Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Over the past weekend, a storm moved in and delivered two days of rain—not a deluge, but steady. Our Chihuahua Desert climate typically sees scattered rain, if any at all, between July and September, so our most recent storm was a surprise. As a transplanted New Englander, I listened with excitement as the El Paso weatherman predicted that the clouds would deliver one to three inches of snow in the region before disappearing.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Two Stars (out of Five)
“George Ashe sat in the passenger seat, inside the ceramic urn still protected by the FedEx box,” Bob Sanchez writes in a line that is typical of the humor in his latest novel. When Pigs Fly tells the story of Mack Durgin, a former police officer from Massachusetts, who has settled into retirement in Arizona only to be sucked into the biggest crime caper he’s ever seen.
Sanchez’s plot sounds original, but the novel reads like a watered down version of a Coen brothers’ script. First, there’s the compelling protagonist who wants nothing more than to settle down and enjoy some peace and quiet. Of course that can’t happen, because a box arrives with his friend’s ashes contained in an urn inside, and Mack knows that he has to fulfill a promise. The fulfillment of that promise becomes a harrowing task that involves over-the-top, one-dimensional characters like “Diet Cola”—an ex-con with a craving for calorie-free soft drinks—and an Elvis impersonator who is actually named Elvis.
Mack sets out to spread George Ashe’s ashes over the Grand Canyon. Along the way, he’s pursued by a variety of oddball characters who want to get their hands on another item contained inside the urn. This twist provides the hook that propels the tale forward.
Sanchez’s humor falls flat from the beginning because the novel seems to be trying too hard to be something that it isn’t. The characters are clichés that readers will have a hard time taking seriously. There are bad one-liners (“We’re not in Kansas anymore Dodo”) and downright shameless gags such as an Elvis impersonator getting stabbed in the eye with a tampon. Additionally, Sanchez contradicts himself often by making a point, then immediately overruling himself, as in this line: “Too bad tires were so hard to shoplift, or Ace could pick up some nice radials Stealing tires was always possible but it was tough getting them installed.” Statements like these lead readers to question the tale as a whole.
The real shame, however, is that Sanchez is actually a good storyteller when he puts his mind to it. The narrative flows well and actually captivates at times, but sadly, his writing skills are overshadowed by silly character names and lackluster dialogue.
Even in the craziest of crime capers, readers must be able to identify with the characters and believe that, as strange as the story is, it could actually happen. When Pigs Fly does not succeed in this.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Turkey Day in the Southwest
By Bob Sanchez
Kathy Highcove recently asked me to write about food for your Thanksgiving issue, and she could have picked no one more qualified. Indeed I have consumed food my entire life, and for virtually every reason one can imagine: hunger, consolation, gluttony, boredom, celebration, love, parental threats, desire to please, and the time of day, to name but a few.
Thanksgiving gives us one more reason to tie on the bib. It’s that wonderful day when we give thanks for football and our God-given freedom to overeat. In 1950s New England, we’d go to a high-school football game that Thursday morning and return home to the aroma of the baked turkey and mince pie that Mom was just pulling out of the oven. She’d make the piecrust with lard and the gravy with bird grease. Clogged arteries were a thing of the future—the near future, as it turned out.
When we sat down at the table, Dad led us in a swift and perfunctory Bless us oh Lord for all those delights we really took for granted. Critical questions followed: White meat or dark? (Always white for me.) More stuffing? (Yes, please.) Cranberries? (Yes, please.) Lakes of gravy filled the craters in the mashed potatoes, while salt and pepper rained over all. At one such meal I politely asked my brother’s girlfriend to “please piss the butter,” causing everyone but Mom and me to get up from the table, choking with laughter. Mom glowered and said nothing.
We didn’t know the word tryptophan back then, but we felt its effect as the afternoon wore on. Then in the days after Thanksgiving we’d pick away at the turkey’s carcass until there was nothing left of that poor bird but the bones and a plaintive gobble.
Half a century has passed, and now my wife and I live in New Mexico, where the official state question is “Red or green?” referring to one’s preference in chile colors. Our holidays have been drained of most of the fat except what we carry around on our persons, but otherwise we still have turkey on Turkey Day. So when my online friend Miz Highcove said, “Hey Bob, what’s a Hispanic Thanksgiving like?” I was briefly stumped because I’m not Hispanic (long story short: Papa Sanchez was from British Honduras and swore allegiance to King George).
So I delved into research for a few minutes, and it turns out that Southwest holiday fare isn’t much different from what you might expect: mix a bit of chile into the stuffing and go easy on the Pilgrim references, and you’re pretty much there. Several Web sources (and you know how authoritative they are), say that the real first Thanksgiving was celebrated near El Paso—therefore, near me—by a conquistador in 1598. Take that, Plimoth Plantation.
Of course, some original research was necessary, so we went out to eat. A Hispanic waitress told me that on Thanksgiving she likes to serve her family cornbread muffins made with chopped jalapeño, which sounds delicious to me. Finally, a Google search turned up such worthy suggestions as mixing spicy chorizo into the stuffing and combining a sweet and sour chile sauce with a cranberry base. So with a little Googling, you can easily add a Southwestern flair to your Thanksgiving meal.
Just keep an eye on the butter.
Bob Sanchez is an ex-New Englander living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he’s webmaster of The Internet Review of Books. In the past, he’s been a technical writer and a few other things he’d rather not talk about. You might find his blog interesting and his novels amusing. They are When Pigs Fly and Getting Lucky.
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Nothing That Needed Eyes
No good would come from disturbing this old house, I thought, applying my crowbar to an ancient oak plank. Still, there could be money squirreled away somewhere in this mess. Rusty nails creaked and snapped; the board popped up to expose a shallow dirt cellar crawling with centipedes and roaches.
Nellie Westhaver had lived here alone, at first pitied and then ignored by the townsfolk for the shiftless husband who had held lots of odd jobs and fast women until he and some mini-skirted trash named Luann disappeared for good and good riddance, probably on the Greyhound to Boston. He’d left his rattletrap Buick behind, but Nellie didn’t drive.
I’d recently spent ten years’ worth of medium security in Walpole and didn’t have a dime left to my name. Crazy Nellie had been my next-door neighbor, the type who never answers the door, fills every room with newspapers going back to Genesis, and lets you know she’s dead when she starts to smell. The house dated back to Revolutionary times, with its low ceilings and stone fireplaces in every room and not a single wall or doorway plumb or true. Not having many job prospects as an ex-con, I decided to see if the old bat had hidden any cash.
The stench had finally told her fate last week—masked EMTs carried her body out feet first on a stretcher, and police closed and padlocked the door. Already I hear Seven-Eleven wants to buy the lot.
Evidently, someone had made half an effort to tame the terrible odor, but the place still smelled like air freshener overpowered by death. Rot gnawed at the wood while mold spores and silence filled the air. Old Look magazines and Lowell Sun newspapers sat in dusty stacks. A small TV with rabbit ears looked like it hadn’t been used since Lawrence Welk died. At the window, a fly struggled in a spider web as a daddy-longlegs sidled up to suck out its juices. I knew how the fly felt, an inmate at the mercy of a sadistic prison guard.
Home improvement for this house would have to start with a match, but I’d never torch it because I’d be the number one suspect. This was the first place I’d ever broken into, the first place I’d ever been arrested, back in my juvie days when Nellie and Ashton still held backyard cookouts and enjoyed sipping martinis and electrocuting moths with their luminescent bug zappers.
Nellie’s bed smelled about right for her having died in it. I felt in the stained pillows and covers for hidden cash, knowing perfectly well some cop would already have checked all those obvious places and pocketed the prize. Cabinets and closets and dressers turned up the usual jetsam floating in a sea of dust bunnies as Nellie sailed on to her next life.
I pushed the queen-sized bed aside to rummage through the tattered cardboard boxes underneath and found old letters and bills, a broken telephone, stained Melamine plates, nothing even fit for a yard sale. If this house had anything less than ten years old or worth more than five dollars, I’d have been shocked. Frustrated, I kicked a box. There was no point in looking any more—but wait, this was odd. Several floor boards looked lighter and newer than the rest: pine surrounded by oak, galvanized nails bent but not rusted, hammer-head impressions in the soft wood suggesting slapdash carpentry.
Eagerly I pried another board and looked into the darkness. Some godforsaken life form squeaked and scurried away. I turned my flashlight on a pea-green Army blanket, and a thousand miserable bugs scattered in all directions. Only a fool would disturb that filthy piece of trash, but I was a plain and simple fool.
I went to a closet and found a wire coat hanger that I used to fashion a hook. I tried to catch one edge of the blanket, but the hanger slipped out of my hands and out of reach. Disgusted, I lay on the floor and reached down to pull away the blanket.
A sudden visit from the police couldn’t have brought me closer to cardiac arrest. I didn’t care anymore about money.
A pair of skeletons in rotted clothing lay one on top of the other. A hatchet rested inside the skull it had shattered down the middle. Toadstools grew out of both eye sockets—but there was nothing here that needed eyes.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Sunday, September 06, 2009
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Our son has flown in from Boston for a week's visit, and we're all spending a few days in Santa Fe. Jeff drove our car up from Las Cruces while Nancy, the cats, and I drove up in our RV. Yesterday we spent a few hours strolling down Canyon Road and poking our heads into the fancy galleries where the sculptures and paintings run a little on the pricey side. For example, you can have a beautiful bronze sculpture of a family of donkeys for only $85,000.
And here is the Catholic church in Cerrillos:
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Contract with the Earth, by Newt Gingrich
American Lion, by Jon Meacham
Bananas, by Peter Chapman
Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, by Gilles Kepel
Blue Covenant, by Maude Barlow
Come to Think of It, by Daniel Schorr
Destiny Disrupted, by Tamim Ansary
Home Girl, by Judith Matloff
Independents Day, by Lou Dobbs
Simplexity, by Jeffrey Kluger
The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby
The Book that Changed My Life, by Roxanne J. Coady & Joy Johannessen
The First Day of the Blitz, by Peter Stansky
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
I've been doing once-monthly radio interviews of local authors here in Las Cruces and have been eagerly waiting for podcasts of old shows to become available on KSNM's website. They're still getting things set up over there, but here is the first podcast they have ready for me, a chat with my friend the retired cardiologist David Hoekenga (at right):
Friday, July 31, 2009
Then on the phone she told me the publisher was planning to print copies and sell them on their own, giving nothing to her! She said that for her initial print run including setup charges and whatnot, she paid nearly $1000 for 50 copies that would list for $11. Subsequent copies cost her $9 each. In other words, my good friend has been taken for a ride.
Oh, and she had a conversation with the publisher in which the publisher said they were getting so much business they were going to have to start keeping records.
I told her I'm not an attorney, but that she should send a certified letter to the publisher telling them to cease and desist from printing any copies not requested by her. She also can and should terminate that relationship immediately.
If there's one lesson to come out of this mess, it's this: Get it in writing!
Thursday, July 30, 2009
This is the first in a series of editing tips for writers preparing their work for self-publication. They are presented in no particular order and represent tasks an editor or proofreader might do. Writers should still use a professional editor, but why pay for anything you can do yourself?
Get rid of those extra spaces. Your sentences should have only one space after a period. No matter how large your document is, you can check for and fix any extra spaces with a global search and replace. In Microsoft Word, for example, press Ctrl + h to display this window:
In the Find what field, type a period followed by two spaces.
In the Replace with field, type a period followed by one space.
Click Replace All.
How do you indent a paragraph? If you use the space bar, you may wind up with inconsistent indents—some five spaces, some four or six. Word and other programs can be set to automatically indent, but let’s put that aside for now. Many writers indent using a half-inch tab, and that’s fine. So let’s replace all those five-spaced indents with tabs:
Ctrl + h
In the Find what field, type exactly five spaces.
In the Replace with field, type ^t.
Click Replace All.
Then you can repeat the process by replacing ^t plus a space with ^t only, and then do the same process with four spaces.
Finally, do a search for two spaces and replace with one.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
We self-publishers fight a lonely battle, finding readers for our wit and wisdom. We write alone, and now we sell alone and search for ways to market our work. How do we entice readers to open their wallets?
Those questions are often premature. Before asking how you’re going to cope with all those book orders, you need to make sure you have a quality product. So here are ten tips to make your book, fiction or non-fiction, the best it can be.
#1 Use a spell-checker, but only as a first line of defense. Then you look for misspellings the spell-checker won’t catch, such as then/than, to/too/two, tail/tale, or its/it’s.
#2 Read your manuscript critically, as though you weren’t the author. Some things to check include complete chapters, well-organized paragraphs, complete sentences, and accurate punctuation.
#3 Be consistent. If you capitalize a word once in the text, chances are you always want to capitalize it. Decide whether you want one space or two at the end of a sentence, and stick with it. Never change your font or type size without good reason. If your work consists of more than one file, be sure that every file is formatted identically.
#4 Get honest, competent critiques. Leave your mother and spouse alone; your family has better things to do than fawn over your work. Avoid critiques from anyone who has an emotional stake in making you happy, because that isn’t what you need. The Internet Writing Workshop (http://internetwritingworkshop.org) is an excellent source of constructive, informed criticism.
#5 Use your judgment. Even good critiquers may give you conflicting advice. Remember that it’s your project, so the final decision is always yours.
#6 Refer to a style manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the most widely accepted guide for standard writing.
#7 Make a style sheet. A novel or other large manuscript can involve lots of small stylistic decisions by the author. Keep a pad of paper with a running list things you don’t want to have to keep looking up. For example, a cartoon I liked showed a bank robber writing a note and asking the teller, “Is holdup one word or two?” Think of words you often misspell or don’t know how to capitalize, and write them correctly on the list.
#8 Follow your publisher’s guidelines religiously even if they don’t insist.
#9 Repeat tip #2.
#10 Review the publisher’s proof carefully. When you receive the publisher’s proof isn’t the time to look for typos; you should have done that already. At this stage, the publisher may even charge you if you fix many of your own mistakes at this stage. Instead, look for their errors. Are illustrations in their proper places? Are pages and chapters numbered properly? Look at every page’s overall appearance. Is each one properly aligned? Is any text missing?
If you follow these simple (but not always easy) tips, I can’t guarantee best-sellerdom for your book, but I can promise you this: Your book will be far superior to the vast majority of self-published books. You will have a quality product.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Where do a writer’s ideas come from? The genesis of my new novel, Getting Lucky, is very much the location: the mill city of Lowell, Massachusetts. There is an old map of the city from circa 1907 dividing it up by ethnic neighborhoods: English, Irish, German, Jewish, Polish, Greek, and French Canadian are the ones I recall. It was a city designed to be a modern 19th-century industrial center, with a spider web of canals linking a series of mills to the Merrimack River. Barges brought raw cotton from the South and returned with bolts of cloth for much of the country.
In the 20th century Lowell fell on hard times and developed just the grittiness and the edge to make it a good setting for a noir detective novel. Then for various reasons in the 1980s refugees from Cambodia flocked there by the thousands. My wife and I lived in a nearby town and sponsored one of the families, which gave us a heightened awareness of the Cambodians’ impact on the region. I had been a technical writer, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night thinking I had to write a novel about the Cambodians coming to America.
Freedom Country was my first try at writing fiction, and the best I can say is that I learned a lot about writing, about Cambodians, and about Lowell. That novel will never be published, because I could never gain a deep enough understanding of the Cambodian culture to make the story compelling. But I used much of the research for other projects.
A couple of novels later came Getting Lucky. I named my hero Mack Durgin after Mike Durgin, a real kid who had bullied me in my childhood. Mack bears no resemblance to the bully; I just happened to like the name. My wife insists that Mack’s personality and my own are not similar, but I like to think that he and I would be very much alike given similar circumstances. He has a sense of humor that he uses as a defense against life’s brickbats.
In Getting Lucky I try to establish a strong sense of place and character. Lowell has a shop called Tower News that sells newspapers and tobacco up front and hard-core pornography in back. In my novel it becomes a pure (well, impure) porn shop called A Touch of Love. My writer’s group loved to tease me about my research and about all the “field trips” I supposedly had to make to Tower News. One of my friends, a proper and devout Christian woman if I ever knew one, playfully pouted that I never invited her along on any of these excursions. One outing we did take together was to the county medical examiner’s office. On the M.E.’s wall hung a satin painting of a crying clown sticking a revolver into his mouth.
Despite all the research a writer does, it’s still easy to get things wrong. In one of my writer’s group meetings I read a scene set on one of the city’s streets in a tough neighborhood called The Acre. Mystery writer David Daniel, who knows the city cold, listened patiently and then told me that street slopes gradually uphill. It wasn’t critical to the story, but it was important to get details right when you’re dealing with a real place.
In writing Getting Lucky I learned that you can use facts, details, and observations that come from anywhere and find a home for them in your fiction.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Sunday, July 19, 2009
My friend and colleague Sulta Bonner and I just completed a slick publication for the El Paso Writers' League entitled Border Tapestry. It contains first-prize-winning entries in the EPWL's 2008 writing contest, an annual event held for members. We did all the editing and layout, and then we paid a local printer who gave us technical advice and printed up a couple hundred copies for us.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
And this is the logo on the back cover.
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Friday, July 03, 2009
Monday, June 22, 2009
We spent a cloudless day driving through spectacular Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, the filming location for Dances with Wolves. Tomorrow we head home, eager to return to our routines but so glad we've spent June exploring the West.
- Roughlock Falls, Spearfish River
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Today we saw the last of the attractions we intended to see—Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse rounded out the list—but we heard today about Spearfish Canyon and were advised to check it out. That's tomorrow's agenda, and then our sightseeing is pretty much over and done. We still have 1,000 miles to go before home, though, so we will overnight later this week in Cheyenne, Colorado City, and Albuquerque. If enough energy remains, we may explore Albuquerque for a day. We're tired from all this fun, though, and are itching to get back to our routines.
Above is the Crazy Horse Memorial, 61 years in the making so far. This will be a work in progress for several generations to come.
We saw this fellow moseying down the road in Custer State Park. Signs warn us not to approach any wildlife, especially bison, as they're big and dangerous. We stayed in our car for our photos.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Friday, June 19, 2009
We spent our 44th wedding anniversary visiting Little Bighorn Battlefield and will eat dinner at the classiest restaurant we can find: The Purple Cow. It's billed as a family restaurant and casino, although the latter is in a separate building.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Today was a travel day, capped by our discovery of a failed water pump. So the first order of business tomorrow is a trip into Billings to get the pump replaced. Assuming it doesn't take too long, we'll then head out to the Little Big Horn battlefield site that's just outside of Hardin. If need be, we'll extend our stay by a day.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Steamboat Geyser spouts far higher than Old Faithful—when it decides to spout. The last time was in 2005, and it goes off every 5 to 50 years, as opposed to every 90 minutes for Old Faithful.
Boiling water bubbles out of the ground and onto a thin crust of ground that is easy to fall through and be scalded to death, according to the warning signs. Luckily, the pathways are well maintained and safe.
Mammoth Hot Springs grows out of a fracture in the earth from which hot water flows, leaving these limestone terraces.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Our most common wildlife sightings were bison, though at the end of the day we saw several doe elk resting on a river bank. Signs warned us not to approach any wildlife including bison, because they can be dangerous. The animals typically acted as though all us gawking tourists weren't there. We also saw a bald eagle sitting in a nest high atop a tree, but a road sign told tourists not to stop, so I have no photos of the bird. Alas, no bear sightings. The manager of our RV park told us we wouldn't find grizzlies—they would find us.
Monday, June 15, 2009
It's midnight. I've been putting together the web pages for the June Internet Review of Books this evening, then watching West Wing.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
In Salt Lake City, it appears that all roads lead to Temple Square. We visited the Tabernacle and listened to a free organ concert with a couple hundred other people. You've no doubt seen photos of the organ—some of it—it has over 11,000 pipes, many of them hidden in this acoustic wonder of a building. In his introductory remarks, the organist turned off the microphone and said he would drop a pin. When he did, the sound was clear in the entire hall.
* Almost unfailingly courteous. We went to the Family History Library, the largest repository of genealogical records in the world. A retired professor was patiently trying to help me locate information about my family history, and I may have interrupted his explanation once too often—I can blab—and he told me to shut up. But then he smiled and said "I can be brusque sometimes." We both laughed. He was really helpful, and the access and assistance at the library are free.