Books in General

I was a ghostwriter for a ghostwriter

1 December 2016

From Literary Hub:

The first thing the ghostwriter did every time someone new entered her apartment was show them the wall of photos. She used to be the PR director for Madison Square Garden, so her photo wall was worth the look. There she was with the Yankees, George Foreman, or Meatloaf. There were more than a dozen photos on the wall, and she told me she had many more.

The ghostwriter herself was an older Jewish woman, probably in her mid-to-late seventies, extremely energetic and full of love. She typically wore crushed velvet track suits, zipped to a modest height, and had a huge smile. Her whole body shook as she typed, which she did furiously, with two fingers. You could hear the keystrokes down the hall. Her emails, which she sent at the speed of conversation, were often in all caps and always full of misspellings. It felt like being shouted at by someone with a thick accent, although she rarely meant it like that.

. . . .

I had just gotten out of my MFA program, and I felt like some kind of hotshot writer. Well, that’s not entirely true. I was on the other end of a summer which had seen me move to Idaho to finish my novel, but it was in fact more of an excuse to experiment with a variety of hangover cures. I needed a job, but I didn’t know how to get one. All of my previous gigs had been of the “call this guy and he’ll hire you” variety.

And my job with the ghostwriter began the same way. A former classmate got me a job in the office, which was her grandmother’s apartment on the Upper West Side next to a Trump building, doing the same thing as her, which was ghostwriting for a ghostwriter.

. . . .

Work for the ghostwriter fell into two distinct categories. The less interesting was doing what she called “stories,” which were 500-word pieces about small companies that were posted to a copyright free website. We’d take a current event and write about how a certain company’s product could fix it. For each article, my coworkers and I, all graduates of the same MFA program, were paid $50 and given explicit instructions to not tell anyone we had written them.

The second category was the actual ghostwriting, which is where things got (at least a little) more interesting. To get clients, the ghostwriter would attend various professional development conferences and give talks affirming that books were a great way for people to build their professional profile and translate that into speaking gigs. The books, she insisted, would legitimize their authors as experts in their fields and help them tell their stories. After these engagements, she would come back into the office, glowing.

“I think we got some great leads,” she would say. “Lots of work coming in!”

. . . .

Finally, work came in. There was a woman who wanted to write a nonfiction book about her relationship with her horse, which had helped her get over the trauma of growing up with an emotionally abusive mother and a neglectful father. Later, the woman fell off the horse and suffered nerve damage that partially incapacitated her. But she recovered and continued to stamp into our office every day, drop her bags, and slowly unspool her tale to the ghostwriter. The horse was named Boo-Boo, and she instructed us to use that in the title. The ghostwriter picked the book’s title when it came to her in a dream.

. . . .

Ron came in with a neck brace and a story about how he’d managed the American team in a culinary competition that he billed as the first reality cooking show. He had suffered tremendous nerve damage in two car accidents—one in which he was riding a bike—that made it hard for him to bend his wrists or move his neck. He was a big man with a high and harsh laugh, almost like a bark. His wife wanted him to get back into the kitchen, but his body couldn’t take it, so he thought the book would be a good way to earn money. Although the price tag was steep, he believed her line that the book could launch his career. So he lugged huge boxes of files, photocopied pages of library books, and curling photographs of him standing next to gigantic cakes carved into the shapes of dragons, or castles, or whatever, to our office. The inventor of the competition was German, and Ron made a half-hearted attempt to suggest that he was kicked out of Germany by the Nazis. That wasn’t true.

When Ron came in—when anyone came in—the ghostwriter flipped a switch. She went from sort of daffy and inattentive to intimately involved with her client’s world. Her head cocked, her timbre lowered, and she understood everything. A client could have sat down and told her they were going to murder their parents and she would have said, “Well, they have been very mean to you.” With her, the clients felt heard. They’d open up their lives, reveal deeply buried trauma. She was a truly fantastic interviewer. Part of that was the time she invested, part of that was her agreeability, and part of that was that people just genuinely liked her. So she earned her fees.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

The gifts of reading are many

30 November 2016

From LitHub:

This story, like so many stories, begins with a gift. The gift, like so many gifts, was a book—and the book was given to me by a man called Don, with whom I became friends in Beijing during the autumn and winter of 2000. Don and I were working as English literature teachers in a university on the west side of the city, third ring-road out. Our students were mostly the sons and daughters of high-cadre officials: if you mentioned Tibet or Taiwan, 30 faces dipped to their desks. We taught our syllabus from a fat crimson-jacketed anthology of English literature that reframed literary history, Chinese Communist Party style. Literature was functional, and its function was the advancement of the Maoist project. Wordsworth the revolutionary was included, but not Wordsworth the late-life conservative. Oscar Wilde starred as socialist but not as aesthete. Ezra Pound didn’t make the cut, for obvious reasons. Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ was the most important Victorian poem.

Teaching with The Big Red Book, as we nicknamed it, was hard work. It was easy to forget that literature might be there to thrill, perplex or amaze, rather than only to instruct. What kept me honest was Don. Don turned 60 that year. He was from San Francisco. He was tall, just starting to stoop. He dressed Kerouac-style: black jeans, black leather jackets, white T-shirts. Pebble glasses, short grey hair standing up in spikes. Small, sharp, wonky teeth, which you saw a lot of because Don talked so much and laughed so much. Fast, rat-a-tat questions-and-answers, or long think-pieces spoken at several words a second, but without ever making you feel like he was taking more than his fair share of airtime.

Don was from a blue-collar background in California, and had met poetry at the City Lights Bookstore in his early twenties. It had changed his life. He’d heard Ginsberg read. He’d hung out with Ferlinghetti. He’d worked night school and then part-time at a state college to get a degree in literature as a mature student. But eventually he couldn’t afford to live in California and teach the texts he loved, so he’d switched to Beijing where accommodation came with the job, and the basics were cheap. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone with a higher-voltage passion for books than Don. Literature wired him. When Don read, he crackled.

. . . .

On the seventh morning I heard Don get up early and walk around the house. The front door closed. I guessed he was heading to the market. I went to the kitchen to make coffee. There was a neatly wrapped present on the table, with a card. I read the card. He’d gone to Edinburgh, hadn’t wanted to wake us before leaving. I felt a quick punch of guilt. He’d loved his stay with us, he said, and had left a few small tokens of thanks.

The present on the table was a copy of Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. I walked into the other room. There was another present there, propped up against a lamp: a CD of West Coast jazz. And then in the room in which I worked, on my desk, was the third and last of his presents. It was a paperback copy of a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor that Don and I had talked about once in Beijing, drawn to it by our shared love of walking (which Don mostly did in cities, and I mostly did in mountains). Its title was A Time of Gifts.

If you’ve never read A Time of Gifts, may I urgently suggest that you buy a copy as soon as possible, or better still ask someone to give you one as a present? Together with the two books that follow it—Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and The Broken Road (2013)—it tells the story of Leigh Fermor’s legendary walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930s, started when he was just 18, and constituting what is fondly known by Leigh Fermor’s many modern admirers as “the longest gap year in history.”

Link to the rest at LitHub

The Need to Read

28 November 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

We all ask each other a lot of questions. But we should all ask one question a lot more often: “What are you reading?”

It’s a simple question but a powerful one, and it can change lives.

Here’s one example: I met, at a bookstore, a woman who told me that she had fallen sadly out of touch with her beloved grandson. She lived in Florida. He and his parents lived elsewhere. She would call him and ask him about school or about his day. He would respond in one-word answers: Fine. Nothing. Nope.

And then one day, she asked him what he was reading. He had just started “The Hunger Games,” a series of dystopian young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins.The grandmother decided to read the first volume so that she could talk about it with her grandson the next time they chatted on the phone. She didn’t know what to expect, but she found herself hooked from the first pages, in which Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the annual battle-to-the-death among a select group of teens.

The book helped this grandmother cut through the superficialities of phone chat and engage her grandson on the most important questions that humans face about survival and destruction and loyalty and betrayal and good and evil, and about politics as well. Now her grandson couldn’t wait to talk to her when she called—to tell her where he was, to find out where she was and to speculate about what would happen next.

Other than belonging to the same family, they had never had much in common. Now they did. The conduit was reading.

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

. . . .

Connectivity is one of the great blessings of the internet era, and it makes extraordinary things possible. But constant connectivity can be a curse, encouraging the lesser angels of our nature. None of the nine Muses of classical times bore the names Impatience or Distraction.

. . . .

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page.

The technology of a book is genius: The order of the words is fixed, whether on the page or on the screen, but the speed at which you read them is entirely up to you. Sure, this allows you to skip ahead and jump around. But it also allows you to slow down, savor and ponder.

At the trial in which he would be sentenced to death, Socrates (as quoted by Plato) said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire) and thanks to Julia for the tip.

Bamboozled: The new scam Amazon won’t warn you about

27 November 2016

From NJ.com:

If you plan to shop on Amazon.com this holiday season, be warned.

There’s a new scam afoot, and the con artists are using Amazon to steal your money. Based on the number of complaints reported to Bamboozled from across the country in the past few months, the problem is widespread, if not rampant.

Amazon isn’t doing anything about it, according to shoppers who fell victim to the scam.

. . . .

We’ve reported before about fake third-party sellers who lure buyers to leave Amazon’s site when it comes time for payment. Through untraceable wire transfers, the fraudsters take money for items they never deliver.

This time, the scammers are using Amazon gift cards to pull off the fraud.

And it seems to be working beautifully.

The dozens of complaints reported to Bamboozled share essentially the same story. And, the readers agree, Amazon hasn’t done a thing to help.

. . . .

Nick Gladis of Frenchtown wanted to buy himself a birthday present.

He decided to buy himself a drone.

“It was the biggest purchase I’d made for myself in years,” he said.

Looking on Amazon on Nov. 1, Gladis found the product he wanted for $500. The seller’s ad told him to text the seller before placing the order.

What followed was a series of texts and emails — emails that looked exactly like authentic Amazon emails — in which Gladis was instructed to purchase an Amazon gift card to make his payment. He gave the gift card numbers to the seller, and the seller took the money.

But no product arrived.

. . . .

Amazon said the gift card had already been used and nothing could be done to recover the money, Gladis said he was told.

Link to the rest at NJ.com and thanks to Dave for the tip.

The Short, Frantic, Rags-to-Riches Life of Jack London

26 November 2016

From Smithsonian Magazine:

An extremist, radical and searcher, Jack London was never destined to grow old. One hundred years ago this month, London, author of The Call of the Wild, died at age 40. His short life was controversial and contradictory.

Born in 1876, the year of Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand, the prolific writer would die in the year John T. Thompson invented the submachine gun. London’s life embodied the frenzied modernization of America between the Civil War and World War I. With his thirst for adventure, his rags-to-riches success story, and his progressive political ideas, London’s stories mirrored the passing of the American frontier and the nation’s transformation into an urban-industrial global power.

. . . .

With a keen eye and an innate sense, London recognized that the country’s growing readership was ready for a different kind of writing. The style needed to be direct and robust and vivid. And he had the ace setting of the “Last Frontier” in Alaska and the Klondike—a strong draw for American readers, who were prone to creative nostalgia. Notably, London’s stories endorsed reciprocation, cooperation, adaptability and grit.

. . . .

As a child, London labored as a farm hand, hawked newspapers, delivered ice and set up pins in a bowling alley. By the age of 14, he was making ten cents an hour as a factory worker at Hickmott’s Cannery. The scrimping and tedium of the “work-beast” life proved stifling for a tough, but imaginative kid, who had discovered the treasure trove of books in the Oakland Free Library.

Works by Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Washington Irving fortified him for the dangerous delights of the Oakland waterfront, where he ventured at the age of 15.

Using his small sailboat, the Razzle-Dazzle, to poach oysters and sell them to local restaurants and saloons, he could make more money in a one night than he could working a full month at the cannery. Here on the seedy waterfront among an underworld of vagabonds and delinquents, he quickly fell in with a roguish crew of hard drinking sailors and wastrels. His fellow ne’er-do-wells tagged him as “The Prince of the Oyster Pirates,” and he declared that it was better “to reign among booze fighters, a prince than to toil twelve hours a day at a machine for ten cents an hour.”

. . . .

“I had been born in the working-class,” he recalled, “and I was now, at the age of eighteen, beneath the point at which I had started. I was down in the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery . . . I was in the pit, the abyss, the human cesspool, the shambles and the charnel house of our civilization. . . . I was scared into thinking.” He resolved to stop depending on his brawn, get an education, and become a “brain merchant.”

Back in California, London enrolled in high school and joined the Socialist Labor Party. By 1896, he had entered the University of California at Berkeley, where he lasted one semester before his money ran out. He then took a lackluster crack at the writing game for a few months, but bolted to the Klondike when he got the chance to join the Gold Rush in July of 1897. He spent 11 months soaking in the sublime vibe of the Northland and its unique cast of prospectors and wayfarers.

. . . .

The publication of his early Klondike stories granted him a secure middle class life. In 1900, he married his former math tutor, Bess Maddern, and they had two daughters. The appearance of The Call of the Wild in 1903 made the 27-year-old author a huge celebrity. Magazines and newspapers frequently published photographs showcasing his rugged good looks that exuded an air of youthful vitality. His travels, political activism and personal exploits made ample fodder for political reporters and gossip columnists.

. . . .

An insatiable curiosity impelled London to investigate and write about a wide range of topics and issues. Much of his lesser known work remains highly readable and intellectually engaging. The Iron Heel (1908) is a pioneering dystopian novel that foresees the rise of fascism, born out of capitalism’s income inequality. The author’s most explicitly political novel, it was a crucial precursor for George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclar Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine

Who doesn’t read books in America?

26 November 2016

From Pew Research:

About a quarter of American adults (26%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form. So who, exactly, are these non-book readers?

Several demographic traits correlate with non-book reading, Pew Research Center surveys have found. For instance, adults with a high school degree or less are about three times as likely as college graduates (40% vs. 13%) to report not reading books in any format in the past year. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey shows that these less-educated adults are also the least likely to own smartphones or tablets, two devices that have seen a substantial increase in usage for reading e-books since 2011. (College-educated adults are more likely to own these devices and use them to read e-books.)

Adults with an annual household income of less than $30,000 are about twice as likely as the most affluent adults to be non-book readers (33% vs. 17%). Hispanic adults are also about twice as likely as whites (40% vs. 23%) to report not having read a book in the past 12 months.

Link to the rest at Pew Research and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Murder in virtual reality should be illegal

26 November 2016

From Aeon:

You start by picking up the knife, or reaching for the neck of a broken-off bottle. Then comes the lunge and wrestle, the physical strain as your victim fights back, the desire to overpower him. You feel the density of his body against yours, the warmth of his blood. Now the victim is looking up at you, making eye contact in his final moments.

Science-fiction writers have fantasised about virtual reality (VR) for decades. Now it is here – and with it, perhaps, the possibility of the complete physical experience of killing someone, without harming a soul. As well as Facebook’s ongoing efforts with Oculus Rift, Google recently bought the eye-tracking start-up Eyefluence, to boost its progress towards creating more immersive virtual worlds. The director Alejandro G Iñárritu and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, both famous for Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015), have announced that their next project will be a short VR film.

But this new form of entertainment is dangerous. The impact of immersive virtual violence must be questioned, studied and controlled. Before it becomes possible to realistically simulate the experience of killing someone, murder in VR should be made illegal.

. . . .

So I understand the appeal of VR, and its potential to make a story all the more real for the viewer. But we must examine that temptation in light of the fact that both cinema and gaming thrive on stories of conflict and resolution. Murder and violence are a mainstay of our drama, while single-person shooters are one of the most popular segments of the games industry.

. . . .

In an immersive virtual environment, what will it be like to kill? Surely a terrifying, electrifying, even thrilling experience. But by embodying killers, we risk making violence more tantalising, training ourselves in cruelty and normalising aggression. The possibility of building fantasy worlds excites me as a filmmaker – but, as a human being, I think we must be wary. We must study the psychological impacts, consider the moral and legal implications, even establish a code of conduct. Virtual reality promises to expand the range of forms we can inhabit and what we can do with those bodies. But what we physically feel shapes our minds. Until we understand the consequences of how violence in virtual reality might change us, virtual murder should be illegal.

Link to the rest at Aeon

The Running Conversation in Your Head

25 November 2016

From The Atlantic:

Language is the hallmark of humanity—it allows us to form deep relationships and complex societies. But we also use it when we’re all alone; it shapes even our silent relationships with ourselves. In his book, The Voices Within, Charles Fernyhough gives a historical overview of “inner speech”—the more scientific term for “talking to yourself in your head.”

Fernyhough, a professor at Durham University in the U.K., says that inner speech develops alongside social speech. This idea was pioneered by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who studied children in the 1920s and noted that when they learned to talk to other humans, they also learned how to talk to themselves, first out loud, and eventually, in their heads.

Inner speech, Fernyhough writes, isn’t bound by many of the conventions of verbal speech. For one, we can produce it much faster when we don’t have to go at the pace required to use tongues and lips and voice boxes. One researcher the book cites clocks inner speech at an average pace of 4,000 words per minute—10 times faster than verbal speech. And it’s often more condensed—we don’t have to use full sentences to talk to ourselves, because we know what we mean.

But it does maintain many of the characteristics of dialogue. We may imagine an exchange with someone else, or we may just talk to ourselves. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a conversation. Our minds contain many different perspectives, and they can argue or confer or talk over each other.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Thanksgiving – A Proclamation

24 November 2016

October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States

A Proclamation

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

Abraham Lincoln

Intermittent Posting

21 November 2016

PG will be away from his computer off and on today, so posts may appear in a random fashion.

Nothing bad has happened, just a day different than others are.

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