Amazon, Again


The Verge  has aggregated a collection of stories about Simon & Schuster’s agreement to let Amazon publish its ebooks and new paperbacks. The key to all lies in this sentence: “But the deal is perhaps most strategically advantageous for Amazon, which reportedly can discount Simon & Schuster titles at will under certain conditions.” If that’s true I don’t see how S&S can say that the contract “preserves the authors’ share of ebook sales going forward.”

S&S apparently will in general determine the price of ebooks, which is significant, and could bode well for Hachette unless Bezos is so irate that the publisher didn’t kowtow before that agreement expired.

The image is the inspiration for the S&S logo, The Sower, painted in 1850 by Jean-Francois Millet. May S&S continue to sow.

Ten Books, Revised

jungleBack in early September my friend Janet Davenport challenged me to come up with ten books that had had a profound influence on my life. Here’s what I posted:

The Street, In the Matter of Color, Emma, Angela’s Ashes, Crooked Road Straight, Soldier Girls (reading it now), Silences, Black Roots in Southeastern Connecticut, Brother, I Am Dying, Blue Highways

I’m updating with an additional book. It was prompted by dueling “Bookends” columns in the September 14 NYTimes Book Review. The question: “ ‘The Book that changed my life’ is usually taken to mean ‘for the better.’ Can a book ever transform a reader’s life for the worse?” Leslie Jamison says “yes,” citing The Catcher in the Rye and The Collector, which influenced murderers, though she acknowledges that J.D. Salinger and John Fowles could hardly be held responsible for the actions of the deranged.

Francine Prose says a qualified “no.” She devotes most of the column to Devils, Drugs and Doctors by Howard W. Haggard, “an illustrated history of medicine that focused on plagues, venereal disease, mental illness and the horrifying extent to which women, in earlier eras, suffered the fatal agonies of unhygienic childbirth…” Prose was ten or eleven when she read the book and came away with the idea, based on a pointed question to her father, that people caught syphilis, etc. by “running around.” From then on, she walked.

I had a similar reaction to Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle. Though I don’t believe it changed my life for the worse, I can’t say I really liked it. It did, however, have a more profound effect than any of the books listed above, except maybe for The Street, which of course shaped our whole family’s way of life.

The Jungle tells of Chicago’s meatpacking plants and the immigrants who drudge away in them. I read the book when I was, like Prose, an impressionable eleven or so. Not long after I had finished it, . I became violently ill from a dinner of franks and beans. The result was an abject, lifelong fear of vomiting. I am certain that a contributing factor to my illness was having just read the descriptions of the sausage casings filled with sawdust and rat droppings. The rest of it was probably just the flu. Anyway, I never again ate a hot dog and a few years later stopped eating meat altogether. At this point I’ve been meat-free for more years than I was a carnivore.

The other effect is problematical – and this was the one that I had forgotten until I read Prose’s essay.

The Jungle includes a wrenching scene in which poor Ona Rudkus delivers a premature dead infant in the attic of a squalid tenement because her husband can’t afford medical care or adequate housing. Just as the rat droppings and sawdust revolted me, that scene frightened me: First he hears her moaning and crying. “And then again came Ona’s scream, smiting him like a blow in the face … Her voice died away into a wail – then he heard her sobbing again, ‘My God – let me die, let me die!’ ” Not long afterward, she gets her wish.

That scenario frightened me away from ever having children – made me feel that the risk to life was too great. I knew intellectually that I wasn’t living in an early twentieth-century slum, that I would no doubt have enough money to pay for medical care, that millions of women all over the world had survived. None of that mattered. I was convinced I’d wind up just like Ona. And my mind has never really wavered in the years since.

‘We Were There’

Jerry Augustine, who has been with the group from the beginning.

Jerry Augustine, who has been with the group from the beginning.

It’s time to revisit the veterans’ writing group, which I’ve had the privilege of conducting for almost three years.

We Were There: Writing Your Military Experiences” started when Lauren Hillenbrand’s Unbroken became the One Book choice for 2012. A neighbor who worked at the library suggested me to conduct a three-week workshop. The story of Louis Zamperini (who died just recently) provided endless possibilities from his early days as a thief and scoundrel to his heroic survival during World War II.

The group started small, but the guys wanted to continue after the three weeks was up. About a year in they asked for instruction in English composition, so out came the textbook I had used at Capital Community College. We went through narrative, description, comparison, contrast, etc. I was supremely grateful that everyone in the group knows grammar, spelling, and all the basics.

Since then, we’ve grown in numbers and now have veterans from World War II, the Korean era, and Vietnam. They represent all branches of service including the Coast Guard. Two guys drive almost an hour to join us.

We are putting their stories into a book, which I think will appeal to a huge audience because of the variety of experiences.

Beyond the words, the guys have shared artifacts, some that evoke sadness or horror: a POW tag from WWII; a tag from the twenty-years late Vietnam veterans parade; an MRE that had spent time in Vietnam, which was still edible but not improved with age; and lately a piece of shrapnel that surgeons dug out of the heel of a seventeen-year-old Marine who was shot in his first combat on a tiny island in the Pacific during WWII.

The veterans’ writing group has been a learning experience for me, and I am grateful to Christy Billings, who keeps me organized and shares the guidance of the workshop. It is truly an honor to be working with these amazing men.

Seminole Dolls

I had a jolt of recognition as I read about the demise of a small store in Florida. (Google “A Century Old Landmark of the Everglades,” published July 5). It’s a story happening almost daily everywhere in the country. What grabbed me was a photo of a shelf full of dolls in bright dress. The tops fell cape-like to the elbow. The capes and skirts had stripes of various colors with embroidery and worked around and at inverted points along the skirts. Some dolls wore earrings. Most sported black felt hats with a wide brim turned up in the front.

There was a shock of recognition of the sort that comes when one experiences something for the first time in a long time. Those two rows of dolls returned me to days as a tiny child playing on the floor in my room. Someone gave me one of those dolls, perhaps two. Anna reports she had them, too.

They weren’t large, perhaps six inches high. They weren’t cuddly, but they added to my room an array of colors and a feeling that I was sharing the world with something exotic. I think it may have been my mother’s way of giving me dolls that looked more like me than  what appeared in the local five & dime.

I have no idea what happened to them. After reading the information on the Seminole website, I have a feeling they may have disintegrated:

More than just cloth-wrapped palmetto fiber husk stuffed with cotton, the Seminole Doll accurately portrays the clothing and hairstyle worn by traditional Seminole men and women. It is a favorite item of purchase at the many festivals and “powwow” events attended by Seminole vendors.

Now I understand what an amazing piece of work, and of heritage, they represent. They are also one more piece of my childhood that’s returned to bring me the consolation of memory.

Tall doll on right looks most like what I had.

Tall doll on right looks most like what I had.

Crying, Laughing

I cried tears of joy this morning when I read the news that brave young Malala Yousafzai was sharing the Nobel Peace Prize. If I keep writing about her, I’ll keep crying, so I’m turning to something utterly frivolous to end the week.


Thank Marketplace for presenting me with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  The business connection was a question about how the youtube mini-episodes are making any money. No satisfactory answer yet. I  love that the company is called Pemberly Digital. Have to reserve judgment on how much of the choppy editing is deliberate.

I watched the first episode yesterday and had to stop because of an appointment – of course it opened with my favorite Jane Austen line: ““It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

The modern-day Lizzie has the same reaction that I did, which is, not a chance. And of course JA only meant it half seriously anyway.  The fact that modern Lizzie’s mother in all seriousness gave her a T-shirt bearing the quote bodes well for a great many laughs.

So pardon me if I post and binge watch the diaries.

Hachette vs. Amazon, Encore


Kevin Nance has written a thoughtful and balanced article for Poets&Writers magazine about the HvA dispute. (See the NYTimes Review from 10/5 for the reader rep’s take on why the papers coverage is not balanced.)

Nance observes that the issue goes miles beyond ebook pricing and involves whether books can be treated like the other commodities that Amazon sells. Most of the people he quotes say no because of the way books come into the world: the author’s “product” taking time, sometimes years, to create; then the involvement of editors, designers, and marketers. The process requires the contribution of all these people, whether the book gets to the public in hardcover, paper, or digital form unless an author wants to assume the entire burden of doing it all alone, or paying someone to do it. At that point one has no time to write or one needs to be a trust-fund baby to pay for everything.

Nance reviews the state of the dispute, from its inception about six months ago to the present, and concludes with a quote from Joe Regal. He believes that Amazon didn’t anticipate the forceful reaction to its Hachette slow-down.

Joe was the first agent I ever dealt with, when he was representing my mother’s works at Russell & Volkening. I checked out his current enterprise, Zola Books. “Read and buy ebooks on all readers, interact with friends and authors and support your local bookstore.” The list of new releases is impressive with fiction from Gillian Anderson and Colm Tóbín, and a memoir from Alan Cumming (looks like a blockbuster). Hachette books are listed at thirty percent off. I signed up for the newsletter. Can’t wait till the site relaunches.

Back To Work


My Reiki haze ended today with a presentation to Hartford public school teachers at the Mark Twain House and Museum. It felt great to be in the same place where my ancestors made contact with the Clemens family butler, George Griffin, who was their friend. I’m hoping that I left the teachers with some ideas for using Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters in the classroom.

I’m rolling from that to a bunch of other projects.

My filmmaker family, Ashley and Kathryn, will be here soon to continue production of a documentary about the James family and its influence on Ann Petry. Before they arrive I have to clean the house. I’ll be giving myself lots of Reiki before and after.

From there I roll into a lecture at Naugatuck Valley Community College to students of African American literature.

That will be followed by a talk to a women’s group about the veterans’ writing workshop.

Then in December I’m back at the Mark Twain House as part of the “Trouble Begins” series. I’ll be promoting that one as the time approaches.

Stay tuned …

Nine People, Two Days

Dr. Mikao Usui,  originator of Reiki

Dr. Mikao Usui,
originator of Reiki

Reiki bliss has overtaken me during the last two days. I did a Reiki share on Monday, courtesy of the spiritual counselor in the Hospice Unit. Six of us gathered. Each one received Reiki from the other five. There is a multiplier effect when more than one person offers Reiki, so each eleven-minute session became the equivalent of fifty-five.  It also has a multiplier effect on the people giving it as the energy comes from the other practitioners. When it came to my turn on the table, it was a good thing people had their hands on me, otherwise I would have floated up to the ceiling. I slept like a rock last night.

Then today I went to continue the training of a new volunteer. She’s already a strong Reiki practitioner. I’m just showing her how to raise and lower the beds, adjust the lights, and biggest of all, how to find her way around the hospital. We offered Reiki to four patients, which means that each person receive double the benefit. The ones that were awake when we left were grateful.

At the end of this day, I’m about to float up to the ceiling again. Can’t focus my brain to write any more. Expecting another excellent night’s sleep.

What I’m Reading Now

"Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky …"

“Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky …”

Another in an occasional series. The only small things about Alexander McCall Smith’s What W.H. Auden Can Do For You are the page count at 137 and the measurements at 7 1/ 2″ by 4 1/ 2″ for the outside jacket of a hardcover.

I was aware of AMS’s affinity for Auden from reading the Sunday Philosophy Club mysteries. Isabel Dalhousie ruminates on the poet, along with her countryman Robert Burns.

Here, AMS brilliantly analyzes Auden’s poems as they uplift, educate, and inspire the ordinary person.

Having read a bit more than half, I’m entranced: My favorite observation so far is that Auden believed at one time that history was just a series of random events. This view moderated, at least as far as I’ve read.

AMS’s odd sense of humor flares early on. He writes that Auden responded to a Canadian burglar who had written to him and then adds a parenthetical: “Canada no doubt has its share of burglars, but for some reason there seems something surprising in the concept of a Canadian burglar—something vaguely oxymoronic.” Only a U.K. denizen could balk at the notion of a Canadian burglar. Also, I didn’t know things could be “vaguely” oxymoronic.

Twenty-three pages in, we learn about Auden’s appearance: “… the famous face, with its geological catastrophe of lines and crevasses, held the audience.” “Geological catastrophe” stands as an all-time great description. To apply it to the human face is sheer genius.

My only quibble, a tiny one, is that the editors let the book go too quick. Of course given the author, I could just be missing a significant point. The first encounter, in discussing politics between the wars, AMS used a version of the word “threat” three times in two sentences. “… the greatest threat was fascism, which was threatening the very basis of European civilization. It was against this backdrop of political threat …” seems inelegant for someone whose writing is normally so polished.

AMS is forcing me to re-read and think and feel, in depth. That’s what Auden can do for me. I’m buying this one, in hardcover, at a bricks-and mortar bookstore.