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Proud Independents — Five Books You Won’t Find in Chains

A trip to any indistinguishable chain bookstore will tell you what you need to know about the current crisis in publishing — glossy-covered bestsellers by the usual suspects, characters from classics transformed into “vampyres” and zombie-killers, second-rate celebrities eager to tell all. But where are the fresh new writers? Where are the strong stories and original voices?

Sadly, the big publishing houses are taking fewer chances and more emerging authors are self-publishing. It’s easy to create your own micro-imprint, and on-line nobody knows you’re a POD (print-on-demand). While getting onto store shelves is difficult, the web has made it simple for authors to market themselves, and e-books offer a great way to break in. For a writer, uploading a book on Kindle is as easy as sending an e-mail, and companies like Smashwords offer free e-publishing in ALL digital formats.

While this creates opportunities for writers, it creates confusion for readers. With so many books, what’s to read? Without the traditional gatekeepers — agents and publishers — how do you find books that are high quality, original and well-written?

Fortunately, e-books can usually be “sampled” before purchase, and most online booksellers allow you to “browse” print versions electronically. If you are an e-book aficionado or ready to take the plunge into print-on-demand, here are five great picks.

1) Dorkismo — The Macho of the Dork , by Maria Bustillos (2009) — available in paperback and on Kindle.

In a series of brilliant, accessible and funny essays, LA-based cultural critique, Maria Bustillos posits that the dorks are saving civilization. Her revolutionary manifesto celebrates true self-expression. In a world where hipness has become a commodity signified by the proper attire and technology, a world of branding, where children refuse to go to school without designer clothing, Dorkismo is the antidote. All the important creative thinkers and innovators are dorks, she tells us. They/we/us are the true iconoclasts. This is more than simple cultural critique. It’s self-help that’s nothing short of inspirational.

Bustillos, by offering her examples of authentic coolness, urges readers to be proud of who they are and their intellectual pursuits and obsessions — even if they involve fluency in one or more fictional languages. Her motto, “to thine own self be cool,” redefines hip making it clear that creativity, art and even happiness come from following your own path, enjoying yourself, and learning to embrace your dork-nature.

2) Babylon, Daisy Anne Gree (2009) — available in paperback and as a FREE e-book in all digital formats.

Gree published this novel in association with Year Zero a writers’ collective dedicated to “restoring the direct conversation between reader and writer.” Babylon, barely more than novella length, is a stunning debut.

Fired from a restaurant job in San Francisco, schizophrenic Daniel attempts suicide and winds up back in his parent’s old house in his small Texas hometown of Babylon. Voice is everything in fiction and Gree has it. Daniel’s head is not a comfortable or pleasant place to be, but Gree brings us there in a way that’s true and sharp. She teaches us more about the mind of a schizophrenic than anyone is likely to get from a medical or psychiatric textbook. Gree goes beyond the writing workshop adage, “Show don’t tell.” Her descriptions are simple yet visceral, and they hit like a shot of mescaline straight to the heart.

Chapter one begins in the restaurant where Daniel is working:

“I counted my breath in and out, rough and ragged. A fractious rhythm among the others, the slamming oven doors and the clanking plates, that surrounded me. The air inside was so thick and heavy that breathing felt like drowning. As the seconds wore on, one noise began to swell and smother the rest: the slow and steady buzzing of the fluorescent bulb above my head. It was feverish and nauseating, as jarring as a jackhammer on asphalt.”

By the time Daniel comes home and slashes his wrist, we’ve seen the shadows jumping from the walls and heard the voices calling his name. We understand the desperation that drives his actions.

While this all sounds bleak, and it is, there’s also a deadpan humor that shows itself in snatches of dialogue and imagery that is achingly beautiful throughout.

3) Harbour, by Paul House (2009) — available in hardcover, paperback and coming to Kindle.

Harbour, a historical novel set against the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, was initially published by the author through Lulu as a POD. It was recently picked up by Dragon International Arts, a small publisher in the UK.

At over 400 pages and with several story-lines, Harbour, is better suited to print than digital. Its characters include an elderly drug-lord, his beautiful young wife, a mixed-race girl, a British doctor, a Japanese barber with a secret, an embittered invalid and assorted others. None are especially heroic which is both the novel’s strength and probably the reason it wasn’t picked up by a major publisher. If you’re a fan of formulaic historical fiction — the Michener model, this isn’t for you. It’s character-driven even as history unfolds. Which is not to say, that there isn’t plenty of attention to historical detail.

As we read, patterns begin to emerge within the tapestry before us. We understand more of the connections between characters and the focus shifts to two couples — Tung Nien, the drug-lord’s wife and her lover Dr. Laughton — a married, British ex-pat, and Molly a mixed-race girl taken in by Tung Nien and Molly’s friend, Wu.

Laughton and Tung Nien are in an impossible situation. They’ve gone from having an affair to being truly, deeply, passionately in love with each other. Their story of longing and compromise becomes one with which any reader can identify. Molly, our young heroine, has ideals and innocence. She’s probably the most heroic of the bunch — the least cynical and sullied, while her beau, Wu on the precipice of manhood, may make the wrong choice. When the chaos of the invasion finally arrives, these are the four we hope will emerge not only alive but somehow, against the odds, with each other.

Without giving anything away, one can report that the ending was deeply satisfying.

4) Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, by Dan Holloway — available in paperwork and FREE in all e-book formats.

This is a book truly made for the digital age — hip, sensuous, smart and very up to date. Holloway is the founder of the Year 0 collective and believes that making books available for free digitally is one way to grow readership. Songs has become the number one most downloaded literary novel on the e-book publishing site, Smashwords.

Szandrine was born in Hungary shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. Abandoned by her British mother, she was raised by her father on a family-owned vineyard. Szandrine is part of the Budapest art scene and lives with her girlfriend, Yang — a sculptor.

Set in 2006-2007, besides it’s exotic setting, what sets this novel apart is the invention of a truly contemporary character. Szandrine, at seventeen, is post-Wall Europe, at ease with the non-issue of her sexuality, and more at home in certain corners of the Internet than anywhere else.

New Year’s Eve 2006, Szandi witnesses a tragedy during riots in Budapest. What she sees impels her to explore her past and brings her to an understanding of her future. The story unfolds in real time, flashbacks, letters and in chat-rooms.

It’s a complicated tale involving the recall of an online friendship with a dead man, a mysterious letter, and an unsatisfactory reunion between Szandrine and her mother. Holloway, never loses control and the strands are woven together with the connections becoming clear. As Szandrine explores her recent and more distant history, she comes into her own with knowledge and wisdom.

With flashbacks, and switches in time and location, this may not be the easiest narrative to follow, but it captures the rhythms and nuisance of how we live now in a way that has rarely been done better.

5) Glimpses of a Floating World, by Larry Harrison, (2009) — available in paperbook and FREE in all e-book formats.

Larry Harrison’s dark and dazzling first novel, Glimpses-of-a-Floating-World takes its title from the phrase used to describe the red-light district of 18th century Edo, now known as Tokyo. Edo’s floating world was a haven of pleasure and illusion, filled with kabuki actors, geishas and courtesans. Harrison’s work is set in London’s Soho, 1963, its denizens — anarchists, mods, rockers, beats, and others, among them our protagonist, seventeen year-old, heroin addict, Ronnie “Fizz” Jarvis who loves feeling that he is part of “the scene.”

Harrison skillfully allows the reader to identify with Ronnie despite the character’s being vain, selfish and occasionally cowardly. He is, after all, an adolescent trying to understand the world and his place in it. Ronnie reminds us of other young, unreliable characters reaching adulthood in an imperfect world. The reader is immediately aware that no matter what else happens, Ronnie will either grow and change, or he will not. We root for Ronnie’s potential, hoping he will live to tell the tale.

Glimpses is well-plotted, taut and suspenseful. Ronnie becomes a reluctant police informant and tensions rise as we head towards a likely bloody conclusion.

Harrison who has written nonfiction books on alcohol and drug issues, seamlessly weaves in the growing panic over narcotics. Britain — influenced by the US — was changing its policies, moving from treating addiction as a public health issue to criminalizing addicts. Ronnie is as much a victim of these changes as he is of his abusive father and his own romanticized self-destruction.

Glimpses of a Floating World is described on its back cover as “a lyrical and triumphant elegy to a seedy, vice-ridden London of the 1960’s. ” It is that, but also a tale of familial tragedy, a history lesson, a novel that offers much more than simple glimpses. It reads like a lost classic.

(This posting originally appeared as a guest blog at can also be found as a guest blog at LA Books Examiner.)

My War Against Santa

santamenorah7 Really, I love Santa despite his being not my tradition, but I find his hovering over the menorah in the lobby of the building in which I live and have invested my life savings, disconcerting. To me this image does not say, “Merry Christmas” as much as it screams, “Attention K-Mart shoppers,” or perhaps, “I am drunk, fat peasant here to make pogram.”

There’ll be more to say on this. Stay tuned.

The End of the World as I Know It

[Ed note:  6 March 2010 — Can’t seem to make myself say anything new today, so I’m pulling this one out of storage and giving it the sticky.  Comments welcome.]

A couple of weeks ago I went to Borders. Hadn’t been to a big chain bookseller in a while. In fact, the last time before that that I had even been in a bookstore was the close out sale of a local independent.

Borders was culture shock. Other than a small table labeled “classics” there really didn’t seem to be any space devoted to literary fiction. There were lots of tables with big glossy hardcovers on which the writers’ names were writ huge: PATTERSON, CORNWELL, BROWN.

And there were horror of horrors, the Jane Austen parodies. Granted she could be kind of a moralistic stick in the mud (Mansfield Park), but does she really deserve this? Sense and Sensibility with Sea-monsters, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre?

In my search for actual books, I also came across many written by celebs and semi-celebs. Everyone has a story and if you are famous even if yours isn’t especially interesting or well told (even to someone else), agents and editors believe someone will buy it.

Meantime Big Publishing houses are becoming the dinosaurs of the tens or whatever the coming decade will be branded. And everyone is betting on digital.

People who never would have gone to an old fashioned vanity press are now proud self-publishers. Though not in the brick and mortar stores. The PODs are at least as pricey as the books in stores, but the ebooks are cheap. An overwhelming amount of the new lit by the masses is complete shit, but there’s also a lot of brilliant and innovative stuff that never would have gotten out otherwise, and somehow the consumer has to find his/her way between the two. The industry — agents, editors, publishing houses, even reviewers that used to intercede can no longer be trusted. Notice how thin the New York Times Book Review section is lately?

Me? I’m heading down the indie path with my own plan for publishing glory which includes digital. I still don’t actually own a mobile reading device. A little afraid that kindle might be the eight track of the future. Even something small and with good lighting doesn’t appeal to me. I want a book I can read on the beach and get sand on. I want a magazine I can leave in a restaurant and then have to borrow a copy later from the laundry room because I was in the middle of an article. I want pages to turn. I want to fall asleep with the book next to me and wake up with it cradled in my hand. I want to spoon with it.

But then again, I still have my LPs.

So it’ll probably be a generational thing, and the revolution will be gradual. They’ll be people in their twenties comfortable with both digital and analog-books. The real push won’t come until school children all have the readers and grow up with them.

Of course it will also change how books are written. Some will be meant to be read “live” with tons of hyperlinked references. Can you image a truly digital version of Ulysses? But most books, I suspect will be short and simple. You can’t go back and turn the pages as easily as with an analog. There’s no app for that, so books with a lot happening where you might want to go back a few pages and reread, will be less popular, not that they are popular now exactly.

As for the analogs, will they be burned or more likely recycled? Or will they be exported to the developing world like used clothing? So not only will Adebayo be wearing a bowling shirt that says, Poughkeepsie, Pirates, but he’ll be carrying a worn midlist paperback, the pages beginning to yellow and crumble.