Is there life after Harry (Potter)?

I’m Single-Dadding it for a few days whilst Kathi is teaching down in L.A., and our seven-year-old son just made me so proud that I must share.

Post school, post Tae Kwon Do, post dinner (pizza, because Dad’s a little under the weather and doesn’t want to cook), I offered him the chance to finish watching the movie “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

His response, “can I read instead?”

I paused, then said — like it was a concession — “Oh… Okay.”

Here’s what he looks like right now, in the last 200 pages of the seventh book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”:

WReadingHP7

So I will forever be grateful to J. K. Rowling because her books transfigured my video-game-obsessed son into a reader. Like he had chugged a vial of Polyjuice Potion, only if I’m lucky in his case the transformation will be permanent.

Not to pat myself on the back too vigorously, but I did the right thing by withholding the movies until significant progress happened with the books. He has seen movies one to four and is DYING to see #5, but he’s invested in the written story in a way that he wouldn’t be if he’d galloped past the reading point and watched them all.

But what waits after Harry? What series can capture his imagination so deeply and for so long? For his sister, almost 12, the transforming books were Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series (the first five), and therein lies a tale for another time. For me it was comic books, then Edgar Rice Burroughs, then Star Trek and then Shakespeare.

For a post-Harry boy, what works?

I’ll be eager for suggestions, dear readers.

Everybody’s a Muggle in Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy”

As I type these words I have reached page 160 of J. K. Rowling’s new novel, “A Casual Vacancy,” so I’m about one third done and have made enough progress to know that I’ll finish the book and that I can draw early conclusions.

Note: there are no plot spoilers here past the first five or so pages of the book, but you’ll get the sensibility.

It’s impossible to read this novel without Harry Potter in mind—nor would the “A Casual Vacancy” be so inescapably present in bookstores, airports and Costco without the Boy who Lived. It’s particularly true for me at the moment as my seven year old son is obsessed with Harry Potter, my eleven year old daughter is in the middle of reading the final book, and our idea of a great Saturday night is a bowl of home made popcorn and one of the Harry Potter movies—“Goblet of Fire” is on deck for my 45th birthday family celebration tomorrow night. We’re all in with Harry.

But Harry Potter is also a great way into what’s interesting about “A Casual Vacancy.”

If you take that series of novels and subtract the magic, you get a painful, grey story set in a British boarding school during one of the world wars. It’s “Dead Poets Society” sans Robin Williams or a British version of John Knowles “A Separate Peace.”  Bleak is an understatement.

Take away the boarding school and you have a novel set on Privet Drive starring Vernon and Petunia Dursley and their disappointing brute of a son and ingrate, possibly psychotic, nephew.

And that’s the sensibility of “Casual Vacancy.”

The novel begins with the death by cerebral hemorrhage of Barry Fairbrother, a  banker and town council leader in the picturesque British town of Pagford. We’re only in Barry’s head for a few pages before he strokes out, but in that time he comes across as dull– a caring but detached man, put upon by his wife Mary’s expectations and resentfully doing things because he ought to rather than because he wants to do them.

By any reasonable account Barry is a nebbish, which makes it all the more surprising when his death sweeps Pagford like an emotional earthquake, throwing relationships into conflict, destabilizing the Town Council, and wreaking havoc with the local high school.

The reader quickly learns that Barry was the best person in Pagford. He was a drab saint that the town is not ready to do without.  This much is obvious 50 pages in, and by 160 – where I am now – Rowling’s deft ability to jump deep inside a character’s pain has me hooked.  Unlike seven books in Harry’s head, we flit from character to character in free indirect discourse that is compelling and alarming. I don’t know where this is going, and I’m not sure that the sturm und drang about Barry’s open council seat will be enough of a spine for the book, but I’ll see it through.

But it’s hard to like any of these characters, as it was hard to like Harry in the fifth book, “The Order of the Phoenix” when he spent the entire 870 page book in an adolescent snit.

It’s almost as if “A Casual Vacancy” were a novelistic equivalent of those intolerably cruel yet can’t-stop-watching British television comedies like “Peep Show” or the original versions of “The Office” or “Shameless.” The closest American equivalent is “Arrested Development,” where there is nobody to root for.

The difference between a novel and a TV show, though, is that actors are charming. The charm of the performers in those shows cuts the cruelty like baby powder cutting cocaine.  “Rain Man” was another famous example: director Steven Spielberg convinced screenwriter Ron Bass to make Raymond autistic instead of retarded because Dustin Hoffman was so charming that the audience wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from loving him, but if he’d been retarded there would have been no conflict.

In “A Casual Vacancy” we mainline the meanness as we read.  There is no cushion of humanity.

The writer that “A Casual Vacancy” most reminds me of isn’t the Rowling of Harry Potter.  It’s Graham Greene, the master of quietly embarrassing detail, pasty human skin layered on squishy human bodies, small worlds from which escape isn’t so much impossible as unthinkable.

In “Romeo and Juliet” a banished Romeo says with horror, “there is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence, banished is banished from the world, and world’s exile is death.”

That’s Pagford.

“A Casual Vacancy” is compelling, dirty, middle-aged and painful.  But so far it’s worth it.

Postscript: A fine account of the Rain Man story can be found here.

 

Simile Search: Please Help This Writer!

I’m looking for evocative comparisons that talk about how one thing so automatically comes with another that we take the pairing for granted. Like, “the juice comes with the meat” (except it often doesn’t) or “the warmth that comes with the fire” but preferably less flabby.  Something taste or smell related (for its Proustian oomph) would be ideal.  If you can think of any, please share in comments.

Here’s why I’m asking:

My new book length project (now that Redcrosse is here) is called “The Shakespeare Strategy” and is all about why Shakespeare’s working context helped to constitute his immense business and cultural success, and that leads to an argument about how we don’t pay enough attention to context — including physiological and psychological context — nowadays.  For frequent readers you’ll recognize some of this in my longtime fascination with eventness.

I’m still working on the elevator pitch, but you can see the seed of the thinking here:

 
Before we had VCRs, DVRs, DVDs, streaming video, individual songs on iTunes and, newly, individual articles sold independently of their magazines context came automatically with our experience of music, TV, movies, newspaper and magazine articles.  Even books came in context because we found them in bookstores, libraries or catalogs.

We now lack much of that formerly automatic context, which is why books like Steve Rosenbaum’s Curation Nation are so interesting and relevant.

So I’m looking for comparisons that convey automatic pairings… as well as comparisons showing formerly automatic pairing that — once detached — reveal how accidental and contingent the link between the two things really was. That is, “the commercials that come with the TV show” (before DVRs) or “the sting that comes with the angry bee” (except more positive).

Any ideas? Please help!

Short Post: There’s More to the Amazon story than Fast Company conveys

Kit Eaton over at Fast Company (a must read in general) blogged today about Amazon’s announcement that it now sells more e-Books than physical books.  Here’s a relevant snippet including a link to the Amazon press release:

Since April the first, for every 100 print-and-paper books Amazon has sold, it’s also sold 105 e-books, according to a fresh Amazon announcement.

Kindle e-readers arrived, along with a small but fast-growing digital bookstore, in November 2007–by July 2010, Amazon notes, Kindle book sales had surpassed hardcover book sales, and then six months later beat the paperback books sales rate. Now Amazon’s customers are “choosing Kindle books more often than print books. We had high hopes this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly,” says CEO Jeff Bezos, comparing Amazon’s 15-year heritage of selling physical books to just four years of e-book sales.

What’s missing from this story are the economics. Sure, Amazon sells more e-books than physical books, but that’s because the electronic editions are generally cheaper than the physcial ones.  Moreover, when the book isn’t published by a major house with discount deals at Wal-Mart, CostCo, Barnes & Noble, et cetera, then the gap between physical and electronic can be huge.

What I want to know is this: how do the titles on the 105 e-books compare to the physical books? What is the intersection on the Venn diagram of those two lists, and what is the total list price differential between them?

Amazon is an exciting new frontier for small publishing houses or author-published books in both fiction and non-fiction — the Romance genre alone is changing fast because of the Kindle publishing platform.  As meat-space bookstores die — and this happens increasingly — Amazon will become only more important for both physical and e-Books.

But this 105 v 100 press release is a non-story without significant context.

 

 

 

The Shakespeare Brand: Yesterday’s iMedia Talk now UP on YouTube

UPDATE: More of the talk now embedded below.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of speaking at the iMedia Brand Summit– an event that I’ve been intimately associated with for years but at which I’ve rarely presented while wearing my research hat.  This talk is the seed of my next book length project, and I was delighted to see that most of it is already on YouTube this morning:

 

Here’s the handbook description:

On February 11, 2011 Disney released a new kids movie called “Gnomeo & Juliet” based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Why? What made Disney think that an animated love story about lawn gnomes would somehow be better – or, at least, more marketable — with a connection to a play first performed in London in 1595? The answer is simple: Shakespeare created one of history’s most powerful brands. Allusions to and adaptations of his plays permeate our culture, and not just in movies and TV. In Corpus Christi in 1845, while serving in the infantry, bored and waiting for the Mexican War to start, future President Ulysses S. Grant killed time playing the role of Desdemona– the female lead in “Othello.” Imagine George W. Bush or Barack Obama doing that! We don’t typically think of Shakespeare as a successful brand story, but we should because the way Shakespeare created, bonded with and nurtured his customer base has actionable lessons for marketers today. Don’t get distracted by the tights, skulls, swords and iambic pentameter: what really distinguished Shakespeare was his longitudinal and economic relationship with his customers. In today’s insight address, iMedia’s own Chief Content Officer (and a bona fide Shakespearean) will unpack this economic relationship and explore how deploying the Shakespeare Strategy can empower marketing in today’s digital media landscape.

I’ll post when Part II comes live or repost the whole thing to YouTube once I get the files.

Please let me know what you think!

 

Book Review: “Scrawl,” a terrific YA novel by Mark Shulman

Here’s the executive summary of this post: “Scrawl” reveals the inner life of a junior high school bully, a huge, violent, lower class, shambling boy named Tod Munn who is secretly brilliant but plays being an oaf to conceal his intelligence and retain his hidden-in-plain-sight status in the complex social economy of his school. We have so many books about the inner lives of girls or super-powered boys or just good-looking, well-intentioned kids who wind up in bad situations that it’s refreshing to read a novel that plumbs the personality of somebody who is trapped and has given up on himself and everyone around him. Shulman writes beautifully and keeps the book from turning into an ABC After School Special (they don’t even make those anymore, do they?) exercise in sentimentality. This is a terrific read for anybody, particularly if you like Young Adult (YA) fiction, from a small press with a small marketing budget. You’re only likely to hear about it by word of mouth, and my mouth is telling you to go buy it on Amazon or order it from your local bookstore.

The longer version: If you’re a Calvin & Hobbes fan like I am, then you might share my mental picture of Tod, which is Moe the elementary school bully.

A few years older and infinitely smarter than Moe, Tod lives with his mom, a seamstress at a down market dry cleaner, and his stepfather Dick, a gardener, who thinks as little of Tod as he has to say to him, which is mostly “keep it down in there.” Tod’s dad walked out of his life when he was a kid, leaving behind only an apology letter that Tod hides in a suitcase under his bed. Poor, sleeping in an under-heated room in a rough-Manhattan-neighborhood apartment with paper thin walls and so little food that he eats both breakfast and lunch at the school cafeteria, Tod is a loser and knows it. He has two companions — not exactly friends, so he calls them his “droogs” — named Rob and Rex, as well as a younger friend who he looks after on the sly named Bernie. Just about everybody is taken in by Tod’s tough guy persona — even the teachers who can’t reconcile his appearance and manner with his high grades — with the possible exception of Stu, a classmate of Tod’s who is blind.

The engine for the novel: Tod is in detention, having been caught doing something we don’t learn about until later and sentenced to a month with Mrs. Woodrow, the school guidance counselor, who makes him keep a journal after school every day while Rex and Rod, Tod’s co-conspirators, clean the school grounds in the freezing cold as their punishment. Being forced to write uncorks something in Tod, and despite his desire to remain invisible he finds himself describing the school, his home, his life and his lack of options all in arresting detail. From time to time, Mrs. Woodrow writes back to Tod, and it feels like the voice of God when that adult voice writing in italics interjects. As his perspective shifts due to his journaling, Tod’s school and home life also begin to open up, although there are no scholarships to private school for this kid.

Shulman writes first person in Tod’s voice, and for the literary-critically minded of you the book is an exercise is “the skaz,” a Russian Formalist term that describes when a tale is told convincingly and unerringly from a character’s unusual perspective. The most famous American example of the skaz is Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”  Just about the only challenge of reading this delightful book is reconciling Tod’s appearance with his vocabulary and intelligence, and that’s a neat trick on Shulman’s part since we only have Tod’s own narrative to convince us of his appearance.

Here’s the opening paragraph from “Scrawl”:

Think about a pair of glasses for a second. You see them every day but you really don’t think about them, I bet. They’re just glass and metal, or glass and plastic. Little pieces of glass stuck on your face that mean everything. Maybe they mean you’re smart. Maybe they mean you’re rich. But definitely they mean you can’t see without them. Grind the glass this way, put in a slight curve, and you can see far. Change that curve a hair, just a tiny, minuscule difference, and you can see near. Grab the two lenses between your big hands and twist your wrist — just snap the part over the nose — now you can’t see anything for the rest of the day. That’s how it went for fat Ricardo Manzana.

What I like so much about that paragraph is that it starts with a typical writerly observation and then stomps right into Tod’s hulk persona. Shulman stops the reader from seeing through the lenses and makes us feel with Tod’s hands. That’s a neat trick.

Most teenagers feel isolated, misunderstood and powerless. The few that don’t are those kids who tragically peak in high school and get to be disappointed with the next sixty or eighty years of life. Tod Munn is isolated, misunderstood and — despite his physical strength and intelligence– powerless.  His story is well worth reading.

Personal Note: I met Mark Shulman on my last trip to New York, but despite spending all of Halloween together on a trick-or-treating playdate with our families he somehow never mentioned that his novel had been published just the previous month. That’s the kind of guy he is, which shocked this Los Angeleno who grew up with every waiter having a screenplay peeking out of his apron.  In fact, it wasn’t until a second Shulman visit when the truth came out, and Mark told Kathi, my wife about “Scrawl,” whereupon she happily bought a copy at The Strand.  Kathi read it first, and I picked it up a few days ago. My impetus for reading the book was personal, but I forgot that I know Mark within a few pages of the start because I was hooked– so hooked that I woke up at 4:00am today to finish the book and then marched right to my home office to write this.

You’ll like it too.