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.


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.


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.


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, 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.


Sunday Links, August 3, 2014


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. 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’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. 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.


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.


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.)


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.)


Sunday Links, July 20, 2014


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.


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.


Sunday Links, July 13, 2014


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. 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.


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!


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.


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.


Pocket Review: How About Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons by Bob Mankoff

How about Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons
Bob Mankoff
Henry Holt & Company, 2014

As a geeky, funny, animal-loving, endlessly doodling little kid, I basically had two career choices in mind: Veterinarian or Cartoonist. Soon enough I realized that veterinary studies involved a lot more school than interested me, so I abandoned that one. Which left me with Cartoonist, surely a practical pursuit: all I needed was a table and chair and a halfway decent light source, and some pens and pencils and erasers. It sounded like a solid plan.

I made it all the way to my twenties before realizing that maybe it wasn’t. Not because I didn’t have the raw talent—though I suppose that’s debatable too—but because, even after earning a BFA from a very good art school and a few more years freelancing, I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I knuckled down when I had a job, or when I needed to find one, but I didn’t really understand the sheer amount of work I’d need to do, on my own, to eventually be any good. And, OK, I was lazy.

That’s OK; I don’t think the cartoon world is in any way diminished by my absence. But cartoonists are an odd and interesting breed, even if I’m not throwing my lot in with them, and I do like reading about the people who actually make it happen. Cartoonist bios are a lot like musician bios, actually—it’s always entertaining to trace other people’s paths between whimsy and industry, and to see how they arrived at the right formula.

Bob Mankoff’s memoir, How about Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons looks at that process from two angles. He’s a cartoonist, and has been all his life, but he’s also the New Yorker’s cartoon editor, which means he’s heavily invested in figuring out what’s funny to other people on a large scale. And apparently he’s good at it, having hung onto the job since 1998.

Anyone who’s ever watched Behind the Music knows that a good artist’s memoir needs its narrative arc imbued with at least a little tension—in the music world, this mainly involves a trip to rehab and a better-than-ever comeback, or at least a loving second family and a good old time on the county fair circuit. Mankoff’s life as a cartoonist turns out to be somewhat devoid of the necessary drama: he draws a lot in high school, he draws a lot in college. He starts selling cartoons to various magazines but dreams of breaking into the New Yorker and, after three years and some 500 submissions, finally does. True, he does spend a lot of time at the New York Public Library poring over the entire run of the magazine, reading every single cartoon in an effort to crack the formula. But, as you might have guessed, there is no formula. And this, in the end, is what makes Mankoff’s analysis of his job as cartoon editor interesting. There is no formula, but there’s some kind of method, and he’s more than happy to get into the nuts and bolts of what, exactly, makes a cartoon funny.

Which is to say, no one really knows—not even the man who does makes such pronouncements for a living. Mankoff admits as much, and he has a fine time looking at all the variations of funny he sees, and what makes them work or not. He studied experimental psychology in graduate school, and plays around a bit with humor theory. But within reason; he keeps it light, and makes sure there is plenty to laugh at while he’s explaining himself. And he’s not afraid to wax a bit lyrical; he explains that Saul Steinberg’s drawings “didn’t cause an outward laugh or even an inward one, but they made my mind smile,” which is just about right.

Mankoff dissects a lot of cartoons through the book. Without getting didactic, he looks at style, subjects, windups and punch lines, trends, and gag jokes versus the puzzling I-know-it’s-funny-but-I’m-not-sure-why setups. There’s some lightweight—never malicious—gossip about various cartoonists, an explanation of the submission and approval process, and he gives a good bit of the history of the New Yorker and some of its classic cartoons, as well as his rise to editorship—also debunking the rumor (which, come to think of it, he started in the first place) that he relies on a laugh meter in his office:

… evaluating humor is different from enjoying it. When you’re comparing one ostensibly funny thing to another supposedly funny thing in an effort to suss out the funniest, the cognitive effort of deciding interferes with the emotional reaction that causes laughter.

That’s about as serious as Mankoff gets, though; mostly he’s funny and disarming, making his points with the one-two rhythm of a standup comedian. It can get a little schticky, but hey, he’s a 70-year-old funny Jew from the Bronx—what’s not to like? The fact that “you can’t spell memoir without the moi” is never in dispute. And if Mankoff’s delivery is decidedly Comedy Cellar, the book itself is charmingly low-fi. Whether it was an aesthetic decision or a budget constraint, where another oversized hardcover might have glossy plates or at the least color illustrations here and there, How About Never is black and white throughout, with small photographs scattered among the text—the vibe is pasted-up and zine-like. Coffee table book aficionados might be disappointed in the presentation, but this fan of cartoon art, shaggy dog memoirs, and magazine chitchat found it as amiable as Mankoff’s patter. If I ever do decide to take up cartooning as a long-lost second third career, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have rejecting my drawings—over and over, I imagine—than Bob Mankoff.


Sunday Links, July 6, 2014

Half a KingWhat to Read Next

A Fantastical Librarian talks about the most anticipated new books for July and August, with a heavy emphasis on young adult novels.

Io9 lists the most essential science fiction and fantasy novels to be published in July.

Dreams of gods and monstersOmnivoracious lists the best young adult novels of the year — so far.  How many of them have you read?  (Me:  zero.  Lots more reading to do.)

Stella Four offers graphic novels to share with young readers.

Michael Dirda writes in The Washington Post about specialty presses and the innovative horror literature that they publish.  He doesn’t mention, though, that many of the books from these presses are beautiful objects in addition to being full of good reading material.  For instance, I’ve recently acquired a copy of Scott Nicolay’s Ana Kai Tangata, and it is a very well-made book with a sturdy dust jacket, interior illustrations and a strong binding.  And while I can’t afford them, I’ve browsed through some of Centipede Press’s gorgeous editions with great pleasure.  When I’m rich (and that’ll happen any day now, right?), I’m buying their entire line.

American innovationsKirkus provides a slideshow of nine contemporary novels that it believes are destined to be regarded as classics.  I couldn’t resist Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations — and truth be told, I own several of the other books mentioned as well.  Now if I only had time to read them!  (I must say that in every Sunday Links column, don’t I?)

Read Diversely!

We have alwaysCare to expand your reading horizons to include some books by women?  (Check the last ten books you’ve read:  aren’t a majority of them by male authors?  That seems to be the default, even among us feminists.  Books by men receive more reviews, more publicity by publishers, and, ultimately, more readers.)  Bustle suggests 13 women authors you may not have heard of, but who deserve your immediate attention.  Nine of these writers are women I’ve never heard of, and I’m fairly well-read, so my TBR list grew considerably longer when I read this column.  I’m a little surprised at the inclusion of Shirley Jackson, to whom I think most people are exposed in school (either because of “The Lottery” or “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts,” two marvelous short stories); I would have suggested Angela Carter, who I believe is more often passed over and unheard of by many.  But hey, if the mention leads a few more readers to Jackson’s creepy novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it’s very much to the good.

Who Fears DeathAlong the same lines, consider whether the movement toward diversity ought to include science fiction and fantasy writers.  A recent article in the New York Times listed a “new wave” of African writers, but omitted Nnedi Okorafor.  Okorafor has won numerous awards, including the 2011 World Fantasy Award for best novel for Who Fears Death and the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa for Zahrah the Windseeker.  She certainly belongs on any list of hot new African writers in my estimation!

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsThis podcast features several others who talk about diversity in geekdom, and where to find books by minority writers — and what those writers have to offer.

Adults Reading Young Adult Fiction

Yes, we’re still talking about this.  Mark Medley writes about purging his shelves of young adult fiction in reaction to the now-famous Slate article demanding that adults cease reading such puerile stuff, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

The Well's EndThe Los Angeles Times looks at how young adult fiction has opened up new markets for writers who found their more adult novels languishing unread.

E-Books Versus Paper Books

Yes, we’re still talking about this, too.  Mary-ann Astle talks about her obsession with the printed word instead of its electronic equivalent, something to which I can most definitely relate.  (Only two overflowing bookcases?  Ha.  My husband and I have more than 50, almost all of them double-shelves.  I’ll show you true obsesson!)

Great ApesAnd increasingly, research is showing that our brains react differently to words on a screen as opposed to words on paper.  Is this good or bad?  Opinions differ.

Some tech writers have even suggested that the day of the e-reader is past, and that we’ll all be reading off our phones or iPads.  How does anyone read a book on his or her phone, anyway?  I just can’t see how having such a tiny bit of text available at any one time leads to a satisfactory reading experience.

Rebuilding the newsOne thing seems certain:  the digital revolution continues to play havoc with journalism.


For the most part, basic access to e-books through public libraries has been satisfied, but achieving customer satisfaction has not.  At a recent Publishers Weekly executive breakfast held at Random House, a panel of librarians, publishers and service providers attempted to hash out innovative and experimental approaches to lending e-books.

3D printerWhat are people using their library’s 3-D printers for?  Lots of cool stuff, and not many books.

Other Fun Stuff

Make your own very cool-looking lamp out of an old book.

I enjoyed this Periodic Table of Epic Reads.  It includes not just big books, but also twenty-seven different series.  If you’ve a need to immerse yourself in another world for a while, this might be your best source for the right title(s).

JoylandEmily Schultz wrote a book called Joyland years before Stephen King wrote a book with the same title.  Confused, readers bought many, many more copies of Schultz’s library than would normally be the case eight years after its initial publication.  This means that Schultz got a very nice royalty check she wasn’t expecting.  This Tumblr shows how she spent the money.  It’s funny and heart-warming.  What a stroke of luck!

CaliforniaSpeaking of strokes of luck, Stephen Colbert made Edan Lepucki’s first novel, California, into an instant bestseller when he mentioned the novel on his show and urged people to buy it.  The novel is published by Hachette which, you may recall, is feuding with Amazon over numerous matters, and Amazon is refusing to sell Hachette books under the same terms that books offered by other publishers.  California, for instance, is listed at Amazon as “currently unavailable.”  But you can buy it elsewhere, and thousands of people did.  I’ve long carried a torch for Colbert, and this only makes me love him more.

If you question whether you’re truly addicted to reading, PopSugar lists 50 signs that will make it clear your habit is really an addiction.  At least 40 of them apply to me.

A Game of ThronesDaniel Hope writes an open letter to a driver he saw reading George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones while driving.  Yikes!  And speaking of A Game of Thrones, see how it stacks up, lengthwise, against other books and series.

I missed this cool story called “Librarians in the Branch Library of Babel” by Shaenon K. Garritywhen it was first published, but I’m sure glad I found it now.  Robin Sloan, the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (which I loved; see my review here) discusses the story and, particularly, its use of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, to explore what sorts of changes to a novel make it an entirely different book.  Translation?  Changing adjectives?  Rewriting from memory?  It’s an exciting and rather mind-boggling exercise.