March 2009 Archives

'Sunshine' and crime scenes

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I saw "Sunshine Cleaning" over the weekend, starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin. For those not in the know, it's about a couple of sisters who start up a business cleaning up crime scenes and other bio-hazardous messes where death has occurred. I enjoyed the movie, and it still has me thinking... Not that I would want to do it myself, but in these tough economic times, if you're looking to start your own business, it's probably best to find some kind of niche in the market.

So, if you are interested in the crime scene cleanup biz, there's a book out there loaded with real-life stories. In Mop Men: Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners (St. Martin's, 306 pages, $24.95), author and journalist Alan Emmins writes about his time hanging out with a guy named Neal Smither and his crew as they cleaned up after murders, suicides, etc., in the San Francisco area.

mop men

Here's what Publisher's Weekly had to say about it:

"Emmins delves into the zany character of Smither, a loving family man who puts on a coarsely humorous persona as protective armor as he surrounds himself with the dark realm of death, monitoring his multimillion-dollar business in a highly competitive field. Hanging around with Smither means a grisly experience of suicide surrounded by transgender porn, bodies splattered by gunfire or the decayed corpses of those ruined by meth or contagious disease. ... a totally gonzo way of looking at the crime scene cleaning business."

Letters to Obama books

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Seems like a week ago that Skyhorse Publishing was soliciting letters to the president, but it was last November, right after the election, and now the book is here: Letters to President Obama: Americans Share Their Hopes and Dreams with the First African-American President (Skyhorse, 378 pages, $19.95)

letters to obama kids letters to obama

The actual book cover (above) is slightly different than first envisioned (compare here) but the content is as promised. The editors asked for regular folks like you and me to submit their letters, and they've compiled a whole bunch of them here.

We've been told that the prez reads 10 letters a day from concerned citizens, so now we can get a taste of what those letters say by perusing this book. The editors have broken it down into 27 categories, including: "Congratulations"; "African-Americans"; "President Bush"; "Hope"; "Religion"; "Economic Policy"; "Praise for America"; "The Future," and much more.

Most of the letter-writers are filled with hope and praise, so it would be interesting if the editors followed up with each of them about midway through Obama's presidency to see if they think he's doing a good job addressing their concerns.

Random House has released a kids' version: Kids' Letters to Obama. Both titles are scheduled for an April release.

First Sully book to come out by year's end

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William Morrow has two books in the works with pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, and the first one will come out late this year.

The publisher, an imprint of HarperCollins, said the first book will include stories of Sullenberger's boyhood, military service and, of course, the experience of landing his US Airways plane in New York's Hudson River on Jan. 15, averting major disaster and saving all 155 passengers. The subject and timing of the second book is not yet known.

Obama Speech
Capt. Chesley Sullenberger salutes in the House
Chamber on Capitol Hill last month prior to
President Barack Obama's address to a joint
session of Congress.
(AP Photo)

In a statement issued by the publisher, family spokesman Alex Clemens said Sullenberger is eager to return to work as a pilot sometime this summer.

Sullenberger lives in the San Francisco Bay area town of Danville, Calif.

Literary Rock & Roll

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One thing you can say about Columbia College Chicago's Story Week Festival of Writers: It's worth the price of admission.

It's free!

That's not to say it isn't worth paying for. There is loads of talent lined up for a week's worth of readings, panel discussions, performances, book signings and more, at several difference venues around the city, and yes, all are free and open to the public. The fest starts Sunday, March 15, and runs through Friday, March 20.

• An "all-ages show" at Metro on Thursday night is one of the highlights of the week. Dubbed "Literary Rock & Roll," the evening will feature authors Richard Price, Nami Mun (Miles From Nowhere) and Lydia Millet (How the Dead Dream). JC Brooks & the Uptown Sounds also will perform. When/where: 6 p.m. at Metro, 3730 N. Clark.

• Sunday's opening night festivities includes storytelling by CP Chang, Molly Each, Deb R. Lewis and Doug Whippo. Music by DJ White Russian and Seeking Wonderland. When/where: 7 p.m. at Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln.

Midweek, local authors will pay tribute to two of Chicago's literary icons, Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel.

• The Nelson Algren Tribute will feature readings by Stephanie Kuehnert, Billy Lombardo (The Logic of a Rose), Bayo Ojikutu (Free Burning) and J. Adams Oaks (Why I Fight). Nelson Algren Award winner Joe Meno (Demons in the Spring), serves as host for the evening and will talk to Algren photographer Art Shay. When/where: 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Harold Washington Library, Cindy Pritzker Library, 400 S. State.

• The Studs tribute, hosted by WGN's "Sunday Papers" host Rick Kogan, will also feature readings by Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), Don De Grazia (American Skin) and Drew Ferguson (The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second). When/where: 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Spertus Museum of Jewish Studies, Feingold Theater, 610 S. Michigan.

There are events every day this week, morning, noon and night. For complete information, check out the Story Week site online:

Happy Birthday Barbie

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It's been far too long since I've posted a "Book of the Day," so in honor of Barbie's 50th birthday week, here we go.

This Barbie I speak of is the doll and yes, she does have a last name (see quiz below). You'll find out all sorts of things about Barbie's backstory by reading her biography, Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her (Collins Business, 258 pages, $24.99), by Robin Gerber.

Barbie and Ruth

Ruth Handler was the brains behind Barbie, but what you might not know is that the prototype for the doll was based on something called "Bild-Lilli," which was a sex toy based on a European newspaper cartoon character who was a prostitute.

Also, Barbie and Ken were named after Handler's own two children, who hated the dolls. Ken Handler was especially embarrassed.

"Despite ordering prototypes with varying degrees of bulge in the crotch, the male designers resisted all but the barest hint of a penis," Berger writes in the book. "Underwear was painted on the nearly flat surface of Ken's genital area and buttocks. As Ruth predicted, he looked unrealistic in the zebra-striped bathing suit that was his first piece of clothing. Ruth's son, Ken, who was fifteen at the time, resented the flat-crotched doll that bore his name."

Gerber had access to recently archived documents and personal papers, plus she interviewed surviving family members, Mattel personnel and others close to Handler.


Do you think you know Barbie? Take this quiz. (Scripps Howard News Service)

1. What is Barbie's full name?

a.) Barbie Priscilla Robertson
b.) Barbie Henrietta Wilson
c.) Barbie Millicent Roberts
d.) Barbie Abigail Carter

2. Who isn't Barbie's sister?

a.) Skipper
b.) Kelly
c.) Midge
d.) Tutti

3. How much did the first Barbie cost in 1959?

a.) $1
b.) $2
c.) $3
d.) $5

4. Thus far, what's the most that's been paid for a mint-condition No. 1 Barbie?

a.) $7,580
b.) $10,241
c.) $27,450
d.) $51,386

5. Barbie's hair comes in how many different shades of blond?

a.) 10
b.) 7
c.) 20
d.) 5

6. The look of the first Barbie mirrored the glamor of what Hollywood star?

a.) Marilyn Monroe
b.) Rita Hayworth
c.) Elizabeth Taylor
d.) All of the above

7. What's the best-selling Barbie to date?

a.) Superstar Barbie
b.) Totally Hair Barbie
c.) Malibu Barbie
d.) Day to Night Barbie

8. What percentage of girls ages 3-10 own at least one Barbie?

a.) 50 percent
b.) 75 percent
c.) 90 percent
d.) 98 percent

9. What's Barbie's favorite eye-shadow color?

a.) blue
b.) brown
c.) lavender
d.) green

10. Barbie comes in how many different skin tones?

a.) 3
b.) 5
c.) 11
d.) 20


1. c - Barbie Millicent Roberts from Willows, Wis.
2. c - Midge, Barbie's best friend.
3. c - $3, and 300,000 were sold that year.
4. c - $27,450, in a May 2006 auction held by Sandi's Doll Attic.
5. b - 7, woven in various combinations to create highlights and lowlights.
6. d - All of the above. The first Barbie featured high arched eyebrows, pursed red lips and a sassy ponytail.
7. b- Totally Hair Barbie, with locks 10-1/2 inches long
8. c - 90 percent
9. b - Brown
10. c - 11

Sources: Mattel and eBay

'Time Traveler's Wife' author hits jackpot

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Chicago author Audrey Niffenegger, who wrote her way to the best seller lists six years ago with The Time Traveler's Wife, has apparently snared a $5 million advance for her followup novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.

Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, was the big winner in a hot bidding war, which also included Time Travleler publisher MacAdam Cage and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published the paperback.

Audrey Niffenegger
Audrey Niffenegger is also a visual artist and faculty member at Columbia College Chicago. (Al Podgorski~Sun-Times)

I would say it's a bit of a gamble for a publisher to shell out so much money for a second novel, not only in this climate of a crumbling economy, but also because second novels don't usually ever match the success of the first.

Scribner VP and editor in chief Nan Graham isn't worried.

"She really has defied custom and written a spectacular second novel, which is one of the hardest things to do in this universe," Graham told the New York Times. "She's not selling it essentially on the success of her first book."

Time will tell. The publishing industry is hurting as much as any industry these days, with layoffs and cutbacks at every turn, so kudos to Niffenegger, whose writing obviously is good enough to garner $5 million worth of confidence on their part.

Her Fearful Symmetry is scheduled for release this fall.

Blago in colorful company

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Rod Blagojevich's six-figure book deal is big news but no surprise to anyone who's followed the disgraced former Illinois governor's whirlwind media tour these last few months.

Blago promises to bring out all the dirty laundry and expose "the dark side of politics he witnessed in both the state and national level," even he embarrasses himself in the process.

Rod Blagojevich plans to "tell all" in his memoir,
due out later this year.
(AP photo)

The most interesting detail of the deal is that Blagojevich chose Phoenix Books to publish the book in October. Phoenix, run by Michael Viner of Beverly Hills, Calif., also published books about New York Times plagiarist Jayson Blair, Hollywood and New York call girls, German murderer/cannibal Armin Meiwes, and hey, look -- Drew Peterson! (Fatal Vows: The Tragic Wives of Sergeant Drew Peterson was written by the Sun-Times News Group's Joseph Hosey.)

David Foster Wallace lives on

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This time next year, David Foster Wallace fans will be clamoring for his final book, an unfinished novel titled The Pale King. Wallace's longtime publisher, Little, Brown, plans to publish it in early 2010.

David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace (Sun-Times files)

Wallace, who killed himself last September at age 46, reportedly left behind "a substantial portion" of the work, and The New Yorker is running an excerpt this week alongside an article by D.T. Max.

The story centers around a bored, entry-level IRS worker named David Wallace, who works at an Illinois tax-return processing center in the '80s.

"The Pale King is an astonishment. It is David Wallace's effort to weave a novel out of life's dark matter: boredom, banality, the 'irrelevant complexity' of everyday life, all the maddening stuff that stands between us and the rest of the world and through which we have to travel to arrive at joy," said Wallace's longtime editor, Michael Pietsch. "This was as ambitious as anything he ever did, a novel that attempts to move readers deeply and help them live their lives."