31 March 2014

All Our Children

Eli, Ely by stand-up monologist Ezekiel Tyrus (Hardhead Press, 2013) is an insightful and goodhearted novel about the romantic trials and tribulations of a thirtyish writer and sometime waiter living from paycheck to paycheck in a famously bohemian residential hotel in San Francisco's North Beach. Not the most sensational material to base a novel on, but what makes Eli, Ely swing is the easy sympathy Eli, the main character, elicits from the reader. In other words, if you're inclined to like author Ezekiel Tyrus, you'll like Eli his fictional counterpart and you'll like his story. Moreover, if you have any affection for San Francisco at all, not the city of the postcards but the workaday city, you'll get a kick, as I did, out of identifying the prominent real-life locations it mentions.

The real value of this book, however, lies not in its vaunted "hardcore" sexuality (the sex talk in fact is actually quite tasteful) but in its depiction of typical examples of the post-hippie, post-boomer generation—our children. These are the young men and women of today drifting toward middle age in a time of diminishing choices, in a world that not too long ago did a better job of respecting the struggles of working people, and of artists. The characters in Eli, Ely realistically depict the continuing struggle to find love, acceptance, and a living wage large enough to cover their stabs at artistic expression as well as their rent. Which gives me hope that, whatever huge mistakes our generation might have made in the arrogance and vanity departments, our children might turn out all right in the essential simple things after all.

~ Cantara Christopher

12 February 2014

The Shameful Marketing of a Literary Atrocity: No One Can Know by Adrienne LaCava

Beware: This self-published, self-described “historical/literary/coming-of-age/political thriller” by first-time novelist Adrienne LaCava is a bad book—awful through and through—in fact the most worthless book I have ever read in my thirty-plus years in the book business.

I know whereof I speak. During my stints as a reader in the editorial departments of Doubleday, Avon, Ballantine/Fawcett, and Macmillan; in the marketing department of Simon & Schuster where I wrote copy for their romance line Silhouette; as a panelist, then moderator, at the much-esteemed New York Round Table Writers Conference; as owner and acquisitions editor of a small literary press; as co-founder and moderator of writing groups in Paris and San Francisco; and as a reviewer of mysteries and thrillers for Publishers Weekly, I have read a sizable share of good books and manuscripts, a handful that were flawed but good, and many, many, many that were boringly mediocre. But never, never in my entire experience in reading for business or pleasure have I encountered such a poorly conceived, incompetently written novel in which the author displays such a cynical attitude towards her own subject.

And when that subject is the volatile social and political climate of the early 1960s, which includes the struggle for racial equality, I really do feel obliged to call this woman to accounts for more than her rotten syntax.

Let’s start with the book itself before we get into the murky waters of LaCava’s marketing strategy.

This novel fails in every respect. It is agonizing to read. The plot is incoherent, the characters preposterous. Although LaCava calls it a “thriller”, the book contains no scenes of action, violence, intrigue, or suspense that would justify that claim. The stunningly bad prose will grate on your sensibilities. The frequent errors in historical facts and real-life locations will make your eyes glaze over, while the anachronistic phrases she uses will make you wince. The story seems to have been cobbled together from buzz topics on the internet—JFK Assassination, Conspiracy Theories, Civil Rights Movement, CIA Covert Operations, even Abortion—topics for which LaCava quite clearly has no understanding.

The following are some examples of the characters, plot, and style of No One Can Know, which is set chiefly in the American south in 1963 and 1964.

The main character, according to LaCava, is Haines, who has been a CIA agent since the end of World War II. Haines is big, half-black, and has great dimples, a feature which is frequently mentioned throughout the book. LaCava tells us “Haine’s heritage was hard to detect... His mother was a full-blooded Negro and best guess on his father’s side was Italian, according to his grandfather. The resulting skin color and cranial features were ambiguous, and interesting.” Yet later in the book one of the characters, a teenage girl no less, calls Haines “colored” the minute she lays eyes on him. How a black American man could have been a member of the CIA in the racist 40s and 50s, when the CIA was a one-hundred-percent Ivy League white boys club is not explained. Was he passing for white? Hardly likely. Additionally, the description of his being in the CIA since the end of the war is woefully off the mark, as that intelligence agency was not established until 1947.

The assassination of JFK occurs early in the book, and for some contrived reason Haines is right there in Dealey Plaza when the shots ring out:

“...he fought any acknowledgment of disaster, though apprehension pushed against his breastplate. The schoolgirls wailed and their heartfelt terror gripped Haines with dread.”

This is the first indication I have ever read of the CIA issuing suits of armor to its agents.

Then, sadly, after this sketchily depicted scene, the assassination, and JFK, are quickly dispensed with. As Kennedy’s face is emblazoned on the cover of the book, this is the biggest cheat perpetrated by LaCava. The president’s murder, we quickly learn, is totally gratuitous to the rest of the story. The vast remainder of the book, in fact, concerns itself with a diary which may or may not contain hints pointing to a conspiracy, a cattle ranch that seems more like a health spa of which Haines inexplicably becomes foreman, a rich man’s mistress who needs an abortion, a couple of adolescent girls who experiment with foul language and marijuana, and an unconvincing investigation into the violence perpetrated on Civil Rights workers in the deep south. None of these storylines, I hasten to add, seem to have anything to do with each other, much less with the assassination of the president.

But what concerns me most is the section of the book which deals with the Civil Rights Movement.

About one-third of No One Can Know focuses the exploits of Tucker, another of LaCava’s preposterous characters. Tucker is a white Texas lawyer with a tenuous connection to LBJ who is sent by the new president to Philadelphia, Mississippi—a place Martin Luther King once described as “a terrible town, the worst I’ve seen, [where there is] a complete reign of terror”—in order to infiltrate the most dangerous faction of the KKK, the White Knights. LaCava describes the situation thusly:

“Mississippians up and down the food chain in state government, local government, and law enforcement sheltered a secret club of extremists who made the ordinary Ku Klux Klan and their version of threat look like Elmer Fudd.”

Tucker is glad to be in “a primo spot...while legitimate agency operatives were tending to race riots and sit-ins”, and after an incredibly gratuitous and tasteless passage in which he recalls hot “river sex” with his mistress, we proceed to the single example of violence (which is not directly depicted) LaCava chooses to focus on, the rape of a white Civil Rights worker. Philadelphia is the place where not too long ago black churches filled with women and children were set on fire, where black men were castrated, and where the young Civil Rights workers Goodman, Swerner, and Chaney were kidnaped by local police, taken out to the woods, and shot to death. These events have been well-documented through the years and are, or ought to be, well known by people my age and LaCava’s. In other words, there are many better examples she could have used to illuminate the violence of that time and place had it truly been her intention to do so. But LaCava is not only spineless when it comes to telling a story, she is odiously exploitative.

Her Philadelphia scenes serve only as an excuse for her “good guys”, Tucker and his CIA agent friends, not only to expound on the evils of “racial cleansing” (her fabricated phrase) but to demonstrate LaCava’s cluelessness when it comes to the actual story of the struggle for the rights of black citizens in the 1960s. There were no race riots in a small town like Philadelphia, Mississippi, although there were several in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Likewise in Philadelphia there were no sit-ins or similar peaceful demonstrations, which only tended to work in places where there was less overt intimidation and harassment of black people and sympathetic Civil Rights workers. And as for “legitimate agency operatives...tending” to said riots and demonstrations, the author is apparently referring to agents or operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency—which was formed solely to gather information from foreign countries—demonstrating her utter lack of the most basic knowledge of the actual discrete objectives of the CIA, the FBI, and local police. LaCava conflates them all, creating in her story an all-purpose law enforcement organization that is somehow authorized to fight racism, municipal corruption (there is a bewildering passage concerning Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who was killed on the same day as the assassination, that never goes anywhere), and generally perform duties and functions that would be inconsistent with the job descriptions of a single law enforcement agency.

I could go on and on with more examples of LaCava’s storytelling ineptitude, including her inaccurate assertions of how intelligence operations were carried out in World War II, but I’ll close this synopsis by touching only on the last substantive part of the book: Ivy, one of the teenage girls, plaintively asks her father, “Why did Carla [the mistress] have do die? Will the police go after the butcher who killed her?” In response to which her father launches a long diatribe about the ethics and perils of illegal abortion. After that there is a brief bit of business about some mysterious men coming to the ranch to look for Haines, who has already departed—an apparent non sequitur, since the scene immediately following has to do with Ivy meeting a boy who has conveniently just moved in on the block(?). And this is where the novel ends.

Now to the marketing and promotion of No One Can Know.

As I mentioned before, I have had some experience in the marketing and promotion of books, from mass-market fiction to small press volumes of poetry. I have also had a passing acquaintance with the book marketing coach the author claims she “engaged”. So I have a very clear idea of the techniques the author is using—and misusing—to promote and market her self-described literary historical thriller.

Let’s start with her website, adriennelacava.com. It is, quite obviously, meant to be her author site. Now in general the purpose of such a site is for readers to become acquainted with an author’s reason for writing, her themes and concerns—a sort of mission statement if you will—and to be the online source of information about where you can find her work. But what if an author’s output consists of a single book written at the age of 62, and there is absolutely no evidence on display that she has ever written anything else of a serious literary nature, published or unpublished? Wouldn’t a little modesty be in order? But on her website LaCava posts her rather dreary bio as well as her thanks to all the people who have aided in the making of No One Can Know (fellow members of several Texas-based writers organizations; her extension school writing class; a Dallas-based book cover designer; Amazon’s do-it-yourself subsidiary CreateSpace; the aforementioned book marketing coach—whose participation I strongly suspect is a fiction, as LaCava seems to have paid no attention to this noted coach’s marketing fundamentals). She also posts a manufactured Q&A wherein she answers questions—posed by herself—about her thoughts and feelings: “Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?”; her favorite writers: “We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write?”; her writing technique: “Do you have a writing process? Can you please describe it?”; and, most obnoxiously of all, her advice to would-be writers: “Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?” (Indie in this case apparently meaning self-published). Her answer:

“If you are comfortable tackling the business side of book selling, I say definitely go for it. But commit to creating New York quality product. … Far too many books are slapped out there lacking that crucial polish. It’s like selling an undercooked chicken.”

Her idea of “New York quality product” evidently refers only to the packaging of the product, meaning the book, and not to its contents. And here is the most blatant example of LaCava’s wrongheadedness. Because “New York quality” in the publishing world does not and has never referred to the slickness of a book’s cover or the glibness of its advertising, it refers to the contents of the book itself.

LaCava’s cynical attitude towards her potential audience extends far beyond the contents of her website, penetrating into her social network which is where I first encountered her. Because I’m somewhat known as the author of a screenplay about Kennedy’s Secret Service, she found and friended me on Facebook, and for months before her book was released I was treated to a steady stream of photos from her collection of JPGs depicting JFK and the First Family culled from the internet (“I’m smitten with the 1960s! Endless personal stories were affected while the nation came apart…” she gushed). At this time she seemed to be promoting two opposite views of herself as an author of a book on Kennedy and the 60s—either she was an amateur enthusiast, or she was an expert who based her writing on ten years of meticulous research. At any rate, when her book was released and I received several none too gentle proddings to order it (“Heads up, team NOCK!” was one of her salutations) I had become intrigued enough to acquiesce. Imagine my dismay when I discovered how completely LaCava had misrepresented not only her book, but the extent of her expertise about the 1960s.

This is an example taken from one of her synopses of how badly she misrepresents the characters and events of her book:

No One Can Know is a literary political thriller and poignant coming of age story, set against historical events. The families of two estranged brothers come together one weekend with all their personal baggage in tow. A deadly case of mistaken identity follows one of them, adding national political tensions, and when the mistress of one of the brothers appears unannounced, it sets off a time bomb of dysfunction.”

Almost none of this corresponds to the story I read. “Thriller”? What is thrilling in this book? As I stated above, there are no scenes of action, violence, intrigue, or suspense. At least one or more of these elements is necessary to make a thriller. “Deadly case of mistaken identity”? Neither of the brothers in the story is mistaken for anybody else, nor do they mistake anybody for anybody else. As for deadly, the only death in the book is the death of the mistress from an illegal abortion. “Adding national political tensions”? Obviously if there is no mistaken identity it cannot add to national tensions. “Sets off a time bomb of dysfunction”? To “set off” means to initiate. Since the brother’s wife and daughter knew he had mistresses, this merely confirms or continues any existing dysfunction. “Time bomb” refers to something that will cause an explosion at some specified time in the future. And as we have noted, any dysfunction is not only continuous but immediate.

But it’s not enough to deconstruct this short synopsis, because it is only one of three available on LaCava’s website, none of which agrees with the others. This is certainly true of the second synopsis, which appears on the back cover of her book (which she erroneously calls the “black flap”). The synopsis ends with this teaser:

“Now, killers have tracked Haines to the ranch, getting the entire family involved in something very adult and very worrisome. When the weekend turns deadly, Haines and Ivy Jean become allies and they’re the first to agree that secrets, especially those devised and perpetuated ‘for the good of us all,’ can break down a family—or a nation—in the blink of an eye.”

All of which would lead a prospective reader to assume that there is a thriller-type climax to the book which, I pointed out above, is nowhere to be found.

LaCava’s third synopsis is even more bewildering, because it appears to be the exact two-page, double-spaced synopsis, complete with word count and genre categorization, that she had sent to a number of agents. As she writes equivocatingly, “My pitch and query package worked well enough to earn some favorable feedback, but there is a certain stigma attached to the backbone topic, JFK; the subject is perceived as cultish. There’s something like 1,300 nonfiction titles, and unfortunately, the scholarly research gets lumped in with poorly written rants. And even though my fiction hook is unique, and my characters deal metaphorically with the danger of ‘necessary secrets,’ it didn’t get picked up.” I say this synopsis is bewildering because almost none of the story as she describes herein agrees with the book’s contents. For example: “Though Haines enjoys Ivy Jean’s company, he’s discovered evidence in the hills of the JFK cleanup crew’s surveillance and has a tough decision to make. Does he stay and try to keep the danger from invading the ranch or flee to hiding?” I’m confused. I thought I’d read in an early chapter that Haines fled to the ranch because he had bumped into a known mob assassin in Dealey Plaza…or was it because he feared that his presence in Dealey Plaza as a CIA man would cast suspicion on the agency, as LaCava wrote in one of her own descriptions? The author supplies conflicting motivations for her protagonist to flee to the ranch and begin the story.

I must also point out that in none of these synopses is there a mention of the scenes concerning the Civil Rights Movement set in Mississippi which, as I said earlier, constitute a large part of the book.

No One Can Know garnered two professional reviews, both favorable. One appeared in a weekly newspaper serving the small Texas town where LaCava was promoting her book.

The other review was purchased from Kirkus Indie. Kirkus Reviews is a venerable decades-old publication, best known in the publishing industry as a resource for librarians. A few years ago they created a subsidiary called Kirkus Indie. Upon receipt of a finished book or manuscript and a fee of $425-575, Kirkus Indie will send to a self-published author a professional 250-350 word review. A favorable review is “not guaranteed”, although considering the amount of money they ask for I suspect that the vast majority of their reviews are, in fact, favorable. They certainly gave No One Can Know a good review. They began with a general outline of the various elements in the book, calling the author’s historical research “impressive” and her portrayal of a world-weary spy “realistic”. The review ends with the final one-sentence paragraph, “A riveting historical novel, featuring brisk plotting and engaging characters.” This is, I suspect, what the author is really paying for—that one glowing phrase that can be used as a blurb on the front of the book, which is precisely how LaCava used it.

As No One Can Know is offered for sale on Amazon it has of course its own web page, on which customers/readers are encouraged to include their own “product reviews” and ratings on a scale of 1-5 stars. The Amazon ratings system is, in my opinion, the most pernicious development since this corporation co-opted the Do-It-Yourself movement in publishing and moviemaking (as well as Goodreads, Amazon also owns the Internet Movie Database; all their subsidiaries use the 1-5 star rating system). It is the means by which even the most casually interested audience member may register the degree of her enjoyment of a book simply by selecting the number of stars that reflect her opinion. The overall average rating is readily available on the site. At this time on Goodreads, No One Can Know has an average rating of 3.8 stars, while on Amazon it has an average of 3.98 stars. The majority of the 5-star ratings were posted immediately after the book was made available for sale by Amazon,  many of them emanating from the Texas area where LaCava resides. What this indicates to me is that she managed to get a fair number of her personal friends and writing chums to, as it were, stuff the ballot box. As Amazon’s policy is that a customer cannot rate a product without posting at least a line or two of comment (Goodreads does not require this), LaCava was also able to accumulate such encomiums as:

     “From the first word until the very last (and all points in between), this book...screams make me into a movie—please!”
     “I usually yawn at assassination-related literary attempts (Stephen King comes to mind), but t[h]is one is the exception to the rule.”

The vast majority of these “product reviews”, particularly the 5-star, were so generally laudatory in nature that one gets no sense of anything specific to this book. In fact, they could adequately describe the readers’ reaction to any book that proclaims itself to be a “political historical thriller”. The 1- and 2-star reviews, however, which came later, seem to be comments that are much more specific to the book’s contents, indicating the probability that these reviewers actually bought and read No One Can Know. To wit:

     “I had a hard time deciding what was going on and never knew what the diaries, thugs and Haines had in common.”
     “There were far too many errors—by the time I got to ‘Fort Bliss, Alabama’ I just stopped.” (Fort Bliss, by the way, is in Texas, LaCava’s home state, making this error almost hilarious.)

But enough of this pathetic case study in self-publishing.

About eight years ago I wrote an essay for an online literary magazine entitled “Writing in the New Publishing Paradigm” which was reprinted and circulated among the participants at the New York Round Table Writers Conference. In it I stated:

     The world we’re living in these days isn’t big enough to encompass the current explosion in human activity. We need to enlarge the world, not narrow it. We need more ideas, not fewer.
     In response to an intellectually refined, Russian-born acquaintance who recently remarked with disdain, Now anybody can write a book, I say, Yes! Isn’t it fantastic?
     Because we need more books, not fewer. And we need them now.

I admit now the naivete of those sentiments, but those were the days before the widespread use of Facebook, Goodreads, CreateSpace; before publishing became literally as easy as clicking a button; before neophyte authors were told that they needed to care more about the marketplace and their image than the quality of their work.

To be self-published is no longer a stigma to a writer. Offhand I could give you the titles of about a dozen books self-published in the last five years that would compare favorably in quality to those traditionally published. But the authors of these books were already veteran writers with good reputations. A literary reputation cannot be manufactured and it cannot be bought, not even for a little while. The public will forgive an author for a bad book if that book has been presented to them with a little modesty, and keep an open mind when reading her next work. But a bad first book self-published with the obvious aim of giving an author the image of literary respectability damns that author forever.

~ Cantara Christopher

01 September 2013

What They Knew of That Day

Survivor's Guilt: The Secret Service and the Failure to Protect the President by Vince Palamara (Trine Day, 2013) is not a book to be read for pleasure. It is not a sterling contribution to literature. Short, but packed with names, dates, citations and, significantly, stripped of narrative, it is probably the best compendium of verifiable facts having to do with the United States Secret Service (or USSS) circa 1963—specifically, one particular day towards Thanksgiving.

I must disclose here that I am not a JFK Assassination Conspiracy nut. I vividly remember the day Kennedy died and I have my own theories about what happened. But I'm no expert. Conspiracy theorists who get into the game usually choose one exclusive aspect or another to cover, and Palamara has chosen the Secret Service detail assigned to protect President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Palamara is not so much a journalist as a persuasive arguer and is more than enough of a thorough researcher and impartial interviewer to back up his ideas.

And there is no disputing what happened that day: Simply, the Secret Service detail assigned to the President failed to protect him from a fatal bullet. There was sloppiness in their protocol and security checks, a host of bad choices and, worse, substantial evidence of agents drinking and carousing while on duty. But it's what the Service did immediately afterwards that's remained the thorniest issue these nearly fifty years. Blatantly confiscating evidence, falsifying documents, illegally taking people into custody—these were some of the acts committed by agents almost as soon as the alleged assassin was arrested by Dallas police. Rumors persist to this day that they did far worse things to preserve the image of the Service—or as some people would term it, cover their asses. The Church Committee in 1978 found a hornet's nest of misdeeds, and it’s clear that many more will never be known, since in 1992 the Secret Service infamously destroyed all their records regarding Kennedy’s final trip, rather than turn them over to the newly-formed House Select Committee on Assassinations.

It's old news, but it's still a hurtful subject to some, not least of all to the most important agent still living, Clint Hill, the focus of a recent account entitled The Kennedy Detail by Gerald Blaine and Lisa McCubbin. I mention this 2010 book because, if chronology can be correctly interpreted, Detail was written by Hill's former superior in the USSS, Gerald Blaine, as a direct response to Survivor's Guilt, which was first published in 2006 and for which Palamara interviewed, among others, Blaine and Hill themselves. Palamara's book must certainly have opened old wounds.

The initial publication of Survivor's Guilt: The Secret Service and the Failure to Protect the President quickly garnered excellent endorsements from the very people in key positions to know the facts of that day and some who were there. Get it, read it, use it as a springboard for your own private investigation, and to remove the bad taste of The Kennedy Detail's whitewash.

~ Cantara Christopher

11 July 2013

Beating Her Tiny Fists: Interview by Dave Herrle

My interview with Dave Herrle from 2008.

29 September 2012

Reply to Dave Herrle Re A Poet from Hollywood

Dear Dave,

So much to thank you for, most importantly for "getting it". My disillusionment, Stephen's near dementia, Naomi's misunderstood relationship with Stephen—it's all there. I'm especially glad that my lingering affection for Stephen as well as my respect and, yes, even affection for Naomi was evident to you. It may be true that, in reviewer Tim W. Brown's words, Stephen Gyllenhaal is a "total and complete asshole" but hey, hate the sin and love the sinner, right?

I'll write again soon. My next project has nothing to do with Stephen—well, maybe a little bit, as it's inspired by the assassination of JFK in 1963 and Stephen's directing a sort of a touchy feely docudrama for basic cable about the secret service guys who blew it.


27 September 2012

David Herrle's First Thoughts on A Poet from Hollywood

Dear Cantara,

Sorry for the delay in reply and the following off-the-cuff message. As I told you, I read A Poet from Hollywood in one sitting. I have great difficulty reading from a computer screen for long periods, but the book was so riveting the chore became a pleasure. The closest comparison I can make is how I feel when I'm reading an engrossing true-crime investigation (such as the ones by Ann Rule): snuggled up in the writer's personality and thrilled that fiction can be much more mundane than reality.

What's remarkable is that you were able to direct your recollections and the emotional/intellectual fallout into a coherent and clever narrative, even a miniature case study of a man who seems to be trying to live up to the real of perceived higher level of his family (“My family's behind me 100 percent”) but constantly fails to recognze his own artistic worth and the need for its proper nourishment, not to mention his independence. You: “As for the rest of Team Gyllenhaal, it didn't actually come to an end when it cut loose its weakest member.” Hell, that was painful to read.

If what you wrote can be trusted (though all our eyeglasses are colored and smudged, I think it can be for the most part), the interest and care that you and Michael offered Stephen could have been a ticket to a much cooler trip for him if he'd given it the chance. For one, Michael sounds like an astute, insightful and witty chap. I looked forward to his appearances and believed in his professionalism (particularly in the aftermath of the controversial publication of Stephen's story in Cantaraville). And you bring a fiery, deeply felt creativity to your profession. That's a good combination. Was your infatuation problematic when mixed with Stephen's behavior and hangups? Probably, though I must admit that the odd (ultimately good-hearted and unconsummated) menage a trois was fascinating, if not a little tittilating, since I kept wondering if there'd soon be a torrid passage, an impulsive crossing of the line—though in my heart I felt that your relationship with Michael is as solid as Gibraltar. The emotional and affectionate tension (particularly between you and Naomi—“And what about Naomi?”), however, works as a sort of framework for the whole story, so you were wise to use one of Stephen's outbursts as an introductory epigraph: “Don't touch me, you're my publisher!” And, soon after, knocking the reader upside the head with “I began to fall in love with Stephen Gyllenhaal through the poems he had written to his wife.” Also, the spiel on the genesis of the intro and the foreword is ominous. It prepares the reader to recognize the countless quirks in Stephen's tenuous support system. It's almost like you can subtitle the book Poet, Interrupted.

The book is about your disillusionment with the man as it's about the dramatic book deal. You: “Did I feel betrayed? You bet I did.” By the time I got to the end of the book, I viewed that brief video of Stephen passively-aggressively telling you to turn the camera off differently (and more accurately) than I did back when you first shared it online.

Since I'm racing the clock hands and don't want to suffocate you with any more parenthetical asides (which is what I tend to litter emails with—see?), I'll just show you some of the favorite passages/lines I jotted down in chronological order in the book:

“Well, how does he sound to you?”
“He sounds like a teenager,” he answered, frowning.

His breath smelling like fettucini alfredo when you leaned over to kiss him goodbye.

“He's a big kid, just a big kid,” I remarked to Michael later when Stephen went to pay the bill.
“And you're his mother,” said. Michael.
“No I'm not,” I protested

“You see what I was doing.”
I laughed.”You were directing the director!”
“I was doing that for your benefit,” said Michael.
“Oh baby,” I told him playfully, “I am so gonna sleep with you tonight.”

Jake not liking the cover photo of his father's book! WTF?

“As I watched him leave, all my efforts, all my emotions of the past year started to overwhelm me. There hadn't been a day in all that time when Stephen wasn't in my thoughts and plans; there hardly had been a moment when I felt that Stephen's hopes and dreams didn't coincide with mine.”

The debacle with the books for Martha's Vineyard.

The weird reading at the Zinc Bar.

“We are all corrupt.”
“Stephen, I'm not corrupt, and neither is Michael.”

Michael footing the bill at dinner at Virage + “He's a big kid, he's just a big kid,” I remarked to Michael later when Stephen went to pay the bill (at The Flame).

The ominous typo in the program: “Stephen Gyllenhaal was the second husband of Naomi Foner.”

The half-assed pursuit of Liquid Motel and Shining City (on his part, that is).

The poem about murdering his wife Naomi + His writing you, “Naomi is being brutal.”

“But throughout her career [Naomi Foner] seems to have focused so much on one particular concept—the essential unbreakable bond between parent and child which is even more essential, more unbreakable than the bond between husband and wife—that you can't be blamed for thinking this is probably the one overriding theme of her life.”

The wacky blowup at Trinity College and the ones at Colma Cemetery and the airport!

His not renewing the contract!

“I won't call him an artist—in fact my final assessment of Stephen is that he would be a toxic addition to any artistic ecosphere.”

More later,

13 September 2012

In Response to Michael Neff of Atchity Entertainment

Mr Neff, there's something you should know about me: I do not conduct business on Facebook. I sent you on your wall a request to Like my page because that's where the download to the ARC is. I simply thought that you might find A Poet from Hollywood: Love, Insanity, Stephen Gyllenhaal, and the Creative Process amusing in a gossipy way. Your response to me on your Facebook wall in the form of a “rejection letter” was incredibly insulting. I know how you make your living and I know who your masters are, but none of that was my concern when I chose to make you a Facebook friend. Tell me, don't you read for simple pleasure anymore? If not, you're contributing to the literacy problem of our country while profiting from it at the same time.

25 August 2012

Catholics, Indians, Jews, Oh My

I like Sandra Shwayder Sanchez. When my husband and I visited her near Boulder, Colorado, she and her husband showed us a great deal of hospitality. She's a warm and intelligent woman, a Family Court attorney, who champions a couple of liberal causes we feel more or less compatible with.

But none of this means that she can write. Actually, since Michael and I did publish a couple of her stories in Cantaraville I have to say that she has some talent, though it mostly lies in the field of short fiction. It's her novels that bother me. Leaden and tedious, with paragraphs like blocks of granite, they seem to exist for any reason other than to give a reader pleasure. Her latest novel, The Secret of the Journey (Floricanto Press, 2012), is a dull and confusing book. It starts out with a lugubrious account of religious persecution in 16th century Europe, then proceeds to alternate chapters with the interactions of a modern-day woman—a Jewish public defender, evidently the author's alter ego—who gradually uncovers the familial and societal links with her own past, her fiance's family history, and the history of Marrano Jews (Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism) in the Old and New Worlds.

The historical chapters seem to exist primarily to show off the author's research, while the modern-day chapters seem to be there to display her own attitudes. The 16th-century scenes are written in that mildly irritating plain narrative style of historical romances, while in the modern ones there doesn't seem to be a single organic conversation. Everyone is either imparting factoids or espousing a particular point of view. And there are looong paragraphs that describe even minor characters' back stories. Not to mention, no one in the historical chapters ends well—they're either captured by the Inquisition and tortured, sent into slavery, or die in a damp cave giving birth to a stillborn. At least the modern story of the author's alter ego ends with her wedding.

Verdict: This novel should never have been published. It needs structural help first and foremost and style editing second. It needs for its author to rethink what story she wanted to tell in the first place.

~ Cantara Christopher

20 May 2012

The Fame of Angela Hoy

I'm neither a friend nor an enemy of publishing "crusader" Angela Hoy (bit.ly/angelahoy). She has a platform, I suppose, but she's such small potatoes I never had to deal with her. She did, however, finally cross my path about four years ago, when one day out of the blue she sent me an email "pleading" the cause of a writer in Belarus.

This writer had submitted three poems to my literary magazine. I immediately accepted them; he emailed back, inquiring if we would also be interested in publishing his book-length translation of a minor Russian writer (complete with full-color illustrations which, he informed us, "will cost you"). I replied that we weren't interested and that we never publish illustrations (this is made clear in our guidelines); immediately, the writer emailed me to say that, because our magazine was not a paying market (also made clear in our guidelines), he'd have to "think it over"; I promptly wrote back to him that if he weren't satisfied with our terms he ought to try other markets; he wrote back in a snit that "writers have rights too" and that he knew an "important" person in American publishing who would be contacting me on the matter. Well, that "important" person was Ms Hoy.

Before the end of the day Angela Hoy had send me an email in the form of a legal pleading, good God, restating this writer's complaint, and demanding an apology. I wrote back to her restating our position; she wrote back (with the salutation "Hi, Cantara!") telling me that my reply wasn't good enough, and that our magazine was now on "her list". I also got flamed on her forum--a total of five comments, before her readers lost interest.

Um, okay. Ridiculous woman.

It gets me is that, with her internet platform, her online forum, etc, she had the ideal opportunity to let her readers know about the plight of Belarusian writers, their utter lack of government support, the non-existent market in their own country, which makes them look desperately to any kind of recognition/remuneration elsewhere. Now that's a true cause.

What made me think of her after all this time is that she's back in the news with another bug up her ass. She obviously loves publicity more than she loves her calling.

01 September 2010

Writing Scripts, Writing Prose

There are some writers who can move fluidly between prose fiction and scripted fiction—John Sayles is one such author, and you can probably think of several more. The rest of us stumble along as best we can trying not to let dialogue carry the action in our prose, while trying to not to rely on descriptiveness and subtle nuances that actually serve to hinder a workable script.

My friend Tom Baum is a screenwriter who has enjoyed a measure of success with such Hollywood movies as Carny and The Manhattan Project. A born writer, he's always testing himself in different narrative forms—lately he's turned his hand to novels and stage plays. The pleasure he gets from writing is evident in his works. Since we're friends, then, I think I can be honest in critiquing Tom's latest novel The Memory Gene (Amazon, 2010) without spoiling his fun.

The plot of this medium-length novel falls within the classic framework of a boy's journey in search of his absent father, but with one interesting element thrown in: the boy, Arky, has inherited not only his father's looks and habits, but also his exact memories. Of course being a kid with the memories of a grown man affects Arky more than the usual adolescent feelings of alienation. But they also equip him with an unusual emotional and sexual maturity, not to mention a slightly out-of-date vocabulary and instantaneous fluency in a foreign language, Spanish in this case.

All this should make for a fascinating tale, and it would if it weren't for the fact that Tom tells it almost entirely through dialogue rather than narration. Worse, the dialogue often has no indicators to let you know who is speaking. And since the characters are not especially well-delineated, the storyline can get a little confusing. This is one of the drawbacks of being a good scriptwriter—the very skills you need to write for stage or film are different from those you need for prose fiction, which requires a much more equal balance of narration and dialogue.

But here's the good news: The Memory Gene should go over well in its present form as an ebook because it fits our current idea of what an ebook should be, a light, fast read. The fact that it is written in short bursts of dialogue makes it ideal for reading on the small screen.

~ Cantara Christopher

01 April 2009

Building a Moral Fantasy World

An acquaintance of mine, Karin Alfelt Childs (a cousin-by-marriage, incidentally, of my eternally perplexed Stephen Gyllenhaal), owns and runs with her husband a small press up in Michigan called Fountain Publishing, which specializes in works inspired by the Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. I've reviewed Swedenborgian writing before—most notably the comprehensive Answer books by Candace Frazee, another friend and devout member of the New Church—but I've always been a little hard-pressed to find any Swedenborgian works of fiction. Karin's two YA novels, The Temple of Wisdom and its sequel, The Balm of Gilead, come the closest.

I have to say first off that these are handsome paperbacks I'd be proud to give to any Swedenborgian or other Christian, particularly young teenagers. The narration flows naturally and the two stories are engaging. Happily there is a minimum of moralizing. The simple message of these books, in fact, can be appreciated in both the religious and secular worlds: Understand yourself. Own your thoughts. Pay attention to your moral compass.

The youthful heroes here—this is a Prince-and-His-Companions-on-a-Quest saga—are highly sympathetic. Calling upon the virtues of compassion, bravery, humility, and honesty, they battle villains who are liars, cheats, and mind-enslavers. Although Temple ends with a romantic pledge and Gilead begins with wedding plans, the relationship between the two main characters, the young prince and the peasant girl, is more emotional than sexual, and their commitment to each other is informed by mutual respect.

So warmly do I feel toward these books that I hesitate to point out their flaws, which stem from the author's uncertainty in conveying movement in the actual physical world and her inability to adequately describe the strange beauty of her fantasy landscape. That this landscape is based on the heavenly visions of Swedenborg himself makes this a pity, because it sounds like a wonderful place I'd love to linger in as a reader.

Swedenborg once said, in so many words, that we should approach God with the sense of wonder and curiosity of an adolescent. That being the case, Karin's books present the perfect Swedeborgian parable.

~ Cantara Christopher