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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: Night Train to Lisbon


Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon has sat on my bookshelf since January 2008. Then I almost gave up on it after 100 pages.

Raimund Gregorius teaches classical languages at a Swiss lycée and has an otherwise routine, and dull, existence. Until one day, walking to school, he encounters a Portuguese woman on a bridge who is so distraught that Gregorius believes she’s going to jump. Instead she tears up a letter, throws it over the edge, panics and writes a phone number of Gregorius’ forehead.

Sometimes the smallest things change us, sometimes the most bizarre.

The encounter rattles Gregorius out of his quotidian life and he ends up on a night train to Lisbon, where he proceeds to re-construct the life of Amadeu de Prado, a doctor conflicted by religion, love, friendship, dictatorship and betrayals of many kinds. Based only on a slim volume of Prado’s published work, Gregorius finds family members, neighbours, and friends who all contribute bits and pieces to his patchwork understanding of what made Amadeu de Prado tick. Thankfully Prado was an interesting a guy.

I can’t match up my feelings of the book with the blurbs.

“A book of astonishing richness ... visionary ... a deserved international smash.” —Le Canard enchaîné

“One reads this book almost breathlessly, can hardly put it down ... A handbook for the soul, intellect and heart.” —Die Welt

I don’t share the enthusiasm of the French and German reviewers of the time, but Mercier has certainly provided a philosophical tale of repression, resistance and the struggle of men to achieve something memorable. I made it all the way through the book because of Amadeu. Gregorius’ measured uncovering of this figure was rewarding. There are lots of passages that are still resonating with me, but overall this was a slow read.

Monday, March 16, 2009

SXSW: No Think for Old Publishers

New Think for Old Publishers panel at SXSW drew a lot of frustration from the crowd of book lovers and supporters.

The official description of the session was:

This is not a discussion of whether ebooks are killing treebooks, or whether it’s possible to get cozy with an Amazon Kindle. It’s about how participatory culture and the online world interact with good olde book publishing.Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, Deborah Schultz, and fellow panelists will share with the audience a variety of perspectives on what’s going right and what’s going wrong in publishing, assess success of recent forays into marketing digitally, digital publishing, and what books and blogs have to gain from one another. Penguin Group (USA), which houses some 40 plus imprints and publishes an extremely broad variety of physical and digital products everything from William Gibson’s first ebook in the 90’s to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (the source for HBO’s True Blood) is deeply involved in exploring ways that old and new media might better collaborate. Audience members are invited to speak up about what they think book publishers could/should be doing to better provide relevant information and content to blogs, websites, and online communities. Come tell old media what you want and how you want it.

Clay Shirky ITP
John Fagan   Mktg Dir,  Penguin Group (USA)
Deborah Schultz   Founder/Chief Catalyst,  deborahschultz.com
Peter Miller   Dir of Publicity,  Bloomsbury USA
Ivan Held   Pres GP Putnam’s Sons,  Penguin Group (USA)

They certainly told publishers what they think. The summation was “you suck at this is the biggest way possible.”

I think it’s unfair to attack the folks on that panel but as representatives of the industry they do have to go back to their houses and understand that they need to convey, not that bloggers are an unruly bunch, but that publishers need to get off their asses and get involved with social media. Enough is enough.

BookSquare says
If you’re going to hold a session called “New Think for Old Publishers”, you gotta come with some new thinking. Either that or tell the audience that it’s a research session…and the audience is supposed to bring the new thinking. Good idea, needed better execution. Nobody read the panel description to mean “we want the audience to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it”.


The publishing people on stage said, essentially, tell us what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it. You have 300 people who give up an hour of their lives to hear the cool things the traditional publishing business is doing…and you can ask them to consult on your business?

Watch a video of the panel here.

Other links to conversation about this panel:
Medialoper has a fairly neutral assessment of what unfolded.

Twitter stream of comments on this panel #sxswbp

Monique’s summary
What went wrong is this:
* Publishers have not listened to the crowd for a long time.
* The crowd is restless.
* Publishers wring their hands about the web.
* The crowd offers options publishers don’t like.
* Publishers weep into their hands.
* The crowd wants to help and offers other suggestions.
* Publishers act like deer in headlights.
* The crowd plows down publishers and reinvents the industry without them.

What this panel really came down to is that the wisdom of the crowds is not being tapped. The crowd is now sick and tired of trying to help people who won’t help themselves.

Hold me to this: I’m going to organize a panel in Vancouver. We’re going to create a model for publishing and marketing books. We’re going to move forward as an industry. Leaders will be identified. Roles will be assigned. If you’re not open to totally change everything you’re doing, then you are not ready for this revolution. Don’t come.

Who’s in?


Peter Miller Glibness. “Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Tips from a panelist who barely survived” in Publishers Weekly.
Read the article.

Michael Tamblyn of BookNet Canada on 6 Things That Revolutionize Publishing

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Book Review: Turpentine by Spring Warren

Turpentine by Spring Warren is a Western set in the 1870s. Edward Turrentine Bayard III (“Turpentine”) is our tragic hero. He’s a coward and thinks himself otherwise. He’s misguided and thinks himself enlightened with manners and fortune. This is a cyclical story. Turpentine’s fortunes rise and fall depending upon his decisions, and unfortunately for Turp, he can be a bit of a twerp.

Although Turpentine is tragic, the novel is not. Spring Warren is a fine storyteller and she paints a Wild West worth visiting.

The story is this: Turpentine is sent on a train west by his doctor. He is to attend a sanatorium and improve the health of his lungs. He ends up in the Wild West skinning buffalo and courting girls. Turpentine, being of better means earlier in life, is an artist. His sketches catch the attention of a Peabody Museum scholar who is studying fossils. Turpentine is invited to the Peabody as an assistant. It seems his life is about to change, and yet this is just one of the many ups soon to be followed by a down.

In some ways Turpentine reminded me of The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderhaeghe. This is a literary Western with a lot going on if you choose to read it that way.

Two pistols up.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Book Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard is one of my favourite plays, in part because I had to study the hell out of it in unversity and in part because it is one of the first dates that James and I had.

I was excited to see Stoppard’s new play Rock ‘n’ Roll is now published. Rock ‘n’ Roll premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in June 2006.

The cover is a very striking yellow, and the edition that I have includes an introduction from Stoppard. I find the author introductions to plays most fascinating. When I was in school I hated reading any of the extra bits, but now I’m much more interested in the context for the story, what references the author is trying to make, what he or she hopes the reader gets out of the text. The introduction to Rock ‘n’ Roll doesn’t disappoint, and it is a good recap of what was going on in Prague and Cambridge from 1968 to 1990, more directly what effect the Communist regime was having on musicians, philosophers and students.

In case you don’t know Tom Stoppard, he was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 and moved to England as a child in 1946.

The Amazon copy says:
Catapulted into the front ranks of modern playwrights overnight when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead opened in London in 1967, he has become recognized as a contemporary comic master, the brilliantly acclaimed author of The Real Inspector Hound, Enter a Free Man, Albert’s Bridge, After Magritte, Travesties, Dirty Linen, Jumpers, New-Found-Land, Night and Day, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Artist Descending a Staircase, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia (Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage), and Rock ‘n’ Roll. He has also written a number of screenplays, including The Romantic Englishwoman, Despair, and Brazil.

Rock ‘n’ Roll highlights the moments of friendship and tension between Jan and Max. Jan is a lecturer at Cambridge who returns to Prague just as the Soviet tanks are rolling into the city. He’s a music fan and in addition to a brief history of Czechoslovakia, you get a brief history of The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Lennon, Andy Warhol, and Frank Zappa. Max is a Marxist philosopher with a free-spirited daughter and a Sapphic philosopher wife who is dying from cancer.  Over a 20-year period Rock ‘n’ Roll offers little windows into Jan and Max’s acceptance and resistance to the Communist regime.

The remarkable thing about the play is that it’s heavy in a light way. There’s a sense of bouyancy and humour. In many ways it reminds me of Chekov’s plays, but without the dark, foreboding sense that, as James says, “it’s a godless world and we’re all going to die.”

Rock ‘n’ Roll—a new play by Tom Stoppard—read more on Amazon.ca