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Saturday, April 03, 2004

On the blogwagon 

The Massive Weekend Update (TM) is scheduled for tomorrow morning as usual, but god, how to respond to this unbelievably lame-ass cover article in the Observer. I'm shaking my head at it, truly.

Problem one: citing Google as gospel.

Two weeks ago, the search for 'blog' on Google yielded 28,600,000 results; last Thursday, it was 29,700,000. The search will also throw up a large choice of commercial sites keen to help you and themselves exploit the blogging phenomenon. There is vivablog.com, motime.com, squarespace.com, 10QuickSteps.com and Blogging.Help-for-Me.com, all promising the easiest way to get your blog online and software to improve its design.

Problem two: Citing Technorati as pseudo-gospel.

Inevitably, there are 'adult' blogs. At the last count, the website Technorati had tracked 1,944,106 unique weblogs in the world, and there is only one theme common to all: they are all about ego, about wanting to be heard.

Problem three: their "best of the blogs" list. Bacon, Cheese & Oatcakes? Green Fairy? Bridget Who? More like Who the hell are these folks? And why are they all on Blogspot (yes, I know I am on blogspot as well. Doesn't mean I can't take a cheap shot now and then.)

And that's just to start. The whole earnest-cum-smarmy tone throughout Garfield's tone would be funny if it weren't so uninformed. It's almost like Garfield went out of his way to find the biggest nutter he could just to prove his point: that blogging is here to stay, but he wishes it weren't.

Gag. Well, back to the Passover cleaning. It's mindless enough to take my mind off this claptrap.

Friday, April 02, 2004

But otherwise, it was an uneventful day at school 

WOODLAWN, Maryland (AP) -- A brawl broke out during an anger management assembly at a suburban high school.

Two people were arrested and 11 students were suspended after a shoving match escalated into a melee during Thursday's assembly.

Authorities said a confrontation between a student's mother and a group of girls who had been bothering her daughter turned into a shouting match, and led to pushing and hitting, before the crowd of 750 students erupted into "chaos," said C. Anthony Thompson, principal of Woodlawn High School.


(Thanks, Roger!)

More on the durability of series novels 

The comments section for the previous post is getting very lively, and I'm going to respond to Olen Steinhauer's thoughts here:

This is all interesting to me because I've launched on a "series", but one with an announced death--it's five books, that's it.

My editor is honest with me--she says that by book 5 she'll be bugging me to do a 6th. I appreciate her honesty and reply just as honestly with a "sorry."

As a writer I can't really imagine beginning a series with no proposed end-point. Why not? Because I tend to view a series as a single book that happens to be in volumes. Once that multi-volume book is done, it'll be time for something new. The open-ended series just isn't interesting for me beyond its potential as a cash-cow.

Maybe, though, by book 5 I'll look at my bank balance and change my mind. Never know.


For those unfamiliar with his books, Steinhauer's series is set in post-WWII Eastern Europe in an unnamed country of his creation. The first book, THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS, is up for the Best First Novel Edgar and the next, THE CONFESSION, is just as good if not better. But the point is that Steinhauer's series is perhaps more "unusual" than what is considered typical in the genre: books which focus on a single character, or a small group of them. Although there's a recurring group of players, so far, a different protagonist has taken center stage in each book, and what connects the books is the sense of political upheaval and personal struggles that the characters face that is set against a backdrop of great change. If I didn't know this was a five-book series, I'd think it could go on indefinitely simply because the books are not tied, per se, to a single character. This isn't an instance of a Spenser-like figure who never grows, never ages, and devolves into a cartoon-like character, solving cases that border on the ridiculous.

That being said, I think it's refreshing that Steinhauer's upfront about the series having an endpoint--even if it may end up happening later than he thinks. Take the opposite tack, where authors have it in their mind to do a long series and get it cut short if their three-book deal is shortened, cancelled, or not renewed for a second term. Then what? The series is left dangling, never to be finished. But speaking only for myself, I'd rather that than a series that goes long past its stale date.

Ultimately, and this point is coming across in the comments below, if a series still has something to say, if a character is still changing and still affects and is affected by what is happening around him or her, then there's no reason to stop. Series that still have viability after many (8 or more) books include those written by personal favorites like Ian Rankin (14 books) Peter Robinson (14) Laura Lippman (8 with this year's BY A SPIDER'S THREAD), Lee Child (8 including THE ENEMY). Why? Because Rebus, Banks, Tess Monaghan, and Jack Reacher are still fairly fresh, not unwilling to change, and likewise, the authors' writing has grown tremendously since their debut books. So as long as that keeps happening, I'm still there.

Out of the Ghetto of Genre 

Andi Shechter, who has been one of the most influential fans in the crime fiction world, writing amateur reviews, organizing Bouchercons and Left Coast Crime conventions, and generally being a recognizable face in various online lists and communities, has gone pro. Her article on various trends in the mystery genre is the lead story in the current issue of Library Journal, and along with short Q&As with S.J. Rozan and Jacqueline Winspear, focuses a fair amount on a trend that's taken hold over the last few years: the standalone thriller:

For writers, the standalone is a creative way to move beyond the confines of a series format. [Peter] Robinson chose the standalone, he says, "because the idea was too good to resist, and it isn't appropriate for a Banks story because there's no police presence." [S.J.] Rozan notes that Absent Friends "needed a very different voice, different sensibility, different approach."

For publishers, standalones are an opportunity to reposition their authors in the market. According to St. Martin's senior editor Keith Kahla, a series writer might not be given the same attention for book 15 in a series, no matter how solid a base that series has. A standalone, he says, allows "a writer who may have grown as an artist" to attract new readers "who don't read mysteries." Former Walker & Co. mystery editor Michael Seidman concurs, pointing out that the standalone can be marketed as a novel and released as general fiction rather than mystery.


Although standalones can do well in "breaking out" an author and increasing sales, are there any disadvantages? Jim Huang, who runs a mystery bookshop in Indiana, thinks so:

"Right now, the 'conventional wisdom' is that it's easier to sell a standalone instead of a series book," he says. Huang feels that too often standalones reflect a "sameness" and that publishers take writers who develop these "wonderful, distinctive, quirky series," and then try to cram them all into one mold for that "breakout" book.

And overall, I do agree with Kahla that the standalone thread will "settle down" a fair bit. I'd rather see series books and standalones have equal weight and value in terms of quality output and thought processes, and so writers don't necessarily have to change their voices completely to write one of those. But when a standalone works, and really well at that (cue praise for Laura Lippman's EVERY SECRET THING) then it's like a Pandora's Box. Once the writer has stretched his or her powers of craft and creativity, you can't go back. I'm hearing the same thing about Rick Riordan's SOUTHTOWN, the new Tres Navarre book that followed last year's excellent standalone COLD SPRINGS. It's a series that has broadened in scope and storytelling since the first book, a PBO, was released back in 1997.

In the end, though, I'm kind of getting sick of the whole "series vs. standalone" argument. Can I beat the drum of "I want good books" once again? If the story grabs me, I'm there, whether with a favorite character or ones completely new to me. Which, I suppose, is--or at least should be--the bottom line.

The morning roundup 

As spring arrives for the book market, Publishing News takes a look back at last year's output and sales. The verdict? With Harry Potter, an increase. Take it out of the equation, and sales dipped by 3% overall. What it means for this year? I'll say, hmm....a further decline?

I tried to read Maslin's review of BERGDORF BLONDES but honestly, I keep staring at Plum Sykes' author photo. It's kind of creepy looking somehow. Too thin, too angular, she looks so bored like she'd rather be anywhere else. And what's up with the weird looking cleavage, that's moving downward at an odd angle? Was that trip really necessary?

Sheila Quigley's debut novel, RUN FOR HOME, is just out, but she's been in the book news for a while ever since her agent, Darley Anderson, scored her a 300,000 pound book deal with Century in a hotly contested auction. Evidently Quigley's style and subject matter is extremely reminscent of the work of Martina Cole, but set in Sunderland instead of Essex. And Boyd Tonkin at the Independent pretty much rips Quigley a new one. Oy, such vitriol for a debut novelist. Maybe she'll crack the bestseller list too...

Elizabeth George, who alternates between living in London and America, is building a new home in the Seattle area, where she'll be promoting her newest book, a non-fiction tome about the writing life.

The family of Vladimir Nabokov reject the idea that he plagiarized a 1916 novel in order to write LOLITA. When it comes to plagiarism, unless you can prove that passages are copied verbatim from another work (or pretty damned close) I just don't get why people think there's a case. Could Nabokov have read the book and unconsciously used stuff from it? That seems a hell of a lot more likely to me.

With the publication of her newest novel, THE SEA HOUSE, Esther Freud (of HIDEOUS KINKY fame) is interviewed by Newsday about it and the upcoming birth of her third child.

Are book clubs, like the BCA or Book-of-the-Month, the cheapest way to buy books? A new survey suggests that readers don't think so. Well no wonder, not when Asda or Tesco sell books at 1/3 the RRP.....

Veteran writer William Tapply's new Coyne novel, SHADOW OF DEATH, is given a nice treatment at the Haddon (NJ) Journal.

And finally, Ian McEwan did make it into the US after all, although as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer points out, this may have ramifications for visiting writers for years to come. Methinks this whole visa mess might be fodder for a novel McEwan will write in the future at some point.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

The ultimate metablog post 

A long, long time ago in a galaxy not that far away, a man by the name of Jess Nevins compiled a document called "The A List." It was quite a long list, alphabetical in nature, giving quick and concise summaries about celebrities' claim to fame and who they were linked with. The list proved very popular and was posted to great acclaim on newsgroups like alt.showbiz.gossip and alt.gossip.celebrities and was mentioned by the likes of Jeffrey Wells and Page Six. Although I thought the list was no longer in existence, I was wrong--it was, in fact, updated just yesterday.

Riding on Nevins' coattails, a new list pops up: "The A List of Bloggers." Is it a shameless grab to get attention by the cool kids? But of course, although it needs a lot of work (hell, I'm not on it.) But some of my very favorite bloggers did make the cut.

Hell, I'm just happy I found Nevins' list again. Guess how I'll be spending the rest of the day...

(link from The Diminished Return, the Augmented Breast)

Another Scalzi Smackdown 

John Scalzi, whose blog I really need to add to the blogroll the next time I update it, makes mincemeat of an anonymous response to his recent posts on writing and that Jane Austen Doe article that made the rounds last week. The anonymous dude goes on about how sad it is to lose one's ideals and illusions, and that keeping those illusions is more important than keeping abreast of what's actually going on in publishing, and Scalzi, well, pretty much lets him have it. Especially amusing was his pretend-exchange with his 21-year-old self:

Me Now: Hey, just so you know, by the time you're thirty-five you'll have written six books, have been a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, you'll review movies, music, and video games and get paid to spout off on whatever you feel like. And you'll be married to a superhot babe and have a supercute kid, and they'll both be smarter than you are.

Me Then: Rock!

Me Now: Yes, exactly. Now give me your hair.


God, I love a man who's pragmatic.

UPDATE, 4:30 PM EST: Jim Winter, whose spiffy new domained site went up the other day, has more to say about all this.

The Man Booker Prize--mark your calendars 

The press release has gone out about the confirmed dates for the Booker:

The key dates for this year's Man Booker Prize for Fiction are now confirmed as:

*Thursday 26 August - LONGLIST ANNOUNCEMENT

*Tuesday 21 September - SHORTLIST ANNOUNCEMENT

This will be made at a press conference at the Man Group's London office. A celebratory party will be held that evening at the British Library.

*Tuesday 19 October - THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE WINNER

To be held in The Lawrence Hall of the Royal Horticultural Halls in London. Coverage of the prize will be broadcast live on BBC TWO and BBC FOUR.

The judging panel this year is chaired by the Rt Hon. Chris Smith MP and consists of novelist, Tibor Fischer; writer and academic, Robert Macfarlane; journalist and editor of The Erotic Review, Rowan Pelling and literary editor of The Economist, Fiammetta Rocco.

The Trustees of the Booker Prize Foundation also announce that they have appointed Ion Trewin as deputy administrator of the Man Booker Prize. Ion will shadow the present administrator, Martyn Goff, in the immediate future and will thereafter take a more active role following his retirement from Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2006.


All I have to say is, if Eoin McNamee's THE ULTRAS (pub date May 5 in the UK) doesn't at least get on the longlist (and preferably the shortlist) then I'll be scratching my head to the point that it bleeds. It took me a week to read the book, reading about six books in between, because I didn't want it to end. The story haunted, the characters were almost incandescent, the prose never pedestrian and at times jaw-droppingly stunning. There are books, you see, and then there are BOOKS. This is such.

Around the horn 

CanWest Global, the conglomerate responsible for Global TV and other things that the late great Izzy Asper decided to acquire during his life, is going into book publishing. Although CanWest has published books in the past, now they are really organizing a publishing unit for real, I guess.

USA Today has launched a searchable database of bestseller lists going back ten years. The geek in me is very happy about this.

The auctions have ended, and all sorts of folks have bought the right to have their name as a character in books by Maeve Binchy, Phillip Pullman, and many more, to benefit torture victims.

Late but interesting: the Seattle Times reviewed two first novels by Panos Karnezis and Clare Dudman, and Aaron Hamburger's short story collection. Diversity? You bet, and each is deemed very worthy of the paper's attention.

Another new review of HARD REVOLUTION, but this one's from England, and written by noir afficionado John Harvey. He basically calls this book Pelecanos's best one yet, certainly "his most satisfying one so far." I'm not inclined to disagree, really...

When a bill went before Canadian Parliament to merge the National Archives with the National Library of Canada, the folks who drafted it managed to slip in a clause that would extend copyright protection of unpublished works for authors born between 1930 and 1949, called the "Lucy Maud," (Montgomery, who died in 1942.) But when Jean Chretien left office, a bunch of bills were tabled, including this one. Is the copyright provision dead in the water? The Globe and Mail attempts to find out.

Hey wait a minute, why is someone writing a Babe Ruth biography when Robert Creamer did it so well 30 years ago? But Jim Reisler's new book focuses on one year--1920, when he uncorked 54 home runs, a record by a long shot. Jonathan Yardley reviews Reisler's book and finds it an interesting appendix to Creamer's definitive account of the baseball legend.

Denise Hamilton, the author of the LA-based Eve Diamond novels, was recently interviewed on NPR to talk about her books and where she fits in with the tradition of LA crime fiction stretching back to those usual guys (you know, Chandler etc.)

And finally, wtf? Polling people on who Tom Cruise's next partner should be, let alone picking Nicole Kidman as the top candidate? God, people are weird. Or just not with-it on some things.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Ian McEwan refused entry into the US 

Story still developing, but the author of ATONEMENT was detained Tuesday night for four hours at Vancouver airport as he prepared to fly to Seattle for a speaking engagement as immigration officials tried to ascertain the validity of his visa. Afterwards, they refused to allow him into the country. He was travelling as the guest of Caltech, who had indicated he didn't need a special visa for entry, but immigration officials thought otherwise and turned McEwan back.

McEwan was, understandably, rather upset about the whole business:

"I have been doing this type of thing for 30 years and I have never been refused entry," he said. "I have never had anything to conceal and have always told immigration officials what I was travelling for.

"I am not stealing anybody else's work, I am talking about my work and who can talk about my work better than me? "I am not coming to the US to practice as a novelist, I am coming to talk about being a novelist.

"In other words, if I was a trapeze artist in a circus in London and if I was invited to talk about it in the States, I could do it without a visa. If I wanted to do trapezing in the States, I would need a visa."


Luckily, the matter was referred to the British Consul, which secured McEwan a visa in time for tomorrow's speaking event in Portland, Oregon. I'm somewhat confused about the matter though--CalTech assumed that because McEwan was only speaking somewhere, not actually engaging in anything to do with the act of writing, that he could get by just being classified as a tourist? Never mind that the rules are probably more stringent on that sort of thing post 9/11. But I wonder how frequently writers are turned away at the border, and what lengths publishers or benefactors have to go to make sure visiting foreign authors can actually enter the country. Obviously, they will have to do more after this.

UPDATE: The Literary Saloon investigates the visa requirements that McEwan allegedly needed--and is puzzled that the rules explicitly state he did not need one.

With all due respect, Mr. McGrath 

Your definition of "younger authors" leaves something to be desired. Tom Perotta was born in the early 1960s, Chang-Rae Lee in 1965. And as for the ones who allegedly moved on to other topics, Alan Furst is in his 60s, while Jonathan Safran Foer is a mere 27 years old. That's a mighty large generation, if you ask me. Never mind that folks like Perotta and Lee have several novels under their belt, a greater amount of life experience and are married with families. Not so those who actually fall into the category of "younger authors"--Foer, Zadie Smith, Nell Freudenberger, Andrea Seigel. Perhaps when they get older, move out to the suburbs, marry and have children (if that's what they intend to do) then they'll tackle the suburban novel--and be the "younger generation" that McGrath is talking about, though by that point, there'll be a new breed of Bright Young Things to make that future article moot as well. Round and round the cycle goes....

But while we're on the topic of surburbia, allow me to bring up an unjustly neglected and thoroughly scathing satire of the Ikea Lifestyle: Stella Duffy's EATING CAKE, written back in 1999. Only available in the UK, it's dead-on about the dissipation and alienation that befalls many a young suburban couple, as told from the viewpoint of a thirtyish woman who manages to screw up what seems to be a happy marriage by messing around with various neighbors and other folk, thinking she can have her cake and eat it too. If only that were the case, of course, but the fallout is told plainly without making any judgment about the protagonist. I still think about the book occasionally and it's been years since I first read it.

An unexpected fan 

I heard this on the car radio on my way back from my (much belated) coffee run and nearly spit up the liquid I'd just imbibed. But it seems that Alexander McCall Smith, author of the #1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY and subsequent novels and considered by yours truly to be an absolute genius, attracted a throng of well-wishersduring a recent visit to the Regency Club in LA: Madame Rumsfeld, Lynne Cheney, and....Flea? Why, yes indeed. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist (real name Michael Balzary) is a huge fan of Precious Ramotswe, to the point of recommending the series in his online book club. McCall Smith's reaction to the unexpected guest was, to say the least, one of some bemusement (if, in fact, those are his words. Methinks they are a bit too over-the-top to be authentic):

McCall Smith whose fans include the wives of US vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: 'The event was attended by a lot of very grand society ladies.

'Then in came a man who was dressed rather differently and my attention was caught by him.

'I didn't know who he was until he introduced himself and I realised it was Mr Flea.

...He added: 'I had not met him before though I was aware of the fact he was a fan.

'But he said some very nice things about the books. I find it very satisfactory that he is a fan.

'He's a very nice man, very polite and pleasant.

'I noticed Mr Flea had the word 'love' tattooed across his right hand.

Many of my readers do not and it's nice to have a variation of fans.'


Flea has extended an invitation to McCall Smith to attend the Chili Peppers' gig at Murrayfield Stadium in June, although the author hasn't decided if he'll attend or not. Is it the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship? Perhaps--or at the very least, Sandy might get some bassoon lessons as part of the bargain...

The effects of ghostwriting 

Oh, that D-Nasty. His myriad of contacts has yielded quite the tasty morsel, that it seems Michael Bergin's new tell-all about his relationship with Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, the object of much scorn and kvetching, had just a bit of help:

Michael Bergin wrote...

"I booty called her and then we like passed out on her couch."

His ghostwriter suggested...

"A few days later, on Sunday, I went over and spent the night with her. We didn't make love again. This was the longest we'd gone without making love since getting back together. But I held her, and it was enough."


Truly, what would some folks do without the help of a ghost? Wither on the vine and die, or at least crawl into oblivion....


Wild About Larry 

As Lawrence Block wends his way across the country to promote his new book, THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL, it seems that some folks were just a little bit skeptical that he'd be making an appearance at their local library. Here's why:

When employees of the local Live Oak Public Libraries system heard that bestselling author Lawrence Block wanted to visit the Bull Street Library on April 1, they thought it was a joke.

April 1, after all, is April Fool's Day.

"We were like, 'Ha, ha ha. Really funny. Nobody that big is going to come here,'" said Susan Lee, Live Oak Public Libraries' public relations coordinator.

In fact, they were so unconvinced the famous New York author wanted to come here as part of his book tour that they asked his "alleged" publicist, Maggie Griffin, for proof.

"I said, 'I call him Larry. Will that do?'" Griffin chuckled on Tuesday.


All right, I have to admit I myself am chuckling about the whole thing, but maybe because I've never heard anyone referred to as an "alleged publicist" before.....

Anyway, as noted here before, Larry's been blogging about his ports of call and roaming around city highways and byways in his trusty SUV, outfitted with all sorts of goodies and books you can buy from him (think backlist. Really, really extensive backlist. After all, this is a guy who has almost 60 books to his name, never mind all the ones he won't officially admit to writing.) Anyway, from one of his earlier entries, he reveals that a biography of folksinger Dave Van Ronk is in the offering:

I've got something wonderful to read---a memoir of my friend of many years, the folksinger Dave Van Ronk, who died in January 2002. He'd been working on it with Elijah Wald, who has now completed the editing, and who invited me to write an introduction. I wish Dave were still around, I wish I could sit in a club again and listen to him sing, I wish I could sit and talk with him in the Vivaldi.
I wish a lot of things, but nobody gets to edit the Moving Finger, and everybody gets the finger sooner or later. The book's the next best thing, it sounds just like the man, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to write the intro. I don't know what I'll say, but I'll think of something.


Van Ronk figured rather prominently in one of Block's best books, WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES, with the haunting lyric that was quoted in the book at various times to correlate with the main character, Matthew Scudder's descent into alcoholism and his recovery afterwards. No doubt it will be a biography worth reading.

And some links for the hell of it 

I don't know what's scarier, to be honest: the fact that the Left Behind series goes on (with installment #12, GLORIOUS APPEARING, hitting bookshelves this week) or Tim LaHaye's face.

Looks like the new surprise UK bestseller is Kate Long's THE BAD MOTHER'S HANDBOOK. The Guardian meets her to talk about this and how she might, just might, give up the day job as a schoolteacher. And of course, that this isn't exactly overnight success:

Her success has been portrayed as "northern lass hits literary jackpot overnight", but that ignores the fact that she has been writing for 10 years - short stories and an unpublished novel. The bulk of The Bad Mother's Handbook was written in an eight-week burst in 2001, though it took her another year to finish it. "I got a West Midlands arts grant for the summer holidays, and I just stuck the kids in nursery all summer - terrible mother! I got almost all the book written and then went back to work. After that, it slowed right up."

It's also interesting to note that this book is published by Picador, the folks that bombared us all with Helen Fielding and Bridget Jones. Looks like they have another franchise to milk for some time yet.

Small presses have to keep up with the big guns in all sorts of ways, and the latest shift is in how they approach marketing. Old: using sales reps to talk to booksellers and hand-sell. New: having in-house sales managers and making the connection between publishers, wholesalers and bookstores far more direct. Will it work? Does anyone ever really know?

Cindy Chow at January Magazine looks at two new mysteries that share something in common: they are set in the world of golf. She puts these new books by Roberta Isleib and Keith Miles in context, as believe it or not, golf has been covered rather well in the crime fiction world.

The SF Chronicle puts their two cents in the ongoing battle between Lewis Perdue and Dan Brown--did Brown borrow plot ideas for his smash hit THE DA VINCI CODE from Purdue's 1983 novel THE DA VINCI LEGACY? Personally, unless there's proof of verbatim passages that echo Perdue's word-for-word, I don't see much of a case for this. Not like 1997's lawsuit that Nora Roberts launched against Janet Dailey, something that still has repercussions in the romance world even now.

Kazuo Ishiguro will have a new book out next year. Here's what Publisher's Marketplace has to say:

Kazuo Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO, about "youthful friendships evolving under exceptional circumstances to adulthoods in which the characters' very existence will deny them the experiences of ordinary life," to Jim Riley at Faber and Faber, for publication in spring 2005, by Deborah Rogers at Rogers, Coleridge & White (UK).

If you're attending the Malice Domestic convention that will be held in DC the first weekend in May (that's right after the Edgars, as is usual) the program has been posted. Looks pretty good, though I won't be in attendance.

And finally, Terry has finished the Balanchine book, which will be out sooner than I thought--I think it's a November release date now. He has some thoughts about the process of getting to the finish line that will no doubt strike a chord with many a writer.

And another one gone 

Alistair Cooke, dead at the age of 95. They are indeed dropping like flies of late.

John Sack, remembered 

Oh, wow. I had not been expecting this in the slightest. When I saw the news posted on The Elegant Variation, I actually gasped with shock. It wasn't that he was too young, because at 74, of course he was. It wasn't that his loss is palpable as he was one of the founders of the "New Journalism" that graced the pages of Esquire back in its heyday of the mid-to-late 1960s. It wasn't that he had the unique status of being a correspondent in the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf and War on Afghanistan. It wasn't just that he managed to stir up a shitstorm of controversy with his 1993 book AN EYE FOR AN EYE, which detailed atrocities perpetuated during World War II by Jews against other nationalities. But because of what is now one of my favorite books, and my own tenuous, utterly slight connection with the man.

As I've said a great many times here, my first foray into the World Wide Interweb was in putting together the Shel Silverstein Archive. Though it's basically a dormant site, I spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours finding archival data, poring through microfilm, emailing (and occasionally speaking by telephone) to those that knew Shel at some point during his sixty-eight years on this earth. One of the odd little bits I stumbled across one day was information about a then-long-out-of-print travel book called REPORT FOR PRACTICALLY NOWHERE. Published by Harper & Brothers (which became Harper & Row, which became HarperCollins, the juggernaut that it is today) back in 1957, it was an account by a man who had visited thirteen extremely obscure, extremely tiny countries--most of which don't even exist today. Written with a tremendous amount of wit, humor and tongue firmly in cheek, I thoroughly enjoyed the author's adventures in these countries, where he came across self-styled meglomaniacs, interesting architecture, and encounters with strange animals trying to harm him. And much more. The man, of course, was John Sack, who had already been the author of a couple of books written in his early 20s, THE BUTCHER: THE ASCENT TO YARPAJA (1951) and THE ROAD TO SHIMBASHI (1955). REPORT featured marvellous illustrations that Shel contributed, which you can see here.

Once I found this out, and then tracked down a copy of the book (which returned to print about 5 years or so ago) I was besieged by an all-important (at least to me) question: how did Shel and John get together on a project? I decided to ask Sack, and found out from him that they had served in the army together in Korea about the same time, both working on the army paper, The Stars & Stripes, which was truly the paper of record. I'm not exactly sure what Sack's contribution to the paper was, but Shel was the cartoonist, whose work was later collected in the Army publication TAKE TEN! (1955) and reissued in paperback the next year as GRAB YOUR SOCKS! After both were discharged, they each ended up at Playboy doing pretty much what they had been doing before--Sack contributing long travel pieces, Shel cartoons. Evidently, they didn't spend all that much time together working on REPORT--Sack would send short pieces to Shel, wherever he was (since he tended to travel extensively doing his own travel pieces with trusty photographer pal Larry Moyer in tow) who would work on the illustrations and send them back in the mail. The book was thus completed and published with some (but not much) fanfare in 1957.

It was a young man's book, but REPORT still holds up pretty nicely, in spite of it being awfully dated and even a tad quaint. But it was a harbinger of things to come for Sack, as he would go on to cut his teeth at Esquire and beyond. Though we never exchanged much more than a few emails some years ago, he was very friendly and willing to answer questions that I had--even though many times, he didn't always have as detailed a response as I would have hoped. But as a journalist, his work was filled with narrative depth and went far, far beyond what usually passes for reportage. I suspect Sack's influence stretches far more deeply than many journalists realize, but it's important to pay him a little debt and respect upon his passing.

And I think I'm going to reacquaint myself with REPORT FROM PRACTICALLY NOWHERE--since I'll likely never get to visit places like Sark, Lundy or Athos, I'll let Sack's words entertain me in describing his own voyages to those places.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The prodigal returns 

I find that even a short absence away from regular blogging creates, upon my return home to the office and the computer where I spend far too much time sitting at all day, a feeling not unlike jet lag. An good night's sleep is in order, a full day, really, is required to re-start the rhythm of looking for links and thinking of things to share with you all. But if things are still somewhat slow, maybe it's not a bad thing. One of the first posts I read upon my return was Ed's redefinition of his own site, and it's causing a lot of food for thought for my tired, overstimulated* brain. For one thing, my own feelings about the blog have been heading in similar directions; fewer links, fewer posts, but that what I do post has more depth and quality to it. Eventually, I'll have to juggle a day job, and am still pondering how the blog will fit into that new rhythm. But then, when I started here almost six months ago, I wondered if I'd still have anything to say at this point in time. And thankfully, I do--whether it's responding to topical news, generating my own content, or pure happenstance. But April will be heavy on travel and frequent flyer points, which means, perhaps, more apologetic notes and abrupt silences. Rhythm is difficult to recreate away from one's personal space; at least it's proving to be the case for me.

Still, at least this week is shaping up to be a hell of a lot better than last week.....

*I finished three books today. They were Ross Thomas's final novel AH, TREACHERY!, Anna Blundy's THE BAD NEWS BIBLE (review to appear later) and Jonathan Carroll's THE WOODEN SEA, which isn't one of my favorites but still filled with his unique style and his amazing ability to create a sense of wonder throughout.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Greetings from the Road 

There's a good reason why I don't like posting when I'm away from home. I don't get the same, I dunno, "vibe" sitting in a room not my own, looking over stealthily at the clock to see if I have enough time left. The chair doesn't feel right, the computer lab forbidding. But despite all that, I'm here, and I keep finding links to post...

Level Best Books is a fairly new small press that's being run out of New England. Their most recent offering is a mystery anthology called UNDERTOW, which features some highly regarded writers like Kate Flora and G. Miki Hayden. Their owners are profiled in Town Online.

The Contra Costa times wonders who are king of the thrillers and who are destined to become classics. Their money for classic-in-the-making is bet on Lee Child and his Jack Reacher novels. I couldn't agree more, as these thrillers are fast-paced, well-written and especially in the later installments, have a serious amount of depth. Very good stuff.

Richard Morgan is the author of three well-regarded Sci-fi/mystery hybrid novels, with MARKET FORCES the most recent one out in the UK. He chatted with Crow's Nest about his work, his influences, and offers some tidbits about the next book, a return to his cybernoir gumshoe Takeshi Kovacs.

John Connolly's currently in the midst of yet another horrendously long Neverending Tour, this time for his standalone BAD MEN. He spoke with the Maine Press Herald, the state where the book is set, about what prompted him to switch gears from the Charlie Parker series to a one-off.

The Flint Journal-Review rounds up some lesser-known crime fiction lights such as Jodi Compton, David Farris and John B. Robinson.

The Salem Statesman-Journal really digs Phillip Margolin's new book SLEEPING BEAUTY. It's the kind of book you can read in a couple of hours on a plane, enjoy it while you're reading, and put it out of your mind once it's done. Fun, but decidedly popcorn fare.

Looks like Jonathon King's been getting better since his first book, THE BLUE EDGE OF MIDNIGHT, won the Edgar for Best First Novel of 2002. He's back with installment #3 of his Florida-set Max Freeman series, and SHADOW MEN earns the praise of the Miami Herald and the Orlando Sun-Sentinel.

The one who reviewed the King book for the Sentinel was Erin Hart, whose follow-up to HAUNTED GROUND will appear in bookstores later this year. She was in Austin recently and the Daily Herald caught up with her to talk about her affinity for Ireland, where the books are based, and what she's working on now.

And finally, just as I get to town, they find Cecilia. A sad end to a baffling case, with far too many questions still left to answer.

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