Thursday, August 31, 2006

Daniel Scott Buck: The Greatest Show on Earth

But for one little problem -- which I will come to at the end -- Daniel Scott Buck's The Greatest Show on Earth could easily have been published by Random House or Little Brown or HarperCollins. It is a fully professional, rather polished, thoughtful, well conceived and well executed piece of work. You can easily imagine (apart from the one little problem) this novel being in the same catalogue as, for example, John Barlow's Intoxicated.

As things are, however, The Greatest Show on Earth is published by iUniverse, which means self-published. And it is therefore further proof, if you need any, that it would be a very big mistake to dismiss all the output of such firms as worthless rubbish.

Daniel Scott Buck works as an investigator at the public defender's office in Portland, Oregon, so you would expect him, perhaps, to write a novel about crime. But this isn't about crime. It's about Reality TV -- a term which may or may not require a capital R.

Now if you've got a long memory, and you've been reading this blog for a while, you will recall that I too wrote a novel about reality TV. My novel is called How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous, and there's a link to it in the right-hand column of this blog.

Both my novel and Daniel Scott Buck's could reasonably be called satires. But if we compare the two, we find differences. My satire is English and under-stated; it's a rather elderly pussy-cat, a bit sleepy, lacking most of her teeth, and not likely to do much harm to anyone. Daniel's book, by contrast, is a hungry tiger, with very sharp claws, immensely powerful jaws, and a nasty temper; make one wrong move and you get your head bitten off.

The blurb on the back of Daniel's book also describes it as a black comedy, which is true I think, though it's more black than comedy. And the blurb adds that 'satire, it has been said, is not possible in America because everything eventually comes true.... The Greatest Show on Earth is a timely commentary about the media frenzy surrounding allegations of sex abuse.'

What happens in this book, essentially, is that a young woman (Meme Lamb -- not the most subtle of nomenclatures) who is desperate for fame and attention meets a 'psychotherapist' who is also desperate for celebrity and will do anything to achieve it. The pair of them then get thrown in with a reality-TV huckster who doesn't care what lies are told or who gets hurt so long as he gets the ratings.

This portrait of the therapist as con artist is both so ridiculous as to be comic and yet, at one and the same time, painfully close to a good many familiar faces on television. How many sad and confused people are there who have been convinced, by some (at best) well-meaning fool that they have 'repressed' the memory of childhood sexual abuse? And as far as UK citizens are concerned, this book will also bring to mind all those therapists and social workers who succeeded in separating scores of children from their parents because of alleged 'satanic abuse' -- the evidence for which was, to most observers, non-existent. (See the latest issue of Private Eye for yet another account of their influence.)

Before long, Meme's apartment is fully wired for sound and vision (just as Harry's house was in my book). And when the TV show starts, and the therapist is under pressure to produce yet more and more cases of multiple personality, lives previously lived as Egyptian slave girls, and so forth, we are once again reminded that you have only to switch on your TV to see only slightly less extreme examples of real-life manipulation of the gullible, both as participants and spectators.

And now, perhaps, you begin to see why this book isn't published by Random House, Little Brown, or HarperCollins. It's because it's too brutally, painfully true. Too upsetting, too worrying, too likely to offend too many influential people.

Any reasonable book editor, reading this, would have turned pale with horror at the thought of what it might do to her career. My goodness me, she would have said (or words to that effect), this man is criticising television! He exhibits a deep-seated contempt for the self-help industry! He clearly has no time for counsellors, advisors, therapists!

Holy excrement, what will the guy do next? His next book might -- falls into panic attack and begins Cheyne-Stoking -- criticise politics! Or he might even criticise -- blacks out entirely but can just be heard saying as she falls to the floor: -- religion! Arrrgghhhhh! Fails to be be revived by concerned secretary, and, at the subsequent inquest, the coroner orders that the offending manuscript be destroyed before it can damage anyone else.

Apart from the author's own home page, there are several web sites associated with this book, all of which (just to set you right) are postmodernist conceits. Meme Lamb has her own little rant; and you can, of course, buy products which carry her name. Why not? The woman is a star! She's been on TV! And then there's an opportunity to audition for the S&M Show. Hey! Don't worry about the blood! It's not real! This is TV!

Read the book.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Further instalment

OK, let's see if we can catch up a bit more on last week's backlog, and, who knows, perhaps eliminate it entirely. There is also new stuff, of course.

Lost Girls

Galleycat, like me, seems to have been wondering whether the forces of darkness would prevent publication of Lost Girls, which was originally supposed to have been out by now. The Comics Reporter has an answer -- sort of.

Anatomy of a Malignant Blogger

Just occasionally I get a comment which takes me to task for something -- and quite rightly so, in the majority of cases, but I don't get anything that might even remotely be called hate-mail (is this tempting fate?).

Anyway, there are those who do. For example, here's a blog which was found by son Jon, and mentioned in his blog. It's called Dooce, or Anatomy of a Malignant Blogger, and it's run by Heather Armstrong.

The first thing that struck me is that Heather generates some serious traffic. If you read her piece about hate-mail you will see that there are 570 comments! Holy mackerel Sapphire, as someone once said.

In the About This Site section, Heather gives a lengthy and very frank description of herself. She says, for instance, the following:

My parents raised me Mormon, and I grew up believing that the Mormon Church was true. In fact, I never had a cup of coffee until I was 23-years-old. I had pre-marital sex for the first time at age 22, but BY GOD I waited an extra year for the coffee. There had better be a special place in heaven for me.
But perhaps the most interesting bit is where she says:

In October 2005 I began running enough ads on this website that my husband was able to quit his job and become a Stay at Home Father (SAHF) or a Shit Ass Ho Fuckingbadass. He takes both very seriously. This website now supports my family.
Higher up, just to counterbalance what she says about hubby, she describes herself as 'a Stay at Home Mom (SAHM) or a Shit Ass Ho Motherfucker. I do both equally well.'

Well, that's all very interesting (to me), but it's not a good start to this clearing the backlog business. I really must try not to get distracted.

Education and the teaching of English

Frank Kermode (big name in Eng. Lit.) talks to John Sutherland in the Guardian (link from Universities, he says, 'are being driven by madmen'. And education in general 'is being run by lunatics'. My thoughts more or less exactly, except that the people driving the universities are not the academics but politicians. For an Eng. Lit. man, Kermode talks a lot of sense. Most of them don't.


The story is a little cold now, but worth drawing attention to if you missed it. Anonymous blogger writes about sex life, gets a book contract, maintains anonymity even from publisher, and then gets outed by national newspaper. Is this right? Anyway, she's still blogging. Maybe next year she will work it up into a show for Edinburgh. Thanks to Anastasia for the link.

More anonymity

Speaking of anonymous authors, here's another slightly cold story. It's about a man who started again in his wife's name -- in book world terms. Paul Garrison is the man, and he found what many another writer has found before him, namely that you're only as good as your last book. Thanks to Octavia for the link.

Brodie McHaggis

Helen Campbell had an unhappy experience with a publisher and so decided to go her own way instead. She set up Chloe Publishing (which all looks very professional) and put out a book aimed at the 8-12 year-olds: Brodie McHaggis and the Secret of Loch Ness. Despite being aimed at young readers, the book is proving popular with adults, the oldest of whom is 97. Brodie has his own official web site.

Further cores for concern

In this morning's Times a gentleman reports that he once had a letter telling him that the village church now had a cure it. Presumably appointed on the strength of a claim to have healing hands.

Productivity notes

The Book Standard has a link to an article about Nora Roberts in the New York Times. It seems that she is about to publish her 166th book, and that her output now exceeds that of Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz and Danielle Steel -- combined. Thirty-one of Nora Roberts's books have debuted -- debuted, mind you -- at number one on the NYT bestsellers list.

I haven't read any of the output, but a friend who has read quite a number says that certain plot patterns tend to be repeated -- which is scarcely surprising -- but that doesn't seem to have put my friend off reading more.

Banning those wicked, wicked books

Abebooks -- an organisation which is, naturally, always trying to figure out ways to get you to buy more books -- has a little feature on books that have raised hackles here and there. This list is compiled by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and includes some unusual candidates.


There is a new issue of StorySouth now available online, and the magazine is open to submissions for the fall 2006 issue -- which I find a bit surprising, since most of these places have their story slots filled for months if not years ahead.

Swedish book sales prosper

I once had a book published in Denmark (and in Danish at that), and it seemed to do OK, so I was not altogether surprised to hear that book sales in Sweden are rising steadily -- 40% up on 1999. Martin Rundkvist at Salto Sobrius has the gen.

While you're there, you can also read, in the right-hand column, a brief review of my 2003 collection of short stories, King Albert's Words of Advice.

Oops -- we missed it

Monday 21 August was the equivalent of Bloomsday -- at least in terms of Jew Girl by EminemsRevenge. Jew Girl was discussed here on 1 May. It is a book heavily influenced by the work of James Joyce, and hence the action takes place all on one day.

You can, theoretically, read more about Reuvensday on the author's blog post for 21 August. Be warned, however, that the blog is hosted on xanga, and you may have to fight your way into xanga by registering, which is fairly tedious.

Lyle Stuart

Obituaries sometimes appear in the Times well after the reported death of the person in question, and so it is with Lyle Stuart, who died on 24 June 2006, aged 83.

Lyle Stuart was a publisher with a passionate belief in the First Amendment to the American constitution; that is to say, he believed in the right of individuals to say what they think, regardless of how painful, embarrassing, or antisocial such opinions might be.

It made for an interesting life.

L Lee Lowe interviewed

Lee Lowe has been mentioned here in the past because of his online novel for young adults, Mortal Ghost. Clare Dudman, Keeper of the Snails, has been reading it with interest, and has interviewed Lee to find out more. Another interesting life.

Hotel Chelsea blog

The Hotel Chelsea blog continues to publish extraordinary stories about those who have stayed at the hotel. You might try, for instance, this piece about Stefan Brecht, son of the playwright, who maintained a writing studio at the hotel throughout the eighties and nineties.

The devil you know

Yes, I complain about Blogger. But guess what -- other blog-hosting services aren't perfect either. James Long took his New Tammany College to Wordpress and, er, well, that one's a bit of a bitch too.

Other problems about Blogger that I forgot to mention the other day are:

Control + z doesn't undo, the way it's supposed to.
When you create an inset block quote from some other source, you have to painstakingly reformat it so that you don't get short lines.
And doubtless a few others that I can't think of right now.

What a happy life the blogger's is.

Michael Cox

Today's Times has a short profile of Michael Cox, whose first novel has sold for a UK record (the Times says) of £430,000. It's an extraordinary story, but I suspect that this particular author would gladly give his book away for free if he could have his health back.

The Meaning of Night is due out in September, and's previewers seem to like it.

Kitten Natividad survives

Finally some light relief. With an X certificate, so if that bothers you, you can click off now.

Some readers have long memories, and Kiana remembered that I have a lingering adolescent interest in the career of an obscure actress by the name of Kitten Natividad. Well, actually, actress is pushing it a bit. Stripper and porn star is more like it.

Kiana kindly sent me a link to a recent appearance by Kitten on a phone-in show called Ring My Bell. And behold -- there is a video clip.

This is great fun. She talks very, very frankly about sex, alcoholism, Russ Meyer, having bust-enlargement treatment in Mexico with industrial-standard products, breast cancer, and more sex. She is very funny indeed about George Michael.

Kitten was never remotely shy about appearing nude in films, and if you want a good example, try Takin' It Off from 1985. Oddly, however, nude photos of her on the web are hard to find. (And believe me, I've tried.) But you can get a glimpse of her here.

In 1989 Kitten had a double mastectomy for breast cancer, but she seems to be using prosthetics of roughly the same size as before, which I think is sensible. She sounds to have had a rough old life, what with one thing and another, but as a matter of fact she looks better on the video than when I last saw her, on German TV, shortly before the cancer.

I admire Kitten Natividad for two reasons. First, she never took herself very seriously, and everything she did (that I saw) was fun. Second, she was a woman whose sole asset was her breasts, and she lost them to cancer, but despite that she is still with us, and still cheerful. Neither of these is a negligible achievement.

Short reviews

It has finally dawned on me that if I am ever to mention all the books in the increasingly large pile beside my desk, I am going to have to write shorter reviews than is my wont. So here are a few to begin with.

Peter Bourne: The Deserter

Peter Bourne is another Macmillan New Writing talent, and The Deserter is due for publication on 6 October.

This is a contemporary novel, and Bourne's principal character is Lev Dubnow, a middle-aged Jewish doctor who has taken British citizenship. He returns to Israel following the death of his father, and is less than impressed by what he finds there. He discovers that even a Jew can be unwelcome in Israel if he says things that the majority don't want to hear.

In the end Lev's habit of saying what he thinks gets him (a) stabbed and (b) deported.

Peter Bourne has evidently spent a lot of time in the Near East himself, and I would imagine that Lev Dubnow's views are pretty much the author's own. In other words, this is a serious book about a serious subject, namely Israel's relationship with its near neighbours, and the country's treatment of the Palestinians in particular.

The author writes very well, and the bulk of the story is told through dialogue, which is always a smart move. Serious books do not, however, always make for fun reading, and I can't say that I actually enjoyed the experience all that much. And if you want to add something to your list of nasty things to worry about, here's another one, from page 223:
In a world where a nuclear device of some sort can be purchased for the price of a flat in central London anything could happen here at any time.
Julian Maclaren-Ross: Collected Memoirs

A few weeks ago, Robert McCrum wrote an Observer column about Julian Maclaren-Ross which prompted me to track down a copy of Maclaren-Ross's Collected Memoirs. Here's a taste of what McCrum said:
Maclaren-Ross was the laureate of London's post-war literary demi-monde, once best known as the model for X Trapnel in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. As a bon viveur with a capacity for hard living and moments of extraordinary imagination, he would be talked about in Charlotte and Old Compton Street for decades. In his camel-hair coat, with his cigarette holder, and silver topped Malacca cane, Julian Maclaren-Ross was not only the star of his own inimitable show, he was also the glamorous, and doomed representative of a vanishing, Saki-esque world, the London of Francis Bacon, John Heath-Stubbs, Dylan Thomas and, much later, Jeffrey Bernard.
So, as I say, I read Maclaren-Ross's Collected Memoirs. And everything that has been said about his writing is true.

Yes, Maclaren-Ross evokes time and place in vivid detail. But the problem, for me, is that he is largely writing about the period from 1935 to 1945, with the emphasis perhaps on the 1940s. And that was an absolutely hideous period of English life. In the 1940s we were either fighting a desperate war or trying frantically to get back on our feet after it. These were drab, dreary, depressing times, and by God it shows.

Not only that, but for most of these years, when he was not in the army, Maclaren-Ross was trying to make a living as a freelance writer, and he records his experiences in appalling, horrifying detail. Time after time he describes meeting publishers, or talking to the BBC, or trying to contact film producers and directors. This was at a point in his life when he often had no money, no food, and no heating, in the middle of a brutal winter. If you have ever been tempted to give up the day job and try this writing life for yourself, then perhaps you should read this book; after which committing suicide by regularly ingesting arsenic over a three-year period will come to look like a much more sensible alternative.

I have argued elsewhere that the experience of two world wars, in the early twentieth century, not only deprived England of nine tenths of its best and brightest young men and women, but also ensured that those who remained were driven insane. And Maclaren-Ross's memoirs provide living proof of that. No wonder he took refuge in drink and drugs, and no wonder he died young.

Many famous names appear in these pages. But do not rely on the index. Nina Hamnett, for example, was a well known artist, and the index says that she appears on page xx. Which she does, but she also appears on page 317. Nina was another of those crazy characters who propped up the bars of Soho. She was inclined, when the mood took her, to go on drinking until she was quite incapable of staggering anywhere; at which point she would carefully, and discreetly, be sick into her handbag.

Only occasionally do these pages raise a smile, as when the author tells us of an army pal called Ginger. The platoon sergeant did not regard Ginger as reliable; not after he was found peering into a hand grenade to see how the thing worked, after first having removed the pin.

Oh, by the way. Maclaren-Ross mentions a novel called The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, the author of which, he says, was unknown. Not any more he isn't: it was Ernest Borneman, who in the 1950s was a well known jazz critic. Borneman wrote the Floor book before he was twenty.
For the average bookish person these Collected Memoirs might be a fascinating read, for through their pages walk all the big names; but for anyone with literary ambitions, or any experience of trying to sell written work, they are uniquely horrible.

James Aylett and James Lark: Fringe

I mentioned Aylett and Lark's Fringe last week, in my discussion of the Edinburgh fringe festival, and now I've read it in full. The subtitle is 'seeing it, doing it, surviving it -- a complete guide to the Edinburgh fringe', and the book does what it says on the label.

Aylett and Lark are part of the theatre group The Uncertainty Division, and I suspect that this book will be most useful to anyone who wants to mount a show at Edinburgh; but it is also valuable to anyone who just wants to go there. At least you will understand how difficult it is to put on a fringe show (which doesn't stop 1800 different outfits from doing the job each year), and you might be a little less impatient and a bit more appreciative as a result.

The book has a lot of other useful information, about where to stay, where to eat, and what to avoid. Those who hang around the fringes of the fringe also get measured up. Scientologists, seeking to find converts, get given fairly short shrift, as do the street entertainers who pose as statues -- a group of alleged performers 'so talentless that they wouldn't even be considered for Big Brother.'

A good book for a tenner.

Wei-Meng Lee: Google Blogger

Novels are, in my view, relatively cheap when compared with other forms of entertainment, but non-fiction books can reasonably be compared with free sources of information. And here Wei-Meng Lee's Google Blogger falls down badly.

Google Blogger is a book which aims to teach you how to use Blogger, the software tool cum web server which hosts this very blog and about ten million others. And, well, yes, I guess the book does do that. Its accuracy has been assured by Biz Stone, a big name in early blogging and former senior specialist on the Google Blogger team.

On the other hand, this book does not, so far as I can see, tell you anything that you can't find out from Blogger Help or Knowledge. Furthermore, it doesn't answer some very important questions. Such as:

Why is Blogger so goddamned slow, even with broadband?
Why, when I click on the spell-check icon, does the spell-check box sometimes not appear?
Why does the spell-checker not recognise the words blog and blogger?
Why does the facility for setting the date and time of a post not appear by default, as it used to?

And so on. Sorry, but this one ain't worth the money.

Logan Pearsall Smith: A Treasury of English Aphorisms

I was going to say that Logan Pearsall Smith was an old-fashioned English man of letters. Except that I now discover that he was an American who settled in London. But he was a Balliol man, and that's about as English as you can get, even if you weren't born here.

About fifty years ago, a schoolmaster of mine recommended that I should read LPS's Trivia. And I fully intend to, when I find a copy. And actually I have no excuse now, because it seems to be available on Project Gutenberg. The Gutenberg page includes the following hilarious comment: 'Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook.' Oh dear oh dear. Laugh? I nearly had a nasty accident.

Anyway, that schoolmasterly comment about Trivia led me, when poking around a dusty old bookshop, to buy A Treasury of English Aphorisms, published by Constable in 1928.

You don't hear much about aphorisms these days, though Noah Cicero, you may recall, had some in Burning Babies. And should you not be familiar with the term, an aphorism is defined by Oxford as 'a pithy observation which defines a general truth'.

LPS begins his short book with a fifty-page essay on the aphorism through the ages, and, as you would expect, this is learned, scholarly, and slightly dull. There the follow a substantial collection of aphorisms, drawn from both ancient and modern writers of many different nationalities. These are grouped under about seventy different headings, such as Fashion, Flattery, Art, Religion, and so forth.

My reading of this book led to me to two conclusions. One, that our time does not lend itself to the construction or dissemination of aphorisms; somehow they don't match the modern age. And two, if LPS's collection represents the accumulated wisdom of the western world, then perhaps we haven't learnt very much.

But I may be wrong. Anyway, here are a handful of aphorisms relating (vaguely) to books and publishing;

The reciprocal civility of authors is one of the most risible scenes in the farce of life. (Dr Johnson)

Praise is the tribute which every man is expected to pay for the grant of perusing a manuscript. (Ditto)

The man who is asked by an author what he thinks of his work, is put to the torture, and is not obliged to speak the truth. (Ditto)

Envy, among other ingredients, has a mixture of the love of justice in it. We are more angry at undeserved than at deserved good fortune. (Hazlitt)

Our business in this world is not to succeed but to continue to fail, in good spirits. (R.L. Stevenson)

Success is the necessary misfortune of life, but it is only to the very unfortunate that it comes early. (Trollope)

Very few men, properly speaking, live at present, but are providing to live another time. (Swift)

I must complain the cards are ill-shuffled, till I have a good hand. (Also Swift)

Monday, August 28, 2006

Monday oddments

Systematic failure and cores for concern

In the past week or two, the Times has been featuring occasional correspondence on the use and abuse of the apostrophe, and other simple but common errors in grammar and spelling.

There was, for instance, a correspondent whose son had received a commercially printed birthday card which declared proudly 'Now Your 18'. She asked her son whether he could see anything wrong with this. Nope. Looked OK to him. So she asked all his friends. Blank looks all round.

Then there was the person whose offspring was at a university. This particular institution decided that, in some parts of a building, it was necessary to don protective clothing. So a sign went up saying 'Where over all's'.

And today we have a story about the manager of a local supermarket who periodically pins up a sign for customers which reads 'You're toilets'.

Education is the industry to which I devoted an entire working lifetime, and this is the result. I think I may have to fall on my sword. However, I did my bit. The boys in my English class certainly knew the difference between your and you're. And about fifteen years ago I took part in a public debate in the pages of the Guardian, about whether or not it was important to teach children such things. After the dust had settled the features editor of the Guardian wrote to me and said that she and I had been the only two people, out of scores of contributors, who had thought that the teaching of grammar, spelling and punctuation were remotely important. For the rest, all that mattered was that children should 'express themselves'.

Fifty million and rising

The Financial Times on Saturday had a not very interesting article about blogging, but it did contain the information that Technorati recently tracked its 50 millionth blog; and revealed that 175,000 new weblogs are being created every day.

A cartoon accompanied this piece. It showed a gang of monkeys working on keyboards, and in the background one scientist says to another, 'They never managed to produce a Shakespeare play on typewriters but we're confident they'll create a viable blog.'

Ho ho ho.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times says that Washington has been hit by 'the curse of the kid bloggers'. What is happening, apparently, is that the children of leading politicians are going online and are saying things which might prove embarrassing to their parents. Embarrassing, that is, if you live a life of breathtaking hypocrisy, which is what most politicians do.

I was going to say that none of this is remotely surprising. Why should we expect, I was going to say, that politicians' kids would be any different from anyone else's? But actually, when you think about it, there are quite good reasons why politicians' kids should be whackier than average.

For a start, Dad is never there. He's far too busy being an important mover and shaker. Secondly, when he is there, the kids hear him sounding off about this and that in forthright terms, only to see him on TV the next day saying the exact opposite, or making a statement which, when examined closely, says absolutely nothing at all. Such close exposure to the political process is pretty much guaranteed, one might think, to engender a more than usually high level of disgust, distrust, and contempt. Hence the habit of some daughters of dancing on bar tops and posting the pictures on the net. Fuck all that, you can practically hear them saying, this is what life is really all about.

Game for anything

Speaking of the young, I had my vocabulary enlarged yesterday. I found a new meaning (well, new to me) of the word 'game'.

Game, it seems, is the ability to talk people into things. Used-car salesmen have game. Real-estate agents have game. The people who talk you into buying an extended warranty on a washing machine, they’ve got game. And so, of course, have the young men who excel at chatting up the ladies.

Should you wish to pursue the matter, there are books on the subject. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these seem to concentrate on the sexual side of things. You could try, for instance, Neil Strauss's The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.

This was published by Regan Books in 2005 and comes in a leather-bound edition. (Leather-bound? No, I have no idea either.) And if you go to you find that the book has an average of 4.5 stars from 355 reviews, which is like serious stuff man. Most of us can summon up two or three friends who will say nice things on Amazon, but 355 must include a few genuine readers.

The Publishers Weekly review, quoted on Amazon, is worth reading for an insight into life as it is lived today. Although, if you've been watching Sex and the City, you probably know all about that already.

Neil Strauss is not without online references. You can find him on wikipedia and there is also quite an interesting interview with him on the Attraction Chronicles. Apart from anything else he seems to be a more than capable writer, both under his own name and as a ghost for celebrities.

There are other writers on the same subject, such as Tariq Nasheed: essential reading if you have ambitions to be a successful pimp.

But what, you may be wondering, does this have to do with publishing? Well, apart from shifting a lot of books, which is of more than passing interest, surely these techniques could be adapted by the shy retiring types who are having trouble finding an agent, publisher, or both. It is certainly clear that, in order to succeed in today's high-pressure book world, you need to be a first-class hustler. And if, having finally got a book into print, you can get out there and talk the talk, so much the better.

Deja vu time

You won't believe this, but there is yet another story circulating that Tim Waterstone is putting together a bid for his old shop. This is the seventh attempt, according to the Scotsman. (Link from

Book Festivals

Also in the Scotsman, Stuart Kelly wonders why people attend book festivals, his context being the book festival which runs in Edinburgh alongside the Fringe and everything else.

This is a good question. I was in Edinburgh at the time of the book festival, and I looked through the programme and found nothing that I was really keen to see. A couple of things that I might have gone into to get out of the rain perhaps. I also live within comfortable reach of Bath, Cheltenham, and Frome, all of which have literary festivals of some sort each year. And in ten years I've bothered to go to two items, only one of which was worth the effort (agent Mark Lucas talking about ghost writing).

Come to think of it though, I did once have a play performed in Bath for two nights, as part of a tour, and that was, technically, part of the literary festival. So I have actually taken part. Crumbs.

British taste

Last Friday's Graudian carried a disquisition upon British readers' current taste in books. Mark Lawson clearly knows his stuff and writes well. He points out that, of the top ten bestselling books in the UK last week, eight are depressing. Only eight?


Well, we still haven't cleared the backlog of stuff backed up from last week. But lunch beckons.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Stuff for the weekend

OK. There are lots and lots of interesting snippets this week, so we'll get through as many as we can. In no particular order.

Clive Keeble interviewed

Clive Keeble, the Sherlock Holmes de nos jours and unmasker of book thieves, is due to be interviewed by BBC TV Manchester, yea this very morning. Norman Buckley, the book thief in question, is expected to be sentenced today. Those of you who live in the Manchester area, tune in.

It seems that the BBC actually read my piece about this affair, the main part of which was of course Clive's own statement to the police.

Ellroy's working methods

The University of South Carolina has apparently acquired the working papers of James Ellroy, a writer who was mentioned here recently as recovering from a 'three-year crack-up'. The librarian who is handling the papers reports that the 'outline' for L.A. Confidential is 'over 200 pages of single-spaced narrative. It’s a full plot summary of everything that’s going to happen in the book. Ellroy seems to do this for all his novels.'

Crumbs. Over 200 pages, single-spaced? And that's an outline? Now wonder the guy fell ill. (Link from Maud Newton.)

Further down in the same post (click on the Maud Newton link immediately above) there's a good story about Ray Bradbury, which contains the sound advice that you should never talk about a story: just sit down and write it.

Nude authors

There has been some debate recently, I understand, about 'Hotties of Publishing', whatever that may mean (and it may mean the difficulty of choosing between salad and steak at one of those famous publishing lunches). But this debate has led, human nature being what it is, to a discussion of nude authors.

Maud Newton suggests that you could get ahead of the trend here. 'If,' she says, 'you’ve got any nude photographs of yourself inappropriately fondling a housepet, go ahead and send them in. But do be sure they’re tasteful.'

Quite. One really can't be too careful.

How to parlay a self-published book into a TV sitcom

The Book Standard reports that Twentieth Century Fox has bought the rights to Suzanne Hansen's You'll Never Nanny in This Town Again and intends to make a sitcom out of it.

This book is a tell-all account of working as a nanny for famous Hollywood families. It was originally self-published and was then re-published by Crown in December 2005. Sales so far 21,000.

More book videos

Should you wish to see any more videos acting as trailers/plugs for new books (and, my dear, they are quite rage at the moment), then the Book Standard has a new selection for you. For some reason they all look rather frightening.

We should be so lucky

Publishers Lunch reports that big-time agent Ed Victor has been seen limping along with a stick. He says that he broke his ankle when kicking a publisher. (Ed doesn't seem to have anything so vulgar as a web site of his own; it would no doubt encourage all those ghastly losers to send him things. His entry in the UK Writer's Handbook says 'does not accept unsolicited submissions'. So there.)

Great editors

Once upon a time, when publishing was different, there was an editor called Maxwell Perkins. He is generally held up as a model of his kind, able to coax the very best work out of really big names: names such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway.

Now there is an annual Maxwell Perkins award for distinguished achievement in fiction editing, and this year it has gone to Gary Fisketjon, who also edits a long list of well known names.

Another maligned genre

Is it possible, could it be, that there is a genre of fiction even more maligned, despised and rejected than romantic fiction? Well, er, yes. Maybe.

I speak, of course, of the western. You thought it was dead, didn't you? You thought nobody did that stuff any more. Well they do.

Nip over to Black Horse Extra where you can find all sorts of information, including interesting titbits along the lines of recruiting someone to write a book to match a piece of artwork from a continental source.

Artwork from a continental source? Sounds a bit dodgy to me. But I quite like the idea of a character called Misfit Lil. I wonder if she's any kin to Apricot Lil and Slack Alice? But I digress.

Simple fact is: people still write westerns, even though, to quote Keith Chapman (aka Chap O'Keefe), 'it's bloody hard work for little reward beyond satisfaction of the kind that comes when you give in to the urge to bash your head against a brick wall.'

I'm sure there are lots of good stories about UK writers who wrote scores of westerns without ever going any further west than Paddington station, but I've forgotten them all.

Publish and be damned

Yet another site for self-publishers has come to my attention (thanks to son Jon in Seoul for the link). Publish and Be Damned is a company which sets its prices in Canadian dollars and UK pounds, so it is presumably based in those two countries rather than the US.

And -- this is the interesting bit -- if you want an example of a book published via this conduit, try Tales of Mirth and Woe by Alistair Coleman. You can't tell unless you zoom in on the cover illustration, but this book comes with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, and I bet you can't get Neil to write an intro for your book, so kindly uncurl your lip.

The book is based on the award-winning web site 'Scaryduck: Not Scary. Not a Duck.'

Says one five-star reviewer on Amazon: 'The tales he tells take me back to some of the less savoury episodes of my own childhood and remind me of things I've spent years trying to forget. His reminiscences about work colleagues, school friends, play mates and teachers are verging on the libellous.'

Only verging? How disappointing.

John Iannuzzi: Condemned

I don't know about you, but I tend to ration my newspaper reading and TV-news watching these days. If I read/watch more than a certain amount of it I fall into a depression which is no good to anyone.

How refreshing then, to read about someone with extensive experience of real life who actually begins to talk a bit of sense. Though whether anyone will pay any attention is a different matter altogether.

I refer, in this instance, to Condemned by John Iannuzzi. The author has personally handled more homicide cases at the trial level than any other practising lawyer in the State of New York, and he is recognised as a distinguished practitioner of the law. But he also believes that the current drug laws simply don't work.

Iannuzzi believes that the US is in danger of repeating what President Roosevelt called the 'stupendous blunder' of Prohibition. He argues that the desire to control undesirable substances has created an entire industry of criminality, corruption, and violence which permeates the very fibers of everyday life.

These beliefs of Iannuzzi's are expressed in the form of fiction. His book Condemned comes with several endorsements from fellow lawyers, and also one from Robert K. Tanenbaum, who knows a bit about writing fiction.

The book is published by Xlibris, which will of course condemn it utterly in some people's eyes. But if you want to read an excerpt then the publisher provides one.


Speaking of crime, there's a UK-based web site for fans of the genre at (another find from son Jon).

If you are one of those people who thought that you would always write a book one day, and probably after you'd retired, then perhaps you ought to take note of a writer who gets five stars from CrimeSquad. He's Andrew Nugent, a 68-year-old Benedictine Monk. His first book (one of a projected series) is The Four Courts Murder, and the publisher is Hodder/Headline, which is a tough market to break into.

Mixing with the good and the great

Lynne Scanlon's latest post gives some advice on how to press the flesh, network like crazy, and pose, if necessary, as someone else.

Hot stuff from Edith Wharton

Cantara Christopher is a writer and publisher who runs Cantarabooks in New York, and at the foot of her latest newsletter she includes a link to what is described as a piece of 'classic women's erotica'.

This is indeed pretty hot stuff, and it comes, believe it or not, from the pen of Edith Wharton. Yes, the Edith Wharton, of The House of Mirth fame. Born 1862, died 1937, and packed a good deal of living into the time between.

Edith's description of what one romantic novelist of my acquaintance (Jenny Haddon) has described as 'docking procedures', provides an elegant lesson in how to portray these things without descending into crudity. It is also a reminder of the strange and scarcely credible fact that previous generations actually had a sex life.

Ms Wharton, by the way, also wrote The Writing of Fiction, which is an invaluable read for an aspiring writer, despite its age.

More later

That's enough for now. There's a lot more but it will have to wait till Monday.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Nick Tosches: Night Train

I wasn't going to bother reading Night Train, by Nick Tosches, all the way through; I was going to just dip into it, because I thought it would be a collection of press clippings, put together by a sports journalist in his newspaper library. But it turned out to be much more than that.

Night Train, you see, is a biography of Sonny Liston. Sonny who? Ah yes. It behoves those of us of a certain age to remember that not everyone is familiar with famous names from the past. Who now recalls Nelson Eddy or Jessie Matthews?

Sonny Liston was briefly the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, in the early 1960s. In his day he was widely regarded as unbeatable. It took a talent like that of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali to beat him, and then in dubious circumstances, as Tosches explains.

Charles Sonny Liston was a black man, born in extreme poverty, in Mississippi, to a family which was essentially still in slavery. Liston's genetic origins lay in west Africa, where one tribe had gleefully enslaved another for centuries, and when the white man arrived, seeking to purchase human beings, he was welcomed as an extension to the market. Thus for Sonny Liston it was as natural as breathing that he should belong to someone else. And for the whole of his life he did belong to someone else: usually one of the shadowy figures (all of them white men, naturally) who controlled professional boxing.

No one, not even his mother, knew the date of his birth, and even the year is doubtful. And when he died he was dead for several days before he was found, so no one is sure about that either. Or the cause of death.

Liston received virtually no schooling, and though he eventually learnt to write his name, he was for all practical purposes illiterate. When he had finally developed into an enormous and rather frightening black man, he was soon in trouble with the law, and ended up, inevitably, in prison. And it was there that he seems to have been taught the elements of boxing, even though his hands were too big for normal gloves.

He was passed from 'manager' to 'manager', as slaves are, and so long as he had money in his pocket and food in his belly he seems to have been content with the deal. When he was able to drive a nice car, and find a white woman to sit beside him, he was happier still.

Tosches (or one of his assistants) has done some serious research on Liston's early life, and he explains all these early purchases of Liston's contract in some detail. But it's complicated, and a chart would have come in handy. But by the late 1950s the position was clear. Liston was regarded as a serious contender for the heavyweight title, and hence he was a potential earner of income on a substantial scale. He belonged to Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo, the latter of whom was known as Mr Gray, or The Gray.

The heavyweight champion at that time was a black man called Floyd Patterson. Patterson was regarded, to use a word which Tosches does not hesitate to use, as a 'good nigger'. Few people in America wanted a black heavyweight champion at all, but if they had to have one then Patterson would do. He was polite, did not talk politics, and had a discreet lifestyle.

When Patterson lost the heavyweight title to the Swedish boxer, Ingmar Johannson, the Deep South rejoiced, and the film of the fight took huge money at the box office. When Patterson beat Johannson in a rematch, hardly any cinema south of New York bothered to show it. For his part, Liston offered to fight Patterson and Johannson on the same night.

The idea of a Patterson/Liston title fight was unwelcome to almost everybody. Liston was a bad nigger. He was owned by the Mob, and even the dimmest journalists were beginning to understand that. Liston was everything that Patterson was not. He didn't give a shit about anyone, and it showed in his face. Not even the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People liked him! Said its President: 'Patterson represents us better than Liston ever could or would.'

No one wanted the Liston/Patterson fight then, except the people who actually buy the tickets. And in the end they got what what they wanted.

Liston won easily of course. No one could sensibly have doubted it. And he won the rematch. But nobody liked him. He was not a popular champion. He was not cheered when he stepped into the ring.

Except once. There is a little-known incident in Liston's life, and I wondered if Nick Tosches would mention it. He does.

Shortly after the second Patterson fight, Liston went to England to fight a few exhibition rounds. Now in England, of course, there was and is plenty of racial prejudice. But boxing was a very popular sport in those days, and the heavyweight champion -- any champion -- was revered. Furthermore, the British attitude to good niggers and bad niggers was not the same as the American.

In the UK there was a feeling that Patterson was a bit of a pansy. It simply wasn't considered appropriate that the heavyweight champion should be a polite, soft-spoken, church-going sort of a guy; it was thought that a champion ought to be the kind of man who would snarl at babies in prams, and rip the head off anyone who gave him a hard time. Liston -- Old Stoneface -- fitted the bill entirely.

The result was that when Liston stepped into a British ring, in front of a huge audience, he was greeted with a roar of approval which came from deep down in some primitive part of each man's belly. The crowd rose to their feet; noise was fantastic and it was elemental.

This was a wholly new experience for Liston. No other crowd had ever given him any such a welcome. And do you know? That man was touched. Touched! Somebody actually loved him! 'I am warm here,' he said, 'because I am among warm people... When I return to the United States I will be cold again, for the people there are cold to me now and have treated me badly.'

But Liston, never let it be forgotten, was a slave. He was owned by Blinky and Frankie. Both these men were by then in trouble with the law. But even when they were sent to prison they continued to control boxing from inside.

And the trouble with Liston was that he was more trouble than he was worth. Yes, he was the champion. But he was not popular. Cops were always giving him trouble, and Liston's management was always having to pay them off. He was not a stable family man. Polite society feared and despised him.

So the boys in charge of Liston decided to use him to generate income in a different way. They would put him into a fight against a young big-mouth called Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali). This was a fight which no experienced observer expected Liston to lose, so the betting odds on Clay would be generous. And the wise guys who owned Liston would arrange for him to take a dive.

To Liston this was business as usual. His grandfather had been a slave, his father little better, and Liston himself had always been owned by the Man. He was used to it, used to doing what he was told.

Of course Sonny wasn't the brightest guy in the world, and when he threw the fight there were complaints. And suspicions. But the research by Tosches and his team has established, at least to my satisfaction, exactly what happened. Liston's owners bet huge sums (by the standards of those days) on Clay, and they cleaned up at 8 to 1.

It is said that there is no honour among thieves, and the chief losers in this operation were the illegal bookmakers in other parts of America. Patsy Anthony Lapera, a gangster from Reading, Pennsylvania, was interviewed by Tosches. He says: 'Lots of bets were laid off with the Mob in Cleveland and Vegas. These guys took the other Mobs.'

There was a rematch, naturally. And Sonny lost that one, with an even worse acting performance than the first time.

After that there were a few more fights, and then obscurity. Chuck Wepner, the last man to fight Liston, said that, up close in the ring, Sonny 'looked like he'd been around the block quite a few times. They said he was thirty-eight, and he looked like he was maybe fifty.'

Effectively, like many another black champion both before and since, Sonny Liston was broke. He went back to the only other way of earning a living that he knew: crime. The details are fuzzy: maybe it was selling dope, shylocking, or just plain intimidating those who needed to be intimidated. Whatever, he soon wound up dead.

A doctor pronounced Sonny Liston dead on 5 January 1971; he had been dead, it was estimated, for about a week, and after that amount of time it was hard to tell why. But as the body lay face down on the metal slab, one thing was clear. The Coroner could see copper-coloured whipping welts, old and faint. 'The only thing my old man ever gave me,' Liston had said at one point, 'was a whipping.'

This is the story that Nick Tosches tells us. It's not a long book -- 260 pages -- but a substantial amount of time, money and effort has clearly gone into it. The lengthy acknowledgements section includes at least two researchers and assistants. Whether this investment has paid off for author and publisher I rather doubt, but it has gone some way to ensure that this book is a classic of the genre.

In the US, by the way, this book is known as The Devil and Sonny Liston, and the cover image is flipped. Go figure. Publishers are funny people.

Nick Tosches, it turns out, is a man with a considerable reputation for doing a rather high-class biography. Subjects include Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin. The author's style, in the Liston book, is a curious mixture of the street-wise tough guy and the elegant, educated European classicist. This raised my eyebrows at first, but I came to see it, before long, as entirely appropriate to the book's subject.

Try this for an example:
He just was what he fucking was: Charles L. Liston, mightiest of men, sharpest of dressers. He had more pasts than most people had socks. Go on, pick a past. They were all the same to him: sand slough and alleys, bar-rooms and prison cells, fancy ass big bad gangster men and bent-down cotton pickers. All the same. Working for halves here, Boss, working for halves.
The life story of Sonny Liston illuminates for us many aspects of American life. It is a story which requires a wide frame of reference if it is to be understood, and if that understanding is to be successfully conveyed to the reader; it requires a grasp of many aspects of history and human psychology. Nick Tosches seems to me to have all those.

There is an irony at the heart of Sonny Liston's life story. It is that Liston was a man who succeeded in the land of opportunity and who became, as a result, briefly famous and, by his standards, rich. But in the land of the free he was never a free man. He was born and died a slave.

No wonder then that some of the people who knew him as a young man, cops and priests, who tried to draw the best out of him, felt nothing but pity when Tosches came to interview them, several decades later. 'Poor kid,' more than one of them says. 'Poor kid.'

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

While I was away

While I was offline last weekend a great many things happened in the book world, and when I came back I made a fairly perfunctory effort to catch up with them. And the odd thing was, having taken a very quick scan of the published news stories, I decided that I really didn't need to bother about most of them.

But there were a couple of items which upset my digestion somewhat, and which went further towards convincing me that America, a country that I once regarded as the fount of all things good, is steadily losing its mind.

Bookslut, for instance, reported that novelist Joshilyn Jackson was arrested and jailed because she had her maiden name on her social security card and her married name on her driver's licence.

We also discover that the New York Times declined to print the title of a book called Chess Bitch. Bitch, it seems, is a naughty word. And the Christian Science Monitor won't print Bookslut either; it refers to said blog (when it absolutely has to) as 'book plus a vulgar term for a woman with loose morals'.

As for the rest of the stuff that accumulated in my absence, notably emails, please be patient. I am getting through them as and when.

UK crime writers draw up shortlist

The UK Crime Writers' Association have drawn up a shortlist of candidates for the 2006 short story award. The prize is £1,500 and the winner will be announced in October. (Link from Here are the details:

Robert Barnard for Sins of Scarlet from I.D. Crimes of Identity (Comma Press)
The ultimate in locked-room murders, set in the Sistine Chapel during the election of a Pope.

Ken Bruen for Loaded from London Noir (Serpent's Tail)
Brixton noir, tough as they come, strong, finely crafted and convincing.

PD James for The Part-Time Job from The Detection Collection (Orion)
The account of an original form of revenge, with revelation after revelation.

Stuart Pawson for Les's Story from I.D. Crimes of Identity (Comma Press)
Perfectly fitting the I.D. theme, this story told by a tearaway kid is compelling, moving and surprising.

Martyn Waites for Love from London Noir (Serpent's Tail)
The voice of a skinhead tells powerfully and ironically of racial conflict and self-discovery.

Now the thing about these stories is that they all sound pretty interesting, and draw my attention to collections that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere.

Furthermore, I would be willing to bet quite a lot of money that none of the shortlisted writers has ever taken an MFA degree.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Report from Edinburgh

Well, we're back, after several hectic days in Edinburgh, where there is a Festival in progress; or, to be more precise, several festivals simultaneously. It's a bit late for you to go this year, but if you're thinking of going next year (or sometime), this should give you an idea of what to expect -- as a consumer, that is, not as a provider.

Our main reason for going to Edinburgh, as indicated last week, was to attend the Romantic Novelists' Association lunch. This event was held to honour the lifetime achievements of three senior members of the Association: Lucilla Andrews, Rosamunde Pilcher, and Mary Stewart.

The lunch was a very happy occasion indeed. It took place in the Scottish Parliament building, thanks to Robin Harper MSP, whose wife is a member of the RNA. The highlight of the proceedings was the speech by Rosamunde Pilcher, who spoke on behalf of all three of the honoured writers. This speech was as cogent a defence of the art of romantic writing as I ever expect to hear, and it was doubly impressive in that it was delivered with barely a note.

The rest of this report is a brief summary of the various events that Mrs GOB and I attended, not necessarily in the actual order in which we did them. And what, you may enquire, is the point of that? Well, some of the performances and exhibitions will travel, and not just in the UK. A brief word about some of the others may also serve to give you the flavour of what the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is like; and with some 1800 performances (we were told) to choose from, the range is enormous.

First we went to a talk entitled So You Want to Do a Show on the Fringe? Because, who knows, I might actually want to do that one day. Two or three of my stage plays are at least theoretically possible as Fringe material.

This talk was both inspiring and slightly depressing. So much youthful ambition and enthusiasm was there -- but also, as the speaker pointed out, there was a great deal of naivety and misplaced hope. Still, it was a valuable session. And if you're thinking along these lines yourself, an essential book to read is Fringe by James Aylett and James Lark -- just out.

Lady Boys of Bangkok is a show which has been at Edinburgh in 2004 and 2005, as well as this year. It was a sell-out in previous years and this year it's again in the box-office top ten. As the title suggests, this is a big, glamorous, flashy, vulgar, Las Vegas type performance. It takes place in a circus tent, which holds (at a guess) 600 or so, all seated at tables, cabaret style, to encourage the consumption of alcohol.

This 1 hour 40 minute entertainment is mostly musical and is performed by a troupe of 17 male Thai nationals, virtually all of whom dress as women. Some, it would seem, have had the so-called sex-change operation and hormone treatment to match, because they have breasts. The music is all pre-recorded and, as far as I could see, 100% mimed. It is offered twice nightly.

Personally I thought that this all looked a bit tired and not all that exciting, but I was definitely in a minority of one. The audience was about 90% female, with an average age of 35 or so. They loved it, and I dare say that for a girls' night out it works pretty well.

For me, there was only highlight. A member of the cast came on, dressed up to the nines, Shirley Bassey style, and proceeded to 'sing' a Bassey number: 'My Life.' As she did so, she sat down at a perfomer's dressing table and began to change: change dress to trousers and shirt, remove make-up, remove wig, and become, in short, a man. I thought this was a very effective piece of theatre. Not original, but well done of its kind.

The next stop for this show, in the UK, is Newcastle.

Spymonkey are a small, well established company of four comedy actors. They have been around for some years, and we have seen them before, notably when they performed Stiff, a play about the undertaking business. Their latest offering is Cooped, which is a take-off of the haunted-house, murderer-on-the-loose genre. Much of Spymonkey's humour is now physical, which means that it becomes international, and they have recently been to Canada, Switzerland, Greece, and Australia. Worth seeing if they come your way.

Topping and Butch are a couple of camp, late-night cabaret artists. They were a big hit last year, when they included a number of topical and political songs. This year, however, they have concentrated on what the audience really likes, which is filth. (That's what they said, and they were right. Their act was indeed filthy.)

T & B appear dressed in shiny black leather gear, with Doc Martens boots, and not only sing their dubious songs but question the audience about their sex lives. Various groups in the audience had to put their hands up to identify themselves: gay men; lesbians (few the night we were there); don't knows; and couples.

The couples were asked about the length of their relationship. Mrs GOB and I, at 37 years married, were the oldest straight couple (by a good many years), but we were pipped at the post by an American gay couple, who had been together for 25 years. Gay years, according to Butch, count double; and I am not going to argue.

Topping and Butch also travel the UK. If you're 29, if it's late at night, and if you've consumed a bottle of wine, I dare say that the duo are very funny. But if you're my age, and sober, they are just the tiniest bit wearisome; although they are good at what they do.

On Saturday morning, by way of contrast, Mrs GOB and I went to see The Magical Jello. Jello is a 17-year-old Scots lad who does conjuring tricks for children. He appeared at 11.00 a.m. in a studio theatre which could seat 32, and his show lasted half an hour. There were a dozen or so kids, plus mums and dads, and it all went very well. Corny jokes, simple tricks, lollipops at the end (mine was lovely), and everyone had a good time.

At least two shows at Edinburgh this year were based on blogs, and we saw one: Bloggers -- real internet diaries. This show was put together by Oliver Mann from the genuine blogs of about ten people. These particular bloggers are among those who use their private lives for their subject matter, and the result was a reasonably coherent interlocking of real-life stories: boy meets girl (or husband, son, whatever), and woman loses boy (or husband, son, mother), and so forth. The acting was excellent. Whether this show will have any life after Edinburgh remains to be seen.

Now for some proper culcha. Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet is one of Mrs GOB's favourites, so we went to hear it performed by the Hebrides Ensemble, with Lyr Williams. This was in the Usher Hall, one of Edinburgh's most famous permanent venues; and a mighty impressive place it is too. This was part of Edinburgh's official festival, the International one, to which the Fringe is, supposedly, a minor adjunct.

Navy Pier, by American playwright John Corwin, is a play about a writer who steals another writer's work and gets away with it. 'Corwin is a playwright of profound insight and rapturous word-play,' says the Chicago Sun-Times, causing me to wonder, just casually, whether the critic was entirely sober at the time, or whether he was, perchance, sleeping with Corwin's sister.

Not that I would want to knock the play too hard. It's a tolerably interesting piece, if you can stomach hearing about a writer who gets a short story published by the New Yorker and builds a whole career on the back of it. But dramatically it is not so much a play as (like the above Bloggers piece) a collection of monologues. Should you want to form your own opinion, you can find it in book form.

Marlon Brando's Corset is the title of a play put on in a very big space at the Pleasance: capacity several hundred, and fairly full on the day we saw it. This stars Les Dennis. And before I forget, let me say that I never did figure out what either Brando or his corset has to do with anything.

This play seems to have received pretty poor notices, by and large, but I thought it was well constructed and entertaining. True, we have nothing very original here. We have the writer of a TV hospital soap (Les Dennis) who owes Mr Big a huge gambling debt and is going to get his legs broken unless he raises the money. And we have four self-obsessed actors. And a megalomaniac director. All stock characters. But then in any good farce you have a vicar and a prudish old battle-axe, and so forth; it all depends what is done with them.

In this case I thought it was all satisfactorily entertaining, at least for a rainy Sunday afternoon, which is when we saw it. But King Lear it ain't.

The Slush Pile features no stars whatever; just four young actors with a modestly amusing script about a publishing company which is run by complete incompetents and has lived for years on the proceeds of one book. Quite unlike, therefore, any company we could possibly imagine.

The four performers of this piece are evidently struggling to make a name for themselves in radio and show business generally, and, who knows, this might help. It was performed in a small space in the Pleasance Dome, with bar stools rather than chairs; but the modest of about 35 put up with all that and seemed suitably entertained.

Twinkle Little Star, by Philip Meeks, was at the Gilded Ballroom. It's not a brand-new play, and it presents us with a mystery. Billed in the advance programme (finalised in April) as a one-man play starring Christopher Biggins, it turned out to be performed by Tim Healy. Why? Was there an unholy row? Did Biggins back out? Or was he ill?

All, as I say, a mystery. However, Tim Healy is a very fine actor, and he plays the part of an ageing performer who has had a career as a pantomime dame. He is an old-fashioned man, therefore, and one who does not take kindly to the modern show-business practice of casting Australian TV soap stars in leading parts in UK stage productions. In this case, our hero actually bumps off his enemy number one, in amusing circumstances.

For my money this was, I think, the best individual performance that I saw at Edinburgh. I doubt that Biggins could have done it better. From what I've seen of him he would lack the ruthlessness which the part requires.

It so happens that Mrs GOB and I concentrated on theatre during our visit, but there are many other things to see and do. For example, we managed to fit in three major exhibitions.

At the Queen's Galley we saw Canaletto in Venice, a wonderful selection of the great man's drawings and paintings. It is there until 7 January 2007.

Anyone who is seriously interested in photography might pay a visit to the Edinburgh Photographic Society's 144th (yes, really) international exhibition. Entries were invited from all over the world, and over 3,477 were sent in from 53 countries. Of these, 217 were selected by three hard-working judges and are on display until 3 September.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the huge pool of entries, the standard of work on display was high. However, I continue to feel that photography as currently practised by the dedicated amateur enthusiasts of this world remains a very limited medium. Not, I hasten to say, that the full-time artists of today, who produce photographic work, impress me much more.

Hugely impressive, in every way, was the Ron Mueck sculpture exhibition at the Royal Scottish Gallery. The Gallery web site shows some of the figures which are on display, but in no way conveys the impact that they have on the viewer. In particular, the first piece that one sees, on entering the exhibition, is a naked seated man who must be twelve feet tall. The realism of this statue, if that's the right word, is startling and alarming. The rest of the exhibition is equally good.

And, er, that's about it.

Is it just me, or is Edinburgh the hardest word to type? I don't think I got it right once at the first attempt.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Pause in posts

There will be no further posts on this blog until Tuesday 22 August.

I am conscious that a number of people who have sent me books for review, ideas for posts, et cetera, are still waiting for results. I will try to catch up somewhat on my return.

Wednesday whatnots

Now this one I like least in principle. Seems there are two ghostwriters (story from Publishing News) in Toledo OH, and for years they were churning out speeches and articles and ebooks for other people to put their names on.

And then they got a request which was a bit different. A longtime client asked them to write a special story as an anniversary gift; this story would describe the client's first romantic encounter on his wedding night.

Well, they did the job and the client and his wife were thrilled. Word spread. And it got to the point where the personalised stories were about half the business. So now they've given that side of things a life of its own, so to speak. You can get the flavour of it at The Velvet Diary.

Oh my...

I won't complete the rest of it. But the air was blue when I first read this next bit.

Publishers Lunch, using M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype as its source, reports that Holtzbrinck are inviting authors from all of their tradegroups -- Holt, St. Martin's, Farrar/Straus, Tor, and Picador -- to set up blogs through the company. The invitation notes: 'In terms of effort on the author's part, a successful blog needs to have at least three posts a week, and it only takes a few minutes to post a new message, so it won't take them much time.'

It was at that point that the air started to change colour. IT WON'T TAKE THEM MUCH TIME. Ha!

Oh my friend, if you only knew. Those words will come back to haunt you. Quite apart from writing the xxxxing post, a blogger has to proof-read it, set up links (and check them), and wrestle with Blogger (or whatever you're using).

And that's only half the job. Dealing with the ensuing correspondence takes as long again. And if you have any significant numbers of readers, people send you stuff, or ask you to read stuff, and much of it is really very interesting but it all takes TIME.

I am not alone in thinking that Holtzbrinck are talking through their arse. M.J. Rose says 'For a blog to be successful it has to have passion, voice, commitment, creativity. It takes a lot for the writer to bring fresh ideas to a blog on a continuing basis.' And, she adds, the very last thing an author should be doing is starting a blog; apart from anything else, it doesn't sell books.

Yea verily. Not that I claim any great merit for my blog, and I don't begrudge the time spent. If I did, then obviously I wouldn't do it. But a blogger soon learns the truth of a universal law: everything takes longer than you think it will. Including this bit.

Speaking of new blogs...

L. Lee Lowe, author of the serial novel Mortal Ghost, has just started one.

Another new kid on the block is Dave Roberts, who... gosh, I can hardly believe this, it's so unusual, but he's written a book. He blogs about the frustrations of having it in the shops and wondering if anyone's going to buy it.

The book is called E-luv: an Internet Romance, and it's published by The Friday Project. The publisher describes it as 'a compelling tale of cyber romance, cyber cheating, cyber weddings, and the glorious fantasy land of cybersex (where literally anything is possible).' Waterstone's in Edinburgh had it in their window, which certainly isn't bad.

And then there's Steve Somebody, who reads. The hunky picture from last Saturday may or may not put you off, but the prose is intelligent.

And, before I forget, there's Clare Dudman, who isn't new but has published novels in various countries, through thoroughly respectable imprints, and keeps snails.

There's also a blog by Ira Joel Haber. He's an artist and a bookdealer, and his blog deals more with art and personal matters than with books. However, he does have a link to his bookdealing web site, Cinemage Books, which specialises in hard-to-find, out of print, and rare film books. Cinemage also carries posters, stills, and other film memorabilia, together with comic art books, animation, Disney, gay and black material, graphic design, and performing arts.

You can buy, for instance, an MGM photograph of Jean Harlow for $75. And a signed photograph of J. Edgar Hoover will cost you $100. I know which I'd rather have.

Ira also has for sale a comic called French Ticklers. Could that possibly be about... No, no. Couldn't possibly.

Scott Stein, meanwhile, has an interesting post about how, more or less by accident, his short story got edited by a big man in the field.

Tonto Press

The Tonto Press is a (small) UK-based publishing company which runs courses in creative writing and occasionally invites submissions from writers. Their latest book will be launched tonight at 7.30 in Newcastle.

Everyone who's anyone

Gerard Jones continues to prosper, despite the efforts of those who would love to close him down. The fifth edition of 'EVERYONE WHO'S ANYONE IN ADULT TRADE PUBLISHING, NEWSPAPERS, MAGAZINES, BROADCASTING AND TINSELTOWN, TOO: A Writer's Guide to The All-Pervasive Nazi Propaganda Network' is finally finished and is available free, online. Go take a look.

The title of the facility is pretty self-explanatory, but just in case you've never heard of it, let me say that Everyone et cetera is a free, searchable, 1.2 GB online email and web address directory of around 15,000 of what Gerard calls 'the most influential ignoramuses in the media, entertainment and academic industries whose perverse job it is to keep themselves and others brainwashed.'

Still, it works for him. Says Gerard: 'During the four years EWA has been online I found a good agent, sold one of my books (Ginny Good), got it published the way I wanted it published and made it into a fifteen-hour, multimedia audio book all on my own. The Audio Book of Ginny Good is easily and by far the single greatest literary achievement of the 21st Century. Listen to it and see. It's free.'

More bookplates

A correspondent read my piece on bookplates of about a month ago, and gave me a link to the collection of Micheal (sic) Jones. These come mostly, it seems, from Eastern Europe, and some of them are rather fine.

Booker longlist

As every single book blogger in the entire universe has already noted, the Booker longlist has been announced.

There's only one writer on the list whose previous work I have read, and that's Sarah Waters. Her latest, The Night Watch, makes the cut, which is a pity really. I have a copy, and was looking forward to reading it, but now I'm not sure. Booker approval has kind of put me off.

Sarah's first book, Tipping the Velvet, won the 1999 Betty Trask Award, which is much more my line of country.

Should you be interested in Booker machinations, see the article by Michael Holroyd in last Saturday's Times. Among other things, he tells how he was sitting at the same table as Anita Brookner, in 1984, when she won with Hotel du Lac. 'I can remember,' he says, 'the look of absolute horror on her face as her name was announced.'

Holroyd also tells us that the man who set up the prize had clear ideas about why it quickly proved to be a big talking point. 'They love it,' he declared, 'because it is so unfair.'

She's choosing your books...

but only if you let her. Amanda Ross, the person who picks the books for the Richard & Judy show, and who therefore has a heavy influence on the UK bestseller lists, is interviewed yet again, this time in the Sunday Times.

Says Amanda: 'There’s only one book I regret choosing for the show, Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I only put it on because I thought it would make the list look broad, but have you actually read it? It makes you want to give up after 40 pages.'

I know the feeling.

Amanda also says: 'I suppose it’s a bit odd for the most powerful person in publishing to admit this, but I don’t really know anything about books at all.'

I'm sure that last statement will be held against her in some quarters, but actually I think it's quite a good thing. It is right and proper, in my view, that the book list for R&J should be picked by someone who can reasonably be described as an 'ordinary' reader, rather than someone who is infected with the 'literary fiction is best' bug. Where she goes wrong, I think, is when she allows herself to be influenced by other factors: as in the self-confessed case of Brick Lane, and in my suspected case of The Righteous Men.

Instant gratification

Martin Wroe also had an article in the Sunday Times, in which he described how he published a 76-page book of hybrid poem-prayers through He is full of enthusiasm for this 'new' print-on-demand publishing method, as well he might be, because a 76-page book of poem-prayers wouldn't have stood an earthly of getting into print otherwise.

The article is, as usual, wildly over-enthusiastic and optimistic about sales potential, but it's pretty well balanced and interesting otherwise. It won't tell most readers of this blog anything that they don't know already. But it will, I'm sure, come as a complete revelation to a number of Sunday Times readers who aren't quite so well informed.

Since we've mentioned the relatively uninformed, last Saturday's Times had an article by Danuta Kean which spelt out some of the dangers awaiting wannabe authors, the chief of which are agents who aren't really agents -- or at least not agents of any standing. They are only after your money.

It was ever thus. In volume two of Authors by Profession, Victor Bonham Carter relates how, in England in 1910, 'the number of reliable and successful agents was small, in contrast to the crowd of applicants for authors' business.' One of the latter, A.M. Burghes, was convicted of fraud in 1912.

First lady of Iraq

The Sunday Times provided a third interesting item in the form of a review of Daughter of the Desert by Georgina Howell. This is a biography of Gertrude Bell.

It is often forgotten that the Brits have been in the Middle East for a very long time, both as individuals and as a military/political force. Some of the Brits who made their mark in that area are reasonably well known: Peter O'Toole's 1962 performance as Lawrence of Arabia helped to make that name famous, and Glubb Pasha was also a familiar name at one point.

What is less well known is that some of the early explorers and travellers were women. In the nineteenth century we had Lady Hester Stanhope (described for us in Eothen), and in the early twentieth century there was Gertrude Bell.

Gertrude Bell's achievement, crudely put, is that she was one of the principal architects of modern Iraq; she knitted together a viable Iraqi state out of a bunch of feuding sheikhs. She had a formidable wardrobe and lots of jewellery, and they regarded her as a queen, as well as a reliable representative of the British government.

Usually, she visited the sheiks in their desert tents where she 'won them over with her routine of flattery, useful gifts (the odd revolver did not go amiss) and intimate knowledge of their language and customs.'

It is, of course, the viable Iraqi state that Gertrude Bell helped to create which the Americans, with help from the current generation of Brits, have so effectively demolished.

Amazon search?

Search me. I don't know what's happened to it. I tend to use Amazon as a surrogate for the old books-in-print database. Of course it has ceased to be reliable for that purpose, because it now includes all sorts of out-of-print stuff. But I still tend to use it as a guide to a writer's output.

Anyway, on Monday the search facility on just plain wasn't working, so yesterday I tried it again. Just as a test, I set the search for Rosamunde Pilcher, newest books first, fiction, hardcover.

Result: total crap. The first 7 items listed were paperbacks, not hardcover; then there was an audio CD; then more paperbacks. Not until item 13 was there a hardcover.

Another test. Stephen King, A to Z, fiction, audiobooks. Result: first 8 items paperbacks. First audio CD, item 57.

At the bottom of each page of search results, it says that the search is powered by A9. And A9, the company's About Us claims, 'researches and builds innovative technologies to improve search experience for e-commerce applications. A separately branded and operated subsidiary of, Inc., opened its Palo Alto, California, doors in October 2003.’s technology will power search on and other web sites.'


Lynda Lee-Potter goes indie

Does the name Lee-Potter ring bells? It should, I think, at least in the UK. The late Lynda Lee-Potter was a Daily Mail columnist for many years, and her daughter Emma Lee-Potter is the author of three novels for adults. She also spent ten years working as a hard-news reporter for the Evening Standard, Sunday Express and Today before becoming a freelance journalist.

Now Emma has started her own publishing company, Porthminster Press, and the first book is just out. The Rise and Shine Saturday Show (written by Emma) is the new company's first book. It's a 'fast-moving, fun read for children aged eight to 12. Designed to be the first of a trilogy, it follows the fortunes of five youngsters from very different backgrounds who are all desperate to be pop stars.'

Emma's blog describes some of the joys of running a small, independent publishing company. And, if you're in search of a bit of inspiration, it relates the story of Catherine Jones (no, another one) who in 1990 self-published Gumboots and Pearls, a guide to being an Army officer’s wife, and sold 16,000 copies.


Novel of the year, by book bloggers

As proposed a while back, Susan Hill has launched her Novel of the Year Award, said novel to be rewarded (when the project really starts, in 2007) with a cheque for £1,000. Meanwhile Susan is setting up a dry run. She is asking anyone with a book-ish blog to make nominations for the best novel of 2006, just to see if the idea works and to throw up any possible snags. You can read all about it on her blog.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Periel Aschenbrand: The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own

A couple of weeks ago, I was wandering round my local street market (Thursday mornings, and you meet a very nice class of person) when I noticed a new stall. It was selling cheap paperback books.

I went over and had a look round, and, not for the first time when looking at a display of books, I found myself feeling pretty depressed.

Most of the books were clearly remainders. That is to say, they were books left over after the publisher had sold as many copies as he could at full price, or what passes for full price these days. The 'remainders', once the market has soaked up everything it can, are sold off at (quite often) amazingly low prices. Perhaps, if the publisher is exceptionally lucky, he might get 10% of the cover price. Or perhaps only a penny per copy. Or perhaps (and it has been known, particularly with hardbacks), the publisher had to pay someone to take them away so that he could clear some space in his warehouse.

Anyway, there they were, row upon row of the great unwanted. And every single one of them had a quote from someone famous on the cover, saying what a great read it was; how the author was a genius; and everybody better buy it or they would be missing a treat.

And, again not for the first time, I found myself muttering: What a mug's game this writing business is.

In such circumstances I look around desperately, with the panic-stricken air of a man who is drowning and is frantically hoping that someone might turn up to pull him out. And what I look for is something -- anything -- that I can buy in the hope that it might turn out to be halfway worth reading, and thus may go some way towards convincing me that I have not wasted years of my life in reading, writing, and thinking about, the world of books.

At last -- on this particular occasion, my eye fell on a book which had a more or less naked young woman on the front. True, the main points of interest in the young woman's anatomy were obscured by the author's name and the book's title. But it was the only interesting cover in the whole display. And the title wasn't bad, either: The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own. Author, one Periel Aschenbrand -- who turns out to be female, and posed for the cover herself.

Bush, to abbreviate it, was first published in the US in 2005 by Jeremy P. Tarcher, an imprint of US Penguin. It's a very respectable imprint, and one that many people would sacrifice a couple of teeth to get in with. The market-stall edition that I bought was published in the UK by Corgi, as a mass-market paperback, in April 2006 (and it may not be officially remaindered, I hasten to add).

Furthermore, you need to know that Bush is not a novel. It's a fragment of autobiography. Periel Aschenbrand turns out to be a young woman with ambitions as a writer, an almost total lack of inhibition, and a fairly marked set of opinions on a great many things -- opinions with which she is not slow to acquaint us. In short, she is young, female, smart, mouthy, and sexually active. She has a Mom and Dad, and various other relations, who clearly have to put up with a great deal.

The publisher's blurb and the quotes on the back of the book try to make our Periel sound like some sort of revolutionary, and although I found it all tolerably entertaining, I have to say that she is not that. What she has to say is plain speaking writ large, but she is, after all, writing rather more than forty years after Lenny Bruce died.

She gives us, for instance, a good many pages describing a visit to a Mormon church service, and a subsequent discussion with a girl friend who is a practising Mormon. The net import of these pages is that Mormons are barking mad. But while this may be kind of daring in certain politically correct circles, it is scarcely any kind of news to the rest of us.

And there's a lot more of the same. Most of us are not going to be shocked by discussions of tampons, or by an outspoken discussion of shit (during which she actually says quite a lot of sensible things). And we are not even going to be all that taken aback by hearing about her bruised haemorrhoid (bruised as a result of anal sex, apparently, the name and gender of the perpetrator being shrouded in anonymity).

Periel's mother is loving but concerned. Whenever Periel talks to her in her in-your-face way, e.g. when telling her that the doctor who looked at her arse had an erection, Mom expresses some concern.

Mom: Are you writing about this?

Periel: Obviously.

Mom: Oh my God. Oh my God, this is terrible. This is really terrible.

I think I'm on Mom's side here. And here is Mom's assessment of her daughter, from a page towards the end of the book. 'You don't want to do anything except smoke cigarettes, go shopping, talk about serial killers and disgusting things that happen on the Internet. You're obsessed with lowlifes and filth. And you use foul language. I'm very concerned about you. And you're too skinny. I'm sure you're not eating properly.'

Did I mention that Periel belongs to a Jewish family? Or is it obvious?

The greatest virtue of this book, in my judgement, is that it is short. Oh, and I suppose I ought to mention that the title derives from a certain knack that Periel has in coming up with T-shirt slogans for good causes. Here's one: What would you give for a great pair of tits? That one was used to raise money for breast cancer research.

There's a lot more about Periel on her web site.

I am inclined to think that Periel Aschenbrand's principal skill is not so much in writing as in marketing. I suspect that she used these skills to good effect in getting this book published. Either that, or her uncle runs the company.