Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Demise of a Black Bookstore

The Washington Post recently ran a story about a black bookstore chain, Karibu, which is closing because of a conflict between owners. That the chain is closing saddens me; customers described it as a community centerpiece. "It's like the barbershop, like the black beauty salon," said one of the owners, Simba Sana. Such a cultural focal point shouldn't be allowed to die -- especially when the issue isn't its long-term economic viability but rather personal issues between owners. It sounds like the equivalent of the child with the ball saying he's sick of losing, so he's taking his ball and going home.

This is a chain where authors like Toni Morrison and Walter Mosely connected with their audiences in a way that I'd imagine was different from a reading at the local Barnes & Noble. And yes, it probably was better as well as different.

I don't live there, I don't know the owners, and I'm not an African-American. So it's not for me to say what's right and what's wrong in this specific situation. But I hope that some better resolution to this issue can be found. Community assets like that shouldn't die this way. It affects too many real people.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Even More Competition

This story from the Los Angeles Times made me wince. It hadn't occurred to me that in addition to the writers' strike consigning us all to a springtime of reality shows sprouting up like weeds, it will also pose a new challenge to authors (like myself) hoping to break into the ranks of the publishing world.

Those people who are able to spin teleplays to us over the TV screens are looking for something else to fill their time as the strike continues. So they've turned back to the novels they said they'd write "eventually." Well, Eventually has arrived, and these people should have the discipline to actually finish their work, unlike the people like me who have strong drafts that need a little tweaking but who put that off to do things like attend a Burns Supper on a Saturday night and recover the next morning (to read, mostly).

Ok, that's not so bad. People have to enjoy life in order to write well about it. And I'm not truly threatened by the "increased" competition that's out there, primarily because the industry is so difficult to get into any way that these other writers don't really scare me. What's another hundred zombies (ick) when you're already up against ten thousand?

So bring it on, writers' strike! Challenge me! Challenge us all. As long as we all get some good books out of it, I say: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the competition, I will fear no evil.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fantasyland by Sam Walker

I just finished reading Fantasyland by Sam Walker, and as a result I'm starting to plan for the upcoming fantasy baseball season. Any baseball fan will enjoy it, not because of the Rotisserie baseball action that it describes but because it is funny and uplifting and discloses the heroism present in ordinary people.

Walker is a writer for the Wall Street Journal and he had never played Rotisserie baseball before. But he was able to finagle his way into the Tout Wars expert league, which is widely regarded as one of the toughest leagues out there. For those who aren't aware, fantasy baseball has become a billion-dollar industry with numerous Web sites, books, and magazines targeting a largely male market.

Walker describes how he gets into the league and his objectives -- to win, obviously, but more importantly he thinks that his access to the actual players he drafts onto his team and acquires through trades as well as to the executives who run and amass the real teams will give him a distinct advantage over his opponents, who are armed primarily with statistics.

And Oh, the statistics! To his credit, Walker does not bog the book down with endless streams of numbers. Rather he describes the salient ones for the book's audience, backs things up with conversations with the actual players (many of whom disregard the predictions and dismiss them as missing the point), and shows how overwhelming and seductive the numbers can be for those who think they can use them to divine the future. There are moments where it reminded me of the movie Pi in that regard.

Walker hires a couple of guys to help him in this venture -- a statistician who works for NASA full time, and a guy who becomes completely immersed in the minutiae of baseball -- and even gets a beautiful model to videotape the draft as a way to try to distract his competition.

Then the book traces the rest of the 2004 season. Only toward the end would the non-baseball fan learn that the Red Sox won the World Series, their first in eighty-six years, because the standings that get listed are not the ones a casual fan would read in the sports pages but rather the standings of the Tout Warriors.

I expect baseball fans would laugh out loud throughout much of this book -- I know I did -- and the wives of fantasy baseball team managers would probably also appreciate this peek into the world of the maniacs they married.

However, Walker also does an admirable job of showing the real lives of baseball players. There's a wonderful chat on a New York Subway train with the parents of Pokey Reese, and I'll always hold Jacque Jones (pictured above) in high regard. He is a classy man. Read the book and you'll see why.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Review: The Art of Film Funding

This review, which I wrote, appeared previously on a different Web site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly. If you want me to view it without publishing your name, I'll gladly do that. I keep no list of readers, so I won't sell it anywhere.

So you have a great idea for a movie? Join the club. The more important question is do you have the means to produce it.

In The Art of Film Fundraising, Carole Lee Dean explains that it's not enough to have a great script or a visionary director. "If you don't have funding, you don't have a film," she writes. "You might be able to pull off a small project with the help of [credit cards], but if you do not learn the art of funding, your film career is going to be very short."

While many books on film funding focus on whether a film should be made, Dean's book assumes that the reader has already answered that question in the affirmative. With that out of the way, she then poses ten questions (Why are you the right person to make the film? How many hours per week can you put into the film?) that potential filmmakers should ask themselves to determine whether they are truly committed to seeing a project through to completion.

In her book, Dean, who has produced more than a hundred television programs and started From the Heart Productions, a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to funding films that are "unique and make a contribution to society," discusses the myriad ways to finance a film, including a detailed section on foundation grants. And while the book focuses exclusively on fundraising for film projects, the lessons Dean shares with her readers are more broadly applicable:

o Know who your potential funders are;
o Develop a strategy based on each individual funder;
o Keep your options open and seek multiple sources and types of support;
o View rejections as opportunities to learn and improve.

Throughout, Dean includes excerpts of her conversations with professional filmmakers, who provide a practitioner's perspective on the realities and technical aspects of filmmaking. The interviews not only provide useful tips but also illustrate how filmmaking has changed over the last couple of decades, as well as why fundraising for filmmakers is more important today than it was fifteen to twenty years ago. She asks filmmaker Morrie Warshawski, for example, where the best place to look for funding is, to which Warshawski replies: "It is too big a question to answer generally. If you are making an independent narrative feature film, you probably don't want to go to private foundations. On the other hand, if you are making a social issue documentary, then you absolutely do want to go to private foundations."

The book is divided into easy-to-follow chapters on such topics as what to include in a film proposal, how to research funders and write grant applications, and how and what to look for from individuals and businesses. Indeed, Dean's recommendations tend to be straightforward and practical (e.g., invite potential donors to fundraising parties at which snippets of a film in progress are shown), and the book often reads like a collection of helpful magazine articles rather than a book.

If Dean had simply published the book's fifty-page appendix of Web links, contact names, addresses, phone numbers, and other resources, The Art of Film Fundraising would be a valuable resource. But with all the additional information she provides, Dean has put together a toolkit that any independent filmmaker or nonprofit looking to produce a documentary film will want to keep close at hand.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Penmanship Lessons and Robert Frost

Uh oh, I may have to work on my penmanship. I'm notoriously sloppy in my handwriting -- an affliction for which I have been maligned since childhood. I've been told numerous times that I should have become a doctor, where bad penmanship isn't merely accepted, it's valued as a badge of courage (until someone dies because the pharmacy supplies the wrong drug because they couldn't read the script and didn't call the doctor, of course).

Robert Frost, one of the most famous American poets of the 20th century (and other than Maya Angelou, how many others do most readers know?), apparently had pretty bad penmanship too, and now it's haunting him while he spins in his grave. The argument, as I read it in the article, is altogether academic (i.e., a bunch of academicians arguing about things that most readers -- even of the New York Times -- might gloss over). But these are honest issues that matter in the world of literature.

I looked back at a couple of my journals this weekend and had trouble reading some of what I wrote. These are items that I penned within the past three or four years. It's not as though I'm looking back at stuff I wrote during the Reagan administration and trying to go back to what I was thinking about in my days of teenage angst. And I've written things in bed with the light off so I didn't wake my wife; that's not easy to do legibly.

I don't expect to be as famous as Robert Frost, but I do hope that I'll have a writing career worthy of note. I'm not about to change my penmanship for future Faggens, but I might be a little more conscious of being articulate. No one likes a muddy sentence, and I certainly wouldn't want the mud in my journals to be washed across the pages of the New York Times forty or fifty years from now. Because that makes all the difference.

As Jay Parini, a Middlebury College professor and the former head of the Poetry Foundation told the Times, niggling over the exact wording in notebooks Frost never intended for public consumption did not seem as important as, say, settling punctuation disputes about the published poems. The notebooks, Mr. Parini said, are "fun to read, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything about Robert Frost."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Backstory of the Lock

This woman had a good idea, especially for readers who are into 18th century literature. Since I've been doing some research on the American naval hero John Paul Jones, I've regained some perspective on the 18th century -- an era I don't think I've given much thought since junior high history class. I studied Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock in college, but I've mostly forgotten about it.

Professor Sophie Gee, who is teaching at Princeton University, decided to write about the story of what led up to the tale described in the epic poem. Her debut novel, The Scandal of the Season, was published last year by Scribner. In a release that appeared on Princeton's Web site, she explained how she came to write about the real people who were the basis of Pope's mock-epic. Pope came to London as a poor aspiring writer and is able to insinuate himself in the world of the characters of the Rape.

"As a scholar you try never to jump from fact to fiction," Gee said. "At first I was extremely uncomfortable about it, but then I realized that what I was doing was giving a psychologically compelling account of what we do know, putting in feelings along with historical facts."

She's conscious of the danger of a professor creating fiction out of real people. One of Gee's challenges was to write the scene in which Pope and Swift meet for the first time, according to the release. She knew they had met in London during the period in which the novel is set, so she imagined the rendezvous at the opera, penning a scene in which the young Pope approaches Swift as he scoffs at the vanity of some fellow clergy members in the audience. The two writers later became great friends.

"It was thrilling to have a chance to inhabit a historical moment like that, because it was such a momentous literary encounter," she said.

But she has received strong reviews. The New York Times Book Review described it as "a clever and inviting piece of critical biography masquerading as a light comedy of manners."

In her teaching she is able to make the archaic references of 18th century literature accessible to today's teen agers and young twenty-somethings. For example, she juxtaposes the great satirist Jonathan Swift with the premier satirists of today: Trey and Matt of South Park fame.

I can tell I'd like this woman. She has always wanted to be a writer, she recognizes that a writer needs to be a strong reader, and she loves Irish literature. I'd enjoy spending a pleasant pub conversation with professor Gee!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Probability, Permutations, and Danica McKellar

I've noticed something interesting. I did the math, and without a doubt the most popular post on my blog is the one I did about Danica McKellar's book about math, Math Doesn't Suck.

While I'd love to believe this popularity is due to my wonderful way with words and the overwhelming popularity of binomials, I suspect it has more to do with the fact that McKellar remains an attractive young woman whose legions of fans still think of her as the nice, cute "girl next door" she played in The Wonder Years all those years ago. That the image of her in front of the blackboard, which I borrowed for my blog, pops up on the second Google-images page doesn't hurt my page counts either. But again, that has more to do with her fans looking for her than my using the image; my goal in this particular matter is to promote reading and math.

So I posted a comment on my own blog posting in which I invite people to leave a comment that I'll pass along.

I don't know McKellar, but I'm willing to pass along any messages -- correction, any tactful messages (i.e., I refuse to relay anything sexual or anything else that I suspect she'd consider rude) -- that come to me through this blog. The rude garbage I'll ignore and not post. What do I get out of it? Nothing. But I'd like to see my traffic flow increase, and from what I can tell, Danica McKellar is bloggable gold. And I suspect she can calculate the various probability statements and permutations for why that is true. My kingdom for non-Euclidean geometry!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

One More Reason to Resolve the Writers' Strike

We've all heard the old maxim, "Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime." My response usually is something along the lines of: "That's fine for you, but I live nowhere near fishable waters?" (Yes, I am a smart ass, why do you ask?)

What does that have to do with the state of children's literature? Well, the Librarian of Congress, James Billingon, has created a new post: National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Anyone who has read this blog o'mine should be aware that I'm all in favor of encouraging young people to read. Indeed, I think it's one of many things that are crucial to our future (among the others, teaching math and science -- especially to girls).

Jon Scieszka (pronounced SHEH-ska) has been given this noble task. And his mission is to convert young people into readers. This is where that desert idea comes in. I hope to be convinced otherwise, but I suspect strongly that just as parents in desert areas become parents to children who know little of life outside of the desert, so too with parents who don't read -- their children will not be readers. Trying to get these children to develop a love for literature is the challenge of a lifetime, and I wish Mr. Scieszka well. He'll need a lot of help.

“There’s a huge population of kids who would be or can be readers, but just choose not to,” said Mr. Scieszka, who runs a Web-based literacy program aimed at boys called Guys Read. “Kids see it just as a school activity or something that just can’t compete with a Nintendo Wii or just hanging out and text messaging your friends. Parents and booksellers and teachers are dying for some help.”

What gives me hope here is that the folks who selected Scieszka realized they needed to find someone who could speak with commentators who literate folks listen to, like Jon Stewart of A Daily Show (I'm not sure why they changed the name this week, though I assume it has something to do with the writers' strike.

There's hope for the future of reading. Come on kids, let's go to the beach. Get your rod and reel.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Vacation Reading

I don't know about you, but I'm wearing an undershirt beneath my button-down shirt, and during my commute today and yesterday I wore a sweatshirt under my ski jacket. It's been frigging cold here in the Northeast! At the same time, my wife had clients desperately trying to book a job through her that would have placed them on a plane for the Bahamas this weekend.

That's right folks, it's only a few days after New Year's and it's already winter vacation time!

So what are you reading?

I passed over this article in today's New York Times, but now that I've warmed myself up with a pint or three, I've taken the time to savor the sage words of journalist Steve Bailey (who I've never heard of before today). I almost stopped reading the article because it sounded like he wanted to talk about how to impress people who visit your home (again, I had been drinking, so I may not have read as closely as I usually do), but eventually there was a point -- albeit, not an especially important one -- Know who you're supplying with books.

If you visit our house, you'll find books in every room, including the unfinished basement and attic. Hell, there are even magazines beside the cats' litter boxes, to say nothing of the library in the bathroom. But our home is clearly not a vacation home. We don't have a "weekend home" (another reason to drop this article before its end). Nor do I give a rat's ass whether my guests with toddlers are au courant or de rigueur when it comes to American children's literature.

All that out of the way, I must say that the mere idea of taking a vacation in a place where books of quality -- nonfiction, fiction, children's literature, poetry, Penthouse Forum -- are kept in the bookshelves around me sounds oh so appealing right now, as we cuddle up beside our computers and the winter wind blows outside. What I wouldn't give to lay in a hammock beside the ocean underneath a palm tree while reading a good book! Hell, I'd do it with a bad book!!

So tell me, what do you read on vacation?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Book Crossing

More than twenty years ago, Sting sang "Free, free, set them free. ... If you love somebody, if you love someone, set them free."

His grammatical error aside (someone ... them), the former teacher offered good advice for lovers everywhere. Now book lovers can follow his advice. Just before Christmas, the New York Times ran a pleasant little article about BookCrossing, which helps people adopt stray books. Perhaps that's overstating things a bit; it seems from the article that these books are neither neglected nor truly abandoned. Indeed, it is as Sting sang: if you love them, set them free.

I've not yet signed up, though it's possible I will. I find myself adopting books often, though I've not left any published works on their own. It goes against my grain to leave a book, but perhaps this site will help me send books that I won't read again to someone who will enjoy them.

Indeed, their hope is to turn the whole world into a library. I like that. To me, the world is a story factory, but that doesn't preclude it from being a library too. I've had several inspirational moments smack me in the head at libraries (a few pretty girls too, but that's a different story).

But it also appears to be a wonderful, inexpensive way for new authors to share their books and perhaps create an audience. I don't know if that has worked yet, but it is something I'd be willing to try once I've gotten my novel (and its successors) published.

So I encourage you to check out BookCrossing. No library card required.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

HarperCollins Looks for Friends Who Read

In case anyone was interested, you won't find me on MySpace or YouTube. I have no friends -- not in the 2007 sense of the word, at least.

But other authors are looking for friends among the teen audiences they're trying to build. HarperCollins has established a MySpace teen site. HarperTeen actually doesn't look like most MySpace pages, which seem to be festooned with loads of crap, generally. Looking at it tonight, I noticed a poetry contest that a bunch of teens sounded interested in. And at least the first ten were polite to each other. OMG!

My point, however, is not about the contests, it's about the overt push by a major publisher to reach out and develop a connection with young readers. Despite studies that say the number of young readers is declining, a major publisher is willing to cultivate their future audience. Get 'em while they're young. (Wasn't that the tobacco industry's motto?) This is an addiction I can feel good about.