book/daddy: October 2006 Archives

While I recover from my trip and try to get some housecleaning done, here's a great piece of (mildly) filthy fun. Slate has a "match the porn with the politician" quiz. Isn't that just like this year's elections: The best known instance of a novelist's sex scenes being used against him (or her) in a campaign is Republican Senate candidate George Allen trying to smear Democrat James Webb with his thriller writing. But the tactic has even filtered down to the Texas state comptroller's race, where Democrat Fred Head says Republican incumbent Susan Combs is a hypocrite for "posing as a family values person" even though she wrote a 1990 novel in what we might call "the French manner." (Irritatingly, that article doesn't give the title of the novel, and a search couldn't find anything written by Ms. Combs).

A LATE ADDITION: Thanks to a reader (see comment) and Fred Head's own website, we can now enjoy the "sweet torment" of Ms. Combs' writing.

No one seems to have attacked a candidate for appallingly bad writing, although a number of the examples Slate gives could be nominated for a Bad Sex Award. My personal favorites are Numbers 6 ("The women who embraced in the wagon were Adam and Eve crossing a dark cathedral stage--no, Eve and Eve, loving one another"), 7 ("He held her breasts in his hands. Oddly, he thought, the lower one might be larger.") and 12 ("But as he lay and later groaned with writhing and release, he brought the full force of his mind to transmuted, voluptuarian elation in this physical union with the very woman who had created John Galt and Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden, and had touched down her scepter on him, Nathaniel, igniting his mind, and his own scepter, which paid, now, devoted service.")

October 31, 2006 11:04 AM | | Comments (1)

You can't read it online, so you must buy a newstand copy of the November Harper's just for Dave Hickey's article, "It's Morning in Nevada: On the campaign trail in post-Bush America." Mr. Hickey is a superb and unconventional art critic (Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy), but here he heads into political journalism. His essay is one of the sharpest, funniest pieces of political journalism since David Foster Wallace followed John McCain around ("Up Simba" in Consider the Lobster), and somewhat like that piece, it wrestles with glimmers of unironic hope.

This is Hickey at full throttle, explaining what is unique (and wonderfully American) about the vulgarity and hardscrabble virtues of his home state, Nevada:

"The state may be a rough jumble; the library may jangle with the tattoo parlor; Bagelmania-Vegas may jangle with Chicken-Ranch-Pahrump. But it is one culture and thrice blessed -- first by volunteer inhabitants who prefer Nevada to the place from whence they fled; twice blessed by being a WASP-deprived environment and the only state in the union that is not run from a white-napkin country club; thrice blessed by being virtually farmer-free, a site upon which the Middle American equation of agricultural drudgery and Christian virtue has no traction, where mercantile virtues triumph and your average Nevadan's experience of food production is confined to watching the 'lobster plane' land at McCarran airport every morning.

Nevada, in a word, is inauthentic. The mise en scene, whether it's the eloquent desert or the glamorous Strip, is just that, a theatrical setting, an adaptable backdrop before which the theater of human folly is acted out -- a usable drama in the midst of which the tricky business of extracting gold from 'them thar hills' or 'them thar tourists' transpires -- and this raw inauthenticity has its virtues. It repels the cozy communitarians, the identity politicians, and the devotees of Jeffersonian agrarian utopianism who make up a large majority of Those Doomed to Be Perpetually Disappointed."

October 30, 2006 12:13 PM | | Comments (3)

It's impossible to capture even a significant portion of the Texas Book Festival, so here's a jumble of impressions and memorable moments:

Amy Sedaris on her book, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence: "I tried to keep the recipes simple. You know, it's for ages 3 and up. Pretty much add salt for flavor, that's it. And making things out of panythose [she describes cutting off one leg, filling it with beans, tying it off and using it as a facial "burrito" for the eyes, draping it across them]. And for men, it can feel like a woman has her leg on your face. It's a simple book, as I said. It's all I know. And it'll save your marriage."

Stephen Graham Jones(Demon Theory: "I'm worried that people now think a novel is just the thing that comes before the movie."

Irish novelist Colm Toibin when told that I'd just read his earlier, excellent novel, The Story of the Night: "Ack, that sold so few copies I'd heard you were reading it."

Festival attendance has always been overwhelmingly white. In its early years, the festival itself was charged with favoring white authors, but its roster, on the many years I've attended, has actually been pretty democratic. But sadly, that hasn't affected attendance much, it seems. This year, the festival had two of the biggest, black, non-Hollywood, non-hip-hop speakers currently in the media: Senator Barrack Obama and radio host Tavis Smiley. Although the senator's huge audience was standing-room-only, it was estimated at 90 percent white. Mr. Smiley's audience was initially sparse, and grew appreciably as he spoke, but it was probably 80 percent white.

Colm Toibin, on discovering Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady: "In a country town, there are no secrets. Maybe that's why The Portrait of a Lady hit me so hard. It's a novel of secrets, and I didn't know anything about them. But I was a different person after I read it than I was before."

Christopher Cooper (Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security: "If the greatest fear of the administration is that some dark evil is going to bring a nuclear bomb into a city and set it off -- if that's their greatest fear -- then Katrina represented a perfect laboratory to study and learn how to deal [with all of the dangers and consequences.] And so far, they blew the evacuation and they're blowing the recovery."

The Katrina audience was visibly upset, angry and despairing with each new tale of incompetence and arrogance. But the real dismay, the Katrina panel agreed, is how little the Bush administration's complete botch-up with Katrina is mattering in this election.

Paul Steckler, host of the panel on the next session: "For those of you who were just at the sobering, depressing panel on Hurricane Katrina, I want you to know this is going to be a much more uplifting and happy panel -- on President Bush's advisors."

Clark Kent Ervin, inspector general for Homeland Security: "This administration's rhetoric has been very strong, very forceful. But are we any safer? No. The administration has no intention whatsoever in matching its rhetoric with action."

An audience member pointed out how the Bush administration had been grabbing increased presidential powers for itself, claiming wartime reasons. If the Democrats do win either or both houses in this election, is there any chance Congress might wrest some of our rights and powers back?

Awkward silence from the panel.

Finally, Sidney Blumenthal (How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime)said, "It'll require a new presidency."

Richard Ford (The Lay of the Land): "It's a political novel. And it's a comic novel but one that tackles serious topics. Abandonment. Cancer. Getting old. New Jersey."

Nicholas Lemann (Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War), speaking about organized white efforts in the South to demolish Reconstruction and frustrate voting rights for blacks: "When they would come to the polls, blacks found Civil War cannon pointed at them . . . This came to be known as the Mississippi Plan."

Mr. Toibin, once again, on waking up in the morning and going to breakfast at the Yaddo writer's colony: "The Americans would come in cheerful and washed. In the morning in Ireland, people would be one or the other, never both. And most often neither. And my wish was to get back to my room, get back to writing [and reading Leon Edel's biography of Henry James] and get away from all that good cheer as soon as possible."

October 30, 2006 8:44 AM | | Comments (2)

The last time I checked, the state of Texas ranked 47th in library funding, meaning there are worse places and quite a few that aren't much better, so just stop with the easy sneers at Texas. As a consequence, The Dallas Morning News regularly gave libraries its overflow of new books, several hundred a month. In fact, my former books editor, Cheryl Chapman -- whom I officially nominate for canonization as a saint, except she's not dead yet, so there might be a problem with the Vatican, although she's now living in Alaska, so I'm concerned that perhaps the problem will soon be solved -- tiny Cheryl would pack nine boxes of books into the back of her Rav-4, a mini-SUV, and drive three hours into the Texas hinterlands to a different small town library to give them that month's accumulation.

And those nine boxes were the only new books the library would get all year. Period. They couldn't afford to get any on their own. They were dependent on these Third World/hardcover CARE packages for any new acquisitions.

To this desperate situation, the Texas Book Festival has raised more than $2 million dollars -- in 12 years, or about $200,000 each year. The festival doles out the money it raises in grants of $2,500, money that can only be used to buy new books (and CDs and magazines) and not to repair the ruined boiler or the broken windows. Yet that $2,500 often doubles a library's entire budget for new purchases.

Even so, there are charity organizations that raise that much money in a month. The Tocker Foundation, a small family outfit in Austin that supports the festival, has given around $1 million to the state's neediest libraries -- every year. Its library-assistance grants go up to $50,000. But it's just this little family deal -- I happen to know the chairman simply because he was my dentist when I lived in Austin. If I'm going to go around beatifying candidates for library sainthood this morning, I should add the Tocker clan, and they certainly deserve one of the festival's Bookend Awards, if we're handing them out to people like Texas Monthly. The festival has had all this dress-up and music and media splash for more than a decade, and the Tockers quietly do more every year.

This is why I occasionally call the Texas Book Festival "what we have instead of decent libraries in this state." Laura Bush helped create it in the mid-'90s when her husband was governor, and it may last as one of the best things she's done for her former profession. It was cited as an example of George Bush's compassionate conservatism -- meaning he wasn't going to give the libraries any more state money. While Texas tries to lure high-tech businesses with offers of, yes, no taxes and low wages, Gov. Bush and his appointed successor Rick Perry aren't going to raise taxes to pay for a desperately needed service in a state whose illiteracy rate is going off the charts (U. S. Census figures peg Dallas with one of the largest percentages nationally of 16-to-19-year-olds who are not in high school and lack a diploma. That's Dallas, now imagine the rural counties down on the border). What we got instead of decent libraries was an elaborate, high-profile, feel-good, bipartisan social wing-ding that dribbles a couple thousand dollars to small-town book depositories lacking functioning heating systems or roofs that don't leak.

Saying all of this, I sound like an ungrateful, carping bastard, a charge with which I am not unfamiliar. I've been a professional critic for more than 25 years. So I hasten to add that the festival is quite wonderful in its way. This year, the entire weekend was worth it to meet the delightful novelists Patrick McGrath (Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now) and Colm Toibin (The Master) at a splendid dinner party at author Lawrence Wright's house and then to hear Mr. Toibin deliver a hilarious talk and a shivery reading from The Master. The festival has often given this book columnist the chance to meet and interview authors whose tours never go anywhere close to Texas. My compliments to festival director Clay Smith. I know that the authors who appear in any given year are often simply the ones available, but this year's list was rich with ones beyond the big, marquee names -- Barrack Obama, Gore Vidal, Frank McCourt-- writers such as McGrath, Toibin, Richard Ford, Marisha Pessl, Nicholas Lemann, Ben Fountain.

The TBF isn't near the size of the Miami Book Fair or the book fesivals in LA or New York, but one reason it's so impressive to visiting writers is that it's held in the State Capitol (and the adjoining Capitol Extension). This causes weary feet -- state law forbids commercial ventures on the Capitol grounds, so after each reading, the authors and the audiences must leg it a block or two away to buy and sign books. Do this all day, and you'll feel you've run the Runaway Scrape (a famous exodus in early Texas history).

But how often does an author get to stand at the grand podium in the august Senate or House chamber -- to stand where LBJ did, where Barbara Jordan did -- and deliver a speech to an eager crowd? They've never felt so important in their lives.

October 29, 2006 7:57 AM |

This year's opening gala has just concluded -- with Ray Benson, the lead singer of Asleep at the Wheel, ably filling in the emcee duties that Kinky Friedman has most often performed. The Kinkster, of course, is too hot a political potato this year, running for governor and possibly spoiling any chance we have to remove Governor Rick Perry. No one was about to give him a free platform.

Actually, one wonders what would happen if Friedman were elected, got to run the whole state but still showed up at the First Edition dinner to crack jokes -- unlike George Bush, who once came by his wife Laura's creation just to wave. Or Rick Perry who presented a book award one year at the festival and delivered an embarrassing speech about how much the writer really, really meant to him. Very little was actually said about the writer, you understand, it was all pretty much about Little Ricky.

At any rate, what at first glance looked like it would be a thoroughly familiar evening -- the speaker/readers were Gore Vidal, Amy Sedaris and Frank McCourt -- turned into a deeply moving one. It was a shock to see the frail Mr. Vidal getting around entirely by wheelchair or on crutches, being helped on and off the stand, and to hear him as he spoke, his voice going raspy and slow. Mr. Vidal has played the role of the jaded, seen-it-all patrician for decades, but to see him like this, he was a living image of a former age, a dying Roman senator, still waspish, still holding to liberty and democracy, still standing against the imperium.

He gets "breathing awards" these days, Mr. Vidal cracked. Awards for endurance. For just showing up. He spoke about his new memoir, Point to Point Navigation. He spoke about those few individuals each generation who are cursed to be "writers for life" -- like Balzac who, W. H. Auden said, got to the point at the end of his life that it was easier to write a novel than not write one.

As a young man, Mr. Vidal thought he was "doomed to be a reader for life, but I gradually strayed." He began inventing other worlds or describing "the weird one we currently inhabit, the United States of Amnesia." It's the sub-title of his 2004 book but here, it referred specifically to the way most Americans (and American media) quickly turned away from the deep doubts raised by our election subterfuges of 2000 and 2004.

"They say, 'We need to move on, we need to move on,' but," Mr. Vidal insisted, "this is all we've got -- the republic. And the Constitution from which it devolves."

There were comic jabs about Iraq, about how politics wasn't an escape for a writer because there was too much there to write about. "Electrical engineering," he said, was probably a better, more fruitless topic, but he hadn't the aptitude for it. "Writers for life are difficult to discourage," he admitted, but then returned poignantly to his own motivation for writing so much, even for delivering this "sermon," as he called it.

"Let us tell the truth," he enjoined the audience. "No matter how uncomfortable."

October 27, 2006 11:06 PM |

Through its new coffee-and-pop-culture marketing program, Starbucks has succeeded in selling 45,000 copies of Mitch Albom's new book, For One More Day. Bookstores immediately responded by watering down and over-sweetening all the coffee they sell.

October 27, 2006 9:23 AM | | Comments (2)

The NYTimes' Michiko Kakutani absolutely hated Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups. I found it flawed but often fascinating, especially in its opening section on the different Hamlets most people know nothing about. I'm glad to see someone else was not blind to the book's virtues.

October 26, 2006 5:04 PM |

My accepting a buyout offer from The Dallas Morning News last month -- along with my books editor, Charles Ealy -- prompted a surprising (and I admit, gratifying) amount of attention, albeit more as a sign of The End Times than any personal memorial. That attention kicked up several notches when Pat Schroeder, president of the American Association of Publishers, wrote a letter of complaint to editor Bob Mong of the Morning News, and Edward Nawotka reported about it in Publishers Weekly.

You may read some of my thoughts about why I left in my "Welcome to the Jungle" debut post of Oct. 22 below. Mr. Mong was quoted by PW, saying that books coverage would not decrease and that the paper would love to see ad revenue from publishers to support that coverage. Ms. Schroeder seemed to accept these two arguments as starting points for any possible response to the problem, so I e-mailed her, explaining a few facts of newspaper life.

First, the amount of space wouldn't decrease, but it would be filled by wire stories, a (small) number of freelancers and the remaining few writers stretched to cover fields beyond their expertise -- all of this representing a fundamental downshift in the quality of cultural reporting. Second, all arts coverage is supported by movie ads; publishers and booksellers will never have the kind of ad budget to support book pages across the country. But there are significant services of big-city newspapers that have never been supported by ad revenue -- op-ed pages, investigative reporting, editorial cartoons and the like. These were once considered the mark of serious newspapers educating and leading their communities, but it's precisely these money-losing areas that are being gutted by papers under the gun to keep up ridiculously high profit margins for Wall Street.

Reader outrage can actually influence a newspaper's decisions, but I suspect that trying to combat that revenue vise by appealing to a newspaper's traditional higher calling is not going to work. As I pointed out, though, the NFL doesn't support the massive amount of free sports coverage it gets from papers, TV, radio and the internet. It's other advertisers who covet that football-fascinated audience. If the AAP wanted to do anything, it could try to convince advertisers that the readers of books pages may not be the young illiterates with poor impulse control that marketers currently want but neither are they the old and the dying, as conventional ad wisdom has it. They're a well-off, often media-savvy and intellectually- and socially-involved audience. This is not some wildly unconventional, radical re-think: TV networks have come to respond to an older audience (the kids are all off in the clubs or on the computer) and has long positioned "geezer" ads for its news programming. Why not the arts pages?

At any rate, Ms. Schroeder wrote a gracious reply, agreeing with much of my analysis. I bring up all of this because the anger and hand-wringing continue to filter through the internet, with Rebecca Swain Vadnie writing much the smartest, tartest response in her Shakespeare's Coffee blog for the Orlando Sentinel. One caution, though, about that recommended link: The Sentinel seems to be one of those nasty sites that won't let you return to your previous destination, locking you in its clammy embrace.

October 26, 2006 10:23 AM | | Comments (2)

I'll be travelling to the Texas Book Festival in Austin and hope to post from there this weekend. But that means my entries will probably be thin today or tomorrow. Here's John Freeman on how this year's festival is more than usually political. Because it's in Austin, because it was created by the Bushes when they were in power and Laura Bush remains an influence, the festival has always had political overtones -- and not just in who the speakers are but the very reasons for the festival itself (more on this later). This year's schedule, however, reflects a divisive election year as well as the kind of political heat that has typified publishing and bestsellers the past several years.

October 26, 2006 8:10 AM |

... but a great piece of office-time-wasting fun. Make your own Jackson Pollock. When the blank page comes up, click on it and start squiggling and clicking to change colors.

October 25, 2006 11:44 AM |

The Guardian announces that a slew of famous one-liners -- "Beam me up, Scotty," "Elementary, my dear Watson" and the like -- are exposed as misquotations or fabrications in the new book, They Never Said That by Elizabeth Knowles (which is out this week in England but next month in America).

It must be a dry British joke. The book is actually called What They Didn't Say: A Book of Misquotations.

Less humorously: Perhaps it's because Ms. Knowles is the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations that What They Didn't Say gets this attention -- because these lines have been exposed as memory lapses or outright fabrications for years. To my mind, the best, recent source book (just came out this May) is Ralph Keyes' The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where and When. But revealingly, Ms. Knowles' book, as cited by the Guardian, handles a number of British sayings (King Edward VIII supposedly said about unemployment: "Something must be done") that Mr. Keyes does not.

So let's chalk this one up to the fact that "England and America are two countries separated by one language."

Which, it turns out, George Bernard Shaw never said.

October 25, 2006 10:10 AM |

"Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself."
--Ludwig Wittgenstein

"No self without self-delusion."
-- The Echo Maker, Richard Powers

October 25, 2006 10:00 AM | | Comments (1)

Concerning my previously announced list of favorite thrillers: Many readers will note (or "violently object to the fact") that there's a passel of writers normally on such lists who don't appear here: Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, Robert Parker, Michael Connelly.

A chief reason I have trouble with some of the examples from these writers is their reliance on the exotic mastermind serial killer, a device to maintain suspense that is so overused the killer's knife hand must be tired by now from murdering every nubile young thing in sight. Even Thomas Harris should have retired Hannibal Lecter after Silence of the Lambs. His follow-up, Hannibal, was a complete botch, a dreadful book. The better noir writers find find a way to maintain tension (or at least the reader's interest) through other means.

The fact is that such serial killers are extremely rare; most are just pathetic screw-ups unable to relate to others without resorting to violence. What makes the serial killer novel even worse is its reliance on that other cliche: the profiler or the brilliant detective who must steep himself in violence and madness to understand the killer's thinking and thus risk his own sanity. Again, a writer has to do something with style and voice or upending these conventions to keep me interested.

October 25, 2006 9:00 AM | | Comments (5)

The many people who enjoyed the movie The Prestige over the weekend, making it the most popular film in the country, might be interested to know that much of the film has a historical basis. Yes, it's adapted from the Christopher Priest 1995 novel. But the historical background can be found in Jim Steinmeyer's The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer". A long, destructive rivalry between two magicians, the idea that a magician would go so far as to cultivate a false identity even in his private life, and maintain it for years, and some of the specific 'illusions' themselves, like the deadly "bullet catch," are all factually grounded and can be found detailed in Mr. Steinmeyer's entertaining book. In something of an acknowledgment of this history (and to plant some of the plot points I just listed), Chung Ling Soo himself, or at least his character, makes an appearance towards the beginning of The Prestige.

And for those who have been entranced by that other magic-based movie, The Illusionist -- obviously, it's an adaptation of Stephen Milhauser's short story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist." But it, too, is grounded in actual magician performances. My former Dallas Morning News colleague, Chris Vognar, has pointed out how Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin's famous
"orange tree" illusion is used, for example.

But that's really dropped in just for display purposes. The film's "ghostly" illusions are central to its mystery, and they are clearly based on Mr. Steinmeyer's other fascinating history, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear.

For a more complete discussion of these books, and the recent trend in "magic histories," you can read my own DaMN story from last year. But you'll have to pay for it.

On the other hand, and typically enough, the DaMN archives do not contain the accompanying feature to that sidebar. You can read that after the jump:

October 24, 2006 4:01 AM |

It must be noted that David Montgomery's list of detective novels at Crime Fiction Dossier -- which prompted my current ruminations on favorite thrillers -- is not surprising in that it's really a list of favorite hard-boiled, American detective yarns, post mid-20th century for the most part. There are no Conan Doyles or Poes or Ellery Queens.

I'm not knocking him for this; it's usually the case with literary critics. The classics and the "cozies" haven't rated very highly with serious critics ever since "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?" and "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Akroyd?," Edmund Wilson's famous 1944 take-downs of Agatha Christie et al. This doesn't mean there aren't serious intellectuals who would defend the classic novel of detection (see The Believer. Or G. J. Demko ). And in fact, cozies remain huge sellers with the public.

But if you took a poll of, say, the membership of the National Book Critics Circle, I suspect that thriller writers of the hard-boiled school -- Hammett, Macdonald, Chandler, Crumley, Leonard -- would rate much higher than the Sayers, the Dick Franciseses.

I tend to agree with this view -- as Jeff Siegel noted in his study, The American Detective: An Illustrated History, the key to the great modern American crime novel is character, generally a character somewhat emotionallly/morally removed from the culture around him, whether on the streets or in the boardroooms. And because the main character in the Chandler school is often the narrator as well, that means the novel's voice or style is crucial, too. Put another way: Because the conventions of the noir genre are so well-established, an author has to do something interesting with style, voice and character to keep me reading past the first chapters.

In valuing such things, I've compiled a list that cannot claim to be one (entirely) of detective novels, although hard-boiled detectives do appear in many of the books. It's more accurate to say that these are my favorite literary thrillers or noir crime novels. There were several I wanted to slip in here -- notaby, The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sowall and Per Wahloo, maybe something by Ed McBain. But those really are more "police procedurals." And I couldn't figure out how to justify squeezing in Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost.

Basically, these are often novels that use the hard-boiled conventions but don't fit simply into the genre. Or they are the essential definers/redefiners of the genre itself. Those conventions include, but are not limited to: a sense of moral complexity if not outright confusion, a society that is compromised or corrupt and violent, crime treated not as a puzzle to be solved but as an act of violence that typifies something about this noir world, a protagonist who doesn't so much solve a puzzle as make a dangerous moral choice or act of redemption (the protagonist himself is most likely implicated or compromised, too) -- and a menacing mood, a laconic or succinctly vivid style and various characters to suit all of this.

For one of the most illuminating discussions of the noir novel as a genre, I highly recommend John Cawelti's Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Popular Culture.

(Not in any order of priority.)

1. True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne
2. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
3. The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
4. Clockers by Richard Price
5. Stick by Elmore Leonard
6. The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald
7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
8. To Live and Die in L.A. by Gerard Petievich
9. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
10. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
11. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
12. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
13. The Contortionist's Handbook by Craig Clevenger
14. The Tesseract by Alex Garland
15. The People's Act of Love by James Meek

Inadequate explanations to come ...

October 23, 2006 12:10 PM | | Comments (12)

A few years ago I wrote a feature story about the future of libraries in the age of the internet (that future is quite good, actually -- unlike the internet, libraries are about organized information, and as one of the last public spaces in America, they do much more than keep the rain off books). One library expert said that the internet isn't really the answer to all our data-MP3-JPG-weblog-newsfeed needs. It isn't even the "information superhighway."

It's "the stuff swamp."

True. So I've put on my waders and I'm going to go dance with the Swamp Things.

As many readers know, last month I took a "voluntary severance" from the book columnist's job at The Dallas Morning News because the paper was dumping a lot of its staff. After 20 years there, the environment had become wearying and bleak as futile focus group followed silly "leadership seminar" followed desparate "re-invention," and the staff lost all faith that management had any faith in what we did. In fact, the managing editor made it plain how expendable he considered arts journalists and quality cultural coverage.

So I walked -- even though I had no plans, no work lined up. Actually, I should say I never left the job. I was the only full-time, on-staff book critic in the state of Texas. But it's the job that left. It doesn't exist anymore.

As I tried to convey in my farewell column, none of this has made me particularly bitter about newspapers or books. Or even the Morning News, as sad as it is. No, nothing -- not this blog, not all the blogs combined -- has really replicated what the book or the big-city newspaper does, although neither of those has been helped by panicked owners, giant media mergers and Wall Street-dictated profit margins.

For me, it's just that a lot of the fun and the smarts had left the field. So that's what I hope to do here. Not replace my newspaper work. Just return to the original motivating pleasures. To a level of discourse, lively inquiry and irreverent humor.

Thanks to readers and co-workers who expressed their support. Thanks and love to Sara. Thanks to John Freeman of Critical Mass for printing the farewell column that the Morning News wouldn't.

And thanks to Doug McLennan of for giving me the opportunity to work all this out while I recover from shoulder surgery and learn to dance in waders.

October 22, 2006 4:10 PM | | Comments (3)

The nature of theater being what it is (ephemeral) and the nature of Dallas culture being what it is (oooooh, shiny, costly!), the idea behind establishing the Dallas Theater Critics Forum Awards 20 years ago was to give exceptional theater artists a little something extra to mark their best work. A form of thanks.

But these days, who wouldn't agree with Jason Cowley's point in the Guardian that pop culture has gone prize-crazy? He's elaborating on the argument made last year by John English in The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value.

It's not just that Hollywood found prize shows cheap to televise. Publishers know that when a reader is staring at a wall of books in a store, any little thing to help tip the purchase choice can help: the jacket design, the blurbs, the book's placement in the store and -- voila! -- the "belly band" and the "gold seal," those attention-getting devices on the cover that convey "acclaim" and "significance."

More than any critic or well-meaning organization, publishers have helped inflate the profile of book awards, although there's relatively little evidence they influence sales much (beyond the Pulitzer). And I'm certain the vast majority of readers couldn't distinguish among the American Book Award, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Kennel Club. I once jokingly asked a leading book editor if a Pulitzer could actually increase sales by, say, 10,000 to 50,000 copies, had anyone ever thought of bribing a judge?

He laughed derisively. If I'm going to bribe anyone, he said, I'd bribe Oprah's producer.

In short, awards -- other than, say, the Quills -- tend to spring from idealistic intentions ("promoting excellence" gets used a lot in award press releases). Yet they end up inspiring betting pools on the Man Booker, Stephen King insulting critics and the entire "competitive sport" culture that English analyzes. One of the nice things about the Dallas Forum Awards has been their resolutely low-rent nature: no dinner, no trophy. And because the shows have generally closed, no box office.

That said, I'm looking forward to these awards. We need more like them. Simon Dumenco of Advertising Age is looking to pick the worst magazine covers of the past 41 years. My favorite so far is the wounded Rosie O'Donnell on the cover of her own publication, looking as though someone has pulled a thorn from her paw.

October 22, 2006 10:00 AM |

Primo Levi's Periodic Table, his 1975 memoir of life as a Jew under Mussolini as told through chapters named for chemical elements, beat out Charles Darwin's work as the best book on science ever written. So said the voters at the Royal Institute in London.

October 22, 2006 12:44 AM |

At least a decade and a half after the entire Bible was put up online and a year or so after the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster touched us with its noodly web appendage, Charles Darwin's complete works -- some 50,000 pages -- are available for the first time on the internet in a single place.

October 21, 2006 12:28 PM |
October 20, 2006 6:36 PM |

I didn't lie. I was writing fiction with my mouth.
-- Homer Simpson

October 20, 2006 2:58 PM |

Defenders of the Patriot Act and the Bush administration's response to terrorism, a response they feel is justified to include eavesdropping, visa refusal, imprisonment and interrogation without judicial revue, have argued that opponents (like the American Library Association) are being alarmist. Opponents go on about possible abuses -- the occasional, mistaken infringement on civil rights when these intelligence/law enforcement tools are necessary in our dangerously changed world.

In the Oct. 16 New Yorker, George Packer outlines how those tools have been abused for political reasons with little relevance to terrorism: revoking visas to a group of seventy-five South Korean farmers and trade unionists opposed to a free-trade agreement or a Sri Lankan hip-hop singer, whose lyrics were deemed sympathetic to the Tamil Tigers. Such abuse seems to have been pretty much standard procedure for the Bush admininstration. By the way, Mr. Packer's The Assassin's Gate, his account of our gravitation toward the war in Iraq, is superb.

And while I'm on the war in Iraq and politics -- that same issue of The New Yorker has a fine profile of Christopher Hitchens. Which unfortunately is not online. Get a copy, if you can.

October 20, 2006 11:18 AM |

In The New York Sun, critic Gary Giddins looks at how MGM treated classics, those 19th century English novels which provided "famous stories in the public domain, inspirational work for costumers, hairdressers, and set designers, and good roles for English expats as villains.... If MGM sought titles that underscored the moral certainties of Carvel (Andy Hardy's hometown, not the custard stand), it was too intimidated to do as much violence to them as it did to contemporary novels, say "Babbitt" or "Tortilla Flat." As a result, MGM's best adaptations captured stylistic flavors that the more faithful television adaptations of our own time often ignore."

October 19, 2006 11:21 AM |

A few weeks ago, the estimable David J. Montgomery of Crime Fiction Dossier posted his list of the top 10 detective novels. This prompted me to consider top 10 lists in general and detective novels in particular. It wasn't just me. Peter Rozovsky of the Philly Inquirer and Detectives Beyond Borders put up his own list of international crime fiction favorites.

I dislike the convention of the top 10 list -- except when done by David Letterman. I especially dislike it when done with books, other than in the spirit of "Hey! Let's start an argument!" -- which Mr. Montgomery later pointed out was one of his intents, to stimulate debate. Recall the New York Times' recent embarassing foray into declaring a "best" American novel of the past 25 years. As with most superlatives, "best" is an unprovable claim. It's mostly just an emphatic way of saying, "I really, really liked this and want to be rewarded with my name in a blurb."

What's more, declaring a "best" is physically impossible for a book critic. A film critic could actually see just about every major and independent release in a year (250-350 films). So his "best of" lists have some degree of credibility.

Compiling the year-end top 10 books for The Dallas Morning News while I was the book columnist was frustrating because I could claim only 90-100 books read that year. Meanwhile, the publishing industry is churning out some 175,000 new titles annually. So a degree of modesty in one's claims of "bestness" would seem to be called for: Through the course of an entire year, even The New York Times reviews less than 2 percent of all books released.

The most one can say with some certitude, then, is that these are my top "recommendations," my "favorite" books (no, the Morning News wouldn't let me change "Year-End Top 10" to "A few of my favorite things"). To determine these favorites, a simple rule of thumb suffices: Which books would I happily read again? Which books would I likely learn from -- even on a second or third reading?

More to come ...

October 18, 2006 10:59 AM | | Comments (1)

In the latest edition of the New York Review of Books,Geoffrey O'Brien does a splendid job dissecting the appeal (and the acting technique) of Jimmy Stewart in his review of Marc Eliot's new biography.

October 17, 2006 12:29 PM |
for more than two decades, Jerome Weeks is the arts producer- reporter for KERA, the NPR/PBS station for Dallas-Fort Worth. Before that, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years ...
October 3, 2006 7:24 PM |
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