A R C H I V E S   O F
The Reluctant Blogger

© 2008 Henry Kisor



D E C E M B E R,   2 0 0 7


[NOTE: Some of the links to newspaper stories may be broken, thanks to the sources archiving their articles under new links. Also, all comments from readers unfortunately have been lost.]

Dec. 31:  Porcupine County at year's end

Lake Superior two miles east of Ontonagon, Michigan, Dec. 30, 2007.

Steve Sundberg, who took a photo at the same location last Nov. 24, reports that Ontonagon County — called Porcupine County in my novels — is in the grip of deep winter. That’s apparent from the berm of ice creeping out from the shore; by March it could be hundreds of feet wider and far higher, built up by constant pounding of new storms.

“It is difficult to get good pictures in the winter around here,” Steve reports. “It is cloudy and overcast most of the time and the light is very flat. We had some clearing this afternoon so I was able to get some contrast in the sky.”

Steve further reports that he was in Madison, Wis., over Christmas, but when he returned he discovered “there were torrential rains in Ontonagon on Saturday, Dec. 22.

“The folks at Chapman’s [a hardware store in town] said River Street started to flood and they were worried it might back up into the store. The rain knocked the snow down and left a hard crust on the top after it refroze. The Porkies ski hill had to close down due to the rain and icy conditions. They just re-opened last Friday.

“My trip to Madison was a reminder how manic and stressful the cities can be. I moved up here permanently five years ago and I have been fully de-compressed in that time. I will take the winter up here anytime instead of the ulcer-inducing craziness down there.”

Thanks, Steve. I share your sentiments. The place celebrated as Porcupine County has more attractions for me than merely as a setting for detective fiction.

Dec. 30: R.I.P., errant knight of the obit

“De mortuis nil nisi bonum” long was the hallmark of the newspaper obituary, unless the subject was a certified monster, like Hitler or Pol Pot. Nowadays a certain snarkiness is allowed toward the merely controversial (Jerry Falwell’s body was still warm when his detractors in the blogosphere let loose with both barrels), but with a few exceptions the American press is not very good at sending people off memorably. The Brits have done much better.

A few days ago the Englishman who was often called the father of the modern obituary died. This sparked the best reading in today’s New York Times, a graceful and witty obit by Margalit Fox. It begins:

“Hugh Massingberd, a celebrated former obituaries editor of The Telegraph of London who made a once-dreary page required reading by speaking frankly, wittily and often gleefully ill of the dead, became the recipient of his own services after dying in West London on Christmas Day. He was 60 and lived in London.”

Not many obituaries can make you smile, even chuckle. This one does. And its subject probably would have loved it.

Dec. 26: Those windy whippersnappers

Two passages in the online news today sent me to whetting my editorial axe. Aren’t young writers today taught economy of expression? Hasn’t a wise teacher counseled them to spare the adjectives?

In Salon.com, Heather Havrilesky was extraordinarily breezy:

“Among the dutiful Catholic students who suspected that God would punish them for merely talking in class, Tracy Griffin stood out like a hungry pit bull at a free-range chicken ranch.”

Sounds as if she’s paid by the syllable. Why not:

“Among the dutiful Catholic pupils who thought God would punish them just for talking in class, Tracy Griffin stood out like a pit bull at a chicken ranch.”

That pit bull/chicken ranch simile just sings when stripped to its essence. “Hungry”? “Free-range”? Useless, like hind tit on a boar hog.

And this, by Debra McKinney of the McClatchy/Tribune newspapers, wasted an entire sentence while mangling the second:

“The instant you lay eyes on the guy, you know exactly how Sherman “Tank” Jones got the nickname. The resemblance is remarkable.

“With the body of a bulldozer and head like a wrecking ball — let’s just say you’d be ill advised to diss his mama.”

A sharp editor would have rendered that:

“The instant you lay eyes on Sherman ‘Tank’ Jones, you know how he got the nickname. He has the body of a bulldozer and a head like a wrecking ball.”

This is not just griping from an old retired former copy editor from a pasture of brown and bitter grass. (Now shorten that, sonny.) News holes everywhere are being cut to the bone. Reporters who can write their pieces swiftly and vividly — and editors who can help them do so — are needed more than ever.

Dec. 24: Season's greetings

Dec. 23: Buzzwords of 2007

Left of boom, global weirding, mobisode, Navy shower and wide stance, to have a:

Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and co-host of the public radio show “A Way with Words,” checks in at today’s New York Times with his list of the best (and worst) buzzwords of the year — what we might call “nanoneologisms,” coined words that should be doomed to a microlifespan. Or so we might hope.

Dec. 22: Move over, Rudolph, here comes Irving

At this time of year we tell stories and follow rituals that get us through two hard winters, one of snow and ice and the other of the spirit. For both we usually celebrate what our parents celebrated, since we have known it all our lives, as they did, and it retains its warm familiarity down the generations. Once in a while circumstances drive one of us to kick over the traces and adopt another tradition.

And once in a very rare while one of us creates his own.

The writer Christopher Noxon, a Christian who married a Jew, did so in a singular way. He invented Irving the Snowchicken, a fable that for merry charm matches anything the Western world has devised about Santa Claus.

Maybe next year he will turn it into a book. I hope so.

Dec. 18: Owning up

An e-mail from a reader:

“I am in the process of reading your latest book Cache of Corpses and was very surprised when I came upon your sentence ‘Medical cadavers are almost always of the young. . . .’ As an anatomist at the University of Michigan I can assure you that all of our bodies used in medical education are donated and usually quite old (an estimated median age of 70 to 80 years).

“The medical students learn just as well with old and even diseased bodies as with young ones. In fact, young bodies ‘in good physical condition’ are usually only regularly available in states and countries where bodies of the executed are being used, because young and healthy people don’t just die. The use of the executed in anatomy is an at least questionable ethical practice and not supported by us.

“While I love your books I am afraid you are sending a wrong message with this sentence.

“Respectfully,

“Sabine Hildebrandt”

I stand corrected and thank Dr. Hildebrandt for her kind remarks.

This is the sort of thing that keeps mystery writers up at night. We do our damnedest to get all the facts right, but they’re like puppies — it’s difficult to keep them from squirting out through the fence of ignorance.

To lessen the chances of making such mistakes, I asked a kindly Upper Michigan deputy sheriff and a kindly Connecticut prosecutor to read the manuscript of Cache, so I would ace both the police work and the legal stuff. In hindsight I also should have asked an anatomy professor, or at least a mortician.

The error, however, is mine and mine alone.

Dec. 17: Best new word of the week

“Huckenfreude (n): Pleasure derived from the outrage of prominent conservative pundits over the rising poll numbers of Mike Huckabee. Particularly sharp when the pundits in question are partisans of Rudy Giuliani, but extends to supporters of Mitt Romney as well. Usually experienced by evangelicals, crunchy cons, populists, and other un-airbrushed elements of the conservative coalition. Tends to coexist with an awareness that Huckabee isn’t actually ready for prime time, and that his ascendancy may ultimately do their various causes more harm than good.”

Dec. 16: A ride in the lap of luxury

A view from Sun-Times artist Greg Good’s animation of the mahogany-paneled interior of the GrandLuxe Express cars.

A few weeks ago this blog mentioned heading from Chicago to San Francisco Bay aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr for a freelance writing gig. Now the result — a brief chronicle of riding the sumptuous GrandLuxe Limited, a cut of seven luxury cars towed behind the Zephyr, back to Chicago — is in today’s Chicago Sun-Times.

Be sure also to view Greg Good’s animation of the interior of the cars. (I had the Grand Suite in the sleeper Denver.)

This, to borrow a sentiment from the late E. M. Frimbo, chief rail buff of the New Yorker, is the most perfect way of moving from place to place.

Dec. 14: What's in a name?

One of the toughest tasks for a novelist, commercial or literary, is naming his characters. Should names reflect character and personality? Yes, so far as Dickens (Uriah Heep), Faulkner (Flem Snopes) and J.K. Rowling (Draco Malfoy) were concerned. Michael Connelly’s detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch suggests the hellish inner torment of the great artist.

For a mystery novelist, however, such character names can be too revealing. They can even telegraph the plots. Better, I think, to stick to names that are ordinary, easily remembered, and fit the setting.

The western Upper Peninsula of Michigan is full of Finnish, Croatian, Irish, Cornish and Czech names, reflecting the land’s history. I found lots of good ethnic names in area telephone books — Kolehmainen, Maki and Antala as well as the more ordinary Armstrong, Garrow and Wilson.

Steve Martinez, that full-blood Lakota who is my detective? A confession. Originally he was to have been of Mexican ancestry, not Lakota, and named Gonzalez. But when I discovered that there was a real Gonzalez, also Mexican, in the local sheriff’s department, that was too close for legal comfort. (In fact, some time later the same Gonzalez stopped me for speeding in Watersmeet, Michigan, when he was a Lac Vieux Desert tribal cop.)

So I decided to make Steve not a Mexican but an Indian, and one who had been adopted as an infant and brought up by an Anglo family in the East who were non-Spanish-speaking, eighth-generation descendants of Catalan settlers in Florida. I chose the Lakota nation for him rather than the indigenous Ojibwe just to add more pepper to the salt of not-quite-belonging.

Another confession: Steve’s girl friend, Virginia Antala Fitzgerald, is a full-blooded Finn who married an Irishman. But I screwed up and used “Antala” — a Czech name — instead of “Anttila,” the proper Finnish spelling. I learned the truth too late, so “Antala” she has remained. I still get giggly e-mails from Yoopers crowing about that blooper.

I worried that giving familiar Upper Peninsula names to all my characters might get me in trouble with those who thought I was making fun of them. So I decided to reach into my past. As an inside joke I named three harmless but hapless characters after editors-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, my former place of employment.

To continue the joke I drafted some classmates in Evanston (Ill.) Township High School’s Class of 1958. Mike Anderson, Steve Turner, Sam Williamson, Dan Roane, Jim Sweet and Mort Johnson were chums of mine. Sue Hemb was a gorgeous and popular senior I was too shy to approach.

Hmm, my class’s 50th reunion comes up next year. Fortunately we’re all too old for them to get their revenge with a pie in the face.

Dec. 13: From 'w00t' to 'locavore'

Yesterday Merriam-Webster’s announced its 2007 Word of the Year: w00t, with the numerals 0, not the letter o. It’s pronounced “woot,” and it means “Yay!” to a computer gamester.

Expectably the etymoblogosphere pounced. Those who make their livings in the cybernetic world tended to like it. The more traditional (like me) are just puzzled.

We can hope it eventually will end up on Lake Superior State University’s annual List of Banished Words, those that have worn out their welcome and need to be swept into the ashcan of history.

Some of them:

Gitmo. This is simply how “GTMO,” the military acronym for “Guantanamo,” is pronounced. It is not an abbreviation. It should be firmly waterboarded.

Now Playing in Theaters. “How often do movies premiere in laundromats?” one exasperated reader asked.

iAnything.

Combined celebrity names. “Bragelina,” “TomKat,” “Bennifer.” Yuckeew! (Or “eewk.”)

Earlier last month, the Oxford American Dictionary announced its annual list of trendy new words, led by locavore, meaning someone who eats only organic produce grown within 100 miles of his home. Somehow I doubt this will come into common usage, except maybe in California.

But I liked one of the runners-up: bacn, meaning a piece of non-spam e-mail that isn’t absolutely vital to read right now, but can be saved for later.

If you want more, go to the New York Times’ The Lede, which got me started on this blogorant. (And don’t call me blognorant.)

LATER: The Global Language Monitor chimes in with its own 2007 list. No: 1: hybrid. No. 4: smirting (meaning flirting while being banished outside the building to smoke.)

Dec. 12: Whoops!

Every year about this time, a blog called Regret the Error publishes its “Year in Media Errors and Corrections,” a compendium of the most delicious skinbacks the world’s press has been compelled to publish in order to perform penance for its sins. The 2007 edition is out now, but you may have to be patient, for every newsperson in the nation seems to be reading it today. Here are a few highlights while you’re waiting:

The lead goof — and the best one — comes from the New York Times:

“A front-page article yesterday about the role that Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, is playing in his presidential campaign rendered incorrectly a word in a quotation from Valerie Jarrett, a friend of the Obamas who commented on their decision that he would run. She said in a telephone interview, ‘Barack and Michelle thought long and hard about this decision before they made it’ — not that they ‘fought’ long and hard.”

Whee! Can you spell s-c-h-a-d-e-n-f-r-e-u-d-e?

Another skinback that made me squirm with glee came from the Woodstock (Ontario) Sentinel-Review:

“In an article in Monday’s newspaper, there may have been a misperception about why a Woodstock man is going to Afghanistan on a voluntary mission. Kevin DeClark is going to Afghanistan to gain life experience to become a police officer when he returns, not to shoot guns and blow things up.”

The Good Gray Lady, as we newsies have long called the New York Times, leads them all in the number of skinbacks, not because it makes lots of mistakes (which it does — we all do) but because it is so scrupulous in correcting its errors. Or maybe it just wants us to think so. In 2007 the Times came up with what Regret the Error calls “The Most Delayed Correction”:

“A caption on June 8, 1944, with a photograph of Army officers at mess on the Pacific front, misspelled the given name of the first officer seated on the left side of the table. He was Col. Girard B. Troland of New London, Conn. — not Gerand. The error was called to the attention of the editors by his grandson yesterday.”

Guys, try to be careful out there, okay? And if you drop the ball, at least be willing to own up, now or later.

Dec. 11: They're giving away the store!

. . . Not really. But that was my first reaction when I saw that Tor/Forge, my publisher, had put the entire first chapter of Cache of Corpses online at the company website.

Then I had a second thought: What a great way to drum up business. Give ‘em a flash of leg and hope they’ll lust for the whole thing — in the bookstores.

Also, if you’re undecided about reading the book, it’s a good litmus test. Give it a go.

Dec. 10: Messing with the bookshelves

A few years ago a Chicago paper’s gossip column breathlessly reported, with implied disapproval, that the writer James Finn Garner had been caught in a chain bookstore rearranging the shelves so that his new book was displayed jacket face outward, not spine outward, and placing a few copies on the “New and Noteworthy” table. Tsk-tsk.

Almost as one the Chicago literary establishment rose up in Garner’s defense. “We all do that,” they told the columnist and everyone else who would listen. “Every little bit helps. Our publishers aren’t going to spend a lot of money promoting us so we’ve got to do what we can. And that includes tweaking bookstore displays so our jackets catch the shopper’s eye.”

So if you see a short, bald and bespectacled guy skulking around the mystery shelves at a north suburban Chicago Barnes & Noble or Borders, don’t report him to the display police. Have pity, instead. He’s just a typical neurotic midlist author doing his best for his new baby.

Dec. 9: Sometimes I'm a total asshole

It has been a gratifying week, with some glowing reviews of Cache of Corpses. Every writer wants to be loved — you don’t think we put our work out there for everybody to see without hoping they will all sing its praises? But not everybody will like our stuff, and some will absolutely hate it. We have to be ready for that.

Since 1990, when my What’s That Pig Outdoors?: A Memoir of Deafness was published, I’ve kept a postcard on the bulletin board above my writing computer. It is from a Brooklyn resident and it carries her name and return address. It says in full:

“I’ve just read ‘What’s That Pig Outdoors.’

“Not since Charles Grodin’s autobiography have I come across such a masterpiece of self-serving, petty, humorless drivel. And, Mr. Kisor, the ‘abortive college sit-ins’ of the 1960’s and ’70s galvanized millions to oppose the war in Vietnam. You are a total asshole (and would be even if you could hear).”

I wanted to write her and ask what really had prompted the message. It seemed unwise, however, to get into a potential pissing match with a reader who had taken such a negative view of an entire book based upon one phrase it contained.

No author can please everybody. For 17 years this postcard has been a useful reminder of that.

Dec. 8: Mentions in Dispatches

The two things that make a midlist writer happiest are black ink on the royalty statement and a nice notice in the New York Times Book Review. I haven’t often encountered the former, but this Sunday’s NYTBR carries a pleasant nod to Cache of Corpses in Marilyn Stasio’s crime and mystery column.

Hell, I’ll quote the whole review:

“With so many American novelists grasping for terrorist plot angles to make the crimes on their turf seem less parochial, it’s a relief to turn to a bona fide regionalist like Henry Kisor, who writes with compassion and humor about the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a place that’s cash-poor but rich in character. Deputy Steve Martinez, a Lakota Indian who plays the broad-shouldered lawman in this enjoyable series, is reluctantly campaigning for sheriff in CACHE OF CORPSES (Forge/Tom Doherty, $24.95) when a bizarre conspiracy, hatched on the Internet, leads to the dumping of headless embalmed corpses in his wilderness territory. Especially troublesome is that someone local has to be in on this macabre scavenger hunt.

“Kisor develops the mystery with expertise while working the political race for some nice laughs. But he really hooks us with his whimsy-free descriptions of life — from wedding dances and town-hall debates to the dead-end future seen in the eyes of a high-school dropout — in this beautiful but economically depressed region.”

David J. Montgomery, who writes the Crime Fiction Dossier blog, also liked Cache — in fact, he liked it enough to make it his Book of the Week.

David, who wrote a mystery column for the Chicago Sun-Times when I was book editor there (and still writes it), neatly finesses the conflict-of-interest issue with “Henry gave me my start at the Sun-Times. But he hasn’t done anything for me lately, so I’m telling the truth about his book.”

Dec. 7: Hi ho, it's Eye-Fi we go

Can’t help it. As an amateur photographer I’m a helpless gearhead, always lusting after the newest cool lens or doodad for cameras. And so I just gave myself a cool early Christmas present — an Eye-Fi card.

It looks like any ordinary 2 gigabyte SD memory card. But it contains circuitry that enables it to transmit pictures instantly and automagically to your computer via Wi-Fi, if you have a wireless modem in your house. Take a photo of little Oswald demolishing the coffee table, then wait 15 or 20 seconds, and rush up to the computer. Presto. There it is, the picture, in your photo folder onscreen.

No more fussing with card readers or cables! And it costs only $99! Yay!

Well, there are a few catches, but they will be minor to most of us.

Instead of giving you a complex explanation of what the card does and how it works, which I’d probably get wrong anyway, I’ll send you to Eye-Fi’s site. And after that you might check in with PC Magazine for its glowing review.

Cool, eh?

I found the setup easy — but with minor glitches. First, Eye-Fi won’t work with Safari, the default Internet browser on a Mac. Eye-Fi will prompt you to download and install Firefox before you can go on. That takes just a couple of minutes, though.

Second, Eye-Fi asks you what folder (or subdirectory) on your computer you want the pictures sent to. It’s a good idea to create a folder beforehand, although you can, of course, do so while you’re hooked to the Eye-Fi site.

Eye-Fi will also upload the photos at the same time to an online photo service such as Flickr, Shutterfly or Picasa. I chose Picasa, where I save my most valuable pictures.

Once the setup was done, I gave the system a try by loading the SD card into my point-and-shoot camera (a Canon SD600). But the first upload failed because the camera is set to turn itself off after one minute of idleness. Going to the camera menu and telling it not to do that solved the problem.

You have to remember to turn the camera off afterward, else the battery will run down.

Eye-Fi doesn’t work with public Wi-Fi sites such as the one at Starbuck’s or the public library, although if you’re at somebody else’s house and he has a Wi-Fi modem, you can add his system to yours on the Eye-Fi site. If you go out on the road and shoot lots of pictures, all you have to do when you get home is turn on the camera and go have a ham sandwich while the photos are transmitted.

Eye-Fi will upload only JPEG photos, not a concern for those who use point-and-shoots. But that means you can’t upload RAW photos from a digital SLR camera — you’ll have to use the old-fashioned cable or card reader for that.

An Eye-Fi card would be the perfect Christmas gift for anyone who owns a camera that uses SD cards. (Not CF or Memory Stick or anything else. Be sure to check with your recipient. Don’t ask me how to do that without tipping your hand.)

Dec. 5: Blowdown at Cultural Gap

What the Brits consider news never ceases to amaze me. This is the most e-mailed article on today’s BBC Online.

Dec. 4: Winter comes to Porcupine County

with permission from Steve Sundberg

Sunset two miles east of Ontonagon on Lake Superior, Nov. 24, 2007

Steve Sundberg, a habitue of this blog who lives on Lake Superior in Ontonagon County, Michigan, the locale in which my Steve Martinez mysteries are based, sent this photo down today. If you look at the larger version you’ll be able to see the Porcupine Mountains (the Wolverine Mountains in the novels) on the horizon just off the point.

Steve also reports that “winter arrived with a vengeance at 4 a.m. on Tuesday, November 27. My daughter and I were jarred awake by a huge snow and winter storm that blew up, apparently from nowhere.

“I have a screen porch facing the lake and for the winter I replace the screens on the front porch with window frames with clear vinyl on them. The wind tore these apart and ripped open the screen door, bending its hinges, and blew the kitchen door wide open.

“I ran out in my tidy whities to try to close the screen door but I couldn’t budge it against the wind. My daughter had to come out in her PJs and help me get it closed.

“In the meantime my dog hid in the bathroom until I went back to bed and then she crawled in as close to me as she could get.

“They recorded 70 m.p.h. winds at Copper Harbor that morning and the wind speed here had to be at least that. It has snowed every day since, with about 12 inches coming down last Saturday night.”

Thanks, Steve. I will just have to spend a wild winter up in Ontonagon — the Steve Martinez novels can’t take place only during the summers. Looks like I’ll need to check out L.L. Bean’s thickest down parkas.

Dec. 2: Score one for 'Cache'

The first regular review of Cache of Corpses is in — and it’s a favorable one, though with one stern caveat. M.E. Collins wrote the notice for today’s Chicago Sun-Times, my old stamping ground, and so I had a bit of home-field advantage there.

But while she generally liked the book (”the plot is compact and believable”), she did roundly box my ears for one thing: “[H]e can’t write a believable woman character. Only mythical Madonnas and whores people Porcupine County.”

On this I will have no authorial comment — that would be churlish. (When I was a book review editor, all too many hotheaded authors wrote me long, stinging letters condemning one negative sentence or paragraph in otherwise glowing reviews of their books.)

If readers of this blog would like to debate Ms. Collins’ contention, that would be fine with me. Have at it, gang. I might learn something from the debate.

Meanwhile, I’m mightily appreciating Ms. Collins’ closing words, “I saw this story very clearly as a movie of the week. It would also be a great cable series.” Thank you, Ms. Collins. I hope Hollywood takes note.

Teresa Budasi, the Sun-Times book editor, also did a nice, skillful Q&A with the author that accompanies the review. Thank you, Teresa.

Hey, Hollywood! Hollywood? Are you listening?

Dec. 1: The show hits the road

Today the grunge work of authorship begins: making the publicity rounds. In my case as a regional mystery novelist, there’ll be no national tour of bookstores, TV and radio stations, and newspapers — just a few local appearances in the Chicago area. I hope a groundswell of buzz will erupt and spread out into neighboring states like swarms of killer bees. (Now there’s a metaphor that got out of hand.)

If you’re in the Chicago area, here’s my schedule:

Today: 2 p.m., Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 W. Madison, Forest Park. (A snowstorm is forecast for this afternoon. Get out the galoshes and snowshoes and come anyway.)

Monday: 7 p.m., Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington, Evanston.

Tuesday: 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, Old Orchard Shopping Center, Skokie.

If you’re not in the area, visit a bookstore next time a mystery novelist does an autographing there. Support your local whodunit writer any way you can.