Thursday, April 30, 2009
Twitter seems to be less than the vital social tool that hype makes it out to be. At least one study shows that 60 per cent of those who sign on to it quit after only a month.
Perhaps those who stay aboard have put in long hours of learning to make Twitter useful to them. One of the things I have learned is that one needs to cruelly prune the "Following" list -- the people one follows -- in order to cut out the dross.
For instance, one obscure midlist author -- even more obscure than I am -- likes to air trivial backyard laundry every day. (I will not use her name.) Within ten minutes this morning she hung out on display these socks and underpants:
"Have a great day and stay healthy."
"OK, bills are done and my mom just got here. Baby needs a new pair of shoes."
"It's no good for kids to use all the time. Kills both good and bad germs and leave them more susceptible to sickness." [Use what? Cocaine?]
"I think the washing of hands is good, and should be common sense, now my daughter's teacher wants everyone to have their own hand sanitizer."
This is where self-promotion spills over into banal narcissism, and who has time for that? Of course I'm no longer following her.
Just a few minutes earlier the bigfoot mystery writer Harlan Coben showed how to use Twitter as a promotion tool effectively, announcing in one tweet that his newest novel was available in the UK and in another that a previous tale had been sold to the movies. That's news his fans will want to absorb. And I'm a fan.
Now to go prune the "following" bush some more.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Last week the Lady Friend and I paid a short visit to Silverton, Michigan, where we stood on the beach and captured this shot of the Wolverine Mountains, the big wilderness state park on the shore of Lake Superior that is anchored by a two-billion-year-old, 1,958-foot-high, 12-mile-long copper-bearing escarpment. The range was named for the sleeping animal the Lakota, original inhabitants of the area, saw in its shape.
Most of that is in my imagination, of course. In reality the photo is of the Porcupine Mountains, named for that animal by the Ojibwe, who chased out the Lakota more than 300 years ago -- and it was the beach of Silver City where we stood. In my Porcupine County mysteries I have changed names in order to be able to take liberties with locale necessary for plot advancement. (Mystery readers are very touchy about accuracy.)
What do you see in the photograph? A sleeping wolverine or a recumbent porcupine? It doesn't matter. In truth those mountains are wild and gorgeous, and they are full of wolves, bears, deer and eagles as well as porcupines and, yes, wolverines. And, of course, the missing and the murdered. These mountains contain many buried secrets, and as a mystery novelist I have just begun to mine them.
Click on the photo for a larger version.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Being an unusually ill-informed fellow, even for a retired journo, I have only just now learned that the Chia Pet people have been marketing a "Chia Obama" bust for the last couple of months.
This has to be the tackiest case of commercial exploitation of the president yet conceived. There's nothing illegal about it, of course, but it does have racial overtones with its hardly veiled emphasis on kinky African-American hair. (Would the Chia hucksters have brought out a George Bush or Bill Clinton bust?)
You can be sure that anyone who buys this thing for his home has to be either a diehard wingnut or the kind of yahoo who would hang chintz in the windows of a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
In feeble protest I'm not providing a link to the Chia site.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
As a photographer, the Lady Friend sees things I'd miss. After taking that gorgeous beach shot posted yesterday, she took a close look at the edges of the frozen snow berm in the shade of the tree line and discovered that the melting ice and sand mixture created tiny stalagmites a few inches below the frozen shelf -- fragile structures that would last only as long as the lapping waves left them alone.
She also found that repeated snow, freezing and wave action had covered successive layers of snow and ice with thin coatings of sand, resulting in an enticing layer-cake effect. The sand also insulates the ice from increasing warmth, and since spring nighttime temperatures in the Upper Peninsula often dip below freezing, I would not be surprised if some ice remained in the shade upon our return to the cabin in mid-May.
Click on each photo for a closer look.
Friday, April 24, 2009
The Lady Friend took this shot at the Writer's Lair on Lake Superior early yesterday morning while I sprayed the cabin with insecticide, hoping to cut down on the number of flies that plague us every summer. Quite a bit of snow remained in shady areas on the beach even in late April, some of it from an 8-inch storm that blanketed the Ontonagon area Tuesday, raising the season's total snowfall to 307 inches. Click on the photo for a more detailed version.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED.
So yesterday afternoon the resupply mission to Steve Martinez' cabin in Upper Michigan had been accomplished and the Lady Friend and I were doing the posted 55 on Highway M-64, heading for the motel at Silver City, when I spotted a female wild turkey across the road. She was ambling along gobbling to herself, as is the wont of wild turkeys, a species always a few feathers short of a headdress. Just as I was about to pass she launched herself across the road in a perfect deflection shot and -- pow! -- caught the van spang on the left mirror, smashing it into flinders.
I drove back, picked up the remnants of the mirror, and looked up to see a battered pickup stopped across the road. It had arrived not 60 seconds after the collision.
"Everybody okay?" the driver called.
"Yep," we said.
"You gonna eat that?" his wife said.
"Nope," we said.
"Can we?" she said.
"Sure," we said.
"It's our dinner tonight," she said, thanking us and scooping up the bird, and they were on their way.
Roadkill does not go to waste in Ontonagon County, hard hit by the recession.
An hour later a kindly body shop man in town jury-rigged a replacement with a rusty old truck mirror and about ten feet of duct tape. I hope it'll last the 400 miles back to Evanston.
You can bet this incident will end up in a future novel.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Sorry, no naked pictures of Britney and Lindsay today. You'll just have to wait.
This morning I'm driving the van, loaded with tools, blankets and books, up to Porcupine County in remotest Upper Michigan 400 miles from home. There I'll unload the supplies at Sheriff Steve Martinez's cabin, a k a the Writer's Lair, and afterward help the sheriff fumigate the place with insecticide against the clouds of flies and armies of creepy-crawlies that appear every summer.
Not that it will do much good, but it just might help. It's not easy to write when flies constantly buzz around your head.
Back Friday. Be good and don't post rude comments, and if you must, keep them witty.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Each day only about 50 to 55 visitors view this blog -- a modest number. That is unsurprising, for both the subject matter and the celebrity of the blogger are modest.
But yesterday a flood of 684 visitors arrived -- almost all of them referred by Google and Yahoo hits on the the photograph of Stephen Hawking that accompanied the June 22, 2008, blogpost on Miriam Berkley, photographer of authors. They were, of course, impelled by the news that Hawking was lying ill in a Cambridge hospital.
Today 85 visitors had shown up on the doorstep by 7:30 a.m. CDT. (News is that Hawking is recovering, which ought to diminish the intense interest in him.)
All this speaks to the immense power of Internet search engines as well as the celebrity of Hawking, who apparently is a culture hero for a lot of people. (As he should be.)
This also speaks to the curiosity (and maybe greed and cupidity) of a certain blogger who has put "Sex photos of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan" into today's subject line to see whether that will attract visitors as well. Probably the wrong kind, but who's being judgmental about numbers? A few of them might stay, too, and be introduced to (ahem) wholesome subjects, such as e-books and bird photography . . .
Monday, April 20, 2009
The explosion in e-books seems to have had this happy result: Those who download and read them on a Kindle or iPhone or iPod Touch or Blackberry "buy significantly more books than they did before owning the device, and it's not hard to understand why: The bookstore is now following you around wherever you go. A friend mentions a book in passing, and instead of jotting down a reminder to pick it up next time you're at Barnes & Noble, you take out the Kindle and -- voilà! -- you own it."
Reading e-books this way allows the user to be distracted easily, to check the stock market or post a tweet on Twitter in mid-chapter, to buy and download a new book on a whim. One's attention span suddenly is fragmented.
"As a result, I fear that one of the great joys of [printed] book reading -- the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author's ideas -- will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there."
These are among the provocative insights in a Wall Street Journal article today by author Steven Johnson, "How the E-book Will Change the Way We Read and Write."
(A tip of the e-hat to half a dozen Twitterers for the heads-up.)
LATER MONDAY: I was a book review editor for 33 years and never heard of "fore-edge painting," but there's an enlightening Web site devoted to it. (Thanks to Shelf Awareness.)
Saturday, April 18, 2009
It being sunny and in the 60s yesterday -- the first real day of spring we've had -- the Lady Friend and I set out with our Pentaxes to the Chicago Botanic Garden in nearby Glencoe. While the L.F. sought blooms, I hunted birds. They were in short supply, except for a few yammering grackles and a solitary couple of mallards on the big pond, and I took dozens of shots of them. A bit later, as we investigated Spider Island in the interior of the gardens, a pair of colorful red-breasted mergansers appeared on the inlet, plunging for fish. The diving-duck species we see every day at the Writer's Lair on Lake Superior is the less colorful common merganser, and this was the first sighting of the red-breasted variety for me. Their red eyes are weird. Another check mark for my bird book and another keeper of a photo. Yay! (Click on the photo for a much larger, detailed version.)
Friday, April 17, 2009
Twitter finally got its act together. Now you can find "HenryKisor" with a search. At least I did. (Haven't changed, either.)
FOUND ON TWITTER LATER: This may be the shape of the bookstore of the future: Print-on-demand machines. Swipe your Visa and get some words.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
E-books save trees. (No kidding?) And also save lots and lots of energy in other ways.
The tree-book industry wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent over the next 10 years, by 80 per cent by 2050.
Late Nobel Prizewinner Heinrich Boell's papers have been discovered in a pile of rubble at a collapsed building in Cologne.
Bookshelves can be made out of naked humans.
Not everything in Iceland has collapsed. The thriller novelist Yrsa Sigurdardottir is getting stellar reviews in the UK.
Best crack of the day: "I believe we should all pay our tax bill with a smile. I tried but they wanted cash." (Anonymous, quoted by "noveltweets")
At the moment, as an author and a beginner twit, I'm interested in mining mainly literary and publishing news (hard to come by in our newspapers anymore) and what other writer-twits are thinking. In its own haphazard way, Twitter can be enlightening.
Some of these writers seem to be thinking the same thing I'm thinking: Is it worth writing a book if there isn't going to be a publishing industry?
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
After months of vowing not to, I've joined Twitter. Many, many people said it would be a good way to keep the brand in the public eye. I'm not sure about that just yet, but I had the same view about blogging before becoming a blogger.
After a few minutes of absorbing other people's "tweets," I've discovered that Twitter seems to be far more than a bunch of twits telling each other what they're doing now, like clueless technomopes trying out their new cell phones.
Quite a few writers issue random but interesting thoughts about their trade, about other writers, about literature in general, about sparks of creativity. (My first official tweet was "'Exsanguination.' Just learned that last night. Great word for a mystery novel.")
Ron Charles, a respected critic at the Washington Post, tweeted that he had been promoted to the No. 2 spot at its book review section. That's big news in the ever shrinking pond of newspaper arts coverage.
One guy seems to tweet every five minutes, like a garrulous old fart at the dining table.
But this has possibilities, it does.
My handle on Twitter, if you're interested, is "HenryKisor." Clever, eh? [Right now Twitter is having internal problems and my name doesn't come up in a search. Try http://twitter.com/HenryKisor for now.]
LATER WEDNESDAY: Following a small network of writerly tweets this morning led me to an Utne Reader article from 2005 that I'd never seen before, but which deserves resurrection: novelist Steve Almond's jolly primer on how to write a sex scene.
THURSDAY: Literary journalist Sarah Weinman asks, in a piece for Poets & Writers, "Are authors who Twitter any fitter?"
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
A few years ago a journalist, professor and contemporary of mine told me, "I knew I was getting old when I compared somebody to Hermann Goering and my students all responded, "Who?"
That was understandable, although depressing -- World War II was their grandfathers' war and Vietnam was their fathers.' Their own would be Iraq I and II.
Depressing not because the students were ignorant (they weren't, really, just young) but because many references with which journalists salt their work are bound to become obscure as time goes on.
Not all college students, let alone high schoolers, have taken a survey course in modern European history; Hitler they might know, but not necessarily his henchmen.
Bigfoot reporters and commentators tend to be in their fifties and even sixties, and they often seem to be writing for their own generations. Is it any wonder readers under 40 don't know who Illya Kuryakin was? Barney Fife? Or the phrase "drop a dime"?
"Journalists who lace their copy with such retro terms or names risk alienating those who are too young to get the allusions," writes Ralph Keyes in Editor & Publisher.
He calls it "retrotalk" and suggests that those who unconsciously use a lot of it in their writing are helping chase away younger readers.
I'll go along with this, but with a caveat: Much of what may seem outdated to some observers is actually an important part of our zeitgeist, or cultural heritage, and young people ought not to be insulted by easy assumptions that they don't know what we're talking about.
Keyes cites as retrotalk Frank Rich's comment in the New York Times "that George W. Bush had 'a slight, almost Chauncey Gardiner quality,' referring to Peter Sellers' simple-minded character in the 1979 movie 'Being There.'" I'd argue that interest in classic films cuts across all age lines, and that just about every sentient being over 18 has either rented the movie or seen it on late-night TV.
Yes, let's be careful about our pop-culture references, but let's also not throw the baby out with the bath water.
That's not a retrophrase, just a comfortable cliche that has, er, stood the test of time.
LATER TUESDAY: Steve Johnson, pop culture critic of the Chicago Tribune, weighs in with his opinion.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Yesterday I experienced a rare moment that rational people would call a simple lightning stroke of luck but which William James might have put in The Varieties of Religious Experience.
I was sitting desultorily on a stool at the Lady Friend's office window, camera ready for action if birds or squirrels visited the feeder or birdbath in the back yard. Now and then a couple of sparrows (ho-hum) would flit into view and occasionally a squirrel (yawn) would hop by. Now and then I'd snap a photo just to keep the camera from getting rusty.
Suddenly a whirlwind of life fell upon the back yard as if dumped by a tornado. In an instant half a dozen squirrels madly chased each other around the place. At the same time, unmannerly grackles jostled cowbirds and robins at the feeder, and a cloud of quarreling sparrows and finches set aquiver the leafless bushes. I picked up the Pentax with 300mm lens and trained it on the action.
In the middle of the melee I spotted, out of the corner of my eye at the bird bath, a gorgeous northern flicker, a species of large woodpecker common to forests and prairies but not that often seen in the burbs, so quickly do they shoot across the scene. I whirled, aimed and fired half a dozen shots. (The one above is the best.)
Just as instantly, all the creatures disappeared and quiet again settled over the place.
I will forever treasure that moment. Especially since I got a keeper of a photograph. (Click it on for a larger version.)
Thursday, April 9, 2009
I am proud to say that I've never deleted a snarky comment on this open blog -- but that does not speak to any virtue of mine. It's because nobody has ever left an unpleasant, offensive, wilfully ignorant or racist comment here, though they have posted plenty of contrarian ones.
(Only twice have I deleted comments, and they were both from "spambots" that crawl the Internet leaving blatant ads for wares that might have been mentioned in blogposts.)
I like to think that it's because of the high intellectual quality of people who love the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and especially my books, but the truth is probably that the wild-eyed wackoes just haven't discovered the Reluctant Blogger yet. When they do, I'll be faced with deciding what to do with their drivel.
Maybe the wise action would be to take no action at all. Today Doug Feaver, former executive editor of Washingtonpost.com, posts a provocative article defending the site's refusal to moderate or edit comments left by readers, no matter how disgusting and offensive they might be -- and I have seen comments there that actually turn the stomach.
Feaver makes three powerful points. First, he says that counter-commenters down the line often provide a valuable counterpoint to angry or offensive anonymous comments, and that this self-policing provides considerable enjoyment as well as edification.
Second, he argues that a host of furious and impolite comments on a given subject is a strong indicator of how people actually feel about it, and that newspapers have much to learn from this phenomenon rather than exercising their rights of private censorship.
Third, he declares, "I believe that it is useful to be reminded bluntly that the dark forces are out there and that it is too easy to forget that truth by imposing rules that obscure it. As Oscar Wilde wrote in a different context, 'Man is least in himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.'"
Excellent ideas all. I think I'll just let the shits fall where they may.
It's tough to get close to birds and other wildlife, both in the backyard and out in the boonies, for good photographs. Maybe I've solved that problem with this portable, knock-down hunter's blind, $40 plus tax and shipping from the outdoor outfitter Cabela's. The neighbors (and the Lady Friend, who took this photo) might chortle, but we'll see who laughs last when I finally get photos so large and sharp you can count the whiskers on a nuthatch's chin. My plan is to leave the blind out all day, then as the sun settles into the west creep inside it with the camera and long lens, a glass of wine and the iPod Touch with a Kindle e-book at the ready, and wait for my quarry to flit within range. Life could be worse.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Nothing cheers up an aging author like a sudden spotlight on one of his old, out-of-print, almost forgotten books.
Yesterday Eric Smith, a habitue of this blog and the director of the Ontonagon Township Library way up in Steve Martinez Country -- that's Upper Michigan to you outlanders -- picked up the March 15 issue of Kirkus Reviews. On its cover he spotted a lovely notice of my 1997 book Flight of the Gin Fizz, the story of my learning to fly and retracing the transcontinental route of a celebrated early birdman.
The critic Gregory McNamee seems to be writing a regular feature, "Lost in the Stacks," reviving old books he once reviewed and liked. Back in '97 he reviewed the book for Tucson Weekly, and he has dusted it off and updated it a bit for Kirkus.
Kirkus Reviews is not the kind of publication you find in supermarket magazine racks. It has a small circulation aimed at the general book trade -- librarians, publishers, literary and film agents, film and TV producers, booksellers and literary journalists like me. It publishes short reviews of new books two to three months in advance of their official appearances in the stores. Like its brethren, Publishers Weekly and Booklist, it's influential in the trade and often a good review suggests how a book will be received by the press and public.
Not in the case of Gin Fizz, however. That book was ill-starred. It had the bad luck to be published at HarperCollins just as Rupert Murdoch put at its head a bottom-line-oriented publisher who ordered scores of modest but significant book projects killed (mine was about to appear, hence was spared the ax) and the company's focus aimed at popular best sellers instead. Many editors left HarperCollins in protest, including mine -- a talented fellow who had shepherded my two previous books into print.
Gin Fizz was, in the term of the trade, orphaned. With the departure of my editor no one was left to champion it in sales meetings, to push for promotion and advertising dollars. HarperCollins just shoved the book out the door and forgot all about it.
Though Gin Fizz won a few reviews, most of them favorable, sales were dismal and the book was quickly remaindered and went out of print.
It happens to lots of authors. I just went on and became a mystery novelist.
But Gin Fizz is still the favorite of my nonfiction books. Researching it -- learning to fly and buying a little two-seater airplane and flying it from New York Harbor to California -- was a great hairy-chested adventure for a balding middle-aged writer. More than any other book I've done, it gave new dimension to my life.
I don't expect the latter-day Kirkus notice to stir much in the way of industry interest. The book already had its chance twelve years ago.
Still, it's nice to know Gin Fizz hasn't been completely forgotten.
Thanks, McNamee. Thanks, Eric.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
The patient is not yet dead, but already the elegies have begun.
The Chicago Sun-Times, the newspaper I used to work for, declared bankruptcy the other day. Its owners cheerily forecast revival after reorganization, but everybody knows the paper is moribund.
And so various staff members, present and past, have begun to post their memories of the place, some of them a little less egocentric than the others.
The best of these remembrances is by Roger Ebert, that fellow who long ago won a Pulitzer Prize and just kept getting better instead of coasting on his laurels as so many of the others have.
Roger has said it so well that there is no point in me, or anyone else, adding our voices to the chorus. His is not a dirge but a celebration of a life, the life of a once fine newspaper, and the wonderful, if sometimes self-absorbed, newsroom culture that surrounded it. True, we big-headed newsies tended to think of ourselves as the smartest and wittiest people in the world, but now and then we actually were.
Hats off to Roger. Hats off, too, to the funeral cortege as it passes by, but not just yet.
Monday, April 6, 2009
Yesterday I took a quick backyard portrait of a bird I didn't recognize. It's bigger than a sparrow and slightly smaller than a robin, with a dark gray back and head and white belly and underbutt. My bird book suggests that it's a Slate-colored Junco, whose range does embrace the Midwest, but I can't tell for sure. Can any birders out there confirm my guess? Click on the photo for a larger version.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
A new manifestation of aggrieved privilege has erupted over the prices of Amazon.com's Kindle e-books: Some disaffected customers have called for a boycott of all Kindle e-books that cost more than $9.99.
Some Kindle e-books, the revolutionaries say, are more expensive at $9.99 than the paperback versions at $7.99. Some Kindle e-books are more expensive than the tree-book versions you can get at discount emporiums. It is absurd to pay $18 for an illustrated e-book whose color photos look like hell on a black-and-white Kindle screen.
And when you are finished with a Kindle e-book, you can't pass it along to a friend or your public library or sell it at a used bookstore. You can reread it on your Kindle (or iPhone or iPod Touch), but that is all.
Worst of all, these rebels say, an e-book requires no paper, glue, shipping or printing, so it has "no production costs."
Pardon me, but that last is absolute nonsense.
It costs money for publishers to acquire books, sometimes big money. Authors expect to get paid for their labors, and some of them command hefty advances. Editors and designers must be paid. Promotion personnel must be paid. Insurance and rent must be paid. Stockholders expect a return on their investment.
What's more, Kindle e-books are purchased and downloaded via wireless, saving their consumers considerable time and gas for trips to the bookstore. Convenience has a price, like everything else.
Still don't want to pay more than $9.99 for an e-book you can get in an instant via wireless? Call the library, put in your reservation for a new novel, hear six weeks later that it's finally available, then drive 20 minutes in your gas-guzzling truck to pick it up.
Or drive to Barnes & Noble and buy the tree-book -- at a discount if it's popular.
Or don't buy it at all. Nobody holds a gun to your head and says, "Read this book or I'll waste you."
Big bad Amazon.com doesn't set the prices of the e-books it sells -- the publishers do. The formula is a percentage of the tree-book cover price, usually about three-fifths. Is it surprising that a thick illustrated history that sells for $50 in hardcover will go for $22 as an e-book?
In my opinion, this silly rebellion is part and parcel of the shortsighted selfishness at the heart of the dark side of the Internet: People want things for free, never mind what it costs to produce them. They expect their news for no charge, although gathering and disseminating it is expensive. They rip off writers and photographers without paying a nickel.
The cultural commons of the Internet is a wonderful thing, but we must never forget that it always comes at a price.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Click on the illustration for a larger, more legible version.
A short storyspreadsheet? Why not?
A blogger and fiction writer named David Nygren has come up with a groundbreaking new literary form, a brief narrative contained entirely within a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. It could revolutionize American literature, or at least save it from going under with General Motors.
The spreadsheet of "Under the Table," a one-scene tale of a boozy dinner, with lots of groping, in an Ethiopian restaurant is set up across 8 columns and 30 rows.
The concept is deceptively simple. Column A denotes the number of the "action" point in time. Column B contains the action itself. Column C shows the dialogue among the characters. Columns D through H are filled with the internal thoughts of each character.
The illustration of part of the spreadsheet above will give you an idea, but if you have any Excel skills (all you need to know is how to scroll across and down a spreadsheet) it's better to download the "short spreadsheetstory" from Nygren's blogpost and examine it. (Excel isn't on my Macs, but OpenOffice displayed the piece just fine.)
You can read it in the usual Western European manner, from left to right, then back to Column A and down to Row 2, then from left to right and so on. Or you could adopt the method of Hebrew and Arabic and read from right to left. Another method is to read Column A all the way down, then return to the top and start down again on Column B. Maybe you want the thoughts of the characters before they speak their words and execute the action? You could read the story that way.
A truly innovative literary device is a graph showing "character intensity thought units," which would have delighted Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.
It is a deep and profound upheaval of all we were taught in American Literature 101, resonant with meaning and implication. The world will never be the same.
Nygren may have single-handedly saved the U.S. publishing industry. Can you imagine what creative souls might do with the rest of Microsoft Office? We could have brilliant PowerPoint poetry, Access biography, Outlook e-mail mysteries and so on.
With deep thanks to Mediabistro.com.