Je Ne Sais Quoi: Dealing in Subterfuges

Over there on the right, in the list of links to other sites, you’ll find a category called “Je Ne Sais Quoi.” Per the American Heritage Dictionary online at the Bartleby site, this phrase — literally, in the original French, something like I know not what — means, “A quality or attribute that is difficult to describe or express.”

I came up with that category because every now and then I come upon a site which is so striking — in its writing or conception, not necessarily its look — that I know I’ll want to revisit it from time to time, if not daily, just to see what its proprietor might be up to at the moment. Often, these sites lead me (through their blogrolls, especially) to other such sites, and I come to realize that the site I first found isn’t unique at all. It may not even be the “best” (whatever that means) of its type. But the first one goes into the Je Ne Sais Quoi basket anyway, where I expect it to stay.

The very first site for which I couldn’t figure out a decent other category, and hence came up with this one, was the “Dealing in Subterfuges” blog, written by the pseudonymous “Jordan Baker” — perhaps (but not probably) coincidentally, a character in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

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Happy to See Someone Else Try This

The author with the tongue-rolling moniker Doreen Orion has come up with a trailer for her new giant-bus travelogue Queen of the Road:

As the title of this RAMH post implies, this is why we read certain travelogues rather than writing them ourselves.

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Sharing the Detritus of a Life with Books

Thanks to Conduit (a/k/a Stuart Neville), there’s news of a cool site called BookRabbit (slogan: “Be surprised by books – share, connect, discover”). Here’s how Conduit describes it:

BookRabbit.com is a website at once a social networking site and online store for book lovers. They offer a selection of titles that rivals Amazon in both choice and price, but the shopping experience is wrapped up in a library of ‘bookshelves’ uploaded by the site’s users.

Here’s how it works: You upload a picture of your bookshelf… and then tag your books. The system then finds other users who have the same books, so you can browse what else they have, say hello, comment on the books, or even go and buy them. It’s a very well put together website, with bags of potential.

(Book purchases work for UK members only at this point, but the site is new; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them open up branches in other countries as well. In the meantime, you can join and share photos and so on regardless of where you happen to live.)

I was a little bemused by the idea of taking a photo of my bookshelf, singular. And I could see at once how an insecure bibliophile (not thinking of anyone in particular, of course) might wish to game the system by, say, emptying the shelf of all the trashy thrillers and beach reads — replacing them with classics (old or latter-day) fetched from the piled-up cardboard boxes in the garage.

But as I said, this is a way cool idea.

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Eleven Years On

1st UK edition of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone'On this day in 1997, the first Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the UK, …and the Sorcerer’s Stone when it crossed the Atlantic) came to print.

There’s not much to add about the book which upended not just the Young Adult market, but pretty much the whole damned publishing industry. Well, unless you’re interested in acquiring a complete set of 1st editions, signed by JK Rowling. And at an estimated sale price of £15,000-20,000, sorry: no cash please!

Meanwhile, perhaps another chapter in the saga of “Brit books which throw the US young-adult market for a loop” may already be brewing. (This would be on the heels not only of the Potter series, but also of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series — which, likewise, had adults prowling the YA aisles in bookstores, and pages online, and wondering why kids had all the fun.)

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Thinking Too Hard About Energy Conservation

There is a lot of friction and movement in that general area.”

[From Slate]

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Real War

Courtesy of Steve King’s Today in Literature e-newsletter, I learned that today was the birthday (1831) of journalist Rebecca Harding Davis.

Without further comment, I offer you here an excerpt of Harding Davis’s writing, looking back on the Civil War.

I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums. This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done in my cherry-tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders debouching in the misty fields.

[…]

Yet with all this fever of preparation we never quite believed that there was war until, one day, a rough wooden box was sent down from the mountains. A young officer had been killed by a sharpshooter, and his body was forwarded that it might be cared for and sent to his friends. He was a very handsome boy, and the men in the town went to look at him and at the little purple spot on his white breast, and came away dull and sick at heart. They did not ask whether he had been loyal or a rebel.

“He was so young! He might have done so much!” they said. “But this is war — war!”

I remember that in that same year I crossed the Pennsylvania mountains coming to Philadelphia. It was a dull, sunless day. The train halted at a little way station among the hills. Nobody was in sight but a poor, thin country girl, in a faded calico gown and sun-bonnet. She stood alone on the platform, waiting. A child was playing beside her.

When we stopped the men took out from the freight car a rough, unplaned pine box and laid it down, baring their heads for a minute. Then the train steamed away. She sat down on the ground and put her arms around the box and leaned her head on it. The child went on playing. So we left her. I never have seen so dramatic or significant a figure.

When we hear of thousands of men killed in battle it means nothing to us. We forget it in an hour. It is these little things that come home to us. When we remember them we say: —

That is war!”

For more on Harding Davis, see the Wikipedia article linked above (as well as the various references cited therein). For more examples of her writing, check this page.

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“What Kind of Book Is It?”

Pigeons in holes (thanks, Wikimedia!)

One of the hardest — yet most important — questions an author often has to answer about his work is the one asked by this entry’s title.

Now, it’s not hard at all to answer, for many authors and even more books. When you walk into Borders or Barnes & Noble, when you browse Amazon, it’s all organized by “type”: romance along this aisle, SF over there, “literature” along the walls, and so on. The problem is that it’s these classifications which determine “what kind of book” a given title is — not the other way around.

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Most-Loathed Books

Courtesy of the Times of London’s online presence, we have a list of books most loathed by various critics and writers.

This is a tricky list for a writer to read, and I’m surprised they got any writers at all to contribute to it. Why? Because any writer with his head screwed on properly knows just how fickle and arbitrary readers’ — or even a particular reader’s — tastes can be. Then there’s the herd mentality, demonstrated in those moments when a single verging-on-trollish wisecrack sends a swarm of commenters into ad-hominem assaults on one another, often forgetting what was being commented on in the first place. (Some people will jump into the fray with no opinion at all on that topic; they just love a good scrum.)

It reminds me of a couple of posts (and ensuing commentary, much of it feverish if uncertainly heartfelt) back in April, on Nathan Bransford’s blog.

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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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