Friday, February 27, 2009

Robert Donald Spector, RIP

We were very sorry to read in the New York Times obituary notices that our friend Robert Donald Spector has passed away. Here's Long Island University's official announcement, by President David Steinberg and Brooklyn Campus Provost Gale Haynes:
It is with deep sadness that we write to inform you that Dr. Robert Donald Spector, coordinator of the Humanities Division and professor emeritus of English at the Brooklyn Campus, and chairman of the University’s George Polk Awards in Journalism, died on February 25. A gifted poet and writer, he was an inspiration to students and colleagues alike.

Dr. Spector’s association with the University began during his undergraduate days; he earned a B.A. in English, magna cum laude, from the Brooklyn Campus in 1948. After completing an M.A. in English at New York University, Dr. Spector returned to Long Island University to begin a teaching career that spanned more than five decades. He always was passionately involved in the University community. In 1967, Dr. Spector organized a movement to oppose the sale of the Brooklyn Campus. Thanks in large part to his efforts, faculty and students successfully lobbied against the sale, preserving the campus for generations to come.

Dr. Spector, who also held a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, was a renowned author of scholarly books, articles and volumes of poetry, and as chairman of the Polk Awards, played a significant role in the administration of one of America’s most coveted journalism honors. His commitment to his work earned him the University’s Trustees Award for Scholarly Achievement, now called the Abraham Krasnoff Memorial Award for Scholarly Achievement, in 1978; a Tristram Walker Metcalfe Alumnus of the Year Award in 1981; and an honorary doctorate from the Brooklyn Campus in 1994.

Despite the magnitude of his achievements, Dr. Spector cited “over 50 years of teaching thousands of students” as his greatest accomplishment. He will no doubt be missed.

We first knew Dr. Spector as the father of our friend Eric, whom we met over 40 years ago at Midwood High School and with whom we also went to Brooklyn College.

In early March 1975, thirty-four years ago, we were chatting with Eric on the phone one evening and at the end of our conversation, Eric said, "My father wants to talk with you."

Dr. Spector, then the English Department chair at LIU's Brooklyn Center, said that one of his older professors had died of a heart attack on his way home to New Jersey from a night class in freshman comp. Knowing we'd finished our M.A. work at Richmond College (now The College of Staten Island), Dr. Spector asked us if we were interested in taking over the class.

Just 23 and in the second semester of our M.F.A. program in creative writing at Brooklyn College, we had never really given much thought to college teaching. Before our appointment at LIU the next afternoon, we stayed up reading whatever we could on the teaching of college writing, mostly our M.F.A. director Jonathan Baumbach's great book, Teachers as Writers/Writers as Teachers.

We were prepared to be interviewed, but when we walked into Dr. Spector's office, the first thing he said was, "Mr. Grayson, your students are going to eat you alive."

He told us about the class, English 11, and about how upset the students would be at the sudden death of a beloved professor. It was an evening class, and as we were to soon learn, except for one Orthodox Jewish boy, we were younger than any of the students in the class, working adults whose day jobs were on Wall Street or in banks or offices.

Dr. Spector got us through that scary first semester and the four wonderful years afterward that we taught adjunct classes in LIU's English Department as we learned to teach everything from remedial writing to the short novel. By then Dr. Spector had moved on to become coordinator of the entire Humanities Division, so he was no longer our direct supervisor. But he was always there with good, common-sense advice for a rookie college teacher. We learned a lot from him.

Dr. Spector had a generous spirit and a kindness that's sometimes rare in academia. The M.A. students in English and the English majors adored him, and he was one of our models for what a good college teacher of writing and literature would be. Also inspirational was his devotion to LIU and to the integrity of the Polk Awards in journalism (one of this year's winners, announced two weeks ago, was our Arizona friend Paul Giblin, for a series he co-wrote for The East Valley Tribune investigating Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s nasty campaign against illegal immigrants).

Dr. Spector also introduced us to Humphry Clinker and other works by Tobias Smollett, the great eighteenth century British writer who taught us many tricks.

Dr. Spector was perhaps the leading Smollett scholar in the country, and he also wrote and edited many, many books of and about British literature, a few of which are pictured here.

We will miss him, and we express our deep condolences to his wife, to Eric and his brother Stephen (with whom we used to teach at CUNY) and their families.

Now heading out to the Brooklyn College campus to teach an English class for Borough of Manhattan Community College - one of four schools where we are happily teaching this term - we will think a lot about Robert Donald Spector, who gave us our start doing what we love.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Financially-troubled small press publisher Dumbo Books of Brooklyn files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection

This morning we are issuing the following press release:
Brooklyn, N.Y., Feb. 23, 2009 — Dumbo Books of Brooklyn has announced that it filed for Chapter 11 protection from its creditors on Monday, saying a massive slump in revenue from book sales was to blame.

The company owns a small press publisher of literary books and three nondaily online newspapers, including The Los Angeles World-Telegram & Star, and has about 3.5 employees.

According to Richard Grayson, the company’s chief restructuring officer who filed a declaration in the case, unaudited financial statements for the fiscal year ending Nov. 30 reported $5,963 in assets and $18,692 in debt, including unpaid interest. Revenue has fallen more than 70 percent since 2006, the company said in bankruptcy court documents filed in Delaware.

Grayson said in a statement that Dumbo Books "anticipates that the Chapter 11 process will allow it to significantly reduce debt from its balance sheet while facilitating a strategic reorganization of the company, which will place it in the strongest possible position to sustain its momentum despite extremely challenging market conditions for books like Who Will Kiss the Pig? Sex Stories for Teens, which up until recently was 3,765,633 on Amazon's best seller list."

Dumbo Books, based in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn despite its name, proposes a restructuring in which it would cancel its stock — it traded for less than one cent on Friday — and become controlled by its lenders.

Grayson called the filing "ironic," noting, "Just like most of the few remaining readers of our books, we couldn't get past Chapter 11."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Adding It Up: We review the February 22, 2009 Sunday New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review for February 22, 2009 is back to where it was the first two weeks in February, at 24 pages, and sadly, the news about the book review's most crucial function - to bring in advertising revenue for the company - has reached its nadir.

The cover has no ads. Since other sections of the paper, including the front page, now have ads, we still think ads would be a good idea here. There's a lot of space devoted to an old B&W pic of the pool at the Fontainbleau (pronounced "Fountain-blue"). Feh. We always preferred the pools further north at the Carillon and the Sheraton Bal Habour, places where we could see old-time celebrities in bathing suits (Ronnie Dyson, cute; George Meany, not so much).

Page 2: Full-page ad for a Maeve Binchy novel published by Knopf, that publisher again coming thru to rescue page 2.

Page 3: Table of contents page has side ad for two Ana Grey mysteries by April Smith. Or maybe it's two April Smith mysteries by Ana Grey? Whatever. Counts as 40% of a page in our estimation.

Page 4: The Editors' "Up Front" flanked on the left by a decent-sized ad for a Little, Brown scary book or two. Counts as 60% of a page, which means we've so far got two full pages of ads out of four pages. If only the whole issue could be half and half! Alas, no.

Page 5: Boring letters and some "postcript," about Susan Sontag, whose heirs should have known better than to publish her immature diaries. But also a 40% right-hand ad from Henry Holt, another detective book.

Page 6: A left-hand ad for the New York Times Store. Counts as no ads.

Page 7: A little right-hand ad for some conference on Southern literature in Chattanooga. We can't afford choo-choo fare, but it counts as 25% of a page (we're in a generous mood).

Page 8: Pic of Crockett and Tubbs from our days in South Florida but no ads. From here on in, ads are going to be as scarce as pastel unconstructed sports jackets.

Page 9: No ads.

Page 10: No ads.

Page 11: No ads.

Page 12: Bupkis.

Page 13: Nada.

Page 14: Zilch.

Page 15: Nothing in the way of ads.

Page 16: Nope.

Page 17: No ads, but a nice pic of Miller Williams, whom we last saw in September 2001 when he and the missus joined us, our pal Crescent Dragonwagon and others at a Fayetteville restaurant for a bite after a poetry reading.

Page 18: No ads.

Page 19: We'll count this as 50% of a page, ignoring the New York Times Store ad for another food book. There's two Abraham Lincoln-related ads, and as we can personally attest, Lincoln always sells books. Apparently Honest Abe is good for ads too.

Page 20: No ads.

Page 21: Two right-hand is from NYTBR ad stalwart Other Press, who've earned a link (probably sausages too). Counts as 40% of a page.

Page 22: Um, on the left 40% of the page are two classified and an ad for Traveler's Language Courses, as well as to no-count ads for the New York Times Store. Let's count this as 30% of a page. We're in a good mood.

Page 23: An essay called "Can't. Stop. Writing." But. No. Ads.

Page 24: This is the shocker, folks. The back page: a primo space to put ads. And what do we have? An ad for a book about Ted Kennedy, whom we love, but it seems to be from The Boston Globe although the book's published by Simon & Schuster. It's by a team of Boston Globe reporters. The Boston Globe is owned by the New York Times Company, just as we own The Los Angeles World-Telegram & Star.

We need a decision from the ref. Ref?

He says it doesn't count as an ad! No ad on the back page of this week's New York Times Book Review! The crowd goes wild!

Adding it up: Last week we had seven and a half pages of ads out of 28 pages. This week, out of 24 pages, only 3.95 pages of ads. (Check our arithmetic and comment if we're wrong.) Last week we had 4 full-page ads alone. Sell your stock! As of yesterday, they're not giving dividends anyway.

We are sending a red velvet cake from Brooklyn's CakeMan Raven to the Times display advertising department to tide them over until the layoff notices arrive.

Don't forget to eat the crumbs, guys! It's going to be a long recession!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Financially-Troubled Small Press Publisher Dumbo Books of Brooklyn Announces Acquisition of California Newspaper Chain

This afternoon we are issuing the following press release:

BROOKLYN, N.Y., Feb. 19, 2009 - The financially troubled small press publisher Dumbo Books of Brooklyn, in what insiders describe as a last-ditch effort to avoid filing for bankruptcy, today announced that it was acquiring the California Newspaper Chain in a stock swap valued at an undisclosed amount.

Dumbo Books is a publisher of literary books headquartered in Brooklyn. The California Newspaper Chain's properties include its flagship Los Angeles World-Telegram & Star, The San Jose Journal-American, The Phoenix Citizen Record-Examiner and The Miami Globe-Democrat.

"We believe that this purchase will allow us a little breathing room with our creditors in this difficult economic climate," said Dumbo Books chief financial officer Richard Grayson. "It will give us added streams of revenue."

Shares of both companies closed lower yesterday.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Night in Wiliamsburg: Sunday Salon with Lara Stapleton, Charles Salzberg, Ebony Noelle Golden & Nancy Agabian at Stain Bar

Dumbo Books HQ has, for the last week, been laid low by a norovirus that's swept through our crew, with five people coming down with it on five successive days.

But on Sunday afternoon, three of us were well enough to enjoy our pad thai and other comfort food at Cheers Thai Restaurant around the corner on Metropolitan Avenue - even if we can only dream in February about its wonderful summer garden.

The pleasures of life without diarrhea, nausea and fever are so large that not even the Comic Book Network's most prescient supervillains, Doctor Doom and the Black Swan, could keep us down.

So tonight we briskly made our way to Stain Bar a few blocks to the southwest for their fabulous Sunday Salon reading series, which we've previously reported on in July 2008.

We've been going to stuff at the cozy, inviting Stain Bar since we read there in May 2007 in the P.E.E.L. Reading Series, and we wrote about the place and its owner, novelist Krista Madsen, in depth when we covered the MiPo Reading Series in July 2007.

Sunday Salon founder Nita Noveno was on her own this evening, thanking us for coming on a winter night when most NYC writers were in even colder Chicago for the AWP convention. (Nobody had told us, but then we only go to Chicago in June.)

Here's some of the first bio note Nita read:

Lara Stapleton was born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan. She also lived in the Philippines as a child, and now New York City is her home. Her 1998 collection The Lowest Blue Flame Before Nothing (Aunt Lute) was a PEN Open Book Committee Selection and an Independent Bookseller Selection. She co-edited Juncture (Soft Skull 2003) and edited Thirdest World (Factory School 2007). She is a writer of prose, poetry, and screenplays.

Lara teaches at Borough of Manhattan Community College (where the English Department also lets us work as an adjunct) and we've enjoyed her work in the past. Tonight she started with a poem called "Conspiracy Theory" and then a sly one called "The Barmaid Is an Empress" (we think Laura has tended bar in the past). She reads fast, not in the dull, pretentious way poets used to (some still do). We especially liked an image involving Shakespeare with flying spit.

But we were more fascinated by Lara's excerpts from a story - we didn't quite catch the title - that perhaps was somewhat autobiographical. Siblings Antonio and Violet are in high school in Lansing in 1980 but they're very different, with Violet headed for Brown and Antonio for God-knows-what. The episodes hung together even if they were only excerpts, and we'd like to read the story when it's done and published.

Up next was Charles Salzberg, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, GQ, Esquire, Elle, New York Times Arts and Leisure, and the New York Times Book Review.

Charles is a prolific author of over 20 non-fiction books, including From Set Shot To Slam Dunk, An Oral History of the NBA. He also teaches writing at and is a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop, and The Writer's Voice. Introducing him, Nina said that the only time Charles comes to Brooklyn is when he's invited to read at the Sunday Salon.

He read from his most recent novel is Swann's Last Song. Rather than the first chapter, Charles read from the second. The novel's narrator and protagonist Henry Swann is a skip-tracer in East Harlem, and he's been hired for something more lucrative than usual; a wealthy woman wants to find her missing husband.

The gritty, compelling narrative in this mystery's second chapter takes us on Swann's way from a Puerto Rican bar, the Paradise (it's the kind of place that brags about its failed Board of Health inspections), across from Henry's office, to the precinct house, where a nasty piece of work, Detective John Kelly, plays a kind of cat-and-mouse game with Henry regarding a hotel room murder. The book sounds like it moves fast, kind of like Mickey Spillane with a college education.

The next reader was the redoubtable and charming Ebony Noelle Golden, a native of Houston with both an MFA in Poetry from American University and a MA in Performance Studies from NYU. Ebony has been awarded grants from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Fund for Southern Communities, North Carolina A & T University and New York University. She has been published by Black Issues and Books Review, American Book Review, Obsidian, Pluck, and Third World Press.

Her current projects include Gumbo Ya/Ya or This is Why We Speak in Tongues, Images: for Younger SiStars, The Community Writing Intensive, i hear you breathing for me/ an embodied blues for meagan williams (multi-media performance) and again, the water carriers (a full length book of poetry), which Ebony read from tonight.

You could tell immediately that Ebony's a teacher; she made her reading interactive in a way rarely seen these days, starting off by asking people about their first memories (some of the things people called out were "riding Hot Wheels," "first ballet contest" and "eating mothballs") and proceeded into a prose performance.

And after reading a bit, Ebony asked questions - jokingly (we hope), she said, to make sure we were paying attention. She wanted some feedback about her imagery in the poetic narrative taking place in the rural South from a child's point of view.

We'd never seen before a reader ask after she read a bit, "So what resonated with you? Anything? What do you have questions about" At first there seemed to be an uncomfortable silence, but then some people offered some tentative images, like the wind being caught in someone's knees.

It ended up to be an interesting give and take, though it brought us back to our own writing workshops as teacher and student. As Ebony said, mischeviously speaking of herself in the third person, "What is she asking us stuff for? She's supposed to read for a while and sit down!" It was a very real moment at a time when lots of literary readings seem passive and perfunctory. We look forward to seeing Noelle's book.

The final reader of this Sunday Salon was Nancy Agabian , the author of Me as her again (Aunt Lute Books) a memoir on her Armenian identity and the history of her Armenian American family, and Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000), a collection of autobiographical, coming-of-age poems, stories and performance art texts. Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Birthmark: A Bilingual Anthology of Armenian-American Poetry, Hers 2: Brilliant New Fiction from Lesbian Writers, and KGB BarLit.

From 1997-2000, Agabian - that's what we call her - collaborated with Ann Perich as the folk-punk duo Guitar Boy, writing and singing lyrics that skewered pop culture and the art world; they released a CD in 2000 entitled Freaks like me. A Fulbright scholar to Armenia for 2006-07, she is a tri-author of the experimental book (An)daratsutian Mej, or In the (Un)Space, with writers Shushan Avagyan and Lara Aharonian.

In 2002, she founded Gartal, an Armenian literary reading series at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village. She lives in New York and teaches writing at CUNY and NYU. Did we mention that we worship the sidewalks Nancy walks on.

Her reading begin by setting the scene: she's 24, in L.A., far from her family in suburban Boston, taking a workshop at Venice's Beyond Baroque Foundation (Beyond Baroque published several of our stories in the mid-1970s and we were relieved to learn recently that this endangered 40yo Southern California treasure is now safe in its quirky, wonderful home for another quarter-century). It's the frame for her reading of chapter three of Me as her again (the title is a pun in Armenian).

Beginning with the story of Wonder Woman from the Lynda Carter TV series - pre-teen Nancy is clearly enthralled by the boobalicious Amazon - the narrative takes our dutiful Armenian immigrant daughter from her role as a subordinate friend to two blonde, bubbly girls (they don't have mustaches) who steal her seashell collection (they at least later feel guilty and admit their crime) to her almost accidental leadership of a suburban triad with two younger girls.

There's danger here, on a tween level anyway, as Nancy excites her friends by becoming the giver of fire (she builds a kind of fort in the woods where she lights matches and the hypnotized girls watch the flames) and there's an initiation into more forbidden and exciting stuff as she and a younger girl play Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, eventually getting around to the good stuff: kissing.

There wasn't an unsure move in Nancy's narrative, and her reading made us want to go right to a bookstore as the reading at Stain Bar ended and order her audacious memoir right away. But it was a cold Sunday night and so we just bundled up and walked across Grand Street and down Leonard Street instead, doing our ordering online at the cozy Dumbo Books HQ.

Thanks to Sunday Salon, Stain Bar and tonight's readers for putting some warmth into a bleak winter.

Adding It Up: We review the February 15, 2009 Sunday New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review for February 15, 2009 is 28 pages, four pages more than recent issues, and it's also doing better where it's most crucial: in ad copy.

The cover has no ads. Since other sections of the paper, including the front page, now have ads, we still think ads would be a good idea here. There's too much wasted space around the first three paragraphs to Joe Nocera's great review of a book about the last Great Depression. This would be a great place for New York Review of Books-style personals.

Page 2: Full-page ad for a novel by a doctor published by Knopf. Much better than the recent ads for New York Times products, which didn't count.

Page 3: Table of contents page has side ad for a First Lady roman a clef from Random House not as good as Gore Vidal's Washington, D.C., which has a cameo by a thinly disguised version of the author's half-sister's half-sister's half-sister, in which a young faux-Jackie shakes hands with Harry Truman and is breathless at how sexy he is. Counts as 40% of a page, we'd say.

Page 4: The Editors' "Up Front" flanked by, on the left, a Bantam ad for a memoir copy describes as "hilarious and heart-tugging," and, on the right, a New York Times Store product about food, which doesn't count. Another 40% of a page.

Page 5: Wow, a full-page ad for the reprints of a "classic novel" made into film with attractive celebrities and other books by the dead author. There's 23 pages left and already this week's NYTBR has beat out the entire Feb. 1 issue's entire ad space. Way to go, Display Advertising! Those cannolis we sent must have helped!

Page 6: Another 40% ad on the left next to the boring letters to the editor. It's for some Irishy book with the obligatory Frank McCourt blurb.

Page 7: OMG. Yet another full-pager, for Bose. Wasn't that Oscar Wilde's pet name for his bf?

Page 8: No ads except for the NYTBR itself. Nice pic of the Barry Sisters, though.

Page 9: Little right-hand column ad for a book with "Boca" in the title. What a coincidence: we just ate a Boca burger (seriously!) and used to write a little right-hand column for the Boca Raton News.

Page 10: No ads.

Page 11: No ads.

Page 12: Bupkis.

Page 13: Bottom half-page ad for a book that's changed the way people think about changing the world. (No, it's not Skinny Bitch.)

Page 14: Zilch.

Page 15: Nothing in the way of ads.

Page 16: To the left of the children's best sellers list (do any actual children look at this?) is a 40% ad for non-book products related to "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," a series we can't resist since our grandfather's company Art Pants and our father's Pants Set stores kept us in mass-market paperback money for the first thirty years of our life.

Page 17: No ads.

Page 18: No ads.

Page 19: Nothing.

Page 20: No ads.

Page 21: Two right-hand ads for a writers conference at a once-good Southern college and a book about something serious involving Sinhalese and Tamils. Counts as 40% of a page.

Page 22: No ads.

Page 23: Another 40% of a page ad on the right, for a novel written with compassion and hilarity, a sequel to a beloved bestseller, published by Forge.

Page 24: No ads.

Page 25: Yet another 40% of a page ad on the right, for a book from Other Press, which is a mainstay of NYTBR's ads.

Page 26: Down to two little classifieds and two ads for New York Times products. Counts as no ads.

Page 27: Since Jim Holt's controversial Essay (its thesis: death ain't so good for you) is oh so cleverly shaped like a tombstone, there is white space on the left and right but no ad copy there. A bigger waste than death, if you ask us. We'd at least squeeze in some plugs for the New York Times Store there.

Page 28: Full-page ad in the back. Bauman Rare Books comes through again! Where were you guys last week when we needed you?

Adding it up: Four full page ads. One half-page ad. Seven ads we'll count as 40% each equals 2.8 pages. We'll give another one-fifth of a page for the Boca Knights ad. That makes seven and a half (7 and 1/2) pages out of 28 pages. That's more than a quarter (25%) of this week's New York Times Book Review given over to the important stuff.

We are impressed, since two weeks ago only a little more than a tenth (10%) of the Feb. 1 issue was devoted to ads.

We are sending two dozen rugelach to the Times display advertising department as a reward and an inducement to keep up the good work.

If you guys are the types that need negative reinforcement, keep your copies of today's last Washington Post Book World handy!