Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Back when even stupid readers could write

If there were ever a book I'd buy just because of the title, Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription is surely one of them. Fortunately, I don't have to; my wife also appreciates the sentiment it implies and gave me the book for Christmas.

A collection of the most outrageous letters received at The National Review since 1968, paired with the trenchant responses of editor William F. Buckley Jr., this may be a book only newspaper people can really appreciate. Who among us has not fielded a damning letter or phone call and choked out some simpering semblance of civility when sterner measures were in order?

Buckley skewered the great and small with equal aplomb, and with such subtle elegance that those of us who today would be wordsmiths can only shake our heads. Was there really a time when the phrases "Get a life" or "Get over it" or "Fuck you" were not considered adequate ripostes? Evidently so. Think what you will of Buckley's politics; the man knew how to write. If you ever find yourself, as I have, earning a living by editing letters to the editor, this is required reading. If you just dig the simple joy of seeing the pompous pummeled in print, it's still worth a look.

I have to wonder how much more interesting newspapers would be if every letter to the editor were accompanied by some snide but erudite editorial rejoinder. That's a place I'd love to work, and a job I'd love to have. But probably not in this life. The corporate rulers of today's newspapers have long since decided that attitude is only acceptable in sports coverage, and only then if the commentator has some cross-marketing potential on ESPN. Today, newspapers are more about grubbing for page views by giving away content on the Internet, and then generating thousands more useless hits by offering semi-literate readers the option of posting anonymous comments.

Anonymity is the great curse of the Internet. Reading the letters in Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, I'm struck by how coherent even the worst of them were. But you can see why. Those were the days when you signed your name to what you wrote, and even if you were the biggest idiot in the civilized world, it behooved you to pretend otherwise. There is no such civilizing influence now.

Yeah, I know: I'm going all Andy Rooney now: Kids today. The old ways were better. They don't build 'em like they used to. But at least I'm not selling Sleep Number beds. The defense rests.

This just in: Pope supports peace, in theory

Perhaps because I've worked at newspapers most of my adult life, I always roll my eyes at the obligatory pope story on Christmas Day. There's rarely anything else going on, so news that the pope has once again come out solidly in favor of peace, love and understanding often as not ends up on Page One.

It's like running a story that nights can be chilly at the South Pole. It's not news. It would be news if he advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons to clean up certain of the world's trouble spots, or pointed out that brutal dictators do cut down on street crime, or wondered aloud why the oppressed of Darfur don't just move to Switzerland. But all this boilerplate about ending poverty, injustice and war ... yeah, OK. We'll get right on that, your Holiness.

If the pope really wanted to make news -- and make a difference -- he'd set up a Dunk-the-Prelate booth in St. Peter's Square, three softballs for a dollar. See a bishop take a bath. Proceeds go straight to Darfur.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

It's time the pets provide for me

We're thinking about getting a dog. Her name is Faith (pictured at left). Taking on a new pet is always a gamble, but I figure that even if she is a terrible dog, and craps on the carpet, barks all night, kills the cats and chews up my cowboy boots, I can at least write a bestselling book about it to defray some of the expense. Hey, everybody else does.

Look at John Grogan. A few short years ago he was toiling in obscurity as a third-tier columnist for my old newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. Now he has become the Thomas Kinkade of dog writers. The man is everywhere: Marley and Me; Bad Dogs Have More Fun; Marley: A Dog Like No Other; Bad Dog, Marley; The Marley Code; Marley and the Deathly Hallows; That Darn Marley!; and, due out next spring, The Marley Secret: Spinning Dog Feces Into Gold.

Strolling through Border's the other day, I noticed that Grogan's success has not been lost on other authors. Anna Quindlen has weighed in with Good Dog. Stay. Dean Koontz has Life is Good. Ted Kerasote is raking it in with Merle's Door: Lessons From a Freethinking Dog. And I couldn't help wondering: What the hell was I thinking when I agreed to assume custody of two worthless cats?

I'm looking at them now. Their names are Nick and Nora, but they share none of the traits of the detective duo. One has commandeered my favorite recliner for another 12-hour nap; the other is curled in the corner, having deduced early on that if he uses the litter box, that's pretty much the extent of his responsibilities. I like cats, but they're not proving to be a rich lode of inspiration. After the chapters on them destroying the sofa and licking their butts, what else is there? Where are the life's lessons? Where is the heartwarming devotion, the amusing antics? These cats are clean and good eaters, but that's about all they are.

Which brings me to the dog. Our vet found her a few weeks ago, starving in an abandoned home, and when we went to check her out yesterday, she eyed us warily for portents of further misfortune. She didn't bark or leap for my jugular, which I took as a good sign, but she didn't look as though she were ready to start imparting insights, either.

I don't know. Having a dog is a big responsibility. If I'm going to bend over backward for this mutt, there'd better be a payday at the end of it. John Grogan would expect no less.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

No movie for cockeyed optimists

I've had a hard time figuring out what to say about No Country For Old Men, the movie based on Cormac McCarthy's bleak novel of the same name. My first reaction on coming out of the theater Friday night: I liked it a lot -- right up until the abrupt ending. One guy in the theater actually cried out, "What the hell?" From what I could see, It was a reaction widely shared.

Having read the book, I wasn't expecting Home Alone. But the novel's nihilism was leavened somewhat by some reflective passages toward the end that left you with the feeling that the story had been told; that if morality is meaningless, at least it helps you sleep at night. The movie tries to do the same thing with a single short soliloquy and a cut to black, and I don't think it works.

Still, anybody who appreciates the craft of movie-making should see it, because there's so much to admire. Start with the casting: It's hard now to see how anyone but Javier Bardem could play the role of Anton Chigurh, and it's amazing how that dopey haircut seems to magnify his menace -- kind of like the leisure suit and VW Beetle did for M. Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple. Tommy Lee Jones was the obvious choice to play Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, with a face as weathered as the Texas landscape, but he doesn't just phone it in. This is a nuanced portrayal of a small-town lawman who thinks he's seen it all, then comes to realize he hasn't seen the half of it. Woody Harrelson doesn't get a lot of screen time, but one scene, where he cannot quite remain cool in the most dire of circumstances, is the best work of his career.

Also, I believe the Coen Brothers are at the height of their power as directors. No Country is perfectly paced, devoid of gimmickry, and there is no scene during which you will want to slip out for your free refill on the jumbo popcorn. There are a number of scenes where I defy you to eat popcorn at all.

The Coens are also credited as screenwriters, although their strict adherence to McCarthy's scenes and dialog makes me wonder how much additional writing was involved. It's here, I think, that it might have been possible to make the ending more comprehensible -- without, of course, grafting a Die Hard-style ending onto it.

Not that I'm a big fan of nihilism, which I consider philosophy for dummies. In No Country for Old Men, the Texas desert is indifferent to good and evil. Life and death are determined by the random collision of objects and men. Fair enough. The problem I have is that in such a world, evil men enjoy an edge because they don't expect any better. Good men do, and must suffer more when they discover that all of life is the toss of a coin, that virtue is no reward at all. If we consider that the purpose of fiction is to impose meaning on human experience, nihilism -- the utter lack of meaning -- is probably not the best desk from which to work.

Does that make sense? I don't know. It did while I was writing it. My bottom line won't make sense either: Dave Bob says four stars out of five, but doesn't necessarily recommend that any depressed or really upbeat persons see it. If you do though, let's do a couple hits of Lexapro and talk about it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Murder takes a holiday. Sort of.

My staff here at the warehouse has departed early for the Thanksgiving weekend, disregarding my explicit instructions to make sure the Big Box O' Blog Ideas was full before leaving. Also, someone appears to have raided the petty cash drawer. It's so hard to get reliable help these days.

Anyway, once again I'm going to have to pull something out of my ... well, let's just say I'll have to make something up. Since I've read no books, seen no movies and watched no television in the past couple of days, this is harder than it looks. Hmmm. Perhaps something with a Thanksgiving theme?

So when's the last time you read a mystery where Thanksgiving, the holiday, was a prominent element in the story? I can name a dozen Christmas-themed crime novels just off the top of my head, and probably as many set around Halloween. Several for the Fourth of July, even one or two for Valentine's Day. But Thanksgiving doesn't seem a great inspiration for mystery writers. It's a mostly benign holiday, involving only one of the seven deadly sins. And to me, gluttony is not particularly conducive to dark deeds. Maybe it's all that triptophan.

Still, Google exists to remind me that I know far less than I think I do. A search turned up dozens of crime novels apparently having something to do with Thanksgiving, including at least one author I've heard of: Michael Dibdin, whose Thanksgiving is billed as "a moving portrait of the profound effects of love when all that seems to remain is loss and grief." Um, OK. Whether it has anything to do with the American holiday, I don't know. Any other memorable titles worthy of mention?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Books, yo; what is they good fo'?

Here's the kind of report guaranteed to make a curmudgeon's head explode: The National Endowment for the Arts has discovered that on average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.

Seven minutes? That much? I'm trying to think of the last time I saw someone 15 to 24 reading a book or a newspaper. Maybe they only do it one minute at a time, at different times of the day, so it's hard to catch them at it.

The predictable reaction, of course, is to lament the decline of literacy and prophesy doom for America. But really, does it matter? If so few young people are reading these days, maybe it's because it doesn't matter. People have to eat to survive, and endlessly fiddle with their iPods, but they don't have to read. So why should they bother? Presumably, there will always be a small subset of humanity capable of reading something to them, should the need arise. I hereby offer my services -- as long as the money is right and I still have my health.

Another interesting report was one the Associated Press did in August, which found that the typical American read only four books last year, and one in four adults read no books at all. Ever.

Amusingly, among "avid" readers surveyed by the AP, the typical woman read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. I don't know what I'd call someone who read a book every six to 10 weeks, but "avid" seems a slight exaggeration.

One other reading statistic: Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market in the U.S., Britain and Canada. Some researchers speculate the women's mirror neurons are somehow more sensitive, which enables them to better empathize with fictional characters. Maybe. But I'll lay odds that Oprah has more to do with it. And I suspect she's getting more people to buy books than actually read them.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Is the Kindle right for you?

You've probably heard of Amazon's Kindle. It's like a book, only it costs $399 -- just like every other electronic gadget now on the market. Notice how everything costs $399? When I was a boy, everything cost $1.98. Except for DC comics, which, at the beginning of my Superman period, would fetch anywhere from 10 to 12 cents.

I mocked the concept of an e-reader back in September, but now that Amazon has rolled out the Kindle, I've prepared a guide to help decide if there should be one under your Family Tree this Holiday Season.

1. Do you like to read more than one book at once? If so, you'll want the Kindle, because it will store 200 of them. And they won't be just any books, but selected titles from publishers that have inked a deal with Amazon, so freshness is guaranteed. Imagine that: carrying around a big bag full of books in a package about the size of a Stephen King novel, though hopefully not as heavy. Click a few buttons, accidentally shut it off and turn it back on, click a few more, curse a few times and presto! -- You're not reading The Secret anymore, but just starting on chapter three of the latest Nicholas Sparks novel (The Bottle to Remember). Let's hope Nick's people have straightened out the DRM issues by Monday.

2. Do you prefer that people not see what it is you're reading? Me too, and that's why the Kindle is such a breakthrough. You could have James Patterson for Dummies on there, and as far as anyone else knows, you're reading War and Peace. It'll be our little secret.

3. Have you ever accidentally left a book on the plane when you're getting off? That nuisance will be a thing of the past, since you'd be crazy to leave a $399 piece of hardware stuffed in with the safety instructions where anybody could grab it. Thanks, Kindle!

4. Will the Kindle interface with your TiVo? You know what they say: If you have to ask, the answer is no. But really, think about it: Why would Amazon or the publishing houses want their works readily viewable on Hi-Def televisions? Pretty soon, everybody would be reading their books on TV, which might then lead some to watch reruns of Dog the Bounty Hunter instead.

5. Is it important to save money on your book purchases? If so, you'll want the Kindle, since electronic books might one day cost as much as 10 or 15 percent less than the paper versions. That's a significant savings -- not a whole lot less than the typical Border's coupon you could find blowing down the street. Once you amortize the cost of the e-reader and the occasional books lost to synching problems and static electricity, it's all gravy!

I was ambivalent about picking up an e-book reader, but after weighing the benefits I've actually convinced myself. They don't go on sale until Monday, but the line starts now. And right here.

Revisiting the real best film of 2006


I haven't yet read P.D. James' 1992 novel The Children of Men, and after seeing the movie a second time, I'm not sure I want to. This is a departure for me, but the movie's such a cinematic tour de force I can't see how the book would not pale in comparison. It may be one of the rare cases (Blade Runner is another) where the screen adaptation outperforms the source material by a large margin.

I saw Children of Men on the big screen just after Christmas last year. At the time, I was blown away by three long single-shot sequences that appeared almost impossibly complex to choreograph. I've since discovered that a bit of editing was involved in each, but those scenes delivered such a visceral punch that I was determined to see them again. So thanks to my friends at Netflix, I watched the movie a second time last night, this time on the small screen.

Bottom line: This is still the best film of 2006, and I'm still incredulous that it earned no Oscars (it was nominated for three, including best adapted screenplay). Even on my aging 27-inch Akai, the brisk pacing and taut documentary style seem undiminished. Because it's set in 2027, it's fair to call this science-fiction, but it's more than that -- it's also a political thriller and a road movie with a social consciousness. Its vision of a fortress state where horrific deeds are committed in the name of "homeland security" remains all too resonant. I liked The Departed too (which did win best picture), but Children of Men is a much more significant work.

I know the film is based only loosely on P.D. James' book, but here's a question for those who have experienced both: Which is the better story? And why?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ken Follett takes a bite out of crime

I'm taking a short break from reading crime fiction. One reason for this is that I haven't seen my brother Mike in awhile, and I always rely on him to load me up with boxes of paperbacks, which he consumes like popcorn. Then I'm still working on the novel, a project that proceeds at a glacial pace despite the impetus of getting a new computer to write it on. Finally, I think it's a good idea for any writer to stray outside the genre once in awhile.

Which is why I recently bought Ken Follett's World Without End. Many years ago (about 17, I guess) I picked up his Pillars of the Earth expecting to be bored silly and found that I couldn't put it down. Set in 12th-century England during the construction of the fictional Knightsbridge cathedral, it's one of those sweeping old-school historical novels that spans decades. World Without End is the sequel. This will sound churlish, but I should mention that I discovered it quite on my own, without Oprah Winfrey's announcement today that Pillars of the Earth is her latest book club selection. Damn it, that woman is everywhere.

Anyway, I've barely started this 1,000-page tome, so it's too soon to say whether I like it or not. But I'm wondering if so much time spent with crime fiction hasn't spoiled my appreciation for broader, more sedately-paced works. I'm used to being grabbed by the jugular in the first few sentences; here, a sort of ho-hum beginning requires a leap of faith to stick with it. Also, any novel described as "sweeping" is going to have a lot of characters, and I'm already having a problem keeping the names straight. After 40 pages, I count 18 major characters. No doubt they'll have room to breathe in the chapters to come, but it's getting kind of crowded here at the front entrance.

Now I'm asking myself: Did Pillars of the Earth start out this way? I'll have to look. If so, maybe I've changed more than Ken Follett has. I do know that I've long admired him as a writer of popular fiction; his Eye of the Needle remains one of the best thrillers ever written. (The movie wasn't bad either, inspiring a decades-long infatuation with Kate Nelligan.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tell me you hate this

HBO has the best show on TV with The Wire, so it's probably fair to point out that it also has the worst: the bleak and tedious Tell Me You Love Me.

Because of the buzz about the explicit sex scenes, I caught portions of this overly-earnest angstfest during its first season. But I had never forced myself to sit through a full episode -- a precaution I unwisely cast aside for the season finale. It's an hour of my life I will never get back. The show is not only as bad as my initial impression -- it's far worse.

How do I hate this show? Let me count the ways:

The casting: All white couples, all pretty much the same age, all with the same acting coach. Two of these women and two of the men are indistinguishable from each other. The men all remind you of Darren on Bewitched, except they never smile. The women, I think, must be sisters. One is tortured by the lack of sex and one is tortured by not being able to have a baby. All three are tortured by general dissatisfaction, and we all know what a rich lode of drama that is: "Why are you so unhappy?" "I don't know; I just am." Speaking of which ...

The writing: Remember the last time you got in a fight with your spouse or girlfriend and it just kind of went on through the evening and into the next day? That's what the dialog is like: "This is not about you or me; it's about us." That sort of crap. It just never ends. Then all the couples go to the wise therapist, a suburban Yoda played by Jane Alexander, who changes the pronouns around and feeds the same dopey dialog right back to them. If I was paying $200 an hour for that kind of insight, I'd rather drop the dough at that tribal casino down in Oklahoma.

The sex: This was the reason I had even mild curiosity about this show, all the buzz about its unflinching portrayal of makin' whoopie. Yeah, right. I've never felt so ... so violated. Yes, the scenes are graphic enough, but you feel like you're watching a National Geographic special about really depressed lemurs. I guess that's the point, to demystify this whole business of intercourse between married couples, but did they have to make it so wince-inducing? What Deadwood did for profanity, Tell Me You Love Me is doing for sex: desensitizing the audience and completely taking the fun out of it.

The geezers: If I see wise, gentle Jane Alexander mount her wise, gentle husband one more time, that's it. I'm out of here. Yes, seniors can have active sex lives; we get it. But it's one of those things that we don't particularly care to watch, even in soft focus and very muted lighting.

The humor: What I mean by that is, the total lack of it. If anybody cracks a smile on this show, it's the sad, doomed smile of someone who finally realizes the futility of all human endeavor. So earnest is this series, so convinced of its importance, that the writers must go through each script three or four times to make sure there's nothing funny in there. I mean, we don't need The Bob Newhart Show here, but life with even these miserable people cannot be without a laugh or two.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sleuths are only as good as their sidekicks

I recently read the much-lauded Wash This Blood Clean From My Hands, by French author Fred Vargas, and like many others found it quirky and engaging. Her deft writing left me happy to have found another series character to follow: Commissaire Adamsberg. But that's not what this post is about. I've decided that others do a lot better job with reviews than I do, and I hate laboring over my shallow insights only to find later that I've echoed what everybody else said a long time before. (And yes, I can hear you saying: "But that's never stopped you before." True enough. Nor will it now.)

So, short version: Wash This Blood is a good book. Buy it. But for all the talk about it being "eccentric" or even "kooky," it does share one key device with nearly all other detective fiction: the sidekick. Adamsberg's reliance on gut instinct and intuition is sharply defined by the hard-nosed, scientific approach of his second in command, Capitaine Adrien Danglard. You can see why. Without Danglard as a foil, Adamsberg might become nothing more than an oddball talking to himself.

But it has always been thus, hasn't it? Beginning with Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson, the sidekick has proven indispensable as a plot device, fulfilling so many functions that it's hard to imagine, even all these years later, a successful detective story without one.

Plot exposition is the first of these functions: Through repartee with the often dim and always questioning sidekick, key facts of the case are established and key clues are planted. Think if Conan Doyle had been forced to show Holmes' leaps of logic as interior monologue only. I've tried something like that, and it isn't pretty. So my own series character has a sidekick too.

Just as important, I think, is the way in which a sidekick helps define character. Would Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe have been so memorable without Archie Goodwin to reflect his preening, petulant ways? Similarly, Hercule Poirot's vanity and obsession with neatness come across nicely through the amused observations of his friend Captain Hastings. In a more recent example, lawless boozer Clete Purcell clearly defines the moral struggle that is so central to James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux.

Finally, there's comic relief. Robicheaux's grim soul-searching would get pretty tedious without the occasional outrageous antics of Purcell.

The list is as vast as the genre: Dashiell Hammett's Nick Charles had Nora; Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason had Della Street. Today, there's Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus and Siobhan Clark. Even Lawrence Block's loner assassin Keller has a sidekick of sorts in Dot, his laconic agent. But of course if we tried to list them all, we'd be here all night.

Maybe it would be more fun to think of a fictional detective who doesn't have a recurring sidekick. Do any come to mind?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Now accepting friends on Facebook

Recently, at the invitation of my oldest daughter, I created a profile on Facebook. It's not much of a profile: the same stupid picture I use here, a brief mention of my interests, the sort of music I listen to, favorite books and movies and so forth. So far, I have gathered together an elite cadre of three friends. That includes the daughter. (Not sure who that doofus is in the picture; wonder if he'd like to be my friend).

Friends are the currency of Facebook; like dollars, you can never have too many. The first thing you must do, after listing a few zany personal details, is start inviting everybody you can think of to be your friend. Everybody, no exceptions. I haven't gotten around to that yet, but when I do, I expect to have so many friends that Facebook will have to add another server just to accommodate them all. Good friends. Then, when my page displays all the avatars, it will slow the Internet to a crawl.

Until then, I'm making do with just the three. We've been having great fun comparing our Pet Peeves, and favorite movies, and knowledge of U.S. geography, and who among us is most likely to be a lesbian (it was me, by the way). However, I'm not sure what I should do next. I keep looking at my Facebook page, but it rarely changes. Much like my blog. I suppose it comes back to the friend question.

It's not as though there is a shortage of things to do, of course. You can "poke" someone, or "super poke" them. I haven't done that yet because it seems, well, unseemly. You can dispatch a vampire to bite a friend. You can send a hug (not a real hug, that technology is still in its infancy); or you can send them a gift (not a real gift, that would be cost-prohibitive). In short, we're talking about range of actions that will soon render all face-to-face contact superfluous. Or at least quite a bit less convenient.

Anyway, if you don't already have a Facebook profile, I urge you to create one now. And be my friend. Social networks like Facebook and MySpace are truly the wave of the future, allowing drunken teens to foreclose career options quicker than ever before, and hackers new methods of pissing off Alicia Keys. They also are helping to close the gap between the haves here and the have-nots in Nigeria. You'll want to get on this train before it leaves the station.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A psychic detective in '70s Laos

Somewhere in the last few months, I came across a discussion of the use of supernatural elements in crime fiction. I can't recall any novel that uses them so overtly, and so well, as The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill.

In this story of an aging Lao doctor pressed into running the country's only morgue following the Communist takeover of 1975, the supernatural consists not just of the odd hunch and prescient dream, but is an integral part of the story itself. Dr. Siri Paiboun has little equipment and even less training in forensic science, so the aid he receives from the spirit world is fortuitous. Think how it might help the CSI: Miami crew if the ghosts of crime victims were available to offer tips during the autopsy.

Fortunately, Cotterill has created a memorable and amusing character in whom such paranormal phenomena do not seem too convenient, and do not obviate the need for conventional sleuthing. When a dog begins behaving oddly, for example, or the mark of a wet bottle appears on a dry table, it's still just a clue. In Siri's world, the physical and the spiritual are all part of the same frequently absurd world.

Fellow blogger Maxine Clarke did a fine review of The Coroner's Lunch, to which I have little to add. Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders thought it a little too cozy for his taste, but I thought it worked pretty well, particularly given the humor that pervades the book. Like Maxine, I was reminded a little of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, but the milieu Cotterill has chosen is not quite so benign. That's a good thing. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

'American Gangster': It's not crappy at all


I can't be bothered to properly review the movies I see. It takes too much time and too much thought, and if I go on for more than three or four paragraphs, it becomes painfully evident that I'm no Pauline Kael. Then again, I always need something to blog about. So here are a few thoughts on American Gangster, which I saw last night in the company of the brunette, a bottle of wine and a platter of hors d'oeuvres, ensconced in a luxurious balcony loveseat at the 13th Street Warren Theatre here in Wichita. Let me tell you, even crappy movies are good under those optimal conditions.

Fortunately, American Gangster is not a crappy movie. (I hereby grant Universal permission to use the preceding sentence in promotional materials.) Denzel Washington plays real-life heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, who created his drug empire the American way: by eliminating the middle man. Lucas personally met growers in Thailand and arranged to have 100 percent pure heroin shipped back to the states on military flights returning from Vietnam. Russell Crowe plays the incorruptible NYC cop who ultimately brings Lucas down.

Both these guys deliver the sort of nuanced, bravura performances you'd expect, and you'll be hearing their names come Oscar time. But Washington owns this movie. He'd be watchable in a Depends commercial; here, the character seems one he was born to play: an utterly ruthless man convinced of his own integrity, heedless of the ravages his business wreaks on his community and, ultimately, his family.

I'm guessing Ridley Scott will be nominated for his direction, too. He creates a shabby, '70s New York City that is just as much a character in the film as the two stars. From the grimy streets to the massive Detroit sedans that plied them, New York hasn't looked so authentically seedy since Taxi Driver. (That applies to the hairstyles and the clothes, too.) This is not an overly violent film, given the subject matter, but one explosive set piece toward the end of the film is just stunning. Believe me, you'll know it when you see it.

Maybe the biggest compliment I can give American Gangster is this: It's close to three hours long, but it feels like about 90 minutes. I was actually sorry when it ended. I've grown tired of overlong movies, but I never once looked at my watch and still can't think of a scene I'd want cut.

Bottom line, then: Four stars out of four, five out of five. Best seen from the balcony. Goes well with red wine, sipped at a moderate pace. Make sure you hit the restroom before taking your seat. You won't want to get up during the movie.

Friday, November 2, 2007

A last word of praise for 'The Wire'


It's taken about four months, but thanks to my good friends at Netflix I'm finally through the first three seasons of The Wire. A pair of clueless cats roused me about four this morning, and since I couldn't get back to sleep I watched the last two episodes on my laptop.

I'm now willing to concede that my son and mother-in-law are right: This show really is better than The Sopranos, that other HBO series I've wasted too many hours on. While not perfect, I've come to admire the writing and plotting above all else. David Chase knew how to craft memorable characters and conflicts; The Wire's David Simon and company know how tell stories, and -- more importantly -- how to conclude them. Each season of The Wire unfolds like a 12-part novel, with a genuine beginning, middle and end. Story arcs never really seemed to matter with The Sopranos -- a point that became maddeningly clear in the finale, when Chase simply jerked out the plug and mocked those who expected better.

I suppose that's what happens when the audience gives you too much love: you begin to have contempt for them. That hasn't been a problem with The Wire, which has struggled in the ratings despite great critical success. This is a show where the individual episodes seldom work as well as the individual Sopranos episodes, but viewed as a season they are far more satisfying.

Maybe one reason for that is that the characters -- cops and criminals both -- actually seem to grow and change as the story progresses. It's easy to take the show's moral ambiguity for cynicism, but there's nothing cynical in the way each character is also imbued with motives more complex, and sometimes more noble, than simply selling dope, or catching bad guys, or acquiring power. For those who have seen the show, my favorite character, Omar Little, is a good example.

Viewed in retrospect, each character in The Sopranos -- the few who survived -- went out pretty much the same people as when they started. Nobody learned a thing. As Chase was fond of saying, that's how life is. Maybe. But it doesn't make for great fiction. Neither do dopey dream sequences, which Chase employed far too often.

Season Four of The Wire isn't yet available on Netflix, but I have it in the queue. I'm told shooting has started on Season Five, which will be the last one. Sounds good to me. All stories must end. I've never seen an episode when it actually aired, and I think I'll keep it that way. Viewing two or three episodes at a time on DVD really seems like the best way to do it, at least with this show.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Rowling wrings another gasp out of Harry

It's no sign of my blogging prowess that roughly eight out of 10 of my posts concern J.K. Rowling, but here goes another one. The creator of gay icon Dumbledore has finished her first work since closing out the Potter series: The Tales of Beedle the Bard. It's about the failure of the U.S. intelligence apparatus in the run-up to the Iraq War.

No, really it's a collection of fairy stories, and the title comes from a book mentioned in Deathly Hallows as a gift from Dumbledore to Hermione. Yes, somebody could have fun with the book description, but it won't be me.

In case you're thinking of being first in line at Barnes & Noble, you'll be waiting a long time. Only seven copies of Beedle the Bard will be in print. It's ironic that the pinnacle of success puts Rowling on the same level as me, when it comes to readership. Seven turns out to be the same number of people who read my latest short story. Maybe we can do lunch sometime.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The two scariest books ever written

Since it's now Halloween and the western sky has gone amber here in middle America, the window is rapidly closing for horror-themed posts. I'd better get with it. Soon trick-or-treaters will be making their endless demands and I'll be too busy shoveling candy at them to do much else.

Let us turn now from scary movies to scary books. I wonder: Is it easier to terrify someone with sound and light, or with the printed word? I hold with those who favor print -- properly done, a book can tap into the darkest reaches of individual imagination in a way no movie can. With the imagination thoroughly engaged, the reader becomes a participant in the tale, rather than an observer.

Unfortunately, books are just as prone to cliche as movies are, and it takes a true master to banish disbelief and conjure terror with no more tools than the 26 letters of the alphabet and a few punctuation marks. It's an art, not a craft, and those who can do it are rightly revered.

When I consider the scariest books I've ever read, two come shambling out of the darkness like particularly fearsome specters: Ghost Story, by Peter Straub, and Pet Sematary, by Stephen King.

Straub's Ghost Story came out in 1979; I believe it still stands as the best work of this recognized master of the genre. Straub's style is more literary than King's, but this book lacks the dense, gothic surrealism that infected his later work. That's a good thing. Its sense of dread starts early and never lets up.

The plot is simple enough: A group of old men discover that a tragic mistake they made in the distant past is back to haunt them. By "haunt," I don't mean melancholy ruminations by the fireplace; this is a particularly vengeful spirit that will not rest until each geezer in turn pays with his sanity and his life.

That might not sound so frightening, but Straub's subtle hand creates a reality where ghosts do dwell, and they are not to be trifled with.

Pet Sematary, which occupied a spot on the New York Times bestseller list in 1983, is without a doubt the darkest book in the King canon. It deals with every parent's worst nightmare: the loss of a child. And it poses the very question that led to such unpleasantness in the classic short story "The Monkey's Paw" -- what would you do to get that child back? King was at the top of his game in 1983, grounding his characters in the minutiae of daily life, then drawing you down, by degrees, beyond the most macabre ending you could imagine to something worse. I'm not kidding. King's next scariest book is The Shining, but that's nowhere near as chilling as this one. Too late to scare yourself with it this Halloween, probably, but keep it in mind for next year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Halloween movies: My four to fear


When's the last time you saw a truly frightening movie? For that matter, how many truly frightening movies can you name in, say, five minutes? Besides The Exorcist, I mean. I can think of maybe four offhand, seven or eight if I have another hour to think about it.

So I'm always a bit skeptical during the Halloween season, when movie pundits start picking the scariest movies of all time, such as this top 25 list from Time's Richard Corliss. Demonstrating that 25 films may be about 15 too many, the list includes such fright-fests as Bambi; the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead; and the 50-second Arrival of a Train in La Ciotat, which, when shown in 1896, had certain members of the audience thinking the train on the screen might run them over. Now, these may have been all groundbreaking films in their own way, but scary they were not.

It's facile to say that they don't make scary movies any more, but it's almost true. Since the mid-1960s, horror has not been that large a genre. While the past 35 years have given us hundreds of films and sequels devoted to shock and gore and the unconventional use of power tools, a movie that can instill true fear -- and keep you jumpy long after it's over -- is difficult to pull off and all too rare. I'm not sure 25 of them even exist.

Which leads me to my own little list. I can't say they're the most frightening movies ever made -- like comedy, horror is pretty subjective -- but I'd expect them to rank well above Bambi on the old Fear-o-Meter. My main criterion is this: They're the sort of movies I still wouldn't want to watch alone.

First, The Innocents, the 1961 movie starring Deborah Kerr and based on Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw. Briefly, a governess comes to suspect that her two young charges are being possessed by pair of malevolent spirits. The foreboding builds in every scene, but subtly, with none of the horror cliches that tend to reassure us that it's only a movie. This is often labeled a psychological thriller, but don't believe it. It's a ghost story, and a damned good one. Highly recommended.

The Japanese film Ringu, and to a lesser degree its American version The Ring, are two movies that can make your blood run cold (although not quite so much now that they've been mercilessly lampooned in Scary Movie 3). When you finally get around to seeing the monstrous Samara, emerging in jump-cuts from a big-screen TV, it's one of the great moments in film horror. Two bad both films are fatally dated by the use of a VHS tape as the key plot device.

The Thing. Is this movie really 25 years old? It still seems as fresh and terrifying as the day it was released. At an isolated Antarctic research station, a shape-shifting organism begins culling the crew. Will Kurt Russell get out of it alive? John Carpenter explores the classic aliens-are-among-us theme better than any film has done before. It's one of the few remakes that's not only better than the original -- the original is actually laughable by comparison. As I recall, the monster in that version was played by James Arness.

Finally, Salem's Lot (1979), which is a unlikely pick for two reasons: It was a made-for-TV mini-series, and it starred David Soul at the height of his cheesy power in "Starsky & Hutch." But for my money, it's one of the best vampire movies ever made. Yes, it had Hutch, but it also had James Mason, who exuded sophisticated evil in every scene. The film's chief vampire had nothing in common with the sex symbols who inhabited the role before and since; he was totally vile and totally evil, and it was no coincidence that he resembled that other great vampire from 55 years earlier, Nosferatu. The image of an undead child scratching at the second-floor window of his brother is still as creepy as they come.

But as I say, horror is subjective, and what keeps my head under the covers at night might not do the same for you. Also, what used to be scary sometimes cannot stand the test of time. I mentioned The Exorcist above, but that groundbreaking film has been undone by countless parodies; the sight of Linda Blair's head executing an awesome 360 is now more campy than creepy. Too bad; it was a classic.

What movie, or movies, stick in your mind as the scariest of them all?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The White Witch in a suit from Talbot's

Here at the Tilda Swinton Fan Club, we would be happy to see her in a Burger King commercial. But when she co-stars in a solid thriller like Michael Clayton -- well, let's just say we're orgasmic. No, scratch that. Delighted, that's the word. Well, quite pleased.

Swinton's turn as the amoral, paranoid corporate lawyer -- who defeats her Arrid Extra Dry in the first 10 minutes of the film -- is sheer genius. She's definitely on the short list for best supporting actress; you read it here first. Swinton has this way of making her eyes opaque, like a shark, while the rest of her exudes acute desperation -- the kind you get when you're in over your head and need to make sure no living person ever finds out the things you'll do to stay afloat.

George Clooney, in the title role, isn't bad either. He plays a "fixer," a corporate lawyer who no longer practices law, but cleans up the sort of messes that can crop up for any major U.S. agrochemical corporation. At some point, he begins to question if this latest mess isn't beyond redemption.

It's impossible to say much more about the plot without giving it away. While the movie's choice of corporate America as the root of all evil might be a bit too predictable and preachy, the writing is superb and the direction is subtle. No gunfights here, or car chases; only one car explosion. I liked it anyway. The story is nuanced enough to warrant a second viewing, but it's not the sort of piece that leaves you scratching your head when you're leaving the cineplex. I'd say it may the best film I've seen this year. (Which is not saying a great deal, since the last film I saw at a theater may well have been Ratatouille.)

Still, fours stars out of five. Three thumbs up. Two winks and a kiss. Dave Bob says check it out.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dumbledore and the frisky lads at Hogwarts

I always hate it when readers dream up qualities for fictional characters that are never alluded to in the books in which they appear. That is precisely why fan fiction is so unfailingly awful. But I really hate it when authors indulge in the same juvenile exercise. After all, if it were a trait germane to the character, why wasn't it in the book? And so we come to J.K. Rowling's startling announcement the other day that wise old Dumbledore, the bearded headmaster of Hogwart's, is gay.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Being gay, I mean. But isn't saying so a little like Mark Twain deciding in his dotage that Huck Finn and Jim were lovers? Or Charles Dickens revealing years later that Scrooge was suffering from Alzheimer's? Characters are precisely the sum of the words on the printed page. No one, not even the author, should come back later and revise them in an offhand remark. At the very least, it is a violation of the basic tenet of fiction writing: Show, don't tell. (I don't know, maybe Dumbledore could have had a collection of Barbara Streisand records or something.) By simply telling, Rowling is subtly insulting her readers.

Besides, if anyone in those books was going to be gay, I'd have bet on Snape.

Fooling around with a new camera

I have temporarily gone off reading to mess around with a new camera I bought, a Canon G9. It comes with a time-lapse feature, enabling it to take a frame automatically every second, or every two seconds. As you can see, this feature will revolutionize the world as we know it; it enabled me to mow my front lawn in 1/60th the normal time. All I can say is, thank God for YouTube.

Wunderbar! No? Well, soon I'll get back to the big stack o' books, which includes Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand (did she really need the world "clean" in that sentence?) and Ken Follett's World Without End, a sort-of sequel to his excellent Pillars of the Earth, published way back in 1990. Also, The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill, which has gotten pretty decent reviews.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

When things fell apart in Paris

Eventually, I will move on from this fascination with things French. But for now, I can't seem to stop. At the moment, I'm reading the excellent novel Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. This is a remarkable book for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it is a historical novel written while the history was still in progress: the Nazi occupation of France starting in 1940. As the New York Times notes, it is likely the first work of fiction to be written about World War II.

It is also among the best. Better reviewers than I have praised this book, and I won't attempt to pile on more superlatives. But the fact that Némirovsky wrote this without the luxury of historical hindsight makes it even more remarkable. The knowledge that she died at Auschwitz not long after makes it poignant beyond words.

Maybe it's a trivial note, but having just been to Paris I was struck by Némirovsky's humane, incisive observations of how things unfold when civilization is withdrawn from the most civilized society on earth: Nobility and barbarity in varying proportions, and no small amount of cluelessness. Just as it would be for any other society, I think. When the Nazis come to town, whether in Paris or Peoria, the center cannot hold.

I'm pleased to see that Suite Française currently resides at No. 7 on the New York Times' paperback trade fiction list. And that's without an endorsement from Oprah's staff of readers. I'd love to see it at No. 1.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A space filler until a better idea comes along

While waiting for a new shipment of books to arrive, and while struggling with the dread of paying the fine that awaits at my local library, I had a look at the New York Times list of "The 10 Best Books of 2006."

Yes, I'm aware that 2006 has been over for about 10 months now. Sue me. It's not like I'm getting a lot of blog ideas via e-mail. So in a sense, it's your fault. Also, I've got a day job too. At least I think I do; I'll have to phone them.

Anyway, without clicking on the link, can you name even one of the best books of 2006, as decreed by the Times? Two? Five? How about who won the 2006 Super Bowl? I didn't think so. (It was the Pittsburgh Steelers.) Fame is so fleeting.

On the books question, I named one, and it's no coincidence that it's the only book on the list that I've read: Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick. I mean, it's no Learning to Sing, Clay Aiken's autobiography, but it ain't bad. It ain't fiction either, and if I keep doing posts like this, I'm going to have to call it Dave's Bullshit Warehouse.

The only other book on the Times list that I have the slightest interest in is Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. This is because it's billed as a murder mystery, and I haven't read many of those lately. Also, the title is irresistible. Can anyone recommend this, before I roll the dice with Amazon? The reviews mention that this Marisha Pessl is also a bit of a hotty, but that has nothing to do with my interest. That would be puerile. And if there's one thing the Fiction Warehouse is not, it's puerile.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Diana files: 11 sleuths try again


Shoe leather: That's the way you solve cases.

And so, 10 years later, 11 jurors spent the afternoon milling around in a Paris traffic tunnel where the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, intersected abruptly with a nondescript concrete pillar. No word on what they found, beyond some psychic vibe about who really iced the People's Princess. Maybe cigarette butts of a brand favored by Prince Phillip. Or the Queen's cell phone number scrawled inside a soggy Buckingham Palace matchbook.

Diana, as you know, was murdered at the behest of the in-laws because of ... well, this where it gets really mysterious. Because this was a murder without credible motive, means or opportunity. A conspiracy that seemingly makes no sense. It's crazy, some would say. Yeah, I say: crazy like a fox. Crazy like Mr. Ed.

It was a gutsy move, staging the hit in full view of the paparazzi. I'm still not sure how they pulled it off, making it look precisely like a Diana's drunken driver hit the tunnel at twice the speed limit and lost control. To the untrained eyed, it was just the sort of preventable accident that might befall anyone who lacked the judgment God gave a goose. Subtle work, you've got to give them that.

Actually, I'm not real sure who "they" are either. Somebody sick of seeing blurry pictures of Diana sucking face with Dodi, maybe. Fortunately, I have an alibi. More likely, it was somebody wanting to prevent embarrassment to the royal family -- although the only things Di hadn't yet done to embarrass them were a full-blown crank habit and a job at Hooter's. Personally, I wouldn't rule out Elton John, who got quite a bit more mileage out of "Candle in the Wind" after the princess' untimely demise.

It's a big case. Bigger than a breadbox. Bigger than a two-bit gumshoe like me, sitting in my darkened office in the Hotel Ralph with half a bottle of cheap whiskey. But no doubt all will be revealed in the fullness of time. If not in this fourth official probe, then surely the fifth or sixth. These things take time. After all, it's been 30 years and we still don't have goods on who smoked Elvis.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The red-hot ladies of the Louvre

I don't know what the big deal is about the Louvre. They only have three things worth looking at.

I'm kidding, of course. But to the thousands saluting the Winged Victory, Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo with their cell-phone cameras, the rest of the world's best-known museum might as well be an oversized Furniture Mart. To hell with Botticelli or Renoir; they're there to photograph the Big Three and then get their asses on over to the Eiffel Tower to stand at the end of a 90-minute line.

As a gawking tourist myself, I'm familiar with the compulsion to see and record every landmark in the guidebook. But at the Louvre, the crowds milling around these particular pieces radiate the impatience and hunger of paparazzi -- how many blurry pictures will constitute proof of the visit? How many bizarre poses? Would that idiot in the cargo shorts please move a little to the left?

These great works became famous because they were masterpieces; today they are just three more celebrities, unable to thwart the crowds and cameras by ducking into waiting limousines. Fortunately, their patience is limitless. Viewed from the back of the room, Mona Lisa's forehead and enigmatic eyes seem to float, amused, in a sea of tiny LCD screens. Venus, from her higher vantage point, gazes past the throng with the perspective of 21 centuries. She's not wearing panties either, but somehow makes it work better than Britney Spears. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, her head in some other place, seems not to regret the fact.

No doubt celebrity has always attracted the insincere like moths to a porch light. The difference today is that they all have digital cameras, and are mostly unaware that it is possible and preferable to shoot indoors without flash. But no matter. The good part of it is that, with the crowds concentrated elsewhere, the rest of the vast Louvre remains hushed and dignified, and conducive to appreciation of the long-dead geniuses who have adorned its endless corridors. Even on the weekends.

But enough about Paris. I'm off to the bookstore to see if I can't find some worthy fiction. In the meantime, I'm in the middle of A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke's amusing and semi-fictional take on his year as a Briton in France. Not really up my crime-fiction street, but so far, not bad at all...

Friday, October 5, 2007

A few notes on Paris


Our trip to France was lovely, marred only by the near-lethal cold I managed to contract on the transatlantic flight back home. Better then than at the start of the trip, right? Today my throat feels as though I've been gargling battery acid, but the golden memories help mitigate the pain. As the saying goes, we'll always have Paris.

We did all the things tourists usually do when they visit France, so I won't expound on them. Instead, here are a few impressions from a first-time visitor who doesn't speak the language. No doubt they'll seem hopelessly naive to veteran Francophiles, but it's my blog.

On our first night in France, we were treated to dinner by representatives of the mayor's office of the city of Orleans. As it happened, it was the final night of the city's three-year-old river festival, culminating with a fireworks show. We stood with a crowd of about 80,000 and watched the pyrotechnics light up the night and the Loire River. It was a splendid display, but what struck us most was the civilized nature of the crowd: No parents cursing their children; no drunken teens fistfighting, no shouted cell phone conversations, no shoving for better views. In short, none of the behavior that can make large public gatherings so memorable in the States. Are the French somehow more civilized? I don't know. But they've been at it longer, so the idea seems plausible.

In Paris, I was struck by the number of people riding bicycles to work, and somehow peacefully coexisting with cars, trucks and motorcycles. There is something inspiring about seeing well-dressed men and women nonchalantly pedaling through traffic without benefit of helmets or logoed spandex. Maybe it helps that Parisian drivers seem conditioned to share the road. Where I live, that is decidedly not the case.

One of the things I'd often heard about France is that anybody can be on strike on any given day. Apparently so. On our way back to Charles De Gaulle airport to drop off the rental car, we noticed traffic in the other direction backed up for miles. In the front of the line: an army of taxi drivers, who were registering their displeasure at certain fare rules proposed by the government. Those unlucky enough to be caught behind the roadblock seemed sanguine enough about it, sitting on car hoods and smoking or chatting on cell phones. Evidently the French are used to this sort of thing. We canceled our plan to get a cab back into the city, and took the train instead.

Paris is filled with museums, but you quickly become aware that the city itself is the best museum of all, so steeped in history and culture that you can't walk anywhere without crossing the steps of the famous and infamous. And so you keep walking, awed by one grand vista or another, or struck silent by some curving cobblestone street where someone well-known lived, loved, dreamed or died. Sometimes all four. I can see why Hemingway was taken by it. The place he first lived in Paris was a couple of blocks from our hotel. At least one of the bookstores he haunted still exists. (See above.)

Because the dollar is so weak against the euro right now, France is an expensive place to visit. One of the few bargains to be had there is the wine: We found all sorts of great local wine in the Loire Valley for three or four euros a bottle. I quickly calculated that I couldn't afford not to drink as much of it as possible. I only wish I could have brought a couple cases home.

As a dutiful tourist, I also took hundreds of snapshots, a few of which are displayed here. They're no different from the millions of others taken every day by first-time visitors to France, but I'm glad to have them. Have a look and let me know what you think.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I'm off to liberate Paris

I'm not sure anyone will notice, but I shan't (as Maxine would say) be blogging for awhile. The brunette and I are off to Paris, where I will attempt to mend relations between our two great countries and consume more French wine than is strictly necessary.

Adieu. I'll post a comprehensive discourse on the state of French crime fiction (and French wine) when I return. Or maybe I'll just steal something off Peter's site. Evidently, this Fred Vargas has written a book or two...

CSI: Cambridge, circa 1171

Normally I'd wait until finishing a book before commenting on it, but since I'll be reveling in France for the next few days, I'll mention Mistress in the Art of Death, one of those books that looked intriguing at the bookstore, but not quite intriguing enough for me to lay out the price of a hardcover. Once again, my local library branch comes through. I'm about halfway through it now.

Briefly, the book is about a female forensics expert investigating a series of gruesome child murders in 12th century England. Yes, that sounds anachronistic -- my limited study of Medieval history somehow omitted all the women doctors of that time who tracked down serial killers with suspiciously up-to-date forensics techniques.

At least the protagonist is not beautiful; she's short, plain-looking and rather abrupt. And author Ariana Franklin has given her a plausible, if not entirely believable, back story: the doctor majored in "the art of death" at a medical school in Salerno, Italy, which evidently did exist and took a more liberal view of what women could do in those days. She's in England trying to prove that the child murders are not the work of the local Jewish population, and thus stave off a bloody insurrection.

It's audacious plotting, and mostly it works. There's a wealth of historical detail, and Franklin has taken care to weave real people, locations and events into her yarn. What bothers me most so far are little anachronistic slips in the writing. At one point, the protagonist Adelia reflects on how the Catholic Church is "raking it in" by exploiting the ignorant populace. At another, she recalls her days studying the decay of corpses at a body farm in Salerno. Was there such a thing in 1170? Somehow, I doubt it.

The book is interesting enough to finish, but it does remind me why I stopped reading Patricia Cornwell and watching all those CSI shows -- finally, serial killers and forensic probes are no longer all that interesting. It also reminds me of books that did this kind of thing better: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose comes to mind, or Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Those who annoy us must be Tasered

Ahem. I'm among those who thought Andrew Meyer had it coming when security officers applied a Taser to his struggling form at the John Kerry town hall event on Monday. My deepest regret is that they didn't hit him a couple more times to drive the point home.

The point? It's this: Even in America, even at this late date, there's a remote chance you might pay a certain price for being an asshole. I defy anybody to watch the various videos of the incident and say Meyer was a victim of anything besides his own extreme assholeness.

The president of the University of Florida called the incident "regretful." Uh, yeah. The most regretful thing is that this guy Meyer, a prankster by trade, has just secured a bit of YouTube immortality, which has a half-life of at least two weeks. What's a few thousand volts compared to that? The injustice!

One other regret: "Don't Tase me, bro." I have a feeling we're going to be hearing that phrase quite a bit more. It's the 2007 version of Rodney King's immortal "Can't we all just get along?"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Who is John Galt these days?

Ayn Rand once referred to her novel Atlas Shrugged as a mystery, "about the murder -- and rebirth -- of man's spirit." If so, it's far and away the most plodding and preachy mystery you'll ever read. It's 1,200 pages long and the approximate weight of a Volkswagen. I burned as many calories just lugging this book from the parking lot as I did on the YMCA Stairmaster where I made myself read it over the course of a week.

Nevertheless, the book continues to sell well 50 years later. The New York Times revisits the tome in a weekend piece headlined "Ayn Rand's literature of capitalism." It will come as no surprise that the book's biggest fans today are corporate executives, who like the part about naked self interest but overlook the part about inventing things of public value. Let's just say Kenneth Lay was no John Galt.

As someone who experienced the Bolshevik revolution firsthand, Rand may be forgiven for her hatred of collectivism. She was unstinting in her contempt for parasitic mobs who preyed on the productivity of others. But all these years later, I wonder if the situation hasn't been reversed. Aren't today's hedge-fund managers, and others of their ilk, the biggest parasites of all?

Bottom line: Atlas Shrugged was an important book in 1957, and remained so for a couple decades. Now, along with the socialist absurdities it railed against, it just seems hopelessly naive.

Friday, September 14, 2007

An Ozark odyssey you won't forget

Here's another johnny-come-lately endorsement for Daniel Woodrell, whose 2006 novel Winter's Bone is a great piece of writing. I'd never heard of this author until Uriah at Crime Scraps mentioned Woodrell's novel Tomato Red in a post the other day. The passage he quoted was so evocative that I decided to investigate.

Woodrell is a superb stylist, and with this particular protagonist, plot and setting, he's created something that reads a lot like literature. A 16-year-old Ozark mountain girl has become the de facto head of the house since her no-account dad decamped to parts unknown. He's put up the house and land as bond, and unless he can be found, the girl and her young brothers will be left homeless during a particularly bleak winter.

The story reminds me of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain -- a noble quest in a brutish world -- and I've not seen characters so sharply and economically drawn in a long while. While the milieu of rural crank labs and amoral tribalism is pretty grim, there is also enough humor to humanize it.

I'll be reading the rest of Daniel Woodrell's novels in the weeks to come.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A new look at an old serial killer

I've long been fascinated by unsolved crimes. So the other night I watched "Zodiac," about the serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area beginning in 1969 and was never caught.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., the film didn't do all that well at the box office -- maybe because the murders attributed to the Zodiac seem too few (only five confirmed) and too pedestrian compared to the atrocities we've seen nearly 40 years on. Maybe it also has to do with the film's length -- two hours and 20 minutes may be on the outside edge of most attention spans.

It's worth renting though. As near as I can tell, it stays fairly true to the facts of the case, and those facts haven't gotten any less eerie with the passage of four decades. What elevates the Zodiac killer from his deadlier brethren since are the taunting letters and cryptograms he sent newspapers and police during his brief reign of terror. Since he was never caught, those communiques today seem to confirm the mythic status the killer craved. That's too bad, since publicity often seemed more of a motive for Zodiac than any particular compulsion to kill.

The movie made me curious about the case. In the course of looking around online, I came across crimelibrary.com, which offers a factual, unbiased overview of this and several other unsolved crimes. It's compelling reading. If you haven't seen this well-written site, check it out. There are entries on a host of famous cases, including JonBenet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson -- even Lizzie Borden.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The bittersweet smell of not-quite success

Two things relevant to my writing aspirations just came in the mail: My author copies of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (containing my latest short story), and a membership renewal notice from Mystery Writers of America. Both were kind of bittersweet.

Don't misunderstand: I love seeing my stuff in print. I love it more than the tiny checks I get from the aptly-named Penny Publications when I sell one of my stories, and I love it a lot more than actually writing. Maybe that's the problem. For me, writing is hard. Even if I'm writing crap. It's so hard that when I've actually sold something, I feel like I deserve a major award. Instead, I get the pleasure of rereading my so-so prose in print and confronting life's persistent question: But what have you done lately?

Which brings me to the MWA renewal notice. It's $95 a year. Subtract that from the paltry pay, add Uncle Sam's insistence that I pay a self-employment tax, and watching junk TV suddenly seems like a lot better use of one's time. To hell with this novel; the MTV awards are on! That Britney's putting on some weight!

I don't know. I'll probably renew, for the same reason I joined in the first place: I like telling people I'm a member of something, and Mystery Writers of America sounds better than the Elks Club. Also, I get my name in the monthly newsletter on those rare months when I have something new in print. Finally, there are no meetings. If they'd only give me a cool jacket with a logo on the back, or some MWA coasters, it would be a no-brainer.

Anyway, if you get the chance, check out my story "Strange Days" and tell me what you think. It may not be literature, but it's short.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Ozymandias is the name

There's a reason I don't call it Dave's Nonfiction Warehouse: Of the 50 or so books I've read so far this year, only a few have been nonfiction, most given to me by friends or family. But the best of those, The World Without Us, is just as compelling as any mystery or thriller I've picked up.

You've probably heard of it: What would happen to the Earth if all humans vanished? Maybe there's something in all of us that likes to imagine a world all to ourselves -- even as we ignore the basic premise that none of us can be around to see it. Who wouldn't like a stroll through Times Square without the crowds, and no sound but the wind?

But if you ever do wake up as the only person left on the planet and have a hankering to see the Big Apple, you should get there pretty soon. According to author Alan Weisman, things will start going to hell in about two days, starting with the flooding of the subway system. In just five years, the city could be ablaze, thanks to lightning and ruptured gas lines.

The book isn't just about the collapse of all man has wrought in modern times, although those sections are the most entertaining. It also examines the things that are likely to survive for millennia, none of them good: greatly elevated levels of CO2, and a whole lot of PCBs, plutonium and plastic.

Oh, and maybe four very worn faces at Mount Rushmore. I like to think of some alien archaeologist happening on those and thinking, "Hmmm. These must be the Beatles."

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Not your father's cliche. Oh wait; it is.

Maybe it's time to retire the phrase, "This is not your father's [blank]," where blank is the latest piece of obsolescent consumer goods some company is struggling to rebrand. I see it about four times a day, most recently in this New York Times story about the latest effort to hawk one more thing I hate: an electronic book reader. Amazon is reportedly set to unveil the Kindle next month. It will cost upwards of $400 and will feature wireless connectivity. (Doesn't everything feature wireless connectivity? One of these days, I'm pretty sure even my toothbrush will be set up for Bluetooth.)

“This is not your grandfather’s e-book,” said one publishing executive who did not want to be named. Hey, I wouldn't want to be named either, trotting out cliches like that. Google the phrase and you'll get clever headlines like these:

"Not your father's encyclopedia."
"Not your father's sex shop."
"Not your father's Mario Kart."
"Not your father's neanderthal."
"Not your father's robots."
"Not your father's Talmud."

... and about 3 million other gems that must have seemed quite jaunty at the time. It's odd that this phrase is so durable, considering that it didn't help save the Oldsmobile when the slogan was rolled out in 1998. In fact, some say it actually helped hasten the car's demise by reminding buyers of its longstanding appeal to querulous geezers.

But is this post about e-book readers or dead slogans? I'm not sure; I'm just blogging here. Let's just say anybody who uses either deserves to be thrashed. Perhaps with your drunken stepfather's shillelagh.