Thursday, October 29, 2009

What's spookier than a ghostwriter?

I just spent $65 on the world’s ugliest Batman costume. It must be Halloween.

To celebrate the season, AbeBooks has compiled a list of the top 10 ghostwritten books.

The list had a few surprises for me. Maybe I’m naïve but I didn’t realize H.P. Lovecraft ghosted for Houdini or Larry McMurtry started his career as a ghostwriter. So did Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis. Jack Vance and Theodore Sturgeon contributed to the Ellery Queen series. Katherine Anne Porter and James Ramsey Ullman also appear on the list (as writers, not as pseudonyms.)

Additionally, I didn’t realize Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym, and the Nancy Drew books were written by a series of writers based upon a strict formula. (I feel a little better, because my mother didn’t know that either and she used to read them.)

One last note: Slate announced the winner of their Significant Objects contest and it wasn’t any of us. Apparently, when writers see a barbecue jar they think of sex, death and history.

No shock. Everything reminds writers of sex, death and history.

Jason Lea

P.S. No, the Batman costume is not for trick-or-treating. Friends of mine are having a costume wedding on Halloween.

But if I’m going to spend $65 on something, I better wear it more than once. So don’t be surprised if Batman shows up at your house fire or crime scene. Sadly, he won’t be there to save you. He only wants to ask a few questions.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jason blogs for someone you love

This post includes important details about Jane Eyre; so if you didn’t read Jane Eyre in high school, you probably should before continuing.

It shouldn’t take long. If you bought it now and started reading immediately, you should finish by Friday. (At the rate I’m posting, I probably won’t have anything new up by then.)

Mr. Rochester, the hero of Jane Eyre, was voted the most romantic literary hero by British readers.

I guess locking your lunatic wife in the attic and not telling your girlfriend about her is romantic.

Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Rochester has game. He sweet talks women who are way out of his league (see: Ingram, Blanche) with nothing more than an enormous family fortune to aid him.

He recognizes Jane’s inner beauty, says all the right things and doesn’t stand on social expectations.

But he’s also a bit of a cad. I mean, he hires Jane to teach the bastard daughter of his lover. Furthermore, that lover is just one in a long line.

But, I suppose, this isn’t about being dependable. It’s about romance and Rochester is sincere and sweet. If that’s all the polled people want, Rochester provides it.

My personal favorite is farther down the list, Gabriel Oak of Far from the Madding Crowd. I consider loyalty and constancy the most romantic attributes of all. Oak is willing to wait an entire novel while Bathsheba Everdene plays pinball between less-deserving men. (Also, I’m a big Thomas Hardy fan. I’ve fallen for at least three Hardy heroines, including Bathsheba.)

But the voters picked the bad boy millionaire over the quiet shepherd. They always do.

Sidenote: the list is obviously Anglophilic. One of my favorites seems to be ignored because he’s not white enough: Florentino Ariza of Love in the Time of Cholera (though Ariza, admittedly, has many of the same defects as Mr. Rochester.)

-Jason Lea

P.S. I just spent 10 paragraphs rating romantic heroes. A less secure man might feel awkward.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Espresso Book Machines & Piracy

I present to you the Espresso Book Machine: the latest gadget that readers will love/loathe.

It’s the book-equivalent of those DVD-producing kiosks that are supposed to replace video rental stores. The EBM can print, bind and trim a 300-page book in four minutes.

The EBM was created by On Demand Books and can create any of the 2,000,000 books in the ODB library. Apparently, it’s being sent to libraries and bookstores. (I haven’t seen one in action yet.)

Upon learning of the EBM, I thought of two immediate uses for it. One, this thing is perfect for out-of-print books. Remember Google’s plan to collect orphan books? The EBM would make hard-to-access info even easier to read. Some people would rather not peruse 300-page technical manuals on a computer monitor. The EBM offers a way to turn these texts into books.

Naturally, Google and ODB are three steps ahead of me and have already formed a partnership.

Secondly, schools could benefit from the EBM, as well. High schools need to replenish their supplies of Jane Eyre and The Odyssey after age deteriorates them. The EBM would allow them to print their own copies. Granted, EBMs are too expensive (they cost about $100,000) to be cost-effective now; but this may be an option in a decade.

Schools could use EBMs specifically because many of the books read in English class are public domain, so no one will need to wrangle with a publisher for rights.

Meanwhile, on an unrelated subject:

BBC News asks if we are due for a wave of book piracy. The question is will bootlegging affect publishing as much as the music industry.

I used to think it wouldn’t, but I’m reconsidering that stance.

My initial thought was this: It’s easy to bootleg and disseminate a song. It takes about 30 minutes. However, a bootlegger would need days to scan in all the pages of a book.

Because of the workload required in literary publishing, the only books that would be heavily bootlegged are best sellers. That creates a big difference between book and music piracy. An experienced music pirate can find the unreleased demo tapes of an obscure garage band in about two or three minutes.

The same pirate would not be able to find books as easily.

I decided to test my theory by searching for illegal downloads of specific e-books. It took me 45 seconds to find How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. It took about two minutes to find The Life of Pi. I was not able to find The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. (I can’t confirm that any of these files were valid, because I didn’t download them. They might have been fraudulently labeled, but I doubt it.)

I guess I underestimated the tenacity of pirates.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Speaking of the “ODB Library,” the Rza has released his second book, The Tao of Wu. I haven’t read it yet but highly recommend it to anyone who owes me a birthday gift.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Don't bother making this climb

When I blogged about Anita Shreve's "Testimony" back in January, I said she'd cemented her status as one of my favorites.
But I was disappointed in "A Change in Altitude" (ISBN 9780316020701).
I'm not saying I won't pick up her next work, but I wanted to be drawn to Margaret and Patrick, newlyweds on their own in Africa, and I wasn't.
The two are in Kenya because of Patrick's work as a doctor. Early on, they meet up with the wealthy Arthur and Diana and join their trek up Mount Kenya.
A horrific accident on the journey has the couple questioning their relationship.
I wondered why they hooked up in the first place. They don't seem to communicate, they don't seem to have much in common and they don't seem to share a plan for the future.
As Shreve notes on their climb:
"If there had been a distance between Margaret and the others during the easy part of the climb the day before, the distance increased exponentially. ... Patrick did occasionally wait for Margaret to check that she was okay, but even when she told him, "This is pure hell," he nodded in agreement and then, as if he were captive to his feet, went on ahead of her."
She is describing their marriage as well.
So it was hard to work up much energy to care if they saved their relationship.
Shreve's descriptions of Africa both the beauty of its landscapes and the despair of its slums were well-crafted, but not enough to keep me invested.

- Tricia Ambrose

P.S. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I win a collection of Penguin books and a tote bag for my pick of "The Odyssey" in the giveaway Jason alerted us to in a recent post.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dan Brown foreshadows for someone you love

My last post requires an addendum. I complained that Dan Brown foreshadowed so much, he practically five-shadowed; but I failed to provide any examples from the text to reinforce my assertion.

Allow me to fix that.

These are the context-less ends to several of Brown’s chapters that include an unnecessary bit of foreshadowing. All my examples come from the first 100 pages of The Lost Symbol.

These are best read with the Dies Irae playing in the background:

Soon you will lose everything you hold most dear.

Ten miles from the Capitol Building, a lone figure was eagerly preparing for Robert Langdon’s arrival.

And now, at last, his final pawn had entered the game.

It’s going to be a long day.

Something was very, very wrong.

The truth was that Katherine was doing science so advanced that it no longer even resembled science.

“You are here, Mr. Langon, because I want you to be here.”

Someone was screaming.

If Langdon had not yet grasped his role here tonight, soon he would.

-Jason Lea,

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Lost Symbol & Another Writing Contest

Curious about the enormous jar of barbecue sauce to your right? You'll have to wait a few paragraphs for an explanation.

In the mean time, let's talk about a blockbuster that Tricia and I have spent the last few weeks ignoring.

In case you missed it, Dan Brown released The Lost Symbol.

It’s the sequel to The Da Vinci Code, which sold more copies than Thriller. (No, seriously, it did — 80 million units.) Consequently, it’s kind of a big deal.

Symbol is also Brown’s third book following the exploits of symbologist Robert Langdon. This time, Langdon must decode Masonic secrets or his mentor will die.

I’ll dismiss with the synopsis, and cut to the chase. Is it any good?

My answer: Sure, I guess.

Before you suggest I’m looking down my elitist proboscis at a perfectly good thriller, allow me to explain. I liked Da Vinci Code and loved Brown’s first Langdon novel, Angels and Demons.

I think he mixes interesting concepts into his texts. (Langdon incorporates noetic science, Constantino Brumidi and Masonic iconography into Symbol’s first few chapters.)

Tricia and I have compared James Patterson’s work to a cheeseburger. By comparison, Brown makes Angus burgers — slightly more substantial and made from better raw materials.

But Symbol indulges in some of Brown’s lesser habits. He over-foreshadows everything. Most of Brown’s short chapters end with some lousy portent of doom. Every piece of revealed minutiae causes characters to revel in the wonder of their realization.

This constant foreshadowing interrupts the rhythm of the story. Brown’s previous novels felt like short reads. Symbol did not.

Symbol isn’t Godfather III bad. (That is, to say, it isn’t a travesty.) It’s more like Rocky III. (A guilty pleasure that follows two legitimately good predecessors.)

Now for something completely different:

The people from Slate and Significant Objects are holding an interesting writing contest. Their question is this: Can a writer invest a random, worthless item with value by inventing a story about its significance?

To test their query, Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker purchased stuff from flea markets and garage sales. Then, they gave them to authors who wrote fictional stories about them. For example, check out Stewart O’Nan’s tale about a duck tray.

Now, the readers of Slate have a chance to participate as well. Authors can write a short story (less than 500 words) about this barbecue sauce jar. (It all makes sense now.) E-mail your entry to by Friday at 5 p.m.

Glenn and Walker will purchase the winning story to be published in a Significant Objects collection.

-Jason Lea

P.S. For fun, Tricia's reaction to Angels and Demons.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

How do I type an umlaut?

Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Yeah, I’ve never heard of her either.

It’s Friday. The melange welcomes you.

Remember when I wrote that column about how to successfully pretend you read a book. No? I received a deluge of comments (read: five) reminding me that newspaper reporters shouldn’t suggest more effective ways to lie.

Well, it seems that I would be in the majority in Britain. Most of this link pertains to people lying about movies they haven’t seen, but it includes this interesting paragraph:

Two thirds of British people also lie about their literary knowledge. George Orwell’s 1984 is the book most Britons dishonestly claim to have read, followed by War and Peace and James Joyce’s Ulysses, according to the organisers of the World Book Day.

(Hopefully, this story is the only time I will see Dirty Dancing sandwiched between The Godfather trilogy and Shawshank Redemption.)

Next subject: Marist College conducted a telephone survey that identified “whatever” as the most annoying word in the American vernacular.

I’ll second that. “Whatever” accomplishes the double duty of being rude and devoid of content. “Whatever” expresses no thought deeper than ambivalence and irritates most people who hear the word.

Some other misfits: “you know,” “at the end of the day,” “anyway” and “it is what it is.”

I also want to nominate the superfluous use of the word “like.” Not everything is a simile, people.

However, I have a soft spot for the phrase “it is what it is.” Yes, it states the obvious, but it also expresses an acceptance that is difficult to otherwise phrase.

For example:
“Your house is on fire.”
“It is what it is.”

I consider it the counterpoint of the urban phrase “everything is everything,” which tends to have a positive connotation.

“I got my paycheck today.”
“Everything is everything.”

Finally, I feel like I should say something about Müller, but I don’t know her... at all. Until this morning, I didn’t know she existed. So instead of cobbling an uninformed opinion, I offer you this link as an apology.

-Jason Lea,

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Predestination and a free tote bag

Three things, and I’ll make it quick so we can get back to talking about Braylon Edwards.

First, there have been some questions about Wasafiri’s list of 25 books for the last 25 years. The headline describes it as “the best books of the last 25 years;” but some of the titles, including Lolita and One Hundred Years of Solitude, were published more than 25 years ago.

The opening paragraph describes the selected books as those “that have most shaped world literature of the last 25 years.” So I suspect the list is supposed to be the most influential ON, not OF, the last quarter century. I commented on Wasafiri’s Web site, asking them to clarify. Thus far, they have not replied.

I’m guessing this is just a matter of disconnect between headline and subject, and it happens. (I hate when it happens, but it happens. The person who writes the headline is almost never the person who writes the story, and this can cause discrepancies.)

Second, do you want to fill a shelf in your library with classics? Want to do it for free? Don’t want to resort to theft?

Penguin Classics has a contest in which you can win Jane Eyre, Oedipus Rex, Odyssey, Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Walden, The Inferno, Hamlet, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Of Mice and Men and a Penguin tote bag. (Most of you already have some, if not all, of these books; but who doesn’t want a Penguin tote bag?)

All you have to do is go this Web site and tell them which of these 10 Essential Penguin Classics is your favorite. The winner is selected in a random drawing, so the quality of your essay is immaterial. (It’s like remedial English. All you have to do is participate and you get an A.) The deadline is November 20.

I don’t have a favorite among the options. Depending on my mood, I could prefer Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice or The Odyssey.

If either of our two readers win this thing, I expect you to send us a picture of yourself with the tote bag.

Finally, check out It’s not so different than those word-a-day calendars, but I learned some fun words from it. My favorite is prescited, which means predestined for damnation. (Now, we have a word to describe Braylon Edwards.)

-Jason Lea,

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Crime tale focuses on investigation

I just read Jason's post on reading to kids and got a little misty-eyed (so not like me) reading about the powerful bond reading can create between mother - and no doubt, father- and child.

Side note: Jason, I realize I said it, but you didn't have to agree that I'm old.

But reading the post did bring to mind memories of those times with my own kids.

Memories that the families in my latest work did not get to fully form.

"Three Boys Missing" by James A. Jack (ISBN 9780977628148) bills itself as "The Tragedy That Exposed the Pedophilia Underworld."

I'm not sure it did quite that, but perhaps that's because pedophilia and stranger danger have always been a part of my world.

Jack was one of the first law enforcement officers assigned to investigate the disappearance of 13-year-old Robert Peterson, 11-year-old Anton Schussler and 13-year-old John Schussler in Chicago in October 1955.

The boys had gone downtown to see a movie on a Sunday afternoon.

Their bodies were found a few days later naked in a woods.

Jack takes readers step-by-step through the investigation.

It was clearly a different time in society and in law enforcement.

The site where the bodies are found is not blocked off; students are questioned without parents present; "thugs" are rounded up and questioned.

I also was surprised that boys of this age would be taking a bus alone into downtown Chicago.

According to my mother who grew up in the city in this era, everyone did that in those days. In fact, when I told her the title of the book I was reading, she asked if it was about the Peterson-Schussler boys. That's how prominent this case was in the city.

Her next question was, did they ever solve that crime?

The first trial took place in 1995. Forty years after the crimes were committed. Neither one of the Schusslers lived to see it. (I won't tell you if the man was convicted, though.)

Jack has penned an interesting account of this investigation and the lengths dedicated officers will go for a case. All things considered, it's not particularly graphic either, though it clearly could have been.

It certainly made me wanted to give my kids an extra hug - or three!

- Tricia Ambrose

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Disney will teach your kids to read for an annual fee

Disney has unveiled a lucrative way to teach children how to read. places part of Disney’s considerable catalogue online for children to enjoy at a subscription rate of $79.95 per year.

The site aims for children from 3 to 12. Younger kids can use the look-and-listen feature, which reads the text to them while highlighting the spoken word. Older children can read by themselves and click on a word if they need to hear it spoken aloud. They can also check the word’s definition with a built-in dictionary.

The site offers more than 500 books featuring Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Hannah Montana, Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan. (But I don’t think it includes the classic J.M. Barrie or A.A. Milne books — just the later, Disney-fied ones.)

Disney’s new site intrigues me. I don’t know if it will encourage otherwise indifferent children to read, but it might be useful to kids who are already so inclined. It’s no substitute for a grandma’s lap, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless.

It also got me thinking about kids and reading. People are always talking about it: How to get kids to read? How to make them eager about it? How to guarantee they will be life-long readers?

It seems like kids — between texting and the computer screen — are doing more reading than they have for decades; but that doesn’t mean they’ll care who Margaret Atwood is.

I contacted three mothers who have kids of different ages and asked them how they got their kids involved in reading. (Yes, all the people I spoke to were women, but that doesn’t mean men are not or cannot be involved in the process.)

My first mother is coworker Betsy Scott. She has three children between the ages of 4 and 8. I asked her and the other mothers, “Did you encourage your children to read and, if so, how?” She said:

I encouraged them to read by reading to them nearly every night before bed. The boys loved it. My 5-year-old daughter asks me to read to her, but doesn’t pay much attention when I do. The older two are among the top kids in their class (or at the top) in spelling and reading ... They don’t even want me to read to them anymore cuz they enjoy it so much themselves.

The next mother was co-blogger and boss of bosses Tricia Ambrose. Her children are both in high school. She said:

I think it’s far more powerful for kids to see you reading than for you to tell them how they should be reading.

I never really thought of what I did as encouraging them to read, that makes it sound too much like making them eat their vegetables (something I never did, by the way). I did read to them a lot when they were very young and we went to the library frequently, as you can imagine, but for me, it was more about sharing with my children something I love. Trust me, there aren’t too many things in this world more wonderful than sitting together with your child and reading. We have particularly fond memories of Harold and the Purple Crayon, Love You Forever, the Little Bear books, Good Night Moon, Minnie and Moo ... I could go on and on.

If I would do anything differently, it really would be to have savored those moments while they were happening. They grow up so fast (man, I’m old!) But, we still go to the library a lot, it’s just that now they’re into the Twilight and Lord of the Rings books not Dr. Seuss.

Finally, my mother weighed in. (In case you are wondering, she has four children. The youngest of whom is 22.) She said:

I did encourage all of you to read, but Grandma Swain, even more so than me. Her first gifts to all of you were those cardboard-paged books that babies can’t eat. When Grandma and Papa came to visit, Grandma would sit and read to all of you, while I tried to get as much housework done as possible without distractions. The interesting thing is that, despite probably the most exposure to fiction because he was the firstborn and had Grandma to himself for a while, Ethan never took to fiction reading ... always wanted nonfiction instead.

I also took all of you to every program I could find at the library, which of course encouraged reading. In our home, I don’t remember TV usurping reading time. In fact, I remember specifically letting you watch Reading Rainbow for that reason.

I asked my mother about the Disney Web site and other technology that was not available when we were young. She replied:

Perhaps I’m too old-fashioned to appreciate the benefits of new technology on this one. In my opinion, nothing beats a kid sitting on a parent’s lap, hearing the intonation behind exciting prose, and viewing the illustrations at the same time. Technology can, admittedly, produce the second two, but not the lap.

So there you have it. A brief, informal survey reveals something we already knew. Read to your children. If you also want to enlist Disney's help, that's fine. We also learned that Tricia is old, and my grandparents had to buy cardboard books so I wouldn’t eat them.

-Jason Lea,

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Friday, October 2, 2009

The power of the arts

My latest trek into the world of nonfiction had some moments that moved me.

And I certainly learned some things I hadn't known and that's always a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

My eye was caught by "The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt" by Hannelore Brenner (ISBN 9780805242447).

I was unfamiliar with this chapter in World War II history and was eager for insight into how folks in the face of unspeakable horror can continue to hope.

Room 28 is in a girls home in Theresienstadt near Prague. The town was used as an internment camp for thousands on their way to Auschwitz.

Room 28 speaks to the power of the arts and education. It is at its strongest when Brenner uses the girls' own words.

Its weakness lies in the number of girls whose stories she tries to tell. I had a hard time keeping them all straight in my mind and the constant usage of complete names was a barrier for me to forming deep connections with any one.

But when it's on target, it's impossible not to be moved by these survivors.

People like Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a 44-year-old artist who shared her passions with the children of Theresienstadt.
"She awakened memories of what was good in the children's past and strengthened their hope for a better future. ... Proof that she succeeded, if only for a few hours, is found in the more than three thousand drawings created by children under her leadership - each one a child's witness to life in the ghetto."

People like Eva Weiss, not yet 20 and a counselor to the girls. Eva tried to be a surrogate mother to the frightened girls despite her own worries.
As she wrote of her days in Auschwitz-Birkenau,"It was my job to play with them and give them lessons - without books or any other materials. The important thing was to make them forget where they were and what was happening around them."

People like Rudolf Freudenfeld, the 22-year-old musical director of the ghetto's production of "Brundibar." The children's opera was a lifeline to many. As one young performer says, "We didn't have to wear the yellow stars. Even in Theresienstadt we always had to wear the yellow stars - but not when we were performing Brundibar. ... For those moments we were not branded with the yellow star, which meant that for this brief precious time, we were free."

It's hard to fathom focusing on painting and acting in such circumstances, and inspiring to meet those who could.

- Tricia Ambrose

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