Monthly Archives: June 2008

Good book, good cause

Jeff Sypeck is giving away a hardcover copy of his book Becoming Charlemagne in exchange for a donation of at least $10 to the Paralyzed Veterans of America. The book is a terrific read, the cause equally so, and I bet Jeff will sign your copy if you ask him politely.

Hot type

ABE just sent me a listing of “Signed Books from Superstars of Modern Literature,” and there are some jaw-droppers on the list. The champion has to be a limited edition run of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, bound in an asbesto-derived material called quinterra and signed by the author — a mere $18,500  for a bibliophile with money, well, burning a hole in his pocket. 

Of course, Bradbury’s in a class by himself, but how did Nick Hornby get to be such a hot commodity? I mean, $1,375 for a signed copy of Fever Pitch? And lookee here — a special signed edition of No Country for Old Men going for $7,500. Nothing like an Oscar to boost collectibility. 

Now seems as good a time as any tio remind people I’ll be selling and signing copies of my first book at the Collingswood Book Festival in October. I’m not suggesting that copies of The Last Three Miles will be selling for thousands of dollars someday, but hey — you never know.

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Mark your calendars

Looks like I’ll be hanging out my shingle at this year’s Collingswood Book Festival, set for October 4 in the South Jersey burg of Collingswood, near Camden and Cherry Hill. Not only have I heard many great things about the festival, but this will be my chance to check out Collingswood, which has been described to me as a very fun and interesting town.

I realize that October is still a ways off, but it’s never too early to start lining up your fall calendar. These things have a way of creeping up on you, you know. I’ll be selling and signing copies of The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, so drop on by if you want to get some early Christmas shopping done, or if you just want to say howdy.    

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A Lucas epiphany

Dances With Mermaids was recently bitten by the Star Wars bug, and she’s seen all the movies now. Nothing I’ve seen has made me re-evaluate my opinion of the series: The Empire Strikes Back remains not just the best of the bunch, but the only one worth differentiating. I mean, who cares if Attack of the Clones is slightly worse than Return of the Jedi, or slighter better than The Phantom Menace? That’s why God invented fanboys — to engage in those kind of arguments.  

But I still have enough fanboy DNA in my personality to take note when Lance Mannion, hearing George Lucas interviewed ad infinitum on the bonus disc of Star Wars ephemera, hits on what may be the reason most of the flicks are so lame:

I don’t think the mild-manneredness or the modesty are phony.  But humilty is not incompatible with a large ego.  In fact, that’s why humility is a virtue.  You have practice it and the bigger your ego the more virtue there is in your humility.  Lucas knows he didn’t do it all on his own and he’s happy to give credit where he believes credit is due.

I just think that he gives people the wrong kind of credit.

I noticed this when he was telling the interviewer about how the great illustrator Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art helped him sell his, Lucas’s, vision of Star Wars to the suits at 20th Century Fox.  Lucas was grateful to McQuarrie, but he didn’t seem to realize that McQuarrie had done the actual work of creating the look of the Star Wars world.  He seemed to think of McQuarrie as the artistic equivalent of a stenographer and what McQuarrie produced as the equivalent of taking dictation.   It didn’t occur to him that along with influencing the studio execs’ images of what the movie would look like, McQuarrie was influencing Lucas’s own.

In other words Lucas appreciates everybody who works for him as extensions of himself.  He doesn’t really see them as artists in their own rights and especially doesn’t see that in many cases they are far better artists than he is.

So he doesn’t learn from them.

I don’t think he knows how much of the first two Star Wars movies he owes to not just the artists, model builders, costume designers, set designer, cinematographer, and special effects technicians but to Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Frank Oz, and (yes, Trish Wilson) Peter Cushing.

I think Lucas’ inability to learn from the people he works with explains why as Lucas has asserted more and more control over every aspect of the movies. each movie since Empire Strikes Back has been sillier than the one before. Not being able to learn from his actors has especially hurt him.  In the new movies he has assembled a much more talented collection of actors:  Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Jimmy Smits.  I even think Hayden Christensen’s doing a good job.  And he’s wasted them.  Every one of them.  Worse, he’s made Natalie Portman look bad.

I have enough geek cells in my bloodstream to have a copy of the two-disc Empire DVD that includes the original version of the film, before Lucas started dicking around with the special effects and dubbing in new dialogue. I decided that if I ever watched the film again, it would be the version without the awful girl-man screech inflicted on Luke as he let himself fall down the Cloud City ventilation shaft. That’s the version Dances With Mermaids has seen, I’m happy to say.

I wonder how many Geeks Of A Certain Age have insisted on showing their kids the movies in the order of release, rather than the canonical order cooked up by Lucas? Wil there be two schools of thought, going forward, on which is the better way?         

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Travels with E.coli

Science writer Carl Zimmer returns from the west coast leg of his tour to promote Microcosm:

Portland had a cloudy, melancholy charm, and at Powell’s I gave a reading in front of a collection of hand-made black velvet paintings from the nearby Velveteria. When the audience’s eyes drifted off of me, I couldn’t tell if they were lost in thought or distracted by Jimi Hendrix or a smoking clown.

The next day I headed for San Francisco, where I talked to Moira Gunn for her show Tech Nation (link to come). Then I had lunch with Kirsten Sanford, who will be interviewing me on tomorrow’s edition of This Week In Science. Then off to Santa Cruz, to talk to Robert Pollie at KUSP for his show Talk of the Bay (link to come). Finally I made my way over to Kepler’s in Menlo Park. I spoke there a few years ago, and since then they closed and were saved by the community. I was glad to be able to come back.

In the morning I flew to Seattle. I headed for Microsoft Research to give a talk, which I’m told will be online before long. I was a little spooked by the experience, because, in addition to the lunchtime crowd in the room, there were lots of people watching online elsewhere–in some cases in other countries. I had to resist the instinct to talk very loudly so that people over in China could hear me.

Then I made a quick appearance on KOMO, the ABC affiliate in Seattle. The anchor started talking about E. coli in hamburger and spinach, and I responded by describing the billions of E. coli in her. I saw her eyes widen a little in what I’m guessing was supressed horror, but she handled it like a pro.

Finally I went to Town Hall and waited for intrepid souls to wade through the downpours to hear me talk. It was great to see familiar faces (like this mug). I met blogger Geoff Arnold, who showed me Microcosm on Kindle, and since I couldn’t autograph his screen, he took a picture. (I think Town Hall will also be posting my talk–will update.)

Now there’s a drawback nobody thought of — how do you inscribe a Kindle book?

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Here’s a potentially fantastic setting for somebody’s alternate-universe science fiction novel: Atlantropa, a super-continent created by damming the Mediterranean Sea and channeling the overflow through the interior of Africa. The vast scheme, proposed in 1929 by German architect Herman Sorgel,would have divided the Mediterranean into two smaller bodies for gradual reclamation; a land bridge to Africa via Sicily and the Italian peninsula; and huge bodies of water covering Chad and the Congo basin.

In drafting his proposal, Sorgel didn’t spare even a moment’s thought for the wishes of the Africans (who were already being exploited by the colonial powers), but is tremendously solicitous of European tourist stops like Venice, which would be allowed to retain its lagoon through a system of dams and canals. Between the forcible relocations and the uprooting of tribal groups, the plan’s impact on Africans would likely have given even King Leopold nightmares. In Philip K. Dick’s landmark alternate-history novel The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers have won World War II, there is a passing mention of Nazi Germany’s ambitious reclamation of the Mediterranean and the fate of the Africans as “little chemical piles” dotting the grasslands. It wouldn’t surprise me if PKD had heard about Sorgel’s proposal and did the necessary extrapolations from that. Gulp.

Brought to you by Strange Maps, a site that remains one of the best arguments for the Internet’s continued value.

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Can’t make it to Dublin for Bloomsday? These videos are the next best thing to being there.

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Tome sweet tome

john Lanchester likes the Library of America as much as I do, specially the physical particulars: the way the books are perfectly shaped to hold, the elegant look, the useful ribbon bound into each copy. But he has a problem: once he buys a volume, he has trouble getting himself to read it.

Ummmm . . . whatever. If anything, I work my copies too hard — the three Melville volumes and the terrific one-volume Flannery O’Connor collection are looking a little worn out. But even beat-up LoA books are pretty classy looking things.   

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Crime ball

It would be hard to overstate just how bored I get when people talk sports. Baseball, football, hockey — I just don’t follow ’em. Sorry, folks, I tried to get interested, but I couldn’t make it work. When I tried to watch a couple of baseball games, I ended up concluding that the old joke about baseball being a half-hour of action crammed into a three-hour game was, if anything, too kind.

But even though I’m indifferent to baseball, Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out has always been high on my list of re-readable titles. Asinof’s investigation of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, in which eight players on the Chicago White Sox team conspired to throw the World Series, is a clear-eyed, unflinching look at the cast of gangsters, athletes, hucksters and grifters surrounding the scandal. Asinof is particularly scathing on the subject of the team owner, whose penny-pinching and ill treatment of players who were making him rich made the team vulnerable to a fix. Believe me,  even if you’re lukewarm on sports, Eight Men Out will hold your attention. 

My continuing interest has been in the role of Arnold Rothstein, the “Big Bankroll” who pointed the way to organized crime and grew wealthy in the gray area where the underworld and the overworld overlap.  Frank Hague, a key figure in my first book, got a boost from Rothstein during the election that made Hague mayor of Jersey City — Rothstein, an ally of Tammany Hall, arranged for a flotilla of “floaters” to come over from New York City and stuff ballot boxes on Hague’s behalf. Hague, in gratitude, gave Rothstein control of gambling concessions in the city.

Asinof died recently at the age of 88 and he sounds like he was quite a guy: ex-ball player, blacklisted writer, novelist, curmudgeon. when John Sayles, independent filmmaker and proud leftie, set out to put Eight Men Out on the big screen, he co-wrote the script with Asinof. Boy, those must have been some story sessions.

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The Reader’s Digest Condensed Books series — the brainchild of John S. Zinsser Jr., who recently died of a heart attack at 84 — was to literature what the Paint-by-Number kits were to art. Just as those painstakingly filled-in canvases allowed people to convince themselves they had artistic talent, so did the carefully stripped down versions of East of Eden and Cry, the Beloved Country allow people to convince themselves they’d actually read John Steinbeck and Alan Paton.

As a firm believer in the principle that a great book is never too long, and a lousy book is never short enough, I’m appalled but not surprised that Zinsser considered himself a real appreciator of literature. He seems to have been the kind of guy who would have been better off in some other line of work. I dunno, maybe the lumber industry. All those trees — wouldn’t those forests be so much better if they had fewer trees, so people could get through them faster?

It’s surprising to see that the condensed books concept continues under the brand name Reader’s Digest Select Editions. I’d always thought of them as relics of the era when TV dInners substituted for cooked meals and movies, once they finished their theatrical runs, reappeared only in chopped-up versions, edited to suit the needs of the station. At least the real novels were still available.         

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