About Me

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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Boy on a Black Horse, by Nancy Springer

I'm editing books on horses, targeted for teen girls. Actually, I fought for the series, came up with the characters, the setting, and most of the plot outlines, found an artist, leveled the manuscripts, and I am now supervising the artist I selected while finishing the editing process and commissioning the cover design.

The problem is - well, problems are - I'm not a teenage girl, and I don't like horses.

I rode one once, for maybe half an hour. Then I was in a hospital for a few days. That was over three decades ago, and even with Facebook, I don't recognize most of the people I went to grade school with. They post these nice pictures, and I think, "who's that?" with almost every name and face.

The horse's name - the one that threw me: Brandy. Yes. I can remember that.

So I'm not a devotee of the genre, it may safely be said. I thought it might be good to check if we were doing it right, and last week I finally checked out a somewhat dated book by a fairly prolific author of girls' fantasy books, mainly with horses, and dove in.

It was great! Springer is one of those authors who, like Suzanne Collins, believes in grabbing the viscera in the opening lines. Nothing, for me, starts off like The Hunger Games. But Springer's The Boy on a Black Horse starts with that same, simmering power, the feeling of loss, and promise of danger.

The first time I ever saw him I was pretending to write in my daily journal in language arts class but actually drawing a horse--the head and neck had come out run-in-the-wind gorgeous, but I knew I would never get the rest of it as good--and when the door opened I looked up like everybody else, and there was a strange boy walking into my life. 

Every part of that opening works. There's suspense, questioning, romance, mystery, characterization... I can see where, over the next few paragraphs, Collins has done Springer one better, by showing the near ends of all the final threads immediately, and quickly turning dread into relief into panic. This doesn't progress like that, but instead quietly, calmly introduces Gray Calderone's motivations and history, about at the pace a real person might on meeting someone new, and coming to trust them.

Anyway, the purpose of reading this book was not to enjoy it, though I really did. It was to check on Copper Canyon, my series of short books for struggling older readers. (I say "my" - I'm not the author, and Deb did a great job, but for the purposes of writing a high interest-low reading level book, I have to take out every word or phrase and replace it with another. I call it "fossilization." Not the most promising verb, but a good metaphor for the process.) I am pleased as much by the comparison as by the research. Now I get to go back to the editing, and not worry whether the books will be enjoyable. (There's plenty else to worry about in publishing, anyway!)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Seeing clearly - multiculturalism and its discontents

I won't write today to complain about the New Know-Nothings or the Amurrica-Firsters or the millionaires and wannabes who pine for silly things like Whites-Only schools. I'm not even complaining (except about how hard putting contact lenses in turned out to be). I read with interest an article in In These Times at the Optometry Clinic at Cal--that's the University of California at Berkeley to people who don't recycle alumni fundraising requests--while waiting for said contacts.

It struck a nerve with me. More things are doing that lately. Probably about to spout off on some poor, unsuspecting person. Still, I've been a bit quick to anger.

This nerve, however, did not bulge in my neck or cause comical wavy lines to indicate steam escaping from my ears. (No. Those comical, wavy lines are hair.)

John M. Davis' piece, called "Still Separate, Still Unequal," reprised a theme I used to entertain thoughts of writing on. Come to think of it, I guess I'm doing that here.

Davis (in the March, 2011 issue, and online dated March 2, 2011) writes that progressives have allowed the original genius of ending school segregation to stand for the entire project of social equity. By insisting that only schools desegregate, we've missed the point of total desegregation, which is to undermine the attitudes and affiliations that channel wealth and power in this country by racial categories.

Descending a generation further from Brown v. Board of Education, progressives allowed themselves to become protectors of a new inequality, one not of power but of softer privilege, the privilege of recognition, of official sanction. (It's this, really, that right-wing buffoons like Newt Gingrich complain about--having to celebrate the achievements of the disabled, the dark-complexioned, the left-handed...) By so doing, we not only unnecessarily tweak clown noses (clowns with bullhorns, and lobbyists' phone numbers tucked into their oversize shoes), we reify difference.

And the consequences of the two together are greater association of poverty with melatonin, greater differentiation between rich and poor schools, and a current trend toward abandonment of desegregation in public schools at all.

My feeling is that Davis leaves out progressive malaise. Maybe that's not the right term. Maybe it's decency. Progressives these days, and as far as I can tell since around the time left-wingers in the US stopped lobbing explosives at plutocrats, tend to fight against the maelstrom of right-wing power and publicity by steering straight for our goal. We then fight against the greatest concentration of wealth and media ever known, a concentration concentrated on concentrating political power to a degree almost never known. (You remember, the "permanent right-wing majority" to be reached by redistricting, media and campaign deregulation, and a constant state of fear.)

Just as progressives cringed when President Obama proposed Bob Dole's health insurance reform plan and the Republicans called it a socialist takeover casserole with a side of death panels, I feel progressives should not have pushed hard only for school desegregation. Doing so set the battle lines too close to the status quo ante.

What we need to do going forward is push for the (sorry, but I'm getting the munchies) whole enchilada. Don't let the fact that a pasty-white guy wants it with "manchamanteles" red mole sauce distract you from Davis' doctrine, and my corollary. Progressives should push far to the left of what we think we can get. Be honest. If it were 1954, would we want school desegregation alone, or social desegregation and economic justice? There's always going to be pushback, whether against school busing or against recognizing GLBT citizens in the social studies curriculum, so why not legislate morality, and start the battle there? Certainly the right wing wants to legislate morality, now that it means something other than outlawing sexual and racial discrimination! Why should the left be any more timid.

Well, it's because timid is sort of like nice, at least nice to bullies, and that's what we've become. Nice to bullies. That approach draws the line at the question of who gets my lunch money, rather than what all the bullied kids in school plan together in resistance.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I saved money!

And  you can, too! Now, using the power of the Internet, you can sample terrible first chapters of promoted new books, and know for a solid fact that you will never willingly spend a dime on them!

I saved $15.99 by reading the first chapter of The Gift, by Brian M. Litfin. It's the second book in the Chiveis Trilogy, which was news to me. Not important news, but news nonetheless.

Foolishly, I had followed the link under this promotional text, which I received in an email, a sponsored email, from Publishers Weekly:

Hundreds of years in the future, war and disease have destroyed civilization as we know it. Much technology has been discarded and history is largely forgotten. Slowly, the few survivors have begun to build new communities, and kingdoms now prosper in a kind of feudal order. But the Word of God has been lost for centuries.
Hokey, right? I mean, the come-on is almost unreadable. I admit that I followed it out of morbid (as in, How bad can this really be?) curiosity.

It's bad, in an almost delectable, look-how-I-did-all-the-bestsellers'-tricks kind of way.

There's longing (the main characters used to be royalty, and now they're refugees!), pathos (a nightmare, a snake, and obeisance to the will of "Deu"), romance (a beautiful princess, a daring prince, and a small tent), adventure (a small tent...that's as far as I got), and lots of unexplained crap, like how life reverts to a Harlequin novel's version of the Middle Ages after the collapse of civilization, and why the men do the manly patrolling with swords and the woman does the cooking and cleaning.

There's also a real disregard for language, both in the specific Riddley Walker kind of way, in which novelist and children's story stalwart Russel Hoban imagines an almost impenetrable post-Apocalyptic patois, and in the generic people-don't-actually-think-or-speak-like-that-you-idiot kind of way.

This cries out for an example. Here's the first paragraph:
Anastasia lay awake under a bearskin cloak, listening to the alien sounds of a land far from home. The stub of a candle hung from the ceiling of her leather tent, providing enough light to chase away the nocturnal spirits, but not the heaviness in Ana’s heart.
Notice the similarity to the start of The Hunger Games. Only, that was good. This has imagery (check), evocative vocabulary (check), and vacuous nonsense.

Why a bearskin cloak? What does that get us in the first sentence?

And what kind of sounds does one expect in "a land far from home?" Also, she just crossed the mountain to get there, so how far is far? Are the birds different? Does the wind moan or cackle? What are the sounds?

How does one hang a candle? Wouldn't it burn the string? Maybe it's the kind that burns upside-down!

And oh! the heaviness in her heart! Why is it there, you ask? "Read on!" says the author. "I'm not telling!"

In other words, we learn nothing useful or particular in this first paragraph, except the limits of Litfin's imagination, or of his patience for rewriting.

I'm being really harsh and sarcastic, I know. And after only suffering through a few pages near the beginning.

By contrast, Suzanne Collins hits us with this scene of the heroine waking up to loss:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
The bad thing about reading this paragraph is that now I want to read the Hunger Games trilogy again.

I should really thank Mr. Litfin. First, he helps show that there is a range of quality in fantasy books published today. I had thought I was slipping, falling so easily under the sway of Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, Dave Barry, and buying from the promo chapter Beth Revis' Across the Universe. I am reassured of my own continued ability to discriminate gold from dross by the bile welling up in my throat.

Second, I keep worrying that my own writing is just a waste of time. Will I ever finish? That's in doubt, but I feel much better about trying now, seeing that my puny, incomplete draft of a chapter is so much more readable and interesting than this.

And third, if book publishing is really about to disappear (right as I get started in writing, and less than a decade after I switched to a career in publishing), I can take comfort that it's not really so bad, because this will be part of what is lost.

Last, does it really matter that, on trying to find the market price for The Gift by searching "litfin chiveis," I discovered that he "was born in Dallas, Texas, and raised in a Christian home as the son of a seminary professor, pastor, and college president," and that the series revolves around the loss and rediscovery of Biblical knowledge?

Nah. It's bad enough in its own right. Thanks, Mr. Litfin. You've done me a favor. I'll use the money to buy several pounds of coffee from Trader Joe's, I think.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

digging a deeper pit

From a Facebook/middle school friend:

"Remember when teachers, public employees, Planned Parenthood, NPR and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in TARP money, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes? Yeah, me neither."

Monday, April 11, 2011

nerd alert!

I just received delivery at work of Carlo Cipolla's 1962 book The Economic History of World Population. I don't know why, but I get really excited to read analyses of history I did not anticipate. Cipolla is also a great writer, at least in my limited experience, and I was pleased to find this book of which I had been ignorant only a week ago. Actually, I found it in Stylish Penguin and Pelican Book covers at Abuzeedo,  an entry in Brazilian Paulo Gabriel's graphic design blog. I think he's even nerdier than me!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Life as we Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

I'm slow to read this, and a bit perplexed by its success.

It's not that I don't like the book. On the contrary, I was riveted. I just found its plot development contrary to what I figured the target demographic was moved by.

This is good news on two fronts: first, that publishers are finding success with more than one formula for this age group (teens and young adults); and second, that teens and young adults (and I) are moved to read more than one formula.

As for scenarios, this one is a doozy. It starts a bit lackadaisically, but changes drastically. I find the slow set-up the confusing part. My feeling is that the diary format allows for greater latitude in developing an identification with the main character. That, and good writing. Pfeffer holds our attention without the global catastrophe striking in the first chapter.

When it does strike, it brings out some of the current political debate. First, the main character Miranda is frustrated with the behavior of her newly fundamentalist Christian friend. She feels shut out, and confused at her irrational behavior. I was watching for signs of a reversal in Miranda's opinion. None, as of the first book, but it's a three, and possibly four book set. (See Pfeffer's blog, linked at right.)

Second, Miranda's mom disses the president, and although he's not named, he lives in Texas, and she calls him a dimwit or the equivalent. Not too much guessing needed.

Third, and most important, Pfeffer neatly encompassed a minor part of the current government shut-down debate by showing how things fall apart. Every family turns inward, and in their isolation are exposed to great risk. Without mediating authority, contact with others also is a risk.

This paragraph is a spoiler, so don't keep reading if you don't want to, but it is only the resumption of some level of politicla organization that promises hope and saves Miranda's family at the end.

I thought that fit nicely into my developing sense of Pfeffer's politics. I intend to read the next two (or three) books in the series with an eye to her evolving opinion. It's just the sort of thing that raises my interest in a book, at least one that holds my attention with good plot and character development like this one.

For now, the book closes with Harry Tuttle in "Brazil" about to rappel off the highrise apartment wall, thumbs-up "We're all in this together, kid."

Great. I feel just like Sam Lowry.