Tuesday, March 31, 2009

'It Will Come to Me' by Emily Fox Gordon: a witty tale of academia

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, March 29, 2009
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Edward Nawotka is a Houston freelance writer.

At 56, Ruth Blau is "unplaceable, and hence invisible." Author of an acclaimed trilogy of novels, good enough to be hailed by "low-pH adjectives," Ruth has not published since the birth of her son Isaac, some 20 years earlier. These days she's exclusively identified as the wife of Ben Blau, professor of philosophy at the fictional Lola Dees Institute in Spangler, Texas, "a faculty wife desperate to impress."

Ruth narrates much of Houstonian Emily Fox Gordon's debut novel, It Will Come to Me, a brisk, witty chronicle of three weeks in the life of the Blaus as they deal with a series of small dramas: the arrival of a young new writer-in- residence at Lola Dees, the installation of a new university president, the replacement of Ben's highly efficient departmental secretary, and the promise of a reconciliation with Isaac, who suffers from mental illness and is living as a homeless man.

It Will Come to Me begs to be read as a romàn a clef or, at least, a book heavily informed by Fox Gordon's autobiography. The 60-something author teaches at Rice University (the obvious model for Lola Dees, as Houston is for Spangler) and wrote about her own treatment for mental problems in 2000's Mockingbird Years. Her second book, 2006's Are You Happy?, recounted her 1950s childhood among academics in Williamstown, Mass.

Fox Gordon understands the academic milieu intimately, and Ruth's pithy observations are memorable: Tenured professors are described as "marsupials, creatures with no natural enemies who could look forward to living out their days in absolute safety;" graduate students are alternately "good children" or "a zombie army" ready to find "new campuses in which to take root and propagate."

Of course, academics are easy targets – just look at any of the dozens of satires set at universities, from Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim to Jane Smiley's Moo – and where Fox Gordon shines is in her serious depiction of the characters' concerns. Ruth and Ben are decidedly not caricatures, a flaw that plagues many academic satires. Ben's specialty in ethics wasn't chosen merely for its potential for irony: He is sincere about his job, thinking of virtue as something tangible, "not airy," but "meaty." Isaac's absence is not a metaphor of say, a lack of love in the Blaus' marriage, but a real problem.

The plot is another matter. It's too patchy, more a series of vignettes than a real story arc, and ends on such an unbelievable confluence of events that it would have been rejected by an undergraduate creative writing class. But the story itself will quickly be forgotten. What lingers is page after page of Fox Gordon's pithy, insightful observations about baby boomer angst and the (impossible) pursuit of academic happiness.

Friday, March 27, 2009

SIBA's Jewell Offering Free Book with Purchase

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 3/26/2009 10:54:00 AM

Wanda Jewell, executive director of the Southern Independent Bookstore Alliance, has taken Barack Obama at his word and is doing her part to help increase traffic in her member stores entirely on her own. Dubbed the “Free Book Stimulus Plan,” the program aims to reward those who shop at SIBA stores by sending them a free book from Jewel’s personal library. All that is required is for anyone who purchases a book at a member store to fill out an online form, available at www.freebookstimulusplan.com and mail Jewel the receipt. She’ll in turn mail them a book from her personal library.

“If I hadn’t been working with SIBA for the past 20 years I wouldn’t have so many books to give away,” she said. Jewel will ship books anywhere in the contiguous 48 states. Initially, SIBA is paying for the postage, though Jewell plans to sell a signed first edition of John Irving’s The World According to Garp and other valuable volumes to fund the project, which is projected to last until her library is depleted.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Down Economy Pushes Up Remainders

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 3/16/2009

I don't understand why it's not shoulder-to-shoulder in here,” said Paul Mann, co-owner of the Book Gallery, a bargain books chain with six locations throughout Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. He was standing amid the 500 or so tables piled high with bargain, remainder and hurt books at the Spring Book Show, held March 6–8 at the Cobb Galleria in Atlanta. Mann was upbeat about the SBS. “Returns from Christmas are huge, and there's lots of great product to get jazzed about,” he explained. “With so much product coming in the warehouses, it's a buyer's market, since the companies have to move out old stock to make room for the new.”

So Mann was looking to score deals. Earlier this year, he purchased some five skids of books, 7,000–8,000 units, for which he paid a mere 12½ cents apiece, including shipping. “I held a '1 Day Sorting Sale' in which I left the books in the gaylords [boxes in which they were shipped], and priced every book marked $13.99 and lower for $1.99 and those above $14 for $2.99,” he said. “People got so excited they were diving into the gaylords face first. We sold about 1,500 books in the first 90 minutes, which is enough to cover the cost of all five skids. Everything we sold after that was profit.”

Mann isn't the only one experiencing a surge. “Bargain is up,” confirmed Jeffrey Press, president of World Publications Group of East Bridgewater, Mass., one of the largest remainder distributors. “The economy is bad and books are cheap entertainment. Things are so busy, we put in a permanent second shift at our warehouse.”

Yet the depressed economy isn't good for everyone. Smaller, hand-to-mouth operations are struggling and some have closed. “There were plenty of people we called to come whose phones were out of order,” said Larry May, director of the SBS. Some 850 people were registered for the event, a drop of 250 from 2008. “At the same time,” said May, “we still sold out the vendor space, had 15% new attendees and plenty of new sellers.”

Among notable new vendors was ToW Distribution, a graphic novel remainder house in Buford, Ga.; Parable from Franklin, Tenn.; a quartet from the U.K. (AB Books, 66 Books, PR Books and Columbia Marketing); and two university presses, the University of Alabama Press and the University of Tennessee Press. Daniel J.J. Ross, director of the University of Alabama Press, said the press has 100,000 books in overstock. “Previously, we would sell overstock direct, but came here as an experiment to see what kind of price we could get,” Ross said. He called the show “a learning experience” and observed that the sellers appeared to outnumber the buyers.

May estimated approximately 350 of those in attendance were buyers, including those from the big chains as well as discount outlets such as Citi Trends; largely absent were overseas buyers—currency devaluations prevented them from making the trip as they have in earlier years—and independent booksellers.

Among the issues being discussed at the show were publishers' plans to shrink lists, which could result in a tightening of the supply of remainders three to five years out. Most dismissed the buzz among publishers about trying to sell nonreturnable and higher sales of e-books as nonissues. All were following the saga of Borders, which should it fail would, in the words of one distributor, “dump tons of books” on the remainder shelves. (The Borders remainder buyer was at the show ordering books.)

“It's impossible to predict where things will go,” said May with a smile and a shrug. “This is the book business, after all.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

George Friedman's 'The Next 100 Years': unpredictable

By Edward Nawotka

Sunday, March 22, 2009 

Thanksgiving Day 2050: While most of America is "watching football and napping after digesting a massive meal," the Japanese launch moon-based missiles and destroy most of the United States' orbiting Battle Stars. This 21st-century Pearl Harbor will lead the world into war, pitting the U.S. — the globe's lone superpower — and its ally Poland against a coalition that includes Japan and a resurgent Turkey, which now controls most of the Middle East and commands an empire to rival that of the Ottomans. 

"It will be a world war in the truest sense of the word, but given the technological advances in precision and speed, it won't be total war — societies trying to annihilate societies," writes 60-year-old-Austinite George Friedman in "The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century." As such, total casualties of the fighting — which will be fought with hypersonic aircraft, space- based weaponry and armored, battery-powered foot soldiers — will cost perhaps 500,000 lives, just a few thousand of them American. It is, Friedman points out, a pittance compared with the 50 million who died in World War II. 

The 21st-century world war is the centerpiece of Friedman's work of speculation and prediction. Examining a resurgent Russia under Putin, Friedman predicts that "Central Asia will be back in the Russian sphere of influence by 2010" and foresees a "rematch" of the cold war by 2020. The book ends with the U.S. on the verge of a conflict with Mexico as a result of mass immigration that has, over the long term, empowered our neighbor to the south and destabilized the U.S. from within. Along the way Friedman explains how Japan, Poland and Turkey become world powers and why so many things that seem important to us now — such as Islamic extremism and Chinese economic dynamism — will eventually fade from relevance. 

"Some people have called me a hustler and suggested that a book like this is somehow frivolous," admits Friedman, from his cell phone while on book tour. "But this is a serious work that was written to make some complicated concepts accessible to a general audience. It is kind of the culmination of a life's work." 

That work is now running Stratfor, a private intelligence company Friedman founded in Austin in 1996. Before that Friedman — who has a political science Ph.D. from Cornell University — spent two decades in academia, most recently at Louisiana State University, where he founded a precursor to Stratfor called the Center for Geopolitical Studies. 

Like some of his theories, Friedman's choice of Austin as home for his business might seem counterintuitive. "You would think an intelligence organization would best be served by being in Washington, D.C.," he says. "But that is a city of gossip, It's easy to confuse the discussion about who is going to be promoted with making history. We wanted some distance from that in which to think. Austin has some advantages: UT has a superb library — which is essential to good intelligence — and a pool of bright, quirky people from which to recruit." He adds, "I hire a lot French medieval literature majors, people who have knowledge we don't have, see the world as we don't see it and are insatiable about learning new things. People who don't say 'That's impossible!'" 

Friedman writes in "The Next 100 Years" that "Conventional political analysis suffers from a profound failure of imagination," adding "the changes that lead to the next era are always shockingly unexpected." 

Of course, technically, a book such as this should be shelved as fiction, at least until it comes true. That said, even skeptics will find that the book's verifiable nonfiction — such as the history cited — is no less fresh when run through Friedman's mind. He offers, for example, an elegant disquisition on the unpredictability of history by moving decade through decade of the 20th century, explaining what the world looked like then and what happened a mere 10 years later. "In the summer of 1900, living in London, then the capital of the world,... the future seemed fixed," he begins. Of course, what soon followed was radically different. 

Friedman's other major concern is something that is actually fixed: geography. "Geography is important, because it changes little," he says. "As a consequence, the same things happen over and over again. The frequency of wars — between France and Germany, for example — and their importance, are rooted in geographic forces. But that is the old civilization. The U.S. only emerged as the decisive global power after World War II and is still immature. The U.S.'s power is based on its Navy and ability to control both oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, which no other power has been able to do." 

Friedman often compares the U.S.'s behavior to that of a teenager, which explains, for example, our actions post-9/11. "There is no question that American execution of the war in Iraq has been clumsy, graceless and in many ways unsophisticated. The U.S. was, indeed, an adolescent in its simplification of issues and in its use of power." He then adds the kicker: "But on a broader, more strategic level, that does not matter. So long as the Muslims are fighting each other, the United States has won its war." 

This war, it seems, aims to prevent anyone from forming a coalition that offers a real challenge to the U.S. It is a strategy that will play itself out in the many small wars the U.S. is likely to find itself involved in during the next century — none of which we will necessarily want to "win." Ultimately, Friedman argues that the U.S., by virtue of its geography, population and technology, is likely to remain the world's primary decision maker. This message has found a welcome reception among readers, so much so that the book has become a surprise best-seller. It debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list in January and has remained on the list. According to Friedman's Austin-based literary agent, Jim Hornfischer, nearly 100,000 copies of the book are in print. 

Perhaps the book serves as a palliative in this age of economic uncertainty. 

On the subject of the current crisis, Friedman is sanguine. Take the current financial crisis, for example. "Look at 1972, 1984...and it goes from being an unprecedented disaster to cyclical. We bailed out Chrysler in the '70s, we bailed out savings and loans in the '80s, and we're bailing out banks today. In my lifetime the world has ended from a financial standpoint at least seven times," he notes. "The one thing Americans lack and need the most is perspective."