Friday, October 30, 2009

Miscellaneous: The Most Terrifying 3:34 on YouTube

Martin Scorsese names the eleven scariest movies of all time. Five horror novelists including Joe R. Lansdale weigh in with their choices.

With all due respect, these people are rank amateurs.

In honor of Halloween, I am again offering a combination of sound and image that will chill the blood and drive good men mad. It’s the closing three minutes and thirty-four seconds from Paul Lynde’s 1976 Halloween special.

Watch the whole show if you dare, ideally through one of these. I accept no responsibility for what happens to you.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book: How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely (2009)

You have no idea how bizarre it was to attend a literary festival after reading this book.

Pete Tarslaw receives an invitation to his former girlfriend’s wedding and reacts the way many of us would: he vows to become, well, a famous novelist. That way on the big day he can outclass the other guests and make his ex rue her decision. Pete’s not out to write a good book, just a popular one. Armed with a list of what such an opus must contain – lyrical prose, lots of food references, some kind of club and at least one murder – he sets out to conquer the bestseller list.

Hely, a former Letterman staffer now on 30 Rock, pulls off a singular trick. He manages to send up everything related to publishing. Nothing is spared. Amazon, writing workshops, MFA programs, editors desperate to get into the film business, self-serious book blogs. He serves up a note-perfect parody of Entertainment Weekly’s simultaneously knowing and vacuous house style. The excerpts from other books are particularly vicious; he includes a few paragraphs from a crime novel that aren’t far removed from ones I’ve seen in print. By the halfway point, he was getting me to laugh on the basis of titles alone. (The Widows’ Breakfast? Come on!) Unlike many satirical novels it holds up to the end, which also packs an emotional kick.

But as funny as the book is – and it is, howlingly so – it’s also chilling. With his clinical determination to anatomize popular fiction and create a Frankenstein’s monster version of his own solely to one-up his girlfriend, Pete Tarslaw is a soulless beast straight out of noir. It’s as if a Patricia Highsmith protagonist took up a pen, or one of Jason Starr’s characters turned reporter. (Jason Starr, Reporter. Get it? Yeah, I knew it was a reach.) That dark drive only makes Pete’s story more hilarious. I can’t recommend this one enough.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Report: Seattle Bookfest

Seattle loves to read. Every year it takes a position near the top of the list of America’s most literate cities. Name me another major burg that turned its chief librarian into an action figure.

But for some reason – ornery regional independence, I suppose – it has trouble sustaining an annual book festival. Northwest Bookfest went belly-up in 2003. Some enterprising locals rebooted it as Seattle Bookfest. The new version is more low-key, focusing on local authors and independent booksellers. It was held in Columbia City, one of Seattle’s funkier neighborhoods. (Most sections of town aspire to be San Francisco. Columbia City aims to be Portland.)

I wanted to support Bookfest 2.0. Recent Bouchercon coverage by Christa Faust and Donna Moore had me jonesing for some literary action of my own. And Columbia City is also a stop on Seattle’s new light rail line. The Bookfest provided the perfect excuse for my inaugural trip on Saturday afternoon. I’m a destination-not-the-journey kind of guy.

The venue was a former school, with the best panels held in a portable classroom. I swore when I graduated that I would never set foot in such structures again, so thanks for making a liar out of me, Bookfest! We missed some of the panel on graphic novels moderated by Fantagraphics co-founder Gary Groth, but what we did catch was interesting. What I remember:

- The use of space is essentially a writing tool in comics.

- Every comic should be read twice, once for the story and once for the composition.

- If you doubt that we have become a culture that processes information visually, just look at your interaction with your phone.

Next came the crime fiction panel. The session’s title – The Difference Between Mystery & Thriller – seemed a bit obvious, which raised concerns. As did the I’m-gonna-say indifferent moderating. I’m not going to embarrass the woman by name because she never bothered to provide hers. She sat down, asked the authors to introduce themselves, then turned to the audience and said, “OK. Any questions?” Fortunately the panelists – Robert Ferrigno, Michael Gruber and Kevin O’Brien – were pros and sustained a lively if general discussion about thrillers.

We wrapped things up with a reading by National Book Award winner Pete Dexter. Only it wasn’t a reading, more of an alphabetical presentation of his semi-autobiographical novel Spooner. Dexter went from A to Z, offering glimpses of what’s in the book. (“A is for anthill.”) Sometimes he’d read a paragraph or two to illustrate, sometimes he’d describe the material off the cuff, sometimes he’d veer into digressions about current events or words he had trouble pronouncing. The approach worked. Whenever Dexter did quote from Spooner the crowd wanted more, and I’ll be reading the book post haste.

Bumps and glitches aside, it was a promising start for the new iteration of Bookfest. As for light rail: smooth ride, frequent trains, decent fares. I’ll give that another shot, too.

UPDATE: The Stranger’s postmortem of the event is far more dire - and cites this very post in a vaguely disparaging way, which I consider a moral victory. For the record, their assessment jibes with what I saw.

Friday, October 23, 2009

DVD: Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009)

It’s not just one of the best titles of the year. This documentary is also one of the best movies.

The Canadian band Anvil is a pioneer in heavy metal music. Guys from Anthrax, Guns N’ Roses and Motörhead attest to their unassailable awesomeness. The movie opens with rare footage from an epic 1984 Japanese metal fest featuring Anvil’s lead singer Lips wearing a bondage harness and playing the ax with what ‘70s game shows used to call a marital aid.

Many of the acts on that bill went on to achieve success. Not Anvil. A series of bad breaks kept them in the minor leagues, famous only to other musicians and a small circle of fans. But the band keeps rocking. Sacha Gervasi, a screenwriter who was an Anvil roadie in their brief ‘80s heyday, picks up their story as they set aside their day jobs to embark on an extended European tour organized by their guitarist’s girlfriend and then record their thirteenth album.

It’s a real-life Spinal Tap crossed with The Wrestler, following men in their fifties who won’t give up on their dream even in the face of age and common sense. It’s about family, friendship, and the power of belonging to a community. I may have teared up once or twice, but I was banging my head so nobody noticed.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Book: Blood’s a Rover, by James Ellroy (2009)

The years: 1968-72. The men: factotums and hoods beset by personal demons and on the precipice of history. J. Edgar Hoover’s pet thug. An ex-cop/chemist with daddy issues aiding and abetting Howard Hughes’ takeover of Las Vegas. A wannabe private eye. This being Ellroy’s scarred funhouse mirror version of reality, at least one of them will wind up dead, and any survivors will be disillusioned and damned.

American Tabloid, which kicked off Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, remains one of my favorite books. The Cold Six Thousand, which followed, left me colder than the title sum. That’s partly the nature of the epic story Ellroy chose to tell. David Mamet once explained the three-act structure by citing a possibly apocryphal headline: Boy Cuts Off Father’s Head, Cuts Off Parakeet’s Head, Then Cuts Off Lizard’s Head. The key, Mamet said, is to have the kid cut off his father’s head last. Tabloid had the JFK hit as its dark, beating heart. C6K has to grapple with the chaotic ensuing years, and it’s tough to depict a time when the center did not hold. Ellroy’s obsessions, immodest enough as to not go even thinly veiled, and his baroque molecular plotting didn’t help.

I feared for the long-gestating Rover because the period it covers lacks the outsized events that provided a structure for its predecessors. But the dearth of obvious set pieces spurs Ellroy’s ingenuity. The lynchpins here are an armored car heist in early ‘60s L.A., the Mafia’s attempt to reboot its Caribbean glory in the Dominican Republic, and a left-wing Lorelei known as the Red Goddess Joan. She’s a cipher until the closing section, but when she does finally come into focus she’s quite formidable.

I liked Rover. It’s no Tabloid, but its “rogue authoritarians” make it a mighty improvement on C6K. Perhaps the books will read differently if consumed all at once, as a single epic narrative. Feature it: the panty-sniffer’s Lord of the Rings.

Book: You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You, by Robert J. Randisi (2009)

What are the odds that I would read two novels in a row featuring Hollywood P.I. Fred Otash as a character? Considering my interests, they’re actually pretty good.

Shamus-to-the-stars Otash is a minor figure in Rover but lands a decent supporting role in Randisi’s fourth Rat Pack mystery. Sands pit boss Eddie Gianelli is again asked for a favor by famous pals Frank and Dean. This time it’s to help a peripheral member of the Clan, Marilyn Monroe, who’s convinced that she’s being followed. We also learn more about Eddie G as he heads home to Brooklyn to deal with his estranged family. Randisi’s take on Marilyn, the sex bomb who becomes everybody’s kid sister, seems spot on. The book is the kind of breezy concoction you’d expect from an author who recently took home a lifetime achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America.

Here’s a little of Freddy Otash in action, in a Tinseltown dustup involving Peruvian songbird Yma Sumac. Who was not, as urban legend claims, a Brooklyn girl named Amy Camus.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Meme: Reading Habits

It’s been a while since I tackled a meme. I spotted this one at James Reasoner’s Rough Edges and at The Rap Sheet.

Do you snack while you read? If so, what is your favorite reading snack?

No. Of course, I do make exceptions. See below.*

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

I have been known to erase marks in library books, so this one’s also a no.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?

I haven’t made dog-ears in dog’s years. (I cop to doing so as a kid, but I didn’t know any better then.) I’m a bookmark man. I have a stack of them, but keep abusing the same two.

Laying the book flat open?

Sure, if the book’s big enough. And if it’s into that.

Fiction, nonfiction, or both?

I’d guess a 70/30 ratio of fiction to non-fiction. The former is mostly crime fiction or thrillers, the latter a mix of research reading and whatever piques my interest.

Hard copy or audiobooks?

I have listened to exactly one (1) audiobook. My commute’s not long enough. A more interesting question would be: hard copy or e-books? I still don’t own a Kindle, but I’m thinking about it.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?

I can stop anywhere, but typically I’ll read to the end of a chapter. I color inside the lines as well. What can I say? I went to Catholic school.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

If it doesn’t make sense in context, yes.

What are you currently reading?

Coming down the homestretch on Blood’s A Rover by James Ellroy. The last non-fiction book I read, after years of prompting by my brother – hi, Sean! – was Michael Lewis’ Moneyball.

What is the last book you bought?

During my recent New York trip I picked up Tower by Reed Farrel Coleman and Ken Bruen, signed by Reed at the Mysterious Bookshop launch party. I also scored a haul at the Strand including Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes, later filmed as Out of the Past, and Leo C. Rosten’s Hollywood, a study of the movie business in the 1930s published in 1941.

Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?

Again, I can but I don’t. I’ll read a non-fiction research book at the same time as a novel, but I prefer not to.

Do you have a favorite time/place to read?

Every night, I lie on my living room sofa and read for at least half an hour. Reading in a coffee shop, which I did for a while this afternoon, is one of life’s great luxuries. Other settings can be quite nice, too. See below.*

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones?


Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

Lawrence Block. Donald E. Westlake. Richard Price. All these years on the West Coast, and I’m still a New York boy at heart. Speaking of the West Coast, another name I talk up frequently is Jess Walter, whose The Financial Lives of the Poets will be stepping up to the plate shortly.

How do you organize your books? (by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)

There’s a very vague system. I can’t really describe it. I barely understand it.

* My job requires me to meet in the evenings twice a week. Last week I decided to eat dinner beforehand, so I grabbed a Hard Case Crime book and stopped at a pub near the office. There I sat, reading a pulp novel, drinking a Harp, eating the food of my ancestors (a sausage roll), and occasionally checking in on Monday Night Football. In the midst of it, I realized how deliriously happy I was. Seldom, I thought, have I felt more like myself.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sort Of Related: The Corpse Wore Pasties, by Jonny Porkpie (2009)/Ladies of the Chorus (1948)

First things first. Is that a cover or what? Nice work by artist Ricky Mujica.

Second things second. I won an advance copy of this book, which will be published late next month, in a Hard Case Crime contest on Twitter. That should keep those FTC bastards off my back.

Jonny Porkpie – I will now go all New York Times and refer to him as Mr. Porkpie – is the burlesque mayor of New York City. This is a self-appointed position, and had I known that I would have claimed it. Therefore, I now declare myself to be the burlesque comptroller of New York City. Wait ‘til you see my ledger bit. Classic.

The book opens with a letter from Mr. Porkpie to Hard Case impresario Charles Ardai, explaining that everything that follows is true. That’s right, Mr. Porkpie is the detective in his own novel. He’s running a burlesque show when one of the performers, known and loathed for stealing other people’s acts, is murdered onstage. The police view Mr. Porkpie as the prime suspect, and thus is he forced to hopscotch around two of the five boroughs interviewing women in various states of undress in order to clear his good stage name.

Mr. Porkpie keeps the action rat-a-tatting along with hoary old jokes, comparing everything to either a G-string or an overstuffed corset. The plot is as thin as a dancer’s veil, but that’s not why you’re reading this book. It’s a lark, and a fun one, with Mr. Porkpie getting into and out of silly, sexy trouble. But not too sexy; Mr. Porkpie is happily married to burlesque performer Nasty Canasta – one of the cover models, FYI – and their relationship is the best thing in the book.

TCM recently aired the oddball burlesque musical Ladies of the Chorus as part of their salute to director Phil Karlson. Marilyn Monroe is one of the titular gamines, working the line alongside her own mother (Adele Jergens, all of nine years older than her screen daughter). Marilyn bumps and grinds her way to the top of the circuit, and a rich boy from Cleveland falls in love with her. Adele tries to kibosh their nuptials, knowing that society types won’t cotton to one of their own wedding a ... burlesque queen.

There’s virtually no conflict in the movie. It’s like the plot of a social hygiene short – Burly-Q&A – padded to (almost) feature length. On the plus side, there’s a character named Bubbles and another who delivers her sole line – “Awww, shut up” – repeatedly. The entire movie is on YouTube, as are individual numbers like the bizarre “Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy.” The visual quality is poor, so I won’t embed it. But I will link to it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Miscellaneous: New York State of Mind

Two days after my vacation in NYC and I’m already back in the maelstrom, so I’ll keep this recap brief.

“Music doesn’t come from us. It comes through us. But we’ve got to keep ourselves clean on the inside so it can come through us. And most of us don’t. So that’s on us.”

- Barry Harris, whom we saw in performance with his trio at the Jazz Standard

Dear Citi Field:

I like you. I do. You’re a little impersonal and not at all Mets-centric, but you’ve got charm and the pulled pork sandwiches from Blue Smoke are to die for. I think you’ll grow on me. I wasn’t sold on Caesars Club, though. You know, that private section for the wealthier fans that feels like an international departure lounge and features its own bar and carving station? I was in there when Francoeur hit the two-run shot that gave the Mets the lead over Houston, a lead they’d never give up, and I almost felt like it didn’t happen because I saw it on a big screen TV. We left immediately and were back freezing out tuchuses off in the bleachers when Murphy went yard. At least we got to the see the Apple come up. I’d complain further but I figure if the team’s good those seats will be impossible for me to afford, so I’m just going to hope for a great season next year. That way, it won’t be a problem.


PS. Thanks for keeping Carvel.

Additional recommendations include Coco Before Chanel, the brilliant new Coen Brothers film A Serious Man – if at all possible, see it with a packed house on the Upper West Side on a Saturday after temple, when it plays like Blazing Saddles – and Mike’s NYC tour of the Fashion District.

You would not think that a cocktail called the New Jersey Turnpike would be good. You would be wrong. Thanks to the bartenders at Little Branch for introducing me to this rye and applejack sour. Also recommended: anything poured at the Flatiron Lounge.

Three days after we saw and enjoyed the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of the George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber play The Royal Family, actor Tony Roberts took ill onstage. We’re glad to hear he’s doing better, and we wish him a swift recovery.

My Flickr page includes additional photos from our walk along the High Line as well as our visit to various locations from Flight of the Conchords.