so long, Dutch

August 20, 2013

 

Elmore Leonard
photo courtesy of mtkr

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later – the man was 87 years old – but I was still sad to hear the news this morning that Elmore Leonard had died. He was a tremendously talented author whose books have brought me a lot of pleasure over the years.

He says in his famous Ten Rules for Writers that you should leave out the parts people tend to skip and avoid adjectives and other hooptedoodle.  A lot of people have taken his advice, but it doesn’t mean they can write like Dutch. He had such a great ear for dialogue and an eye for the telling detail and a way with getting it all down in words that fit together so well they were a kind of everyday, unassuming poetry.

He was funny. He knew how to pace a story. He could sketch a character in a few perfectly-chosen words. But the thing that I always felt set him apart was that he loved his characters, even the losers, the ignorant, and the lame. He had a big heart for this messed-up world we live in.

I read a lot of his books before I started to write down what I thought of them, but I loved Killshot and Rum Punch and Maximum Bob and Out of Sight and many others. (The scene about the photograph of Jesus in City Primeval still cracks me up.) I have a particular soft spot for what I believe was the first of his that ever read, Glitz. Here’s what I said about it over at LibraryThing when I reread it a few years back:

Vincent Mora is bringing in groceries when a slimeball demands his wallet. Instead of handing it over or playing the tough guy, Vincent wearily explains the obvious. You think I’d drive a car like that? It’s a cop car, asshole. Now go lean on it. Not smart; he ends up shot, with red wine and pasta sauce all over him. That’s just for starters. Add a beautiful Puerto Rican hooker, some goombas at an Atlantic City casino, a bad-tempered parrot, an ex-con nutcase who wants to look Vincent in the eye when he shoots him, a touch of garlic and simmer gently. It’s got what Leonard does best: a weird but quite believable bad guy, vivid settings, a cast of criminals who are treated with generosity even though they’re, well, pretty bad, a great female love interest, a sexy, cool, intelligent, funny, totally likable hero who doesn’t indulge in angst, but from time to time thinks about the slimeball who tried to mug him. Vincent ponders ways he could have handled it that wouldn’t end up with shooting and killing the would-be mugger. A tough guy who’s really bothered when he takes a life. I like that. Lots of humor, dialogue that’s absolutely right, a great sense of timing, a plot that keeps twisting … you can’t do better than this.


July Pick: A Delicate Truth

August 7, 2013

I had a pretty good reading month, but the book that provided the most knock-your-socks-off pleasure was A Delicate Truth by that skilled master of international intrigue and the subtle increase of paranoia, John le Carre.

I wasn’t sure at first I would enjoy this latest novel from the man who invented the modern morality-play espionage novel. It has a slow fuse. The story opens as an undistinguished career foreign office paper-pusher is dispatched to the field to oversee a joint terrorist operation in Gibraltar. There, a reluctant Welsh military officer looks to him when ordered to take action that seems precipitous and unwise. He tut-tutts ineffectually and something happens, but we’re not sure what. It’s all behind a curtain of confidentiality – but the official is assured everything went well.

Another official, young and brash and with highly-honed instincts, gets wind of the botched operation a few years later and begins to sniff around, soon realizing his career trajectory will take a sharp turn into obscurity if he carries on. But he does (at which point the story takes off like a rocket) because lurking under those political instincts is a stubborn belief in doing what’s right. Eventually he, the now-retired tut-tutting diplomat, and the Welsh soldier, drummed out of the army, his marriage, and mainstream society, join forces to expose what actually happened when mercenaries, supplied by a right-wing American firm that has made a killing on the amorphous, unending “war on terror,” blundered on a small remnant of Britain’s empire.

In the post-cold-war novels of le Carre, his weary spooks playing an endless geo-political game of chess have given way to a game where the rules are worked out in secret and the players are not so much governments as individuals in government positions who will benefit if they align their fortunes with those of giant corporations. He often uses a kind of parody that tastes like bitter laughter but which also refuses to bow to the “life is stranger than fiction, which has to be more plausible” rule. I think he’s given up on trying to portray his enemy with the sympathy he had for his cold-war Communist characters, and I don’t blame him. You can make this stuff up, he seems to be saying, and you must if you want to depict with any accuracy a threat that feels more powerful and destructive than Communism. Now the moles occupy sites of power and those who object, those who hold old-fashioned notions about the national interest and the value of public service – old fashioned patriots, in other words – are entirely on their own. The banding together of these three individuals in a hopeless situation is moving and couldn’t be more topical. It’s depressing that these decent characters who le Carre has crafted with his usual depth and detail are so isolated and in such an impossible position, but it’s thrilling to be in their company.


Review of Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture

August 2, 2013

[Note: Usually I review crime fiction here, but this time I'm reviewing a work of serious and heavy-duty scholarship. I've been following the work of the Beyond the Book project for a few years, now, so was excited to learn a book was on its way. It has now been released by Routledge. It will be helpful for my sabbatical project, though it's also a little intimidating. These authors did a lot of work!]

This book is a thorough and thoughtful analysis of a vast amount of qualitative and quantitative material gathered in the course of an ambitious three-year project to explore what the authors call “mass reading events” – social/cultural practices designed to bring groups much larger than the traditional book club together to read the same book. Though these events have grown popular since Seattle kicked things off in the 1990s, they haven’t been widely studied (other than Oprah’s Book Club, one form of the mass reading event.). Danielle Fuller (University of Birmingham) and DeNel Rehberg Sedo (Mount St. Vincent University) make up for that by conducting an ambitious research program in three countries (US, Canada, UK) and writing a detailed, probing look at the results. Though it may seem a highly specialized phenomenon to study, it’s one that gives the authors a chance to “interrogate the social and material relations among the reading industry’s agents and agencies” (18).

“Shared reading” they write “is both a social process and a social formation” (27). In the first chapter, “Reading,” they review the history of shared reading, including literary societies, the Great Books program, and Elizabeth Long’s research on book groups. They critique the text-focus of much reader-response theory and point out that there is a gap in how we think about reading: though the reader as the object of study has been historically situated, “there is little attention to the reader-reader interaction and no sense of the ways that nonacademic readers might employ various reading practices as part of their everyday lives as social beings” (39). Their methodology was an attempt to use mass reading events as a platform for focusing on the social experience of the reader and the interaction between book, reader, the book industry, mass media, and how those all intersect in events focused on reading as a community event.

Chapters on the ways television and radio have promoted shared reading prove an opportunity to see how reading books is framed as enlightening, empowering, self-actualizing, and entertaining, all at once. I found it particularly interesting to see national differences and similarities between the U.S. (Oprah) with the U.K. (Richard and Judy) and Canada (which has a particularly interesting situation, needing to promote local cultural production while saturated with books from the UK and US; the CBC’s Canada Reads program embodies those contradictions). These chapters would be of interest to anyone curious about how mass media work in these three countries. The cultural politics of the BBC and CBC are complex as they accommodate consumer culture and neo-liberal assumptions about the economic drivers of human social behavior.

The fourth chapter is on money – the complex dance between commercial interests (both in selling books but also in attaching the cultural value of reading to other interests. These events seek sponsors, and the sponsors seek “useful symbolic capital” (126). Again, though the topic of mass reading events may seem rather narrow, it’s a lens for looking at the relationship between consumer capitalism and cultural production in the late age of print. “Ideologically,” the authors argue, “culture ceases to be valued primarily as a ‘public good,’ and instead becomes subject to the rules of domestic and international marketplaces . . . National and supra-national legislation about trade, monopolies and mergers, copyright, and intellectual property all played their part in the commercialization of culture” (130). There is a mixing of culture’s purpose that substitutes measures of utility and popularity for social well being. The authors contrast Richard Florida’s vision of culture as an entrepreneurial economic activity that provides levers for social change without relying on state intervention. The mass reading event then becomes a vehicle for shared consumption that has a a patina of “good for you” social capital. This intersection of motives also shows up in the different ways the NEA’s “Big Read” program and the IMLS’s involvement in it make the case for reading. One is more geared to the text as a work of literature that has transformative benefits, the other is more accepting of a wider range of reading tastes and the value of many kinds of reading. The authors argue that the “one book one community” model has migrated through these English-speaking nations because it fits with dominant neoliberal approaches to cultural value. It promises betterment without threatening the status quo.

A chapter on the people who put these programs together is another way to unpack the multiple motives of community reading programs, mixing a social mission with a celebration of celebrity culture, reading as a spur for social change and a way of bringing people into the fold of normative reading practices. Nancy Pearl’s rise to “superstar librarian” status is sketched out, a different path than that of her colleague who continued to work as a librarian. She tells a moving story of reading a novel about Japanese internment during World War II and how powerful it was to have elderly internees recognized by the community. (I dare you to read that passage with a dry eye! It’s a powerful emotional argument for how reading together can actually promote understanding.) The amount of donated labor and its cost is addressed, and the British Get Into Reading program is described, offering a different way to tie mass reading events to social change. This program doesn’t market events in search of an audience or work through traditional literary channels such as schools and libraries, but takes the program into community-based social services programs for immigrants, asylum seekers, the homeless, and others who might not identify with commercial literary culture. Further, it focuses on “quality” or classic literature in the belief that it shouldn’t be only enjoyed by the privileged. In some ways, it reminds me of the Great Books program in the US, but with a bigger emphasis on outreach to the disenfranchised. This exploration of cultural workers who promote reading “demonstrates how gender, generation, and geography shape the reproduction of traditional values about book reading as socially and morally transformative activity, as well as influencing more holistic, therapeutic, and creative ideals of the social change, pleasure, and relationships that shared reading can inspire” (204).

The final two chapters, “Reader” and “Book” explore what readers experience when participating in mass reading events and how they experience books as material objects. They use the term “citizen readers” to convey people who “read to belong just as they feel that they themselves belong to reading as an activity located in a place, along with others who share the same interest” (211). Sharing reading is an opportunity for them to share their own feelings and to promote a sense of belonging. It can also provide a personal link to authors who participate as the author shares stories about their lives. There is always the possibility that this sense of community is limited and may silence or exclude people. (A discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird in the south attracted a primarily white audience, for example.) At the same time, such events can “bring attention to issues of racism, cultural difference, and social injustice” at a time when “public forums for discussion are increasingly rare, and people’s agency over their material realities has declined” (242). One Book events allow participants a chance to experience the feeling of “being and belonging.”

The authors have lived up to their promise to interrogate “the paradox of promoting a prestige-laden activity on a large scale and via mass media [that] opens up a productive critical pathway for thinking about the ways that cultural value is brokered within ‘creative’ communities” (258). Though it’s limited to one kind of reading activity in three countries that have a lot in common, this is a remarkably in-depth study that teases out many insights into what reading means to readers, how book culture combines prestige with consumerism, how the radical potential for growth through literature is entangled with a conservative desire to belong and be comforted, and what role books and reading have in mass media and popular culture. This book is an important and insightful interdisciplinary contribution to reading studies.


happy independence day

July 4, 2013

Like independence? Do something about it.

fourth amendment


June Pick: Norwegian by Night

June 30, 2013

At 4MA, my reading addiction support group, we are collecting our mid-year “tops and bottoms” – the five top reads of the first half of the month and the five that were at the bottom. Most of us have trouble stopping with only five tops and have fewer than five at the bottom, because we’re pretty good at choosing what to read next. My tops so far this year are

  • Mick Herron DEAD LIONS
  • Tana French BROKEN HARBOR
  • Derek Miller NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT
  • David Mark ORIGINAL SKIN
  • Anre Dahl BAD BLOOD

Though I’ve already reviewed Norwegian by Night on another blog, I thought I would repost it here with minor changes as I adopt the practice of some other book bloggers of posting a review every month of the book that made the strongest impression. So, here goes . . .

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Though this book isn’t the usual Scandinavian crime fiction that I track on a blog, Derek Miller is an American (though currently a resident of Oslo) and his novel is not exactly crime fiction (though there is a crime). It’s one of those books that defies classification. But I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Sheldon Horowitz is a New York Jew, a man who has repaired watches all his life but can’t quite keep time any longer. He’s in his eighties and his memory is . . . well, let’s say it’s Norwegian by Nightinventive. He has reluctantly gone to live with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband in Oslo. The stories he tells about his experiences as a sniper in the Korean War don’t seem to match historical fact and his granddaughter thinks it’s a symptom of dementia. Either that, or he’s seeking attention with weirdly logical illogic – or possibly both.

One afternoon, after his granddaughter and her husband have left the house, Sheldon hears  a commotion in the apartment upstairs. This is not unusual; the Balkan immigrants living upstairs have had their arguments before, but this time it’s different – more violent, more ominous. When he hears the woman come down the stairs, Shelden looks through the peephole and sees her hesitate on the landing, trapped between the rage of her husband and a suspicious car idling outside.

They did this with us, too, he thinks, looking through the peephole. And then the pity vanishes and is replaced by the indignation that lives just beneath the surface of his daily routines and quick retorts.

The Europeans. Almost all of them, at one time or another. They looked out their peepholes – their little fishy eyes staring out through bulging lenses, watching someone else’s flight – as their neighbors clutched their children to their chests while armed thugs chased them through buildings as though humanity itself was being extinguished. Behind the glass, some were afraid, some felt pity, others felt murderous and delighted.

All were safe because of what they were not. They were not, for example, Jews.

(There’s something wonderfully dry and disarming about that “for example” that somehow pulls the pin on the whole passage.) He opens the door and sees she has a child clinging to her. He motions them inside. When the man starts to break down the door, the woman pushes the boy toward him and he hides with him in a closet as the violence continues. When it grows quiet, he finds the woman dead; the suspicious car prowls by as he thinks about what to do. He’s afraid that if he goes to the authorities, they will think he’s a doddering old fool and hand the boy over to his father. So he takes it upon himself to protect the child, leaving behind a quote from Huckleberry Finn, setting off on a journey while the police and his granddaughter try to figure out what’s going on.

I was reminded of Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, though only after the fact. Both Atkinson and Miller are able to take some aspects of crime fiction – violence and the ripple effect is has on the people around it, the balance between causality and sheer randomness, the way that past and present are layered together in a single identity, the narrative skill to keep momentum as the story weaves back and forth in time, the clarity of characters fully imagined. Like Atkinson, Miller is funny and touching and irreverent and yet respectful of his characters and his readers. He considers age and the toll that grief and guilt can take on a life, on the cultural differences between Norway and New York, the stresses that immigration brings to Scandinavian countries that have both a sense of social duty and inexperience with cultural difference; he writes about masculinity and the scars inflicted by war and even touches on Norway’s treatment of Jews during the occupation and how much we erase from history.

Did I mention it’s incredibly funny? It is – in a gentle, sardonic, life-affirming way. And when it takes off at a gallop you can’t turn the pages fast enough. I suspect this will be on my top ten list for the year.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book. I’m very glad I read it.


A Bit of Speculative Fiction

April 27, 2013

This morning I submitted a fellowship application. Since there is a whopping 7 percent acceptance rate, I’m considering it something of a cross between a lottery ticket and a short work of speculative fiction.

The government site used to collect the application was a trip – instead of a web form it uses a baroque Adobe Acrobat form, which got extremely offended if I used the back space key and would make me start all over. I got quite good at filling it out since I did it five times. But whew, it’s finally complete.

One of the challenges was describing the project in under 1,000 characters including spaces. I squeezed it into a mere 983:

Millions of readers around the world participate in online communities focused on sharing their reading experiences. These communities leave textual traces that suggest what readers get out of reading for pleasure, how their reading experiences benefit from social interactions, how readers form interpretive communities that transcend national boundaries, and how informal critical communities participate in the formation of popular literary tastes. Because these communities attract readers from many countries, they are a rich site for the exploration of similarities and differences in national book cultures. I will study communities formed around the crime fiction genre using mixed methods and will make my findings available as I work in order to explore new models for making humanities scholarship accessible to readers, writers, librarians, and publishers, as well as to scholars interested in genre fiction, fan culture, social reading practices, and popular literacy.

In case you take a nerdy interest in this sort of thing, here’s the selective bibliography that was part of the application – there’s quite a lot of intriguing stuff coming out on the subject of social reading experiences these days. I had to keep it short, but there’s plenty more in a Zotero folder.

  • Bérubé, Michael, Hester Blum, Christopher Castiglia, and Julia Spicher Kasdorf. “Community Reading and Social Imagination.” PMLA 125.2 (March 2010): 418–425.
  • Elsayed, Amany M. “Arab Online Book Clubs: A Survey.” IFLA Journal 36.3 (October 2010): 235–250.
  • Fuller, Danielle, and DeNel Rehberg Sedo. Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture, 2013.
  • Griswold, Wendy, Elizabeth Lenaghan, and Michelle Naffziger. “Readers as Audiences.” In Handbook of Media Audiences. Oxford: Wiley, 2011, 17–40.
  • Gruzd, Anatoliy, and DeNel Rehberg Sedo. “#1b1t: Investigating Reading Practices at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century.” Mémoires Du Livre 3.2 (2012).
  • Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
  • Lang, Anouk, ed. From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, 2012.
  • Long, Elizabeth. Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Nakamura, Lisa. “‘Words With Friends’: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads.” Preprint of an article forthcoming in PMLA, 2013.
  • Peplow, D. “‘Oh, I’ve Known a Lot of Irish People’: Reading Groups and the Negotiation of Literary Interpretation.” Language and Literature 20.4 (December 9, 2011): 295–315.
  • Rehberg Sedo, DeNel. “Readers in Reading Groups: An Online Survey of Face-to-Face and Virtual Book Clubs.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 9.1 (March 2003): 66–90.
  • Rehberg Sedo, DeNel, ed. Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
  • Steiner, Ann. “Personal Readings and Public Texts: Book Blogs and Online Writing about Literature,” Culture Unbound 2 (2010): 471–494.
  • Striphas, Ted. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. New York: Columbia UP, 2011
  • Swann, J., and D. Allington. “Reading Groups and the Language of Literary Texts: a Case Study in Social Reading.” Language and Literature 18.3 (August 18, 2009): 247–264.

Stupid Computer!!!

photo that expresses my frustration with forms courtesy of f1uffster

 


culture shock: when Goodreads and LibraryThing collide

March 30, 2013

It has been fascinating to see people respond to the acquisition of the largest book-focused social network, GoodReads, by Amazon, the largest book-focused anything. (In fact, it’s so large, books are just one of the many, many products the company sells, but bookselling was its first focus; the company has had a huge impact on both book culture and book commerce. This acquisition is one of many that have consolidated Amazon’s influence in the publishing world.)

gr

If you are deciding which site to use, Book Riot published a thorough and smart comparison of the two sites last July (see part 1 and part 2). I have been a LibraryThing member since about 2007 and started using it primarily to replace a kludgy homemade website where I had been posting book reviews. I tried out Goodreads soon after it launched, but didn’t want to maintain catalogs on two sites, and preferred the familiar layout and the business model of LibraryThing. (Rather than rely on targeted advertising and magic venture capital dust, it charges a small lifetime membership fee of $25.00 and repackages reviews and tags as an enhancement for library catalogs. The terms of service is actually very similar to Goodreads’, but I don’t think Tim Spaulding would sell his company to Amazon, and I trust him not to turn my reading tastes into marketing opportunities.)

lt

For many Goodreads members, the acquisition came as a rude surprise and many who are concerned about the growing power of Amazon began to explore competitors. The response is very like the way people reacted when Google announced it was mothballing its RSS feed Reader: betrayal, outrage, anxiety about the size and power of a single corporation, and a crowdsourced scramble to find alternatives.  Once people have invested their own creative labor into a site, have woven it into their daily routine, and have established social relationships there, it’s a rude shock to realize that it’s not actually theirs at all.

This scramble to test alternatives has also exposed many of the things people want in a platform built around sharing a love of books – and what happens when groups and their established cultures collide.  Tim Spaulding, LibraryThing’s founder and owner of a majority share, started a discussion about what the acquisition means for LibraryThing. Along the way, many feathers were ruffled and some were soothed. Spaulding wrote “I find Goodreads too pushy on the social side, too cavalier about user data and–on average–not as intellectual as LibraryThing can be.” Not surprisingly, some Goodreads members who were checking out the site took offense. In the ensuing discussion, some LibraryThing loyalists dug the hole deeper, while others tried to repair the damage. I’ve seen similar behavior in an online book discussion group in which members sometimes disparage another group in order to express what they like about the group they are in. Since these groups include overlapping memberships, feelings get hurt and members feel torn between the social codes of one group and those of another.

Both Goodreads and LibraryThing are a wonderful antidote to the claim that nobody reads and the book is dead. Both sites attract avid readers – millions of them – and offer opportunities to create personal book collections and share reviews. Both sites have extensive social features and ongoing conversations around books. Both involve members in volunteer work that improves the site.

But they have significantly different flavors. LibraryThing is more focused on individual members’ catalogs, drawing on book metadata from many sources, making it useful for those who collect pre-ISBN books or non-US, non-English titles. (There are over 700 bibliographic databases from which to draw data, including national libraries across the globe.)  Goodreads is much more social and contemporary and is designed to enable Facebook-like group formation and socializing around books.

Within each site, communities coalesce and thrive, but the threaded discussion at LibraryThing takes a back seat visually to the cataloging of books. LibraryThing is more like a library, with a major focus on cataloging, less on finding the next book to read (or purchase) – though it has a sturdy recommendation engine. The company also shares with libraries a healthy respect for privacy, a fairly knee-jerk attitude to freedom of speech, and a culture of transparency (up to a point, given it is a privately-held company with no interest in making its code open source). Goodreads is more like Facebook – funded by venture capital, very large, and reliant on the data its users provide to serve up targeted advertising and to gather a spectacularly large and detailed set of book-related data to monetize.

One other distinction that seems to have cropped up as these cultures collide is where authors and publishers fit in. Goodreads tolerates a lot of marketing and is much more attractive to publishers, authors, and … well, Amazon. LibraryThing has a welcome mat for authors and publishers, but there are distinct social boundaries that the community has set beyond which marketing and promotion is unwelcome. The terms of service states clearly, “”Do not use LibraryThing as an advertising medium. Egregious commercial solicitation is forbidden. No matter how great your novel, this does apply to authors.”

The discussions at LibraryThing about what the Goodreads sale means have been eye-opening, both because I’ve learned a lot about what other members get out of the site and what features it offers that I’ve never stumbled across, but also because of what readers say about their sense of community and what they want from a social reading experience. Some of these desires are technical (a mobile version, for example) and some are functional (preferring one type of social interaction over another) or aesthetic (with “dead salmon color” coming up a lot, but also graphics versus text and other design preferences).

But some of the differences are tribal, and those are the ones that are the most interesting to me.

EDITED to add: This LibraryThing blog post articulates what makes LibraryThing LibraryThing. The way it was composed is very consistent with the company’s nature – it was open to all members to contribute ideas (on a non-personal-data-gobbling site), and Tim Spaulding did the final edit.


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