The Smell of Pages Burning in the Morning

Not really. But the new Book Roast site (also linked permanently over there at the right, under the Je Ne Sais Quoi… category) promises to be not only a generous labor of love, but an audacious experiment in book and author publicity.

Here’s the idea: Each week, for five days Every day during the last week of each month, one author a day will post an excerpt from his/her recent book:

…followed by three questions loosely related to the passage. Some questions are silly, others are straightforward and the rest are plain crunchy. For dessert, the author picks the winner who answers the most questions correctly – or the most creatively.

The winner then will receive a copy of the book in question.

(It’s not spelled out, as far as I can tell, but the answers provided by site visitors will presumably be posted in the comments for each excerpt.)

They bill this as a contest, and so it is. But it’s also a very cool way for authors and readers to cross paths and interact… and (not incidentally) help the authors get much-needed exposure.

The first go-round begins Monday, June 23, with a “roast” of Bernita Harris‘s Weirdly.

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How Important Is Reading?

Scary question? It depends on the answer.

A young actress, Ashley Brown of Broadway’s Mary Poppins revival, provides her take on it:

Not so scary, hmm?

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Writing on Purpose

1st edition: The Man Who Folded HimselfIn the summer of 1990, I took my first steps away from a soft-cubicled work day. I had some money available, and my employer at the time offered an extended-leave-without-pay benefit that I decided would fit me just fine for a year, anyhow. I was desperate, see, to learn if I really could write — not just for my eyes and my family’s and friends’, but for the eyes of complete strangers.

(There was a secondary purpose, too — what I once described as my potatoes-in-a-colander purpose. I may write about that later. Not now.)

As I’ve written before, by then I’d been subscribing to the Compuserve Information Service, or CIS, for a couple years. There I’d “met” people from all across the country, especially writerly sorts of people. A lot of them gave me a lot of good ideas where I might want to live during my year’s experiment.

I wasn’t familiar with many of these places (sheltered life to that point, dontcha know: 40 years in New Jersey, and that was about it). So I opted to take a week or two simply to visit the ones that seemed most interesting. And then I’d decide.

At the top of the list was a small city in Oregon. I didn’t move there, as it happened. But I figured as long as I was going to be on the west coast, I might as well make a real trip of it. Happily, another of my CIS acquaintances would be running a weekend writing workshop in southern California, at the very start of the trip.

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Package Design Slogans

One of my little… well, I hesitate to call it a fetish. Doesn’t have the same level of intensity. (Er, or so I imagine.)… Anyway, one of my almost unconscious preoccupations is to notice product packages. All kinds of packages: breakfast foods; video games; aspirin bottles; gift wrap; so on and so forth.

Of course the actual physical structure is often ingenious, all the Tab As and Slot Bs and spot-gluing. It boggles, simply boggles that someone was clever enough to create some of these things.

But aside from the structure of packages — the way the cardboard or plastic is folded, crimped, cut, and stamped — what interests me is the text printed thereon, by which I mean the non-functional text. Not the instructions. Not the FDA and FTC warnings and notices. Rather, I mean the product names (sometimes) and the flat-out advertising copy which graces the packages.

For instance, there’s the following. (Note that it’s trademarked, by the way.) Any guesses what product’s packaging might include such inspiring verbiage?

Mystery product slogan: 'Dream - Imagine - Create'

A hint for those of you who might be telling yourselves something like I know I’ve seen this somewhere…

Mystery product slogan - hint

Update, 6/19/2008 10:12 am: If you really really need to know the answer to this mystery, see the full package (with some product) here. And if you’re still not sure what that is, go to the manufacturer’s home page. Ponder, then, the larger mystery of the mystery slogan’s… umm… grandiosity?

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A Broken (Family) Tree

A friend (Rick) was telling me last night about some genealogical research he’s been doing.

My understanding is that he may be writing up his findings himself. If so, I won’t steal his thunder by relating my (no doubt incomplete and/or flat-out wrong) version of the details. Just wanted to report one laugh-out-loud item.

Basically, Rick believes — or believed — himself to be a descendant of a branch of a sect known as the Harmonists (which, I am pretty sure, are covered here on Wikipedia). Why is this at all funny? Because among the principal beliefs of this sect was…


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Sing, Sing, Sing

Happy Father's DayThis Sunday is Father’s Day in the US. Last week, 20 years ago, my Dad died. I thought a fitting tribute to both of these occasions would be to post here a short story which was, in many ways, a story of my Dad (although none of the actual events described in it occurred to him). That’s Dad in the photo at the left, circa 1943-44, when he was in training for a while at Texas A&M.

Below, I’ll excerpt the first couple-three pages of the quite old-fashioned story, whose title is “Sing, Sing, Sing.” It’s gone through many versions by now, the earliest written in the autumn of that year of 1988. The version which appears here is simply the most recent.

If you like that much of the story, feel free to download the complete version, in PDF form (146KB); a link to that appears at the end of the excerpt.

(Note: For what it’s worth, there has never to my knowledge been a newspaper named the New York Messenger. Should you go on to read the whole story, there’s never been a book called The Big Hall: The Good Times of Benny Goodman, either, or an author named Robert G. Ehling.)

Update (2008-08-07): I’ve done a more complete breakdown of the “Sing, Sing, Sing” performance, including full-length clips of the three main segments (which together make up a “triptych,” as the fictional Big Hall calls it).

[Read more…]

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The Imprint of Books, One Life at a Time

The Editorial Ass blog is running a fascinating series of posts. Collectively referred to as “Celebrate Reading Month,” each post in the series is written by a guest blogger, each describing a book which had an impact on the blogger’s life, understanding of books, reading habits — whatever.

MoonRat, who runs the blog, has made it convenient to see all the current posts at once, using a “celebrate reading” tag.

Of many interesting things about the series, there’s this, completely coincidental: it acts as a counterweight to those who might despair at the state of reading. (Including many of those reading and participating in Nathan Bransford’s current discussions, and subsequent comments, about e-readers, e-books, e-publishing, e-authoring and -agenting.)

Update: The sensory experience of reading — feel, smell, and so on — is one thing which people say holds them back from considering an e-reader. You might be interested in seeing this gallery of Kindle users’ photos of their new toys, many in quite inventive (and no doubt sensorily satisfying) covers.

Update 2: My contribution to Moonrat’s “Celebrate Reading Extravaganza” is up.

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Another Reason to Reconsider One’s Publication Ambitions

I’ve seen the idea, or ones like it, expressed in various forms. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen it expressed so… succinctly. It’s from Edna St. Vincent Millay (found on the DIESEL Bookstore site):

A person who publishes a book appears willfully in public with his pants down.

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Forty Years On

Portion of artwork by Tina Berning, for the NY TimesFrom the NY Times, RFK’s kids remember him:

Kerry Kennedy

But most of all, he believed it imperative to question authority, and those who failed that lesson did so at their peril.

Joseph P. Kennedy II

Robert Kennedy had a wonderful way of allowing others to tell him how the world looked through their eyes.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

The long table was set with linen, silver and crystal. Painted portraits of my brothers and sisters hung on the walls. And suddenly, my father entered. He looked haunted and started talking to me, shaking his head in distress as he described the people he’d met in the Delta. “I was with a family who live in a shack the size of this dining room,” he told me.

And yeah, I know: ANYBODY’s kids tend to look at their parents in a manner that’s biased, one way or another. And yeah, I know: children of privilege, easy for them to say, etc. etc.

But there was no one like him. I bet his kids would have had these kinds of memories no matter what station in life he and they had been born to (or how he exited).

(Also from the Times, here’s the obituary (1.2MB PDF).)

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Oh, Great. That’s Just GREAT.

With the help of the New York Times, neuropsychologist Katherine P. Rankin dissects for us what it means to recognize sarcasm.

In one videotaped exchange, a man walks into the room of a colleague named Ruth to tell her that he cannot take a class of hers that he had previously promised to take. “Don’t be silly, you shouldn’t feel bad about it,” she replies, hitting the kind of high and low registers of a voice usually reserved for talking to toddlers. “I know you’re busy — it probably wasn’t fair to expect you to squeeze it in,” she says, her lips curled in derision.

Although people with mild Alzheimer’s disease perceived the sarcasm as well as anyone, it went over the heads of many of those with semantic dementia, a progressive brain disease in which people forget words and their meanings.

“You would think that because they lose language, they would pay close attention to the paralinguistic elements of the communication,” Dr. Rankin said.

To her surprise, though, the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.

“The right parahippocampal gyrus must be involved in detecting more than just visual context — it perceives social context as well,” Dr. Rankin said.

Well then. That just explains everything, doesn’t it? I hope the very important Dr. Rankin knows how much we all appreciate her contribution to civil discourse.

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