Friday, May 29, 2015

Among the Ten Thousand Things: A Book Review

White People Problems
Julia Pierpont is a graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program.

That is all you need to know. It explains a great deal.

She was a Rona Jaffee Foundation Graduate Fellow. She was a Stein Fellow. She has won awards for her writing. So she must be a brilliant writer, yes? Literary agents went looking for her.

AMONG THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS is her work of debut fiction. The prose is, indeed, very pretty. The sentences are well crafted. The paragraphs sing with the rhythm of syllables and pauses.

Agent Elyse Cheney sold the book to Random House (which provided the review copy in use here) for six figures. Clearly the publishing industry expects big things from Julia Pierpont.

What is the novel about?

The blurbs will tell you it is the story of a marriage falling apart. As a reader, I will tell you it is a narrative of New York City whingers. Ah Christ, the angst and the mental suffering. Everyone in the novel is so in tune to themselves that a reader cannot like them. Unless you are part of the New York City whinging crowd, in which case you'll find their portrayals brilliant.

Did I mention that the prose is lovely? It's a beautifully written novel.

The problem comes in the entertainment factor. There isn't much storytelling to speak of.

So we have Deb and Jack and their two teenage cartoon children. He's a serial adulterer and she's a failed ballerina who found herself up the stick and Jack did the right thing. The children do and say what stereotypical teens do and say. They're as self-centered as their parents, and equally dull.

Jack's latest piece on the side sends Deb a litany of sexting and assorted emails and the daughter reads it and then the son and then Deb and then Jack's art installation goes bad and the marriage is just falling apart. Then we get to the middle of the novel and the author shifts to "too cute by half" mode with a series of staccato sentences that reveal the fates of the characters.

Well, so, no need to read the rest when you know what's going to happen and when the daughter runs away from home you know she'll be found because the author told us earlier so you flip through to see if anything important happens but it doesn't. The whinging carries on to the end.

You read a book and wonder how such shite gets published. The publishers are pursuing students of creative writing who write about people like those in the publishing industry, characters that the publishing industry can relate to. The rest of us, the common readers, are supposed to see the brilliance, or be considered Philistines who don't know good literature when it smacks them in the face.

So I must be a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal because I found nothing to like about this novel. The writing is there. But it isn't enough to make a full-length novel. Tell me a story.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Another Reason To Dislike Football

For the good of what? The game?
They call it soccer in America, to distinguish the sport from their version of mayhem, and it is growing in popularity. Suburban children can be seen swarming pitches in every well-heeled community, kicking the old football around.

Now the soccer-despising among us will have further reason to kick the sport itself around.

What's sauce for the Olympic committee is apparently good for the footballers as well. The culture of bribery that formed the backbone of the group that was charged with finding venues for Olympic games has infected football's governing body as well. Police in Switzerland raided the offices of the Federation Internationale de Football Association and arrested several of the group's officials. Police in the US staged a raid on FIFA offices there as well, arresting a few important people on charges of corruption.

So it seems that you aren't the only one wondering how the World Cup match was awarded to a country like Qatar, where the climate in summer is less than ideal for an outdoor sport, and where the matches played always in the peak of summer were miraculously rescheduled to a cooler time of year in the Arabian desert.

You want your sports honest and free of bribery. It's supposed to be a skills contest, with the best team coming out the winner.

Like the Olympics, the World Cup site is coveted for the tourism it brings, and when a country wants something bad enough it will offer a little cash incentive. Our sports officials are supposed to be above that sort of thing. Judging by the raid on FIFA offices, they are not. According to the indictment, the officials not only were down in the gutter, but they had the audacity to ask for illegal payments.

The raid came as the FIFA officials gathered for their meeting in Zurich. It's that time of the sports schedule, when FIFA's president is to be elected, and if you're going to nab an international crime ring, it's easier to gather them up at a gathering. Those arrested in Switzerland are to be sent on to America to face trial for crimes that the Federal Bureau of Investigation alleges were conducted over a span of decades.

So if you despise soccer, you have even more reason to hate the sport that is played all over the world but not so much in America where it is seen as a game suitable for children or girls, but not real men.

Now the governing body has shown that there is another game being run in addition to FIFA's namesake sport. It's a game played by adults, and it is an international game with high stakes but a comfortable pay-out for the winners.

And as the un-arrested officials gather to elect their president, and decide if the man who led FIFA through all those years of bribery, extortion and money-laundering, is deserving of a fifth term. Authorities have pointed out that Sepp Blatter, the king of football, has not been arrested or charged with any wrongdoing, but the seeds of doubt have been sown.

He'll just have to buy his votes if he's keen to keep his lofty position.

Which should not be difficult. It's a way of life for those who control the sport of football.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: The Light And The Legal Fury

A slight trick of copyright law
Thou shalt not put Sherlock Holmes in a comfortable chair if the narration makes mention of lighting or a guest's discomfort.

That about sums up the latest legal fury around the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Isn't Sherlock Holmes now in the public domain, you ask as you pause in your writing, the fanfic piece nearly complete and images of dollar signs dancing in your head. The copyright expired long ago and anyone can use the Holmes character. It's perfectly legal to write a short story or a full-length novel with Sherlock Holmes solving a case.

To an extent that is true, but lawsuits filed by the descendants of Mr. Doyle have carved out a little block of Holmes-ian details that were published late enough to still fall under copyright law. You may write a Sherlock Holmes story if you wish, but you have to watch what you have Mr. Holmes say or do.

Filmmaker Miramax is discovering the headaches of this splitting of hairs issue. The Doyle estate has sued them for copyright infringement because they have made a movie based on a novel that features Sherlock Holmes in retirement, called out to solve another case.

Sorry, the estate's lawyer says, but that story contains 1923-1927 material you've lifted and you owe us money for the right to use our property.

The novel on which this upcoming film is based was published in 2005, but only now that the book has gone to film has the estate given notice. They are suing author Mitch Cullin, as well as Penguin Random House. The publisher is already dealing with lawsuits filed by those who felt defrauded by the Penguin's Author Solutions branch, so the legal department is really earning its keep these days.

As it turns out, Arthur Conan Doyle did not write about the retired Sherlock Holmes until the 1920s. Like any author, he added various elements to the character to make Sherlock Holmes move with the times, and those elements if included in a new work using Holmes would fall under the copyright law.

Mitch Cullin's version of Holmes is the retiree, which the estate admits is fine because Holmes was retired in stories that have fallen out of copyright. What Mr. Cullin did that brought on the heat was to set a scene based on a description written by Doyle in the 1920's, in which Holmes sits in a chair and puts his guest in a chair opposite, where the light shines full on the guest's face and obscures Holmes. In both Doyle's version and Cullin's version. the guest is rendered somewhat speechless. The passages sited in the lawsuit are so similar, in fact, that it's bordering on plagiarism.

The estate wants their cut of the profits from both book sales and movie box office receipts. No need to pull the film or the book. What benefit to anyone in that case? Just send the check and we'll bestow the official Arthur Conan Doyle stamp of approval after the fact.

Sherlock Holmes is still a popular fictional character, and still draws movie-goers into the theaters. With Ian McKellin in the starring role, it's sure to be a blockbuster hit. Miramax wouldn't want to pass that up if they can come to a reasonable agreement. After all, they've already spent a lot of money to make the film in the first place. A few more dollars won't hurt. As long as the estate doesn't get greedy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Publishing In The Prehistoric Era

We used to do it that way. Long ago, when computer technology was not as advanced as it is today. Like some single cells organizing themselves in the primordial ooze, that's what it was. You wrote a book and you made the rounds of the literary agents, hoping to get published but getting nothing but rejections.

The chances were good that your book did not fit into the particular slot that publishers thought needed filling, so you put the manuscript away and wrote another one. You did that again and again, using your computer for its word processing capabilities because there wasn't much Internet back then. Things were still evolving, and the database of literary agents was in its infancy. You'd be hard-pressed to find a list of publishers willing to accept manuscripts not sent by literary agents.

There were rogue elements that arose back in those days. Some saw an opportunity to be tapped. All those manuscripts, written by all those authors who wanted to see their book in print. Sure there's a sucker born every minute and out of the morass came Author Solutions.

We'll publish your book, they said. And you'd have to buy boxes and boxes of your opus, to sell yourself. There was no getting the book on Amazon. Amazon was just a little thing back then, and most people bought their books in a store.

We'll help you get your books in those stores, they said. For a price. We'll help you market your book, and here is a list of paid services we offer that will lead to best-seller status. We're just like those major publishers who won't even glance at your manuscript. We'll help you. For a price.

While vanity publishers like Author Solutions expanded, so too did the Internet. Writers could search for publishers, and they could find information from those who knew about publishing and what constituted a scam. It was the end for some of those old dinosaur vanity presses. Authors were getting wise, and taking advantage of an evolving technology.

Information became readily available, and at the same time, the publishing industry shifted. A writer didn't need Author Solutions. Amazon was offering a platform to create a book from a manuscript, and the book would appear on sale at Amazon.com. The revolution of digital publishing altered the landscape yet again. If you wanted to publish your manuscript that fit a smaller niche ignored by the major publishers, you could do so at Amazon or BN.com or Smashwords.You could market your book on Facebook, Twitter, a blog or Internet advertising.

You could search for scams and complaints cited by authors who had tried Author Solutions and felt that they had been deceived. Warnings appeared, but those warnings came too late for some.

Even with all that available, there were those who did not have Google skills or did not think they could do it on their own. Those who believed the marketing and trusted that Author Solutions was a real publisher, not just some vanity press. They came to see that the services offered did not meet expectations. A law suit was filed against Author Solutions, citing deceptive practices and fraud.

The suit has worked its way through the American legal system, while Author Solutions has worked its way up the evolutionary ladder. It is now a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, a respectable publisher that picked up the vanity press as a way to get a toehold in the burgeoning self-publishing industry.

Penguin Random House wanted an evolved platform for self-publishing. They ended up with all the evolutionary detritus that clung to Author Solutions from its prehistoric past.

Attorneys for the Penguin are planning to show Judge Denise Cote that Author Solutions was not doing anything deceptive and it's just a bunch of disgruntled authors whose expectations were unrealistic and it wasn't Author Solutions' fault. There's no pattern, which is required to demonstrate deception as corporate policy.

The plaintiffs are seeking to make the suit a class-action undertaking, gathering a group of victims together under a single umbrella to show the pattern of misleading behavior.

The wheels of justice continue to turn slowly, while technology races ahead. Fewer authors will be ensnared by Author Solutions because there is so much information available about potential scams, dissatisfied customers, and other complaints about the expensive services. It's not all that difficult to develop an alternative plan based on advice that is readily available in countless forums dedicated to those who want to publish their words.

Authors can be forewarned these days. If they fall for the promises of Author Solutions, they have only themselves to blame. Which is what Penguin Random House's legal team would like the judge to consider before she decides if the plaintiffs have a legitimate case.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Writing Prompt: Aquatic






It looks like a lovely little cottage, doesn't it? A humble abode, with a bright red door. The front garden could be populated with children playing, or you could imagine a gathering of friends.

What inspiration do you draw from this photograph?

Let's throw in another picture of this same house, and see where your imagination takes you.

Not what you expected?

AirBnB is now legal in London, and a couple of architects designed this floating house to draw attention to the modern version of holiday accommodations. The cottage on a raft is floating up and down the Thames, and as you can imagine it is drawing a great deal of attention. It isn't every day that you see a houseboat this elaborate. And you could rent it, if you had an urge to see London as Anne Boleyn might have seen it for the last time.

A house floating downstream might suggest some sort of catastrophic flood, lifting a whole house and carrying it away. There is something of a children's story in this picture as well, a sort of magical journey in a floating house.

You have the pictures. Now it's your turn to write those thousand words. Or more, if inspiration strikes.

If you aren't much of a writer, you could just navigate over to London's AirBnB site and book a stay at someone's home. Who knows, but you might find a little inspiration abroad, poking around in a stranger's things. There might be a travel writer in you, if you find the right inspiration.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Finding A Pattern In Book Sales

Two new books have risen to the top of the bestseller list, and the titles demonstrate a clear pattern.

Kim Kardashian is a celebrity, a person famous for doing nothing except being famous. Her book is a collection of pictures that she took of herself, but rather than call her book "Selfies", the publisher decided that "Selfish" was more clever.

Selfish. Self-obsessed. It sounds like a promotion for Peter Schweizer's book "Clinton Cash". If you've seen him being interviewed, you'd realize that selfishness lies at the heart of his premise.

Is there a pattern developing here? Are book buyers intrigued by selfishness in prominent members of our society?

Mr. Schweizer has been doing plenty of book promoting, while Ms. Kardashian has no need to promote her book. Her platform is larger than her hind quarters, and fans of her family's reality series are already well aware of the book. Come to think of it, Mr. Schweizer has a nice little platform, but it was constructed by conservative-leaning media and those who don't much like Hilary Clinton. That's a fairly substantial number of planks right there.

Readers want to know all about the Clintons and their foundation, how they manage to live so lavishly after coming up from nothing, and so the Schweizer book becomes a bestseller. The Kardashian book being a collection of pictures, it's clear that there's no interest in reading among that particular demographic, but a picture is worth thousands of words and provide visual access into the Kardashian world.

Don't you wonder where all the Kardashian Kash comes from? And you're very curious about the source of the Clintons' wealth.

Politics and entertainment are often intertwined. Some will tell you that politics is the celebrity industry for the unattractive, a submission to a level of egotism. You wouldn't say that former President Clinton is a shrinking violet, avoiding the cameras. Kim Kardashian is followed by cameras constantly. Is there any difference?

The difference is, one book's subject is not involved in politics while the other is.

There is something about people with money that intrigues, and that fascination is what drives book sales. "Clinton Cash" outsold "Selfish" by a wide margin, so there is hope for our society.

When a celebrity photo shoot sells more copies than an examination of finances and potential conflicts of interest, you'll know that Armageddon is just around the corner.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What You Know, Who You Know And Who Sent You

Do you like 'Chicago Fire'? Can you spot the mob influence in all those scenes that are filmed entirely in Chicago?

No?

Once upon a time, Oprah had a studio in the city so that she could have a place to put on a (talk) show, and her presence revitalized a neighborhood that was more than rundown until the Big O attracted hordes of ladies who lunch. Local political tops took notice. Urban renewal is always a good thing, especially if it brings in people from out of town who spend money and pay entertainment taxes and parking fees and such.

The State of Illinois, like so many other states, has an office dedicated to enticing Hollywood to come and film in the state, with an emphasis on the city of Chicago. Tax incentives are always popular, and Chicago has been known to provide some funding as further incentive to directors looking for new scenery to serve as backdrops.

What was missing was a big sound stage where sets could be built. It was one thing for big-name stars to be seen dining in Chicago restaurants, but they came and went in a few days. The interiors had to be shot elsewhere. Having to move a lot of equipment around becomes a logistics issue because it costs money to load, unload, set up and take down those semi-loads of stuff. If you could go to Toronto and angle the camera so it sort of looked like Chicago, and you had a place in Toronto to film the rest of the movie, and you were still getting incentives to boost your profit margin, why not just take your movie to Canada and skip Chicago altogether?

Nick Mirkopoulos owned a studio in Toronto, which doesn't look at all like Chicago to Chicagoans. He decided to build a studio in Chicago, sold the idea to local officials, and they kicked in with taxpayer funding to get the project up and running. If you build it, the tourists will come to watch movies being made and they have to eat lunch, right?
Operation Family Secrets: Mob bosses dropping names

He selected a small bank to handle his local financial affairs. The bank's board includes four eminent Chicagoans whose names came up during the trials of five Chicago mob bosses. Not that the four were ever charged with anything. Nobody could prove the allegations that the bank was used as a conduit to channel bribe money to crooked cops, or that one of those four eminent Chicagoans took part in a firebombing meant to intimidate a business owner into cooperating with the Outfit.

Cinespace and its owners have contributed to the campaigns of local elected officials, the same elected officials who voted in the tax breaks and incentives for Cinespace.

Chicago Studio City, in the other hand, has not matched the level of funding.

So it comes as no surprise that they are also not getting the business that flows to Cinespace.

Chicago Studio City has sued the State of Illinois, alleging the sort of shenanigans that is typical of Chicago political greed. The suit claims that their rival Cinespace is getting all kinds of taxpayer funds because the unions are exerting their influence. In Chicago, that means the Outfit is leaning on the pols in their pockets so that the mob bosses can line theirs. In short, Chicago Studio City is getting cut out of the action by a newcomer with power, and they don't like it. They want the playing field leveled so they have a chance to at least bid on projects that are handed to Cinespace with a nod and a wink.

In Chicago, it's all about who you know, and the owners of Cinespace have made sure that they know the most important people to be known. Campaign donations open a lot of doors, and the more you give, the wider the door opening. It's all about who sent you, and if nobody sent you, well, you're standing on the outside looking in, barred from entry.

Chicago Studio City is being run out of business by corruption. It isn't the first victim. It won't be the last. A federal lawsuit won't help their cause, because the federal judge is nobody when it comes to power politics in one of the most corrupt states in the union.