‘Ask a Silly Queston’ by Donald E. Westlake

Posted in Book Review, Parker with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by davehurwitz

I’ve exercised my obsession with Caitlin R. Kiernan a great deal in the last few weeks.  The other author I can’t stop going on about is Richard Stark, creator of Parker, crime fiction’s toughest professional thief.  Stark’s appeal has always been something of a puzzle to me, as he depicts a society devoid of morality, populated by the weak and the venal.  Against this grimy backdrop, a near sociopath like Parker seems virtuous, if only in contrast.  Richard Stark is the most prolific pseudonym of Mystery Writers of America grandmaster Donald E. Westlake, a fact that seems unlikely to those who have read “both” authors. While Stark is the ultimate nihilist, much of Westlake’s work is gently humorous, even cosy.

Westlake’s antidote for Parker is John Dortmunder, a New York City thief who never seems to catch a break.  In movie adaptations, Dortmunder has been played by actors a various as George C. Scott, Robert Redford, and even Martin Lawrence, but I always picture him looking a bit like Fred Ward (who has not played Dortmunder, but has played Hoke Moseley), a perpetually aggrieved schlub.  Along with a cast of regular cronies, Dortmunder specializes in easy-seeming scores that invariably go sideways.  Dortmunder confronts these setbacks, not with the brutality of Parker, but with an outside-the-box cleverness all his own.  Of the fourteen Dormunder novels Westlake worte before his death, I have read the most recent five.  All of them were entertaining, light and funny in way Richard Stark never is.

A Charm Bracelet 'O Crime!Originally published in Playboy Magazine, “Ask a Silly Question” has a more permanent home in Thieves’ Dozen, a collection of Dortmunder stories that seems unlikely to ever go out of print.  (Westlake is a mainstay of public library mystery shelves as well.)  In this particular story, Dortmunder is on his way to a planning session at the O.J. Bar and Grill when he is kidnapped by a very polite, very wealthy, older man.  This unnamed individual has a problem, and he’s willing to pay Dortmunder to help him solve it.  In his younger years, the elegant man purchased a genuine Rodin bronze.  A recent divorce gave ownership to his ex-wife.  Unable to part with this treasure, the elegant man commissioned a fake, made by taking a mold of the original.  So far so good, but now the ex-wife is donating the fake to museum, an act which will certainly expose the fraud.  Now the elegant man wants to steal the fake while his ex-wife is abroad.  There’s just one problem.  The bronze statue weights more than five-hundred pounds.  Can Dortmunder pull off this heist without giving himself a hernia?  Will he actually get paid?  Will he ever make it to the backroom at the O.J.?  There’s only one way to find out.

Blurbs frequently describe the Dortmunder novels as “Runyonesque,” an adjective that is all but meaningless to me.  (Evidently it refers to Damon Runyon, who wrote humorous stories about NYC underworld characters in the days of Prohibition.)  If forced to pick a single adjective, I would choose something simple, like “fun.”  Though the Dortmunder novels and stories utilize the structure of grittier heist fiction, they contain a lot less violence and lot more dry humor and absurd situations.  I’ve always enjoyed bad ass action, but in recent years, the straight stuff has become a little hard to take.  I’m sure I’ll always be a Parker fan, but I’m becoming increasingly fond of Dortmunder.

Dave Hurwitz

Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

Posted in Book Review, Education, Random Weirdness with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2013 by davehurwitz

I get asked this question a lot, usually by frustrated students who’ve had to plunk down a serious chunk of change for a book they don’t really want to read in the first place.  By way of example, the required text for one of my English classes, Evergreen: A Guide to Writing with Readings, has a list price of $132.95.  Textbooks for hard science subjects like Physics or Chemistry can run twice that much.  Publisher’s reps, when I ask them this same question, invariably give the same tired old answers.  They say that textbooks are a niche market, with smaller print runs than popular novels, which drives up the per unit printing cost.  They also say that they must often pay royalties to not only the editor of a textbook, but to the authors of various essays reprinted within the book, which adds to the cost.

Strangely, the jacket art is white, not green.Both of these excuses–for they are excuses, not reasons–are transparent bullshit.  I buy fiction titles from niche presses all them time.  These are books with severely limited print runs, often no more than 500 copies.  Sure, the per unit cost is higher, but I’ve never paid $133 dollars for one of these titles.  The most expensive work of fiction I own cost $60, and was bound by hand with sewn in signatures.  Besides, with 89% of U.S. high school graduates enrolling in colleges and universities, how small is the textbook market, really?  The second excuse is equally bogus.  I’m sure you’ve all seen multiple-author story anthologies at your local bookstore.  All those writers had to be paid individually, too, but those books don’t cost any more than single-author titles of the same size.

Textbooks are overpriced because textbook publishers cling to outmoded notions of how their books should be produced and sold.  Having worked both as a small press publisher and as a college instructor, I naturally have a few ideas about how this situation can be improved.

Print Textbooks in Standard Trim Sizes on Cheap Paper:

They say this book jacket can't pay the rent...Let’s face it, college textbooks are a disposable item.  Most students can’t wait to get rid of them when the semester is over.  If they cling to them at all, it’s because they want to sell them carefully in order recoup as much of the cover price as possible.  Given these truths, there’s no reason not to print cheap books that can just be tossed in the recycling bin after finals week.  As an example, let’s look at another book I use, They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  This is a small, short, softbound book, with no color printing, but a new copy will still set you back $25.  Why?  Because it’s printed on slick paper with it’s own unique trim size.  There’s simply no excuse for this.  A mass market publisher like Angry Robot could knock out newsprint copies for $8 each and still turn a profit.  That’s less than a third of what my students are asked to pay.  Mass market style textbooks would also mean more new book sales for publishers, since an $8 paperback is scarcely worth reselling.

Stop Printing in Color Unless Absolutely Necessary:

English Composition is not a subject that requires a lot of charts and graphs, yet most of the textbooks I see are printed in color, and styled like commercial websites.  This not only requires a more expensive printing process, but necessitates a higher quality of paper than simple black and white.  So why use color in an English book?  The main reason seems to be that it adds ‘visual interest,’ eye candy intended to lure students into reading the presumably uninviting content.  I’m not against this in theory, but in practice, a lot the ‘visual interest’ items seem pointless or even counter-productive.  Going back to Evergreen for an example, right smack in the middle of a chapter on sentence fragments, there is a half-page full color reproduction of an ad for Tommy Hilfiger clothing.  Yes, it is visually arresting.  Yes, it could reasonably generate a discussion on the psychology of advertising.  But what is it doing in a chapter about basic sentence errors?  Nothing, except distracting my students from the matter at hand, and possibly selling some yachting outfits.  Frankly, I’d rather have plain old black and white, especially if it brings the price of the book down.  In cases that absolutely require full color figures–hard science textbooks again–I suggest the solution adopted long ago by the publishers of true crime books and movie star biographies, print most of the book in black and white, with a signature or two of color in the middle where all the nice photos go.

Ditch the Enhancements:

In the Fall of 2010, a video made the rounds on YouTube in which Management Professor Richard A. Quinn of the University of Central Florida accused most of his class of cheating on a midterm exam.  The test in question had been assembled from a database of potential questions provided by the publisher of his textbook.  Though Quinn seemed sincerely outraged, I was shocked by his naivete.  Really, what did he expect to happen?  Any sizable student population is bound contain a few individuals with Mad Hacker Skillz.  It’s a given that this not-terribly-secure database would be cracked by someone who would then pass on the the questions and their answers, either for profit or out of a misplaced sense of altruism.  No professor worth his tenure–especially one with multiple grad students to use as slave labor–uses canned test questions for precisely this reason.  Yet, this is exactly the sort of ‘bonus content’ that publishers waste time and money producing.  Other typical ‘enhancements’ include publisher hosted blogs and social media sites keyed to specific textbooks.  These too become fertile fields for cheaters and short-cut artists, this time in the form of term papers plagiarized from other students who have posted their legitimate work to these sites.  Frankly, I’ve even grow leery of using textbooks batched with readings.  Once they’ve been in circulation a while, corresponding essays start to appear on the internet, either posted to personal sites by proud students, or for sale as ‘research tools.’  Either way, these present even more opportunities for plagiarism.  Publishers should stop providing these crutches for lazy professors.  They increase the cost of textbooks without improving their intrinsic qualities, and ultimately cause more classroom problems than they solve.

Embrace Student-Friendly Technologies and Sales Points:

There are hopeful signs in this area.  The webpage of Cengage, the publisher of Evergreen, offers an electronic version of the book for $46.49.  This is a rental, a bit like a library ebook, which will vanish from students’ computers at the end of the semester.  Weirdly, it’s actually cheaper to rent the physical book, which comes with a postage paid return.  Clearly, Cengage isn’t pushing its electronic content very hard, despite the obvious cost savings.  But how many students will even find this page without assistance?  Over at Amazon, where most ebook purchasers wash up, a Kindle-ready copy of Evergreen will set you back $92.49.  Hardly an alluring price tag, especially when you consider that you can buy a used copy for half that much from These Sellers.  Evergreen isn’t even for sale at Smashwords, where all the cool kids hang out.  This situation is fairly typical for electronic textbooks.  They’re often too expensive relative to the cost of the print book.  Students and even instructors may be unaware of them because they’re not sold in the usual places, and campus bookstores have an obvious motive to deny their very existence.  But these problems can be overcome.  Publishers can strike deals with popular ebook providers, or at least promote their own sales points more effectively.  A sane and consistent pricing policy, one that bears in mind the easy availability of used print books, can be found.  After all, publishers earn nothing from used book sales, a clear reason to make electronic books cheaper.  In the end, both textbook publishers and their customers–the students–will benefit.  Isn’t that what good business is all about?

Dave Hurwitz

‘Houses Under the Sea’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by davehurwitz

UndescribableThis is another story from Two Worlds and in Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One by way of Thrillers 2.  It’s also the last story I needed to read from Two Worlds.  After this, I promise to move on to something a little less obscure and a bit more cheerful.  Like our previous Kiernan story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ became a point of inspiration for a more readily available novel.  This story, along with ‘The Road of Pins,’ forms the backbone of Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl.  If this review intrigues you, the novel covers similar territory in much the same style.

Like many classic horror stories, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ is framed as a found document.  The nameless, genderless, first person narrator is a reporter, ostensibly writing an insider’s account of his or her involvement with a cult calling itself The Open Door of Night and it’s leader, a disgraced academic named Jacova Angevine.  Public interest in the cult, and the obvious slipping of the narrator’s sanity, began with the mass suicide of the entire membership.  Jacova Angevine led them into the sea, out toward the deep-water canyons of Monterey Bay, to drown themselves.

The Novel by Caitlin Kiernan‘Houses Under the Sea’ consists of eight numbered sections, or scenes.  Within theses sections, the narrator is apt to bounce backward and forward from the past to the present in a way that suggests a disordered mind.  Despite that impression, this really a tightly crafted piece of writing, revealing just enough in any given scene to build both anticipation and unease.  My favorite bit is a scene in which the narrator watches a video cassette of raw footage from a camera mounted on an ROV piloted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) along the bay floor.  The narrator has watched this footage a number of times, and is clearly terrified by it.  Eventually, the ROV is sideswiped by something unseen and knocked into a deep trench.  Miles beneath the sea, far below the depth of human survivability, the malfunctioning camera glimpses what can only be a symbol carved into a giant rock.  All of which may sound a bit silly in summary, but when combined with the narrator’s sweaty nail-biting, it comes across as quite sinister.

If you’re seeing shades of H.P. Lovecraft here, you’re not wrong.  Other aspects of the story make this connection even more apparent.  Kiernan’s genius lies in giving an HPL premise a more modern scientific backdrop and a contemporary seeming cult.  Keirnan herself was trained as a vertebrate paleontologist, and she knows how to give her fiction an academic veneer.  Other sections of the story discuss popular and scholarly books published about The Open Door of Night as well as hack novels written by Angevine’s father, complete with citation information, and all of them just as fictional as the story itself.

Like a Lovecraft story, ‘Houses Under the Sea’ suggests much more than it reveals.  If you prefer definitive endings, let me again suggest The Drowning Girl, which offers more in the way of traditional closure.  As for ‘Houses,’ even the fate of its narrator is left open to interpretation.  All of its carefully constructed scenes lead the reader toward an unsettling truth, but once that truth has been realized, both narrator and reader are left with nowhere to go.  We know too much, and we are out of options.  To me at least, this is the very essence of horror.

Dave Hurwitz

‘Bagatelle’ by John Varley

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by davehurwitz

A naked man & a naked woman. In space!For those of you familiar with his work, John Varley is a not-terribly-prolific writer of old-school science fiction novels and stories in the grand tradition of Heinlein, Asimov, and other post-war authors.  His career stretches back to the mid-seventies, and my acquaintance with his work goes back nearly that far.  I can remember begging my parents to buy me mass market editions of his work at Crown Books in UTC, back when I was still a young nipper and there was no such thing as Borders or Amazon.com.  I incurred the wrath of my junior high teachers by reading Varley’s Gaean Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, & Demon) during classes.  It did not help that, because of poor eyesight, I always sat in the front row.  Regardless, I’ve carted those three books around with me from place to place, from junior high through graduate school, from shared apartments to a home of my own, for the best part of thirty years.

One of my favorite Varley characters is Anna-Louise Bach, a police officer on Luna, the heavily colonized moon of the future.  (I told you I liked weird police procedurals.)  Bach featured in a series of stories that took her from rookie beat cop all the way to chief of police.  Two of the best were ‘The Barbie Murders,’ which involved a homicide within a cult with genderless, virtually identical members, and ‘Bagatelle.’  Though I haven’t read either of these stories in years, I was pleased to see the complete text of ‘Bagatelle’ pop up on the Subterranean Press website as a teaser for their upcoming Varley collection Goodbye Robinson Caruso and Other Stories.  You can read it there for free.

Creepy idential folks in in grey jammies.In the opening scene of ‘Bagatelle,’ a mobile, talking nuclear bomb rolls down a crowded shopping tunnel of New Dresden, Luna, saying things like “I will explode in four hours, five minutes, and seventeen seconds” and “I am rated at fifty kilotons.”  Chief Bach commandeers the services of Roger Birkson, a Terran expert in disarming nuclear I.E.D.s, interrupting his round of golf at a nearby resort.  It transpires that the talking bomb contains the brain of an actual human being who, for obscure philosophical reasons, has allowed himself to be engineered into this weapon of mass destruction.

If all of this suggests a bleak sort of comedy to you, you’re not far off.  Certain scenes in which Bach–half naked in clothing-optional Luna–and the golf-togged Birkson interrogate the bomb have a Monty Python edge of weird hilarity.  But Varley doesn’t let the reader forget the terror of the situation for long.  We feel Bach’s stress as Birkson’s behavior becomes more and more bizarre.  We see the reactions of her junior offers–one of whom is pregnant–as they throw up or pass out from unendurable tension.  Although New Desden is saved, the way the story ends leaves a hollow pit of horror in the stomach.

‘Bagatelle’ was originally published in 1974, during the Cold War, when nuclear immolation seemed both inevitable and imminent.  It’s a fear I remember well and can’t say that I miss, the poisonous background radiation of my childhood and adolescence.  The nuclear terrorism Varley envisions here has not yet come to pass.  So far as the general public knows, no sub-national cadre of ideological nut-jobs has succeeded in assembling a nuclear bomb.  But no one would deny that it could happen.  Like the Cold War itself, it’s just something that we live with.

For those of you not up on your French, in addition to being a rather ridiculous pub game, a bagatelle is a task of little importance or one that is easily accomplished.  Indeed, Varley makes it look easy here, with a story that is readable, entertaining, and still relevant twenty-nine years down the road.  John Varley is a writer who all fans of science fiction should get to know, and I can think of no better place to start.

Dave Hurwitz

‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2013 by davehurwitz
A big dude in robes and a crown holds a big coin.

Four of Pentacles:
Radiant Rider Waite Deck

This is another story from Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Volume One from Subterranean Press.  It was originally published in Thrillers 2, an anthology title from Cemetery Dance Publications.  Unfortunately, both of these fine books are now out of print.  Given their limited printings and high production values, both are liable to be a bit pricey on the secondary market.  While I’m trying not to review things that will be hard for you–the reader–to get at, I also really want to finish up this Kiernan collection.  If this review intrigues you, I suggest that you roll on ever to your favorite bookseller and purchase the mass market paperback of Daughter of Hounds, a Kiernan novel that has it’s roots in this particular story, and one of my personal favorites as well.  Beyond that, apologies, and I’ll try not to do it again.

As long as I’m in a conciliatory mood, I may as well mention something else.  Attentive readers will have noticed that I have not quite delivered on my new year’s resolution to review one short story per week, having allowed myself to get sidetracked by a novel and–more recently–a film.  Since variety is supposed to be the spice of life, I am hereby revising my resolution.  For all of 2013, I promise to review something each week.  On any given week, that something will probably be a short story, but may be something else.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll even throw in a post that isn’t a review every now and then.  But you will hear from me every week.  That much I promise.  Now that that’s settled, on with the show.

‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ takes place in the attic of a large yellow house on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island.  The yellow house–a recurring location in a number of Kiernan books and stories–is a real building in Providence that also inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tale ‘The Shunned House.’  In the Kiernan version, the upper floors of the residence are occupied by sliver-eyed vampires, while the basement and associated caverns are the home of the ghul, a race of corpse-eating, wolf-like bipeds that may be werewolves, or possibly aliens.  Both are served by the Children of the Cuckoo, infants stolen from unwary parents and raised by the monsters.

Is that a violin or a tentacle?Pearl is a prisoner in the attic of the house on Benefit Street.  Pearl is still a child, though she has been kept in the attic for seventy-five years.  Time stops, you see, whenever the trap door leading into the attic from the main house is closed, which is most of the time.  We meet Pearl on one of the rare occasions when that door is opened, this time by a boy named Airdrie, a know-it-all Child of the Cuckoo.  Airdrie has been sent to deliver food and toys, but unwisely sets out to explore the attic.

The growing conflict between Pearl and Airdrie is punctuated by several seemingly unrelated vignettes.  One features a Confederate deserter dying of his wounds in the wilderness of Knox County, Tennessee.  Another deals with a man whose shabby apartment is surrounded by an impenetrable fog.  Another is a rather nice science fiction chase scene.  Many of these micro-narratives end in death.  All contain suffering of one kind or another.  All of them hint that these events have occurred before and will occur again.

The meaning of these narratives–and the reason behind Pearl’s imprisonment–becomes clear when Airdrie discovers the prized possessions of Pearl’s father, who is referred to only as The Alchemist.  A circle of curio cabinets deep within the attic holds what looks to be an enormous collection of snow-globes.  Upon closer examination, they turn out to contain the stolen moments described above.  In each of the thousands of spheres trapped people sufferer an endless repetition of the worst hours of their lives–hours of pain and fear that should have ceased–unfolding forever.

This is a very accomplished story, one that can be read and appreciated without any previous experience of either Kiernan or Lovecraft.  As with many of Kiernan’s better tales, ‘The Daughter of the Four of Pentacles’ leaves a melancholy aftertaste, one that can linger for several days.  To me, the story’s most ingenious detail is the fact that creatures we would consider evil have taken it upon themselves to punish The Alchemist by imprisoning Pearl.  It’s a shocking suggestion, the notion that there are some crimes that even monsters won’t countenance, and that they are committed by human beings.

Dave Hurwitz