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32 posts from January 2007

January 31, 2007

The Dinosaur Down the Street

The Dinosaur Down the Street

By Elaine Viets

So there I was driving down a four-lane road in South Florida when I saw a palm tree trunk in the middle of the road.

Except when I got closer, the palm tree had eyes. Evil prehistoric eyes.

Holy cow! I mean leaping lizards!

That wasn’t a palm tree. It was a giant lizard. A freaking dinosaur. The thing was gray brown and as long as my car – at least six feet. Jurassic Park was in the middle of the road.

I went straight home. I was not going to wander around with a dinosaur on the loose.

I called the local nature park and said, "It’s five o’clock in the afternoon. I am perfectly sober and I just saw a six-foot lizard in the road."

"Yes," said the woman at the nature center. She didn’t sound surprised, which was even more alarming.

"Those are monitor lizards," she said. "They’re related to the Komodo dragon. They get to be six to nine feet long. They live in the nearby mangrove swamps."

They do?

"They’re escaped pets."

I don’t know which was scarier – a six-foot lizard, or some idiot who kept that thing as a pet.

I did know this: There is a mangrove swamp near my home. The giant lizard had crawled out of the swamp to sun itself on the warm asphalt road.

"Are they dangerous?" I said.

"They can eat small pets," the nature expert said.

Small pets? If these things eat cats and poodles, they could also snack on a toddler or two. Tell that to Grandma: "Jared won’t be coming to see you this Christmas. He was eaten by a giant lizard."

"The bite can be dangerous to humans," the nature expert said. "The lizards’ mouths are full of bacteria. If they bite, you can get a bad infection."

At that moment, I wanted to go back home to the Midwest, where lizards do NOT grow to stupendous sizes. I wanted a nice, normal life.

I quickly smothered that urge. That’s why I like Florida. The place is wonderfully weird. It’s a challenge to come up with good fiction when everyday life is so strange. I decided to be a little more careful when I took out the trash late at night. I hoped that strange rustling noise by the Dumpster was a nice, lazy possum.

A quick check of the news shows that monitor lizards are only a few of the exotic pets that have escaped into not-so-wild South Florida. Abandoned boa constrictors and vervet monkeys are making nuisances of themselves. Cuban tree frogs are eating the native croakers. And recently, a Burmese python took on an alligator in the Everglades. The python tried to swallow the gator, and both died in the epic struggle. (There’s a moral in that story, but I’m not sure what it is.)

News reports say monitor lizards have sharp claws and teeth, and may attack humans if they’re feeling surly – and they usually are.

However, I did get this reassurance from the nature expert: "Monitor lizards are not native to Florida. They’re not a protected species. If one attacks you, it’s OK to shoot it."

I was afraid to say I was probably the only person in Florida who didn’t own a gun. I might be breaking a state law by going around unarmed.

Besides, I’m not a native of Florida, either. So it could be OK to shoot me.

January 30, 2007

The Finishing School

Finishingschool_mm_c   Hi Tarts and F.O.T.s --

Just thought I'd mention that my second Melanie Vargas thriller, The Finishing School, went on sale in paperback today.  It was called "smart and gritty" by USAToday, was a Booksense Notable Pick, got a starred review from Library Journal and (as Sarah so kindly mentioned) just got nominated for a Romantic Times award.  You can read an excerpt here.

  XOXO --Michele

How to Never Get a Speeding Ticket

By Sarah

More_speeding Let's get something straight. When it comes to avoiding speeding tickets, I am not proud. Nor am I a feminist. There is no maneuver I'm not willing to perform and, aside from those that appear in grainy 8 mm flicks, I've pulled them all.

The result? In all my 28 years of driving, I have received one - count it - one speeding ticket. And that's not because I drive like Grandma Moses in a Halloween parade. In fact, I've been pulled over numerous times, often for ridiculous things such as failing to "adequately stop" at a red light before turning right. (Too bad the cops didn't catch those lefts on red I've made at 3 a.m.) Or, once, driving an unregistered vehicle. (Not my fault - I was busy!)

Still, no tickets.

I mention this because just the other day my noble and vigorously athletic husband was driving at 5:45 a.m. in sub zero weather down a deserted, snowy Vermont road on his way to his gawdawful morning run with a colleague when he was pulled over and ticketed (yes, there's a distinction) by a local cop. To Charlie's credit, the last time he received a speeding ticket said cop was probably in diapers. And I'm afraid to report that there's really nothing Charlie could have done to avoid it - though I have serious reservations about the cop's methods.

Unfortunately, my tried and tested techniques do not apply as easily to men. For example, mySpeedingtrafficticketschool725727_1  favorite move when pulled over is to act terrified. I don't mean nervous. I mean terrified. Hands shaking on the wheel. (Keep them up there. The cops want to see your fingertips.) Stuttering. Near tears. (Don't cry! It pisses them off.) And then, these immortal words:

"Oh my god. My husband's going to kill me."

It's a show stopper. No cop will give you a ticket after you say that. UNLESS you fail to do the following:

* If you have been busted cresting a hill and, naturally, zooming down it at roughly 10-20 miles above the speed limit, by all means slam on the brakes. I mean slam! Also, DO NOT MAKE EYE CONTACT WITH THE COP in the speed trap. Instead, sit up straight. Look stunned. Deer eyed. Pretend as if this is the most important moment of your life.

Now, I should note that men have a hard time with this rule. To them, slamming on the brakes somehow equals guilt. My father, for one, refused to slow down, arguing that he was doing nothing wrong going 80 mph in a 55 mph zone. Wrong.

Cops don't want to pull you over. (Unless it's the end of the month, but we'll get to that later.) They want to sit in their nice warm cruisers, chatting with dispatch, thinking about lunch. They want to slow you down, that's all. If they see a motorist slam on the brakes, they feel as if they've done their job without so much as opening the door. Besides, they're waiting for the jerk in the Lexus with out of state plates who thinks slowing down is beneath him and that cops are even lower. Cops live to pull over those guys. And I have to admit, I derive some vicarious pleasure from zipping by as they are waylaid on the roadside.

*HAVE YOUR PAPERWORK IN ORDER. This is vitally important and was taught to me by an old boyfriend who happened to be pulled over a lot. License should be in your wallet. Wallet should be held in the left hand that is also on the steering wheel. Remove it from its nice and neat plastic holder so the cop can see.

Registration and insurance should be in your registration envelope, an envelope that is not dirty or littered with marijuana leaves. When to retrieve this is up to you. Some troopers get nervous if they see you lean over and reach for something before they even walk up to the car. Better to wait until they ask. Then lean over, pop open your (organized) glove compartment and remove the tidy envelope. This also allows them to witness your dexterity and decide you are not drunk. Also, according to the tidy glove compartment, that you are not carrying. (Guns are best stored under the  passenger's seat, anyway.)

*Keep your vehicle up to date. This means lights working, inspection done, registration hunky dory. The one time I was pulled over in Cleveland for an unregistered vehicle, I was operating under the misinformation that I had X number of months after moving to a new state before I had to register. I have no idea where I got this notion. I think it was a holdover from living in Jersey. Anyway, I was completely bold with the cop. Did it matter that I was 24 and wearing a low-cut sweater? Looking back, my answer to that would be a resounding maybe. So, I suppose the codicil to this rule is, if your vehicle doesn't appear up to date, make sure you are.

*Beware the end of the month. It's quota time, especially June and July when many municipalities are closing out their fiscal years. Don't be an idiot. Trooper Joe's been handing out warnings for six months and suddenly he's got to produce. Therefore, slow down June 30th. (Precariously close to July 4th, anyway). Let the jerk on your tail who's about to pass you be the fool.

Of course, you could slow down all month long, not just at the end. When Charlie and I moved to the college town where he went to law school, I was so upset by the kids speeding up and down the road, jeopardizing the life of our precious eighteen-month-old daughter, that I actually called the sheriff's department and asked them to set up a speed trap.

Free_speeding_tickets_1 The first person they caught was - me.

My one and only ticket.

Okay - let's hear your tips. Remember: the insurance premium you save, could be your own.

Sarah

PS - A HEARTY CONGRATULATIONS to our very own Michele Martinez and her Romantic Times Award nomination for THE FINISHING SCHOOL. Yeah, Michele!

January 29, 2007

Picking the Winners

Picking the Winners

By Michele Martinez

True fact: I come from solid gambling stock.  My abuela Pepa Martinez gambled away the entire inheritance, such as it was, at the casinos in San Juan.  She did it in grand style.  There was a bit of Imelda Marcos in her (finally, a scientific explanation for my shoe addiction!), and by being a good customer, she was making sure that the casinos always sent a limo to pick her up.  But it was my maternal grandparents, Yetta and Leonard, who taught me how to handicap a race.  I spent my childhood at Aqueduct and Belmont on fine summer weekends, splitting two-dollar bets with them and cheering on my chosen pony.

Hence my lifelong fascination with picking the winner.  At first it was the big four -- Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe, and Miss World.  I always had a candidate, and if she got eliminated, I'd pick another.  After all, what was the fun of watching if you weren't rooting for somebody?  In early adolescence, I briefly switched to handicapping figure skating on Wide World of Sports before finding my true passion, electoral politics.  Here's one contest I'm fascinated by at the moment:

   Go to fullsize image       VS.    Go to fullsize image

That said, this isn't a political blog, and it's a heck of a long time until 2008.  The Oscars, on the other hand, are just around the corner!  Go to fullsize image

I don't know about you, but I love handicapping the Oscars race.  I try to see as many of the nominated films as possible.  Since I have young kids, that generally translates to being really well-informed about Best Animated Feature.   However, our child-care situation has improved dramatically in recent times, and this year I've managed to catch more movies than usual.  Ace handicapper that I am, I have prepared a chart, and I now present to you Michele Martinez's Picks ("Pix") for the 79th Annual Academy Awards.

BEST PICTURE

  • Babel -- didn't see it; in previews it looked overbearing.
  • The Departed -- saw it; Leo was hot; story was incoherent.
  • Letters from Iwo Jima -- haven't seen it yet because it hasn't come to Pristine Hamlet; but Clint Eastwood is the best director working today, and he had the cojones to make a movie in Japanese for American audiences.  That's good enough for me.
  • Little Miss Sunshine -- saw it; really funny and well-made but too self-consciously quirky for my taste;
  • The Queen -- brilliant and engrossing.  I loved it, but then I'm somebody who can't imagine a better topic for a movie than the relationship between the Queen and the Prime Minister in a constitutional monarchy
  • MICHELE'S PICK:  LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima.  See above discussion.
  • Stephen Frears, The Queen.  Would be totally acceptable to me.  Would even make me happy.
  • Paul Greengrass, United 93.  Didn't see it, but if he really did such a great job, why isn't this film nominated for anything else?  Won't win.
  • Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel -- again, didn't catch it. I would love to see a Latino Best Director, but in my book, the guy who really deserves it is Alfonso Cuaron for Children of Men.  (Or we could nominate both. Two Latino best director noms -- yeah!)  Talk about a travesty.  Children of Men was totally stiffed.
  • Martin Scorsese, The Departed --  Yes, he's one of the greatest directors in American film history.  Yes, he should have three Oscars on his shelf by now -- Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas.  Wait, make that four -- The Age of Innocence.  Yes, he's been robbed repeatedly in the past.  Sorry -- he doesn't deserve to win for this one.
  • MICHELE'S PICK -- Clint Eastwood.  Go to fullsize image

BEST ACTRESS

  • Penelope Cruz, Volver -- Haven't seen it yet.  I did recently see All About My Mother, another Almodovar, and Penelope was very moving playing an AIDS-afflicted nun who's in love with a tranny prostitute. (That Pedro, he's crazy!)
  • Judi Densch, Notes on A Scandal -- Haven't seen it.
  • Helen Mirren, The Queen --  Yes.  Her.  Totally.
  • Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada -- It's always a pleasure to watch her.  I saw this movie alone in a hotel room on tour and it made me happy.  Does she deserve to beat Helen Mirren?  No.  Would I begrudge her?  Never.
  • Kate Winslet, Little Children -- Haven't seen it.  I generally think she's pretty good.
  • MICHELE'S PICK -- Same as everybody else's -- Helen Mirren.

BEST ACTOR -- Honestly, I haven't seen a single one of the nominated performances, so I'm casting a write-in vote for Clive Owen in Children of Men.

Go to fullsize image  Isn't he spectacular?  Beats blonde Bond any day.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Adriana Barraza, Babel -- haven't seen.
  • Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal -- haven't seen.
  • Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine.
  • Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls.
  • Rinko Kikuchi, Babel -- haven't seen.
  • MICHELE'S PICK -- Jennifer Hudson is an astonishing vocal talent with presence that just leaps off the screen.  But as an actress, she's too over-the-top for my taste.  I'm going against popular opinion and casting my vote for Abigail Breslin, whose performance showed real craft and subtlety. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine --  This is probably the single best-written character in any movie I've seen this year, and Alan Arkin played the role brilliantly.  Also, hilariously.
  • Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children -- haven't seen.
  • Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond -- haven't seen.
  • Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls -- I was astonished.  Take off that fat suit, Eddie, you're a brilliant freakin' actor.  One of the best performances of the year.
  • Mark Wahlberg, The Departed -- He was good too!
  • MICHELE'S PICK --  As far as I'm concerned, competition is fiercer in this category than any other, although that may be because I've seen more of the performances.  Tough call, but I'm going with Eddie Murphy. 

Okay now, when I told you how I love handicapping races, I neglected to give you my stats.  I have to admit, my picks don't always win.  (And my grandparents did not end up retiring on what they won at the track, either).  So, go ahead, feel free, tell me I'm wrong.  I'm ready to hear your picks.

 

January 28, 2007

What We're Reading Lately

What We're Reading Lately

by Nancy and Michele

A bunch of the other Tarts decided to go on vacation and leave Nancy and Michele behind to mind the store.  While they're off frolicking in their bikinis on white sand beaches, we're snuggled up by the fire with a good book. Who got the better end of that deal?  They did, silly!  We'd rather be reading on the beach.  But since we're here anyway, we thought we'd tell you about the books that have been keeping us company:

Nancy

This week I read Truth and Consequences by Alison Lurie, who has been one of my very favorite authors since Foreign Affairs, which has been re-released and youmustgobuyitimmediately.  Anyway, T&C is about marriage and the sometimes ephemeral nature of that till-death-do-us-part relationship. I have such respect for this author's ability to craft words into unforgettable characters---ordinary people who aren't the least bit ordinary.

And I read Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas.---Another look at marriage, but this time the husband suffers a brain injury and the wife must carry on, make decisions about his care that affect both of them.  It's a memoir, very moving and beautifully structured.  I picked it up because Stephen King blurbed the book, saying it was the best memoir he'd ever read.  If you found The Year of Magical Thinking wonderful, you'll go for this one, too.

Yesterday I started reading River of Doubt, about Teddy Roosevelt's trip to explore the source of the Amazon.  Can I be a Teddy Roosevelt fan?  Because he's my very favorite president.  (I am such a dork, huh?) What a life.  What a man.  They don't make 'em like Teddy anymore.

One more:  I've been slowly working my way through the Bob Dylan autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One, and it's eye-opening.  You expect Dylan to be a self-less, socially-conscious activist with an altruistic streak, right?  Forget it.  This book is about ambition.  Going after what you want with single-minded focus. And--okay, no surprise here---the man can write!  Sometimes the prose gets a little purple, but it's always entertaining.

Michele

I've been on a Marie Antoinette kick.  It started when I received a copy of Sena Jeter Naslund's Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette for Christmas.  It's an account of Marie Antoinette's life told in the first person, from the time she's shipped to France to marry the Dauphin at the age of fourteen (hello! -- can we say pedophilia?) to the moment of her execution.  The prose was gorgeous and the historical detail impressive, but I found that Marie Antoinette as a person was strangely absent.  While I enjoyed the book, I was left wanting more.  So I picked up a copy of Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey, which I'm halfway through and loving.  I just adore historical biographies that are engagingly written, don't you? 

                Go to fullsize image

Anyway, reading about Marie Antoinette set me to thinking about the dangerous and volatile nature of celebrity.  Here's a woman who was positively adored -- no, literally worshipped -- in her early days as the Dauphine and the young Queen of France.  Her face, her walk, her style of dress, her preferences in music and dance, were trumpeted and imitated not only in France but throughout Europe.  She was written about endlessly in her own time, and eventually as the fortunes of France declined, she became the focus of public anger and frustration.  All along, she'd been nothing more than a well-meaning, self-indulgent dimwit, beautiful and graceful but utterly lacking in influence over policy.  So much got projected onto her that, when she died, the masses exulted to the point of bathing in her blood. 

I suppose people like Angelina and Paris and Britney ought to be grateful.  When the public turns on them, the worst thing that happens is a few crotch shots and a little negative press.

What have you been reading, and how do you feel about it?

January 27, 2007

Guest Blog by Margaret Maron

The Things We Do For Love

by esteemed and much beloved mystery writer Margaret Maron

As a teenager, my son used to keep my mother's grass cut all through the long hot summers. She had a friend whose own grandson couldn't be persuaded to touch a mower, so the friend asked my son if he would mow her grass, too. Now my son has never liked getting hot and sweaty so he turned her down even though she offered to pay him generously. "There are things I'll do for love that I would never do for money," he said.

I've thought about that often over the years--the things we do for love. We'll wipe a baby's bottom, we'll clean up digusting sickroom messes and empty the bedpans of people we love without the least expectation of monetary reward. Vegetables are cheap to buy, yet we'll grown our own for the love of gardening. We would rather have our own raggedy, sweet-smelling roses crammed into a dimestore bowl than a florist's elegant arrangements because the rosebush was given to us as a housewarming gift from a dear friend. We'll cook split pea soup for a husband homesick for his mother's cooking even though the very thought of actually eating split pea soup makes us gag.  And yes, we will spend years writing poetry and short stories.  We will fill journals with our hopes, dreams and aspirations. We will labor on a novel that may never see publication, we will send out manuscripts over and over again though no one pays us a dime for our words.

Professional writers love to quote Samuel Johnson--"None but blockheads ever wrote except for money"--because none of us can live on air. If we intend to make our living by our writing, then of course we must be paid enough to live on. But it is equally true that "none but blockheads--and hacks--write solely for money."

No, we write out of love. A love affair with words and ideas and visual images made permanent, like catching a butterfly and pinning it to the page so that others can inhabit our minds and feel the pleasure we felt when the precise word, the precise turn of phrase, was captured. We write to memorialize a beloved parent, a bittersweet romance, a heartbreaking loss. We write for catharsis and for confirmation. Plato wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living. Writers examine every aspect of their own lives and then they go on to examine the lives of everybody around them. What is character and motivation if not the result of that examination? Nothing is off-limits. As E.L. Doctorow wrote, "A novelist is a person who lives in other people's skins," which is similar to my favorite Walt Whitman quote, "I am large.  I contain multitudes."

Even if we're writing nonfiction, we still have to capture the reader's imagination and interest, and make him care about the things that drew us to write about this subject to begin with.

In my own case, I was fascinated by the possibilities that language held--how a certain combination of words could move me to tears or laughter or start adrenaline flowing through my body.  I began to look at the printed page more analytically, trying to to understand precisely how the magic worked. Why did the characters created by one writer rise up gracefully off the page while the characters of another just lay there in wooden awkwardness?

Yet even though I knew I wanted to be a writer, I did not immediately know what it was I would write. After flailing around in several different genres, I discovered that I was most comfortable with writing mysteries.

In one of my NY novels, Lt. Sigrid Harald and her housemate are discussing his plans to write a mystery novel and he says he thinks he can do it in three months.

    "Three months?" Sigrid asked dubiously. "I thought a book took at least a year."

    "That's for serious writers," he told her.

    "And you're not?"

    "My dear, I'm forty-three years old. I have a certain flair for the English language, a certain facility, but depth? I fear not. . . . Writers with something profound to say write poetry, writers with something serious to say write novels, but writers with nothing to say write genre fiction. I shall become a mystery writer. . . . And don't look so sad.  I shall try to be a very good mystery writer."

I have occasionally--with my tongue tucked firmly in my cheek--said that "it's a great handicap to want to write and then to discover that you have nothing to say. Where does one go from there?"

This, of course, was never strictly true.  I had lots to say but I was also a very private person. I could not write the usual coming-of-age novel wherein the closet doors are flung wide and all the skeletons trotted out for the bemusement of a jaded world. I could not take off my clothes in public. Fortunately, the mystery has allowed me to say anything and everything while still remaining private. There have been no limitations. And because I happen to believe that the mystery contains vestiges of the old morality play with its examination of good and evil, I do have a chance to present my version of how things are ought to be in this flawed and messy and endlessly intriguing world.  I love that. 

And so we come back to the things we do for love.

The Book Tarts urge you to check out the 12th book in the Deborah Knott series, Winter's Child.

January 26, 2007

Seven Deadly Sins

Seven Deadly Sins
and How I Finally Accepted the Fact That We Are Doomed

by Rebecca the Bookseller

At first, you think it's just another commercial. You know, like Cialis (See Our Ad in Golf Digest) or a new wonder diet (I lost 45 pounds on the Shake 'n' Bake Diet and you can too!).

Long shot of a car pulling up in front of building to park among a line of other cars. Immediately the brain is suspicious. A parking space in front of a big office building? Not since Oklahoma City, friend. And where are all the other cars, honking and making various hand gestures because the parker is gumming up the works? Next, we see the driver - handsome guy - in that ageless 40-60 bracket made possible by computer enhancements and a professional make up and hair team. Next to him, a younger woman- not too young. She's the wife, not the girlfriend. Gorgeous. Both surrounded by buttery soft leather seats and clothed in cashmere.

He looks over at her, an expression of muted triumph on his face - yeah, he's got it all. The car, the woman, the life. She looks back with a smile. She's got it all too, including the pool boy on the side. Or maybe it's the ball girl at the Tennis Club. Whatever.

What happens next is the part that is stunning. The man takes his hands off the steering wheel, like he's David Copperfield or something, and the car parallel parks itself. That's right - in case you were still trying to picture any of the players here - the Car Parallel Parks. Itself.

The commercial ends with Mr. Man saying to Mrs. Fabulous - "I remember when I had to park my own car." Smugness abounds. You can almost smell it. And it stinks.

This is it - this is what our society has come to. Of all the problems in all the world we could spend money to have the best and the brightest engineers solve, we have chosen parking an automobile that costs more than most people in the middle class spend on a house, and more than millions of people across the globe earn in a lifetime. And there's probably a tax break on the damn thing too, because they threw in something that makes the emissions cleaner.

So let's review:

Avarice? check
Gluttony? check - It doesn't have to be just about food, you know.
Sloth? check, and that should've been first - no wonder she's got to have something going outside the McMansion - any person who can't even be bothered to park his own car is not exactly going to be someone who pays attention to the details in the sack, either.
Hubris - oh yeah. Did you see that look on his face?

So I'd have to stretch to include Lust and Anger, but Envy isn't too far off the mark either.

Either way, four out of seven is enough to have you start watching for the Horsemen.

Don't get me wrong - I work and I spend money on stuff that I don't need. Please - you should see my iTunes account from last week alone. This is much bigger than that. This is - and I'm assuming, as all good Econ majors do, that the market drives the goods - an indication of how far our society has fallen. We, as a people, have collectively made the decision that automated parallel parking is something we want and are willing to pay for. I'm told by a local dealer that they have orders coming out the wazoo for this car, and they don't even have the car on the lot. And my city isn't even known for this kind of conspicuous consumption. Sure, we'll mortgage the house to see the Superbowl, but that's different. No worries about that this year.

Is it just me on this one? What do you think?

January 25, 2007

American Idol Comes to the Book Review Page

American Idol Comes to the Book Review Page

by Nancy

My baby is not ugly.  PW has declared it so.

Yes, I have a new book coming out in March, so the advance reviews are starting to trickle in.  Be careful what you say to me, though, because any writer will tell you I'm in a delicate psychological state.  The slightest ill-considered word could trigger mood swings that---well, you know the hideous monster that explodes out of the guy's chest in Alien?  That could be me.

Unlike some, more disciplined Book Tarts, I'm a slug who writes only one book a year. Which means I'm usually trying to finish a manuscript at the same time reviewers start taking pot shots at the new release--the book I wrote last year (and therefore can't do anything about fixing.) So I try not to read reviews. I need to finish the new book, dammit, not spend a week whimpering under a blanket watching One Life To Live with my self-hating-funk-facilitating friend, Orville Redenbacher.        

I remember my first Publisher's Weekly review like it happened yesterday. In those days (ye gods, 17 years ago!) I subscribed to the magazine.  One bleak January day I pulled it out of the mailbox, then went inside to brew myself a cup of tea and settle down in the living room to read.  I opened the pages and there it was--without warning:  A middling review of the (I thought) semi-literary/coming-of-age/satirical novel I'd struggled for 18 months to write. Blood had poured from my forehead during the creation of that book. My marriage nearly foundered. My children avoided me unless I carried a warm pizza box. After all that agony, the reviewer's parting shot was, "This book is commercial and should appeal to genre readers."

Which, at the time, felt like a dagger to my heart.

No kidding, at the very moment those words penetrated my brain, my heart began to flop and jerk and skip and thump like a hooked haddock. I passed out on my way to dial 911. I ended up in the emergency room where my shaken doctor told me my condition was, "incompatible with life."  (The king of euphemisms!) She clapped me into the cardiac ward for three weeks until they found a cocktail of drugs that I take even today to stay alive.

I blame it all on that word, "commercial," and Publisher's Weekly.

So don't tell me reviews don't matter.  That one nearly killed me.

I cancelled my subscription.

Nowadays, things are a little different. Yes, books are professionally reviewed by trained people who---with a few exceptions--seem to enjoy books--even genres books!--and take pleasure in spreading the word about the best ones.

But we're also in the age of proliferating amateur reviewers whose opinions appear in print and online more often than the pros. Harriet Klausner, Amazon's premier reviewer, was named one of Time magazine's most influential people of the year.  Now, I appreciate Harriet because she likes my books, but honestly, sometimes she's in such a rush to get to the next review that she doesn't make a whole lot of sense, does she?  Case in point.  (Scroll down.  You'll see her review.) I mean, how about some puncutation, Harriet?  (If you want to see what happens to the author who criticizes the critic, stay tuned, right?)

Perhaps it's the American Idol influence, but a lot of amateur reviewers have discovered it's more fun to be snarky than positive.  Or factual. Even if the reviewer likes your book, you're often slapped with a witticism generated for their own gratification. These days it seems amateurs often take the words, "literary criticism" literally.  (Uh . . . no, class, it's not what you think it means.) Some have never heard of John Updike, let alone his 6 simple rules for book reviews.

Coming up with a clever putdown gives us all a shiver of pleasure, doesn't it? And posting your rapier remarks on Amazon enhances the fun. But critical thinking doesn't always enter the picture.

Even--or perhaps especially--Kirkus seems to revel in the snotty putdown. (Yes, I'm still stinging over last year's maiden-aunt "slut gris" remark, so I'm biased.) I know a lot of librarians, and none of them are particularly Simon Cowell-like. Somebody tell me, please. Does Kirkus echo the current sentiments of librarians all over the world? My books seem to go over big among library patrons. But Kirkus seems hellbent on convincing librarians my work might give their regulars the vapors. What, exactly, is the raison d'etre of that publication? Is it time for us all to rise up in revolution?

Nevermind. I'm told that's the way it is, and there's no use fighting the status quo.

My point is this: If you're a writer with a thin skin, the time has long since come for you to toughen up.  Once you step onto the public stage, you'd better have your big girl panties on. Because anyone who's ever read Winnie The Pooh thinks they have something clever to say about your life's work and they're eager to send that opinion out onto the World Wide Web like musty confetti shot from a cannon.

Reviewers make most writers crazy. And I don't need to get any more crazy than I am right now, thank you, because I'm trying to write a new book.

So don't show me my reviews.

Okay, show me the good ones. Hey, I'm human.  But no snark, please. I'm already taking a handful of beta-blockers every day.

                      

                

January 24, 2007

The Leather and Lace Bikers Society Ball

Scan1_0001_5 The Leather and Lace Bikers Society Ball

By Elaine Viets

That photo is me at the most exclusive society ball in St. Louis: The 15th annual Leather and Lace Bikers Society Ball.

It’s the hottest ticket in my hometown. A thousand bikers show up at the gorgeous old Casa Loma ballroom in South St. Louis. In biker circles, it doesn’t matter how important your dead relatives are, or how much money you have. This society is based on skill.

The Leather and Lace ball is exclusive. It does its best to keep out RUBs – Rich Urban Bikers, the Malcolm Forbes wannabes who buy Harleys for status and take them out three weekends a year.

In the photo, I’m with Ron and Pat Steger. They’re real bikers, who are not afraid to get a few bugs in their teeth. They’ve hardly changed since I saw them at the first biker ball fifteen years ago.

I’d covered a lot of society parties as a reporter in St. Louis, but the only one I enjoyed was the Leather and Lace Bikers Society Ball. This was definitely not the Oscar de la Renta crowd. At one of the first bikers society balls, the queen wore boots and a lace bodystocking – and that was all. She was a natural blonde. Her escort wore only a black vest, black leather chaps and a black Harley G-string. I didn’t linger on his outfit. The queen had some serious muscles.

There were plenty of less heart-stopping outfits: leather vests and panther tattoos for the men, leather miniskirts and lace blouses for the women. And enough boots to stomp half of South St. Louis.

At midnight, they ride one huge Harley around the ballroom to the official biker anthem, Steppenwolf’s "Born to Be Wild."

When everyone has imbibed sufficient courage, they also have the Leather and Lace contests. I was one of the first female judges. I judged the Best in Leather, male and female divisions, and the Best in Lace at one of the first balls. Here’s what I remember from that historic occasion:

"What are the criteria?" I’d asked Ron.

"Just pick the best," he told me.

For the Best in Leather, Women’s Division, the women lined up in front of the bandstand. One wore a lace bodystocking and leather chaps. Another woman wore the same outfit – until she dropped her chaps and wiggled her butt.

All but one of the judges approved of this move.

A woman with the cheeks cut out of her jeans also wiggled her rear, to the delight of every judge but me. Soon bottoms were wiggling like Jell-O in an earthquake.

The bottoms were a hit with the men in the crowd, but they weren’t winners. That honor went to a woman who looked like a demure leather cheerleader in a flippy white skirt and lace-trimmed leather boots.

Bikers are a fair bunch. When the Best in Leather, Men’s Division, stumbled on, a woman in the audience yelled, "Hey, we saw the women’s butts, now what about the men’s?"

Contestant Number Three obligingly unbuckled his chaps, dropped his trou and showed a really nice set of buns: fat-free and golden brown.

The other contestants stayed clothed.

"Number Three! Number Three!" screamed the biker women.

The male judges, recognizing that they were surrounded by beer-bottle-wielding women, yielded to popular demand and gave him the award.

But what really impressed me was the male judges’ behavior in the Ladies in Lace contest. There was another bottom waver, a blonde in a sheer red gown with lace panties, a woman wearing a wondrous Spandex suit cut into a spiderweb of holes, and other amazing temptation. These women were fashion-model thin.

I was really proud the way the male judges voted:

They chose a contestant who wore a bodystocking made of black Harley lace. She had the generous, womanly proportions that painters in another age loved.

I was proud to confirm their decision.

* * *

I wasn’t a judge at the 15th Bikers Society ball. I could stay only long enough to say hello to my friends. I was in town on tour, and had to leave for dinner with a bookseller.

I checked out some of the wilder costumes, plus the not-so-shocking leather vests, panther tattoos and black miniskirts.

Oh, yeah. What do I wear to biker society balls?

Leather and lace, of course: leather pants, black suede boots, dark top, lace jacket. As one biker babe told me: "You almost got it, honey, but you need to show more tit."

January 23, 2007

Celebrity Therapy

By Sarah

My brain is fried.

There. I said it. No beating around the bush. Last night I finished the revisions to The Sleeping Beauty Proposal, including four new love scenes. If there's an innovative way for a man to approach Lipstick_lips a woman, to kiss her like she's never been kissed before, to pledge his undying love while keeping the tone lighthearted, the tension taught and the dialogue snappy, call me. No, wait. Don't call me. I'm done.

It's been painful, these last few weeks. First, getting the novel done and then the revisions to perfection - all in a matter of six months. Thank God, Britney helped me. Also, Lindsay, Keith Urban and Angelina Jolie. I couldn't have written it without them.

I'll confess the sordid truth right now. I'm a celebrity junkie. I'm one of those people who, when given a choice on how to prioritize her AOL homepage (and I HATE AOL by the way), chooses Entertainment first. I claim my top priority is news, since I'm a former newspaper reporter, but this is a total lie. I'd take the Madonna adoption flap over George Bush's foreign policy snafus any day.

I crave celebrity news because it's mindless. Really mindless. And when I'm trying to outline a novel or flush out characters or get past a plot point, what I need is two minutes, if that, of intensive celebrity therapy. Kind of like a cat nap, only faster. Which is why I'm always up to speed on the latest celebrity scoop when I'm writing a book. Finish a chapter, check TMZ. It's the system that keeps me sane.

Angelina_jolie_picture_45 In case you're not hip with what's happening in the celebrity world, I'll fill you in: Angelina Jolie is out. Way out. Brad Pitt had to cover for her at the Golden Globes because she treated every question as though it were an insult. (Brad, call me. I have the feeling you've got a lead on how to kiss a woman like she's never been kissed before.)

Britney doesn't wear underwear, neglects her kids and is dating a KFed lookalike. Look for her in your Wal-Mart aisle next week and I don't mean on display. Keith Urban is just so cute, I don't care if he's a drunk, but Lindsay Lohan needs to be put in a uniform and sent to remedial school. And no matter what she alleges, Paula Abdul is on something.

Boy. I feel refreshed already.

Sadly, I know very few celebrities in my real life. There's our own Harley Jane Kozak, of course, but,Harley  dammit, she's been with us so long I count her as a true friend. Plus, her life, from what she tells us, is very motherly and innocent. Also, I'm pretty sure she wears underwear.

In my little village of Montpelier, Vermont, we're home to a few, though they're kind of highbrow and dull. Like David Mamet. He lives nearby in Calais and used to go to the same heroin addicted hairdresser I did. Also, there's Katherine Patterson, who wrote the Bridge to Terabethia, and Paul Sorvino recently got in a ruckus at a Stowe, Vermont, hotel with his daughter's (not Mira) abusive boyfriend.

Luis The one I feel really bad about, though, is Luis Guzman. For months, maybe years, I'd cross the street whenever I saw him, thinking he was one bad-ass dude from my court reporting days. I mean, the guy looks scary and he always plays scary roles. It wasn't until I saw the Count of Monte Cristo that it hit me: he wasn't recently sprung from Windsor Correctional, he was an esteemed character actor. Later, I ran into him at Shaw's and almost thought of apologizing. But he regarded me as if I were a creep, so I backed off.

When I was a reporter, I used to interview celebrities from time to time. I don't know if Ed Meese counts (I told him he was the spitting image of my father and he was totally appalled.) But I did interview Hillary (cold fish) and Marvin Hamlisch (a mensch), Michael J. Fox (very endearing) and, finally, Bill Clinton, after he won the 1992 Presidential election. (Put his hand on my knee and kept it there - I kid you not.)

But now that I'm holed up in an old bedroom that's been converted to an office, I have to live vicariously. Which is why I'm counting on you to tell me about your brushes with fame, the raunchier the better. Like my brother's story about Joan Jett which involves her getting out of a limousine in Boston and passing out at his feet. Or my other brother's stories about the late great Barry White and his need for several Playstations when shooting a television commercial. God, I love those.

So dish. Because I've got 360 pages to read over and, honey, ever since she passed out in Vegas, Britney's been old hat.

Sarah