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Farewell essay: On the love of paper and ink and glue, and words on a printed page.

December 16, 2011

Any number of topics presented themselves for what may be my last little essay here — it’s been a busy week in book land — but I’ve decided to mingle the elegiac with the celebratory.

Yes, I could have written about the latest atrocity by Amazon, a company that, astonishingly enough, seems to have less social and cultural conscience than Walmart, Destroyer of Towns.

I might have responded to this astonishingly wrongheaded Slate piece by Farhad Manjoo about how independent bookstores are “the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find,” and should just do us all a favor and die already.

Let me ask one simple question: How many author events did any Internet retailer sponsor last month? Books & Books, our local South Florida independent, sponsors 40 to 60, month in, month out. Otherwise, I’ll leave the field to novelist Richard Russo, whose New York Times op-ed on the subject Manjoo mocks without refuting.

And I might have written an appreciation of Christopher Hitchens, the great Anglo-American journalist and critic who died last night of cancer at age 62. I might have recalled how my admiration for his wit and eloquence were not diminished by my disgust at his intolerance toward religionists.

But I’ve already written that column, when I first heard of his illness, and besides, I knew the man only through his writing. I think you’ll get more out of this remembrance by his friend, Christopher Buckley, at the New Yorker website.

I might have eulogized the American-in-Paris bookseller, George Whitman, who died this week at age 98. He revived the landmark Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co., and ran it for half a century. But my friend and erstwhile colleague Tom Swick, one of the best travel writers alive, has beaten me to it, with his customary elegance and insight.

And I might have written about the best books of 2011, but 1) I read fewer new books this year than usual, and 2) the ones I did read were for the most part unexceptional, and 3) I lost all interest in the subject, at least temporarily, when I opened the link to one such list and the very first novel mentioned was the absolute worst book I read this year.

No, I have chosen instead to leave you with a set of lovely quotes about reading, courtesy of the Huffington Post (which I have cheerfully maligned in this space upon every possible occasion), from some of our most interesting writers. I take the liberty of adding brief commentary on each one:

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” Joyce Carol Oates. Stuffy, but true.

“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” Philip Pullman. Actually, thou shalt not has done quite well for itself these last 3,000 years, but he’s right about once upon a time.

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler). My favorite in this lot.

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” Oscar Wilde. Dear Oscar. He only posed as a decadent aesthete. At heart he was a moralist.

‘Be awesome! Be a book nut!” Dr. Seuss. Unimprovable.

“Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” Neil Gaiman. I’m not certain of the metaphorical machinery at work here, but I think he means to say both are impossible.

“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Henry David Thoreau. Since Thoreau died at 44, I wonder if he might have been prescient. On the other hand, how do you know which books are best before you read them? Of course: Critics!

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” James Baldwin. This is so sad and heartfelt and true that I have nothing whatsoever to add.

“Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” Mark Twain. Of course, Twain died more than a century ago. Today his formula would no doubt be: “An iPhone, a Starbucks, and a rocking Twitter account!”

I’d like to add another quote attributed to Twain, and which, interestingly enough, was recently tweeted by Mike Tyson: “The man who will not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

Over the past two and a-half years I’ve argued, probably to a tiresome degree, for the importance of reading real books, made of paper and ink and glue and printed on an actual white page of paper. Electronic reading devices, while possibly increasing reading interest in the short term, will inevitably lead people toward functional illiteracy.

What fraction of the populace will put forth the effort to read when they can watch TV or movies or play video games on their portable devices?

Perhaps I am wrong. I fervently hope so.

I want to express my gratitude to the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, and especially its executive director, Alina Interian,  for generously providing this excellent platform for literary commentary these last two and a-half years, and for letting me write whatever I felt like. Thank you. It’s been more fun than I can say.

Please visit the Center’s websites, the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on the many excellent programs and events.

Meanwhile, I trust we will meet soon at some other location in the shifting geography of this brave new world.

A Hunger Games cookbook may sound like a contradiction in terms. It’s not.

December 15, 2011

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen: Bringing home dinner.

I don’t know if it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes, but I am pretty sure there won’t be any vegetarians in a society like Suzanne Collins describes in The Hunger Games.

Let’s be honest: Hungry people will eat anything, especially in rural areas where items we don’t currently think of primarily as foods are abundant. Like, say: squirrel, raccoon, dove, Bambi.

In the middle of December, the Open Page blog will go on an indefinite hiatus.  Visit the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on programs and events.

That’s the beauty of Emily Ansara Baines’s The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookebook: From Lamb Stew to “Goosling” — More than 150 Recipes Inspired by the Hunger Games Trilogy. It’s more than a clever keepsake for fans of the series salivating over the movie adaptation not due until March(!).

It actually enlarges our view into Katniss’s world by supplying dishes we can make at home!

Entertainment Weekly is mistaken in calling the cookbook “a fun but not quite practical treat” for fans.

“While many of the recipes allow you to replicate the rich, sumptuous dishes from Capitol banquet scenes (“Super Sweet Potato Rolls”),” EW opines, “others require ingredients you’d have to kill in the woods with your own bow and arrow.”

I hate to break it to you, EW, living in New York or LA and all like you do, but that’s not a problem for Americans in most of the heartland.

Growing up in the sparsely populated mountains of western Virginia, only one generation removed from the Great Depression (as opposed to the Really Lousy Depression we’re living through now), I am well acquainted with squirrels and other game foods, as well as the tools (bow and arrow? Check!) required to get them.

Suzanne Collins’s refusal to pretty up what life in a decaying and oppressed American landscape would actually be like greatly enhances The Hunger Games for a reader like me. And I’m happy to say the filmmakers seem to be paying similar attention to detail.

Look at that picture of Jennifer Lawrence drawing back her bow — everything about it is authentic: her posture, the angle of her elbow, the finger grip on the bow string, the way she’s sighting over the arrow with both eyes.

Besides, even if you don’t live in the country or otherwise have access to genuine critters (for, say, “Small Critter Casserole”), you can always substitute chicken. You’ll miss out on the wonderful tang of wild game, but it’ll still be next door to authentic.

Reading this recipe takes me back to childhood, watching my Mom dredge pieces of rabbit or squirrel through flower before plopping them into the pork fat sizzling in the frying pan.

Or you could stir up one of those “sumptuous dishes from the Capitol,” ingredients for which should be available at any grocery stores — even though those recipes, especially their names, put me in mind of the kind of repast Chaucer might have eaten on his way to Canterbury.

To give you a vicarious sample, here’s one recipe.

Small Critter Casserole (rats, squirrels, etc.)

2 pounds small game meat, cut into 2″ chunks

1 cup seasoned flour

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup fresh mushrooms

1 and 1/2 cups artichoke hearts, chopped

8-10 green onions, chopped

2 cups chicken stock

1 12-ounce can cream of celery soup

2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped

Juice of one fresh lemon

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Dredge meat in seasoned flour and brown in skillet with 1/4 cup vegetable oil. Brown in two separate batches so the pan is not overcrowded. Add more oil if needed.

2. Return all browned meat to the skillet. Add broccoli, green beans, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, green onions, chicken stock, and celery soup. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until it just comes to a boil, about 12-15 minutes. Lower heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until meat is tender. Add thyme and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Serve from the pot or transfer to a pretty serving bowl to serve family-style at the dinner table.

I love that “rats, squirrels, etc.”

Other dishes include President Snow’s Sauteed Dove Breasts in Bacon Drippings, Wild Raccoon Sauteed in Bacon Drippings, Fightin’ Fried Squirrel, Grilled Tree Rat With Peanut Butter Dipping Sauce, and Hazelle Beaver Stew With Rosemary Potatoes.

Baines takes the time to explain just where each recipe originates in the novels. “[I]t’s amazing to see just how many significant or weird food references the Hunger Games trilogy contains,” notes EW.

For the less adventurous, here’s another savory dish, one more likely to appeal to city dwellers:

Katniss’s Favorite Lamb Stew

  • 5 pounds lamb fillet, shoulder or leg, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • ½ cup water
  • 4 cups beef stock
  • 2 teaspoons white sugar
  • 3 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 3 cups diced carrots
  • 1 cup diced zucchini
  • 1½ cups diced celery
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 3 potatoes, cubed
  • 5 cups dried plums
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 3 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 bay leaves

1 cup ginger ale

  1. Place lamb, salt, pepper, and flour in a large mixing bowl. Toss to coat meat evenly.
  2. Heat olive oil in a large pan and brown the meat, working in batches if you have to.
  3. Remove lamb to a side plate. Pour off fat, leaving ¼ cup in the pan. Add the garlic and onion and sauté until the onion becomes golden. Deglaze frying pan with the ½ cup water, taking care to scrape the bottom of the pan to stir up all of the tasty bits of meat and onion. Cook to reduce liquid slightly, then remove from heat.
  4. Place the lamb and garlic-onion mixture in a large stockpot. Add beef stock and sugar, stirring until sugars are dissolved. Bring mixture to a boil, cover, and simmer for 1½ hours.
  5. Add the vegetables, dried plums, herbs, and ginger ale to the pot. Simmer for 30-45 minutes, or until meat and vegetables pierce easily with a fork.

Serves 8-10. Mmm-mmm!

Russell Hoban wrote books that blurred the line between fantasy and literature

December 14, 2011

One of the 20th century’s vast number of unjustly neglected novelists, Russell Hoban, died yesterday at age 86 — a development he foresaw with his customary wit as “a good career move.”

As the Guardian reports in an excellent if too-brief obit, Hoban told an interviewer in 2002 that his death would spur new reader attention.

“People will say, ‘yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let’s look at him again’,” he said.

Hoban is best known for his post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker, for which he invented a credible new English dialect. Anthony Burgess, who performed a similar feat in A Clockwork Orange, described Hoban’s book as “what literature is meant to be.”

The novel imagines life in Kent, England, 2,000 years after a nuclear war has destroyed world civilization. Riddley Walker lives in a sub-medieval society of bows-and-arrows, where wild dogs prey on people, and puppet shows have replaced religious services — previous church traditions have been lost.

Riddley Walker was published in 1980 to great fanfare, and now is considered a classic by literary and sci-fi critics alike. You can find an appreciation of Riddley Walker at NPR by the emerging American novelist John Wray, who writes the “voice of the novel, remarkable as it is, is only the most obvious of the narrative’s many charms.”

And Riddley Walker is only the most obvious of Hoban’s achievements. He was also a distinguished children’s author and illustrator, creator of the series about Francis the badger. His children’s novel The Mouse and His Child is considered a modern classic, according to the Guardian.

Hoban was born in Pennsylvania, but spent most of his adult life in England. He served in Italy during WW II, earning a Bronze Star “for bravery in action.” Back in the U.S. he found work as a freelance illustrator working with Time, Sports Illustrated and other magazines.

His first children’s book, What Does It Do and How Does It Work, came out in 1959. He wrote and/or illustrated many children’s books over the course of his life. His 16 adult novels include Pilgerman, The Medusa Factory, and Turtle Diary, which was made into a 1985 movie with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

“If I am kept away from writing I become physically unwell,” Hoban told the Guardian in 2002. “It is art and the creation of art that sustains me. Things like Conrad’s Nostromo or Schubert’s Winterreise or Haydn’s Creation or paintings by Daumier make me feel it is a good thing to be part of the human race.”

Bill Swainson, Hoban’s publisher at Bloomsbury, praised the author’s “wonderful imagination.”

“In his last, Angelica Lost and Found, a hippogriff escapes from a painting and lands in San Francisco outside the window of a Jewish gallery owner who has just dumped her lover,” Swainson said. “Russell always wrote with with such a light touch – he always had fun, and made you think that there’s not a sentence wasted.”

That’s why now is a good time to make Hoban’s prophecy come true, and use the occasion of his death to discover his work, both the children’s books and the adult novels.

William Gibson’s pattern recognition skill is rooted in1950s Appalachia.

December 13, 2011

The visionary sci-fi writer who coined the term “cyberspace” while most of us still worked on typewriters traces his unique perspective to an isolated, bookish childhood in a small Blue Ridge mountain town.

“I’m a guy from a really tiny culture in a specific part of Virginia,” Gibson told me by phone from his home in Vancouver. “I grew up in a place where you could look in one direction and see the 20th century, and turn in the other and see 1894.”

The place Gibson is talking about is Wytheville, Va., which, oddly enough, is also my hometown. In fact, I was just there at Thanksgiving to see my mom. So when I interviewed Gibson for the Sun-Sentinel last week — he’s the co-keynote speaker at the Key West Literary Seminar in January — I had to ask him about it.

Gibson was born in 1948 in South Carolina, and lived in various places as a young boy until his father died accidentally, and his mother took him to Wytheville, her family home. Wikipedia’s entry on Gibson credits his fascination with science fiction to “the feeling of abrupt exile” he experienced there.

Believe me, I could identify. After all, eight years younger, I too was an alienated boy who read a lot and got out as soon as I could — though I gravitated in the opposite direction, to Florida.

It was only in my 30s that I began to appreciate anew the beauty of the region’s geography, the pungency of its culture, the charm of its people and their values. I could certainly understand if Gibson had unhappy memories of that place and time.

“I don’t at all have bad feelings about growing up there,” Gibson said. “It was a difficult place for someone like me in some ways, but anywhere would have been hard at the time. Not knowing any different I did frame it as driving me insane. Later in life it doesn’t look quite that way.”

Where he grew up, and when, informs Gibson’s entire approach to life, he says.

“About 10 years ago I was googling around the Internet, looking at Wytheville stuff,” Gibson recalls. “And I found a list of marriages that had taken place in the mid 1820s in that area. Every one of the surnames were names I immediately I recognized from my childhood.”

That sense of temporal dislocation enabled Gibson, in the early 1980s, to be the first science fiction writer to pick up on the implications of the then-emerging digital technologies. His debut novel, Neuromancer, coined the word “cyberspace,” established the “cyberpunk” movement, and saw with uncanny prescience the outlines of the world in which we all live today.

“The material was already there, it had already arrived,” says Gibson, “and a fair number of people were noticing it. I saw little bits and pieces of the digital future all the time. But the only people I could find were in some small way involved in the business of it.”

Gibson is refreshingly modest about his ability to predict the future, and indeed, about science fiction in general. He calls the process “fortune telling,” and says science fiction is wrong far more than it’s right.

Science fiction, he says, is best viewed as a lens for exploring the present, not the future.

“The interesting thing about emerging technologies is you just don’t know how people are going to use them,” Gibson says. “The people who developed the cellular system probably didn’t envision pay phones vanishing.”

Neither did Gibson. He notes with a cackle of delight that Neuromancer, set in 2030, does not postulate the development of cell phones.

“I never imagined pay phones would go away,” Gibson says. “There’s a big dramatic scene in Neuromancer involving pay phone technology. That’s the kind of thing you can’t get right. We don’t know what the impact of new technology will be.”

Neuromancer, which has sold more than six million copies, remains Gibson’s best-known work. It was the first sci-fi novel to win all three major prizes — the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick. But he’s written steadily since, producing novels that are usually well received by mainstream critics.

As for his rural Appalachian origins, Gibson says the time-capsule elements of the region that were so valuable in developing his sensibility are probably gone now.

“For me Southwest Virginia was a place where modernity was not evenly distributed,” Gibson says. “That’s not there now the way it used to be. Media has come in and sort of thinned out the microculture effects. Everybody has electricity and television and the Internet.”

By the way, Gibson has a minor but intriguing new book out, Distrust That Particular Flavor, his first collection of nonfiction essays. Alas, the Key West Literary Seminar has been sold out since summer, but you can go  here to see what you’ll be missing.

Dickens for Dummies: Making the classics safe for today’s dimwitted tots.

December 9, 2011

The Ghost of Christmas Future foresees the death of books.

When Jesse Kornbluth’s daughter found A Christmas Carol boring, the former editorial director at AOL decided to improve Dickens by gutting 15,000 words out of it.

Now he wants to do the same for your stupid kid.

Fifteen thousand words out of a text that’s only 28,000 to begin with. “The story is a slow starter,” Kornbluth declares. “The language is clotted. There’s a lot of extraneous description.”

So like a one man Readers Digest Condensed Books, he fixed it. Voila! It’s all “protein” now, he says.

Kornbluth stepped back from his labors and saw that it was good. He immediately packaged his “gently abridged”  (!) Christmas Carol as an e-book. He promises to perform the same public service for other classics.

In an appallingly pleased-with-himself essay at HuffPo, Kornbluth makes the argument that the world has changed since we were children, reading the classics in their original, raw form.

Kids today don’t have the attention span for it, he says. So the best thing to do is simplify those great old books so the dolts we are raising in our households can get through them.

Hold on a minute. When I stop sputtering I’ll explain the manifold ways in which this is wrong — morally wrong, practically wrong, aesthetically wrong, pedagogically wrong, not to mention ahistorical, anachronistic, and an example of spectacularly bad parenting.

“Actually, I don’t consider myself a butcher. And I don’t think I maimed A Christmas Carol. My goal wasn’t to rewrite Dickens, just to update the archaic language, trim the dialogue, cut the extraneous characters and reduce the book to its essence, which is the story.”

Not a butcher?!? You vivisected 50 percent of the text! I’d really like to know what this guy’s definition of the word “butcher” is. Also “rewrite.” If that’s not rewriting, then nothing is.

Kornbluth’s argument is based on so many misconceptions I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll start with personal experience. When I was a kid I read voraciously, but even then, in the 1960s, I stood out as a freak. Most of my friends read little, if at all. So the inability of most of today’s kids to muster the concentration for, say, A Christmas Carol, does not necessarily portend a seismic change.

Even if otherwise intelligent children can’t muster the wherewithal to get through a classic novel, is it best to bring the novel down to the child’s level? Or the other way around? I’d be very interested to know if Kornbluth’s daughter has a computer, iPad, or TV in her bedroom. I’d love to know if the family van has a DVD player in the back seat. I’d love to know if Jesse and his wife have used a portable DVD player as a mental pacifier.

If so, the first step is to get rid of, or at least great reduce access to these electronic devices. The brain responds just like a muscle. Challenge it and the capacity for concentrated attention will grow. Pander to it by, say, taking out the boring parts of classic novels, and it will turn flaccid and lazy and not want to get up off the mental couch.

By simplifying A Christmas Carol, Kornbluth has not only insulted his daughter, he’s also assaulted Dickens. I say if we can’t read our way through older books then it’s better to discard them than to turn them into something their authors would not recognize.

Furthermore, one of the great virtues of reading books of earlier eras is the immersion into different patterns of thought. In the 19th century, people thought and wrote in slower, denser and more discursive ways. Anyone, even an adult, coming to one of the classics today has to go through the process, over the first few pages or chapters,  of learning to read the book on its own terms.

I shouldn’t have to explain to someone as sophisticated as Kornbluth that this is one of the great benefits of reading, and, despite the discomfort of the mental challenge, once of its great joys, too, when you finally break through and start to swim with the writer instead of against him.

When my children were small, I thought it would be swell to read The Hobbit to them, but it proved too dense and slow and boring, so we went on to something else. A few months later, I brought them Treasure Island. Although Treasure Island is likewise a challenging read — Robert Louis Stevenson intentionally used language already archaic when he wrote in the 1880s — it opens with a tense and exciting sequence and the girls were hooked.

As we read through the novel, I frequently had to stop to explain a word or provide historical context, but my daughters –especially the eldest, who was nine at the time — were transfixed throughout. As a coda: All three found Tolkien on their own as teenagers, blazing through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Kornbluth labors under the mistaken idea he’s done his daughter a favor by taking the “boring” bits out of A Christmas Carol. In reality, he’s performed a great disservice.

I mean, what’s next, Jess — you don’t mind if I call you Jess, do you? Saves us a letter — what’s next after you’ve taken your scalpel and bone saw to Tom Sawyer, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or Little Women?

If we pander to the Amazing Shrinking Attention span then it will only grow smaller and smaller, like a puddle of soul drying up under the radiation of a great digital sun. Simplified novels will give way to comic books, which will give way to picture books (“See Scrooge run!”), which will devolve to the logical destination of this whole thing, functional illiteracy.

Good job, Jess. Hope that e-book sells a bazillion copies.


Won’t you please leave Jane Austen alone please? I’m serious. This means you.

December 7, 2011

Is this the true Jane?

Everything you may hear or read about Jane Austen must best be approached with a wary eye — except, of course, for the greatness of her six novels. This is, alas, not a truth universally acknowledged.

On the contrary. Fresh news regarding some aspect of Jane’s life or work or death is breaking all the time, though curiously this seems to happen usually around the time major new books or movies are about to appear. That’s not even to mention the constant production of sequels, prequels, and pastiches of her own works.

In the middle of December, the Open Page blog will go on an indefinite hiatus.  Visit the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on programs and events.

Sometimes it seems that Jane is the Kim Kardashian of classical literature — though much better behaved — so intense is the perpetual interest in all things Austen. I wish her devotees loved her less.

Consider: In just the last fortnight or so we’ve seen a crime novelist speculating that Jane, who died in 1817, age 41, of a mysterious ailment, may have been murdered by way of arsenic poisoning (shades of Agatha Christie!).

The evidence amassed by Lindsay Ashford, mostly circumstantial, is not unpersuasive. But I bristled and sag at the same time when I learn that Ashford just happens to have a

Jane as drawn by her sister Cassandra.

convenient new novel out. The title: The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. In fairness, the Guardian likes the book, finding it “lively.”

In the same period of time another writer, biographer Paula Byrne, claims to have discovered a previously unknown Jane Austen portrait. Up till now, only two drawings of Austen were in existence.

Byrne’s husband bought her the portrait at an auction, where it was presented as an “imaginary” depiction of the great writer. Someone had scrawled “Miss Jane Austen” on the back. But Byrne, thinking she recognized the long straight Austen family nose, had “a visceral” reaction to the image.

Like Ashford, Byrne piles up some semi-persuasive circumstantial evidence: The notion this was created as an “imaginary portrait” is anachronistic, for one thing:  “That genre doesn’t exist, and this looks too specific, too like the rest of her family, to have been drawn from imagination.”

Byrne consulted “various experts” before submitting the portrait to what she says are the three top Austen scholars in the world.

“Two out of the three do believe that this could be Jane Austen and it presents a very professional woman writer at the height of her creative powers,” Byrne says. “They believe it dates to about 1815, before Austen died in 1817.”

Again, in fairness, Byrne is a prize-winning biographer with books on Evelyn Waught, Austen, and the poet Mary Robinson to her credit. She currently has nothing to sell except a BBC documentary on her search to verify the portrait, scheduled to air in the U.K. on boxing day, Dec. 26.

Byrne’s flogging the thing pretty hard, though, with a Twitter feed and everything. To join the fun, visit her website — where one of the highlights is a rather MILFy portrait of Byrne herself.

Finally, and saddest for me, is the new mystery novel by the esteemed P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley. I’ve long stood against the appropriation of the work of great writers by way of pastiche, whether it be by swooning ladies longing for more Regency romance or cheeky careerists inserting a few zombies for Elizabeth and Darcy to slay on their way to a happy ending.

I will concede, however grudgingly, that pastiche does occasionally result in something of lasting value, the prime example being Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a brilliant riff on Jane Eyre from the point of view of the mad wife in the attic.

If anyone can do rightby Jane, it might be P.D. James, and I must admit the opening pages of Pemberly do seem to be an expert performance of authorial ventriloquism.

James explains her motivation for writing such a novel in the Telegraph. USA Today calls the result “magnificent.”  And you can sample an excerpt of the opening pages at Publishers Weekly. Judge for yourself.

Bum fight! Alan Moore and Frank Miller in a lefty-righty feud over Occupy Wall Street.

December 6, 2011

Alan Moore, left; Frank Miller

Before I get into this feud between two comic book gods, someone please tell me why they look like hobos? Frank Miller looks like an angry homeless man, while Alan Moore looks like he mutters to himself a lot.

Okay, to be fair Miller, creator of Sin City and recreator of Batman, only looks like a bum in some of his photos, but I have thoughtfully searched the Internet to find one for you. You’re welcome. He does always seem to appear angry, though.

Moore, famed for Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and others, pretty much resembles a confused hobo in every recent picture I can find. Or maybe an aging member of Jethro Tull.

These two titans of graphic storytelling have come to figurative blows over, of all things, the Occupy Wall Street movement. Miller has long been open about his far-right views, leading novelist Rick Moody (who seems a bit confused himself, and at length) to label him a “crypto-fascist.”

This is all in response to  a blog Miller posted a few weeks ago, blasting Occupy Wall Street as “nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.”

And so on, in a not-even-slightly-coherent rant that ends up accusing OCW of being dupes of terrorists: “Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.”

Rather than giving this addle-pated diatribe the response it deserves — silence — Moore crawled out from under his bridge this week to defend OWS and blast Miller. Alas, Moore’s remarks are scarcely more rational than Miller’s.

“As far as I can see,” Moore told Bad Haven, “the Occupy Wall Street movement is just ordinary people reclaiming rights which should always have been theirs.”

So far so good. But then he adds, in reference to Miller:  “I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favour of it.” Uh….

Moore, who has abandoned the comics industry out of disgust for its commercialism and battles over rights to his work, made the interesting observation that “the majority in the comics field” are “center-right.”

If so then Miller is on the far, far, far right end of that spectrum, as he demonstrated in this NPR interview from several years back, where he condemns the entire history of Islamic culture as “sixth century barbarism.”

Please don’t anyone tell Miller that Arabs invented algebra, or that without the work of Islamic scholars, preserving the classics of Greek and Roman antiquity, the European Renaissance would have been impossible.

Moore  goes on to add that while he hasn’t “paid attention” to Miller’s work in 20 years, he considers Sin City “unreconstructed misogyny,” while “300 appeared to be wildly ahistoric, homophobic and just completely misguided.” Is it impolite to inquire how he arrived at those opinions, as Sin City and 300 were somewhat less than two decades ago?

For the record, I’m as appalled as anyone by Miller’s brutish triumphalism. Politically I’m probably much closer to Moore. But that doesn’t mean I’m altogether comfortable with Moore as a champion of liberal common sense.

I’ll never forget walking out of the movie V for Vendetta (2006), based on Moore’s 1980s-era graphic novel, and wondering why people weren’t outraged. Did no one else care that the hero was a terrorist who kidnapped and tortured the heroine and blew up a major government building in the climactic scene?

Besides, I saw 300, too, and, like most viewers, I thought it was not so much homophobic as homoerotic — strongly homoerotic. Although, of course, it is possible to be both.

Grumpy Monday: Free information, bogus Gods, and HuffPo wastes more time.

December 5, 2011

Robert Levine: Delivering hard truths.

I woke up cheerful, but  a few minutes on the Internet took care of that. Stories about a white man’s search for God, how information “wants” to be free, and yet another utterly meaningless piece at HuffPo have soured my mood.

Let me start with Jeffrey Rosen’s New York Times review of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, by Robert Levine.

In the middle of December, the Open Page blog will go on an indefinite hiatus.  Visit the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on programs and events.

One of the governing maxims of the digital renaissance (or apocalypse, as I prefer to call it), is: “Information wants to be free.” To which I say there’s a more venerable maxim: “You get what you pay for.”

But Levine, a former editor of Billboard magazine, goes much farther: Tech companies like HuffPo, YouTube, and Google are “parasites,” sucking life out of the newspapers, movie companies and TV producers that actually pay to create our journalism and entertainment.

In other words, when media companies suffer, so do artists. Yeah, yeah, I know, supposedly we’re seeing the “democratization” of the arts and journalism but what’s really happening is more like mob rule. When everyone has a voice, then no one really does.

All creative products — from journalism to symphonies — are hand-made, and thus expensive to produce. Put the movie and TV production companies out of business and all you’ll see on YouTube are amateur videos and propaganda produced by business and government.

Just because you’re self-published doesn’t mean you can’t be pirated. See how much you hate copyright laws when your 99-cent digital novel is being reproduced and sold and you’re not getting any royalties.

This is back-to-the-future stuff. Thirty years ago, when I was a young magazine editor, freelance writers had finally won reasonable rights and protections after a long struggle. The bad old days of “write-for-hire” were vanquished, seemingly never to return. At least, not until the glories of the digital age.

Now almost everything is write-for-hire again, and most writers — if they can find work– labor in a sort of serfdom not seen since the 1950s. Some revolution that is.

Finally, that “information wants to be free” line comes from a 1984 speech by techno wizard Stewart Brand. Seldom does anyone quote the rest of it: “[I]nformation wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.”

I can only hope that Levine’s book, will “change the debate about the future of culture,” as the Times’ Rosen says. If not, then culture will be akin to what grows under the floorboards of a barn.

If outfits like HuffPo are “parasites,” they can also be monumental time wasters. In fairness, I do sometimes find worthwhile journalism and criticism at Arianna’s place. But more often I trip over sleazy, over-hyped stories that amount to nothing.

Consider this piece, aggregated (natch!) from and titled “College Prep! Famous Authors Take the SAT!”

Okay, I bit. I did, expecting to be amused by some surprising result — the famous writers flunked! — or at least eating the spinach of some new information — the SAT tests are bogus!

The two writers, Loren McLaughlin and Scott Westerfield (first maybe we should define the word “famous”), were assigned essays that were then graded by a veteran SAT tester. The result: The professional writers produced excellent work that received top grades.

This is news? For this I wasted  several precious moments from the finite number allotted me? Moments I can never get back? Oh, and HuffPo brooks little criticism. I made a brief comment mocking the uselessness of the story and asking where I can apply for a temporal refund. That comment is nowhere to be seen. “Pending comments: Zero.”

You’d think any self-respecting publication would moderate comments for offensive language, racism, and other trollery, while welcoming impassioned criticism. But I suppose Arianna’s skin is too thin for that.

Finally, there’s this ridiculous NPR story about Eric Weiner’s new book Man Seeks God, which details his super-shallow globe-trotting search for genuine spirituality.

Some commentators rightly take Weiner to task as “an over privileged white person on a quest for spirituality Eat, Pray, Love style.” I guess if you’re too poor to visit Kathmandu  and (fail to) learn to meditate under your very own guru, then you’re doomed to a live without transcendence.

That’s actually not what irritates me about Weiner’s search for spirituality (he ends up with something he calls — kid you not — an “IKEA God”). No, it’s really about his search for a topic  to follow up his earlier bestseller, The Geography of Bliss.

Of the writing of bogus books by desperate writers there is no end. And like jellyfish in a sea devoid of sharks and turtles, they are going to multiply like crazy.

Word of the Year: ‘Tergiversate.’ Yeah, that’ll catch on.

December 2, 2011

No, I’ve never heard or read it, either. I can only assume the lexicographers at are chained to  workstations in the bowels of a medieval castle somewhere and thus do not get out much.

“Tergiversate,” according to this HuffPo piece, is pronounced “ter-JIV-er-sate,” and means “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.; equivocate.”

Greeaaaat. Just what we need, a big, ugly latinate word that means “flip-flop.”  What’s wrong with equivocate? It’s a slightly less ugly latinate word with the same meaning.

In the middle of December, the Open Page blog will go on an indefinite hiatus.  Visit the Center@MDC and Miami Book Fair International for continuing updates on programs and events.

And have you run into this word anywhere? HuffPo reports a single sighting (citing?), in the Times of London in August, where it was used “to describe the changing attitudes of stock markets.”

(Surely HuffPo means “attitudes toward stock markets?” Or perhaps, “attitudes of stock market traders?” Only sentient beings can have attitudes. Yikes! This subject is making me persnickety.)

Jay Schwartz,’s Head of Content, defends this absurd selection of a word that you are most likely seeing here for the one and only time in your life, by telling HuffPo:

“We’re taking a stand on this choice….This word encompasses an sense of ‘flip flopping’ but it also implies a number of other complicating forces. Unlike ‘flip flop’, ‘tergiversate’ suggests a lack of intentionality – it’s a change in state more out of necessity, as new events happen at great speed, whether in the economy, politics or attitudes.”

Whatever. When has this ever been not the case? And yet we muddled through, I don’t know, the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights era, Vietnam, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the entire Bush Administration, without resort to an ungainly archaic word.

The one thing tergiversate has going for it is its deep historical pedigree, which goes back to 1655 or thereabouts. But that’s it.

A Word of the Year should flow off the tongue, and it should immediately feel right. It should be almost onomatapoeic, with its sound at least cooperating with its meaning.

The sound of tergiversate cooperates with no meaning whatsoever. It’s like a scientific or medical or scholarly word, meant not to share meaning but to obscure it for the exclusive use of an in-group.

Like an indie film, it seems to lack enough beats — it needs another syllable or two to limber it up and let it flow from the front of the mouth.

I keep wanting to make it “tergiviscerate” — that scans better, doesn’t it? — which might be a word to describe what Barack Obama would do to Rick Perry in a presidential campaign debate (or Michelle Bachman or Herman Cain or even Mitt Romney, who, after all, is the reigning tergiversator-in-chief).

What’s more, a Word of the Year should be sexy and fun and fill a need we previously did not know existed. “Unfriend,” the 2009 WOTY chose by the Oxford Dictionary, fits most of these requirements. So does “locavore,” Oxford’s 2007 WOTY.

Of course, Merriam-Webster’s  2006 WOTY,  “truthiness” –invented by TV comedian Steven Colbert — meets all these standards. It is (or should be) the consensus pick as best coinage of the millennium.

As you can see, dictionary outfits compete to anoint their own publicity-generating WOTY, with the American Dialect Society joining the ones already mentioned. Two cheers for capitalism, I suppose.

But I find it especially disappointing has botched this year’s job so badly. Since I moved most of my work life online, has become my go-to word reference guide.

Yes, the two-volume Compact Oxford is over there on the floor by the bookcase, and the beloved American Heritage remains enthroned on its corner dictionary stand.

Who has time to leave the keyboard to look up a word? meets my needs without compromising my writerly principles, chiefly because it not only provides definitions, it provides definitions for all the nuances and forms and connotations of a word.

And what’s more important, it supplies etymologies for each term. A dictionary without etymology is not worth the trees that died to create it. Or in this case, the carbon spewed into the atmosphere to power the Internet.

Finally, while I’m berating my new friends at (and no, I’m not going to unfriend them), let me say that the best words in the language, the ones that have the most power, are the 15 percent that come from the Anglo-Saxon origins of English. The 85 percent of latinate words, foisted upon the language by the Frenchifiers who accompanied William the Conqueror, are to be avoided whenever possible.

Writers are aware of this– good ones, at least. I suppose it’s too much to expect lexicographers to know it, too. Writers are the race car drivers of language. Lexicographers are the auto mechanics.

David Milch gets his !@#$%^&* hands on Faulkner. Will literature survive?

December 1, 2011

Deadwood's Al Swearingin. McShane would have to change neither costume nor facial expression for Flem Snopes.

I can see it now: Ian McShane as Flem Snopes, scheming his way to prosperity and ruin, plus bare butts, copious poetic cussing, graphic violence, and the other niceties Milch bestowed upon a grateful nation in Deadwood and NYPD Blue.

Wow. When I think of it that way, maybe Milich isn’t such a bad fit for the Faulkner franchise after all. Which is not the same thing as saying that it’s a good idea to turn Faulkner’s dense, forbidding novels into movies and miniseries.

“I’m not, probably, the first person they would have thought of approaching them,” Milch told The New York Times yesterday, referring to the William Faulkner Literary Estate. “But a number of conversations were fruitful and here we are.”

Milch received a sweeping deal — the rights to 19 novels and 125 short stories, according to the Washington Post — but he doesn’t get everything. Books already under contracted aren’t included. Among them: As I Lay Dying, which belongs to Renaissance man James Franco.

Not everything Milch cobbles together out of Faulkner’s corpus is sure to land on HBO, which has only first-look rights. Some adaptations may result in feature films, according to the Huffington Post.

Known for his success with NYPD Blue, Deadwood (and a spectacular failure with the mystic surfer drama John From Cincinnati), Milch does own literary chops.

Before Hollywood, he studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the oldest and most distinguished fine arts writing program in the nation. What’s more, his professors included Southern lit-luminaries Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, so he might have an inkling or two into Faulkner’s antiquarian Southern gothic sensibility.

A Q&A with the L.A. Times reveals Milch to be discursive, verbally flamboyant, and pompous — none of which disqualifies him from tackling Old Bill, who, especially in the novels, not only displays these same qualities but as if by magic somehow turns them into art.

Faulkner, in case you were nodding in college, won the 1949 Nobel Prize for a body of work that mixed modernistic, frequently stream-of-consciousness narrative with a lushly morbid sensibility in stories and novels set mostly in the Reconstruction South around his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, famously recast as Yoknapatawpha County.

Novels like the gloriously impenetrable The Sound and the Fury have been the bane of college students for three generations now, but Faulkner really has only one rival — Mark Twain — for the title of greatest American novelist. One of my English professors told me back in the 1970s that only Shakespeare had more scholarly papers and books written about his works than Faulkner.

Faulkner is also famous for the profound influence his work exerts on world literature, especially Latin America, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other imminent novelists credit him in part for inspiring the invention of Magical Realism.

But Faulkner has resisted film adaptation — even though, ironically, he toiled as a Hollywood hack himself, writing scripts for classic films such as The Big Sleep, based on Raymond Chandler’s novel, and To Have and Have Not — the only movie written by one Nobel Prize winner, based on a novel about another Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Hemingway.

Many have tried to adapt Faulkner  — director Mark Rydell and star Steve McQueen made hash of The Reivers (1969), and it mostly goes downhill from there. I can think of only one film worth watching, The Long, Hot Summer, pieced together from bits of the stories Barn Burning and Spotted Horses and the novel the Hamlet.

Uh, the Paul Newman/Joanne Woodward 1958 version, not the 1985 TV movie with Don Johnson and Cybil Shepherd. Did I even need to say that?

The question is whether what makes Faulkner great — the writing, more than the plots — can be translated successfully to the screen. How, for example, does a filmmaker convey the long stream-of-consciousness section from the novella The Bear? (Please, God, not a montage — anything but a montage!)

Milch is confident, telling the L.A. Times: “To me he seems enormously cinematic.”

No word yet on what Faulkner work will go before the cameras first. As a reader who favors the short stories over the novels (okay, I’m a philistine), and also one who was delighted to discover the hard-edged humor in some of Faulkner’s work, I’d like to suggest the story Spotted Horses.

My guess, though, is that Milich and HBO will go straight for the lurid melodrama of Sanctuary, in which a pretty but neurotic judge’s daughter, Temple Drake, (may I suggest Evan Rachel Wood?) is raped with a corn cob by an impotent gunsel. That is, after all, a story line that would have been right at home in Deadwood.