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Posts in "books" category

6 Books That Make You Feel Thankful

books-thankfulnessSo much of our culture stokes our desire and our greed, because that’s what fuels the economy, not thankfulness and gratefulness. 

The books below are defiantly counter-cultural, because they will help you to feel satisfied and whole. Sure, there’s longing and striving inside these books, but I think overall the reader will walk away from these books feeling a strong satisfaction and wellness about the world.

Continue Reading…

Responses to Amazon/Walmart Price Wars over Books

Emily Pullen at Skylight Books blog:

What kind of soulless person would think that cheaper isn't better? According to Merriam Webster, the verb to cheapen
also means "to lower in general esteem; to make tawdry, vulgar, or
inferior in some moral sense." And frankly, that's something that I'd
rather not do to our concept of reading and its influence in our lives.
I'm amazed that publishers don't seem more outraged about this. As
luxuries go (and reading is usually a luxury), you can't get much more
economical than a book. Let's say you read one page per minute for 30
minutes every day. At that rate, it would take you 10 days to read a
300 page book, or 5 total hours. Where can you get 5 hours of
entertainment or education for less than $15, let alone 10 DAYS of
entertainment or education for about $25?

In the Huffington Post, Praveen Madan and Christin Evans write about what important things independent bookstores offer that Amazon and Walmart can't provide:

It seems to us that independent booksellers are not in the
same business as Amazon.com and the chain stores. They are in a much broader business – it’s the business of building community. Successful
independent bookstores use their love and knowledge of books to build community
just like a contractor uses bricks and wood to build a house.  You can buy a book anywhere but you can’t buy community. Community
doesn’t enjoy every day low prices at WalMart nor does it show up in a box
delivered by UPS.

Atlantic Monthly offers a roundup:

Publishers should then use this turn of events to start putting their money where it matters: the emerging writers.

The Wall Street Journal points out the latest in this book pricing war is that the behemoths have begun to ration the number of books customers can buy:

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has limited its online customers to two copies each of certain bargain books. Amazon.com Inc. has a three-copy maximum on certain discounted titles and Target Corp. has a five-copy limit online.

The Literary Saloon has some excerpts from a subscriber online WSJ article about how price wars are banned in Europe (sounds like a wise position):

In much of Europe, the discount-pricing battle that has erupted among Wal-Mart Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Target Corp. could never happen because most major publishing markets, with the exception of the U.K., are bolstered by laws requiring all bookstores, online retailers included, to sell books at prices set in stone by their publishers.

UPDATE: The New Yorker wades into the fray:

"The best way to win a price war, then, is not to play in the first
place. Instead, you can compete in other areas: customer service or
quality. Or you can collude with your putative competitors: that’s why
cartels like OPEC exist. Or—since overt
collusion is usually illegal—you can employ subtler tactics (which
economists call “signalling”), like making public statements about the
importance of “stable pricing.” The idea is to let your competitors
know that you’re not eager to slash prices—but that, if a price war
does start, you’ll fight to the bitter end. One way to establish that
peace-preserving threat of mutual assured destruction is to commit
yourself beforehand, which helps explain why so many retailers promise
to match any competitor’s advertised price. Consumers view these
guarantees as conducive to lower prices. But in fact offering a
price-matching guarantee should make it less likely that competitors
will slash prices, since they know that any cuts they make will
immediately be matched. It’s the retail version of the doomsday machine."

Plunging Standards: Why Students Don’t Even Know The Word “Canon”

Reading a book and textingOkay, so the new craze sweeping the teaching profession is to let students pick their own reading material. Oi vey.

As a professor, I already get enough students who have sub-par reading skills — I really don’t want to see more. I also see too many (college-educated) adult friends of mine who read virtually nothing past a sixth-grade reading level (Harry Potter, anyone?). If we keep on dropping the bar on students, soon they’re not going to read anything complex or challenging until grad school (if they get there).

Quite simply, they won’t be prepared to be the type of citizen who can weigh options when voting or participate in the arts.

I know the NYT article was talking about junior high, but it’s all a pyramid, and elementary schools lowering their standards for reading drops the standard for junior high, and lowering junior high standards drops high school levels, and lowering high school levels leaves me with students in college who are so unable to interact with language that it’s obvious the university is only trying to turn a profit.

And this parsing between junk and worse junk is hilarious:

“Despite the student freedom, Ms. Atwell constantly fed suggestions to the children. She was strict about not letting them read what she considered junk: no “Gossip Girl” or novels based on video games. But she acknowledged that certain children needed to be nudged into books by allowing them to read popular titles like the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer.”

Catherine E. Snow, quoted in the article, says:

“But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach.”

Notice how low the bar has dropped. Now it’s not about teaching how to read, but just getting anyone (anyone! please!) to scan words for the rest of their lives. Twelve years of mandatory education, with millions going through sixteen years, and our goal is only to make lifelong readers? Please. Teachers: you need to have a bit more self-respect. You need to be just the tiniest bit more ambitious.

Another way at getting at the problem: The teacher (who can’t read ALL the books her students pick) has no additional insight to offer to the student.

In other words, once again, this style of teaching encourages reading as a medium of communication, but doesn’t teach how to read well, because the teacher can’t point out anything her students didn’t notice.

I suggest a different motivator than the “choice approach” Catherine E. Snow seems to find so efficacious. What about teaching students about the mysteries inside books? What about teaching them to see that what they read was only a small fraction of what was there? What about treating books as treasures that can be mined again and again, full of secrets and surprises?

Because that type of teaching not only promotes literature, but also would seem to be a pretty great motivator.

Chess Puzzles, Nabakov, and the “Splendid Insincerity” of Fiction

“Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity.” – Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve been playing chess seriously for more than a decade, since my graduate school days in New York City, when I first lost money to the hustlers in Washington Square Park, then won money, then was refused games.

I play over-the-board (OTB) infrequently, but online chess often. It seems chess is so dissimilar to fiction, because one deals with cold, hard, implacable logic and the other with the vicissitudes of human emotion, but I find more than a few similarities.

Nabokov, who wrote an entire novel centered around chess (“The Defense”), highlights the creativity required to create a chess puzzle, comparing it to art. It’s not only chess puzzles, though. Any beautiful and brilliant chess game exhibits “originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity.” Puzzles just do it in capsule form. The really surprising part of the Nabokov quote, though, is the end, the “splendid insincerity.”

If insincerity is like trickery, then it’s easy to see the comparison: The puzzle’s obvious choice is often the wrong one, which is why so many puzzles involve sacrifices (Queen Sacks) and other improbable moves. Similarly, a goal of fiction is to use trickery by choosing a plot twist that will not be guessed by the reader, but when the twist comes, for it to seem destined.

But insincerity must have other dimensions. Nabokov probably didn’t mean that the author was “insincere,” but that the work of art itself was insincere in some way. But insincerity has such a negative connotation. What great fiction could be described as insincere?

Perhaps Nabokov was thinking of his own oeuvre. In “Lolita,” a prime example of a deceitful first person narrative, Humbert skews the course of events to portray himself in the best light. Insincere narrators — or even ones believing themselves to be sincere, but are not — do make for splendid books.

But what books would you describe as “splendidly insincere?” Books or authors, I suppose, though it might be easier to choose books.

And would any of these make the list?

A list of Chess Fiction:

  • Nabokov’s The Defense
  • Raymond Chandler The Big Sleep
  • Michael Chabon The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
  • Samuel Beckett Murphy – both players try to lose
  • The Courter (Short Story), Salman Rushdie
  • The Ten Best Chess Books (from The Guardian)

Story Prize Finalists

Story Prize copy

Out of a field of 73 books, the Story Prize has announced its finalists for 2008:

  • Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno (Akashic Books)
  • Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff (Alfred A. Knopf)

I am surprised by the Joe Meno nomination, but also delighted because I enjoy his fiction. Also, isn’t it fun to see a smaller publisher like Akashic sandwiched between two Knopf books? Unfortunately, I think he has the smallest chance of winning.

Only a third of the stories in Our Story Begins are brand new — the rest are snagged from previous collections — but in a year when a version of the National Book Award winner was published thirty years previously, I don’t think that hurts Wolff’s chances.

Unaccustomed Earth needs no introduction, or more publicity for that matter, but Lahiri is immensely talented and can write stories that appeal to both critics and mainstream sensibilities, a talent greatly needed in the short story world. But she would be such a shoo-in — remember the debacle where Unaccustomed Earth jumped the whole shortlist procedure for the Frank O’Connor award? — that to award her yet another short story prize is a bit of overkill.

I do wish that the Story Prize would start with a slightly larger pool of finalists: five would be a nice round number, or if they wanted to be contrarian, four or six. Shortlisting makes excellent publicity for short story authors who desperately need it, makes a better pool for short story readers to draw from, and makes guessing the winner more interesting.

The press release:

These three books were selected from among 73 story collections from 56 different publishers or imprints. Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times Best-Seller List and was the unanimous choice for Ireland’s Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Meno’s Demons in the Spring was published by small press publisher Akashic Books in a limited edition with original illustrations by 20 artists from the fine art, graphic, and comic book worlds—and part of the proceeds are benefitting 826Chicago, a drop-in tutoring center. Wolff’s Our Story Begins includes 16 stories from three previous collections and adds ten new stories to the mix, representing a substantial selection of accomplished work by a master of the form.

The winner is announced March 4th, 2009. The prize is $20,000 (oh, and a silver bowl to boot!).

My prediction? Bet on Tobias Wolff.

Buy these books from Amazon: Unaccustomed Earth, Demons in the Spring, Our Story Begins

Roundup

Poets and Writers has a searchable archive of contests, including a function where you can find fee-free ones. (like Greensboro Review)

Book Reviewers, not to be outdone by the hundreds of fiction contests, now have their own contest. Virginia Quarterly Review wants the best review of a book published in 2008 by writers under thirty. Winners (and perhaps the five runners-up) are published in VQR. The name, “Young Reviewers Contest,” makes it sound like the award is for tweens, but in the literary world, “young” is anyone under thirty-five.

Open Letters has a trifecta (1, 2, 3) of criticism on Evan Connell’s collected fiction, “Lost in Uttar Pradesh.”

After reading James Wood’s “How Fiction Works,” I’m starting to feel bad for John Updike, who is used as a primo example of how not to write in Wood’s section on authorial/character narration. The text in question, of course, is “Terrorist.” I still remember that Harper’s article that dismembered that novel piece by piece . . .

It is disconcerting to find that various individuals named “John Fox” have already published a young gay lover novel, texts on “nonparametric regression”, how poetry can heal, the historical “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, an expedition through Manchuria and, of course, the book of Martyrs. Guess I’ll have to go with the John Matthew Fox approach.

Articles continue to pour in to eulogize Solzhenitsyn.