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!