Monday, December 06, 2010

Miami Book Fair 2010

This is the highlight of my year and I have been actively planning for weeks. The book fair website has a feature that creates a personalized schedule and that has been very helpful. There are so many events happening simultaneously, and I can only attend one at a time so about 95% of the published schedule is irrelevant to me and frankly I don’t want to think about all the stuff I am not able to see; that is just a blot on the perfect happiness of the book fair experience.

So as I start out, here’s my schedule:


10:00 a.m. Dave Barry and Willie Geist
11:30 a.m. Dave Eggers
12:30 p.m. Greil Marcus and Alex Ross
2:30 p.m. Sam Barry, Kathi Kamen Goldberg, and John Dufresne
4:00 p.m. Heidi Cullen, Gwynne Dyer, and Peter Maass
6:00 p.m. Rock Bottom Remainders


10:00 a.m. Carl Hiaasen
11:30 a.m. Ron Chernow
12:30 p.m. Simon Winchester
3:30 Skip Horack, T.M. Shine
5:00 p.m. Jonathan Franzen

November 20, 2010
On the road by 8:15. This time last year, the express lane on I-95 was only completed on the northbound side but now it’s southbound as well, and that makes the trip much more pleasant. At one point in North Miami there was construction on the interstate and the poor slobs over in the non-express lanes were slowed to a crawl. But in the express lane, we whooshed by them, thinking, “I bet you wish you had paid that twenty-five cents now!” I made it to downtown Miami in about 35 minutes, which is ridiculously fast. I was definitely breaking the law but wasn’t going any faster than the other express commuters.

First objective reached: to get to the fair in time to grab one of the limited number of free parking spaces. I figured this out last year after too many years of paying Miami prices for parking. I park in the free garage and then I don’t move the car until Í leave on Sunday night. Part of this strategy is getting a nearby hotel room rather than as I previously have done, staying on Miami Beach. The Beach has its advantages, but the book fair takes up enough of my energy that I’m not looking for nightlife when it’s done for the day. The closest hotel to the book fair is actually a Holiday Inn, but I opted to go two more blocks and pay less for the Continental hotel—not to be confused with the Inter-Continental, a five-star property across the boulevard. The Continental is what might be called a commercial hotel, someplace you picture a traveling salesman might stay if he’s not making his quotas this month. It has terrible reviews on the internet sites but I haven’t had a bad experience. The rooms are small and the furniture is old but the sheets are clean and there’s plenty of hot water. (And, no bedbugs: I checked.) Last year the internet connection worked. This year it didn’t, but I don’t need it.

The first and definitely not least event:

Dave Barry

By the time I joined the line at 9:20 there were already more than a hundred people queued in separate lines. Over on my side, the book nerds, and across the corridor, the wealthy book nerds who shelled out $175.00 or more to be designated “Friends of the Book Fair.” The two populations are similar in appearance; the only difference I can see is that the few young people in attendance are all on our side. The book fair demographic is largely in the “geezer” range. I’m sure that will become more true as time goes on, until when I’m 105 years old I’ll be one of the last people on Earth to remember what a book was. The woman ahead of me in line was reading from a Kindle, which reminded me of what Barbara Kingsolver said at this venue last year: “I’m in favor of forms of entertainment which don’t electrocute you if you drop them in the bathtub.”

At 9:50 the Friends started in but the volunteers only let in ten at a time, as though crowd control were a big concern, like they needed to prevent these wealthy, elderly book nerds from stampeding or rioting or breaking into fisticuffs over who sits where. Honestly, I think they could have let them all file in and sit down. As it was, the process took way too long and the event didn’t start until 10:20. The MC said, “We never have an introducer for Dave Barry because if I got up here and started to introduce somebody who wasn’t Dave, people might throw tomatoes at me. We want to be sure he has as much time as possible.” But she did need to introduce Willie Geist, who was unknown to me and also to the people around me in line. It turns out he has an early morning show (“Morning Joe” ) on CNBC. He is good-looking and witty, but he’s no Dave Barry. Geist got a laugh with his opening remark: ”I’m pleased to see such a big crowd. I’m well aware of why you are here.”

Willie Geist is the son of Bill Geist. I’d never heard of either of them; Google leads me to the information that the father is a correspondent for CBS. The book Willie is promoting, American Freak Show: The Completely Fabricated Stories of Our New National Treasures, is an exploration of the absurdity of celebrity culture. It begins with a transcript of Sarah Palin’s 2012 inaugural address: she’s giving the speech at the Ice Palace in Tampa, before a professional wrestling event. Keepin’ it real for real America. Other subjects of the book include the Kardashian’s (“Who ARE these people?”) and the “balloon boy,” Geist noted, to the amusement of the local crowd, that the balloon boy’s family has now relocated to Florida. Dave chortled. Willie exclaimed, “This is where they come! This is where it all ends!”

Willie shared the experience he had with one of the characters in his book, Rod Blagojavich. He related that when “Blago” arrived in the CNBC studio for his interview, he burst into the room yelling, “Gentlemen! Good morning! I am innocent of all charges!” Then he proceeded to shake hands with everyone in the room and after that he signed autographs, unsolicited-- just walked up to people, signed a piece of paper and handed it to them. Apparently, nobody has ever enjoyed celebrity more than Blago does, and his experience is unmarred by embarrassment, shame, or apprehension of any kind.

Dave Barry took the podium to enthusiastic applause and immediately related his story du jour which involves an incident at the “Miami International Airport and Construction Zone” in which he was detained and patted down because the X-ray scanner showed he had a “blurred groin.” Here’s his version of that story.

Among his other topics was his colonoscopy essay, which is the only part of his latest book that is previously published material. That piece has probably changed the world more than anything he’s ever done. If it’s really true that colonoscopies save lives, then he is responsible for some of the planet’s population being alive instead of dead right now.

He also talked about how crazy Miami is, and noted that he is a booster of Miami tourism, having designed a bumper sticker that reads, “Come back to Miami—we weren’t shooting at you.”

During Q&A, someone asked what is the funniest story you know. Dave told this classic story about how the Oregon Highway Patrol attempted to solve the problem of a dead whale on the beach. Geist‘s tale was a less-told story but also funny. When he was in college, he rented an RV with some friends and drove to a football game. They parked for the night in a field. Some of the partiers sacked out on the roof of the vehicle. Some other members of the group arrived late and, experiencing an attack of munchies, decided to drive the RV to a convenience store several miles away. Somehow they drove all the way without fully awakening the passed-out passengers up top, and didn’t realize until they had arrived at their destination that they were there. Months or years later, when Geist was nominated for homecoming king, he was asked to relate to the alumni committee the most memorable event of his college career. He drew a blank, and all he could remember was the infamous RV incident. As the story unfolded, he could see the horror growing on his audience’s faces, and he realized very quickly that there was no chance he was going to be elected to be homecoming king.

Geist looks like a midwestern homecoming king, though; he definitely has the face for television. I had never heard of him before and I wasn’t especially bowled over, but he was genial and entertaining. Dave was brilliant. How we love him! Here’s a riff on Florida drivers: "Of course, everyone in Florida follows the traffic laws to the letter—it’s just that each person drives according to the traffic laws of his native country." Someone asked whether he had a funny story about the Department of Motor Vehicles. Dave replied that in Florida they give out driver’s licenses in Happy Meals. And he added, “I’m convinced that if alien beings ever land on Earth, they will already have Florida driver’s licenses.”

Dave was asked to comment on Florida’s newly elected governor, Rick Scott, and he said, “Why can’t we elect someone who looks like a human being? Charlie Crist looks like a traffic cone, and now we have Skeletor…”

I stood in line so Dave could sign a book for me. I told him as always that I was representing the Joel Achenbach fan club (and emphasized that all of Joel’s fans are his fans as well). He likes to say, “Ah, yes, the Boodle!” to show that he is in the know. So he did say that. I told him that Joel has a book coming out in the spring. He was somewhat skeptical. Just because he writes two or three books a year, he thinks anybody who takes longer than six months to produce a published volume is some kind of slacker. I told him I was sure the book would be out and I hoped Joel would be at the book fair in 2011. Dave’s not holding his breath, but I know he’d be happy if that occurred, because in past years when I mentioned Joel’s name he always looked around and said hopefully, “Is he here?”


Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers is the coolest person I have encountered in a long time. He is cute, yes, and smart. But he’s also very good-hearted and sincere without being corny.

Eggers has a book out and also runs a publishing house and edits a magazine. He has a web site, as well, and masterminds a video distribution service. So I assume he is rich, and has to spend a lot of time marketing his products to keep the machine going. But he mostly wanted to talk about 826 Valencia, which is his nonprofit reading and tutoring center in the Mission District of San Francisco. At the publishing company, all the employees stop what they are doing when the neighborhood kids get out of school for the day, and everybody spends two hours working with the kids. First the students finish their homework, and then they read and write books. Because it’s a publishing house, all the tools are there to create real books from the kids’ work, and that is what they do. They publish the students’ work and they host author nights where the students talk about their books and sign copies.

There was an issue with zoning because the space is zoned for retail. So it was necessary to sell something in the storefront. They did market research and had meetings and arrived at the conclusion that there was a pressing need in the Mission District that was not being met, so they opened a pirate supply store. They sell eyepatches and planks, pirate flags and peg legs. They thought it was humorous and creative but were surprised to find that there really is great demand for pirate paraphernalia, (“It’s a very passionate subculture,” says Dave.) The store turned out to be phenomenally successful. It makes enough money to pay the rent for the entire enterprise. Consequently, when a McSweeney's branch opened in Brooklyn, they decided to follow the same model: publishing/tutoring center/retail. In Brooklyn, they sell superhero supplies. If you buy a cape there, you can test it using a large industrial fan, to make sure it will flow out behind you gracefully as you fly. Meanwhile, the customers at the store discover the tutoring center, and often return as volunteers. The model is successful in San Francisco and New York and in numerous other locations.(Echo Park sells time traveler equipment.) Nick Hornby has started an organization in the UK called the Ministry of Stories, inspired by 826 Valencia.

Eggers’s current book is called Zaitoun. It’s the awful, true story of one man’s experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Zaitoun is a good guy, a regular guy, but he gets caught up in a tangled web of misguided law enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts. Eggers says Zaitoun has received letters and emails from across the country, all saying essentially “On behalf of America, I apologize.” That’s the closest thing to a happy ending that this terrible story can have, I guess.

Proceeds from the book go to the Zaitoun Foundation, which promotes intercultural dialog and understanding.


I stood in line to get Eggers to sign my book bag and also, one of his art prints. I am in possession of a number of pieces of his art work because I'm a member of the McSweeney's book club, and we all received a shipment of the prints a couple of months ago. Here's the one he signed:

The book bag is a true collector's item at this point although it's not in mint condition because I sometimes use it (!) to carry books in. And it's been schlepped around downtown Miami for three or four years now. But here are the signatures I have so far: (1) Joel Achenbach (first in alphabetical order; first in our hearts). (2) Frank McCourt (may his soul rest in peace) (3) Mitchell Kaplan (the owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, he's the godfather of the Miami Book Fair.) (4) Leonard Pitts (5) Barbara Kingsolver (6) Sherman Alexie (7) Dave Barry (8) Ridley Pearson (9) Andy Borowitz (10) Dave Eggers and (11) T.M. Shine.

Now that's a book bag.

= = = = = = = = = =
Because I was standing in Dave Eggers's very long line, I missed the 12:30 p.m. Greil Marcus and Alex Ross session. Marcus has a book out about Bob Dylan, and I don't even know what Ross had to offer. I tried not to think about it, and moved on to

Sam Barry, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, and John Dufresne

I attended this session, which is dedicated to helping aspiring writers, thinking I would buy one of the books for my daughter, who is a talented writer but is not especially inspired to produce finished products suitable for publication.

Sam and Kathi, who in addition to being literary collaborators, are also married to each other, performed a skit demonstrating how books are chosen for publication. Sam’s big brother Dave was an appreciative member of the audience, with a front row seat.

Dufresne talked about the work of writing a novel. He quoted Somerset Maugham, “There are three secrets to writing a novel; and nobody knows what they are.” Then he added his own words of wisdom: “Everything in your life is incompatible with writing, and always will be.”

Dufresne’s most recent book is entitled How to Write Your First Novel in Six Months. He said, “I wrote the book but I haven’t read it yet.” (He’s in his third year of working on his current novel.)

Here’s a tip for aspiring writers: if you have a manuscript and you’re looking for an agent, look at books that are somewhat similar to yours, and check the acknowledgments. Usually the writer will thank his agent. You need an agent to be published by the big New York houses. But for the smaller university presses, you can submit the manuscript yourself.

Approaching the end of the day, good time to contemplate the end of the world as we know it. Three authors who have written books about climate change:

Heidi Cullen, The Weather of the Future
Gwynne Dyer, Climate Wars: the Fight for Survival
Peter Maass, Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil.

This was a depressing session. I can’t even bear to summarize it.

Relief from the somber realities was upcoming on the 5th floor terrace of Building 3:

The Rock Bottom Remainders

. . . in concert. Featuring local Florida author Tim Dorsey on cowbell. Also local radio personality, (not an author, he himself emphasized) Paul Castronovo, of the “Paul and Young Ron Show”. Kathi Goldmark, Sam Barry, Scott Turow, Les Standiford, Ridley Pearson, various other people—oh, yeah, Michelle Kaufman and Sophie Barry, (Dave’s wife and daughter, respectively) and, I think, one of Sophie’s random friends. Not a large group this year, which initially seemed to improve the odds of everybody’s finishing the song at the same time. But early optimism on that score was later dashed. Also, remembering how many verses the song has seemed to be a problem. Come to think of it, those two problems are related. Anyway, they did most of the RBR classics, including “Proof-reading Woman,” “The Slut Song,” “If the House is Rockin’,” and “Hurricane Blues.” Other numbers on the set list included "Wild Thing," “Wait Till the Midnight Hour,” and “Margaritaville.”

At one point, Dave introduced “The greatest writer of legal fiction in the universe” (Turow) and someone near me said, “Oh, I didn’t know John Grisham was here.” (literary rimshot…)

Really fun, and the weather was great, just about 75 degrees and a slight breeze. It sprinkled a little bit but not enough to interfere with anything. I chatted with Suzie and Mike—Mike used to work for the Miami News and he knew Dave from the old days, also had recently visited with him at a Miami News reunion. When they ran into each other later the same week, he said, “Hi, Dave, remember me, we were talking the other day at the Miami News Reunion.” Dave replied, “Oh, hey! Hi! So you finally sobered up, eh?”

After the concert, I grabbed a sandwich from Subway and headed for the hotel. I thought I would write up some of my notes but I was soooo tired! I fell asleep before I got anything done.

November 21
Got up early Sunday morning and went jogging along Biscayne Bay. I wasn’t able to cross the bridge because the sidewalk was closed for construction, but downtown Miami at sunrise is still very charming. I was running and gawking, sightseeing as I went. It occurred to me that it was something like the experience people have when they tour on Segways, just with a little more effort.

I had a pretty leisurely morning, didn’t have to rush, but got packed and checked out, took my stuff to the car and was in the Carl Hiaasen line by 9:30. The line was even longer than the Dave Barry line on Saturday. Possibly because the Hiaasen fans were joined by a bunch of Scott Turow readers—I don’t think those two groups have a huge amount of overlap.

Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen was charming, as usual, maybe a little more downcast than he was the last time I saw him. His latest book is Star Island, a tale of celebrity culture and intrigue set in South Beach. He said South Beach is difficult to satirize because anything you make up will likely be surpassed by a real event before you get your book published.

South Florida does seem to attract the weirdos. Hiaasen was about the third speaker I heard mention that the “balloon boy’s” family was moving to Florida. Carl’s comment: “That was inevitable, wasn’t it?” Another example: Rush Limbaugh could have lived anywhere. Carl says he understands why Limbaugh chose to live in Florida—it’s because we have the friendliest pharmacists anywhere. "If you want to back a dump truck up to the pharmacy and fill it with Oxycontin: 'Okay!'”

Carl said he had to read a lot of tabloid newspapers and watch a lot of celebrity tv reports as research for the book. He kept hearing about the “Kardashians” so he asked Dave Barry, who tends to be more up on current culture, “How many of them are there?” Dave said he thought there were “15 or 16”…

But Carl is satirizing the culture; he does not think it is funny. The story he told indicates very well what his viewpoint is: On a day when eight American soldiers died in Afghanistan, in the most severe fighting of the war to date, Lindsay Lohan was arrested for something and it was her story that was the lead—it was difficult to find information about what happened in Afghanistan.

The main character in Star Island is a kind of Britney Spears/Lindsay Lohan type celebrity. Carl is mildly disgusted with the position this type of celebrity holds in our culture. He said, "5,000 years ago, they would have been culled from the herd. You know? They shouldn’t be allowed to poison the gene pool."

Scott Turow

Scott Turow talked about but did not read from his new book, Innocent. It is a sequel to Presumed Innocent. He was careful not to give away the surprise ending from the original book so that people could read the books in any order. He and the audience also observed the taboo at the book fair although it’s a good bet that the overwhelming majority of people there were aware of the plot of Presumed Innocent. That was nice, though.

Turow said the germ of an idea for this latest book may have come from an Edward Hopper painting, “An Excursion into Philosophy.”

In the Q&A, Hiaasen was asked about the election of Rick Scott as Governor, and he said, “As a columnist I have to be glad because there will be plenty of material, but as a citizen, as a father, as a grandfather…I could have hoped for a better outcome.”

He noted that Scott spent $73 million of his own money to be elected, and said Scott has “the worst resume in the history of politics.”

Then someone asked, are you at all optimistic about the environment? And he replied, “No. I’m not.”

After a pause, he continued, “For a while, during the Clinton administration, when the Everglades restoration project was on the front burner, I thought there might be a chance to make some progress. But with the recession . . .

“We all want clean air to breath and clean water to drink—Democrat or Republican—it’s not a radical idea. But if you show up in Tallahassee talking about environmental issues now, you get treated like you’re crazy.”

= = = = = = = = =

I didn’t have time to stand in Carl’s autographing line if I was going to hear Ron Chernow. It was at this point, giving up standing in one line so that I could stand in a different line, after the long day on Saturday and with six hours of more or less continuous activity ahead of me, that I kind of hit the wall, as they say in long distance running. I had my doubts about whether I had the energy to get through to the end of the day. I guess my blood sugar level was dipping, and maybe Hiaasen hadn’t helped with his Eeyoresque presentation. I briefly considered packing it in and heading for home. But then I turned to the person next to me in line, a nice young woman who was also on her own. I struck up a little conversation with her, compared schedules—she had also been there all day on Saturday and was planning to spend the day on Sunday too—and I decided I could do it. As it turned out, I only had to stand in line for Chernow, and then got to stay in my seat for Simon Winchester. After that I had a two hour break for lunch and shopping, and the rest of the day unfolded very smoothly. That brief moment of fatigue was the only time in the whole weekend that I felt less than perfectly happy.

Ron Chernow

Washington, a Life

About George Washington:

He didn’t chop down a cherry tree and then admit it to his father saying, “I cannot tell a lie.”

He didn’t have wooden teeth. His teeth were carved ivory and maybe some of them were human teeth purchased from slaves (a common practice at the time.) He only had one natural tooth of his own at the time he became president.

And so on. Chernow says he “needed a machete” to cut through the dense forest of myths and misconceptions about the Father of Our Country. Chief among these is the perception that Washington was stiff and expressionless—this idea is fed by the famous portraits of him done by Gilbert Stuart and other contemporary artists. But revolutionaries are not boring individuals. Washington’s laconic and stoic façade covered a strong personality. Chernow, with this book, tries “to recreate the charisma that seems to have gotten lost to posterity.”

Washington was a prodigy—at age 23 he was in charge of all the military forces of Virginia. He is legendary for his perseverance and bravery. He was unanimously elected to leadership positions.

His revolutionary ideas flowed naturally from his personal interests: the British denied him a commission and outlawed western settlement just at the time when Washington was acquiring properties. So he joined in with the founders and made important contributions. When the constitutional convention was held, the delegates met behind closed doors. Washington’s presence was important to the public, reassuring them that the congress was a legitimate proceeding.

Washington created the first presidential “cabinet.” His had three members, Alexander Hamilton at Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. That’s if you don’t count Edmund Randolph, the Attorney General.

Washington hoped for a non-partisan government but the mudslinging started right away. He was accused of having been a spy for the British throughout the revolutionary war. The divide between Hamilton and Jefferson led to a split in the country and the formation of political parties.

Washington was opposed to slavery, but knew it was a divisive question so he avoided the issue. He freed his slaves in his will, but wasn’t able to free the slaves who were controlled by Martha. It was arranged that her slaves would be freed upon her death but she was made uneasy by this arrangement, since it meant all her slaves were waiting and even hoping for her to die so they could be free. She freed her slaves about a year after George died, and about a year before her own death.

Simon Winchester

Winchester’s book about the Atlantic Ocean is a big tale but also a collection of interesting stories.

Here’s one: In the Faroe Islands, halfway between Norway and Iceland, the residents are descended from Vikings. Winchester says they have too much testosterone and not enough to keep them busy; that’s how he explains this strange activity that they have developed. The western sides of the islands form high, sheer cliffs—as high as 2000 feet in places. On the sides of these cliffs there are small areas, very steep, where patches of grass grow. This grass is fertilized by puffin guano, which is exceptionally rich in nutrients, so the vegetation is very lush. In the spring, the strapping lads of the Faroe Islands take boats to the foot of the cliffs. They each hoist a lamb onto their shoulders and they climb up ropes until they come to one of the patches of steep grass, and they put the lamb there. Winchester says they have to hold the lamb until it gets its footing because the pitch makes it nearly impossible to stand. Once the lamb is stabilized, they go away and leave it there. A few months later they return, and the lamb has grown into a sheep. They climb up the ropes again. When they reach the sheep they give it a shove and it falls into the water below. If the fall doesn’t kill it, they finish the job and then take it back to town. The meat thus harvested has a reputation for being exceptionally tasty. This is a typical Winchester story: weird and wonderful, if slightly cringe-inducing. That is how I remember The Professor and the Madman. I haven’t read Atlantic, but I’m sure it is entertaining and educational.

T.M. Shine and Skip Horack

This Sunday afternoon event was not well attended. T.M. Shine continues to be one of literature’s hidden treasures.

Skip Horack wrote a novel called The Eden Hunter. It’s about a pygmy who is captured and brought to America as a slave, then escapes and lives in the wilds of Florida in the early 19th century. The book is inspired by true historical events and has received favorable reviews.

I was there to see T. M. Shine and was happy to finally meet him in person after being an admirer for over twenty years. He has a dark sense of humor and a quick wit. Here’s an archetypal Shine aphorism: “Desperate is the new cool.” His newest book is called Nothing Happens Until it Happens to You. He pitched it to his publisher as a memoir but they wanted a novel so he punched it up with some fictional characters. But it’s still very much what he would have written if they had let him write a memoir. Because with Shine, what’s going on inside his head always gets as much attention as what’s happening “out there” in the real world. When he writes humor, his narrative follows the knife edge of credulity. You want to believe it really happened but it feels like he’s pulling your leg most of the time. When he does journalism, it’s believable but you know that if you had been in the situation he’s describing you wouldn’t have had the experience he had. Shine has a unique worldview and an uncanny ability to put it into words.

The audiobook: what a thrill to find that someone has taken the time and spent the money to make the novel you worked hard to write into an audiobook. That would make you feel special, wouldn’t it? Until you get the CD, and listen to it, and find out that they apparently hired the actor who voiced C-3PO to read it for the audiobook. This is not a voice that is conducive to humor. Shine brought the CD and played some of it for us so we could share his pain.

Terry Shine embodies the new reality in journalism and literature. He was laid off from his job at the free weekly paper that is a subsidiary of the big daily newspaper, not because he wasn’t good but just because the paper is on the verge of going out of business and had to cut its staff to the bare minimum. He has written features for the Washington Post magazine but that was mostly because of the close connection between the Miami Herald, where he debuted as a feature writer, and the Post; and since Tom Shroder is no longer at the Post it makes it much more problematic for him to publish there. Shine is not a big networker or self-promoter, I gather. What he is, is an artist. He says he’s looking for work and that he has accepted that writing might just be a hobby for him. I can only hope for his sake that he finds happiness, and, for my sake, that he keeps finding a way to get his work published. Here’s his blog, PinkSlipMyAss. If you sign up, you can be notified when he posts; it’s not a regular occurrence.

= = = = = = =

Jonathan Franzen

I’m an avid fan of this best-selling author. I had a sort of mystical experience reading his book of essays How to be Alone. You know the way schizophrenics think the television is speaking to them, personally? That’s how that book was for me. I kept getting the feeling that Franzen was slipping personal messages into the text, and they were about me and they were about him. Not about the two of us together. About each of us, alone.

I wish the book fair schedule had not put Franzen at the very end of the program. By the time Sunday evening came around, I was very tired and looking forward to getting home. Still, he did not disappoint. He read passages from his new book, and then took questions from the audience.


“I’m writing extreme stories, based on my own personal experience of the world.”

“Is it possible to be irritated with yourself? The other day I was irritable and everything everybody said or did was getting on my nerves. But I noticed that nothing I thought or said irritated me.”

“It’s doubtful whether anyone who has an internet connection at the workplace is writing decent fiction.”

= = = = = = = = =

The drive home was actually uneventful but I was tired and it was a dark and rainy night, so I was a little stressed. All ended well, however, and I was back at my house by 8:00 p.m. A nearly perfect Miami Book Fair International weekend—the only thing that would have improved it is if one or more of my literary friends could have joined me for the experience. I will note that people do go to the book fair alone, it’s much more common to see single people there than at a concert or a movie or the county fair or an art show. And any time I felt like chatting, I had no problem turning to the person next to me and striking up a conversation. Everyone is friendly and intelligent, so it’s not a lonely experience. But I got spoiled the three years I had an enthusiastic companion. A bunch of people have told me they will try to come next year, and since my very favorite author is publishing a book in 2011, next year might just be a regular Achen-festival. If you are an organized person who already has a 2011 calendar, it’s not too early to mark the date: November 19-20 should be the big weekend, but you can keep an eye on the official website for news and updates.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mothers United for World Peace

There's nothing wrong with having a day set aside for the especial appreciation of mothers. However, the original concept of Mothers Day was something quite different. Julia Ward Howe of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" fame conceived the idea of a day for mothers around the world to band together for peace. I'd like to sign up for that. Here's her manifesto:

Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

--Julia Ward Howe

Happy Mother's Day to everybody, with best wishes for universal love and world peace!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Weekend on Florida's Gulf Coast

We took a little sojourn over to the other coast of Florida this weekend. Our home away from home was the Two Fish Inn, which I recommend highly, should you ever be inclined to visit Pine Island, Florida. The island itself has limited charm, but if you like boating, it has the advantage of being surrounded on all sides by navigable water; apparently that's the main attraction there. We went for the peace and quiet, and we were satisfied in our quest.

On arrival, 4 p.m. Friday, the inn was deserted. We called the number on the office door and Charlie told us, "You're in Suite 3. Your name is on the door, the door is unlocked, the key is inside. Make yourself at home." We did as instructed. I made use of the canal-side lounge chair to read my book* while Richard went swimming in the solar-heated pool. Charlie turned up a couple hours later, checked us in and directed us to a nearby restaurant for a lovely Italian dinner. We drove to the north end of the island and back, then I took a walk around the neighborhood, such as it was. There's one main road on the island, not very pedestrian-friendly at the south end. I explored some side streets but there were dogs and dead ends and I made sure I returned before dark.

Saturday morning, Richard and I went for a swampy hike down a nearby nature trail where a sign indicated we would find an eagle's nest. For whatever reason, we didn't find any eagles or nests, but it was a pleasant walk, and we were only slightly harrassed by mosquitoes. We've lived in Florida so long, we're mostly immune to the irritation of mosquito bites. They have to really swarm and attack before we feel any discomfort. Those Pine Island mosquitoes were too shy to interfere with our hike.

After the hike, Richard went back into lounging mode. The inn provides free bicycles and kayaks so I checked out the bike inventory and found one that seemed to have most of its parts. The seat was too low and Charlie said he didn't have a wrench to adjust it, so I gamely set out down the road in spite of the inadequacy of the vehicle. My thinking was, it's just a leisurely ride, I don't need to go fast. However, it wasn't a lot of fun with the seat so low. I think it was the slowest bike ride I've ever taken. I knew there was a shopping plaza down the road and thought I could ride to it and buy a wrench and adjust the seat. I knew the plaza was 8 miles away, because the restaurant where we'd had dinner was right next to it. But "eight miles" didn't really register on my consciousness. I just set out and pedaled and enjoyed the view. Before I knew it I was five miles down the road and then I figured, that's more than halfway, and I kept going. It was a long eight miles, with my knees complaining about the awkward angle of pedaling. Sometimes I tried pedaling standing up, but, you know, that used to be a lot easier when I was ten years old.

I made it to the plaza, went into CVS and bought pliers, which is the closest thing to a wrench that they had. I returned to the bike and looked at the nut that needed to be loosened, then I remembered, this is an island bike. I spent enough time in Key West to appreciate what that means in terms of rust and how difficult it can be to loosen a nut. But I was determined, and between the pliers and the determination, I got that seat adjusted. The ride back home was much more fun and about twice as fast, though I certainly didn't set any speed records in either direction.

The weather was wonderful, sunny and about 80 degrees by 11 a.m. We checked out and went looking for the ferry that goes to the nearby islands. We did find the marina but the schedule wasn't convenient, so we just had a look around and headed for the mainland.

We made a delightful stop on the way in Matlacha (pronounced, against all logic, "matt la SHAY") a tiny art colony with more quality artwork per square foot than I believe I've ever seen anywhere. We only stayed a brief time but could have spent days there going though the shops and galleries. I had a thought that is rare to me, "If I had money, this is the kind of thing I would like to have in my house." The works were extremely original and well-crafted.

After Matlacha we drove across the bridge to the mainland and took an immediate left turn to find the Ford-Edison museum and estates. The quick tour there was very pleasant and educational. But the main thing you need to learn there I already knew: Genius=1% inspiration + 99% perspiration.

The drive back across Alligator Alley was uneventful, and we were home by dinnertime. More photos here.


*The Big Short, by Michael Lewis. I finished it on Saturday. An important book. Everybody should read it, including the Goldman Sachs executives who are in the current issue of Business Week saying "It wasn't our fault. Really."

I'm grateful to Mr. Lewis and others who have tried so hard to report the facts and clarify this perplexing situation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Achenblog FAQ

Achenblog FAQ

Copied from Mo's Den of Darkness blog

The Achendictionary - a quick reference guide to the Achenspeak on the Achenblog

AABB - (Always A Boodle Behind) (not to be confused with ABBA) - not keeping up with the boodle. We are a loquacious bunch!

Achenaddict - one who is addicted to the Achenblog.

Achenara, Achenlater, Achenawhile, bachenawhile - farewell to the boodle.

Achenblog - a blog run by Joel Achenbach on

Achenbloghogging - posting an inordinate number of comments.

Achenbook - a book authored by Joel himself, can be hard to find because they’re out of print.

Achenbro - Joel’s brother, Kevin, who is in a band called Rox Diamond.

Achenembarrassing - an embarrassing comment made in connection with the Achenblog.

Achenhead - headache.

Achenphotographer - the official photographer of the BPH - currently mo.

Achensecret - secrets said at the BPH not to be repeated at the Achenblog.

Achenshy - shy, especially with regard to attending the Porching Hour or boodling.

AHRRP - Achenblog Handle Reharvesting/Reallocation Program, a phenomenon

whereby an individual (possibly the ‘loper) would go back to old Boodles to find apparently abandoned handles that would later be adopted as his/her own. Handles acquired in this manner include “Observer” and “sweetiefur.”

Bcfauxlettres - the fake letters bc advised we send to various members of the


Blorph - 1. Jim Beam; popular with omnibad. 2. The sound made whilst in the vicinity of Jim Beam. 3. a general “feh” statement.

Boddle - boodling gone wrong.

Boodle - (short for Kaboodle) the comments section of the Achenblog.

Boodle Porching Hour (or BPH) - Happy Hour for Boodlers, where imaginary friends become real. Most commonly in D.C., but BPHs have been held in a number of U.S. states and in Canada. (See also IBPH.)

Boodler - a person who posts comments in the Boodle.

Boodle Killer - the last person to boodle before a significant lag time in others boodling is sometimes accused of being a Boodle Killer. Joel likes to think his appearance in the Boodle has a tendency to kill the Boodle. He is wrong.

Boodling - the act of posting a comment on the Achenblog.

Boodling Out Of Order (or BOOO) - When someone posts a comment in response to a

previous comment, but another comment is posted in between the two comments, making the comment look inappropriate or irrelevant.

Boodleville, Boodleborough, Porchville - names of places used by boodlers posting in other venues.

Bunker - Where the boodle hunkers down when the crazies appear through a front-page link (see "Front-page alert"). The bunker apparently houses several rooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, many comfortable chairs and is decorated with doilies, antler-themed decor and artwork featuring jet fighters. No Thomas Kinkade paintings allowed.

Burnt umber - color to be worn on National Umbrage Day; also a Crayola crayon color.

Dawn Patrol - The Boodlers that post comments before normal people have had a cup of coffee.

Dork - nerd; often used to describe frequent boodlers by those that are less than loquacious.

Error in '08 - Planned presidential campaign of Error Flynn, whose premature death at age 47 in 2007 proved that imaginary friends are very real.

*Faxing ....[X] to [Y]* - The method of transferring items from boodler to boodler, across time and space. Use of asterisks denotes action.

FBBI - Federal Bureau of Boodle Investigations, established in response to the Interloper

Problem. Currently Achenfan is the official investigator as well as the Queen of the Boodle.

Feats of Strength - Under the Seinfeld orthodoxy, Festivus is not over until the

head of the household is wrestled to the floor and pinned. This typically follows “the airing of grievances.”

Feh - an exclamation similar to “darn”, generally follows an scc statement.

Festivus - a “Seinfeld” term; an alternative to Christmas that includes “the airing

of grievances” and a “Festivus pole”; Boodlers received Festivus gifts from bc at the 3rd Official Boodle Porching Hour on December 6, 2005.

Front-page alert - Notice that it's time to head into the bunker.

FSM - Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster;

an alternative explanation for how the world came into being, in the context of evolution vs. intelligent design discussions. According to the official site “The Flying Spaghetti Monster: An invisible and undetectable being made of spaghetti and meatballs, the Flying Spaghetti Monster claims to be the true creator of the universe and life on Earth; all evidence of evolution or other origins of life, his followers, the Pastafarians, say, are tricks to throw off the unbeliever. The FSM’s hobbies include flying through the universe, touching things with his noodly appendage and pissing off proponents of intelligent design creation theories. He could be defeated by common sense or acceptance of basic scientific principles, if only either of those things existed.”

Glaucoma Test Pilot: One who partakes of a particularly magical herb by smoking it or making it a secret ingredient in yummy brownies (bet ya can't eat just one). GTPs are easily amused and are often found in dark basements observing how lint glows on their concert t-shirts under a black light to the accompaniment of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon". They are also known to congregate at Phish concerts.

GTP Motto: "Dude... I am sooooooo high. Like where's my car?"

Hal the Schemer - creator of the Achenblog and sometimes technical advisor - always trying to find a way to take over the blog.

Handle - Name by which a poster is known on the Achenblog.

Higgs Ocean - a metaphorical twist on the theoretical Higgs Field, which permeates the universe and gives mass to particles. The Ocean is treated as the fabric of the universe, where everything - matter, mass, energy, thought, etc. - propagates waves of one sort or another in the Ocean.

IBPH - International Boodle Porching Hour -- a BPH attended by boodlers from multiple countries. Most notably, the big inaugural IBPH held in D.C. whenever it was with lots and lots of boodlers from all over.

Interloper (’loper) - Person who posts under other people’s handles, changes a handle to insult a boodler and/or makes rude comments.

It's dead, Jim - Comment made after the boodle has been quiet for a long period of time. Based on the words uttered often by Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy on Star Trek.

Kit - Joel’s blog entries.

Kit and Kaboodle - the whole Blog — both Joel’s contribution and the comments.

Kaboodle - the comments section of the blog (shortened to boodle).

LindaLoo’s Family Tree - simply put, Linda Loomis is related to everyone. Period.

Manfood- Food to which masculine men restrict their diets. Must be artery clogging and

have walked on at least two legs. One exception to this rule is quiche. Quiche is not manfood. Salad may only be considered manfood if it contains red meat.

Mianus - The center of the Boodleverse

National Speak Like a Pirate Day - September 19 (ARGH!)

National Umbrage Day - a day on which many Boodlers took umbrage at various

comments of other Boodlers (this year is was October 31, yes, Halloween) possibly because of a strong ‘loper presence that day.

New Kit! - Alert that there is a new blog post. It is considered bad Boodle etiquette to post on the new Boodle before alerting the others that it exists.

Observer, Observerism - (the O must always be capital) a concept based on quantum mechanics and special relativity that all sentient beings in the universe have equally valid perceptions of reality. Individual perceptions do not have to agree; in fact, most of the time, they don’t. Observerism does not rule out the possibility of an Ultimate Objective Observer. If anyone Observes It, please post to the ‘boodle immediately and notify your local Homeland Security Office.

Onanism - ummm… let’s just say self-gratification.

Ouroboros, Ouroborosian - An Observation that the the Web/’net/blogosphere is like the classical Ouroboros symbols of a serpent eating it’s own tail. Cyclical, self-referential, self-propagating and self-consuming. Any references to Alchemy or Egyptian, Greek, Norse, Christian, Far Eastern, Native American, or Satanist cultures, myths or gnosticisms is purely intentional.

Permalink - a devious otherwordly Hal the Schemer invention. Purpose is not yet known, though it is thought that the purpose may be to take over the world. The appearance of permalinks may indicate the end of times is approaching, as they appeared December 15, 2005 and the blog broke December 16, 2005 thus leaving many an achenaddict fiending.

Porching - sitting on a porch, OR, attending the Porching Hour, i.e., drinking.

Raj - Alternative name for the Boodle, proposed by Joel when the term “Boodle” was

starting to sound a bit old; short for Garage, the idea being that the Kit would be called the Garret; lends itself well to the term “Raj Rage.” um… notsomuch - didn’t really catch on.

SAO 15 - (now defunct) Select Audience Of 15, the number of participants Joel

initially envisioned his blog would attract. According to Joel, “Ideally the blog will have only about 15 readers, but very intellectual, refined, sensitive readers between the ages of 18 and 35 and with large amounts of disposable income.”

SCC - Self-Castigation Club, a means by which Boodlers correct their own typos

and grammatical errors, but no-one else’s, except Joel’s.

Snarky - 1. a characteristic of squirrels; one of the Boodlers is in fact called Snarky

Squirrel 2. v. being snippy or crabby; “Don’t be snarky with me!”

Tai Shan - THE Panda cub at the National Zoo and possible boodle mascot - that’s still

up in the air.

Tempel 1 - A comet attacked by NASA and the Bush Administration last July 4th in Operation Deep Impact. Some ‘boodlers are considering setting up a summer homes and a good bar (to be called the Hellbar) there with the pending settlement from a lawsuit against the US Government for their unwarranted bombing. The remaining funds will be handed over to the evolving Ashton Kutcher/Britney Spears-based Sea Monkeys who were put there by unscrupulous genetic scientists from an unnamed Far Eastern country. These creatures are not currently known to be al Quaida members or Insurgents.

THE Porch - Joel’s porch, also known as the Achenporch.

THE Tom - Tom Shroder, editor of the Magazine.

Tom the Butcher - Weingarten’s name for Tom Shroder.

Tom the Surgeon - Tom Shroder’s preferred nickname.

Umbrage - Offense, issue; umbrage is usually taken in a lighthearted way on the Achenblog.

Widdershins - technically it means counterclockwise; the wrong way; however in certain circumstances it can be used to refer to a direction which is against the light, i.e. where you are unable to see your shadow ie. “I am up to my widdershins in xyz” - it doesn’t really matter what it means - it just sounds good.

Worlds Colliding- The occasional visit of a Significant Other to the Achenblog for mild harassment purposes. Also known as breaching the boodle.