Archive for January, 2013

groffWhenever I host a get-together at my place, my friends always find it amusing that I own so little.

I’m 46, and I’ve never owned a couch or a kitchen set. A matching set of glasses, plates or silverware. I just don’t like being bogged down with a lot of stuff.

The one exception is books. I’m a borderline hoarder when it comes to books.

A friend of mine recently asked me why I don’t own an e-reader, since I like books so much.

Actually, I do plan to get an e-reader one of these days. But as I told my friend, books are about more than just the content for me.

It’s great that we live in a society where most people are literate and books are so readily accessible. But sometimes I think it’s a shame we tend to think of books as disposable objects to pass the time in an airport, rather than the precious artifacts prized by bibliophiles of previous centuries.

David Groff’s translation of Miyamoto Musashi’s 17th Century Samurai classic The Five Rings is the type of volume that gives you an idea of how it must have felt for some book collector from a past era fondly looking over his personal library. (more…)

ShalomHow come we don’t have more Jewish action heroes in popular culture?

I started wondering about that when I posted my recent interview with Michael Katz about his book “Shalom on the Range” – a Western with a Jewish hero.

Actually, I also wondered about it a few months ago after reading an interview with Michael Chabon regarding his (really good) novel “Gentlemen of the Road,” which concerns a pair of Jewish adventurers around 950 A.D.

For a while, Chabon’s book had the working title “Jews With Swords.” When he’d mention that to people, their reaction was frequently to laugh at the incongruity of the concept.

And yet, there’s nothing incongruous about the concept. For better or worse, Jews – like pretty much every culture in human history – went through a time when they ran around getting in sword fights. It’s what people did before guns were invented.

And it’s not like there’s any shortage of real-life Jewish badasses to serve as inspirations in the modern age.

I figure the dearth of Jewish action heroes is related indirectly to the fact that in America, the 1960s TV show “The Green Hornet” was about a square-jawed white hero and his Asian sidekick, Kato. But when it aired in Hong Kong, it was called “The Kato Show” and regarded as a show about an Asian hero and his white sidekick. (more…)

KatzI recently reviewed Michael Katz’s novel Shalom on the Range. You can see the review here. In short: It’s a fun, pulpy, action-packed Western that also manages to sneak in some genuine historic lessons about the Jewish experience on the American frontier.

I asked Michael if he’d answer a few interview questions. So here goes.
What prompted you to write the novel in the first place?

I started out as an editor – first non-fiction, then fiction – and I never thought I was going to write anything. Especially not a full novel. I was content just feeding people ideas behind the scenes. And this was an idea I had come up with and was going to feed to an author to run with if they were interested, lending them guidance in the background. But a number of people told me I was a good writer and should try it myself.

And when I took time off from my “day job” of practicing law I decided to give it a shot. My now ex-wife had a friend who was a movie screenwriter and also did some adjunct teaching at one of the local colleges. He agreed to read my draft and give me feedback, so I decided if he liked the first draft I’d plow ahead. If he didn’t I’d give up, but at least I would have tried. Turns out he really liked it, although he did teach me quite a bit while I was writing it, and that in turn made me a better editor as well as writer.

When you were working on the novel, were you consciously aware of balancing simple entertainment with historical analysis of an ethnic group’s experience in the Old West?

I was perhaps too consciously aware of the historical aspects of the novel. I was trying to make the book appeal to fans of Western fare, because Western literature is possibly the most difficult to sell, so I wanted to make sure my book was as historically accurate and as chock full of Western lore as possible. I also wanted the book to appeal to the Jewish people because that was another target audience I hoped would latch onto the overall concept and try the book for that aspect even if they were not into Westerns, since only a minority of readers are.

I think I wound up trying to make too many people happy, and it interfered with the flow of the book. So the first two or three chapters overemphasize the historical setting, because I want the readers to be fully immersed before they take off on what I hope is a rollercoaster ride of action mixed with humor and drama.

I actually removed quite a bit of historical detail from the book when I revised it for Kindle and Nook. So if anyone buys it for an electronic reader, they may find a better flow than the paper version. (more…)

spookyIt always gets me psyched when I find a book I loved as a kid online.

It’s kind of like Googling the name of a childhood friend and finding him. Even if you don’t intend to look him up or anything, it’s cool to say: “Hey! I remember that guy!”

This book was called “Spooky Tricks,” by Rose Wyler and Gerald Ames. I got it out of my school library when I was in grade school.

It featured a bunch of magic tricks for kids with a ghostly, Halloween-ish theme. Such as holding your fingers up in front of your face to create the optical illusion of a floating, “phantom” finger. Or making a coin disappear. Or summoning the demon Baphomet from the depths of Hell.

Just kidding about that last one. Although these days, the mere presence of a book incorporating magic tricks and any mention of Halloween in a Catholic school library would probably be enough to make some ultraconservative types get their pristine undies in a bunch.

Anyway, it was a great book. My personal favorite trick? A written message from “Willy” the ghost.

See, the supposed assistance of a ghost named Willy was a running theme for tricks in the book. One of them involved writing a message from Willy on a piece of paper in lemon juice. (more…)

GraysonWhat would you expect from a good werewolf novel? Scares, certainly. Maybe a good helping of gore. Some kick-ass action scenes never hurt.

Slade Grayson delivers all of those in his werewolf novel Autumn Moon, which I reviewed. But he also provides something you might not find in the average werewolf novel — psychological complexity. Not just on the part of the human characters, but the werewolves too.

As I stated in the review, I was pretty impressed. I asked Slade if he’d answer a few questions for this blog. He agreed. So here goes …

Why did you decide to write about werewolves?

The werewolf has always been my favorite of all the monsters, all the way back to when I was a kid watching Lon Chaney, Jr. prowl around in black and white, and then later I got to enjoy updated versions of the legend with “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London.” I think you hit the nail on the head in your review of my book when you said that the scary part of the werewolf-as-monster is that it can be any one of us.

Secondly, although there are a plethora of vampire novels out there, and there seems to be a zombie novel published on a daily basis, I don’t see many werewolf novels (at least not many good ones). So I thought I’d try my hand at it and try to do something interesting with the concept.

Where are you from and what’s your day job?

Originally, I’m from New Jersey, but I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, and now Maryland. My day job is that of a humble salesclerk in a retail establishment, although I will soon be adding stay-at-home dad to my resume since my first child is due to be born any day now. I’ll still do the retail thing on weekends to help pay the bills, at least until some savvy producer decides to snap up the film rights to one of my books and I can use the money to write full-time.

How did you get into writing in the first place?

When I was a kid, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up – either a superhero or a billionaire, or preferably both (like Batman). But an issue of “Amazing Spider-Man” changed all of that. It had a cliffhanger ending that had me counting the days until the next issue to see what would happen next. I decided that I wanted to make other people feel the way the writer of that particular comic made me feel. I wanted to tell stories that would make people sit on the edge of their seats and go, “What happens next?”

As a kid, I was already a voracious reader, so the next step was to try my hand at putting words down on paper. In college, I took as many writing and Lit. classes as I could. I fooled around a bit with freelance journalism and worked for a weekly newspaper for a while. Toyed with trying to break into screenwriting (a tough gig). Decided to focus on prose and wrote some short stories. Started a half dozen novels that died tragic deaths. And now, here I am. (more…)

HoverCover.inddIt’s funny, how Central Pennsylvania can get under your skin.

It’s pretty low key. Not a lot happens. But it has a way of sneaking up on you. Suddenly, you realize that you’re more emotionally invested in the place than you’d realized.

Author Rick Fellinger does a very effective job capturing that quality in his short story collection “They Hover Over Us,” featuring short stories set in the region.

See, I know what I’m talking about. I recently moved away from Central Pennsylvania after living there for more than a decade.

This is the stretch between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It’s a largely wooded area dotted with industrial cities that – for the most part – have seen better days. Political strategists and the area’s residents themselves refer to it jokingly as Pennsyltucky.

It’s an area in a sense defined by its lack of extremes. Not dirt poor, but certainly not affluent. Not quite country and not quite urban. Just kinda … there.

Or so it seems at first.

But since I left less than a year ago, I find I dream about it often. Once you get to know the people – and that takes a bit of time and effort – you run into some pretty profound and nuanced life stories. It’s like a cavernous space, where the very stillness and emptiness makes the softest sounds echo and reverberate with unexpected depth.

Those are the people, and the stories, Fellinger writes about in “They Hover Over Us.” (more…)