10 Essential Books for Thought-Provoking Summer Reading – Maria Popova – Life – The Atlantic

So fiction is passe and NF is in? Here's ten thoughty tomes to test your summer brain, via The Atlantic and The Millions

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Memorial Day weekend has come, which means summer has officially begun. And what's summer without a good summer reading list? So here it is–a cross-disciplinary selection of the 10 most essential cognitive fertilizers for a season of creative and intellectual growth. (Want more? Don't hesitate to revisit last year's list, full of timeless gems to catch up on.)

via www.theatlantic.com

The Conspirator – Recycling History

Robert Redford's movie, The Conspirator, will be seen by some as a left-wing screed at best, anti-American at worst. The story in a nutshell – one you probably won't find in schoolchildren's history books; certainly it wasn't in mine:

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A plot hatched by Southerners unfolds, first to kidnap Lincoln, then to kill him, with John Wilkes Booth the trigger man. Booth is shot and killed and others are arrested, including Mary Surratt, the mother of John Surratt, possibly one of the conspirators. The story centers on Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn) and a trial that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) trumps up in hopes of putting the Lincoln assassination to bed. Frederick Aiken (Robert McAvoy), a young ex-Union soldier, is pressed into duty to defend Surratt. As the trial progresses, Aiken remains unsure of his client's guilt or innocence, but he becomes increasingly incensed at the way in which the US government takes liberties with Surrat's Constitutional rights. 

Redford's script puts the Union on trial as well as Surratt, the trial by military tribunal, which becomes a dark harbinger of today's Patriot Act (Just recently re-affirmed by Congress' House, by both Democrats and Republicans). Redford takes a clinical approach here, refusing to take sides in this historical showdown. While Aiken's role would seem on the surface the moral voice, Stanton's reaches more broadly (if not deeper) to say that the Union must be preserved at all cost. And this was certainly the reason the Union initiated their part of the war. 

Beyond the movie-style political implications, the acting was superb across the board, the plot, complete with flashbacks, inventive, if not a bit tedious at times. And the period-piece background was done about as well as I can imagine. 

The Conspirator will make many viewers uncomfortable, but nettlesome problems that keep recurring are like that. It's not summer blockbuster fare, but it's a movie everyone should see.

Fiction Bites

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At a recent book selling event, I met an elderly gentleman, a 1958 graduate of the US Naval Academy. I told him I was in the class of '66 from Ye Olde Boat School, and so we shook and had a nice conversation. At the chat's end, he wished me well with my book sales and walked off. A few steps down the way, he stopped, turned, and said, "I don't read fiction."

My booth partner that day constantly regaled passers-by with tales of his father's role in World War II; I, on the other hand, with my spread of fiction books, did a lot of watching. 

I'm not about to change from fiction writing; it's what I do best. But it did cause me to wonder at the aversion to fiction these days. Even the best literary fiction does its best to include something "ultra-real." In Philip Roth's book, American Pastoral, I believe it was, he went on for pages about the way gloves are made. 

After some thought, and a couple of weird dreams, my view is this: our post-modern society is constantly pummeled with spectacle, hype, and obfuscation of the way things really are in various ways (See this post, too.) Television reality shows are suspected of being scripted or rigged. To paraphrase Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, "We want to know the truth!" Fiction – instead of being, as the old writer's adage goes, the lesser lie that reveals the greater truth, is seen as yet another step away from reality. 

And so I suspect people, young and old, unable or unwilling to ferret truth from the post-modern drama, are yearning for the "good old days," when, so they think, the dividing line between reality and fiction was clear-cut, when truth stood out as if a shining beacon. That's never been the way it was, of course, but once the collective illusion made it seem so.

Hence a book on someone's World War II experiences seems safer, warmer, truer – than, well, what I choose to write. I'm not going to give up on my creative instincts, though. I'll just have to rely on the "few good men" to pore through my attempts at fiction for the stark utter reality I see underlaying it.

Guerilla Marketing Realities

Okay, so I've written a lot – perhaps too much, by many readers' accounting – about the state of publishing and the need to resort to underground, guerilla tactics in order to extract a marketing platform from the book biz. Well, what have I learned from my own feet-wetting attempts to market? Here are a few tidbits from Gridley, mostly relating to my failures:

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  • Unless you have a ready-made following already, having a website is almost useless. Readers, myself included, live in the moment when buying books. Despite the marketing adage that you're selling you, not the books, the  reality is two-fold:
  • Readers look for titles, not authors – unless the author is fairly well known. And…
  • If you're marketing at book fairs and the like, readers buy on impulse. They buy books as presents for family or friends, or to get a signed book to show off, or just because they've just had a wow-ing conversation with you. 
  • Having a blog has in the past been a way of gaining a readership you can market to. Now, it's a bit problematic, i.e., there are so many bloggers out there that your blog can be the equivalent of shouting into a hurricane. Blogs still draw fans and readers, but it's slow, and blog readers are fickle. You may have the most astute views on books, you may constantly have interesting things to say, but eventually your audience will drift to other sites, coming back only for the most radical, stupendous, controversial posts. And these don't happen everyday. One tip here: blog readers, if you can generalize at all, want a glimpse of the future, what the world (of books, for instance) will look like in a year. Go forth, then, soothsayer!
  • Be cautious when joining writers organizations. All such groups tend to be struggling in one way or another. The marketer's allure to these groups is that if you're deeply involved in them, you'll have their assets at your fingertips. The liability is that your time is precious, and being deeply involved will take you away from your writing. Or you'll start writing crap – because your time is precious. Balance, balance!
  • The same goes for websites and blogs. If you take them on, make sure you have time to write – and write well. 
  • If you attend book signings, fairs, or other events where books are sold, do your research – some towns, sections of towns, etc., are loaded with readers, hence buyers, and others are not. Stay away from placed devoid of readers. 
  • Marketing on sites such as Facebook seems attractive, but FB readers are like blog readers – they read posts, but they don't buy – and eventually they drift away. And FB marketing is EXPENSIVE!
  • Getting your books into Barnes&Noble, Books-A-Million, etc. Fugeddaboutit! You have to go through their headquarters, and you won't get the attention the big publishers get. Your best chance is the indie book stores, and consignment is usually your only option there. So set your price so that you make a buck or two after Mom and Pop get their cut.

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Freakonomics » How I Self-Published a Book, And How You Can Too

Sad to say, but this article tells it exactly how it is in the pub industry. The only caveat is that the author has had the advantage of five conventionally published books on which to build his digital platform.

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This is a cross-post from James Altucher‘s blog Altucher Confidential. His previous appearances on the Freakonomics blog can be found here.

via www.freakonomics.com

And while we're on the subject of writing and publishing, this post from The Millions may instruct and perhaps hearten writers of short fiction.

And then there's this from bookhitch:

We had wonderful feedback from our first Bookhitch Customer Satisfaction Survey. Over 25% percent of our customers expressed an interest in eBook conversions. Bookhitch can convert your book(s) to be accessible in both the Kindle and ePub formats.  Just send us your file(s) as a PDF or Word document. Click on the link below to view our eBook Media Package with personalized options to fit your every need.  Let Bookhitch assist you with your eBook conversions, today!  

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Hope this gives you writers a boost. Later.

Swords and Plowshares

Last week, as a visit to my hometown drew to a close, I stood at the foot of my father’s grave and wondered once more at his life. He was born in a log house in northwest Louisiana and came to see the automobile, the airplane, space travel, computers, and cell phones. And he also saw World War II – up close and personal.

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On a morning in the year before he died, as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, an aide at the nursing facility he called home came looking for him. She eventually found him in his wheelchair in the room’s walk-in closet. When she asked him what he was doing there, he stammered that the Germans were looking for him.

Such is the condition of those who suffered from shell shock, as they called it after World War I, or battle fatigue following World War II, the term sanitized in recent years to post-traumatic stress disease. From what I understand of the syndrome, it never leaves you once set in motion. And so my father, on his return from Europe following that war, would scan downtown rooftops for snipers and duck into stores at the sound of a car backfiring. Perhaps Mother knew that during those years his overlong weekend hunting and fishing trips were at least partially for the primal therapy of screaming out his fears and anxiety in attempting to rid himself of the war. But I never knew it until he confided his condition in the months prior to his death.

Still, he did everything in his power to direct me into a military career, from teaching me to shoot all sorts of guns, to fighting. I readily embraced the Boy Scouts (eventually an Eagle Scout), and sought an appointment to one of the U.S.’s several military academies. I did attend the U.S. Naval Academy, but stayed in the Navy only a short time. This disappointed my father greatly. He couldn’t understand my resistance to a military career, and I held this urging to military service against him for years.

But as I left the cemetery that day, continuing to ponder his military career and its impact on his health and family life, I think I finally understood something he wasn’t able to verbalize about his calling. Why, I’d wondered for years, and despite his condition, would he urge me to such a terrible way of life.  My answer that day transcended political postures, even the morality of death and destruction. Oh, it’s true that some sneer these days at what has been called the military’s “cult of death” – the overdone ceremonies of military funerals, the seeming pride in honoring the death of someone who has spent a life in the execution of war. But I believe my answer transcended even that.

For the most part, the military mindset is one consumed by tunnel vision. When social, political, and diplomatic structures have collapsed to the point of armed conflict, the combatant can’t afford to wonder too greatly about the politics of his or her situation, or even about the morality of combat. One’s singular duty is to overwhelm one’s adversaries. In this regard, there is only the mission to be carried out  – and survival. So until we as a collective world society learn to see the strength in diplomacy, in understanding and accommodation, we will fight wars. I think military types understand this, at least viscerally. They understand that someone has to risk death – despite all the shortcomings of war – in order to reach new social and political accommodations within our flawed international structure. A nation’s warriors, then, are those who struggle against the inner conflict that screams Survive! on one hand and, on the other, a teeth-clenching willingness to die on a forsaken battlefield, to save their comrades in arms by giving theirs, in the belief that they are, ultimately, protecting their way of life and the lives of their families and friends.

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My father was one who thought this way. To be sure, there were times I felt proud of my few service achievements, proud of those with whom I’d overcome obstacles on the way to a warrior’s life. That much of him was, and remains, a part of me. But I could never have willingly stood on the precipice between life and death as he did.

Now, with Memorial Day upon us again – and being the person I am – I resolutely refuse to celebrate the killing and destruction of war. But I have come to a grudging admiration of those who perhaps realized pragmatically that the Age of Eternal Peace isn’t quite here yet and thus were willing to give all there was of themselves in the hope that someday we’ll find compelling reasons to beat our swords into plowshares.

 

Nearly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism – Conor Friedersdorf – Entertainment – The Atlantic

For those interested in what's been written in NF lately, this article should be down your pike. Surely even more will come from my dear Southeast, as the Mississippi River rises and subsides.

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via www.theatlantic.com