Sunday, September 25, 2005


All Over The World

Jack Shafer has a great Slate article on Nicholson Baker's collection of original newspaper volumes of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. (Thanks, Maud!)

Those who read about Baker's quest in Double Fold will be delighted to hear that he and his wife now have a book collecting the World's graphic genius: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898 - 1911).

For instance:

...The Busiest Hour on Earth. Between 6 and 7 p.m. More Happens on Manhattan Island than Anywhere Else -- Here Are a Few Surprising Occurences.

The artist was, of course, that busiest and most prolific of all vintage illustrators: Unknown.


Book Lust

It's not often that I expect to find book leads in Budget Living magazine, but their current issue has John Waters in a priceless picture on their back-page "My Best Buy" column:

No, you are not misreading that title: it's The Loves of Liberace. Waters found it at San Francisco's Kayo Books -- a great store, by the way, if you're looking for ultra-campy old paperback pulps. (Check out their cover art gallery.) As for Loves, "It was published by press agents," Waters explains, "to convince people that Liberace had lots of girlfriends, which is ludicrous."

Did the ruse succeed? Well, let's get closer look at that cover:

Can't you just feel the sexual tension there? Can't you? Can't y....

Oh. You can't.


Second Thoughts

Chistopher Frizzelle in The Stranger reassesses a negative review he gave to a book a few months back:

In his 1826 essay "On the Pleasure of Hating," William Hazlitt writes that "without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men." I was turned on to Hazlitt's essay by a friend of mine who's a critic, and I was hoping that it was an essay about critics. I was hoping it was an essay about haters. I've been a book critic for a couple years, trashing mostly poetry but also stories and novels, sometimes for stupid reasons but always for reasons that seemed important at the time. I agree with Hazlitt that hating is useful, but lately I've begun to hate the hating I've done, not only for its meanness but also because I've been known to be wrong.

I've been fortunate enough over the last few years to be able to cherry-pick my occasional reviewing work: basically, I review books I like. If I read it and don't like it, and don't feel that its existence endangers anyone or anything, then I usually lapse into -- shall we say -- a thoughtful silence. But that wasn't always the case with my earliest reviewing work, especially when I was a music critic for The All Music Guide to Rock, where I threw my share of... um, rocks. (A sample from a review of The Symphonic Music of Yes: "If you lived in Roger Dean landscape, this would be the music playing in the elevators.")

But my opinion has indeed changed over time about at least some of things I've reviewed. It's not often you get to see a reviewer revisiting a work; in fact, Mark Moskowitz's trip to the original New York Times reviewer of Dow Mossman, to ask him about the book three decades later, still stands out to me as one of the most intriguing bits of the movie Stone Reader. Which makes me think: what if someone devoted a column to re-reviewing a book? That is, asking the original reviewer of book to read over it again, and see what they think of it and their original assessment now?

It would be a curious experiment...

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Whatsit of the Week

It's a primer on perfume manufacturing! No, wait... it's an adventure with Captain Jacob Cole into exotic lands! Wait, hold on... it's also an advertising insert for Boston-area bicycle shops!

It's... it's....

...I don't know what the hell it is.


Man Hunter!

In an article that is bizarrely skimpy on any details -- No publisher? No title, even? -- The Scotsman reports that a forgotten rival of Sherlock Holmes is about to be resurrected:

TALES of a Scottish detective which were so popular they outsold Sherlock Holmes are to be republished more than 100 years after they topped the best-sellers list. Fictional Glasgow detective Dick Donovan was a master of disguise, solving strange and dark mysteries.

A little bit of digging, though, turned up this very useful AB Bookman article Who Was Dick Donovan? which tells us of author J E P Muddock that:

Far from being an imitator of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Muddock’s fictional detective predated the Baker Street sleuth and was, for a time, equally popular. Some of his tales ran in the Strand at the same time as the early Holmes stories. Although critics consider his Donovan of great importance to the genre of detective stories, his work is extremely hard to find and almost forgotten.... Muddock's output was, frankly, staggering:

184 "Dick Donovan" detective stories
57 "non-Donovan" detective stories (but with "Dick Donovan" as author)
12 true crime stories (not including Pritchard the Poisoner in Caught at Last!)
37 horror tales
28 novels written as "Dick Donovan" (by no means all crime or detective stories)

...and as J E P Muddock:
19 novels
3 story collections
12 historical fictions
4 history books
7 guidebooks
an autobiography
at least one polemic against the French
The Savage Club papers (edited)

Good lord, Muddock was one busy man. And he lived to be 91. Why haven't I heard of this guy before?

There's no sign of the reissues in the U.S., but Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective is already available at Amazon.Uk, as is a very spiffy looking facsimile edition of the Donovan collection Man-Hunter, published in 1888:

Most intriguing item of all: The Scotsman does mention that there's a possibility Dick Donovan will make his comeback as a TV series....


Turn the Page

The BBC reports on the British Library's new shockwave website, where you can view priceless old books and manuscripts by "turning pages" in (more or less) real time. Some impressive illuminated incunabula there, but the real catch is Alice's Adventures Underground in the original manuscript, written and illustrated by Carroll himself....

Sunday, September 18, 2005


King Wottakar (the Second)

There's a fascinating piece by Tim Adams in today's Guardian ruminating over the allegedly overpowering influence of Scott Pack, the head buyer for the Waterstone's chain in Britain. I rather wished they'd included an actual interview with Pack so that the man could speak for himself a bit more, but in any case the article gives an interesting glimpse into the anxieties of British authors and publishers:

I was talking to a few publishers in London about an idea I'd had for a book, partly, pointedly, about mid-life underachievement. Mostly, they liked the idea, but a single name seemed to dog my progress. 'You have to understand,' they said, 'that whatever we think of it, we have to sell it to Scott Pack.' Or: 'I think Scott Pack is quite down on this kind of thing at the moment.' When I asked around I discovered it wasn't just me. Scott Pack was, it seemed, down on a few of my friends' ideas, too.

The words 'authors' and 'disgruntled' almost always share the same sentence, but still, the more writers I spoke to who had books out, or books about to be published, the more Pack's name came up. Publishers spoke to me darkly of how Waterstone's these days made them pay 'ludicrous figures' on top of the usual discounts to be involved in promotions, and then, if a promotion failed, had their books returned to them. Pack was, I was told, rejecting cover designs, telling editors their jobs. One sent me a rather draconian memo that Pack had circulated to his bookstore managers outlining the criteria on which a book could be 'A-listed' and suggesting extreme caution to a manager seeking to act on his or her own initiative. Another told me that it was rumoured that Pack was about to stop pushing history books because 'history did not sell'. And so on. Not one publisher or author would speak to me about Pack on the record, however, since it would be, one suggested - publishers being at least as paranoid as writers - like 'a suicide note' for his list of authors....

To a large degree, 'Scott Pack' has simply become shorthand for the ways in which bookselling has changed since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement, which fixed book prices, a decade ago. Much that interested parties feared would result from that change has now come to pass. Publishers are held to ever tighter margins: for some Christmas promotions, I was told, Waterstone's is demanding 65-70 per cent discount on all titles, in addition to contributions of £30,000 or more towards marketing costs for each promoted book. Independent publishers, who have generally spent far less than that amount on an advance to their author, are particularly reluctant to take the risk. When you see bigger and bigger piles of fewer and fewer books in your shops this is the reason why.
A quick search revealed that, though he has avoided attention until relatively recently, this is not the first time that Pack has been vivisected by the British press. In the New Statesman on August 22nd, Nick Cohen writes:

The most powerful man in the literary world is not the chairman of the Man Booker jury who hands out the prizes. Nor is it a great novelist who sets the intellectual fashion. It is a bull-necked, shaven-headed former pop music salesman who cares little for literary London. The feeling is reciprocated in spades. Literary London fears Scott Pack. "The trade is completely out of balance," said a leading agent. "Authors and publishers are being pummelled."

"We call him 'Pot Snack'," said another, "because he's so cheap and tasteless." The publishing world whispers the insults from behind the coward's cloak of anonymity. No one wants to offend Pack. He is too powerful....

As Pack explained a few days before this year's Man Booker list was published, airy-fairy literary prizes do not impress him. He was expecting his phone to be hot with publishers asking him if he wanted to buy more copies of their longlisted book. "I don't want to rain on anyone's parade - getting longlisted for the Man Booker Prize is rightly an exciting event for author and publisher alike - but our answer is almost certainly a 'no' . . . The one thing it does not do is sell books. Not many anyway. I make no apologies for that statement. I am here to give the retailer's perspective, after all."
The hostile press that Pack and his frosty pronouncements have been getting lately is presumably due to all the scrutiny the likely Waterstone's / Ottakar merger is generating. But the rest of Cohen's New Statesman article is, I think, particularly intriguing in its analysis of the broader situation. That Pack is right when he says that TV shows sell books but the Booker does not, I hardly doubt: he has the sales figures in front of him, after all. But as Cohen points out, the more downmarket a bookstore goes, the more -- over the long term -- it becomes vunerable to superstores and supermarkets like Tesco coming along and eating its lunch. According to a August 21st piece in the Daily Telegraph, "Not So Wizard For Waterstone's," that may have already happened with the latest Harry Potter release....


A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Today's San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle both have glowing reviews for Yiyun Li's new short story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Writing in the Chronicle, Alan Cheuse notes:
American readers can now celebrate that one of the best new fiction writers of the year learned English as a second language. Even when you employ the highest standard, which is to say, the Nabokovian standard, you have to admit that her book seems to be an extraordinary feat of intelligence and style.

Yiyun recently moved from here in Iowa City -- I know, I know, a writer living in Iowa City, you're shocked -- and she's now in Oakland, teaching over at Mills College. Not many of her pieces are online right now, but you can see glimpse into some of her recent stories from the New Yorker and The Paris Review over at Yiyun's website... and some fine stories they are, too.


More Troublemaking

A couple new wrinkles in the tour: I'll be reading at BookPeople in Austin on Friday November 11th, and the Chicago-area event at Bookstall is being rescheduled for December date TBA.

Also: David Rees, Tim Carvell and I will now be joined by J.M. Tyree for the "Wake for Tom Paine" at Housing Works on November 9th. If you haven't seen Josh's piece in last month's Believer -- Ignatius Donnelly, Prince of Cranks -- then run out and beg, borrow or steal a copy. It's that good.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


Rats! Rats!

In my hair! Yagghhhh!


The Acme Novelty Library

Pantheon continues an extraordinary streak in top-notch graphic novels with an upcoming hardcover release of the Charles Burns book Black Hole; next week sees its release of Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library, and I am champing at the bit for it to show up over at Prairie Lights Books.

In the meantime, the BBC magazine Collective has an interview with Ware, including this explanation of the sheer density of some of his drawings:

I just don’t want anyone to be disappointed or feel they’re not getting their money’s worth. It probably sounds pretentious, but my goal most of the time is to make pages that have the same or similar degree of density and texture that the natural world seems to have, with an overall composition that has an identity of its own, and an intricacy and patterning that’s something like one might find by picking up a leaf or a stone and looking at it intently. I realize that this level of detail might be also interpreted as a sort of abuse of the reader, though that’s certainly not my intention. Mostly, I dislike art and writing that seems tossed off or rushed, and so I end up making stuff where I try to use every bit of surface I have available to me.


All Hail Our Dread Sovereign, King Wottakar

"One hesitates to make predictions about the future of Ottakar’s bookshops, the sale of which has been through numerous twists and turns," notes Nicholas Klee in today's Times of London. "Nevertheless, it appears to be almost certain that the chain will fall into the hands of HMV, the owner of Waterstone’s. HMV’s offer of 440 pence a share has trumped that of an Ottakar’s management buyout team led by its founder James Heneage..."

Press coverage of Waterstones and the potential merger have been -- as Klee puts it -- "consistently unflattering." My own experience has been that Waterstone's has a consistently better selection of serious literary work than any US chain, and indeed better than most other British booksellers as well. Even so, Klee points out that the degree of consolidation liable to happen here is quite serious:
If you have written a sensitive first novel, and Wottakar’s (let’s call it) supports it, you are likely to see much more than a quarter of the print run being sold through the chain. To put it another way: if Wottakar’s does not support your sensitive first novel, you are likely to be struggling. That is why people are worried. One leading publisher told me that Wottakar’s would have “a potential market share of well over 60 per cent of specialist high street bookselling”.

It will be interesting to see, though, whether Borders -- which has already made some inroads in Britain -- will go directly head-to-head with this single competitor. No doubt there will soon be some empty Ottakar storefront ready for them scoop up...

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Saving Kepler's

Today's San Francisco Chronicle covers the continuing efforts to save Kepler's Books, which met a shockingly quick demise a couple weeks ago:

A conscientious objector during World War II, Roy Kepler created a haven of progressive thought long before the free-speech and anti-war movements of the 1960s. The store was a magnet for artists, musicians, scientists and anyone hungry for good books and camaraderie. Kepler had active co-revolutionaries in friends Fred and Pat Cody of Cody's Books in Berkeley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books in San Francisco -- all of them committed to free speech, community, great literature and quality paperbacks. (All three stores were early champions of affordable "pocket books," considering them democratic innovations.)....

Renegotiating the lease with the landlord of Menlo Center -- the Palo Alto-based Tan Group -- is key to the deal, Kepler agreed. Rent on the 10,000-square-foot space on El Camino Real is said to be more than $30,000 per month. According to Manus-Salzman, "Tan was requiring Kepler stick to a 10-year lease that was negotiated at the height of the market during the dot-com boom, which doesn't reflect fair market value."

A Google employee has started a website that has become the clearinghouse for the effort to revive the store: it's at ...


Where Do They Make Bassoons?

Only in Britain could a newspaper article be titled, in all seriousness, Let's Save This Noble Instrument of Mirth -- or end with the question:

How can we make the bassoon more popular?
Email us via

In fact, I think Britain is the only country in which the words "bassoon" and "debate" could even conceivably appear in the same paragraph. As it turns out, Alexander McCall Smith has a great fondness for the instrument -- as do I. My fondness lessened slightly when I saw how much the damn things cost. But Smith got a crashing bargain on his from answering a classified ad:

Although he had obviously very recently returned from a party, he was articulate enough, and he explained to me that he had bought the entire contents of somebody’s garage, and the instruments were part of that. “That,” he said, pointing to a rather sad-looking oboe, “is a clarinet.” I realised then that this man was an amateur, but was happy enough to get rid of things at a profit. There was a bassoon. Old instruments are sometimes described as distressed. This bassoon was in an advanced state of distress; in fact it was abused. I picked it up and asked the seller what he wanted for it. He said: “Now those things cost quite a lot. So . . . 45 dollars.” I bought it, as well as the clarinet/oboe, which he sold me for 15 dollars (it being about one third the length of the bassoon)....

I now had a bassoon, but no idea how to play it.
The Times goes on to describe the bassoon as an "endangered instrument" -- wait, let me check my calendar. Ok, it's not April 1st.... anyway, they go on to describe it as endangered, with very few children playing it, no doubt due to its atrocious expense -- a cheap one goes for $2000. But I think the best explanation of the bassoon's plight was by Frank Zappa, whose 1990 autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book is a suprisingly great read. "Some people crave baseball -- I find this unfathomable," he explained, "-- but I can easily understand why a person could get excited about playing a bassoon. It's a great noise." Still, it may be doomed:

I don't think there are too many cases where parents have demanded that their children learn to play percussion. The same thing with the bassoon. Not too many parents dream of the day when little Waldo will enthrall the neighbors by blowing on a brown thing with a little metal doodad poking out the side of it.
Maybe if they redesigned them with translucent plastic? Made the reeds taste like bubble gum?


Just Ask My Friends

Today's Boston Globe reviews Daniel Shealy's Alcott In Her Own Time, which presents an interesting biographical approach:

"Alcott in Her Own Time" is a collection of letters and essays written by people who knew her before, during, and after the success of ''Little Women," offering a detailed look at her life, her family, and what it was like to live in 19th-century Massachusetts. Each essay.... begins with a paragraph or so explaining the essayist's relationship to Alcott. Some of the recollections recount stories from Alcott's childhood, stories attributed to the character Jo Marsh in ''Little Women," but several illustrate events in Alcott's life that did not make it into her books, including the death of her sister May and her adoption of May's daughter, Lulu; Alcott's unorthodox education; and her experience at Fruitlands, a short-lived, Utopian community founded by her father, Bronson Alcott, in 1843. Other essays, such as ''When Louisa Alcott Was a Girl," by Ralph Waldo Emerson's youngest child, Edward, and ''Beth Alcott's Playmate," by neighbor Lydia Hosmer Wood, offer an intimate look at the Alcott family as a whole. Still others share snippets of private letters and old conversations.

The first time I came across this "oral biography" approach -- by people around the subject, I mean, and not "In Their Own Words" from the subject themselves -- was in Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee's 1978 volume Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. (I see that Thunder's Mouth Press is about to issue a new edition of it next month.) It's a fascinating approach to biography; it certainly doesn't supplant the traditional single-narrator biography, but it does round it out rather nicely.

One surprise, though: when I fed the phrase into "oral biography" into Amazon I only got 57 titles back, and most of them out of print. Though there are surely many other oral biographies without the phrase in their title, this really does still seem to be a underutilized genre...

Saturday, September 10, 2005


The Really Great Escape

The Times of London carries yet another splendid article today: an interesting piece on famous authors in hiding kicks off with the revelation that one writer thought to be dead for 32 years... apparently is not.

HENRI CHARRIÈRE, THE FRENCH convict whose experiences in the penal colony on Devil’s Island furnished the basis for his best-selling novel Papillon, has turned up in Venezuela, 32 years after he was supposed to have died of throat cancer. True, no one has actually seen him, but there he appears on the electoral register: Henry Charriero (the name he adopted in 1945, after finally settling in Venezuela), voter number 1,728,629.

Papillon’s sudden “reappearance” has provoked questions about the reliability of the Venezuelan electoral system, but it has also renewed speculation over exactly what happened to the French convict-writer. Papillon was an instant bestseller in 1969 and was adapted into a film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in 1973, but the last years of Charrière’s life remain cloaked in mystery. There were rumours that the great escaper was not dead at all, merely lying low, in South America or Spain. If he is still alive today, Papillon would be 99 years old.

On the voting rolls 32 years after dying of throat cancer?... Shouldn't this man be in Chicago?

Incidentally, Papillon is still in print, and selling quite nicely by the looks of it. Hmm. Perhaps Harper Collins or his agent know something about Charriere's whereabouts that the rest of us don't?


Good Times

Reading over the Book features in today's Times of London was like catnip for me... "Wow, this one is great. And this one. And... damn, they are on fire today...." Well, what was not immediately obvious in the web edition -- and presumably was for any print reader -- is that today the Times is doing an Out Of Print Books themed section.

Oh, this is the greatest idea... ever. The section editor adds her own curious find among them:

And I never knew that Bambi had a sequel, did you? (Maybe you never knew it was a book) . . . But in Felix Salten’s follow-up to his 1923 classic, Bambi becomes a family man (or family deer): the book’s another oop favourite.

Ok: I didn't know that was a book...


The Family Biz

Jen's got a new book coming out this week -- her first one!

She'd been frustrated at not being able to find any books written for autistic kids... there are now lots about them, or for their parents, teacher, siblings, etc. etc. But not for autists themselves. And so Different Like Me came about...

Her Uncle John has a few books under his belt, and cousin Rachel had a hipster throwdown in Bust and now has an agent.... by next year we might well be a four author family. I believe there's a plan afoot for the next family gathering: whoever has the highest Amazon rank does all the cleaning. "Hey, Fancypants Author, you missed a spot..."


Please Pitch In

Colleen Mondor of Bookslut has put out a call for donations -- via an Amazon wishlist -- for books and games for evacuee children currently sheltered by Parkview Baptist in Baton Rouge. All you have to do is pick some books or games, enter your amazon info, and you're good to go -- and you'll doing be some good as well.

Also: in an e-mail this morning Colleen had a great suggestion, which is for reviewers, bookstores, or publishers with extra ARCs of children's books laying around to donate them for these kids. If you got a pile of ARCs not doing anything -- and if you're at all involved in the book biz, I know you do -- drop me a line at collinslibrary AT and I'll forward your email on to Colleen...

Sunday, September 04, 2005



(original UK cover art, 1934)

Chicagoans! We are coming to your great and mighty city!

On November 1st at Quimby's Bookstore, the Collins Library will be launching its next title... wait for it... The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, by Harry Stephen Keeler. And we'll be doing it by having a Day of the Dead literary revival -- a reanimation, if you will -- of odd and forgotten old books with:

The fabulous Elizabeth Crane

The splendiferous Nathan Rabin, and

The inimitable Claire Zulkey.

Oh yes -- and I'll be there too.

For those of you not familiar with the literary insanity that is Harry Stephen Keeler, check out my NPR Weekend Edition interview about him with Scott Simon, and this delightful Keeler webpage about the most jawdroppingly inventive mystery writer who ever walked the earth.


On Bullshit

Even thinking about the Bush & Co.'s pathetic disaster response excuses this weekend gives me headache, but for those of you who haven't already seen it, there is a desperately needed dissection of their latest PR over at Josh Marshall's invaluable blog Talking Points Memo -- one you already have bookmarked anyway, yes?

Incidentally, that 17th Street Levee repair work that Bush posed in front of the other day? Staged.


Saturday, September 03, 2005


Dear Author: I Just About Died When I Read Your Latest Book

Authors! Looking for a captive reading audience? How about people with IVs in their arms?

Indigo began experimenting with the concept in June with the opening of an Indigospirit store in Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. Two months into the trial, the company is now seeking additional sites. "We wanted to test it. But we are in the process right now of talking with other hospitals," Ms. Reisman told Indigo's annual meeting. "This is a concept meant for captive markets. We'll go slowly but we think it has real potential."

The past three years have seen Indigo close stores and cut costs while rebranding itself as more than just a purveyor of paperbacks. The company has bolstered its selection of giftware, added cookware and dubbed itself a "cultural department store" for book lovers. "There are those who believe it's a dumbing down [of a bookstore]," said Wendy Evans, president of Evans & Co. Consulting Inc., a retail analysis firm.

Funny story about that Indigo chain: back when Banvard's Folly came out, I wondered -- "Say, why no Canadian cities on this book tour list?" So I contacted an Indigo store that shall remain nameless. They responded that they would let me read in their store, but only if we first guaranteed some ad buys.

I told them, "Interesting. Let me call you back on that."

Hope they haven't been waiting by the phone.


Feeling Bitter, Are We?

The book cover of the week is surely this 1973 volume on eBay:

Curiously enough, the illustrations are apparently by "Mrs. George Herter." Well, it's good to see that they found a project to bond over....


Hey, I'm Just Trying To Make A Living...

From the Department of Consumer and Employment Protection for Western Australia comes word of what is apparently my other writing job:

For years, the most common pyramid scheme investigated by Consumer Protection Division of the Department of Consumer and Employment Protection has been a chain letter called the "Paul Collins letter."

"Dear Friend. The enclosed information is something I almost let slip through my fingers … Being a Christian, I truly believed it was wrong to be in debt … This letter will change your life FOREVER…FINANCIALLY!!! 100% Money Back Guarantee!"

Six pages later you find that the way to make $234,000 in 3 months is to:
1. Buy reports for twenty dollars each from the four people on the list.
2. Put your name at the top of the list and move the others down.
3. Post 200 copies of the 8 page letter to others who could use a little money.

They go on to note that " 'Paul Collins' and the originator of the program 'Edward L Green' do not exist."

Come to think of it, I am feeling rather insubstantial this morning.


Wrong Answer, Mr. President

While FEMA's Michael Brown gets beaten like a pinata over at Daily Kos (for being a Bush-contributing appointee fired from his previous job) and at CNN (for being totally clueless), I found the most jawdropping statement of this last week came from the President himself, in his interview with Diane Sawyer:

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached."

Really? What an interesting contention -- because that seemed to be all anyone was talking about last weekend. But let's dial the Wayback Machine up a little higher, shall we? Here's an excerpt from the New York Times of July 4th 2003, from an editorial titled New Orleans's Hurricane Problem:

New Orleans is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. The city is located below sea level, and it is surrounded by water -- the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. If New Orleans is ever hit by the Big One, the city could fill up like a bowl. Many residents would be unable to evacuate in time because of crowded escape routes, flooding or lack of access to transportation.

No? Not far back enough for you? Then let's try the Times editorial page for August 11 2002, If The Big One Hits The Big Easy, The Good Times May Be Gone Forever:

It is a disaster waiting to happen. New Orleans is the only major American city below sea level, and it wedged between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi. In a bad hurricane, experts say, the city could fill up like a cereal bowl, killing tens of thousands and laying waste to the city's architectural heritage.... So far Washington has done little, and New Orleans's response has been less than satisfying. The city is focused on evacuating its 500,000 residents. But the roads leading out would flood quickly, stranding those who lingered. Then there is the thorny issue of the 100,000 residents without cars. "When I do presentations," said Terry Tullier, head ofthe New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness, "I start by saying that when the Big One comes, many of you will die -- let's get that out the way." Mr. Tullier has seen computer models of Canal Street under 20 feet of water and heard that floodwaters could stay for weeks, that the National Guard might need thousands of body bags -- and that New Orleans might never recover.
No? Then how about the Times article from ten years ago, May 14 1995, A Sense of Unreal in New Orleans Flood... ok, you get the point.

"I don't think anybody anticipated...?"

No. Somebody did not anticipate.

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