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March 21st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Most Over-Hyped Publishing Story This Week

A headline teasing a new Buzzfeed publishing story caught my eye this morning, something about a decline in sales of conservative books, so I later clicked the link and read the story. The title and tagline of the piece were way over-hyped:  Killing Conservative Books: The Shocking End Of A Publishing Gold Rush

Reporter McKay Coppins talked with some conservative agents, editors, and publishers who told him that their books aren’t doing well, or at least not as well as they were doing during some halcyon earlier time. They complain that publishing is tough right now, with declining sales, which they gravely lament. Here’s a nugget from Coppins’ piece: “I think the problems in the conservative publishing arena are more acute than in the rest of the industry,” said Keith Urbahn, former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld, who now runs a communications firm in Washington and works as a literary agent for conservative authors.” His grandiosity is fairly stunning, and it’s like that throughout the story: this is an example of people living in a bubble who think their problem are worse than everyone else’s. They’ve just noticed that times are tough, and are acting like they discovered a trend.

My response to these agents, editors, and publishers, especially the latter who’ve paid ridiculous advances to officeholders, cited in the story, like $800K for Marcio Rubio: As Republicans are fond of demanding from others, “Tighten your belts.”

My view is that all this right-wing publishing that was doing better until recently reaped the benefit of being on the up side of a boom cycle that has finally begun coming back to earth. These guys have feasted for years creating chimerical boogeymen (the Clintons, Barack Obama, progressives, liberated women, etc.) in their political messaging, then reaping the dividends of it all in many areas of media, including books. For a time this allowed them to inflate their sales among low-information right-wing viewers and readers who knew little and for a long time believed much of what they heard and read. Evidently many of those people are wearying of the ceaseless clown show put on for them, or at any rate, have tired of buying the books.

My response to McKay Coppins: the book business is struggling in a lot of areas these days. Your story took a really myopic view of this situation, by focusing almost entirely on hard times for your chosen subjects, and overlooking what’s going on for all political books, as well as current affairs and history titles, and in many other areas of consumer publishing.

My headline for Coppins and his sources: “Welcome to the book world of 2014!”

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March 18th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

Publishers Weekly Makes a Key Correction to a Story about Ebook Rights

Open Road Media lost this ebook rights case, but are not in jeopardy for damages anywhere near what PW had at first suggested. Although I don’t have a screenshot of Publisher Weekly‘s first version of their story, they had stated that penalties for willful infringement could run up to $150,000 for each copy sold of the infringed work, reporting that the damages could potentially run in to hundreds of millions of dollars. Later, they revised that to say the penalty could be “per work infringed.” As they put it now at the bottom of the story they ran this morning,

Correction: An early version of this story mistakenly put the damages as applying per infringement, rather than per work infringed. In fact, there is a single infringement involved here, not multiple infringements. Thus, damages could not run into the millions. We regret the error.

In a penultimate paragraph that also was not part of PW‘s first Web version of this story, they point out that in its filing Open Road Media had asserted that the author whose ebook rights were at issue, Jean Craighead George, author of Julie of the Wolves, would have preferred to publish an ebook of the book with HarperCollins, given her long print history with them, but she objected to the 25% net royalty on offer by them. Open Road offers 50%, and so George went with them, or so Open Road implies. The entire issue of ebook royalties–and the 25% difference between the sum offered by Big 6/Big 5 publishers and other publishers, such as Open Road–has been a flash point of disagreement for several years among agents and authors on one side, and the Big 6/Big 5 houses on the other.

For the record, this is a link to the full Publishers Weekly story, as it ended up late on Tuesday, March 18, including the penultimate paragraph and the correction.

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March 15th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

#FridayReads, March 14–Jan Wong’s Memoir of Depression, “Out of the Blue”

Out of the Blue

Triggered by a death threat targeting her for a story she wrote, Wong–a career reporter–does a superb job investigating and striving to understand her own illness.

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March 14th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

Night II of the NBCCs–Book Prizes Awarded

Monday March 17 update, video of the NBCC Awards ceremony:

NBCC finalThe concluding evening of the National Book Critics Circle annual awards last night at the New School auditorium was a jubilant celebration of the book with generous recognitions given to critics and authors alike. Having enjoyed the author readings on Wednesday night I was eager to hear who the winners would be. The program began with remarks by NBCC president Laurie Muchnick, reminding the audience that members of the organization spend months each year reading and keenly debating the merits of all the books in the six categories. With the housekeeping taken care of, the procession of awards began.NBCC final ii

First up it was time for a new award, the John Leonard Prize, named in memory of the longtime NBCC member and ebullient NY Times reviewer.  Each year it will be given to an author for a first book, in any genre. It had earlier been announced that Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth Press at Crown Publishing) was the inaugural recipient. His novel is set amid the war in Chechnya. Then, Katherine A. Powers, who has a regular books column in the BN Review, received the NBCC’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. She gave a congenial talk setting forth her own principles of reviewing. Among these was that she tries to avoid lordly pronouncements of approval or condemnation, as if she were representing some “cohort of worthies.” She declared herself in service to the reader and the author, and quoted a memorable line from H.L. Mencken: “Criticism is prejudice made plausible.” Next, pioneering man of Hispanic letters Rolando Hinojosa-Smith received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the literature of Mexican-Americans.

After naming all five poet finalists, chair of the Poetry committee David Biespiel began the presentation of awards that, unlike the three above, were not decided until yesterday afternoon, only a few hours before this ceremony. After naming all the poet finalists while their four book jackets flashed across the on-stage screen, David announced that Frank Bidart was the recipient of the NBCC for his book Metaphysical Dog (FSG). Bidart brought some papers to the lectern, and joked that each time he’s nominated for something, he prepares remarks and when he doesn’t win, files them away, continually adding to them each time he’s on a shortlist. This got a laugh from the audience, especially, after he said, “It’s true.” In fact, his acceptance speech was an elegant one. He described himself as a neo-modernist, not a post-modernist, saying he didn’t feel the need to be in conflict with his poetic predecessors. As to his own work, citing the words of a critic who upon hearing Maria Callas for the first time had written that the experience was like “biting in to a lemon,” he offered a hope that his own poems offer readers a similarly astringent quality. Quoting a great sentence from King Lear, “Ripeness is all. Come on.” Bidart pointed out that profound as it is, it’s not actually the last line of the scene. Instead, Gloucester points playgoers to the plurality of existence, uttering, “That’s true, too.”

Next, the award in Criticism was given to Franco Moretti for his book Distant Reading (Verso Press), with essays that use data, charts and other apparatus to consider reading in new ways. With Moretti’s arrival at the lectern he made a confession that held true the rest of the night: he had not expected to win and didn’t prepare remarks. He had a lovely Italian accent and the audience found him charming.

With a new precedent oddly established by Moretti, each of of the four recipients who followed uttered a version of the same thing, accepting the award graciously, and briefly. As it happened, four times in a row, the audience laughed a little more at it, as the recipient would sheepishly cop to his or her forgivably mild dereliction. Mild because audiences always expect to be held for a long time, and this was a veritable vacation from standard awards palaver.

Autobiography committee chair Eric Banks announced Amy Wilentz and her book on Haiti, Farewell, Fred Voodoo (Simon & Schuster), as the recipient of the NBCC. Once behind the lectern Wilentz explained that she’d written earlier books on Haiti–a country she called her “muse”–and this one was the most autobiographical of them, but she implied that because it wasn’t a proper autobiography she had really expected a different winner to be called up to the stage. And her category was very strong, filled with great writers of first-person narrative, a favored genre of mine. Next up, Leo Damrosch, winner in Biography for Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (Yale University Press), said that he’d always written for academics and so doubted his book would be selected. He was off before I could take a picture, so the one with this post is the one I took the night before, at the readings. Sheri Fink, whose Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown Publishing) I first heard about when her editor Vanessa Mobley presented it at last year’s BEA Buzz panel. Fink seemed truly taken aback at this recognition given to her book. For the last award, in fiction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of Nigeria allowed as how she had been so tickled to be on the same shortlist as her former professor, Alice McDermott, she just hadn’t thought her novel Americanah would win. As she walked to the stage, she shouted in jubilation, a celebration the audience audibly shared with her.

With that the ceremony–in a tidy 90 minutes–was over. Most of the audience repaired to another New School building one block away for the gala reception. A hungry and thirsty crowd met there and partied for a much greater stretch of time than the ceremony’s duration. During the party I met and spoke with many of the finalists: critic Katherine A. Powers; poet Denise Duhamel; essayist Franco Moretti; Marianne Moore biographer Linda Leavell; Whitey Bulger chroniclers Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, and their editor at W.W. Norton, Tom Mayer; observer of New Orleans’ tragic triage, Sheri Fink; novelist Ruth Ozeki; and one of my favorite writers at The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright, whose reading from Going Clear I had found so chilling the night before. I also enjoyed talking with NBCCers Walton Mayumba, Karen Long, Anne Trubek, Tom Beer, Eric Liebetrau and his writer wife, Signe; Ron Charles; and Marcela Valdes. Also enjoyed meeting for the first time one of my favorite tech writers, Andrew Leonard, there celebrating the memory of his father John Leonard; book agent, Andrew Blauner; editor Philip Marino of Liveright; journalist Casey Schwartz, Riverhead Books publicist Katie Freeman; and indie publicist Michelle Blankenship. Below are my pictures from last night. If you enjoyed this post, don’t miss its counterpart on the readings.

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March 13th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

Finalists’ Readings at Last Night’s NBCCs

Monday March 17 update, video of the NBCC Readings night:

NBCC readingsAs I try to do every March when the calendar comes round to the annual awards week of the National Book Critics Circle, I attended last night’s program of readings given by many of the nominated finalists. To the left is the evening’s program. Highlights were numerous, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s humorous narrator’s observations about blogging, of all things, from her novel, Americanah; Alice McDermott, with a carefully paced reading from Someone; Ruth Ozeki’s rendering of the book-within-a-book in A Tale for the Time Being; I later had a nice conversation with Ozeki about a favorite novel of mine that also has a book-within; Denise Duhamel read a narrative poem that cleverly portrayed a bickering couple observing a bickering couple from a distance, from her collection Blowout; Hilton Als, with a personal essay about Malcolm X and his mother, from White Girls; Rebecca Solnit read a passage from The Faraway Nearby about a basket of fragrant apricots; Amy Wilentz’s evocation of a chaotic street scene in Haiti from Farewell, Fred Voodo; Scott Anderson with T.E. Lawrence’s surprising refusal of a knighthood from the British monarch; Leo Damrosch’s bawdy portrait Jonathan Swift in His Life and His World; Sheri Fink’s shocking chronicle of doctors and nurses in Katrina-stricken New Orleans resorting to euthanasia in Five Days at Memorial; George Packer’s grim rendering of societal decline, typified by a Rust-belt denizen in The Unwinding; and Lawrence Wright’s chilling account of brow-beating and mistreatment among scientologists in Going Clear.

All day today, NBCC board members will be making their final selections from the shortlists. I look forward to going back tonight to The New School auditorium in Greenwich Village for the ceremony, and for the festive reception that follows. The NBCC is a great organization of dedicated readers and writers. You can follow them on Twitter, @BookCritics, and check them out on the web, NBCC. Writing students at The New School interview each of the finalists, so you can also look for those videotaped conversations on the NBCC site. If you live in New York City, I recommend you attend the readings and/or the awards night, for  these are two of the best literary nights of the year. Both events are free of charge, with only the fund-raiser/reception having an admission fee. If you want to support the work of the NBCC and their awards–the only book prizes given by full-time critics and reviewers–you can sign up to become an associate, non-voting member. I renew my membership each year. Here are the best pictures I took from my seat last night.


March 8th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Canada; News, Politics & History; Urban Life & New York City

Lee Lorch, an Exiled American Hero Who Found a Haven in Canada

Until reading this March 1 obituary by David Margolick about Lee Lorch I had not known about this brave man, or the vital role he played in ending racial bias in publicly-subsidized housing in New York City and the rest of the United States.

A WWII vet, Lorch came home from the war amid a nationwide housing shortage that was particularly severe in New York City. Then living with his wife Grace and daughter in what the NY Times reports Lorch called “‘half a Quonset hut’ overlooking Jamaican Bay in Queens,” he applied to live in the housing complex of Stuyvesant Town then being developed on the east side of Manhattan by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company with generous subsidies and accommodations from the city. He learned that African-Americans were explicitly barred from living in the development, as Met Life’s chairman Frederick Ecker told news media, “Negroes and whites don’t mix. If we brought them into this development, it would be to the detriment of the city, too, because it would depress all the surrounding property.” The Lorches and fellow tenants invited African-American families to come stay in there apartments as their guests, a move that drew Met Life’s ire and threats of eviction.

As a result, Lee Lorch lost his job teaching math at City College, and was made unwelcome at other universities where he applied to teach, including Penn State, which hired and then fired him in less than a year. For a time, he and his family were in Little Rock, Arkansas, where in 1957 Grace famously comforted Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” as she tried to attend Little Rock Central High School.Grace Lorch and Elizabeth Eckford

In addition, Lorch’s unapologetic membership in the American Communist Party caused civil rights leaders, including Thurgood Marshall, to keep their distance from him. After years of erratic employment in the States, in 1959 Lorch was offered a teaching position in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and later York University in Toronto. The Lorches emigrated and much like young draft-age American males of the Vietnam era, the Lorches found a new home and haven north of the 49th Parallel.

Lorch lived a remarkable life, and one that should be remembered. In addition to the March 1 NY Times obit and a 2010 article, here are other Web resources:

1) Video with a 2010 interview of Lee Lorch

2) A segment with Lee Lorch’s daughter Alice from CBC’s As It Happens, remembering her father and the family’s life in Canada.

3) A review of David Margolick’s book Elizabeth and Hazel, on Elizabeth Eckford, of the Little Rock Nine, and Hazel Bryan, a white woman who yelled at her as she tried to enter Central High School in 1957.

4) An Arkansas Times Web feature with lots more information on the Little Rock Nine.

Cross-posted on my blog Honourary Canadian.


March 3rd, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

Nearly Three Years Later: A Manuscript That (Still) Can’t be Read

March 3, 2014 Update: I first wrote about the Voynich Manuscript on this blog more than two years ago. As was the case then, decipherment of the mysterious codex still continues to elude linguists and scholars, though two recent posts in the Moby Lives blog (one and two) indicate they may be getting closer to at least getting a geographical fix on the plants that are included in the extravagantly illustrated work. Julia Fleischarker reports that “Dr. Arthur Tucker of Delaware State University…writes that taking the botanical illustrations as a starting point enabled them to help place the manuscript geographically,” which he now believes to have been in Mexico. It should be said that other scholars don’t accept this explanation, and continue to believe the book may be a hundreds-year old forgery, though they offer no explanation why any talented book artists in an earlier century would’ve gone to the trouble of creating a fake book.

Original post from November 30. 2011:

“A booke…containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out.”–son of 16th century astrologer John Dee

I love mysteries like this. The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale houses the Voynich manuscript, named for the rare book dealer who acquired it ninety-nine years ago.
Prior to Wilfrid Voynich’s purchase of it, “the codex belonged to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. . . who purchased it for 600 gold ducats and believed that it was the work of Roger Bacon,” the 13th century English mathematician.

After Wilfrid Voynich died, it ended up at Yale when his widow sold it to another dealer, H.P. Kraus, who donated it to the Library in 1969. Though the Voynich, printed on vellum and covering some 240 pages, has been the object of much study by scholars and antiquarians, none has yet been able to decipher the language in which it’s written or discern its hidden meanings. The presentation, with dozens of illustrations, two sets of which are reproduced here, includes elements of a treatise on the cosmos, the zodiac, botanical life, human anatomy, and cooking. But the purpose of the book continues to elude even intensive examination.

This all puts me in mind of the astounding philological and linguistic accomplishments of J.R.R. Tolkien, who knew many ancient alphabets and languages, and invented more than a dozen for the denizens of Middle Earth. I’ve always loved the fact that Tolkien was on the editorial board of Doubleday’s Jerusalem Bible (1966). I recall reading that he was literate in Hittite, Aramaic, Akkadian, and Ugaritic, not to mention of course ancient Greek and biblical Hebrew.

In my naivete, it hadn’t occurred to me there are still written languages that remain terra incognita to classicists; the indecipherability of the Voynich manuscript seems to me the bibliographic analogue of anthropologists finding themselves unable to communicate with a hitherto unknown tribe they’ve discovered in the Amazon. Sadly, when tribes like that are happened upon they often suffer due to the sudden exposure and attention. Well, in the controlled humidity of the Beinecke I’m sure the Voynich ms. won’t be contracting the equivalent of a devastating disease, with crumbled and foxed pages, but exquisite preservation alone hasn’t brought the librarians and archivists any closer to riddling out the mysteries of the codex.

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February 28th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Nature, Animals, Adventure; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels

Toboggan Days with Noah


The above picture with my dog Noah patiently waiting for me as I prepared to slide down a hill was taken during an outing for students of the School on Magnolia, the alternative high school I attended in Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1970s. In those days, my hair was sort of like that of NBA star Anderson Varejao, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Anderson VarejaoThe second picture here was taken by my late brother Joel, in the living room of the home we grew up in, in the suburb of Shaker Heights, a few years after the wintry picture.  Noah