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A few years ago I wrote a rhetorical piece saying we should not have a pity party for fossil fuel companies. Since that time, I have noted how often business reporters will write articles (and sometimes clumsy headlines) that suggest that the decline of fossil fuel consumption is somehow a terrible thing. In Houston, where I live, we have a great newspaper HOUSTON CHRONICLE which can publish great pieces about the environment and energy. At the same time, its business section gives excessive and unduly sympathetic coverage to an industry which basically engages in odious (albeit legal) behavior. Houston grew rich from the oil and gas sector in an age where climate change wasn’t as clear cut. But now it is clear cut, and there is no special reason to give these industries the benefit of the doubt. I’ve long said that the tragedy of Houston is that its most talented and creative (and law-abiding) people were persuaded to work for an industry that produced harmful and odious results (more).

This page will list and criticize news stories (from the Chronicle and elsewhere) which I feel framed the subject wrongly — in a way to portray the fossil fuel industry more sympathetically than was necessary. There are many victims from climate change — and workers in these industries are victimized in a way. I grew up in a city where articles about fossil fuels were dressed up in language stressing hard-work and enterpreneurship — distracting from long environmental consequences. Even today, press releases and media stress the benefit of partial solutions and the fact that the industry obeys the law (not hard in a state with lax regulations). Apparently the welfare of a rapidly diminishing population of O&G workers is supposed to trump all other things. I often used to joke that the easiest way to tell a company’s ecological destructiveness is the amount of greenery (and flowing water) which appears in their ads and promotional material.

Here’s a list of the most egregious examples of fossil fuel reality distortion:

PERSONIFICATION OF SHALE

Dear Houston Chronicle:

In the Sept 27 HOUSTON CHRONICLE business section (page 1), we see the headline, “NEW MEXICO SHALE IS BRACING FOR POSSIBLE BIDEN REGULATIONS.” Please note that shale is an inanimate object incapable of having any mental processes or emotion. Solecism aside, it’s disturbing to lament the proposed reduction of a business practice which threatens both the planet’s climate and the local ecosystem (and potentially the water supply). The shale mining industry may provide short-term economic gain to a small number, but it also threatens the health and stability of our climate and the people and creatures that live on it.

The “Threat” of Solar Energy

Dear Houston Chronicle:

I need to quibble with some of the wording in the otherwise excellent report on the emerging solar industry by L.M. Sixel on Monday Dec 2.

According to the article, “Solar, however, may pose an even greater threat because unlike wind, it produces the most power when demand is highest — hot, sunny summer afternoons.”

“Threat”? I find nothing threatening about using solar power. But when air pollution from fossil fuels annually causes 4-7 million premature deaths globally (WHO Report, 2014 & Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, 2017) and 75,000-100,000 domestically, I certainly feel threatened by the continued use of fossil fuels in Texas. Far from being a threat, solar is an encouraging sign, a reason to hope for the future. According to one economic analysis (U. of Mass, 2009– PDF), “clean energy investments create 16.7 jobs for every $1 million in spending. Spending on fossil fuels, by contrast, generates 5.3 jobs per $1 million in spending.”

Sometimes the overly effusive coverage by the Chronicle about the fossil fuel industry can be offputting. If an industry’s business model is dedicated to PERMANENTLY degrading the livable world for EVERY SINGLE baby born today, tomorrow, next year, next decade — even the next century, then it’s a no-brainer that we ought to act sooner rather than later to stop it, especially because we ALREADY HAVE the technology to solve the problem and already have a good idea about how to do it right.

Other fun Stuff

Brilliant anti-coal ads
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Interview with Harvey Havel (Novelist)

I first stumbled upon the novels of Harvey Havel during a recent ebook sale. Since that time, I’ve reviewed one of his novels and talked to him over the phone a few times. Personville Press is in the process of re-publishing ebook versions of two Havel novels which were previously released in print (apparently the original publishing company disappeared and left Havel hanging). Although born to Pakistani parents, Harvey doesn’t write about a lot of ethnic or immigrant themes (though he wrote a trilogy starting in Bangladash and ending in the USA). His novels are realistic and sometimes harrowing. He has dabbled in a lot of things — a memoir about the relationship with his mother and a series of philosophical/political essays about virtue and the fissures in US society. He has written about football players, poets and drug addicts. He has a great ear for how people really talk — especially those who are outcasts or down on their luck. Havel’s writing is hard to classify. His books describe the ordinary struggles of working class people — and perhaps his fiction comes off sounding strident. I’ve always been struck by Havel’s candor in describing life disappointments. Even in this interview, Havel is open about his personal demons and publishing woes. His literary output seems prodigious for someone who hasn’t turned 50. His prose has always struck me as more workmanlike than lyrical, but he’s great at telling an engaging story. In the interview Havel acknowledges a literary debt to Norman Mailer, but I see hints of Bellow’s chattiness, Steinbeck’s plain language and the William Kennedy’s stories about outcasts (in fact Havel lives in Albany and has crossed paths with Kennedy on more than one occasion). Born in Lahore in 1971, Harvey grew up in NYC and Western Connecticut, attended Trinity College and Emerson College creative writing program. He has done various kinds of jobs (mostly teaching). Harvey remains dedicated to writing novels even as he waits for the reading public to catch up. This interview was conducted by email over several months in 2020)

Growing Up & Literary Influences

 WHAT WERE YOU DOING IN YOUR TWENTIES?

Photo of Author Harvey Havel, 2020

I had just finished college up in Hartford, Connecticut, and  on my 21st birthday, I decided to become a fiction writer.  I  was under the delusion  that, one day, I could become a  great American writer like  Hemingway and Mailer and Kerouac and my other literary heroes.  It was a recession that year, during the Presidency of George H.W. Bush, I remember.  I wanted nothing more than to avoid the shitty job market and go to writing school to avoid having to work.  I finished writing school in Boston in 1997, and after that, I went to New York City and frequented  places where artists and poets hung out, like the Bowery Poetry Club and the Nuyorican Poets Café.  I went to tons of open mikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  I carried a guitar around for a blind musician named “Norris” who was the lead singer for a band called the Ebony Hillbillies   (God, how I miss him)!  I worked very hard on my writing, but no one wanted to publish me at all, to my great disappointment.  I was crushed, because I thought I would be able to make a living at it. How wrong I was!   No one was interested in my work  except for Norris perhaps.  Thirty years later, I still can’t make a living from it.  The New York City artist’s scene didn’t treat me well at all.  I worked at CBS News on and off, and while doing so, other artists in New York City and even the high cost of living in nearby Bergen County, New Jersey basically chewed me up and spit me back out.  I also developed a terrible drinking problem that I still have to deal with.  I never want to experience those years again.  They were horrific.

YOU RECEIVED A MASTER’S DEGREE IN CREATIVE WRITING FROM EMERSON. DID IT HELP YOU MUCH OR INFLUENCE YOUR APPROACH TO WRITING?  

I actually learned a lot from writing school, but these types of MFA programs are very expensive, and there is plenty about these programs to which I now strongly object.  But when I arrived at Emerson, I thought I already knew how to write fiction better than everyone else there, like the typical smug, arrogant first-year writing student.  Actually, I really had no idea about how to write anything.  I used weak passive verbs, for instance, and I told more than I showed, for example.  Also, my style was hardly comprehensible, and one of my writing instructors had to do a complete line editing of my prose to show how none of my stuff made sense to anyone who understood the English language.  Very importantly, an experienced writer/student in one of my workshops said that my writing was rushed.  (Interestingly, another  local writer said essentially the same thing after reading my books a few weeks ago).  I should have listened to that guy in workshop way back when.

But what I really got out of writing school had to be the direct advice from my writing instructors.  These were Christopher Keane, an accomplished screenwriter, Andre Dubus III, whose books they make into Hollywood movies now, and especially DeWitt Henry, whom I consider to be the most well-read and intelligent person I have ever met.   When I gave him my full-length manuscript for my first book, he told me the next day what was wrong with it, and his explanation took all but five minutes.   Five minutes!  The guy is amazing, and he was also the Executive Editor of Ploughshares back then too.   I’m serious, the guy has read every book ever published, or so it seems.  I’ve sent him every one of my books over the years.  I can only hope that he approves of them.

Other than that, MFA programs are really what you make of them.   You can get by without lifting a finger, but then they become a real waste of time and money.  You gain the most just by learning one-on-one with professional writers.  

HOW HAS “BOOK CULTURE” CHANGED SINCE YOU WERE IN COLLEGE? 

As far as literary fiction is concerned, not a thing.  The same multicultural-themed books  that stress identity politics and political correctness have continued to be popular over the last 30 years.    Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of good writing is still studied at MFA programs.  Unfortunately, certain  themes, styles and subjects are stressed, while other great books are  ignored, buried, or forgotten.

The real hope, though, is in commercial fiction.  More experimental fiction, science fiction, concept writing, and fantasy have taken off in recent years.  While I do see hope in these, the commercial fiction market is mostly driven by dollars and celebrity, just like the movie and TV  productions coming out of Hollywood.  Also, new technologies have revolutionized what writers can do.  Any writer can use writing in conjunction with any variety of technologies, like video and graphics, for instance, to create new literary art forms.  The Internet has made all that possible.  That’s not to mention the incredible rise of self-publishing, which is outpacing the nepotism that drives the traditional publishing industry and their corporate overlords.  These corporate houses are dying even as I answer this question, and it has been a long time coming.  They will never be able to penetrate the interpersonal networks that each self-published writer has already cultivated with  readers.  But at the same time, it will be more difficult for self-published writers to make a good living.  It is very hard, in fact, to do anything of the sort.  But at least it is a start, as the writer no longer has to acquiesce his or her creative freedom to the so-called literary elite of the publishing world.  It is a wonderful time for writers, and one of these days, the money will surely follow.

I’VE GOTTEN TO THE POINT WHERE I DEFINE COMMERCIAL FICTION SIMPLY AS “WHATEVER DOESN’T WIN AWARDS OR GET REVIEWED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES.”  

Many writers do view this amorphous genre known as “Commercial Fiction” differently, simply because it is so far and wide-reaching.  It is hard to narrow its focus or to categorize these books when it comes down to their type or subject matter.  But I think you’re right.  “Commercial Fiction” is the stuff that falls outside what’s in Poets and Writers Magazine or The New York Times Book Review or taught in MFA programs and writing workshops.  It doesn’t take into account  mystery or crime novels, espionage, horror, science fiction, romance, fantasy, and an entire host of other genres that are considered too low-brow to be designated as literary fiction.  Harold Bloom’s list of books in the American literary canon is generally considered to be “literary fiction” and therefore above “commercial fiction”.  There’s an assumed snobbery involved here, but it can be funny if one views it as a really absurd statement. 

I remember really enjoying Anthony Lane’s yearly survey of books that made the New York Times’ best-seller list in the  New Yorker.   I had great laughs over these articles, usually published every year, as I remember them.  But folks in literary fiction often  look down upon their commercial fiction colleagues, and while this is a shame in many respects, commercial stuff makes so much more money for the publishing companies than the  literary books that often put people to sleep.  Hopefully, a good writer will be able to combine  literary talent with a capacity to entertain.  Great books can do both very well.

The Literary Life

I’VE GOTTEN STUCK ON SHORT STORIES FOR THE LAST 30 YEARS AND HAVE ONLY RECENTLY STARTED TO MAKE THE SHIFT TO LONGER FORMS. YET YOU DIVED ALMOST IMMEDIATELY INTO THE NOVEL (AND EVEN TRILOGIES). ARE YOU HAPPIER WORKING IN A MORE EXPANSIVE GENRE — OR DID YOU DO IT PRIMARILY FOR COMMERCIAL REASONS? 

I never dove into writing long books for commercial reasons.  I simply wanted to be a great American writer, rich or poor.  I thought I couldn’t do that as a short story writer.  Actually, short-story writing is how an author is supposed to start.  You place several short pieces in magazines or journals.  You get noticed by an agent or an editor (or these days, an agent), and then you keep writing short pieces until you can put together a collection of your own.   Then, after you make a name for yourself among critics and industry insiders, you write your first novel.  I did everything in reverse, because I had unrealistic expectations and overvaulting ambition.  Yes, I wanted to be a great American writer, silly me, but as a result, I really found my element in   longer works despite having no readership to speak of.   I love immersing myself in large projects and not coming up for air for a while.  It turns out that no one’s going to buy long novels by an unknown author.  I have come to terms with the fact that I may never be commercially successful, but I still have hope that I will be a great writer.   I take it on faith.   I somehow have come to believe that many people will read my work and enjoy reading it one day long after I’m gone.  What else could a writer ever want but that?  Money means nothing compared to this.  

DO YOU HAVE ADVICE  TO THE YOUNG WRITER (WHO PRESUMABLY WILL BE DEALING WITH DIFFERENT TECHNOLOGY, POLITICAL CONCERNS AND SOCIAL STRUCTURES).

Make sure you pay the bills.  It is hard to write from a position of abject poverty, especially in a hyper-capitalist society such as ours.  Arts for art’s sake lost its validity a long time ago. Money speaks  louder  in this age than art.  I wish it were different, but it just doesn’t change, especially if we are members of the Western world.  Perhaps it has never changed.  Only a handful of authors make it, and this is nothing new in America.    So make sure to pay the bills, eat well, and live a good, healthy life so that you can live to write another day and not face the utter loss associated with poverty and sickness.  Keep yourself healthy and don’t forget that you have to live your life as well as write your greatest works.  There is no avoiding it.  Artists cannot live in a vacuum.  We still have to survive.  And always remember from  Hemingway that “living well is the best revenge.”

ASIDE FROM THE FACT THAT EACH BOOK IS A DIFFERENT BEAST, HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY BIG CHANGES IN YOUR WRITING OVER THE DECADES? 

Ever since I left writing school and departed from the world of literary fiction, I think my work has gotten somewhat less artistic,  more plot-oriented but easier to read.  I had figured the goal was more to entertain an audience and not weigh readers down with narratives that are too rich and grave with meaning.  My stories have gotten simpler, less complex, riskier in terms of what is considered to be  good taste, and less involved in what good books ought to be like.   My recent books have been much better researched, although  artistically they still leave  me unsatisfied. 

IS YOUR UPCOMING 9/11 NOVEL THE FIRST YOU’VE HAD TO DO A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF RESEARCH ON? 

 I had to do a lot of research on the genocide in Bangladesh by West Pakistan in the 1970s for  Orphan of Mecca Trilogy, and also much research was done on Mister Big, which is a book about a football lineman and his fall from grace after an injury.  When I first started out writing, much of my work was simply creative and imaginative, but now, I am using research more and more to write my books.  I am currently doing this for The Queen of Intelligence, which is the September 11th book.  I find the research absolutely fascinating.  Now if  only  I could write the damn thing when the time comes to sit down and get to the real work. 

WHAT KIND OF WRITING HABITS DO YOU HAVE?

The rule of thumb is to write every day.  But we also have to make sure we don’t dip into poverty or illness because of it.  We still have to have shelter and food, good health, and the things we need to survive.  So I have always tried to write every day, but admittedly, I also have to pay the rent, do things for friends, read at events, go to the library and read books, comb the internet for news, take care of my sick parents, et cetera.  Writing every day is a good goal to have, but one shouldn’t forsake one’s quality of life or the needs of others in one’s life either.

Right now, I am burnt out from publishing two books back-to-back.  Also, to make ends meet, I am editing manuscripts for money and doing research for my next novel about the events leading up to September 11th.  The editing takes up time, and the research will take up more time than that, maybe a year or two.  Then the actual writing of the next book starts, and who knows how long that will take.  So the rule of thumb is to write every day, yes, but we have to deal with certain realities too.   We can’t write all day, every day,  or else we’d end up with a humongous collection of unorganized work on a hard drive. It just doesn’t work that way.  I know some writers who are senior citizens who have manually typed works over the course of several decades, and now they have no idea where their work will go after they pass.  We have to be practical about balancing regular commitments with writing daily sometimes.

Right now, I am not writing.  I am editing manuscripts and doing research, as I mentioned.  Back in the 1990s, as a young and naïve writer, I wrote for six hours a day.  I was a hermit who soon turned into a madman.  I had no life at all.  Be very careful to take care of yourself.  It is a much different world than it was during the writing industry’s hey-day of the 1950s.  Back then, a young writer could write for six to eight hours a day and get away with it.  Back then, getting paid for writing was much, much easier.

I ONCE READ THAT CHARLES DICKENS TOOK LONG DAILY WALKS (AND SOMETIMES AT NIGHT). DO YOU FIND IT NECESSARY TO ENGAGE IN SOME KIND OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY OR HOBBY TO BE CREATIVE?  

Taking long walks really helps. I get to think a lot. Sometimes I’ll listen to music or watch an inspiring movie, but other than that, not really.  For me, though, I just listen to music, sit at my desk, and cry!  Discipline usually works for me – just sit there and squeeze the blood out of my brain and onto the page, as  a writer once said.

IF I READ ALL OF YOUR BOOKS  AND THEN SPENT THE AFTERNOON WITH YOU,  WHAT DO YOU THINK WOULD MOST SURPRISE ME? 

Realizing how much of a manic-depressive I really am.  Even though the sun is shining, there is still gloom and doom hovering over us. I am a born schizophrenic who has been in 13 psych wards, spent 60 days in jail,  been to five alcohol rehabs, was at one time wealthy as a younger man, and  declared bankruptcy twice  (and might be headed to another).  

You’d be very surprised to know that my high school class voted me “most likely to succeed” and how incredibly wrong they were.  You’d be surprised to know that I am an Indian/Pakistani, because you’d think I were Italian, Spanish, Mexican, or Portuguese visually, or at least a Black or White American from reading my books.  You would also notice that I talk a lot more about existential, real-life issues of survival rather than more flighty, intellectual issues and ideas (even though I spent my life thus far writing novels).  In other words, while we’re having dinner and discussing my books, I’d be worrying about how I’d pay my share of the check. 

 You’d also be surprised that I grew up partly in Alphabet City, New York, back when it was the most dangerous neighborhood in Manhattan – so dangerous  that taxi cabs wouldn’t pick up any customers there.  Maybe you’d even be surprised that I speak English at all and do not work pumping gas in New Jersey, or help my family run a shitty, roadside motel, or sell Lottery tickets, scratch-offs, and overpriced cigarettes at your local convenience store.  I think you’d be surprised that I actually wrote novels, short stories, and essays at all.  You’d probably think I had entered the country illegally by stowing away in the cargo hold of an Air India or PIA passenger jet.  And lastly, you never would have known that, when I was a young man just starting out as a writer at 21, I wanted to be just like Norman Mailer, and that I even acted like him back then too — to the rolling eyes of my wise writing instructors at my writing school.

Being a Pakistani-American Author/The Immigrant Experience

THE LITERARY WORLD (AND THE ARTS IN GENERAL) HAS ALWAYS SEEMED PRETTY ACCEPTING OF USA AUTHORS WHO WRITE ABOUT THE 1ST/2ND GENERATION IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE. DOES BEING PAKISTANI-AMERICAN COME WITH A LOT OF BAGGAGE?

I do not write about the Pakistani immigrant experience.  The subject doesn’t interest me at all.  I just write about everyday Americans and the American experience through mostly White-American and Black-American characters.  I do not write about Pakistani or Indian-Americans.  I did write about the Middle East, such as the Islamic religious/political thriller, The Imam.  I did write about the genocide in Bangladesh.  And I am working on a book about September 11th, which is set in the Middle East.  But other than that, the immigrant experience is hackneyed subject-matter that really ought to have been put to rest in the late 1990s.

I am more interested in writing about the everyday struggles of black and white Americans.  There is no way I will ever land a publishing deal with a traditional publishing house because of it. I can make it fine on my own, by the grace of God.

HOW DID FAMILY MEMBERS AND RELATIVES REACT TO YOUR WRITERLY AMBITIONS? 

At first they laughed at it; now they are mostly angry.  They insist, at the age of 50, that I get a real job.  And because I don’t have a real job and have hardly any income, probably won’t ever get married, and don’t have any children, they treat me like a child.   But I love my parents dearly, and they reluctantly put up with me when I ask them for a loan every now and then or when I get into legal trouble.  But I get shit for it all the time.  I can still hear them yell at me to “get a job” or to make money instead of wasting my time writing novels.

Orphan of Mecca Trilogy

YOU SET VOLUME 1 OF ORPHAN OF MECCA TRILOGY DURING THE STRUGGLE FOR BANGLADESHI INDEPENDENCE. WHAT GOT YOU INTERESTED IN THAT?

I had no idea that I would write about Bangladeshi Independence when I started the trilogy.  I simply had a picture of a young, barefooted orphan from Mecca, dirty from the streets, making it to our American shores somehow.  That’s all I wanted to write about.  The stuff about Bangladesh is more of an afterthought that follows that original concept.  At the time. I believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had already started, and the times demanded that I write something about the Islamic experience in America.  For some reason, like a Ouija board, the pointer guided the trilogy towards the subject matter of the creation of the nation of Bangladesh.  It was never my intention to write about it at the outset.  Weird, right? 

DID YOU FIRST CONCEIVE OF IT AS THREE BOOKS? DID THE FINAL RESULT DIFFER MARKEDLY FROM HOW YOU FIRST IMAGINED IT? 

I had a long book in mind, and it was simply a more practical matter that I divided the book into three parts.  I thought it would be more digestible that way, because each part was set in different places.  Part One is in East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, while Part Three is on the streets of America, for example.  It just makes the trilogy easier to read.  

For some reason, though, I’ve always wanted to write long books like the pros always do.  (I have no idea why).  After I wrote Mister Big, one critic said that it was “comically long,” as though he knew of my secret desire to write the great long novel, like Les Miserables, War and Peace, or Moby Dick.  And so, embarrassed as I am to admit it, I did want Orphan to be a great, long trilogy.  I simply wrote these books all out at once and divided the entire long manuscript into three parts.  Isn’t that something an amateur would do?  Well, I’m still an amateur at this stage of the game, so as much as I hate to admit it, that’s what I did. 

WRITING A BOOK (OR TRILOGY) TEACHES AN AUTHOR SOMETHING — MAYBE A LOT OF THINGS.  WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF  FROM THE EXPERIENCE OF WRITING THIS TRILOGY.

Endurance as an author, plain and simple.  I learned to endure the long book and to continue writing it even though I was terribly exhausted and had nowhere to take it.  Mister Big is the same way.  It is forced, ‘the mind bleeding on the page,’ as one poet put it long ago.  For some reason, I just had to squeeze my brain until it hurt, even though I have never been up to the task of writing a trilogy, of all things.  Trust me, the final result was not planned.  The readers of this trilogy ought to notice how each book that follows is shorter than the one before it.  That’s the author (myself) gasping for breath as I try to swim the last laps of the heat.  It was hard to write, and I really don’t mind admitting it.  Hey, “if the writer doesn’t suffer, the reader will,” and so, I suffered on purpose and maybe for no reason (if the reader turns out not to like it).

Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill: Romantic Delusions & Sexual Politics

WHAT WAS THE EASIEST BOOK TO WRITE? THE HARDEST? 

The Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill, (my latest book) was the easiest to write.  A lot of it is based on a real character with whom I did have a real relationship, and it was the first time I had written a book based upon my own life experience.  I finally gave myself permission to do this.  All of my other books deal with issues that are important to me personally, but those books, their plots and their characters, are all imagined.  A lot of Gypsy really did  happen.  I wrote it quickly, and it was easier to write because the material was already there. 

The hardest was probably The Thruway Killers.  I really tried to combine the writing of a good plot with real and well-rounded characters.  With literary fiction, plot usually follows character in terms of priorities in a novel.  But in this case, I tried to make them both important, because I really needed The Thruway Killers to be a good, entertaining read.  Luckily, the book was received well, and it turns out that the plot was probably the most inventive I’ve ever written.  I am better at developing characters than planning out strong plots.  I wanted to do both, and I hope the reader benefited from that.  It is very hard to do both successfully.  We usually get one or the other – character in literary fiction or plot in commercial fiction.  I wanted to do both, because I believe the most successful novels tend to go in that direction.

WHAT PROTAGONIST OR CHARACTER VIEWPOINT HAS BEEN THE HARDEST TO WRITE? 

My protagonists are usually flawed men, and I guess I can identify with that, because I am a flawed man, like every man is.  Male protagonists are the easiest to write for me. I guess I don’t have much experience writing female characters, so I would say that women are the toughest to write for me. But this is all about to change, because with the next book, The Queen of Intelligence, the protagonist is a female CIA asset.  The only protagonist that I came close to writing is in The Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill and the character of Gypsy.  But while she may be considered to be the book’s protagonist, we actually see her through Charlie’s eyes.

THE CENTRAL RELATIONSHIP OF CHARLIE AND GYPSY  IS FUNDAMENTALLY DYSFUNCTIONAL, AND YET CHARLIE  CONTINUES TO HOLD OUT HOPE THAT IT CAN BE SAVED. IT IS HARD TO WRITE LOVE STORIES THAT FEEL GENUINE TO THE READER. CAN YOU POINT TO ONE BOOK OR STORY WHICH OFFERS  THE SHARPEST INSIGHTS INTO   LOVE AND PASSION?   (FOR ME, IT WAS ARNOLD BENNETT’S OLD WIVES’ TALES — BLEW ME AWAY!)

 One of the harsh criticisms of the book is that its theme is really an old trope of how the woman in the relationship leads to the demise of the man.  And while there is truth to that, there is always the initial hope on the reader’s part  that the portrayed relationship eventually leads to a successful, everlasting love.  Because the outcome of a relationship like this is nothing new to fiction,  it wasn’t hard to make the writing of this love story  feel genuine. 

I think of the movie Pretty Woman for some reason, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.  This was more fairy tale than anything else, but it is my personal view that reality is usually quite the opposite.  Take Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights or even Othello and Desdemona, a relationship doomed to failure, because we already know the outcome before we even begin. Love’s tragedy of this kind is much easier to write about and to feel genuine, because I believe it is much more prevalent in our world, and we remember it the most, because it hurts and is felt much more than love’s successes.  In that way, love’s failure is always much easier to write about in a genuine way.  Dysfunctional relationships and the need for a couple to preserve what they have permeates our world to a greater degree than the perfect couple and their perfect love and their perfect life.  It’s just never that easy.  Our most passionate relationships, in my humble view, are always star-crossed.  In that sense, no, it wasn’t hard for this book to try to feel genuine.  But whether or not the relationship in this book actually feels genuine is up to the reader to decide, ultimately.  I hope I did an adequate job of it.

THERE IS A STRONG LEVEL OF ECONOMIC ALIENATION AND DESPERATION  IN  GYPSY.  WOULD  GREATER FINANCIAL SECURITY HAVE  BEEN SUFFICIENT TO HELP THE  PROTAGONIST REALIZE HIS ROMANTIC DREAMS (AT LEAST A SCALED VERSION OF IT)?  OR ARE ALL MEN (RICH AND POOR) EQUALLY SUSCEPTIBLE  TO THIS KIND OF ROMANTIC PROJECTION? 

I don’t think money would have helped this relationship at all.  More money may have strung it out a little more and given them both a false sense of security, but a romantic dream is more about staying together even without any money, and deep down, a man already knows this.

I remember in Albany, there was an elderly couple who lived in an old beat-up van and had street-parked it off Western Avenue in uptown Pine Hills.  When I saw them sitting in the front seats, their white hairs tangled messes and all of their earthly possessions piled up in the back of their van, I really thought that what I beheld was a couple that had fulfilled their romantic dreams.  Poverty couldn’t break this couple through  many years of being together.  They couldn’t exist living apart.  The couple had become one and needed each other so thoroughly that even through homelessness and hunger their love had survived.  Financial security may have helped them, but it didn’t necessarily aid or abet their romantic dreams any more than being totally broke, down and out, and being homeless in a van.  In my view, love is on a much higher level that transcends wealth, but then again, I’ve never been in love before, so I can’t really say.  I’m just lucky and privileged enough to see examples of it from time to time. 

While money is important in any relationship, it really doesn’t mean anything to a man.  It isn’t the ultimate, in other words.  For a man, the opposite has to be true in order to  have his romantic dreams realized.  He desires a woman who will stick with him even when he’s broke and down and out, like the woman in the van did for her man.  And this wasn’t just a fucking fairy tale either!  It was real.

THIS NOVEL SEEMS WRITTEN MORE FOR A MALE AUDIENCE THAN A FEMALE AUDIENCE. DO YOU AGREE?  WHAT’S THE MOST INTERESTING THING THAT A FEMALE READER COULD GAIN BY READING THIS NOVEL?  

You’re right; I do think it is written more for a male audience than a female one.  Females don’t need Charlie.  It is usually the other way around.  Charlie needs Gypsy.  Heterosexual men hunger for a woman like Gypsy.  They need Gypsy to totally drive them crazy and nearly ruin their lives.  That’s why men love this kind of woman in the first place, and that’s how such a woman can easily control and overpower a man such as Charlie.  Also, men need to be touched by women.  They need to feel their skin upon theirs.  And because these sirens call, men are easily destroyed by women of this kind as well. 

Most heterosexual men can relate, as literature is peppered with many great examples of this.  Nabokov’s Lolita comes to mind.  By reading this book, females would at least get an idea of how a woman’s attractiveness and a man’s hunger for her touch can equally destroy him and also lead to mistaken  attitudes about the women who offer their affections so easily.  In my view, women like Gypsy who offer what they do are men’s saviors.  Gypsy is the hero (heroine) of the book here.  Not Charlie, oddly enough.  And Gypsy is a tragic hero (heroine).  Maybe this is why females might  like and even learn from  this book, even if it may also offend their sensibilities, especially in this day and age.  When a woman turns cold, a man can’t survive.  Period.  All women need to learn this —  if they haven’t already.  Men would rather have a woman like Gypsy pretend that she loves him than go through the hellish nightmare of a woman’s cruelty.  Gypsy offers bliss, not cruelty, but in no way can something so sweet last for very long.

Cultural Influences

HAS TV OR FILM INFLUENCED YOUR WRITING MUCH? WHAT NON-BOOKISH THINGS HAVE EXERTED AN INFLUENCE ON YOUR BOOKS?

Remember that book by Nick Hornsby, High Fidelity?  I grew up on all kinds of media.  I watched television all day and all night, like in that hit HBO comedy series Dream On.  I watched everything, and I listened to very loud rock and roll music constantly and repetitively.  I drove my poor mother nuts!  And I must have seen a thousand movies at the theaters.  I read mainly in school, but I also read many books outside of school too.  By the time I got to college, I was ready for the asylum.  

At first, I had to write my books visually.  I wrote the movies that played in my head.  That’s how greatly movies and television influenced my writing.  I was all the visual image.  It was only over the last twenty years or so  that books took a clear and commanding role in my writing life.  Now I really can’t stand movies or television, and neither do I trust the two forms of media.  I trust books, and I am a certifiable news junkie.  In fact, my friends have to yell at me  to shut off the news and stay away from newspapers.  Nowadays,  I just turn on the TV for the noise.  It helps with the loneliness and the silence of writing.

 But politics and current affairs definitely shape my writing.  So does  my personal inability to win the woman of my dreams.  I have never been married, and I have never had children, mostly because of this stupid, ridiculous writing career.  But I have suffered much as a result of it, and one day I’m hoping to have great success after I’m dead and buried in the nearby cemetery.  

IT ALMOST SEEMS THAT THE FASTEST WAY TO GET A STORY MADE INTO A MOVIE IS TO WRITE ABOUT A FAMOUS PERSON OR A NOTORIOUS CRIME. DOES THAT HORRIFY OR SURPRISE YOU? 

Actually, the entire “New Journalism” movement was built on stories of notorious crimes and famous people, and the writers who penned such creative work are probably my favorites – Wolfe, Capote, Mailer, Vidal, etc.  For me, these are the greatest writers that America has ever produced, mainly based on their ability to infuse a social consciousness into their writing.  It was a new phenomenon, for instance, when Capote first penned In Cold Blood, and it really took off from there.  But this was in the 1950s and 1960s.  Also, this new form of journalism had been quite creative in its ability to deliver news items with the entertainment and artistic merit that the best fiction had provided.  It was quite a time when the first New Journalists rose to prominence in American fiction.

But movies are different.  Biopics about famous people have always been staples of the film industry, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that screenplays are often made based on the lives of famous people.  When I was much younger, I used to love going to these biopics and thinking that, one day, I could be like the persons depicted on the screens.  And of course, these portrayals are usually highly romanticized, almost heroic, depending on who these people are.  Nothing of the sort ever happened in my life, but watching these biopics did, nevertheless, inspire me to follow my dreams and pursue all of the things that landed me into a lot of trouble later in life!  But I don’t think one has to write about a famous person or a notorious crime to get a story made into a Hollywood movie.  

Getting a screenplay accepted by an agent or a film studio, (let alone having that movie greenlighted), is a one-in-a-million chance in itself.  It’s like winning the lottery.  But if a nascent screenwriter really believes in him or herself, I would say go for it, but knowing full-well that he or she shouldn’t bet the house on it.  Movies are tough to make in general, and instead of just writing a screenplay for it, it would be much better if the writer also raised or borrowed the funds to hire the director and the actors to produce the damn thing on his or her own.  This would be the far better route as well as the fastest – not necessarily by writing about a famous person or a notorious crime.  Because in my opinion, it’s the story that matters, not the subject.  

YOUR FICTION HAS  ADEPTLY  TACKLED SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ISSUES.  DO YOU WORRY ABOUT SOUNDING TOO PREACHY? 

When I wrote my first book, Noble McCloud, one reviewer didn’t like the book at all and remarked (paraphrasing Louis Mayer), “if you want to send a message, send it Western Union.”  Back then, I was heavily involved in politics, and I considered myself an activist just like most other writers and artists in New York City during the neo-liberal heyday of the 1990s.  But after I received that criticism, I really believed that the critic was right, and so now I try to avoid social messages that interfere with or supersede the stories and the characters I am writing about.  If I do want to establish a political point of view, though, there are many ways to do it using subtler means than the type of overt moralism that used to mar my earlier work.  While I am still proud of that earlier work, I should have toned it down  for the reader. 

CAN YOU NAME A NOVEL BY SOMEONE ELSE  WHICH ACHIEVES THE OPTIMAL BALANCE BETWEEN THE ARTISTIC AND THE POLITICAL? 

I love, really love, Norman Mailer’s work. That whole post World War II generation is where my true heroes lie.  And from the other end of the political spectrum, even Thom Wolfe’s satirical fiction is excellent.  Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is another good example, although that’s poetry, with his view of “Moloch” and other interjections of political and cultural outrage.  There’s the great Arthur Koestler, Frank Norris,  and John Steinbeck, and we can even go far back as Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary.  And that’s not to mention the Black American writers, such as Wright, Baldwin, Ellison, Wideman, Morrison, Baraka, Hughes, and almost every writer of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. 

Then there’s Orwell, Kipling, and especially Athol Fugard who railed  vehemently against imperialism and colonialism of any kind, There’s tons of British stuff that’s centuries old, like Jonathan Swift, and mountains of stuff from Europe, like Kafka, Zola, Hugo, and Dostoyevsky. One of the primary motivations of any writer is to comment on political conditions of his or her time.  If we were to complicate things and talk about literary theory, we can even see texts through a political lens.  Politics, arguably, is the most exciting lens through which to view any literary work.  I’m all for it!

Science fiction can often do that as  well. 

Sci fi  writers can criticize the hell out of any society or political condition and advance plenty of political and philosophical ideas, which is why I love reading them from time to time.  I have written several science fiction stories, which I have submitted to magazines, but nothing ever came of them.  Mostly  Kafkaesque stories that I haven’t had time to look over yet or revise.  But I would love to write more.  It is important for a writer to be inventive, as  science fiction stories often are.  They don’t always have to involve space, technology, or science either. 

Staying Sane in a Covid-Infected World

WHAT QUESTION DO YOU ASK YOURSELF THE MOST? 

Where are all the women?  When do I get to drink all the booze without any consequences?  Where’s the good life that had been promised to all writers?  When do I become the rich and famous author featured on the cover of GQ Magazine?  In other words, where is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?  Well, I’m definitely not traveling along the arc of a rainbow, and there is definitely not a pot of gold at the end of this journey.  Quite the opposite, I’m afraid, but a job well done so far, if I could say something in my defense.

WHAT HAS SURPRISED YOU THE MOST ABOUT THE COVID CRISIS? HOW ARE YOU ADAPTING? IS THERE ANY KIND OF ACTIVITY YOU ARE EAGER TO DO AFTER THIS DAMN THING IS BEHIND US? 

Actually I  found it very easy to adapt to the COVID crisis.  I found myself complaining very little, doing what our leaders told us to do, and keeping my big mouth shut.  Of course, it is not over yet.  The first thing I want to do is attend a reading at the NYS Writers Institute here in Albany.  And then, I want to go to a reading where my poet friends are.

HAVE THERE BEEN OCCASIONS WHERE THE STRUGGLES OF A WRITER’S LIFE REALLY GOT TO YOU? HOW DO YOU THINK THAT YOU’VE MANAGED TO STAY IN THE GAME?  

Every day it gets to me.  It’s all I think about.  The writer’s life is rife with misery and suffering.  It promises nothing and tells us to like it.  It’s dark. It’s the road less traveled without the sunlight of happiness on it.  

And if some young kid comes up to me and asks if he or she should be a writer, I would tell that kid to get a job and earn  his daily bread first before trying anything so stupid.  Yes, there is a lot of regret in it, and with every word I write there is a new struggle. 

But I’ve managed to stay a writer for so long because (thank God) I have had a fixed income and an education that gets me by every month, made possible by my parents who came to this country and endured much hardship to provide a good secure life for me.  Secondly, because I am disabled, I receive some Social Security income.  So, even though I can’t work, I do get help for living expenses  from a government to whom I am forever indebted and grateful, (even though I have criticized the hell out of it every day of my life).  But aside from that, I have stayed in the game, because I am really not geared for anything else.  I remember reading a survey in a literary magazine that covered what all of these rich and famous artists would be doing if they suddenly had a real job.  Poet Donald Justice said that the only thing he could really do was operate a small drawbridge.  See, I’m much the same way, because once you start writing full time, good luck trying to be competent in anything else!   Once a writer, always a writer.  Get out while you can! 


Robert Nagle is founder of Personville Press and has been blogging for more than 20 years. He has done extended interviews with a literary giant, a songwriter and a movie critic. He writes a semi-regular column (Robert’s Roundup) about low-priced indie ebooks.

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My Literary Shame

As an ebook lover, it may surprise people to learn how attached I am to my book collection. They are like pets or longtime companions. I don’t feel nostalgic about books — I gave away all my pre-1923 books without guilt. But some (many!) books are there to remind me of my longtime ambitions to read these things. Alas, the years ago go by, I know that I will never be able to read everything, but I still I still have time to read a lot. Here are the books that regularly shame me into reading them.

MY LITERARY SHAME #1: Last night I was talking to an uncle of mine about books. After he mentioned “the rabbit book,” I knew immediately that 1)he was talking about WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams, 2)that I had owned a copy of the book for at least 2/3 of my life without reading it and 3)in the last month I had grabbed my copy of it out of storage with the determination to actually read it this time. Will I read it? Time will only tell; and here’s a photo to mark my shame.

[continue reading…]
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Things which really annoy me: A list

Everyone is annoyed by certain things, not by others. It’s time I made my own list:

  1. News or Movies or TV shows about sports figures. Generally I don’t care about sports at all. Whenever someone mentions the latest triumph by the local sports team, I ask, “Is that the one with the touchdowns?” or “I only follow the Houston Texans whenever they get to the World Series” (intentionally using the wrong sport).
  2. Leaf blowers. Noisy and often powered by gasoline. Unnecessary and a frequent disturber of my naps. At one apartment complex, they started at 8 AM! (Several leaf blowers have come near my window during the writing of this post).
  3. Pre-washing dishes before it goes into the dishwasher. Ok, if it’s really dirty (like caked in), I might prewash or scrape things off, but generally pre-washing dishes indicates that you have fundamentally misunderstood the function of a dishwasher.
  4. People who don’t use the TV remote to mute commercials. I actually hate any space where random sales messages are allowed to punch at my brain.
  5. People who insist that a bed be regularly made. Unnecessary, pointless except on rare occasions (when you have guests, etc.)
  6. People who are always going out to eat or ordering takeout. Ok I stopped eating out mainly out of financial necessity, but now that I’m used to it, I cringe at eating out for convenience’s sake. Once during my year teaching at a public school, I ordered takeout from McDonalds 3-4 times a week, but only because I worked late every day, came home dead tired and there was a MacDonald’s right at my bus stop. But that was a special case (and I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in years).
  7. Online orders which arrive separately — no matter how small. I recently ordered about $200 of small accessories (computer mouse, razor blades etc.) from Walmart. Every single item was packed and shipped differently on a differently.
  8. Driving to a place 2 blocks away. Apparently it is common for parents to drive kids to school even if the school is 3 blocks away. Walking is supposed to be good for you. So is riding a bike.
  9. People who listen to music or podcasts while walking or riding outside. Besides being dangerous, what’s so bad about having to listen to ambient noises from your surroundings?
  10. Customer Feedback Surveys. I am amazed at how long these things tend to be. Anything more than 2 multiple choice questions is overkill.
  11. TV Weather reports. Most of the time, this information can be conveyed more quickly in a simple graphic or two sentences.
  12. Traffic reports on the radio. Good in theory, terrible in practice. Basically it’s an announcer reading statuses of various intersections. But 95% of this information is irrelevant or something which you can do nothing about. Okay, there’s a stalled car on the freeway ahead of me which is slowing traffic. Great! — and there’s nothing I can do about it! (As an aside, I’d prefer that the announcer simply recite a poem from a dead poet).
  13. Turning off sound notifications on your phone. Geez, why is this so time-consuming? Why do all apps assume that your default answer is “yes” to the question of “We’ll be sending you sound alerts every few hours — that’s totally okay with you, right?” For me, most of the time, the answer is “never.”
  14. Group texts. I hate them — especially since I often am not able to mute them. I have a group text from coworkers which is constantly pinging me with inane remarks or nothing but emoticons. Yet every once in a while I get a text that is important, so I can’t mute it.
  15. Preliminaries to movies. If you watch a movie (especially from a DVD), you have to sit through about 2 minutes of introductions. CR Films Presents — A NiceFilms Production — From GoofyParrots Studio — a Cool Film Series episode — Now for our Feature Presentation. (Presumably each with their own graphic and audio). The problem is more pronounced on DVDs — where you have to sit through piracy warnings and disclaimers and — heavens! — previews.
  16. Gated communities. This is still a thing in Texas. These barriers have a marginal effect on crime, interfere with walkability and cause confusion when giving directions. Maybe people in these communities would just prefer a moat with alligators?
  17. Live” TV reports from the scene of the crime. On local news at 10 PM, there are several live on-the-scene reports about crimes or accidents or important political events. But these “live” reports are done several hours after the fact. Maybe an hour or two after the event it’s good to broadcast live at the scene, but by 10 PM, the scene is deserted, everyone has gone home except the poor reporter and camera crew standing outside. Here’s a better idea: just repeat your earlier video footage! Ok, maybe there is value in having someone narrate the latest live news even at night, but if that’s so, just have them do it at the studio — or better yet, at home.
  18. Old Video footage for news reports. Honestly I don’t mind seeing video that are days or even weeks old on an accompanying news report. The problem is: it creates the illusion that the action is still happening or gotten worse (when in fact nothing may have taken place during the intervening time). For video footage more than 48 hours old, I suggest putting in red blinking lights: NOT LIVE — RECORDED FEBRUARY 2019. Speaking of which, I’m amazed at how often news reports will loop the same footage several times during a single news story. Do they think we are idiots?
  19. Searching for a good parking space. People spend way too time hunting for the best parking lot (and too much time backing the car into the space to allow for a speedy exit). I’ve always believed that the time you save from having a slightly better parking space is marginal. Instead you should park in the first empty space you see and walk the rest of the way.
  20. Music track with speech in it. Some tracks on an album contain extended speech — often in the middle of a track! Having spoken words in the middle of a song is incredibly distracting for people who use music to increase concentration or help to fall asleep. Only rarely does speech integrate well with the song (possibly this beautiful intro by Haelos, and this musical soundscape on Mark Farina’s Mushroom jazz albums).
  21. Stock photo/stock footage. Many corporations and commercial ads use generic photos to present bland and cliched messages (something parodied mercilessly here). Besides the fact that it is a lazy way to convey a message, the people in these images are good-looking in a bland way.
  22. Messages turned into images. It’s a way to show something and get around paywalls. It’s also a way to display a message or slogan and dominate the reading space. Another variation: using animated gifs functioning basically as emoticons. I’m all for judicious use of images online, but text-as-image is the equivalent of shouting slogans. I would have heard you anyway, and all you have really demonstrated is that is that you don’t value other people’s reading experiences. It’s no secret that Russian trolls used visual memes to stir up anger and prejudice. It takes minimal effort to share this “visual catcall” — yet it rescues the sharer from having to utter an intelligible thought.
  23. Email: “You just received a message from John. Log in to linked/facebook/wherever to read it.” Linkedin sent me 10 messages like this. Turns out they were “messages” to a thread one of my friends started. But they weren’t really messages; most were just bland statements like “I agree,” “Good point” and “smiley icon.” I cannot think of a single time when I want social media to send me an email.

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Advice for New & Indie Authors

(Last Update September 15, 2020). Over the last decade I have run a side business editing and marketing ebooks. From time to time I am contacted by new writers about how to publish and promote a book. I get contacted so often about this that I have starting keeping a compendium of tips. I actually format ebooks for a fee (here’s my rate sheet for this service).

Every author and book is different. What works for one kind of book doesn’t work for another, so advice from one person may be utterly irrelevant to your project. Also, some advice may be applicable to one genre but not the other. Advice about standalone books may not apply to books in a series and vice versa. Except for coffee table books, cookbooks, children’s books, science textbooks and maybe some other specialty books, ebooks are where it’s at. Unless you are buying your own print copies and selling them yourself at live events, the profit for indies is primarily in ebooks.

Bigger publishers are publishing a much slimmer percentage of titles with every year. You can’t rely on them to get a publishing contract. Even if you do, the wait time is significant and the advance is unlikely to be big if at all. Publishers have been blind to many high quality books –opting instead for books by celebrities and books which neatly fit into a genre. The last decade has led to many different hybrid publishing types (described in Jane Friedman’s chart about indie publishing).

It’s practically impossible to compete on price these days for ebooks. The major publishers are using a high sticker price (i.e. over $10) and then doing spot sales to put the ebook under $3. The amount of quality titles you can buy between the 1.99 and 3.99 on a daily basis is jaw-droppingly high.

Amazon’s 2.99 price floor allows you to have 70% profits. Amazon allows you to price between 99 cents and 2.99 but at 30% profits. But if you promote your stuff below 2.99, that means a unit profit of only $0.30-$0.90 per sale (compared to 2.10 per sale for $2.99). Suppose you do a marketing campaign and pay $100 for one title; to break even, a 2.99 ebook needs to sell 47 ebooks. To break even at the 30% profit threshold for your $100 investment, you need to sell 111-333 ebooks.

Publishing frequently helps a lot. You should be publishing every 2 years, so arrange your book projects so that they meet that pace.

If you have the technical competence, it’s better to make an epub file which you can convert to Kindle’s mobi format. If you don’t, you end up using a company’s specific tools and then have problems using them at a different ebook distributor. (Both Amazon and Apple have great author creation tools, but they produce ebooks optimized for their own readers). In any case, it’s necessary to keep your text in a source file (.DOCX or .ODT or .IND) and then update your source file before using the company’s creation tools.

Along with the previous suggestion, it’s important to build the author brand rather than the book brand. You need to have some kind of regular public presence (via social media, blogs, podcasts). You shouldn’t have to post regularly on these places unless you have a burning desire to. Many writers do fine without posting on the Internet or doing so rarely. I like the idea of contributing occasionally to a group blog or something similar.

You should pay for one review in the trades (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, etc) especially for your first book. (cost — 200-400$) Some of the low cost review services are worth doing (at least initially) because you can repost it on your book page on various ebook stores. Midwest Book Review, City Book Review, US Review of Books, etc. They cost about $50-200. Keep in mind that Citybook or Midwest might do a blurb review even if you don’t pay for a review. Citybook Review says that they do reviews of 40% of books received regardless if it’s paid for.

Set pub date 3-4 months after it is 100% finished and use the intervening time to find reviewers/beta reviewers. (Actually, 6 months in advance is fine too).

Personally I wouldn’t bother trying to contact major publications or book critics about reviews. Too little likelihood of success. Bloggers are more amenable, but I wouldn’t spend much time trying to research them — unless you already know about them. It’s a big time-suck with little payoff. (If you are going that route, you should check out this book . )

Professional advice-givers often recommend that indie authors spend money on X, Y and Z. (Fill in the blanks as necessary: a decent editor, a cover design artist, a video book trailer, 1 or more paid reviews, a professionally done author website, a booth at a literary conference, an author photo by a professional photographer, Facebook advertising, Amazon marketing service, a book promoter, ads in newsletters). But you could spend yourself to bankruptcy on these ancillary services without getting any real payoff. If you believe that one area is especially holding back your book’s success, fine, spend money on it while recognizing that it may not improve earnings. Book advertising is notoriously unreliable; it’s trial and error. Spend a little money, watch for results, make necessary adjustments and repeat. The most common criteria for evaluating an ancillary service is: will this extra expense of X dollars produce more than X dollars of earnings? On the other hand, spending on author branding (like a good author photo) doesn’t have an immediate payoff, but it’s probably a good idea to devote a portion of your promotion budget and time on author branding even if it doesn’t bring an immediate payoff.

The most common “easy advice” given to authors is that they should hire a decent editor and hire a professional to do the cover. What they don’t tell you is that hiring an editor is very expensive ($500 to $1500 for someone experienced, possibly higher). Every writer should aspire to the point where they could edit their own copy as an expert — perhaps asking someone to read through just for typos and obvious discrepancies. Paying handsomely for an outside editor won’t necessarily make a book better or more saleable. It just will make it seem less bad to paying customers. Sure, you need to have a quality control process for your writing. But that doesn’t require paying someone. Remember: with ebooks, there’s always the option to make corrections later and upload a revised version of the book.

Before you sell at online bookstores, at minimum you need to verify that an ebook renders passably on Kindle e-ink (Paperwhite), an ios/android tablet, a 2 year old iPhone and Google Play (both inside Chrome browser and the Google Play Books mobile application).

Whenever authors ask online for feedback about why their ebook isn’t selling, the overwhelming answer from others is “Your cover sucks. You need to hire a professional.” A cover certainly helps with branding and catching attention, but it’s not that important. In the ebook world, a book description, good reviews and author website is much more important than having a topnotch cover. Sure, a good cover can pay for itself (and isn’t that expensive compared to hiring an editor), but 99.9 percent of the time, “Your cover sucks” is a wrong-headed diagnosis of why the book hasn’t sold. Unlike the prose itself, an ebook cover doesn’t need to be awesome; it often needs only to be adequate and functional. Maybe a cover was more important in the days of print books; now it’s just a small and pleasant-looking graphic which appears in search results. (Recently I have been keeping a web page gallery of my fave book covers — so far it has about 200 titles). Update: I ended up paying a pretty penny for an ebook cover for one of my press’s fiction titles. I was very happy with the result; the book was hard to define, and this professionally done cover captured the spirit of it while also looking beautiful to the eyes! But I still think that a bad cover doesn’t damn a book, and a great cover doesn’t ensure the book’s success.

Focusing all your efforts on Amazon is dangerous. It’s good to sell at least in one place which is DRM-free. (smashwords).

I personally don’t like reading or writing serials, but be prepared for books to be rolled up into and sold as bundles later on.

A lot of market tendencies for nonfiction don’t apply for fiction and vice versa.

Unfortunately Amazon gives lower royalties for ebooks with a lot of graphics. This is unfortunate, because they can make an ebook look nicer. If you want to use a graphics-intense ebook, you should still publish on Amazon, but use at least one other distribution service which doesn’t charge a fee for large ebook files.

Don’t fixate on the opinions of what beta readers and friends think. Some people obsess about pleasing everyone with their book. Don’t water your book down just to make Sam or Sally happy.

It’s common to price your ebook at 0 or 1 dollar at the beginning and to raise prices gradually over time as you accumulate reviews.

Setting your ebook price at free has some value, but the consensus is that it doesn’t increase earnings much unless you also have 4 or 5 other titles which cost money. It’s also smart to make the first volume in a series free or 99 cents. Also, it’s okay to offer a freebie in exchange for an email signup. But ultimately you won’t win many readers solely by offering freebies.

Although it’s not necessary to set up an elaborate website to promote the books you’ve wrote, it’s necessary to have something — some kind of home base with a list of your books — and a link to ebook stores and possibly reviews. I’m a big fan of 3 minute Youtube vids consisting of nothing but the author looking at the camera and answering some basic questions about the book — the elevator pitch, why you wrote it and what’s interesting about it.

Some kinds of books are unlikely to make money no matter what. It’s important to maintain a diverse portfolio of book projects, mixing ones with more commercial potential with less potential.

Recognize that you’re going to waste a percent of your ad budget on things which accomplish nothing.

The primary way in April 2020 to promote ebooks at this moment seems to be ebook deal newsletters which authors and publishers pay for. Bookbub used to be the best service, but now it’s too expensive. Other services like bookgorilla, bargainbooksy, booksends offer more competitive rates. (Bookgorilla is less than $50 an ad).

Generally it’s a losing proposition to buy advertising in general media if a significant portion of the audience are not book buyers. Although there is the potential to reach new audiences, the problem is that other products and companies will be willing to pay a higher rate for ads because the products or services being sold bring more profit per item. On the other hand, advertising on Amazon Marketing Service might have more potential payoffs because the people on the site are more likely to be book-buyers. (Not that I wholeheartedly endorse this service. It depends on the book and the price of the keywords you are buying).

The problem with “algorithmic advertising” that you see in social media is that a potential consumer is not likely to see it more than once. Also, consumers are less likely to trust a targeted ad provided by Google or Facebook. Watch your money carefully — especially at the beginning.

If you advertise, you should start with a small fixed amount, then choose an advertising method and then track its performance. (Nowadays you can check daily ebook sales from every distributor). Generally the ad should pay for itself and then some. But you need to figure out which advertising method is actually cost-effective. You can do that by trying only one promotional campaign at a time and checking if it increases sales. It’s okay to burn a small amount of money when you’re starting out (200 dollars or less), but it’s also perfectly okay not to advertise at all (or rather do primarily no-cost techniques).

Don’t count on friends and family to review your title, much less read it. Most of them won’t bother to read the first page (unless the subject is salacious or they think it’s about them).

Generally book marketing always starts out as an exercise in futility — until suddenly it isn’t.

Perhaps this is obvious, but other writers don’t judge you by your sales record; they judge you by steady output and your mastery of the fundamentals. Frankly, every writer starts out clueless about promotion, and eventually the basics of marketing will come naturally. Spending too much of your focus on marketing is a certain recipe for psyching yourself out and diverting attention from the muse’s calling.

Finally, and I hate to say that, but 99.9 of the world’s population does not care about books and specifically your book. Don’t let that get you down.

Tips I tweeted

In answer to a twitter question about inside publishing wisdom, I made 4 tweets:

  • For every talented acclaimed author, there are 100+ exciting indie ones flying under radar & making almost no money. It’s incredibly $$ & risky to promote unknowns — unless you have a)blurbs by famous people b)paid reviews and c) movie deal — or if the author is young & telegenic.
  • Indie author obstacles: Paltry book coverage in MSM (except cookbooks, true crime & celebrity memoirs). Even highbrow media follows the herd. Memoirs by unknowns are especially hard sell b/c you’re still competing against Holocaust, crime victims & celebs w/ drug problems.
  • Amazon’s dominance of book industry is overwhelming. All parties really are subject to vagaries of Amzn policy & business strategy and utterly dependent on its marketing tools. Every author loves/hates Amazon!
  • Only way to overcome these obstacles is publish often, stick with conventional genres and/or have a trust fund (and/or grant money/academic position) to bankroll your noncommercial projects. Of course, to qualify for a grant or position, you have to win a prize/receive some acclaim beforehand. It’s a vicious circle.

Marketing Guides and websites which were actually useful to me:

All 3 are fiction authors who also publish books of publishing advice. One caveat to keep in mind is that most of these help books assume you are as prolific as Stephen King and writing in a popular genre. In Erik’s book he says that he assumes a writer is publishing 2 books a year — which is wildly out of sync with the productivity of actual writers. With literary fiction, publishing a book every 2-5 years used to be the norm (and that was only if you had some kind of cushy academic job).

I agree that this standard was probably too easy and that writers should publish more regularly. But there’s a catch 22 embedded in these assumptions. ie.,

  1. the only way you can make a living as a writer is to publish a new book every 6 months or year BUT
  2. the only way you can write a book every 6-12 months is to quit your job and follow some write-to-market formula BUT
  3. the only way you can sell your book is to spend money on ancillary marketing services — which may or may not work depending on your book, BUT
  4. The only way you can find money to spend on marketing services is to invest your own cash — and assume the risk yourself, BUT
  5. The only way to invest your own cash is to be already making a living which lets you save money.
  6. GO to #1 .

This definitely starts to resemble the underpants gnome business model after a while. But all is not bleak — especially if you have some supplemental income to help you with #4. Beginner’s luck could help, as well as a good circle of friends and successful author branding. The main thing I worry about is momentum: if you are not able to publish as often as Stephen King, gaining momentum can be harder (in terms of media mentions, etc). Basically all you can hope for is that readers discover your backlist of titles soon enough that you don’t go broke first.

A final Disclaimer

I hope this helps somebody!

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Preface

(Work-in-progress. Will update more over next 2 days). Not as many deals this time, but I wanted to cover the Smashwords (SW) sale. Also, special for this month I purchased lots of amazing used print books from Better World Books. You have to shop very carefully, but mostly they offer cheaper-than-Amazon prices on out-of-print books. Also, They regularly run coupon codes on multiple purchases. Check out the Cheap Print Book section at the bottom of this column. Another thing, I bought a Paperwhite 10th edition, 32 gig for $119 last week. I’m going to do a review of the device soon, but overall, I am not impressed.

KU means Kindle Unlimited, LE means that lending of this Kindle title is allowed, and APUB means it was published under an Amazon imprint.

I wanted to mention an important detail. Up to now I had been using the Libby/Overdrive app to access ebooks from my public library, but now I can report that the Hoopla ebook app from another public library is better. It contains a lot more titles from university presses, plus several literary presses such as Counterpoint Press. If I were to guess, I think that the Hoopla people are selective about which ebooks they include on this subscription app, while Overdrive just let public libraries acquire their own titles (and as a result we have more bestsellers, genre fiction, etc).

Indie Author Spotlight

None this month although I’m really liking the sound Zdravka Evtimova (see below).

Sales on Smashwords

This week is Smashwords Read an Ebook week. These prices are guaranteed to be valid until 11:59 PM PST March 7. Some of the author or listing URLs mentioned below don’t list the discount price, but if you click directly to the ebook, you will see the discount. (Here are two of my columns about SW authors: here , and here).

From Fomite, I see that the entire Fomite catalog on SW has been discounted to 1.25 or 1.50. Great stuff overall (I’ve blogged about their catalog here , and here). I want to mention that only epub files are available from SW for these books. I actually just contacted the publishers to notify them that SW now allows direct uploads of mobi.

I see 2 new short story collections by Bulgarian writer Zdravka Evtimova (website) for 1.25. You can smile on Wednesdays and In the Town of Joy and Peace. She has published several other story collections for higher prices. She has translated many English works into Bulgarian and vice versa. Here’s an interview where Evtimova says, “It is enough to take a stroll in some Bulgarian city, look into someone’s eyes, see their clothes, their walk, the houses around, the trees, and it makes you want to write about that person. This process is not automated – you cannot just push a button and get what you want, like your morning coffee for instance. Sometimes a chance encounter jolts you and the story starts to tell itself.” (Here’s another intervew and an online story Pay Me).

Unsolicited Press is also discounting many of its titles (not all). I love this press too, but some of its poetry titles are improperly formatted. I wouldn’t buy any poetry titles before 2019 for example. I wrote about some Unsolicited Press titles here, here and here. By the way, I notice that today

In my first column I raved about Indian short story writer Dinesh Verma. I see that finally Verma finished his translation of Munshi Premchand’s stories. The collection is titled Divine Arbiter and Other Stories. (2.99) He is famous for a novel Gift of a Cow which is not yet in ebook I believe.

Steve Benton (author website) is an old fogie sci fi author who has two free sci fi novels available during this week. Short story collection Compendium of Imaginary Stars and novel Lili G and the Malevolent Monsters.

It’s not a sale (it’s the same prize on Amazon), but the prolific Isham Cook (author website) is an expat writer (teacher?) living in China who writes fiction and essays. (His author bio describes himself as “Writing philosophy: downmarket, big concept, discriminating, provocative, outrageous. Ballard, Beckett, Borges, Dick, Kafka, Hesse, Melville, Mishima, Sade are influences.” All titles on SW/Amazon are 2.99. What looks interesting are The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China and Confucius and Opium: China Book Reviews (I’m a sucker for book review collections!) Some of these essays are available online .

Deals published by Amazon imprints

Generally these are titles published by the Amazon imprints. I frankly ignore most of the genre stuff and focus on the international authors and biographies. Follow this link to see which titles are 99 cents for the month. I’ve already bought a ton of these titles in previous months (check previous columns here, here and here), so maybe my recs will be sparser than usual. All are KU APUB, (but not lendable!).

Update: Although I have bought many of Amazon’s imprints, so far I haven’t bought anything since last RR.

Under the Radar

Generally bought at price between $1 and $3. You should set a price alert on ereaderiq to catch these titles the next time they are discounted.

Borrowed Time: The Science of How and Why We Age by Sue Armstrong. Great book by a science journalist. (I’ve started reading).

Contours of Darkness and the Gentle Degenerates by Marco Vassi, LE Marco Vassi was a sexual utopian who died young of AIDS. I’m writing an essay about his books.

We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Eric Olsen. Frankly, the Amazon reviews are almost as amusing as the book itself.

1982, Janine (Canons) by Alasdair Gray, LE. Bawdy experimental novel by someone described as the Scottish James Joyce. Articles here, here and here.

Janitor’s Classroom by Richard Johnson

Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna KU

Abolitionist’s Wife & Appalachian Tales by Deanna Edens, 99 cents, KU, LE. Edens is a prolific author in many genres. She has lots of books, most of them 99 cents, with occasional freebies. Here’s an interview. I definitely plan to read a few of her titles.

Shackles and More Gripping Tales by James Hanna 99 cents (author page). I really got into Hanna’s other story collection and started Call Me Pomeroy . Here’s a nice interview.

Dance Between Flames: Berlin Between the Wars by Anton Gill (KU)

Children of Dust and Heav: Diary from Nazi Occupation through the Holocause by Stefania Heilbrunn (KU). FREE

Benjamin Markovits by Benjamin Markovits

Blink and it’s Gone Sales

Best of Edward Abbey. Anthology handpicked by the author himself in the 1980s. (His introductory essay is worth reading even if you don’t buy the ebook).

Seven Loves: A novel by Valerie Trueblood. 1.99 Trueblood is top of her class in short fiction, and I’m pretty much going to grab anything by her at this point.

Carthage: A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates. 99 cents

Train of Powder by Rebecca West 1.99 Various journalistic pieces by West in her middle years. This contains some reporting on trials in post-WW2 Germany and in 1950s USA.

Creative Commons – Academic – Public Domain

You should really check out the digitalized versions of the influential Dial magazine of the 1920s. (wiki article). Apparently all Lost Generation writers and poets published there. That’s where TS Eliot first published Wasteland and won a big prize. BTW, the 1923 volume is also digitalized and a free download in epub and PDF — although you really need to read it in PDF.

Once in a Lifetime Deals

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Poetry

Darkness of Treading Water by Bradley Spender. (KU, LE)

Brain, Hope, the Heart by Martin Bosko (KU)

S O S: Poems 1961-2013 by Amiri Baraka, LE. I found this ample collection of poetry on discount

Texas

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Review Copies Received

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Better World Books (Print books)

I’ve been buying some old/rare books from Better World Books. They offer free shipping, (occasionally) cheap titles and coupon promotions (often listed at the top of the website). Don’t worry, everything gets subtracted automatically. I’m pasting, so the authors first and last name are reversed — sorry. The numbers refer to price paid before 20% discount was applied.

  • A history of American poetry, 1900-1940 3 by: Gregory, Horace. Major survey poetry by leading critic of poetry and his wife (also noted Pulitzer-winning poet) Marya Zaturenska.
  • The History of Jazz by: Gioia, Ted 4 Gioia is one of the America’s leading music critics, yet none of his ebooks are ever discounted.
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by: Loewen, James W. 4
  • Forward from This Moment: Selected Columns, 1994-2009 by: Pitts, Leonard, Jr. 5
  • Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future by Marilu Henner: $3.48 A surprisingly insightful and useful book which I had checked out of the library numerous times.
  • Playwrights at Work by: Paris Review, Interviews Plimpton, George 4
  • Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking by: Nisbett, Richard E. 4
  • The state of mind,: Thirty-two stories by: Schorer, Mark 3.50
  • Sinclair Lewis by: Mark Schorer 3
  • History of American Classical Music: MacDowell Through Minnmalism by: Struble, John Warthen 3.50
  • First principles of verse by: Hillyer, Robert 4
  • Naked in Deccan by: Kulkarni, Venkatesh 6 Out of print award-winning novel by the father of congressional candidate Sri Kulkarni.

Rant

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Personville Press Giveaways and Deals

I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. All the titles are discounted on Smashwords for less that price — and usually under $1.50. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.

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Smashwords Ebook Sale Starting

I’m in the middle of my next Robert’s Roundup of Ebook deals column. It will be posted tonight. The most important thing to know is that Smashwords Read An Ebook Week is in progress and lasts until the end of Saturday March 7. I can summarize where the good stuff is: Fomite Press has discounted all its titles to either 1.25-1.50. Check out my previous columns on Fomite here and here.

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Mikes Likes #4 (Book Reports March 2020)

View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series || View Robert’s Roundups ||

Occasionally I repost book reports by Michael Barrett who regularly posts film reviews at Popmatters. Two more columns by Barrett will be published in March.

Alienation of non-labor

Guido Morselli‘s THE COMMUNIST
Ebook checked out of the library!

Set in 1958-59 and written in the 1960s, this novel is a tenderly observed psychological portrait refracted through the struggle of political beliefs with daily reality, therefore becoming a broader portrait of Italy’s Communist Party by an author who remained aloof from politics and the world, yet who was clearly capable of engaging with it via research and imagination. However, some of his American details are off.

The protagonist spent part of his youth in America and had a failed marriage to a rich capitalist’s daughter who symbolizes a dual-personality America: prejudice and exploitation amid beauty, enlightened social concern amid disillusion, both personalities defined by industrious drive. Since returning to Italy after the war, he’s had success as a political organizer in Italy and now been “put out to pasture” by election to Parliament, where nothing constructive is done and his prickly relations with an estranged married woman come under strain. The book ends in transit.

Most chapters consist of discussions and thoughts on the collision of theory and such matters as the inevitability of labor, so it’s very much a book of philosophy and ideas as well as calm observation of life. We could say it’s about how people construct ways to interpret their world and guide their actions, even though these constructs can prove inadequate. This book can be both an act of empathy and also perhaps a translated self-portrait of a man in midlife taking stock and vacillating in a crisis of faith. Morselli also wrote more fantastical novels, all published after his suicide. As Elizabeth McKenzie’s intro states, our knowledge of this fact unavoidably informs our reception of them.

The novel has a cameo by Alberto Moravia and mentions some of the figures mentioned in Natalia Ginzburg‘s FAMILY LEXICON , and also some of the figures mentioned in Aleshkovsky‘s NIKOLAI NIKOLAEVITCH, a Soviet “science fiction” satire told by a vulgar postwar pickpocket who got recruited for experiments in artificial insemination.

From Hungary to Wales: The Rare Bits

Antal Szerb‘s THE PENDRAGON LEGEND,
Checked out of the library, thanks to Interlibrary Loan!

Having been recently delighted by Szerb‘s JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT, I had to track down his first novel, esp. since it’s described as a fantastical thriller.

Longish but fast-moving, THE PENDRAGON LEGEND (1934) is a breathless farrago of gothic adventure-mystery-horror elements all garnished with humor and wrapped around the obscure enigma of an immortal Welsh ancestor who seeks the Philosopher’s Stone. The narrator is a callow Hungarian scholar in parody of the author who gets casually swept up in bizarre events and outsized characters. Martin Seymour-Smith calls it “a thriller sceptcially based in Rosicrucian intrigue, and is an alarming book.” It’s more light and facetious than alarming, and while it wouldn’t make you think Szerb was about to produce the profound MOONLIGHT, similarities pop up.

In both, the narrator comes under the romantic spell of brother-sister twins, although the siblings have a very different rapport in this lark from the fraught one in the latter. In both books, the narrator has entanglements with women he’s glad to be shut of and asserts that he’s not cut out for it. The afterword by translator Len Rix observes: “Both are the record of a spiritual journey, thoughtlessly begun, that ends in significant failure” (with the hero no worse for wear), told by “a fatally shallow ‘seeker’ whose blunderings bring him up against profound truths the significance of which he never quite grasps” and that the characteristic irony is “a mode of vision, in which a fiercely searching intelligence is balanced by a delight in humanity and an irrepressible playfulness.” Also, both posit a numinous mystery behind the mundane world.

Digging for obscurities thru Inter-Library Loan


Phil Stong‘s THE OTHER WORLDS: 25 MODERN STORIES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION
Michael Fessier‘s FULLY DRESSED AND IN HIS RIGHT MIND
Checked out of the library! [exhumed from the archives of a few years ago]

Novelist Phil Stong, of STATE FAIR (turned into a great Will Rogers movie and then a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical) edited a 1941 anthology of weird fiction, mostly from the pulps. It’s considered the first of its type and the first to gather pulp SF tales. Stong prefers Gernsback’s term “scientifiction.” His intro begins well and degenerates into randomness.

Its first two sections, devoted respectively to strange new ideas and fresh variants of old ones, are fantasy and SF of humorous and even facetious tone emphasizing story over cardboard characters, including entries from Theodore Sturgeon (an ancient god), Lester Del Rey (ditto, Pan), Murray Leinster (4th dimension money trick), and Henry Kuttner (time travel to Shakespeare).

Two stories are by Mindret Lord, whose claim to fame is that his wife is a daughter of classic regional writer Hamlin Garland. Ralph Milne Farley’s “The House of Ecstasy” is in the second person–you are hypnotized. One of Eando Binder’s Adam Link robot stories is serious and full of melodrama.

Very curious and interesting: “The Adaptive Ultimate” by “John Jessel” (aka Stanley G. Weinbaum), about a woman whose experimentally advanced intellect turns her into a callous monster (beware), was adapted several times on radio, TV and even a movie (SHE DEVIL), thus indicating a raw nerve.

The third section is serious horror, mostly from WEIRD TALES, and includes Kuttner’s classic “The Graveyard Rats” and two by Manly Wade Wellman, including the still provocative “Song of the Slaves”. There’s a Lovecraft, a Jean Ray, one of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin bits of garish nonsense, and two August Derleths.

I requested this book thru ILL specifically to track down a curious tale by Michael Fessier about the narrator’s recurrent fateful meetings with an old man in a black hat. I’d just been able to acquire his 1935 novel FULLY DRESSED AND IN HIS RIGHT MIND, also thanks to ILL. Fessier’s short story is very similar to his novel.

The novel is a weird, brisk anecdote in which the narrator meets an embodiment of evil (little old man who keeps showing up to cause mischief) and embodiment of beauty (skinny-dipping water nymph), both of whom have portraits painted by an artist friend. It begins with a great first paragraph (opening sentence: “I was standing in front of the Herald and somebody fired a shot and I saw a fat man turn slowly on one heel and fall to the sidewalk.”) and a promisingly uncanny first chapter and eventually bogs down for a hundred pages or so and the end peters out, leaving our hero safe from commitment.

The style is Hemingway-esque terseness (tersity?): “I never tried to argue with Peter. He was the janitor of the apartment house and he could do you a lot of favors. He could keep you supplied with light-globes and bring you some wine he got from his brother in Sonoma County. And he could be mean as hell and rap on your door if there was a lot of talking late at night and do other things to make you uncomfortable. If he thought hospitals killed people, it was okay with me. Anything anybody wanted to think was okay with me because for all I knew they might be right.”

That’s Chapter 7, and Ch. 13 begins: “And so that’s the way things were with me. Pestered by the little old man, trying to catch the girl in the lake, and supporting an artist who painted things and threw them away. It was all very goofy. It had never happened to me before and I don’t suppose anything like it ever happened to anyone before. But that’s the way it was.”

Unnerving tales for today

Brian Evenson‘s Song for the Unraveling of the World
Asja Bakic‘s Mars
Ted Chiang‘s Exhalation and The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
Checked out of the library!

Evenson’s horror tales often feel like variants of each other, reworking existential themes on malevolent houses, breaking into same, glimpsing some Lovecraftian evil behind the veil, obsession with mundane details or impressions, sisters, parents, hideous transformation, people without faces, murderers, the narrator or protagonist’s madness and death. Three are about shooting films.

One original and refreshing story, about a drunken woman spotting a gold-suited stranger, has a happy end, or at least different from expected. Although most are tentatively set in our world, a few are on spaceships or strange worlds. A haunting one is a puzzler about a possible brother and sister living in a strange container with two doors, one to an outside wildness and the other to darkness. One is about being transformed into a monster in a post-apocalyptic world and another a female robot wondering about herself. The experimental joke “Trigger Warnings” mocks being afraid of or disturbed by fiction.

Translated from Croatian, Bakic’s tales could be described as Euro-existential shudders with elements of SF (writers are exiled to Mars, the heroine is a clone or a robot for sexual purposes), fantasy (a writer is still expected to be productive in the afterlife), or crime (murderers), often narrated by women writers. The author says she doesn’t write about the 1990s Yugoslavian wars she witnessed as a teen, but a couple of stories feel pretty directly based on that. One non-fantasy about a neurotic writer turns out to have a completely rational explanation for its mystery, and that’s the exception. A story told by a reporter investigating a “cult” ends, like the Mars story, on a discovery of her secret powers, so a partly dreadful self-knowledge is a recurring theme.

Ted Chiang‘s stories reflect a mind analytical, metaphysical, brilliant and generous. He picks a single idea from just around the corner and works every variation of it, thoroughly and surprisingly, usually in a very “today” context. Business transactions, self-knowledge and faith are recurring elements. The stories tend toward philosophical conclusions about embracing the positive aspects of life, and this too is refreshing. One is narrated by a parrot. It’s no surprise that Chiang’s successful in the SF world, and these are exactly the type of stories that would even intrigue people who “don’t read science fiction.”

The Hugo and Nebula winner The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate puts time travel within a beguiling pastiche of Arabian Nights tales-within-tales. Hugo-winning title story is narrated by a robot scientist who doesn’t grasp that he’s within a mechanically constructed universe; he discovers entropy by dissecting his own brain. “Omphalos” is told by a devout woman scientist in a universe that proves creationism even as astronomical discoveries shake her faith anyway; in other words, proof of God’s work doesn’t necessarily prove our assumptions about it.

Another Hugo story is about raising digital AI creatures, designed to be cute, to become self-governing and how this parallels child-rearing (also the subject of a Victorian steampunk tale). The terrific final story, which would make a good TV anthology episode, posits that people have the power to access their para-selves in alternate universes through laptops that create those parallel realities. These last two stories, as well as the anecdote about a free-will-thwarting game and the long story about recording the details of your life to substitute for imperfect organic memory and how this creates a mental shift akin to the transition from oral to written culture, attend to the influence of boom-and-bust marketing on techno-development and exploitation and vice versa. Even the Arabian Nights tale shows how technology affects capitalism.

Fear, sadness, loneliness, vitality, dreams, love


ALL OUR YESTERDAYS by Natalia Ginzburg
Checked out of the library!

A magnificent act of historical reportage via fiction, Natalia Ginzburg‘s novel is one long breathless express-train of boxcar-length paragraphs cataloging an Italian family’s personal (mis)fortunes during Mussolini. There’s not a line of dialogue in the book, or rather the whole thing is indirectly reported dialogue and thoughts, repetitious and incantatory and mesmerizing as countryside passing rhythmically before the windows, capturing anthropologically and without comment the cliches in which people speak and think, as transcribed with compassion and duty by a recording angel, or perhaps the wise village gossip. Everything is reported almost passively yet vividly, from the worst events to the most trivial details, the falling of bombs and sparrows.

You can feel the connections between this novel and her great memoir FAMILY LEXICON which was devoted to the strict truth and the same commitment to repeated words and phrases by which people express themselves and live; the main differences are this fictional family isn’t Jewish (one minor Jewish character comes to the fore near the end) and that the author gets rid of the parents right away so that siblings exist in a self-determined free-fall between the limits of the world and themselves. A book of bustling life and melancholy and the comedy of fearful and self-centered comings and goings, just as thoughts go back and forth and around, with displays of valor among the flawed and telling flaws among the heroes. Wow. This is more than writing, this is understanding.

Fast is loose


THE HUNTER AND THE TRAP by Howard Fast
Thanks to Interlibrary Loan, checked out of the library!

While Howard Fast is best known as a political-historical novelist, these two odd stories are philosophical fables. The first story is so reminiscent of Orson WellesTHE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND as to make you wonder if Welles read it, and at the very least shows how large was the legacy of Hemingway’s death in the ’60s and how they all heard the same rumors. The narrator is summoned to the arrival of a famous writer friend who’s a thinly disguised Hemingway: star novelist, heavy drinker, Spanish Civil War ambulance driver, interest in bullfighting (or matadors), big game hunter. His entourage consists of two sexually ambiguous people, including a woman called Diva. He instantly throws a huge society party, and when the party’s over he discovers he’s somehow transformed from hunter to quarry. The fact that he’s being “hunted” is greeted only as one more news story as the narrative becomes a parable of celebrity.

The second, longer tale is mostly epistolary with a drawn-out set-up about finding extraordinary children to test a theory that the next step in evolution gets strangled in the crib, as it were, by being raised by ordinary humans–not unlike my wacky theory of autism based on the mythology of Spock and Vulcan, and also not unlike certain SF stories of advanced children who achieve psychic gestalt, from John D. MacDonald‘s “A Child Is Crying” to Sturgeon‘s MORE THAN HUMAN to Wyndham‘s MIDWICH CUCKOOS. Posits that “naturally” raised children would be poly-sexual telepaths who learn to control atomic structures, as either humanity’s doom or salvation.


Michael Barrett is a writer, librarian and critic based in San Antonio. In addition to writing film criticism for Popmatters, Rotten Tomatoes and other national publications, he has published two works of children’s fiction. You can follow his daily posts on his Facebook page (and read a long interview with him on this blog). For the last 10 years he has written a Christmas letter detailing things read and watched for each year. Periodically, his book reports from Facebook are reposted here as “Mike’s Likes.”

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Mikes Likes #3 (Book Reports Feb 2020)

View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series || View Robert’s Roundups ||

Occasionally I repost book reports by Michael Barrett who regularly posts film reviews at Popmatters. Two more columns by Barrett will be published in March.

Two milestones of midcentury malaise


THE (INCREDIBLE) SHRINKING MAN by Richard Matheson
(INVASION OF) THE BODY SNATCHERS by Jack Finney
(E-Audiobooks checked out of the library!)

In keeping with Richard Matheson‘s mission of exploring the failures and phobias of the postwar American male chained to an expectation of suburban paterfamilias he proves unable to manage, THE SHRINKING MAN (here retitled THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN after the movie) presents a stark symbol for impotence and obsolescence, and he doesn’t neglect to mention the resulting sexual crisis. It’s a surprisingly sexual book, with desire and threat and frustration in almost every chapter in just about every wrinkle the situation could present. The movie concentrates more on the physical threats: spider (a black widow, and Scott understands his rage against it has a symbolic angle but he doesn’t quite grasp what it is), cat, etc. But those are struggles against nature while his most basic struggle is against himself.

The narrative flips back and forth between an agonizingly detailed (if not always easily picturable) odyssey of a desperate man just under one inch trying to survive in his basement (or his subconscious) and flashbacks to the journey here. Above all, it’s a psychological portrait of almost constant rage, humiliation and self-absorption that becomes increasingly pathetic and irritating as he becomes “a bellicose doll.” He understands that from his daughter’s POV, “in the actuality of pure sight, he was nothing but a horrid midget who screamed and ranted in a funny voice. ” He must be brought low b/c the implication is that even at a normal 6′ 2″ he must have been an often unhappy, demanding egotist. Matheson’s daring choice makes him unsympathetic much of the time, so that Scott can finally be dragged, hopeless, to the epiphany of the great last line.

Another title change is Jack Finney‘s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS from merely THE BODY SNATCHERS, but this 1978 revision of his 1955 novel renames the town from the fictional Santa Mira to the actual Mill Valley where Finney lived, and it updates certain details to the 1980s. He also tosses in an in-joke where the hero goes to see a good movie called TIME AND AGAIN based on his greatest novel. He has to leave without seeing the end, which might also be a nod to the fact that the property was in development forever without being made.

Looking over blogs about this book, it seems not everyone understands that two slightly different versions exist. They have the same optimistic ending, which is very different from any of the film versions, and that’s the most surprising element. Some readers are disappointed by its supposedly anti-climactic nature, but I find it fascinating.


Book report: The man who would not be king


OLIVER VII by Antal Szerb
Checked out of the library–thanks to Interlibrary Loan!

Continuing my obsession with Hungarian writer Antal Szerb, his last and lightest novel (1943) is a Ruritanian comedy that refers to Europe’s current war only by the most indirect discretion in references to “those days” when events like this gentlemanly souffle of mistaken identities were supposedly possible. The fretful monarch stages a revolution to drive himself into exile (a plot echoed in the middle section of Herbert Read‘s THE GREEN CHILD) and in Venice gets mixed up with con artists, one of whom calls himself St. Germain, descendant of the notorious Count. They make him masquerade as himself in a scam diplomatic deal that turns real. Lots of clever dialogue and farcical situations that could serve in a play. The novel implies that the trickster St. Germain is a fateful puppet-master who knows what he’s doing from the start.

Translator Len Rix traces the strong parallels with JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT (including Venice and the hero’s quandary between two women, running away or going home) to point out that this variation comes to a more mature and forthright conclusion about accepting the destiny of one’s role with no shilly-shally or dilly-dally. Sadly, this moral decisiveness mitigated against the author’s “running away” when he had chances to leave Hungary before his death in a work camp.

Spooky tales of magic and mystery


W. Somerset Maugham‘s THE MAGICIAN (download)
ONCE AND FOREVER: THE TALES OF KENJI MIYAZAWA (translated by John Bester)
Soji Shimada’s THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS and MURDER IN THE CROOKED HOUSE
(Checked out of the library!)

Maugham’s novel is a quaint melodrama, old-fashioned even for 1908, supposedly inspired by Aleister Crowley. The title figure is seen from outside by four proper Edwardians, two women and two men, who cross his path. The book’s romance is doomed and unredeemed, and the final chapter a revelation of grotesquerie after an anti-climactic battle.

The 1926 film (reviewed by me in Video Watchdog) alters the plot, providing a happy ending to function as an Expressionist link between Trilby and James Whale’s Frankenstein. (Trilby was filmed as Svengali at the same time as Frankenstein.) Wiki quotes Maugham’s self-critique decades later in which he finds the writing “lush and turgid” and thinks he was trying to imitate French decadent writing.

The Miyazawa stories, translated in 1994 by John Bester, are animal and pantheist fables (foxes are popular, also birds and frogs), supernatural anecdotes and mysterious existential parables. Some are clever and comical, with keen views on human foibles. The one about young crabs talking on the sea floor is ecstatically beautiful and gnomic. Some are realist tales, like the origin of a neighborhood wood planted by a mentally disabled boy who died young.

Soji Shimada‘s two novels concerrn a brilliant eccentric solver of locked-room murders in the early 80s. His Zodiac debut involves a three-part family massacre presented as a famous (invented) uncanny mystery of 1936 that begins with an artist’s bizarre confession of his intention to commit the murders, except he gets killed before they happen. This shows classic misdirection. As for the second book, the flummery and useless talk about the eccentric house and the walking golem puppet couldn’t fail to distract this reader by the halfway point from whom was most obviously guilty, and therefore anticipate the surprise of the third murder. Both crimes have their origin in Japan’s militarist era, with one referring to Manchuria and the other connected to war crimes.

Quick reads, because I like ’em short


Checked out of the library!

Guy de Maupassant‘s final novel, ALIEN HEARTS (“Notre Coeur,” our heart), is a work of Henry Jamesian psychological anatomy in which the love affair between a witty, intelligent, self-centered salon hostess and a witty, intelligent, self-centered dilettante is exposed as painful to the latter because the former doesn’t respond as all-consumingly as he wishes but regards him as a pleasing and flattering bibelot she’s collected and feels very fondly toward. A couple of passages imply that she’s never felt an orgasm, and also that she may be a latent lesbian who prefers the company of a female friend. Intended as the dying author’s (of syphilis) exposure of the hollow distraction of Parisian social circles, which has implicitly engulfed him and from which he files his report, with a quietly forceful cameo by a Rodin-like sculptor who steals his chapter.

The stories in Ray Russell‘s HAUNTED CASTLES:THE COMPLETE GOTHIC STORIES include the Victorian pastiche “Sardonicus” (whose characters are referred to in a couple of the other stories, such as “Comet Wine” about famous Russian composers and a Faustian pact), the 1960s New York fireside tale “Sagittarius” combining Edward Hyde and Jack the Ripper, and “Sanguinarius” narrated by Countess Bathory. They combine antiquarian conceits out of classic horror fiction with whiffs of sulfur and sadism in the tradition of cruel tales.

H. Beam Piper‘s LITTLE FUZZY (1962) supposedly explores the question of whether a race of critters has “sapience,” and it’s one long celebration of cuteness. One wonders how it would play if the aliens looked like horned toads and stank to high heaven. It’s less clear if the cardboard humans have sapience. The most characterized one is a Heinleinian Wild West prospector. The baddies are the corporation who own the planet; the deus-ex-luna saviors are the military who declare martial law and unveil courtroom evidence in the last act.

Richard Hull‘s THE MURDER OF MY AUNT (1934) is mostly the unwittingly self-revealing narration of an effete, effeminate, pretentious, dull-witted, lazy, overweight young man who decides to murder his battle-axe aunt in a Welsh village. The reader understands more than the narrator does as he works out one near-slapstick plan after another in a variety of inverted mystery indebted to the author’s inspiration in Francis IlesMALICE AFORETHOUGHT. Almost feels like murder by P.G. Wodehouse. The intro quotes from Dorothy Sayers‘ rave: “The insensitive might even find it as funny as it appears to be on the surface; the sensitive will find it painful, but continuously interesting and exciting.”

“He greeted Griselda as crossly as if she were a member of his family.” Writing swiftly and succinctly with waves of controlled hysteria, Dorothy B. Hughes‘ debut novel, THE SO BLUE MARBLE, cleaves tightly to the POV of a young divorced dress designer, formerly a Hollywod star, who drops into an uncanny thriller about deadly Italian twins seeking a whatsis of legend and lore. Characters include elite society, film stars, an evil teenage sister, a radio newsman, a prof of Persian antiquities and the police. Disorienting, senseless and foreboding with moments of psychopathic violence. Our heroine proves smarter and more resourceful than she seems at first, although she keeps clinging to her love for her ex-husband, which is par for the era.


Michael Barrett is a writer, librarian and critic based in San Antonio. In addition to writing film criticism for Popmatters, Rotten Tomatoes and other national publications, he has published two works of children’s fiction. You can follow his daily posts on his Facebook page (and read a long interview with him on this blog). For the last 10 years he has written a Christmas letter detailing things read and watched for each year. Periodically, his book reports from Facebook are reposted here as “Mike’s Likes.”

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Robert’s Rapid Remarks (Introduction)

This week I’m going to start a new series (long overdue): Robert’s Rapid Blogging.

I am approaching my 20th blogging anniversary and reflecting on the experience. I like blogging a lot, and there have been times where I’ve blogged often — just not anymore. As writers age, they have higher standards. It’s hard just to dash things off anymore. Also, my main thing is writing fiction. Why waste my writing energy on ephemeral blogging? But I have some amorphous energy which needs to go somewhere. Besides, the longer columns on this blog are too long, too planned, too (ZZZZZZ….)

I probably won’t blog about political/topical things (who knows? Maybe I will). But these things have a short shelf life (don’t believe me? try this, this and this ). Ok, sure, maybe it’s good to have a time capsule of your current distractions — even though Facebook is proving to be better at that. Anyway, I’m going to do 20 minutes of rapid blogging in stream-of-consciousness style once a week or so. Heck maybe I might say something interesting.

Probably not going to link to anything in these rapid remarks because websites are ephemeral. Maybe the whole Internet will be permanently gone before I press the Submit button.

Unfortunately in this age of great books, great plans, great shows and great books, it’s a letdown to mumble random bloggy things. But here goes!

PS, I have officially created a category!!

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Why I support Elizabeth Warren for President

I first heard about Elizabeth Warren when she was being interviewed on PBS by Bill Moyers in the early 2004. She was bright and insightful about consumer finances. She had just written a book about the “Two Income Trap” and had all sorts of insights into real estate, jobs and family and consumer debt. I remember calling Mom and Dad about this remarkable woman I saw on TV who seemed to understand so much.

Over the years, I have heard her interviewed as a talking head on PBS and news/commentary shows. I read two of her books and was delighted to hear that she served on a panel to oversee TARP spending and that she later became a Senator. This enthusiasm for Warren’s policies and her effectiveness as a leader has continued to this day.

Source: Wikipedia

Reasons to Support Warren

Here are some reasons for why I support Warren so much:

During the Obama administration, She did an outstanding job of overseeing TARP funds and establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (disclosure: that agency helped me recover 500$ from a credit card company!)

She understands consumer debt and has some ideas about how to rectify the imbalance of power between the consumer and corporation.

She is very diligent about complying with the law. Does anyone think that Warren would refuse legal subpoenas from Congress?

She has an excellent practical mind with regard to regulatory structures.

She is intimately familiar with how corporations work, how they are supposed to work and how they sometimes fail to work.

She has personal experience with unusual family finances and the complexity of poverty.

She is extremely skeptical about policy proposals and at the same time very open-minded to unconventional solutions.

She is an inspired speaker, very witty and knows when to stop talking (i.e., not a windbag). She speaks very precisely. She would not be distracted by Trump’s name-calling; indeed her retorts on Twitter are often more effective rhetorically than anything Trump could try.

She has outstanding persuasive ability and especially good at arguing policy details to CEOs, politicians and thought-leaders.

Her personal story is compelling and remarkable. Her meteoric rise from special ed teacher to bankruptcy teacher at Harvard is remarkable and entirely deserved.

She is running not for personal reasons but because she has a compelling vision of government and justice. She wants to change the system, and becoming president is only a secondary consideration.

She can talk to experts and has shown herself capable of absorbing policy nuances while not being beholden to these same experts. For example, I follow climate change policy very closely — which was definitely not one of Warren’s core issues. I heard her talk for 30 minutes at a CNN town forum and she revealed a deep understanding of this issue nonetheless. (Her campaign plans indicate as such). Clearly Warren had done her homework. Similarly, I didn’t expect Warren to have nuanced opinions on foreign policy, but I am satisfied with almost all her public responses on the subject. All this tells me that she has assembled a top brain trust.

She has written several well-researched books on policy and shows herself capable of analyzying quantitative information. Plus, she co-wrote two books with her daughter (which I think is so cool!)

Warren is fearless and unafraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Despite being labeled as anti-capitalist, Warren would be a crusader for policies with long term payoffs to our economy(i.e., infrastructure, education, technology). She’s not the type to ignore problems.

On policy matters, Warren is way ahead of the curve. She would be a good person to start enforcing antitrust rules more vigorously. She has proposed an interesting plan to use corporate charters on public corporations to encourage fair compensation and sound corporate management.

She has a profound understanding of why the political processes are dysfunctional and doesn’t pretend that every problem can be solved with more bipartisanship.

She is unabashed about admitting when a policy has failed.

I agree with Warren that the current health care system is basically unfixable. It is convenient and easy for politicians to support halfway measures, but it takes courage to admit when something is failing even if the solution will be disruptive.

Reservations/Concerns about Warren

Ok, let me mention some things which I think are potential problems with Warren:

  • She is somewhat impatient with people who disagree with her or make irrational points.
  • She tends to believe that everything can be solved by new laws and better laws and better enforcement. She’s not wrong, of course, but part of being an effective leader is garnering support and designing policies compatible with social norms.
  • She is not hemmed in by the need to appease special interest groups. This can be good, but this limits her ability to build consensus.
  • She has been unfairly vilified and mocked by conservative politicians and press. Although she has responded appropriately, I think she lets it get under her skin a tad too much.
  • She is most comfortable with her wonk hat and while that is great overall, it could alienate people who don’t exactly agree with her.
  • Surprisingly, she has lukewarm support from some of Obama’s top officials. Some have claimed that she is not much of a team-player (I’m fine with that, but it might not be the best quality a president can have).
  • Although Warren fights for the middle class and started out in middle class herself, she may have lost touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. That is probably true for most people running for president. But Warren has been at Harvard for a long time.
  • I worry somewhat about Warren’s ability to live with compromises. So far she has worn the hat of the uncompromising debater. I don’t doubt Warren’s pragmatism, but I worry that she may waste time and energy chasing windmills.

Warren vs. the Alternatives.

I believe that the current slate of Dem. presidential candidates is nothing short of phenomenal. I voted for Bernie in the 2016 primary, and I admire his commitment and empathy and tirelessness. He’s an American hero. Despite her incremental approach to health care reform, I think Klobuchar is a sharp politician (and really funny too). She has a command of many issues and lots of empathy for people. Mayor Pete is also a prodigy of sorts. He brings a fresh approach to progressive issues with an ounce of morality and genuine religion. It would certainly be amazing if he won the nomination. If anything, both he and Bernie have shown that age is just a number and that youth can be an advantage too.

Joe Biden doesn’t immediately impress on the debate stage, but those who know him best say that he is great working behind closed doors. He is warm and passionate and probably has a Rolodex bigger than anyone’s. (Then again, they said the same things about Hillary).

I also admired Inslee and Steyer for their commitment to making climate change a front burner issue. I would love to see either one running a department or agency. Same for Castro.

All of these candidates are great and exceptional in their own way, but I feel Warren is what our country needs now.

Warren is a fighter and crusader

The current political environment calls for a fighter and crusader, and Warren is the perfect person for that role.

Warren is not only the best fighter for progressive causes, she’s also the best one to restore respect for law in the federal government. Warren can talk the talk of the business world and devise workable policies on broad economic issues which have been ignored for too long. I worry about Warren’s ability to build bridges with political enemies, but I do not doubt her ability to change the agenda and devise workable solutions.

Elizabeth Warren’s agenda might piss some people off, but that’s a result of the times. The US economic and political system is severely broken — it has been broken for at least a decade. As good and visionary as Obama was as president, he failed to appreciate how deeply entrenched some interests are against change. That’s why Obama had to settle for a reduced stimulus package, had to settle for a health care policy that could be broken by a Republican-led government, and had to settle for a climate change policy that set a clear direction without actually making much headway.

Obama certainly tried. He tried to be bipartisan, but the Republicans under McConnell just played the game of obstructionism which damaged both the economy and our government. Later Trump and his brand of extremism poisoned social norms and encouraged a contempt for the law. The Trump Administration has continued unchecked. Sure, everything they do is challenged by the court, but Trump can keep appealing (and delaying) to the point where his policies have been in effect for months (or years) before having to be walked back.

Warren will have none of that. She is a lawyer by training who has spent most of her adult lives understanding the intricacies of legal structures. Maybe other Democrat candidates could do the same thing, but Warren is the best person to set a new norm for agencies in the executive branch.

How do you fight moral depravity?

Trump has corrupted our discourse. He rewards moral depravity. He uses abusive language. He lies without compunction. His press spokespeople all repeat Trump’s nonsense. Citizens of USA (and other countries) have learned to mistrust (and even laugh at) the pronouncements of our President.

I’m not sure how a society recovers from Trump’s continuous assault on language, but a law professor sounds like the ideal person to lead the effort. I would also expect her to appoint leaders who are accountable and transparent and don’t try to bludgeon their political opponents by shouting them down.

Warren has made many speeches that turned out to be breakout moments. She is a dynamic speaker and debater who repeatedly rises to the occasion. Polarizing? Maybe. Can she beat a man who uses fascist tactics to intimidate people? Warren is the last person who would ever be intimidated. Moral depravity will not be defeated by someone with more money, or someone who can talk to Bubbas or quote Scripture. It will be defeated by someone who doesn’t abuse language, who knows the law and can keep the focus on what is right and what is true.

In her capacity as legislator and regulator, Warren has had to deal with CEO types used to getting their way and being treated as heroes. It’s been remarkable to watch Warren grill these people in the Senate. You might say it’s just political showmanship, but it has a purpose: to make clear that no one is above the law, no matter how powerful. I fully trust Warren to run a government which is answerable to all citizens — and not just the wealthy few with the most influence.

(See also: my predictions for the 2021 election).

Postscript: It is with absolutely no shame that I link to a much better written endorsement of Warren by Vox’s Ezra Klein. Although Klein covers more detail and hits many of the same talking points, Klein also notes her prowess at recruiting and hiring (a key skill for executives!)

When I asked Warren what people didn’t understand about the powers federal agencies wielded, that was her answer. “Personnel is policy here,” she replied. “The tools are already embedded in the agencies. It’s just going to take somebody to pick them up and use them.”

The tricky thing about this part of Warren’s worldview is that no candidate would really argue with it. They all agree that personnel matters, that choosing good people and managing them well is important. But there’s a difference between knowing it and prioritizing it, between saying it and doing it. For Warren, putting the right people in the right jobs — and, just as importantly, keeping the wrong people out of those jobs — is an obsession, and she spends her political capital accordingly.

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You may have already heard about how libraries really dislike the new pricing model of MacMillan’s publishing company.

[continue reading…]
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Mike's Likes #2 (Book Reports Jan 2020)

View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series || View Robert’s Roundups ||

Occasionally I repost book reports by Michael Barrett. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting highlights.

These things happen, or Buzzati too is God


CATASTROPHE AND OTHER STORIES by Dino Buzzati

This collection reprints a 1965 translation and adds four “new” gentler less dark stories. They add up to a concept album on terrible events and depend more on queasy undefined anticipation and escalation than the disaster, though disasters do arrive. People are often terrified of some unclear thing or deny this terror. Several tales are basically about time and life. They all tend toward political and existential parables, like the passengers on a train who perceive everyone fleeing from the direction in which the train is heading (this mere idea is brilliant, the story needs nothing else), or the hospital in which people descend the seven floors according to their prospects for recovery (everyone’s headed down to first floor).

The story where an elite group feels compelled to slay a pathetic dragon mirrors a story where a traveling couple descend into public pillory. The one about an epidemic ends with a positive twist on political fashion. The longest story, “The Scala Scare” (one of the added tales), is about the chimera of political fear among the privileged who, put into a state of mind by the art of a clangorous contemporary opera, convince themselves a bloody revolution is occurring.

The other three new stories have different qualities. One employs disaster at the service of class revenge, one is a deal with the devil with a very concrete message (you get money at the expense of others, similar to Matheson’s “Button Button”), and one is about the beatification of saints and what becomes of them. That story ends on mystic beauty and provides a transcendent end to the book, partly by sheer contrast with all that came before. I’ll retell it, spoilers and all.

It begins: “Each of the saints has his own little house beside the shore with a balcony overlooking the sea–and that sea is God. In summer when it is hot they refresh themselves by plunging into the cool water–and that water is God.” The story tells of a neglected saint whom nobody prays to, even when he pulls a few miracles, but he makes a friend in the saint who unwittingly usurps his glory. “They went in, cut a little wood and lit the fire with some difficulty because the wood was still damp, but by blowing and blowing a bright flame sprung up at last. Then Gancillo put a pot of water over the fire for the soup, and while waiting for it to boil they both sat on the bench warming their knees and chatting away happily. Then from the chimney there issued a thin column of smoke, and that smoke too was God.”

Here’s another review of Buzzati’s Catastrophe by Ben Roth.

Book report: Two writers of brilliance and delight


Lucia Berlin‘s EVENING IN PARADISE (audiobook)
Natalia Ginzburg‘s FAMILY LEXICON (ebook)
Checked out of the library!

A couple of years ago, A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN introduced me to one of America’s best short story writers in the 2nd half of the 20th Century, the late Lucia Berlin. Apparently this collection was a “bestseller” (whatever that means) b/c the publisher followed with two more.

The brilliance continues with the stories in EVENING IN PARADISE, this time arranged by internal biographical order as inspired by Berlin’s Texas childhood, teen years in Peru, bohemian marriages with husbands addicted to jazz and/or heroine, single motherhood and alcoholism, and finally graceful retired teacher. The title story, which doesn’t tip an autobiographical hat, concerns one night at a Mexican hotel with the cast and crew of NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, and a character from that story shows up in a later story of violence and horror, calmly recounted. We certainly hope it’s mostly fiction. A later story splits first-person narrators during a vanished-child crisis between the mom and a nosy neighbor. Her best stories, which is most of them, are marked by a sane poise of comedy and pathos, of confession and containment.

The first paragraph of Natalia Ginzburg’s delightful and enthralling FAMILY LEXICON asserts that she disciplined herself only to write what she knows is true about her memories of growing up in Italy as an anti-Fascist Jewish family that survived the war (except her first husband). Each paragraph and page is funny and sharp in its catalogue of eccentric or specific details of family and everyone she knew, including famous people, with particular attention to family jokes and code phrases.

Her loudly argumentative family could be seen as typically Italian or typically Jewish and is really just typically family. They feel alive, credible, exasperating and fun, and the sad and poignant parts, also described simply, have power. So does her observation that when she thinks of Pavese, she thinks mostly of his irony and wants to cry that it’s vanished from the earth because he never put it into his books. This is among the few moments when she agrees to refer to herself, whom she largely treats as another bemusedly observed acquaintance. She describes things that happened and never wallows in emotions, yet these can be sensed. A great accomplishment.

Book report: The effect of gamma rays on social processes and OTHER MEN’S DAUGHTERS, by Richard Stern

Richard Stern’s 1973 novel seems written as a snapshot of transition to divorce culture in Harvard WASP country. Stern writes an often vivid, telegraphic kind of poetry for phrase and metaphor; seemingly random moments are in present tense. An early 40s biology prof, now in a sterile tense marriage after four children, stumbles into an affair with a (wish fulfillment?) forward, beautiful, smart, rich, often insecure woman in her 20s.

Despite occasional dips into the girlfriend’s and wife’s heads, this is the man’s POV (reflected in the title) as he’s broken out of the shell of routine and outdated assumptions, partly echoed in his work on biological processes and evolutionary change, and essentially a story sympathetic to all its participants while recognizing their flaws. They keep reading novels (Balzac’s LIKE DEATH) and seeing movies (THE BLUE ANGEL) all too appropriate as commentary, but without commentary. Only a trip to THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO evokes a conscious twinge.

The moving penultimate chapter involves his telling the two younger children about the divorce and handling their reactions. The author transcribes the events simply and exactly: “George cried. Sarah’s and Merriwether’s hands were on his head and back.”

His older sister puts on a braver front. “She turned away. ‘It isn’t as hard for me at my age, Daddy. It’s harder for George. I’m taken up with things.’
‘I love you so, Esme, dear. I’ll always be here. I’m glad it’s not that hard for you. But you may have hard moments. Mommy and I will do everything we can to help you.’

‘Thank you. I think I’d better be alone.’ The voice led to the edge of years she did not want him to see. Feeling a depth of love absolutely new in his life, Merriwether resisted lifting her into his arms.”

What’s important is to accept their signals of what they need; the expression of deep love is resisting the embrace in this case, while the boy needs it. Or should he not have resisted the impulse? “George cried”–I cried, and I’ve never been in any situation near this.

“A week later, the thought came to Merriwether that the moments holding each other on the bed were the best he and George would probably have together; it was as strong a love as two human beings could have for each other without sexuality (stronger for its absence). ‘You who are made of me, formed from–and against–me, you whom I’ve seen grow from bulge to this, you George Merriwether, whom I named and who will–please God–have me in mind years after my death, you my beloved child…’ Nothing in Merriwether’s life had come close to the love behind this unvoiced invocation.”

Despite this potpourri of raw emotions, the book refuses to indulge in tragic melodrama–in stark contrast, for example, to the marital transgressions in Updike’s first two Rabbits.


Michael Barrett is a writer, librarian and critic based in San Antonio. In addition to writing film criticism for Popmatters, Rotten Tomatoes and other national publications, he has published two works of children’s fiction. You can follow his daily posts on his Facebook page (and read a long interview with him on this blog). For the last 10 years he has written a Christmas letter detailing things read and watched for each year. Periodically, his book reports from Facebook are reposted here as “Mike’s Likes.”

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Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill by Harvey Havel, 2019, Novella, 56,000 words

Ebook for sale at Smashwords, Amazon, etc

Recommended if you like: John Steinbeck, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City or William Kennedy

Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill is a realistic and unsentimental tale about love, longing and loss. It’s also an investigation into how financial insecurity can lead human relationships astray. It is expertly and harrowingly told by Albany author Harvey Havel who has written over a dozen novels on social themes.

Charlie, a young & bright Caucasian male from a wealthy background attends an elite college and becomes smitten with a beautiful college girl named Sophia. At first, this girl ignores Charlie because she is out of his league, but Charlie persists and starts to win her over. Gradually Charlie realizes that Sophia is not quite the girl he thought; he has to face that he has deceived himself of what the girl could have ever offered to his future.

From this point on, Charlie drops out of school, moves to Albany and finds himself struggling to make a living. At a friend’s suggestion, Charlie hires a pretty woman named Gypsy to clean his apartment and ends up forming a strange kind of attachment with her. Was it love? Or just a no-strings business relationship? Charlie recognizes that his fondness for Gypsy is not “normal” (or even healthy), and yet he does everything possible to make it blossom into something better. What kind of sacrifice ought he to make for this Gypsy woman? Was she even worth it? The more Charlie struggles to make this relationship work, the more ethical compromises he ends up making.

Charlie is a flawed character of tragic dimensions — sympathetic but also infuriating. He seems genuinely concerned about the welfare of his friends; at the same time, Charlie has a sensuous and egotistical side that makes him unable to recognize the folly of his dreams. Perhaps Charlie was asking for the impossible!

The novel is just as much about romantic illusions as economic illusions. Charlies is horrified to see how economics thwart romantic desires and how romantic fulfillment practically demands that he abandon his values. There’s a lot of sexual politics here, and the racial dynamics are also interesting. Havel is a Pakistani-American who has often written about the Muslim and African-American experience. Yet in this novel, the protagonist Charlie is white, and his best friend Cash is African-American and Gypsy is mixed-race. These things are not supposed to matter in our color-blind society, but by the end of the novel, it is clear that they do.

This novella consists of 4 extended chapters, like acts in a play. The prose is simple and conversational and occasionally indignant. As bleak as the book was at times, I enjoyed getting to know the (flawed) characters and understanding Charlie’s motivations. The criminal elements in the latter part of the book were depicted in a realistic and almost banal way. The ending left me unsatisfied; I don’t know what kind of outcome would have felt “right,” here, but it was unclear to me whether Charlie had reformed or even changed his cynical world view.

IN SUMMARY: Although not a pretty story, this expertly told tale explores how far a person can take his romantic and economic illusions without bringing ruin.

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Preface

(Sorry for the long delay from last column; I’ll be posting somewhat more frequently from now on. See my previous post about why I no longer link to Amazon ebooks. I still link to author websites and Smashwords ebook links. For acronyms, KU means Kindle Unlimited, LE means that lending of this Kindle title is allowed, and APUB means it was published under an Amazon imprint. )

Indie Author Spotlight

In the last Roundup, I chose Pakistani-American author Harvey Havel for my first Indie Author Spotlight. Since making that pick, I posted this book review of Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill (SUMMARY: realistic and unsentimental tale about love, longing and loss. It’s also an investigation into how financial insecurity can lead human relationships astray). I’ll be publishing an interview with Havel later (stay tuned).

Ken Kuhlken (author website) is a prolific author who has published many stories in mainstream mags, won a fellowship and wrote some acclaimed novels. I am happy to report that almost all his books are affordable on SW and that his lauded fiction debut Midheaven is selling for 1.99 — half its Amazon price. Actually the omnibus volume Hickey and McGee is 2.50 (half its Amazon price) and contains 3 novels: Midheaven, the Very Least, and the Answer to Everything. There’s an amazing blurb by Raymond Carver about his fiction: “Ken Kuhlken writes about characters most authors wouldn’t touch.” Also from Ann Tyler: “The pace, clarity and assurance of Midheaven make it a pleasure to read.” His website lists the time period in which each novel takes place. But Alas, he recently published some new novels of the For America series. which includes Supermen, This Rough Beast, Gas Crisis, War and Holy Grail. (this is the sequence that the author recommends you read these books, btw). All cost 99 cents, and the last two can be ordered to arrive in early 2020.

Sales on Smashwords

This Roundup was posted during Smashwords’ End of 2019 sale. All Book links and prices should be valid during this time. (See my previous Roundups about Smashwords authors here, here , here and here). Also, titles from my Personville Press are all discounted on SW this week. Quick tip: Authors earn more money off each sale if you buy multiple items in a single order (instead of buying one or two items at a time).

Probably the 3 best publishers of literary fiction and poetry on Smashwords are Fomite and Unsolicited Press and Whitepoint Press. During this week Fomite/Unsolicited titles are discounted 50% which usually translates to 2.00 to 2.50 . Whitepoint Press titles are discounted more severely to 1-2$. (Important note: You don’t see these discounted prices on the Publisher page but you must click to the book page to see the sale price). Some notes: In addition to publishing fiction and poetry, Fomite publishes a lot of short political “pamphlets.” Second, I noticed Unsolicited Press is available at KU, LE on Amazon and indeed, they intermittently discount a sliver of their Kindle ebooks to 1.50 and below. (Here’s the magical Amazon search query to track that). Strangely, both presses publish high-priced print versions of each title even though ebooks are much much cheaper. Here are the Unsolicited Press Home Page and the Fomite Press home page. Notable titles: Here is Ware and  None of the Above   by Michael Cocchairale (website).  Rising Tide Of People Swept Away by Scott Archer Jones (website). Kafka’s Roach: Life and Tims of Gregor Samsa by Marc Estrin.  From the more heavily discounted Whitepoint Press titles are: Off Somewhere by Z.Z. Boone (website), Things we Do for Women by Seth Johnson. Lighting the Word by Merle Drown (website – what a name!). Whitepoint also has some interesting poetry I’ve sampled: Treasures that Prevail  (climate change poetry) by Jen Karetnick (website) and Imperfect Tense By Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor (linguistics. poetry based on her experiences teaching English to nonnative speakers). (Here’s a video of her reading).

Finally, during the last SW sale, I never got around to buying any of the 3 Whitepoint titles by the WP editor Lisa De Niscia. To the Left of the Microwave (short stories), Momentary Mother, and My Valley is Icky Too. Also, noticed that Annotated Nose by Fomite editor Marc Estrin is now free on Smashwords for this week.

Aha, I had written about Don Q. Public by John Opsand Sutherland. (Imagine Don Quixote lived in Toledo, Ohio). It’s free — horray!

David Belisle is a prolific comedy writer and screenwriter who has a lot of comedy “pieces” in prose form. Typical objects of satire are baseball, Trump, pizza, Canadian politics, cowboys. Worth mentioning is that Berlisle has been writing an ongoing series, Trumpassic Period, consisting of one volume for each year Trump has been in office. He writes and produces the T-Rump Dig Podcast on a weekly basis where he dramatizes the mess that is Trump. I listened to two podcast episodes, and they were fun and silly. I suspect the transcripts of these episodes is nowhere near as entertaining as the podcasts. About half his pieces are on Smashwords and half the pieces are exclusively on Amazon (KU) (author website)

Free again is C.D. Stowell‘s, New Old World, memoir about life as an itinerant photojournalist is now free again. When I mentioned it in a previous column, I read a few chapters, thought it was great!

Author Glenn Lazar Roberts is an international lawyer with a background in Russian and Arabic. He also runs Equus Publishing and once upon a time wrote reviews for Siriusreviews.com He’s also written several satirical novels Cross-Dressers From Pluto and Judge Crater Takes a Powder. Yes, the titles sound crazy, and the book description sounds even more so. Apparently Roberts grew up in Houston and attended UT-Austin and his novel Frenzy starts with a hurricane party (inspired partly by Hurricane Allison) where some biological phenomena is released from the medical center as a result of a hurricane . Here’s a radio interview with Roberts about this book and others.

All the fiction titles of Robert Scott Leyse are also free this week. Most are about turbulent Here’s his author website with fuller description of his ebooks — plus reviews.

I just noticed that the books by Edward Drobinski are all free. His stuff might be good, might suck — who knows? (Will report back for next time).

Paul Hina writes beautiful poetry and love stories. (Indeed, I reviewed one of of them) Amazingly, he lives in Athens, Ohio, which is where my mentor Jack Matthews used to live in teach. This week, all of his titles are free on Smashwords. Here’s his home page.

Melinda Jasmine Crouchley (author website) Metal Heart (.99) is by the author’s own words — science fiction dystopian thriller filled with advanced technology, a mysterious disease, and artificial intelligence. Tin Road is the sequel which “focuses on Scarlett Buford and Rabbit Santiago as they escape from the Fort Columbia base and travel to Mexico City, carrying with them a cure for the nanovirus. ” Interestingly Crouchley — who has a master’s in writing works as an editor (among other things) and writes screenplays — is not currently selling her titles on Amazon — though I suspect it is only a temporary thing.

David Campbell (author website) writes plot-oriented twisted reality novels which usually involve people getting revenge (Background Extra) or getting caught up in illicit activities (A small college town). He has 3 novels on SW — mostly free or pay what you want.

Joseph Sutton (author website) is a retired author & teacher who has lived all over the US. By some random luck, I had picked up a used copy of a 2011 story collection of his, Immortal Mouth — but never read it! In his SW interview, Sutton says he admires Henry Miller, Kerouac and especially Saroyan. “All three wrote from their experience, like I do, and all three left their heart and soul on the page.” Subjects for his books are all over the map: a writing guide, a “fan’s journal” of the San Francisco Giants, a father/son memoir, a car-buying guide. Generally Sutton writes short stories, and the first place to start is In the Time of My Life: Selected Writings. It features a significant number of stories from all 3 of his collections, plus excerpts from his other nonfiction works (total 122,000 words — costing 3.99 on Amazon but 2.99 on Smashwords. That makes it a Must Buy for me.

Kenneth C. Crowe is a retired journalist turned author who writes political novels. All his novels are free or very cheap. If you find them from Smashwords, they are all free! Here’s his author website and a poetry blog (which he seems to be updating fairly often).

Paperangel Press has a low-cost fiction anthology Corporate Catharsis (.99) consisting of many authors they have published. Described as the “anthology we all need — one that can help us survive our corporate servitude with our hearts and souls intact.” If you look at the press website, you see that they do a lot of fantasy, sci fi and historical fiction. Most of it seems to be 50% off the normal Amazon price.

My first roundup mentioned British author Kate Rigby when she offered some interesting freebies. Here’s her author website. I had silently vowed to pick up some of her other titles on SW, and now’s the perfect time. In a bio Rigby says, “My novels tend to be character-driven and a bit quirky or gritty – whether contemporary or retro – and deal with issues of today: drugs abuse, homelessness and neighbourhood conflicts, and a common theme is about the experience of being an outsider in society. “ I noticed that one recent work Other Side Of Carrie Cornish: A story of neighbour wars in Austerity Britain (KU, LE) is available only at Amazon for 99 cents. Through the diary of a woman who is fuming about her neighbors, we learn about her motives and how it affects her relationship with her partner. It is written under the psuedonym Kate Jay-R. Also on AZN I noticed that her noted early 1990 coming-of-age novella Fall Of The Flamingo Circus: Diary Of A Punk is 99 cents on Azn (KU, LE) but it’s still 2.99 on SW.

Silly me. I forgot to mention the Rigby titles on SW which were deals. Fruit Woman is a thriller about a mysterious woman who appears at important times in a 27 year old woman’s life. .

Akedah: the Binding by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller is temporarily a FREE download (it’s in presale). Bishop and Fuller are longtime theatre people who have collaboratively written and directed several plays for radio and regional theatre. They have 5 titles on SW; this one is about a chance meeting of two people at a bar and a long roadtrip. Description is intentionally vague, but it involves some kind of father-son conflict as well. The tagline of their arts website is Dramatic journeys of change: funny, unsettling, inspiring, mundane & mythic. Their blog contains some story excerpts as well as the random essay.

Rose Maru is a prolific author who fuses autobiographic confession with fiction on erotic themes. (Here’s an interview) Her self-conscious writing is kind of therapeutic because she writes with candor about her sex life and hypoactive sexual desire disorder. She creates her own cover art and reveals a lot about herself in her books. Just guessing, I’d say that about 15-20% of the word count comes from introductions, explanations and commentary. The author graciously provided some exclusive coupon codes (which should expire on Dec 31).

  • Dare to Bare (Short Stories) 99 cents now, but 100% off with Coupon: AE84G.
  • Chains (Novel) 2.99 now with 50% off until 1/31/2020 with this code RN52G.
  • Climbing Rose (Short Stories) 2.99 now with 50% off until 1/31/2020 with this code AM52V

In addition to these, I ended up purchasing Cocktails with Rose (short stories by men), an erotic anthology from the male perspective (though curated by Rose).

Deals published by Amazon Imprints

Generally these are titles published by the Amazon imprints. I frankly ignore most of the genre stuff and focus on the international authors and biographies. Follow this link to see which titles are 99 cents for the month. I’ve already bought a ton of these titles in previous months (check previous columns here and here), so maybe my recs will be sparser than usual. All are KU APUB, (but not lendable!).

  • Alien Rock: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Extraterrestrial Connection by Michael Luckman (a fun account of UFO themes in pop music in 1970s music — Robert Recommends).
  • Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa. Rowdy award-winning novel about a rural laborer in China. Feels more picaresque and light-hearted, but I expect it will have dramatic moments. Reminds me of Yu Hua‘s Brothers: A Novel (also a raucous-tragic novel).
  • Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kristin Chen. San Francisco leaves her marriage and then has to return to Singapore to help her father’s soy business and deal with her mother’s alcoholism.
  • New Requiem by B. Lance Jenkins
  • Disenchanted Widow by Christine McKenna. riveting account of a new widow and her 9-year-old son fleeing the IRA in 1980s Belfast.
  • Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan-Lake. Southern high school girl has her life turned upside down by her friendship with a Sri Lankan immmigrant who apparently is not accepted by prejudiced classmates.

Under the Radar

(i.e, titles by unknowns that stay pretty cheap and sometimes are even free on Amazon)

James Edmonds (KU) is an author of several novellas, a critical study of Gore Vidal and nonfiction about Saudi Arabia. I don’t know what perspective these Arabic studies are (who paid for them?! ), but the author has included several Oriental themes in his fiction.

William L. Alton has written several books, but Girls (KU, LE ) is a series of flash fiction about various female characters and messy relationships. I read the first few stories and liked it. (One reviewer said that it “feels like Carver, but reeks of Bukowski.” He has a remarkable history. He started writing in the 80s while incarcerated in a psychiatric prison, then he obtained a BA and MFA in creative writing in Oregon. Although he has published 4 other titles (which haven’t yet been digitalized), he has Girls (for 99 cents on Amazon) Here’s some online articles he wrote (mainly on personal and psychological topics). He works with mentally ill teenagers and released his $$$ novel Tragedy of Being Happy about mental illness and teenagers. (Note: This latter ebook title doesn’t appear on his Amazon author page because the author’s name is William Alton.

J. John le Grange is a South African author based in Cape Town (author website). His fiction speaks of hardship and survival of ordinary people. Wolseley (KU, LE) is about a white family struggling and facing homelessness. Tales for the Train (KU, LE) is a novella consisting of 9 tales centered around mysterious photographs. He has received several international writing commendations. Both ebooks are pricey but discounted often.

A New Requiem by B. Lance Jenkins. 99 cents. When a 17 year old boy is murdered, the community wrongly blames the gay choir director. Many readers were moved by the story, and the first chapter successfully drew me in. From the author’s blog you can read the real life person who inspired the novel.

Nick Lenoir (KU)

John Isaac Jones (KU)

Jessica Levine has two novels: Nothing Forgotten (99 cents) and Geometry of Love (1.99– and suprisingly an academic book about Henry James and Edith Wharton. That academic book is incredibly expensive, but it should give a clue about her approach to storytelling: psychological, character studies, carefully written.

Ulrich von Hassell Diaries: The Story of the Forces Against Hitler Inside Germany by Von Hassell. Discounted temporarily to 1.99 (it’s normally $10) , this important historical document about a German diplomat who was resisting Hitler from within (and unfortunately was killed as a resistor). These diaries have been around for a while without much critical attention. (I also recommend Traudl Junge’s Until the Final Hour which provided the source material for the German movie “Downfall”).

Genes vs. Cultures vs. Consciousness by Andres Campero

Tom Milton (KU) is a prolific and talented author who comes from a background in international journalism. All his novels are 2.99 and on KU and at least one of his titles will go free every few days. Here’s his author page on Amazon and the author website which summarizes all the novels. On that page, he writes, I write novels not only to entertain but to bring a deeper understanding of how the major events of our time challenge our values. In their pursuit of lofty goals, my protagonists encounter situations that expose their inner conflicts and test their commitments.

Vaughn Ashby (KU)

T. R. Pearson (KU) is the author of a dozen novels (and several Nick Reid novels under the pseudonym Rick Gavin). Here’s his wiki page , which says his novels are set in the south in an imaginary town, near Winston-Salem North Carolina. A Short History of a Small PlaceOff for the Sweet HereafterThe Last of How It WasCry Me a RiverPolar and Blue Ridge were NYT Notable books which once wrote that he was “one of the modern South’s shrewdest satirists. “

C.R. Bishop (aka Chris Bishop) has written two satirical novels that I got for free on Amazon. The book descriptions sound over the top in a sophomoric Douglas Adams way, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. The worry (KU, LE) is about an ex-rocket scientist who wins a warehouse fall of traffic cones in a bet and discovers that they have a strange properties. Why? (KU, LE) is a comic tale  of a group of adventurers, travelling the English countryside in search of a clue to save the world from its own burgeoning scientific development.

Stanley Laine (KU) (author website)

Jason Dias (KU) (author website + author interview). See also his post about why won’t the zombie trope die?

Brendan Gisby (KU) is a prolific Scottish author who runs McStorytellers storytelling site. (author website).

Lobster’s State of Mind by Hovav Heth (KU, LE) Heth is an Israeli businessman who’s taken the plunge into writing short stories. (author website)

Tales of the Frontier (KU, LE) by Bonnie S. Johnson is 3 historical tales about the Virginia frontier during the French-Indian war. (Here’s the author site).

Dennis Duane (author site)

Aleks Matza (KU) is a Chicago-based author (author website)

Robert Payne (KU) is a biographer, historian and novelist who wrote over 100 books. (Author’s website). Educated in UK, South Africa, France, he traveled all around the world (including China) during the 1940s. He has written biographies of Shakespeare, Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky, Ivan the Terrible, Gershwin, Caravaggio, Gandhi, Leonardo. In other words, he took well-known figures and wrote bios as a generalist. About 10-15 books have been digitalized and are available exclusively on Amazon . I suspect these biographies were replaced in the canon with deeper books written by specialists, but I’m interested in Eyewitness: A Personal Account of a Tumultuous Decade 1937-1946 and Chinese Diaries: 1941-1946.

Emancipating Alice: A Novel by Ada Winder (KU, LE) (Goodreads blog and personal website). Debut novel about a woman haunted by her dead husband.

Kay L Lawrence (author website) writes short stories on her Quirky Tales website and then publishes them as books titled QT Anthology. (KU, LE) I’m guessing most of these stories are found on the Stories section of her website) . I also noticed that her novel Lucky Dip (KU, LE) is listed for free on the day I checked. She has also posted a 3 volume children’s fantasy series, Boldre Wood Trilogy. Her long abandoned Quirky Tales blog is here).

Tucker Lieberman writes in a lot of different genres, but my attention was caught by one title: Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to know about writing eunuch villians (KU, LE) (author website).

White Rabbit (KU, LE) by Carlos Hughes (Goodreads author page) is a debut comic misadventure novel about an unemployed sociology grad who gets the idea to teach English in South Korea. (FYI, I taught overseas in Eastern Europe — here’s one essay I wrote about the experience ). Turns out that (big surprise!) the author has a master’s in linguistics and taught in China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Henry Simpson (Author Goodreads page) writes a lot of crime and mysteries. All are KU, LE I bought My Brilliant Career for .99.

How to sew pieces of cloud together: a dark comedy. by Mary Papstavrou (KU) is a cerebral novel described by one reviewer as “five very intelligent convicts are gathered in what is, in fact, a prison. There are no guards, just a supervising psychoanalyst by the name of James Hoffman. No-one tries to escape; they will soon be released – and in any case, they are microchipped and if they try to leave, they’ll trigger an electronic tripwire around the grounds.” Actually all the reviews are glowing; the review is a Greek living in London with a background in film.

Choose Your Own Romance by Katherine Pierce Chinelli (KU, LE). Chinelli also writes YA fiction, but I’d thought I’d sample this two volume series.

Syntell Smith (author FB) wrote Call Numbers. (Normal 2.99, but I snagged it for 99 cents). Here’s his twitter and a collection of book reviews about the ebook. He’s publishing a sequel in late summer 2020.

O, Africa: A novel by Andrew Lewis Conn who wrote this brilliant essay about Scorcese’s Life Lessons. This novel tries to imagine the African travels of the Grand Brothers (who took a lot of nature and jungle film footage for future Hollywood movies). Lots of nice reviews, but still too expensive.

Life You can Save: How to do your part by Peter Singer (10th anniversary edition). 99 cents.

Good Intentions (KU) by Dan Saber (author site). Saber works as a data scientist (he even has tutorials on his site). This debut work is about a well-intentioned bureaucrat from heaven who is supposed to inspire people. Hard to tell exactly what it’s about, but it feels like Vonnegut satire with a touch of the “Good Place.” Sounds promising.

Blink and it’s Gone Sales

(usually pricey, by major houses, but they have 1-2 day spot sales where titles are discounted to 1.99 or 2.99. I track these spot sales with ereaderiq (which tracks only Amazon prices, but generally these prices are reduced on all booksellers at about the same time)

How Music Works by David Byrne. I am a huge fan of this philosophical sociological analysis of music and performance by David Byrne. Although I bought the title on a spot sale for 1.99, there’s much to recommend to buying the hardback version because it contains so many illustrations and photos. (It’s an 83 MB ebook file).

Valerie Trueblood is an accomplished short story author (probably one of my favorite authors in that genre that I’ve come across over the past decade). I picked up her Terrarium story collection (which is a Greatest Hits of her previous volumes). Unfortunately that ebook never gets discounted, but I was delighted to notice that her other collections (from Counterpoint) are being discounted to the 2-3 dollar range. I grabbed her latest Criminals: Love Stories and plan to find more. Stay tuned for a book review. I also highly recommend Marry or Burn (the title story is a wonderful sketch of a mother of a bride at a wedding she feels ambivalent about).

Nothing remains the same: Rereading and Remembering by Wendy Lesser. Lesser is a wonderful Threepenny Review editor and literary critic. It’s always a pleasure to read her stuff. This title is regularly discounted, and the subject (about how rereading fiction changes your perspective on it) is a timeless one. I highly recommend this one.

Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (LE) by Rust Hills. Insightful guide to writing by a longtime fiction editor. Indeed, it’s one of the smartest and best written I’ve come across. Expensive, but gets discounted often.

Jane Vandenburgh is a California author of several book. I read and enjoyed the never-discounted Physics of Sunset, read half of Pocket History of Sex in the 20th century (which is actually more about learning about her dad being gay than anything else). Also bought for 2.99 the Architecture of the Novel: A writer’s handbook (as I told you, I am a sucker for writing guides).

Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China. Translated by David Hinton who had also translated 4 Chinese classics. Ancient poetry depends a lot on the translator to capture the spirit, and both are great editions.

Creative Commons – Academic — Public Domain

Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Cabeza la Vaca. This recent 1963 translation is FREE on Amazon and includes a nice preface. CLV traveled around southern parts of the United States in the mid 16th century — and even came close to Houston.

Once in a Lifetime Deals

This probably shouldn’t count, but I recently learned about the 19th century Indo-Persian classic novel, Adventures of Amir Hamza. Although there is an abridged version available for 2.99, you really want the unabridged version: 974 pages for 7.99. As it happens, I had a $5 deal on my first kobo purchase. so I used it to buy it on my Kobo app for $2.99.

Poetry

I found lots of great poetry titles from Unsolicited Press (see above).

Tolu Akinyemi (KU) is a Nigerian poet living in London who writes humorous observational poetry. I was lucky enough to catch Your Father Walks like a Crab (Poetry for People who hate Poetry) for free. The later collection, I laugh at these skinny girls: Poetry for People who Hate Poetry (KU) sounds intriguing as well. Here’s his blog. On his page titled Why I write how I write, he writes, “These people (who ‘hate’ poetry) desire to appreciate and enjoy poetry but on their own terms. They want it to be readily relatable, to speak to them directly, simply, yet profoundly; not through an interpreter or critic, nor through navigating a tedious byzantine literary maze. These are the ones I write for.

Texas

Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht. This novel about a young scientist who returns from a research project in Nigeria only to discover her sister has a genetic disease which killed her mother. This debut novel won a major Texas literary prize and received lots of praise from Texas publications.

On the Smashwords section above, I reported on author Glenn Lazar Roberts who turns out to be based in Houston (he wrote a sci fi story based on a hurricane party during Hurricane Allison.

Kaye Hushour has written 3 mysteries with a Texas theme. All are KU, LE.

Plainview Lottery by Markas Dvaras (KU, LE) is a kind of satirical economic fairy tale to illustrate economic principles and to have a good laugh besides. Some strangers visit a small town and start a lottery; the novel is how it affects the town as a hole.

Nine Years Among the Indians, 1870-1879: The Story of the Captivity and Life of a Texan Among the Indians by Herman Lehman

Sale on Verso ebooks

Verso publishes a lot of nonfiction titles with a progressive or even socialist bent. Mostly political theory and social science, but also a fair amount of arts criticism and philosophy. Just learned that Verso is discounting all their titles to 2-3 dollars until Jan 1 11:59 PM. See my Verso recommendations in a previous column.

Review Copies Received

d

Rant

My Personville Press will release an overlooked classic from the 1940s in a few months. (Next column will include a free download link, I promise!)

Personville Press Giveaways and Deals

I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. All the titles are discounted on Smashwords for less that price — and usually under $1.50. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.

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I’ll be posting a superlong Robert’s Roundup this weekend and then another normal-sized one in the last week of December about the Smashwords (SW) ebook deals.

As a general rule, I do NOT link to Amazon anymore (unless there is a special reason). Everyone knows how to use search engines, plus it saves time. For the most part, all of my column links will go to DRM-free links (mainly Smashwords, Project Gutenberg, etc). I generally try to link to the author’s home page if there is one.

Here are 3 labels I use when listing titles on Amazon.

  • KU means that the ebook is part of Kindle Unlimited collection. I mention this not to encourage people to sign up for KU, but notably because KU ebooks are more likely to be discounted to free — so you can set up price alerts. These free promotions are limited to 3 days every 90 days. Often authors keep their ebooks in KU for the first 3-6 months only, so you should verify if it is still in KU.
  • LE means that lending is allowed for this Amazon ebook. This lending functionality is somewhat limited, but better than nothing. Hey, if you want to borrow one of these lendable titles, feel free to email me the title. I will almost always say yes! (idiotprogrammer AT fastmailbox.net)
  • APUB means that ebook is published under an Amazon Imprint (see a list). This means that Amazon’s inhouse publishing department has acquired these titles and promote them actively using Amazon’s tools. These titles stay low-priced, and their prices tend to remain the same for the entire month. Every 3-6 months, their prices go down to 99 cents or 1.99 (so, set those price alerts!) Generally, these titles are high quality, more likely genre, slickly produced and promoted (in the best sense of the word). Many are from international authors. Little A is for literary fiction; AmazonCrossing is for translated titles.

Why do so many authors and publishers refuse to make Amazon ebooks lendable?

But Amazon invented a cool sharing/lending function for their titles. It actually works pretty well, is of limited duration and poses no piracy risk for publishers. It might reduce the tendency of someone to buy the title, but more than likely it just gives the person more time to explore the ebook. That is usually a good thing.

As it happens, on Amazon almost zero big publishers have enabled this feature, and about 50% of indie authors haven’t enabled it either. Why? Honestly, I really miss not being able to lend purchased titles with friends or swap recommendations. There’s so much cool stuff which I’d love to share with friends (or vice versa). By opting out of lending, authors are missing out on the possibility to get ebooks in front of new customers.

In praise of DRM free ebooks

I alternate between hating and loving Amazon (now I’m in a hating phase), but I have especially strong feelings against ebook DRM. It’s so unnecessary and counterproductive. I noticed that imore has a very nice list of DRM-free publishers. Obviously Smashwords is the biggest outlet for DRM-free, but there’s also Verso, Humble Bundle, Tor, Baen and various tech publishers (Packt, Oreilly, No Starch, Apress).

DRM-free ebooks are better because their use cannot be limited or cancelled by a bookstore’s infrastructure. I bought a few dozen ebooks from ebook sellers who went out of business, and now I am stuck. This day will happen for all booksellers eventually. The usual excuse for DRM is to prevent piracy. This is not a terrible argument, but it adds an extra layer of complexity and dependency. Also, aside from reducing piracy on high-priced bestselling titles, DRM doesn’t really help most indie authors. (One method that would deter me is “social DRM” — i.e., using identifying watermarks — like “This ebook is licensed exclusively to Robert Nagle”).

This is not a great risk right now, but what if Google and Amazon fought and Amazon suddenly decided: hey, let’s not support a Kindle app on android devices anymore! What could consumers do? Essentially nothing. They could not move their purchased ebooks out of one ebook distribution system into another.

Practically speaking, major publishers and authors sell only at bookstores which use DRM. You can submit ebooks DRM-free to bookstores, but it would be somewhat complicated to move these ebooks into another book infrastructure.

On the other hand, books without DRM have their own problems.

First, you have to keep your files safe. (Solution: Upload everything into Google Drive or Dropbox. Problem solved!)

Second, you need an easy interface to view cloud-based ebooks offline. That means uploading ebooks, organizing into shelves and making the interface usable. We don’t have a good interface for that yet, but we are almost there.

Third, you have to manage space limitations. This is actually a bigger problem than you believe. Devices have limited storage space, and Google Play is a huge memory hog, and there’s no way to figure out which ebooks are taking up the most space. Fortunately, this problem is solvable though the booksellers have not tried to fix it.

New blog feature: Crappy Interstitial Ebook Ads (sort of)

A year ago I started offering free ebook ads for Smashwords ebooks. Smashwords is DRM-free and indie-friendly and provides better royalties. Second, if I’m recommending ebooks, it costs me nothing really to provide free ads for them. I signed up for SW’s affiliating marketing program (which meant having to cancel participation in Amazon’s affiliate program — good riddance). Making money is not my primary motive here, but I’m not allergic to doing so.

A few months ago, I had a dose of reality. First, earnings from SW affiliate marketing program were practically nonexistent. This is partly because ebooks bought directly from SW are still a small portion of the ebook market. But 55% of my web surfers on this blog read on mobile phones, and another 8% are on tablets. My right sidebar containing the ads doesn’t even show up for these people.

I still want to feature some ebook promotions and am working on a solution that is not too distracting or complicated to implement.

Fortunately, WordPress might help with that. I really don’t want to use a plugin — especially an ad server, but the built in Gutenberg text editor lets you insert custom boilerplate blocks of text wherever you want. So I could design a few boilerplates and insert them strategically in blogposts. Perspicacious readers may notice that at the bottom of ebook columns, I’ve been doing this anyway. I may enhance this slightly — and keep them under the fold so that they don’t appear on the main URL for literary-oriented posts.

On the main URL I will include short posts including my promotions in differentiated texts. These short promotional posts won’t be too distracting, I promise. Also, even though I potentially derive financial benefit from them, I still endorse these ebooks!

I want this blog to remain personal and basically noncommercial while still promoting no-DRM publishers and indie authors. Hopefully these new changes will not change the overall readability of this blog.

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