Martin Lemelman: Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood

October 31, 2010 by  
Filed under Graphic Novels, WritersCast

978-1608190041 – Bloomsbury – Hardcover – $26.00.

Martin Lemelman grew up in the back of a candy store in Brooklyn, NY.  He has illustrated more than thirty children’s books and his work has appeared in numerous magazines.  Lemelman is now a Professor in the Communication Design Department at Kutztown University and lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Martin’s first memoir done in graphic format, with drawings, photographs of personal objects and places, was Mendel’s Daughter, published in 2006.  Told in his mother, Gusta’s voice, the book recounts the story of her life, beginning in pre-war Poland, through her harrowing experience of survival in the Holocaust and displaced persons’ camps, and finally coming to Brooklyn, where she lived with her husband (also a survivor) and two children.

Two Cents Plain is not literally a sequel to Mendel’s Daughter, but it is a continuation of Lemelman’s family storytelling.  Two Cents Plain collects the memories and artifacts of the author’s childhood in Brownsville, a neighborhood of Brooklyn filled with Jews speaking Yiddish and children growing up in a comfortable city neighborhood.  Later in the story, as times change, Martin and his family’s experience in Brooklyn is not so pleasant.  But that’s ultimately the background of the story Lemelman tells.  His real focus is the dynamic story of his parents and how their life experiences in the Holocaust shaped them, and of course shaped their children’s experience as a family in post-War America.

Lemelman’s story is full of struggle, his parents were complicated and sometimes difficult for their children to understand, and life in a candy store was never easy.  But his Brooklyn memories also is also include the joys of egg creams and comic books, malteds and novelty toys, where the neighbors, the deli man, the fish man, and the fruit man, all are brought to vivid life in story and illustration. The changes in the city during the sixties are very personalized for Martin and his family and in the climax of the story, the family must leave their home once again.

I really loved reading and absorbing this book, the combination of Lemelman’s story telling voice and gorgeous illustrations work beautifully to transport the reader into another time and place.  And the author does a fine job of balancing between the sentiment of memory of his childhood with the clarity of the adult rememberer, which is keeps us anchored as the story unfolds.  There are layers of memory, emotion, people and place that are richly evoked in this book.

In our interview, I wanted to explore with Martin not only the story of his life and his parents gripping and sometimes painful experiences, but the period of the fifties and sixties and how he used the graphic memoir form to reflect and amplify the power of his story.  This is a unique and wonderful book whose creator is quite cogent about his work.  Martin has put together a very interesting and useful website for the book that is worth visiting (most useful after you have read the book, I think).  I am looking forward to reading the next book in this series of memory stories.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews John Oakes

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

OR Books was founded in 2009 by two very experienced book publishing veterans, Colin Robinson and John Oakes, who realized that after many years, that the way books have been published and sold in the 20th century no longer applies in the 21st.  John’s description of their new venture (as told to O’Reilly Radar for their “TOC Evolvers” series) goes like this:

OR Books is driven by two concepts. Well, three. One: the current system of distribution and production, returns and discounts, in publishing doesn’t work for stores, authors, or publishers. Two: we will publish politically progressive and culturally adventurous work. Three: the classic rules of publishing still hold true: you need good editing, design, and marketing.

To address the first concept, we decided to scratch the Byzantine rules that surround the distribution and production of books: we sell straight to consumers, do intensive marketing, and then license the book to “traditional publishers.” We generally do not sell to wholesalers or booksellers, be they independent, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. We are “platform agnostic,” offering consumers their books as ebooks or in physical, printed form. They choose.

I originally wanted to interview both John and Colin together, but the timing did not work out.  Colin was someplace exotic like London, so I talked to John in his tiny home office in Manhattan.  We had a great talk, as there is alot to talk about.  Alert to listeners, and while this is the longest Publishing Talks interview I have done, at about 45 minutes long, I think well worth the investment of time and you can always listen to it in more than one sitting.

OR Books was founded by John Oakes and Colin Robinson as a publishing company embracing e-books and other new technologies. They have already published some excellent (and timely) books, their first being Going Rouge (a great book to launch with), Eileen Myles’ riveting novel Inferno, and Doug Rushkoff’s new Program or be Programmed.  Their work is political, cultural, and literary, and so far has been terrifically interesting work.

John Oakes co-founded the publishing company Four Walls Eight Windows. When his company was purchased by the Avalon Publishing Group, he became publisher of Thunder’s Mouth Press, co-publisher of Nation Books, and vice president of Avalon. Among the authors he has published are Andrei Codrescu, Sue Coe, R. Crumb, Cory Doctorow, Andrea Dworkin, Abbie Hoffman, Gordon Lish, Harvey Pekar, Rudy Rucker, John Waters and Edmund White. Oakes serves on the board of PEN America. He has written for the Associated Press, the International Herald Tribune, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

Colin Robinson was until recently a senior editor at Scribner. Previously he was managing director of Verso Books and publisher of The New Press. Among the authors he has published are Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Mike Davis, Norman Finkelstein, Eduardo Galeano, Eric Hobsbawm, Lewis Lapham, Mike Marqusee, Rigoberta Menchú, Matt Taibbi and Jann Wenner. He has written for a broad range of publications including The New York Times, The Sunday Times (London) and The Guardian (London) and has appeared on a wide range of broadcast media including NPR (“On the Media”), CNN, MSNBC, CBC and CSPN.

Bill Barich: Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America

October 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-0802717542 – Walker & Co. – Hardcover – $26.00 (e-book version also available)

Bill Barich is a fine writer, comfortable with words, a natural storyteller who is self-aware and a careful observer of character as well as landscape.  He’s got a great narrative voice that makes his books very easy to read and deeply engrossing.

In the summer of 2008, Barich, who has lived in Dublin, Ireland for some time, decided to take a journey across America, essentially following in the footsteps of the great John Steinbeck, who made the cross-country journey (ostensibly to rediscover America, but more likely a stab at rediscovering his own literary voice, which resulted in Travels with Charley in 1962).

Of course Barich and Steinbeck differ in significant ways.  And the early 1960′s were a very different time than 2008 for America.  Barich’s trip came at the time of our massive economic collapse, and the rising presidential campaign of Barack Obama, both of which become thematic backdrops for his story.  Steinbeck traveled in pick up truck with a home made camper out back, and with his dog, Charley, whereas Barich drove a rented Ford Focus (almost 6000 miles!) and stayed in motels.  But Steinbeck is the ever present model for the later traveler, whose outlook is certainly as different as the country he explores.

In fact, Barich’s story is engrossing from beginning to end.  He starts the trip in Maryland, and stays on US 50 west to the Golden State, with stops and sidetrips along the way that are always interesting, even though often sad and sometimes even depressing.  He is, after all, reporting on America as he finds it, which includes features and political themes that are not always what we might have wished or hoped for.  It’s an honest portrait, and a story well told.  I’ve done my share of cross-country traveling, and very much enjoyed this book and my conversation with Barich about it.  There’s a good deal of back story and detail in this conversation we had some fun with and which I hope listeners will enjoy.

Bill Barich is the author of seven books, including Laughing in the Hills, which was named one of the hundred best sports books of all time. Other works include a novel, Carson Valley, and another work of nonfiction, A Fine Place to Daydream: Racehorses, Romance, and the Irish and recently, A Pint of Plain which describes the decline of the traditional Irish pub. A Guggenheim Fellow, and literary laureate of the San Francisco Public Library, Barich now lives and works in Dublin.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Vikram Narayan

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

It’s more or less common knowledge that today more books are written and published than at any time in human history, and the current rate of production certainly shows no sign of slowing anytime soon.  This is true of all other art forms as well – we are surrounded by more music, video and every other form of art.  Being found, heard, seen, and ultimately having one’s work experienced by an audience in an environment of vast abundance must therefore be the goal of all creators, writers, musicians, film-makers, etc.  All content is competing for the valuable time that audiences have to give.  This “attention economy” is at the heart of how the web affects the business of publishing.

For some writers, the social sphere, the engagement with readers, and the marketing work they undertake is a natural extension of their creative work.  There are many other writers, of course, for whom marketing is a foreign concept, or who simply do not understand or feel comfortable with the emerging social network of the web.  Whether they are sophisticated marketers or novices just starting to figure out how to find their communities, writers who are trying to take their work from the private to the public sphere are faced with a vast and sometimes opaque ecosystem of human culture.

Of course in this environment, tools have emerged to help them navigate this fluid and highly challenging environment, and learning how to use those tools becomes another challenge for writers.

A couple years ago I met Vikram Narayan, a young technologist from India, who was setting out to launch a business dedicated to creating marketing easier for writers and publishers.  He started with one automated tool that would enable writers to make their books more visible on the web, and over the past couple of years, the business, now called BookBuzzr, has continued to evolve interesting, fun and easy-to-use tools that writers can use to better understand how they can connect with readers and to help them make that process more efficient and less daunting.  Vikram recently sent me a PDF booklet called “The 10 Book Marketing Mistakes that Authors Make” and that spurred me to talk to him about his work.

Vikram is the founder of BookBuzzr Book Marketing Technologies Pvt. Ltd. based in Bangalore.  His company provides a variety of book marketing and book promotion technologies to authors including the popular and free BookBuzzr Widget which has been referred to as a “portable author website” or “the calling card for the social Internet.” BookBuzzr also owns and operates Freado.com – the world’s biggest book-winning site with hundreds of books to be won (which is a cool way for authors to be discovered). Vikram has an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.  I recently talked to Vikram over Skype to hear some of his thoughts about marketing and books, what amounts to news from the front lines, where writers and readers are continually engaging, where the future of writing and reading can begin to be understood.

Nick Schou: Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World

October 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

978-0312551834 – St. Martin’s Press – Hardcover – $24.99

Nick Schou writes for the excellent OC Weekly (one of the several Village Voice papers) based in Orange County, California, home of Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, UC Irvine, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Little Saigon, and of course seemingly endless tracts of California suburbia.  But Orange County in the 1960′s was also the birthplace of some of the most amazing scenes of hippiedom, and the little known “Brotherhood of Eternal Love.”

In this book, Schou tells their story from beginning to end, and it is a pretty incredible saga, including what was probably the largest LSD manufacturing and distribution operation of all time, a world wide hashish and marijuana smuggling cartel, incredible tales involving Timothy Leary, and much, much more.

Known as “Hippie Mafia,” the Brotherhood began in the mid-1960′s as a small band of surfers (and in many cases petty criminals) in Southern California. After they discovered LSD, they took to Timothy Leary’s mantra of “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” and resolved to make that vision a reality by becoming the biggest group of acid dealers and hashish smugglers in the nation, and literally providing the fuel for the psychedelic revolution in the process. In Orange Sunshine, Schou journeys deep inside the Brotherhood, combining exclusive interviews with many of the group’s surviving members, former hangers on and supporters, and interstingly, the law enforcement establishment who pursued them and by doing so helped to launch what has now become an institutionalized government war on drugs.

Schou tells a compelling story of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (and more drugs) that runs from Laguna Beach to Maui to Afghanistan, and a time when America moved from the golden era of peace and free love into the much darker time that soon followed, marked by hard drugs, international crime and paranoia.

Talking to Nick Schou gave me a chance to explore with him some of the background to the book, and to talk about the large amount of research he did to put it together, and the challenges he faced in getting some of the participants to even tell him what they did in those days.  We also talked about some of the more startling elements of the story of the Brotherhood, their involvement with Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, Orange County then and now, and much more.

This is a fascinating story, one that helps us understand some of the complex issues that began in the sixties and are still with us today.  This kind of grassroots history is important to document as it can give us all a chance to better comprehend the always diverse and sometimes simply amazing culture in which we live.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Andy Campbell

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

When I recently accidentally discovered the work of UK writer Andy Campbell, I was completely blown away.  First because the work is so good, imaginative, creative that makes full use of the digital environment to tell stories in a thoroughly new way.  But second, simply because I was so surprised that he had been doing this work for so long, and I had never learned of it before now.  It’s just proof that the creative world we inhabit is so vast and full of creative individuals, fragmented and as full of stars as the night sky.  And it is great fun to find new kinds of writers and writing, and learn so much from their own experiences.

Andy Campbell is a digital writer who has been working at the forefront of digital fiction since 1994. He is the author of Dreaming Methods, a website described by the UK’s Times Educational Supplement as “One of the most impressive purveyors of the new art of internet reading… a distinctive voice that couldn’t be replicated in print.” He is also co-director of One to One Productions Ltd, creating and facilitating multimedia projects for charities, arts organizations and others.

Andy is great fun to talk to, has some valuable insights and thoughts about the emergence and future of digital storytelling, and I hope this talk will gain him some new readers for his really exciting story telling.  I think his work represents a profound shift in the way our culture imagines and tells its stories.  (below a small screenshot from Nightingales Playground – “a young man attends a school reunion only to discover none of his old friends remember the same things he does”).  Do visit Dreaming Methods, it is well worth the time to explore (and support this digital innovator by subscribing).

Jared Duval: Next Generation Democracy

October 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1608190669 – Bloomsbury – paperback – $15.00

Next Generation Democracy is an important book by a really smart and compelling young activist and writer, Jared Duval.  I like what Bill McKibben says about the book and by extension the author: “God knows previous generations have left those that are coming of age a world of trouble. Happily, they’re figuring out a world of ways to set them right. Jared Duval’s book offers a behind-the-scenes tour of the next wave of activism, organizing, inspiration, and change. It will give you cause to hope–and cause to go to work.”

But even more than a behind-the-scenes look at how activists are working and thinking together in new ways, Duval gives us a strong sense of hope for making change in the future.  I think it’s true enough that the past few generations have not succeeded in broadening democracy and making progressive change throughout the world, especially in environmental, social justice and peace, as broad stroke categories of change that is needed most.  But it’s heartening to know that the younger generation includes individuals like Duval who are finding new ways to make change, resist the impulse to blame and create divisions, and who see the tools of change around them everywhere, and simply make use of them so easily and comfortably.

Jared sees open source software as the exact model needed for a reinvention of democracy.  Our government can be as open and transparent as the development of Linux, a story he tells here almost as a parable for political thinkers and activists.  In Next Generation Democracy, Jared covers key recent events, such as Hurricane Katrina, during which de-centralized leadership emerged to supersede traditional models.  He documents the success stories of these new leaders, both inside the government and out, who are finding effective, directly democratic ways to address the critical public challenges of our time. As he tells the stories of participatory organizations such as the brilliant SeeClickFix (originated in New Haven, Connecticut and now spreading to other communities) and America Speaks (which shows us how to meaningful re-engage citizens in the processes of government) Duval describes a new approach to solving complex problems that draws on the contributions of a wide array of activated citizens everywhere.

I do wish this book had come out earlier in the year, actually in time for election season, as I am certain that the thinking here could benefit anyone involved in the political process.  But in the end, what really matters is that people read Next Generation Democracy, become inspired in some way, small or large, to get involved, work with their fellow citizens, make change, small or large, and address the future in a positive way.  Reading this book and then listening to Jared Duval talk about his ideas and experiences certainly inspired me, and I am happy to recommend him and his book to anyone listening to this talk.

Jared Duval is a busy guy.  He is a fellow at the well respected Demos policy organization and earlier served as the National Director of the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), the national student chapter of the Sierra Club and the largest student environmental organization in America. During this time he helped build the Energy Action Coalition and the Campus Climate Challenge campaign, serving as the effort’s co-chair for two years.