Thursday, May 25, 2006

What Am I Thinking? I Need To Know...

I just finished W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage and I loved it. It was my first experience with Maugham, I was very impressed, but this isn't what I want to talk about. Taint is the subject of the day, and how people wittingly or un- damage the experience of discovering new works.

A few years ago I wanted to read Trevanian so I picked up an omnibus edition of four of his novels. I was into The Eiger Sanction and was enjoying it tremendously, so much so that I had to read about the book, including some published reviews. One of them virtually killed the book for me. It said the book was written as a spoof of thrillers but as such was actually better than most of the books it was laughing at.

The problem was, I was enjoying it as a thriller. I didn't see it as a spoof before I read the review nor after, but I couldn't help but wonder whether or not I was being taken for a ride somehow. Was I just too stupid or thick to see it? Sure, the names of the characters were over the top, especially "Miles Mellaugh," but that was all I could figure. The book went from being a brilliant reading experience to a sad mash of one.

Funny thing, though, no other review that I found said the same thing. I think I was victimized by a jackass and I just couldn't overcome it.

I wanted to read Ashenden and in the course of procuring a copy ended up with seventeen used paperbacks of Maugham's and since the rest of my books were packed up for our forthcoming move, I picked the thickest one out of the box. It was Of Human Bondage and not being very clever I made the mistake of reading about the book on Amazon. Including the reviews.

The first thing I noticed was that a number of the "reviewers" used the same words to describe Maugham, many calling him a mostly "technical" writer. While rating the book four or five stars, many of the reviews sounded like apologies for the book's style yet at the same time proclaiming their admiration. What struck me was that multiple people reading the same book are not at all likely to come up with adjectives like "technical" to describe an immensely popular writer of fiction. Esepecially when the word isn't used in a flattering way nor in any way different from its sister reviews.

Despite the actual rating, the apologetic reviews throw a blanket over book and author before I've even read it. What does it mean to be a "technical" writer? Flawless punctuation? Perfect grammar, no slang? Then why use this as a pejorative? And more of a puzzle, what does it mean to be a "technical" writer who has produced a wonderful book? If the book is so great, wouldn't that eradicate the negative comments about its style?

I think so, which is why I think the reviewers, such as they are, write with a lemming-like mindset devoid of actual insight, be it fresh or otherwise. I started the book in the hole, as opposed to Eiger, when I was pushed into one in the middle.

Both of these things diminish the book and they can be somewhat controlled by choosing to never go there again. I already long ago gave up reading book covers and flaps; give me the book and maybe I'll read that stuff after I read the book. Any insights they offer can wait till then. But in my copy of Bondage is something I find much worse, an introduction by a well know author who not only gives away events in the book but does a damn fine job of negatively coloring the experience.

Aside from revealing details about a key relationship and even giving away the ending, Smiley manages to disparage Maugham's style by implying that it is outdated and hasn't held up well. She throws in a loosely connected line about Maugham's possible homosexuality. And this is an introduction? To what, a rival publisher's edition of a Dickens novel? How am I supposed to read this with a clear and open mind?

Fortunately I glanced at enough of the intro to gleen its nature and I didn't read it until after I had read the book. Thank god. I can only think the publisher contracted with Ms. Smiley because of her name and not her opinion and still had the poor sense to include the thing. Opinion is one thing, and should be respected especially by one so accomplished, but please please please don't tell me how the book is because that's how you find it. A book is never the same thing from person to person; the action takes place too much in an individual's own mind. Conjecture if you will but don't assert as fact, especially in an introduction where it is far too easily met as the point of first contact for someone who deserves far better.

It reminds me of stumping democrats in an election year exclaiming over the airwaves what it is that Americans really want. Personally I don't feel that blue blooded rich people with elected positions instead of real jobs really have any kind of idea what people in my socio-economic class want or are worried about. Just shut up. Likewise I don't need Jane Smiley telling me that this classic masterpiece or its author haven't held up to time. Then why am I holding the book, Jane? Why is it published, why does it exist to contain your wisdom, why is it simply not forgotten?

No, really, tell me why. You seem to know what I should think. I just want to enjoy reading fine books.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Posting has been sparse here lately, and will probably continue that way for a few weeks. After several months of preparation followed by eight months of being on the market, our house has finally sold. We dropped the price significantly but no matter what we did, we couldn't make buyers appear out of the ether.

Property taxes here are obscene. Home and flood insurance are insensible. Interest rates have been rising along with gas prices. And now, according to former Fed chief Allan Greenspan, the housing boom is over.

Sadly we will not be in the financial position that we had hoped to be. We will be in a better place and we should be able to afford an au pair, which is all important. This person will allow me to work around the restrictions of my health and be able to write full time. I will have a lot to say about that here; I haven't done so yet, and won't, until it is more definite.

I also want to write about being happy; what it might take, why we don't do it. It's quite a trick being not quite so happy yourself and yet raising two tikes who don't know anything else.

Anyway, every book in the library has been individually wrapped, and all of them boxed; for the first time, I want all of my books to survive a move and retain their condition. I wish I knew when they will see light and shelf space again.

Okay, enough of the love letter.

I'm reading Maugham's Of Human Bondage and it's occurred to me that I've never read anyone write of the relationships of young men at school, and their relationships with their peers, that's reminded me of my own experiences. It's weird since for me they've been mostly forgotten and far from conscious thought.

So we close in a month and we move as soon as it's over. What we move in to is still a question, as is its suitability. But if it gets me closer to writing full time, I'm insane for it although the days are creeeeeping along too slowly. Guess I'll make do with more packing.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Are We Really This Stupid?

This is just a quick follow on to the previous post about the super-sized paperbacks. I went back to the bookstore to specifically check the bastardizations out. Out front in a prominent display was John Sandford's latest mass market release, a clear victim of this nonsense.

The book is only one inch taller than a standard mass market edition. Inside, it looked as though there was extra spacing between the lines in order to fill the pages. I don't recall the typesetting term for this but in the vernacular we would call this "padding." As in adding fluff in order to deceive the paying public into coughing up more dough for less value. Yes, the sticker price of these beasts is $9.99, two bucks more than the old standards.

But it gets better. Imprinted on the front cover is a button that says, "Designed for more comfortable reading."


Taller pages means more room per page. More room per page means more lines per page. All this means fewer pages per book, which should result in a volume that's less expensive to produce. Um, no. Two dollars more, please. Because this book has been designed for more comfortable reading.

I do think the taller books are cool. Check out John Irving's Piggy Sneed book for a hardcover in what I find a really nifty form factor. But don't engineer, design, implement, invoke, conjugate, fluctuate, or transmogrify something with the sole purpose of charging me more for the same thing. Don't forget, the content, the actual words contained therein, are no different than they would have been had the publisher printed them in the $7.99 edition.

Notice I didn't say "mass market." I don't care. I just want a book that's affordable. When you crank up the price I have to buy fewer books. Guess what? The ones I'll cut out are these obvious ripoffs. Sorry to John Sandford and all the other auctorial efforts that are victims of this nefarious scheme. Maybe I'll catch you on the remainder tables.