Many thanks to True/Slant’s senior producer Michael Roston, who came to my class at Marymount Manhatan College last week to talk about what makes an interesting blog, how writers can generate more traffic, and so on. Michael is very big on linking, which is why I’m linking to his True/Slant page here. He didn’t seem to want his photograph taken, but here is, apparently deep in contemplation of something dark and forbidden.


Oscars are amusing, Olympics are fun, but for a good solid laugh, give me the competition for the Diagram Prize, the award presented annually to the Oddest Book Title of the Year. The shortlist of nominees for this year’s prize, which has been awarded for the past 32 years by the British trade publication The Bookseller, has just been announced. Readers should feel free to conclude whether any of these titles measures up to the standard set by previous winners, such as If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs; Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers; and last year’s memorable champion, The 2009–2014 World Outlook for 60mg Containers of Fromage Frais, by Professor Philip M. Parker. And whether or not you feel this is a sign of progress, the number of entries in the competition is dramatically on the rise, with this year’s 90 entries nearly tripling last year’s 32.

Here are this year’s nominees:

* David Crompton’s Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter (Glenstrae Press)
* James A YannesCollectible Spoons of the Third Reich (Trafford)
* Daina Taimina’s Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes (A K Peters)
* Ronald C Arkin’s Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots (CRC Press)
* Ellen Scherl and Maria Dubinsky’s The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (SLACK Inc)
* Tara Jansen-Meyer’s What Kind of Bean is This Chihuahua? (Mirror)

Go to www.thebookseller.com to vote for your favorite. The winner will be announced on 26th March.


The most necessary story of the young year is Jane Mayer’s article in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. It’s called The Trail, and it very carefully picks through the discussion about what legal powers we can bring to bear terrorists like the Underpants Bomber and the other dangerous individuals whom we have ensnared in this war on terror. As Mayer makes clear, former Vice President Dick Cheney and William Kristol and Senator Scott Cosmopolitan and the others who would deny these detainees basic legal rights are simply wrong as a matter of law. There is no mechanism for turning such people over to the army. The Bush administration tried it. The Supreme Court said the government couldn’t do it. (In other words, Dick, when you took Juan Padilla and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, and turned them over to the military to be held indefinitely without charges, you were the outlaw.)

I have an inherent suspicion of political leaders who try to frighten their citizens. There is no lower leadership technique, and Dick Cheney is the master of this dark art. One reason is that one can never entirely dismiss such a warning; once uttered, it hangs in the air like the raving visions of a deranged hermit, always ready to snatch hold a passing pretext that could be pressed into service as a validation. But unless al-quada gets hold of weapons of mass destruction–and where is there any sense that they have?–they represent no greater threat to America than did the Barbary Pirates. A menace, yes; capable of causing great pain and suffering, for sure; a scourge that must be eradicated, no doubt. But to pretend that it is more, and to argue for its eradication through the abrogation of normal procedures and basic rights, is political posturing and rank demagogy.

We have seen this act before. Frightened by bombs and demonstrations and strikes, political leaders in the twenties locked people up and deprived them of their rights and deported them. They were attempting to assert control, and within a couple years, we were ashamed of them. In the forties, frighted by Imperial Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, our leaders rounded up the Nisei and, depriving them of their freedom and their property, relocated them in concentration camps in our barren and isolated inland. After a few years, we were ashamed of them. In the fifties, frightened by a Soviet Union that used spies in our ranks to learn our atomic secrets, some of our leaders sought to destroy the lives of anyone who had any kind of socialist connection. And it didn’t take very long for people to become ashamed of them.

I’m ashamed now. It’s embarrassing to hear Dick Cheney say on a Sunday talk show that he supports water-boarding. It’s humiliating to think that he can say that still be accorded any respect whatsover. It’s time we stood up and made it clear: Khalid Sheik Muhammad and Juan Padilla and Captain Underpants have these rights not because they are God’s children and deserving of a lawyer in the court room and a teddy bear at night. They have these rights because we’re Americans, and it is our strength that we hold to a way of life insists on rules, that we greet their depravity and disregard of human life with confidence in our institutions and the majesty of law. The contrast could not be greater. We do this because we’re Americans, and if we react to their provocations by abandoning who we are, then truly, the terrorists have won.


In 2008 a young poet named T.A. Noonan conducted interviews with Stacy Morrison, who is the editor-in-chief of Redbook, and with me, in my capacity as Managing Editor of Playboy, on the topic of fiction in magazines. Ms. Noonan has run the results on her website, which is called Delirious Hem. The results, I think, are pretty funny. I’m glad she picked me, and I thank her.


There was a fascinating story in The Telegraph last week about a new book and a new film in France that alleges that the legenday novelist Alexander Dumas, left, author of The Three Muskateers and The Count of Monte Christo and other fabulous, fantastic stories of the 18th and 19th century, benefited enormously from having a ghost writer–indeed, a ghost writer who may well have done the lion’s share of creative work. Claude Schopp, France’s leading Dumas expert, says in a book to be released next month that Auguste Jules Maquet , below, was the man who actually came up with the plot for the trilogy featuring Porthos, Athos, Aramis. and d’Artagnan.

Says The Telegraph: “In the 1830s, Maquet, a novelist and playwright, had tried to have his works published but was told: “You have written a masterpiece, but you’re not a name and we only want names.” Another writer, Gérard de Nerval put him in touch with Dumas and asked the already famous author if he would rework one of Maquet’s plays, which was subsequently published. Soon afterwards, Dumas, a bon vivant who consistently spent more than he earned, fled his French creditors for Florence. There, he asked Maquet if he would let him publish one of his novels in serial form. Dumas renamed it Le Chevalier d’Harmental and it was published in 1841, signed only Alexandre Dumas. This was to be the start of a hugely fruitful literary partnership. Maquet would come up with the plots and historical backdrop and Dumas would embellish and expand on the story in his flamboyant style. . . .Dumas would pay Maquet handsomely and reap the glory.”

No fool, Dumas got Maquet to waive ownership of the work. In 1858, the pair fell out over money, which the debt-ridden Dumas owed his ghost writer. “Maquet took him to court three times, asking not just for money but recognition. During one court case, an editor at Le Siècle, a newspaper that serialised Dumas’ works, sent a letter to Maquet backing up his claims. He recounted how an episode of the Vicomte de Bragelonne which was due to be published in his paper had gone missing the day it was due to be printed. Dumas was unavailable so Maquet was contacted. By midnight he had rewritten the episode, which was published. When, the following day, the Dumas “rewritten” text was found, “only 30 words from 500 lines were not absolutely the same”. Despite such support, the court ordered Maquet financial compensation but rejected his demands to be recognised as co-author.”

And to this day, Dumas gets the credit. Most of it. On Maquet’s tombstone in Paris’ Père-Lachaise cemetery are engraved The Three Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo and La Reine Margot. Dumas’ remains, of course, were recently tranferred to the Pantheon, the Paris mausoleum where France’s greats are interred.


Maybe it was all the snow, but whatever the reason, yesterday produced an unusually bounteous crop of sex news.

In an article in The New York Times on the connection between food and sexual arousal, reporter Sarah Kershaw discussed a study conducted by the Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago. “In one small experiment on sexual response to food scents,” she writes, “vaginal and penile blood flow was measured in 31 men and women who wore masks emitting various food aromas. This was the study that found men susceptible to the scent of doughnuts mingled with licorice. For women, first place for most arousing was a tie between baby powder and the combination of Good & Plenty candy with cucumber. Coming in second was a combination of Good & Plenty and banana nut bread.”

Meanwhile, over in Slate, Hanna Rosin was wondering whether Tiger Woods was, clinically speaking, really a sex addict. “One of Woods’ Las Vegas ladies described him as a sex addict who relentlessly pursued women. But that doesn’t mean he was one. Woods’ current mistress count—18 over six years of marriage—does not by itself meet the clinical definition, without knowing how many encounters he had with those women or what else he was up to. The first question [sex addiction expert Marty] Kafka would ask Woods, he says, is: How often did he have an orgasm? By the accepted definition, seven times a week consistently for six months would signal a problem.” Consistency, in this case, is apparently not a virtue.

And in Foreign Policy, David Kenner informs us that Saudi Arabia has refused Pakistan’s proposed ambassador. “Despite having served for years as a distinguished Pakistani diplomat, Akbar Zeb reportedly cannot receive accreditation as Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The reason, apparently, has nothing to do with his credentials, and everything to do with his name — which, in Arabic, translates to `biggest dick’.” You would have thought that this would have come up before.

On the website Women Talk Sports, an unsigned blog protests the cover of the current Sports Illustrated, which is all about the Winter Olympics, for showing the beautiful and gifted skier Lindsay Vonn in “a sexualized pose.” Seems hard to argue that this is more of a sexualized pose than a skiing pose; a better case could perhaps be made for this photo from SI’s new swimsuit issue.

Finally, Huffington Post founding editor Roy Sekoff appeared with novelist Jackie Collins on The Joy Behar Show, and I guess as a result of his personal investigation into the John Edwards sex tape, was able to confirm that former senator, who in his disgrace can apparently be left with no shred of dignity intact, is physically well-endowed. Old media has had its low moments, but it’s hard to think of an editor of what aspired to be an influential publication going on TV and delving into that particular topic.


As much as it pains me to admit it, the awful Ann Coulter made an apt point some years ago when she criticized liberals for calling Republicans dumb. She ran through a list of presidents that she said liberals smugly labeled as stupid–Ike, Ford, Reagan, George W. Bush–none of whom were. More to the point, we keep taking refuge in our intelligence. We’ve been to the good schools, we must therefore be entitled to govern. President Obama, as intelligent a man as we’ve had in Oval Office in my lifetime, is unfortunately demonstrating that intelligence is not enough.

Writing in Slate yesterday, Eliot Spitzer showed why the Democrats have lost control of the debate to a party that really offers no answers of its own. Keep It Simple Stupid, says Spitzer. The RepublIcans are “much better at telling stories, narratives that through their simplicity appeal to the public. . . .Exhibit one is health care reform, which fell prey to stories of `death panels’ and demands by Medicare recipients to `get government out of my health care.’ The Republicans successfully exploited the public’s disdain for government—even though it is government itself that is providing the Medicare they so prize.”

Spitzer credits the Republican strategist Frank Luntz (above) as the master of the dark art of phrasing things in a way that wins arguments, and Spitzer is right. Many people spin, but what Luntz does is nearly Orwellian, advising Republicans to support not `off-shore drilling’ but `deep-sea exploration,’ that sort of willful perversion of language designed to gain political advantage. Fresh off of (so far) all-but killing health care reform, Luntz has now published a 17 page playbook designed to torpedo Democratic efforts to reform the financial system. “If there is one thing we can all agree on,” Luntz writes, “it’s that the bad decisions and harmful policies by Washington bureaucrats that in many ways led to the economic crash must never be repeated.” (The full memo appeared in The Huffington Post.) Of course, what is manifestly true is that sensible regulations like the Glass-Steagel Act (which was enacted by Democrats, and which was the truss upon which 75 years of economic stability rested) were repealed, mostly at the behest of free market-minded Republicans, and that, ultimately opened the door for greedy Wall Streeters to gamble away our prosperity. When Republicans have Democrats to run against, the run against Democrats; when they have only themselves to run against, the run against Washington.

Spitzer smartly advises Democrats to focus not only on reforming the system, but on coming up with plain language that explains why the reforms are needed. “Here are a few off-the-cuff suggestions for phrases Democrats can use to regain the momentum:

1. It is time to get the cops back on the beat and the bank robbers out of the bank vault. It is your money—not theirs.
2. “Heads I win; tails you lose” is a first-grade joke—not a theory for our banking system. Yet that is the game that has been played on us.
3. If Wall Street wants to gamble on a casino economy, they will not use the American taxpayer as a chip on the table.
4. For the first 50 years after the Great Depression, we avoided disaster—but then Washington bought the oldest line in the book from Wall Street bankers—trust me. We have learned the lesson—and we don’t, and we won’t.”

If this isn’t clear enough, here’s the conservative radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, writing in The Daily Beast, about Luntz’s new position on global warming. Luntz once had the skeptical, George W. Bush position on global warming, but having recently been retained by the Environmental Defense Fund, and having conducted a poll that shows that 57 percent of Americans believe global warming is “definitely” or “probably” occurring, Luntz has arrived at a considerably greener view. Importantly, Luntz was not persuaded by scientific data or photos from space or penguins washing up on the beaches at Rio. Luntz, Smerconish writes, says that the climate change debate can be won by emphasizing America’s need to decrease dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and create cleaner, safer energy sources that would create American jobs and build new technologies that wouldn’t be outsourced to China or India.”

And there’s the lesson for liberals: stop trying to appeal to people’s intelligence, and start appealing to their worries about their pocketbooks and the fears about Third World foreigners.

Weird, huh?


On Sunday Ginny and I went to the Burns Center for a big screen viewing of what has been one of her longtime favorites, Gone With the Wind. I had seen the film the view times, and it was never one of my favorites. But the critic and historian Molly Haskell (pictured at right, with critic Janet Maslin)introduced the picture Sunday, and some of her comments helped me appreciate what was going on, and I liked it very much. Haskell called Scarlett O’Hara a teen rebel, and I guess I never before really thought of her that way–as someone very young and very immature and equipped with a very age-specific set of social tools. I guess I had always thought of her as a grown woman, and as such, someone whose character flaws really made her an unpleasant person. Also, I never really considered what the film was “about”, but this time, Rhett Butler‘s comments about southern self-delusion made their subsequent travails seem like self-inflicted wounds, and not the result of Yankee belligerence; during these days when our self-delusions about war and greed have come so painfully home to roost, this idea seemed very pertinent. And despite all the verbiage about cavaliers and chivalry, the film’s point of view is not terribly sympathetic to the south’s sufferings. Some other thoughts: Vivian Leigh was really beautiful and really an incredibly good actress; I wish she had done more film work. Clark Gable really was a limited actor; Haskell made a good point, though, about how he had to play against type, because in most films he easily gets the girl, and here he can’t get the girl no matter how hard he campaigns. Also, did Bernie Mac steal his act from Hattie McDaniel? Almost, almost. And overall, the first half is a really terrific movie; the second half, when it draws inward and concerns itself merely with the tangled feelings of Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley and Melanie, is really less interesting. It’s hard to care, ultimately, about these people who just can’t get out of their own way and accept some kind of happiness.