tear in the literary world. It would not have surprised me a bit to have had Sandman Slim appear from the broken mirror rather than the sun, and then the queen would have met a much different fate.

Barnes and Noble Holiday Sales

January 15, 2014

Barnes and Noble’s holiday sales were a mixed bag. The sales at their actual stores were pretty similar to last year (fell .2%), but nook devices fell through the floor. This isn’t surprising since they’ve quit putting out new Nooks. Given the choice between an old Nook or a new whatever, it’s not surprising that people took the whatevers. I thought the meat of the article was the last paragraph, where Huseby (CEO of B&N) made a comment that digital content was the “lifeblood of digital business” and that the company was busy making progress in linking their content through other devices – in other words, apps.  the first quote is obvious, your print content isn’t going to be the lifeblood of digital business, but it seems important that he didn’t say it was the lifeblood of Barnes and Noble. It also seems as if B&N is committing to the push away from the hardware side and pushing harder into the software end. they realized that they don’t need a device of their own, if people with ipads, surfaces, notes, etc. can and do click on their apps to buy their books through their store.

Also, I have to think it’s a helluva lot cheaper to make a really good app and then plough extra money into the company. Also, as I’ve linked to before on here, digital sales of stagnated a bit. They roared up for a few years, eating up a chunk of book purchases, but it hasn’t continued its rapid ascent this year. Is this temporary or is there just that much of a desire for printed copy that we’ll see this hold for several years? I don’t know, but it means B&N can probably do very well if they work on maximizing their profits at their brick and mortar stores, while laying a better infrastructure for a strong digital presence in the future. I think B&N has this distinct advantage over Amazon. There have been countless articles about people wandering through bookstores, browsing at the books, only to leave and buy it cheaper from Amazon once they’ve read a few pages and know they like it. there is no reason this couldn’t work to B&N’s advantage. Make it easy to walk through a store, find a book you like, then purchase the digital edition. People could do it now through their phones or whatever without leaving the store.  Find a way to encourage this and make it easier.

So, the sales numbers were a bit of a mixed bag, depending on how you look at them. While the Nook devices took a beating, in a world where I can go and grab a $50 tablet from Meijer, I think getting out of the hardware side where profit margins are shrinking and competition is growing is a good idea. Put your limited funds to better use elsewhere.

All Your Holmes Belong To Us

January 13, 2014

Well, most of them, anyway. This popped up a few days ago and I never got a chance to say anything about it, so I’m saying something now. A judge recently declared that a big chunk of Conan Doyle’s work is, in fact, part of public domain. Though, not all of it. There were ten stories published after 1922 and those are still verboten to anyone out there who wants to write about Sherlock, who wants to pump out some fiction of their own. Now, I think this is the stuff that you can’t use. If there is something mentioned in them, and only in them, you can’t use it for your own stuff. Though it’s probably easier to just consult this list of things that you can use.

So, why do I make a post about this? Have I written some kick ass Holmesian story that I can now flog to every mystery mag I can find? No, not really. It’s more that I just hate copyright law in the US. I hate that Mickey Mouse still can’t be touched by anyone. It’s bullshit. This stuff is put out there, and part of a healthy artistic society is re-appropriating stuff that is old and putting a new spin on it. Making it breath again. When was the last time Disney did anything with Mickey Mouse that was worth the five minutes it took to look at it and realize it wasn’t worth your time?  Maybe Epic Mickey, but I don’t think so. It was sort of fun, but also sloppy and with some serious control/camera issues. So, not even Epic Mickey. Has Mickey even done anything in the past twenty years? Has he had a movie? I can’t think of anything big and Mickey. So why does Disney cling so desperately to it just to put college kids into those god awful foam suits every summer and threaten to kill’em should they rip off their mouse heads within view of the public?

At least Holmes has the movies lately. The television shows. And they do something different with it. I’m not a fan of the two modernized television shows, but it’s something different.

Anyway. So, this is sort of big news. what I find most interesting about this whole sordid affair is that while his estate has zealously protected copyright, Doyle didn’t seem to be nearly as fervent about it in his life time. A ton of Holmes stuff was done in his lifetime, from movies to stage plays. Maybe letting it drift into the public domain, and allowing the public to finally take it and run with it is just the right thing to do. as for if I’m looking forward to more Holmes stuff…I’ll have to see what the Holmes stuff is. But at least folks have a chance now.

Book Links

January 10, 2014

Frankly, a bunch of numbers too big and too numerous for me to really get into. If you’re curious about how many people are sending their little literary babies into the world, though,  here’s an article you’ll want to read.

Reading is a workout for the brain. Yeah. Not exactly surprising for anyone who reads, but at least now we have some more evidence that reading is literally good for you.

Hey, someone 3D printed a slip cover for a book. Check it out.  It looks pretty cool, not something I’d pay extra for (sorry folks) but if you have the cash and Chang-rae Lee is one of your guys, something like this could be up your alley. Regardless of whether or not you would buy it, still pretty cool.

And The Atlantic has a a great article on Marian Bantjes. She’s a designer who does a lot of great looking stuff with lettering.  Worth the read.
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The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

January 5, 2014

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is a wonderful, intoxicating read. She takes a murder thriller, and puts a deft spin on it, working in time travel, obsession, and the power of sexuality. Thinking back on the novel, sex plays an increasingly large role in the narrative. All of the victims are sexually strong women, in control of their lives in every way. The one exception is the one woman who no longer “shines,” falling into drug abuse and mediocrity as an artist. She, also, is the least satisfying kill for Harper, the serial killer who jumps around time, killing off women who “shine,” who have a special quality that  lifts them above the rest. They are gifted.

Talking about sex in The Shining Girls, for much of the novel sex and violence are explicitly tied together with the killer. He jerks off to places where he kills his victims, his erections are noted, the release and the energy of the killing passages could be overlaid a bodice ripper, and the songs would be eerily similar. Harper’s violence is tied to his sexuality, taking its place. It’s evidenced further by the only time he considers giving up the serial killer business is when he establishes a physically intimate relationship with a nurse that he considers his equal. What is interesting is that he considers her his equal largely because he sees her as being as cold, deceptive, and manipulative as he is. Their intimacy is less a shared experience than of two experiences running parallel to one another. based on deceit, of the willful playing of expected roles, both seeing the other as being innately false but finding their attraction in this falsehood. It was not surprising when one crossed a line and Harper brutally murdered his lover. though this was also Harper’s most disorganized killing, building towards nothing, no purpose besides reacting against a betrayal he couldn’t abide.  His lover had drugged him and looked into The Room.

The Room is essentially a trophy case that maps out the killings that would make up Harper’s life. It should be noted that Harper’s lover did not react to the room with revulsion. She did not find Harper suddenly terrifying, a monster in human skin. She offered to work with him, to be his accomplice, to be Bonnie to his clyde, holding up the robust futures of young women and taking them for himself.  She was more alike him than he knew, and for a brief moment, before he killed her, it may have been the one frankly honest communication to pass between them.   So why did Harper kill her? Was it the betrayal or was it the loss of power? With his regular killings, power is a key aspect for Harper. Snuffing out these bright lights, taking them for himself, the idea of being in control is  for him quite stimulating. Perhaps this is the true reason he kills her. By drugging him, and slipping into the one room he has forbidden her from, she has done an ultimate act of power taking. The only way for him to regain any of it is to brutally snuff out her light.

It is this loss of power induced rage at the realization that one of his victims, Kirby, has survived that ultimately leads to Harper’s own demise. He gets sloppy. He gets personal. He consistently loses his fights when it gets personal, seemingly unable to deal with anything he can’t detach himself from.

This isn’t to say that sex isn’t intrinsically linked to power for the other characters. For all of the women who shine, sex is powerful for them, as well. however, it is a power they exert over themselves and weave into their lives rather than a power that is forced over others. One woman is a lesbian at a time and place where lesbianism wouldn’t be the most popular life choice. Another forgoes a lesbian relationship because she knows it isn’t what she ultimately interested in. Another woman is keenly aware of the sexual politics played at her work, and is careful in plotting her course and fending off advances – as well as the repercussions of fending off such advances. And Kirby desires sex, but on her terms, turning down suitors who offend her, holding back when she isn’t sure if another has the same desires.  Sex is a part of their lives, in ways prominent parts, but they are only parts, and they have their place.

As always, here’s the Barnes and Noble link to buy the book.

While reading the The Instructions

September 24, 2013

I’m a third of the way through Adam Levin’s doorstop The Instructions and I’m not yet sure what to make of it. It’s interesting. The characters are engaging, and easy to forget that they are meant to be middle schoolers  not yet likely old enough to have hair in their arm pits. They talk with eloquence, even when they are vulgar. There are moments where it feels more as if I am reading an adapted Shakespeare than the story of young children building up for war. That is a bit of a problem I have with the novel as a whole. It feels as if Levin has the ages and stages of his characters just off a bit. And it isn’t the language that does it. The protagonist, who may or may not be the messiah, repeatedly talks of love and places himself into situations that are clearly  beyond his years. This is a trick that can be pulled off. We saw it in the movies with Rian Johnson’s Brick where a gritty noir story line is paired up with high schoolers, but you never forgot that the characters were high schoolers. Johnson would continually drop little bits of life into the created environment, lending it a bit of reality. It kept the gimmick grounded.

With The Instructions, I haven’t gotten that (yet).  Maybe their childness will make itself known in the last two thirds of the novel, or maybe I’ll just see it differently as I trudge on.  I doubt the latter will happen, though, because this has become quite the sticking point for me. At some point, it doesn’t feel like I’m reading about children any more and that is one of the major points of interest for me. I care less about adults having these issues or speaking in such a way. The way the kids communicate isn’t far removed from how I hear many adults interact, especially in my work environment (academia). It’s just less interesting. However, while the idea of it gains interest when layered over children, transforming their day to day acts and lives into a bit more of high theater, it’s still a gimmick unless it means something, unless it accomplishes something, unless it gives does something to the story to give it greater depth.

so far it’s just window dressing. While it’s neat window dressing, while it’s fun, after awhile you get tired of looking at it. I’m getting tired of looking at it. Just 700 pages to go…