Monday, May 31, 2010

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer: The Limits of Metaphor

Metaphor is the salt of literature; in the right amount, it can heighten and enrich. In excess, it becomes flat and bitter, overwhelming  the core experience of the writing. Simon Mawer's 2009 The Glass Room tests this balance with decidedly mixed results.

The "glass room" is not a room, but a house designed in 1929 for Viktor and Liesel Landauer, wealthy newlyweds in a fictional city in Czechoslovakia. Sleek, stark, and willfully experimental, the house represents the possibilities of modernity: "it embodies the pure rationality of a Greek classical temple, the austere beauty of a perfect composition[...]There are no disturbing curves to upset the rectilinear austerity of the space. There is nothing convolute, involute, awkward or complex. Here everything can be understood as a matter of proportion and dimension."

The strangeness of the house's symbolism is that it is not only clearly a metaphor for the narrative, but also for the characters within the narrative. Viktor thinks about the house much as the novel seems to: "The whole essence of the Glass Room is reason. That is what Viktor thinks, anyway." And in the first section of The Glass Room, this synchronicity is provocative. The desire for rationality and control that motivates the Landauers seems to echo Mawer's careful construction of the house as metaphor. 

The difficulty, though, is that extended metaphors are better suited to poetry and do not, in general, make for compelling stories. So as The Glass Room progresses, with the Landauers, and Europe itself, enveloped in World War II, the metaphor does not hold up; it is quite difficult to be interested in the properties of light in the living room when main characters are being whisked away to Auschwitz. 

The subsequent lives of the Glass House, as a Nazi biometric research facility and a clinic for children with polio, explore the colder, more clinical visages of reason. Mawer's complication of rationality, though, seems underdeveloped, as these quasi-vignettes cannot stand up to the history of that Landauer family. It's possible that the conceit might have been more evocative as a series of short stories revolving around the house, but as it is, the discontinuity between the pre- and post-war lives of the house dissipates the novel's force. 

And I would be quite ready to call The Glass Room an interesting failure if not for a nagging suspicion that the unsustainability of Mawer's metaphor might itself be a metaphor for the limits of literature and of art. After all, what building, poem, opera, or poem can fortify us against the inexorable materiality of horror? The disullusionment and exile of the Landauers mark the edges of what metaphor can do, leaving open the possibility that Mawer is using metaphor against itself. 

My first reaction was to be frustrated by the subjugation of story to structure, but the more I think about it, a remark by Willa Cather prevents me from dismissing The Glass Room entirely. Commenting on her novel The Professor's House (another novel using a habitation as a central symbol), Cather wrote: "the design is the story." I suppose that any work that forces us to be mindful of design, to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of plot, must be considered an achievement. At the very least, it requires that we reconsider our own demands and expand the boundaries of our vision.    

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book Blogger Convention 2010: One Primate's Reactions

As promised, here are some quick thoughts about the 2010 Book Blogger Convention:

  • Keynote speaker and young adult Maureen Johnson was really entertaining. If I were a 12 year old girl, I would be racing out to get her books. I have to admit though that I'm not sure I learned much about blogging from it, but clearly the young adult bloggers got a kick out of it. 
  • Ron Hogan, who runs Beatrice, was fantastic and I would have sat and listened to him all day. I have been reading Beatrice for more than a decade now, and he really is a pioneer of lit-blogging. Passionate, erudite, and encouraging stuff from him. Highlight of the day for the Ape, by far. Rumor has it he will be posting his presentation on Beatrice next week, so watch for that.
  • I could have taken or left the panels (and indeed I did jet before the final one). I don't feel like I got anything out of them that I didn't looking at the panelists' blogs beforehand. Supremely nice and committed people, but that's why I read many of their blogs. 
  • Biggest cheer of the day was for this line from Ron Hogan: "The war between critics and bloggers is over. And the bloggers won."
  • Another spontaneous round of applause for NetGalley, of which I had never heard. Looks promising and we're going to give it a whirl. 
  • The "keep doing what you're doing" and "be yourself" advice was ascendent. What if what you're currently doing sucks?
  • Really happy group of attendees. We haven't been blogging long, but we can imagine how gratifying it was for people to meet in person after having years-long online relationships. It's hard to imagine a kinder, more congenial group of folks. Maybe kindergarten teachers.
  • That said, the day felt a little self-congratulatory, though that's perhaps to be expected. This is the first one of these, and the excitement over the existence of the event itself propelled a lot of the energy of the day. Affirmation is necessary of course, but we're hard-pressed to say what we'll be doing differently around here as a result of what we heard.
  • Random helpful tidbit: One publicist said to think of review copies as "for consideration" not "for review." That is, you should feel okay if you don't review a book you've been given. This sentiment was echoed by a couple of other publicists, along with an exhortation to pass the book along to someone else, really anyone else, if you don't review it. Or even if you do.
  • Book bloggers love and want review copies. I might be wrong, but I think if they get no other material recompense for their efforts, a few ARCs would be enough. I love this about book bloggers--the books are the thing. 
  • Mixed approaches to blog statistics. No one, including publishers and publicists, really knows how to gauge a blog's reach and influence with anything like accuracy. General consensus seemed to be to monitor your stats and use general trends rather than individual numbers. If your numbers are going up, great. If they are flat to down, maybe try some new things. 
  • Use RSS. And full feeds. Don't screw around with this, just do it. Oh, how I wish you would listen McSweeney's.
  • It might be selection bias, but the publishers in attendance seemed more than willing to work with book bloggers with interviews, tours, review copies, etc. The HarperPerennial folks were pretty tuned in. 
  • Twitter seems to be the social media platform of choice, outpacing Facebook by a considerable margin as far as we can tell; it definitely was interesting to follow the live-tweeting, and do some ourselves, of the day.
  • Not sure who said it (someone let me know if you remember because I'd like to give them proper due), but my favorite idea of the day was for book bloggers to consider themselves "book activists." We nodded vigorously.
  • Couple of things we'd like to see next year: small group sessions, a presenter or panel on blog design, something about advertising and affiliate programs, a presentation from a publisher who works with bloggers directly, an overview of the history, present and future of book-blogging (OK, we'll admit it: we just want more Ron Hogan), and, most of all, we'd like to see there be a next year. 

Thanks to all those who put this thing together; I think you've started something good here. 

Oh, and if you're here on the Book Blogger Hop, well....welcome. Thanks to Jenn at Crazy for Books as always for hosting. 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Neophyte's Impressions of Book Expo America

Well, that was something. I’m not sure what exactly, but it definitely was not nothing. A few scattered thoughts, observations, and curiosities from the exhibition floor of Book Expo America:
  • While autographs have never really interested me, apparently they interest a great many of the bookish stripe. I wasn’t too surprised by the giant lines for Lemony Snicket or Fergie, but Gary Shteyngart? That’s when you realize you are in bizarro-world.
  • Self-publishing is out of control--and a lot of desperate-looking authors around the self-publishing booths.
  • Not as many review copies handed out as I somehow thought there would be. Picked up advance copies for new books by Paul Auster, Per Petterson, and Philp Roth (maybe I was only there for the “P” giveaways), but most of the available titles were decidedly second or third tier, though it makes sense; the new Franzen doesn’t really need hype.
  • HarperCollins was giving out digital advance copies, and I picked up a stub for Elmore Leonard’s new novel Dijbouti. Now if I only had something to read it on…
  • iPads destroyed Kindles. Saw the little buggers everywhere, but nary a Kindle in sight. Spent a couple of minutes with the enTourage eDGe. Verdict? Welcome to the dustbin of history, fella. And the strangest capitalization scheme since NyQuil. 
  • The librarians were as thick as thieves. Seemed to travel in pods of 6-8 regularly and gave the proffered goods extreme scrutiny. As I tweeted from the floor, they are the band kids of the publishing business; they aren't exactly glamorous, but they are serious, tight-knit, and you ignore them at your peril.
  • I was weirdly fascinated by the booths for bookstore supplies: shelving, display options, and bookish impulse buys. Who knew what cardboard could do?
  • Even middle-aged executives can be lured with candy.
  • There are a too many e-publishing answers looking for a question. We need some consolidation and standardization here.
  • Amazon and Apple were surprisingly absent, so there were TWO 800-pound gorillas in the room.
  • Google really, really wants us not to be nervous about Google Books. And that’s making people nervous.
  • Shocked at the floor-space for children’s books. Seemed like a quarter to a third of the show. Now if only those ankle-biters would grow up to be readers.

All in all, an interesting, though not riveting, experience. Glad I went once. Looking forward to the Book Blogger Convention tomorrow--setting my nerd phaser to maximum.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On the Morrow: Book Expo America

Tomorrow, the Ape will swing through the Javits Center and Book Expo America to hunt two books and two books alone: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Jon Clinch's Kings of the Earth

Full impressions from the exhibition hall floor on Thursday, but follow us live on Twitter in the meantime: @readingape.

Friday, we'll be attending the Book Blogger Convention, where we're hoping to meet some fellow bloggers and pick up some ideas for these friendly confines.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Brief Guide to Responsible Spoiling (Draft)

Using the comments on a previous post, along with some idle-moment pondering, the Ape presents a working draft of our "Brief Guide to Responsible Spoiling."

The below scheme attempts to balance two “first principles”:

The Right to Surprise
     The inherent right of any viewer or reader to experience the pleasure of not knowing what’s
     going to happen next.

 The Right to Debate
      The inherent right of any viewer or reader to engage in public discourse about the content of
      a given work of narrative art.

Part I: When Spoiling is Fair Game
In the following circumstances, one can discuss crucial plot details and reveal endings with a clear conscience.

Group A: Canonical Works

Works that have, to borrow from Jonathan Lethem on intellectual property, “infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone with the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses.” These are part and parcel of our cultural knowledge and to pre-empt a reference, discussion, or squabble because someone hasn’t yet read/seen/heard a given work hamstrings public discussion of narrative art.

Group B: Network Television more than a week old

If I want to discuss last week’s episode of Forensic Scientists and the Cops Who Love Them, then I need to be able to do that before too much more of the television river has flowed on. And yet, we must give folks some leeway to DVR. Given the short shelf-life of television programming and the readily available means of storing and accessing programs, a week’s moratorium on spoilers for television shows gives interested parties more than enough time to catch-up.

Group C: Movies that have been on DVD for more than 1 year
If you really cared that much about what happens, you would have seen it by now.

Group D: Adaptations and Re-Makes
Assessing the fidelity and experimentation of remakes and adaptations is the signal pleasure of discussing them. If you didn’t care enough about the book or the 1941 version starring Mickey Rooney to make a point to see it, you’ve forfeited your right to surprise.

Group E: Novels More Than 10 Years Old
See the rationale for Group C

Part II: Exceptions to Part I

Exception A: The Age of Consent
This exception relates to Group A,D, and E. For these categories, spoilers are only permitted if the spoilee, the party who has no experience with a  given work, is over the age of 25. This exception acknowledges that a certain latitude must be given to those who haven’t had sufficient opportunity to be exposed to even canonical works. In these cases, the spoiler must ask permission before spoiling the given work. If no permission is given and the spoiler still discloses key elements of the work, then the spoilee is given license to call said party a mild expletive.

Exception B: The Sixth Sense Procedure
This exception acknowledges that certain plot elements so rely on surprise that the Right of Surprise must be maintained at all costs, even The Right of Debate. In such cases, the potential spoiler is enjoined to use veiled references to the plot element that will not reveal the nature of the plot element, but that will also be readily understood by those who have prior knowledge of said plot element. For example, if I were to discuss the final scenes of The Sixth Sense, I would refer to it as “the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense.” This is a rare exception and must only be invoked in cases where the work’s central value is contingent upon preserving the surprise, as in The Sixth Sense. Note: this exception does not apply to Group A. Also, Vader is Luke’s father.

Exception C: Pay Cable Television
As pay cable shows are often not available to the general television viewer until long after their original air date, spoiling these shows is unethical until six months after the show is available on DVD .

Exception D: Sequels
Generally, sequels will appear well into the ethical spoiling window, but in cases where they are released earlier, then spoiling the original work becomes ethical on the day of the sequel’s initial release. For example, the day The Return of the King opened in theaters, one would have been morally sanctioned to discuss plot elements of The Two Towers.


So, how'd we do? What did we miss? What should be changed?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett: a Reflection

By now, The Help by Kathryn Stockett is review-proof; it has spent 50 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and has almost 2 million copies in print. Add to that the 797341283764123 book club guides and blog reactions, and there’s not much left to be said on the recommendation side. (Though you might be interested in a brief plot summary)

What remains interesting to us here at the Ape, though, is why did it become so popular? And what does that mean? Literary phenomena like The Help are as fascinating as they are inscrutable, though the The Help does seem to a trend among recent literary hits (The Lovely Bones, The Kite Runner, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Water for Elephants, among others) in that while they are likely not going to enter the literary canon, they are also not exactly disposable.

In fact, “betweenness” describes much of what The Help does (and doesn’t). It is a story about what it was like to be a black servant in the South during the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s also a story of a young white woman using that story to start her writing career. It is a story of racial oppression that somehow doesn’t want to acknowledge the social consequences of race as “real”:
Lines between black and white aint there…Some folks just made those up, long time ago. And that go for the white-trash and the so-ciety ladies too.
Like the book itself, this view is both noble and reductive, aligning “constructed” social ideas with evil and “authentic” identity, like being able to cook and having a charming dialect, as “good.” This strategy allows the book to deal with difficult problems without actually being difficult, without challenging already agreed upon social ideas. Clearly, racism is bad. Clearly, classism and snobbery are bad. Clearly, friendship and affection are good.  But to describe the origins of racism as “just being made up” abdicates our own role in the continuing struggle for civil rights and social equality. If racism is someone else’s “fault,” then we, the kind of people who are demographically inclined to read novels and join books clubs, are not at fault.

Stockett, much to her credit, acknowledges the problems of tackling American racism: “I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi.” Still, when relating the line in the novel that she “truly prize[s],” she reveals a certain fantasy of understanding:
Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I thought.
Again, the novel finds itself in-between; Stockett recognizes the impossibility of understanding, even as she fantasizes about somehow transcending that impossibility.

Perhaps, though, this tension reflects our cultural moment. Racism is now figured as somehow in the past, but we also know that it is not gone. Reading about racism in the South during the Civil Rights Movement feels almost like a moral holiday, a reprieve from the complexity and intransigence of contemporary racism. Thus, the frustration of The Help is that while it is very readable and rich, it is, for a book about racism, unbelievably safe. 

One last note. Within three weeks of its publication, Richard Wright’s Native Son had sold more than 250,000 copies and was an official Book of the Month Club selection. Seventy years later, The Help is enjoying similar, if not even greater, commercial success, and our country’s ideas about race certainly have progressed. We do wonder, though, if the same can be said about our willingness to be challenged by literature.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ask the Ape: Family Drama Edition

It’s time for another edition of Ask the Ape. This week’s question comes from the comments after the last installment:

Dear Ape-
I reread A River Runs Through It this time every year. I plan to get this year's read in tomorrow on the airplane. I'm looking for an autobiographical read of similar nature... but not A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is my favorite example of self-indulgence. Montana is not a prerequisite. Thoughtful exploration of why the people closest to us baffle us the most may be a great theme.

Man, A River Runs Through It is great. Not only is it stunningly beautiful as a book, but the film is equally satisfying. On to the question, though. Well, the Ape doesn’t read much autobiography—quite by design. But here are a few choices similar in tone and/or theme to A River Runs Through It that might fit the bill.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
One of a handful of finalists for the Ape’s Favorite Novel Award. It’s a family history set between the Civil War and World War I, revolving around two generations of brothers. It does have an autobiographical element; one of the characters is based on Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather. It also has a killer ending; for our money more resonant, and much less squirm-inducing, than his famous ending to The  Grapes of Wrath. Initial reaction to the novel was tepid with many critics decrying Steinbeck's symbolism as heavy-handed, but in recent years East of Eden has matched, and perhaps even surpassed, The Grapes of Wrath on the Steinbeck depth chart. The Ape heartily approves of this development. 

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
You might think a novel about an old man’s reminiscences of the Norwegian logging industry could be a wee bit dry, but you’d be wrong. I have no way of evaluating the translation into English, but if the English version is any indication of Petterson’s ability, herring-boy has some serious game. It’s precisely the sparseness and melancholy of the narration that elevates the now overused Traumatic-Childhood-Event-Has-Haunted-Protagonist-His-Whole-Life formula into a beautiful and stunning portrait of loneliness and loss. Another one about brothers. Detect a theme here?

Beyond the Bedroom Wall by Larry Woiwode
Time for something a little obscure (and sadly out of print, though it looks like used copies are inexpensive).  Here we have another family saga centered around brothers, this time in small Midwestern towns, first in North Dakota and then in Illinois. Where East of Eden is sweeping and symbolic, Beyond the Bedroom Wall is subtle and specific; the central brothers here, the narrator and his older brother, seem more realistic than the iconic figures in East of Eden.  Woiwode is also a poet, and his attention to the quiet specific gives the novel a structure of feeling that is as rare as it is precious.

So there are three ideas. Beyond the Bedroom Wall and East of Eden are real commitments at over 500 pages each but have an epic quality. Out Stealing Horses probably best matches A River Runs Through It and is a much less demanding read. That said, these are all real winners.

Any other ideas for this one? Or maybe you have a question for the Ape? Let us know in the comments.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

Is there a more culturally distasteful, yet nominally harmless, social practice than polygamy? After all, if a group of consenting adults wants to live together, what’s the big deal? Our right to bear arms is built into the Constitution and we can drink and smoke fatal substances with alacrity. But if two women want to marry the same man, we balk. Ask your run-of-the-mill liberal why they are against polygamy, and you’ll get a wad of inarticulate goobledy-gook. Ask a conservative and you’ll get the paradoxical “the Bible says that marriage is between one man and one woman,” though plural marriages dot the Good Book like beer cans on a New Jersey beach. Even pressed, the Ape cannot formulate a rational argument against polygamy; it’s just freaking creepy. But it’s also just as fascinating--we assume these two things are not unrelated.

Fascinating plus creepy is a helluva combination for a book(witness the Twilight Saga, Hannibal Lecter, and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist scratches both itches with wit, pathos, and charm. Its particular trick is to take a sensational, and sensationalized, topic, and treat it with startling…well…banality. Once you get used to the idea that Golden Richards has four wives, it becomes clear that this book isn’t about polygamy; it uses polygamy to underscore the pain, strain, isolation, and complication of all families. The list of complaints is familiar: Golden feels trapped; his wives feel neglected; his children are misunderstood; the family finances are in shambles. So rather than critiquing the “average” American family by making it bizarre, in the vein of Weeds and American Beauty, Udall refracts our understanding of the strangeness of all families.

This is not to say, however, that The Lonely Polygamist doesn’t traffic in strangeness, just that the domestic arrangement does seem to be the source of that strangeness but rather a condenser and intensifier of it. For example, the novel’s opening scene has Golden coming home from work, thinking that his wives have found out about his infidelity. Though rather than dreading the scorn of one wife, there are four waiting in ambush. There are many such instances, and, like the gravitation of planets and stars, the forces here increase exponentially with size; any marital misstep or familial conflict increases the prevailing tension by an order of magnitude.

Udall apparently realized that the resulting miasma of dischord needed levity, because he cuts the seriousness of the novel with entertaining and disarmingly clever prose. Much like the subject, Udall’s sentences practice a generous deceit in that they collapse the exotic with the mundane. The end result is that we come to see that, despite the Richards’ undeniable oddness, that this is family just like any other—only more so. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Welcome to the Ape

If you've stumbled across us through the Book Blog Hop, take a look around and drop us a comment.

Thanks to Jenn at Crazy for Books for her weekly hosting duties.

Reading and the Gender Gap, Part II: Book Blogging

Last week, we posted some thoughts about the gender gap and reading. In the comments, a couple of readers mentioned an even wider such gap among book bloggers. The Ape had noticed this as well and decided to do a little barely-at-all scientific study to see what the numbers might be.

Our data set was registered members of the Book Blog Ning, of which there are currently more than 6000. Clearly, this was too many to handle, so instead we used the handy little “Random” sort option to give us a nominally unbiased sample size.

We then set out to gather data from 100 active book bloggers; the two requirements for “active book blogger” were that the blog had to be primarily, though not exclusively, about books and had to have been updated in the past month. If a blogger's gender wasn't readily identifiable, we didn’t count it among the 100 and moved on (this happened only twice).

While gender was our primary interest, we did a secondary look for what the Ape calls “social-book blogging activity.” This includes book-related memes, reading challenges, and intra-blog badges and affiliations. This was clearly a more subjective evaluation, but so be it.

Out of the 100 book blogs surveyed, 92 were run by women.

Of the 100 book blogs surveyed, 70 participated in social-book blogging activity. Of those 70, 66 were women.

The gender gap among the wider reading public is even more pronounced in the book blogosphere, where women apparently outnumber men somewhere in the 10-1 range. The difference in social book –blogging activity is extreme, somewhere in the 15-1 range.

If one organizes these three book-related activities (reading, book-blogging, and social book-blogging) according to social interaction, we can see that the more “social” the reading-related activity, the more pronounced the gender spread will be. Based on anecdotal evidence, gender differences in book clubs and groups would probably yield similar results.

Half-formed thoughts
So here’s the question that emerges: might gender differences in reading habits be caused by the different ways men and women socialize around books? Or is it the other way around?

If there were a direct correlation between social reading activity and baseline reading habits, then we would expect something less than the 10-1 spread in the gender of book bloggers. This suggests that the social role of reading might be a source of the reading gap itself; reading is more of social activity for women and it would make sense that this encourages more women to read.

What Else We’d Like to Know
How do men and women gather information about books? We’ve heard that a significant amount of book buying occurs because of a personal recommendation, so it stands to reason that if women are more social about books, then they are more likely to get these recommendations and turn them into sales/reads.

What is the gender spread in non-blogging social reading habits? (Book clubs, Good Reads, Library Thing, Amazon Reviewing)

What, if any, are the differences between what male book bloggers and what female book bloggers do?

The Ape is always appreciative of comments, but in this particular we’d especially like to hear your thoughts (fellow book bloggers, we’re looking at you).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Brief Review of Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

At the outset of The Iliad, Achilles has withdrawn from the Greek assault on Troy because his commander, Agamemnon, insulted him. This upends Achilles' understanding of how the world works; the courageous are not always rewarded and the powerful are rarely held accountable. At this moment, by stepping outside of what he has understood to be true, Achilles becomes unmoored from his society. It is only near the very end of the poem that the death of Patroclus forces Achilles back into himself; he re-enters the war out of a love for his comrade that resides somewhere beyond thinking, beyond any chain of command.

At it's core, Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn is a reframing of this awakening. And while Lieutenant Mellas, the protagonist, is no goddess's son, he comes to Vietnam looking for glory  (instead of concubines and tripods, he imagines a Navy Cross and a seat in Congress). And also like Achilles, his awakening comes late in the story, when his platoon is pinned down during an assault on a North Vietnamese Army position. He sees a way through, but it will require that he hazard his life: 
He ran as he'd never run before, with neither hope nor despair. He ran because the world was divided into opposites and his side had already been chosen for him, his only choice being whether or not to play his part with heart and courage. He ran because fate had placed him in a position of responsibility and he had accepted the burden. He ran because his self-respect required it. He ran because he loved his friends and this was the only thing he could do to end the madness that was killing and maiming them. 
It is a remarkable moment, one that is earned by Marlantes' careful construction and unerring restraint. For at this point we have followed Mellas and his fledgling military career for more than 450 pages, a great deal of it spent on aimless, frustrated patrols and navigating the careerism of the Marine Corps. This late moment of clarity and desperation works because Marlantes has been unrelenting in his account of the Vietnam War's operational and political confusion; he doesn't spare us the arcana of a Marine officer's life, knowing full well, as one of the characters says, that the truth is not found, but assembled:
"Intelligence, Lieutenant," Simpson went on, "is built up by the fastidious collection of minutiae. You understand that, don't you? It isn't the result of spectacultar finds. It's the result of hard work, constant attention to detail--to minutiae. Mi-nu-tiae."
And though Marlantes tries to guide us through the minutiae with a chart of the chain of command, a detailed map of the operation, and a lengthy glossary of military terminology, the deluge of call signs, equipment, procedures, ranks, titles, and tactics is beyond comprehension. And once Mellas realizes (the reader alongside) that these particulars are not in themselves meaningful, but the minutiae out of which meaning is made, he comes to be himself at last:

It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opening himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away. Hil killing that day would not have been evil if the dead soldiers hadn't been loved by mothers, sisters, friends, wives. Mellas understood that in destroying the fabric that linked those people, he had participated in evil, but this evil had hurt him as well. He also understood that his participation in evil had hurt him as well. Being human was the best he could do. Without  man there would be no evil. But there was also no good, nothing moral built over the world of fact. Humans were responsible for it all
Matterhorn is a masterly novel that gives a gripping, immersive account of an unimaginable time while managing, in the end, to transcend it. Time will tell, but the Ape won't be surprised to see it one day join the pantheon of American war writing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On "Likable" Characters

In his review of Ian McEwan’s Solar, Greg Zimmerman over at The New Dork Review of Books, closes with this observation:
I won't render an absolute judgment on this book, because it'll appeal to different folks. If you're turned off by a protagonist who is such a turn-off, you'll hate this book. But if you don't need likable characters to enjoy a novel, this could work.
McEwan’s latest seems to have stirred up the on-going question about “likable” protagonists, and indeed it seems that the lead character here is a real piece of work. Still, the practice of avoiding unpleasant characters altogether seems to us  problematic and gets to a central conflict about why we read literature at all. Zimmerman recognizes these divergent interests in his bifurcated evaluation, but the Ape wonders about what it means to "need likable characters to enjoy a novel."

First, we might consider a working definition of “likability.” For the present purpose, it seems that in order for a character to be likable they must meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • Be sympathetic-- we generally identify with them or their situation.
  • Have noble or normative desires—they want things we either consider good or socially acceptable.
  • Be charismatic---If the character doesn’t possess either #1 or #2, they must have a personality that is sufficiently interesting, entertaining, or otherwise engaging enough to countermand their largely unpalatable selves.

As harmless as these qualities may seem, requiring them of a protagonist quarantines vast swaths of potential characters. This seems to us what separates those who read primarily for “pleasure” from those who read for more abstract goals.

In How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom articulates one of the Ape’s central beliefs about the value of literature:
one of the major reasons why we do read and should read is because we cannot possibly know enough people or know them closely enough.
Here, Bloom figures literature as an exploration of human possibility, with all the problems and potential of what that means. To close ourselves off from the “unlikable” privileges pleasure over experience and ensures, perhaps unbeknownst to ourselves, that we trod the safe terrain of the known.

Passing a happy hour is a signal satisfaction of reading, to be sure, but it is merely one of the satisfactions.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

May 9: Book Blog Jog

Thanks for stopping by The Reading Ape. Take a minute to poke around (you might sample the Featured Posts listed on the right), leave us a comment, then jog on over to If you would like to visit a different blog in the jog, go to

the Ape

Friday, May 7, 2010

Reading and the Gender Gap

A couple of weeks ago, Jason Pinter, writing for The Huffington Post, argued that men don't read as much as women because the publishing industry, for various reasons, doesn't offer books that men find appealing. Actually, that's not exactly what he said. He said that men do read...or wait, does he? Let's have a look:  
I'm tired of people saying Men Don't Read. Men LOVE to read. I've been a reader my whole life. My father is a reader. Most of my male friends are readers. But the more publishing repeats the empty mantra that Men Don't Read the less they're going to try to appeal to men, which is where this vicious cycle begins.
So men do read, apparently, but the publishing industry somehow doesn't get that men want to read. I guess. My point here is that Pinter, like many who fret about the state of reading, gets lost in a chicken-and-egg casuality maze. Not only does he refute the premise that men don't like reading as much as women, he blames he publishing industry for it, if it were true. Hmmm.

But here's the reality of the situation: women read more books than men. Let's get this out of the way:
1. According to an Associated Press poll conducted in 2002, American women read an average of nine books a year; men read 5.
2. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that 55% of American women read a play, novel, or short story in 2004, compared to 38% of men.
3. Perhaps most tellingly, The New York Fed's study on college major choice found that 62.5% of students who graduated from college with a degree in the humanities were women and that 76.9% of education majors were women.
What Pinter wants to do is hold the publishing industry accountable for these gender disparities, using a rather simplistic supply-side argument and unhelpful anecdotal evidence. If you want to get to the bottom of why men don't read as much as women do, you're going to delve deeper (and this seems like a good place to start).

Pinter also imagines some bizarro past, in which men roamed, conquered, and read with gusto:
[Men have] been alienated for a long time and might need to be roused from their slumber. But as I've always said the biggest problems facing the publishing industry are not ebooks, or returns, but the number of people reading. This is a way to bring back a lot of readers who have essentially been forgotten about.
I suppose if you want to argue that sometime in the 19th Century (when bound-book reading took off, thanks largely to the interest of the fair sex), the publishing industries of the West made some kind of egregious  and persistant error about what men want to read, then championing more "male" texts would be reasonable, but wrong-headed.

But the question Pinter doesn't address, and to which the Ape has no answer, is why should we care? We seem to want reading habits to be the same for men and women, but why exactly?

We agree with Pinter that "number of people reading" is something to care about, but what is less clear is why the gender breakdown is of such concern. Is it really so bad that women like to read more than men? Perhaps this is one of those questions of contemporary culture that is troubling because it seems to suggest some basic gender "inequality," and such things undermine our hard-own and justly-guarded progress toward civil equality.

The Ape is willing to be convinced that we should be banging out more sports novels or wrestling biographies or whatever, but pinning such a wide-ranging cultural phenomenon on publishers and editors is as reductive as it is short-sighted. The issue here isn't about reading; it's about our fear that we aren't teaching our children well. This is both understandable and good, but let's not romanticize the way men used to read. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Ethics of Spoilers, Part I

Last week, for a reason that escapes us now, the Ape was discussing The Godfather Part II with a few students after class. In the course of things, the Ape posed the opinion that Michael's motivation for killing his brother Fredo was completely believable. This was met with a series of incredulous gasps: "I can't believe you just told me the end of the movie."  The Ape was at first remorseful; we did not want to ruin a fantastic film for these eager, if ignorant, youngsters. Later though, this seemed wrong-headed. It is canonical film and has been around for more than 30 years. Surely, the statute of limitations has expired on "spoiling" The Godfather series.

This is the kind of thing, though, that tends to rattle around in the recesses of the Ape's mind. What are the rules for spoilers exactly? Just new works? What about if the spoilee is young? What harm does a spoiler really do? Does knowledge of the end of The Godfather Part II really spoil the work?

And while the Ape takes great pains to avoid both spoiling and having things spoiled for him, we can't think of an instance where such information really lived up to the spoiler name; this would seem to suggest that the issue with spoiler's isn't material harm, but a lapse in some sort of code for discussing plot-driven works of art.

A more complete "logic of spoilers" is in the works, but we wanted first to pose the general question: What's the big deal about spoilers?

Monday, May 3, 2010

The New Yorker's State of the e-Publishing World

In a recent New Yorker article, Ken Auletta gives a terrific overview of the recent and contentious e-book wars between publishers, Amazon, Apple and Google. Neither triumphalism or hand-wringing, Auletta’s recap trades in cold, hard facts. Rather than dispatch another missive about the whole business, the Ape would like to take a look at some of the realities Auletta chronicles and see what is worth caring about…and what isn’t.

1. The acorn that will be an oak:
E-books are booming. Although they account for only an estimated three to five per cent of the market, their sales increased a hundred and seventy-seven per cent in 2009, and it was projected that they would eventually account for between twenty-five and fifty per cent of all books sold.
Takeaway: it’s time to stop worrying about whether e-books are going to supplement, dominate or eliminate print books; this is a tide that won’t be turned.

2. There’s a reason they put the Snickers by the register
Apple, through its iTunes and Apple stores, had access to a hundred and twenty-five million credit cards, which would make it easy for consumers to buy books on impulse. 
…superstores like Target and Wal-Mart, along with clubs like Costco, account for forty-five per cent [of book sales], though they typically carry far fewer titles.
Takeaway: The fact that so many books are sold at super-stores leads me to believe that people will buy books if they are in front of them.  Getting books in front of consumers, which the iPad and the Kindle do in a big way, would seem to be kind of the point of this all, no? Which leads us to…

3. The medium matters
Russ Grandinetti, the Amazon vice-president, says the Kindle has boosted book sales over all. “On average,” he says, Kindle users “buy 3.1 times as many books as they did twelve months ago.”
Takeaway: More book-reading options means more book reading. It may not mean more money for publishers and authors (more on this in a minute), but if we care about overall reading rates, then we should embrace digital reading.

4. There may be room for everybody, just less room for some.
“I think consumers, like publishers, are living in parallel universes,” Burnham [an executive at HarperCollins} says. “Consumers are educated to have a multiplicity of choices. They still like to go to a bookstore, while they also want everything available online.”
Takeaway: While people want cheaper goods, bookstores still provide a desired service. How many bookstores can be supported by the browser-buyers is unknown, but brick and mortars are going to survive. Publishers on the other hand…

5. Welcome to, you know, capitalism guys
Without bookstores, it would take years for publishers to learn how to sell books directly to consumers. They do no market research, have little data on their customers, and have no experience in direct retailing. With the possible exception of Harlequin Romance and Penguin paperbacks, readers have no particular association with any given publisher; in books, the author is the brand name. 
Takeaway: So I might know more about the seven people who read this blog through the tools Google provides than the big six publishers know about their customers. You know what’s a worse sign? That I’m not all that surprised. I think one might reasonably conclude that the kick in the ass that Amazon is giving publishers might just create a leaner, more nimble, and in the end more sustainable book industry. Still, I think we don’t want Amazon doing it all because…

6. You get what you pay for
Good publishers find and cultivate writers, some of whom do not initially have much commercial promise. They also give advances on royalties, without which most writers of nonfiction could not afford to research new books. The industry produces more than a hundred thousand books a year, seventy per cent of which will not earn back the money that their authors have been advanced; aside from returns, royalty advances are by far publishers’ biggest expense. Although critics argue that traditional book publishing takes too much money from authors, in reality the profits earned by the relatively small percentage of authors whose books make money essentially go to subsidizing less commercially successful writers. The system is inefficient, but it supports a class of professional writers, which might not otherwise exist.
Takeaway: Publishers are risk-aggregators. They do the work of screening, supporting, and distributing the work of writers. Would Amazon as publisher-distributor do what FSG does? I highly doubt it. Wihtout this sort of gate-keeping, the result could be… 
7. Make ready for the hordes
Budget-conscious publishers have also reduced the editing and marketing and other services they provide to authors, which has left a vacuum for others to fill. Author Solutions, a self-publishing company in Bloomington, Indiana, has ninety thousand client-authors.
Takeaway: Here’s what you don’t want—a sea of tens of thousands of books in a huge pile. How in the world will you decide what to read? How will reviewers? It’s time to acknowledge that publishers protect us from the paralysis of choice. I’m sure some books get missed, but surely more would get missed if no one was minding the store.

8. Google to the rescue, again/finally
Google Editions will let publishers set the price of their books, he said, and will accept the agency model. Having already digitized twelve million books, including out-of-print titles, Google will have a far greater selection than Amazon or Apple. It will also make e-books available for bookstores to sell, giving “the vast majority” of revenues to the store, Clancy [director of Google Books] said. He suggested that in trying to dominate the market Amazon and Apple were taking the wrong approach to business online. “It’s much more of an open ecosystem, where you find a way for bricks-and-mortar stores to participate in the future digital world of books,” he said.
Takeaway: The digital book readers might be the eight track tapes of today’s publishing revolution. The long arc here is toward platform neutrality, universal availability, and flexible pricing. Sound like the M.O. of any super-humongous-giant tech company you know?

There are more choice nuggets in the article; the Ape suggests a full read for anyone interested in these matters.