Thursday, December 29, 2005

King of Literature

I used to be part of a book group where I once asked what everyone thought a good definition of "literature" would be. Unforunately, what I really wanted to know was what everyone thought it meant to them, a more personal definition of how they themselves thought about it. This is probably too subtle a point; in any case, I faile to make it.

What came back were a few of the common and trite answers: everything from a sweeping novel with epic themes to books we're supposed to read even though we don't like them. I think all labelling is only marginally useful and then perhaps only to librarians and historians. The way I understand it, literary genres are kind of a recent invention anyway.

Today we may think of Hemingway as a writer of literature but I've read where that would have meant nothing to him; he simply wrote books. Charles Dickens was considered too popular to be literary when he was alive. Those accolades went to buddies of his like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is now all but forgotten, or even William Thackeray.

This got me to thinking about my own personal definition of literature but at best I can only come up with a partial one. I think like art, anything that a certain number of people call "art" is therefore "art." It doesn't need to be universally accepted as such (i.e. tattooing, soup cans) but it's arguing the point is like discussing how wet is water. For literature, I wonder if its chief quality must be one of something that lasts.

Dickens died in 1870 but he is still widely read for entertainment as well as for study. James Fennimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and Herman Melville, all very different writers, have all lasted and been labelled as "literature." But what about contemporary writers publishing today? Is anyone producing "literature" right now?

Here's an answer that may surprise you. Take David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars." This work clearly aspires to literature with its deep character portraits and epic themes. But the exacting descriptions of every incident in each character's past wears me down. If the author mentions a childhood relationship, the next chapter is about that relationship though its relevance to the current events of the story is indistinct. To me, this would fall in the "books we're supposed to read but not like" category. Will this book last? In fifty or seventy five or a hundred years, will this book be on a bookstore shelf (assuming there will still be such a thing as a bookstore shelf)? Who can tell, but I'd guess not.

Now take Stephen King as an example. I don't read King, but I've read him in the past in an attempt to understand his popularity. I read most of "The Dead Zone" but it fell out of an airplane when I had twenty pages left and I didn't care enough to find out how it ended. I read "The Dark Half" and while it was genuinely spooking early on, it turned into a mash of nothing at the end. "Misery" was a good book and left me with the impression that King could write well and produce a good book if he tried. I'm currently reading his second book, "'Salem's Lot," in another attempt to understand.

In 1993 King was awarded a controversial National Book Award, made so by his lack of literary pretension. This year he wrote "The Colorado Kid" for a small paperback publisher, Hard Case Crime (you should read everything they publish, a mix of vintage and original noirish or hard-boiled stories) and enabled the book to be sold for $5.99, far below the paperback prices of his other novels. I've read where he has taken smaller advances to allow for larger ones to be made to newer, "unknown" writers. By all accounts, he's a good guy, and a friend to writers, independent bookstores, and the written word.

Does a man who writes about vampires, telekinetic prom queens, homicidal resurrected house pets and the like deserve an award won by the likes of William Faulkner and Nelson Algren? At the time I wasn't sure, but with my evolving personal definition of "literature," I've come to agree that he does. In a hundred years, will John Grisham's books be on the shelves? Tom Clancy's? Possible, of course, but I wouldn't take the bet. Based on King's popularity over the past two decades, though, he'll be there.

His work will last, as has Dickens'. And like Dickens, he brought people who didn't normally read books into the bookstores and libraries and that achievment should never be overlooked. By the same token, J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame will be right there beside him and my hat is off to them both.

My personal feelings on King's work is decidedly mixed, but I'm trying to understand it. Now if I can just get through "'Salem's Lot" without hiding it behind a comic book like it's pornographic material...

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Chickens vs. Eggs

Writing conferences are filled with people who are constantly looking for secrets, or tips and tricks that can help them write like the authors they've come to see. What always strikes me is that most of these well intended folks have never actually written a book themselves; they seem to be looking for a magic key, as if someone else's opinion or habit can make up for a questionable talent or ability of their own.

If you can write, you write. Learning how to write a good book, or a good short story, requires a deeper knowledge of structure and storytelling than one can usually achieve by simply reading. Or by asking questions at writing conferences. There are many paths to this goal, and I'll have more to say about them in the future.

Say that you're a natural athlete. You have an above average gift of speed, coordination, strength, whatever, that translate into a high level of performance in sport without an extraordinary amount of effort. Contrast this with a person not blessed with such attributes but who has a strong desire, a strong heart, to participate. With much work and dedication, they can achieve a high level on the field, even approaching that of the natural athlete. Although they can probably never fly as high, especially if the natural works hard as well, they can fill roles and reach a certain competence.

I used to think the same thing was true of writers but now I'm not so sure. More and more I think that an inherent ability must be present to write well, and that it must be fostered and nurtured in able to produce good works. The talent for writing must exist and the craft then can be learned.

So when someone at a conference asks, "What's more important in a novel, characterization or plot?" I can't help but put them in the naturally born clueless category. If you have to ask, doesn't that belie a fundamental lack of understanding of the (good) novel?

Nevertheless, at this year's SleuthFest conference in South Florida, thriller writer Barry Eisler provided an interesting answer. Eisler writes about a half Japanese, half American contract killer who specializes in making his hits appear as accidents. His books are slick and he's an engaging writer but after reading the first out of his three books (so far), I think he may be facing an uphill battle with his series based on a fundamentally unsympathetic character. So much so I wonder if in the future his assassin will turn out to be working for "the good guys" or some such reversal. We'll see.

Anyway, Eisler boldly stated that characterization was more important and that what's more, he'd prove it. Bold words, especially if you don't think he can do it. He used three examples in recent history, including a deadly mine accident in China. Although we knew that a number of people died and died horribly, it didn't really affect us personally, did it? Likewise for his other examples. This is because, Eisler said, none of us knew any of these people and therefore, realistically, it was difficult to care about whatever fates may have befallen them.

But how would you feel if some son of a bitch cut you off in traffic this morning, causing you to spill your hot coffee across the legs of your brand new pair of khakis? You'd probably be cursing the bastard throughout the whole day, into the evening, and probably the next morning's drive as well. Why so? Because it affected you; it was personal in a trivial but much more keenly felt way than what happened to a slew of poor miners in China. The earthquake as plot was much more dramatic than an illegal lane change but it's difficult to really find yourself caring. You're simply not affected.

By god, I thought, he did prove it.

On the other hand, characterization is still not more important than plot: it's a faulty question. Neither one is more important than the other, you must have both. If you have created wonderful, identifiable characters that can reach and touch the reader, they still have to have something to do or the book won't accomplish anything. And that something to do must be interesting as well, hopefully as fresh and inventive as your characters have become, or again you will have created a partially formed thing that falls short of what it aspires to.

To be fair, Eisler admitted the need for both, but more as a footnote to his argument. He still, I thought, emphasized character over plot, and that may be valid as long as the writer pays attention to both. In any case, I salute Eisler for his argument and enjoyed his ability to back up his assertion. I'll read his next two books at least and hope he continues to write and can somehow make me care about a guy who kills people who don't seem to deserve it. But the next time someone at a conference asks a writer this kind of question, I'd love to hear them say, "Go home, write your book, and then you tell me." The real writers probably will.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Justifiable Homicide

Anything written with the above title needs to be prudently brief. Today is Christmas Day and there are a few people, or groups thereof, that should be singled out on this bounteous day of joy and gift giving for "sanctioning," with or without Extreme Prejudice.

The first are the people responsible for fastening childrens' toys, already surrounded by an indecent amount of non-recyclable glossy cardboard and plastic, to the packaging with dozens of annoying and difficult twist ties. Leave 'em for garbage bags where they belong. First you have to dismember the box and plastic landfill mass just to get to the twisted little buggers, then the dexterity exercises begin. Stocking stuffer idea: Santa's little helpers should provide mommies and daddies with little pairs of festive wire cutters.

The other group are the people who came up with the idea of mounting your merchandise in a sandwich of clear plastic, surrounded by a cardboard or paper insert, with the edges of the container (or crusts, if you will) welded together in some kind of unopenable bond. These things are clearly not intended to be opened: there are no lids or flaps or zippers, no indentations for leverage, no slots, holes or velcro. Like walnuts, the packaging has to be physically destroyed to reach the actual goods.

It has to be cut, slashed and rended according to either the skill or frustration level of the consumer, depending on the dominant emotion. I've tried slicing the edges with a sharp knife (scary - if I'm not dexterous enough for twist ties...), cutting away with scissors (two layers of plastic plus the paper or cardboard is TOUGH), and avoiding purchasing these items altogether. Usually I manage a slice of an encouraging but misleading size then try good ol' fashioned brute strength to force the rest of this future pollution to yield. It never works, and I have to cut some more. This is usually the exact point where I shouldn't be trusted with anything sharp.

I saw on TV the other day some kind of slicing device made specifically to cut the bonded edges of these abominations without having to resort to the above mentioned caveman tactics. Talk about opportunistic. I hope they do well, though, I really do. They've come up with a solution for a specific problem that, if the commercial can be believed, will relieve the common man of the stresses and hazards of dealing with getting your hands on the goods you've actually purchased. For $9.99, It doesn't have any other use or purpose and in theory, even people with fingers fatigued from a constant untwisting motion can use it safely.

It just damn well better come in a little paper sack, preferably with an open top that balloons open when I breathe on it...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Quality Control

Years ago a very pretty girl turned me on to Outside Magazine, particularly the "Out There" column by the wonderful Tim Cahill. She said, and I came to agree, that buying the magazine for his column alone was worthwhile. He no longer appears monthly in that magazine, and hasn't for years, but a decade or so ago he wrote the introduction for the fifteenth anniversary issue.

In that piece he wrote about an editor they had back in the early days of the magazine and how bad writing in and of itself actually offended him. Waving a particular article in the air, he demanded of his staff the whereabouts of this particular author. "Where is he?" he asked. "Can we find him and kill him?"

At first blush the point of ths struck me as fairly harsh. After all, there is no ultimate arbiter of taste or quality so who is anyone to really judge? If you don't like it, simply don't publish it. But then it began to sink in a little bit, so much so that I've come to embrace that same philosophy. I get angry when books (and movies and essays and any other writing based projects) are bad, and allow myself to become offended when dammit I know the writer(s) could have done better. If they have could have done it better, they should have done it better. Not only is it my time and money you're wasting by not fulfilling your own promise and the hype of the market, I'm insulted that you would think these underachieving efforts should pass scrutiny. (This helps explain my last post about bad TV).

There is a suspension of disbelief inherent in a reader's mind whenever he or she picks up a novel, or a viewer sits in front of a movie screen. This is not a suspension of plausibility however, and failing to make that distinction leads to the dreck that makes up the majority of the mass media.

If I'm reading a mystery or a thriller novel, I'll willingly not question how any one person can find themselves in the variety of exciting situations necessary to the plot. Personally I'll even grant you one coincidence in the book (but no more than that). When a single cop finds a body, figures out whodunnit, tracks down the killer, then throws him bodily off the water tower at the end, we let that go. We know that in real life related events and actions occur spread out among many people and much time; trying to achieve that level of realism would ruin that story. And who says we need that much realism anyway?

Now if you throw in a killer who can squeeze his body through casino airshafts (Wouldn't they be too small and too filthy for breathing? How about inaccessible, or noisy, or filled with bends or drops? Too dark?), or a sidekick who can hack into the Department of Defense computer in minutes from his home computer, or any of many millions of stupid pet tricks that I'm supposed to swallow without question, you pass the threshold of plausibility. And you lose me.

For that I get offended, I'm genuinely angered, and I wish they'd do better. For all our sakes. In an earlier post I mentioned authors whose first two books are the best they'll ever write. Capable of producing excellent work, they settle for the routine offerings that come out every season. They become their own formula and it's wrong because they can do better. You know it and they should know it. If you can do something and do it well, yet choose not to, what does it make you? A fraud, perhaps? A traitor to your talent? A waste of time? I can name many authors that fit this description, some of whom I still read. It's called hope...

Tim Cahill doesn't write novels but for an example of someone who writes well and lives up to his potential with every outing, pick up some of his work. There are a half dozen or so collections of his writings and he won't let you down. He made me feel that we have a right to expect quality from our writers, and that we can take it personally if we want to when it's found to be lacking. This kind of emotion is an ingredient of passion and if we let the monkeys throw it out the window in their work, we'll find it easier to do the same in our own.

That would be wrong. We should demand more from all of us.

Bad TV and the New Math

Recently, when I told a friend of mine in Denver that I didn't have a Tivo or any such device, he made the statement, "Why not? There's always something you want to watch on TV." This shocked me because there's almost never something I want to watch on TV. I've been weaning myself from sports because I don't care for the personalities of most of the athletes. I deleted the news channels, the Weather Channel and MTV from the rotation in the remote control.

Other than spontaneously coming across History Channel documentaries or National Geographic Channel shows, I tend to flick past all the remaining channels in turn, click, click, click, while I'm eating dinner or resting my eyes after putting down a book. Drives my wife crazy.

The problem is that I want to like television. Truly good shows like The Sopranos or Seinfeld come along and make me wince all the harder at the rest of the cowardly, imitative knock-offs that pollute the cablewaves. Five hundred channels of cable TV mean 499 channels of junk at any given moment.

So I can't help but ask myself why I find so much of it garbage and I found two similar shows, both science fiction, both very popular, that offend me equally but for nearly opposite reasons. One produces junk by addition, the other junk by subtraction.

Impeccable production values and glitz don't make up for the many deficiencies in Star Trek: The Next Generation, especially when, to my mind, it's compared with the original show from the sixties. The annoying episodes featuring Worf's little boy growing up with difficulty, Data's quest for a sense of humor, constant insubordination from the crew - set all that aside, the show crosses from annoyance to offensive when the formula they use is a deus ex machina cloaked by a technology made up on the spot.

In other words, they'd have an episode where some minor but constant danger threatens the ship or the crew. Meanwhile, Alexander is fighting in school or Data is laughing inappropriately because he doesn't have a humor chip implanted in his android circuitry. At the very end of the episode, Alexander has adjusted, Data has performed as a night club comic, and the danger has increased to a potentially fatal level. And voila, the chief engineer says that he can re-route the tachyon emitters through the sensor array and boost the signal with the exhaust from the warp core. Won't you have to compensate for the Heisenberg differentiators? Well, yes, but that shouldn't be too hard. I can run a level three diagnostic to pinpoint the variations and adjust the power flow accordingly. Make it so. The day is saved by mumbo jumbo.

In the new Battlestar Galactica series, they attempt the same pulling of wool but instead of making stuff up, or adding nonsense to mask a poorly thought out plot, they leave things out and I guess hope viewers simply don't notice. The annoying things with this show have to do with the necessity of having Cylons fly their fighter ships (why would a machine need a separate machine to fly itself?), the apparent instinct for each robots own self-preservation (can't they just be fixed if shot?).

The offensive things are the plot points that involve things like the sabotage of the water tanks aboard the Galactica. Explosives are place on the outside of the tanks, venting the fleet's drinking water into space. The entire fleet had to stop in space and find water immediately. This story arc spanned several episodes where convicts were recruited into the high risk endeavor of recovering water from beneath the surface of a nearby moon.

Um, I asked myself, if you dump the water into space next to the ship, isn't the water sitting in space next to the ship? Wouldn't it be much less hazardous to scoop it up from there rather than from a toxic moon? If my Latin were better I'd try to come up with the antithesis of "deus ex machina," but it's not. Real sabotage would have been poisoning the water but then the fleet wouldn't need to halt, prisoners need to be freed, and all the other action that filled up two or three episodes.

In the first show, quality is sacrificed because in the one instance, hokey technology is ADDED at the last minute in order to save the day. In the second, common sense is SUBTRACTED at critical moments in order to further or create a conflct necessary to the drama. In both instances, this math detracts from the show and undermines the potential these shows otherwise may have had. Style over substance.

Where I really get offended is the sense I have that I'm supposed to watch these shows and simply not notice the clumsiness of the stories. Most of us are smarter than that. For proof, I offer the fact that we, the public, made successes out of intelligent, well written and produced shows like The Sopranos and Seinfeld. See, I knew we could do it...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Snuggies, Wedgies and Chili Dust

When I went to junior high school in Minneapolis, I was one of many kids bussed to the northern part of the city in order to racially diversify the student body. Many of the black kids would constantly harass the more vulnerable white ones but I don't think it was too bad. They'd note their targets in the boys locker room, turn off the lights while our alcoholic teacher was imbibing in his office, then pummel away until someone managed to get the lights back on. Not fighting back marked you for life but for the price of a fight or two you could get yourself left alone, pretty much. It seems like today, with gangsta music, violent video games and other forms of violence acceptance, newer and more serious forms of bullying may have arrived. I'm just glad I'm too old to find out.

The Snuggy Patrol formed spontaneously on one semi-evil lunch period and lasted for several weeks. A butterfly flapped its wings somewhere which led to the formation of a group of thugs who administered violent snuggies to whomever was handy. After peeling their underwear from their foreheads and stuffing it back into their corduroy Levis, the newly initiated would become part of the mob and enter the hunt for further victims. I was never Snuggied although it took all my natural speed as well as the will to abandon school grounds and enter the surrounding neighborhoods with a swarm of crazed seventh and eigth graders after my pants.

Until Mrs. Gilger. In class. On her desk even. Worse, I didn't even see it coming.

Each trimester, school would continue for a week after the final tests had been administered. The reasons for this were never clear to anyone. The smart kids would get their parents to write a note excusing them both from the extraneous classes and the stepped up abuse that filled the tedium of time spent in school with no work. The key to making this work, though, the absolute rule that must not be broken EVER, was to not tell anyone that you were through after the tests were over. You couldn't tell your best friend, the girl you wanted to impress, your buddy from the third grade, NO ONE.

Or you would pay. My, how you would pay.

Here's how I did:

I had a wonderful choir teacher named Mrs. Gilger. An enormous woman, she was able to reach her students through a combination of humor and respect and I really enjoyed being her student. I let her down once when she was trying to get into a locked box that contained some sheet music she was after. She didn't have the key and she told me that I looked like a hood, I should be able to open it. To a boy in the seventh grade there could be no higher praise. Armed with a paper clip I bent and twisted and poked and turned and made no headway on the problem whatsoever. Another kid took the paper clip and popped it open in twenty seconds. This ended my career as a hood - I wasn't good enough with a paper clip.

Anyway, I liked Mrs. Gilger and as this was the end of the school year, I didn't know if I'd ever be in her class again. So I told her, very slyly, no one could overhear, about the note. "You mean this is your last day?" she asked. "Oh, yes," I said, feeling, if not like a hood, at least fiendishly clever. "Well, then," Mrs. Gilger said, or something like it, and reached her bulky form across her desk, swallowed my undersized wrists in a single bear-like paw, then reached down the back of my pants with the other and gave me the single most destructive snuggy I had ever received.

I'm not sure I became a man that day, in fact I thought it was hilarious, even while the skin burns were forming. This probably explains why I was never that good at fighting, I just couldn't work up the anger to be very interested in it.

Today I picked up a menu from a granola bar restaurant that had a dish called "Criss cross mango." It is described as "half a ripe mango with lime wedgie and a pinch of secret chili dust." That's the whole description. I read it and all I could think about was how, with the addition of just a few choice ingredients, it could match the description of what transpired that fateful June day across the desktop of my seventh grade choir teacher.

Is there a moral to be gleaned here? I doubt it, but perhaps it would be that you should never trust a teacher, no matter how much you may want to or how innocent it may seem. Or maybe that if that many people want to give you a snuggy, wedgie, or whatever the term of the day may be, you ought to just hold your arms out from your sides and let it happen. Give up wearing underwear by the sixth grade? Maybe breakaway underwear, where the preadators can get their hands on it but as you run away it pulls apart leaving them holding something they'd rather not.

If I knew where Mrs. Gilger was today, maybe I'd ask her.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Rainy Days and Sundays

It's a rainy Sunday in Florida, cool and drizzly, kind of perfect for a holiday season in the South. When I lived up north in the frozen tundra where overcast would frequently be the color of the sky for a week or so at a time, I dreaded weather like this and longed for sunshine. Unless I was skiing and didn't want the glare from the slopes burning my eyes out but that's a different issue.

We recently made the decision to sell our house and head back up north, albeit a different state and region. My wife had always told me that she wanted to raise kids in a small town where there were four distinct seasons, one of them with snow. Being a confirmed though transplanted Floridian, I told her she was nuts and that as soon as she buried me (down here in the sand), she should feel free to move anywhere she wanted. So when I called her at work one day and told her, "Let's move to the mountains," she was shocked. In a way I am, too, but to coin a phrase, if not now, when? Once we buy another house we should be settled there for a period of years and the kids will be a lot closer to being not kids.

I've been wondering recently what the mix of things are that went into this decision. After all, I NEVER thought we'd sell this house for any reason at any time. While my wife's stated desires are an enormous factor, another is that the magic is gone for me in Florida. Perhaps one day it could come back, but now the ever increasing rush of traffic, the constant razing of wildland and building of crammed subdivisions and golf courses, the shoehorning of new houses in between two existing ones where there had been a medium sized yard, and on and on, have taken there toll.

The weather is still beautiful, and the humidity and the feel of the air, the damp warmth of the night, the stillness of the palm fronds in the quiet air (hurricanes excepting), all serve as a bittersweet reminder of that magic now faded. On a beautiful day you can look up and admire the openness of the faded blue sky that comes from living at sea level elevation, the greenness of the grass and the trees, and the diversity of the birds: blue herons, American egrets, quaker parrakeets with their discordant cries.

Then you look down and see the powerlines that are supposed to be buried but not, telephone poles across the streets from these, the crammed housing and incredible traffic; at night the mercury lights, brighter than streetlights, so bright you can't look at them for the glare, burn holes into the atmosphere that were never there before.

Here and there are signs of hope, but it probably won't be enough. To me, "developer" has always been a dirty word. Tear down the old, the damaged, the ugly, and rebuild there when you can. Leave the rest of it alone. Two thirds of the state are entirely dependent on rainfall for fresh water needs and there hasn't been enough for years. Now we have desalinization plants in Tampa and we don't know what the effects of dumping massive amounts of concentrated saltwater will be.

Grouper fishermen fight the periodic bans the government places on the diminishing fish, trying to protect their livelihoods. But aren't those going to be gone when the fish disappear? Shouldn't you support the bans and maybe eliminate a few fishermen? Restaurant owners, too, don't like the bans, they say people don't want frozen grouper from Mexico. But then won't they just order something else? It's not like the joint down the street has the fresh local stuff. People are still going to eat.

Anyway, it's a mess and it's worn me down. Part of it I'm sure has to do with my physical condition, which isn't good. I have bulging and herniated discs in both my neck and low back, and after a botched procedure that left me bedridden with leaking spinal fluid for eight months I'm now fighting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I've been close to an invalid for over two years now and in the struggle to remain above the negativity, I've grown tired of many things, not just the deterioration of the state.

I told Melissa that if I were healthy, if we could still take our boat out, and paddle the kayak or the canoe around the island we live on (and play softball and basketball and on and on), I might feel differently about leaving here. I don't know. But like today, I'm drawn to the idea of rain, snow and overcast weather; I want the weight of it. The truth is that I can lay propped up in my room in any house in any state but I want something more.

In Jeremy Poolman's book about his quest to know the last days of Libbie Custer (General George's widow), he quotes her as saying, "A wounded thing must hide." And that's me, that's how I feel exactly. When the sun comes out again it will appear with regret, and I will feel a vague sense of loss, and I will be sad.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Fuel for Thought

Last Sunday the local paper printed a letter from a citizen under the heading that Americans have no right to expect cheap gas. We all need to wake up and boy is he laughing now after being derided for his purchase of a Mini Cooper.

A few weeks ago congressional hearings querying the record profits made by the country's largest oil companies were televised. One gentleman made the comment that Americans need to realize that we compete for fuel in a global marketplace, implying, like the gentelman in the Mini Cooper, that we need to get over it and pony up.

What we pay for petroleum is based on a speculative market and not on a hard and fast cost plus profit calculation. If this speculation has turned into record profits for the oil companies, how can that mean they hadn't been overcharging us? If their costs had been correspondingly higher, they'd have made the same percentage of profit as before the ballooning prices hit.

Perhaps the oil company executive's meaning had been that he could have sold the same fuel to another country for a higher price than here; raising domestic prices thereby made it more attractive to sell here rather than there. Either way it's all about money.

In today's USA Today is a cover story concerning the between twenty and thirty percent rise in heating fuel costs. On the news was a story about how christmas trees and other goods will cost more this year because of higher transportation costs.

It's not about how much it costs you to fill up your car. It's about how much it costs you to heat your home in the winter or feed yourself and your family. You can't escape these effects by trading in your SUV for a hybrid car, though what a wonderful message that would send if we all up and did it. Congress might finally approve higher mileage standards and automakers might get the message.

I don't begrudge the oil companies for their profits although I'm not happy about it. They made their windfall by working within the established system and if there's a culprit to be named, that's where we should look. Change the system so that speculation can't have an effect on retail prices to the point where record profits can be made. Hardship is created and benefitting from that to such a degree is profiteering.

So they made their extra billions and don't regret it. I never expected them to. But let's not sit by and merely accept what happened and allow the system to churn on without changes. This is a tacit acknowledgment that this will happen again and again, and it shouldn't be okay. We're not talking about the cost of bowling balls or chocolate milk but of a commodity that's vital to the interest of virtually every one in this country.

Congratulations to everyone who's bought a Mini Cooper, a Toyota Prius or a Honda Insight. That's a step in the right direction but there's a lot more to do.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Horror, Terror, Oppression

I just finished reading the third very large english language volume of the diaries of Victor Klemperer. He came from a jewish family but was baptised a protestant. He fought for Germany on the front lines of World War I until he was wounded, and went on to become a journalist, teacher and scholar. Until the Nazis took power, with their view of Judaism as a race and as a religion. Gradually he was forced out of his job, his pension, his car, and then his home itself. He risked likely death by having his treasured cat humanely put to sleep by his veterinarian rather than have him seized and killed by the government because it became illegal for Jews to own pets.

The fact that he had married a German (the government's 'Aryan') woman kept him alive while his friends and fellow Jews were being transported east. Gradually it becomes clear that these people are not being relocated but are being worked to death as well as killed outright. Whole families at a time. Klemperer had finally received his own notice the day before the infamouse Dresden fire bombing and the immense destruction allowed him to remove the star of David patch he was required to wear and set off underground.

The first two volumes cover the years between 1933 and 1945 and are the unique record of a writer recording not the status of the war but rather the daily life of the persecuted under the Nazis. He gives insights into the German as well as the Jewish mind and after much thought and discussion, he explains Hitlerism as a part of Germanness; a small, shameful but indelible part.

The second volume ends when he and his wife, after trekking hundreds of miles on foot while begging food and lodging every day, finally arrive back at the house they had built in Dolschen. Their Nazi "tenant" had fled and they had come home.

In the third volume, which covers the rest of 1945 until his death in 1960, Klemperer relates life under the Soviets in the "Eastern Zone." On the one hand he was at least partially restored to his former position, was named to the university chairs he had coveted, published new editions of his schloarly works as well as new pieces and speeches (he was also much in demand as a speaker).

The books move slowly and what emerges is a picture of an insecure man caught between his innate talents and accompanying feelings of inadequacy. No matter how many of his goals he achieved under the Soviets, he constantly felt that they were due mostly to the lack of intellectuals still in the East. His successes always reminded him of his disappointments and he was a man who was never at ease with himself.

After the war he embraced communism because he felt that the old Nazis needed to be purged and that they were the only movement with a will to do so. It wasn't until the very end of his life where he finally admitted to himself that the Soviet system and the former Nazi one weren't that different.

The chillingness of these books is mostly read between the lines and is very subtle in its impact. The focus is always on Klemperer himself, his thoughts and how the events happening around him impacted himself, his work, his life. There aren't many ruminations on the actual horrors of the camps or the sheer number of lives lost, or what other victims must have been feeling. Here there is the fear of the pounding on the door in the evening, announcing the arrival of the Gestapo (the "Spitter" and the "Beater") and the seizure of rationed food, paper and anything else they wanted.

This is the saga of the little horrors and the personal terrors that were his daily life in Nazi Germany outside the camps and are a record of a man struggling with himself, his time, and two of the most oppressive regimes in the last century. Fascinating, enlightening and disturbing. It deserves to be read.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Forests and Trees...

Several months ago I read where the publishing world wanted to phase out mass market paperbacks in favor of the larger (but still paperback) trade format. Among the reasons cited were a decline in sales of mass market books, and the notion that young readers, having grown up on bombastic TV and explosive video games, require a larger, more visual format.

I cried out loud. And continue to do so, especially when I walk into a bookstore and see all the newest editions of back list titles now out as trade paperbacks.

Not because I would lament the demise of the mass market format; I really couldn’t care less. The problem is the loss of the most affordable format, be it mass market or otherwise (I don’t count e-books here chiefly because they’re not actual books – this is another subject).

The real problem is that while mass market books are served in the most affordable package, they’ve become not as affordable as they used to be. As prices have crept up to eight bucks and higher, moved closer and closer to discounted hardcovers, they’ve crossed the line where the average reader can go into a bookstore and take a flyer on five or six books and walk away with enough money for the bus fare home. All the fancy cover art and lauding blurbs won’t make a difference.

The solution to this dilemma is twofold. First, lower the prices of mass market books. If you can’t sell them for eight bucks, you’re sure the hell not going to sell them for fourteen bucks. I don’t care how many video games I’ve played. You say the publishers can’t sell enough books at five bucks to make their profit goals? That’s probably right. So the second solution to the declining sales problem is to publish better books.

It sounds trite but it isn’t. Why do so many brilliant genre authors fail to live up to their first two books? They haven’t lost their abilities and talents, I don’t think they can. I think they naturally settle into their book a year contracts and ease the foot off the gas ever so slightly. As long as their sales figures reach a certain level, their publishers keep them on and things roll along in an underachieving equilibrium.

I’ve heard it said at conferences that most editors are young, in many cases much younger than their writers. The disparities in life, reading and cultural experience must make the actual editing of a seasoned author’s work problematic. Can’t we find a way, without infringing upon the writer’s creative rights, to point out plot holes, clichéd characters, or simply instances where the current book doesn’t do quite live up to the standards of the last one? Can’t we demand a little more than books that earn reviews with the phrases “not one of his/her best efforts,” or “long time readers will find this book interesting but it’s not likely to attract new ones”?

For eight bucks a pop, or fourteen or twenty, and even for five measly dollars, I deserve more than a book I may not want to read to the end, a book that I leave in McDonald’s or in the flap in the chair in front of me on the airplane. Give me a more consistent quality experience with books, whatever the format, and I’ll buy them.

I just have to be able to afford them, and there has to be a reasonable chance that the best thing about them isn’t the cover art. The more affordable they are, the more chances I can take; the better the overall quality of the material, the more reading will actually take place.

Harry Potter proves that good books can coexist with video games. It’s the appeal of the material that matters, not whether it’s printed on a page or projected on a TV screen. But that’s a subject for another time.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Lines Between the Dots...

As I (quite hopefully) recover from a nasty set of spine problems, chronic fatigue syndrome, physical deconditioning, etc., I hope blogging turns out to be a good outlet for random thoughts, concerns and philosophies. Otherwise they stay bottled up with me in small, semi-dark book lined room, periodically interrupted by the child raising of our two children. We'll see how it goes.

Primarily I'd like to write about writing, publishing, creativity, and anything that seems like it may have a connection. Random things may fall out of the tree from time to time as well; time will tell. If anyone other than myself actually reads anything here, feel free to post a comment.

In the past few weeks, several AP items regarding publishing and the sale of used books appeared. I posted comments to each of them but not one person in this whole wide world responded. They may never have been read. I'll get into their content in the next post; this will be an open letter type message to the publishing world with a message that seems obvious to me.

But as when interacting with all large systems, it will surely inspire no consensus whatsoever. Discussion would be the goal, argument even, but it all has to start with the expression or assertion of an idea. Hence the blog...