Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Free Bin: Shia LaBeouf Is a Plagiarising Plagiarist Edition

It’s been a heck of a week, between holidays and a raging flu, so this installment is a day late. What it lacks in timeliness, it makes up for in drama. 

LaBeouf's film opens with the exact same words. What follows is pretty much a shot-by-shot version of the comic.

  • I can’t help but follow the circus that actor Shia LaBeouf has created by lifting a Daniel Clowes graphic novella for his film HowardCantour.com. It’s one of the most blatant creative thefts I can recall in history, as LaBeouf’s film uses entire monologues verbatim from Clowes’ work. The plot thickened after the actor was discovered to have also copied his apology from Yahoo Answers, and then lifted a subsequent apology directly from Tiger Woods. Now it seems that LaBeouf’s publishing imprint took its about-page info from PictureBox, right down to the same typographical errors. Is there an award for cutting-and-pasting skills?

  • Three weeks before Nabokov’s Lolita was published, Dorothy Parker had a short story in The New Yorker called, of all things, “Lolita.” The subject? An older man with a teen bride. Nabokov was not pleased.

  • Abe Books’ annual list of their 25 most expensive book sales is always intriguing, but this year’s is particularly interesting: it’s the only one in my recent memory to include a hand-written spell book.

Have you bought any expensive books lately? Has Shia LaBeouf stolen anything from you? Tell me more.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: Political Suicide by Robert Barnard

The Friday’s Forgotten Books folks are featuring Robert Barnard today, so even in the middle of my holiday hoopla, I knew I had to drop everything and review one of his books. The question was—which? What helped answer the question was the realization that, while I enjoy his more traditional mysteries (like The Bad Samaritan, which manages to be wicked and witty even in an English church setting), it’s his novels that depart from that formula that stick with me the most.

I briefly reviewed Political Suicide back in 2006, when I used to post round-ups of my favorite recent reads on MySpace. (I went there to retrieve my post and the site still exists, though it’s something of an urban ruin). My pseudo-review didn’t say much—just a few lines—but mentioned that it was a fun satire “for fans of Yes, Minister and its ilk.” That’s not a lot of information, but if you know the BBC sitcom that skewered the British political system in the early ‘80s, you know something of the milieu of Political Suicide. Just add a (possible) murder.

Political Suicide by Robert Barnard (1986)

The book begins:

''It was a quiet Friday morning in Downing Street. The Prime Minister was stewing over a draft bill to privatize the armed forces, many of the aides and secretaries who normally cluttered the place were already off for the weekend, and in the kitchens the cook was preparing a light lunch of staggering ordinariness.''

It’s only seconds later that the body of Jim Partridge, MP for Bootham East (“a frightful hole”) is fished out of the river, an apparent suicide. A flurry of activity ensues—but it’s not the usual kind for a mystery. It’s the political kind, as factions from every party begin their machinations to jockey their favored replacement candidate into position. Others hurriedly try to keep the media at bay, and sweep anything that might appear even slightly unsavory about Partridge’s death under the rug. Only Partridge wasn’t unsavory—in fact, he was rather dull and normal, with no motive for suicide—which causes Superintendent Sutcliffe of New Scotland Yard to suspect murder.

I’ll confess that everything I know about British politics is cobbled together from Yes, Minister, The Thick of It, and some references on I’m Alan Partridge. (Someone from across the pond will have to tell me if my sources are reliable ones.) Barnard finds the same kind of humor in political monkey business, and the result is a book that’s considerably more satire than murder mystery. It moves breezily along, helped by the fact that most of the book is in the form of dialogue. We meet all the candidates from the major parties involved, and Barnard can’t help but poke fun at all of them.

“And then,” Barnard writes, “there were the rest.” He goes on to name the other candidates on the ballot.

“Taking them slowly, one by one, they were: the Home Rule for England candidate; the Women for the Bomb candidate; Yelping Lord Crotch, the Top of the Pops candidate; the Transcendental Meditation candidate; the Transvestite Meditation candidate (Ms Humphrey Ward); the John Lennon lives candidate; the Bring Back Hanging candidate; the Britain Out of the Common Market candidate;the Richard III Was Innocent Candidate; and Zachariah Zzugg, the I’m Coming Last candidate.”

I tend to like my mysteries dark, and humor is something I generally like to keep separate. Political Suicide has just enough bite to keep me interested, though. It’s never too dark or too light, but something in between. I suspect it won’t be for everyone, and the ending even more so. Without spoiling the outcome of the murder investigation, I will say that Barnard makes it very clear that this is satire. As far as whether you will like it or not, I stand by my 2006 MySpace post: it may depend entirely on how you feel about Yes, Minister.

Read the rest of the reviews for Robert Barnard week. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Free Bin: 8 Reasons Abraham Lincoln Would Be Great at Links

I use Grammarly's free plagiarism checker because, while I may be a fan of crime novels, I don’t much care for word theft. Here are some other links I’ve found while cruising the streets of the web and busting thugs.

This and 999,999,999 more images are free, thanks to the British Library.

  • This blog post title generator lets you put in a blog topic, and it then generates click-worthy title ideas. It could be handy for the right kind of posts, but I found the results to be humorous for a (sometimes) serious blog. For an example, check the title of this post.

  • The British Library has uploaded a ton of public domain images to Flickr for public use—more than a million, in fact. It’s worth perusing, though be warned: it’s a real time suck. I got caught up looking at illustrations for old penny-dreadful murder stories after I grabbed the image of Lincoln.

  • If you’ve ever wanted to know what the most popular books among inmates in a Scottish prison are, your wish has been granted. Librarians all across the jail system weigh in on the reading habits of the incarcerated.

  • To put you in the holiday mood, The Bloody Pit of Rod has a neat little collection of Santa-themed comic book covers, with at least one Krampus appearance.

  • Have we lost more than innocence in this era of vulgarity? This Wall Street Journal piece by Lee Siegel is my favorite thing I’ve read all week. It’s not a whine about morality, but more of a dirge for the vicarious thrill. When everything’s so dirty, the thrill of real transgression is more elusive.

  • Weird Tales is open for submissions “for a while,” says the editor. Upcoming themes include Nikola Tesla, as well as an issue devoted to frigid environments.

Have fun web-hopping. Let me know if you visit and enjoy any of the links. Tell ‘em Book Dirt sent you.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Wanting to Write Full Time? Take Linda Formichelli’s Advice (And Mine, Too)

There’s a lie in my biography. Right over there, on the sidebar. It says “I haven’t quit my day job.” The truth is, I have. Several months ago, I left my sixteen-year bookstore job to tackle full-time freelance writing.

I couldn’t be happier now, but the months leading up to the decision were difficult. While I’d been steadily taking on more and more writing assignments, even having to turn some down, making the actual transition was frightening. 

Linda Formichelli has a book to help with the kinds of questions I had—and some I still have. Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race … and Step Into a Career You Love wasn’t around when I left my job, but I’ve been familiar with her blog The Renegade Writer since I got serious about freelancing. (I still think it has the most realistic advice on the net, especially for magazine writers.)

I’m proud to be one of several writers quoted in the book about our real experiences in the writing world. That’s one of the things that makes this book so useful: real advice from those who have been there. The writers run the gamut from moms to media wizards (some are both), so there’s a good chance that you’ll find someone whose life experience will resonate with you.

Formichelli’s book may be just the boost you need if you’re on the fence about leaving your job, and she handles pretty much any question you might have about giving up a secure position for the unknown. She’s also up front about the reality. There’s direct talk about health care, money, and even more importantly, money problems.

I’ll admit that I browsed through the book when I got my copy, looking for my own quotes. Then I read it again, highlighting liberally. I may have already made the leap, but I found information that I need, too. There’s the now-familiar problem of what to charge. There’s the inherent stress of working at home. (I’ve learned quickly that working at home means I’m always at work.)

I know a lot of people who say I’m “brave” for doing what I did. I’m not sure it takes bravery so much as self-respect, and a commitment to what you really love in life. If you need some help in getting there, I highly recommend you read what Formichelli has to say.

Then do it … even if it leaves you no time for pesky things like changing your sidebar.

Monday, December 9, 2013

10 Most Bizarre Calendars for 2014

Another year, another crop of weird calendars.

At some point, calendar publishers must eventually run out of ideas—and to look at most of what you find in shops, it seems as if they have. The offerings for 2014 include a lot of the same old-same old, so you can still purchase all the Georgia O’Keeffe flowers, rustic barns, and shirtless firemen your boring heart desires. (Puppies and boobs also continue to have staying power.)

Luckily for the weirdos among us, a few forward-thinking (or perhaps backward-thinking) calendar publishers know that even crackpots need to know what day it is, and have provided some 2014 calendar choices to fulfill our most freakish of dreams.

1. Naked Vietnam Vets

They served their country; now they serve as our eye candy. Or maybe not so much candy as whatever the opposite of candy is. Chicken livers? The 2014 calendar is a fund-raiser for a veterans’ retreat in Australia, which may be why they’re so comfortable showing off everything down under.

2. Men of Game Development

You’re not the only one who can’t play BioShock without constantly wondering what the game designer looks like when reclining seductively in cut-offs.

3. Milky Pin-Ups

George Carlin once said that if you nail together two things that have never been nailed together before, some schmuck will buy it from you. London photographer Jaroslav Wieczorkiewicz has nailed together pin-up style photographs and gallons of milk. The result is fascinating, if a little strange, as the liquid really does look like clothing. Maybe next year, someone will dowse the naked Vietnam vets with milk.

4. Des From’ Girls (Cheese Girls)

Maybe you like your milk products better when they're curdled and aged. If so, you might prefer the annual calendar from l'Association Fromages de Terroirs (that’s fancy-talk for “cheese club”), which juxtaposes curvaceous women with hefty hunks of French cheese. Holy smokes! Check out the rind on that Gruyère!

5. Banjo Babes

If everything you know about women comes from the annual weird calendar post, you might think the only things they enjoy are the fondling and wearing of dairy products. Hold onto your socks, because they can also play a mean banjo. (And you might need to meet some women who don’t have months attached to their names.) It should be pointed out that the models are actual accomplished banjo players who just happen to look nice when playing one upside down or in a tree.

6. Pooping Pooches

Most dog and cat calendars are missing the element of shame. Even the animals dressed up in everything from tutus to lederhosen manage to have an air of nobility about them, but not these guys, whose embarrassed expressions add a weirdly voyeuristic feel to the whole thing. This might be the perfect work calendar, if you really, really hate your job.


7. Vampire Kitties

Man, somebody in marketing has really got their finger on the pulse of adolescent girls. (“They like—what? Vampires? Kittens? Somebody slap up a calendar!”) This couldn’t encapsulate the tween demographic any better without having a scratch ‘n’ sniff One Direction centerfold.

8. World Stamps Math Nerds Calendar

This calendar depicts not just mathematicians, mind you, but mathematicians that have been featured on stamps around the world. The algebraically-inclined philatelist in your basement will have fun for hours—a year, even!

9. North American Grain Elevators

Tread carefully before giving this one as a Christmas gift. The excitement just might overstimulate some folks. Note that these are North American grain elevators. Seriously, you can’t handle the European version.

10. Sharknado

The most ridiculous movie of the year is now the most ridiculous movie-based calendar. If you buy only one calendar featuring wind-hurled sharks on the streets of L.A., make it this one.

11. Bonus! 2012 and 2013’s Most Bizarre Calendar Picks That Updated for 2014

Goats in Trees are back for the third year with an 18-month multilingual edition.

Modern Tribe has found 12 more Nice Jewish guys.

Accordion Babes are back to give the Banjo Babes a run for their money.

That Weird Horse calendar has a 2014 edition, though no one’s sure why.

Want to see the weird calendars that didn’t quite make the cut? “Like” on Facebook via the button to the right to see the strangest of the outtakes.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Needful Things: Literary Wrapping Paper

I’m a sucker for pretty paper, and that extends beyond old books to include antique maps, vintage brochures, postcards, and—yes—even wrapping paper. On the rare occasions when I can find book-related gift wrap, I get pretty excited. The Literary Gift Company’s selection has me darn near salivating.

The book-related gift site has several gift wrap designs printed with shelves of antique books, including one featuring Victorian children’s novels that would make a fine holiday gift wrap. 

Gift wrap sheet from The Literary Gift Company.

For any occasion, check out the lovely gift wrap based on beautiful endpapers. The designs no longer have to be hidden away inside book covers.

Gift wrap based on vintage book endpaper designs.

UK-based readers will likely feel nostalgic for the wrapping paper printed with old Ladybird covers. There are several different themed Ladybird designs.

Ladybird non-fiction covers.

I’m also digging the wrapping paper with a vintage typewriter motif.

Perfect for writers and/or geezers.

The gift wrap is sold by the single sheet, but the unit price goes down as you buy multiples. You can toggle the prices in the bottom right corner to display as UK or US.

Which design is your favorite? Is there a book motif you think would make for nice gift wrap?

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Free Bin: Soul-Sucking Royals Edition

A collection of recent links on books, writing, and whatever makes me pause a cat video to read a little further.

The current Danish royal family: family portrait or horror franchise poster?

  • If you gaze at only one creepy painting of a royal family this year, make it this one. Commissioned by the Queen of Denmark and painted over four years, this royal portrait was executed by an artist said to be inspired by Rembrandt and Caravaggio. He left out “the guy who painted inside cover art for the V. C. Andrews novels.” From the Damien-like child dominating the center to the little princess decapitating her doll, it’s hard to tell which will kill you first. Look here for an enlargeable photo, plus more details on the commission.  

  • Those who  like those sorts of blog posts called “Grammar Mistakes Everyone Makes” should enjoy this one: “12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Makes.” The author makes the case that the former types of articles are not only loaded with errors themselves, but also miss the big picture, and concentrate on pet peeves. 

  • “If you're looking for love, and you're dead, Ghost Singles is the site for you” says the home page of this bizarre humor site. The tongue-in-skull singles dating site for the dead lets you browse through (fictitious) profiles of departed souls, containing bios like this one from deadgrrrl, age 94: “I used to like to sew, and miss it so bad! I also miss honey butter like nothing else.” 
  • I might be biased, having worked in a bookstore so long, but nothing cracks me up like the ridiculous requests of library and bookstore patrons. This writer has a hilarious list of them, and don’t miss the comments, where more frustrated librarians share their best-ofs (like the customer who believed the staff was conspiring with monks).
  • Dust off that mantis story! An upcoming anthology is seeking tales of bugs and creepy-crawlies, “with six, eight, and millions of legs.” See guidelines here.

Find anything of interest? As always, comments are welcome, and if you’ve stumbled on anything fun yourself, share the link.