The Author Out of Spae

If you’re still wincing over the LOVECRAFT SUCKS bandwagon that seems to be rolling through town these days and need some more things to read, as the Literary Saloon has pointed out and some people I know will peruse with great interest, John Banville weighs in on the upcoming Houellebecq Lovecraft bio. Banville sics the dog twice, so to speak, on Lovecraft’s eccentric spelling, but spends more time trying to understand how much of an influence Howard Philips was on Houellebecq.


  • Dan Wickett serves up another panel — this time, one involving novelists Quinn Dalton and Tayari Jones talking with Ms. Tangerine Muumuu and Gwenda Bond.
  • If you haven’t checked out Fourteen Hills, you’re missing out on a very fine literary biannual. The biannual is produced by the San Francisco State University Creative Writing Department. The latest issue (Winter/Sprnig 2005) features contributions from Michelle Tea and Sam Hurwitt, a very strange letter story from Mat Snapp, a lengthy tale from Nona Caspers, and even an epigraph from Walter Benjamin.
  • The gang at Gigantic Graphic Novels have compiled the first eight issues of Rick Spears and Rob G’s Teenagers from Mars into a trade paperback. It hit the stands in February. I’m not sure if these two have been inspired by the Misfits song or not, but I’d describe the comic as an odd cross between Derek Kirk Kim and Fight Club. In a world close to ours, teenagers get pummeled by superstore goons, grave robbing runs rampant, and there’s a strange Moral Majority-style crackdown on comic books. The book has a punkish manga feel, existing in a parallel universe that perhaps has more parallels to this one than we realize.
  • You have to hand it to the London Times for class: “Biker chick and lecturer join race for Orange Prize.” I guess if you’re a woman who bikes, you’re a “chick.” But if you’re a lecturer, there’s no need to single someone out by their gender for a gender-based award.
  • Demonstrating once again that lucidity is not his strong suit, Michael Crichton thinks that people concerned with global warming are comparable to Nazi eugenicists. Sure, Mikey. Just about every environmentalist I know is planning to throw Republicans into the crematorium.
  • China has banned a novel by Yan Lianke because it satirizes Mao’s slogan, “Serve the People.”
  • Rich slackers can be found all over New York.

Tanenhaus Watch: April 17, 2005


WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climate? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today’s needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus’ office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.


Fiction Reviews: 1 – 2 1/2 page cover essay on The Outlaw Bible fo American Literature, 1 two-page review on Lovecraft, 2 one-page reviews, 1 one-page “Fiction Chronicle” roundup. (Total books: 8. Total space: 7.5 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 1 – 1 1/2 page review, 7 one-page reviews, 1 half-page review, 1 Lovecraft inset (.4 pages). (Total books: 12. Total space: 9.4 pages.)

I’m truly tempted to twist the definitions of the test here. Editor Sam Tanenhaus has not only presented us with more substantive fiction coverage than the norm (two reviews of fiction that are at least two pages long and that aren’t written by war hawks), but he’s also thrown in an unflinching essay about Hunter S. Thompson. The rugged spirit is certainly welcome, although I don’t believe it will last more than a week.

There’s Lovecraft, Joyce Carol Oates’ nonfiction compilation, Ishiguro, Poppy Z. Brite, and even an essay by Salman Rushdie. For the first time in recent memory, Tanenhaus has included supplemental essays that actually have something to do with books. Shocking.

But while this week’s fiction coverage is variegated, we’re still dealing with a fiction shortfall. Only 44.4% of the coverage is fiction. This falls a few percentage points of the 48% minimum required. And from a book tally standpoint, one need only observe the table of contents to see that the nonfiction is twice as long as the fiction.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Substantive fiction coverage is there, but the reading public requires greater awareness and depth of today’s publishing environment. The Lovecraft volume has been available for several months and Laura Miller introdued the odd spate of Lovecraft-bashing back in February. And two paragraphs a piece is hardly enough space to cover the latest from Leonardo Padura Fuentes or Poppy Z. Brite. Fiction Chronicle? Try Fiction Chicken McNuggets.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

Only one woman has covered fiction this week.

However, Sam has brought in five (!) women writers for the ten nonfiction reviews this week. And not just anyone, but the likes of Francine Prose and Barbara Ehrenreich. I was particularly enthused to read Sara Wheeler’s energetic review of a John Ledyard biography, which balances a sense of wonder with an introduction for those who don’t know who Ledyard is.

Brownie Point: EARNED!


Daniel Handler on Lovecraft, Francine Prose on the Peabody Sisters, Barbara Ehrenreich on John Brown, and a contribution from one-time NYTBR editorial candidate Ben Schwarz are all interesting choices. Even if the Ehrenreich review is a bit turgid and the Handler review an almost Peck-style hit piece (more below), Tanenhaus has demonstrated a commitment to experiment a bit. And for this, we award him a brownie point.

Brownie Point: EARNED!


I was a little alarmed to see a full-page ad for the Better Sex Over 40 Series in this week’s Review, not because I’m bothered by middle-aged people fucking (actually, it’s something I encourage), but because of the ad’s telltale revelation. Without the succor of an immediate cold shower, this advertisement suggests what the NYTBR considers as its demographic. And it might explain why so much of the NYTBR‘s coverage has been lacking.

It serves as an unexpected metaphor. If the Times brass can’t understand that people younger than 40 not only buy and read hardcovers, but are impassioned about literature (witness the contretemps over Foer), then the NYTBR is truly destined to become a dinosaur. Is Bill Keller simply not aware that more college students apply to creative writing programs than any other field in English, thus sustaining creative writing programs as universities face budget shortfalls? And from a business perspective, doesn’t it make sense for the NYTBR to invite long-term readers rather than frightening them away with microscopic reviews? Or has the Gray Lady thrown in the towel on attracting a younger demographic?

The general perception with newspapers is that only old folks read them. But if that’s the case, why has Tanenhaus been so determined to include blurb-sized reviews? Does he really believe that people born before 1965 have shorter attention spans?

Dan Green has already weighed in on David Gates’ cover essay. We’ll only say that we’re glad to see Gates calling the editors of The Outlaw Bible of American Literature on not including Raymond Carver or Susan Sontag. If the safe ‘n’ sane offerings of He Who Shall Not Be Named ensure “outlaw writer” status, then you may as well toss in the collected works of Bil Keane?

As a hit piece, Daniel Handler’s review is surprisingly poor. Handler has long contributed thoughtful book reviews to The San Francisco Chronicle. Even when I’ve disagreed with him, he’s always offered solid examples to prove his points. But it’s hard to take Handler seriously when he’d rather describe his physical reactions to reading Lovecraft and when he resorts to mixed metaphors. Not only does Handler misunderstand the Weird Tales canon, but he approaches it with open contempt (“biologically impossible, logistically unplumbable and linguistically unpronounceble”). This from the guy who gave us kids going on quests to recover a sugar bowl and who litters his Lemony Snicket books with wordplay.

The point here is that if a reader can get caught up into Handler’s Snicket books, then a reader can likewise get caught up in Lovecraft. (For the record, I dig both.) Fiction, with its many styles and constant experimentation, is far from rigid. Instead, the best that Handler can do is qubble over Lovecraft’s semantics. As any Lovecraft afficianado can tell you, Lovecraft was an Anglophiliac of the highest order. As such, Lovecraft’s argot, laced with a quirky enthusiasm for modifiers, takes some getting used to. But it never occurs to Handler to question the Lovecraft phenomenon: How has a pulp writer, who kept in touch with the world around him largely through correspondence, managed to preservere for seventy odd years? Surely, the question is worth dwelling upon, even when playing the devil’s advocate. But Handler never broaches the question.

By my estimate, almost three paragraphs of A.O. Scott’s review are dedicated to Joyce Carol Oates’ prolific output, demonstrating once again that Scott remains determined to point out the obvious long after the point has been made.

I expected Salman Rushdie’s essay to be as didactic as they usually are, but with the exception of one flagrant swipe at the Bush administratino, Rushdie keeps a level head, suggesting that writing can be a polarizing force for disparate voices to question the issues of our time. Quite an inspiring turn from the usual Back Page fluff on dating books.


Beyond passing two of the three tests, this week’s NYTBR is actually worth reading. Tanenhaus has injected this week’s review with cogent coverage that covers a variety of issues pertaining to books. While he’s still sloughing on the fiction front and his nonfiction coverage isn’t as crackling as it could be, this week’s issue is a step in the right direction. And I hope that Tanenhaus continues to experiment along these lines.

For this, Tanenhaus will, for the first time in Return of the Reluctant’s history, receive a delivery of brownies this week.

Brownie Points Denied: 1
Brownie Points Earned: 2


The Reel San Francisco

For those who love movies and San Francisco, the Balboa Theatre is holding the Reel San Francisco between April 16 and May 11. Everything from Bullitt to Don Siegel’s underrated The Lineup (featuring a fantastic showdown at Sutro Baths with one of the most menacing deliveries of “You’re dead” seen in a noir) to Greed is playing over the next month — with appearances by several local regulars.

No Time

I hate announcing this kind of picayune shit, but between a major transition and several other things I have to finish up, nearly all of my time is acounted for until Sunday’s fateful Tanenhaus Brownie Watch.

So feel free to visit some of the fine sites on the left. Meanwhile, up the pipeline:

  • My thoughts on the new Nine Inch Nails album.
  • At least two more installments of The Neurotic Chronicles (with ambience and sound effects!). Follow our narrator and Wilson as they obtain their pho and continue their journey across the American wasteland.
  • More reworking in of the redesign.
  • Something involving Charles Dickens.

Daily Roundup

  • Finally, an award not won by Andrea Levy. Katharine Davies, first-time novelist and ex-teacher, has won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award for A Good Voyage, a title which suggests little in the way of surprises, too much in the way of pleasantries, and that has nothing to do with Virginia Woolf’s first novel.
  • While the United States is busy with red-blue and purple maps, the UK is more concerned with such valuable information as the most expensive streets and towns in England and Wales. The winner is London’s Earls Terrace, located in Chelsea with an average price of 4.2 million pounds.
  • The LBC nabs more momentum through the Associated Press.
  • Poet Julia Darling has died of cancer.
  • David Kipen takes on Ishiguro.
  • Unintentionally sexual comic book covers.

Writing With a Day Job

How do you write a novel with a day job? G.D. Gearino has an answer. Wake up at the ungodly hour of 4 AM and write 250 words before the stroke of six. This allows for 1,250 words a week, or a novel in about a year and a half.

Of course, Trollope was there before Gearino, beginning his writing at exactly 5:30 AM until 11 AM.

Then there’s Graham Greene, who stuck with 500 words a day.

But ultimately it’s about being a pragmatic workhorse. Holly Lisle has some good advice on when to know to quit.

The Autumn Years of Robert Moses

Robert A. Caro is known primarily for his ongoing biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (the fourth book is in the works and Caro has been so thorough, that he’s only just begun work on LBJ’s Presidency). He depicts his subjects with a concern for how their actions influenced the downtrodden and frequently pulls no punches. If Caro isn’t the most honest biographer working today, he’s certainly the most refreshingly combative.

With The Power Broker, a biography of Robert Moses, Caro made his reputation. In that Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Caro unapologetically laid assault on how developer Robert Moses planned New York City for the automobile, bombarding it with expressways, showing no humanity in mowing down homes and eviscerating neighborhoods, neglecting public transportation, or even purloining his brother’s inheritance.

I was always curious if Moses ever responded to the book. Well, apparently Moses did.

Moses’ defense is composed mostly of rhetroic and, unsurprisingly, condescending of the layman. He rails against the notion of equal time and even singles out poet William Watson. Moses is very much the advocate of unilaterlaism, suggesting at one point that “Critics are ex post facto prophets who can tell how everything should have been done at a time when they were in diapers, in rompers or invisible.” I was definitely invisible when Caro’s book came out. But if criticism after the fact is a crime, then one has to wonder how humanity maintains its cyclical perspective.

Against the Stool

stool.jpgThe stool, with only a handful of exceptions, is worthless.

This conclusion hit me yesterday when I found myself trying to eat some Thai food in an uncomfortable position. The people who owned and operated the joint, true to the nine-to-five, eat-your-lunch-and-get-out mentality, had provided about four stools for their customers. Here, an eat-in customer would sit down, his legs tucked under the stool to maintain a precarious balance, eating overpriced food that was far from scintillating.

Presumably, the idea was introduced because human beings took up space. And the space in this “restaurant” (more of a takeout booth with reluctant seating, actually) was better used for preparing more food, to maintain a revolving circle of food purchasers to be urged out once bags were in hand — all this guaranteeing an austere profit margin.

Better this, I suppose, then something that ensured long-term customers, such providing AN ACTUAL FUCKING CHAIR rather than a stool improperly aligned to normal vertices (arms to eating surface, legs to floor, the way the human body is constructed), thereby encouraging the customer to come back and eat his viands without hunkering over and looking about as pathetic as a bipedal Mario Brothers turtle while slurping noodles desperately through the mouth.

No. This place had resorted to the stool because it was the most ignoble of furniture.

The stool, incidentally, isn’t entirely impractical. If you are holding something along the lines of a guitar and you are playing for three hours, the stool makes perfect sense if you hope to balance and play the instrument with any alacrity. If you need to bend your partner over for a quickie just after tucking the kids into bed, the stool is about as good as it gets when it comes to something devious, but not too daring — a safe bet, in a Zalman King sense, that isn’t missionary.

If you own and operate a bar and you need an excuse to call the cops if the truly sloshed drink to much, stools are a very handy way to gauge a drinker’s balance. Certainly after about nine martinis, lumbar support is a nice thing to have. But without it, the highly inebriated customer is ensured a perilous flop backwards or the free flow of his head against the bar, thus ensuring a definitive position and granting a definitive signal to a bartender that it’s probably time to call a cab.

But aside from these rare situations, what general value does the stool have? I venture to say: not much.

Let’s consider the terminology that has stemmed from the stool: stool piegon; the stools one might find in a toilet; the toadstool; the ducking stool (sometimes a cucking stool), a chair used in common torture to tie someone up and duck him into water; the faldstool, which requires a worshipper to kneel down and pray; and, if you are unfortuante enough to take it, the stool test.

These are clearly not stellar offshoots. While “comfy chair” rolls off the tongue (and was even used in one of Monty Python’s most famous sketches), when was the last time you actually used “comfy” or “pleasant” with a stool? I would venture to say: probably not at all.

I’ve been informed that “stool” comes from the French estale — a piegon used to entice a hawk into a nest. This may have merged with the Germanic stall, or standing in place. I’ve also been told that the Old English “stol” means throne. But the word’s Indo-European root suggests that its primary definition is a “place or thing that is standing.”

And if “standing” is the primary meaning for a piece of furniture that’s supposed to involve the human being sitting down, then the time has come to reassess the stool’s value in a contemporary environment.

Essentially, we’re talking about a sitting apparatus in which the body’s carriage is projected upwards in a definite nonergonomic position. For it is nearly impossible to slouch or even hunch over a bit without falling over to one side. The body must maintain an equilibrium, which involves the legs being placed delicately to each side of the stool, often folding uncomfortably under the crossbeams beneath the seat.

If a stool is placed in the center of a room or somewhere without any back support (such as a wall), then the spine remains exposed and the body is forced to adapt to a position that is contrary to the idea of sitting (which, if not formal, I believe involves a relaxing position), and that sometimes involves kicking up one’s feet

Sitting in a stool can be compared unfavorably with the disappointing idea of making one’s bed. One is led into a mythical state of comfort, only to be granted a letdown. But where the person lying in a bed must contend with the task of making it the next morning, the stool sitter must keep up a sustained position of discomfort within minutes.

Notwithstanding alcohol’s quality as a steady depressant, is it little wonder why barflies are so miserable?

Doctor Who Meets Charles Dickens

Whenever Charles Dickens is introduced in a film or on television, I cringe. As a man who owns two and a half complete sets of Dickens (one published in 1898), it’s disheartening to see writers go for the easy references and avoid the fact that Dickens was a far more complex figure than people know him as (his lifelong affair with Ellen Lawless Ternan, for example, had considerable influence on his work).

However, the most recent Doctor Who episode, “The Unquiet Dead,” demonstrates a surprising familiarity with the great Boz’s material:

COACH DRIVER: Everything in order, Mr. Dickens?
DICKENS: No, it is not.
THE DOCTOR: What did he say?
DICKENS: Let me say this first. I’m not without a sense of humor.
THE DOCTOR: Dickens?
THE DOCTOR: Charles Dickens?
THE DOCTOR: The Charles Dickens?
COACH DRIVER: Should I remove the gentleman, sir?
THE DOCTOR: Charles Dickens! You’re brilliant, you are! Completely 100% brilliant! I’ve read ’em all! Great Expectations, Oliver Twist. And what’s the other one? The…the one with the ghost?
DICKENS: “A Christmas Carol?”
THE DOCTOR: No, no, no. The one with the trains. “The Signal-Man!” That’s it! Terrifying! The best short story ever written. You’re a genius!
COACH DRIVER: Do you want me to get rid of him sir?
DICKENS: Uh, no. I think he can stay.
THE DOCTOR: Honestly, Charles…can I call you Charles? I’m such a big fan!
DICKENS: Wh..wh..wh..what? A big what?
THE DOCTOR: Fan! Number one fan! That’s me.
DICKENS: How exactly are you a fan? In what way, do you resemble a means of keeping one’s self cool?
THE DOCTOR: No, it means “fanatic.” Devoted to you. Mind you, for God’s sake, the American bit in Martin Chuzzlewit, what’s that about? Was that just padding? Or what? I mean, it’s rubbish, that bit.
DICKENS: I thought you said you were my fan.
THE DOCTOR: Well, if you can’t take criticism. Come on! Do the death of Little Nelly! It cracks me up!

For any Dickens afficianado, the last piece of dialogue is particularly amusing, for It invokes Oscar Wilde, who famously remarked, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

It’s good to know that there are some writers out there working in television who pay attention to these things.

Andrea Dworkin

Andrea Dworkin has died. She was 59 years old. The cause of her death was unknown.

Dworkin was one of the more vocal and radical of feminists. In 1983, she drafted a law that set up pornography as a civil rights violation against women. And while it was easy to caricature her, as this Michael Moorcock interview with her notes, her positions were often more nuanced than her most gave her credit for.

Personally, I’ll miss Dworkin. Even if I didn’t always agree with her, there was a determination and a tenacity within Dworkin that I admired. While everyone else was retreating from the gender divide in a post-ERA world, Dworkin kept fighting without abandoning the points she wanted to make, even when she was ridiculed, sometimes unfairly, in the process.

Paris Hilton IS Daisy Buchanan

The news that Paris Hilton is going to play Daisy Buchanan in an upcoming film version of The Great Gatsby might seem horrifying to some — until we remember the fact that Daisy Buchanan was rich, ditsy and superficial. And so is Paris Hilton.

Even if Paris Hilton simply shows up to the set, this is nothing less than perfect casting.

Here are a few reasons why Paris Hilton will succeed in the role of Daisy Buchanan:

The other girl, Daisy, made an attempt to rise–she leaned slightly
forward with a conscientious expression–then she laughed, an absurd,
charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the

“I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.” She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my
face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted
to see. That was a way she had.

* * *

“Gatsby?” demanded Daisy. “What Gatsby?”

* * *

“Why CANDLES?” objected Daisy, frowning. She snapped them out with her fingers. “In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.”

She looked at us all radiantly. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”

* * *

Perhaps Daisy never went in for amour at all–and yet there’s something in that voice of hers. . . .

* * *

Then from the living-room I heard a sort of choking murmur and part of a laugh, followed by Daisy’s voice on a clear artificial note: “I certainly am awfully glad to see you again.”

* * *

He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued
everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew
from her well-loved eyes.

Bowling in San Francisco

One of the things I accomplished over the weekend was returning to bowling after a two-year absence.

nixonbowling.jpgIt wasn’t easy. You see, I hadn’t entirely come to terms with Japantown Bowl’s demise.

In San Francisco, there seems to be an unspoken stigma against casual bowling. You’d be surprised at the paucity of bowling alleys in this town. Is it the City’s purported sophistication that keeps out bowling? Is bowling somehow declasse? Back in November, when I made the list of red state things and blue state things, bowling never really quite fit. It seemed one of those things that cut across party lines. Whether you were a league player or an incompetent bowler drunk off your ass, the common goal of striking down ten pens was what united people. That and the squeals of teenage girls after a strike and the echoes of balls striking pins. Who can say no to this?

My hometown. That’s who.

If you open a bowling alley in San Francisco, it’s almost destined for conversion or desuetude. Before Ameoba on the Haight became Ameoba on the Haight, it was a bowling alley called Park Bowl. And the aforementioned Japantown Bowl, the last of the City’s great bowling alleys, bit the dust a few years ago. This is really pathetic when you consider that even Manhattan has Bowlmor Lanes.

What’s left these days? Yerba Buena Gardens, which has a small bowling alley and nifty Glow-in-the-Dark lighting, might satisfy in a pinch. But a real bowling alley needs to have at least twenty lanes and a few veteran bowlers dispensing advice while practicing lane courtesy. And Yerba Buena doesn’t cut it. There’s also Presidio Bowling Center, but it’s as squeaky-clean and unsullied as Yerba Buena.

So I pretty much lost it when Japantown closed shop. If Yerba Buena was the best that my City could do, then, dammit, I would BOWL NO MORE!

The good news, however, is that a grand bowling experience can be had beyond Serramonte Lanes — just off the coast, no less, at Sea Bowl in Pacifica, a 32-lane affair with beach paintings stretching across the whole alley just above the pins. The people here are real bowlers. They mean business and they want you to bowl well too. You can hear the sounds of the Pacific right off the beach. One suspects that the bowlers who were forced to leave the City somehow ended up in Pacifica.

But if we are to bring back bowling to the Bay Area (real 20+ lane alley bowling!), Pacifica, with its mighty ocean winds and its cool climate, is a good place to start.

Tanenhaus Watch: April 10, 2005


WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climate? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today’s needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus’ office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.


Fiction Reviews: 4 one-page reviws, 6 half-page reviews, 1 microscopic blurb in the Children’s Books section (0.2 pages), 1 half-page crime roundup. (Total books: 16. Total space: 7.7 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 3 two-page reviews, 1 – 1 1/2 page review, 5 one-page reviews, 2 half-page reviews, 1 page roundup on CIA books. (Total books: 18. Total space: 14.5 pages.)

While the disparity here is, as usual, completely out of step with contemporary fiction (case in point: the NYTBR is only now getting around to Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, a book that’s been out for over a month) and very much in favor of non-fiction (a pathetic 34.7% of this week’s coverage is fiction-oriented), I should point out that this is the first NYTBR I’ve seen under Tanenhaus’ tenure that doesn’t feature some unrelated, blustery essay on politics wasting precious column inches. In fact, Tanenhaus can be applauded for getting William Safire and Christopher Hitchens to tie their essays into books.

But one wonders why Tanenhaus is so committed to this type of content. Have you noticed that the letters that come in almost never get excited about any of these essays? (This week’s letters deal with Joe Queenan’s essay on ghost writers and Zoe Heller’s review of Saturday.)

So while I give Sam props for dumping the tangential nonsense, as the great Vince Lombardi once said, “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?” I want Sam to win, but winning means giving your all. And then some.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

Only three women (including the redoubtable Lizzie) contributing to fiction coverage this week (not counting Claire Whitcomb’s microscopic blurb)? Only one (one!) woman contributing to nonfiction? What’s a girl got to do to get a gig with Sam?

Sam should be ashamed of himself.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Fortunately, this week’s slate of contributors makes up for the other two tests. It’s nice to see a full-length review from an illustrator in the Children’s Books section, particularly because his sensibility reveals the unexpected glimpse of an insider. While it’s a shame to see Lizzie Skurnick’s review cramped to a half page, she manages to bring in antecedents and humor into the claustrophobic confines while covering William Henry Lewis’ I Got Somebody in Staunton. Choire Sicha injects sociological introspection into his review of The Position and even manages to coin a new term for people in Connecticut to scratch their pates over: “generational dudgeon.” I plan to use these two words myself the next time I find myself trapped in a conversation with an unimaginative person. And it’s good to see Christopher Hitchens being given a break from writing sensational obituaries.

It’s a steady crop and a fair cop.

Brownie Point: EARNED!


William Safire’s comparative review does a solid job of introducing the layman to privacy concerns.

Long-time NYTBR readers are aware of David Kamp’s inability to separate fact from fiction. What’s more, Kamp’s widely reported stalking of Neal Pollack sheds an additional doubt on Kamp’s credibility as a NYTBR regular. Apparently, Sam Tanenhaus didn’t get the memo that explained how questionable David Kamp was and has seen fit to let him run amuck with Ruth Reichl’s third memoir.

Kamp starts off with the preposterous notion that most food writers (including Kamp himself?) are “doubtful of the very validity of their profession.” Even if we were to accept the strange notion that food critics suffer from rampant insecurity, what does this have anything to do with Riechl or gourmet writing? Isn’t any gourmand, by way of her tastes and sensibilities, absolutely confident about the foods that permeate her palate? And isn’t this the very quality that makes food writing so exciting?

I grew very uncomfortable reading Kamp’s review. He seems more concerned with Reichl’s physical appearance (the word “bra” can be found twice and there are no limits to Kamp judging Reichl on her sexuality and her cascading “dark curls”), rather than her qualities as a food writer or a memorist. Factor in Kamp’s inability to mention Jayson Blair’s name (“He Who Shall Not Be Mentioned”) and the Gray Lady glorymongering (apparently, Reichl’s stint at the Times is the most fascinating part of the memoir), and we see that Kamp is a man more concerned with voicing his own neuroses rather than assessing a memoir by a seminal gourmand. Perhaps he and Jonathan Franzen might want to sign up for several group therapy sessions, if only to spare us the unpleasant personal revelations.

Personal sartorial choices are also the linchpin of Ben MacIntyre’s review of a Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, which, despite the headline’s playful riff on the John Ford film, spends too much time dwelling on Spicer-Simson’s skirt, as if this, rather then Spicer-Simson’s actions, was where the ultimate meaning behind Lake Tanganyika can be found.

It’s good to see Richard K. Morgan getting a full-page review, particularly when the subhead describes it as “a dystopian novel” rather than a “science-fiction novel.” Tanenhaus is showing signs of thinking outside the box of genre ghettoization. We award him a special half brownie point for doing so.


This week’s NYTBR has finally recalibrated its pages to complete and total review coverage. And, as such, it’s the closest that Tanenhaus has come to earning his brownies. But with fiction coverage still caged within soundbyte-sized reviews, not given the room to expand that previous editors had allowed, it still doesn’t cut the mustard for a leading national newspaper.

But if the NYTBR continues further in this direction, and Tanenhaus takes more chances, then we will be more than happy to fulfill our part of the bargain.

Brownie Points Earned: 1.5
Brownie Points Denied: 2


Alternative Press Expo ’05

ape_proghdr_r1_c1.gifOne of the great joys of being a comic book devotee in San Francisco is being able to attend the yearly Alternative Press Expo. Independent comic publishers ranging from the big guys (Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics and Top Shelf) to a limitless array of self-publishers are there to hawk their goods and exchange ideas about where the comic book is heading. Walk only a few steps in the Concourse Exhibition Center and you find yourself talking with the folks behind Too Much Coffee Man or you end up discussing H.P. Lovecraft’s sudden legitimacy with the Library of America volume (I counted four separate Lovecraft comic book projects on tap this year), and whether this newfound respectability will interfere with his indie streetcred.

It’s a bit like being a kid in a candy store. There are quite literally hundreds of vendors. Everything from personal comics to manga to unapologetically titilating titles such as Babes in Space. For the smaller publishers, the artists are often there themselves to promote their own books — costermongers by necessity.

It was only the rapidly depleting funds in my wallet that forced me to leave. But I did manage to speak with a good chunk of cartoonists while walking the floor.

For the most part, I tried to ignore the multi-table setups from the big indie publishers. I was there to scope out titles I hadn’t heard of. To my surprise, I was able to talk to a few off-the-beaten-track artists I was already familiar with.

Besides Lovecraft, the floor was festooned with compilation comics — a dependable way of putting out a comic and splitting the hard labor of drawing among several people to get something put out. Two compilation comics in particular caught my eye. Young American Comics has an ongoing series called The BIZMAR Experiment. The challenge? An artist can tell any tale he wants, but it must involve a bunny, an insect, a zombie, a monkey, an alien and a robot. This unique limitation results in some interesting and off-the-wall tales (one story has the other five relentlessly hitting on an anthrmorphized bunny). The folks at Young American also told me that they were planning a YACtour — essentially, a year-long trip through all the states. Another group project, Unseen on TV, was also recently launched.

The other group project that interested me, a far more morbid offering than BIZMAR, was Mauled!, put out by Manual Comics. It involves collaborative depictions of true-life horror stories. The first two issues deal with, respectively, people attacked at the zoo and surgical malpractice. Fortunately, there’s a sense of humor to go along with this. (A depiction of the infamous Phil Bronstein komodo dragon biting, with Sharon Stone in tow, shows the incident from multiple perspectives.) Manual is based out of Hoboken, New Jersey and Mauled! owes its sustained life by the artists’ ability to coordinate work through email.

Zombies and Broken Hearts is a new self-published offering from Matt Delight and Kevin Cross. Delight and Cross, both zombie lovers (but reportedly not zombies), told me they spawned the title when they noticed the pre-2004 glut of interest in zombies. Little did they realize that the Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead were just around the corner. But their fun little comic continues the new tradition of zombies being misunderstood and almost completely disregarded by the human population. (“Why does Blake smell like dog shit?” says one human obliviously kissing her lover, now a zombie.) Delight and Cross told me that they had plotted through the fourth issue and had enough ideas for twenty.

I noticed that a new TPB of Arsenic Lullaby, a daring and politically incorrect comic book with zombies of aborted fetuses and field agents from the U.S. Census Bureau, was out. Arsenic Lullaby has been in existence for about five to six years. It is perhaps one of the most unapologetically dark comics being turned out today, almost sure to offend anyone. But this no holds barred approach, however, is part of its charm. To my surprise, the thin and bearded man hawking the goods was none other than Douglas Paszkiewicz himself. Doug told me that he had a spinoff called King Donut in the works. Despite having seen other spinoffs start and fail, he assured me that this one contained some of his best work.

I’m a big fan of Andi (Breakfast After Noon) Watson. And Oni Press now has a new title, Little Star, from Watson, which offers a more introspective take than usual on past regrets and fatherhood. Watson’s striking shadings continue to get better, employed for charcoal darkness and even an ultrasound.

Local cartoonist Keith Knight of The K Chronicles (who also has a blog) was there hawking his new book, The Passion of the Keef.

The very animated Batton Lash told me that he’s been working on Supernatural Law for about 27 years. Supernatural Law, which tells the tale of attorneys representing monsters and manages to sustain its premise with heavy injections of cultural satire. It started off as a comic strip (what Lash called his “off-Broadway” period) that was eventually picked up in the National Law Journal. After thirteen years of this, Lash began work on Supernatural Law as a comic book. Lash did ferocious research, perhaps more than was necessary, and was told by his superiors that he needed to give the attorneys some time away from the office. There hasn’t been a new issue of Supernatural Law, Lash tells me, because he’s busy working on the TPB for the first eight issues. While TPBs exist for the remainder of the series, Lash has returned to the beginning to redraw it.

Perhaps the most soft-spoken cartoonist I talked with was the remarkably prolific Jeffrey Brown. Brown was a very amicable guy, but I had to lean in to about a foot away from him to hear what he was saying. He was at the Top Shelf booth with a new title, Minisulk. When I asked him how he was so prolific, he told me that he pretty much drew when rising from bed, before work, and after work. I asked if he drew at his job and he said that he once was able to. But now that security cameras have been added, he’s had to be careful.

How to Blog Spinelessly (About Trivialities or Anything Else)

Blogs are like backyard yentas crossed with passive-aggressive ennui. They’re the perfect tool for letting off steam towards that obnoxious co-worker you’re too gutless to confront — or for clinging onto passionate interests that you’ll eventually let go of once you’re paying mortgage on a comfortable suburban home and have children.

If you blog, there are no guarantees that anyone will give two shits about what you write. But at least a few readers, who are as bored at their day jobs as you are, will stumble onto your blog. Because they are determined to find every URL that exists on the World Wide Web. While rational people, even courageous people, might use the weblog format, signing their posts with their real names, pursuing passions and righting wrongs with integrity, let’s face the facts: chances are that you’re not up for a challenge. You’ll waste much of your time uploading photos onto Flickr or writing passionate essays about how cute your pet cat is.

The point is that while a handful of people can exercise control in the TMI department, most bloggers (including Ayelet Waldman) can’t and won’t. These realities shouldn’t stop you from unleashing a mad torrent of inanities. If you can’t download porn on the clock, well at least you can complain about things that most level-headed people come to terms with.

We here at the Electronic Fanatic Foundation offer a few simple precautions to help you blog spinelessly. Because we firmly believe that even casually mentioning your appreciation for the new Beck album is an invasion of your personal privacy. If followed correctly, these protections (rather than precautions) can save you from the black helicopters or the despicable co-workers who are spying your every move and reporting your behavior to the Department of Homeland Security.

Blog Anonymously

The best way to preserve a spineless presence on the Net is to blog anonymously. Of course, being anonymous isn’t as easy as you think.

Let’s say you want to blow off some steam about Alice, the human resources manager who puts two cups of cream in her coffee every Tuesday. Why Tuesday? Why can’t she do this every day? And why does she drink it black the other four days?

Weblogging is about you and not about Alice. Nevertheless, she is Alice and you are you. And you are an anonymous blogger with carte blanche. You are in the position of becoming a spineless observer. Develop delusions of grandeur. Consider that you might be today’s answer to Proust! Alice’s coffee fixation could very well be the madeleine tea that gets you noticed by the cognoscenti.

But be careful. There exists the remote possibility that Alice, even though she puts in long hours at her job and doesn’t have time to surf the Internet, could Google you sometime in the future.

You don’t want to take a chance. So be sure to replace Alice’s name with something benign like “The Tyrant.”

If that level of specificity, however ambiguous, intimidates you, write about how much you enjoyed the latest cultural phenomenon. For example, “Sin City was great! I loved it!” is a nonspecific post that not only prevents you from explaining anything further, but puts you in with the cool kids. It guarantees a clean slate and a comment from a reader that states, “Fuck yeah!”

That sort of banality is what the blogosphere is all about. Play it safe. You don’t want to ruffle any feathers, much less influence your friends and neighbors.

Fuel Me Information! Fuel Me Americanos!

  • A poem written by Tennessee Williams that nobody had known about was discovered in the playwright’s 1937 Greek exam. The poem concerns a talking rodent named Kowalski and vividly describes various rats mating — all this within a mere seventeen lines. Apparently, Williams misheard the rat’s squeak (“Eeeekya! Eeeeekya!”) as “Stella! Stella!” and was later inspired to write A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • Maclean’s has an inside scoop of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Apparently, FSG’s insides are “no larger than the average Manhattan kitchen and its pale blue-green paint evokes feelings not of publishing glory, but of high school labs and hospital waiting rooms.” Competitors hoping to reproduce FSG’s continued success (now with Marilynne Robinson) have begun to tone down their decor, all too happy to tear down the walls, expose their fiberglass and let their production interns suffer premature deaths from asbestos poisoning.
  • Orlando Bloom is not playing James Bond, nor is he even remotely interested in the fictional spy. At a press conference, he denied ever reading James Bond or seeing a James Bond movie. He adamantly refuses martinis and would rather play a Morris chair in an expensive historical epic than sully his vigor as a debaucherer. He also hasn’t been very fun these days.
  • The Age says that “sex is difficult to write about” and then proceeds to expend several words on its influence in literature. Apparently, literary perversion all began with an obscure reference to fellatio in an early edition of the Gutenberg Bible.
  • “Magnetic attraction” is what brought Charles and Camilla together. And to show reporters just what he was talking about, Prince Charles revealed that he was, in fact, a giant transformer. In response to the sudden electric fields surrounding Buckingham Palace, certain princesses named Sarah have begun to practice Fergiemagnetism.

Fuel for Thought

  • Rolling Stone: “No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it. The wonders of steady technological progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us into a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true. These days, even people who ought to know better are wishing ardently for a seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements.”
  • ZDNet: “The company has spent millions of dollars persuading people that hybrid electric cars like the Prius never need to be plugged in and work just like normal cars….But the idea of making hybrid cars that have the option of being plugged in is supported by a diverse group of interests, from neoconservatives who support greater fuel efficiency to utilities salivating at the chance to supplant oil with electricity. If you were able to plug a hybrid in overnight, you could potentially use a lot less gas by cruising for long stretches on battery power only.”
  • Reuters: “U.S. President George W. Bush’s proposed 2006 budget calls for much lower funding for Amtrak, and the Secretary of Transportation has said that Amtrak’s funding should be overhauled. It’s not clear how much support the railroad will have as it goes through the Congressional budget appropriations process, S&P said.”

Ed Ideas (Which Will Never Be Adopted):

1. Limousine/Cab Tax Rate
2. Gasoline Tax of $1.50 Per Gallon; All Revenue Going to Public Transportation
3. Tax Breaks for Those Who Don’t Own Cars
4. Rental Car Tax
5. Mandate That 65% of All Operational Vehicles Become Hybrids Before 2008
6. Overhaul of National and Local Rail Systems Before 2010
7. Transcontinental High-Speed Rail System to Replace Airports: San Francisco to New York in Less Than Ten Hours at 300 mph by High-Speed Rail. Complimentary Drinks to All Passengers.
8. Ban on SUVs, Hummers and Fuel-Deficient Vehicles for Public Use
9. Those Who Use Public Transportation on Regular Basis Get Free Sex