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Archive for the ‘opinion’ Category

Something I have learned to experience as a reviewer of books and movies is that the more you have to convince someone the less likely what you’re trying to get across is true.

I have learned, for example, that when a publicist sends me a synopsis of a book they’d like me to consider, and they tell me the plot is “wacky” or “outrageous” or “zany,” I know they are lying.  I know from way too much experience that if you have to convince me something is funny, it isn’t. If you can show me that something is funny, really show me, then the humor will be obvious and I won’t need so much convincing to check it out.

In my day job I make a presentation once a week of the new book titles that are released. Obviously I cannot (nor do I have the desire to) read upwards of a dozen books a week just to keep up with the publishing industry’s pulp factory. Sometimes I might do a little research about an author or a title, but more often I read and summarize the jacket copy.

Turgid, dull, and unoriginal don’t even begin to crack the surface of what I find there.

The problem is that they tell more than they show, they do the one thing authors are so painstakingly told to avoid in their own writing. How am I supposed to trust that the author can deliver what the jacket copy promises, especially if the jacket copy isn’t up to the job?  Am I supposed to believe that something is truly side-splittingly funny just because you say it is?

I can count on one hand the number of books that made me laugh out loud. They did not have to “sell” me on the humor, it was inherent in their title and plot. Captain Underpants, Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, Beat the Band to name three in the kidlit camp. Granted, mostly pre-pubescent boy humor, but none of these books had to sell me on the funny, they told me all I needed to know from the title and their premise. If you have to tell me these books are wacky, zany, or outrageous then I know they aren’t. Telling is like the canned laughter of sitcoms, there to convince you of an emotion you aren’t feeling.

But the world isn’t full of truly funny books. There are more than enough mildly amusing premises, boatloads of unoriginal slapstick, plenty of sarcastic stories out there, from picture books up through young adult, but these descriptions don’t make for good sales because, frankly, they’re too honest.

By telling a prospective reader what to think and feel about a book before they have read it is the laziest and most insulting form of salesmanship. It presumes a reader cannot come to these conclusions on their own in its weak attempt to shore up what is an inferior product. It is insulting to the intelligence of the readers, and readers aren’t stupid, especially the young ones. They know its adults out there lying to them and they’re extra wary of the anonymous book cover that is trying to win them over like a creeper offering candy in a van.

So all you publishing interns, book publicists, and junior editors out there writing jacket copy and press releases, take note: if you really want your books read and purchased and reviewed, show us its worth our time, don’t tell us why.

And authors, if your query letters read like bad jacket copy, and you’ve sold your book, please share the secret of your success.

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PUBLISHERS!

How would you like to guarantee stagnant sales from the moment your book dropped in stores?
Do you want your books to have a sameness that will allow them to be lost on table displays?
Are you tired of actually having to pay designers to think?

Why not use this revolutionary new tactic proven to cause book buyers eyes to glaze over in stores all across the country?

USE WHITE!

That’s right, the most brilliant of colors (or absence of color, depending on whether we’re talking spectral or reflected light), white is the cure-all for all your design woes!

Nothing projects the image of newness like white. Nothing says “this is the future, this is NOW!” quite like white. Nothing focuses the attention on the fact that your book looks like hundreds of other new releases (and ignore the political implications!) like white!

YES, WHITE!

Granted, this has been proven on cover after cover in the non-fiction genres of science and business, but there’s nothing to stop you fiction publishers from trending into white! Start with that hot area of Young Adult fiction and watch your sales plummet like a boulder in a pool full of clear gelatin! Then kill sales of that hot new author and keep yourself from the bestsellers list with a simple serif font (Helvetica, no!) and maybe a splash of wingdings to separate the title from the author.

Nothing says generic, bland, boring, thoughtless and vapid quite like white!

GO WHITE!

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Five unsettling days here in Boston, and somehow I didn’t feel as anxious as I could have. I’ve spent the weekend mulling this over in spare moments and I’ve come to the conclusion that, somewhere along the way, I decided I simply refuse to let fear rule me.

If there’s one thing terrorists, politicians, and the media have excelled in since 9/11 its been the increase in peddling fear for their own gain. It doesn’t matter to me if its an improvised bomb set off at public event or a pundit deliberately spewing slanted opinion or a politician trying to rationalize the sanctity of gun ownership in this country, these are all terrorists utilizing the language of fear for their own purposes.

And I’m done with all of it.

It sounds simple, to say you won’t be ruled by fear, and the amazing thing is that it is simple. I grew up in California and when I would tell people from other parts of the world where I grew up they would inevitably tell me that they couldn’t live under the constant threat that an earthquake could come without warning at any minute.

You know what? So could getting hit by a car crossing the street. Tripping and falling down a flight of stairs. A gas explosion. These things, and millions of others, could happen at any time. Maybe it sounds like a false sense of security to say that when you live under the constant threat of danger you become enured to it, but how could a person truly call it “living” to be in such a constant state of fear wondering when “the big one” is going to send your home state sliding into the sea?

Accidents happen. Tragedies occur. Horrific acts of violence are committed. Yes, there are ways to prevent and mitigate them, but should we fear them? Should we allow ourselves to live in fear?  Of course not. And there’s medical evidence to suggest that it can be both physically and psychologically damaging to your well-being to constantly worrying and living in fear.

In short, fear itself can kill you. How’s that for something to be afraid of?

I know people who were down near the Marathon last week who were fortunate enough to not be harmed; hell, my younger daughter was planning to be within a few blocks from there before her plans fell through. And later in the week, on Thursday night, I walked past the location where the MIT security officer was shot less than two hours before it happened. There was actually a moment where I almost had to double-back to work while on my way home which would have put me in Cambridge right when the convenience store up the street was being robbed by the alleged bombers. These are the “close calls” with recent events that were on my mind on Friday while I watched (as did the rest of the world) while the metropolitan area I lived in was shut down for an unprecedented manhunt. I went through a range of complicated emotions as the events unspooled but in the end, as eerie as the entire week was, I didn’t find myself once afraid.

Fear is the currency of those looking to hold power over our emotional well-being, and I’m no longer interested.

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Naive. Unrealistic. Fascist.

These are just some of the things I have been called for saying that the biggest problem we have with gun control in the United States is not having enough of it. The presumption is that I have some ill-formed liberal notion about the Constitution or our civil rights or that I somehow want nothing more than a parental state governing my every moment of liberty. Invariably, every person who has passed judgment on my views, most of them either conservatives or gun owners or both, does not have the experience I have had with guns.

I have been held up at gunpoint. Twice.

Many would argue the first time “didn’t count” because the circumstances were far from malicious. I was a teacher at a middle school, coming out of my classroom during the passing period, when a boy of 13 leapt out from around the corner and aimed the revolver square at me from ten feet away. “Freeze!” he shouted, like a cop in a TV show, egged on with laughter by the friends around him. By the time I realized what was happening a campus supervisor – a hall and yard monitor, the closest thing we had to security – wrestled the boy to the ground and called out for help. A group of teachers surrounded and escorted the boy to the principal’s office while a fellow teacher stayed behind to make sure I was okay. The whole thing had happened so quickly, so surreally, that only later I understood they had wanted to keep me as far away as possible from the boy, fearing I had been his intended target and that my presence would antagonize him.

He was only showing off to friends. The gun wasn’t even loaded. It was taken from his home where it was purchased and kept to protect family and property. This was the one and only time it had been ever pointed at another human being.

I was told I was lucky that day.

But that kid was just showing off. One teen with access and a case of severely bad judgment. Perhaps it shouldn’t count as having had a weapon drawn on me but some of my fellow teachers afterward said things like “Makes me wish we could carry our own weapons.”

Why? So we can turn schools into gunfights at the OK Corrall?

The second gun incident was more “traditional.” I was coming home extremely late from a nighttime job – it was after 2 AM – and I was forced to take a different bus than normal because my usual bus stopped running. As a result I had to walk a half mile from the bus stop to my house through a pretty sketchy area. I wasn’t more than a block from the bus stop when I realized I was being followed. One person passed in front of me, pulled a hood over his head, then turned, forcing me to stop. From behind there was a gun pressed into my back from a second person. I was told to lie face down on the ground and make no sound. My shoulder bag and wallet were taken, my pockets turned inside out, and my jacket yanked off my back. Just in case I was doubting their sincerity, the guy holding the gun brought the barrel to my eyes and told me to count to one hundred and not to get up until I did. I counted and listened as they ran to a truck parked nearby and sped off.

When I finished counting I stood up, got my bearings, and saw an all-night diner just a block away. There was a police cruiser in the parking lot, an officer inside on his break. When I approached to report what had happened he looked at me with a start as I pointed to the location of the incident, clearly visible from the windows of the diner. None of the nighthawks inside saw or heard a thing. When the officer asked what they had taken, and I reported my jacket, a bag with a notebook in it, and less than $5 in cash he shook his head and said “You’re lucky to be alive. When they hold someone up and get nothing for it, that pisses guys like that off.”

Lucky. As in, not dead. How lucky would I have been if I’d been carrying a concealed weapon?

This is the problem I have with the self-defense argument. Most of the times you would want or find yourself in the position of needing to defend yourself, a gun isn’t convenient. Nor is it a solution.

“If someone was breaking in you could be damn sure they’d realized they made a mistake!” This is the counter-argument I hear the most,usually said with the bravado of someone who has never actually been in an home invasion situation.

I have. Twice.

The first time, in broad daylight, a scruffy-looking bearded crack fiend started climbing in through my living room window, cursing up a storm and sounding for all the world like he was fixed to murder. My housemates ran to the back of the house, to call the police, while my instinct was to walk up and push him back out the window. It was the first floor, so it wasn’t that far to the ground, and it seemed as if the fall had sobered him up some. I went outside to confront him and on closer inspection he was merely drunk and disoriented: he sincerely thought he was climbing into his own home, having lost his keys somewhere. Many a gun advocate who have heard this story pointed out how dangerous my behavior was. “What if he’d had a gun! I tell you, if it had been me there’d have been one dead hobo on the rug! Next time you might not get so lucky.”

There it was, that word again. Lucky.

The next time there was nothing innocent about the invasion. We were living on the fourth floor of an old Victorian, our windows open in the summer, safe from outside intruders by the virtue of having no access that high up short of a ladder.

Or the old tree next door, as we discovered.

This time a young man intent on performing some sort of mischief climbed the tree, hopped onto the roof, and was attempting to lower himself into my kitchen by hanging from the rain gutters. He’d managed to get half way in, his head, a leg, and one arm trying to squeeze through ll at once. And in his had, a gun.

I hadn’t heard anything and was simply on my way into the kitchen for some water when I saw him there, looking for all the world like he was stuck. I yelled, in a voice so deeply unhuman that to this day I simply think of it as my reptile brain voice. “You get the hell out of my house!” I shouted and then proceeded to take the nearest thing I could find – a cast iron skillet – and threw it at him. I got him in the leg, and between my yelling and throwing things he must have figured I was crazier than he was so he backed out of the window… and dropped four stories to the ground. The police were called and he was eventually caught – sans gun – limping along with a broken ankle. No word on whether it was the fall or the skillet that broke his ankle.

But he’d had a gun. And that, according to some, should have been enough to convince me that even if I didn’t believe in gun ownership for protection that I should be sympathetic to others who do.

But I don’t.

This is where I get called naive, suggesting that we treat the cause and not the symptom. Because guns are the symptom of diseases called fear, ignorance, and violence. Fearing (and hating) other people provides people the opportunity to find the justification in killing other people. A teen boy who thinks its “funny” to pull an unloaded gun on a teacher at school is simply ignorant of the reality behind the imagery he emulates from TV and movies. Violence, no matter the source, is a learned behavior, one that alters the chemistry of the brain over time the same way that abuse, drugs, and fear do. And if we knew for certain that a person’s brain was impaired I’d like to think we wouldn’t knowingly give them access to weapons (or armies for that matter) because what would follow would be carnage.

We are, as a society and individuals, defined by the choices we make. If you choose to live in fear, and raise children to live in fear, that fear will consume your thinking and alter the prism of your world view. If  you believe that American liberty and freedom are inexorably linked to the ownership of a machine whose sole purpose is to kill then there will be no argument that will persuade you otherwise.

If this is how we choose to live as a society we should expect to see scores of violent gun deaths and massacres, because unless we choose to change things we have agreed to choose gun violence as a bi-product of freedom and liberty.

I long thought the phrase “Live by the sword, die by the sword” was a fair enough summary of the notion that violence begets violence but it hides a bitter truth about who suffers the most.  Sadly, those who live by the sword (or gun, as the case may be) kill and those who choose not to live by the sword are more often the victims of those who do.

I will no longer argue with those who believe that gun ownership in America is what the Second Amendment is all about. People will stand behind any excuse that allows them to continue thinking what they believe, without question. If those who shout the loudest in favor of a right to bear arms will not more actively help solve the problem of gun-related violence in this country I am forced to accept only one conclusion: they have chosen to accept the slaughter of innocent victims as an acceptable price in exchange for the false sense of freedom and liberty their belief provides.

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why (i) vote

I remember the one time I didn’t vote in a presidential election. It was 1988, I was late into my twenties, and I’d pretty much figured everything out, politically at least. I’d actually worked in 1984 for the Democrat Party on the historic Mondale-Ferraro campaign in California and the experience left me drained, frustrated, and disgusted with politics. I’d seen things that had disillusioned me about how ugly and manipulative the process could be and it just felt like so much effort for, ultimately, a failure of a process. I vowed I would never vote for a partisan candidate ever again.

And in 1988 I didn’t, I simply didn’t vote at all. And that’s why I vote now.

You’re scratching your head.

After eight years of Reagan and thinking we were constantly on the verge of nuclear annihilation, the choice between Bush and Dukakis seemed like a joke; neither one seemed like a credible candidate and after what (then) felt like a tumultuous campaign season in the end it felt like a total coin toss. Of course in hindsight this sounds silly. Two future vice presidents (Gore and Biden) were angling for office, and there was the scandal surrounding Gary Hart, and for a touch of fire we had Jesse Jackson whose second-place standing at the convention should have landed him on the ticket but that honor went to Lloyd Bentsen.

And those were just the Democrats.

The Republican field eventually settled on Bush with Dan Quayle as his running mate, but Bob Dole, Pat Robertson and Donald Rumsfeld were in the mix as well. This was the campaign were Bush uttered the phrases “a kinder, gentler nation” and “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

And just for a bit of spice, this was the first time (I believe) Ron Paul ran on a platform of ending federal funding to education (and I was a public school teacher at the time!). And then there was the former leader of the KKK, David Duke, who wanted to end affirmative action and opposed all immigration and was basically pushing a Southern separatist agenda.

How the hell did I come to the conclusion at the time that this election didn’t matter?

So the election comes and in my own convoluted web of logic I decided I would exercise my right to freedom of expression by NOT voting! It was an act of political protest! HA! That would show them, they can’t insult me with their inferior candidacies!

Jump ahead two years. August 1990. Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, an oil-rich ally in the Middle East. After condemning the actions and making noises for months about fighting back, Bush throws down an ultimatum and the US is poised to go to war. Protest was growing, slogans were already in place – No Blood For Oil! – and the day before the Gulf War began I decided to participate in the massive protests that shut down the Federal Building in San Francisco. I took the day off from teaching to do so and the next day when my students asked me where I was the day before, I told them.

“Mr. E, who did you vote for in ’88?” one of my students asked, perhaps suspecting I was originally a Bush supporter.

“I didn’t vote in the last election,” I said.

“Then why are you out there protesting? Seems to me like you gave up that right when you didn’t vote.”

And there it is.

It wasn’t an issue of whether or not either of us thought the war was justified, or whether my protest was justified, but purely a question of whether or not I had earned the right to disagree with the actions of a politician I couldn’t be bothered to support or oppose when I was given the opportunity two years earlier.

Of course voting isn’t a prerequisite for protesting or freedom of speech, but it suddenly became clear to me that I lost a fair bit of credibility complaining about the actions of a politician I couldn’t be bothered to vote against. It’s like being asked if you want chocolate or vanilla, saying “I don’t care,” and then complaining about the flavor you’ve been given. As the popular bumper sticker goes “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For the Other Guy,” except I didn’t even do that much, and so by extraction, it’s my fault after all.

I vote because it matters, because you can never know what history is going to dish out, and that it is one of the responsibilities of good citizenship. We don’t really talk about citizenship in this country any more, not like we used to, perhaps because it makes some people uncomfortable; there’s a very thin line at times between promoting citizenship and propaganda and I don’t know if the general public can tell the difference any more.

I vote because doing so makes me a part of the history I am living. It gives me a reference point for discussing politics with my girls who are growing politically savvy on their own, it connects me with the history they learn about in school and inspires questions and questioning.

I vote because not voting simply doesn’t make any sense. I can’t even look back at my twenty-whatever headstrong self and understand what I was thinking by not voting as a form of protest.

Vote.

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As a result of watching the recent presidential debates I’ve had the opportunity to catch glances of local broadcast news. I don’t watch a lot of tv and certainly not the news because in the past I found it to be shallow, superficial in its coverage, and slanted deep into sensationalism. These recent glances have reconfirmed my views and I now believe news exists purely as an instrument of fear mongering.

To what end, what purpose is all this fear sold to us as information that we feel compelled to need?

Fear, I’ve decided, is our national drug, our soma, one that once consumed requires a steady diet. Politicians dispense with rational and honest discourse in favor of getting votes by pushing fear like drug dealers earning loyalty – and dependency – by giving it away freely. The media redistributes this fear-drug after cutting it with good old-fashioned advertising hucksterism, knowing the consumer won’t consider the harmful side effects and decay to their ability to reason because they’ve become dependent on it. Thus the constant need for greater amounts of fear just to feel sated.

Enter dystopia.

The Science Fiction genre has a long tradition of discussing our current problems by masking them in constructed worlds similar to our own but distant enough not to cause us anxiety. They feed our strange human desires to explore new worlds, engage with the possibilities of life beyond our solar system, and through various proxies shine a light on our very human condition. They are cautionary, sometimes moral, tales with the promise of salvation or a warning of ruination as a matter of choice.

With kids constantly fed a steady diet of fear – on tv, in politics, in classrooms, anywhere it can be pedaled in favor of the ability to think for oneself – it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have grown to expect a dire future as entertainment. The ultimate message may be one of the human spirit triumphant over forces of darkness-to-come but rarely does it extend beyond the narrative hero. It is the flaw of hero-worship, this notion that one person may triumph in the end with the assumption that all will be right with the world from that point out. Revolution and change are rarely the carefully orchestrated desires of one individual motivating the masses, they are the will of the masses unified to rise up against the individual for the good of all.

The dystopic vision doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it isn’t the will of one person forced down on all, it is a collective agreement and a surrendering of free will and free thought that allows for the worst to happen. Over time, and with a steady diet of dark futures without workable solutions provided as road maps, dystopia as entertainment may condition readers to readily accept these worlds as eventualities. Fear re-conditions the mind to accept being afraid as a standard state of affairs, thus requiring a constant feed of fear in order to feel normal.

It took decades before people broke free of the fear and political inevitability of a nuclear Cold War. As entertaining as dystopic fiction can be, I hope it isn’t decades before readers (and writers) snap out of the coma of fear and seek out the roots of new stories that honor rational thought and honest discourse, and that politicians and the media lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Or, to bastardize Vonnegut: Tomorrow becomes the illusion we choose to believe, so we must take care in the illusions we choose to believe.

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You know what I’m talking about. Glossy over-sized activity books for kids with pages of colorful stickers that they can take from one place and put anywhere they want – in scenes in the book, on lunch boxes and notebooks, on the walls of your home…

What have I got against them? Plenty, but here are my top five peeves.

Fit the First:  They aren’t books
Lulling a child into compliance with the promise of a book is not a new form of parenting, but I’ve seen it descend into a compromise to accept a sticker book as a reward. Letting them pick a sticker book legitimizes a play activity as a reading activity. Also, as most sticker books are linked to commercial merchandising, their sole purpose is to build brand awareness toward a particular commodity. In other words, they are designed to build consumers, not readers. I say, if you promise a book, deliver a book.

Fit the Second: They have no story
True, kids can make up whatever story they want – this would be the proposed “activity” portion of their generic categorization – but then why are the sticker books all centered around well-defined characters where the kids can imitate what they know and not invent something new? Star Wars sticker books. Marvel Comics sticker books. Disney princesses. Lego adventure. SpongeBob. Pinkalicious (a word so heinous I had to take an antacid just to type it). Kids know the stories behind these stickers, they won’t be too creative in this play as a result because they cannot imprint their own character onto them.

Fit the Third: They’re killing the environment
Seriously, what’s in that adhesive? What chemicals are in that coated, glossy paper to make it slick? Sure, it’s non-toxic, but that doesn’t mean its processing wasn’t harmful. There are plenty of books and publishers using recycled paper and soy-based inks, acid-free paper and environmentally friendly glues, but I have yet to see a sticker book that claimed to use any of these.

Fit the Fourth: They take up valuable space
Those paper-thin books are taking up valuable space? By clogging shelf space in stores that could be used for other, better books. By taking space in landfills and recycling centers as they are quickly discarded. Trees died for this?

Fit the Fifth: They might actually be harmful
In the same way that coloring books teach and reinforce conformity – stay in the lines, keep the sky blue and the grass green – sticker books reinforce the idea of moving a sticker from one place to another as a true activity. In many of these books there are outlines “suggesting” where kids should place the appropriate sticker, but in no way does this “activity” reinforce anything but following directions and keeping mindlessly active. It’s busywork of the lowest order and the time spent moving meaningless pieces of sticky paper around would be better spent outdoor, if not reading a proper book. Is it any wonder we have a child obesity epidemic?

Why this invective against sticker books? Recently I discovered a section of a bookstore set aside for “children’s nonfiction” that had nearly 9 linear shelf feet of space full of sticker activity books but didn’t have a single book on snakes. Also, no books on wolves. Or spiders. No Seymour Simon, no Nic Bishop, no DK Eyewitness, only a handful of biographies… but there were literally hundreds of television and movie and cartoon characters spilling off the shelves. How are these nonfiction, is it because they have no traditional narrative? It was a shame, and I had to assume the reason there were so many was either because publishers are pushing them or parents are buying them. Or both, sadly.

Stop. Just stop. Stop making them and stop buying them. And for gosh sakes, don’t let them take up valuable space in the nonfiction section!

/rant.

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