choose your own adventure

March 28, 2011

My friend Larry posts a lot of weird stuff to his Facebook page. Not weird as in “how unusual” but weird as in “seriously? how can that be?” yet sadly far from unusual these days. The other day he posted a recent news story link – one on an Alaska politician who believes people who have sex outside of marriage should be criminally prosecuted by the state (a politician who, of course, belongs to the party of small government) and I responded that I wanted to wake up from this dream because it’s getting too weird.

And that’s so often how it feels; like one of those dreams you have in the hour before the alarm goes off, the nightmares that feel so real and so very wrong, the ones where normal life has become warped and looks just like normal, only totally off kilter. It’s scary precisely because everyone else in the dream seems to think it’s how things should be. Because it feels impossible, but inevitable.

I felt the same way this morning, reading two stories from the publishing world, courtesy of Shelf Awareness. One fit neatly right next to the recent story in the New York Times that pointed out G.E. has paid no taxes in the past two years, even though they made $5 billion in profits in the US (and over $14 billion worldwide.)

Here’s the book world business-as-usual weirdness: Apparently top officials in the failed Borders bookstore chain stand to earn over 8 billion in bonuses if the company pulls off its latest fantasy business league restructuring plan. These are not people of the book. They are businessmen who jumped aboard a sinking ship and pretended to steer as it broke up. Yet an unnamed publishing executive at a major house thinks they should get that bonus, telling a WSJ reporter “I want to see Borders come out of this. If they don’t have these guys, I don’t see a chance.”

Reader, with these captains of industry steering the ship we don’t stand a chance.

But there are alternatives. Here is one – and sweet, sweet irony, it’s temporarily occupying the shell of a Borders store in Pittsburgh. Karen the Small Press Librarian points out that Fleeting Pages will move in for a month to provide alternative and indy books, book arts events, workshops, and projects. You’ve heard of pop-up books. This is a pop-up book future, DIY, hand-on, and without executives who require big bonuses. But feel free to volunteer. This may not be the future, and it doesn’t pretend to be. But it sure as hell is better than the current Billionaires in Bizarro World storyline we’re living in.

Because there’s one thing that transcends money, big salaries, business strategies, and corporate goals. It’s simple, and it’s been around for a long time: people telling stories to each other. People creating. People sharing. As the captains of industry squabble over who gets to hold the wheel of the ship, not noticing that an iceberg of greed has already ripped a hole in your hull, we’ll keep sharing our stories.

This intriguing picture comes from a Wreck This Journal set by The Shopping Sherpa. In fact, there's a whole Wreck This Journal group at Flickr. Beautiful!


March 12, 2011

This is only halfway working out. That is I have been buying books from independent bookstores that I support. But oddly  enough, I tend not to read them as quickly as books that I don’t personally purchase. (What’s up with that? Is this the beginning of a new range for Mount TBR*? And how do those who have decided to make their mountain ranges invisible by impulsively buying e-books keep track of the altitude of their unread reading material? Do unread e-books have the power to call out to you as do physical books? Or for that matter to shame you into reading them? But I digress.)

Anyway, here’s where I’m at: Previously I bought these three books from my favorite mystery bookstore, Once Upon a Crime:

Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva – A wise-cracking mystery set on the mean streets of Rhode Island (aka “Rogue Island”) featuring a dogged journalist who wants to get to the bottom of a series of fatal arson attacks on houses in a working class part of town. I enjoyed the newsroom color and the author’s loving portrait of a flawed community. The wisecracks got to be a little much at times. Nominated for an Edgar award. I donated it to my local public library when I finished it.

Dog Eats Dog byIain Levison – a sardonic, satirical, Scottish farce of book. Like a French farce, but deep fried and totally bad for you. At Library Thing I described it as a cross between “The Ransom of Red Chief” and In Cold Blood. A criminal who needs to lie low until a gunshot wound heals takes over the home of a bumbling college professor, but before long the idiot professor – who is as criminally-minded as the crook – has the upper hand. I was thrown by the setup including a terrible teacher at a small liberal arts college teaching two courses a year and making $100,000 a year (my suspension of disbelief  taking an early tumble and remaining suspicious for the rest of the book) and some of the black humor didn’t totally work for me because it is so deeply cynical and I guess, when it comes right down to it, I am not, even though events are conspiring to make me so.

Village of the Ghost Bears by Stan Jones – this is the one looking at me reproachfully. I bought it a while ago, but haven’t read it yet. That’s because I plan to read the previous volumes in the series after reading the first for a book discussion. I enjoyed it tremendously, particularly its strong sense of place in a fascinating setting. So it will have to wait for me to read two more volumes, which I will be spacing out to match up with 4MA discussion.

Also, I was in the cities visiting the state capital not too long ago with a few union members (a thousand or so on a bitterly cold day) and my daughter and on the way home we stopped at the new alternative bookstore, Boneshaker Books – the only bookstore I know of that provides delivery by bicycle. Anyway, I had to support them, right? So I bought a few books . . .

*Mount TBR = the accumulation of books to be read.

what? I didn’t post them?

February 2, 2011

I guess not. 2010, you are a blur to me. Busy busy busy. But I did read some books, and these were tops of the year that was.

Adrian Hyland / GUNSHOT ROAD
Fantastic and touching. Really, really, really good. Review here.

Timothy Hallinan / THE QUEEN OF PATPONG
Blow your socks off excellence. Review here.

What can I say? It worked for me. YMMV. Review here.

I liked this much more than her first two books. Really good x 3. Review here.

Pensive, enjoyable, with tolerable woo-woo. Review here.

A noir setup is trumped by an optimistic ending.  Review here.

Steve Hamilton / THE LOCK ARTIST
A potentially too-clever concept is rescued by a charming narrator. Review here.

Peter Temple / TRUTH
Hard to follow at times, but with a strange poetry. Review here.

Reggie Nadelson / BLOOD COUNT
I love the voice of this completely implausible detective. Review here.

Arnaldur Indridason / HYPOTHERMIA
Haven’t hit a dud in this series yet. Review here.

read globally, act locally

December 28, 2010

As the year comes to a close, I realized I hadn’t completed the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. I chose the medium challenge, which was to read two books from six continents. Here’s what I ended up reading (as near as I can tell – my record keeping wasn’t always consistent).


Jassy McKenzie – Random Violence (South Africa)
Malla Nunn – A Beautiful Place to Die (South Africa)
—Out of that huge continent, I only read books from one country. I should venture out more.


Tarquin Hall – The Case of the Missing Servant (India)
Christopher Moore – Asia Hand (Thailand)
Timothy Hallinan – The Fourth Watcher, Breathing Water, The Queen of Patpong (Thailand)
—Well, two countries – a bit better.


Peter Temple – Truth (Australia)
Garry Disher – Blood Moon (Australia)
Adrian Hyland – Gunshot Road (Australia)
—About time I read a New Zealand author, eh?


Louise Welsh – Naming the Bones (Scotland)
Mark Billingham – Bloodlines (England)
Harri Nykanen – Raid and the Blackest Sheep (Finland)
Arnaldur Indridason – Hypothermia (Iceland)
Anders Roslund and Borge Helstrom – Three Seconds (Sweden)
Martin  Cruz Smith – Three Stations (Russia)
Jo Nesbo – The Snowman (Norway)
Ake Edwardson – The Shadow Woman (Sweden)
Hennikng Mankell – The Man From Beijing (Sweden, China, US, Africa – does this one book count for four continents?)
John Harvey – Far Cry (England)
Nicci French – The Other Side of the Door (England)
Barry Maitland – Dark Mirror (England)
Jarkko Sipila – Vengeance (Finland)
Tana French – Faithful Place (Ireland)
Stieg Larsson – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (Sweden)
Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room (Sweden)
Yrsa Sigurdardottir – Last Rituals (Iceland)
—Better read something Danish next … and perhaps French and German and Italian and Spanish and .,.

North America (incl Central America)

John McFetridge – Let it Ride (Canada)
Brent Pilkey – Lethal Rage (Canada)
—Plus more books set in the US that I care to list. Oddly enough, none were set in the Northwest (or Alaska, or Hawaii).

South America

Claudia Piniero – The Thursday Night Widows (Argentina)
Leighton Gage – Dying Gasp (Brazil)
—The Piniero I read just now expressly to wrap up the challenge, and I’m glad I did though of all the books I read, it has the least “foreign” feel; it’s set in a gated community that is a weird clone of any gated community in the United States full of new, ostentatious and highly-mortgaged houses. Yet it’s part of recent Argentinian culture. Fascinating, if depressing.

There are lots of intriguing reading challenges for 2011, but I think I’ll stick to reading mostly what I feel like and see if, at the end of the year, where I’ve been. I do appreciate those who participate in challenges, though, because their reviews become tempting destinations.

Another challenge I hope all avid readers will consider if they are in a position to do so is shopping at independent bookstores. Businesses like Uncle Edgar’s and Once Upon a Crime (my local mystery bookstores) do so much for the genre I love that I want to keep them around. Independent bookstores often offer discounts and free shipping, so don’t assume you’ll get a better deal online or at a chain; they’ll also take orders online or by phone, so it’s as convenient as buying online. They offer passion and knowledge that is hard to match anywhere as well as a community hub for book lovers. They’re worth preserving and the decisions we make when we buy books matter.

“an appetite for murder and revenge”?

December 12, 2010

This strange bit of reasoning just appeared in today’s New York Times in an editorial about Justice Steven’s excellent book review analyzing why he feels the death penalty is wrong.

The justice says that endorsing capital punishment is touted as a commitment to law and order — whether it was Gov. George W. Bush presiding over 40 executions in Texas in 2000 (the most ever in a year in one state) or elected judges in Alabama favoring the penalty (while unelected judges in Delaware do not). Its cultural power is demonstrated by Americans’ appetite for mysteries about murder and revenge.

Reading crime fiction is evidence that Americans are culturally disposed to violent vengeance? Then how do you account for the popularity of the genre in the UK, where capital punishment was banned decades ago? Or in Scandinavia, where the state does not execute its prisoners but where crime fiction flourishes?

I live in a US state in which a botched execution over 100 years ago disgusted the populace so thoroughly and permanently that capital punishment was abolished, but we have a great many talented mystery writers and not just one, but two fabulous independent mystery bookstores to aid and abet the Minnesotans’ passion for the genre.

Norwegians have a tradition of passkekrim, celebrating the Easter holiday by reading crime fiction. I suspect most Norwegians just want to have something good to read over the holiday, but it certainly is not the case that they mark the occasion by indulging in vicarious bloodthirsty revenge. In fact, when I observe passkekrim this spring I will try to remember that not only did Jesus pardon a condemned criminal and welcome him into his kingdom, but that he himself was arguably the most famous of the many who are wrongfully convicted.


the power of visualization

August 7, 2010

I may need to stop reading comments posted at mainstream media sites because they make me think the world has gone off its rocker completely. This morning, responses to an Al Franken commentary on the importance of net neutrality would lead me to conclude that a sizable percentage of Americans actually believe net neutrality is a government takeover of the Internet.  Someone used the phrase “socialized free speech.” Apparently it’s a whole hell of a lot better if speech is owned by the private sector; the government should just lay off their plans to prevent business from ruling the waves. Anything proposed by anyone in any way affiliated with our black president (as in voted for) is in the cast of bad guys in an action film long on thrills but without a coherent plot. Wait, logical reasoning is a plot! a plot against us! Take to the streets – but first, sell them to the private sector and pay a toll to use them, because right now the government is in charge of public roadways and that’s just wrong.

I’ll wait for some rhetorician to do the dirty work of analyzing those comments and from which black lagoon they arise. For now, I’ll just avert my eyes. Thanks to Siva via Talking Points Memo via Breakup Girl! via GraphJam for this moment of blissful logic. (See? Told you it was a plot.)

the future: TK*

April 5, 2010

My pal Josh Hadro just tumbled an article to FriendFeed that I almost certainly would have missed otherwise: a Harvard Business School Q&A with Peter Olson, a refugee from big book publishing who now has washed ashore at the B school. (Yes, the one that will license its Review to libraries but won’t let professors link to it in their courses. For that, you pay extra. You know the hand gesture that indicates togetherness, usually to illustrate the phrase “Me and X are like this”? Me and the Harvard B School are better illustrated by a much ruder British two-fingered gesture. )

The former CEO of Big Random comments on the iPad launch and all the downloading of books that come with it,

“Traditional trade book publishers are scared,” says Harvard Business School professor Peter Olson. “The world that they have known, of print books and brick-and-mortar bookstores—the whole fiscal distribution system—is on the cusp of changing fundamentally.”

Quite rightly, he puts his finger on it when he says all the pricing and distribution issues, while vexing, are short-sighted distractions.

“The odd thing is that no one is really focusing on the reader. A disproportionate amount of publishers’ resources are dedicated to the manufacturing and physical distribution of books, when in fact their key function is editorial in nature. In a sense, many book publishers are trying to buy time, to postpone a reckoning with reality.”

Right. But here’s where I think he’s worrying about the wrong thing:

“The fundamental question at the very bottom of this is, will people read books at all?”

I know the answer to that one. Yes, they will. People like to read, they need stories, they crave stories, and they’re reading more than ever, contrary to doom-and-gloom scenarios.

How can publishers feed the craving for books without losing readers? First of all, forget everything you know about the publishing industry. Think about what really matters: finding good books, making them better, helping them connect with readers. Find out from readers what they want (and stop assuming they’re on the endangered species list, at least until you’ve observed them in their natural habitat). Talk to people who are good at making the connections – booksellers and librarians – and start over with a blank slate.

But bear one rule in mind above all others: don’t mess with readers. The more you frustrate them on the way to a brave new world, the more likely you’re putting the finishing touches on The End.

Image courtesy of mag3737.

*if you’re wondering what TK means, it’s what publishers put as a place holder when things like dedications are “to come” – though why K? I don’t know.


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