I have a new blog at http://www.jessicadenham.com. I review books there every Friday. I also post my cartoon dream diary on weekdays. I’d be delighted if you take a look. Thanks for reading!
This post is my boilerplate for review requests, which in another context would be known as cold calls.
Yes, I will give you some unsolicited advice. No, I won’t read your [story, novel, poem]. Why? First, and most importantly, because I’m not a literary agent, a publisher, or a reviewer. I can barely keep up with my reading pile as it is, and that’s material I’m guaranteed to enjoy. I still haven’t read The Master and Margarita, David Copperfield, Cloud Atlas, or The Corrections. I still haven’t read things I paid to read. In fact, I’m in the process of editing the fourth revision of my own first novel; I still haven’t read things I need to read that I wrote.
Second, there is a glaring problem with your approach. You don’t know me. For all you know, your work doesn’t suit my tastes and I’ll give you a scathingly bad review that will make you cry in the shower. Soliciting me for a review is exactly like walking up to an attractive stranger to ask for a date. It’s a bold imposition, a gamble that most likely won’t pay off. Sorry, I’m married. Sorry, you look like my brother. Sorry, I have a cold. Sorry, I’m not the appropriate sexual orientation for you. Sorry, I’m on my way to a job interview. Sorry, I just left a funeral. Sorry, I’m the crazy one your mother warned you about. Be careful what you wish for.
Writing is lonely and monotonous and uncertain. Almost nobody makes money doing it. Everyone wants to be a writer because it’s a very attractive image. Being a writer is being subsidized by the public to be wise and fascinating and eccentric while setting your own schedule. It’s a lot like being a rock star, sexy and talented and free to explore the limits of altered states of consciousness. These are fantasies. The cold, hard reality of writing is that even the people who love your stuff the most will give it away for free the minute they’re done with it. They’ll check it out from the library or buy a used copy, ensuring you don’t see any royalties. You’ll make about $3 a copy at most, and that’s the best case scenario.
Many of the most successful writers of all time have been rejected over and over and over and over and over and over again. J. K. Rowling, John Kennedy Toole, Kathryn Stockett, Margaret Mitchell, Stephen King… Most of us will never be this good anywhere outside our wildest dreams. American Idol is a great analogy for publishing. In the first couple of episodes of each season, there are several contestants who have never received honest criticism. The result of pure self-confidence in one’s talents, minus critique, is public humiliation. The appropriate attitude when soliciting criticism is humble. “Could I possibly impose upon you to point out a few of the most glaring flaws of this piece?” The biggest difference between American Idol and reading novice writing is that most songs only last about three minutes. Writing is almost a biological function. Becoming a writer means developing the ability to read your own work objectively, like it was written by someone else, and ruthlessly carve it and sculpt it until it lives on the page. The work must justify its existence.
But how are you supposed to start selling your writing? Chances are very high that you won’t. If you really are any good, this simple yet brutal fact won’t slow you down. If you really think you have the chops for it, you should already have started to get some helpful tips in your writing classes at school. You should already have started sharing your stuff on a blog or a fan fiction site. You should already have at least one friend or family member who has graciously volunteered some personal time to read your work. You should already have looked into joining a writers’ group, taking creative writing classes, and submitting your work to literary magazines and to agents. You should be able to accept that you are working on spec, and that your hourly rate of pay for the first several years of your writing career will be zero dollars and zero cents.
The best thing most of us can do to have a literary life is to support the work of other writers. I’ve earned as much in three years of writing as I have in three weeks of working as an office assistant. In that time, I have bought dozens of books and reviewed a few hundred. If I can ever earn enough to subsidize my reading habit it will be a red letter day. The sad state of affairs is that writers must compete with every other form of entertainment media for eyeball time. The entire Internet is available around the clock, and most of it is free of charge. The more we become accustomed to having instantaneous access to high quality, free entertainment, the less viable the production of that high quality material becomes. Investing in books is a way of clapping for Tinkerbell.
I have a new project. It’s not world-class or anything, but it amuses me. Most days I do a drawing of one of my dreams. My artwork is gradually inching along from Abject to Dire. I hope one day to reach Novice.
Here is the URL:
I have purposefully avoided offering an archive or comments. Whatever you see when you visit, that is the one time it will be available. I will make an exception here and describe the drawing currently on offer: two Cyclops women sitting on a sofa.
I’m writing this about 40 minutes before the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize is scheduled to be announced. Over the last few years, I’ve liked to try to read through the long list and guess what will be on the short list and what will win.
This year, the short list books have been exceptionally good. I think the winner will be an upset and will surprise and possibly disappoint the Booker audience.
Odds seem to be between Harvest and The Luminaries. I’d give it 49%/51%. But I think a third book will have been chosen instead, as sometimes happens when two titles tip the teeter-totter.
Personally, I liked A Tale for the Time Being the best. It seems to be ranked the lowest of the six short list titles by the betting agencies, so I’d be more surprised than anyone else if it truly did claim the prize. I have to confess that I’m only about 20% through The Lowlands and I haven’t read a word of We Need New Names. (I just finished changing residences for the third time in six months, not including five hotels, two tents, and the homes of four friends and family members, so I got a bit behind).
Anyway, if I don’t post this soon, the winner will be announced before I make my own announcement. Essentially, I’m not making one. All I can do is shrug and say I don’t think it will be either Crace or Catton.
I’ve been using the OverDrive Media Console without issues for years, and it just took me an hour to figure out why I couldn’t load WMA files with it on my new laptop. There are pieces to the solution out there (80% coming from the brilliant mind of Jon Gallant), but it took me several tries with several sources to figure it out. I thought I’d summarize here.
1. If you use Windows 8, there are two options: the old desktop version and a new version for Windows 8. The Windows 8 version claims it won’t play WMA files. As far as I know, this is true, so the trusty old version is preferable if you use this file type. If you download both, like I did, you’ll have to fuss with making sure the Windows 8 version is not the default, or just uninstall it.
2. If you just downloaded the old desktop version, when you attempt to download an audio book from your library, you will see this error message, beginning “Unable to acquire a license to play the selected title”:
3. Click Tools > Windows Media Player Security Upgrade. Surprise! Another error message: “Your Windows Media Player requires a security upgrade to play protected content.”
4. Discover a grayed-out “Upgrade” button.
5. Learn the hard way that you can only use Internet Explorer to download the security upgrade. This should resolve the grayed-out button issue so that you can actually click it.
6. A fresh level of Hell. “Windows Media Player encountered a problem while playing the file.”:
7. Discover that you don’t even have Windows Media Player loaded onto your laptop.
8. Install Windows Media Player and poke around in the Help files. Discover nothing at all about media acquisition, which you have been researching for some time.
9. Discover this link:
http://blog.jongallant.com/2012/11/windows-media-player-overdrive-error.html#.UYli1rWG18F (I snagged all the screen shots from here, realizing after I had resolved the problem that I could not duplicate them on my own system).
10. Follow his steps 1, 2, and 3, failing to achieve the dialogue box in step 4. (Right-click the Internet Explorer icon and right-click again on the pop-up menu that appears. Select “Run as Administrator.” Choose the Security tab, second from the left, and uncheck the “Enable Protected Mode” checkbox at the bottom. Click “Apply.” Then click “OK” on the warning box that results).
11. Realize that you must start again at the beginning, following my steps 1-5. (Open the OverDrive Media Console. Click Tools and choose Windows Media Player Security Upgrade. Press F1 and copy the URL into Internet Explorer. Click the Upgrade button). THIS time the following dialog box should appear:
12. Click “Upgrade” and watch as what should have been a 30-second fix magically works the way it was supposed to.
I find it disgraceful that this security upgrade issue has been resulting in complaints since 2009, and yet neither the OverDrive site nor any of the library sites includes comprehensive directions to resolve it. Then again, I’ve used it on two desktops and my iPhone with no hassle, and it’s pretty ungrateful to complain about free software that enables me to download free library books.
Hopefully this post will help at least one other person.
From the wayback machine, my account of Booktopia Santa Cruz as of last October. Ya never know, someone trying to decide whether to attend Booktopia 2013 may find these notes interesting.
Saturday was the day of small group author sessions. These were indeed all small enough that everyone could hear and there was plenty of time for everyone to ask questions.
I started my day with Cara Black at the Center Street Grill. She brought her agent and it was fascinating to see what a close connection the two of them had. It was a real insight into the level of involvement a good agent can have in the development of a book or series. It was also nice to see someone with whom I had had a personal conversation performing in a professional capacity.
After lunch I attended Ann Packer’s discussion of Swim Back to Me. I hadn’t read the book, though I knew it by reputation. Being in that situation drew my attention to the sorts of things that make an impression on readers. Predictably, there were a lot of questions about “where ideas come from” and the nature of the writing process.
In the afternoon, I attended the session on audiobook narration with Grover Gardner and Simon Vance. I thought the voices were familiar, and it turns out I’ve heard Grover Gardner narrate The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well as My Antonia. Simon Vance is currently reading Bring Up the Bodies on my iPhone. Like many people, I harbor a secret desire to record audiobooks for a living. The reality of this job, as relayed by these two successful narrators, is that it is very demanding, highly competitive, and beset on all sides by amateurs who deluge anyone in the industry with mediocre demo tapes. In my case, I know full well that nobody would pay to listen to my voice!
There was a three-hour break between the end of the last session and the beginning of the evening’s Celebration of Authors. I spent the time browsing for books and eating at Cafe Gratitude. Santa Cruz is a great boutique town.
Bookshop Santa Cruz is one of my top five favorite bookstores. It was packed for the Celebration of Authors, and I was very glad I had come early to claim a seat. I’ll give just thumbnail impressions of each of the authors.
Terry Jones made a great comment about e-reader hysteria: “The Kindle is going to come and drown us in our bathtubs.” “Art has a mind of its own.
Lynn Cox wrote South with the Sun. She swam the English Channel. While she is a riveting speaker and an accomplished athlete, what surprised me the most was that in regular clothing she could be a person of average fitness. You would never guess.
Grover Gardner spoke about his career recording audiobooks. I had heard him speak earlier in the day, but still it blew my mind that he has recorded over 800 books.
Ann Packer: “What is it about story that’s so gripping and so powerful?”
Adam Johnson was an absolute laugh riot. He told a story about meeting a homeless gentleman “and he was working on his novel too.” We can laugh about how everyone is writing a book, but in North Korea people haven’t been allowed to write books for 60 years. The only book he was shown in the library there was a 1995 copy of an English language guide to Windows. Gone With the Wind is basically the only book in translation in English. Even Solzhenitsyn got to write from the Gulag.
Sarah McCoy wrote her first book in kindergarten and designed the cover herself, with tulips and a house. She keeps a Moleskine journal.
Tupelo Hassman was the winner of the Santa Cruz Literary Death Match. For those of us who didn’t know there was such a thing, now we do!
Simon Vance first read Winnie the Pooh into a tape recorder as a young boy. Now he has read over 400 audio books professionally.
Cara Black’s dad asked her if she ever read any P.D. James. When she first went to France she knocked on the door of the winner of the Prix Goncourt and he invited her in and gave her her first espresso and her first cigar.
Matthew Dicks was another hilarious speaker. “I don’t want an introduction. Just play “Born to Run.”” He recommended that anyone who was planning to buy his book buy a copy of anything by William Shakespeare instead. He said he would sign Shakespeare’s books and that he had made it a habit to sign other authors’ books.
This was a very fun literary weekend and something I would definitely do again.
A dream of mine has come true. I’ve finally found a practical way to index my massive cookbook collection! I’m about 2/3 done, and only today did it occur to me that others might be interested in a project like this. (Humor me, okay?)
Up to now, I have had to rely on memory when I’ve wanted to look up a specific recipe. What book was it in again? This might not seem like a big deal in an ordinary kitchen. Combine 7 shelves in two bookcases with weekly dinner parties involving up to 20 people, and you can see why I wanted to get more organized.
I do have a sort of system in place for tracking recipes I have tried. I use one of four symbols to mark the page afterward. A recipe gets a check mark as a sign I’ve made it. It gets an X if I wouldn’t make it again. A star means it was good enough to make again, and a circled star means it should be in regular rotation. This system has helped a lot when I’m trying to recall which cornbread.
This still didn’t help with the problem of remembering which cookbook a recipe was in. It also didn’t provide a quick way to find our favorites. I tried using a blank book to write a few names, but I found this cumbersome. No way to alphabetize as I went, no search feature, no tags, etc.
I tried setting up a spreadsheet and typing in lists of recipe names, with columns for different ingredients. After about two hours I could see that this would take the rest of my life, with the added drawback that our computer is on the other side of the house from the kitchen.
Enter EverNote. I had made indexing my cookbooks a New Year’s goal, and I started searching for ways other people had done this. I stumbled across the fact that EverNote has OCR features. I thought, “It can’t be that simple, can it?” I loaded the app onto my iPhone (again – I had tried it and been unimpressed) and tested it out. Yes, it is that simple!
What I am doing is scanning each page of the index for each cookbook. I rename the ‘snapshot’ with the book’s name and the index page number. I put it in a folder marked ‘Recipe Indices.’ I tag it with the book’s name, author names, and publication date. It sounds complicated, but once I got going I found I could tag everything in seconds.
Now, when I search for a term, EverNote returns all the pages with that word, with each instance highlighted in yellow. The other night I wanted to make a cassoulet recipe I first tried 18 months ago. Even though I was only halfway through indexing, the correct book came up in seconds. That’s part of why I haven’t bothered creating tags for recipe categories like ‘Thai’ or ‘soup’ – I figure those terms will have been indexed already.
The other thing I’m doing is scanning all those recipes with a star, as I come across them. EverNote also uses a star to mark favorites. So far I have 50. It’s like a mini travel cookbook. I no longer have to worry about wandering the grocery store wondering what to cook. If I feel a sudden craving, I can check the recipe and make sure I have all the ingredients in the cart. One day I’m sure my phone will also have a complete inventory of what’s in my pantry, too, so I quit overbuying. I have so much molasses right now the ATF is investigating me as a bootlegger. But I digress.
EverNote has two additional features I haven’t used yet: web clipping and handwriting recognition. When I’m done with the current phase of my project, I can find out if my handwriting is legible on my collection of recipe cards. (Yep. Books are only part of my hoard). As I move to a more electronic system, I can add recipes I’ve discovered online.
Possibly the most interesting finding has been that I had never used 40% of the cookbooks on my shelf. I didn’t count how many more had only one recipe checked off; I’m afraid that would have been too revealing. I went through and rigorously culled books I was sure I could let go. One guideline that helped was to cut off anything more than 10 years old, although I made the exception of a few reliable restaurant cookbooks I use regularly. Another, easier guideline was to flip through books I recalled harboring a failed recipe or two. I started with 128 and now I’m down to 82, including my handwritten recipe journal.
Why not just buy the e-book versions of my favorite cookbooks? Believe me, I wish this was a viable option. Not all of them are available in electronic format. Each recipe in an e-book spreads across multiple screens. There is no way I know of to search multiple indices at once. It might be easier to use e-cookbooks on a tablet, and I’ll find out once I get one, but for now I like my system better.
If you have a system for organizing your recipes, or ideas for using EverNote to improve my project, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
I’m writing up notes from yesterday during today’s lunch break. It’s been non-stop fun since I got here! Due to last minute cancellations I was able to get a friend into the event with me.
The weather in Santa Cruz is often a bit gloomy, but most of Friday was beautifully sunny and warm. This made it nice for walking between venues. Not that event organizers can control the weather, at least I don’t think they can, but it’s something to appreciate.
The first two modules were Bookseller Speed Dating and a Yankee Swap.
In Bookseller Speed Dating, we divided into four groups and visited stations in different areas of Bookshop Santa Cruz. Three long-time employees presented a half-dozen books each, describing why they loved them. Employee recommendations are possibly the best, most enticing feature of indie bookstores, and this was a great way to get a closer look at the personalities behind the little handwritten shelf cards we love so much.
The highlight, though, was the Espresso printing machine. We got to watch one of the souvenir books for the event as it was printed, bound, and cut. When it came out, it was still warm. (Yes, I sniffed it too). The sides of the machine are transparent. We were crouching on the floor and turning our heads from side to side to get a better look. Imagine having one of these in your living room! Alas, Bookshop has one of the only three in California, and 81 in the world.
I hadn’t brought a book for the Yankee Swap. Well, I had, but I had 100 pages to go, so I bought a new book.
It was the first thing that captured my attention. In fact, the cashier asked to take a picture of it to show to a friend later. I came back later and bought a second copy for myself.
The Yankee Swap is like a White Elephant party. All the participants pile their wrapped books in the center of the room. Each player gets a playing card drawn at random, and takes turns choosing a book. After unwrapping it, you can decide whether to keep it or trade it for one that’s already been unwrapped. Meanwhile, the person who brought it stands up and explains why that book was chosen. I wound up with Back When We Were Grownups, which is funny because the last book I finished was also by Anne Tyler. My book went to a person who had contributed a copy of Atlas Shrugged. One book was signed by the author, but dedicated to someone named Karen. The recipient elected to swap it. The lady who gave up her book for it said, “That’s fine because my name is Karen!” There was a lot of laughter and a lot of contention for the single copy of Cloud Atlas. The venue, Art du Jour, had an absolutely charming bricked patio and a fat, smiling Amazon parrot sunning itself on an open birdcage.
We had a bit of time to kill before the final event of the evening. I went around the corner to Game-a-Lot, looking for a copy of Cards Against Humanity. They didn’t have it but they did have Super Big Boggle! It’s still in the wrapper at this time but I look forward to rattling it like a maraca at the first opportunity.
Finally we went to Center Street Grill for the welcome reception. Let me tell you, dedicated readers are a very nice group of folks as a rule. I’ve been to other types of conventions for various reasons, and it’s interesting to people watch and guess who is affiliated with the event or not. Sci fi and comic cons, Apple conventions, multi level marketing, business seminars – all have certain characteristics that tend to make attendees recognizable. The reading crowd tends to be 3/4 or more female. We tend to dress sensibly. I’m not sure I can quite put a finger on why, but I’m pretty sure we can recognize one another when we meet. It was really easy to strike up a conversation with anyone. The authors were all there, and they mingled between tables. We were deep in conversation with Cara Black when I realized I was running late for a dinner date.
I got a chance to see a young friend of mine who is attending UC Santa Cruz. She’s busy but she found time for me. Then I spent the evening playing Super Scrabble with some dear friends. We stayed up until 2:30 playing Jotto, a word game we can play over email if you want me to teach you.
Now it’s time to head back to the event. I’ll have a break later in the day when I can record today’s impressions.
If you read as much true crime as I have, you may also feel like it’s a dirty little secret. I picked up Popular Crime and blasted through it, almost without intending to, when I was supposed to be reading something else.
The subtitle to Bill James’s book Popular Crime is “Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.” It could justifiably be called any of a number of other things, such as “A Second Look at Many Famous Crimes,” or “How Media Attention Educates the Public about Jurisprudence,” or “A Book That Should Have Been a Blog.” (Bill James has a website, which at first glance I thought was entirely about baseball. It includes some crime pieces, but requires a paid subscription).
This book is casual (written over 25 years with no notes or bibliography), irreverent, sometimes maddening, but almost unfailingly fascinating. It’s mostly a chronologically ordered catalog of famous crimes, interspersed with reasons these cases were important. James proposes that popular crime brings important legal and procedural issues to the public’s attention. He also has theses about why we have as much crime as we do and how to tackle it. These are important points, but the manner of delivery and the author’s lack of relevant expertise unfortunately make them unlikely to be taken seriously until they are brought up by someone else in another forum.
The best reason to read the book is to hear James out on his alternative theories and opinions on crimes you may already have studied. (It can be frustrating to read about the less familiar crimes, similar to the experience of reading a review of a movie you haven’t seen). He got my attention with his account of the JFK assassination, changed my mind about the JonBenet Ramsey case, and had me pacing the floor in an imaginary argument about the Lizzie Borden case.
The other thing he did was to compare Ted Bundy to Barack Obama.
Popular Crime is not a perfect book, but it’s tremendously engaging. This book changed my perspective on a number of things and will affect my future reading on the subject. True crime fans should make a point of checking it out.
This is the first book I have read off the Man Booker long list for 2012. It is my prediction that Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home will make it to the short list.
Spare, poetic, powerful, Swimming Home is an electric read. It’s a little creepy and entirely believable. At under 160 pages, it’s an easy choice if you want a taste of the Bookers.
Next up: Necropolis by Jeet Thayil.