Saturday, January 20, 2018

Is there such a thing as book addiction?

Scott D. Parker

In 2018, I have started reading more mindfully. That is: choose a book, read it and finish it without being distracted by another book along the way. Note: this doesn’t apply to books I dislike. I have, and will continue to stop reading those. But the corollary to reading mindfully is to read the books on my shelves. And I have a lot of them, so many, in fact, that in order to declutter my office, I stored many in boxes and moved those boxes out of the office. What is left are the books highest on my reading list. The office is neater and my TBR pile is…still pretty huge.

But as I packed those books in boxes, I got to thinking why I had so many. It’s mainly  because I bought them all. And the reason I bought them at the time was that I wanted to read them. Mostly. You see, sometimes, I buy a book because of its cover. Or for research. Or because of a review. Or any of a myriad of reasons. The more I thought about my book-buying habits of just 2017 the more I realized a certain trait of myself: there was a good chance I would never, ever read all the books I was buying.

So why buy them?

A good and honest question. Why indeed?

Because I love books, especially used books. I love their smell, their history, and, more often than not, their classic cover art. I frequent more used bookstores than new nowadays. When the family suggests we go to Half Price, I am usually the first one out the door.

Except last weekend. You see, as I packed all my older books away, I mulled over why I keep them. If they are out of sight and out of mind, why not just sell them? Because of my emotional attachment, of course, even for those books I’ll likely never read. Moreover, I enjoy having a small library of my own—even if they are in boxes—so when a particular fancy strikes, I can go back through all those packed books and find that one paperback.

But back to addiction. It seems to me now I have been—and always have been—addicted to buying books, especially after graduating from college. Graduate school probably helped this along. Every semester, the history professors would assign books to read. Typically, there’d be one copy in the university library and, unless you were the lucky first person to check it out, it meant you’d have to buy the book. I was in grad school for five years [yikes!] and I amassed a large collection. Then there was fiction. Don’t even get me started. To paraphrase Dory from “Finding Nemo,” I just kept buying.

And not reading.

So, when I returned to Half Price the other day, it was with an air of detachment. It was an air I shrugged into even before I left the house. I told myself that, unless there was that Very Special Book, I was to buy nothing. As I strolled the aisles, I found a few things—a dozen Longarm novels, all practically brand new—I normally would have snatched up. But I put them all back and waited for my son to check out. It was an odd feeling, this detachment, and it made me wonder about folks who suffer from actual addiction issues, be it alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, or worse. I was able to channel my active detachment for about twenty minutes. I can’t imagine doing it 24/7.

But back to the original question: is there such a thing as book addiction? For me, yes, but it is something for which I can mindfully manage.

How about you?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Long Dance

By David Nemeth
Jesse McBane and Patricia Mann, circa 1971
As I drove east toward Durham, the North Carolina Piedmont was hidden by walls of trees and occasional billboards for family restaurants. I tired of the monotony and jumped off Interstate 85 onto US Route 70 as I hoped to see the real Carolina. And not so much, everything seemed familiar, the strip malls, the box stores, and those stubborn little stores still fighting for a dollar.

In Durham, my plan was to catch up with Eryk Pruitt and eat some barbecue. Pruitt is a man of many titles: writer, filmmaker, gastronome, and podcaster. His latest book, What We Reckon, is "filled with love, drugs, jealousy, more drugs, rage, and then more drugs." Hell, it was one of the best books of 2017 as if you couldn't already tell. Pruitt's better half, Lana, met me at the front door and, contrary to popular rumor she does not appear to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome. She walked me through their backyard to Pruitt's writing shed, which she jokingly called his kill room. (It was a joke, wasn't it?) After a brief tour of Pruitt's garden destroyed by the recent deep freeze, we headed out for some barbecue. He gave me the choice a barbecue restaurant with a chef or a joint attached to a gas station. I chose the latter.

As we headed to Johnson Family Barbecue, the conversation drifted to Pruitt's latest project, The Long Dance podcast, an investigation into the 1971 unsolved murders of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane in Durham. I had the chance to listen to the first episode which told the stories of Mann, 20, and her boyfriend McBane, 19, who both disappeared on February 12, 1971. You can hear the sadness in the family and friends as they remember these two young people.

Our drive had us in an upscale development and Pruitt came to a stop in a cul-de-sac.

"This is where they found McBane's abandoned car," said Pruitt.

He pointed off in the distance and said that it was a three-mile walk to where their bodies were found tied to a tree two weeks later.


After eating some incredible barbecue, we got in Pruitt's car to grab a cup of coffee further in Durham. A few miles down the road we passed a high school that Pruitt pointed out used to be the hospital and nursing school where Mann studied. The Mann-McBane murders haunt Pruitt.

"When I go to sleep, I think about this case," said Pruitt. "And when I wake up, it's still with me. It's all I think about."

I listened to the first two episodes and I feel Pruitt's obsession. Pruitt, along with journalist Drew Adamak and sound engineer Piper Kessler, has produced a podcast that tells Mann and McBane's story compassionately. Not only do we root for The Long Dance team to catch the murderers, but you can tell that they genuinely cares for Mann, McBane, their families, and their friends. Listening to the podcast, Pruitt's prose tells the story gently but with a sense of urgency that unites the listener with the podcasters that the killers must be caught. They are currently putting the final touches to the last episodes and The Long Dance should be out in a few weeks.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Shut it Down

by Holly West

I recently tweeted this:
Some people call this censorship. I say it's simply a business decision the company made, likely for a number of reasons. The official story is that cable news isn't part of a healthy lifestyle. I can personally tell you that I'm a whole lot happier now that I don't have to see the president's mug plastered on all of the giant TV monitors anymore.

Is cable news unhealthy? I certainly think it is, and though I detest it more since January 20, 2017, I came to the conclusion long before that. Or maybe unhealthy is the wrong word. Maybe unproductive is a better one? Or maybe even destructive?

Whatever. I applaud Life Time Fitness for its decision.

You've seen me whine occasionally about political posts. A lot of that was because of the blatantly offensive and untrue memes that circulated during Obama's administration. We also saw the rise of social media during that time, and if Facebook taught me anything, it was that I had a lot of family members and some friends who held, shall we say, wildly different views than I did.

It wasn't the different views I objected to so much, it was the barely disguised racism.

Things are worse now, but I'm admittedly less bothered by offensive memes about our current prez, even if I don't forward them myself. I am, however, still troubled by the proliferation of untrue memes, statements taken out of context, exaggerated narratives that take on a life of their own. I'm not speaking to any one incident, I'm saying this in general. And if things are worse, much of it is because we're treated to the unfiltered thoughts and words of the prez himself every day. Hard to argue something's been taken out of context when he's put it out there for all of us to see.

This, finally, is what I want to talk about today. I'm as outraged as anybody else about the behaviors and policies of the current administration, but I find myself talking about it less and less, especially on social media. Why? Because I can't get beyond the idea that expressing my outrage is actually giving this person and his lackeys what they want. Attention. Doesn't matter if it's good or bad. The media's been criticized and even blamed for the debacle we've now got in the White House but if I participate in that conversation, repeating and retweeting and sharing posts by and about him/them in the process, aren't I becoming part of that media? Aren't I, then, part of the problem?

There's no doubt each of us has a responsibility to speak out against corruption, to voice our anger and dismay and, yes, fear, when we see our personal and collective values shat upon at every turn. Boycotts and peaceful protest are also important tools, as is positive reinforcement when, say, a company like Life Time Fitness takes an action (however small) we believe in.

I'm just wondering if we're all out there shouting so loud we can't hear anything above the noise.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bones and Memory

When the president made his pleasant comments about Haiti the other day, it got me thinking about how I haven't read all that much Haitian fiction and need to read more.  I have read Edwidge Danticat, however, and I particularly like her novel The Farming of Bones from 1998.  It's a tough but gorgeously written book that centers around the infamous 1937 massacre of Haitians by Dominican Republic army soldiers on the direct orders of Dominican president Rafael Trujillo.  Trujillo had ordered his army to kill all Haitians living, working, farming on the Dominican side of the island Haiti and the Dominican Republic share, his pretext being Haitian crime in the country.  As he put it in a speech he made October 2, 1937, "For some months, I have traveled and traversed the border in every sense of the word. I have seen, investigated, and inquired about the needs of the population. To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc., and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labor, I have responded, 'I will fix this.' And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in Banica. This remedy will continue."

The "remedy" did continue.  Trujillo, you see, believed in anti-Haitianism, his goal being to cleanse the Dominican side of Haitians.  The massacre lasted several days.  Soldiers used rifles, knives, and clubs to kill, and they often - again, as ordered by Trujillo - used machetes.  Thousands were slain while trying to flee back to Haiti, and many people killed had been born and lived their whole lives in the Dominican Republic.  Estimates vary on the total number of people murdered, but the number is somewhere between twelve and thirty-five thousand.

Sound depressing?  The historical facts are, but the book Danticat writes is not.  In precise language, with an effortless style, she takes you back in time and makes her characters, both victims and survivors, come to life. One can see, taste, and smell what she describes. She writes about the poignancy of exile and the importance of memory.  Or, more precisely, not memory per se, but the importance one should place on remembering the past.  Her book serves as a memorial to the slain, a testament to what they experienced, a way of getting stories about history's anonymous down in print for the long term.  And she does it with the skill of a master storyteller, someone whose world, no matter how dark, you don't want to leave.  

Well, that's just one Haitian novel I've read, and though it discusses a specific period of bloodsoaked events, its overall preoccupations are timeless.  The current U.S president, I have to say, is no Rafael Trujillo, but it does seem as if certain basic patterns of thinking about particular groups of people recur and persist.

Meanwhile...I have to take a look and see what Haitian writing I'll be reading next.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Preaching to the Choir

I'm not convinced a lot of people sell books on social media. I certainly know that I've found it harder to find meaningful recommendations since the collapse of the author blogging circles. Illustrations from social media have made me wonder about the effectiveness of book marketing.

What I am convinced of is that Twitter is a political echo-chamber. Some recent exchanges there got me thinking.

It's the same old story. If you criticize 45 on anything (like, say, golfing instead of reassuring people in Hawaii that they weren't about to die) then you're left-wing nutjob who would never give the man credit for anything.

If you defend him you're a right-wing puppet who wouldn't criticize him if he came to your house, robbed you and grabbed your daughter's pussy before securing your vote for the next election.

Now, what does that have to do with promoting books? We're stuck in our own echo chamber. A lot of the promotion I see involves promoting books to other authors.

My husband and I have talked about this a lot. We've talked about the short story market within crime fiction and how we've watched, one by one, as good publications have pulled the plug.

Meanwhile, other short story markets are thriving. The speculative fiction camp seems to have high-paying publications that not only outnumber the crime fiction market but exceed them several times over.

I've been trying to put my finger on just what it is that makes their market so successful while crime fiction's short fiction market flounders.

The only thing that has been suggested that makes sense? Fan engagement. Their fans have Star Trek conventions and comic conventions and they're into cosplay and on it goes. Their fans are immersed. I know someone who works for one of the current stars of The Walking Dead and works at all of their conventions.

And from what I've heard, those conventions are an intense experience.

I don't know what the lay of the land is in romance but I do know that it seems like the level of fan engagement in speculative fiction has enabled publishers and writers to engage their audience effectively.

Meanwhile, over here in crime fiction land, I'm wondering what publishers are doing to push through that barrier. I saw a complaint recently about publicists and it echoed some of my own observations.The material is coming later and later and then I don't have time to prepare to do proper interviews with authors. And then you get the authors who can't be contacted. You try to go through a publicist and the process is delayed or heaven forbid that you might want to have an exchange so you can ask proper follow-up questions and the publicist or author just doesn't have the time for that.

Best author interview I've read in recent months? Brian Lindenmuth's interview with Jason Ridler. You got a sense of the person behind the book and it was a fun read.

Meanwhile I've been struggling to get authors willing to even be interviewed for our second print issue. I got a low percentage of returns from the authors I approached for the first issue and I actually had far more time to line up interviews for the second issue. I posted on Facebook and Twitter.

I've had one author contact me based on my posts and a second author responded to a direct request.

I'm left to conclude that one of the following must be true
a) authors don't want to engage via interviews
b) Spinetingler isn't worth the time
c) reviews are preferred

I'm only reviewing for Underground Book Reviews these days. While I appreciate honest, heart-felt reviews on Amazon as much as any author, I don't think getting them from other authors counts for much. And with some people if you don't give a glowing endorsement in support of every author's efforts then you're shunned. For me, if I can't be honest I can't be reviewing in the crime fiction genre.

What I am trying to do is get back to the days of my in-depth interviews. Nothing has ever made me want to pick up a book more than a great author interview, which includes authors on panels at events.

Am I alone?

Perhaps. All I know is, if I can't build a bridge between authors and readers via Spinetingler then it's time for me to reconsider my efforts. Perhaps all we'll be left with is the Big 5 and a few independents with their standard line of publicity for the top selling authors they publish while those who are new or unknown languish in obscurity. I'm seeing the same books pushed to the same audience through the same channels.

What happens when the recipients find that dull as dishwater?

If you read a great book, you want to read another great book. If you see a great movie you want to watch another great movie.

If you feel like all you're seeing is the same old, same old then what do you do next?

75% of what I read in 2017 was outside the crime fiction genre. I wonder what the stats will be like this year.