Friday, April 30, 2010

A Startling Turn Of Events

Within Christy Moore's discography you'll find several tunes that speak of the downtrodden Irish migrant in England.

There was no work to be had in Ireland, not for decades, and those who didn't brave the long voyage to America or Australia went to England.

They were the navvies who built the railroads, the cleaners and the brickies and the go-fers on the building sites. Even though they did the grunt work, the back-breaking labor, they were generally reviled and the average Brit wished they'd all go home and take their IRA troubles with them.

What a difference a Celtic Tiger makes.

Nick Griffin of the British National Party is ready to slam shut the doors to England, to put an end to all immigration and sent the foreigners back from whence they came.

Except for the Irish.

The Irish, it seems, are part of the fabric of Great Britain. The two islands are inextricably woven together, with bonds forged over centuries.

And then there's all the Irish diaspora, settled in England but still feeling a bit Irish. The descendants of the navvies and the brickies and the cleaners are British citizens with a right to vote and Mr. Griffin knows a voting block when he sees one.

So, go home you Polish plumber or Afghan refugee. You're not needed in modern day England.

There's enough Irish around to take up the slack anyway. The Celtic Tiger's dead and the young people are emigrating again.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Wake Up Call

I was talking to my insurance agent yesterday and we got to chatting about his daughter.

She's graduating with a degree in journalism and, as you'd expect, no job.

No matter. Her dream is to live in Chicago, in the big city with all its night life and excitement.

Raised in the safety of the suburbs, she longs for some action and a release from the boredom that is found outside of the city limits.

Last Saturday, she had a wake-up call.

Near the corner where she had picked up a friend in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood that evening, two young women were beaten with a baseball bat by a gang-banger because he wanted their cash and credit cards.

Being a stupid gang-banger, he immediately used the credits cards and made calls on stolen cell phones and the police caught him.

Natasha McShane lies in a drug-induced coma while her friend Stacy Jurich is struggling to regain short term memory, balance and the ability to walk.

She thought Bucktown was safe, my friend said of his daughter. I grew up in the city. I know it's not a safe area at all.

The children of suburbia don't walk the streets of Chicago with heads swiveling. They'd never think to look over their shoulder at the slightest sound because it's a foreign concept. Lacking experience, they have no highly tuned radar that hunts for danger. Being young, they have little sense of what danger is waiting for them out there where the lights and bright and the bars are jammed.

The mugger went out that night to find someone to rob, someone easy to victimize. Someone like a petite Irish girl and her giddy American friend. Someone who'd had a drink or two and had let her guard down.

Two young ladies have been seriously injured and the damage done to their brains will mark them for the rest of their lives.

The horror visited on them and their families has served as a wake-up call. Someone else's daughters may be safer now, their eyes opened to the reality of city life, their senses tuned to a higher pitch.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Aunt Aggie's Farm

It's a dreadful story in the Chicago Tribune, a tale of foreclosure and an elderly woman at risk of eviction from her home.

Agnes Albinger is 100 years old and the bank is threatening to foreclose on her mortgage. She stands to lose the farm that has been her home since 1949.

How could a woman of that age still have a mortgage over her head? Is this a case of someone fallen ill, but too proud or stubborn to accept what Medicare has to offer, looking on it as an unwanted government hand-out? Was she strapped for cash to cover medical expenses?

Her neighbors are raising funds to pay off the debt, so that Ms. Albinger can end her years in a place she cannot physically maintain. The house is falling to pieces, and only when word of her plight got out did a local group show up to clear brush from around her porch and pick up the debris of an old farm that was scattered about the yard. They've patched her roof and are going all out to make needed improvements so that the house can pass inspection on 1 May.

One of her supporters blames the bankers for the cruelty of foreclosure, but the culprit may lie closer to the heart. It wasn't Ms. Albinger alone who obtained a $100,000 mortgage in 2000, on property that was free and clear.

It turns out that her niece, Bridget Gruzdis, is involved in a mess of transactions that smell of fraud and the most of heinous of crimes: taking advantage of an elderly relative.

Ms. Gruzdis started up a company that would develop land. Her aunt's land.

Takes money to make money, and so Phoenix Horizon LLC was formed. The financing came from loans backed by the 70 acre farm, financing to the tune of $700,000. And Ms. Gruzdis' fingers are all over it.

It only gets better. The property was put up for sale, at an asking price of $4.6 million, but no one knew about the listing except Ms. Gruzdis.

You can look on Ms. Gruzdis as a champion for her auntie, someone who thought she could ride the real estate boom and bring untold monetary benefits to a beloved relative.

Unless you've lived in this world for a time, in which case you'd be demanding that the Will County authorities throw Ms. Gruzdis in the dankest, darkest jail they can find. And if they were to lose the key to the lock, you'd not much mind.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

When The Money Runs Out

Publishers are struggling to sell books to a public that isn't buying much of anything any more.

The business model is in need of revamping, but who will be the first to jump? Hundreds and thousands of copies of a new title are printed, packed and shipped, a quantity that's meant to fill shelves and display space. With the hope that those copies will be purchased.

What never sells or ends up in the remainders pile gets shipped back and pulped, recycled into clean paper that can be bought to print up copies of the next book.

It all costs money that the publisher can't afford to lose, but it's the way books are sold and it's the way that a publisher can run itself into the ground.

Phoenix Books was surviving until owner Michael Viner died. Dwight Opperman jumped in and bought up the small publishing house, his dreams of publishing glory shining brightly.

He bought up manuscripts from debut authors like a regular, old-fashioned sort of publisher who nurtured careers and would go down in literary history as a mentor and key player in the game. He opened up a line for children's books, which are hot since the Harry Potter craze swept the land.

Mr. Opperman gambled, but unfortunately for everyone caught up in the wreck of Phoenix Books, he lost.

The place is closed. Phoenix Books, Inc. is no more.

For those authors who were on the verge of breaking out with their debut novel, there's no more lay-down date. Non-fiction writers who thought they'd be getting paid for their latest release are left to wonder how they'll pay bills when there's no royalties coming in as planned.

The doors are locked, gone out of business, and the people who worked there will have no other option than to sign on at the unemployment office.

The authors, as usual, are left in limbo, not knowing what will happen to rights or royalties or manuscripts sitting on the desk of the acquisition editor.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Too Quiet

I know we're supposed to be patient and wait for the busy, busy literary agents to get to the queries before scrapping the letter and starting over, but it doesn't really take all that long.

Working in small batches, I sent out the first version of the query letter to five agents. They all represent what I write, I found authors on their websites that could be used as a reference point for my manuscript, so off went the e-queries.

Three rejections within ten days, and two others that are as good as a rejection. After a month, it's a good bet that Katherine Fausset at Curtis Brown and Lucy Carson at Molly Friedrich's agency are voting with their lack of a response. A very quiet no, unspoken, unwritten has been received.

Obvious to me that the query letter wasn't working from the beginning, so I revised it as soon as the majority of the submissions were rejected. Clearly I wasn't getting the message across if no one asked to see a few chapters.

Four more went out, with a fresh, new letter. Half were quickly rejected, the other half are sitting out there in cyberspace, in the silent vacuum where no life exists. Letter number two, another failure, was scrapped. No eager response from Meredith Hays at FinePrint Literary. No request for pages from Nancy Yost.

Query number three hit five literary agent inboxes on Monday, and in the past week, there's been nothing.

If an agent wants to read a manuscript, they'll ask for it with remarkable speed. The response is fast.

The responses I'm not getting? Slow to the point that I know there's no interest out there.

It's entirely too quiet out there on the east coast. Not an agent is stirring, at least not one that wants to read some contemporary women's fiction with a touch of humor.

So very quiet. I think I'll boost my ego by checking submission status for the short stories I sent out. Under consideration....second encouraging. So cruel. It keeps me going, in the face of rejection.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Priests And Bishops Fall

There goes another one.

The bishop of Belgium has called it quits, leaving his office after admitting that he failed to protect innocent children from pedophile priests.

In Vatican City, Monsignor Charles Scicluna is being asked to explain himself. When he was given evidence of a priest's disturbing activities, he handed back the documents and told the accuser to go away. Nothing to see here. Go back to your homes.

Nine months later, the priest was arrested, having managed to molest a few more boys before the police nabbed him.

As for the Monsignor, his excuse is so sound, so tightly wrapped in legal advice. The documents brought to him by the complainant weren't signed. There was nothing he could do. The officials who run the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can't be expected to actually go out and investigate something without signed documents. 

Ireland has seen several of its bishops walk away from their offices, shamed by the evidence that has come out after decades of silence.

And still the Vatican digs in its red-shoed heels, insisting that the Holy Mother Church is being harmed by this explosion of outrage, and all of it trumped up by those bent on destroying the Catholic religion.

The priests who abused and the bishops who shuffled them from parish to parish did a fine job of destroying the Catholic faith on their own, actually. In Ireland, the Catholic Church is dying.

How many of the former inmates of Ireland's Magdalene laundries are regular church-goers today? How many of children once housed in industrial schools are flocking to the pews on Sunday?

Their numbers weren't signficant when no one would speak of the abuse, but as word has leaked out and become a flood, they aren't the only ones with something better to do on the weekend.

Catholics are horrified about what their trusted priests did, but they're even more horrified by the response from the bishops, the cardinals and the Pope himself. Like any CEO, those in charge of the multinational corporation that is the Catholic Church looked after the corporation and tried to cover up that which would hurt the business model.

As many other corporate boards have discovered, a cover-up often makes a bad situation worse. Until there's new management brought in, a fresh perspective, the abuse scandal will not quite go away because some bumbling exec in a Vatican office will keep making the same stupid blunders. 

You can continue to support the Vatican if you like, or you can make a donation to the Justice for Magdelenes cause. The ladies who were incarcerated for the crime of being pregnant outside of marriage, the crime of being poor, or the crime of being born to an unwed mother are fighting for some compensation after decades of slavery.

It's a question of who is more deserving of the help.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Stupid Readers

Publishers and literary agents know best, hence they are the gatekeepers to the world of books.

It's the readers who must be stupid, then.

Rosie Alison couldn't get a publisher to take an interest in her manuscript, and she was too proud to use her husband's connections to make them pay attention. She's married to the man who owns the Waterstone book shops that are scattered all over England. She wanted to make it on her own merits, on the merits of her writing.

Ten submissions to ten different publishers, and she was rejected every time. Not ready to throw in the towel, she sent out another round to the small independents, and one out of nine said yes.

The Very Thought Of You was published by England's Alma Books, a small place that accepts unagented manuscripts. A small operation, and Ms. Alison had next to no publicity for her book.

Yet it sold. It generated its own buzz because it is a good read. It's entertaining.

It's not what the literary agents and the big publishers are looking for. It's what the stupid readers must want, however, because the novel has been shortlisted for the Orange prize, right next to the likes of Hilary Mantel and Barbara Kingsolver.

Her book sold without getting a review in a major newspaper because a few people took a chance on it, read it, and then recommended it to their friends who must also be stupid readers. Stupid because they snapped up a book that actually told a story and didn't have a political axe to grind, a message to be pounded into thick skulls.

Orange Prize jury chair Daisy Goodwin gets it, and you'd be hard pressed to call her stupid. She's aware that readers love the book, just as she noticed that publishers had cranked out a lot of "grim, depressing" novels. The pleasure of reading, she noted, seems to have gone missing from the fiction shelves. When the stupid readers happen upon something enjoyable, they share the news with their friends, and The Very Thought Of You sold on that simple concept.

Yet the literary establishment continues to cheer for those "grim, depressing" collections of words, while the stupid readers vote with their wallets and buy what the literati have ignored.

Will they take a clue from Rosie Alison's success and re-consider what the public wants in a novel?

Stupid readers. Looking to be entertained when they pick up a book.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Political Posturing

Why won't my opponent release his tax returns says Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Is he trying to hide something?

I'll fight him here, I'll fight him there says disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a man who's bragged of his testicular fortitude in the past.

Rather like watching little boys, isn't it? Political posturing is so often heavy-handed and so obvious that you can't help but cringe.

Behind all the posing and puffing up are the unpleasant facts that politicians would like you not to see as they distract you with rhetoric and mud-slinging.

The point of it all is to make you fill your limited brain capacity with questions about State Senator Bill Brady, who hasn't publicized his tax returns. That way your head is too full to ask another question that might have some importance to your life.

What happened to the $4.5 million that the State of Illinois gave the Muntu Dance Theatre? It's the Chicago Tribune asking that particular question, over there behind Pat Quinn doing his political two-step.

That's a lot of money to go missing. Too much to be hidden behind political posturing.

A few years ago, the Muntu Dance Theatre had a plan to reinvigorate Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, a once thriving mecca for black folks when black folks were banned from white areas. The theatre would put up a building using grant money and donations, on land purchased for $1, and before long people would be flocking to Bronzeville once again, for a dose of African-American culture.

The thing fell through because donations are hard to come by these days. The City of Chicago took back its promised grant because the project didn't get off the ground, but the State of Illinois was lost in a flurry of political posturing and no one noticed.

Eight years later, and it's dawned on the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity that $4.5 million of taxpayer money seems to have gone down some mysterious drain.

State government is essentially bankrupt, and the taxpayers are asking questions about budgets and expenditures and all the sweetheart deals that can be traced back to Chicago's political machine.

When there's lots of money around, most folks don't pay much attention to where it goes. They'll watch the politicians spar and dance around the ring.

Now that the money's gone and the bills aren't getting paid, the political posturing is more like a comedy act than a graceful dance.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The End Of The Introduction

When WEbook first came on the scene, it was touted as a free service for authors in search of literary agents. Turns out it was only an introduction. The party is officially over.

The service does the submitting for you, and all you need do is compose a query letter and select from WEbook's list of cooperating agents. It's nothing that you couldn't do on your own, of course.

The search function at couldn't be simpler. You want an agent who represents historical fiction? Click on the check box and you'll get a list that you can filter to eliminate those agents who are closed to new queries. It's completely free.

Need a place to keep tabs on your submissions? Both and AuthorAdvance offer free services, although Querytracker has some premium features that require a paying membership. You sign up for an account on either site, log in your submissions and then tabulate the results. You can even view statistics to let you know how many queries have garnered interest, what the agent is looking for, and it won't cost you a thing.

Or you can shell out $39.95 for a six month run at WEbook.

What's the benefit?

There are plenty of forums around that will help you whip your query letter into shape. You can create your own list of targeted agents and you can send your own e-mail submissions.

The only thing you won't get is the little memo in your WEbook submission screen that tells you if the agent has opened your submission or not.

A lot of money to pay for discovering what you've long suspected when literary agents don't get back to you with a rejection or an acknowledgement or anything.

How can WEbook offer their services for free, authors were asking. Turns out that they can't and as of the beginning of May, they won't.

Save your money. Do it yourself.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Minnow's John Paulson

Like a knight on a white steed, riding to rescue the drowning minnow, John Paulson arrived on the scene when Barry O'Callaghan's tower of debt threatened to tumble down and take him with it.

Where did Mr. Paulson come up with the kind of money needed to bail out the mega-merger of Riverdeep, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, et al.?

From hedging his bets, wouldn't you know.

The John Paulson who has been named in the Goldman Sachs fraud suit is the same John Paulson who owned the hedge fund that bought up EMPG's debt.

He bet that the mortgage-backed securities that Goldman Sachs was peddling would ultimately collapse, even as the housing market was on a hot streak. Smart man, to see what so many others knew all along would happen.

With his enormous hedge fund to provide some heft, he threw his weight around at Goldman Sachs and had them set up and then sell a new fund that he bet would fail. It's the nature of business on Wall Street. Some investors gamble on the shooter and some bet with the house. In this case, Mr. Paulson figured the shooter was due to crap out and he was right. So he won the bet and took home the winnings.

And he bought EMPG's debt, leaving Barry O'Callaghan as little more than another employee.

Now Goldman Sachs investors are planning to sue Mr. Paulson and his merry band of tricksters, based on the hedge fund's considerable involvement in the fraud perpetrated on the unwary.
The question becomes, did Mr. Paulson invest in EMPG because its stock was such a bargain and he's betting it will win? Or did he figure that with time the stock would go up in value, he'd get his return on investment, and then pull out? Leaving what behind?

When you learn that your new owner doesn't have dreams of being the king of educational publishing materials, but the king of hedge funds, it's not reassuring. Perhaps he could issue a company-wide e-mail to let everyone know that he isn't about to chop up the whale of a firm into bait, with a mind to catch as much cash as he can reel in.

Then again, who would believe him? A good gambler never shows his hand and can bluff his opponent into some foolhardy investing in mortgage-backed securities when the mortgages aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Try A Relaxing Ocean Voyage

The London Book Fair is scheduled to open on Monday, 19 April.

The Iceland volcano is expected to continue to disrupt air traffic with its ashy belch.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear the noise, is there sound? And if a book fair falls in a cloud of volcanic ash, is there any sound of visitors?

Alistair Burtenshaw, the exhibits director of the fair, has optimistically stated that the show must go on. After all, the hall is rented and there's all those people hired to erect the booths and serve the refreshments. Once such a massive enterprise is in train, there's no stopping it.

The question is, who will be there?

Air travel is shut down at the moment, and won't start up again until the ash cloud has dispersed. That assumes that the volcano will take a rest, a situation that cannot be predicted.

European travelers can fall back on the train, thanks to the Chunnel. As long as an exhibitor or fair guest can get to Paris, they can get to London. Underground. Where the ash cannot reach.

The larger market is, of course, the U.S. of A., and no one has yet dug a train tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean. Mr. Burtenshaw has offered to bring in bodies to man booths for those who simply cannot make it, and you'd have to think that he's directing his proposition to the Americans.

Publishers with offices in London and New York can always call in existing employees to head over to the book fair. Literary agents who are interested in making connections overseas to sell foreign rights for their clients are not so lucky.

To them I say, why not take a boat? A relaxing ocean voyage will get you to London without having to worry about sensitive electronic systems being fried by pumice. The sea air is supposed to be invigorating, and after a winter in New York City's pollution, the voyage could be written off as a medical expense.

Should conditions change, the webmasters for the London Book Fair are on top of things. The website is being regularly updated, and whatever helpful advice or tips that can be dreamed up are being posted.

Expect the literary agents to find a way to make it happen, even in the face of impossible odds. That pretty much describes their job.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Next Time Take The Ferry

If you're expecting someone to arrive at Dublin Airport from England, they won't be coming.

Due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland, all flights have been cancelled. The ash cloud has drifted towards England. As if Iceland hasn't caused enough trouble in the economic world, with their massive bank failure. Now they're disrupting air traffic.

All flights both in and out of Ireland and England are grounded until the ash passes over or drops out of the sky. Not only can you not leave for your sun holiday in the south of France, but you'll have to clean up all that ash that's going to drift in through the windows and sprinkle the holly bushes.

Affected passengers are entitled to a full refund, but what about the inconvenience? It's time to file a lawsuit against Iceland, for failing to properly regulate their volcano. The airlines will be happy to join in such legal action. They're required to foot the bill for meals and hotel accomodations, to see to the comfort of those who had booked flights that are ashed out.

On the bright side, the sunsets will be spectacularly colorful for a time, until the ash settles out of the atmosphere. Something to enjoy while you're stranded at the airport, waiting for the first available flight.

Of Course Some People Do Go Both Ways

Which way to the Emerald City, Dorothy asked the Scarecrow, and he pointed in two different directions.

Which genre is Elizabeth Evans, recently relocated to the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, actively seeking?

I asked Publishers Marketplace and the agency website and of course, some literary agents are and are not interested in women's fiction.
"Novels that hit that sweet spot between commercial and literary fiction."

From the website, I read that line and to me it says she's looking for well written commercial fiction. She's new to the agency, looking to make a splash, so she's an agent worth querying.

Check her page at Publishers Marketplace and it's pretty clear that she's not looking for mainstream fiction after all.
She does not represent mainstream fiction, children's books, essay anthologies, poetry, short fiction or screenplays.

If anything, she's after non-fiction or YA, the two big sellers in the publishing industry.

So which is it? Is the website not up to date, or is the PM page stale?

I could take a chance and query her anyway, in the hope that I won't end up in some black book of authors to be shunned for failing to follow guidelines. I could not query her and try a different agent at the same agency, and accept that the more established ones aren't looking for new clients so the odds are worse.

Which way to publication? Of course, said the Scarecrow, some people do go both ways. Maybe Ms. Evans might have a slight interest in women's fiction, say, a novel that could be appealing to the high school set and shared with their mothers?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bookselling In His Veins

After expanding beyond its capacity to survive, bookstore chain Hughes & Hughes went into receivership and closed their doors.

Founder Derek Hughes must have book-selling flowing through his veins. He's hoping to re-open some of those same doors.

When Ulster Bank called in the loans, Mr. Hughes claimed that part of the problem was landlords who wouldn't lower the rent. All well and good to charge a hefty fee when the economy is booming, but things have taken a marked turn for the worse and still the landlords wouldn't budge.

Those same property owners have had some time to stare at the empty storefronts and reconsider their position, which Mr. Hughes believes is more conducive to negotiations.

Industry buzz has Mr. Hughes back in as many as six locations, all in the Dublin area. Hughes & Hughes locations in Dublin and Cork airports, however, have been taken over by Eason's and won't figure into the resurrection.

The next trick will involve convincing wholesalers who lost money on the bankruptcy proceeding that Hughes & Hughes can function going forward. The same firms that lost money because they extended credit will be asked to extend credit again, and the economy is not any better than it was several months ago.

Landlords are certainly more amenable to sharpening their rental calculating pencils, so Hughes & Hughes would find one fixed cost to be lower. Whether or not there will be books on the shelves in shopping malls in Dundrum, Dun Laoghaire or Rathfarnham remains to be seen.

Wholesale book sellers may find that they have little more to lose and possibly something to gain by taking another chance with a man who believes in the viability of the local book shop. Derek Hughes just has to find some suppliers who are as fond of gambling as he is.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

They Will Follow You To The Ends Of The Earth

You log onto Twitter, let your followers know what's happening in your world, and catch up on their mundane activities.

It's fun, it's a great time-waster, and everyone's doing it.

The software is free. All you need do is sign up and you're tweeting. Did you ever once stop to wonder how the developers of Twitter's software ever could make money from their discovery?

Surely it cost money for servers and the like. There's upgrades to be made, anti-hacking to be installed, and that can't be free.

It's not free. But now that you're hooked on the instant inanity of Twitter, the Big Twit in San Francisco has decreed that advertising will now appear.

Before long, you'll have what Twitter calls "promoted tweets" popping up on your Blackberry.

What the....?? you'll splutter. I don't follow Starbucks or Best Buy. Where's the latest from @badagentsydney? I want to know if @colleenlindsay is open to queries or not! I don't need a coupon for ten cents off a tall latte.

Starbucks, Best Buy, and whoever else buys advertising space on Twitter will be following YOU. Against your will, but the service is free, and beggars can't be choosers, can they?

Biz Stone of Twitter fame has posted all the info to his blog, if you're curious about what's in store for that Twitter app on your iPhone. Or, you can just go with the flow and not get overly resentful when Sony Pictures starts tweeting every few seconds about their latest film.

For a long time, I've been receiving tweets from publishers like HMH, Knopf, and Harper Fiction. They're all promotional, in that they trumpet new releases or author appearances. Literary agents often tweet about a client's new website or new release or book signing. It's all business advertising, and you take the good with the bad when you're following in the hope of catching some snippet of info that makes all the difference in your writing or querying.

Now Twitter will make money off promotional tweets that have been skating along for free.

Want to reach a bigger audience? Then pay Twitter for advertising space. Happy with reaching a more limited audience, like the publishers who are followed by writers? Tweet away. Those 140 characters are free.

Just don't interact with the promotional tweets. Like feeding a stray dog that follows you home, you'll never get rid of the things if you encourage them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

So Much For That

So much for that. I've stopped cold and that's the end of reading Lionel Shriver's poorly researched bit of fiction.

I was going along as well as I could, nodding off to sleep from time to time. Dull reading, for some reason, but I can't quite define what made it boring. Too much back story too early in the novel, perhaps. I'm not much of a time traveler. Don't care in the least for science fiction, come to think of it.

So much for that.

Lionel Shriver's novel is supposed to be a diatribe that blows the lid off America's health care system.

So much for that.

I have a strong preference for historical fiction, but it has to be well researched. The facts have to line up with reality, and then I can suspend disbelief. The historical accuracy of Wolf Hall let me accept author Hilary Mantel's premise that Thomas Cromwell wasn't a horrible human being. That he had a teeny-tiny heart beating in his chest....until his head was forcibly removed, but her book doesn't extend that far.

As for Ms. Shriver's research, well, it's one thing to study the subject and quite another to spout off whatever rhetoric you've heard on MSNBC.

Do you know, says Male Character #2, do you know that America's health care system is the worst?

Good God Almighty you can imagine Male Character #1 thinking. How dreadful.

Delve into the rhetoric a bit deeper and you'd find that America leads the world in homicide. No health care system in the world can cure death due to homicide. The finest surgical team can't resurrect the gangbangers who shoot one another to death. That's nothing to do with the quality of health care.

Compare health care outcomes for cases other than murder and you'll find that America has the best system in the world. The best outcomes, the finest doctors, the gold standard of timely diagnoses and treatment. It's the country others come to when they need it now.

How stupid, goes Male Character #2. Why, it's from Truman's time, this notion that national health care is socialism and evil and it's the bean counters running the business world that stick employees with shite insurance coverage.

Sorry, but I can't suspend disbelief to that extent. The system is so grand in England and Ireland that private hospitals have sprung up. If you have enough money, you can see a doctor when you want and get the tests you need when the doctor wants them done. No waiting for months to see a locum from a non-English speaking country who may or may not be a 007 of a physician----licensed to kill.

National health care is the solution? Ms. Shriver failed to do her research and discover that hundreds of letters from primary care physicians in Ireland, requesting consultations with specialists for their patients, were never opened. Visits were never scheduled, medical care not carried forward, because no one ever bothered to open the letters, read them, and contact the doctors.

So Much For That isn't so much a work of women's fiction as it is a flight of fantasy. If only we had socialized medicine like Canada and England, we'd all be better off, but the premise is as realistic as Martians landing in New Jersey. The facts are there, if an author would make the effort.

An afternoon with recent issues of The Irish Times would provide more than enough data to create a more factual account for a novel. Not enough beds in hospitals means people are lodged in the hallways on trolleys, and there are no American style rooms with one or two patients. Not enough doctors means long waits for initial visits, followed by long waits for tests, long waits for results, and yes, people do indeed die while they wait.

Ms. Shriver's Female Character #1 has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, and if only the U.S. had national care like Europe, the woman would have died of the disease long before she could see an oncologist. That's the reality of socialized medicine, and it's the reality that citizens of England and Canada and Ireland must face.

"My father would be alive today if he'd been in America when he got sick," my friend John said, shortly after he went back home to bury the old man after stomach cancer took him too soon.

So much for that. I don't enjoy fantasy and I expect a work of fiction that isn't shelved with H. G. Wells's offerings to be more true to life. I'd suspend disbelief if it was possible, but there's only so far you can stretch your imagination when, in the back of your mind, you're keenly aware of the facts.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

For The Good Of His Holy Church

If the phrase sounds familiar, it's because you've heard it at Mass. You know those long stretches where the priest runs through the litany of saints and he's praying like mad up there at the altar and you're trying not to doze.

At every Mass, the Catholics pray for the good of the Church. Little did they ever guess how far their Church leaders would go to ensure that goodness.

This is no left wing conspiracy. A letter has come out, typed up in perfect Latin by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. In plain words, he states that he isn't going to rush right out and defrock a pedophile priest.

Why not?

He had to consider what was best for the good of the Church.

What's best for the abused children? Well, what ever is best for the Church, of course. If it's deemed ideal to swear the victims to secrecy, to shuttle the offending priest from parish to parish and not warn anyone he's coming, then that's the approach to take.

All those years that passed between Father Kiesle's sentencing in an Oakland, California, court and the Vatican's decision to strip the man of his collar, why, that time was needed to reflect and decide how best to react. Wouldn't want to upset the parishioners, after all. Some rash act, like coming down on the priest with fury, might make people turn away from their Church in horror.

Pity that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger didn't think to poll a group of mothers, to get their opinion. He might have learned that covering up the abuse of children by trusted clerics is considered a worse sin than kicking a convicted pedophile to the curb. Taking quick action to separate abuser and victim would have been a plus, actually. A bunch of old men, noses in prayer books, wouldn't understand such an attitude.

By stalling from 1978, when the crime was prosecuted, until 1987 when the priest was defrocked, the current Pope managed to do the wrong thing while seeking the right path. He needed all those years to figure out what approach was best, for the good of the Church.

And in all that time, he managed to inflict more damage on a Church already crumbling because that which was hidden was revealed, and the faithful were horrified by the Vatican's concern for its image.

So when you're half-listening to the Mass, and the priest makes mention of the good of the holy Church, you might want to insert your own prayer and ask God to look out for the members of the Church. Protect them from their clueless leaders for they know not what they do.

Friday, April 09, 2010

A Shout-Out For The Home Town

If only I had the money and the time, I'd be heading back.

Alas, it's not to be. The best I can do is promote a literary festival that couldn't have been set in a more beautiful location.

The town of Newcastle West, in the County of Limerick, will celebrate the life and work of their local boy who did good. Except for the part where he drank himself to death, that is, but all the rest is pure brilliance.

From 22 April through the 24th, the town will celebrate the legacy of poet Michael Hartnett.

Popular columnist Fintan O'Toole will deliver the key lecture. In addition, a bevy of poets will be on hand reading poetry, dancers will be dancing, singers will sing, and anyone fortunate enough to attend will be treated to a weekend of Irish culture.

Eigse Michael Hartnett, now in its tenth year, offers the visitor a warm welcome from the small town located in the heart of dairy country. Limerick County Council has a full roster of tourist-related activities, including music and dance. There will be things to do and see in the pubs, church, schools and just about any room available in town that can hold a gathering.

There's golf and hiking and St. Patrick's Well if you're of a mind to unwind rather than be mentally challenged, and you can do it all in the prettiest, greenest part of the island.

Not that I'm biased, of course. And not that I believe the relatives who claim we're related to the poet.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Catholic Church And The Scandal That Won't Go Away

The latest approach from the Vatican? Turn the tables on those who accuse and accuse them in return.

Call on the Pope to resign? Claim that the plodding German engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the sex abuse scandal run rampant? You're the sinner, not His Holiness.

Maybe you're buying into the line that the leftists are out to destroy the Church.

Maybe you need to read about what went on in Ireland for decades, a scandal that broke over the Church and continues to reverberate.

It's almost laughable, to listen to the higher ups try to push the pedophile priest transfer system under the rug. Blame the New York Times for covering the story and tell the few remaining faithful that the reporter has an axe to grind. The Pope didn't know about the abuser at the school for the deaf in the U.S. even if he was in charge of the office that was supposed to investigate and remove offenders. Those leftists, you see, the atheists and the Jews and the Protestants who would tear down the Dome of St. Peter....

How does a man of the cloth admit that his every action was to protect the Catholic Church from bad publicity, rather than protect an innocent child? He accuses his accusers of spreading gossip and misinformation.

Often, the tactic works. When a group of survivors of Ireland's industrial school system staged a protest recently at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin, they were highly criticized for daring to confront the bishop himself. Adults who bear the scars of abuse were heaped with abuse from the blind and faithful followers, who won't hear a word of criticism directed at those who could have stopped that abuse decades ago.

They're only trying to destroy the Church, those dedicated parishioners will say. They take it on faith, the words of the priest in the pulpit who criticizes the words of the criticizer.

Shoot the messenger if you like, but the message remains. A new message is delivered with every attempt to demonize those who speak up, a message that reiterates the absolute power of those in charge.

Rally round the Papal Flag, boys. Circle the wagons. Support your local cardinal.

A few are listening and heeding the word. Most are laughing it off, even as they go to Mass on a Sunday. Then they laugh when the basket is passed, collecting money for Peter's Pence, for the Holy Father's use, snickering as they pass it on empty. They've got their own message, you see, one that won't be covered in the New York Times.

The cover-up has been done to death, and all to the same effect. The believers aren't so believing any more.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

BitTorrent For A Bit More

Once you've signed on for Comcast high speed Internet, you expect to pay a monthly bill and that's the end of it.

Things may soon change.

When Comcast figured out that some of their clients were using BitTorrent to make it easier to download byte-heavy content, they saw a way to increase their profit margins. Why not charge extra for the privilege of being a bandwidth hog?

The case went to court and the end users won, only to lose on appeal. The idea of net neutrality, that anyone who pays the set fee can use as much as they want, is no longer the standard.

Like so many other lawsuits involving the Internet, this one hinges on a technicality. As the law is written, according to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the Feds had no legal grounds on which to slap down Comcast. The law hasn't kept up with the fast pace of electronic evolution and it's fallen far behind.

The solution lies in the halls of Congress, where new law would have to be crafted to permit net neutrality. As you'd expect, the heavy hitters in the Internet provider industry are lobbying heavily to get the legislation worded in their favor. They'd very much like to charge a premium for certain content, and charge more for the heavier users.

Unfortunately, the wheeling and dealing over the health insurance overhaul has left Congress so divided that it's unlikely another piece of legislation will come out of the Senate any time soon. Once President Obama came out on the side of net neutrality, you could bet that the regulatory issues wouldn't be considered for years. Expect Google to donate heavily to Democrats while Comcast and Verizon pour contributions into Republican coffers in the meantime.

Some have suggested that the Feds can twist the language around, give it a tweak, and lump Internet regulations into existing law, but it's not an easy task when commissions are not allowed to make law even if Congress can't get its act together to fix things.

Internet providers keep raising their prices anyway, so it's unlikely that anyone would much notice if they take advantage of the Appeals Court ruling and introduce a new fee schedule. What users will notice is a slow-down in download speed if Comcast decides to charge the provider, a Google or a Yahoo for example, for the privilege of a faster download. And Google doesn't cave in to the blackmail.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Pining For The Fjords

He's not dead, the two women said. He's resting.

He is no more, said the official at John Lennon Airport in Liverpool. He is deceased. He has gone to meet his maker.

He's pining for the fjords, they said. Or perhaps it's the Black Forest Forest he's dreaming of.

If you hadn't propped him up in the wheelchair he'd be pushing up daisies, retorted the official. He is an ex-pensioner.

What had worked so well as a premise in a Hollywood movie didn't play out as expected when a pair of travelers tried to bring a dead man on a plane. The sunglasses didn't fool anyone. Assurances from the two ladies that their companion was asleep flew in the face of the fact that the elderly man was not breathing.

Authorities would like to know how the pair managed to move Grandpa in a taxi from their home to the airport without raising the suspicions of the taxi driver, miscellaneous people standing around at the unloading zone of the airport, and the throngs inside the terminal.

No one asked questions until the women were trying to board the plane to Berlin and someone noticed that the elderly gent was behaving like dead weight rather than a live body.

Everything is so expensive these days, and the airlines aren't so amenable to process changes at no charge. If the old man had a ticket for his return flight to Germany, it made no sense financially not to use that ticket since he had to go back, dead or alive.

Imagine the paperwork and the nightmare involved in reporting his demise. Not that there would be any suspicion attached to the women. The man was 91 years of age, after all, and had enjoyed the blessings of longevity.

Still, there would be delay and then it's three tickets that aren't refundable. Add to that the costs of shipping a body across the English Channel. Processing the request could take who knows how long, and if you're heading back to Germany for a relative's wedding, you wouldn't want to miss it for the sake of some legal mumbo-jumbo.

The simplest solution might have worked, if the dearly departed had looked a bit less moribund. A touch of cosmetics, pass him off as an old queen, and the trio might have arrived in Berlin as planned. Fly the body back home on the cheap, confine all funeral expenses and undertaker's services to German hands, and it's a cost savings all around.

Instead, someone realized that the pensioner had joined the bleedin' choir invisible and the ruse fell apart.

Like so many other cost-saving ventures, this one proved to be a case of false economy. The two women were charged with failing to report a death and they'll have legal fees and court costs on top of the expense of shipping the old man back to Germany.

And all for the sake of not wasting a perfectly good plane ticket.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Pennies On The Eyes Won't Cover The Bill

In ancient times, the dearly departed were packed off to the netherworld with coins on their eyes to pay the cost of the ferry over the river and through the woods to paradise.

Pennies aren't going to be near enough cash, thanks to the latest decision from the wise fools running the European Union.

The Value Added Tax, or VAT, applies to burials as well as the needs of the living.

Any Irish citizen wishing to buy a burial plot from their local county council will have to pay a tax of 13.5 per cent. It's not so cheap to plant Granny in the aul' sod.

The additional income will drop into the Exchequer's grasping fingers, while Irish undertakers pass the added cost along to their customers. A piece of ground that cost E1275 yesterday will run an additional E172 on the first of July, and the funeral directors don't have any interest in cutting their profits by that same amount. As always with a VAT, the customer pays the price.

Opting for cremation won't help because there's a VAT of 13.5% on that as well. Once you've got the ashes of your loved one, you might be more inclined to scatter the remains or dig a discreet hole in the cemetery under the cover of night, to avoid paying out even more for burial.

Little wonder that members of the U.S. Congress are pushing for the Value Added Tax. As a source of revenue, it's hard to beat, seeing as how it's applied to every single thing that a person might have to buy, from the beginning of life to its very end.

The only way to avoid paying is to work through the black market economy, where a willing priest will bless a corner of the back garden and a few like-minded friends will help you dig a deep hole. It's that, or stuff the dearly departed in a large trash bag for a bargain burial in the local landfill. With the high cost of living, a person has to do something to alleviate the high cost of dying.

Friday, April 02, 2010

The End Of Times

Should you be one of the fortunate ones, you'll be playing with you iPad today and won't notice that the Earth has trembled.

Turn the pages of that e-book and marvel at the graphics that resemble a page curling to the side. Touch the screen, open applications, and stay up half the night trying it all out.

Could it be a matter of timing, then? Has the pub industry in Ireland taken advantage of a confluence of events to do what's not been done before?

The pubs are open today. Good Friday. The pubs. Open.

Make no mistake about it. There may be immigrants from other countries now residing in Ireland. There may be Muslims and Jews and a mash-up of Christian sects living there, but it's a Catholic country just the same and a Catholic would never think of taking drink on Good Friday.

Should a Catholic harbor a desire for liquor, the Church saw to it that the thought wouldn't be translated into action. Since 1927, it's been illegal, and pubs have closed their doors on every Good Friday since.

Times are changing, or we're reaching the End of Times.

Tourists looking for a meal were always shocked to discover that they had a difficult time finding a casual place to dine on Good Friday. This year, Dublin pubs plan to open their doors to serve food and non-alcoholic beverages. With fewer tourists, no one wants to frighten them away. Besides, it's only a ban on liquor, not food, and there's a chance to make a little money on the dining end of the business.

Tourists must be served, but rugby trumps all.

Leinster plays Munster today. The pubs in Limerick will be open and the beer will be flowing. There's an exemption in the law for 'special events' outside of Dublin, and if the rugby match isn't special, nothing is.

In the mind of noted publican Charlie Chawke, you can go to church if you like and spend the afternoon in prayer, but if someone wants to sip on a pint and watch rugby instead, why should they be denied? He thinks the law should be changed.

Visitors to Ireland should be encouraged to travel to the west, to enjoy the beauty of Country Limerick. It's the only place on the island to get a drink on a Friday night that happens to be a religious holiday. It's the only place in sync with the rest of the world.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

German Ale For What Ails Us

Belly up to the bar on a Friday afternoon. The week's been murder and you could murder a pint.

Make it a pint of Germany's newest offering. How about a round of Fucking Hell?

The good citizens of Fucking, a town near Salzburg, are not at all amused by the snickers of the English-speaking world. Needless to say, they were resentful of the European Union's need to certify that the beer's label isn't implying anything vulgar. Nor does it insult any particular social or ethnic group, although the people who live there might not agree.

So Fucking Hell doesn't suggest vulgar sex acts or an encouragement to engage in violence. Indeed not.

On further review, the wise men in the Trademarks and Designs Registration Office realized that they couldn't ban the brand since there is a real place named Fucking and it's in Germany which is famous for beer. Just because someone put together the names of two places and created a double entendre can't be considered illegal.

It's only the English speakers who find it hilarious or vile, and that's certainly not the majority of the European Union. So let the Brits and the Irish go snigger in their beer. The French have their fine wines and impeccable manners and they're not going to be roped into the discussion.

That's where the decision currently stands. In all likelihood, a directive will be issued shortly, ordering everyone to use the proper pronunciation. Ask for a "fooking" hell or risk a serious fine.