Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I keep wanting to insert an "and" between "Brief" and "Wondrous"--not sure why that is. I think I did it in the last post but didn't find it in time to fix it. Anyway. I'm somewhat relieved in that I liked this one, though I didn't love it. Liked some parts an awful lot, though. Which leads me to a somewhat larger concern. Maybe it's that a little education is a dangerous thing, but reading has become terribly difficult, I find, in that it's really hard to flat-out enjoy something without succumbing to the urge to dissect it to bits. Oscar Wao, for example--enjoyable, to be sure, but I found myself respecting the project more than enjoying the read. Kind of like The Hangover, if any of you have seen it--I spent a lot of time while watching it impressed by its construction, how the pieces fit together quite well, but I did that instead of laughing. I'd be curious to hear if anyone else had the same feeling (re Oscar Wao or The Hangover, either way), but I'm even more curious to know what you've all been reading, in recent memory, that has been engaging/compelling enough to make you stop thinking about the process and just enjoy it. I'm struggling to remember, myself, but I think Jennifer Egan's The Keep might take those honors. I knew while I was reading it that it wasn't a perfect book, but I just didn't care--I had to know what happened next, and I think I need to read something like that soon. Recommendations, please, please, please.

Making Iowa City more literary

William Ingles, owner of The Book Shop on South Dubuque, has some fine ideas for turning the "City of Literature" designation into action, results, and, frankly, money.

Frances de Peebles story honored

Check out Fifty-Two Stories, which is featuring Frances' "The Drowned Woman."


You had to see this one coming

From io9 ---

Amazon Secretly Removes "1984" From the Kindle
By Annalee Newitz

Thousands of people last week discovered that Amazon had quietly removed electronic copies of George Orwell's 1984 from their Kindle e-book readers. In the process, Amazon revealed how easy censorship will be in the Kindle age.

In this case, the mass e-book removals were motivated by copyright . A company called MobileReference, who did not own the copyrights to the books 1984 and Animal Farm, uploaded both books to the Kindle store and started selling them. When the rights owner heard about this, they contacted Amazon and asked that the e-books be removed. And Amazon decided to erase them not just from the store, but from all the Kindles where they'd been downloaded. Amazon operators used the Kindle wireless network, called WhisperNet, to quietly delete the books from people's devices and refund them the money they'd paid.

An uproar followed, with outraged customers pointing out the irony that Amazon was deleting copies of a novel about a fascist media state that constantly alters history by changing digital records of what has happened. Amazon's action flies in the face of what people expect when they purchase a book. Under the "right of first sale" in the U.S., people can do whatever they like with a book after purchasing it, including giving it to a friend or reselling it. There is no option for a bookseller to take that book back once it's sold.

Apparently, until last week, Amazon claimed it wouldn't take back purchased books either: The New York Times' Brad Stone reports:

Amazon's published terms of service agreement for the Kindle does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a "permanent copy of the applicable digital content."
But this isn't the first time there has been a problem with secret deletings. Stone adds:
Amazon appears to have deleted other purchased e-books from Kindles recently. Customers commenting on Web forums reported the disappearance of digital editions of the Harry Potter books and the novels of Ayn Rand over similar issues.

Now that the public is up in arms over the Kindle deletions, Amazon is once again promising good behavior. Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener told reporters:

We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances.

That "in these circumstances" bit doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. Sounds like books will be removed again under other (undefined) circumstances.

Regardless of whether you believe Amazon's promise to leave your Kindle alone, the company has tipped its hand and shown us the dark side of a culture where books are only available in electronic form. If the WhisperNet service from Kindle allows the company to delete books silently from your device, what other information might they have access to? Can the company monitor what you're reading and when - and then hand that over to law enforcement? Can it replace a book file with a different file whose content is changed?

Perhaps more than anything else, this mass deletion of 1984 has made it clear that collecting e-books is going to require some technical know-how. No e-book is truly yours unless you can get it off your Kindle and onto your computer - hopefully a computer that isn't connected to the internet.


Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project

I'm afraid my little reading project is not working out exactly as I'd hoped. I wanted to push myself to read more, to catch up on some of the books people have recommended, but I've gotten hung up on this one, which took much longer than I'd expected. I think I saw Hemon read once at Prairie Lights, and I must have enjoyed it quite a lot because I was inspired to buy whatever of his I could find. True to form, though, those books have remained unread on the unread-books shelf in my living room, and it wasn't until The Lazarus Project that I managed to motivate myself to finally read something he'd written. And I'm not sorry that I did, exactly--his writing is terrific, and there are some really vivid moments (and good jokes), but ultimately I'm starting to wonder if I'm just in too critical a frame of mind to enjoy anything right now, because I just couldn't get into this one. The premise is that a Bosnian expat in America decides to write a book about a murdered Jewish immigrant in early 20th century Chicago and travels back to Sarajevo for research. The present-day story is written in the past tense, with references back to the murder storyline written in the present tense, and presumably there are all sorts of connections between the two storylines that I couldn't begin to fathom. I'm hoping one of you might have read and liked it and can fill me in on what I'm so obviously missing.

Also reading and not particularly enjoying: Penelope Lively's The Blue Flower, given to me by the same friend who introduced me to Perdido Street Station and Little, Big, both excellent, so perhaps I can be forgiven not understanding the hype over this one, though it could just be my general distaste for historical fiction; Zoe Heller's The Believers, filled with some intensely unlikeable characters, something that somehow worked in The Corrections but doesn't fly all that well otherwise (though, to be fair, I did like What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal), even though the narrator in that one was clearly batshit crazy).

Next up: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has been so universally praised that I'm hoping it will jar me out of this streak of negativity. Onward!


That Old Chestnut

James Wolcott considers a world without books.

Now that I have an ipod touch, I find that I read on it all the time and with much greater ease than I do on an actual computer. Using Instapaper, I read more fiction-- and longer articles--from the internet than I ever did without it. The urge to skim is gone. I don't feel my attention being pulled to another browser tab. The fundamental difference is both unexpected and physical. It doesn't seem to be a matter of screen size so much as my ability to hold the device in my hand and twist and turn with it like it is an actual book. The architecture of the ipod itself helps too, the way it eschews multitasking. You can do a lot with this little guy but you can't do it all at once. Really, that's what I love about it.

Are readers the petty snobs Wolcott suggests we are? Probably yes and no, but I'm glad to see the e/book debate moving away from stark grandiosity and into the tangible and banal. That's ultimately where it will reside for each reader, isn't it? Once the novelty and fear of e-books have worn off these decisions won't be so freighted and we'll all make them in private moments for reasons under no obligation to be articulated--or even articulable. As a prognosticator and a librarian, my sense is that this will make for a messy and uneven reality of practice, in which both technologies more or less coexist without incident or even much heady symbolism. But what do I know? They say people always overestimate the impact of a technology in its early period and underestimate it by the time it has managed full adoption.

ps-hey, guess what? A and I just moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where, as of next week, I'll be the English librarian at a university here. Seems like a good town. People sit on their front porches and the pizza is surprisingly good. Come visit when you can.


Great detailed analysis of Sarah Palin's modus operandi

If you, like me, find yourself inexplicably fascinated by this character whenever she struts onto the national stage, you may have been wondering WHYYYY??? Why in God's name do I pay attention to what she says, does, thinks? According to this careful reading of her methods and presentation, it's because she is a kind of intuitive cultural genius. (h/t to Alex Chee)


Cheeni reading tonight in the IC

Cheeni Rao, whom many of you may remember as your relentless softball coach, will be reading from his highly praised down-and-out drug enlightenment memoir In Hanuman's Hands tonight at 7 p.m. CST, Prairie Lights. It will also be streamed live on the World Wide Interwebs (check out that site for more upcoming readings).

Google book settlement

Published a book? You need to read this Web site, because if you do nothing you will be opted into the Google Book Settlement. Which may not be a bad thing. Or which may be.