Thursday, September 24, 2009

And now...

A couple of notes on a lazy Thursday evening as the sun sets over the Pacific....

I have a new piece on KPBS's Culture Lust blog. I briefly discuss the virtues of Pynchon, Reif Larsen, and Ron Currie, although, if you're reading the Catapult, you know my feelings on those gentlemen already. Regardless, I'm happy to be contributing to Angela's site again, even if it's only this one time - although, of course I'm hoping it's not.

The Millions, an awesome lit-blog with tons of great content, has been running a series on the Best Fiction of the Millenium So Far - number 1 will be announced Friday morning.(*Update: it's The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.*) The panel that put this thing together is like a who's who of hipster authors, critics, editors, and bookies, including the likes of Gary Shteyngart, Benjamin Kunkel, Elise Blackwell, Patrick Brown from Vroman's bookstore, David Ulin from the LA Times, Margot Livesey, Arthur Phillips, Joshua Ferris, and, oh yeah, Reif Larsen. There are some primo-quality books on the list, things I've been blabbing about for years - Fortress of Solitude at #17, Middlesex #16, The Road at a somewhat surprisingly low #6, 2666 in at #4, and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas at #3. And the contributors' short review pieces are revealing, insightful, and compelling for just about each - check it out.

And to again plug the Warwick's blog - we are fully up and running now, with new posts by fellow Warwickians Heather (our resident paranormal fiction expert - someone has to be) and Scott Ehrig-Burgess, who wrote a brilliant bit on Kazuo Ishiguro's new book, Nocturnes. I also have a piece on Margaret Atwood, Lethem, and Auster with a little more Coetzee-bashing. We're also on Twitter - warwicksbooks - and Facebook, if you're so inclined to have anything to do with that.

I'm also midway through Jess Walter's new novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets and it is absolutely, riotously hilarious. There were definitely flashes of very dark humor in Citizen Vince & even The Zero, but nothing like this. I had no idea the man had such a capacity for black humor. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Coming Soon: Captain Alatriste in WWII

I was hesitant to mention this because of my genuine affection for this author and his books, but I just can't let this pass, simply because I would hope that an author of historical fiction would be concerned with actual historical accuracy. (That and because neither he nor any of his people responded to my friendly emails.) Now, I'm assuming that this is an error due to some sort of translation mistake made on the part of the U.S. publisher, but it's still fairly inexcusable. The profoundly egregious* error I refer to is taken from the jacket copy of the latest Captain Alatriste novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte entitled, The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet:
"In the cosmopolitan world of 17th century Madrid, with its posh theaters and gleaming palaces, Captain Alatriste and his protégé Inigo are fish out of water. But the King and court are keeping Alatriste on retainer — he has proved useful in the past. As a veteran with no other livelihood, Alatriste chooses to remain, even as his “employment” brings him uncomfortably close to old enemies. Inigo, now a young man and veteran of the Hundred Years War..."
If Inigo is truly a veteran of the Hundred Years War, then he is at least 170 years old and probably English, rather than Spanish.

History lesson with Seth:  The Hundred Years War was fought from 1337 to 1453 and was concerning dual claims to the vacant French throne, while the Eighty Years War was fought between Spain and Holland between 1568-1648 and was the setting for one of Perez-Reverte's previous books, The Sun Over Breda. These facts could have easily been checked by either the jacket copywriter or Senor Perez-Reverte quite easily on the magical internet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_years_war and  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighty_years_war.

Like I said, I was ready to let this be chalked up to the English translation of the book, but I saw the same reference on http://www.perez-reverte.com/ and decided to call him out on it. The author's Spanish language site thankfully makes no reference to the Hundred Years War, but in this age of Google and high speed information, there is no excuse for historical inaccuarcies from an author of historical fiction. At least read your own website!  Maybe I'm mad because I already read this book and didn't notice the jacket error until someone else pointed it out to me.


God, did I really just post that? Has the Book Catapult jumped the shark?

*None of this is either profound, nor egregious.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Plugin' Zeitoun

Just a heads up and a plug for the brand-spankin' new Warwick's blog:  I have a new review over there on Dave Eggers' Zeitoun. Check it out, yo.
"Eggers writes with a simple, straight forward grace, skipping the looming soapbox completely and offering a concise chronicle of Zeitoun's experiences in all their horror and inhumanity. Dare I say, a heartbreaking work of...well, if not genius, then satisfying competency. As I read this book, I quite literally had to keep reminding myself that this story actually took place in the United States of America of the 21st-century and not war-torn Sierra Leone or some other awful place."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Othmer's E-structions

James P. Othmer, author of The Futurist (a novel I loved & picked as one of my "Notables" for waaaaay back in 2006. Please note: this was the fifth post on the Book Catapult, so don't expect great writing. Well, don't expect that ever, really, but especially in 2006) and the brand new Adland: Searching For the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet, has a brilliant, bitingly hilarious op-ed piece in the September 14 issue of Publisher's Weekly entitled E-Structions: Suggested Protocol For My E-Book Signing.

"A few e-signing Don'ts: because time is limited, we ask that you please Don't make small talk when it is your turn at the e-table. Don't ask about sales, the weight of the author, the incident with the reviewer in Yakima, the death of the independent bookstore, the death of print or of any person, place or industry that is dead or likely to soon die.
Making eye contact with the author, while impossible, is discouraged nonetheless. It is recommended during your allotted 11 seconds that you fix your eyes somewhere between the tops of your Crocs and the undone belt on your terry cloth robe."

Now that's funny. I can't tell you how glad I am to see an author publicly recognize one of the downsides to the electronic book format. To me, not being able to have my book signed would be one of the worst aspects of Kindle-ownership - an aspect that is never discussed as detrimental. I have to say, too often, authors talk the talk, but can't manage to walk the walk. Usually, this has to do with professing an undying love of the independent bookstore, then having links to amazon.com and Barnes & Noble on their websites because those sites pay them for the click-throughs.  While Mr. Othmer has links to the afore mentioned evil-empire bookstores, he also has a link to Indiebound, even though the link takes you to a dead page on Powells.com....  Well, that part didn't work out, but at least the e-book thing is dead on!

Anyway, I would like to thank - nay, applaud Mr. Othmer for being so openminded in an age where too many people download before they think.

Pennsylvania Libraries Are Open!

This afternoon - actually, within the last hour - Pennsylvania passed their budget bill, effectively saving thousands of jobs and keeping their public libraries open!  Yeeehaw!

See the
Free Library blog for more.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pennsylvania's Congress Sux

It has been brought to my attention, by fellow book blogger Corey Wilde over at The Drowning Machine, that every single one of the public libraries in Philadelphia are being shut down as of October 2.  Apparently, there is a legistative issue with the state budget - as in, they don't have one and can't agree on one - which will result in the closing down of all public libraries in the city due to lack of funds. If this isn't indicative of everything that's wrong in this country, I don't know what is.  How does this happen here, right now? It's inconceivable, really, yet a firm reality. Baghdad is burning, Alexandria's library is lost, Philadelphia can't read.

Of course, this goes far beyond mere books. According to the
Free Library of Philadelphia blog, the libraries are "the largest provider of internet access in a city where 41% of homes lack web connection" and over 700 jobs will be lost with the closings. How can a legislator in Pennsylvania get up in the morning knowing these facts, knowing that their complete inaction is leading to the closing of these vital institutes of learning, bastions of knowledge, and safe havens for Philadelphia's youth? I honestly don't care what the issues in the legislature are that are keeping them from passing a budget - it's irrelevant in the face of such disraceful, deplorable action. To make this pill even more bitter is the $34 million in federal economic recovery funds that the city has already spent - Philly is eligible for a grand total of $1.042 billion in recovery. Yet here we are, considering a Philadelphia - the birthplace of American freedom - with NO LIBRARIES?!

Just in time for Banned Books Week September 26-October 3.

I don't know what else to say about this - it makes me sick to my stomach & I can't even think straight. I will admit that to equate this story to atrocities like the burning of the Baghdad National Library in 2003 or the destruction of the library of Alexandria is naive and foolish, but I will do it anyway. Any loss of potential knowledge and free access to literature is cause for tremendous alarm. I can't imagine my own childhood without the freedom to escape into the stacks of my local library. Can you?

I know that sometimes its a drag to read an article and have someone just direct you to someone else's article, but you really need to read
this impassioned post by author Cory Doctorow - it is far more eloquent and passionate than anything I am capable of composing.

For more information on all of this, especially if you live in Pennsylvania, check out http://www.freelibrary.org/ and the Philadelphia Free Library Blog.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Ken Bruen Has Not Won the 2009 Booker

Lately I have been busy working as the website & "social media" guy at my bookstore - which means that now Warwick's is on Facebook, Twitter, and we have a blog - warwicksbooks.blogspot. As a result, I have to split some things I would normally cover on the Catapult and talk about them on my work blog - in a much nicer, less-profanity laced way. For example, the Booker Prize shortlist was announced this morning and, since I was at work, the only way I could write about it in the moment was on the store's blog (here's that post). But since this is something I like to talk about, I'll do it some more here. The list:
I mentioned in my work post that I had just read J.M. Coetzee's Summertime (the third "fictionalized memoir" by Coetzee) and found it "pretentious and way too self-indulgent" (is this plagiarizing?) which was true, although I did kinda like it. Sort of. Coetzee, being a Nobel Prize laureate and a rare two-time Booker winner, has long been an author I have wanted to read, come perilously close to reading, but never have mustered up the will to actually do so. I think that when I complained in an earlier Catapult post about the fact that the Booker nominees are often unavailable to American readers upon the longlist announcement, I of course was destined to have one fall in my lap within days. So I made a point of reading the Coetzee when I got one in the mail and, like I said, I kind of liked it, although by the book's conclusion, I was ready to pistol-whip at least the fictional Coetzee, if not his reality-based creator. Summertime paints a portrait of the John Coetzee of 1970's South Africa as a feeble, spineless, unsuccessful loser and a terrible son, family member, and lover. Should I sympathize with this man with his many social faults or should I loathe him for being so weak?  It is a novel idea, if you will, to blur the lines between fact and fiction - never moreso than in our current skeptical market of memoir reading - but I wonder if he is not so heavy handed with the self-deprecation that the reader comes away liking him even less for admitting that he is a successful author but "look at how pathetic I used to be". Its a little difficult to come away liking someone after reading several hundred pages of his self-loathing but the final passage - concerning a potentially fatal illness of his father's - just made me over-the-top incensed at the character's inhumanity and general unlikeableness.

"...if he will not be a nurse, he must announce to his father: I cannot face the prospect of ministering to you day and night. I am going to abandon you. Goodbye. One or the other: there is no other way."

Douchebag.

Well, regardless, there is no denying Coetzee's talents - the mere fact that he made me hate his character with such loathing is testament to that fact. I share all this because Summertime is still the only one of the shortlisted titles that I have read as of yet. I won't be reading Waters' ghost story and I have never felt a desire to get in touch with my soft Byatt-side, but the Mantel's Wolf Hall intrigues me for more than just the general plotline. I find it interesting that Coetzee, as a multiple Booker winner, is not the front runner in the British Booker betting underworld at the moment. Hilary Mantel is the leader with 11/10 odds of winning the Prize, while Sarah Waters is in second with 7/2 odds. Coetzee is a respectable 3rd at 4/1 but I would have thought him to be a clear favorite. Fascinating.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Plagiarized Real Estate

Plagiarism:  (noun) 1. the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work.
2. something used and represented in this manner. (definition provided by Dictionary.com, thank you.)


Earlier this week, a customer shopping in the bookstore claimed that my one paragraph recommendation for Nam Le's The Boat, was taken almost word for word from a New York Times review. I was not present to defend myself while the allegations were made and the customer - a prominent citizen of La Jolla and a lax sponsor of a stretch of Route 52 cleanup - has of yet neither returned subsequent inquiring phone calls from the staff nor returned to the store. Since this person is unwilling to take the time out of her busy schedule to elaborate on her damning claims, I will now libel the shit out of her on the internet. 

No. No, I won't.

I will use this forum, however, to state my case, as plagiarism is an accusation that I take extremely seriously.

My case:  Between the dates March 20-27, 2008 I read Nam Le's short story collection, The Boat. On April 17, 2008 I posted an excerpt from Mr. Le's story Tehran Calling on this website - fully citing the source (although I did mention the word "stolen") and provided a link to a full review I had written for the KPBS blog Culture Lust, entitled A Defense of the Short Story. (This link is, unfortunately no longer available on Culture Lust, but I've added an excerpt below.) 


"These are seven stories, each set in vastly differing locales – Colombia, Iowa, the South China Sea - that are thematically tied together in such a way that you almost miss it at first glance. Each appears unrelated to the others, yet the emotional toll of living life manages to breathe through on every page, creating that thematic bridge."

I subsequently edited that review down to a paragraph and posted it as a "staff recommendation" with the copies of the book in the bookstore. Mind you, this is over a year ago - my recommends card has been with those copies every, single day since then.

On May 13, 2008, chief book reviewer for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, published
her glowing review of The Boat.  On May 14, 2008, the Times ran a "human interest" story on Nam Le by Patricia Cohen. On June 8, 2008, author and guest reviewer, Hari Kunzru, published his lukewarm New York Times review of The Boat.

On December 19, 2008, I named The Boat as one of the ten best books I had read for the year (a list I have posted annually on The Book Catapult) although, this was 23 days after the New York Times named it to their annual "Notable" list but 24 days after I picked the jacket as winner of The Book Catapult's Best Book Jacket for 2008. Perhaps this can be construed as "plagiarism", I don't know.

Subsequent to the publishing of both my KPBS piece and my reference on Seth's Notable List 2008, the author's website, namleonline.com posted links to both.

I think what bothers me the most about this is that The Boat is a book that I have staunchly endorsed from the moment I opened it 17 months ago. People don't just buy short story collections from debut authors without someone recommending it to them. When I read it, it was a debut that had had no critical acclaim as of yet, no major book reviews, no national advertising that I could see - it just struck me as a beautiful, original collection of stories from an unknown author and a book that I wanted to share with anyone who would listen. That's what I do - I talk to people about books. Anyone who has ever spoken to me or read a single word I have written, knows that what I say and write comes from a single source: the dark depths of Seth Marko's brain. Read some of Kakutani's review - does that sound like something I could pull off as my own? And Kunzru's review?  I like the guy, but could he be any more esoteric and snobbish? He didn't even like the book!

Part of me is flattered that this customer believes that my writing is New York Times worthy, but I have to let her know that I wrote it myself. "Thank you for your mis-informed, offhanded, accidental compliment, but....take a hike, lady."

The extent of my original "staff recommends" card was this:

A brilliant, beautifully written collection of short stories that are interconnected in very subtle thematic ways – so much so, that by the end, you feel that you’ve read a complete novel, rather than separate stories. A profoundly moving book about the human condition and the best book I’ve read so far this year. You can read my full review on KPBS’s Culture Lust blog. -Seth

I later edited it a bit so that the last line read something like "Also selected as a Notable Book for 2008 by the New York Times."  (When I get back to work on Tuesday, I'll re-edit this and post the full text.) This may have been my undoing, as this customer clearly took the NYT reference and ran with it.

I ask you to please peruse the links to the NYT reviews I have provided and compare their text to what I have posted here as my own writing. If you can find where I have plagiarized or have even remotely used similar language, please let me know and I will mail you a copy of The Boat, with a forged signature by Nam Le in it.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Lo$t $ymbol

Yeah, that's right - that's the 2004 me on the leftWaaaaay back in aught-three and aught-four, before bookstores were equipped with barcode scanners, I rang up so many copies of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code that I inadvertently memorized the 10-digit ISBN - 0385504209. This is a depressing thing to have happen to a reader of fine contemporary literature who already has a chip on his shoulder. DVC was poorly written at best, rife with cliches and forced cliffhangers at the end of every 4 page chapter ("He spun to the driver. 'Take me there at once!'") - so much so, that in March 2003, I decided to stop reading the advance reading copy while trapped on an airplane in favor of the Skymall magazine. That's pretty bad. Sometime in 2004 I returned to the book just to figure out what the big deal was - I finished it, but I'm still not sure.

"So what, Seth?", you ask. So I spent 2 bitter years as a bookseller resenting the fact that Dan Brown buttered my bread, rather than Jonathan Lethem or David Mitchell. For every 100 DVC's I sold, maybe one copy of Fortress of Solitude went out the door. I was amazed, actually, at the staying power of the hardcover edition - even after 2 years, people would wander into the bookshop, blinded by the lights and all the brightly colored books, and ask, "Do y'all have a book called, I think it's like, The Da Vinci Connection or The Da Vinci Cornrow?" Seriously? It's sold over 30 million copies worldwide - where have you been? The phenomenon of DVC helped me become the bitter, angry bookseller that I am today - the resentment I felt over having to sell over 1400 copies in my humble indie bookstore helped me focus my power into clearly and concisely recommending and reviewing the books I felt passionate about, in order to usurp the throne of Mr. Brown. 0385504209 made me the man I am today.

Which brings me to my point - and there is one somewhere inside this rant, I assure you. For those of you unaware (and I can forgive this, as the book is not yet released), Dan has finally finished his DVC followup, titled The Lost Symbol, and it hits the shelves on September 15. Everyone who sells new books - who takes it seriously as a business, at least - is excited about this new book, as it is potentially capable of breaking the majority of the industry out of the financial funk of 2009. We have had no Harry Potter or Stephenie Meyer this year - couple that with the good ol' recession and you have a pretty awful year so far. While a tiny part of me appreciates that Random House has slapped a $29.95 price tag on The Lost Symbol - that's a hefty sum to bring into a struggling indie - the other part recognizes that 30 bucks is a ridiculous amount of money to charge for a novel of such mass marketed appeal. Will Amazon and Borders be charging $29.95 for such an item? Hahahahahahahahaha!

Amazon: $16.17 ($9.99 for the Kindle)

Barnes & Noble: $17.97

Borders: $17.97

Walmart: $14.50

Hell, even (former indie, turned chain) Powell's is selling it at $20.96 - 30% off the list price. Why would anyone in their right mind buy this book for $30 if you can find it - quite easily - for the price of a trade paperback? If an independent store is expecting this book to help them out in the failing economy, how can anyone expect them to offer a deep discount? Sure, we'll throw promotions at you, offer $5 coupons and midnight release parties, but there is no way for non-discounters to effectively compete with the prices offered elsewhere. And the crazy thing is, I don't really blame the deep discounters and the chain bookstores this time.

My rhetorical question to the greedy publisher is: Why make the price so exorbitantly high in the first place? No one is buying the book from Random House for $29.95 - we all get at least 40-50% off; this where our profit margin lies. It's the same with the ebooks being offered at the same high list prices by the pubs, but sold by anyone selling them at at least 50% off. The publishers are effectively pricing themselves out of the market and systematically killing the little guy. There has been quite a bit whining and complaining from them lately about cutting back, switching to print-on-demand, consolidating imprints, yet, we still think $29.95 is a reasonable price to ask of the consumer for 528 pages of potential drivel. (That's like 18 cents a page or 70 cents a chapter.)

The refusal by the large publishers (Random House, Penguin, Harper, Hachette, etc) to either lower the price of a hardcover book or cut back on the number of titles printed in that format will eventually destroy their industry. Historically, the design of books hasn't changed a whole lot, so the pubs are locked onto the formatting that they've offered for the last 100 years or so - hence the pigheaded refusal to offer an invisible, paperless ebook at a reasonable price. My genius solution? Cut in half the number of books published in hardcover - this will save pubs and consumers alike millions of dollars - and publish them instead in trade paperback. A $13-20 price point is much easier to swallow, especially in the current fiscal climate. Keeping the prices high just forces small stores to sell high in order to cover their costs and actually make money. Walmart doesn't care that they lose money on The Lost Symbol - as long as they get people in the door, filling their carts with other crap, they make their cash back a thousandfold. The small bookshop down the street doesn't have that option as books are usually their primary product source.
And for the love of God, lower the price of the ebooks! Why is a paperless book the same price as a bound one? Ridiculous. This is the kind of stupid, blind greed that's going to shut down every independent and bankrupt the major publishing houses.

Well, I said that I had a point here somewhere, but this was apparently just another crazed rant. Sorry about that. All I want is a little fairness in the marketplace - that's my point. I implore you, dear reader, if you have an independent bookstore somewhere within reasonable distance of your home, please visit them. Buy something. Or they will die. Thank you.