Category Archives: Uncategorized

Back in the Mines

My children have been on me to blog again, and they are right. I backed off from it a year and a half ago because my freelance work was getting overwhelming. Then I unexpectedly got a full-time writing job again, as staff theater reporter and critic for the Hartford Courant. The job is great, just great, but it’s funny doing just the one beat after decades of being an all-around arts writer at large. So blogging brings balance and discipline, distinct from work. Plus I just can’t help myself. Never stopped jotting down “Rock Gods” band names.

I won’t be doing this daily. But I’m back in blog.

Book Thoughts

Spent a morning with Sally (who’s now 11) at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison last week. We hadn’t been there in ages, though a few months ago I co-led a book tour of New Haven that R.J. Julia sponsored. When I told Sally she’d been there years ago to see a live theatrical presentation based on the Junie B. Jones chapter-books, staged in front of a schoolbus in the bookstore parking lot, Sal said she thought she’d dreamed that.

There is something dreamlike about R.J. Julia. It’s the kind of comfortable, clean, well-kept, fully stocked independent bookshop that existed in most East Coast suburbs throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but these days are as rare as, well, most things to do with the printed word.

Many bookshops were driven out of business by large retail book chains such as Borders and B. Dalton, which eventually went under themselves. The few that have persisted have earned every sale they make: they are attentive to customers’ needs, buy new stock carefully, diversify their offerings without undercutting their main purpose (R.J. Julia has non-book gift items and jigsaw puzzles) and sponsor events which bring in the community as a whole and don’t just target the same diligent regulars.

But, just as wisely, in this age of immediate online purposes of anything made under the sun, these stores know that they can’t be all things to all people.

I read something on Facebook recently about someone seeing a front-cover review in the New York Times Book Review and being unable to find the book at several different independent bookstroes. The intimation was that indie bookstores, by not stocking the Times’ noteworthies, are not doing their job and are thus complicit in their own extinction.

As a former bookseller myself, I disagree. Much as many indie bookstores (and record stores for that matter) would like to have ready copies of any and every book any potential customer might require, that’s simply not how the business works. When my small shop was around in the late 1980s—when you could still dream of making a go at such a career—the spate of New York Times-honored books were a snare and a delusion. The problem was the same then as now—bigger dealers had easier access to them, could buy them in greater quantities, could sell them (often at discounts greater than the profit margin—“loss leaders,” as they’re known) and didn’t mind remaindering them if they didn’t sell. Back then, it was the was the brick-and-mortar retail chains we were fighting. Now, it’s obviously Amazon, and in some cases the online presences of the publishers themselves.

Bookstore economics are largely concerned with shifting around large amounts of “credit” from publishers. The smaller you are, the tougher that is to do. Stocking every single book recommended by the New York Times is one way of distinguishing your shop, but you might be better off special-ordering those titles when requested and using your funds to develop a niche where you’re not in direct competition with major retailers. Besides, most independent bookshops are so small now that they couldn’t stock all the books mentioned in the Times if they wanted to. Most are too small to contribute to the sales reports that make up the Times bestseller lists, or to influence which books get continued press coverage. Independent bookshops don’t ignore the Times. They just have to carefully select the titles they know will have appeal to their regular clientele, and which might have a chance to sell if they’re still on the shelves after that issue of the Times Book Review has expired.

A well-curated stock of mysteries—or histories, or whatever genre suits the community—where customers learn to trust the tastes of the curator, can be worth much more in the longterm than a stack of Times-reviewed tomes where the recommendation has national but not necessarily local importance and in which the bookseller might have only casual interest.

When I was in Montreal last summer and expressed amazement to a native there that there were so many small bookshops in the city, he replied “It’s because Amazon doesn’t do a good job with French language books.”

You should not berate your poor local indie bookstore for not carrying the book you read about in the Times. Instead, investigate what they have on their shelves. It’s called browsing, it’s a lost art, and you don’t need a program or guidebook to participate.

Sally and I walked into R.J. Julia Booksellers last Thursday with no idea at all of what books we might buy, or if we might buy any at all. We were vaguely cognizant that (other daughter) Mabel needed the next book in one of one of the Rick Riordan new-myth series; we found what she needed at once, and Sal found two hardcover novels-for-kids for herself. We also got Chris Grabenstein novel (the whole family had enjoyed his Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library), a small book on hummingbirds (we’ve put up a feeder at home), Judd Apatow’s new collection of interviews with comedians, the autobiography of Alice Cooper Group bassist Dennis Dunaway, and a jigsaw puzzle. That’s as wide-ranging a bunch of books as I could possibly hope for in any decent small bookshop. (I browsed hundreds of contemporary novels and classics, but held off buying any of those simply because I’ve got a huge backlog of fiction to plow through at home.)

The next day I was in downtown New Haven, and felt guilty about not buying books even more locally. So I went into Atticus on Chapel Street. There, I picked up Mark Adams’ Meet Me in Atlantis, which has been unavailable at the public library for weeks, and a book I didn’t think I wanted, but realized upon browsing it that I very much did: A. Brad Schwartz’s admirably even-handed and well-researched Broadcast Hysteria—Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.

I don’t let some media talk me out of appreciating other media. I can be distracted, but I make an effort to maintain balance. Books are real, a foundation of my home and life. R.J. Julia and Atticus (and many many other shops) are not to be walked idly by. They are of a fundamentally different character than websites and catalogues, and should be embraced for their knowledge, their sense of community and their unique attachment to the wonders of the written word.


Convergence concluded a few weeks ago. I bought the multi-universe myth-remix, which consumed all the DC Comics titles for two months, diligently at the cost of around a dozen comics a week.

Each title featured its own superheroic battle, a fight predetermined by an evil god who announced his intentions via a declaration that could be understood by every sentient being in every city he addressed. These were cities he’d already imprisoned in sphere, Stephen King Under the Dome style, for a year. The fights offered escape. They also allowed heroes to regain the powers they’d lost while stuck in the spheres.

I’m a pacifist, but I nevertheless enjoyed Convergence as a series of shortform strategic exercises. Some of the battles even ended in willful surrenders, stalemates or truces, in order to avoid bloodshed.

In some ways, the Convergence stories were the essence of superhero comicdom, the protagonist’s standard myths boiled down to a two-issue arc. Their origin tales were retold, then rebirths were experienced. The year of powerlessness allowed each hero to reconsider the meaning of his or her life, before being ordered to fight a presumed foe. These super-scraps are undertaken in order to save cities, which gives Convergence a sense of civic duty. There’s also a lot of flying and hurtling. (under the domes which encapsulate these cities, it’s still possible to soar, apparently.)

There’s a lot of realignment of the DC universe implicit in Convergence. Some fat has been trimmed away—whole planetary systems of fat. There’s been some clarification and prioritizing as, post-Convergence, DC unleashes dozens of new titles which so far seem distinguished by a lighter tone and a greater sense of humor. Some churlish fanboys have written off the whole Convergence endeavor as an easy way to keep the punters happy while the DC editorial offices made a grand move from New York to California. That attitude is unnecessarily caustic even for comic-realm critics. First, there are so many easier ways to fill two months of a publishing schedule than to create an interlocking story involving over 50-titles, hundreds of characters and dozens of artists and writers. Second, Convergence holds up remarkably well on its own terms, as a full-scale mythology marked by many small adventures and a grand earth(s)-changing conclusion. I look forward to rereading the whole stack of comics and happily reconverging soon.


The treasure was hidden in a safe in a capsule in an airtight crate buried under the ocean.

It was very well hidden.

People died trying to get at it.

Then they gave up and forgot about it.

The treasure was safe forever.

Meanwhile, a guy found a perfectly good refrigerator down at the dump.

Building Up to Tear Down

I like browsing the literary magazines in the local public library but can’t subscribe to any of them, because they inevitably irritate me. Reading them in the library helps me stop myself from throwing them across the room.

The intellectualism (faux and otherwise) I can usually handle. The vanity, in small doses., Comprehensiveness and authority, I like. The upholding of books as the prime medium for in-depth debate on history and politics, charming.

What I can’t stand are the critical cliches and the familiar, abhorrent review structure. Here’s the standard model:

  • The writer of the review asserts that the subject of the book s/he’s reviewing is considered forgotten, outdated or irrelevant.
  • The writer then automatically asserts that this should not be the case.
  • The writer then synopsizes and paraphrases the book for as long as his/her editor will allow.
  • At that point, some sort of acknowledgement of the book’s author is made, usually something along the lines of “done a good job.”

What bothers me most is that first bit. I’m attracted to reviews of things I’m already interested in. I expect that many casual readers of magazines and journals are. I don’t mind having someone’s life and work highlighted, but I wish that the typical manner in which it’s done wasn’t so negative.

The gambit is transparent—enlarge the egos of both the critic and the reader by establishing that they are more conversant in the career of the historical figure (or novelist of whomever) than, gosh, most anybody else.

I find such airs of superiority ridiculous, seeing that the critic is holding a whole book (or several, as with those “Books Mentioned in This Review” essays) about the purportedly unknown or underappreciated subject.

Last month, I didn’t appreciate Eric Banks asking Book Forum “Has there ever been a figure whose name so signals in equal parts cottage industry and relative neglect, at least in the English speaking world, as Bertolt Brecht?” Neither did I like Frank Rich in the New York Review of Books saying “When Bob Hope died in 2003 at the age of 100, attention was not widely paid,” since I can remember all the special magazine editions printed in his honor, and the endless memorials and impromptu film festivals on late night TV.

Was Hope bypassed and devalued by a later, hipper generation (or three) of comics? That’s easy to argue. But still well-known and respected at the age of 100? Yes. The fact that Rich’s review (of Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century is illustrated with a 1995 Annie Liebovitz photo of Hope in his joke vault would seem proof enough that he was still of interest in his declining years, despite his physical inability to maintain his old pace of USO tours, radio shows and vaudeville.

Scribblers Music Review

Scribblers Music Review

Donald Cumming, “Working It Out.” So ‘70s! The new number from The Virgins’ frontman’s impending solo album kicks off like solo Bryan Ferry (how often do I get to write that?!), then heads into solo-Beatles territory, with a simple refrain and a long steady stream of guitar noodling. Disco beats, even. Plus there’s that whole “Workin’ it out” theme. So ‘70s!

The song debuted on the Paste site, here.


I bought one of those old stinky green finetoothed handy practical multi-use serrated never-needs sharpening seismic metric calibrated pre-packaged single-serving post-modern up-to-date middle-of-the-road special new one-of-a-kind economy size exclusive handy dandy lifetime guaranteed things.

I lost it.

Alt Control

The state of American journalism is more complex than we think. Print is not dead. Once-proud TV news institutions think we don’t notice that they produce entertainment rather than report hard news. And the alternative press is now the mainstream.
Last month I did interviews for two separate arts stories where I was told straight out by the subjects that they cared far more about print coverage than online. Traditional reporting rituals matter to them.
I listen to all the Sunday morning news shows. Last month, all of them mentioned the in-jokey Washington Correspondents Dinner which had happened the night before their broadcasts, but only Face the Nation mentioned that major journalism awards are given out at the dinner, and it’s not just a comedy nite. The CBS program even had one of the winners as a panelist. This is why Bob Schieffer will be missed.
Speaking of major journalism awards, Dan Perkins, a fellow native of Iowa City (whom I first met and befriended over 20 years ago in New Haven), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Cartooning, it was announced last month. Judging by tradition, this is as big a deal as actually winning the thing. Nearly all these prizes come through mainstream channels—major journalistic institutions, the biggest news syndicates and chains, or writers with agents or important supporters. Dan, who is better known as “Tom Tomorrow,” self-syndicates his weekly multi-panel strip This Modern World, and while he appears in a number of prestigious national publications, can’t expect to be championed by them the way a staff columnist or major syndicated writer would. This is a breakthrough of sorts, Dan being taken seriously in the sniffy, monocled big leagues. In the last decade, a lot of the alternative press publications which were credible contenders for Pulitzers have either ceased to be (like the Boston Phoenix, whose classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz actually won a Pulitzer in 1994) or no longer strive to be newsbreaking or highly analytical operations (like the three-time Pulitzer-winning Village Voice). In Connecticut, the main alt voice was always the Advocate papers, whose alums include Dick Polman, Gail Collins, Jonathan Harr, Beverly Gage and Paul Bass. Those writers and many others have moved into less “alternative” media realms without a dilution of their attitudes and outlooks. Dan’s much-deserved citation by the Pulitzer committee is an acknowledgement of principles which have guided a certain breed of journalist for decades, if not centuries. These voices are popular, acclaimed and necessary, but they seldom get the prizes. Dan came wicked close, and more power to him. Join Sparky’s List at