Monday, September 30, 2013

To Remain Relevant, Characters Must Die

Sorry, but Mr. Darcy had to go.

The third installment of the Bridget Jones diary series is due out soon, and it appears that Mr. Darcy is no longer a part of Bridget Jones' life. She is, by all accounts, a widow in her latest incarnation. In Mr. Darcy's place is another man, with another opportunity for sexual tension and conflict to drive the narrative.

Readers may not be aware of it, but writers know that there has to be something going on in to get the reader to turn the page and keep going to the very end. There is conflict, and then there is resolution. The problem with a series lies in maintaining that conflict, and it can be very difficult when a happy ending in the first book leads to a loss of conflict if the relationship were to continue into book three.

Bridget Jones and Mr. Darcy had become a stale, dull, married couple with children. Author Helen Fielding had no place left to go with them.

So Mr. Darcy was off-loaded and Bridget Jones trucked ahead.

Ms. Fielding's fans are up in arms over it. They wanted to read more about the couple in which they'd invested time and effort. To pick up book three and discover that they are no longer a couple? Outrageous.
Helen Fielding goes afield

The author wanted to explore other social issues, and in the case of Mad About The Boy, she tackles the cougar phenomenon. It's perfect for Bridget Jones, of course, because the first book was all about finding the right man. Now the character can go through the same process, but with a slight twist. Ms. Fielding has aged Bridget to fifty years of age, and the character is set to pursuing a man approaching thirty.

Conflict. Sexual tension. There can't be any of that in a story about a happily married couple with children. Some wit, yes, along with some humourous situations, but the plot line had run its course as far as Ms. Fielding could judge.

She's gone not too far afield, in that latest offering explores a topic that is of greater interest to older women. What Ms. Fielding also recognizes is that those who first jumped into the diary of Bridget Jones are now ten years older, and they have different worries than they once did when they were single and looking for love like the title character of Ms. Fielding's novel. Her decision to look at December-May romance fits the demographic.

And since the fictional couple was happily married, how else would Ms. Fielding get rid of Mr. Darcy than by natural death? Divorce would not ring true, and a divorce would spoil the sense that readers developed of a satisfying conclusion to the literary romance. An accident or an unknown heart defect or whatever was required to keep the characters in character, but move the narrative in a new direction.

The possibilities that open up for a widow provide plenty of topics to develop tension and move a narrative. With Mr. Darcy gumming up the works, the narrative couldn't move.

Fans of Bridget Jones are disappointed now, but when book number four comes out, they'll have accepted the loss of Mr. Darcy and moved on. Rather like the Bridget Jones character herself.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

We Are The Lowbrow Nation

The National Endowment for the Arts is alarmed. The United States is become a nation of knuckle-dragging Philistines. Lowbrow, non-intellectual Neanderthals whose minds are going mushy.

We do not read "Literature" any more.

Some of us do, of course. Some of us even write "Literature" and sell it to our fellows in the culturati, but there apparently are fewer of us.

Among adults, the number who read a novel in the past year has dropped from the year before. Only 46.9% of  American adults read a book that they did not have to read for work. That they read for entertainment. Less than half.

The numbers for poetry reading sank as well, and those numbers were already low. Of course, if you compare the poetry of Byron or Keats to the stuff that's being written now, it's understandable. Modern writing just doesn't reach the average person who did not major in English or obtain an MFA from a prestigious institution.

Looks like a work of non-fiction in his hands
People are still reading, but not as much, and not just fiction. Overall, just over half of all adults read something, but that something is increasingly becoming a work of non-fiction. The trend is especially true in men, but there is a tendency among the male of the species to use books as a way to learn something. The average guy is more likely to pick up a manual on plumbing repairs than a novel about family dysfunction because he has a leaking faucet to deal with and a book about heartbreak isn't going to stop that leak.

The NEA, which depends on taxpayer support to keep going, would like to figure out how to make their little bureacracy more relevant so that the taxpayers don't start demanding that their funding gets cut because the NEA is a pure waste of money. But how can some government agency encourage people to read for fun?

Look at the disaster that has been the government's efforts to get kids to eat wholesome foods in their school lunches. Little wonder that the First Lady is veering off onto a new campaign to encourage everyone to drink more water. Whether or not she can convince anyone to do something as easy as that is another matter, and the NEA faces the same difficulty.

How can they make people believe that modern writers are creating works worth reading? With most people totally occupied at earning enough to keep a roof overhead and food on the table, how can the NEA promote an activity that takes up time we don't have?

Not everyone has access to a public library where they can get books for free, either. The cost of a book, even an e-book downloadable to a smart phone, can be prohibitive when more than half the population is scratching for loose change to pay a utility bill. Books become a luxury, like going to see a movie, and Hollywood can tell you that movie attendance is down from where it once was when times were good and money was available.

So, break out, America. Read a novel. Download one or all four of these novels from Newcastlewest Books, and re-discover the cheap vacation that you can enjoy by getting lost in a book about a different time and a different place and a different set of conflicts to be resolved.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Flight Of The Best And Brightest Earls

Emigration has long been a part of Irish life. You could point to the Flight of the Earls, when the great chiefs of Ireland escaped to Spain in 1607, after losing the Battle of Kinsale to the British invaders. The old form of social order, with clans ruled by chiefs, was gone for good and things would never be the same. It would take another four hundred years to get out from under British rule, and even now the English control six of Ireland's counties.

The enormous outflow of people during Black '47 is legendary, and there again, Ireland lost a huge piece of its population. They say the nation has yet to recover, with fewer people on the island today than there were before the potato blight wiped out millions.

Even after the worst of the famine, Irish men and women left their homes for more opportunity and chances for advancement. Many found success in America, and then set about exporting rebellion to aid those they left behind. But they themselves did not go back.

On into the Twentieth Century, there was a continous outflow of those who wanted to achieve but could not get ahead in a backward country. It was the young who left, those with the energy and stamina to endure the difficulties of making a new life in a strange place. Armed with an education, they brought their gifts to other places, like America or Canada or Australia or England, and the investments made by Irish taxpayers were lost, to benefit foreign countries.

A large swath of Ireland's youth emigrated in the 1970s and 1980s, so many of the best and brightest that songwriter Liam Reilly took notice. He wrote a song about it, a song that laments the exodus. The repercussions of that exodus are being felt strongly today, with the parents of the emigrants now too old to care for themselves, and too old to move away to join their children. The nursing homes are forever short of beds, and the government is left to care for them.

History is repeating itself.

A recent study from University College Cork has found that Ireland's best and brightest are on the move yet again,  taking their taxpayer-funded educations and talents with them. Approximately 62% of recent emigrants had a third-level education.

It's the same old story. Young people grow up, work hard in school, and then discover that there is nothing much for doing in their homeland. The jobs aren't there. The opportunity isn't there. They look to the future and see nothing waiting for them.

So they go elsewhere. And once they've settled in to their new home, and started in on raising a family, they don't go back.

The concern lies in the future outlook, one in which there are not enough doctors because they left after they got their medical degrees. There will not be enough skilled tradesmen to build new things because they lit out for Australia and Canada. The same holds true for any other profession, from accountants to bankers. All that will be left are the uneducated, those without drive to improve themselves and so, without the drive to improve their country. Businesses won't locate their international headquarters in a sleepy backwater lacking an educated population to fill jobs, and so Ireland could slide back into poverty.

Another bloody Flight of Earls.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Form Used To Follow Function

The Stock Exchange, before demolition
Once upon a time, Louis Sullivan designed buildings that were unlike anything previously seen.

He was, perhaps, a star architect of his era.

His buildings were constructed from the inside out, to make usable spaces that were also beautiful on the outside. Times and tastes changed, however, and he ended up designing little boxes for banks in small towns in the American middle west.

What did not change was his motto, that form follows function. He thought that buildings should work for those inside, and from there the architect could design a facade that made the structure attractive to those outside.

That was then, in another era, when buildings were decorated with elaborate terra cotta and cast iron motifs that reflected the prairie from which Chicago rose.

Today's starchitects are all about the facade, about making sculptures that attract attention and bring in the commissions from those who would like to put their name on a building that reflects some attention back on them.

The Valencia skyline
As the people of Valencia, Spain, have discovered, Santiago Calatrava is a huge star in his field, but he's not Antonio Gaudi.

Bogged down in debt, the taxpayers of Valencia are asking why their leaders thought it was a good idea to borrow heavily to build Mr. Calatrava's City of the Arts and Science. The project is so far over budget that the budget seems more like a fairy tale than real numbers, and there is no indication that the buildings are going to improve the financial picture of Valencia.

The architect earned a considerable amount of money, as you'd expect. He's a star.

What the people have ended up with are buildings that don't work. The form doesn't allow for the function. It's just a form that doesn't look like anything else that's been done before, but looks aren't everything.

One critic has pointed out that someone earning millions of euro in salary should not have forgotten to include elevators and fire escapes in a science museum. Those are just basic necessities. Even Louis Sullivan managed the elevator business, down to the exquisite doors that fronted them.

Windows leak. Several seats at the opera house are behind pillars, where the lack of a view to the stage would require some pretty steep discounts on the seat price. You don't recoup costs very quickly if you can't charge full price.

It is one thing to create works of art to be admired from many angles. It is quite another to try to cram a building into a work of art and then tell everyone that the structure will work just fine for its intended purpose.

That takes hubris. Which is what you'd expect to find in a star architect who commands millions of euro in commissions.

Form used to follow function. Today's big name architects have forgotten the old lessons in a rush to make something new and make a big name. Unfortunately for the taxpayers paying for the public buildings designed by the starchitects, they need the function more than the form.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Southern Gothic Non-Fiction

To write in the genre known as Southern Gothic, an author must have mastery of a spreadsheet program to keep track of the characters and the twists that the plot takes.

Or, you could try to untangle what is actually happening in a small West Virginia hamlet and go from there.

I just finished reading Julia Keller's A KILLING IN THE HILLS (and posted a review on Goodreads), so the story out of West Virginia drew my attention. In the novel, Ms. Keller's protagonist is a prosecutor in a small burg where the drug trade is destroying the community. It turns out that the drug trade really is destroying a very real community, with fiction mirroring fact.

In the tiny town of  Williamson, the local sheriff was gunned down and it was assumed it was a revenge killing. Eugene Crum had been elected on his strong anti-drug stance and his determination to root out the drug lords. As the coal industry has collapsed in West Virginia, the drug trade has blossomed, taking advantage of the isolation and the lack of jobs. To earn a few dollars, some people are desperate enough to work at any trade, including drug smuggling, if that's what it takes to put food on the table.

The murder of a law enforcement officer while on duty cannot go unpunished or uninvestigated. This particular investigation, however, has taken a most curious turn.

Judge Michael Thornsbury has been arrested on charges of conspiracy involving an affair with his secretary and an attempt to railroad her husband as a way to punish her for breaking off the affair. That, it turns out, is only a small part of the corruption that bubbles through the community.

One thing led to another, and now there are charges lodged against a police officer related to the judge's conspiracy. That, in turn, brought on charges of extortion leveled at a county commissioner, none of it directly related to Mr. Crum's murder.

It gets more murky, however, and this is where Southern Gothic gets dark.

The murdered sheriff was said to be part of the very drug trade he was supposed to be destroying, and Judge Thornsbury was accused of involvement in yet another conspiracy to protect the dead man's reputation when rumours began to swirl. Which begs the question, did Mr. Thornsbury do so out of loyalty to a political supporter, or out of loyalty to a drug kingpin who controls trade in the Williamson area? Or is the judge that kingpin?

After the police arrested a man and charged him with murder, it wasn't long before the accused's father said his boy was mentally challenged. Did he read Julia Keller's novel as well? Because the father then added that his son had been molested in his teens by the sheriff, so there's reason enough to kill a person twenty years later. Nothing to do with the drugs trade, or protecting the privileged few who have run things in the town for decades.

Friends of the sheriff have come to his support, denying the link to illegal prescription drug sales.

The FBI is attempting to untangle the mess, chasing down leads and talking to people who are not likely to give unbiased opinions. After all, the FBI will eventually go home to Washington, D.C., while the citizens of Williamson will be left behind, to face whatever retribution might be handed out by those who mange to cling to power.

If you're looking for a plot line for a murder mystery set in the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains, you need look no further than a real-life case with real people living in a sewer of real corruption. Good luck in keeping track of the disparate threads that run through the plot, leading to dead ends and cul-de-sacs and roundabouts.

But that's what makes Southern Gothic fiction so fascinating to read.

Monday, September 23, 2013

When It's Time To Change Import Policies

The borders are too porous, and that fact was brought home this past weekend in Monaghan. The danger of a certain export filtering across the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland must be addressed immediately.

I speak of the child beauty pageant.

Toddlers and Tiaras, from Texas with love to a populace eager to try anything that smacks of matter how denigrating it might be.
Eight going on eighteen

Universal Royalty Beauty Pageant brought their circus to Castleblayney and moms across Ireland thought that they had their chance at last, to promote their daughter as the next Honey Boo Boo and reap the rewards of all that bad taste. It's understandable, to an extent. The people who settled in the Appalachian region of the United States came from Ulster, so it's almost like their descendants were returning the favor.

Thanks a million, really, but no thanks.

The original venue for the pageant cancelled when they learned exactly what sort of thing the Universal Royalty people were about. Sexualizing young girls, putting them in full make up and big hair, is not generally seen as a desirable activity. Given the history of child sexual abuse in Ireland, making children up to look like grown women has a certain cachet that is not acceptable.

The pageant organizers make money off the contest in the entry fees, only part of which are returned to the participants as prizes for being the most non-child-like in appearance. There is an entire industry devoted to bringing out the inner Lolita in every little girl, and one firm has determined that the market is ripe for development in Ireland, of all places. Sure people aren't running to Mass every Sunday, but they haven't escaped from decades of moral principles that are instilled from birth by mothers who were raised the same way.

Instead of the Bracken Court Hotel in Dublin, the competition was staged in the beer garden of Corrigan's Kitchen in County Monaghan, which seems more appropriate of a venue for an Irish-based festival. That it had to move out of the Republic to find a place to hold the contest may perhaps be a testament to Irish mammies disapproving of such a thing, or there was not a suitable place anywhere else to put on the show.

If they had called it the Lovely Girls Competition, and asked a few local priests to judge the contest, maybe then they wouldn't have made such a fuss at the Bracken Court Hotel. Some things imported direct from the States must be modified to fit the market, which will be devastated if something isn't done to monitor what's coming in from across the Atlantic.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

When You Can't Distinguish Fiction From Non-Fiction

She's a lovely girl, who once had a dream of breaking into fashion modeling. By the way, she is not, in fact, HIV positive. That part is a fiction. The problem is, those who saw this image believed fiction to be real, and so Avril Nolan has taken the photo agency to court.

Ms. Nolan had a portfolio, as would any other young lady trying to land jobs in modeling. She no doubt spent a great deal of money in having that porfolio put together so that it would be professional and display her features in the most attractive way. Now 33, she has moved on in her career and is in the publicity game in New York City. Those two-year-old photos, however, remain with the photo agency like artifacts of another era.

At some point, the agency found an old picture and thought it would work well for an advertising campaign being run by the New York State Division of Human Rights. The government agency is keen to normalize the image of the HIV patient, to show all of New York that such a person is not some drug addict or gay male. No, the HIV positive population includes your average (albeit strikingly pretty) young lady who could be sitting next to you on the bus looking just like anyone you might know. Assuming you know some attractive people.

For her new friends in New York, it must surely have been a startling revelation to see a younger version of their Avril looking back at them from the page of AM New York, touting her HIV positiveness. They'd had no idea of her past, and would it be safe to shake her hand again? What about her boyfriend, can you imagine what he would have thought when presented with this bit of advertising fiction that wasn't clearly labeled as fiction?

According to her lawsuit, Ms. Nolan claims that she never issued any sort of release for the photo, and so the agency licensed it to Getty Images illegally. They had no right to use it for their own purposes without first asking her permission. They certainly had no business profiting off something they did not own, which she owns, and for which she never earned anything but pain and suffering and humiliation.

To make matters worse, she is in publicity and her clients might not have been pleased to discover that their PR person was HIV positive because that doesn't imply the leading of a pure and faultless life. If she wasn't into drugs, then, she must have been into unsafe sex and if she can't be trusted to look after her own health, how can she be trusted to look after someone's account?

It's a straightforward case, in that the original photo agency admits she hadn't signed a release. As for Getty Images, they can't be blamed if they bought a picture on false pretenses, unless they are required to have the model's release in hand when they use a licensed image. In which case, they didn't, and the lawsuit will most likely be settled out of court.

What of the Division of Human Rights in New York that once trumpeted how they are all about protecting the rights of HIV positive people? They may have to go back and re-visit the old advertising campaign, to clearly state the genre in which they're publishing their advert. The cover image is pure fiction. The content is genuine. It's that, or find an equally attractive but genuinely HIV positive model and make the lot a work of non-fiction that doesn't humiliate anyone.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Manuscript In The Attic

Noted scholar and beer summit attendee Henry Louis Gates Jr. ran across an antique manuscript at an auction and decided to buy it. The handwritten pages were, as far as he could judge, a novel that was written in the 1850s by a former slave who had run from her master. Other than that, he knew nothing about the author, but he published her novel as another narrative of African-American history.

Was The Bondwoman's Narrative written by a woman? Without any proof as to the author's real identity, the sheets could have been inked by just about anyone. Was the story based on actual events or was it largely fiction? There again, without an actual person of record, the novel might or might not be authentic. It was published based on certain assumptions that were unproven in 2002.

English professors do more than teach English, and Gregg Hecimovich of Winthrop University turned detective to find out if the purported author, Hannah Crafts, was a real person, a woman, and a slave.

He started with the novel, a semi-autobiographical treatise, and figured out which slave owner and plantation fit the narrative. By combing through documents, wills, and dusty archives, he was able to figure out that there was indeed a slave woman named Hannah Bond who was owned by the Wheeler family of North Carolina.

The pieces fit in as he uncovered more connections between Ms. Bond and the incidents she described from her position as Mrs. Wheeler's maid. The professor was able to trace Ms. Bond's story from the plantation to her escape and sanctuary with the Crafts family in New Jersey. In the anti-slavery North, she was able to find work as a schoolteacher and eventually married, at some point penning her novel and then leaving it tucked into a desk drawer to be discovered by chance and then purchased by someone in a position to have it published.

Scholars are proclaiming the depth of Mr. Hecimovich's research, and how he tried to determine how a slave could have gained enough education to be able to read and write. In addition, Mr. Hecimovich found evidence that Ms. Bond had access to works of literature that were current in her day, including novels by Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters. At a time when it was illegal to educate a slave, Ms. Bond learned, to the point where she was able to teach others.

That it happened, and the novel is proof of her literacy, is a fascinating aspect that was not evident until the author's identity was determined.

With evidence that validates much of the novel, the world as seen by a lady's maid in bondage becomes more real. Mr. Hecimovich will publish his findings, and his book will become a companion piece to Ms. Bond's words, giving them context and adding to the historical record. Until an actual slave woman could be tied to the novel, there was no certainty that the stories told in the book were more than some author's flights of fancy. The research changes all that, over ten years after the novel was first published.

At first, The Bondwoman's Narrative was a novel of questionable origin. Now it is a research document that cannot be excluded by anyone writing about life in the United States in the 1850s. At the time, the issue of slavery was driving politics and the average citizen had an opinion. So must your characters, if your historical novel is to have the necessary degree of realism.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

To Live Like A Guinness

Imagine how much improved your writing would be if you had your pens and reams of paper positioned in the room above. Can you see your laptop propped open on the desk, your notes scattered nearby?

The imagination would flow freely as you placed your characters in an historic setting. Perhaps they would be contemplating rebellion in the American colonies, or the revolution brewing in France. They might be servants from below stairs, secretly sharing their admiration for bold Robert Emmett.

How about a novel set in the era of the Great Famine, in which one of the Protestant Ascendancy is fearing retribution from the starving tenants? Or perhaps you'd examine the conflict between poor Irish Catholics and the wealthy Protestant landlords in 1916, during the Easter Rising and then after, when ethnic cleansing saw the removal of the British aristocracy from Irish soil. And what if one of your wealthy landlords was a Guinness? One of THE Guinnesses who brewed a stout that became iconic, that continued to sell in the poorest places during the hardest of times.

Furness House
If you have upwards of three million euro on hand, you could be doing just that.

Patrick Guinness, a seventh generation Guinness, bought Furness House, the old family pile, some years back, planning to restore it to its former glory. It had fallen on hard times over the years, and there were many years. The original home was built in the 1730s. As you can imagine, there is a lot of upkeep needed in such an ancient building and the place had been let go as the owners found the cost of repair to be prohibitive.

Even Mr. Guinness gave up on the rehab project, and he has decided to try selling the partially renovated abode once again. Opening bids will begin at three million and go from there. 

At that price, it's a relative bargain. You won't find this sort of detailed plasterwork in any modern McMansion, nor will you find a stairway built of Spanish chestnut in a place designed by some starchitect. The grooves worn into the steps cannot be reproduced but must be scuffed in by centuries of feet climbing the stairs, Guinness feet that walked through Ireland's history.

There are other unique features on the grounds as well, including the ruins of a Norman church. What adventures your characters could have in such a setting. How well you could write about them if you were there.

If you have the cash, ring up Richard Doyle at DNG Naas and put in your bid. Then line up your pens or charge your laptop, and get ready to write like you've never written before.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Kids Are On Ice

Technology is outpacing the legal system. The problem for the legal system is that it must respond, and set precedent. It's the last thing the average judge wants to do.

The Illinois Supreme Court is going to hear a case brought by an unmarried couple who are squabbling over possession of their frozen offspring.

So right there you can imagine Judge Judy giving those two an earful for playing house and then coming to the court to solve their problems when there are no laws on the books that can help them.

The case at hand boils down to a child custody issue, except the child isn't born yet. Or even in utero. It's sitting in a tank of liquid nitrogen in a lab, on hold.

If the baby-to-be is defrosted and implanted, and then becomes a live child, the former boyfried becomes a father but he doesn't want to be a father any more. Even though the mom-in-waiting says she won't sue for child support, that baby would link the couple together forever. What if the future mom expects future dad to be involved in baby's life when he wants nothing to do with fatherhood? No surprise that he doesn't want his ex to gain custody of the frozen embryos, out of concern that he won't just be some anonymous sperm donor.

Karla Dunston put off having children until her career was set, but when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma she knew that her fertility was about to disappear in a blast of chemotherapy. She had a boyfriend who wanted to support her emotionally. She knew she could freeze embryos now, undergo chemo, recover from her disease and then have a baby, so it made sense to head to the fertility clinic. Modern science was providing her with a means to achieve her dream of motherhood, in spite of illness.

All well and good, until the relationship soured and Jacob Szafranski didn't want to father a child with her any longer. They weren't together. What was the point?

The point is, Ms. Dunston wants to have a baby and she wants those frozen embryos. Mr. Szafranski claims that allowing the embryos to be implanted is a violation of his rights. It's like he's being forced into fatherhood when he doesn't want to be a father.

The right-to-life crowd will take the side of the frozen embryos and demand that they have legal representation so their chilled voices can be heard. There will be those who insist that the woman has the right to an abortion so she has a right to motherhood as well, if that's her choice. Men's rights groups will scream loudly about making a guy pay for something he didn't sign up for.

Except, you see, Mr. Szafranski did.

It's not as if the folks at the fertility clinic raped him to collect his sperm. He was a willing participant at the time.

What technology has granted him is an opportunity to entertain second thoughts, and his second thoughts have come after the affair ended. There are plenty of men out there who have second thoughts at the same period in the relationship, but the girl is already pregnant and it's too late to turn back. Right now, Ms. Dunston isn't pregnant. Technology allowed her to postpone the normal course of pregnancy.

But there are still three frozen embryos in that cryogenic tank at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Will the judges decide that once the first step is taken, you're in it for the rest of the journey? Or can they issue a decree granting Ms. Dunston's wishes but turning Mr. Szafranski into an anonymous sperm donor, free and clear of all responsibility to his potential offspring? And how can they make their decree binding when all it takes is a phone call from Ms. Dunston to some future Mrs. Szafranski to suggest they get the kids together so the Dunston baby can meet its half-siblings?

Technology runs at a rapid pace while the law plods along on a rutted path. The Illinois Supreme Court judges have a difficult case before them, which means their political clout has a difficult case to influence. Has Mr. Szafranski considered a hefty political donation to Alderman Ed Burke to sway the judges towards his way of thinking? You know, the one whose wife is a Supreme Court judge.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lost Again

Books are expensive and there's a long line ahead of me waiting for new releases at the public library, so I took the plunge. I signed up with Penguin. Gave them my e-mail. Let them send me their adverts and alerts.

Sure there's a sucker born every minute.

Penguin runs a contest every month, in which participants (like me, and there must be thousands of us) can take a chance on winning an advance copy of upcoming releases. The idea is to get reviews out there when the book hits the market officially, with all that pre-release buzz that is generated by influential bloggers and book reviewers.

Clearly I'm not influential. Could that be the issue?

I've been receiving the e-mail offer of entry for several months, and every time I get it I scan the books and read the cover copy. What might I like to read, I ask as I scroll through. No romance. No self-help. Some fiction. Some non-fiction.

And every month I get a response that advises me that I have not won.


But by all means, here's a link to easily buy a copy of the book for yourself! How kind of Penguin, to make things so easy.

How about a little cash to cover the cost of the book, Penguin? I don't have it.

So for all the effort, I get nothing more for free than access to the opening pages. I could review those, I suppose. Let potential buyers know if the book caught my interest or if it seemed like a long slog that they'd be advised not to undertake.

But it's not all that convenient to get to the excerpt. At least St. Martin's Press has the generosity to send me the first twenty pages of their new releases every week, through the Read It First program. They don't apply pressure to buy the book, either.

Will I give up on Penguin? Not yet. There's that element of gambling involved, the thrill that's not unlike buying a lottery ticket and waiting for the numbers to be drawn. You're not likely to win that, either, but it is a little exciting to imagine the possibilities.

This month, I lost the Penguin book give-away contest again.

Next month, I'll try again.

If, by some miracle, I remember the titles of the books I requested but didn't win when they finally come around to the shelf at the library, I might read them. And review them. But by that time, it will be old news.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Third Rail

Politicians and pundits often refer to some sensitive issue as being the third rail of "insert area needing solution here". Most people these days are too busy to listen to politicians and pundits dissect the difficult problems of the day, so of course they have no idea what a third rail is, let alone why it's deadly.
Third rail with contact shoe

Because people aren't listening to politicians and pundits, and they don't know about third rails, they're dying.

What other explanation can there be for the Chicago Transit Authority's new marketing campaign?

The CTA is noticing an uptick in third rail-related deaths, so it's clear that the average train rider doesn't know about the third rail and why you shouldn't touch it. The signs posted along the tracks aren't doing the the trick, and so something more must be done to make people aware of the rail that provides the electricity that makes the trains go.

A new campaign has been launched to tell people to stay off the tracks, which you'd think was common sense, given that the third rail carries 600 volts of electricity which is more than enough to electrocute anyone who comes in contact.

The posters that will soon appear in Chicago area train stations are there to remind commuters that if they drop their cell phone on the tracks, consider it lost because if you jump down on the tracks to pick it up, you'll die. There is no poster down there on the actual third rail that warns you, right at the spot of possible contact, that you are well within range of 600 volts, so there will be no explicit warning about the rail itself. The poster is where it is to discourage people from going down to track level in the first place, so they don't actually have to encounter the third rail.

How much good the posters will do to advise those who are too drunk to see straight is a problem that won't be solved by slapping colorful pieces of paper on a wall. It's often the inebriated who can't stand up without wobbling who tend to tumble off the platform, and because they are impaired, are most likely to flail around until they hit the third rail and fry their personal electrical system.

What about the distracted ones who find themselves on the wrong platform and make a dash across the tracks to get to the opposite side by crossing the tracks instead of using the overhead crosswalk? If they are in such a rush, they aren't likely to peruse the warning posters before climbing off the platform and picking their way across the ties.

The better solution is to instruct the children in the time-honored manner in which they were once taught to respect the third rail. Every mother in Chicago and the surrouding suburbs should bring the kids to an 'El' platform and point to the third rail, adopt an ominous tone, and assure the little ones that if they touch that thing they'll die immediately. Then repeat the warnings on a regular basis until the lesson becomes ingrained and a new generation knows about the third rail.

That's easier than trying to reach busy adults who don't listen to politicians and pundits so they never stop to ask what the third rail is and why it is so untouchable.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Brief History of the Financial Collapse

In today's Irish Times you'll find an intriguing article that dissects the cause of the recent financial panic that has landed us in the spot we're in today. That is, skint.

Written so that non-financiers can understand the complex deals, the article is fascinating and informative. And more than a little depressing, in that risky behavior that was seen as reckless on the heels of the Depression in the 1930s was allowed to flourish, as if a market collapse couldn't happen again. The story focuses largely on Lehmann Brothers, which went bankrupt and exposed the rotten core that was propping up the property market.

You may not look at financial matters the same way again, when you see how large sums of money made sensible people a bit mad.

The link is below. Go on and read it. Be informed.

Origins of the Great Recession - Economic News | Ireland & World Economy Headlines |The Irish Times - Thu, Sep 12, 2013

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Feminization Of Men

It isn't the beer, gentlemen
It's true, what they say about America becoming feminized. Scientists have discovered the cause.

First, you have to keep in mind that the baby boom generation is well into middle age, and they represent a big portion of the population. They've influenced society since the day they were born, if only because there are so many of them, and it stands to reason that they will continue to exert a strong effect on society until they've all died off.

Yes, we are a wussified country. There is a legitimate reason, one with endocrinological origins that, to date, has no cure.

I am talking about estrogen.

It's the hormone that women have in abundance, until they reach menopause with its hot flashes and night sweats, weight gain and stray hairs sprouting on the chin. So far, scientists have focused their attention on estrogen as it relates to female health. Who would have guessed that a hormone associated with women would be a factor in male aging as well?

The study is new and there is much to be learned, but scientists have found that men produce estrogen and it has a profound influence on their aging bodies. Like a pubescent girl, they add fat but it doesn't create a shapely figure like it does in women. No, it lands in the gut where a guy will blame his beer drinking or lack of exercise when it's his body turning him into a semi-female.

So you have all these aging baby boomer men, and even though their levels of estrogen are declining, they are cranking out estrogen at higher levels than their female counterparts. It can only mean that the guys are getting feminized, the guys who are more likely to be involved in politics or vote. And it isn't just that their muscles get smaller and weaker, like a woman's muscles. Estrogen works on the brain as well, to screw up libido and chickify male thought.

When men think more like women, they're more inclined to talk out conflict rather than engage in a fight to settle differences. They're far more likely to see football as too violent, and call for more safety measures that make the game....less dangerous.

All this time, scientists were looking at declining testosterone levels in aging males, thinking that they had identified the source of the problem. Thousands of men are taking supplements to boost their testosterone, but it turns out that their estrogen levels are largely at fault, in ways not fully understood.

You know what that means, of course. Those ads for Low-T are going to start putting fears of Low-E into a guy's head, and men will become so terrified of turning into women that they'll flock to their doctors for prescriptions.

Then they'll watch football and cheer for the most violent hits and mock those who want changes to helmets to reduce concussions. In which case, you'd want to buy stock in whatever pharmaceutical company that is selling the cure for a disease that isn't actually disease, but a process of natural aging.

Because we can't sit idly by and watch our nation turn into a country of wimps and girly-men.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Romeo And Juliet Were Only Kids

At some point when you're studying Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, someone will inform you that Juliet was all of fourteen. They were a couple of kids, back in the day when marriages were arranged early because people tended not to live long. If a family was to keep itself going, the parents had to move on the engagement.

With modern life spans extending easily into the eighty-year range, we see fourteen-year-olds as children. They are far from mature, and certainly not grown up enough to deal with serious relationships.

A little dumb, as well, at that age. With a tendency to act on impulse, without thinking.

And so we have the story of a real-life Romeo and Juliet, a pair of fourteen-year-old kids who were in love, or so they thought, and they were stuck with parents who were trying to keep them apart.

If Shakespeare's Romeo had a car, there's no telling where the story might have gone. The tale of Braxton Wood and Jayden Thomas played out as that original might have, but for the lack of easy transportation.

And yes, you do have to be sixteen to drive but when a kid is breaking the law, well, what's one more violation?

Mr. Wood took his parent's car and spirited his beloved Jayden away, from their home in Michigan to the nearest big city. Which would be Chicago. Once they had gotten away from those who sought to separate them, they discovered that they needed more of a plan than just getting away. Money would have been useful. Very useful.

Once the pair reached Chicago, they had no money and no place to go. They lived in the car, which provided shelter, but lacked amenities like indoor plumbing and bathing facilities. If they knew the city better, they might have been able to drive to a location near a beach house with showers, but alas there's that financial issue again. And there was always the risk that some policeman would see Braxton driving and wonder if the kid was old enough to drive and pull him over and there goes the whole escape plan.

A local man spotted the kids in the car after seeing a story about them on the local news, and recognized their faces. He called authorities, and you can bet that the star-crossed lovers were glad to be found. No one can live on love alone. The occasional Happy Meal goes a long way to keeping the flame alive.

They are back home in Michigan again, to face the parents who wanted to cool the romance.

Will their adventure bring them closer together? Or will they now drift apart?

There's your writing prompt for the week. You could make an interesting bit of YA fiction about a couple of kids who think they're madly in love forever and forever. You, as an adult, have a pretty good idea of how these things usually end up. Or how you would like other kids to think they'll turn out. Parents always appreciate a little outside help when they're dealing with teens whose brains aren't developed enough to understand all the consequences of a given action. Like running away without knowing where to go or how to support yourself.

Monday, September 09, 2013

An Appeal To County Pride, or, There Is A Sucker Born Every Minute

If a bank robber robs banks because that is where the money is, then it stands to reason that a scammer would scam ex-pats in America because the money surely is not in Ireland these days.

Is this Mayo's year?
With that in mind, a clever Irishman launched a scam that trades on the pride of Mayo men and women in the U.S. For the first time in generations, there is a good chance that Mayo could take the Sam Maguire and the excitement has rendered many of them senseless. After so many years, it stands to reason that enthusiasm and hope would beat out cynicism and common sense.

The scammer has been ringing up Mayo supporters in several American cities with large Irish populations. These hard working immigrants who have done well in their own businesses are being offered an opportunity to advertise their business on a sports-themed website. The victims have been told that their money is going to support the Gaelic football team. When it's your home town lads, you're more likely to open your wallet without giving it another thought, and that is what the scammer has been counting on, with some success.
Monument to the Famine victims

There isn't much in Mayo, which can boast of the monument to the Famine immigrants who perished on coffin ships as they sailed away from their blighted land. It's not a wealthy county, by any means, and its local GAA football team hasn't done much to make the residents brag about their athletic prowess. That this year could be the year has some so enthralled that they are eager to help out in the only way they can if they can't be at Croke Park to cheer on the team. Instead of buying a ticket, a fan might reason, the money could be donated to help the team with all the expenses that come with travel to a distant place like Dublin.

There is no money going to the Mayo team. It's all going to the man who created the fraud. By most accounts, he's met with some success, while the businessmen who fell for his sales pitch are out of pocket.

So if someone calls to ask for donations for whatever GAA team you might be supporting from abroad, just hang up.

Unless you wish to be one of those suckers who is born every minute.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

That Was Then, Now It's Closing

We all mourn the demise of an independent book shop, knowing that some community is losing an element that makes the place more civilized. Every time a store closes, someone mentions Amazon and its power to set prices, not pay local taxes because it does not exist anywhere, and generally crush the competition.

Sometimes, however, a shop goes out of business because times have changed while the store has not.

Such is the case of Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is one of the oldest bookstores serving the gay community (which includes all sub-genres of homosexuality such as lesbians, bisexuals, transgender et al.), but that is the problem. The community once served is not as marginalized as it was when the shop relocated in 1976. Almost forty years later, it is slated to close.

Relative to the over-all book-buying public of Philadelphia, the place was serving a small community. The niche market was large enough to support the shop when that was all there was, but when other options came available, the business went into a decline.

Owner Ed Hermance has waxed nostalgic over the heady days when the AIDS epidemic was first recognized, a time when causes and cures were largely unknown and rumour was substituted for knowledge. His shop served a critical function back then, by providing literature and information that was factual. No one else bothered with it because it was relevant to a community that was under-served, except by Mr. Hermance.

These days, information about AIDS is available online, direct from multiple sources.

The niche book seller lost a piece of his niche, but had nothing else with which to fill the gap.

The niche is not hunkered down trying to hide in the shadows, either. People have more support in the community at large than they once did, and coming out to your friends does not require a poetry reading at an indie bookshop that caters to a specific subset of the population.

Giovanni's Room once served a purpose, but the purpose has been lost to a changing attitude that has seen openly gay politicians win public office while their constituents yawn at the announcement of sexual orientation. Grand, so, but can you get the trash picked up and lower our taxes and bring jobs to the place? is what matters to voters these days.

It is always sad to see a small shop close up, no longer there to provide the personal service or recommendations that make a local book store such a pleasure, in a way that Amazon can never match. But in a way, it is a victory for acceptance of a small population that was once on the fringes of society. The need for a shop catering specifically to gay people, where they can feel comfortable, is no longer as necessary as it was in 1973.

That's progress. It's a good thing, in one way. Acceptance has made Giovanni's Room redundant, with the niche it once filled no longer existing in a size large enough to support an entire bookstore. For those who enjoyed the store and considered it their local shop, where they knew people and could find friendly faces when they walked through the door, it isn't such a great day at all.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

A Fallen Giant

Algona's jewel box
Louis Sullivan was one of the greatest architects of the modern world, but like many giants in his field, he fell and he fell hard.

Nothing brings that home more than the recently completed restoration of this little box in Algona, Iowa, one of the last buildings that Mr. Sullivan designed before he died penniless.

The father of the skyscraper was reduced to designing tiny buildings in remote Iowa towns, so far had he fallen from public favor and acclaim. The exquisite ornamentation for which he was famous had passed out of style, perhaps helped along by the Prairie School designs of former Sullivan pupil Frank Lloyd Wright.
Chicago's Auditorium Building

In 1913, when the loan and realty office was erected in Algona, the public wanted simplicity and Louis Sullivan gave them what they wanted, using simpler decorations and stained glass windows to create a structure that was suited to its purpose but a feast for the eyes. Not many people would have seen the building when it was first opened. Algona was a remote little town, far from the glory of a big city like Chicago.

Iowa has its share of other late Sullivan buildings which are called "jewel boxes" for their small size and beauty. By the time Louis Sullivan was drawing out the plans for these gems, he was lost in an alocholic haze.

Did he fall because he was addicted to booze or did he become addicted to booze as a way to numb the pain of rejection as he fell?

Imagine a man with such talent and insight, with a strong vision of how buildings should look. He believed in a certain relationship between the people served by his buildings and the appearance of the facades. Ornament was part of that relationship, but the general public turned its back on his form of ornamentation.

When the 1893 World's Fair was in its planning stages, Louis Sullivan had strong opinions on what the place should look like, a showcase of American architecture of which he was, at the time, a leader. Instead, the world was given Greek Revival and buildings meant to look like ancient temples. The architect's frustration must have been immense, but was that because he was already turning to liquor and so his bitterness exploded?

Louis Sullivan was a complex man, at once a genius and troubled. He would make a perfect character for an historical novel set in Chicago, a man at the top of his game but not aware that he is about to fall off a cliff of his own, or perhaps his rivals', making.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Bundling: The Sharing Of A Bed By An Unmarried Couple, and Google's New Marketing Gimmick

Naturally, I'm going with the old concept of bundling because I'm a publisher of historical fiction and I'm more likely to run across characters who bundle than a publisher who sticks to modern commercial fiction.

Yet it is appropriate to look at the archaic definition of bundling to get a sense of what Amazon plans to do in October when they start bundling.

Amazon will let those who buy hard copies of books purchase the digital version of the same book at a steep discount.

Sort of like getting to share a bed with the one you love, but there's a board between you that's meant to keep you separate. What good is the bed, in that case, if you can't use it to its fullest? You have to roll over the board when the parents aren't looking, or listening, if you're to get anywhere.

By the same token, Amazon is going to take advantage of the absence of the now illegal agency pricing model. Before, the publishers set the prices of their e-books and screamed mightily when Amazon wanted to peg them all to a $9.99 point. Now, Amazon can dictate harsher terms to the publishers who don't have a lot of leverage against the biggest purveyor of e-books around.

Amazon is proclaiming the new bundling option as a way to increase market share, but how many people are going to buy a hard copy and an e-book of the same book? Do you really need two books?

The e-book is still cheaper than the paper book, so if you're looking to save a little money, you'd go with the e-book and realize that you're still better off than if you bought two versions of the same words.

How many people are so avid in their reading that they'd want to be able to pick up where they left off without having to haul the book around? Are these the same sorts of bibliophiles who like to have the real thing to put on a shelf in the library of their spacious flats, but prefer the convenience of the e-reader as they jet around Europe? There can't be that many of them, or at least not enough to make a big uptick in sales.

Newcastlewest Books is joining in the experiment which we don't expect will go anywhere for those of us who publish on a small scale and see the preponderance of our sales in digital. But just the same, here's the plug. Buy a hard copy of THE KING OF THE IRISH in October from Amazon and get the digital version for $1.99.

Go ahead and bundle.

Back in the day, those boards didn't keep man and woman apart anyway. Bundling hard copies and e-versions doesn't seem to be any more effective at doing what it's advertised to do.

To Encourage Student Interest In Trinity College Dublin

Universities these days are competing for the best and the brightest. Which leads the administration to wonder what sort of amenities might attract that highly desirable student population.

Trinity College Dublin has found an answer, and it's a wonder some other prestigious institution of higher learning didn't think of it already. Or have the courage, after thinking of it, to put the plan into motion.

Trinity College Dublin
Any college would provide a shop, or a few shops, on campus to provide for the basic needs of the students. The scholars need their bags of crisps and hot tea to go. They would not consider a school that did not offer them an on-campus site so that they could easily grab a few groceries or a box of laundry soap. It's all about convenience for the students, whose schedules are tight.

But would any other school include an off-license establishment where the hard-working pupils could purchase the fuel that keeps your average student going? Where else are you going to buy alcohol on campus, without having to hunt out a supplier? How grand is that, to buy your beer and not have to lug it for miles through the streets of Dublin?

Local residents are outraged at the prospect of making it easier for college students to drink, what with the amount of drinking that's already going on. In some minds, putting the typical, which is to say interested in consuming adult beverages, in such close proximity to a source of alcohol would only exacerbate the problem. At least that is the tack taken by those who are dead set against the off-license. It's as if the university is condoning the sort of anti-social behavior that is associated with drunken TCD-ites, with all their public urination and vomiting and general rudeness. Let them go over to the nearest Spar and at least have to walk off some of their excessive intake in the coming and going.

All the complaints went for naught as An Bord Pleanala upheald the decision of the city council. Chances are, more than a few of the board members have fond memories of their younger days, when they could only dream of having an off-license so close at hand. And then there might be one or two who would rather the students stayed on campus and kept their anti-social behavior there instead of spreading it over the local streets.

Looking to further your education, and prepare yourself for the future? Of course you are. But now you can do it in an atmosphere of absolute convenience for you, the student of Trinity College Dublin. TCD is looking out for you. Where else are you going to find that level of care and concern? Why are you wasting your time filling out applications for other schools?

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

I'm Rich

It pays to read. In a way. Not that it's a lucrative activity, but when you add up all the e-books and divide byseventy-three cents and, well, actually, I'm not rich. I don't fit the class for which a settlement has been reached.

American readers who bought e-books for their Kindle from Amazon have been notified that they are in line for refunds from certain publishers, such as Hachette or Penguin. The publishers are being punished for going along with the agency model that was put into place when Apple was getting ready to open the iBookstore, an arrangement that the U.S. court decided was in violation of anti-trust legislation.

So you, the lucky Amazon Kindle book purchaser, will get a reward for the suffering that you endured because Apple and the major publishing houses tried to set e-book prices, sometimes lower than the price set by Amazon.

How will you spend your windfall?

You have few options. In fact, you have a single option.

The amount that the court decreed was a just punishment to the publishers will appear as a credit on your account when next you buy from Amazon.

Who is being punished?

The agency model was designed to counter Amazon's attempt to monopolize the e-book market, and the behemoth stands to gain as the publishers pay the price of collusion. Book buyers get nothing if they do not buy from Amazon, but if you're disgusted with Amazon, you have no choice but to forgo the bonus or swallow your pride and boost Amazon's bottom line.

Maybe you'd rather have a cheque to use as you'd like, but that is not the court's decision. Instead, Amazon stands to gain even more. Why buy the latest best-seller from some other source when you're going to get the book cheaper at Amazon by cashing in your credit?

It doesn't make sense, does it? But that's how these settlements often work out.

If you're determined to use the credit because who can pass up free money these days, why not use it for some fine Irish historical fiction? There are no less than four novels that are well worth reading, and you can easily download them to your Kindle from the Smashwords website. If Amazon is going to get rich, at least you can get richer through fiction that is both enlightening and intriguing.