Category Archives: Uncategorized

Two Terrific Books (And Amazon Blows it Again)

The most controversial book (by far) at the NCIBA trade show* was Tiger, Tiger, the true story of a pedophile in his 50s who not only befriended a 7-year-old girl but became her “playmate, father and lover” for 15 years before he committed suicide and she ended up in her twenties becoming both an incredibly mature author and a — well, you hafta wait and see.

Not one parent at the show could open Tiger, Tiger to even begin page one because it’s so menacing, so terrifying and so creepy …. or so it seemed by the look of it.  The fact that the author, Margaux Fragoso, lived to tell the story would seem astonishing enough;  that she writes in a beautiful, gripping narrative voice with the most astounding insights opens our ears (and, incredibly, our hearts) to otherwise unspeakable matters.

I can say that once you do open the book and you do begin reading, it’s impossible to put down. And boy, is it needed. Fragoso refuses to be either victim or avenger. What she learned about herself and human nature keeps us appalled and instructed every step of the way. From the start, her choices in life are so unexpected and in a way so thrilling that … well, again, you hafta see for yourself. The wait may be excruciating, because Tiger, Tiger is going to simmer (and not on the back burner) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux until its March publication.

(BTW, thank you, Autumn, at From The TBR Pile, a blog for readers that’s turned up a good handful of other books named Tiger, Tiger [or Tyger, Tyger in goblin speak] that you can find here. And extra thanks of course to poet William Blake who started it all.) Continue reading

REMEMBERING PAT CODY

Iron-willed, big-hearted and unforgettable


The recent death of Berkeley, Calif., bookseller and activist Pat Cody reminds me what a privilege it is to work with books at any time.

Pat and her husband Fred opened Cody’s Books in 1956, long before the emergence of computers or chain stores, and right in the middle of a conservative backlash called McCarthyism that ravaged free speech almost as badly as the Patriot Act has in our last decade.

The Codys are remembered as champions of civil rights, but throughout even the most turbulent decades, when gas masks hung by the cash register and protesters squared off against police outside the store, their core belief was the value and the right and the privacy of reading.

To Fred and Pat, it didn’t matter who walked into the store — a homeless self-publisher (hardly an oxymoron) or a professor of physics from UC Berkeley: Matching the right book with the right customer was the highest act of political engagement they knew. Their first and last job as booksellers, they felt, was to contribute to the experience of quiet solitude that can only happen during the act of reading. When the reader’s mind meets the author’s mind, they believed, the world will change. Thank heaven that Andy Ross, who bought Cody’s Books in 1977, believed the same thing. Continue reading

U.S. OPEN: WATCHING TENNIS THROUGH NEW EYES


Andre Agassi’s ‘Open’ Reveals Dark Underside of Early Training

I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader of Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, to laugh when announcers at the US Open mentioned what a crime it would be if the legendary tennis coach, Nick Bollettieri, is passed over for the Tennis Hall of Fame.

A Prison for Teenagers

In Open, Agassi lambastes Bollettieri’s famous tennis academy as a “prison” where teenaged hopefuls are forced to exhaust themselves on tennis courts, live in “cell blocks” and act out in a cafeteria that resembles “a mental hospital where the nurses forgot to hand out the meds.”

And that’s just in the mornings. In the afternoons, students are taken by bus 26 miles away to Bradenton Academy, another windowless prison where “the light is fluorescent and the air is stale, filled with a medley of foul odors, chiefly vomit, toilet, and fear,” Agassi writes.

The school, more than the tennis academy, overwhelms Agassi with feelings of claustrophobia and failure. “At the Bollettieri Academy, at least I’m learning something about tennis,” he says. “At Bradenton Academy, the only thing I learn is that I’m stupid.”

Under Bollettieri’s management, however, even tennis takes a back seat. As the other boys tell Agassi, “our job is to keep Nick’s four sports cars washed and polished” because Nick is “a hustler, a guy who makes a very nice living off tennis” while stifling his students’ growth.

Worse, Nick reminds Andre of his tyrannical father, Pops, a seeming tennis mentor who is, like Nick, “captivated by cash.” It never occurs to the former paratrooper Bollettieri that he’s really known for running “a tennis sweatshop that employed child labor.” Continue reading

THE ‘MISERY LIT’ INDUSTRY AND OUR PART IN IT

Finally Getting Rid of Important Gasbag Author David Shields — Part III

So back to the most delicious part of that blowhard David Shields’ book, “Reality Hunger.”

To summarize Parts I and II below, Shields says that thanks to the Internet, we’re all bombarded with so many words and ideas from so many sources that it’s impossible to find truth or meaning in daily life, especially from authors we used to trust.

So Shields has decided to “help” matters along by adding his own thoughts to quotes from our best thinkers (Woolf, Emerson, Orwell, Goethe, Yeats, Gornick, Thoreau, etc.) to generally f— pardon me, mess with our minds.

The ensuing confusion is not a departure from reality, Shields suggests –

it is reality, and we’re all adding to the confusion by asking for lies when we say we want the truth.

The Memoir Hoax

Remember how incensed everyone was about yet another “memoir” that turned out to be a fake?  Well, I was. That pissant James Frey lied about so much that didn’t really happen to him in his whole drug-addicted life that Oprah Winfrey, who had loved his book, “A Million Tiny Pieces,” dressed him down dramatically on her show.

You’d think publishers or agents or editors or somebody would stop these liars from making millions from an obvious hoax. But no. Continue reading

LITERARY CON ARTIST TAKEN SERIOUSLY

“Reality Hunger”  — Part II

So the question (following Part I below) is whether professor and novelist David Shields is a dilettante and a liar (he praises himself for both), or a genuine intellectual who’s onto something original and possibly profound as “author” (itself a lie) of “Reality Hunger” (Knopf; 219 pages; 24.95 obscene dollars).

Certainly many of the reviews and interviews thus far have brought acclaim to “Reality Hunger,” a collection of 619 statements that are sometimes attributed to the correct source (Picasso, Orwell, Kierkegaard, etc.), sometimes “remixed” with (a better term might be “violated by”) Shields’ own statements, and sometimes rewritten according to Shields’ whimsy.

So let’s see what happens when we take Shields seriously.

First a little background:

To paraphrase Shields’ first point, “reality” in our time has become a bombardment of comments on reality from, say, YouTube, 9/11, Google, two wars, Wikipedia, bailout funds, Tea Party antics, the Obama “Hope” poster, climate change, Russia from my window, professors like David Shields, Oprah, “bail out,” Twitter, “Glee,” Mobb Deep and the Texas Board of Education’s version of “history” (more about this in a later column but really, in an age where history books may replace Thomas Jefferson with 16th-century puritan John Calvin, literary con artists like Shields look like scholars).

Excuse me, back to taking Shields seriously.

So instead of having a mental blueprint of current history and culture in our minds, average people like you and me carry the chaos around with us –  wildly random bits of information that in the past have made sense only through artistic forms, like fiction.

As a novelist himself (tragically, he was a good one), Shields used to think that reshaping of facts through story could bring readers closer to the truth about life than nonfiction ever could. Reading fiction, we could decide how to build our own mental blueprint, turning to it often as a guide to how the world works and what life asks of us. Continue reading

‘SCROTIE MCBOOGERBALLS’ ELEVATES DAVID SHIELDS’ CAREER AT KNOPF

Silliness Seen as Brilliant

That semi-talented professor David Shields is certainly enjoying unprecedented acclaim for his new book, “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” released recently from Knopf.

Just the other day on the “Today” show, Matt Lauer confirmed that the book is such a mixture — so brilliant and so offensive at the same time — that no one can read it without vomiting.

Lauer himself admired the book yet succumbed when he said, “My favorite part was when Scrotie McBoogerballs slid his head up into the horse’s — bleagh! awwwrrflgh!! ptui! pppt. ppt.”

As soon as he recovered, Lauer asked about the deeper significance of the book: “Was that chapter a slam on healthcare reform, as people have suggested?” he asked the author.

Answering from his home, where his parents have grounded him for using dirty words in print, author Butters Stotch said, “Yes, I pretty much think so.” Continue reading

THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF PUBLISHING, PART 7,326

Lowly Self-Publisher Educates Wise Publishing Veteran

This is the story of a self-publisher who did everything “wrong” to publish a charming and humorous gem that I’m recommending to everyone.

The big lesson I had to learn (again) is that “professionals” in the book business like yours truly can easily lose their trust in the reader and their eye for creativity. Instead of enhancing the publishing process, too often we pros get in the way of very good, very original and often even memorable books.

In my own defense may I say that 99 times out of 100, the self-publishing author needs guidance from a wizened (I used to think that meant wise; now in my declining years I see it’s right on the money) veteran of industry standards and procedures.

Too Shy to Paginate

The author in question is Niko Mayer, a member of the book group I facilitate at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. When Niko asked me to endorse a collection of travel stories that she had written and illustrated, I felt a certain dread creep in.

1. First, there was the title: “Travelin’ Light Is Not for Me: Worries Weigh a Lot.”

Well, it’s a bit wordy and hard to follow, I thought, not to mention a little precious.  A customer may read it several times and still not know what the book is about.

I told Niko a good rule of thumb about titles: If the reader has to look inside the book to understand the title, you’re not there yet. But if the title is catchy, and intriguing enough to lure the reader into the book  — to make us curious, to make us open the book to learn more — you’ve nailed it.

Uh-huh… said Niko. Continue reading

THE DIY AUTHOR RETURNS

What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns (and Spends): Pt 2

Often when talking to Seth Harwood (see last column) I’ve been struck (again) by the fact that  American writers are forced to adjust to a publishing industry that has removed authors from the top of the hierarchy and told them to be grateful to be stuck at the bottom.

I’m not talking about the small number of blockbuster authors who pay all the bills.

In fact, the few stars who remain on top seem to encourage publishing excesses like the shamefully overdone Random House book launch for Dan Brown in New York a while ago.

Dan Brown Party

At that party, waiters bedecked in George Washington wigs served lobster BLTs and other expensive noshes to a few hundred guests while “theatrical lighting [was] rigged up under the massive ovoid dome of the former bank that now houses Gotham Hall,” observed New York magazine (see photo at right).

Surrounding this “most lavish publishing cocktail party in a long time” were signs about saving money, such as this wordy mouthful (quoted by the New York Observer): “There is no gain so sure as that which results from economizing what you have.”  (I see. Waiter, could I have another scallop?)

And this one: “Having little, you cannot risk loss; having much, you should the more carefully protect it.”

Protect it? Heavens, you could increase a thousand Random House advances by cutting out the gazpacho shooters alone.

Back to Seth Harwood

No, I’m talking about the talented unknowns and hardworking mid-range authors who need to be nurtured and given time to find their audience but are still getting low advances and dismissive  treatment.

(One has to ask, what are publishers thinking? It’s not healthy for the book industry when a writer who lucks out like Dan Brown is “the only guy who’s in the running,” as the Los Angeles Times observed. “The movie industry couldn’t survive on Meryl Streep alone; the publishing industry might benefit from nurturing more of its own demi-stars to fill out the program.”)

So I thought there was hope when I first heard about up-and-coming authors like  Seth Harwood, a writer with so many rejection slips from the New York mainstream that  he built an audience from zero readers to about 80,000 by podcasting his unpublished book, “Jack Wakes Up,”  with his own equipment in a closet at home — and giving it away free on iTunes. Continue reading

THE DIY AUTHOR

What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns: Part 1

Seth Harwood is the kind of Internet techno-whiz that fuddy-duddy types like me are scared of.

He’s so knowledgeable about podcasting, video-posting, eBook-pricing,  iPhone-apping and what is now called (nostalgically by everyone but me) “the Amazon Rush” that I wanted to run the other way.

Then I read his fiction and became a Seth Harwood fan. Then I watched his video and became a Seth Harwood student.

You can see why Seth is in the vanguard of a new writers’ movement by taking a look at the instructive interim video he made some months ago (see it below on my very own blog! and thank you, Seth, for permission).

Here we learn that no matter how many rejections slips you’ve received or how unknown you are as a new writer, you can create that elusive “platform” that mainstream publishers (so cowardly!) insist authors must bring to the table. And you can build an audience that grows into the tens of thousands.

The first step, says Seth, is to make a podcast of your manuscript (before it’s ever published) and give it away. “Think of a podcast as a free, serialized audiobook,” he says.

With a minimum of equipment, a little music and a lotta passion (plus some blankets absorbing echo-chamber sounds in your closet), you can produce a quality narration that equals anything on Audible.com, and again, you do this long before your manuscript comes out in any kind of print version.

Seth did this one chapter at a time with his detective novel, “Jack Wakes Up,” which he followed by two other “Jack” books in the series. He placed each chapter as a freebie podcast on iTunes, thus tapping into an engaged audience that loves to hear edgy stuff and Tweet about it like mad. Continue reading

A Newspaper Comeback Plan – Part B

PART B: BE BOLD

So now: What can newspapers do to lure readers back to print?

As our quiz last week suggested,  after our 30-year honeymoon with computers, and 20 solid years on the Internet, people are getting tired of screens and starting to miss the newsprint experience.  It’s time for newspapers to earn their way back into readers’ minds and pocketbooks. Here are some suggestions:

Fight for Your Paper

Everybody’s waiting for publishers to do something — to, in the first place, define the benefits of newspapers that computers can’t offer. If you run a newspaper, the time has come to get out there and tell readers: Our paper publishes the kind of stories in print that you can’t find on the Internet.

This means that the newsprint version will be different from the website version, so you  have to believe in it. If you don’t think that newspapers are far ahead of the Internet in key ways, get outta the biz. 

Create an Aggressive Ad Campaign

Billboards, cable TV, talk radio, buses, cabs and yes. computer banners are waiting for newspapers to re-stake their claim.

Run the most simple kind of ad:

*a giant photo of the morning newspaper invitingly spread out on a kitchen counter or desk,  next to

*a cup of steaming coffee

*a blank computer screen.

*a headline like one of these:

GIVE YOUR EYES A BREAK

NO CLICKS, NO BANNERS, NO POP-UPS, NO NOISE

WE PUT  IT ALL ON THE TABLE

YOUR WRISTS, YOUR EYES, YOUR BACK WILL THANK YOU

TAKE A MINI-VACATION EVERY MORNING

WE PAY PEOPLE TO BRING YOU THE WORLD AT A GLANCE

Get Your Executives Behind It

Start right now to train your executive management to place this campain on a person-to-person level. Get your PR department to book these top guys on the media and lecture circuit. You should join them and speak to groups ranging from Rotary to Wiccan, Unitarian to Morman, book clubs to fight clubs and every school and library in town. (Take the Freedom of Speech-in-jeopardy angle and you’re in.)  Go on talk shows, start blogs, help with charities, sponsor events.

This old-fashioned passionate appeal 1) heightens morale, which is currently in the gutter because you’ve cut your staff to shreds and nobody knows who’ll be terminated next, and 2) it stops general readers from feeling sorry for newspapers as expendible dinosaurs and reestablishes high journalistic standards (and deliciously low entertainment values) that work best in newsprint and promise to enrich daily life. Continue reading