Thursday, January 28, 2010

Jiu-jitsu no-gi worlds

This was in November, I think?  I went just to check it out.  Jiu-jitsu is a great sport for heterosexual men, as you can see.

Debt to Pleasure, by John Lanchester

This book was suggested to me by a friend, and something that she said when she described it has stuck in my mind: she said it's a great book to recommend.  Everybody she gives it to likes it.  It's very smart, very fun, very easy to read - people who read Debt to Pleasure will think, "Ah, my friend is good at recommending books."

The critics do not stint with their praise: they call it dazzling, a tour de force, seductive, diverting, gorgeous, elegant, fun, flawless.  If you read between the lines of all this praise, the book's central problem becomes apparent: for all its many, many virtues it's not transformative.  It won't change literature, and it won't change your outlook on life.  And the thing is, Debt to Pleasure is such a good book that it's really a shame it isn't a great book.  Or maybe I should say: it's great, but it's not Great.

The blurb from The New Yorker on the back cover of the book reads: "Lanchester has written a novel masquerading as an essay masquerading as a cookbook, and it somehow manages to combine the virtues of all three."  The best thing about this summary is that it hints at how marvelous Debt to Pleasure is without giving away any spoilers.  Debt to Pleasure has a doozy of a twist at the end - the kind of twist that, once you've read it, makes it kind of hard to talk about the plot without giving something away.

It really is ridiculously clever.  I know when I first picked it up, I double checked two or three times to make sure I was reading a novel, not a memoir, and when I gave it to my mom (she loved it, of course) she asked me, about halfway through, if she was reading an autobiography.  The narrator's voice is that convincing.

I would happily buy a few dozen copies of Debt to Pleasure and hand them out to all my friends, but it's not a book that means something to me.  I heartily recommend it.  You will love it.  You will probably find yourself recommending it to others.  In that sense, Debt to Pleasure is kind of like a communicable disease.

But I wonder what I'll think about it five years from now, or if I'll think of it at all.  And I say that honestly: I wonder.  Apparently when Tristram Shandy was first published a lot of people thought it was too silly to stand the test of time.  It's true that Tristram Shandy is silly, but it's still being read, what, 250 years after its initial date of publication?  And for good reason.  So who knows.


I got a new Kindle for my birthday.  I loved my first generation Kindle, but not for its appearance.  This one, however, is pretty enough to bling out.  What you see above: custom designed Gelaskin and a padded case from Lollington on Etsy.

So far, I love my new Kindle although the user interface is different and I miss the Gen1 content manager.  I bought it when the hype about the then-unnamed iPad was at a fever pitch, and a part of me wondered if I'd regret buying a new Kindle when (according to rumor, at least) Apple was so heavily pregnant with the Messiah of ereaders.

The answer?  Nope, no regrets.  I read books, and the matte, electronic ink screens of ereaders from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony et al is much better for sustained, long-form reading than a full-color, backlit LED.   If my media of choice were magazines, newspapers, and blogs I'd probably prefer the iPad.  For a lot of people, that's what they consume and that's what they should buy.  

I say this a lot but maybe I haven't said it here: when I first bought my Kindle, I thought I'd only use it for trashy novels.  Books that I didn't want to keep and cherish, books I didn't want to display on my shelves, books whose covers I didn't feel like exposing on the subway to judgy, judgy strangers.

I have been seriously surprised to discover how much I prefer it to a paper copy.  It always fits in my purse.  The screen always flickers on to just the right page.  It's always the same weight, whether I'm reading a novella or a doorstop.  I can hold it, and turn pages, with one hand.  I can buy books while waiting to board my flight at an airport.  I can buy a new release without making a sidetrip to the bookstore.  I love getting book samples, and being able to read them at my leisure - instead of hunting for an empty chair at a bookstore (they are always all occupied), or sitting on the floor (I think this bothers other people more than it bothers me, but a lot of other people getting a little bothered does add up).  I don't have to worry about cracking the spine or bending the cover while reading those first few pages, and the samples usually include a full chapter or more - I'd feel guilty reading that far into an unpurchased book at a bookstore.  I love having 10 or 15 samples in my menu, so when I finish a book I can instantly dip into another - exactly the book I'm in the mood for at that exact moment in time  (you know how sometimes you put a movie on your Netflix queue because you can't wait to watch it, but when it arrives the next day you are inexplicably in the mood for a different kind of film?  You ordered a comedy and want a drama; you ordered a thriller and feel like a rom-com, etc., and then it's just not as fun to watch the movie you couldn't wait to see the night before.  Like that, but with books, and instant gratification).  I love being able to juggle multiple books at once - something I never used to do (this may not be a positive side-effect, but I like it).

I've dabbled in bookbinding.  I take pleasure in a well-designed cover, a well-chosen font, a layout that gives the text just enough room to breathe.  I enjoy books as objects.  But I don't fetishize them.  I don't read for the experience of holding a pretty paper product.  I read for the content, and when I weigh up all the pros and cons there's no doubt about it: reading on the Kindle is just plain better.  

So that's that.  Now I read everything I can on the Kindle.  I read Middlemarch on my Kindle.  I read The Great Deluge on my Kindle.  I read Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy on my Kindle.  Given the choice, I will pick the Kindle every time.  

Brown sugar pecan cupcakes with caramel frosting

They tasted so much better than they looked.

Monday, January 11, 2010

NYT article on AOL-Time Warner Merger

It's no secret that I think about 80% of the New York Times is crap, but they do some really fantastic pieces sometimes.  I'm not the biggest business journalism afficionado, but even I found How the AOL-Time Warner Merger Went So Wrong fascinating.

As long as I'm doing a shout out to the Times, here's another one: Who Knew I Was Not the Father?


According to an article in The Business Insider...
it costs the [New York] Times about twice as much money to print and deliver the newspaper over a year as it would cost to send each of its subscribers a brand new Amazon Kindle instead.
Here's how we did the math:
According to the Times's Q308 10-Q, the company spends $63 million per quarter on raw materials and $148 million on wages and benefits. We've heard the wages and benefits for just the newsroom are about $200 million per year.
After multiplying the quarterly costs by four and subtracting that $200 million out, a rough estimate for the Times's delivery costs would be $644 million per year.
The Kindle retails for $359.  In a recent open letter, Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis wrote: "We have 830,000 loyal readers who have subscribed to The New York Times for more than two years."  Multiply those numbers together and you get $297 million -- a little less than half as much as $644 million.
And here's the thing: a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we're so low in our estimate of the Times's printing costrs that we're not even in the ballpark.
Read the full article here. Although, as I'm looking at it...the Kindle retails for $259 not $359. I know because I just bought a new one. I wonder if any of the other figures are off. Hmmmmm.

Anyhow, a quick note about the slew of book reviews that I posted a week or so ago. I've been taking notes about books I read for a really long time, more systematically as time goes by, but these proto-reviews are scattered all over the place.

A lot of them are really old, and some are probably incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't just finished reading the book in question. Not really written for an audience, which means, ultimately, that they're less useful to me - the person they were written for - years down the road. Live and learn I guess.

Anyhow, my memories of these books aren't fresh so I'm not mucking up the old reviews, just copying them out.

There are so many more to hunt down...but I think a catalogue will be kind of interesting. I'm surprised, for example, that the first reviews I wrote of Sebald's books weren't glowing - he's become one of my favorite authors. In general, the proportion of negative reviews is surprising to me.