Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Blog-of-the-Month Club

Many amusing blogs exist, but few truly addictive ones. A good example of the latter is the unpronounceable xkcd.com, which doesn't stand for anything except the fertile technoanarchic mind of its creator, a physicist named Randall Munroe. His off-the-wall stick-figure cartoons will keep you rapt for hours even though you might not quite understand some (well, in some cases most) of them.

Though I'd never before encountered it (where have I been?), xkcd.com seems to be quite famous. Go thither and have fun. And if you like, you can buy the t-shirt.

A tip of the hat to Pete Selkowe for the heads-up. No pun intended.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Charging ahead on the iPod Touch

About noon today I finished reading the Kindle version of Michael Connelly's 1999 whodunit Angels Flight on my iPod Touch. Yes, I read an entire book on a 3 1/2-inch screen and didn't suffer eyestrain. What's more, I've just recently had cataract surgery -- that has to be the ultimate test for small-scale e-book reading. And, let me tell you, the experience was a satisfying one.

The next thing I did was go to Kindle Books online and download Connelly's most recent cop novel, The Brass Verdict, published late last fall.

Why another cop novel? Why another Connelly? Am I going to pig out on his Harry Bosch novels the way I did on Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels last year until I'd read them all?

Not really. When one works in the same genre, it helps to absorb how other writers -- especially best-selling as well as first-rate ones -- craft their stories. One picks up good tricks that way. (One has to be careful not to steal, just be inspired.)

And when one reads an e-book on a small screen, it helps if the book is simple, direct and linear -- that is, if it doesn't have a convoluted plot that requires the reader to backtrack frequently to refresh his memory of names or events, such as all those Russians and their relationships in War and Peace. A good mystery keeps the reader rolling along effortlessly. Angels Flight did that.

As I become more and more used to this mode of reading, I might try a literary novel or a a heavy-duty biography on the little iPod Touch.

This doesn't mean I've forsaken print on paper. All this time I've also been reading the tree-book of P. D. James' newest literary mystery, The Private Patient -- one chapter a day, savoring each shapely sentence and each profound observation about human behavior. The end is drawing near; Commander Dalgliesh is about to bust the perp -- a colorful American phrase Lady James would never use.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Two for the weekend

A twofer today:

1. In cleaning out the attic these last few weeks, the Lady Friend and I discovered several boxes of new, uncirculated copies of my nonfiction books Flight of the Gin Fizz, Zephyr and What's That Pig Outdoors? Most are hardcover, a few are paperbacks and some are in Dutch and German.

When initial sales declined to the point at which the publishers decided to remainder the remaining copies, I bought a few boxes for what, I don't know, some vague idea of posterity. They've just been gathering dust all these years.

And so they're all for sale, along with a custom personal inscription. If you're interested, write me at author@henrykisor.com.

2. For the last couple of weeks the New York Times has been publishing a cool new blog, Schott's Vocab, dedicated to clever and sometimes just off-the-wall neologisms. Those are newly coined words that have never before existed and may have no real reason to do so, but in a few cases just might stick around and become part of our collective vocabulary.

For instance, twitturgy, or religious tweeting on Twitter. Instead of 5,000-word Sunday stemwinder sermons, pastors can issue up-to-140-words tweets such as:

Move into my neighborhood, God. Come sing in these suburban streets. Love the loveless. Laugh with the lonely. Spray the walls into beauty.

Ben Schott, a Londoner, writes the blog with the dry English humor he has infused into his celebrated miscellanies and almanacs, those arbitrary, anarchic and addictive book-length collections of facts, factoids, lists and charts for trivia hounds. I'm hooked.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mene, mene tekel e-upharsin

Behold the e-writing on the wall.

1. Earlier this month, Amazon.com and Apple joined forces to make Amazon.com's 240,000 Kindle e-books downloadable to the iPhone and iPod Touch. This was huge. The enormous user base for those devices is eagerly snapping up the Kindle material as well as e-books in other reader formats.

2. Shortly afterward, Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise, another e-book retailer, so that the book chain can compete with Amazon.com and its Kindle. Just the other day Fictionwise announced a free e-book reader application for the Blackberry Curve, Storm, Pearl and Bold. Reportedly Blackberry is working on new wireless devices with larger screens optimized for e-book reading.

3. A few days ago Google and Sony announced that Google’s library of more than 600,000 public-domain e-books would now be available for free on the Sony Reader in Sony's ePub format. Sony also lowered the price of its flagship PRS-700 e-book reader to $350, compared to Amazon.com's $359 Kindle.

4. Amid the scores of university presses that suddenly have found themselves in a financial bind -- one, the University of Utah Press, may fold -- the University of Michigan Press is going to e-books in a big way. It publishes about 120 books a year, half of them slow-selling scholarly monographs important to academics but not to the public. It will now bring out most of these monographs as e-books, some of them available as print-on-demand works. UMP will save buckets of money this way.

5. Last week HarperCollins, one of the country's biggest book publishers, announced that it would no longer issue expensive printed catalogs of its wares but instead send them to the book trade as e-catalogs. HC will save bathtubs of money this way.

6. For a year or so several publishers have been sending e-manuscripts of their books to sales forces rather than expensive bound galleys, also called "advance reading copies." From all indications, the sales people love reading manuscripts on their Sony Readers, partly because they don't have to hump scores of copies of books home in bulging briefcases. It may not be long before some (but not all) publishers start issuing new manuscripts from their own web sites as e-books as well as printed ones, bypassing bookstores and independent online retailers. Publishers will save swimming pools of money this way.

Let's face it: the e-book is not only here to stay but also is beginning to muscle its way to the forefront of the publishing industry. Within the next few years the majority of book buyers very likely will be reading more books on electronic devices than on paper.

Does this mean that the printed book is a thing of the past? Not at all. Older readers who grew up loving printed books will keep on buying them, perhaps in smaller numbers as the recession deepens. Illustrated art books won't go away any time soon, although larger and sharper computer monitors down the road will bring Manets and Renoirs and Ansel Adamses to new art lovers. Libraries will keep on acquiring and circulating printed books; as the technological state of the art stands, it will be difficult for them to provide copyrighted e-books in proprietary formats without piracy concerns -- they'd just be too easy to steal.

Get ready for a sea change in your reading life.

MARCH 27: Fujitsu is launching a new e-book reading device to compete with Sony and Amazon.com, according to Publishers Weekly . . . and the "FLEPia" will cost an initial $1,000 when it reaches buyers in Japan. Oy, even if it's in color.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ain't it the truth?

Bill, recently retired, is sitting on the sofa.

His wife, Linda, adjusting to his constant presence, tries to be diplomatic.

"What are you doing today?" she asks brightly.

"Nothing," he replies.

"Didn't you do that yesterday," she snaps.

Bill looks at her and smiles.

"I wasn't finished," he says.

With thanks to Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times

Sunday, March 22, 2009

St. Vinnie's needs YOU

Times are tough -- tougher than usual -- up in Ontonagon County, the Upper Michigan locale that is the prototype for the rugged and remote Porcupine County in my mystery novels.

Making a living has always been difficult there. Back in 2007 when everyone elsewhere seemed to be enjoying the late bubble, 11.8 per cent of the Ontonagon population lived below the poverty line, and many of the rest just above it. Last November the county's largest employer, the Smurfit-Stone paper mill, shut down for lack of demand and soon filed for bankruptcy.

Some 150 mill workers were laid off and countless more in supporting businesses, such as pulpwood loggers, also lost their livelihood. Two months ago the unemployment rate in Ontonagon County surpassed 17 per cent and doubtless now is pushing 20 per cent.

And the winter has been one of the coldest and snowiest in decades.

Ontonagon County government is so broke that it doesn't have the resources, except for occasional grants, to serve those who are down on their luck. Plugging the gap falls to the local chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Catholic Church's international charity organization.

In Ontonagon the public face of St. Vinnie's, as it is called everywhere, is an old supermarket converted into a big thrift store full of cast-off but still usable clothes, furniture, dishes, pots and pans, books and toys. Even in better times it serves the town as a kind of Wal-Mart of secondhand goods, and everyone not only donates stuff to it but also shops there.

Behind the scenes St. Vinnie's keeps people alive. Its financial office helps pay their utility bills. Its modest food pantry provides staples for survival.

St. Vinnie's is so important to Ontonagon that a couple of years ago, when someone broke into the store and stole the meager till, $1,000, the entire town issued a collective gasp. Stealing from St. Vinnie's? Stealing from the poor? What kind of moral imbecile would do such a thing?

A few days later a local bank presented a check for the entire missing amount to the director of St. Vincent's, and the town breathed a sigh of relief. Kids would still have stout boots and warm coats for winter. Shut-ins would still have their 10-cent paperbacks to stave off loneliness. People could still replace broken crockery with gently used cups and plates.

St. Vinnie's may be nominally a Catholic organization, but it is so effective and efficient at ministering to everybody, whatever their creed, that the local Protestant churches hold fund-raisers for it and pass along the proceeds.

Now St. Vinnie's is stretched ever tighter. It needs help, a lot of it.

A friend of mine who is a fellow Summer Person in Ontonagon has been putting the arm on other seasonal residents to contribute to St. Vinnie's efforts for the destitute. The money is helping, but so much more is needed.

And so I am putting the arm on you -- that's you at your expensive computer -- to help out, too. You're lucky to have an income when so many Americans are losing theirs.

Send your check to:

St. Vincent de Paul
205 Quartz Street
Ontonagon, MI 49953

If you like, specify where you'd like the money to go -- helping with utilities, the food pantry, or maybe where it can be best used.

Or if you'd rather scatter your beneficence closer to home, look up your local St. Vincent's, Salvation Army or other charity.

Doing good will make you feel good. And it's tax deductible.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Driving an airplane

On March 5 the Terrafugia Transition (can you say that fast ten times?) flew for the first time. It's the latest in a long line of dreams about a practical flying automobile. Whether it will bear fruit is another matter. Here, from the aviation website Avweb.com, is a video of its first flight:

The Transition is actually a "roadable airplane," not a true flying car. The idea is to keep it in your garage and then drive it out to the airport (the designer says it's street legal) for takeoff and landing. Just try that on I-94 during rush hour, however.

What makes it different from past flying-car concepts is the wings. They fold onto the car like a bird's. Earlier designs had detachable wings, such as that of the 1949 Aerocar, of which only six examples ever were built:

The dream of a flying car was born long, long ago. Sometime in the early 1920s a retired doctor named George Spratt, who had worked with the Wright brothers, designed and flew such a machine, and a film of it flying is here.

Frankly, car-airplane hybrids have traditionally made lousy airplanes and lousy cars, and I doubt the Terrafugia Transition is going to be any different. Full marks, however, to its designer for the audacity of his state-of-the-art dreams.

Monday, March 16, 2009


One of the nice things about going flying in the spring is spotting the season's first rare airplane among the antiques or former warbirds that had been hangared all winter. On the first pleasant Sunday in March, their owners often roll them out into the sun to preen and shake their feathers, getting ready for summer air shows.

Yesterday, shortly after rolling the hangar door down on my little Cessna 150 at Westosha Airport in Wilmot, Wisconsin, I spotted this colorful Yakovlev Yak-52, an aerobatic trainer that introduced many fledgling Red Air Force pilots to combat maneuvers beginning in 1976. In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, scores of surplus Yaks were exported to the United States and sold for a song, as they still are (a typical price is $50,000, actually quite low as airplanes go). They're not at all uncommon in American skies, especially at aerobatic contests, but at country airports they're still rare enough to turn heads.

This Yak-52 -- apparently newly painted in her original colors -- looks a little like a mantis on steroids with that long and skinny landing gear, necessary for the big paddle-blade propeller to clear the ground. Her pilot had just started the engine in a huge cloud of exhaust, nearly blown away at the time I snapped the photo. The propeller's whirling briskly, but the camera stopped it with a 1/4000 sec. shutter speed.

Ta-pocketa-pocketa . . .

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The e-book vs. the tree-book, continued

Reading an e-book on an iPod Touch isn't what I expected.

Absorbing text from that tiny three-and-a-half-inch screen is easier and more restful than I at first thought it would be. In an experiment yesterday morning I spent nearly an hour reading a Michael Connelly novel with Amazon.com's free Kindle e-reader software and actually lost track of time without suffering from eyestrain. It was even a pleasant experience for this 68-year-old senior citizen.

So am I going to forsake the printed book? Of course not.

The iPod Touch needs to be recharged every night -- more often if it's used for the Internet. Its battery will last for only about three hours of Webcrawling, or six to eight hours for e-reading. One needs to be close to a 110 volt outlet.

A printed book, we all know, needs no electricity and will keep working even when dropped on a concrete floor. It's not particularly attractive to thieves; you can leave one on your beach blanket while going for a dip. And if it does get stolen or lost, you're out only seven to twenty-five bucks -- less if the book's old or borrowed.

An iPod Touch costs $229 plus tax. Losing one would be painful.

But it's pocketable where even a mass-market paperback isn't. It's unobtrusive. You can read it in the dark. You can read it surreptitiously in church during a long and boring sermon. You can read it scrunched up against other standees on the bus.

There are other advantages. On Amazon.com, current Kindle best sellers cost less than half the price of a printed book. If you use Stanza, another e-reader program, you can download and read free classics from Gutenberg.org. Then there's eReader, whose book prices are similar to Kindle's, but with a much fancier interface that allows you to change background and text colors as well as highlight text to save as notes.

In my view, this new electronic wave will not replace the printed book. Can you imagine trying to read an oversized art or photography book on a small screen? Can you imagine bespectacled Baby Boomers migrating in large numbers to a new technology in the middle of a depression when books are available for free at the library?

I suspect, however, that as time goes on e-books will cut deeply into sales of tree-books, and that publishers will have to adjust their business plans to deal with that. (Barnes & Noble has beheld the handwriting on the electronic wall and just last week acquired Fictionwise, the parent company of eReader.)

E-reading is another means of appreciating literature -- and it's a remarkably convenient one.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Taking the Kindle leap

I'm now reading a Kindle book -- but not on an actual Kindle, either versions 1 or 2, but on a brand-new Apple iPod Touch.

I bought the Touch yesterday to stay connected to the world with its wireless e-mail and Web browsing capability, and thought I'd experiment with reading the Kindle version of an e-book. So for $6.39 I downloaded Angels Flight, a 1999 novel by Michael Connelly that I hadn't yet read, and have just started the first chapter. (The Kindle reader software, made available just last week, is free.)

The $229 (for 8 gigabytes of memory) iPod Touch is not a $359 Kindle, nor should reading e-books on it be mistaken for reading a real Kindle. So far, however, the experience has been better than I expected.

The backlit 3 1/2 inch screen of an iPod Touch doesn't measure up for restfulness compared to that of the Kindle's higher-tech 6-inch "e-ink" monitor. I suspect the iPod won't be suitable for long hours with a book, although it'll clearly be better than the big K for reading in poor light or in the dark.

The Kindle iPod text, in a pleasant serifed font that looks like Georgia, is remarkably readable. You have a choice of five sizes. I found the middle, about 10 points in height, the most comfortable.

Reading a Kindle e-book on the iPod is simplicity itself. You turn the pages with an easy sweep of the finger. There are no page numbers, but the iPod automatically takes you back to where you left off.

Getting new books is equally uncomplicated. The iPod takes you to the Kindle store, where you have your choice among almost a quarter of a million titles, most of the new offerings costing $9.95, less than half the price of a hardbound. The Kindle store automatically downloads new titles to your iPod.

On the iPod you can't annotate text, as you can on a real Kindle, but that seems a small price to pay for the convenience of a shirt-pocket e-reader.

I'm thinking that the Kindle experience on an iPod Touch (or its close cousin, the iPhone) will be best for short bursts of reading, such as commuting, whiling away empty time on an airplane or train, or waiting for the curtain to rise in the theater.

Kindle isn't the only e-book application for the iPod Touch/iPhone. Some people swear by a similar service called Stanza. I'll be trying out that one in days to come.

Stand by.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Some good stuff . . . and bad

I enjoy reading the Chicago Sun-Times' Neil Steinberg every day, even if half the time I disagree with him. One of the reasons is that he is unafraid to display a cultivated intellect, often with the help of the world's great literature. This guy does not dumb down for dopes.

Today, on Rush Limbaugh's expressed hope for President Obama's failure, Steinberg writes:

"I was reading War and Peace to the teen the other night -- we're about halfway through -- when Tolstoy surprised me by summarizing Limbaugh far better than I could.

"The Russians are fighting Napoleon. One of their allies, a rigid Prussian general, Ernst Pfuel, is aghast that the czar would consider any strategy other than his own. The fact that Pfuel's plan of attack had already led to disaster has shaken his confidence not one bit -- rather the past defeats are, in his eyes, proof that his instructions must not have been followed to the letter.

"'Pfuel was one of those theorists who so love their theory that they forget the purpose of the theory -- its application in practice,' Tolstoy writes. 'He was even glad of failure, because failure, proceeding from departures from theory in practice, only proved to him the correctness of his theory.'"

Another admirable writer is Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal theater critic and biographer of H.L. Mencken.

Last week, however, Teachout stumbled. In an an otherwise pleasant appreciation of a late playwright, he led with not one but two dreary cliches, combining them into a clanging mixaphor:

"Horton Foote died in the saddle, the way every artist worth his salt wants to go."


TUESDAY: The New York Times' stylebook chief examines some misbegotten metaphors that recently sneaked into the paper, as well as some good ones.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The 'Inept Blob' vs. the 'Inhuman Turd'

Yesterday, continuing to clean out my old papers, I came across across a yellowed letter written in response to an interview of the novelist Nelson Algren that I did for the Chicago Daily News in 1976.

In the article, Algren unloaded bitterly on his editor, the legendary William Targ of G. P. Putnam's Sons (he edited Mario Puzo's The Godfather), accusing him of not having done his best for Algren's collection The Last Carousel. In a letter to Algren carbon-copied to me, Targ wrote:

"Nelson Algren:

"The Chicago Daily News-Henry Kisor interview reached me this morning.

"As an editor I've found it necessary to take a certain amount of shit from neurotic authors -- part of the job. But I will not take outright lies from anyone, nor public vilification.

"You said 'Nobody outside Chicago reviewed my book.' An outright lie. We have a bulging folder of reviews from all over America and yes, including Playboy. The L.A. Times reviewed it -- that's outside of Chicago. If a few publications failed to review the book, don't lay it on your editor. What do you expect me to do -- come at the reviewers with a gun. They did get books by messenger in New York, and by air mail around the country.

"You say no books were shipped to the West Coast. Wanna bet? Where do you think those 9,000 hardbound copies went? To your racetrack cronies? We have sales records and shipping records to refute your dumb lie.

"For calling me 'an inept blob' -- I must reply: you are an inhuman turd, a piece of excrement. I sweated weekends at home, and in the office, over the unspeakable mess of manuscript you sent to me. I made it all into a decent book. Many or most editors would not have allowed some of the trivia to appear between covers. It's true, there are some fine things in the book, but I preserved everything you wanted included in the book. I was trying to keep you happy.

"Your comments about not writing your next novel are not amusing; they strike me as irresponsible. As for the Carter manuscript [an ill-starred book on the boxer Hurricane Carter], it was submitted to one of our Berkley editors who declined it. I learned about it and called Candida [Candida Donadio, Algren's agent]. She told me you had fired her (what a charming valentine for an old and faithful friend!) and then went back to her. She sent me the ms and two of us read it here and agreed it was not for us. So much for that.

"I've long admired you as a writer; I won't deny your talents. But even if you were Tolstoy I woud say -- and shall do so publicly henceforth -- that you are a liar, an ingrate, a shithead.

"William Targ"

A couple of weeks later the Bergen County Herald News reprinted my interview from the Daily News' wire service, and Targ sent the publisher of that hapless paper a stiff note declaring that "Mr. Algren is a liar and highly mischievous and I intend to secure justice and damages from all concerned. You will hear from my lawyers shortly."

Nothing, so far as I know, ever came of that threat. Perhaps Targ realized that Algren was just too broke to be worth suing. Perhaps he just calmed down. Authors, after all, tend to be as capricious and unreasonable as small children, and often need adult supervision.

Most editor-author relationships are civil and even affectionate, but they can also twang with tension. When a writerly ego clashes with editorial sensibility, the result can be volcanic.

Algren died in 1981, Targ in 1999, and I don't think they ever reconciled.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Letters from Art

We are cleaning out the attic, and I have been plowing through boxes and boxes of clippings and correspondence dating back to the mid-1960s and the beginning of my newspaper career. Some of it is worth saving, especially the letters exchanged with prominent writers of the time. One such is the great syndicated satirist Art Buchwald, who died in 2007. Two letters from him written in 1983 show not only the breadth of his wit but also the depth of his humanity.

The occasion was a review I had written of a book of essays by Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker humorist. I don't recall the exact words, but they were something along the lines of "If I didn't know better, I'd call Trillin the intellectual's Art Buchwald."

Naturally Trillin's publisher wrested out of context the last four words for the New York Times ad that appeared a few days after the review. " 'The intellectual's Art Buchwald' -- Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times."

The following week this letter arrived from Buchwald:

"Dear Henry:

"I was very hurt when you described Calvin Trillin as 'the intellectual's Art Buchwald.' Just because he went to Yale and I went to the University of Southern California is no reason for you to put me down. I didn't have a very good education because my family was poor and I couldn't afford remedial English.

"Sometime early in my newspaper career a voice said to me: 'Intellectuals suck," and I decided to appeal to hard hats and middle America.

"You have hurt my standing with Washington brain trusters. Ever since your review people say, 'Don't talk to Buchwald. He isn't one of our kind.'

"The next time I see Trillin I'm going to punch him in the nose.



"cc: Calvin Trillin"

Of course I hastened to send Buchwald a copy of the review with the quote in proper context, and a few days later this arrived:

"Dear Henry:

"Thanks for your nice note. I'm glad we cleared the matter up. Death to all book advertising people, and a pox on those who misquote book critics. I will let Trillin live, but if it happens on his next book my people will take care of him.

"Hope to see you soon.



A year or so later I ran into Trillin at a literary party while in the company of Tracy Kidder, who brought up the incident. Trillin not only remembered the ad -- he and Buchwald were good friends -- but thought the whole thing very funny.

Naturally I'm saving that correspondence. It's a treasure.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Books are better than men, she says

"Relationships with books actually have some pretty compelling advantages over relationships with men. With books, it's always your choice if the liaison ends prematurely. You don't have to worry about the awkwardness of trying to avoid your discarded book should you bump into it in the grocery store. You can tell it, 'It's not you, it's me' or even 'You know, it actually IS you' without hurting its feelings. It will also never insist on an exclusive relationship, and no one will think ill of you if you love more than one. You can take one to bed with you the very first night you bring it home without your mother blinking an eye."

So says the impossibly impertinent Kim Kovacs on the BookBrowse blog.

Somehow I can't see a guy posting a male version of this disgusting, dangerous, thoroughly subversive point of view.

On the other hand, it would be easier to dump a book than a woman, wouldn't it?

(A tip of the hat to ShelfAwareness.com.)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

All that ice gitches my gumees

Yesterday morning the temperature in Porcupine City (or Ontonagon, as it is known to reality freaks) was 25 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, reports Steve Sundberg, a regular correspondent from the place. "It doesn't normally get nearly this cold around here, but the western end of Lake Superior has frozen over. That has shut down the lake effect snow machine and ended the normal temperature-moderating influence of the open water."

Steve sent a link to that NOAA satellite photograph, taken Friday. Click it for a slightly larger version.

From its caption: "Areas that are tinted aqua on the lakes indicate ice cover, pure black areas indicate open water, and white areas indicate cloud cover. In this image, note how the ice cover on western Lake Superior has almost prevented the development of any lake effect clouds and snow showers. One lake effect snow band, originating from a small patch of open water between Isle Royale and Thunder Bay, Ontario, can be seen streaming south toward Ironwood. The shrinking open water area over eastern Lake Superior is still sufficiently large to allow numerous bands of lake effect snow showers to develop and to stream into north central Upper Michigan."

The NOAA page with the photo is here.

Um . . . I think maybe I'll wait until there's a heat wave, about 20 degrees above zero F, before I spend any of the winter up there in Steve Martinez country.