Friday, July 30, 2004

Women Win, Orchids Rule and Elvis Lives

This is how James Patterson looks in the flesh: wistful, sensitive, a little sporty, much the way he looks on the covers of his books. Amazingly, this is how he does not look: exhausted. The man is a publishing powerhouse, with best sellers that arrive regularly at four-month intervals. He has four brand-name ideas up and running: rhymes ("Roses Are Red"), numbers ("1st to Die"), houses ("The Lake House") and correspondence ("Sam's Letters to Jennifer," his latest). He averages three books a year, but next year there will be five.

How does he do it? "Mr. P." (as he is called on the cover of his next foray, "santaKid," a Christmas book for children) is not the only best-selling dynamo who brings this question to mind.

Actually, Mr. Patterson's trade secrets are more understandable than most. His sentences, paragraphs and chapters are famously short, so that the style of the children's book, despite illustrations and words like hiya and cool, is not so unlike that of the adult ones. And his marketing skills are not to be sneezed at. Sure, "santaKid" describes how an evil corporation tries to buy Christmas and take over the North Pole. But its own sleigh will be pulled by a million-dollar marketing campaign, according to Little, Brown & Company's latest catalog. Promotional Santa hats will be part of the holiday cheer.

Busy as he is (with a young adult novel also in the pipeline), Mr. Patterson is a lazybones by some lights. Danielle Steel works at an even more breathless pace. And if she seems to sell endless versions of the same romance to the same readers, perhaps that's because she has refined the art of glam-dropping to a science. "Second Chance," her latest, invites readers to identify with a heroine, one Fiona Monaghan, who is "an icon in the fashion world" and looks "like Katharine Hepburn with a little dash of Rita Hayworth."

Fiona is "constantly surrounded by photographers, assistants, designers, models, artists and a flock of hangers-on." She is "all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful and all-caring."

Caring is an interesting word there: Ms. Steel shies away from the selfish, ruthless, shameless home-wrecker type, preferring something more genteel. She would rather focus on inadvertent fabulousness, as in: "She had never paid much attention to the impact she had on men, she was always too busy thinking and talking about a variety of topics." That syntax makes sense only if you notice the 62 other titles on the current "Also by Danielle Steel" list and realize that the author hasn't much time to sweat the small stuff, like periods and commas.

Sustaining such popularity has unusual prerequisites. It is not entirely necessary to be alive, for instance. The Archy McNally novels of Lawrence Sanders have continued to appear well past Sanders's death, with the franchise handed down to Vincent Lardo, whose name appears in pint-size letters on the cover of "McNally's Bluff." Mr. Lardo also wrote five preceding books in the McNally series, which The Boston Globe has called "effortlessly written to be effortlessly enjoyed." Still, the effortlessness of Sanders (whose name appears in very large letters) falls into a special category.

Peddling the dead can be accomplished in other ways, too: "Such Vicious Minds" is the latest in a series of mysteries (including "Blue Suede Clues" and "Viva Las Vengeance") that star the post-mortal Elvis Presley as a character. As written by Daniel Klein, this latest installment features a real Elvis, a fake Elvis and a blurb for the series ("I enjoyed this sequel as much as the first book") from no less a Presley fan than Bill Clinton. As for Elvis, well, he's still talking about pink Cadillacs and saying "Ma'am."

The 42nd president of the United States is certain to have had more fun with this than he might with "American Evita," a hatchet job by the prolific Christopher Andersen. With "Madonna: Unauthorized," "Sweet Caroline: Last Child of Camelot," "The Day Diana Died" and (his best title, for a book about Jane Fonda) "Citizen Jane" to his credit, Mr. Andersen is another speed demon, with tactics all his own. "Sex, power, money, lies, scandal, tragedy and betrayal were the things that defined the public lives of both women," he writes, by way of explaining how "American Evita" equates Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton with Eva PerĂ³n.

Mr. Andersen, a king of the clip job, recycles old news while adding a scandal-sheet spin. So sources like "one longtime ally," "someone" and "a close family friend" are relied upon. And words like consummate and ultimate set the tone of overkill. "Hillary would later recall" generally indicates a detail lifted from Senator Clinton's own book, although Mr. Andersen never slows down to connect quotes with specific sources. Every now and then (" `What do you mean?' she yelled, as Bill turned vermilion"), Mr. Andersen's creativity is all his own.

At least give him credit for filling 292 pages with printed words. "Woman Power," Dr. Laura Schlessinger's latest dose of nonfree advice, actually relies on the time-saving use of blank space. Throughout this book, there are nearly empty pages that the reader is supposed to fill in herself. Herself? I think it's fair to assume that no man is going to read a book that asks: "What less-than-positive wifely actions and attitudes did you recognize as yours?" In any case, Dr. Laura leaves room for a 10-line answer.

"What motivated you to read `The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands?' " she asks about her own most recent bossy best seller. (That one warrants 11 blank lines.)

Surely there are better ways for an author to be self-referential. Consider "Song of Susannah," the sixth installment in Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series, which is by now so complicated that it has spun off a book-length concordance explaining people, places, events and mutants — yes, mutants — from Volumes I to IV. Even Mr. King acknowledges that when he sat down to write Volume V, "Wolves of the Calla," in 2001, he needed the refresher course of listening to the first four installments on audiotape.

"The Dark Tower" may not be easily picked up in mid-epic, but here is a warning: Sept. 21, Mr. King's birthday, will be a red-letter day for its loyal readers. That's when all will be revealed in the final installment, called "The Dark Tower" and standing at 845 pages in prepublication galley form. Anyone already in possession of it has been asked to "Please respect the `Dark Tower' fans that have been waiting for over 30 years to read the conclusion of Roland's quest" and not give away the end of the story.

Unbelievably, this is the same on-sale date scheduled for the third and final volume of Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle," "The System of the World," which is even longer: 912 pages, in smaller print. Truly, Sept. 21 will be a day for the girding of loins and the getting of glasses, because both these series are worth following to their finales. And both authors, however they did it, have managed to give Middle Earth a run for its money.

On a more modest note, Sue Grafton is merely working her way through the alphabet with Kinsey Millhone, private detective, one book at a time. Suspense still attends the question of what will happen when Kinsey gets to X — or Z! — but "R Is for Ricochet" is another of Ms. Grafton's sensible-sounding installments.  (A, B and C were for Alibi, Burglar and Corpse, respectively.) 

By now, at R, there are signs of fatigue: on the first page we learn about the weather. ("Morning cloudiness had given way to sunshine.") On the second it is revealed that Kinsey likes an olive and pimiento cheese sandwich for lunch. Descriptions are worrisomely flat. ("The lawns were wide and well tended, and the quiet was underlined by the twittering of finches.") Still, Ms. Grafton has much the same reliability as Janet Evanovich, not to mention much the same readership. Each of them dishes up the mystery-novel equivalent of comfort food.

Eric Jerome Dickey, whose latest is "Drive Me Crazy," specializes in steamier fare. He likes to describe a woman "head to toe, wedding ring to thong." He likes the kind of anti-hero who found himself "being a man in need of a new sin." And this novel's main character, an ex-con turned chauffeur called Driver, is the kind of guy who can say "you're silk and lace in a blue jean world" and get away with it. Mr. Dickey's characters have enough sultry self-confidence to suggest, at their best, a Prince song on paper.

"He didn't give you anything I can't take away with a phone call," the wife of Driver's boss threatens.

"And you didn't give me nothing I couldn't buy for a hundred dollars," Driver replies.

Even hotter than the previous exchange, "sticky and heavy with desire," with "a thick tongue-flap of tissue separating the mass from the moist female organs below," is . . . what? The vanilla orchid, that's what. Tim Ecott describes it so lovingly and elaborately that his "Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid" joins the ranks of fashionably myopic scientific histories. The format's success relies on both the author's doggedness and the reader's curiosity. Salt, quinine, the color magenta: each has had its in-depth studies, and now the vanilla bean is ready to be in vogue. At least one other vanilla-ography will be published later this year.

At least vanilla won't hurt you. It does not turn up in the "V" section of Laura Lee's "100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them," though vacations (you might die snorkeling), vegetables (watch out for the spud-shooting potato gun), vending machines (don't hit them or they'll fall on you) and vitamins (kids eat them like candy) do. In this, the perfect book for anyone who does not already have enough to worry about, Ms. Lee accentuates the hazardous in certain commonplace objects. Uh-oh: beware of books.

There are moldy old books that carry hallucinogenic spores. There are new ones — by Mr. King or Mr. Stephenson, for instance — that could fall and break your toe. And there are books that are absolutely harmless, like "Lunchbox: Inside and Out," by Jack Mingo and Erin Barrett, which simply depicts collectibles from the wide world of vintage lunch containers. How did they do it? Sometimes there's an even better question: Why?

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