Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book Notes – Nutshell In A Nutshell, Womb With A View


Ian McEwan
Perhaps I am too literal to be literary in my own writing, but I certainly enjoy reading the elegant prose of Ian McEwan. I’ve long been a fan his work, much of it bound in slender volumes —unusual occurrences compared to most of today’s tomescent best sellers and critical successes. And as a reader and writer, the short novel is my format of choice these days.

This relatively short crime novel, Nutshell operates from a conceit — that a fetus can somehow divine the reality that exists outside the increasingly small space in the womb, and that said fetus is also able to communicate those impressions to the reader with the logic of a sophisticated, mature and literary mind. What his unborn narrator “senses” leads the reader to a view of the kill.

As a fiction writer, one may do whatever one chooses.  Put the Statue of Liberty in Lake Michigan if you like.  However you must convince the reader it’s there. In this case, I wasn’t convinced right away. I read somewhere that most people have little or no memory of what happened in their lives before the age of five. Perhaps that is because without language to describe our feelings and organize our thoughts, if we have them, we are at a loss to recall. To reconstruct is to have once had a construction. For me, I have some infant memories of a Koi pond, a swing set near a creek and my neighbor watering his lawn.  That’s about it before five.  My brother, on the other hand, has birth memories and moments shortly thereafter.  How many, though, can reminisce about their days in the womb as it inevitably closes in around them?

If you are willing to suspend your disbelief — and McEwan’s words will seduce you, I swear — the story will flow effortlessly and humorously.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

“Compact, captivating ... The writing is lean and muscular, often relentlessly gorgeous ... McEwan is one of the most accomplished craftsmen of plot and prose,” says Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New York Times Book Review

For me, there was, from time to time, moments of a Liberace flourish at the end of a sentence or paragraph; but who, with his talent, wouldn’t want to mug occasionally? The other odd, and I think extremely clever contrivance (not a bad word in mystery-making), is that the fetal narrator somehow makes us part of the conspiracy to murder his/her poet father, a murder about which the infant seems to take an interested, but nonpartisan position. It is an all-knowing narrator without the baggage of good and evil. Can the unborn possess such inclinations as judgment if it has such extraordinary proficiency in language? True objectivity?  Not really. Selfishness exudes from the temporary tenant as expected from a being that only knows itself.  






Thursday, December 22, 2016

Film Pairing — Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head about the Government

There is no consolation in this double bill, two films that express what many of us feel — the government is trying to protect us from those who would take our liberties by taking our liberties. Secrets, double crosses come easy to the alphabet agencies in these two films, which do little to dispel our cynicism but a lot to increase our heart rate and blood pressure.  Try these two for an escape into a dark, but sadly believable reality. It’s all about the hunt and the chase, and whom we can trust.

Safe House — Filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, a spy suspected of corruption is captured and temporarily placed in a “safe house,” where it is virtually impossible to escape or be found.  Except that he was found. Another faction was sent in to free or kill him. The highly prized target, a veteran spy played by Denzel Washington, and a low-level, inexperienced intelligence agent, Ryan Reynolds, find themselves dependent on each other for survival. It seems that two factions of the agency are at odds with each other, but both out to get Washington and Reynolds. This may be the darker and deeper of the two spy films, though the chases are not quite as extravagant. Daniel Espinosa directed Safe House, released in 2012. Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepard do their usual fine jobs in supporting roles.

Jason Bourne —This is the fifth, and if they keep their promise, the last of the Bourne series.  Matt Damon returns for this 2016 release. I’ve liked all the Bourne films, including this one, accepting them as well-done action films with just enough plot and barely enough character to keep me in my chair.  The plot is essentially the same.  Get the all-too clever and resourceful Bourne and kill him. In this case I particularly liked the appropriately understated end. Tommy Lee Jones did his usual solid job, this time as the CIA chief. Alicia Vikander was cool and beautiful, but the writers didn't give her a whole lot to work with. The movie was directed by Paul Greengrass based on “characters created by Robert Ludlum," and set primarily Washington DC and Las Vegas.

Relevant, though perhaps not profoundly so, the films address our fears about trusting a government that keeps so much from us — operations that can be twisted at various levels of the intelligence bureaucracy and by the currently ruling corporate class. Given a chance, the films could lead to an intelligent discussion about how we can get more accountability and transparency from our elected representatives, cabinet appointees and commanders in chief.  More than likely though, we will settle in for a few hours of vicarious thrills with two moderately thrilling, competently made entertainment products, knowing that the Bourne film, for example, brought in more than $400 million at the box office in a year that saw the scariest election of the modern era and a new cabinet of generals and billionaire CEOs, stuff from which such movies gain inspiration.

This isn’t a wine, or even a beer night. For those who want some sort of tranquilizing accompaniment, I’d go for Scotch or Bourbon. Sip though, or the Bourne movie will zip by you much quicker than you can comprehend it, not that this is a serious detriment.  For the alcohol free, maybe a coffee of some sort to keep you buzzed and up to speed for all the chases.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Blatant, But Somewhat Restrained Self-Promotion

San Francisco Mysteries Part of Rapid Reads Growing Novella Program


And now a word from our sponsor.  What my Canadian publisher Orca offers in its Rapid Reads program are “quick, engaging reads by bestselling authors’ — works that can be read in one sitting — possibly a flight from L.A. to New York, or just a satisfying read that won’t keep you up all night. The direct writing style makes these books accessible to the “reader on the go,” the reluctant reader, as well as those with English as a second language.

Here is a comment from an early reviewer of The Blue Dragon: "What an incredible beginning to a new mystery series by Ronald Tierney... [This was] my first introduction to “Rapid Reads” and I am enthralled not only by the individual title selection experience but also for the incredible discovery of this reading series.”

What I hope to create with the Peter Strand series is to re-imagine the plot-oriented mystery in the tradition of Rex Stout and Agatha Christie, a story with minimal violence and with emphasis on the puzzle aspects of the crime. The book allows the reader to sleuth along with the detective. Here is more information about my first two books in the Rapid Reads series:


The Blue Dragon — A murder at a small apartment building in San Francisco’s Chinatown, prompts the absentee owner to hire Chinese American Peter Strand to calm the anxious tenants. But Strand isn’t exactly what he appears to be. Neither are the tenants who, on the surface, seem to be regular people going about their lives. Strand, a forensic accountant by trade, doesn’t intend to investigate the murder, but he soon realizes that this isn’t a gang-related killing, as the police believe. The murder was committed by one of the tenants. Finding out which one exposes the secrets of The Blue Dragon and brings Strand face-to-face with a few ghosts of his own. The Blue Dragon is available in paperback and e-book.

 
The Black Tortoise – Peter Strand is asked to investigate a San Francisco-based nonprofit arts organization located in a pier on San Francisco Bay near the Ferry Building. There he meets a cast of colorful, quirky characters who all seem to be hiding something. Peter soon finds evidence of a probable fraud, but is it the fraud that leads to murder? Or is it something else? Whatever it is, a suspicious drowning draws Strand deeper into a murky mystery. The murderer is finally unmasked, but at what personal expense? The Black Tortoise is the second book in the Peter Strand mystery series. Preorder available now for a March delivery.

Consider these two San Francisco mysteries as gifts, one in time for the holidays and one for right after.




Friday, December 9, 2016

Film Pairing — Cary Grant Times Two

With the possible exception of To Catch a Thief, these two films may be the best of the Cary Grant films, certainly of those with suspense at the core.  Romance, humor and danger are an entertaining mix for a double feature to snuggle up to some chilly night. In fact, it is such an obvious pairing I’m almost embarrassed to pair them.

Cary Grant And Eva Marie Saint
North By Northwest — As you would expect there is disagreement about which of Alfred Hitchcock’s films is his greatest. This one is toward the top of my list. By fluke, a Manhattan advertising executive (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a CIA agent. He is kidnapped and marked for death by a smuggler, played by James Mason. Grant’s character escapes and the chase begins — trains, planes, cornfields and national landmarks. Enter a love interest.  Eva Marie Saint portrays the smart (smarter than the usual Hitchcock blonde), beautiful, if not devious, damsel in distress.  Martin Landau is strong in a supporting role.  And I always like to see Leo G. Carroll. As usual, watch for Alfred’s trademark cameo                      

Cary Grant And Audrey Hepburn
Charade — A slightly darker film, but not all that dark, Charade is decidedly more of a mystery. A man is murdered, thrown off a train.  His widow (Audrey Hepburn) soon realizes she had no idea who her husband really was. Unfortunately for her, his unsavory cohorts believe she has the money her husband stole from them. And they want it back. When a handsome and charming stranger (Cary Grant) enters her life, she believes he’s there to help her.  Is he?  Stanley Donen directed this 1963 film based on a short story, “The Unsuspecting Wife,” by Peter Stone and Mark Behm. The strong supporting cast includes Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy. There are many good reasons to watch this film. One is the score by Henry Mancini. The other is Charles Lang’s stylish cinematography.

As a number of critics have pointed out over the years, Charade seems like a Hitchcock film. If it were, it would be among the legendary director’s best. This alone makes it an interesting double bill. The opening credits on both films are also worth watching.  

Incidentally three years ago, Life Death and Fog polled visitors to vote on their favorite Hitchcock movies.  Click here for this blog’s top ten by the master.



Libations: With the Hitchcock film, try a Gibson. This is the drink he orders on the train. It is really a gin martini, usually served with a small, silverskin onion. Stirred, not shaken. With Charade, we need to drink in the spirit of Paris.  Perhaps now that it’s legal in the U.S., some absinthe.  For those who want to keep a clear head in order to keep track of Grant’s identities, mix tonic, lemon, citrus bitters, and rock candy for a great mocktail.







Friday, December 2, 2016

Commentary — All In A Day’s Walk

I used to spend a lot of my time wandering the streets of San Francisco.  My pattern was to pick up the thread of whatever I was writing, plant it firmly in my subconscious and develop it as I walked. My meanderings took me sometimes up and down the nearly secret stairways, short cuts from one neighborhood to another, and often through one of the many parks, where I’d eventually sit and transfer any thoughts about mystery into a small notebook.   Then, I would find my way to the nearest market to pick up dinner.

I always took my camera. San Francisco is endlessly photographable; but one of my favorite things to find was what the street artists had done since I last traveled those parts.  You could and can find their work almost anywhere in the city, but the Mission and Haight Street were genuine goldmines.

When my walk was done, I’d settle into my small, dusty apartment, have dinner, some wine, watch a film and sleep. In the morning I would take out the notebook.  If I had been lucky, the next few pages of my mystery would begin to flow.   When the muse had given its all, I would start the afternoon walk all over again, loving every minute of it.

I’ve put together a slide show of some of the street artists’ work. Some of the images are gone now, many of them painted over by newer exciting images — the way of the world for artists — and writers.









Friday, November 25, 2016

Film Pairing — Mob Movies Again, Guns And Violins




This is the third (and final for now) post in the gangster movie pairings. These are films primarily of the ‘80s and ‘90s, though Hollywood’s preoccupation with the mob goes way back with major stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson taking the roles big-time gangsters


Al Pacino
Scarface — One of the most violent of the sub genre, Scarface was directed by Brian De Palma based on a screenplay by Oliver Stone.  Al Pacino, who also starred in the first two Godfather films, plays Tony Montana (Scarface), a Cuban refugee who becomes a major player in the drug trade. In fact, when we left the Godfather Part Two, the Pacino character was in Miami and almost moved his mob into Cuba, which is where, though unrelated, Scarface resumed.  Instead of playing a quiet, pensive Italian as he did in The Godfather Pacino plays an explosive Cuban criminal. Scarface was among the throngs of boat people Fidel Castro wanted to dispose of, sending them instead to the U.S. to undermine this country’s stability in what was called the “Mariel crisis.”

Steven Bauer is solid and charming as Montana’s best friend and partner in crime. Michelle Pfeiffer is the forbidden woman Scarface wants for his own. We get both chunk of history during the Jimmy Carter years, and a glimpse of Miami, especially South Beach before it was reclaimed as a hot spot.

Richard Gere and Diane Lane
Perhaps without the depth of The Godfather, Scarface, released in 1983, does ask the question, “how much is enough?” as it relates to wealth and power. It’s important to warn again: This is a violent film. So we might ask the same question about the graphic cinematography. How much is enough?

The Cotton Club — Raves from me. Apparently, the screenplay had dozens of rewrites with Francis Ford Coppola, William Kennedy and Mario Puzo, contributing. The result is a remarkably entertaining film. We’ve got a love triangle. We have a lovely vixen, a legendary gangster, Dutch Shultz and a handsome musician/actor playing dangerously at the edges of mob business. And most of the film takes place in a Harlem nightclub in the ‘30s, with top-notch music and dance. It is also a fine drama with excellent cinematography by Steven Goldblatt.

The cast is golden: Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Bob Hoskins and Gwen Verdon.  Fred Gwynne almost steals the show.  Nicholas Cage has a supporting role.  Also appearing: Maurice Hines, Joe Dallesandro, Laurence Fishburne and Tom Waits. James Remar plays Shultz and Diane Lane plays the love interest.  She was nominated for a Razzie as worst supporting actress.  That’s absurd. She was absolutely charming and right as Gere’s and Remar’s love interest.
Maurice And Gregory Hines

The film was based on James Haskins’ book and was released in 1984, a critical and box office success.

How to imbibe during this gangster double feature: Scarface develops a lust for Scotch before burying his face in cocaine. All sorts of cocktails as well as bottles of champagne would be appropriate for a party at The Cotton Club. For the many who avoid alcohol or who have to drive home, there are alcohol free bubblies available everywhere.