Friday, January 11, 2013

Open Road Media - Not All is Lost in Publishing, After All.

Just so there is no doubt about my integrity as a blogger and as a reader, the following post is not a paid advertisement, nor have I received any e-books from the publisher gratis that would prompt me to say the praise I do. I have purchased Open Road Media titles with my own money and now own 23 books published by them. In comparison, I have received, upon my request, four e-books for review from Open Road. I hope that clears the question of integrity and any hidden motives. My motives are out in the open: saying thank you for doing a great job :-)

It is not very often that I write about publishers. Most of the time, I'm more interested in literature and reading than in the companies that allow me to have access to that literary world. However, precisely because of what I just wrote, I realized that my attitude may be unfair and equal attention should be paid to both, even though my love of books will always take precedence.

I won't beat the dead horse here speaking of the future of publishing. Others have done it better and more extensively than I ever would. My short opinion here is only shared as an introduction to why I chose to make a publisher a main subject of this post. Amid the outcries that publishing is breathing its last, that e-readers, e-books and self-publishing are taking over the world so tightly held in the hand of traditional-format books, I am not worried in the least. Yes, the change is happening as I'm writing this. But change is good. Change is progress. Without change, we still would be burned on the stake for daring to read the Bible ourselves, instead of relying on the Church to read it to us (in the language the masses couldn't even understand). I like to go forward with the times. Consequently, I like and appreciate publishers who are open-minded and bold enough to go forward with the times as well.

Enter, Open Road Integrated Media. This is the forward thinking company with people equally willing to see and make change happen.

Celebrating the past. Building the future. 360° e-publishing.

And they do indeed come through on their promises.

Celebrating the past - check.

Building the future - check.

360° e-publishing - check.

For the past couple of years I have been noticing Open Road's steady rise on the e-book market and in the publishing world altogether. I have to say that this company is doing a fantastic job in giving readers one of the biggest compilation of e-books across the literary genres to choose from. They have biographies, mysteries, thrillers, translated works from across the pond. I think the best part of their contribution to the world of e-books is bringing back to life all the titles that up until now have been unavailable to owners of e-readers. Now, if your little heart so desires, you can have your fill of Pearl S. Buck, William Styron, John Gardner, Octavia Butler, Stephen Coonts, Jonathan Carroll, et al. Really, my head is spinning looking at the list of all the authors, whose titles Open Road offers. There are so many and of such great quality that it's impossible to list them all. But here, go take a look yourself and see if your excitement doesn't start growing dangerously fast.

If the names of all the writers aren't enough, you can always look at all the partners working with Open Road Media. It's simply fantastic what crazy choices there are. Just the thought of all the future releases brought right to our electronic doorsteps makes me dizzy with anticipation and...that's right, excitement. Because this is what Open Road people do best and why they are so important:

Open Road Media publishers will make us, readers all over the country, finally excited about the future of publishing and the future of books. No gloom and doom here. All you have to do is enter that wonderful world of electronic publishing and see if you don't feel like never turning back.

Last but not least, I would like to extend a very special thank you to Iris Blasi, a Marketing Manager in Open Road Media, who is just about one of the nicest people in publishing I got to correspond with. Very coincidentally (although I believe things do work in strange ways like that), when I was in the process of composing this post, I received a personal email (not an automated response) from Iris after I requested one of their titles for review. In it, for the first time since I started blogging over four years ago, I received a 'thank you' for doing what I do and I was encouraged to  'keep up the excellent work'. It was unexpected and, I'm going to be honest here, greatly needed for my own morale. It warmed my heart, truly.  Thank you :D.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Kiku's Prayer by Endō Shūsaku, translated by Van C. Gessel


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

Kiku’s Prayer is told through the eyes of Kiku, a self-assured young woman from a rural Japanese village who falls in love with Seikichi, a devoted Catholic man. Practicing a faith still banned by the government, Seikichi is imprisoned but refuses to recant under torture. Kiku’s efforts to reconcile her feelings for Seikichi’s religion with the sacrifices she makes to free him mirror the painful, conflicting choices Japan faced as a result of exposure to modernity and the West. Seikichi’s persecution exemplifies Japan’s insecurities, and Kiku’s tortured yet determined spirit represents the nation’s resilient soul.
Set in the turbulent years of the transition from the shogunate to the Meiji Restoration, Kiku’s Prayer embodies themes central to Endō Shūsaku’s work, including religion, modernization, and the endurance of the human spirit. Yet this novel is much more than a historical allegory. It acutely renders one woman’s troubled encounter with passion and spirituality at a transitional time in her life and in the history of her people. A renowned twentieth-century Japanese author, Endō wrote from the perspective of being both Japanese and Catholic. His work is often compared with that of Graham Greene, who himself considered Endō one of the century’s finest writers.

Just when you think you might be getting somewhere with your knowledge of history, a book comes along such as Kiku's Prayer. Thanks to Endō Shūsaku, how little I know of the history of the world was glaring me in the face from the first until the last page of this novel. I am still incredulous how history teachers (among other people)  never failed to pound into my head the Catholic Church's cruelty during the Inquisition. The other side of the coin, the hundreds of thousands of Christians made to apostatize under some of the most awful torture practices and thousands upon thousands of Christians persecuted and killed across the Asian continent alone, had never been presented, discussed or even mentioned in passing to me until Kiku's Prayer. Incredulous and grateful at the same time are two emotions that are prevalent in mind as I think about  Endō Shūsaku and his book.

Admittedly, Kiku's Prayer's begins slowly and it requires a bit of patience to keep going. However, the subject - the persecution of Japanese Christians (Kirishitans) in 19th century Nagasaki - is fascinating, worthy and deserving of notice and our attention. Not every book has to be a distraction and the effort you invest in reading Mr. Shūsaku's novel will be well paid off in the end.

Besides the subject matter, there are a couple of intriguing aspects of Kiku's Prayer that I was surprised to notice. I'm certainly not an expert in Japanese or Chinese literature. But nor am I a novice to it. I've read I think enough to see a  distinct quality to it, quite apart from the western tradition. The writing of Endō Shūsaku is the first time I encountered a change from what I became to identify as an Asian style of writing.  Here, there is a lot more emphasis on plot development than on descriptive, albeit always crisp and to the point, narrative where the physical surroundings, the mystical power of nature and landscape and how they relate to the growth or decline of human character. It was a different reading experience but by no means of inferior quality.

The narrative style takes an unusual turn as well. The narrator comes off as a kind of a documentary commentator/historical archivist living in the present but describing events from the 19th century. On the one hand it gives a reader confidence in the accuracy of historical events written about in Kiku's Prayer. Equally important is that this technique escapes the dangers of becoming an overtly moralizing tale whose message wouldn't or couldn't touch the hearts of readers in a way the essence of this novel will. On the other hand, the  side effect (and the only negative side of Kiku's Prayer) is the awkward and sudden switches of narrative from smooth retelling of the story to dry enumerating of the events in the fashion of almost a newspaper article. Overall, it doesn't detract from the importance and quality of Kiku's Prayer and from why it matters that you read it.

A Note On Translation

Kiku's Prayer by Endō Shūsaku has been translated into English from Japanese by Van C. Gessel for the first time. Below is a short description from Columbia University Press about this esteemed translator.

Van C. Gessel is professor of Japanese at Brigham Young University. He is the author of Three Modern Novelists: Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata; coeditor of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature; and translator of seven literary works by Endō Shūsaku, including The Samurai and Deep River.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Kiku's Prayer from the publisher, Columbia University Press via NetGalley.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

Today is Christmas Eve.
Today is my birthday.
Today I am fifteen.
Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
Neither of them were beloved.
Marnie and her little sister, Nelly, are on their own now. Only they know what happened to their parents, Izzy and Gene, and they aren't telling. While life in Glasgow's Maryhill housing estate isn't grand, the girls do have each other. Besides, it's only a year until Marnie will be considered an adult and can legally take care of them both.
As the New Year comes and goes, Lennie, the old man next door, realizes that his young neighbors are alone and need his help. Or does he need theirs? Lennie takes them in—feeds them, clothes them, protects them—and something like a family forms. But soon enough, the sisters' friends, their teachers, and the authorities start asking tougher questions. As one lie leads to another, dark secrets about the girls' family surface, creating complications that threaten to tear them apart.
The Death of Bees is one of the most original stories I have read in years. If it's not featured on all kinds of Best of... lists in 2013 (the book hits the stores in January, 2013), I will be shocked. True, there's not much happy or joyful, or even redeeming happening here but the tragedy of the girls is told in such a touching, albeit realistic way,  that it's quite impossible not to touch one's heart.

And boy, is this story realistic. Marnie and Nelly are two girls whose lives are as bad as could be and the world they live in, with grey, miserable surroundings, leaves not much room for hope that someday it will all get better. And still, despite it all, despite every calamity that's happened, the reader hopes for the girls, even if these two hurt and damaged spirits gave up. I suppose that's one of the biggest strength of Ms. O'Donnell's writing. Someway, somehow, in the midst of all the unhappiness and calamity, she managed to sow seeds of optimism and faith in her readers. I promise you, despair is not what you'll end up feeling when finished and you'll get quite a few chances even to smile and laugh. Never at the characters, but always with them.

One of the best sides to The Death of Bees is that the writing and the way the story is presented are so unbelievably engaging. I got kidnapped and thrown into the world of Marnie, Nelly and Lennie with the speed of light. needless to say, it took me not even two days to read The Death of Bees. And Marnie and Nelly also stole my heart. I rarely fall for characters, especially young adult or child characters with such force that my heart aches as if they were my own. It happened with these two girls and they still live in my mind and my heart, even though the novel's last page was turned almost two months ago.
FTC: I received an e-galley of The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell from HarperCollins Publishers via Edelweiss.