Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007
by Sarah T. Williams [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)]

Michael Dahl, a children’s book author and editorial director of Stone Arch Books in Mankato, Minn., oft has been heard to say that “the No. 1 rule for writing good children’s books is to get rid of the parents.”


No need to take “Umbridge,” moms and dads; it’s just food for thought during the burbling buildup to the July 21 00:01 release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful series.


Part of the secret to Rowling’s success, said Dahl and other children’s book experts, is that she understood the enormous appeal of creating an orphan (or otherwise unparented child) and throwing him to the wolves. It’s a formula that has worked well for others.


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Monday, Jul 9, 2007

NPR News this week interviewed Scott Rice from San Jose University about the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest “honoring the very best of the worst in fiction”. The contest invites writers, published and not, to submit the very worst opening line to a non-existent work of fiction. Winner of last year’s contest, Jim Guigli of California, ripped on Raymond Chandler to come up with this classic:


Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.


Honestly, I’d read that book. But, you get the idea. Contest mascot Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is the man behind Snoopy’s favorite opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night”, and Rice reveals in the NPR interview that he also invented the phrases “the almighty dollar” and “the pen is mightier than the sword”. So, while the poor guy is often regarded as a terrible writer, he pulled out a few gems in his lifetime.


Among the fun to be had at the contest website is a competition called Dickens or Bulwer?—you’re provided with a published paragraph and must identify its author as either the revered Dickens or the reviled Bulwer. (It’s actually not that easy.) You can also check out some actual real-life bad opening lines worthy of the Bulwer prize, such as:


Anthony Rowley didn’t look like a self-confessed sadistic rapist.
—Sarah Lovett, Acquired Motives


By the end of the alley the fine hairs in my nostrils were starting to twitch.
—Lindsey Davis, Shadows in Bronze


An ineffable tranquility hovered over the villa, was broken only occasionally by the intermittent sounds of the staff going about their duties: the whirr of the vacuum, the faint birdlike chirpings of the maids as they dusted adjacent rooms, the echo of the butler´s brisk tones issuing orders, the click of a door closing, the patter of distant busy feet. Gradually these individual noises were beginning to merge, flowed together to create a vague and muffled hum that hardly intruded at all on her gentle peregrinations through the labyrinth of her mind.
—Barbara Taylor Bradford, Voice of the Heart



Results of this year’s contest are released 30 July.


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Saturday, Jul 7, 2007

I’d just finished at the Amazon checkout counter when I stopped to marvel at the A9-Clickriver search and sell tools the website employs. It’s A9’s job to make sure my Amazon Books homepage fits my specific tastes, or at least what it believes my specific tastes to be based on my previous searches and purchases.


This past Thursday, I opened Amazon Books to be greeted with two stunning and provocative covers—the first was Lesley Arfin’s Dear Diary, the second Chris Nieratko’s Skinema. The women on these covers appear raw and vulnerable, and something about their specific shapes and positions clicked in me a desire to get closer to them.


Dear Diary by Lesley ArfinVice BooksJune 2007, 231 pages, $20.00

Dear Diary by Lesley Arfin
Vice Books
June 2007, 231 pages, $20.00


I’m since not so sure Nieratko’s book is going to prove my thing, but Arfin’s has me intrigued. Nieratko’s appears, based on the Amazon blurb, like a Please Don’t Kill the Freshman for the adult market by a guy who thinks his debauchery makes him cool and edgy and enviable. There might be an element of that in Arfin’s book, but hers appears to go the extra, exploratory mile. Arfin opines and sasses, but she also digs beneath her surface persona to find out if the woman she became after high school is a product of her high school days, or simply what she believes her high school days to have been. Her digging consists of interviews with former best friends, boyfriends, and high school enemies. Can you even imagine? What becomes of the Arfin of today if those same school friends who gave the woman hell turn out to have been just as fucked up and confused and hurt back in the day as she? That’s the question I’m looking forward to answering.


Score two for A9; one for me.


Skinema by Chris NieratkoPowerHouse BooksMay 2007, 288 pages, $15.00

Skinema by Chris Nieratko
PowerHouse Books
May 2007, 288 pages, $15.00


I clicked around Amazon a bit that day and concluded that book-buyers are watched far more closely than any other Amazon visitor. When I head to Amazon Music, for instance, I’m greeted with Wilco CDs, Paul McCartney albums, and the big, white, smiling face of somebody called Miley Cyrus. This doesn’t match at all my recent fox-hunt on the site for a best of Cinderella. Fantastic Four greets me over at the DVD section, but I hated that movie, and my last DVD purchase was the new Chocolate War special edition.


Back over at books, they’re trying to sell me the new Harry Potter, which I don’t want, but they also want me to buy Soon I Will Be Invincible which I already have, and a book called My Dreams Out in the Street by Kim Addonizio that contains yet another provocative, striking cover.


My Dreams Out in the Street by Kim AddonizioSimon and SchusterJuly 2007, 272 pages, $23.00

My Dreams Out in the Street by Kim Addonizio
Simon and Schuster
July 2007, 272 pages, $23.00


The Addonizio recommendation alone had me adding new books to my shopping cart. Just check out the art on her other books, In the Box Called Pleasure, What is This Thing Called Love, and Little Beauties—how could I resist? I wondered as my credit card approved if I’d just discovered another Amy Bloom, based solely on cover photos and titles. And I thought about how Amazon was the first place I read about The Virgin Suicides, and where I first heard Chris Smither sing. And how indispensable the “So You’d Like to..” lists over there have been, introducing me to countless authors and bands. I wondered if Amazon doesn’t recommend me DVDs and music the same way it does books because it knows my books mean more to me. I think about that, and I kinda fall in love with A9, even though I know it’s all so Big-Brother-y and wrong.


Amazon can’t see me, it doesn’t speak to me, and it doesn’t want to hear my recommendations, but, like an actual big brother, it knows me better than I know myself. It’s ready and willing to instruct me on new authors, poets, and essayists it thinks I’d love. It flashes artwork at me it knows will catch my eye, and it does, and it works, and shameful as it is to let this no-name, mechanical entity rule over me so, I’m actually better for it. And you probably are, too.


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Tuesday, Jul 3, 2007

Most of the girls look like rock-solid citizens in this stronghold of Islam, but in the privacy of their homes (often vast sprawling affairs with home cinemas and swimming-pools) they throw parties (women only, of course), eat Burger King, watch cable television (Sex and the City is a big favourite), and live an undercover life that is an extraordinary ‘pot-pourri’ of West and East. They flirt with boys on the internet in Arabish (a mix of Arabic and English), send their drivers to pick up Frappuccinos from Starbucks, talk about ‘front bumpers’ and ‘back bumpers’ (breasts and bottoms) and reveal a world where women hide more than their desires under their long black abayas.


The UK Telegraph magazine has a fascinating interview, published last week, with Rajaa Alsanea, the 25-year-old Saudi Arabian author of Girls of Riyadh.


The book is making waves just about everywhere due to its frank portrayal of young, upperclass Saudi women. The Boston Herald has a piece on Alsanea, as does the San Francisco Chronicle. The Arab News has a revealing piece on the controversy, too.


The book is out Thursday, from Penguin.


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Monday, Jul 2, 2007
by Karen Heller [The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)]

Could there be a more brilliant title than The Dangerous Book for Boys? You could take two empty covers, stick a book of matches inside—dipped in wax for waterproofing as suggested—and come up a winner.


This handsome volume, authored by brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, proffers advice on such essentials as spiders, poker, invisible ink, skinning a rabbit and making a go-cart, things every boy’s father knew as a boy.


OK, let’s not kid ourselves here. Every boy’s grandfather.


A phenomenon in the authors’ native England where it was published a year ago, Dangerous was named British Book of the Year, with more than half a million copies in print. Since its May debut on these shores, the retro manual, which has a $25 list price, has sold 211,000 copies. It crests Publishers Weekly‘s best-seller list, outselling Reagan, Gore, Diana, Hillary, Einstein and, well, God.


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