Thursday, December 27, 2007

Most Literate Cities

I hope I have readers who are Twins fans. Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities, are one and three, respectively, on the latest "Most Literate Cities" survey.

But reading is declining overall, and that's a concern I share with the surveyers. "We're getting higher and higher educational attainment levels, and at the same time we're getting fewer and fewer behaviors (that reflect) what we think educated people ought to do," said researcher Jack Miller, who's been conducting this survey for the past five years.

I still maintain that people read a lot. The studies showing how many people skim through Web sites while at work should indicate that. But people are not reading for pleasure, and they may not be retaining well what they read. Another caveat of this story: It seems to point to a decrease in newspaper reading as a sign that reading is declining; it may simply show that people are getting their news from different sources -- the Web in particular.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Young Adult Novels and the Old Adults Who Write Them

According to this article that appeared in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago, I'm too old to be considered to be tolerated for remaining young in my mind. That's ok, since there are enough times that I feel old already. But I suspect few things would make me feel as old as reading a young adult novel.

I've read a couple of them before, but probably not since I was a student teacher. However, I may be wrong, because there seems to be no clear definition of what a YA novel is. The Post article isn't about the age range of YA subjects, rather it's a profile of Nick Hornby, the British novelist who wrote High Fidelity and Fever Pitch. According to his Web site, he's known for being funny, humane, and touching -- though the article seems to point more to a sense of melancholy that runs through his personality. But I'd say a man who has a profoundly autistic son is allowed to be touching and melancholy at times when it suits him.

What I liked most about this article -- which struck me as rare for the Post, though I don't usually read it for its literary reportage -- was that it got to the heart of who Hornby is as a writer and why people enjoy reading him. He said that the characters he likes to write about are "people in very ordinary situations in cities, whose lives get bent out of shape by something kind of big happening to them." Perfect. You've got me hooked! That's what I like to write too. (Well, sometimes the situations get a little out of the ordinary.)

The article is about Hornby's entree into the YA field, with his new book Slam. While some of his creative team feel it should have been marketed to the adult reading public (where it would sell better), Hornby seems pleased at the opportunity to do something new.

Hornby was inspired to write in part by the early works of Roddy Doyle, who wrote The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van. But his approach to YA novels appears to have been changed by his discovering David Almond and the late Robert Cormier. (I'll admit they're both news to me.)

Slam -- and indeed, this article -- are unique, in that they show that there are still writers and publishers willing to do something different, something daring, to cultivate new readership. I'm pleased to see it, and I hope there are more examples to call attention to in the future.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Read for Fun, America!

I meant to write about this weeks ago, but I was having too much fun reading other things. Back in November there was an article in the New York Times about how fewer people are reading for pleasure. It was based on a National Endowment for the Arts study. It got me thinking: What does this say about the state of publishing?

I believe that lots of people read for fun. I see it on the train every work day. But I'm also seeing a lot more people using their portable DVD players, and it seems every other person has iPod buds sticking out of their ears. And of course, there are several masochists who do work on the train (full disclosure: I do too, sometimes, but I don't enjoy it).

Books and a train commute are a perfect combination, so why aren't more people reading? Perhaps it's because so many books out there suck. A possibility, at least. But I suspect it's because the marketing doesn't know how to build or develop an audience -- especially for mid-list writers. Let's face it, it's easy to publicize a Stephen King novel. He's got years of successful novels under his belt and has connected wiht his audience better than any writer I know of. But why don't more people know about Christopher Moore? He's funny, he's entertaining, he's occasionally irreverant. Lord knows how many people are fans of his type of story, but it's a lot. This past year, when he released You Suck, the book was reviewed by the Times. Yet, there aren't enough people who know about him. I mention his name to other voracious readers, and they've never heard of him; when they read him, they like him.

One of the reasons I created this blog was to promote writers I like (of course, no one reads this either, so there you go!). I don't mean promote in the marketing sense; lord knows I'm no marketer.

Ultimately, I hope to create an audience for my books, which I think people will enjoy and believe they'll enjoy the subsequent books I produce. I'm sure this is naive, but I'm looking forward to speaking with readers, even if they challenge me to justify scenes or characters or a story's premise. The author is the best marketer for his or her work, but authors need publicists and strong editors and a team of professionals to make things sing. That's one of the reasons why publishers get the percentage of sales that they get; they're paying for the risk and for the overhead.

As readers, we don't have to worry about all that. We just have to read and enjoy. So read for fun, America! Use the imagination that you've been blessed with!

And if you happen to be on my blog, let me know what you've been reading and why. I'll share it with others. Let's get more people reading!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Blast! Foiled Again!

Well, I didn't get anywhere near where I wanted to go with my NaNoWriMo novel. A bit better than 10 percent. Shabby, definitely shabby.

I'll do better next year. For one thing, I'll go in with a plan; this year, I jumped in without any prior thought to doing it.

While I joined the competition with nothing more than a stray idea inspired by my wife, I exit November with more ideas for the future. I've contacted a couple other writers and I might even venture into a different genre yet again. Not exactly virgin territory, but something I've only written in torrid fluorishes.

So, now it is December: a month of revision and resolution. I won't post my New Year's Resolutions here. That's no one else's business. But rest assured, dear readers (both of you), I will advance my writing career in 2008. A decision will be made about my first novel -- hopefully, an agent or other publishing representative will recognize its (and my) potential -- or I'll find another way to get it out into the world.

The people who've read it have liked it and offered me excellent recommendations for how to improve it. So I believe I'm on the right path.

I hope all of you out there are too.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

TIME's People of the Year?

I'll never say that Stephen King is a great "writer," but he is really becoming one of my favorite interview subjects. (And I'll say he's a very entertaining storyteller.) This recent item in TIME is yet another example of why I enjoy listening to him.

He starts off asking about TIME's person of the year, and he suggests Britney Spears (Be warned, it's that image, but it's within the context of the King interview) and Lindsay Lohan should be awarded the honor. Yes, he's serious. But not because he thinks highly of them.

Britney Spears is just trailer trash. That's all. I mean, I don't mean to be pejorative. But you observe her behavior for the past five years and you say, "Here's a lady who can't take care of her kids, she can't take care of herself, she has no retirement fund, everything that she gets runs right through her hands." And yet, you know and I know that if you go to those sites that tell you what the most blogged-about things on the Internet are, it's Britney, it's Lindsay.

His point is a valid one. Sure, there are lots of intelligent Americans who don't give a crap about these imbeciles who are famous for being famous. But we don't do enough to drown them out. As King notes, is anyone paying attention to what's going on in Pakistan? This is an enormous country with millions of people, many of whom are impoverished, and it is on the brink of a coup. The country has nuclear weapons, and regardless of what some might think of Musharraf, he's an ally. Not only that, but the prime minister he ousted years ago and who is trying to get back into power is a nut job who saber-rattled with India.

Stephen King is many things, some good, some not so attractive, but I like listening to him or reading one of his interviews. He's always interesting, always thoughtful, and always entertaining. I can't say that about pop icons. Keep your voice strong, Mr. King.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why Do You Read?

I just noticed this article, which appeared over the Thanksgiving weekend in the New York Times. It asks a fundamental question: Why do we read?

I'm rarely without a book or other reading material at my disposal, though I'm not so addicted that I'll read the shampoo bottle every morning.

Anyone who's visited The Elephant's Bookshelf knows that I have eclectic reading tastes. But what about you out there? What do you like to read and why? Cammy? Frank? Care to start us off?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book stores

I'm a baseball fan -- born and bred. I've seen a game at nearly every National League town and several American League cities, too. But I have another hobby/passion. Books. I've always written and read, but it's nice to spend some quality alone time in a book store, amid the scents of ink, leather, and paper.

The other day, the New York Times ran a travel story for literature buffs. I haven't been too even a small sampling of the stores outside of New York city. But I now have a new goal: to visit the most interesting independent book stores in each city I visit while away on business. Of course, if there's a baseball game in town, I might have to go to the stadium first, but I could handle this.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lannan Literary Prize Winners

This week, the Lannan Foundation announced its annual awards and fellowships. Impressive stuff, as usual, and once again I didn't know any of the writers. Mind you, this says more about the me than about the writers, I suspect. They're doing what they need to do: they write, they publish, they probably speak or teach or both. In short, they're known -- just not by me. So join me as I take a look at their backgrounds.

A.L. Kennedy is a Scottish writer who's written several novels, gathered some of her short stories into a few books, and written some nonfiction books as well. What frightens me is she's only a few years older than I am.

Susan Straight (pictured above) lives out in California, and from the interviews I've read of her, including this item from the UC-Riverside press department, she sounds interesting. She studied with James Baldwin, which may have contributed to her perspective on race relations. I may need to read some of her work.

Mike Davis is the nonfiction award winner. I can picture him being one of those prickly reporters who is a pain in the ass but gets the story and gets it right. Journalism is one of the last places where that can still work.

All these folks won $150,000 for the awards. Not a bad prize, by any stretch.

Anne Stevenson was even more fortunate, but she had to wait a lifetime for the $200,000 Lifetime Achievement Award. An American expat living in Britain, she's been writing poetry forever. I think I've read a few of them, but I'm not certain.

The thing I like most about the Lannan Prizes, however, is not the succulent prize money. Rather, it's the anonymity behind them. The right people need to know who you are in order to even be considered. Work hard, write well, who knows who may one day receive one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the English-speaking world?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

NaNo WriMo: This Is Fun!

Before I go too far, I was looking for an image to depict juvenile aliens, and when I found the one I finally selected, I couldn't help but laugh. Every once in a while, the world needs a little PG-13 in an otherwise family-friendly site.

Anyway, back to my point: While I'm nowhere near the pace I need to reach my goal of 50,000 words, I'm enjoying the story I've created for my NaNo WriMo entry. It's a quasi-science fiction work. I won't go into too much detail here, but I'm writing about alien abductions (no, I've never experienced one, thank God) and college. And it's chock full of goofy stuff and oddball characters, which is as I like it. I generally write serious stuff in which some characters might have a good sense of humor, but I've been reading a lot of Christopher Moore the past year or so, and I'm really enjoying the funny, irreverent way he can tell a story. This is my homage to Christopher Moore.

Hopefully, some of my fellow writers will visit. Stop for a moment and sip from your coffee cup (or mine). Talk some trash, spin a yarn, or cast aspersions. I won't judge.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Hello NaNo WriMo

As you can see from the yum-yum yellow banner on the left-hand side, I've ventured into NaNo WriMo Land. They only require 50,000 words -- not 90,000 -- so it's not quite as rigorous as I'd feared. (I should have known better; my 282-page novel clocks in at around 95,000 words. I guess this novella would clock in around 120-125 pages.)

To any of the writers from the competition coming by to visit (and anyone else for that matter), welcome! I hope we can develop a little conversation and dialogue here. Think of the Bookshelf as a place to rest your pint glass that doesn't require coasters. Scotch drinkers welcome too. Sorry, no smoking.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

JoinMe for NaNo WriMo?

I'm thinking about doing it this year, writing a novel in a month. Since my first has taken several years, the prospect of writing one in a month amuses me. If I do it (and I'll decide today), it would be a more breezy, possibly humorous piece. Ninety thousand words? That's a good goal for a novel. But I don't think it's possible to actually write anything other than a first draft in that time. Perhaps we'll see. Anyone care to join me?

Books I Haven't Read

I'm pleased to find that Slate is focusing on books this week. I've not had a chance to get too deep into their articles, but that's appropos, given the focus of the first article I clicked on: the best books you haven't read...

For me? Well, there are so many. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce, most of the Harry Potter series.

I'll add another post later to expand on this, but I invite you all, dear readers, to indicate which "great" book you regret not having read -- or perhaps you don't regret it. Perhaps you're proud of it, the way some people swear off exercise or enjoy blowing cigar smoke in the face of others.

All are welcome.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fan Fiction

As a Star Trek fan, I'll admit that it's crossed my mind to write stories involving characters like Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, and the rest of the crew. I never did, but throughout my younger years I dreamed of joining the crew of the Enterprise -- "No bloody A, B, C, or D," as Scotty said in the "Reunion" episode of The Next Generation.

Of course, I grew up. Got interested in girls. Found my true love. And generally found myself more interested in writing about the characters springing up in my head, rather than those that already "existed" in television or movie history.

It had never occurred to me that there might be money to make in writing fan fiction, but apparently some people do that sort of thing and it's even becoming respectable. Far be it for me -- an unpublished novelist -- to pooh pooh the works of those who have several books under their belt, expanding the universe of characters I hold dear. Indeed, some writers are able to do quite well in that genre, and there's something to be said for claiming a piece of Captain Picard or Ensign Ro for posterity.

But I'm learning about the people in my head right now. Maybe sometime in the future, I'll worry about those already created.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

She Writes Like a Woman

There was an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times recently. Written by Verlyn Klinkenborg, the viewpoint was not merely about "politeness and authority" that the title references. Rather, it speaks to attitudes that are apparently held by women in Minnesota -- and probably in much of the United States. Specifically, the author suggests that women writers –- at least those Ms. Klinkenborg has taught -– tend to practice "self negation … a self-deprecatory way of talking that is meant … to help create a sense of shared space."

In other words, many women authors don’t write with confidence; their narrative voice is timid. While I’m sure there are many men who emasculate themselves in their writing, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. That’s probably because I think of writers –- male or female –- who impress me with their voice; I don't usually think about the ones whose voices are soft and uninspired.

I had a conversation with one of my sisters-in-law recently. She's a voracious and strong reader who can discern quickly whether she'll like something or not. She's also not a snob; I learned about Christopher Moore's delightful B-film novels from her. And she can explain why she likes something beyond the typical "I love the characters he creates" answer. Anyway, she described a conversation she'd had where she told a woman "I generally don't read women authors." She gave her reasoning, which I won't display here, except to say that Klinkenborg would have understood it.

Personally, I'm not bothered by women writers in general, though as I look at what I've been reading the past couple years since I started working in New York again, I've found that most of what I've read have been by men. Notable exceptions N.M. Kelby's Whale Season, which is kind of like Chris Moore only without vampires or demons, and Book Doctor by Esther Cohen, which I enjoyed (Ironically, it feels like it needs a book doctor; the ending was rushed and included a deus ex machina character to hasten things along. However, there were also a couple works that I started recently and didn't finish because they were treacly crap.

I found Klinkenborg's comments interesting coming as they did soon after Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Without having read a drop of her work, I can tell she's got a unique voice just by reading the interview she gave from her doorstep. The woman has confidence and pride, opinions and perspective. I hope more writers -- regardless of gender -- recognize the value of developing such an honest voice. Readers and other writers appreciate it.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Hey Jack Kerouac, I Think of Dr. Seuss...

I apologize for mangling a Natalie Merchant lyric for my own devices, but it's what came to mind after reading David Brooks' very funny social commentary in his recent New York Times column. Perhaps if I pondered longer about his column, I'd find a better title for this particular entry, but in a convoluted way it helps characterize the point I'm trying to make (and what else is a good headline to do?).

Brooks discusses Sal Paradise, the main character of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and points to a literary debate that apparently is broiling in the English departments of America's Ivory Towers: Is the book about youth's frenzied search for affirmation or is it about loss. Of course, to a liberal arts major like myself, the answer is easy: I can say without a whiff of irony that it's both -- and probably more.

But Brooks took a much more interesting approach to the issue. He argues that all cultural artifacts -- and at a half century, On the Road is certainly a dusty artifact in my opinion -- have to be interpreted through whatever experiences the Baby Boomer generation is going through at that moment.

How typical of a Boomer to say that. I'm no Boomer, thank you, but I can still chuckle at this line:
“On the Road” is the book you want to read if you find Sylvia Plath too upbeat.

Though, I'll admit I laughed out loud when he wrote:
In 20 years, "The Cat in the Hat" will be read as a commentary on unreliable home health care workers.

Still, I was struck at how true his words rang in my head when he noted that the real secret of the book was its discharge of youthful energy -- "the stupid, reckless energy that saves On the Road from being a dreadful novel. The delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz appears whenever the characters are happiest, when they are chasing girls or urinating from a swerving flatbed truck while going 70 miles an hour."

I can relate to that, and I think I can draw from that in my own work. (After all, I come from a generation balanced between everything being about Me and 'greed being good.') But I wouldn't cast all Boomers with the same brush strokes. Technically, the Baby Boom lasted until 1964 or '65. But I think there's a major difference between those kids who came of age during the Summer of Love and those who learned about life after waiting in line to get into Studio 54.

Kerouac wrote about the thrill and fearfulness of being a teenager. Even teenagers with the blues may be guilty of pissing off the backs of moving vehicles. Put into a good literary context, that can be powerful stuff. I don't think being reminded of that will be enough for me to wipe dust off my Kerouac, but if I write a little better now because of it, I'll tip my glass to the ol' drunk and take another sip from the sweet nectars of the Knowledge Tree.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Alive, Yes. Well? Not So Much

Thank God for Stephen King! If not for him, the market for short stories could very well perish. But because he's the big-shot, commercially successful writer that nearly everyone in America can identify by sight, he's able to get his comments in the New York Times. Now, I realize he's pitching the collection of short stories that he edited, but he's also advocating for those writers who are struggling to get noticed. This man deserves his plaudits and his millions, not because he writes great literature (he writes entertaining literature, I wouldn't call it great), but because he is a champion for all of us who hope to have an audience to develop.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Literary Discovery

I think I've become a literary snob. Perhaps I already knew this but chose to ignore it. What has struck me is how I now distinguish between "good" literature and "mediocre" literature (forget "poor" literature, which is a contradiction in terms).

For instance, during the past two days I've started and quickly stopped reading two different novels. Two nights ago it was John Irving's Until I Find You and yesterday afternoon, Marly Swick's Evening News. I usually love Irving's work. The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany are two of my favorite books (well, Garp and Owen are among my favorite characters). But within the first few pages of Until I Find You, I found myself in a maze of ill-constructed paragraphs; this is an 800+ page novel! Sorry John, I don't have time for that.

And Swick's work. Well, I can't say I enjoyed the creative writing-class style of introducing characters, but I could have gotten past that if the subject weren't so disturbing. I started reading it because my novel is about a family in a difficult situation; hers is about a family coping with the death of a small child. But in her novel, a young boy and his friend from next door are playing with the friend's dad's handgun, which mom keeps hidden in a Kleenex tissue box. A few predictable moments later, BANG! and the little baby sister is bleeding out into her inflatable swimming pool while mom's reading a book. I'm sorry, I don't have much patience for idiots in real life, I don't need to read about fictional morons. Here's a life story for you: Kids, don't play with guns! Parents, don't leave loaded guns where your kids can get to them, especially if they don't know what the hell they're doing!

Now I'm reading Whitney Otto's Now You See Her. Heading into the story is a nice little acknowledgement page. She thanks her family and friends and her editor and agent. All good and proper. But then within the first couple pages there's a subject/verb agreement problem (i.e., the subject is singular, but the verb used was plural). This is basic, grammar school English class red-pen stuff. Ok, if it only happens once, we can chalk it up to an amazingly odd snafu (though you don't usually find these things on page 3). But then, another couple pages later, there's something even more egregious. The protagonist lists things she has: Gainful employment; three good friends; two living parents... Four short paragraphs and a few lists later, the protagonist has telephoned her mother, "now a widow..."

When did that happen? In the past 100 words? Did mom dump dad in a bitter divorce a few years ago? Who knows, it hasn't been mentioned.

I think I'd thank this agent too, because she hooked you up with an editor who can't read. Since this book was published in 1994, I presume these flaws have already been pointed out and I'm simply slow on the draw. And considering I received this book for free through a book exchange, and its Barnes & Noble discount price of $5.98 is still attached to the front cover, I don't think too many people are overly concerned about who's going to fix it.

To be fair, since I didn't have any other books with me and I'd already read the One Story item I did have with me, I decided to read further in Otto's book. [Nota bene, One Story has a new address and it hasn't been corrected on their Web site -- so if your renewal was returned because the Post Office can't find them, don't fret, they've not gone out of business.]

And what I found is a story with promise. From what I can tell, it follows through on the fanciful "What if women over 40 actually do become invisible." I'll give the book a second chance. When there aren't glaring grammatical or continuity problems, it reads easy (well, actually, she seems to have a love affair with annoying fragments; not the literary types that are easily comprehensible), and if I hate it after tomorrow, there's always a Friday crossword puzzle to piss me off.

Oh yeah, I discovered another thing tonight on the train: I really love pizza. A man on the train was eating a slice and I couldn't help but wish I had one too. Again, this may be something I already knew. Sometimes life is cruel.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Nearing 'The End' Once Again

I'm on vacation and taking a break from my novel, which is only about 30 pages away from "re-completion." I anticipate adding some more description in one of the last chapters; I was never pleased with it. But I believe that I'll have it done by dinner time tomorrow -- if not sooner. I've already started letting those few "early readers" know that they will be receiving copies soon. It's not quite like how I felt when I first typed "The End" a couple years ago, but I believe this time the book will be better than it was then. The next entry will acknowledge another goal reached!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Death Comes to the Ideal Children's Author

Now this sounds like a perfect life story for a writer -- if any life can be called perfect. Madeleine L'Engle died recently. She's most famous for writing A Wrinkle in Time.

The comment includes a comment that she believed that life experiences are subservient to subconscious and perhaps larger spiritual influences. Though the reporter seemed surprised by that revelation, I know many writers -- myself included -- who would agree with her.

"Why does anybody tell a story?" she once asked, even though she knew the answer.

"It does indeed have something to do with faith," she said, "faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically."

I know that sounds all "New Agey" and trippy, dude, but I'd subscribe to what she said.

I wish I could have met her. I suspect she was a pleasant conversationalist, knowledgeable about many topics regardless of her formal training. She looks like she would have like to share time over a scotch and soda and tell a couple of off-color tales that seemed much racier in the telling than the words suggest.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Flying Cars, Teleportation, and eBooks

I'm a traditionalist, so the idea of reading a book on a small computer screen has no appeal to me. But that doesn't mean people won't test whether there's a market for an eBook reader. This New York Times story discusses the prospects of new products coming from Google and Amazon -- not actually saying much about the products themselves, but the prospects of them. For me, I love the light weight and flexibility of a regular book. I don't need to add any more weight or electricity into my life. But this article is worth at least taking a look at to keep up with where the technology is going -- whether it gets there or not.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Writing Life of the "Successful" Author

The Boston Globe recently ran a story about author Leah Hager Cohen. It has become rare to find an article about someone who's basically a mid-list writer. By her own admission, Cohen is not making a lot of money writing both novels and nonfiction. She may have to start teaching to make ends meet, she said. Frankly, that doesn't sound so bad to me, but I'm sure she'd prefer to be able to write on her usual schedule. The article also describes what to me sounds like a dream relationship with an agent: the agent pushed her but was honest, perhaps also blunt.

This article is also another example of why it's important for newspapers -- especially major ones like the Globe -- to continue to cover writers and books. While there are tons of Web sites and blogs out there that talk about writers no one in the "mainstream" world has ever heard of, when a New York Times, LA Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, or any of the other important U.S. newspapers include stories about authors other than Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, or any of the instantly recognizable, commercial writers, it helps all of us who aspire to get their works published and to believe there will be avenues of distribution for us too.

Keep writing, Ms. Cohen, and if you have to teach, then do it. Because that's one more way of developing writers and readers. Those kids will go off to college and talk about the quirky English teacher they had who had a few books published. The audience can keep growing one commuter at a time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Favorite books

This is a nice little site about celebrities' (actors, writers, etc.) favorite books as children. Some of the celebrities are more interesting than others; I liked Joyce Carol Oates's explanation of why she loved Lewis Carroll's Alice adventures. Of course, the more important part of First Book is that it encourages young people to read. More specifically, the organization gives books to children from low-income families. If I recall correctly, I interviewed the founder of this organization, back when I worked for a national trade journal about nonprofit organizations. I've not really kept up with them, but they seem to have done ok.

What was your favorite book growing up?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ok, America. Open Your Books to Page 1

Here's a summer horror story that's sure to curdle the blood of any book vampire. According to the Associated Press, the median number of books read by Americans in a year is four. And 25 percent of Americans didn't read a single book in the past year. As someone who averages four or five books a month, I find this kind of scary.

I'm lucky; I don't have to drive to work anymore. Before I started commuting on the train two years ago, I probably read ten to twelve books a year. While my commute is significantly longer each day than it was when I still worked in New Jersey, I'm sitting on a train for nearly all of my commute; drive time is never more than 10-15 minutes -- usually less than that.

Enough about me. The people who don't read tend to be less educated than the readers. That makes sense, of course. Those with strong high school and college training generally have learned the value of reading, and books are an important part of one's education. I thought it was interesting that Democrats and liberals tend to read slightly more than Republicans, because it makes no sense. There is no reason why a political affiliation should make any difference by itself.

But while some people don't read at all, others are more voracious readers than I am. One of the women interviewed for the story said she read seventy books a year, which is about 1.4 books per week. Yet, she also said she sometimes gets the stories mixed up.

As someone who occasionally has three books going simultaneously (train reading, bed reading, bathroom reading), I can understand how important it is to keep the type of book varied. Fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry, science. Keep a steady diet of intelligent discourse for your brain. Mix in a little romance or fantasy or just plain crappy literature every once in a while for dessert. But whatever you do, America, read more!

I want you all ready for when my novels come out :-)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fancy Nancy Grows Up

Any children's writer who can dabble in adult literature and joke about genitalia sounds ok to me. Jane O'Connor is the author of the "Fancy Nancy" books; I've never read them, but hopefully in about four or five years, I will. Her first adult novel, Dangerous Admissions, is in paperback and the New York Times' review says it's not too bad. Actually, Chelsea Cain said it started awkwardly but eventually gets rolling into a nice little murder mystery. But perhaps Cain is unable to resist a murder mystery in which grammar features as a clue to the killer's identity.

"Grammarians, rejoice. You finally have your own sleuth," she writes.

O'Connor's protagonist is a freelance copy editor named Rannie, who lost her job at Simon and Schuster because she omitted the "L" from the title of a Nancy Drew mystery: The Secret of the Old Clock. As an editor who has been mortified to discover the same omission from the word "public" (spell check doesn't save you from that embarassment, folks -- not that real editors use spell check), I can relate to the character immediately.

Cain's review, however, leaves the reader wondering what happens in the book. Apparently the SWAK killer is terrorizing the Upper West Side, but I have no clue why we should believe a copy-editor who volunteers as a tour guide at her son's private school is an able gumshoe. I like the idea of the character, but I'll need a bit more to go on than that to plunk down $14 for a paperback. I'll wait for the garage sale.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Win at Math

Danica McKellar, who is most famous for playing Winnie Cooper in the Wonder Years, has become an author, but her book isn't about acting or life in Hollywood. McKellar graduated from UCLA with a degree in mathematics and has had a theorem that she co-wrote published in academic literature. I've never met the author of Math Doesn't Suck, but I'd love to buy her a drink and talk to her about Euler, Pascal, and irrational numbers. Oh yeah, and ask what she was thinking when she decided to do Path of Destruction.

I'm actually impressed by the amount of work she's done other than Wonder Years, and she's started to get writing and producing credits. Clearly, she's a smart woman, and I hope she'll be a notable player in the industry -- and possibly also in writing more books -- for many years.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Historic Women

Though I'm neither historic nor a woman, I thought I'd pass this along. It's the press release about the 28th annual Kentucky Women Writers Conference, which brings internationally renowned women writers to central Kentucky every year. It is returning to downtown Lexington, Kentucky, Sept. 27-29. Begun in 1979, the Kentucky Women Writers Conference is the longest-running event of its kind and will feature poets, novelists, journalists, publishers, children’s authors, a playwright, a sportswriter, and a filmmaker.

The Kentucky Women Writers Conference remains a premier destination for women writers at all stages of development -- published and unpublished -- and the festival of free events gathers a lively community of readers. The event is known as a forum that presents discussion on the craft and process of writing.

This year's conference has a new director, Julie Kuzneski Wrinn, a former president of its advisory board. Wrinn’s background is in book publishing, and during a decade in that business in Washington, D.C., she edited some of Kentucky’s most beloved authors, including Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan and the late Guy Davenport.

"Arriving in Lexington and already knowing these eminent Kentuckians was a happy coincidence for me," Wrinn said. "And after five years of residing in the Bluegrass, I better understand the rich sense of place that inspires its many artists. Few states can claim such a thriving community of working writers as Kentucky."

Featured presenters during this weekend-long event include:
Nickole Brown, poet and marketing director at Sarabande Books;
Lee Byrd, novelist, children's author and founder of Cinco Puntos Press;
Nathalie Handal, poet and playwright (pictured above);
Sally Jenkins, Washington Post sportswriter and author of eight books;
Sedika Mojadidi, documentary filmmaker;
Jessica Care Moore, poet, publisher and creator of SPOKEN! on the Black Family Channel;
Naomi Shihab Nye, poet and author of over 20 books;
Helen Oyeyemi, 23-year-old British-Nigerian novelist;
Ann Pancake, a fiction writer whose forthcoming first novel concerns mountaintop removal; and
Michelle Slatalla, New York Times columnist and author of the Eastern Kentucky memoir, "The Town on Beaver Creek."

Wrinn is excited with this year's presenters, which continues the conference's tradition of bringing a diverse selection of writers to the Bluegrass. “A hallmark of the Women Writers Conference is the diversity of our line-up. We feature a core group of writers—Nickole Brown, Ann Pancake and Michelle Slatalla—whose work shares an Appalachian heritage, while our other seven writers encompass a remarkable range of ethnicities and literary genres," said Wrinn. "This attracts a diverse audience too—readers as well as writers, men as well as women—and allows us to engage issues of feminism and social justice from a global perspective.”

The conference, which is made possible in part by presenting sponsor, the University of Kentucky, and several continued community partnerships, is host to a series of free events beginning Sept. 27 with a screening of the documentary feature, "Motherland Afghanistan," followed by a discussion with its filmmaker. On Saturday, the conference presents a free reading by children’s author and bilingual publisher Lee Byrd, who will discuss how a book is made. Later that evening the public is invited to a presentation by keynote speaker Naomi Shihab Nye, an award-winning poet and essayist.

To register for the conference, view its details, or learn more about its presenters, visit

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Fellow Travelers

This book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, looks like a fun read. Yes, I'm behind the times, especially when it comes to travel books, but the CNN article about Patricia Schultz made me think that I might actually enjoy putting down one of the works of fiction I recently acquired and do a little travel reading.

However, it's hard to believe she's actually visited 80 percent of the places she writes about -- there's only so much time in a day and days in a year to actually accomplish that with enough enjoyment to describe a place fairly and accurately. Do the math. If I were to visit 800 places that I "must see before I die," I would insist on spending at least one day in each. That's more than two years in these places. Tough publishing schedule, if you ask me.

Even if she squeezes Trenton and Camden, New Jersey, into the same day, she still needs time for Philadelphia.

Be that as it may, I'd pick up the book if I happened into the Strand Bookstore. Now that's a place I'd spend a day in!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Gotta Be in It to Win It

I don't know that "Forrest Gump wins the lottery" works for me as a pitch. Call me crazy, but I think he already had won the lottery. He had enough money that he didn't have to worry about it (which is nice, because it's one less thing), had earned the love of a beautiful woman, and had fathered a child who loved him.

I realize it's a pitch, and Patricia Wood, in Lottery, her first published novel, wasn't writing about the fictional character Forrest Gump but creating her own -- based somewhat on her own family circumstances. I'm happy for her to have received a nice advance after struggling with novels that for whatever reason didn't make the grade. And I like the closing quote in the USA Today story: "I never in a million years would have predicted where I would be now. But there's an inevitableness about it. There's this strange familiarity I am where I belong."

Here's to another writer belonging.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

It Was a Dark and Stormy Contest

Once again, the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has crowned a new ... er ... winner. In case you're too strong a writer to wonder about this, the Bulwer-Lytton is the Razzie Award of writing, the Harvard Lampoon of literary hackery, the ... oh, you get the idea.

It starts from the premise that "It was a dark and stormy night..." may just be the worst line ever written to begin a novel. Each year, aspiring literary spider monkeys (who like to toss around a bit of fecal matter) send out into the world their worst efforts at the opening line of a novel. (Apparently, you can make this shit up.)

No, I did not enter the contest.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Summer Reading

My wife and I are going away tomorrow. She'll be working, and I'll sort of be on vacation for a few days. So, midway through my first Harry Potter book, I'm not sure what else to bring along to read. I'll probably be almost finished with Sorcerer's Stone by the time we land in Florida, so I have to bring another novel or nonfiction work. But I'm also planning to work on a project that has an August 10 deadline. I've got a few hours yet to decide what my other book will be. What would you decide?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Taking Philanthropy Seriously, edited by William Damon and Susan Verducci

This review, which I wrote, was originally published at another site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly.

For a 2005 article in Germany's Der Spiegel, a Kenyan economist was interviewed about the effects of Western development policy in Africa. Before the interviewer could finish his first question, about increased aid to countries on the continent, the economist interrupted, "For God's sake, please just stop. [Aid for the purpose of eliminating hunger and poverty] has been damaging our continent for the past forty years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid."

While such a statement might shock the typical philanthropist, whose intentions are almost always benign, if not noble, it probably wouldn't surprise William Damon and Susan Verducci. In Taking Philanthropy Seriously: Beyond Noble Intentions to Responsible Giving, Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University, Verducci, senior research associate at the Center on Adolescence at Stanford and coordinator of the GoodWork Project, and their fellow essayists describe a field that is filled with people who make their living mediating between donors and recipients but whose "own values and agendas...consciously or not, may diverge from those of the donors and those of the recipients."

Through cautionary tales and case studies, Damon, Verducci, and their fellow authors make the point that intentions alone are not enough of a basis on which to make grants and go to great lengths to illustrate the challenges inherent in the grantor/grantee relationship. As Damon writes: "Beyond this general noble intention and the legal codes that enforce it, philanthropy has few agreed upon standards of judgment or conduct and little in the way of a definitive knowledge base of proven strategies.... [T]here is a reluctance in the field to prescribe the 'best' ways of accomplishing philanthropic work or to designate an authoritative set of guidelines that people entering the field have an obligation to master."

Largely comprised of essays from leading academics, third sector professionals, and former government officials, Taking Philanthropy Seriously examines the currents moving through contemporary American philanthropy, many of which — like venture philanthropy — aren't that new, and also traces the ethics and politics of more traditional giving, from the Greeks and Romans through the Rockefellers and Gateses.

Other essays describe challenges inherent to the philanthropic sector that often go overlooked, including the relative lack of training given to foundation staff. How does one become a program officer in the first place? Ask Laura Horn and Howard Gardner in a chapter titled "The Lonely Profession." And how do program officers decide which organizations are worthy of a grant and which are not? Those new to philanthropy might be surprised to discover that many program officers fell into philanthropy by chance, or were recruited from fields or organizations already supported by their current employer. Others were grantees who hankered to learn how it feels to be on the giving side of the equation, while still others are just "passing through" and expect to leave the profession as soon as they have acquired a better understanding of their chosen field.

Regardless of how or why they entered the field, program officers often are daunted by the challenges of their job. "While some grantmakers manage to find lasting satisfaction in their work with the support of good mentorship, professional reflection, enduring stamina, and unusual patience, many other grantmakers eventually burn out," writes Tom Tierney, chairman and founder of the Bridgespan Group. As a result, many good practitioners leave philanthropy, or worse, notes Tierney, stay and let their work suffer.

The essays in the final section of the book offer strategies for building what Damon calls a "domain for responsible giving," where long-standing debates about how much foundations should be required to pay out (most of the essayists seem ambivalent) and whether venture philanthropy has helped the field (a qualified yes) are explored.

While the book's title might suggest that foundations tend to act heedlessly, the essays instead focus on how a foundation's good intentions require careful examination. The noble intention of Damon, Verducci, and their fellow essayists is to point out aspects of the practice of philanthropy that could be improved. Damon admits that some might consider this approach "curmudgeonly," but his larger point is that philanthropy will only reach its full potential by admitting and examining its weaknesses better than it does at present. Or, as Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi, the well-known author of Flow and other books on the psychology of creativity, writes in the volume's concluding chapter: "To point out such [weaknesses] is a sign not of pessimism but of faith in a better future."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Now I've Done It

I broke down. I caved to commercialism. When I walked into the Barnes & Noble by Union Square, I had intended to merely wander through aisles and shelves -- to strech my legs and figure out what I might want to buy with the Amazon gift certificates I've received for writing a couple book reviews. (Man does not live on free books and garage sales alone!)

But there were fewer tables in the front than usual. And upstairs, there was more open space. Why? Well, Harry Potter is coming, of course! There was a sign that gave the time till the book went on sale (just a little more than a day), and it was obvious that all sorts of displays and ancillary stuff would fill the space soon.

That's when it happened. I decided to buy my first Harry Potter book. I started at the beginning, of course: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It appears to be manageable, as debut novels should be. The new movie out now, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was from a book that clocked in at around 250,000 words. I don't expect to write a review of Stone -- Lord knows there's enough out there already about J.K. Rowling's books. But I am looking forward to determining for myself whether it's written as well as many people say it is.

What Are You Reading?

Well, it's nice to see others believe this too. Dana Gioia, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, recently told a Kansas City audience about the value of reading. In short, he said readers make good workers. So get to work America, and take your novels to work.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Beat Goes On

I'm not a huge fan of the beat writers -- their technique sometimes strikes me as sloppy, though I understand it's part of the package -- but in light of the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, I'm willing to recognize one of the most famous artistic groups of the past century. A Boston Globe writer takes a trip to find out what remains of beat America and whether Kerouac, Cassady, and Ginsburg still resonate in 21st century America. The contrasts are interesting. Back then, the beats saw a barrenness in politics and seemed to do little (at least for about a decade.) Today, politics is again barren, but I think young people are more active in the process.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Second Novel of the Second Daughter

I seem to have forgotten that former Vice President Al Gore's daughter Kristin is a published novelist. She's just come out with her second novel, Sammy's House, which follows the young Ohio politico-kid from her first novel into a staff position at the White House, working for the vice president. The "review" in USA Today doesn't actually give you any sense of the story Gore tells, so I can't venture an opinion on whether it's any good or not, but anyone interested in finding out more can read this excerpt.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Keep Reading Kids

In the same vein as the post below about Harry Potter, the Boston Globe reports that kids aren't reading more than before the Potter phenomenon. While they clearly have enjoyed reading about Harry and Dumbeldore and Hermione, et al., the kids need to be shown that other worlds exist for their discovery. Sounds like we need more reading parents and teachers to encourage them!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Bestseller

In general, I've avoided mentioning Harry Potter on this blog -- not out of any dislike of the stories (which, I sheepishly admit, I've not read, though I have seen most of the movies), but because I've not felt a need to add to the mess. Well, my thoughts are changing now, and this little item from USA Today caught my eye. I like that they interviewed several young readers. One in particular impressed me. Andrew Miller, 15, was asked if he'd be disappointed if Harry Potter died in the final installment.

"I know that J.K. Rowling doesn't like it when an author finishes a series with open characters so that another author could possibly pick up the series and continue with it. I will be very disappointed but will understand if he does die. I guess I will have to see how I really feel if this does happen."

The kid sounds like he's hooked, and if he loved Harry and the other characters, perhaps he'll continue to read other great books and build a lifetime of reading. I'd be honored to have him read my novels when they come out. I'd like to know what he thinks.

A Book to Listen to

Despite my recent problems with my contact lenses, I don't often think about how losing my vision would alter my entire life and things I enjoy doing. This little piece about electronic books reminded me how lucky I am. Give it a read.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A (Brief) Conversation With Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen is one of the writers I've not read that I know I'll enjoy. Call it guilty pleasure by association, but knowing that he's got a yen for Christopher Moore's work and that of N.M. Kelby, whose Whale Season was fun, suggests that I'd like Hiaasen's work too.

To get a slightly better idea of who Hiaasen is -- other than his being a writer for the Miami Herald -- take a look at this blog entry at the New York Times. It's pretty slim pickings, actually, but I'll accept it and wait till I get something tastier and even more satisfying.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Elephant's Birthday

It's hard for me to believe that I started this blog a year ago today. It's been slow-going; I don't post here nearly as often as I do at my Coffee Cup. But sometimes this blog feels more important to me than the other one -- or the others I've scattered to the wind, for that matter. To me, this site is about potential -- sometimes realized, sometimes now, both mine and that of published authors. I have a vision for what I want this particular blog to become; it would be related to when I actually get my first novel published, and then the next, and the next...

Blogs are inherently self-serving, which heightens my bittersweet feelings toward them. They focus on personal interests, basically in a journal form. They're only as popular as the author/blogger allows them to be. I don't do much promoting of either of these sites, though I've noticed some increase lately in their traffic levels.

But I'd like the Elephants' Bookshelf to be more than that. On this anniversary, however, I'm going to feel fortunate for having been able to spend a little bit of time each month to keep this going. Thanks to those of you who've visited. And while I haven't seen too many comments, I know you're out there. Let me know what you'd like to see more of here.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Another Life Ruined?

It turns out that the student driving David Halberstam was probably the one at fault in the accident that caused the writer's death. The AP article paints a none-too-pretty future for the young man, who reportedly considered Halberstam a mentor. Moreover, the boy's past was a point of interest, as he'd had several traffic infractions, including a DUI while still a minor (not that it's acceptable when of age.)

I feel sorry for the kid, and I hope he'll be able to recover from this situation. At the same time, I wouldn't blame Halberstam's widow for doing whatever she decides she needs to do. His death was quite clearly untimely.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sounds Like a Story

The "double helix" life of JT Leroy and Laura Albert is being examined in court, and the New York Times discusses it from both the legal and emotional perspectives. Apparently, the case is about whether a contract to produce her novel Sarah as a movie is legal since she signed it as JT Leroy, her literary pseudonym; but the story is about the harried life the real writer lived, mixed with fictionalization. To me, this court case offers the perfect frame in which to spread the canvas of a movie. Sounds like a solution to me. Perhaps the court costs can be woven into the film's budget.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Portable Graham Greene

I'm taking this book at its literal word -- well, at least its title. This book, edited by Philip Stratford and published in the early 1970s, long before Graham Greene died, is my new train reading. I tend to avoid long books for my morning commute, if for no other reason than they're heavy and I have enough in my stuffed briefcase than I already need; a book, however, is a necessity.

Anyway, Greene is one of those writers I've meant to read and never have. One of my favorite movies of all time is Orson Welles' The Third Man, which is based on a Greene novel and for which Greene wrote the screenplay. Two of the key themes in that work, and as I'm discovering, in much of his work, are borders and betrayal. I'm not going to go into a dissertation here about my thoughts on that, now. (though I'm sure it would be enthralling ;-)

But the sense of betrayal and of fragile communities are themes I explore in my own work. Plus, Greene was originally known as a Catholic writer, which is also a topic (Catholicism, that is) that I explore, at least in the one novel I've completed. So it was only a matter of time before I ventured into Greene's land.

This morning, while sipping at bland coffee, I read a description that caught my attention and which seems appropos for this day and age:

How can life on a border be other than restless? You are pulled by different ties of hate and love. For hate is quite as powerful a tie: it demands allegiance. In the land of skyscrapers, of stone stairs and cracked bells ringing early, one was aware of fear and hate, a kind of lawlessness -- appalling cruelties could be practised without a second thought; one met for the first time characters, adult and adolescent, who bore about them the genuine quality of evil.

Captivating stuff! I'm going to let that sink in before writing about it, but I think I'm going to enjoy going Greene.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Review: Richistan

This appeared in USA Today on June 17.

By Russ Juskalian, Special for USA TODAY
Somewhere in the world, 100-foot yachts are derided as "dinghies," it takes five people and a handful of e-mails to remove a mouse from the kitchen and "true wealth" starts at a hefty $10 million.

That's "Richistan"

The term, which journalist Robert Frank defines as a "parallel country of the rich," is also the title of his new book about its inhabitants, whom he calls Richistanis. The book got its start in 2003, when Frank, who reports for The Wall Street Journal, picked up a fresh, full-time beat: the new rich.

"I immersed myself in their world, hanging around yacht marinas, slipping into charity balls, loitering in Ferrari dealerships and scoping out the Sotheby's and Christie's auctions," he writes.

Meet Jeeves 2.0

It's telling that Frank's first chapter, "Butler Bootcamp," is not about the rich themselves, but about the men and women who care for the rich: "household managers," aka butlers. Strike the image from your head of a stuffy, balding, accented man named Jeeves, Frank writes. The rich actually prefer their household managers to be something more akin to a "chief operating officer for My Life Inc."

"Jeeves 2.0" should be able to manage a budget of a few million dollars a year, prepare Excel spreadsheets documenting all facets of the house, program security and household technology systems, take care of travel plans, and oversee the systematic management, cleaning, and organization of a 30,000-plus-square-foot house that employs dozens of full-time and part-time workers.

Household managers of this caliber have become such a sought-after luxury that trainees pay as much as $13,000 or more to hone their service skills at specialized institutes. Graduates of these programs command starting salaries in the $80,000-to-$120,000 range (including free housing and other perks).

The new Gilded Age

The reason household managers are so sought after is that the ranks of the rich, in America in particular, are expanding at a startling rate. From 1995 to 2003, the number of millionaires in America doubled. During the same period, the number of households worth $5 million, $10 million and $25 million, respectively, all doubled. In 2005 alone, America minted 227,000 new millionaires.

It's a boom so big that Frank is not alone in calling it the new Gilded Age, or Frank's preferred term, the "third wave." The first two waves were the Gilded Age, after the close of the Civil War, and the Roaring Twenties (1920s).

Frank speeds through the causes of this current boom, namely, IPO stock offerings, sophisticated — and global — means for moving money around, a foreign savings glut and the general effects of globalization and technology adoption. But he's far more interested in showing us how "the other half" lives.

While Richistan might not be the most informational book on the shelves, Frank's candid look at how the ultrarich live is thoroughly entertaining. Unlike other such accounts (sometimes labeled as exposés), Frank indulges in neither idolatry nor condemnation of his subjects.

Wealthy ways

We meet a group of formerly middle-class characters who somehow struck it big in everything from the tech boom of the late 1990s to things as esoteric as selling ceramic villages, creating a new type of mozzarella cheese or inventing the Dogloo (an igloo-shaped doghouse). Frank writes that many of the rich came to their wealth by becoming "masters of the banal."

Unlike inherited Old Money of the past (aristocratic families that can be traced to Europe), this new crop of arrivistes inhabits a bipolar world. On one hand, many claim to be down-home, simple, middle-class folks. On the other hand, they have taken conspicuous consumption to new heights — or lengths, in the case of 450-foot yachts.

And in comparing Old Money with New Money, Frank draws on material that is sure to delight both the vicarious and the voyeuristic.

There are squabbles in Palm Beach, clashes over $400,000 golf club memberships and general one-upmanship all over the place.

New model of philanthropy

Richistan doesn't set out to make any serious waves in the world, but it closes on an interesting note. The new rich have a different approach to philanthropy that might in fact make big waves — and Frank's notice of this is surely an early account of more to come.

Instead of donating money to major charities with sizable overhead costs, many of the new rich have devoted the second part of their careers to running their own philanthropies based on business principles, some as for-profit organizations.

They are trying to eliminate inefficiencies, doing analysis to find out what is the best investment per dollar with regard to progress made with their donations, and running teams to do their work that must present detailed business plans of the work.

Andrew Carnegie (the Gilded Age iron and steel tycoon), for all his faults, started a philanthropic trend that has persisted to this day.

Perhaps the new rich will significantly improve on the dream that Carnegie pioneered, and in doing so, leave the world a better place.

As Frank prescribes for the rest of us, "We can only hope."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Foundation, by Joel Fleishman

This review, which I wrote, was originally published at another site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly.

Few books on philanthropy merit the accolade "instant classic," but The Foundation by Joel Fleishman has all the ingredients to be considered just that — especially by those whose work and lives are directly affected by foundations. And as Fleishman, a professor of law and public policy at Duke University, makes clear, that means most of us.

Indeed, readers unfamiliar with the many roles foundations play in society will quickly learn how versatile foundations can be, whether driving a brand-new initiative, partnering with others, or serving as a catalyst by scattering seed funding among promising projects in the hope that one or two will take root and produce lasting change.

Throughout the early chapters of the book, Fleishman explores themes of effectiveness and efficiency. To be effective and efficient, he writes, foundations need to employ decision-making processes and progress-checking systems that increase the impact of their funding. To be strategic in deploying their resources, they should focus on problems that are ripe for solution while retaining flexibility in how they respond to unexpected opportunities. But regardless of where a foundation decides to focus its efforts, success should always be the goal. And to be successful, an initiative should provide major benefits to the public, expand knowledge in a particular area or field, catalyze social change, take an initiative to scale, and/or help a grantee find a new path to greater effectiveness.

Unfortunately, Fleishman argues, many foundations behave as if they don't care about success — behavior, he notes, that is at cross purposes with the social-benefit mission used to justify foundations' existence as tax-exempt entities in the first place. He bases his observation on the reluctance of many foundations to share information about how they decide which goals to shoot for and the strategies they use to achieve them, as well as on the lack of public — and, often, private — analyses of those initiatives, whether successful or not. "Those foundations that are truly interested in using their resources in ways that will have the greatest positive impact on the world around them," says Fleishman, "should study the stories of the most successful and effective foundation initiatives. They provide models for the future success stories that others in the foundation world should aspire to write."

To buttress his argument, the middle section of The Foundation offers a dozen case studies of high-impact initiatives — selected from the one hundred prepared for a companion volume that is available, free of charge, from the Duke University Web site.

Calling attention to the talented leaders who shepherded initiatives through to completion and to the fortuitous match between the nature of the problem to be tackled and the judgment, experience, and discipline of the individuals who took on those tasks, Fleishman and his graduate students present a dozen synopses of foundation successes, starting with the 1906 Flexner report funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which led to significant reform of medical education in the United States, and continuing with an initiative from nearly every decade of the twentieth century, including Julius Rosenwald's efforts to build schools for rural African Americans in the 1920s; Gunnar Myrdal's seminal, Carnegie-funded study of race in America in the 1930s; the Rockefeller Foundation's support for the work of Dr. Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution colleagues in the 1960s; and George Soros and the Open Society Institute's support for democratization and civil society in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

However, it is his assessment of foundation failures — and some are, by Fleishman's own admission, a matter of opinion — that sets The Foundation apart from many earlier books on the subject. Critics of foundations might argue he doesn't go far enough, but Fleishman does not shy away from drawing attention to foundations' shortcomings, confident in his belief that a fair, unbiased examination of foundations will demonstrate that they have indeed provided significant social benefit to Americans. "At the same time," he writes, "I am convinced that the foundation sector as a whole, as great as its social contribution is now and has been for most of its history, seriously underperforms its potential." The challenge, he adds, is "to ensure that foundations can raise the level of their performance by reducing their insulation from beneficial external influences while retaining the independence they need."

One of the ingredients of publishing success is timing, and Fleishman's has been impeccable. While he was conducting the interviews for the book in 2003 and 2004, Warren Buffett was beginning to think about giving a significant portion of his vast fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, already the world's largest. Of course, that gift, when announced in the summer of 2006 — along with the blizzard of media attention that followed in its wake — helped build an audience for the book beyond what Fleishman and his publisher could have expected when he began the project.

The result does not disappoint. The Foundation is sweeping in its scope, balanced in its presentation, and deeply informed by a lifetime of study and observation. Readers who only recently have become interested in the subject of philanthropy are likely to be surprised by what foundations have accomplished in the century or so since Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller created the template for the modern foundation, while more seasoned practitioners will be pleased to see foundations accorded the respect and serious treatment they deserve.

Blaze, by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

I've not read it, but there's a "new" Stephen King/Richard Bachman book out. The USA Today has a nice review of it. Perhaps a little too effusive, but I don't mind seeing positive reviews.

I put 'new' in quotes above because the book was written more than thirty years ago and revised recently for publication. For those who don't know, Richard Bachman is the pen name King used for several years to publish some books when he was also publishing Stephen King novels. (God forbid a writer be prolific!) If you ask me, that decision was all about marketing no more than two books during a year by the same authorl It wasn't that the public couldn't handle it; the publishers didn't want to compete against themselves.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Man Booker Prize

The 2007 Man Booker Prize was announced, and Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe was this year's winner. I've never read his work, so I can't comment on it, but Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, and Ian McEwan were also nominated, so I can only imagine Achebe's work is excellent.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Do Dead Writers Dream of New York Times Editorials?

Philip K. Dick, the author of numerous science fiction classics including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was the basis for the film Blade Runner, has been recognized in a New York Times editorial today. While I don't know that I'd put him above some of my literary heroes such as the recently departed Kurt Vonnegut, Dick had a knack for telling wonderfully engaging stories set in surprisingly recognizable futures. Give this a read, and after you've done that, enjoy one of his books or short stories.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

When Cheeky Is Passé

I was a bit surprised by a description of A Catcher in the Rye in this piece by Joe Queenan. He referred to the "passé cheekiness" of the book that is almost universally lauded as the perfect coming of age novel, the mot juste of the self-important American teenager. While I enjoyed the book the one time I read it, it didn't quite strike me as that; I thought perhaps I'd missed something. Maybe I did. I preferred A Perfect Day for Bananafish, myself.

The article is about the torment of summer reading assignments, especially as they are inflicted upon teenage boys. I enjoyed some of my summer reading, and I obviously still read a lot today.

Please share your most hated, most loved summer reading assignments.

Summer Reads and the Writers Who Read Them

I like the quick little piece in today's New York Times. The Stephen King assessment of recent great reads sounds like he actually read them, and I like his quick descriptions. "Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski: Stories within stories, and a surprisingly compassionate look at Christianity in conflict with anthropology. I kept expecting tirades, and instead got sweetness and thoughtful good humor. A remarkable novel."

Some of the others sound like they're writing blurbs for the back cover -- and perhaps that's what they're doing. Then there are others that say virtually nothing, like Jonathan Safran Foer's assessment of Kalooki Nights, which he described as "a tragedy, and a work of genius."

Enjoy, and have a nice summer full of reading!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

This Writer's Life

While I intended this site to basically be about writing and writers, I allowed it to become basically a place to post my own book reviews. But since I've not been writing them as quickly as I'd hoped, I've decided to modify the site back to its original mission.

That means I'll be posting items about writing, about writers, about writers talking about writing, book reviews, well written scripts ... You name it.

Also, I've added a blogroll on the side. These are writing-related sites I've found interesting. One is the blog of a guy who used to write for me (no, it's not Christopher Moore, though I used to write for a guy by the same name. Go figure.) And I'll be happy to add new links for other visitors if you give the address (got that Tom?). If a few people actually start to visit, I'd love to start discussion strings on writing.

So, writers of all stripes -- poets, novelists, journalists, short storyists (is that a term?), screen writers, Wikipedians -- and readers galore are all invited and encouraged to check out what the Elephant has to offer.

If I may add a different subject: I've embarked on a new project; I'm researching John Paul Jones for a museum exhibition. While I've already started to read some of the major biographies and background works on the father of the American navy, I'd be happy to hear what others might suggest about source material.

I'm also in the midst of a freelance piece on refugees. So far, it's about one event in particular following the fall of Saigon, but I envision this developing into a broader project of stories from people who've left their homeland to find a new beginning in the United States. Anyone with suggested materials, I'd love to hear frmo you.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I was spinning around the Internet looking for information about how to avoid scummy, sleazy literary agents, when I found this page. It's an old post (in the archives). But I found it helpful.

It's about a letter from a self-published reader who sends a note to an editor in response to something on the editor's blog. There's a funny little aside that made me laugh:

Jim Frenkel was once approached at a convention by an attractive young lady, who said, approximately:

“Golly, Mr. Frenkel, I’d do anything to be a published author.”


“Then write me a good book.”


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Help Wanted: Book Reviewers

There was an excellent article in today's New York Times about the demise of book reviews in newspapers. It pointed to the emergence of some great literary blogs like and the Elegant Variation as well as sites like the Emerging Writers' Network, where Dan Wickett has been putting together reams of electronic reviews and encouraging other writers to do the same.

Which brings me to my point. Though I've been reading voraciously, I'm not always able to digest them all into a nutritious review. So, I'm inviting others to submit reviews to me, which I'll look at -- probably edit a bit if the writing is particularly messy (hey, that's my job) -- and post. You can say you were published on the Elephant's Bookshelf! It's not much, and I can't offer any money at this point, but it's out there if you'd like to take advantage of it.

If you're interested, contact me at

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Exposing the Elephants by Pamela Wilcox

This review was originally published at another site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly.

Running a nonprofit organization in the first decade of the twenty-first century can be a challenge for even the most experienced leader. Technology and the needs of society seem to be changing at an accelerating rate, and most organizations — even those with abundant resources — are finding it harder and harder to adapt.

But the biggest problem, says Pamela J. Wilcox, is that various "elephants in the room" make it almost impossible for nonprofits to question organizational norms and performance, which in turn makes it difficult for them to remain average, much less achieve greatness. In Exposing the Elephants: Creating Exceptional Nonprofits, Wilcox addresses some of those taboos and, in the process, explores a variety of ways nonprofits can strengthen their leadership and improve their performance.

To that end, she focuses on five specific "elephants": volunteers becoming mission; board and constituent realities in conflict; small clatter drowning out critical sound; congeniality trumping performance; and rhetoric replacing results. Each elephant, she notes, comes with its own "herd." Right behind rhetoric one often runs into hubris. Who decides, for example, that a new symphony hall is "world class"? "That's the motto of the Read My Lips elephant," she adds. "Say something loud enough and often enough and people will believe it is true."

Moreover, while many nonprofits enjoy a favorable public image, Wilcox argues that that view often rests on a series of misperceptions. A closer examination of how Americans actually view nonprofit organizations — they don't make a profit, they don't worry about competition, they don't use concrete benchmarks to quantify performance — reveals the shaky ground on which the reputations of many nonprofits exist.

By her own admission, Wilcox hopes to spark a revolution — a revolution, as she describes it, that's sorely needed. But, as she's well aware, it's not as if her elephants have gone unnoticed. "Insiders are always discussing issues like the loss of mission focus, mismatch of board/CEO organization mindset, confusion of governance and management roles, absence of volunteer/staff teamwork, and lack of lasting results," she writes. Unfortunately, volunteer and staff leadership rarely engage in meaningful dialogue about the root causes of their problems, and as a result change, when it does occur, is incremental and fleeting.

While Wilcox encourages her readers to find solutions to their problems by reexamining resources already at their disposal, she doesn't expect every answer to be found there. "The solutions to improved performance, sustained mission, and innovative new services and programs may lie inside," she says, "but it requires real nonprofit leadership to tap into this rich wealth of knowledge and challenge people for answers."

Fortunately, Wilcox offers a number of examples of the kinds of conflict that prevent nonprofits from realizing their full potential and suggests ways for executives to deal with them. What's more, her straightforward writing style and the book's layout make it easy for readers to peruse the chapters to find specific advice that applies to their particular situation.

In the final analysis, Wilcox understands that organizational culture problems are not easily resolved, and that the mere fact of addressing them can create additional problems — not least because most people are more comfortable dealing with the devil they know. That needn't paralyze your organization, she writes. Just remember the old joke: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. While Wilcox's answers may not always be appetizing, her non-nonsense advice is likely to sustain readers who are ready to embrace change.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

I picked up a book recently that looks like it'll be a big help to me and other aspiring writers. It's called The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, who is a literary agent. (Full disclosure: I don't get a damn thing from that plug.)Though I found it on the discount rack at Barnes & Noble, it's more than a discount item, it's a bargain. I've read several books filled with tips on how to hone your prose and sell it to the right people to move you on the career path to poverty (we write because we love it!), but this book is different. His tips are more practical and matter-of-fact. For example, look at every place you use more than one adjective or (God forbid) adverb; decide which is the most pertinent and cut the other one. Sure, you'll lose a little description from time to time, but most likely you were writing with too much anyway, so let it go. And the exercises are helpful too. From the chapter on adjectives and adverbs, use the first page of your manuscript and identify every adjective and adverb on the page. Now read the page without them. Clearer? Are some of them necessary? Now read the words you removed. Are they commonplace and cliche? Improve or remove. I'm concising his already tight description, but the point is clear.This book may well leap to the top of my list of most helpful books for writers working on their manuscript, and I'll pass it along to my friends who write. Anyone with other suggestions -- and why you suggest it -- feel free to comment!