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Saturday
Sep192009

A Book Un-banned

Their books served the people; were published in huge editions; were supplied by a system of automatic mass distribution to all libraries; and months of promotion were devoted to them.

You already know that Banned Books Week, the annual cautionary celebration of our Freadom, will be held September 26-October 3. My contribution to the discussion this year is to point out a recently un-banned book in another country.

The opening sentence of this column, which expresses the thoughts of an "acceptable" writer bristling under Soviet censorship, is from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel, The First Circle. That paragraph concludes:

Of course, they couldn't write much of the truth. But they consoled themselves with the thought that someday things would change, and then they would return to these times and these events, and record them truthfully, revising and reprinting their old books. Right now they must concentrate on that quarter, eighth, sixteenth--oh, all right, that thirty-second--part of the truth that was possible. Even that little bit was better than nothing.

Appropriately enough, as Banned Books Week approaches and the "better than nothing" question continues to be a relevant dilemma for readers, writers, booksellers, teachers, librarians and publishers internationally, Solzhenitsyn's name has appeared in the news again.

According to the Associated Press, the "book that made 'Gulag' a synonym for the horrors of Soviet oppression will be taught in Russian high schools, a generation after the Kremlin banned it as destructive to the Communist cause and exiled its author." Russia's Education Ministry has ruled that excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's three-volume indictment of the imprisonment of tens of millions of people--and deaths of millions as a result of privation and forced labor--will be added to required reading lists.

Like most of Solzhenitsyn's early work, Gulag circulated underground in his country while being translated and published in the West. It also played a substantial role in the Kremlin's decision to expel the dissident author in 1974. He spent the next 20 years in exile and, as the AP noted, when he returned home in 1994 after the fall of the Soviet Union he "expressed disappointment that most Russians hadn't read his books."

Perhaps some of them will now.

The politics of this recent decision are muddy. Russia's economy is in bad shape, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "is pushing to restore pride in the Soviet past." Thus, the AP observed, "the decision could be a reflection of the Russian establishment's struggle to reconcile that pride with the freedoms that Russians take for granted nearly 20 years after dumping communism and embracing democracy and the free market." Further complicating the issue are communism-redux incidents: Josef Stalin "was recently voted by Russians as their third greatest historical figure, and lyrics praising him have been inscribed in the vestibule of a prominent Moscow subway station," the AP reported.

Anti-Stalin activist Lev Ponomaryov suggested "the introduction of the books is a rather good way to decrease the popularity of the Communists among the young people."

They might also consider reading Invisible Allies, a 1990s work paying tribute to ordinary yet extraordinary citizens who took enormous personal risks to help Solzhenitsyn preserve and circulate his work. The book includes a moving tribute to Q (Elizaveta Denisovna Voronyanskaya), a woman who "had led an entirely conventional Soviet existence" until events in the 1960s, which included reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, inspired her to devote her life to Solzhenitsyn as a covert typist/editor and part of his samizdat distribution network until she was caught and subsequently died in what might be described as a "questionable" suicide.

"Q used to chide me in her letters after each of my sharply worded statements: 'What's the point of getting involved in a bullfight on such unequal terms? Why do you insist on hastening events?'" Solzhenitsyn wrote. "The fact is that no one hastened them more than she did. This elderly, ailing, lonely woman, gripped by fear and without meaning to do so, set the mighty boulder of The Gulag Archipelago rumbling into the world, headed toward our country and toward international communism."

In a footnote dated 1978, Solzhenitsyn observed that "Verdi's Requiem, given to me by Q, is with me in Vermont, and I play it every year at the end of August in her memory."

I'm listening to it now. The power of music . . . and of words. During Banned Books Week this year, I'll be thinking about Elizaveta Denisovna Voronyanskaya.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1012

Saturday
Sep122009

On Not Writing about Dan Brown

I was planning to write this week's column about the anticipatory frenzy building for next Tuesday's release of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. After all, isn't everybody writing about it? And you have to love a book that generates conversation even among people who never talk about books. I wondered, however, what I could possibly add to the chatter that hadn't already been covered ad nauseam.

Then something unexpected happened, which made me aware once again of that curious, often irresistible force capable of diverting a reader's attention from the planned to the unexpected journey.

So here is my Dan Brown column.

On Tuesday morning, a strange noise, sounding like a tank, woke me. Maybe, I thought in a sleepy haze, it was a hostile takeover of our little Vermont valley by vacationing flatlanders reluctant to leave after the long holiday weekend.

From the second floor bedroom window, I saw--at the end of our lawn and less than 50 yards away--a steam shovel trundling down the center of the Battenkill River, its twin tracks clanking and spewing water. While canoes and kayaks and tubes regularly float by, this was a first. With its diesel exhaust wafting on the cool morning breeze, the machine began digging beneath the surface of the river, extracting gravel, moving fallen trees and rearranging boulders. I soon learned that the project involved shoring up the riverbank to prevent erosion and deepening the channel.

But one of the first things that crossed my mind was the question of whether these machines are stilled called steam shovels. So I looked that up online and discovered the correct term is "power shovel," though concessions are made for the fact that most people still use the original term.

As a reader and former boy-child, however, all this immediately sparked memories of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Some quick research led to the discovery that Caldecott-winning children's author and illustrator Virginia Lee Burton wrote Mike in 1939, and that August 30, 2009 had been the centennial of her birth.

A belated happy 100th birthday, Virginia.

Later in the morning I bought a copy of Mike at my local independent bookstore (I'll send it to the first person who e-mails me today) because I just couldn't resist revisiting this classic.

'Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel, a beautiful red steam shovel. Her name was Mary Anne," I read. "He always said that she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week, but he had never been quite sure that this was true."

I know the feeling.

As good a steam shovel as Mary Anne was, she inevitably fell victim to progress: "Then along came the new gasoline shovels and the electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels and took all the jobs away from the steam shovels."

An old and new story if ever there was one.

I found the following on Anderson's publisher-generated website: "I literally draw my books first and write the texts after--sort of 'cart before the horse.' Whenever I can, I substitute picture for word."

Quite suddenly, this reference to pictures and words reminded me not of Dan Brown or the Mona Lisa, which might have nudged me back on topic, but of memoirist and biographer James Lord, who died August 23.

I had been planning to add an obituary note in Shelf Awareness soon because one of the many books he wrote is a favorite of mine. In A Giacometti Portrait, Lord recounts his experience sitting for the artist. I bought a copy in 2001 after seeing the Giacometti retrospective at MoMA, lost it, and just picked up another one recently to reread. It is bookmarked with my exhibition ticket for 11/19/01 at 10:30 a.m.

According to Lord, "If Giacometti cannot feel that something exists truly for the first time, then it will not really exist for him at all. From this almost childlike and obsessive response to the nature and the appearance of reality springs the true originality of vision."

"Well, at least I have the courage not to be prudent," Giacometti told Lord during one of their sessions. "I dare to give that one final brush stroke which abolishes everything."

At the end of Mike Mulligan, "everybody was happy."

The steam shovel is still grinding away at the Battenkill's riverbed today.

All this happened because I couldn’t decide what to write about Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. Maybe that's just the ongoing, unsolvable mystery of a reader's life.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1006.

Saturday
Sep052009

Vermont Foliage Season with Wallace Stegner

A sound like a big crowd a good way off, excited and shouting, getting closer. We stand up and scan the empty sky. Suddenly there they are, a wavering V headed directly over our hilltop, quite low, beating southward down the central flyway and talking as they pass. We stay quiet, suspending our human conversation until their garrulity fades and their wavering lines are invisible in the sky.

They have passed over us like an eraser over a blackboard, wiping away whatever was there before they came.

"Oh, don't you love them!" Charity says. "Sometimes when we stayed late in Vermont, or went up late for the color, we'd see and hear them like that, coming over Folsom Hill. Someday you've got to visit us there."


Maybe it’s just the time of year, but I recalled that passage from Crossing to Safety (not word-for-word, of course. I had to look it up for the exact quotation) when I heard about the upcoming Wallace Stegner Centennial. This "literary weekend" will be held during foliage season, September 25-27, at the Highland Lodge, Greensboro, Vt., a town where Stegner often summered and the model for scenes in his celebrated novel. Featured speakers include Philip L. Fradkin, author of Wallace Stegner and the American West, and Stegner's agent, Carl Brandt, of Brandt and Hochman.

Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., is one of the co-sponsors and will sell books at the event. Owner Linda Ramsdell notes: "Stegner's works, especially Crossing to Safety, do still sell well, and better because of the local reference points. An earlier novel, Second Growth, also has many local reference points. Wallace Stegner was a great supporter of the Galaxy Bookshop, and in an earlier iteration of community collaboration, we were fortunate to sell books at the Greensboro Public Library when they presented him with an award."
 
Anne T. Molleur Hanson, organizer of the celebration, explains that the genesis was "threefold." Four years ago, the inn hosted a Reading Greensboro weekend, with a focus on Crossing to Safety and the belief that "acknowledging the many writers like Wallace Stegner who have summered or spent time in Greensboro (or even live here year round, like Anne Stuart) would be a wonderful way to celebrate Greensboro's literary legacy." In addition to Stegner, John Gunther and Margaret Mead are among the noted authors who called this village of fewer than 1,000 people their Green Mountain home away from home.

"Our Crossing to Safety night was well attended, especially by folks from here," Hanson adds. "After the event, many people--several from afar--remarked on their hope that we would do another such event sometime."
 
About six months ago, Hanson and Willie Smith, one of the Highland Lodge innkeepers, discussed hosting another literary weekend focusing specifically on Stegner, "who is known as a Western writer, but who had a clear fondness for the northeast, particularly Greensboro, to which his and wife Mary's friends Peg and Phil Gray (portrayed as Charity and Sid Lang in Crossing to Safety) had introduced the Stegners in the late 1930s/early 1940s. My interest in hosting a Stegner event was in part due to my nearly 20-year long regret that although I grew up here, I never attended a Wallace Stegner reading, which he offered during many of the summers he was here."

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when Hanson learned that Philip Fradkin, "who had stayed here while researching his biography on Stegner, was, like me, a graduate of Williams College. I e-mailed Philip and asked if he would join us for a literary weekend celebrating Wallace Stegner. Philip agreed. He suggested we find sponsors to help us with the event. At that point I contacted our friend, neighbor, and favorite independent bookseller Linda Ramsdell, to ask if the Galaxy Bookshop would like to co-sponsor. Linda was enthusiastic and immediately on-board."

Ramsdell adds that the "Hardwick area is becoming a model for ways that businesses and organizations work together to do things that no one entity can do alone. Attention has focused on the agricultural economy, but there are many examples outside of that sector too. Especially in this economy, the importance and benefits of collaborating are extremely tangible. The other aspect of the Galaxy area, which differs from many cities with local alliance organizations, is that it is a small place where people know each other and are friends. We have a vested interest in each other's viability and success. It is very easy to see how money stays in our area and benefits accrue when we work with each other."--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #1002

Thursday
Aug272009

What Ultimately Saved Publishing

In retrospect, it turned out to be easier than anyone could have imagined.

Historians disagree about the timing, though most acknowledge the key moment occurred when Alain de Botton became writer-in-residence at London's Heathrow Airport in August, 2009, after signing a one-book deal with BAA. An article in the Guardian at the time observed that he was "the latest artistic figure to tread the precarious line between creative independence and commerce."

De Botton, however, insisted on creative control: "One of the first things I said when they offered it to me was that I should be allowed to say what I want to say."

As the prescient Mike Brown, chief operating officer at the airport, observed: "Opening Heathrow to literary critique is a bold and adventurous step for us."

And so it was . . . for all of us.

There are theorists who contend that the true precedent is Fay Weldon's 2001 novel, The Bulgari Connection, sponsored by the Italian jewelry firm "with a requirement in her contract for at least a dozen mentions of its products."

At the time, her agent claimed the "door is open and now the sky is the limit. I've suggested that in her next book she includes a whole string of top companies, Disney, Levis, McDonald's, the lot, and we write to all of them and say Ms. Weldon is including a mention of your fine company in her next book, what do you reckon?'"

It didn't quite work that way. Ultimately, the credit for launching a new era in literary sponsorship must rest squarely on the shoulders of one author, a man for whom de Botton's Heathrow adventure provided the spark that soon became a promotional flame, thanks to some notably unbookish sources of inspiration.

I don't have to remind anyone of this former midlist author's name. He now stands as a commercial icon for our brave new book world. We will call him Mr. R here, due to his status as a trademarked entity, his formidable legal team and the fact that mentioning his name in print now, even with permission, can become a very expensive proposition.

Through unnamed sources, I have recently learned the true backstory of Mr. R's professional genesis, which began on a quiet Saturday afternoon in August, 2009. Relaxing in his home, Mr. R first read about the de Botton deal while catching up on a few days worth of accumulated newspapers and listening to a Yankees-Red Sox game on his radio.

After one of the early pitches, he heard John Sterling, the Yankee's play-by-play announcer, say something that was at once in and decidedly out of context: "Road Runner High Speed from Time Warner Cable; the fastest way round the Internet. That pitch came in at 90 miles an hour." Mr. R had heard the promo dozens of times, but on this day he listened and kept listening.

Occasionally, during commercial breaks, former Yankee manager Joe Torre, who had moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers after being fired, turned up hawking Bigelow Green Tea on the Yankees radio broadcast.

He considered de Botton again, recalled Fay Weldon and was perhaps in a more receptive mood than usual later that day as he watched the Sharpie 500, a NASCAR race from Bristol, Tennessee.

When it was over, winning driver Kyle Busch emerged from a Toyota Camry that was plastered with logos, including a large decal for his primary sponsor, M&Ms, on the hood. His multi-colored firesuit and baseball cap also sported the M&Ms logo.

"I really gotta thank M&Ms," said Busch, appropriately enough, in the post-race interview, then added "Toyota, Interstate Batteries, everybody at Sprint . . . DIRECTV, Gillette, Marquis Jets." Mr. R paid close attention this time, perhaps because the race was sponsored by Sharpie, a writing implement.

You know the rest. His next book found six sponsors outside the industry, and became his breakout novel, Last Southwest Flight to the Bellagio.

Within five years, writers were mega-stars. Even traditional celebrities--once the financial backbone of the publishing world--couldn't get a book deal. When the reality series, American Yaddo, premiered on ABC in 2011, millions of people--readers and nonreaders alike--tuned in to watch unknown authors spend weeks living and feuding together in a possibly haunted mansion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., vying for major sponsorships and the chance to be the next great American novelist.

Money was on the writing table at last.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #997

Sunday
Aug232009

Playing the Hunch

Hanging from my key ring is a small pewter book. Raymond Chandler's name is printed on the front cover, along with a classic chalk outline of a body. There's a quotation on the back: "Play the hunch."

The line is from Farewell, My Lovely: "Play the hunch. Play the hunch and get stung. In a little while you wake up with a mouthful of hunches. You can't order a cup of coffee without shutting your eyes and stabbing at the menu. Play the hunch." As Philip Marlowe would tell you in a second--assuming he even gave you the time of day--a hunch ain't no guarantee.

It's complicated. Check the dictionary. You'll find that hunch is "a feeling or guess based on intuition rather than known facts." I think it's more than that. Knowledge, experience and observation all play as big a role as intuition. A good hunch is a highly educated guess, a guess that's earned a Master's degree in rolling the dice.

Two great examples of playing the hunch were introduced this week. If you missed them, I'll clue you in here. I'm not saying they represent the future of publishing. Maybe they do; maybe they don't. Probably, in some small way, they do. And I'm not saying they came into being without planning and foresight. Playing the hunch is all about anticipation, reaction and adaptation--the simplicity and effectiveness, the energy and occasional messiness, of an idea in process.

ABA's IndieBound launched a beta version of Ask Indies, using its network of great booksellers to field questions on anything book-related from, well, anywhere: "Ask Indie Booksellers on Twitter anything you want to know! The #AskIndies hashtag and a link to your book will be added for you automatically."

As Paige Poe, IndieBound's outreach liaison, observed, "Ask Indies really came from booksellers who were looking for ways to use social networks to connect with readers, and make those ways new and interesting. So many booksellers are on Twitter, more of them every day, and Twitter's immediacy fit the idea perfectly. It allows indie booksellers to publicly display exactly what makes them such great curators: their knowledge and expertise. And hopefully it's fun for everyone involved." Poe offers details about the program in Bookselling This Week.

This week's other notable debut was tied to the release of Joseph Finder's novel Vanished. He fielded readers' questions Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during one-hour sessions of a Twitter Book Tour. The Book Studio's Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven, though moderating as @bkpchats) skillfully directed the virtual traffic. She also noted that she is already planning more such events. Finder's discussions are archived under the hashtag #josephfinder.

Adjustments were made after the first session to better facilitate the discussion--a new Twitter account, @thrillers, was created for the author so his regular @JoeFinder followers wouldn't be caught in the rapids of a Twitter Tour conversation stream. React and adapt. During the second session, Finder mentioned that "Facebook and Twitter have helped the launch of Vanished significantly."

What did they talk about on the Twitter Book Tour? Even within 140-character limitations, the questions covered a full range of topics. Here's a sampling, edited into traditional Q&A form:

@MLx: Do you prefer the level of engagement through social networking or at a signing?
@thrillers: I prefer signings in one sense because I like meeting people. But signings I usually get less than a minute to connect w/people, whereas social networking--well, you guys know.

@rng888: I read that you spent part of your childhood in the Philippines. Did that influence your writing?
@thrillers: Yes, spent part of childhood in Philippines. I think total immersion in other cultures made me more open to other languages and ways of life and more fascinated by them.

@Sidney_Williams: What is your plan of attack when you're editing?
@thrillers: My editing plan of attack? I first let it get "cold" and then read it as "innocently" as I can but I start macro first--big stuff. And then refine language/characterization, etc.

Bottom line? I really enjoyed watching these social networking seeds find some air and light this week. Books were sold, which is always a good thing. Neither of the ideas will singlehandedly save the industry, yet each in its own way took a chance and put a new spin on the possibilities.

It's August, as good a time of year as any to play a hunch. "The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk," Marlowe says. Play it anyway.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #993.