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The Pop Culture Addict's Guide to Finishing a Dissertation: BOOKS

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Added 5-02 at swim cover
The source: In 1939, Flann O'Brien (1911-66) wrote his first, and thought to be best, book At Swim-Two-Birds.
How I came across it: My brother gave it to me as a present because he heard it was a good book. Actually, he said he had to get it because of a quote on the cover that says, "This is just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl." - Dylan Thomas
The gems: I started reading it somewhat reluctantly because "literature" is sometimes a challenge I am not up to, especially after scouring through Psycinfo all day doing literature searches for the Big D. Then, I started laughing because I read this:
    "Well faith, he said, I never see you at it.  I never see you at your studies at all.
    I work in my bedroom, I answered.
    Whether in or out, I always kept the door of my bedroom locked. This made my movements a matter of some secrecy and enabled me to spend an inclement day in bed without disturbing my uncle's assumption that I had gone to the College to attend to my studies.  A contemplative life has always been suitable to my disposition." (p. 11)

AND THEN, because the main character cannot get into his studies, he starts to write a book purely for his own amusement! It is a crazy, complex book that takes as much time as it would for him to finish his studies.  Anyway, the book was an unexpected source of entertainment to me at the time when my mindset was so similar to that of the main character's. How do you think my website was created?

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Added 6-02
devil's candy cover
The source:  The Devil's Candy : The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood
by Julie Salamon (Hardback - 1991) (Paperback - 1992) [I noticed it was reissued in 2002 with a new afterword by the author.]
How I came across it:  Another recommendation from my brother.
The gems: This book documents the making of the movie The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), directed by Brian De Palma based on Tom Wolfe's novel. If you're a movie buff, if you read a fair share of bestsellers or if you follow the news, you may recall that many people read and enjoyed the book but an equal number of people DESPISED, PANNED and REJECTED the movie. After you read the book, you will run out and rent the movie to watch for the first time or for another viewing. I certainly did (it was a first viewing). I had read Bonfire of the Vanities pretty much when everyone else did and had thought it was okay, not brilliant but passable leisure reading. But Devil's Candy surpasses Bonfire of the Vanities as far as entertainment value although I suppose one wouldn't exist without the other. Anyway, if you caught HBO's Project Greenlight, you already have a sense of the contents of Devil's Candy. Julie Salamon used to write for the Wall Street Journal, and her writing style is easy to follow and suspenseful. I highly recommend it for movie fans, Brian De Palma fans and anyone in the middle of a big project such as a thesis or dissertation. Of course, I hope that your blood, sweat and tears result in a critical success unlike the movie version of The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Added 10/04:Origin of "bonfire of the vanities"
For those who ask, from what I gather, the phrase "bonfire of the vanities" stems from a bonfire set by an Italian priest known as Girolamo Savonarola (also Fra Savonarala or Hieronymus Savonarala) and his followers in 1497. As the phrase suggests, Savonaralo was not a big supporter of items that made one focus on oneself such as mirrors, nice threads, make up/cosmetics along with pictures and books deemed un-savory for the pure of heart and items that encouraged gambling and such. Thus, he and his crew gathered such things up and made a big fire with them in the streets of Florence. Pretty literal stuff here. This is what Tom Wolfe refers to but does not really explain in his book Bonfire of the Vanities. Apparently, Savonaralo seems to have met the same end these vanities did.

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Added 6-02 pound of cover
The source: A Pound of Flesh : Perilous Tales of How to Produce Movies in Hollywood
by Art Linson (Paperback - 1993)
How I came across it: Brother. (see above)
The gems: My favorite thing about this book is the origin of the title. You'll find a reference in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Basically, the phrase "a pound of flesh" is usually used to convey the heavy price of paying for something or not being able to pay back something (as in Merchant). I can't remember the quote Art Linson refers to but it's something like, for every page I write, it's like giving away a pound of flesh, suggesting that writing is a draining process. Aside from that, Linson writes about his experiences producing films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and The Untouchables (1987).  If you're not that interested in movies, this book may be not be for you. But it's a fast read and amusing even if you don't aspire to produce movies.  You are, at any rate, producing your own work. So you'll probably be able to identify with some of the stories relayed in Pound of Flesh.

Added 10/04:Origin of "a pound of flesh"
Here is a more thorough explanation of the origin of the phrase "a pound of flesh" which may be traced back to the Merchant of Venice which was written in the late 1500's. Shakespeare was thought to have based Merchant partly on a parable about a creditor (with issues) who demands a pound of flesh as payment.

Antonio is the merchant in question who is, at the beginning of the tale, awaiting his ships to return full of merchandise. He is also quick to lend money to his friend Bassanio whenever asked. So, to help Bassanio get the girl of his dreams, Portia, Antonio gets a loan from Shylock knowing that shortly his ships will return and he'll be flush again. Shylock does not like Antonio because he has not been kind or respectful to him in the past (Antonio has spit at Shylock and called him "dog") and they are sort of business rivals. Both lend out money but Shylock lends money with high interest while Antonio doesn't ask for any interest at all. So, Shylock will only lend him the dough with the condition that if it is not paid back in time, Antonio will owe him, Shylock, a pound of flesh.

Shylock says, "...if he should break this day, what should I gain by the exaction of the forfeiture? A pound of man's flesh, taken from a man, is not so estimable, nor profitable neither, as the flesh of mutton or beef. I say, to buy his favour I offer this friendship: if he will take it, so; if not, adieu."

Of course, it turns out that Antonio's business goes bust and Shylock demands his pound of flesh. Even when Bassanio offers to pay back the debt, Shylock insists on Antonio fulfilling the debt himself. There is a trial, and Portia, disguised as a man, acts as Antonio's lawyer. She is able to lessen the debt to a pound of flesh as long as there's no blood taken - an impossibility. Also, it is determined that a pound of flesh could not be taken without taking Antonio's life so Shylock is charged with attempted murder. He gets off but not without having to convert religions (from Judaism to Christianity) and give away all of his money.

So that leaves us once again with the phrase "a pound of flesh" referring to the heavy price of something and also thinking about how both Shylock and Antonio are flawed. But that's a whole other essay for another time and place.

Added 4/05:
The source: More about the origin of "A Pound of Flesh"
How I came across it: Many thanks to Deborah Soloway for the following contribution from 3/05:

"I work in the field of bankruptcy law and teach to paralegal students. Our textbook, Basic Bankruptcy Law for Paralegals (5th ed. 2004) David L. Buchbinder (Aspen Publishers), contains a short history of bankruptcy law and a discussion of historic systems. Roman republican law allowed a group of creditors to exhibit a debtor in the forum for three days and, if his debts were not redeemed/paid by his friends & family, divide him up into multiple pieces in satisfaction of the debts. There is also evidence that creditors could divide up a corpse and effectively hold the pieces for ransom, since Roman religious practice required the body to remain whole to enter the afterlife. I haven't read the source material cited by Buchbinder, but I know one of the authors as an able scholar.

I wonder if this might be the original significance of the "pound of flesh"?

Note: I don't know. But it seems worth noting for further thought and research. Thanks again for letting me post your comment!

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Added 6-02 blood on forehead cover
The source: Blood on the Forehead: What I Know About Writing by M. E. Kerr (1998)
How I came across it: Before I became webmaster of, I was just a fan. I had to special-order it from my local Barnes and Noble. Believe me, I got a strange look when I said I was looking for a book called "Blood on the Forehead."
The gems: I loooooove this book. Aside from Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack (1972), this is the book I recommend to people unfamiliar with the writings of M. E. Kerr. Where to start...again, the origin of the title will hit home with the thesis crowd. Kerr writes, "If I were to look up from my computer now, I would see a favorite quotation in a frame over my desk, attributed to Gene Fowler, 'Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drop of blood form on your forehead.'" Even if you do not read YA or children's literature, if you are a writer, you will find this book inspiring and helpful. Since the book is geared towards her YA readers, every piece of advice is spelled out. We all remember, no matter how poorly we might have done in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Or remember Occum's Razor, usually the simplest explanation is the best.  Okay, that last one might just be Psych 101 knowledge dribbling in and not completely applicable here. Anyway, sometimes being reminded of staying linear and logical will help you re-organize your thoughts and write your discussion section in the most accessible manner. Kerr includes short stories she wrote as well as exerpts from some of her books to demonstrate the guidelines she tries to follow in her own fictional writing. You can read an excerpt here.

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack

Added 8/04: I am in the middle of reading Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and I found the Latin for Occum's Razor (also, Occam's Razor and even Ockham's Razor seem acceptable depending on how you want to spell 13th century philosopher William of Occum) and wanted to add it here:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.
No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.

curious incident of the dog

Occum's Razor is also referred to as the the principle of parsimony. Someone who is parsimonious is frugal, stingy, economical, tight with the moneybags. A scientist following the principle of parsimony practices economy of explanations, i.e., s/he goes with the simplest of explanations to understand a particular observation.

Now my mind is wandering and remembering a mixture of high school geometry (yet again, argh!) and the song Airhead by Thomas Dolby when he sings "Quod Erat Demonstrandum, baby - ooh you speak French." And that segues into a memory of Punk Rock Girl by the Dead Milkmen. That was a good song. Maybe I had them on the same mixtape. I can't quite remember. But anyway, this is clearly the antithesis of what Occum's Razor is about. I do not think in a straight line from one point to another. I'll say here that I do think it's good to brainstorm and let your mind do what it needs to do, but keep in mind that the reader's attention will wane if you start to wander too much (I should listen to myself here! LOL).

I'll also share that when I prepared for my proposal hearing, data hearing and oral defense, I tried to make myself keep my opening statements to the length of a pop song - about 3.5 minutes. I know that's extremely short and I certainly went on more like 10 minutes. But keep in mind that every committee member is pretty much obliged to ask you follow up questions so you will have plenty of time to present the relevant information more completely. This is what it was: I found that keeping the pop song length in mind alleviated some stress about including every single detail of the study. Okay, as always, I wish you the best of luck!

aliens ate my buick cream of the crop

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Added 6-02 shooting to kill cover
The source: Shooting to Kill : How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter by Christine Vachon with David Edelstein (1998)
How I came across it: Another book in my bro's library.
The gems: Christine Vachon produced independent films such as Velvet Goldmine (as a Ewan McGregor fan, I had to see this one - fyi, he was phenomenal - he shows off his singing abilities long before Moulin Rouge), Safe (odd but easier to relate to if you live in a city) and I Shot Andy Warhol (great movie though on the downer side). This book is somewhat similar to Art Linson's Pound of Flesh (see above), but the difference is Linson is a Hollywood producer while Vachon is based in NYC and is an Independent Film producer. She produces movies that are not backed by big studios. Her company champions the films that are on the fringe, about outsiders, by outsiders, etc. As most theses and dissertations tend to be about esoteric, highly specialized topics, they probably fall closer to independent film-making rather than Hollywood-style. Think about who your target audience is - the general public or some specific cross section? You get my drift.

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Added 6-04 cover something in the shadows/intimate victims highsmith
The source: Saturday, June 12, 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.: Doyennes of Desire: A Conversation with Two Legendary Writers of Lesbian Pulp Fiction—Ann Bannon and Marijane Meaker (writing as Vin Packer and Ann Aldrich). Moderated by Tristan Taormino. Location: The LGBT Community Center, Sponsored by The Publishing Triangle

odd girl out beebo brinker women in the shadows journey to a woman i am woman

How I came across it: As fan, friend and webmaster to M. E. Kerr, I try to attend her live appearances when possible. I've said this many times before: she is an amazing speaker, a great raconteur. I must say I regret not writing up the other events I've attended. But now, I don't really remember enough to make a good entry. I'll say this, during the most recent ones, she was promoting Highsmith so if you listen to her Fresh Air interview, you'll pretty much get the highlights of what she said. Also, she told some of the stories I will describe below. This particular event was in celebration of the reissuing of Spring Fire, the first book of its kind: the first lesbian paperback ever published. This was in 1952. However, once Vin Packer launched her career with Spring Fire, she only wrote two more books featuring gay characters (The Evil Friendship about the Parker/Hume matricide and Whisper His Sin about the Fraden/Wepman matricide). Also, the remaining 19 Packer books (there were 20) were all suspense novels whereas Spring Fire was a romance novel of sorts. Vin Packer became a suspense writer because she wanted to be reviewed and knew that paperback mysteries were reviewed along with the hardcover titles. Vin Packer and Ann Bannon were among the first authors published under the Gold Medal Books division of New York's Fawcett Publications. Both authors were edited by Dick Carroll. More on that later.

spring fire whisper his sin evil friendship

The World of Pulp featuring Marijane Meaker, The Graduate Center, NYC 12/02/03: Before I get into the 6/12/04 event, I have some images from a previous event I am going to display right here.

postcard poster

These images are self-explanatory. I will just say that Marijane Meaker was the highlight of the panel. Second best was Laura Hapke. I recommend seeking out her writing if you are interested in how women were depicted in early American paperbacks. The rest were okay but went on too long. Afterwards, Marijane Meaker commented, "I love academics. They can make wall-to-wall carpeting out of a throw rug." The academics who heard her weren't too amused. But they were impressed they were in the presence of Vin Packer. I just want to say that even if I weren't biased, I would've thought Marijane Meaker was the best speaker of the evening.

bios bios last bio

The gems: Returning to the 6/12/04 event, at the time, I had only read the works of M. E. Kerr, Mary James and Marijane Meaker. Since then I have read Spring Fire, and I am going to take advantage of the upcoming reissuing of Vin Packer's works to read more. As for Ann Bannon, I didn't know who she was until this event. M. E. Kerr, heretofore to be referenced as Marijane Meaker (b. 1927) (her real name, the others are pen names), filled me in a bit as well. So basically, I have an awareness of the work Marijane Meaker did before M. E. Kerr's career began. But my primary interest has always been in her YA and children's literature.

While I had noted that M. E. Kerr often had gay characters in her book, I just thought that made her cool and open-minded. M. E. Kerr came out to the YA world sometime around 1993-94. She has said and reiterated this in her 6/12/04 appearance that she wanted her work as M. E. Kerr to be secure in YA history before she presented more potential controversy. By coincidence, I had chosen lilac as the background color for the website simply because I thought it looked nice. Since then, visitors have commented that I must've chosen it as a statement in support of gay pride. Well, initially, I didn't. But of course, I do support and promote tolerance and living true to yourself as long as you live right by your fellow human beings. So, now I've deliberately kept the lilac background because it has that potential meaning behind it.

Anyway, let me tell you what went on at this event. I will first commend the moderator for keeping the conversation more or less chronological thus making it easier for me to remember what went on. Plus, it made the event cohesive. Next, I will say again that Marijane Meaker spoke well, as always and Ann Bannon also spoke well. I always think it’s not fair to expect writers to be good speakers. I mean there’s a reason why they have chosen to write for a living. Anyway, it was a non-issue on all accounts. I will preface what I’m about to write with the fact that I rarely stay chronological in these write ups. So, I’ll just tell you what stood out and hope that it makes sense to you. Let me just say that Ann Bannon is also a pen name. She was born Ann Weldy in 1932. You can learn more about her at the Ann Bannon website.

In her opening statement, MJM clarified that she never liked the use of “pulp” in the term “pulp fiction” because to her, “pulp” more accurately referred to magazines. Also, it implied that the quality of writing was less because the quality of the material it was printed on was less. She pointed out that many top writers were published only in paperback (I’ll have to ask her who she mentioned because I’ve already forgotten). Ann Bannon did not feel as strongly but did agree with MJM’s points.

I guess now is a good time as any to give the background of their relationship. In sum, Ann Bannon attributed her big break to Marijane Meaker, and in hearing the story, it certainly seems true. MJM protested her role and said Ann Bannon would've been published some other way had they not crossed paths. Also of note, it had been 50 years since they last saw each other.

So anyway, MJM also wrote as Ann Aldrich and Ann Bannon read these books with great interest. She wrote MJM a fan letter indicating that she was an aspiring writer. At this point, Ann Bannon asked MJM what made her respond to her particular letter. MJM said she responded to this particular letter because it was well-written, and sounded more like a professional interest outreach rather than a personal one.

Anyway, MJM invited Ann Bannon to NYC from her suburban abode in Bala Cynwood, PA and introduced her to her editor Dick Carroll who soon became Ann Bannon's editor. That’s how it started. For the record, Ann Bannon only wrote five novels from 1957 to 1962 but apparently, their impact was strong and far-reaching. Her first novel, Odd Girl Out was published in 1957 when Ann Bannon was 22 years old and married.

MJM said while the initial response to Spring Fire was amazing – she sold 1.5 million copies during the first printing and it had to be reprinted again and again to meet the demand, her older, wiser self, found it hard to look back on this early novel. She said it seemed so naďve to her. But she recognizes its significance in gay history.

The moderator asked about the fan mail. Both authors said the fan mail came in bushels and it was obvious to them and their publishers that there was a need and audience for their stories. MJM said she felt compelled to ask her analyst friend for advice on some of the more distressing letters. Her friend advised her to respond to these letters and urge the writers to seek out help from someone like a pastor or therapist. Both received numerous propositions as well. On a more positive note, they both mentioned the many letters thanking them for writing about this subject matter and telling them how great it was to read about relatable characters.

Let me try to wrap this up and tell you what was particularly of interest. MJM spoke of how she had no say over the titles and cover art of her Vin Packer books. This is why as M. E. Kerr, she spends a lot of effort on both. Her editor, Dick Carroll, said it was all about selling the books. Thus, Sorority Girl (her title) was re-titled Spring Fire with hopes that people trying to find James Michener’s The Fires of Spring would get confused and buy Vin Packer’s book instead. See, marketing tricks like the old bait and switch are as old as time. MJM said her choice of a cover for Spring Fire would not have involved portraying “two hookers” on a bed. But again, it was all about the sale.

MJM mentioned that the model for some of the covers was an actress named Jo Hurt who had a minor role on Broadway in Pal Joey. I looked her up and only found two credits to her name. I don’t know what happened to her. Anyway, according to MJM, Jo Hurt was actually known as the model for the cover art on these lesbian paperbacks and she was none too happy about it. But considering people still collect her covers, her fame and recognition, or at least her illustrated visage and figure, have proved long-lasting. MJM said she was surprised at how many people collect the old paperbacks for their cover art.

What else…MJM said she was instructed by her editor to write an unhappy ending meaning more specifically that one of the girls had to be diagnosed as mentally ill and the other had to realize she wasn’t gay after all. This censorship was due to the mail codes. Paperback books were sent through the mail and if just one of the books was deemed unsavory, in this case, because it sympathetically portrayed alternative lifestyles, the entire shipment would not be accepted and sent back to the publisher.

Let me summarize the audience Q & A. Someone asked Ann Bannon what her husband thought of her career. She said he was happy about the big checks and he read the first page of the first book and not much more. He got the idea. She got divorced eventually after her children were in college. After the publication of her 5 books, she went to grad school and became a linguistics professor.

MJM had noted that around the time she met Ann Bannon, she met Patricia Highsmith and this is what MJM's memoir was about. So, someone asked MJM if living with Patricia Highsmith was a competitive experience. MJM said they enjoyed being able to have a back and forth about their ideas and writing. She also said that Patricia Highsmith earned about $1500 for each of her hard cover books while MJM was earning $4000 for her paperback books. MJM said she wanted Patricia Highsmith’s prestige while Highsmith wanted MJM’s money. MJM told the story of how when Hitchcock was trying to buy the rights to Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, he tried to hide his identity so he wouldn't be asked to pay too high a price. In the end, he paid Highsmith $300 and that's all she ever saw from this transaction despite the acclaim the movie received. [Correction from Marijane Meaker: "I have one slight correction. Pat received either 3000 or 5000 from Hitchcock, not 300.But she got nothing more, just that flat fee. She always hated that it was called Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train."]

I’m down to the last tidbits. In response to a question about feelings about the corporate mentality of publishers, MJM said she felt there was no longer any place for the mid-list author. You had to be either large-scale or practically self-publishing, nothing in between. Also, MJM commented on how the reading culture has changed drastically over the years. She noted people don't read as much as they used to and that technology rules our lives - not necessarily in a negative way but certainly in a significant way. Between the two authors, they encouraged the audience to support independent bookstores like Oscar Wilde Bookshop, the bookstore selling Ann Bannon and Marijane Meaker books at the event.

The moderator threw in a couple of wrap-up questions. The first one was what kind of advice would you give to aspiring writers. MJM said, get a group of other aspiring writers together and meet every week, discuss your work and keep it flowing. She said many years ago, she placed an ad in the paper about forming a writers’ group and the response was overwhelming. This was the inception of the Ashawagh Writers’ Workshop in East Hampton, which is where she teaches today. MJM said that the group is so diverse in age, profession, everything and that they would never have met each other otherwise.

When asked how times have changed during her lifetime. MJM said she was thrilled to open the New York Times Styles section every Sunday and read about same-sex couples in the wedding announcements. People cheered at that. MJM also talked about how back in the 1950s, it was all underground and by word of mouth how elements of gay culture spread. Now it's so open. MJM said people actually used her books to figure out where the gay clubs were in NYC even if they were fictionalized. People figured (correctly) they were based on real places.

The authors were asked what was up for them next. Ann Bannon said she spends her time travelling and lecturing. She has a 10-year old novel in need of serious re-writes. Also, she noted that MJM was urging her to write her memoirs. MJM said that her next project was a book by M. E. Kerr set once again in WWII.

The moderator, Tristan Taormino, asked a final question which was if either author would like to contribute to her next collection of erotica now that they had free reign and no censorship to worry about. MJM said she was never good at writing erotica so she didn't feel like she would make a worthwhile contribution. Having read Spring Fire, I would have to disagree. MJM is perfectly capable of writing whatever genre she chooses. As M. E. Kerr, she always keeps things comfortably vague for the YA audience so it was a bit unexpected on my part to read some of the more romantic passages in Spring Fire. As for Ann Bannon, she said she would give it a shot.

That concluded the conversation portion of the evening. Both authors stayed until every last book had been signed and every last fan had taken pictures and shared a story. There were even refreshments. Overall, it was a fun and informative evening.

Marijane Meaker and Webmaster
Marijane Meaker and Webmaster
In diner in West Village (6/12/04)


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