Reader's Exchange

May 2011 - Posts

Please don't send in the clowns

The Big Top reigns as a big draw.  With Water for Elephants filling theater seats, more great circus-themed entertainment awaits:  Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, due out in September.  Of all the "forthcomings" promoted at Book Expo America 2011, it's generating the most buzz. Despite my aversion to clowns, I can't wait to read it. 

Of course, the arena of tightropes and trapezes is celebrated for risky activities, but BEA can furnish its own glimpses of dicey ventures. 

B&B Circus posterAuthorship is certainly one.  My last illusions of a secluded, create-on-your-own-terms lifestyle faded with the realization that even celebrated authors have to shift their personal lives around promotional commitments like BEA.  They're asked to sign autographs and meet fans on cue, possibly during the very times when ideas are flowing and significant productivity could occur were they allowed to work at will.

This reflection led me astray at one point.  Generally, my conversational gambit during an author signing is a version of "Lovely to see you.  Thanks for coming!"  Lacking in originality, it's at least totally sincere.   I relied on that theme when face-to-face with David Baldacci, Susan Mallery, Alice Hoffman, Jan Brett, and other gracious writers. 

Yet, upon meeting Erik Larson and awaiting my copy of In the Garden of Beasts, I somehow inquired what project he would be writing on if he weren't at BEA.  Patiently looking up from his inscription, Mr. Larsen remarked that he would likely be at home, wishing that he had his next concept--which he doesn't yet.  Hmmm, poor choice of topic.  Small talk poses risks, and not just at BEA.   During Margaret Atwood's often-hilarious reflections on her career, she reported this gem from an audience Q&A session.  "Is your hair really like that, or do you have it done?"  (Her answer: "If I had it done, do you honestly think I would ask for this?")

Finally, let's not forget the exciting but treacherous possibilities underlying so many conversations at BEA this year.  E-books: Will they kill the print market, revitalize both reading and marketing, or do something else we can't yet predict?   Can we hope to enjoy a fruitful coexistence of digital and analog publishing?

Maybe this is a sign:  The evening before BEA, my daughter and I waited for an hour to view the wonderful Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   Our group encountered a provocative frock coat entitled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, "lined in white silk with encapsulated human hair".  Further back in the line I heard a dismayed "and how are we supposed to see inside the jacket?!" 

The tourist in me reflected that he was musing aloud, not addressing me; thus a response might not be appropriate.  Too late, though--the librarian in me was already informing him that the online exhibit included a detail shot of that very feature.   Not only was the commenter pleased and appreciative, I could hear the tip being passed down the line, punctuated now and then by "Cool!", "No way!", and "Thanks for the info!" 

Old-fashioned word of mouth and websites complement each other nicely in the information world.   Let's hope that print books and e-books can, as well.

Cloudy with a chance of spaceships

Another chilly, rainy day--in New York City, at least.   This evening, the 51st floor view reveals Manhattan towers disappearing into lowering clouds.  Three neighboring skyscrapers equipped with illuminated spikes glow eerily in the mist.  I'm fascinated, and not just because the precipitation is more frequent and the scenery more vertical than in Round Rock.  This place looks like a sci-fi book cover.

That visual theme parallels the rest of my day-- attending Book Expo America.  Every session I chose considered two issues:  the future, and emerging trends related to digitization.

ManhattanThe term "speculative fiction", often preferred by SF readers, is even more apt for discussions like the panel moderated by NPR's Steve Inskeep.  He and four publishing experts contemplated such matters as crowdsourcing, "native apps", and the diminishing role of the editor.    

That thoughtful interchange generated as many questions as answers:  What makes a book a book--ISBN, identifiable author, or simply its lack of interactive, multimedia, immersive experience?  When does an interactive version--an app--reach beyond that identity and become something else?  And, in a digital environment where publishers are increasingly numerous, how do they achieve "discoverability"?

Earlier in the day, a Book Industry Study Group survey revealed that the typical "power e-book buyer" is female and around 44 years old, has a household income of $77,000, and purchases primarily fiction (58%), particularly in the Romance genre.   You won't be surprised to learn that the BISG study sought to answer questions, e.g., How will trends in ebook use/purchase affect stakeholders in the book industry?

The last event I selected today--also the most popular--presented a lineup of six editors from major publishing houses, each passionately heralding the impending availability of a new fall fiction title.  All of the novels sound wonderful:  Diana Abu-Jaber's Birds of Paradise, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, Naomi Benaron's Running the Rift, Justin Torres' We the Animals, and Sere Prince Halverson's The Underside of Joy.

We can all enjoy speculating about these books' success. 

Being royal means never having to share your copy

Given William and Kate's recent choices--tasteful wedding, charitable donations instead of lavish gifts--I hope that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are readers.  Aware of their massive role model potential, the young royals are evidently set on using their powers for good.

What would be better than seeing them demonstrate that reading is as enviable as driving Aston Martins or wearing jewels?   We have a visibility issue, though.  The newlyweds' royal apartments could be positively littered with e-book readers and print volumes, but I have yet to see either of them photographed while engrossed in a novel.   

If only some well-wisher would send the Cambridges a copy of Deborah Harkness' new A Discovery of Witches.  Whoever picks it up first would read a few bits aloud, thus prompting the loving partner to run out and splurge on a second copy.  I think they can afford it.  Once the photogenic couple is enthralled with the story, a media lens could document the copy tucked under William's arm or perhaps the one projecting from Kate's designer tote.   Discovery of Witches jacket

Not that other books couldn't do the job.  Discovery runs counter to my preferences, though, and I loved it anyway.  Vampires, witches, and daemons generally are barred from my reading, but all three populate this suspenseful yarn.  I also appreciated Harkness' ability to intersperse all manner of arcane historical detail. 

Harkness' protagonist, Diana, is a feisty, athletic, persevering beauty who encounters a tall, head-turning stranger on a university campus (extra points for the library setting).  She's from humble-but-noteworthy origins; he lives in a castle inhabited by his clan for centuries.  Because they are two entirely different sorts of creatures, marriage intentions would spark controversy.  Both claim relatives who are endearingly flawed and do embarrassing things; there's even a legendary grandmother always prepared to render her judgments.  At one point, an extravagantly large ring (formerly belonging to Our Hero's mother) comes into play. 

But, as I mentioned before, any new novel boasting an involving plot, oddly sympathetic characters, and a series-worthy premise would be appropriate.  Not sure why I thought of this particular one...

He who laughs last probably answered first

Write a blog long enough, and your family and friends will become content scouts.  Highlighted passage

My husband handed me his May 3 issue of The Christian Century (respected, but not generally regarded as a laugh riot). Indicating the item "Preliminary Thoughts", he predicted I'd love the quotation cited by Alan Jacobs in his forthcoming The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  Attributed to the poet W. H. Auden, it outlines a succinct rating system for books:   

For an adult reader the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don't like it; I can see this is good, and though at present I don't like it, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don't like it."

My snickers of appreciation for that dead-on summation eventually gave way to envy.  If Auden and his ilk hadn't already produced so many repetition-worthy statements, wouldn't it be easier for the rest of us to come up with something original?  Imagine sharing an elementary school classroom with Auden.  You really wouldn't want to be the one called to answer a question after Mr. Quotable; the standard "That's what I was going to say" just isn't believable in such cases.  

Other Auden gems:

  • A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep.
  • A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us.
  • No good opera can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.
  • Between friends differences in taste or opinion are irritating in direct proportion to their triviality.

Admirable as Auden's 5-point system is, it sadly precludes the necessity for critics' inventive judgments.  Sure, I could breeze through a journal's worth of book reviews in an hour if they were all ranked 1-5, but then I'd miss the snarky-but-evaluative Preliminary Thoughts inspired by disappointing offerings.  Among the mostly praiseworthy annotations, assessments like "bloated", "flimsy", "scattered", and "overwrought" sparkle with novelty.  An occasional reference to a "damp squib" or "a chaotic sprawl", or an unfortunate text that "verges on the unintentionally hilarious" definitely leaves an impression.

As Auden observed: One cannot review a bad book without showing off.

Everything we need to know about book groups we learned in high school

Things could have gotten ugly.  The book club choice for Saturday evening fell short of unanimous favor, to say the least.  Diana Gabaldon's Outlander represents the first time in this group's history that three members (I was one) nominated the same title.  Honestly, we believed that Outlander's special qualities--historical content, time travel, unique ethical issues--would compensate for its being a Romance selection amid a largely non-Romance-reading group. Letter jacket

Given that both genders are solidly represented in this assemblage, at least we can report that opinions were not divided as predictably as you might think: some women disliked it, too. 

At some point during the interchange (comments ranging from "I am completely addicted" to "This was the literary equivalent of Cheetos"), I realized this: high school is/was ideal training for book club success.  Just consider all the positive attributes of cliques:

  • Project a unique image/identity.  Our percentage of professional librarians, theologians, and engineers surely exceeds the average.  I've not heard that other book groups voted in God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. 
  • Conform.  We agree to finish the book to the extent possible and celebrate unasked-for variety, taking on all sorts of assignments we'd never, ever choose independently.  Nominating titles is part of the deal, too.
  • But also stand out.   Though it's OK to recommend  books pertaining to one's area of expertise/comfort zone, the best nominations are the unusual, possibly risky ones (e.g., Jane Smiley's Ordinary Love and Good WillSteve Stern's The Frozen Rabbior Stephen Puelo's Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919) that will engender discovery or promote controversy of a good kind.
  • Develop your own ritual.  Ours is called "respect the can".  Anyone may contribute reading suggestions on slips of paper deposited into a lidded tin container.  The can is conveyed to each session, and before we adjourn a new title is extracted.  And that's IT; the selection is final.
  • Appreciate inside jokes.  This group had existed for years before my husband and I moved here, but apparently their very first selection (it'll remain nameless) was praised on NPR.  Everyone hated it.  Whenever that title is mentioned, the others roll their eyes and erupt into hilarity.  We laugh, too, without knowing why it was such a misfire--not that we're sufficiently curious to read and find out. 
  •  Indulge a hearty appetite.   We can't claim the "growing adolescent" excuse, yet the standard fare for a monthly session has evolved from light snacks to a full meal plus dessert, chosen to coincide with the theme or setting of the book.  (Of course, when we discussed Martin Cruz Smith's Wolves Eat Dogs, discretion was advised.)  Outlander's Scottish locale earned high marks for inspiring our hostess' marvelous meat pies, vegetable concoction, and raspberry dessert.  And Ed and Irene brought Scotch; they know how much we all value verisimilitude. 
  • Admit that peer pressure drives you.  And now, as next month's hostess, I have to follow that memorable repast.  Comparisons will be made.