Where Do You Buy E-books?

When I moved in to my neighborhood seven years ago, there were three independent book stores, which fell like dominoes that year.  Then Borders Books & Music by my office turned into a bank, while my beloved Strand Annex notified its loyal customers that it was combining with its parent store uptown. The loss of the Strand Annex really hurt, because I was in the habit of spending my lunch hours browsing through stack after stack of stories.  Some of my most memorable books came off the dollar pile there — short story collections from the 50s, post-apocalyptic survival novels, books recording art exhibitions long since forgotten.

Browsing seems like a lost art now, since it is difficult for me to drop into a nearby book store, even though I live in one of the most populated places on the planet. Every New Yorker knows that the song goes “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” so I admit a great anxiety for the future of book stores everywhere.

Just yesterday, I got into the old discussion about paper books versus e-books.  I read both, depending on what’s at hand, but increasingly, it is digital books that available.  I do still order books to be shipped to me, from time to time, when the book is something special, or illustrations are an important part of the text.  But with shipping fees being what they are and the nearest book store is an out of the way forty-minute drive,  digital books are accessible books.

And yet, I’m invested in publishing and writing remaining a profitable industry.  While Amazon is notoriously exploitative of writers and publishers, I bought into their system for convenience when I bought my first Kindle. But I’ve finally reached the moment where my conscience won’t allow for it any more.  I decided I wanted to support a real book store, a place where people can go and look and feel and touch books. Some of my best memories as a teenager happened while browsing the shelves of Barnes & Noble in a mall that is now closed and gone, and I want the next generation to have that experience too.

I finally gave into my want-not-need longing for a modern e-reader.  I bought a Nook, thinking that at least my new book purchases would support Barnes & Noble — an actual brick and mortar book store as well as a company that has fairer practices for publishers.  Then I discovered that you cannot download ebooks that you purchase through their store; they will deliver them to your Nook, but you cannot download them anywhere else, including your computer. If you later decide that you wish to use a Kindle or a laptop or a tablet that is not from Barnes & Noble to read your purchases, then you’re out of luck.  If Barnes & Noble stops selling the Nook, again, you’re out of luck. This is not purchasing books — this is borrowing them at full price.

Although my profession makes me think more about technological disaster than most people, it’s not crazy to be suspicious of the perils of allowing your bookseller to store all your books for you. While painstakingly downloading my library from Amazon (book by book, as Amazon provides no other method), I’ve repeatedly hit the message that the title I want to download isn’t available.  Once, while on a downloading frenzy, I was even logged out of my account.  I’m sure that was accidental…or am I?

I’m not looking to pirate my books.  I’m simply interested in being able to transfer my property between any e-reader that I choose.  I want all of my books, no matter where I buy them, to work on the same device.  I finally got this worked out with my current set of e-books after fiddling with removing DRM for a few days so that I could put my Amazon purchased e-books on my Nook.   (This method has worked well for me.)

I am admittedly the sort of person who, repeatedly and willingly, makes her life more difficult for the nebulous sake of principles. I want authors and publishing houses to be paid fairly. I want to support book sellers. I want to also own the books that I buy. This doesn’t seem like such a strange desire.   So, what to do?  How do I buy e-books?

After doing a lot of reading, I’ve settled on a combination of direct purchases from publishers that offer DRM-free books and using Kobo to purchase books that are not offered in a DRM-free format.  Buying DRM-free books directly from the publisher has its obvious advantages, while Kobo is an online marketplace that facilitates e-book sales for independent book stores. If you’re inclined the way I am, you’ll do your shopping through your favorite book store and, presuming they’re a Kobo affiliate, follow their links for your purchase so that some of your money goes back to the little guys.  You can find a list of Kobo affiliated book stores here.

Kobo delivers its books in .epub format, which can be read in Adobe Digital Editions.  As a Linux user, I’ve set it up Calibre to scan for .epub books and automatically remove the DRM.  I have to manually transfer new books to my Nook (which Calibre makes simple), but I get a a DRM-free copy for my efforts.  If I ever decide to buy a different e-reader after the Nook, all of my purchases will transfer to it without hassle.  Its a little more work, but let’s me sleep a little better at night.

I think what we will see as the e-book market matures are more marketplaces like Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where book are rented like DVDs. But what will that mean for authors? Will they see royalties for every rental? Or will it become even harder to make a living as a writer?  With the death of brick-and-mortar book stores and decreasing funding for local libraries, how will the next generation learn to love books the way that we do?

On Being a Real Writer

writingThere are days where I spend my time marvelling at the coincidences of the universe.  As I’ve struggled to turn away from my news feeds, to stop reading story after story of human beings being awful, to try to convince myself that art has value in a world filled with such suffering, I received a notice that one of my stories has been accepted for publication.

Just  like that, I will go from being an aspiring writer to a published one.

The brain is a funny thing.  I read the email with the understanding that it would be a rejection, because it was only my second response out of the submissions that I made last month.  When I saw that it was an acceptance, the achievement suddenly became so much less worthy than when it was out of reach.  It must be a terrible magazine, I thought, if they’re taking *that* storyThey must accept just anyone.

But they are not a terrible magazine.  It is not a terrible story.  The magazine did not somehow adopt lower standards just because they want to publish my work.  I worked hard for that 1,000 words of fiction, honing it and whittling it down into something much better than what I started with.  I did the legwork and figured out a few appropriate markets, then worked to format it appropriately and submit.  (Lesson learned: if your story is on the verge of being flash fiction, make it so.)  There was quite a bit of discovery, which required new approaches and hard work.  That alone is a reason to be proud.

Artists are, of course, famous for their struggles with self-doubt.  What we do is so subjective that perfectly good pieces of work can be undervalued for centuries before they find the right audience.  Likewise, we’ve all seen art with astonishingly poor craftsmanship become bafflingly popular.  With the advent of social media, it’s certainly obvious that success in the publishing industry often is as much about having a magic number of followers than any inherent artistic merit.  With the accessibility of self-publishing and the many online web magazines, it also feels like there is just so much more of everything already out there.  If you go looking for books written around a certain person or topic, there’s likely to be five or more, published in the same year.   I’ve often wondered if it’s even worth publishing, as much as I like to dream about a life where all my financial worries are taken care of by my writing.  Is publishing just adding another voice to the already shouting crowd?  Where does my voice fit in?  How will I know if it’s any good, when popularity matters more than artistry?

Yet, I want to write as well as I can.  I want to give back stories to the world, because I have enjoyed so many.  The kindest thing that a stranger has ever done for me has been to create a three-hundred-page world where I can lose myself for a few hours.  I want to pay that forward.  I know that to get to that point, I need to start sharing my work with larger audiences, so that I get the feedback that I need to keep improving my storytelling.

This first publication is just a start, a small story in a small magazine, with a small payment.  (More details to follow, when the work is actually in print.)  But it’s more than that too — it’s a validation that my writing can be more than a hobby, that there are professionals out there that think it has merit.  This is a tremendous thing.  Later, I’ll worry about that dream of the luxurious house in the woods, where I sit in the loft in front of the huge bay window and write my stories, which naturally flow effortlessly into a perfectly complex first draft.  It’s a beautiful daydream, but it is just dreaming.  Getting my work out there, networking with other writers, keeping a blog — this is the reality of where I need to be right now.

The next steps are in progress.  I’m already working on the rewriting of the next story that I’ll send out into the world.  On Sunday, I’m meeting with a new writing group that focuses on literary fiction, which is usually code for, “No vampires or ghosts here, thank you.” (Will they love or hate my magic realism?  I don’t know!)  The meeting place is very nearby — my current favorite writing cafe, as it happens — and the group is new, so I am hopeful that it will become a regular resource for me.  Certainly, it will be helpful for me to have the deadlines imposed by meeting with other writers, since finding time to write new fiction has been very challenging since Baba came along.  And yet, it feels like years of work are finally coming together for me, as my daily life becomes so much more writerly.

And how will I celebrate my first publication?  Well, I sure hope it’s by getting published again, very soon.

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

thegoodthiefThe Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti, is my running favorite out of all the books I’ve read this year.  It is the sort of adventure that picks the reader up, introduces her to a broad spectrum of memorable characters, then races towards a creative and surprising conclusion.  Throughout the adventure, Tinti also plays with the idea of morality — her good thief is a twelve-year-old orphan that is brought into a world of petty criminals and asked to do things that repeatedly test the morality of his religious upbringing.  As Ren observes the bizarre workings of the adult world around him, he must decide where his own moral compass lies.  Is it wrong to steal, if stealing feeds you?  It is wrong to lie, if lying can save your life?

When the novel opens, Ren introduces us to the harsh world of the monastery that serves as his home.  Although he has no parents, he has found some love in his friendships with the unlucky twins Brom and Ichy and with his relationships with the priests who raise the boys at the orphanage.  Still, he longs for a family, as well as the answer to the questions of his origins.  And, perhaps most curious at all, how did he lose his hand?

When Benjamin Nab arrives at St. Anthony’s and adopts him as his long-lost brother, Ren thinks he’s going to finally have some answers to his questions.  But it quickly becomes apparent that Benjamin is a talented liar and shyster, who is dedicated to teaching Ren how to survive, at any cost.

“Don’t be a fool,” said Benjamin.  “I’ve never been to India.”  He bunched one of the blankets behind his head.  “You better get some rest.  We’ve got to be up in an hour or two.”

The boy took a step back.  “But you said–“he began.

“I know what I said.  Didn’t you listen?  What did I tell you before we went inside?”

“You told me not to say anything.”

“And what else?”

“To learn.”

“We needed a place to sleep.  And now we have it.  I told them what they wanted to hear so they’d give it to us.  It’s as simple as that.”

Charming and quick-witted, Benjamin shows Ren how easily people are manipulated, but also the cost that comes from doing so.  Benjamin, Ren and their partner Tom make their way to North Umbrage, where they become involved in stealing bodies for a local doctor — a vastly more profitable enterprise than the petty thievery that they’d been surviving on.  They rent rooms from a Mrs. Sands, a youthful widow with a hearing problem, who quickly steps as the mother that Ren longed for.  But her world is just as mystical as the other adults in Ren’s life, and her house is filled with mousetrap girls, a mysterious nightly visitor and stories of a drowned boy that give Ren more questions than answers.  When the hired thugs of the local robber baron discover their nocturnal activities, Ren and his friends finally face very real consequences for their crimes — and Ren discovers that getting what you’ve wished for is not always what you need.

The frogs were out.  Earlier it had rained, and now as the wagon passed the marshes in the dark, there was a chorus of syncopated croaking.  Benjamin sat in the driver’s seat, a lantern balanced on the floor.  Tom was beside him and Dolly and the boys were in the back, clinging to the sides as they bounced over holes in the rocky path.  The horse strained through the night against the weight of them all.  Every half-mile she stopped, as if she had given up completely.  Benjamin flicked the whip, and the mare trudged on.

“Where are we going?” Ichy whispered.

Ren glanced at Benjamin and Tom, their shoulders hunched together in the darkness.  “Fishing,” he said.

It is this sense of the mystical crossed with the mundane ordinariness of day-to-day life that makes Tinti’s storytelling so enjoyable.  She captures the setting well, using the picturesque backgrounds of early rural New England to create a world where her outlandish characters seem right at home.  Ren’s earnestness is delightful, as he comes to love the scoundrels that he’s fallen in with as the family that he never had.   Equal parts coming-of-age story and adventure novel, The Good Thief is a book that is hard to put down.

Genre: adventure, fiction, historical fiction
Subjects: adventure, christianity, coming of age, family, industrialism

A Syrian Crisis

I was thrown into a whirlwind of self-doubt last week, after seeing a single photograph.  If you’ve paid attention to the news at all, you already know the one — a drowned toddler, clothed in vibrant primary colors, washed up on a beach.  You probably know the story, too; another migrant family, desperate to escape the civil war in Syria, put their trust (and their savings) in the wrong boat captain.  Half the family drowned and, because of the death of a child, the world is suddenly paying attention.  This is the power of photography – to capture human suffering with a strength that makes people pause their lives and actually do something.

Suddenly, the world has been afire with criticism for the European reactions to the millions of Syrian refugees.  Perhaps it is because I am now a mother, but that image has haunted me in a way that I can’t remember another photograph doing.  Every child, no matter their nationality or language or ethnicity, has become mine.  It is only chance that my Baba is safe in her crib, while so many Syrian children are still in danger.  To be a parent is to be so aware of how vulnerable you are to great loss, at any time.  It is to know that your heart walks around outside your body — and to fear what will happen to you if you live long enough to see tragedy strike.  This child, Alan Kurdi, was born during the civil war that has torn Syria apart.  He never experienced the safety that I have been able to give to Baba, simply because she was born here and not there.

It is an awful thought. My heart breaks for his family — for all of the families that have had to make such desperate choices.

One of the members in an online mothering group that I belong to posted about having a feeling of gratitude that Alan Kurdi’s mother also drowned.  At least she was spared the pain of living, after the drowning of her sons.  It’s an awful sentiment, a terrible thing to say out loud, but also a feeling that I fully understood.  If I were unable to keep Baba safe, but I survived….living would be the harder course, by far.

When he was interviewed by the press, the words of Alan Kurdi’s father really struck me.  My wife, he said, my wife was everything to me.  How do I go on?  How does he, after the death of his life partner and two of his children?

How do you go on in the face of such loss?  Your children, your wife, your community, your home.  What do you do when your entire world has become a place of danger, a place of loss?

It puts the trivialities of my daily trials into a certain perspective.

What can I do from here?  I can donate money.  That’s easily done.  But what can I do?  Do my daily efforts contribute to making the world a safer place, a place where “the refugee problem” is solved not by finding refugees new homes in new countries, but creating a place where we don’t make refugees in the first place?  In my job, I build a communications network, but that seems feeble.  My writing…well, I have had an artistic crisis, as every trivial scene I’ve ever written feels empty and hollow.  I haven’t written a word all week, because what could possibly be the point of it all?

I’ve read that there are more people on the move in Europe since the end of World War II.  Armies of people are sitting in camps and at checkpoints on national borders.  Vivid photographs of their marches through fields and along highways have made it across the world.  It’s touching — and frightening — to see just how many people have had to give up their lives.  My heart goes out to them.  It makes everything I do to get through the day seem meaningless.  What does a clever story matter, when there are people who have lost so much, suffered so much, through no fault of their own?

What am I doing with my life that really means something, when there are such problems in the world?  It’s a question that has lingered with me, ever since I saw a single photograph.

How to Donate:

Neil Gaiman and the UHCR’s Efforts for Syrian Refugee Relief
Unicef’s Syrian Campaign
International Rescue Committee

Human Moments, No. 4

“That’s a raven.”

The crow-like bird hops along a wall built high on top of a mountain, craning its head toward us, the curved, black beak opening and closing hopefully.

“No way. Ravens are huge.  That bird is small,” I say, clearly demonstrating my expertise in all things avian.

My Beloved laughs.  “They’re little!  Like that one.”

“Don’t you know about the ones at the Tower of London?  Huge.  At least three feet tall.  But not as big as that eagle I saw when I was running on the beach in Washington.  That one was at certainly four feet tall.”

“Four feet!  No way. They don’t come that big.  That would be a gigantic bird.”

“It was gigantic. I was afraid it was going to eat me.  It’s one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me.”

“Four feet.” He laughs again.  “Was it standing on its tippy-talons or something?”

“I swear it was at least four feet tall.”. I pull out my phone, determined to prove my point immediately.

His baritone giggle ripples out of his chest, filling the cavern of the car.  “Tippy-talons,” he says.  “That’s a good one.  Tippy-talons!”

Oregon Forests, A Return Home

My house backs up to the commercial side of town, so we generally keep the bathroom curtains drawn so as not to see the parking lot of the McDonald’s that is, thankfully, just far enough away that its greasy odors stay where they belong.  Seagulls often visit its parking lot, particularly in the early mornings, before the restaurant wakes up and cars remove their easy access to the Dumpster.  On Monday, as I pulled myself out of a deep sleep fog, the calming
sounds of their squacking and bickering actually registered, penetrating my sleepy brain enough for me to really listen to them.  We have been in the forests of Oregon for a week, where there are no seagulls, and the auditory break elevated their voices from a background noise into my consciousness.

Oregon has ravens. Isn’t that amazing?

When I return home from a truly great vacation, I always have a sense of disassociation when I walk back into my familiar setting.  Every time, it leaves me wondering why I put so much energy into a place, if a single week away from it can make it unrecognizable?  Is home a place, a feeling, a thing?  Is the stuff that lives there really relevant? Am I really attached to the little noises associated with my house, if the seagulls can seem unfamiliar and strange?

In any case, we are home again and reacclimating to the sights and smells of the end of summer in a beach town near one of the worlds’ busiest cities.  It’s a far cry from the silence of a ski resort in summer, where we had no neighbors.  It was remote enough that we kept planning on driving out at night to see the stars, which we thought would be gorgeously unpolluted, but the cloud cover conspired against us.  Next time.

This was Baba’s first trip on an airplane.  The thought of managing a
baby through the menagerie of the airline experience stressed me every time I even thought of planning for the trip.  The actuality was not nearly so bad.  This contrast between expectation and reality was such a relief that I arrived in Oregon in the best possible mood.  The main event of the trip was a wedding that was particularly meaningful for me, where I watched a dear childhood friend reach out for the happiness that she deserves, surrounded by her community.  Then we celebrated with a beautiful party, where I danced with Baba until my arms ached from her increasing weight.  A late night, satisfying conversations with strangers, good food, love and joy.  It was a beautiful weekend.

When the celebrations were over, we went into the woods, where my Beloved and Baba and I spent our first vacation together, under the watchful gaze of Mount Hood.  Oregon is in a drought, so we joined the natives in shaking our head at the atypically brown appearance of the mountain; snow meandered down its face in isolated patches, while every sign we passed warned us that the forest fire danger was extremely high.  In Maupin, a woman approached my Beloved and told him that he was risking a ticket from the fire warden if he smoked anywhere other than standing in the Deschutes River.

I considered pushing him in.  For his own sake, y’see.

Multnomah Falls
Multnomah Falls

And yet, despite the dryness of the season, the forests were lush and
alive with life.  We saw chipmunks and snakes, small ravens, hawks and — as we drove out to the desert country on the other side of the mountain — vultures.  Along the Columbia River, the giant waterway that separates Oregon and Washington, we visited waterfall after waterfall, stopping to gawk and take the same picture that millions of tourists have probably taken before us.

I badly needed the respite from New York.  As the summer has worn on, I find myself daydreaming more and more often about living on a farm in the woods, where snow blankets the miles of fields that separate you from your neighbors.  Upstairs, I have a desk with a giant window, where I can sit and dream and write while looking at a pastoral scene.  The house cleans itself.  The pets and children are well-behaved.  There’s time and peace and quiet and a solitude that is broken at my convenience.  It’s a beautiful dream, particularly in the contrast from the crowded subways and harsh interactions of strangers that are cramped for space.  Last week, alone with my family, in a quiet place, I pretended for a while that the dream was real.



Toothbrush Inspiration

The other day, I woke to my alarm for the first time in months.  By some miracle, it was 5:30 a.m., but Baba was still asleep in her crib, contently dreaming about whatever it is that babies dream about.  I stumbled to the bathroom to start my morning rituals with the sweet luxury of not having to rush.

Then, about the time that my toothbrush swirled around my bottom left molars, I realized that my mind was in medieval Iceland, with the characters of my first novel.  It was as dark there as it was outside my window, but the scene was more desperate.  It was one of the pivotal nights of my protagonist’s life and I could feel, from my toothbrush down to my elbow, the angry energy in her arm.

Aha!  I thought.  Now I can go on with that.

Perhaps it is just my curse that I always want to work on the project that I’m not currently working on.  Writing is a practice; the more that I do it, the more my creative ideas flow. Working on any project inevitably spurs ideas for the projects I have on the backburner, which makes focus difficult.  Inspiration hits wherever and whenever it will.  Holding onto the ideas that it generates until you have time to actually do something about it is the harder part.

I am traditionally a seat-of-pantser, but that hasn’t worked out well for me on novel-length works, because I tend to write myself into  corners that don’t resolve neatly (or, in the case of this novel, at all).  I paused in the writing of my Iceland novel, nearly two years ago, to go off and study more formally, in the hopes that I could come back to it with the skills I needed to let me take the project where I want it to go.  Now that I’ve added another degree to my file cabinet, I want to put those new lessons into practice.

So for now, I am working out more details the plot, and enjoying visiting with the characters that have lived in my brain for such a long time. My main focus is still on revision and submission of my short fiction portfolio, which is teaching me about the literary journal and web magazine market.  (My favorite discovery so far: publications that want you to give away your work and tip the editors for the privilege of reading — and likely rejecting — your stories.  I apparently do not want to be published that badly.)  I had a goal of submitting two different stories to five different publications by the end of August, which I am right on track for meeting.  And yet, my fingers itch to go back to Iceland and continue seat-of-pantsing.  There will be a full drafted outline before I let myself go there again, because the  last thing I want to do is write another 150,000 words of character development.

And yet, it couldn’t hurt to write just one scene, could it?  Just one?

Tales of an Ordinary Bird

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