Monthly Archives: December 2013

VCR vs. eBook: The MPAA and AAP

Peter Brantley -- December 31st, 2013

Sony Betamax 1978 advert

Sometimes you have to let time pass before you can critique your assumptions. Recently, I reconsidered the unanimity of the goals of the content industry after Derek Khanna reprised the motion picture association’s war on the VCR in TechCrunch. Derek Khanna is the ex-Republican staffer who managed to forge his own retirement by drafting a white paper extolling the virtues of copyright reform.

In short, Khanna’s piece recalls how the major motion picture studios fought the introduction of Sony’s Betamax, the first consumer video recorder. Convinced that home video taping and viewing would debilitate the movie industry, Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) famously vented that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Continue reading

TBR: 2014

Jessamine Chan -- December 27th, 2013

In 2014, I want to promise that I’ll become the sort of reader who always finishes one book before starting another, but honestly, I’m usually reading four books at a time and a more reasonable goal might be to finish the following titles by the summer. Here are some selections from my personal To-Be-Read pile: four titles forthcoming in the new year, plus one children’s classic.

barkBark: Stories – Lorrie Moore (Knopf, Feb.) : Though the rest of the world was clued into Lorrie Moore’s genius years, nay decades, earlier, I was introduced to her stories by my teacher, Rebecca Curtis, in 2009. How I survived my twenties without her fiction, I do not know, but I’ve made up for lost time by becoming a loyal, intense fan.


on such a full sea

On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead, Jan.) This author plus this spooky cover plus a dystopian plot means that I will make time for this book.



the giverThe Giver – Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993) A friend lent me this children’s book just last week, with the short explanation that it’s super dark, also dystopian, and has a perfect ending.



blood will outBlood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, A Mystery, and A Masquerade – Walter Kirn (Norton/Liveright, Mar.): In the new year, I will read more true crime. Kirn tells the story of his 15-year friendship with “Clark Rockefeller,” who turns out to be a serial imposter and double-murderer.



in the course of human eventsIn the Course of Human Events – Mike Harvkey (Soft Skull, Apr.): It pleases me to no end that my former PW colleague Mike Harvkey’s debut novel publishes in the spring. All I know about it is that it’s dark, violent, set in the Midwest, and the result of many years of Mike’s hard work.

For the sake of levity, I will also (finally) finish Anna Karenina, and hopefully tackle The Portrait of a Lady.

Chaosium Cleans Up Its Act

Peter Cannon -- December 24th, 2013

On a trip to Paris in 1999, I was surprised while browsing in a bookstore to come across French translations of Lovecraft-themed anthologies published by Chaosium, an American company whose specialty is role-playing games, notably Call of Cthulhu, first released in 1981 and now in its seventh edition. I bought Le Cycle d’Azathoth (The Azathoth Cycle), since it contained two stories of mine. I was also dismayed because no one at Chaosium had informed me (or any other contributors apparently) that the company had sold translation rights to these volumes. Chaosium didn’t even control these rights, since, as I subsequently learned, the company had only an oral understanding in lieu of any written agreement with Robert M. Price, the compiler of many of the anthologies in the Call of Cthulhu fiction series.

To be charitable, the folks at Chaosium back then were mainly guilty of ignorance and ineptitude. When I called this unfortunate matter to the attention of one of their officers, however, I received only vague promises. I wrote a letter of complaint that ran in Hell Notes, the newsletter of the Horror Writers Association, and I had at least some satisfaction in seeing Chaosium curtail its fiction line for a few years. But with the ongoing Lovecraft boom, Chaosium has recently begun to issue new Lovecraft-themed anthologies, and Tom Lynch, a contributor to a couple of them, has assured me that the company wishes to play by the rules. Soon after I told Tom of my long-standing gripe, I received a phone call from game designer Charlie Krank, Chaosium’s president, who apologized for past company misdeeds and offered to make appropriate restitution for those foreign rights sales in the last century. I believe Charlie is acting in good faith, and I’m confident I’ll soon be getting my check in the mail.

Now if I can only persuade Christopher Roden at Canada’s Ash-Tree Press to pay me royalties for the e-book rights I granted him nearly two years ago to my parody, Scream for Jeeves, I’ll have real cause to rejoice this Christmas season!

Inspector O’s dispatch from North Korea

Seth Satterlee -- December 23rd, 2013

Fiction, unlike journalism, has the handy power to depict the true nature of an event, or situation–even if by omitting some of the facts. After all, sometimes facts can be overwhelming, or misleading. And by having no pretense of being an impartial account, fiction can speak to nuanced truths, truths too elusive for mere facts.

Last week a truly surreal episode took place in North Korea. Supreme leader Kim Jong-un, reviving a tradition from his grandfather’s regime, sentenced his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, to a formal execution.  His arrest at a political meeting was nationally televised, and a bizarre document from the Korean Central News Agency (a state controlled outlet) detailed his crimes. The over-the-top writing in the article reads like a parody.

Against the backdrop of these shouts rocking the country, a special military tribunal of the DPRK Ministry of State Security was held on December 12 against traitor for all ages Jang Song Thaek.

Every sentence of the decision served as sledge-hammer blow brought down by our angry service personnel [on this] despicable political careerist and trickster.

It is an elementary obligation of a human being to repay trust with sense of obligation and benevolence with loyalty.

However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.

The special military tribunal… vehemently condemned him as a wicked political careerist, trickster and traitor for all ages in the name of the revolution and the people and ruled that he would be sentenced to death according to it.

The decision was immediately executed.

Propaganda is simply political fiction. In the aftermath of this lurid episode, many speculated what the execution, the parading of power, signaled for Jon-un’s regime. Is he consolidating power, or was this an act of desperation?  Taking a less-conventional perspective, The Kansas City Star ran an interview with a fictional character–”Inspector O, a North Korean detective we’ve followed through the political murk of Pyongyang in a series of detective novels written by a former CIA official.” James Church, a pseudonym used by the official, has written five successful detective novels about Inspector O, each receiving starred reviews from PW.  He took on his protagonist’s persona to get to the heart of the issue:

The time between Jang getting led out and executed was just a day or two. The West thought this was a big surprise — no appeal process, happened so fast, making it seem like these decisions were willy-nilly. But what if this thing had been underway for some time in North Korea?

Also, some say that this is all about money. And that Jang had too much of it.

The full interview is a hard-boiled look at the complicated situation and illuminates much more of the situation than anything else I’ve read. Earlier this year Adam Johnson won the National Book Award for his novel set in North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, which depicts the conditions there with clarity and patience.  Maybe for trying to understand one of the most opaque countries in the world, fiction paints a clearer, fuller picture than traditional ‘news.’

The Indefatigable Christmas Romance

Rose Fox -- December 20th, 2013

amishcountrychristmasEvery year ends with a flood of Christmas-themed romance novels. Christmas is treated as a flexible adjective that can be attached to any subgenre of romance: historical, contemporary, paranormal (yes, even soulless vampires love Christmas!), western, military. Christmas romance stories are set in big cities and small towns. They feature protagonists of every race, and there’s lots of heartwarming family togetherness and comical family squabbling. In 2013 PW reviewed at least 25 Christmas romances, with titles like The Cowboy’s Christmas Baby, Plaid Tidings, and An Amish Country Christmas. (And of course A SEAL Wolf Christmas, covered previously.)

Christmas is uniquely suited to romance plots, since it includes kissing, gift-giving, and miracles. A two-week Christmas break is time enough to connect, and the cold weather encourages certain warmth-generating activities. There are big family gatherings where coincidental encounters can happen and secrets can be revealed and misunderstandings can be misunderstood, and family members may conspire to get the lovers together or keep them apart.

Many romances paint real historical and contemporary settings as far less religious than they actually were or are. African-American romances sometimes focus on the church as a center of community, but churches are completely erased from Regency or Victorian England until it’s time for someone to get married. Christmas offers some Christian authors an opportunity to sneak in a bit of religion without their books being categorized as “inspirational”. For others it’s simply part of the dominant American and English culture, and Christmas romances in winter are as natural as beach reads in summer.

Christmas romances are obviously popular, and the category looks to be growing every year. By all accounts, writers love writing them and readers love reading them. Maybe the success of Christmas romance will encourage other holidays to get in on the action: a grandmother turns yenta at the Passover Seder, a love story begins when a woman throws a handful of colored powder at a man during Lathmar Holi, a Beltane one-night-stand turns into romance for a pair of adorable mismatched Wiccans. Love is love in any culture and any season.

Some Choice Quotes from Important Science books of 2013

Alex Crowley -- December 19th, 2013

These three science books should be on everyone’s radar because they are fantastic.


The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society

David Waltner-Toews (ECW)

the origin of feces“Our language reflects our thinking, and our thoughts determine the kinds of options we can imagine to the challenges we face in life.”

“In part because of this lack of respect for the humanities, and in part because previous global narratives (Christianity, Islam, State Communism) have so often been catastrophically bad, the story many of us have told ourselves has focused on what we have seen to be the ideological ‘neutral’ tale of technology and progress. We have deluded ourselves into believing that this is not a belief system, because it uses science to achieve its ends. But where this has led us, in the past century, is into a place where our stories have been constructed around single problems or built on narrow-minded academic disciplines. We have lived with the illusion that we can solve our problems one by one until they are all solved.”

“Wicked problems… are poorly bounded and contradictory. They are difficult to solve because information is incomplete, or the requirements of those who want the problem solved keep changing. They can be defined from a variety of apparently incompatible perspectives, so that there is neither a definitive problem formulation nor an optimal solution. Worst of all, the solutions to some aspects of the problem may create or reveal other problems.”

“At the core of the wicked mess of shit, food, and ecological sustainability is a challenge of theory. We have developed ad hoc solutions, using a Henry Ford, linear, industrial model of nature. This theory works in a factory, or in a laboratory, but wreaks havoc in the world outside those confines.”

“From an ecological perspective, when we observe the production and management of manure, we should be thinking not only of contamination and health in relation to individuals, but also about the implications for seed dispersal, movement of water, elements, and nutrients; bacterial ecology; soil replenishment and impoverishment; and the long-term flourishing of life on Earth.”

“We cannot assume that any of the organizational strategies we have built over the past few millennia will enable us to adapt to what is coming tomorrow.”

“The prices for human excrement were so high in eighteenth-century Japan that stealing human shit was an acknowledged crime, punishable by imprisonment.”

“Global trade in human food and animal feeds—more generally, our particular ways of manipulating the services ecosystems provide—represents an unprecedented transformation and re-distribution of organic matter in the biosphere.”

“Viewing politics and governance only as they relate to individuals and states is not helpful in solving the challenges of living in an overcrowded, unstable, interactive, extremely puzzling world.”


The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution

Henry Gee (U. of Chicago)

the accidental species“There is nothing special about being human, any more than there is anything special about being a guinea pig or a geranium.”

“Darwin… used the word ‘evolved’ to mean growth and development of a complex form from a simpler one, and used it to draw an analogy with the altogether grander process in which life itself would from simple beginnings become more diverse, elaborate, and complex. Darwin had a term for this process to which evolution was a mere analogy: he called it ‘descent with modification,’ a much less loaded term than ‘evolution.’”

“Evolution has neither memory nor foresight. It has no scheme, design, or plan…. The patterns we see in life are the results of evolution, and are contingent. In and of itself, evolution carries no implication of progression or improvement. Absolutely none. Zip. Nada.”

“The beautiful thing about natural selection is its simplicity. All it requires to work are four things, three of which are readily apparent with eyes to see. They are heritable variation, the ever-changing environment, superabundance of offspring, and the passage of long periods of time.”

“The evolution of the human brain, like the evolution of anything else, must be thought about in terms of Darwin’s tangled bank, rather than the misreading of evolution as linear, progressive, and governed by purpose.”


Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients

Ben Goldacre (Faber and Faber)

bad pharma“Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments…. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all.”

“[R]egulators don’t have all the trials, and they don’t share all the ones that they do.”

“Only half of all trials get published, and those with negative results are twice as likely to go missing as those with positive ones.”

“[T]he pharmaceutical industry overall spends about twice as much on marketing and promotion as it does on research and development.”

“In medicine, brand identities are irrelevant, and there’s a factual, objective answer to whether one drug is the most likely to improve a patient’s pain, suffering and longevity. Marketing, therefore, exists for no reason other than to pervert evidence-based decision-making in medicine.”

“The ‘serotonin hypothesis’ for depression, as it is known, was always shaky, and the evidence now is hugely contradictory…. But in popular culture the depression-serotonin theory is proven and absolute, because it has been marketed so effectively.”

“The story of the serotonin hypothesis for depression, and its enthusiastic promotion by drug companies, is part of a wider process that has been called ‘disease-mongering’ or ‘medicalisation’, where diagnostic categories are widened, whole new diagnoses are invented, and normal variants of human experience are pathologised, so they can be treated with pills.”

“So, medicalisation is a mixed bag. We may well find new safe and effective drugs for conditions most of us have never thought of as medical problems before, and they may well improve people’s quality of life, in all kinds of different ways…. But the greatest risk is that we fail to notice that our models of personhood, and what is normal, are being quietly engineered by a $600 billion industry.”


5 Perfect Sentences II

Gabe Habash -- December 18th, 2013


We’ve done this before, but here are 5 more perfect sentences.

My father was right: you could make anybody amazing just by insisting they were.

-”What We Know About the Lost Aztec Children” by Elizabeth McCracken

She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlan whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faced west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them.

-The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

On heart-broken pretense of entreating a cup of cold water, fiends in human form had got into lonely dwellings, nor retired until a dark deed had been done.

-Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

I sleep with a glass of water on the nightstand so I can see by its level if the coastal earth is trembling or if the shaking is still me.

-”In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel

“I get the idea perfectly, Mickey,” said Archimboldi, thinking all the while that this man was not only irritating but ridiculous, with the particular ridiculousness of self-dramatizers and poor fools convinced they’ve been present at a decisive moment in history, when it’s common knowledge, thought Archimboldi, that history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.”

-2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Why You Should Read Sergei Dovlatov’s “The Suitcase”

Oren Smilansky -- December 17th, 2013


I’m not traveling for the holidays, but if I were planning a trip, I’d put more thought into packing after reading The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov.

The Suitcase is divided into eight chapters— not including the bookend sections titled “Foreword” and “Instead of an Afterword” —with each focusing on a specific item that made it into Dovlatov’s suitcase, all amassed during the 36 years he spent in his native USSR before leaving for New York in 1978. Commonly considered an autobiographical novel, the book defies classification and can pass as a short-story collection or an essay collection. It also resists a chronological timeline and is laid out in an episodic structure, with each of the stories at times approaching shaggy dog territory. It sometimes feels like a picaresque, but the wry and comical narrator tying these stories together is a man of relatively high integrity named Sergei Dovlatov, a man who has made a living by turns as a prison guard, a black marketeer, a journalist, a sculptor’s assistant, and an unpaid actor. Continue reading

Destination: Read Before you go… or After

Louisa Ermelino -- December 17th, 2013

I’ve always been a little perverse. I buy/collect all the guidebooks for my destination and overwhelmed, ignore them. When I come back home, I start reading them and

1) compare my reality to the guidebook comments

2) can’t believe what I’ve missed

3) check out the section of “books to read before you go” but of course, I’ve already been

I’m going to Italy and I’m determined to do some homework but I’m already overwhelmed. I’m skipping the guidebooks and just looking at my shelves of which I have many. Here’s what I’ve found and here’s what I’m planning to to read  (and re-read) before I go:

Three books I know nothing about except that I found them on my shelves

Two memoirs by non natives:

The Other Side of the Tiber: Reflections on Time in Italy by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

Naples Declared by Benjamin Taylor

One novel set in Abruzzo during WW II by the late Laudomia Bonanni, her first book to be translated into English: The Reprisal

And old dog-eared favorites:

The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa

Christ Stopped At Eboli by Carlo Levi

Women of Rome by Alberto Moravia

The Broken Fountain by Thomas Belmonte

I’m open to suggestions. I’ve got time…








Eminent Victorians

Jessamine Chan -- December 13th, 2013

my life in middlemarchI once read Middlemarch in three days. Circumstances: age 20, studying abroad at Oxford, taking a tutorial on “The Victorian Novel.” (Apparently, real Oxford students read two or three novels for each of the weekly essay assignments, whereas we fee-paying Americans only had to read one). My Middlemarch experience: sleep, eat, read read read, eat, something something Dorothea, something something Casaubon, 500 pages to go, oh gosh, I still need to read secondary sources! Though I remember few details from the novel, I remember loving it, just as I loved all the books for that course: 850 pages of repression and longing followed by 150 pages of feeling feelings, usually with some richly metaphorical weather. Continue reading