10/31/2008 12:31:07 PM
In the spirit of literary cleverness (and maybe Halloween masquerade) Bookninja recently held a book cover redesign contest. Participants were asked to fire up Photoshop and remix the covers of popular books; in doing so, many of them have altered the book’s entire theme, genre, plot, and more.
For example, Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland becomes a wine-making companion. To the Lighthouse is a pulpy maritime adventure novel. And A Confederacy of Dunces makes the inevitable Sarah Palin joke.
But my favorite is probably The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, rebranded as a parenting manual for fathers:
On a somewhat related note, Minnesota Reads found an odd little game challenging you to literally judge a book by its cover: Guess its average Amazon star-ranking based solely on the cover image. It’s surprisingly difficult.
Bookworms play the nerdiest games.
10/30/2008 1:24:02 PM
After two years of litigious wrangling, on Tuesday Google announced an agreement with the U.S. book industry that will allow the media giant to sell online access to millions of titles—many of them out-of-print or hard-to-find.
For several years now, Google has been laboriously scanning books, making their pages available through the company’s Google Book Search. Two years ago, the Authors’ Guild and representatives of the American Association of Publishers filed class action lawsuits against Google, charging copyright infringement.
The three parties hailed the $125 million settlement—which awaits approval by a federal court in Manhattan—“as a key moment in the evolution of electronic publishing,” reports the Guardian. If the deal is approved, users will be able to search for books via Google, sample the contents, and purchase reading rights. Google will fork over a share of the proceeds to a newly established nonprofit Book Rights Registry (BRR), which will then distribute funds to authors and publishers.
The BRR also would “locate rightsholders, collect and maintain accurate rightsholder information, and provide a way for rightsholders to request inclusion in or exclusion from the project,” according to Google.
In short, the BRR would operate a whole heck of a lot like ASCAP does today, writes Adam Thierer at Technology Liberation Front. That’s a good thing for writers and publishers, but the architecture of the deal also has Thierer wondering: “Could this be the beginning of a move toward a more comprehensive online collective licensing system for other types of content as everything moves online[?]”
The magic ingredient to collective licensing schemes, as Thierer and others have pointed out, is a gigantic, trusted middle organization—capable of handling all the transactions. (Who else but Google can tap the resources to scan and digitally archive the individual pages of 7 million books?) In the current media-and-publishing landscape, we’re probably to be forgiven if the words trusted and gigantic don’t seem a natural coupling.
Assuming the settlement goes through, however, we could have a glimpse of our digital future. “This will make it substantially easier for authors and publishers to find, distribute and monetize out-of-print books—in effect, creating or enhancing a ‘long tail’ for book publishing,” writes Mathew Ingram, a technology writer for the Globe & Mail, on his personal website. Ingram also points out that libraries stand to benefit—as part of the settlement, Google will provide free online access to millions of books through public libraries and universities.
10/29/2008 12:40:29 PM
The events, and often even the non-events, of the 2008 election season have spawned a growing group of die hard political junkies, whose habit for constant information about Obama, McCain, and Palin (sorry Biden) is nursed by the legions of reporters and bloggers working the 24-hour news cycle. But with less than a week remaining in the horserace, what’s actually worth reading? Here’s a brief, and by no means comprehensive, guide to political writing for the home stretch.
First, a few from the New Yorker: Particularly fit for mention on this blog is James Wood’s “Verbage” essay, detailing the Republican Party’s “deep suspicion of language.” A thorough piece on Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, is an antidote to the hyper-partisan tone that is sure to dominate the campaign’s last throes. And an essay from David Sedaris is likely the only place you’ll find the choice in this election compared to choosing between chicken or a “platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it” on an airplane.
From last Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Rich’s column may help ease the anxiety of Obama supporters worried that racism will decide this election, arguing that “white Americans are not remotely the bigots the G.O.P. would have us believe.”
In the blogosphere, Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith seem to require little sleep. Their blogs are updated almost constantly and are two of the greatest information sources for full-fledged election addicts. (They also prove that it is possible to be too informed.) But Politico does stellar reporting too. This week one piece that stuck out explained McCain’s negative media coverage with detailed and self-reflective treatment, which I haven't seen done elsewhere.
Looking back a bit, Michelle Cottle’s blog post, “Spare Me Your Reverse Snobbery,” for the New Republic remains one of my favorite rants of the season, and though it was published in late September, it's still relevant. So is the year-long perspective offered up by Alec MacGillis in a recent piece for the New Statesman, which thoughtfully chronicles the reporter’s time on the campaign trail with Obama, beginnning with the Iowa primary last fall.
If you need laughs more than thoughtfulness at this stage, Wonkette will surely deliver. They’re snarkier than Sarah Palin and refer to John McCain by the pet name Walnuts. What more could you want?
Add your suggestions to the list in the comments section below.
10/28/2008 9:47:00 AM
Non-profit literary firm Dzanc has taken the marathon fundraiser to a novel place (pun intended). On November 15, the Michigan-based organization will hold its first write-a-thon to raise money for its writer outreach programs and publishing operations. Dzanc, which was founded in 2006, works with new or outside-the-box writers to publish their writing without worrying about the “the marketing niches of for-profit presses.” They also fund writer-in-residence programs for schools all over Michigan and beyond.
Volunteers interested in participating in the write-a-thon must find sponsors, who can pay them either a flat fee or a per word rate. The topic of the write-a-thon will be posted the day of the event, and the volunteers’ essays, poetry, and stories will be compiled on the site afterwards for all to read.
You can read more about Dzanc’s history and mission here.
Image courtesy of
, licensed under
10/22/2008 2:03:21 PM
The Sound of Young America’s podcast aficionado Podthinker (née Colin Marshall) recommends the New York Review of Books’ new(ish) podcast, which debuted in June and already is filling out an impressive archive of conversations with literary luminaries such as Oliver Sacks and Edmund White.
I am grateful to Marshall for turning more people on to this terrific podcast, but I take issue with his one criticism of the NYRB’s audio and print content: that it’s too political. “Evidently, the editorial board of the magazine will not rest until a certain number of otherwise pleasing articles are dragged into the much [sic?] of unseemly political territory,” Marshall writes. “Your podthinker has, in other venues, repeatedly reached the conclusion that when it comes to the place of politics in art, it doesn't have one.”
Really? There’s no place in art for politics? I know a few people who’d disagree—namely, 99 percent of my favorite writers, musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists.
It still amazes me when people deem politics a separate and easily demarcated external force we can segregate from the rest of our world. Marshall evidently prefers a “pleasing” aesthetic universe free of political content—which, remember, includes but is not limited to gender, race, class, education, the economy, transportation, healthcare, and war (or “something about Iraq,” as Marshall refers to an interview with CJR contributor and foreign affairs scholar Michael Massing). Because really, who cares about such trifles? And who could possibly be interested in Joan Didion’s ideas about the narratives of presidential campaigns or Samantha Power’s global policy analysis?
I encountered this same desire to segregate politics from life while writing about the politics of bicycling. While I certainly share the public’s weariness of partisan rancor and have developed an acute allergy to the mere mention of Sarah Palin’s name, I firmly believe that it’s naïve and unwise—let alone impossible—to try and scrub our daily lives clean of politics.
Pardon me. I seem to have lost focus and let the unpleasantness of politics divert me from my main point, one on which Marshall and I agree: the NYRB Podcast is definitely worth checking out. And so is the Sound of Young America, which boasts shows featuring art/media darlings like Patton Oswalt, George Saunders, and cast members of the Wire—three cultural forces whose work is, no doubt, completely devoid of political overtones.
10/20/2008 11:13:54 AM
Halloween is just around the corner and what better way to get in the spooky spirit than by digging into a good vampire novel? Sharon Fulton, writing for Open Letters, says vampire fiction has been “taking America by storm lately.” She attributes the surging interest in vampires to movies like Interview with the Vampire and TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And rounding out her theory on America’s vamp obsession is this: “I believe that a majority of teenagers today were turned into soulless vampires by rogue government agents working on behalf of the CW, and so their intense interest in the genre is perfectly understandable.”
Fulton has taken it upon herself to sort through the vampire titles flooding shelves, scoring the books on a one-to-five fang scale. She finds that while there are quality books in the vampire genre, there are also many "that are only trying to profit from the public’s seemingly insatiable craving for men with fangs." The only book receiving five fangs is The Vampire Tapestry, by Suzy McKee Charnas, originally published in 1980, but reprinted this year. The story, told in five parts by different narrators, centers on Dr. Edward Weyland, an anthropologist, academic, and vampire. Fulton says “its themes and observations will interest people who don’t spend all of their time fantasizing about tall, dark, and handsome blood-drinkers,” concluding that the book “glances at humanity from an alien, monstrous, and, yes, anthropological viewpoint.”
10/17/2008 12:55:09 PM
Houghton Mifflin recently published its 2008 edition of The Best American Essays with Adam Gopnik serving as guest editor. The Best American series is always a good showcase of the year’s finest offerings in a genre, and a reliable gauge of each form’s contemporary direction.
While this collection is led, as usual, by standout pieces from the New Yorker and Harper’s, it also culls some brilliant offerings from smaller magazines and literary journals, providing a modest cross-section of the essay-writing talent in the independent press. Pieces from PMS (Poem Memoir Story), Transition, Pinch, Swink, and Open City have all made the cut.
Part of the fun of these collections for essay-geeks like me is to see which luminary they’ve invited to guest edit. David Foster Wallace presided over last year’s collection, and the essays he chose had an immediacy that previous editions lacked; several of them addressed pressing issues like war, class, and politics, contradicting the frequent charge that personal essays are too solipsistic.
Gopnik’s introduction is similar to previous editions’ in that it makes a compelling case for the importance of good nonfiction in today’s literary world, and continues to defend the form—especially the subgenre of memoir—against the too-frequent charge of self-indulgence. But Gopnik provides a solid argument about the universal urgency of even the most personal essay:
Certainly people attack the memoir, and the memoir essay, in exactly the way people once attacked the novel. . . as vulgar and above all self-indulgent. But “self-indulgent,” fairly offered, means that expression is in too great an ascendance over communication. . . .In truth, the impulse to argument that is part of the essay’s inheritance. . . makes the memoir essay, even of the mushiest sort, the least self-indulgent of forms, the one where the smallest display of self for self’s sake is practical. A novelist can muse motionlessly for pages on the ebb and flow of life, but if an essayist hasn’t arrived at the point by the top of page three. . . if the leap into a higher general case, from the specific “I” to the almost universal “you” doesn’t take place quickly, the essay won’t work. . . . Memoir essays move us not because they are self-indulgent, but because they are other-indulgent, and the other they indulge is us, with our own parallel inner stories of loss and confusion and mixed emotions.
Gopnik and the series editor, Robert Atwan, have chosen big names like David Sedaris, Lauren Slater, and Jonathan Lethem to sit alongside relatively obscure writers: Joe Wenderoth, Patricia Brieschke, and the British-Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub.
I’m personally hoping John O’Connor’s “The Boil” makes it into next year’s collection—but I won’t hold my breath.
10/15/2008 8:37:28 AM
San Francisco Magazine is now on its third monthly installment of Dead Meat, a serialized crime novel written by Robert Beringela, a pseudonym of a “well-fed food-world insider.” In the story’s first installment, titled “A Vegan’s Vengeance,” Beringela introduces his readers to Alfie Falfa, a malcontent freegan who happens to have celebrity chef Jock Rapini tied up in the trunk of his car.
Rapini has a reputation for showmanship and his character development amounts to descriptions of his brutish appearance (fauxhawk, earrings) and displays of machismo (hence his name). His personality, combined with his use of animal flesh as food, disgusts Falfa, and through the next two chapters the kidnapper uses him and other hostages to further his anti-animal-product agenda. There’s no indication of how many chapters there will be, but I’d guess at least five total, if not more.
The writing is entertaining if nothing else, although the food puns (running “afoul”) are sometimes so groan-inducing that you’ll be glad you’re not reading it all at once. It’s what Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammett might have cranked out if they had been raised in modern San Francisco, read Bon Appetit nonstop, and were really, really hungry at the time of writing.
Image courtesy of rick, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/14/2008 10:01:59 AM
Minnesota literature lovers were in hog heaven this past Saturday, when Rain Taxi pulled off another spectacular Twin Cities Book Festival. The annual event brings together local publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, and writers for a day-long celebration of books.
I spent the day sitting at the Utne Reader table with librarian Danielle Maestretti and editorial assistant Elizabeth Ryan, chatting with people about our magazine’s great love of indie publishers and handing out homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Later, with a little help from assistant web editor Bennett Gordon, we fanned out on a mission to find out the must read books of 2008.
Here's a quick recap:
Eric Lorberer, editor of Rain Taxi, recommended The Dream We Carry: Selected and Last Poems of Olav H. Hauge, just released by Copper Canyon Press. Translators Robert Bly and Robert Hedin gave a joint reading at the festival.
Jessica Deutsch, marketing and publicity director at Milkweed Editions, singled out Driftless by David Rhodes, while one of her compatriots suggested A Whaler’s Dictionary, a Melville-inspired collection of poetry from Dan Beachy-Quick.
Ian Graham Leask, publisher of Scarletta Press, offered two picks from his catalog: the nonfiction Tragedy in South Lebanon: The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006 by Cathy Sultan, and The Once and Future Celt, a memoir by Bill Watkins.
Esther Porter, marketing assistant at Coffee House Press, was quick to pick up their recently released debut novel by David Mura: Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. From Graywolf Press, administrative assistant Leslie Koppenhaver was excited about their collection of short stories: Refresh Refresh by Benjamin Percy.
Former Utne Reader editors Craig Cox and Jon Spayde also chimed in. Cox recommended David Carr’s Night of the Gun, while Spayde humbly proposed his new book—How to Believe, published by Random House—as well as The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault, from Shambhala Publications.
10/13/2008 2:39:14 PM
Being a music fan and a writer, I am very particular about the music I listen to while writing, and am careful to note which artists and albums are most conducive to a good writing session. (This way, if I get blocked or my prose is lackluster, I can always blame it on the background music.)
It appears I’m not alone; many writers give ample consideration to the relationship between music and their own work, and their musings on the subject are gathered by Largehearted Boy, which stands out from the overpopulated music blogosphere with its thoughtful prose, guest columnists, and mp3 downloads. My favorite department at Largehearted Boy is Book Notes, wherein authors “create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.”
Book Notes includes some big names, like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Klosterman, who have always made a point of incorporating pop music into their writing. But the roster is dominated by relatively obscure authors and poets (David Breskin, Christina Henriquez, Ander Monson) whose musical tastes are all over the map, from mainstream (The Eagles, Radiohead) to avant-garde (Arvo Part).
There’s also Note Books, which inverts the formula by having indie-rockers write about some of their favorite books. This list includes famously erudite artists like the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, the Jayhawks’ Mark Olson, and John Vanderslice.
(Thanks, Minnesota Reads.)
Image by el monstrito, licensed by Creative Commons.
10/13/2008 1:18:25 PM
The modern American city is undeniably built around the car. And though many forward-thinking citizens sometimes question the money and space set aside for the automobile, few have a grudge with the simple stop sign.
Hans Monderman did. He believed that “the traditional traffic safety infrastructure—warning signs, traffic lights, metal railings, curbs, painted lines, speed bumps, and so on—is not only often unnecessary, but can endanger those it is meant to protect,” writes Tom Vanderbilt in the Wilson Quarterly.
In “The Traffic Guru,” Vanderbilt pays homage to the late traffic engineer, who died at the age of 62 in January, famous (or as famous as a traffic engineer can get) for wiping out all or most traffic signs in a handful of Dutch towns.
Monderman and the author traveled together to one such city, Drachten, and observed a town square stripped of traffic symbols. It’s a system that challenges the traditional relationship between drivers and pedestrians, ultimately relying on their intelligence and common sense. Vanderbilt writes:
As I watched the intricate social ballet that occurred as cars and bikes slowed to enter the circle. . . Monderman performed a favorite trick. He walked, backward and with eyes closed, into the [intersection]. The traffic made its way around him. No one honked, he wasn’t struck. Instead of binary, mechanistic process—stop, go—the movement of traffic and pedestrians in the circle felt human and organic.
Calling our attention to the ungodly number of signs drivers are forced to interpret, Vanderbilt recounts Monderman's ire:
‘Do you really think that no one would perceive there is a bridge over there?’ [Monderman] might ask, about a sign warning that a bridge was ahead. ‘Why explain it?’ He would follow with a characteristic maxim: ‘When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots.’
10/10/2008 9:09:54 AM
In recent years, the popularity of green-themed books has exploded, with titles like The Omnivore's Dilemma and An Inconvenient Truth hurtling from the niche market onto bestseller lists. As publishers scramble to grab a piece of the green pie, pumping out evermore eco-themed books, Quill & Quire magazine (article not available online) reports that some industry insiders are unsure if the trend has staying power.
Some publishers and booksellers fear the market for green books is expanding too fast. The genre already has bulged to include what Judith Plant, copublisher at New Society, described to Quill & Quire as "dross, light green" fare—such as insubstantial lifestyle guides and diet books. If publishers put quantity before quality in their rush to address consumer demand, the market may soon hit a point of saturation. That, booksellers point out, will have unintended (and sadly ironic) environmental consequences. If the buying trend trails off, all the go-green books that don't sell must be returned to the publishers. More unsold books means more wasted paper and more carbon emissions released from return shipping.
10/9/2008 1:03:24 PM
Going for a long drive and want to listen to some classic literature? Before you shell out serious money to buy an audiobook from iTunes or Amazon, check out LibriVox, the completely free, user-driven audiobook library.
At LibriVox, volunteers can upload recordings of themselves reading books aloud, as long as the literature is in the public domain. So you won’t find the latest New York Times bestseller, but if you need Shakespeare, the U.S. Constitution, or (gulp) Ulysses, you can take your chances with the site’s amateur voice talent.
Or, if you notice a gap in LibriVox’s extensive catalog, you can fill it yourself. Check out the guidelines for recording, clear your throat, and get started.
Image by suchitra prints, licensed by Creative Commons.
10/8/2008 2:41:43 PM
At the Lalgadh Leprosy Hospital in Nepal, amputations and skin grafts are routine procedures. Caregivers see a dozen new patients every day, with many more returning for continued treatment. With this sort of bustle, it’s surprising that we don’t hear or read more about the disease. Enter Conor Creighton, who wrote a provocative, vividly detailed essay for Vice magazine about his trip to the hospital. With Steve Ryan’s accompanying dramatic photos, the captivating account leaves no doubt in our minds that leprosy is as real and gruesome today as it was in the days of Moses.
Creighton tenderly describes Bakumari, “a tiny woman with short gray hair and frail limbs that poke out from under her sari like the branches of a blackthorn tree.” In 14 years with the disease, Bakumari's eyelids have disintegrated, robbing her of sight. She’s lost most of her toes. The worst part is that she has no way of protecting herself from further damage, having lost all sensory capabilities in her extremities.
Creighton captures the horror of the disease, both physically and socially. Called a neglected disease by the World Health Organization, leprosy carries a stigma in many countries, leading to negligent medical attention from doctors who simply turn people away at the first sign of infection. The most disheartening aspect of knowing that this seemingly archaic disease exists in the 21st century is that it's very easily cured if treated properly: A six-month schedule of medication, although physically brutal, flushes leprosy bacteria from the body. Creighton’s essay is an eye-opener, fluidly told, effortlessly carrying the weighty importance of reengaging people with the appalling realities of the forgotten disease.
10/2/2008 10:01:55 AM
What begins as a snarky takedown of cell phone culture evolves into a meditation on love in Jonathan Franzen’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from Technology Review (free registration required). Moving from a discussion of the technological developments that have shaped the past decade—most notably, the cell phone—to a careful consideration of the various ways people say, “I love you,” Franzen begins to wonder whether the person bellowing those three magic words into their cell phone in the checkout lane at the grocery store might not be honoring the sentiment’s spirit.
Having garnered plenty of acclaim for his 2001 novel The Corrections—and plenty of scorn after turning down Oprah’s book club invitation—Franzen has since evolved into a prolific writer of nonfiction, navigating his personal essays through moving, humorous territory in two collections, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is no different, winding from stand-up comedy-style observations on the annoyances of cell phones to 9/11, then taking an unexpected turn into his parents’ marriage and a funny passage where a teenaged Franzen does everything in his power to avoid having to explicity reciprocate his mother’s affection:
The one thing that was vital was never, ever to say “I love you” or “I love you, Mom.” The least painful alternative was a muttered, essentially inaudible “Love you.” But “I love you, too,” if pronounced rapidly enough and with enough emphasis on the “too,” which implied rote responsiveness, could carry me through many an awkward moment. ... She also never told me that saying “I love you” was simply something she enjoyed doing because her heart was full of feeling, and that I shouldn’t feel I had to say “I love you” in return every time. And so, to this day, when I’m assaulted by the shouting of “I love you” into a cell phone, I hear coercion.
It’s this blend of the personal and the universal that draws me to Franzen’s essays. His observations on technological annoyances are astute and just this side of cantankerous, but he injects his arguments with enough personal matter to remind us of his—and by extension, our—humanity.
Image by Ed Yourdon, licensed by Creative Commons.
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