December 31, 2009

Benjamin Franklink: The autobiography and other writings **

** Benjamin Franklink: The autobiography and other writings, Benjamin Franklin, 1961

I finally got through one of the four large books I'm reading before the end of the year. Like Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence this is another volume from my dad's bookshelf. Interesting, but slow going. I'll have to dig out some of the tidbits for a quotes party.

December 24, 2009

While You Were Sleeping **

** While You Were Sleeping, Dan Sullivan and Fred Lebow, 1995

In the 90s, this became the official Wunderfool family movie. We've seen it dozens of times. It's nicely constructed with some great lines and some groaners. When The Woman pulled it out for Christmas viewing, I tracked down a copy of the script to read along. It's an earlier draft and it's amazing how drastically improved the final script is. I'm assuming Sullivan and Lebow did the rewrites, since imdb.com lists them as the writers. However, this as the only writing credit for them. Oh well.

December 17, 2009

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) ***

*** Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), Jerome K. Jerome, 1889

This book may be 120 years old, but it's still funny as dammit. I learned of the existence of this book from To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, also worth reading. JKJ was an influence on Wodehouse, as I learned from the bio I'm currently reading and from the style of this book.

I never got around to finding a copy in a bookstore. Instead, I grabbed text copy from Gutenberg.org, and snagged a Librivox.org audio book while I was at it. I listened to about half of the book and read the other half.

A note on Librivox. Free is a good price for an audio book, but the old thing of "you get what you pay for" still applies. In this case, the 19 chapters were narrated by almost as many different people from different countries and widely varied accents, not all of whom knew how to pronounce "Thames" or "row" as in, "Harris and I had a bit of a row over it" in which case it rhymes with "cow" not "tow." On the upside, I listened to half the book while taking care of two projects (hanging a towel rack and fixing burnt-out Xmas tree lights), both of which presented highly frustrating complications which bothered me a lot less since I had a hilarious audio book keeping me company.

Back to TMiaB (TSNotD), for the most part it was very satisfyingly funny in an understated 19th-century British kind of way, much more so that I was expecting. There were a few places where JKJ went off on a lyrical or historical tangent and required some skimming. But aside from those 3 or 4 spots, it was excellent.

I also NetFlixed a movie adaptation from 1956. It was mind-numbingly horrid. Be advised.

December 14, 2009

Chekhov on Marriage

Here's an incisive quote from Anton Chekhov as related in Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount, Jr.

Very well, then, I shall marry . . . But under the following conditions: everything must continue as it was before, in other words, she must live in Moscow and I in the country, and I'll go visit her. I will never be able to stand the sort of happiness that lasts from one day to the next, from one morning to the next. Whenever someone talks to me day after day about the same thing in the same tone of voice, it brings out the ferocity in me . . . I promise to be a splendid husband, but give me a wife who, like the moon, does not appear in my sky every day. I won't write any better for having gotten married.
Don't show this to The Woman!

Quotes From Stuff I Like - Greene

Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene

Another book I read (or in this case, re-read) while writing Escape From Fred. Once you've read it, you can see how this book might have informed it. Greene was my favorite author until I discovered Robertson Davies.

p. 55. It’s odd how sharing a sense of doubt can bring two men together perhaps even more that sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; the doubter fights only with himself.

December 12, 2009

Carlos Santana on influences

If you drink orange juice, once you sweat it it's yours. Oranges really don't belong to anybody. -Carlos Santana

December 10, 2009

The Day Job

This Dilbert cartoon illustrates the value of my services in the day job.

Weekend at Bernies **

** Weekend at Bernies, Robert Klane, 1988

On a recommendation from Reneau to watch this in connection with my latest project, I watched this. I found the script online and read it as I was watching. I found it amusing, but not as hilarious as everyone else seems to find it. Oh well.

December 7, 2009

Mark Heard

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

Mark Heard died in 1992 at age 40. He had a minor heart attack on stage at a festival, but finished his set before going to the hospital. A week later he had another heart attack and went into a coma from which he never recovered. He left behind a collection of songs that are startling and heartbreaking in their clarity and insight.

Gvien the fact that he died before the internet became commercial, much less before the YouTube age, there's not a lot of good video of him online. Here's one of the few somewhat decent (almost) samples: Treasure of the Broken Land

A less-than-great, dubbed-from-cassette upload of Look Over Your Shoulder:

A 17-song tribute album (Strong Hand of Love) was released in 1994, and another, with those same songs and 17 more (Orphans of God) was release in 1996. It's a must have. Seriously.

December 5, 2009

Buddy ***

*** Buddy, 2003

Not sure what led me to this movie. I watched on Netflix instant play. Some really good writing. They never lost an opportunity to increase the tension. Worth watching. [Norwegian, with subtitles.]

December 3, 2009

The Art of War for Writers ****

**** The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell, 2009

Hmm. The only other 4-star books I read this year were Story and Edgar Sawtelle. And now this one, making two writing books in the list. Interesting.

I'm a small-time conniseur of books on writing. I have two dozen on my shelf right now, not to mention the ones I gave away or otherwise discarded through the years.

The advantage that The Art of War for Writers has over Story is that it is much smaller. [23 cubic inches vs 93 cubic inches. Not that I rate books by their volume. I rate them by how large an insect or animal I can kill with them. So this is really a roach-killing book vs a mouse-killing book.] Why is that an advantage, you ask?

Story sat on my shelf for two years untouched because it was daunting to even think about having to wade through it. The Art of War for Writers, on the other hand, is small and inviting. And, even better, it's divided into 77 little topics of 2 to 4 pages of advice. I started reading it almost before I got it all the way out of the bag.

But there is one thing they have in common: Both are great books on writing. And another thing: Both are keepers - books you'll want to refer to in the future.

The book is divided into three sections:

  • Reconnaisance: advice on getting mentally, physicall, emotionally, practically ready for the life of writing and for sitting down to write
  • Tactics: advice on how to write well
  • Strategy: advice on how to sell your work and thrive in the post-publication world

There's not a false note anywhere in the book. The only fault I could find was the omission of my excellent advice for aspiring writers: Quit now and avoid the rush.

SPOILER ALERT! Instead, he ends the book with Onward. Keep fighting. Keep writing. Much more encouraging. Which is one reason why he's creating books on writing and I'm not.

Bell also writes best-selling novels (so he knows whereof which he speaks) and is an erstwhile fiction columnist for Writer's Digest. He's also a lawyer. And a ukulele player. [Or should that be an ukulele player? These things are so tricky.]

Note: Pursuant to full disclosure under FTC 16 CFR Part 255, I actually got a review copy of this book, which is my sole compensation for writing this review. However, if the book had sucked giant ostrich eggs, I would say so because that's the kind of frank, honest, forthright jerk that I am. So, don't send me anything to review. If I don't like it, I'll say so, politely and devastatingly. Your ego has been warned!

November 26, 2009

Chinatown ***

*** Chinatown, Robert Towne, 1973

Chinatown is a classic, but, like many other classic things, I missed it the first time around. It's used for examples in dozens of screenwriting books, and the nefarious Mr. Polanski was in the news, so I figured it was time to see/read it.

There were some interesting differences between Draft 3 and what made it on the screen, like the scene where Nicholson and Dunaway escape the nursing home, and especially the ending, which was quite different. Towne and Polanski had significant differences on the ending and it wasn't until 20 years later that Towne came around to agreeing with Polanski's take on the ending.

The script reads a lot more gumshoe than the film looks. And Nicholson and Houston bring some menacing power to the breakfast scene that goes beyond the page. But it's clear why this was an instant classic. Towne went on to write the screenplay for a lot of exciting movies, including The Firm, MI-1 and MI-2.

Worth the read.

November 19, 2009

Grosse Point Blank ***

*** Grosse Point Blank, Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. deVincentis , S.K. Boatman , John Cusack

I'm currently reading several giant books:

  • Songwriters on Songwriting - 752 pages
  • Wodehouse: A Life - 530 pages
  • Alphabet Juice - 384 pages
  • Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings - only 270 pages, but small type and slow going

Which explains why I'm not ready to offer a review this week. However, I realized that the other reason is that I've been reading screenplays, which I have not reviewed. I can fix that.

My current project has a character that could be unsympathetic (a nurse who helps in assisted suicides) and I wanted some pointers in how to make a potentially unsympathetic character more sympathetic. To that end, I found a copy of the Grosse Point Blank screenplay online and rented the movie to watch it again as I read.

I read 30 pages or so, watched until I caught up to that point, paused to read more, watched more, etc. until I got through both the movie and the screenplay in one sitting.

In case you don't know, the movie is about a professional hit man who is having a career and identity crisis. One thing I learned right away is, if you want the character to be more sympathetic, cast John Cusak in the role.

As I read the dialog on the page of Martin Blank talking to his assistant while doing a hit, I had a much more hard-nosed tone in mind. But can you imagine Cusak delivering anything hard-nosed? Exactly.

The other thing they did was make the character more accessible by making him less foreign. What do you have in common with a professional killer? Not much, I hope. But how about a guy who is conflicted about attending his 10-year high school reunion? A lot more.

I applied this knowledge to my project by showing the emotional connection between the nurse and those she assists. Before, she was a little more business-like. I think the change is an improvement. We'll see what the critique group says next year when my time slot comes up.

The other interesting thing was to note the differences between the draft I read and what was on the screen. New material, deleted material, conversations moved to other scenes. Good stuff for evaluation.

November 11, 2009

The Bookman's Promise ***

*** The Bookman's Promise, John Dunning, 2004

This is vintage Dunning and worth the read. One caveat: There's a 50-page section that is the journal of a guy in the 1860s. Historical fiction is not what I'm looking for when I pick up a Cliff Janeway novel, but it worked out OK. Good stuff.

November 9, 2009

Quotes From Stuff I Like - Mason

The Gospel According to Job, Mike Mason

I read this book while writing Escape From Fred, because matters of faith and dealing with what sometimes seems like a precarious or absent diety. A little more serious than others in the quotes series, but some good stuff, as Mason consistently delivers. If you haven't read it, you must stop what you're doing right now and read The Mystery of Marriage, even if you're not married.

p. xi. Mercy is the permission to be human.

p. xi. Sometimes laying hold of the cross can be comforting; but other times it’s like picking up a snake.

p. 36. Real worship has less to do with offering sacrifices than with being a sacrifice ourselves.

It is wonderful to be filled with mystical rapture at the thought of Calvary. But more wonderful still, because more worshipful, is the moment when the rough wood touches our flesh and the nail bites.

p. 126. Love is the humility in which self becomes subservient to relationship.

p. 174. [on dying to self] For the truth is we do not die all at once but little by little, and every time a little part of us is nailed to the cross and dies immediately, the grace of the Lord Jesus flows into that dead part and renews it. This is how we live by grace. The power of grace is activated through the cross.

Too many Christians are looking for graceless fix-it solutions to their problems, and to the problems of others as well. We forget that one of the great mysteries of the gospel is that God did not fix us when He saved us. By grace He simply saved us, warts and all.

p. 176. Anger at God can be a sign of spiritual growth. It can mean we are outgrowing a concept of God that is no longer adequate for us. It could even be said that our anger is not directed at the living God Himself but at our own idolatrous concept of Him. While we ourselves may not understand this, nevertheless our anger functions to move us closer to God as He really is.

p. 273. Faith is the ability to tolerate the intolerable paradox of God’s clear and undisputed title as Lord of the universe in spite of His apparent absence.

p. 279. A clean conscience is not one that is without guilt, but one that is without blame. In an honest and healthy conscience, there is always a sense of guilt, but blame is continually being washed away by the blood of Christ.

p. 306. What we need to realize is that only as sinners can we be disciples of Jesus. A saint cannot pick up the cross; only a sinner can pick up a cross. This is a profound mystery; but with our saintly selves, with that part of ourselves that has been sanctified and devoted to God, we cannot touch the cross. Only a sinful nature can touch the cross. It has to be flesh against bare wood. Mere spirit will not hold a nail.

November 5, 2009

Save The Cat! ***

*** Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, Blake Snyder, 2005

This has been on my shelf for a while, but having read two screenwriting books back-to-back, I decided to let this one age for a while. Then, while discussing my latest project with a guy in L.A., I received a stern admonission to not write another word until I read this book. Being a compliant sort, I complied.

This is a good book on screenwriting with a lot of good ideas. It didn't bring everything together in a grand Unified Field Theory for me the way Hague did, but it is as valuable a read.

Four stars for screenwriters.

November 2, 2009

Jack Williams

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

In 1996 I was living in Aiken, South Carolina. I heard that there was live acoustic music on Sunday night at a place called The Whiskey Junction on Whiskey Road. I got there early. It was a dive in the back of a convenience store / gas station. The kind of place where the floor, walls, and ceiling are painted black and you read about in the police report every Monday for the devilment that happens in the parking lot on Friday and Saturday night.

The crowd looked pretty rough. Tough looking guys in jeans and flannel shirts at the bar. Ropers playing pool. I ordered a Guiness, nodded to the guys at the bar, and retreated to the brightest spot in the room, a back corner table under a Bud Light sign, to read my book. I think it was PJ O'Rourke's Parliment of Whores.

They eyeballed me occasionally, the guy sitting by himself, smoking a pipe, wearing a tweed jacket, drinking a strange black beer and reading. I'm surprised I didn't get my butt kicked that night. [I became a regular and even played a gig there several months later, but that's another story.]

A few minutes before showtime, a long tall drink of water came in with a guitar and amp and set up. After a quick sound check, he started playing and it didn't take but a few measures to convince me to close my book and give him my full attention. Great guitar playing, great songwriting, nice voice. I was in the right place.

As the set wore on, one detail puzzled me. He would switch from using a pick to fingerpicking without setting the pick down anywhere. It would just disappear and then suddenly reappear, sometimes several times within a song. I was too far back to see what was really going on.

After his first break I met him as he left the stage and asked him 3 questions:

  1. Do you have any CDs? [Answer, yes, but he didn't bring them in because the Junction isn't the type of place where people typically crowd around to get CDs. I got a copy of Highway from Back Home, which is no longer available, and Dreams of the Song Dog.]
  2. What gauge strings do you use. [Answer, if I remember correctly, is ultra light and a good amp setup to give it body.]
  3. What the heck are you doing with that pick? [Answer, "Feel my finger." I was skeptical at first. It sounded like some joke. But he held his finger out and I felt it. There big callouses at the joints. He demostrated how he sliped it into the crook of a finger and held it there while fingerpicking. It took me several months, but I eventually learned that little trick.]

During the second break he came back to my table and we hung out for a while, chatting. Nice guy, in case you were wondering.

Here are a few selections to give you the feel of his style, one I wish I had the time and dedication to emulate.

Morning Sun

Natural Man

October 29, 2009

The Secret Life of Bees ***

*** The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd, 2002

Gina Prince-Bythewood had a session at the Austin Film Festival, and The Woman, a DVD addict, recently bought the movie, so I sat down to watch it in preparation for the session. I was so overwhelmed, I sent The Woman out for the novel the next day. [I rarely leave the house and she leaves it not only for the day job but also for her many shopping excursions.] I read the novel in a week. It was great and had stuff not in the movie, but I also noticed that Prince-Bythewood's adaptation tightened up some spots.

So, I was armed with questions for the session, mainly about creative decisions about things left out and things added in. The session was as entertaining as the movie. If you haven't seen the movie or read the book, I recommend both.

October 26, 2009

Austin Film Festival

The Austin Film Festival consists of eight days of film screenings and four days of conference sessions. The conference ended yesterday and there's four more days of screenings left. So far, I've seen:
  • Serious Moonlight: Meg Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Kristen Bell, Justin Long. Entertaining
  • Godspeed: Left halfway through, way too slow, didn't buy the character motivations
  • Simmons on Vinyl: Potts brothers 2nd feature. The first, The Stanton Grave Robbery, was made for $5,000. This one was made for $300. It's a buy-a-6-pack-and-laugh-at-goofy-stuff kind of movie.
  • Tales from the Script: Interviews with dozens of screenwriters. Excellent.
  • The Scenesters: Entertaining, but I had to leave halfway through for the Filmmaker Happy Hour.
  • Apollo 13: Didn't really need to see this again, but the Q&A afterward with Ron Howard, Jim Lovell, guys from Mission Control and the screenwriters was a must-see. I got to shake Ron Howard's hand at the Conferenc Wrap party after.
  • Todd P Goes to Austin: I was supposed to see this, but Apollo 13 took longer than I thought, so I missed it.
  • The Messenger: Great film. I was supposed to see Earthwork, but when I got out of the last session I discovered my car battery had died and Earthwork started before my car did.

Still left to watch:

October 22, 2009

The World Is Flat ***

*** The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman, 2005

I read From Beirut to Jerusalem last year and gave it three stars. This book is 20 years newer but feels more dated because technology, and particularly the internet and telecommunications, have changed much more in the past 4 years than the Arab-Israeli struggle has in the last 20 years. Maybe even the past 50 years.

It's a long read, but it aced the elliptical test, causing me to exercise for an hour without realizing it in some sessions. It's about globalization and events and technologies that have led to a flattening of the world in the sense of more equal opportunity for success, regardless of location. He also talks about inhibitors to flattening.

But the most startling thing for me was this excerpt he included from The Communist Manifesto, which sounds like it could have been written by a 21st century capitalist.

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodgedby new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

Wow. That Marx guy seemed to know what the 21st century would look like 160 years ago.

Anther interesting thing was Friedman's Dell Theory of Conflict Avoidance, updated from his Golden Arches Theory. Check it out. And read this book in this decade!

October 15, 2009

Candide ***

*** Candide, Voltaire, 1759

I found Candide, recommended by The Griggster, to be entertaining at first, but eventually tiresome as the litany of Candide's serial disasters, interlarded with strawman swipes at contemporary targets of Voltaire's contempt, became somewhat episodic and monochromatic.

But I did laugh quite a bit in the first few chapters. On the other hand, that response was perhaps enhanced by the cigars and martinis. Or at least the martinis.

Three stars for lovers of literature, two for everyone else.

October 12, 2009

Quotes From Stuff I Like - Nash

A few tidbits from Marriage Lines.

That is why marriage is so much more interesting than divorce,
Because it's the only known example of the happy meeting of the immovable object and the irresistible force.
So I hope husbands and wives will continue to debate and combat over everything debatable and combatable,
Because I believe a little incompatibility is the spice of life, particularly if he has income and she is pattable.


Speaking of wisdom and wealth and grace --
As recently I have dared to --
There are lots of people compared to whom
I'd rather not be compared to.
There are people I ought to wish I was;
But under the circumstances,
I prefer to continue my life as me --
For nobody else has Francis


A prepared postition Man hankers for
Is parallel to and above the floor,
For thither retreating horizontally,
He evades the issues that charge him frontally.


From: They Won't Believe On New Year's Eve, That New Year's Day Will Come What May

How do I feel today? I feel as unfit as an unfiddle,
And it is the result of a certain turbulence in the mind and an uncertain burbulence in the middle.

October 8, 2009

Marriage Lines ***

*** Marriage Lines, Ogden Nash, 1948

Right up front I'll say, I'm not a fan of poetry. Most of it does little or nothing for me. On the other hand, I count Idylls of the King as one of the top 10 books I've ever read. So go figure.

I picked up this slim (108 pages) first edition hardback on a whim. Very nicely done, it is. Good bedside reading because of the bite-sized pieces, most 1 or 2 pages long. Here are two of the shorter ones:

A Word To Husbands

To keep you marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenver you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.

My Dream

Here is a dream. It is my dream,
My own dream,
I dreamt it.
I dreamt that my hair was kempt,
Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.

In honor of Nash, here's a bit I wrote over a decade ago.

One potato, two potato,
Umpty squat.
You're my little sweet potato,
I'm your tater tot

Maybe I'll write a book of poetry!

October 6, 2009

I didn't get anything to write this review

Note: Pursuant to FTC 16 CFR Part 255, (more human-friendly info here) I'm happy to tell you that nobody gave me whichever book I'm reviewing, or paid me anything to review it, nor do I have any affliliate links to bookseller websites where I can make money off this review.

The plain fact is that I bought this thing myself (probably from Half Price Books or Amazon) and read it for no other reason that it sounded interesting. And then I blogged about it because I'm a complusive writer. I might keep the book, which is OK, since I paid for it, or I might take it to Half Price Books, or I might give it away. Or I might use it to prop up the short leg of my writing desk.

Whatever I chose to do, it shouldn't concern the FTC, so they should just move along. Nothing to see here, folks.

October 5, 2009

Mose Allison

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

I don't recall where I first heard Mose Allison. His voice won't stop the presses, but he's a killer keyboard plaer and the vibe rules all. Here are a few of my faves.

Your Mind is on Vacation

Getting There

October 1, 2009

The Last Olympian ***

*** The Last Olympian, Rick Riordan, 2009

Depending on whether you read the book jacket or the website, this is either the last book in the Percy Jackson series, or the last book in the first Percy Jackson series. Let us hope it is the latter.

As I mentioned in the review of the 4th in the series, if you like contemporary juvenile fantasy series, you owe it to yourself to check out Rick's work, starting at the beginning. And the movie of the first comes out next year, so now is the time to get ahead of the curve. Be the first on your block!

September 24, 2009

The Hero's Two Journeys ***

*** The Hero's Two Journeys, Michael Hauge & Christopher Vogler, 2009

Being a big fan of Vogler from reading The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters last year, and a new fan of Hague after scrapping the 6th draft of Endless Vacation to start over from blank paper based on our conversation on the ride from the airport and taking frantic notes in his excellent seminar the next day, it was a no brainer to get this DVD set. There are two "journey" DVDs, inner and outer, a DVD analyzing the structure of Erin Brockovich, and an audio CD of Writing Screenplays That Sell, all worth the price of admission.

I do think that Vogler's ideas came across better in the book than on the DVD. I haven't read a Hauge book, so I can't say the same there, but his six stage story structure is a must-learn for the sake of encapsulating all the things you've already learned from other sources into a framework that shows how it all fits together.

For aspiring screenwriters, I'd put it at four stars.

September 17, 2009

Story ****

**** Story, Robert McKee, 1996

I've read a lot of books on writing, but this one might be the best I've read. Definitely in the top three. It passed the Elliptical Test with flying colors. I actually looked forward to working out because I knew I would get to read it.

The funny thing is, it's the iconic work for screenwriters to read and I'm just now getting around to it. But the timing is good. I'm between revisions on my latest project, and now I have a lot to think about as I do the next edit.

If you're writing any kind of fiction -- screenplay, novel, short story -- you should read this book immediately. Like right now. Now!

September 14, 2009

Quotes From Stuff I Like - Theroux

Hotel Honolulu, Paul Theroux

This guy is a great writer. You might have seen the Harrison Ford movie made from his book, Mosquito Coast. The movie was good. The book was better.

p. 4. A large square building with porches like pulled-out bureau drawers.

p. 6. “It’s not rocket surgery.”

p. 11. A boss’s comedy is always an employee’s hardship.

p. 25. On the beach everyone is a body.

p. 48. Games are the pastimes of men who cannot bear to be alone, who do not read.

p. 55. Fiction can be an epistle to the living, but more often the things we write, believing they matter, are letters to the dead.

p. 87. Guilt shows clearest on the faces of older people, whose skin is so full of detail.

p. 133. She was in the secrets keeping business, and I was a collector of secrets.

p. 166. She climbed on him and hugged him with all her bones, clinging like a little gecko on a big crumbling tree trunk.

p. 382. You’re a writer. Among other things, that’s a pathological condition.

September 10, 2009

Blinding Light ***

*** Blinding Light, Paul Theroux, 2005

I'm a fan of Theroux, not as fond of his writing as I am of say, Richard Russo, Robertson Davies, or Rick Riordan, but a fan. Theroux is a good writer.

I first encountered his work by watching Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford. Very depressing movie. Then I read the book. Great writing, not as depressing. Go figure. Several years later I read Hotel Honolulu. (Theroux has a home on the north shore.) It was good. I have some quotes from it coming up soon.

Blinding Light also showcases Theroux's great writing, but with two qualifiers. There were times when the story sang, but other times when I found myself thinking, "Come one, get on with it. You've expounded on this aspect of Steadman's character a dozen times, already." I don't know if my screenplay work has made me less patient, or if the book really did drag in spots. And the blindness theme seemed a bit overdone in spots as well.

The other issue is the sheer quantity of explicit, and I do mean very explicit, sex scenes. They were relevant to the plot, but as I've said before, I'm not into sex as a spectator sport, more of as a participant. I almost downgraded it to two stars because it seemed so excessive. To my tastes.

In short, a well written book with an interesting premise, great characters and a surprising cameo appearance of W. J. B. Clinton as "the president." And, if you like your sex on paper, this is the book for you.

September 7, 2009

Steve Earle

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

Steve Earle is from the nasal-mumblers school of vocalists and the hold-the-phone-damnation-thats-one-helluva-good-song school of songwriting. If you haven't listened to him before, do youself and troll through YouTube and sample some stuff. Here's my favorite.


Here's Emmy Lou and Spyboy with a great cover.

Holy cow, looks like Steve has a Townes tribute album! Time to update my BoxedUp.com wish list.

September 3, 2009

Writing the Modern Mysery **

** Writing the Modern Mystery, Barbara Norville, 1992

Got this on some bargain rack or garage sale and slated it for the upstairs bathroom standby. Diverting, but much has happened in the genre in the almost two decades since it was written.

August 28, 2009

Sex in books

I prefer to experience sex, not read about it. Or watch it in a movie.

In my humble, but accurate, opinion, sex is not a spectator sport. Like breathing, eating and eliminating waste, it is something you do. And I don't find much pleasure in watching people do those things, either.


August 27, 2009

Weird Texas **

** Weird Texas, Wesley Treat, Heather Shades, Rob Riggs, and Mark Moran, 2005

Our realtor gave this this to us for a house-warming gift when we moved in Oct, 2008. It's a good coffeetable book, but we don't have a coffetable, so it became the bathroom book. (You know, the book with short snippets you can skim on your visits to the throne.) As a result, it took a while to get through it.

I was put off at first because the first third of the book focuses on paranormal phoenoms, with sections labeled Local Legends, Ancient Mysteries, Fabled People and Places, Unexplained Phenomena, and Bizarre Beasts. I have little patience with what I consider vain speculations about "facts" of questionable provenance.

Finally, after months of celebrating the final stage of the gastro-intestinal process, I arrived at the sections called Local Heroes and Villains, Personalized Properties, Roadside Oddities, and Roads Less Traveled. This was the kind of stuff I was interested in and it worked well.

Unfortunately, it was followed by Haunted Places and Ghostly Tales, and Cemetery Safari, bookending the content of substance with content of little interest to me. YMMV.

August 20, 2009

The Better Angels **

** The Better Angels, Charles McCarry, 1979

Had to try another McCarry to see how he writes when he's not doing a dossier style. And the answer is, much better, but still pretty dry. However, he's got a real knack for the nice turn of phrase which pops up occasionally and makes me glad I read the book. Here are a few examples:

  • "Rationality is the enemy of consciousness."
  • She had mastered a vocabulary, but she had no ideas, only passions.
  • The table had been laid in the garden: white damask and blue china and silver as thin as an old voice.
  • "Where I come from, they've always liked a dead man a whole lot better than a coward."

There were some intriguing things about the book. It was written in the 1970s but set in the 1990s. McCarry's 90s included an atheistic, rational Republican party set on annexing Canada and building gulags in Alaska for dissenters, a religious Democratic party that imposed gas rationing and mandatory lights out for the entire country at 10pm, a Democratic president that had nicknames for everyone, much like Dubyah did, a private computer network that spanned the globe via telephone lines, and female fundamentalist Muslim suicide bombers with explosives implanted in their bodies blowing themselves up at US national monuments. (And at the Alamo!)

On the other hand, there was too much sex in it for my tastes. The book was also laden, almost turgid, with backstory larded in as early as page two. Not the pacing one expects from a political thriller in this millenium.

But, overall, a decent, if not must, read.

August 10, 2009

Quotes From Stuff I Like - Gardner

I found some quotes from stuff I like jotted down in a notebook the other day and thought I'd share some of them with you. Here's the first batch, a small, numbered, single-barrel batch.

On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner

p. 42. Teaching creative writing, one constantly hears students say of their work, “I am trying to show . . .” The error of this is obvious once it’s pointed out. Does the twenty- or twenty-five-year-old writer really have brilliant insights that the intelligent reading public (doctors, lawyers, professors, skilled machinists, business men) has never before heard or thought of? If the young novelist’s answer is an emphatic yes, he would do the world a favor by entering the ministry or the Communist party. If I belabor the point, I do so only because the effect of English literature courses is so often, for a certain kind of student, insidious.

p. 43. One of the great temptations of young writers is to believe that all the people in the subdivision in which he grew up were fools and hypocrites in need of blasting or instruction. As he matures, the writer will come to realize, with luck, that the people he scorned had important virtues, that they had better heads and hearts, than he knew. The desire to show people proper beliefs and attitudes is inimical to the noblest impulses of fiction.

August 6, 2009

The Everlasting Man **

** The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton, 1925

I read this book because The Number One Son has been raving about it for years. Well, he can have it. (In fact, I stole it off his shelf, and as soon has he gets back from his trip, I'll sneak it back on his shelf.)

Chesterton is a genius, and master of the paradox, as can be seen in his Father Brown stories, which are excellent. I'm told this book was dictated, which could account for the turgid style, but that is no excuse. If you want folks to read 200+ pages of small type, like I did, you owe it to them to edit the thing after you dictate it.

Worth reading if you like this sort of thing, which I probably did back in the day, seeing as how I read all 5 volumes of the collected works of Francis Schaeffer and other similar stuff a few decades ago. Not my kind of reading any more, however. I'm less patient as I have less time left to read.

August 3, 2009

Tom Waits

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

I first saw Tom Waits on Saturday Night Live in 1977 doing Eggs and Sausage. Interesting, but not my vibe at the time. (Here's a funky accapella version I've never heard before. With French subtitles, no less. Like, I dig it, man.)

The first time I was blown away by Waits was when I heard Tom Traubert's Blues on the radio in the late 80s. The song was released in 1976, but it took a decade to get to me. Hey, I was busy.

Our feature song from Waits for this issue is Hold On. (Sorry, ebedding disabled.) The video leaves out my favorite verse.

God bless your crooked little heart / St. Louis got the best of me / I miss your broken china voice / How I wish you were still here with me / Well, you build it up and wreck it down / And you burn your mansions to the ground / When there's nothing left to keep you here / When you're falling behind in this big blue world / You got to hold on

To get Mr. Wait's vibe, check out this live version of The Piano Has Been Drinking on Fernwood Tonight followed by some sardonic couch chat.

Waits has done his share of psycho videos and (in my humble but accurate opinion) completely unlistenable music, like half of the Bone Machine album, which won a Grammy, go figure. (I can't find examples online of the truly horrific parts.) But his moody stuff, like Alice [lyrics] and Invitation to the Blues [lyrics] (with some nice banter and a side of Johnsburg, Illinois), is leviticusly deuteronomous, the coughing fan notwithstanding.

July 30, 2009

Havah ***

*** Havah, Tosca Lee, 2008

After thoroughly enjoying Tosca's first novel, Demon, I eagerly anticipated her second, Havah: The Story of Eve. It does not disappoint.

I don't know how she writes like this. There were passages that reminded me of Lewis's Perelandra, and I don't make the comparison lightly. And then there's the story of Cain and Abel aka Kayin and Hevel.

Everybody knows what's coming. I can't imagine how daunting it would be to sit down and try to make fresh such an ancient story. But Tosca does it, which should not be surprising, given how she handled the fallen angel in her first book. It was great to read, nonetheless. Dayum, this chick can write!

I forgot to ask her what's coming next. Whatever it is, it's going straight to the nightstand as soon as it comes out.

UPDATE: XDPaul is right. Here's what Tosca says about her next work: Agent of prophecy, patriot rebel, betrayer of God. Coming in 2011: The story of the most reviled man in Christendom, Judas Iscariot… as told in his own words.

July 23, 2009

The Night Watchman ***

*** The Night Watchman, Mark Mynheir, 2009

I met Mark in 2003 at a publishing trade show. He handed me his card and said he was a cop who wrote novels. Cool, I said, and that was that. But we ended up hanging together over the years at various shows. Very cool guy with some incredible stories.

This is Mark's fourth novel and the first in first person. I think he's found his voice. I read his first three when they came out, but they weren't the type of thing I normally read. This one, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thing I read. And the best writing, so far. (Which is good. You don't want your writing to get worse as you go along!) It reminded me of Kaminsky's Lew Fonseca stories, a little. And that's a good thing.

I think this is a series, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the next one!

July 16, 2009

Not For Sale ***

*** Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade--and How We Can Fight It, David Batstone, 2007

This book was a bit of a shocker. When somebody says slavery and America, you immendiately think, that was over a century ago. Get over it. Turns out it's right now, and right here. And also other places, all over the globe. Check out the website NotForSaleCampaign.org.

July 9, 2009

Pilgrim's Progress **

** Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyon, 1678

Yes, I know it's a classic. I am sufficiently independent of thought to not feel intimidated by classics or obligated to like them. I am not like the character in Robertson Davies A Mixture of Frailties, of whom he wrote:

During the first day or two she attempted to get on with War and Peace, but found it depressing, and as time wore on she suffered from that sense of unworthiness which attacks sensitive people who have been rebuffed by a classic.

I'm not a sensitive person, I guess.

I realized I haven't reviewed the audio books I've listened to this year, which gives me some more fodder for Thursdays.

I found this book diverting, and listened to it mainly while working, since I like to multitask. But allegory wears thin for me after a while, and soon I got weary of all the doctrine and moralizing. Your mileage may vary.

July 6, 2009

Andy Mazilli

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

Five or six years ago, when I was living in Honolulu, I went to the SF Bay area on business. I dragged Pierre, a co-worker from Montreal, to JJ's Blues in Santa Clara to hear the moving guitar work of Laura Chavez, who was playing with the Lara Price band. [Note to self: Do a Songs You Won't Hear On The Radio episode on Laura.]

Short discursive paasge: I first heard Laura by chance. I bought a Baby Taylor at the Guitar Center across the street from JJ's Blues and noticed a Texas band was playing that night. I came back. The warm-up band was Lara Price and Laura Chavez blew me away. Her work on Little Wing brought tears to my eyes. At that time she was 18, still in high school, and her parents were at the gig. I chatted with them and learned more about her background, teaching herself blues from SRV and other records when her guitar teacher wouldn't teach her to play blues.

So I dragged Pierre to hear this guitar goddess. We got there in time for the open mike and a guy got up and played some of the most raw Hendrix-influenced guitar I've ever heard. I talked to him between sets and learned his name was Andy Mazilli. Later on he approached our table with a turqouise Mexican Stratocaster and tried to sell it to me for $200, saying he hadn't eaten in a day or two.

I didn't, and still don't, have any use for an electric guitar, and I told him flat out I wasn't interested. Pierre made interested noises. I repremanded him, saying, "Look at this guy. He's serious. He's hungry. Don't play with him. You're not going to buy this guitar." "I might." "What, you going to put it in the overhead back to Canada, with no case?"

At this point Mazilli cut in and said, "OK, how about a CD?" I said sure. He left and returned with an Office Depot CD he had burned himself on his computer. He asked my name and signed the CD itself with the phrase, "Thanks for your support."

I listened to it in the rental while driving around town that week. According to the liner notes [a little photocopied square of paper tucked into the Magic Maz poster he folded into a CD holder] it was recorded in one day in a studio with a pickup band for $100. It sounds like it. On the song Too Much Pollution, a string breaks in the guitar solo at 4:22. Maz tries another lick, but it's thrown out of tune. He switches to creating a rhythm with deadened strings and wah-wah pedal for the rest of the song, scat singing after the lyrics to the end.

It also sounds like a guy who had mainlined SRV and Hendrix for decades. But it had a raw, free quality that resonated with me. Jail Farm is my favorite. Raw and sloppy, but personal and fluid. For me it really comes down to passion and authenticity and not to technique and polish. Passion trumps precision in my book.

I later learned he had played with such greats as John Popper, Joan Osborne, Greg Allman, and Kim Wilson. Check this quote from John Popper. "I think Andy Mazzilli might be the best guitarist I know in New York City."

I was working on the Songs You Won't Hear On The Radio series and thought of Mazilli for the first time in years. I did some searching on YouTube and found some live recordings for your dining and dancing pleasure. I also discovered that Mazilli evidently died in 2007 at age 40. RIP Maz. You are not forgotten.

Here's a cut called Guitar Payne that gives you the flavor of his playing. Finding My Way Back To You Thorn Bird Jam.

June 25, 2009

The Last Templar **

** The Last Templar, Raymond Khoury, 2005

Back in the 90s I read The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco's first novel. It was great. So I read his second, Foucault's Pendulum. It's a mesmerizing maisma of counterfiet conspiracy theories disturbingly come to life, in a sort of Our Man In Havana fashion, only with bigger words. And, as all good conspiracy books do, it harkened back to the Templars. In fact, Khoury gives a nod to Eco on page 74.

"You know what Umberto Eco said, right?" "No." "'A sure sign of a lunatic is that sooner or later, he brings up the Templars.'"

Liking what Eco did with the Templar vibe, I saw this book on the bargain rack in a weak moment and thought perhaps I'd give it a whirl. To cut to the chase, it's not as bad as The DaVinci Code, but it doesn't miss by much.

Khoury is no Eco, but then, who is? Even so, New York Times bestseller status notwithstanding, a book that uses the world clambered even once is suspect. When it uses it somewhere around a dozen times, occasionally twice on the same page, we're talking about some regrettable writing.

On page 14 my fears were confirmed when I read this paragraph about Tess, the female lead:

People just noticed her, period. They always had. And who could blame them. The seductive mass of curls that framed the warm green eyes that radiated intelligence usually triggered it. The healthy thirty-six-year-old frame that moved in relaxed, fluid strides confirmed it, and the fact that she was totally oblivious to her charms sealed it. It was too bad she'd always fallen for the wrong guys.

Well, of course she did. And why wouldn't she? Doesn't everyone? Especially female protagonists in romance novels and conspiracy thrillers? And then this on the next page.

She could hear traces of chamber music and tracked it to an all-female string quartet tucked away in a corner, sawing away energetically but almost inaudibly at their instruments.

And if Tess can be unreasonably beautiful while falling for the wrong guys, why couldn't the quartet be "sawing away" at their instruments? Why, indeed?

Despite such a discouraging beginning, I clambered through the whole freaking thing, all 523 pages. It's a story of religious fraud and a massive secret suppressed for centuries by the Catholic church that could destroy Christianity as we know it. Hmm. Where have I heard that before?

Add in a 20-page exposition on the Templars 1/4 of the way through, a 30-page religious argument 3/4 the way through, and a purple storm sequence worthy of the opening pages of The Bourne Identity, and what's not to like?

***SPOILER ALERT. But the thing that annoyed me as much as the writing, if not more, was the main message. Suppose an authentic historical document were discovered that conclusively and indisputably proved that Jesus, by his own admission, was just a man with some good ideas and that the Church invented the Son of God idea to retain power over the masses. The conclusion of the book is that if such a document were discovered, it would be better to destroy it and let the world continue to believe a lie. Devout Christians (in this case, the male protagonist and a cardinal from the Vatican) and agnositics who see the good the church does (the female protagonist) would endorse such an action. I may be completely delusional, here, but I think that most devout Christians are seekers after truth and would rather deal with the truth than base their life on a lie. Well, I would at any rate, so the premise did not ring true with me. SPOILER ALERT***

If you're stuck on a plane for several hours and you find this crammed between the seats, it would be a toss up between reading it or catching some sleep. Your mileage may vary.

June 18, 2009

Welcome to the Monkey House ***

*** Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut, 1998

Back in the 70s I fell for a chick who didn't fall for me. I know, a real heartbreak. That's the bad news. The good news is that as a result, I found The Woman, who always was and always will be the chick for me. And, the other chick and I still remained friends, although via the US postal service at considerable geographic distance, which is the best way to do things with former objects of one's affections.

A year or so later she turned me on (via handwritten letter, a complete anachronism now) to Kurt Vonnegut. I immediately went out and bought a 3 book boxed set and delved into his early stuff from the 50s and 60s. My favorite was Player Piano, his first published novel which he graded as a B novel (on a A-D scale).

It's been many years since I've read Vonnegut. I snagged this collection of short stories from The Number One Son after I proposed a new song-writing project. We shall see if anything comes of that.

But on this we both agree: this book is killer diller. And we both came to the same conclusion, that the most powerful story in the book is Adam, the penultimate story. Holy freaking cow is all I can say. There's other good stuff here, too, but by all means, read that story.

June 11, 2009

The Miernik Dossier **

** The Miernik Dossier, Charles McCarry, 1973

I'm not big on spy novels, but I like the occasional well-written specimen. I'm particularly fond of Wm. F. Buckley's Blackford Oakes novels, which I'll re-read one of these days.

Back when I was writing Hell in a Briefcase for Phil Little, he frequently mentioned Jason Bourne. I'd seen the movies but not read the books. Since I'd never written a thriller, I decided it would be a good idea to read these seminal works, starting with The Bourne Identity. The first paragraph of which goes like this:

The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp. The waves rose to goliathan heights, crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage; the white sprays caught in the night sky cascaded downward over the deck under the force of the night wind. Everywhere there were sounds of inanimate pain, wood straining agasint wood, ropes twisting, stretched to the breaking point. The animal was dying.

I wish I were kidding. We're not in Kansas any more, Toto. We're out where the Bulwer-Lytton buses don't run, raving like Eddie on acid.*

Not that I'm one to gainsay millions sold, movies made, fame and cash (especially the cash) to be garnered. If I knew I would make that kind of cash writing that kind of trash, I'd write it all day in bucket loads. But no man is guarranteed tomorrow, or best-seller status, regardless what he writes.

But we're not talking about Ludlum (not anymore, we're not), we're talking about McCarry, who is no Ludlum, thank God. With accolades from the likes of Richard Condon and P. J. O'Rourke (for crying out loud) I figured it was worth a trial spin. I grabbed a few Paul Christopher novels, but research showed I was missing the first in the series, so I shelved them conveniently out of reach until I could snag The Miernick Dossier, which I did last month. A plane trip (which is a story in its own right) afforded the opportunity to dig in, and I did.

This book, McCarry's first published novel, gets 3 stars for intruige but is downgraded to 2 stars because of the narrative style. It's literally a dossier, a collection of documents written in different voices and styles. It's done well, but the self-imposed restriction of his choice prevents the kind of character development that would have made this book truly enjoyable.

However, I did like this line from the title character: The wretched will always find something they do not undertand to die for.

We shall see how the next one goes.

*Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is the author of the infamous starting line, "It was a dark and stormy night." The full opening sentence went thus: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." I'll give Ludlum this. Like Bulwer-Lytton, he got a semicolon in the first paragraph. Good on ya, mate!

June 4, 2009

The Closers ***

*** The Closers, Michael Connelly, 2005

Another Bosch book. It's been a while since I read one. This one has some interesting twists and is as addictive and consuming as the others. Bosch hasn't lost it. Don't miss it if you can.

June 1, 2009

Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

I spent a lot of time trolling through cutout racks in the 70s. I discovered this gem in 1975. Took it a year to make it from LA to Fred, Texas. The album featured an incredible trombone-laden, barbershop quartet version of Purple Haze that revolutionized my life. They closed with this version of Happy Trails that Van Halen later ripped off.

Noted for obliterating classics like Swan Lake (Swamp Lake) and Hungarian Dance No. 5. Here's their redition of the Flight of the Bumble Bee aka Bumble Bee Boogie.

How about the Beer Bottle Polka?

May 29, 2009

Catching Up

I finally got my quota of screenplays read for the Austin Film Festival, earning a Producer's Badge. Last year it got me into a party where I chatted with Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire fame for 10 minutes or so. (Yes, that's me shamelessly name-dropping.)

And I got my own screenplay finished (the 6th draft, at least, who knows how many more I'll do) and submitted to the competition. And I've finished reading two books. (Reviews coming in due time.) But I have to tell you where I was last night.

I had a chance to chat with Roy Blount, Jr. at a Writer's League of Texas fundrasier. (Yes, that's me shamelessly name-dropping again!) They were taping Wait, wait . . . don't tell me in the Bass Auditorium and his sister is on the Writer's League board, so I guess it made sense for him to do a little talk and book signing as a fundraiser for the WLT while he was in town. He's authored 20+ books and is the president of the Authors Guild, pioneering the settlement with Google, which, as part of its scheme of global domination, has been practicing wholesale scanning of books for the past decade or so.

I got there a bit early, having stopped by Habana House to pick up my free monthly cigar. I loaded up on refreshments and stood alone at a white-table-cloth-covered bistro table. The next thing I knew, I was joined by Roy and Susan. We chatted a bit and I enlightened him about the joys of StupidInternetTricks.com, because, like, who wouldn't want to know about that?

Mary Gordon Spence kicked things off with a very long and hilarious introduction and Mr. Blount (as his close friends like me call him) followed with even more hilarious set of stories, interspersed with information and analysis of the Google settlement, which I signed onto and thanked him for pushing through.

Overall, the evening rocked. And I now have another book in the To Be Read shelf.

May 14, 2009

Half Price Books

As I've mentioned before, Half Price Books rocks.

The Woman wanted to check it out on Mother's Day, and who was I to deny her? We walked away with 15 books for $55 including tax. One of the books (a biography of Wodehouse) was $14, so you're looking at 14 books for $40 including tax. Hot dang!

Here's the haul. My purchases ($36):

  • Wodehouse: A Life, Robert McCrum. P. G. Wodehouse is probably the most under-acknowledged writer of the 20th century.
  • John Gardner: Literary Outlaw, Barry Silesky. Gardner's Grendel blew me away, 192 pages of genius.
  • Story, Robert McKee. It's a screenwriting classic. I guess I better read it.
  • The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman. Enjoyed Beirut to Lebanon. Can't wait to pick this one up.
  • Marriage Lines, Ogden Nash. I'm not much of a poetry guy, but it's only 108 pages. How painful can it be?
  • They Shall See God, Athol Dickson. River Rising rocked my world. Aching to start this one.
  • The Bookman's Promise, John Dunning. Finally getting around to the 3rd in this very entertaining series.
  • The Miernik Dossier, Charles McCrarry. Last year I picked up 2 of his books based on the jacket copy, but wanted to get in on the ground floor (first in the series) so I've been holding off reading them until I got this one.

The Woman's purchases ($15):

  • The Collectors, David Baldacci
  • Stone Cold, David Baldacci
  • Death of an Expert Witness, P. D. James
  • Shroud for a Nightingale, P. D. James
  • Devices and Desires, P. D. James
  • The Murder Room, P. D. James
  • The Lighthouse, P. D. James

She's a Baldacci fan. (I've never read him.) She got the James books because they were all on clearance for $1 (she's a sucker for a deal) and I told her I would eventually read them. Maybe when I retire, after I finish Agatha Christie. (Amazingly enough, I've only read one Christie. I'm saving her to savor when I have the time to lounge for a year on the deck with a refreshing beverage and read incessantly.)

As you can see, she got almost half the books, but spent less than a third of the money. Maybe I'll just count this toward Father's Day.

May 7, 2009


Like last year, I'm reading scripts for a film festival which cuts into my recreational reading. These days, the elliptical is surrounded by stacks of screenplays, not novels.

Unlike last year, I'm also entering the competition. I'm working on my third screenwriting project. I have three weeks to get the sixth draft done before the deadline. We shall see. Overall, it means I'm seriously behind in my reading.

So, when you see another review from me, you'll know that I finally submitted my entry and waded through the pile of other entries I have to read. (In case you're wondering, I'm reading in a different category than I'm entering. Everything's on the up-and-up.)

May 4, 2009

Feels Like Home

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

You may not recognize the name Randy Newman but there is no question you've heard his songs. After years of writing hits for 70s stars like 3 Dog Night (Mama Told Me Not To Come, Never Been To Spain), Joe Cocker (I Think It's Going To Rain Today, You Can Leave Your Hat On), and Harry Nillson, and having hits of his own (Short People, I Love LA), Newman turned to writing movie soundtracks (A Bug's Life, Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Cars). I mean, who hasn't heard You've Got a Friend in Me?

Back in the 90s, Newmna wrote a musical adaptation of Faust. Feels Like Home was written for Bonnie Raitt to sing. (Sorry, the only Bonnie version I could find was this General Hospital fan video. But you don't have to watch it. Just listen.) It was also covered by Linda Rhonstadt and Chantal Kreviazuk and appears on the How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days soundtrack.

The female covers are great, but there's something irrevocably poignant in Newman's plaintive, mush-mouth voice expressing such transparent vulnerability.

This song is so powerful, not even a ukulele cover can completely destroy it.

And, as a bonus, here's a live recording of a lesser known but equally powerful Newman song, I Miss You.

Ed: How is it that I wrote this twice without realizing it? I featured the exact same song in Feb!

April 30, 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns ***

*** A Thousand Splendid Suns, Kaled Hosseini, 2007

The Woman dragged this home last year and I finally got around to reading it. I read and enjoyed The Kite Runner, and saw the movie, which was well done and, amazingly, less graphic than the book. I started in on A Thousand Splendid Suns and for the first few chapters got to thinking that it didn't quite measure up to his first attempt.

After some reflection, I decided that it was the beginning that was the problem. Here's how The Kite Runner started out:

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near a frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

Wow. But there's more.

One day last summer, my friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan. He asked me to come see him. Standing in the kitchen with the receiver to my ear, I knew it wasn't just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins. After I hung up, I went for a walk along Spreckels Lake on the northern edge of Golden Gate Park. The early-afternoon sun sparkled on the water where dozens of miniature boats sailed, propelled by a crisp breeze. Then I glanced up and saw a pair of kites, red with long blue tails, soaring in the sky. They danced high above the trees on the west end of the park, over the windmills, floating side by side like a pair of eyes looking down on San Francisco, the city I now call home. And suddenly Hassan's voice whispered in my head: For you, a thousand times over. Hassan the harelilpped kite runner.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Dang. In 5 sentences, 88 words, he's hooked us. What did he see in the alley?

With the next 232 words he sets another hook. What does Khan mean, There is a way to be good again? And buries the first hook deeper.

Just one of those is enough to keep you going through a slow spot or two. Both of them are like a one-two punch. No way you're going to set this book down before you know the answers to those two questions.

By comparison, A Thousand Splendid Suns doesn't set a hook. He just starts telling a story. It's a good story, but the attention can wane even in a good story, especially if you're on an elliptical trainer.

Eventually the story gains enough complexity, nuance and momentum that you're not likely to abandon it. But I loved The Kite Runner because from the first paragraph it was never in question. I was going to finish that book.

My take is that Hosseini's second book is as good as his first, but the opening of the first was better. This is still a great read and I recommend it.

April 23, 2009

The Passion of Mary-Margaret***

*** The Passion of Mary-Margaret, Lisa Samson, 2009

I finally got around to picking up Lisa's latest. And all I can say is:

Holy cow! Holy freaking cow!

Publisher's Weekly said "A talented novelist who isn't afraid to take risks." I'll say. In spades. With knobs on.

I'm not usually fond of religious protagonists, so when I saw the main character was a religious sister, (not a nun, as she reiterates occasionally) I wasn't that excited about diving in. Let's just say that the story gained momentum to the point that didn't matter to me. And about halfway through the holy cow moment came and it didn't matter after that.

Lisa's still got the knack for the well crafted phrase. Here are a couple of my favorites:

I'd sneak out of the dormitory, my bare white feet glowing against the stone floor of the corridor, my breath scraping the holy stillness.

Each night I prayed for him, not because I was holy but because I'd tacked a picture of him up by the bathroom sink so I could remember him when I brushed my teeth. I've always said the secret of the truly pious is a better memory than most of us.

I can't decide which I like better, this one or Embrace Me. Read them both and let me know what you think.

April 16, 2009

The Devil Went Down to Austin *****

**** The Devil Went Down to Austin, Rick Riordan, 2001

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

The Devil Went Down to Austin, the fourth Tres Navarre story by Rick Riordan, continues a fine tradition of excellent writing, engaging characters and a compelling story. There are two things that draw me to Riordan, no three. First, he is a Texan, residing in San Antonio where he is a middle-school English teacher. Of course, that alone itself is not sufficient. There are many Texan writers who do not cause me to smile in the middle of a paragraph and grab the cell phone to call a friend just to read them a particularly well-crafted sentence. Riordan has caused me to use up cell phone minutes for that exact reason.

Which brings up the second thing that draws me to Riordan – he is one damn good writer. Yes, he writes whodunits, but I would read a shopping list if he wrote it, that’s just how good he is at his craft. He is good at putting a sentence together. And he’s good at fitting them all together into a great narrative. Many writers who can craft a good sentence can’t tell a compelling story. Things may get a bit slow here and there while you wade through something that probably made the writer feel proud, but leaves the reader a little bored. Riordan doesn’t lose the forest while crafting the individual trees.

The third thing that makes me grab every Riordan book I find is his talent for building characters, and not just the headliner characters. Even bit characters have substance, like Krystal the receptionist who shows up in one phone call and two single page appearances as he enters and leaves the building. His characters show up with a wealth of backstory hovering around the edges, which brings them to life. Building three-dimensional characters is a lot of work. It’s much easier to write the cliché for supporting characters, but they tend to resent it. A good writer detects this and makes the extra effort give them their due. For example, consider this conversation between Tres and Clyde Simms, a biker bodyguard for Ruby.

“You care for her.” His eyes got dangerously hot. “She’s a good boss.” “That’s not what I meant.” He finished his beer, crumpled the can, tossed it somewhere behind the pink sofa. “I got discharged from the Marines in ’82, Navarre. I spent a few years hanging with bikers, striking with the Diablos. Then I started bumming with dock rats at the lake. I met all kinds of people. You know what I figured out? Only friends worth having are the ones who can hurt you, man, hurt you worse than any random shithead in a barfight. I hang with Ruby because she stands by me; she tries to be good to me. Is she dangerous? Is she a little screwed up, all that shitty family history? Sure. But you want to boil it down to – hey, Clyde’s got the hots for her, well you go ahead, man. That’s how you think, you’d never understand anyway.” The Doberman was looking at me mournfully, chewing her pink bunny. “I apologize,” I told Clyde. He grunted.

That’s a supporting character. What he does with the main characters is magic.

I have yet to pick up a Riordan novel and regret it. My expectation is that this will never change. Which could explain why his first novel, Big Red Tequila, won the Shamus and Anthony Awards and his second novel, The Widower’s Two-Step, won the Edgar award.

I’ll give a quick plot summary and let you go to order your own copy. Tres discovers that his programmer brother Garrett hocked the family ranch in the Hill Country to finance a high-tech startup which does what most high-tech startups do, tank. However, the startup didn’t experience problems until after a buyout offer cum hostile takeover and Garrett suspects sabotage. The death of one of the principals plunges Tres into the thick of a murder investigation where Garrett is the primary suspect. Stir in an old love interest and you’ve got a compelling story that is a very enjoyable roller coaster ride. I fingered the murderer early on, but even that didn’t diminish the thrill of the ride. Which is a testament to Riordan’s formidable skill.

Get this one.

Other books by Rick Riordan:

April 9, 2009

Our Mutual Friend ***

*** Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens, 1865

I became a fan of Dickens as a teenager, reading Oliver Twist, Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. But other things came along I didn't return to Dickens again until the 80s, when for some reason I picked up Great Expectations. I was reminded why I enjoyed Dickens so much in the previous decade.

For a while I read one Dickens novel a year, but again fell out of the habit, while still collecting copies from used book stores throughout the years. I finally decided to dust one off and read it, and picked up Our Mutual Friend.

This was the last complete novel Dickens wrote, coming after two greats, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, and just before the unifinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, all of which I've read. Either I'm getting forgetful, or this is quite different from the others I've read. The criticism I've read praises it as "in many ways one of his most sophisticated works, combining deep psychological insight with rich social analysis." However, to me it seems to be inconsistent in style, rife with author intrusion, and bloated with sentimentality and burdened with heavy-handed moralizing. Let's just say that Dickens would have not only supported a Rock the Vote for Obama, he probably would have organized it.

That being said, it is also full of the brilliance that draws so many to Dickens even after a century. Here are a few descriptions from early in the book.

  • with an immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon
  • Mrs Podsnap; quantity of bone, neck and nostrils like a rocking-horse
You know you're reading a Dickens novel when you have 100 pages left and you say, "I'm almost done."

April 6, 2009

Buzzy Linhart

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of Buzzy Linhart on YouTube, and nothing from The Time To Live Is Now, which is what I really wanted to feature. Here's a couple of interesting 1969 videos (embedding disabled), one of Reputation, which gives you a feel for Buzzy's unorthodox look and music, including his insistence on singing scat solos, even when he has a monster guitar player handy, and the other an uplugged verison of That's The Bag I'm In.

How about the lyrics from The Time To Live Is Now.

The time to live is now / you could be riding on a big fat cow / I'm here to show you how / the time to live is now

The time for now is live / I'm going to pour you through a great big sieve / give all the love you can give / the time for now is live / the time for now is live / the time to live is now

Who buys the money when you pay the rent / did you think that money was the president

Who could convince you, who could even try / you might go on believing till the day you die

When you got troubles, worries on your mind / you should be glad that you don't look like Frankenstein

When you got troubles, I'll be on your side / I will try to catch you when your mind begins to slide.

The time to live is now / you could be riding on a big fat cow / I'm here to show you how / the time to live is now

Catchy, huh?

Here's a trailer for Famous: The Buzzy Linhart Story, an unreleased feature documentary made by Michele Toscano.

Warning: F-bomb in the last 3 seconds of the video.

April 2, 2009

Booked to Die ***

*** Booked to Die, John Dunning, 1992

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

This is the perfect one-two punch for lovers of detective fiction. It hits home right in the things we love most: a good mystery and books. Winner of a Nero Wolfe Award, Booked To Die is the first book featuring Cliff Janeway, homicide cop and collector of modern first editions.

I came across this little jewel right after I moved to Denver. I had discovered the pleasure of reading regional detective fiction when Jody recommended Tony Hillerman back in the 80s. After a decade of soaking up every Hillerman I could find, I moved to Arizona. A few trips through the Four Corners region were rendered more enjoyable by having spent so much time there with Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. It was a rare pleasure to actually see the places I had read about.

So when I moved to Denver, I figured what better way to get a feel for the city than to read some books set there. I happened to make the acquaintance of a Rocky Mountain News editor at the Friday schmooze-fest at Edward’s Pipe and Tobacco and asked him if he knew of any fiction set in Denver. He racked his considerable memory and came up with the name John Dunning. I surfed the used bookstores and found two titles, all that were available at the time. I was hooked before I had turned 3 pages.

The story opens with the murder of a book scout, which introduces us not only to the puzzle but also to the subtext of the story, Janeway’s love of books. Janeway is a fairly hard-boiled detective with an obsession to put away one particular bad guy. He does what lots of tough-guy protagonists do, takes the more confrontational path when dealing with people. I guess there are people who do that on a regular basis. I’m fortunate enough not to spend much time around them.

But Janeway isn’t all tough hide and prickles. He has a good relationship with his girlfriend, another cop, even if he is obsessively private. The story takes us through the used-book trade, from the Goodwill twenty-five cent stacks to the private-showing-only collections of signed firsts with special histories. For a book lover, it makes the story twice as enjoyable.

Dunning is a past master at characterization, plot and pacing. The only thing that I thought could have been edited out was Janeway’s occasional divergence into personal reflections on politics and social issues, although they were all in character. And while Janeway is sometimes reminiscent of Tres Navarre, which is a good thing, Dunning doesn’t have that startling turn of phrase that makes me sit up and smile and grab the cell phone like Rick Riordan. But then, how many do?

But these are minor quibbles. Not only is this book is worth reading, it’s worth re-reading, which is the measure of a keeper.

Other works by John Dunning:

March 26, 2009

Mildred Pierced ***

*** Mildred Pierced, Stuart Kaminsky, 2003

More Toby Peters. Entertaining reading. This one featured Joan Crawford and some funky survivalist types. I didn't see the ending coming. (That's a good thing.)

March 19, 2009

Trent's Last Case ***

*** Trent's Last Case, E. C. Bently, 1991

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

With an introduction by Dorothy Sayers, a dedication to G. K. Chesterton and a quote from Agatha Christie calling it "One of the best detective stories ever written," what more recommendation could the fan of classic whodunits desire? With such attributes, one would expect this book to be part of the standard reading for readers of detective fiction. To the contrary it is relatively unknown, even among fans of the genre.

The first Trent book is somewhat ironically titled Trent's Last Case. The author indicates in the note to Chesterton that it was written in return for The Man Who Was Thursday. Sayers indicates in the introduction that legend has that it was written on a bet. I suspect that it was intended as the only Trent book, since a second and final novel by Bentley featuring Trent (Trent's Own Case) appeared 23 years later, co-authored with H. Warner Allen. They stand as a matched set of gems, like a treasured pair of diamond earrings. Classic whodunit fans could wish for a whole necklace of such gems, but one mustn't be greedy. We must be grateful for the two we have. (I did discover references to a collection of short stories called Trent Intervenes and a novel called Trent and the Ministering Angel, both from 1938, but I have never seen them.)

Written and set in the 1910's, like Sayers' work it features a debonair dilettante as the detective. Trent is an artist, the painting kind, with a flair for deduction. The back-story indicates that he became involved in detection after solving a crime by reading nothing but the details in the newspaper. When he wrote a long letter to the editor of the Record with the solution, the paper offered Trent a position as their occasional representative to cover other crimes, where he beat the authorities to the solution. Soon his skills in deduction and writing earned him a national reputation.

In this story, the solution of the mystery is fairly straightforward, moves along swiftly and is revealed a little over halfway through the book. Bentley has a fine hand for characters and Mr. Cupples particularly shines in the early chapters. With the solution unfolded so soon, one can be sure that more revelations are in store, regardless of how conclusive the evidence and Trent's deductions appear to be. Twists pop up, down to the very last chapter, which caught me completely off guard even though I read this book several years ago. (No comments about age, please.)

Interestingly, Bentley works a romantic interest into the story, which accounts for the delayed resolution. It works well, even if it seems to me to be a slight distraction. On the other hand, the pre-crash atmosphere of big business and speculation before WWI is a nice backdrop for a whodunit and a nice nostalgic touch, even if it wasn't nostalgia at the time it was written.

As Sayers says in the intro, "If you were so lucky as to read it today for the first time, you would recognize it at once as a tale of unusual brilliance and charm." You should take the effort to hunt this one down. It's not easy to find. I'll loan you mine if I still have it.

Other works by E.C. Bentley:

March 12, 2009

Empire Falls ***

*** Empire Falls, Richard Russo, 2001

A few years back I watched the Golden Globe winning HBO mini-series of Empire Falls with Ed Harris and Helen Hunt. They were in the film, I mean. They didn't watch it with me. It was worth watching.

I've had the novel on my shelf for even longer and finally got around to reading it. It's good stuff, classic Russo. I liked Straight Man better, but this is still worth reading. For example, consider this line. When he was nine, Mile's mother told him something she thought would shock him. Russo describes it thus:

She hadn't so much spoken the words as let them out of their cages.

Now that's some deft writing. I couldn't quit visualizing Ed Harris as the adult Miles Roby, even though in the book he's described as someone more on the order of Rob Reiner. But the film was so faithful to the book that I frequently would read a scene and wonder if I'd actually read the book before, it sounded so familiar. And of course there's more in the book than in the film, even though it's a mini-series. Check it out.

March 5, 2009

A Few Minutes After Midnight ***

*** A Few Minutes After Midnight, Stuart Kaminsky, 2001

The Toby Peters series has been around since 1977, with 20+ novels to date. This is the first one I read. It enjoyed it. Not as much as the Lew Fonseca story I read, and it's not up to Rostnikov standards, but it's an entertaining read.

Toby Peters is a broke and broken down gumshoe who happens to have famous clients. In this one, the client is Charlie Chaplin.

It's a kind of flippant noir vibe, with interesting recurring characters. If you like a quick-read standby series to fall back on between more weighty reads, this is a good one.

March 2, 2009

Tom Lehrer

From the Songs you won't hear on the radio files:

I first ran across Tom Lehrer in 1975 while scouring through some old guy's record collection looking for big band music for a production of The Glass Menagerie.

Lehrer is not about the music, he's about the clever lyrics.

The Mascochism Tango

Poisoning Pigeons In The Park

And, for the highbrows among us: Oedipus Rex

Yes, Lehrer could be a bit of a snob. OK, a lot of a snob. But some of my favorites were done for The Electric Company. Like The LY Song.

Silent E