29 February 2012

Stuff I've Been Consuming 2

  • Legend, Marie Lu
  • How a Book is Born, Keith Gessen
  • The Fault In Our Stars, John Green
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
  • A Separation, Asghar Farhadi
  • Chronicle, Josh Trank
  • Answer This!, Christopher Farah
  • The Secret World of Arrietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi
  • Act of Valor, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh
  • The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius

Don't you hate it when something you've been looking forward to doesn't live up to expectations? Like you leave the theater or get to the last word wanting the experience to have been so much better. Either the hype ruined it or the thing in question just wasn't good enough to warrant the excitement in the first place.

I guess what I'm talking about isn't run of the mill experiences but greatness. For example, I wanted A Visit From the Goon Squad to be great. I wanted The Fault in Our Stars to be great. I even (somewhat illogically) wanted Chronicle would be great. But they all disappointed in some aspect. From now on I'm thinking I should start tracking how good I think something is going to be versus they actually end up being.

For example, I had low expectations for Act of Valor. Basically I just wanted to see some firefights and live out Modern Warfare 3 on the big screen. Bang bang, mission accomplished. After the credits rolled, I couldn't gush enough about how good Valor was, how it exactly met my expectations, and by extension I emerged extremely happy. Was Act of Valor a good movie? Not really. Would I recommend it to most of my friends? Probably not. But due to the middling expectations I set beforehand, it was a fantastic experience.

In contrast, Jennifer Egan's 2011 Pultizer Prize winner was the first book I bought on my Kindle awhile ago and I'd been saving it for when I needed something fantastic to end a month on. In baseball terminology, I was preparing the cleanup hitter in my batting order. Egan was my Barry Bonds and I thought she was going to bring February roaring home.

Instead, A Visit From the Goon Squad was a solid effort but no grand slam. The much lauded chapter told in Powerpoint slides was indeed innovative and fun, but everything that came before and afterwards disappointed me. Egan's writing is smooth, her ability to tell twelve different stories with twelve different voices is impressive, but much like with Hyperion last month, the degree of difficulty and technical execution didn't move me in any way. I need great books to move me and make me want to return immediately.

Maybe in the future I'll be able to reread Goon Squad with lowered expectations and thus fully appreciate the many wonderful things Egan accomplishes, but until then it'll be relegated to the end of the bench along with the other disappointments.

Something that absolutely met my pre-movie expectations was A Separation, the recent Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. It occurred to me that I'd never seen a movie set in Iran -- unless Persepolis counts -- and that meant I'd likely missed out on a whole bunch of great stuff. I think Lilly and I are going to be drawing up a minor in depressing Iranian movies, so we'll be sure to report back.

A Separation was a slow burn and an intriguing look at a very different judicial system than the one we have here in the United States. Iran uses a form of the inquisitorial system, in which the judge serves as prosecutor, jury, and arbiter. You'll find your allegiances shifting between the various characters as the movie unfolds, and that'll demand an immediate conversation following the film to compare notes. Masterful and affecting.

27 February 2012

Skeleton Key

This n+1 podcast episode with editor Keith Gessen about the publishing industry, "The Book is Good," is well worth the thirty minute listen. (I highlighted Gessen's How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding a few weeks ago.) The meaty part of the interview starts around the 4:40 minute mark and there are quite a few interesting things to reflect upon.

For one, Gessen challenges the idea that the monetary success of a few blockbusters are subsidizing smaller works. I know you've heard this one before -- about how books like Snooki's latest opus creates the profits that allow for other authors to be published -- and I'm curious which perspective is actually true. Also, according to Amazon's research, the kind of book that people buy on their Kindles but don't buy in print are previous books by New York Times authors. Hum.

Halfway through the interview, Gessen relates the conversation that many authors have, about how friends that went on to become lawyers and doctors now approach them to ask, "I wrote a novel, can you help me get it published?" His response is amusing: "And you just want to say to them: 'I'll tell you how to get your novel published. Go back ten years, right, fifteen years, and instead of becoming a lawyer or doctor, become a writer. Because I don't show up to your office [and start performing surgery].'"

Of course, a good number of writers I hear of nowadays are former lawyers, so perhaps going that way might be more fiscally responsible. A final quote from the interview, Gessen speaking about n+1 being putting out their own stuff: "If you have undertaken to publish something, it is your moral duty to get it out into the world." Amen.

For the most part I've decided to skip any articles about the advance of the eBook overlords, or stuff about the death of the industry. I've gorged enough on both over the past year and they pretty much just present the same information. But sometimes I'll come across an eBook article worth reading, like this one, also from n+1, "Bones of the Book," a nice long piece about the history and direction of the eBook.
"Traditionalists attack e-books because they are not enough like print books. The electronic literary vanguard tends to dislike e-books because they are too much like real books. Electronic writers have long defined their craft as any piece of digital writing except e-books, which they consider mere scans of paper. They have perhaps overlooked some of the e-book’s creative possibilities, but they have helped to define what e-book connotes. If an e-book mutates too far from its physical progenitor, then it becomes electronic literature."
-Bones of the Book-

22 February 2012

Throwback Thursday: ValueTales

Growing up, my friend Frank had a whole set of these books featuring cartoony illustrations of important historical figures and their achievements. They featured Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Beethoven, and Abraham Lincoln among many others. Each title focused on teaching you a value lesson, whether it be leadership, courage, adventure, honesty, or curiosity.

For the longest time I couldn't figure out what these were called. Googling around did me no good either. I had been hoping that my memory would eventually kick in, or I'd meet someone who knew what I was talking about, but after reading Krispy of A Nudge in the Right Direction's post about her collection of US History books, I caved and just texted Frank. Within ten minutes I had the answer I'd been searching for years to find: ValueTales.

Their Wikipedia entry informs me that ValueTales was published in La Jolla, a few miles away from where I grew up, so maybe that's why nobody else knew what they were. Between 1977 and 1997, Spencer Johnson and Ann Donegan Johnson cranked out forty five or so of these. (FYI: Spencer Johnson went on to write the deplorable
Who Moved My Cheese?) I also should not overlook Stephen Pileggi's illustrations, as his art gave the series its winning personality.

One day when I own a bookshelf, I will strive to catch'em all. eBay has a lot of thirty ValueTales available right now for $210 in case you're feeling generous. There's quite a few of these volumes I don't recall actually, and really, I need to get educated and find out who Paul-Emile Leger and Ralph Bunche are. I have also never read the Johnny Appleseed one about "love," which could explain so much.

Anyway, a dream project of mine has always been to combine the ValueTales format with personalities from the hip hop community. Imagine a version of these books featuring influential rappers, DJs, graffiti artists, and b-boys. For example, the inaugural set could include DJ Kool Herc (Originality), Crazy Legs (Discipline), Lee Quinones (Exploration), Queen Latifah (Self-respect), Jay-Z (Ambition), Lauryn Hill (Miseducation), Tupac & Biggie (Camaraderie), A Tribe Called Quest (Noncomformity), Kanye West (Humility).

All I need now is an illustrator. And a publisher. And buyers. Don't make me draw these out myself and staple them together. My first Hip Hop Tale will be about my favorite rappers, Gang Starr in the Value of Partnership!

I'm taking pre-orders now for the people in your life who are nostalgic about ValueTales and also love hip hop. These books will also teach people valuable lessons such as using "Using Rap to Teach Pithy Lessons in Business." Actually no they won't. Not even a little bit. I just had to share that article because I found it to be so ridiculous. I mean, I love Rakim and all but if some venture capitalist starting quoting him to me as a way of imparting entrepreneurship advice, I'd be forced to dance battle it out right then and there.

I also hate it when literature T.A.'s try to cram Public Enemy lyrics down their students' throats as a way to seem relevant and cool. We get it guy, you listen to rap music. On with the show already.

18 February 2012

Five Step Plan

A sorta weekly feature of things I co-sign:

(1) 25 Things I Learned From Opening a Bookstore. I'd like to work in a book store someday but they've never called me back. Not once.

(2) Cometbus #51: The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah. The history of Telegraph Avenue's book stores, as told by one of my favorite writers.

(3) How Many Book Sales Equals "Success?" The easy answer is "more" but that's probably not precise enough.

(4) A Call for a Unified E-book Market. Proprietary formats suck. Kill the DRM too, whatever that acronym stands for.

(5) The Plagiarist's Tale. Want book deals, critical acclaim, fame, and a pity me memoir? Just start mashing up novels! Excuse me while I go remix a few best sellers.

14 February 2012

They're Flocking This Way

Since I've been Chinese all of my life, I know how to measure self worth by numbers. 4.0, 1600 (now 2400), valedictorian, 3.14159265, 1.3 billion, 888, M3, six figures, half price, two for one, one child...

Since Twitter self-esteem can often be tied into how many followers you have, I thought it would be nice to put together a handy guide to what you've achieved so far and how much your parents will love you. And if they'll humble brag about you at other people's family dinners.
Kiwi (5+): Someone coerced you into signing up for Twitter. Two years ago. You barely have any social media wings and are flightless.
Pigeon (25+): You used the friend search function. You don't really want to interact with anyone it found, except that one person who you text all the time anyway. Twitter is laaaaame.
Seagull (50-100+): Your have IRL friends on Twitter and you guys love it. Mine, mine, mine!
Hummingbird (250+): You're an artist of some kind, or an entrepreneur, you are using Twitter to "expand your network."
Woodpecker: (500+): You are still trying to expand your network. You wonder if you're narcissistic in your semi-private journal.
Owl (1,000+): You now officially have more Twitter friends than real friends. Possibly by a lot.
Flamingo (3,000+): You have achieved niche fame. You wield influence and power, but in small doses.
Peacock (10,000+): You've been offered some cash for a sponsored tweet. You turned them down to preserve your integrity. And then tweeted about it.
Hawk (100,000+): "How much are you paying? Where do I sign?" Signs of early onset megalomania.
Condor (500,000+): You are an athlete, or already famous.
Gryphon (1,000,000+): You are a movie star or celebrity. But not yet as popular as MC Hammer.
Phoenix (5,888,146): You've hit the pinnacle, you are Mariah Carey.
Bieber (17,000,000+): Actually there's one more level, one boy to rule us all. Mariah's co-star on the "All I Want For Christmas Is You" remake.
1/5: You are spamming people and just trying to get that count up. It's okay, everybody's gotta start somewhere.
1/1: Quid pro quo. You follow back people who follow you.
5/1: You follow people back selectively. Maybe you just went through a Twitter follower purge.
20/1: There's a doorman working your Twitter account. He is totally blasé and makes people line up outside for no reason.
100/1: Who do you think you are?!
1,000/1: Too self important to care about us little people eh?
10,000/1: You are Ashton Kutcher
100,000/1: You are Bill Simmons
1,000,000/1: You are Lady Gaga
9,035,175/1: You are Marshall Mathers. Seriously? Eminem's PR people couldn't follow just one person for show? Dr. Dre?
I hope this has helped you place yourself in the Twitterverse. I know I feel much better. Like the Immortals of Persian army fame, my new goal is to hit 1,000 followers and then trim them down to always exactly 1,000. "The unit's name stemmed from the custom that every killed, seriously wounded or sick member was immediately replaced with a new one, maintaining the cohesion of the unit." I won't ask anyone be killed or seriously wounded but if you're sick, we'll handle it on a case by case basis.

Oh geezes, upon further research, the Immortals actually always numbered 10,000. Forget it, I'm just going to call my team the "1/10th Immortals." I'm an underachieving Asian anyway, it's more appropriate. Also, this is a good time to shout out my favorite Persians: Xerxes, Lilly, and Ameer. Not necessarily in that order of course.

I can't believe I just said "shout out." And used "IRL" up above. Forgive me.

09 February 2012

The Wizard Will See You Now

Last August I joined Rachael Harrie's Third Platform-Building Campaign and met some great people. As a blog addict, being exposed to so many sites was like being joyfully let out of rehab. I followed, I RSS-ed, I stalked, I cheered, I invested emotionally. I also tried to start "bangarang" as a group cheer but that attempt floundered like Spielberg's enthusiasm for Hook 2 so we're gonna need something else. Or we can just golf clap or something.

Rachael is currently throwing together a mini-Campaign, running from February through mid-March, and I'm totally in again. You should join too so we can be friends and hang out virtually. Or just lurk literally. Whichever one you want. Check out the Fourth Writers' Platform-Building Campaign information and then sign up and visit other campaigners!
Some bloggers I want to share with you (from last year's campaign):
Angela Brown | Cynthia Lee | David Powers King | Eliza | Jennifer Pickrell | Lena Corazon | Medeia Sharif | Ozlem Yikici | Susan Kaye Quinn | Shelley Koon | Trisha | Yvie Gonya

And of course, the incomparable Sophia Chang. Please don't overlook her personal campaign against word verification. It's a cause that will help us all.

I just wrapped up How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding, expanded from an article Keith Gessen did for Vanity Fair. It's a quick read and shows a behind the scenes account of how his friend's book, The Art of Fielding, came to life. This isn't a detailed look into the publishing industry and at 17,000+ words and about sixty pages, it's not meant to be. There are a lot of interesting points and takeaway facts though.

Here's how much publishers will pony up for a coveted Barnes & Noble stand-alone table near the front: a high of $35,000 a week. Here's how many galleys for advance marketing distribution is considered a lot: 5,000 copies. A column ad in the Times Book Review can set you back $20,000. Little, Brown and Company's catalogue was seventy or so titles for fall-winter 2011. Hachette's sales force is about fifty people strong. Publishing industry consultant Mike Shatzkin has an interesting blog -- mostly about the rise of digital and e-publishing -- worth checking out.

The craziest tidbit that stuck out to me was how there's only one buyer of literary fiction for all of Barnes & Noble's 700-plus stores. Yes, one ring to rule them all! A single person's tastes dictating what gets picked up and promoted for thousands of readers. Think about that. Conceivably there's also just one person responsible for selecting young adult novels for B&N also. Or maybe there's three? Who knows. The point is that I was surprised at how few decision makers there are.

Now I've read a few books about the industry before but I've always been very aware that the book I'm reading is somewhat dated. For example, Jason Epstein's Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future came out in 2002 and when I read it recently, the information was outdated -- which is no knock against the book, it was just more a time capsule. What I liked about How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding was that it was just a few months old. The eBook came out in September 2011 and its insight into the industry was very current.

But why pay $1.99 for essentially just one long form article? Well, it was cheaper than buying the actual magazine itself. Plus, efficiently downloading the eBook onto my Kindle satisfied my instant gratification and if this is going to be the future, why not try it out?

06 February 2012

Five Cents

A sorta weekly feature of things I co-sign:

(1) YA Book Club. I heart the logo for this book club. Okay that's not the reason I'm joining. Okay maybe it is. This month they're reading The Fault In Our Stars.

(2) Bad review bingo. Definitely my new favorite game. Now I just need to gather a living room full of defensive authors together to play. Can I count on you plus one?

(3) John Scalzi answers when you can call yourself a "writer" or a "good writer." My personal answer for both is: "Tomorrow? Please?"

(4) Possible Problems and Obstacles for Superheroes to Face Besides Supervillains. They left out "bad movie adaptations" but that's alright, I still love Superhero Nation because it offers advice on how to write, edit, and sell novels and comic books.

(5) 2012 YA Releases About POC. In case you didn't know, "POC" is "people of color." Please say you knew that.

02 February 2012

Throwback Thursday: Bunnicula

Seriously, where did the green light for this book series come from? I'm certainly glad some genius editor had the foresight to publish this because how else could I have grown up with fears of a blood sucking bunny? How many people, when you read Bunnicula as kids, thought vampiric pets were actually biologically possible? Raise your hand higher!

Don't you miss the times when small domestic animals were the stars of books? Now it's all about teenagers with their super powers and secret histories. Ugh, homo sapiens, so over it. Give me a mouse on a toy motorcycle any day.

If you'll recall, the original Bunnicula was subtitled "A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery." Thrilling for 1979 but not so exciting now; nobody cares about rabbit mysteries anymore. (Well, unless you count Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.) Taking a cue from the way Hollywood recycles nostalgia, and the recent success of monster mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it's inevitable that all those crapclassic books we read growing up will soon receive similar makeovers.

Inspired by a long drive up to L.A. in traffic, I thought I'd jump ahead of the slow-footed execs and suggest my version of a Bunnicula redo for the current publishing climate.
Betsy is a young lab-raised rabbit who has never seen sunlight, tasted fresh grass, or left the confines of her cage except to receive injections of promising superdrug Strangé. After giving birth to a litter of babies, Betsy dies and is discarded by the human researchers. The next morning, Chester and Harold, a street wise cat and dog duo, are digging through the trash when they find a revived and weakened Betsy. Having never seen anything as pure and beautiful as a white bunny before, gruff but softhearted Harold convinces Chester to let him take the rabbit home.

Despite his best efforts, Harold can't nurse Betsy back to health. Even with chocolate cupcakes. When a rival gang attacks, Chester and Harold are desperately outnumbered but saved by a suddenly very alive Betsy, who has gone into a blood frenzy and kills Odie, the leader of the (other) pack. With their top dog gone, gone, gone, the surviving motley crew of cats and pigeons slink/scamper/crawl/fly/two-step away.
Stunned by the transformation of their ward, Chester and Harold are now afraid of the death bunny. They are about to leave her -- still sucking on Odie's neck -- when Betsy pleads with them to stay. Communicating images and emotions via touch, Betsy shows Chester and Harold the laboratory and the cruel testing she had to endure there.

Moved by her tale, Chester and Harold agree to help Betsy rescue her children. While still not fully understanding Betsy's condition, they work around her blood lust by feeding her non-organic fruits and vegetables (the synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers keep her strong). The main hurdle they encounter is that Betsy's animal nature is to be prey. Aside from that first desperate battle, Betsy's instincts are to zig zag and run around in circles. And to cower in fear.
While this passivity proved useful in the evolutionary survival of her order, Betsy needs Chester and Harold to give her lessons in offensive snarling, pouncing, swatting, and using her tiny fangs and oversized ears as weapons. The three friends will have to work together to infiltrate the lab and then lead the fight against animal experimentation. Coming to you this summer: Bunnicula Begins!
If anyone wants to go ahead and buy this right now, it's an almost complete WIP of about 350+ words, with merchandising rights also available immediately. And could someone else please redo Little House on the Prairie as dystopian?

Actually, if late 1800's Kansas wasn't already a dystopia, then I read Laura Ingalls Wilder all wrong.