Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Continued Relevance Of Twain

Life is too short to get in all the reading I've stacked up. Even so, I'm giving it my best shot.

It's Mark Twain on the docket these days.

Who would have expected to find "The Innocents Abroad" to b e so relevant to current events.

News readers describe the governments of Middle East despots as ossified, but it's beyond that. Read Twain and you'll realize that the people he met over 100 years ago have not changed a bit. And Twain believed that they were unchanged since the time of Christ.

There's something to be said for reading the classics. Much of what you read is as informative today as it was then.

Repent At Leisure

The laptop died and I knew I had to replace it. No sense of urgency propelled me.

A netbook was looking like the best choice. The portability of a smaller piece of equipment had some appeal. A netbook might fill the need for computing on the go.

But did I go beyond the research stage?

Did I go look at them? Did I try one to see if I liked the feel of the keyboard?


So now I'm far from the desktop, without proper access to the web, and I'm sorry I didn't buy something before I left on my trip home.

I may now repent at leisure. Without a computer to call my own, I can't be myself.

A visit home is feeling like a chore

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Going Out Of Business

Borders has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

How likely is it that the chain can reorganize and recover? I'd put money on their ultimate demise.

With debts totaling $1.29 billion and assets in the range of $1.28 billion, there's a shortfall that won't easily be made up.

Several publishing houses have already written down Borders' past due account as uncollectable debt. How likely will they be to extend further credit later?

Also hurting Borders' chances is the trend towards on-line shopping, which Amazon mastered to the detriment of all others. The electronic reading device is gaining popularity, and again, Borders was last to the dance and all the partners were taken.

We can expect to see the usual round of store closings as the bookselling chain contracts down to a workable size. Deals will be cut to reduce the debt to pennies on the dollar, to get all those lingering balances off the books, and then what?

Borders can start over, if anyone will ship them product and risk not getting paid again.

In all likelihood, Barnes & Noble will fill the gap that will be created by the chaos that is restructuring. Local independent shops won't see much gain because they're small, without the room to hold as much inventory as B&N.

Amazon might pick up some of the slack, but for those who like to touch the book and read the pages that they, and not Amazon, select, the online option isn't a first choice.

Not enough books are sold to warrant the existence of Amazon, B&N and Borders. It's survival of the fittest, and Borders got old, slow and stodgy.

You don't see any dinosaurs around anymore, do you?

Targeting Louis Sullivan

There was a time before Mies van der Rohe and less is more.

Back in the day of form following function, Louis Sullivan enjoyed a period of fame before falling out of favor.

For a time, when Mies ruled the architectural world, the buildings that Sullivan designed were carelessly torn down, to make room for more minimalist structures that turned out to be cold and soul-less.

The iconic Sullivan building at the corner of State and Madison in Chicago was saved when people realized there were some things worth preserving. Unique styles of architecture that were born out of the ashes of the Chicago fire were deserving of preservation.

But can you picture a big red bulls-eye target somewhere among the cast iron trelliswork?

Target is coming to the city, to open a giant discount shop in what was once Chicago's downtown shopping district.

Nowdays it's more like an open-air discount mall, with all the off-price and slightly irregulars available for cheap purchase.

Since Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. moved out, steps ahead of the department store Grim Reaper, the massive space has stood forlorn, its magnificent facade restored but fronting empty space.

Target has been successful and manages to bring in foot traffic. The warmth of Sullivan's building needs the added warmth of human bodies, utilizing the space, admiring the plaster work at the tops of the support columns and milling about in the way that the architect intended.

Target is better than nothing when you're talking about a shuttered storefront on the busiest corner of a major city.

It is hoped that Target's presence will revitalize State Street and, in the process, generate some sales tax revenue for the city of Chicago.

All good things, to be sure, but Target won't be putting its bright red logo on top of Louis Sullivan's artistry. The building is a landmark, after all, and it will take some creativity on their part to design signage that says "Target" without shouting down a building that says "Prairie School of Architecture."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Father Ted Reincarnated

On the popular BBC comedy Father Ted, the premise turned on Father Ted's supposed embezzling of parish funds which led him to exile in on isolated Craggy Island.

Turns out that Father Ted is alive and well and living in the Chicago area. The Cook County Public Guardian is investigating Father Ted's financial dealings.

Is Father Dougal or Father Jack in the picture this time?

Father Thaddeus Dzieszko did his priest business, visiting the sick and the home-bound. Over the course of his calls on Waleria Krzemien, he ended up as the trustee of her estate, with her home left to him after Ms. Krzemien's death.

There's always a relative waiting in the wings, and Ms. Krzemien has a niece who learned of the situation and filed a complaint.

She's family, after all, and she might have had her eye on the property for a long time.

The public guardian's interest stems from the involvement of the law firm of Przybylo and Kubiatowski, which has engaged in shady deals regarding fleecing the elderly in the past.

Father Ted has stepped down while the Archdiocese conducts a forensic audit. He doesn't believe he did anything wrong, and says he didn't understand the documents he signed. He's relinquished any control he was given over Ms. Krzemien's property.

Is there any parish equivalent to Craggy Island? Father Ted may end up re-assigned if the Chancery Office doesn't agree with his avowals of innocence.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Entering A No-Broadband Zone

The tickets are purchased, the passports are in order. I still need to stop the mail and newspaper delivery, but other than that, I'm ready for the trip home.

My only cost, by and large, is the price of the airfare and I'm not one who needs luxuries. Aer Lingus will do me, assuming of course that there's no industrial action being taken by the flight crew when it's time for me to go.

Once I get to Shannon, it will be broadband silence for the duration. That's the cost of staying with relatives who don't see the need for a computer and therefore are not connected to the world wide web.

It's not all bad. Without the distraction of web surfing, I can work on the manuscript I've been revising. Lucky thing I've reached the point where I require the hard copy to see where scenes break and determine if the transitions are evenly spaced and balanced.

There's mobile phone service, at least, so I can tweet if I'm so inclined, but Auntie expects social interaction with her overseas guests and I shall return to another era, when people sat around at night and chatted about current events or the neighbors.

Only ten days without my computer tether. God in Heaven, how will I survive?

Friday, February 11, 2011

He Who Pays The Piper Calls The Tune

When your state finances are in disarray, businesses located within the state are well aware of the situation. So it does no one any good to demand a new round of taxes on the world's largest purveyor of books.

The State of Texas has learned that lesson first-hand. Books are cheaper on Amazon because the company reaps the benefit of economy of scale. But their product is also cheaper because buyers aren't required to pay sales tax on the purchase. Depending on where one lives, that can be as much as 10% of the sale price, and that's not small beer.

Along comes the State of Texas, budget out of balance. They send a bill to Amazon for unpaid sales taxes, to the tune of $269 million to cover 2005-2009 plus penalties and interest.

Amazon has told Texas to fuck off.

Texas believes that Amazon owes them for sales made in Texas because the firm has a physical presence in the state, in the form of a distribution center. Other states have made the same argument, insisting that an Amazon sales associate is the same as a physical presence, hence Amazon owes back taxes.

Amazon disagrees, since it's engaged in interstate commerce and books shipped out of Texas don't all go to Texas residents. It's a matter of Federal regulation, and not subject to state tax.

Texas sent a bill, and Amazon sent a change of address notice. The Texas facility is going to be closed, and plans to expand the distribution center (and hire another 1000 people) has been axed.

While Texas stands on principle, insisting its position is legal and ethical and fair to the people of Texas, the people of Texas (some of them, at any rate) will be queuing up at the unemployment office. They and their families won't think Governor Rick Perry is such a genius after all, with his attempt to bring in revenue sending a large employer scurrying elsewhere.

Sure it was easy to puff up and talk tough about Amazon, but Texas isn't in a position to call the tune and expect Amazon to contribute to the piper's fee.

It looks more like Texas had a weak poker hand and was bluffing, only to have the bluff called. And the folks who work for Amazon in Texas are made to fold.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nearly Forgotten

In her time, Irish novelist Kate O'Brien caused quite a stir with her writing. So shocking did the authorities find her themes of female sexuality that her books were banned in her homeland.

She is largely forgotten now, with her succes having come when the Irish Free State was newly born. Her books are out of print, but her memory is being celebrated in Limerick this weekend.

Ms. O'Brien is one of Limerick's lights, a skilled artist who worked with words to create images of her time, a time when women were expected to knuckle under to the authority of the Catholic Church. She had the audacity to mock Eamon de Valera when the rest of the nation was faint with adoration for the last man standing at the end of the Easter Rising. To top it all off, she managed to hint at the existence of homosexuality through her prose. No surprise, then, that she eventually emigrated to England in 1965 and never returned to her homeland.

The family home in Limerick is on the market, damaged by fire and put to hard use by drinking parties and junkies. The government has no money to save the building, which may well tumble into ruin.

Kate O'Brien's books, however, will always be there, somewhere, either as a reprint or an e-book or a used book in an antiquarian's shop. In the end, it's the words that make a difference and it's the words that must survive.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Query Season

Joanna Volpe, literary agent at Nancy Coffey's fine establishment, is actively building her client list. She rejected my query.

Bernadette Baker left her own operation and joined forces with Victoria Sanders. She's actively building her client list. She also rejected my query.

Adrainn Ranta of Wolf Literary? Looking for clients, she says, but I haven't heard a word from her since I submitted a query over a month ago. No response means no, I believe.

To me, it also means that the query letter I sweated over for weeks isn't good enough to generate the slightest interest. That's why I've spent another few weeks revising it. The new letter is ready for its test run.

At this rate, I may run out of agents to query before the year is out, but I'll have another manuscript ready by that time and I'll be able to start all over again, with a new list of new agents looking to expand their client lists.

Remarkable. The writing-querying-revising process just runs on endlessly like a river that never runs dry.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Claiming The Inheritance At Death's Door

At the moment, one could say that the Sunday Tribune is, essentially, on life support with limited hope of recovery.

The weekly newspaper won't be printed for the next couple of weeks, and maybe not ever again if a buyer can't be found to resurrect a rag that's gone into receivership.

So the paper's giving up the ghost, you might say. Who claims the departed's effects? Not waiting for a death rattle, the Irish Mail has stepped in and robbed the closet. Friends and family of the gravely ill newspaper are outraged.

This Sunday's edition of the Irish Mail stood out at the newstand because it looked just like the Sunday Tribune in typeface and lay-out. The masthead was swiped when the rest of the family was distracted.

The editors clearly intended to pull the wool over the eyes of the dedicated Tribune reader who tends to grab based on external appearances. Once that person started reading, the reasoning went, they'd be so taken with the stellar quality of the Mail's journalism that they'd be hooked, and continue to purchase the rival paper in the future. It's not as if the Sunday Tribune was there on the stand next to it, now, was it, all upset that the bitch stole its look?

The National Union of Journalists has said their piece. Like any other legatee waiting for their share of the inheritance, they're quite upset that one of the relations has jumped the gun and claimed something that the rest of the family might have wanted to bury with the dear departed. Naturally, the union has hope that someone will step in and revive the journal, and they'd like to keep the same face to present to the buying public. A newspaper's masthead is the face it presents to the public, the recognizable image that's all important.

So was it a cynical ploy on the part of the Irish Mail's editors, or was it a smart move to snap up potential customers before anyone else thought of it?

The Irish Mail says it was only trying to survive by picking off readers who would be looking for something to replace their usual source. There are 161 jobs to be protected, as opposed to the 43 Sunday Tribune employees who are out of work, so what's wrong with a little marketing gimmick?

There's always the question of appearances when it comes to claiming the inheritance. It is rather bad form to help yourself to the personal effects of someone who's not yet breathed their last.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

And You Get A Carrot, And You Get A Carrot

Visitors to Chicago had plenty of options when it came to touring. One of the must-see sites was the Beef House.

Guides conducted tours through Armour's slaughterhouse and people found it fascinating.

Back then, everyone knew where the food on their table came from, and it wasn't packed into shrink-wrapped containers. They marveled at the efficiency of production, as hundred of head of cattle were processed into steaks and roasts.

Fast forward to modern day Chicago. The Union Stockyards are gone and most folks have little or no idea what butchering cattle involves.

God in Heaven! The horror! We must all become vegans. And Oprah Winfrey, who happens to be pushing Kathy Freston's how-to book, has put her staff on a week-long vegan diet.

You get a carrot and you get a carrot and you get a carrot!!!

For anyone with agrarian roots (or relatives who made a living in the meat industry when the Stockyards were churning out America's meat), you shake your head and wonder how we've stumbled into such a dense bubble of unreality.

The animals in Lisa Ling's video tour of a Colorado slaughterhouse are more humanely treated than any steer that trotted into Armour's Beef House. And these are animals we're talking about, not creatures capable of the complex emotions found in homo sapiens.

Animals eat other animals to survive. It's biology. Treating animals like they're Disney characters isn't biology, but a mindset that the rest of the meat-eating world, and those who hunt their food, find laughably pathetic.

If I was stranded on a desert island, I'd rather share the space with a hunter armed with a .410 than a vegan armed with sympathy for the poor little fishies and birdies.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Snow Day Of Historic Proportions

We're snowed in. Snow piled up against the doors. Snow drifted across the driveway. Snow piled up against fences and tumbled into corners.

Someone has to dig the house out. I won't be sitting down with a hot cup of coffee and the manuscript I've been revising. I'll be shoveling.

Not that I need to get out. Well, the road's not plowed so I can't go anyplace if I wanted to, but the point is, there's no place I have to be.

On non-snow days, I'd be at the computer, making up stories.

This being a snow day of historic proportions, I'll be outside in below zero wind chill, my ergonomic shovel in hand.

Explain to me again why we can't just hunker down until spring when all this white stuff will melt.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Check The Facts And Make Things Up

With a flash of inspiration, I launched into a re-write of the last manuscript I finished. Part of the inspiration came from a literary agent's comments on a rejection of a different novel, but all novels need tension to keep the pages turning.

Read anything you have at hand and you'll see that something of interest is ever present. There's often little subplots thrown in, with an issue brought up in Chapter Five but resolved in Chapter Ten, and then leading to a new issue that has you following along to see what happens.

When you're writing historical fiction, you've got the history right there to provide the flow of events. The problem is, real life doesn't always have cliffhangers at the end of every month and the last thing you want is a re-hash that's rather dull and plodding.

Hence, the need to make stuff up. My main character is on trial for murder, and the day-to-day in the courtroom doesn't make for brilliant prose, yet the trial is central to what happens later.

How to make it interesting enough for the reader to get past the middle bits?

That's where I'm getting bogged down. I have to create some conflict, maybe between the protagonist and his devoted wife. The conflict has to fit within the historical context, of course. Women weren't liberated back in the day and a fan of historical fiction could be put off by something so far beyond the realm of possibility as to abandon the novel unfinished.

At the same time, whatever made-up conflict I introduce has to fit into the frame of the story. There's no point in throwing in some action for the sake of action if it makes for a bump in the narrative road.

No one ever said writing novels was easy.