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Extra: Book Bloggers’ Visit

Danielle’s blog was among the first book blogs I read on a regular basis. When she informed me of her San Francisco visit with her sister, I couldn’t wait to meet them. I’m glad “Fogust” (foggy August) didn’t diminish their pleasure to sightsee. By the time I met Danielle and Vicki at their wonderful studio rental in the Castro, they had tread through Muir Wood, wine-tasted in Napa Valley, had dim-sum in Financial District, and picked up a few books from City Lights Books.

Mindful that seafood was not their priority and they craved ethnic flavor, I made a reservation for three at Limón Rotisserie, a Peruvian restaurant that specializes in tapas. Over sangria we chatted and had delicious dishes like Lomito saltado, strips of sirloin marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and spices, then stir fried with red onions, parsley and tomatoes; pollo a la brasa, truffle macaroni and cheese, empanadas, and yuca fries.

The evening concluded with a visit to Dog Eared Books—where most new NYRB classics are half off. The sale table also featured works by James Baldwin, Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. That meant more shopping for Danielle, who actually brought a luggage a size bigger than her sister’s. It was a wonderful evening and I felt like I have known them for a good time. We exchanged anecdotes about life in Omaha and San Francisco. Friends, good food and books–what more can you ask for!

Future of Book Blogs?

I get another lead from The Boston Bibliophile on the future of (book) blogging, on the heels of BEA closing.

Six years ago I started book blogging. The blog was a self-indulgent project by which I share my thoughts on the books read. The project slowly span out of control as it dawned on me that there were actually people who read my thoughts and contributed such thoughtful comments. That means I am the obligation to response and to interact with my readers. Blogging has certainly changed my habit as a reader, who is now almost completely depending on recommendations from a group of readers/book bloggers who share my reading taste. In fact, book bloggers had influenced me as a reader long before I drank the coolaid to start my own blog. I mentioned before that the growth of book blogs—with their diversity, the genres they cover, and the honest opinions—more than compensates for the loss of book publicity that traditionally represented by printed media like newspapers and magazines. This is why. Book blogs completely change how I acquire new books because bloggers with whom I share almost identical reading taste, have become my primary source of the next good read. I want to know what they are reading and what their verdicts are for the books on my radar. Following their scoops is like chatting with friends about books—and indeed they have become friends. How wonderful indeed to have book recommendation with a personal touch?

The future of book blogging should be bright. I don’t know if the number of blogs would continue to rise exponentially because I have the feeling that blogging in general, has plateaued, as social media like Facebook and Twitter, which allow people to communicate briefly and instantaneously, have taken predominance over blogs. If there are readers out there who dig detailed and in-depth book reviews, book blogs, at least a blog like mine, will continue to thrive. This is a fact, for most the book blogs from which I draw my next-read ideas still exist. Social media come and go, but a blog devoted to specific subject matter shall continue to exist and exert its influence. Compared to status updates on Facebook, blogging seems too big and impersonal, because I only blog about books. If the subject of books is what readers dig, the time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is well-spent. Blogs should continue to thrive as long as readers appreciate prose. Like I said in the BEA introductory post, book reviews should be the main focus of any book blog and this will be the future of blogging—entries will be in longer prose form, but retaining that intimate touch of bloggers who share their passion about the books.

Armchair BEA Personal Introduction

My boss is off to BEA, but it’s just as fun enjoying Book Expo America on an armchair. I found this from The Boston Bibliophile.

Today is Day 1 of the week-long Armchair BEA, a community event for book bloggers not attending Book Expo America this week. Each day we will post on a different, pre-assigned topic, visit each others’ blogs and just generally share our enthusiasm for blogging about books. Today’s topic is Introductions; instead of pairing bloggers for interviews, we’ve got a set of questions to answer for ourselves and read about others.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging?
My name is Matthew; I studied chemistry at undergraduate level, trained as a librarian and now work as an archivist at the main library at the University of California, Berkeley. I’ve been blogging for over six years–a self-indulgent project that has been slowly spinning out of control. The blog began as a record, a self conversation about thoughts and ideas on books I read. Over time the blog has become a connecting point for readers who share similar reading taste.

What are you currently reading, or what is your favorite book you have read so far in 2012?
I’m currently reading three books: Remainder by Tom McCarthy, whose novel C was shortlisted for last year’s Independent Literary Award, of which I was one of the judges. Remainder was his first novel. The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont is a recent release that reminds me of A Separate Peace by John Knowles. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy won the National Book Award in 1961 and he’s an author I have always wanted to peruse. Three different novels and three different moods; they all shine in different ways. My favorite reads so far this year include Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan and The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.

Tell us one non-book-related thing that everyone reading your blog may not know about you.
When I first started blogging, friends had commented that I divulged too much personal information. Since then I had refrained from talking too much about myself, focusing instead on books. I have an acute fear of height. I have lived in San Francisco for over 25 years but I have never set my feet on the Golden Gate Bridge.

What is your favorite feature on your blog (i.e. author interviews, memes, something specific to your blog)?
Book reviews. They are what make the blog. Reading challenges, book acquisitions, and other bookish tidbits are all good but the focus of any book blog should be the reviews. They are the meat.

Where do you see your blog in five years?
I really don’t know. I never thought about the blog would still stand and have 200 subscribers. Like I said, it was a project I started to keep track of my readings. It gives me an outlet to say a few words about the books I read. Other than to commit myself in giving honest opinions about books, I really have no expectations on the blog. I never expect it to to be something super popular or extraordinary. That said, I do consider it an extraordinary feat since I’ve been doing it repeatedly for six years.

Which is your favorite post that you have written that you want everyone to read?
Again the book reviews. If you only look at one thing in the blog, I wish you read some of the book reviews. I cannot emphasize enough that book reviews are what make the blog. It’s all about the books.

If you could eat dinner with any author or character, who would it be and why?
I have always fantasized meeting Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby. Not only that I want to be a dinner guest at his luxurious mansion, I also want to meet him and convince him that Daisy is not worth all his longing and love. Not for once do I doubt Gatsby’s love for Daisy, by any affection between them is only preserved by his lust for wealth and possession, for Daisy has a profound hook on his thoughts about wealth. Maybe Gatsby is bound for his tragic fate owing to his love for Daisy, but I always wished the ending of the novel would be not as tragic.

What literary location would you most like to visit? Why?
I would like to visit Darlington Hall if it existed. Ishiguro depicts the house from Stevens’ rather deluded point of view, and so the novel reveals that the aura Darlington Hall casts resides in the eyes of this servant. Ishiguro also appears to write directly against the position that the English country house inhabited in English literature and the rhetoric of national politics. There’s a mythology surrounding English country houses that extols them as magical places and their owners as wise custodians who tend the land, look after their tenants and servants, devote their lives to public service, fill their galleries with beautiful pictures and their libraries with rare books, and are unfailingly hospitable to friends and guests. Darlington Hall is among the one I most covet to visit—and stay.

What is your favorite part about the book blogging community? Is there anything that you would like to see change in the coming years?
My favorite part of the book blogging community is the people I’ve met. Some of these bloggers have become friends and resources for my book ideas. The possibilities of reading ideas just never exhaust. They have brought to my attention authors and books that I otherwise would not have picked up. As much as bloggers being the unique voices, I also feel that many bloggers are reading and reviewing the same books, usually the ARCs or the bestsellers. Instead of fostering an atmosphere of diversity in both subject matters and opinions, I see the same old titles being reviewed across the community as if bloggers are competing for the attention and who is being first. I think the community should be inclusive of any different genres. Over the years more of the YAs, the graphic novels, and literary fiction are represented. The LGBT literature is still, in my opinion, under-represented. I also would like to see blogs/blog entries devoted to forgotten and outmoded classics, so that not only the ones that are hot off the press get all the limelight. I personally don’t review any ARCs because I have the feeling that publishers want me to become some kind of mouthpiece of the book’s publicity. I don’t do any more book tour because I don’t want to feel obligatory. I want to see more bloggers devoted to independent interests–it’s okay, and in fact fabulous, to do your own thing. If classics and NYRB series are all you want to write about, then do it. Bloggers should never feel pressured to follow what everyone else is reading.

Have your reading tastes changed since you started blogging? How?
No, not at all. Tying to what I have said in the previous question, I don’t allow the interests of publishers and literary agents to dictate what I read. I read what I want to read and for years I have been reading the same genres: literary fiction, historical fiction, and high-brow literature. Bloggers, at least the ones whose taste and recommendations I count on, have added on to my reading experience. They have broadened my reading perspective but have not altered my taste.

Book Bloggers: Finding A Niche

Daily Topic: The world of book blogging has grown enormously and sometimes it can be hard to find a place. Share your tips for finding and keeping community in book blogging despite the hectic demands made on your time and the overwhelming number of blogs out there. If you’re struggling with finding a community, share your concerns and explain what you’re looking for—this is the week to connect!

Shortly after I started blogging I am overwhelmed with the exponential growth of blogs in the community. The size of blogroll has become so gargantuan that it’s almost impractical to keep up. That said, some blogs don’t measure up to time and disappear. Others just don’t focus on genres of my interest. Insomuch I welcome diversity of book blogging community and appreciate the time and efforts readers put in, I am also relieved that only a manageable number of blogs appeal to my reading taste. I follow these book bloggers closely because I wish to keep up with what they read and what they like. As per the ever growing number of book blogs, Google reader is a good way to skim and browse what interesting posts I would read in details. I allocate about an hour to read blog posts, but compared to the huge amount of posts I read, I hardly comment. At one point in my now 6-year blogging career, I felt frustrated about the demands made on my time. I felt compelled to always leave comments to maintain the level of commitment and traffic to my blog. The truth is, what really matters is the content of the blog itself. Memes, touch of personal life, and occasional rants are fine but at least to me the main focus of a book blog should be reviews and information pertaining to books, such as authors and literary style. Consistency in reviews and types of books reviewed also give readers a sense of knowing what they will expect. For a long time I haven’t found my niche in the community because I hardly read books hot off the press and even less often do I read bestsellers, genre fiction, and popular fiction. The point is, as the community becomes as vast as the ocean, there will always be a place for each reader and book blogger. I am excited that a loyal group of book bloggers who appreciate my eclectic reading taste: a mix of contemporary literature, foreign fiction, literary fiction, and GLBT books. Over time this audience of my blog has made recommendations that I would otherwise not notice. Remember: it’s impossible and unreasonable to read all book blogs, just as it’s impossible to read every book. Read and interact as is permitted by time. Label blog posts with specific tags so they can be more easily found. Focus on quality blog content.

Hot Male

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This week’s musing is a book meme: Who do you think is the hottest male/female character from a book?

What a fun question, although I usually don’t visualize characters and assign celebrities to them. That said, one character stands out, sparking a fantasy that I cannot extinguish. The journalist Mikael Blomkvist intrigues me from the beginning of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium trilogy) and whom I always have seen as Daniel Craig. The underdog journalist who sought to reveal the scam undertaken by a financier has always appealed to me with his geekiness and ruggedness. When the series begins his career is torn to shreds. He has resigned from his position as a publisher of the magazine Millennium more or less in disgrace. His only hope is the fulfillment of a strange assignment from an industrialist, Henrik Vanger, who hires him to write the history of the Vanger family as a pretext to investigate the disappearance of his then 14-year-old grand-niece, Harriet Vanger. The investigation leads to danger in a cat-and-mouse chase that reminds me of James Bond and therefore I can totally see Daniel Craig being Blomkvist. Craig is hotter than a cookie!

Food for Thoughts

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As a book blogger, does reading others’ blogs spark ideas for what to write on your own?

I first discovered book blogs about 6 years ago, when newspapers began to scale down, if not completely remove book sections. You could imagine the excitement these book bloggers have brought me. I have long found the niche of my readings, which consist mostly historical and literary fiction. But to read outside of my comfort zone and broaden the scope as a reader, I need recommendations and guidance. The book bloggers with whom I share common interests and taste have become the primary source of my acquisition list. At first I read mostly reviews, but now Google reader and Twitter make blog posts more accessible to me. I spend at least half an hour soaking up all the literary tid-bits that might very well fuel become the backbone of my posts, upon pondering and ruminating at their thoughts.

Conversation in a Reader’s Head

Jessica from The Bluestocking Society asked me to write a post on keeping a reading record for her new bimonthly feature. The piece I submitted to her is managed just under 250 words. The original, the longer version, delves into the formation of my habit as a reader.

How do you track and record your thoughts about your reading – a blog, a reading journal, a spreadsheet, etc.?

I keep a reading journal in which I record my thoughts and my reaction to the passages that I in particular resonate with. In addition to the Moleskine notebook, I have post-its handy when I read. How you had the frustration that you forgot to write down page number to a great sentence? Every now and then I jot down references to a sentence or a passage that would become supportive in formulating my argument in the review. When I finish a book, I would have about three to four sticky posts full of references inserted between the pages and a page of notes on Moleskine. From there I compose about two pages full of coherent thoughts that become the draft of a review.

When I began reading books that are actually books—with not just string of words but full pages of prose, I was told to take notes but without any instruction. I must be a 3rd grader when I began to summarize in my own words what the book was about. By 6th grade I was able to interpret subtexts of the books and list them in bullet points. You can call me a self-taught reader and note-taker. The formal training didn’t come about until I was in 7th grade, when the language art teacher introduced a systematic method called dialectical journal. Draw a vertical line on a piece of lined paper to create two columns. The left column contains entries from the text of the book. It can be a sentence, a phrase, or a word. Written on the right hand side are reaction, thoughts, and evocation to the entries. Repeat the same process for the entire book. As you see, we are all receptive to diverse ideas, metaphors, and themes, let alone the associative power of objects and incidents that appeal to our experiences in life, dialectical journal can be a time-consuming and tedious. The take-home message is that note-taking should assume this process of thinking. I might not write out columns of entries but I conduct the thinking process in my head–a form of conversation in my head against what I read. My post-its capture the instantaneous, raw reaction to what I have read. These notes form the basis of the review to be written.

The draft in my notebook forms the backbone of what appears on my blog. I revise what I have written when I type up the review on the blog template. In other word, the book reviews you read are fruits of the labor. They have been subjected to various stages of brainstorming, critical thinking, writing, revising, and editing. The blog becomes a platform on which I interact with other readers on specific books and book-related topics. If the notebook keeps a record of my conversation with the book, the blog is a continuous update of those thoughts as readers renew my impression. Together the notebook and the blog complete my history as a reader.

The Distance from Popularity

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This week’s musing asks:

What do you think of books that receive a lot of hype? (think of the “Twilight” saga, or “Harry Potter”, or “The Da Vinci Code”). Do you read them? Why, or why not?

If you have the Wii game console, you would be familiar with the weekly poll of trivia questions that compares your opinion to the rest of the world. At the end of the day, the results are in and Wii would analyze your cumulative preference and calculate how far you’re away from popular opinion. I am not at all surprised that I am several kilometers away from mainstream society. My reading preference, as in anything in life, tends to be eclectic and deviating from the popular choices. Bestsellers and blockbusters I do not shun, but I usually skeptical and cautionary attitude. Reading history shows I would most likely enjoy literary fiction–think Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Jose Saramago, Somerset Maugham, Kazuo Ishiguro, Umberto Eco, Deirdre Madden, John Steinbeck, Alan Hollinghurst, James Baldwin and my latest favorite, Marilynne Robinson. I remember from James Baldwin I was introduced to a whole chain of authors who wrote similar subject: Alan Hollinghurst (who became more popular after Booker Prize), Colm Toibin, William Maxwell, and L.P. Hartley. I maintain a mental list of “If-I-enjoyed-this-author-I-might-also-like-…” books that I look for when I hit the bookstores. keeping the sentiment of this practice, the bestsellers almost never cross path with my book search. I rarely buy books that are hot off the press unless the subject and/or the story really intrigues me. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee, and The Heart of Racing in the Rain by Garth Steiner are the few exceptions. What were the drives? Somerset Maugham himself. Hong Kong. Dogs.

Top Favorite Genres

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This week’s musing asks:

Name your top 2-3 favorite genres (the ones you read most from).

My top genre, of course, as I have discussed and reiterated, is literature/literary fiction. Although this blog does not review literary fiction exclusively, my goal to to draw a distinctive line between popular fiction and literature. Next to literature, I’m keen on travel/travel writing. This might sound inevitably geeky: I enjoy making the effort to incorporate reading into my travel plan. Besides the fiction titles that I set aside for vacation reads, I conduct research on the history of my destinations. Charles Higham’s The Civilization of Angkor, in addition to my savvy tour guide, served as an indispensable companion to my trip to Angkor Wat, Cambodia in 2004. The author discussed the origin of the strategically built temples and monuments, over 1,000 of them, that locate in the now-World Heritage site. My dear W. Somerset Maugham chronicled his travel from Burma to Singapore in his travelogue, The Gentleman in the Parlour, which formed the backbone of my overland itinerary in Malaysia in 2007. Many of these travel writings cross over the boundary of genres: they fit snugly on the shelves under the category travel, but they are also memoirs, and history. Another great read is Martin Booth’s Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood, which I read all in one sitting on the Peak in my hometown. During my trip to the Chinese capital just a few months before the opening of the Olympic, Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed couldn’t be more appropriate reading. Old alleys known as hutongs were vanishing at a rate as shockingly speedy as new skyscrapers and sporting venues are erected.

A Lovely Award

Weekend Reader has kindly awarded me the One Lovely Blog Award along with very flattering remarks. This is a great honor because upon perusing her blog, I’m excited to discover that she has been reading books that are either my favorites or ones waiting to be read, including Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel, the latest Booker Prize winner. Here are the fine prints of the award:

  • Accept the award, and post it on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award and his/her blog link.
  • Pass the award to 5 other blogs that you’ve newly discovered. Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know that they have been chosen for this award.

I have been very erratic and stagnant in blog reading recently; and as you have also noticed that I have be slacking in responding to your comments: I do apologize. When I do visit your blogs, I haven’t been commenting much. I do want to pass on this award for a few newly-discovered blogs:

English Major’s Junk Food. The blog title is just irresistible. The English Major is defying what a conventional education has taught us: close analytical reading and author intentions. The blog is filled with a variety of book reviews. It assumes a weekly rotation of themes including musings, reviews, and favorite children’s books.

Boarding in My Forties. Obviously Kathleen has been visiting my blog for a while but I haven’t had a chance to reciprocate until toward the end of last year. She has been a supportive commentator and her readings mirror mine. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, E.M. Forster, Daphne DuMaurier, and Ken Follett. How can I not favorite this blog?

My Porch. Thomas’ blog embraces what I have envisioned for my own: literature, GLBT fiction, dogs, and travel. A quick look of his reading list always affords new ideas for acquisitions.

Buried in Print. Every once in a while a new commentator would leave very refreshing and thoughtful remarks in the blog. It’s almost like that revolutionary Apple computer commercial in 1984 in which this female athlete threw a hammer (or was it a discus) at this gigantic screen. Buried in Print is such a commentator.