Take Control Books: 50% Off Through January 25

Tc itunesTake Control Books is running a 50% off sale on all books through January 25. All our ebooks are DRM-free and available in PDF, EPUB, and Mobipocket (Kindle) formats, so you can find the real-world advice you need wherever, whenever, and on whatever device you like.

You can buy my books – Take Control of iTunes 11: The FAQ, Take Control of LaunchBar, or Take Control of Scrivener 2 – or you can get any of dozens of other great books about using your Mac, your iOS device, or great apps for either platform.

Check out the Take Control 50% off sale now.

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Book Notes: S, by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams

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This fascinating book (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is one of the oddest printed objects I’ve ever seen. It’s a novel; it’s an enigma; it’s a treasure hunt; it’s a non-linear story. Written by Doug Dorst, apparently from an idea by J. J. Abrams (the creator of Lost and Alias, the director of Star Trek and soon Star Wars movies), it is a multi-layered immersive reading experience. And there’s a story in there somewhere.

41-oATFYEQL.jpgFirst, when you open the book, you see how strange it is. It comes sealed in a slipcase, with the title Ship of Theseus, by V. M. Straka. It is purported to be translated and presented by the mysterious F. X. Caldeira. But this novel is only part of the story; what emerges is an intriguing mystery as two readers, Jen and Eric, hunt down the author and translator, conversing through notes written in the margins of the pages, and through some two dozen disparate papers inserted in the book. These include notes, post cards, napkins, letters and more.

I read the first chapter last night. It’s not an easy read; it makes me think of books by Thomas Pynchon, but it’s more confusing because of the notes in the margins. (You have to have some suspension of disbelief, that these two people could have written hundreds of notes, each visiting the library where the book is held to add a comment. At the rate of a few notes a day, it would take a year or more to write all the notes.) Jen is a student and Eric is researching the mysterious author. They write their ideas and converse over time, glossing parts of the novel, and just chatting, as though by instant message in the book’s margins. (No respect for books, these two, writing all over them…)

You quickly realize that you need a strategy to read this book. First, the different papers stuck between the pages most likely need to be read at specific locations. So I took them all out, and put post-its on them with the page numbers where they are found. Next, it’s hard to read the text of the novel and the notes at the same time. So I decided to read an entire chapter of the text, then go back to the notes. You could also read the entire novel, then read the notes, which might give you more story, but I have a feeling that what will transpire in the notes will help make sense of the novel itself as it goes on.

This book reminds me of the computer game Myst, where you land on an island and have no idea what you are to do. There are no instructions, just a strange book and an even stranger conversation in the margins. But this non-linear type of story is closer to life than fiction is. When you read a book, you don’t read it all the way through: you live your life in between reading sessions, and you may discuss the book you’re reading with friends.

S is an intriguing book. I hope it lives up to the promise of what the first chapter offers.

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Book Review: Portrait of a Novel, by Michael Gorra, Is a Fascinating Look at Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady

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I’ve long been obsessed by Henry James. I’ve read all of his fiction, and much of his non-fiction as well, in the Library of America editions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). I’ve read a half-dozen biographies of James, and the James family, and many of books about James’ work.

So Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel interested me right off the bat, even though I waited for the book to come out in paperback. Gorra set out to tell the story of The Portrait of a Lady, one of James’ finest novels, weaving a narrative talking about the novel, about Henry James’ life, especially when writing The Portrait, and about the times in which it was written and set.

The result is fascinating. While Gorra’s critical discussion of the novel would be enough for a book, the way he manages to tell the story of much of Henry James’ life through its relationship with The Portrait of a Lady is impressive. This isn’t a full biography of James; the book opens with some background information about James’ early years, then moves on to show James at work on The Portrait. Throughout, you get a picture of what Henry James was doing in the novel, and how it related to his experiences.

Gorra takes a Sainte-Beuvian approach, and rightly so. Not all of James’ works reflect experiences he had in his life, but many did. For example, Isabel Archer is partly based on Henry’s cousin, Minny Temple, who died aged 24 of consumption, in 1870. Isabel Archer is not diseased, but she does have the Emersonian independence that Temple had.

Gorra bases much of his discussion of James and women on the interesting biography of James, A Private Life of Henry James, by Lyndall Gordon (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), looking at James’ relationship with Temple, but also his later relations with Constance Fenimore Woolson, who James met around the time he was writing The Portrait.

Gorra goes beyond strict biography, giving insight into the way James published his work – with The Portrait of a Lady, and earlier novels, they were published as serials, which impacted the way they were constructed. He also looks closely at James’ later years, when he was revising his favorite works for the New York Edition, and discusses the changes he made to The Portrait, many of which gave much better insight into the characters and their motivations.

Gorra adroitly sums up the message of The Portrait of a Lady:

“She [Isabel Archer] learns that Her own life has been determined by things that happen before she was thought of, a past of which she was ignorant and that she only understands when it’s already too late.”

This book is not a full biography of the fascinating life of Henry James; if you want that, the best bet is still to go back to Leon Edel’s pioneering work (available used in a one-volume reduction of the original five volumes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Or check out this fascinating biography of the James family – one of the rare families to have two geniuses as siblings, William and Henry: House of Wits, by Paul Fisher (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

And go back and read The Portrait of a Lady in the original version (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) or the later version, revised for the New York Edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Or watch the movie with Nicole Kidman, who portrays Isabel Archer quite well (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

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Lamb House, in Rye, where Henry James lived from 1898-1816.

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Kindle MatchBook Not So Useful

Amazon has finally unveiled Kindle Matchbook, a service where your previous dead-tree book purchases will entitle you to buy Kindle versions of the books for a pittance, or even get them for free.

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According to my order history on Amazon.com, I’ve been buying from the company since 1997. (I have a feeling it goes back a bit further than that; I may have used a different email address in 1995 and 1996.) Of the hundreds of books I bought from the company – several hundred, at least – not one single book is matched with Kindle MatchBook.

We were not able to find any Kindle MatchBook eligible titles based on your past print book purchases.

You can see a list of books available via Kindle MatchBook here, though the numbers don’t add up. With some 65,947 titles as of this writing, there are 12,966 in the Religion & Spirituality category alone. There are more than 33,000 in Literature & Fiction, and I’ve certainly bought a lot of novels from Amazon, but more than 10,000 of them seem to be romance novels.

I find it simply astounding that not one single book I bought from Amazon shows up in their matching service. I’m going to assume that it’s an error; my reading tastes are broad, and there should be dozens of matches. I’ll have to check back in a little while and see if anything turns up.

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OS X 10.9 Mavericks and Ebooks: The Good, the Bad and the Confusing

With the arrival of the iBooks app on OS X 10.9 Mavericks, those who have large ebook libraries on their Macs face some conundrums. In a recent article, Where Did My Books Go?, I explained that your ebooks are no longer stored in your iTunes Media folder. They are now hidden in an obscure folder, and the file names are changed. If you want to back up a large ebook library, you need to make sure to back up this folder.

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But there’s another issue you need to know about. You can no longer add epub books to your iTunes library; but you can still add PDFs. This has two effects. First, you cannot change any metadata in the iBooks app. So if you get a book and the author’s name is wrong, or the genre (or “category”) is incorrect, you can’t alter these. Second, if you have any epubs that are digital booklets for albums – such as those provided with downloads purchased from Hyperion Records – you can no longer store them with your music.

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First, the metadata issue. Even if you buy all your ebooks from Apple, you’ll find that authors’ names are not consistent (some are Last Name, First Name, others are First Name Last Name), and you’ll likely want to change the categories of some books, if you sort books that way. There’s no native method for doing this any more, though there are a few third-party apps that claim to be able to edit metadata of epubs (I haven’t tried any yet). But once the books are in iBooks, it’s not simple to change the metadata. Since there’s no Reveal in Finder command for a book, you need to look in the folder I told you about in this article, but where the epub files won’t have recognizable names. You’ll have to root through the files to find the book you want.

Update: There’s an easy way to get copies of books in your iBooks library: just drag them to the Desktop or to a folder.

As for digital booklets, which you may want to store with your music, there’s no way around that, other than to only use PDF versions. Hyperion makes both; most labels only provide PDFs (if they provide digital booklets at all). This is a shame; Hyperion’s initiative is laudable, since epubs let you choose a font size, and the books are more readable on small-screen devices, such as an iPhone or iPod touch. You could put all your epub digital booklets in iBooks, sync them to an iOS device, and read them with the iBooks app – or read them on a Mac with iBooks – but they won’t be as accessible as when they’re stored with an album. But note that, in spite of the separation of books from iTunes, you still choose which ones you want to sync to your iOS device from the iTunes interface.

It’s good that Apple has (finally) released an iBooks app for Mac. This makes reading books on a Mac very easy. However, it’s not so good that they’ve sequestered these books in a hard-to-find folder, and eliminated the ability to edit metadata. Perhaps a developer will pick up the gauntlet, and create an app that can scan the books in that hidden folder, and let you edit their metadata. This would be a good thing, and make it easier to manage a library of ebooks on a Mac.

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App Review: The Sonnets by William Shakespeare

I recently reviewed Touch Press’s wonderful app that lets you take a close look at Liszt’s piano sonata. Touch Press is leading the pack in innovative “cultural” apps, about music and literature. Another of their apps is the $14 The Sonnets by William Shakespeare (iPad only; 1.5 GB), a multimedia exploration of the bard’s 154 sonnets which is, quite simply, fascinating.

When exploring the sonnets, what would you like to have at hand to help you appreciate them? Notes? Commentary? Readings? This app gives you all three. It provides notes from the Arden Shakespeare edition of the sonnets: these notes help you with the context of each sonnet, and also give you definitions for words whose meanings have changed.

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You get insightful commentary from Don Paterson’s Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

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Interview with Shakespeare Scholar and Editor Stanley Wells

At the end of my Shakespeare week in Stratford-upon-Avon, I sat down with Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells. Professor Wells is the Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Professor Emeritus at the University of Birmingham, the author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, and is general editor of the Oxford and Penguin Shakespeares. You can learn more about Professor Wells on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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Photo ⓒ The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Professor Wells discussed the Shakespeare authorship controversy, speaking and pronouncing Shakespeare, and editing Shakespeare’s texts.

Professor Wells, you and Paul Edmondson have edited a book published by Cambridge University Press, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt[1] and written a free ebook called Shakespeare Bites Back[2], defending Shakespeare in what’s called the “authorship controversy.” Why have we gotten to the point where someone of your stature has to spend time answering conspiracy theorists?

Stanley Wells: Because the conspiracy theorists are vocal and getting a lot of publicity, partly through the film Anonymous[3]. It’s a bad film, very complicated, a silly story.

I’ve taken part over the years in a lot of events to do with authorship. The event at the Inner Temple [in London] in 1988 was a fundraising event for the Globe [Theatre]. I was at an event in the Theatre Royal in Bath some years later. I’ve often broadcast to the world through television programmes about it. I think anyone who’s interested in Shakespeare naturally wants to put the Shakespearean case against who don’t agree…

But the particular catalyst for the current campaign, conducted with my friend and collaborator Paul Edmondson, is because it’s spread to the academy. There are two universities now – one in America, one in England – where you can do courses in authorship [Brunel University in London, and Concordia University in Portland, Oregon].

The one in England claims that they’re not propagating the anti-Shakespearean case. They’re claiming that they’re just studying it as an intellectual phenomenon, which is a legitimate thing to do, and which has already been done by James Shapiro in his book Contested Will[4].

Why does it matter?

Stanley Wells: It matters because history matters, because truth matters. It matters because it’s wrong for university teachers to propagate theories for which there is no basis in fact.

It matters because history matters, because truth matters.

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CD Review: The Essential Shakespeare Live, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

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During my recent Shakespeare week, I spent a bit of time browsing in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s shop. They sell books, DVDs, programs, mugs, pencils and posters. But they also have a handful of audio recordings. They have several of the Arkangel full-cast Shakespeare recordings, and some sets by Naxos Audiobooks, but they also had two 2-disc sets of recordings from the RSC.

Made up of live recordings of RSC performances, each of the sets includes excerpts from a number of plays, from 1959 through 2008. They feature a wide range of actors, from Paul Robeson in Othello to David Tennant in Hamlet, by way of Ian Richardson, Ben Kinglsey, Ian Holm, David Suchet, Peggy Ashcroft, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Alan Rickman, Anthony Sher, Patrick Stewart, Janet Suzman, Jonathan Pryce, Harriet Walter, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.

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Recording quality is variable. These are all “audience” recordings, made live, so you can hear the audience laughing and coughing, but that does not detract from the quality of the material. If anything, it makes it more realistic. (The Arkangel and Naxos recordings I mentioned earlier are studio recordings.)

There are two sets: The Essential Shakespeare Live (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and The Essential Shakespeare Live Encore (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). If you’re a Shakespeare fan, or if you’re an actor, and are interested in hearing how great actors have performed the plays over the past six decades, these sets are both very interesting to listen to. Note that each set includes a book with the texts that are spoken.

Here are the tracklists:

The Essential Shakespeare Live

DISC ONE
1 Othello [1959] (featuring Paul Robeson)
2 Henry IV Part 1 [1964] (featuring Ian Holm)
3 The Winter’s Tale [1971] (featuring Judi Dench)
4 A Midsummer Night’s Dream [1972] (featuring Ben Kingsley)
5 Love’s Labour’s Lost [1975] (featuring Ian Richardson)
6 The Merchant of Venice [1981] (featuring David Suchet)
7 Measure for Measure [1984] (featuring Juliet Stevenson)
8 Macbeth [1987] (featuring Jonathan Pryce)
9 Much Ado about Nothing [1991] (featuring Roger Allam)
10 Troilus and Cressida [1991] (featuring Simon Russell Beale)
11 The Two Gentlemen of Verona [1992] (featuring Richard Moore)

DISC TWO
1 Henry VIII (All is True) [1996] (featuring Ian Hogg)
2 Timon of Athens [1999] (featuring Michael Pennington)
3 King John [2001] (featuring Trevor Cooper)
4 Pericles [2002] (featuring Roger Frost)
5 The Taming of the Shrew [2003] (featuring Ian Gelder)
6 Cymbeline [2003] (featuring Emma Fielding)
7 Antony and Cleopatra [2006] (featuring Patrick Stewart)
8 King Lear [2007] (featuring Ian McKellen)
9 Henry V [2008] (featuring Geoffrey Streatfeild)
10 Hamlet [2008] (featuring David Tennant)

The Essential Shakespeare Live Encore

DISC ONE
1. Coriolanus (featuring Laurence Olivier)
2. Wars of the Roses (featuring Peggy Ashcroft)
3. King Lear [1964] (featuring Paul Scofield)
4. Hamlet (featuring David Warner)
5. Twelfth Night (featuring Donald Sinden)
6. Julius Caesar (featuring Patrick Stewart)
7. Antony and Cleopatra (featuring Janet Suzman)
8. Richard II (featuring Richard Pasco & Ian Richardson)
9. Romeo and Juliet (featuring Ian McKellen & Francesca Annis)

DISC TWO
1. Henry V (featuring Emrys James)
2. Henry V (featuring Alan Howard)
3. Comedy of Errors (featuring Roger Rees)
4. The Tempest (featuring Derek Jacobi & Mark Rylance)
5. Richard III (featuring Antony Sher)
6. As You Like It (featuring Alan Rickman)
7. The Merry Wives of Windsor (featuring Janet Dale)
8. Titus Andronicus (featuring Brian Cox)
9. Henry IV Part 1 (featuring Robert Stephens)
10. Henry VI Part 3 (featuring David Oyelowo)
11. All’s Well that Ends Well (featuring Judi Dench)

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