book/daddy: April 2007 Archives

Michael Connelly, the mystery author, weighs in on the calamitous decline in newspaper book reviews.

April 30, 2007 11:14 AM |


Several weeks ago, comic actor-author Stephen Fry advanced what he admitted was a "treasonous" suggestion about British actors: "I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there. I mean, would they notice if Jeremy Irons or Judi Dench gave a bad performance? Not that those two paragons ever would, but it's worth considering.''

His remarks, made to the British magazine Radio Times, prompted a small flurry of media commentary about American vs. British acting styles. The flurry quickly passed perhaps because it's actually a very old debate -- more than 150 years old -- and one that seemed fairly well settled. Like the abstract expressionists of the '50s and '60s -- all those Pollocks and Rothkos who gained worldwide acclaim for Yankee painters -- American actors of the period (Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, Paul Newman) proved they could more than hold their own on stage or film, in classics and contemporary material.

But once upon a time, that same argument inspired violent gangs to smash windows and set fires in lower Manhattan. National Guard troops were ordered into the streets and ultimately, some 30 people were shot to death -- all because of competing productions of Macbeth. Students of American theater history know the 1840 upheaval as the "Astor Place riots," but for his purposes, first-time author Nigel Cliff has called them The Shakespeare Riots.

April 29, 2007 12:21 PM | | Comments (3)

Vernon God Little -- DBC Pierre's funny-as-a-rusted-chainsaw satire of trash-talking Texas yokels, the dreadful, cartoony lampoon that garnered a Man Booker Prize surely as a collective British protest against President Redneck -- that particular novel has been translated into more than 40 languages. (In German, the title is Jesus von Texas.)

Not only that, it's been adapted to the stage by the Young Vic Theatre. The show opens in London this weekend.

April 28, 2007 10:49 AM | | Comments (2)

... it seems my departure from The Dallas Morning News last fall really was a sad harbinger. Here's Art Winslow's round-up for the Huffington Post on the appalling "rolling blackout" of newspaper book sections across the country. What's stunning is how quickly they've all folded or been gutted and stuffed into some other section.

Anti-intellectualism is a proud tradition in American journalism, and often a worthy one -- that take-no-nonsense, Front Page-style skepticism. But that's different from this bottom-line, anything-for-the-stock-price mentality that currently grips newspaper management. The big-city daily was once considered a cultural asset, a provoker of civic self-examination and discussion. Nowadays, newspapers seem determined to fulfill the prophecy of eager webheads that they're worthless, their time is past.

Newspaper managers are succeeding at this very well -- by giving us nothing to read.

April 26, 2007 11:20 AM | | Comments (1)

... the Bayeux Tapestry:

April 25, 2007 6:47 PM |

Book/daddy's Department of Chronic Malingering has issued its official diagnosis, and it seems we are indeed suffering from bronchitis. The condition is currently being remedied, one hopes, with a consciously applied program of amoxycillin and not nearly enough codeine.

April 25, 2007 8:18 AM |

The National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, has started a campaign to fight against the editorial decision at newspapers across the country to dwindle away the book pages. Ongoing posts from the amusing George Saunders and Stewart O'Nan, among others, are keeping things more illuminating and entertaining than a PBS pledge drive. Plus, there's always the petition to read and sign.

Aux armes, citoyens . . . mes lecteurs

April 23, 2007 8:16 AM | | Comments (1)

Once again, book/daddy has succumbed to a respiratory infection of some malign, consumptive sort. Daily business procedures on the site will be slowed or interrupted as he crawls into his sickbed and becomes a burden onto his family.

You may help by sending for laudunum and such.

April 22, 2007 3:09 PM | | Comments (1)

The Mayborn Literary Conference stands out from the usual book fair or seminar for several reasons: First, it's dedicated to narrative non-fiction -- from magazine journalism to full-scale scholarly biographies. It's the kind of nonfiction that has become a huge factor in publishing with memoirs (Infidel, The Year of Magical Thinking) and disaster yarns (The Perfect Storm) and narrative histories (Blood and Thunder). So there's a degree of professional craft and journalistic rigor not found at the usual schmoozefest.

George Getschow, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, cooked up the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference with the University of North Texas journalism program, where he now teaches. To underline the seriousness of the conference, the Mayborn Institute and the UNT Press award a provisional book contract to the manuscript the judges pick from those offered for its workshops. What's more, the narrative articles and essays accepted into the workshops will compete for cash prizes totaling $12,000. The top articles and essays chosen by the jurists will also be published in a literary journal put out by Hearst Newspapers and the Mayborn Institute.

Last year, the Mayborn, which is held in Grapevine, northwest of Dallas, featured Gay Talese -- certainly a master of the nonfiction genre -- and he was impressed enough, he's returning this year, July 27-29, with his wife, Doubleday editor and senior VP Nan Talese. This year will also see Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Roach (Stiff) as speakers. I've covered the Mayborn for three years; this time, I'm scheduled to be on a panel.

You want to learn more -- go to the jump. Or follow the link above.

April 21, 2007 8:55 AM |

It seems that the Katie Award that book/daddy won last year has about as much credibility as a second-hand Grammy with the name chiseled off. As first reported in the Dallas Business Journal, but now fleshed out in a Dallas Morning News front-page story, the president of the Dallas Press Club has a teensy problem with the truth -- considering her history of lying and stealing and being declared "not guilty by reason of insanity."

In this case, those sad, personal issues in her past are relevant because she apparently can't produce a list of the judges who picked last year's winners.

The same judges who awarded her four prizes.

Book/daddy is looking at this in a positive light. It'll be one less item cluttering up the Official Book/Daddy Memorial Archives.

"Hey, Sara! Pull that last Katie down from the attic and stick it in the yard sale."

April 21, 2007 8:28 AM |

We interrupt our regularly scheduled discussion of literature to bring you this Pop Culture Item of Interest:

Recently, book/daddy-o was arguing with a chum about the whole Imus firing thing (it made the front page of Time magazine, my God, we are a hopeless nation), and the chum said, "Yeah, but you loved Richard Pryor. When he got fired, you got pissed."

Hmmm. True. But here's Phil Nugent (see below) making that nuanced distinction between Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce on the one hand and Howard Stern and Don Imus on the other:

"Claiming total expressive freedom to express nothing, but with a special emphasis on abusing their betters as hatefully as possible, Imus and his ilk have dedicated their careers to something that I regard as unforgivable. They have dishonored the image of the smart, funny American motormouth as wild man."

Good point. We here at book/daddy think "Wish I'd Said That" will become a regular feature for this franchise. Thank you. You may now return to your regularly scheduled reading.

April 20, 2007 4:23 PM |

Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle's blog, reports that the Atlanta Journal Constitution has laid off its book editor (and former NBCC board member, Teresa Weaver.

NBCC president John Freeman writes that "Teresa has the opportunity to apply for a job within the company, but it's not clear what the fate of the book page will be -- whether it'll be reassigned to an existing editor, whether it will go entirely to wire copy, or whether it will be removed altogether."

In short, the AJC is following the model of The Dallas Morning News and other regional newspaper powerhouses (or former powerhouses): Gutting its arts coverage (not reported by the NBCC, the paper is also losing its film critic).

According to Publishers Weekly however, the AJC's books coverage won't be affected. Well, not exactly -- it won't be affected in any way that might actually interest people. When a literary publicist in Atlanta e-mailed a signed petition to the newspaper's editor, Julia Wallace, she received an automated response from Ms. Wallace that said, "We are not killing our book coverage or book pages.... We will be using freelancers, established news services and our staff to provide stories about books of interest to our readers and the local literary community."

Oh huzzah. One wonders why all of this wasn't done years ago, it sounds so splendid. The fact that this is an automated response says a great deal: It's just a cranked-out echo of the same bullshit spin that editor Bob Mong of The Dallas Morning News put on the cuts there (see 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."

As I pointed out, this is deliberately misleading while being technically correct. "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."

Think of it this way: Suppose the Journal Constitution or the News were to announce that they weren't cutting the space for their sports coverage at all, really, but all their sports columnists and reporters would get the axe while the reporting on the Braves or the Cowboys would now be done entirely through wire reports and freelancers. Imagine the shriveled nature of the product, the loss of regional input or flavor, the increasing dependency on a handful of "national" papers and wire services as more big-city papers do the same.

Readers wouldn't stand for it with sports franchises, of course. But newspaper editors feel they can do it not just with books but with cultural coverage across the board. The Dallas Morning News lost its arts editor, visual art critic, architecture critic, two TV critics, lead movie critic, pop music editor and restaurant critic. To this devastating loss, they responded by hiring a new restaurant critic. There's a statement about fundamental cultural values in Dallas: ritzy eats (restaurants provide far more ad revenue than books or theaters or dance companies). The remaining arts journalists, as I predicted, were just shuffled around and given new titles and more jobs. The Boston Herald has cut theater reviews. The LA Times has folded its books section into its op-ed section. And that's what's happening to book reviews in this country, no matter what gloss the Wallaces and Mongs try to put on it.

As Frank Wilson, the book editor of the Philly Inquirer once asked, why, when newspapers seek to make cuts, their first target is always those parts of the paper of most interest to serious readers?

But here's what you can do: Read and sign the petition.

April 19, 2007 7:11 PM | | Comments (2)

"Mommy, look! The video arcade! I wanna play The Wackford Squeers Hall of Horrors, and this time, I'm gonna beat Smike to death!"

A Charles Dickens theme park is opening in Kent. Says the Guardian: Don't go expecting grimy Victorian authenticity. Just enjoy the Great Expectations log flume.

We should talk. If Hannibal, Missouri can celebrate Mark Twain without actually teaching Huckleberry Finn in the local schools or publicly mentioning Jim, the escaped slave, then surely, a British developer can turn a tourist eurodollar by hiring the guy who designed Sweden's Santa World to build a theme park near the dockside where Dickens' father once worked -- to lend the park that authentic, historic connection.

Never mind the fact that Dickens' father lost the job and went to debtors' prison. You want a "Feel Bad" entertainment park or what?

On the other hand, the opening day's slime got a positive review:

"The project, three decades in the planning, is undeniably impressive. Ross Hutchins, the commercial manager ("even I have a costume - top hat and a frock coat. From the top down I want it to be 110% Dickens") was proud yesterday of the carefully slimed brickwork and authentically crumbled plaster.

'It's very, very difficult in the modern world, with health and safety, to make a building look old,' he said, surveying a satisfyingly peeling ceiling. 'I don't know how they did that.'"

April 18, 2007 8:35 AM |

I'm attending several meetings/interviews this week, so the posts will probably be fewer in number. Considering recent events, a little less chatter might be appropriate.

April 17, 2007 8:23 AM |

... what a lot of people on the internet have been saying, including Scott McLemee: Phil Nugent's take on Don Imus is one of the more carefully controlled yet blazing rants you're likely to read. Last week, I tuned out on the talkshow topic fairly quickly because of the predictable sanctimoniousness of many of Imus' opponents -- his career, remember, was predicated on offending just these people -- and Imus' own late-in-the-day groveling (apparently, he didn't really intend to offend them). But Nugent's is an impressive piece of blowtorch rhetoric. It's also funny -- and on such a thoroughly worked-over topic.

April 16, 2007 10:41 PM |

Terrific piece by Robert Marshall on Salon about how very disturbing Carlos Casteneda became after the success of The Teachings of Don Juan: fabricating stories about himself, hiding from journalists who might catch him in his drugs-and-ancient-wisdom hoax, cultivating diehard followers, devising a pseudo-religion/corporation.

L. Ron Hubbard, anyone? David Koresh? How about the Rev. Jim Jones?

If the comparisons seem extreme, consider: According to Mr. Marshall, some of Castaneda's closest female followers, his "witches," disappeared soon after his death. Possible suicides.

At their heart, I've often found something decidedly creepy in the novels of Bruce Wagner -- and I don't mean their portrayal of Hollywood as shallow, cold-hearted and self-obsessed. What a surprise that turns out to be. No, it's the cruelty: His books share the same will-to-power his worst characters evidence. You're either in or out, hip or square.

So to learn how close Mr. Wagner was to Castaneda's inner circle is ... not really all that surprising.

April 16, 2007 8:44 AM | | Comments (1)

From Rocky Mountain News: "The Web site Reality TV Magazine, among others, recently reported that the writer's equivalent of American Idol will begin airing on British TV in July. According to the site, writers will pitch their book ideas to a panel of judges; the winner will land a publishing contract."

From my post, "Why have any editors choosing books at all?"

"My new reality TV-book pitch? Hide a literary agent with a lucrative publishing contract on a jungle island. Crash land a group of troubled-but-of-course- Hollywood-attractive, would-be writers there (with a camera crew) and release some unspecified monster that starts killing them gruesomely one by one. Copy editors or book critics might volunteer for this role.

The trick? Each author has been given part of a coded map that can lead them to the agent. And only the agent knows how to kill the monster -- as well as get the author a movie option. All this will require teamwork, obviously, because the longer it takes the writers to find the agent, the more time the agent will have to spend the advance and screw up the movie rights.

But only one writer will get published. So the writers need to work together, and they need to feed each other to the monster. Kind of like literary life in New York.

At any rate, the really important thing, as the Quill Awards like to point out, is that all this idiocy will somehow encourage people to read."

April 16, 2007 7:31 AM |

So far, none of the obituaries and tributes for the late Kurt Vonnegut -- none that I've read, and there's a fair compilation at Critical Mass -- has mentioned what I thought was more widely known. As much as Vonnegut's masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five, managed to combine his science fiction with his autobiographical experiences, the book's narrative approach to the violence and absurdity of war was clearly inspired by the works of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, notably Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan.

Both novels were written 30 years before Slaughterhouse: Celine was seriously wounded in battle during World War I, while Vonnegut, of course, survived the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. But Celine's fractured narrative style, in particular, had an enormous influence on Slaughterhouse (and Catch-22, as well).

The differences are telling, though: Vonnegut devised a sci-fi explanation for his cross-cuts and switchbacks ("Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time"), while Celine just dumps the horrid chaos in the reader's lap. We can thread our way through Vonnegut's Tralfamodorians and Pilgrim's past, present and future, but with Celine, even his sentence and paragraph structures -- let alone his story -- are constantly collapsing and fragmenting.

This, for instance, is the famous opening of Guignol's Band from 1944, a novel Celine himself gleefully declared unreadable and an "outrage":

April 13, 2007 9:21 AM | | Comments (5)

For "oddest book title" of the year. It's The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification. According to the Guardian, Shopping Carts beat the odds-on favorite oddity, How Green Were the Nazis?

What I like best about the award -- compiled from votes at the Bestseller website -- is that it doesn't go to the author, who may, after all, have been just tongue-in-cheeking around rather than being perfectly serious, as with the runner-up, Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seaweed Symposium. Instead, the prize, a bottle of wine, goes to the person who spotted the book. Spot-on, I say.

Previous winners include Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (1978); How to Shit in the Woods, an Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art (1989); and Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (1996).

Also worth checking out is one of the comments for the Amazon listing of Stray Shopping Carts. After describing the book as a "must read," the reviewer, "S. Fragomen," who has written no other Amazon reviews and has nothing in his website profile, declares it "a hilariously depresing work.[sic] One of the best novels I've read in years."

He then adds this claim, in case anyone was wondering: "I'm over the age of thirteen."

April 13, 2007 8:57 AM | | Comments (1)

1. Go to Google.
2. Click on "Maps."
3. Click on "Get directions."
4. Type "New York" in the "start address" box (the one on the left).
5. Type "London" in the "end address" box (the one on the right).
6. Scroll down to step #23.
7. Then check out step #24. After all that effort in #23, you wouldn't want to miss the EO5.

Thanks to JD and Peggy.

April 11, 2007 10:28 PM |

Of the favorite-title-of-a-new-novel contest:

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke.

To be released this September. So far, the only disappointment in the book is that a quick perusal of the galley indicates the targeted homes are, like, Edith Wharton's and Robert Frost's.

I'd been hoping the main character might trying torching this one. Just to add the requisite touch of the gothic, of course.

April 11, 2007 2:47 PM |

Over at Buzz Feed, they're all a-buzz about Porn for Women, the new photo book from the Cambridge Women's Pornography Cooperative. It features muscular male models cleaning house, taking out the garbage and declaring themselves eager to snuggle or listen to complaints endlessly.

Not a spoof -- certainly not, not with the name "Cambridge" associated with it, and that word, "Cooperative," that's a sure sign of earnestness, too -- Porn for Women has sparked the humorless tirades one might expect, plus the occasional giggle and some groans over the rather retro and mostly sexless self-portrait of women it offers -- drawn from all those surveys that led to these conclusions. Ah, the social sciences! Let's check their bibliography and statistical results, shall we?

What no one seems to have noticed is that the book is based on a completely faulty premise.

A man who'll vaccuum the house, who'll lend an appreciative ear: Women certainly like these things, they'd appreciate them. But they're not -- as the Cooperative puts it with such scientific precision -- what "gets women hot." Trust me. If men like that truly did turn women on, George Clooney and Daniel Craig wouldn't have careers. Does anyone believe women look at those two and fantasize about sharing a cup of chamomile tea?

Right. Remember all those "sensitive new males" in the '80s and '90s? Remember how many women soon declared themselves disgusted with their whining and wished for the return of the silent, hunky fireman-hero type?

I'm unemployed -- sorry, I mean, freelancing -- these days. I have plenty of time to clean house and do the laundry. And my wife Sara is grateful. But our lives have not zoomed into sweaty dreamland. That's partly because Sara started teaching elementary school full-time six months ago. I'm lucky if I can see her when she's not falling asleep exhausted over a pile of student papers.

So -- in my deeply masculine, widely experienced yet humble opinion -- what precisely does turn women on?

I haven't the foggiest. You got me. New drapes? I'm completely clueless.

April 11, 2007 8:51 AM |

My long-winded, sorry, long-awaited interview with the LitMinds website is up, their website is immeasurably improved by it -- can't you just feel the kilobytes crackling this morning? -- and Scott McLemee has kindly plugged it already, and I hail Mr. McLemee in my interview answers.

So all is good and the links are functioning in Happy Internet-cestuous Land.

The cool thing, though -- for me, anyway, and isn't that what's important here? -- is the new portrait of me that runs with the interview. Photo by my daughter, photoshop by book/daddy. It now graces the upper right corner of the book/daddy site.

And a further indication that the book/daddy life is good, indeed -- if a little slow: GalleyCat reports that someone, a bit late, has nominated me for its list of "litcrit hotties."

Thanks, Mom!

April 11, 2007 8:08 AM | | Comments (2)

Jane Campion -- of The Piano fame -- is writing-directing a movie, Bright Star, about the love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Keats was smitten when he saw Fanny in a neighbor's garden. Although they were engaged in 1818, Keats was diagnosed with TB, went to Italy for the drier climate but died in 1821, age 25.

One would normally shrug at the movie news -- given Hollywood's entertaining but wrong-headed track record in conveying the interior life of creative genius (Amadeus, anyone?). But Ms. Campion is ... ah, individual enough as a director to suggest the eventual product will, at least, be interesting. Look at the way The Piano portrayed musical inspiration -- tickling the ivories at the bottom of the ocean.

Still, I suspect Bright Star won't present the theory that Keats may have known he was ill with something else. A medical student, he gave himself mercury treatments toward the end. Either it was a desperate and foolhardy attempt to fight tuberculosis with a particularly painful (and in this case useless) treatment ... or he knew he had syphillis. Puts a dent in the tragic romance story, doesn't it?

Unlikely? Well, one sooner believes that than, say, Shelley's claim that Keats swooned and died over a critic's bad review in the Quarterly Review. Anyone who was giving himself mercury treatments while dying from TB -- and riding horses and writing some of the best poems in the English language -- was one tough little bastard.

But I suspect the film won't convey that, either.

April 10, 2007 9:06 AM |

... was written by Leonardo da Vinci's best friend. It has finally been translated and published in English.

"De viribus quantitatis (On The Powers Of Numbers) was penned by Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan monk who shared lodgings with Da Vinci and is believed to have helped the artist with 'The Last Supper.'" Written between 1496-1508, the manual contains the first printed reference to card tricks as well as guidance on juggling and eating fire. It is also the first work to note that Da Vinci was left-handed.

April 10, 2007 8:57 AM | | Comments (1)

The New York Review of Books has a very interesting but subscription-only review of S. J. Hamrick's Deceiving the Deceivers: Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess by Phillip Knightley, one of the original journalists to break the spy-ring story and the author of The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker.

According to Mr. Knightley, Mr. Hamrick's book brings into question many of the accepted ideas about the "Ring of Five," the British traitors Philby, Burgess, McLean, John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt, and the inspiration for dozens and dozens of Cold War spy novels. In particular, Mr. Hamrick questions the idea that they were the most devastating traitors in history, with Philby in a unique position as a double agent, acting as a liaison between British intelligence and the CIA/FBI, able to feed Moscow everything of importance the Allies shared. Mr. Hamrick points out that the CIA at the time was actually a minor, scattered agency looking for a purpose, so its failures, notably in Bulgaria, shouldn't be attributed to Philby exposing the operations. Those were screwed up on their own.

Mr. Hamrick even re-visits one of the longstanding puzzles about the Ring: Why did it take so long for Burgess and McLean to be extricated by Moscow? In comparison, two of the American "atom bomb spies," Morris and Lona Cohen, fled within hours of being notified their covers were blown. Burgess actually took an ocean voyage from the US. And Philby, of course, tried to brazen it out, stuck around for years and finally skipped from Beirut.

Mr. Hamrick's most provocative contention, Mr. Knightley argues, will have to be labeled "unproven" -- that some American and British officials knew at the end that Philby and the others were probably double agents and used them to plant disinformation, a nuclear bluff against the Soviets.

Interesting stuff, still poring over the questions left by the Cambridge spies. So here's my question: Why is Mr. Knightley reviewing a book that has been out for three years?

April 9, 2007 4:34 PM |

Comes word from Willard Spiegelman, author of How Poets See the World and editor of The Southwest Review, that Southern Methodist University is, in his words, "having a two-day thing": a matched pair of reading/lecture and performance/talk on Emily Dickinson this Thursday and Friday, April 12 & 13. The first is by poet Mary Jo Salter, author of Open Shutters, and the Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer at Mount Holyoke. She'll be speaking at the DeGolyer Library. The second is with mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy, performing Emily Dickinson in song, by William Jordan, composer. The recital will be at the Meadows School of the Arts.

Setting Dickinson to music makes a great deal of sense, by the way, considering how she wrote her poems with the same rhythm present in many popular 19th century songs and hymns. Try singing "Because I could not stop for death" to the "Yellow Rose of Texas." You'll never get it out of your head.

If you're in Dallas, Willard writes, "there is nothing to be done on Friday night that will be more fun than this, approved Methodist beverages notwithstanding."

Anyone for sneaking in some moonshine?

April 6, 2007 10:53 PM | | Comments (1)

... was an African-American who passed as white. University of Houston history professor Gerald Horne's book, The Color of Fascism: Lawrence Dennis, Racial Passing, and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism in the United States, reveals that the now mostly forgotten man who was a friend of white supremacists and helped popularize and give intellectual credence to fascist ideology in the U.S. as a "rational" response to the Depression had been a black street preacher as a boy in Atlanta. Dennis was eventually tried as a Nazi collaborator but the case collapsed when the judge died of a heart attack. Gary Younge has the twisted, fascinating story in the Guardian.

Horne, by the way, has written extensively on race and politics, including Reversing Discrimination: The Case for Affirmative Action and Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950: Moguls and Mobsters

April 5, 2007 10:36 AM | | Comments (1)

... but Neal Shine at The Detroit Free Press was the man who first hired me at a newspaper. I had absolutely no plans or desire to be a journalist, wanted to be a pure academic scholar-teacher but I needed to pay for my education at the University of Detroit (a private, Jesuit school). So when somebody at a pot party told me about a night-shift, research assistant's job at the Free Press library, I applied for it. Son of a streetcar conductor, an Irish Catholic and an old-school city newspaperman, Shine was the managing editor at the time. I still remember him laughing jovially during my nervous job interview when he saw that my resume was so sparse, I'd included my elementary school days at St. Agatha's on it.

He hired me, I was the first and only male in the paper's "morgue." And while there, I wrote my first published book reviews. Years later, when I walked away from any academic career in the '80s, all those hours spent at night in the Free Press files -- all those hours I hated at the time -- helped me get my first professional jobs writing.

Neal died Tuesday. He was 76.

April 5, 2007 9:03 AM |

What is it with the British and the perfectly revolting? One is reminded of the Fugs' doleful ditty, "Wide, Wide River" ("Flow on, flow on/River of shit/Right from my toes/On up to my nose") -- if it were describing a matinee picnic on the Avon.

First, there's Clare Clark's new novel coming out in May (discussed below), which does describe the Thames in the 18th century as "no more than a stinking brown ditch of rotting shit." This, after her debut with The Great Stink.

And now there's Emily Cockayne's Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770. Christopher Hart in The Literary Review has a merry old time with the book, managing to hold his nose, cover his ears and give it an enthusiastic thumbs-up all at once: "it's a veritable feast of filth and foulness, and I loved every minute of it. The chapter titles tell you immediately what to expect: 'Itchy,' 'Mouldy,' 'Noisy,' 'Grotty' and 'Dirty.' They sound like a South West Trains service."

A research associate at the Open University in East Midlands, Ms. Cockayne offers her readers a journey to an England past, "an England where people still drank ale instead of tea for breakfast, defecated in the streets as if it were the right of every freeborn Englishman to do so" and where Samuel Pepys wouldn't mind if a lady at the theater let fly and accidentally spat on him -- "providing the lady was pretty."

Perhaps it's the instinctive response of many British to their own posh self-marketed image. I know that whenever I see another handsome, Georgian-period London street in another Masterpiece Theatre costume drama, I try to imagine it filled with "the disagreeable Objects of bleeding Heads, Entrails of Beasts, Offals, raw Hides, and the Kennels flowing with Blood and Nastiness." At the very least, the street would be deep with horse manure (and people trying vainly to sweep it all up), while inside the homes, all those gleaming, maid-polished surfaces would be covered with gritty coal dust and perhaps a thin layer of grease from the vats of animal fat being burned at nearby slaughterhouses and pigsties.

Indeed, there's a street in northwest London named Mount Pleasant -- which, it turns out, was actually the locals' sardonic term for a huge pile of the "merdurinous" that stank there for years. Nowadays, Mr. Hart points out helpfully, "Mount Pleasant" is best known as the home of this.

April 4, 2007 12:00 PM | | Comments (2)

Thus spake Nietzche, and this spring does blossom forth with major fiction.

Over at Critical Mass, they've been asking various authors which titles they're looking forward to in the next few months. I think this may have been prompted by something of a reviewers' nightmare and car wreck coming up in April/May/June. There are so many significant authors with novels coming out in the space of about 9 weeks that when I proposed reviewing Don DeLillo's post-9/11 novel, Falling Man, to one editor, I was told there was already too many fiction reviews booked for May through June. When DeLillo can't catch a break, you know it's crunch time.

To give you an idea, this is just the prelude, but Robert Bolano's The Savage Detectives, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, Arthur Phillips' Angelica and Mosil Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist are all released tomorrow.

Here are some of the other notable novels coming out as the summer solstice approacheth:
Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases (April 24)
Thomas Mallon's Fellow Travelers (April 24)
Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union (May 1) -- won't somebody send me a galley?
Haruki Mirakami's After Dark (May 8)
Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero (May 29)

And let's not forget Elmore Leonard's Up in Honey's Room (May 8), Peter Temple's The Broken Shore (May 29) and the always-welcome Arkady Renko, returning in Martin Cruz Smith's Stalin's Ghost (June 12).

And that's just fiction ...

April 2, 2007 3:15 PM | | Comments (1)


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