Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A chat with veteran book critic, Alan Caruba

Today we chat with Alan Caruba, who has been reviewing books for more than forty years. I submitted my novel, Greco's Game, for Alan's consideration only to hear back that he was unable to accept because of time constraints.
So it made me want to know more about Alan. I mean, there are two sides to this complex dance between author and critic. Mine as the author is that I've worked for a year on this one project. In other words: I've had tunnel vision while toiling to profile, outline, create, and edit, edit, edit the manuscript into a finished product that I hope impresses not only my publisher, but the Alan Carubas of this world, who in turn will publish a review that makes people who don't know me from a stump want to order my book (as well as reinforce the loyalty shown me by those friends and fans who do know me from a stump).

Then there is Alan's side of the story as he gets hit by an avalanche of requests from authors like me.

So I asked Alan what it was like being, well, Alan Caruba. And Alan was gracious enough to share a window peek into his life.

1) Okay, seriously, Alan: how can one person do so much? Not only have you provided editorial services to think tanks, public relations and public affairs agencies around the nation, but you’re a published journalist and novelist who’s been profiled numerous times as the nation’s expert on boredom and its impact on individuals and society. You also founded The National Anxiety Center as a clearinghouse for information about scare campaigns designed to influence public policy and opinion on a wide variety of issues. You write a daily column, “Warning Signs” (http://factsnotfantasy.blogspot.com/), that’s disseminated around the world. You’re a frequent guest on radio shows throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. You’re a daily contributor to Canada Free Press (http://canadafreepress.com/), an influential news and opinion website, where you regularly examine issues such as national security, politics, education, immigration, Islamic fundamentalism, and popular culture. You’re also a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle, and you maintain a monthly book review site, “Bookviews” (http://bookviewsbyalancaruba.blogspot.com.au/), which examines the best in new fiction and non-fiction. What is a typical day for you, and are copious amounts of coffee required?

The short answer is that I am 74 years of age and what you describe are aspects of a long life spent putting my interests and talents to work on things that interest, amuse, or evoke serious concern on my part. I write a commentary of about 1,000 words or so every day because I am a polymath, interested in a broad range of topics from politics to science, environmentalism to education, Islam to history, and much more. I do so with considerable ease insofar as I began as a reporter in the early 1960s and one acquires the necessary skill to research topics rapidly and write about them against deadlines.

(2) The fact that you have reviewed books for over forty years presupposes a love of reading. How did it begin for you? Was there someone in your life who was instrumental in fostering that love of reading?

I grew up in a home where books filled the rooms. Both my parents were avid readers, and my Mother wrote three books as an international expert on haute cuisine and wines. They also read the newspaper daily. Reading for me has always been pure pleasure. I read at a rapid pace and retain much of what I read. 

(3) The fact that you’re a veteran writer enables you to bring an experienced eye to the review process. Focusing for the moment on fiction, what do you look for in a novel? 

Oddly enough, I have never been a big reader of fiction. What I want, frankly, is a story that grabs me from the first page and never lets go. I want well-formed characters and a story that tells me something about people and cultures I have not otherwise encountered. Lots of people write novels these days. Few have the God-given talent to do it well. 

(4) I know time constraints require you to refuse many review requests. How long does it take to review a book? 

I read the books in the My Picks of the Month section of my monthly report, Bookviews.com, though some are included because they are entertaining or unique and get a brief perusal. The books on history and serious topics get read cover to cover. Since my reviews are brief, it doesn't take long. The rest of the report is based on experience and a perusal of the book to determine that it is well organized, offers useful information, and can prove helpful to the reader. 

As a reviewer, the growth of self-published books has put a strain on many in my trade, largely because many are quite poorly written. That said, there are a lot of books from publishers, large and small, that make me wonder why they bothered. The switch to digital books is one I will not make for reasons of age and preference to hold a book in my hands. In addition to history and science, I have a fondness for coffee table books that are big, full of art and photography, and delight the mind and senses. 

(5) Have the demands of reviewing books diminished your simple love of reading?

No, reading for me is far more fun that mindlessly watching TV. I do watch, but it's usually something educational or news. I like to watch boxing as a sport and diversion, but not other sports. I will ignore the Olympics for the most part.

(6) Do you ever read just to relax, and if so, what kind of books do you read?

For me, reading is not about relaxing. It's about learning. The world is a very complex place and I am forever trying to understand it and the history of nations, cultures, etc. That said, I find reading very relaxing.

(7) You’re a charter member of the National Book Critics Circle, which was founded in New York in 1974 with the purpose of honoring outstanding writing and fostering a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature. Is there a particularly rewarding moment in your association with the NBCC that allowed you see the impact you’re having?

I have been a member of the NBCC since its founding, but have never taken an active part in it. I keep up with what it does, the books it awards prizes to, etc., but much of what passes for reviewing is a self-congratulatory exercise in demonstrating one's intellect and often one's biases. That part of reviewing doesn't interest me. Sharing news of interesting new books does.

(8) Who serves the best pizza and what is your favorite topping?

I am from New Jersey where they take great pride in making pizzas. I like a slice on occasion, but it's not a food of choice for me so I really don't have a favorite topping. 

(9) What is one item on your “bucket list”?

Having traveled extensively throughout the U.S. in the 1980s, I have visited all its major cities, but I have never been overseas. If I had the money, I would like to visit other nations. It won't happen. I live in a beautiful upscale apartment complex just minutes from the home in which I've lived for 62 years. It was and is a good life, a comfortable routine, and one via the Internet that allows me to interact with people from all over the world. 


Colonel Aleksandr Talanov -- the “ice man” -- is married to a woman he wishes he could love. But he can’t, and it's an ugly consequence of his training with the KGB. Even so, no one should have to experience what Talanov experiences: the brutal murder of his wife in front of his eyes.

Wracked with guilt and suspected of plotting her death, Talanov spirals downward on a path of self-destruction. He should have been killed, not her.  He was the one whose violent past would not leave them alone. Months tick by and Talanov hits rock bottom on the mean streets of Los Angeles, where he meets a hooker named Larisa, who drugs and robs him.

But in the seedy world of prostitution and human trafficking ruled by the Russian mafia, this hooker made the big mistake of stealing the ice man’s wallet. In it was Talanov’s sole possession of value: his wedding photo. Talanov tracks Larisa down to get that photo because it reminds him of everything that should have been but never was, and never would be because an assassin’s bullet had mistakenly killed his wife.

Or was it a mistake?

The answer lies in Greco’s Game, a chess match played in 1619 that is famous for its Queen sacrifice and checkmate in only eight moves. In an unusual alliance, Talanov and Larisa team up to begin unraveling the mystery of what Talanov’s old KGB chess instructor regarded as the most brilliant example of how to trap and kill an opponent.

The question is: who was the target?

More information, along with sneak peeks and the entire first chapter, can be found in the Books section of James Houston Turner's website (
www.jameshoustonturner.com). More information can be found on the official Greco's Game Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/GrecosGame). James and his wife, Wendy, live in Adelaide, South Australia.