Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Whom does it Serve?

Laws mandating universal public education were intended to fit citizens with minimal skills for surviving in a democratic society—reading, math, history (at least a version of the myth that suited the needs of citizenship) and penmanship. Other things were taught because they were thought to be good for character. Universal education wasn’t an end in itself. It wasn’t organized or unionized. It used to work pretty well. Most people learned enough to get their news from periodicals and to communicate by mail. Folks could manage their cash. Clerks could make change.

When my son graduated from high school (one of the state’s best, academically) he observed that “The purpose of high school is to teach people to show up regularly and on time, and to follow stupid orders without question; to be obedient citizens” (james) At that time, people were getting their news from TV, communicating mostly by phone. Cash registers told clerks what change to return. Libraries were renting videos as well as lending books.

Today. Many people brag that they never read books. We get our entertainment—and a great deal of the information we trust for making decisions--from the internet or TV. When the power goes out, we hope somebody’s got a Palm Pilot or a calculator with live batteries.

So what? Everybody does have a calculator, a computer, and a car with GPS. Everyone has a word processing program with spell checking and grammar review. Who really needs to read, or to understand arithmetic? Who needs to tell north, south, east or west by the sun or pole star? We’ve got street signs and auto compasses and MapQuest. Who needs to decipher a bus schedule? Don’t they have signs at the stops that announce when the next bus is coming? As well as what time it is? And what day of the week? Isn’t education the ability to pass tests and get into college so you can make a good living? Why do we need to bother with more than that?

Because what reading and writing and math and geography and history do is train your brain. Chess and calculus and art and music and sports (if you play, not just watch) and probably anything else you study and practice and get enthusiastic about is good for your mind.

Because E. M. Forster was a prophet for our time when he wrote “The Machine Stops.” (If you don’t know what I mean by that, read the story.)

Because Sydney J Harris was absolutely correct: “The purpose of a liberal education is to make your head a pleasant place in which to spend your leisure.”

Many schools aren’t even performing the minimal function of teaching people to show up and follow directions, much less to think logically enough to make life altering decisions, or to be decent citizens. John Stossel’s expose, "Stupid in America," puts blame on teachers’ contracts that make it all but impossible to fire incompetents, and on public school monopolies. Other critics of American education cite Federal interference, especially the No Child Left Behind Act, or parental indifference, or lack of funds.

I think those are just symptoms. The real disease is misunderstanding. Too few people get that education isn’t the process of filling children’s heads with the correct set of facts to pass tests, or “win” entry into “good” colleges, or ace job interviews. Real education is acquisition of the skills necessary to satisfy the curiosity every child is born with, acquisition of those skills without destroying joy or enthusiasm. Real education teaches people to think critically (which may be terrifying to politicians) not just to be critical. Real education serves the needs of the educated—once you know how to learn, you can find out anything (and you won’t “buy” everything presented as “real”) Once you get hooked on reading—or music or art—you can amuse yourself for a lifetime. Or entertain others.

Sean Connery delivers a great line in the movie, Rising Sun: “In Japan, when something is broken, they fix it. In America, they fix the blame.” I don’t know about the accuracy of the first part of that statement, but the second part is dead on. What we really need to fix is our notion about what education is. And whom it should serve.

Monday, September 25, 2006

I Read Banned Books

By Sean Chercover

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

I don’t want to get on a soapbox here. Really, I don't. But as America threatens to descend into Theocrazy (get it? "Theocrazy." Ha!), perhaps we should pause long enough to celebrate Banned Books Week.

Sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, and a handful of other fine organizations (and endorsed by the Library of Congress), Banned Books Week attempts to draw our attention to an ongoing threat to our intellectual freedom.

The thing is, thousands of groups of our fellow citizens have appointed themselves as America’s moral guardians. These groups want to protect the rest of us from ideas that they have deemed Evil.

As you might expect, these Evil Ideas are found in Very Dangerous Books. And our self-appointed moral guardians want to protect us by having these Dangerous Books banned from public libraries and school libraries. And the really frightening thing is, their efforts occasionally meet with success.

Here are a few titles, from the top-100 challenged books (1990-2000):

To Kill A Mockingbird
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Of Mice And Men
The Catcher In The Rye
In The Night Kitchen (Seriously, I kid you not.)
The Color Purple
Brave New World
The Outsiders
James And The Giant Peach
Ordinary People
Native Son
Lord of The Flies
Song Of Solomon
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

. . .and so on.

It may seem odd to “celebrate” Banned Books Week, but the idea is to celebrate the books, not the idiots who would like to revoke the First Amendment.

So please follow the links in this post, and read Banned Books Week section of the ALA website.

And unless you have something better planned this week, (like, say, burning a witch, or using the constitution for toilet paper) please consider stopping by your local library and checking out a couple of the books on the list.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cover Me

-Marcus Sakey

I have a confession. I judge books by their covers. All the time.

Life’s short, and there are a lotta books out there. I average about two a week, and I’m 32 years old. That means statistically, I’ve got about 4500 more books before my library card is permanently revoked. 4500. That’s all. But according to MJ Rose, a woman who’d know, there were about 175,000 books published last year.

So weaning isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity. And one of the first methods of weaning, like it or not, is the cover. A cover conveys a lot of information: genre, mood, sophistication, audience, even publisher enthusiasm can all be read in a quick glance at a cover. Plus, the right cover jumps out at you, leaps off the table like it’s got springs and says, “Take me home, pour a drink, and settle in for the night.”

All of which is on my mind because my cover is now finished.

It’s seemed like a long wait. Not because the folks at Minotaur took a particularly long time, but rather because, well, I have this thing about immediate gratification, and I signed my contract last October. Plus, in a former life I used to own a graphic design shop, so I’m particular about things like Swiss grids and kerning and negative space, especially as they apply to the cover of my debut novel. So while my editor was very patient, I suspect I drove him a little loco.

Anyway, one Monday about a month ago, he called to say he’d FedExed a comp, and that I’d have it on Wednesday. Two days from then.

He’s got a mean streak for being such a nice guy.

When the package finally arrived, I had to take a deep breath before I opened it. Part of me wanted something clean and cutting edge, like the cover of ID Magazine or the sexiest of the literary quarterlies. Part of me wanted it dark and moody, so gritty you came away with dirt under your fingernails just from picking it up.

But the truth was, I really had no idea what would work, what would make my book stand out or sell more copies. Jacket design is a subtle, complicated art. So I tried to just clear my head and look at it without preconception.

Which is the best way to fall in love.

Here it is, my friends, the approved cover of THE BLADE ITSELF, coming this January:

Any thoughts? I'd love to hear 'em. Drop a comment for me.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Gun Range

(Or what’s a knee-jerk liberal doing in a place like this? )

by Libby Hellmann

I wasn’t brought up around guns. Except for the Lone Ranger cap pistol that belonged to my brother, no one in my house had a gun (although I loved how the caps exploded).
I went through the ‘60s thinking the barrel of a rifle was something you stuck flowers down. I did and still do believe the homicide rate would be much lower with strong hand-gun laws. I was pretty much your guns-are-for-boors, the-NRA-is-all-wrong kind of gal.

Then I started writing crime fiction.

It began innocently enough – brainstorming how to kill someone in a book. I began a flirtation with poisons, and for a while, explored all kinds of natural substances, chemicals, and biological agents. Then I moved on to knives and other sharp objects. The old icicle trick was especially clever, I thought. You know, the one where you kill someone with a sharp icicle, then watch the evidence melt.

However, as my knowledge of my craft grew, I began to realize that the method of killing wasn’t nearly as important as the reason why. That murder, as heinous as it is, is simply a vehicle to explore the “seamy underbelly” (thanks, Barb) of human character and motivation. With that in mind, a gun is the most efficient, quickest way to dispatch someone. (Btw, I hope those of you reading this understand we’re talking hypothetically here. Really.)

In time, I came to adopt the “Indiana Jones school of weaponry.” Remember when Harrison Ford -- I think it was in Temple of Doom -- was confronted by a man gesturing and writhing in a complicated dance, encouraging a snake to uncoil and strike Indy? Our hero shrugs, rolls his eyes, pulls out his gun, (a 45 wasn’t it?) and neatly shoots the guy. And his snake. Well, that’s my attitude. When it’s time to get rid of someone in my books, just pull the damn thing out and do it.

Sounds simple, right? Wrong. There are still a multitude of choices to make. What kind of gun should be used? A snub-nose 22? A 38-special, a 9 millimeter, a 45? A pistol or revolver? And what brand? A Sig (my personal favorite), a Baretta, Glock, or Smith and Wesson? And what ammo works with each? To be authentic, I had to find out.

Which brings us to the gun range. I went for the first time about 7 years ago when our Sisters in Crime chapter organized an outing. We spent the first hour learning about gun safety. Then we shot a bunch of rounds.

The feeling was, in a word, exhilarating! I loved loading the ammo into the cylinder of a revolver. I loved feeling the weight of the weapon in my hand. I loved slapping the magazine into an automatic and feeling the satisfying click. I loved pulling the slide back and having to sight carefully. I loved the muzzle flash, the smell of cordite. I even loved the recoil.

Most of all, I loved the holes I made on the target. It turned out I wasn’t a bad shot-- something apparently stuck from all those years of archery. Even when the target was moved back, I consistently hit the kill spots. Hitting the target was incredibly empowering, especially since it’s not as easy as it looks on TV. I was proud of myself.

Since then, I’ve gone to the gun range about once a year, most recently during Thrillerfest when I shot an M-16 and a 20 gauge shotgun. I loved them both, even though the recoil on the shotgun almost dislocated my shoulder. I wish I could say that I learned to shoot for self-defense, or hunting, or some other socially acceptable reason, but that wasn’t the case. I still remember how a particularly good shot sent a ripple of pleasure through me. For me, shooting is, well, fun.

At the same time, there’s no way I want a gun in my home. It would be too easy to use. The truth is, despite the high of shooting, I don’t want to be too comfortable around guns. I don’t want to lose that sense of fear when the safety is off. I don’t want the responsibility. Shooting at the gun range under tightly controlled conditions is very different than shooting on the street. And though over twelve million women in the country own guns for protection, I don’t think I’ll be one of them. I still believe in gun control.

Still, I can understand the power that comes from brandishing a gun. The elation of pulling the trigger and seeing your bullet hit the target…especially if that target is threatening. I’m a mild-mannered women by day, but in my dreams, I’m Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, and Belle Starr, all rolled into one.

What about you? How do you feel about shooting, especially our female readers?

Have a great weekend. And for those celebrating Rosh Hashana, L’Shana Tova.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

One of Us Is Obviously Mistaken

The following is an important message to all Chicagoans who complained to Dick Mell's office that the sculpture by Lakeview artist Josh Lucas scheduled for display on the CTA's Brown Line is pornographic: If someone on your insurance has a penis that looks like this you ought to consult a urologist before you start calling your alderman.

I respond to Josh Lucas's critics so he doesn't have to.

In exactly one way artists are like boxers: Neither especially enjoys standing under hot lights in his underwear while being punched in the face. When you decide you want to write for a living, however, you're making yourself vulnerable by definition. Novels take time and effort to read and digest and writing one with the expectation that any person should read it is frankly an act of arrogance. We should be grateful that anyone ever praises us for it at all. But if it weren't risky, if it weren't for the prospect of being garroted by critics, no one could ever say that an artist was brave or ambitious or even clever.

Reviews can be intelligent or ignorant, but either way criticism tells us more about the critic than the subject. When Dale Peck famously called Rick Moody "the worst writer of his generation" Peck, like a character in a Nick Hornby novel, was telling us not who Rick Moody was, but who Dale Peck was, and what he had to say about himself wasn't especially attractive. I don't know if it was conscious or not, but that essay was all about Dale Peck and that's the kind of confession that makes criticism interesting.

And when criticism is uninteresting that tells us volumes about the reviewer as well.

I was listening to NPR the other day and there was a story about the singer Ryan Adams, who started responding to bad reviews with defensive voicemail messages left on newsroom phones. One of those critics was Jim DeRogatis of the Sun-Times. Another was Amanda Petrusich of Pitchfork who observed, "If someone says something mean about you, you either walk away or put your fists up and (Adams) always puts his fists up."

When artists respond to their critics they are only pointing us to the places where they're vulnerable, and the scars there are frequently ugly. Last summer Norman Mailer spit out a nasty rant about Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times and I'm certain not a single person in America changed his opinion of her because of it. At the same time there were no doubt countless people downgrading Mailer's legacy in their heads.

Of course, if Kakutani really wanted to insult Mailer she would ignore his books instead of trashing them. At this point in his career if the New York Times decided not to review one of his novels I suspect it might make Norman Mailer blubber into his pillow like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. Everyone loves to get a sparkling blurb but I don't know any decent writer who wouldn't take hostility to his work over indifference.

I was speaking to a reading group at a bookstore recently and a gentleman raised his hand and said, "My other book club read Cast of Shadows as well, and one of our members paid you a great compliment. She said, If I ever meet Kevin Guilfoile I'm going to punch him in the mouth." I laughed and asked the man if he was a writer and he quickly confirmed that he was. Only another writer would hear that and think it was high praise.

Probably the dumbest thing a critic has said about Cast of Shadows appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. The reviewer (who is also a novelist) said, "Only certain kinds of thriller writers deem it essential to tell us, when two people are out to dinner, that one of them is eating pumpkin ravioli." I'm not sure what that says about my book, but it does tell you that this particular critic doesn't like details, a theory confirmed in the same review by the eleven times he misspelled my name.

Oops. Did I just respond to a critic? Damn. It's just so tempting.

I hate to think what it says about me.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Go Home, Yankee Imperialists!

by Sara Paretsky

I ordered a new bed recently at Marshall Field. When it arrived, the delivery slip was marked “Macy’s,” and the box springs themselves were labeled, “Exclusive to Macy’s.” Macy’s? Macy’s? That’s a New York store. If I wanted to shop in New York, I’d go to New York. I happen to prefer Chicago. I’ve tried New York. When I was 23, I went there hoping to get a job with a publisher or magazine, but couldn’t get my foot in any of those doors; I returned to Chicago, where I became a writer. When I wrote my first novel, 37 New York publishers turned it down, saying that a book set in Chicago had regional interest only, and not enough people read in the Midwest to merit publishing a book set here. Do we illiterate Midwesterners need to give money to a New York firm?

My bank, the once-venerable First National Bank of Chicago, with its fabled art collection, now sports an ungainly Chase logo on its elegant top; Marshall Fields has disappeared, replaced by the Red Star of 34th Street; the famous clocks will carry the New York label—set, perhaps, to eastern time. All Marshall Field charge cards are being changed to Macy’s this fall.
Of course, First Chicago and Fields have long been pawns in the conglomerate game, but it’s the first time a foreign power has brazenly branded them as its own.

I thought about colonial protests of the past, starting with the famous tea party. Chicagoans, tear up your Macy’s cards and dump them in the Harbor, I started to cry, but my sons reminded me there’s too much plastic in Lake Michigan already.
Gandhi got the British out of India by means of simple boycotts. Chicagoans, there are plenty of other banks in town. Boycott Chase, the New York behemoth. Go toyour neighborhood store instead of Macy’s. Otherwise, what will become of us next—the Sox a Yankee farm team? The famous Chicago dogs relabeled “Nathan’s?” Rise up, Chicago, flex those broad shoulders and shake off the imperialist tyrant’s yoke!

Friday, September 15, 2006

seamy underbellies

Last week Libby Hellmann and I were on a library panel discussion in Romeo Michigan, north of Ann Arbor and northwest of Detroit. Also on the panel were Marcia Talley, Nancy Martin and Nina Wright. Libby brought up Chicago politics and Chicago’s “seamy underbelly.”

What, I asked, was a seamy underbelly? Underbelly you could understand, what with mean streets and alleys and plots hatched in secret places. But seams? Like coal seams? Some thought it was streaks of dirt.

Later that day, I e-researched and found that the word “seamy” came from the perception that the inside of a coat, where the seams hide, was unpleasant and also attracted lint, dirt, and crud of that sort.

This clumsy segue leads to the big question. Yes, Chicago has a seamy underbelly. There is a lot corruption, bribery, and political chicanery here. But the city works. It is clean. The streets are mostly safe, as I can tell you. I walk a lot, for writing ideas, and I don’t feel threatened. The police response time is good. The police are well paid. There was a time, long gone, when Mayor Daley The First said that you didn’t have to pay cops much because they could always steal. Those days are over.

So here’s the big question: Can you excuse corruption when the total result is a city that works? Is it possible that if all city transactions were as regulated as post office employees, little would get done and we’d all go postal? Does corruption in modest amounts grease the wheels?

Yes, I know. We’d like a city that works without the corruption. I’d like a magic wand to wave over life, too.

This is one of those many, many questions I just don’t know the answer to. Or is there an answer? Grant me my premise for a moment – a city that works with corruption versus a city without corruption that doesn’t work so well.

Outside my window, a couple of dozen sailboats are sliding around on Lake Michigan. Tour boats are following their usual courses. The buses are running on time. The streets are clean.

Maybe this all shouldn’t work as well as it does.

Somebody out there, please respond.

Barbara D'Amato

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Pretexting, Subterfuge, and the Private Eye

-by Sean Chercover

You’ve probably read about the huge pretexting scandal that cost HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn her job yesterday. In a nutshell, Dunn was upset that a member of HP’s board had leaked to the press. She hired private investigators to find the source of the leak. The private eyes obtained the personal phone records of HP board members by calling the phone companies and impersonating the board members, pretending to be requesting their own records. They also impersonated various journalists in order to obtain their phone records.

Which is illegal.

When I was a P.I. back in the early 90s, I never heard the term “pretexting.” Back then, we liked to call things by their proper names, and we called it “lying.” When we wanted to sound fancy for our clients, we called it “subterfuge.” Or we talked of “employing a cover story.” And we understood that certain kinds of cover stories were off-limits.

Pretending to be the subject of the investigation was a gray area back then, but with the identity-theft laws that have since been passed, the law is now clear. In most states, a P.I. cannot legally pretend to be the subject of the investigation in order to obtain the subject’s personal information.

It is also illegal for a P.I. to impersonate a government official, or an official of an existing company. It is not, however, illegal to lie. So while I could not impersonate a cop when looking for information, I could, for example, pretend to be an employee of XYZ Insurance Company, as long as no such company exists.

But a recent California Senate bill (SB1666) proposed to erase such distinctions. SB1666 applied to both private investigators and to police, and it made no distinction between pretexting and subterfuge. In other words, it proposed to make lying illegal. Apparently, lawmakers in California decided that the First Amendment right to free speech does not include the right to lie, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled otherwise.

Interestingly, when the Illinois legislature passed a strong identity-theft law this summer, they reiterated the exception for private investigators, who may still employ subterfuge, “but may not portray him or herself as the individual whose personal identifying information he or she seeks.”

The California bill floundered and was withdrawn, (much to the relief of cops and P.I.s throughout the state) but lawmakers vowed to bring it back in the state legislature’s next session.

The thing is, by the time we reach the second grade, we’ve already been conned out of a peanut butter sandwich or two. Surely we don’t make it to adulthood without realizing that people sometimes lie. There are plenty of laws that prohibit such things as fraud and identity-theft, as there should be.

But how far do we want to take this? It seems to me that, in addition to being unconstitutional, any law that uses a broad brush to prohibit lying is unenforceable. Furthermore, such a law seems like an attempt to protect us from the responsibilities of adulthood.

Or am I mistaken?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Ask Yourself this...

Saturday I drove to Carmel Indiana to hear what Jim Huang had to say about the state of publishing today. Jim is an editor, author, publisher and independent book store proprietor, and he does all of his jobs well. So I figured the drive would be worth my time. What he had to say was certainly thought provoking.

He started by asking, “What was the last book you read for pleasure and where did you get it?” Only one in four of us had purchased the book from an independent bookseller. One in four checked his out of the library. Jim said that when he asks a group of readers, “How did you come to read a particular book?” a lot of people have trouble answering. Readers pick up a book on impulse, or because they saw the movie, because it was reviewed somewhere, or the reader knows the author. Most people don’t know what they’re doing when they buy a book. They may go into the bookstore to buy a particular title, and even in chains, they may be greeted by a clerk trained to say, “May I help you?” who can find that title. But in most bookstores, they don’t get much more help. They rarely encounter a clerk who’s read the book that they’re considering. Even more rarely do they find someone who knows another book they‘d like if they’ve read all their favorite author’s work. In most book stores, staff aren’t trained to answer questions like “What should I read next?” or even “Can you tell me about this?” if what the reader wants to know is more than the book’s placement on the bestseller lists.

All of which sounds like a plug for independent bookstores. And it is. Independent books stores cater to individual readers because that’s what they do. Chain book stores and Amazon.com (and Target and Wal-Mart and Osco Drugs) do a good job of selling the best sellers, the latest self-help manuals, and the romances that go in and out of print in four weeks. They don’t do such a great job of selling new or mid-list writers, or of keeping them out there long enough to be discovered by a wide audience. Which is why it’s a good idea to support your local independent book store.

Jim also asked us to consider who’s publishing the books we buy and how. Typically the publisher gets 50 % of the cover price, the store gets 40%, and the author gets 10%. If the book is sold at a discount, everyone gets less. Large chains usually sell best sellers at a discount to get readers into the store where thy might make other purchases at regular prices. They make their profits on volume. Small books stores can’t do that. They also have to sell a lot of non-best selling books. And while 40% of a $25 book may sound like a large profit, think about how many books you have to sell to pay the rent each month. And the electric bill. And the staff. How often have you been in a small bookstore and had to fight your way through the crowd to get to the cash register? Booksellers also have to deal with distributors who give much better deals to large publishers and chains, and who often won’t carry the books of really small publishers. That means booksellers might have to order that obscure title you want directly from the publisher. And there are hundreds of small publishers. Many small publishers make it really hard—offer only a 20% discount for the seller, or charge for shipping, or both! Some don’t even send out catalogs!

So this probably sounds like one of those inflammatory exposes you see on the nightly news. Some other industry is going to hell along with the rest of the world. And I’m just one person. What do you expect me to do?

What you can do is support independent booksellers, and buy books from publishers who try to keep their authors in print, who maintain the authors’ backlists. You can get the latest best-seller at the public library. If you’re going to put down your own cash, consider the policies of the publisher you’re supporting. If you don’t know those policies, ask an independent bookseller or an author. Those who plan to stay in business have made it a point to know. If you’re on the verge of selling your own first book, don’t be so rushed to see your name in print that you sign with a publisher that makes it difficult for booksellers to get or profit from their authors’ books.

Consider this: Whether you intend to or not, you vote with your wallet. As Jim Huang put it. “Where you buy a book has a consequence. Where you buy a book will determine what you end up with. Think about what kind of business you want this to be and who is working to make this the kind of business you want.”

Still with me? Here’s something else to think about:

Real forensic science is not CSI. Forty percent of the “science” on CSI is science fiction—made up by imaginative screenwriters. Much of the rest is distorted. You knew that. What you may not know is that in many jurisdictions in this country, suspects are not being arrested before they commit other crimes, or are being released because the forensic evidence is not being processed before the statute of limitations expires. This even in serious cases—rape, and aggravated assault and battery. (In Britain, they are so serious about funding forensic science, they do DNA testing for burglaries.) In the US, most forensics labs are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of evidence collected by law enforcers hoping to head off allegations that the cops “didn’t do the DNA.” Even though DNA figures in only a small percentage of cases, DNA is getting most of the funding. This year, the Senate voted to appropriate $18 million for Coverdell Act funding; the House has voted zero dollars.

So what can YOU do?

Simple. To find out more about forensic science—NOT JUST DNA—read Connie Fletcher’s book, Every Contact Leaves a Trace (St Martin’s, 2006). This is not like doing homework—you’re a fan of crime literature, right? And Connie's book is a terrific read.

Then go to www.crimelabproject.com and learn about The Crime Lab Project and the Coverdell Act. (The site also has links to real, reputable professional forensics organizations.)

Then CALL OR E-MAIL your representatives in the US Congress (The Crime Lab Project site has contact information if you need it.) and tell them to support funding for the forensic sciences.

Isn’t that easy?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Great Minds And All That...Blues

So I just got back from a weeklong trip, St. Louis to New Orleans, a route known as the Blues Highway, and here I find Libby writing about the blues. Funny timing, but I actually don’t want to talk about music.

I want to talk about roadtrips.

My trip was one of those clouds-part moments. It was a freelance gig for a magazine. Believe it or not, I got paid to take a seven-day, all-expenses paid trip with a buddy. We rode Amtrak to St. Louis, then rented the biggest fucking truck Hertz had and headed south. The article was a lifestyle piece about, well, two guys in a big truck. The idea was to see what would happen if we went searching for the heart of rock and roll by reversing the route the blues had taken north, so we stopped at every juke joint and back alley bar we could find along the way.

It was great. And better still, it was on the clock: every cover charge, every ice-cold Abita, every half-slab.

But a funny thing happened as we rode, something I hadn’t expected. We stuck to rural routes and state highways, rolling past small industrial towns and fields of cotton and sugarcane. We were on an interstate only once, on the way into New Orleans, because that was the only route our tattered map showed. We kept the windows down and our iPods spinning.

And with every mile, I found that I was opening up in a way I hadn’t in a while. My imagination was sparking differently. I was feeling looser and more free, able to toy with ideas the same way you might idly doodle on a piece of hotel stationery—not committing to anything, just…playing.

It was gold. I had more fun exploring ideas for novels and stories than I have in a long time, just leaning back with my bare feet out the window and my head in another world.

Maybe it was time spent away from my email and phone. Maybe it was the space of the landscape, the majestic breadth and sweep that city-dwellers tend to forget. Maybe it was my creative batteries letting me know that they’d recharged, recovered from finishing the second novel.

Maybe it was visiting Metropolis, Illinois, the "official" home of Superman.

Whatever it was, I liked it, and I’m going to remember it. The next time I find myself creatively constipated, instead of straining and sweating, I’m getting in the car and heading south.

Anybody had a similar experience?

What do you do that frees your mind to wander?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Chicago Blues

I have a Proustian association to The Blues. I don’t know where it came from, but somewhere, someplace, a memory of the Blues must have seeded itself in my psyche, making me feel safe and secure and whole. Strange, given that the Blues are largely about loss and despair. Still, when I hear the twang of a wailing guitar, the funky blues beat, or a harmonica riff, I feel like I’m home. I’m where I’m supposed to be.

I first experienced this “petite madeleine” soon after I moved to Chicago, when I was introduced to Kingston Mines. Yes, I know it’s a tourist place, but they do book all the great Blues performers in town. In fact, there’s no better place in the world to hear the Blues than Chicago. Whether it’s Legends, Rosa’s, BLUES, or even Bill’s in Evanston, you know from the instant you walk in that you’re in for a ride. At the same time it’s apt to be a sobering one – you’re listening to people tell you about the lover who did them wrong, trouble on the job, dreams that will never come true. In that sense, the Blues are the Noir of music. You know you’re on a journey to a bitter end, but you don’t want to stop.

I’ve tried to figure out what it is about the Blues that sets off such a visceral reaction in me. In fact, for years I’ve tried to transpose it to the page. I haven’t succeeded. At times I thought it might not be possible: that maybe the music (the sensual) and language (the cerebral) are too far apart. That it’s like trying to describe color to someone who’s been blind from birth.

Then I ran across Ace Atkins and I realized he’s already done it. Ace has written several mysteries centered on the Blues, and he comes closer to capturing the essence of the music and the people who play it than anyone I’ve read.

Take this example, from his first novel Crossroad Blues

“The blues came from all he knew. All he was. He put that lonesome feeling in each note. The longing. The losses. He rubbed his callous black hands together and thought of the place in his heart where the blues dwelled. Every day he’d worked on the farm. Every time he was beaten by his stepfather because of his smart mouth.”

Or this, also from Crossroad Blues:

“The Blues sound better in a venue of imperfection. A cracked ceiling. Scuffed floor. Peeling white paint on the bricks. It all somehow adds to the acoustics...”

And from Leavin’ Trunk Blues, which is set in Chicago:

“JoJo’s Blues Bar was a warm shot of whiskey, a cold Dixie on the side, and blues that could exorcise demons like a voodoo princess.”

He nailed it, at least for me.

I’m no expert, but I have learned a few things about the Blues. I know there’s a huge legacy of Blues in Chicago, one that includes Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Koko Taylor just for starters. I’m also aware that some of the clubs mentioned above are considered tourist traps, pale imitations of the South and West side clubs of fifty years ago, when white faces were rare and a veil of cigarette smoke hung in the room. I know, too, that there’s a difference between Delta, Chicago, Texas and Mississippi Blues, but I’m not sure what it is – except that Chicago Blues players use the guitar in ways your mama never taught you.

But I’ve also learned something that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed. A friend of mine is in pre-production of a documentary about the Blues that will feature some of the best next-generation blues artists in Chicago. In doing research, he came across an irony: the people who give us so much still have too little. Like their counterparts a generation ago, a lot of Blues musicians today are barely getting by. They earn too little. And many don’t understand their intellectual property rights, which means they are vulnerable to those who do and aren’t afraid to manipulate those rights. They might be missing out on other benefits, too. The good news is that Koko Taylor has created a foundation
to address some of these issues. Check it out. They need your help.

But the real irony is that despite the hardships, these same musicians keep on playing, taking gigs that only cover their drinks, traveling long distances just to jam. When I asked why, my friend said, “Because they can’t stop. They have to play.”

Now that’s noir.

As writers, we can relate.

(For more information about the Chicago blues documentary, contact Bob Axelrod at raxelrod@brandxfilms.com)

A program note: Barb D’Amato and I will be doing a few events in Michigan this weekend. We’ll be at the Cromaine Public Library in Hartland on Friday, the Romeo District Library in Washington on Saturday, and the Kerrytown Book Fest in Ann Arbor on Sunday. If you’re in the area, come on down!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

It's No Laughing Party When You've Been on the Murder Mile

George Bernard Shaw was once browsing in a used bookstore and discovered one of his own books which he had inscribed to a friend: "With esteem, George Bernard Shaw." According to the story, Shaw purchased the book and sent it back to the original recipient, adding in pen: "With renewed esteem, George Bernard Shaw."

Novelist John McNally (who was raised on the southwest side of Chicago) recently came across a novel he had inscribed to one of his literary heroes for sale at a used book site. After writing about the incident, McNally took some bizarre and random shots from folks who didn't realize his outrage was pretend. Yes it's true that Ursula K Le Guin never asked for a copy of McNally's book and once she received it she was under no obligation to cherish it forever. But certainly the image of the legendary Le Guin, a writer who has sold millions of books and whose work I greatly admire, peddling unwanted volumes off her shelves for spare change is funny.

Of course we don't know that this is what happened. Ms. Le Guin might have given the book away or donated it to a library or thrown it in the recycling or lost it on a train, and the person who sold it to a used bookstore might have been several readers removed from her. But the fact that John McNally found this book for sale is also funny. Funny, funny, funny.

Or maybe it's only funny if you're a writer.

Anyway the amused writers here at The Outfit have also combined to sell millions of books (I realize this is a little like Dale Berra saying that he and his father Yogi have combined to hit hundreds of home runs, but indulge me) and we've found a better use for our book overflow than diverting it through eBay.

I have an old buddy from Cooperstown Central School named Scott Hayford who is now a Major in the United States Air Force. Major Hayford just returned safely from his fourth tour in Afghanistan but while he was over there he wrote me about how much books are valued by soldiers in the field.

Basically the way it works here is the infantry go out on patrols for 1 to 5 days.  Then they come back in for refit.  Most of the time it's moving around and protecting teams of medical personnel or construction workers, or holding shurras with the local leadership trying to develop better security and getting the people to trust the new government.

It's tough, corruption is part of the culture, narcotics, smuggling, and just outright crime is all over as well.  So a lot of the time we are struggling to figure out if the attack on a police force was taliban, al qaeda, or just an argument between the drug guy and the cops over payoffs. It's crazy sometimes.
Anyway, the soldiers are out there and a good book is always a good thing to have lying around.  A lot of reading going on here.

So this week the seven of us are shipping several crates of our own books over to Kabul. These soldiers are certainly brave but they are also anxious and bored and nervous and homesick and if a few hours lost in a novel helps release the tension a little then that's a good thing.

You don't have to be an author of course but If you're finished with some books written by someone else and you were thinking about giving them away, I encourage you to box them up in a care package and send them to:

345th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
APO AE  09355

For obvious reasons the soldiers prefer paperbacks (please continue to donate hardcovers to your local library) and I'm told they also like mysteries and suspense novels and thrillers above most else. Inscriptions from John McNally optional.

On an unrelated note, next week Libby and I will be appearing at the Midwest Literary Festival in Aurora, Illinois. On Saturday, September 16 I'll be doing a humor panel as well as a thriller panel, the former with my friend and My First Presidentiary co-author John Warner, and the latter with David Morrell, James Rollins, JA Konrath, Raymond Benson, and David Angsten.

On Sunday, September 17, Libby will be talking mysteries with Konrath, Michael Black, Julie Hyzy, Julia Buckley, and Steve Mandel. Then she will be joining William Barillas, Robert Goldsborough, and Judy Merrill Larsen for a discussion of books set in the Midwest.

The Midwest Literary Festival is an intimate event with lots of big name authors. I doubt you will ever find a more convenient time and place to discuss We Were the Mulvaneys with Joyce Carol Oates and also Hollywood Squares with Shadoe Stevens. Or, as is my intention, vice-versa.

Another author featured at the festival will be the great Dennis Lehane, who is not just an acclaimed novelist but also one of several writers for the best show on television. If you haven't been watching The Wire, maybe the most novelistic series in American TV history, you're seriously missing out. Season Four begins September 10 on HBO.