Friday, March 18, 2005

Today's New York Times

Got my caffeine fix at Starbucks while reading both the NYT and USA Today. Some interesting stuff to share:

* A cover article on the NYT on "un-volunteering" -- how some of our volunteer soldiers are trying to avoid going (back) to Iraq, using methods from applying for "conscientious objector" status (easier said than done) to fleeing to Canada to purposefully failing drug tests... Reading the article, I could almost feel the desperation of these soldiers. It reminded me of a Newsweek article this week about the 1600 American kids who have lost a parent in Iraq (but what about the countless --really, the uncounted-- Iraqi children who have been orphaned?).

* Another NYT cover article: barbers in Iraq are being murdered for giving customers Western-style haircuts and shaves. This is even more insidious terrorism than the flashier car bombs and suicide bombers. Probably more effective at controlling the average Iraqi too.

* Also from today's NYT: 2 articles showcasing the absurdity of religion, Christian style -- one on the fringe church who had several members killed in a murder/suicide last weekend, and another on a group of skateboarding evangelists (favored by born again Baldwin brother Stephen). Who knew skateboards were Jesus's favored sports equipment?

Arlette Rosen on writing

Arlette Rosen, the book doctor in Esther Cohen's novel, has a philosophy of writing that I found interesting enough to transcribe here:

"About your book, it is a beginning, not an end. The point is not the book but the writing. Once you are able to make writing a part of your life, and that isn't easy, your life will be changed. I don't mean in a big way necessarily. You won't get another job, or marry a different kind of woman, or walk to work down different streets. Your bedroom won't look different either, although it could. But once you let yourself begin to describe whatever you see, the process of seeing itself is altered. You have a way to put the pieces together, or pretend. The kind of writing you do doesn't matter. Neither does its future." (ch 11, p92)

"You need time not to write, in order to write. A whole day, for three or four hours. Time to consider. And time not to think about what you are writing. Time to walk around in a circle. You may be sweeping the floor, or doing laundry. But you need that time for your characters to develop a tone that's consistent, and a strong clear heart." (ch 16, p126-27)

"To me, writing is learning how not to be afraid, how to be open, how to see and feel and hear. How to reveal secrets. Anais Nin (do you know who she is? She is controversial now, but she wasn't when I was reading with an avidity I've lost a little). Anais Nin said that writing is a generosity of the spirit, a jousting with energy, loving others, and giving away all of oneself to others, to celebrate life." (ch 23, p172)

And at the end, Arlette writes one of her prospective clients, "I no longer tweak" and we want to cheer for her. Maybe now, she writes.

A final word on Cohen's Book Doctor

I stayed up finishing Book Doctor by Esther Cohen. I am glad I decided to stick with it, because I found in the second half a lot more examples of the kind of writing that hooked me in the first paragraph of the book (and which was sorely lacking in paragraphs two through chapter nine).

I enjoyed the book enough to check out Esther Cohen's next book when it's published.

That said, I think that this book would have benefitted from its own book doctor, or from an editor who actually did his/her job. A lot of it, especially in the early chapters, just detracts from the story, and from the characters. And while I ended up liking the narrative voice, I do think that all of Ms. Cohen's characters sound alike; all have the same endearingly weird way of putting things (even if Harbinger Singh is the master in that respect). I just wasn't convinced enough of Harbinger's uniqueness and his fascination to Arlette, which was dealt with in the following (highly unfulfilling) way: "Arlette listened carefully to his nervous rambling. She couldn't help bit wonder what it was that she found so compelling. His words? His delivery? Both?" (ch 10, p77). It boggles my mind (and annoys me that Cohen couldn't show how Harbinger fascinated Arlette instead of just telling us).

I found parts of the book humorous but certainly NOT 'hilarious', as one of the blurbs and many reviews insisted. For example, during one of her customary early Sunday phone calls, Arletta's grandmother tells her: "'Arlette, my child. I hope I didn't wake you. But if I did, I'd rather not know. Guilt is overrated,' she said. 'I don't want it. I have enough'..." (ch 18, p136). And there are several good bits about what it means to be a writer, and about the process of writing, which sound like they are coming from the author herself, and not from Arletta, because poor Arletta is a successful book doctor but a frustrated writer.

(I'll get back to the stuff on writing in a separate post, once I've had my daily coffee fix.)

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Update on the fate of Cohen's Book Doctor

I'm sure you're all dying to know my decision about Esther Cohen's latest: keep going? chuck it? speed read?

I've decided to keep going. After all, I have already made it to chapter 10, and the letters from prospective clients to book doctor Arlette are amusing. I also keep telling myself other readers find Cohen really funny... And let's face it, I did spend $23 on this hardcover. So all those reasons, coupled with remnants of you've-got-to-finish-every-book fervor left over from my childhood, mean I'll finish. I must admit I am curious as to how the love affair between Arlette (the eponymous book doctor) and her lawyer/aspiring author client develops.

Will keep you posted. (Any Cohen fans out there that could help me appreciate her style a little more?)

I'm also still savoring Pullman's The Subtle Knife. Lyra's story is so good I don't want to rush through it (though at my regular reading speed I could have finished the entire trilogy long before now).

From the Newstand

A brief foray today into the latest edition of The Economist to make it to my local independent bookstore. Dipping into The Economist always makes me feel like I'm way behind on history, geography, politics... and that there's just no way to catch up. It also invariably makes me wonder who the little worker bees are that write all the unsigned articles. The veneer of objectivity that not having bylines gives makes me uncomfortable -- whose bias are we exposed to? Are the unknown authors more or less likely to be 'professional' under cover of anonymity or when they are exposed to the world?

[Just in case you feel like subscribing to The Economist and also contributing to my book fund:]

The Economist on the difference between a search engine and a collaborative search (like Amazon's recommendations):

"Where the user of a search engine is on a solitary quest, the user of a collaborative-filtering system is part of a crowd. Search, and you search alone; ramble from one recommendation to another, and you may feel a curious kinship with the like-minded whose opinions influence your own --and who are, in turn, influenced by your opinions" (p30).

By the way, I read somewhere (who knows where, really) that applied for and received a patent for its collaborative search technology.

Who knew?

Here's one for your useless trivia file, also from The Economist:

"According to Avital Ronell, a professor of philosophy at New York University and author of The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, and Electric Speech, [Alexander Graham] Bell was just as interested in using his invention to contact the dead as he was in talking to his associate Thomas Watson. 'Bell and Watson had attended regular seances in Salem,' says Dr Ronell. Bell even drew up a contract with his brother, agreeing that whoever lived the longest should try to contact the other. For his part, Watson was an avid medium who spent hours listening to the weird hisses and squeals of early telephone lines in case they proved to be the dead trying to make contact" (p15).

But my favorite quote from The Economist has to be this one -- surprisingly lyrical for a staid publication:

"Phones are not so much omnivorous as promiscuous. The future belongs not solely to all-in-one super-phones, though they will appeal to some people, but to a far wider range of gizmos, including dedicated devices, digital jacks-of-all-trades, and every imaginable combination in between. The best way to describe it is not convergence, but divergence" (p16).

My own cell phone is, lamentably, neither omnivorous nor promiscuous, though it is divergent: while most other people have upgraded to tiny, fancy cell phones that take pictures and receive e-mail, I still carry around my first chunky, clunky Nokia. And I confess: most of the time it's turned off. I'm just not a phone sort of person!

March 21 Newsweek

In his column "The Technologist," Steven Levy asks "[s]ince anywone can write a Weblog, why is the blogosphere dominated by white males?" He concludes: "It appears that some clubbiness is involved. [Blogger Halley] Suitt puts it more bluntly: 'It's white people linking to other white people!' (A link from a popular blog is this medium's equivalent to a Super Bowl ad.) Suitt attributes her own high status in the blogging world to her conscious decisions to 'promote myself among those on the A list'" (p16).

Mmm... The A list? I wonder how you figure that out... I guess for now I'll just be content to read and write (pretty much for myself!) -- I guess I'm not ready for primetime yet! (But what IS the A list for lit blogs???)

The first paragraph hook

"What Harbinger Singh really wanted was a book. Sometimes, when he was being most honest, he would admit he didn't care very much about the subject. He wanted a book he had written. He didn't know why, and he didn't much care. It could be about bluefish for all it really mattered. Some days though he was more high-minded. He wanted to write a book, or so he'd tell himself, about one critical dimension of life. Love, maybe, or racism, politics or war. On ocassion he imagined all of these unfolding into a great cosmological epic, a very long book, just enough to be considered weighty, with conscious, pyrotechnical prose, characters who talked and sweated elegantly, free spirits who constantly made love with one another inside old red wheel barrows and on moist, green banks of deep lagoons."

The first paragraph -- those words which either hook or repel prospective readers but hardly ever leave us unmoved. The title and the cover first seduced me, lying oh so casually among the other new hardcovers in our local Borders:

Of course, I skimmed through the flap copy, which was if not titillating at least promising enough to flip to the mythical first paragraph. Yes, fellow reader, I was hooked!

And then came the second paragraph (Ay, qué triste despertar...): "Singh himself was a lover of computers. But he made his living in law. Mostly tax law, though he wrote an ocassional will..." The ellipsis is mine; I'll spare you the rest of the paragraph, and in fact, the rest of the book. Such a promising beginning... I've made it through nine chapters and the writing is more second paragraph dive than first paragraph hook. So I'm wondering, is it worth it to finish this novel (yes, even though 'reviewers' all gushed about the author's comic touch and "amazing" prose)? Should I skim through it? Or just consign it to the furthest corner of the already bulging shelves of the storage closet?

While I ponder the fate of Esther Cohen's Book Doctor ($23!), I flip through the March issue of W magazine, which I subscribe to for the stunning, oversize pictures of jewelry (not for the inevitable photo spreads of emaciated, spaced out models in expensive --and ever more bizarre-- designer clothing). W has interesting page design, very architectural, and my attention was caught by a couple of sentences floating in the middle of a page of text: "'Writing it was like peeling off a layer of skin,' says IllumBerg of Tea on the Blue Sofa. 'I'm giving my deepest soul here.'" Of course, I had to read more. I mean, what kind of name is IllumBerg anyway? And what did someone who spouts such drivel could possibly write? Must read to find out!

The article doesn't explain the name, but it does explain that IllumBerg is Natasha IllumBerg, "the only licensed big-game hunter in East Africa," whom the accompanying picture shows is also a very attractive blonde (who had been having a secret affair with a married man who just happened to be murdered at the front gate of her home by person(s) unknown). This heartbreak is the stimulus for Tea on the Blue Sofa, a novel based on her tragic affair with the love of her life (starts the article: "Their secret affair had been going on for just five months..."). Nice to know that you can plumb such depth of love in five months of clandestine romance... I think I'll pass on this literary gem, especially since the interviewer/reviewer/author of the W piece seems to have such trouble remembering that IllumBerg chose to write a novel, not a memoir.

Still undecided about Book Doctor. Thankfully I've got Pullman's The Subtle Knife to keep me occupied!

In case you want to make up your own mind:

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Lyra's quest

I finished The Golden Compass yesterday. I was surprised by what Lyra's betrayal turned out to be -- I thought it was very well done and I wasn't expecting that plot twist. The reunion between Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter on the mountaintop felt a lot more contrived, though I suppose in the end each acted according to his and her character.

My favorite part (after Lyra tricking the bear king) was the discussion between the witch and the balloon operator. He's complaining that no one paid him to get in the middle of a war and she's explaining how witches are different because they're not motivated by financial gain. "I just don't have your sources of satisfaction" he replies. That's a classic! And don't we all make decisions based on our own particular 'sources of satisfaction'?

This morning, while supervising the test to my Brit lit students, I started on The Subtle Knife, the second volume of the Dark Materials trilogy. I'm interested to see why the other world in which Lyra and Will meet doesn't have any signs of life. I also hope that Lyra's idea --that our kind of humans (Will's kind) has daemons, we just have them inside us-- is developed further. And why is Will's missing father so interesting to the mysterious men?

Another interesting point -- Lyra was comforted when the alethiometer revealed that Will is a murderer. She considers murderers trustworthy... I wonder why, really?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Margaret Atwood's virtual autographs

Sometimes The New Yorker's Talk of the Town articles read more like a Harper's reprint of plainly weird stuff. Take for example a note on the March 7 edition of the New Yorker about Margaret Atwood's fabulous new plan to invest in a remote writing pen that would allow her to do signings without actually being there --

Honestly, this reads like an April Fool's prank three weeks too early:

"Atwood came up with the idea last spring, during an expensive and exhausting three-week publicity tour for her novel “Oryx and Crake.” She says that the invention, which will be manufactured by a new company called Unotchit (“You no touch it”), will increase both the safety of the writer-reader interaction—“My germs and my bio-material won’t be in the same place as your germs and your bio-material”—and its profundity: “I’m more likely to be gazing deeply into your eyes as I’m signing on the screen.” And she insists that there will be no appreciable lessening of an autograph’s authenticity, because writing is already only a distant cousin of thought. “The mind is the device that is thinking out the signature,” she said. “The hand is the extension of the mind, and the pen is the extension of the hand—so the pen is at two removes from the author’s mind already. This thing is just another remove.”

And of course, another blogger has already commented on it too:

And from Rake's Progress, a whole discussion about whether this is a prank or not:

The jury's still out on the authenticity of this little bit of Atwoodiana... Though it made it on Business Week Online:

"Autograph Hounds, Take Heart

Globalization has another discontent: Margaret Atwood. The author of such novels as The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake says online book sales have created an impossible demand for name-brand authors to be promoting books in several places at once. "The book tour has turned into a global black hole of energy that ruins you," says the 63-year-old writer.

Atwood has a solution: a gizmo that allows authors to autograph books from afar. The contraption combines a Webcam, a tablet PC, and a robot arm that can hold any pen desired. Fans could go to a bookstore where the machine is in place, describe the desired inscription directly to the author through video ("Please write: 'To Mary, Happy Birthday, Margaret Atwood' "), watch as the author jots it out on her tablet PC -- and see the robot arm duplicate the personalized message.

Atwood stresses that the device is still in the development phase. A prototype, which she put together along with some techie friends, was shown to a recent gathering of about 60 publishing execs. The prototype uses a writing arm similar to an architectural plotter to sign books. Atwood hopes to have an improved model that uses a robotic arm available for a fall demo.

Ultimately she expects a coalition of financial backers, perhaps including publishers, and someone "who's more business-oriented than I" to run her newly formed company, Unotchit.The apparatus should work to autograph a variety of products, Atwood notes: books, CD jackets, and T-shirts. But it may not be all-purpose. "I was once asked to autograph a belly," she muses. "I don't think it will work on bellies."

By Hardy Green" from

I guess somewhere these mythical publishing execs got a preview of the disembodied signing machine... I think I'll stay home for that one.


This edition of the New Yorker also contains a feature article on Dan Rather that makes him look and sound pathetic. The photo is totally unflattering, a full page tight shot closeup of his face with absolutely no retouching. It does fit the spirit of the article, which basically is about how he's a figurehead who puts on a show on the pressroom floor when he has visitors, even "lunging" for the phone (but then having to explain who he is to the callers...). In one word: pathetic.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Pleasures of the Sunday New York Times

I've just spent a few hours at the Starbucks down the street, sipping a vanilla latte and browsing through the Sunday NYT. I confess I've loved the Times since college, when my roommates and I would pool our money for our mandatory subscriptions to the Harvard Crimson and the NYT. Procrastination was always time well spent in the company of Quindlen et al. (In fact, it still is, even though Quindlen is no longer there -- I get my Quindlen fix through Newsweek now).

Of course, I start my Sunday forage with the Book section. Yes, I know I could read the articles online, but it's not the same. I like the sensory experience of holding the oversized pages in my hand. Plus, I confess, I like to look at the book ads!

Yes, publishers, readers do look at the ads. And I, at least, use these ads to add books to my Buying List (which I then take to my local independent bookstore -- I try to spread the wealth beween them, Borders, and Which is why I wish most ads were more informative -- how am I supposed to make up my mind to order a book when I can't even tell what the book is about?

Take, for example, an ad on page 3 for The Society of Others by William Nicholson. Mmm... never heard of this author, but that's really not a deterrent... No description of the plot, not even a teaser... Just five blurbs from people/newspapers I don't know or care much about, saying unenlightening things ("fascinating", "exciting", "a joy to read")... A picture of the cover (a two lane highway going off into a horizon dominated by a huge half-moon -- I wouldn't pick this book up at the bookstore to check out the inside flap)... A mention of Catcher in the Rye... nope, not hooked, not even interested. Next!

An ad for Jodi Picault's new hardcover, Vanishing Acts. Mmm... Okay blurbs from recognizable publications... Then I read the teaser: "The beautiful yet shocking story of a woman caught between a past she cannot recall -- and the life she cannot lead without it." Turn-off. "Beautiful" and "shocking" -- yuck. That's the best the publisher could do?

Another ad -- this time a two-page, full-color center spread for Danielle Steel's new hardcover, Impossible... What marketing genius placed this ad here? Is the average NYT Book Review reader likely to be a Steel reader? I used to read Danielle Steel; when I was in middle school I read everything she had ever published up to that time. I stopped when I read the novel about a union activist who gets unfairly sent to jail and both he and his lover (maybe wife?) know that he'll get killed in there, and of course he does, maybe 20 pages from the end. In those 20 pages she grieves, gets over her grief, meets a new guy, marries him, and lives (apparently) happily ever after. Even as a young girl, I was disgusted with this plot resolution. Granted, I dislike the so-called romances of male authors like Nicholas Sparks (was I the only one who thought Message in a Bottle --the movie-- showed promise until 10 minutes from the end Sparks killed off his male lead in an idiotic accident?) who resolutely eschew happy endings, but I like my happy endings plausible and well-plotted. I also like romance novels, which to fulfill genre expectations, must end with the hero and the heroine happy and together.

The award for weirdest ad goes to to one on page 28. It's for a free downloadable book by a weird fringe group who claims to have deciphered the keys to Armageddon. Creepy.

So, no new books added to my Buying List from the ads, though some from the articles. The new memoir by Jeannette Walls (The Glass Castle) is one -- it's the book featured on the cover.

By the way, why the horrible cover illustration in the NYT Book Review? How does that even relate to the subject of the article? And it's not aesthetically pleasing either. Could it be they were going for disturbing? If so, they got it, but I am not sure to what purpose... And a fantasy YA novel, The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson. I admit it was Kerry Fried's review that sold me on this book; it's an uncommon review in that it shows familiarity with the reviewed author's entire ouvre and places the new book in its context. I now know that if I like The Star of Kazan there are plenty more good books from Ibbotson to choose from.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see a nice review of three books I bought Friday at Borders, the three Prof. von Igelfeld volumes by Alexander McCall Smith. I admit I love his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and I'm looking forward to reading these short tales. I think they will make for light, entertaining bedtime reading.

Other highlights from the Sunday Times so far: an article in the magazine about Lewis Black, of The Daily Show fame.

Well, time to put the Times aside and go type that exam I'm giving my British lit students on Tuesday.

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