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Flatbush Flashback

Like the BEA with Food

The Summer Fancy Foods Show at the Javits Center, in New York, which I attended yesterday, guided by food writer and chef Byron Nilsson (who was last seen emceeing Bloomsday on Beaver Street), was very much like Bookexpo America, held in May at the Javits Center, except with food. And as we walked the miles of aisles, trying to pace ourselves as we sampled the cheese, chocolate, candy, cake, coffee, condiments, barbeque, bread, pizza, pasta, pate, juices, mezcal, ices, honey, olives, and extra virgin olive oil, I noted that unlike the products they were pushing at the BEA--books that, for the most part, I had no interest in reading--I wanted to try everything I saw at the SFFS.

With the exception of one Japanese sweet that I was tempted to spit out, everything else I put in my mouth ranged from utterly delicious (Ferrara’s cheesecake, for example) to surprisingly good (kale salad with Caesar dressing).

Though nobody would mistake me for a foodie, I have been buying food, and cooking it with some flair, for my entire adult life. I was, in fact, confident enough in my culinary skills to cook pasta primavera (a dish I’m now known for on two continents and three countries) for Italians, in Italy, and I will, for fun and educational purposes, serve as sous-chef for my sister-in-law, a semi-professional cook. So it’s not as if I was completely out of my element at the SFFS.

A few highlights of my sampling frenzy:

Mezcal Sin Piedad: Mexican cuisine was well represented, and I was happy to discover that mezcal was among the products available for tasting. Sin Piedad caught my eye because I know some Spanish, but couldn’t figure out what the name meant. “Mezcal without what?” I asked Mario Mendoza, the man who came up with the product, which should soon be available in the U.S., and will retail for $90-$100.

“Mercy,” he replied. “Mezcal Without Mercy.”

“Great name,” I said, knocking back my first shot.

It was good, it was smooth, and the flavor reminded me a little of… bacon. The second shot (my third of the day) put a nice glow on the afternoon.

Hot Sauce: Speaking of Mexican, there was a lot of hot sauce to check out. I learned that hot sauce can be so hot, it can literally give you a heart attack, and that it’s calibrated according to hotness. I took a sample bottle of El Yucatco, calibrated at a very hot 4,500-5,000, and was warned not to try it without cutting it with sour cream or mayonnaise. I will take that warning to heart.

Olive Oil: Since Trader Joe’s opened in my neighborhood, I’ve been unable to resist their price on extra virgin olive oil—$5.99 for a 33.8 fluid ounce bottle. It’s always tasted fine to me… until yesterday, after I sampled a wide variety of super-luxury extra virgin olive oils from Italy, Spain, Greece, and Chile, which retailed for, shall we say, considerably more that $5.99. But the flavor of these oils blew Trader Joe’s out of the water, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to go back.

Egypt: There was no food to sample in the Egyptian aisle. Their products were locked in glass cases, like jewelry. I stood there looking at a box of Fruit Loops, with Arabic writing, as if it were a Tiffany necklace.

Mousse: I was too busy eating this company’s delicious vegetable mousse, which they served in adorable mini ice cream cones, to write down their name. My bad.

Ferrara’s Bakery: I’ve been going to this Little Italy institution for decades, and when I saw their booth, offering free samples of cheesecake, chocolate cake, and canoli, I went completely nuts.

Honey: Honey is made by bees, and there are scores of different honeys to sample at the show. But make no mistake about it: the bees are being poisoned by pesticides and, according to the beekeepers, they continue to die off at alarming rates. One of them told me that this year there’s been a 30 percent drop in the bee population in his area, Florida. It is an ecological disaster.

Camus Coffee: What writer can resist a product called Camus Coffee? Certainly not me, and by the time I went to sample the stuff, I was more than ready for that existential caffeine buzz. Turns out the company is better known for their luxury cognacs, which were not available for sampling, and that the proprietors are not related to Albert Camus. “Camus,” I was told, “is like Smith in France.”

The show continues through July 2. Read More 

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Scenes from a Bookexpo: Robertson Gets the Rights; Romney Writes a Cookbook

"We got the rights to Beatles music and nobody gets the rights to Beatles music," said Robbie Robertson, who will turn 70 in July, and looks extraordinary for his age. "But everybody recognized how important this book is."

The former lead guitarist and lyricist for the seminal rock group The Band, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1994, was talking about his forthcoming children's book, Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music that Changed the World, co-written with his son Sebastian Robertson, who was with his father on the BEA Downtown Author Stage Saturday morning, along with journalist Alan Light, who asked them questions.

Tundra Books will release Legends, Icons & Rebels in October, and it will contain a double-CD featuring the music of all 27 musicians and groups covered in the book. They include The Beatles (of course), the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Louis Jordan (but not the Rolling Stones or The Band).

Though other children’s books, such as The Book of Rock Stars: 24 Musical Icons That Shine Through History, by Kathleen Krull, and The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocked the World, by Julius Lester, cover much of the same territory as Legends, Icons & Rebels, they don’t contain CDs (and didn’t sell especially well, either). So, when Robertson said, “There’s no other book like this,” he apparently meant that there’s no other children’s book about musicians, written by a rock star, that contains a CD with previously unattainable Beatles music.

The unattainability of Beatles music is something that’s driven home every week to anybody who watches Mad Men, as Don Draper and company live out the 1960s to a Beatles-free soundtrack. That a show this successful can’t get those rights speaks volumes. So, one can only imagine what hoops Robertson had to jump through, what rings he had to kiss, and how much money he had to spend to get the rights to those sacred songs.

I’ve no doubt that the final Beatles text had to be personally approved by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison. And I think it’s safe to assume that the John Lennon section of this completely inoffensive, non-iconoclastic book will, according to the rules of Ono, praise her as a positive influence, and contain no mention of numerology, tarot, astrology, or Colombian witches. And though the book will say that Lennon was shot by a disturbed fan, it will not mention his name.

So, what we have in Legends, Icons & Rebels is a book that parents will buy for their kids, and with any luck at all, the kids, ages 8-13, will read the book, listen to the CDs, and be turned on to some great old music.

Then, when the kids get a little older, and they’re ready for some unvarnished truth about their legends, icons, and rebels, there are books like Nowhere Man that they can grow into. Makes me glad I wrote it.


I was coming from the booth of my distributor, SCB, where I’d picked up a copy of their erotic books catalogue, Revel, where Beaver Street is prominently featured on the same spread as Robin Bougie’s Cinema Sewer. The catalogue was tucked under my arm when I spotted, a couple of booths down, Ann Romney, wife of Mitt, signing advance copies of her book, The Romney Family Table, from Shadow Mountain, due out in October.

I got in line.

“Can you make it out to Bob Rosen,” I said to Romney, handing her the book. (Actually, it’s more of a brochure.)

“Is that R-o-s-e-n?” she asked.

“Very good,” I replied. “I know it’s such a weird and difficult name.”

“I always won the spelling bee,” she said, laughing as she signed book.

As we shook hands and I thanked her, I discreetly admired her beautiful and tasteful ring, sapphire if I’m not mistaken, and, shamefully, I was feeling a dusting of the Ann Romney charm—the charm that had been utilized in an attempt to “humanize” Mitt in his presidential campaign.

Ann Romney, I must admit, had a good vibe. I got the sense that, despite my scruffy and possibly progressive appearance, she genuinely enjoyed our little exchange. Still, there’s no way I’d ever vote for her husband, even if she gave me that sapphire ring.


On the way home from the BEA, I passed, on 10th Avenue near 17th Street, Yoko Ono, dressed in a sharp white blazer, talking to a couple of people on the sidewalk. It was an omen, I thought as I walked by, though an omen of what I have no idea. Read More 

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Novelist Praises Manual Typewriters; Ethicist Commits Federal Crime

Jonathan Lethem (left), interviewed by The Ethicist, Chuck Klosterman, at Bookexpo America.

The primary jolt of inspiration for Bobby in Naziland, the novel I'm currently fine-tuning (and that I'll be reading from at Bloomsday on Beaver Street) came from Jonathan Lethem's 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude. A good portion of that book is set in what's now called the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, in the 1970s, about two miles from Flatbush, where I grew up ten years earlier.

As I read The Fortress of Solitude, I kept thinking that I should write a book about Flatbush, and bring that time and place back to life, just as Lethem had done in his book. This kind of inspiration is rare, and that's why I thanked Lethem when I saw him yesterday at the BEA.

New York Times Ethicist columnist (and pop-culture aficionado) Chuck Klosterman was interviewing Lethem, on the Downtown Author Stage, about his odyssey as a writer and his forthcoming “political” novel, set in Queens, Dissident Gardens, due out in September.

Lethem, who will be turning 50 in February—“I’m not big on birthdays,” he noted—talked about how, 30 years ago, he’d dropped out of Bennington College, in Vermont, and hitchhiked to San Francisco, where he’d written his first three novels on a manual typewriter. He preferred a manual, he said, because “metal letters striking paper” was like “sculpting;” you could “feel the imprint on the back of the page,” and you produced something real. He fondly recalled his days of using White-Out, and waiting for it to dry.

In the transition from typewriters to computers, the main thing that’s lost, Lethem believes, is the notion of a draft. He scoffed at the idea of his writing students telling him, “This is my third draft,” when all they’d done was edit their story on the computer screen.

“You have to read it on paper and retype the story; it’s the only way you can tell if it works,” Lethem said, explaining how he advises his students to print out their stories, erase it from the hard drive, empty the trash, and retype the entire thing.

Lethem, who does not consider himself prolific despite having written nine novels and a slew of nonfiction, also described the beginnings of his consciousness, and becoming aware of time, at age six, in Brooklyn, in 1970. “I knew about the moon landing,” he said, “but don’t remember it happening. I knew the Mets won World Series in 1969, but finished third in 1970.”

I told Lethem, as he was signing my copy of Dissident Gardens, that Beaver Street opens on Church Avenue, in Brooklyn, in 1961. I think I detected a sparkle of recognition in his eye.


Chuck Klosterman was also signing his latest book, I Wear the Black Hat, which is about villains, and as I was waiting to get my copy signed, the two girls on line in front of me handed Klosterman a five-dollar bill and asked him to autograph it, which he did.

“I don’t believe it,” I told him as I handed him my book. “The Ethicist is defacing currency.”

Klosterman’s nervous laughter indicated that he probably didn’t realize that he was breaking the law. But it now leaves me with an ethical dilemma: What do you do when you witness a New York Times ethics columnist commit a federal crime, specifically a violation of 18 USC § 333, mutilation of national bank obligations, punishable by fine and up to six months imprisonment? Should I have made a citizen’s arrest? Report him to the Secret Service? Or just forget about the whole thing, even though I’m aware that ignorance of the law is not a defense.

Or perhaps I should just write to The Ethicist and let him sort it out. I know he’ll do the right thing. Read More 

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Does Book Publishing Have an e-Soul?

Seems like only yesterday that, armed with my Daily Beaver press pass, I was wandering the aisles of Bookexpo America 2012, stewing in the idea that book publishing was an industry without a soul. As I wrote on this blog last year, I felt as if "I were an invisible man exploring an exotic city in a forbidden country… I felt no connection to anything… Sometimes I wondered what I was doing there."

Well, the BEA apparently found some merit in my existential scribblings, and they've given me another press pass, so I'll be going back. The assignment I've given myself: Find out if book publishing has been able to reacquire from Amazon at least 70 percent of the electronic rights to their soul, and if so, what condition is it in?

That’s probably a joke. I don’t think Amazon has literally bought the soul of the publishing industry. And if they have, they’re most likely developing software that will allow them to resell “used” e-souls and keep all the profits for themselves.

That, too, is a joke. My attitude towards Amazon has improved considerably in the past year, ever since they “un-banned” Beaver Street on the eve of the 2012 BEA.

The highlight of last year’s BEA was Patti Smith, author of NBA-winning Just Kids, interviewing Neil Young, whose book Waging Heavy Peace was about to be published. Smith proved herself to be a first-rate journalist, and Young proved himself to be an intriguing storyteller. Which is what I told Smith when I bumped into her in the street a few days later. “You asked just the right questions,” I said.

“That’s what I was supposed to do,” she replied.

That was the best thing to come out of BEA 2012—a legitimate excuse to chat with Patti Smith.

So, I’ll soon head back to the Javits Center, holding my well-earned cynicism in check, and I’ll see if I can find a good story to tell, or a worthy customer to invite to Bloomsday on Beaver Street. Read More 

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Personal Faves: Volume III

A final look back at some of my favorite posts, selected at random, from The Daily Beaver on its third anniversary. Then, on new blogging frontiers.

Godfather of Grunge Meets Godmother of Punk (June 7, 2012)
A report from the BEA.

Bernie on Beaver Street (June 19, 2012)
This is what happens when a celebrity vigilante shows up at a book launch party.

My Book Promotion Philosophy (Sept. 6, 2012)
Why I’ll talk to anyone who wants to talk to me about my books.

Distinguishing Characteristics (Sept. 11, 2012)
A guest post from Mary Lyn Maiscott on the anniversary of 9/11.

Google Is God (Oct. 18, 2012)
What do you do when you don’t like the way a powerful monopoly is treating you? Nothing you can do. Read More 

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My Encounter with a Girlfag

For the past four days I've been wandering the aisles of Bookexpo America, and the experience has often left me feeling as if I were an invisible man exploring an exotic city in a forbidden country. With rare exceptions, I felt no connection to anything. I saw nobody I knew. Sometimes I wondered what I was doing there.

Happily, those feelings were alleviated when I strolled over to booth 4214—SCB Distributors. SCB is the company that gets Beaver Street into bookstores in the U.S. And there was Beaver Street, prominently displayed on their rack, nestled between a Gram Parsons bio, God’s Own Singer, by Jason Walker, and book called Girlfag, by Janet W. Hardy.

I was standing outside the booth, trying to draw some psychic energy from the sight of the Beaver Street cover, when a woman with a punky blonde haircut asked if she could be of any assistance.

“No,” I said, pointing to Beaver Street, “I just stopped by to take another look at my book. I wanted to make sure I still existed.”

The woman was Janet W. Hardy, author of Girlfag.

“Well, aren’t you smart,” I said. “You write the book and you work for the company that distributes it.”

“I’ve only been doing this for 18 years,” she replied, pointing out that Girlfag’s publisher, Beyond Binary Books, was her company as well.

I was impressed. Here was a woman who’d totally embraced the demands of modern-day book publishing—she was doing everything herself, leaving nothing to chance.

I told Hardy that I’d never heard the expression “girlfag.”

She explained that girlfags are not fag hags. They are, rather, women, like herself, who love, are attracted to, and identify with gay men. “But the title seems to make a lot of people angry.”

I liked Hardy’s vibe and invited her to Bloomsday on Beaver Street, on June 16. “I think it’s your kind of event,” I said, explaining that it was a celebration of literature, like Ulysses and Beaver Street, that had been branded pornographic.

I told her the story of how, when excerpts of Ulysses were published in the U.S. in 1920, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice went to court, had the book declared obscene, and managed to have it banned it for 13 years.

“There’s one paragraph where Joyce describes Bloom masturbating. It’s probably the most poetic description of jerking off in the English language. But that’s the paragraph that did it.”

Laughing, Hardy said she that had to go home, to Eugene, Oregon, and would, regrettably, be unable to attend Bloomsday on Beaver Street. But she did give me a copy of Girlfag, which I plan to discuss in more detail in some future posting.

She also left me wondering if I should go to Eugene and do an event there. Oregon, after all, is the Beaver State. Read More 

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Godfather of Grunge Meets Godmother of Punk at BEA

Patti Smith and Neil Young.

Neil Young, wearing a poncho and looking as if he'd just stepped off his ranch and accidentally wandered into the cavernous Special Events Hall at the Javits Center, was talking about sitting on somebody's back porch out in the redwoods and smoking weed when he saw a copy of Time magazine with the Kent State cover, the screaming woman kneeling over the body of a student shot dead by the National Guard.

“It still gives me chills to think about it,” Young said, explaining to his interviewer, Patti Smith, author of the National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, what had inspired him to write “Ohio,” an anthem that gave everybody chills when they first heard it on the radio in the spring of 1970, two weeks after the shooting.

It had taken Smith a while to get the laconic Young to loosen up, and there'd been trouble with the sound system. But the Godmother of Punk, who was once a freelance music journalist, was asking the Godfather of Grunge all the right questions. And Young, who’d come to Bookexpo America to promote Waging Heavy Peace—the memoir nobody thought he’d ever write—was taking pains to answer them.

Waging Heavy Peace, due out in October from Blue Rider Press, sounds free associative and as ragged as an improvised jam with Crazy Horse, the band that Young has reunited with on his just-released album, Americana, a collection of old folk songs, like “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” which he calls “Jesus’s Chariot.”

“My memory doesn’t work chronologically,” Young said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work at all.”

Smith, who’d recently released her own album, Banga, said that reading Young’s book, which she found very different from her own book, is like sitting in a room with Neil Young and listening to him talk. Young, who admitted he wasn’t a big reader, thought that Waging Heavy Peace had a similar feel to Just Kids. “I’m a highway and landscapes,” he said. “You’re a city and painted bricks and lots of people. I’m traveling and you are, too. But I’m on the road and you’re traveling down streets.”

The wide ranging and often intimate conversation, which touched on Young’s father, Scott Young, a writer who called his son Windy, apparently because he was always coming up with ideas, kept circling back to the theme of technology and its effect on recorded music. Young is unhappy with the inferior quality of MP3s, especially when people listen to them on a Mac. All the detail is lost, he said, comparing such recordings to reducing Picasso to wallpaper. People, said Young, listen to his MP3s and post stuff like, “This guy used to be good.” But, he stated bluntly, “I don’t give a shit what people think.” The only way to listen to recorded music, he added, is on vinyl and Blue-ray.

Smith agreed with Young up to a point, though she felt that there’s little choice but to embrace new technology. “Still,” she said, referring to free-form radio and vinyl, “it’s okay to mourn what’s been lost.”

Young said that he doesn’t work at writing songs, that he just waits for them to come. Smith then apologetically asked him a question that she said people had asked her a million times: “What’s your process? How do you write songs?”

Since I wasn’t taking notes, and I’m going by my own imperfect memory, this is a rough approximation of Young’s poetic reply: “It’s like catching a rabbit. You don’t look down the rabbit hole and wait for the rabbit to come out. You stand around the rabbit hole and become part of the scenery. You turn your back on the rabbit. You ignore him.”

“And then,” said Smith, “you make rabbit stew.”


Young’s persistent references to smoking weed, as well as the lyrics to “After the Gold Rush,” which was one of the songs they played before Young and Smith came on stage, made me feel like getting high. So, when the conversation ended, I got the hell out of the Javits Center and went to visit a “character” from Beaver Street who lives nearby. Generous as always, she rolled a fat one. I only wish Young and Smith could have joined us for a bit more conversation. I was, however, in excellent spirits when I returned to the BEA for one last walkthrough. Read More 

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Love and Cynicism at the BEA

Having worked in publishing as a writer and editor for my entire misspent career, any cynicism I feel towards the industry is well earned. And though I obviously have a love for writing and publishing that's kept me going for the past several decades, in these times of economic and technological turmoil that's turned publishing upside down and inside out, it's often the cynicism that wins out. Which is to say, as I wandered yesterday through the wonderland of Bookexpo America, which is now taking place at the Javits Center in New York, what I felt were mixed emotions. Two things happened that seemed to encapsulate my feelings.

The first was when I went to the booth of a small publisher I’d had some dealings with many years ago. I was curious about a book they’d published that had similar themes to Beaver Street. The author was supposed to be signing it, and I wanted a free copy. It so happened that as I approached the booth, the author was in the midst of an animated conversation with one of the publisher’s employees. She was telling the author that he was going to have to pay for the carton of books that he was going to sign and give away on the publisher’s behalf. The author—the sort of fellow who struck me as a “real writer”—not surprisingly objected to this, and if I’m not mistaken, flatly refused to do so, displaying commendable backbone. And I thought, good for him, and hoped that under similar extortionary circumstances, I’d have done the same thing.

The second incident was my visit to the Authors Guild booth, which happens to be the organization that hosts this website and provides me with health insurance. I wanted to drop off some invitations for Bloomsday on Beaver Street, and was hoping they’d let me have a little of their very valuable counter space. Well, they not only let me have some counter space, but the two guys who were manning the booth (whose names I sadly forget) reacted with such genuine and astonishing enthusiasm to the event and to Beaver Street itself—“Wow! This is great! Who wouldn’t love this book?”—that I gave them a free copy and assured them that if they came to the event there would indeed be porn stars present. I walked away feeling good. Read More 

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Amazon Blinks: Beaver Street Gets Buy Box

Score one for The Daily Beaver: Just as Bookexpo America opens in New York, Amazon has added a "buy box" to the print edition of Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography, thus ending a three-month battle to achieve what should have been routine. It's now possible to buy Beaver Street directly from Amazon and take advantage of free shipping with Amazon Prime. If I sound like an advertisement, please forgive me. This has been a long time coming.

An Amazon rep called yesterday to break the news. He sounded genuinely upset that anybody could think that Amazon had banned Beaver Street due to its content, as I’d been reporting here. He assured me that that wasn’t the case.

I told the rep that I believed him. But I also said that every time I tried to explain to a reader or an interviewer that, according to Amazon, the reason the book wasn’t available was because of computer glitches and weird bureaucratic snafus having to do with licensing, nobody believed me. “Dude,” everybody would tell me, “Amazon banned your book.” After hearing this for three months, and getting nowhere with Amazon, I started to believe it, too.

Amazon, however, is sensitive to the idea that they’d ever ban a book due to explicit sexual content. And what finally got through to them, what finally motivated somebody within their bureaucracy to wake up and add a buy box, was a letter I wrote to the Amazon public relations department, telling them about the Bloomsday on Beaver Street event scheduled for June 16, in New York. I said that one of the reasons for the event was to publicly protest Amazon’s banning of Beaver Street. This was clearly something that Amazon did not want to see happen.

I also talked to the rep about the issue of fairness, pointing out that because of what amounts to a clerical error, I’d lost three months of sales. “How is Amazon going to make that up to me?” I asked him.

Let’s just that that, as of today, this remains an open question, though I fully expect Amazon to do the right thing and use their vast resources to give Beaver Street a well deserved promotional boost.

In the meantime, I’ll return to organizing Bloomsday on Beaver Street as the celebration of literature, in the spirit of James Joyce, that I’d originally intended. Read More 

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Some Thoughts on Book Banning on the Eve of the BEA

I've been writing a lot about Amazon lately because of the absurd and destructive problems they've created for Beaver Street. If you've been reading this blog, then you know that despite my own efforts, and the efforts of the publisher and the distributor, Amazon has been unwilling or unable to make the print edition of Beaver Street available in the U.S. Concerned readers and members of the media who've asked me about this perceive the problem as a conscious effort on Amazon's part to ban Beaver Street because of its explicit sexual content. (This so-called book banning will be one of the themes of the New York launch event on June 16, Bloomsday on Beaver Street.)

I bring it up yet again because Book Expo America (BEA) begins tomorrow in New York, and one of the reasons I’m going there is the possibility (as slim as it may be) that somebody from Amazon will meet with me and be willing to work to resolve the problem. Treating the banning of Beaver Street as an aggrieved author has thus far gotten me nowhere. It occurs to me that it’s now time to put on my investigative journalist hat and demand answers from a stonewalling corporation.

If I seem obsessive about this Amazon issue, it’s because I am. And the longer it drags on with no resolution in sight, the more obsessive I become. Is it really necessary to point out that I spent seven years writing Beaver Street, another two years looking for a publisher, and the past 14 months running around Europe and the U.S. promoting it? One of the few things I expected in return for this decade-long ordeal was for the largest distributor of books in America to make my work available in all formats. Amazon has not done so, and that is unacceptable. Read More 

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