Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Last Will and Testament of Lemuel Higgins, or My Shameless Self-Promotion

That's right, kids.  My novel, The Last Will and Testament of Lemuel Higgins, is officially available in paperback.  Ebook and hardcover editions will follow shortly.  Thanks very much to everyone who supported me along the way. 

I once spent a summer working in Washington, DC, for iconic New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who liked to quip that his new releases "were sure to sell in the dozens of copies."  He always got a laugh, but when I say it, it's with the conviction of truth!   

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Light on the Concrete (a collection of poems) by Lucas Hunt

Admittedly, poetry does not get its fair share of the spotlight here at TLM, which we attribute almost exclusively to our shameful, collective ignorance on the subject. It’s true that we did express an enduring admiration for Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself a few months back—seriously, though, who doesn’t love Uncle Walt? And we even picked up a collection or two from the comments to that post (thanks again for pointing me to I Wish I Had a Heart Like Yours, Walt Whitman—it was excellent). But that is quite literally the only poetry-related post that you will find in the archives of TLM. Until now. Hopefully, this post will even the score a bit.

Light on the Concrete is the second volume of poetry from Lucas Hunt. His first, Lives, was released in 2006 to critical acclaim. Light on the Concrete has also received accolades for its treatment of every day subjects, which Hunt’s precise and beautiful language infuses with feeling that we all recognize and share, though only when it is pointed out to us. What do we mean? Well, look here …

The Mississippi Steams

When massive steel blades
thunder to break
solid sheets of ice
that turned pavement
into frozen rivers,
birds search the wreckage
of scoop shovel and tire track
to find small grains
of nourishment.
This is it—
a time to arrest
action on the earth,
a freeze on disking,
planting and harvesting,
enforced idleness
in the womblike place
that nurtures
seeds into food.
Winter ground
gets back what is taken
by crops galore,
by hungry thieves
of the treasure
under road, snow and foot.

For anyone that has spent any time in the rural Northeast or Midwest, it is the snowplow that marks the true changing of the seasons, when all of summer’s pleasures and fall’s anxieties are put away as life enters survival mode and a low-level collective dreaming. And the image of a small flock of chickadees pecking over the upturned mix of earth and ice and snow makes me, for one, feel like I am a ten-year old boy standing at the end of a dirt drive in rural Western New York, waiting for the school bus as the sun rises behind a wall of cloud cover that will last until spring.

Light on the Concrete is full of such moments, commonplace and too often overlooked, but beautiful when frozen in time. Despite my ignorance of the intricacies or even the mechanics of poetry, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable collection. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Lucas Hunt has graciously agreed to put together TLM’s first-ever guest post, addressing, among other issues, the importance of an appreciation of poetry to a literate man.  Stay tuned ...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Evolution of Copyright: Golan v. Holder, or How Congress Took Your Share of the Public Domain and Gave It (Back) to Dead Foreigners

That’s right—it’s not enough that Uncle Sam grabs you by the ankles every April and shakes loose every last penny, button, and piece of lint that he can find—now he’s taken part of your share of the Public Domain. Have I dramatized this enough to keep you awake through the legal questions? Hm … we’ll see about that.

In brief, prior to the passage of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act in 1994, certain works, including symphonies by Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinksy, and Dmitri Shostakovich; books by C.S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, and H.G. Wells; films by Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jean Renoir; and artwork by M.C. Escher and Pablo Picasso, were all part of the “Public Domain,” meaning that they did not enjoy copyright protection in the U.S. and were freely available for reproduction or other use to the general public. So who owns works in the Public Domain? I do. And you do. Ok, we all do.

In most cases, the absence of copyright protection for foreign works was because the U.S. did not have copyright treaties with the countries in which original copyright protection for the work was obtained. The problem was that, because we treated these foreign works as belonging to the Public Domain in the U.S., other countries treated U.S.-originated works as Public Domain in their own countries. As such, U.S. authors had no copyright protection in a small but significant portion of the world.

In 1994, Congress changed all that. The Uruguay Round Agreements Act granted copyright protection to those foreign works that were previously considered Public Domain on the theory that such would cause foreign countries to reciprocate and grant copyright protection to U.S. authors. And so, with one swift move, Congress took those foreign works previously owned by you and me and gave them back to their original (mostly dead) copyright owners. This too caused a problem: hundreds, if not thousands, of people had relied on these works as being in the Public Domain when they reproduced them, performed them, or used them to create what are known as derivative works.

Who would stand up to the might of Congress and the foreign interests? Who would represent the nameless masses from whom the works had been stolen? Why, those who stood to lose money, of course—the very parties that had come to rely on the Public Domain status of foreign works in performing or producing the same for money. The reliance parties, as they are referred to, challenged Congress’ action on two grounds: (1) that the Progress Clause of the U.S. Constitution precludes Congress from taking works out of the Public Domain; and (2) that the new restriction on use of works formerly in the Public Domain was an impermissible restriction on Free Speech.

The case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this very morning. From the transcript of the oral argument, it is obvious that certain Justices (Ginsberg and Sotomayor) favor the government’s position, while other Justices (Scalia and Breyer) favor the position of the Petitioners. Where the rest fall is anyone’s guess. The decision should issue later this term. Stay tuned to TLM for the exciting conclusion.

Now for a confession. After all the dramatization above, I think the government has the better argument here. The Progress Clause of the Constitution contains no language that would prevent Congress from taking works out of the Public Domain (indeed, it did so upon the creation of the first Copyright Act). And it seems evident to me that Congress carefully weighed the public benefits of joining the international copyright community in determining to pick our collective pockets of those works formerly in the Public Domain. I’m upset that they robbed me (and without compensation—though that’s a topic for another day), but I understand why and how they did so. So there.

Did anyone other than the legal community even realize that this fight was going on? Does anyone have an opinion here? Are you all asleep? I thought so.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The White Tiger is a Book of Rare Quality

The White Tiger, to our knowledge, is the only letter to a Chinese Premier to ever win the Man Booker Prize. And rightfully so. Author Aravind Adiga has penned a brilliant debut novel that has been widely praised across the pond but has yet to receive its just dues in the US. This novel pulls the curtain back on India’s economic revolution in a refreshingly original, honest and often humorous voice.

The story that unfolds, while distinctly Indian in the details, could be set in just about any “third-world” country: boy is born into rural poverty, migrates to urban area, work hard, grows some balls and ambition, puts some coin in his pocket, consumes his way into the emerging middle-class and becomes a connoisseur of Budweiser, WWE, Russian prostitutes and all the other trappings of the good life.

But it’s the man at the center of this hurricane that makes the book a treasure.

Balram Halwai is a man that’s impressed by English liquor and cheap denim. And just like the eponymous big cat in the title he is truly a rare animal. A man for whom success is measured by conspicuous consumption. He’s also a shrewd and conniving entrepreneur whose ambition has led him out of the “darkness” of his rural village and into the bright lights and filth of Mumbai. After smashing in his employer’s skull in a Dostoevsky-esque plot twist he opens a thriving taxi business. As a businessman on the rise he’s offered respite to reflect on his views and life in a late night letter to the Chinese leader.

He details his humble and difficult beginnings, his lack of schooling, his tenure as an abused chauffer and the delight he takes in indulging in the material delights of the new Indian economy. He is also a bit of pig. His views on wealth, women and the good-life all seem as though they’ve been formed by an MTV reality show and he posses few redeeming qualities. But he’s a compelling character because no matter how casually he swallows the bitter pill of his pitiable beginnings and gushes over his modest success the pain in his life is vivid and universal.

The White Tiger tells the story of two Indias through the eyes of the downtrodden. He provides a refreshing narrative of the social convulsions coursing through modern India void of the sentimentality that often dooms such projects. While this is hardly an original topic what sets The White Tiger apart is that Balram is no victim. In fact, “hero” might be more apt, at least in Balram’s mind. He’s crass, materialistic, ignorant and a true “success” story of India’s modernization. His tale is unique -arguably even ground-breaking- and undoubtedly adds to our collective understanding of the human experience.

Adiga deserves all the credit in the world. He’s created some inedible characters and woven a fascinating tale. We can’t wait to read his next offering, Last Man In Tower, due to hit bookshelves later this year.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Local Scene: The Other Side by E. Thomas Finan

The Other SideThe Other Side is a work of seven stories that comprise the debut collection from E. Thomas Finan, currently a lecturer at the University of Miami. Published by The Fieldnor Press in 2010, The Other Side treats various poignant moments in the lives of its characters. Finan experiments with a variety of voices and styles in bringing his characters to life and, because he is a strong writer with a talent for dialogue, he mostly succeeds.

My favorite story of the collection was, "Motley Black," which follows Jay, recently jilted and running from memory, as he leaves his home in San Francisco and travels by bus to Key West, where he hopes to begin the next chapter of his life. Anyone who has ever travelled by bus will appreciate the cast of well-drawn characters that Jay meets along the way, and it is obvious that Finan is writing from experience.

Others that scored points with me were the existentialist "Lucy di Sartoria," the obsessive "An Aria of Windrows," and the supernatural story, "The Other Side.". Overall, I found Finan's collection familiar and readable, with characters that elicit sympathy and make a connection with the reader. And I'm looking forward to more of Finan in the future.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Dreamlike Beauty of an Expatriate Life: Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy

Everything Beautiful Began After: A Novel (P.S.)There is a dreamlike beauty to the expatriate life that Simon Van Booy captures perfectly in his debut novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, released today by Harper Perennial.

Rebecca, George, and Henry, have each come to Athens for different reasons, but all are content to become lost in its dusty streets and the hazy memory of antiquity. And it is a sandblown sort of fate that brings them together in that haphazard, thousand-causal-connections manner that typifies the joining of strangers in a foreign land and the binding of them together by common experience. But come together they do, and they eventually share an affection that is both real and enduring.   

When tragedy strikes, it is through these well-formed and emotionally-complex characters that Van Booy demonstrates how the intimacy of casual acquaintance and the despair occasioned by last goodbyes can hijack an entire life. Everything Beautiful Began After paints a portrait of a world almost outside of existence where affairs may capture the heart forever and the loss of a future once-envisioned can become all-consuming.

More than simply a painter of beautiful scenes, however, Van Booy is also a skilled professional. His prose is thoughtful and poetic as he describes Athens so vividly that the reader feels the dry heat of a noonday sun at the foot of the Acropolis. He cleverly plays with language, not just English, but Greek, French, Italian, and even Arabic, as a sometime reminder of how difficult it can be to communicate with one another, especially where the subject consists of our own pain. And though it takes some getting used to, the periodic use of the second person and the present tense allows the reader to share in the aimless wandering of Henry as he seeks some path by which to reenter the world that he once knew but has since lost forever.

Though it is sure to be enjoyed by the general public, in my opinion Everything Beautiful Began After is a must-read for anyone living abroad or with fond memories of having done so.

Monday, June 20, 2011

We Have Met the Enemy: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness
"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is (unfortunately) best recognized in popular culture for providing the backstory for Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 movie, Apocalypse Now, which is a classic in its own right.  The novel is based, not in Cambodia, but in a part of the African Congo that was a private colony of King Leopold II of Belgium in the latter part of the nineteenth century.     

While waiting for the tide to turn at the mouth of the Thames, the protagonist, Charlie Marlow, notes to his fellow travelers that London and the Britons were once dark and untamed in the period just prior to Roman domination of the island.  Marlow proceeds to recount his experiences as a steamship captain in darkest colonial Africa and, specifically, the recovery of Kurtz, an ivory trader, journalist, and poet-philosopher, who is lost to the darkness of the jungle and his own mind.  The sometimes brutal treatment of the African natives plays a central role in the story, as does the chaos and lawlessness that results from unrestrained domination of one culture by another.  Themes of darkness and light are interwoven in both story and character to show that each of us and each of our enterprises, at some level, are infected by that tendency toward evil that is witnessed by Kurtz in the moments before he utters his final words: "The horror!  The horror!" 

Given the theme of European colonialism, the novel is broader than Apocalypse Now in the scope of its treatment.  And because it focused more specifically on the inherent duality within each human soul, the novel is also more terrifying.  Conrad is a master of prolonged tension and in the subtle treatment of difficult and controversial themes--including colonialism--and both the topic and the prose gradually work their way under the reader's skin until he's strung as tight as a bow.  But there's never a release, at least not one that completely diffuses the tension, and the reader is left with a feeling of unsettling anxiety long after the work is read.

Truth be told, Heart of Darkness is one of those few works that keep us up at night, not simply because of the story or its basis in colonial reality, but because of its undeniable application to human existence.  Does anyone share this reaction to the work?  What other works, if any, keep you up at night?   

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy Bloomsday, Everyone.

UlyssesIt's been a good, long while since I've posted a word here at The Literate Man.  My thanks to Aaron for picking up the slack.  The break wasn't intentional, but evolved out of (1) my misguided First Reading Challenge: The Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian (I'm currently on book 13 of 21 and can read nothing else), and (2) final edits to on my own novel, The Last Will and Testament of Lemuel Higgins, which is in the final stages of editing and design prior to publication.

But I couldn't let Bloomsday pass without recycling TLM's reviews of Ulysses from late last year.  There were two: one relating reflections at the halfway point and one presenting a final review.  June 16, 1904, was the date that Joyce chose for Ulysses' protagonist, Leopold Bloom, to go rambling about Dublin and provide us with some of the most colorful scenes in all of English literature.  It also happens to be the day that James Joyce had his first date with his eventual wife, Nora Barnacle.  In any case, the date is celebrated worldwide (and particularly in Dublin) as Bloomsday in honor and recognition of Joyce's epic work and enduring genius. 

So raise a pint to Ulysses, number seven on TLM's Top Eight Novels for Men, and to James Joyce, one of the most honored (and divisive) authors in literary history.      

Monday, May 30, 2011

BURR: Gore Vidal’s Portrait of History’s Forgotten Man

Gore Vidal is the godfather of historical fiction. While he may not have invented the genre, he’s the man that has done more to elevate its status than any other writer and added more quality content to the canon than arguably anyone else.

Everyone seems to have their favorite Vidal novel and here at The Literate Man (TLM) we’re Burr diehards. And how could you not be intrigued by Aaron Burr’s story or at least Vidal’s interpretation and telling of it?

General in the Revolutionary Army, would-be conqueror of Quebec, president of the United States of America and Emperor of Mexico? If things would have turned out just a little bit differently this is the résumé Aaron Burr could have had. Instead, his epitaph reads: US senator, US Vice-president, treasonous exile, alleged practitioner of incest and a mostly forgotten founding father. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
But that’s the magic of Vidal’s vision. In the writing of Burr he’s taken an historic footnote –Burr- and turned him into a man that was a whisker away from becoming quite possibly the most important figure of the 19th century. If only things could have worked out differently.

Most people today simply know Burr as the man who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel. Which is true. But commonly accepted history has made Hamilton a martyr and Burr little more than a strange curiosity. In Burr, Vidal has given the man an historical defense.

Vidal has taken certain liberties in writing this account, including the creation of the refreshing young narrator, Charles Schuyler, a clerk in Burr’s office, who is approached by political enemies of future president Martin Van Buren to prove he’s the bastard son of Burr. That’s a strange sentence, but an interesting one. And the book is full just those sort of shocking and interesting revelations.
The author was meticulous in his researching of the material and even some of the themes that seem to employ a great deal of creative license (such as his assertion that Hamilton alleged incest between Burr and his daughter, thus triggering the fatal duel) are based in fact. But more than just an impressive compilation of facts, Vidal has told this story in a compelling and humanistic tone that most revisionist historical accounts fail to achieve.

And what a treasure trove to draw from. Burr seems to be personally involved in all the most important historical events of his lifetime. Vidal takes us from his days as a colonel in the Revolutionary War, the founding of what would become JP Morgan Chase, his electoral tie with Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential contest, allegations that he and Andrew Jackson hatched a scheme to conquer Mexico and appoint himself emperor, and ultimately the killing of his former best friend, Hamilton, in a gun fight in New Jersey.

You simply couldn’t make this stuff up. And whether or not Vidal’s interpretations would hold up under absolute historical scrutiny, we’ll probably never know. But if you’re looking for an enthralling read Burr hits the mark by any measure of examination.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Dog Of The South: Not Your Typical School Bus Ride Through Mexico

Here at The Literate Man our primary mission (aside from stopping plate tectonics and fomenting small revolutions) is to share the gift of literature with our fellow man, woman and child. We are book nerds, to be sure. And we like to share the books and writers we like; books and names that don’t often appear at airport bookstores or in Oprah’s Book Club, but have nonetheless brought us a great deal of delight and hope they might do the same for you.

Charles Portis is one of our favorites and if it wasn’t for sloth and fantasy football we would have shared our thoughts on this great man of letters long ago.

Almost every red-blooded American is familiar with Portis’ most famous work: True Grit. Whether it’s the John Wayne original or the Cohen Brothers remake, Portis’ terrifically-titled novel has carved out a place in the English lexicon.

But it’s The Dog of the South that is Portis’ real masterpiece. This is the kind of work that makes us cavalier in heaping praise like “genius,” “hilarious,” and “even funnier than Lethal Weapon II.”
The plot is thin. The narrator is unreliable. The story lacks resolution. And it’s absolutely perfect.

From the simple opening sentence of this book (“My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone.”) a wild adventure featuring a cast of Southern wierdos is hatched.
The protagonist and narrator through this ill-conceived odyssey from Arkansas to British Honduras (present-day Belize) is Raymond E. Midge, an aspiring algebra teacher and military enthusiast looking to reclaim his stolen wife and car -not necessarily in that order. In a turn of fair play Midge steal’s Dupree’s Buick (“a rusty little piece of basic transportation” with a hole in the driver’s side floor board) and the chase is on.

Halfway through Mexico he stops to help an elderly man in a broken-down school bus (with the moniker ‘Dog of the South’ painted on its side) and becomes entangled with the indefatigable Dr Reo Symes. Symes is a typical Portis eccentric who’s on his way to Belize, where his mother runs a church, to talk her out some property in the US (he envisions opening up a theme park devoted to Jefferson Davis). These two characters come to depend on one another as they follow the trail of the elusive “lovebirds” and battle with tropical storms, hippies, “dopers”, car troubles and each other’s own idiosyncrasies.
Portis unravels this disastrous jaunt through Mesoamerica at a brisk pace that makes the 256 pages fly by. Throughout the many comical exchanges he displays his gifts for writing dialogue, creating unforgettable characters and reveals a world much broader than the two ridiculous men that carry the story.

It’s regrettable that this book, and Portis himself, have not received a wider audience. Perhaps this shameless plug (and maybe that Oscar thing, too) will lead a few more people to discover his gifts.
If you like reading and you like laughing you’ll like this book. And if you do like it, please share it with someone else who might appreciate it as well.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Literary Blog Hop Asks: Are You Predisposed to Like the Classics? Yes. Next Question.

Literary Blog HopI'm beginning to look forward to every other Thursday and the Literary Blog Hop hosted by the lovely ladies over at The Blue Bookcase.  Not only have they introduced me to some wonderful literary book blogs, which have turned me on to some great books, but they always ask the most interesting questions.  This week's question is as follows:

Do you find yourself predisposed to like (or dislike) books that are generally accepted as great books and have been incorporated into the literary canon?

Yes (like).  Next question.

Discuss the effect you believe a book’s “status” has on your opinion of it.

Aha!  I thought we were getting off easy this week.  Ok.  Well, I'd like to say that I remain objective in my reviews, regardless of the reputation of the author or work under consideration, but that's simply not true.  In fact, I would argue that it's not human.  We're all subject to social pressures and preconceived opinions, though some do a better job than others of maintaining a relative objectivity.  For myself, I think that a book's status or reputation creates a kind of synergistic effect on my own appreciation of it.  If it enjoys a reputation as a classic, I am predisposed to like it, and I tend to be more effusive in my praise of it.  On the other hand, if I do not like it, my dislike tends to be exaggerated as well.

A case in point is our recent review of The Man Who Loved Children.  Though not widely known, the book enjoys a reputation as a modern classic and, in fact, is included in Time Magazine's list of the Top 100 Novels in the English language from 1923 to the present.  I was predisposed to like it.  I did like it.  And I was probably more effusive in my praise because the book (twice) met and even exceeded my expectations.

What about you?  Do you love to love the classics or do you love to hate them?   

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (TLM's New Number Eight)

The Man Who Loved Children: A NovelI've always found it unpredictable to re-read a work that I loved once upon a time.  At different points, I've come away both more certain than ever of my respect (Sometimes A Great Notion) and questioning what I could have so appreciated on the first reading (Moby Dick).  But when Jonathan Franzen wrote a piece in the New York Times championing The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, I decided that this was one favorite worth revisiting.  

I first read The Man Who Loved Children in college some twenty years ago as part of a course on Australian Literature.  That course, by the way, revealed to me some of the best work that I had read to that point (including The Man Who Loved Children), and I took away from it an abiding appreciation of Australian Literature thta survives to this day.  Upon my first reading, I was convinced that The Man Who Loved Children was among the three greatest works of literature that I had read to that point.  Twenty years later, I had only vague recollections of the Pollit family in a constant state of agitation with themselves and one another, along with a healthy respect for Christina Stead's powers of both characterization and creativity based on the relationship between Sam Pollit and his daughter, Louisa. 

My more recent second reading has convinced me that The Man Who Loved Children is one of the greatest tragedies ever written and it deserves a place among TLM's top novels for men.  Not that it is a book for or about men in particular, despite its title.  Rather, The Man Who Loved Children is a book for and about anyone that has ever felt manipulated, repressed, limited, or emotionally dominated by those individuals that are closest to them.  In other words, it is a book for and about everyone.  It reportedly draws heavily from Christina Stead's own life and her relationship with her father, which is undoubtedly part of its genius.

As for the plot, the blind and dysfunctional Sam is the patriarch of the Pollit family, which resides outside of Washington, DC.  At once a dictator and a narcissist, Sam has so alienated his wife, Henny, that they are no longer on speaking terms, communicating only through their children or in written form.  This, of course, leads to constant emotional hostage taking in a house comprised of six (and eventually seven) children.  Toward those children, Sam believes himself a god, demanding their awe and respect for his various projects and achievements, while also digging so deeply into their lives and their brains as to crowd out any notion of privacy or individuality.  Stead does a masterful job of showing each child's reaction to this dominating treatment, as they each struggle to support one another.  And it is largely this sense of mutual support in the face of overwhelming and sinister domination (and I am not being melodramatic here) that gives the book's conclusion its tragic force. 

Christina Stead creates a world--set wholly within the confines of the Pollit home--that is so emotionally deep and complex that the reader has the distinct feeling of having lived among its characters as a passive (though alternately incredulous and furious) observer throughout the time period covered by the book.  I suspect that it is that same gut wrenching emotional journey that has kept The Man Who Loved Children from obtaining the popular acceptance and acclaim that it most certainly deserves.  In any case, I have no problem whatsoever making The Man Who Loved Children TLM's new number eight.

Has anyone out there read The Man Who Loved Children?  More importantly, is there anyone out there that read it and did not absolutely marvel at Stead's skill at characterization?       

Friday, March 25, 2011

Aaarrrgghh ... Is Piracy Really a Problem for the Publishing Industry?

As a general matter, I like to keep my work life separate from my blog life, and I find that there is rarely any substantial overlap between the two.  That said, as I've mentioned in passing on a couple of occassions, by day I'm an intellectual property attorney dealing primarily in issues of copyright and trademark law.  Recently, our firm's publicist asked me to give an opinion on the scope of the problem of e-book piracy in the publishing industry.

My reaction to this question has always been skeptical.  I just don't see e-book piracy as a significant potential problem given the fact that people don't consume books in the same way that they consume music and film.  First, though e-book sales are increasing rapidly (as recently reported in a study by the Association of American Publishers), hardcover and paperback book sales still constitute a majority of the market.  Second, book purchases tend to be carefully considered decisions in my experience, as opposed to impulse purchases of music and movies.  Third, and perhaps most important, e-book distributors are ahead of the curve in terms of distribution (and far, far ahead of both the music and film industries when piracy first became a serious problem for them).  Simply stated, it is easier to pay $10 for an electronic copy of The Lost Symbol from the Kindle Store, the iBooks Store, the Sony eReader Store, etc., than is it so find a quality copy through Bit Torrent, download it, and upload it onto your particular device.

But not everyone agrees, as evidenced by a recent article by David Carnoy over at CNET entitled, "Kindle e-book piracy accelarates."  Evidently, there is a group of e-book enthusiasts that like to shop in bulk (as in 2500 books at a time).

So, what do you think?  Is this really as much of a problem for the publishing industry as it has been for the music and film industries?  Have you ever looked for a pirated copy of a particular book or known anyone that has?  Thanks for any (anonymous) insight that you may be able to provide.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Literary Blog Hop Wants You to Consider Your Own Mortality

UlyssesDebbie Nance over at Readerbuzz apparently had quite the St. Patrick's Day because she's thinking about death.  And as a green-blooded Irish-American, I can tell you that a Jameson-soaked contemplation of The End is often the unwanted byproduct of the hours of Guinness-swilling jubilation that precede it.  But I give her credit--what could be more Irish than to tie a contemplation of one's own mortality to a work of great literature?  Here's to you, Debbie.  Slainte! 

The question Debbie posed over at the Literary Blog Hop is the following: What one literary work must you read before you die?  Like everyone else that's weighed in on this topic, I'm pulled in ten different directions at once. 

The Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireIf I'm recommending to others from the books that I've read over the course of my life, I think I'd have to go with Ulysses by James Joyce.  The fact that Joyce was Irish is merely a happy coincidence, but I'll toast him just the same.  Slainte!  Though it was a struggle to get through, I think I've never been as intimate with the characters of a literary work nor have I ever seen such mastery in Joyce's playful manipulation of the English language.  Ultimately, it is hands down the most rewarding work of literature that I've ever read.   

Now, if we're talking about the one literary work that I feel that I must read before I die, I'm going with Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  There's something about the decline of an entire civilization that makes your own mortality just a little bit easier to contemplate.

Thanks to Debbie and the girls at the Blue Bookcase for a great topic.

Literary Blog Hop

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Aubrey/Maturin Series, Books I through V (Reading Challenge Installment 1)

This is the first installment of four in TLM's First Reading Challenge: The Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian.  We will cover each of the first five novels in the 21-novel series, including Master and Commander,Post Captain, HMS Surprise, The Mauritius Command, and Desolation Island.  Since simply outlining the action in each book would defeat the purpose of the challenge, I will breakdown each book by most memorable scene, dominant theme, and most interesting character.  Of course, I encourage every one of you to share your thoughts by posting your comments below.   

Most memorable scene: The taking of the Cacafuego, a Spanish frigate, by Captain Aubrey and his brig, the Sophie.  This is O'Brian's first extended description of a battle at sea, wherein he proves that he is a master.  Jack Aubrey follows Lord Nelson's advice to "Never mind maneuvers, always go at them!"   

Dominant theme: Divided loyalties.  Both Stephen Maturin and James Dillon, the Sophie's first lieutenant, have dark histories fighting the British as members of the United Irishmen.  Maturin is both practical and philosophical in his outlook, while Dillon's raw internal struggles lead him to seek his own demise.

Most interesting character: Jack Aubrey.  An unapologetic rogue on land, Aubrey is an experienced sea officer and brilliant naval tactician just coming into his own during the action of M&C.

Post Captain:

Most memorable scene: Stephen Maturin leading Jack Aubrey across the French/Spanish border dressed in a bear costume.  The ruse was necessary when Stephen and Jack are caught in France at the time that the Peace of Amiens fails and war resumes with Britain. 

Dominant theme: The vagaries of life at sea.  Jack Aubrey spends half of the book running from creditors, who seek to have him thrown in debtors' prison after shifting political alliances rob him of prize money that he is due.  His fortunes revive when Stephen Maturin is able to use his own political influence to involve Jack in the capture of a Spanish convoy carrying treasure.

Most interesting character: Stephen Maturin.  It is in Post Captain that Stephen Maturin's role as a British intelligence agent becomes a prominent part of the series.  Maturin is half Irish and half Catalan, and it is his Catalan heritage that leads him to fight tooth and nail against Napoleon, even overriding his Irish republican distaste for British hegemony.

HMS Surprise:

Most memorable scene: Stephen Maturin operating on himself to remove a bullet lodged between his ribs during a duel.  The duel is precipitated by Stephen's love for Diana Villiers, who has become Richard Canning's mistress in India.

Dominant theme: Affairs of the heart.  Both Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin suffer from problems of the heart in HMS Surprise.  Aubrey is cheated out of his share of the captured Spanish treasure and this complicates his pending marriage to Sophie Williams.  Stephen, meanwhile, ineffectually declares his love to Diana Villiers, who will continue to torment him over the course of the series.

Most memorable character: Diana Villiers.  At once fickle and practical, Diana wraps both Aubrey and Maturin around her finger, though it is the learned and philosophical Maturin that receives the most deep and lasting wounds from their relationship.  The reader is never quite sure whether to consider her Maturin's proper mate or a sly female villain of the heart.

The Mauritius Command:

Most memorable scene: After Maturin returns to report to Commodore Aubrey the failure of an effort to take Mauritius from the French, Aubrey returns to the scene of the routing and methodically, captured ship by captured ship, turns the tide back in favor of the British, who eventually take the island, though Aubrey is robbed of credit for the enterprise.

Dominant theme: Measuring up.  Lord Clonfert was, at one time, superior in rank and reputation to Jack Aubrey; however, he finds himself under Commodore Aubrey's command at Mauritius.  Clonfert had demonstrated cowardice during an earlier campaign with Aubrey, and it is evident that Aubrey's continued success has him feeling both cowardly and unworthy so that he overcompensates in his command and becomes gravely injured.  Rather than suffer the success of Jack Aubrey at Mauritius, Clonfert commits suicide by removing his bandages.

Most memorable character:  Lord Clonfert, for all the reasons noted above.

Desolation Island:

Most memorable scene: The sinking of the Waakzaamheid, a 74-gun Dutch ship-of-the-line, in the extreme South Atlantic.  Aubrey's new ship, the Leopard, having been chased nearly to Anterctica by the much larger Waakzaamheid  over the course of many days, the ships exchange fire, and a lucky shot takes down the Dutch ship's foremast, causing her to sink with all hands.

Dominant Theme: Intelligence (and counter-intelligence).  For the first time in the series, the United States takes a prominent role as Aubrey is charged with hauling the American intelligence agent, Luisa Wogan, along with other convicts to Australia.  Maturin makes good use of Ms. Wogan, using her lover to feed her counter-intelligence and helping them both to escape aboard an American whaler while the Leopard is fitting for repairs.

Most memorable character: Stephen Maturin.  O'Brian deals directly and honestly with the evils of addiction by afflicting one of his two main characters with an addiction to laudanum.  His disappointments with Diana Villiers feed the beast that torments him and it is, in part, his deplorable state that leads Jack Aubrey to take to sea once again.

And so concludes the first installment of TLM's four-part series on the Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian.  Please feel free to share your thoughts, comments, suggestions, complaints, etc.  I'm personally in the middle of book seven, The Surgeon's Mate, so it may be a few weeks before we have another installment.  In the meantime, happy reading.  


Friday, February 25, 2011

The Book as Sacred Object, and Recollections of the Paris Codex

So, this morning I received a nice, big box of very old books on Spanish and Mexican history that I had purchased on the cheap at auction several months back.  I already have a fairly large collection of books on the Maya of Guatemala and the Yucatan, and my hope was that I would find a couple of useful--or at least intriguing--volumes in what I otherwise understood to be a grab bag of dusty, old history books.  I was not disappointed. 

But even more than the useful or intriguing knowledge that may be contained within their pages, I found myself relishing the look and feel and musty old smell of each and every volume that I pulled from among the styrofoam packing material and unwrapped from its tissue paper.  And I realized once again that, despite all the support for ebooks and audiobooks that can be found in these posts, there is nothing quite like a good old book to fire my imagination.  For me, as for most of you I would suspect, books are sacred objects, and I find myself caring more about them than I do about even my most important and useful possessions.  Every time that I stumble on a worthwhile old tome, I want to take it in like a stray kitten and nurse it back to health or at least put it to the use for which it was intended.  I know that I'm not alone in this appreciation.

The whole experience got me thinking about the most significant book that I've ever held in my own two hands--the Paris Codex.  For the uninitiated--and I'm perfectly willing to admit that the field is obscure--the Paris Codex is one of four surviving manuscripts written by the Maya at the time of the Spanish Conquest.  That there are only four may be blamed as much on Spanish zealotry as the ravages of time--they famously burned thousands of such manuscripts in their less than subtle efforts at conversion.  And only one, known as the Grolier Codex, remains in the Americas today.  The rest are scattered about Europe in Madrid, Dresden, and Paris, where they are known less than creatively as the Madrid, Dresden, and Paris Codices.

Each provides an example of the well-developed written language of the Maya, the only such writing system that originated in the Americas and, arguably, one of only three written languages that developed organically  (i.e. was not borrowed or adapted from some other civilization) throughout the entire world.  The written language of the Maya died out in the generations following the Spanish Conquest, though amazing strides have been made in the last several decades with respect to the understanding and preservation of the language, which can still be found not only in the codices, but on stelae and temples throughout Central America and Mexico.

The Paris Codex is kept in a sealed box at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and is not generally accessible to the public.  I was able to handle it only after a lengthy formal request process during which I explained repeatedly that I was working on a book in which the Paris Codex figured prominently.  By sheer persistence, I wore them down.  And I was even able to sneak my wife in as well as my "translator" on the day of our viewing.

To hold a five hundred year-old book from a "lost" civilization that is written in a language that no longer exists is absolutely indescribable.  I remember carefully paging through the codex from beginning to end over the course of several hours, its pages still bright and beautiful, though delicate and fading in spots.  And I couldn't help but think of the author, seated cross-legged, paintbrush in hand, half a century behind me, and born of a civilization that owed nothing to my own.  I might as well have been reading the marks of an alien world light years away.  But one thing I knew that I shared with him was an appreciation of the written word and a love of the books that contain it.  In many ways, I think it is the written language that allows us to finally transcend time and place and to sympathize with those around us--and isn't that the very thing that makes us human?

I've gone on far too long--I get wrapped up in books, what can I say?  But what about the rest of you?  Do you consider any books sacred?  Do you remember a particular experience with a particular book above all others?  And what do you think it is about the written word that transfixes and binds us?   



Wednesday, February 9, 2011

TLM's First Reading Challenge: The Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian

It's been more than a month since our last post here at TLM. The cause is obvious, as is the cure. I'm addicted. I'm not afraid to admit it. And I feel compelled to share my addiction by embarking upon the very first TLM Reading/Listening Challenge.

The challenge is this: one complete tour through the 21 novels that comprise Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin Series before year's end. If you've never picked up the Aubrey/Maturin Series, it treats the adventures of British naval officer Jack Aubrey and his Irish/Catalan naval surgeon Stephen Maturin throughout the years during and immediately following the Napoleonic Wars. Though fiction, the novels are renowned for their historical accuracy, and each provides enough swashbuckling adventure, political intrigue, and romance to fill a ship-of-the-line. Richard Snow of the New York Times called the Aubrey/Maturin Series "the best historical novels ever written."

Here are the 21 Aubrey/Maturin novels in order:
The Surgeon's Mate (1980)
The Ionian Mission (1981)
Treason's Harbour (1983)
The Far Side of the World (1984)
The Reverse of the Medal (1986)
The Letter of Marque (1988)
The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)
The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)
Clarissa Oakes/The Truelove (1992)
The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)
The Commodore (1995)
The Yellow Admiral (1996)
The Hundred Days (1998)
Blue at the Mizzen (1999)
The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey/21 (2004)

So who's in? I have a bit of a head start. I'm through the first five novels, and I'm on to number six, The Fortune of War. Thus far, The Mauritius Command and Desolation Island are my particular favorites, though all have been enjoyable reads. I will be posting on them in sets of five, with the first post, covering Master and Commander through Desolation Island, to come over the next several days.

If you are up for the challenge, I invite your participation--please let me know that you're in by posting below. I am also soliciting ideas for some sort of prize or at least acknowledgment of accomplishment for those who see the series through. Please do share your thoughts.