a MobyLives guest column
by Steve Almond

14 February 2005 —Last Spring, I published an extremely strange book called Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, which I described to my publisher (and they described to readers) as "half candy porn, half candy polemic."
     The book is a memoir of my own lifelong sweets fetish, along with an account of my cross–country journey to various small, independent candy bar manufacturers.
     It got reviewed in a lot of unexpected venues, none, to my mind, more so than the right–wing magazine, The National Review.
     The Review review was a kind assessment most of the way. But then, perhaps inevitably, the reviewer expressed disapproval over my decision to include my political views in the book.
     She was hardly alone.
     Over the next couple of weeks a number of similar reader reviews popped up on Amazon.com.
     A few samples:

• "I have read this pablum and feel I am owed the four hours it took to read. Mr. Almond please send me a refund .... Your own paranoia about the Republican party and politics in general were as distastful [sic] as an Almond Joy candy bar."

• "The parts about candy are fun but I can't believe the author became political and stupidly at that .... A shame."

• "If you can relate to Almond's negative worldview and his extreme left politics then you might enjoy this book, but otherwise you'd be well advised to avoid it."

• "I literally threw the book across the room (where it still sits at this moment) after his progressive tantrum on page 204."

     It was a truly bizarre chain of events. I was pretty sure there was some relationship between The National Review and the Amazon.com reviews. Like, maybe a bunch of conservatives only read the first half of the National Review piece and raced out to get Candyfreak, only to discover that I was, in fact, a commie.
     Either that, or the vast right–wing conspiracy was a lot vaster than any of us realized. (The Clintons were in remission, Daschle was whupped. Now the attack dogs were going after obscure authors.)
     Whatever the case, I am happy to cop to the basic complaint of these readers, though I will not be providing any refunds.
     Alas, Candyfreak does include a few lefty diatribes.
     Here's the main one:

     What an embarrassment it was. The Bush tax cut had sopped the rich and wiped out the federal surplus. The economy was in the crapper. Dubya was doing everything in his power to hand the planet to Exxon.
     Two years earlier, I'd sat in front of another TV and watched him steal the Presidency in broad daylight. Then a bunch of vicious air–borne murderers had come along and scared the commonsense out of everyone. In one morning, they'd managed to bestow upon this evangelical simpleton an air of presidential dignity. He saw his chance and bounced the rubble in Afghanistan and kept the bellows of war going (Iraq was next) and now the democrats were too chickenhearted to oppose him. It was the poor who were going to pay, as they always do, and who gave a damn about them?

     This outburst — and I think that's a fair word — takes place toward the end of Candyfreak. I am on the aforementioned cross–country tour, in Boise, Idaho to be precise. I am sitting in a hotel room watching the results of the 2002 mid–term elections. I am quite depressed. This might help explain why I had politics on the brain.
     My intent was not to piss off those 59 million Americans who voted for Bush, but to express anguish over the net loss of humanity in this country. That's actually what the book is about, beneath all the confectionary mishagoss.
     Still, I was well aware that including such passages was going to ruffle feathers. My editor asked me, more than once, to consider the risks of "alienating Republican readers."
     To which I responded: "Republican readers — isn't that an oxymoron?"
     Obviously, I'm kidding. Plenty of Republicans read. That's why Tom Clancy is so popular.
     Again: kidding.
     My point here isn't to bash Republicans, but to suggest the sad disjunction that now exists between the arenas of art and politics.
     Because what really bummed me out about the Amazon haters wasn't that they disagreed with my politics, but that they immediately summoned such genuine outrage at me for deigning to express a political opinion at all.
     They regarded Candyfreak as entertainment, which meant, basically, that I was supposed to serve as a candy monkey for them: swinging from my zany licorice ropes and making funny gibbering noises.
     By including my political views, I was in direct violation of The First Law of Social Apathy, which holds a popular culture should exist divorced from any of the moral facts of its current political condition.
     What folks want from the pop — hell, what we deserve as tax–paying Americans — is a nice soothing mind bath. A few chuckles. A nice melodrama in which to park our emotions for a couple of hours. In a word: opium.
     This country's chief signifier is our staggering capacity to isolate ourselves from the effects of our political and lifestyle choices.
     This is the reason, for instance, that so many people can vote for a party that believes gays are sub–human but still watch "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy," (because fags are so darn funny!). It's also the reason liberals can drive around in SUVs, while decrying policies driven by oil–dependency.
     But of course it is one of the functions of art (yes, even popular art) to call people on such bullshit, to raise people's consciousness, to awaken their capacities for compassion.
     William Faulkner probably put this best in his 1951 speech, upon accepting the Nobel Prize: "The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
     It seems to me that the time has come answer this call.
     I don't mean to suggest that writers should begin cranking out polemics. Art resides in an argument with the self, not others.
     What I am suggesting is that artists need not regard their political identities as wholly separate from their artistic ones — especially given our unique historical circumstance.
     Look at what's happening: our country is being led down a path of almost unprecedented moral negligence, a kind of suicidal selfishness in which the civic discourse has been reduced to bumper stickers. Those in power stand ready to vilify anyone who threatens their power. The opposition has abdicated its duties to John Stewart.
     Virtually every writer I know recognizes this. (I do not know Tom Clancy.) They are all deeply distressed.
     My question is simple: when are we going to allow this grief to inform our art?
     Will it take another war? The loss of a woman's right to control her body? The conversion of Social Security into a Wall Street boondoggle? To what extent is our polite silence a form of collaboration?
     As I think about all this, I'm reminded of two anecdotes.
     The first stars Pablo Picasso. After the Nazis invaded Paris, they visited his studio. The officer in charge spotted "Guernica" and gazed at the canvas in dismay.
     "Did you do this?" he asked finally.
     "No," Picasso said. "You did."
     The second anecdote is of a more recent vintage.
     A famous author came to Boston just before the election to do a fancy reading. He was introducing a story that dealt with an alcoholic, when he made the following comment: "As the last four years have shown, there are some people who are better off never drying out." (I am paraphrasing.)
     After the reading, a woman approached the author and scolded him for making such an inappropriate comment.
     "But my dear woman," the author said. "Don't you realize? That's my job."

Steve Almond is the author of My Life in Heavy Metal. His new book of stories, The Evil B.B. Chow, will be published in April. Excerpts are available at BBChow.com.

Link to this column.

©2005 Steve Almond

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Friday 18 February 2005

Flaubert? Is that you? . . .
Banking on the theory that cell phones "could become the latest outlet for books" via text messaging, Random House yesterday announced its purchase of a "significant minority stake" in VOCEL, a company that says it is a provider of "premium–branded applications for mobile phones." As Hillel Italie reports in an Associated Press wire story, "Cell phone texts have already caught on in Germany, South Korea and Japan, where a cell–novel became so popular that it was turned into a feature film, 'Deep Love.'" Says Richard Sarnoff, the president of Random House Ventures, "You have a whole generation of consumers, perhaps more than a generation, who are never more than 10 feet from their cell phones, including when they shower. Increasingly, cell phones are becoming an appliance for entertainment and education." However, despite the success of cell–novels in Japan and elsewhere, Sarnoff discounts the possibility of American cell phone novels, saying "The screens are inappropriate for that kind of sustained reading." Random House foresees other informational uses, he says, such as "using phones to transmit dictionary definitions or as sources of language training." Says Sarnoff, "You can have both text and an audio component. When you learn a language, for instance, you can have the word appear on your screen and also hear how it's pronounced." Meanwhile, Simon & Schuster, and Oxford University Press, among others, are "testing the waters," too.

Endangered Bangladeshi writer just wants to get close to home . . .
Doctor–turned–writer Taslima Nasreen, whose books have "earned her the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists" in her native Bangladesh, forcing her to flee the country, has applied for Indian citizenship. As an Agence France Presse wire story notes, Nasreen has been living in exile in Sweden, while her books, such as Ka, and Lajjya have even earned a prison sentence in absentia "on charges of making derogatory comments about Islam in several of her books." Now, she says, "My own country has slammed the doors for me. I cannot return there despite several attempts in the past." She hopes to settle in the Indian state of West Bengal, where they speak her native tongue, Bengali.

Gay book ban fails in Arkansas—but just barely . . .
"A bill that would have forced schools to use only books that omitted any reference to gay families has failed to win the endorsement of the Arkansas' Senate Education Committee," notes a report from 365Gay.com. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Roy Ragland, had previously said "the bill was designed to block efforts to promote a gay agenda in schools." Opponents of the bill, however, no doubt wish the vote had been more decisive: "The committee cast a 3 – 3 tie vote," says the 365 report. "The bill needed at least four votes to move to the Senate floor. It had already passed the House."

His novels were pretty consistently criminal, too . . .
Mark Thatcher, the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thathcer, will be in a Johannesburg courthouse today, in response to a subpoena to answer questions about his part in "a botched plot in Equatorial Guinea." According to an Agence France Presse wire story, Thatcher, who has already pleaded guilty "to violating South Africa's anti–mercenary laws and paid a hefty three million rand fine (380,000 euros/505,000 dollars) for his role in the coup plot," is expected to help "shed light on the alleged masterminds" of the plot—one of whom authorities believe to be British novelist Jeffrey Archer.

Pope says the Virgin did it . . .
In a new book, Pope John Paul II discusses for the first time his near–assassination in 1981, saying he believes he was saved by the divine intervention of the Virgin Mary of Fatima. According to an Associated Press wire story by Vanessa Gera, the Pope says, "I remained conscious for some time after. I had a feeling that I would survive. I was in pain, I had reason to be afraid, but I had this strange felling of confidence." Gera says the Pope cites "his belief that the bullet was steered away from vital organs by divine intervention — which he has credited to the Virgin Mary of Fatima. Three shepherd children say the Virgin Mary appeared to them in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917 and made several predictions. Church officials said in 2000 that one of them foretold the assassination attempt on John Paul." The book, Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums, will be published next week in Italy, and "soon" in the US.

Cahners are goners . . .
It has been a long, slow, "death by a thousand cuts": the demise of Cahners Publishing Company, the family–owned company that for years owned numerous trade magazines, including Publishers Weekly. But as Alex Beam notes in his Boston Globe column, through a series of take–overs, the company, headquartered eventually in Newton, Massachusetts, was diminished until "the founder's daughter Nancy was summoned to Newton to remove her father's portrait. The painting had been removed from the lobby and placed in a little-used conference room. ''The handoff was so clumsy, they wouldn't even let me in the building,' Cahners recalls. ''They gave me the painting in the garage.'"

Blogger reports on his blog: Some new bloody idiots hired me! . . .
The blogger who was fired from his long–term job at a Waterstone's bookstore in Scotland because he made negative comments about the store and its management on his website has gotten a new job, according to a brief report at The Bookseller. Joe Gordon "has been hired by Forbidden Planet to 'improve their graphic novels and SF books side of the business.'" Gordon writes on his website, "They had heard of me through all that had happened and liked what they saw — the kind words of support from you all has really helped here and again I thank you all."

NOTE: Daily newspapers often change URLs when archiving, so some links won't work beyond the day they're first posted.

Thursday 17 February 2005

Did they jump or were they pushed? Ottakar's in turmoil . . .
One of Britain's largest bookselling chains, Ottakar's, "the bookshop chain named after a Tintin adventure about a palace coup, has conducted its own purge of senior executives," reports Harry Wallop in a Daily Telegraph story. Three of the company's top executives, including its marketing director, its new product development director, and its IT director, have all left the company; the company says they resigned, but some observers, including at least one leading retail analyst, say they were fired. Wallop reports founder and managing director James Heneage bridles at the suggestion the departures were forced. "It was all entirely amicable," he says. "Ottakar's is not the type of company to march people out of the door." Shares in the company fell at the news nonetheless.

Reading Panel used Cliff's Notes, says insider . . .
A former member of the National Reading Panel—the committee whose conclusions "helped to shape the Bush administration's controversial No Child Left Behind program"—says "the scientific research backing federal reading education guidelines has little science and even less research behind it," according to a report by Rob Chaney in Missoula, Montana's The Missoulian. Joanne Yatvin, a former teacher, principal, and school district supervisor who is now the vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English was appointed to the Reading Panel in 1997. But, in a talk Tuesday at the Univeristy of Montana's School of Education, Yatvin said, "Once I got on the panel, I was appalled to see that the panel was stacked . . . . All the end products were predetermined." She was also surprised to find that "she was the only one with any personal experience teaching young children to read," reports Chaney, and that the committee "ignored such things as parental involvement, books in the home and the connections between reading and writing" before making its recommendations. Yatvin noted that the panel came down in favor of phonics studies, "And the payoff for pushing phonics programs . . . goes to the publishers of expensive and disposable workbooks that underpin those programs. Where library books may last five years or more of heavy use, worksheet and memorization lessons must be replaced continually."

South Dakota library fights for Cuban prisoners . . .
Showing that "one person can begin to strike back at a dictator," Nat Hentoff, in his Village Voice column, describes the efforts of the Vermillion Public Library in Vermillion, South Dakota to help "more than a dozen independent librarians" imprisoned as dissenters in Cuba. The Vermillion library "has sponsored and begun to send books to a sister independent library in Havana," an act being "hailed by library associations in other countries," says Hentoff. He says the "reverberating act of simple decency was started by one person, Mark Wetmore, vice president of the Vermillion library's board of trustees." Says Wetmore, "It diminishes all our libraries a little if we know that there are people being persecuted for trying to operate free, uncensored ones and we don't try to do something about it."

Fears that unemployed Ashcroft would slip back into dereliction averted. . .
Since he retired from office last month, former Attorney General John Ashcroft has been vague about his plans. "But sources close to Ashcroft say that he has his eye on a very different prize these days: he wants to be the nation's next top bard, otherwise known as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress," reports Deanna Swift in a .SwiftReport report. Swift notes "Ashcroft's poetry credentials are based largely on the strength of a single verse, a lyric–ode hybrid entitled 'Let the Eagle Soar'" that has won him some praise for "his skillful use of masculine syllable endings and strong end rhymes." She also observes that "President Bush sent a signal of his strong support for Ashcroft¹s candidacy by making 'Eagle' a centerpiece of his swearing–in ceremony in January," when "Guy Hovis, a Mississippi native and long–time performer on 'The Lawrence Welk Show,' performed the lyric ode." However, Ashcroft has some stiff competition: "The Coalition for Traditional Values, which includes leaders of pro–family groups such as the American Family Organization, the Campaign for Families and the Baptist Leadership Council, has thrown its support behind former Alabama chief Justice Roy Moore, author of the 1998 poem 'Our American Birthright.'" Notes Swift, "Some critics point out that this is probably the first time since the Library of Congress established the Poetry and Literature Center in 1936 that a candidate is being considered on the basis of a single poem." But "Sandy Slokum, executive director of Defend Our Marriages, a pro–family group that advocates defending marriage by adding a ban on adultery to the constitution," says that "the position of Poet Laureate has too often been meted out on the basis of political correctness, rather than the righteousness of the poetry."

Watching TV about books . . .
A CBC program about books, Canada Reads, is termed "an annual book brawl" in this Christian Science Monitor report about the program, now in its fourth year, that "features five celebrity panelists debating their favorite Canadian novels." Reporter Lisa Leigh Connors says the show, which begins again on Monday, is "like 'Survivor,' but without the tiki torches or exotic locales. And members of the 'tribe' vote off books instead of people." Says Connors, " This year's celebrity panel includes an acclaimed Canadian vocalist, Canada's top–ranked fencer, a Toronto city councilor, and two authors." Says the show's producer, Talin Vartanian, "The show is playful. It is not geared toward people who are academics or who follow book discussions. The people who I'm really excited to capture are those who gave up the joy of reading fiction."

Church: Not what it used to be . . .
Writer Charl van Wyk says he was sitting in church one day when "armed terrorists" burst in and used grenades and automatic weapons to attack worshippers, but that luckily, he had worn a concealed handgun that day and he was able to fight them off. As an unattributed World Net Daily report details, van Wyk's book about the experience explains why Christians have "both a right and a sacred duty to be armed." WND says Shooting Back: The Right and Duty of Self Defense "makes a biblical, Christian case for individuals arming themselves with guns, and does so more persuasively than perhaps any other book."

Jesus Christ, yukster . . .
"Theological scholars" gathered in Italy say the Bible is "not a book known for its comedic value" but it does contain "a joke or two," says a Guardian article by Sophie Arie. The organizer of the conference, Clementina Mazzucco, says the purpose of the three–day conference at Turin University is "to dispel the idea that ancient Christians were a po–faced lot, who struggled for a sense of humour." Mazzucco says, "On the contrary, there are many episodes and dialogues in the scriptures where irony and sarcasm are being used," and that "Increasing numbers of scholars now believe Jesus had a distinct sense of humour."

NOTE: Daily newspapers often change URLs when archiving, so some links won't work beyond the day they're first posted.

Wednesday 16 February 2005

Amazon replaced as "customer satisfaction" leader — by B & N . . .
"Customer satisfaction has taken a dramatic downturn . . . and the popularity of online e–commerce giants Amazon.com and eBay also took a fall, the American Customer Satisfaction Index said Tuesday," reports a Money magazine story. The report from ACSI, which is run by the university of Michigan's Ross School of Business, Amazon's customer satisfaction fell 5 percent to an overall rating of 84, and "the world's largest online retailer also lost its crown as the leader in the e–commerce score index." Meanwhile: "Barnes & Noble's online unit gained 1 percent . . . to take the lead" at an overall rating of 87. "Amazon (is) selling everything from garden appliances and apparel to electronics and used books," says Larry Freed, CEO of ForeSee Results. "But bigger isn't always better from a customer's viewpoint. Barnes and Noble has stayed true to its business model and product offering, which makes it easier to service demand well and sustain higher levels of customer satisfaction."

RELATED: Amazon head Jeff Bezos says the company's new Amazon Prime program, which offers $79 memberships that allow for significant shipping discounts, "has attracted many more subscribers in its first few days than the company expected," according to a wire report on the Dow Jones Wires. Bezos says it's too early to tell if the program will be a success, "But he suggested it was off to a good start. The goal is to get the online retailer's most frequent repeat customers to look at product purchases outside of the popular book, music and DVD categories, Bezos said."

Jerusalem Book Fair has changed, but has the world around it? . . .
"The Jerusalem International Book Fair has come a long way since its humble beginnings 42 years ago," says Miriam Shaviv. The first one took place in a "temporary building" and was "overshadowed by the death of president Yitzhak Ben–Zvi." Says Shaviv, "Now it can be revealed it was attended by no less than three foreign publishers." However, in a report for The Jerusalem Post, Shaviv says this year's fair, which opened over the weekend, "has not only filled every nook an cranny of the Jerusalem International Convention Center, but it is bursting with foreign publishers, editors and agents." But Shaviv notes that several of the opening speeches have had an "unapologetically political tone." Shai Hausman, chairman of the Israeli Book Publishers Association, "optimistically described the mood of at this year's fair as 'the best of times, full of hope and confidence,'" and expressed the belief that " a new leaf was turned at Sharm e–Sheikh last week." Hausman went on to say that "great events make for great literature, and that perhaps the next fair will 'bear the literary fruits' of this pivotal time." Meanwhile, novelist David Grossman "expressed somewhat less enthusiasm on the recent diplomacy," reports Shaviv. Said Grossman, "Some of you will notice a change in atmosphere here since the last fair, small signs of change after years of conflict... but we Israelis don't let ourselves believe that the change is almost here. We feel naive, even stupid to believe such things after so many false starts."

A little good news goes a long way for Foyles . . .
Perhaps London's most beloved bookshop, Foyles, " is planning to open new stores in cities across the world as part of its first expansion drive since the 1930s," according to a report in The Independent by Susie Mesure. The enormous store, which opened in 1906, will first open a new branch in London, but chairman Christopher Foyle says "we are marked out as having a far larger range of books than our rivals and I don't think we can replicate that around the UK." Instead, the company is " investigating opportunities in cities abroad where it could recreate its unique selling proposition — its range of books." Says Mesure, that means privately owned company "will target cities where it can establish as authoritative a presence as it has in London." Mesure says "the decision to expand was buoyed by a revival in the company's fortunes," particularly "its best–ever Christmas," which led to "a trading profit of £218,000 — its first for seven years," which, "after refurbishment costs," made for "a £1.8m loss."

As soon as they finish teaching chimps to type, DK's work will be complete . . .
While some printer havens such as Hong Kong and Singapore have become places where many publishers outsource the printing of their books, India is the place where one company is taking the heretofore unheard–of step of outsourcing the editing and design of its content, as well. According to an unattributed India Express story, Penguin imprint Dorling Kindersley, orDK, as it's more popularly known, sees India as " key to DK's future strategy." Managing editor Deborah Wright says, "My guess is it reduces costs by 20 or 30 per cent." The company, originally started in 1974 as "an outsourcing company that produced books for other publishers," is also experimenting with "book–website combos" whereby "When you buy the printed book," as Wright explains, "you get a code for access to a website." For example, with its travel guides—for Australia, for example—"the book will list Melbourne's theatres; the site will give you the names of plays currently running, show timings and ticket prices." How will DK oversee such a constant flow of information? Says Wright, "the websites are designed and maintained in India."

Diddy wrote diddly . . .
Random House is suing Sean "P. Diddy" Combs for the return of a $300,000 advance for a book he never wrote. As Hillel Italie reports in an Associated Press wire story, a statement from Random explains, "Random House has seldom resorted to a legal course of action with its prospective authors who don't write the books we have contracted for, but Mr. Sean Combs has left us no choice." The company says in 1998, when Combs was known as "Puff Daddy," he signed an agreement with Random imprint Ballantine to write an autobiography, which he was supposed to deliver in 1999. "We now have waited for over five years," says the Random statement, "and have received neither the manuscript nor the return of the money we advanced Mr. Combs." Meanwhile, Italie notes, "Combs is not the first musician who failed to meet the deadline for delivery of his life's story. Years ago, Mick Jagger received a seven–figure advance to write his memoirs. He eventually returned the money, saying he couldn't remember anything of significance."

Millionaire neighbors say Hemingway suicide spot is cramping their style . . .
Homeowners in a wealthy neighborhood who are upset by the threat of tourist traffic to the house where Ernest Hemingway killed himself have threatened to sue if the owner of the property—The Nature Conservance—doesn't accept an offer to buy the house and move it to another location. According to an Associated Press wire story by John Miller, however, "some members of the Idaho Hemingway House Foundation — slated to receive ownership of the house from The Nature Conservancy — are cool to the idea. The members, who include the Nobel Prize winner's granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway, and actor Tom Hanks, view the home above the Big Wood River and its literary legacy as inextricably linked to the property." However, the author's son, Patrick Hemingway, says the house was a late acquisition and that his father spent happier times in the nearby Sun Valley Lodge. "That house does not represent his life and the vacation times that he spent in the Sun Valley area so happily," Patrick Hemingway says. "The room in the Sun Valley Lodge is much more representative of the good times he had there."

Unfortunately, she doesn't answer the one about the robot writing her books for her . . .
The "remote book–signing device" she has been touting in lieu of bookstore appearances is not a hoax, says Margaret Atwood. In a letter to The Globe & Mail, says "my newly created company" has actually made and been testing the device, called the Unotchit, and she answers what she feels are the obvious questions, such as, well, "Is it all a hoax?" "No. It's real. Trust me. You need to have more faith." In another exchange with herself, Atwood asks, "How can you have a meaningful exchange with a robot that does signatures?" Answers, er, Atwood, "The Unotchit — which stands for You No Touch It — device has interactive image and voice, as well as the ability to sign. The author will be there, in real time. So the exchange is with the author, not the signing device. The device merely places the signature and message on the book page."

NOTE: Daily newspapers often change URLs when archiving, so some links won't work beyond the day they're first posted.

Tuesday 15 February 2005

Who does a vicious review hurt most: the author, the reviewer, or the publisher of the review? . . .
A strikingly angry review in the 3 October New York Times Sunday Book Review by Joe Queenan, in which he savaged The Know–It–All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World as "idiotic" and in a personal attack called author A.J. Jacobs a "jackass," sparked weeks of discussion in the New York publishing community and on the Internet, most of it highly critical of Queenan. Now, months later, the chatter has started up again with the latest issue of the NYTBR, which included an unheard–of essay in response from Jacobs, and an even more remarkable editors note, presumeably from editor Sam Tanenhaus although unsigned, explaining why Jacobs was allowed to respond. In Jacobs' piece, he says he still hasn't gotten over brooding about the fact that his "lighthearted account of the year I spent reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica" elicited "one of the most mean-spirited reviews in the 154–year history of The New York Times." He says that even though Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and USA Today all gave the book good reviews, he had to go on a "relentless quest for publicity" to try and "elbow the [Times] review out from people's minds." Nonetheless, he says, "the review from Queenan was so personal and splenetic, it was often the first thing people brought up." But the editor's explanation has elicited more commentary in the publishing community than Jacob's response, as reflected in a searing Publishers Lunch commentary (scroll down) from Michael Cader. "At a casual glance," says Cader, Jacobs essay "seems like a most gracious gesture" from the NYTBR editors. "But the benevolent effect is more than ruined by the smug editors' note," he continues. Despite the use of personal insults and unsubstantiated charges, "the newspaper is unshamed by Queenan's over–the–top takedown," observes Cader. "But the coup de grace of the editors' rationale is this. Having lectured publishers that it's not the Times' mission to help sell books, they pat themselves on the back: 'A. J. Jacobs's experience clinches the point. He notes that our review of The Know–It–All actually brought it more attention.'" Says Cader, "Just like running him over with a truck."

Bush says renewal of Patriot Act is his "urgent mission" . . .
At the swearing–in ceremony for new Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez at the White House yesterday, President George W. Bush "urged the nation to stay the course in its 'urgent mission' to fight terrorism, and he called on Congress to move quickly to extend sweeping law enforcement powers under the USA Patriot Act." As Eric Lichtblau reports in a New York Times story, "A number of measures in the act that expand the government's ability to conduct secret surveillance and use other law enforcement powers will expire at the end of the year unless Congress extends them. Many Democrats and some Republicans have voiced skepticism or outright opposition to an extension, and some lawmakers have offered competing proposals that would restrict the ability of federal agents to demand records from libraries and use other powers granted by the act."

Wait until they find out about Jefferson . . .
The controversial biography of Abraham Lincoln that postulates the 16th president was gay—The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C.A.Trip—seems to have stirred up a reaction from the fundamentalist right. According to a report by Deanna Swift at The Swift Report, "If a coalition of conservative groups gets its way, the craggy visage of the country's first gay president, Abraham Lincoln, will soon be chiseled out of Mount Rushmore" and replaced with that of Ronald Reagan. According to Swift, "Activists say that with selective blasting techniques and a bit of re–sculpting, Old Abe can be transformed into an icon conservatives are more comfortable with." Legislators who introduced a bill to add Reagan's likeness shortly after his death last year were "stymied by one intractable problem: Rushmore's limited space," notes Swift. But "Proponents of the plan to replace Lincoln with Reagan say that the structural renovation of the famous sculpture will prove far less costly—and time consuming—than adding an entirely new face into the Black Hills monument." Observes Swift, "if recent history is any indication, it shouldn't be too long before fans of the 'Gipper' have something to smile about. In recent months, the Park Service has introduced a creationist account of the origins of the Grand Canyon into the destination's book store," and "Park Service officials also agreed to modify a video shown to tourists at the Lincoln Memorial, after conservative Christians complained that it gave too much screen time to women, blacks and gays."

King getting catty toward Kitty? . . .
Has bestselling author Kitty Kelley been blackballed from Larry King's CNN TV program because of her book about the Bush family? That's the speculation offered in Jeanette Wall's The Scoop gossip column on MSNBC.com. Kelly, who has made numerous appearances on King's show, tells Walls that when she published The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, she knew that "Larry King had been the emcee for George Herbert Walker Bush's 80th birthday party, so I understood he didn't want to lose his friendship with the Bushes and interview me then." However, Kelly, who has also written about Britain's royal family and is usually King's talking head on the subject, says she suspected something was amiss when King's show on Prince Charles' engagement to Camilla Parker–Bowles featured Joan Rivers instead. Says Kelly, "I didn't realize that writing the Bush book would get me banished from Larry Kingdom . . . I didn't realize I'd be drop-kicked off the show forever."

Bulgakov still makes them come out of the woodwork . . .
During his lifetime,Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita was attacked by Soviet authorities for, among other things, seeming to encourage religion by including scenes depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Now, as Victor Sonkin details in a report for The Moscow Times, Bulgakov's masterpiece is under fire again—this time for committing "heresy" in those very same scenes. The accusation comes from Andrei Kurayev, a deacon in the Russian Orthodox church who is also a media personality, and author of a book called 'The Master and Margarita': For or Against Christ?. In it, he says Bulgakov's book "verges on Satanism." But this isn't the popular Kurayev's first look at whether popular literature is suitably Christian or not: he has also "explored whether it is all right for Orthodox children to read about the exploits of Harry Potter." He has also caused controversy with his statements that "most of the victims in Auschwitz and elsewhere were Christian converts, selected for death by Jews themselves in the self–governing ghettos." Meanwhile, notes Sonkin, "With Orthodox dignitaries growing in media visibility and even suggesting a state–sponsored Church TV channel, Kurayev might be a harbinger of a new era that will put an end to Russia's claim of being a modern secular state."

Hail & Farewell: Eleanor Gould Packard . . .
Eleanor Gould Packard, who for 54 years was the copyeditor of The New Yorker magazine, has died in Manhattan at age 87. According to a New York Times obituary by Betsy Wade, editor David Remnick once said of her, "If it's true The New Yorker is known for the clarity of its prose, then Miss Gould had as much to do with establishing that as its more famous editors and writers."

But who's responsible for the elipsis? . . .