Monday, February 28, 2011

Myself/My Daughter

The less said about the Oscars the better. I've never seen a more boring, ill-conceived, poorly written show in my life. Not even Anne Hathaway's charm could save it, because all her charm was sucked out and stomped on by James Franco and his hipster sneer.

Anyway, the highlight of the evening was texting with my daughter back and forth, commenting on how boring the show was and giving thumbs up and down on the gowns. And with the exception of that hideous gown worn by Mandy Moore, whose skirt was threatening to eat her and it was only by using her microphone to beat back all that fabric that she survived the night, we were simpatico on all counts. In fact, we were texting each other identical comments back and forth. I typed, CELINE!!!!! And a half second later CELINE!!!! appeared on my phone. We are clones of each other, probably the most clear cut defense for the genetics trumping environment debate imaginable. It's something we've accepted, because when you're faced with overwhelming evidence, you just have to roll with it.

When daughter was college hunting we stopped by our dear friends' house who live in Pittsburgh. They hadn't seen daughter in years and we weren't in the house more than forty seconds before dear friend said, "Apple doesn't fall far from that tree, does it?" Because, no, it doesn't.

I'm concerned about Mandy Moore, because once she put that microphone down, she was defenseless against all that skirt. Has anyone seen her since?

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Political Landscape

The political gods giveth and they taketh away. I pick up my newspaper and there's a story on Obama's decision to abandon defense of DOMA by the DOJ, and right next to it is a story about the Wisconsin governor being punked by a newspaper reporter, vowing to break the backs of the unions and, wow, too bad we can't use force to disperse the crowds. WHAT????

There are no words to describe how crazy the political landscape has become with the introduction of the tea partiers into the mix. I imagine Boehner is weeping into his pillow every night because he co-opted their support to get the House and yet now he finds (surprise, surprise) that they are uncontrollable and even more important ungovernable. Why would he think a group of people who believe in only themselves as the rule of law would take kindly to being used as chess pieces in the Repubs battle to dislodge Dems and Obama? Why? What in the two years leading up to that election gave ANY indication that these people would be sheep to your agenda? And now they are proving not to be sheep at all. They voted with the tres liberal Dems to end the war in Afghanistan, they are holding your feet to the flames over the budget, and even better, their extremist agenda will hand the House back to the Dems and locking Obama in for another four years.

Because, you know what, John? They are nuts. They are extremists. They despise government and will do everything in their power to undermine it and push forward their agenda. Ask the Governor of Wisconsin. Sounds like he's a hair's breadth away from firing on the demonstrators. Oh wait, that was the Assistant AG in Indiana who believed we should take these people out. He was fired for that comment, although he's been known for years for his extreme agenda. Sadly, it's only because his big fat mouth went crazy on Twitter and someone actually was able to tie it back to his real person that he was fired. Apparently, being a Nazi supporter doesn't bar you from being the legal representative of the state in Indiana. Cross that state off my list.

John, if all this doesn't sound crazy to you, then God help you.

The shenanigans in Wisconsin are galvanizing labor on a scale unseen in decades. The recent gutting of funding for Planned Parenthood? Way to completely alienate your female voter. WHICH YOU NEED. Because if the Dems are smart they will jettison Biden, throw him the Secretary of State bone, and move Hillary into the VP position for the 2012 election. Right there and then you are toast. PP is not all about abortions, idiots. In fact it's about taking care of women. And as Jon Carroll pointed out in his excellent column in the S.F. Chronicle this morning, it's not the labor unions who gambled with the sub-prime mortgages and sent the country into the worst financial depression since 1929. It was people like the Koch brothers. And by the way. People who can't collective bargain and aren't assured of their health care? All of a sudden Obama's health care plan is going to seem mighty attractive. In fact, you couldn't possibly have orchestrated the demise of Repubs in 2012 any better.

Media glut has its pluses and minuses. We are subjected to crazy people like Beck but we also can see the national impact that electing these extremists has on nation's laws and ethos. It's the only weapon against the massive amounts of money that people like the Koch brothers are funneling into these campaigns. What does it say that the Governor of Wisconsin will not accept a phone call from the Democratic Minority Leader of the Wisconsin Senate but will take a phone call from a Koch brother? I think it says a lot.

So while we champion the inevitable demise of discriminatory practices in regards to marriage between partners, regardless of their sexual stripe, we also cringe when we pick up the newspapers. The events of the last week are the best and the worst examples of what characterizes the American political scene these days.

Friday, February 18, 2011

That Borders Bankruptcy

Well, not like everyone didn't see that coming.

There's been a lot of interesting chat about this on the Internet. There's some blow back from smaller booksellers who are bitter and say that this is nothing more than the chickens coming home to roost. That they are now the victims of amazon's scorch and burn approach to book selling and how does it feel? I see both sides because a lot of people are now losing their jobs and good luck finding a job in this economy. I also learned something new: that Borders, for all it's big boxishness, was something of a champion for the fiction trade paperback writer. The kind of writer who is kick-ass but needs someone biggish like Borders to help them make their name. Another note, my book critique group meets in a Borders twice a month and that store is closing. We're going to have to find another venue, which isn't the big issue, but we've been meeting there for years and I can't help but think of those employees who I greet every time I walk into that store.

For me it personally sucks because I'm on the verge of trying to shop a book. It's not a mystery but it's about the mystery writing world and being a no name, and although there are autobiographical elements in it, it's NOT autobiographical. It takes Elizabeth Bennett and makes her a writer and takes Mr. Darcy and makes him a publisher, and social comedy ensues. I went into writing this knowing it would be a tough sell, but I had a blast writing it, and it's a fun romp (truly, it's a decent read) and now it will be an impossible sell. Because publishers are already struggling and Borders' survival is questionable even when pared down to the nubs and there is debt. OMG, there's debt. Publishers are now carrying Borders' debt and they are going to even be more loathe to take chances. For all of us writers with books to shop this can't be a more horrible time.

Maybe I should just save myself a lot of energy and angst and self-publish it.

Sigh and damn.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Borders Files for Bankrupcy

And it's official:

I hate being right sometimes. It was obvious last June when I walked into my local store and saw that they had replaced a ton of book selling space with space selling "stuff." Plus no inventory what so ever.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Book Review: An Object of Beauty

Given my limited amount of money, I always read a ton of reviews (NOT on amazon) before I buy a book, so it was with some measure of disappointment that I noticed that Steve Martin's latest had a number of very mixed reviews, with the majority of them being negative. I bought it anyway. I loved Shopgirl and found his autobiography riveting, so I plonked down some money for the hardcover.

I find myself agreeing with the majority of these reviewers. I also agree with them on the strength of this book: Martin's keen and acerbic critique of the art market. A well-known art collector, his book soars when the focus shifts from the weak characters to the art-selling market and the forces that determine what sells and why it sells (or not is probably equally important). Martin's love of art and a real vicious cynicism about the art market is what makes this book worth buying. Art is like currency. If you believe a dollar is worth a dollar, then it's worth a dollar. If you look at a second time and you see that it's only paper. Well.

Essentially, this is a non-fiction book with a fiction premise. The non-fiction bits work brilliantly, and the fiction bits are exceptionally problematic. There are glaring similarities to another book that works beautifully that is set in New York with a problematic “heroine” and a passive narrator and that is Breakfast at Tiffany's. I’m surprised that none of the reviews I’ve read have mentioned this. Perhaps Capote’s book works better because it’s a novella and Capote doesn’t give us time to parse out Holly Golightly’s motives. We just accept them because it’s such a whirlwind of a story. Perhaps it works better because we never leave the narrator. Perhaps it works better because Holly Golightly comes to New York to transform herself from a hick farm girl from a Podunk town in the middle of nowhere to, well, Holly Golightly. Lacey Yeager arrives fully formed to realize her ambitions. She doesn’t transform; the art world around her transforms.

Aside from these comparisons, generally speaking if you write a novel then you usually have a dilemma of sorts. A character has an epiphany. Falls in loves. Falls out of love. Kills someone. Falls from grace. A tragedy. Something HAPPENS. Lacey Yeager, the protagonist of An Object of Beauty, faces no dilemmas, suffers no tragedy. And the only person who you could honestly say that she loves is the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. There’s no explanation for why she’s basically nothing more than an ambitious sociopath. The one possible moral dilemma that she faces in the book is eliminated by a quip. I think you can safely say that she basically quips her way through this book. She’s something of a monster and yet everyone loves her?

And I guess that was what Martin was trying to do, have Lacey Yeager be a metaphor for the art market. How art has become nothing more than a commodity. It’s all for sale to the highest bidder. As is she. She’s beautiful in the eye of the beholder. She is loved because she always becomes what the other person wants to see. Ultimately, I think Martin was trying to have her be both a work of art but also emblematic of the art market. Sadly, she’s more art market than art. Heartless, ambitious, mercenary, and without a soul, this construct falls apart. I think that if she had had one failure, one setback that she actually admitted was a setback, one scene where her innocence was lost, it would have salvaged this book. But we start off the book with a Lacey who is without a moral core and twenty years later we have the same woman. She doesn’t move emotionally one bit. The one possible moral dilemma is almost a throwaway plot line, and the opportunity to humanize this character was lost.

As cynical and funny and biting as Steve Martin is about the art world, his love of art does come through here and there. And yet by the end of this book the art is overwhelmed; it has become as soulless as Lacey.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Yes, Times Are Changing

Powell's lays off 7% of its workforce.

My Thoughts on E-publishing

This will be a rambling and probably somewhat incoherent post on the e-publishing phenomena. E-books is a separate post, but I note that HP has announced its version of the iPad. The technology is moving so fast that it will be only a matter of time before a majority of our reading material will be online. As an aside I do wonder in light of Egypt's abortive attempt to stop the demonstrations by killing the Internet whether it's wise for a nation to have most of its reading material hooked up to computers (which can be shut down). Of course, Hitler burned books so I guess this is the modern-day equivalent. Kill the power, kill the message. But still it concerns me, especially since with amazon you're technically only renting books from them. They can take back your books at any point, even if you paid for them. Anyway, digressing.

Publishing [and by that I mean New York (NY)] has always been the gatekeeper. I think that this has been a valid point in the past. I'm something of a 1920s, American ex-pat fanatic, and I've read probably far too much on both Hemingway and Fitzgerald to be healthy. This entailed reading a lot of their letters to their editors. There was a reason why it could be years between books. Aside from the boozing and hunting, both men worked at their books. And I mean worked like frigging dogs to get it right. People aren't working at books anymore. And you can tell when a book has been worked on. I'm reading Hillary Mantel's book on Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. She worked five years on this book and it shows.

The concept of gatekeeping is not just blowing hot air. Seriously, if you'd read the first draft of my first book you would have run screaming from the room hunting frantically for mental bleach. Yes, it was that horrible. I worked at it for three years, learned some things, polished it up, and eventually sold it (and no I'm not comparing it to either Hemingway or Fitzgerald, I'm just saying that it became a better book). In this day and age, I could put up that truly horrific first draft on amazon and attempt to sell it to you. So when NY yells into the ether that they are the gatekeepers, protecting you from all that awful writing, they are, in a way, correct. They have been. Until recently. Until the big corporate buyout that reduced the numbers of publishers in NY from something like twenty to something like three. Roughly ten years ago, books ceased to be books and became commodities.

At that point the editors were fired, and the process became less about the book and more about the market. What commodity will get us the most money. Not which book is the best, which book should be published because it says something worth saying, but which book will sell. And now when NY screams that they are the gatekeepers no one is listening because they abdicated that role in search of bigger and better profits. In their zeal to reduce their overhead and produce only one book a year that sells a ton, NY decided to drop a bunch of authors that sold, that made profit, but didn't make enough profit. This is a concept that is totally foreign to me, but then I wasn't a business major. Profit to me is, um, profit. But apparently not!

So now you have all these authors who have a proven track record and now you have the technology that allows them to self-publish. And authors are doing it. Write it and they will come mentality. If you have a readership and publishers are ignoring you, then why not? Because they have readers who want to read them. These writers just don't have publishers who want to publish them. But lo and behold the technology is there and not only there but there at $3.99 or even better $2.99. What a bargain!

I think it gets trickier if you decide that you always wanted to write a book, and, hey, kindle. Because I think of my first draft and how bad it was. I put bad in italics because you have no concept how bad. I think of all these bad novels flooding amazon, and Borders, and no doubt Barnes and Noble, because all of these companies now realize that there is money to be made out of this self-publishing business. And why? Because there is NO money to be made now with the traditional publishing model. If anything will save the box chains it will be the self-publishing market.

I'm standing on the sidelines watching this. I know authors who are now forced to self-publish because NY will no longer publish them. I know people who couldn't write their way out of a paper bag and who now want to publish their stuff and there is no stopping them. I know people who are wonderful writers who see NY as nothing more than a depressing roadblock and just as NY is ignoring them, they are ignoring NY and looking at different publishing models (none of which include NY).

I received money over Christmas and I bought four books with that money. Actual books. Hardcovers! Except for one, which was an annotated version of Persuasion by Jane Austen, and it's the only decent book in the lot. The rest needed a few more turns with an editor. They aren't horrible books, but they aren't good books either. I feel cheated. That editorial process isn't happening now that authors are being pressed to churn out a book a year. It shows. Books have faulty premises or plot busts or just don't hang together well. That's what an editor does. Makes the author step outside of their head into the real world to create a book that works for most people, not just them.

What I see happening? A flood of utter dreck hitting the self-publishing market. Some really good stuff hitting the self-publishing market. Some will get noticed. A lot won't. NY pulling back like whoa on paper publishing and continuing to flog e-books at inflated prices, all while decent authors who have self-published continue to undercut them. NY finally waking up and smelling the coffee and discounting e-books, but ONLY publishing in e-form. I suspect that the majority of mystery will only be available in e-form within five years. The Lee Child's of this world will survive in paper. The rest of us? Doubtful. I see authors forming collectives, using that six degrees of separation business to sell their material to others through a loose association of authors. Those who keep their quality up could do well in this configuration.

Essentially, I think the authors who consistently reach for quality will survive. There are lots of potential models out there. What NY doesn't seem to realize is that people want GOOD books to read. They don't want what some NY marketing department is shoving down their throats. I'm at the point where I've dropped several authors from my list of must-reads because they are now producing mediocre books. And I don't blame them per se. They are reacting to market forces as well. But that doesn't mean as a reader I want to keep supporting them when they aren't keeping up their end of the bargain. And this IS a bargain. You write a good book and I will read it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Gap and the State of Me

Any woman who's been writing and publishing for a bit feels the gender gap pinching, and it's pretty much from the word go. Laura Miller at has written an interesting piece with lots of links about this gap. I encourage you to check it out:

I've finished my third book and can't seem to find a place for it. It was an experiment, and I knew going into it that it might not have a place in the current marketplace. I'm going to shop it for six months and then if it doesn't sell I'll self-publish it. It's a very fun book, with some insight into writing within a genre and trying to carve a writing career out of the rest of one's demanding life. Oh, there's a little romance in there and a huge tribute to Jane Austen. I think it's a niche book, and I think it could be a big niche, but it doesn't seem to be grabbing people.

The fourth book? This relates to the above. I'm struggling with what exactly to write because, yeah, my time is very limited. I'm now working full-time and my evenings and weekends are the only time I have to write. Kids are more or less grown (son is driving), but still. If I spend all day editing engineering I'm brain dead when I get home. I can barely speak, never mind trying to put my own sentences together.

That said, I'm toying with writing a legal thriller. If I do, I"ll write it under a male pseudonym. Because see above. Because, yes, I think there is a bias. My first two books aren't particularly cozy, and, in fact, this is a problem because they are neither "knit" or "grit" but somewhere in the middle, therefore, they appeal to a limited number of readers. But the reality is that I'm branded now as a cooking author, and if I were to write something that was grittier (read, more marketable), I would have a hard slog. Plus I think women do get ignored and marginalized by male readers (and male authors--thank you, big name author who trashed cooking mysteries in your presentation while I was in the audience and had just had lunch with you). So if I do write that thriller I'm thinking about, then I will write it under a male pseud. Because enough. The playing field isn't level. It's biased. I didn't need a bunch of links to tell me that, but it's always nice to have your suspicions confirmed. I think the bar for women writers (at least in mystery) is higher. I just finished a mystery written by someone who is extremely successful and while I generally like his stuff, this is a weak book. I doubt that if a woman had written it, they would have a contract. The weakness is so glaring, so in your face, that it makes you wonder, what the hell?

So. Onward.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Baking Thing

So, in a former life I was a pastry chef. Which is how I indirectly became a writer because I quit baking when I had children, which necessitated a move to the burbs for better schools, which meant an astonishing loss of self, which meant I started writing to stop from going crazy, and here I am.

I wasn't a great cook. I was technically competent, and I could run a kitchen, but I didn't have that creative spark that separates the wheat from the chaff. I was just good at what I did but nothing more than that. It did get old at the end. Being twenty-four and working horrendous hours is not the same as thirty-two working horrendous hours. Plus when you're younger your friends tend to be your work friends and I could go out and have fun (people in the food business go out and eat and drink for fun--imagine that!) and work on two hours of sleep. As I aged, I wanted to be in bed by ten because I had to get up at five. There were a lot of things that were great about it, and a lot of things that were horrible, and yet I still miss it, even though I haven't been in a kitchen in over twenty years.

There is a commercial bakery not far from where I currently work. I think it's a Wonder Bread factory (seriously), and depending on how the wind is blowing, some mornings I get out of my car and I'm surrounded by the smell of baking bread. It's like a cape, surrounding me. And I have a wistful moment.

I haven't given up the idea of running a small place. Of course, what I would really like is some gigantic Victorian where it's an extension of my house and people just come and eat. Like they are extended friends. Because that's what I'm looking for. A sense of community and shared love of food.

I had a wild idea the other day. What if one didn't open up a business but just opened up their house. And people sat down and ate what you served (just like you would if someone came to your house for dinner). If they wanted to they could leave some money in a jar. What they thought was fair. And there was no business permits, or health inspectors, or the hoop jumping that is inevitable when you start a business. You just open up your home. Cook it and they will come concept.

::Eyes homes for sale in local paper::