Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why Brian Selznick is Awesome

On why his upcoming book, Wonderstruck, won't be released as an eBook (from a piece in USA Today of all places): 
"I want it to exist as an object. The turning of physical pages is important to me. I want to feel the weight of a book. The paper in your hands is an intrinsic part of understanding the story."
In one of the coolest experiences I've had as a bookseller, Brian invited the book department staff of Warwick's to his home in La Jolla last March so we could see what he was working on. He had the hand drawn artwork panels of Wonderstruck, his followup to the Caldecott Award-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, laid out all over the walls of his workroom & let us get all up on them. For those who've never seen Brian's work, these are illustrated novels that he draws with a pencil in such tiny detail that he works on a drafting table with a gigantic magnifying glass. Yeah, yeah, they're kids books, whatever. Hugo Cabret is pretty freakin' spectacular and I guarantee, from what I was lucky enough to see last year, the new book is going to blow your face off.

Anyway, the point here is, I LOVE that Brian - a hugely successful, award-winning author who had his other book made into an upcoming goddamn Martin Scorsese movie - recognizes how important the physical, paper-filled rectangle known as a book is to some of us. There's just something about The Book that I can't replace - that I don't want to replace, no matter how amazing the new technology for the delivery of stories gets.

PS: if you live in San Diego, or thereabouts, Warwick's will be hosting a pretty kick-ass event with Brian at the SD Museum of Natural History over in Balboa Park on October 28th. Check out for more info. (You just might meet the operator of the Book Catapult while you're there.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Want My Cut

George Pelecanos is pretty boss - I'm just sayin'. Whenever I read one of his books, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how insane it is that no one else seems to be reading them. What's wrong with everyone?

Pelecanos is perhaps the most underrated writer in crime fiction these days, existing in that same "mean streets" limbo as the equally brilliant Richard Price. His main claim to fame these days - since he tends to have more fans who are critics & dorks like me, rather than cash-carrying book buyers - is his work as a writer and producer on HBO's acclaimed series, The Wire and currently, writer on the same network's Treme. (Interestingly enough, Price also wrote for The Wire.) My line here, basically, is if you've watched The Wire or read crime novels, you really need to be reading George Pelecanos. Really.

There is an efficiency of prose in GP's writing that I especially appreciate. There is no mincing of words, no flowery stylings. No bullshit. Every word, sentence, paragraph, is measured out carefully and methodically so as to have maximum impact & not waste my time. In The Cut - the first in a new series - Pelecanos introduces Spero Lucas, an ex-Marine, pretty fresh from Fallujah, who works as an investigator for a DC defense attorney, specializing in the recovery of lost property. This specialization brings him in contact with some of he seedier elements in town - in this case Mr. Anwan Hawkins, currently incarcerated by the District of Columbia - who hires Spero to find out who's been stealing his packages of drugs from their drop points. (Anwan has a system where packages are FedEx-ed to unsuspecting homes while people are away at work, then his minions collect from the porch after delivery. Someone's been removing packages without Anwan's approval.) Spero's a good man, really, so the moral line he's treading with this work is, well, delicate. But he's a stone cold bad ass.
Now Lucas was just a couple of yards away from the man. They stood in the center of the lot. It was like a basketball court where they had to jump for possession. Or the center circle of a wrestling mat.
"You know your Bible?" said the man.
Lucas did not answer. He stayed focused on the man's lidless eyes.
"John, Eleven-Ten. 'But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him'"
"Not this man," said Lucas.
The hyper-efficiency of Pelecanos' prose works well for a character like Spero, who turns out to be too methodical and driven to stumble into mistakes. He never gets hurt, punched, shot, stabbed, surprised. (Even while stomping the Bible-verse-spouting loser in the above scene.) Yet, he does end up embroiled in a much bigger, messier morass of violence and criminality that he ever anticipated. Fueled by Pelecanos' sharp, punchy dialogue, The Cut roars out of the gate and smashes through the plate glass window at the finish line. Good stuff. Great stuff.

Besides, you've got to love a book with character names like Spero Lucas, Anwan Hawkins, Beano Mobley, Ricardo "Rooster" Holly, & Tavon Lynch. I mean, c'mon - get on the Pelecanos bus already.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I'm Jame$ Patter$on, beeotch!

Forbes has announced their list of the World's Highest Paid Authors for the year - guess who's on the top of the mountain again?

James Patterson - $84 million
Danielle Steel - $35 million
Stephen King - $28 million
Janet Evanovich - $22 million
Stephenie Meyer - $21 million
Rick Riordan - $21 million
Dean Koontz - $19 million (but Best Hair)
John Grisham - $18 million
Jeff Kinney - $17 million
Nicholas Sparks - $16 million
Ken Follett - $14 million
Suzanne Collins - $10 million
J.K. Rowling - $5 million

JPatt managed to garner a $14 million increase in his wages from last year by selling over 10 million copies of his books, along with somewhere around 750,000 eBooks. I had hopes that my 117 Days would have chipped away at his sales a bit, but he still made more money than Tiger Woods ($75 million for sucking at golf) and Leonardo DiCaprio ($77 mil) - the highest paid athlete & actor, respectively. (To illustrate how unfair the gender split is in sports & Hollywood, tennis player Maria Sharapova made "only" $25 million and Angelina Jolie $30 million. 4 out of the 10 authors are women, so not too bad of a split.)

Other fun facts: apparently, Ken Follett will be paid $50 million total for his current trilogy of historical fiction, while Janet Evanovich (who just might be worthy of her own 117 day blasting) commands a $10 million advance for every book. (Last year, she wanted a $50 million advance from her then-publisher Macmillan, who refused, hence her new deal with Ballantine.) Danielle Steel has something like 600 million copies of her books in print, with 2.3 million sales in 2010. Rowling will be somewhere in the top half of the list next year when she opens Pottermore & starts selling eBooks.

How Stephen King managed to rake in that much cash without writing a new book is beyond me. 

Bonus fun fact: I've met Nicholas Sparks & Jeff Kinney and they were both assholes. Nothing says "romance" and "children's books" like egomaniacal douchebags.

One other thing: why are we paying these people so much? Does JPatt work 2333 times harder than me? 'Cause his pay would indicate that he does. I'm just sayin'.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Oh Yeah, Amazon Sux

I'm sorry if you read my previous post where I ever so slightly defended the Amazon Kindle as a dedicated reading device. As a way of bringing me back to earth, I have been alerted to the latest Kindle television commercial:

"I thought you were going to the bookstore."

Seriously, how can independent bookstores compete with blatant, cocksure advertising as that? "Look how stupid you would be if you went to a bookstore."

By the way, if you live in California, please, please, please don't listen to the people parked outside your Trader Joe's pushing people to sign Amazon's ballot initiative petition. Despite what they may tell you, the issue is not about raising taxes or any such nonsense. (The petition is being put forward by a campaign committee called "More Jobs Not Taxes" which has exactly one donor, to the tune of $3 million. Right, Amazon.) All the new law requests is that out of state online retailers (like Amazon) charge sales tax to customers from California - just like every single California based online retailer has always had to do.

A few recent articles on the subject:
KPBS San Diego
New York Times
Hell, just Google "California Amazon tax" 

And the world has been reset.

What Kind of Reader Are You, Anyway?

NYT, Brian Snyder/Reuters
I think I've stumbled onto actual written proof of the fundamental difference that I've always believed existed between the readers of traditional paperbound books and the eBook reader: highlighted in technology writer Nick Bilton's article for the New York Times, Deciding on a Book, and How to Read It. Bilton took up the noble cause of reading a book - the same book, Caleb Carr's The Alienist - on a variety of electronic devices (as well as a paperback version) to decide which one gave him the best reading experience.

Pretty much right away, I could tell that this guy was a different reader than myself. Not that there's anything wrong with that - I'm just sayin'. His biggest complaint about the Kindle was the lack of internet browser: "you can’t hop off to the Web to look up facts, which I often wanted to do when reading a historical novel." When I read, I use that time as a chance to disengage from the digital world I spend so much of my waking day in. (I mean, look at me right now, typing this over breakfast before I go to work as the web coordinator at the store.)

As for reading on his phone (an experience that makes my skin crawl):
Despite the small screen on a mobile phone, I find reading on one to be simple and satisfactory. Maybe this is because I have become accustomed to mobile screens, using them for hours at a time to check the news, sift through e-mail and navigate social networks.
To me, again, the reading experience warrants unplugging, especially from devices that have access to other bits of information. If I were to be reading a book on my phone, what's stopping me from checking my Twitter feed after 10 seconds? I can better understand the Kindle, actually, as a dedicated reading device, free from the distractions of the interweb. Nick's Apple iPad experience illustrated that difference as well:
...iPads offer an immersive reading experience. I found myself jumping back and forth between my book and the Web, looking up old facts and pictures of New York City. I also found myself being sucked into the wormhole of the Internet and a few games of Angry Birds rather than reading my book.
This is the big difference, to me - the "immersive experience," as he calls it. The pages of a book are much more immersive for me than anything the internet can offer. Even when just browsing websites, I'm continuously distracted from whatever is right in front of me & I often drift off down some other rabbit hole of nonsense. This tends to not happen when I'm reading a regular book. (Maybe this would be the case with a dedicated eReader as well.) In the end, his experience with the paperback was the most telling:
For the last chapters of the book, I read the paperback. It took barely a paragraph for me to feel frustrated. I kept looking up things on my iPhone, and forgetting to earmark my page.
There's clearly a place for both types of reader out there - those that, like Nick, prefer an experience where the reader is willing to be distracted (maybe a poor choice of wording, that) and those, like myself, who feel that the experience of reading an unplugged, printed book is fully immersive in itself.

By the way, this article also ran in the paper version of the New York Times on Thursday, August 11. That's got to mean something, I just don't know what.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Civility of Voyeurism

Photo courtesy of Manhattan Rare Book Co.
Back in March, I read Amor Towles' debut novel, Rules of Civility - partially because the publisher was taking me to a dinner with the author, (full disclosure here) but once I read the first page - yes, it passed the ol' first page test with flying colors - I was in.

Rules is a novel about a year in the life - 1938 to be precise - of young Katey Kontent, 25-year-old New York City secretary, struggling with identity and her place in the world. (I know, I know, yadda-yadda. Bear with me.) At a New Year's Eve party, Katey and her friend Eve meet Tinker Grey, a handsome, gadabout, high-society-type straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald piece. Tinker's friendship opens new doors for Katey and she floats through the upper echelons of NY society with ease, although always as more of a voyeur than an active participant. I know, it doesn't fit in with my usual genres of whale books and crime novels, but Towles is a truly stellar talent. Without a trace of contrivance, he completely brings 1930's NYC to life - the clothes, the restaurants, the bars, the dialogue, the smoking, drinking, dancing - everything, top to bottom. (It's a little bit Mad Men for the 30's.) To me, that's what Rules is all about - it's a view into a lost world of American life. Sure, 1938 proves to be a life changing year for little Katey Kontent, but Towles' creation of the era is what has stuck with me as something special.

I always love seeing a complete era of Americana brought to life in the pages of a novel - even more impressive to see in a debut. (Towles is an investment banker by day, on top of it.) 1938 itself was in the middle a pretty fascinating time period of American history - the Depression was almost behind us, but World War II still loomed, unseen, over the horizon. What would that have felt like? Katey has a certain giddiness with having the oyster of the world before her at 25, but what would your "everyman" have been like, riding the subway to work every day, glad to have a job?

Which brings me back to the opening scenes of Rules - set forward in 1966, Katey and her husband are attending the Museum of Modern Art exposition of Walker Evans' voyeuristic NYC subway photographs, Many Are Called. Within the faces captured surreptitiously by Evans, Katey sees her old friend Tinker Grey and the flood gates of reminiscence open. As much as I loved the ensuing book, I was drawn to the use of Evans' work, as he has been a favorite photographer of mine since my photography student days in icy upstate New York. (In fact, I own an original print of Evans', as well as a well-worn copy of the book version of Many Are Called.)

In 1938, Evans began taking photographs of people on the subway with a camera hidden in his overcoat. (He shot through a buttonhole!) To me, the photos are as much about the vulnerability of the subjects as they're an unprecedented glimpse into a bygone era. They are completely unposed and raw - the subjects are exactly as they were in life, they're not gussied up for the camera, they're not even aware of its existence. They are are lost in their own thoughts, daydreaming, chatting with friends, looking out the window, people-watching. There's something amazing about looking at someone from 70 years ago as they people-watch...

Anyway, the images are a perfect complement to Amor's novel, as they bring a visual element to his words and the era in which he set them. (This post is as much a plug for Walker Evans as it is for Amor Towles, I suppose.) Here are a few, courtesy of Yale University Press, who re-published Many Are Called in 2004.

And don't forget to read Rules of Civility. Cheers.

Ah, the innocent era before the connotations of the "Hitler moustache."

(Above) She's always been one of my favorites. Shock? Awe? Disgust? Happiness?