Italian Author, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose Is One of the Most Compelling Books I’ve Ever Read

This book was spectacular, as my post title indicates. I read it a month ago (maybe longer now) and have been wanting to write this review for a while. Of course, the distance between me and the book grossly jeopardizes the thoroughness, accuracy and quality of my assessment but I suppose that’s a risk you just have to take

….and if you’re still reading have decided to take.

The brilliance with which this book reflected its time period (the first half of the 14th century) is simply marvelous, but I suppose that Umberto Eco is a scholar of the Middle Ages. I once wrote a post about my love of historical fiction and how important I find the accuracy of historical fiction to be, and I think that this book just takes the cake in the quality with which the period was understood and researched. In fact, though the story itself revolves around a series of disturbing deaths in a monastery in Italy, it also focuses heavily on a few key religious issues that were important at the time. Had the characters themselves not been distracted by these issues and literally had their own fascinating story thrust into the middle of them, then the book would never have been as accurate as it was.

One of these issues was the papal seat being moved to Avignon and the decadent lifestyle being lived there. This, of course, contrasts with the centrally important theological issue of Jesus’ poverty (or not) and whether that meant that all devout men (i.e. monks or those associated with the church) should be poor. Obviously the Pope and the wealthy bishops and cardinals insisted that Jesus was not destitute and to whatever degree he lacked property didn’t think that others should, and many different sects of monks insisted the opposite. Some monks took to condemning the pope as an impostor and the anti-Christ and were branded as heretical and persecuted by the Inquisition which had just started to get warmed up at the time. These central issues (pope at Avignon, Jesus’ poverty, heresy of disagreeing monks) were crucial to the time period.

Outside of these fascinating topics were intense and highly relevant philosophical conversations about the value of reason and revelation, learning and knowledge, life and death, the place of religion and so much more. But none was mentioned in some high-minded independent fashion. Rather, it was imbedded in the fascinating story that revolved around these murder mysteries.

Truly, The Name of the Rose is a work of genius. A wonderful book. Get your copy of The Name of the Rose today.

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Andrew Davidson’s Debut Novel, The Gargoyle, is Worth Every Penny of the 1.25 Million He Was Advanced

Now, personally, I have no idea how one gets awarded 1.25 million dollars as an advance on a first book, but when people start bidding, who knows what crazy things can happen. Then again, maybe it’s not so crazy. The book is spectacular. The writing is fresh and interesting, the style engaging and seductive, and the humor edgy and risque. You don’t want to put it down but you’re not annoyingly attached like a crappy Dan Brown novel.

In short, it’s a great read.

One thing I really loved about it was the endless religious imagery and integration of religious concepts, all discussed by the main character, who was, as luck would have it, an atheist. Now, talking about symbolism abstractly in regards to a book you may not have read really seems silly, but I don’t want to ruin anything for you or give any plot spoilers.

I will say, however, that you will be doing yourself a service if you constantly bear the book’s title, The Gargoyle, in mind. It holds beautifully throughout the entire novel.

And the history! Multiple periods, personal characters, a variety of places. You learn so much and from a guy who’s done his homework, too. Great research went into this book, and the author does a wonderful job of integrating and crafting the material, bringing us through times and places beyond our own but that become so very close through the telling of his story.

As you’ll see, Dante’s Inferno has a prominent place in The Gargoyle and as it’s been sitting next to me on my desk for months now, I suppose it’s finally time and only fair that I pick it up. I’ve always wanted to and this provided sufficient impetus.

Have you read The Gargoyle? What’d you think? Will you read Davidson’s next book? Was this one worth the advance he got? Get your own copy of The Gargoyle.

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Irvine Welsh’s Glue, Though Long, is a Fascinating Character Piece

This was a crazy long book – nearly 500 pages. Now, 500 pages is often manageable, no problem, but these 500 pages are all written in varying Scottish accents. It’s an incredible feat, I think, that Welsh can write like this so accurately and consistently, but good lord can it be taxing to read. Certainly it makes the reader feel like he’s more a part of the story and makes the entire situation more tangible but that’s often at the expense of getting through the book in a reasonable amount of time.

I’ve read a lot of Irvine Welsh books, but this is the only one I ever started 5 times over the course of as many years. This last time, however, I was determined to push through the beginning and make it into the meat. And it was worth it.

The book is about 4 friends, and in each of four decades, the 70s when they are about 6, 80s when they’re in their teens, and the 90s when they’re in their mid-20s, we get a chapter from the perspective of each of these four friends. The fourth section, in 2000, is written differently, introducing new characters and bringing it all back around in a way I never expected. It’s a fascinating way to write a book, and I really enjoyed reading it once I understood what was happening and everything fell into a rhythm.

It’s hard, for a long time, to see the plot of this book. Honestly, I don’t know that the plot really registered with me until the end. Mostly, I considered it to be a character piece that told the tale of the lives of these four friends, their trials and travails growing up lower-class in Edinburgh. By the end, though, you realize that there was a story going on underneath, even if it wasn’t presented in standard plot, rising action, climax, falling action fashion.

All in all, it was very well done, and like I said, though long, quite good. If you’ve never read any Welsh I’d recommend starting elsewhere (classic Trainspotting perhaps?) and if you love his stuff then I’d give this one a ride and see if you can’t get your hole.

Have you read it? What’d you think? Wanna get your own copy of Glue? What’s your favorite Irvine Welsh book?

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Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant is Classicly Twisted and Testimony to a Fascinating Mind

Wow this was a great book. I am a huge Chuck Palahniuk fan. I’ve read most of what he’s written, and I really liked it all. Awhile back I stopped reading a lot of Palahniuk, though, because the stories – though always cool and twisted – had a similar trajectory. You know, the one with the crazy twist towards the end. I just got tired of the big twist we were all waiting for.

But Rant is not like that at all. Though there are a million fascinating surprises and weird as hell things going on towards the end as your understanding of his crazy ideas and terms start coming together and you realize that you’re reading about something other than you imagined, there’s no big twist – just dozens of “oh,” and “ah” moments that make for a fun and exciting read.

The other thing that made it different from Palahniuk’s other books is the way it was told: as an oral biography. The first page explains this style, but basically, you’re reading a few paragraphs at a time from dozens of different people whose tales interweave and ultimately tell the story of one person – a person who is dead before this telling begins. It’s a fascinating way to learn about characters and to hear a story – and you are hearing the story.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chuck Palahniuk once and some of the stories he told me were ones that I could detect snippets of in this book. That was really cool. Here’s a photo (taken 6 years ago so cut me some slack) of me with Chuck Palahniuk.

P.S. I'm not the Asian kid

P.S. I'm not the Asian kid

Have you read Rant? What did you think? What is your favorite Palahniuk book?

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Around the World Pic of the Day: Spinoza Street in Amsterdam

Jay at Spinoza Street

Jay at Spinoza Street

After 5 trips to Amsterdam I finally made it to the only place that I ever really wanted to go (aside from coffee shops and live sex shows, of course): Spinoza Street.

I really never cared about seeing that much else in Amsterdam, though I guess I have. Five times there and I’ve still never been to the Anne Frank House. I just don’t care. I’ve taken canal tours, hung out all over the city, relaxed in parks, and seen plenty of the great sites and museums. Once, two friends and I even took a nice day trip to Utrecht (beautiful place).

But here I am at Spinoza Street. Why do I care about this and why am I sharing with you what hardly seems like a religious site? Well, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza was perhaps one of the greatest and most important philosophers to ever think and write about religion. His thought pretty much changed the face of the European Enlightenment, sending it in directions no one could have predicted. His intellect was truly mind-boggling and his words sensationally fascinating.

One of my favorite books of all time, Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, is overwhelmingly incredible in the scope and depth of its thought as well as the magnitude of its impact. I can read it again and again without my amazement ceasing even momentarily. Everyone should read this book (click HERE to purchase it now!).

Spinoza, though not the first to know it, was the first to make a stink out of the fact that there is no conceivable way that Moses could have written the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis-Deuteronomy), also known as The Five Books of Moses (I was asked if this could be the subject of a Fun with the Bible Monday – it will be). He investigated the Bible in a truly scholarly way, and indeed, was the first person ever known to live outside of any religious community. In abandoning his Judaism he never actually converted to Christianity, an unprecedented move that resulted in an amazing, if lonely life.

My reverence for Spinoza and his brilliant mind made me concerned only with visiting the street in Amsterdam – his home town – that bears his name. So, it’s a “religious” site for two reasons. First, because it commemorates a man whose life was dedicated to the scholarly study of religion and philosophy and second because I effectively made a pilgrimage there (even though it took me five times to get the pilgrimage right, but hey, Amsterdam can be a pretty distracting place….pretty lights…).

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Topical Tuesday: If I Could Have Been the Author of Any Book it Would Have Been…

Slaughterhouse 5!

First, I jumped at the Bible. Oh to have written the Bible. But hey, I’m one guy in one place and that was written by dozens and dozens over the course of 1000 years so for the sake of keeping it a fascinating text, I let my dream of writing the Bible go.

My next reaction upon pondering this question was to look at my bookshelves and pick out something that I saw there. I love my book shelves. However, upon moving to San Francisco, I left them behind. I packed up hundreds and hundreds of books and stored them in my mother’s basement. With me came about two dozen.

I don’t really wish that I’d written any of the books I have here (other than maybe The Divine Comedy), and so I had to start thinking again from scratch. Of course, there are so many classics that I could have picked but what would my reasoning have been?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could have made a fine selection. Mark Twain was brilliant. The book was sensational, influential, historically relevant, etc. But somehow I decided that I wanted something else. At first I was toying with sci-fi: The Hobbit, Dune. I really like the idea of creating a whole different world and think that it’s very difficult. I would love to move people’s imaginations that way. Stephen King’s epic The Dark Tower could have been excellent but Chandler and I did say 1 book.

Thus, I settled on Slaughterhouse 5. There are a couple of reasons. Personally, I’ve read the book about a dozen times. It reads so quickly and never ceases to amaze me. You can take so much away from this book. There are great one liners that stay with you – i.e., So it goes. There are hilarious quips about life’s odd situations. Billy, for instance, has a huge penis, and says, you never know who’s going to have one.

What’s more, the book has amazing historical relevance (related to the Crusades and WWII), an incredible message about war that it doesn’t just tell you but makes you feel, and makes you think 6000 times about the structure of the universe and time and other such things. I use the image of the Rocky Mountains from the beginning of time until the end of time all the time to convey various points about the nature of time. That and the attitude of the Trafalmadorians about life just make it an absolutely incredible book, with no extra words to spare.

So, thanks a lot Kurt Vonnegut for doing it first. Though I may not get your much deserved acclaim for this incredible masterpiece, I can certainly say that your book has inspired me on a personal level and for my writing. If I could publish – nay, write – anything comparable to the things you achieve inside that book I’ll be a very happy man.

What’s your favorite book? What book do you wish you’d written? If they’re different why? Did you like Slaughterhouse 5?

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Author and Computer Scientist, Hank Simon, Talks about Publishing and Writing

Hank Simon has been a wonderful asset to me as I began the writing, querying, proposal and publishing processes with The Zen of South Park. I wanted to bring him on as a guest blogger this Monday so that you could get to know him a little better and reap the benefits of some of his advice just as I have. Please don’t hesitate to leave questions and comments at the end of the post and he will return to answer them accordingly.

What do you do for a living?

I’m currently a computer scientist/engineer at a major corporation. I’m responsible for the long-term, strategic design of how information flows across the enterprise using Service Oriented Architecture approaches.

What book(s) have you written? What are they about? How do they relate to your day job, if at all?

I’ve written and contributed to 7 non-fiction books about technology. They relate to highly technical topics, such as XML, wireless, expert systems, and spectroscopy. I wrote them because, as a thought leader in advanced technology and R&D, I found a gap in information about these topics. So, as I gathered this information for a forward looking applications, it was natural to organize my findings as chapters in my books.

When were they published and with whom?

McGraw-Hill was my most successful publication in 2001, as well as a few smaller companies, ranging from 1999 – 2005.

Did you have an agent when you were trying to get them published or did you go straight to publishers?

I was very lucky in this aspect, because I was publishing many articles – more than 100 – in various trade journals, as well as making presentations at international conferences. This experience gave me lots of exposure to editors in various publishing houses, and they approached me with ideas for the books.

When you wrote query letters and proposals, what was the most difficult part?

The proposal is the most difficult part, because I had to get a feeling for the marketplace and clearly define my audience. I also had to defend my book idea compared to existing books already published. This was both a blessing and a curse. I found that the easiest way to slip into the market was to discover a gap or niche that I could fill. That niche is unique in all cases, and sometimes it is not a niche that I could fill. It was difficult to admit that.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors trying to get published?

Read a lot by authors that you like and topics that interest you. But if you don’t like authors, don’t choke on them. For example, I read voraciously, but I don’t like many authors who write more than 600 pages. That means I have never waded through War and Peace. In contrast, I do like some of the older authors, Thurber, Benchley, Twain, Shalom Aleichem, Hemmingway, Herriot, Asimov. And I also like Grogan, and Rowland for their straightforward style. When I write, I try to blend aspects of these authors in order to improve my own style. And, I try to write at least 1 hour everyday, saving the edit process until I have a completed piece.

Are you working on any projects right now? Can you tell me about it (the writing process/publishing process/etc.).

I’m working on a Dog book that uses my dog as the central character, to highlight his personality and intelligence, to show interactions with other dogs, and to use this as a canvas to paint the relationships of people and the dogs that they meet along the way.

What advice do you have when it comes to writing?

Write everyday in a style that you like to read. Don’t try to win the Noble Prize.
Write and create first, edit later. It is tremendously easier to create and then edit.
And it is more productive to write a complete work and then edit. If you keep editing, you will stop creating and will get discouraged.
Plan to take 2x or 3x as much time to cut & edit, as you do creating.
Plan for your first book to take about a year from start to publication.

Who is your favorite author? What’s your favorite book?

I like the Harry Potter books.

If you could write one kind of book that you haven’t yet written what would it be?

I’d like to write a book on “Managing Ignorance” to complement Peter Drucker’s classic on Managing Knowledge. I could see many Dilbert opportunities.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Writing is very hard and time consuming. And, it is a job that requires discipline to remain in isolation while you create. Non-writers don’t appreciate the long hours, and the hard work needed to turn a phrase and to chip away everything until only the finely crafted piece remains.

Featured Author, Irvine Welsh: Currently Reading Glue and Loving It

Published in 2001, Glue is certainly one of Welsh’s longer books. As a master of the short story – and Acid House being an excellent example of this – Glue proves that Welsh has it with his longer books too.

And this is only a mid-way review!

Welsh’s most well-known work, Trainspotting, famous for its adaptation to movie form, demonstrated how funny, bizarre and absolutely deranged the author could be. Its sequel, Porno, was nothing to scoff at either.

Welsh’s ability to tell stories in accents most of us can barely understand when spoken, much less read, while engaging the reader in his characters and never letting their obsessions with sex, drugs and debauchery get in the way of truly masterful storytelling is truly a mark of his talent. I haven’t read an Irvine Welsh book, whether full-length or a short story collection, that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. Of course, I have an unhealthy taste for books about disturbing topics and messed up characters.

Have you read it? What’d you think? Wanna get your own copy of Glue? What’s your favorite Irvine Welsh book?

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Querying, Proposals, and Agents

As promised, I’ll say a bit about the process of getting an agent when you’re writing non-fiction. For fiction querying, check out Chandler’s blog (in my sidebar).

So, first thing’s first: an idea. After you have an idea, develop it. Come up with the layout and structure of your book, what you’ll be talking about and think long and hard about a few areas: your market and your qualifications. If you know those two things and your idea (and I mean well-researched, well thought out, etc.) then it’s time to draft a query letter.

This should cover those three things I just mentioned with a strong intro sentence and your most important area of the three coming first. For much more on this I recommend The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published . It’s very informative (go to www.thezenofsouthpark.com to purchase this now) and will give you all the details you need. Make sure that dozens of people read and edit your very well-written query letter. One mistake and what kind of writer are you? Why would someone take a chance publishing your book? Change, revise and edit. You have this one page to make a great impression on every agent out there.

But before you send it, you should have done two other things: a proposal and a sample chapter. The proposal is a 10-15 page project that details your idea in full with a table of contents. There are also sections about your market (in detail), the publicity and promotion potential, you as an author and your qualifications, and a detailed chapter summary. And then there’s the sample chapter. That’s right, you should have written one of the proposed chapters (preferably the first) so that the agents know you can write, that you will write and so they can see the viability of the whole book.

The nice thing about nonfiction proposals is that, unlike fiction, you don’t have to write the whole book before it’s sold. The idea is that agents will ask you for a proposal and sample chapter after they read your query letter and you will be able to send them what you have. Fortunately, if no one thinks the idea is viable (and though they could be wrong 100 agent recommendations probably tells you that you’re doing something wrong or that the market for the book doesn’t exist) you won’t have written the whole book. That would have sucked. Once you get an agent, though, keep writing because although you don’t have a publisher yet (now that’s the agent’s job) it means the idea is workable and someone is actively trying to sell it.

One thing that is super important is following the rules. When you read a book about this subject do what it says. They’re professionals and they know. I have a great agent and as wonderful as my book idea may or may not be, I followed the rules of getting an agent and they like that – had I not followed the rules I definitely wouldn’t have an agent, no matter how great the idea. Sure, if you’re a seasoned writer you can probably bend them a bit, but if you’re striking out on your first writing adventure then do what you’re supposed to do if you want to be published.

Do you have an agent and was the process different? Do you want to share any advice with people looking for agents? Any questions about this process?

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Topical Tuesdays: E-books, Kindle and Books Not on Paper

As many of you know, on Tuesdays, Chandler and I each take on an issue relevant to the writing and publishing world and discuss it. You are invited to comment on both of our blogs with your own thoughts and to blog about the topic and send us links to what you wrote.

This week’s topic is, as the subject line would indicate, e-books, Amazon’s Kindle and basically, the fact that many books and publishing are moving to formats that are not ink on paper. How do I feel about this? Well, it’s a mixed bag, to be sure.

On the one hand, reading is reading and whether it is facts or fiction, stats or imagined tales, history or futuristic sci-fi, it’s valuable for the information contained in those words to be in our heads (unless it’s, say, Nazi propaganda or something, though even that has its place in a history class). They work our brains and imaginations no matter how they get in there: visually, orally, through Braille, sign language or ESP. Stories are good, facts are great and both are fantastic. Should it really matter if we’re holding a book open in our hands and running our eyes across ink blots on pulp? No, probably not. Running our eyes across zeros and ones on liquid gel or iPhone screens or Kindles from Amazon (a handheld device into which full length books are purchased and downloaded) probably ends up with about the same results. But there are two issues to consider (actually plenty more but two that I will raise): the wonder of discovering something in a book and the effects on the publishing industry.

In my experience, it is exhilarating to discover something in the actual pages of an original book. Allow me to elaborate. When I wrote my thesis, which can be read online at http://repository.upenn.edu/curej/10/, I had two options for doing research on eighteenth century Unitarian writings: 1. I could read the scanned versions of the books online at a repository for like books or 2. Fly to England and look at original copies of these texts in the British Library. Well, after a scholarship that allowed me to pursue the research, the decision became obvious. I went to England and read these books for information that no one had before and wrote my thesis, partially inspired by my experiences reading the original published texts of these eighteenth century brilliants. I even opened the handwritten sermons of eighteenth century Unitarian ministers and saw the words they crossed out and what they chose to say instead. Of course, that could suck for many, but for me it was a great experience, and I think that in the world of research, the experience of sitting in the archives and pouring over old texts is very important.

On the other hand, that anyone has the ability to research what I did because the material is available online is incredible! Many (i.e. enough) of these amazing books were online and anyone could have done what I did. It would have been less enjoyable looking at them on a screen and because of a variety of other factors I probably found more relevant materials but people could still enjoy these books because they’re online. More importantly, the information will not be lost as quickly: though a fire or time could destroy the original texts, they are now online forever (presumably). That’s a great thing.

The second issue is the effects on the publishing world. More people, through online publishing, have the ability to get their books out there because the publishing industry – which is picky, slow, cumbersome and elitist – is kept out of it. So, while we as readers may have more crap to filter through, potentially, everyone gets a chance, which means that more people can be discovered.

This also coincides nicely with the Long Tail theory of Chris Anderson, who explains that 1/3 or more of the market today, in books, music and movies, due to the democratization of instruments and the low/no-cost availability of them because of digitizing everything, is in the long tail of products – that is, those things that aren’t mainstream hits. That is, if there are 10,000 books worth publishing and they sell 6 million copies, and another 90,000 not worth publishers’ time but that get out there online, 3 million copies of those 90,000 books will still get sold, and even though it’s way more books our there, if it doesn’t cost anything because they’re digital, that’s still a third of the books sold getting rejected by traditional publishers and making up 90% of the available material (numbers are invented though they scale). That’s incredible and ebooks and Kindle are playing their parts in this expanding marketplace and the democratization of instruments and access. I think this is wonderful and if it happens to force the publishing world (as well as Hollywood and the music industry) to rethink its approach to who gets made then great. Sure, it could shake things up for a while but ultimately, just because things have been done one way forever doesn’t mean it’s right. Tradition is not sacred – especially not in business. Innovation is king, and if ebooks are changing things, rock on.

How do you feel about ebooks’ effects on the publishing industry? Do you disagree with me? Why? How about the democratization of instruments? Pro or con? Do you like books in your hand or do you mind reading from a screen? Love to hear what you think!

And don’t forget to check out Chandler’s thoughts at chandlermariecraig.wordpress.com.

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