Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Simon & Schuster Launches Webcam-Based Author Interaction: "Ask The Author"

From Mediabistro. . .

Simon & Schuster Digital partnered with to create Ask the Author, a digital venue for readers to interact with writers. On the new site, authors respond to reader-submitted questions through webcam videos.

Participating writers with Ask the Author pages include: Chris Cleave, Brad Thor, Chuck Klosterman, and Lisa McMann.

Here's a link to their interview frontpage.

Many thanks to my friend, who forwarded this press release. If you know about other book news--local or national--send it my way at I'd love to post it on the site!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich, Author of Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch

Barbara Ehrenreich is a journalist, lecturer, activist, and the author of over 20 books, but she is perhaps best known for 2001's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, an undercover report of the living and work conditions of America's minimum wage workers. Though academically trained in chemistry (Ehrenreich received a PhD from Rockefeller University in 1968), she switched focus toward social justice and shortly thereafter published her first title in the field, Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprisings at Home and Abroad. Ehrenreich recently spoke by phone to discuss immersion journalism, the current recession, and 2005's Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, an examination of the challenges of unemployed white collar workers.

hBooks: How do you prepare--psychologically and logistically--to go into an undercover role?

Barbara Ehrenreich: It's something I've only done twice. With Nickel and Dimed I wasn't undercover; it was just me going out and getting those jobs. I was very unfamiliar with the genre, except for having read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, but I had read that for pleasure. I didn't have any models. With Bait and Switch, I had to go undercover. I changed back to my maiden name because I was pretty confident that I couldn't get get hired otherwise. So I had to fake a resume. In that case also I was a little concerned that my name might've been recognized.

I mainly faced things with dread. My writing life is very solitary and quiet. Suddenly, to be out there in the world, interacting with people, is kind of a rude shock, especially when you're doing it as someone else. I didn't know how to prepare myself. I had to find out more along the way. I didn't have the clothes. I thought what I considered professional clothes would be fine for being in the corporate role. I had to pay for a makeover. I had no idea. Dressing in a corporate way is like putting on a uniform, and every detail has to be right.

BTB: Comparing white collar job seekers' experiences with the subjects of Nickel & Dimed, do you think one demographic has an advantage over the other when it comes to support networks and access to job opportunities?

Ehrenreich: Unemployment right now, compared to 2004 and 2005, is running much higher for blue collar workers. This is a recession that has really slammed blue collar workers. Most white collar workers have the advantage of easy internet access. They have their own laptop and a desk and can search for jobs from home. Many blue collar workers have to go to a library to use a computer and find jobs. But white collar workers undergo very long periods of unemployment, especially if they're over 45. It could be terminal.

BTB: What do you think will be the breaking point in unemployment, when conditions become so strained for so many that the system is compelled to change? Is our economy in danger of approaching that point?

Ehrenreich: Are we in danger, or is it opportunity? I came away from Bait and Switch kind of amazed with how well corporate America has managed disappointment and despair in the workforce. It's a big effort. There are placement firms where people get pep talks; there's the whole positive thinking psychology, which was something that led to my next book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. They work very hard to manage disappointment among white collar workers, and they do that by saying, "If you have a problem, it's your fault." That's worked for them so far. I'm trying to chip away at that.

BTB: I was interested to read in the book's introduction that this project was inspired by reader feedback to Nickel & Dimed. What other subjects for investigation have floated across your desk?

Ehrenreich: I have no more immersion journalism projects planned. Sometimes I get identified with that. If that's a way to get an answer, then I'll do it, but mainly I go from one book to another.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, by Barbara Ehrenreich

237 pages
Metropolitan Books
$3.95 from

Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed was a runaway hit when it landed in bookstores in 2001. The book, an investigation of the plight of the working poor, boosted her reputation and sparked new conversation about the economic shackles that hinder advancement among America's minimum wage workers, but it also prompted a backlash from one frustrated white collar worker:

"Try investigating people like me who didn't have babies in high school, who made good grades. . . who instead of getting promoted or paid fairly must regress to working for $7/hour, having their student loans in perpetual deferment, living at home with their parents, and generally exist in debt which they feel they may never get out of."
The writer's response was 2005's Bait and Switch. Using undercover tactics to examine the lives of unemployed and underemployed white collar mid-managers, Ehrenreich made her escape from the academic ivory tower, reverted to her maiden name, and slipped into the crowds as an out-of-work PR rep searching for employment in Atlanta, GA. She began where we all do: molding the details of her past into self-aggrandizing resume bullets, hitting up the electronic job boards, and taking on the world of opportunities with high self-esteem and high expectations for landing the dream job. The book tracks her arc of frustration, disappointment, and desperation, and illustrates a glimpse of sleazy entrepreneurs who prey on the unemployed: job coaches, exclusive networking circles, employee investment pyramids, and proselytizing church-run support groups.

It was a good idea to expand upon the success of Nickel and Dimed with a study of unemployed white-collar workers, but Ehrenreich's approach to job seeking is faulted from the beginning. People who've struggled to find employment--myself included--can nod in appreciation at the author's effort to draft and perfect a resume, the frustration in not receiving a response when employers decline an application, and the stress over bills, family, and future. But I felt Ehrenreich's hunt was riddled with tactical errors, and didn't reflect the approaches and challenges of the white collar unemployed. Instead of casting for a network of support, she entered the search as a consumer of job search support services: contracting expensive job coaches, flying across the country to attend seminars, and expending valuable time on support networks grounded in a mission of religious witnessing. Twenty minutes' worth of internet research would have eliminated these bodies from most job-seekers' circle of resources, and I wondered if this book were more of an expose of the sham "experts" and professional coaches who promise access to dream jobs. That reminds me: I'd like to give a shoutout to Jobfox. Thank you for your unsolicited criticism of my resume, and your $400 offer to rewrite it for me.

But back to the book. I was somewhat disappointed that Ehrenreich chose to make these parasites the focus of her book, and not the real challenges facing white collar workers. One reason Nickel and Dimed was so successful was because it exposed the reader audience to the very real problems of blue collar undercompensation, challenges in organizing and lack of benefits. The white collar unemployed face their own difficulties, but getting sucked into dopey job search support schemes isn't usually one of them. It was strange to me that the author made these schemes the focus of her book.

There were other very important points covered in this story. One that resonated most with me was Ehrenreich's comment on the strange, silent responses to most job inquiries--of pouring heart and soul into cover letters and hearing nothing. "The feeling is one of complete invisibility and futility: you pound on the door, you yell and scream, but the door remains sealed shut in your face," she writes. It's a feeling of exasperation that dogs her right up to the end of her 10 month search for employment. "I am overwhelmed by a sense of futility. If this were my real life and actual livelihood were at stake, I would be climbing the walls. But even in my artificial situation as a journalist-slash-job seeker, I cannot help feeling the rejection. All my life . . . I've found myself in one strange situation after another, and always managed to succeed or at least survive. Am I not plucky, resourceful, even a wee bit charismatic? The answer, coming in the form of nothing at all--no responses, no nibbles, no interest of any kind--apparently is not."

But herein Ehrenreich states the central problem of this book: her real life and livelihood did not actually depend on the outcome of her search. Ehrenreich didn't find herself socially alienated in the dead hours of the workday, isolated by poverty and stressed over dwindling funds, fretting that her lack of engagement and lack of pay kept her from moving on with her life. Desperation, depression and fear are critical elements missing from this account, and I think that's why any real assessment of the lifestyles of the unemployed needs to start with the narrative accounts of the chronically unemployed.

That said, Ehrenreich is still a very smart writer, expert at rendering details and encounters with sardonic wit and wry cynicism. Despite my problems with her approach to the subject matter, I still had a lot of fun with the book. And if you enjoyed Nickel and Dimed, you're likely to appreciate this one, at least for some of its mental imagery, if not for its thorough examination of the subject.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Interview with John Burdett, Creator of Bangkok 8 Series

John Burdett is a British international lawyer, traveler, and practicing Buddhist best known for his creation of the Bangkok 8 detective series, a chilling and sometimes comic glimpse into crimes and corruption in Thailand's underworld. In addition, he is the author of The Last Six Million Seconds and A Personal History of Thirst. Mr. Burdett corresponded recently about his writing, meditation, and the latest installment in his series, The Godfather of Kathmandu.

BurnThroughBooks: What inspired you to feature Tibet so prominently in this new book?

John Burdett: Two things. I knew nothing of Buddhism, aside from a kind of hippy fashion statement in the seventies in north London, until I started researching the first Sonchai book. I began with the Dalai Lama's books and was surprised and impressed - but with all respect to him, it seemed obvious that he was aiming at a mainstream western audience. Soon I began to understand the difference between Theravada (which is the Thai form) and Mahayana, and felt obliged to concentrate on Theravada as it is practised here - for which I have a great deal of respect. At the same time I continued to make frequent visits to Nepal, which I had been visiting since 1982 and which is one of the first places of refuge for those fleeing Tibet. When I started looking around for themes for "Godfather", the Kathmandu/Tibetan connection was irresistible, along with the very exotic form of Mahayana they practice there.

BTB: I was really interested in the power of mantras, as described in this book. As a writer and meditator, what's your experience with centering and focusing tools?

JB: Briefly, what the ancients knew about the human mind, especially but not exclusively the Buddhists, is - well - mind blowing. Even a modest couple of steps on that path brings extraordinary results. One realises that the mind is universal - by shrinking it to conform with egoic and social needs one loses 99%, but this can be retrieved with these exercises. Mantras of course are merely one tool in the tool box; but with them one can begin to retrieve some of what has been lost in the modernist war on reality.

BTB: What do Thai and Western cops think of your portrayal of the Thai law enforcement culture?

JB: I try to follow Thai rules here: I make no negative comment about the royal family (I am in any case a strong admirer of the king) or the Sangha, but you only have to spend a short time in Thailand to realise that corruption in general and among the police in particular is a perennial topic of news and conversation - like the weather in England. Of course I use dramatic exaggeration to make the point, but the underlying theme is one which you find in the news daily and is frankly admitted by senior members of government. You may have heard of the "Hello Kitty" campaign designed to impugn the manhood of wayward cops. Not something you come across elsewhere as far as I know. I think those in the law enforcement industry understand very well where I'm coming from.

BTB: In an interview, you described your protagonist Sonchai Jitpleecheep as an offspring of your experience with vipassana meditation. Can you tell me about the earliest incarnation of this character? How did his character change between your first drafts and the publication of the first novel.

JB: I think my comment was probably meant to say that I often think of how the world looks if one is using a Buddhist perspective not merely as an intellectual exercise, but an imaginative one where you contrast the evolutionary opportunity of vipassana with the extremely abrasive experiences of everyday life. Naturally, since I try to meditate myself, Sonchai's day-to-day experiences change and develop along with my own. There is no constant but change.

BTB: How do you interpret Western audiences' appetite for the Buddhist perspective described in your novels?

JB: For a great many westerners, especially perhaps Americans, the post-Christian world has left a huge hole. A number are embracing Islam, others various forms of Christian and other cults. To my mind these alternatives still leave a gap between our Western scientific/analytical training, which has brought so much benefit in terms of technology, and the teaching of the prophets. In Buddhism there is no such gap: the Buddha had a very scientific mind and perfectly understood the power of logic to take us a good way along the path and to test our experiences. He just happened to be more advanced and courageous than our scientists: even logic dissolves in Emptiness - it's just that astro physics hasn't quite got there yet. Those elusive sub-atomic particles though, and the behaviour of photons: it looks like we're getting close.

BTB: Do you have any favorite spots in Bangkok that you'd recommend to new visitors and casual tourists?

JB: Everyone should make a river trip of one kind or another. If you don't like hackneyed tourist sites, just take a riverboat for about 5 Baht, and remember that for half a millennium Bangkok was a kind of Venice, where they used the klongs (canals) to get about.

John Burdett's next installment in the Bangkok 8 series, Vulture Peak, is due out January 2012.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Godfather of Kathmandu, by John Burdett

Random House
295 pages
$8.48 at

If you're not familiar with John Burdett's work, get up from your computer, like now, and pick up Bangkok 8 at the library. I won't ruin the surprise in this fourth installment of the series. Readers already acquainted with the previous three books will be enthralled by this latest chapter.

To boil this complicated plot down to its bare essentials isn't as important as stating that Burdett does awesome, awesome things with the mystery genre, Theraveda and Tibetan Buddhism, and the Bangkok's backstreet underworld. It's not enough for mystery books to present just another interesting murder or theft for their audiences. Writers need to bring something new to the table to keep the genre interesting, and John Burdett's foray into the Bangkok underground does exactly that. This is something really wondrous.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a half-western, half-Thai, all-Buddhist detective is our guide and ambassador as he narrates assignments in Thailand's capital. Only a few of these are related to solving crimes. Among the priorities competing with his detective work are assisting his mother with her brothel and facilitating a $40 million heroin deal for his boss, Police Chief Vikorn. He manages these deftly, and from a detached perspective; Sonchai's first obedience is to karma and merit.

Kathmandu's plot largely circles a Tibetan mystic's scheme to sell a massive shipment of heroin to Sonchai's boss and finance an invasion of China, and a bizarre pharmaphiliac Grand Dame's involvement in the gory death of an American movie director. The story plays out in stoic, noir tones grounded in the Buddhist perspective: reincarnation, protector deities, karma, and grudge. Sonchai's half-caste ability to tread the line between West and Thai makes him our ambassador in this world: There's more to this life than what you can imagine, farang, but come with me. I'll be your guide. A B&N reviewer remarked that the Bangkok series are as much about crime fiction as they are about spiritual education. Burdett describes his subjects and environment with an ease that contrasts starkly with travel book descriptions. This is his home and comfort zone.

I could dwell on the plot, but I'd like to skip ahead to one of the most interesting bits, a theme that pops up repeatedly throughout the book: Om Mani Padme Hum. A guide in Bhutan told me this translates to "Hail to the Jewel of the Sacred Lotus," but the translation lacks the interpretation and context that gives it relevance to practitioners. Mantras are repeated phrases whose utterances are capable of effecting spiritual transformation. Over the phone, Sonchai's mystic shares with him a potent and dangerous mantra to sharpen his mind. "He doesn't mess around," Sonchai's disfigured lover Tara later warns him. "What you call psychosis, for him is a path to health." Later, Sonchai is haunted by visions of a blade wheel that tears him apart, of hell, and of a dark stupa with a base composed of the souls of poisoned karma.

It's heavy imagery, but the content is accessible to any reader. And as far as I know, it's also new territory in popular fiction. Burdett has lifted a stone to reveal the dark and loamy underside to the sky; but we readers are the creatures under the rock, exposed now to a strange and dangerous cosmology.

PostScript: I had the chance to correspond with the author about his writing and this new book. Click here to read the complete interview.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

Random House, 2010
352 pages

Get it on
Kindle or Nook for $9.10

Gary Shteyngart has a penchant for inserting himself as a bumbling-yet-adorable literary foil in obscene worlds of satire. If you've read Absurdistan, where Misha Vainberg, son of Russia's 1,238th richest man, walks the path to self acceptance while reuniting with his true love in the South Bronx, you really don't need to read Super Sad True Love Story. As in his last book, the author projects himself into the pages of his fantasy, this time as a 39 year-old, nerdy, balding bibliophile in a post-literate satire of America, struggling again to understand himself while connecting with a much younger girlfriend.

Shteyngart's rapid-fire writing makes entertaining stand up, but it doesn't sustain energy or interest over the course of these 350+ pages. A few chapters in, I felt like the literary acrobatics were an unsatisfying cover for the scarce action of substance. Most of the book's space is devoted to describing a Jonathan Swift-inspired vision of America of the Future: text messaging taken to comic extremes ("Less Words = More Fun!"); holographically-projected Facebook streams that broadcast credit scores, personal trauma history, and "fuckability ratings"; a government sliding into dictatorship behind the public face of a cartoon otter. It's all very clever--a collage of those great high school lit assignments: Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984--but what is the story in this story?

Lenny Abramov, a stereotypically nebbish, neurotic, New York Jew in the same class as Woody Allen starts a relationship with a much younger Korean woman. Eunice Park--materialistic, shallow, and naive--plays his Soon Yi. Lenny frets about his social standing, worries about impressing her parents, agonizes over Eunice's ambivalence toward him, stresses about the appropriateness of dating someone 15 years his junior. You get the picture. She wrestles with deep-rooted father issues, torn loyalties between conformity and conscience, and alternating love and disgust for Lenny. The economic and organizational collapse of the American Restoration Authority, looming offstage since the opening pages of this book, arrives like a gang of apocalyptic horsemen and renders all their concerns moot.

The rest of the content is just creative tinsel and window dressing to underline Lenny's feelings of helplessness and inadequacy: his endangered sales career at a firm offering life extension and immortality for High Net Worth Individuals; the dollar's plummeting value; America's losing war with Venezuela; and Blackberry-like devices called äppäräti that allow fashionably younger, richer, more beautiful people to surf a website called AssLuxury and purchase TotalSurrender panties to wear under their JuicyPussy cocktail dresses. There's delicious satire in these details, but a dearth of substance to move the story forward.

A downshift in tone and some respectable introspection await the reader in the story's coda, but it doesn't excuse the egocentric rambling that comprises the core. Shteyngart is a clever guy, and we should expect more from smart writers. We should expect great ideas, twists on themes, suspense, and certainly some truth from a book that dares to put the word in the title! All of these elements are absent. At the end, we're left to sift through the detritus of jokes, puns, and pop culture references, grasping for some solid idea that would give the book meaning.

Many print reviewers loved this book. Universally, they seem entranced by the spectacle of comic dystopia. Bloggers were divided, and several expected readers might be uncomfortable or offended by the language. C'mon people, we're not prudes! I've been more entertained by more extreme writers (Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, and others). I just think vulgarity taken out of context, repeated often enough, loses its sharp edge. Shteyngart has more to offer than a predictable love story in a Disneyland dystopia. He's capable of great writing, and people familiar with his work can sense that. I'm still waiting for that book to come out.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, by David Remnick

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
656 pages

Buy it (used) for $6.96 at Bookbyte

Obama's 2004 to 2008 rise from barely-known state senator to President-elect stunned Americans and the world. At the time, few (not counting the extremist "birther" contingency) asked where the man had come from, and what life lessons gave him the competency to ride the swelling wave of popularity behind his campaign--almost effortlessly, it seemed. What made him tick? How did he function, and what secret thoughts ran through that calm manner, those caterpillar-like eyebrows?

Presidencies are better understood in retrospect, but few leaders' characters have been as hard to pin down as Barack Obama's. David Remnick's authoritative biography of the 44th president avoids amplifying partisan perspectives by reserving judgment, and delves deep into Obama's history and his many transformations: the child, the scholar, the Chicago transplant, and the candidate. It starts well before Obama's birth in Hawaii, with the stories of his Kenyan and Kansan grandfathers: Hussein Onyango Obama, a village elder and cook for British colonialist forces; and Stanley Armour Dunham, who as a boy discovered his mother's suicide, and later served in European theater of WWII. There is no shortage of research or detail, and the result is an objective, dispassionate inventory of Obama's entire known history, illustrated with accounts from relatives, friends, allies and enemies, former teachers, students, and anyone who had the slightest contact with Obama at any stage in his life. The narrative is as even-tempered as the president himself.

Before you dig in, be warned that this is also a tome that challenges the light reader. Just try finding a review that doesn't describe this work as "exhaustively researched." The information contained within is rich and rewarding, if you can objectively appreciate Obama's story and suspend your opinion of his work and ethics. It's a chore to read, but a nice change for those of us who hear the President's voice filtered through the perspective of Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Writing in the Washington Post, Gwen Ifill describes how Remnick's investigation strips the gloss from Obama's own memoir: where Obama was able to wax introspectively about the lost connection to his father and Africa, Remnick traces the old man's decline following the return to Kenya: his slip into alcoholism, womanizing, abuse, and political irrelevance. Also present are the strained ties between Obama and his mother, the subtle classism and racism at the prestigious Punahou School. Much has been made of Obama's murky racial identity--black, but without the cultural stamp that marks many African Americans raised in the continental United States. Remnick examines the period of Obama's cultural awakening: his connections to people who challenged him in Hawaii, to the social cliques at universities in California and Massachusetts, and how he navigated the challenges to define himself.

There are some really interesting bits in this book. I was struck repeatedly at Obama's faith in his greater destiny. Here was a man without any great birthright of money or prestige. Leaving Harvard Law School (and the President of the Harvard Law Review, to boot), he could have walked into any number of firms and made a fortune. Instead he shunned the path to riches, deliberately entered the frustrating arena of community organizing, in a strange town where he was completely unknown, to earn under $30,000. He led an austere and ascetic life, and gained respect within prestigious circles for his intellect and ability to critically listen, but eschewed security and countless opportunity for the right opportunity. Remnick gives the impression that from early on, Obama knew he was destined for politics, but only when the time was right. One of my favorite moments in the biography is when Obama walks away from an offer to chair the Joyce Foundation, a non-profit that distributed $50 million a year in grants.
"It was a sweet job—around a million a year, two country-club memberships, and I thought, Here it is, finally the day that all our hard work would pay off," said Dan Shomon, who imagined working as Obama's chief aide at the foundation. "Barack could have given out money to all kinds of good, progressive groups. He went into the interview, though, and his hands were shaking for fear that he would get the job. He knew that if he got it, that was it—he would be out of the game, out of politics."
Time and again, Obama rejected opportunities that would've made him a rich, comfortable, and respected man. Reading the book, my hunch is that he walked away from tasks he felt were beneath his intellectual curiosity. He wanted to work on behalf of the public good, but to do that work in a capacity that matched a cocksure faith in his ability.

The Bridge leads right up to Obama's election to the Presidency, an ascendancy without parallel in US history. In 2000, he was beaten black and blue in the race for US Representative against former Black Panther Bobby Rush. Four years later, he was giving the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, and four years past that he emerged as the dark horse upset in the democratic primary and winner of the general election. Remnick's account of this history is dense, but clear and easy to follow, and turns often to the themes of self-confidence, intelligence, and the sheer luck of circumstance.