Sunday, December 20, 2015

Commonplace Book: Cornwall

Cornwall seems to have been custom built for secrecy. The county is filled with tiny lanes enclosed by high hedgerows so thick with age and overgrowth they seem as much part of the natural landscape as the cliff tops, steep village streets down which nothing wider than a bicycle can pass with comfort, unexpected coves appearing and disappearing behind another few miles of switchback road, twisting river mouths and thickly wooded hillsides, glimpses of water vanishing behind ambiguous headlands, similar-sounding place names, and always that dreamlike sense of having passed this way a little time before. It is that confusion, the sense of having stumbled across a half-discovered land, which forms so much of Cornwall's attraction. You could stay in the same place every summer for twenty years and still get lost every time. The fishing village at the bottom of a near-vertical hillside with its bath-sized cove, its perfect pub and its peeling red phone box might be there one weekend but have vanished by the next; the patch of beach on which you built a fire and cooked an impromptu meal might seem vivid in memory but no longer exists in fact. Walk along the same stretch of headland and somehow the path leads you off to a different place on each revisitation. Sail up one of the inlets and stare round you as the sun goes down; whatever you see will be gone by the time you return. Landmarks get nearer or further, headlands appear or repeat; expected signs refuse to materialize. Cornwall is England's mirage, parts of it always vanishing before your eyes. From land and sea, it is a cartographer's nightmare and a wrecker's dream - a place that could not possibly have been better designed for concealment. - Bella Bathurst, The Wreckers 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Growth (Troy S. Gamble)

Peculiar case, this one. Despite some bizarrely off-the-point Amazon reviews that make it sound like an earnest novel about personal growth, it is actually an archly satiric novel about (mostly) economic growth. The style is like a Britishized distillation of the opening line of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49:

One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

The book is also Pynchon-esque in that it takes place in a world that is not quite the real world; it's just a little too absurd and improbable. Thus, a key skein of the plot (at least for a while, until the author seems to forget about it) has to do with the possible purchase of a piece of real estate that would definitely never be for sale in our reality.

This is difficult fictional territory to work successfully, and it cannot be said that debut novelist Troy S. Gamble really succeeds. There are bright spots, such as funny bits of observation:

This man was the epitome of life as it should be, she thought...She wanted her life to be like that: walking a dog, flying her own jet to her own Caribbean island, helping people across the street, reading a good book while listening to the friendly chat of her partner on the phone discussing a loan to some small Eastern European country in exchange for a special tax arrangement approved in the local parliament. Apparently, it wasn't possible, not for long.

Or encapsulations of the novel's financial themes:

"The new rich usually have a small part of their worth in liquidity, some fraction of a percent. Everything else is loans, goodwill and market capitalization - and it is not real money, it's just funny numbers to juggle and brag about. Do you know how many people who buy or rent high-end property are unable to pay their utility bills?"
"Open your laptop, add some zeroes to a random digit, call it money."

But the drags on the (long) narrative are many. It proceeds by a series of set-pieces, some of which are passably amusing, others obviously derivative - a masked-orgy sequence is straight out of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and suffers by the comparison. The plot frequently descends into mere silliness (the aforementioned real estate sub-plot, for example). The protagonist, failed corporate manager and would-be poet Peter Copeland, is an annoying nitwit; in fact, many of the characters are annoying nitwits. Despite the book's length, a number of plot-lines are left dangling and unresolved, and the key one that is resolved achieves its denouement through the arrival of a new set of characters out of nowhere. This may be intended as a comment on life's essential randomness, but it come across as novelistically inept.

In short, an interesting try at a thematically timely literary performance, with glints of real talent, but I could not easily recommend it.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Francis Jammes: On the Life & Work of a Modern Master (Kathryn Nuernberger / Bruce Whiteman, editors)

This tribute volume to the turn-of-the-20th-Century rural poet Francis Jammes (1868-1938) is self-recommending to those interested in French literature of the period (or in the Pays Basque where the writer lived), and is perhaps most valuable for the Introduction and six essays that place Jammes in context and argue for his importance.

Much of this critical writing discusses Jammes’ relation to Modernism, which looks very slight from this distance (although it was also debated when he was alive). Simplicity is indeed a hallmark of one type of Modernism which we can associate with William Carlos Williams as an exemplar. Jammes does not seem so radically simple as Williams, partly because, as critic Christopher Howell points out, he relies a lot on conventional Romantic phraseology, as Williams certainly did not. The most apt comparison for Jammes in English-language poetry might actually be Thomas Hardy, although Jammes’ forms are freer.

Howell eventually absolves Jammes of conventionality on the grounds that he means his clichés; I’m not sure it’s a convincing argument. The danger with a simple poet is shading into the simplistic, and the language which Howell quotes, and which is on display elsewhere in this volume, does sometimes seem simplistic.

Kathryn Neuernberger, one of the book’s editors, makes a better case for the tougher, sharper, more acutely observant Jammes that emerges in the late Four Books of Quatrains, written in the poet’s 50s.

I was very glad to read this volume, but as a vehicle for getting to know Jammes better, it fails in two signal ways, both related to the presentation of his writing. The rather short selection of his poetry, offered in translations by different hands, does not include the original French on facing pages. In 2015, this is practically a deal-breaker. All translated volumes of poetry in the major European languages (at least) ought to contain the original texts. All it takes is a smattering of the original language (true of my French!) to be able to discern much better what the translators are up to.

The second failing is that the selection gives a very limited impression of Jammes’ writing. He was voluminous in prose as well as poetry, but apart from a three-page “Literary Manifesto,” none of his prose is here. Probably including some of it would have entailed commissioning and paying for new translations that would have been beyond the book’s budget; but without a fair array of Jammes’ output, which included fiction, memoir, and drama as well as lyric poetry, the volume falls short of representing him in the most rounded way. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Party's Over

Alas, I am pulling out of the reviewing game. As many of you may have become aware, Amazon is suing more than 1,000 reviewers - and although yes, they are fake reviewers and I am an honest one, still, the climate for reviewing just got very, very chilled. Amazon is big guns and can obliterate small fry, and they also own Goodreads, IMDB, and probably other platforms I'm not even aware of. Reviewers at Yelp have also been sued for libel, and a negative reviewer of an academic book in France was sued for defamation a while back. It is getting crazy out there.

The reviewers who are being sued by Amazon are associated with the Fiverr website. I do writing-for-pay through Fiverr, too, although not reviews. I write articles and blog posts, mainly on business-related topics.

Although I will leave my existing content up wherever it is, I vow here and now NEVER to again post content or links to content at ANY Amazon-owned website, including Amazon itself, Goodreads, and IMDB. The corpocracy has really gone far enough for me. 

I will complete some reviews for books I have already finished, hard copies that have been sent to me, and content that I have actively solicited. However, the reviews will ONLY be posted at this site. Nowhere else: I will not even post links back to this site. 

Eventually, the site will just fade out. 

It is a very dangerous world.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (Tobias Smollett)

I have said it before and I'll say it again: I am never disappointed when I read a classic. Always there is at least historical interest to be gotten out of them, and usually a great deal more than that.

Despite a good grounding in 18th Century British fiction, I had somehow failed to explore the works of Tobias Smollett up until now, so when I spotted the Heron Books hardcover reprint of Smollett's final novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, on a sale table at one of the weekend book fairs here in Queretaro, naturally I snapped it up. (The frontispiece illustration below is from a different edition of approximately the same vintage, the Folio Society printing of 1955.)

Humphry Clinker draws in genial fashion on several literary traditions - the travelogue, the picaresque, and the epistolary novel.

The story follows the peregrinations of a Welsh squire, Matthew Bramble of Brambleton Hall, his husband-hunting sister Tabitha, his nephew and niece Jeremy and Lydia Melford, and their servants and occasional fellow-travelers, as they make their way in literally roundabout fashion through various spa towns - Bath, Harrogate, Scarborough - and prominent cities - Gloucester, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow - across the whole Island of Britain. This positions the book in the company of such non-fictional specimens as Daniel Defoe's A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain.

Smollett wrote an account of his own travels in France and Italy just a few years before Clinker, and apparently was an even more dyspeptic chronicler than his own Matt. Bramble, who may be taken as a somewhat autobiographical portrait. Bramble finds travel a great fuss and bother, but is willing to undertake it for the possibly salutary effects on his health - he suffers from gout - and the edification of his younger relations.

As an epistolary novel, Humphry Clinker is perhaps unusual for highlighting letters by men - in most novels of this kind, the women are the more enthusiastic correspondents. By my count, there are 27 letters by Bramble here; 28 by Jery Melford; and a total of 28 by four others - Tabitha, Lydia, Tabitha's scattered servant Winifred Jenkins, and Lydia's now-you-see-him-now-you-don't suitor Wilson (who gets but a single brief missive). The letters by Matt. Bramble and Jery Melford are epically longer than those by the others, which together can't take up more than 15% or so of the word-count of the novel. The novel belongs to the two men.

Matt. Bramble's letters to his friend Dr. Lewis are a combination of the philosophical and the somewhat petulant; Jery Melford's letters to his fellow Oxonian Watkin Phillips are observant, amused, and largely carry the thread of the narrative.

Matthew characterizes his nephew as a "pert jackanapes, full of college-petulance and self-conceit; proud as a German count, and as hot and hasty as a Welch mountaineer." Jery is a splendid depiction of a post-collegian male who would seem at home in any era, but oddly perhaps, he is not especially lusty. Oh, he makes the occasional admiring comment about this or that woman. But he is skeptical about the "permanence" of female charms, and to that extent resistant of them. Although Humphry Clinker is full of love and lust - all the women are hot for beaux in one way or another - it is decidedly not a tale of Jery Melford's love-life.

And what, you may wonder, of Humphry Clinker himself? He does not, surprisingly, figure very largely in the book named for him. He comes on the scene late, insinuates himself into the family's graces as a manservant for Squire Bramble, has a few misadventures, writes no letters, and makes a pretty minor character overall.

So why is this novel titled The Expedition of Humphry Clinker? It may have to do with the picaresque element, which is the weakest of the major strands here. A picaro is a rogue who lives by his wits. Humphry Clinker is lower-class and marginally roguish, with a penchant for getting into scrapes - but is also very religious. Nothing in "his" novel is related from anything close to his POV, which would ordinarily be standard in a picaresque narrative. So I am afraid he is a half-picaro at best - but apparently just enough of one to score a title. Frankly, I would have named the novel something else.

No matter ultimately, for this is a joyous book despite all of Matt. Bramble's grousing. It has high spirits for days. The late-arriving character who stands out is not actually Clinker, but the Scotsman Lieutenant Lismahago, who once spent an extended period with a Native American tribe, thereby securing a "colorful" status for all time, and who although interesting to talk to is confoundedly contradictory of whatever position one might choose to take. Matt. Bramble can't quite decide whether he likes this fellow or not, but sister Tabitha has no such qualms - he is an available male of appropriate age and social class, and she moves in for the kill.

All resolves nicely, as is appropriate for a comedy - although one must admit that the long-term prospects for a couple of the couplings do not look all that bright.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Closer to God (dir. Billy Senese)

Indie films that try to behave commercially run the risk of falling between two stools, and Billy Senese's cloning thriller Closer to God is a classic example of this. It starts with a team of unglamorous scientists - shades of The Andromeda Strain (1971) - guiding the birth of a human clone, and although crucial questions are left unanswered (such as, where's the funding for all this coming from?), the widescreen visual style is controlled enough to suggest that the movie might just be interested in tackling an explosive and controversial subject in a serious manner.

Vain hope. It never attains the seriousness of The Andromeda Strain, even, let alone its obvious forebear, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Naming the chief scientist "Victor" was a cute, bad idea, although the character is played well by Jeremy Childs. Our Dr. Victor, alas for him and even more so for the film, is hiding the existence of some missteps on his scientific trail that will return to haunt everyone concerned in full-blown horror-movie fashion. The protestors who rise up against the scientists for dabbling in cloning in the first place, because of concerns about dangers in execution / bioethics issues /researcher hubris (take your pick), have no idea, really.

Since Closer to God abandons any pretenses to thoughtfulness or subtlety early on, it is fair to say that it was designed not as a potential succès d'estime but as a "calling card" - a chance to show the Big Money Boys that a director can deliver the Hollywood goods on a small budget. Needless to say, I don't find that as worthy a goal as making a genuinely interesting film, and wanting to continue to do so. To take one example, if a Rian Johnson "graduates" from Brick to Looper to (heaven help us) Star Wars: Episode VIII, the quality going down as his paychecks go up, that is more of interest to his accountant than to film lovers.

But there are good calling cards and bad calling cards, and if Closer to God really worked as a genre piece, I'd be happy to point that out. It doesn't, though. I can't say how it doesn't without giving away too much plot, but the third-act borrowings will be pretty obvious to a seasoned movie buff. The proceedings never become boring, and the film remains watchable till the end, but that is kind of low praise. A calling-card-type film should knock your socks off in the manner of Steven Spielberg's Duel. Otherwise, why bother?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Absinthe Association (Athenaide Dallett)

I have been highly suspicious of charisma my entire adult life, and if I learned that attitude anywhere, it was during my undergraduate years at Yale University. So a novel about Ivy League charisma - Harvard, in this case - will speak to me in a very particular way.

Athenaide Dallett's The Absinthe Association, which is loosely based on actual personalities and events of the late 1990s, tells the story of a band of recent Harvard graduates and their friends who became smitten with the concept of privately distilling the legendary and then-still-illegal spirit absinthe. In the novel, they go to a LOT of trouble to achieve this, and the details of their scheming and execution are highly entertaining. Not to mention their constant consumption of the "Green Fairy," once they've succeeded in making it.

This story provides the novel a solid structure within which other questions can be explored, and male charisma seems to me to be the most potent of these. Dallett contrasts two varieties of charisma as embodied in two of the key protagonists, the good-time, ringleading extrovert Dennis Bianchi, who concocts the absinthe project in the first place, and the harder-to-peg Brendan Burke, who is along for the ride.

Dennis Bianchi's charisma is social and based on personality, and is felt by every character in the book. His two most important relationships are with his ambivalent girlfriend-then-wife, Julia, and his buddy Rob, who plays Nick Carraway to his Gatsby. ("...from the moment he met Dennis, Rob had never had another dull weekend or lonely afternoon.") Dennis is responsible for bringing everyone in his circle on board with the absinthe-making, including a group of his local buddies from Providence, Rhode Island, just a short drive from the Boston area. The inclusion of the Providence guys expands the social scope of the novel tellingly.

Brendan Burke's charisma is sexual and based on looks, and is especially felt by one young British woman, Annabel, who has come to Harvard for graduate school in literature (a program she shares with Rob, who not-so-secretly fixates on her). Brendan is remote, cucumber-cool, hard-to-get, and a god: "Brendan was, quite simply, the most golden of all the golden boys Annabel had ever admired in a long history of admiring the assorted charms of boys...he had a tall, broad-shouldered masculinity, an athletic ease that struck Annabel as peculiarly American."

The contrast between Dennis and Brendan and what they represent is very nicely handled by Dallett. I got my first exposure to both these types at Yale. As a gay man, of course I have always been susceptible to the Brendans, and was right there with Annabel every step of the way - although one might say that for a sophisticated woman, she is a little slow on the uptake in realizing that the Brendans are a waste of time to pursue. They choose; they are never chosen.

Dennis is a quite different kettle of fish. Call it envy if you wish, but I always despised the Dennises, and did not do much better with this one. Like all hardcore extroverts, Dennis needs people around but does not understand them very well. He is, in a word, obtuse, and he certainly fails to notice that the members of his Absinthe Association are getting in way over their heads.

The sense of unease that subtly builds over the implications of the absinthe law-breaking - these kids do not simply leave breadcrumbs on the trail, they leave whole loaves - fuels another of the emotional plots, Julia's inner debate over whether Dennis is the right man for her. As a product of the deeply socially conservative Philadelphia Main Line, she is drawn to his devil-may-care attitudes partly because they disregard the "rules." But it can get to be a bit much for her, too; too much for the long haul? There is a marvelous chapter in which Dennis rises to a difficult situation and you can sense Julia leaning back towards him. A feminist might notice that it is precisely Dennis's traditional masculine competency that re-enamors her - but isn't that exactly how it might be, given her upbringing?

The only point at which I felt the novel falter was in the convergence of all the actions in a tragic denouement. I am not giving anything away by saying that the resolution is tragic, since Dallett opens the novel with flash-forwards. What bothered me was that a key element of the ending depends on a character getting away with an evasive maneuver that, in my opinion, would be impossible to pull off in real life. To be fair, the violation of reality here is no worse than that of many movie thrillers, but the rest of the book is so scrupulous about its materials that I felt a bit of letdown when I started to feel credibility flying out the window.

Nonetheless, that is only 5% of the book, albeit the final 5%. In general, The Absinthe Association  can be strongly recommended.

Monday, September 28, 2015

In the Blink of a Wicked Eye (Timothy C. Hobbs)

The inherent difficulty with publishing a collection of 37 horror stories ranging from short to very short is that no one has that many ideas, and the author's bag of tricks is likely to be depleted all too fast. I regret to say that proves to be the case with Timothy C. Hobbs' handsome volume In the Blink of a Wicked Eye.

Let me put a couple of admissions out of the way. Although I am a great fan of good horror movies, I have never been much of a reader of horror fiction beyond some of the acknowledged classics such as Dracula. Although the aesthetic of horror interests me - Stephen King's non-fiction study Danse Macabre is a classic on that theme - the execution on the page often fails to excite me.

Also, when I picked up this book I was primed for surprising short stories - by the author himself, who referred to The Twilight Zone in his review request. Well, there he was hitting one of my buttons, because I yield to none in my admiration of what Rod Serling and his collaborators achieved in that groundbreaking series. Even the weaker episodes are pretty darn good in the larger scheme of things.

Although many of the best-remembered Twilight Zone episodes do depend on a final twist, it was by no means just a Surprise-of-the-Week show. Sheer mood counted for an enormous amount.

However, there is no denying that the series did surprises very well - and like the best movies that have employed a trick ending, in the process The Twilight Zone destroyed plenty of the potential ones, forevermore. There are only so many possible tricks, and fans and aficionados know better than ordinary viewers and readers what they are and how they are set up. Popular narratives, alas, do not offer endless possibilities, and even less so when the subjects of stories are already embedded in the popular consciousness.

All the best-known horror tropes and characters - vampires, zombies, serial killers, and so on - are badly overexposed. Good luck trying to surprise anyone in any of those sub-genres nowadays.


This is what Hobbs runs up against with his stories - that, and the fact that his particular style and manner of resolving situations becomes familiar to the reader quickly. The tales are not bad (although I could have lived without the couple of Nazisploitation items). But the reader all too rapidly discerns that:

  • The stories will end horribly.
  • If the protagonist can be consumed in some way, hey, it's going to happen.
  • Biology is ugly, man. 
  • Even if it's Halloween night, if it LOOKS like a vampire or a killer clown or whatever - it is, it definitely is!
  • If the house looks haunted, it is. If the old couple seems creepy, they are. If the container warns you not to open it, don't open it. And so on...
Notice that, once you have become used to the patterns, these denouements are not surprises, they are anti-surprises.

Stephen King divides horror into suggestive terror, visible horror, and the gross-out. Because the stories in Wicked Eye are so short, Hobbs winds up cutting to the icky chase fairly quickly in most instances. This is E.C. Comics territory much more than it is Twilight Zone territory, and I can feel Hobbs going more than once for the bravura theatricality and sick humor of The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and Tales from the Crypt. I respect that ambition, but it is a hard target to hit, and there is a quality built into the horror comics genre that enables it to be hit more readily (also, the E.C. team was wicked talented).

If we take a look at this relatively tame Vault of Horror cover, we see that it memorably captures so many of Hobbs' favored themes - a holiday setting, an undermining of family relationships and cheerful surfaces - in a way that hits you right in the eye. Hobbs never really gets that close to that kind of impact.


I like Hobbs' work better when it mines the melancholy, as in the understated and affecting dystopian story "Dissolution." Even though dystopias are a dime a dozen these days, this story might stand expansion into a longer form. The futuristic hired killer story "Moondance" and the brief science fiction sketch "Emissaries" also push against the boundaries of their length and stand out simply because they veer off the template of the overall collection.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Lynch Pin (dir. Edward Burns)

We need a term for “Hollywood insider-outsiders,” a phenomenon that is becoming more common as money for ambitious and interesting film projects dries up. Not so long ago, the desired trajectory was: make a tiny independent film on money you raised by selling your blood plasma or some such; get noticed with it at Sundance; ascend to the big leagues; and remain there happily ever after.

But it doesn’t always work that way anymore, and temperament as well as funding can play into it. Take Edward Burns. He started out working as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight and Oliver Stone’s The Doors. He made his first feature, The Brothers McMullen, for $25,000, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance with it, and quickly “graduated” to bigger budgets and name actors; his next film, She’s the One, starred Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz. He was in demand as an actor, too, working for and becoming friends with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, and in 2003 he married supermodel Christy Turlington, which is about as big-time as you can get in a certain sense.

But a funny thing happened on the way to The Show. Burns discovered that he liked working on lower-cost personal projects if he retained artistic control of them. So he back-pedaled to smaller budgets and began to innovate with production and distribution, moving early to digital and early to iTunes, while still keeping a hand in the larger industry, acting in Entourage and Will & Grace for example.

His latest project, the new TV series Public Morals, is on TNT and has the backing of Spielberg as an executive producer, and I’m sure that Burns is luxuriating in the higher budget (somewhat necessary for a period piece set in 1960s New York). But I’m also sure that if he doesn’t score big with it, he’ll keep on making small films his way. He has a lot of practice with that by now.

Every “mid-list” director is adapting to the current realities in his or her own fashion. Mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg is starting to work with more name actors, while keeping his scale small. Spike Lee, like Burns, has largely gone back to low-budget guerrilla film-making. John Waters, oddly, categorically refuses to work with budgets lower than the $5-15 million per picture he had gotten used to, which means that he has made only two films since 1998 and none since 2004.

It is no surprise that back in 2009, Burns decided to have a go with a little Web-based series called The Lynch Pin, about a hitman who wants out. Nowadays series made directly for streaming on the Internet, such as House of Cards, have become a branch of television entertainment overall, with Netflix, Amazon, and other outfits getting into production in a big way. But in 2009, Web series were smaller and more experimental (and still can be, for those who are so inclined or who are starting out).

The Lynch Pin has a bit of a larky air about it; I think that Burns was having fun messing around, and didn’t intend any major statement. The 10 “Web-isodes,” as was often the case at the time, are very tight, in the two-to-six minute range, and that generates a particular kind of stop-start rhythm. Stylishness is everything here, with Burns as the hitman in the dark suit tooling around in sharp convertibles and SUVs when he’s not offing people, and providing the requisite voiceover narration: “If you really want to hear about it, my name is Dan Lynch, and my business was killing folks…I was a mid-level, low-impact assassin. Back alley jobs, non-nonsense hits.” There is something of a Jason-Statham-as-The-Transporter vibe, although Burns has a full head of hair.

The current postings of the complete series on YouTube don’t have all that many views, about 500 apiece for the later episodes, which surprises me because I had a really good time watching it.

The Lynch Pin

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tribulation's War (Kyri Freeman)

Genre mash-ups are all the rage, but since writing an effective one takes considerably more talent than a straightforward novel in any particular genre, I wouldn't recommend it to any but a highly skilled and practiced writer. Kyri Freeman's Tribulation's War: A Civil War Ghost Story would be a reasonable Exhibit A in a brief against mash-ups. The Civil War side of the book is pretty damn good; the ghost story side, woeful.

Freeman is abundantly talented, but her particular combination of pluses and minuses may prove difficult to utilize in a successful novel. Her great strength is in descriptive, rhythmic prose that makes you feel the physical and atmospheric realities of place:

Blue shadows haunted the ground under oaks and chestnut trees, and in cold hollows snow still lay, ice-hard and white as bone. Tribulation Jones paused to listen to the Blue Ridge, running water and wind in branches, a hawk's scream high up in the gray sky; wiped cold mist from his face with a ragged sleeve.

That is the opening paragraph, and except for the overly obvious, symbolic naming of the protagonist, a very promising one: you are immediately there, feeling that cold, hearing that hawk. The prose continues at that high level of quality throughout the book and is a consistent pleasure.

The story gets off to a (too) fast start as Tribulation encounters a group of friends joining up with the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War, and throws his lot in with them on about five minutes' acquaintance. This did not seem quite credible, but Freeman sweeps you along into the thick of action so quickly that I was willing to suspend disbelief. Vivid action it is, too, on par with the best descriptions of Civil War battles that I have read anywhere.

What isn't quite so vivid are the personalities - but this works, in a way. Tribulation's War has a slightly oneiric flavor right from the start, and the shadowy, fading-in-and-out parade of soldiers fits in with that. We learn their names but little enough about them; they are certainly not given the kind of full-blown introductions one typically finds in a realist novel. Freeman has a trick of withholding or miscounting how many men are involved in a given scene, and then one speaks up and you think, "Wait a second - I didn't know he was there."

The lack of flair for characterization and for writing dialogue that reveals personality memorably could be a handicap for Freeman in writing other novels, and not one easily overcome, either.

There are hints of the supernatural in Book One of Tribulation's War, which occupies about 2/3 of the whole text, but because they are mostly just hints, they sustain the waking-dream tone without getting in the way of what is shaping up as a superior novel of the Civil War.

But then the war ends (with almost all the men we have been introduced to lying dead), the action shifts forward 10 years, and after a failed marriage and with a PTSD-fueled inability to let the war go, Tribulation finds himself pulled back to the home of the "Old Woodman," who figured in a brief episode in Book One. We find out that the Old Woodman is a 200-year-old conjure-man who has long had plans for Tribulation, and Book Two of Tribulation's War focuses entirely on Trib's apprenticeship in magic and his attempts to ward off his doppelganger "The Fetch."

Verily, my heart sank within me. The novel hurtles off the rails at this point, down a slope and into a wooded gully from which no survivors shall emerge, except perhaps the battered reader.

Honestly, the 75-page Book Two ranks as one of the most tedious pieces of reading I have suffered in a long time. Because I enjoyed Book One well enough, I felt more keenly disappointed than I would have if the whole novel had been dismissable.

Would I read another book of Freeman's? Maybe - but I'd read the description carefully before I did. She has got a genuine writerly gift, with some glaring deficits. The best passages in the Civil War section of Tribulation's War are superbly done, but unfortunately the overall scheme of the book is badly misconceived. Freeman is a fine realist writer who should beat off any temptations to write speculative fiction with a sturdy pole - but looking at Amazon, I see that her two other published novels are installments in a fantasy trilogy.

Stop the insanity!    

Monday, September 21, 2015

Hustlers Convention (dir. Mike Todd)

The documentary Hustlers Convention perfectly demonstrates the difference between popular culture and pop culture. Of course there is an overlap between them, but popular or folk culture is an "of the people, by the people, for the people" phenomenon, while pop culture as we know it today is a commercial production complex, focused on profits and increasingly made by wealthy creators who are about as street-credible as Paris Hilton.

The Last Poets and the Watts Prophets were the real deal. These African-American poetry-and-music collectives of the late 1960s and early 1970s had a major influence on later pop culture - rap begins here - and the Last Poets in particular had just a touch of pop culture success. But they were not corporate-friendly. Using accessible idioms to communicate matters of social and political urgency, they chose "the message over the money," retaining their integrity but finding themselves crowded out of the discussion.

Last Poet Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, aka Lightnin' Rod, aka Alafia Pudim - his birth name appears to be a secret - recorded his seminal narrative album Hustlers Convention in 1973, exploring "the seedy side of an eloquent way" as it details the misdaventures of street hustlers Sport and Spoon. Nuriddin ran into bad luck when the record was withdrawn by the releasing label, United Artists, over an apparent dispute with De-Lite, the home label of Kool and the Gang, who had contributed backing music. Nuriddin had had no direct involvement with the music or sound effects on the album himself, which were the work of producer Alan Douglas - "he just wanted me to lay down the lyrics so he could do his thing without me."

The film aims to revive the reputation of the album, but only deals with the issue of its withdrawal glancingly - I'm getting these details from an informative blog post. This points up a major difference between watching a documentary and reading a book on the same topic. Books get into the nitty-gritty; they assume you can follow a story and are interested in its details. Films, even good ones, are worried that your attention will drift if they penetrate to that level. So they keep it airy with lots of talking-head commentary and vague generalities.

I like Hustlers Convention the movie very much, but it commits this sin. The real story of why the album was withdrawn is a mystery that calls out for detective work - digging into record label archives and legal documents. One can categorically state that film documentarians do not do this sort of work. So even though Nuriddin has been on a lifelong "quest to find out who did what, when, where and get to the bottom of the mystery," none of that really comes across. The filmmakers raise the issue briefly and then hurtle right along to the next talking-head snippet.

Those snippets - from Chuck D, Melle Mel, KRS-One, Ice T, and others - are also problematic in their way, but probably essential to how the film was able to get financed and made in the first place (Chuck D is one of the executive producers). Documentary convention requires that there has to be a rising-from-the-dead narrative of how Hustlers Convention the album was "lost" - fair enough, it was - but lived on underground to influence the development of rap and hip-hop - also fair. But the unintended side effect of this narrative is to make the LP seem more important for what it prefigured than for what it is, and to make uncommercial art seem worthy of attention only for its effect on commercial product that a lot more people have heard of.

With respect and appreciation for what director Mike Todd and his collaborators have accomplished here, I have to call foul on that. Historical importance is compelling, but a big part of the Hustlers Convention story is that the album, in its ornery, politically committed splendor, in many ways represents a road not followed. 

Therefore, I like the documentary better when it concentrates on the testimony of the original artists - not just Nuriddin, but also Abiodun Oyewole ("I had bullets for words, and my mouth was my gun"), Umar Bin Hassan, Amde Hamilton, and key side figures such as Sonia Sanchez and Darius James. In a book, they would be the stars, and celebrity opinionating would probably occupy a few paragraphs at most - but here, it must take up at least 25% of the running time.

Fortunately, the film has a lot of meat on its bones anyway, and an infectious energy level. The decision to illustrate extracts from the Hustlers Convention album with animations designed by Esteban Valdez works nicely to the movie's benefit, too.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Spilt Coffee (Greg Bauder)

The ease of self-publishing ebooks, along with bringing us many interesting books we might not seen otherwise, does create a category of text which it is undoubtedly good for the author to have written and made available, but not necessarily important for you to read unless you have a special interest.

A case in point is Greg Bauder's Spilt Coffee, an autobiographical short novel written from within the perspective of a fifty-ish schizoaffective man who shares a small Vancouver psychiatric boarding house with two other similarly situated men and is tended by a beautiful young Filipina nurse, Virer, on whom all three men fixate ("She was our main desire for living"). Virer's departure for a two-week visit back to the Philippines to attend a family wedding precipitates a crisis in the house. Any change from routine is difficult for the psychologically fragile, but this is more intense than that. The narrator falls back into his delusions, so that in the second half of the narrative it is not always possible to be completely certain what is actually happening. But he has far from the worst of it among the three.

This scenario got me thinking in extra-literary ways. I know nothing about the realities of such a situation, but would it really be sensible to place a dazzling, sensual, sensitive young female nurse alone in a home with three older, depressed, sex-starved men? Would this be done, or is the whole book a fantasy in that respect? Because of course at best the men would fixate unhealthily on this woman and become overly dependent on her in a host of ways; at worst, I wouldn't care to think.

If I'm in charge, I place a no-nonsense male nurse in the house with these guys, or at least a resolutely un-sensual older woman. Because I believe in the reality principle.

Anyway, the book is written with a passable degree of skill; Bauder has a strong grounding in literature and makes a number of references to John Milton, one of his favorite writers. The recurring image of the spilt coffee which gives the book its title is effectively handled. There is considerable testimonial value here, and I could imagine Spilt Coffee being assigned in psychiatric nursing courses.

But if you are interested in a novel on this subject and haven't read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest yet, that is the way to go. It is true that Kesey was not a mental patient himself, simply an orderly, and that he had an ideological agenda. But he also had the penetration of a major writer. Spilt Coffee is a pleasant, interesting, slightly rough-hewn, and of course authentic read. But One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest will shake you as only a book by a writer in full command of a high level of talent can do. It may be heretical of me to prefer that at a time when "authenticity" is taken to count for so much - but I do.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sister Maple Syrup Eyes (Ian Brennan)

White supremacy tries to reduce people of color to our traumas. Resisting white supremacy means insisting that we are more than our traumas. - Jenny Zhang

Ian Brennan's Sister Maple Syrup Eyes means to be an eye-opening fictional (semi-fictional?) look into the realities of rape and abuse and their aftermath, seen primarily from a male co-survivor's point of view. It is heartfelt, intense, and interestingly structured. But I finished it believing - and regretting - that it embodies the sort of reductionism that Jenny Zhang deplores. People are their traumas.

A more charitable interpretation would be that this is a kind of Greek tragedy, and one doesn't expect any rays of sunlight in a Greek tragedy. There are certainly none to be found here. Rape is only one element, although an overarching one, of the relentless litany of negative experiences to be found on every page of this short novel. I will resist cataloguing them because it would appear as if I was trying to be snarky, and I don't care to give that impression. In any case, you would not believe the varieties of anguish Brennan fits into 116 pages unless you read the book yourself. Charles Manson even puts in a cameo appearance.

Brennan hits hard and keeps hitting. He clearly believes that rape ruins lives, and refers several times to lost possibilities, but without giving any sense of what an unruined life would look like. Brennan has been in the trenches as a "violence prevention, anger-management, and conflict resolution" counselor for more than 20 years, and it is not unfair to suggest that it sounds as if his time on the front lines has taken a good deal out of him.

Nor is that all that he draws on. The Preface states that Sister Maple Syrup Eyes "was inspired by my own life-altering experience at age 21 when my first love was horrifically beaten and raped in her apartment by a family friend." Fairly or unfairly, I wound up surmising that most of the novel is a thinly fictionalized version of actual experiences. That it might have been written as a memoir, but wasn't.

Brennan's method of structuring the novel in very short chapters is promising, although the language seldom achieves the kind of poetic memorability that the miniature units call out to be filled with. It is more bald and ideological in tone, and I think the ideology is dangerous:

Rape is not something that can ever be completely 'gotten over.'

Tranquillity was a luxury afforded only to the forgetful.

[Thinking about a dying four-year-old:] you tell her that maybe she's lucky she's leaving this world after all?

For the victim, rape is always a life sentence. one back in time and erase the one moment that altered all that followed.

I surfed channel after channel through a parade of victims. No one escaping unscathed.

The legacy of rape is its open-endedness.

The planet is populated with quasi walking dead...murder, rape, and love and friendships betrayed, often cannot be metabolized and stay, cradled to the grave.

The pull-quotes are given in order as they appear in the text, starting with the Preface. Now, whether the book amounts to Greek tragedy is an open question, but clearly it is melodramatic in the strict sense. I find the ideology dangerous because it does not allow for any individuality of response to trauma. Like the war veteran, the rape victim and those close to her must relive the experience over and over, because if they do not, they are not being honest, not being true to the reality of the experience, and not accepting their new, perpetual, and unalterable status as victims. To shuck off trauma is seen, on this view, as evasive and trivializing. Rape brings responsibilities.

Ian Brennan will have to pardon me if I cannot get down with this. The book would be so much more powerful if the anguish were counterpointed with something, anything more positive.

It is true that Sister Maple Syrup Eyes depicts its narrator Kristian as deeply in love with Dawn, the woman he eventually loses over the rape (and then as stalkerishly obsessed with her afterwards). I cannot take this as any sort of thread of joy in the narrative. The love affair seems doomed from the start - heavy foreshadowing - and the narrator's hyper-romanticism - there is only one woman for me, you give your heart once in this life and that's it, it is 20 years later and I'm still not over you, etc. - is unhealthily possessive in precisely a rape-like way (which he seems unconscious of).

The most startling of the male-revealing passages - hard to say whether they are intended or unintended - comes near the end:

I've had little appetite lately and as a result have lost about fifteen pounds. When I attempt to eat, I begin translating the time elapsed to rapes.

EXAMPLE: In the twelve minutes it takes me to eat this soggy bowl of corn flakes, four women will be raped...

I run to the toilet, forcing myself to vomit, as if vomiting can reverse the rapes that have just occurred.

Wow. In the later stages of the book, the narrator never stops fantasizing about rape, and these fantasies function for him sexually, whether or not he (or the author) will admit it. Because he is now physically impotent - "My penis hangs, a useless appendage" (and notice that the corn flakes are soggy and limp) - he gets physical release in another way (vomiting-as-climax following his rape reveries).

Sister Maple Syrup Eyes brought to mind the late Andrea Dworkin, who was so mono-focused on pornography and intercourse-as-rape that I couldn't help thinking she was getting off by riding her moral high horse. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, although not outright dismissive of Dworkin's concerns, famously criticized her for recapitulating the sexual objectification of women by reducing victims to their abuse - exactly Jenny Zhang's observation that I began with here.

Dworkin might approve of the impotence that Kristian experiences, since she frequently insisted that the only way a male could live justly was to avoid living as a "genital male." Kristian winds up "ashamed to be a man" and doubtful if he "will ever be able to make love to anyone again." Since Dawn re-marries and has another child, this suggests that the consequences of her rape were even more damaging in the long term for him - reinforcing the very "male privilege" that Brennan ostensibly wishes to reject.

Well, these possible internal contradictions do complicate the novel to its benefit, and I cannot fault Ian Brennan's bravery or sincerity in writing the book. But it works better as a demonstration of a state of mind, the psychological cul-de-sac that can follow trauma, than as a literary exploration of that state of mind. The control of the artist is lacking, and it is noteworthy that major artists in extremis, deep in addiction or depression, still display that control. A potent example is the late British playwright Sarah Kane, whose worldview cannot be said to be any happier than Brennan's or Dworkin's. But she really does achieve Greek tragedy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master (Kevin Prufer / Michael Dumanis, editors)

Russell Atkins didn't stick to the script. At a time (say, 1950-1980) when most African-American poets were somewhat understandably focused on the literary expression of socio-political themes, Atkins, born in 1926 in Cleveland and still alive there today, insisted on remaining what he had started as, a knotty formalist. This lost him some support in the black writing community, although he had his defenders too: the debate over the value of Atkins' writing may be characterized as a micro-controversy. With the publication of this new volume in Pleiades Press's "Unsung Masters" series, that controversy lives again.

Is Atkins, scarcely referred to in literary histories and seldom anthologized, to take his place among the recognized poets of the mid-20th Century? He has an undoubted position as an out-and-out experimentalist among African-American writers, but that in itself would not be enough to secure his status. This "Unsung Masters" volume is a bid for Atkins' canonicity, and on my view is a near-miss in that regard. But time will tell.

The volume collects 39 poems by Atkins, a manifesto, an essay, and a poetic drama, along with a critical introduction and six additional essays about his work by academics and poets. Embedded within these pages, and especially the various essays, there is plenty of evidence of a dispute over not just Atkins' output, but over what African-American literature in general is or should be. The essayists here are all champions of Atkins and by extension, of his pronouncedly aesthetic-purist stance on the question. But they quote from his detractors, including an anonymous 1969 reviewer for Negro World - "Brother Atkins [is] not a blkman dealing with his history as he should be about doing (blkartists are responsible to the blkcommunity)" - and poet Kirby Congdon - "He chooses to write in a [way that]...comes off as pretentious and unnatural...We don't think...that the sadness lies in our neglect of [Atkins]; but rather in his neglect of us."

Atkins himself has fueled the controversies. He has been explicitly audience-disdaining, and has spelled out his rejections of poetry-as-communication, linguistic clarity, "economical" and "ordinary" language (which he associated with William Carlos Williams), "sense," "meaning," and "insights," and poetry that "convinces" or "works," in favor of mannerism, self-indulgence, "conspicuous technique," and the poem-as-object (he was a pioneer in concrete poetry). Some of these manifesto positions (he was associated with two such documents, in 1964 and 1991) read defensively, as does his criticism of Henry Dumas' choices of "subject matter" rooted in feelings about "injustices."

Atkins' tone overall is irresistibly reminiscent of the infamous 1958 High Fidelity article by his near-contemporary, composer Milton Babbitt, entitled (not by its author) "Who Cares If You Listen?" It is, frankly, a little pissy. There are ample hints scattered throughout this book that Atkins was raised by his mother and older female relations with a sense of entitlement, and that he nursed this throughout his life. For example, he expressed great annoyance with the notion of earning a living, and apparently seldom came close to it, once quitting a part-time job when it threatened to become full-time. (To be fair, he was industrious with respect to his avant-garde activities, such as co-editing the little journal Free Lance.)

Atkins was a composer himself and deeply involved with music, although along different lines than Babbitt. In fact, the literal centerpiece of this "Unsung Masters" volume is his 1955 essay "A Psychovisual Perspective for 'Musical' Composition," which he set great store by and which is referred to admiringly in several of the critical essays. In my opinion, reliance upon this essay in putting forward a case for Atkins is quite problematic. It is cranky and eccentric, difficult to follow, and reads as the work of a writer who has not quite mastered the type of philosophical language he wishes to use. There is the germ of a partial insight in the essay's insistence that music is as much or more a visual as an aural art, relying on "spatial relationships" that we cannot help perceiving and describing visually (a tone is "higher" or "lower"). But the tone becomes unhinged when Atkins resorts to shouting capitals:

THE PSYCHOVISUALIST CANNOT TAKE SERIOUSLY ANYTHING WRITTEN FOR THE EAR...Can serious composers honestly compose FOR such an organ as the ear?

I would very much like to hear some of Atkins' largely unperformed music, but this essay cannot be said to represent him well. Several assertions are made that it was admired and championed by composer Stepan Wolpe, Music Review editor Geoffrey Sharp, and various enthusiastic Europeans - but I can't help noticing the lack of any documentation offered for these claims.

And what of Atkins' poetry, Exhibit A? He strikes me as a decent poet of the second rank. He developed a manner and tricks which he perhaps over-relied on, such as appending apostrophe-d ('d) to almost any word. Or perhaps it would be fair to say, that since such great kindred poets as Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Ivor Gurney also over-relied on their manners and tricks, that there isn't enough energy in Atkins' writing to distract the reader from that over-reliance.

Atkins also has an odd but unmistakable affinity with Louis and Celia Zukofsky's translations of Catullus, which most of his poetry predates. I don't know if the Zukofskys may have read him, but it is certainly possible.

An early Atkins poem, "Elegy to a Hurt Bird that Died," is so Hopkins as to amount to pastiche:

I suppose you suppose that yon of little burial
Is non of? Rather it is of universal o'er
Unvast because it unvast looks?

Later his voice became more recognizably his, but he has a tendency to overdo it, as in "World'd Too Much (Irritable Song)":

Bus hollows on       of back windows
awidth'd with oxygen, gust'd,
crosswise of neglect, a joyous'd
foregone of seats, the while a beer can's
joust'd about the floor's rubbish'd
and a driver's on the last run
as of fatal'd alone -
          how such cheerfuls me!
then someone boards
          there's always somebody

Neither of those is a specimen I would offer to put Atkins in the best light. There are some, such as "It's Here in The," which leant its title to Atkins' last major collection, Here in The (1976, Cleveland State University Press). But on the evidence of the entire portfolio included here, Atkins' poetic urgency is somewhat low. The one poetic drama included from several Atkins wrote, The Abortionist, is way off the Yeatsian standard in that genre.

I feel that Atkins merits this volume he has been granted; he is an an interesting figure to make the acquaintance of. But the American Master in the title is an over-statement.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Cast No Shadow (dir. Christian Sparkes)

The most comparable film to the new Canadian production Cast No Shadow in its blend of naturalistic story, mythic overlay, and spectacular setting may well be David Lean's underrated 1970 epic Ryan's Daughter. Compare the frame enlargement above to this image from Lean's film:

They could be from the same movie, ne c'est pas? But this similarity is an odd thing. Because on the one hand, we have one of the most gargantuan Hollywood productions of its time - the common (and I think mistaken) complaint was that the setting dwarfed the story - and on the other hand, we have a modestly budgeted independent film. Yet they look and feel somewhat alike, and each is as impressive a piece of film-making as the other. How is this even possible?

I think two conclusions can be drawn. One is that Cast No Shadow's first-time feature director Christian Sparkes and his creative team (special nod to cinematographer Scott McClellan) are craftsmen of a very high order who know how to get the most out of every dollar. Second is that, as with many films by new directors in progressive countries around the world, there was some level of government assistance involved that undoubtedly helped allow this craftsmanship to shine. There is nothing in the United States like the movie ticket taxation schemes in Canada, Germany, and elsewhere that help fund this assisance. My hat's off to nations that actually support their art and artists.

Cast No Shadow is a story about a young boy, Jude Traynor, growing up under difficult circumstances in Newfoundland. His mother is absent (we come to learn why), and his father is a petty criminal and child abuser who selfishly utilizes his son as a drug runner. Jude has escaped somewhat into his imagination, populating the landscape around him with imagined presences - there is one coastal cave he feels certain houses a troll. These fantasies are harmless enough (although very real to him). But he also acts out in much less healthy ways and shows plenty of signs of becoming a young hellion. How will it go for him?

The film is structured as a series of symbolic episodes involving every aspect of coming of age. A good Freudian or Jungian take on it would be well worth reading! (after seeing the film). I don't offer such because (1), I'm not competent to do so, and (2), it would involve spoilers galore. But the material is all there.

Without giving anything away, I can say that if any viewer of the film had been unclear about this symbolic progression towards manhood, the brilliantly mythopoeic final scene should rest any doubts. I was surprised to read a professional reviewer state the "clumsy, almost incoherent climax" is "the work of someone who very badly wants to make a profound statement but doesn't seem to know what he wants to say," when it is precisely the climax that enables the viewer to grasp the complete coherence of the movie from first frame to last. Sparkes and screenwriter Joel Thomas Hynes know exactly what they are saying; it is that reviewer who is trucking in vague formulas.

Appropriately enough given the film's themes, there was a bit of family affair going on in its making. Joel Thomas Hynes, who based the screenplay on his own novella Say Nothing Saw Wood, plays the abusive father, and his son Percy Hynes-White, 11 when the film was shot, plays Jude. The dynamic between them feels completely real, unsurprisingly, and being an actual father and son probably helped them through some very challenging scenes.

Young Hynes-White has rightly been praised extravagantly for his spot-on performance, without which the film couldn't have an nth of the impact. He is going places. The third major player, theater actress Mary-Colin Chisholm, brings major presence to the role of local midwife and "witch" Alfreda.

Cast No Shadow is a classic on arrival, one of the best unheralded films to arrive in a long while. The minute it becomes available on DVD or through streaming services, I urge you to check it out.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Radio: Night Beat

I like you. You're attractive and average. - Jeff Donnell's Sylvia Nicolai to Frank Lovejoy's Brub Nicolai, In a Lonely Place

It is difficult to find discussions of the actor Frank Lovejoy (1912-1962) that don't include the word "everyman." On film and television, his handsomeness was approachable, his manner was relatable. This made him a perfect foil for the magnetic and dramatic Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place. Lovejoy is the sensible, empathetic guy that the film ultimately puts forward as a model in preference to the violently unpredictable "genius."

Listening to Lovejoy as a radio actor in the classic series Night Beat, you can easily discern that a key to his empathetic quality is his handling of his voice. I firmly believe that the radio acting which most Hollywood stars practiced as a lucrative sideline was very good for their craft. It forced them to focus on one part of their acting instrument and develop it fully. That pays off nicely in their screen performances.

In Night Beat, Lovejoy plays a newspaper columnist for the fictional Chicago Star, who is very good at getting people to talk to him - certainly an essential for a columnist then or now. The episodes of the show are essentially lengthier, narrated versions of the columns we imagine him writing for the morning edition of the paper.

The nocturnal gig brings out the poet and philosopher in Randy Stone. He frequently encounters people in desperate situations, but has a steadying way with them. It is clear that he loves his work, although he might not stoop to say so directly.

Night Beat enjoyed a 104-episode run over a three-year period (1950-1952), although the sponsoring network, NBC, inhibited its success by constantly changing its time-slot. There was one try at bringing the Randy Stone character to television in 1953, for the anthology series Four Star Playhouse, but it didn't result in a series.

At least three-quarters of the Night Beat episodes exist and are in circulation. A nice one to start with is "The Night Watchman" from early in the run, May 15, 1950:

The Night Watchman

The story involves the world of warehouses located on the city's fringe, wee hour acts of arson, and a very messed-up family each of whom is related in some way to the whole fiery scene. The plot actually offers a good twist that I did not see coming!

A comprehensive guide to Night Beat is available at The Digital Deli Too:

Night Beat

Jake Hinkson of The Night Editor blog has written extensively about Frank Lovejoy's career in "radio noir"::

A Voice from the Dark: Frank Lovejoy's Journey into Radio Noir

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Yammer Factor

[Back in 2010 I was writing about right-wing talk radio at my old blog, and I think this bit is worth saving and updating, because it is as pertinent as ever.]

These guys need something to talk about for hours on end. Has there ever been a culture that rewarded so handsomely the ability to yammer endlessly to no particular purpose? It is a gift, of a kind; certainly not everyone could do it. And it is by no means restricted to right-wing talk radio: Howard Stern does it, Keith Olbermann does it, every ESPN announcer and wannabe had better be able to do it. The rewards come partly because in a 24/7 media culture, there is so much time to fill. Dead air is, well, deadly (unless you can turn it to comic purpose, as Jim Rome effectively does). And the non-stop yapping serves a subsidiary purpose in that it creates minor media scandals which are then the pretext of much more talk, in a sort of Moebius strip of meaninglessness. In an attention economy, controversy is the real coinage, and a knack for creating controversy is also a heavily rewarded skill nowadays. (Twitter has been a godsend for this mission.)

Some of the controversies we are presented with daily are knowingly concocted, others occur because bloviators simply talk too much (or resort to Twitter too readily). I will gladly acknowledge that if I had to talk for three or four hours a day on radio and television, as Glenn Beck, Jim Rome, and others do, I would say an awful lot of idiotic and embarrassing things. Because no one can be smart in public for that long, day in and day out. Yammer yammer yammer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

City of Devils (Justin Robinson)

It comes as no surprise that Justin Robinson, author of City of Devils, is an accomplished novelist with more than a dozen books under his belt. It takes a certain of amount of practice to be able to sustain a comic tone against the realities of the book's premise. City of Devils takes place in a Chinatown-meets-Who Framed Roger Rabbit fantasy reality in which World War II was followed by a "Night War" between humans and monsters, of a couple dozen varieties - witches, vampires, ogres, gremlins, werewolves, and so on. Robinson deals with the Night War events as backstory known to the narrator and presumably his listeners, therefore cleverly avoiding the necessity of fleshing it all out.

The upshot of the Night War was an uneasy truce in which monsters clearly have the population and the power, but are restricted from preying on the dwindling number of humans during daylight hours. At night, anything goes. In a confrontation, the monsters can be defeated (rather too easily, in my view) by the use of many of the time-honored charms and warding-off substances, and a few new ones.

Our protagonist, Nick Moss, the last remaining human detective in the greater Los Angeles area, carries a shop's-worth of these protections around with him at all times, which must ruin the line of his jacket. But Nick has worse problems to deal with. Not being able to safely go out at night handicaps his detective practice, and every monster in sight is trying to "turn" him, make him another of their kind. The pumpkinhead that hangs out on his lawn is particularly desperate and annoying (and funny).

Nick generally maintains his good cheer, despite the fact that this would be a distressing world to live in. Occasionally he does get rueful:

Still, had to warn the robot and the crawling eye that the gremlin was going to kill them. And then hate the fact I lived in a world where such a sentence was said with a straight face.

It ain't all sunny for the monsters, either. They turn humans out of desire - it is their equivalent of sexual desire - but also out of necessity; they cannot "reproduce" in any other way. Since the supply of humans will eventually run out (sooner rather than later, presumably; human children are scarcely mentioned in the book), and since monsters CAN die (we get several spectacular examples), the end-game is not looking particularly good for either side.

A few premise quibbles may dawn on you if you're a spoilsport. Where the monsters "came from" in the first place, and how new varieties keep appearing - Nick can't remember human flies appearing "before about six months ago" - is not exactly made clear. The nature of Nick's or any other humans' resistance to being turned is not spelled out, either; Nick mentions that he likes being human, but it would take a good deal more heroic resolve than that to survive in such a world. The werewolves on the LAPD who want to bring Nick onto the force clearly do so because of his surprising skills, but I didn't notice a discussion of how much of a human's character and memories survives the transition to monsterhood.

Nick specializes in missing persons - missing human persons, who have usually already been turned - but at the start of the novel is asked by a female doppelganger movie star to find her mummy husband. This leads Moss into a labyrinth of monster equivalents of prostitution, pornography, and drugs, all very cleverly handled. The plotting of City of Devils is superior and a sign of a real craftsman.

Many Hollywood touches creep into the narrative, which you could argue about as to whether they are part of the satire or not. As mentioned, none of the monsters' stabs at turning Nick are effectual, and in a number of chase sequences, he evades his pursuers with aplomb (although he sure does get messed-up, necessitating frequent trips to his drycleaner). Although Nick's escape maneuvers are minutely described, I'm not sure that makes them any more plausible, and his relative ease in pulling them off reduces the monsters' scare factor by about 50%. In truth, Robinson's array of nasty beings are more akin to the classic movie versions of monsters that plague Abbott and Costello than to the legends behind them. There is not a single entity in the book who could give you the willies the way monsters in late Seventies and early Eighties horror movies could - Alien, The Fly, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers

But all of my reservations noted, City of Devils is finally a most entertaining read, and if it leads to a series (that could expand on some of my question marks), no one would be complaining.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Stove-Junker (S.K. Kalsi)

In an excellent, depressing, and undoubtedly realistic 2012 blog post entitled " 'It Can't Be Done': The Difficulty of Growing a Jazz Audience," Kurt Ellenberger notes:

...most of the music we are trying to build an audience for is cognitively demanding. So we're looking for some marketing, education, packaging or programming strategy that will influence and/or supersede both personal taste and the enormous pressures of the dominant popular culture; at the same time, we're asking people to commit to an art form that will tax (and probably frustrate) their capabilities before, hopefully, delivering a heightened aesthetic experience.

Most people, even most educated and intelligent people, don't want to grapple with cognitively demanding material in their leisure time. Attempts to make them want to - Oprah Winfrey's 2005 "Summer of Faulkner" is a great example - are almost always foreordained to failure. Dragging those who are not accomplished swimmers into the deep end of the pool is more likely to alarm them than stimulate or satisfy them.

I say this by way of preface to introducing a beautiful novel by a clearly gifted author - S.K. Kalsi's The Stove-Junker. As it happens, Faulkner is the first author that Kalsi acknowledges in a list of influences in the "Acknowledgements" at the back of the book, and the comparison is not an over-reach, because the commonalities are apparent:

  • Stream-of-consciousness writing style
  • Dense, poetic, highly specific prose
  • Unreliable narration
  • Thickly described place-setting (in Kalsi's case, Luzerne County in Northeast Pennsylvania)
  • Only a couple of inches beneath the highly figured modernist surface, you find a melodramatic, potentially pulpy story of a deeply dysfunctional family across a couple of generations, with heavy "shadows of the past" 
This last point is what makes Kalsi more Faulknerian than Joycean (Joyce is the second writer he thanks). Joyce is NOT melodramatic; he does a deep dive into ordinary clear water. Faulkner and Kalsi leap, too, but into a muck of sin and unresolved goop. That is a big difference.

The specificity of the prose is worth pondering. Let me choose a Kalsi passage that is very detailed without being difficult:

Everything can kill you. The elements, wind, water, sun, cold, heat, everything is dangerous, coiled to strike your heart. I entered the medicine aisle, surrounded by shelves of fever-reducing pills and cough syrups, diabetic foot creams and salves for insect bites, joint braces for sprained wrists and ankles, and wraps for bruised knees. They had every remedy, for everything from chronic flatulence to dry eyes, sleeplessness to foot odor, gum disease to earwax, but what about loss? Maybe St. John's Wort, maybe Stinging Nettle, maybe a cocktail of B-complex vitamins and fish oils? They offered you power bars to build muscle, testosterone pills for a lazy libido, vitamin-infused water, lotions that promised to liquefy your skin, making it buttery soft and impervious to the harmful sun. They offered ointments for psoriasis, stress packs and fiber powders to regulate your bowels. Simple solutions to complex problems.

Notice how this forces you to deal with profusion in precision, at a level of attentiveness that we seldom attempt in "real life." The fact is that generalities (even cliches) are comforting and relaxing, whereas poetic precision is exhausting. It must be taken slowly (which is part of the point). It makes you think. Many people do not want to think, or to experience anything that intensely and densely. Even romantic love, which is intense by definition and should be specific (because you love this person and not that one, right?) often resolves in people's minds and emotions into vague and universal simplicities. Easier that way.  

The audience for a novel such as this, therefore, is self-selecting once they know of its existence; it's the ones who revel in the cognitive challenges. Others will scent trouble ahead, because the instinct for avoidance of certain materials operates in them powerfully and unerringly. Needless to say, I hope you are in the first group. But I do my job by putting the facts of the case in front of you.

Plot? Characters? I'll step out one inch on this: The Stove-Junker is about a man who goes home. Or thinks he does:

...I wonder if I'm inventing my life by remembering it? Perhaps I am. Perhaps imagination is a compensation for what I cannot remember. Perhaps tale-telling to fill up the time and ease this heart is a compensation for what I cannot remember. Maybe I am imagining being home, imagining the Dutch barn, the cold air and this boy. Maybe the dog is not barking and what I think is real is just imagination?

Or perhaps there is a kinship with the movie Carnival of Souls, and at a certain point in the narrative, the protagonist Somerset Garden changes states without being ready to admit it. Clues are provided but (it will not surprise you to learn) no definite answers, because it just isn't that sort of book.

I leave the exploration to you.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Radio: The Black Museum

I went to my long list of old time radio shows and chose an unfamiliar one at random. What I got was a great show with an interesting history, and deliciously dark – The Black Museum. It was one of several Scotland Yard-themed shows that played in the U.K. and the U.S. in the late Forties and early Fifties. A syndicated program made in England, it was produced by Harry Alan Towers and narrated by none other than Orson Welles (who also starred in The Lives of Harry Lime for Towers around the same time). The modus operandi of the show was for Welles to select an object from Scotland Yard’s “Black Museum” and lead us into a dramatization of the particular murder case it was associated with. These “curious and repellent” mementoes gave each episode its title, such as “The Brass Button” from early in the run, which I listened to. The actual case it is based on occurred in 1942, although the dramatization is so loose as to be almost unrecognizable:

August Sangret

Welles naturally makes a splendidly melodramatic host. The Black Museum differed from a U.S.-produced counterpart called Whitehall 1212 in that it was not purely procedural, but “included scenes of the actual murders and….scenes from the criminal’s point of view.” All to the benefit of this episode, which starts with an eccentric and apparently man-averse young woman sketching on the outskirts of a village in Kent. She is approached by a soldier who seems friendly enough, but won’t take no for an answer….Rape is very strongly implied, although not mentioned as such during the rest of the story. The scene is creepy and quite effective. The procedural elements that dominate the rest of the episode hold the interest well, and of course center around the brass button from a battle jacket that the soldier inadvertently left behind him.

There are nice character touches, such as the bitterness of the victim’s mum – not over the murder, but over her daughter’s oddity of character! (Adding all the details up, it is quite possible that the writer meant to suggest a lesbian sub-text.) The postal delivery-boy who discovered the body is palpably disappointed that the Scotland Yard investigators don’t grill him longer. One of the soldiers from the local base who comes under suspicion tries to stonewall the inspectors about having been AWOL at the relevant time, until he realizes that it’s a murder he’s being questioned about. The actual killer is cleverly tripped up by the inspectors when he is confronted. A background hum of gossip and chit-chat round about the village and at the local pub in the wake of the murder adds considerable atmosphere. All in all, it’s a jolly good show.

Here is more information about The Black Museum:

The Black Museum

The Black Museum

“The Brass Button” is accessible along with other episodes at this page:

The Black Museum

Many of the old time radio pages have episodes of The Black Museum, which ran 52 episodes, all still extant.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Non-Fiction Bestsellers, Often Unimpressive

Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City is going to come in for renewed attention now that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have committed to the movie version. The book has been in "development hell" for a decade, but Scorsese / DiCaprio is a high-profile - albeit somewhat predictable - outcome. Although why Scorsese thinks that DiCaprio is the right actor for every role that has ever been written is simply beyond me.

Something else I don't get is the esteem in which this book is held. Sure, it's a reasonably compelling read. But the book cannot be categorized fairly as non-fiction, because Larson constantly cheats - which is to say, makes stuff up, including dialogue and descriptions of his characters' thought processes. He goes freely into their minds on no warrant. How could one respect the author's journalistic or historical integrity? He takes the easy way out time and again.

Besides that, the yoking together of the "Devil" and "White City" themes is forced and awkward, reading on every page as if Larson is straining for the bestseller he eventually got.

It is a low form of endeavor altogether, and has had a baleful effect on other narrative non-fiction writers. Michael Capuzzo's Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916, although worth reading, is a much worse book for Larson's palpable influence, as are many others. One can practically hear the literary agents and publishers at the authors' elbows, commanding them to sex it up.
There is a kind of social capital to be had from reading this sort of non-fiction bestseller because others will have read them or at least heard of them. But there is an enormous variability in their quality.

Another badly overrated item that is forthcoming as a movie (James Gray / Charlie Hunnam) is David Grann's The Lost City of Z. There are no new revelations in this book, and the significance of the story is not clear. Percy Fawcett's 1925 expedition into the Amazon was an old-fashioned, underfunded, under-equipped fiasco with an unscientific goal. The "lost city" theory was unworthy of a man of intelligence, but fits in perfectly, as Grann does admit, with Fawcett's spurious spiritualism. So to me this came across more as a tale of stupidity than a tale of bravery.

There is a frisson of uneasiness to be had from the notion of the jungle swallowing so many explorers, both Fawcett's party and many of the subsequent expeditions that tried to find him. But as a functional modern magazine writer, Grann brings no sense of poetry or awe to the narrative. The chapters that describe his own adventures are especially blah and reveal him as an inadequate researcher. He gets all worked up over seeing a supposedly inaccessible document that was already available in English translation and that you or I could have found. He offers a very sketchy summary in his last chapter of some interesting modern scholarship concerning the Amazon region which seems meant to vindicate poor Fawcett, and to justify Grann's own superfluous trek into the jungle, but it does not accomplish either task convincingly, and so brings the book to a flat conclusion.

Friday, August 21, 2015

"The Ballad of John and Yoko"

Bill Crider posted this as a "Song of the Day" at his blog, and I couldn't resist commenting, because I have thought about this song a lot:

For such a charming and funny song, "The Ballad of John and Yoko" actually posed a challenge to pop singer-songwriters that has not been much taken up: to dash off songs as quick commentaries on what is going on right this minute. Doing this well would require keen observational and verbal skills, as well as ready access to catchy and functional tunes that can frame the lyrics (so perhaps it simply takes too much talent!). The notion of newsy songs is related (as Lennon's title indicates) to the ballad tradition, which has had some continuing relevance in folk music, Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" perhaps being the best-known example; and also to Tom Lehrer and Mark Russell-style satiric political songs. But I'm not aware of anyone out there doing quite what Lennon did here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Acting...It's Not for Sissies (Nicole Comer)

Although Entertainment Tonight and pre-awards red carpet shows would have you believe otherwise, acting really isn't that glamorous a profession. At any given time, the rewards of fame and money that many associate with acting are flowing to at most a couple of hundred individuals, among countless thousands who are plying the craft. (Of course, you can substitute the words music, writing, sports, and quite a few others for "acting" in that sentence; it truly has become a "winner take all" world.) Worse, nothing, not even an Academy Award, guarantees continued placement in that group. If you don't believe me, take a gander at the complete IMDB credits of Faye Dunaway.

And yet, for those that love their art and can't imagine doing anything else, "working actor" is a proud, realistic, and honorable badge. Nicole Comer's delightful book is aimed at that population, and those who would join it. You'll have to get your starshine fix somewhere else.

Comer has been in the trenches for a good while, as a performer, coach, staffing agent, and, inevitably, odd-jobber. Along the way, she has developed a keen sense of how acting works as a business, especially in Los Angeles (and it could fairly be said that this guide is L.A.-centric). She has gathered her insights, anecdotes, scar tissue, and sass into this short, non-nonsense book that bypasses discussion of acting technique (she assumes you have other sources for that) for a penetrating look at how to optimize your chances for survival in a difficult industry.

Is the book just for aspiring actors, then? Far from it, actually. I think that anyone is who is trying to freelance or build a solo service business in any field would benefit strongly from what Comer shares here. The book takes less than two hours to read and is a heck of a lot of fun besides, so it is an excellent investment.

As it happens, beyond being a film critic myself since my college days - I made part of my living at it in my 20s, imagine - I have other connections to the Los Angeles film and television scene. A college friend has worked as an entertainment reporter there, and my sister, who has a bachelor's degree in drama and a master's degree in television, has spent many years in casting and production. Through them and their connections I have heard a lot about the ups and downs of the business. And Nicole Comer is exactly right, it is not for the faint-hearted. 

Comer has solid brass-tacks advice on such issues as finding your acting niche (you can't expand beyond your niche until you have one), having headshots done (a very thorough chapter), joining the Screen Actor's Guild, working with agents and talent managers, attending workshops (an extremely valuable activity), keeping up with the TV world (viewing every series becomes part of your work), and navigating "pilot season." Just about everything she says chimes with discussions I have had with my sister, and both have wickedly funny stories about the jerks one encounters in the industry (along with surprisingly many solid, grounded individuals).

I think the only bone of contention between their points of view would involve Los Angeles theater, specifically non-Equity productions. Comer is kind of down on the idea of involving oneself too heavily in this world, suggesting that daytime theater rehearsals impair an actor's ability to take auditions for film, television, and commercials, and that industry types don't much attend non-Equity shows, so the chances of being seen and appreciated are few.

My sister, who has worked extensively as a stage manager on non-Equity shows, would demur. She tells me that she can almost always re-arrange rehearsal work around an actor's audition needs, and that industry types indeed show up at the performances with great frequency, in part because there are usually at least a couple of experienced television actors in the cast of any given show. She has been surprised by who she has seen in audiences. 

Well, great minds don't always agree. But Nicole Comer is never doctrinaire about any of the opinions she expresses; she is explicit about the fact that she is coaching from the perspective of what she has seen and experienced herself, and Your Mileage May Vary. You actors out there would do well to avail yourselves of what she has to offer. As a freelance writer, I learned from it too.