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Books, authors and all things bookish
In pulp writer's heaven: On the confessions of an Amazon author

By his own account, the Austin-based writer Neal Pollack long ago gave up trying to pen the Great American Novel.

In 2011, his career as an author was effectively dead. He’d written one novel that sold very poorly, and four other books, and had a contract for a “pseudo self-help book” that his publisher didn’t want to bring to print. Then Amazon picked him “off the slush pile.”

In a lengthy piece for Slate titled “In Defense of Amazon,” Pollack argues that the online retailer’s entry into publishing has resuscitated the careers of several authors who were in similar straits.

He writes that "when I hear people say Amazon is 'destroying' literary careers, it just doesn’t make sense — it actually seems to be making them." Writers who attack Amazon for its tactics in its dispute with Hachette, he says, are themselves guilty of hyperbole.

But his account of life as an Amazon writer is most interesting, in my opinion, for the frankness with which he describes Amazon’s literary philosophy,...

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LeVar Burton's first children's book coming this fall

Coming soon to a bookstore near you: The first children's book by "Reading Rainbow's" LeVar Burton.

Burton, of course, is also an actor, known for "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and the award-winning miniseries "Roots." Yet for a generation or more of readers, he's the beloved host of the reading television program, "Reading Rainbow."

"Reading Rainbow" will publish Burton's book, titled "The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm," on Oct. 7. The book, which contains prose and rhyme, was written with Susan Schaefer Bernardo and is illustrated by Courtenay Fletcher.

According to a release from distributor IPG, the 32-page book "is a story designed for parents and kids to read together when facing stressful or difficult situations, and emphasizes the helpers and positives in a child’s world and the value in having friends and family work together to get through tough times."

Burton hosted "Reading Rainbow" on PBS television stations for 26 years. After regaining rights to the project, he...

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'Get Carter' and the birth of British noir

There’s a moment, in the middle of Ted Lewis’ 1970 crime novel “Get Carter” (Syndicate Books, 218 pp., $14.95 paper) that sums up the hard-boiled ethos as well as anything I’ve ever read. The narrator, a fixer for the London mob named Jack Carter, is in a private club in the Northern English mill town where he was born. He is trying to find out what happened to his brother Frank, dead in a drunk driving incident that may or may not have been staged.

The year is 1970, and as Carter looks around, he sees the bitter fruit of prosperity. “They’d had nothing when they were younger,” he reflects about the middle-class burghers who surround him, “since the war they’d gradually got the lot, and the change had been so surprising they could never stop wanting, never be satisfied. They were the kind of people who made me know I was right.”

That’s it right there, the point precisely, the angst of every noir hero since Hammett’s Continental Op. The world is corrupt, a dark place, and those who get...

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Mental health issues, not books, led to teacher's suspension

Reports circulated this weekend that a middle school teacher in Dorchester County, Md., had been placed on administrative leave over his two futuristic novels about school violence. That is not that case, authorities tell the L.A. Times.

"It didn't start with the books and it didn't end with the books," State's Attorney for Wicomico County Matt Maciarello told The Times. "It's not even a factor in what law enforcement is doing now."

There have been no charges filed against Patrick McLaw, a teacher at Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge who self-published two novels, "The Insurrectionist" (2011) and "Lilith's Heir" (2013), under the pen name Dr. K.S. Voltaer.

Free speech supporters who believed the author was targeted for the books' stories of school massacres in 2902 have been purchasing the novels from Amazon. "Bought this in protest of the local authorities arresting and confining this person just for being a teacher and writing a book about a school killing," reads a typical...

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Mike Sacks' 'Poking a Dead Frog' cracks the comedy code

Comedy is having a moment. You can't really talk about the vaunted New Golden Platinum Age of Television without reference to Louis C.K., Amy Schumer or Amy Poehler. Political discourse takes cues from Jon Stewart and John Oliver. The Internet, which drives the world, is three-quarters comedy. (Figure approximate.) Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling write memoirs that also serve as manifestos, and the Children of Apatow sew their seeds through the culture, on multiple platforms.

We are also in a time when the nuts and bolts of show business have come to be regarded as entertainment in their own right. On television series like Jim Rash's “The Writers' Room” and David Steinberg's “Inside Comedy”; Web series such as Jerry Seinfeld's “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and Paul F. Tompkins' “Speakeasy”; on Scott Aukerman's “Comedy Bang Bang” and Marc Maron's “WTF” podcasts; and in the course of innumerable public panels, video chats and Reddit AMAs, the curtain is pulled back on the creative...

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Charles Bowden: Tom Zoellner and Luis Urrea pay tribute

Charles Bowden, an investigative journalist and author renowned for his writing on the American Southwest and for chronicling the border between the United States and Mexico, died Saturday at age 69. We asked a few writers to share their memories of him.

TOM ZOELLNER, associate professor of English at Chapman University and author of "Train" and "A Safeway in Arizona":

I first knew Charles Bowden through his words, and those words were sharp, difficult, repellent and completely fascinating. Dark elemental forces coursed through his work and he made them relevant to the news.

Mexican migration was about lust, in the work of Bowden, and the urbanization of the Southwest was about desperate love. His 1987 book "Frog Mountain Blues" came out when I was a senior in high school in Tucson, Ariz., and I bought it in hardcover -- a considerable expense for me at that time -- because it was about the Santa Catalina mountains where I had done a lot of backpacking. But this was not the placid...

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For Labor Day, an appreciation of unheralded literary labor

The other day, I exchanged emails with a self-published writer. Discussing Amazon’s dispute with Hachette, he argued that books are overpriced and what traditional publishers have to offer isn’t worth the high price they charge for books.

What about the cost of editors? I asked. Proofreaders? Book designers? All overrated, he said. “For better or worse, in the online era editing in general and proofreading in particular are becoming less and less important,” he wrote. Readers just don’t care anymore about typos, he said.

Well, I beg to differ. Writers may be inveterate loners, but what great author has ever brought a work into the world — whether written on parchment, paper or digital devices — without the help of a publisher and the craftspeople publishers employ? Indeed, even many self-published authors reach deep into their pockets to pay for the services of editors and proofreaders.

On this Labor Day, I would like to celebrate the many kinds of labor upon which our literary culture...

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Charles Bowden dies at 69; author known for writing on border issues

Author Charles Bowden, renowned for chronicling the border between the United States and Mexico, died Saturday at his home in Las Cruces, N.M., his friend Ray Carroll confirmed Sunday. Bowden was 69.

Bowden wrote dozens of books and essays, including "Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields," which focused on the persistent violence among drug cartels that ravaged the border town. He was known for treading dangerous ground to get the story.

His other books include "Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior," "Down By the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family," "Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future," and "Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America."

Award-winning writer Luis Urrea tweeted, "RIP, Charles Bowden. He was a great writer and a big wild soul. And a generous friend."

"He was a brilliant writer, who is gone way too soon," Carroll, a Pima County, Ariz., supervisor and close friend of Bowden's, told The Times. 

Bowden lived...

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Beyoncé, poet

Beyoncé is a superstar. She's an amazing singer and dancer, is model-gorgeous, has an adorable daughter and fellow superstar husband Jay Z. By any measure, she's really got it all.

So why tackle poetry? Well, why shoudn't she?

The new issue of CR Fashion Book has Beyoncé's first published poem. Called "Bey the Light," it touches on motherhood, connecting across generations, and on/offstage personas -- all expected subjects. Most surprising, perhaps, is her short riff on imperfection:

Utopias, they don’t much interest me.
I always mess things up a bit.
It’s chaos, in part, that helps us see.

The poem was "remixed" by Forrest Gander. I'm not entirely clear what that means in terms of poetry -- with words, we usually just say "edited."

Gander tells Slate that he didn't merely edit Beyoncé's poem: He pulled her words from an interview she had done for the magazine to create "Bey the Light." "I’m very interested in formal exploration, in using others’ voices," Gander explains.

At the Wire at...

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Donald Antrim's new story collection goes in unexpected directions

At first glance, Donald Antrim's collection of short fiction, "The Emerald Light in the Air," looks like a departure — at least from the three novels for which he is known. If in the past, Antrim has played around the edges of reality — his first book, "Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World," involves a suburban town armed for self-defense, while "The Verificationist" unfolds in a pancake house where low-rent analysts lament their fates — here he plunges into the very center, describing a series of characters (men, mostly) lost in the middle of their lives.

In that regard, "The Emerald Light in the Air" is an extension of Antrim's devastating 2006 memoir, "The Afterlife," in which the author's relationship with his mother becomes a lens through which to consider human frailty and dependence: all the ways we rely on one another, and all the ways that can never be enough.

This becomes apparent from the first story, "An Actor Prepares," which opens with a typically Antrim-esque digression...

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Bruce Springsteen's children's book, 'Outlaw Pete,' due Nov. 4

The fall is rapidly turning into Rock Star Children’s Book season for the holidays. Bruce Springsteen has become the second Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Member-turned-co-author of a youth-oriented book in recent months with the reveal of a forthcoming kids' book based on his song “Outlaw Pete.”

The Springsteen news follows the announcement in March about “Gus and Me,” a children’s book coming Sept. 9 from Rolling Stones songwriter and guitarist Keith Richards in collaboration with his daughter, illustrator Theodora Richards.

“Outlaw Pete,” which the Boss has created with cartoonist and writer Frank Caruso, will be published on Nov. 4 by Simon & Schuster, and is drawn from the epic 8-minute song from Springsteen’s 2009 album “Working on a Dream.”

The book represents a full-circle turn in a way for his song, which he said in a statement was inspired by a 1950 children’s book titled “Brave Cowboy Bill” that his mother used to read to him.

"Outlaw Pete is essentially the story of a man...

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Karen Abbott's history of four Civil War women who spied or lied

The story of Civil War spy Elizabeth Van Lew almost defies belief. A wealthy society woman living in Richmond, Va., during the Civil War, Van Lew engaged in extensive undercover work for the Union — right under the noses of the Confederacy. Not only did she hide Northern soldiers in a secret room on the top floor of her mansion but she also passed messages to Union prisoners by using a hidden compartment in a chafing dish, employed a special cipher to send messages to agents in Washington, D.C., about Confederate troop movements and wore disguises to accomplish her espionage work.

In "Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy", Karen Abbott captures the spy-novel quality of Van Lew's life, along with the undercover lives of three other famous Civil War-era women.

Rose O'Neale Greenhow was an ambitious Washington hostess and Southern sympathizer who used a secret code to supply military secrets to Confederate generals before the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run, Va. Put under surveillance and...

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