Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chris Moore Can Wait

At long last, I've printed out the latest iteration of my novel. Although I started reading Christopher Moore's Island of the Sequined Love Nun on Friday, I'm going to have to put that on hold for a little bit, as I want to reread my book again. I probably won't send any queries out this month, despite my initial plans to start by June 30, because I want to make sure that there's no stupid errors in there. The close of the month — indeed, the first half of the year — is fast coming upon us. But the deadline is self-directed. I will send queries when I've finished my homework.

Just as important is that I've not been able to adequately research agents and agencies. This takes time, and it's time well spent. I could write queries now — I'll probably map out some templates soon — but I want the queries to sing to an audience that will understand and appreciate the tune.

But this should be the most important quest of my life; I need to be prepared. When Shackleton was putting together a crew for his ship's trek to Antarctica, he placed an ad in the paper, saying in part: "Men needed for dangerous quest. ... Survival in doubt, but if successful, fame will follow." I'm almost certain I've got the quote wrong, but its spirit is accurate. The point is, I must prepare myself. I've got a product to sell and future products being planned: I need partners.

On another note, I've noticed some other good Web sites of young and/or aspiring novelists, and I may want to develop something for myself along those lines. But that's hardly of immediate importance. I like having this blog and my other site, and it's not always easy to keep these up to date with the constant crush of life in general.

So my reading returns to Hoboken. Then I'll venture back to the island of the sequined love nun!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Book Review: The Bottom Billion, by Paul Collier

This review, which I wrote, appeared previously on a different Web site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly. If you want me to view it without publishing your name, I'll gladly do that. I keep no list of readers, so I won't sell it anywhere.

During an International Women's Day event at the United Nations in 2007, former UN undersecretary general for communications and public information Shashi Tharoor told the audience that the way to change the world could be summed up in two words: "Educate girls."

The beauty of Tharoor's advice is that it is easily articulated. And no doubt it would go a long way toward solving many of the most persistent problems in the world today if it were widely adopted. But as former World Bank economist Paul Collier explains in his new book The Bottom Billion, the plight of the world's most impoverished people is not simply a matter of education. Indeed, while Collier shares Tharoor's enthusiasm for educating girls, he is far more concerned about the rate of development in the world's poorest nations.

In the book, Collier argues that the challenge for mankind going forward is painfully stark. "By 2050," he writes, "the development gulf will no longer be between a rich billion in the most developed countries and five billion in the developing countries; rather, it will be between the trapped billion and the rest of mankind."

Why? After noting that the situation has changed dramatically over the last four decades, Collier explains that the countries whose populations make up the bottom billion are distinctive not only in their poverty but in their inability to develop economically. According to Collier, the decline of the countries where the world's poorest people live is not just relative; it is absolute. "Many of these countries are not just falling behind," he writes, "they are falling apart."

Collier doesn't subscribe to the idea that poverty is cultural or intractable — if either were the case, he notes, India and China would not be rising economic powers. Instead, he and his team of international researchers examine the traps — lack of natural resources, corruption and bad governance, proximity to bad neighbors — that ensnare poor countries in destructive cycles of conflict and violence. And should a poor country somehow manage to escape those traps, it faces the additional challenge of trying to compete in a global economy that is not as welcoming to new entrants as it was during the 1980s.

Indeed, Collier's attempts to strike a hopeful note often ring hollow, and his analysis throughout the book is tinged with pessimism. Like other economists, he notes that international aid has been largely ineffective in resolving the problems of poor countries. And while he concedes that rock stars and celebrities have helped to bring needed attention to the plight of the bottom billion, he is dismissive of most celebrities' grasp of the complex economic and political realities that undermine poor countries' development prospects.

What is needed, Collier explains, is a range of policy instruments that encourage countries to take steps toward change, including policies that enable African countries to export their goods and place them on a "productivity escalator." Yet, many of the tools traditionally used to help the world's poor are rendered ineffective by bureaucratic inertia and/or infighting. "Our support for change can be decisive," Collier writes. "But we will need not just a more intelligent approach to aid but complementary actions using instruments that have not conventionally been part of the development armory: trade policies, security strategies, changes in our laws, and new international charters."

Not even democratic elections offer much hope. Somewhat surprisingly, Collier's team of researchers found that elections neither help nor hinder a country's development prospects. Instead, they seem to shift the risks that continually loom as a threat to those prospects. "In the year before an election, the risk of renewed conflict goes sharply down [while] in the year after an election the risk goes sharply up," he writes. "Elections may be desirable for all sorts of reasons," he adds, "but they do not seem to make the society safer."

So, too, the role of nongovernmental organizations. In the book, Collier relates a story about Christian Aid, a respected British charity, which launched an anti-free-trade ad campaign in which a capitalist was portrayed as a pig sitting atop a peasant. No fan of Marx, Collier writes that the message was "grotesquely" wrong and that "Trade policy is the area of economics least well understood by the NGO world."

In fact, of all the tools employed to address the problem of conflict traps in poor countries, Collier is most skeptical of trade, especially when applied to post-conflict situations. In such situations, he argues, key basic services should be delivered by an independent service authority, which would enable donor governments to coordinate their response without overloading a weak post-conflict government. Even then, however, the key to success is identifying exceptional homegrown leadership that is able to foster reconciliation while avoiding the trap of corruption.

In the end, Collier takes politicians on both the right and left to task for tolerating the plight of the world's bottom billion as long they have. "If nothing is done about [it]," he warns, "this group will gradually diverge from the rest of the world economy...forming a ghetto of misery and discontent."
And that would be a disaster for all of us.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Novelist

As a runner, a writer, and a fan of Haruki Murakami, I was pleased to find an essay he wrote for The New Yorker. I've only read a smattering of Murakami's work -- The Elephant Vanishes and perhaps a couple stray stories from other collections. One of the things I like about his characters is that they come across as people I can relate to despite my being an American; Murakami is Japanese. I don't know if that means the image of the average middle-class, suburban male is universal or that I naturally gravitate to such characters. Not every personality trait needs to be over analyzed.

But even in this essay, I find myself rooting for the guy, as though Murakami is one of his own invented characters (though, aren't we all...).

As a casual Murakami reader, I wasn't aware of his personal history. For example, I didn't know he just kind of fell into writing one day, literally at the moment a baseball player hit a shot down the line. (Again, something I can relate to.) I had no idea that he used to run a jazz club, nor that he became a runner. He describes himself as a natural runner, despite not really being much of an athlete. It came relatively easy to him, though he had to give up smoking and build his endurance; he's since completed several marathons.

One of the points he made that struck a particular chord was his observation that, when he was running a bar, his goal was that 10 percent of a night's customers should be or become regulars -- an approach he took to his writing as well. Such a simple model, yet probably a difficult goal to attain. Do stock investors expect a 10 percent return? I don't know. Maybe that's why I'm not much of an investor.

I hope I can generate that type of return -- and not feel guilty or like failure for the 90 percent of readers who think I'm full of crap. I think Murakami's model provides the proper perspective to writing, and to running.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Off to Antarctica ... or Maybe San Francisco

I've completed the fourth or fifth draft of my first novel. (The reason for the seeming uncertainty is that while writing it the first time, I recognized that -- after 100,000 words -- I'd not only failed to tell a story worth reading, I wasn't close to completing it, so I made major changes. Does that constitute a first draft?)

Actually I finished this latest iteration about a week ago, but who's counting? In addition, I've been researching agents for several weeks and will ready myself for the first attempts to secure representation. I expect to mail a query letter to at least one agency by the end of June.

To be honest, I'm both excited and nervous. A friend of the family is the son of a novelist who has many novels to her credit. While there's no guarantee of anything, I think there's a chance that she'll read my novel; perhaps she'll recommend an agent who might be receptive to my work, perhaps she'll offer a critique to make it better and more marketable; she might simply say, "Nice try, but I doubt you'll sell it." She may not read it at all.

I know another author, Joan Winfield Currie, who's gone the self-publishing route. Earlier today, while helping to man a booth at the Bonnie Brae Highland Games, I finished up my profile of her for the Clan Currie Society. What won't be in the article is the good advice she's given me about how to market my novel. I've been fortunate in my years as a journalist to have met and befriended many people who've been generous with the knowledge they've gained about publishing. I'm grateful to them all.

So, what's next? Well, I've had two novels on my mind for a while. Actually, one for many years, which takes place in part down in Antarctica. I've had that one ruminating for so long, it's probably started to ferment. I'd like to get to know the characters that live in that book more intimately.

The other novel is probably more fun, however. It's a story in the fashion of Christopher Moore, who is simply fun to read and a master of creating wonderful silliness, which is something I appreciate. I actually started this novel (set in San Francisco since that's where Chris Moore lives) during the 2007 National Novel Writing Month competition. But it's a different direction than my first novel and the Antarctica tale is more along those lines. Both will eventually be written.

So, I'm not quite sure where my mental exercising will go next: Antarctica or San Francisco. But either way, I'm off on a new adventure.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Princes of Ireland, by Edward Rutherford

When I was in college, I studied for a semester in Dublin, Ireland, at Trinity College in a program run by the poet Thomas Kinsella. It was a good program in which I had classes taught by some prominent Irish scholars such as Seamus Deane (who I considered one of the most brilliant teachers I'd ever had), Proinsias Mac Cana, Liam de Paor, and, of course, Kinsella.

From them and others I learned a great deal about the development of Ireland from the pre-Celtic era through the Troubles that were quite in force while I was there. [As a side note, during a long trek across the country in the spring, our leaders -- Kinsella and de Paor -- debated whether to head into the North. A day before we were to head up, there'd been an explosion on one of the railways. Understandably and correctly, they decided not to send a group of American students in a bus marked 'Eirebus' into the North. We were disappointed, but I have no doubt it was the right decision.]

All that is meant as preface to describe the book I'm currently reading: The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga by Edward Rutherford. It's historical fiction and the characters I've met so far (I'm about 270 pages into it; the book covers 770 pages) are all interesting and fairly well drawn. In short, I'm enjoying it and I'm happy I'm reading it. The history is good and appears accurate to my recollection. I'm happy to mentally pronounce words I've not seen in many years once again: Uishnech, Ath Cliath, Cuchullain.

Indeed, I'm enjoying the book. But there are times when I feel Rutherford could have used a better editor -- and it's distracting. Too many times he leaves a reader having to guess which person a pronoun refers to. Sentences jump from perspective to perspective within a paragraph. And the sentence structure is so plain as to be almost sleep-inducing. Thank God the characters are engaging, especially in the opening tale of Dierdre and Connall.

Theirs is a love story set in the pre-Christian fifth century. Christianity is a little-known religion of the British slaves that wealthy families own. Connal, the nephew of the High King, is torn between the life of a warrior and that of a druid. But everything changes after he meets Dierdre, the green-eyed daughter of Fergus, chief of Dubh Linn ('black pool' in Old Irish, pronounced Duv Lin). The lovers' escape from the High King and his wife -- who had threatened to kill Dierdre -- coincides with bad harvests. And in the pagan era, that's a political minefield for the king that requires a sacrifice.

All the ingredients are there for a wonderful tale, and it doesn't disappoint. In looking at a 2004 review of the book in the New York Times, I certainly recognize the same book. Indeed, comments like "sprawling" and "easy to read" are entirely accurate. My gripes may be more a matter of my literary snobbery coming to the fore, once again.

My criticisms are not meant to discourage anyone from reading this engaging group of stories. Anyone with a love of Ireland would find it fascinating, whether you studied there or not. I just wish the book had been tightened up a little.