Cruising the Green of Second Avenue

Wild Child Publishing has issued the second volume of short stories in Cruising the Green of Second Avenue. The tales take up where Vol. I left off — bringing back Klein the Biker, Straight Charlie and Sammy the Madman while introducing new characters stumbling over life’s difficulties in the late 60s. Vol. II is an e-book published by Wild Child Publishing that you can download, save as a pdf (Adobe) file and print. Read both volumes and see that life isn't all that serious. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online book sellers.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Thumbnail Reviews for 2011

I review books feeling like the guy who says, “I know you’re really going to like [insert title or author].” Well, dammit, I like the books and want others to share my happiness! The reviews have gone up on Amazon and B&N, and on Roberta Stuhr’s site, Favorite Books and Book Review (

Here, then are seven thumbnail reviews of 2011 that were published in Book Editor Anne Bendheim's "Tell Us What You're Reading" column in the Asbury Park Press:

Fur-Face by Jon Gibb is an e-book for young adults that will also fascinate older adults. A young boy, a newcomer to the English countryside is confronted by a talking cat, who — like his friend Razor the fox — has been part of a mind control program. Challenges confronting him include a secret deal with Russians, concerned parents, nefarious scientists, and secret tunnels under the animal park. And a budding infatuation with a young girl.

Pirate Latitudes was a manuscript discovered after Michael Crichton died in 2008. It’s a rousing good page-turner in the tradition of Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean. Capt. Hunter is technically a privateer who learns a Spanish galleon filled with treasure is being repaired in a fortified harbor. He assembles a crew with the Governor’s blessing to hijack it. Along the way, all of the mishaps and conquests possible — shipwrecks, imprisonment as a pirate, battles —confront Hunter and his misbegotten crew.

Who knew my favorite meteorologist is also a writer of whodunits? The Morning Show Murders, first of Roker’s three published novels, concerns the death of Billy Blessing’s TV show producer who’s been poisoned by food from Blessing’s restaurant. Worse yet, the Manhattan DA closes Blessing’s restaurant and the new exec suspends Blessing from the Morning Show. Blessing has to become a sleuth to find the murderer. It’s a rollicking, fast-paced mystery, filled with New York’s sights, sounds and personalities. Follow up this one with “The Midnight Show Murders” and “The Talk Show Murders.”

Fascinated by Caleb Carr’s treatment of 19th century forensic psychiatry in The Alienists and Angel of Darkness, I continue to search out this author. In The Italian Secretary, Carr takes Sherlock Holmes and Watson to Scotland. A pair of murders at a castle being restored leads Holmes to suspect Queen Victoria is next, her demise orchestrated by the German Kaiser, Scottish nationalists—or even the ghost associated with Mary, Queen of Scots.

With Mexico’s drug battles in today’s news, Arturo Pérez-Reverte gives us a literary backstory to a Latina who becomes The Queen of the South. Theresa, girlfriend of a narco pilot, gets a call warning that if this special phone ever rings, he’s dead and the narcos are coming for her. Theresa flees to Spain, surviving over the next 12 years by building one of the biggest drug rings in the Mediterranean. She’s one tough woman in a man’s world, and you have to love even the bad guys.

John le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man follows a Turkish Muslim boxer who unknowingly takes in a medical student. The book shows us the post 9/11 rivalries of spy agencies in three countries as we learn the student is actually the terrorist son of a Red Army colonel with a mysterious bank account. This may be le Carre’s best work — and most humanistic. John le Carre is a “must-read” author.

Dennis Lehane delivers horrifying insights into 1918 Boston with The Given Day. After the Great War and influenza epidemic, but before the ‘20s began roaring, police officer Danny Coughlin has to contend with leading a strike, mayhem from his policeman godfather, anarchist terror, and unrequited love for the Coughlin family maid. Lehane, author of “Mystic River,” has written a terrifying novel of Boston’s large-scale rioting, families torn asunder by pride, Bolshevik bombers, and wanton murders.

I know you’re really gonna like them.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fool Me Once, Shame on You

Now I’m mad! Barnes & Noble rejected my review of Thomas Matthews novel, Rejection. Nameless moderators said, “Your Review is no longer visible by others because it contains inappropriate language which violates our Terms of Use. If you update your content, it will be reconsidered by our moderators within three business days. This message will be removed when your content is approved.”

The trouble is, there’s no apparent way to “update the content.” This Kafka-esque situation gives me no alternative but to post the review to Amazon. There , that’s done. But while waiting for that review to be approved, here’s an advance look at my review of a one-star novel….

I downloaded Rejection for my Nook on the basis of a Facebook friendship, several ecstatic reviews that now seem highly suspect, a bias toward new writers, and a love of the detective/mystery genre.

This is the first time I’ve been upset by a carelessly edited, poorly written, badly researched, clichéd novel. My disappointment wouldn’t have been so deep if I hadn’t just finished Pete Hamill’s Tabloid City and Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day. In contrast, both are richly textured, almost literary works whose focal point is crime. Rejection is a potboiler.

The saddest sticking point is that Matthews has given us “Malcolm,” an invented borough of New York City. Please! NYC has five distinctive boroughs, and none of them are 19th century hamlets. New York has a Delancey St., but none spelled without the “e”. (Check your city guide, Mr. Matthews.) And for a police writer to refer to “Dunkin’ Doughnuts” is unforgiveable (as much a calumny as his having overweight African-American women cops reaching orgasm over doughnuts). The lack of editing goes right on through a major character named Smythe being referred to as Smyth.

It’s dangerous to try describing a place you don’t know. For example, “Avenue of the Americas [New Yorkers call it Sixth Avenue] stretches out like the movie set of a quintessential New York landscape. Here [sic] business and commerce embrace the swirling lifestyle of the printed word. The place is lousy with magazines, book publishers and high rent offices, all connected by text messages, phone lines and power emails that jump from one side of the concrete canyon to the others.” Aside from the geographic invention, I defy anyone to make sense of this paragraph.

I think Matthews has never met a punctuation rule he didn’t ignore. It’s common to find commas missing after an interjection, periods missing in sentences, and often entire words missing in a simple declarative sentence. My proofreader would have characterized this work as a “dog’s breakfast.” Jerry Shapiro, the publisher, says it on p. 330, “I’ve looked at some of these [POD] books and the covers look good, but inside is a nightmare of bad writing, misspelled words and poor editing. It makes the heart weep.”

Somehow, the entire strength of this mystery lies in the fact that literary agents are being murdered in gratuitous venal ways. (No spoiler alert, but the case is resolved 50 pages from the ending.) Is this a case of Matthews transferring his own professional problems onto his stock characters? If this is the situation, there should be a “Predators and Editors” Web site warning agents against amateur writers who self-publish.

The rejection of this book lies not only in the title. As Shapiro the publisher says, “It makes my heart weep.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

2011, That’s a Wrap

As I wrote in my Christmas letter to far-flung relatives, this has been a fulfilling but uneventful year, and there’s much to be said for the lack of drama. No hospital emergencies, no tragedies, no unforeseen circumstances.

What I did make happen was to bring 10 short stories to life in print and online (two more slated for 2012), nine commentaries and reviews, and six humor pieces. I feel proud to have had seven thumbnail book reviews carried in the Asbury Park Press, and want to take some small credit for keeping this column by Book Editor Anne Bendheim alive when her submissions dried up.

Of those short stories, Bill Olver of Pulp Fiction has submitted “Misunderstood Identity” for the 5th annual Micro Award program, an annual competition for fiction in under 1,000 words. I feel honored — and all giggly, too, because I’ve loved this story since I read a first draft to a church congregation. In case you missed it, the story is still up at

Throughout the year I managed also to read 28 books. Well, I went through some of them quickly because they were turgid; others weren’t worth archiving and those were downloaded to my Nook. I'll confess I read too muc Ellmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane. I found it tough to read James Ellroy (American Tabloid and The Big Nowhere) because they were so slow and dense and admit that I put them aside. Several harked back to the early 20th century (Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and Norman Springer’s The Blood Ship) and are still viable pieces of writing.

That was the year that was. Nothing dramatic, but very satisfying.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Memories Are Hard to Lose. And That’s Good

The past never leaves us is a cliché that can be useful to a writer. That applies to my story, “Silver Screen Saver,” just published by The Corner Club Press. (You can read it at That’s Issue #5, pp. 26-31.) Shamelessly, let me add that this is my fourth story The CCP has published in its first five issues.

“Silver Screen Saver” came to me because as a post-pubescent kid I never forgot seeing Marta Toren on TV. This relatively unknown actress played in a 1948 remake of Algiers. There's are almost no filmography references to Marta (she died at age 31), which allowed me to recreate her as the actress who never grew old. Play that against a romantic nostalgist so wrapped in the past that he can't move forward and you end up with — excuse the left-handed pun — "Silver Screen Saver." In her way, she could have been as iconic as Veronica Lake.

Okay, moving right along with revising the past, “Carnival’s Last Show” was also published this month by The Jersey Devil Press. That’s up at The piece is a reimagining of the day in the eighth grade that I played hooky. I hitched in to Portland, Oregon with my friend Frank Dunham to see Clyde Beatty’s Circus. That incident was anaturally matched pairing with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Last Carnival.” I ask, “Where does the magic go when the carnival train leaves and the carousel music ends? Where does a roustabout kid go when a legend walks into the desert to die?” It’s a short bit of fiction that’ll take just a minute to read…and dredge up some of your own memories.

Hitching to see Clyde Beatty was earlier revisited in “Louise from the Bar.” The story recalls that life can be thrilling, dangerous and filled with stuff you’ll never forget when you’re 14. It was published May 11, 2009 by Paradigm Journal at Sadly, Paradigm has closed its doors. R.I.P.

See, the past never leaves us. And that’s good. (Sometimes.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

When the Devil Leaves the Porch Light On

When Colson Whitehead published a genre novel about zombies (Zone One), New York Times reviewer Glen Duncan made the analogy that it was akin to an intellectual dating a porn star. A literary shooting star was slumming! Epiphany! So that’s why I love writing pulp. Besides, it’s hard to dance with the angels when the devil leaves the porch light on.

Those thoughts tugged at my nether regions as Pulp Modern this week accepted “Gaslighting.” (“Being a kid can be stressful even without having someone abuse your girlfriend, Halloween or not. And then there’s that thing with living lawn ornaments.”)

This was followed a few days later with Big Pulp accepting “Flying Objects.” (“The green baize of a blackjack table is a playing field worthy of the best antagonists when love and money are at stake.”) Why is pulp fiction so much fun to write while stories of literary quality languish?

Today, “Carnival’s Last Show” went up at The Jersey Devil Press ( Read it, and tell me a tear doesn’t come to your eye, all you tough guys who wanted to run away as a kid.

And The Corner Club Press also accepted “Silver Screen Saver,” with editor Amber Forbes saying, “I think by now you can at least suspect you're going to get into our issue 5. Your stories are always so diverse, and from one story to the next, I wouldn't be able to pin that it was you who wrote it, which is probably why I'm always accepting you. [WG note, this will be story No. 4 in CCP’s five-issue run.] So it's fantastic that you can write all these stories and make them so unique with different styles.” [WG note, Ah, shucks.]

Back to the point of pulp: I try to keep my mind on higher things, like eternal love, the meaning of life, and if there are clues to the meaning of life in Lindsey Lohan’s adventures. Look, I researched, wrote and posted a review of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest last week. And, a thumbnail review of John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man was printed in the Asbury Park Press Nov. 1. I moderated a real, live writing group, and I advised my grandchildren on the meaning of life, value of hard work and to not mix the grain and the grape. That ought to deliver a couple of karma points.

So, don’t give me any guff about pulp. I’m working on a serious literary story now. (See, there's this kid who duct-tapes the slacker to death and ends up getting devil’s 1960 Chevy pickup truck.) But it’s the cocktail hour. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Marginal Thoughts

Turkish Taffy: Back in 2003 I began reading My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk is a Turkish writer who received the Nobel prize for literature. Totally bored and confused by the book, I passed it on unfinished to the director of WestConn U’s Haas Library. He shrieked that Pamuk was a great writer. I shrugged; not my cup of tea. Elif Batuman writing in The New Yorker [Nov. 24 issue] said she was asked not only about Pamuk but about her inability to finish Pamuk. “Why don’t we talk about something else?” she asked. “I’ll tell you why,” the Turkish interviewer responded. “None of us can finish Pamuk, but you’re the only one who says so openly.” I feel vindicated.

Score Card: I’ve finished (or am still reading) 27 books this year and it’s not yet Halloween. My bogey is two dozen books a year. Less than that, I’ve either begun writing another turgid novel or goofing off. My scorecard is a Readlist of title and author I’ve maintained since 1971. Maintaining a score card also keeps me from wallowing in science fiction or mystery/detective genres.

The first half dozen “reads” that year were The Greening of America (William Reich), Future Shock," (Alvin Toffler), Diary of an Old Man (Junichiro Tanizaki), War and Peace in a Global Village (Marshall McLuhan), Blue Movie (Terry Southern) and Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut). So many “must read” authors back then. But nowadays, does any college student pick up Magister Ludi by Herman Hesse or anything by Buckminister Fuller or William Burroughs? Perhaps the bestsellers define our thinking as much as we search for truths that become bestsellers.

E-Books for Ephemera: I think I’ve reached a conclusion as to which books to download and which deserve killing a tree. If I don’t care to shelve it in the bookcase and go back to it as an asset, I find the electronic version. I download books written by friends and acquaintances because — face it — none of them are beauties like Colson Whitehead’s Colossus of New York or textually thick resources like David Hackett Fischer’s 900-page, heavily footnoted Albion’s Seed.

Like most readers, I also regularly flip back to confirm a character or situation, flip ahead to see where the next chapter break is, or meander to the table of contents or author’s bio as my own amuse bouche. This demands paper leaves with all their smell and typography. And, truthfully, I love bookmarks, always adding to my little collection from Borders (R.I.P.), the Coop in Harvard Square, the Bryn Mawr Bookstore, Porter Square Books, Mad Tom’s in Manchester, Heffer’s in Cambridge, England, and the Globe in Boston. E-books are unable to engender or hold memories.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Writing to Meet Evolutionary Expectations

I suppose it was revolutionary when the codex replaced the papyrus scroll, just as the e-book reader is replacing the bound volume. But is the actual writing keeping up with readers’ expectations? Is stylistic form following function?

In 2005, the Japanese use of emoticons — kaomoji, or face marks — far outstripped Western usage. And, in 2008, Yume-Hotaru's first novel became a best-seller in Japanese bookstores; he wrote it entirely with his thumbs. His novel, First Experience, a story about love and sex in high school, became a top title in one of Tokyo's biggest bookstores.

Since it emerged in Japan nearly a decade ago, the cell phone novel -- keitai shosetsu — has moved from a little-known subgenre to a mainstream literary phenomenon. Today, keitai shosetsu sites boast billions of monthly users, while publishers sell millions of copies of cellular stories taken from phones and turned into paperback.

By 2007, half of Japan’s 10 best-selling novels were written on cell phones,

I began wrestling with this thought a few years ago when netspeak began appearing on cell phones. (“R u listening? Lol.”) And, to some extent, leet (733T) speak became a secret code. (Oh, I was so proud of myself when I deciphered someone’s e-mail address—disbm3g—as a phonetic of her name.)

Last week, a neophyte writer in our bricks-and-mortar group read an e-mail diary: Letters written to herself. While the writing was rough, it was insightful in an epistemological way. I think she’s on to something if it can be polished.

Similarly, “Big Biz @ the Mall” was an experiment in the quotidian way people write on Facebook and in their instant messaging. (You can read “Big Biz” diary writing in The Corner Club Press,, pp. 50-51, at

I’ve just subbed a second story in the same style to another market. “Movin to the Moon” follows a girl in crisis...

“R u suffering a midlife crisis” she asks, all serious like Dr. Phil.

Just a tiny one I tell her, but it might be PMS. Then I see a guy w/ a mic interviewing people. Hes got a PA system and is wearing a necktie so I know it’s the real deal. I shout ITS SHOW TIME!!! All the geri freaks wake up and stare. “Time for Beauty and the B***h!” I shout to the old guy near me.

Hard to read? Jarring to those literate senses honed in English Lit 101? Yeah, it might be. In fact, I feel sympathetic for those 3rd century Romans wondering why they stopped making scrolls.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Oh, the Ennui, the Despondency—Wait, There’s My story!

I’ve heard runners get depressed if they don’t jog or sprint or run for awhile. The very thought of running depresses me, but real despondency comes when I haven’t written. It’s the ‘Oh, God, I’m Blocked’ syndrome. Not that I’ve ever been writer-blocked, but — like Alzheimer’s — it’s not something you want to consider.

This is why I desperately polished “Testing Time for Politicians,” a humor piece that came to me from reading a New Yorker review that included a few questions on how to determine someone is a psychopath. Always handy to know these things when you meet up with a Middle Eastern death squad leader. The piece was posted at The Short Humour Site two days ago, at

The need to write was also filling in for the ennui that came from waiting for “Big Biz at the Mall” to go online at The Corner Club Press. The editor said two days after I submitted it, "You knew we were going to accept this." Well, no I didn't. But that was months ago.

How about you? You can find “Big Biz” in Issue IV, pp. 50-51 at, issue IV, pp. 50-51. Short enough that you can read it between subway stops, while waiting for the barkeep to bring your beer, or during your first bathroom break at work.

p.s. I bounced a draft copy off an 18-year-old to get her thoughts. "Any typos or misspellings?" I asked. "No," she replied, "well, maybe one word's misspelled." (You know who you are, young lady, but I won't embarrass you or anything.) How about you?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Trying to Stay Out of Trouble

A couple of pieces of writing have popped into the ether. That makes me happy, and when I’m happy I’m really a very sanguine fellow.

Oh, yes, the writing. “Queen at the End of the Bar” was published by Gumshoe Review on Sept. 1st, at Editor Gayle Surrette was even nice enough to link it to a previously published story there, “Joined at the Heart.” This "Queen" story had been around the block for the longest time, getting submitted and quickly being rejected with quizzical editorial looks. I thought maybe it was the anatomical references, or maybe just cross-genre of noirish bounty hunter meets eco-catastrophe. I may never know if it’s my dubious taste or less than correct thinking that scuttles a story.

Similarly, “Working Woman’s Wife” was rejected over the past several years. One editor allowed as perhaps it just a mite sexist. Well, damn! Don’t confuse the writer with the writing. Fearing it would die stillboarn, I shot it off to The Short Humour Site and saw it also posted on Sept. 1st. Read it at

Then tell me if I have bad taste and am sexist to boot.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Catching Up After Racing Off in All Directions

It seems like the summer of spinning my wheels, but I look back and think I accomplished something.

Last week, “Where’s Old Bill Hughes, Now?” was published at The World of Myth as an action/mystery story. (See It’s a quirky little thing that bugged me for years because there really, really was a William Hughes who “kept popping up.”

And, did I forget to mention that “Misunderstood Identity” was published by Big Pulp in soft cover in July 2011, and online at Life is a mystery, but that doesn’t mean a guy has to put up with someone stealing his identity.

Two others pieces are also slated for publication. I ranted earlier about women writing from a male point of view (and vice versa). “Gender Bias in Writing” will be published by Flash Fiction Chronicles on/about Aug. 27. Now, the mystery remains: Is gender-specific writing biological or cultural or …?

Finally, “Big Biz @ the Mall” will be pubbed by The Corner Club Press shortly. But let me stop and come back to Big Biz in a matter of days. We’ll talk then about language and netspeak and leet.

I think a couple of mysteries have been solved regarding my fave children’s book writer, Holling Clancy Holling. Go to for the story of how another piece of this man’s commercial artwork was finally catalogued and archived. And the second mystery had to do with connecting a correspondent with the Leslie, Mich., museum director to help identify one of Holling’s early illustrations. More on that to come, as the mystery hasn’t been completely solved. Yet.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Power of the Pen—er, Networking

A month ago I was in a state of despair. Oh, excuse me for being weak-minded, but when I buy the Sunday Asbury Park Press at my 7-Eleven, the first thing I read (really, and before the comics) is Anne Bendheim’s column on “What You’re Reading.” This is a review each week on what a reader submits that he/she finds interesting. I’ve had seven reviews published there.

I don’t know how many of you read Sunday’s Asbury Park Press, but you may have noticed on June 26 that the “Tell Us What You’re Reading” column was missing. I fired off a shocked e-mail to Anne, who edits the page. (Anne describes herself as not being on Facebook and “the only person in New Jersey without a cell phone.”) I wrote, “This page is the only voice of the people, except for reader rants on the Op-Ed page.”

She replied, “I had no choice but to pull the column. I had no reader responses for more than six weeks. I was reduced to calling my friends for their suggestions—and I ran out of friends.” Isn’t that an outrageous state of affairs?!

Now, Anne was suggesting that “it might be the case” for the column to be reinstated if she were deluged with thumbnail book reviews. She’d need four or five in advance.

It’s a simple process to send an e-mail to about the book you are reading, and a short description of the book and why you like it. Include your name and town, and put “What I’m Reading” in the subject line.

I wrote a note to the two score names on our Writers’ Circle mailing list, suggesting they stop and send a review now. I told them, “C’mon. We’ve read Peter Pan, and we know Tinker Bell will live if we all clap our hands — and post a book review.” That done, I sent a note to the Monmouth County writers’ group on Yahoo! I sent individual e-mails to others I knew were literate. And then I sat down to scribble a review of Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary.

The next day, Anne sent me a note, saying she “just got a new cat and named her Tinker Bell.” Is that a coincidence or what? A week went by with no review … and then it appeared. The following week, my Caleb Carr review appeared. I won’t take credit for this, but in a small way I hope I’m responsible for bringing back interactive reader-newspaper communications on the subject of books we like.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tubing Down the Stream Called Summer

I admit it. I have little discipline to keep up this blog unless news intrudes. There’re distractions like drinking beer on the boardwalk. Moderating a writing group. (I’m so proud of them — us.) Going to jazz and wine festivals. Hanging out with my family. The usual summertime activities.

But to the news. Bewildering Stories has just published “Fish Stories and the Mermaid,” at I was chided that this was PG-rated and I should have issued a warning to young people (who already know things I have to look up, like what a “Norwegian ice rocket” is).

But don’t distract me. What I want to say is that I ran across a heavy word: synanthropes. (It’s G-rated, so keep reading.) The word refers to curious ways that animals adapt to humans as they’re crowded out of their habitats. For example, trainers in Hawaii’s Sea Life Park were stunned when a 400-pound gray female bottlenose dolphin gave birth to a dark-skinned calf that resembled the 2,000-pound male false killer whale with which she shared a pool. The calf was a wholphin, a hybrid that was intermediate to its parents in some characteristics, like having 66 teeth compared with the bottlenose’s 44 and the 88 of the false killer whale, a much larger member of the dolphin family.

Talk about moral breakdown! This sent me to the keyboard. There was a story here! But in July ’09 the first editor rejected “Mermaid,” saying “I was expecting something more ‘mythic,’ something more in keeping with the theme of ‘synanthropes.’” The next editor said, “Ummm, this is an entertaining story, but I have to say no to it. Largely, I'm not into stories where the punch line is basically, ‘I'm pregnant.’” The third editor flatly stated, “Unfortunately, we cannot accept your story for publication.” Cannot? Like, I made a mistake and sent this to a children’s mag? The fourth editor remarked, “Although we really liked the voice of this piece, we both felt that it was the beginning of a story that could go much further.” No, sorry. That was the story. The fifth editor had two objections, apparently pulled from a list: “Incorrect formatting, language, italicized words not underlined” and “The genre of this story was not clearly defined. It read more like a ‘slice-of-life’ story than anything that I would consider fantasy, horror or science fiction.”

Finally, a sixth editor wrote back, “Thank you for ‘Fish Stories and the Mermaid.’ It's one of your most interesting ones.” Don Webb, editor of Bewildering Stories, then proceeded to point out — accurately and line by line — where I had been careless. He asked if I could help readers over these rough patches. I said I could indeed. That was in mid-spring of this year.

Thank you, Don, for running six of my stories and an excerpt from my Cruising collection over the years. Bewildering Stories is one of the best.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Enchantment of Flea Markets

I’ll be the first to admit that collectors often are avaricious people who want to swallow the whole world. Often, however, they restrain themselves to collecting all of a single class of objects. My weakness is cast iron ashtrays with figures, usually drunks leaning against lamp posts. I have a dozen of ‘em. And white-knob windup toys, of which there are scores sitting in the attic.

This led me to write “Million Dollar Find,” a story published June 30, 2011 in r.kv.r.y., an online magazine, at . R.kv.r.y., explains editor Mary Akers, is the phonetic spelling for recovery; these are stories of the recovery process. Was my protagonist Archie Mezinis recovering or just searching? He’s a widower and retired who wanders. His week’s happiness is assured if he finds one of those plastic pencils with a ball at the end — a telephone dialer from the 1950s shaped to keep women from breaking their fingernails. Or a toogle. (What? You don’t know what a toogle is?)

The story was meaningful for me to write because of associations and — well, some things are disappearing and need to be saved. (The first draft was done in 2007.)

As many of you know, the flea market is a field of dreams for the Saturday-morning searcher — a place where past and future meets and the unraveled pieces of lives are knit together. Often, the treasure found is unexpected. I used to drive my daughter to Englishtown on summer Saturdays where she sold T-shirts and sweats. And I’d walk the avenues quickly, scanning every table in half an hour. It’s where I began picking up fast food collectible glasses, which at one point reached over a thousand in quantity.

To this publication, there’s other good news to add:

“Nature Story” was published in Summer 2011 in the Southern Fried Weirdo: Reconstruction anthology (p. 251-53) to benefit tornado victims. Ornithology wasn’t Jerome’s strong suit, but then Jerome wasn’t a normal child. You can download this book from Smashwords, find some enjoyable stories and consider the royalties Publisher/Editor T.J. McIntyre is contributing to Alabama tornado victims.

“Carl’s Heightened Sense of Loss” was published by The Corner Club Press in its second issue, pp. 147-149, May 15, 2011, at An absurd story? Certainly. Offensive? Perhaps, but nonetheless an experiment in a new genre.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cooking Corn Fritter Muffins

Let me get away from the writing thing, and talk food. My very inventive wife has just created corn fritter muffins. You know the deep fried things you eat with syrup? These have chives added, no sugar, and are yum-yum good with butter ‘n’ honey. Betty Crocker Cookoff, here we come.

1 ear of corn (cooked)
¾ C. flour
2 eggs
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ C. milk
3 tbsp. chives, chopped finely
1 tsp. olive oil

Mix all ingredients. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake in tiny muffin pans for 18 minutes. So easy a kid can do it!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Another Day, Another Rant

Forgive me if I repeat myself, but the world as I knew it is changing.

The Tribune is declaring bankruptcy. A Glendale, Calif., paper is outsourcing its news-gathering to India. My granddaughter writes her book review on her iPhone while watching TV. Is this the end of written communication as we once knew it?

The writers I knew—-literate, insightful, thought-provoking-—are being replaced by bloggers... Readers are downloading e-books instead of buying paper... Borders (pre-bankruptcy) had only one of the 10 NY Times recommended children’s books I was searching for when I shopped... My former employer was the largest independent yellow pages publisher in the U.S., but its stock has dropped from $62 to 33 cents as people shuck the books out in the garbage... And Sarah Palin had a $7 million book deal to tell us all how to “progress freedom in the U.S.”

Then I ran across a jaw-dropping cultural benchmark in a New Yorker ad. Victory for writers has been snatched from the jaws of defeat by Books by the Foot ( The firm offers modern cloth-bound hardcovers for only $6.99 per linear foot. “Tonier” modern cloth with black spines, however, will run $13.99 per foot. The purveyors of this literary wealth-—by the foot, not the words—-remind us that Heinrich Heine stated, “A house without books is like a room without windows.” The motto of this “bookyard” then—this Home Depot of illiteracy—must be a God-like “Let us have light!”

How many layouts in Architectural Digest show rooms without books-—truly the mark of a plebian hedge fund manager. The badge of real literacy is to display yards upon yards of books when your guests come to swill champagne. Then, when the casual visitor asks if you've read them, you can say, “My interior decorator may have, but I don’t need to. I pay his/her salary.” This is perhaps the same decorator who goes to Barnes & Noble looking for a red match her purse.

On the upside, I found a superb historical analysis of 17th century Virginia, written in 1917, free at Google books! Now I can publish my article on Bacon’s Rebellion. Circle the wagon, Folks. It’ll be hard times when the printed word disappears.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Publishing Is Dead - IV

The Oops Factor, or, You Mean I Have to Proofread?

The information technology industry has long been aware of the GIGO factor of input/output: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” It’s unfortunate that writers usually aren’t their own best editors. POD sadly allows them to escape a strong editorial hand. The result is manuscripts full of factual errors, ungrammatical parsing, spelling errors, and clichéd phrasing.

This is the Devil’s Pact. The writer trades off the benefits of distribution and royalties accruing from POD but forgoes professional guidance. Self-publishing is very much like an indicted person serving as his own lawyer: he has a fool for a client and a fool for a lawyer.

Pundits compare Congressional legislation to sausages: you don’t really want to know what goes into the result. “Vanity press” publishing is also like a sausage full of strange ingredients. A friend, unfortunately, has had her POD book shelved at the area library, and the patrons have taken to marking up the copy for its egregious errors.

At least, Xlibris and Lulu offer some editorial guidance to the neophyte. For a price.

Where Is Publishing Headed?

There was a 6-column-inch blurb in The New York Times noting that Seattle-based Amazon on Christmas Day 2009 sold more e-books for its Kindle reader than it did paper-based books. (In July 2010, Amazon sold 143 digital books for its Kindle for every 100 hard cover books.)

Interesting factoids, but more startling was the next sentence that Laredo, Texas (pop. 250,000) closed its last bookstore. (Laredo's population is only slightly smaller than that of Newark, NJ, one of the poorer urban areas.) I checked my online Yellow Pages, though, and actually came up with eight Laredo bookstores, three of which were Christian and one Spanish-language. Two recognizable names were Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton. That left two that appeared to be independent bookstores.

What's the takeaway? Actually, I came up with five.

One, a lot of people got Kindles for Christmas. (My Seattle-based friend has 4,600 books on his e-reader, most which he admits he'll never read.)

Two, Texans read less than Newarkers, where there are 84 listings for bookstores. Newark's median household income is $26,913. Laredo's median HH income is $23,832, but the area has a lower cost of living index.

Three, there's a sea change coming in the way — and whether — we read books. (Does Steve Jobs know something about e-books that led to the iPad?)

Four, Laredo's population is 97.1% Latino, but unemployment is just 6%. Are Hispanics working too hard to read?

Finally, bookstores are an endangered enterprise, even big box outlets like Borders and BN that are flirting with bankruptcy.

In other words, publishing’s dead; long live the new paradigm.”

Friday, May 27, 2011

Publishing’s Dead - III

Long-Tail Marketing, or One of Everything Available

The strongest features of POD are the broad distribution possibilities and the breakdown of proprietary fences. Any of the publishers above — Amazon, BN, SmashWords and others — may also strike a distribution deal with BrookStrand, Amazon, BN, Google Books, Borders (R.I.P.), eBay and other booksellers. Royalties may change in the process. In addition, there are online book retailers — iPad and iTunes, Kobo, Android, Diesel and Sony — who are defining the book-selling picture.

This has been termed “long tail marketing,” a business model “invented” by Amazon and named by Chris Anderson in his book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Instead of one essentially bricks-and-mortar outlet stocking just the high-volume products, a few online retailers can in effect stock everything.

A more formal Wikipedia reference states, “The distribution and inventory costs of businesses successfully applying this (long-tail) strategy allow them to realize significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. Total sales of this large number of ‘non-hit items’ is called the Long Tail.”

Multi-book author Konrath says, “Do you know what that is? That's distribution. The very thing print publishers have had a lock on for a hundred years. Except now, authors control their own distribution.” He also notes, the e-book rights his print publishers control “are missing from many of these key markets. On a daily basis I get emails from fans who want Whiskey Sour or Afraid for their device or in their country, but my publishers aren't exploiting these rights.”

Breaking News: The traditional “books-and-mortar” business scheme may change if John Malone, “who made a fortune in cable television,” succeeds in buying Barnes & Noble for $1 billion. So saith The New York Times on May 20. Malone is sick of businesses like BN attracting people to come in and read for two hours. In the near future BN may look sort of like an Apple store.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Publishing’s Dead - II

Who Are Those POD and E-book Publishers?

A typical Xlibris contract takes your work, manufactures the book as orders come in, and ships to the customer or author. It’s up to you to promote the books, whether through author signings at libraries or standing in front of a supermarket. You pay for what they manufacture. Your tab begins at $499 and can run up to the “platinum level” of $14,999, depending on the level of services you choose.

Take a look at their Web site ( for detail. In order to review their 42-page publishing brochure, you’ll first need to provide them with your name, e-mail address and telephone number. (Wait a day for the phone solicitations to arrive; the e-mails will begin immediately.) offers a similar business of manufacturing a writer’s book according to a schedule of services.

In this fast-moving business, a number of sites recently have come up offering no-frills POD. Amazon Publishing may be the biggest and neatest “no-nonsense” publisher. Its Amazon CreateSpace self-admittedly “provides one of the easiest, fastest and most economical ways to self-publish and make your content available to millions of potential customers on and other channels.” CreateSpace formats include books, DVDs, CDs, video downloads and MP3s. The company takes care of customer service and order fulfillment with no up-front author investment. And (whew!), there are no membership or title setup fees, there is a flexible royalty model, a non-exclusive agreement keeps the writer’s future publishing and distribution options open, and Amazon provides a free ISBN or UPC.

SmashWords is a contender to Amazon, inviting the writer to download a work and come up with—huzzah!—a finished book. SmashWords allows authors to sell their e-books through their site, while also supplying e-books to Borders’ Kobo, Apple’s iPad, B&N’s Nook, Sony, and Diesel. SmashWords’ variable agreement on royalties is based on the outlet and sales method. The company pays the author 85% for sales that originate at SmashWords or Stanza, and 70.5% for sales through its affiliates. “Net proceeds,” however, doesn’t mean cover price. Net is the received sale price less payment for processing fees, affiliate fees, retailer discounts, credit card charge-backs and the like.

Barnes & Noble’s publishing venture is titled Pubit (pronounced with a soft ŭ – not “pyu-bit.”) BN sets a “List Price for each e-book between $0.99 and $199.99. For e-books with a List Price at or between $2.99 and $9.99 the author receives 35%. For books listed at or below $2.98 or at or greater than $10.00, the royalties are 40%.

Hewlett-Packard’s MagCloud is another entrant, at

Long Live the E-book

What’s the value of an e-book self-pubbed over one handled by a publisher? A lot, according to J.A. Konrath on his blog, at You’re going to do all the marketing yourself, so face it: Do you prefer to share royalties with a publisher charging $4.69 for your book or sell it direct for $2.99? Jack Konrath does the math for you, using Amazon and SmashWords as examples.

He reports that his best selling Hyperion e-book, Whiskey Sour, has sold 2,631 copies since 2004. That earned him about $2,200, or $34 a month since it was released. $34 a month per title is a far cry from the $1,700 a month per e-book he’s making though self-publishing. Hyperion is the Walt Disney Co. publishing unit.

Hyperion priced Whiskey Sour at $4.69 on Amazon, while he prices his e-books at $2.99. “For each $4.69 e-book they sell, I earn $1.17,” he blogs at “For each $2.99 e-book I sell, I earn $2.04. So I'm basically losing money hand over fist because Hyperion is pricing my e-books too high, and giving me too low a royalty rate.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Publishing’s Dead; Long Live the New Paradigm - I

The Wild, Wild West of Book Dealing

Publishing and book retailing are going through a technological, cultural, and marketing shift of tsunami proportions. When the tidal waves subside, there will be a lot of dead fish on the beaches of big business.

Publishing Trends reports, “On-demand publishing has overtaken traditional publishing in yearly title output, signaling a surge in products like customized print-on-demand books, according to a recent Publishing Business webinar, ‘Customized Books: What Is The Opportunity?’”

The number of POD (print on demand) titles published in the U.S. increased more than 200% in 2008, up from 285,394 in 2007. In the same period, publication of traditional titles dropped 3% to 275,232. In other terms, according to industry resources Bowker and Interquest, the POD market increased from 20 billion pages in 2006 to 38 billion in 2009.

The “vanity press” has been around as long as there have been printers waiting to take an author’s money. The distinguishing factor in the rise of POD is the technological ease with which a writer can get a work into print and have it broadly distributed.

Publishers Are Their Own Worst Enemy

What makes POD attractive? Cover prices that are reduced. Royalties that accrue to the author in greater amounts. Wider distribution through “long-tail” marketing. (A single outlet, like Amazon, carries hundreds of thousands of books, while a mass retailer is limited by store size.) And publishers have virtually eliminated marketing and promotion for all except major (i.e., money-making) authors.

At the same time, publishers continue to hold sacred the Depression-era practice of accepting the return of any book that the retailer cannot sell. This strange marketing practice began as a way to ensure that retailers would continue to stock new titles. In 2005, however, the Association of American Publishers reports that of the 1.5 billion books shipped, 455 million were returned to publishers — 31 percent! — at the publishers’ expense.

Would General Electric ever consider shipping refrigerators to Wal-Mart under these consignment conditions? Or Ford Motors to its independent dealers?

Publishers are scrambling to meet the new paradigm by discounting, spiffing (Sales Performance Incentive Fund) the big box outlets, and flirting with new techniques. Textbook publishers are raising prices to outrageous heights while introducing CD workbooks on three-year revision cycles to reduce the effect of students reselling their old texts. Price cards, like Borders or Barnes & Noble “memberships,” are resulting in a barrage of e-mail solicitations and discounting. And prices continue to rise, with e-books often marketed at over 80 % of the hardcover price.
Pricing is the new battlefield. In October 2010, I searched Barnes & Noble for Special Projects in Calamity Physics by Marisha Plessl. This 2006 novel had been an immediate bestseller. Now, Amazon was discounting the trade paperback down from $15.00 to $10.50, while offering a Kindle download for $12.99. Barnes & Noble listed the trade paper at $10.80 and the e-book at $12.99.

Pause and think about it. It doesn’t take a wizard to know something’s wrong when the cost of a digital product approaches or exceeds the cost of a formatted, typeset, printed, bound and shipped version that is subject to returns.

Next: Who Are Those POD and E-book Publishers?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Update on Writing and the World As I See It

One of the enjoyable things about writing short stories is being able to jump from genre to genre, doing a mystery one week and speculative fiction the next, a serious examination of life here and a bit of buffoonery there.

This week,"Rosetta Stone" and my cruise ship from Hell was published by The World of Myth Issue #47, at >">

"Astroturfing," the satirical blog entry on writing your way to fame and success, posted below, was published Apr. 7 by Flash Fiction Chronicles. Thanks to Gay Degani for being such a sanguine editor. You can read it in living color, at">.

Oh, and lest I forget there's even a bit of humor--er, humour. “My Son, the Ingrate” was published by The Short Humour Site Mar. 16, at">

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

“Planting Roses” and the Sub-Text

You see the news stories every morning and evening: “Man kills family because they forgot his birthday.” The individuals, motives, circumstances are irrelevant — or they are all reduced to being the same. Violence has no respect for class, gender, age, or geography.

This repetitive, mindless brutality made me consider that perhaps the dead could make us all more aware of the living, whether in New Jersey or half a world away in Iraq.

Not to be obsessive about this problem—and the existential question of whether America is still a Cowboy Nation — I wrote “Planting Roses in Iraq.” In accepting the story, The Corner Club Press editor said, “Congratulations. I would love to feature your story in issue 1! It was deeply moving, sad, and haunting, especially at the end. Just what we need.”

You can read it at by clicking on then scrolling to page 109. Hope this is enjoyable — and perhaps instructive.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Astroturfing Your Way to Publishing Success

These are hard times for writers due to a Malthusian conflict: There are more writers than readers. Soon, there will be room for just 20 authors — those featured on The New York Times Book Review best-seller list. (This may devolve to zero readers when the NYT ceases publishing.) Most writers’ work will then be consigned to desk drawers or photocopies they sell outside supermarkets.

But, there’s hope. Four “hopes,” specifically, that you can use to gain writing fame and fortune.

1. Censorship. Google some secrets that might embarrass the CIA, NSA, or people in high places, then go to print on demand with your manuscript and order 50,000 books. The government will buy up all copies and reimburse you. Operation Dark Heart by Anthony A. Shaffer irked the Pentagon, Defense Intelligence Agency, and a few other espionage agencies in 2010. The Pentagon paid St. Martin’s Press $43,000 for all 10,000 copies, then pulped them.

2. Insult that Religion with No Name. This is somewhat dangerous, so first secure your family in Arizona where even children can carry guns. If no one pays any attention to your turgid-but-blasphemous book, notify an imam. He will issue a fatwa to kill you. Join your family in Arizona (after calling The New York Times) and wait for the royalties to roll in from the resultant publicity.

3. Build a Ghost Audience. Contact all of your friends by e-mail, texting, Tweeting, and Facebooking. Instruct them to go to their local bookstore and demand your book. You don’t actually have to write it yet. When thousands of people begin screaming for, say, Existentialism Takes a Pratfall by [insert your name], publishers will come running to you. This happened in 1957 when radio personality Jean Shepherd had his audience demand I, Libertine, a non-existent book about an 18th century rake. Three months later, Ballantine rushed the book into print.

4. Calling Tree, Prayer Chain. Call it what you will. The author needs to have 10 friends each call 10 of their friends who, in turn, call 10 more friends. Arrange to meet on a Saturday afternoon at a central, urban location like New York City’s Union Square. The police will be very perplexed. So will the TV and newspaper reporters. They’ll want to know why you’re all demonstrating. Everyone should insist they’re not protesting, just minding their own business and thinking about your book. This is benevolence at its best. Like a good Japanese wabi sabi print, the space becomes solid and the non-event takes on substance.

Some people may accuse you of perpetrating a cheap marketing trick, like telling everyone it’s your birthday so they’ll give you presents. What you’re really doing is opening the floodgates of communication.

Rallies are fundamental grassroots efforts by people who believe in a cause. They’re a manifestation of our populist culture. With the demise of culture and any pretense of serious thought today, you will have created Astroturf — bright, green grass that is plastic and artificial. Just like money.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sayonara to Media Tools Just Because They’re Old?

A New York Times opinion piece today suggested you can toss your iPod because it’s been replaced by the Smart Phone. A desktop PC is a cumbersome, archaic machine easily replaced by a laptop, iPad or 4G Kindle. The GPS device in my Subaru is less portable than an Android already equipped with turn-by-turn navigation. A digital point-and-shoot camera is only a tad better than a Smart Phone, as is a camcorder. Cable TV and a DVD player can be replaced by the cheaper WiFi that plays Netflix downloads on demand. And the landline phone is a relic Verizon and AT&T don’t like any more than they do phone booths.

This bothers me. I have an attic full of dot matrix printers, software to load MultiMate, 3-1/2-inch floppies of games, and loads of cassette tapes. Do I really have to trash them all? I know my grandmother’s stereopticon is an antique, and sold it. But I love the memories of a device I’d hold up to a phone and push one of 10 buttons to dial a number. And the little flash chip on a key chain that scrolls through photo downloads. What about the slide rule that confounds my accountant friend? Or the Rolodex with business cards from suppliers now collecting Social Security?

I have to dig around flea markets every decade or so to replace my turntable to play LPs and 45s, but it’s getting hard to find one that plays 78s. Reluctantly, I also passed my Argus C3 rangefinder camera and my Voightländer 120 bellows camera on to my daughter.

I think the alternative to junking my archaic small electronics is to open a museum in my attic. A very small museum full of memories. These are my sleds named “Rosebud.”

Sunday, March 20, 2011

High Times in the Colonies - II

Homes Away from Home In the days of unpaved roads and an absence of hotels, taverns served as both hostelry and “watering hole.” Today, you can still note the abundance of places in New Jersey named for one-time taverns. Burnt Tavern Road in Brick Twsp., Stump Tavern Rd. in Jackson Twsp., Bear Tavern Rd. in West Trenton, and Boyd’s Tavern in Whiting; Four Mile, Old Halfway, Three Tuns, and Ong’s Hat were named for taverns in unincorporated areas of Union County.

In 1717, the Colts Neck Inn was built by a Laird ancestor as a way station for coaches and dispatch riders between Amboy and Freehold.

In 1850, the New Jersey Legislature created Ocean County out of the southern half of Monmouth County. The first organizational meeting was held at Thomas P. Barkalow’s tavern on the corner of Main and Water Sts. in Toms River. Much of the meeting concerned building a Greek Revival-style courthouse modeled after that of Hudson County. After the building was completed in 1851, the plans were entrusted to a local man to be returned to Hudson County. He didn’t get far out of town, on horseback, before stopping at Hyers Tavern in Jackson. The plans were never seen again. 6

The Ocean House Hotel (earlier known as the Toms River Inn) began as Barkalow’s Tavern about 1787, and served as a coach stop between Freehold and Tuckerton, as well as west to Burlington County and Philadelphia. It was here that Ulysses S. Grant dictated part of his memoir. Ocean House was demolished in 1952, but the oldest portion was saved and relocated as The Old Time Tavern to Main St. (Route 166) and Presidential Blvd. 7

Taverns were a basic element of New Jersey’s development. Haddonfield’s Indian King Tavern is one of the state’s more important historic buildings. In 1777, as the Continental and British armies devastated Trenton, the Assembly convened there to officially create an independent state and adopt its Great Seal. Legend has it that Dolley Madison, née Payne, was a frequent visitor. 8.

The Merchants & Drovers Tavern Museum Association maintains another stopping-off place, a tavern built in 1798 at the corner of St. Georges Ave. (Rt. 27) and Westfield Ave. in Rahway. The Association also owns and operates the Abraham Terrill Tavern behind the Merchants & Drovers. 9.

And in our own neighborhood, Moore’s Tavern at 402 Main St. (Rt. 537) in Freehold dates back to the Revolutionary War. Moses Mount, an aide to General Washington, returned to Freehold after the war and built this inn for tired travelers. 10

An Army Marching … Sort of The immigration of Scotch-Irish in the 1730s dealt a blow to rum being shipped inland. These new Americans had their own taste for grain alcohol, brought their distilling skills with them, and accelerated the movement toward whiskey. The American Revolution further sped up the migration to corn and grain whiskey as imports disappeared. Royal Navy blockades effectively stemmed the importation of rum and molasses, while American grain was plentiful. A single bushel of corn, for instance, yielded three gallons of whiskey.

Liquor historically played an infamous hand in reducing militia drills to bumbling demonstrations. While training was crucial, many drill sessions were mostly social gatherings with liquor as a central focus. An 18th-century Virginia militia commander recalled that he frequently gave his men alcohol and that afterward “they would…come before his door and fire guns in token of their gratitude, and then he would give them punch ’til they dispersed.” While this kept morale high, it did not build crack regiments. (In the 1600s, Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts saw a sober drill on Boston Commons and was especially pleased.”)

Before and during the Revolution, inns were favorite places for political discussion, they served as rallying points for the militia, and became recruiting stations for the Continental army. During the war, Ethan Allen held the equivalent of senior management meetings at the Equinox Hotel in Manchester, Vt.

One of the biggest consumers of whiskey was the Continental Army itself. Soldiers were given a daily liquor ration of roughly four ounces. 11

A good soldier follows his senior officer, and in this case George Washington, the distiller of Mt. Vernon, was the model. Washington worried in writing about the morale and condition of his troops. To comfort them “when they are marching in hot or Cold weather, in Camp in Wet, on fatigue or in Working Parties,” Washington said it was “essential” that troops have “moderate supplies” of whiskey. 12

6 The Ocean County Bar Association.
7 Sadly, time ran out for the renamed Old Time Tavern, and it was destroyed. The Asbury Park Press on Dec. 17, 2008, wrote a feature on the demise of this tavern in order to widen Route 166.
9 and
10 Moore’s was modernized in 2009, with wi-fi, 14 HD flat screen TVs, and serves today as a sports bar. The original architecture, however, has been preserved.
11’s Web site provides a lengthy history, Drinking in America: A History, by Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin, The Free Press, 1982, a division of Macmillian Publishing Co. Inc. During the war, profits were very attractive to distillers, whiskey was easy to transport, and it kept longer than grain. In fact, so much grain was directed to distilling that it began to concern the Continental Congress.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

High Times in the Colonies -- I

Hard to imagine, but by the late 1700s, the average American over age 15 drank almost six gallons of absolute alcohol each year. That’s the equivalent of 34 gallons of beer and cider and almost a gallon of wine. Today, the average is less than 2.9 gallons per capita. 1 Below is an article I just had to research my way into.

It’s safe to say, America wasn’t “founded” as much as it floated on a sea of booze. The Mayflower dropped anchor at Plymouth in 1621 with its crew and passengers deathly ill from exposure, scurvy, pneumonia and other maladies. Worse, the Pilgrims’ own beer had run out and the crew’s supply was “perilously low.” The most popular drink was a dark, strong brew of barley malt flavored with hops – like today’s porter and stout and about 6 percent alcohol. In that age, alcohol was safer than polluted water, so finding safe water in Massachusetts was a surprise. Back on board, the sailors knew they might not have enough beer for their return trip if they shared it with the religious dissenters.

Governor William Bradford wrote that the settlers “were hasted ashore and made to drink water that the seamen might have the more beer.” Bradford’s pleas from the shore for just a “can” of beer brought refusal. If he “were their own father,” one sailor said, “he should have none.”

Still, when the Arbella brought Puritans to Boston in 1630, the ship sailed with three times as much beer as water – in addition to 10,000 gallons of wine. 2

In 1639, Harvard’s President Nathaniel Eaton lost his job when he failed to provide enough beer to students. 3

Drunk, but Not Disorderly Drinking to excess didn’t bother the colonials as much as it represented a threat to community standards. In 1624, a Virginia General Court found against three defendants for “having kept company in drinking, and committing a riot.” The rioting and disorder bothered the court more than being inebriated. The trio paid heavy fines for disturbing the peace.

Colonial magistrates in the north and the south rarely let concerns over excessive drinking affect their disinterest in alcoholic consumption. At least, no one went on record that legal prohibition was needed for harmony in the communities. The fault wasn’t in liquor, but of deviants misusing this wholesome, healthful, and necessary product.

Both the Anglican and Puritan churches used wine for communion. Any idea that Christ had broken bread with grape juice was simply 19th century theological tinkering.

Distilled Spirits as American as… The colonials proved ingenious at making the brews and spirits they had left behind in Europe. A verse written in the 1630s went: “If barley be wanting to make into malt, / We must be content and think it no fault, / For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips, / Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips.” Their beer was probably no better than their poetry.

Distilled spirits were portable and took less space than beer. Sprits were even used as wages in Massachusetts until it was felt a worker drinking his “wages” probably wasn’t a very effective employee.

Gradually, however, the colonials were wooed away from beer to “strong waters.” Some of it was gin, which had roots in English culture. Grain spirits infused with juniper berries came from the Low Countries to England in the 1530s, was cheap, and became popular among the poor. The British government became shocked at a “gin epidemic” until it was staunched by edict in 1751, but gin never caught on in America – except in the Dutch colonies and elsewhere when the martini was invented in the 20th century.

Technically, it was easier for Americans to distill palatable liquor than to brew good beer. Rum was the most popular distilled drink. It was made using the rinds and juice of imported limes, lemons – even oranges – and then mixed with rum and sugar. Most taverns served a lime punch, warm, in a bowl. Toddies were rum mixed with sugar and water. Sangre – wine or beer sweetened with sugar and flavored with nutmeg – was also served by the bowl. Brandy, usually imported, was also made from peaches, apples or cherries. In New England, pears were distilled into “perry,” while Vermonters distilled honey into mead. 4

Where was wine? It wasn’t generally available outside of cities since it was imported from Germany and Spain. (New Jersey’s Renault winery didn’t open until 1864.) Madeira was the most expensive and popular wine, and was served with meals.

But, back to local improvisation. If you were rural and poor, you turned to making apple cider or bought it by the jug. Thanks to the English, apple seeds grew very well in the hospitable American climate. Hard cider was fermented to about 7 percent alcohol, and then distilled. The best came from New Jersey, where it was known as “Jersey Lightning.”

In 1780, Robert Laird established America’s first commercial distillery in the little town of Scobeyville, N.J. Laird was a Revolutionary War soldier who served under General Washington. In fact, the good general wrote to Laird in 1760 asking for the recipe for producing applejack “cyder spirits.” Laird was happy to oblige. Laird’s applejack cost four shillings, six pence per gallon, or about a half-day’s wages. 5

1 Increase Mather wrote in 1673 in Wo to Drunkards, “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.”
2 ibid.
3 Colonial Williamburg notes that John Adams started the day with a draft of hard cider, Thomas Jefferson imported fine wines from France and tried without success to grow grapevines, Samuel Adams managed his father's brewery, John Hancock was accused of smuggling wine, and Patrick Henry once worked as a bartender.
4 The DUI Library offers cautionary news about drunk driving, but includes a lengthy history.
5 Laird & Company provides a nice history of applejack. It notes that Abe Lincoln served applejack in his Springfield, Ill. tavern. His published list of rates in 1833 shows Apple Brandy at 12 cents a half-pint, while a night’s lodging cost 12-1/2 cents, and a meal was 25 cents.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The release Mar. 4 of The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, will send some movie-goers back to their sources to review author Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre. They should. This seminal author’s 46 books and 121 short stories have been adapted to 10 films. (Confession: I have 13 Dick books on my shelves and one e-book collection of stories.)

It wasn’t always this way, in the 1950s and ‘60s when Dick was writing for pulp science fiction magazines. Jonathan Lethem notes in the foreword to The Philip K. Dick Collection that Dick worked to gain recognition and usually failed. He also takes note of Dick’s “remarkably personal vision of paranoia and dislocation.”

Laura Miller, an editor at, amplified this: “Dick has his share of champions, ranging from rock musicians to French postmodernists. Since his best work was published as pulp science fiction, they've had their hands full just trying to win him a little credibility. Meanwhile, almost unremarked, Dick's sensibility has seeped wide and deep into contemporary life.”

Some writers rise like Roman candles before fading, their books relegated to flea markets and used-book bins. Fortunately, Dick has heirs and a literary executor maintaining his reputation, and I presume merchandising his work beyond his death in 1982. In lieu of a seeing his works reissued, there are always new and used bookstores, and his official site,, to keep his work alive.

The plot of The Adjustment Bureau isn’t material here. (A man confronts the fact that he doesn’t have free will in the face of the Bureau that guides his decision-making process.) In any case, it was extensively rewritten by Writer-Director George Nolfi. Key to the storyline of both book and film, however, is Dick’s existential question of what is human and real.

The other films were adaptations as well, often surprassing the original story. You’ll remember Blade Runner (based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"), Screamers (based on "Second Variety"), Total Recall (based on "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"), Confessions d'un Barjo (French, based on "Confessions of a Crap Artist", Impostor, Minority Report, Paycheck, and A Scanner Darkly. King of the Elves is set for release in 2012.

Dick wrote of made-up worlds: a farmer on Mars, or a police agency that arrests criminals before they commit a crime, or an alternative history in which the Axis powers won World War II. Often, he posed the questions of what is human and what is real. This might also have been Dick’s own cri de coeur for never being recognized as a “real” literary writer.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Publishers Are Their Own Worst Enemy

We know [below] that POD titles are increasing and traditional print is dropping.

So, what makes POD attractive? Cover prices that are reduced. Royalties that accrue to the author in greater amounts. And, wider distribution through “long-tail” marketing. (A single outlet, like Amazon, carries hundreds of thousands of books, while a mass retailer is limited by store size.)

The "economic winter" that leaves traditional publishers shivering means they've virtually eliminated marketing and promotion for all except major (i.e., money-making) authors. At the same time, publishers continue to hold sacred the Depression-era practice of accepting the return of any book that the retailer cannot sell. This strange marketing practice began as a way to ensure that retailers would continue to stock new titles. In 2005, the Association of American Publishers reports that of the 1.5 billion books shipped, 455 million were returned to publishers — 31 percent! — at the publishers’ expense.

Would General Electric ever consider shipping refrigerators to Wal-Mart under these consignment conditions? Or Ford Motors to its independent dealers?

Publishers are scrambling to meet the new paradigm by discounting, spiffing (Sales Performance Incentive Fund) the big box outlets, and flirting with new techniques. Textbook publishers are raising prices to outrageous heights while introducing CD workbooks on three-year revision cycles to reduce the effect of students reselling their old texts. Price cards, like Borders or Barnes & Noble “memberships,” are resulting in a barrage of e-mail solicitations and discounting. And prices continue to rise, with e-books often marketed at over 80% of the hardcover price.

Pricing is the new battlefield. In October 2010, I searched Barnes & Noble for Special Projects in Calamity Physics by Marisha Plessl. This 2006 novel had been an immediate bestseller. Now, Amazon is discounting the trade paperback down from $15.00 to $10.50, while offering a Kindle download for $12.99. Barnes & Noble listed the trade paper at $10.80 and the e-book at $12.99.

Take a deep breath and think about it. It doesn’t take a wizard to know something’s wrong when the price of a digital product approaches or exceeds the cost of a formatted, typeset, printed, bound and shipped version that is subject to returns.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dipping another Toe into the Rapids

Borders has declared chapter 11 bankruptcy, allegedly because e-books are stealing their cake. More than a quarter million books were published last year, but I betcha one third go back to the publishers to be pulped. In fact, the number of POD (print on demand) titles published in the U.S. increased 200 percent in 2008. In the same period, the publication of traditional titles dropped 3 percent to 275,232. And –zowee! – this week’s New York Times Book Review bestseller list has been expanded to include e-book sales.

Events are moving so fast that my head spins. Scrolling through my Palm Tungsten makes me feel like a caveman making fire with two sticks while my kids are equipped, figuratively, with Zippos. Should I buy an iPhone with a GPS app, Web access and tinny little iTunes? I rarely call people, so the telephone aspect is irrelevant, but then, younger people eschew e-mail in favor of texting. And I cherish my CDs of Billie Holiday and Chet Baker.

But maybe I can adapt slowly, the way dinosaurs turned into birds. Our WPIX-TV commentator said last night that everything is devolving onto the Internet – and now someone in Congress wants to give the President unilateral control to shut down the ‘net if there’s an emergency.

Wordsmith, author and webmaster Jon Gibbs [] talked with our writers’ group Tuesday, and we were all enthralled with his explanation of how book marketing works (and what doesn’t work), social networking as a merchandising tool, and technological proficiency as a must-have for any writer. There went my head spinning again, and I thought I was successfully tracking developments in the publishing world.

Perhaps if I just pick at the new, digital world, the way I ate my mother’s cauliflower, I’ll see what works and what doesn’t. And I won’t need to throw away my Palm PDA just yet. Or eat cauliflower.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Big To-Do List Staring at Me

Having a lot of chores beats the alternative: terminal tedium. I’m a third of the way through the late Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes, a neophyte’s self-published novel, and James Ellroy’s American Tabloid … I write our church newsletter and am slogging through a draft of the annual report, hoping to get this off to layout in a few days … I really want to begin researching American drinking habits in pre-Colonial days. (By the 1790s an average American over 15 years old drank just under six gallons of absolute alcohol each year.) … There’s an intriguing new writing prompt up at Every Day Fiction (These teasers are like putting jet fuel in my Zippo.) ... I need to brave the frigid attic to dig out a book that has a map of the Nabateans, Judeans, Samaria – crazy little kingdoms it would be good to know more about.

However … I did blog some new material about Holling and Lucille Holling working on a hotel mural in 1929 and illustrating a series of Indian postcards in 1941. (More on this archeological ephemera at … I spent too much time today responding to a high schooler wanting to interview me on the King Philip’s War paper he’s writing … I framed one and hung two pictures today … sent a short book review to the Asbury Park Press … continued waiting with bated breath for two stories to be published.

But the quotidian chores interrupt. Out with the garbage, in with the mail. Time to eat, time to sleep. And if I forgo the cocktail hour then I figure the terrorists have won.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Helluva Year Revisited

I mentioned a few wins in the blogs below. Here, for my own record-keeping, is a more complete benchmark of the year gone by:

It’s been satisfying to meet with fellow writers—some seasoned and many neophytes—twice monthly at the Manchester Writers’ Circle. Reading a work aloud and receiving comments on it is a valuable way to review, proof and critique ones own work. We now have our own blogsite, too, at

Publishing short stories and articles are gratifying and personally validating. The works that saw print or appeared online include “Epitaph with Flowers”(February), “Girl Talk” (March) and “Misunderstood Identity” (March 2011) to Big Pulp; “Gothic Revival” (January and later included in its Editor’s Choices), and “Angel in My Coffee Cup” (August) in Bewildering Stories with a probable sale there of “Fish Stories and the Mermaid”; “Footsteps” in Everyday Weirdness (December); “Last Year’s Icon” (February) and “Day of Moving Hell” (July) in Every Day Fiction; “Joined at the Heart” (December) as Gumshoe Review’s first piece of fiction; five short analyses and commentaries on writing to Flash Fiction Chronicles; “Paying the Devil” was awarded 6th place winner in the 79th annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition (October); “Chain of Events” in Over My Dead Body! (July); and “Play Date” in Pif magazine (October).

"Philip's War: America's Most Devastating Conflict," posted to Military History Online, reprinted in The American Museum magazine (May); “Stanley at Shiloh: An Improbable ‘Indiana Jones’” published by Military History Online (July); “There’s More to Jersey Wines than You Think” in two community newspapers (August and September); and eight short humor pieces to The Short Humour Site.

Along the way, a couple of other articles were reprinted and five “flash” reviews were published by the Asbury Park Press. Reading wasn’t stinted, and I plowed through 27 books, three of which were e-books on my new Nook.

One of my favorite children’s-book authors is Holling Clancy Holling, and I got a tip of the hat from the HCH museum in Leslie, Mich., to build a semi-official blogsite as homage to this author, illustrator and naturalist, at