Archive for the ‘books’ Category

The Lost Symbol: A Review

A few days ago I decided to write my reactions to Dan Brown’s latest novel while I read the book. Those more detailed notes deal with my reactions to certain philosophies and plot points as I encountered them. It was my version of yelling back at the tv.

This much shorter review is my take on the book as a whole.

If you enjoy ‘Lost’ or fast-paced thrillers a la Jeffrey Deaver and Clive Cussler, chances are this book may be a nice way to kill an afternoon at the beach or a long layover in Cleveland. It’s got quite a few gotchas that move you through the story.

Once the story gets underway, that is.

Dan Brown’s books come in two parts. There’s the thriller element that puts an unlikely hero in a series of unlikelier breakneck situations, propelled from behind by powerful forces. Then there’s the Pop Philosophy 101 element drawing the hero and reader alike to progress through the esoteric symbology through to greater understanding. The book is at it’s best when it combines both elements in equal part. Unfortunately it is often unbearably uneven. Tedious explanations about Masonic ritual and lore weigh down the first quarter of the story. Later on the narrative suffers from overlong chase scenes which suffer from a lack of framing. (I call it the X-files Problem. If your audience has no idea how the building or ship or city is laid out, they can’t visualize or contextualise the progress of the heroes and villains.)

But there are plenty of pages to suck you into this world where intellect fuels the engine of desire. Those parts salvage the book. I recommend it to anyone who wants to relive the Dan Brown Experience.

Sadly the most striking lesson to take away from The Lost Symbol is that marketing is the current ruler in the publishing universe. I’ve read scores of books along the same speculative lines as Brown. They’re better-written and more fun to read. The only thing they lack is a multimillion dollar ad campaign.

So while I think this average book may be a fun way to pass the time I recommend you also try Umberto Eco, Charles Palliser, the non-sigma James Rollins, Neal Stephenson and Michael Gruber for starters.

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Oprah Can Kiss My Cracked Spine

I’m going on record. I loved Pillars Of The Earth BEFORE Her O-ness chose it as a Book Club selection.

The first copy of POTE I ever read cost me 5 bucks in paperback. With inflation it should cost about, oh, $8.99 tops. But not only did Oprah choose this wonderful book for her bookclub, (thus making me seem like a follower instead of a leader in the world of book consumption) she seems to think that reading is a sport best reserved for the rich.

Why else would you charge $21.95 for an 18 year old paperback?

Oh, excuse me. Amazon explains the thinking behind the “deluxe edition”. This is priceless:

Oprah wanted to ensure that readers of her latest Oprah’s Book Club® selection would not only be delighted with Ken Follett’s marvelous novel, but also with the look and feel of the actual book. With this in mind, a deluxe paperback edition of The Pillars of the Earth was published especially for Oprah’s Book Club®. This edition features a stronger binding, higher quality paper, and French flaps.

What are French flaps?

French flaps are simply extensions of the paperback cover that fold inside the book. Not only are paperback books featuring French flaps sturdier and more attractive, but they are also useful because the flaps can be tucked back into the book to mark the reader’s place. Since The Pillars of the Earth is a longer novel–over 900 pages in length, in fact–the improved binding, paper, and French flaps will no doubt be appreciated by both the casual reader and collector.

I’ve read many a long novel in my life. For those that didn’t come with “French Flaps” (i.e. all of them) I’ve made do with bookmarks, blow-in cards from old magazines, pieces of junk mail or my memory. (How hard is it to say “Okay, I’m on page 416”?)

It really cheeses me off that once again Oprah talks a good game about her book club being all about accessibility and mass exposure to literary pleasure, but in the end she can’t resist casting an elitist pall over the experience. There is no earthly reason why readers can’t perfectly enjoy Pillars Of The Earth–or any book–in Mass Market Paperback. Sure, I love pretty books as much as the next guy. But there is such a thing as taking it to an extreme.

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They may be on strike, but the WGA folks are still amusing me. The “Why We Fight” video is everywhere these days, and the first few seconds of it never fail to make me laugh.

When an author writes a book, they get paid for every copy sold.

I’ve written a couple of (small) books. I was also a Licensing Administrator for a publisher, which means that I was the person who filled in the blanks on the contracts, made sure they were signed and then mailed out the checks to the authors for every copy of their book sold. I’m also currently writing my own fiction books, and am very up to date on the fiction publishing market.

Now, the WGA video shows a Harry Potter book cover when it’s talking about the money authors make. Trust me right now when I promise you that J.K. Rowling is one of a kind as far as book earnings go.

Let’s walk through a more typical author’s contract.

1. It starts with an advance. (more…)

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This post over at MCB sent me on a rabbit trail back to the original article. Am I upset that JK Rowling is publishing an elitist book which will be available to SEVEN people only? Eh, kind of. But knowing how she works and having seen the Lucas Model in action for the past 25 years I suspect that Rowling will eventually make ‘The Tales of Beedle The Bard’ available to a wider audience. That’s not what really got me. It was this:

On Wednesday, Rowling and the makers of the Harry Potter movies filed a lawsuit against RDR Books, a small U.S. publisher that plans to bring out a companion volume based on the Harry Potter Lexicon fan Web site.

Rowling has said she plans to produce her own encyclopedia of the wizarding world and says the book would infringe on her intellectual property rights.

I really respect the Lexicon, and have for years. It suits me right down to the ground in the anal way it has compiled all of the details from the world of Harry Potter. Every beast and birthday mentioned in the books can be found there. You might say it’s an INTJ Organisational Fanatic’s dream website. Steve Vander Ark is one of my personal whateveryouwanttocallits. I want to be him when I grow up, and I have loved his segments on the various Potter podcasts.

I’ve contributed–in a small way–to the Lexicon in the past. I’ve sent emails about errors and answers to questions from other readers. It’s a site that many people have been very involved in for many years. In addition to the little things there are reams of wonderful essays about everything from Time Travel to wizarding horticulture.

So what’s my point?

I hate it when online communities publish books for profit using the work product of their communities of users.

It’s very difficult for writers to have their work published in the mainstream media. Talent is the merest fraction of the equation; money and connections are far more important. Yet the hardest part of being a writer–for me anyway–is churning out the content. I spend hours of my time contributing to various websites, and have for years. It’s a hobby and a labour of love.

There are a lot of people in the Old Media who view online writing (and now video) as a field of manna–good eating just laying there on the ground for the taking. These book publishers and news stations give little credit–or none–to the workers who provide the product. It’s completely exploitative.

Years of working with licensing contracts in the publishing and gift industry have made me more savvy. I won’t contribute to any site which claims ownership and full use of my work. But there are thousands of people without the benefit of my work experience who post to sites like The Lexicon without knowing their work will become someone else’s free lunch.

That steams me.

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Have I Lost My Mind?

I just got an email from Amazon which said

As someone who has purchased or rated books by Richard Matheson, you might like to know that I Am Legend will be released on October 30, 2007. You can pre-order yours by following the link below.

Only problem is, I don’t think I’ve EVER purchased OR rated a book by Richard Matheson on Amazon.

Now I have to spend the next 10 minutes figuring out what Richard Matheson book I have spent time and/or money on at Amazon.


Ah. A Stir Of Echoes. Man, that was a long time ago.

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Why I Cried In Target Today

You know how you get all caught up in your daily life, and things you would normally know about kind of fall by the wayside? Like, say you’re a Star Trek fan and before your life got really complicated you would have known what every Star Trek cast member was appearing in currently. But then you get caught up in your job or your sister’s colonoscopy or whatever and you totally space and then all of a sudden there’s a new Star Trek movie in the theatre.

So there we are in Target, halfway between Men’s Cargo Pants and iPod headphones, walking past the book endcap. I usually ignore the Target Book Endcap because it’s usually got stuff that I’ve either already reserved at the library or wouldn’t read unless there were no cereal boxes left in the universe.

But today. Today. There it was…a book I’ve waited for even longer than I waited for Harry Potter Book 7. A book that has been rumoured for more than fifteen years and hoped for by book geeks and casual readers alike.


The sequel to The Pillars Of The Earth. There aren’t words for how much I love that book. Follett, an admitted athiest, created two of my favourite religious characters of all time–Father Phillip and Ellen. In those two characters he captured the essence of the British Isles’ two main religious folkways and showed how they both conflict and compliment each other. I’d like to think that as I grow in my own faith I would embody a bit of both of them–the sincerely devout Christian Phillip with the maternal sensibilities and grounded awareness of Ellen.

Since he wrote one such wonderful book I can’t help but think Follett can do it again, or nearly enough to still be something special.

Here’s what Follett says about the new one:

Ever since The Pillars of the Earth was published in 1989, readers have been asking me to write a sequel. The book is so popular that I’ve been nervous about trying to repeat its success. But at last I screwed up my courage, and wrote ‘World Without End.

I couldn’t write another book about building a cathedral, because that would be the same book. And I couldn’t write another story about the same characters, because by the end of ‘Pillars’ they are all very old or dead. ‘World Without End’ takes place in the same town, Kingsbridge, and features the descendants of the ‘Pillars’ characters two centuries later.

The cathedral and the priory are again at the centre of a web of love and hate, greed and pride, ambition and revenge. But at the heart of the story is the greatest natural disaster ever to strike the human race: the plague known as the Black Death, which killed something like half the population of Europe in the fourteenth century. The people of the Middle Ages battled this lethal pestilence and survived – and, in doing so, laid the foundations of modern medicine.

Yes. I cried for joy in Target. I love how sometimes being caught up in routine means that life can offer you a lagniappe.

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My husband had today off. That means that not only did he not go into work, he also didn’t have to build any wheels, adjust any derailleurs, ride SAG or any of the other bike-related things which generally consume portions of his Saturdays.

So we decided to trek over to the new Ginormous Used Book Store which just opened up in West Nashville. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about this place. Several people I know have been waiting with bated breath for it to open, and have been squeeing for joy ever since it got here.

You can probably see where this is going so I’m going to cut right to the chase. We went. It was no big deal, as far as I could tell. I like my used media stores to have a lot of funky discoveries available. As far as I could tell, this place–like Books A Million–specialises in having a lot of copies of the most popular items. It was sort of a larger and slightly more raggedy version of Target’s book/cd/movie section. You want used copies of the latest Grisham? Great. They’ve got 16. But if you’re expecting a Bookman/Bookwoman/Dad’s experience on a larger scale, this ain’t it.

Perhaps the biggest disgruntlement for me was that they refuse to down-price their DVD sets. I buy used DVD sets (rarely). But when I’m in the market for one–say ‘Deadwood’–I expect that it will be cheaper if it’s used. Amazon retails Season 2 NEW for $68.99. You can buy it used at Amazon for $39.00. You can also drive across town and buy it used at New Ginormous Used Media Store for $60.00.

I think I’ve reached the place in my life where I’d just as soon patronise the library. Sure, I don’t own the stuff, but at least there’s more to choose from. If I decide I want to own it, I’ll plunk down my debit card at Amazon and have them mail me the stuff. It’s simpler.

Gosh, I’m aging rapidly.

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I’m fascinated by how we cross-evaluate ideas in the various realms of fiction. We can have what is essentially the same narrative idea, but it’s worth is continually judged not only on its merits but in the context of its expression.

To my mind there is no clearer example of this than Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Now that the acclaimed book is going to receive even broader exposure thanks to the recent movie adaptation with Scary Keira Knightly, I’m reminded of this issue.

Don’t read any further if you wish to remain unspoiled for either the book or the movie, because what I’m going to talk about is the Big Shocker Ending which played such a fundamental role in the acclaim for the novel.

The book concerns how one lie taints the entire lives of a dozen or so people. The movie’s press would of course have you believe that the lie is a “small” one, when it is relatively huge–as it involves falsely implicating a man in the rape of a young girl.

The novel plays out in four acts, as we watch the various characters live their lives as changed by the initial false witness. The first act sets up the lie, the second act shows the conflict of the ramifications of the lie and the the third act has a happy ending where the truth is told at last and all is made right with the world. The last stage–the twist, which in the movie is played by Vanessa Redgrave–is that there is no happy ending. The book’s “author” reveals that SHE is the liar and SHE wrote the book with a happy ending in order to atone for her sin. Which in ‘reality’ has a sadder, more realistic outcome.

All of this is written by Ian McEwan and is very well-crafted and literary.

But none of it is particularly shocking to anyone who watched the last two-part episode of Rosanne.

Because that popular TV show ended the same way, with the same authorial conceit of a fictional author rewriting the fictional story with a fictional sad ending. That was about 5 years before Atonement was published, of course. At the time it was considered lazy writing, vulgar and a disappointment to fans.

Of course, Roseanne was not ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

And that’s what fascinates me–that constant need we have to not only weigh the merits of a thing on its ideas but on its packaging.

Roseanne was a lower-middle-class, populist sitcom. It doesn’t seem unconventional now that there have been so many lesser imitators, but the show was groundbreaking. However, it was a groundling entertainment directed at the masses. So it’s not the literary acheivement of a “shocking” work like Atonement.

But it was, and is, the same stuff. The same ideas. The same challenging of preconceptions. Why is one high art and the other tossed aside in the afternoons wrapped around Bart Durham ads?

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Sometimes I just really love the Grumpy Old Bookman

Various people are asking whether trade paperbacks can save literary fiction (see Galleycat for a summary).

The answer is no. Nothing can save literary fiction. It isn’t a question of format or cost; it’s a question of boredom.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, and you can even fool the same people for several years — or books — at a time. But eventually the penny drops.

Honestly, this whole thing cracks me up. I do like literary fiction, but it’s an admittedly acquired taste. And honestly, even the phrase “literary fiction” bugs the crap right out of me. It carries that weighty implication that This Book is more worthy of being a book than All The Other Books and further the idea that reading This Book makes a person of more depth than the folks who read All Those Other Books.

Of course, there are books which are objectively better than other books. Using two examples from among my lifetime favourites, I would honestly say that To Kill A Mockingbird is vastly superior to any of the books in the Harry Potter franchise, judging with a critical eye on plotting, pacing, characterisation and theme. Yet I still love both, reread both, and am spurred to think about larger deeper thoughts when I read either one. But they both engage me.

It’s increasingly difficult to find literary fiction which engages me. More often than not when I pick up a piece of literary fiction I get the vibe that the author is trying to work through his therapy, impress his coffee klatsch from the MFA class and have others praise him for how loftily smart he is. More and more often I’m less spurred to new ideas and instead spurred to understand why so many people don’t read for leisure anymore.

Because leisure reading, after all, implies leisure. Fun. Enjoyment.

This current cover debate is cracking me up specifically because it’s as though the Literary Fiction people are coming ever closer to admitting that people don’t enjoy their books. So maybe if they instead made them look like the books people DO enjoy, they could trick a few readers into buying these tomes by mistake.


Oh never mind. They’ve already answered that question.

I know I’ve already written about this, but I have to say that perhaps actually making your literary fiction interesting would be a good start.

For instance, I’m in the middle of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. This is a beautifully written book. It’s as literary as you’d expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner, yet it’s as entertaining as you’d expect from a Clancy or King.

And it has the most hideous cover art I’ve seen in awhile. Yet I’m reading it. Why? Because it’s engaging, not loftily haughty and entertaining.

Oh, and I’m reading it in hardcover, too.

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I’m reading the best book I’ve read in a long time.

I hesitate to say that, because as soon as I start talking about how much I love this book it will turn to suck. I’m about 193 pages into it, however, and so I think it’s safe to say that at least the first 193 pages sing true in a way I haven’t experienced since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

My only problem with this one is it seems to be yet another “Faith Vs. Reason” deal where Faith comes out looking like a rutting hog next to Reason in her shining locks and satin gown. Of course, there’s really no cause to write a Faith Vs. Reason book where Faith comes out ahead, since the platonic ideal was well-accomplished by John Irving more than a decade ago. (Seriously, if you haven’t read A Prayer For Owen Meany, please drop whatever you’re reading now and dive into that book.)

Anyway, back to this book I’m reading now. It’s called The Last Witchfinder, and is probably selling fairly well on the coattails of Harry Potter, even though it has about as much in common with those books as it does with Highlights Magazine.

For starters, this is a book narrated by another book–the principle action unfolds though the wry wit of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. How can you NOT love something riddled with that conceit?   The rest of the story is smart, funny, and unique, and all written in a beautiful tone with poetic prose.    Not to spoil it too much, but there is one scene where Hooke poses as Newton and cusses out an entire town with some of the most wonderful profanities I’ve ever seen.    With language like that I do wonder why we’ve limited ourselves to the f-bomb as our most turgid curse, when there are phrases like (take the children into the other room) “twattwaddles” and “pudpounders” just laying out there discarded.

And come on! Who doesn’t want to read a book where Hooke poses as Newton?  That and that alone should intrigue you.

I do own this copy, so as soon as I’m done we can pass it around.  Maybe this time it will end better than that poor Grey’s Anatomy DVD.  (Again, I do apologise for forcing so many of you to get into that show right before it started sucking louder than a thirsty baby on a dry teat.)

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