Monday, December 28, 2009

Final roundup before 2010

I intended to write a review of the year, but that won’t be necessary.

Apparently, Richard Curtis already did it with a rhyme scheme.

A sample:
Two thousand nine—the year that we
Were taught the benefits of “free.”

A book is now considered bought
When it is sold to you for naught.

This paradox makes perfect sense
Unless you hope for recompense.

We learned that zero is a price.
If you’re the buyer? Really nice!

If you’re the seller? Lots of luck.
With gratis—hard to make a buck!

(For the entire poem, click the orange.)

Tricia and I are on vacation the rest of this week, so I wouldn’t expect any posting until the new year. If you’re bored while waiting for the new year, you can re-read some of our Most Adequate Hits.

Tricia and I jointly review Rebecca and Twilight. (The next book we review will not feature a neurotic, female narrator.)

I live-blogged reading Finnegan’s Wake. (Re-live my pain.)

The short-lived Poetry Thursday produced one worthwhile post when I forced everyone in the newsroom to write haiku. (Sandra Klepach had the best one.)

Tricia read a Harlequin romance and argued all reading was good reading. (This would be an ongoing argument between she and I this year.)

I contended that Romeo and Juliet was not a love story.

Tricia discussed her distaste for Ernest Hemingway, which birthed the Hemingway challenge.

And, finally, I taught ya’ll how to lie.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Behold the power of "Meep!"

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Better than a fruitcake, slightly worse than a poorly crocheted scarf

And now for something completely different.

I’ve mentioned that I like to write lousy fiction when I'm not writing lousy news stories. (To clarify, when I say “lousy,” I’m describing the quality, not the subject matter.)

Here’s a seasonal example of my handiwork. Consider it my gift to you. Like most gifts you will receive this holiday, you didn’t want it; and it has nothing to do with either Jesus, the Maccabees or Saturnalia.

I call it:
Santa’s memo to the vice president of elven labor, explaining the need for layoffs.

Let’s cut to the quick. It has been a bad year. In fact, it’s been a bad century.

We continue to apply outdated production and profit models that haven’t been effective since Mrs. Claus was a size 6. As a result, we face financial collapse.

We have been deficit spending since the 17th century. Sure, that worked when all the banks were handing out loans like sugar cookies; but now that capital is scarce, we’re left with no way to fund our operations.

I don’t blame the elves. This is a management issue. This is as much my fault as anyone’s. It was my idea to give the toys away. What was I thinking? You never give away content for free!

We also missed a merchandizing bonanza by letting my licensing rights lapse. It all seems so obvious post-Mickey Mouse, but how was I to know the value of likeness fees? We’re talking millions of dollars, hundreds and thousands of gifts for good little boys and girls — gone — because of the stupid public domain.

Put simply, we can no longer support our staff at its current size. Our accounting department tells me that we need to cut as much as a fifth of the elves. They suggested targeting the toy train department. It’s bloated from previous years of heavy demand, but who seriously asks for a toy train anymore? They are expendable.

We can also trim staff without hurting output by updating our equipment. Yes, our handmade goods separate us from our competition, but they also triple our expenses.

We are long overdue for the installation of some production lines. And I realize “outsource” is a dirty word on the factory floor, but we can no longer afford to hold the moral higher ground. We’re going to need to subcontract some of our simpler designs to other countries. It pains me to say it. It pains you to hear it, but we are out of options.

You are not the only department that has been affected. We will be down to seven reindeers this year, as we do not intend to replace the retiring Vixen. Even Mrs. Claus has offered to work in a part-time capacity.

I’d love to tell you that these are simply lean years, a dip in the road on our return to solvency, but this is the new norm. We must all tighten our belts. (Not literally, of course. I haven’t been able to tighten my actual belt since I was a single Kringle.)

Forgive me if I seem brusque or unsympathetic. I feel each job loss as if it was a pound of my own flesh, but I am resigned. These cuts are necessary — inevitable, even — if we are to proceed.

Please provide a list of suggested cuts by Dec. 26.

Finally, I don’t need to mention, but will anyhow, that this matter should only be discussed among management for now. It’s not that I want to be surreptitious, but rumors do not help morale. Besides, I’d hate to ruin Christmas for any of my employees.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Don’t worry. I won’t make a habit of foisting my fiction on you. Merry Christmas, ya’ll.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Cry havoc and let loose the blogs of war!

First, to Tricia, I suggest A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote.

It has all of the ingredients that make for an overwrought holiday mess — poor child; sweet, but simple adult; beloved family pet; terrifying strangers who reveal their sentimental side — but Capote doesn’t overplay his hand.

It’s cute. I don’t mean that in a condescending way.

Also, I do like A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens usually dropped a wealthy benefactor into his plot, so his adorable orphan could have happy ending. I call it the “ducats ex machina.” (Yeah, not clever. Latin puns are not my forte.) For A Christmas Carol, Dickens takes a different tact. He writes from the perspective of the wealthy benefactor instead of the adorable orphan, except we don’t realize he’s the wealthy benefactor until the end.

I was absent most of last week, but not idle. I spent my free minutes following the escalating e-book war. Random House declared retroactive e-rights over all of its books. (That ain’t gonna work.) MobyLives said the Federal Trade Commission should investigate Amazon for its price-slashing tactics. And, for those who don’t spend their free time perusing book blogs, Dr. Syntax gave us a summary of the e-war up to this point, including Covey’s defection from Simon & Schuster to Amazon.

And though it’s not e-book related, a French court convicted Google of copyright violation for its book search program. This is the first international conviction against Google, to my knowledge. I expect it will not be the last.

Merry Christmas. It’s about to get interesting.

-Jason Lea,

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

True life (I do more than hunt 'n fish)

Today's post is brought to you by our local wildlife expert and weather wunderkind, Jeffrey L. Frischkorn. Apparently, he does more than hunt and fish.

Yep, I read as well. And I sometimes even finish what I started on page one. Not always but often enough.

For an early Christmas gift my daughter and son-in-law presented me with a book that caught my attention from start to finish.

Called "Escape In Iraq - The Thomas Hamill Story" the 286-page book details the ordeal that Hamill underwent while a captive of Iraqi insurgents.

In 2004 Hamill was a contract driver who delivered fuel and commodities to the troops serving in Iraq. On April 9, 2004 his convoy came under heavy attack, crippling and disabling a numbers of heavy-duty trucks and killing both contract workers as well as military security personnel.

Hamill was severely injured, his right forearm laid open. He was then captured - a scene that was videotaped by Australian journalists and seen worldwide.

Thus began a 24 day journey as Hamill was shuttled from one hideout to the next, sometimes by sympathetic Iraq citizens and other times by insurgents looking for an excuse to put a bullet in his head.

Hamill worked with author Paul T. Brown in detailing the former's journey as Hamill did his best to keep his spirits up and hoping for a way to escape.

The book also tells of how his family back in Mississippi dealt with the press of international media attention and worries that he would be executed at any moment.

At the core of ordeal Hamill and his family described how their faith sustained them during the trial.

And the ending is how Hamill escaped (no point giving this away since it's a part of history) with the help of Army National Guard troops.

Hate to use cliches but the book is a riveting account and I did my best to devote several hours to the book until I finished it, even as I tried to keep five grandchildren entertained.

Alas, the book is no longer print but likely can be found on the Internet, Stoeger's owner says.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A holiday to remember. Not.

Now my night will be spent trying to rewrite some great literature to try to win a laptop. More laundry-dishes-cleaning avoidance. Thanks, Jason.

The office has been abuzz of late with talk about favorite Christmas movies. Which has me thinking about Christmas in literature.

What are the most memorable Christmases in literature?

There's the first Christmas, course. Hard to top the Bible.

I'm partial to Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" with its opening of a Christmas without presents during the Civil War.

Who doesn't enjoy "The Gift of the Magi." O. Henry's classic is packed with powerful messages about true love and what gift-giving should be all about.

I know JLea's not the biggest fan of Charles Dickens, but even he has to admit that "A Christmas Carol" is an enduring work.

And no list is complete without Dr. Seuss' "The Grinch That Stole Christmas."

But then there's a bit of a drop-off.

I've read John Grisham's "Skipping Christmas." It was OK, but I have greater recall of the movie it spawned with Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis.

What am I forgetting? Are authors steering away from the holiday as a theme or is my memory just failing?

Any suggestions? I could use a good read.

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Write Something, Win a Laptop

New writing contest. The prize is an Envy 15 laptop computer.

All you have to do is rewrite a classic literary scene in a new, incongruous style.

Some of the mash-ups have been fairly interesting. Writers combined Marquez with Hemingway, James Joyce with Fight Club, The Little Prince with A Clockwork Orange, 1984 with Dr. Seuss, and H.P. Lovecraft with Walden.

My favorite entry rewrites Hamlet as a poem of quatrains.

The early entries seemed to smash a sci-fi element into a classic scene. (Yes, zombies were a popular candidate for intercalation.) But the submissions have continued to grow in sophistication since the contest began this morning.

The deadline is Friday so get to work.

That’s pretty much all I have. It’s a Monday, so I’m busy writing news.

Fine, have a two more reactions to Kirkus closing.

-Jason Lea,


Friday, December 11, 2009

Kirkus closes and other stray thoughts

I received an e-mail yesterday that said Kirkus Reviews and Editor & Publisher would cease production.

The subject line read, “Can’t imagine anything more symbolic.”

It is Friday. More importantly, it is the Friday after the Browns beat the Steelers. Welcome to the melange.

The LA Times book blog weighed in on Kirkus’s closing.

The most interesting quote comes from Nick Kaufmann’s Live Journal:
One, it was purportedly read by every Hollywood exec--or more likely their underlings--looking for literary properties to option for film (at its height, I’m told Kirkus was used for this purpose even more than PW was). And two, their reviewers were impossible to please. I mean, impossible. If your book got a good review from Kirkus, that really meant something because they pretty much hated everything.

(I’d link directly to Kaufmann’s Live Journal instead of the LA Times; but, then, you’d have to watch an annoying Best Buy commercial before reading.)

Meanwhile, New York Times notes the obvious. Publishers have pushed back their e-book release dates to stick it to Amazon. MobyLives reminds us that they’ve been talking about publishing and Amazon’s cold war for weeks.

Finally, there has been a lot of criticism for Rick Moody’s tweeted tale, “Some Contemporary Characters.”

Most of the detractors hit on the same themes I did. The plot is too familiar and Moody misuses his medium. However, I would stop short of calling it a failure, though other critics did not. (In Moody’s defense, his story included all the right themes for the digital age — romance, voyeurism and masturbatory self-promotion.)

Peter Ginna says if Moody failed, we need more failure.

-Jason Lea,

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

No fictionalization needed

I just read Jason's post and, while I have not read the novel, it's prompted some thoughts.

Like him I wonder, why fictionalize? The story sounds as if it's strong enough on its own. In fact, it likely would resonate more with readers as a nonfiction account. Certainly concerns about condensing time could be addressed while keeping it a true story.

I just read "The Last Nine Minutes" which is the true account of Flight 981. Moira Johnston's work is a detailed examination of the investigation into the cause of a DC-10 crash that killed all 346 people on board just nine minutes after takeoff from Paris.

It was the first crash of a wide-body jet and at the time (1974) the largest aviation disaster.

I'll admit, at times, the writing is a bit dry, and the title is somewhat misleading since there is little to indicate what those nine minutes of flight were like. But, on the whole, Johnston delivers a fascinating account into a tragedy many feel could have been avoided.

I particularly noticed those events that would never occur today.

Things like the airline did not have an accurate passenger manifest. They knew who tickets were issued to, but anyone could board with the ticket. Several members of a rugby club had passed their tickets on to others. Can you imagine such a thing happening circa 2009?!

Things like allowing family members to get their information on the crash from televised news reports.

Things like the challenges of identifying remains pre-DNA tests.

At the time the work was published the courtroom battles over the disaster were ongoing.

I have to say, the book renewed my interest in real-life disaster works.

Got any suggestions?

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Dave Eggers, southern Sudan, and the nonfiction of fiction

I realize I’m about three years late, but I finally read Dave Eggers’s What is the What.

I enjoyed The What, not as much as the critics who dubbed it “(an) improbably beautiful book,” “an eloquent testimony to the power of storytelling” and “an absolute classic.” (Those comments came from Time, New York Times Book Review and People, respectively, in case you care.)

I hesitate to call anything a classic. I feel like time is the only thing that can make that distinction. (Time, not Time.) But Eggers made me care about his subject — Valentino Achack Deng, one of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan — which is probably what matters most to Eggers.

I don’t intend to recount Eggers’s story, which is really Deng’s story. Eggers does it well enough. If you are in the least bit curious about the civil wars of Sudan, its Lost Boys or the genocide in Darfur, you should read the book. In fact, if you aren’t curious, you should still read the first few chapters to see if you become interested. Yes, Deng’s story is that important.

What intrigued me enough to write about The What is less important that the story itself. It is a matter of designation.

On the title page of The What, Eggers describes the book as both The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng and a novel. But this isn’t the fictional autobiography of a character. Deng is a real person. He walked across Sudan to Ethiopia, then to Kenya. He saw fellow travelers killed by war, lions, crocodiles and disease.

So why is Eggers writing a novel instead of a biography?

This is a question that critics seemingly glossed over. “Novel, autobiography, whatever...” New York Times said in its review. But it is not a whatever. The truth matters when we are talking about real people, all the more because the book raises money for a foundation.

Why does Eggers fictionalize Deng’s story? Why does Deng let him?

Deng explains in the preface, “I told my story to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation.”

Deng elaborates in an interview:

It is very close to the truth, but many things in the book are somewhat different than what happened in life. Some characters have been combined. Some time is compressed. They are minor things, but they were necessary.

Eggers adds in the same interview:

All of the events in the book have historical basis. But it really is a novel. I made up many scenes that were necessary to describe the whole sweep of those twenty or so years that the book covers. Sometimes I’d read a human rights report about a certain incident during the civil war, and would ask Val if he knew someone who had experienced that incident, or something like it. Sometimes he did know someone, and we could go from there, but other times I had to imagine it on my own. Some of these scenes were necessary to include, even if Val didn’t have personal experience with them.

Perhaps, it is because I am a journalist by trade, but this explanation does not assuage me. After reading this interview, I immediately wanted to know what parts of The What are from Deng, what parts came from other sources, and what parts did Eggers imagine.

I’m not suggesting that Eggers or Deng are trying to be dishonest. Their hearts are in the right place. They had a story they wanted to tell — a worthwhile story, a moving story. But they decided the most effective way to tell Deng’s story was to change it until The What could no longer be classified as nonfiction.

While it is effective, The What is no longer wholly true; and you wander toward Jayson Blair territory when you sacrifice truth for the sake of story. (The primary difference is, of course, Eggers acknowledges that he deviates from Deng’s story.)

-Jason Lea,

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Telling Old Stories in New Ways

Rick Moody, author of The Ice Storm, is telling a story on Twitter right now.

He’s releasing his short story, “Some Contemporary Characters,” as a series of posts on ElectricLit’s feed. The story is being updated every 10 minutes and is supposed to be completed Wednesday.

Thus far, the story seems to be a romance between an older, erudite man and young, attractive bartender. (If I complained about Twilight being wish fulfillment, I can’t let this plot slide. I am so sick of older-writer-gets-worldly-younger-woman stories. I don’t blame Moody. I blame Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of my Melancholy Whores and Philip Roth’s The Humbling.)

Moody’s tweets alternate between the man and woman’s perspective as they talk about their relationship from the anonymity of cyberspace. (Does anybody still call it cyberspace? I wish they would.)

Moody incorporates themes of technology and online confession in his tale. After their first kiss, the woman notes, “That was it, nothing else, and people kiss every day, and the only difference nowadays is that people try to text while kissing.”

Moody’s writing is clever and the story is cute. My only knock is the subject has been overdone and Moody doesn’t use Twitter to its full potential.

His story is co-narrated by the man and woman, yet the tweets all come from a single feed. It seems like a missed opportunity that is unique to his chosen medium.

In other news, Catherine and Heathcliff audition for Twilight.

-Jason Lea,

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