Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

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.

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Book Links

January 28, 2014

Dean Koontz had a hangout on Google+ the other day. Go here if you’re interested. I’m not a big fan of their video player, it keeps wanting to close when I switch tabs and try to come back to it later, but from what I have listened to in snippets and pieces, it seems like a good one. It’s also a long one (~54 minutes) so you’ll have to set aside a chunk of time to watch it entirely. I sort of wish they would have just an audio version for us folks who maybe don’t h ave a killer internet connection and who don’t want to put up with buffering, lag, and everything else. Or google can get their own high speed installed in more places (preferable).

Have a cup of coffee, chat about Murakami. This is actually one of a serious of articles about Haruki Murakami. This one’s about a jazz cafe turned book cafe where Murakami fans gather and gab. I liked it, but I’m a Murakami fan. So…

And here’s a link I haven’t put up before, but probably should have. It’s an organization for independent book stores. I always have a B&N link with stories I review, because I’m really not a fan of Amazon’s practices related to the book industry,but I should push the independents more, too.  For a vibrant community, and a healthy industry, support your local book stores.

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.

Book Links

September 30, 2013

Leave it to Texas. They have decided to open a new library…without any books. It might make budgetary sense, but the idea of a library being essentially a Mac Cafe doesn’t sit well with me. Maybe it is just a cultural inevitability, though. I know there have been sales numbers over the past year that has shown the market for ebooks slowing, and that there is a renewed hope for paper and cardboard to hang on as the present and future principle form for books, but I just don’t see it.  Not with wages stagnating, population growth and growing urbanization making living spaces smaller, and the general desire to comfortably lug whatever the hell we want with us to wherever we want to take it.  Hardcopy books will likely, eventually, go the same way hard copy movies and music appear to be going: towards a niche market.

Please don’t buy my book on amazon. Author Jamie Clarke wants you to buy his book direct from the publisher, instead. He has  a website up promoting his cause, and I encourage folks to go and check it out. And if you want his book, buy it from the publisher (and get it early!).  As always, I support the majority of antiAmazon sentiment, but I’m not familiar with Clarke’s work. I’ll be checking it out, though.

Finally, TC Boyle has a new collection of stories coming out. 15 years worth of stories covering 900+ pages. I enjoy Boyle’s work, though I haven’t made enough of a dent in his last collection. Still, I look forward to this one.

Book (and one audio) links

September 27, 2013

Here’s a collection of JG Ballard covers done up by James Marsh.  I have still yet to make the leap to ebooks, and this is part of the reason. While I know ebooks still have “covers,” an electronic cover is far from the physical thing in your hands. The book cover is one of the primary ways to attract a reader to a book, being literally the first thing the reader sees.  Looking through these covers and I know that if I was roaming through a bookstore, and saw these covers on the shelf, I’d have to pick at least one of them up and look through it. They’re just interesting and engaging, they pull you in and  make you curious about what past the cover awaits your eye.  While I may, technically, be able to see the same “cover” on my ereader, I think it loses something when you remove its tangibility. It becomes just a picture, something to click through, something easy to be discarded. It is no longer tied to the text in any real way.

Which might be one of the largest problems with ebooks in general. While they offer great convenience, they also become less important because of their literal lack of weight. You don’t have to make room for the book on a shelf or on your coffee table. You don’t have its bulk continually taking up space, shoving itself before your eyes every time you glance in its direction. Ebooks can be forgotten, lost to the ether of ones and zeroes.  While ereaders may have pulled more people than before into the readersphere, they  have also helped for this appearance of a product easily ignored, easily removed from thought.

I’m a bit late to the remembrance, but Carolyn Cassady has passed away. She was the husband of Neal Cassady, the close friend of Beat legend Jack Kerouac. She wrote her own memoir remembering the Beat scene, that I’ve read bits and pieces of and encourage anyone who is interested in that time and place in American literature to check it out.  The whole Beat generation thing seems too often to be overly condensed to Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, with everyone else reduced to extraordinarily minor  spots – the women especially. Her voice is an important one for perspective on the scene. It shouldn’t be ignored.

And the British aren’t happy about the Booker Prize being opened up to American writers.  Not much to say, as I don’t entirely agree with the opening the Booker competition up, either. It’s okay for it to focus on United Kingdom born writers. I don’t see how it cheapens the prize by maintaining a narrow focus. If anything, I think it opens the prize up to a nearly impossibly deep well of applicants, where merely deciding on finalists from year to year will become increasingly difficult.  Also, there’s nothing wrong with some pride for the UK.

Finally, not book related at all, but you can no preorder a massive Bob Dylan collection. Two things are interesting with this. The first is that it is labeled as “volume one,” but it contains all 35 studio titles that Dylan has released, as well as 6 live albums, and another two disks called “side tracks.” Which leaves me to wonder when (or if) volume two is released, what will be on it.   It makes me wonder if maybe we will see the material Dylan has used to release his occasional “Bootleg Series” editions released in one measure treasure chest of B side and rarity goodness. It is something I would desperately want, but also be desperately unable to afford. The second curious thing about this collection, is that there is an Amazon exclusive version that is packaged as a harmonica…but has all of the songs on a relatively tiny USB drive.  And it’s a hundred bucks more than the conventional collection of CDs, hardcover book, etc. While I think the harmonica thing is cool, you’re also giving up a lot of nice extras – including the physical CDs to keep around as master sources for your own personal rips. I like the idea of the USB stick, but I don’t see how it is worth $365. I’d rather have the box set and all of the tangible swaggy goodness that comes with it.

Book Links

September 25, 2013

Bookstores…of the future!  Okay, maybe not of the future, but definitely a bit of a shift from what we’re accustomed to outside of a Barnes & Noble (or a Borders *sigh*).  Add a cafe, or a bar, or a children’s play area (maybe a Happy Meal, too, eh?).  A coffee shop I used to hangout at with friends in undergrad was attached to a Christian bookstore, and cafes have long been a staple of the national book chains. It’s also an idea the wife and I have kicked around in our more whimsical moments. “Hey, let’s open a bookstore!” “And then file for bankruptcy!” We even had a grandiose dream at one time of having a restaurant/bookstore/coffeebar. Yeah. I applaud anyone taking the leap of opening a bookstore and attempting to incorporate such things into their plans. I hope it works, and I would try to support your endeavor. That said, I think it’s a long haul through two feet of financial woe. Still, sell a good spice cake and I’m there.

Sticking to the UK, there is a massive piece in The Guardian centered on Stephen King. I’m an unabashed King fan. I have had a more difficult time getting into his newer stuff, which may in part be from my own reading interests shifting over the years, but King is the guy who got me back into reading when I was in middle school and came across Eyes of the Dragon on the school library bookshelves. to be honest, I’m still slogging through this interview, chipping away at it throughout the day when I have the opportunity.

And the BBC caught up with Bill Bryson who wants his cake…and digital books, too! He’s lobbying for publishers to package a digital copy with a normal printed copy, so when people buy an actual book, the digital book is packaged with it in some way. I get what he’s saying, and I’m not against it.  We’ve seen movies package a “digital copy” with their DVDs, and music CDs are so easy to rip that a digital copy isn’t necessary (especially since it seems most music is bought digitally – maybe they should start packaging CDs with each download?). Something I’d be curious about is a digital subscription to my favorite publishers. For ten bucks a month, let me “join” Penguin and be able to read a selection of their library.  Sort of like a Netflix for books.  They could limit what was available, though if it is too limited no one would have any interest, and control the distribution/downloading. Also, they would have an opportunity for a treasure trove of information about their readers likes, dislikes, and habits.  it would almost be enough to get me to buy an ereader.

 

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…

Book (and other) links 8-20-13

August 22, 2013

I have a couple of Barnes and Noble links that are somewhat related. Over at Mashable, there’s this article about Nook devices and how it was probably a mistake by B&N to get involved in tablets, their devices are still really good and you should buy them before they are gone because they are cheap. Then, over at Publishing Perspectives, they have an article about Barnes and Noble having a healthy business in their brick-and-mortar stores, and their college bookstores.  At the same time, there is a great post up at Roughtype about the flattening of ebook sales. I’m sort of stuck in the middle of all of this. I don’t read ebooks. I just don’t.  I don’t have an ereader, and I like having physical books.  At the same time, I think a move towards digital media is an eventual reality.   Digital is too cost effective, too convenient, and too versatile.

The Inquisitor has an article naming 15 novels it sees being destined to become classics.  I’m less bullish on the majority of them. The only one of the list that I would enthusiastically endorse is McCarthy’s The Road. Franzen’s novel was arguably not the best novel its year of publication, while numbers 5,7, 8,and 9 just don’t belong (and I’m a big fan of Shadows of the Wind). I think Rowling’s place in YA lit is safe, but I’m not sure it’s a classic.  In the end, what becomes a “classic” seems to be more of a whim of changing enthusiasms and ease of publication than anything.

Elton John is just too damn scary for Russia.  Their loss. I’ll keep my Rocket Man, though.

Okay, this is a couple of days late, but better late than never.

Book Links 8-16-13

August 16, 2013

To visit a much posted topic here, yet more stuff about the Apple vs Government case. Anyone remember how way back at the beginning of the trial the judge commented that Apple was essentially boned? Well, she has a reputation for pre-judging her cases.  If you’ve read pretty much any of my other book links from the past few months, you know where I fall in this argument. I think Apple was entirely in the right, and it’s a joke that Amazon, the company that legitimately worked (works) to corner and monopolize the ebook market was hit with nothing.  I’m looking forward to Apple’s appeal.

Publisher’s Weekly has a blog post about bundling digital copies with damn near everything and wondering why the publishing industry doesn’t do it. My take is that it’s too foreign. Movies and music have always had a certain malleable aspect to their delivery the moment it became possible to be pulled into the home.  Each have went through a variety of formats (8mm, video cassette, DVD, reel-to-reel, audio cassette, CD, etc.) and have been open to being copied, swapped, and manipulated by their consumers in ways that publishing just hasn’t.  Aside from sitting down and either transcribing or xeroxing something, there wasn’t a convenient way of copying something for someone else to read.  You also couldn’t easily manipulate a text outside of a pair of scissors and some scotch tape.  The idea that your product not only can, but needs to, be creatively packaged and sold doesn’t have any real traction for publishing.  Their idea of a bonus feature has been an author interview in the back of the book, or perhaps a chapter or two of the author’s next book. If you wanted something with annotations, something that provided a weighty bonus feature, you were likely looking to pay a few extra books and having to special order a special edition.  What usually happened was that any sort of bonus usually became another book, or a magazine article, something that could be published entirely separately and monetized over again.

Which is awesome for writers and publishers. It’s just not something that has prepared them very well for what they should, and need, to be doing now.

Also, have to say, there are always exceptions to the rule. I don’t have the title off the top of my head, but I know at least one book I have had a music CD packaged with it featuring music created by the writer to go along with the book.  I think I bought it at a Border’s Closing Clearance Sale, and I still haven’t read it, or listened to the CD. So maybe there is also a lack of interest in readers for extra material, though I’m fairly certain that if I got a CD of some bizarre music with a Stephen King novel, I’d have probably listened to it in the car on the way home.

Anyway. The kid just brought me the mail, and it’s sort of thrown my entire thought process out of whack. I have no idea how anyone is productive at all when there is a kid in the house.

Book Links 7-15-13

July 15, 2013

And then there were five.  I’m not a huge fan of consolidation, though I also get that it could all work out. I routinely hate on the consolidation of newspapers, radio,  and all things telecom. It destroys the variety of our windows unto the world, but things like the publishing industry can be different. The different houses coming under ever larger umbrellas can still maintain an identity, which is really how the different imprints  should be defining their necessity. In an ideal world an imprint would justify its existence by being known for something, and consistently delivering it. Whether that will actually happen or not is anybody’s guess. They might also become homogenized, neutered of their individuality to become just a rubber stamp on a cover, promoting some larger vanilla image. For now, though, I have cautious faith.

David Carr has a nice article up about the necessity of Barnes and Noble. It begins promisingly, building a case for the necessity of a physical bookstore as a foundational place of gathering for a community. People go, they look, they talk. It’s healthy and good. He briefly hits on the need for multiple sources of distribution needed for the health of the publishing industry and how Amazon is arguably more of a monopolist and price fixer than Apple could yet dream of being. However,  for me much of the article boils down to the physical bookstore being a necessity because people need to go and browse to discover writers to buy from cheaper online market places.  This ties back into the whole “multiple paths are necessary” thing because ebook sales fell after Borders was shuttered.  I know it’s not the point Carr wanted to drive home, but it’s the one that hung in the air when I was done, and I have to admit it’s at least partly true. While it would be another article entirely, someone other than Nick Harkaway needs to get on a platform and start arguing that the publishing industry needs to do more to take back their industry. Of course, that’s kind of hard when the government then immediately takes them to court to shift business back into Amazon’s hands… .

In case you missed it, JK Rowling released a book under a pen name. I haven’t read the book, I don’t know if I ever will, but I don’t see what the big deal is. And I don’t like the fact that someone cowardly outed her. It wasn’t hurting anyone, and if it gives her the freedom to crank out books that are good, all the power to her.  Now, every “Galbraith” novel she might write will be looked at as a “Rowling” book and carry that baggage with it.

And yet another NYT article about Barnes and Noble and their failing Nook division. I like the Nook tablet, I’ve been considering getting one since they’ve slashed prices, and I think it’s horrible that it’s dying in such a manner. From what I’ve toyed around with, I enjoy it, and I think it’s a quality little piece of hardware. I still support publishing just having a general, all-platform format for ebooks to level the digital playing field a bit, but if you have to support one ecosystem over another, there is no way I could stomach siding with Amazon. Unfortunately, it appears too many people could stomach that particular meal.

Alright, there’s my links for the day. It’s been awhile, but I’ve been busy and I haven’t really been able to find a lot of news I really cared about. But the Apple trial and the health of B&N are two biggies for me and they’ve been in the spotlight recently. Hopefully this is the beginning of getting back on the blogging track.