Thursday, March 28, 2013

News: Amazon buys Goodreads

I've never been particularly abashed about my love for Goodreads, particularly after LivingSocial decided it wasn't going to continue on with its original business plan. So I was understandable a little anxious when I read this article from CNET today about Amazon acquiring Goodreads

I use Goodreads for a number of things--first and foremost is to keep up with what I read.  I read so much that it's handy to have Goodreads there, especially as an app on my phone, to keep me from buying a book over again.  It also helps me track what I read. 

I also like being able to put my reviews down at Goodreads.  For my reviews, I often review a book here at the blog, then copy/paste my review, sans any graphics, over at Goodreads with a link to the original post.  Sometimes publishers also request that I put a review over on Amazon when I'm finished reading a book.  To distinguish myself from those reviewers, I always make sure that my disclaimer about receiving a copy of the book is front and center (though I have wondered if I should also put that my publication of the review there is at the request of the publisher, or if that is understood.  Thoughts?). 

I think what may concern me is privacy problems.  My Goodreads is linked to my Facebook, which I don't particularly want linked to my Amazon account.  I also don't want Amazon automatically updating my Goodreads when I order things. 

I understand what Amazon can bring to the table.  The message from Goodreads' founders that was on the site today expressed excitement about being able to connect to e-readers, though in this case that will mean the Kindle, and almost assuredly, the Kindle alone, which I think is going be a problem for Barnes and Noble. I would have much rather seen Goodreads move for some kind of e-reader integration across markets, instead of giving Amazon yet another tool in the box, however small, to keep hammering at B&N's market share.

Still, this could be good for Goodreads users.  Only time will tell.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Pick the cover for Elizabeth Gilbert's new book!

I got an email today from Viking about an interesting development in the publishing of Elizabeth Gilbert's  (author of Eat, Pray, Love) new novel, The Signature of All Things.  From tomorrow morning through Sunday, readers get to vote via Gilbert's Facebook page for which cover they'd like to see on her new book!

The Signature of All Things is "an epic novel of love, ambition, and 19th century botanical exploration," and to be quite honest, I'm rather looking forward to it!  The main character is a female scientist, and the title hints at the doctrine of signatures, the idea that God made things in nature look like body parts in order to indicate what they should be used for.  It sounds right up my alley, to be honest!

USA Today reports that while Gilbert does have a favorite, she's not telling what it is.  Personally, I'm going to be voting for the purple cover.  And I'll be curious to see how many people vote on the cover--is this something that's going to be a worthwhile business practice for publishers to drum up publicity for new books?  Certainly, it's a new tactic right now, and obviously, I'm covering this first foray into letting social media make a decision, so it seems to be working for now.  Will this strategy work long term?  I'm not sure, but I suspect novelty will have more to do with this than anything else.

The Signature of All Things will be released 1 October 2013.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

Jansma, Kristopher. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. New York: Viking, 2013.  Hardcover. +272 pages. $26.95. Release Date: 21 March 2013.

Full Disclosure: I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


"THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS follows the worldwide travels of a deliberately unreliable narrator and his two friends: Julian McGann, a brilliant but troubled collegiate literary rival, and the high-society Broadway actress Evelyn, also known as the girl who got away. Struggling to define themselves as individuals but inextricably bound together, the three chase love, success, and each other from jazz clubs in Manhattan to a writer’s colony in Iceland, from the mountains of Sri Lanka to a wedding on the lip of the Grand Canyon. After the trio has a disastrous falling out, the narrator weaves an intricate web of fiction around himself that allows him to dodge responsibility—but never fully escape it.   It is only once he is able to put aside his fictions and confess his own role that he is set free.

 As much a coming-of-age story about a young man and his friends trying to find their way in the world as an exploration of the nature of truth, Kristopher Jansma’s THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS will appeal to readers of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas, with its elegant study of the stories we tell to find out who we really are." - Viking Press Release


I remember the first time a book reached out and, to use an Internet colloquialism, punched me right in the feels.  I was a teenager reading a book called The Mozart Season by Virginia Euwer Wolff, and when I was finished, I put it away, but the book stayed with me.  Six months later, I read it again.  Six months later, I read it yet again.  Each time, it kept making the emotional impact.

In graduate school, I recognized that feeling again when I picked up A.S. Byatt's Possession for a class.  I didn't have the luxury of putting it away, thinking about it, and picking it back up again months later; I had to sit down and write about in depth about it and pick apart the paradoxes and the tangles of plot.  I lived and breathed Possession for a semester until it infused my soul.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, like these other volumes, is one of those books that takes up residence right behind your breastbone and settles in, molding itself and wrapping itself around your heart and changing you, perhaps in a subtle way, until you are no longer quite the same person you were before you read it.  In the same way that Possession was about reading and literary study, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is about writing.

Viking noted, in their blurb to me, that this book and its narrator follows Emily Dickinson's lines to "Tell the truth, but tell it slant."  It also reminded me of a remark attributed to Mark Twain: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," and something I've heard my father say: "In a room full of storytellers, the first liar never has a chance."

Simply put, this is a story about telling stories.  And it's intensely clever about doing so--at the beginning of the book, there's a note that asks the reader to contact "Haslett & Grouse Publishers" if the reader believes they are the author of the book.  I admit, I completely skipped over that--as most people would, I think--until I read a question and answer with Jansma.  The author's note is beautifully written, and I remember thinking, as I read the note, how much I would like to read that story, of how Jansma had lost his first novels.

It wasn't until I was well into the book that I realized the author's note was by the fictional narrator.  I paused, went back to the author's note, and read it again, suddenly realizing that I was reading the story I'd wanted to read, only that I'd made the cardinal mistake of literary criticism--one of the first things you learn not to do--to conflate the narrator and the author.  What's more--I'd been intended to.


I've spent two weeks contemplating how to write this review.  There are so many insights about writing as a profession, from the adjunct professor to the professional plagiarist to the world-class novelist (writing from the perspective of a writer for a paper mill was particularly inspired, I thought, and as an academic, I've always wondered about that thought process).

That is not to say that the book is perfect.  There is a break at the midpoint of the novel that keeps the book from being seamless in its narrative that causes an abrupt shift as the reader struggles to catch back up with what's going on and tries to figure out if the characters now appearing are the same characters as before; if there is a main weakness in this novel, this is it.

This book, will, very simply, take more time.  I'm going to have to live with it, come back to it and re-read it, think about it, and yes, perhaps write about it some more, because it is a book that is worth being written about, if only to figure out where, in this postmodern morass of lies and fictions, the germ of truth is (if there is one) that I, as the reader, will choose to believe.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Teachers Who Matter

The first time I met Bruce MacLaren was the spring of 2002. I was a pre-frosh, dual-enrolled for some college classes as a high school senior, and checking out the Honors Program as a possibility for my time at my alma mater.  I don't often remember the first encounters I had with professors, but I remember this one, because I was introduced to the word defenestration when Dr. MacLaren cheerfully offered to throw me out the window.

I think that day's Civ class, which my group of prospective students was sitting in on, was going over the Thirty Years' War and the Prague Defenestrations (either that or when James II threw the Earl of Douglas out the window, I don't quite remember, but there are only so many famous historical defenestrations to discuss).  But I do distinctly remember the encounter and having a new word added to my vocabulary.  I also remember thinking I have to sign up for the section of this class that he teaches.

I had not been a freshman long before I was pulled into Dr. MacLaren's orbit.  He has a tendency to collect students around him.  If students are wandering asteroids, then some will get find themselves inevitably drawn in by Dr. MacLaren's gravitational pullI was suddenly on the quick recall team, where I found, much to my chagrin, my trivia knowledge not nearly as good as I thought it was when I played Jeopardy! at home, and where practice sessions would immediately become derailed when Dr. MacLaren and Dr. Messerich began telling stories. 

He calls me Elf Shu.  My handwriting--at least my signature--is abominable enough that my name looks remarkably like Elf Shu.  There were tons of stories about him that were told and retold from well before I'd matriculated, including one about him looking at Mrs. Dr. MacLaren (also a professor in her own right) and trying to get her to let him have a piece of chocolate pie.  He and Dr. Messerich would always find a nice restaurant and get a good steak when we were on honors trips, if I remember correctly.  And he never minded the fact that I would sit in the back of the classroom and harass him from afar.  In fact, I think he liked it.

I had two semesters of Honors Civilization with Dr. MacLaren.  So have both of my brothers. But I think I perhaps learned more out of class, because Dr. MacLaren ate lunch in the cafeteria almost every day.  Others of his colleagues were often there--some of our other Civ professors, for example--but rather than sit at a small table, sequestered away from students, Dr. MacLaren held court at one of the long tables and facilitated discussions that ranged from Lord of the Rings to existentialism.  And while we all knew that Dr. MacLaren had his own political viewpoint--which he had no problem sharing at the lunch table--I, for one, never felt like my own, which did not always line up, was under attack, even when it was being questioned.  Dr. MacLaren is, however, the master of the uncomfortable question.

It wasn't until graduate school, when I started teaching, that I realized what Dr. MacLaren actually did.  He played devil's advocate in the classroom at every turn, challenging us to move beyond what we thought we knew and asking us to explain what we believed, rather than simply spout off the same drivel we'd been indoctrinated with through high school.  It didn't matter so much what we believed as that we could clearly articulate why we believed it.  It's something I've striven for in my own teaching.
It wasn't until I started my Ph. D. program that I understood what Dr. MacLaren actually did as an academic.  He is one of those rare souls who is a historian of science.  In the back of my mind, I think I'd always known this.  Going into his office (a magical place larger than any other office on campus, including the president's, filled with books and plants and a giant cardboard cutout of Einstein and which smelled of musty books, coffee and ink), there was never any telling what kind of books would be on his shelves.  (I wish now that I'd paid more attention.  I'm sure I would be green with envy at some of the volumes he stored in his office.) 

I had been sitting in Milton, reading Paradise Lost, specifically looking at a section where Milton is describing two different conceptions of the universe.  I think I'd gone to the library to look up an article on the section for an assignment and had thrown a minor fit. 

It wasn't right.  It simply wasn't right.  The academic in question simply had no idea what they were talking about.  The more I got into my research, the more I realized just how much literacy scholars often have no idea what they are talking about when it came to science.  Calling Milton's conception of the universe Ptolemaic was entirely oversimplistic. But would it make a good seminar paper?

In the back of my mind, I heard a deep voice with a Minnesota accent say "Why not?"

And so, not indirectly, Dr. MacLaren became at least partially responsible for my direction in academia.  If one can be a historian of science, then why can't one be a literarian of science?

(This is where, I think, he would probably apologize.  I should also apologize for coining the word 'literarian.')

My dissertation now traces Tennyson's anxieties about art in relation to scientific anxieties emerging in Victorian culture which Tennyson also wrote about in his poetry.  My youngest brother has to occasionally report back to Dr. MacLaren on what I'm doing.  Dr. MacLaren posts book titles that I need to read on my Facebook.  I want to get my doctorate and take a picture of my diploma and send it to him, because I want him to laugh and be proud of me, remembering that skinny, gangly teenager who asked him what "defenestration" meant and then looked at him with wide-eyes when he suggested practicing it on her.

This is Dr. MacLaren's last semester.  He's retiring after finals, and I can't say that I blame him.  There have been a lot of changes at my alma mater, and not all of them have been good.  I'm very grateful that my youngest brother was able to experience Civ with Dr. MacLaren like the rest of us were. 

There are teachers you remember.  Then there are teachers who change your life. Bruce MacLaren is one of the latter.