Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | April 1, 2015

The universe is made of atoms AND stories

I was in the middle of my grad school career and, although I was an English major with a focus in Composition & Rhetoric, I became involved in a research project that required a lot of information management. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Excel, much less databases, and so my co-researcher — Nick, a fellow grad student — and I compiled and analyzed our data by sorting piles and piles of responses (hard copies of questionnaires), and tallying results with a calculator. OMG.

AristotleAnd yet I was hooked. We had started with a fairly straightforward query. Rhetoric, the field we were studying, is basically about the effectiveness of communication between a speaker and his or her audience. We had been studying everyone from Aristotle and Plato to Kenneth Burke and Foucault. So, Nick and I decided, as a research project, we would look at a problem of rhetoric in a most simple and immediate forum.

We decided to examine the “rhetoric of grading.” In other words, when a teacher gives a student a grade of A, B, C, D or F, what is the meaning of that grade to that student? What was the teacher’s intention in assigning that grade? It was a case in which the rhetoric – the text – shared between the “speaker” (teacher) and “audience” (student) could be stripped down to one letter of the alphabet: A, B, C, D or F. What did that letter mean to the teacher? To the student?

We devised a questionnaire and enlisted about a dozen writing teachers and their students to participate in our survey. All, of course, were guaranteed anonymity. We got a ton of responses and were faced with a pile of work. Multiple choice, true/false, and Likert scale (“On a scale of 1 to 5 …”) questions result in data that’s easy enough to compile, crunch, and analyze, even without Survey Gizmo or Excel. But we were naïve and unseasoned and curious (and stupid) enough to ask a lot of open-ended questions, which of course resulted in people writing their thoughts in their own words. There was a lot of it was interesting anecdotes and opinions on the individual response level. But what did all these words mean, ultimately? Were there trends? Commonalities in their responses?

We examined this data from many different perspectives. We manually counted the frequency that certain words popped up in open-ended questions. We sorted through the questionnaires again and again. It became almost an obsession to try to get to the heart of these words, to understand the meaning of all this rhetoric, to try to categorize all those words, to find trends that pointed to a clear message to emerge from all these questionnaires.

MTA bus - 2It was about this time I happened to be riding a crosstown bus in NYC, heading home, our survey on the “rhetoric of grading” and our need to come to some conclusions weighing on my mind.

I looked around the slow-traveling bus at my fellow passengers, at the street scenes outside, and then scanned the advertising and public notice placards that formed a border of text and illustrations along the ceiling of the bus. One caught my eye — one of the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” posts. It was just a few lines from a poem, The Speed of Darkness, by Muriel Rukeyser. Those lines practically shouted at me:

Time comes into it.
Say it.        Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.
I felt rebuked, enlightened, and amused. Nick and I had focused so much up to this point in our research project on the small atoms of rhetoric delivered to us in that survey by students and teachers responding to questions about grades given and received, trying to classify and categorize and count and calculate the trends. But the time had come for us to step back and see the big picture, to understand the story that teachers and students were trying to tell in their responses.
We did, indeed, make sense of it all. Our most significant finding was that the meaning of the grade of “C” was pretty darn ambiguous, with the writing teachers, overall, claiming it meant one thing, but student writers describing it quite differently. Students also seemed to interpret the relationship of their efforts to their grade a bit differently than their teachers, especially as it figured in to the highest and lowest grades, A’s and F’s. The mechanics of the English language (grammar, punctuation, sentence and paragraph structure and so on) seemed to figure prominently in a teacher’s mind in delineating the difference between an A and a B, while a very large percentage of students firmly believed that some people are just naturally – genetically – good writers.
Theory & Practice of Grading WritingOur paper about the research project and our findings, “Grading as a Rhetorical Construct,” was published in an anthology, The Theory and Practice of Grading (SUNY Press, 1998), and is still available through Amazon.com.
These days, when I’m in the middle of a research project, neck deep in data, trying to make sense of it all, those lines from that Poetry in Motion poem still come back to me:  “Say it! Say it!”
But I’ve revised the lines just slightly from the original “the universe is made of atoms not stories.” It’s pretty obvious that it’s made of both.
Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | March 1, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Saga: Is he the Norwegian Larry David?

There’s not a lot of us Norwegian-Americans, so when we see one of “our own” getting so much publicity in the U.S. press, especially for their writing, it’s hard to ignore. Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian writer, has been all over the book news for now because of his on-going memoirs entitled My Struggle. He’s on Part 6 or 7 now, I think, though only the first five volumes have been translated into English so far.  I haven’t read any of them yet. Well, I tried to — I checked Volume 1 out of the library, but then I lost it and had to purchase it.  I just rediscovered it the other day, tucked away in a corner of the living room in an unexpected hiding place where I had put it, in an attempt to establish some semblance of domestic order when friends came to visit last summer.

01cover-superJumbo-v5But now, thanks to the New York Times Sunday Magazine (3.1.15), I was able to read enough of Knausgaard’s prose to get a feeling for his style, for his voice, for the things that capture his attention while trying to follow the Viking trail through North America, on assignment for the New York Times. And despite the angst-filled, James Dean-like visage that appears on the magazine’s cover, I came away convinced that Karl Knausgaard is kind of like the Larry David of Norway, always curbing his enthusiasm. A never-ending patter of self-reflective discourse.

In his very long, long essay — which, by the way, doesn’t get him any farther west than Detroit (that is for Part 2, I assume) — Knausgaard manages to cover many personal facts and personal foibles. His whole essay seems to be more a recounting of his personal experiences than anything else. It’s much more introspection than observation. In fact, Katy Waldman of Slate, wrote a blog with the headline “Karl Ove Knausgaard is the World’s Worst Travel Writer,” in regard to the NYT Sunday magazine piece. “He appears flummoxed by everything that happens outside of his own brain,” Waldman writes. “Other people, unfamiliar spaces, complicated airports—he faces them all with equal bafflement.” She concludes: “Our great crumb-gatherer of small, subjective consciousness is too deep inside his own head to look around.”

Ouch!  A little harsh, I thought. Maybe I’m overly-sensitive because Norwegian blood courses through my veins. I feel as if Karl Ove and I might be distant cousins. OK, I’m only half Norwegian-American, but still, my father’s grandfather arrived sometime after the Civil War when land was, in fact, free for the homesteading. And like many of his countrymen, he headed for the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains, the part of the U.S. that Karl Ove Knausgaard was headed for as part of his assignment from the New York Times.

51jLlF0aN6L__AA160_Knausgaard was told by his editor to write about his travels in the manner of a “tongue-in-cheek de Toqueville.” I think he’s doing a good job of it, if you can close your eyes and shut out the rebel without a cause hipster, scatter-brained artiste image (the photographer plays a key role in this essay). If you shut out those images and listen to the voice of the writer, I swear you can hear Larry David, obsessively analyzing everything seen, felt, said, smelled, experienced, albeit in a very self-reflective way. Knausgaard obsesses about his lost driver’s license, his dislike of having to use telephones, his preference to travel by himself and not with the photographer, his poop clogging the motel toilet. The places he travels through and what he sees are both forlorn and mundane — a Viking outpost in Newfoundland where he is the only visitor; row after row of identical row houses in Cleveland; the nearly abandoned residential areas of Detroit, a bowling alley, a seedy motel, all in the middle of the winter. All that “Lake effect.” But he also reflects quite frequently upon literature that he is reminded of in his travels, and shares some of his own family’s story about emigrating to America.  

I don’t know if I can make it through six or seven volumes of that voice, obsessively self-reflecting on every detail external and internal, but I’ll at least attempt to read the volume I had to purchase from the library when I thought I had irretrievably lost it. And I am very much looking forward to reading Part 2 of Karl Ove’s “My Saga” in the March 15 issue of the Sunday NYT magazine.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | February 26, 2015

Just Published: Two Sailboats, One Moon by Sue Montana and Bob Bennett

I’m so proud to have been involved in this book project as editor and publishing advisor. It is a book written by two wonderful people in my sailing club, Sue Montana and Bob Bennett. Two Sailboats, One Moon: Journals from a year spent oceans apart is now available for order on their web site for the book. Here is a description from the back cover:

Cover - FrontTwo Sailboats, One Moon is full of drama and tenderness, frustration and courage, travel adventures and sailing stories, as well as the minutiae of daily life. Qualities of good character abound.

In 2002, Bob Bennett and Sue Montana had been together for 17 years. They had made a point of revisiting — and renewing — their commitment to each other every few years, and talking about their goals as they looked towards the future. It was the year after 9/11, a horrible moment in history. At the same time, Bob was at a turning point at his job. As they reviewed their commitment and goals that year, Bob and Sue agreed that it was “time for Bob to do something different” with his life. They did not know then that “something different” would entail Bob resigning from his job and signing on as crew for a small sailboat that would spend a year circumnavigating the globe.

In the meantime, Sue was launching a new business. It also fell to her, during the year of Bob’s absence, to maintain the house they had purchased together. In addition, Sue had never captained their own sailboat, Habanero, by herself before this. So, while Bob was off sailing the seven seas, Sue mastered sailing Habanero by herself, as well as the fine art of small boat repairs.

During this year Bob and Sue each kept journals of their daily activities, tracking the memorable events in their respective lives — crossing the equator for the first time, seeing fields of glaciers and pods of whales; taking Habanero out solo for the first time, dealing with the unexpected death of a beloved cat. And they recorded the more mundane details of day-to-day life as well — the types of things that you tend to forget when you aren’t able to converse with your significant other many times a day.

Every time they saw the moon in the sky at night, as they had promised, they not only thought of each other but they wrote about what they were doing and thinking at that moment in their journals.

Like all sailing adventures, this one resonates with romance — the romantic notion of embarking on a round-the-world sailing adventure, and the eagerness with which these two sailors met up in foreign ports three times during this unforgettable year. But the very human realities are here, too — Sue’s unexpected feelings of bereftness after Bob’s departure, and Bob’s unexpected doubts about his ability to stick it out for the entire circumnavigation.

Two Sailboats, One Moon is unlike any other sailing adventure you’ve read!

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | March 12, 2013

North to the Night by Alvah Simon

North to the Night: A Spiritual Odyssey in the Artic by Alvah Simon, © 1998

First published by The McGraw-Hill Companies. Paperback by International Marine/The McGraw-Hill Companies. Currently available on Amazon.com new for $5.47 and used for $0.01 and up; on Kindle for $7.99.

North to the NightThis is the best-written book I’ve read so far, among the dozen or so “sailing adventures” I’ve read recently in my attempts to catch up on the Literature of Sailing. I must admit, I came to North to the Night a skeptic — I’d just finished reading a so-called sailing adventure written by a retired Lothario (to be discussed in a future book review) whose main interests in Sailing the Seven – make that Two — Seas seemed to be in trying exotic alcoholic beverages with others who liked to party. His book, as its sub-title promises, is replete with coy references to bedding the local females. When mechanical and electronic problems happen aboard, well drat the inconvenience! Have to call someone to fix it. Oh well.

Granted, that might be the perfect Sailing Adventure fantasy for some sailors. But when it comes right down to it, I think Real Sailors want to read about what happened when the writer-sailor-adventurer entered an unknown and potentially unfriendly port and how he or she learned to mix with the locals, or how they battled inclement weather and waves for days on end, or fixed that darn flapping or leaking or broken thing with some spit and a promise. We want to hear tales of adversity overcome, fears conquered, and challenges met with creativity and quick thinking.

That describes North to the Night to a T. Writer-sailor-adventurer, Alvah Simon, and his intrepid wife Diana, had purposefully set out North to the Night Illustrationfor an area high above the Arctic Circle to experience the challenges of spending a winter there on their 36-foot steel cutter, Roger Henry, a French Damien IV — and of course the challenges were at times (many times!) life-threatening. Like any really good narrative this book has its highs and lows. It is not exactly a spoiler alert to tell you that shortly into the adventure, wife Diana had to leave because of a family crisis — it’s mentioned on the cover – though she returned several months later to continue the adventure with her husband. But, in essence, Alvah Simon spent almost the entire winter in the Arctic Circle alone, “frozen in ice 100 miles from the nearest settlement, with the long polar night stretching into darkness for months to come.”

The skeptic in me wanted to say at the outset of this journey, “Are you people nuts?!” because I can’t  imagine myself going to such lengths and distance to test my personal fortitude, much less my sailing skills. However, shortly after starting to read this book, I began to appreciate the meticulousness of Alvah and Diana’s preparations, the seriousness of their reasons for going, the effort and preparation it took for them to undertake this journey, and the sometimes breath-taking beauty of what they experienced and described. I was in awe.

Simon’s wise and thoughtful writing style is what really pulls the reader along. He weighs everything they experience with such a lovely sense of thoughtfulness, as in this passage —

Our language is anorexic when trying to communicate the subtle complexities of ice and snow. So too do I find our tropical-to-temperate adjectives unable to tame this Artic light. It roams the skies in fluid flux. It will not hold still for our eyes or cameras, much less our pens. Sun dogs race to the four directions of the solar winds, becoming bloody crucifixes ringed in halo. Mountains stand on their heads in the sky. Fireballs of light roll along like tumbleweed. One of us would hurriedly call the other to look, but by the time Diana or I had turned, it would be gone. We carefully explained what we saw. It was important that the other understood.

Perhaps the only point that had me doubting the complete veracity of his story was his description of a face-to-face encounter with a polar bear. It was the one part of the adventure that he seemed to have anticipated throughout the book with both fear and hope. And, according to him, when put to the test – standing his ground, even putting down his gun as the bear raised up on his hind legs in front of him – he passed it. “I have much left to do, but nothing left to prove,” he writes after he lives to tell that tale.

The one dispiriting point in this book is when Simon tells a story of introducing a big-shot nature photographer to the local gyrfalcon’s nest, where three newly-hatched babies had yet to learn to fly. Later, Simon makes a clear connection between the photographer’s visit to the nest and the subsequent disappearance of two of the three baby gyrfalcons —which he and the photographer both knew would fetch enormous sums of money in the black market for birds. Simon is hesitant to play judge and jury — “I do not want to wrongly malign a man’s reputation,” he writes — but there is only one conclusion that we as readers are left to draw.

However, this was just one more test of the Simons’ commitment to this arduous experience which doesn’t sway them from their journey and their goals. North to the Light captures the age-old struggles of Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Beast, along with the more modern clash of Man vs. His Inner Soul in one very compelling sailing adventure story, written in some of the most thoughtful and literate prose I’ve read in quite some time.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | June 12, 2012

Do you write by hand? On computer? In Excel?

All writers have their favorite tools, whether it’s a Number Two pencil or the latest Mac notebook. But today was the first time I’ve encountered someone who prefers writing his book in Excel. Excel!  After he’s done a chapter or so, he copies and pastes it into Word. Go figure. I have tried to explain, gently, the error of his ways, and why it is creating unnecessary work for him, as well as me, his editor. He says he’ll try. But I can tell that he is very reluctant to make that change.

The writer is the quintessential CFO type. Semi-retired, he still manages investments for his former employer, and writes a blog about “straddles,” a rather esoteric type of investment strategy.

He’s now in the process of writing a book about some very simple ways that all businesses, big and small, can increase their profits simply by making some common-sense tweaks to their accounting systems.

I can say no more just yet about this very interesting — and perhaps ground-breaking — business book, as it is still in the raw stages of being written and plotted out. The author plans to publish it first as an e-book. And if it sells fairly well, we will publish it as a print book also. He can envision doing some consulting in the future in connection with his book and his ideas.

In the meantime, he’s writing in Excel! And then he pastes his Excel writings into Word! {sigh} I am slowly trying to lead Mr. Excel to the wonders and ease of writing in a Word.

And yet, if someone tried to make me change my writing tools, I’d resist all the way. I like pumping out some pieces in Word on a computer. But please don’t even think of trying to take my black ink, medium thin point, cartridge pen away. I need it for constantly jotting notes and making doodles in my spiral bound, medium-rule notebook.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | June 6, 2012

Print Books vs. e-Books

E-books have been the big story in book publishing in the last few years. They are definitely popular — I take the train into NYC at least once a week, and I’ve noticed that the number of people using e-readers on the train seems to have  increased considerably in the last two years.

But according to this story in Crain’s New York Business by Matthew Flamm, sales of print books are on the rise again. This upward trend is attributed to (ahem) the rise in independent publishers (like moi).  More specifically, “print book output in 2011 grew by 6%, to 347,178 titles, compared to the prior year” and according to data from Bowker, Flamm writes, “The uptick was driven entirely by self-published titles. Without them, the number of print titles would have been flat.”

Another story, this one from Bookmasters Blog presents, quite succinctly, the compelling reasons that people like e-books — and the reasons the people like print books. My favorite reason that people like e-books: Portability (“The worst thing is finishing a book on vacation and not having the next book to start”).  My favorite reason that people like print books:  “DIY – One person has said she couldn’t use a stack of eBooks to prop up her couch if the leg fell off.”

There’s a real tangibility about print books – people talk about how they feel to the touch, how they smell, the heft of them, the quality of the paper and stock used for the cover and interior pages, the satisfaction felt in giving a physical book to someone as a gift.

But e-books satisfy the quintessentially American mindset:  “I want it and I want it now.”  In addition, for those of us who are constantly on the go, in transit, in motion — or as Walt Whitman put it in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “the eternal float of solution” — it is very handy to be able to download many books to a computer, and not to have to worry about adding more bookshelves to your home or apartment.  It saves money, time, space …

It’s an interesting trend. I’m following it closely because I am in the process of adding e-book publishing to my roster of services here at Blue Horizon Books.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | May 22, 2012

Just Published: Classical Gigs – A Guide for Working Musicians

Blue Horizon Books is proud to announce the publication of Classical Gigs: A Guide for Working Musicians by Liz E. Brooks.  Let me quote from the jacket cover to describe the writer of this useful guide for classical musicians on the brink of launching their careers:

Liz E. Brooks holds an M.A. in Secondary Education from Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and an M.M. in Cello from Butler University. As a freelance musician, she performs with her group, the Village Quartet, and with local orchestras and other ensembles. As a teacher, in addition to having many private students, Liz has been with the Indianapolis Suzuki Academy for more than 20 years and is trained in Suzuki books 1-10. She has also taught cello and preschool music at the Jewish Community Center and Interactive Academy in Indianapolis, and composes both classical and pop music.

And this is how Liz describes why she wrote the book:

“I really can’t imagine life without my cello, my rosin, my bow, my music stand, and my music. I have enjoyed a career as a freelance musician for many years, but there have been mistakes along the way. If only I knew then what I knew now! And that’s where this book comes in. I am a teacher first and foremost, and I wanted to share some of the most essential lessons I learned along the way. Hopefully, this book will provide some guidance to up-and-coming freelance musicians who want to get their own classical trio or quartet together to earn money playing gigs, and not have to reinvent the wheel doing so.”

Classical Gigs: A Guide for Working Musicians is now available on Amazon.com, Barnesand Noble.com, Powells.com, and all your favorite online booksellers.

Thanks to Dawn Daisley Designs for the lovely cover and interior design!

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | May 15, 2012

Book Collection: Sketchpads

If you are a fan of the “1,000 Journals” project, you will love this — a library of nothing but sketchbooks. It’s called the Sketchbook Project and its located in Williamsburg, the hipster section of Brooklyn, New York. According to Liz Robbins, who wrote about it in

Type Books in Torontolast Sunday’s New York Times (“A Home for Sketchbooks Of the World“), this sketchbook library now contains over 12,500 volumes from 130 countries. (An additional 7,500+ sketchbooks from the collection are currently on tour.) The space also houses “shops for art supplies and vintage goods.”  And there’s an “artisanal chocolate factory down the street.” Yum! I’m there.

There’s a small catch — there’s a fee for you to “donate” your sketchbook to the collection. But it’s only $25 and apparently, that fee buys you the 32-page sketchbook (it doesn’t say in the article or on the web site, but in the photo, it looks like all the sketchbooks are the same size, if not the same color). And you might think of it also as a contribution to the founders and owners – Steven Peterman, a printmaker, and Shane Zucker, a web developer – for the cost of building and archiving this mind-boggling collection.

It sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? The Sketchbook Project at the Brooklyn Art Library in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (103A North 3rd Street) is now on my to-do and must-see list.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | May 9, 2012

Book Ban! Brevard County, FL and “50 Shades of Grey”

These days, you tend to think that book banning is an anachronism, at least in the U.S.  Tropic of Cancer. Lady’s Chatterly’s Lover.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Those types of controversies are ancient history, right These days, book bans and book burnings only happen in countries where fundamentalist religious fanatics are shoving their worldviews down your throat, right?

No. Book banning is apparently alive and well, right here in the U.S. of A., as my friend, veteran newspaper reporter, Britt Kennerly, discovered recently. Britt is a columnist for Florida Today.  After she reported that the Brevard County public library system had banned Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling romance/soft (hard?) porn trilogy by author EL James, the backlash began.  In Britt’s words:

“I’ve written more than 5,000 stories over my years as a journalist. I’ve covered murders. Hung out with celebrities. Talked with a man (who would die the next week) about his battle with AIDS. Covered a presidential inauguration. I am seldom bored. Last week, I wrote the first story about the banning of “Fifty Shades of Grey” by the Brevard County public library system. I have been swamped with calls & emails from irate library patrons. Other reporters. TV stations. Librarians. One reader told me I had my head up my patooty – that the book should be banned – and couldn’t understand that I wasn’t the author of the book. Most callers are infuriated at the very idea of a book ban in 2012.”

A book banning in the U.S. is rather shocking, no? However, the writer must be thrilled – there’s nothing like bad publicity to drive up the sales of books, nothing like saying you can’t read it to make everyone want to read it.  And Britt has experienced some of the spillover effect. She writes on Facebook:

“The ban has been mentioned on “The View.” On Huffington Post. On the Today show. It is energizing, inspiring & some kind of wonderful to see a few hundred words that I wrote traveling the globe and being part of such a bigger, more important story. I love what I do. It matters.

I love what Britt does, too. She’s one heck of a writer and passionate about what she does. Thanks, Britt for keeping us informed.

And have I read even the first book of that “porno” trilogy?  No – but now that it’s banned on Florida’s “Space Coast,” I’m beginning to think it might be worth reading!

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | May 1, 2012

My very, very, very short story has been published!

Opium Magazine is the name of a little literary blog that publishes very, very, very short stories – the kind that you can read in about 1 minute. They also have a 7-line Story Contest — $1,000 for the winner, though – alas! – the contest is now closed and winners will be announced in July. However, you can submit very, very, very short stories almost anytime. Right now, they are taking submissions of humor stories. There, is however, a small fee ($10) for submitting material.

I am not usually a writer of short stories. More frequently, I am the writer of research reports and e-newsletters — in other words, non-fiction. And in fact, my story, “Thirteen,” is a true story. Here it is (reading time 54 seconds, according to Opium):

He was selling poems. On the sidewalk. At midnight. Obviously, he was indigent – scruffy clothes, wild hair, worn shoes. But he was enterprising. It wasn’t the usual hustle (“Homeless – need money to get bus back to Omaha.”) The poems were handwritten on 3 x 5 cards. I was intrigued and asked to see one. But it was the usual Hallmark crap. Sentimental, rhyming, clichés. “What else you got?” He handed me another, this one called “13.” I read the lines to myself: “One / two, three / four, five, six / seven, eight, nine / ten, eleven / twelve.” Brilliant! “How much?” I gave him five dollars. He signed the card—“Ovid.”

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