Stop being snobby about reading

There is just too much snobbery about reading. Via Kim of Reading Matters, here's a sneering post about the Amazon UK best seller list. One of those bloggers who proudly is rude about J K Rowling simultaneously with proudly proclaiming not having read her books or intending to. The sneer is purely at the expense of customers at the bookshop where the sneerer worked asking when the next Harry Potter book would be out. Sad.

There is no mileage in sneering at what people are reading. Please. I mean it. Even if the Amazon bestseller list is stuffed with celebrity "auto"biographies and annuals.

Here is another example, via a hilarious post in the form of a letter to me (The perfekk job for Maxine) by Judith Fitzgerald of Books, Inq., the [debonair] epilogue. An unbelievable snob is described at the New York Times article at the link.

It is great to read. It does not matter what anyone is reading. It beats going out and blowing people up, right? When I read today about the killing of Rhys Jones by one of a group of teenagers "stuck in a world of boredom where drug dealing is the only ambition", I think, did anyone teach those boys to read? Yes. Would I sneer at them for reading Jeremy Clarkson's "auto"biography or the DaVinci Code instead of doing what they did every day? No I would not. What is on the Amazon bestseller list is not relevant to anyone, nobody has to read those books. If people are reading them, perhaps it is more improving than that person's other options.

Win Picador books in Bookgroup quiz

Bookgroup.info is running a Christmas book quiz, open to all, deadline for entries end of December. It is worth doing, because the prize is a set of eight Picador books from 2008:BREATH by Tim Winton; WHEN WE WERE ROMANS by Matthew Kneale; THE PESTHOUSE by Jim Crace; SCOTTSBORO by Ellen Feldman; TOMORROW by Graham Swift; THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ by Dalia Sofer; THE HAKAWATI by Rabih Alameddine; and THE LITTLE HUT OF LEAPING FISHES by Chiew-Siah Tei.

Elsewhere at Bookgroup.info, the book of the month for December is Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, described as an Indian Dickens bythe Bookgroup review. The guest review this month is of Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrence, set in Corfu and "an intelligent and perceptive study of the unreliability of biography as well as a moving story about love and loss…. gorgeous, but thoughtful, escapism." If neither of these appeals, reviews of more recommended books can be found here.

The mess we’re in, and some poetry

If you don't keep up with the Internet for a couple of days (RSS reader, home email account, blogs, FriendFeed, Twitter etc), your home life soon starts to become like your work life, constantly chasing to keep up. After opting out for 48 hours or so, it seems from my several thousand unread items that the majority is posting about the financial crisis or about end-of year-related material. I'll just post a few on-topic-recession items that caught my interest from the many I glazed over:

The Times Comment Central blog rounds up the worst predictions of 2008 – the one in the post being the in-retrospect trivial one that Hillary Clinton would gain the Democratic nomination. Doubtless in the links there are plenty who confidently failed to counter-predict the mess we are all now in (an increasing number of hard workers and careful savers being penalised by the greedy, irresponsible and self-interested actions of the financial "industry" and associated hangers-on).

Before I get carried away on that score, can science solve the economic crisis?, asks the Edge, via BackReaction (with added commentary).

Frank Wilson draws attention to an interesting way to make a bit of money if you are feeling the pinch – predict how well people will perform on the basis of how they perform.

I've got quite fond of Robert Peston's blog now: although the one-sentence paragraphs and (BBC house style I am told) patronising phrasing put me off I suppose that isn't the author's fault. Lots of good if grim posts there, anyway, but of special interest is his article (downloadable as a PDF from this link) about "how we got into this mess and what the re-made economy will look like".

OK, that's enough financial crisis, ed. How about a bit of getting poetical?

Novels in search of main characters

Brian Clegg wrote the other day on his blog Now Appearing about finishing a book and feeling manipulated, or cheated. The book in question is not non-fiction nor a science or science-fiction novel, but, relatively unusually for Brian I believe, a crime novel. What Brian found misleading was the fact that the book was being marketed as "A Character X" novel, whereas as it turned out, "Character X" was not the main detective character.

I could not guess which book Brian meant, but kindly he revealed the title and author in the comment thread, and I immediately knew what he was getting at. (Visit Now Appearing for the details if you wish all to be revealed). The question remains as to whether the marketing was deliberately part of the undoubted impact of the final scenes, or if it was just a lazy exercise by people who hadn't read the book and didn't care so long as it sold. (Or other.)

Kerrie, in the comments, identifies another book possibly along these lines. She also refers to the sense of let-down when the supposedly central character takes a very long time to make an appearance in novels. Similarly, I have occasionally felt puzzled by why the "Martin Beck" series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo is called "The Martin Beck series", as in several of the first books in the series he is an ephemeral character. (The second book is an exception.) The "Martin Beck" branding – even the spines of the Harper Perennial series each have one character of the name so if you have all the books they spell out MARTIN BECK on the shelf, 10 characters/10 books being a fortunate coincidence or deliberate cleverness by the authors — may be a modern addition compared with the original publication of these novels in the 1960s and 1970s. Now that I have reached book 8, I am absorbing how the authors have integrated their biting political satire into the personality of this character, who like the society described, is a general, subliminal presence rather than driving events — so does not need to appear 'in person' even very often within a book. Beck's whole method of solving the cases he faces is done by a slow, thorough dissection of minute details. And, eventually, I am seeing how Beck's own life is a mirror of the world depicted by the authors. As the society degenerates from naive optimism into soulless oppression, the man's dead personal landscape slowly emerges into the light. (Well I think it does, I still have two books to go.)

The Sjowall/Wahloo books have several similarities with J. K. Rowling's septet. The most obvious, and a very satisfying element to the reader, is that both series were conceived as a whole. This enables many aspects to be explored that just don't happen in most books, either because they don't have sequels or if they do, the sequels are added-on, usually displaying the law of diminishing returns, rather than part of a whole – or in the case of series, become formula, however superior. (Note, Lord of the Rings was conceived and written as one book, not three novels.) I might write about some of these aspects another time if I have the energy and if my brain can make a coherent stab at it.

I have found my perfect job

Finally, after all these years, I have found my perfect job! I often thought of being a librarian, I've been a bookseller, but this has to be nirvana. According to the Bookseller, Waterstones is undergoing a trial of hiring personal shoppers  – in its huge Liverpool store, admittedly, but the concept must surely spread to the south-east.

"All people have to do is tell us a little about who they need to get a present for, and the personal shopper will select the perfect gift," said the store's manager Ian Critchley. "Given we have over 60,000 books, as well as everything else we sell, we think this will be the perfect service for those who are spoilt for choice and pushed for time."

Where's the application form?

DS books, e-books, new neighbours

Via Martyn Daniels: "Today HarperCollins announced its adoption of the Nintendo DS ebook application to sell a cartridge of some 100 classics … a new and interesting diversion from the normal platform and one which is both logical and could offer a quick return as it has a ready-built audience." For my part, I am not sure if the ready-built audience is the same one as an audience for 100 classic novels. And via the same source: "Penguin Group USA today launched Penguin 2.0 which is a platform aimed at connecting readers to Penguin and also group their many digital initiatives….Penguin Personalized and Penguin Mobile."

Readerville reports that "when you tap into the Stanza catalog, the first item in the menu is Random House Free Library. At the moment, it contains just nine books… No word on the rate at which RH might add (or remove?) titles from the list—nor on whether Pan Macmillan, who recently started a catalog of excerpts in Stanza, will follow suit."

And a bit of old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar news, The Guardian has finally moved to an office next door to mine after years of building works, exploding gas cylinders, etc. I hope that means a few coffee bars in the area, as the scaffolding-clad Kings Cross station has long ejected its tenants, causing too many people to have to queue in the place that exists on the grim haul up York Way. (Kings Place, new home to the Grauniad, is delightful by the way: I've visited a couple of times with a charming colleague. I hope it succeeds at becoming a star cultural centre among the goods yards and sidings, and helps to drag this ghastly locale up by its bootstraps.)

Authors new to me, idea via Norman

I cant look anywhere these days without finding a meme – Nature Network (a good one! mutated), Facebook (wild-type), FriendFeed , Google Reader (banned type) - I'll try to do them all but this one positively appeals so I will do it first (and maybe never get around to the others). Via Peter of Detectives Beyond Borders, Norman (Uriah) of Crime Scraps, and Crime Fiction Reader of It's a Crime, one can limber up for the inevitable "book of the year" posts that loom by addressing this task:

List all the authors that you have read for the first time this year, italicise those that are debut novels [to the best of my knowledge], and award stars to those authors you will read again (or have read again since). I am not going to add an exclamation mark to those I did not like, though. As I already have a list of books reviewed this year, this should be relatively easy to do, so here goes (links are to my reviews of the books):

Meltdown by Martin Baker

No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay **

Through the Ruins of Midnight by Colin Campbell *

A Greater Evil by Natasha Cooper *

The Serbian Dane by Leif Davidsen **

The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards **

Die with Me by Elena Forbes

A Small Weeping by Alex Gray

The Shadow in the River by Frode Grytten **

The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer **

The Final Murder by Anne Holt **

The Exception by Christian Jungersen **

Unseen by Mari Jungstedt **

The Simian Curve by Mark Lalbeharry

Sun Storm by Asa Larsson ***

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson **

Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis **

Trial by Blood by John Macken

The Mystery Writer by Jessica Mann **

Requiem by Jack Ross

The Butterfly Effect by Pernille Rygg *

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield **

Ice Trap by Kitty Sewell *

The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel *

A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley *

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir *** [has written children's books]

Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin ***

Detective Inspector Huss by Helene Tursten ***

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson *

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker **

The Southern Seas by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

Lullaby by Claire Seeber

I'm not "tagging" anyone, but if anyone feels like undertaking this meme, let me know and I'll check out your choices.

A winter wrap-up of reviews

A few good book reviews I've read in the past few days:

At The washingtonpost.com is a retrospective of Patricia Highsmith's first two Ripley books. When I read these books as a teenager, I responded to them as something really rather different. Which indeed they are. Patrick Anderson sums it up well: "Highsmith delights in rubbing our noses in the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of civilization, beneath the fragile mask of sanity. There's no one else like her, and that's just as well, but she was an artist, one whose literary gifts were as exceptional as the rage that drove her fiction."

Not crime fiction, but this looks good, from the American Scientist at Powells Books: The future of the internet and how to stop it, by Jonathan Zittrain. Lovely review about the unforeseen benefits of making the net "stupid" (although unforeseen, not unpredicted that the approach would be beneficial). "Will the Internet a decade from now retain its generative soul and continue on its breathtaking path of participatory innovation? Or will we find ourselves in a world of tethered appliances and locked-down phones? At the end of the day Zittrain's message is one of hope rather than reassurance, but it's the best hope we have. This book is a must-read for any student of technology and policy, and its prescriptions are a must-do for the future of innovation in the digital age."

A new Anita Shreve! This one is called Testimony, and here is a review by the esteemed Kim of Reading Matters. I'm ashamed to say I still haven't read Bodysurfing, which for some strange reason came into the Nature office as a review copy – I gave it to Kim, who read and reviewed it and then very generously sent it back to me. I have been somewhat distracted by crime fiction since then but I really must read it. Enough ancient history, Kim says of Testimony that it is the "story of a sex scandal at a private school in Vermont from the viewpoint of some 24 different characters. It sounds crazy to have so many voices in the mix, but somehow, in Shreve's capable hands, the structure works without losing any narrative drive. But given the story is such a cracking one it would be almost impossible not to convey a sense of urgency and excitement in the telling of it."

Lots of chat and news about the lovely and talented Icelandic author and civil engineer Yrsa Sigurdardottir over at FriendFeed and various blogs, but a straight review of her very good debut Last Rituals has been dug out for me, very kindly, by Frank Wilson. Frank shows us all how the review business is done, of course, but it is interesting that he and I both picked up on the Dashiel Hammett vibes. Frank's take: "The most winning characteristic of Last Rituals, however, has less to do with suspense than with charm. Thora and Matthew are quite different in many ways. He is punctilious and methodical, if a tad impractical at times, while her method is more, shall we say, improvisational. But the two have in common a sense of drollery that enables their relationship to develop in a bantering manner that seems more natural than fictional. In fact, by the time they have solved the crime, they are well on their way to becoming a Nordic-Germanic Nick and Nora Charles."  (My effort is here.)

Finally, for tonight, here is Ms Bookish on Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell. Ms Bookish thought: "Wexford fans are always thrilled with a new Wexford novel, but this one isn’t quite up to par with previous ones. Still, very readable." I agree but would be more positive than this – Wexford novels have become a little thinner and more relaxed with time, but, as Ms Bookish says, always such familiar friends – and the author is never shy to address uncomfortable contemporary issues head-on.

Too strong to translate

The Times has finally caught up with the rest of us and from Monday of this week (1 December) has begun to call Mumbai Mumbai instead of Bombay. Cue the inevitable trickle of letters to the editor on place-names and associated matters. My favourite so far is by the author Anthony Powell, in today's paper (3 December, p. 33):

Sir, I was interested to read your reasons for choosing to use Mumbai rather than Bombay.
Nevertheless, having been born in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, I was taken aback to read in the biography of me printed in the programme of the Paris Opera that "Monsieur Powell était né a Chorlton-cum-Robuste".
ANTHONY POWELL
London SE3

Background reading: rather old-fashioned article about why the Times has decided to change their house style – could and should have been written several years ago.

[Correction: I have misidentifed Mr Powell. Please see comments for details. Thanks to Philip Amos for pointing out my error.]

Everybody’s e-reading or e-listening

Many libraries in the UK are planning to increase their e-books collections in 2009, according to a recent survey by OCLC (the online computer library centre). Almost all (85%) of public libraries that responded expressed an interest in developing a fiction e-book collection, even though most usage of e-books so far has been of research and reference titles. (And 65 % of respondents are planning to increase their e-audio book collections.) According to an Outsell industry report on the survey, this response is puzzling because so far in the UK, most interest in the e-book format has been in reference works and textbooks. Although the Sony e-reader has been so successful in the UK that you can't get one for about a year, and the Amazon Kindle has yet to be sold here, various digital publishers are quoted as being excited about the mobile format —  which means that people will not have to buy a dedicated e-reader. I wrote the other week about Random House's greatly increased POD (print on demand) programme, and here is Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan enthusing about the i-phone, on which you can read extracts of some of the publisher's books. (More details about the books available and how to use the format are here.) I still feel it isn't me – but clearly, e-reading and e-listening are going to be increasingly popular with many, even for fiction.