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Bookmarks (PCM Summer 2015)

PCM-summer2015-web3_Page_24_Image_0003The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish
Vengeance and Heresy in Medieval Ireland
In a detailed case study of witchcraft and heresy, based on Celtic sources, Maeve Brigid Callan ’92 examines the competing forces that guided Irish history during the story 14th century. Cornell University Press 2014/ 304 pages / $46.00

A Witherston Murder Mystery
In her 18th book and first novel, Betty Jean Craige ’68, professor emerita at the University of Georgia, folds a potent environmental message into a timely and down-home who-dunit that promises to be the first in a series. Black Opal Books 2014 / 318 pages /$12.99

PCM-summer2015-web3_Page_24_Image_0004Exploring the Salish Sea
An Artist’s View
Réanne Hemingway Douglass ’63and her husband,Don Douglass, cele-brate the beautyand ecological diversity of the inlandsea of Washingtonstate and BritishColombia in a textwritten to accompany the artwork of Margy Gates. Cave Art Press 2014 / 104 pages/ $10.95

PCM-summer2015-web3_Page_24_Image_0006More Studies in Ethnomethodology
Kenneth Liberman ’70 introduces his readers to this sociological approach rooted in phenomenology, with a focus on understanding unspoken rules people use to create order in unstructured situations, from game-playing to map-reading. SUNY Press 2014 / 312 pages / $26.95


Behind the Mask
Embrace Risk and Dare to Be Better
Donald F. Hastings ’51, with daughter and co-author Leslie Anne Hastings, offers a memoir of his career as CEO of Lincoln Electric Company that is full of shrewd business wisdom and inspiring, outside-the-box ideas. XLibris 2014 / 210 pages / $16.51



The Wood of Green
Poems, Stories, and Studies
Alan Lindgren ’86 offers a collection that varies in style—poetry, fiction and philosophical essays—and in language—poems in English, German and Spanish and stories in English and in German, with English translations. Sun Sings Publications 2014 / 558 pages / $18.95


PCM-summer2015-web3_Page_24_Image_0008Tokens on the Table (A Tip is Not Enough) and Contrary Mary (All in Good Time)
In this double book, J. Cris Miller ’59 offers a romance set in the 1870s in New Mexico and a mystery set in the Illinois/Indiana casinos of the 1990s. Each is the first in a planned series. JCMA 2002 / 500 pages / $11.95


PCM-summer2015-web3_Page_24_Image_0007Soundtracks of Asian America
Navigating Race through Musical Performance
Grace Wang ’95 considers the experiences of Asian Americans in Western classical and popular music, as well as “Mandopop,” to explore how they use music to construct narratives of self, race, class and belonging. Duke University Press 2015 / 272 pages / $23.95


Preston Versus Amazon


By Adam Conner-Simons ’08

THE WORDS THAT galvanized a thousand authors to speak out against a powerful corporate retailer were written along a dirt road, in an 8-by-10 shack, by a wispy-haired, self-described “wimp.”

This past year Amazon spent many months in testy negotiations with Hachette, the fourth-largest book publisher in the U.S. When no agreement had been reached by May, Amazon began delaying shipment of Hachette books, shutting down pre-orders, and even removing the publisher’s titles from its all-important recommendation algorithms.

Such gestures aren’t trivial—when the entity responsible for selling 40 percent of America’s printed books makes yours difficult to buy, sales drop.

Sitting here on the deck of his spacious summer house overlooking Maine’s pristine Muscongus Bay, thriller writer Douglas Preston ’78 clearly isn’t worried for his own livelihood. He’s published more than a dozen best-sellers and cultivated a devout following that will find him with or without Amazon.

But what keeps him up at night—and what spurred him to write 500 words that put his name in the headlines and a sizable thorn in Amazon’s side—is thinking about all the young authors that he says have been “held hostage in the middle of a back-room deal between two big corporations.”

In June, Preston penned an informal letter about Amazon’s actions, with the idea that a few writers might co-sign. After famous friends like Stephen King and Nora Roberts started spreading the word, the letter went viral, and within a matter of days more than 900 of his peers had gotten on-board and joined the group that Preston had dubbed “Authors United.”

It wasn’t a completely united front—a vocal contingent of self-published authors posted lengthy screeds online calling him a “one-percenter,” a “pinhead” and worse, while Amazon reps dismissed him in the press as “entitled” and “an opportunist.” When Amazon found out that he planned to publish his letter as a full-page ad in The New York Times, the company’s head of e-books tracked down his phone number and called to issue veiled threats and try to stop him.

Preston shrugs when he reflects on how the situation escalated and how he, improbably, became the face behind a movement that he never set out to lead.

“I’ve never been much of an activist about these things,” he says. “But [Amazon’s tactics] felt like an act of betrayal. We writers helped a struggling start-up become one of the world’s largest companies, and this is how they repay us?”


Amazon’s path to global dominance hasn’t come without making some enemies. CEO Jeff Bezos has internally referred to his team’s business strategy as “the Gazelle Project,” in that Amazon approaches publishers “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”

The Hachette dispute is far from Amazon’s first: in 2010 it deleted the “buy” option for all MacMillan books, which quickly forced the publisher to cave in during negotiations. The company often paints publishing houses as middlemen and gatekeepers—relics from another era whose skills at distribution and publicity have been rendered moot by instant downloads and viral word-of-mouth.

Many self-published authors agree. Sci-fi writer Hugh Howey has collected more than 8,000 signatures for a Change.org petition arguing that companies like Hachette are “resisting technology” rather than adapting to the changing times.

Preston, naturally, begs to differ. He sees publishers as vital curators, editors and investors, and believes that the biggest challenge for Authors United is, ironically enough, telling the right stories.

Here’s his: it’s 1978, and he’s a fresh-faced college grad creating communications content for the American Museum of Natural History. The job pays peanuts but lets him explore all of the museum’s hidden treasures, from majestic butterfly exhibits to a hair-raising “dinosaur graveyard” in the basement.

A few years into the gig, he gives a tour to an editor named Lincoln Child, who suggests that he pull his anecdotes into a book.

While novels can often be cobbled together on nights and weekends, Preston’s journalistic writing would require some heavy daytime reporting. As a first-time author, Preston isn’t in a position to drop everything to write, but his publisher St. Martin’s Press gives him an advance of $7,200 that lets him take six months off from his job.

“Without that cash, there’d be no first book and I might not even be doing this for a living right now,” he says.

The experience made Preston recognize the importance of publishers as venture capitalists for ideas—a tradition that, in a sense, extends back to the Renaissance, when royal families like the Medicis funded artwork by Michelangelo and Sandro Botticelli.

“These publishers supported me when I was unknown and believed in me enough to keep releasing my books even when the first few didn’t sell,” says Preston, who’s been with Hachette for 20 years. “What’s lost in the narrative is that, if authors couldn’t get advances, an awful lot of extremely important books wouldn’t get written.”


As with most business disputes, Amazon and Hachette’s boils down to dollar signs. Their main disagreement has revolved around e-books, which now make up almost a third of the market. Currently 30 percent of each e-book’s revenues go to Amazon, and 70 percent go to Hachette, which then carves out a cut for the author (usually 10 to 15 percent). While nobody knows exactly what was happening behind closed doors during negotiations, Amazon was reportedly pressing for 50 percent of revenues.

What’s also at stake are e-book prices themselves. Amazon has famously been selling many e-books at a loss, and says that prices above $9.99 hurt overall sales. Hachette, meanwhile, has been reluctant to set a precedent for lower prices that might cannibalize hardcover sales.

Preston says he has no particular problems with $10 e-books, but at the same time is flummoxed by the animosity leveled at authors whose books are being sold for a few dollars more.

“Some people have said e-books should be cheaper because they’re ‘just words,’ but then why isn’t anybody out picketing the makers of ‘Grand Theft Auto’ for charging $65 for a video game that’s ‘just electrons?’” he asks. “It devalues all the work that goes into the creative process. Is every book really worth just $9.99 to you?”

Amazon has likened e-books to paperbacks, another technological advance that lowered literature’s costs but also allowed for its increased availability. Many authors would counter that the Amazon-driven trend toward lower and lower e-book prices threatens the long-term viability of the entire profession.

“Amazon is doing the same thing Spotify is doing—treating creative content as though it were a commodity, like a TV set or a vacuum,” Preston says. “They’ve spurred a massive price devaluation of books that’s caused consumers to expect artificially low prices—and the net result is that it’s now exceedingly difficult for young authors to make a living.”


It’s not just first-time authors who’ve felt the pinch, which is why many authors were wary about signing a letter like Preston’s that would pit them against such a massive retail juggernaut. Novelist Lucy Ferriss ’75 was gung-ho about Authors United last summer, but as the publication date of her next book approached, she started reflecting on the wide reach of Amazon, which owns both the review site Goodreads and Audible (the seller of the majority of the world’s audiobooks).

“It becomes much more real when your own sales are tied into it,” Ferriss says. “It’s startling to realize how much of my personal investment as an author is caught up in getting good results with Amazon.”

Despite her reservations, she’s stayed on-board—in no small part because of Preston’s dedication. She recalls that when he and his brother Richard ’76 (a fellow writer) joined Pomona’s literary magazine Passwords, it only took a matter of weeks for her team of editors to voluntarily hand over control.

“They were impeccably organized, they had goals, and we were hopelessly incompetent,” she says with a laugh. “With Authors United, it doesn’t surprise me that Doug’s been able to essentially herd an army of feral cats. Once he decides to get something done, he does it.”

Since the initial letter, Authors United tried to reach out directly to members of the Amazon Board, with no luck. Preston was also approached by a team of prestigious pro bono lawyers who will be submitting a formal brief for the Department of Justice that outlines Amazon’s antitrust violations. He hopes it will encourage, if not an actual lawsuit, then at least more transparency on the part of retailers and publishers’ business dealings.

“Amazon makes most publishers sign non-disclosure agreements, such that we don’t even know what’s going on with these contracts,” he says. “What’s the nature of these relationships, and what is Amazon asking for? The DOJ has to bring this all out in the open so the American people can look at the facts for themselves.”


When I met with Preston on a crisp autumn morning in October, he sounded frustrated and a tad overwhelmed. He was promoting the publication of his third novel of 2014, gearing up for a book fair in United Arab Emirates, working on the next installment in his popular “Pendergast” series, and fielding phone calls from journalists about the ongoing publishing feud.

“Truth be told, I’m sick and tired of the situation, and would love to get rid of Authors United and go back to writing books,” he told me then.

Less than a month later, Hachette and Amazon reached a deal that made Hachette responsible for setting e-book prices, but also gave Amazon the opportunity to offer “specific financial incentives for Hachette to deliver lower prices.”

Preston views the resolution as just the end of one battle in a larger war for writers, publishers and retailers. Despite the tedious and thankless nature of his role, he says he takes comfort in the fact that his efforts have put a spotlight on the changing landscape of his industry—and the tricky economics that come with being an author in the digital age.

“If nothing else, it’s reassuring to look at the list of folks who’ve signed the letter and see everyone from cookbook authors and sci-fi writers to poets and Nobel laureates,” he says. “I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that it’s rare to get writers to agree on anything.”




Axioms to Grind & Rhyme and Punishmentrhyme-and-punishment


These posthumously published tomes by Richard Armour ’27 were edited by his son, Geoff Armour ’63. axioms-to-grindAxioms to Grind includes 900 of Armour’s famed aphorisms. Rhyme and Punishment is his autobiography.

Phoenix Publishing Group 2012 / 225 pages / $14.95

Phoenix Publishing Group 2013 / 122 pages / $14.95



In the visually stunning  sequel to his Caldecott Honor-winning picture book JourneyAaron Becker ’96 offers the second installment in an intended trilogy of brightly colored fantasy adventures without words.

Candlewick 2014 / 40 pages / $15.99


Clavichord for Beginners

calvichordJoan Benson ’46, a champion of the clavichord in the modern world, offers a method book for practitioners and enthusiasts alike, including a master class DVD and a CD of Benson performing.

Indiana University Press 2014 / 144 pages / $50.00


The Shelburne Escape Line

the-shelburne-escape-lineReanne Hemingway-Douglass ’63 tells the little-known World War II story of an escape route that the French Resistance used to rescue Allied airmen shot down over France.

Cave Art Press 2014 / 104 pages / $18.95



Plato’s Rivalry with Medicine

A Struggle and Its Dissolutionplato

Susan Levin ’84, professor of philosophy at Smith College, examines the famous philosopher’s evolving engagement with the subject of medicine and argues that his works have much to offer in the world of bioethics.

Oxford University Press 2014 / 320 pages / $65.00


Fractured Legacy

In his sixth novel, Charles Neff ’54 revisits the Pacific Northwest, where  a fractured-legacyclash between an old family legacy, tribal land rights, and a marriage in trouble results in a suspicious death, threatening the lives of those who try to solve it.

Bennett & Hastings Publishing 2014 / 276 pages / $14.95


Sky Blue Stone

The Turquoise Trade in World Historysky-blue-stone

Assistant Professor of History Arash Khazeni examines the origins, trade, and circulation of turquoise in the history of Islamic Eurasia and global encounters between empire and nature.

University of California Press 2014 / 216 pages / $29.95



An American Lyric

citizenA National Book Award finalist, Professor of English Claudia Rankine’s meditation on race recounts the racial aggressions of daily life in America in a progression of revealing vignettes.

Graywolf Press 2014 / 160 pages / $20.00

In compiling dissident’s writings, professor relives her own journey from Cuba

Pomona College Professor of Spanish Nivia Montenegro’s latest book, Libro De Arenas: Prosa Dispersa 1965-1990, is a compilation of the work of the late gay Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas, commemorating the importance of the literary and political figure known for his bestselling memoir Before Night Falls. For Montenegro, editing the book was an homage to the experience of fleeing one’s homeland, living as an exile and building a new life—an experience that is her own. Co-written with her husband Enrico Mario Santí, and researched with the help of Margaret Munts ’17, Libro De Arenas was recently published in Mexico and will soon be published in Spain.

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Acclaimed authors have new books out in India

Two of Pomona College’s most prominent alumni authors, Vikram Chandra ’84 and Ved Mehta ’56, have new books out in India.

chandracover1The latest from Chandra, author of the bestseller Sacred Games, is Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letter and Code, which explores computer coding and novel writing and the connections and trajectories of the seemingly opposing methods of expression.

Mirrored Mind will be released in the U.S. in September as Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software. Chandra, who has spent years as a computer analyst and years as an acclaimed fiction writer, creates a work described by the publisher as “part literary theory, part tech story, and part memoir.” The book ranges from discussions of the Silicon Valley coding culture to an analysis of the writings of the fourth century Sanskrit grammarian Panini to an examination of his own relationship to Western literature. 

The Telegraph (U.K.) called it “a delight to read and never prescriptive… a thought-provoking set of linked essays that are part memoir, part analysis of geeks, part aesthetic treatise.” Meanwhile, Chandra’s bestseller Sacred Games may become a TV series.

mehtacover1Ved Mehta ’56, the author of 27 books and many articles, has released The Essential Ved Mehta. The book contains excerpts from almost all of his nonfiction writings, beginning with his first novel Face to Face, published in 1957. Mehta was a staff writer at the New Yorker from 1960 to 1993, writing prolifically during his tenure. The Essential Ved Mehta contains Mehta’s published pieces that include his many writings on India and politics, as well as family stories and personal memoirs that delve into living with blindness since the age of 4.

Mehta also offers personal commentary that he wrote specifically for this collection as a reflection on each piece. In an interview with WWD, the author “says that he feels that the U.S. and India have equal weight in his consciousness, and that he thinks of himself as belonging to neither of the countries as a writer. Rather, he’s a ‘rootless writer,’ he says, adding that good writing should not be limited by geography.”

Both The Essential Ved Medhta and Mirrored Mind are published by Penguin India.

Professors’ new book tells the story behind the vast and mysterious Death Valley National Park

One of Professor Char Miller’s latest books, Death Valley National Park: A History, is a co-authored volume based on the manuscript drafted by late UNLV history professor Hal K. Rothman. Hal was an editor for the Environmental History journal and was a prominent writer, public speaker and environmental historian; he died from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2007 at the age of 48. Death Valley National Park: A History is the first comprehensive history of the park, from its beginning as a national monument in 1933 to its present day prospects and conflicts. The book discusses the three-million-acre park’s founding, evolution and early people, and it also examines the past and current impacts of mining, solar power, politics and urban development on this arid landscape. Here, Professor Miller, director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College, discusses the book in an abridged and edited interview.

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Aaron Becker ’96 enchants kids and critics with his richly-illustrated Journey

As a boy growing up in Baltimore, Aaron Becker ’96 knew a trick: when he drew pictures, he became all-powerful. “Drawing was a way of making sense of what life was about,” Becker says, “On a piece of paper I could make all the rules that I wanted to.” This year, with the release of his debut children’s book, Journey, Becker has created a world that invites its audience to follow the spirit of that child of years ago. Journey features a girl who uses a magical pen to slip from her distracted family to a rich world of her own timbre. With not a single word of text, Journey unfolds over 40 pages of captivating illustrations, detailed but not busy. The book has won widespread positive notice. Amazon included it among its “Best Books” for young readers in summer 2013 while the New York Times called it a “masterwork.” School Library Journal placed the book on its list of contenders for the Caldecott Medal, the most notable award for picture books.

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Sagehen surprise in Lethem’s new book; Pynchon’s latest tome mentions Pomona, too

dissident1Though it is set in Queens, Pomona College Professor Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens, contains a fun little nod to his SoCal college home. Deep in the novel about “three generations of All-American radicals,” as Lethem is unspooling a bit of background about purist music teacher Harris Murphy, we learn that Murphy was part of the short-lived duo which contributed one song to the anthology LP Live at the Sagehen Cafe.

For those who are decades away from campus life, the Sagehen Cafe is the sitdown eatery in the Smith Campus Center, adjacent to the Coop Fountain.

Lethem says it is the only Pomona allusion he dropped into the book (available Sept. 10), but he did pass along the news that Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge (available Sept. 17), also set in New York, contains a brief reference to Pomona College in its first few pages.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Pomona was recently named to Flavorwire’s list of the most literary colleges …

More from the magazine about Jonathan Lethem, Pomona’s Roy Edward Disney ’51 Professor in Creative Writing.

City views: Sagehens take fresh looks at San Francisco, Seattle

A pair of new tomes from Pomona people take fresh looks at two of the West Coast’s top cities. Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community & Identity in San Francisco, by Pomona College Professor Tomás F. Summers Sandoval Jr., is “among the first books detailing the experiences of Latin American immigrants and their descendants in San Francisco over the course of a century and a half … ,” according to the web story. A state or two to the north, Bill Mullins ’68 has written Becoming Big League: Seattle, the Pilots and Stadium Politics. He tells the “story of Seattle’s relationship with major league baseball from the 1962 World’s Fair to the completion of the Kingdome in 1976″ focusing on “the acquisition and loss, after only one year, of the Seattle Pilots.”

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Scientific American touts Sagehen authors

allnatural1animalwise1Update on 07/24/13: Animal Wise by Virginia Morell ’71 was one of the top three picks in the SciAm Summer Reading Poll! Join Morell in a Google Hangout with the other two authors on Friday, July 26, at 9 a.m. PST.

The editors of Scientific American are offering readers a chance to vote for their favorites among 50 new science books that were recommended by the magazine’s staff and contributors, and a pair of Sagehen authors appear side by side on the online ballot. All Natural by Nathanael Johnson ’01 is right next to Animal Wise by Virginia Morell ’71. Fortunately, you are allowed to vote for up to three tomes.

More about Animal Wise
More about All Natural
Scientific American ballot