Jacket Copy

Books, authors and all things bookish

Category: Weblogs

Blogger Carolyn Kellogg joins the Times as a staff writer

Carolynkellogg_2010 Earlier this week the Times book staff welcomed the addition of Carolyn Kellogg as a staff writer devoted to covering news, reviews and more in the world of books. An announcement by Alice Short, assistant managing editor for features, and Book Editor Jon Thurber highlighted Kellogg’s varied accomplishments, including her role as a leading literary blogger in the U.S. and as a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

Kellogg has anchored the Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, as its lead blogger since February 2008. Since then, she’s reported on breaking trends, news and all things literary, including the reading habits of former President Clinton (who sent her his reading list), hitting the floors of Book Expo or pondering the question, "David Sedaris: Is he really that good?" (Her answer: Yes, he is.)

With a bachelor’s degree from USC and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh, Kellogg has worked as web editor of Marketplace and the editor of LAist.com, as well as receiving, this April, the L.A. Times editorial award for feature blogging. Her writing appears in the current issue of the literary journal Black Clock and in the forthcoming anthology about California, "The Devil’s Punchbowl" (Red Hen Press).

"The online discussion about books has flourished, and I’m lucky to be a part of it," Kellogg says. "I’m also lucky to live in Los Angeles, a city that has a lively literary community, with independent bookstores, so many reading series, and more stellar authors than I’ve yet had a chance to meet. Offline or on, we are all readers, finding new ways of talking to each other about the books we love."

-- Times book staff

Photo: Carolyn Kellogg. Credit: Carrie Worthen

Welcome to Shelf Life from EW

Kidman_inaustralia The magazine Entertainment Weekly launched a books blog, Shelf Life, on July 14. Bloggers include books editor Tina Jordan, Ken Tucker and the frequent, funny poster Thom Geier.

While glossy, screen-oriented entertainments are the bread and butter of Entertainment Weekly, it also pays attention to books. Its book reviews are typically succinct and smart. 

Shelf Life, which is updated about once a day, touches many bases: literary fiction (the Booker Prize), comic books (Green Lantern), science fiction/fantasy (Neil Gaiman) and where celebrity culture intersects with books (Lisa Rinna, a step up from Lauren Conrad).

Most recently, it got Michael Cunningham ("The Hours") on the phone, just as he finished a chapter of his novel-in-progress, "Olympia."

Cunningham, who is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, has a project about the life of Dusty Springfield in the works with Nicole Kidman -- which recently went into turnaround at Fox 2000. He likes the studio, he said, but hopes it'll find a new home. "Now it’s just Nicole and me and Dusty." Brief entertainment-meets-books interviews like this give Shelf Life an extra kick.

A couple years back, there was much consternation about mainstream media's contracting book coverage. So when an old-school medium like Entertainment Weekly decides to devote some time and attention to a new discussion of books, how can we not applaud?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Nicole Kidman in "Australia." Credit: James Fisher / 20th Century Fox

On the death of literary website Readerville

Bookishgrave

After nine years, the website Readerville has decided to call it quits. In my visits, which were admittedly occasional, I found it to have a good literary take on books and solid connections to the New York community of writers and readers.

Although I do not know editor Karen Templer at all, I do have an idea of what it took, in 2000, to build a website -- it took a lot. In the mid-90s, I learned HTML to create a tiny, two-issue webzine, using dial-up and compressing image files on a computer that had less power than your kid's iPod. Back then, I said that if someone made a software program that would let people put stuff -- writing, pictures, music files -- on the Internet, magazine-style, they'd be rich.

I was wrong. Because the people who made those software programs -- we call them blogging platforms -- (mostly) did it for free.

Now the barriers to entry are so much lower than they were in 2000 that it's probably best to say that there are no barriers. Anybody can set up a free Wordpress blog, share photos with Flickr, Tweet away without spending a dime.

Plus, someone who wants to put something on the Internet today doesn't need to know how to ftp to a server. But when Templer got started, understanding the technology was just as important as having an idea of what to do with the technology.

Readerville had clearly evolved since 2000; it used blogs to drive many of its content areas and it had an elegant design. But its large and somewhat fuzzy mandate was a little lost. Was it a weblog making recommendations about books (or film or technology), or was it a community of readers? It seemed to try to tie its blog comments into its message boards. That's where the community part comes in -- in a message board system, which in most cases feels a little, well, 1996. (Believe me, I realize I'm posting this on a blog that looks a little 2005).

As the technologies that drive the Internet have evolved, those enterprises that come in later have a head start. Goodreads, LibraryThing and Shelfari are three sites with slightly different bells and whistles, but  similar mandates -- connecting people through books. Like Readerville tried to do -- but these sites have the advantage of both better coding and a more sophisticated perspective on social networking's best practices.

All of which is to say that what Readerville did was hard and that it accomplished much. Nine years is a long time to keep a website vital and engaged, and they get my thanks.

But chances are there will be one -- or two or 12 -- sites that will pick up where they've left off.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: marksdk via Flickr

Frank Warren reveals the secrets behind PostSecret.com

Frank Warren is the founder of PostSecret.com, which has grown from an art project website to a book series; the fourth book, "A Lifetime of Secrets," was published last year. The idea, which Warren told me is embraced quickly by younger people but is somewhat harder for older generations to understand (his dad isn't into it), is that people compose/design a postcard that reveals a closely held secret, then mail it, unsigned, to him at his house in suburban Maryland. Each week, he posts a selection of these confessions on the Web, releasing the secrets into the open. Since he began PostSecret in 2004, Warren has received hundreds of thousands of postcards.

Yesterday Warren visited the L.A. Times and shared some of the stories behind PostSecret with Jacket Copy.

Off-camera, Frank Warren noted that he's been struck by the continued warmth and openness of the people who contribute to PostSecret and come to his speaking events on college campuses, where many stand up and reveal secrets in front of their friends and classmates.

Tonight, Frank Warren speaks at USC. People who attend may be invited to participate in the still-in-the-formulating-stages PostSecret movie. If you'd like to go, be warned, the secret is out — Facebook counts more than 2,500 confirmed attendees.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Writers who should be paid NOT to write

At his blog, ABC of Reading, Thomas McGonigle, one of our contributors, has posted an item about writers he'd like to see less from on forthcoming publisher catalog lists. What would they get in return? The post suggests having George Soros establish a fund to compensate these writers for their silence.

Provocative, yes. Among many big-name writers on the list (Ian McEwan, Seamus Heaney and Francine Prose), prominent near the top is John Updike, who has received his share of fairly lukewarm reviews for his novels in the past decade. In fact, he's received quite a few. I looked around. Of his 2006 novel, "Terrorist," for instance, James Wood wrote in the New Republic:

"It is the otherness of Islamicism that is missing in this book. Despite all the Koranic homework, there is a sense that what is alien in Islam to a Westerner remains alien to John Updike. What he has discovered, yet again, is merely the generalized fluid of God-plus-sex that has run throughout all his novels."

Adam Begley wrote in the New York Observer that Updike's 2004 book, "Villages," was too generic; the 2002 novel, "Seek My Face," was tedious to Ron Charles of the Christian Science Monitor. Los Angeles Times critic Susan Salter Reynolds wrote of Updike's 2000 book, "Licks of Love": "The stories are painstakingly written; effort shows on every page. There's too much detail, too much retelling of the characters' most ordinary thoughts. Most of the stories ... feel unfinished; summarily ended, as though Updike simply shrugged."

There are many who admire Updike's work, and I'm definitely among them, but the common thread in the criticisms is that he writes too often. This fall, in fact, he has a novel coming from Alfred A. Knopf, "The Widows of Eastwick," which picks up the story told in "The Witches of Eastwick." I wouldn't dare to tell a giant of American letters not to publish anymore, even if Soros said "yes" to the don't-write funding idea, but McGonigle's post made me think: If there were a little more time between Updike books — say, three years rather than two — perhaps there'd be more room at the bigger publishers for such writers as Gary Amdahl, who are doing exciting things.

Nick Owchar

The Web habits of highly effective literary people

Cafedeflore_2

Sitting in a Paris cafe can be highly effective. That is, as far as journalist-author Andrew Hussey and Granta are concerned.

Granta magazine asked a bunch of literary types, from publishers to bloggers, how they make the web work for them. Hussey has, perhaps, the most enviable lifestyle: He throws a laptop into his rucksack and bikes to local Paris cafes to tap in. Another journalist is more disciplined: He opens exactly six tabs in Firefox every morning (apparently, like some of us, he didn't leave a hectic array open the night before).

Litblogger Maud Newton has a pretty hectic lifestyle, abetted by her iPhone addiction. She writes:

The very ADD impulses that enable me to blog the way I do tend to hamstring larger projects, like the novel I’m writing, the review that’s coming due, the day-job work. No doubt this is true of most people who keep weblogs for fun rather than for profit — a dying pursuit, apparently. What still excites me about the Internet is that it facilitates endless foraging, and not only courtesy of my favorite blogs and newspapers. As more publications and critics go digital, I find myself sampling the offerings of literary magazines, squandering hours in the Harper’s archives (which stretch back to 1850!), formulating ever more intricate and passionate dissents....

More habits, both good and compulsive, here.

Carolyn Kellogg

photo of the Cafe de Floré in Paris by sergeymk via Flickr

Update: Seltzer's agent speaks

Faye Bender, Margaret Seltzer's agent, had this to say in a brief phone conversation about her role in registering the website for International Brother/SisterHood, the supposed nonprofit with which Seltzer claimed to be involved.

"Peggy," Bender says, "portrayed Brother/SisterHood as a budding new organization designed to mentor young gang members. She said she didn't have the financial means to host a website, so I did a favor for a client, and registered and hosted it. The information up on the website was information that she provided."

David L. Ulin

Polk award is bittersweet for "Blackwater" author

Winning the prestigious George Polk award is bittersweet vindication for investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. His book, "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," was ignored by most major news organizations (including this one) when it was released in February 2007.

Readers found it though, putting Scahill on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times bestseller lists long before Blackwater Worldwide security forces killed 17 and wounded 24 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad thoroughfare last September. And with debate dragging on over whether Blackwater and other security firms (which operate in numbers rivaling actual U.S. military forces in Iraq) should remain immune from prosecution, still more attention to Scahill's book is likely to follow.

  "It took 17 innocent Iraqi civilians being gunned down in the streets of Baghdad for [Blackwater] to become a page one story," Scahill wrote in an e-mail. "If, in any way, winning this award means that efforts to hold Blackwater and other mercenary forces accountable for their killings and other crimes will intensify, that would mean infinitely more to me than any accolades for the book."

Continue reading »

19-0?

As a New York sports fan, I loved watching the New England Patriots lose the Super Bowl (and their bid for a perfect season) to the Giants last night. Not only for the victory itself but also because it offered cosmic repercussions — a restoration of the universe’s essential order, a victory by New York over Boston, a reminder of the way things are supposed to be.

The Patriots' loss also represents its own brand of karmic comeuppance, a reminder not to count your 19th chicken before it's hatched. As late as this morning, after all, a book called "19-0: The Historic Championship Season of New England's Unbeatable Patriots" by the sports staff of the Boston Globe was burning up the charts at Amazon.com.   

Although the book has since been yanked, the Associated Press reports that it was first offered for pre-sale as early as Jan. 29, nearly a week before the Super Bowl. The irony is that, according to a post at America Online's Fan House, "The Patriots famously fired themselves up to beat the Eagles in [the 2005] Super Bowl by listening to [coach] Bill Belichick reading off the plans for the Eagles' post-Super Bowl parade route."

Hubris, anyone?

David L. Ulin

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