Friday, April 29, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Crime Fiction Awards, German Style

Our guest this week is Almuth Heuner, a German writer, translator, and literary scholar who specializes in international crime and mystery, especially by female authors. She has published a number of short mysteries, mainly with a culinary theme, and edited several short mystery anthologies as well as translated crime novels into German. Almuth is an active member of the two major German-speaking mystery authors’ organizations, Das Syndikat and Moerderische Schwestern (formerly the German Chapter of Sisters in Crime, of which Almuth is a past president). Find out more about her at (in German; English version under construction).

* All photos by Uwe Kletzing

Last year, I received one hundred mystery novels for free—all new books, all just published, all by new authors from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. They arrived by mail throughout the year (my postman delivered them several times a week with a deadpan face, and I’m sure he was hoping I’d invite him in for coffee!). Afterwards the books sat on a special shelf, waiting for me to make good on my promise to read them within the year.

You will have guessed by now that I’d been elected to a panel of judges, tasked with finding the best debut mystery novel of 2010, originally published in German. That novel will be awarded the Friedrich-Glauser-Preis, which comes with a €1,500 cash prize.

But “Best First Novel” is only one of the categories. Although the most eagerly anticipated Glauser award is the one in the “Best Novel” category (€5,000), the winner of the “Best Short Mystery” also gets a lot of attention. Juvenile mysteries have their own award, which is presented at the same time as the Glauser: the Hansjörg-Martin-Preis (€2,500), whose judges include several young readers in addition to the adults.

The sponsor of all these annual awards is Das Syndikat, a mystery authors' association with more than 600 active members from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The award is very similar to the “Edgar” (the Edgar Allan Poe Award presented by the Mystery Writers of America), even down to the judging process. Each category has five judges, elected from the Syndikat membership, who read all the works submitted to their category by the authors or the publishers. The judges then compile their personal top ten list and meet in late January of the following year to come up with a short list of five entries and select the winner.

Celebrating the Glauser Awards
(with the little red suitcase of cash)
The short list is published a few weeks before the “Criminale”, the annual convention and festival which is usually held in early May. The festival ends with a gala ceremony, called “Tango Criminale”, during which the awards are presented “Oscar style”, like at the Academy Awards. Movie clips first introduce all works and authors from the short lists in each category. Then the presenter draws the winner’s name out of a big envelope, holds a short speech, and presents the award in form of a small statue of a black glove, along with a big check. Instead of the check, the “Best Novel” winner receives a small suitcase filled with used bank notes in small denominations, non-consecutively numbered. (The suitcase is supposed to be returned for the following year’s ceremony, although it doesn’t always turn up in time.)

The “Ehrenglauser” is an unendowed prize (but comes with a small bronze statuette) for individuals who have made a significant overall contribution to the German-language crime and mystery writing scene. Recipients may be authors as well as journalists, publishers and scholars, and any Syndikat member can nominate a person for this award by submitting his or her name to the relevant panel of judges.

The Syndikat, founded in 1986, began awarding prizes in 1987, at first only for Best Novel and the "Ehrenglauser" categories. The other categories came later, Best Juvenile Mystery in 2000 and Best Short Mystery and Best First Novel in 2002.

Almuth presenting the "Ehrenglauser"
to German crime author Sabine Deitmer
And in whose honor did we name our awards? Friedrich Glauser (1896-1938) was born in Austria but moved to Switzerland at the age of 17—more or less permanently. He wanted to be a poet, but his health and rebellious nature prevented him from settling on anything long-term, be it place or vocation. His drug addiction frequently landed him in the hospital, where he started writing crime novels (“In Matto’s Realm”). Today, he is considered one of the earliest German-language crime fiction writers.

Hansjörg Martin (1920-1999) launched the post-World War II era in German crime writing when he wrote his first adult mystery in 1965. But prior to that, he’d written a lot of mysteries for young readers, and continued to do so throughout his writing career.

The 65th Edgar banquet was yesterday, but the nominees for the Glausers and the Martin have to wait another week. This year’s awards ceremony (the 25th), takes place on May 7 in the city of Mönchengladbach, near Cologne, Germany. And we’re all looking forward to the evening gala as well as the entire festival, which starts on May 4. It will be nearly a week of fun and getting together with friends, of celebrating not only the best stories but the entire experience of reading and writing crime and mystery literature.

For an overview of the crime and mystery scene in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, check out the upcoming May/June issue of World Literature Today.

More information about Das Syndikat and the Criminale can be found here (in German): Das Syndikat

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Happy 65th Birthday, Edgar. May You Never Retire!

Writers are not starving artists! At least not at the Edgars.
Invariably held in New York City, Edgars week is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. Which means that the city is once again swarmed by the evil-minded, conspiring, and plotting criminal masterminds. It is amazing the NYPD does not flood the streets with extra police.
The traditional schedule includes the Thursday MWA-sponsored award dinner where the Edgars winners are announced, preceded by a full-day Wednesday symposium and an Agents and Editors cocktail party. I’ve only been to the Edgars banquet once, but I never miss the Agents and Editors schmoozing.  It is the only time in the year when a scribe can get drunk next to an agent who is not even his.

Crime writers hug too. Rosemary Harris and Jane Clealand do.

The Wednesday symposium can be helpful for those still writing their breakout novel.  This year, several Edgar 2011 nominees held the panel titled Getting Here From There. Later in the afternoon, Edgar winner Lisa Scottolone shared some insights during her How to Write a Novel talk. Yet, the party always remained my favorite Edgars perk. Where else can you find Mary Higgins Clark, Sara Paretsky, S.J. Rozan, and Reed Farrel Coleman all in the same room at the same time? Only in New York. And only at the Edgars.
Strangely enough, I didn’t see the usual agent bunch – neither Barbara Poelle nor Janet Reid came to the party tonight. I missed them both. Donna Bagdasarian stopped by briefly and left. Hopefully it had nothing to do with Edgar’s retirement age, we all need agents to stay in business so they can sell our books!
More hugs: moi, Reed Farrel Coleman and Cathi Stoler
It was a pleasure to talk to Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellery Queen who remembered me and my story, The Marsh Island, which is coming out in a few months!  I didn’t have a chance to chat with Linda Landrigan from Alfred Hitchcock, but I am hoping to do so tomorrow at the reception that Dell magazine hosts for its writers (Dell owns AHMM and EQMM). This will be my first one (since it was the first story ever accepted by EQMM) so I’m thrilled. But, I am not sure Edgar nominees share my excitement tonight.
Ironically, the masters of literary tension go through major suspense from the moment the nominees are announced earlier in the year until the winners are announced at the banquet. The committee chooses winners right after the nominees are selected, yet the victims of their own craft have to await their fate for nearly two months. No, life doesn’t get easier for published writers. Perhaps it gets more gripping like a good thriller should be.
A writer is only as good as his or her books. For a mystery writer, she is only as good as her crime. So let’s make a toast to that–may we all conjure up the scariest villains, equip them with ultimate alibis, and pair them up with irresistible protagonists our readers will fall in love with at first sight. Or rather the first paragraph.
And may we all win the Edgar.

Moi, Hilary Davidson and Kathleen Ryan

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some Books Have Wings

You finally get a chance to read today’s newspaper, only there’s some kind of annoying buzzing around your ear. You swat at it a few times, even move to another seat, but it’s as though the little bugger’s taunting you: “Catch me if you can!” You decide to ignore it and focus on the paper, brows furrowed so hard, it hurts. The word “mosquito” jumps out and bites you. Now isn’t that funny? The first story you read is about malaria.

The experience of reading author Kuzhali Manickavel’s short story collection, Insects Are Just Like Us But Some of Them Have Wings, was a little like that for me. She packs 35 stories within some 140 pages, stories ranging anywhere in length from a paragraph or two to the longest one, a mere 12 pages. Some stories are interconnected, with recurring characters. There are diagrams between the stories, depicting various species of bugs. The life cycle of the assassin bug in figure 2, for example, follows “the progression of insanity in women.” Then there's figure 6, “Various Stages in the Development of the Artist Represented by the Emergence of a Dragonfly.” Bugs pop up randomly in these stories, though they aren’t usually the central theme. Or maybe they are?

To pile on the metaphors, reading these stories reminded me of going to a museum, standing in front of a really abstract painting thinking “what the….?”, while overhearing the folks behind me whisper, “powerful… and so political.” With a huge grassroots following, Manickavel's writing is described as quirky, irreverent, dark, and laugh-out-loud funny. Related to my museum story, I would throw in avant garde and post modern.

My favorite parts of this slim collection are the lyrical descriptions and imagery. Flood water flows like old coffee, tiny piles of sand try to escape a beach, the sun grinds its heels into a character’s eyelids, an old mythical character is reimagined as the “King Of Everything That Goes Wrong Even When You Do Everything Right.” Many of the stories have political and social undertones, though some may have escaped me, either because I’m not familiar enough with Tamil traditions and local issues, or more likely, I’m just not hip enough. (I suspect the latter but maybe we could just keep that our little secret? The book did teach me how to curse in Tamil, in case that counts. In detail, double entendres included.)

Kuzhali Manickavel is a young, Canadian-born author who, at the age of 13, moved to a small temple town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She’s most often compared to American author, Miranda July, who wrote a review that appears on the back of the paperback edition. Insects Are Just Like Us But Some of Them Have Wings has been well received both in India and abroad as something of an underground sensation. Its small-press publisher, Blaft Publications Pvt. Ltd., has achieved international success with this 2008 book along with two popular anthologies of Tamil pulp fiction.

One thing’s clear: Manickavel is an author to watch. Insects… was nominated for both the 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, renamed the The Cork City – Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, and the dubious but somehow apropos honor of the world’s oddest book title (i.e., the Diagram Prize, sponsored by The Bookseller magazine). While Manickavel hasn’t yet won any major literary awards, I’m willing to bet it won’t be long before she does.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When the Storyteller Becomes the Story

Alli is off this week, so we are rerunning one of her posts from October about award winning authors.

The scene opens at a movie-theatre in Mexico City, 1976. The place is a hot-bed of anticipation with people waiting for the premier release of a movie about the plane crash survivors in the Andes who turned to cannibalism.

A handsome man with expressive eyebrows rushes up the aisle. The intensity in his eyes catches peoples’ attention and their gaze follows his heavy footsteps. Another man, this one with a smile as wide as the Amazon River, turns to greet his friend with a warm embrace but ends up with a fist in the eye. The crowd gasps. Women scream. Men yell. Blood oozes from the man’s eye, across his cheek and onto the carpet.

If I didn’t know better, this could be a cliffhanger ending for a South American telenovela (soap opera). But it isn’t. It’s a slightly fictionalized version of events that unfolded between two of South America’s literary heavy-weights – Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

The encounter between these former best friends has been playing on my mind a lot lately, probably due to Mario Vargas Llosa winning this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. It’s hard to imagine the winner of such a distinguished award duking it out in public with a colleague and (former) best friend. Admittedly, the Llosa/Márquez altercation happened over thirty years ago but we’re still talking about it. It proves that everyone, including acclaimed writers, have their own stories to tell.

So what is Mario Vargas Llosa’s story? Born in Arequipa, Peru, in 1936, Mario was an only child. His parents separated, and Mario was sent to a military academy in Lima which became the inspiration for The Time of the Hero (La Ciudad y Los Perros). The book criticized the Peruvian military and as a result, they burned thousands of copies. This launched Vargas Llosa as an influential public figure and offered him a chance to use his writing as a way of changing the way people think. He even ran for the Peruvian presidency (and lost) in 1990.

I first encountered the works of Vargas Llosa after reading García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Don’t worry, the irony isn’t lost on me. Even though these men haven’t spoken to each other for more than three decades, they are linked together whether they like it or not. Both have won Nobel Prizes for literature, Vargas Llosa wrote a doctoral thesis in 1971 about García Márquez, and they both lead the fore of influential and classical South American literature (especially in terms of magical realism). And neither will blab about what really happened that night in Mexico City.

Over the years, Vargas Llosa has criticized García Márquez for his friendship with Fidel Castro. Some say the fallout leading up to the most famous punch in Latin America was over politics. Others say it was over a woman – Vargas Llosa’s wife to be exact. Rumor has it García Márquez took it upon himself to console Vargas Llosa’s wife after he told her about an extramarital affair Mario had. Vargas Llosa has been quoted as saying the historians will be the ones to find out the truth.

In 2007 Vargas Llosa provided the forward for García Márquez’s 40th anniversary edition of A Hundred Years of Solitude. Writing a forward for the man he doesn't talk to is a mystery in itself. And when the 2010 Nobel announcement was made, Garcia Márquez tweeted (yes, even the world’s best authors tweet), “Cuentas igaules” (“Now we’re even”). It looks like there’s an almighty “to be continued” slapped on this episode of the Márquez/Llosa telenovela.

Which writers do you admire and how closely do their life stories mirror their fiction?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Death of a Nationalist - A Tale Without Heroes

In the small New England town where I grew up we had a neighbor from Spain. She possessed a warmth that tempered her vivacious personality, and she spoke English with a thick accent that made her sound like she was always clearing her throat. But this woman had the singing voice of an angel and her songs were all about the Spanish Civil War. I grew up with a romantic vision of that conflict, which the song lyrics painted as a noble struggle between good and evil, the good guys being the Communist-backed Republican fighters (the heroes of the songs) and Franco’s fascist Falangists, also known as nationalists, cast as the villains.

But there is nothing romantic about Death of a Nationalist, Rebecca Pawel’s Edgar Award-winning suspense novel set in the aftermath of Spain’s bloody civil war. She paints a grim picture of a battered country where hope is as scarce as food. The Fascists have won and are busy purging the country of Republican carbineros, not bothering with the inconvenience of a trial. It’s a world where being caught without proper papers can result in “going for a stroll,” a euphemism for summary execution. Or where a suitcase filled with meat and potatoes, stolen at gunpoint from a black marketeer, helps one family survive another day.

Against this brutal backdrop, Pawel spins a tale of two men who stand on opposite sides of Spain’s unbridgeable political gulf. Carlos Tejada Alonso y Léon is a nationalist, a Guardia Civil with an unwavering belief in the fascist cause. He views the “Reds” as beneath contempt, barely human. “They don’t even marry their women,” is his contemptuous assessment at one point.

Gonzalo Llorente is a former carbinero, recently released from the hospital after suffering a serious war wound. He’s hiding out in his sister’s apartment, for if the Guardia Civil finds him, his lack of papers will mean that he too will “go for a stroll.” Gonzalo had been a socialist before the war and a Republican fighter during the conflict, but ideology is not what drives him. He just wants to build an ordinary life with his great love, Viviana.

The tale begins with Tejada shooting Viviana as she bends over a murdered Guardia Civil (the dead nationalist from the title). Tejada doesn’t bother with the particulars of ascertaining whether she really was the nationalist’s killer, nor is he overly bothered by the fact that the object she is holding is a child’s school notebook, not a subversive treatise. She’s a Red, and nothing else matters.

For his part, Gonzalo’s grief over the loss of Viviana drives him to embark on a single-minded mission. He’s going to find the Guardia Civil who murdered her and make him pay for the crime. It’s almost a suicide mission, since Gonzalo cares little for his own survival and pays almost no thought to how his actions will affect his sister and her seven-year-old daughter, the only family he has left. Understandable as his selfishness is, it’s hard to see anything noble in this man’s actions.

As the Guardia Civil and carbinero embark on the collision course driving them together, Tejada tracks down Aleja, Gonzalo’s young niece, who witnessed the murder of the nationalist. It was the loss of her school notebook, which she dropped in fright and which Viviana had gone to retrieve, that set the book’s events in motion. However, Aleja’s terror of Tejada in uniform shakes him to his bones. He may be capable of shooting an innocent woman for no discernable reason, but he doesn’t see himself as a monster who sets out to terrify small children.

Soon after, Gonzalo is arrested after hooking up with a small group of like-minded former carbineros. Gonzalo knows he’s not likely to leave jail alive, and his death will come after lengthy and brutal torture. But he nevertheless vows to hold out for twenty-hour hours before his tormenters break him, giving his new friends time to escape.

In Rebecca Pawel’s bleak tale there are no clear-cut heroes or villains like the ones I’d heard about in my neighbor’s Spanish songs. Instead, everyone in this book is a bit of both, capable of kindness and generosity as well as cruelty and selfishness. Tejada, our antihero, believes in the nationalist cause and Spain's brutal dictatorship, but he is, in his heart, a deeply honorable man with an unshakeable sense of justice. I can't condone the fascist ideology he subscribes to, but honor and integrity are always appealing.

Both Tejada and Gonzalo are realistically drawn men with human flaws that influence their actions. It is this depth of humanity that turns Pawel’s story into something larger than an engrossing adventure: a novel worthy of a major award. Death of a Nationalist won the 2004 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

For a complete list of the Edgar winners, visit The Edgars.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Earth-Friendly Eating

Our guest this week is Lavanya Sunkara, an Indian-American freelance writer living in Long Island, New York. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out, Petside, Yahoo! Shine, NY Resident, and Yourtango, among others. When she is not reading or outdoors with her dog, Lavanya is organizing volunteer events, exploring New York with her friends, and planning her next trip to somewhere exotic. In this post, Lavanya shares her story of how she became a vegetarian. She wishes everyone a very happy Earth Day. Read more of her articles at

There’s been much talk about Natalie Portman giving up veganism to cater to her pregnant needs. The moment I read the headline, I feared she’d given it up entirely and decided to eat animals again. As a meat-eater turned vegetarian myself, I had a hard time believing someone that outspoken about animal rights would suddenly give up her ideals and start eating hot dogs and chicken wings. To the disappointment of vegans, she has taken up eating eggs and dairy. I can’t say I am completely against her decision, especially since I too consume those products, albeit in very limited amounts. But one thing that I will never ever do is eat meat again.

As a Hindu, I never ate beef or pork in all my 30 years. My mother, who is a lifelong vegetarian, has cooked chicken and lamb occasionally for the rest of the family, but I gave up eating them ten years ago. Relinquishing seafood is still a bit hard for me, but I went from eating it once every few months to every six months in the past few years. Starting this Earth Day, I’ve decided to give it up completely.

Some may wonder why a personal eating choice has a global effect. I can say that if we all turned vegetarians, we would have no torture of animals in slaughter houses, no pollution-causing factory farms, and no minimum wages and horrible working conditions for food production employees. Also, the amount of food, water, and energy used to raise 10 billion animals for human consumption would be used to grow food for the hungry in this world.* Alas, that's a dream that may never come true. But still, I am making a choice to contribute to a cruelty- and pollution-free world.

People sometimes ask me if I am getting a healthy diet based solely on fruits, grains, and greens. I do. So does my mother and millions of vegetarians and vegans on this planet. My grandmother gave birth to six kids and lived healthy well into her late seventies on a strictly vegetarian diet, in a small village in India. She continues to be my source of inspiration and strength. Of course, the meat industry continues the propaganda of animal flesh being healthy for humans, when in fact it’s known for increasing obesity, heart disease, cancer, reproductive disorders, liver and kidney disease among other ailments.*

Ardent meat lovers argue that animals are put on earth for us to eat, and thus it is okay to confine and abuse them, inject hormones and antibiotics, and kill them for our satisfaction. Some friends of mine have debated with me that since cavemen hunted animals back in the day and we've climbed to the top of the food chain, meat eating is justified. I have some news for you—this is the 21st century. Today, the modern hunter-gatherer simply drives a few blocks to the supermarket, picks out a packaged meat product, cooks it on an electric stove, and calls it a feast. I would like to know how these people would fare out in the wild, fending for themselves among the beasts. I’ll give more value to their stance if they risked their own lives and hunted food with their own bare hands.

Of course, there are always those who tell me they just can’t give up meat, either because they grew up with it, or they succumb to their bodies’ cravings. I too have experienced it at one point. There was a time I used to look forward to going my aunt’s house for her spicy goat curry. When I gave up meat, I sorely missed the curry. Until one day I read a story of a baby goat that escaped from a farm truck. She was black and white, with light blue eyes and perky ears. She was adorable, almost puppy like, and she deserved to live. I knew then I had made the right decision.

Last year, during a visit to the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary** in upstate New York, I came face to face with these gracious goats. In the sanctuary that is home to more than two hundred rescued farm animals, we met with happy cows, rubbed pigs’ bellies, hugged turkeys, and played with the friendly goats. Two young pearly white goats, named Jacob and Edward by a Twilight fan, came near me for some petting. I rubbed their backs and chatted (a habit I formed thanks to my dog), as their golden eyes glimmered. I could tell they were basking in the attention. When I sat next to them, the younger one raised his front leg and patted my thigh a few times, just like my pet dog does, as if trying to communicate with me his gratitude. It was such a simple act, yet so endearing, showing acknowledgment and emotion. At that moment, I knew I made the right decision not just for myself, but also for my fellow animal friends and for the sake of this planet.

Visit for a free vegetarian starter kit.

**Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary: To plan your visit, go to

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Black Liquid Gold

Last April, a catastrophic rig explosion killed 11 workers and caused a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that reached as far as Louisiana’s shrimp farms. Years earlier, I read that oil industry giants used little kids as refinery pipe chimney sweeps, only the temperature inside was so high, the fumes often caught on fire and burned them alive. Then the managers sent more kids to haul the bodies out. All the while, we forgot to turn our living room lights off for the night and burned more energy. I never found out whether it was true or not, but the image has haunted me since.

Humanity can’t live without fossil fuel, but perhaps we can make it more humanely. The smell of an oil refinery always gives me a strange, eerie feeling because the petroleum-infused air reeks of decay.

Here's my tribute to the one of the most destructive inventions of mankind: Black Liquid Gold. (The artwork is courtesy of All Posters.)

Ode to Black Liquid Gold
Black Liquid Gold
Thousands years old
For the high price
Bought and sold
For the high price
Of human lives
Black Liquid gold
Down below lies

Deep beneath the earth
Billions worth
Black Liquid Gold
Waits to be unearthed

Black Liquid Gold
Hides away from thieves
For the price of trees
And softly rustling leaves

For the price of elks,
Coyotes and gazelles
On the defaced land
Pop-up tents and wells
Thieves come in quick
On planes and ships
Hunters for the Gold  
Have to dig it deep
They leave behind
Scorched hills and sides,
People with not much more
Then their right to die
Black Liquid Gold
Silky, smooth, and sleek,
Yields to the strong
Zaps in the weak
Black Liquid Gold
Likes claiming lives
Human sacrifices
And high-power crimes
For the sake of pipes
Rising to the skies
Spitting out black soot
Stifling the sunrise
Boys with brown eyes
Will clean up the pipes
Sometimes they catch on fire
But they come in vast supply
So that Gods and Kings
Can make tins and pins
Fly their planes
Float submarines
Drive Jaguars
Nominate stars
Light up Christmas trees
Light up their cigars
Lighten up the night
Inside and outside
Make the very light
That’s keeping this screen bright...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Take A Load Off

Note: I'm getting rid of my books! Keep reading if you want one...

With Earth Day coming up this Friday, I figured it’s high time I do my share to contribute to a cleaner environment, not necessarily through the books I write (though that would be nice) but also the ones I buy. Everything’s digital now, and though I kicked and screamed all the way to this party, I finally broke down and purchased myself a Kindle.

Hear me out before you judge. I make tremendous use of my beloved library membership, checking out dozens of books, possibly more, each month. But I also have a little book-buying fetish, one that I justify by the fact that my library system doesn’t carry all the books I’m interested in reading. (They’ve cited vague purchasing criteria whenever I’ve recommended a new title so I’ve finally given up.)

But the books I buy are slowly taking over my house. They’re expensive, collect dust, and breed tiny critters. I don’t reread most of them. And whereas once they were my pride and joy, now I hope no one trips over them getting from one room to another. More on that later, but in the meantime, I've discovered another problem.

Did you know deforestation to clear way for new neighborhoods is one of the leading causes behind the spike in Lyme disease? The paper industry claims they use mostly recovered paper and lumber byproducts (such as sawdust and wood chips) to make paper but still: the United States alone prints more than 2 billion books, 350 million magazines, and 24 billion newspapers each year. That’s a lot of reading material, not counting all the many other types of paper products we not only consume but fill our landfills with.

As though those weren’t reasons enough, the cost of the Kindle went down from $189 over the holidays to $168 a few months ago, $139 a few weeks ago when I bought it, and I see there's a new offer for $114 today. That’s a substantial difference from the $250 the Nook is going for, which made it easy for me to decide between the two. (However, since then, a friend told me there’s a way to use the Nook as a small handheld computer, a feature that may make the extra cost worthwhile for some of you.)

So far, I like my little Kindle. It doesn’t display in color as the Nook does, but that’s okay. I read my books in black and white anyway. It’s easy enough for a technophobe like myself to navigate. I have yet to figure out how to view the front and back covers, inside flaps, intro pages, and so on. I don’t see page numbers on my screen, though I’ll probably figure that little feature out as soon as I post this. Instead, the bottom of the screen shows me what percentage of the book I’ve read, which I’m not sure what to make of yet. (It’s a little annoying, yet if I were holding a bound book, I’d probably be making a mental estimate anyway.) Also, I do find a lot of books aren’t yet available through Kindle. Not worried about it though. I’m sure that’s changing quickly, plus it’s not like I’m giving up paper books entirely.

Other than those quibbles, I’m fairly impressed. The no-glare screen in particular makes you feel like you’re reading real print, not text from a computer screen. I kept tilting the screen to all angles to see how that works but haven't figured it out yet. Also, the size of this extremely portable little device is hard to believe, even after seeing pictures galore. Its height and width are about the size of a trade paperback but much, much thinner. In fact, it’s only about a third the depth of my little iPhone. As well, it took no time at all to charge the battery, which so far, seems to hold a charge a good long while.

I recently won a copy of my first Kindle book, Bloodstains, through a Facebook contest by author Jeff Mudgett. (Thank you, Jeff!) I just started reading this excellent memoir and, while I'm enjoying the book itself, I was surprised to find I'm greatly enjoying the Kindle experience too. I’ve downloaded free excerpts of other novels I’m interested in reading (ones not offered through my public library) and found the prices on many others to be much lower than their print counterparts. (Side note: I attended an agent panel a month ago in which the agents said the low cost of digital books is not at all industry sustainable and that, at some point soon, publishers will have to raise their prices to match those of paper copies.)

Either way, I think I'm making a small contribution to the environment while also making my life a bit easier. What could be better, right?

Speaking of which, I'm clearing my shelves. If you're interested in winning a book from my collection, I'm conducting a random drawing for anyone who comments on any of our Earth Day-related posts this week. (The more you comment, the better your chances of winning. NA bloggers excluded, of course!) Closing date for the contest is Thursday, April 28, 9 pm EST (New York time). The winner will be drawn at random, and we'll announce the lucky winner on Friday, April 29. Good luck!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Back in Mother's Arms

Volcan Sajama by Luca Galuzzi
With a population of less than 10 million people, Bolivia has lived in the shadows of some of South America’s most populated countries—Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Paraguay. Recently, this tiny land-locked country took the world by surprise. It’s about to pass the world’s first laws granting all of nature the same rights as humans, a law to be called the Law of Mother Earth.

Over the years, Bolivia has copped flack for its controversial mining methods of tin, silver, and gold. The UNESCO city of culture, Potosí, was once home to the Spanish colonial mint, and supplied most of the silver for Spain during the New World Spanish Empire. The National Mint of Bolivia is now located here, and the ancient mines are still in use. Today, the products mined from the land are Bolivia’s largest export.

Back in 2000, I visited Potosí and saw how humans can damage the land and themselves. But this post isn’t about the negatives, so I’ll move on. 

This new law will redefine the country’s rich mineral deposits as “blessings” and will help to decrease pollution by putting tough controls on the mining industry. One of the more controversial aspects of this law is that nature will have the right “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of the ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.* It will be interesting to see how this will develop over time.

The Law of Mother Earth will also include rights such as the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.*

A national ombudsman will monitor this new law, but communities will have the legal right to scrutinize and control the pollution of their regions. From what I can understand, the law is not designed to halt mining. I don’t think the country’s economy is capable of handling such a measure. What this law is designed to do is make people, and companies, more responsible for their actions, and to stop and think about the consequences for everyone, including nature. 

Bolivia has seen a steady increase in its people returning to their roots, including the belief system of their ancestors. As a result, the Bolivian legal system has undergone some major changes in the past two years. Bolivia’s strong indigenous population has long-held ties to the earth deity Pachamama, which, literally translated, means Mother Earth. Given Bolivia has an indigenous president, Evo Morales, I’m not surprised the people have reassessed their values and adopted the viewpoint of their ancestors.

Salar de Uyuni by entrop1963 (the spot is a 4WD)
Every visit to Bolivia has left me gob smacked. The bright blue, cloudless skies framed by snowy peaks and the silence of the mountain passes and pristine salt flats calms my soul. The jungles, full of chattering animals and birds, always leave me with a sense that all is as it should be. And thank goodness Bolivia feels the same way.

So when I heard about Bolivia reexamining its role with nature and its plans to take some extreme measures, I puffed out my chest. I am so happy to see this tiny South American country willing to commit to one of the most important roles of all—the guardian of Mother Nature. Listen up, rest of the world.

Congratulations, Bolivia. You have done yourself, the earth and humankind proud.

*Taken from the Guardian News and Media