Irony and Complexity


The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

As is my case with most books, I warmed up to this one slowly. My warming, however, became only tepid with The Orphan Master’s Son. I like stories, you see, and defined characters within such stories. That makes me an odd fit for postmodern literature, something I’ve posted on ad nauseum. This book of that ilk branches and wanders, flitting from character to vignette randomly, much as one might experience in a dream. There is a semblance of coherent story here, so I’ll take a shot at synopsizing it;

Pak Jun Do’s father is the ruling influence of a North Korean orphanage, and the boy’s mother has been spirited away to entertain high placed personages in Pyongyang, leaving Jun Do an orphan of sorts. He eventually finds himself in the role of kidnapper for North Korea’s high-ups. In such a country it’s best to blend in, to be all but invisible, but Jun Do’s role makes this impossible, and he continually finds himself skirting torture and death. Somewhere deep in this life he encounters a North Korean-type starlet, named Sun Moon, who has been conned away from Kim Jong Il to be the mistress of yet another muckety-muck. Jun Do falls for the wryly named Sun Moon, who sets a host of characters on a path to free her from the Dear Leader.

If this sounds like an overly complicated story – or perhaps no story at all – then you have a sense of what postmodern literature has to offer.

Two things tie Johnson’s novel into a semblance of coherence: first, it depicts the difficulties of living under such a regime. Second, it contrasts that form of society and life with that of the U.S., and it does so wryly, with irony of the highest order. The manner in which the author approaches writing this novel set in this particular culture is, I think, the reason it won the Pulitzer.

Johnson seems to have little regard for reader comfort in structuring this novel, even down to the insertion of dialogue tags in his sentences, and he apparently feels no need to lead the reader from vignette to vignette. His project here is perhaps overly ambitious, and I doubt he could have accomplished in a novel all he wished to without wandering about in this manner.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars.

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The Age of the iPod is Over/The Verge


Time and technology march on, leaving us with drawers full of antiquated gadgets. Still, this is important news for readers and book marketers. The world is all about mobility now, mobile devices that can do more and more. Soon you’ll be able to read books, watch streaming TV and movies, in your car (don’t do this if you’re driving), read books, listen to audio books – all on a single, chosen mobile device.

The Verge


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Through the Looking Glass


Creative Nonfiction, Fall 2013/Winter 2014 Issue

 This is the fiftieth issue put out by CNF editor Lee Gutkind, and the essays and interview here speak more about the magazine and its struggles, about publishing and writing than about any external thing. It’s as if (and retrospection can be and is a good thing occasionally) the magazine, in hoping to see through the looking glass, sees only its own reflection.

If you’re a newbie to creative nonfiction writing, or still feel you aren’t competitive, Gutkind has some stories for you to peruse, more for structure and tone than content. All quite well written, of course. 

Gutkind likes certain types of CNF, so if you’re hoping to be published there, read and evaluate closely.



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Atlantic Ascendant

The Atlantic, January/February, 2014


Perhaps Editor-in-Chief James Bennet has developed the complex touch of a successful pro sports team coach. Or maybe the world is handing him better and better stories. Whatever the reason, this issue of The Atlantic is one of the best balanced, most newsworthy, and downright interesting issues yet. And that’s with a minimal emphasis on things literary.

What does it take to find the next grand inventor? Derek Thompson writes, correctly, that such new gizmos are the thing of basements and garages. But how to make use of them? Technology sharing, says, Thompson, that’s the way to co-opt these gadgets for biz benefit. Only partly correct, I say; businesses are hidebound for the most part and resistant to new ideas and gadgets that compel change.

James Fallows talks cancer with Eric S. Lander, as well as new developments in the field of genomics. Is this the breakthrough approach? Lander says there are usually no “AHA!” moments in such things. It’s a process.

Why do the eminently cinematic Elmore Leonard books end up as crappy movies? Christopher Orr gives us a glance at both media. Justified is a hit now on TV, but why? I think there’s been too much devotion to every detail of Leonard’s work in cinema. Movies aren’t books, and movie adaptations need to be willing to do that: adapt the book. A TV series may very well be the better device to morph books such as Leonard’s into a cinematic format.

These Unites States have always looked the other way as criminal enterprises seek the bread to generate legitimacy. Taylor Clark gives us a look at Jesse Willms, a 26 year-old techie scam artist and a purveyor of technology and the Internet in doing just that.

Scott Stossel reveals the aches and pains of his life-long struggles with anxiety. Is there a solution here? Perhaps, but Stossel seems to be saying that the solutions are as varied as the persons afflicted with such anguish.

Too, there’s a glance back at poet Marianne Moore and her life.

More good things within, of course. And this is an issue that is to me an oddity – one I could read over and over.



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Poetry and a Little More



The Writer’s Chronicle, February 2014


I’ve known for a long time that academia has been a refuge for writers. Now I suspect most of them are poets. Writer’s Chronicle is read largely, I think, by such academicians, and a lesser number of writers such as myself.

The poetic good tidings spread here range from an interview with an older, idealistic poet of yesterday, Sonia Sanchez, to Ravi Shankar’s assessment of collaborative writing.

Patrick Coleman writes of James Joyce’s troubles in having his work published (the good: it made him rewrite; the bad: he opted to make of himself a literary personality, rather than focus purely on the writing). Bottom line? It’s hard to be published, always has been.

And finally, there’s an interview with David Anthony Durham, who tells us everything we already know about the difficulty in being published – but from the point of view of having been there.

Once more, TWC has a lot to offer poets in this issue, very little for us, the more prosaic ones, to hang our hats on.



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The Rages of Poverty in the Provinces

Harper’s Magazine, January 2014


Thomas Frank’s essay here is one every self-styled liberal or progressive should read. It’s a screed, not against the Red State folks, Republicans, Tea Partiers, et al; instead he’s raging against the Democrats, liberals, and progressives for not taking advantage politically of the ever-shrinking white, male, etc. conservative base. And he’s right, In my mind. Waiting for the Republicans to self-destruct won’t get it done; they just keep up a steady litany of political noise that’s much larger than their base, and they’re good at it.

But why is their a burr under the blue-collar saddle, one the Democrats can’t seem to pluck away? Jeff Madrick delineates the failed job promise of the digital revolution. Sure, there’s innovation and new products being made in this post-industrial world, but with an ever-shrinking worker base. Are we making the best use of technology? No. Are we making forward-leaning technologies, such as electric cars and wind and solar power generators.? No.

I’ll just leave those questions hanging, but they say a lot about our economic vision and will.

And just for irony’s sake, there’s a bit of reportage from Mujib Mashal in Afghanistan on the trail of a Taliban chieftain, and the Taliban’s resilience, thanks largely to our tone deafness, politically and militarily, in that region.

All the above, built around the centerpiece (the grander bit of irony) of this issue, a long-winded piece on learning how to be a modern-day servant for the nation’s rich. And so what’s a job seeker to do these days, if she can’t work for “the man,” either in his home or workplace. Now you’re beginning to see the roots of rage on both ends of the political spectrum.


As always, there’s more in this issue. Always more.



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E-books, Writers? Crunch The Numbers

I keep hearing from readers that they would rather hold a book in hand, not a virtual one on an e-reader. While print books still seem to be the preference of discriminating readers, what does the digital revolution mean to writers?


One perspective comes from a royalty statement recently received from the publisher of one of my books:

  • print books sold exactly twice as many copies as e-books.
  • because of the royalty difference between print and digital books, the e-books paid 33% more in royalties than print books.

Why this disparity in royalty percentages? The cost of print books is high for the publisher. In order to sell at a competitive price, publishers can offer only small royalty percentages – usually from 10-15%

For e-books, however, there’s comparatively little cost to publish. For this reason publishers can offer anywhere from 30% to 70% royalties.

Here’s an example:

A print book selling for $18.00 will pay (18) (.10) = $1.8 royalty per book

A digital book selling for $3.99 can pay from ($4) (.30) = $1.20  to ($4) (.7) = $2.80 royalty per book – – even at 50%, the royalty can be $2.00 per book.

Another, for a higher priced, NY Times Books recognized book:

Print, for a $28.00 list book at 15% royalty rate: ($28) (.15) = $4.20

Digital for $12 list at 35% royalty rate: ($12) (.35) = $4.20

My royalty statement is unusual, even in this transition period in that the book sold only half the number of print books as digital. In most cases, the digital books will outsell print, so this should be a boon for writers.


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