Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Year Without Football

The Super Bowl is this Sunday, and I won't be watching.

After I posted in May about the ethics of watching football and how uncomfortable I am with the growing evidence about endemic and lasting brain injuries I stayed true to my post and I didn't watch football this year.

Of all the years.

Stanford made the Rose Bowl for the first time since I was in college back in 2000 (and this time they won). The 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl and Colin Kaepernick is one of the most exciting young players in football. But I've never seen him play.

To be honest, I haven't gone completely cold turkey. If I'm at someone's house or at a bar and football is on I don't leave the room or insist that people change the channel. I still read football articles and in fact could give you a pretty thorough breakdown of the Alex Smith vs. Colin Kaepernick decision. I still keep up with scores and records.

But I'm not watching, week in, week out. I can't tell you what a change this is. I was once the chairman of Stanford's Axe Committee, which has its roots in the Stanford/Cal football rivalry. I'm not sure if I'll go to another Big Game. I grew up watching Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. I won't be watching the Super Bowl.

Junior Seau's death was the ultimate catalyst for my decision not to watch, and I made it without even knowing for sure whether he had the degenerative brain disease that has afflicted so many former players. It turns out he did.

There is mounting evidence that the NFL has not taken this issue seriously enough, but ultimately I think end of the sport will not come with a bunch of fans walking out of a stadium, but rather youth and high school teams unable to find insurance policies and forced to close up, a generation of parents pushing their kids into different sports, and a decline of the sport into the realm of horse racing and boxing.

For my part, in place of football on the weekends I've been watching, well, football. Soccer has become my weekend tradition. I wake up, fire up the coffee, and settle in for some writing and the English Premier League.

Anyone else find their habits changing as more news of former players emerge?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Best 100 Movies Challenge

So. You ready to take the best 100 movie challenge?

This has been a random procrastination activity of mine for quite some time, and now I'm ready to share my list with the world. I have spent way, way too much time thinking about this.

Behold... my 100 favorite movies of all time!

But this isn't all! It would be great if we could all share our own list for the Top 100, because I love looking at these lists. If you create your 100 and post it in the comments section I'll add the links to this post.
  1. Casablanca
  2. The Godfather
  3. City of God
  4. The Godfather Part II 
  5. Citizen Kane
  6. The Up Series
  7. The Empire Strikes Back
  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 
  9. Rushmore
  10. Jules and Jim 
  11. Schindler's List 
  12. The Shawshank Redemption
  13. Star Wars
  14. The Battle of Algiers
  15. Vertigo
  16. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
  17. Trouble in Paradise
  18. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  19. The Warriors
  20. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  21. Rebecca
  22. The Usual Suspects
  23. Children of Men
  24. Sunset Boulevard
  25. Giant
  26. Lawrence of Arabia
  27. The Wizard of Oz
  28. The Best Years of Our Lives
  29. Dog Day Afternoon
  30. Raging Bull 
  31. Clockers
  32. The Manchurian Candidate
  33. Before Sunrise
  34. Goodfellas
  35. Groundhog Day
  36. The 25th Hour
  37. Manhattan
  38. E.T.
  39. Hoop Dreams
  40. Back to the Future
  41. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  42. The Last Picture Show
  43. Before Sunset
  44. Stagecoach
  45. The Big Lebowski
  46. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
  47. Gone With the Wind
  48. Office Space
  49. Into the Wild
  50. Ghost Dog
  51. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  52. The Graduate
  53. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  54. Yojimbo
  55. Pulp Fiction
  56. Chinatown
  57. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
  58. Edward Scissorhands
  59. North By Northwest
  60. Duck Soup
  61. Saturday Night Fever
  62. The Truman Show
  63. Playtime
  64. Pinocchio
  65. A Hard Day's Night
  66. Le Samourai
  67. The Double Life of Veronique
  68. The Big Sleep
  69. Stray Dog
  70. The Philadelphia Story
  71. Charade
  72. Midnight Cowboy
  73. The Lives of Others
  74. True Grit
  75. Do the Right Thing
  76. Elf
  77. Rebel Without a Cause
  78. It's a Wonderful Life
  79. Singin' in the Rain
  80. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
  81. From Here to Eternity
  82. Apocalypse Now
  83. Coming to America
  84. Breathless
  85. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  86. To Kill a Mockingbird
  87. Funny Face
  88. Serpico
  89. Frankenstein 
  90. Hud
  91. Wings of Desire
  92. Dr. Zhivago
  93. His Girl Friday
  94. Patton
  95. Mildred Pierce
  96. Run Lola Run
  97. Suspicion
  98. Point Blank
  99. This is Spinal Tap
  100. Anchorman

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Where Have All the Bloggers Gone?

My Google Reader is feeling slim. Comment counts are down. Many of my blogging friends have either officially or unofficially hung up their hats. The ones who do blog do so far less often.

Two years ago I asked if blogs have peaked, and that seems like an almost quaint question now. My blog traffic isn't actually down significantly even though I'm posting less often. According to Blogger this blog had 204,000+ pageviews in December, which is roughly where things were in 2010. But it feels like a lot more people are coming in via search engines and going through the archives than coming by day in day out.

I know my comments platform sucks, especially the unreadable CAPTCHA (I know, I know!), but what I find interesting is that more people now comment on the Facebook posts where I post the blog than they do on the blog itself.

Where have all the bloggers gone? What do you make of this change? Is everyone on Facebook and Twitter? Is everyone consuming more than producing? Am I just not in the right places?

And if you'd like to join the community on Facebook commenting you can follow me on Facebook  here:

Art: The Stone Bridge by Rembrandt

Monday, January 28, 2013

Barnes & Noble Plans to Close a Third of Its Stores

E-book growth may be slowing, but that doesn't appear to be making a dent in the viability of large chain bookstores.

Barnes & Noble reportedly plans to close a third of its stores over the next decade (link is to CNET, I work there proudly). That amounts to 20 stores closing a year over the next 10 years.

I've written in the past about how I found it likely that chain bookstores would go the way of record stores into obsolescence, even as smaller, independent bookstores still plug on into the new era. This development is a reminder that it won't take 100% e-book adoption to threaten the viability of brick and mortar stores.

And these closures could further speed the adoption of e-books as people lose their bookstores and are forced to find their books elsewhere.

The publishing landscape is going to continue to shift very dramatically over the next decade. What do you make of this news? Are you ready for the new era?

Art: The Bibliophilist's Haunt or Creech's Bookshop by William Fettes Douglas

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Growing Older With a Band

I'm by no means old, but I've lived long enough that I can mark the passage of time by the lives of others: I can remember the events around every presidential election since Bush/Dukakis, the players who were rookies when I started paying attention to basketball are in the process of retiring, and the actresses I have crushes on are starting to play moms.

But there's nothing quite like following a band over the course of a lifetime.

I had the great fortune of discovering my favorite band, Yo La Tengo, when I was in college and the Internet opened up the entire musical world to anyone who had the fast Ethernet connection to find it. YLT were already well into their musical careers in the late '90s, and since then they've not only remained together, they've remained really good, releasing a strong album every three years like clockwork.

When I listen to their albums now they evoke a pastiche of memories and images of where I was and what my life was like and what device I was using to listen to the album.

I went to a now-defunct record store to eagerly pick up And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out in 2000, very deep into the college experience, writing papers, with a sense that the future was in front of me. (CD player)

Summer Sun from 2003 evokes my early adult life in San Francisco, climbing hills and taking long walks home as the afternoon fog rolled in. (iPod)

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass from 2006 conjures BART stations and hikes up a different hill - I had just moved back to San Francisco after a couple of years in New York and this was the soundtrack of my new commute and my return to California. (iPod with Video)

Popular Songs from 2009 is bittersweet, perched on the transition between being newly married and things falling apart. The song "Avalon or Someone Very Similar" was the soundtrack for a happy end-of-year recap video, "All Your Secrets" encapsulated that sense of hanging on, "And the Glitter is Gone" was a fitting coda. (iPhone 3G)

Now Yo La Tengo just released a fantastic new album, Fade, and I'm in a new place with a new life, and I'm sure in the future it will make me remember this time of transition into whatever is ahead of me. (iPhone 5)

I've seen YLT countless times in concerts too, but strangely, even as the audiences age with the rockers themselves, those concerts feel like points of continuity rather than marking the passage of time. Instead of bringing us back to the past, concerts blur into timelessness and remove everything but the now. It's those quiet moments listening to albums on our own that take us back in time.

Music has such a strange power. It certainly doesn't feel at all momentous when you're listening to a new song, but that song places an anchor in your brain and it takes nothing but a repeat listen years later to bring memories rushing back to a time you might never have remembered without it.

Here's "Ohm" from Fade, with its reminder that nothing ever stays the same:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Sound Dinosaurs Make

Like many out there on the Internet, I was rather shocked by Harper's Magazine publisher John R. MacArthur's recent broadside against Google. I wasn't horrified because I disagree with the sentiment, though I do, but because it displayed shocking ignorance and incuriosity about one of the most important powers shaping the future of words.

If you harbor fears about whether the leaders of traditional publishing are equipped to shepherd their institutions into a digital era, I urge you not to read it.

I'm sure I don't have to remind you about the storied history of Harper's Magazine, founded in 1850, the place where Moby-Dick first found print, and one of the important literary institutions this country has ever produced.

As Mathew Ingram points out in a similarly horrified response to MacArthur's screed, other old media publishers like The Atlantic have thrived by innovating in the Internet era with a stellar roster of bloggers, new formats, and a firm embrace of the era of Teh Google.

In fact, it was Atlantic Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal who had one of the best retorts to MacArthur's lament that Harper's does not readily appear when one Googles "magazines that publish essays."
I don't blame people for being disquieted by the rapid rise of new technology and the effects it has on our lives, and there is also a long tradition of literary technophobia that MacArthur is seemingly stepping into.

I do blame people for incuriosity and failure to investigate the enemies you see in your midst. I do blame people for failing to adapt to the inevitabilities of the future. It's not Google's job to do your work for you and bring readers to you because... why again? It's your job to understand how Google works and adapt accordingly so your existing readers can find what they're looking for and so you can attract new ones.

You can cover your ears and eyes and shout as the future approaches, but prepared to get drowned as the tide washes over you.

Photo by me

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Legit vs. Non-Legit Agents

A few months back, my former colleague Sarah LaPolla wrote a very important blog post that everyone looking for an agent should read.

There are a lot of agents out there. Some of them are fantastic. They came up through an apprenticeship process and worked hard for an established agent before they knew enough to take on clients. When they started taking on clients they were prepared, and now they have lots of sales under their belts.

Others just hung out a shingle. Maybe they had some connection to the business, maybe it was just a life-long dream, maybe they got fed up and decided if you can't beat 'em become one.

The hardest thing is, some of these non-legit agents don't know they're not legit. They have the best intentions, they may be good, hard-working people. But there's a lot more to being an agent than knowing how to read a contract or possessing a rolodex.

A bad agent can be more damaging to your career than no agent. There are bad agents out there. Learn how to avoid them.

Read Sarah's post. Make sure the agent who wants to represent you is legit-legit. Don't be scared of a young agent at a very established agency. Do be skeptical of someone who doesn't seem to have a great deal of experience and is working on their own.

Art: Double Portrait by Raphael

Monday, January 14, 2013

What Writers Can Learn from Downton Abbey

Like many of you noble lords and ladies, I have been thoroughly sucked into the period costume drama slash soap opera Downton Abbey, with its potboiler plot lines (Cousin back from the dead! Or is he!), breathtaking pace (pretty sure World War I was over in half an episode) and brilliant Maggie Smith one-liners.

What's amazing about a drama as well-received as Downton Abbey is the sheer simplicity of its moral universe. The good characters are good and the bad characters are bad. That's that. No one learns lessons, no one evolves (with the possible exception of Miss O'Brien), no one is especially complicated. Carson will always be dignified and Thomas the footman will always be a jerk. We don't exactly spend a lot of time plumbing the depths of souls.

What's even more amazing to me is the extent to which the good characters are measured by their devotion to an aristocratic universe that is usually vaguely unseemly and sometimes outright reprehensible. The good members of the staff are those who are wholly devoted to the maintenance of a system in which their employers live in opulent, lazy and unearned extravagance while they are lucky if they have the free time to find time to date, let alone reproduce.

But whatever, we love it! Who's ready for a fancy dinner?

How in the name of Kemal Pamuk do they pull this off? (I mean. Aside from the fact that everyone and everything looks fabulous.)

For one thing, the makers are fantastic at finding the seams in characters' competing desires and priorities and bringing them out in a heartwarming way. We all know that Maggie Smith's character is an unabashed devotee of aristocratic privilege and tradition (Dowager Countess: "What is a weekend?"), but she is also, at heart, the biggest advocate for the unity of the family.

So (mild spoiler), when we find out that she is the one who sent the money for Lady Sybil and her low-born Irish husband to travel back for Lady Mary's wedding, we are pleased and surprised that she set aside her distaste for his horrid apparel in favor of having her granddaughter present. Love of family > tradition.

A similar dynamic also works with the Earl of Grantham. Nearly every plotline on the show: He tries to adhere to tradition and the ways of the past, which ends up upsetting his daughters, and he caves to their wishes after a touching conversation. Love of daughters > aristocracy.

We like to see characters do the right thing when presented with competing options, and the creators of Downton Abbey are really skilled at creating situations where characters' honor are tested.

This ends up getting a little odd when it comes to the staff, as the ones who are good are the ones who are self-effacing enough to succeed in a world where doing the right thing involves preserving a world that sucks up their humanity lest the people who live upstairs have to lift a finger. We are charmed by the butler Carson's prideful attention to detail and Mrs. Hughes' polite competence (occupational competency > personal life)  without being horrified that their entire lives revolve around the needs and desires of a group of people who have done less work in their lifetimes than the staff do in a day.

The third season started last week and there were hints that the newly arrived American Martha Levinson, Lady Grantham's mother, would shake up the moral compass that underlies the show, and there seems to be some dawning awareness that perhaps one should do something with one's life besides employ a staff with an acquired fortune, judge local flower contests and host fancy parties.

And this is why the show faithfully keeps up with one of the important characteristics about a great setting. It's not just the beautiful surroundings. In a great setting, change is underway that impacts the character' lives. The aristocracy, and Downton Abbey itself, seems to be headed for a reckoning.

We'll see, anyway. Something tells me the Dowager Countess will win in the end. As she herself said, "Don't be so defeatist, dear. It's very middle class."

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Book of Answers

Anyone who has reacted with horror to the recent brutal rape in India that inspired mass protests, or, rather, anyone period, should check out C.Y. Gopinath's brilliant satirical novel The Book of Answers.

I had the great pleasure of working as Gopi's agent as he first conceived of and then wrote this book, and while his incredible prose was why I took him on to be my first client, and the way The Book of Answers came together into a incredible novel is why it ended up being published and nominated for awards, I don't know that I fully appreciated until now the extent to which Gopi is also blessed with incredible prescience as well.

The Book of Answers about a man, Patros, who comes into possession of one of the most coveted items in the world, a book that contains all the answers to all of mankind's problems. Patros wants nothing to do with it. He ditches it at a junk shop, only to see an Indian politician use the book for his own nefarious gain. Patros has to decide whether he's going to turn a blind eye to the world's problems or regain his youthful idealism, an idealism that hinges on women's rights and standing up to atrocities like the one that has recently galvanized protestors.

This is a novel of right now, I think it's a book that people will return to read in the future, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Add it on Goodreads or buy it here.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Last Few Week in Books 1/4/12

As if my blogging hasn't sporadic enough with the craziness of the holidays, next week is CES, land of 100" TVs and 18-hour-work days! Yes, I am headed to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, where the devices of tomorrow are gawked at by the nerds of today. It's always a lot of fun, if rather crazy for us CNETers.

The best way to keep track of the madness is to follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Just be warned that your feeds will be a deluge of new gadget wizardry.

Meanwhile, there have been some interesting links the past few weeks, and I aim to share them with you.

Influential and popular blogger Andrew Sullivan made an influential and in some circles very popular move by going independent with his blog, breaking off from the Daily Beast and charging readers $19.99 for full access. Can he make it pay, many asked? Well, so far he's apparently racked up a third of a million dollars.

Speaking of making it pay, Random House had quite a banner year thanks in large part to Fifty Shades of Grey, and Random House employees were treated to $5,000 shades of green.

Legendary author and Twitter maven Margaret Atwood is making a play of independence of her own. She'll be serializing a new novel called Positron serially on a site called Byliner. (via The Millions)

In roundup news, The Atlantic surveyed the best middle grade and YA books of 2012, GalleyCat rounded up a collection of successful query letters, and Kristin Nelson continued her popular tradition of year-end stats.

And perhaps the most disturbing book article of 2012 was brought to you by library books and bedbugs.

Over in the Forums, why do you want to be published and why do you write, which social media site do you use the most, mental illness in fiction, why bad writing is an oxymoron and, of course, what makes for the great American novel.

Comment! of! the! Week! In yesterday's post I suggested that perhaps we could readily tell real reviews from fake ones. Not so, says Chris Shaw:
Actually it's pretty much proven at this point that no, we can't pick out the false reviews ourselves. I'm having trouble finding some of the studies, namely the one I came across when this controversy first came out, which says humans identify the false one about 50% of the time--no better than guessing.This study gives some good info on the poor performance of humans in this matter, due to truth bias (we'll say something is true 88% of the time... whoops). A couple articles say that 30% of reviews are fake, and this one says 70% of consumers trust online reviews, so I'm betting we're missing just a few of them. Google the work by Cornell, MIT, U of Illinois Chicago, and some national economics group to find even more studies affirming that humans suck at telling when reviews are fake. 
Am I happy with what Amazon did? No. But it's warranted. Like it or not, we all actually were born yesterday in this game. It's the the best Amazon can do for us until they get more sophisticated at it (or one of those aforementioned universities gets their fake-fighting tech ready for prime time).
And finally, it was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and there have of course lately been many Lincoln tributes and the Spielberg movie. One of the most fascinating things I've ever read about Lincoln was a speech by Frederick Douglass, who delivered an incredible assessment a decade after his death. (via Ta-Nehisi Coates)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Yet Another Amazon Review Controversy

Last month there was yet another Amazon review kerfuffle, as it was revealed that Amazon has been undergoing a review purge aimed at friend-and-family rating manipulation and sockpuppetry.

On the one hand, like many others I cringed at the revelation that some well-respected authors have unabashedly paid for sockpuppet reviews.

At the same time, isn't it pretty easy to tell the difference between a critical review or a true rave from a fake one? Haven't we all honed our BS-detection skills to the extent that we find a representative review that we implicitly trust and manage to filter out the others?

What do you think? Are online reviews due for a necessary correction or should Amazon and others let us be the filter?

Art: The Puppet Show by Albert Rosenboom

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What Was Your Favorite Book Published in 2012?

As always there were so many more books that I wanted to read than was able to in 2012, but it was still a pretty good year for reading. Of all the books you read that were published in 2012, which one was your favorite?

Mine was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and I'm guessing I'm not alone.

If it's possible for a book to be a megabestseller while remaining underrated, I think Gone Girl is it. You hear people talk about how gripping it is, how readable, and it certainly is, but it's also ridiculously well-written. This was a cracking mystery bordering on literary fiction levels of psychological and cultural insight and prose quality.

Could there be some lingering gender or genre bias at play in 2012? Would Gone Girl have been received differently if it were written by someone named Jonathan? Are we still predisposed to not considering mysteries as possessing serious literary chops?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

This Year in Books 2012

The library in Google's New York office. Photo by me.
2012 was a year of hurricanes and recovery, tragedies and an election, divisions and compromise, promise and ominousness. The apocalypse didn't take place, but the future does not feel won. The new millennium is transitioning from a rocky adolescence into a turbulent adulthood and it's difficult to say where things are going to go. The economic malaise feels more like a labyrinth than a long, deep tunnel.

2012 was the year that social media went from fad to fact of life, so much so that way may stop talking about it as anything other than our new, interconnected reality, in the way that we stopped breathlessly discussing the Web and the Information Superhighway at the end of last decade. (2013 should also be the year we retro-cool the term "The 'Net" back into parlance).

2012 was the year that the shiny new promise of cheaper tablets led to catapulting sales at the same time that e-book adoption rates appear to have leveled off, which has been greeted with some happy tut-tutting in some paper-loving book circles, but which strikes me as deeply concerning at a time when dedicated e-reader sales may be headed for the cliff.

Books and magazines have enjoyed a near monopoly in portable handheld entertainment for a hundred years (Game Boys and other handhelds notwithstanding), but if they can't compete with the other diversions on an iPad, books may (start? continue?) a long slide in cultural consciousness and possibly sales. If people aren't going to read books with what's already in their hands, when are they going to read?

2013 looks to be the year when even takeoff and landing, that last refuge of print monopoly and "my paperback doesn't need batteries" joshing, may be electronically-integrated.

And demonstrating the power of the rise of social media and cover-concealing e-readers and tablets, Fifty Shades of Grey catapulted from obscurity to cultural phenomenon. It's hard to imagine a book that better demonstrates the potency of the forces shaping our new crowd-driven, gatekeeper-less culture.

And for me personally, 2013 is a truly new start. I'm back in Brooklyn, the Jacob Wonderbar trilogy will wrap in just a month with the publication of Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp, and I'm very excited about new projects and new beginnings.

Meanwhile, thanks to everyone for your generosity with our recent Heifer fundraiser, and especially to the other participants, whose blogs you should definitely check out:

Catherine Ryan Hyde
Anne Mackin
My Karma Jumped Over My Dogma
T.K.'s Tales
Mira's Corner
100 First Drafts
Tales From the Motherland
Daily Adventures

Proving the power of social media, tweets surpassed blog comments for the first time in my fundraiser, and there were nearly 250 between the two. I went ahead and rounded up my $2 pledge:

Happy New Year, have a safe and prosperous 2013, and thank you so much to everyone for reading this blog!

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