Wednesday, January 02, 2013


Filmed as a prequel to the Lord of the Rings series, this first part of The Hobbit covers approximately half of the book as written by J.R.R.Tolkein. It begins with an aged Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), Hobbit, writing out his tale for Frodo in the idyllic shire of Bag End.

As he narrates, we meet the younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who lives a sedentary life in his hobbit hole and wants for nothing more than a relaxed and peaceful existence. This is not to be, as he’s been chosen by the wizard Galdalf (Ian McKellan) to aid a pack of thirteen dwarves in their quest to reclaim their mountain home (and the gold therein) from the dragon Smaug.

Bilbo refuses Galdalf’s initial invitation to adventure, and retires to his William Morris-inspired hobbit hole for dinner. Just as he’s plating his fish and sitting down, the first knock comes, and one of what soon grows to a rowdy crowd of twelve ravenous and rude dwarves invades his home and pantry. They noisily eat all the food as Bilbo helplessly protests, and it is only when Gandalf returns that their reason for being there at all comes clear to Baggins. Bilbo is very cross, and notes that his house has been rendered extremely untidy by the dwarves—who then proceed to sing a jolly song about his worry over being eaten out of house and home and concern over his heirlooms as they clean up and stack all his tossed-about but un-chipped and now clean family china.

Some of the dwarves look askance at Gandalf’s choice of Baggins to be their burglar, especially their late-arriving leader, dwarf prince Thorin (Richard Armitage). Bilbo, doubtful about leaving his hole and the Shire, initially refuses to sign the contract offered him, and then faints almost comically. By morning’s light, the house is spotless, the sun is shining calmly, and the dwarves are gone. Bilbo looks about, and quickly decides to join the dwarves, running after them and catching up with the group in the forest.

On their first night out, three hungry computer-generated trolls capture all of them except for Gandalf. The trolls’ antics are along the lines of a cockney three stooges, with snot jokes, and predictable slapstick violence. Once all the dwarves are trussed up for consumption Bilbo makes himself useful by delaying the trolls into remaining outside until the sun rises, when Gandalf strikes a stone that lets the rays through to turn them to stone. The group then finds the troll’s cave, and in it a hoard of treasure which includes some elven swords of high quality, with which they arm themselves.
Gandalf finds one that is just Bilbo’s size and gives it to him. At Bilbo’s protests that he wouldn’t know what to do with it, Gandalf insists that, “Courage is not about knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.” Such dialogue as there is in the film is of this simplistic quality. McKellen and the others, all fine actors, deserve better. Further, it is only when such lines are delivered that the action takes a pause. Meaningful looks are exchanged briefly, and the audience is expected to nod along with the wisdom as the music swells emotively.
One evening, the group is camping out when sounds of orcs waft across the landscape to their ears. When one of the dwarves scoff at the idea of being attacked, he is taken to task by an older one who tells the tale, via vertiginous flashback, of the loss of the dwarves’ home, Erebor, through the usurpation by Smaug, and the subsequent battles with others to retake it, focusing on one particular battle with the Orcs in which Thorin showed himself a true leader by snicking the arm off of Azog, leader of the orcs.
This battle, as with the others of the film, is portrayed primarily in computer generated images. The scale of the fighting—the entire screen is filled with tiny writhing figures—creates confusion for the viewer. Yells of combat, and the focusing in on particular acts of violence do little to clarify the situation, and the scene is brought to sense only through heavy narration by the old dwarf. The actors involved are visually treated in such a way as gives the impression that they, too, are computer generated or articulated models, and the overall effect is that of a high-quality video game.
The villain, the orc Azog, a mere name in the book, was presumed dead after that battle, but is a persistent foe for Thorin in the film: providing an excuse for running, growling creatures, and excessive battle scenes and chases. His menacing appearance is familiar—the hulking, pale, muscular and angry type having been seen in Prometheus this past summer, for example. Indeed, quite a bit about the film is familiar.
Obviously designed for the 3D theatres, the film’s scenery is unrelentingly huge—vast sweeping landscapes give way to vast underground caverns or vast claustrophobic crevices. All kingdoms seem to be built with perilous bridges over incredible drops into distant nothingness, be they dwarvish, elvish, or goblin. There are boulders which roll at the audience, flying debris which comes at one, and on and on, forever on, until it seems no cliché is left untouched when it comes to falling, being smooshed, or otherwise tricked into a sense of vertigo.
This is all part of what passes for excitement in major Hollywood films, if the previews are anything to go by; of six films advertised before this adventure, five had scenes of falling off cliffs or other high places, being almost crushed by flying debris, and other narrow escapes followed by a sigh exchanged between those involved right before something else almost kills them.
Considering what can be done with 3D, as displayed by the documentaries on the dancer Pina, and The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one hopes for more when the technology is made available to those who work from a starting point of imagination. Unfortunately, the aim of Jackson and company seems not that of bringing a good story to life, nor even a mediocre one, but rather to distract the audience from what is lacking.
The use of bombastic battle scenes, and the near-elimination of some actors behind CGI imagery meant to terrify or startle can only go so far, as the action does little to move the story forward and the patience of all but the most die-hard fans in the audience is sorely tested by its near-three-hour length.
In a visit to Rivendell, Maxfield Parrish-inspired homeland of the elves, the dwarves, Gandalf and the hobbit learn the names and legends of the swords found in the trolls’ cave, as well as having the secret parts of the ancient map of the Lonely Mountain they carry decoded by one of the higher elves. Gandalf also presents, in a meeting with the elves Galadriel (Cate Blanchet), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), a sword given to him by the reclusive wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy, of Doctor Who fame) which proves to be a relic of ancient evil and which will, no doubt, figure in the next film.
It is also in Rivedell that Gandalf declares that, “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” This was not a line from the book, though it did express a certain sentiment Tolkien subscribed to. Though not necessarily pacifist, the Lord of the Rings and associated books have an intention of exposing the horrors of war, and the struggle between defeatism and hope comes into play quite strongly in his writing. It is, therefore, an incongruous line to find in this film adaptation, which goes to great lengths to depict violence and honor as if it can only be found therein.
The scenes involving Gollum, met by Baggins alone in the caverns under the goblin mountain in which the dwarves have all been taken prisoner, do provide an interesting interlude. One cannot help but feel for the creature, driven mad from isolation, when he realizes he’s lost his ring to Baggins. Though the scenes could have been accomplished more compactly, there is a latitude of emotion allowed on the part of the computer-generated Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis, who was also second unit director of the film) which is denied that of the entirely human actors who are largely limited to pantomiming rage, fear, or posing heroically.
It is also one of the few places that Bilbo Baggins is allowed to develop at all. Freeman takes full advantage of the opportunity, and his grudging mercy at the end of the scene is, though we all know the ultimate outcome of that relationship, a convincing relief. If the rest of the characters were treated even half as fully as in this one segment, there could be some considerable depth to the film.
The final battle scene of the film, involving a showdown between Azog and Thorin, allows Baggins a chance to play the fighting hero. This is depicted as an unexpected twist. However, for all the surprise portrayed by those onscreen, it is unlikely there are many who did not see it coming. As with so much else in the film, the storyline has a predictability that does not stem solely from familiarity with the book on which it’s based.
In any event, Baggins’ sudden heroic turn wins him the admiration from Thorin, who’d repeatedly voiced his doubts about him, but who now declares he’s never been so happy to have been wrong. Having been deposited on a high cliff by the enormous birds sent by the elf Galadriel to rescue the group from the clutches of the orcs, the troupe looks to the distant mountaintop on which can be scried the lost home of the dwarves wherein a dragon awakes. And so the scene is set for the next installment. 

Published with revisions at:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Had some help with this one.

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury: 1920-2012

By Christine Schofelt and Hector Cordon 
14 June 2012
The death of American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury June 5 at the age of 91 in Los Angeles has prompted a good deal of analysis of the author’s work, as well as the rather flimsy claim by some on the political right that he was one of them.
Certainly, Bradbury did declare his admiration for Ronald Reagan and King Vidor’s film version of The Fountainhead (1949—based on the novel by Ayn Rand). In the months before his death, moreover, Bradbury expressed the wish that the upcoming election would see a reduction in the size of government, to be followed by a further reduction “soon.”
Bradbury in 1975
This only demonstrates that the relationship between the conscious political views of an artist and the sense he or she makes of the world through his art is not a simple or mechanical one. Bradbury, something of a “libertarian,” was a self-educated, or as he later put it, a “public library-educated” man, who even in his old age would hold readings to benefit a local library. His work evinces a humanism and sympathy for the oppressed completely at odds with the imbecilic selfishness of the Rand cult.
This is the same man, after all, who wrote stories such as “Way in the Middle of the Air,” from early editions of The Martian Chronicles, about persecuted African-Americans taking to the skies to settle on Mars, away from the bigots. Like so many of his stories, this is a hopeful piece, a search for a solution to a seemingly intractable problem on Earth. It was also a bold story to put out at that time—first appearing in Other Worlds in 1950, before the eruption of the civil rights movement—and shone a harsh light on the prejudice and violence faced by so many.
One might suggest that Bradbury, like other, more prominent literary figures before him, was “compelled to withdraw into the past” (Trotsky) by the conditions of his time. His oft-idealized hometown of Waukegan, Illinois made an appearance in a number of his works. Though generally writing about the future, Bradbury was often reaching back to the past with an almost Hawthorne-esque shake of the head at what science, technology and even desire had wrought.
In his own life, Bradbury rejected much of technology, agreeing only last year, for example, to have one of his books, Fahrenheit 451, released as an ebook. The writer was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of an eccentric, even a technophobe. He never learned to drive a car, quite extraordinary for a resident of Los Angeles his entire adult life. Bradbury did not board a commercial airliner until the age of 62.
Yet Fahrenheit 451 (1953)—about a future America where books are banned and a fireman’s job is to burn them—is remarkable for its almost predictive qualities when it comes to gadgets such as tiny personal radios, flat-screen televisions and in-ear communication devices.
Bradbury’s writing on occasion even inspired the development of such things. In an interview with Book Magazine in 1998, Bradbury explained, “I’ve never set out to predict. I just write what later seems to evolve and be true.” He continued, “I was in Japan working on a short film, and one of my hosts came to me and put a Walkman on my ears and said, ‘Fahrenheit 451, Fahrenheit 451!’ The young man who invented it had read [about such a device in] the story and decided to build it.”
There can also be genuine pessimism in Bradbury’s works. In Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), for which he also wrote the screenplay, this comes out quite strongly. The attempts to change what the characters are not satisfied with—in most cases their ages—lead to disaster. Those who do succeed in altering their condition end up dead or enslaved, and the lesson learned by the central characters seems to be to just accept what is.
There was bravery as well in what he wrote. In releasing Fahrenheit 451 at the height of the anti-communist witch-hunt, Bradbury took a significant risk. However, the writer insisted that a statement against McCarthyism was not his intention. Although the novel was viewed and taught for decades as a work aimed against censorship, Bradbury often downplayed the latter issue, and asserted the danger he was warning about was the phenomenon of television.
One can view a video at his siteentitled “Bradbury on Censorship/Television” in which the author declares, “I wasn’t worried about freedom. I was worried about people being turned into morons by TV.” When the interviewer notes that Sen. Joseph McCarthy had banned books, Bradbury dismisses this with a casual, “Well, [President Dwight] Eisenhower said put them back, so it was, you know, a few days.” He exhorted librarians to “just quietly put the books back” if censors removed them.
It is doubtful that such comments will stop the use of Fahrenheit 451 as a literary “poster child” for those fighting censorship—after all, Bradbury noted this same thing in a number of other interviews over the years. However it does bring up the question of what happens when an author’s work takes on a meaning not consciously intended by its creator. Fahrenheit 451, far from being a mere complaint against television, is a beautifully wrought work which has inspired generations of free-speech advocates.
In his introduction to Dandelion Wine (1957), Bradbury makes a comment that may reveal more than the writer intends: “It was with great relief, then, that in my early twenties I floundered into a word-association process in which I simply got out of bed each morning, walked to my desk, and put down any word or series of words that happened along in my head.
Bradbury in 1959
“I would then take arms against the word, or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh the word and show me its meaning in my own life.”
Bradbury was in his “early twenties” in the midst of World War II, the greatest slaughter in world history. Did this and subsequent events have an impact on the writer?
According to Bradbury’s version of things, he wrote instinctively, with his unconscious mind creating the subject and his conscious mind giving it direction. Perhaps, for various reasons, Bradbury was unable to locate himself consciously as an opponent of racism, or McCarthyism. Perhaps his approach was the only way by which he could take on the complex and often grim realities of the time, and offer up his concerns and opposition. He seems to have responded to the difficult present with a series of morality stories encased within a semi-futuristic wrapping.
Bradbury was apparently compelled to project into the future a solution to the problems of racism, the threat of nuclear war, the stultifying atmosphere of the period. It may not be that Bradbury was “repelled” by the new, so much as he was deeply troubled by the post-World War II period. How could he not have felt the impact of the Holocaust, the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the onset of the Cold War? Bradbury’s dilemma was one that confronted an entire generation of artists and intellectuals in the US, many of whom turned to the right and helped strengthen a reactionary cultural climate.
Bradbury’s output was remarkable: over 600 short stories, numerous scripts for films and (the loathed) television (including those he wrote for his own show in the 1980s and early 1990s), poetry, nonfiction and children’s books. Most impressive is the quality of the writing itself; he had a tremendous respect for language and brought to the science fiction-fantasy genre a standard to which many subsequent writers have aspired.
Bradbury himself was well read, and inspired by such authors as W. Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway. In an early mantra typed in or around 1947, according to his biographer Jonathan Eller in Becoming Ray Bradbury (2011), he wrote, “Keep chapters to FOUR pages, no more than EIGHT pages. The purpose of a chapter is to contain ONE IDEA! And ONLY one! See Jane Austen! See Tolstoy, Dostoevsky!”
In his own uncompromising approach, Bradbury often found himself at odds, for example, with the writer and anthologist August Derleth, who, as editor ofWeird Tales, Bradbury felt was pushing him to produce formulaic work. He resisted and persisted, a struggle from which we have all benefited.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

After decades in the book business

I left it. Sort of. I don't know if one ever really does. Example: While interviewing to get into the last bookstore I worked for I noted that I'd been reading the trade papers, though out of the business for about 4 years at that point. "You need to get a life," said the interviewer... Luckily, I was hired into another area of the company entirely.

So I worked there for five years, which is the longest I have ever worked anywhere, what with being a constant mover, and then last July I left and here I am living in the hinterlands now. It was, though, until the last six months, the best bookstore I'd ever worked in.

The reasons are many, but really it boils down to this: Management at the store hired us as and treated us like adults - adults who knew and loved books - which we are. In the time that I was there I was in charge of a variety of sections, business, politics, humor, self-help, outdoors (me, who'da thunk it?), for a minute health and sex, and I helped in romance (which provoked a lot of eye rolling on my part, so I had to leave after a while. It was mostly due to costuming anachronisms on the covers.).

Now... I miss books a lot, and do still alphabetize "for" other bookstores when I visit. ("No, no, you'll see, it's better this way...")

I also still read the trade papers, because I have a life, and it's books.

I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight- Margaret Cho

(Note - this ended up in the "Drafts" section - from 2007. Some things have changed - others not so much. I'm putting this out there to get it out of the drafts file, though it's not really really finished yet. Oh, but I did finish the book.)

Margaret Cho is an interesting person. I've been watching her for years- her standup and even a couple of episodes of her show, All American Girl. Her standup is hilarious. Her show was not so much, for a variety of reasons, over most of which she had no control. She has provided a voice (a very loud voice) for Asian Americans of my generation (30's), and I have suspicions that we went to middle school together.

Her book, checked out from the library, because I am poor but have managed to pay off my outstanding library debt from having mislaid a children's book, is I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. I am about half way through it and may or may not finish it.

So far there is a politically semi-panicked unfocusedness to this collection of essays. Rife with swearing (fuck, mostly), most of which serves to detract from the point, and in one notable case, the beauty, of the thoughts struggling to get through. That notable case is in an essay called "good-bye", in which Cho catalogues, passionately, and heartbreakingly, what you will never be able to do again if you lost someone to the war. It ends:

"They're never coming home. Never. They bring back bodies, hidden beneath flags, pictures of which the government doesn't want us to see, but it's not them, anyway. They are gone, far away from this world, to heaven, I suppose, and, for their sake, I hope there is one, because here on earth it's fucking hell."

The piece itself is powerfull, and Cho's outrage is palpable, her words drag the reader into her emotion. Cho can write.

It is, perhaps, unfair to ask that someone so subject (and subjected to so much) to issues of identity- being Korean-American in America not be obsessed with it. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970's and 80's, she was surrounded by her Korean family, the Chinese and Japanese students in school, and all the stereo-types associated with what an Asian Girl Should Be- most of which she was not. She was not thin, she was not considered pretty (having a "fat face" was one of the "problems" her relatives let her know she had), and she did not excell academicaly. She was shy, scared, and lonely. A lot of this due to pressures from within her groups, and exclusion from the outside. She has every reason to be pissed off about it all, and she is.

She identifies herself in many ways- American, Asian-American, Feminist, etc. It seems she is having trouble just Being Cho at times, due, no doubt, to the afore-mentioned troubles coming up. The troubles relating to race and racial stereotypes did not end when she hit 18- even at the supposed top of the game, having her own show, she was forced to diet by the show's producers, was attacked by Asian groups for employing the "wrong kind" of Asians as characters on the show, and on and on.

Throughout the (first half of) the book, Cho expresses what can be commonly seen in the letters to the editors' pages across the country now- an impatience and confusion about the War in Iraq, a distrust of politicians. Also commonly expressed is a wish for change without any clear direction of what shape that change would take. She advises us that it is time to "Warrior Up", but is not really clear about what that means. Cho's exhortations to get "militant" seem to go nowhere, as what that means is likewise left unexplained. Militant how, exactly? Write letters? Voting is suggested, but this falls into the tired Anybody But Bush camp of rhetoric.

Dust Jackets

There have been a number of hardcover books coming out in the States of late which do not have dust jackets. I approve, just to get that out of the way. Recently I found a bag of dust jackets which I'd removed from the books so that they (the jackets) would not get tattered while the boy or I were reading/playing with/losing the books. The bag was crushed, of course, so all dreams of "someday I will sell this for a mazillion dollars,which will come in handy as there will be no social safety nets soonly" were dashed. I'll just have to keep stuffing bullion into the mattresses instead.

Dust jackets are a relatively recent invention, as anyone in antique books can tell you. The covers of books have long been embossed, or had pictures on them. For some reason, somewhere, it was decided that an extra layer of paper was needed. One boss of mine was very particular about the Care Of Dust Jackets. Do not use the side flaps as page-savers in Utah, just a warning.

Anyhoo- I like this new trend and have taken to snickering when I see an environmet-oriented book clad in the extra layer (ahem, Al Gore).

Some of the new books sans DJ are made in imitation of the older books, it's true, but a number of them are not, and the design is rather good. I am hoping that this will continue, or that attention will re-focus to the spines of the books, rather than the obvious advertisment factor of the Glorious Dust Jacket For Facing Out on the shelf.

And then another year..sheesh

I have not been doing nothing. Latest is this:

Remembering Maurice Sendak - published on the today

~The death in May of Maurice Sendak just a month shy of his 84th birthday was greeted throughout the publishing, art and reading world with deep sadness. Sendak, perhaps best known for his book, Where the Wild Things Are (first published in 1963), was beloved by millions, and for good reason.

Whether Sendak worked on his own stories or collaborated with other writers, his portrayal of children was always humane, and often humorous. No matter the emotions involved, Sendak pulled no punches, and illustrations such as that of the fit-throwing Max in Where the Wild Things Are, or the range of feelings in the otherwise simple One Was Johnny (1962), are honest depictions of children’s intense feelings.

Sendak did not consider his books to be children’s books per se, remarking once that he did not believe there was an absolute demarcation between children’s and adult literature. He objected to the way children were treated when it came to literature, saying, “ ‘Oh, you can’t tell them this, oh you can’t tell them that.’ You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true. If it’s true, you tell them.”

What is clear in all of Sendak’s work is that he considered children to be complex beings possessing a full complement of emotions and all the wonder and distress entailed therein.

Although the writer said he had “an intense nostalgia, a passionate affiliation for childhood,” Sendak did not let that nostalgia descend into the mawkish celebration of a lost utopia. He rejected the trend to idealize childhood, commenting in a New York Times interview late last year, “There’s a certain passivity, a going back to childhood innocence that I never quite believed in. We remembered childhood as a very passionate, upsetting, silly, comic business.”

Since its release in 1963, Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are has been repeatedly pulled from library shelves by those considering it to be “too dark.” In the early days of the controversy, he calmly explained, “It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis.”

The 2009 film adaptation by Spike Jonze, who worked closely with Sendak to bring the story to the screen, received a PG rating and again provoked comments about the work’s being “too dark” for children. Sendak’s response in this case was not as measured. His declaration that anyone who thought it unfit for children could “go to hell” was delivered with a characteristic bluntness. One could not help but cheer.

There is certainly darkness in his work, especially when compared to the often sanitized and one-sided offerings of most children’s literature. His last book, Bumble-Ardy (2011), about a pig’s birthday party, the first he had both written and illustrated in 30 years, raised eyebrows and some ire for his inclusion of the Grim Reaper (death) in the story. Although he did change the book so that the pigs drink brine instead of wine, Sendak waved off objections to the appearance of the Grim Reaper in typical fashion, saying it was the parents who were afraid of the “murderous” impulses children have.

Born in June 1928 in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Poland, Sendak was himself very much aware from a young age of the uncertainty and darkness of life. His parents did not hide from him his own fragility, nor the deaths of a number of his relatives during the Holocaust.

Sickly as a child, Sendak was often confined to his home and left in the charge of his sister Natalie, later portrayed in Outside Over There (1981) as Ida: “Ida, very brave, very strong, very frightening, taking care of me.” Other family members were also transformed into characters in his books as the years passed; the Wild Things was based on his aunts and uncles who appeared to the young Sendak as unruly and, though well-meaning, potentially dangerous.

His ability to see and articulate the contradictions within people—for example, Ida’s simultaneous love for and impatience with the baby, the Wild Things’ tender and terrifying sides—is in itself a remarkable thing. His stories are intricate, even when very short, and children (and adults) have loved them for generations because of this. Sendak did not lie or cover up the frightful things in the world or in the minds of children. Rather, he sought to understand and to let us know that we were understood. Even when we were beastly.

He did not give in to pessimism, however, and there is also great joy to be found in much of his work. A Hole Is to Dig (1952), done with Ruth Krause, depicts children in often high, happy excitement as they define holes and other various things—often hilariously. What Do You Say, Dear? (1958), written by Sesyle Joslin, is one of the funniest books on manners ever produced for children.

The vast majority of Sendak’s works were done in collaboration with others, and he had an extraordinary ability to bring out the nuance in even very simple stories, revealing layers that might otherwise have been missed.

This author’s early personal favorite, Amos Vogel’s How Little Lori Visited Times Square (1963), displays the range of Sendak’s illustrative powers—Lori is by turns bored, curious, frustrated, bereft and overjoyed in his complicated journey, and every page is believable, though the story itself is a ridiculous yarn. As was the case with the vast majority of Sendak’s young creatures, human or otherwise, Lori is rendered with tremendous empathy.

There is one more book yet to come from Maurice Sendak. Set to be published in February 2013, My Brother Jack is a poem about his own brother, who died in 1995 and also wrote several children’s books, some of which Maurice illustrated.

Ultimately, Sendak was not only true to himself and his artistic vision, he was true to life itself.

Friday, June 04, 2010

And then a year went by....

And yes it did.

We had Memorial Day and all I can think about about it is that there's been a war on as long as I have been a mother. My son's entire life is shorter so far than the occupation of Iraq. So when I see recruiters at the Starbucks, my first thought is not "thank you", it's "stay the f*ck away from my kid, you jackals". Getting an email from his school district saying the budget needs emergency cutting and the size of the cuts is about 200 staff positions doesn't make me want to say "Hey, thanks for the freedom!", it makes me want to say, "thieving murderous bastards," because I think of the uncountable millions being poured into bullets and bribes.

This is not a popular position in certain circles or on certain days.

Do I appreciate the troops? I appreciate that they've been traumatized by being commanded to kill women and children and men. By "appreciate" I mean understand. I do not blame them - most of them started out like you and me, wanting to do something good, or looking for a way to support their own families and build a better future for themselves and the world. Some are sociopaths, they I do not appreciate. "Moral waivers" have been issued to allow criminals to engage in this criminal set of wars. Recruiters have preyed on autistic and otherwise unfit people to gather troops for these long long wars.

I appreciate that the returning soldiers will have a hell of a go trying to re-adjust (those who started out adjusted) to society. I appreciate that of three grandfathers who were WWII veterans and a dad who is a Viet Nam War vet that they never talk/ed about combat experiences and shy away from general war-time discussion except to remark on how nice the people they met and didn't kill were, and how much they miss the great guys who did not come back home. I appreciate that a lot of people do not get the help they need to turn off the kill switch and come to grips with what they did "for freedom". I appreciate that a lot of families suffer from the absence, and then return of, their relatives.

I appreciate that the President who is now in charge of these wars and un-manned drone attacks sends his kids to an expensive Quaker school. I appreciate that Congress can approve emergency war funding, but manages - twice, mind you - to go on vacation while letting unemployment benefits lapse because it would be "too contentious to tackle".

Yeah, hey, thanks.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

On building houses

This is a preliminary analogy.

The land has to be cleared, the fence put up to secure the site. There are so many steps one does not think about - the blueprints in hand, one wants to just start building. I have a brick, I want to lay it down.

But is the ground even? Is there rubble, is there poison in the soil which will leech into the water system and kill the residents? These things must be seen and cleared. Protection.

Level the land - remove the garbage which has been so casually thrown into this field by passers-by and squatters, bulldoze the chunks of rotting wood and crumbling masonry - carry it away, do not just bury it - it is not needed, it is not wanted. Oh, that bit of marble looks salvageable, but for what? Does it have a place in the new house? I like this crystal doorknob, but will it open a door, or refuse to turn and therefore trap us in? Weigh it all.

The fence.
It is important. Yes, you want to live free - you want to roam, but this is not a fencing in - this is to keep monsters out. No, they are humans, but they have the hearts of monsters and would tear out yours. You need a fence. They will take a sledgehammer to your work when you're not looking and pour acid into the pipes before they can be capped off.

Materials - need to be strong but not brittle; flexible, but secure. You live in earthquake country - make sure this building has enough sway to not be knocked down, that the doorways are very strong.

You can apply paint, o, sure, but the walls need to be free of cracks, the floors need to support you, and the attic needs to not be cluttered with things you dig up in the back yard.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ancillary Post

In these boxes from Random House we received:

A set of bookmarks (approximately 25) in the smaller box.
A publicity package of brochures in an 9x12 envelope in the larger box.

Why are they having fiscal trouble? One wonders, given the excessive amount of packaging and the attendant postage and time involved, how they have survived as long as they have. This is, I must point out, a company owned by Bertlesmann, a massive global publishing powerhouse which is undergoing re-structuring even now.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Book Business

While the past months have seen a sharpening of the economic hit taken by the retail sector, the recent weeks' news has been no less than startling in the publishing world. According to a November 24 report in the industry paper, Publishers’ Weekly, “Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt], confirmed that the publisher has ‘temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts’ across its trade and reference divisions.” He added that this is “not a permanent change,” though when new manuscripts would be considered was not stated. It is not clear as to whether manuscripts already approved and set for release would make it to bookshelves.

Blumenfeld also noted that any future manuscripts would be rigorously assessed for “market interest”. It is of note that “artistic merit” is not the primary criteria.

Houghton’s announcement comes on the heels of a leaked internal memo from the previous week wherein Random House, which is owned by the international media conglomerate Bertelsmann, proclaimed that it would freeze all pensions at their current level and would not offer pensions to people hired after January 1, 2009. There have since been reports of a major restructuring of the publishing housed under Random’s umbrella, with the number being reduced from five to three. This, despite the claims of the Bertelsmann website on November 11 that, “After nine months of the 2008 financial year, Bertelsmann reported a solid business development. The international media company achieved revenues almost at the level of the previous year in its continuing operations.”

Since these revelations, the news from the industry has grown increasingly worrisome; San Francisco-based Chronicle Books announced that it will be cutting back almost 5% of its staff due to the outlook for 2009. Macmillan has announced a pay freeze for staff earning $50,000 and over, and the establishment of a pool to provide for modest increases for those earning less. Penguin has likewise frozen pay for those earning $50,000 or more.

Over the last two decades, many publishing houses have been absorbed by non-publishing entities, and the emphasis has been on making fast profit for the shareholders, rather than on building a solid literary or cultural institution. In the last few years even the largest of houses have been taken over, merged with, or outright bought by enormous entities whose bottom line is not cultural enrichment. These new organizations show a lack of willingness to take chances on new literature, and a quick abandonment on any projects that do not garner immediate attention. As we are seeing with HMH, in tough economic times even the supposed raison d’etre of a publisher – to find and publish new material – is sacrificed to cut costs.

Concurrently, the retail aspects of the book business underwent several major changes – from the rise of the “big box” bookstores and the resulting explosion of retail shelf space at a time when readership had been declining, to the advent of the internet as a shopping venue. Both had an adverse effect on the more traditional independent and family-owned bookstores, with many going under, partly due to the publishers’ refusal of deep discounts which the larger chains were offered. A series of lawsuits by the American Booksellers’ Association in the 1990’s obtained cease and desist orders against such un-equal business practices.

The current economic situation is also felt by the large chains. Borders has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for months and its third quarter reports show overall sales down 10%. Should the company fail, the return of product would be more than most publishers could fiscally bear, and approximately 30,000 workers would be rendered unemployed. The ripple effect would also very likely take down distributing companies, who would be forced to reduce staff as well. What once might have been the dream of many independent booksellers would actually spell the doom of massive segments of the industry.

While certain independent stores are able to scrape by on the strength of the demand for used books, the resource is not infinite; it does take the publishing of new books to eventually supply that market. Were the publishers to fail, even the stores which exclusively sell used books would see their stock dwindle. In recent years, the number of failed independent book stores has increased, succumbing to the economic pressures of meeting increased rents and decreased sales.

The book business has not until recently been viewed as a means to get rich. Very often writers and sellers of the books have scraped by, their love for words and ideas taking precedence over profit. The same can be said of many publishers and presses, some of which have maintained that integrity and a number of which are still producing vibrant, unusual, and original works. Rather than banking on the Next Big Thing, or, as is more common now, The Next Blockbuster Sequel, they have built their reputations on presenting well-written, enduring works with an eye to artistic advancement. It is quite possible that they will triumph in the end - but it's going to be rocky for a while.