“Is that your natural color?”


Blame it on genetics.

My dad’s hair turned white (not gray) when he was still quite young; the same thing happened to yours truly. I hadn’t thought much about it. The phenomenon did not make me look “distinguished,” let alone “mature.” If having white hair is one of life’s “punches,” I pretty much rolled with it. Until now.

What white hair and a beard did do though is . . . wait for it . . . make kids think I am Santa Claus. For several years this was cute, even funny. In recent times I’ve come to resent it, at least a little bit. I haven’t turned into the Grinch. For that I would have to be all green, and have a voice like Jim Carey’s. (Apparently at the seaside I would also have to don a woman’s one-piece bathing suit, too. Meh.)

White Hair Phenomenon (hereafter referred to as WHP) finally got the best of me. For some months I had had two boxes of A Product That Shall Not Be Named (one variant for hair, the other for beards) in the bedroom closet. For no particular reason, this week I decided to modify my appearance.

The test procedure one goes through before putting the stuff on for real echoes myriad drug adverts on TV or in magazines. They might address what ails you, but there’s a teeny tiny chance you will turn all green. Or sound like Jim Cary. Or be killed outright. In excruciating pain.

I’m happy to report that I did not experience any of the advertised potential nasty side effects. I began by applying the binary mixture (yeah, it’s like epoxy glue) to my beard. After letting it set for the specified five minutes – no more, no less – I showered off the residue. I now have the promised “ash-colored” beard . . . and (for now) white hair. To conquer WHP completely I will also have to color my hair.

Has what I have done made me feel younger, or better looking? Nope. I look a little different, and perhaps that’s all one could hope for. Time, as they say, marches on. Regardless of chemical additives.

Sequel to a Bestseller: Charles Frazier

IMG_1122My first blog post on this topic described the relationship between Harper Lee’s novels To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Go Set a Watchman (2015). This post develops the subject further by describing the experience of a more recent writer.

The story goes that Charles Frazier, upon completing his first work, Cold Mountain, took it upon himself to “shop” the manuscript around to publishing houses. His hopes that one of them would agree to take on the project were dashed. Frazier gave up in frustration: he shoved the manuscript in a kitchen drawer and forgot about it.

Some time later the author’s wife came across the manuscript. She managed to convince a small press that her husband’s effort merited a look. They took a chance on it, and the rest is publishing history. Cold Mountain is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, set in the American South of the Civil War. It details the homeward journey of W. P. Inman, a Confederate deserter determined to reunite with Ada, the woman he loves, back in his North Carolina town.

Charles Frazier received a $100,000 advance for his book. It proved a good investment for his publisher. Published in 1997, as of 2006 some 1.6 million hardcover copies were sold of Cold Mountain, and 2.5 million paperbacks. It won the 1997 National Book Award. A film adaptation made its debut in 2003. The movie, with Jude Law and Nicole Kidman in the starring roles, was faithful to the novel.

Cold Mountain’s popularity gave its author the chance to further hone his writing chops. His Thirteen Moons (2006) depicts the social and political climate preceding and following the Cherokee Removal (1836-39), when Federal troops forced the Cherokee Nation from its ancestral homeland to Oklahoma. I classify this book as a sequel, in that it is set in the same locale as its predecessor.

The success of Frazier’s first novel saw the manuscript of Thirteen Moons auctioned for a hefty $8 million, on the basis of a one-page outline; a $3.7 million film deal followed soon afterward. The publisher set a 750,000 hard copy initial print run. All that was needed was for Thirteen Moons to rack up sales matching those of its predecessor.

The hard reality was, only half of the print run sold. The publisher lost $5.5 million on the advance paid Charles Frazier. The book had to sell 650,000 copies just to cover the advance; still more to address marketing, printing and other associated costs. No movie is forthcoming. (Frazier’s third novel, Nightwoods, which takes place in 1960s North Carolina, was published in 2012. It didn’t hold a candle to Cold Mountain either.)

Does my brief study prove that all book sequels are, by their very nature, doomed? Nah. I would, however, venture to say that one success doesn’t guarantee a string of them.

Sequel to a Bestseller: Harper Lee

IMG_1123This is the first of two postings concerning an interesting, and sometimes problematic situation in publishing: the sequel to a runaway bestseller.

Like most aspiring authors, I hope the promise of my first work will convince a publisher to offer me a three-book contract, something that is fairly common. Doing so shows the writer that her publisher has enough confidence in the sales potential of her initial book to bring out at least two more of them. In some instances this confidence is well founded; not so in others. There are certainly cases wherein a weak first work sees the light of day because the publisher believes the next one will do well commercially.

There probably aren’t any accolades that haven’t been applied to Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Its description of racial tensions in a Depression-era Alabama town, as seen through the eyes of a young white girl nicknamed Scout, captured the attention of readers the world over. Indeed, 30 million copies have been sold of To Kill a Mockingbird; translated into 40 languages, it has remained in print in both hardcover and paperback editions.

The box office earnings of the novel’s film adaptation, released in 1962, were 10 times its production budget. It received three Academy Awards, and, in many viewers’ minds (and hearts), established actor Gregory Peck as the living embodiment of the character Atticus Finch.

For decades after To Kill a Mockingbird’s debut and subsequent success, people wondered whether Harper Lee would write another book about Atticus, Jem and Scout. The fact that Ms. Harper chose to live outside the limelight, rarely giving interviews, only intensified interest in the topic. As she became elderly it appeared her fans would be disappointed.


Then in the middle of the current decade a tidal wave of speculation swelled: a second manuscript about the Finches had been unearthed! The question was, would Harper Lee permit it to be published? (The tangled legal issues that arose over this book are beyond the scope of this posting.) The announcement that Go Set a Watchman would be published portended a major publishing event. Upon its release in 2015 some 1.1 million hardcover copies were sold; buoyed by this success, the initial print run was upped to 3.3 million books.

People started reading Go Set a Watchman and things came to a screeching halt. The Atticus Finch described in its pages was not the ethical lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird, who took on the doomed defense of a black man accused of defiling a white woman desperate for affection. No, this Atticus was a “typical” white man of the 1930s American South, a closet racist who doubted the ability of African-Americans to raise themselves above the menial mindset of slavery times.

This revelation, and evidence that Go Set a Watchman was actually an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, led upset readers to return copies of the former to bookstores and online retailers, demanding their money back for having been hoodwinked. At this point I don’t know how many copies of Go Set a Watchman remain in circulation but I would venture a guess that its long-term prospects are not good. And a film adaptation? Nope.

What can be learned from the case of anticipating a sequel to a beloved novel that turned out to be a fiasco? The old saying about not counting one’s chickens before they’ve hatched comes to mind. Another ancient saw proclaiming that “everyone has one book in them” is also worthy of consideration.

Have you read both of Harper Lee’s novels? What did you think of them?


IMG_0649In mid-August I attended a preseason football game at Heinz Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the National Football League team I’ve followed since my youth. Temperatures were in the low nineties with high humidity, and the Steelers lost to the Detroit Lions. All that being said, I found being at a professional game an interesting experience.

My enjoyment was not unalloyed. As the players smashed into and tackled one another I remembered the impression the 2015 film “Concussion” made on me. Set in 2002, it portrays Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh-based Nigerian forensic pathologist who determines that years of on-field impacts make NFL players prey to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that leads to brain degradation. Former players suffering from CTE experience severe cognitive problems that even lead some of them to commit suicide.

“Concussion” details Dr. Omalu’s uphill battle against the NFL, which is hellbent on suppressing his research. Living in a city where football is a cherished institution, Omalu is subjected to considerable pressure to back down from his efforts. He faces potential deportation or being sent to prison on petty charges as punishment for tarnishing the NFL. When Omalu’s wife, Prema, suffers a miscarriage after being stalked, the couple moves to California for reasons of safety.

What really drew the situation illuminated by “Concussion” into sharp focus for me on that steamy summer evening was when, at halftime, two teams of little boys ran onto the field. The kids – whose outsize helmets gave them the appearance of bobble-heads – went at a short scrimmage with enthusiasm mirroring that of the pros.

As the youngsters’ brief contest drew to a close with high-fives and the exchange of congratulations with the opponents, I couldn’t help wondering: had I witnessed the seeds of future CTE cases being planted?

To Know & Be Known #3: Cartoon Collection

IMG_1131The third part of this series is concerned with a way of knowing me that, compared to my commonplace book and personal library, may seem rather off-beat. I have collected editorial cartoons, cartoon strips and cartoons for years. At this point I reckon the binders pictured above contain close to a thousand or more of them.

Editorial cartoons are illustrations containing a commentary that usually relates to current events or personalities. They began to appear in England near the end of the Eighteenth Century, becoming a regular feature of daily newspapers. With the accelerating extinction of dailies in recent times, editorial cartoons may be headed for the ash heap of history. I enjoy editorial ‘toons because of their ability to visually condense complex issues, whether political or social, into a single panel. This isn’t as easy as it may sound, for expressing their subjects requires of the illustrator an economy of words and images.

Cartoon strips are defined as “a sequence of drawings arranged in interrelated panels to display brief humor or form a narrative, often serialized, with text in balloons or captions.” Around since the late Nineteenth Century, strips are usually traced to Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid (1895-98). Cartoon strip subject matter spans from outright belly laughs to pointed satire. Among my favorites have been Adam (family humor), Glen Baxter’s rather dark work, Bloom County (social commentary), Dilbert (workplace humor), Doonesbury (often political) and The Far Side (general mayhem).

As you can see, the majority of my cartoon collection comes from THE NEW YORKER. What interests me in particular about the cartoons from this magazine’s pages is the lesson they’ve reinforced in me: what one person finds funny leaves another cold. (Earthshaking, eh?) No doubt scientists, psychologists and the like have conducted extensive studies that plumb the depths of what constitutes humor. If I had to use a single word to describe the condition that makes me appreciate a cartoon, it would be irony, a state of affairs that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result. I suppose that’s why I appreciate incisive humor more than the knee-slapping variety!


To Know & Be Known #2: Personal Library

IMG_1132Visiting a home for the first time, I tend to gravitate toward its bookcases when the opportunity presents itself. These repositories of knowledge communicate a variety of messages to the casual observer. For the purpose of this post I’m boiling them down to, 1.) expressing who the books’ owners aspire to be, or, 2.) who they are.

Regarding point 1.), TV programs on English estates I’ve watched invariably count huge libraries among their palatial chambers. Rank upon rank of richly-bound volumes adorn the shelves: I often wonder how many undiscovered Shakespeare First Folios or Gutenberg Bibles are among them! I also wonder how many of the books have been read, or whether they just meant to impress people. Do I believe libraries of the folks I meet perform this function? Generally not, but on rare occasions I have speculated on it.

I can speak more knowledgeably about point 2.), which is illustrated by a photo of a portion of my personal library. Almost all of the books shown were acquired intentionally, although I am as prey to impulse purchases as the next consumer. I didn’t amass the collection so people could use it to define who I am but am content if they do so. That’s because I think the topics and authors I’ve made my own do shed light on what matters to me. When others survey my library it can help them get a grip on my personality, my worldview and what I feel passionate about. That may pique their interest in an issue they hadn’t considered before, too. Not a bad outcome for several shelves-worth of paper and ink!