1. It's fitting that O'Reilly's electronic book publishing technology conference Tools of Change is happening at the Marriot Marquis in swirling Times Square, still the publishing bellybutton of this city, with the New York Times toiling down the street, Conde Nast fretting across the block, Simon and Schuster, Time Inc. and Random House not far away. Well, are the smartest people in publishing here on the 6th floor at the Marriot Marquis today? Time will tell.
The big news at the conference when I arrived at noon was the earlier nearby Amazon Kindle 2.0 announcement, complete with an amusing Stephen King fly-by. The buzz about the Kindle is not positive among this crowd (closed single-vendor technologies do not play well here in O'Reilly country). My afternoon session turns out to be a grueling but satisfyingly information-packed three and-a-hour introduction to E-book formatting specifications and methods. Many of the attendees were sweating or looked pale by quitting time at 5 pm, but we all felt smarter. I was most impressed by Garth Conboy's evangelism for the open EPub format, which seems to be emerging as the much-needed industry-wide digital publishing format. I enjoyed Keith Fahlgren's helpful real-world tips for E-book publishing, as well as his Kindle-bashing. One of the three speakers, Joshua Tallent, was a Kindle expert, and I enjoyed his presentation as well, though it seemed like divine justice for the Kindle's intrinsic isolation model that his presentation on Kindle publishing crashed halfway through. Why? The projector didn't have the Kindle-specific fonts. Ah ha haaa ... anyway, it was a moment of levity that this audience of tech-exhausted publishers and technologists didn't mind.
Tools of Change goes into full swing tomorrow with presentations by Bob Stein, Jeff Jarvis, Cory Doctorow, Laurel Touby, Kassia Krozser and Jason Epstein.
2. Chasing Ray tells us about a children's book about Gertrude Stein, Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude by Jonah Winter.
3. Bad news in the magazine biz as a major distributor ceases operations.
4. Are the creators of Twitter living in the last Dreamworld?.
5. Three Percent is getting angry about funding cuts.
6. Will Self ponders W. G. Sebald.
7. Let xkcd explain the mysterious base system. Funny.
8. Like many a Long Island kid, I grew up listening to Jackie Martling on Bob Buchmann's morning show on WBAB. He was always terrible, but in a really good way.
9. My old boss's boss Walter Isaacson has written a rather surprising article about micropayments for online content, and he's on Jon Stewart right now speaking about this same proposal. There may be long-term possibilities here, and I like it that Isaacson is thinking outside the box. However, his proposal lacks immediate appeal, especially since online advertising remains a perfectly viable support system for many content websites. If Isaacson thinks this idea is ready to take off right now, I think he may be reading too many books by Bruce Judson (but that's an inside Pathfinder joke).
10. Saturday night's benefit for humanitarian aid in Gaza at McNally Jackson was a surprisingly moving event, featuring readings from Mary Morris, Wesley Brown, Alix Kates Shulman, Elizabeth Strout, Dawn Raffel, Melody Moezzi, Beverly Gologorsky, Chuck Wachtel, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Robert Reilly, Jan Clausen, Barbara Schneider and Humerea Afridi, and I was proud to be a part of it. I also heard an exciting update from organizer Leora Skolkin-Smith (reading, below), whose novel Edges: O Israel O Palestine will soon begin film production in (remarkably enough) Jerusalem and Jordan. Tools of change? We can hope.
I've been scanning old photos and documents for my memoir-in-progress, and going a bit scan-crazy as I dig into my archives. Here are a few interesting literary items I've found.
Does This Happen To Other Litbloggers?
I have no idea why this happens, but I get letters from kids to famous writers. But they don't send the letters to the writers, or to their publishers (which would probably be the best approach). They send the letters to me. Over the years, I've received letters about various writers we've covered here on LitKicks, including Chuck Palahniuk (above), S. E. Hinton, Kurt Vonnegut and Lemony Snicket. I feel terrible about the fact that I never write back. But really, what are these kids thinking? Chuck Palahniuk does not live in my basement.
If any other litbloggers have experienced the same thing, I'd love to hear about it.
Damn! This Was Some Cast
I haven't posted about it as often as I'd like, but I love the New York Shakespeare Festival. Many famous actors and actresses paid their dues there, including Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Raul Julia, Christopher Walken and many more. Still, when I dug up this old program for a 1981 Delacorte Theatre production of King Henry the Fourth Part One, starring the fairly unknown Stephen Markle as King Henry and Kenneth McMillan as Falstaff, I was surprised to discover that the supporting cast included then-total-unknowns John Goodman, Val Kilmer and Kevin Spacey, not to mention the then-slightly-known Mandy Patinkin as Hotspur. I vaguely remember Patinkin's Hotspur, and Goodman, Kilmer and Spacey left no impression at all. Damn, that was some cast! I wish I could go back in time and enjoy the play more than I did.
Me Being Pretentious
I always wanted to be a writer. Around ninth grade I composed an apocalyptic novel called The Rain God. I remember that I liked the title very much, and that I had some good ideas for the novel's cover artwork (above). I didn't have a very clear idea what the story would be about, though, as is obvious from this pained first page:
"It was a dry dark beginning. My town is a little town, a farming based society. My father planted Yams. That is, before he died in a flash fire last week."
Forget what those kids who send me letters to writers were thinking ... what was I thinking? My father planted Yams? Hmph.
Then again, on the other hand, is this much worse than Cormac McCarthy's The Road? That's the real question. I guess I should have stuck with the project.
The Internet was born in November 1969, just after an exciting summer that included the Woodstock festival, the Charlie Manson murders and the Apollo 11 moonshot. The first successful demonstration of the Internet went much more quietly. A computer at the University of California at Los Angeles exchanged a series of messages with a computer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, 360 miles away, and at this moment -- well, one can only imagine that champagne bottles were popped, colleagues in various corporations and universities and government offices were giddily notified, and several West Coast nerds went home very happy. It didn't make the evening news.
The Internet grew, slowly and steadily. By the time I graduated with a Computer Science degree from Albany State in May 1984, the Internet was still nothing but a rumor to anyone I'd ever met. I worked for an aerospace firm and a robotics firm in the late 80s and never once saw a TCP/IP packet that didn't come from inside my building. We all knew that the Internet was somewhere out there -- I read about it in magazines like Byte and InfoWorld -- and in late 1992 I noticed a strange new book called The Whole Internet: User's Guide and Catalog by Ed Krol. It was published by O'Reilly, the most respected technical publisher in the Unix field, but it had a strange sort of 60s-ish San Francisco feel to it that was unlike any other O'Reilly book. I thumbed through it and read about Telnet, FTP, Usenet, Archie and Gopher, but it didn't make much sense and I didn't know where to find the Internet anyway.
If proof of the power of simple technology were ever needed, Twitter is that proof. I bet that some within the company would like to expand and diversify the service, but I hope they continue to resist that temptation. If Twitter did not force every single user -- it doesn't matter if you're John Cleese or some guy from Queens -- to post into the same rectangle with the same 140 characters, a lot of the charm would be lost. I wonder if the company can sustain this simplicity forever, but even if they don't, even if Twitter.com were to ever degrade in quality (as Facebook did, a few times), "twitter" has already become something more than "Twitter". It's the way many of us spread our news now. It replaces -- to some extent, for some people -- the instant message, the text message, the quick group email. But will it displace the blog post? I hope not, and this is where I have some concerns about the growing trend.
When's the last time Ed Champion posted a links roundup? He doesn't have to anymore; he just tweets the stuff as it rolls in. What's lost is the archivability. A single tweet can be wonderful or brilliant, but it's a fact that Twitter doesn't archive well. A links roundup on a popular blog earns a spot on the Wayback Machine and belongs to eternity. Does a tweet? I hope so, but the format doesn't encourage a writer to think in timeless terms.
Still, it's a format we can't ignore. Unlike some other bloggers I read, I don't plan to begin twittering my thoughts on literature or philosophy or history or the arts. That's what my website is for. I've tried writing about what I'm reading a few times (like today), but I like the blog format better for a variety of reasons. However, I will occasionally post about other random things on my mind -- songs on the radio, changes to the Taco Bell menu, responses to things other tweeters say -- who knows what I'll talk about? And I guess it's about time I announce my Twitter account here. Follow me if you dare.
1. The horrific Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (which begat World War I, which begat World War II) began because of an intercepted letter called the Ems dispatch. With this in mind, it's pretty scary to hear that our current State Department -- those geniuses who helped bring us the Iraq War -- can't figure out not to do "reply-to-all". Jesus freaking Christ ... January 20th just can't come soon enough.
2. FYI, the above link is via Sarah Weinman, who recently talked to Jacket Copy about her amazing ability to read 462 books a year. Sarah explains:
A lot of it has to do with my music background. I studied voice and piano fairly seriously during my elementary and high school days, and as such, I became very attuned to rhythm and cadence and voice. So what happens when I read is that I can "hear" the narrative and dialogue in my head, but what's odd is that I'm both aware of the book at, say, an LP rate (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) but in my head it translates to roughly a 78.
I think I have pretty good rhythm too, but I am the opposite kind of reader. I can easily take a half hour to read three sentences, not because I read so carefully but because a good sentence will start me thinking about so many other things. I doubt I finished more than 50 books in 2008. Anyway, I'm fortunate to be a good friend of Sarah Weinman's, and the one thing I'd like to add is that she reads people as quickly as she reads books.
3. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is putting on a new production of one of my very favoritest plays of all time, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard!
4. What! Who said marketing departments were allowed to be funny? This is from Macmillan.
5. Speaking of funny publicists, I don't know if I'll ever read Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd Be Cake, but I like that title. Her new book will be called Show Me On the Doll, which proves that Sloane Crosley really has a way with titles.
6. Tao Lin gets some attention from New York Magazine.
7. A newspaper of blog reprints? Some have already twittered that The Printed Blog is a bad idea because the material will be stale, but I completely disagree. Why can't blog posts be timeless? To say that blog posts have no value beyond the moment is as unfairly dismissive as any other negative generalizations I've ever heard about the form. This ain't Twitter over here. And I guarantee you somebody will eventually start anthologizing tweets too.
8. Jonathan Baumbach talks about a successful experiment begun in the 1970s called The Fiction Collective.
9. Dovegreyreader talks about literary comfort food, specifically of the children's variety. I don't go back to my early "comfort food" too often, but if I did the menu would include Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill (why has this great book vanished from our sight?) and the All-Of-A-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor.
I left the banking industry to join Time Warner's new media division, where I played an integral role in the now-famous disaster known as Pathfinder. I also launched my own website, Literary Kicks, was hired to build Bob Dylan's website, and had my own first taste of creative satisfaction and personal success. In 1999, I finally struck it "rich", cashing in on one of the biggest IPOs in stock market history, just as my marriage broke up and my workaholic tendencies reached a hysterical peak. A year later, the high-flying dot-com stock market began to crash. My paper wealth disappeared along with my job and much of my remaining sanity. I was beginning to gather my resources back together in 2001, only to face new shocking events of a completely unexpected kind. This is the memoir of a software developer who learned how to be a survivor, and a record of the life lessons learned along the way.
It was a great match, and most of all, the well-attended 4 pm event was a fun and lively closer for an inspiring weekend-long celebration of independent publishing in all it's wide, wide variety. The small press operatives who came out of hiding to gather here this weekend include publishers of tall ship art books, self-publishing experimental authors, anarchist publishers, Marxist publishers, erotica publishers, calligraphical craftspeople, and lots and lots of fiction and poetry publishers. Even as the book industry quavers with the economy, these are the publishers who will remain in business. They haven't been stopped yet.
Hello, boys and girls. It's the first week of December, and that, more than anything, is a signal for me to start thinking about holiday gift giving. Of course, I've been unemployed since the end of August so everyone on my list is getting handmade jewelry, lovingly crafted from macaroni and dental floss, but for those of you who still have jobs, I have compiled a list of gift ideas, all of which can be purchased online so you won't have to deal with going to any madhouse stores this time of year. Bonus: the gifts on this list are all for under $20 (except one, which is still under $30), perfect for those of you who are frugal, yet still on the lookout for something cool to get for the literary nerd on your list. Here we go:
-- Eco gift wrap! This is very cool and pretty and probably, if you're clever, reusable. Who wouldn't like to get a macaroni necklace wrapped up in paper from a French text book? It wouldn't even have to be a macaroni necklace! It could be anything (well, anything on the small side). Recycled gift wrap is a good idea, and this particular gift wrap has style.
-- Continuing with the handmade theme (because handmade stuff is cool), here's a mail art-inspired book. It'll be shipped without packaging, so you could have it sent directly to the person you're giving it to.
-- How about a bookmark made from a vintage typewriter key? Pretty neat.
-- Speaking of bookmarks, here's one inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright window design. If I had a bookmark like that maybe I would try harder not to lose my bookmarks all the time.
-- The words of everyone's favorite insanely quoteable literary figure (that's Oscar Wilde, by the way), adorn this money clip.
-- Do you know any Scrabble addicts? Would they appreciate being able to play on the go?
-- Or maybe they'd like a Scrabble shirt with the worst letters ever? Oh, the game-based hilarity.
-- And here's a book for the science-loving food geek in your life. Come on, everyone knows at least one of them, right?
-- Who isn't down with OED?
-- An invisible bookshelf might be handy for someone in need of storage.
-- I really like this clock. A lot.
Yeah, I got my hands on a real-life Amazon Kindle e-book reader for a few minutes. Did I "feel the power"? Hell no. The physical packaging reminds me of the Coleco Adam. I tried to read a story by P. G. Wodehouse and I felt like I was playing Pong.
The physical button interface is clumsy, but my main gripe with the Kindle has to do with market strategy: I believe Amazon should sell electronic books that play on a wide variety of popular devices, not a single overpriced dedicated device. When I first wrote on LitKicks that e-books won't succeed until we can read them on iPhones and Blackberries, several of you disagreed, but I think the success of a new iPhone reader called the Stanza is proving me right.
This leaves me, though, with a problem. I was originally going to get an iPhone but I didn't want to switch carriers or set my alarm clock to wait in line at the Apple Store, so I never got an iPhone. Instead, I'm rocking a Verizon LG Dare which is basically an iPhone wannabe, and I like the phone fine except it won't run Stanza. I hope the folks at Lexcycle are working on a few non-iPhone ports please ...
2. Check out Tina Brown's The Daily Beast, which features worthy contributors like Maud Newton and Rachel Maddow. At first glance the Beast appears to want to be an East coast version of Huffington Post, and since I like the Huff, I think that's just fine. The site will need to shake out a few tech things -- can we have author names in the RSS feed, please? -- but it appears to be off to a great start.
3. Andrew Gallix at the Guardian asks: whatever happened to the creative potential of digital literature? Good question. I have a bit to say about this, but it will wait for a post of its own.
4. While we're talking tech, I haven't had a chance to check Google's Book API out but I have a feeling this idea has long term potential.
5. Bat Segundo goes the distance in a feisty interview with the great film director Mike Leigh, whose latest character study is called Happy Go Lucky.
6. Bill Ectric interviews Ekaterina Sedia, author of the novel The Secret History of Moscow.
7. A linguistic study of Blog Speak (via Sully)
8. Tina Fey is writing a book! Will she reach the heights of other truly literary comedian-humorists like Groucho Marx, Robert Benchley, Woody Allen and Steve Martin? Well, she hasn't let us down yet.
9. Heaven-Sent Leaf is a new book of poetry by Katy Lederer, author of Poker Face. Poker and poetry have been a good combination since, at least, A. Alvarez.
10. A YouTube recording of a true castrato. Quite disturbing to listen to. Click through and you'll see what I mean.
11. I didn't get much of a response, folks, to my probing questions about Henry David Thoreau and the economy. Let's yak it up in the outfield, people! Really. I didn't think you were the types to get scared away by classic literature so easily (I know you can yak it up plenty when the topic is, say, Sarah Palin). So, the next round in our "Big Thinking" series will be about our public political dialogue, and our special guest writer will be Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tune in tomorrow evening when the fun begins.
Writing a post for a food blog has proved an interesting challenge. Most of my work concerns war, trauma, and the changes wrought by war on young men and women. My culinary abilities extend only in a very limited direction toward the barbeque grill and frozen pizza. However, I would like to share two experiences that involve food and war and that may shed some light in an ancillary way on my story "The Cabalfish" which appears in Dzanc Press’ anthology Best of the Web 2008.
The Unholy Fast
From 2005 to 2006 I worked in the hottest, most southern part of Iraq, serving as a Civil Affairs Officer for the city of Safwan. Temperatures in August and September peaked around 140 Fahrenheit and the idea of ‘dry heat’ was only a myth. Wind, when it blew, came from the south, off the Arabian Gulf. While not humid in the same way as, say, Mississippi, it wasn’t dry heat. We likened the feeling of the climate to opening an oven, sticking your head inside and turning on a sandblaster (grit in the air).
During this time, September of 2005, I had 9 interpreters working for me, all of them Sunni of varying degrees of pious devotion, though the least devote of them was certainly more religious than most Christians I know. Ramadan began, which meant fasting from dawn till dusk every day. Wanting to experience their culture and gain their respect I agreed to fast with them.
The first day I was on mission for 16 hours. The first four hours were easy: early morning. Cool day. Listening to the wailing muezzin call from the minarets in town I felt like I was doing something good and meaningful, knowing what it was to suffer, to be unable to afford the luxuries of clean, cold water and good, hot food. The next four hours got more difficult. Soldiers on my patrol ate lunch, albeit carefully so as not to offend the townsfolk in Safwan, the interpreters on patrol with them, or me. They thought I’d gone a little crazy, not to eat or drink that day at all. Again, the next four hours, pretty easy. It heated up to its normal peak temperature. The air conditioners in the HUMVEEs struggled and the crank casing, the interior of the HUMVEE, radiated heat. My clothes under my body armor were drenched in sweat, a good sign that I’d drunk enough the night before to prevent dehydration. By evening, though, the last few hours before sundown, my tongue began to swell. I felt a coating of sticky ‘leather’ on it. I had a headache. The creases of my uniform were caked with salt from evaporating sweat. I began to worry that I wouldn’t make it through. We pulled into our base just as the sun set. I clearly remember the taste of the first bottle of water I drank, cold, tingling, almost hurtful. Then dizziness hit me. I steadied myself against the wall of the mess hall for a minute or two. By the time I reached the food line I had recovered, drank two more bottles of water, and was ready to eat.
The second day the effects hit me more strenuously. The day wasn’t any hotter. But the remembrance of the previous day’s suffering and the ill-timed opening of a bottle of Gatorade by my driver nearly made me falter in my resolve. That Gatorade, red colored, smelled so sweetly of sugar that I could taste it flowing in the air between the driver and my mouth. My sense of smell has never felt so sharp. I craved it but resisted.
By the third day, about noon, I felt truly sick. Headache, grumpiness, dizzy spells despite several of liters of water and a good solid breakfast before sunrise. I had noticed throughout the first days of fasting more than one Iraqi worker laboring in the heat as they drank water, ate snacks, even spit -- a thing I couldn’t contemplate with my moisture-less tongue. My interpreters dismissed them as lazy Shi'a and contrasted the Shi'a’s disobedience against their own more observant Sunni rites. However, on this third day I caught one of my interpreters drinking secretly while he thought I wasn’t watching. I called him on it.
“Bob,” I said (his real name was Bashar, but we Americanized all their names). “What are you doing?”
“I have a fatwa,” he said.
“From my imam. Workers in the heat, we can make up the days of fasting after Ramadan when we aren’t working.” Bob began to laugh.
They’d conspired, all nine of them, to hide the edict from me: a great joke on their boss. Over the course of the year, I grew very close to all of my interpreters. But I never again abstained from food or drink while on mission.
In winter, travel between northern and southern Kuwait along the infamous ‘highway of death’ from the First Gulf War reveals an interesting sight: the barren reaches of the desert blossom with tents. All the urbanized Kuwaitis return to vacation, relive their Bedouin roots, by erecting family and tribe shelters in the barren desert, brightly striped tents, pampered racing camels in pens, flashing neon bulbs on hastily constructed fences to outline one nomad’s claim from the next.
My interpreter Sam and the sheik of his family set their encampment directly under a mega-power line not far from our base camp. There wasn’t another family within several miles of their compound, which made it safe to visit, though the cracking electricity in the lines above their tents oddly offset the quiet of the desert and the purported rationale behind their vacation, the return to Bedouin roots. They invited me and several of my sergeants to a traditional dinner.
One of my sergeants brought a whoopee cushion. The boy children loved it, ran giggling with it to the women’s tent, across the compound, where we heard but did not see, the women of the family as they laughed and employed the device.
The sheik waved his hand. We sat on cushions around the edges of the tent, twelve or thirteen of Sam’s cousins and uncles. One or two of them spoke English. I spoke halting Arabic. Sam translated in a steady flow of encouragement, tall-tales, and history. A tray of rice, yogurt and vegetables was laid between us. It’s centerpiece: a whole lamb cooked with its head intact. The sheik motioned to us, as his guests, to begin eating. Sam demonstrated in the air. Cup fingers together, scoop, pluck at the meat, insert into mouth. I tried. It wasn’t bad, though the lamb was a bit gamey. Smothered in yogurt sauce, I actually enjoyed it. That is, until the sheik plucked some brains and mucus-y matter through the empty sockets of the lamb’s eyes.
“Delicacy,” said Sam.
I could eat no more, though, when the pipe was passed that evening, and pictures taken and hands shook, I knew the experience and authenticity of the evening were well worth the trauma of watching the sheik enjoy his supper.