Category Archives: Uncategorized

AND THE WINNER IS…

Here at the Trying Too Hard Sweepstakes, we’re always looking for simple answers to complicated questions.

            For example, a big problem among critics is a tendency to crowd too many descriptive words into a limited space. When in doubt, the experts say, get rid of ALL ADVERBS, but this is easier said than done.

            Take this sentence from a New York Times caption about a play on Broadway:

            “The script is neither a dramatically shapely piece of writing nor a deeply probing character study.”

            Blub, blub, blub, goodness. Now here is a Trying Too Hard cautionary tale. The unnecessary adverbs (“dramatically,” “deeply”) give the sentence a stuffed-to-the-gills feel and yet deleting them makes the sentence slightly deflated: “The script is neither a shapely piece of writing nor a probing character study.” But it’s cleaner that way, and besides, if you don’t take ‘em out, nobody will read it.

Janet Maslin

Janet Maslin

            Glib cocktail-party words are always surprising in a serious review.  Janet Maslin has a beaut when she refers to  “something funnily incongruous” in Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Interestings.

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HOLD YOUR TONGUE, LARRY

 Big cocky corporate book distributors who think publishing is so easy they can’t possibly botch it — but do — are a fine old tradition in the book trade.

         Back in the ’80s, Harry Hoffman of Waldenbooks wanted to shovel the blandest of house-published genre books at customers but discovered that readers actually noticed and refused to buy them.  In 2002, Barnes & Noble purchased cheapo artbook house Sterling Publishing in an attempt to undercut mainstream publishers, realized the experiment was too costly by 2012, tried to unload it (no buyers) and took it off the market “for the time being,” unsure how a chain bookstore can or should compete with its own suppliers.

         And now what a surprise to hear that former Time Warner publisher and literary agent Laurence Kirschbaum, hired by Amazon two and a half years ago to create a big cocky publishing division, not only stumbled badly (the six-figure advance for Penny Marshall’s disastrous memoir was one indication) but also took another flier allegedly into the lap and down the throat of ex-lover/colleague Teresa McCoy, who’s suing him for sexual harassment.

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TOUGHER THAN IT LOOKS

I’ve heard that many of my old codger sisters from the ’60s are avoiding  Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

            For a long time, I did, too. The title is meek, the photo is Gloria Steinem Lite and the message lacks the boldness of, you know, Our Day, when tens of thousands protested in the streets, wrote our manifestos and opened our PRO-CHOICE SIGNUP tables in every downtown in America, or so it seemed.

Lean In book cover

Lean In book cover

            True, we can’t claim huge victories four decades later — the ERA never passed, the military is practically a rape culture, abortion is even more despised and why we accept a Senate and House without 50% women is beyond me.

            But some things did change, thanks to antidiscrimination and anti-harassment laws that still make a difference. The glass ceiling is breaking  (thank you, Sheryl), and while many girls and women wouldn’t be caught dead calling themselves feminists, there are good reasons for that, as Sheryl points out (see below).

            Now here’s Sandberg encouraging women to make ourselves heard, but not in a massive way, mind you, not in a historic way, nor heaven knows an impolite way. Her much-praised advice is for each of us to “lean in” to whatever conversation is taking place and quietly, softly, say exactly what we mean.  That’s it.

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Sexualized Dress Revisited

Like Meryl Streep (see below), I could have sworn that one-time celebrities Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen wore women’s suits on the 1950s TV quiz show, What’s My LIne?

That’s why in the last post, I blithely (without checking) quoted Streep’s concern about societal pressures on today’s women to dress in sexually alluring clothes, even on a hard-news political program like Meet the Press. Streep’s point was that in a previous era, TV shows (and the media in general) allowed women greater modesty, as recalled from watching What’s My Line?

Yikes, was that wrong, and thank you, reader Ed Dravecky of Allen, Texas, for spotting the error:

“Meryl Streep lives in an interesting alternate timeline,” Dravecky writes. “Suits? On this Earth’s What’s My Line, the women on the panel wore dresses and the men wore suits in the early seasons, and formal evening wear (including tuxedos for the men) in the later ones. Just do a Google Image search for ‘What’s My Line Panelists’ and you’ll turn up dozens of images like this one from the New York Times.”

Picture of What's My Line panel

Dorothy Kilgallen, Steve Allen, Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf wear eye masks as they question the mystery guest on What’s My Line?

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SMALL REVELATIONS

A few things I think I’ll always remember from recent books:

The Hills are Alive … with the Sound of Nazis

Christopher Plummer The Sound of Music

Christopher Plummer

If the von Trapp family had continued in the direction they were headed at the end of The Sound of Music, they would have “inadvertently landed in the hornet’s nest” of Nazi strongholds, recalls Christopher Plummer in his memoir, In Spite of Myself  (Vintage; 656 pages; $17.95). Hiking toward Germany rather than Switzerland was the more picturesque escape route for the movie, he recalls.

     This detail-packed charmer of a book gives us many a delicious glimpse behind the scenes. For example, Plummer writes that he and Julie Andrews had to shoot the famous gazebo scene more than 30 times because whenever they started to kiss, an off-camera device sounded like someone emitting gas. This threw them into such fits of laughter that the director finally gave up and filmed their faces only in silhouette.

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NARCOPOLIS: LOVE HIM, HATE (THE ABSENCE OF) HER

I admire almost everything about Narcopolis, a strange and intriguingly offensive novel about opium addiction in India.  It was short-listed last year for the Mann Booker Prize and its author, Jeet Thayil is the first Indian writer to win the coveted ($50,000) DSC Prize for South Asian Literature .

         The first sentence alone runs for 7 mesmerizing pages that in lesser hands would have been a gimmicky imitation of William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Junky) or Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater).

         But here the beautifully poetic Prologue flows off the page like the smoke from an opium pipe. Soon we don’t read Narcopolis – we inhale it, get hooked on it, are haunted by its unsettling, dreamlike blur. The opiate-addicted characters may have “fallen” in society’s eyes, but there is no guilt in Narcopolis,  only the allure, the freedom, the obsession and the artistry of induced elation. Closing the book, we feel it’s been seeping into our pores.

Narcopolis

Narcopolis

    Narcopolis follows a half-dozen opium addicts across a span of 40 years, during which a luxuriously slow-moving Bombay morphs into the fast-paced, corporatized and increasingly violent Mumbai.

         Soon opium itself is transformed into a more marketable version of heroin called “The Chemical,” a drug so filled with rat poison that it blows your brains out while giving you a stupendous high.

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Random House Penguin and Amazon: Too Big and Too Fast

Every time I see that condescending actor from AT&T pretending to have fun with kids on TV, I want to strangle Random House — or no, Amazon — for pushing Bigness, Speed and MORE, MORE, MORE as the American ideal in the first place.

I know some people think the AT&T guy is cute and congenial with children, but most of the time he encourages kids to act out, then makes fun of them.

actor from A T & T with kids

actor from A T & T with kids

“It’s not complicated!” comes the steroidal AT&T announcer, and the awful message is clear: Be bigger, faster, and more hyperactive — you’ll go nuts a lot sooner than your parents. Continue reading

That Sexist Mister Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling

You know why The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith wasn’t widely reviewed when it first came out?

Here’s my thought:

On page 15, Robin Ellacott, a “tall and curvacious” young secretary, is about to enter the office of a world-weary private investigator named Cormoran Strike for the first time. At that moment, Cormoran, a big guy around 210 pounds, rushes out the door and crashes into her.

Robin falls backward, dangerously close to the open stairwell behind her, but Cormoran “seize(s) a fistful of cloth and flesh” and, “with a wrench and a tussle,”  pulls her toward him to safety.

But wait. What is it he gets hold of to save her — an arm? a coat? a belt? No, “he saved her by grabbing a substantial part of her left breast.”

Oh. He — um, wait. He reaches out, grabs her breast through a few layers of clothes and hauls her in like a marlin? Robin must weigh over 100 pounds, right? Yet he saves her from falling into the stairwell only by his grip on her … Well, I don’t think that’s possible. His hand just couldn’t get enough purchase to …

Come, Mr. Galbraith: Do your homework. Do you think breasts so literally fit the term  ”knockers” that one simply grabs and pulls, as though closing a door by its doorknob? Continue reading

HIS FIRST MISTAKE

If you own a newspaper, try not to tell the staff you’re “committed to preserving quality journalism” and then say, “Don’t be boring.”

That’s what Jeff Bezos did at the Washington Post yesterday. I bet the 20 “hard-bitten” reporters in the room laughed (and groaned) inwardly at his amateur remark.

Jeff Bezos             Point: A journalist writing a story on, say,  changes in the tax code should never be burdened with an order like “Don’t be boring.” Continue reading

When Cell Phones Turn Readers into Idiots

One needn’t be a fan of Barnes & Noble to sympathize with the staff at a B&N store where New York Times writer Nick Bilton and his wife acted like a couple of six-year-olds storming a playpen.

According to Bilton’s article, the couple sat down “cross-legged on the floor” and surrounded themselves with “several large piles of books,” which they “lobbed back and forth” (!) for “a couple of hours” (!!) while researching “ideas for a new home that we are planning to buy.”

Isn’t that nice. Whenever you need a library, just go to a bookstore, Bilton suggests. There you can turn new books into used books for all the customers to follow.

Then Bilton and his wife “snapped a dozen pictures of book pages with our iPhones” and “went home without buying a thing.” Very tidy. Bilton does mention that they “placed the books back on the shelf” like the Good Samaritans they see themselves to be.

A Disturbing Idea

But later that night, Bilton was struck by a disturbing idea: “I asked my wife: Did we do anything wrong? And, I wondered, had we broken any laws by photographing those pages?”

So conscientious! After all, those pages were protected by copyright, a very big word for a very important concept. You’d think an explanation of copyright would be the point to an article with the headline: “Can Your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate?”

But no. The authorities Bilton consults compare the use of cell phones that photograph book pages today with the use of Xerox machines that duplicated book pages during the ’70s, and the use of Napster programs that shared music files during the ’90s.

According to these experts, technology has advanced so quickly that copyright laws can’t keep up, so nobody really knows the exact definition of piracy when it comes to cell phone cameras. But Bilton’s journalistic drive demands a deeper truth: Will he get caught?

“Need I worry yet that a phalanx of lawyers will soon grab me between the Home Decor and New Age aisles at Barnes & Noble?”

Well, if I were the two thugs running this chain, I would have thrown the Biltons off the escalator, but you know, bookstore clerks are nice. They allowed this couple to clog the aisles and rummage through new books on the floor because it might have sounded rude to ask them to put their !@#$%^&*! cell phones away.

That leaves readers to ponder a thought by Julia A. Ahrens, associate director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford Law School: “By the time this becomes an issue,” she tells Bilton, “we might not even have bookstores anymore.”

That’s comforting, isn’t it, Nick? One day the same might be said of libraries.

Bookstore Rudeness

I know that bookstores have long been invaded by ill-mannered customers who blithely sit down in the aisles, break the spines of new titles, “lob” books around or — these I could throttle — buy a book on Amazon and bring it into a bookstore to have autographed at an author event.

But Bilton’s article raises new questions about the effect of cell phones on social manners in general. Maybe we’ve all grown accustomed to cell phone users driving erratically or talking loudly on the street or in elevators and restaurants because for some reason, they think their conversation takes precedence over everyone else’s experience.

What I can’t figure out are bookstore customers who blatantly use cell phones to compare prices with Amazon’s while they walk around the New Release table, or worse, take cell phone photos of books they might want to read so they can buy them on Amazon later.

I won’t go into Kindle owners who actually bring … well, you get the point.

This is not just rude behavior; it’s profane. A bookstore offers browsing opportunities and instant camaraderie with staff and authors that we never find on the Internet. There’s something sacred about a place where censorship is fought routinely, unknown authors are welcomed and introduced and young adults who’ve inexplicitly stopped reading are lured back to books they’ll treasure forever. For a customer to interrupt this kind of sacred exchange because they’re so entirely self-involved seems tragic.

Thanking Our Lucky Stars

The Biltons don’t appear to be stupid or cheap — I bet if you asked them, they’d want to contribute to the betterment of bookstores. Then, too, Nick Bilton is the lead technology writer for the New York Times and author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works (Crown; 304 pages; $25), a book published last fall about the impact of iPads and smart phones. That makes Bilton an expert. Yet he doesn’t know the meaning of copyright? When he and the missus took advantage of the bookstore staff’s good graces, he had to ask, “Did we do anything wrong?”

So come on, Nicky, get off the phone. Think how you’d feel if somebody photographed your book and blithely departed “without buying a thing.” The future you write about can and should provide Americans with every kind of reading option, most especially the bookstore option.