The remainder of our AWP ‘casts are now up for your listening pleasure. Leading the docket: Marc’s drunk review of Newt Gingrich’s nearly indigestible historical novel about George Washington. He also recites some poetry, and teaches the suddenly-sonorous Aaron Block what shotgunning is.
Then, we cap off AWP 2013 by bringing in some friends for a special bonus episode. Eric took the liberty of going through the AWP panel schedule and picking out the dumbest names (“1963: 50 Years Later” / “Looking for Real-Life Humberts: The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction”), and we, somewhat–sorry–sloppily, share them with you.
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You haven’t heard much from us this week, and unfortunately that will continue, because we’re gearing up for and attending AWP, which is in Boston this year.
If you’re going to be there, stop by table Z-29 in the Bookfair and say hi. We’ll have some bookmarks (and some books) to give away, and we’ll be canvassing hard for submissions for the fourth issue of our lit mag.
If you’re not going, have a good week, and we’ll see you back here next Monday when regular programming resumes.
By “2Die4Kourt, Inc., Kimsaprincess, Inc., and KhloMoney, Inc.” Seriously. It’s in the copyright page.
The Page Count shuffles on! (Can you shuffle pages? Perhaps I mean “rifles on”? That doesn’t sound right.)
This time around, we decide who has to read the deeply disturbing book, Heaven Is For Real, which authenticates the claim that bad parents will exploit their children for money.
We also discuss the Jonah Lehrer incident, and I give a dramatic reading of Aaron Block’s angsty teen poetry.
In episode 6b, Sean reviews Dollhouse, by the Kardashian sisters, a powerful, nuanced tale about the sacrifices of fame.
Just kidding, it’s a terribly written novel about the soulless, vapid existence of America’s trashiest family.
You can listen or download the episodes below, or you can find us on iTunes here, or you can subscribe in your favorite podcast player by searching for “The Page Count.”
[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains pretty big spoilers about This Bright River and Swamplandia, and lesser spoilers about The Sisters Brothers.]
A friend just pointed out Janet Maslin’s review of This Bright River, from yesterday’s NYT. Maslin and I actually agree on a lot about this book (my review here). All in all, I think she was perhaps a bit harsh, but fair.
Except for this line: “We meet Ben, a onetime rich kid and stoner, who sustains some kind of head injury in the novel’s prologue. That knock on the head accounts for some of the vague, so-what nature of Ben’s perceptions about himself and others.”
Uhhhhh, wrong. The prologue shows two unnamed men drinking at a bar. One offers some pot to the other, and when they go out to the parking lot, the pot-offerer says, “‘I’m sorry about this. I really am, dude. I’m actually going to kill you now.’ … Then the guy hits him over the head with whatever he’s got in his hand.” And he wakes up in a coffin.
That was not “some kind of head injury” and Ben was not there. At the end of the book, it’s revealed that the pot-offerer was Ben’s cousin, Wayne. Wayne thought Ben’s sister had been raped by the other guy at the bar, so he goes there, hits him over the head, and buries him alive.
The fact that Maslin completely misread this scene, to me, discredits her entire review, especially since her main argument is that This Bright River doesn’t hold together—no book will hold together if you don’t pay attention.
This happens too often in book reviews, although rarely as objectively and demonstrably as it happened here. Usually what you see could more charitably be called a misinterpretation, as opposed to Maslin’s blatant misreading.
For instance, when Swamplandia! came out last year, reviewers were fond of saying things like “the novel is a wild ride … [full of] high comedy” as Emma Donoghue did.
In fact, Swamplandia! follows a trio of effectively orphaned children who discover that the world is a brutal, unmerciful place. When the brother goes off to save the family alligator park, he doesn’t even come close, instead finding misery at a minimum-wage job and discovering that his absentee father is a sell-out and a drunk. When one sister thinks she falls in love with a ghost, she goes missing in a swamp and nearly dies, because there’s no such thing as ghosts (and, you might infer, no such thing as love). When the other daughter finds a traveling “bird-man” who scares vultures away, she likes him and hires him to help her find her lost sister—then he rapes her and leaves her for dead.
That’s a wild ride full of high comedy the way a crashing plane is. Maslin herself called Swamplandia! a “deeply haunted” book, which is better, but still doesn’t get the job done, considering there is a ghost in the book. (My review is here, for the sake of fairness.)
In the Guardian last year, Pulitzer prize-winning writer Jane Smiley eviscerated The Sisters Brothers, a Booker prize nominee, the winner of this year’s Tournament of Books, and my favorite book of 2011. She’s entitled to her opinion, but she alleges that the main character “Eli has never developed his sensibility beyond the mental age of about 13.” Wrong. His emotional intelligence is entirely caddywhompus because he kills people for a living and hates it, but he is not mentally challenged.
Smiley doesn’t bother to interpret or read into the book at all—she takes the words of an unreliable narrator as the whole truth and nothing but—and so she misses the nuance and depth that so many others have seen. (I might or might not be the irate commenter on Smiley’s review.)
You could draw a line between Maslin’s mistake and Donoghue’s/Smiley’s, but I would tend to group them all together. All three reviews contain errors that
go beyond a questionable interpretation of a book’s events—these reviewers have failed at their job.
These are mistakes, pure and simple, and the nature of book reviewing makes them hard to catch. I don’t imagine many book review editors fact check their reviews. The NYT obviously doesn’t.
What can we do about this? Probably nothing, except to bring it up and take reviewers to task when they do it. And we can downgrade Janet Maslin a couple of pegs in the ranks of the country’s best book reviewers.
Internet safety tip: DO NOT image-google "hardcover book," even with the safe search on moderate.
By now, you’ve probably seen the NYT’s story on publishers phasing out the hardcover book in response to ebooks. Paperbacks are coming out earlier, and “many publishers” now “wonder if cost-conscious shoppers are reading e-books right away rather than waiting for the paperback.”
(You can stop wondering, publishers. They definitely, definitely are.)
So. Hardcovers are mortally injured and slowly dying. This is excellent news. I agree with Paul Constant over at the Stranger (and with myself) that the hardcover business model is unsustainable in a digital world. It continues to actively hurt publishing, but at least publishing seems to be growing aware of that hurt.
Since ebooks were first introduced, publishers have bent over backwards to protect the exorbitant retail prices of new-release hardcover books. They struggled to make distributors adopt the agency model, so they could drive up the prices of ebooks (even though they make less money with agency-priced books). They did that only to make hardcover prices seem like less of a rip-off.
This environment is great for established, in-demand authors like George R.R. Martin, who sold 170,000 hardcover copies of Dance with Dragons in just one day. But climbing the hardcover hill makes it harder than ever for new authors and unknowns to get the recognition they deserve. The higher the price of books, the fewer risks readers will take.
By contrast, without hardcovers, there’s no disincentive to buy the newest books and try out lesser known, lesser publicized authors. The death of the hardcover will make for a happier, healthier reading culture, and that will create more book sales, no matter what that crazy Macmillan CEO says (he also bribes people for the right to sell expensive textbooks to poor African kids).
Releasing paperbacks a little bit earlier won’t help either, it’ll only increase people’s incentive to wait for that paperback before buying a new book. That’s not a sound way to cash in on all that first-edition marketing. (Quick, name a book you were thinking about buying six months ago but didn’t.)
Only the death of the hardcover will do now. I can’t wait to rejoice when they finally kick the bucket.
For the third year running, I’m a quarter finals judge for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
It’s a pretty cool program that is open to all unpublished writers. Sure there’s a bunch of not great entries, but there’s a whole bunch of really great writing too. I’ve had at least one over the years that I was genuinely sad not to see win the whole shooting match. I obviously can’t talk specifics about the books I have now, but you can see full lists of the 2011 entries by genre, and read a little of each, at the above link.
It’s defintely a fun thing to get involved in. I encourage anyone who has the time to read some excerpts and post comments on the ABNA site Amazon set up. It’s a nice way for young writers who have the cajones to submit an untested manuscript to get some honest feedback from (anonymous) readers.
The finalists will be announced in late April, and panels helmed by Lev Grossman and Gayle Forman (links: I’ve reviewed both their books on the site) will take things from there.
[Edit: As several people have pointed out, there are kids' books with audio, available on the iPad as individual apps. So that's a tie, too.
Edits: See books, newspaper, and final thoughts sections, below.]
I had a chance to play around with an iPad over the holidays. Here’s a comparison of the iPad and the Nook Color, which I’ve been reading on for about a month (full Nook Color review here). Obviously the iPad does a lot more than reading, but this post is designed to give avid readers an idea of whether a Nook will be enough for them, or an iPad will be worth the extra money.
And the short answer is: the Nook will be enough. It’s a close fight, but the iPad simply doesn’t seem to care enough about reading to win.
[Note: I only had a day and a half with the iPad; if you're a more experienced iPad user and I got something wrong, let me know.]
The iPad's more newspaper-like newspaper layout. (Click any picture for full-size.)
Newspapers: iPad wins (for now)
The iPad’s NYTimes app looks more like a real paper, and features big, beautiful pictures and embedded video. Best of all: it’s free (for now). The Times has plans to start charging at some point; once that happens, this will be a much closer race.
The Times app needs an Internet connection to work, where the Nook Color downloads the whole paper so you can read it offline. There’s no archive in the iPad version, only today’s news, and if you want a paper other than the Times, you’re out of luck.
I don’t really care about the layout, to be honest. Some people don’t like the Nook Color’s list-of-articles-style layout, and it could certainly use some navigational help (like a back button). But the iPad layout is basically the same, except for the front page of each section.
Photo essays like this one are awesome, but they take an age to download (after several minutes, only five pictures are available).
I am jealous, however, of the NYTimes app’s multimedia content. I’d like to see the digital edition of the Times include videos, photo essays, and blogs like the iPad version, I’d like to see it download an entire edition to your device like the Nook version. The iPad’s 3G is basically worthless, so you have to read the paper at a WiFi connection.
So: the Nook gives you more papers, and gives you the complete archiveable print versions of them. The iPad only gives you the NYTimes, it needs a WiFi connection and expires too quickly, but it offers a lot of multimedia content. Once price is no longer an issue, the winner of this fight will depend on how you read the paper.
[Edit: People have pointed out that there are other newspaper apps in the iPad store. I searched for a dozen prominent papers and came up empty. The selection is definitely worse on iPad, but I can't comment on the apps I didn't try.]
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For most of us, Labor Day is a holiday about one-last barbecues and Wiffle ball games before the shorts get swapped out for sweaters. However, in case you’d rather sit around and read a book about unions and industrialization, here are some suggestions:
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
This is an important book, and one you probably read in high school for it portrayal of historical working conditions for immigrant laborers. But it’s also a very good book. If you don’t remember it, give it another read. It’s pretty short, so you should still have time for beach bocce.
The Pullman Case, by David Ray Papke
I’ve never read this, so I can’t attest to it. But Papke’s got a pretty cool name. If you’re into history books, this could be a good pick-up. In case you don’t know. The Pullman case was a landmark in labor laws–and was helmed by Clarence Darrow. It stemmed from a railworkers strike that got violent when federal troops arrived. It was the reason Grover Cleveland (or Congress then, whatever) established Labor Day and all the hot dogs that entails.
Labor Day, by Joyce Maynard
I’ve never read this book either, but after reading the description at Amazon, I kinda want to. Also, it is set in New Hampshire, which increases its odds of being good by about 11%, because everyone knows NH is the awesomest state in the union.
Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh
This book I actually have read. And it’s very good. A coming of age family drama set in a Pennsylvania coal town, Haigh’s novel isn’t directly about labor unions, but salt-of-the-earth, blue collar existence permeates the tale. It mostly takes place right after World War II, when middle America clawed its way to prominence and backyard barbecues were the cat’s meow.
[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]
Percival’s Planet, by Michael Byers, reviewed by Suzanne Berne (New York Times)
Ms. Berne’s review is mostly plot and character summary, but luckily Byer’s plot and characters are quite interesting. The novel is a work of historical fiction telling the story of a Kansas farm boy who discovered Pluto. Berne’s description–”Mr. Byers reminds us that whether we’re gripped by desire for a new planet or for another human being, that yearning has dignity and its own strange logic”–makes this sound like a maybe-too-literary book, but the characters seem quirky enough that that may not be the case.
A Not Scary Story About Big Scary Things, by C.K. Williams, (Publisher’s Weekly)
PW doesn’t credit their reviews, which are only about 100 words long. It be faster for you just to read this review yourself. (Excerpt: “A boy lives near a ‘regular, ordinary, standard sort of forest,’ except that along with the usual perils of cliffs, bears, snakes, and wolves, there’s also an actual, awful monster with a penchant for scaring children.”) This is a children’s book so 100 words is probably sufficient anyway; I wish I could have found an example of the illustrations on the internet.
The Four Fingers of Death, by Rick Moody, reviewed by Troy Patterson (New York Times)
In what seems to be a work in the tradition of Breakfast of Champions and Pale Fire, Rick Moody’s new novel is told by “a long-winded ham” and “sci-fi horror hack” named Montese Crandall, writing in a dystopian 2025. The Four Fingers of Death is presented as Crandall’s novelization of a 2025 remake of a real B-movie from 1963. When I read Patterson’s decription of Crandall as “a figure far more baffling than an unreliable narrator: an anti-reliable author,” I knew I wanted to read this book.
The Lady Matador’s Hotel, by Cristina Garcia, reviewed by Carolyn Alessio (Chicago Tribune)
Ms. Alessio’s well-written review does a fine job of describing how this novel “captures many of Guatemala’s funny and grim contradictions, and probes their often freighted origins.” The book takes place in an upscale hotel, during a time of political instability. Garcia’s strentgh seems to lie in her characters. The few Alessio deems “cartoonish” she asserts are countered “through her more complex guests at the hotel and use of a clever chorus.”
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen (Wall Street Journal)
Franzen’s name (and photo) has been everywhere this week, and Freedom is getting a lot of hype. The Corrections was pretty great, so hopefully this lives up to expectations. The WSJ (in a short article credited to “WSJ Staff”) rounded up a bunch of choice review quotes, so I linked to that. C4 will have its own review in a few weeks.
[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]
Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith, reviewed by Olen Steinhauer (New York Times)
Three Stations is a short (243 pages) thriller set in Russia. Steinhauer says that Smith elevates the thriller to social criticism, and with such a small canvas, it’s easy to hope for a tight, small, beautiful knot of a novel. Although, Steinhauer also compares Smith’s hero to Stieg Larsson’s eponymous “girl” hero, which makes me wary—I don’t care for Larsson.
A Mountain of Crumbs, by Elena Gorokhova, reviewed by Kapka Kassabova (Guardian)
Kassabova makes A Mountain of Crumbs (which came out in January in the U.S.) sound like a charming, beautifully written book. It’s a memoir about Gorokhova’s life in Soviet Russia, but even the few brief passages quoted in this review feel novelistic—what that means for the book I’m not entirely sure.
The Glass Rainbow, by James Lee Burke, reviewed by Dick Lochte (L.A. Times)
Lochte reports that the new Burke is mostly the same old Burke (which is quite solid mystery, if you’ve never read him), with a few sprinkles of new stuff. This review is worth looking at just for the art that accompanies it—it’s about a thousand times better than the book’s actual cover.
Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach, reviewed by Peter Carlson (Washington Post)
This book bears all the fingerprints of Mary Roach, which Carlson is quite happy about (he calls her “America’s funniest science writer”). Packing for Mars sounds like a gross and hilarious account of the minutiae of space travel. The last Roach book, Bonk, was a C4 Great Read.
Elegies for the Brokenhearted, by Christie Hodgen, reviewed by Joanna Smith Rakoff (New York Times)
Hodgen’s second novel is a coming-of-age novel told in the second person, by the protagonist to the five people who made her who she is. Rakoff says the premise might seem obvious (sounds more cloying to me), but she claims “its execution proves deeply, satisfyingly original.” Sounds good.