Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book: You’re Next, by Gregg Hurwitz (2011)

The thriller with the everyman protagonist always makes me leery. The purported regular Joes of the genre are often grab bags of awesomeness, checklists of plot-convenient traits. Meet our just-plain-folks hero, a garden variety biochemist who studies krav maga and has the world’s largest collection of 18th century Swiss clocks. He suffers from synesthesia and is estranged from his sister, the Attorney General of the United States, with whom he shares a Dark Secret. When an army of ruthless assassins starts hunting him down, he asks, “Why? There’s nothing special about me!”

You’re Next by Gregg Hurwitz avoids Checklist Syndrome. Mike Wingate actually is an ordinary guy, one who has triumphed over adversity. After being abandoned to foster care at age four, he has built a life for himself as a husband, father, and businessman. When mysterious figures come gunning for him, Wingate fears it has to do with a childhood he doesn’t remember.

Every detail pays off smartly. The “green” housing project Mike is building that initially seems like, well, the kind of way-cool job a guy in a book like this usually has, sets up an interesting moral dilemma and brings Mike unwanted public attention. Mike’s troubled history also allows Hurwitz to make effective use of another thriller convention: the genially psychotic sidekick. And the explanation for why Mike has been targeted is both unexpected and plausible. Factor in Hurwitz’s usual craftsmanship and the result is a winner.

ASIDE: A recent Hollywood Reporter article about the surprise success of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris suggests that the movie struck a chord with audiences because of Owen Wilson’s “everyman” lead character. A rich Hollywood screenwriter willing to chuck his career to become a novelist and who is engaged to Rachel McAdams, gorgeous in a manner reminiscent of Rachel McAdams? This is an everyman? I refer you to my learned colleague Mr. Montoya. Then again, Wilson is not playing a fallen Norse god or a kid with a sentient robot car. He’s just a guy trying to sort out his life. Maybe that does make him an everyman, or at least as close as we’re going to get during the summer movie season.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Q&A: Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is an Edgar Award-winning novelist, co-headmistress of one of the finest blogs on the web, and – be still my heart – a current resident of Queens, New York. I’ve already sung the praises of Megan’s latest book, The End of Everything. It’s my pleasure to welcome Megan to the website to participate in a VKDC Q&A.

Q. What can you tell us about The End of Everything?

It’s the story of one early summer and Lizzie, a 13-year-old-girl, whose best friend Evie Verver vanishes. It’s inspired mostly by my own sense memory of Midwestern suburban summers of the early 1980s, a time before the predominance of central air conditioning and a time before the internet and the peak of stranger danger, when the suburbs felt like dark and thrilling places and yet places you were permitted to explore. All screen doors and drunken block parties and uncovering secrets through open windows.

Q. How easy was it for you to tap into your own childhood? Name one breakfast cereal and one cartoon show that this process made you remember vividly.

Apple Jacks and Yogi Bear! It was stunningly easy, and I never would have guessed that. You think you don’t remember anything and then suddenly you do. Once I started opening up those tunnels into the past, I couldn’t stop. They started opening without me trying. I include a very specific blow-up raft in the book—a yellow one festooned by the Hawaiian Punch mascot. I didn’t precisely know where it came from until last week when my brother, having just finished the book, reminded me that we had the same raft when we were kids, had spent countless afternoons at the community pool floating on it.

Q. The language is in the book is quite striking. You provide your protagonist Lizzie with a dreamy interior monologue that is frequently immediate, but occasionally provides Lizzie with the perspective of an older woman remembering that time in her life. How did you achieve that effect? Is the book set then, now, or somewhere in between?

I wanted the first chapter to be past tense and clearly from the perspective of Lizzie well past early adolescence and then we’d jump to present tense and to Lizzie at 13. I wanted to begin with a slightly larger view of the insular world of Lizzie’s head and then push us right into its center. But I have no idea how old the Lizzie of the first chapter is. Isn’t that funny? All I know is she still hasn’t fully lost all the gleam to her eye. Despite everything, she still finds enchantment and wonder in the Verver world. Which I’m glad about.

Q. You’ve written at your blog about the books of your youth that inspired you. What are some of your favorite coming of age novels?

I guess it depends how one defines coming of age, but certainly A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself by Judy Blume and all the S.E. Hinton. Later, Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar. I’d add, in more recent years, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell.

Q. These kids today, with their cell phones and social networks and playdates. Having revisited your own childhood, what do you think children today are missing out on? What do they have now that you wish you had then?

I think they are hindered from being the explorers we once were. I was not a particularly bold kid, but I certainly felt a sense of exploratory freedom. Parents today, so aware of various dangers and with so many means by which to track their children, seems to have eyes everywhere. I do think you learn so much as a kid by getting into trouble, getting (a little) lost, discovering some corners of the world on your own.

What I wish I’d had from now? Access to all the old movies in the world. Of course, if I’d had that, I’d probably not have left the house.

Movie Q. What movie released during your 1980s childhood best captures that time for you?

I’d say Little Darlings, The Outsiders, or Seems Like Old Times, which I inexplicably watched countless times as a kid.

Baseball Q. Speak to me of Jack Morris and the Detroit Tigers.

Growing up, my family members were (and remain) hardcore Tiger fans and I remember a household forever echoing with the sound of Ernie Harwell, my dad bemoaning Kirk Gibson’s mercurial bat and my brother and I assuming, respectively, Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell personas. I was always the least immersed in my immediate family, but it just formed the pulse of my summer youths. I still remember my first game—watching Mark Fidrych in his rookie year—and I still have my Tiger doll, dubbed Milt May, slightly battered—like the Tigers—but still roaring along.

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

A gimlet, always. I must admit I’m basically a beer gal, but the Raymond Chandler lover in me compels me towards the gimlet.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book: The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott (2011)

Lizzie Hood is not just infatuated with her neighbors the Ververs. She’s intoxicated by them. The charismatic family patriarch. Teenaged Dusty, already breaking hearts. And especially Lizzie’s best friend Evie. The two thirteen-year-olds are inseparable until, all too abruptly, they are not. One day after school Evie Verver vanishes, turning the Michigan suburb they live in upside down. And poor Lizzie knows both more and less than she thinks she does.

Megan Abbott, who won the Edgar award for Queenpin and whose Bury Me Deep is one of my favorite recent crime novels, brings her own unique sensibility to this coming of age tale set in the early 1980s. Lizzie’s voice is a hybrid of right-now and long-ago, at times uncomfortably close to the intimate mysteries of adolescence. What Lizzie mentions in passing about her own family – her parents’ divorce, her father’s distant presence, the strange man in her mother’s life – is every bit as interesting as her obsessive study of the house next door. As the story builds in intensity, Lizzie learns that secrets can still be kept behind doors that are open to you. The End of Everything is like one of those illicit youthful visits to the liquor cabinet at a friend’s house, a swirl of exotic flavors that leaves you dizzied.

UPDATE: Here's my Q&A with Megan about the book.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book: Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski (2011)

Here’s a word they love in Hollywood: setpiece. A setpiece is an extended action sequence in a memorable location. Pick any summer blockbuster of recent vintage. It’s a string of setpieces, most of which are given away in the trailer.

Duane Swierczynski’s impressive accomplishment with Fun & Games is to turn the entire damn book into a setpiece, an epic free-for-all in which you can scarcely catch your breath.

Ex-Philadelphia cop Charlie Hardie has been so scarred by tragedy that he’s gone vagabond, wandering the world’s pricier precincts and serving as glorified house sitter. He arrives for his latest gig at a manse in the canyons of Los Angeles only to discover an uninvited guest has beaten him there: Lane Madden, of the fading B-list career and troubled personal history. Lane recently survived a car wreck that she swears wasn’t an accident. In fact, she insists it was caused by The Accident People, shadowy operatives who specialize in staging deaths that no authority will question. She’s certain that they’re still coming after her.

And she’s right.

To say that the book goes from zero to sixty in no time flat implies that there is a zero. There isn’t. Pedal has already met metal on page one. Yet amidst the propulsive pace there’s room for Lane’s story of near-success in Hollywood, and the secret she’s been keeping that makes her the target of these killers. Even better is the revelation of who The Accident People are and how they end up in this rarefied line of work. It’s darkly funny stuff that seems strangely ... plausible. And there are useful statistics on death and dying throughout, so you learn as you go.

Duane is a proponent of what I think of as the Carrie ending*, that one final twist of the knife just when you think it’s safe. He uncorks a doozy here that perfectly sets up the sequel Hell & Gone, due on Halloween, with the last book in the Hardie trilogy to follow next March. Plenty of time for you to get in on this one.

* I have invented an entire cinematic vocabulary based on the work of Brian DePalma. Ask me what it means for a character to be Benny Blanco’ed.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Book: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran (2011)

Brooklyn-born Claire DeWitt found herself when she came across a copy of Jacques Silette’s legendary manual Detection. In spite of some trauma in her life and perhaps because of it, the former girl detective is now the world’s greatest private investigator. Just ask her. A year and a half after Hurricane Katrina, Claire returns to New Orleans, a city where she has some history, in order to track down missing D.A. Vic Willing. (We pause now to admire the sheer brilliance of that name.) Claire’s approach is unorthodox, relying on omens and weed as much as shoe leather. And it turns up answers that her client and Claire herself may not want to hear.

Sara Gran, author of Dope and co-ringmaster with Megan Abbott of an excellent blog, has come up with an approach to the mystery novel that toys with the form even as it honors it. Claire is a hugely engaging protagonist with a singular sarcastic voice. She occasionally pushes the edges of likability only to say something unexpected that makes you want to draw her in close. The book brims with New Orleans atmosphere and is breezy in spite of its complexity; it jumps back to Claire’s New York childhood and has a deep but surprisingly organic metaphysical aspect in the form of frequent quotes from Claire’s mentor Silette. City of the Dead is a joy, an intoxicating brew that feels traditional yet wholly new. Like the boy detective books of my youth, it made me want to read the next adventure immediately.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Q&A: Bill Crider

Unless my referrer logs are lying to me, most of you don’t need an introduction to Bill Crider. Author of numerous books, proprietor of an essential blog, one of the world’s foremost authorities on pulp fiction, alligator enthusiast. The Wild Hog Murders, the latest in Bill’s long-running and Anthony Award-winning Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, comes out today. The man who drives a sizeable chunk of the traffic to this website made the spectacularly ill-advised decision to participate in a VKDC Q&A.

Q. What can you tell us about THE WILD HOG MURDERS?

Well, it has wild hogs in it. It's estimated that there are 2.5 million of them on the loose in Texas, and they’ve become a real problem. They’ve even started to invade major suburban areas. Since I’ve included at least a passing reference to them in every book in the Sheriff Rhodes series since that very first one, I thought it was time to give them the center stage.

Q. Have you had any personal run-ins with feral pigs?

It depends on how you define “run-ins.” I own some land in Limestone County, and I’ve seen hogs there, from a distance, but that’s about it. My brother is the overseer of the property, and he’s had plenty of encounters. He’s trapped them and shot them, and he sees them all the time. He’s not fond of them.

Q. Sheriff Dan has been around since 1986. What have been the biggest changes that the character has had to deal with in terms of doing his job?

The sheriff is sort of stuck in the ‘80s, though now his department does have computers. And everybody in Blacklin County has a cell phone. It’s only a matter of time until somebody records a crime on video, I guess. Aside from that, though, the sheriff still relies a lot more on interviews and intuition than he does on the methods you see on CSI.

Q. Your collection of vintage paperbacks is legendary. Which authors from your groaning bookshelves do you most want to see rediscovered in the e-book era?

Thanks to the independent presses, a lot of my favorites are being rediscovered between covers, Harry Whittington, Day Keene, and Gil Brewer to name three. I’m wondering when John D. MacDonald will be available in e-book format. Somebody’s missing a bet on that. Others I’d like to see: Charles Williams and Lionel White.

Q. Where on earth do you find all those stories that appear on your blog?

I get a lot of them from newspapers and online news sites. And sometimes other people (like, well, you) send me the links. I get a kick out of the stories, and I enjoy sharing my favorites.

Movie Q: What's your favorite movie about Texas?

I have more than one. The Last Picture Show, Tender Mercies, A Perfect World, Giant ... I could go on. Rio Bravo’s not “about” Texas, but it's a personal favorite.

Baseball Q1: What do you think of the proposed realignment plan that would move your beloved Houston Astros to the American League?

I’m all for it. It would be great to see the Astros playing in the same division with the Texas Rangers, though the Rangers would beat them like a drum for the next generation or two.

Baseball Q2: Do you ever wish the Astros were still called the Colt .45s?

No, but watching the Astros attempt to play baseball this year is almost enough to drive me to drink a few bottles of Colt .45.

Cocktail Q: You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

I’m a guy of plebeian tastes. Give me rum and Coke or a whiskey sour or gin and tonic, and I’m happy.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Books: Stranger Than Fiction

A pair of fascinating non-fiction books to recommend ...

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer. Science journalist Foer covers the U.S. Memory Championship. The following year he’s back – as a competitor. The book details his training, utilizing techniques that date back to ancient Greece. Foer also explains our evolving understanding of how memory works, and how it’s changing in the internet age. He avers more than once that the approach described won’t help you remember where you left your car keys. But there’s a sequence where his trainer gets him to remember a random list, and Foer encourages the reader to personalize the technique. I did, and that list is now in my head to stay. This stuff works.

The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson. A chilling proposition lies at the core of the book, subtitled “A Journey Through the Madness Industry.” The traits that define psychopaths – confidence, charm, narcissism – are shared by politicians and captains of industry. Does that mean the world is run by lunatics? How do we define madness, anyway? Ronson (Them: Adventures with Extremists, The Men Who Stare at Goats) writes with a hugely engaging style, inserting himself and his own neuroses into the material in a way that illuminates the questions he raises.

Ruth Roberts, R.I.P.

The songwriter died July 1 at age 84. Her work was recorded by Buddy Holly and the Beatles among others. But her greatest accomplishment is my all-time favorite song: “Meet the Mets.”

Friday, July 01, 2011

An Idiot, A Broad: Paris, Part Cinq

For almost 30 years, the summer solstice has been the date of the Fête de la Musique in France, a day and a night of free outdoor music. A salsa picnic was in full swing at the church down the street as we headed out, and a Dixieland quintet greeted us in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

ASIDE #1: This was the day we passed three different people weeping openly on the street. It must have been ten years since I’d last seen that. Throughout the trip we’d borne witness to passionate wordless embraces, deep conversations held in the middle of bridges. Paris is a city of big emotions, a telenovela on every corner.

The Musée Rodin was on Rosemarie’s must list for Auguste Rodin’s famously controversial tribute to her favorite author, Balzac. The museum makes brilliant use of the sculptor’s former workshop and its gardens. But it’s Rodin’s work, still charged with a vitality verging on unseemly, that makes the greatest impression.

Buying tickets provided insight into the French character. The museum offers a joint pass with the Musée d’Orsay, which we also planned on visiting, so that’s what we asked for.

Clerk: I’m sorry, I cannot sell you that. There is a strike.

Rosemarie: Oh. So the d’Orsay is closed?

Clerk: There is a strike.

Rosemarie: Then it’s open?

Clerk: Open, closed. (Gallic shrug) There is a strike.

When we eventually wandered over to the d’Orsay, we found this sign on the locked door: We can not guarantee that the museum will be open today. This is what passes for a ‘Closed’ sign in France. C’est la vie.

Thwarted, we explored Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Upon spotting LMDW Fine Spirits, I drew a line in the sand. If this place doesn’t have Amer Picon, I said, ain’t nobody got it. A sweep of the first floor came up empty. We ventured downstairs. Rien. I fell to my knees, prepared to curse an indifferent God. Rosemarie suggested that we ask someone.

This clerk was very helpful. “Did you look upstairs?”

Permit me to clarify. We were in a three-story liquor store. And within those walls, I was happier than I have ever been.

We braved the summit, accompanied by the clerk. Amidst liquid treasures from around the globe, I found their entire stash of Amer Picon.

One (1) bottle.

Which I immediately purchased. Quest complete. I could return to America as a man in full.

ASIDE #2: I have been asked if we drank wine. Yes, regularly, because the French have embraced the concept of the pichet, a smaller jug of wine that is ideal for two people. We sat in the Jardin du Luxembourg, music playing everywhere as I schemed my way to riches by importing the pichet system to America. Rosemarie finally convinced me it’s more than a one-man operation.

We embraced our tourist role and took a cruise down the Seine. There’s no better view of the Eiffel Tower than the one from the water, as evidenced by the presence of a film crew on the river bank. Our guide was recounting the tower’s history when Rosemarie pointed. “It’s Jackie Chan!” Turns out she was right.

Still flush with triumph, we visited Prescription Cocktail Club, one of the bars the Zig Zag team recommended. This is a true American-style cocktail bar, tucked away on the rue Mazarine. Sullivan, our bartender, recognized the LMDW bag at once. When I told him what I’d purchased, he asked to see the bottle. Picon was that difficult to acquire. Sullivan said that bartenders truly coveted the earlier incarnation of the drink, with its higher proof and more bitter flavor. He and the staff then proceeded to dazzle us with their own concoctions.

Me: Didn’t you want to have a glass of champagne or a champagne cocktail? This would be the place.

Rosemarie: I want to order a French 75. But do they call it that here? Maybe it’s just a 75.

Me: Huh. I never thought of that.

Rosemarie asked our bartender to recommend a champagne cocktail. He suggested a French 75. She told him that was a good idea.

Another languorous dinner with the Czar followed. We walked home at 1:30 in the morning, the streets still a frenzy of people, music pouring out of windows.

ASIDE #3: Conversation around the table that night focused in part on why French women of all ages looked so good, so pulled together. I would counter that the men do as well; stores sold shirts in an array of bold colors that wouldn’t fly in offices here. Nobody slobs around in sweatpants.

We took it easy on our last day. The Paris Police Museum is located off the beaten path in a working police station, which may be why we had it to ourselves. The exhibits aren’t translated, but my high school French helped me figure out the signs detailing the arrest report for Marat’s assassin, the tools used by “Bluebeard” killer Henri Landru on his victims, the recreated office of criminologist Alphonse Bertillon.

We closed our trip at Experimental Cocktail Club, one of Prescription’s sister establishments. (We never made it to the third sibling, Curio Parlor in the Latin Quarter.) I wanted an Old Fashioned after watching Sullivan make one the night before. When the bespectacled sparrow of a hostess said they made them with “ze Reeten’ouse” – meaning Rittenhouse Rye, my tipple of choice – I made a face, because Rosemarie said to me, “Wow. You just totally fell in love with her a little.” Then she shrugged. “That’s OK.”

And that’s why we’ve been married for twenty years. And why we went to Paris to celebrate.


A few days ago, we delivered what may have been the last bottle of Amer Picon in Paris to its new home on the other side of the world, where it was well received. We had a small sample of the drink on its own. It has a lovely floral scent and a dense, almost vegetal taste. Ben P. fixed a Liberal for me, a Brooklyn for Rosemarie, a Creole for another patron. He said that you could make substitutions for the Picon, but you could never fake the color.

At the Prescription Cocktail Club, I mentioned the Liberal to Sullivan. He wasn’t familiar with it. He looked it up, said that it sounded like a fine drink, that he already had an idea for a variation that he could make without Amer Picon. If you find yourself in the bar and it’s on the menu, let me know.

The Perles Noires series continues through the end of July. I have a few more photos on Flickr.