They Just Keep Trying, Don’t They?

By Jessica castro, ia Unsplash

While Presidents submit their proposed Federal budgets each year, the “power of the purse” – the authority to appropriate money – rests with Congress, and most Presidents’ budgets are more or less ignored, except as a blueprint for that particular administration’s or the party’s agenda.

The Stiletto Gumshoe is more or less a politics-free zone, however passionate my own positions may be (and what they are…well, we won’t get into that here, unless they’ve peeked through unintentionally in prior posts). Nonetheless…

For each year of this current administration, the President’s proposed budget called for the complete elimination of the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, which funds research and provides grants to museums and libraries. The IMLS is the primary source of federal funding to public libraries. Not their primary source of funding, mind you, which typically will be local property taxes, but the primary source of federal funding. Also, the proposed 2021 budget – “A Budget For America’s Future” – calls for the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (the NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (the NEA).

I have my points of view and you’ll have yours about erecting walls, detention camps, cozying up with dictators, billing taxpayers for resort stays, launching a Satellite Sam space force, gutting or cutting Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S.D.A., the State Department and…well, you get my point. And I’m sure there are political persuasions that will rail against the NEH and NEA as promoters of particular ideologies they vehemently oppose. (Or choose not to understand.) So, let’s just agree to disagree.

But it’s pretty hard to argue against public libraries.

I whine about my own local library often, a lovely and well-appointed facility that unfortunately is woefully short of actual books. But complaining doesn’t mean you won’t find me in there every week or so, and leaving with books in hand.

Despite the repeated attempts to defund or eliminate the IMLS, NEH and NEA altogether, Congress has not only re-appropriated funds in each of the past years, it has actually increased funding. Sincere support or pandering, who knows?

ALA

Whether you come up a few bucks shy on your next bookstore visit, or faint when you see the online bookseller charges on your credit card statement, or routinely take advantage of your local library like me, consider popping over to the American Library Association site at www.ala.org for a handy link to reach out to your own congressional representative to voice your concern about where your tax dollars go. Or, where they don’t go. I mean, we’re talking about your local public library, for goodness sakes.

John Warner’s 2.10.20 Biblioracle column in the Chicago Tribune, “Libraries Most Popular Attraction, And For Good Reason” (link below) references a December 2019 Gallup Poll of Americans’ most common cultural activities. Surprise: Going to the library topped the list, coming in at nearly double the rate of going to the movies, and way more than attending sporting events, zoos, casinos, concerts, etc., used most frequently by lower income households and, surprisingly, shows the highest use by the 18 – 29 year old demo (and incidentally, highest regional use in the Midwest…go Flatlanders!) Warner’s column concludes with a simple message: “We don’t want a world without libraries”.

Amen to that, brother.

(Photo: By Jessica Castro, via Unsplash)

https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/ct-books-biblioracle-0216-20200210-fdrdtzhlafct3jbmmohjcy3txa-story.html

The Decade’s Best (Make That Bestsellers)

by brittany markert

Normally I bypass many of the end-of-year ‘best-of’ lists populating so many blogs, newsletters and sites that I follow. This year, pad the count with extra end-of-decade best-of lists. Skimming a couple right before the holidays was enough for me, though they’re still popping up on my screen. Much as I enjoy reading reviewers’ opinions, I know that my faves won’t be yours and vice-versa, and ‘best’ will be one thing to one reader and something else to another.

That said, one list did catch my eye, albeit not a ‘best of’ list at all: John Warner’s 1.5.20 Chicago Tribune Biblioracle column, “Top Bestsellers Rail Against Patriarchy” listed the NPD Bookscan top-selling books of the decade, and he opened by asking the reader to guess the top-selling book of the 2010’s. Warning: You may not like the answer.

Yes, it was E. L. James Fifty Shades of Grey. But it gets worse. The number two and three titles? Also E.L. James, with her sequels Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

Now this was a bestselling list, not a ‘best-of’ list. If you’re disappointed that cumbersome mommy porn sold so well when your own lovingly crafted projects may have languished in relative obscurity (consider that just the returns for the Fifty Shades books surely dwarfed most writers’ total sales), there’s still news in the decade’s top-sellers. In order, the top selling books in the 2010’s according to NPD Bookscan were:

Fifty Shades Of Grey, E.L. James

Fifty Shades Darker, E.L. James

Fifty Shades Freed, E.L. James

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

The Girl on The Train, Paula Hawkins

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

Divergent, Veronica Roth

brittany-markert

Whether you read or liked all or even some of the list, you can see that it’s overwhelmingly dominated by women writers and with books featuring female protagonists. Noteworthy? You bet. Someday, tallying women writers vs. men writers simply won’t be a topic, any more than women directors, musicians, artists, etc. Someday. But for now, there are still decades (centuries?) of male dominated pop culture and fine arts to rebalance. After all, the publishing marketplace (publishers, editors, literary agents, etc.) is comprised mostly of women. And, most books are bought by women. So, there should be no big revelation in the decade’s top seller list.

No one’s saying the books’ protagonists are all heroic women or even positive role models. It would be a stretch to claim that each title on the decade’s bestseller list necessarily ‘railed against patriarchy’, as John Warner put it in the Tribune. That’s the makings of another conversation. Still, the stats are illuminating, and it’ll be interesting to revisit this ten years out when we see what the 2020’s top ten will be, who’ll have written them, and what changes may or may not have occurred in readers’ tastes and the industry’s output.

Photos: Brittany Markert

 

This Is Getting Complicated.

Steven Meisel 2009

John Warner’s “Give A Gift That Supports Small Presses: Skip Amazon And Buy Direct” ran online in the 11.25.19 Chicago Tribune (link below) and reappeared in Sunday’s print/online editions’ Biblioracle feature, putting another spin on the whole ‘where to responsibly buy books’ thing.

For many, the Seattle big boy’s the bad boy, and I get that. For others, it’s their primary link to civilization. Chain booksellers have largely vanished. The noble independent booksellers may not be ‘round the corner, but need our support, and if their inventory doesn’t include the titles we’re looking for, they’ll be happy to order them. (Well, the owners are happy to order them…not so certain about some of the clerks.)

Warner’s Tribune piece notes that Amazon is reducing its publishers’ 2019 holiday season orders as a way to deal with ‘congestion issues’ in its warehouses. In some cases, independent publishers have reported devastating order reductions up to 75%.

We often forget just how much (or how little) publishers – small, micro and indie publishers in particular – make on each individual book sale. That $15.95 trade paperback was probably sold at a 45% to 60%+ trade discount. There may be additional co-op ad/promotional funding deducted from the wholesale price. Plus, the publisher pays the freight to distributors’ designated warehouses (Ingram, for example, has several regional distribution centers). And the publisher will have to accept and provide credit for returns later, when booksellers purge their shelves to make room for new books or simply to convert inventory into much-needed cash. Those returns are rarely (if ever) re-salable, often too shopworn to be remaindered and may only end up pulped for pennies.

So, John Warner’s article prompts book buyers to consider buying direct from indie publishers. More cumbersome than a Seattle-session? Sure it is, and possibly a bit more costly too. But, those publishers will make full price on your orders. Some may even offer online coupons, discounts and incentives of their own. Warner highlights several independent publishers like the University of Chicago Press and Coffee House Press, and points out just how easily and happily lost an avid book buyer can become in their online catalogs.

It’d be nice if buying a book didn’t have to be such a morally weighty endeavor, but it is. We want to support everyone: Authors, publishers and retailers alike. If it sometimes feels like too much to grapple with, I understand and agree. My own approach is to spread my book buying dollars around. With holiday gift buying season here, it should be no surprise that many books are on my shopping list. But after reading John Warner’s Chicago Tribune article, I’m definitely going to some small press and independent publishers’ sites to order direct.

I don’t know if it really helps, but it can’t hurt.

Photo: Dorothea Barth Jorgensen, Madisyn Ritland, Viktoriya Sasonkina and Nimue Smit by Steven Meisel for Alberta Feretti, 2009

https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/ct-books-biblioracle-1201-20191125-arlmpbtvjfd5rayrxelxnnqs34-story.html

The Real Chicago.

Velma And Roxie

Understandable if you only think of Chicago as Broadway darling Bob Fosse’s brainchild (along with John Kander and Fred Ebb), the hit musical debuting in 1975, revived in 1997 and adapted for the 2002 film with Renee Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere. But it really begins with journalist, playwright and screenwriter Maurine Dallas Watkins’ creation, originally running on Broadway in 1926, adapted to a 1927 silent film and again in 1942 as Roxie Hart starring Ginger Rogers.

Ginger ROgers - Roxie Hart

Louisville, Kentucky native Maurine Dallas Watkins (1896 – 1969) attended college back east, studying to be a playwright, but ended up in Chicago where she landed a job as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. The Trib was one of seven dailies, each competing for attention in what may be the then Second City’s most colorful era, with Prohibition in full force, speakeasies on every corner, Al Capone-Bugs Moran gang wars turning the streets into a war zone and Chicago’s legendary political corruption overseeing it all. Watkins had no shortage of tawdriness to cover, including the Leopold And Loeb kidnapping/murder case and the sensational trials of two photogenic ‘jazz babies’ accused of crimes of passion: Cabaret singer Belva Gaertner, “the most stylish on murderess row” and Beulah Sheriff Annan, “the beauty of the cell block’. Far from sympathetic, Watkins was frustrated by the ease with which the two women managed to manipulate her male colleagues, particularly since she was convinced that both women were guilty as hell.

old posters

Soon after leaving the Tribune, Watkins returned to school and drama workshops, where she penned The Brave Little Woman, which she soon revamped into Chicago, in which Beulah became Roxie Hart and Belva morphed into Velma Kelly. The play debuted on Broadway in 1926 and was an immediate hit, spawning successful road tours (one with a very young Clark Gable) and inevitably landed in Hollywood…Watkins ending up there as well. Her play was adapted to the silent screen by Cecil B. Demille, and with major changes, into 1942’s Roxie Hart. Meanwhile, Watkins became a moderately successful screenwriter, her best-known film being Libeled Lady from 1936 with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow. She retired to Florida, quite well off and by then deeply religious, turning down further offers for the rights to Chicago, regretting the part she played in glorifying two murderers who escaped justice. But after she passed away in 1969, her estate sold the rights to Bob Fosse, who glammed up the jazz baby killers more than ever.

He Had It Coming Book

The story behind all this will be told in detail soon. Chicago Tribune Publishing will release Kori Rumore and Marianne Mather’s He Had It Coming – Four Murderous Women And The Reporter Who Immortalized Their Stories in November. The book grew out of Tribune photo editor Mather’s discovery of decades-old boxes of photo negatives of the ‘real’ Roxie, Velma and others collected by Maurine Dallas Watkins, which led her to research the fifty-plus Watkins’ Tribune bylines. The result is a biography of Maurine Dallas Watkins and a profile of the sensational Belva Gaertner/Beulah Sheriff Annan trials — a long overdue honor for one of the Trib’s own, and aiming to set the story straight on a couple of flapper-fatales from history and the real story behind Roxie, Velma and Chicago.

Renee Rosen’s Guilty Pleasures

Park Avenue Summer

I stumbled onto my first Renee Rosen novel a few years ago and have been hooked since. Just finished her latest, Park Avenue Summer, a few weeks ago.

Rosen’s Dollface from 2013 is where I started, her first novel, I think. No surprise that it caught my eye, being set in Prohibition era Chicago, and telling Vera Abramowitz’ story in which romance with a suave bootlegger goes bad once he’s in the clink and she has to take over. Writer Rosen’s from Ohio but relocated to Chicago, seems to have acquired a very genuine feel for the city, and obviously does her homework on each period she writes about. That first book set a tone for the subsequent novels: A young woman navigating her way through an overwhelmingly male dominated world in eras when things were evolving, but only a bit. A very little bit.

Dollface

I missed her second novel from 2014 but kept up with the next three: White Collar Girl  from 2015, about young Jordan Walsh struggling to make it as a reporter in the boys club newsroom of the Chicago Tribune back in 1955. Next came Windy City Blues in 2017, once again set in Chicago and merging 1950’s-60’s fact and fiction with a young Jewish girl in the vibrant R&B music scene and tumultuous race relations while at Chicago’s legendary Chess Records.

White Collar Girl

Rosen’s latest, Park Avenue Summer, left her adopted home town for mid-1960’s New York City, where aspiring photographer Alice Weiss takes a job as Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary just as the iconic editor and author of the then-scandalous Sex And The Single Girl was about to turn the publishing world on its ear with the relaunch of Cosmopolitan magazine. I saw one review calling this novel “Mad Men Meets The Devil Wears Prada”, and that’s not an entirely bad description, at least as far as describing the milieu goes.

I’m calling Rosen’s novels ‘guilty pleasures’, but not to suggest that they’re lighthearted fluff. Far from it. Her novels have been a treat, helped locales and era come vibrantly alive for me, and each has been a pleasant diversion from the mysteries and crime fiction I normally devour. Three in a row all situated in 1950’s-60’s settings? That’s just a bonus for me. I don’t know where Renee Rosen is headed next: Back to Chicago, and if so, in what decade? Wherever and whenever it is, I can guarantee I’ll be going along for the trip.

Windy City Blues

 

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