31 Jul

The Traveler’s Nook

We bought a Nook Simple Touch with backlight (the book reader, not the tablet). It’s small, surprisingly solid for its size, easy to hold, and flickers the page when you read forward or back–can’t call it turning the page–it’s a screen, where the text and margin settings determine how much you see at once, and page numbers are based on the page length set in the source.

This Nook cost $139, or $61 less than the new fullblown Google tablet coming soon now. We didn’t debate on which to buy though–we’re headed to Spain child-free this September and the Nook is meant to travel, to tuck into a pack or bag, weighs little, and as a generic little thing that looks like a squashed PDA, not look attractive to thieves. The battery lasts up to a month if we’re really, really judicious–realistically, we’ll probably get two weeks between charges.  The Google tablet would provide possibly up to a week without a recharge. Most importantly, there’s not much else to do with the Nook except read (or, of course, buy books from B&N). The tablet is loaded with distractions.

Done with the justifying. More about the reading. or, the getting of stuff to read.

The Nook’s native format is epub (which displays best), although it can display PDF, HTML, plain text, and eReader, too. I spent several hours (in between crashes and tire sabotage in the Tour de France) at Project Gutenberg and other sites with free books or stories, periodicals, and articles (including some publisher sites), saving items to my laptop then copying them to my personal storage on the Nook (without an SD card, I still have 250 MB space for items not purchased from B&N–that’s still a lot of books, periodicals, articles, and stories).

Some of the PDF’s are ugly on the Nook, like reading through a screen door or squinting at a remote screen. I’m guessing this has more to do with the options used to create the files than anything else. It also enforces the PDF page breaks instead of letting the document flow from one page to the next. Basically, the Nook was doing its best with the information it was given.

Fortunately, the Calibre e-book manager can convert several formats, including most PDF, to epub. Unfortunately, PDF conversion success relies on how the PDF was created. I’ve had a leave a few documents in PDF format after Calibre failed to convert anything past the title. (There are ways around this, including copying text into Word and saving as RTF, but I also don’t have to read everything electronic on the Nook.)

7/20/2012: Yesterday my friend Steve shared his Dropbox folder of delicious ebooks with me, including Bujold’s tasty Vorkosigan series from the Baen Free Library, which I’ve been snacking on since (and will buy in print form in the coming year).

7/28/2012: After a two weeks, I’m hooked. Never thought I’d say that. The Nook’s a completely inoffensive companion to the hundreds of physical books on my shelves at home. I’ve taken it camping and used it daily on my bus and train commute. I’ve always held onto books as a security blanket. Now that I have a Nook, I feel safe wherever I travel.

And now, a riff:

We took a look
We saw a nook.
On his head, he had a hook
On his hook, he had a book
On his book was “How to cook”

We saw him sit and try to cook
He took a look at the book on the hook
But a nook can’t read so a nook can’t cook, SO…

What good to a nook is a hook cook book?

– Dr. Seuss, Red Fish, Blue Fish

7/31/2012:  I don’t notice the page flicker anymore, just like I stopped smelling the neighbor’s cows in high summer when I was a kid.

03 Jul

Other Paths

Page1 of the 2002 edition of Other Paths to Glory* by Anthony Price starts with

The Angel of Death, looking to call his roll in Picardy on the morning of September 18, 1918, would have been hard pressed to find the village of Fontaine-du-Bois.

The story continues with a description of how a German commander determined that Fontaine-du-Bois was the perfect place to dig in against the coming British attack. It didn’t take long for both armies to wipe it off the map, leaving land scars in place of the buildings and trenches, like vine and pest scabs on fruit. In that first page Price captures–with subtle sensitivity–costs of war for the landsmen and the invading armies–one cost being the vanishing of villages and beings from all groups.

(Note, 7/16/2012: Sing a lovely sentence that puts readers to sleep. Shit. Channeling the ghost of a cheesy litcrit reviewer above. Next time will try not to reduce it to a reviewer’s quote. The importance here is former reader’s comment below in my copy of the book.)

In the controlled blank area above the chapter start, a previous reader wrote:

I was born on September 26, 1918

then linked it to the Sept 18 date in the book text with a shaky arrow.

The hand is spidery and seems more masculine than feminine. The 2002 publish date puts him at 83 or older. It seems likely that the book came from his estate.  Or maybe he was a spry 80-something and traded Other Paths for another Price. Did he buy the book or was it a gift from a caregiver or older child who knew Pop loved or found comfort in his British mysteries? He was a wartime baby, conceived a year before the end of war and born two months before armistice. Did his father serve and possibly die in WWI? He left no other traces of himself in the book (as I hoped he would), so I’m left to guess at the paths it took after he finished or was prematurely forced to set it aside. (The tragedy lies in being unable to finish it.) I bought it from a reseller on Amazon for $2.

His single note is a kind of map clue: the treasure is Here, though Here is happily the damn destination and the starting point, with neither as the same point. For the reader or writer, it’s a great opportunity to let the book be a time traveler’s MacGuffin and pay imaginary visits to the people who may have touched it or been touched, and where that led them before the end. It’s irrelevant that this branch leads to me and my perch at the top of this blog, except where it helps me become a better writer.

Read Price, if you haven’t. Then start discovering other mostly and undeservedly forgotten writers of intrigue that weave introspection, history, politics, technical details, and adventure** (and sometimes a cracking good romance). Not for the sake of those writers–most of them are dead–but for you. And the handful of others who find your annotations (yes, write in your books) once you’ve gone from breathing to ghost.

Note: I found Anthony Price thanks to this essay by Jo Walton. I started with The Labyrinth Makers, finished it last night, and opened Other Paths this morning. Tomorrow’s Ghost waits in a corner of my bedside shelf. His books are sometimes hard to find on the shelf but easy to find in good shape from sellers on Amazon ($1-4).

*Winner of the CWA Golden Dagger Award 1974

** Like Riddle of the Sands

Just found this recent small blog series on Price, with a bibliographical article and interview (part 1, part 2).

31 Oct


This is totally superfluous, unedited windbagging. Move on if there’s already a stiff breeze in your region.

I like to run along to recorded books–typically the kind of book I know I’ll never get round to reading and in a genre that I know will entertain and engage me, and that are good read-out-louders: usually spy or crime thrillers (the former have mostly been E. European or Scandinavian and the latter tend to be literate tales of washed out tough guys set in places like Florida), and sometimes fantasy (and sometimes a reading of a book I’ve already read).

I read most fantasy novels fairly quickly–even if they are loaded for bear most of the details are superfluous. Unless they’re really unique or thoughtful or uniquely thoughtful and, unless you still assess life risks and opportunities in terms of 20 sided dice, most fantasy doesn’t fall into those buckets. Earlier this year I picked up Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss from the library–his first bazillion seller in the series was really long and kind of windy but still a good story, and despite the length easy to breeze through (enough with the Rothfuss wind jokes). Same with the second, even though it felt like it had the same amount of editing as the latter Harry Potter novels. So I put the recorded version in my request queue, thinking it’d be nice entertainment and include some useful ideas about what sells books in bulk, plotwise. It showed up yesterday in a lunchbox-sized container of 36 CD’s.

When I borrow a book on CD from the library, I always burn it to my laptop, converting it to MP3 format that I can play on my itty bitty Sansa Clip (who I call Clippy, except when it, like the infamous ring, randomly unclips from my waistband and falls into the trailside bushes (I run in Forest Park when possible), always right at a good bit. I’m left there scrounging through the ferns dripping in sweat with earbud wires dangling like some sort of black saliva from my chin (sorry about the image–I couldn’t think of a less queasy or more original metaphor for useless dangling from the region of my head–take your best shot). And I’ll probably rip Wise Man’s Fear, too, all 36 discs, while I’m doing other work. But I have to wonder at the amount of audible data they decided was necessary to tell this story. Most big books require, at most, 20 discs or less. With Wise Man’s Fear, I’m concerned that they’ve swelled the story with Orwellian pauses that’ll cause me to trip over roots and follow Clippy into the brush (yes, I do believe in quantum collusion). Or that the reader will attempt to mimic some imaginary old style of speaking and elongate all the vowels (flourishing the i so it becomes eeee, and so on) and cause me to throw Clippy into the brush.

I tried simple comparative analysis, Just To See (a perfectly valid reason, perhaps the best, for research). The closest relative–marketing-wise, at least–is the George R.R. Martin series* (now bringing to the home screen, if the ads are correct, gorgeous Conan-like scowls, fur cloaks, mighty blades, mighty boobies**, and Loki-like villainy). I looked them up online in the Washington County library catalog and they, too, come in between 30 and 35 discs. Apparently read by the same reader or with the same sort of relish. I think the Rothfuss books are about the same page count, so it’s possible that the Spinal Tap rule was invoked to create an additional disc.

I can either rip them all to MP3*** and get around to listening later, maybe keeping, maybe deleting all 2 GB after 20 minutes like I deleted poor Connie Willis’s Blackout (not a bad book, just a poor reading and many discs worth of ripping), or rip one and listen while I’m working, and at least see if the reader’s competent.

Why would I borrow CD’s when I may be able to find them already as MP3 files in the library system? Because the latter are controlled by an artificial and clumsy checkout system, and the audio files come with built in DRM–they fizzle after 2 to 3 weeks, making it difficult to build a queue. I usually have several books worth of MP3 files queued–listening time doesn’t happen like clockwork–and I always delete them after listening, keeping the spirit of the loan agreement (and not denying anyone else access–copying them allows me to return them sooner).

Why am I windbagging (or windblogging) about this? Because I think there’s also plenty of opportunity in the publishing world to create easily accessible, easily importable audio book experiences–especially through libraries–that are device independent and fit user stories (how people really use and not forced into using audio books) before CD’s go away. A small percentage of authors release their own versions of all or part of their books–some, like Neil Gaimain, are terrific readers. Some authors (if they’ve retained audio rights) allow others to record and publish parts or all of a book–usually in a sort of Open Source readers community. Those results usually come off as well meant (like having dry toast shoved in one’s ears, but with just enough marmalade to show good intent).

Snarky imagery aside, no one should make fun of anyone who provides a free listening experience of a good book, whether its via the author, a community, or a library. It takes a lot of work to create a good reading and listening experience. Even if one is a proficient reader, the experience is full of errors: dry throat, stumbling over text, missteps in rhythm or word choice (our brains often choose words similar to those on the page with that same flexibility that allows us to get what you meant, not what you said).

I’m left with seeing a chink in the wall (simulated by these two outspread fingers) but unable to interpret what’s on the other side. A democratic Berlin? More woods?


* Which I will read or listen to Real Soon Now
** It’s premium cable and a “period piece”–there will be boobies.
*** Listen to the ferocity of syllables in that phrase: “Rip them all to MP3!” Muahahaha!

06 Oct

Girl Redux

Now that I’ve finished Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and am out of its thrall, I wanted to note a few attributes that helped make it more than just a pretty face. If we were to liken it to a pretty face, it would be that of a deeply beautiful woman who’s seen more of the world than you or I can imagine–at least not since we were children–and still remembers it. (I’m also writing this post because I think the book deserves more than a gushing reaction, even if it’s brief.)

September, our heroine, is a child of Nebraska in a home broken by WWII–father serves on the European front and mother works days as a machinist. Father is offscreen and referenced only a few times. Love bonds mother and daughter and gets them through the days and nights. But it’s a sad life, so September is easily lured “down the rabbit hole” into a fairyland that’s under new management. (To say more gives away too much.)

Valente gives September the coldness and warmth and quickness of AnyChild and quickly sets her on a hero’s journey. Like Alice, she meets beings that in our world would be seen as dangerous or insane but in Fairyland fit right in and are sympathetic or limited  by their natures (or by Nature). Or stock characters that she reblends in unique ways. (Like Tock in The Phantom Tollbooth.)

There’s blood–a surprising amount, and if I had to grumble it would be about how easily it’s shed without helping us feel the cost–at least during the shedding. Maybe the sudden moments of bloodshed are there to remind us how dark and sometimes visceral this story (and a child’s life) can be, or that it’s minor compared to the other difficulties characters face. A real old fashioned fairy tale but without the eye gouging. Without Valente’s language to light the way, many readers might set it aside. I think it was hard but necessary for her to write those parts–perhaps she composed (or edited) on the side of light exposition to keep the story moving and younger (or more delicate) readers (or listeners) from weeping or turning away before the end. This isn’t Tender Morsels. (I never wrote to ask her and am guessing.) Younger does not always mean delicate. September would not have turned away.

The ending is redemptive with pomegranate seeds as an honest sugar substitute. It fully deserves to never be followed by a sequel. (Although there’s a “prequel” available for free online reading, it won’t make sense without reading the novel first.)

Meant to say more and to say less, but ran out of time. I’ll let it hang on this for now.

30 Sep

The Girl Who Circumvented Fairlyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

If there’s such a thing as a book that’s almost blindingly perfect, this is it. Like my daughter Sophie (or sons Noah, Jordan, Adam, and Travis), it stole and broke my heart for all the right reasons.

I don’t know how a writer like Catherynne Valente achieves the state of grace necessary to write like this, not only echoing Alice and Phantom Tollbooth and old fashioned non-treacly fairy tales that are moral and sly and funny and dark and light at once, but matching my emotional memories of those books. It cracks the door to fairyland in the first sentence. And it’s a beautifully made book, with illustrations that match the tone and the tale. The prose isn’t spare, not remotely–but good lord, if you love language and if nothing else want a master class in how to wield and weave it, read the book (that’s right, it’s a sword and a wrench and a loom). If you have children, you could do worse than read it out loud or, even better, steal bits and weave your own stories for them. It’s worked for me with 6 yo Sophie and 12 yo Noah. And if you see the ending coming–the real ending, on the very last page, which won’t resonate until you read every page that comes before it, you’re the better (and probably sadder) reader.

If you want a plot rehash, hit Amazon or Goodreads or similar sites. Some are insightful and some are just from people who miss being English majors. More than one wrote this mistake: for “9-12 year olds” or “for young adult readers.” Instead of “read this book the first time when you’re about 9, depending on who you are. Maybe younger. But if you stop at that age, you’ll miss all the good stuff.”

Note for people on a budget: Bookstores charge $25 or more for poorly bound books that’ll go spineless and jaundiced in 5 years or less. Fiewel and Friends printing is a beautiful hardback, with a thick slipcover and richly colored original illustration by Ana Juan (not some photoshopped photograph meant to create a “mood”), more sly illustrations by Ana Juan on the first page of each chapter, thick, acid-free vanilla-colored paper, and bright heavy stitching. It’s a book that says “I expect to be kept and read for a long time.” It’s full price is $17. You can get it on Amazon for $11. I usually hunt for the bargain. I paid full price for this one intentionally–it’s only a little bump to the author (I probably increased her royalty from 50 to 60 cents), but it was one way to say thanks.

31 Jan

Well Qualified Graphic Novels

This is as good a place as any to catalog what I think are the best graphic novels I’ve read to date (there’s that qualifier), some more comic-book in format, other’s more literary. All of them tell good stories first, even when the focus is more on the art. And, where art failed, the story kept me reading.

Some favorites

The Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa
A beautiful story about a father running ahead of 3 shadows who mean to take his son. Heartbreaking and redemptive.

Girl Genius series (ongoing) by Phil and Kaja Foglio
A powder keg barrel of fun, with rich, crazy art that I would have longed for as a kid, if I’d known where to find it, and a complicated zany story. The boys are schmart, but the Girl Genius has–or is–the Spark. Best experienced in print, in the separate volumes (not the B&W omnibus versions), but also available completely online (with a new page added every MWF). It’s been running for several years, with 10 volumes in print.

Super Spy by Matt Kindt
Interwoven short stories about spies set during WW2. Many are civilians pressed into “service.” There aren’t many happy endings, but the stories are rich and thoughtful and feel true, and the title character provides a little comic relief.

The Essex County Trilogy by Jeff Lemire
The lives of two brothers in Ontario, Canada. Sparse, beautiful, about what we want and settle for, out of circumstance and acceptance. One panel often tells more than several pages in most novels. Read them in order.

  1. Tales From the Farm
  2. Ghost Stories
  3. The Country Nurse

The Nobody by Jeff Lemire
Where the Invisible Man really went and what happened to him afterward.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Told without words, a story of immigration, through the immigrants eyes.

Others you might appreciate (I did)

Duncan the Wonder Dog by Adam Hines

Beautiful, elusive. It turns out that if we could talk like the animals, we’d be more thoughtful on a regular basis. No less criminal, though.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation by Michael Keller and Nicolle Rager Fuller

I would put this in my list of favorites for the art alone, but it gets a bit dry and light at times. I don’t blame the author–there’s a lot to cover, weaving story and discovery and aspects of evolution in one go. It’s not Evolution for Dummies, though. Not for rubes who believe that the Earth is 40k years old and that dinosaurs were the ants at human picnics.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch
An adolescent Jewish girl does what everyone says is for boys only, only her way. It’s set in a remote orthodox community away in the woods.

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger
Lovely and sad and full of books, hiding a lot of story under the surface.

Mouse Guard series by David Petersen
It’s an epic and brave story across slight but beautiful volumes. Don’t confuse it with Redwall.

Fables series by Bill Willingham
13+ comic-style books telling the real adult story about fairy and folk tale creatures and how they came to be in our reality. They aren’t from our universe and it’s complicated. Warning: Anyone who harbors warm feelings for Pinocchio’s Geppetto should turn away.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series by Alan Moore
This is not the guilty pleasure movie with Sean Connery. It’s weirder and more interesting.

The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman
Probably one of the most famous graphic novel series. The writing and overall plot make up for the sometimes flat art. It’s an expose on immortal family politics and a pretty darn good story.

32 Stories : The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics by Adrian Tomine
Tomine’s character’s may drive you crazy, but he knows how to say alot with a few gestures. His followups do more of the same, perhaps better. But 32 Stories (his earliest, I think) is riskier and I liked it best.

Bone, a series by Jeff Smith
Imagine Pogo (if that rings an old tarnished bell) set in a world of wizards and warriors.  If you like this, you might like the adventures of Cerebus the smart ass mercenary aardvark chronicled in many fat volumes from 1977 to 2004. Or vice versa.

Persepolis 1 and 2 by Marjane Satrapi
This one’s famous and was made into an animated film. If nothing else, read it to learn more about life in Iran through the eyes of a girl as she grows up during the transition from swing town capitalism to fundamentalism and the war with Iraq.

Epileptic by David B.
How a boy grows up and learns to learn from his older epileptic brother and his parents’ constant search for lifestyle choices (often around diet) that will help the older brother, usually at the expense of the younger. It’s a fat and rich and worth reading.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
More dysfunction worth reading.

Hard Boiled, sometimes crazed, often Over the Top Rough Stuff

Transmetropolitan and Planetary series (among others) by Warren Ellis

Tumor by Joshua Fialkov

Sleeper and Incognito by Ed Brubaker

    11 Oct

    The Big Burn

    I spent Sat and Sun this weekend at Wordstock, where I heard Timothy Egan, the NYT writer who’s covered the Dust Bowl and recently authored The Big Burn about the famous giant forest fire of 1910 in the Bitteroots* in the early days of the Forest Service and establishment of public lands (with the larger than life Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot). Egan’s book is a great piece of narrative history—instead of reading it, he gave a very dynamic talk and lecture on the topic. I recommend him as a writer and a speaker. The Burn is also a small piece of my family history—my great grandfather worked for a mining company in western Montana and joined the fire fighters near the end. It made impressions on him for life that he used to inform my grandfather’s life (who was born in 1911, the next year), who passed that on to my mother and aunts, and then to his grandkids. In his youth, my grandfather romanticized Teddy Roosevelt, put in time as a firewatcher in Montana and Eastern Oregon (in those old wooden towers),** and then worked for a timber company in Baker County where they were just as concerned with fires as harvesting. This is the first book I’ve found that captures that piece of history (along with the formation of the Forest Service) and the spirit of those stories. It’s pure Americana and great reading. I grabbed a copy, got a signature from Egan, and when I shared that bit of family history, he said he’d been surprised at how many people he’d met on his book tour and in correspondence whose lives had been directly or indirectly touched by that fire.

    * Not to be confused but partnered with Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, about Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, which is as much moving elegy as historical narrative. Living in cities, we forget or never learn how events like these influenced the current shape of this country.

    ** We scattered his ashes at the remains of one of those same towers, in Umatilla County on a long western toe of the Wallowas, looking over the valley across to the Blue Mountains. We also lugged in a gas generator and drill and  glued and screwed a plaque with his name into the tower’s old concrete foundation.  Last year (15 years later), the property owners found the plaque (we hadn’t exactly asked permission), ran his name down and contacted my aunt, delighted with their find and promising to leave it exactly as is, as long as we didn’t mind him sharing it with the occasional grazing cattle.

    27 Jul

    A Partial eBooks Features Wishlist

    The following was a comment submitted to a video blog entry proposing enhancements for the iBooks reader on the iPad. I’m also publishing it here, just in case (and because I tried to put some thought into it):

    While I love my books and am very interested in the future of books in a paperless UI, I cringed at almost every idea in this video, tending to agree with the list posted (in comments) by Brian (around book stats, reader privacy, social networking, resource linking, images). Few of the ideas proposed in the video seem to leverage ebooks in helping readers make their way through the book and possibly in the world or, where they do, they seem restrictive, trivial, or intrusive.

    Too many suggestions I see are “get on the bandwagon” social networking applications (which tend to sequester people in very controlled and nonsubversive experiences–the opposite of the reading experience). Most people read as a solitary activity, for pleasure, enlightenment, or requirement. They don’t belong to book groups (and even book group members don’t want to be supervised). People who lend books or share reading experiences do ask others where they are in the book–not typically out of a need to micromanage but because they really want to talk about the book. You don’t need a big brother interface for that. And, if you lend an “ebook” why do you need it back? My god, what a DRM nightmare!

    Instead, link books to a range of outside information sources (giving me defaults and the ability to add or change sources). Instead of funneling me into the giant tosspot social networking environs we have today, help me find where people have expanded on the book’s ideas or setting and published that work–whether it’s textual, visual, or oral. If the book includes geography, show me sources on those parts of the world today and, if applicable, in the story’s historical setting. Don’t place those links in situ (or give the reader the option between that and back of the book)–not everyone wants or benefits from the distraction.

    Provide a friendly query interface to customize the book–if it’s a reference on health, show me the parts related to a condition, limited to N degrees of separation.

    Bundle with human voices reading aloud and the ability to add my own. Accept voice commands–“read that again”–“go back to”–“help me find”–“learn more about”…

    If illustrations are present, add optional unique and subtle ways of highlighting interesting complexity, relationships, or details.

    Something else: writers who provide rich experiences have minds like magpies. It’ll take some thoughtful filtering to link to key outside resources rather than known resources about everything experienced or behind ideas in the book. Possibly a combination of the reader selecting and the book suggesting (helping with discovery). Otherwise, you’ll quickly and literally be lost in a good plot.

    Bottom line, (unspoken) jokes and wishes about adaptively intelligent primers aside, develop ideas that create broad opportunities and solve problems worth solving. Write them up as requirements (I realize that the requirements for the brief list above are implied and should be stated.) And publish the hell out of them. Better yet, build a few of them yourself, if you can.