Letterforms Outside the Box

OctopussSHShaded

I discovered hand lettering in sixth grade, one rainy day poking through my mom’s studio in the attic. She had a little graphic design business on the side—on the side of what I was never sure, but between that and the darkroom in the basement it gave her every excuse not to engage with my dad, who had custody of the rest of the house. But she let me do anything I wanted up there: look through her collection of art books, use any of her cool materials—dip pens and mechanical pens and dyes and watercolors and big pads of thick cold-pressed paper. I was a careful kid, asked before I used anything and always cleaned up after myself, so I was always welcome, and it was a fine place to explore.

I already had a low-level fascination with type, and liked to look covetously through her big envelope of Letraset sheets, which I probably liked originally because they were a step or two up from the rub-ons I loved so much when I was little—the term for them, technically, was “rub-down transfers,” sheets of little dry picture decals that you could transfer onto the panoramic board backgrounds they came with—but that’s what we called them. In retrospect they sound kind of boring, but there was a certain hypnotic pleasure in placing each one in just the right spot, thoroughly rubbing the back, and pulling away the plastic—oh, the suspense!—to see if it had worked completely, or if you’d have to try a second time to transfer the other half of the image, and the edges never quite lined up. Letraset was like that, but I was also entranced by the letterforms themselves. I’m not sure I’d ever thought about the physical lines and shapes that made up the words in the books and comics I loved, but this made me consider them, and I liked the artistry involved.

Letraset was expensive, though, and I knew better than to use up my mom’s just playing around. But I found something almost as good, for my experimental purposes: a thick black three-ring binder with some 500 pages of fonts, full alphabets in graduated point sizes, from the conservative Times New Roman to any number of far out decorative typefaces. Octopuss. Lazybones. Motter Umbra. Tango. Sinaloa. This was the ’70s, and type was weird. But all I needed to experiment was tracing paper, a sharp pencil, and a radiograph to ink the finished product in. I spent hours out of my nerdy pre-teen life playing around with letterforms, and eventually started a little business doing custom lettering jobs—mostly for the front of other kids’ notebooks or textbooks, where I’d carefully rubber-cement the tracing paper onto Bristol board and proudly hand the finished product over for a couple of dollars.

I was still hand-lettering up until I got to art school, which had a computer lab. And then my agonizingly slow tracing days were over—you could do anything with some scalable fonts, Microsoft Word, and a little patience. I swapped free fonts with friends the way we would music a few years later. But I never lost my love for nicely handcrafted letterforms; I like to make them, and I like to look at them. Computers may have killed the necessity for hand-drawn type, but what is being made has a rapt audience online, and there are no end of variations.

Which is an awfully long-winded way of introducing a few of this week’s typographical finds.

D-Main-resizeFirst off, via Taxi, Nicola Yeoman’s letterforms. The collection isn’t a full alphabet, but assemblages of materials that form letters, and accompanying photos that deconstruct them, breaking them down into details. They’re haunting and exquisite—I think the letter D is my favorite, though the New York Times Magazine-commissioned T, with its scaffolding of branches, is a close second.

Tommy-Perez_AtoZoë_QOn the less mysterious side of things is designer Tommy Perez’s food alphabet, which he created for—and with—his 2-year-old daughter Zoë. As Perez explained to Fast Company Design, it was a way to teach her the ABCs but also get her involved:

Zoë has always had an interest in helping or contributing to whatever I was working on…. Whether it be building something or sketching, Zoë always wanted to be doing the same. So when I shifted to freelancing from home, I wanted to make sure she had something fun and creative that was just her own.

Plus, he says, she gets to eat the finished product, which includes hummus, olives, quinoa, and sunflower seeds.

calligraphy_textFinally, we have Christina Vanko writing in The Atlantic about sending all her text messages in calligraphy for a week. And while the temptation is to dismiss it as gimmicky and cute… it’s a great gimmick. And it is cute. Plus, as projects go, it turned out to be pretty interesting; she logs her friends’ responses (“It’s like you’re deaf and you’re writing down your response to everything. You should do this to ppl in person haha”) and questions (“Have you made like a go-to standard phrase page with like “lol” and “I know right?”). Aside from the more predictable discoveries—that writing everything out made her more thoughtful about what she was saying and how—I thought it was interesting that even with the expressiveness of handwriting, she missed the convenience of emojis (and used selfies instead).

So there you are, three artists whom I wouldn’t necessarily term typographers or calligraphers, who’ve taken advantage of the visual and conceptual resources of both arts. So much of my reading lately tends to be in pixel form, or e-ink, or just so content-dependent that I wouldn’t notice a beautiful ampersand if it fell out of the book and broke my toe. But it’s good to think about letters, and lettering, and what goes into the parts that make the whole.

(Images, top to bottom: Octopuss font; “Letter D” © Nicola Yeoman; “Letter Q” © Tommy Perez; Christina Vanko for The Atlantic.)

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Beyond “Ass in Chair”: Poets & Writers’ “Writers Recommend”

water_flowing_ms-archivesWell, hello. We’re back from a brief midsummer break—thanks eternally to Terry Weyna for holding down the fort—recharged, we hope, and refreshed, with all sorts of good things to share. As much as the labor-of-love aspect of blogging can feel like a liability, it’s unquestionably nice to be able to walk away from something for a little while without major repercussions other than a dismal page hit count and some impatient readers. Most responsibilities, though, require regular attendance even when the desire to do so has taken off for a long weekend in the woods—ironically, or maybe that should be especially, when it comes to the creative pursuits that we love enough to make them our livelihood, but which sometimes feel like nothing more or less than jobs.

My muse takes more vacations than I do, and better ones too. Not just mine, of course. But sometimes it feels that way, which is when it’s a good idea to sit down and read a few entries in Poets & Writers’ Writers Recommend series, where they “ask authors to share books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired them in their writing. We see this as a place for writers to turn to for ideas that will help feed their creative process.” The responses come from a diverse group of writers—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, published by large imprints and small, with best sellers and backlist books—all of them describing, in a paragraph or two, what helps them keep the words flowing.

I’m not necessarily a fan of the Internet as decentralized group therapy—you want therapy, go to a therapist. But there’s something reassuring to see how assiduously other writers have worked to find work-arounds, and how obviously happy they are to talk about it. We all know ass in chair. But that only goes so far; the ass has to leave the chair periodically to feed the process, whether literally or metaphorically, and I enjoy hearing how other writers do it.

The series is a great window into other people’s creative lives: the talismans, the workplaces, the prompts—music, junk shop photographs, a shoebox full of paper scraps with words and phrases on them—and my favorite, the unblocking techniques. There are a lot of odes to changes of scenery, long walks, mundane tasks, eavesdropping, and showers; I love that Ivy Pochoda has to fight the impulse to take a second shower during the course of her writing day—“that seems weird”—so she goes for a drive instead. Kevin Sampsell gets ideas from collage, both making his own and what he terms “disjointed art: anything that surprises the reader, the viewer, the listener.” In fact, the series is full of quotes that I’ve copied down (a number of writers, including Alix Ohlin and Kyle Minor, advocate writing out, longhand, passages of work they love). I can tell myself a hundred times in a row that impasse unfailingly precedes inspiration, but that can feel like talking to an eye-rolling teenager who sighs and mutters, “Yeah, mom, OK.” It’s much more encouraging to read that sentiment from writers I like and respect, and who have the track records to make me listen to them. And it’s reassuring to find out how many people ritually get out their “Write Like a Motherfucker” coffee mugs when the going gets tough. Mine comes out at least once a month.

Here, write this down for starters. It’s from poet Peter Everwine, quoting Rutger Kopland, quoting Gerrit Krol: “If you don’t stir your soul with a stick every day, you’ll freeze solid.”

(Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.)

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Sunday Links, August 10, 2014

What to Read Next

John Scalzi lists his favorite books about epidemics.  I’m surprised he left out Mira Grant’s Newsfeed Trilogy — but maybe he classifies those more as zombie novels than novels about epidemics.  But if that’s the case, how come he included Max Brooks’s World War Z?  Still, it’s hard to argue with his choices; Stephen King’s The Stand may be the best book ever written about an epidemic.

io9 has a terrific list of ten novels that will make you more passionate about science.  It would be easy to double the size of that list, I think.  Add the novels of Richard Powers, for instance (maybe Plowing the Dark would be a good place to start), or some of Marge Piercy’s work (like He, She and It), or a novel or two by Margaret Drabble (The Peppered Moth, perhaps).

CNN offers its opinion on what African writers you should be reading right now.  The article substantially lengthened my list of books to read.

Reading

Buzzfeed, with one of its inimitable lists, gives us 18 things that happen when you’re addicted to reading.  Number 12 is especially telling for me, as I regularly burst into tears when something sad happens in books.  You should have seen me while I was reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.  (Or, rather, it’s a good thing you didn’t; red eyes, leaking nose and splotchy face is not my best look.)

I’ve had this feeling more than once:  either I liked something no one else did, or I hated something everyone else liked.  It’s the reviewer’s dilemma.

Writing

io9 offers tips for creating memorable characters.

Lev Grossman offers advice on how not to write your first novel in a fascinating biographical essay.  I’m excited to read his new novel, The Magician’s Land — the third in his trilogy of books about a school for wizards that is no Hogwarts, but somehow manages to convey much of the same charm on a fully adult level.

Publishing

The dispute between Amazon and Hachette continues to simmer — though just lately, it seems to be coming to a rolling boil.  Amazon has launched a website called readersunited.com, through which it is appealing to its customers to support it in the dispute.  John Scalzi wrote a well-reasoned article on his blog, Whatever, about how this gambit indicates that Amazon is feeling increasingly nervous about how it is being perceived by its customers.  One of the reasons why Amazon seems to be feeling the pressure:  a petition by more than 900 authors, published in today’s New York Times, asking Amazon to stop using authors as hostages.  The signatories to the petition include a number of heavy hitters, including Stephen King, John Grisham and Douglas Preston.  Not all of the writers are published by Hachette, either, not by a long shot — but they all understand that their publishers could be next in Amazon’s crosshairs.  The Guardian has more information about the petition.  One of the bloggers for the Times points out how wrong Amazon was to choose George Orwell and paperback books as their example of how publishers and authors resist new forms of publication.  Independent authors have responded with a petition of their own in support of Amazon.  Author Hugh Howey has gone further, writing on his blog that authors are being hoodwinked by traditional publishers, who are making a fortune off electronic books but failing to share the riches with the people who wrote the product that’s making them so much money.  The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, writes about how Amazon’s numbers regarding ebooks aren’t as transparent as Amazon suggests.  How will this dispute be resolved?  It’s anyone’s guess, but right now it looks to me as if Amazon is losing.  Stay tuned.

Fun Stuff

To celebrate the upcoming publication of Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Toast gives us a list of ten ways to determine whether we’re in a Murakami novel.

Michael Cunningham and Ursula K. LeGuin talk about orthodoxy, gender and breaking down the barriers between genres.  The article also gives you a link to buy LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven for only $3.99.  It’s one of my favorite books of hers, and I heartily recommend it.

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Sunday Links, August 3, 2014

Awards

The 2014 Scribe Awards have been announced.  These awards are given to those who excel at media tie-in writing.  I’d never thought of this category as needing awards — my snobbishness tends toward avoiding tie-in books — but there’s excellence everywhere, if you’re only willing to look for it.

The winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award has been announced.

The Man Booker prize longlist is almost as much fun in contemplation as in actuality.  This is the first time Americans have been elgible for nomination, and there are two such authors on the list:  Karen Joy Fowler for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (which you may recall won the PEN/Faulkner Award in the United States) and Joshua Ferris for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.  Personally, I’d like to read all thirteen nominees.  Which ones have you read?

If the Booker isn’t your thing, be sure to vote for the Not the Booker Prize.  The deadline is midnight tonight, so vote quickly!  (That long list sure looks tempting.)

What to Read Next

The beginning of the month always brings a deluge of suggestions for new reading, and August is no exception.  Kirkus suggests the best bets for the month in speculative fiction.  I’ve read Graham Joyce’s The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, and I agree that it’s very good indeed.

Kirkus also suggests anthologies of science fiction and fantasy short fiction.

Tor.com has a plethora of articles about exceptional genre fiction.  First, there’s this list of British genre fiction from late July, which makes me want to take a quick trip to London.  To complement your reading of the fiction, you might want to take a good, close look at Strange Horizon’s symposium on the state of British science fiction and fantasy.

Second, third, fourth and fifth, there are Tor.com’s lists of books being released in August:  science fiction, urban fantasy, fantasy, and genre-benders.  That last category looks especially delectable to me.  Which ones do you want to read?

Publishers Weekly lists the most anticipated books of the fall reading season.

Kirkus lists nine books a reader could recommend to anyone.  I’m reading Karen Rusell’s Sleep Donation right now, and it’s pretty entrancing.

Gizmodo lists 25 essential books about space travel.

io9 lists 21 books that changed science fiction and fantasy forever.  To which I can only say:  yep, those.

Tor.com suggests a way to circumnavigate the globe through genre fiction.

Remember the fuss over whether grown-ups should be reading young adult literature?  Well, it’s still a subject for debate.  Alicia Lozano discusses why young adult literature is good reading regardless of your age.

Literary Criticism

Public Books has an excellent discussion of The Arabian Nights by Madeleine Doby, using as her starting point a new retelling of 19 of the tales by London-based Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh in One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling and moving on to Marina Warner’s work of criticism, Stranger Magic.  Both look well worth the reading time, but I’m especially excited to learn of Warner’s work, as I’ve enjoyed her previous work with European fairy tales.

Motherboard discusses feminist science fiction.  Stories by Tiptree, LeGuin, Russ and others certainly informed my thinking when I was a teenager, and they can do the same for you, or your daughter, or your granddaughter, today.

It’s time to take comics seriously, and Public Books gives us a discussion of three compilations that are worthy of close attention.

For Writers

Stephen King has 22 pieces of advice for writers.  They seem pretty straightforward for the most part — nothing I haven’t seen elsewhere — but I’ve never thought of writing as a form of telepathy before.  It makes sense, and it’s a good image.

If you write science fiction, fantasy or horror but don’t have an agent, you’ll be interested to know that four major genre publishers do not require that manuscripts be agented.  As one who reads widely in these genres, I’m happy to report that these publishers are, in fact, quality houses that publish much of what I read.

Publishing

Doesn’t it seem that books are getting longer?  It’s not your imagination; they actually are increasing in length.  BookRiot gives us the statistics, and then discusses the whys behind this trend toward length.

Yes, Amazon and Hachette are still at war.  Amazon gave some specific reasons for the dispute in a letter to authors and readers.  Chuck Wendig reminds us that, whatever Amazon says, it’s in this for its own profit, and writers forget that at their peril.

HarperCollins is trying a different means to get around the Amazon juggernaut:  selling its own ebooks.  My guess is that the books are not available directly from the publisher in .mobi format, which is proprietary to Amazon and the best format for reading on the Kindle, so this doesn’t make buying from the publisher an option for me — which is a shame, because I’d surely be doing it.  The Guardian doesn’t seem to think that this venture will make much of a dent in Amazon’s hide.

io9 discusses why ebooks cost what they do.

Collecting Books

Many of us who love the printed word also love the packages those words came in.  Indeed, there are many who do not really read much who nonetheless love books merely as packages.  Whichever kind of collector you are, you’ll wish you could afford these books.  If I had to choose from the list, I’d plump for the second edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  It’s what they mean when they say “Great American Novel” in my estimation.

There’s a notion that one can have too many books and become a book hoarder — or a tsundoku, as the Japanese call it.  I think it’s a silly concept; one can never have too many books.  (I suppose that sentiment automatically makes me a tsundoku, eh?  Especially as the Los Angeles Times defines “more than 1000” volumes a problem — I’ve got about 15 times that many.)

One of the methods of collecting some pursue is to obtain every edition of a particular book.  For that purpose, this article on the changing covers of iconic books might come in handy.

Libraries and Kindle Unlimited

Have you heard about the new Amazon offer?  All you can read on your Kindle for one low, low price — well, so long as “all you can read” doesn’t include any books published by the Big Five publishers, who aren’t participating.  So why not just go to your local public library?  Still, a 30-day introduction to the service is available for free, which might make it worth trying.  Me, I have too much to read as it is.

Cool Stuff

Children’s books are sneakier than you might have thought.  I guess that’s one way to make certain that parents will continue to read to their kids!

If you’ve ever read Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, you’ll appreciate this recreation of the story in gummy candies.  I’ve rarely seen anything sillier or more awesome.

Kirkus wants a few sequels — not a demand often heard these series-filled days, but an absolutely valid request as to the books featured in its article.  I’d love to read the sequel to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s dense, heavily footnoted, and absolutely enchanting story of rival magicians.

Dorkly lists the best Dr. Seuss mash-ups on the internet.  The list captured me immediately with the depiction of The Cat Woman in the Hat.

Ayn Rand’s take on Harry Potter?  I thought you’d never ask.

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Summer Reading, Off the Beaten Track

beachbookSummer isn’t publishing’s busiest season, but the big books that come out in June and July and August get the benefit of a major shelf-to-beach-towel popular push. And then there are the other four tried-and-true types of summer reading recommendations: the difficult books, which require stretches of undistracted time; the year’s popular books that everyone’s been meaning to get to; the doorstoppers; and the lightweight fun books suitable for packing on vacation (an easy mnemonic here would be Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy, but don’t quote me on that).

But there are also the off-the-beaten track books that might otherwise fall through the cracks of that wide-planked vacation house sun porch—or, for the rest of us not so blessed, that we just might miss if someone didn’t point us in the right direction. To start with, the Open Letters Monthly editors chimed in earlier this month with their favorite hot-weather reads, all of which are guaranteed to make you break a sweat.

And now Flavorwire has put up a tasty list under the umbrella of The Best Indie Literature of 2014 So Far—maybe not explicitly a beach umbrella, but they’re all good candidates. (OLM reviewed Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd in June, if you want a closer look.)

Entropy, on the other hand, doesn’t mince words, and its Ultimate Summer Reading List cuts a wide swath. From the ubiquitous Karl Ove Knausgaard to Muriel Spark to Sawako Nakayasu’s The Ants—perfect for your August office picnic, am I right?—there’s a little summer fun for everyone.

And if you’ve been meaning to expand your horizons without leaving dry land, try out some works in translation from Graywolf Press. They’re having a 30% off Summer Reading Sale through August, good titles all. Look, if you want to read Hillary Clinton’s book you can borrow it from the person the next towel over—and really, I do, but I’m happy to let someone else haul it around in their tote bag. I’m in the mood for something a little different this summer. I might not be taking the most spectacular vacations this year, but my reading is sure to shine and sparkle in the sun—or crinkle crisply in the air conditioning, take your pick.

(Photo credit: lakewentworth via photopin cc.)

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Poetry Slam: North Carolina’s Poet Laureate Drama

magnetic_poetryThe more job listings I read, the more efficient I get at parsing them. First, of course, comes the position description, to make sure it’s something I can actually do and might even want to. The list of requirements takes a little longer to weigh: which are the slam-dunks (grasp of basic grammar, proficiency in Microsoft Office Suite, ability to lift 25 pounds), which are the no-ways (second language, second Master’s degree, second shift), and which are the gray areas, the fake-it-’til-you-make-it qualifications. A professor of mine once kindly pointed out that the only person with every one of the skills called for in a given employment description is the person who already has the job, but there’s still the fear of overestimating one’s talents. Nobody wants to be humiliated in the course of an interview, and certainly no one wants to somehow land a job they’re unsuited for.

It happens all the time, though. Think of FEMA’s Michael Brown and the “heck of a job” he did after Hurricane Katrina, or Cathie Black, New York Mayor Bloomberg’s choice for School Chancellor, who stepped down a little more than three months into her tenure when it became painfully clear that chairing Hearst Magazines didn’t quite translate into running the New York City school system. Think of George W. Bush’s friend Harriet Miers, who never made it to sit on the Supreme Court but could have. Or, if you like your incompetence scandals a little more literary, think of Valerie Macon, who was North Carolina’s Poet Laureate for all of six days.

To be fair, it wasn’t so much Macon’s inadequacy for the position that came under fire as Governor Pat McCrory’s disregard for the selection process, apparently typical of his general disengagement with cultural issues. Traditionally, the North Carolina Arts Council would review applications from poets around the state, and then submit its recommendation to the governor. McCrory, however, went ahead and chose Valerie Macon to fill the position being vacated by outgoing Laureate Joseph Bathanti without consulting anyone other than an unnamed “staff member.” Macon, a government employee—she’s a disability determination specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services—has two self-published poetry books to her name, Shelf Life (2011) and this year’s Sleeping Rough, a collection of poems about homelessness. While she’s been lauded by fellow employees and fellow poets alike for her energy, activism, and earnestness, this is not a good-intentions kind of job. Poet Laureate is a serious role; it’s the state’s face of the arts, and—especially in these times of whittled-away cultural funding—needs to be treated as such. Poet Jaki Shelton Greene, a recent inductee into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, described McCrory’s attitude as

an affront to all the hard work so many of us have done…. I can name writer after writer in this state with a legacy not just in writing, but in leadership on how art informs lives. I don’t think McCrory has a clue. But what’s clear is he knows he doesn’t have to have a clue, just be governor.

Macon resigned the post six days after her appointment, noting that

I would like to encourage everyone to read and write poetry. They do not need prestigious publishing credits or a collection of accolades from impressive organizations—just the joy of words and appreciation of self-expression.

It’s unclear how McCrory intends to proceed in order to fill the position, but it looks as though Macon is getting her wish. The Raleigh, NC News & Observer invited readers to respond to the fracas with poems of their own, and the people comported themselves admirably in free verse, pentameter, and, of course, limericks:

When art’s left to our politicians,
It’s subject to noxious conditions.
The state’s warm embrace
Can become a disgrace
And displeasing to academicians.

—Barry Campbell

(Image is “Magnetic Poetry,” from Natalie Roberts’s Flickr set, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

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Sunday Links, July 20, 2014

Awards

The Shirley Jackson Award winners have been announced.

The Prometheus Award winners have been announced.

What to Read Next

The Audio Bookaneers list new releases in audio books for the rest of the year and into 2015 — keep scrolling, it’s a long blog post!

For those of you who tend not to click on my links about science fiction and fantasy, here’s one you might want to click anyway:  literary SF and fantasy novels — books you might not have thought of as genre novels, but that really are.  And for those who do read genre novels, maybe you missed these because they get shelved with mainstream fiction.  Give ‘em a try.

Flavorwire suggests 50 fabulist books everyone should read.  There’s something on this list for every taste, so long as that taste includes a wild imagination.  I’m halfway tempted to spend the next six months just reading from this list.

My Bookish Ways has suggestions for books coming out in August that ought to be on your must-read list if you enjoy science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Stephen King reads at least as much as he writes, and that’s saying something.  Here are 22 books he’s recommended on Twitter lately.

Writers and Writing

Bustle lists thirteen of the most annoying writers you’ll ever meet, setting forth types who will get you fuming.  I am lucky that the writers I meet tend more often to be one of three of the most helpful writers you’ll ever meet.

If you’re trying to write yourself, these five guides might be useful to you.  And, of course, you don’t want to overlook my husband’s coming The Writer’s Idea Thesaurus!

Damien Walter, who seems to be all over this version of Sunday Links, says that novels are losing the narrative arms race.  There’s so much good stuff on television, so many good movies, so many other places to find narrative, that novels just can’t compete.  I happen to think we’re living in a new Golden Age of television, and I love movies, but still:  I’d rather be reading.  According to the survey you can find in the middle of Walter’s column, most people agree with me that books are still the way to go.

500 waysChuck Wendig suggests that every author should try acting as his or her own publisher at least once.

If you’re still on the road to traditional publishing, this article about the ten reasons an editor stops reading your submission will likely to useful.  It’s caused me to rewrite a story or two myself.

Publishing

Edan LepuckiThe dispute between Amazon and Hachette continues.  This article in the San Francisco Chronicle talks about how authors are stuck in the middle, and what they’re doing about it.

Damien Walter suggests that what is really at issue here is the fact that books are not mere consumer goods.  Publishers have invited us to view them that way in recent decades, but books are actually more complicated than that.  It’s an interesting argument.  Walter suggests, among other things, that certain authors have been complicit in making books into nothing but the literary equivalent of junk food, and condemns those like Scott Turow, James Patterson and John Grisham, who have themselves protested Amazon’s conduct.  Just for the record, I don’t agree with Walter on this point.  I may not read all of these writers, and I may even disdain some of them, but there are those among them whom I consider the best at what they do.

Hugh HoweyHugh Howey thinks he owes the entirety of his success to Amazon, though, and he is one of the few voices out there supporting the retail giant. Michael Levin agrees that there are no reasons to support the major publishers and traditional publishing any more refuting Brook Warner’s piece supporting the opposite contention.

Simon and schusterAnd in the midst of all this foofaraw comes the news that Amazon is considering purchasing Simon & Schuster, one of the Big 5 publishers left in business.  As time has gone by, this has seemed more and more an unfounded rumor, but the very thought was enough to send a chill down my spine.

In the meantime, Amazon is suggesting that you pay it $120 per year for the equivalent of a free library card.  Me, I still love going to the library — and my library also gives me access to e-books to read on my Kindle in return for the tax dollars I’d be spending anyway.  No “Kindle Unlimited” for me, thanks.  BookRiot is in my corner, explaining why public libraries are not “Netflix for books” or any other form of commercial enterprise, and why that’s important.

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Sunday Links, July 13, 2014

Awards

The nominees for the World Fantasy Awards have been announced.  Ellen Datlow and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro will be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Awards this year, and both are richly deserved.

What to Read Next

The Millions offers its take on the most anticipated books of the second half of 2014.  Of all the books listed, I think I’m most looking forward to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which is related to both Gilead and Home.

BookRiot lists the best books of the first six months of the year — so between The Millions and BookRiot, you’ve got 2014 covered.  Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is weird and wonderful, and I’ve got Authority waiting for me with Acceptance preordered, a terrific trilogy that will send your mind scurrying off in directions you haven’t yet visited.

Tor.com lists the British genre novels coming to us this month.  I’d like one of each, please — but you’ve read me saying that before, haven’t you?

Between the Lines suggests you read some of their recent favorites.  I can vouch for The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, which, yes, is about zombies, but has something new and different to say about them.

The Well-Readheads pick some satisfying summer reads.

The American Library Association Conference took place recently in Las Vegas, which must have been a great time.  I mean, really, add the bright lights, great food and crazy enjoyment of Las Vegas to books?!  What could be better than that?  These are the books that buzzed at the conference.

If you’d enjoy some melancholy this summer, The Reading Room suggests you try ten books guaranteed to make you cry.  And yes, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green made me cry — and more than once, at that.  I’m kind of afraid to see the movie for fear of severe dehydration.

Publishing

Fred D. White is the author of “Memory, Fantasy, Neurology: In Praise of the Physical Book,” which appears in the latest issue of Wilderness House Literary Review.  It’s a brilliant essay, and I’m not saying that just because Fred’s my husband.

Fortunately, despite the fate of the Santa Clara University Library — um, excuse me, the Learning Commons, Technology Center and Library —books do not appear likely to leave the scene any time soon.  They may transition to e-books, but the book isn’t dying so long as kids read.  And kids are reading up a storm, which is very good news indeed.

The Society of Authors’ chief executive has come right out and said it:  traditional publishers’ terms are no longer fair or sustainable for writers.  Publishers’ profits are increasing, while the sums paid to authors are decreasing.  As a result, self-publishing is becoming an ever more appealing alternative.  We live in interesting times, that’s for sure.

The latest in the dispute between Amazon and Hachette has Amazon working harder than ever to drive a wedge between Hachette and its authors:  it has suggested that perhaps authors should receive 100% of the revenues from the sale of their e-books while the dispute continues.  Amazon seems to have reckoned that authors were venal and stupid; in fact, though, authors saw through the ploy, and noted that this still leaves them in the middle of a dispute between giants.  One source even called this a “condescending publicity stunt.”

Fun Stuff

Flavorwire has a list of the ten best songs about libraries and librarians.  Sing your way to good reading!

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Better Late Than Never Dept.: The PEN 2014 Literary Award Shortlist

pen2014logoSometimes I’m late in keeping current with literary competition news here, and then sometimes I’m criminally late. My lack of commentary on the PEN 2014 Literary Awards would fall into that last category, unfortunately. So I’m going to do my best to catch us all up, starting with the fact that PEN America announced the shortlist for its nine book awards a little less than a month ago. It’s an interesting selection, light on the titles you’ll find on every other list, and heavy—especially in the debut fiction category—on smaller presses, which always cheers me.

I’m not going to link to all the shortlisted selections, but I will send you over to GalleyCat’s page of free samples from each of the nominees, which should give you at least a taste of what’s on deck. And if you like what you see, take a look at their longlist as well—there’s a lot of good work that may have flown below various forms of radar this year. I also owe them one, since they linked to my review of Christopher Hacker’s The Morels on their Recommended Reading: Debut Fiction page back in May. The winners aren’t announced until the end of this month, which gives everyone three solid weeks of blissful summer reading to pick a few favorites and run with them. There are no Goldfinches here—every one of these has some complex odds on it—so it should be an interesting contest. If I had an extra couple of months and nothing else to do, I’d be perfectly happy to read my way through the entire list. As it is, I’ll be happy to have a couple more under my belt by the time the winner is announced.

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Happy Birthday, Jane Gardam!

jane-gardam-photo1-199x300Happy birthday to Jane Gardam, born in North Yorkshire in 1928, and still going strong at age 86. I’ve left plenty of traces of my own Gardam fandom, with a piece in Bloom and a note in Open Letters Monthly’s Year in Reading for 2013. But for years she felt a bit like a secret-handshake author, known to readers of literary Anglophile fiction but not so very far outside those circles.

Unlike good restaurants and hole-in-the-wall clubs, though, it’s not in anyone’s best interest for writers to remain obscure—at least not the good ones. Fortunately Jane Gardam is garnering more notice all the time, most recently a New York Times piece by Roslyn Sulcas that ought to have won her a pack of new readers. And if that doesn’t do the trick, I offer up a review of what is arguably Gardam’s masterpiece, Old Filth, written by Like Fire’s own Terry Weyna. She declares it “full of unexpected buried pearls, hidden amethysts and sudden kindnesses,” and I would concur. Many happy regards, Ms. Gardam!

Old Filth
Jane Gardam
Europa Editions, 2006
by Terry Weyna

When I picked up Old Filth, I expected a book full of Sir Edward Feathers’s reminiscences about a life at the bar in Imperial England—specifically, in the Hong Kong referred to in the title. (“Filth” means, for a British solicitor or barrister, “Failed in London—Try Hongkong.” ) After all, this book was about the life of a solicitor who ultimately became a judge, reaching the pinnacle of achievement in his profession, and in a foreign culture at that. And what is life about, for a lawyer, but his triumphs and his wretchedly unfair defeats?

But this book isn’t about a life at the bar. It is about the life of Sir Edward, from his earliest days on earth to his last. It is about an adult life full of wealth and regard, yet one that was not truly happy; professionally fulfilling, certainly, but with unhappiness lurking in every corner. It’s a remarkable character study, skillfully written so that the reader makes discoveries from inferences while enjoying language so lovely that it sinks into the brain like a song.

Old Filth skips about in time, rather like an old man’s reminiscences—an odd and sometimes confusing structure, but one that works. One moment the elderly Sir Edward is in a hotel recovering from a sprain, and the next the child Eddie is suffering at the hands of a vituperative caregiver. Sir Edward’s memories range from his birth in Malay (as Malaysia was then known), to a bitterly unhappy childhood in Wales, through prep school, World War II, Oxford and to the Orient. The memories are fully lived, almost surprises to the man. They are interwoven with his discoveries of truths he deliberately avoided or literally never knew, because he buried himself in work and in the rhythms of a staid, formal and outmoded Victorian colonialism. Old Filth’s declining years are full of renewed acquaintances with old enemies, distant cousins, and former lovers, who inspire new memories that come unbidden. The sturdy old man he has become gradually makes peace with his life—and, ultimately, his death.

I don’t wish to say too much more about this book here, because it is so full of unexpected buried pearls, hidden amethysts and sudden kindnesses. And it surprises, too, with the occasional bright happiness of a friendship of old age or the dark despair of childhood secrets. Rather, I’d prefer just to urge you to go, find it, read it, and let’s discuss it. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years, beautifully written and extraordinarily well-plotted, and I give it my highest recommendation.

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