Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Mystery Genre

I suppose the term ‘mystery story’ is basically a huge umbrella term for any number of subgenres: the detective story, the romantic suspense, etc. Perhaps a necessary element is crime, and more specifically murder, and the seeking of a successful solution to the mystery at hand. Suspense arises in the course of the seeking of said solution, which laces those pursuing the perpetrator and/or innocent victims in jeopardy. Yet, it seems that much of what we consider ‘mystery stories’ doesn’t fall neatly into these categories.

As Joyce Carol Oates writes in the introduction to The Best American Mystery Stories 2005, ‘crimes can occur without mystery. Mysteries can occur without crimes. Violent and irrevocable actions can destroy lives but bring other lives together in unforeseeable, unimaginable ways.’

In reading this collection of twenty stories, I found myself enjoying the stories that didn’t neatly fit into the classic definition of the ‘mystery story.’ Edward P. Jones’s ‘Old Boys, Old Girls,’
follows a man in prison and afterwards, yet there is no real mystery to be solved only the effects of the man’s lifestyle and incarceration to witness as he cautiously reunited with a family he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Daniel Orozco’s ‘Officers Weep’ is an interesting tale of two cops falling in love told through the device of a police blotter. Scott Turow’s ‘Loyalty’ is about a man struggling to find himself after leaving his wife, with the crime elements only incidental to the plot of romantic/filial love.

Oates picked these stories because they embody a different way of looking at the genre so defined by Sherlock Holmes and Law and Order. It’s not necessarily about the crime and apprehending the suspect, but instead about how situations that very well may be criminal affect those going through them, whether as perpetrator or victim. Or bystander for that matter.

This past year, I have begun to read more and more fiction classified as ‘mystery’ because of some of the fiction marketed as ‘literary’ had large mystery elements and were some of the stories I enjoyed the most. I am prone to believe, as Michael Chabon has said time and again, that genre classifications are hindering and unnecessary, so I don’t want to compile some sort of list that surveys what I personally like and dislike about the nebulous ‘mystery genre.’

Instead, I’d just like to say that novels such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson and In the Woods by Tana French are some of the best fiction I’ve read this year, and are two novels that a year before I probably never would have looked into I wasn’t a person who really read ‘mystery.’

None of us are immune to being elitist or viewing the world with blinders, especially when it comes to choices we make in our entertainment. Just a reminder that you, and definitely I, may be missing some damn good stuff.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Tales of the Sinestro Corps

Though it took a while to track down a copy, I managed to lay my hands on Tales of the Sinestro Corps this week and was fairly pleased with what I found. This collection reprints the companion material that was released during the Sinestro Corps War series last year, which I discussed here and here. Yet aside from the content in this volume, I have begun to have serious questions about how the various comics from such events are compiled and then marketed in the collected editions.

Throughout the Kyle Rayner arc of the Sinestro Corps War, much emphasis is given to a painting from Kyle’s childhood that was so important to him that other Lanterns took great steps to get it for him after he managed to fight off Parallax. Yet not until the Ion special reprinted here do we find out just what is so meaningful about the painting, something that a dedicated reader of the individual titles would have already known because though the story takes places within Kyle’s mind as his body is held hostage by Parallax, it takes place concurrently with the main action and so this individual issue was released at a time to make reading the concurrent events side by side would have more resonance and make more sense.

Yet when DC put together these volumes, the Ion special was reprinted here is what is essentially a collection of side-stories from the Sinestro Corps War. As such, some of these tales were much less moving than they could have been. The specials involving the Cyborg Superman and Superman-Prime also are told somewhat concurrently with the main action, but from the perspective of the villains. There is a historical component to the issues to help orient readers unfamiliar with what has come before, but most of the content is germane to the actual storyline of the war.

What I am getting at is that with the way such comic events are published, with a main narrative and then half a dozen secondary ones, simply compiling the issues into a linear form doesn’t really do the material justice. While I understand that dropping the Ion special into the middle of one of the first two volumes might have hampered the flow and tension, not including it robs one of the main character’s arcs of necessary content.

The problem is that there isn’t a logical way to consolidate all this content. At first I was going to recommend that instead of two volumes and a companion one, the Sinestro Corps War be printed in three volumes, but to be fair there is a lot of content here that would do more harm than good in the primary narrative. But what I have realized is that this story wasn’t conceived to sell collected editions, at least not primarily. Instead, the idea was to sell individual issues, and from what I have been able to find, it was a huge success.

In many ways I am beginning to reconsider whether or not I want to continue to wait for the collected editions or instead start hitting the comic shop every week gain and read such stories the way they were conceived to be read. As I anxiously await the Rage of the Red Lanterns and Agent Orange collected stories that lead directly into Blackest Night, I am delaying myself from reading something available right now, in a purer form. It had been my thoughts that comic series were being conceived more and more as what would sell as a collected edition, and while this is true, it hasn’t changed the way that stories are being told all that much. Apparently, direct sales of individual issues are the lifeblood of superhero comics and much more influential than I had realized.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Novel Excerpts Disguised as Individual Stories

There are only a handful of authors that warrant me paying full price for a hardcover they day a new book is released, yet Jonathan Lethem is one of those writers. Since his upcoming novel Chronic City has been announced for a few months now, I’ve begun to wonder about its content. More specifically, I’ve begun to wonder about how much of that content I have already read and what such practices might mean for the future of publishing.

It took little searching to find what I believe to be the cover copy from the novel:

Chase Insteadman, a handsome, inoffensive fixture on Manhattan's social scene, lives off residuals earned as a child star on a beloved sitcom called Martyr & Pesty. Chase owes his current social cachet to an ongoing tragedy much covered in the tabloids: His teenage sweetheart and fiancée, Janice Trumbull, is trapped by a layer of low-orbit mines on the International Space Station, from which she sends him rapturous and heartbreaking love letters. Like Janice, Chase is adrift, she in Earth's stratosphere, he in a vague routine punctuated by Upper East Side dinner parties. Into Chase's cloistered city enters Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop critic whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers, and a desperate ache for meaning.

Perkus's countercultural savvy and voracious paranoia draw Chase into another Manhattan, where questions of what is real, what is fake, and who is complicit take on a life-shattering urgency. Along with Oona Laszlo, a self-loathing ghostwriter, and Richard Abneg, a hero of the Tompkins Square Park riot now working as a fixer for the billionaire mayor, Chase and Perkus attempt to unearth the answers to several mysteries that seem to offer that rarest of artifacts on an island where everything can be bought: Truth.

After reading ‘Ava’s Apartment,’ a short story by Lethem in the latest issue of The New Yorker, I had all but determined that Perkus Tooth would be a major figure. While I enjoyed the story about Perkus in The Book of Other People, which came out last year, I didn’t find this latest story very compelling. Without giving it away, it involves a sort of rejuvenation and change in the man’s mind that one can see easily as being the turning point of a novel. My problem here though is not with these stories, but with so much about the character’s history and arc being established outside the context of the novel, not only reducing suspense but also creating a weird sense of déjà vu when encountering it within the novel itself.

Back in November, Lethem published ‘Lostronaut,’ again in The New Yorker. It is an epistolary story told only by using the letters sent from an astronaut trapped in space. Rather than a standalone story as I had assumed, it appears to be directly from the novel as well.

Back in 2001, I began to come across several stories by acclaimed novelist Tim O’Brien that I had yet to read. Culling them from the websites of a variety of publications, I enjoyed them immensely. Then in July of 2002, I went to B&N on the day his new novel July, July was released and quickly read through it. Imagine my surprise when I had previously digested about half the book, word for word, for free, thus being disappointed on two levels.

All this said, I understand why such things are done. For one, the publishing industry is having some problems, so merely be printing a few stories from an upcoming work of fiction, an author may be able to earn quite a bit of extra money (especially if they are publishing in The New Yorker). From a marketing standpoint this makes sense as well, with samples of a novel going out to a wide audience that otherwise may not have heard about the book. Indeed, this is done every week by someone publishing nonfiction, especially if that nonfiction concerns the Bush Administration or the war in Iraq. And while I accept all this, it still irks me that after waiting two and a half years for another Lethem novel, and about five years for a good Lethem novel, I’m not going to be able to experience the work freshly, and instead will remember just enough to have the situation gnaw at me.

In addition, I would imagine that stories will be pulled from novels even more often in the age of the Kindle and given away for free in the hopes that a reader will like it enough to buy the whole work, much as I predicted might happen with the introductions to a lot of books.

Perhaps I should get over it, and indeed this thought process did lead me into some interesting areas of amateur analysis. I would imagine that come October, you will be able to read my thoughts on this work.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Element by Ken Robinson

Coming to the conclusion of a Master’s program that stresses pedagogy (as separate from curriculum and assessment), I have become fairly interested in the ways that modern educational practices in the US have failed students. As a student in public schools, I never felt that I was taught anything of any great import; instead of learning how to learn and think critically, I was forced to memorize equations and produce crafty visual aides, like a mobile I once made of Odysseus in a high school honors class. And as I am of the age where as a married man I am expected to begin to procreate, it has become important to me to attempt to understand how I can prevent my children from suffering a similar fate.

After watching Sir Ken Robinson’s speech at the 2006 TED conference a week or so ago, I felt that he had struck a nerve. As a person who is excited by performing and creating, I was receptive to his ideas that such things are considered impractical by society and thus children are steered towards other, more acceptable, pursuits. A few days later, I picked up The Element, his book concerning the titular principle that all people will be happier and more fulfilled if they can find a passion for something and cultivate it, no matter what it may be.

With all his references to education in the speech, I expected Robinson to evaluate the educational system and offer a plan for change. Instead, this book should be labeled self-help, for it fits in that genre much more than it would one on education. I suppose it is unfair to fault the book for not living up to my expectations, yet it is rare that I am so disappointed with a work.

Essentially, we just receive an extended version of the TED speech. There are dozens more examples, yet none really seem to be all that enlightening. In fact, as Robinson notes, reading about a large number of healthy, successful people can leave those unhappy and unsuccessful, the targeted readers of such a book I would imagine, distressed. The ideas contained within the book are sound, as best as I can figure, but there wasn’t the sort of individualized, practical advice that is so common with self-help books, no plan to help bring the Element into one’s life by following a number of steps. Perhaps such a general aide would be unworkable, yet its absence felt a bit lacking.

Only in the final chapter of the book does Robinson really begin to critique the education system. However, this analysis is so generalized that it could have been written by anyone with a moderate knowledge of the standardized test culture that has revolutionized, in a bad way, the educational process.

While Ken Robinson does in fact demonstrate the need for cultivating the Element within our children, he fails to offer a path with which we can make this happen. That said, The Element was able to help me realize ways in which my own childhood was problematic in this regard, and as such I hope to be able to provide my children, or rather any children whose lives I am a part of, the sort of encouragement to pursue the things he/she is interested in.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Superman: Last Son

While I enjoyed Superman: The Movie quite a bit when I saw it as a kid, Christopher Reeve was never the embodiment of Superman for me. Instead, that fell to George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the 1950s television show that I watched with my father many, many times growing up. I say this because while I am intrigued by Richard Donner’s mythos about Superman that was shown in the first film and in much of Superman II, I am by no means a purist.

When I found out last week that Donner had co-scripted a Superman tale with Geoff Johns, titled Last Son, I took steps to secure a copy with all due haste. Reading that the story involved General Zod, I was expecting essentially Donner’s Superman III (sans Richard Pryor). Again, his vision isn’t scripture to me, but Superman is a character so transcendent that no one mythos can contain him. Like the old Greek myths, Superman’s tale can be told in many different ways and still be true to the character.

The story starts promisingly, with Superman reminded by the Fortress of Solitude’s AI, in the guise of his father Jor-El, that despite his appearance he is not human. Returning to Metropolis, he stops a strange meteor from crashing into the city only to find within it a young boy. After the boy is analyzed by the government and later kidnapped by Superman to prevent him from being harmed, he and Lois briefly discuss adopting him and then name him Christopher.

We get another dose of Donner when three more ships/meteors crash, and who would emerge but Zod, Ursa, and Non. Enraged by their depiction in the Fortress of Solitude’s AI, they vow to destroy Superman and take their place as rulers of Earth. Eventually, they trap Superman in the Phantom Zone from which they have emerged.

Trapped, Superman witnesses the Kryptonian invasion, and he can't do anything to stop it. Mon-El, whom Clark sent to the Zone when he was younger, appears before him. Last I heard, Mon-El was named M’Onel, and was a member of the Legion in the 30th century. He explains what is going on and then using one of the same ships/meteors, Superman returns from the Zone to find the city enslaved and the buildings transforming into Sunstone structures. He turns to Lex Luthor for help against the criminals when he is attacked by Bizarro, the Parasite and Metallo.

As the squad moves out, Metallo uses various forms of kryptonite to kill the Kryptonian outlaws. When using gold, a half dozen of the criminals fall out of the sky with a ‘splat. When using red, one criminal's DNA shifts irregularly changing him into a bug, allowing Metallo to step on his head and crush it. Parasite takes pleasure in siphoning Kryptonian powers from many of the escapees. Bizarro goes toe-to-toe with Non, another mindless brute, as they exchange grunts and tests of strength. Luthor goes after Zod's main fortress, seeking to have the Phantom Zone forcefully ‘recall’ all who had been inside of it. Speaking with Lois, she discovers that as a side effect, Luthor intends to trap Superman within the Zone along with all of the escaped criminals.

For some reason, he doesn’t get sucked back into the Phantom Zone, but Christopher must return to close the breach. Later, speaking with Mon-El, Superman asks for help in locating the boy in the vast Zone.

Since Johns is such a pro, it I hard to see Donner’s input into the script. What seems like his touch could be read as homage, so it is quite hard to critique the director’s role. But what makes this story really suffer is that it is so bogged down in post-Infinite Crisis changes that a casual reader like myself was often lost. When did Mon-El get trapped in the Phantom Zone? When did multicolored forms of Kryptonite reappear? (Though in their defense, the way it was introduced with the ‘splats’ of the Kryptonians was pretty cool.) Since reestablishing these things is of some importance, it’s hard to fault the inclusion, yet for something supposedly so big (from a marketing standpoint at least), perhaps this tale should have been told out of continuity. Yet even as I type this, I realize that I was really excited to think about how different Superman’s life would be if he had a son, and since it was an in-continuity tale, I was interested from that perspective.

There are some other issues as well, most noticeably Luthor’s claim that if he weren’t constantly being foiled he would have cured cancer and ‘helped those who can’t walk walk again.’ First of all, this sort of wink to Christopher Reeve’s unfortunate quadriplegia is a bit unsettling, yet I am pretty sure that Reeve was already dead when this comic went to press. It just struck me as in poor taste.

In all, Last Son is disappointing mostly because it doesn’t decide what it wants to be: a follow-up to Superman II or a story reestablishing things post-Crisis. Trying to do both made both halves suffer. That said, I would be interested in seeing Donner do some more work with comics in the future.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Over a Torrent Sea by Christopher L. Bennett

In yet another follow-up to the events of Destiny, Christopher L. Bennett lets us know how the Titan crew commanded by Captain Riker is handling the aftermath in Over a Torrent Sea. My immediate objection to this book was the fact that the mission of the exploration of uncharted space would continue. After the Federation has been decimated during the huge Borg invasion, the last thing that makes sense is sending a ship back out into the unknown, especially with the rise of a new opponent, the Typhon Pact. However, this is addressed early on in a conversation between Riker and some admiral, and though I don’t agree with the decision, at least commonsensical problems with the idea were not ignored.

The novel concerns the exploration of a planet made up entirely of ocean and inhabited by sentient manta ray/jellyfish types that communicate through songs. This of course gives much of the spotlight to Aili Lavena, the Pacifican conn officer who lives in a sort of reverse scuba suit that is filled with water all the time. Meanwhile, Counselor Troi is getting ready to give birth to a daughter. Noticing that the planet, cutely named Droplet, is about to be struck by a large asteroid, the Titan decides to blow it up in an attempt to save the creatures on the planet. Things go awry, and as a result Lavena and
Riker are trapped together on the surface.

While the usual issues with Bennett’s writing are here in abundance, especially the idiotic epiphanies by characters that are delivered in clunky straightforward dialogue, his creation of the planet’s ecosystem and lifeforms is interesting. Much like his previous Titan work, Orion’s Hounds, he seems to be a better creator of worlds than he is a storyteller. In fact, I would wager that he is the most intriguing current writer when it comes to new alien scenarios, yet the worst when it comes to characterization. Why this is the case is hard to fathom, especially after his fantastic debut using TOS characters in Ex Machina.

Twenty years before this novel, Riker and Lavena had a one-night stand. These things happen. Why it remains such a big deal two decades later is hard to fathom, and the emotional climax of the uncomfortable relationship the two have on the planet is ridiculous. So Riker slept with her before? He’s portrayed as a guy who has quite a few notches on the bedpost, so running into someone he’s previously had sex with can’t be all that rare an occurrence. So why does this bother him so? Why is his attraction to her so troubling if he has no intention of doing anything about it? He’s just married, not a corpse.

Meanwhile, as Titan is adrift after blowing up the asteroid goes horribly wrong, chief medical officer and talking dinosaur Dr. Ree kidnaps Troi and steals a shuttle, eventually landing it on a pre-warp world and delivering the baby in a hospital that is surrounded by police from that world. Apparently, his species sees males defend the child, and the fear of Troi for her child and the grief from Tuvok losing his son during Destiny cause this freakout and Prime Directive violation. What makes this so stupid is not the events themselves, but their conclusion. Twice in just a few months Ree has attacked Troi, this time violating all sorts of laws in the process, but since he wasn’t ‘responsible for his own actions,’ he gets off with a slight slap on the wrist and is even encouraged by Riker. If someone were to kidnap my wife and prevent me from seeing the birth of my first child, even if not in their right mind, I would not only punch that person in the face, but would throw them off my ship. Maybe Ree shouldn’t go to prison, but the idea that anyone on that ship would ever be able to trust him again is ludicrous. This is the sort of PC bullshit that gives Star Trek a bad name.

All in all, this book was only slightly disappointing. Having the chance now to read Bennett’s two Titan novels along with Greater than the Sum, which was specifically written to bridge two novels, it isn’t hard to conclude that he is a much better author when he has no fixed endpoint to adjust everything to. In fact, I wonder with his affinity and talent for world building if he wouldn’t be better suited to working in a different medium, perhaps creating worlds for a video game. Over a Torrent Sea continues the Titan saga about as well as can be expected.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Kindle: Project Wrap-up

Creating this mash-up was much more difficult than I expected. For one, trying to combine s many sources into an argument, especially when one’s sources aren’t necessarily even making an argument themselves, was a bit trying. The project was in a mess until I split up the sections into separate parts because it was just too big an its electronic nature made it impossible to step back and look at the bigger picture in a way I could have had I been writing a more traditional paper.

At the same time, avoiding plagiarism has been ingrained in me over the years of
higher education, and for the most part a project like this consists of editing and using others’ work. I included links to show where I obtained most of the words I used in these posts because I was uncomfortable with publishing them as my own, even with a disclaimer.

I also had to cut out some of the funnier aspects of the project when they didn’t really fit within any of the sections I opted for. For example, how will the Kindle affect literary snobbism? If you have 1,500 books on your Kindle — that’s how many it holds — does that make you any more or less of a bibliophile than if you have the same 1,500 books displayed on a shelf? (For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’ve actually read a couple of them.)

The practice of judging people by the covers of their books is old and time-honored. And the Kindle, which looks kind of like a giant white calculator, is the technology equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. If people jettison their book collections or stop buying new volumes, it will grow increasingly hard to form snap opinions about them by wandering casually into their living rooms.

To some book lovers and editors, there are myriad reasons to deplore the Kindle. Publishers will no longer get the bump that comes when travelers see someone reading, say, the latest James Patterson and say to themselves: ‘I’ve been meaning to get that. I think I’ll buy a copy at Hudson News before I hop on the train.’

And as books migrate from paper, it means the death of the pickup line, ‘Oh, I see you’re reading the latest (insert highbrow author’s name here).’

A blogger on Amazon also published this chart to explain the process of determining whether or not to opt for an ebook version of a title.

But the most interesting aspect of this project for me was learning that in fact the purpose of Amazon’s Kindle is likely less about selling the hardware as it is to acclimate consumers to purchasing ebooks, much in the same way that Amazon helped consumers become comfortable with using their credit cards over the internet. And that is why the iPhone Kindle application is telling; you get all the advantages of reading on a Kindle without buying the very expensive hardware.

My guess is that with the new PDF technology in the DX, it will become less an issue of whether one can take a book from one device to another. But with the huge head start, Amazon is betting that when you can pick from any eReader program out there, for free becuase programs are separate from hardware, you’ll stick with them.

Previous entries can be found here:
Current Snapshot
Future of eBooks & their Marketing
Competition & the Future of the Kindle
Newspapers & Magazines
Textbooks & Use by the Handicapped

Textbooks on Kindle & Use by the Handicapped

Beginning this fall, some students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland will be given large-screen Kindles with textbooks for chemistry, computer science and a freshman seminar already installed, said Lev Gonick, the school's chief information officer. The university plans to compare the experiences of students who get the Kindles and those who use traditional textbooks, he said.

Amazon has worked out a deal with several textbook publishers to make their materials available for the device, Gonick added. The new device will also feature a more fully functional Web browser. The Kindle's current model, which debuted in February, includes a Web browser that is classifi
ed as ‘experimental.’ Five other universities are involved in the Kindle project, according to people briefed on the matter.

A larger-screen Kindle would enable textbook publishers to better display the charts and graphs that aren't particularly well suited to the current device, which has a screen that measures just six inches diagonally. But digitizing academic books could also hurt the thriving market for used textbooks on college campuses. Of course, this would be even better news for Amazon and publishers, since now they only get one sale for a book that may be used by up to a dozen students because of this resale market. In theory, this would mean that prices might decline, since the publisher of that same book would get 12 sales instead of 1 and could pass on the savings to the
consumer while still retaining a tidy profit for themselves.

This chart from a college-bookstore association shows where all the money goes and also implies that 55.9 percent of textbook costs could be saved if they were delivered digitally, bypassing college bookstores. Amazon wants as much of that 55.9 percent as possible. That's a whole lot of profit for an industry estimated to be worth $8.6 billion.

But not all students are convinced reading textbooks on a Kindle would be a good idea. ‘I’d need five Kindles just to hold a single thought while writing essays,’ said Marius Johannessen, who is studying for his master’s in information systems at University of Agder. ‘Books work just fine.’ In other words, there is nothing like having half a dozen books splayed open on the table in front of you while you desperately write a paper.

Students pointed out plenty of other issues about the DX to For instance, students often loan textbooks to one another, and currently that’s not practical with a Kindle, as you’d have to loan your entire reader and library. Also, the beauty of paper textbooks is the ability to highlight sentences, underline keywords and keep all of them open at once. While the Kindle does have highlight and notes tools, the reader is sluggish with performance, and the keyboard is unnatural and clunky to type on.

I would imagine that the publishing industry will be closely following the experimentation at Case Western Reserve University very closely over the next year. If it is a success, Amazon may be able to get themselves into dozens of universities by the fall of 2010.

Someone tabulated 700 of the responses in that Amazon thread (that represents about 75 percent of all the posts) about what age buyers of the Kindle were and broke out the numbers. Here they are:

0 - 19: 5%
20 - 29: 10%
30 - 39: 15%
40 - 49: 19.5%
50 - 59: 23%
60 - 69: 19.5%
70 - 79: 6%
80+: 2%

We can't call this the most scientific poll ever taken, but it's probably a good indicator of the Kindle's age demographic. If you add it all up, over half the owners are over 50 and 70 percent are over 40.

If you look at the Amazon thread, a lot of senior folks bought the Kindle--and now the Kindle 2--partially because the digital reader is easier to handle than regular books for arthritis sufferers. It also helps that you can increase the font size, if you have trouble viewing small print in books.

Amazon is in a bit of battle with publishers who tend to think that e-book sales are cannibalizing their print books sales. However, comments from seniors saying they're able to read more now that they own Kindles helps Amazon's pseudo-statistical case that e-book purchases are incremental/additive, rather than cannibalistic of their print sales.

The Author’s Guild also has a big problem with a function on the Kindle 2 that allows a user to enable a Stephen Hawking-like voice to read the literature aloud. It claimed that the computer-generated voices, so-called ‘text-to-speech’ functions, are expected ‘to improve rapidly’ and undermine lucrative audio-book sales.

While this is still being debated, the people at Dvice use the Kindle and iPod Shuffle to illustrate the emotional content delivered by these voices.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Kindle & Newspapers

Perhaps most appealing about this new class of reading gadgets is the opportunity they offer publishers to rethink their strategy in a rapidly evolving digital world. The move by newspapers and magazines to make their material freely available on the Web is now viewed by many as a critical blunder that encouraged readers to stop paying for the print versions. And publishers have found that they were not prepared to deal with the recent rapid decline of print advertising revenue.

Publishers could possibly use these new mobile reading devices to hit the reset button and return in some form to their original business model: selling subscriptions, and supporting their articles with ads.

Subscribers get updates once a day over a cellular network. Amazon and other participating publishers say they are satisfied with the results, although they have not
released data on the number of subscriptions that have been sold.

The screens, which are currently in the Kindle and Sony Reader, display no color or video and update images at a slower rate than traditional computer screens. That has some people in the magazine industry, in particular, keeping their hopes in check until E Ink evolves.

Another hitch is that some makers of reading devices, like Amazon, want to set their own subscription prices for publications and control the relationship with the subscriber — something media companies like Condé Nast object to. Plastic Logic and Hearst have said publicly that they will take a more open approach and let media companies deal directly with readers and set their own prices.

Then there is the looming presence of Apple, which seems likely to introduce a multipurpose tablet computer later this year, according to rumor and speculation by Apple observers. Such a device, with a screen that is said to be about three or four times as large as the iPhone’s, would have an LCD screen capable of showing rich color and video, and people could use it to browse the Web.

James Moroney, CEO and Publisher of the Dallas Morning News, who would like to see a limited anti-trust exemption so publishers can talk about pricing, thinks that would help when it comes to negotiating with a company the size of Amazon. He told the Senate: 'The Kindle, which I think is a marvelous device, the best deal Amazon will give the Dallas Morning News—and we’ve negotiated this up to the last two weeks—they want 70 percent of the subscriptions revenue. I get 30 percent, they get 70 percent. On top of that they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device. Now is that a business model that is going to work for newspapers? I get 30 percent and they get the right to license my content to any portable device—not just ones made by Amazon? That, to me, is not a model. Maybe what Plastic Logic comes up with or what Hearst comes up with, might provide a good model but today Kindles are less than 1 percent penetration in the U.S. market. They’re not a platform that’s going to save newspapers in the near term.'

Arthur Sulzburger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, came out to do a song and dance about how the Kindle is an exciting new opportunity for journalism at the recent pres conference debut of the Kindle DX. The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Washington Post all signed up for pilot programs to subsidize the cost of a DX if the buyer agrees to a fixed-length subscription and lives ‘outside the delivery area of the paper. (Since I get the NYT delivered to my home, I’m probably out; the details of this deal are, frustratingly, being withheld until this summer.) The last Kindle handled papers just fine with 6 inches. So why start touting newspapers now with the DX?

Advertising. After the press conference, a reporter asked an Amazon rep whether there's any advertising that accompanies the newspaper content. After a pregnant pause, she said there wasn't but that she wouldn't rule it out in the future.

Now the big screen starts to make sense; the more real estate for text, the more real estate for ads. The DX appears to be a sleeper agent, waiting to be activated to fight the good fight for the future of journalism. As of now, Kindle users pay a subscription fee to get the newspapers delivered, but they're ad-free. At some point soon, I suspect we'll see ads—possibly even interactive ones—running alongside the content. When that happens, the newspaper content will have about as much room left as on a 6-incher.

Kindle Competition & the Future of the Device

It is always nice when the industry rumor mill starts validating what I have been saying for months, namely, that rumors of a ready-to-release Apple netbook actually refer to a supersized iPod touch.

Described as having a larger touch-screen than the Kindle's 6-inch display, while being physically smaller than the Amazon device, Apple's baby has been dubbed a ‘mediapad.’ The larger screen would be a more pleasant way to view movies or the Internet than an iPod or iPhone and the device could have decent speakers, too. By using a touch screen, Apple could save space necessary for Kindle's keyboard, resulting in a smaller device. W
hile not pocket-sized, the Apple mediapad would be easy to carry and offer an entertainment experience a smaller device could not match. Reading a book might be such an experience, right?

The Kindle for iPhone app is on a screen is just too tiny. 
I do not own a Kindle and have little interest in paying over $350 for what, to me, would be a single-purpose device. An Apple mediapad would doubtless do everything an iPod touch does, only larger. And it could do everything a Kindle does, too, only in color.

I cannot imagine that Amazon really wants to be a consumer electronics hardware company. Its investment in Kindle was necessary to kick-start the e-book industry. Many companies had tried e-books previously, without much luck. Amazon has shown that an e-book reader can find customers, provided the content is available. Amazon has the content part nailed and will, presumably, be happy to see Apple create a much larger installed based of e-book-capable hardware than Kindle ever will.

A popular prediction is that if Apple really does the mediapad, Kindle will go away. But, probably not until Apple can reach a $350 price for its rumored new product. That make take a while, as estimates are that the super iPod touch will cost $500 or more when/if it is released.

In which case, the Apple mediapad and Kindle will coexist for a time, but eventually there will be no need for the Kindle and Amazon will be happy to be out of the hardware business.

Jeff Bezos today announced that among books that are available for the Kindle, 35% of the copies Amazon sells are Kindle editions. This is a surprising number (at the Kindle 2 unveiling in February it was 10%) and is further proof of the huge land grab that Amazon is now enacting. Only slightly mitigating those sales figures is news that the DX will support the commonplace PDF format, leaving the door open for a future in which most ebooks sold can be read on any reader, no matter what company manufactures it.

Think of what that means. Amazon has tens of millions of customers. It sold 500,000 Kindles last year, Mark Mahaney of Citigroup estimates. So even if it has twice that many in distribution, that is a lot of e-book buying by a small number of people. The Kindle must have an enormous penetration of what is a very distinctive, and for Amazon, quite lucrative, segment: very heavy buyers of books.

Amazon has also been making waves on the device agnostic side of things with last month's purchase of Stanza, the popular free ebook application for the iPhone. Amazon had already unveiled the Kindle app for the iPhone, and this move further solidifies its presence there (and presumably in the app-centric ecosystems of future smartphones).

The Kindle itself, of course, is the main focus. The longer that Amazon can keep its hands on the ebook market (a market that will eventually embrace open formats, one has to assume), the longer Amazon can rake in its monopoly profits. The iPhone moves, as well as the decision to support PDFs on the DX, meanwhile, are a smart hedge and a tacit acknowledgment that ebooks will one day be predominantly sold in formats that aren't tied to any one device.

Chris Anderson made the idea famous that you can make something and sell it to the masses, that can be a great business. But sometimes selling something to a much smaller group can also be quite lucrative, if you pick the right product for the right customers.

A large percentage of the books are bought by a small number of readers. We hear a lot about the long tail — how most items in a product catalog have a small volume of sales. But the same curve can be applied to customers of most businesses. The “head” — a relatively small number of people — represent a disproportionately large share of profits.
Amazon already served many of those people with its mail-order store, and it built a product that a large number of them have adopted. Most of the rest of its customers — the long tail who read a book every now and then — shrug and ask why they need another gadget when they already have a phone and computer.

By contrast, mass adoption was critical for the iPod, which earns money for Apple mainly through hardware sales. Apple has said it runs the iTunes store at only a small profit. And most people get most of their music from CDs, file sharing or other sources that don’t bring dollars to Apple.

The Kindle is about selling books, not eReaders. There is very little book piracy at the moment, and Amazon no doubt sells the vast majority of the books read on the Kindle. Why wouldn’t it? Its wireless store is amazingly convenient, and its prices can’t be beat: $10 or less for a best seller.

On a conference call with investors in January, Mr. Bezos even said that the Kindle hadn’t cannibalized the company’s paper book business: ‘We see that when people buy a Kindle, they actually continue to buy the same number of physical books going forward as they did before they owned a Kindle. And then incrementally, they buy about 1.6 to 1.7 electronic books, Kindle books, for every physical book that they buy.’

Apple’s proposed device would no doubt be a mass-market product with many uses and a very different proposition than the Kindle. It would be interesting to see how the market reacts to a color, back-lit, touch-screen device with much shorter battery life than the black-and-white Kindle.

In some ways such a device may undercut the new markets Amazon is staking out for the new Kindle DX: students and news fans, both of whom may value color and speed more than book readers. Moreover, a Web-oriented interface would offer, at least for now, free content from newspapers and magazines. In fact, one might assume that the only reason the DX was announced only a few months after Kindle 2.0 is to get the media discussing the applications of the device, especially the textbook application that will be discussed here later this week, before Apple could steal their thunder.

But Amazon has already hedged its bets here. It has a Kindle application for the iPhone that most likely will also run on the new Apple device, potentially competing with an Apple e-book store.

An interesting technology that is going to affect the e-book reader industry in the next year or so is the screen from the One Laptop Per Child. Mary Lou Jepsen came from One Laptop Per Child. She invented the screen, which is actually called Pixel Qi — Pixel Q-I. It’s based off the E-Ink technology and LCD, and it’s mashed together, and it creates a color version of E-Ink that you can actually switch between this LCD with full movement to E-Ink in low-light situations and low power and things like that. So she’s going to be shipping those devices, the screens in November or so which means that we’ll probably start seeing them in the market place in the next year or year and a half, which should be really interesting if we assume that they won’t be edged out of the market.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Future of eBooks & Their Marketing

Now that books are finally entering the world of networked, digital text, they will undergo the same transformation that Web pages have experienced over the past 15 years. Blogs, remember, were once called ‘web logs,’ cultivated by early digital pioneers who kept a record of information they found online, quoting and annotating as they browsed.

With books becoming part of this universe, ‘booklogs’ will prosper, with readers taking inspi
ring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, ‘In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.’) You'll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage's true meaning.

You might think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity -- a direct exchange between author and reader -- to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.

This great flowering of annotating and indexing will alter the way we discover books, too. Web publishers have long recognized that ‘front doors’ matter much less in the Google age, as visitors come directly to individ
ual articles through search. Increasingly, readers will stumble across books through a particularly well-linked quote on page 157, instead of an interesting cover on display at the bookstore, or a review in the local paper.

Imagine every page of every book individually competing with every page of every other book that has ever been written, each of them commented on and indexed and ranked. A world in which search attracts new book readers also will undoubtedly change the way books are written, just as the serial publishing schedule of Dickens's day led to the obligatory cliffhanger ending at the end of each installment. Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google's results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.

What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind.

There are also those authors who are exploiting the nature of the electronic writing space available with devices like a PDA. Arguably the most popular and best known genre of electronic literature is hypertext fiction, distinguis
hed by its many links between blocks of text known as lexias. Prior to the Internet, distribution of literary hypertext still shared many characteristics with print novels. As with a paperback copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight, readers of Patchwork Girl were restricted to engaging with that story in ways limited by the constraints inherent to a CD ROM: just as we can’t add or substract pages from a printed book, a CD ROM-based hypertext like Patchwork Girl is restricted to the contents that are on the physical disc. Unless a new edition is created, no new information can be added to the work. Unlike Web-based hypertext, for better or worse it cannot be updated or revised without a whole new physical product being produced, making it really just another computer program, one that lacks the interconnectedness found on the Web.

Michael Joyce has created the terms 'exploratory' and 'constructive' hypertext in order to denote the differences between pre-Web and Web-based hypertexts, and he considers exploratory hypertexts like Patchwork Girl and Victory Garden to be more in line with the 'output' readers would associate with contemporary book culture. In exploratory hypertexts, the relationship between the text and reader is not terribly different from a reader’s relationship to a novel like Ulysses or Tristram Shandy.

The economics of digital books will likely change the conventions of reading and writing as well. Di
gital distribution makes it a simple matter to offer prospective buyers a 'free sample' to entice them to purchase the whole thing. Many books offered for the Kindle, for instance, allow readers to download the first chapter free of charge. The ‘free sample’ component of a book will become as conventional as jacket-flap copy and blurbs; authors will devise a host of stylistic and commercial techniques in crafting these giveaway sections, just as Dickens mastered the cliffhanger device almost two centuries before.

It's not hard to imagine, for instance, how introductions will be transformed in this new world. Right now, introductions are written with the assumption that people have already bought the book. That won't be the case in the future, when the introduction is given away. It will, no doubt, be written more to entice readers to buy the whole book.
Clearly, we are in store for the return of the cliffhanger.

As the publishing industry is now in a position where devices are starting to become good enough for people to buy eBooks in significant numbers, publishers are becoming increasingly anxious to adapt to the changin
g scene amongst their consumers. Their concerns over which format to use and which device will be the ‘killer device’ are growing. Should the gamble on the Kindle and get into bed with Amazon, or hold out and see what happens with the rumored new Apple eReader device or even something else. Unlike the music industry, publishers have never needed to think about which device to publish their books for. The device was the paper and print. If you publish regular novels which just has text and no illustrations, there is one format for you. If you publish cookbooks, for example, then you need a format that can handle the more complex text and images.

Computer games developers and publishers have always needed a device to be purchased on which their games can be played. In the early days, it was a computer. Then specialized devices came along and the manufacturers of the devices started to battle it out for domination and Sony was the early winner with the Playstation. Microsoft brought out the Xbox and Nintendo discovered a new market with the Wii.

But the games publishers and developers learnt fairly early on that the platform did not affect their deve
lopment and publishing of games. The games developers (the equivalent of authors) created ever more immersive and graphically stunning games to make the most of the power of the games consoles, which could be played on either an Xbox or a Playstation. They just developed ‘compiler’ programs and ‘architectures’ through which their games adapted to the platform for which they had been purchased. Games publishers want to be able to distribute their games onto as many platforms as they can.

The good thing about books unlike a newspaper is that they are likely to be read again. Not read as many times, perhaps, as often as a track is played on a MP3 player, but an eBook has a longer life than a newspaper article, nevertheless. A game is likely to be played several times before it swapped or exchanged. Of course, most games come on a disc. But, increasingly, games are being played online and soon they will be downloaded to consoles when broadband speeds increase. So, in that sense, publishers will be ahead of games developers.

A game can be rented from Blockbuster for a few nights, or purchased from the store or online. eBooks will need to be adaptable enough to allow different forms of ownership and payment such as borrowing from a library, renting from an online store, as well a perpetual license when bought outright.

Book publishers should think like this too. They just need to carry on finding good authors, and marketing the books well and let the device manufacturers fight it out amongst themselves on which device will be the most popular. In the meantime, they need to grow their digital capability to be able to deliver eBooks in several different formats and study how companies like EA Games work to get some idea.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Kindle: A Current Snapshot

The general consensus among those in the publishing industry is that writing and reading are doing just fine. It’s the intermediaries that are failing. Sara Nelson, formed editor in chief at Publisher’s Weekly, discussed the ineffective supply chain management among publishers at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April. That supply chain needs to deal with 300,000 books published annually, which led Nelson to two points. ‘This is a gatekeeper issue,’ she said. ‘We simply publish too many books. We need more midlist novels and less of the celebrity books that challenge the bottomline of publishing conglomerates. The supply chain is broken. In the 20th century you got books to distributors and they got books into stores, and reps from publishers into stores telling buyers what to order... that doesn’t work anymore. The more you publish, the more overwhelming it is, and you need somebody to help you through the morass of choices.’

One audience member commented that because of the economic structure and relatively low price of e-books, ‘writers are then screwed.’ Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press, responded, ‘No, that is not true. Printing accounts for 12% of production cost, thus there is actually more of the pie for the writer to get.’

Let’s take a minute to investigate this claim. Assuming that what Nash said is accurate, one would expect that the difference between the print version of a book and the Kindle copy would be 12%, leaving out that he price may be artificially low in order to encourage buyers. This week, Colson Whitehead has brought out a new novel called Sag Harbor that is priced at $24.95. The Kindle version on Amazon is only $9.99, a difference of about 60%. Yet Amazon offers the book at $14.97, a difference between the Kindle version of only 20% from the actual price. So on the surface, Nash’s assertion would appear to be true, even though an author's actual share is probably about a nickel or so.

In this world, citation will become as powerful a sales engine as promotion is today. An author will write an arresting description of Thomas Edison's controversial invention of the light bulb, and thanks to hundreds of inbound links from book-bloggers quoting the passage, those pages will rise to the top of Google's results for anyone searching ‘invention of light bulb.’ Each day, Google will deposit a hundred potential book buyers on that page, eager for information about Edison's breakthrough. Those hundred readers might pale compared with the tens of thousands of prospective buyers an author gets from an NPR appearance, but that Google ranking doesn't fade away overnight. It becomes a kind of permanent annuity for the author.

For nonfiction and short-story collections, a la carte pricing will emerge, as it has in the marketplace for digital music. Readers will have the option to purchase a chapter for 99 cents, the same way they now buy an individual song on iTunes. The marketplace will start to reward modular books that can be intelligibly split into standalone chapters.
This fragmentation sounds unnerving -- yet another blow to the deep-focus linearity of the print-book tradition. Breaking the book into detachable parts may sell more books, but there are certain kinds of experiences and arguments that can only be conveyed by the steady, directed immersion that a 400-page book gives you. A playlist of the best chapters from Middlemarch, Gravity's Rainbow and Beloved will never work the way a playlist of songs culled from different albums does today. Nor will many sustained nonfiction arguments like Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat or biographies like David Michaelis’s Schultz and Peanuts.

Yet that modular pricing system will have one interesting, and laudable, side effect: The online marketplace will have established an easy, one-click mechanism for purchasing small quantities of text.

Tellingly, the Kindle already includes blog and newspaper subscriptions that can be purchased in a matter of seconds.

Skeptics may ask why anyone would pay for something that was elsewhere available at no charge, but that's precisely what they said when Steve Jobs launched the iTunes Music Store, competing with the free offerings on Napster. We've seen how that turned out. If the Kindle payment architecture takes off, it may ultimately lead the way toward the standardized micropayment system whose nonexistence has caused so much turmoil in the news business -- a system many people wish had been built into the Web's original architecture, along with those standardized page locations.

Tomorrow’s post will deal how this new economic structure may affect the way books are produced and marketed.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Amazon's Kindle: A Scholarly Mash-Up

This is the first in a series of posts concerning the Amazon Kindle, presented as a mash-up of various news sources compiled from the web. While links will be presented to demonstrate where content has been culled from, and thus cited, quotation marks will seldom be used.

A friend is in the process of moving to a new apartment, which means we just finished boxing up and shipping his entire book collection. This was a lot of boxes. I'm the kind of person who likes to travel light, so it's at moments like this that I really see the value in the so-called e-book revolution that's apparently heading o
ur way. If the e-book revolution means I can enjoy these same objet's d'art in a virtual form about 600 pounds lighter, I'm for that.’s Kindle is a software and hardware platform for reading electronic books. Three hardware devices, known as ‘Kindle,’ ‘Kindle 2,’ and newly announced ‘Kindle D
X,’ support this platform, as does an Apple’s iPhone application called ‘Kindle for iPhone.’ The first device was released in the United States in November of 2007. While Amazon has declined to release sales figures, estimates are that the company sold 500,000 of the devices last year.

Amazon's early data suggest that Kindle users buy significantly more books than they did before owning the device, and it's not hard to understand why: the bookstore is now following you around wherever you go. A friend mentions a book in passing, and instead of jotting down a reminder to pick it up next time you're at Barnes & Noble, you take out the Kindle and -- voilà! -- you own it.

An impulsive purchase of a novel or nonfiction book has another element to it, though -- one that may not be as welcomed by authors. Specifically: if I was in the middle of another book, in a matter of seconds, I can leave it for one of its competitors. The jump could be triggered by something in the book I was originally reading: a direct quote or reference to another work, or some more indirect suggestion in the text.

In other words, an infinite bookstore at your fingertips is great news for book sales, and may be great news for the dissemination of knowledge, but not necessarily so great for that most finite of 21st-century resources: attention.

Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online, you can click happily from blog post to email thread to an online magazine like Slate -- sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument. This is perhaps one reason that it doesn’t seem too many people are reading the long form journalism on sites run by The New Republic or Harper's, for example.

The Kindle in its current incarnation maintains some of that emphasis on linear focus; it has no dedicated client for email or texting, and its Web browser is buried in a subfolder for "experimental" projects. But Amazon has already released a version of the Kindle software for reading its e-books on an iPhone, which is much more conducive to all manner of distraction. No doubt future iterations of the Kindle and other e-book readers will make it just as easy to jump online to check your 401(k) performance as it is now to buy a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

As a result, many fear that one of the great joys of book reading -- the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author's ideas -- will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.

Further posts will focus on the evolution of books when the primary form of reading is via an electronic reader, the dissemination of magazines and newspapers, the future of the device and possible competitors, as well as a new trend to try and sell college textbooks on Kindles this fall. Please let me know what you think.

This project was originally conceived as a long form essay that would mash-up over a dozen sources with minimal editing into one sustained argument. Halfway through the effort, I realized the irony of discussing a device that could be complicated by the short attention span of today’s users in a very long essay that would be disseminated over the web. I then chose to cut a thousand words and translate the overall argument into several smaller and easier to state pieces that could be comfortably submitted on my blog, a forum where readers are already familiar with my style of writing and where I am confident in my ability to communicate.

Three Brief Reviews

Since reading a few of the very short stories by J. Robert Lennon in Michael Chabon's Best American Short Stories, I've been yearning for the full collection, Pieces for the Left Hand, to be published here in America. It finally arrived last month, and the other 92 stories (called 'anecdotes' on the front cover) don't disappoint. Lennon's stories are a bit unsettling for the very reason that they are so entertaining. An escalation in a high school rivalry leads to kidnapping. A woman who used to allow some mice to be killed in traps in order to save others is haunted when as a obstetrician she must advise mothers of multiples to cull a few to let the others live. You see how it is.

While the collection is enjoyable, the short nature of the anecdotes can make sustained reading problematic. Best enjoyed the way they were presented in BASS, my advice would be to only read a handful at a time. Rapid succession of the stories causes them to lose resonance, and somet
imes the best thing to read before going to sleep is something just unsettling enough to make you pray for calm dreams.

I've never kept up with the X-Men on any sort of regular basis, but browsing a few of the recent collections has piqued my interest. Endangered Species takes place after the Scarlet Witch has reduced the number of mutants in the world from tens of millions to a couple of hundred based solely upon her words. Beast is consumed with the desire to preserve his race, going so far as to solicit help from some of the X-Men's staunchest foes. While the story is fairly moving and one cannot help but empathize with Hank McCoy, the inclusion of so many characters out of any broader context was very confusing. This is especially true of Dark Beast, a sort of mirror universe Beast who has dark brown fur and no conscience when it comes to experimentation. As one might expect, the mutant/Jew angle is played up and after so many times down this road it just isn't as powerful as it once was. All this said, I am taking effort to go back and read the tales that preceded this one in order to help make sense of the current Marvel universe. Perhaps this will change my opinion of the collection, but for now I give it a moderate thumbs up.

There is only one reason that I watched Charlie Wilson's War earlier this week: Aaron Sorkin. He writes some of the best dialogue being filmed today, but you wouldn't know it from watching this film. Tom Hanks plays Rep. Charlie Wilson from Texas who pretty much single-handedly arms the freedom fighters in Afghanistan in their battle against their Soviet oppressors. An interesting story, one that seems pretty much accurate to the true events, but just lacks the sort of verve one wants in a movie experience. Julia Roberts plays a completely unbelievable rich Houston woman, while Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in another fantastic performance as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. If for anything, you should watch this film for his performance.

Maybe it isn't fair that I am against it Sorkin's script just because it didn't dance like The American President or The West Wing even though it's about politics. But what really didn't work for me was the sort of moral stuck to the end. After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan and the Berlin Wall fell, Americans wouldn't spend even a few million dollars to help the Afghans rebuild their infrastructure: read here schools and hospitals. As a result, Sorkin draws the obvious line between those decisions almost twenty years ago and the state of Afghanistan today. Anyone who has read anything about the Mideast country in the past seven years already knows this, and playing out this little piece of history, despite its entertainment value, didn't serve to drive home the point any more directly for this viewer. Instead, I felt like my intelligence was insulted.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Superman: For Tomorrow

I am a big fan of Brian Azzarello. His name will make me pick up a comic that I otherwise have no interest in reading. Perfect example is For Tomorrow, a Superman collaboration with Jim Lee that came out a few years ago. As a kid I used to be a huge fan of Superman, but as I have gotten older there just seems to be a missing element to the character that bothers me. I understand that he got the great values from his Kansan parents, but there has to be something deeper as to why he acts the way he does, something that so many have tried and failed to convey before, and something that Azzarello and Lee attempt again here.

While Superman is off in space, millions of people across Earth suddenly disappear. He returns too late to stop the disappearances that devastate the world, but discovers quickly that the global tragedy struck all-too close for the Man of Steel. Lois Lane is gone and Superman is so despondent about his failings that he visits a priest for an ongoing confessional that runs the length of the story.

Superman is always most interesting when his superiority is put into question, and Azzarello poses the perfect question at the start: what happens when the Man of Steel fails? It’s not like losing a fight with the Parasite or something, but instead that he was powerless to prevent a global act of terror. As many of us felt after 9/11, the big guy is left questioning his abilities and purpose. This is played out in his confessional type conversations with the priest and is stirringly effective.

Yet the problem with For Tomorrow, as with so many other stories, is that the mystery is more interesting than the truth. Since the first volume is primarily told in a flashback, the second catches up to the present and we lose the troubling reflections by the Man of Steel. But the real issue is that it doesn’t feel like a Superman story. Instead it feels like a Brian Azzarello story that just so happens to have a Superman-like character in it. The brooding character is welcome, but in the end the appeal of the character is one of hope and wonder.

Azzarello wastes the character of the priest, turning him from a compelling person to a science fiction cliché. To me, this character provides the heart of this book, the touch of humanity, and to have it thrown away irrevocably mars the tale.

Jim Lee’s artwork is top notch. It really feels like he has a handle on Superman and Lois Lane in a way that he didn’t while drawing Hush. While some of the villains aren’t conceived too well visually, the layouts are stunning and his mastery of storytelling is easily apparent.

All in all, another disappointing stab at what makes Superman the sort of person he is. That said, I hope that DC continues to mine stories in this vein because when someone finally does nail it, it will be one of the best comics ever written.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Reading List: April 2009

I will be done with graduate school classes in twelve days, allowing me to use the summer to work on my thesis and complete it at the start of the fall. Words cannot describe what a joy this will be, though I suppose I should keep in mind the two seminar papers I must write between now and the 12th. Anyway, this will hopefully free my schedule enough that I can focus on some short pieces for this space, perhaps even some multipart posts concerning specific issues.

This month was a bit of a mixed bag so far as posting goes. I did increase content over March, but it was sporadic and I let more than a few ideas die a quick and unceremonious death. I also am realizing that while I am completing a lot of books, the majority are graphic novels, usually quick reads, and thus my numbers are a bit inflated. I'm hoping to get back to reading more long fiction this summer.

In the month of April I read 19 books and graphic novels, and this is what they were:
  • Breakdowns by Art Spiegelman
  • Sin City: A Dame to Kill For & The Big Fat Kill by Frank Miller
  • Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser
  • DMZ: The Hidden War & Blood in the Game by Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli
  • Preacher: Alamo by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon
  • Fables: War and Pieces by Bill Willingham, et al.
  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
  • Planetary: Leaving the 20th Century by Warren Ellis & John Cassasday
  • Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War, Volume I & Volume II by Geoff Johns, et al.
  • The Boat by Nam Le
  • Ex Machina: Ex Cathedra by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris
  • Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins
  • The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham
  • Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore & Brian Bolland
  • JLA: Earth 2 by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
  • Joker by Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo
This month is going to start a new tradition where I make a pick of the month and encourage everyone to read it. Ideally, this will be a book I have already reviewed so one can further investigate my opinions and decide if they want to give the book a shot, yet I make no promises. This month, however, I did indeed write a review of Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index, in which the author attempts to put into order the details surrounding her father's suicide sixteen years ago. An excellent rumination not only on suicide, but also on the nature of turning life into stories.

As always, I welcome questions or comments about the books listed or about anything under the sun.