Saturday, January 10, 2004

Weekend notes 

As I detox from watching too many hours of skating in one shot (more later, perhaps) here's some links and things for your usual enjoyment.

First, Marilyn Stasio's back, and she's got her usual skewed, and feared, take on the latest in mystery. She finds Linda Fairstein's new novel to excel in the courtroom scenes, isn't nearly as impressed with Jilliane Hoffman's much-hyped debut, but is rather taken with Russell Andrews' APRHODITE and Ken Bruen's THE KILLING OF THE TINKERS. She closes with a look at a new edition of Cornell Woolrich's stories.

Margaret Cannon's crime column is rather hefty this week. To sum up: great reviews for Ed Dee, first-timers Blake Crouch and Jodi Compton, good reviews for Canadians Janice McDonald and Gwendolyn Southin, so-so for Jonathan Gash, and puzzlement over the new Mickey Spillane novel.

Meanwhile, Chris Petit rounds up various thrillers for the Guardian: positive remarks about Henning Mankell, Fredrich Glauser and Newton Thornburg, and less enthusiasm for Jonathan Kellerman's latest standalone.

Also the Guardian, Xan Brooks raves about Pete Dexter's TRAIN, Julie Myerson has a much different reaction to Leslie Marshall's first novel, and Joseph O'Connor explains how his writing got its roots in a very particular piece of work.

At the Observer, Robert McCrum takes aim at the reports of imminent cutbacks in books being published; not surprisingly, his viewpoint differs somewhat. As well, a point for the naysayers on Jonathan Lethem's new novel, Tim Adams enjoys the memoirs of novelist James Brown, and Rachel Cooke trashes Stephen Whitehead's attempt to "explain blokes."

Thomas Mallon's 1920s-set novel caught my eye after I saw a review of it in the New York Times last week; now I'm especially intrigued because Donald Westlake's raving about it in the WaPo.

Go see what Lizzie has to say about Laura Miller's latest column. To be fair, there is that new book about writer's block, but on the other hand, at least 3 other pieces ran about said book in the last couple of months, so why is Ms. Miller so late to the bandwagon?

It's bloody hard to title a book. Go with something snappy, or true to the book, or something that will sell? Hopefully, the final title will incorporate all those ideas. (link from Moorish Girl.)

And what of diaries? Usually a bastion of teenage angst-ridden years, other times offering keen insight into a writer's mind. Susan Hill looks at the perhaps dying art of diary-keeping.

Then there's literary agent Arielle Eckstut. One day in April, she went on the radio to reveal her shocking discovery: the previously undiscovered sex scenes in Jane Austen's novels. Documenting her research in her book Pride and Promiscuity, she's convinced a whole lot of people--academics and laymen alike--that her findings were real. But that radio broadcast? It was done on April 1, of course...

And finally, Thomas Meehan is hot, hot, hot--not bad for a 70ish man. But 25 years after ANNIE was a huge Broadway hit, he's riding high with the success of The Producers, Hairspray, and many more musicals and projects.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Someone's paying too much attention to their email spam 

Official statement from figure skater and 2002 Olympic bronze medalist Timothy Goebel, explaining why he withdrew from the US Figure Skating Championships:

"Due to the ongoing problems that I have had to constantly deal with this season, I have decided to withdraw from Saturday's free skate.

On Friday afternoon, I was examined by U.S. team doctors. During that examination they found distinct changes to my anatomical structure that have occurred since my last evaluation in August which have hindered my attempt to get back into top competitive form. "

UPDATE: To the person who got here by putting "hate Michelle Kwan" in the Yahoo search engine---I don't know how in the world you ever got that idea about me.

I confess 

As should be stunningly apparent by now, I'm a huge advocate of crime fiction. But if there's one subgenre that I simply refuse to touch, it's those mysteries that either a) use real people, usually celebrity types, as sleuths or b) use beloved characters as sleuths. So the hotbed of Sherlockiana that stretches Holmes every which way he can possibly go? Not reading them. Mysteries starring (I kid you not) Groucho Marx, Elvis Presley, Jane Austen, and Humphrey Bogart? Sorry, I just can't. Now I hear about a new series starring Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy as detectives, and I just shake my head. I wonder if it's akin to the soon-to-be-common trend of using dead actors in commercials, and no doubt in movies and TV shows in the future. It messes with canon, and puts words in real people's mouths. I mean, Groucho may have been wonderful to watch onscreen and a certain persona, but it doesn't mean that's what he was like in real life, and certainly wasn't going around solving mysteries.

But oddly--or perhaps not--I don't mind if a famous person or character pops up in a book in a cameo role. Fidelis Morgan's Restoration-set historical series does this to marvellous effect. The first book had Isaac Newton in a major role and it was hilarious, as was Samuel Pepys' supporting turn in book two. Somehow, those real-life figures added an extra dash of verisimilitude that added to the enjoyment factor. And I don't mind historical fiction starring real-life persons. So I guess it's my own tolerance level at work. I'm not much of a fan of cat mysteries either, after all....

Checking not-so-local listings 

We open with a bit of sad news: the Edinburgh office of literary agency Curtis Brown founded by Giles Gordon (who died late last year) is about to close. His clients will be reassigned to other London agents. Oy, I suspect some clients are in for poaching...

Tintin turns 75. Shouldn't his hair be going grey by now?

The Guardian is quite puzzled why Taschen, in doing that monstrously huge Muhammad Ali book that will cost $3000, is even bothering. I think it's because he wanted to title some other book GOAT but it would be illegal in seventeen countries. So this had to do.

Michiko (or as Lizzie's referring to her these days, "Chiko") reviews Anne Tyler's new novel.

Carolyn See is mightily impressed with Gavin Lambert's new biography of Natalie Wood. Lambert, it should be noted, wrote the novel "Inside Daisy Clover" about a fictionalized version of her, which became a movie starring....Natalie Wood.

The Aussies are worried that their vernacular is dying out with the onslaught of American media. That's what happens to a lot of dialects these days...

And finally, StorySouth is looking for nominations for their "Million Writers" project. The idea is to showcase the best of online fiction which would otherwise not be widely known. Works for me, especially with the proliferation of some wonderful online crime fiction magazines. Nominate your favorites here.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Devout Sceptics 

I'm currently listening to a Radio 4 interview with Ian Rankin as he talks about his religious upbringing and what effect, if any, religion has on his Rebus novels. Neat stuff.

UPDATE: Neat, and then some, and frequently insightful as well. And on a more lighthearted note, Rankin attended the MTV Europe Awards a couple of months back, and reported on it for Scotland on Sunday.

Suppertime snippets 

The SF Chronicle features six Bay Area mystery writers in a long feature published today. Included in the roundup are Marcia Muller, Ayelet Waldman, Cara Black and Jacqueline Winspear. (link from Mark.)

Also at the Chronicle is a lengthy feature on Joan Didion talking about her ties to California, her latest book, and New Year's resolutions. The story, incidentally, was filed before the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

The Boswell company has reigned supreme in Cocoran, CA for decades. They practically own the town, running a major business, the newspaper, and much more. It all started with Col. J. G. Boswell, a man who ventured West to make his fortune in cotton. A biography critical of Boswell and the company was published last fall, and has sold well in various Cali towns: except Corcoran. Guess they aren't so keen on their original benefactor getting dissed....

Latest reviews at the Independent: Graham Caveney gives THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE a glowing rave; Aamer Hussein feels similarly about THE NAMESAKE; and Jane Jakeman examines two instances of Roman historical fiction (a subgenre I'm fond of but don't read enough of, alas)

Publishing News presents their longlist of the 25 most influential people in publishing. Cast your vote for the winner.

Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin novels are a huge success around the world, and as of this year, are available in English. MURDER ON THE LEVIATHAN is the second to be translated, and Akunin speaks about that, and the series in general, at the Bookseller.

And finally, a little poetry, courtesy of crime fiction genius Donna Moore ("a born writer"---Alexander McCall Smith)

Can you top this 

Poor Choire. In possible legal trouble, and his friends are no help. First, the t-shirt (and the trucker hat, too.) Now, the song (I guess "A Boy Named Sicha" didn't quite scan). Lord only knows what's coming next...

The Worst of Online Journalism 2003 

Marc Weisblott presents his compendium of the Dreckiest of the dreck, the clueless, the arrogant, and the simply idiotic of writing for the web. Read it--but prepare to be confused, or to laugh loudly.

And even more letters 

This time, it's letters of the editor to Salon. Authors with choice opinions include E.M. Cosin, Keith Snyder, Katy Munger, James Crumley (succinct, but brilliant), Jason Starr and Dusty Rhoades. A lone voice of agreement with Ben Yagoda comes in the form of Benjamin Derstine, who manages to be even more condescending than the original article was. A "difficult feat" accomplished. My hat's off to him.

UPDATE: Jim Winter, frequent commenter and creator of the up-and-coming Nick Kepler series of PI short stories, offers his own take.

News o' the morning 

So the state of Michigan has enacted a law that forces newsstands and booksellers to "cover up" explicit material. Now the booksellers are getting pissed, saying that the law could be extended to romance novels and sex ed books. Hmm, free speech, or prudishness? We'll see who wins this round.

Those pesky bookmakers are at it again, installing odds on the Whitbread overall prize: Mark Haddon's the front runner at 2-1, while DBC Pierre comes in at 4-1. Whether or not Haddon takes the overall prize or not, just by winning the best novel award, booksellers are predicting the book will be an even bigger bestseller than it has been already.

Jayson Blair, the war-correspondent version: USA Today's Jack Kelley, who was covering the war in Iraq, has resigned over allegations of fabricating stories.

Shena McKay, who was shortlisted for the Whitbread for HELIGOLAND, is a synthesete. She talks about life with mixed-up senses with the Telegraph.

Children's author Jacqueline Wilson chatted with Guardian fans online yesterday, message-board style. Her answers are now up.

Andrew Taylor reviews Peter Robinson's newest Inspector Banks novel, PLAYING WITH FIRE, for the Independent. A book I still haven't read, dammit. Guess I'll have to wait for the Canadian release date like all the other mortals.

Eric Mayer, author of several historical novels with Mary Reed, weighs in on L'Affaire Yagoda at his blog.

And finally, some people are up in arms over an Australian study that claims that it's virtually impossible for sopranos to be understood because they have to distort words to hit the high notes. Without getting into a whole treatise on singing (I'm classically trained, though mezzo-soprano these days) if you're going to hit a note like a high C, you're pretty much trying to make sure that your voice is controlled, that the note is clear and will carry, and that you at least have the gist of the word in there. If there's a consonant around it, forget it--sing through it, as the vowel is what counts. I do agree the whole "smile" business is crap, and also that a singer's "true voice" is often a lot uglier than we'd like to admit--but boy, can it carry.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Print Gigs R Us 

Lizzie and Choire have upcoming reviews in the NYTBR. Sasha's freelanced there several times. Pillaging the blogosphere? Well, not everyone can stay pure, after all. My own price? Just the honor to review crime fiction and not be named Janet Maslin (I know, I know, technically she doesn't work for the Book Review, but you get my point.) Although please don't send me any Patterson or Grisham books. A girl's gotta be just a little bit picky.

Mystery smatterings 

For some reason, the Alexander McCall Smith comments about Irvine Welsh and DBC Pierre were attributed to some South African newspaper and have only made it all over the press (and subsquently, to blogworld) now, when in fact, his original comments are from the December 21 edition of the Sunday Telegraph, which is still not online, but which was the subject of my own commentary last week. Thus I don't really have anything more to add at the moment.

I'd also like to point out that the articles which cannabilize each other keep perpetuating an error; #1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY--the first book, that is--was published in 1998 by Polygon, not 1988 as reported. Might as well clear up another persistent rumor, which was that the Precious Ramotswe books were originally published by a small South African press long before Polygon picked them up. Not true; the Polygon edition is the true first. In fact, if you have a paperback copy with a front-cover picture of a Botswanan lady who might resemble Ramotswe, you've got one of about 2000 copies of the original first printing, and congratulations to you for that.

In other, less contentious news, Crime Time has updated with reviews of the latest books by Val McDermid, John Burdett, and Claire Curzon. Mark Campbell also weighs in on the "essential BritCrime authors," some of whom may be a tad controversial.

Collected Miscellany interviews Henry Kisor about his first novel, SEASON'S REVENGE. A second starring series protagonist Steve Martinez is in the works for late 2005.

Modern Humorist offers their help on how to write a suspense novel (link from Ed.)

And finally, the latest issue of Bookslut is up, chock full of goodies. I've taken over as their mystery columnist, and offer my list of what to look for, crime fiction-wise, in the coming months. There's at least 10 books that I left out that I only remembered after the deadline, so my apologies if your book was one of them.

How to handle a bad review 

S.J. Rozan responds to yesterday's Salon article. All I have to say is, those boots were made for walkin'.

Walter Mosley interview 

Publisher's Lunch points to a very well-done profile of Walter Mosley, whose latest book, THE MAN IN MY BASEMENT, is just out. It's not a crime novel, and even though Mosley got his start--and his fame--with the Easy Rawlins novels, he's written all sorts of things in an attempt to stay sharp, political, and astute.

The part that caught my eye was this: His mother, in her 80s and still driving to her school clerk's job in L.A., is Jewish. Mosley does not consider her or any other Jew as being white, and understands that to be a radical idea. By his reasoning, Jews, in the eyes of Europe's Aryan supremacists, were an extinguishable race.

This is a radical idea? Well, I suppose in a sense it is, but at the same time, being a white, upper-middle class Jew who grew up in a close-knit community with an ever-present knowledge of how "different" I was from the outside world, even while I inhabit-and embrace--it, I've had similar sentiments, although perhaps not put in such a stark fashion as Mosley does. But then, as put by my late grandfather when he was once asked the "who is a Jew" question by the little-boy-version of my father, one only really knows the answer when you look to see who's running alongside you to escape a pogrom.

All Neal all the time 

So just because Neal Pollack shut down his website doesn't mean that he's totally quiet. Robert Birnbaum interviews him, and gets the scoop on Pollack's formative years at Northwestern, why the "mainstream literary culture" is dead, and his next project: THE BALLS OF SUMMER, a "combination parody of baseball writing and also supermarket political thrillers." Well hell, I'm already sold. And Pollack goes on to say that he read all the usual literature greats in college but he's now reading crime novels, which are much more to his liking of late.

I must point out one particular thing, relating to this particular exchange about the inbred nature of New York culture and media:

RB: That's what happens in New York. On one end of the spectrum you have phenomenon like this woman, Elizabeth Spiers—

NP: She's a friend of mine, actually.

RB: Is she? How did that happen? She's from Alabama and now New York and you are in Austin?

NP: I just started emailing her.

RB: You became friends via email?

Granted, it's only a transcript, but why is this so shocking? In all the places I've lived, I knew people prior to moving. Why? Email, or even better, instant messaging. Viva la Internet. It's a great way to make new friends, whether through email. IM, blogging, or whatnot.

Early morning roundup 

Let's begin with the Whitbread Prize, which has been awarded in all the major categories with an "overall winner" to be announced later this month (you know, like all the beauty pageant winners in various countries going up for Miss Universe. Or something.) Mark Haddon takes the best novel prize, and DBC Pierre wins the first novel. Other winner include David Almond for his children's book THE FIRE-EATERS, Don Paterson for best poetry, DJ Taylor for his biography of Orwell. Hmm, so a Booker judge is up against 2 of the books he helped to put on the longlist. Interesting, indeed. My vote for the overall prize, naturally, is for Mark Haddon's book, if only because I had very little use for VERNON GOD LITTLE.

Alexander McCall Smith's books have now topped 3 million sales worldwide. Not surprisingly, he's rather stunned by the news: "I am astonished by the whole thing, but really I am just delighted that so many people around the world are enjoying my books." Amazingly, the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series was originally meant for Canongate, which had published earlier work of his (like the short story collection HEAVENLY DATE AND OTHER STORIES) but they rejected it on the grounds of needing further editing, leading to McCall Smith approaching Polygon. The rest, of course, is history.

Looks like Amazon's in a spot of trouble: they're being investigated for "parallel importing": selling music CDs to UK customers who should supposedly be buying said product in their home country.

Judy Moir, who left Canogate after many years as editorial director, has landed with Penguin. She'll help set up a Scottish branch for them, following on the heels of Hodder Headline's move to do just that.

Michiko's back up to her old tricks, finding lots to carp about in her review of John Le Carre's ABSOLUTE FRIENDS. And for someone loath to give interviews, Le Carre has been awfully ubiqutious of late.

Andrea Badenoch, the author of four Newscastle-set crime novels including LOVING GEORDIE (2002), has died at the age of 52.

As well, author Joan Aiken, who wrote many suspense novels over the years, has died at the age of 79.

Mark Sarvas, who initially pointed to the story that the NYTBR seems to be more biased in favor of male authors, has the original study report available for perusal.

Jonathan Lethem is interviewed in the Telegraph about well, you know, his latest book and stuff.

Mark. T Conard's DARK AS NIGHT has been getting quite a bit of buzz of late as a noir tale that's truly that. The Uglytown author is interviewed at his publisher's website.

Want to be in Janet Evanovich's next book? Simply send in a five dollar (or more) donation to the Trenton Crime Stoppers unit and you're eligible to have your name entered in the grand prize. As Jiro Kimura points out, it's a rather novel idea.

And finally, now that Saddam's been captured and is ready for trial, the most important piece of news has hit: his most famous impersonator, actor Jerry Haleva, is coming out of retirement:

"When the war broke out, I actually did turn down about 50 interview requests, including BBC London, because I didn't think it was appropriate given the active stage of combat and the fact that we had so many young men in Saddam's target," Haleva said over the phone from his Sacramento office this week.

But now that Saddam is no longer at large, Haleva believes it's possible to laugh at the mustachioed dictator once again. "The fact that I'm doing this interview probably indicates that I think it's more light-hearted again," Haleva said. "Clearly, there's still a tragic situation going on with insurgents in Iraq that gives me pause, but the actual Saddam representation takes on a little bit more humour again."

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Call and response 

When a deliberately provoking article shows up, it's no wonder that comments will ensue. Laura Lippman writes in response to Ben Yagoda's "illogical arguments":

What about mystery writers who don't write series? What about literary writers who also fall head-over-heels in love with their characters, and thus sentimentalize them? A literary innovation must be immediately retired if the first person does it well? Really? Well, there goes the Jewish male coming-of-age novel, I guess. I mean, once you have Portnoy's Complaint, who needs Everything Is Illuminated?

And to extend the argument further, why bother writing a Southern novel after Margaret Mitchell or William Faulkner? Why skewer Hollywood when Budd Schulberg did it so viciously, or try their hands at social manners and mores after Jane Austen? There's nothing new under the sun, King Solomon once said thousands of years ago. If it was true back then, what does it say about now? Only that it's not what you say, or even how you say it, but that there's something microscopically different about the way it's being said. I usually call it voice. The good writers have it, through some magical elixir of plot, character, setting, language, description, narrative, whatever. They have it in an epic or a tight little genre piece, and it's thrilling to recognize the stirrings of that voice.

Another reader chimes in with a counterpoint view:

. . .While I find the tone of Yagoda's piece to be snide and condescending, he has a point. I certainly enjoy the best of today's crime novelists, but I've been reading this stuff since I was a teenager in the late 50s, and Chandler and Macdonald are infinitely superior to anyone writing today except Elmore Leonard. Read the complete works of these three, throw in Hammett, John D. MacDonald and Ross Thomas, and you'll have read the best the crime novel has to offer. And in three consecutive novels published in the mid-60s ("The Chill", "The Far Side of the Dollar" and "Black Money") Macdonald took the private eye novel to a level it had never reached before and would never reach again.

I wouldn't argue with any of those names, although I'd have to throw in Donald Westlake and Larry Block in the list of Grandmasters (not just of the MWA kind) who are still writing today. But there are a few ideas in this paragraph that have to be teased out. First is beating a soon-to-be-dead-horse of the state of the PI novel. Ross MacDonald certainly took it to a different level than where it had been before, trying to elevate the subgenre beyond pulp into something more socially conscious. Though other writers are trying to do that--and some do it quite successfully, both from an artistic and genre standpoint--the PI novel has so many constraints that it often appears to burst at the seams. I'll be honest; if an unknown writer arrives with a PI novel as his or her calling card, I'm really underwhelmed these days, unless there's something particuarly "genre-busting" about the book in question (or see my earlier comment about "voice.") I have some issues with the Shamus Award, which I may expand upon at a later time. Is the subgenre dead? Obviously not, but contrary to some folks' beliefs, it's in a dynamic evolution mode, and shouldn't be beaten down to stay retro.

Second is the simple question of whether past practitioners really are "better" than current ones? My first instinct is to conclude that it's an apple/orange comparison, but I posited this question earlier tonight to my father, who had read and enjoyed Chandler, Hammett et al., in his similarly-timed youth. His tack was that in those authors' time, novels weren't competing much with visual media. There were movies, but not everyone went to see them, or were allowed to; radio was a major player, but of course, there were no pictures to accompany the sound. Thus, authors were required to use descriptions in such a way to evoke places the reader had no access to, to paint pictures in their minds that were otherwise unavailable. Now, of course, there's lots of competition for novels: movies, TV, DVDs, video games, you name it. So florid descriptions will not only turn off potential readers with shorter-than-before attention spans, but might actually impede upon their ability to form visual images like the ones they are accustomed to. There's also more widespread travel and so places once hopelessly inaccessible are no longer so. Thus, a flat, seemingly simplistic book may actually accomplish far more than their forefathers' works would in conjuring up the imaginative processes of the readers' brains.

In other words, in decades past, there had to be more in the words to make the book work; now, "less is more" truly is the way to go.

I don't know if my father is absolutely correct but I know in my own writing, and in what I choose to read, I much prefer clean, tight prose than those hopelessly in love with language and description. I don't need two paragraphs to describe what two sentences could do, and I certainly don't write that way. I like snappy dialogue and concise description. Is it my exposure to visual media? I'm sure it plays a role, but I also like to get to the point. And that's a style, for better or for worse, that's prevalent in crime fiction. Which may explain why I love it so damned much.

Afternoon notes 

Publishers Lunch reports that Observer columnist, and personal favorite, Robert McCrum is being considered for the NYT Book Editor job (remember the flurry of speculation from a few weeks back? Neither did I.) But the strike against him is that he's viewed as being "too radical" for the post. Screw that, I hope he gets the job, especially if he gets to keep his weekly column amongst the Book Review's offerings.

It's been ages since I mentioned Dan Fesperman in any sort of context, but now I can do so again: he's interviewed by Baltimore City paper. He talks about his life as a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, the genesis for Vlado Petric and his latest novel, THE SMALL BOAT OF GREAT SORROWS, and how his novels are intertwined with his journalism:

The novels themselves, Fesperman contends, arise out of the veritable flood of information any wartime reporter receives. "You've got all this great stuff that lends itself to treatment," he says. "You can do justice to it to some degree in a newspaper story, but--I heard someone say once that journalism is truth with a little 't' and novels are truth with a capital 'T.' So that's kind of it."

What especially interesting is that Soho Press, which published his first book, LIE IN THE DARK, declined to publish SMALL BOAT because they "thought [he] could get more." Although unusual, it's certainly paid off, as having Knopf on the spine has led to more review coverage and a sense that this is a more "literary" work. That being said, I think the reception in the UK--which released the true first edition in early August--played a large role in the novel's success as well, never mind SMALL BOAT's win in the CWA Steel Dagger competition.

And finally, I had started to come up with a long, involved, detailed rant about why Ben Yagoda's article on Salon is just so completely, utterly wrongheaded. But why bother? It would be like rehashing Tim Adams' condescending article in the Observer over the summer as he read the then-current ten bestsellers of the week, with barely a kind word for any (except for THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, and even that was grudging.) Yagoda, as Jessa pointed out, worships the New Yorker. Not an inherently bad thing, but it means that he's entering in this "exercise" with some serious biases. Which, I suppose, leads me back to the "literary" vs. "genre" argument that will never die, no matter what Mark says (and Terry answers in rebuttal.) Books are like food. Sometimes you're in the mood for sushi or filet mignon, other times McDonald's (or in my case, Kosher Delight, except that I wouldn't go back there in a million years. But I digress.) You can get horrible filet mignon or excellent burgers, or something in between. But if it's a good meal, that's all you remember. If you're going out of your way to criticize the fact that you're eating said burger when you could be eating the filet mignon, well, how could you enjoy it? Same goes if you're uncomfortable with said filet and wish for the burger. Now that I've stretched this analogy to the limit, I'll end with the following: I just want good stuff. Don't we all?

And I guess I did write that long, involved, detailed rant after all. How about that.

Getting the scoop 

As Bonnie Fuller recovers from having spent $100K for an "exclusive" that Uncle Grambo helpfully provided earlier today, I'd like to add my own bit of news: The blurry man on the left, wearing the snazzy black outfit with red tie? Why, none other than this man, folks.

Tuesday's news 

First, Michiko returns, and she's--what??--reviewing a thriller? Most unusual. Anyway, she mostly likes Colin Harrison's THE HAVANA ROOM. Must be the New Year's cheer or a resolution or something. It can't last.

Publishing's in a downturn, everyone's cutting back--so how to explain Canada's Firefly Books, now the largest trade publisher in Canada with profits of $30 million dollars in 2003? The Globe and Mail takes a look at this success story.

And speaking of success stories, Henry Ptah's hip-hop novel had an unusual road to publication. He wrote it, self-pubbed it, then went around on subways hawking the book for ten bucks. According to Ptah, he sold 10,000 copies this way. One of them reached the hands of an MTV books editor, who quickly swooped to pick the book up, and a follow-up novel.

Remember Time Life? They published all those reference books, some more spooky than others, and were a mainstay of cable and late-night TV? Well, Time Warner is selling the outfit off because it's not doing so well anymore.

Hodder Headline is searching for the newest Scottish literary star--a venture that should be more successful now that they've established an office in Scotland, following on the heels of last year's opening of a similar outpost in Ireland.

With her latest novel already getting mixed reviews, Anne Tyler is profiled in the Observer, although it's mostly rehash of other things since Tyler is rarely interviewed these days.

For the most part, it turned out to be a bumper year for Christmas sales in UK book-land. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for WH Smith, which has ended up sacking Beverly Hodson, its head of retail, over the poor performance.

Jonathan Yardley continues his trip down book memory lane with William Faulkner's THE REIVERS. I must admit I'm woefully ignorant of most of Faulkner's work--I waS forced to read his short story "A Rose for Emily" in high school and though it was well-written, I didn't care much for it. Tried "Sanctuary" and felt dirty afterwards.

And finally, Jessa found this before I did, but here's Salon's take on the "overrated mystery novel." As I have to rush out and can't read it very closely right now, my first impression is that it's from a bit of a curmudgeon, but believe me, I shall have more comments later.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Where in the World is TMFTML? 

For all of his anxious fans who have begun to worry in earnest, perhaps this choice news item sheds some light on the pseudonymously anonymous man's whereabouts:

"LAS VEGAS – Literary sensation Nell Freudenberger married a childhood friend from New York City in an early morning ceremony but quickly arranged to have it annulled, a source close to the writer told The Associated Press on Monday.

Amanda “Binky” Urban, a Manhattan-based literary agent, confirmed that the 28-year-old Freudenberger married a still-unidentified Manhattan resident at about 2:30 a.m. Sunday at a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

"Nobody knew it was coming," said Urban, who famously brokered Freudenberger’s six-figure deal with Ecco (HarperCollins) for her debut collection “Lucky Girls” and a forthcoming novel.

Freudenberger and the man known by the mysterious acronym of “TMFTML” arranged an annulment Monday afternoon in the presence of several people, including a Las Vegas lawyer, said a source close to Freudenberger who spoke on condition of anonymity. The signed annulment will be filed when the courts open this morning, the source said.

Calls to Freudenberger's representatives were not immediately returned.

Freudenberger and “TMFTML” journeyed by limousine to the Little White Wedding Chapel on the Strip after a stop at the Circus Circus casino. The chapel staff told the couple they couldn't get married without a license, so they were taken to get a license and driven back to the chapel, where they were married.

The groom wore a baseball cap and torn jeans down the aisle and was escorted by a Circus Circus card dealer, the source told the AP.
Urban shrugged off rumors that “TMFTML” was drunk and had to be carried out of the Rain nightclub inside the Palms on New Year's Eve."

I hope that puts everyone's minds at rest. For the time being, anyway.

Literary, genre? It's the chair that's most important 

Sean Doolittle's latest Monthly Load describes how he kicked a 13 year habit of sitting on crappy, ergonomically unsound chairs while writing his novels. Now he has a much better one. Extra congratulations to him on the deal he inked with Bantam Dell for mass market paperback rights for his latest book, the wonderfully marvellous BURN.

Of course you know this means war 

"On the streets of Washington and across America, a war is being waged between popular novels and literary fiction. In this increasingly aliterate society -- acrawl with people who can read but don't -- the battle for readers is a high-stakes campaign."

Linton Weeks of the WaPo takes a look at the so-called divide, made especially evident at the NBA Awards late last year. Terry Teachout is quoted at length, saying many of the same things he's said on his blog about his thoughts on King's speech and literary and commercial fiction in general.

Sheer brilliance, I tell you 

All must bow down to the manic minds at Low Culture.

The start of a new working week 

Welcome back to the office, the new book, the new project. If you're a first-time author you're probably hoping to snag that 2-book deal like everyone else. Too bad publishers are looking to slash their lists by 20 percent over the next three years. "Publishers are reducing the number of books they release to concentrate on "big name" authors or "good-looking" first-time novelists who are more marketable."

Now, this news applies to the UK publishing industry, but this sort of thing has been happening for a while now in US publishing. The big deals go to the Grishams, Cornwells and Pattersons, who have huge backlists that outsell several midlist authors combined, or the Hot Young Things who have unlimited potential. I've been calling it the Sandwich Effect, because publishers would much rather throw their money at sure bets or those with unknown and seemingly limited potential. But a limited track record? Forget it.

But are things really so dire? Well, yes and no, for a couple of reasons. First, publishers are certainly cutting their lists, but in the end, like anything else, it's a business and they have to go with what sells. But the thing is, what actually sells? This is the question that no single publisher can truly answer. Sometimes all the hype in the world does work: look at Dan Brown, whose DA VINCI CODE was no surprise hit, considering how much Doubleday was wooing sales reps and booksellers a good eight months before publication. But the landscape is littered with authors who received sizeable advances, only to be abandoned by publishers after flagging sales. The flip side, of course, is when an author really "breaks out" for no apparent reason. Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES was a big hit in 2002, but the first printing was quite modest, as was her advance. It was only after folks in Little, Brown realized what they had that they gave it a bigger push at the very end.

Second, the new "it's a business" model means there's more pressure, but it also means that the product of a first novel had better be marketable in some way or another. But absolute crap does not (usually) get published at the very beginning, and publishers can usually spot a book that was "written to sell." So what to do? Just write a book that you truly believe in that manages to fill a hole in some way. Never said this was going to be an easy process, after all...but then I'm an optimist when it comes to the publishing world. Quality does will out in the end. It just has to be marketable quality, somehow. What that market is, of course, remains a mystery.

In other news, Ahmadou Khourona, an African novelist who challenged French ideas about colonialism and language, has died at the age of 76.

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy has become a two-part, six-hour play which is beginning its run at the National Theatre. It's already on its way to being a bit hit.

Lynne Truss tries to explain the success of EATS, SHOOTS and LEAVES to a somewhat befuddled American audience.

Michael Frayn's newest play Copenhagen, now debuting in Canada, focuses on a 1941 meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr. He didn't think it would make much of a ruckus at all, but it seems that's the case, and then some.

The Wall Street Journal ran a review of a book that compiles various features on animals that have graced the front page over the years, edited by Ken Wells. Who wrote the review? Why....Ken Wells, actually.

Patrick Anderson goes gaga over John Lawton's new spy novel, calling it "superior popular entertainment."

Sherman Alexie's marvellous new short story collection TEN LITTLE INDIANS has finally been published in the UK; the Independent likes it quite a lot.

and finally, the Age tries to understand the nature of fanfic. Having read some of the Harry Potter 'fic "who rival Rowlings's own talent for rococo prose and colossal word count," all I have to say is, yeah, it's true, but their time is better served writing original stuff that maybe, just maybe, they can actually try to sell (dire conditions or not.)

Sunday, January 04, 2004

What Happens in Vegas... 

What has already become the celebrity item of the week (unless Paris finds a way to top it) is, of course, Britney's hasty Vegas marriage to childhood friend Jason (Not George Costanza) Alexander in the wee hours of January 3. Publicity stunt to boost flagging sales of her album IN THE ZONE, or the actions of a drunken, horny, somewhat addled young woman? I'm going for the latter, and that Ms. Spears might have to get a proper divorce instead of an annulment. That boy Jason could end up quite the rich fellow in short order....and my suggestion for Britney? Rehab, rest, and a real disappearing act for at least six months, not the fake one like last time.

And, it should be added, perhaps this bit of news explains Britney's behavior. Or perhaps it doesn't.

Evening notes 

A.S. Byatt argues that the fantasy and magic inherent to fairy tales are still as relevant as ever. Of course, this is the woman who famously criticized J.K. Rowling in print, but any argument that brings up Angela Carter's marvelous books works for me.

A collection of letters by personal favorite James Thurber (for many reasons, but especially for "The Unicorn in the Garden" and "The MacBeth Murder Mystery") is now available and according to the Guardian, worthy of our interest.

Meanwhile, Peter Guttridge reviews Dean Koontz's latest at the Observer. He likes it, but finds it a tad too cute for his liking. Also at the O is a review of Harry Mulisch's SIEGFRIED, deemed a "mildly interesting failure," and Stephanie Merritt rounds up the potentially interesting new releases of the year.

Oline Cogdill ended 2003 with rave reviews of David Corbett's DONE FOR A DIME and Stephen Booth's BLIND TO THE BONES (both of which, interestingly enough, I haven't gotten to yet) and opens 2004 with a thoughtfully critical take on Jilliane Hoffman's much-hyped debut novel RETRIBUTION.

At the SF Chronicle, Malena Watrous deems Tracy Chevalier's new book "a fun read," and David Kipen remembers the late John Gregory Dunne with fondness and mirth.

At the T.O. Star, Geoff Pevere tries to get a handle on the historical significance of Playboy Magazine, 50 years in, which was something I myself attempted to do some time back.

And finally, even though the whole Nell Freudenberger thing is so 2003, Nancy Wigston reviews the book anyway--and digs it.

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