Sunday, April 27, 2008

One for the road

Yeah, yeah, I said this blog was taking a bit of a vacation, but I couldn't resist posting yesterday's shot of a gray squirrel that frequents my backyard bird feeder. If you can stand the bandwidth, click on the photo for the full 10.2 megapixel version.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Starting today, this blog is going on hiatus until about mid-May. I'm presently under tow to the shipyard for heavy repairs. There the shipwrights will winch me onto the beach for a careening to scrape off rust and torch out corrosion from the keel. Once that's done, they'll replate, reweld, rerivet and relaunch.

Then I ought to be good for a few more voyages as well as further abuse of nautical metaphors.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Three for Earth Day

Some fruits of patient stalking with a long lens from a lawn chair in the tangled thickets of my suburban back yard:

House sparrow

Common grackle

Mourning doves

All three were taken with a Pentax *ist DS and a Sigma 135-400mm zoom. The lawn chair is a generic green plastic model from Home Depot.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Yooper food down under

The pasty, an iconic Upper Peninsula survival ration, was also exported to New South Wales by immigrant Cornish miners.

An air letter postmarked March 16 arrived today from June Allen, a reader in Fairy Meadow, Australia, a suburb of Wollongong about 1 1/2 hours south of Sydney. It had been sent to Robert Hale Ltd., my United Kingdom publisher, thence to my literary agent in New York, and finally to me. Quite a bank shot.

And what do you know? The pasty -- the "portable potpie stuffed with diced beef, potatoes, carrots, rutabagas and onions about the size and shape of a softball and four times heavier" that is all by itself one of the major food groups in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan -- is a staple for Aussies as well as Yoopers. Ms. Allen writes:

"I read A Venture into Murder and enjoyed it very much. This is the first book I've read which is set in Michigan so that was new and interesting for me.

"Steve [Martinez, my deputy sheriff sleuth] eating a pasty made me laugh. I'm 76 and pasties have always been part of my life as a treat. Today I could walk up the road and buy one from any bakery hot and ready to eat -- or frozen from Woolworths.

"This pasty has the same history as yours -- Cornish miners -- and the same ingredients, but a different shape. We begin with a circle of flaky pastry about the size of a man's hand outspread. The filling goes on one half, then the pastry is folded over, the edges crimped to make a handle or sometimes a plait of pastry is added. It looks like a solid capital D."

(Truth to tell, Yooper pasties are also D-shaped as well as softball-thick. We wash ours down with Molson's while Aussies doubtless employ Foster's for that purpose.)

Small-town New South Wales, Ms. Allen went on to say, "is a wonderful place to live, rather like Porcupine County."

Thank you, Ms. Allen, and I hope you invite me for a pasty supper someday.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Not with a bang but a whimper

Ice Out has finally arrived in Porcupine County, but with all the zip of a wet firecracker. In fact, the departure of the ice from the Ontonagon River in Upper Michigan's real Ontonagon County occurred Wednesday, many hours before I posted the April 16 item below wondering when it would happen.

(See the April 10 blogpost for the full backstory of Ice Out.)

Steve Sundberg, this blog's chief Ontonagon County correspondent, emailed me late Wednesday that the ice had disappeared from upriver of the new M-64 highway bridge without having made a sound. Thursday morning, he said, the county road commission, which watches for the event, was reluctant to make the call of the official date and time of Ice Out. "They want to know if a Big Kahuna of ice jams is still up the river waiting to come down, or if it had melted away resulting in the paltry excuse for Ice Out Wednesday."

This morning Steve emailed that radio personality Jan Tucker had announced the commission had decided to use the time when the ice left from under the new bridge as the official instant of Ice Out 2008. That was Wednesday, April 16, at 12:33 a.m.

Six minutes later this follow-up email: "Jim Jessup, prosecuting attorney and president of Ontonagon's Rotary Club, just called Jan's show with the Ice Out contest winner, Lynn Walters of Ontonagon, who guessed April 16 at 1:13 a.m., 40 minutes after the official time. She won $474."

Steve sums up the 2008 Ice Out as "a most disappointing turn of events. A long, hard winter leaves in a whimper instead of the flash-bang crash of a real Ice Out. Oh, well, on to blackfly season."

At least spring officially has come to this blessed western corner of Upper Michigan.

Too much information

This morning's New York Times carries a story on how some folks undergoing a divorce battle are blogging and YouTubing about the sins of their scorned mates, unleashing a caustic torrent of slime. One woman says she hasn't had sex for ages, yet her about-to-be-ex-spouse hoards Viagra and condoms.

What in hog hominy hell is going on in these people's heads?

Maybe it's just my advanced age showing, but I think they have no class, no class at all. It is one thing for immature adults to air their indiscretions on Facebook and even display videos of their sexual encounters on Xtube, but it is another to violate the privacy of other people. Maybe the lawyers can't do much -- it's a free-speech issue -- but for godsake, what about common decency as well as common sense?

We Americans have always had an unfortunate tendency to let personal things hang out that should be hidden, as Europeans will gently remind us. It has gotten worse as the Internet has helped foster a melding of indiscreet openness and political nastiness -- a combination that sooner or later is going to bite a lot of people in the posterior.

Even if their intentions are pure, many unsophisticated bloggers proudly -- and stupidly, in my view -- promenade online photographs of their families as well as detailed descriptions of their doings. This is dangerous in an age of identity theft and child snatching.

That is why you will not find anecdotes or photographs of my children and grandchildren on this blog, although once in awhile my Lady Friend will appear, and only with her permission.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Crackberried books beckon

Read a book on a cell phone? Maybe only the Japanese would do that, but at least one American is reading heavy-duty literary novels on a BlackBerry -- and loving it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Still no Ice Out

It's April 16, and Ice Out -- the day and hour that ice departs from the Porcupine (sorry, Ontonagon) River in upper Michigan, marking the first real day of spring there, still has not arrived. (See the April 10 blogpost for what Ice Out is all about).

Steve Sundberg reports that the river "is open from just below the railroad bridge all the way to the mouth, but ice-covered above that. The accompanying photo shows what it looked like yesterday afternoon.

"The reports on the Jan Tucker Show say the river is wide open and flowing fast at Military Hill and the Victoria bridge at Rockland. The theory is that there is a huge ice dam somewhere between Rockland and Ontonagon that is holding everything up.

"Either Ice Out will come in a whimper, just slowly melting away to nothing, or come in a crashing, tree-clogged rush of ice and water that will be something to see. Time and temperature will tell."

The official latest Ice Out was marked April 21, 1972. Six more days and we may have a new record.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A little story in three pictures

Yes, it's time to practice with the camera and long lens to get ready to return to Porcupine County this summer for some serious wildlife photography.

All three were taken at the neighbor's bird feeder on a cloudy day with a Pentax K10D and Sigma 135-400 zoom racked out to 400mm, 1/125 second at f8, ISO 400.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Roger Ebert

A.O. Scott's lovely tribute to Roger Ebert in Sunday's New York Times set me to a-contemplating.

Roger -- a former colleague of mine on the Chicago Sun-Times -- cannot speak, owing to a series of surgeries for cancer of the salivary glands. (He "talked" by pad and pencil with Scott during a recent visit. Whether that, or perhaps a laptop computer that displays his words on a screen, is his preferred mode of communication I don't know.)

But the important thing, Scott writes, is that Ebert is back at his old stand producing film criticism, even though he no longer performs on television. That Roger will make up for his absence from the tube I have no doubt. For years he has astonished me with the range and depth of his printed output -- several movie reviews a week, plus a heavy-duty profile of an actor, plus op-ed pieces of a liberal bent, and more. All this and, up to a few years ago, a weekly television show.

What is truly extraordinary is that everything Roger writes is top-drawer, his prose crisp and readable, full of generosity of spirit as well as crackerjack intellect. His longtime answer to those who think he spreads himself too thin is just to be first-rate in everything all the time. I can't remember when he ever stumbled or coasted. This guy didn't sit on his Pulitzer Prize but just got better afterward.

Did I say "generosity"? On the Sun-Times he and I were friendly but not friends -- we ran in different professional crowds, and I rarely saw him in the office, for he works at home. But when I asked him to read Cache of Corpses for a possible comment on the jacket, he didn't hesitate. He not only wrote a lovely, enthusiastic "blurb" but also boosted the novel in other venues.

Roger, I think, knows the deepest meaning of E.M. Forster's "Only connect! . . . Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."

Connecting with the world by means of speech is difficult for me -- I am deaf -- but for me as well as Roger, written prose bridges the chasm. (Why else do you think I write a blog in retirement?)

We connect, Roger and I. We connect.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Going yard

I have been away from baseball so long that my ballpark vocabulary has been thoroughly Rip Van Winkled. Yesterday the Cubs' website told me that Derrek Lee "went yard" in the previous game. Went yard? Never came across that before.

Googling brought up a Wikipedia entry on broadcasters' home run calls. "Go yard" simply means to hit a home run and, the entry said, has its origins in the Orioles' Camden Yards. That could be argued. What about "ball yard"? That's been around for a long time. Even I remember it.

"Went yard" has been employed long enough, too, for some newspaper scribes to complain that it has become a cliche, like "four-bagger" and "circuit clout."

That Wikipedia entry enchanted me, as so many of them do, even though it is suspiciously bereft of scholarly citations. Expectably there are a lot of oldies, such as "Hey-hey!" (Jack Brickhouse), "Holy cow!" (Harry Caray), "Kiss it goodbye!" (Lou Boudreau) and "It's gone! Holy Toledo!" (Milo Hamilton).

Home runs are nothing if not trilingual. There's lots of Spanish, unfortunately untranslated, such as that of Jorge Eduardo Sanchez on ESPN2: "Para atras, para atras... ¡y no va a regresar . . . UNA SALVAJADA DE BATAZO!" The meaning of Joe Angel's "Hasta la vista, pelota!" is at least easy to guess.

My favorite, from Rodger Brulotte of the Montreal Expos: "Bonsoir, elle est partie!" (Good night, she is gone!") It just sounds better in French.

Finally, at that site you can read a transcript of perhaps the most famous home run call in history, Russ Hodges' euphoric outburst for Bobby Thomson's feat in the 1951 National League playoffs with the Dodgers:

"Bobby Thomson . . . up there swingin'... He's had 2 out of 3, a single and a double, and Billy Cox is playing him right on the third base line. 1 out, last of the ninth . . . Branca pitches, Bobby Thomson takes a strike called on the inside corner. Bobby hitting at .292. He's had a single and a double and he drove in the Giants' first run with a long fly to center. Brooklyn leads it 4 to 2. Hartung, down the line at third, not taking any chances . . Lockman with not too big of a lead at second, but he'll be runnin' like the wind if Thomson hits one. Branca throws . . . [barely audible crack of the bat] . . . There's a long drive . . . It's gonna be, I believe . . . THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! [WAHOO! heard in background] . . . Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck, of the left field stands! [WAHOO! heard in background again] The Giants win the pennant, and they're goin' crazy! They're goin' crazy! Heeeey-oh! . . . [pause while crowd roars] . . . I don't believe it! I don't believe it! I do not believe it! Bobby Thomson . . . hit a line drive . . . into the lower deck . . . of the left field stands . . . and this blame place is goin' crazy! The Giants! Horace Stoneham has got a winner! The Giants won it, by a score of 5 to 4, and they're pickin' Bobby Thomson up, and carryin' him off the field!"

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cub fan redux

After a long, long hiatus -- at least a couple of decades -- I have once again become a baseball fan. To be specific, a Cub fan.

I fell away originally because the hapless Cubs broke my heart once too often, and didn't go back because I could never feel much empathy with the whining millionaires ballplayers have become. The juicing scandals of the last few years drove me further into the indifferent lands beyond Wrigley Field. "Say it ain't so, Sammy," I groaned with millions of others. Baseball had let us down.

When Opening Day rolled around this year, I couldn't have cared less.

Then, in anticipation of several months of personal downtime (more about that later in April), I bought myself a 37-inch high-definition television set. I haven't been much of a TV watcher, except for the news, for half an hour or so before bed, and for the occasional movie.

Television seems ever so much better in high definition. Yes, broadcast news is still pathetically lightweight, cable news even worse and "reality" shows abominably unreal, but watching movies -- especially good ones -- on sharp widescreen HDTV puts me almost into the theater again, but without candy-sticky floors and the scent of stale popcorn.

Basketball on HDTV doesn't do anything for me. I stand just 5 feet 6 and what do I care about life in the stratosphere with Manute Bol? But baseball on HDTV . . .

That brings to the viewer in sharp relief every drop of sweat, every furrowed brow, every wince, every mouthed curse. In this visual intimacy the players, their features once fuzzy, suddenly take on bright new personalities. Once I could tell them apart only by the numbers on their backs; now I can discern the noble cheekbones of outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, who reminds me of the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe. It's as if the players are neighbors who dropped into my back yard for a barbecue. I feel reconnected.

Last night, when Geovany Soto, the Cub catcher, foiled a steal at second base with a perfectly aimed bullet thrown so hard that his mask spun halfway around his head, I leaped out of my rocking chair and shouted in glee -- something I haven't done at a sporting event on television for many years.

It hardly mattered that the Phillies won, 5 to 3.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ice Out

"Ice Out" on the Ontonagon River, March 25, 2007, looking upriver past the railroad bridge and new highway bridge as broken-up floes course toward the camera and Lake Superior.

It's almost time for Ice Out.

Ice Out -- the precise date and time in which the thick ice of winter breaks up thunderously in the Porcupine River and sweeps in crackling fragments out into Lake Superior -- is a big deal in Porcupine County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Ice Out heralds the unofficial beginning of spring there, much as the sighting of the first robin does farther south in the Midwest.

Excuse me, I mean the Ontonagon River in Ontonagon County. My novels' mythical place names tend to run away with my imagination.

The Rotary Club in Ontonagon sponsors a yearly contest in which entrants ante a dollar along with a guess for the instant the ice breaks up. The guess closest to the mark wins the pot. The following day, the daily newspapers in Houghton, Marquette and Ironwood all herald the winner.

The exact time of Ice Out is judged by the county road commission, which has a worker on duty 24 hours a day whose responsibilities include keeping an eye on the river.

Steve Sundberg, this blog's chief Porcupine County correspondent, reports that his yearly guess expired last Sunday, April 6, at 6:42 a.m., so he is "probably out of the money."

Steve's photos here are from last year's Ice Out. "It was on March 25, a Sunday afternoon, I believe, so I was able to see it. It usually seems to happen in the middle of the night. Still pictures cannot capture the noise, speed and movement of the ice. It started as open water running on the outside edges. The ice seemed to lift, possibly from an upstream ice dam letting go, and started moving quickly for the mouth. It was quite impressive."

Steve tells an amusing story about the Ice Out of 1998. The day afterward, Steve and his wife, Linda, "went down by the river to watch the large ice floes churning down the river and out into the lake. The river was about half ice and half water and the current was moving fast. Looking upstream, I saw something I could not believe: a guy riding a floe downriver. . . . He was sitting on a cooler, half full of beer I’m sure, on a chunk of ice about 10 by 20 feet and he was coming fast.

"I jumped out of the van as he came close to shore and asked him if he was OK. 'Yah,' he said. 'We have a plan.'

"We? I looked upstream and about a quarter mile up there was another floe with two guys on it and farther upstream from them was still another with a single rider.

“'Where did you guys come from?'” I asked.

“'Rockland,' he answered.

"Rockland is 10 miles from Ontonagon by highway, but about 20 miles by river. There is a bridge near Rockland where you can access the river, but there is no other access or any way out of the river valley until you get to Ontonagon. The first ten miles the river valley is deep, with 100- to 150-foot banks. Not quite a canyon, but it would be a tough climb out.

"There are two significant rapids in this stretch: Irish Rapids, where the river drops 10 feet in 50 yards, and Grand Rapids, where the river flows over rock shelves for about a quarter of a mile. How could you ride an ice floe in high water over these rapids? I have no idea. If you fell in and got hypothermic, had your leg crushed between floes or simply got stopped in a backup of ice, you would be on your own.

"The aforementioned 'plan' was no doubt hatched late on a Saturday night after consumption of more than a few Old Milwaukees. The ice riders were supposed to be picked up by a friend in an inflatable Zodiac with an outboard motor as they passed the Ontonagon Marina.

"There was just one slight miscalculation. The river narrows at it passes the marina, under a bridge and between two breakwaters before emptying into the lake. The river picked up speed as it narrowed, and the ice riders were sucked past the marina, sped under the bridge, zoomed through the channel and popped out into Lake Superior before they knew it. Next stop Canada, about 80 miles away, if their ice floes didn’t melt first.

"The Zodiac followed the riders out into the lake and plucked them from their floes.

"The sheriff’s department, meanwhile, had gotten wind of the adventure and two deputies were making their way out the west breakwater, either to assist in the rescue or give tickets to these dunderheads if they could only think to what to charge them with.

"Fully loaded, the Zodiac wasn’t able to make any headway up river against the fast current in the channel, so the skipper dropped the riders on the icy, rocky east breakwater and made a run for the marina. The riders scrambled over the breakwater and disappeared before the deputies could reach the east side of the river.

"All except one rider, the youngest, about 17 years old. He was being congratulated by his girlfriend for his daring when a deputy pulled up and motioned him over to the patrol car. He wisely dropped the cooler he was carrying and went over to receive his chewing out. After five minutes he returned to his girlfriend, smiling and laughing, knowing he had accomplished what few would ever dare, or be stupid enough, to try.

"That evening we related this story at Doc’s Bar and Renee, our favorite bartender, said, 'Oh yah – they do that every year.'"

All grist for a mystery novelist's mill. I'm already preparing in my head a thorough verbal lambasting of that adventurous lad by Sheriff Steve Martinez.

By the way, I emailed Jan Tucker, the Ontonagon radio personality (WUPY), unofficial town crier and expert in Ice Out history, and asked for the dates of Ice Out the last ten years. They are:

1998: February 20 at 6:30 p.m. (This is the earliest recorded date for Ice Out; April 21, 1972, is the latest date recorded so far.)

1999: March 29 at 5:25 p.m.

2000: March 6 at 11:55 a.m.

2001: April 4 at 5:30 p.m.

2002: April 12 at 2:54 p.m.

2003: April 10 at 11 p.m.

2004: March 30 at 7:10 p.m.

2005: March 31 at 7:35 p.m.

2006: April 1 at 5:20 a.m.

2007: March 25 at 4:52 p.m.

Thanks, Jan. And thanks, Steve. I'll report on this year's Ice Out as soon as I get the news.

The ice sweeps past the breakwaters and the Ontonagon Harbor Light out into Lake Superior. (Both photos by Steve Sundberg.)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Today's collegians aren't THAT ignorant

In the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ted Gup, a former Washington Post and Time magazine investigative reporter, bemoans the abysmal ignorance of his freshman and sophomore students at Case Western Reserve University about the world around them. They not only can't pass the pop news quizzes he tosses at them (none knows the term "rendition") but also sometimes can't answer even powderpuff questions. This upsets Gup no end, and he goes on for several hundred words, worrying about the future of America's body politic if his lunkheads are typical of American collegians.

All quite true. But this complaint is at least as old as my career in journalism.

Back in 1979-81, I taught a beginning class at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. I sprang pop quizzes about the news regularly, and nearly all the students hadn't a clue what was going on out there in the dark and strange world beyond campus. Once in a while a few might nail a pop culture item, but did they know the name of the president of France? Or could they find France on a globe?

Other adjunct instructors said the same thing, and we all agreed that the country was going to hell in a handbasket. The quality of journalism students had dropped off a cliff. They couldn't spell "quiz," let alone write a coherent sentence.

Then I remembered something: During the fall of 1962, when I was a graduate student at Medill, I took a beginning class with Richard Stout, a crusty Chicago Daily News reporter who later went on to national fame in Washington. He gave us pop quizzes, too, and none of us did terribly well. One afternoon I looked up from my typewriter while he corrected the quizzes and read his lips as he muttered under his breath, "They don't know shit."

I said essentially the same, although in more polite language, to my students after one botched quiz. After class a shy freshman tarried after the others left. "Mr. Kisor," she said, "you should understand something."


"We don't read newspapers because we have no time."

And she launched into a detailed, dawn-to-dusk recitation of her day, full of classes, heavy-duty homework, waiting tables in the refectory, sorority obligations, charity work and a hundred other things that occupy the time of college students.

I'm afraid I wasn't sympathetic. "If you want to become a journalist," I said severely, "keeping up with the news is the first place to start."

She did start. Last I heard of her years ago, she had worked her way up from a tiny Midwestern weekly to become a political reporter for a major East Coast daily.

When I think back about those days, I realize she was right. Students not only face jam-packed days, but also have no frame of reference other than the small towns they come from and the insular campuses they live on. They are fledglings still making their way, still learning that the huge unknown world outside will sooner or later collide with their lives.

They don't know shit, but soon will. That's why they're in college.

I'm willing to cut them some slack. Mr. Gup, maybe you should, too.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Homer nods . . . thrice

You'd think the New York Times Book Review, of all media, would go over its writers' copy with a comb so fine-toothed that a microsized apostrophe couldn't sneak through. But in today's issue Joe Queenan, in an otherwise funny piece on those fey book-club quizzes that anchor the endpapers of so many paperback reissues, made not one but three bloopers:

He wrote Picture of Dorian Grey instead of the correct "Gray."

He rendered Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice as "Bennett."

And he spelled Stendhal "Stendahl."

I was just waiting for him to commit the odious "Ghandi" instead of Gandhi, but he ran out of space.

Or possibly Queenan was having his own private joke. "Every so often, a question [in those endpaper quizzes] seems to have been included merely to see if readers are still awake," he writes.

Maybe those misspellings were jokingly intended to jar old copy editors out of our somnolence. But I don't think so. Our craft is going down the tubes everywhere, maybe even at The Times.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Springtime in Porcupine County

Ruby the Wonder Dog sniffs for an elusive skunk last Friday.

It's April 5 in Chicago, sunny and in the mid-60s, but they're still digging out up in Porcupine County on the shore of Lake Superior. Steve Sundberg, this blog's chief Porky correspondent, sent this dispatch today. It is lightly edited for space.

"Spring is definitely on its way up here. The snow banks have been reduced noticeably and bare ground has appeared in the paths that were blown out during the winter. Total snow this year is around 260 inches, a bit above average, and we have a chance of picking a few more the next couple of days. The attached picture shows Ruby the Wonder Dog yesterday as we were preparing for a trip to Houghton. Notice the bare patch of ground and the open water lead out on the lake. Yeah!

"The sap is starting to rise and folks have put out their taps in anticipation of boiling down some maple syrup, or "sugaring" in the local parlance. The folks I've spoken to over the last week say that the sap has been very slow this year and the quality of the syrup may be questionable. We were very dry last summer and by the time the fall rains came the trees had already pretty much shut down.

"I'm not tapping this year, so I lent my collection barrel (a great barrel made of food-grade plastic with a bottom spigot that I picked up for $2 a few years ago) to the local prosecuting attorney. He has about 40 taps out and should end up with a few gallons of syrup. Maybe he will give me a couple of pints for the loan of my equipment. . . .

"Spring has brought changes in the animal patterns too. The wolf that was lurking around the neighborhood hasn't been seen in a few weeks. I hear geese honking but haven't seen any large flocks moving yet. Robins have been sighted and the squirrel population, much to Ruby's consternation, has begun moving around. I went to let Ruby out yesterday morning and soon as I opened the door I was knocked over with a strong skunk odor. Instead of letting her run on the shock collar I put her on the leash and we went looking for the creature. We didn't see anything and the odor quickly evaporated but it did inspire me to write a little poem.


"I opened up the door this morn
And the smell of skunk was strong
Was he lurking close at hand
Or been gone very long?

"There is something about the smell of skunk
That sets the heart aflutter.
Is it out upon the porch
Or dead out in the gutter?

The dog stuck her nose out
And drank the odor in.
To her it smells of heaven,
To me, where Satan's been.

I dare not let her out
To frolic and run free.
She'll chase after her newfound friend
And then come back to me.

"So keep your skunk kit handy,
Peroxide, soda, Dawn.
The skunks are out a-roaming,
You will need it before long."

"I hope and your families are all well. Have a nice Spring!"

Where else but in the Upper Peninsula would the prosecuting attorney (called a "state's attorney" down here in Chicago) go a-sugaring? Thanks, Steve. You can bet this is going to end up in a future Steve Martinez mystery.

Friday, April 4, 2008

A blog that deserves a boost

She did not ask me to, but I want to give Carol Felsenthal's new blog on the Huffington Post a leg up. She deserves it.

Carol, a fellow Chicagoan, is an old friend and reviewer of mine on the Chicago Sun-Times book section. As an author of noted political biographies, she was one of my go-to critics for new books in that genre.

Her most famous biographies are Citizen Newhouse: Portrait of a Media Merchant; Power, Privilege, and the Post: The Katharine Graham Story, and Princess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

The Graham bio is being made into an HBO television adaptation with a screenplay by Joan Didion, and Tom Hooper, director of the current HBO series on John Adams, is field marshal.

I've long awaited Carol's latest, Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, coming May 1 from William Morrow. This book is very likely to explain Big Bad Bill's behavior during this contentious primary season.

Some insights already are available on Carol's most recent HuffPo blogpost, in which she tells why two very dissimilar post-presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, dislike each other intensely. Will Jimmy throw his superdelegate vote to Obama? Most likely.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The e-book invades the publishing world

The e-book is creeping closer and closer to the common reader. That's you and me.

Right now it seems to be overtaking the publishing industry. Since last November, reports Publishers Weekly, the publishing house Hachette has given 300 Sony Readers ($299 each) to its editorial, sales and marketing people. Simon & Schuster and St. Martin's Press (full disclosure: Forge, my publisher, is part of the St. Martin's family) are doing the same, and now the Random House publishing empire is adopting the Sony Reader in a big way.

Why? E-book readers save tons of paper, ink and laser toner that must be expended for manuscripts to be distributed through several departments. Instead of packing three or four thick and heavy manuscripts into a satchel to take home for the weekend, an editor or salesman or publicity aide can just shove a memory chip into his Reader.

A sales chief in New York can electronically transmit an entire book in seconds to a salesman in San Francisco rather than trusting FedEx or UPS to fly a printed "advance reading copy" overnight. Packages do get lost and need to be re-sent, causing delays; if electronic transmissions get screwed up, they can be instantly retransmitted.

Editors in particular can skim over just-submitted manuscripts on their Readers before deciding whether to buy or skip and go on to the next. (They do edit the manuscripts on their computers; Readers don't have keyboards.)

Soon editors will be asking authors to submit books in digital form, on CD/DVDs, memory cards or as uploads. This will be a time-saver as well as money-saver for us: No more laborious printing out, counting pages, boxing, binding, addressing, stamping and hauling to the post office or UPS outlet.

Publishers very likely will want all manuscripts submitted as Microsoft Word files, which the Sony Reader handles easily. This does not mean an author has to buy a copy of Word -- he can use the free OpenOffice (I wrote A Venture into Murder with it) and save his manuscripts as Word files. Many other word processing programs do the same.

I'll stick my neck out and make a prediction: Now that the Sony Reader has become an accepted tool, not a gadget to play with, marvel over and discard, the chances are it -- or its successors -- will become common in the homes of authors, then readers.

Why haven't the publishing houses adopted the Sony Reader's chief competitor, the Kindle,'s $399 device? Availability, for one thing. The Kindle sold out in five hours after put it on sale last November. Since then there has been a huge backlog of orders, but last week said production had been ramped up and soon orders will be shipped quickly.

Am I going to buy a Reader or a Kindle soon? Not just yet. I'm waiting for Sony, or Amazon, to produce a second-generation e-book reader: one that can also be attached to a folding keyboard (much like a PDA) and used to edit manuscripts on the go, as well as send e-mail, surf the Net -- and upload and download stuff to my editor as well as e-books from a vendor and maybe even movies. In short, a super-lightweight, book-sized laptop.

Perhaps some people would like it to have cell phone capabilities, too, so instead of carrying a heavy satchel stuffed with battery-fed devices, they could pack only one electronic Swiss Army Knife.