Friday, October 31, 2008

Goodbye, Studs

I don't know. All the great names seem to be dropping like flies. Earlier this week, Tony Hillerman. Today, Studs Terkel, the oral historian, indefatigable author, and all-around good guy of Chicago letters.

Studs. More times than I can count I was the recipient of his extraordinary personal generosity. He'd mention my books on the air, sometimes things I'd written for the Daily News and the Sun-Times.

He would spot me skulking in the background at a literary party (I'm a shy guy), dash over, grab me by the elbow, and with a stop at the bar to refill my drink on his tab, haul me over to a group of renowned writers for an extravagant introduction.

I'm sure it had nothing to do with whatever talents I had. He just thought young writers should be known far and wide. Maybe they weren't notable now, but they might be someday, and Studs wanted to be the one who had first discovered that talent. At least that's the impression he gave. He was looking out for you, not himself.

Even deaf writers hard to understand. Once he had me on his WFMT radio show talking about one of my books. I brought along my son Conan for interpreting help both ways -- Studs had become rather deaf himself, and his energetic bounciness made him a difficult moving target for a lipreader. Studs thought Conan's presence was just fine and made sure to ask him a few on-air questions having nothing to do with his old man.

When Studs thought perhaps his listeners weren't understanding what I was saying, he'd repeat my remarks, as if to underscore them. He often employed that trick when interviewing people with heavy accents. I just had a heavy deaf accent, that's all, and he made sure his audience heard it that way.

Today Studs died, full of honors and surrounded by love and admiration, at 96.

Rick Kogan, an old colleague of mine, has captured the man in a beautiful, stylish, well-polished obit in the Chicago Tribune. It would have delighted Studs, who I'm sure is sitting behind a mike somewhere in the afterworld, quoting enthusiastically from it.

[Later: Roger Ebert, in the Sun-Times, also does justice to Studs in a moving personal memoir.]

Visit to the Vin Fiz

While in Washington last week, I stopped by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to pay pilotly respects to its historic aircraft, most notably the ancient Vin Fiz. This was the primitive Wright biplane in which a wealthy, eccentric and deaf aviator named Calbraith Perry Rodgers made the first flight across the United States, in 1911.

"Flight" is hardly the word to describe Rodgers' achievement. It took him six weeks and many short flights and crashes -- hop, skip, splat! -- to make his way across the continent. He wasn't a very good pilot, but he was a determined and ultimately successful one.

His story inspired my 1997 book Flight of the Gin Fizz, partly because, as Rodgers was, I am deaf. Re-enacting his aerial odyssey was a glorious exercise in middle-aged derring-do, although I flew a modern and far more capable airplane, a Cessna 150 trainer.

Vin Fiz is tucked nearly out of sight in a corner of the upper back hall of Air & Space, overwhelmed by the bulk of Amelia Earhart's cherry-red Lockheed Vega and the Lindberghs' Lockheed Sirius seaplane Tingmissartoq. But it is safe to say that during the next three years the old Wright will come out of the shadows when several latter-day pilots re-enact the saga of Vin Fiz on her centenary, at least one of them a fellow deaf aviator on a budget and at least one of the airplanes a well-funded and close replica of Cal Rodgers' steed.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Economist goes for Obama

"There is no getting around the fact that Mr Obama’s résumé is thin for the world’s biggest job. But the exceptionally assured way in which he has run his campaign is a considerable comfort. It is not just that he has more than held his own against Mr McCain in the debates. A man who started with no money and few supporters has out-thought, out-organised and out-fought the two mightiest machines in American politics—the Clintons and the conservative right."

The foregoing is from The Economist's endorsement of Obama for President, published today. You remember The Economist -- the British-based house organ of the global economy, hardly a bedmate of Marx and Ayers and the Rev. Wright. It's the newsmagazine most often seen on the coffee tables of the world's moneyed classes.

It's quite an endorsement. The Economist admits its nervousness over what it perceives as Obama's shortcomings, saying it thinks in electing him the United States would run a considerable risk -- but not to elect him would mean a much greater one.

You can read the whole thing here.

By the way, I have been largely absent from the helm of the Reluctant Blogger in the past ten days because of a trip to Washington during which I contracted the mother of all head colds and had to postpone my return by two days because I was just too radioactive to travel.

Monday, October 27, 2008

R.I.P. Tony Hillerman

When Tony Hillerman died at 83 yesterday in Albuquerque, I lost a mentor.

Hillerman's mysteries, set in Navajo country and respectfully reflecting Navajo culture, are not mindlessly plot-driven, as so many whodunits are today, but deeply rooted in both character and setting. A good mystery story is about much more than cops and murder.

Whenever I got stuck writing a scene in one of my own mysteries, I often would pull a Hillerman down from the shelf and reread it, looking for inspiration. Sometimes just a description of the sky over the Four Corners, or a casual remark by one of Hillerman's heroes Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee, would get me unstuck.

In today's New York Times, Marilyn Stasio, that newspaper's nonpareil mystery critic, does a splendid obituary whose length -- surprisingly hefty for an assessment of a commercial storyteller -- does justice to both the man and the writer.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Early Furst

Right now I'm reading The Paris Drop, one of Alan Furst's first spy novels, published in 1980. It's great fun, partly because even then Furst was a master at setting a scene with telling details -- the "furniture" that draws in a reader -- and partly because he was in love with the tricks he could play with language, as so many young writers are.

In this novel about a young wiseacre New Yorker who serves as a bagman for a shady Israeli institution he could be endearingly witty (one woman was "a pain in search of an ass"). Some of his images could also go way over the top ("Paris, like a crotch, smelled both wonderful and terrible").

Early on Furst sharpened his inimitable powers of description. One chapter begins with a long paragraph describing the variegated skies over the United States ("the sky over New York is shipped in from Maine, so it is a little cold, a little unforgiving, a sky inhabited by a score-keeping God, if God lives in the sky"). Then he winds up with this description of the sky over Paris:

"But, getting out of that 747, here is a SKY. And the sky is blue. It is the bluest goddam thing to be seen on this earth, bluer than eyes, oceans, Bessie Smith, or any other celebrity of blueness. It is an aristocratic, kiss-my-ass blue, with lots of black hidden in it. That's the secret in mixing up a proper sky, you've got to have the dark energies, well blended but definitely there, because if you don't your sky will be light-washed. Sweet, but vague. And I immediately understand why people come here to paint. There is one hard-edge cloud, a fatty, piled up to the ceiling, off in a corner, borders cut with a circular miter box and there for only one purpose: to bring the trebles in that sky up stronger."

Now that's a writer.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Still tinkering . . .

I'm trying still another banner photo on my website's home page. Lady Friend likes this one best. Now I'm going to have to write the John G. Munson into a mystery (the lighthouse was mentioned in "Cache of Corpses"). Maybe a killer sneaks into the country from Canada aboard the Munson. Maybe a seaman is found cruelly murdered in the fo'c'sle. Maybe Sheriff Martinez is shanghaied, doomed to wander the Great Lakes chained in the engine room with the rest of the black gang . . .

P.S. Today I'm off to D.C. for a week, so new blogposts might be spotty.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tinkering, tinkering . . .

. . . not with this blog, but my website. I've just put a new banner photo on the home page. Tell me what you think. Thanks.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Three cheers for 3.0

Years ago, when I still worked on PCs, I used keen software called OpenOffice (versions 1 and 2) to write two books. It was (and is) a Microsoft Office semi-clone, but much sleeker and less bloated than Bill Gates' memory-hungry moneymaker has become. OpenOffice's word processor, Write, was the perfect tool for writing books, and it could read and save files in Microsoft Word format for sending to the publisher.

Best of all, OpenOffice is an open-source program, which means its program code is available to anyone who wants to tinker with and improve it, and it is free (except perhaps a donation to the OpenOffice people, if the user likes the software enough). Many national governments -- and many corporations -- have converted to OpenOffice rather than pay large sums to Microsoft.

Then I switched to the Apple platform, mainly because I liked the Lady Friend's sleek, stable Macs better than my clunky, crash-prone, virus-collecting PCs. But using OpenOffice with a Mac was clumsy and not very reliable, because that required using an add-on program called X11, a hacker's dream but a duffer's nightmare. So I bit the bullet and put a legal copy of Microsoft Word 2004 on my Macs.

That was all right, but slow to load and clumsy to operate, even on the Macs. I didn't need 99 per cent of its useless, memory-hogging "features" -- useless for a serious text-oriented writer uninterested in eye-candy hells and thistles.

Now OpenOffice Suite 3.0 is available -- and, praise the Lord, for Mac OS X in a native OS X version. No more X11!

I downloaded it onto my Mac Mini last night and immediately loaded an entire book manuscript written in Microsoft Word into OpenOffice Write. The formatting was perfect, except for a couple of letters on one page, which the spell checker immediately caught. And the loading and execution speed of OpenOffice Write was noticeably faster than that of Word.

Version X.0 of anything is never perfect, but OpenOffice enthusiasts are so quick to make fixes that its teething bugs are likely to be squashed swiftly.

I'll be using Calc, OpenOffice's spreadsheet, as well as Write. It also has a Microsoft PowerPoint clone called Impress, but I'm a fan of Apple's own KeyNote.

There are also drawing, database and mathematics programs in OpenOffice for those who need them. They are likewise compatible with the Microsoft Office versions, though there will be some differences and some anomalies.

Give OpenOffice a try. It won't cost you a nickel.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Another reason for captioning streaming news videos

I hate to keep harping on the failure of news organizations to apply closed captions for the deaf and hard of hearing to streaming video of news and commentary on their Web sites, but the Cleveland Plain Dealer has just hit upon another reason for captioning:

The paper is going to accept self-made commentary videos from readers for its Letters to the Editor columns. (The announcement is down near the bottom of the piece.)

Or maybe this is simply more ammunition for those who believe literacy is going to hell in a handbasket.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Forlorn in the north

The Lady Friend and I drove back to Evanston this weekend from the Writer's Lair, now closed up for the winter, and we just had to stop half a dozen times so that I could photograph roadside ruins such as this desolate farm just off U.S. 45 a few miles north of Bruce Crossing, Michigan.

Upper Michigan is full of such abandoned dreams. Hopeful settlers emigrated there from Europe 100 to 150 years ago, seeking their fortunes first in the copper rush of the 1840s, then the lumber boom of the 1880s and 1890s, and finally the subsistence farm movement of the early 1900s. Now the mines are closed, the forests are largely second-growth pulpwood, and the few remaining farmers scrabble to survive.

Yet the land's wild beauty lives on, and even the fading remnants of failure capture the eye. There's something noble and monumental about these testaments to human effort, however fleeting they may be as nature slowly absorbs their bones.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Getting out the vote

Maybe it's because I'm a nearly lifelong resident of Chicago, where entire cemeteries have been known to go to the polls, but the placement of that sign at a graveyard in Ontonagon, Michigan, is so full of irony that I couldn't help stopping to take this photograph.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Losing ugly

Back in the middle 1980s, the Chicago White Sox stayed in the thick of the American League pennant race with bare-knuckled, thumb-in-your-eye, scrappy play, stealing games by hook or crook rather than relying on strong hitting and pitching. The Sox were "winning ugly," observed Doug Rader, then manager of the Texas Rangers, and he wasn't being complimentary.

"Winning ugly," however, became the Sox team slogan. It was fun while it lasted, which wasn't long.

Now, as Barack Obama continues to surge ahead in the polls, the frantic Republican campaign seems to have perversely inverted that phrase. Day after day McCain and Palin and their minions hurl astonishing lies and smears at Obama, flinging the red meat of "Wright!" and "Ayers!" and "Barack Hussein Obama!" at slavering, shouting crowds straight out of Central Casting's extra bank for "Deliverance." Not for them the serious issues facing our nation.

Only one thing to call it: "Losing ugly."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Handed a lemon? Make lemonade.

"If life hands you a lemon," Ann Landers was fond of saying, "make lemonade." And so Andrew Sullivan at Atlantic Monthly suggests the Obama campaign grasp the backhand swipe John McCain made during last night's debate and create a campaign slogan (and button) out of it.

Boycott No way!

From Publishers Weekly:

At the just concluded Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show, Carol Besse, GLIBA’s outgoing board president and co-owner of Carmichael’s Books in Louisville, Kent., jolted more than 200 booksellers . . . by sounding a forceful call to arms, urging them to not only build alliances with other independent retailers, authors, and customers, but also to “get out there in front” of store patrons and explicitly explain why consumers shouldn’t buy books from It’s a matter of survival and a quality-of-life issue for entire communities, Besse explained, also calling for a “grassroots effort to re-educate every author” who visits independents, asking them to disable links to on their Web sites. . . .

"I’m sorry to paint such a grim picture, but I think we’re entering a grim time.” Retailers in the Great Lakes area have been doing business in an already-depressed region that has gone into an economic tailspin this past year with skyrocketing unemployment and home foreclosures.

Are you kidding, Ms. Besse?

From the authorial point of view your proposal is simply outrageous. Here's why:

Like the big chains, independent booksellers will keep titles in the stores only as long as sales are brisk (sometimes with the help of hand selling), and when they slow, out go the books, back to the publishers. Six weeks is the average shelf life of a midlist mystery novel, the kind I write.

Sure, some indie booksellers are willing to order single copies after the initial sell-through, but it's far more convenient -- and usually cheaper -- for a book buyer to sit down at his computer and order from, or any of the other online book retailers. Once a book has achieved that sell-through, it's on display and sale only on Internet bookstores. Even if a book is out of print, will direct the buyer to used bookstores that have it in stock.

In an ideal world it's a good idea to support your local indie bookseller, but this is not an ideal world. Economic efficiency rules, and that is why Barnes & Noble and have grown ever larger, much like Wal-Mart in the boonies.

As an author I'm going to support whoever sells me. If an indie likes my book enough to put it in the front of the store and invites me to come and do an autographing, I'll happily do so. So will I if the store is Barnes & Noble or Borders.

And I will most certainly maintain my relationships with and other online retailers -- before, during and after my books have sold through. That's how the world, not just Main Street in Podunk, becomes -- and stays -- aware of them.

We authors need to eat, too, Ms. Besse. Don't ever forget that.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Presque Isle River

Last Sunday the Lady Friend and I paid one more visit to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Upper Michigan to see the fall colors, and the Presque Isle River in the western part of the park provided this view, rendered with high-dynamic-range imaging software into one of the autumn photos that warms my heart the most. Click on the photo for the full 10-megapixel version if you can stand the bandwidth.

Monday, October 6, 2008

McCain-Palin and the Big Lie

"His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it."

This passage is from the Wikipedia article on the phrase "The Big Lie," quoting the wartime Office of Strategic Services' psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. (Wikipedia cites this as a source for the profile.)

Today we seem to be hearing quite an echo of this phenomenon in the McCain-Palin campaign's despicable and desperate attempt to smear Barack Obama with the guilt-by-association brushes of Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers instead of addressing the deepening economic collapse of the nation.

I refuse to believe that the American people are stupid, emotional and unsophisticated enough to buy this Big Lie.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The laker and the lighthouse

Yesterday the lake freighter John G. Munson stood in past the historic lighthouse at Ontonagon, Michigan, to tie up for offloading at the Smurfit-Stone paper mill quay. In its heyday the lighthouse's navigation beacon comforted mariners on Lake Superior; today the Munson shores up the town's fragile economy with seasonal deliveries of coal for Ontonagon's largest employer.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Random but not unconnected observations

1. The future of the world may depend on tomorrow's House of Representatives bailout vote, but, vastly more important at this moment, the fate of the Cubs rests on Carlos Zambrano's shoulders tonight.

2. This, from today's New York Times story on the Senate passage of the bailout legislation, may be the surest signal yet that a seismic shift has occurred in the presidential race: "The political tension was clear as Senator Barack Obama walked to the Republican side of the aisle to greet Senator John McCain, who offered a chilly look and a brief return handshake."

3. The fallout from the world's economic woes is severely touching Upper Michigan, a beautiful region so impoverished that turmoil on faraway Wall Street rarely causes a ripple. Contractors suddenly have few jobs and must lay off their workers. Food prices are soaring, though they are still lower than those in the big cities. People are tightening their belts, but they have few notches left. This winter is going to be tough.

4. It's already so chilly at the Writer's Lair by the shore of Lake Superior that our woodpile is diminishing rapidly. We have to decide whether to order another cord or two before following the geese south in mid-October, or wait until our return next May.

5. The hummingbirds are gone, but the goldfinches are still hanging on.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Goodbye, September

Late yesterday, the last day of September, I stepped out the front door of the Writer's Lair and snapped this photo of Lake Superior to the northeast. The last few days we've had October blows, chilly enough for us to keep a blaze going in the fireplace all day, and quite a bit of slashing rain. But today the clouds parted enough to allow the sun to paint them the way John Constable did his gorgeous skies in the early 19th century. I was thankful.