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.


Open Letters Monthly, July 2014

A couple of weekends ago we marked the summer solstice, and you know what that means… the days are getting shorter and in another few month’s it’ll be cold and miserable again summer’s here! And the July issue of Open Letters Monthly is just what you’ll be needing to slide into summer reading mode.

John Cotter, in a moving piece, muses on not only losing his hearing, but mourning the soundtrack of a life: “… what I’ve lost isn’t just a set of structured sounds, but the world those sounds create, a world you can live inside: Bach on a snowy afternoon, hard blues on a long night’s drive, the background mood in a restaurant or at a party.”

Alice Brittan has a smart take on Michael Cunningham’s twilit reversioning of The Snow Queen, which “borrows the uncomfortable wisdom of fairy tales, which is that the hour of despair is the most fertile of the day.”

Rohan Maitzen, in revisiting K.M. Peyton’s Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer, The Beethoven Medal, and Pennington’s Heir, makes one of the best cases for rereading beloved YA fiction I’ve seen in a while, which is much like the Bildungsroman itself: “The challenge is to bring enough idealism with us into adulthood that we can continue to see both ourselves and our world as works in progress.”

Steve Danziger finds Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records—Amanda Petrusich’s take on 78 collectors, and collector culture in general—on the condescending side, but still interesting: “These are transmissions from a lost world, and the boundless range of idiosyncratic regional voices, heard through decades of accumulated crackle and hiss, often sounds like messages from American’s collective unconscious.”

Greg Waldmann examines Hassan Abbas’s The Taliban Revival, which offers a clear-eyed look at the complex situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, noting that, among other facts, “A century of intervention abroad hasn’t taught the United States that it is difficult to find principled allies.”

Juistin Hickey looks at Daniel H. Wilson’s Robogenesis, a continuation of Wilson’s future saga describing the era of robot uprising—“a Cambrian Explosion writ in chrome.”

Steve Donoghue makes a case for Donald Miller’s excellent-sounding “effulgently personality-oriented New York history” Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America: “… the heart of this sprawling book is the human element, which Miller highlights as smoothly and illuminatingly as the American Civil War historian Shelby Foote, or the World War II historian Richard Evans.” (This one’s going on my wish list.)

Michael O’Donnell looks at Michael Waldman’s comprehensive The Second Amendment: A Biography, and helpfully points out that “[t]here is context and background here that will be useful even to readers who follow the news very closely.”

Robert Minto explains that “Any morally inquisitive person, and not just the professional philosopher, has a stake in the preservation of Aristotle’s insights,” and recommends Brad Inwood’s collected series of Harvard lectures, Ethics After Aristotle.

Jack Hanson finds value in the new Hemingway Library Edition of The Sun Also Rises: “Whatever the risks or impure motivations inherent in the publication of the Hemingway Library editions, they perform the vital service of allowing a great voice who was vitally interested in these questions to be heard again.”

In her It’s a Mystery column, Irma Heldman checks out the reanimation of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Jill Paton Walsh’s The Late Scholar and imagines the ghost of Dorothy Sayers smiling at the “seamless, stylish continuation of the charismatic originals done with a contemporary sensibility.”

Dierdre Crimmins pronounces Craig DiLouie’s truly horrifying tale of tiny revenants, Suffer the Children, “startling, disturbing, and not for the faint of heart” (this one is not going on my wish list, though not for any lack of literary merit—it just sounds too scary).

There are two original poems this month: Carrie Murphy’s luscious Belen (“My cervix was pink & ripe. / The car was ready, revving. I stashed mangoes / in the back”); and from Daniel A Nicholls canes domini, which won me over with its opening lines:

the pug presents
a puffed-up chest
a riffling of faint whiskers

And from the Open Letters Monthly editorial team (and one blogger, which would be me), a sizzling collection of 12 Hot Summer Reads that will take you to Egypt, Aruba, Tierra del Fuego, the Sonora and Mojave Deserts, and French Equatorial Africa, among other sweaty locales guaranteed to cool you down a bit… or at least remind you to appreciate that window fan.


In Search of Lost Fireworks


July Fourth is one of those Rorschach holidays—it’s pretty much whatever you want to make it. If you’re patriotic, bless your heart, you can celebrate it that way. If you want to go to a party and drink beer and grill, there’s plenty of opportunity for that. You can just kick back and enjoy the long weekend, or enjoy the romantic Love American Style-style backdrop of fireworks, or—if like me, you’re the owner of a pyrotechnophobic dog—you can secretly, Grinch-like, wish for rain.

So far it looks like we dog owners are winning, at least on the east coast. But there’s always the consolation of fireworks past… and in fact, visual and written documentation of fireworks displays has a long and distinguished history. The Public Domain Review recently put up an interesting essay by Simon Werrett, Picturing Pyrotechnics, about the art of documenting the rockets’ red (and yellow, green, blue, purple, and white) glare.

While the whole idea of commemorative artwork implies a record of past events, Werrett points out that the earliest prints of firework shows—particularly the state-sponsored events put on as displays of power and technological prowess—were actually published as programs, in advance of the celebrations. This was necessary, at least in part, to fully explain the allegorical content of the most elaborate displays, so that any implied imagery wouldn’t be lost on the masses:

One such engraving shows a fireworks temple … for the anniversary of the coronation of Empress Catherine II in June 1763. The accompanying description explained how the display centred on the Island of Pallas represented in fireworks, which carried a temple, in front of which Pallas sat on a dark cloud casting out bolts of lightning. Subsequent decorations appeared, including palm trees, garlands, and the figure of the goddess Minerva holding a cornucopia. These decorations were all meant to signal the wisdom and power of the Empress Catherine and the happiness of the empire under her reign.

But there was another reason as well: fireworks were a messy, dangerous bit of business, and the performances didn’t always go off as planned—or go off at all. In 1730, French artist Dumont le Romain produced an elaborate etching of the display orchestrated by Philip V of Spain in honor of Louis XV’s new infant son. The pyrotechnic representations included a rainbow stretching between two 80-foot Pyrenean mountains, to symbolize the two countries’ friendship, and a rising sun representing the baby dauphin. According to an observer, though,

the Rising sun was omitted for Want of Time; and the Rainbow, when made, was too unwieldy and unmanageable; and therefore could not appear; nor the Goddess Iris… these should have been describ’d as designed only, and not executed.

So take heart if your Fourth is rained out, or you don’t have the heart to brave traffic, or you’re stuck at home comforting the dog. Sometimes the idea of fireworks is better than the real thing. And if that’s the case, at least you’re in good company.

And if you don’t already subscribe to The Public Domain Review‘s eclectic essay series, you really should.

(Image showing fireworks at The Hague, June 14, 1713 on the occasion of the “Peace of Utrecht”, found in Klebeband 10 of the Fürstlich Waldecksche Hofbibliothek, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)


Sunday Links, June 29, 2014

Abaddon's GateAwards

The Locus Award winners have been announced.

The long list for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize has been announced.

What to Read Next

UnderstoriesNancy Pearl has some good suggestions.  I loved Tim Horvath’s Understories myself (review here), so I’m inclined to take a look at her other picks (and I’ve therefore already purchased S.E. Grove’s The Glass Sentence).

Lev Grossman writes about how books become the book of any given summer — and this year’s top contenders.

NightmareHorror seems to be galloping into a new Golden Age, thanks to the internet.  Here are six new magazines any fan should take a close look at.  I particularly recommend Nightmare myself, though I also like Black Static and just reviewed the first issue of Jamais Vu last week (you can find that review here).

The Atlantic is soliciting suggestions for weird fiction to read in July.  There aren’t a lot of comments so far, but the ones that are on the site are choice.  Pay particular attention to Scott Nicolay’s comment, which lists a good number of authors I’ve read or am reading or have in the TBR pile.  You can read more about Nicolay’s recommendation in his recent interview with The Arkham Digest.

Publishing and Reviewing

hachette_book_logoThe dispute between Amazon and Hachette doesn’t look likely to be resolved any time soon.  It’s not like Amazon is seeking just a little more profit.  No, it wants pretty much everything, from a 66% increase in its agency commission to payment for everything from recommending a book to a shopper to a pre-order button to a dedicated employee at Amazon for Hachette books.  Basically, it wants publishers to pay for the privilege of selling its books on Amazon.  It’s a fairly astonishing request from a retailer.  One writer compares Amazon’s demands to “assisted suicide for the book industry.”

AmazonI wonder if Amazon understands that it’s losing market share?  Blogs I frequent have started linking to Barnes & Noble rather than to Amazon; that’s gotta hurt, right?  And independent booksellers are taking advantage of the dispute, too.  Now if only someone besides Amazon could sell books for the Kindle, some real competition could emerge.

David GaughranAnd then there’s David Gaughran, who says: not so fast. Maybe Amazon isn’t really the bad guy; maybe it is. We just don’t know.

Damien Walter advocates cruel and nasty reviews for genre fiction.  Actually, what he means is that we need more reviews that are willing to be critical of genuine problems that appear in novels.  I agree.

Other Cool and Interesting Stuff

In the United Kingdom, there are doctors who are prescribing books to treat depression.  It appears that the books are of the DIY sort rather than fiction, but that strikes me as an error; I’m more cheered by getting lost in a good novel than I am by reading about my malady.

The Princess BrideYou can mine the fabulous movie The Princess Bride for comments for grading freshman composition papers, according to McSweeney’s.

Like Franz Kafka, I’ve worked for law firms and for insurance companies; if that’s an indication that I’ll someday write weird fiction, that’s all to the good so far as I’m concerned!  Writers have had a lot of unusual jobs before turning to writing.


Sunday Links, June 22, 2014


Sunburst AwardSalman Rushdie has won the PEN Pinter Prize.

The shortlists for the Sunburst Awards have been announced.  These awards are for excellence in Canadian literature of the fantastic, and yield some excellent reading suggestions.


Daniel KeyesWe’ve lost Daniel Keyes, the author of Flowers for Algernon.  In addition to having written one of the most moving works of science fiction ever, Keyes was an exceptionally delightful person to spend time with.  My husband and I used to see him at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and he was always approachable — or approaching, for that matter! — and full of good cheer and compliments on our scholarship.  He will be sadly missed.

What to Read Next

All Day and All NightAlafair Burke insists that lawyers are people, too, which is a nice thing to hear when one is a lawyer.  Here are her favorite books that prove her point.  I’ve read several of them and think her judgment about books is on target (I remember staying up until 4:00 a.m. to finish Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent many years ago, and I really enjoyed Stephen Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park), so I’ll be investing in a few new legal thrillers based on this list.

Patrick Ness, last year’s winner of the Carnegie Medal, suggests young adult fiction for the “typically atypical teen.”


The Grace of KingsSimon & Schuster has announced a new fantasy and science fiction imprint called SAGA, and it is highly anticipated by fans in the know.  The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, who has won numerous awards for his short fiction, is one I am especially eager to read.  I’m also particularly anticipating Genevieve Valentine’s novel, Persona.  So much great reading coming down the pike!

The SilkwormThe fight between Hachette and Amazon continues.  The most recent victim of the dispute is J.K. Rowling, whose second mystery novel under the pen name Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm, won’t be shipped by Amazon to a buyer for one to two months after purchase.  I’m starting to think that Amazon is shooting itself in the foot with this gambit; sales at Barnes & Noble and Walmart, as well as at independent bookstores, have soared since Amazon started this battle.  Perhaps people are going to start to realize they don’t really need Amazon.

The Guardian talks about the role of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in Amazon’s ability to hold publishers and authors hostage to its demands.

Salon posits that authors lost the book wars a very long time before Amazon came on the scene.

Fun Stuff

Pablo NerudaMore than 20 new Pablo Neruda poems “of extraordinary quality,” according to his publisher, have been discovered.  No word yet on when we’ll have English translations of the poems to read for ourselves, but keep an eye out.

You might recall that there’s a dispute tearing up the internet as to whether adults should read young adult fiction.  Book Riot tells us what we should really be embarrassed to read.

As one of the lucky human beings who has had books dedicated to her, I found this list of 27 great book dedications absolutely hilarious.


Color Picker, Circa 1692

It’s always fun to pull rank on the whippersnappers: Back when there was no cut-and-paste, back when there was no Undo command, back in the days of 3×5 notecards and rubber cement and Wite-Out—you kids don’t even know how to spell Wite-Out anymore, do you? But then there are those who, in turn, put me in my place, and thank goodness for that.

I’m thinking, particularly, of A. Boogert. Boogert—no known first name—was a late 17th-century Dutchman; perhaps a painter, or a scientist, or maybe just a layman interested in color. In 1692 he completed a book, handwritten and illustrated, on mixing watercolors, nearly 800 pages of painstakingly mixed colors labeled with formulas for mixing and diluting. Only one known copy of the book, translated into French as Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau, has survived. It’s held at the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France, and—ironically, I suppose—has been digitized so that, in an age of Pantone color matching and hexadecimal color converters, it can finally reach a far wider audience than the original ever did.

Just to skim through reveals what an enormous amount of work and time it must have encompassed, what a labor of love A. Boogert’s book was. And it’s almost ridiculously soothing to look at—rather than eye candy, this is like eye Xanax. If you wanted to get a little crazy, you could move on from there to something like this recipe book for decorated paper, compiled in Germany in the late 19th century and held by the National Library of the Netherlands. I think I’ll stay awhile with Boogert’s work, though, and imagine him with his sable hair brushes and mixing trays, carefully filling in rectangle after rectangle and keeping careful notes on each. Back when there was no eyedropper tool, kids, you measured out your colors in grains of pigment and drops of water, and if you wanted to write a book about it, you did so one perfect swatch at a time.


Sunday Links, June 15, 2014


The Nebula Award winners have been announced. Ann Leckie is cutting quite a swathe with her first novel, Ancillary Justice, which has now won the Nebula, the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It’s also up for a Hugo.

Fragments of a Broken LandThe winners of the Ditmar Awards have been announced. The Ditmar Awards are given by the Australian National Science Fiction Convention for professional and fan works by Australians.

The winners of the 2014 Campbell and Sturgeon Awards have been announced.

The winners of the Gemmell Awards have been announced.

The winners of the Spectrum Award have been announced.

The nominees for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award have been announced.

IncandescenceThe nominees for the 2014 Seiun Awards have been announced. These awards go to the best original and translated works of science fiction published in Japan.

The nominees for the British Fantasy Award have been announced.

The nominees for the Sidewise Award for alternate history have been announced.

The Ghost BrideThe finalists for the Mythopoeic Awards have been announced.

The Locus Award finalists have been announced.

The finalists for the Prometheus Award have been announced. These awards are awarded by the Libertarian Futurist Society, and go to books that are “pro-freedom,” whatever that means.

Baen Books has announced a new fantasy adventure award. The award is focused on short fiction, and it looks like anyone can enter. The inaugural award will be honored at this year’s Gen Con, to be held in August in Indiana.

Kirkus Media is also inaugurating a new award in three categories: fiction, nonfiction and children’s literature. The award is hefty: $50,000 in each category. Books receiving a starred award in the venerable review publication will automatically be nominated. The first award will cover the period from October 1, 2013 to September 30, 2014.

What to Read Now

An Untamed StateKirkus suggests nine writers at the top of their game.

Amazon offers the ten best summer beach reads, as does Kirkus. The New York Post is more ambitious for your summer reading, offering 29 of the best of the summer crop. The Los Angeles Times highlights 143 books coming out in June, July and August, the most ambitious of them all. And The New Republic’s summer reading list is out. Ooh, look, the third book in Lev Grossman’s trilogy, The Magician’s Land, is coming soon. And a new book by David Guterson. And Haruki Murakami has a new book coming out! Let’s all take the summer off and just read, shall we?

Stories Not for the NervousIf you love Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, BookRiot has some suggestions for books you might enjoy.

Toovia suggests six of the best fantasy comics around. I’ve read five volumes of LOCKE & KEY, and they’re great (the whole series went on vacation with me; some of the best vacation reading I’ve ever done). I really enjoy FABLES, too; and I’ve got three volumes of SAGA patiently waiting on my shelf for me to get to them. Looks like I’ll be picking up an additional three series as well; if three of their recommendations are series I love, chances are good the other three will be equally as good, right?

The Atlantic lists and links more than 100 of the best articles from 2013.

The Unquiet HouseAlice Littlewood talks about her favorite female horror writers.

You’ll notice from this list of 37 children’s books that changed your life that a fair proportion of them fall into the fantasy category. I didn’t read Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth until long after I’d grown up, but I still loved it. I read Black Beauty by Anna Sewell over and over when I was a kid. And Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time really did change my life; I think it was my first science fiction novel, and I was utterly enraptured by it. And just this morning, I pulled Little Women by Louisa May Alcott off my shelf for a reread, green plums, writing in the garret, falling through the ice, Pilgrim’s Progress and all. Which ones captured your imagination?

Paper TownsAnd while we’re on the subject of children’s books: John Green’s Mental Floss has 47 charming facts about children’s books. Be careful; if you’re not already a subscriber to Mental Floss, you could easily get sucked in to watching a great many more episodes. I’m just back after about 45 minutes of one after the other. Yep, now I’m a subscriber.

Canny readers will have figured out by now that I like short fiction. Powell’s has a strong “short list” of excellent short fiction it recommends, some of which falls under the speculative fiction umbrella. I strongly recommend Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life: and Others, which is simply extraordinary. So is Joe Hill’s Twentieth Century Ghosts, which bowled me over when I first read it (and still does today, truth be known). And Maureen McHugh’s collection, After the Apocalypse, contains the amazing story “Useless Things,” which is worth the cost of the book all by itself. (I reviewed the collection here.) In fact, I’m having trouble finding anything on this list that I don’t want to read. I do think they missed a bet in not including Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, though I suppose they didn’t want to include more than one collection by any one writer (except: two books by George Saunders). And why isn’t there any Jeffrey Ford? Oh, and I see they’ve got one of David Foster Wallace’s books, but really, you need to read his essays as much as his fiction; Consider the Lobster is brilliant. Oops, I think my enthusiasm for short form writing is a bit too much on display; I should just go off and read.

Akata WitchFor the youngster in your house (or the young one still inside you): five books for the kid who loves Harry Potter.

Helen Lowe lists the best fairy tale retellings. There are a few of my favorites here, but also some that are entirely new to me. I guess the “to be read” pile just got a few books higher.

If you’d like to make a study of speculative fiction, really delve into it, The Coursera course entitled Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, looks like great fun. The texts for the course are good for both beginners and those who are long-time readers and want to revisit the classics. I notice they’re including some Nathaniel Hawthorne — “Rapaccini’s Daughter,” I’ll bet, one of my favorites since I first read it in college.

Fool's AssassinKill Your Darlings has a short list of high epic fantasies that are — prepare yourself for a shock — written by women. Some great stuff here; Robin Hobb, for instance, is pretty darned amazing.

Reading and Writing

The scandal du jour is whether adults ought to be reading young adult fiction. As one who sees little to distinguish YA and adult fiction beyond the labels slapped on them and the ages of the protagonists, I’m a little surprised by the vehemence with which Ruth Graham scolds adults who read YA. The counter comes from Julie Beck, who notes that YA fiction teaches adult lessons.

Twenty-one writers offer their harsh but eye-opening writing tips.

Black Gate praises the paperback.

The Millions interviews agent Erin Hosier about being an agent, and how it differs from being a writer. The key to writing: don’t do it for the money, she says; do it for the experience of writing in and of itself.

Bleeding EdgeIf you’re a book collector, this article about an inscribed collection of Thomas Pynchon’s work will have you salivating. But read the article more for the story of a friendship between a man who just happens to write novels and the folks he met at a party.

Tor.com makes the case that horror is good for you — and even better for your kids. But be careful: Salon points out that the horror genre is particularly horrible for women.

It’s an old argument, and it never goes away. When will people realize that genre fiction can be just as good as literary fiction?


You probably already know this if you’re at all bookish: Amazon and Hachette, one of the big New York publishers (and which includes the science fiction and fantasy imprint Orbit), are feuding. This means that when you try to buy an Orbit book on Amazon, it’s likely to cost more than some other books, may not be available for immediate shipment, and Amazon may try to steer you to a “similar” book by a different writer. And you can’t preorder Hachette books, but only get signed up for a notification when the book is available. TeleRead has a good summary of the whole affair.

It’s not clear who is at fault here, but it is clear who gets hurt: the writers. Gizmodo says Amazon is playing dirty, and that the reader loses, too. Damien Walter notes that Amazon is an “everything” seller, not a bookseller, and that that matters for writers. Charlie Stross thinks it’s pretty clear Amazon is to blame, and adds a footnote about the publishing industry in a separate post.

On the other side of the fence, Let’s Get Visible suggests that we all keep an open mind when it comes to pointing fingers, suggesting that Hachette may not be blameless in this debacle. Martin Shepard, co-publisher of The Permanent Press, is on Amazon’s side, finding that it levels the playing field between the Big Five publishers and smaller presses.  David Gaughran thinks Hachette is really the bad guy in this dispute, as does Paul Levinson. J.A. Konrath thinks Hachette authors have no one to blame but themselves; they’re the ones who signed up with the big publisher in the first place. Hugh Howey thinks it’s the publishers who have gotten too big — and too out of touch — not Amazon. Slate blames the publishers, too, arguing that they could have thwarted Amazon before this particular dispute ever arose by sharing profits from ebooks with their authors. (And as one who has looked over book contracts, I’ve always been bemused — more, annoyed — at the fact that authors don’t get a bigger share from the sales of ebooks than from the sales of physical books. After all, the cost to produce an ebook is substantially less, even after considering editing, proofreading, and other soft costs.)

In the meantime, it’s authors who suffer. Amazon has characterized the dispute as a typical dispute between a regular old retailer and a regular old manufacturer, calling its tactics normal. But in so doing it has also offered to fund 50% of an author pool to mitigate the impact on authors. Hachette responded to Amazon’s broadside with a mirror image of its language; but notably, it offered to compensate authors for their losses only after its dispute with Amazon is resolved. Tor Books, in the meantime, has undertaken to publicize books by Hachette authors, even though they compete with Tor’s own authors. That’s a classy thing to do.

I frankly don’t know how best to help authors in this mess; I hope it gets settled soon.

Want to support your favorite author? Here’s how.

If the books you read seem to be filled with nothing but white people, that’s not your imagination; diversity is sadly lacking in our fiction. Why is that, exactly? Roni Loren, a romance writer, suggests it’s because writers are afraid to try writing more diverse characters, for fear that they’ll be called out for getting it wrong. But the fear is misplaced, Loren says; authors can write all sorts of characters if they do their homework and avoid stereotypes.

imprint_logo_option1a copyTor.com has announced its own imprint dedicated to publishing “novellas, novellas, shorter novels, serializations, and any other pieces of fiction that exceed the traditional novelette length.” The imprint will be primarily directed toward e-publication, but a limited number of titles will be published in hard copy each year. Three new positions have opened up at Tor as a result, and boy, do I wish I had the qualifications to apply to be a senior editor! That would be one fun job.

Peter Berkrot talks about making a living in the audiobook industry.

What happens when you plant your self-published book on Barnes & Noble’s shelves? People buy it. And you don’t get any royalty. And you’re out what you paid for that particular copy, or at least one of the copies you got for free from the publisher. Oops, was that a spoiler?

AThose who read or watch — or both! — George R.R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES (known to those of us who read and don’t watch as A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE) will be moved to either shouts of joy or tears of sorrow and anger at the news that Martin is thinking of extending the series to eight books instead of delivering the previously promised conclusion in a mere seven novels averaging about 800 pages each. Don’t worry, though: Martin says his musing about an eighth book was merely a means of giving himself some wiggle room. He still intends to finish the series in seven books.

 Interesting Things

Writer of the Weird Mark Samuels talks about atheism, Christianity and more in this fascinating interview.

Many of my favorite fantasies have endpapers with maps, or show maps in the first few pages — maps of places that never were, maps of the imagination. Casey N. Cep, writing in The New Yorker, talks about the allure of the map. It’s a delightful essay, the very stuff that creative nonfiction should be made of. Read it if only for the perfect final sentence.

Book cushionsFlavorwire suggests some very bookish ways to cuddle up with a book. I want those sheets, myself!

The death of the independent bookstore has been exaggerated. Foyles has just opened a new store on Charing Cross Road in London, and it looks magnificent, with 37,000 square feet of space for more than 20,000 titles. Wow! Seems almost worth a trip to London all by itself!

Videogames for book lovers sounds oxymoronic, but this article suggests a few games that readers will love. They look pretty good to me, even if most of them seem fairly dated. But as I don’t play games much — I use that time to read books! — I don’t really need the most up-to-date technology in any event. Maybe I’ll try one or two.

These ten words are perfect for book lovers. I’m glad to know that what I really am is book-bosomed. That explains a lot.


“Six Weeks On the Loose in N.Y.”: Eudora Welty Pitches the New Yorker

welty_in_lrWho doesn’t love looking for work? Summoning your brio, shining your shoes, lying awake in bed trying to come up with a better answer to “Why would you be a good fit for this job?” than “I’d be really good at it and I’ll bring cookies to office meetings”—it’s all character-building stuff, right?

Yeah, no. I don’t like it much either. But that’s OK; remember Newton’s first law of motion: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Sometimes one has to be one’s own unbalanced force in the world in order to make things happen. And sometimes it helps to get a little inspiration from the unbalanced forces of others.

I first read this letter that a job-hunting Eudora Welty wrote to the editors of the New Yorker when I was firmly employed. It was part of the first batch of letters leading off What There Is to Say We Have Said, the collected correspondence of Welty and William Maxwell. I remember thinking it was a nice note but didn’t pay it much mind otherwise; I was all hot to get to the really good stuff, which turned out to be mainly about planting roses and editing. (I’m not being sarcastic here—planting roses and editing are both big in my corner of the world.) But I ran into it again last month at Brain Pickings, and it just charmed me to pieces:

March 15, 1933


I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930–31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A.(’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty

Welty didn’t get the job, or any response from her letter at all. On the other hand, she was eventually published in the New Yorker, which is probably better. But her upbeat cheer is contagious, even 80 years later, and I appreciate that. It’s not easy to tap into that particular kind of esprit on command, especially when you’ve already written a collected correspondence’s worth of cover letters in the past month. But Eudora’s got it right there. And it’s exactly what I want to have on hand when I desperately need to summon my own inner concubineapple.

(Photo courtesy of Eudora Welty House.)


Tom Tryniski’s DIY Digitization

Some years ago, I worked at a small journal under an executive editor who was, to put it kindly, very old-school. Curmudgeonly might be another word you would use. Cranky might be a third. Along with the standard editorial duties, a fair amount of my time was spent trying to convince him that the move to digital was not a terrible, horrible mistake. This wasn’t easy; although the journal’s reach and influence had probably peaked in the late 1960s, he was deeply invested in hanging onto the status quo, not to mention the fact that this was someone who couldn’t send an email with an attachment without help.

Because there had been reach and influence once upon a time, one of the big pushes was to digitize all the journal’s back issues, dating to 1924. This was before I went back to school to learn about this kind of thing, and at any rate I wasn’t part of the decision chain, so who knows if I would have convinced him to go with someone other than the digitizer he eventually hired—a guy whose main credentials turned out to be pending contracts that never came through, who went a year and a half over his projected timeline, and who managed to lose an entire bound volume of the year 1936—certainly the company’s workflow didn’t help, wherein the original had to be couriered to New Jersey, where they were scanned, and then the scans emailed to the Philippines to be uploaded and metadata-ed up and… who knows what else. As I said, I didn’t know much about this kind of thing at the time. What I did was spend a lot of energy keeping the executive editor from melting down over how badly it was going. “The guy’s a professional—he knows what he’s doing,” I told him, and “It’s not as simple as it looks.”

Which, in retrospect, is roughly the same logic that kept physicians in the business of cupping people and applying leeches for so long.

Granted, it’s never a good idea to minimize the work people do professionally, no matter how easy it looks. It’s a whole lot harder to lay a tile floor than it looks from the Home Depot aisle, and no, your five-year-old cannot paint a Mark Rothko. But sometimes it’s not quite as complex as you think, either. Take the case of Tom Tryniski, a retired engineer in upstate New York who turned an interest in historic postcards into a one-man digital archive—all processed on his own time, in his living room.

Tryniski originally caught the scanning bug 14 years ago, when a friend lent him a collection of postcards featuring his hometown of Fulton, New York, in Oswego County. He set up a website to share them, Fultonhistory.com, and then went on to digitize his local paper, the Oswego Valley News, from its first edition in 1946 to the present. That project took him roughly a year, at which point Tryniski decided it was time to get serious. In 2003 he bought a used microfilm scanner for $3,500 in a fire sale and set up a network of PCs, using a keyword recognition program, to automate the work. He maintains his database on a server that lives in a cheerfully-lit gazebo on his front deck.

According to Jim Epstein at reason.com,

Tryniski pays all expenses for the site himself. The only significant costs are bandwidth, for which he pays $630 per month, and hard drives, which run him about $200 per month. He gets his microfilm at no cost from small libraries and historical societies. In exchange, he gives them a copy of all the scanned images analyzed for keyword recognition. Most of the papers Tryniski has digitized are from New York, but he’s rapidly expanding his coverage to other states as well. He is adding new content at a rate of about a quarter-million pages per month with no plans to slow down.

At this point he’s digitized nearly 30 million historic newspaper pages, including all 115 years of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, as well as photos, postcards, and old yearbooks. While the metadata doesn’t meet professional cataloging standards, and the interface is—let’s just say it—pretty ugly, Tryniski’s work is still a terrific resource for anyone interested in New York state history. Even more to the point, he’s done it himself, for fun, and as a result enriched the reference universe in a big way. Though Epstein points up how Tryniski’s project has outstripped the Library of Congress’ historic newspaper site, Chronicling America, let’s not forget that LoC has been encouraging people to create their own archives for a while now, and it’s cheering to imagine that with a little extra push in the direction of discoverability and interoperability we could see some seriously fascinating collections become available. As it turns out, there is a place in history for the hobbyist, for the DIY dabbler. As Tryniski says, “You can come to my site and say this is gaudy, this is crazy, I’m never coming back here. That’s not the point of it. The point is the newspapers I have available.”

(Video courtesy of reason.com.)