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The Financial Lives of the Poets: A literary hit right where I live (Literally)

I never really got “The Great Gatsby.” I didn’t read it as part of a school assignment, so I missed out on, apparently, the meaning behind the meaning of a bitter obituary for the American Dream.

What I understand now (thanks to friends of mine who could not believe I thought the book was about the spoiled, annoying people it seemed to be about) is that it is a highly symbolic treatise about the excess of the Jazz Age, and the hollow exuberance of post-war euphoria. It captures (I am told) the cynicism of the New America selling its soul for a quick buck and a cheap thrill.

But what do I care about the 1920s? That was a half century before I was even born. What’s a book that sums up the ennui of an era I’m actually familiar with?

Enter “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” by Jess Walter. This book arrived in my mailbox one day from my friend Chuck who called it “lovely dark and deep,” and “an outlandish but true picture of now.”

“You among my friends might best find its pleasures,” he said a bit poetically himself. Boy, was he right, though. I found pleasure aplenty. Pain, too.

A Daily News quote on the cover calls “Poets” gasp-out loud funny, and I agree. Walter sees the funny clown beneath the Emmett Kelly grease paint, and he teases laughs out of the most casual of observations — unerringly, it seemed, while I had a mouthful of water to choke on. What I didn’t expect all the gasping I’d do from Walter’s dead-on skewering of modern middle-American life. My life.

The star of “Poets” is Matthew Prior, a beleaguered father and laid-off journalist with a ponderous mortgage and a failed start-up in his rear-view mirror and an existential malaise clouding up over the backyard of his midlife and … hold on. I need to mop my brow and pour myself a stiff drink.

The similarities to my life begin to diverge, thank God, as we see Matthew’s despair drive him to some unorthodox solutions to his financial woes, sparked by a chance meeting with a few young stoners in possession of some really stellar ganja. (My record with weed is brief, uninteresting and not the stuff of literary inspiration, which offered me some welcome distance from Matthew’s trajectory.)

First, let me say this about the writing: Walter should be fitted at once for a white, three-piece suit. You may recall from my recent Influence Map that Tom Wolfe is something of a muse of mine. So it is not lightly that I draw a line between the Great White Wolfe and this book. Walter has, like Wolfe, a journalist’s eye for detail and, like Wolfe, a poet’s ear for prose:

Ike was the music writer at the newspaper for years, and oddly enough, given that position, among the squarest people I know. Married. Three kids. Asthmatic and frail. He was probably the only other adult not getting high the last fifteen years. He’s recently been transferred and is covering politics and city government now. On a shrinking staff a music writer is an extravagance they can’t afford. I feel bad for Ike, who spent years developing that weird, specific music-writer vocabulary (the thunky wallop of the bass … the womb-like, plangent guitar …) only to find it doesn’t quite translate to covering politics (the state Senator’s speech “lumbered along like a fussy cover musician scatting a complex hook”).

This is just a flick of Walter’s wrist. The whole book reads with that bouncy style, even when delineating the sad decline of housing prices, economic indicators, and our feelings of self-worth that go with it all.

This mastery alone makes Walter new best friend. But then he really has to get inside my head. He places his characters square in the middle of our collective financial slump, with all the same anxieties regular schmoes like me feel every day. This excerpt made me close the book and step away:

I push the garbage into the alley and turn back toward my home —

My home …

God, this view is breathtaking. This is the view that sold us on the place. The homes on the front of our block sit on wide lots and I still lose my breath at this angle of my house, from deep in the backyard: a long, gently sloped hill leading to big majestic maple trees on either side of our angular, two-story 1917 Tudor, a streetlight on the corner, and the mist of late October rain bands the street with fog so that our big brick house glows in the soft light like a movie set of Old London. From back here, the money the stress, the lifetime of work it will take to pay for this place (I remember calculating the total we’d pay over thirty years and feeling sick) almost seems worth it. Up close, the clinker brick and uneven roof make our house look like it was drawn by the unsteady hand of a child, but from back here, if you squint, there is the faint line of a country manor. This is the house we fell in love with, Lisa and I — the house that has become, in every way, the third party in our marriage, the very sort of big drafty place we always saw each other in when we imagined our married adult lives.

If that uneasy feeling (the lifetime of work almost seems worth it), doesn’t describe two thirds of America, I’ll eat my closing documents. The thing is, I really have dropped off the garbage in the alley and turned around to see my house lit up at night, and though it was filled with happy children and a loving wife doing the things they do in cozy well-lit houses on autumn evenings, I could only see payment schedules and pay stubs. A scary dislocation, as my friend Chuck would call it.

This isn’t a maudlin book, though. Sure, times are grim, but the people in them can be funny and inspired instead. The observations that Walter makes, the flip asides, the inherent screwball adventure of a man who goes out for milk and ends up with a budding marijuana business — they are all roadside attractions on a fast-moving tale of modern toil, filled with despair, yes, but also redemption and recovery. And laughs.

Gatsby may still speak for somebody, but Walter’s financial poetry speaks for me.

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Three for the kids’ bookshelf

Been reading a lot of Young Adult books lately. Here are three I’m recommending these days:

The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)

I’m a bit late to this party, as the cult sensation around 2007’s brainy action adventure is already well established. (Kids show up to book signings with author Stewart dressed as characters from the book; also, while reading this during a swim team practice for Oldest Son, one mother nudged me and said, “Oh, my daughter loves that book!” I’m pretty sure she was genuinely into the book, and not coming on to me.)

It gets and deserves this adulation for making heroes out of a set of brainy kids. You know: nerds. The kind of smarties who are, in other books, useful-but-barely-tolerable bookworms relegated to the sidelines.

You know how Hermione is the nag who Potter and friends tease for being such a relentless know-it-all? The kids in TMBS are nobody’s nags, and they don’t shiv just because they spend more time in a library than on a Quidditch pitch. Each of Stewart’s four heroes are selected for a secret mission because they are smart — and not just book smart, either. Stewart celebrates all kinds of braininess, from introspective and curious Reynie to adventurous and instinctive Kate. The socially maladroit Sticky is the only character who is a typical walking calculator, but Stewart’s great creation Constance Contraire is selected for the team for being a stubborn skeptic — a rare and misunderstood trait. Kudos to Stewart for introducing readers to the concept that doubters and difficult people can be essential contributors to a project.

It’s a great cast that rises above the adventure itself, which is actually rather bland: The MBS kids infiltrate a bizarre private school where children are being brainwashed to take part in a sinister thought-control experiment. The action settles into a lot of skulking, observing and reporting back, followed by periods where the children review their observations and make startlingly accurate suppositions.

But watching these characters bounce off each other, and generally elevate the role that thinkers can play in a YA book, gives this one a lift onto the must-read list.

The Black Book of Secrets (F.E. Higgins)

I didn’t see this one coming. This 2007 book flew all the way under my radar until a paperback copy landed on the bookshelf at our school’s Scholastic bookfair. I judged it purely by the cover — because, come on, something with the title “The Black Book of Secrets,” gussied up like a distressed Old West ledger, and featuring a tree frog and a Lurch lookalike can’t be ignored. So I picked it up.

What a surprise. Higgins spins a weird and spooky tale that unfurls at a nice tense pace. Set in a vaguely 19th-Century, vaguely European country, the book opens with a downright Dickensian dilemma: Street urchin Ludlow Fitch escapes his parents as they try to sell his (still-attached) teeth to an unscrupulous dentist — and it just gets better from there. Lud falls in with Joe Zabbidou, a mysterious loner who purports to buy people’s darkest secrets from them, a “secret pawnbroker.”

Their profession has a curious effect on Pagus Parvus, the hillside village where they set up shop.  Zabbidou gives solace to the poor souls who unburden their secrets, and sows mistrust among those who have only greed and suspicion in their hearts. The tension simmers to boil, and is interrupted at perfectly tantalizing moments for the confessions of the tormented customers with sins to unload.

The writing is a treat, too, with clean, clear descriptions and amusing observations that help the book breeze merrily along:

Horatio had started in the shop as soon as he could reach the counter, and over the years the young butcher had begun to take on the appearance of the meat with which he worked all day. He had gradually become more solid in the body, rather like a bull, and his thick, hairless forearms were shaped like two shanks of lamb. His skin was the color of hung meat, a sort of creamy blue, and of similar texture. His face was long and his nostrils flared, and his brown eyes surveyed his surroundings with mild interest. The tips of his fingers were thick and blunted; for a man who made his living working with knives he was surprisingly careless.

The Schwa was Here (Neal Shusterman)

Wowzers. Shusterman hooks his readers with a truly unique character: Calvin Schwa, a kid so bland and forgettable, he’s hard to notice even when he’s standing right next to you. Narrator Tony “Antsy” Bonano notices this tendency and experiments with “the Schwa Effect” to see what Calvin can get away with without folks noticing. The answer is, a lot.

Here’s where many authors would take this idea and build a zany story of infiltrating girls’ locker rooms or spying on bullies, but Shusterman is telling a surprisingly moving tale about teens finding their identities and divining meaning from the everyday things that make up their lives.

It’s written in a bouncy Brooklynese, coming on strong with a bunch of dropped Gs and wiseguy phraseology like “on accounta.” But the narrator’s voice is so funny and genuine that the dialect fades from annoyance and becomes a welcome part of the conversation.

Shusterman’s ear for teen dialog is practically cinematic:

“I’ve been thinking there’s something wrong with him.”

“Like he’s retarded you mean?”

Howie’s disgusted by this. “The proper term is ‘mentally handicapped,'” he says. “Otherwise the retards get offended.”

… and he shows a seeming effortlessness when plumbing depth in Antsy’s chatty asides:

I guess this fascination I had with the Schwa was because in some small way I knew how he felt. See, I never stand out in crowd either. I’m just your run-of-the-mill, eigth-grade wiseass, which might get me somewhere in, like, Iowa, but Brooklyn is wiseass central. … “You’ve got middle-child syndrome,” I’ve been told. Well, seems to me more like middle-finger syndrome. … But the Schwa — he was worse off than me. He wouldn’t be the “whatever-happened-to” kid — he’d be the kid whose picture gets accidentally left out of the yearbook and no one notices. Although I’m a bit ashamed to say it, it felt good to be around someone more invisible than me.

The Schwa and Antsy, gaining notoriety from their Schwa Effect experiments, take a dare to sneak into a cranky old shut-in’s apartment and, of course, they get caught. Again, a lesser author would use this “worlds collide” plot barb to commence a wacky misadventure where the Old Man Learns to Be a Kid Again just as the Kids Learn Something About Growing Up — but Shusterman is swinging for a fence much farther away. That sort of easy sentimentality can pound sand.

The subtle shifts in character attitude are a wonder to watch as things get complicated between Antsy, the Schwa and a savvy blind girl they both fall for. (The easy way out? The blind girl would have played the part of the Magic Pixie Girl, that archetype character whose quirks and charm dissipate the protagonists’ angst — but that’s not Shusterman’s way, no sir.) All these characters are looking to get more out of life than they currently have, and not all of them are yet equipped to identify it, let alone pursue it. By book’s end, they all make surprisingly big strides.

Much of the last third centers on “something big” the Schwa is planning to get himself noticed; for a while, I feared this kid’s cry for help might turn deadly serious, but what Shusterman delivers is a payoff both heartbreaking and riotously funny, and it is so, so much better than anything I could have come up with.

Which is the highest compliment I can make: Shusterman makes original choices and takes surprising veers through his story in a way that even I  — a jaded, blackhearted cynic — found moving. I wish I could write half so well. Better: I wish I could come up with characters half so endearing. Read this one already, wouldja?


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‘Then We Came to the End': Why an office farce deserved to be a National Book Award finalist

At first glance, it looks like a clown at a bris.

The National Book Awards typically celebrate weighty and serious tomes about lives in reflection, marriages on the rocks, tragedies from which we must recover. Then, in 2007, along comes Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

Who let Steve Carrell and the cast of “The Office” into the clubhouse?

EndThen We Came to the End is an office comedy set in an advertising agency. In it, first-time author Ferris attacks inane corporate kabuki with absurdism as fierce as anything dished out by Catch-22. And though it looks out of place amid its fellow National Book Award nominees (including the eventual winner, the Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke), End earns its spot with some lively writing, deft observations of small moments, and something doleful beneath the yuks about how we humans face life’s futilities.

We liked him at first, very early on. Then one day Karen Woo says, “I don’t like Joe Pope,” and she gives us her reasons. She goes on and on about it for close to a half hour, a very spirited rant, until finally we had to excuse ourselves so we could get back to work. After that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind how Karen Woo felt about Joe Pope, and more than a few people agreed that she had a legitmate gripe — that if in fact the situation was as Karen reported it, Joe was not a likeable person at all. It’s tough to say now what that gripe actually was. Let’s see here … trying to remember … nope, not coming. Half the time we couldn’t remember three hours ago. Our memory in that place was not unlike that of a goldfish. Goldfish who took a trip every night in a small clear bag of water and then returned in the morning to their bowl.

You’ll notice that Ferris writes in the first-person plural. “We” do everything in this book, and at first this seems an arbitrary writer’s indulgence. But not only does the comedic rhythm of it start to grow on you, but Ferris offers up the world’s best justification for it in the back of his book (in my copy, at least): “Companies tend to refer to themselves in the first-person plural — in annual reports, corporate brochures, within meetings and internal memos … In Then We Came to the End, you see just who this “we” really is — a collection of messy human beings — stripped  of their glossy finish and eternal corporate optimism.”

And it really works. Ferris, who spent some time in an ad agency himself, captures the ridiculous minutiae in a workaday routine, such as this passage where gossipy gadfly Benny (there’s one in every office) makes a performance of telling a gaggle of co-workers his latest salacious tidbit:

We talked among ourselves until he returned. “Okay,” he said, coming into the room with a full mug and a trailing odor of stale coffee grounds. He sat down and the delicately webbed seat sank for him a little more than it did for the rest of us. He squared himself to his desk and said, “So who did I see this morning parked right outside the building but — what?” He stopped midsentence. He had something — “Where?” It was on the other cheek — we hoped to god he’d find it fast. He wiped his whiskerless face and looked down. “Doughnut glaze,” he said.

There were doughnuts? Benny’s story would have to wait for those of us wanting doughnuts. Those of us who’d already eaten, or who were watching their weight, or Amber Ludwig, who had just split open a brown banana and was already halfway through it, filling Benny’s office with its singular musk — we sat tight.

Ferris’ crew of misfits and misanthropes slumps through a business slowdown, worried about layoffs and looking busy. Their sole project is a pro bono campaign, the only criteria of which is that it makes breast cancer patients laugh. It’s a vague assignment, which motivates them only vaguely. As their paranoia mounts and their productivity falls, Ferris switches gears mid-book to focus on just one of the “we.” Lynn, the domineering firm partner overseeing these chuckleheads, has a completely illogical meltdown as she faces medical treatment for her own breast cancer. (Oh! See, it really does deserve a National Book nomination after all.)

The book builds a surprising tension as the wee little lives inside the cubicle spill over into each other’s personal space. After a surprising snap from a major character, the office is left shaken and changed. But even so, those same wee little lives find a way of succumbing to the inescapable gravitational pull of the corporate grouse. It’s just so easy to bitch about things, isn’t it?:

The rest of us would have liked some time off. They only gave us that Friday afternoon, which we took gladly, but we, too, suffered from stress and all sorts of disorders and would have liked more than an afternoon. Some of us said Friday afternoon, wow, behold the generosity. But others tried to see it from their perspective. If they didn’t win new business, they were screwed. And who did they screw when they got screwed? You betcha.

As someone who didn’t really care for Catch-22 (I eagerly await your letter bombs and charges of blasphemy), I found Then We Came to the End to be a true and trenchant view of life’s absurdity, equal parts silly and insightful. Maybe that’s because I know nothing about the irrationality of the foxhole, but everything about the irrationality of the cubicle.

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Media Confession: What classic book have you *never* read?

I’m curious how many other people share my particular secret guilt: The knowledge, gnawing away inside you, that there is a classic book that you know you should have read by now but never have.

I’m convinced everyone must know of a book (or movie or TV show) that is widely disseminated in popular culture —but that if word ever got out that they, themselves, had never consumed it, they would never again be considered hip or urbane or literate. That they, in fact, will never get invited to hang with cool people again.

For me, that book was “The Phantom Tollbooth,” the children’s classic by Norton Juster.

I think I was always bothered that the giant dog thing looked so pissed. Very off-putting.

When my well-read friends ever speak of it — even if they overhear it referenced in passing conversation — they always stop to comment, “Oh, I loved that book.” To which someone else will reply, “Yeah, that was great, wasn’t it?”

I don’t know how I missed it. I ever remember the librarian sitting us down and reading excerpts to us at Beechwoods Elementary. I remember sitting crossed-legged on an ochre carpet thinking that any book with a title like that was sure to be good. Then, for whatever reason, I never picked it up.

Thirty years later, driven mad by guilt (and the thousand-somethingth time I had been left out of a conversation about it), I finally picked up a copy and read it.

The monkey is off my back! But oh, my friends, my book-loving, media-savvy, witty and wise friends: I found it tedious.

Yes, I’ve just compounded my original sin (not reading a classic) with a newer, fouler sin (not loving a classic). I didn’t realize “Phantom Tollbooth” was a quite literal allegory about the search for knowledge, and the merits of learning over ignorance and complacency. Milo, the personality-free cipher of a protagonist, experiences a series of random, quip-laden encounters with school-bookish characters like the Spelling Bee and Mathemagician and the Threadbare Excuse.

“Well, you might say I’m a specialist,” said [Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord]. “I specialize in noise — all kinds — from the loudest to the softest, and from the slightly annoying to the terribly unpleasant. For instance, have you ever heard a square-wheeled steam roller ride over a street of hard-boiled eggs?” …

“But who would want all those terrible noises?” asked Milo, holding his ears.

“Everybody does,” said the surprised doctor; “they’re very popular today. Why, I’m kept so busy I can hardly fill the orders for noise pills, racket lotion, clamor salve, and hubbub tonic. … Without them, people would be very unhappy, so I make sure that they get as much as they want. Why if you take some of my medicine every day, you’ll never have to hear a beautiful sound again.”

“I don’t want to be cured of beautiful sounds,” insisted Milo.

“Besides,” growled Tock … “there is no such illness as lack of noise.”

“Of course not,” replied the doctor, … “that’s what makes it so difficult to cure. I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done.”

The absurdity and just-so-clever dialog invites a lot of comparison to “Alice in Wonderland,” another classic that, let’s be honest, is also kind of tedious. (Have you ever read it? Sure, it’s loaded with great imagery and memorable moments, but if you plow through the whole thing, you’ll wander through so much aimlessness you’ll need a Boy Scout and a compass to come out the other side.)

So either this proves I’m a craven half-wit, or that I just have a low tolerance for enigmatic characters and absurdist plot. But at least I know what everyone is talking about!

While I invite you to call me on my poor taste, I’m quite curious to hear your answer to a more pressing question:

What book have you never read that is making you feel guilty and less cultured as we speak? Come clean. It will be good for the soul.


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Where the Good Books Are

If you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you’re also probably the kind who’s fully aware of the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are movie due in October.

Just the very mention of a children’s picture book being turned into a movie brings to mind such painful memories as The Cat in the Hat travesty…

This was the movie that gave us a "dirty hoe" joke. Boo. Forever.

… or The Grinch That Stole Christmas tragedy …

Stop trying.

… or the Go, Dog. Go! fiasco.

Even worse was the sequel: "Go Dog Go 2: Die Dog Die" starring Michael Vick.

Beloved books all, and roundly pooped upon by Hollywood. So the notion of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” joining that list was unnerving. But, of course, if you’ve seen the two trailers, you saw something totally different. Something reverential. Something literary.

You can't spell "monster" without "emo."

Instead of wacky novelty music, a moody indie soundtrack. Instead of exaggerated emotions, subtle shades of sadness and loneliness. Instead of a palette of exploding Technicolor, muted earth and sepia tones. Even the messaging written into the trailer is surprising:

“Inside all of us is … Everything you’ve ever seen … Everything you’ve ever done … Everyone you’ve ever loved.”

Hunh. Kinda makes ya think… think that this movie won’t stink, that is. Director Spike Jonze gave us both “Being John Malkovitch” (one of my favorite films of all time), as well as the “Jackass” franchise, so really there’s no telling which direction this thing will go. But I’m filled with hope.

Still, if the Hollywoodization of a beloved children’s picture book makes you nervous, the novelization of a Hollywoodized beloved children’s picture book should just be downright wrong. You should expect nothing more than a pure, artless cash-in at best — and a rude dumbing-down at the worst. But here’s where I got a surprise this week.

The New Yorker is running excerpts of the afore-dreaded novelization of the Where the Wild Things Are movie. As it turns out, this novel has been written by wunderkind Dave Eggers, the author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and the founder of the McSweeney’s literary journal. Eggers worked with Jonze on the screenplay (I had no idea), and no less than Maurice Sendak himself asked Eggers to write the accompanying novel, giving him full freedom to make it a thoughtful, all-ages prose adaptation.

And did he ever exercise that freedom.

It was a very strange time in Max’s life. The day before, his sister had tried, by proxy, to kill him. Her tobacco-chewing friends had chased him into his snow fort, and at the moment when he felt safest, in the cool white hollow, they had jumped on the roof, burying him. His sister had done nothing to help, and then had driven off with them, and to punish her, because she was no longer his sister, he’d doused her room with water. Buckets and buckets he’d emptied everywhere, in a furious, joyous process. It had been great, and felt so right, until his mother came home and found what he’d done. She was mad, Claire was mad, and so, tonight, the only person in the house who seemed to like him was his mom’s chinless boyfriend, Gary, and even thinking that sent a shudder through him.

After he runs away:

The air! The moon!

He felt pulled as if by an outgoing tide. The air and the moon together sang a furious and wonderful song: Come with us, wolf-boy! Let us drink the blood of the earth and gargle it with great aplomb! Max tore down the street, feeling free, knowing he was part of the wind. Come, Max! Come to the water and see! No one could tell that he was crying—he was running too fast.

Well, I’ll be damned. The movie opens Oct. 16, and the book hits shelves on Oct. 1. In a fur-wrapped cover. I’m pretty certain we all need to buy this. (Thanks to Retort reader Anneke for the tip; because, yes, I’m just not that guy who reads the New Yorker.)

Good news, Furries! Wear your favorite fetish costume to Barnes & Noble to receive a 2% discount.

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Look, it’s Intellectual Property Man!: If only ideas really were bulletproof

The bullets, they tickle me.

Issues of idea ownership have been on my mind lately, and ta-da , here’s the ongoing Superman copyright battle still in the news to help me articulate my thoughts.

It starts with this: Owning an idea is not like owning a house or a gun or a spoon or anything else you can hold, steal, break, lick or leave a fingerprint upon. Likewise, the laws covering idea ownership are twisty and murky; they are as clear to observers as the view from inside a Turkish bath.

You can have an idea that wakes you in the dead of night, something unique and original and wonderful. That thing is yours, locked away in your head, for as long as you want to own it.

But it has no value there. If you want to get something for it, you’ve got to get it out of your head, and let others see it, and here your troubles begin.

If someone sees your idea, will they steal it? Can you sue to get it back?

If someone helps you improve the idea, should they be rewarded with part of the ownership?

If someone gets your idea out in the market where it can make you money, should they own some of it as well?

If someone makes variations of your idea down the road, do you own part of their creation?

You’d think the creators of Superman, one of the most recognizable icons of the 20th Century, would have gotten rich, rich, rich for their efforts. And of course, they didn’t. Idea-havers never do, do they? (We’re leaving you out of this, J.K. Rowling.)

It's the Fireplug of Tomorrow!Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster dealt with their intellectual property issues in an era before “intellectual property issues” were a well-defined topic. So when they wanted to monetize their comic book superhero creation in 1938, they didn’t have a legion of fellow creators or lawyers waving red flags at the contract with Detective Comics that sold the rights to Superman for $130.

A hundred and thirty beans. That’s it, in exchange for some contract work producing the comic — that is, Siegel and Shuster gave away the potential for long-term gains in exchange for the security of some short-term work.

Imagine changing a super poo.Over the years, courts have upheld this copyright contract in favor of DC, so that Siegel and Shuster got bupkus. (To be fair, DC acknowledged some moral obligation in 1975 by granting Schuster and Siegel an annual $20,000 pension apiece and health care benefits. Which is nice … but clearly, not quite what one would expect to earn for creating one of the reigning icons of all time, eh?)

But copyrights were never intended to last forever. And that’s where it starts to get thorny. Beginning in 1999, the estate of Joel Siegel (who died in 1996) began its battle to reclaim its share of the copyright, and Shuster’s estate followed a few years later. The result? A maddening patchwork of rulings that parse the Original Idea into absurd bits that seem to defy logic. As Variety reports in an Aug. 13 story:

[Siegel's estate] has “successfully recaptured” rights to … the first two weeks of the daily Superman newspaper comic-strips, as well as portions of early Action Comics and Superman comic-books.

This means the Siegels … now control depictions of Superman’s origins from the planet Krypton, his parents Jor-El and Lora, Superman as the infant Kal-El, the launching of the infant Superman into space by his parents as Krypton explodes and his landing on Earth in a fiery crash.

But not all is lost for DC!

DC owns other elements like Superman’s ability to fly, the term kryptonite, the Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen characters, Superman’s powers and expanded origins.

Really? An idea birthed in the 1930s by a couple of hardscrabble artists has now been diced like sushi and spread into every corner of the bento box. When you own “Superman’s ability to fly” how much do you get when Supes catches some air in someone else’s comic? (Or do you price your commodity so high that Superman has to take the bus?) If the Siegels own exploding Krypton and Superman’s “landing on Earth in a fiery crash,” can DC retcon his story so Kal-El is adopted from the Krypton Super Orphanage and delivered to Smallville by a Cosmic Stork?

My father would call this “a furschluggin mess.”

The lesson, then, is simple: Creators, own your work. Don’t let it go for cheap. In the words of another DC-spawned philosopher: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” (—The Joker, “The Dark Knight”) Unless, that is, you don’t mind having somebody else owning your hero’s right shoe and his ability to pronounce the letter P.

Sure, my fellow creatives, sometimes doing “work for hire” is the only oasis in a wide desert, but if that’s where you choose to drink, be aware — be very aware — that unless you negotiate a nice canteen and some ice, you’ll be just as thirsty tomorrow as you are today.

Does DC own this pose? Or does Barack owe Jerry Siegel a quarter?

Does DC own this pose? Or does Barack owe Jerry Siegel a quarter?

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I’ve been caked!: One fan spells his Edgar & Ellen love with frosting

Friend of the Retort, Chris Rettstatt, found this gem on the Internet the other day:

Imran, I would like to buy you a present.

And this!:

Those could be jester jingles on the side, or perhaps an invocation of the art on page 54 of robotic squid tentacles. Yes, I said that.

It’s the work of a Malaysian cake artist for a client whose child, reportedly, holds “Edgar & Ellen: High Wire” as his favorite book. (Previous link is a Flickr stream; here’s the corporate link for all my vast Malaysian readership.)

This cake is such a great monument to one of my favorites of the Edgar & Ellen series. The book has everything: a macabre circus, a shifty set of villains, a quest, a faked death, a poisonous bite from a carnivorous plant, and dancing peacocks. I’ve posted snippets of “High Wire” in the Excerpts section, and I’m proud of my work on the book.

It bears noting that, at the time, three different writers were sharing the load under the nom de plume Charles Ogden — not just the plotting and outlining (a very laborious and detailed process the way we did it), but the writing and editing, too. And though we split the duties evenly, I’ve always regarded this book as Billy Carton’s. As a fellow Ogden, Will identified some significant plot problems late in the game and offered the solution — he put the book on his back for a short time, restructuring the ending, throwing whole sections into different locations to help us untie a knot we had wound around ourselves.

In the end, Will knew instinctively that (mild spoiler here, if you care) the villain had to disappear, presumed dead, early in the third act and not be heard from until the bitter end. Because if the villain was going to hang around, we had to give him stuff to do and say and … poof. As soon as he was gone, our heroes could get on with resolving their journey, saving us time and torquing up tension to a new high.

Interchangeable peg leg. What a great idea.It was a masterful feat, and it taught me a lot about the courage to “murder your darlings” as the old writer’s adage goes. That is, a writer may fall in love with a passage or a chapter or a whole sinewy thread of an idea holding together his plot, but when the story demands it, he must be able to kill off those beloved ideas in order to solve bigger problems. Sometimes the story just demands these favorite passages be axed, and a writer can’t let his ego (or his exasperation) keep him from going back to square one. Hint for writers: Just because something is funny, well-written, or masterfully clever, doesn’t mean your story needs it to fulfill your characters or deliver them to their destination.

However, some darlings get to live on. Here’s another of my favorite passages that survived the executioner’s axe on the way to the finale. It stars Ringmaster Benedict who, we have seen, has a whalebone peg leg that can be adorned with inventive costumes:

In the far corner Mayor Knightleigh sat uncomfortably in a carved chair with feet that were zebra hooves at the back and lion paws in front.

Benedict stood by the window that looked out upon a cranking collection of gears, cogs, and pulleys. The mechanisms whirled in a precise ballet and filled the room with a rhythmic hum. Here in the bowels of the funhouse, the man had a superior view of the machinery that ran it all.

Ellen noticed that Benedict’s right leg was no longer a unicycle; now it was covered in white feathers and ended in a scaly chicken foot with four fierce talons.

“Peculiar,” she murmured.

Benedict crossed to his desk and propped his chicken foot upon it.

“Oh! An itch. Just now. I can’t quite reach it,” he said. “I hate to impose, Mr. Mayor, but would you scratch it for me?”

The mayor curled his lip in disgust. “If … you insist.”

He reached out and tentatively placed a fingertip on the underside of the foot, then began to scratch. Suddenly, the chicken leg shot from Benedict’s body and smacked the mayor’s chest, knocking him back into the animal chair, which squawked like a kookaburra.

“Spring-loaded chicken leg,” chuckled Benedict. “My most recent invention.”


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The best book store in the known universe

Just returned from a relaxing (read: frantic) holiday in Zinzinnati, the Queen City of Ohio. During our stay, we made a day trip to our old stomping grounds: the capital city, Columbus (motto: “Yes, we start with a C, and we’re in Ohio, but we are neither Cincinnati nor Cleveland!”)

When last we left this midsize Midwestern city, I was happy to see it in my rear view mirror. We had spent the previous three years with my wife in graduate school and me doing the corporate office thing. We’d had a few friends, but we weren’t the most social creatures, and Columbus always felt like a city to be gotten away from, to be hurdled. When the moving van pulled out, it was headed for Chicago, and that felt right.

Amazing, then, to return and discover I missed the town more than I knew. For starters, in an age when many cities of its size are curling up and drying out, Columbus is actually spiffing up and putting on a happy face. Could it actually be growing? The rough-around-the-edges High Street, running from campus through the Short North, looked bright, clean and thriving. An entire new district — an Arena District, at that — has grown like barnacle on downtown; a lively, well-lit barnacle. The bars and restaurants bustled on a Monday night. Our old neighborhood, the quaint Old World streets of German Village, looked homey and cozy as ever, reminding me of the long, contented strolls we used to take down those cobbled streets. (“Oh!” we said to our kids. “This is the place where Mommy and Daddy would always pass Chicken, the cat who thought he was a dog! Here’s where we watched free Shakespeare in the Park!” I was not looking at the children’s faces during such reminiscences, but I am sure they were riveted.)

Then we rolled past our old hot spot, a much loved nook on Third Street, and it dawned on me how much I missed this city. We had already noticed that Cup O Joe, our favorite little coffee and dessert haunt had spawned multiple franchises around town, all of which looked hopping. Good for them! The original location on Third had grown, too, adding a bar and restaurant area, but retaining that comfy sitting area and familiar barrista counter. (Two separate games of Scrabble were being waged in the seating area that night! May I remind you: It was Monday!) Amazingly, a Starbucks had moved in across the way, and it was deserted! So much for the “Starbucks effect.”

Even better than our old coffee shop was the establishment next door, which had not changed an ounce. Not that I would have wished it to. The Book Loft. Seriously the most supremely fun book store in which you will ever spend an evening’s browse.

The Book Loft, 631 S. Thrid Street, Columbus, Ohio

The Book Loft, 631 S. Third Street, Columbus, Ohio

I’ve read about great local bookstores in other cities, places like Tattered Cover in Denver (been there; a nice joint, sure), or Powell’s in Portland. But man, you just cannot beat a walk up to, into and through the Book Loft, a crowded bazaar of 32 rooms and hallways each no bigger than the pantry in your Aunt Ethel’s upstate cottage, stuffed to the gills with books, music, comics and other geegaws booklovers love to love. A bibliophile with claustrophobia would forget his psychosis in an instant if the reward were a trip through the Book Loft’s maze of wares.

The photos on their web site don’t do it justice — you just can’t get far enough back with a camera to cram it all in — but I find this map of their store to be a little more illuminating:

I'm not even sure all the stairs line up on this map; it's like some kind of Narnia wardrobe in there!

You can see the place is busy, chockablock with nooks, and goodies inside those nooks. Every inch is taken up with merchandise, and browsing the corridors and grottos can feel like a spelunk into a colorful cave or an archaeological dig through the lost library of Alexandria.

I can’t believe I lived so close to something so cool, and I willingly moved away.

The kids shared our awe as we made our rounds through the store. It would be so much more satisfying to spark a love of reading by taking my children here instead of our antiseptic chains. We all picked up books at the Loft, including a “Children of Hurin” for me at a nicely discounted $4.99 on a $15 paperback! (The Book Loft isn’t just a pretty face; it flaunts gaudy price discounts like a used car dealer. I love this place!)

I’ll include the Book Loft Web site here, with the warning that if you judge by the Web 1.0 site itself, you may confuse it  with a Pigeon Forge tourist attraction. It’s a bit loud and tacky, and it even forces a music track on you with no volume control. (Then again, that’s like shopping in the Loft, too, since many of the rooms feature samples of music warbling from boom boxes tucked into the shelves. When we were there, Holst’s The Planets was on a loop in the sci-fi/fantasy room, for example, so it’s really part of their charm.)

Instead of bolting from this site’s hurly-burly, click the Tour Our Store link to get a better idea of the wonderland that awaits you when you book your next vacation in colossal Columbus, Ohio.


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“Nation” by Terry Pratchett

If you don’t like Terry Pratchett, you either:

A. Don’t like fantasy, or…

B. Are desperately unfunny and dislike the sensation of smiling.

Terry Pratchett doesn’t care. He’s made his bank already. So much so, he can make an undefinable, unmarketable, unclassifiable YA novel called “Nation.” Lucky us.

Back up a bit first: Terry Pratchett made his name with his voluminous fantasy spoof series, Discworld. I’ve read the first one, The Color of Magic, and at first I didn’t know what to make of it. I recognized the fantasy setting sure enough — but the humor that was going on around it? It took me a while to fully understand these books were both fantasy and a satire of fantasy. A spoof and a love letter. And what a spoof, too! It’s easy to take a popular genre and snark on it (ask the makers of Scary Move, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie and the yet-to-be-conceived-but-not-by-much Lazy Rip-Off Parody Movie), but Pratchett’s humor goes well beyond send-ups of D&D or Robert E. Howard pulps. His settings might involve wizards in robes or over-muscled barbarians, but he’s making fun of life in modern day, too. No matter the genre, a prat is a prat, a pompous ponce a pompous ponce.

It might have taken me a while to catch on, but not the rest of the world. The infallibly informed Wikipedia tells me Pratchett has written more than 40 Discworld novels and companion books, sold more than 55 million copies, and even been admitted into the Officer of the Order of the British Empire for “services to literature.” You can call him Sir.

So how does Pratchett use his influence? To write any book he wants, any way he wants. Hence, Nation from HarperCollins late last year.

"Nation" by Terry PratchettIt’s a young adult book, that’s for sure. But beyond that, what is it? Post-apocalyptic: a tsunami destroys nearly every native of a string of South Pacific islands. Survivalist: Mau, the boy who would be chief, must recreate civilization, starting with how to extract mother’s milk from boars. Supernatural: Mau squares off against the voices of angry ancestors as well as the God of Death himself. Romance: A proper Victorian girl washes up on the island so let the teen sexual tensions mount. Agnostic rumination: Mau rages against the gods for letting such disaster happen; he even learns that what his ancestors worshipped may have been artifacts from earlier visitors.

It’s also a wry comedy:

The lonesome palm (Cocos nucifera solitaria) is common over most of the Pelagic, and is unusual in that an adult tree secretes a poison in its root that is deadly only to other palms. Because of this it is not unusual to find only one such palm on the smaller islands and a thousand cartoons are, therefore, botanically correct.

As I said, this book can’t be classified. But I am grateful to Pratchett for it. How many kids would pick up a book that challenges their assumptions about God? Or about tradition? Or about social order? Or even happy endings? Not that Pratchett condemns any of these things, either — he’s too smart and subtle for that. He simply faces the thorny, messy realities of tragedy with the pragmatism necessary for rebuilding. It’s uplifting without being upbeat. Hopeful without being hopped up.

“It’s quite complex. There’s nothing really Disney about it,” the author says on an Amazon.com promotional video. “They don’t really have a happy ending; they don’t have a sad ending, They have an absolutely appropriate ending.”

Funny he mentions Disney, since Pratchett has become the Pixar of children’s lit. Terry Pratchett simply writes what’s good, and lets the Marketing Department worry about the rest.

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Chabon vs. Poe: A view from ringside

I heard Michael Chabon speak last night at a packed Northwestern University auditorium.  The Pulitzer winning author of  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as well as other me-favorites such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Maps and Legends, Chabon is who most good writers want to be when they grow up.

So yeah, I was pretty geeked up about it.

The poster advertising the event had me a bit confused. He was to be speaking about Edgar Allan Poe — which was fine; EAP is no slouch in the Fascinating Character Department, but I would have been just as happy to hear Michael Chabon lecture about Michael Chabon. Fellow writers always want the secret to “How’d he do it?” Did he grow up among down-on-their-luck peanut farmers? Did he vacation every year in the Maldives? Did he flunk out of the Sorbonne? Does he use a special brand of pencil?

So instead it was to be a biographical lecture? Boredom was a distinct possibility.

I went anyway, of course, and I needn’t have worried. When it comes to words, Chabon calls the tune. He’s an entertainer on the page and on the stage. He shared plenty of autobiographical insight on his way to the Meaning of Poe — in fact, he found the old master of macabre to have plenty to say to all writers and readers in the modern day.

Chabon had written this lecture especially for this engagement, he said by way of apology. He read his essay word for word, head down and in a soft but confident voice. He may have been trying to project a little humility, but his words give it all away: This guy knows he’s flipping brilliant, a master of both the Ideas and the Words required to convey them. He spoke for over an hour, and I’ll be damned if I could find one word that was not aptly chosen for its purpose.

I hope this lecture gets collected in another book of essays like Maps & Legends. It’s a literary creme brulée all by itself.

Take THAT, Amazon Kindle! Forget e-books, the hardback version of "Maps and Legends" is the only one to own. Look at those three layers of die-cut, richly illustrated jackets! Swoon! (Book design by Jordan Crane)

Take THAT, Amazon Kindle! Forget e-books; the hardback version of Maps and Legends is the only one to own. Look at those three layers of die-cut, richly illustrated jackets! Swoon! (Design by Jordan Crane; photo from a nice design:related piece)

He opened with a personal story (possibly true — he’s been known to found lectures on a stretcher or two, such as “Golems I Have Known” from Maps and Legends) about his childhood belief he was the reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe. At this point, Chabon established himself as the coolest nerd, the ultimate example of the Geek Who Comes Out On Top. He related stories of his grade-school tormentors, and his bookish habits that “elicited … or invited” flat tires, glares, kick-me signs and insults from the club of cool kids. Reinforcing his belief in his reincarnation, he quoted the opening line of “Cask of Amontillado,” one of the best openers ever:

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.

Of course, Chabon noted, his revenge involved fewer chains, trowels and lime-encrusted tunnels, and instead took the form of … a lecture! One where he would identify these tormentors by name! Which he promptly did, to the applause of the packed house.

From there, he launched into a detailed analysis of Poe’s choices as a writer and his use of language, especially the maudlin ballad “Ulalume.” But were we talking about Poe’s use of language or Chabon’s? Chabon has a command of words so deep and wide, I sometimes snort “showoff” when reading one of his dense Oxford-defying paragraphs. He didn’t shy away from his usual lingual challenges during the hour, but at one point, he seemed to poke fun at himself: He rattled off a list of literary analysis concepts, eye-glazing words grown long on Latin roots, things only a Rhetoric major might be familiar with, then said: “We don’t need those tools to show that Poe rocked the language.”

Poe, Chabon said, was a poet “to the T” — the T being the only thing missing from his name to make it official. He may have been the founder of genre — horror and detective and mystery — but he infused his earthy prose with as much meter and metaphor and pure poetry as an epic ode. Here, the parallels of Chabon and Poe are pretty striking. I’ve not read many better masters of language —particularly of metaphor — than Michael Chabon.

(At Star Farm, I earned the nicname “Simile Man” for my superheroic and untiring crusade to always find the perfect comparison for any description I was writing. Doesn’t mean I was the best at it, I just tried the hardest. But if Simile Man was, in fact, ever successful, that success was never more than a Jimmy Olsen to Chabon’s Man of Steel.)

Alternative history? Jewish noir? Messianic crime novel? How do you define this book?Take this bit from Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I usually save rote memorization of passages for Shakespeare, but I can type this one by heart. It’s a scene where Landsman, the noirish hard-luck detective, and Berko, his police partner, cross paths with Landsman’s ex-wife, a pretty tough and sharp witted broad herself.

From the first time that Landsman brought Bina home, she and Berko seemed to share an understanding of, an angle on, a laugh at the expense of Landsman, the funny little sorehead in the last panel of a comic strip with the black lily of an exploded cigar wilting in his puss.

Now that’s a metaphor. Immediately you understand an entire history here of the merciless teasing Landsman’s had to endure, the kind that only comes from those who love you and know you best. Plus, that evocaton of a Katzenjammer-style comic — from the exploding cigar gag to the archaic “puss” — matches perfectly the Old World veneer Chabon has laid over this book and its setting in a run-down and soon-to-be-abandoned Jewish settlement in post-war Alaska.

Chabon, like Poe, is a poet. He admitted that if one were to take some of his more “well-wrought” paragraphs and broke them up into free verse, they’d be hard to distinguish from real, Norton-Anthology-style poetry. But he closed his lecture with a hard truth: Poetry don’t sell. Despite his (and Poe’s) desire to satisfy that inner poet and give it voice, he (like Poe) found it necessary to “make art I can sell for cash money.” That’s why Chabon closes up those paragraph breaks in his free verse, injects some plot by way of (like Poe) juicy genre, and sells it as a novel — the only viable medium for writers who want to eat.

The parallels are kind of uncanny. Maybe he really wasn’t kidding about that reincarnation stuff.

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