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  1. The NYTBR Version of Fiction
  2. Falling, Falling ...
  3. Elsewhere
  4. The Life-Cycle of High School Reunions
  5. Furniture Frustrations
  6. Crooning
  7. On the Road: Projections

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Friday, December 29, 2006

The NYTBR Version of Fiction
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Steve Weber thinks it's a scandal that the NYTimes Book Review Section doesn't even try to cover self-published books. I do too. I also think that Steve's blog is a must-visit for those interested in self-publishing, and in innovative publishing generally. As for the NYT Book Review Section ... Well, for the last few years I've been happy doing without. No longer professionally obligated to keep up with new books, I've been thrilled to let go of the concern. (God, do I hate "keeping up" with things ... ) The other day, though, I felt a twinge of curiosity and picked up a copy of the NYTBR Section. What kind of impact has Sam Tanenhaus, the current editor, had on the Section? Verdict: Where nonfiction goes, Tanenhaus is doing exactly what he said he'd do when he was appointed to his position in 2004 -- emphasizing newsy nonfiction and opening the pages of the Section to a broader range of points of view. It's crisp and intelligent (if over-earnest) work. Good for Tanenhaus and his staff, about time, and a refreshing pick-me-up for the Section's readers too, I'd imagine. Where fiction goes, the picture isn't nearly so pretty. I give the Section a D-minus. "Staid," "entrenched," and "boring" about sum it up. The Section under Tanenhaus is devoting fewer pages to fiction coverage than it used to -- debatable, of course, whether this is a good or a bad thing. What isn't debatable, as far as I'm concerned, is that those pages are full of the dismal usual: over-serious people carrying on in self-important ways about a bizarrely narrow range of titles. Does Tanenhaus not have the confidence where fiction is concerned that he has where nonfiction goes? Is the "literary" cabal really that hard to break up? (I'd clean house myself.) Or are readers -- horrible thought -- relatively content to see fiction discussed in this dreary, aggrieved, PBS-ish way? (Hey, I once made fun of what I called "The Church of PBS.") Of my many beefs with the way the Section covers fiction, my main one has to do with its attitude towards popular fiction. To say that the Section neglects popular fiction would be to understate matters by approximately a billionfold. As far as the Times Book Review Section goes, the book-fiction that represents probably 99% of what's read in America barely exists. You think I'm kidding? The issue I looked at was the year-ender Best-Of issue. To run the numbers: Of what were proclaimed the year's five best fiction titles, not a single one was an example of popular fiction. Of the four fiction books that were awarded individual reviews in the rest of the issue: zero popular fiction. The big fiction-book review went to a new collection of Alice Munro stories. No complaint there -- I think the world of Alice Munro too. But what were the other fiction books that rated? One is a Very Serious Ambitious First... posted by Michael at December 29, 2006 | perma-link | (34) comments

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Falling, Falling ...
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you ever wondered what it would be like to jump off an orbiting spaceship and plummet to Earth? This mesmerizing, eerie, and beautiful video supplies something as close to an answer as I suspect any of us will ever get. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 28, 2006 | perma-link | (6) comments

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Oslo's rape rate is now six times higher than New York City's. Two out of three people charged with rape are recent immigrants from non-Western backgrounds. * Steve notices that McCain and Kennedy are working furiously to legalize illegals and prevent the construction of the border fence. Our so-called "representatives," eh? * Agnostic takes a look at all the studies and comes to a hard-to-dispute conclusion: "Males are much more likely than females to be interested in geeky hobbies like sci-fi." * Alice is taking it slower (and enjoying it more) these days. * Razib is unrepentant. * An uncoerced decision to refuse crap -- what a lovely thing it is. So why is it such a rare thing? * Emmalina confesses that stoner boyfriends can come up a little short in the hot-lovin' department. * Hey, how about beating someone up, making a video of the incident with your cellphone, and posting the results on MySpace? * Whiskyprajer thinks there can be such a thing as taking Bukowski too seriously. Great sentence: "Young guys and writin' -- where does indulgence end and wisdom begin?" * Steve Kapsinow wonders why the saxophone has become such a potent visual symbol. * Do white people like Obama better than black people do? * This year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award goes to Iain Hollingshead. "I hope to win it every year," said Hollingshead. The Brits really know how to respond to a satirical swipe, don't they? Not with hurt feelings and a trembling lower lip, but with humor and brio. * Today's woman, fully equipped. * Meet Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland, country guitarist extraordinaire and co-composer of "Jingle Bell Rock," the first rock 'n' roll Christmas carol. It doesn't sound as though he has received many royalties for the song, though. (Link thanks to FvB.) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 27, 2006 | perma-link | (11) comments

The Life-Cycle of High School Reunions
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- High school reunions, like their participants, have a life-cycle. And obviously the two are intertwined. Before getting into that and my own reunion experiences and observations, here's some background on my high school -- which wasn't typical. By geographical accident I attended Seattle's Roosevelt High, the school district's elite high in the days before an ill-considered bussing plan was implemented. Even though I lived in a census tract that was utterly average for Seattle, I was thrown in with children of University of Washington professors and the city's business leaders. It was a competitive place scholastically. In my Junior and Senior years Roosevelt cranked out more than 20 Merit Scholarship finalists (and got a mention in Time for it). More than 60 percent of my class went on to four-year colleges -- a high proportion in 1957. There was a good deal of social stratification and cliques abounded. Couple this with the intellectual firepower mentioned above, and the brew could make for interesting reunions. I missed the first Class of '57 reunion -- the 10th-year one -- because I was at Dear Old Penn. But I got of taste of it via a booklet with biographical write-ups submitted by class members. The topic of many of the blurbs was career-building progress -- degrees earned, jobs gotten. Besides that, I suspect that many grads used the evening for padding their Little Black Books. The 20th reunion was more of the same semi-subtle bragging, though with the dating aspect largely missing. Having moved back to Washington state, I was able to attend. What struck me most strongly was the appearance of my classmates. This was in 1977 when the male fashion fad was facial hair in the form of thick moustaches or sideburns of various shapes along with hair that would have been considered grossly long in 1957. Then there were the girls who I remembered wearing modest sweaters and pixie glasses. Twenty years later they had contact lenses and low necklines. (Alas. Had I only known!!) I'll skip over the 25th, 30th, and 40th reunions to focus on the 45th. (Did I forget to mention that my class was a wee bit social?) The trend had been building since the 30th reunion and was clearly in place by the 40th. Career paths were pretty well set, as were family situations as class members aged into their fifties. By the 45th reunion we were in our early sixties, our looks fading or faded, family nests largely emptied, careers ending retirement-by-retirement. At last we could deal with one another as human beings with a largely shared past. Whether one had been a star athlete, top scholar or cheerleader no longer mattered much. Though I can't deny that there's a whiff of schadenfreude when one discovers that a former standout has been cut down to size. Overall, the impression I got from the 45th reunion was one of egalitarian good cheer that was dampened only when we heard... posted by Donald at December 27, 2006 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, December 25, 2006

Furniture Frustrations
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- We wandered through two furniture stores the other evening while waiting to see a movie. I saw almost nothing I considered worth buying. This isn't new. Almost every time I've visited a furniture store in recent years, I've had the same experience. And I find it disturbing. How can I be so far out of touch with the upper-middle class demographic represented by the Henredon (click on Furniture Gallery near the top to see examples) and Thomasville stores at Bellevue, Washington's Lincoln Square center, an extension of the posh Bellevue Square mall in the heart of Microsoft country. Most of the items on display struck me as being either (1) fussy, (2) overblown, (3) too old-fashioned / traditional, (4) too delicate, or (5) uncomfortable. Many pieces score on several of those criteria along with others I didn't think to mention. But the nub is that I really hate fussily over-detailed traditional style furniture, and that's what these stores featured. Well, not quite. The Henredon gallery featured a (who else?) Ralph Lauren collection that really should have been called the "Donald Deskey Memorial Collection" after the noted Moderne designer. I made no effort to determine whether or not Lauren copied actual 1928-35 designs, but the items were certainly in the spirit of those times. Actually, I'm very fond of industrial and interior designs of that era. But I wouldn't buy the stuff -- well, not more than a couple examples, maximum. I fare no better in stores featuring contemporary designs. In October I came across a shop in Palo Alto that was solidly Modern. Many items were Certified Classical Modern carrying little tags or labels indicating that they were a van der Rohe Barcelona Chair or one or another Eames variety. Like Henredon, prices were way, way over my upper limit, instantly killing any possible deal. Plus there were contemporary Modern pieces. And the recent stuff struck me as generally austerely odd, unfriendly and uncomfortable. So what do I like? I prefer furniture that's basically simple and functional in form, yet has enough decoration to attract and hold interest. Craftsman and 1900 secession style items often fill that bill. I also like Scandinavian Modern if it isn't utterly plain. This goes for a lot of the stuff I see in IKEA stores as well as the classic Danish varieties. No doubt there are other kinds of furniture I would like if I knew about them; I have to confess (if it isn't already perfectly obvious) that I haven't paid much attention to furniture design for quite a while. Nevertheless, it bothers me that my taste is so much at odds with today's various markets. Guess I'll just have to wait another 10-15 years till the world comes my way again. Enough about me. What do the Henredon and Thomasville showroom contents offer in the way of Important Cultural-Artistic Insights? I would say they mainly serve as confirmation that, while Modernism has won many battles, it... posted by Donald at December 25, 2006 | perma-link | (10) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Everyone -- I'm dreaming of a Flash-animated Xmas ... Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 25, 2006 | perma-link | (2) comments

Sunday, December 24, 2006

On the Road: Projections
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Since completing our trash novel a couple of years ago, The Wife and I have co-written another novel's worth of fiction. It's a comic-erotic soap opera about Hollywood that we think of as a cross between "Candy" and "The Player." It's funny and sexy; it's full of lively characters and saucey situations; and it's as up-to-the-moment as fiction can be. Not that I'm biased or anything in these judgments, of course ... Will it ever actually be a novel? Maybe, maybe not. Our project has an oddball hybrid nature. It's half prose narrative (ie., meant to be enjoyed as on-the-page writing) and half dramatic storytelling (ie., meant to be performed). This is an approach to fiction that, so far as we know, is all our own. We didn't develop it in order to be innovative, though; we're anything but intellectual avant-gardists. We developed it for practical reasons. Here's the problem / challenge we were facing. We both love audiences, performers, and theater -- yet we both dread the kind of labor, fuss, and expense that goes into creating full-dress conventional theater. We both love reading-and-writing, yet we both despise the typical author-reading. So our goal was to come up with a way of presenting our work that would enable us to enjoy interacting with live audiences, that would cost nothing to produce, and that would nonetheless be a lot more rewarding for audiences than most author-readings are. Our solution was to cook up and write our stories in half-dramatized form -- they're almost like scripts -- and to have actors do the reading and presenting. We're very, very pleased with our approach. Our events are zero-budget and informal; the actors sit on stools with scripts and read. Yet the evenings are also lively and outrageous. They're like high-spirited rough play run-throughs. The actors -- who seem to see our evenings as opportunities to jam like after-hours jazz musicians -- bring a huge amount of zing, talent, and energy to the presentations. And audiences generally seem to go away happy, feeling that they've had a fun, happenin' experience that they couldn't have gotten better from TV. So far, we've done more than 20 of these evenings for the boho set in downtown-NYC venues. I should add that these shows are entirely The Wife's doing. I co-write with her, and god knows that I do my share of wife-maintenance as the performance dates approach. But it's her drive and her work that make the evenings come together. I sometimes joke that she's one-third writer, one-third actress, and one-third impresario. In any case, we're by now both semi-familiar with the putting-on-a-no-budget-show-in-NYC thing. Recently, though, we've begun to present our stories outside of the big city. World domination has yet to be achieved, but we're having a good time. There we are, out on the road. Hello, America! Biggest discovery so far: The rest of America isn't very much like NYC. What has hit me hardest is what... posted by Michael at December 24, 2006 | perma-link | (15) comments