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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Terrified to go to the loo?

Were you ever scared to go to the bathroom as a child? Well, apparently you share this phobia with the people of Japan, a country where ghosts are believed to inhabit the loo.

Koji Suzuki (pictured), a successful author of horror stories (Ring has been made into a series of films), has capitalized on this in an extremely innovative way -- he has written a horror story that is printed on toilet paper.

Drop (an appropriate title, if there ever was one) is set in a public restroom, and takes up about three feet (90 cm) of the roll. The roll costs 210 yen, and is billed as "a horror experience on the toilet."

Well, at least you are at rest while you read it. What you do with it after that is best left to the imagination.
(Story from Yahoo news.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Digital books are the future

A couple of days ago, I mentioned a possible big sale for the story of Captain Richard Phillips, the hero who put himself in harm's way to save his crew after his ship Maersk Alabama was seized by Somali pirates.

According to Matthew Flamm of Crain's New York Business discussion site, it seems as if the day of huge (and often obscene) book advances might be drawing to an end. The top bids for Phillips's book were around half a million dollars, a big reduction on the seven-figure advance it was expected to attract.

Lesser writers are having a tough time, too. "Somebody said to me recently, '$35,000 is the new $75,000,'" said Michael Morrison, president of the general books division at Harpers.

Gone are the flash author-editor lunches, too, as the industry is cutting costs wherever it can. There is also a move to accelerate conversion to an all-digital environment, such as putting catalogues on line, or sending them by e-mail, instead of going to the expense of print. Too, electronic publishing is beginning to account for bigger book sales.

Little wonder, then, that I received a very polite and pleasant communication from Algonquin, telling me that they are to include Island of the Lost and In the Wake of Madness in the "significant number" of titles they are converting into electronic formats, "allowing all of us to benefit from new digital sales, marketing, and distribution opportunities."

As they say, these are uncharted waters. Website advertising may produce more revenue, which is another factor to be considered. (Not many publishers would think of that!) I am delighted to be part of Algonquin's plan for an exciting and innovative future.

Sydney Opera House lights up

The written word, this ain't, but I couldn't resist the picture, which popped up on the BBC arts and culture page.

The artwork of music producer Brian Eno is lighting up the sails of the Sydney Opera House, as part of a sound and light festival in the city. The swooping, "oyster-shell" roofs have become the canvas for an audio-visual show, "77 Million Paintings."

State-of-the-art software is used to manipulate three hundred of Enos's drawings.

It is supposed to be a meditative and inspiring experience. Hopefully it will inspire a poem or two. Haiku, anyone?

Autopsy of a bad book cover, and a learning experience

Latest blog post from Jacqueline Church Simonds of Beaglebay Books is a fascinating mix of disaster and success stories. And it is all to do with jackets. Book jackets, that is.

An old friend in the pirate section of my bookshelves is her year 2000 novel, Captain Mary, Buccaneer. It's Different. Read it to believe me. Captain Mary might be based on Anne Bonny and Mary Read and their bloodthirsty ilk, but she is a stand-out character on her own. And definitely adult reading, which made me feel uncomfortable about the Young Adult-style cover. Well done, yes, but inappropriate. Now, she fronts up, and tells the story of how it got that way, and how she wishes it hadn't.

One has to hand it to Jacqueline -- she's a learner. She learned from the experience, and put it to good use. Since then, her jackets have been composed with impact and relevance in mind, with such success that several have been award-winners.

You can see them here.

Have a look, and choose your favorites. I was particularly struck with two, one black and white, and the other four-color:

Now all I have to do is find out what "consilience" means.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Serial killers, take note

For four days from July 8, all New Yorkers can rest easier in their beds, because the city will be hosting 150 bestselling thriller authors, all adept at foiling murderers, tricksters, and thieves.

The list is guaranteed to send shivers up the back of even the most arrogant serial killer, including such chill-inspiring names as Robin Cook, David Baldacci, James Rollins, Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, and Eric Van Lustbader. Click here.
Actually, the very idea of all those devious minds in just one room sends shivers up mine.

Railroad Haiku

I've been hearing a lot about twittering and tweeting lately. Now, according to the BBC, the London public is being invited to write haiku on their cellphones, and submit them to a competition.
And, it's a good idea to tweet with grace and originality, because every entry will be displayed on a huge outdoor screen at King's Cross Station.
The poem is limited to 140 characters (or less) and must be in the traditional Japanese haiku style, with seventeen syllables spread over three lines.
While all entries will get their twenty-minute exposure, they will also be judged, by a panel that includes Yoko Ono and Jackie Kay.
The prize is free entry to a spoken word event every week for a year.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Book deal for Maersk Alabama hero

In this grim age of revelations about greedy financiers and CEOs, the world loves a hero. Hard on the heels of the three-million Morrow book deal for airline captain "Sully" Sullenberger, comes the news that another media sensation is on the verge of selling his story.

Captain Richard Phillips leapt to fame after selflessly handing himself over to Somali pirates to save his crew, after the Maersk Alabama was attacked. His life story rights are being sold at auction, in a bidding war that began last week. The price, we hear, has already reached $500,000.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Success upon success for Scottish author

Spy Mouse is delighted that Glaswegian Caro Ramsay has just shot to no 4 in the Scottish bestseller lists with Singing to the Dead (that was yesterday - maybe No 3, even No 1, today), a few days after publication.

Singing to the Dead is second in the Anderson & Costello crime series, which is set in Glasgow -- probably one good reason Ramsay is often dubbed the female Ian Rankin. Her first, I gather, was called Absolution, an intriguing novel about a policeman who is haunted by the tragic outcome of an early case.

She will deliver her third in the series to Penguin UK in August.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hilarious book signing story

I have read (and experienced) some funny book signing stories, but now I think I've found the funniest yet -- perhaps because it is a joke on our Australian cousins -- lurking in the depths of the entry for Monica Dickens in an Oxford biography of the day.

There is a great deal of interest in that entry. Monica Enid Dickens (1915-1992), a great-granddaughter of the classic novelist Charles Dickens, set off her entertaining career by being expelled from St. Paul's Girls' School for tossing her uniform over Hammersmith Bridge. A glamorous blonde, she then joined a school for dramatic art, but was asked to leave when they found she couldn't act. So, with wonderful aplomb, she became a cook-general (perhaps by placing adverts. in The Lady magazine?) Her experiences led to her first book, One Pair of Hands, and then a series of bestselling, high acclaimed novels, plus a weekly column in Woman's Own.
It was all just "unbelievable luck," she modestly claimed.

As well as being a Samaritan, Monica Dickens had a great sense of humor. When operated on for bowel cancer, she wrote to a friend, "It's not a full stop -- just a semi-colon." So it is appropriate that she has the best signing story yet.

As hinted, it happened in Sydney. Handed a book, she asked, "Shall I write someone's name in it?" Came the reply, "Emma Chisit," so that is what she wrote, "To Emma Chisit, with best wishes."

"No!" exclaimed the customer. "Emma Chisit?"

"Twenty-three shillings," was the proper answer.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Convict Who Wrote Letters

Every now and then I find out about a writer I have never heard of before, and the day seems richer because of it. One such is Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819), the convict who wrote letters.

Margaret was a colorful person in her own right. The illegitimate daughter of a laborer employed by a famous breeder of carthorses, she first made her name by riding bareback to fetch a doctor for the breeder's wife, who was gravely ill. It was her riding skills that got her into trouble, when she appropriated her employer's horse to ride to London in pursuit of William Laud, a smuggler who had stolen her affections. For this, she was tried and sentenced to death, but this was commuted to transportation. The idea of Australia was so unappealing that she made a bold escape from Ipswich jail, somehow managing to negotiate the high, spiked wall. After recapture, she was sentenced to death again -- a sentence that was again commuted to transportation, and on 27 May 1801 she embarked on the Nile for New South Wales.

Unexpectedly, the new country suited her. Margaret Catchpole worked for a number of families, gained a good reputation, was pardoned in 1814, and opened a store in Richmond, New South Wales. She was also a midwife and kindly nurse, and died in 1819 after catching influenza from one of her patients.
Throughout, she wrote letters, many to the old employer whose horse she had appropriated. The son of the family used these to write a highly embroidered account of her life, which sold very well. The letters themselves are held at the State Library of New South Wales, and can be read online here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

White House rocks to the sound of verse

The White House jammed and slammed last night, reports Washington Post staff writer, DeNeen L. Brown.

The East Room was packed with poets, playwrights, actors, and musicians, many of them young and rising talents, who produced a glorious mix of jazz and the spoken word.

Michelle Obama confided that she had wanted to do this from day one. She adored the idea of "standing in this room and hearing some poetry."
She heard more than that. Each poem was a performance, including a real performance from James Earl Jones, who recited a long passage from Shakespeare's Othello in a delivery so powerful that it stunned the room to silence.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Harlan Ellison turns down hometown prize

There must be some red faces in Cleveland, Ohio. A local scion, world-famous science fiction writer, critic, and editor Harlan Ellison, 75, was finally recognized for a lifetime achievement award -- even though some of the panel had never heard of him before.

It was then that the series of blunders commenced. First, he was informed that he was expected to pay all the expenses of bringing himself and his wife from their home in California to the ceremony. This was closely followed by a printed e-mail (Ellison -- amazingly for a professional predictor of an exciting, if fictional, future -- does not subscribe to the internet), which arrived by regular post to inform him that his acceptance speech was limited to three minutes. A phone call to explain this, from the Cleveland Arts Prize Executive Director, was punctuated with a startling question -- did Ellison know anyone in Cleveland who might pay to have an advertisement in the events program?

Ellison -- who is also famously prickly and apt to Take a Strong Stand -- turned down the prize.
Was he right to do so?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Are you prepared to pay to learn the latest news?

The real question, says Frank Rich, is for the public, not the journalists: Are we, the people at large, ready to pay for news, whatever form it comes in? It's nice to get news free, over the internet, but hard-headed, impartial, investigative reporting needs money, and no matter how much the likes of Google and Yahoo enjoy putting news headlines on their home pages, they are not going to provide the kind of cash needed. Television used to be "free" -- the advertisers paid for it -- but when it came to the crunch, people were prepared to pay a monthly fee for cable or Sky. So are you likely to feel the same about your daily news?

See today's New York Times for Rich's terrific discussion.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Van Gogh did not cut off his ear

Gauguin was the one who dunnit. Or so a new book claims.

The general understanding is that the mentally ill Dutch painter Van Gogh cut off his ear after falling out with Paul Gauguin rather publicly, outside a brothel in Arles. German academics Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, after years of painstaking research into the artists' lives and police files, have refuted this in a book called (surprise, surprise) Van Gogh's Ear.

The subtitle tells it all: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence. According to Kaufmann and Wildegans, there was indeed a pact -- both men agreed to tell the self-maiming story to the gendarmerie, to protect Gauguin's reputation.

So what really happened? That comes down to guess and circumstance, but the writers have agreed that the ear was flicked off by Gauguin with a fencing sword, perhaps in the quarrel, or perhaps in a drunken feint. Van Gogh then wrapped it up and handed it to a prostitute called Rachel.

Gauguin moved to Tahiti (to protect what was left of his reputation?), and painted famous portraits of his fourteen-year-old mistress. Van Gogh died in 1890, after shooting himself in the chest.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fawlty Towers not to be resuscitated

Fawlty Towers must be my favorite comedy show ever. The pace is fast, the characters distinct, the acting superb, and the scripts are just terrific. However -- wisely, in my opinion, John Cleese and his co-writer, Connie Booth, have ruled out a return.
The four stars -- Cleese, Booth, Andrew Sachs, and Prunella Scales -- were reunited for the first time in 30 years, to promote a documentary for TV channel G.O.L.D. Asked the inevitable question, 69-year-old Cleese said they would never make another episode because they are "too old and tired." The pace is too fast, and the expectations too high -- and there is also the memory that it took six intensive weeks to write each half-hour episode.

Last month, the BBC sitcom was named the most "iconic" TV comedy show of all time.

Yet, only 12 episodes were ever made. Cleese said that he and Booth (who played the waitress, Polly) made a joint decision to stop it at that.

"We both felt we'd done our best and we just knew that, if we did it, it wouldn't be as good."

See an interview with Cleese.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Origin of the Species a rare prize

A first edition copy of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection has been sold at auction in Norfolk for thirty-five thousand pounds.

Its value is probably enhanced by the fact that the first print run -- which sold out on the spot -- was just 1,250.
It must be also acknowledged, though, that it must be the most definitive book of biology ever.
The book was purchased by a local book dealer, who undoubtedly expects to make a tidy profit from an ongoing sale.

Read more.

Ongoing crisis on the Boston Globe

The talks drag on.

The owner of the Boston Globe is still talking with unions to try to save the grand old paper from folding. Staff are being asked to take cuts in pay and pensions, and the owner is being asked to give newspaper jobs some permanency.

The Boston Globe is the latest victim of many blows, most emanating from the internet. First and foremost, is the loss of advertising revenue. Perhaps even more grave, as a BBC correspondent points out, is the situation where readers force papers to post instant "Breaking News" on their websites, yet fail to pay to read the same thing in print next day.

The challenge is to devise a business model that copes with the situation. Until one arrives, losses in both revenue and jobs will mount.

Marilyn French dies at 79

Marilyn French, author of feminist classic The Women's Room has passed away.

The 1977 novel, which captured the frustration and fury of a generation ofwomen fed up with society's traditional conceptions of their role, sold 20million copies.

Monday, May 4, 2009

First female British poet laureate appointed

It's second time lucky for Carol Ann Duffy, who was reliably rumored to be in strong contention back in 1999, when Andrew Motion was given the job.

Will she enjoy it? That is another matter for contention. Prominent names have ventured the opinion that the post is more stultifying than inspiring.
So, the best of luck to the new voice of verse.