Rarely have I felt so intensely ambivalent while reading a memoir. At times, I battled waves of indignation, exacerbated by Padilla Peralta’s penchant for ad hominem score-settling and his tone of belligerent entitlement. A gem from his closing paragraph: “To the haters, a final word: Demography is a bitch. Holla at me if you want me to break it down for you.” Is such trash talk the best this accomplished scholar could produce? Yet despite my irritation, I found myself rooting for Padilla Peralta’s legalization.
For decades, the acclaimed Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has split himself into two personalities: There is Vargas Llosa, the author of dazzling political novels such as “Conversation in the Cathedral” and “The Feast of the Goat.” Then there is Vargas Llosa, the author of two titillating sexual fantasies, “In Praise of the Stepmother” and “The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto.” But now that Vargas Llosa is 79 and has won the greatest literary prizes in the world, perhaps he thought, Why bother?
By Marcela ValdesThe Washington Post. Page One. April 17, 2014.
Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer who immersed the world in the powerful currents of magic realism, creating a literary style that blended reality, myth, love and loss in a series of emotionally rich novels that made him one of the most revered and influential writers of the 20th century, died April 17 at his home in Mexico City. He was 87.
The Associated Press reported his death. In July 2012, his brother Jaime García Márquez announced that the author had dementia.
Mr. García Márquez, who was affectionately known throughout Latin America as “Gabo,” was a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, memoirist and student of political history and modernist literature. Through the strength of his writing, he became a cultural icon who commanded a vast public following and who sometimes drew fire for his unwavering support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
In his novels, novellas and short stories, Mr. García Márquez addressed the themes of love, loneliness, death and power. Critics generally rank “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967), “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1975) and “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985) as his masterpieces.
“The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers — and one of my favorites from the time I was young,” President Obama said in a statement, calling the author “a representative and voice for the people of the Americas.”
Mr. García Márquez established his reputation with “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” an epic novel about multiple generations of the Buendía family in the fantastical town of Macondo, a lush settlement based on the author’s birthplace on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The novel explored social, economic and political ideas in a way that captured the experience of an entire continent, but it also included supernatural elements, such as a scene in which a young woman ascends to heaven while folding the family sheets.
By fusing two seemingly disparate literary traditions — the realist and the fabulist — Mr. García Márquez advanced a dynamic literary form, magic realism, that seemed to capture both the mysterious and the mundane qualities of life in a decaying South American city. For many writers and readers, it opened up a new way of understanding their countries and themselves.
In awarding Mr. García Márquez the literature prize in 1982, the Nobel committee said he had created “a cosmos in which the human heart and the combined forces of history, time and again, burst the bounds of chaos.”
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” has been translated into more than 35 languages and has sold, by some accounts, more than 50 million copies. The Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda described the book as “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since the Don Quixote of Cervantes.”
Mr. García Márquez parlayed his literary triumphs into political influence, befriending international dignitaries such as President Bill Clinton and François Mitterrand, the late president of France. The celebration for Mr. García Márquez’s 80th birthday was attended by five Colombian presidents and the king and queen of Spain.
Yet few knew the penury the author endured before achieving fame. “Everyone’s my friend since ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ ” Mr. García Márquez once told a brother, “but no one knows what it cost me to get there.”
'And the Mountains Echoed' by Khaled Hosseini’sReviewed by Marcela Valdes The Washington Post. May 20, 2013.
Nuance is rare on the bestseller list. In most cases, ambiguity is stripped away to appeal to the greatest number and lowest common denominator. So it always renews my faith when a popular novelist shows a decided preference for moral complexity. It suggests that readers crave more than simplistic escape. Or perhaps it just means that some writers, like Khaled Hosseini, know how to whisk rough moral fiber into something exquisite.
Hosseini’s first two novels, “The Kite Runner” (2003) and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (2007), spent a combined total of 171 weeks on the bestseller list. He knows how to please a crowd. In his case, the secret ingredient might be intense emotion. I’m not an easy touch when it comes to novels, but Hosseini’s new book, “And the Mountains Echoed,” had tears dropping from my eyes by Page 45.
The killer scene is set in Kabul in 1952, in a home so heavy with fruit trees and privilege that when 10-year-old Abdullah crosses its threshold, he feels as if he has entered a palace. Abdullah is the son of a broke day laborer; his mother died giving birth to his sister, Pari. The previous winter, the cold seeped into his family’s shack and froze his 2-week-old stepbrother to death. Now his father has walked Abdullah and Pari across miles of desert, from their tiny village to the great city of Kabul, in hopes that one brutal act — a bargain with two rich devils — will save their family from the next ruthless winter. Later, Abdullah will think back on that terrible afternoon and remember a line from one of his father’s bedtime stories: “A finger had to be cut, to save the hand.”
by Marcela ValdesThe Washington Post. May 15, 2012.
Carlos Fuentes, the politically engaged Mexican novelist and irrepressible bon vivant who stood at the forefront of Latin American letters for more than half a century, died May 15 at a hospital in Mexico City. He was 83.
Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts announced the death but did not disclose the cause. He was being treated for heart problems.
A diplomat’s son, Mr. Fuentes was working for the Mexican Foreign Ministry when he catapulted to prominence with his first novel, “Where the Air is Clear” (1958). Presenting an extravagant portrait of inequality and moral corruption in modern Mexico, the book established its 29-year-old author as a daring social critic and prose stylist and helped usher in a renaissance in Latin American literature known as the “Boom.”
As his literary career progressed, Mr. Fuentes blended his fascination with politics, and his fervent depiction of erotic couplings, with broader themes such as the inescapable influence of history, the intersection of native and European cultures, and the betrayal of national ideals for personal gain.
'Destiny and Desire' by Carlos FuentesReviewed by Marcela Valdes The Washington Post. February 1, 2011.
Carlos Fuentes is known for writing serious books about Mexico, and despite all its silliness, his latest novel, "Destiny and Desire," is clearly not intended as an exception. The book fairly smokes with acid commentary on Mexican history ("It has all been betrayal, lies, cruelty, and vengeance") and political manipulation ("Throughout Latin America homage is paid to the law only to violate it more thoroughly").
Giving himself fuel to burn, Fuentes sets "Destiny" in a law school, a prison, a presidential palace and the headquarters of a telecommunications billionaire who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mexico's richest citizen, Carlos Slim. For those who like a flash of magic, there's also a heaven where angels play poker and a windy graveyard dominated by the ghost of Mexico's old ideals.
The novel opens, however, in a much sweeter location: the postcard-perfect beaches of Mexico's Pacific Coast. There lies our narrator: the decapitated head of 27-year-old Josue Nadal. A bloody noggin may be a surprising choice for raconteur, but Josue's story feels familiar. It starts with his idealistic strivings and ends with his disastrous introduction to the backrooms of Mexican power.
The day that marks his fate occurs when Josue is 16. Bullied by classmates for his long, thin nose - "Anteater snout," they call him, along with "Monster schnoz" and "Elephant honker" - he finally defends his honor by punching the schoolyard leader. He's saved from a retaliatory beating when one of his tormentors suddenly turns coat and jumps to his aid.
Josue's new ally is Jerico, a 17-year-old as mysterious as James Bond: He claims to have no family and no last name. Such freakish isolation might give a normal young man pause, but Josue's domestic situation is equally strange. He has no memories of a mother or father; he's been raised by a chilly guardian who barely speaks, and, like Jerico, his expenses are all covered by an invisible and anonymous "senor."
Having triumphed over the epithet-shouters, Josue and Jerico seal their alliance by committing themselves to a "project for life." Their goal is intellectual independence: "We would not permit anyone to inculcate in us opinions that weren't ours" - no small feat for two lonely musketeers enrolled in a stern Catholic school. Their first step is to debate the merits of Saint Augustine and Friedrich Nietzsche in the gym showers. Nietzsche, however, proves a kind of gateway drug. Soon enough, the boys have moved from sharing books to sharing mentors to sharing an apartment to sharing a favorite whore.
What they don't share is Jerico's will to power. The older he gets, the more Jerico craves public position, while Josue aches mostly for love. They might have run happily along parallel courses - one chasing votes, the other chasing skirts - if it weren't for two interfering factors. Powerful men have stakes in their careers. And Jerico likes criminals. "Above all things," he tells Josue, "I admire the man who murders what he loves."
In theory, all of this - cynical social commentary, anonymous benefactors, dangerous friendship - could be marvelous. But the unavoidable fact is that not a single character in "Destiny and Desire" won my affection, or even my curiosity. Fuentes suggests alternately that Josue and Jerico are like the Greek demigods Castor and Pollux or like the biblical brothers Cain and Abel. Sure. The problem is that they feel too much like ideas, not enough like men.
And their female paramours are worse: a mute whore whose husband becomes paralyzed after an energetic sex act; a femme fatale who is all ice and calculation; a drug-addicted nymphomaniac who nicknames one of the boys "Savior." Had these women strutted through an old Chandler novel, I may well have enjoyed them, or at least enjoyed laughing over them. But Fuentes lacks Chandler's lightning style. On being asked by a taxi driver, "Where to chief?" Josue falls into high-toned reverie:
"Where to? It was enough to look outside the car at the vast desert of the Anillo Periferico, the outer beltway that foreshadows the funeral that awaits us if we don't choose to turn ourselves into ashes first. Sacrificed after all, we die on the cement perimeter that reflects and celebrates a new city that has shed its old skin . . ." and on and on for more than a page. Wading through this soliloquy, I found myself empathizing with the cab driver, whom I imagined drumming his fingers on the wheel, impatient for the plot to lurch ahead.
But let's give Fuentes the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he adopts such turgid prose intentionally, to convey something about Josue's character. Something like: Aching to be a great intellect, Josue has trouble seeing reality. Or maybe: Abandoned by his parents, Josue finds reality so painful that he defends himself with abstractions.
Either of these could be true. Nevertheless, the author's job is to make the reader want to stay with a novel page after page. Fuentes never really pokes fun at Josue's self-importance, never gets around the young man's humorless perspective, the way Howard Jacobson got around his narrator's delusions in "The Finkler Question."
Instead, we're trapped inside the mind of a tendentious young man who is by turns boring, pretentious, insightful and ridiculous. Reader, I would have decapitated him, too.
'I Hotel' by Karen Tei Yamashita Reviewed by Marcela Valdes The Washington Post. November 11, 2010.
The building at the center of Karen Tei Yamashita's colossal new work of fiction, "I Hotel," is a creaky hotel that once stood on the edge of Chinatown in San Francisco. Built after the great quake that nearly destroyed the city in 1906, it had rusting plumbing, dangerous wiring and rats the size of cats in the basement. But for the aging workers and young radicals who found shelter within its deteriorating walls, the International Hotel was both "a fortress and a beacon."
For Yamashita it is also the girder in a tremendous feat of creative engineering, because "I Hotel" is no ordinary work of fiction. As original as it is political, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, "I Hotel" is the result of a decade of research and writing that included more than 150 personal interviews. It's also a finalist for this year's National Book Award in fiction, which will be announced on Nov. 17. Whether or not "I Hotel" wins the prize, it will be dog-eared and underlined and assigned to college reading lists for generations.
Oddly enough, the novel began with a request from Wisconsin. Provoked by a questionnaire for Asian American writers that she received from a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Yamashita decided to write a book about the Asian American movement in California during the 1960s and '70s, of which she herself had been a part. Diving into archives and tracking down first-person participants, Yamashita put as much fact-collecting into her "Yellow Power" research as any historian.
When it came to dramatizing her facts, however, Yamashita may well have channeled I.M. Pei. "I Hotel's" table of contents includes a series of drawings that lay out its narrative architecture: 10 linked novellas, each exploring a different narrative technique (pastiche, social realism, cinema verite, etc.) and each focusing on three different main characters. (Yes, Hollywood, that makes for 30 star roles!)
One novella presents the story of a Japanese American criminology professor through a series of FBI-like surveillance reports. Another juxtaposes the marriage of two Third World Liberation Front activists against Ferdinand Marcos's declaration of martial law in the Philippines. My favorite novella features a roast pig contest directed by a Filipino migrant-worker-turned-chef with a taste for tall tales.
All the novellas, in turn, are cantilevered off a larger story about how the International Hotel inspired and protected its inhabitants. The radical intellectuals of the Asian Community Center, the veterans of the International Hotel Tenants Association, the artists of the Kearny Street Workshop and the Maoists of the Chinese Progressive Association: All of them found work space, think space, love space in the crumbling hotel. And all of them fought fiercely against the developers who wanted it demolished.
The term "Asian American" blurs together wildly different linguistic and religious cultures. As one narrator says, "Maybe we all look alike, and maybe the laws lump us all together so we got to stick together, even though we're really different and can't understand each other and our folks back in the old countries hated each other's guts."
"I Hotel" resists this lumping. Its wild narrative architecture springs from a need to delineate separate Chinese, Japanese and Filipino histories, as well as separate aesthetic, political and intellectual positions. It's as if Yamashita wanted to capture the diversity of an entire cultural ecosystem, displaying each distinct species -- idealistic gay Chinese poet, wisecracking Filipino Marxist, Japanese Black Panther strategist -- in all its particular glory, and its particular pain.
"I Hotel" may be a political book, but it's no ideological tract. Yamashita obviously admires the fervor and idealism of the activists in her novel, whether they're demanding more Third World professors at U.C. Berkeley or making charcoal drawings in a Japanese internment camp. But her activists are often as problematic as they are inspiring.
Chen, a dashing professor of Chinese literature, for example, teaches his proteges about Mao's cultural revolution but neglects to mention that "everything that Chen loved about art and literature had to be destroyed or changed" to fit the revolutionary ideal. Other radicals commit greater and lesser crimes: stealing cars, abusing women, stockpiling guns, sabotaging colleagues they consider too capitalist. Even the most generous characters, like Ria Ishii, who organizes a garment workers' collective in 1973, are forced to confront the limitations of their Marxist aspirations. "I know what you think," one of the old garment workers tells Ria, "but I am not the revolution."
"Yes, you are," Ria replies. The older woman shakes her head. And three decades later we know she's right.
Such scenes of intellectual and physical humbling come faster as "I Hotel" marches through the 1970s. Collectives fall apart. Important battles are lost. Protest chants ("The people united will never be defeated!") begin to sound more and more like wishful thinking. The disappointments might have been overwhelming if it weren't for the zing of Yamashita's prose, which is full of waggish jokes and saucy mash-ups. The sliest of them may be a series of line drawings spoofing the long-standing rivalry between the playwright Frank Chin and the novelist Maxine Hong Kingston.
In the end, the way "I Hotel" accounts for the Asian American movement is both sweet and sour. And for all the losses Yamashita records, there are, we know, great achievements as well. High among them is this beautiful book.
by Marcela ValdesBook Notes. The Washington Post Book World. November 5, 2006
Thousands of people gathered all over the country in late October to have Barack Obama sign copies of his new book, The Audacity of Hope . In San Rafael, Calif., they paid $125 to attend a lunch where the freshman Democratic senator from Illinois spoke for 15 minutes and signed books for about an hour. In Denver, they carried sleeping bags into the streets, lining up at 4 in the morning for an event that began at noon. "It was a love fest," said Margaret Maupin of Tattered Cover Book Store. "I saw one young woman, he shook her hand, and she just started fanning herself like she was going to faint."
The question fueling all this devotion -- will Obama run for president? -- has yet to be answered. (He promises to think about it after Election Day.) This continuing mystery is wonderful for sales. According to Nielsen BookScan, The Audacity of Hope sold more than 69,000 copies in its first two weeks. (That should go some way toward covering his $1.9 million, three-book advance.) But if the prospect of an Obama White House bid has been good for The Audacity of Hope , the book has also been great for his bid. Obama, who won his first election (to the Illinois State Senate) in 1996, a year after he published his memoir, Dreams From My Father , must know in his bones that books help political campaigns. In fact, since 1952 every winning presidential candidate has published a book. Even Abraham Lincoln authorized the writing of two biographies during his successful 1860 presidential run.
"It's like establishing a campaign committee," said Andrew Ferguson, a columnist for Bloomberg News. "It's something you have to do. It almost doesn't matter what the book says."
While any sort of publication may fill the requirement, a well-made book and a savvy publisher can give a candidate an extra political boost. Obama's message is: Red states and blue states, I could unify you. But it's the existence of the book, not its substance, that has snagged him front-page articles, the cover of Time magazine, appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The Today Show," "Meet the Press" and "Larry King Live."
"We orchestrated all of it," said Tina Constable, executive director of publicity at Crown Publishing Group. Her team spent months coordinating Obama's interviews and his 12-city, campaign-like book tour, for which Crown also footed the bill.
The increased celebrity has made Obama more politically viable. And the late nights of writing may have given him subtler benefits as well: the chance to clarify the vision he might campaign on, for example, and practice in translating arcane policy matters into ordinary language.
Those are the kinds of advantages Steve Wasserman saw conferred on Bill Clinton when Wasserman edited the then-governor's Putting People First (1992, co-authored with Al Gore) and Between Hope and History (1996) for Times Books. The latter volume, Wasserman says, was Clinton's attempt to articulate for himself his underlying vision for reelection. In true Clinton style, he was refining it until the last possible moment. In August 1996, while Wasserman was at the typesetter double-checking the final proofs with Don Bahr, then one of Clinton's chief advisors, the president called asking them to remove a paragraph from the middle of the book. The passage was drawn from a heartfelt speech he had given in Texas about race relations in America. "It was one of the few personal and authentic bits in a book otherwise given to wonkish policy pronunciamentos," Wasserman recalled. But Clinton had decided it was a "downer." What he wanted, Wasserman said, was "an upbeat book that would put some wind in his sails as he embarked on his last campaign for the White House."
No matter how sincerely an author like Obama may approach the task of writing a campaign book, the campaign itself will undermine authenticity in a thousand little ways. Obama wrote The Audacity of Hope himself, his editor, Rachel Klayman, said. But members of his staff read it over before it was published, just as Clinton's staff read over his campaign books before they were published. (John McCain shortens the process by writing all his books, including his memoir Faith of My Fathers, with longtime staffer Mark Salter.) The publicity schedules for all these books were coordinated with rallies and other political events. McCain's memoir was published in September 1999, when the author was already dashing around New Hampshire in preparation for the 2000 GOP primaries. And on his book tour, Obama juggled signings with democratic rallies.
Such political imperatives are probably why "only one presidential memoir has really lasted in history," according to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. It was written by Ulysses S. Grant, long after he left office, while he was on his deathbed with no election in sight.
by Marcela ValdesBook Notes. The Washington Post Book World. October 22, 2006.
It was supposed to be the crowning moment of last month's National Book Festival. More than 1,000 people had gathered under a tent on the Mall to hear Bob Woodward speak. But moments before the bestselling author, an assistant managing editor of this newspaper, came to the microphone, the crowd booed.
They had just been told that Woodward wouldn't talk to them about State of Denial , his provocative new book about the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq. Though information from the book had leaked two days earlier in the New York Times, and though Woodward himself had signed copies of the book at the festival earlier that afternoon, he still couldn't discuss its contents. C-SPAN was broadcasting his appearance, but Woodward had already promised "60 Minutes" that it would air the first book-related interview the next night.
"Even though the book was being sold in stores, even though the whole embargo was broken, he was legally bound not to speak about his own book," says Book World's editor, Marie Arana, who had the unenviable task of breaking the news to the crowd. "It was the apex of the ridiculous extreme that an embargo can go to."
That apex keeps getting higher. Only a week earlier at the White House, the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, told reporters he couldn't answer questions about his charge that former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage had threatened to bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age" if it backed Al-Qaeda's Taliban hosts in the wake of 9/11. The incident, Musharraf said, was recounted in his new book, In the Line of Fire, which was embargoed; he was "honor-bound" not to speak about its contents until the publication date. Incidentally, he'd also promised "60 Minutes" an exclusive interview.
Though book embargoes have been around for a while -- some believe they began with Woodward and Carl Bernstein's 1976 book The Final Days -- they've never been as common as they are now. "It used to be the idea was that you wanted to protect the writer from leaks and get the book out there on a given day," says Sara Nelson, the editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. "Now it really has to do with what TV show has made you promise not to use the material" -- or what periodical has paid thousands of dollars for the right to print the first excerpt.
When Paul Burrell sold pieces of The Way We Were, his second memoir about his job as Princess Diana's butler, to the Mail on Sunday in England, the Mail stipulated that neither the book's title, nor its author, nor even its subject could be announced before the first excerpt ran last September. That meant that Burrell's American publisher, William Morrow, spent all of August asking booksellers to blindly order a title it would describe only as a "world-wide publishing event" and "the must-read-tell-all book for Fall."
But embargoes have also grown popular because they're great marketing tools. Embargoes help publishers synchronize news outlets all over the country and sometimes all over the world. They help books open big, the way Hollywood movies open with single nationwide screening dates. "You don't want a book dribbling out at a slow rate of sale," says W.W. Norton president Drake McFeely. "You want to get the highest velocity you can for the book over a few days around the publication date." High velocities land books on bestseller lists and breed follow-up reports that keep people talking.
Embargoes can make books sound a lot more important than they are. Time magazine's book critic, Lev Grossman, calls those books faux embargoes. "The prime example there," he says, "is the Seth Mnookin book [about the Boston Red Sox]. It had absolutely nothing in the way of bombshells. But they put an embargo on it, and I had to sign something and meet with the P.R. director in person, you know, like on a street corner in disguise." (Simon & Schuster said it had embargoed the book to keep sports reporters from leaking its news.)
Many journalists complain that publishers also use embargoes to manipulate the press in more devious ways. Almost every critic interviewed for this article had a story about either getting around an embargo with a publicist's consent or being barred by a publisher's non-disclosure agreement from sharing a book with their publication's newsroom. Few people want to admit publicly to such maneuvers, but orchestrated leaks are more than just paranoid fantasy.
In 2005, for example, PublicAffairs used an embargo to give the New York Times a big head start on former Guantanamo chaplain James Yee's For God and Country, which charged that the prison's commanding officer knowingly fostered the abuse of detainees. After getting many book review sections, including Book World, to sign a non-disclosure agreement in return for pre-publication access to the book, PublicAffairs passed it to reporters at the New York Times. The Post had no inkling that the publisher had purposefully tied its hands until a story based on Yee's book popped up in the Times. When Arana and Warren Bass, a nonfiction editor at Book World, demanded an explanation, "We got an email back saying, 'The story had to break somewhere and we chose the New York Times,' " Bass recalls. PublicAffairs subsequently apologized profusely to The Post for the episode.
Already several editors have made it a policy never to sign such agreements, even if it means missing out on advance copies of important books. Sam Tanenhaus, who edits the Sunday book review at the New York Times, is among those who won't be herded by embargo schedules -- and he refuses to hide embargoed books from the daily news sections. "Just give us the book when you're ready for [the newspaper] to have it," he tells publishers. That policy means he usually doesn't see embargoed books until they're out in stores.
The Times's daily newspaper, however, is notorious for writing about embargoed books early. (The Sunday and daily sections don't coordinate their contents.) Indeed, for many reporters, blowing the lid off of embargoes has become a beat in itself. Barbara Meade of Washington's Politics and Prose bookstore says that she gets loads of calls from journalists begging her to sell them books on the sly. MaryAnn Brownlow of the "L" Street Borders is similarly pestered. "Couldn't I just come in the back and speed-read a book?" she says reporters ask her. Both Meade and Brownlow always say no.
"The irony is that it's journalists who are encouraging the embargos," says literary agent Chris Calhoun, who represents Pakistan's Musharraf. According to Woodward, that's nothing new. "If The Post has a scoop, they put it out in the newspaper," he says. "That's embargoed, effectively. Maybe it's ready on a Monday, and they wait to run it on a Thursday."
He had State of Denial embargoed, he says, to ensure that the book's contents were presented "coherently." It took him two-and-half years to gather all the information in the book. He was conducting interviews for it as late as July 2006. The manuscript was completed only last month. And once his publisher, Simon & Schuster, had made an agreement with "60 Minutes," he wasn't about to break it, no matter what anybody else leaked.
"Wait a minute; wait a minute," Arana told the booing crowd. "This is a guy who's kept secrets for 35 years. You could at least let him keep one for 24 more hours." The crowd grew quiet. Nobody walked out. They must have had the sense that this time the embargo was for real. *
by Marcela ValdesBook Notes. The Washington Post Book World. October 8, 2006.
Anyone who cares about rare books would have been horrified by the damage. Page after page of the 16th- to 18th-century Malian manuscripts that Abdel Kader Haidara brought to the Library of Congress this past April was shot through with watermarks and insect holes. One sheet of a scientific manuscript titled "Knowledge of the Movement of the Stars and What it Portends in Every Year" was almost entirely washed out -- only a few words remained legible.
Then again, it was something of a miracle that the nine manuscripts still existed at all. After carefully preserving them for centuries, Haidara's family had hidden them underground for more than 60 years.
As Haidara explained through e-mail, the manuscripts were buried by his grandparents and great-grandparents during the French colonial rule of Mali. During that time, he says, "all African intellectuals hid their manuscripts." The reason was simple: Colonialists were deporting thousands of the precious volumes to Europe. "The ancient manuscripts of the El Hadj Oumar Tall Library are still in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris," Haidara writes. "They are still there. And there are others in various European capitals."
To prevent such theft, 19th-century Malians stashed their treasures away. Some sent their collections into the Sahara. Others built false fronts over the entrances to their libraries. And some, like the Haidara family, dug deep pits and buried their manuscripts in metal trunks.
And there they stayed until 1960, when Mali won back its independence.
"The original assumption [among Western scholars] had been that Africa did not have a written tradition," says Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern division of the Library of Congress. "When in fact it did."
Manuscripts have now emerged not only in Mali, but also in Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana. Most of them are written by hand in Arabic because, in Africa, written traditions usually spread along with Islam. As a result, literacy was more common in Mali in the 14th-century than it was in Europe. And books appeared on every conceivable topic, including theology, astronomy, travel, law, economics and medicine.
Haidara's own family has been producing scholars, and acquiring manuscripts, for more than 400 years. Their private library, Mamma Haidara, which is named after Abdel Kader's father, is one of the largest libraries in Timbuktu. It contains more than 9,000 items. The oldest among them is a 10th-century manuscript on Islamic law written on parchment -- Haidara keeps it at home, and it has yet to be officially catalogued.
More than 80 percent of Mali's hidden manuscripts have now been unearthed, but the process of recovery has been slow, and thousands of manuscripts still have yet to be indexed or catalogued. Having lost so many of their volumes to Europe, for a long time after the country gained independence in 1960, Malian collectors felt wary of accepting foreign aid for manuscript recovery and conservation efforts. "Abdel Kader Haidara is in a way leading this movement of saying, 'Look, we shouldn't fear people. We should work with others. They can help us,' " Deeb says.
In fact, Mali's President Amadou Toumani Touré has designated Haidara as the world spokesperson for Mali's manuscript treasures. And with help from the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, UNESCO and other aid organizations, Haidara is working to renovate Mali's libraries, to catalog their holdings and to train their owners in up-to-date conservation techniques. "Our project is to save all these manuscripts," Haidara writes. Foreign aid for that project is crucial because Mali is one of the 10 poorest nations in the world.
When Haidara allowed the Library of Congress to digitize the 22 manuscripts he brought to Washington in 2003 and to post them on its World Digital Library (at www.loc.gov/exhibits/mali), and when he lent them nine more manuscripts for scanning in April, he worked toward another important goal: making the world aware of Mali's precious holdings.
"He's enormously generous," Deeb says. "Many librarians and institutions that hold rare manuscripts are wary of the new technology: of scanning, digitizing and putting their materials on the web. They're afraid they will lose control of them." But Haidara has understood that by having the manuscripts of Timbuktu digitized, they will be publicly linked to their rightful owners -- which may help prevent them from ever being stolen again.
by Marcela ValdesBook Notes. The Washington Post Book World. August 20, 2006
Once known as "vanity publishing," self-publishing is still widely sneered at by book industry professionals. No wonder, since most self-published books begin their lives on the reject piles of New York publishing houses. Many bookstores still refuse to carry them, but the Web has given little-known authors an unprecedented boost.
Recently I dialed into a phone seminar that teaches self-published authors how to take advantage of some of these new methods. It was called "How to Make Your Book an Amazon.com Bestseller and Sell Tons of Copies -- Even If You're a Marketing Novice," and listening to it felt like watching an infomercial. Everything was pre-recorded. Periodically, the speakers erupted into tinny laughter.
Randy Gilbert, who spent 22 years in the Coast Guard before retiring because he "really wanted to help the industry become proactive," told me (and uncountable others) how his self-published book Success Bound: Breaking Free of Mediocrity rose from Amazon.com Sales Rank #65,000 all the way to #5.
On Sept. 18, 2002, Gilbert had about 12 people e-mail an "endorsed announcement" of his book to approximately 150,000 potential buyers. The announcement included incentives to get people to buy the book within 24 hours.
Gilbert's technique worked because most online bestseller lists measure the rate of sale, not the total number of books sold. Thus, a concentrated sales bump can land a book on the lists for a few hours or a couple of days, especially if buyers purchase books during the dead of the night.
"It used to be very predictable which books would rise into our Top 100 or break into the Top 10," Amazon.com's PR Manager Sean Sundwall says. "They were the books backed by big publishers with big publicity budgets. While those still make up the majority of our Top 100 titles, we are seeing more grassroots marketing efforts that result in much higher rankings than one might expect."
According to Gilbert's partner, Peggy McColl, the e-mail campaign for E. Dee Merriken's self-published novel Dream Season caused so much consternation at BarnesandNoble.com that the president of the company called the author to ask what was causing the unknown book's rise to #15.
The great enemy of Internet marketeers is spam filters. And for $3,095, Gilbert and McColl will gladly teach you how to use "fr.ee" instead of "free" and other such filter-dodging tricks. For another small fee, they'll probably send out an "endorsed announcement" of your book, too.
"We can only work with a small fraction of the authors that are on this call," Peggy's pre-recorded voice said. But so far, I've received six follow-up e-mails telling me there's still room for another desperate author.
Successful Web campaigns all depend on either amassing a huge number of valid e-mail addresses or driving a huge number of visitors to a site. In this ability to network, big publishers and booksellers may still have the advantage over self-published authors.
Powells.com, for example, sends out its biweekly newsletter to 320,000 people. After it goes out, the retailer sees "a spike," says Promotions Coordinator Georgie Lewis, "particularly with books we have a signed first edition of." That sounds like a strategic bonus to me, and with an audience that size it's no surprise that almost all the books on Powells.com's top 10 list are connected to its promotions.
The site's bestseller list is also unusual because it figures in sales from the previous 144 hours, not just the last 24, though sales from the last 12 hours are weighted most heavily.
"If something does have a surge during the day, we want to reflect that," Darin Sennett, Director of Powells.com's Web Stuff, says. "But at the same time we want to show what has staying power."
Staying power may be the one thing Randy Gilbert can't guarantee. He'll have the words "bestselling author" on his bio for the rest of his life, but, as I write, the current Amazon.com Sales Rank of Success Bound is #1,372,974.
by Marcela ValdesThe Washington Post Book World. June 18, 2006.
The African American Book Industry Professionals Conference took place on a Thursday this year, while most of the Washington Convention Center still hummed with preparations for Book Expo America. For many attendees, the real excitement began when Nick Chiles convened a panel called "Too Hood or All Good?: The Impact of Urban Fiction on African American Literature" in a large, windowless room.
There was the expectation of a fight.
Urban fiction -- also known as hip-hop fiction, ghetto fiction, and street lit -- is a big deal in African American bookstores these days, with good reason. It's helping many of them survive. Bernard Henderson of Alexander Books in San Francisco estimates that 50 percent of his store's sales came from street lit last year. That's about $600,000.
"At one point it was all about romance: the Terry McMillan, the Eric Jerome Dickey, the E. Lynn Harris stories," Henderson explains. Now the big sellers are Vickie Stringer, Nikki Turner, and Noire. Their books are love stories, too, but gritty, violent ones that often involve dealers, junkies and ho's.
Chiles isn't pleased by the change. In January, the author threw down his glove, declaring in a New York Times op-ed piece that urban fiction's "lurid book jackets" turn African American literature sections into "a pornography shop," and that "the sexualization and degradation of black fiction" left him "thoroughly embarrassed and disgusted." Industry professionals should stem the rise of these books, Chiles argued, before they crowd out literary volumes by authors such as Benilde Little and Edward P. Jones.
Most of the audience wasn't having it. "I'm an abandoned child," bestselling author Treasure E. Blue proclaimed during the Q&A portion. "I've seen horrors through these eyes that I still can't get out of my head. Things that happened to me as well as my sister.
"Things they done to me as well as I done to them. But this is my story. You cannot fault a person for telling these stories."
"Some of these people who sell a hundred thousand copies allow me to publish the other, award-winning writers," said Atria book editor Malaika Adero. She also acknowledged that it's difficult to find placement for the full range of her titles in stores.
But the loudest applause came when singer-songwriter Kia Jeffries took the floor. "I'm middle class; I'm from Queens; both my parents are college educated," she announced. "But I got a Kwame in my family that's been locked up ten times. You're gonna have an Oprah in the family and you're gonna have a Kwame in that family, too."
"But do you want to read about Kwame?" Chiles asked her.
"Sure, I want to read about Kwame, because sometimes I'm like, 'Damn, Kwame, why you keep getting locked up?' "
"Instead of us trying to push Kwame to the back closet and not deal with Kwame," she said, "you have to deal with Kwame."
"Du Bois attacked ragtime and the cakewalk in the same way we now talk about rap and booty-shaking videos," Chiles observed early in the session. And as long as people care about culture, the argument isn't going away.