100 Years Since Armistice Day: Wilfred Owen

by CJ Verburg

The gifted young poet Wilfred Owen joined World War I with the Manchester regiment in 1916, on the Somme sector of the Western Front. This was no action-packed battlefield, but (as C. Day Lewis described it) “a desolate landscape of trenches, craters, barbed wire, ruined buildings, splintered trees, mud, the corpses of animals and men.” Invalided out, Owen wound up at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he became friends with the older and better-known poet Siegfried Sassoon. Their mutual horror at the glamorizing deception that had lured the best and brightest of their generation into this nightmare produced a staggering body of poetry, but did not stop Owen from returning to active duty in France. He was killed in action on November 4, 2018, a week before Armistice Day.
 

Dulce et Decorum Est

BY WILFRED OWEN

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

 

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Note: Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Reviews: Rita Lakin’s “The Only Woman in the Room”; Rex Stout’s “A Right to Die”

by CJ Verburg

The Only Woman in the RoomThe Only Woman in the Room by Rita Lakin

This delightful memoir offers a rare look behind the scenes at some turning-point TV shows back when television was first taking off: Doctor Kildare, The Mod Squad, Peyton Place, The Rookies. Rita Lakin didn’t set out to be a Hollywood screenwriter — in those days, that wasn’t an option for a woman. Widowed with three young children, her urgent quest was to support her family. Not surprisingly, she got in the the back way, as a secretary. Hard work and some lucky breaks turned a few brick walls into doorways, and for the next 25 years Rita Lakin rode the roller-coaster: sometimes given a hand, sometimes kicked in the face. She shares the fun she had meeting celebrities, and also breathes 3-D life into names the rest of us only see in the credits, such as Aaron Spelling and Sydney Pollack. Not least, she reminds us that the key to success is collaboration, not confrontation — though there are moments when you do have to stand your ground, go out on a limb, or just close your eyes and jump.

 

A Right to Die (Nero Wolfe, #40)A Right to Die by Rex Stout

Nero Wolfe meets the civil-rights movement. Published in 1964, A Right to Die is a fascinating literary-historical periscope into the language and attitudes of left-leaning successful white men (e.g., author Rex Stout) when the fight against racism was first gaining traction. The politics are muted, but there’s a jaw-dropping racist outburst from one character whose prejudices have been hidden until Wolfe rips back the curtain.

This particular case enters the West 35th St. brownstone of the famous detective in the person of Paul Whipple, whom Wolfe (and his assistant and narrator, Archie Goodwin) met many years ago at Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. Then, Whipple was a student at Howard University and kitchen staffer at the Spa; now, he’s a Columbia University professor and the father of a young man who works for the ROCC (Rights of Citizens Committee) in Harlem. Paul Whipple opposes his son’s plan to marry a wealthy white volunteer. Wolfe owes him a favor; but as he sets out to repay it, a simple inquiry mushrooms into a murder investigation.

Racial attitudes and information in the U.S. have expanded so much since 1964 that this book feels more dated than most of Stout’s mysteries from that era. Still, definitely worth reading!

View all my reviews

Digital Book World: the Evolution of 21st-Century Publishing

When Boom-Books entered publishing in 2011 — the dawn of modern history, technologically speaking — DBW was our go-to source for information and insights on e-books: a daily newsletter we read voraciously, plus an annual conference we ignored. Seven years has switched the tail and the dog. As e-publication burgeoned, and info overload swamped the DBW newsletter, the fading conference was acquired by F+W Media. A year ago F+W Media sold it to Score Publishing, which specializes in interactive content creation, and particularly organizing conferences in that vast field. Key point: Score is perhaps best known for its VoiceFirst.FM media network, which centers on voice technology such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

The first DBW conference under the new(est) ownership will be held Oct. 2-4 at the Music City Center in Nashville. Sponsors and participants range from Amazon and ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) to Virtusales (publishing software) and Writers Boon (“a discount marketplace for writers”). Score Publishing hosted the Alexa conference last winter, and it will fold the existing iBooks Author Conference into this one.

Score CEO Bradley Metrock is a vocal advocate (aptly) of voice-first technology: the premise that consumers are depending more and more on audio as a way to find products and services. In publishing, this means “Not just audiobooks — which comprise the fastest-growing sector of the industry — but also podcasts. . . . as well as voice assistants.” (https://innotechtoday.com/digital-book-world-2018/) Metrock describes this year’s Digital Book World as “the gathering of the wide world of publishing, from trade publishing, to scholarly and academic publishing, to independent publishing, to corporate publishing across medium to large companies across the world, to educational publishing, and all the tech companies which serve publishers large and small.”

It sounds grandiose, but on the granular level it means Score has its sights aimed at every critter in the landscape, from ants to elephants. The award-nominees list alone is a microcosm of the future as Metrock and his colleagues envision it. For instance, the three nominees for Trade Publisher of the Year are HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House. All three also are candidates for Publisher of the Year, competing with Audible Studios, Netflix, China Publishing Group (中国出版集团), Dark Horse Comics, Tapocketa Animation Studio, and the more traditional (i.e., book-focused) Sourcebooks.

What does all this mean for the future of content communication, the corporations that are its conduits, and the opportunities and limits looming for customers? That’s a discussion way beyond the scope of this post. For now, grab your periscope and check out Digital Book World 2018 at https://www.digitalbookworld.com/

Warning: our email address was temporarily hijacked

We regret to announce that on Tuesday and/or Wednesday Sept. 4-5, nefarious miscreants hijacked our email address to send out a highly sophisticated Spam mailing, with attachments.

Security was re-established by midday Wednesday. However, because the recipients were not on any list of ours, and we have no way to identify either the recipients or the sender(s), we are unable to issue any warning other than this one.

IF YOU’VE RECEIVE AN EMAIL THIS WEEK WHICH PURPORTS TO BE FROM BOOM-BOOKS, PLEASE DELETE IT UNOPENED.

We’re deeply sorry for the intrusion.

When the Review’s Even More Fun than the Book

We’ve been so pleased with Charisse Howard’s three Regency Rakes & Rebels novellas that we’re eager to publish more short-form novels. This enterprise brought our attention to (among others) Raymond Chandler’s 7th and last book, the Philip Marlowe novella Playback.

Checking reviews on Goodreads, we discovered that Playback has inspired Chandler fans to literary tours de force which are less comments on the book than nanovellas in their own right. Here are two:

Apr 25, 2017 Paul Bryant rated it liked it

I looked at her legs. It was only 10 in the morning but she had legs to look at. She had brought them into my office with her. Her legs looked at me but I never found out what they thought. She balanced all of next year’s expense account on her little finger and blew smoke over it. She was wearing the kind of perfume you could invade countries for. The rest of her was what your imagination wasn’t any use for any more. I’d had a tough night that day so I only looked in her right eye. She offered me a cigarette. She offered me a drink. She offered me the Pacific Ocean. She offered me ten different futures, in all of which I ended up at the bottom of a lift shaft with both feet at the wrong angle and no health insurance. I looked at her legs. They were probably a metaphor but I never read French novels. There was a guy in the sedan behind us. I turned right then right again on Ventura. Now he was only three cars back. Her legs looked at me. I unhooked her clothing. “You have to help me, Marlowe,” she said. She said, “You’re speeding, Marlowe, this is a residential zone and there’s a school somewhere round here.” Then she was naked and I poured all over her like moonlight. The sedan in the mirror was as subtle as a Nazi at a christening. I took a right then another right. He took a left and I was down on the floor, my jaw felt like Carnegie Hall after the 1812 Overture. He looked a lot taller from down there. But at least I could look at her legs without interruption. I was happy about that then all the lights went out.
 

Apr 05, 2014 Ian “Marvin” Graye rated it really liked it
“A Little Quiet Fun At My Own Expense”
The waiter set a glass down on the table in front of me. It was my sixth drink in an hour. I couldn’t even remember ordering it. I drank it. It seemed like the right thing to do. The waiter watched me put down the empty glass. “Another shot?” he asked. I nodded. “You’ll have to pay for this one.” I looked around the room in search of my benefactor. I saw her first, sitting alone at a nearby table, then I saw her legs. They didn’t look like any legs I had seen before. Then they moved. She could see I was watching them. She crossed her legs, and I hoped to die, but not straight away. She reached into her handbag and withdrew a packet of cigarettes. She flipped it open and put one in her mouth. Her lips glistened the whole time. Then she fumbled around in her bag for a lighter. She returned the bag to the chair beside her, empty-handed. She looked at me. I shrugged. I had given up smoking since my last novel, only I hadn’t told my author. There was much I hadn’t confided in him. The time had come to make some changes in my life. I didn’t move. I watched her mind working. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I wasn’t sure whether she was my type. “Well…” She paused. She was improvising. It wasn’t something she was normally expected to do. My author usually made our decisions for us. “If you won’t light my cigarette, will you at least kiss me?” I ambled over to her table and sat down. But first she had another request:“Stop looking at my legs.” I did as I was told. I was hoping the effort would be rewarded. She returned her cigarette to the pack and put it back in her bag. I looked into her eyes. I could see nothing unless you want to count lust, or was that just a projection on my part? I wondered what she saw in my eyes. The same? I moved closer to her, and had another look. I clasped my hands around her face. Then I pulled her closer and kissed her. She licked her lips, inquisitively. “Christian Dior?” She asked. “Of course,” I replied. Her lips embarked on the most direct path towards mine. “Kiss me harder.” I did. She slipped her hand inside my blouse and squeezed my breast. Maybe I could like her after all.

Heart of Darkness: A Voyage through Paradigms & Metaphors – Review by C J Verburg

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This is a difficult book to appreciate if you care more about racism, sexism, and colonization than intricately crafted metaphors. Conrad seems aware of the layers upon layers of contradictions that envelop his characters, yet insofar as he confronts them, he does it by observing and reporting rather than judging. For instance, the condescension of Brits to Africans is blatant and grating. Yet the narrator Marlow doesn’t remark on it, either when these events took place or now, as he recalls them: he simply describes it, and leaves any judgment to us.

Marlow is a sailor, privileged by his race and gender but not by his social position, which presumably in the Britain of Conrad’s day counted just as heavily. This short book is a story he’s telling to a crew of old sailing comrades about a voyage up an unfriendly river in a wild land that was being exploited by his shipping-company employers. His task was to find Kurtz, the company’s most effective ivory collector, who’d evidently “gone native” (= turned traitor to his race, class, etc.). Before he could take command of his assigned boat, Marlow had to dredge it up from where it sank when the previous captain beat a local chief and was killed. So, as in Melville’s Moby-Dick, we’re traveling among misfits and renegades obliged to obey an arbitrary leader.

However, unlike Ishmael et al., Marlow and his listeners are old friends (not a motley crew of strangers) waiting on a yacht (not a working boat), in the safe comfort of London’s Thames River mouth, for the tide to change so they can set sail. The prose is suitably languid for men who are in no hurry. And the multifaceted paradox of Kurtz makes a neat paradigm for the larger paradoxes Conrad describes, or delicately alludes to.

It’s a book so full of arrogance that I had a hard time with it.

View all my reviews

Reviews & Comments: 4 by Rex Stout, & Why Language Matters

And Four to Go (Nero Wolfe, #30)And Four to Go by Rex Stout
Review by CJ Verburg

Four short novellas or long stories, each fun in a different way. Rex Stout was at his (long-lived) peak in the late 1950s, so these are vintage Nero Wolfe capers. Oddly, the first three are holiday-centered, whereas the fourth opens on a random Tuesday in the fashion business. In “Christmas Party,” Archie Goodwin strikes fear into his boss’s heart by announcing he’s getting married. “Easter Parade” features (you guessed it) orchids. “Fourth of July Picnic”–in which Wolfe leaves home to make a speech–and “Murder Is No Joke” both involve women named Flora. My favorite moment comes in “Fourth of July Picnic,” when Wolfe and Goodwin give us brief impromptu autobiographies. A treasure for Stout fans; a good intro for newcomers.

View CJ Verburg’s other Goodreads reviews

Pen vs. Sword, or Why Language Matters

Mystery Reviews & a Freebie: Boris Akunin’s The Winter Queen, Rex Stout’s Where There’s a Will, & Disarmed

by C J Verburg

The Winter Queen (Erast Fandorin Mysteries, #1)The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Winter Queen is is the first of Akunin’s books featuring Erast Fandorin, a minor government functionary who starts out young and hapless, yet is sharp and dogged enough to find himself steering events he’s assigned to help decipher. Evidently each book in the series represents a different subgenre; this “conspiracy mystery” opens in Moscow, 1876. I was intrigued to step into such an authentically unfamiliar frame of reference: time, place, social assumptions and preoccupations. High points include the old-fashioned chapter titles (“in which many difficulties are encountered”), and Akunin’s use of common tropes (orphanage, British charity patron, femme fatale, rogue boss) in unexpected ways, along with his deft plot twists. On the other hand, the characters’ obsessions — particularly with nuances of rank — felt so remote that I didn’t care all that much about them or how things turned out.

Where There's a Will (Nero Wolfe, #8)Where There’s a Will by Rex Stout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rex Stout never wrote a Nero Wolfe mystery I didn’t love. His standard ingredients are outstanding: intriguing characters and situations, a fast-moving plot, and Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone full of orchids, gourmet meals, and books, all presented to us by this Sherlock’s smart-alecky Watson, the clever, charming, resourceful Archie Goodwin. Where There’s a Will was particularly interesting to reread because it’s an early book, written before Stout got fully up to speed (pub date 1940). Therein lie my quibbles: a plethora of characters became a challenge to keep sorted; and the most intriguing oddity of the eponymous will remains a loose end. On the other hand, in spite of Wolfe’s horror of women, and the biases of the time, the three Hawthorne sisters are as capable and impressive as they are distinctive. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

View all my reviews

 

In the mood for a quick summer sleuthing adventure? “Disarmed: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery Story” is FREE on iTunes, Google Play, Barnes & Noble, and most other e-outlets. (Amazon insists on charging $.99.)

Clash of the Titans: Apple & Google Refocus on Books; Amazon Reloads Audio

by CJ Verburg

Suddenly Amazon’s facing some potentially serious competition.

As 2018 started, Apple announced several significant changes to the company’s approach to books. According to Mark Gurman in Bloomberg, they plan to retool their reading app, making it easier to read (and buy) e-books or listen to audiobooks on the iPad and other Apple devices. This accompanies a plan to morph iBooks into Apple Books, with a fresh design to echo Apple Music. Heading the new effort is Kashif Zafar, a senior vice president from Audible, Amazon’s market-dominating audiobooks business (see below), who previously was a content VP at Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader division.

Meanwhile, Google has launched Google Play Books, which will compete for audiobook sales with Apple Books and Amazon’s Audible. Michael Schaub reports in The L.A. Times that Google’s plan is to enable “readers in 45 countries to play audiobooks purchased through the service on several platforms, including Google Home, the company’s popular smart speaker.” The Google Play Books listener also benefits from automatic syncing — you can start listening on your way home from work on your Android or iPhone, and pick up where you left off on your home speaker or computer.

Amazon, as always, remains a moving target. According to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, they too have audiobook innovations in the pipeline. Coming later this year are the first hot new audiobooks that will precede the release of the print or e-book. Now that many “readers” are listeners, Amazon is working with (or twisting the arms of) publishing companies as well as authors to bring content straight to consumers’ ears:

Audible is pitching literary agents on the benefits of using its services, saying authors will get a competitive bidding process that could mean more money in their pockets, and . . . adding pressure on book publishers to hold on to a modest but growing area of an otherwise challenged book industry. In the first eight months of 2017, publishers’ revenue from audiobooks grew 20% from the same period a year earlier, while print books only rose 1.5% and e-books slipped 5.4% . . .

For those of us with a stake in the outcome, it’s useful to keep in mind a contrast in corporate strategy noted by Bloomberg’s Gurman:

Apple’s renewed effort highlights its different approach to software services and hardware, compared with Amazon. Apple sells e-books to make its high-priced devices more attractive, making money on the sale of the hardware. Amazon churns out new versions of Kindle devices at or near to cost and tries to make money selling content.

What outcome is likely for authors? As Sancho Panza remarked in Man of La Mancha: Whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it’s bound to be bad for the pitcher.