Been remiss in posting links to various stories that have kept me busy the past few months. In no particular order: Here are two stories I did for ShoWest, one on this summer’s tentpoles and the other on potential sleeper hits. (Attempting to answer, in other words, what this summer’s “Devil Wears Prada” might be.)
I did a story on successful mystery novelists that may finally be emerging from Hollywood development hell. Maybe. One of those profiled: Fellow Lord Jeff Harlan Coben. His book “Tell No One” was finally made into a movie in France and now in the process of being remade by producer Kathleen Kennedy.
Four of the best picture nominees dealt with infidelity of one form or another. So I wrote about it, comparing cinematic cheating to the reaction to Tiger’s marital woes. Also did a report on the Film Finance Forum earlier this month (harder than ever for those without domestic distribution to get financial backing they need to make the film in the first place) and ongoing shakeout in the PR ranks.
What else? The tension between creativity and client control in branded entertainment, that’s what.
Why am I, sucker for all gadgets Apple, secretly hoping the company will NOT announce its rumored iTablet later this month? Because I just got a Kindle and don’t want it to be immediately upstaged by Apple grooviness.
This has happened before: I got a Creative Nomad Jukebox MP3 player shortly before iPod hit the market in 2001. That first generation iPod may look clunky today, but trust me, it was compact and sleek next to the Jukebox. It was no bigger, as Steve Jobs said in his 2001 media introduction, than a deck of cards. I held out for a little while before succumbing to the iPod.
But back to the Apple tablet rumors, which are flying fast and furious, with a March debut now predicted by the WSJ. I’m dying to see what Apple comes up with and how it matches other tablet prototypes I’ve seen lately. The magazine biz, and heck, the newspaper biz, could use a device that marries potent imagery with text in a way websites have yet to do. The main reason I got the Kindle was to subscribe to periodicals in electronic form.
So far I really like it. I’d just hate for it to become obsolete a month after Santa dropped it down the chimney.
The music biz and vid biz have already learned the painful lessons of loss leadering. Now it’s the book biz’s turn.
The price war that has erupted in recent weeks is particularly dramatic — and spurred by lower e-book prices — but otherwise very similar to the ones that the record biz and vid biz has dealt with for years. Big box chains and online heavyweights price big hits low to draw traffic, and, presumably, bigger ticket purchases. This discounting tends to be especially heated during the holiday season.
So I had to smile at the WSJ story about rationing of these discount hits. A Boulder, Colo., book store buyer, who planned to stock up on the discounted books from Wal-Mart, Target and Amazon expressed surprise that they were limiting the number of copies that individuals could purchase.
But he shouldn’t be surprised: The chains have done exactly that for discounted CDs and DVDs. In fact when video sales started taking off in the ’90s — during the VHS era, mind you — chains like Best Buy regularly ran disclaimers “no dealers please” in their circulars. (Of course this was when people read Sunday papers, but that’s another story.) The chains were just as infamous for discounting hit music CDs, making it hard for mid-size chains like Tower to compete.
Been meaning to weigh on the book price war, but was caught up in a few assignments and didn’t get to it.
Here’s the thing: Price wars are not new. Chains use popular books and videos as loss leaders for bigger purchases.
Independent stores and content providers don’t like it. But does it destroy the fabric of our nation? In its request for a Dept. of Justice investigation, the American Booksellers Assn. predicted just that. Consider:
We would find these practices questionable were they taking place in the market for widgets. That they are taking place in the market for books is catastrophic. If left unchecked, these predatory pricing policies will devastate not only the book industry, but our collective ability to maintain a society where the widest range of ideas are always made available to the public, and will allow the few remaining mega booksellers to raise prices to consumers unchecked.
Been reading a slew of books by comics lately, because there are a number of them coming out, and who couldn’t use a laugh these days? What surprised me most — and probably shouldn’t have — is how uneven they have been.
Why should I expect funny guys and gals to be able to write sustained comedic prose? That’s not what stand-ups or sketch comics do; they tell a funny story then move on the next gag or anecdote. Without an overarching theme or connective narrative thread, pacing can be a problem: When books are written as a string of self-contained stories or anecdotes, it’s easy to put them down for a while after you’ve finished a chapter.
Such has been the case for three of the four books by comedians I’ve read, wholly or partially, the past few months. The exception? Kathy Griffin’s unexpectedly soulful memoir, “Official Book Club Selection.”
The brassy comedienne, who wrote the book with the help of journo Robert Abele while filming her reality show, writes candidly about growing up the youngest in an Irish Catholic family, her struggles to make it in L.A., plastic surgery and marital travails. She also tackles an extremely difficult subject – her brother Kenny’s incest and drug problems – with sensitivity and grace.
Quick Jim Carroll memory: Met him briefly during the five minutes I worked at Viking Penguin years ago. He spent most of his visit hitting on a coworker’s comely teenage daughter, who was, if I’m not mistaken, going to Dalton School. Carroll, who went to Trinity School and wrote about it in “The Basketball Diaries,” a movie Leonardo DiCaprio eventually starred in, tried to use that as an entree without much luck. Last night, a former Variety coworker tweeted that no one in the office knew who he was. I thought everyone had at least heard his signature song, “People Who Died.” I’ve certainly heard it on the radio often enough.
Carroll made it to 60, dying at his desk. Read more in the New York Times obit.
Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek calls “A Gate at the Stairs” exhausting and unsatisfying in a review posted today. Her theory: Author Lorrie Morre’s aggressive cleverness works better “when diced into smallish bits.”
In other words, there’s a reason why she’s so acclaimed as a short story writer, less accomplished as a novelist.
Which isn’t to say Zacharek doesn’t like parts of “A Gate at the Stairs.” Like me, she has a mixed view, although her criticism takes a different form. In a nutshell:
“Moore isn’t lazy,” Zacharek writes. “She has the exact opposite problem: This is a case of a writer’s working too hard. She doesn’t allow enough air around her sentences — there’s no space for the gags to breathe, and her brainy contemplations continue to stack up until they resemble piles of clutter.”
The critic doesn’t address Moore’s awkward plotting, which actually speaks to the same problem. Another reminder that novels are a different beast than short stories.
Oh how I love it when the New York Times serves up decidedly different takes on the same book in its daily and weekly pages. Michiko Kakutani delivered a tough but largely positive review of Lorrie Moore’s “A Gate at the Stairs” in Friday’s paper, whereas Jonathan Lethem out and out raves about it in the paper’s Sunday book review section, suggesting that doubters ought to have their head examined.
So which is it? I have an even more mixed take on the book. There was much to love in “A Gate at the Stairs” — narrator Tassie Keltjin is affecting, as is her quirky family — but its weaknesses bugged me long after I finished reading. The plot, tied to fallout from 9/11, begs credulity. And I generally find it annoying when authors withhold key plot information under the guise of character obliviousness or diffidence, as was the case here. Killer closing lines couldn’t quite make up for those deficiencies.
Kakutani notes Moore’s clumsy job orchestrating certain revelations and an unfortunate tendency toward wordplay, but forgives those weaknesses, judging “A Gate at the Stairs” the author’s best book yet.
“If Ms. Moore, who started out as a short-story writer, demonstrates some difficulty here in steering the big plot machinery of a novel, she is able to compensate for this by thoroughly immersing the reader in her characters’ daily existences,” Kakutani writes.
Many a foodie would kill for the job that Frank Bruni is leaving voluntarily. But how many of them have as complicated a relationship with eating as the outgoing NYT restaurant critic? In “Born Round,” Bruni chronicles his love for food, and battle to control his appetite, which he had finally gotten under control by the time he took the job. Few writers would be able to pull off these stories the way Bruni did. Read my review in today’s LA Times.