Tuesday, March 26, 2019

OVER A CARDBOARD SEA by Khanh Ha

It always came to me as an image, staying and never dying, until it blossomed into ideas for a novel.

I grew up in Hue, Vietnam, imbued with a culture full of magical realism. As a child, I had an indelible belief in animism. An unseen presence dwelling in an odd-looking rock by the roadside where people placed a bowl of rice grains and a stick of incense long gone cold. That child lived in Hue, the former ancient capital of Vietnam, living in its mysterious atmosphere, half real, half magic. I used to walk home under the shade of the Indian almond trees, the poon trees. At the base of these old trees, I would pass a shrine. If I went with my grandmother, she would push my head down. “Don’t stare at it,” Grandmother said. “That’s disrespect to the genies.” Those anthropomorphic images sown in a child’s mind began to morph into fertile ideas when I became a teen and wrote out those childhood memories in short stories. But I was in love with the written words when I was much younger, between eight and nine, making up stories in chapbooks. In each of them was a make-believe world. It may be a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea, but to me it was believable.

The image could be a man wearing a cangue on the way to an execution ground. This bandit was to be beheaded for his crime while the onlookers, some being his relatives with children, watched in muted fascination and horror. Gazing at the photograph, I imagined a boyhis sonwho was witnessing the decapitation of his father by the hand of the executioner. I pictured him and his mother as they collected the body without the head which the government would display at the entrance of the village his father had looted. I thought what if the boy later set out to steal the head so he could give his father an honorable burial. What if he got his hand on the executioner’s sabre and used it to kill the man who betrayed his father for a large bounty. However, it really started with a story within my family. My grandfather was one of the last mandarins of the Hue Imperial Court, circa 1930. At that time the Vietnamese communists were coming into power. They condemned any person a traitor, who worked either for the French or the Hue Imperial Court. So my grandfather was a traitor in their eye. One day news came to him that a communist gathering was to be held in one of the remote villages from Hue. He set out to that village with his bodyguards to punish the communists. Unfortunately, news leaked out about his trip. He was ambushed on the roadhis bodyguards were killedand he was beheaded. The communists threw his body into a river. My grandmother hired a sorcerer to look for his headless body. Eventually, the sorcerer found it. They were able to identify his body based on the ivory name tablet in his tunic. My grandmother hired someone to make a fake head out of a coconut shell wrapped in gilded paper and buried my grandfather on the Ngu Binh Mountain. The beheading of Grandfather surfaced again while I was looking at the decapitation photograph. That was how it became an inspiration for my debut novel “Flesh” and I wrote about the decapitation scene in its first chapter.

Sometimes it came to me in the image of a girl dressed in the school’s uniformwhite shirt and knee-high navy-blue skirtstanding under a tamarind tree outside her all-girl school. I’d ride home from school every day on a motorcycle and pass by her school. We’d steal glances at each other, and every day I’d count every traffic light before I reached her school. In the sound of traffic, the noises of which we both became familiar with, one passed by with a sidelong glance, and the other was left with nothing but a smile remembered. I wrote out that adolescent memory in “The Demon Who Peddled Longing” when the boy happened to run into the girl on the white horse, and I made the romance happen for them.

In both “Flesh” and “The Demon Who Peddled Longing,” my main characters set out as young men to avenge a family member’s death. This common dark thread began with a child’s memory. My late father was the chairman of an anti-communist, anti-dictatorial political party in Vietnam. His party, Dai Viet (Viet Nation-State), was pledged to the restoration of national prestige and the unification of the two nations. He was betrayed by a party member and was imprisoned by the First Republic of Vietnam for his anti-dictatorial stance. I often wondered what he would do if one day he were to meet his traitor face to face. So I put my protagonists in both “Flesh” and “The Demon Who Peddled Longing” through this predicament.


It could be an image of a xích lôa Vietnamese pedicabthat passed by my house in Saigon and stopped when an American passenger got out. He was big and tall and the phu xích lôthe pedicab cooliewas all bones with toothpick legs. He was taking the fare from the American and before I knew it, he started coughing up gobs of blood. He reeled like he was dancing then fell flat on his back. The American chased his bill before the wind blew it away. The police came and pulled the coolie’s body to the curbside and put a poncho over him. After that it rainedmonsoon rain. Lucky for him he wasn’t washed away by the time his friends came to claim the body. The poor man had TB. I fictionalized that experience in one of my novels.

Then the war came to my hometown during the Tet Offensive.

At My Lai the American soldiers murdered the Vietnamese civilians; but during Tet in Hue, the Viet Cong massacred the Vietnamesetheir own people. Here you heard only of My Lai. The American public was more interested in a war crime committed by one American infantry platoon than in the Hue massacre.

My father wasn’t home with us. The VC executed people like him. My mother kept the joss sticks burning on the altar every day and thanked the Buddha for sparing my father’s life. The VC came into Hue with the names of those they wanted to kill. Few were spared. They executed government officials, political party officials, block leaders, intellectuals, teachers, even priests, and monks. But they killed a lot of people out of personal hate and vendetta.

Every night we heard gunshots. Much later we found out that those were fired by the communists during their execution, and the playground of our high school was used as a mass grave. They massacred at least a few thousand people. It took people months to search, to dig the mass graves. Mass graves in the schoolyards, in the parks of the inner city. Mass graves in the jungle creek beds, in the coastal salt flats. People shot to death, clubbed to death with pick handles, buried alive with elbows tied behind them. The communists said they executed only the reactionaries, those who worked for the South Vietnam government. But I saw many bodies of women and children. Shot in the head, bashed in the head. Did they deserve to die?

After the VC withdrew from Hue, graves were identified, and folks came to dig for bodies. The odor from the rotten bodies hung for days over the neighborhood. Smelled like dead rats but with a fish stink. My mother burned incense in the house to kill that odor. Like many people who lived inside the Citadel, we had fled, seeking refuge somewhere else.

When we came back to our house inside the Citadel, one side of the house had caved in. It must have been hit by artillery shells or helicopter gunships. Ammunition shells were all over the yard. Do you know what I saw on one side of our chest of drawers? An inscription: Miami, FLA. Mom, Dad, and apple pie. The American troops had boarded down in our house during the house-to-house combat against the VC.

But it’s always an image.

An image I came upon in an old Vietnamese magazine article written about a centenarian eunuch of the Imperial Court of Hue. He had died in 1968. The writer had interviewed the eunuch’s adopted daughter. At the end of the article was a small halftone photograph of her. The story had lodged deep in my brain. Months later I realized that it wasn’t the story that was haunting me―it was the face in the photograph. I pictured her. Dawn or dusk, you could see mottled-brown sandpipers running along the seashore, legs twinkling, looking for food. Twilight falling. I followed their tracks, like twiggy skeletons strewn across the marbled sand until they ended under the frothing waves. One delicate bird stood at the water’s edge and gave out a cry. I often think of her as that sandpiper standing at the edge of the sea, its cry lost in the sound of waves. Then her image grew and I wrote a novel about her.

It could be something else that would light up an image. Like a canal languidly flowing through the thick china fir grove that, from such a distance, was a mass of smoky green. In the grove’s dark shade, the air reeked of the pine cones’ scent and red squirrels and fox squirrels leaped from tree to tree. I remembered all that. Even the tiny chirps of crickets in the grass, the red wild strawberries like drops of blood in their patches, the late January wind damp to the bones coming from the sea.

Or when you are going down the foredune and there’s a tang of fish odor, a damp smell of kelp in the air. Fishing nets are piled up above the high-tide mark and beneath them lie the ocean litter of seaweed, soggy sticks, bits of crabs’ claws. High tide is coming in, tinkling softly through the orphaned seashells studding the sand. You stop when something scurries out from under the mass of wet nets. A rat. You follow its trail and see that the bad rat is out looking for birds’ eggs, those that nested above the high-tide line. A buoy clangs. A desolate sound guiding fishermen ashore.

Those images never go away and I wrote out short stories and brought them together into a novel. But the image that eventually blossomed into “Mrs. Rossi’s Dream” came from a film in which a woman spirit medium in her trance-induced walk led an American woman to a grave where she found her son’s remains. By then I have lived in the United States for many years and in me lived on that image for many years more before I felt ready to put them down in words. While writing it, I felt like a baby trying to learn my way on this planet Earth, its fascinating habitats, its people who are a puzzling race full of vice, greed, violence and yet full of love and forgiveness.

On the morning I finished the first draft, I walked outside and stood on the doorstep and saw our flame tree covered in red. Then the cicadas began to sing.



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Khanh Ha is the author of the highly acclaimed novel Mrs. Rossi's Dream, which The Permanent Press is excited to release this April. He also is the author of  Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing. He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, a twice finalist of THE WILLIAM FAULKNER-WISDOM CREATIVE WRITING AWARD, the recipient of SAND HILLS PRIZE FOR BEST FICTION, and Greensboro Review's ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION. The Demon Who Peddled Longing was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book. 





Thursday, August 2, 2018

A FINAL WORD, concerning the death of Judith Appelbaum


It was with a heavy heart that I read, in the New York Times, of Judith Appelbaum’s death on July 25th at the age of 78. At the same time I felt bathed by recalled fondness for the boost she gave The Permanent Press titles when we began publishing 38 years ago, while Judy served as the managing editor of Publishers Weekly.

Her dedication to advancing the cause of quality writing was was well summed up by her closing lines in an interview she gave in 1998:
   
“I love to see writers expand our range of understanding, knowledge,  even happiness.  Publishing has always struck me as a way  to change the world.”





We’ve all lost a champion, too soon, too soon.

But her memory still lives on.

I’d welcome any of your comments to this posting and your recollections of this very special person.

Martin Shepard, co-publisher, The Permanent Press

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

READ Carefully, Book Lovers by Joan Baum

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. Joan has a long career as a critic and reviewer, writing for, among others, WNYC, Newsday, The Christian Science Monitor, MIT's Technology Review, Hadassah Magazine and writing on subjects in her dissertation field, the major English Romantic poets. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.

With an eye on reviewing fiction and nonfiction that has regional resonance for Connecticut or Long Island – books written by local authors or books set in the area – Joan considers the timeliness and significance of recently published work: what these books have to say to a broad group of readers today and how they say it in a distinctive or unique manner, taking into account style and structure as well as subject matter.

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It was a front-page article in The New York Times on Sunday, June 3rd: "Listen Carefully, Book Lovers: Top Authors Are Skipping Print." Listen, indeed. The theme of the piece is that audiobooks are such a fast-growing phenomenon that authors are by-passing their own publishers who have audiobook divisions to deal directly with companies such as Audible, owned by Amazon, because the money's too good. Yeah, but they love literature, the authors say. And yeah, audiobooks are democratic and humane, considering the number of folks who for various physical reasons cannot read easily, and the number of people who enjoy listening to books in cars, in gyms and on trips.

The article noted the financial and psychological rewards for authors going straight to audio ‒ a greater number of readers immediately and a greater pay back in making multi-book deals, though for sure the reputed $15-$45 cost of buying an audiobook is certain to go up, given the likelihood of forced subscriptions. (A side note not pursued is the article's report of a diminution of sales of ebooks!)

The article also noted the kinds of books lending themselves to audio success: nonfiction, popular novels, science fiction and self-help guides. But …

What about those who love serious fiction? Well, yes, there are those short stories that get read by actors on public radio, but those are classics or standards, and the dramatic readings are broadcasts from literary events, not new publications. What about "book lovers" of serious new novels? What’s in audiobooks for them?

Not much.

I can think of nothing more insulting to a reader ‒ or listener – or literary author! – of having a recorded voice determine how to respond to sustained complexity in a novel – to irony, paradox, ambiguity, pacing, tone. When interpretation is kidnapped by an actor who has decided how to present dialogue, monologue, point of view, taking away a reader's imaginative response and engagement, that is the end of one of the most intimate relationships in the civilized world. Audiobooks of serious fiction are an affront to the cognitive values already under threat from an ever-extending quick-fix electronic world – reflection, analysis, reconsideration.

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You can catch Joan's most recent book reviews on WSHU, an NPR member station, where she recently covered The Permanent Press's new African thriller The Uttermost Parts of the Earth by Frederic Hunter. Do pass this piece on to other book lovers you know, and feel free to comment on this post and our others. Also feel free to share your thoughts with us by contacting our co-publisher Marty at shepard@thepermanentpress.com, and Joan herself at joanbaum29@gmail.com.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

HOW MOLDY PAPERBACKS DEFINED MY MIND by Chris Knopf


My reading habit was mostly self-inflicted, though heavily influenced by my father's collection of boyhood books, notably the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, Tom Swift and lots of other popular action writers of the early 20th century now lost in obscurity. 

        But the mystery addiction is all my mother's fault. She didn't know the term, but she was an avid Cozy freak, in love with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Martha Grimes (not technically a Brit) and any other female British writer she could find in the local library. And male, for that matter, especially John Creasy. While stretching the definition, she also dug Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming. And she had a serious thing for Earl Stanley Gardner, creator of the Perry Mason series, who's all but forgotten these days, even though he was one of the most successful (and prolific) crime writers of all time. I think a mild crush on Raymond Burr (not knowing and likely not caring that he was gay) helped that along.

         Hundreds of these books flowed through my house when I was growing up, usually tattered mass paperbacks that got passed around my extended family of mystery-loving grandmothers, aunts and great uncles. The production quality of those books was minimal, as they were considered essentially pulp trash, so to this day I tend to associate the smell of moldy paper with action and suspense. 

        I was allowed to read anyone but Mickey Spillane, who my mother rightly determined was gratuitously violent. I thought it was also too much sex, suggested by the cover art, which I was disappointed to learn to be a flagrant bait and switch when finally getting my hands on a copy of I, The Jury.

        When I was getting my masters in creative writing at Antioch in London, we had an exhausting reading list of  20th century literary heroes, which I loved, though it got a bit weighty. So I took The Maltese Falcon out of the local library, hoping for some light reading. Instead, I realized I’d just read one of the greatest heroes of Western literature. Scheme foiled, life-long addiction to mysteries entrenched. 

We know that Hammett read Hemingway, since every one did at the time, and you can see plenty of Hemingway’s muscular minimalism in Hammett’s prose. I suspect, however, that Hemingway also read Hammett. Maybe someone out there knows for certain, but the great early 20th century American anti-hero, the tough, cynical, but ultimately moral, even idealistic, Sam Spade bears more than a faint resemblance to Hemingway’s protagonists, more so as the author matured. 

Humphrey Bogart bridges it all. His Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not was an easy transition from his Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe roles. The debate over what constitutes literature and genre fiction rages on, but to me, at the very top of the work, it’s all of a piece.

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This is the latest blog from Chris discussing the literary world, be it reading, writing, or publishing. He’s had a successful career as a wordsmith, starting with a career in advertising and moving on to write a string of highly successful mysteries. His most recent Sam Acquillo mystery Tango Down is available on Amazon. Chris has won innumerable awards and has had dozens of rights sales around the world, including audio sales to Blackstone Audiobooks. Do pass this on to others you know, post comments on the Cockeyed Pessimist website, and feel free to share your thoughts with Chris via View my Blog The Cockeyed Pessimist, or email Chris directly cknopf@thepermanentpress.com or Martin Shepard at shepard@thepermanentpress.com.



Friday, April 6, 2018

THOUGHTS ON COPY EDITING by Chris Knopf


Every published author will tell you that a great copy editor is a gift from God, and have horror stories about those more in Satan’s camp. I’ve had both. Now that I’m busy with the editorial process, the importance of great copy editing has become even more apparent.

There’s a big range of capabilities different copy editors bring to their roles. Some are basically proofreaders, who concentrate on typos, spelling, punctuation, format screw-ups, like a bad break in the middle of a sentence, things that are objectively incorrect. But beyond that, there’s a lot of room for thoughtful interpretation. Especially for things like commas, colons, semi-colons, quote marks, dashes, and so on. These can have a big impact on style and meaning. The copy editor has to understand the author’s intent, their distinctive voice, to know how to properly suggest how these guideposts should be arranged.

Great copy editors also delve into grammar, usage, syntax, continuity, fact checking, historical accuracy, repetitive or poor word choice, character consistency, even unintended pejoratives  – many of the things developmental editors also attend to. This means they have to have a good understanding of the author’s voice and style, not only to catch and correct tiny errors, but to maintain a clear understanding of the storyline itself. A gestalt on the work as a whole. 

This is where copy editing is a fine art. It’s not their job to rewrite an author’s work. In fact, rewriting a sentence usually guarantees it’s in the copy editor’s style, not that of the author’s. Though sometimes the author doesn’t hear her own voice. She knows what she wants to say, and might think she is saying it, but it doesn’t always come out that way. The copy editor can help by questioning the author’s intent. “Did you mean for the reader to think x or y?”

A not-so-good copy editor is either someone who just misses too many goof-ups, or worse, one who conforms to strict definitions of formal rules. When I was in advertising, I sent some copy to a bigwig for approval. After checking for technical accuracy, he turned it over to his admin, who was a former English teacher. I got it back all marked up with a red pen. She took out all my contractions, re-attached the split infinitives, and after making sure there were no incomplete sentences, ganged them up into long paragraphs. Thus taking all the life out of the prose. 

I thanked her for her help, and sent her a huge stack of long-form brochures asking her to apply her magic, and never heard from her again.      

My favorite copy editors either come from journalism or advertising. Those professions teach you how to keep the writing from straying too far from acceptable standards, but also that style must be a flexible thing, who appreciate the whole and do not distort the author’s voice by fussing over irrelevant particulars, or imposing rules that were first established in the eighteenth century. 

I work with a lot of beta readers who I ask to ignore typos and misspellings, hoping to keep their attention on the greater work.  This is easy for me, since I’m the world’s worst proofreader. And utterly dependent on great copy editors, who are the lifeguards in the narrative stream. 

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This is the newest of the blogs Chris has been posting sharing his thoughts about the art of writing with other writers—be they published or unpublished—that might be helpful. He’s had a successful career as a wordsmith, starting with a career in advertising and moving on to write a string of highly successful mysteries. His most recent Sam Acquillo mystery Tango Down is available on Amazon. Chris has won innumerable awards and has had dozens of rights sales around the world, including audio sales to Blackstone Audiobooks. Do pass this on to others you know, post comments on the Cockeyed Pessimist website, and feel free to share your thoughts with Chris via View my Blog The Cockeyed Pessimist, or email Chris directly cknopf@thepermanentpress.com or Martin Shepard at shepard@thepermanentpress.com

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

NO OBITS NECESSARY FOR THE LIFE OF THE MIND by Chris Knopf

These are times when optimism is about as easy to sustain as the suspension of disbelief watching a superhero movie. I consume way too much of the media fury, so I won't add to it here. Rather, I’d like to address one small slice of the public debate, at least among those who are literate enough to ask: Are we moving into a post-literate society?
No. And here's why.
Just as there's a natural distribution of good looks, intelligence and athletic grace across the population, there's a percentage of people who like to read, absorb information and artistic expression, and formulate their own opinions from the swelter of competing views. Let's assume that the qualities described above are encouraged, for some, by spending four years in college. This means the percentage of the thoughtful and inquisitive is larger than ever: In 1940, only about five percent of the country had graduated from college. Now it’s over a third.
  You’ll hear people say "Kids don’t read anymore." Tell them that books sales, in particular physical books, are growing, and much of that growth is being driven by young readers. It's true that the number of brick and mortar bookstores has declined, but that's because of Amazon and other online sources. It's a matter of distribution, not consumption, and for the purpose of my thesis here, somewhat misleading. 
Journalism is another institution that is supposedly dying on the vine, and for sure, the print media is under huge duress. Though for every daily newspaper that goes under there are hundreds, if not thousands, of fresh news outlets appearing online. You may rightly assert that many, or most, are poorly managed and edited, and filled with uncurated dreck. That still leaves so much worthy and enriching information, and commentary, that you'd never be able to absorb it all.
You can make a strong case that the cretin in the White House has caused an upsurge in media consumption, however polarized individual outlets have become. Trust in the media favored by Democrats has actually improved in recent times. I submit that this is because people are paying more attention, that they're reading more. I also believe that responsible journalism, in an era of propaganda and phony news, is trying harder to keep their facts straight and their commentary thoughtfully nuanced. 
A good friend of mine has a theory of the human mind:  "People have a tendency to extrapolate current circumstances indefinitely into the future." Even the scantest understanding of the past ought to unburden you of this fallacy. We are, no doubt, going through some monumental changes, occurring at an unprecedented pace. This is much of the problem, since rapid change makes it feel like everything is going to hell in a handbasket. The originators of Chaos Theory, a scientific paradigm that explains the behavior of complex systems, say that nature moves from order to disorder in irregular, but relentless, cycles. They call the state between these cycles "phase transition," when things become the most chaotic. 
This is where we're living today. It’s not a post-literate society, it's a society making a painful adjustment to the Information Age, finding their way through the torrent of books, articles and essays, along with posts, Tweets, online rants and blogs, just like this.
If you believe civilization is worth preserving, you have to believe that wisdom and critical thinking are essential ingredients in that preservation. Thought in isolation from information is valuable, but closed-ended. You can only go so far on your own. I maintain that the richest source of revelation and enrichment are books. Whatever form they take, physical or electronic, books will save us from annihilation, from the foolishness – economic, military, environmental, cultural – that is also an irredeemable component of the human experience. 
Don't despair. Publishers are publishing, readers are reading. Thus, thinkers keep thinking. 

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I encourage you to share this blog with others who may enjoy it. I particularly welcome your comments on this cockeyed pessimist site. Chris Knopf's eighth Sam Acquillo mystery, Tango Down, is now available for purchase. You can also reach Chris by email at cknopf@thepermanentpress.com, and follow The Permanent Press on Facebook and Twitter for updates on all our titles!  


Monday, November 20, 2017

BILL'S BLOG by Bill McCauley

This past November ninth Judy and I did what we've been doing for decades now: celebrating my birthday by visiting my son Marc and his wife Stella who live just outside Seattle, and getting together with some of our writers for a meal who also live in the area. This led into a spirited discussion about writing with William (Bill) McCauley, a very gifted writer and world traveler whose fiction we'd published three times to excellent reviews—Need (the Seattle Times review said  "his evocation of place is masterful and provides a level of engagement reminiscent of Hawthorne or Melville"), The Turning Over, his second novel, set in Sierra Leone, involved Western aid workers and native workers and won high praise in Library Journal,and his short story collection Adulteries, Hot Tubs, and Such Like Matters—set in Suburban America—was hailed in Booklist as "biting and insightful stories about well-to-do middle-agers, bored with their lives, who engage in empty shenanigans." Obviously my admiration for Bill is immense. And to pass those twelve  hours of travel I  brought along the world-famed Swedish novelist Henning Mankell's Sidetracked. So much for my introduction  to Bill's Blog. Needless to say it was a novel I abhorred.   —Marty Shepard

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When Marty and I were talking about books a few days ago he told me he'd recently read a Henning Mankell novel and was disappointed. He asked me if I'd read any of Mankell's books. I said I'd read only one and I came away from it feeling betrayed by the reviewer blurbs. Reading the book was akin to what I feel when I have unwisely devoured some fast-food treat like a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke. It may fill my belly, but it will not satisfy me. This is because there is nothing new in it. Everyone knows what to expect from a Big Mac and fries. In an analogous way the Mankell book filled my time and gave me no satisfaction at all. Having read the blurbs, I anticipated an enjoyable read and ended up annoyed with myself for not cutting my losses at page 25 and tossing the book into the Goodwill bin.  

I make no judgement about the worth of the Mankell book. A book is worth what the reader thinks it's worth. Obviously, my opinion on Mankell's writing is out of sync with many thousands of his loyal readers. I didn't like it because it did not meet my standard for a good readable book.  

We all have standards, though we don't often express them, and when we do we don't express them well. What are yours? Can you generalize your standards in a sentence? I can. I keep it simple; it is the same standard I use to evaluate art. For me the quality of a book starts and ends with the question of whether it offers me the discovery of something new (Merriam-Webster: "to obtain sight or knowledge of for the first time"). Perhaps this is another way of saying it must be interesting.

From my perspective, the topic of a book or its genre are not of first importance. The next book that captures my admiration might be a novel, or a collection of short stories, or book of poems, or an anthropological book on human origins, or a book on cosmology, or a military history, or a book on any number of other topics, in any number of genres. What I don't want is to give my time to any book that says something in a way that I've seen many times, that is didactic, that is careless or ugly in its use of language, or is populated by two-dimensional cliché expressions and characters. I want originality in material and in manner of presentation. I believe that when the writer strives for originality she necessarily discovers and offers discoveries to readers; and in not being original, the writer forecloses the possibility of discovering and offering discoveries to readers.

"Discovery" is a very general term. In that sense I mean discovery has many aspects. Often, I find one aspect of discovery in a book but not other aspects that I value. When that happens, I am nonetheless likely to finish it because the value of the one ongoing experience of discovery is enough for me to enjoy the book. For example, I recently read This Kind of War, by T. R. Fehrenbach. I heartily recommend it, though the writer's underlying politics are too conservative for me, the intellectual setting is outdated (it was written in the early 60s), it is loaded with mid-20th Century racial clichés, and the writing is often in mediocre military-history style. Nonetheless, I liked it very much and think it a worthwhile read, because it brilliantly characterizes the difficulties of fighting a war of movement (a modern war) in mountainous North Korea. This is new information for a lot of people and should be thoroughly understood by those advocating a war against North Korea. The insights (discoveries) provided by the author were original and clearly developed. The book is a tidy history of the Korean War.

Another example of a book in which readers are likely to find rich veins of discovery is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I read this year. Whereas the Fehrenbach book offered me one aspect of significant discovery (why fighting a land war in North Korea is a bad idea), Pale Fire offers many aspects of discovery. In this it exemplifies the genius of Nabokov. I've read several of his books and in none have I found any single weakness. In his books, discoveries abound, on every page from first to last. Plot? No one is more original. Humor? I experienced numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Poetic language? So subtle and lush I stopped and reread sentences and paragraphs to re-experience the thrill of the first reading. Originality? He seems never to repeat himself in any book or from book to book, and never to use any character as a template for others. His characters are as original and as alive as Shakespeare's. Dialogue? Always in character, never unfitting or unlikely, and always leading the reader into yet another discovery.

Poems and short stories are typically built around a single discovery. O. Henry made a living on this. John Updike is known for the one-line "zingers," each a revelation (discovery) for the reader, with which he ends his short stories. Ditto John Cheever. A poem without discovery for the reader is reduced to an exercise in word play.

In the most felicitous case, as the writer composes he is discovering. While I cannot say how other writers work I can say that I never end up with the words and thoughts I put down first. Never. I throw away far more pages of stuff than end up in a manuscript. It is in the act of writing that I discover what I want to say; it is in the act of developing characters that I discover who the characters are. When I follow that motif of composition – exploring by writing and making changes until I cannot find another change that makes an improvement – I continuously feel an aesthetic lift that accompanies discovery, because I am writing stuff that says more than the words alone express. The writer hopes the reader makes his or her own discoveries. The most enduring literature consistently involves the reader in this way. To the extent this happens, the writer is successful.

For many years I've believed this. It is what sustains me when I am defeated by my cliché characters or a plot line that embarrasses me and defeats every attempted change.

This brings me full circle to Mankell's book. I discovered nothing in it that wasn't on the surface of the words, which is simple word play.

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I am curious to hear from you about which popular writers you believe are incredibly overrated, and the reasons you would put forward for your dismissals of them. The media is always concerned with Best-Seller lists, and contrarian that I sometimes am, I'd like to see a listing of other unworthy Best-Sellers for another blog. My email address is shepard@thepermanentpress.com
—Marty