29 January 2013

Books: West of Here by Jonathan Evison (2011)

In late 2010, long before Borders was officially closing down, the novel West of Here arrived as ARC at my store. Still coming down from the high that was filming Judas Kiss in Seattle and remembering the grandeur and beauty of the area, I was intrigued by the book –an ambitious historical book on the Pacific Northwest. But as most book readers will tell you –and even writers- a lot of books end up on the shelf because either one other novel takes precedence or –as sometimes happens- you are not in the mood to read it. Such as what happened with Jonathan Evison’s book.  I eventually passed on the ARC to my friend Carlos –writer of Judas Kiss- because he lives in Seattle when not roaming the United States (though by live, I mean it’s more of a place where he hangs a hat for a few weeks. I also never expected the book back, because I have so many others to read).

But something strange happened. The idea of the book never left me, and while I never thought about the book during Borders closing, I had been haunting used bookstores in search of it (which also brought me the realization that used bookstores very rarely have more unusual titles beyond really popular books. Finding “literature” amongst the mass produced, broad-based fiction is very hard in small used stores, which is why I have to venture to The Last Bookstore or Iliad’s these days to find titles outside of the James Patterson, Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele that haunt those types of stores).

I love history, but it can sometimes be dry and too academic. I have a few history books in boxes here, ones that I want to get to eventually, but as Lemony Snicket says, “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read.”

The fictional town of Port Bonita — a stand-in for Port Angeles — is at the center of West of Here, which is dually set in the winter of 1889-90 and the summer of 2006, as the story follows those hoping to build their legacies in the wilds of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula and their raggedy ancestors who, ironically, have lost the will that Manifest Destiny that excited their distant relatives. Evison cram’s a few novels into this ambitious book, along with a large set of characters and as the book steamed along, I became more interested in the people that made Port Bonita, especially characters like Eva –a pregnant, proto-suffragette woman from a wealthy family who longs to show her family and her baby’s father, Ethan, that she can survive in this new, utopian society. And then there is Thomas, the Indian boy known as the Storm King in 1890, and his metaphysical -maybe magical- connection to sullen teenager Curtis in 2006. 

The novel has many parallels in the book – like how in the past, people seemed more adventurous, where in the present, and the town’s folk seemed trapped, not able to get away, and the author has a flare for description of the town and its people, but they do come off as superficial –maybe because he tried to cram too much into a slim book –it’s only 484 pages long. 

Still, Evison is a good writer, and the story very entertaining, if not unwieldy towards the end. But overall, a fun –and sometimes funny – look at the past and the present.

20 January 2013

Books: Earthbound by Joe Haldeman (2011)

Earthbound completes (?) Haldeman’s Mars series, and where the second book, Starbound, ended disappointedly, this novel redeems the series after the brilliant first book, Marsbound

The first book, of course, detailed how humans met aliens on Mars who it turned out where not native to the red planet, but creatures created tens of thousands of years ago by the mysterious and very powerful species called the Others. As it turns out, these Others were using the pseudo-Martians as observer’s, keeping an eye on the planet, waiting for the humans to achieve spaceflight. The Others, for reasons not fully understandable, does not want humans leaving the solar system. But humans being human’s, ignore their threats. So the Others, not fully understanding the yahoo part of humanity was forced to prove their power: a planet-scouring bomb that was designed to eliminate the humans. But things don’t go as planned. The second book dealt with the trip to the Others home system of Wolf 25, all while Earth is creating a fleet of ships to protect themselves from further attack. But the power of the Others was not to be taken lightly, and they destroy half the Moon, along with the fleet, which will prevent humans from ever leaving Earth again. They also redirect all electrical power off the planet, returning the 22nd Century Earth to a technological-less nineteenth century of living. 

This is where Earthbound begins. As expected –something that is a thread within all post-apocalyptic literature- is the ones with the guns begin calling the shots. Carmen Dula, with her husband Paul, along with several military and medical people, are on the run from everyone, heading towards a commune that may –or may not be- their salvation. Along the way, Spy –the avatar the Others created to interact with Carmen- pops up and tries to explain the motivations of his creators, only to admit even “he” is unsure why they do what they do. 

In this third volume, Haldeman infuses the book with realism –once again, lifted from his time in Vietnam- and a procedural aspect about the total breakdown of society. And while Carmen and her compatriots have some luck, they encounter some helpful people who believe in some sort of mutual trust, while others use weapons and death to get their point across –something of a cliché with these types of novels, but to be honest, I sense there is some truth to it.

As always, Haldeman’s low key approach makes the book work. I’ve been struggling with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars since the early part of January, getting only through a 160 pages in two weeks. I basically read this book in a matter of hours. Of course, while Haldeman does use some scientific gobblygook, it’s more “magic” than Red Mars, which seems to be a more realistic, thus technical manual wrapped with fictional characters, on what it takes to live on Mars. Perhaps because I find all that dry, mathematical (logical?) stuff boring, I’ve created a resistance to reading it. It’s a rarity for me not to finish a book once I’ve started, but I may end up just setting Red Mars aside.

08 January 2013

Oh, Canada!

The wrong goodbye of Barnes and Noble by Dennis Johnson

Maybe you’ve noticed that there seem to be a lot of Barnes & Noble superstores closing lately? Not just stores in remote locations (like, say, this one in rural upstate New York), but in some of the nation’s largest metropolitan shopping areas, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Seattle, Chicago, two stores in Dallas, another in Austin, and Manhattan. And that’s just in the last 30 days or so.
What had been a slow shrinkage as leases ran out — a store here, a store there — turned into an avalanche after Thanksgiving. Stores that should have been well-stocked for the holidays were instead out of inventory and passing time until the end of the year.

For a couple of years I’ve been predicting in column after column that B&N was going to get out of the brick-and-mortar business of selling books, but seeing it finally kick into high gear was no fun. If you include the company’s college stores, this is going to mean 1362 bookstores disappearing from the American landscape — less than two years after 686 Borders stores disappeared.

The big chains deserve opprobrium for their vicious tactics against America’s independent booksellers, certainly. Back in the last century, I wrote a column attacking B&N for putting indie booksellers in Melville House’s birthplace, Hoboken, New Jersey, out of business with under-pricing, as if selling books was like selling widgets. Can you guess the rest of that story? Having poisoned the well, the Hoboken B&N itself went out of business, leaving the town — a big Manhattan bedroom with lots of well-educated, well-off residents — without a bookshop, probably forever.

And yet, and yet … that development gave me no pleasure, nor does the fact that this scenario is playing out across the country with increasing frequency. And my brother and sister indie fanatics shouldn’t get too righteous about it either. Two thousand fewer places for people to be exposed to books is pretty obviously not good for our culture.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not good for business, either. Two thousand bookstores vanishing would represent roughly half the total bookstores in the country. Even though many indie bookstores are thriving right now, thanks in large part to the disappearance of some cutthroat competition, how much longer can they thrive if books are simply becoming so vastly invisible?

It gets less subtle than that. Surveys say “showrooming” — seeing a thing before buying it — is an integral part of buying books online. One survey I wrote about a year ago posited that 40% of the people who buy books online looked at them in a bookstore first.

A New York Times report by David Streitfeld two weeks ago took the notion a step further. Noting that “the triumph of e-books over their physical brethren is not happening quite as fast as forecast,” Streitfeld floated the idea that this may be due to the “counterintuitive possibility … that the 2011 demise of Borders, the second-biggest chain, dealt a surprising blow to the e-book industry. Readers could no longer see what they wanted to go home and order.”

Got that? The closing of bookstores selling print books may also be hurting the sale of ebooks.
The only logical conclusion one can draw from all this, of course, is that if B&N goes down the entire industry is fucked. Booksellers, publishers, authors, agents, librarians, and oh yeah, readers …
But brace yourself because it’s gong to happen, and in a big way. Not only is B&N going to get out of its brick-and-mortar business — as I say, the process is clearly already underway — but the other shoe seemed to drop last week, when the company released its holiday sales report, revealing that its plan to become a digital bookseller is in shambles, and the whole enterprise is in jeopardy.

As a Publishers Weekly story reported, store sales declined nearly 11%, while NOOK sales tumbled 12.6%. There are no doubt a lot of reasons for this. Mike Shatzkin has a couple of interesting observations about the quality of B&N’s bookselling efforts, for example. And I’d say the Department of Justice abetted B&N’s demise with its support of Amazon‘s effort to lower prices: Nook sales were great when agency pricing was in place, with B&N taking as much as 30% of the digital market away from Amazon.
But whatever the reason for it, B&N’s holiday numbers were disastrous. As one analyst told the Wall Street Journal,
“What concerns us is that as the overall market gravitates toward color tablets, you’d have expected that Barnes & Noble would have been able to maintain its share because it introduced two new color tablets during the quarter,” said Morningstar analyst Peter Wahlstrom. “They aren’t behind on the tablet front in the sense that their devices compare well with others, but they are behind in terms of marketing, awareness and adoption. And that’s critical.”
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about all this is the fact that, as with the demise of Borders, the demise of B&N has nothing to do with what its customers actually wanted, what’s best for mother literature or free speech, or anything other than made-up trends covering for killer capitalism. There’s still plenty of evidence that people like bookstores, for example, and even sales of hardcovers — let alone print books — are holding on. And so the lust for higher margins — whether from Godiva chocolates or ebooks — turned into fool’s gold for B&N. It’s perhaps a typical death in the Free Trade era, when companies lose all sight of their identity in the blinding light of the bottom line … but it’s the wrong death for a bookseller.

But as I say, right or wrong, for this bookseller, it’s coming. (A highly placed Big Six exec I respect to no end told me to look for the death of B&N in two to three years. That was two years ago.) Publishers are on a crash course as to how to survive without any volume booksellers, and in an environment with one retailer (oh, guess) representing as much of its business as — well, who knows? Eighty percent? More? That alone is likely to make publishers give up on printing books — there’s no sense in printing books if your main outlet isn’t going to order any until they sell them — and join the digital “revolution.”

In short, B&N’s scorched earth policy of the 1990s has ultimately left us with, well, scorched earth. If the book is going to survive it, it’s going to take some real revolutionary activity, indeed.

03 January 2013

Books: Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011)

I adore Tina Fey for many reasons (along with Amy Poehler). That statement might not be a surprise from any gay man, because every gay guy I know seems to have an affinity for any women who has made a success in world where it’s generally been considered a “man’s territory.” Bossypants is not really a memoir –which is good, because I find them to be dull at times (biographies are generally better, if not –at times- too tabloidy). I’ve also never found these types of books high on list of must-reads, because they seem always destined to be read by people who I would never want to have a conversation with because they somehow think Duck Dynasty is really real and not half scripted. 

But I love Tina Fey more than Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Paul Reiser or Larry the Cable Guy -as a matter of fact, a lot of people I look up to happen to be women. And women comedians, be it a stand-up or writer, are personal heroes to me. They've tried so hard to sit on the same chair as men like Allen or Seinfeld, that I cannot help but like them (perhaps that is why I always loved Phyllis Diller and even Joan Rivers -though more so in her early days). So I knew the book was going to be better than most of those “celebrity” memoirs that blend fact and fantasy, if only because Fey had to try harder to prove to world that she could be just as funny –if not more- than her male counterparts. So in Bossypants, she blends her typical askew version of humor, adds some introspection, offers up some critical thinking that made her a strongly opinionated dynamo with a comedic voice that is totally her own.

Some of the best chapters deal with her self-deprecating humor (traits most gay men appreciate). Her take on photo shoots is pretty brilliant, as well as her time with SNL and her managerial style that she learned from Lorne Michaels. She talks about how she staffed the SNL writers room with just the right combination of “hyperintelligent” Harvard jokesters, who kept things logical and taught the proper construction of joke and “gifted, visceral, fun performers” who were improve geniuses.  It’s the same approach she used on 30 Rock (which even she admits is a bit weird and odd for Americans brought up on paint-by-number sitcoms; she never thought the show would get past 13 episodes. Strangely, for me, I knew the show was for me after they aired the episode with Paul Reubens as the inbred Austrian prince, Gerhardt Hapsburg. With Reubens full commitment to the role, and the complete oddness of the episode itself, I knew there was going to be a lot of Americans who would say this show was just too weird. But I laughed my ass off).

She is a sweet woman –though she never goes overboard saccharin while writing about her relationship with her husband and his family and their child. She is charming beyond belief and you sometimes get the feeling that at her core, Tina Fey is a rational, thoughtful, and smart woman who just happens to sometimes talk like a drunken sailor who just got kicked in the nuts.

02 January 2013

After Twenty-Three years, Robert Jordan's 'The Wheel of Time' series concludes

Back in 1989, Tor Books began a huge promotion for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Contracted as far back as 1984 to write a traditional trilogy, publisher Tom Doherty already knew Jordan –based on previous novels Tor had published with the author- that he had a tendency to go long. So they signed him to a six volume deal. It was Doherty who deemed the series the next Lord of the Rings, and pushed the book hard, mostly by sending out Advanced Readers Copies to almost every bookstore on the planet. But the strategy succeeded and on January 15, 1990, Eye of the World was released. It quickly became a best seller, with fans asking when the next book was coming out. And Jordan did keep a great pace, writing as fast as he could, releasing the second book only eight months later. 

Books three through six were released roughly a year apart after that. But it became clear by book three or four that Jordan was not going to wrap up the series in six books. During this period, some fans began to criticize the author -more so in later volumes, but it began around the fifth book- by saying that the series was slowing down in pace in order to concentrate on minor secondary characters at the expense of the main characters from the opening volumes.  Jordan, of course, poo-pooed that idea.

After a year and half wait, book 7 was released in 1996, and then from then on, Jordan deliberately slowed down his writing process, and said he would try to release a book every two years. But even then, know one knew Jordan was planning to expand the series to twelve volumes.  Book eight was out in 1998, followed by book nine in 2000. But there would be a two and half year gap before book 10 came out in 2003. In 2004, as fans awaited a new book in 2005, because there was going to be another  two and half year gap between 10 and and eleven, Jordan released a prequel novel, New Spring (which started out as a novella for Robert Silverberg's Legends collection). Fans became even further irked with the writer, sensing that he seemed to be expanding the franchise for no other purpose than additional money by concentrating on a prequel and other characters that were not essential to the main ones (and Jordan planned two additional prequels, but set them aside after New Spring drew such criticism) and not completing the series. So by the time book eleven was released in October of 2005, Jordan promised that the twelfth volume would be the last book in the series, "even if it reached 2,000 pages."

But at the end of 2005, mere months after book eleven was released, the author was diagnosed with the terminal heart disease primary amyloidosis with cardiomyopathy. At first, this was not wildly known, but in March of 2006, he released a statement telling the world, and his fans, of his illness. While life expectancy was only four years, he assured his fans that he was going to beat the odds and not only finish his Wheel of Time series, but work on additional prequels to the series.  

Despite this grave announcement, fans still asked book sellers when the final volume was going to be released. All we could do was shrug our shoulders and note that the author was severely ill. But of course, for all of us, we did not know how truly ill he was. It seemed clear to Jordan and his wife, Tor editor Harriet McDougal, as the days wore on, that Jordan may not live to see the final book released. While he had actually stopped penning A Memory of Light, the final novel in the series, he was writing extensive notes on how he wanted the book to end. According to blog entries he wrote, it confirmed that he sharing all of the significant plot details with his family and maintained that in doing so the book will get published even if "the worst actually happens.”

The worst did happen on September 16, 2007, when the author –whose real name was James Oliver Rigney, Jr.- died.  Three months later, on December 7th, his widow and Tor Books announced that relative newcomer Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, Elantris, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians) was contracted to finish The Wheel of Time series. McDougal was so impressed with Mistborn, that she knew Sanderson was right for the job. As Sanderson began working on the final volume, going through the copious notes left by Jordan, it became clear to him and Tor Books that they could not conclude the series with one more book, so in March of 2009 the publisher announced that A Memory of Light would be split into three books, with the first book, The Gathering Storm planned for October of that year, with Towers of Midnight to follow in late 2010 and the final volume, A Memory of Light, planned for late 2011 release. But like Jordan, Sanderson was going to miss the 2011 deadline for that final book.

Tor then announced an early 2012 release date for the 12th book, with Sanderson posting on his blog that he did not "feel right about" getting it out in November of 2011 -even though he says he can have it finished by then. Sanderson assured his fans that he could make the new release date, but that possibility died a death when the novel came in 40,000 words over-length, extending the amount of lead-time needed for production and editing. So the March 2012 date became November 2012, but then Tor decided to push the book to January (which surprised the author), missing the all important holiday sales. So nearly twenty-three years after The Eye of the World was published, the final book in the series will be released on January 8th

As noted earlier, Jordan had notes for at least two more planned prequels to The Wheel of Time, and whether those books ever see the light of day is unknown at this time. It is possible that Sanderson –or other authors- will be contracted to write them, but that will be up to Jordan’s widow to decide their fate. Sanderson has noted that Harriet McDougal plans to release a comprehensive encyclopedia of the Wheel of Time sometime in the future, but as for now, what started out as six books and that would eventually encompass fourteen, ends this month.