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[LINK] “Amazon is opening its first physical bookstore today”

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This report from The Verge amuses me.

Amazon got its start as an online bookseller, and now — over 20 years later — it’s decided to sell books the old-fashioned way. On Tuesday, Amazon will open a store in Seattle called Amazon Books. Not only is it one of Amazon’s first physical locations, but it’s also Amazon’s first physical bookstore. Amazon says that it won’t entirely be doing things like a traditional store, however; it’ll be relying on Amazon.com data — including customer ratings, sales totals, and Goodread’s popularity — to decide which books to stock. Curators will have some say, too.

In addition to selling books, Amazon is also going to be putting its devices on display. Visitors will be able to try Kindles, the Echo, the Fire TV, and Fire Tablets. This very much isn’t a tech store, though. Photos show this to be a book store first and foremost; but like a Barnes & Noble, it also has an additional section for related (and not-so-related) technology. One thing that Amazon’s store seems to be doing differently is putting all of its books face out, rather than spine out, and putting up a placard for each of them that contains their Amazon.com rating and an actual customer review. In-store prices will all match online prices, too (which means they’ll probably change while you’re holding them).

Written by Randy McDonald

November 4, 2015 at 1:32 am

[LINK] “No, the Kids Aren’t Reading the Classics and Why Would They”

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At Whatever, John Scalzi notes the very good reasons why the young of today aren’t reading the classics of old science fiction. (They are young, and of today.)

The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this. As a practical matter, classic science fiction isn’t selling where today’s kids are buying (or where they are being bought for), namely, in the YA section of the book store. See for yourself: Walk into your local bookstore, head to the YA racks and try to find a science fiction or fantasy-themed book that more than fifteen years old. It’ll be a rough assignment. YA has a high audience turnover rate — kids keep aging out of the demo, don’t you know — and the new kids want their own books. The older books you’ll see tend to be a) ones assigned by schools, b) ones that had movies made from them.

Mind you, generally speaking, book stores stock newer books anyway; book stores, like other entertainment venues, rely on novelty (which in our line of work is called “front list”) to get people through the doors. If you’re doing well as an author, some of your backlist is on the shelf, too. But the shelf in a physical bookstore is only so long. These days, being someone who has been in a lot of bookstores recently, I note the shelf in science fiction and fantasy is mostly skewed to living, working authors, most notably their last couple of books. Some classic (i.e., now dead) authors are there but usually represented by two or three books rather than an extensive backlist.

Which is as it should be. All love to Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, et al., but they’re dead now. They don’t need the money from readers; living authors do. Moreover, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, et al have been dead on average two to three decades and their best known work is half a century old. No matter how brilliant they were or how foundational they were to the genre, they’re going to be dated. None of the futures of Heinlein , as just one example, resemble a future that begins from today; they branch off from the 50s or 60s. Readers (in general) don’t want to have to go backwards a half century in order to move forward again.

Certainly you can’t expect new readers to the genre, including young readers, to backshift several decades — or, well, you can, but it would have the same effect as suggesting to a teenager today that if they want to see a movie about people their age, they should watch The Blackboard Jungle. Sure, it’s fine movie, and an important one. It’s just not especially relevant to the teenager of today. It wasn’t made for them, in any event. It was made for their grandparents.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 2, 2015 at 8:27 pm

[BLOG] Some Friday links

  • The Broadside Blog’s Caitlin Kelly describes what it takes to be a professional writer.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper considering dust in atmospheres.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes the study of a medieval Korean star catalogue.
  • Language Hat notes a program to translate Mexican writers who write in indigenous languages.
  • Steve Munro offers advice on what to do about Smarttrack.
  • Marginal Revolution refers readers to Gary Kasparov’s new book on politics, criticizing Putin and much else.
  • The Planetary Society Blog shares the latest data from Dawn at Ceres.
  • Torontoist has a beautiful picture of the Prince Edward Viaduct.
  • Towleroad notes a referendum on same-sex marriage in Slovenia.

[URBAN NOTE] “Beyond Words: Toronto Grows Its Own LGBTQ Literary Festival”

This Torontoist feature describes a GLBT literary festival in Toronto I wish I had attended. Next year, hopefully, I will.

This past weekend, Toronto got its first queer literary festival. Presented by Glad Day Bookshop, Naked Heart: An LGBTQ Festival of Words, took place in various venues within walking distance of the Church Street Village.

David’s Tea, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Yorkville Library, City Park Library, the Ontario Public Services Employees Union Hall (OPSEU) and well-known bar Zipperz hosted more than 120 writers who presented 47 panels, workshops, and readings during the three-day festival. Although some internationally renowned queer writers were present (most notably, American novelist Larry Duplechan) it was Toronto’s own heroes who took the spotlight. Playwright Brad Fraser, writer (and sometimes-Torontoist contributor) Denise Benson, Farzana Doctor, Sarah Liss, and Sky Gilbert were among the locals involved.

Scott Dagostino, manager of Glad Day Bookshop and a regular columnist for Daily Xtra, also presented at the inaugural festival.

“We need to tell our own stories and the next generation needs to see themselves represented in script. This is what got us through the AIDS crisis and this is what keeps us alive,” said Dagostino.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 22, 2015 at 7:32 pm

[LINK] “Can Lorin Stein Translate Michel Houellebecq Into a Great Writer?”

Cody Delistraty introduces his readers to a new criticism of Michel Houellebecq as a writer of note. I would just add that it’s important to distinguish between “attention-getting” and “good”.

Few would call Houellebecq, who holds the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor, a “bad writer,” but in France he is known for his narrative inventiveness while his style is generally accepted as second-rate: something readers put up with in order to get to his ideas. And yet in Submission, his latest novel, his style is so distracting that the Parisian weekly L’Express called him out as “a poor writer but a good sociologist,” adding, “a good writer would not use ‘based on’ in lieu of ‘founded on,’ ‘however’ in place of ‘on the other hand,’ and ‘wine vintage’ when he wants to mean ‘vintage.’ ”

Houellebecq is a classically French intellectual in that the Idea comes above all. By systematically draping ideas over characters, he has created a text that is essentially a political treatise disguised as a novel. For instance, near the end, François gets into a dialogue with a former academic colleague, whereupon they proceed to discuss everything from the social instability caused by mass secularism to the supposed evolutionary benefits of polygamy—all this for multiple chapters, unrelieved by an explanation of feelings or a description of the setting or any of the other details that a reader of fiction might reasonably expect.

Characters, too, are created and erased at will. Myriam, François’ romantic interest, comes onto the scene near the middle of the novel, then disappears when she moves to Israel, never to be mentioned again except for three sentences in the final act. It’s clear that Houellebecq invented Myriam predominately as a comparison to the sexually submissive wives that François’ male friends are gifted after Mohammed Ben Abbes, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, wins the 2022 French presidential election. Nabokov famously said his characters are his “galley slaves.” Houellebecq’s characters are his way to claim his stories as novels and not academic texts.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 21, 2015 at 9:46 pm

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • Cody Delistraty links to his article in The New Yorker on Julian Barnes.
  • The Dragon’s Tales looks at exoplanet K2-22b, a disintegrating rocky world with a comet’s tail.
  • Imageo points out we can’t be sure about the consequences of this coming El Nino.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money supports Paul Theroux’s arguments re: Southern deindustrialization.
  • Marginal Revolution notes that African slave migrants to the Americas before 1800 may have outnumbered European migrants by four or even eight to one.
  • The New APPS Blog examines Michel Foucault’s analysis of Iran.
  • Torontoist maps the city’s homeless shelters.
  • Towleroad notes how Chinese activists revealed h existence of electroshock for gay people.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy notes the problems with courts ruling over issues of religious doctrine.
  • Window on Eurasia suggests Russia is being left behind by the Pacific Century and notes the survival of terrorism in the North Caucasus.

[LINK] Three links on Belarus, elections, Svetlana Alexievich, and the future

Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidskiy approves of the granting of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Belarusian Sveltana Alexievich.

Alexievich, the first Russian-speaking winner since Joseph Brodsky in 1987, has long been a favorite for the prize. That said, there’s a clear logic to choosing her now. Born in western Ukraine to a Ukrainian mother and a Belarussian father, she is the closest thing to a strong Ukrainian author the Nobel committee could find, though she considers herself Belarussian. She is also among the purest and fiercest critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her books document the woeful legacy of the Soviet era, which Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko have tried to repaint in the gaudy colors of imperial glory.

Alexievich joins a very small group of nonfiction writers who have won the prize. Another was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose victory told the Communist leadership of the Soviet Union that the world knew the truth, or would like to know it. Alexievich’s selection sends a similar message to Putin’s Kremlin.

She doesn’t see herself as a literary wizard — she has described herself as “an ear, not a pen.” Her works are essentially collections of interviews with hundreds of ordinary people. Reached by the Swedish broadcaster SVT, she said that being honored alongside such great Russian-language writers as Ivan Bunin and Boris Pasternak was “a bit disturbing.” Alexievich’s approach is more journalistic, a style that suits her Belarussian heritage as described in “Chernobyl Prayer,” her stark investigation of the human consequences of the world’s worst nuclear disaster:

We are people of the earth, not of the sky. Our monoculture is potatoes, we dig it, we plant it, and all the time we look down at the earth. Down! And if a person should raise his head, it will be to look no higher than a stork’s nest. Even that is high for him, that is his sky. There is no sky that they call cosmos in our culture. Then we take something from the Russian culture or the Polish one. Now when we get a Tolstoy, a Pushkin, we’ll understand something about ourselves.

Instead, the Belarussians and all the post-Soviet Russian speakers — about 300 million of us — got Alexievich, who finds it hard to lift her eyes from an earth dotted with graves.

Aliaksandr Kudrytski at Bloomberg notes the high stakes in Belarus’ elections.

For an election deemed unnoticeable by international observers, there will be plenty of global attention when Belarus votes for president on Sunday.

Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, 61, is seeking his fifth term against a fractured and weakened opposition, with the country besieged by economic turmoil and an 18-month conflict in neighboring Ukraine. After a campaign international observers called “largely invisible,” a government-sanctioned poll showed Lukashenko’s support at more than 76 percent. The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies in Lithuania found his backing near 46 percent, short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Belarus, wedged between Russia and Poland, is at risk of becoming another geopolitical battleground as the Kremlin wrangles with its former Cold War rivals from Ukraine to Syria. Lukashenko, Europe’s longest-serving leader who’s been in power since 1994, campaigned with the goal of “normalizing” ties with the U.S. and Europe and pushed back against plans by President Vladimir Putin — his closest ally — to set up a military air base in Belarus.

“While toppling Lukashenko would be very difficult for Russia, especially without a plausible alternative candidate waiting in the wings, a rapprochement with Brussels may tip the balance in favor of those advocating regime change in Minsk,” said Daragh McDowell, principal analyst covering Russia and the former Soviet Union at Verisk Maplecroft, a Bath, U.K.-based global risk adviser. “‘Losing’ Belarus so soon after Ukraine would deal a crippling blow to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in Europe.”

Window on Eurasia notes the reaction to Alexievich’s selection as signaling Belarusian national identity.

In a commentary today on Grani.ru, Vitaly Portnikov makes this point clear in a survey of the reaction to Aleksiyevich’s award in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine and in his assessment of what this says about the state of Belarusian literature and even more important of the Belarusian nation (grani.ru/opinion/portnikov/m.244887.html).

In many ways, he suggests, the reactions of people in the three Slavic countries was entirely predictable. In Belarus, the official media treated the event in a very low key manner because Aleksiyevich is an opponent of Alyaksandr Lukashenka even though she is the first Belarusian writer to win this prize.

In Russia, there were some who wanted to claim Aleksiyevich’s prize as “a victory of Russian literature” (echo.msk.ru/blog/minkin/1636924-echo/), as others denounced her for her outspoken opposition to Putin and his authoritarian and imperial rule as “a Solzhenitsyn in skirts” (ruskline.ru/news_rl/2015/10/09/solzhenicyn_v_yubke/).

And in Ukraine, as Portnikov notes, some wanted to claim her as a Ukrainian because she was born in Ivano-Frankivsk. (Although he doesn’t mention it, some Ukrainian commentators at the very least wanted to interpret her award as a slap in the face of Russia: dsnews.ua/society/u-nobelya-antisovetskoe-litso-08102015191000).)

“Beyond any doubt,” Portnikov says, “Svetlana Aleksiyevich is a Belarusian writer. Belarusian to the same degree that Joyce and Yates are Irish writers, Mark Twain and Hemingway are American, Marquez is Columbian and Llosa, Peruvian.”

Written by Randy McDonald

October 10, 2015 at 7:26 pm


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