Category Archives: Books

On The Road: The Movie

screenshot-2016-10-07-23-37-44Walter Sallas made a movie of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road a few years ago. On the Road was my favorite novel when I was in high school, it fired my interest in Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and it introduced me to a form of truthseeking and mystical engagement with the world that changed my life.

In other words, for a while I was obsessed with UFOs and horoscopes, but I found a way to shift my imaginative engagement to something more human. That, at some point later, is what really matters.

I didn’t watch Sallas’s movie for years, I think because what I read about it was bad. Critics did not like the movie, and I wasn’t interested in engaging  with a bad movie about my favorite book. A favorite book that was problematic in the way it treated women.

In the many intervening years, I’d talked about On The Road with many women who had read the book and found that it failed the women in the story totally. I grew to understand that this was an important thing, and a failing of Kerouac’s book.

I watched Sallas’s movie tonight and, after a rough start, was surprised how well the movie told the story of Sal and Dean’s friendship and respected the women’s part in the story.

This is an adaptation that is also a critique of the original novel, exalting the romance of Kerouac’s writing, at its high points, but not overdoing that, and also treating the story with a modern brush. Woman are more than objects today, even if Kerouac didn’t always treat them that way.

In this way I came to admire the movie, though it is far from flawless. The Ginsberg  character is given due as a figure, but as a personality he’s irksome and pretentious and lacks charm. I’m not sure that’s inaccurate but it undermines the fact of all these character’s sexual fluidity. In fact, the movie goes out of its way to protect Kerouac’s hetero identity, when that wasn’t the case.

The bottom line is I think everyone should read the novel. It has deep and abiding meaning, especially in the context of it’s time. And I don’t think the movie screws that up much, except that it adds a layer of much-later critique, which I hope makes women feel more welcome.


Patti Smith on Camus at CUNY

smithoncamusCUNYI went to see Patti Smith talk with Kevin Baker about Albert Camus last night at the CUNY Graduate Center, in what they call the Altman Building.

It was an amiable chat about the great French writer’s first and last books, both unfinished before he died (The Happy Death and The First Man). Smith read from each and talked some about her love of reading, especially French literature in translation.

The talk ended with Smith telling a story and singing a song.

Inside Garbage Land!

CNN’s “Inside Man,” Morgan Spurlock, goes deep inside the world of garbage tonight on CNN. Here’s a story about his report.

Spurlock does all the things a good and enterprising reporter might do. He follows his trash from house to truck, then to the transfer station, and on to the dump. He investigates what happens to all the plastic in the ocean. He works a shift with his local Department of Sanitation workers, looks at a recycling MRF, explores electronic waste issues, and even talks to members of the zero-waste movement. Though there is no indication he visits a Prolerizer, which is something I would like to see, these are all fine topics for discussion.

garbagelandcoverAnd they were all covered extensively by my wife, Elizabeth Royte, in her 2005 NY Times Notable Book, Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. Visit Garbage Land’s website here.

Spurlock was an enterprising documentarian while making Super Size Me, about eating McDonalds only, and POM Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, about product placement, and has made many other films and TV shows, including one about One Direction, so he’s likely to do a fine job on the same story in a different medium. We’ll see.

Elizabeth is philosophical. One can’t own a topic, of course. Still it’s hard to read through the list of topics in Spurlock’s show and the reportorial approach and not think of recycling.

LINK: Keith Gessen in Vanity Fair about Amazon

This is a fantastic history of the ebook publishing industry, and the dispute between the old school book publishers and Amazon about ebook pricing.

Except, it never says what spooks the old line publishers (and Andrew Wylie) explicitly.

But it alludes.

Here’s the deal: Print books make more money for publishers than ebooks. And if the price of ebooks falls too much, print books won’t be competitively priced and won’t sell.

For the time being, a print window might work (the same way Taylor Swift created a CD window last week by pulling her music off Spotify), but it doesn’t seem likely to work forever.

At the same time, traditional publishers are fighting to retain the large margin they get from print books. It’s hard to say they shouldn’t try while they can, but they won’t be able to do that or long.

Esquire’s 80 Books Every Man Should Read

You can find the list here, along with its lame comments about each book. Here are my comments, probably equally lame and certainly less informed (these are books I haven’t read):

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky: I love Dostoevsky, but he writes big novels about people with lots of big names, and so I haven’t read them all, including this one.

The Known World, Edward P. Jones: Pulitzer Prize winner.

American Pastoral, Phillip Roth: Another Pulitzer Prize winner. I’ve tried Roth a few times and once past Portnoy and Goodbye Columbus and another early one, I could never get started. For instance, the baseball one, the Great American Novel, just bugged me and I gave up a quarter of the way through. My loss I’m sure.

Sport and a Pastime, James Salter: On my list.

A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee: McPhee is always great, and there is lots I haven’t read.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison: Embarrassing.

The Professional, W.C. Heinz: This one is a find for me. I’ve heard of it, but it wasn’t on my  radar. Foreword by Elmore Leonard.

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates: Saw the movie and read Tao Lin’s novel Richard Yates.

The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara: This is a book I’ve always wanted to read.

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren: High on my list of classic American novels to read that I haven’t.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami: Just haven’t gotten to Murakami.

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian: Everybody loves this one, and all those that follow. I’m sure they are as good as advertised, but I’m not excited.

Plainsong, Kent Haruf: National Book Award winner. Looks awful. I’m almost sure that’s wrong.

Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin: I have two copies of this in the basement, but I think it’s the cover that makes me think badly of it. Or stop from starting it.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, John LaCarre’: I’m not a big fan of spy novels, but I should read this one.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders: I read Tenth of December recently and I don’t admire or like his ability to render different voices. They seem phony to me. Not badly rendered, but bubbling with condescension and too much cleverness. Writing for readers who like to read writing. Hmm, put that second writing in quotes.

War and Peace, Leo Tostoy: Sure, on my list.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville: This one, too.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie: I waded into this once. Also tried the one that got him on the kill list. Too fancy for my taste, at least then.

Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges: I’ve read some of this book, but not much of it. I have been meaning to spend more time with it.

American Tabloid, James Ellroy: Another overwriter accorded lots of respect, at least partially because he can tell a crackling dark story.

What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer: I used to read all the books about the making of the president and fear and loathing on the campaign trail and the boys on the bus, but at some point the notion that I was getting something useful started to fade. I chalked that up to maturity, though I thoroughly enjoyed Walter Shapiro’s One Man Caravan, about the pre-race for the president, before things actually got started. Maybe Cramer’s book is worthwhile.

So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell: I’ve read many Maxwell stories, but not this.

The Great Bridge, David McCullough: There is lots of McCullough worth reading, I’m not sure why this one would be the best, but then I haven’t read it.

Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry: Saw the miniseries.

Underworld, Don DeLillo: I read the excerpt that became the shorter book, Pafko at the Wall, and it truly is brilliant. There the novel sits on my wife’s bookshelf, beckoning. Someday, for sure, after Moby Dick.

Savages, Don Winslow: Sounds like fun. Missed the movie last year.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson: I don’t know anything about this book set in North Korea.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann: On the bookshelf, on deck.

Hmm, 29 of 80 is a batting average of .362 of books missed (or .638 of books read). Good to know what’s missing, but they don’t tell half the story. Read on.

Recommended: Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

After finishing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel I read Geoff Dyer’s review in the Sunday Times Book Review of May 18, 2012. Or reread, probably, at least partly. My approach to book reviews is flexible. I read them if I’m interested in the non-fiction subject, even a little.

I read fiction reviews if I like the writer or I like the reviewer, or if the writer or reviewer I don’t know captures me for some reason. References to books and writers I like help. But it is hit or miss.

If I start reading a review, for whatever reason, and think I might read the book, I stop. It isn’t pleasurable to read with a critical voice in your head, no matter whose. Read the book first, read the review later. Same goes for movies.

I’m sure I at least started Dyer’s review of Ben Fountain’s book because I like reading Dyer, and I’m sure I stopped because I thought I would read the book, which I eventually did and have now finished.

All of which is to say that Dyer’s review gets the book, and does it without even mentioning Beyonce’.

What I can tell you is the book is a love story, and like all love stories it’s a wish-fulfillment scenario. The fact that that mostly-dry humping mise en scene intersects with the War in Iraq, Bush 43 giving medals, Fox Television, the Dallas Cowboys, Hillary Swank, Destiny’s Child, a twisted dysfunctional and sweet family, and many vile and some sweet characters, and is written with vivid access to metaphor that captures life in these United States these days, is secondary.

But not unimportant.

E-publishing: Some Lessons Learned

Bolicks-Football-2014-v3-cover-400wide-229x300I just published (I hope) the Kindle edition of Bolick’s Guide to Fantasy Football Prospects 2014, JD Bolick’s survey of this year’s NFL rookies crop, handicapped for fantasy football players. That means it’s all Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers and Tight Ends.

I say “I hope” because the Kindle edition is still in review at Amazon. Sometime today they should approve it, more than two weeks after I was able to publish the iBooks and PDF editions. There are a few reasons for this, and since handy guides to epublishing are all over the internet (and available as eBooks), I thought I would add my two cents.

Publishing for the iPad with iBooks Author is easy.

Author works like a page layout program, and while it doesn’t appear to be very flexible, it is dead simple to enter text and graphics and convert them into an eBook. Bolick’s Football Guide has photos and stats tables. These were easy to enter and look on the page the way they’re supposed to, with little fussing necessary.

It is also easy to save that eBook as a PDF.


The only issue I had with Author for this project was the process for adding hyperlinks. This book has more than 500 hyperlinks to YouTube clips that illustrate nearly all of Bolick’s observations about each of the players covered. The process for creating a link in iBooks author is (assuming the Inspector is open): Copy link to the clipboard, highlight text to be linked, click the checkbox that says Enable Hyperlink, click dropdown and choose Link to Webpage, then paste in the link from the clipboard. This is three clicks too many, and those add up when you’re adding hundreds of links.

Publishing words for the Kindle is easy.

The Kindle started out as a reader. Load an eBook and it would let you read it on its screen. You could (and still can) specify the type size and style, and it will reformat the pages based on the user’s choices.

When I turned Bolick’s Guide to Fantasy Baseball Prospects 2014 into a Kindle book, after laying it out in iBooks Author, I just copied the text into a Word document. Then I saved the Word document as an htm file, and uploaded it to Amazon. It was easy.

That’s because creating an eBook with only words that the Kindle can read is very straight forward. You don’t have many options. And all of the guides available on the internet (plus Amazon’s own Guide) quickly tell you all you need to know. The most complicated thing is making the Table of Contents.

Publishing graphics for the Kindle is something else.

The Kindle is not a single device. There are the epaper black and white readers, and the color Fire ones. There are small screens and larger ones, and each comes with different expectations.

People who write about creating their eBooks, people like me, have their own experiences, and aren’t necessarily experts in all the different paths one might take to create a book. I’m no expert, but I offer up the following just in case you’re hoping to create a Kindle book with a lot of tables in it.

Amazon discourages you from using tables in your layout to organize different parts of the page. Using tables to create html layouts was a common hack in web page design in the days before css. It was frowned upon, but also sometimes the easiest way to get things to line up the way you wanted.

Using tables to similarly hack page design for the Kindle is a mistake, but Amazon isn’t as clear in all places that tables full of tabular information are also not welcome.

In the Guide we use charts like this one, to show a player’s statistical history in college.

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 10.55.43 PM

When I converted the iBook version into a Word document, the tables were converted into html tables via the TABLE tag. They displayed fine in Word and later in Dreamweaver, when I got away from using Word, but were a jumble when I viewed the file in the Kindle Previewer or in Chrome.

I wasted all sorts of time trying to change the settings. I noted that someone, maybe Amazon, said that tables wouldn’t display properly in Kindle Previewer, but I still couldn’t get them to display in Chrome. I tried to upload my layout full of tables to KDP, the publishing arm of Amazon, and it was rejected. It was only then that I came across a caveat that tables were not supported for the Kindle at all. It was suggested I use jpegs instead.

I spent yesterday making screen grabs of all the stats boxes in the iBook version and replacing the tables in the Kindle version. When I was finished I tried publishing again. Success.



BOOK: Shirley Jackson, “Hangsaman”

hangsaman-200x200It gives nothing away to say that Natalie Waite, the young woman at the center of Hangsaman, is tightly wound. The cover of the relatively new Penguin Classics edition of the book features a young woman writing a letter to her Dad, but the letter is spattered with blood.

That illustration reflects the intensity of this story, which starts with Natalie living at home, with her brother and extremely dysfunctional parents. The only problem is that once she escapes them physically, she discovers that they stick with her in her head, and once she pushes them out of her head, she’s surprised and bewitched by the things that take their place.

Everyone knows Shirley Jackson from her powerful story “The Lottery,” but she also wrote the novel that was the basis for the famous movie, The Haunting of Hill House, and the masterful We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a tale of psychological fragility and the corrosive idea that history somehow turns into destiny (and that’s not a good thing).

Hangsaman was written in 1951 and I had never heard of it until I found it on the shelf at the library.

Jackson is a fantastic vivid and nuanced writer, capable of rendering the stream of conscious thoughts of a young woman like Natalie so that they represent her disorientation and naiveté but also give us a sophisticated and nuanced view of her psychological state.  Something like being inside and outside the scene at the same time, analyst and analysand simultaneously.

Jackson is interested in the way the psyche interacts with a civilization that is really alien to the desires and prerogatives of the free spirit. In Hangsaman lonely Natalie yearns for connection, but when she finds it she is reminded why she was alone in the first place.

The jacket copy says this story is somewhat based on the tale of a disappeared Bennington student, but the delights and horrors it offers aren’t those of a tawdry paperback true crime story, but rather the exacting expression of a writer who seems to believe that the membrane that separates an individual from the outside world is truly porous, and writes as if it were.