Monday, December 21, 2009

Don't give a blank e-book reader!

A friend asked me today whether the Rollo Hemphill comic novels are available in ebook versions. Decidedly yes, for both titles. Just make sure you get the right digital format:

Amazon Kindle My Inflatable Friend Rubber Babes

Adobe PDF (read it on your laptop, even) both titles available from Diesel E-Books

Smashwords (EPUB for Nook, also Sony Reader format, others): My Inflatable Friend (free) Rubber Babes (1.99) Also see "Rollo Will Do You for Free" post on the Boychik Lit blog.

Audio MP3 (excerpts) click here (all free downloads) for iPod and such.

So upload the devilish little device with laughter, why doncha. These are mercifully short, amusing books, just the right length for an airplane read, with bite-sized chapters easy to ingest while you're waiting for some cute elf to bring your holiday lunch.

Remember, too, there are at least three books in Rollo's unfortunate saga. The third comes out in 2010--Farnworth's Revenge: Rollo's End. (Spoiler alert: It's not necessarily the demise of Rollo, more like the target of the old man's ire?)

Of course, Amazon or Barnes & Noble will be happy to ship you paperbacks in case, like me, you're so bewildered by the profusion of ebook formats you don't know which to buy.

Gerald Everett Jones

Author of the Rollo Hemphill novels
- in paperback and ebook -

Friday, October 16, 2009

Rollo Will Do You for Free

For a limited time, Rollo's first comic adventure, My Inflatable Friend, will be available as a free ebook download in EPUB, Sony Reader, and plain-text formats on SmashWords. List-price ebooks are still available for platforms Kindle, Ingram PDF (DRM), and Mobipocket.

If you then yearn to read the sequel, Rubber Babes, you'll have to shell out $1.99, also at SmashWords.

Like so many players in the 21st century publishing biz, I've been puzzling over what business models will emerge for ebooks. And while we're at it, we should figure out how people are going to pay (if modestly) for all kinds of creative content, including music and movies.

I was really flummoxed by the article in the NY Times the other day about libraries doing online lending of ebooks. Almost certainly, the public should not have to pay to check a digital edition out of the local library database. But you'd think the library should either pay a somewhat higher "master-copy" fee or account for the rentals and pay a modest per-rental fee. That's pretty much what happens in the DVD rental market. Libraries loan DVDs, too, but not yet online, although that day is coming. Buying physical copies of CDs or DVDs simplifies per-use lending. But why on Earth would ebook readers have to "wait in line" for digital downloads? Yes, I understand why the publishers are pushing that, but it's a ridiculous imposition on the consumer.

At this point, I believe that "free" is an essential part of any electronic publishing business model--at least for products that have not yet achieved the status of name brands and household words.

That's frankly why Rollo is dropping his shorts and baring all--for nothing. In Hollywood, they call it "exposure work" for obvious reasons.

Dan Brown doesn't have to give it away, ever. The rest of us will have to learn how to do "garage-band marketing" and sell out of our virtual trunks. Until we don't have to.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

West Hollywood Book Fair Photo

Last Sunday (October 4) in West Hollywood Park.

Here's some of the gang doing the meet-and-greet with aspiring and working writers at the IWOSC booth.

(L to R) Linda Lichtman, showrunner Lyn Corum, Sally Hawkridge, and The Boychik.

Photo by Joshua Barash

Monday, October 5, 2009

Book Review: 'Dark Mission'

Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA (Enlarged and Revised Edition) by Richard C. Hoagland and Mike Bara has to be the most astounding book I have ever read. If only a fraction of it proves true, it will still be a stunning revelation.

For example--
  • If there is just one artifact on the Moon or on Mars, that's significant. The authors present evidence, although not totally convincing, that there are thousands of "anomalous" and "unnatural" features on both bodies.
  • If NASA has deliberately degraded just one photo, that is extremely troublesome.
  • If there is anything to the theory of hyperdimensional astronomy and its application to celestial navigation, human technology will take another giant leap.
I do have some objections, some of them significant, to the authors' presentation:
  • They often make too much of too little, then use the conclusion as a foundation for an entire line of argument. For example, what if in that "meaningful" photo of Gene Cernan listening to Bush, his smirk is from a bad case of intestinal gas? We've all been there. Also, as to the the "Data head" on the Moon, it certainly looks like a curious artifact, but it could just as easily be a fragment of a religious icon as a piece of a robot. To then speculate that it contained a computer from which data was downloaded is a ridiculous stretch. Those are just two examples of many unsupported leaps to conclusions in the book. (I'm not belittling the importance of finding the object--just the authors' interpretation of it.)
  • Cause and effect seem jumbled in some arguments. The ultimate significance of 19.5 and 33 degrees could be more practical than mystical, as an extension of Hoagland's own arguments. If hyperdimensional geometry can truly govern advanced celestial navigation, the selection of those parameters may be crucial to mission success for practical, physical reasons, not because of some religious correlation. In other words, sacred geometry is more likely to be derived from, and an effect of, the way the universe is built. Selection of specific dates for landings may also have some consistent, practical, rationale other than ceremony or astrology.
  • I don't see many of the objects the authors do in the satellite photos. Quipping that some people have a perceptual handicap that prevents them from seeing such features insults my intelligence. And the reproductions are terrible.
  • Please hire a good copy editor next time. As with so many self-published and small-press books, a profusion of typos and inconsistently applied style rules conveys the dismal impression that no one besides the author thought this book was worth publishing.
All that said, even if portions of this book are unreliable or just plain wrong, its contribution may ultimately prove to be momentous. Seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote volumes on planetary orbits, which he believed to be mounted on crystalline spheres that hummed a celestial chorus to the glory of God. It took the genius of Sir Isaac Newton to extract from all that superstition just three concise laws of planetary motion, which he translated into mathematical equations. Were it not for our understanding those three laws, modern celestial navigation would be a hopeless dream. (Also, Newton himself harbored all kinds of bizarre notions and spent literally years of his life writing about them.)

Hoagland says Heaviside did the same to Maxwell but missed some essential stuff, to the lasting detriment of science. Maybe he's right.

So I don't mean to scoff just because I'd like more rigor in the arguments. I suspect some of this is true. I just can't tell you which parts.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I'm Reading 'Bonfire of the Vanderbilts' at WEHO Book Fair

This Sunday, Oct. 4, West Hollywood Book Fair, West Hollywood Park (just west of the Pacific Design Center), at 4 PM on the stage called The Lounge.

Bonfire of the Vanderbilts is a new novel about a Gilded Age art scandal and a murderous love affair, set in Paris and Newport in the early 1890s and in Brentwood in the present day.

I'll also be in the IWOSC booth 2 - 4PM.

Parking free, show free, air still free while it lasts!
(Bring a big straw hat, a bottle of water, an empty backpack, and some mad money).

Click here for details.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Siegfried, the Archetypal Boychik

I've previously defined boychik as a young man with more chutzpah than brains. Georja and I recently reviewed Wagner's opera Siegfried, the third episode in his marathon cycle The Ring. It's playing now at LA Opera.

In the myth, Siegfried represents the human race, which in the dawn of history is just coming into its own. In this installment of the story, Siegfried will slay the fearsome dragon who guards the ring--the symbol of ultimate power. Thus will begin the ascendancy of humans and the decline and eventual disappearance of the gods who once dominated the earth.

The Lord of the Rings borrows the same symbol.

I spend a significant portion of the review musing about Wagner's infamous racism and the moral imperative that the Third Reich subsequently drew from The Ring.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pre-Christmas E-Reader Wars Heat Up

See also: It's Going To Be an E-Reader Christmas

As Featured On EzineArticles

Sony Reader is now (finally) running a consumer-oriented TV ad, and the NY Times reported yesterday on the iRex launch. You can bet Amazon will hype Kindle to the max in the coming weeks, along with its promotion of the Kindle 3 large format in the college textbook market.

Apple is conspicuously absent, although you can use apps like Stanza to read ebooks on your iPhone. But that's hardly a competitive strategy for Apple. I'm betting they come out with a docking screen for some or all of the iPod models.

I decided to join the club and beefed up my membership and presence on ebook distribution service, which supports open-source EPUB and Sony LRF, as well as lots of the other formats.

And then of course there's the proliferation of more general-purpose netbooks, palmtops, PDAs, and tablets. (See Maggie Ball's previously posted article on this blog.)

I'm thinking a big consideration for ebook buyers should be the long-term cost of buying content. Prices of ebooks vary widely, but many Amazon Kindle versions are advertised at just under ten bucks. Lots of Smashwords EPUB versions range from free to a buck or two, although bestsellers typically cost more. Then too, there's the public domain library offered by Project Gutenberg, where everything is both free and about a hundred years old. But if you're looking for Charles Dickens rather than Dan Brown, you can find him and thousands of other famous authors there in EPUB, HTML, and "plain-text" formats.

My Inflatable Friend and Rubber Babes, the first two books in the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels, have been available in Amazon Kindle, Mobipocket (PDA), and Adobe PDF (Ingram) formats since the day they came out in paperback.

I'm jumping into the other formats now on Smashwords by offering Rubber Babes for $1.99 in EPUB, Sony LRF, and a variety of other non-DRM versions.

Ebook sales (and free downloads) seem to be taking off. For example, I just read today that a healthy percentage, if not a huge one, of The Lost Symbol sales have been ebooks. Perhaps the dominant business models. platforms, and formats in this new marketplace will now emerge, and quite soon.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Masonic Joke: The 'Lost Symbol' Is at Target

The "lost symbol" in Dan Brown's big bestseller of the same name is a geometric shape called a circumpunct. Which turns out to be the logo of Target Stores. Creeeeeepy!

I bet Manny, Mo, and Jack are in on it, too!*

Many readers probably suspected that The Lost Symbol would be an exposé about the Masons in much the same way that The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons revealed occult lore embedded in the history of the Catholic church. But this latest book from the master of page-turners is neither anti-Masonic nor anti-Catholic. It is, at its core, a New Age manifesto. And it unashamedly points to Freemasonry as the paradigm for a contemporary mindset that embraces all religions and challenges human beings to build a society where tolerance is the order of the day.

(The origins of Masonry had a lot to do with opposing the Pope and European royalty.)

What is this New Age mindset? Well, what is old, even ancient, is new again. Modern Noetic science, which figures strongly in the plot, is based on the Neoplatonic belief that thoughts are things and can manifest in reality (same theme as The Secret, also found in John 1:1). You'll find the notion that humans are co-creators with God (Brown quotes the Bible verse "Know ye not that ye are gods?") And it will come as good news that the Apocalypse of Revelation will be a peaceful explosion of human consciousness rather than nuclear weaponry (see also The Twelve).

Despite Brown's crowd-pleasing prowess, I doubt if he's exploiting New Age philosophy just to pander to popular taste. He seems to believe it all, along with a heartfelt patriotism that sees the American experiment much as the Founding Fathers did, as an imperfect work in progress on a worthy Utopian ideal.

In fact, in retrospect, it almost seems as though the Da Vinci/Angels books built a fan base to which he can now overtly deliver a message that's been his subtext all along.

It's not a flawless book, in my humble opinion. But he's selling about a million times more copies than my Rollo Hemphill novels, so who am I to throw rocks? I get bored with USA Today-style, seventh-grade-reading-level prose -- except when I'm riveted, turning pages in my zeal to find out what happens next, which is most of the time.

And his dialogue is often plainly expository and not the least dramatic, rather like those young Greek stooges questioning Socrates. I don't recall if any of the characters actually says to Langdon, "Tell me more," but they are often content to toss out short queries and then listen to him lecture (okay, interestingly) for paragraphs.

I challenge you to read this without thinking of John Malkovich as the big Decorated Man and Linda Hunt as Sato. I have my ideas about the inevitable casting of other characters, but the speech patterns of these two just seem so similar to their distinctive characterizations in previous movie roles.

And, please, somebody tell me why no one thinks to take a flashlight into Pod 5!

*Founders of the Pep Boys, a chain of automobile parts stores.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Proof Mayans Knew About Julius Caesar

The Twelve is a parable reminiscent of The Celestine Prophecy. Aside from my wondering how the Mayans managed to come up with an end-of-time date that turned out to be a nifty number in the Julian calendar, I enjoyed this. I'm not at all objective because Bill Gladstone has been a friend and colleague of mine for about 30 years. Here's affirming that the book will generate a lot of thoughtful buzz.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What Makes a Story a Movie?

There's no set of rules for that, despite what script consultants might tell you (for a fee). For example, a book has some potential for a screenplay if it is an insider's story on a timely event. However, you're selling something that won't be on the screen for a couple of years at least, so the issue has to be fairly evergreen. A law case that embodies a controversy might be a candidate. Then you should learn about what's involved in securing underlying life-story rights. Otherwise, you might as well try to sell the news in the local paper.

As a story, a screenplay must: 1) have something important at stake (life or death, end of the world, social crisis, etc.), 2) have a main character with whom the audience can identify on some level, and 3) must require the character to grow and develop to resolve the crisis posed by #1. Stories that end in failure or disappointment are almost impossible to sell, despite some notable exceptions.

There are thousands of books on the subject of screenwriting, but the one I think that most nearly addresses this question is Save the Cat! by (the late, great) Blake Snyder and its sequel, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies.

If you have such a book, it can be a mistake (or a waste of time) to write a screenplay yourself. Go to and search agents who rep movie rights for books, and query them based on the criteria they give in their profiles or on their agency websites. Obviously the ones who accept e-queries will get you the quickest results and you can query them all concurrently. You'll know in a few days whether you have have something to sell.

If instead you think you have a passion for screenwriting, that is a whole different thing, all about your knack for storytelling, and long road.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Book Review: Cutting for Stone

I have to start by clearing up the confusion I had with Abraham Verghese's title, Cutting for Stone. As the book mentions several times but never precisely explains, the reference is to the Hippocratic Oath, "I will not cut for stone." However I had to look it up in Wikipedia to find the meaning, which is probably apparent to medical professionals. It was a prohibition from operating on stones, or calcified deposits, in the kidney or bladder. The ancient Greeks apparently thought surgeons should leave this menial procedure to barbers. The modern meaning seems to be that doctors should recognize they can't specialize in all areas. But I'd say closer to the original intent, and perhaps more relevant to today's medicine, would be: "I won't perform treatments just for the sake of making money."

Okay, I got that off my chest!

The title has at least a double meaning. The story flows from the unlikely and surprising conception of a pair of twins by an English surgeon, Thomas Stone, and an Indian-born nun, Sister Mary Praise, in Ethiopia in the mid-twentieth century. The story is narrated by one of the twins, Marion, who eventually becomes a surgeon himself.

Verghese is likewise a practicing surgeon, now living in the U.S., who grew up in Ethiopia. His account seems autobiographical, but much of it is invented, as he explains in detail in his Acknowledgments.

If I say too much about this book, I'll have to throw in a lot of spoilers, and suspense has its delicious rewards in this leisurely paced plot. So I won't. Suffice it to say, I believe your patience with Verghese will be rewarded.

I heard him speak at a book signing at an Ethiopian restaurant in Los Angeles, and he mentioned that he admired W. Somerset Maugham. This book does remind me of Cakes and Ale, in more ways than one, including the crafting of its sentences. (Maugham also studied medicine.) It's not the page-turning, plain-vanilla, cliffhanger prose of Tom Clancy or Dan Brown. It's thoughtful, colorful, and literary. Slow down and enjoy it.

This novel is about family, community, betrayal, parental love and estrangement, sibling bonding and rivalry, personal bravery, not-so-uncommon acts of kindness, the heroic practice of medicine, suffering and compassion--and irony.

Lots of irony.

Cutting for Stone is selling well, so lots of other people must think it's worthwhile. The story doesn't read like a movie plot, but neither does The English Patient. Yes, this book is that big--in its scope and its ambitions, and in the magnitude of its achievement.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Book Review: Breathers - A Zombie's Lament

(Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Boychik lit
and its nastier cousin genre fratire are both skewed takes on the romantic comedy, or rom com. So the blurb for Breathers hooked me, "... a romantic zombie comedy (rom-zom-com, for short) that will leave you laughing, squirming, and clamoring for more."

Now, despite their body temperature, zombies are hot these days. I figured I was a newbie to the genre, but then I realized that Michael Keaton played a zombie in Beetlejuice, as did Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her. And this zom-lit book specifically acknowledges its legacy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (About all I remember from that black-and-white movie is the delicious piece of trivia that they used animal parts from a butcher shop and smeared them with chocolate syrup for the icky, sticky blood.)

So, like so many commercially successful story formulas, zombie lit is a new idea that's stood the test of time.

I was both disappointed and pleasantly surprised by Breathers. The scum-sucking horndog in me was disappointed there wasn't any explicit sex. You know, pointers on how to hit climax before your member falls off? There is a romantic plot line, but it's a subplot and a minor one, at that.

On the other hand, the geeky snob in me was gratified to find "redeeming social value" in the book's themes. I suspect a reason for the popularity of zom lit with young audiences is that the state of zombitude is a handy metaphor for teenage angst. (Author Scott Browne tweeted me that, no, teenage distress is a metaphor for being undead, but let's not quibble.) In Browne's plausible-realistic fictional world, zombies try to fit into middle-class suburban Silicon Valley society. They go to twelve-step groups for counseling, and when they backslide, otherwise screw up, or are simply spied by humans ("breathers") in a public place, the animal welfare wagon collars them, and some responsible person has to post bail to spring them from the pound. And as with unfortunate animal strays, you do not want to know what happens to them if no one shows up to take them home.

Zombies are shunned, reviled, and -- most politically troublesome for their survival -- prohibited from reactivating their Social Security numbers. Yikes!

You could also compare the unfortunate plight of zombies to that of other "protected classes," and suffice it to say the author has thought of that. As a rule, teenagers do not go political to redress their grievances, but Browne's zombies do.

As I believe I picked up in Silence of the Lambs, the theme of cannibalism versus vegan ethics comes up. (I don't know what to say about it, other than that economics will ultimately decide the question for humans in the real world. Expenses of land use, water, and energy will eventually drive the cost of meat so high that most people will become de facto vegetarians for economic rather than ethical reasons.) One of Browne's zombies was a vegetarian when he was a breather, and let's just say he has trouble making the transition.

I'll stop short of throwing in the big spoiler here, but there's a whopper. Just remember, zombies will be zombies. Browne seems to say, if they can embrace that fact, they will be happier. But as long as you're a breather, you won't be.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Book Review: The Poet and the Billionaire

There is nothing so compelling as a new idea that's stood the test of time. Philosopher-author Jared Matthew Kessler has reinvented at least two of them -- the Socratic dialogue and the Zen notion that the answer is to be found in the question.

In The Poet and the Billionaire: A Personal Journey of Conversation, Kessler (the poet) conducts an ongoing correspondence with an anonymous guru (the billionaire), who advises a daily Process of self-empowerment by setting goals and attending to every detail with care, love, and commitment.

This little book is full of wit and wisdom and well worth a plane-ride span of your time to digest, although you may be spending the rest of your life working through the insights it stimulates in you.

I do take issue -- kindly, and not adamantly -- with the notion that guru equates with billionaire. I think it's really unfortunate, if not misguided, to think that your run-of-the-mill billionaire has any corner on spiritual insight. Supposedly Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey are nice people. I would guess that Warren Buffet is a decent sort, although I suspect he's more of a disciplined pragmatist than a philosopher. I would not under any circumstances, however, take personal advice from the likes of Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump. In the jargon of Hollywood, they are reputed to be attackers, not attractors.

If you carry New Age thinking to its extreme, you begin to wonder, if I'm so spiritual, why ain't I rich? But the corollary question might just as well be, if Mr. X is such a jerk, how come he's so stinking rich?

I'm reminded of that ancient Hippie quip, "There's no reason for anyone to work. The economy is strong enough to support everybody." (Admittedly, this was pre-meltdown, dot-com and real-bubble.)

I wish latter-day philosophers would take some economics courses just as much as I want some health-remedy hawks to take basic chemistry.

So I cringe the same way when I hear Christopher Howard talk about his crash-course in success, Billionaire Boot Camp. If just a few percent more of the world's population were billionaires, the rest of us would be devastated. There's this economic principle called inflation. A loaf of bread would cost a million bucks (as it did in pre-Nazi Germany for awhile), and those of us who aren't spiritual enough to become billionaires would literally starve.

Monday, May 4, 2009

How to Lie with Charts (original intro)

My most popular nonfiction book has been How to Lie with Charts. The first edition appeared in 1995. The book is now in its robust second edition and has been adopted for coursework at schools such as Georgetown Public Policy Institute and Empire State College.

The second edition omits the original introduction, which was not only a "reason to read" piece but also presents my satiric take on the history of computer graphics for business:

Truth is the Best Revenge
If you feel a twinge of guilt as you pick up this book, don't worry - you are among friends. I admit that the title is provocative, promising a tantalizing debasement of moral values, at least in the realm of business intercourse. But don't be ashamed that you are tempted to look behind the peepshow curtain. We have all been there, or wanted to. Make no mistake: The promise of the title is not false. In these pages can be found the potent means to work serious mischief. Call me an optimist, but I have a better opinion of your motives. I can think of several legitimate-even honorable-reasons for your wanting to know how to lie with charts, and I like to think those are the real reasons I wrote this book for you.

For the moment, then, let's assume that you're not a shameless, unprincipled liar who will stop at nothing in your frenzied scurry to the top of the heap. What is there for you here?

You may have been drawn to this book because you feel, as most of us have at one time or another, that you have been lied to. Whether you are a manager being presented with a suspiciously rosy sales forecast or an investor being enticed with a pretty addition to your portfolio, you could be easy prey for seductive chartmakers. Learning their nasty tricks is one way to even the odds, if not the score. (more)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Thoughts on Wolfram Alpha and Artificial Intelligence

I've been thinking about the announcement of the natural-language search engine Wolfram Alpha, which supposedly makes Google seem like a crude toy.

Humans have so many inherent limitations of perception. It is easily conceivable that within this century we will create a race of machines that are smarter (wiser?) than we are. (Sony is projecting 2011 for the year a computer can mimic human thought convincingly, the old Turing test.)

It all goes back to that famous saying of J.B.S. Haldane that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

If we build thinking machines that have sensory capabilities far surpassing ours (like cell phones "understand" microwaves), they may eventually be able to see into other dimensions, discover things literally beyond our ken. Presumably they could translate those experiences for us, but the more advanced they get, the more the translation will be like formulating lessons for little children. For example, could anyone hope to explain the Theory of Relativity to a five-year-old?

The current ethical problems of artificial insemination, cloning, stem cells, etc. will seem like child's play when world leaders have to decide whether to trust a computer that says "You can't possibly understand, but I know I'm right."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

I encountered Bill Bryson's work only recently (don't know how I missed him), but this is the third of his books I've read (you can read my reviews of his Shakespeare and The Thunderbolt Kid).

At 500-plus pages and with its compendious title, A Short History of Nearly Everything is the friendly bedside companion I expected it to be. Bryson is incurably curious, a trait all too rare in our entertainment-anesthetized society. What's more, he's obsessively curious about science, which elevates his geekiness to the level of sainthood, in my view. (I'd be willing to bet he has a well-thumbed copy of The Way Things Work, for example.)

As I read his description of nearly everything, I kept hearing the ghost of Carl Sagan muttering "billions and billions" in my ear. If nothing else, Bryson's comparative anecdotes -- if electrons were the size of beach balls (or it is the other way around?) -- will redefine your notions of small (substring size) and large (universe). I recall he had a similar penchant for numeric comparisons when he informed me that Shakespeare's vocabulary contained just 20,000 words and mine 50,000 but the bard personally coined at least 800 of mine.

I learned somewhere else that every breath we take includes about one air molecule that Julius Caesar breathed in his last breath. Bryson informs us that we share billions of molecules with our forebears. Nature recycles. Indeed, the Earth has only so many molecules, and the more complex elements including many we need to live had to be cycled through the furnaces of at least five stars to be manufactured. Just assembling the raw materials for life takes billions upon billions of years.

However, although we may contain a lot of Shakespeare and the detritus he shed over a lifetime, apparently Elvis shit is not yet sufficiently dispersed for all of us to be so full of him.

As Bryson has in the other two books of his I read, he slips into lessons that verge on sermonizing about the future of our race and planet. There is a lot of anger underneath his whimsy. But like him, I really wonder whether we will destroy our habitat or whether the planet will destroy us.

It would not have seemed so likely before the recent announcements from the scientific community that they have apparently been "underestimating" the extent and rate of global warming.

So I recalled a scientific curiousity that Bryson doesn't mention. But I wish he had. I'd like to have his take on it. Sagan was fond of it -- a mathematical formula called the Drake Equation. It's a series of ratios (probabilities) that, when multiplied together, predicts how many intelligent, communicative civilizations are likely to be in our galaxy.

The last factor in the Drake Equation is crucial and yet seemingly impossible for us to know. It's essentially the typical lifespan (actually, the communicative technological span) of an advanced civilization. Drake estimated it at 10,000 years.

If you plug that number into the formula, the result is about two. That is, there could be two potential civilizations in our galaxy with whom we could become Twitter friends, presuming we didn't mind the years-long communication delays as our tweets traverse the light-years between stars.

However, the Wiki article on the Drake Equation points out that the typical lifespan of ancient civilizations on Earth has been only a few hundred years. And the span of time since we've had radio telescopes for signaling has been about 70 years. And our prospects for longevity as a species are not looking all that good.

Civilizations may be as brief as summer roses in their beautiful flowering. (Shakespeare could have said that, but without my rich context.)

If that's true, don't bother to do the math. Our existence might not be the rarest of accidents, but for all practical purposes, there's no one else around at the moment.

That should make us feel very, very special. And very fortunate to have what we have, for however long we have it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Guest Post: Snobbery and Geekery

I’ve always thought of myself as a literary snob. I’ve got the credentials to prove it. Beyond those, I’ve stuck steadfastly to the notion of quality first and literary fiction only. But lately I’m not sure that my pomposity has served me well. Once I might have rejected everything even remotely smacking of genre out of hand. But even Boychik lit, and that’s about as opposite to literary snobbery as you get, is providing pleasure for me. Add to that my growing stack of audio books which even includes Grisham’s latest (and I'd always been particularly snooty about him, mainly because he earns more than I do), a couple of science fiction novels on their second time round, and my son’s pre-read young adult book, and I’m going to have to throw in the snob towel. Am I growing stupid? Am I following the shortening attention span of the public? Nah. I still love most (not all) of the Man Booker shortlist, and I still love the well turned phrase. Poetry is still my favourite literary form, and there hasn’t been a Julian Barnes novel I didn’t read twice. But I’m not sure I can use genre to define my reading habits anymore. It's just the usual broadening that comes with age (I'm not talking about my bottom).

I’m not entirely sure what the opposite of Boychik lit is. I know most people will say chick lit, but I don’t think that’s correct: chick lit might be parallel, but the rules are completely different and it certainly isn’t opposite. Maybe the opposite would be serious female fiction. But there are all sorts of connotations to the word “serious” that I no longer like in my new egalitarian clothes. Serious smacks of dullness, difficulty, intensity. And since my next novel is going to be funny (that’s my funny, which is a little black), I’m not going to slide in that direction. Instead, I’m going to go the way of all geeks and talk about forms of reading that don’t involve a physical book in the hand. Why? Because I went to bed for the past week with The Lord of the Rings playing on my i-pod, and it had a dramatic impact on my dreams. I also spent some of my time last week immersed in an electronic book of poetry. No, not on the um, Kindle. Instead I used my AA1. That’s a netbook or small laptop for those of you not as geeky as I am. Mine is Linux too (instead of Windows), and you don’t get geekier than that. I've become quite attached to it. When I finished my poetry book, I just downloaded another (in this case, a Penguin classic Jane Austin). Both books were .pdf and easily obtained from multiple vendors. There were no issues with formatting, no high purchasing costs (review copies actually, but the poetry book retails from the publisher for about $2 and the Austin is available free on Gutenberg) – I was able to bookmark and annotate and write my review all on the same machine I read on. Then I did some work on my next novel on the same machine. Best of all, it fits in my small handbag. Acer didn’t pay me to write this (though I'm open to it), and they didn’t provide me with the netbook free of charge either. At $320, it was cheap as chips though, and once they manage some kind of electronic paper screen (e-paper) as a standard or optional extra, I’m sure ebooks are going to replace the reading book. That's the kind of book you read, rather than book as artefact – there will always be a place for a beautiful edition on the shelf. But at least it will only be one shelf.

Of course at the moment the paperback is still a reasonably current sort of technology, and I'm old, so I do like holding one in my hands (still like vinyl too -- CDs just don't have the whole flip side/cover art thing going -- I don't buy them anymore though and they're awkward to store). Considering that I've got print books 3 deep on my 5 or so bookshelves and stacked in boxes under the bed, the benefits of electronic reading (and listening) are starting to seem significant. In the meantime, I’ll share my reading time between the old fashioned product, and the latest gadgets. It won’t have a jot of impact on the real test of quality: the simple response of a reader to wonderful words. That's timeless and technology independent.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything, and three other poetry chapbooks, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She also runs the podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

LA Opera Review - All A-Twitter!

Walter Braunfels' The Birds

Your country has just been humiliated in a disastrous war, in which it was the aggressor. A weak coalition of progressives and moderates has taken over the government, but they are printing so much money to pay the huge war debt that hyperinflation is sure to follow. Right-wing fanatics are just waiting for the opportunity to take over. You and your countrymen are looking for a way to repair your lost ideals and establish a new national identity and recover a sense of pride. You want to be optimistic, but you fear no matter what you try, the fates are allied against you.

It's Germany in 1920 (full review here)

(Photo by Robert Millar courtesy LA Opera)

Monday, April 6, 2009

G&G Review Die Walküre at LA Opera

Last Saturday night, Georja and I did our habitual gig stringing for and took in almost five hours of Die Walküre, the second installment in Richard Wagner's "Ring Cycle."

When I mention these exercises in cultural appreciation in this blog, I try to find some linkage to the theme of sexual politics to justify taking up space here. In the case of this opera, the accompanying press photo says it all. Designer-director Achim Freyer has Sieglinde (Anya Kampe) and Siegmund (Plácido Domingo) costumed literally as two halves of a whole. In the story, Siegmund is the mortal warrior-son of top- god Wotan, and, unbeknownst to Siegmund at first, Sieglinde is his estranged twin sister. To complicate matters, Sieglinde is married to the broad-chested, narrow-minded Hunding, who conveniently for the sake of dramatic conflict happens to be a loyal member of a clan that has sworn death to Siegmund.

(Photo by Monika Rittershaus)

So when battle-weary Siegmund literally stumbles onto the cozy hearth of Sieglinde and Hunding -- infatuation, recognition, love, adultery, incest, procreation, and death occur in rapid succession.

By all rights, Siegmund should be able to simply take what he wants in this situation. He is, after all, Wotan's son, and he is as certain as she is that Sieglinde is the only one for him. And to add to his worthiness, he is the only one who can pull the magic sword out of the ash tree in Sieglinde's backyard. The sword has defied all comers until now, having been stashed there by Wotan years ago against just such a needful contingency.

So it is doubly unfair that Wotan intervenes in the inevitable battle between Siegmund and Hunding, breaks the magic sword with his even-more-magical spear, and leaves our unfortunate hero exposed so he gets Hunding's knife in the back. And dies, as mortals do with such dramatic flourish.

Why did Wotan betray his son? Two reasons: First, because his wife Fricka (goddess of marriage) says the order of the universe won't be preserved unless the adultery-incest is punished. Second, because Siegmund's demigoddess half-sister Brünnhilde has defied Wotan and tried to save the young man -- another defiance of the natural order that keeps the gods in power.

But the story doesn't end there. One of Siegmund's lucky thrusts has made Sieglinde pregnant. After the expectant father's death in the battle with Hunding, Brünnhilde rescues and shelters Sieglinde. In the next installment of the Ring Cycle, baby Siegfried will grow up to become a powerful warrior himself, and he will rescue Brünnhilde from the bonds of Wotan's condemnation.

And those two will hook up. (Wagnerian audiences apparently didn't need the explanation, but let's just say Brünnhilde is placed in "suspended animation" so she's not an old hag by the time Siegfried is old enough to lust after her.)

What's it all mean? You could say that the universe really doesn't care much about human preoccupations with morality. Squeezing out the optimal next generation is the important thing.

Hitler was supposedly a big fan of both Wagner and his telling of this story. He wasn't much concerned with morality either.

If this isn't grist for sexual politics, I don't know what is. You can read our review of Die Walküre here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

One More Reason to Envy the French

Remember those ads for contraptions that train your pet to do it in the toilet? And then flush?

It's so like the French to take a different, less capital-intensive, approach. If you believe this street poster in Aix-en-Provence, the dogs of that village clean up after themselves. These savvy Gallic canines take it upon themselves to execute a "swipe of the paw for a cleaner city."

(Photo by the author)

So I'd say if this result is any indication, perhaps Mr. Sarkozy's advice on the banking crisis should be studied more carefully.

Then again, it's difficult to see how anyone can be motivated to clean up their own shit without some significant stimulus.

How I Approach Book Reviews

What should I do if I agree to write a review but I think the book, ah, lacking in merit?

In a public review, I either emphasize some aspect I found interesting or use some topic in the book to spin off into a related discussion on something that genuinely interests me.

Then, if there are obvious flaws the writer needs to know about, I send him/her a private email and I'll be frank. But even then it's usually along the lines of, I'm sure your second novel will be stronger now that you've gotten this out of your system. And actually, many first novels are throat-clearing for what comes next. I never want to be any writer's excuse for putting the pen down.

If the writer is more experienced and I didn't like the book, it probably has a lot to do with choice of subject matter or approach. Those are matters of taste and I have no trouble whatever saying what turned me off in my review. A good example would be my recent dual review of The Tourist and The Spanish Game (previous post on this blog).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dog Coaches Man to Write Funny Books

(Santa Monica, CA - March 21, 2009) In an unexpected confession today that stunned the publishing world, comic novelist Gerald Everett Jones admitted that he is not the author of the books that bear his name.

When confronted by an investigative reporter for the Daily Bloodhound who'd picked up a whiff of scandal, Jones claimed that he has established an exceptional and highly collaborative telepathic bond with Zucchero (aka Zookie), a ten-pound broken-coat Jack Russell terrier.

(Photo by Georja Umano)

"A lot of dog guardians are sure their pet understands everything they say, even knows what they're thinking," he said. "With us, the literary conversation is obviously in the other direction."

"She tells me what to write," he revealed. "It's just that simple. You could think of me as a stenographer or a personal secretary. For years I wrote nonfiction books and technical articles. Does anyone really believe I could suddenly be all that funny?"

Jones has difficulty, however, explaining the breadth and depth of the sophisticated world view and literary allusions in My Inflatable Friend and Rubber Babes, the first two books in his Rollo Hemphill series. (Jones maintains that his boychik lit is "hipper fratire.") "Yes," he said, "there's no doubt Zookie must be very well educated, besides having an uncanny sense of the comedic. But I've never seen her crack a book. She does watch some television, mostly Animal Planet and those six-dollar burger ads." Asked how the little dog came by all that knowledge, Jones surmised, "She was a rescue. So there's an unexplained time gap. I'm guessing she studied at NYU, maybe U of Iowa."

They are currently hard at work on the third installment, Farnsworth's Revenge: Rollo's End. "We work well together, and she pretty much gets her way. But she can be bossy. Sometimes I have to remind her there's no need to bark."

LA Literature Examiner: A Profile: Gerald Jones

LA Literature Examiner: A Profile: Gerald Jones

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Book Reviews: 'The Tourist' Plays 'The Spanish Game'

[cross-posted on]

I'm disappointed. But if all you expect in a spy thriller is a convoluted plot with suspense and surprises, you'll probably be satisfied.

My suspicion that Olen Steinhauer's The Tourist might be too similar to Charles Cumming's The Spanish Game proved correct, I'm sorry to say. No, the plots aren't the same, just equally complex. However, the characterizations in both books are rather shallow. It's all about action here, possibly so the movie plot "falls out" of the read for the jaded and not too bookish Hollywood buyer.

More significantly, the two main characters could well be the same person, although Milo Weaver (literally, the "straw man" from his name), the operative known as "the Tourist," is a dozen years older than Alec Milius in the Cumming book. Weaver is a Yank working for the Company and Milius is a Brit ex-agent, but both have the same M.O. They change identities like clothes, move effortlessly through the capitals of Europe, and in general act like work-obsessed commercial travelers (a deliberate ploy) who are tired of their jobs. When the cell phone rings and the proper code words are given, they go kill someone. They are not supposed to ask why, except when they can't help it and trigger yet another quest for truth. Yawn.

Both books are written in USA Today seventh-grade plain-vanilla style, which is to say, with as little distinctive literary style as possible. What those publishers want, apparently, is a quick page-turner with no aftertaste, a not-too-challenging pastime for that airline flight or a couple of diverting sessions on the beach during the obligatory family vacation.

To compare either of these writers to John Le Carre (as their jacket blurbs shamelessly do) is to ignore the master's mastery of character. At times, Weaver and Milius express regrets for things they've done. However, I know them so little, and care even less, that I simply don't buy their remorse. I had the same feeling when the movie version of Otto Schindler complained he could have saved one more. To that character, life decisions were equations, and in his case it just happened that the calculus worked in favor of morality.

As to plotting, if you remember The Maltese Falcon, it will come as no surprise that in these noirish worlds, your best friend (or lover or kindly boss) will be your betrayer, maybe even your executioner. Wouldn't it be a surprise if your worst enemy turned out to be your secret savior? I'm sure that, too, has been done, but not here. Expect four or five "surprise" connections, duplicities, and turnarounds from characters you've already met. Certainly, Weaver and Milius are sufficiently paranoid to always be on the lookout for them.

Once you're wise to their game, you'll be as tired of their jobs as they are.

Oh, and did I mention that the Americans are the bad guys? And their secret agenda is -- wait for this -- oil and world domination?

I include the links if despite my grousing you're a fan of the genre or you just want to say you read the book before the movie came out.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Does the Peter Rice Promotion Leverage Off Slumdog?

I've said for a long time if the studios would do one or two less $100M blockbusters a year and start 20 indies instead, their ROI would go up, although you can't predict which titles will be hits. (Like the book biz or music now.) You can bundle the investment offerings, as Disney often does, to package three movies, say, as a single offering. But investors in the movie business are greedy wildcatters. They don't want to spread the risk. They want a 10 multiple sure-thing. Hence the blockbuster mentality.

I'm sure Murdoch is doing the math. Movement toward the Web as distribution medium will also fracture the audience size even more. Like magazines now. And the recent writers and actors strikes/threats have had union-busting consequences. If it's an original for the Web, it's possible to do a lot nonunion and get around the rules. Or, at the very least, deferred pay, which permits you to start all kinds of losers without upfront opportunity cost.

I don't know much about Peter Rice but Fox Searchlight has hung in there when other boutique-spinoffs got closed. Warners closed their boutique distribution right in the middle of producing Slumdog Millionaire and that is why they did the split distribution deal with Searchlight. (And I don't think Disney has been as enthusiastic about Miramax since the Weinsteins left.)

Slumdog's success might change some thinking, maybe even was a factor in the decision to promote Rice.

Expect lots of Hollywood outsourcing to Bollywood, just like the software industry. They speak English and they're cheap and now they proved their global reach.

Monday, March 9, 2009

G&G Review Kirk Douglas at the Kirk Douglas

Amazing how far a guy can go with a dimple on his chin and a wickedly playful sparkle in his eye.

Georja and I took in his one-man show Before I Forget.

And speaking of sexual politics, 92-year-old Douglas has been married to his beloved Anne for more than a half-century now. He'd been married once before, and first wife Diana (mother to Michael and Joel) left him when she found out he'd strayed. Later, Anne was his assistant and language coach on a movie shoot in Paris. For his birthday, she threw him a surprise party - attended by most of the women he'd dated there, "including the one I'd been with last night."

He goes on to marvel, "How do they always know what we're doing?"

Great question, Kirk. Post a comment if you think you know the answer.

Which leads me to wonder, why isn't the head of Homeland Security a woman?

You can read our review for here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book Review: Bill Bryson's Shakespeare

Ever since I learned that Gerald and Shakespeare both mean "spear chucker," I've had a long-standing Jones for the Bard. Quite coincidentally, a colleague recently suggested that I'd enjoy anything written by Bill Bryson. My friend suggested A Walk in the Woods or A Short History of Nearly Everything. The first sounded too much like a mossy travelogue and the ambitious scope of the second seemed far too cumbersome for casual sampling. So Bryson's biography, Shakespeare: The World As Stage, was the irresistible choice for me.

I can now agree that Bryson may be the most entertaining nonfiction writer I've ever read. He dares to be a stylist in these days of plain-vanilla journalism, and that is praiseworthy in itself. Perhaps it's in the blood: His father was a sportswriter with the flair of an H. L. Menken or a Heywood Hale Broun.

Apparently Bryson was assigned to write Shakespeare as an entry in the Eminent Lives series from Atlas Books (a HarperCollins imprint, a News Corporation subsidiary, a Viacom competitor, and a prize possession of Rupert Murdoch et al). Right off, Bryson seems bewildered that so much material has been generated about the most illustrious English dramatist -- and most of it on scanty and even nonexistent evidence. You can almost hear Bryson implore, "I got stuck with writing this, now how do I fill a few hundred pages without making stuff up?" He starts by describing the Chandos portrait (shown here), and after tantalizing us with intriguing details about the wealth of the sitter (apparent from the dark clothes, which require lots of expensive dye) to the earring (as rakish on a man then as now), the embarrassed biographer bestows the fact that no one knows whether this most famous likeness is actually the person we've been told it is.

Bryson chatters on, quite amusingly, making much ado about nothing as he overturns reams of research. Perhaps because statistics offer some hope of solid evidence, he informs us that Shakespeare's vocabulary included about 20,000 words. You probably know about 50,000, but today's world is a more complex place. But -- and here's the astounding factoid -- when Shakespeare couldn't find an appropriate word, he apparently made one up.

In fact, Shakespeare contributed about 800 words to your 50K. Among these coinages are: abstemious, antipathy, assassination, barefaced, critical, eventful, excellent, frugal, indistinguishable, leapfrog, lonely, well-read, zany, and, as Bryson quips, countless others, including countless.

Suffice it to say Shakespeare must have had a fairly deep knowledge of Latin and Romance-language root words and syllables, to so effectively concoct and combine new polysyllabic English ones. Is this more grist for the grinders who allege Shakespeare was in fact someone else? Bryson does not comment specifically, but he does a credible job of debunking various Baconian and Marlovian speculations later in the book.

Shakespeare's turns of a phrase also enhanced the language. Many of his inventions are cliches of modern speech (Bryson's compilation): one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, remembrance of things past, beggar all description, cold comfort, to thine own self be true, more in sorrow than in anger, the wish is father of the thought, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, tower of strength, pomp and circumstance, and foregone conclusion.

The King James Bible was a new translation back then. Most spiritual and scholarly works were still being written in Latin. So the English Bible and Shakespeare's plays apparently contributed more to our daily discourse than you'd think.

I plan to read lots more Bryson, and thanks to him I now admire William Shakespeare (whoever he was) more than ever.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Book Review: The Long Lavender Look

Time was, I was a big fan of John D. MacDonald (he was still alive then). I believe I read all of the Travis McGee books, of which this is one. I also read Condominium, one of his attempts at literary fiction, and predictably it was a disappointment. The power of the McGee books is in the genre and in the attitude. Dirty dealings and benign cynicism.

Trav is a very 'Sixties hero, with parallels to James Bond. Like Bond, McGee is a garbage-collector of the vile detritus left behind by the world's evil geniuses (and quite a few just plain idiotic criminals reminiscent of Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino stories). Trav is also both a lover and an exploiter of beautiful women -- some smart, some dumb, all in some kind of trouble. And, as in the Bond stories, the ones he loves too much end up dead, usually horribly so, at the hands of the elusive monster-du-jour. Revenge then adds to Trav's justification for giving back as bad as his girlie got, or worse.

As an education in the underside of Florida real-estate schemes and political corruption, MacDonald's books are delightful and unexpected discoveries. You also get a strong dose of macroeconomic theory anytime McGee engages his neighbor Meyer Meyer in intellectual banter, whom we find sitting next to him in the speeding old Rolls pickup truck in the opening pages of Lavender.

But what strikes me as I pick up this book again is the depth of the cruelty MacDonald conjures. It's really ugly, voyeuristic, more shocking than the scummiest story in today's Enquirer. Leonard dishes out such material with a sigh, Tarantino with a chortle. I'm not sure where MacDonald stands, but suffice it to say his opinion of human nature is not too high.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Boychik's Los Angeles Events Next Weekend

Reflections Publishing 2nd Annual Writers Seminar (Free)
January 24, 2009 01:00PM
LAX Radisson Hotel, 6225 W. Century Blvd, Los Angeles, CA, The United States
Gerald will appear on a panel to discuss "Making Early Decisions that Affect, Duh, Everything!" Intended particularly for memoirists, his examples will address point of view, voice, plot, emotional subplots, and structure, as well as editorial discipline to support those decisions. He will be joined by Robin Quinn of Quinn's Word for Word, a respected ghostwriting and editorial service.

Reading at Barnes & Noble at the Grove (LA)
January 25, 2009 02:00PM
Barnes & Noble at the Grove, 189 Grove Dr. Suite K30, Santa Monica, CA, The United States
Gerald will read from the forthcoming third comic novel in the Rollo Hemphill series, "Farnsworth's Revenge: Rollo's End." His reading is part of IWOSC Reads Its Own, sponsored by the Independent Writers of Southern California.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

G&G Review 'The Magic Flute' at LA Opera

Masonic ritual is fun and games! A flute and a few bells are potent weaponry against villainy! Enlightenment is a stroll through a translucent pyramid!
Life is paradox, and paradox is just damn funny.

Read all about it here.

The Freemasons were not exactly latter-day feminists, but at least in this production, the princess joins the prince as they both scramble to the top of the pyramid of wisdom.

(Photos by Robert Millar courtesy LA Opera)

Monday, January 5, 2009

G&G Savor Pink Martini

On New Year's Eve, Georja and I took in Pink Martini's performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. You can read our review for here.

Besides obvious musical virtues we mention in our review, I want to give Pink Martini credit for their business savvy. They've released three successful albums so far, all under their own label (Heinz Records, named for artistic director Thomas Lauderdale's late, beloved dog). So even though their CDs have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, this world-touring band is not answering to one of the big music labels. Like the best small-press book publishers, they are actively engaged in -- and apparently profiting from -- what I like to call "garage-band marketing."

A further thought in this New Year: In just a few years, Pink Martini has done a beautiful job of inventing itself as a "little orchestra," including building a well-deserved reputation for both musical virtuosity and originality. And they are perpetually reinventing old music genres like torch songs, Latin ballroom, and club tunes.

So I commend them to you not only as artistic but also as lifestyle role models.

Because it's going to be a year when we all need to think hard about reinventing just about everything in our lives just to cope!

Pianist-composer Thomas B. Lauderdale and lead vocalist-songwriter China Forbes of Pink Martini.
(Photo by Sherri Diteman courtesy Pink Martini)