Saturday, July 14, 2007

What Makes Sammy Stall?

One of my favorite novels about Hollywood is Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? It's the no-punches-pulled story of an 'amoral hustler' who works his way up the Tinseltown ladder to become the head of a film studio. It's also one of the rare books that I could see having a successful screen adaptation, as Schulberg's acclaimed work as a screenwriter greatly influenced his approach to writing. Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels this way. Over the years, everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ben Stiller has tried to bring Budd's book to the big screen. So what is it that has kept this project languishing in limbo for so long? Ego mostly, and a little fear. Back in the 40's when Sammy was originally published, the majority of the studio heads took personal offense over the material's damning portrayal of them. In an interview with American Legends, Schulberg says, "Sam Goldwyn didn't read the book, but was very hostile toward it. Louie Mayer tried to run me out of town. He hated the book. Mayer told my father he would ruin him for not stopping me from writing the novel." Decades later, little seems to have changed. In The Jewish Daily Forward, Schulberg blames Steven Spielberg for holding things up due to "the novel's negative presentation of studio moguls." Now, I'm just an East Coast kid, but even I know that talking trash about the world's biggest director may not be the best way to revive a stalled production. As Schulberg's fans are always being reminded, though, Budd's never been one to hold his tongue. In fact, it's this same complicated and controversial combination of personal/artistic fearlessness and social/political ignorance that has kept his work so vital.

Friday, July 13, 2007

News Bits, In Brief

The New York Times reports that the Harry Potter phenomenon has had little long term effect on kids' reading habits. (Surprise.) To try and keep the wee ones interested in literature, the BBC hath commissioned an animated advertisement for Charles Dickens. (WTF?) You want to know what I think would hook teens into the totally radical world of x-treme bookin'? Some Bret Easton Ellis videogame adaptations from the folks who created the Grand Theft Auto series. (Holla-lujah!)

For those of you looking for a second reason to emigrate to Canada: their books prices are about to drop.
Update: Unpack your bags. While regular book prices in Canada will go down, comic book prices have gone up.
Updated update: Re-pack. Turns out, it's only Marvel Comics' prices that have gone up. The last great book that they put out was canceled in 2004.

Somewhere in her 247 recently discovered letters, Flannery O'Connor offers this tip to writers: "You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive. Wouldn't it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write rather than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you."
Yeah, but I went to Syd Field's seminar, and he says that writers need a three act outline and a strict adherence to the 27 minute rule. And he's rich! (Proving once again the old adage that 'Flannery will get you nowhere.' Ba-dump-bumb.)

Reclusive Nobel Laureate Publishing Latest Novel Online

By Veronika Oleksyn
Associated Press
Published July 4, 2007

VIENNA -- By some measures, Elfriede Jelinek's world is small. The reclusive Nobel literature laureate cloisters herself inside her homes in Vienna and Munich, Germany, and rarely ventures out in public.

But online, the Austrian writer -- who suffers from what she has described as a "social phobia" -- connects with ease to people around the world. Little wonder, then, that she chose to debut her latest novel on the Web rather than in bookstores.

"I find the Internet to be the most wonderful thing there is," Jelinek said in an e-mail interview with The Associated Press. "It connects people. Everyone can have input."

Jelinek, 60, has been posting chapters of the new book, "Neid" (German for "Envy"), as she writes them. The first two chapters of the work she describes as a "mixture of blog and prose" are already available on her site,, and there are more to come.

"It's a wonderfully democratic method, publishing a text on the Internet," Jelinek told the AP.

Link to Elfriede Jelinek's website

(From the AP, published in The Chicago Tribune, linked to via: Boing Boing)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

News Bits, In Brief

The estate of Ian Fleming is flogging a horse, a dead horse.

Did Jim Morrison die in a bathtub in Paris, a nightclub restroom, or all of the above? (The truth is apparently more Weekend At Bernie's than Oliver Stone's The Doors.

Authors tired of tour buses and cruise ship signings are now Wal-Mart? Yes, who needs integrity and pride when you've got a pharmacy, hair salon and yellow trash bags full of stale popcorn all in one dirty-diaper scented superstore!

Via The Comics Reporter: Joss Whedon's first Runaways comic is now online. Read it for free, then buy the second issue at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Rock 'N' Roll Book Reviews

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon
From "When Warren Zevon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2002, the rock star ordered his manager, Brigette Barr, to exploit his illness in any way that might bolster his soon-to-end career. In those last months, Zevon recorded a final album, 'The Wind,' which included a version of Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door.' He told friends he wanted to die quickly to help it get nominated for a Grammy. (It won two.) He returned to heavy drinking, after 17 years of sobriety, and begged Crystal to write an honest biography with nothing airbrushed out, she says. She apparently took him at his word. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead describes how Zevon, who died in September 2003, aged 56, minimized sleep and maximized drugs, guns and women. He toted a .44-caliber Magnum, beat his wife, raged at his children and lamented his commercial failure compared with acquaintances such as Jackson Browne and Don Henley of the Eagles, the book says. The book balances this lurid account with Zevon's good side: A hard-working songwriter, Zevon is hailed as a genius by celebrities throughout the book. Browne says Zevon had 'literary muscle.' Bruce Springsteen cites his dedication. Stephen King, Gore Vidal, Bonnie Raitt and David Crosby add their praise. Crystal reports that Zevon was dismayed when 'Werewolves of London,' written as a throwaway, was chosen as a 1978 single over more crafted alternatives such as 'Tenderness on the Block.' The book shows how Zevon produced magic in the studio, though it's less insightful about how he could even function. Taken together, it makes an eloquent case for the rocker's reassessment and rehabilitation."

I Like Food, Food Tastes Good: In the Kitchen with Your Favorite Bands by Kara Zuaro
From "The book’s formula is simple: Zuaro takes us through many types and portions of food, from morning through late at night, and writes a short preface for each recipe about both the band and the food in question. Most entries also include quick words from band members, but the most entertaining include lengthier quotes or, even better, recipes fully written in a band member’s distinctive voice. Zuaro’s cookbook...marries an independent, DIY ethos with the sometimes exotic, sometimes wearying rock-and-roll touring lifestyle. In her introduction, Zuaro explains that she started collecting rocker recipes after realizing just how much the sometimes-literally starving artists she interviewed as a journalist appreciated food."

Let's Spend The Night Together by Pamela Des Barres
says Entertainment Weekly: "Des Barres profiles two dozen fellow band-aids in an exuberant attempt to rehab the word groupie, from harlot to muse. The veracity of these raunchy tales is up for grabs, but the claims of Kurt Cobain's cross-dressing and Chuck Berry's scatological obsession are scandalously entertaining. The tone of Let's Spend the Night Together seems to be celebratory — one fan admits to having sex with 30 musicians in one night — but the utter emptiness of these women's lives emerges most clearly, even if they don't believe they've been used. 'They wanted us there,' says one woman of her music idols, 'and they treated us like goddesses.'"

Redemption Song - The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz
From The Guardian UK:
"The blindly evangelical phase of my Clash obsession came to an end sometime during their seven-night residency at the Lyceum in the autumn of 1981. For the first time it seemed that one of us, and maybe both, was going through the motions. I missed the White Riot tour and had spent four years making up for it. Acquiring a copy of the limited edition "Capital Radio" EP meant that pension planning would be something for other people. (In fact they fetch about the same £50 today as they did a quarter of a century ago.) Wresting possession of one of Topper Headon's drumsticks from a scrum of skinheads at a gig in Cardiff - monogrammed "Topper's Boppers", which was a surprise - was to get hold of a holy relic.
The Clash fizzled out ignominiously a few years after that underwhelming night at the Lyceum, having morphed into the Clash Mark II, aka "the dodgy Clash". But looking back I still don't find that four-year crush - for that is what it must have most resembled - embarrassing. During those years the Clash, and Joe Strummer in particular, changed lives like no band since and very few before. Those lives might well have changed again a few times, but that extraordinarily potent combination of idealistic heart-on-sleeve leftwing politics, perfect pitch musical heritage and impeccable rebel style was utterly irresistible to a certain sort of male who came to musical consciousness sometime in the late 70s. When Strummer died aged just 50 in 2002 it was easy to pick out plenty of other paunchy, greying fellows looking lost and misty-eyed.
Chris Salewicz's huge new Strummer biography captures well this sense of loyalty and loss. As an NME glory-days writer he draws on his semi-insider status - Strummer called him "Sandwich" - to provide a dogged soup-to-nuts detailing of the life. It can be hard going, but we learn a lot. Strummer's diplomat father wasn't quite the toff of legend. Strummer's despised public-school background provided him with very little in the way of an education. (Although his charisma and apparent self-confidence see him neatly fit into the tradition of former public schoolboys who rise to the top of radical organisations.) His politics came from the pre-punk 70s squatting and pub rock scenes - "more Merry Prankster than disciplined socialist". But the hippy reinvented himself in Brigade Rosse and H-Block T-shirts. And this being the Clash, there were not only songs, but also policies and edicts. However, as Salewicz puts it, Strummer was always the "personification of Carl Jung's view that all great truths must end in paradox". Despite the strident right-on-ness, he still went through more women than he did guitar strings. And that famous Telecaster was pretty battered. In 1983 the Clash were paid half a million dollars to headline an American festival. They performed beneath a banner that read "Clash Not For Sale". And just as Strummer wasn't really leading a revolution, he wasn't even really leading his own band. Mick Jones, despite his "Radio 2 tendencies", provided both musicality and a guilt-free, working-class radicalism that was disastrously missed when Strummer ousted him in 1983.
For someone who so persuasively urged communication, Strummer was apparently uncommunicative about his own insecurities. His elder brother - who had become obsessed with the occult and Nazism - had committed suicide. Strummer had his own propensity for depression. In the years after the Clash he acted in films, wrote soundtracks and fronted for other bands. But he had taken seriously his impossible role of filling the political and cultural voids of his followers and he soon found himself drifting, with an awful sense of self-awareness, into the limbo world of someone who used to be the voice of a generation.
The way Salewicz tells it, Strummer found a route back via the hippyish camaraderie of camp fires at Glastonbury, domestic stability and his new band, the Mescaleros, earning their own critical respect. The title of the book echoes a late collaboration with Johnny Cash on a Grammy-nominated version of the Bob Marley song, and five weeks before he died Strummer was joined on stage, for the first time in 19 years, by Mick Jones at a benefit for striking firefighters. The Clash were always masterful at shaping their own mythology and here was the circle made complete: Strummer at last at peace with both himself and his legacy. Salewicz deploys a vast weight of fact and opinion to point up this upbeat conclusion and, despite the nagging sense that he is wishing as much as knowing, you can't help but pray that he is right."

For five separate excerpts from Redemption Song, head on over to via this link.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Have You Ever Read A Foreign Novel And Then Accidentally Written With An Accent?

I recently read two wonderful books: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (translated from Italian) and A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel. Because I read one book after the other, I was struck by how prevalent and important translated literature is to each author. Manguel wrote, "The ignorance of the English-speaking reader never ceases to amaze me." He is alluding to the fact that so few books are translated into English and even the ones that are get missed. There are occasional surprise bestsellers like Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, and the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's books all sell well, but mostly after he won the coveted prize. From a bookseller's perspective, it seems American readers are missing a whole world of books!

In the Book Babes column, Ellen Heltzel and Margo Hammond, the book editor of the St. Petersburg Times, each wrote a piece about foreign lit from opposing perspectives. Click here to read that article and check out their smart observations about the book industry.

Featured below are two excellent sites that encourage reading without borders:

Words Without Borders
"...Today, 50% of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but only 6% are translated into English. Words Without Borders opens doors to international exchange through translation of the world’s best writing — selected and translated by a distinguished group of writers, translators, and publishing professionals — and publishing and promoting these works (or excerpts) on the web."

Reading the World
Now in its third year, Reading The World is an exciting collaboration between booksellers and publishers interested in bringing international voices to the attention of readers like you.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

News Bits, In Brief

Reading In Bed, a British survey of frequent book buyers, found that 85% of those asked read in bed every night, "with only 8% citing the enigmatic 'something else' as their favourite activity in bed." Please, people, the next time you're asked, LIE! Tell them that you and your significant other read as foreplay, or as part of the afterglow, or better yet, claim that you're only reading books about the 'enigmatic something else.' We're trying to nix the negative nerd stereotypes and make bookstore employees the new socialite supermodels and/or literate lotharios.

The BBC has launched a web page where you can hear poets read from their own work, and it's not emo kids reading MySpace odes to themselves, either. They've got Ogden Nash, W. H. Auden and Sylvia Plath among others.
Update: Apparently, Sylvia Plath has a MySpace page. For some strange reason, though, I suspect a hoax. For one thing, isn't she dead? And another, wouldn't the real Plath use more sad-faced emoticons?

Hemingway's home is overrun with six-toed cats, and the city of Key West thinks it's purr-fect! Seeing as how Bob Barker has retired from The Price Is Right, maybe he oughta take his 'have your pets spayed and neutered' shtick on the road -- to Florida, for starters.

Monday, July 9, 2007

If We Still Used Whale Oil, Nantucket Would Be As Wealthy As Dubai (And No One Would Ever Mention Building Wind Farms)

Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America was released in bookstores this past week, with two great beasties to contend with:
1. The fact that every book ever written about whaling -- fiction or non -- will inevitably be compared to Moby Dick.
2. The fast-approaching final installment of the Harry Potter series. There's still two weeks to go, but it is already sucking up the majority of America's book sale dollars like the immense whirlpool left in a diving whale's wake.
As the type of reader who sympathized with Ahab, I'd like to toss a floating coffin or two the underdog's way. Here's some links related to Dolin's book.

The New York Sun has nothing but kind words for the book, while adding this interesting aside to readers horrified at the idea of whaling: "Today's reader, taught by decades of save-the-whales activism to regard the slaughter of whales as a particularly gruesome form of exploitation, is inclined to join the whales' celebration. (In fact, the party was premature: As American whaling declined, Russian, Norwegian, and Japanese fleets took up the slack.) But Mr. Dolin, whose environmentalist credentials are impeccable — he is the author of the Smithsonian Book of Natural Wildlife Refuges — recognizes that modern taboos won't help us understand the history of whaling. He 'seeks to recreate what whaling was,' he writes, 'not to address what it is or should be now.'"

Author John Steele Gordon reviews the book for the Wall Street Journal. He digs it plenty.

The Los Angeles Times reviews it favorably, saying, "Leviathan will appeal most to history buffs and ocean lovers. Occasionally, readers may get lost in the details — it can be a bit like reading Moby Dick without the narrative — but what details they are! Exotic locations, colorful characters, melodrama and gore aplenty, but also food for thought."

To hear the Dolin read from Leviathan, click here.

To visit his website, stab your harpoons here.

Jazz Messenger by Haruki Murakami

I never had any intention of becoming a novelist — at least not until I turned 29. This is absolutely true.

I read a lot from the time I was a little kid, and I got so deeply into the worlds of the novels I was reading that it would be a lie if I said I never felt like writing anything. But I never believed I had the talent to write fiction. In my teens I loved writers like Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Balzac, but I never imagined I could write anything that would measure up to the works they left us. And so, at an early age, I simply gave up any hope of writing fiction. I would continue to read books as a hobby, I decided, and look elsewhere for a way to make a living.

The professional area I settled on was music. I worked hard, saved my money, borrowed a lot from friends and relatives, and shortly after leaving the university I opened a little jazz club in Tokyo. We served coffee in the daytime and drinks at night. We also served a few simple dishes. We had records playing constantly, and young musicians performing live jazz on weekends. I kept this up for seven years. Why? For one simple reason: It enabled me to listen to jazz from morning to night.

I had my first encounter with jazz in 1964 when I was 15. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers performed in Kobe in January that year, and I got a ticket for a birthday present. This was the first time I really listened to jazz, and it bowled me over. I was thunderstruck. The band was just great: Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone and Art Blakey in the lead with his solid, imaginative drumming. I think it was one of the strongest units in jazz history. I had never heard such amazing music, and I was hooked.

A year ago in Boston I had dinner with the Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo PĂ©rez, and when I told him this story, he pulled out his cellphone and asked me, “Would you like to talk to Wayne, Haruki?” “Of course,” I said, practically at a loss for words. He called Wayne Shorter in Florida and handed me the phone. Basically what I said to him was that I had never heard such amazing music before or since. Life is so strange, you never know what’s going to happen. Here I was, 42 years later, writing novels, living in Boston and talking to Wayne Shorter on a cellphone. I never could have imagined it.

When I turned 29, all of a sudden out of nowhere I got this feeling that I wanted to write a novel — that I could do it. I couldn’t write anything that measured up to Dostoyevsky or Balzac, of course, but I told myself it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to become a literary giant. Still, I had no idea how to go about writing a novel or what to write about. I had absolutely no experience, after all, and no ready-made style at my disposal. I didn’t know anyone who could teach me how to do it, or even friends I could talk with about literature. My only thought at that point was how wonderful it would be if I could write like playing an instrument.

I had practiced the piano as a kid, and I could read enough music to pick out a simple melody, but I didn’t have the kind of technique it takes to become a professional musician. Inside my head, though, I did often feel as though something like my own music was swirling around in a rich, strong surge. I wondered if it might be possible for me to transfer that music into writing. That was how my style got started.

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model.

One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, “It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.” I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.

The preceding was stolen whole from the pages of the New York Times, July 8, 2007.