Sunday, October 30, 2005


The Vanishing Child

I have a piece in the Lives column of today's NY Times magazine about our decision to put Morgan on Prozac. It was probably the most physically draining writing experience of my life. Revisiting the experience of my son was slipping from my grasp was not easy; even harder was trying to crunch any meaningful thought about it into 900 words, and then into ever-fewer words as a new layout dictated shortened copy.

One of my main initial ideas was largely lost, as a result -- it became more of a personal essay and less of a pointedly historical one about why we distrust the decision to medicate children. For what it's worth, I hope the piece still helps other parents who find themselves at the same crossroads. But here are how two of the snipped-out paragraphs ran:

We raise our eyebrows at today's glossy pharmaceutical ads, and drug product placement on emblazoned mugs and pens, but it's nothing new. Barker's Nerve and Bone Liniment published branded comic books and cookbooks; Beecham's Pills issued tourist picture books; Hamlin's Wizard Oil printed sheet music; the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company put on traveling entertainments. And patent medicine advertising didn't just support newspapers: sometimes it made them. The Gannett media chain began with the 1866 periodical Comfort –published primarily to promote Oxien, William Gannett's "Up-to date Pills for Present-day ills."

We laugh now, of course. But if today's drug reps are little different from their Victorian forefathers, a century of scandal-induced drug laws have created laboratories that actually practice some science. Pharmaceutical companies used to be hucksters of snake-oil: now they are hucksters of medicine.

As Marcia Angell and others have abundantly demonstrated of Big Pharma, their conduct and their medicines still fall far short... but they are also clearly an improvement on the past. I do not doubt that in an earlier era, had Morgan continued spinning out of control, we would have been obliged to institutionalize him simply to insure the safety of his baby brother. Morgan is a very powerfully built child -- he's always been in the top percentile of growth charts -- and his tantrums were becoming physically dangerous. One stray fist or foot at a five-month old baby, and... well, I do not care to imagine the result.

I believe this medicine gave me my son back.

The fact that drug companies engage in disgraceful machinations should not cause us to automatically conflate their bad behavior with a bad product. And the medication of children has become a convenient punching bag for lazy cultural commentators. It's an essentially distrustful and elitist stance: the presumption is that doctors don't know what they're doing and parents don't care enough. In my experience, neither is generally true, and the decision to medicate is not undertaken lightly.

Anyway. If it gets letters, I suspect it may be criticism for all the wrong reasons. I don't care, really: it's easy for letter writers to be blithe about other people's decisions. They weren't there and I was. Medication demands that you ask yourself whether you trust doctors, the drug industry, or indeed your own judgment. None of those are yes or no questions. But there are times -- when your child is before you, suffering -- that demand a yes or no answer.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


Your Art Criticism Makes Baby Jesus Cry

An amazing discovery by Nathan Rabin over at The Onion -- Nathan will, by the way, be joining me for a splendiferous McSweeney's event at Quimby's this coming Tuesday night.

So: it seems that Yakov Smirnoff... yes, that guy... is also a painter:

As a painter, Smirnoff has approximately four themes. They are, in order:
1. God bless America.
2. After September 11th Lady Libery cried and the bald eagle soared and the flag waved majestically and Uncle Sam put his foot in terrorists' asses
3. Children are the future
4. Jesus loves America and children and hates the terrorists and joined Lady Liberty in weeping after September 11th.

A full listing of Smirnoff's paintings can be found here:

My personal favorite is one of two paintings of Jesus laughing. Though they're both masterpieces of unintentional uber-kitsh I prefer the first one, since it makes Jesus look like Maurice Gibbs of the Bee Gees in the midst of a three-day Ecstasy binge.

Really? I mean, Nathan must be exaggerating at least a little. No one could possib...

Oh. My. God.


Gravity Kills

After my first week on the road hawking the new book, it was a pleasure to return home last night to find Mark Sanderson in the Telegraph announcing that nearly 100 new entries have been supplemented to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is hands-down my favorite reference work in the world. And it sounds like the new supplement may have my favorite entry ever:

It's the barely-heard-of who provide the most amusement. Robert Cadman (1711-40), for example, was a rope-walker whose act involved sliding face-first down a rope from the top of St Paul's blowing a trumpet and firing pistols as he went. Alas, a fatal fall in Shrewsbury brought an end to the Shropshire lad and the so-called "flying craze" of the 1730s.

Find-A-Grave includes a picture of the St. Mary's Church tombstone for the, ahem, "would-be aviator":


6 Bd/1 Ba/50000 Bks

Over at the Times, Jeremy Mercer excerpts his new memoir Time Was Soft There, about his Paris sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. :

Eve peered at me. You mean you don’t know who George is?” She beckoned me towards a collection of photographs lining the walls.

“That’s George.” Eve was pointing to one picture where the man was leaning over a table full of books with a broad smile. “He runs Shakespeare and Company.”

She said this as if it explained everything but it still didn’t make sense. The books I could understand, likewise the tea party — just. But the beds . . . there were beds everywhere . . .

“But what exactly goes on here?”

“You don’t know? The bookstore is like a shelter. George lets people live here for free.”
I will now pause for a few minutes to allow some of you to go rummaging for your passports...

Sunday, October 23, 2005


The Riddle of the Traveling Author

I’m on the road to tour for The Trouble With Tom this week, so things will be pretty quiet here. But! – it looks like the first few copies of the next Collins Library title, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, may actually arrive in time for Monday’s reading at the Booksmith in San Francisco. The official debut of Harry Stephen Keeler’s berserk mystery novel will be at Quimby’s on November 1st, but those who are fleet of foot may be able to snag themselves an early copy tomorrow night….

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Quitting The Quitter

You know you're in for interesting times today at The Onion A.V. Club blog as soon as you see the headline: Why We Won't Be Reviewing The Quitter.

In it, reviewer Noel Murrary writes:
The three people on The A.V. Club staff who regularly read and review comics--that would be myself, Tasha Robinson and Keith Phipps--are all, naturally, Harvey Pekar fans. As such, we couldn’t be happier about the recent success that Pekar’s had.... [But] both Tasha and I were so stunned by the mediocrity of Pekar’s much-hyped new graphic memoir The Quitter that we decided not to review it.... the book is too long, too unfocused, and it ends the same way all of Pekar’s stories do these days, with the author bitching about his bank account. Plus, there are a handful of panels where the first-person captions directly repeat information from earlier in the book....

Anyway, Tasha and I saw no reason to put down one of our heroes in a permanent, archived way. The only reason I bring up the book here in blog form is that I’ve been reading a lot of rave reviews for The Quitter.... Pekar’s responsible for some of the best comics in the history of the medium. Don’t quit on him because of The Quitter.

To which I can only say: hooray for The Onion.

Choosing books for review is essentially a zero-sum game. There are only so many article assignments and column inches to work with. If you choose a book to review -- an inferior book, a book that you personally would not want someone to read -- then you are necessarily pushing aside another and possibly more worthy book. You may even be pushing aside some newly reissued other and better book by the same author.

Which is not to say that there are not some books that deserve pummeling in public. It is easy to see the usefulness of debate over a tangibly harmful book -- Crichton's global-warming novel, say. But beyond that... I'm not as sure. Sometimes the best thing to do, when presented with mediocre work, is indeed to throw it aside and move on to something else.


All Her Life For Sale

It's not at all unusual to find old diaries turning up on eBay -- battered Jackson-era journals of a traveling minister, yellowed notebooks kept by a 1920s housewife, the battle-scarred account of a long-dead soldier. These are the kind of things that get washed away in estate sales and bob up to the surface at junk dealers.

But it's a little strange to find the teenage journal of a living person for sale:

Have you ever wanted to read someone else's diary? Are you a bit of a 'voyeur', in so much that you are interested in peeking into people's lives? Perhaps you are the same age as me (I was born in 1976) and you think it would be neat to read about what someone else was going through at the same point in history? Are you a teenager right now and want to see if the things you're feeling and thinking are 'normal'? Maybe you're an academic, sociological, psychological type and think that this would make for a unique insight into the stream of consciousness of a 13 year old Canadian teenage female? Or hey, maybe you just think this would be good for a read, or a laugh (it is).

Well, you're in luck today! In June, 1990, I was just leaving grade 8 - elementary school. I had a whole summer aheard of me before the beginning of high school, grade 9. I decided to keep a journal of the things that I did, the places I went and generally, what was going on in my life at the time.

In this amusing diary, you get coverage of every day of summer vacation from June 22 to September 3. Read about my experiences at work (my paper route, my adventures in babysitting, volunteer Candy Striping at the hospital, my first 'real' job - at McDonald's), what I did for fun, where I went (Niagara Falls on both sides of the border...Canada and the USA), what I got for my 14th birthday, what movies & TV I watched and YES, EVEN MY DREAMS!!! Where else are you going to get this kind of a book?!?!? No where! My life experiences are for sale - get them while they're here!

Yep, that's her -- Tammy -- taken cerca the 1990 edition of the diary. This is apparently the first in a line of "Tammy Books" in which she sells not only her old teenaged diaries, but will also reproduce for you photos from back then, and even provide a typed "List of Characters."

Say, I wonder if she's met Gerald Murnane?...


I, Paid Lecturer

Now here's a curious choice of visiting lecturers at my old alma mater. UC Davis's daily paper The California Aggie -- the first publication to ever hire me as a writer, so praise or blame them accordingly -- reports that discredited 1992 Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú has been invited to lecture on campus:

Her autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchú was exposed by The New York Times in 1999 to contain fabricated accounts of her life. She will be speaking at UC Davis on Oct. 21. In her book, she describes watching her brother Nicolas die of malnutrition, but a New York Times reporter found him alive, running a homestead in a Guatemalan village. Additionally, she wrote in her book that she never went to school, but Menchú’s half sister confirmed that she was a scholarship student at a prestigious private boarding school. Scholars have argued over whether her book should still be taught in classrooms, as some felt it challenges a university’s dedication to truth and critical thinking....

UC Davis history professor Thomas Holloway, who helped arrange Menchú’s visit, encouraged students to look past this controversy and focus on the bigger picture. “She is someone that people ought to hear,” he said. “It’s important to hear people like her who have worked so hard to reach a position where the exploited, indigenous majorities can finally have their place at the table of government and be full members of society.”.... Her supporters argue that her book captures a larger truth about life in the indigenous tribes of Guatemala.

Yes, yes -- well said. To this end, I hereby invite the oppressed students of Professor Holloway to begin fabricating work in his courses. Because, don't you know, perhaps they will be exposing a larger truth in the process.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


The Ice Capades

Over at The Stranger, Neal Pollack reviews Nicholas Johnson's Big Dead Place, an account of Antarctica's McMurdo Station by a former dishwasher/support-staff/grunt there -- and a writer who, rather refreshingly, admits that "I find nature creepy and disturbing." But not as creepy and disturbing as some of the people in it:

The petty bureaucrats that run McMurdo make good paper villains, but his real target is the National Science Foundation, which has been totally corrupted by the Raytheon Corporation. In the context of Raytheon's vaguely sinister aims, the antics of Johnson and his friends seem accidentally rebellious and subversive, whereas in a nonfrozen dorm setting, they'd just be immature. He's also particularly strong in criticizing naïve media descriptions of Antarctica, and reserves special scorn for the overhyped "rescue" of a doctor who needed breast cancer medicine, while actual workers at the base sat around with broken limbs and separated shoulders, waiting for the next airlift to New Zealand because the doctor's plane was too full of journalists.

Johnson, incidentally, maintains an extensive Big Dead Place site. And really, how can you not love a site that includes a All-John-Carpenter's-"The-Thing"-Review-Section?


Yes, A Real of Pair of Cut-Ups

A pretty inspired pairing here: the Guardian has A Humument author Tom Phillips review Graham Rawle's cut-up novel....


Playing the Imaginary Horses

Today's Sydney Morning Herald reports that novelist Gerald Murnane is soon retiring from writing to concentrate on the personal archive crammed into filing cabinets that already covers two walls of his office:

There are stories and poems written as a child, and a journal begun at 18 about girls and dreams of being a writer. For each book he has manuscripts, proofs, reviews and correspondence. "But it grew to the point where it's become almost an obsession that my life has to be recorded, a time-consuming thing. Once I realised the thing could have monetary value I added even more - even an application letter for reserve seats at the Caulfield Cup."

Perhaps there's a closet show-off inside Murnane. However, the most intriguing parts of his colour-coded collection are kept for his own satisfaction. He has written 50,000 words on "people who might have loved me", a history of his bowel movements since the constipated, white-bread '40s, a file of "miracles", and a "shame" file that documents his gaucheries. He expects his sons to pass the whole thing onto a library and says it holds no dark confessions to shock a future biographer.

Only his imaginary horseracing world makes him reticent. Over decades he has drawn intricate racing silks; named horses, jockeys and trainers; designed racecourses and run races with the winners calculated by a complex system of numerical values given to letters in words drawn from random texts.

Ok, go ahead and laugh, but I have to admit that I'm utterly intrigued by this story.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Amazingly, Michael Brown Wasn't Involved

There's a brief but worthy article in the Boston Globe about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 :

On Wednesday, the Weymouth-based author and historian [Stephen Puelo] will visit the Barnes & Noble in Bellingham to read from Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 (Beacon Press). At the event, Puleo will not only discuss the 15-foot-high wave of molasses that spilled from a North End storage tank, leaving death and devastation in its suffocating wake, he also will tell how he researched the long-forgotten facts of the story.

''There was no book on the flood.... After a year and a half of looking, the court archivist finally called me one day and said she had found the trial transcripts, all 40 volumes, all 25,000 pages," he said, adding that she also found the trial damage awards.... Among the issues Puleo ties in are World War I (the molasses was distilled into industrial alcohol used to produce military explosives) and the anarchy movement (the tank owners stated that anarchists blew up the tank). Immigration is explored as well. ''Most of the residents of the North End were Italian, they were immigrants, and they were not citizens, so they had very little to say," Puleo said. ''So this monstrous 2.3 million-gallon tank placed 3 feet from Commercial Street was erected without a whimper of protest, and no city official complained even after it started to leak from day one."

An interesting note here: books coverage typically has the shelf life of a bottle of milk. It's rare for a paper to cover a book that has been out for much more than a month -- two, at most, if the author's big. Puelo's book has been out for over two years now, and the Globe -- not to mention the Bellingham Barnes & Noble -- deserve kudos for not giving in to this incessant and ridiculous pressure for "timeliness."

Saturday, October 08, 2005


The Grand Shampoo-bah of London

Sepia Mutiny noted a fascinating article at the BBC this week: a plaque has gone up in London for Sake Dean Mohamed, who it turns out was both the first Indian writer to be published in English and the proprieter of London's first Indian restaurant:

His BBC biography reads like a wonderfully improbable and colorful mixture of professions. Along with the restaurant (which went bust after a couple years), he was also famed as -- I love this -- "The Shampooing Surgeon" of Britain. To wit:

Mahomed had worked for the East India Company, had gone to Ireland and had run away with an Irish girl. The pair set up the Brighton baths and, once reports of cures emerged, he became very successful. He received the ultimate accolade by being appointed Shampooing Surgeon to both George IV and William IV. He was also a writer and was the first Indian to publish a book in English: The Travels of Dean Mahomet, published in 1794. In 1820 he wrote Shampooing; or benefits resulting from the use of the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath which went into three editions. He even had poems written in his honour.

The word shampoo, incidentally, turns out to be of Indian origin. (Who knew?) There's an Oxford UP book on Dean Mahomed, The First Indian Author in English, and his Travels are also in print.



As if on cue after this week's fine TLS introduction to psychogeography, today's Telegraph brings us word of a rather unusual guide to Britain:

Dixe Wills has produced The Z-Z of Great Britain, published on Thursday by Icon Books. A jocular guide to all 41 places in Britain beginning with what the Earl of Kent in King Lear called the "unnecessary letter", it features such out-of-the way delights as Zabulon in Carmarthenshire (Population: two), Zeal Monachorum in Devon and Zoar on the mainland of Shetland ("What's There? A 1950s crofter's house; the ruins of a much older crofter's house; the ruins of another crofter's house which is older than the current one but not as old as the other one; some grass; some cliffs; 33 sheep").
If this does well, expect up to 25 sequels....


Tosh and Table Margarine

Over at the Times of London, Grahame Rawle describes how he collaged the text of his novel Woman's World from his massive collection of 1960s women's magazines:

Found text became an integral part of the story. By cutting out words and rearranging them on the page, “big-boned” Norma Fontaine finds a feminine voice with which to tell her tale — a voice that inevitably takes on the chirpy wisdom and underlying moral tone of the original writing.

To get the story structure right, I set the collage aside and wrote my book in the traditional way as a word-processed document. At the same time I was collecting fragments of text from the magazines, saving anything that I thought might prove relevant – words, phrases and sentences that would approximate to what I wanted to say. I think in all I clipped more than a million words from editorial pieces, romance stories, problem pages, and advertisements..... A sentence might be made from five or six separate components. A simple line such as “I was furious and had to leave the room” could end up as “Red rage rose within me like mercury in a toffee thermometer and I knew I had to leave before I reached the boiling point for fudge”. Instead of saying “Nonsense”, Norma might say: “That’s all tosh and table margarine.”

In a related story: Cosmopolitan Releases 40-Year Compendium: 812,683 Ways To Please Your Man.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


The Also-Rans

Writing the Guardian yesterday, publisher Susan Hill gives a glimpse into what happens when you put out an open call for fiction: namely, you get buried. But along with the usual complaints about what kind of books made her eyes roll ("Most of the worst novels were written in the first person narrative present tense"), Hill does something very unusual indeed:

Out of the 3,741 submissions, I asked to read just seven in full. Every one of them was a pleasure and a revelation, each by a talented, if not always fully-formed writer. Interestingly, all but the eventual winner were set in the past and several in countries other than the UK. Charlotte Johnston, an 80-year-old, wrote Hidden Lives, a delightful book about a 19th-century Welsh family. Francis Barber Gentleman, by Marion Jordan, told the story of Dr Samuel Johnson's black slave. It was more biography than novel and it did not quite go anywhere but it was a memorable read and I have hopes for its author. Ian Pike is a wonderful writer who sent me The Ice Barn, set in the American West. It was the close runner-up to my eventual choice. I gave it 8/10. But I was looking for a full score and I had almost given up hope of finding it when into the box popped the beginning of The Extra Large Medium or Unfinished Business by Helen Slavin.

Hill gives you her shortlist. It is, in its way, really a very generous thing to do: when you're starting, any public recognition of your existence as a writer, published or not, is like finding water in the desert.

Curiously enough, I've also seen a public rejection method employed in some 19th century magazines. Instead of mailing you back a form letter, a column would be set aside for listing out rejections, often helpfully categorized along the lines of : "Very Fine, But Not For Us: Roberts, Green, Barker, Dobson. Already Covered Previously: Weiss, Phillips. No, Sir!: Lee, Maggs..." etc.

I believe -- though I'm not sure -- that it was Harper's or perhaps Galaxy that used to do this. Our egos are far too fragile today for such public rejection, I suppose. Still, perhaps it did serve one rather clever purpose: you had to order the next issue of the magazine to find out what your literary fate was.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


(Not) The Latest Bestsellers

Today's Times of London includes a feature that I wish more book sections had: a glimpse at one of their old bestseller lists. I've been curious about these ever since reading Frank Mott's classic 1947 study Golden Multitudes: The Story of Bestsellers in the United States. (There's also a wonderful modern update in Anthony Lane's collection Nobody's Perfect.)

Today's vintage bestseller list in the Times is from October 3, 1976, with the added bonus of snarky modern comments. On The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh: "He may be the funniest English novelist yet, but he’s still got a girl’s name."


Little-Known Books By Well-Known Authors

I'm on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday this morning to talk about my article in this week's Village Voice on such unknown literary orphans as Walt Whitman's temperance novel, Caleb Carr's rock and roll novel, and Martin Amis's video game guide Invasion of the Space Invaders.

Oh, and....


My Theoretical Identity

Pour yourself some coffee and join the great Robert Birnbaum for his interview with me over at Identity Theory....

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