Sunday, June 29, 2008
Goodbye, Ken Kesey. Goodbye, Jack Kerouac. Goodbye, John Steinbeck. Goodbye, Marlon Brando in "The Wild Ones." Goodbye, "American Graffiti."
The Great American Road Novels, and the movies they inspired, had their cultural day quite some time ago. Quaint as they seem today, they still were wonderful remnants of the westering spirit driven by manifest destiny, American to the core.
But today, in the age of $4 (and soon to be $5) per gallon of gas, anything that rides (or, for that matter, flies) behind a reciprocating engine is obsolete, passe, over the hill. Suddenly that entire substratum of American culture seems to be nothing more than a museum piece to be studied in universities.
Somehow I don't think Priuses, or even Vespas, will drive writers to produce lasting literature. Those thrifty vehicles are just too virtuous, too earnest, too eager. The old road epic that rode aboard V-8 Fords and thirsty Chevys and blown Harleys depended on what we now realize was wasteful obliviousness to their source of energy. Who cared what fueled the vehicle so long as it drove heroes on their adventures?
Somehow it's hard to get excited about the Great American Staycation Novel.
On an entirely different yet closely related subject, Jonathan Karp, a veteran of the book publishing industry, tells why he thinks most books should be mulched in an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post.
Friday, June 27, 2008
Yesterday's Supreme Court decision on the Second Amendment made me relax a little, for I own a handgun.
It's not a Colt six-shooter or a Beretta automatic or even a Saturday Night Special. It's a muzzle-loading Kentucky flintlock pistol, .54 caliber, a fully working Italian-made replica I bought as research for a new mystery novel. Now and then I haul it out and go to a range and shoot it. It makes a glorious bang (when it does fire) and sometimes I hit the target.
For safety's sake I keep the weapon, the balls, and the bag of flints in separate cupboards, and store the black powder outside the house. If somebody wants to use my gun for nefarious purposes, he's going to have to work hard.
Yeah, I'm a liberal, and I used to be anti-gun. But years of interacting with thoughtful hunters and careful gun enthusiasts in rural Upper Michigan taught me that the Second Amendment should not be approached as an issue of absolutes, although the National Gun Nut Association and the Ban All Handguns No Matter What people would have you think otherwise.
Just as I believe every woman has the right to reproductive choice, I believe I have the right to own a handgun -- for research and, if it ever comes to that, for self-protection. Let's face it: Laws or no, bad guys will always be able to get their hands on guns, for there are so many out there. Good guys deserve the same opportunity.
But I also believe society has an obligation to protect itself by setting limits on gun rights, such as requiring screening and registration of firearms owners and banning private ownership of machine guns and automatic assault rifles.
Mr. Justice Scalia said essentially the same thing in his Second Amendment majority opinion yesterday. I never thought I'd agree with anything he handed down from the bench, but this time I do.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
The Orange County Register today announced that some of its copy editing jobs will be outsourced to a company just outside New Delhi in India. It is a bit of an experiment, but the worse things get for newspapers, the less preposterous it will sound, at least to the bean counters.
If this should ever happen to either Chicago paper, I would like to see if any of those India-based editors would know that North Avenue runs east-west and that a home run over the left-field wall at Wrigley Field lands on Waveland Avenue, not Addison Street. That Boeing is located in Chicago, not Seattle. That the Packers suck. And that one never, ever puts ketchup on a hot dog.
I am a lover of trains, for which there are several terms in American English. Among them:
1. Rail buff. This denotes a fellow who thrills to the sight of a passing freight train but does not necessarily devote his entire life to the study of flanged wheel on steel rail. I'm one.
2. Railfan. This is a rail buff with a little more topspin, someone who reads Trains magazine and takes vacations on Amtrak.
3. Foamer. Someone whose entire life is trains, trains, trains, who owns at least one engineer's cap, and who froths at the mouth while discussing his hobby.
This morning, on one of the Internet rail-buff forums I visit, a message poster from the United Kingdom allowed as to how he was a "gricer," the British version of a foamer.
Naturally, being a word buff also, I set about hunting up the etymology. It's murky.
One site claims "grice" goes back to the late 1930s and is derived from a successful day of grouse hunting, at the end of which one has a bag of grice, a mock plural for grouse. In other words, gricing is like "trainspotting," another British term for foaming in which one bags, or captures in one's notebook, the roster numbers of as many locomotives as possible. (Maybe a Briton can explain this better than I can.)
Another site locates the roots of "grice" in "G. Rice," the name emblazoned on a grocer's van often borrowed by a gaggle of trainspotters somewhere in the Midlands during the 1970s.
This may be more than you wanted to know about U.K. railroad slang, but if you should one day find yourself on the Flying Scotsman from King's Cross to Edinburgh, you will be able to impress Brits with your arcane knowledge.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Miriam Berkley's photo of Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time.
Away back in the Dark Ages of newspapering -- the 1970s and 1980s, when dailies were flush and had fat editorial budgets -- I'd often travel to the coasts to interview authors. On many of those trips a friend of mine, a young New Yorker named Miriam Berkley, would come along, bringing her camera.
She was the daughter of a colleague of mine on the Chicago Daily News, the dance critic Dorothy Samachson, and had been writing for me for some time. I asked her to accompany me as an impromptu "interpreter" while I spoke with East Coast authors as diverse as Bernard Malamud, William Styron, Joseph Heller, Emlyn Williams, Michael Arlen, Mary Gordon and Maurice Sendak.
I am deaf and a lipreader, and I often had a tough time deciphering the speech of authors I'd never before met. In those cases I'd often have to put my entire trust in a taped transcript of the interview, and I'd miss subtle inflections unless the transcriber was skilled enough to provide them.
On at least one occasion -- the interview with Williams -- she saved my skin. Williams spoke with a heavy Welsh accent that I just couldn't decipher. When I blindly asked a question Williams had already answered, Miriam gently stepped in to tell me so, averting a worse faux pas.
At his rural Connecticut home, William Styron showed us a huge willow tree in his back yard and proudly said he'd planted it a quarter of a century earlier. My attention was elsewhere and I missed the statement -- but Miriam clued me in quickly. The detail was important for the published interview, for it suggested that Styron, a Southerner, literally had sunk deep roots into his Northern home.
During my meeting with the novelist Bernard Malamud in his Manhattan apartment, she tipped me off that the exquisite framed drawings on his wall were Helen Frankenthaler originals -- also a good detail for the printed profile, for it helped reveal the intellectual breadth of Malamud, a widely cultured man.
At this time Miriam, who was then a writer and critic, was not yet into author photography. Later, when she did become a pro, I often wished I had used more of her photographs than I did, but by then the papers' budgets had grown tight. I was ordered not to buy photos but use wire-service stuff if the publishers couldn't provide stock shots obtained from free-lancers such as Miriam. (Some of her photos can be seen here.)
One of the photos I did use is the familiar shot of Stephen Hawking above, which graced many reviews of his 1988 classic A Brief History of Time as well as the jackets of foreign editions of his books.
Now Miriam has become prominent and is in demand for her literary photographs, especially of lions such as Margaret Atwood, Susanna Clarke, Ha Jin, Doris Lessing, David Malouf, Grace Paley and Orhan Pamuk. (That's Miriam in the photo at right.)
This week she gets her due in an excellent profile on Eric Forbes's Book Addicts' Guide to Good Books.
It's a revealing and enlightening piece. Among its insights:
"There are several senses in which an author’s photograph may be important or not. In principle one might say it is not important, it is what’s on the page that matters, not what the book’s author looks like. But human beings are wired in such a way that looks do matter—studies with babies have indicated that attraction to beauty is instinctive—and we want to know what an author looks like and may buy a book based upon whether or not we like the way he or she appears in the photograph. When we read a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, we often turn to the author photo to compare the face we see with the voice we hear. We often feel cheated if there is no photograph. Years after reading a book we can often visualise the jacket photo."
Friday, June 20, 2008
On August 18, every red-blooded American who has ever thrilled to the song of flanged wheel on steel rail has a grand treat in store:
Paul Theroux' new travel narrative Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Houghton Mifflin, $28), in which he retraces the 28,000 mile trip from Europe to Siberia that he took for his classic The Great Railway Bazaar of 1978.
I've started reading an advance review copy and (although I swore I'd never review a book again) will be posting a full notice come publication day. Until then I will say no more except to quote the opening paragraph:
"You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time. Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude on other people's privacy -- being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur, and in some well-hidden part of the traveler's personality is an unpickable knot of vanity, presumption, and mythomania bordering on the pathological. This is why a traveler's worst nightmare is not the secret police or witch doctors or malaria, but rather the prospect of meeting another traveler."
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Amazon.com has dropped the price of its Kindle e-book reader from $399 to $359, with free two-day shipping. Not a huge cut, but it makes me wonder why.
Six months ago you couldn't get a Kindle because it was on backorder -- the first shipment had sold out. Two months ago it finally returned to stock again.
Last week Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com's president, wouldn't say how many Kindles have been sold.
All this suggests that Kindle sales have slowed -- perhaps all the early adopters have theirs now and cautious folks like me are waiting for an improved Mark II version to appear at a greatly reduced price. Perhaps, also, the $299 Sony e-book reader has been tougher competition than Bezos expected. Publishing houses en masses are adopting the Sony for their employees.
As soon as the price of either the Kindle or the Sony drops below $200 I'll consider one of them seriously.
Meanwhile, the Gutenberg version -- the printed book -- still suits me fine, especially if I can get it from the library.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Everywhere in the last few days, newspaper travel writers have bemoaned American Airlines' draconian new $15 charge for the first checked bag, a move most other airlines are likely to adopt. Cram everything into a carry-on, they say. Plan your wardrobe carefully. At your destination wash your skivvies and hang them from the shower curtain rod.
To which I might add: If you're disabled in any way, pipe up so you can board early and score scarce overhead bin space before the mad scrum. And so on.
Or emulate Jack Reacher, that footloose traveler and knight-errant tough guy.
Reacher is, of course, a figment of the imagination of Lee Child, the best-selling whodunit author. Reacher travels the world with only four things in his possession: 1. A passport. 2. An ATM card. 3. A folding toothbrush. 4. The clothes on his back.
He wears those clothes for perhaps three days, then, just before they start to smell, visits a cheap clothing store, perhaps a St. Vincent's resale emporium, perhaps a janitor's uniform store, and buys everything new -- shirt, slacks, socks, underwear. Then he ditches his old ensemble in the nearest wastebasket.
Of course he is hardly a fashion plate, but you can't have everything, and, besides, traveling really, really, really light is the fastest way to get at the bad guys.
I'm not kidding about the disability angle. Long ago I learned to point to my ear and say, "I'm deaf," and board with the mommies and babies and first-class passengers. There are few advantages to hearing impairment, but early boarding is one of them.
By the way, in Child's newest novel, Nothing to Lose, Reacher carries a two-piece collapsible toothbrush, not a folding one. Don't ask me why.
Monday, June 16, 2008
I once was a newspaper copy editor, a job that is rapidly disappearing along with that of the investigative reporter as the Internet trashes news organizations. Our careful, painstaking, unsung labor of helping sentences make sense, checking facts, doing the math, and sticking enticing headlines on the stories we shepherded is no longer valued in an industry in financial turmoil.
Now Lawrence Downes of the New York Times, an old copy editor himself, writes an elegy to our breed in an op-ed piece in today's Times.
Shed a tear. Nobody will remember us, especially reporters, though once they depended on us to save their sorry, sloppy hides.
[June 22: Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post tells why he won't mis coppy dtors anymor.]
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Five useful bits of information to carry with you to tonight's cocktail party :
Why we shouldn't buy bottled water: "Each year the bottles themselves require 17 million barrels of oil to manufacture, and, one expert tells Royte, “the total energy required for every bottle’s production, transport and disposal is equivalent, on average, to filling that bottle a quarter of the way with oil.” -- From tomorrow's New York Times review of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, by Elizabeth Royte.
Dinks: Double Income, No Kids, or what eager California hoteliers and restaurateurs are calling gay couples of both genders as they prepare for the happy onslaught of same-sex weddings that officially begins Monday. (Various sources)
Something to think about when the flight attendant tries to charge you $2 for a bag of peanuts after you've paid $15 to check a suitcase: "For all the anti-airline vitriol, the industry's astonishingly impressive safety record is little acknowledged. Is safety not an aspect of airline customer service? Despite the financial havoc -- tens of billions of dollars in losses and five major carrier bankruptcies over the past eight years -- there has not been a serious accident involving a major U.S. airline since 2001. That's our longest streak since the dawn of the jet age." -- Patrick Smith in an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post.
Joe DiMaggio's old Chris-Craft, the historic boat aboard which he romanced Marilyn Monroe, is headed for Davy Jones's locker. (San Francisco Chronicle)
"Awwwwww!' animal-rescue story of the weekend.
Friday, June 13, 2008
Hot on the California Supreme Court's legalizing of same-sex marriages, at least two county clerks in that state have said they will no longer perform marriages, although they will still issue licenses -- to both straight and gay couples.
The clerks claim the gay-rights issue has nothing to do with their decision, that it's a budgetary move. Pardon me, but that's horseapples. There's considerable evidence one of them has been in e-mail touch on the subject with a hard-right religious group.
And refusing to tie the knot for anybody just to spite some folks smacks of heaving unborn babies out with the bath water.
Happily, Californians are nothing if not resourceful.
Heather Lyon, owner of the Lyon Bookstore in Chino, has announced that she has become an ordained minister of two Internet "churches" -- the Universal Life Church "and, for good measure, the Church of Spiritual Humanism.
"I am prepared to perform non-religious wedding ceremonies here at Lyon Books for any couples who are ready to get hitched. While for some, a church is the best choice of a wedding site, I hope others will appreciate that special bookstore ambience. For me, being surrounded by the wisdom of the ages, new ideas, and the smell of books fills me with optimism and hope for the future. And a wedding is an act of optimism, a leap of faith, a commitment to a partner and the future. Please contact me if you would like to schedule a wedding appointment. Who wants to go first?"
Bravo, Ms. Lyon, and not just for doing the right thing. This is what a full-service independent bookstore is all about. A good one is a temple, a tabernacle, to intellectual freedom and human rights.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
As if there wasn't enough fiddling to do with this blog, I've created another one -- The Whodunit Photographer.
It's just an ego trip for an amateur photographer with delusions of grandeur. Each day another photo will be posted -- perhaps taken just a few minutes before, perhaps rescued from my archive of backyard-deck and Upper Peninsula of Michigan wildlife shots, perhaps from my roundhouse of railfan photos, perhaps from my hangar of small-plane pictures.
Many will have been seen before on The Reluctant Blogger. I do plan to keep on posting pictures here when there are stories to go along with them.
As always, comments are welcome.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
No more tinkering. Back to the good old Georgia font for this blog. It was a mistake to mess with it. I should have learned this lesson from 42 years of watching wunderkind graphics designers casting bones and reading entrails at failing newspapers.
Who are the whodunit writers mystery authors themselves most enjoy reading and learning from? My all-time favorite is P.D. James, whose stately literary mysteries are as guilt-free a pleasure as I've ever experienced as well as an impeccable trove of ideas.
But right now a close second is Donna Leon, whose thoughtful, conscientious and humane Venetian detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is one of the best-constructed characters in all mystery literature. Leon also has no peer at weaving threads of plot with sense of place, and when that setting is as beautiful and historic as Venice, the reader is in for an extraordinary treat.
I have just finished Acqua Alta, Leon's 1996 novel about a brilliant art historian and her opera diva lover, and their entrapment in a murderous scheme to fashion and sell fake antique ceramics from China. It was gripping reading for its own sake, but, more important, I soaked up some clever techniques of plotting and characterization I hope to mirror in the next Steve Martinez mystery.
An example is how Leon uses Venice's weather. "Acqua alta," which provides the title of the novel, means "high water," the season when the storm-swollen Adriatic Sea causes Venice's canals to spill over and make the simplest things of life difficult to negotiate. That gives me an idea of how to use the often choking snows of the Upper Peninsula in the next book.
Leon's latest novel, The Girl of His Dreams, published last month, is on the bedside stand. But first I'm going to plunge into a very different sort of whodunit, Lee Child's newest Jack Reacher thriller, Nothing to Lose. If it is as good as his earlier books, you may not hear from me for a while.
Monday, June 9, 2008
Sunday, June 8, 2008
My new National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America makes me think it is, and if it is, it's a fairly rare visitor to my backyard feeder. If any of you have other bird books that might confirm that it is a Sitta carolinensis, please let me know. (The photo, by the way, is heavily cropped, slightly out of focus and heavily sharpened in Photoshop Elements, so if you click on it won't look so hot.)
Saturday, June 7, 2008
Since March 1 the headlines and text of this blog have appeared in the Georgia serifed font, but now I'm trying Trebuchet, a sans-serif font, to see if readers will find it more legible. Trebuchet does seem to be airier between the lines.
Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. Thanks.
Friday, June 6, 2008
An Israeli reader of this blog e-mailed me today to tell me that the notice of Cache of Corpses on the Hebrew website discussed here yesterday isn't a critical review but a simple description of the book. Probably it's just a translation of the publisher's promotional copy. (But two stars? Where did that come from?)
Speaking of translations, Google has a Babelfish-like program that translates text between languages.
Or, rather, attempts to -- even the most sophisticated computer program will choke on syntactical and stylish tricks, and when there's no equivalent word in the second language, the translation engine will make a wild guess or just repeat the word used in the first. For instance, the German schadenfreude is translated into English as "damage". Phooey.
Meantime, you can read this blog in Finnish or French or German or Spanish by clicking on the "Google Translator" box at the bottom of the left rail on this page and selecting a language.
It's fun. But likely not terribly accurate.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
The other day I discovered that my latest mystery, Cache of Corpses, had been reviewed on a Hebrew web site, shvoong.com.
There doesn't seem to be a Babelfish-style Hebrew-to-English translation engine on the Web. Plenty of human translators abound on the Internet, but the least expensive one I found wants $120 to render 300 words of Hebrew into English. That's a bit dear for me.
So: Can any reader of this blog tell me what the review says, or at least its gist?
Not that it's a rave. A summary line gives the novel only two out of five stars.
Speaking of Internet translation engines, Finnish to English seems to be problematical, too, as this Finnish cultural website suggests.
The subject of that story, the "Mobile Female Monument," is, well, singular. It's doubtful that it would be received enthusiastically in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
"The swift extinction of asexuals, and the absence of big asexual groups, suggests that sex is essential for long-term evolutionary success: giving up sex is a Bad Idea, a kind of evolutionary suicide."
Barack Obama may be hogging the headlines today, but the best thing in the papers is the latest Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Olivia Judson, the evolutionary biologist who explains things in her bailiwick to us clueless mopes better than anyone else.
Judson is writing about creatures called bdelloid rotifers (pronounced in the usual way), tiny animals that reproduce without making whoopee. The trouble with this kind of abstinence, she writes, is that there's no supply of new genes to strengthen the organism for the battles of natural selection.
But wait: It has been discovered that the merry bdelloids may have survived for 85 million years because they're sneakily picking up genes from other, wholly unrelated organisms they swim with in puddles.
It's another endlessly engrossing piece by a gifted writer-scientist.
Can religion be ignored in politics?
By the way, speaking of Obama, one obvious conclusion to draw about this cycle's Democratic and Republican primaries is this: Politicians should stay the hell away from preachers, whether they be on the Religious Left or the Religious Right. The easiest way to do that, of course, is not to go to church at all. But that would piss off all too many voters who measure the governing potential of a candidate by his -- or her -- professed commitment to the Lord. Talk about damned if you do and damned if you don't.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
"How do you say 'Vladimir Nabokov'?" I once asked a professor of Russian literature, who wrote for my book section at the Chicago Sun-Times. (Deaf people, you know, tend to butcher unfamiliar pronunciations. We need all the help we can get if we are not to appear a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.)
"Na-BO-koff," she said. "The accent's on the second syllable, just like Rudolf Nu-REY-off. And that's "Vla-DEE-mir, not VLAD-i-mir."
Some time later I was chatting with friends, Wellesley- and Cornell-educated, when the subject of Nabokov's novels came up.
"Na-BO-koff," I said.
They snorted. "It's 'NAB-o-koff,'" they said, patting my head figuratively.
"I understand from a Russian lit expert it's 'Na-BO-koff,'" I said defensively.
"Henry, everyone knows it's 'NAB-o-koff.' Nobody will know who you're talking about."
I was outnumbered, but I know how to carry a smoldering grudge, and there are plenty of them in my mental backpack after six decades of patronization from hearing folks. Now, years later, I have my revenge in black and white from, of all places, a web site for the blind.
It's "Say How: A Pronunciation Guide to Names of Public Figures," a page on the site of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the Library of Congress. (Can't get more authoritative than that, can you?)
And yes, there it is:
"Nabokov, Vladimir (vlä-DĒ-mir nä-BO-kôf)"
(With belated thanks to Shelf Awareness for the tip.)
A common sight in North America but a rare visitor to our backyard feeder is this Brown-headed Cowbird. They invented surrogate parenthood, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds and leaving the foster parents to do the hatching, feeding and rearing. Sometimes it seems that the origins of just about every human medical procedure lie in the wild.
Monday, June 2, 2008
I am almost sixty-eight years old, and I am a retired print newspaper journalist. If that's not enough to make me look positively Precambrian, a small item I encountered yesterday while looking up something else on the Web has started the nails into my coffin:
The monthly circulation of Model Railroader magazine has dropped from a high of 225,000 copies in 1950 to 162,500 today.
Hardly a surprise. The generation born during and just after World War II was the last to truly enjoy toy trains under the holiday tree. As the decades wore on and new kinds of models -- airplanes, slot cars, rockets among them -- had their heyday and were replaced by Wii and its ilk, the average model railroader grew grayer and grayer. Today train shows and hobby shops (if you still can find them) are haunted primarily by grandfathers.
And this despite the inroads high-tech electronics have made into the hobby. Today many if not most model trains are controlled by tiny wireless receivers implanted into locomotives. Grandpa's not necessarily mired in the Industrial Revolution.
Rivers of ink and forests of paper have been expended in efforts to explain why trains still capture the collective imagination of old men. Some of them are simple attempts to recapture the childlike joy of discovering the latest Lionel boxcar on Christmas Day, of playing trains with Dad. Another is the satisfaction of constructing and operating one's own model empire with the greatest possible realism and complexity.
Four years ago a charming book was published that vividly explained why model trains have had such an impact on the inner lives of Baby Boomers: Playing with Trains: A Passion Beyond Scale by Sam Posey, the former Grand Prix auto racer and Emmy-winning sportscaster. It's still selling modestly well on Amazon.com, checking in at a respectable No. 203,830 this morning, and it's one of 125,000 titles available in a Kindle version.
Whether it's a poem to a durable passion or a paean for a disappearing pastime I don't know, but if you ever wanted to understand why your grandfather is so nuts about a hobby with a history as ancient as that of whist, this book is the place to start.
It has been years since I last seriously played with trains, most recently having built a small N scale layout inside a cocktail table with a lift-off top. I still have the locomotives and cars, however, and now and then haul them out to recapture old dreams. Other hobbies have taken up my leisure time over the years -- tropical fish, furniture building and photography among them -- but always I seem to return to first principles, those that begin with flanged wheel on steel rail.
Can't you hear the lonesome whistle in the night, too?
Sunday, June 1, 2008
The Eastern Chipmunk is so ubiqitous as to be unremarkable, but yesterday I saw one for the first time this year. Three times he packed his cheek pouches with tidbits dropped from the bird feeder by sparrows, perhaps the only sloppier eaters than the 18-month-old human child. Three times he scampered to his midden under the bridalwreath bush and dumped his load to return for more. He's probably the most industrious creature I've yet photographed from the backyard deck.