Monday, March 28, 2016

Film pairings — Sort of (From Book To Film)

 Often we hear of all these non-profits, some of them governmental, some not, doing various kinds of missionary-style work in poor or developing, but almost always vulnerable nations with propped up governments. A lot of funny business goes on in these places, usually in the Middle East or in various African locales.

Last night I happened upon a film, The Gunman, Sean Penn did a fine job of trying to tell the story of the greed and corruption behind or surrounding the best of the do gooders. As a paid assassin, Penn’s character tries to live the rest of his life making up for his previous bad acts. But he is a witness to the truth and THEY come for him. As they had for the others. It can be seen as just another action film.  However only seen as superhero crap — if that is what you are looking for – the film is mediocre.  

If you are looking for more, you’ll find it. It is a microcosm of most governments – certainly ours – where those at the highest levels of power are protected against prosecution of the crimes they committed against the people over whom they have the power.  And as long as the few have the money and the influence, and the many are too frightened or dumb – I should say uninformed, shouldn’t I? – nothing will change.  Even Penn’s character is only activated when he realizes he is in the crosshairs and essentially, has nothing to lose.  If this were an action film, he would win in the end. Instead it flirts with noir, something the novel has in spades.
For me this was extraordinary cinema. A man, with right on his side, against the impossible. I hadn’t realized as I watched it that I had previously read it. The directors, Penn being one of them, took some liberties. The Gunman was based on The Prone Gunman, the short novel by the acclaimed French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette and first published in English by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in 2002.
Jean-Patrick Manchette

In addition to Penn, the cast of The Gunman include Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone and Jasmine Trinca

Watch it no matter what the online reviewers have to say.  And read the book.  Both are worth the time and could be done in the same evening.  If you are staying in, maybe some Pernod or Absinthe.  Okay, stay in.

I have written previously about Manchette.  If interested in reading more, go here

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Book Notes — The Bangkok Asset: The Darkness Before The Night

There are places, then there are places.  I felt San Francisco at nearly every nerve ending.  It was sensuous, inspiring, lustful, sometimes frightening, always surprising.  Until a few years ago, I felt most alive in the city by the Bay.  There are cities where I feel a certain kinship. New Orleans is one. Marrakesh is another. Palm Springs, where I live now, is pleasant enough.  Beautiful even. Mountains, palms, lots of colorful flowers. But it seems like a place that’s been decorated, scrubbed and vacuumed. I don’t mind dying here if that’s how it works out.  But Bangkok is the love that got away.

Fortunately, we have a few authors to give me exciting, vicarious glimpses into the life of my lost love. But first a few qualifiers to my otherwise worshipful view of Thailand’s capital. As cities go, Bangkok is not particularly pretty. The skyline was frumpy the last time I saw it. High rises appeared to have been abandoned before they were completed, hanging like bare-boned skeletons in a crowd of gaudy onlookers. The air is often noxious from carbon monoxide and the streets, after a serious rain, are ankle deep in what we hope is only water.

However, the constant reminder of death makes life more vivid there. The sweet acceptance of reality in all its forms and with all its struggles seems noble, heroic. From what I’ve seen and read, I cannot help but think the Thais are wiser and, in their profound understanding, more beautiful. There is a price to be paid.

That’s where author John Burdett comes in. His Bangkok covers the spectrum of humanity. It is full of spirits – good and evil — the frailties of human nature, the fullness of the seven deadly sins, the haunting of, or by` the past and, now, with The Bangkok Asset, deadly warnings from the future. It is, intended or not, an indictment of capitalism and its potential to usher in of a new form of fascism and should be of current interest.

This high biotech product — a transhuman — is the seed of a self-sustaining, self-developing, powerful, masterful, ever expanding Army. To counter this massive and ominous threat to our freedom, if not existence itself, Burdett has placed my favorite protagonist, the infinitely vulnerable, all-too-human Thai cop, Sonchai, who is already involved in a personal mystery — the identity of his father.

What’s so good about Burdett is that despite the temptation to make this a high-concept piece, he keeps us grounded in the story and  in its meaning, but most of all in Bangkok. In some ways, all of this could only happen here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

All the News That Fits

Shortly  my blog will enter its sixth year — a mere infancy compared to some other author blogs.  And Life Death and Fog, which should probably be renamed Life Death And Sand considering my recent move to the desert,  has had more than 100,000 page views, also a pittance compared to others.  One final note about the blog.  In the five years of its existence as mostly a crime fiction (and film) related site, I have made more than 600 posts, most of them rational.  Guest posts have also appeared and I would love more.
Georges Simenon

Other news:  The second novella (The Black Tortoise) in the Peter Stand series from Orca and its Rapid Reads imprint is scheduled for March of next year. Meanwhile the Kindle version of the first in the series The Blue Dragon is available for $4.99. And the last Shanahan, Killing Frost can be purchased for $2.51.I may buy it myself.

One of my every-morning stops is the blog, The Rapsheet.  The editor challenged readers and especially writers to come up with five crime writers who have at least five books each on their bookshelves, the mystery they would have most loved to have written and which classical mystery writers they’ve never read.  A great challenge. Below is my feeble attempt to comply.
James Purdy

In keeping with the challenge, I’ve read many books by the same author —  John Burdett, Michael Connelly, Terence Hallinan, James Lee Burke; but after a few major relocations, as well as accounting for loans to and from friends, I don’t have that many books by the same author. However I have made it a point to collect and preserve some. Most of the books from the following authors have at least some criminal aspect to them and, except for Mr. Garland, I have well more than five books each.

Alex Garland
Georges Simenon’s novellas  (non-Maigret)

Paul Bowles
Paul Bowles

James Purdy

Alex Garland (I would have at least five of his novels if he wrote that many.)

And I won’t embarrass myself by telling anyone how many classic authors I haven’t read. I’d be drummed out of the corps if I’d ever been drummed in.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How Do You Want Your Fiction? Long Or Short ?

Even though the form has an honorable history, in recent years, the novella seems to have fallen out of favor.  And, even though we honor Of Mice and Men, The Shawshank Redemption, Death in Venice, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Heart of Darkness, The Stranger and many more short classics from the past, publishers are adamant about their 60,000 to 80,00 minimum word rule for a manuscript to be considered unless the writer is a member of the best-seller’s club.  Stephen King or James Patterson could publish napkins, though Patterson would have a co-writer, bless his talented and prolific heart. Jealousy is not pretty.

Why the minimum?  Maybe because of production costs (set-up, handling and the whole launch business), publishers need to get $30 retail for a hardbound book no matter how thick. Readers, it seems, are reluctant to pay that amount of money for what they perceive to be half a book or less. There is an underlying “cost per word” logic to all this, conscious or unconscious. We are prey to packaging.

Dickens was paid by his publisher so much per word.  No fool, he wrote long books. Before cheap communication technology, when people used Western Union to send important messages across the country, they were charged by the word. So they wrote short messages, eliminating all but absolutely essential words. Even today we look at word pricing. Using that standard, however wrong-headed the logic might be, the novella at $29.95 for 100 or so generously leaded pages doesn’t give readers their money’s worth. Today in order to be published at all, writers produce longer books. The temptation to pad,  or add water, is hard to resist in such an environment.

We have already forgotten that much of the fiction published not too long ago were  “pocket” books, thin bodice rippers, romances, mysteries and westerns that fit into men’s breast pockets and women’s clutch purses. There are a few retro publishers trying to revive this concept, often with great style and panache. But all in all, short books, whether genre or “literary,” (an argument for another day) are still battling the fat blockbuster model. Perhaps not lost on this is that those thin books of previous decades, often in drug stores on revolving metal racks, were roughly the size of a smart phone.

Thin books, especially pulp fiction, prompted a style. The style was often “telegraphic,” that is prose as short and direct as possible, eliminating unnecessary words, most often adjectives and adverbs. That’s one way to shorten books. To some extent, we could call the art of the novella, “achieving shortness,” or “honoring brevity.’ But a novella might also merely encompass a smaller slice of time in which a story takes place or in which philosophical arguments are examined.  In some cases a well-written, smaller story represents a greater one.  Do we need the greater one?  Of course we do. Perhaps we need to deal with historical perspective or generational issues.  A novella may not work.

But I’m 70 and I’m running out of time.  But even if I weren’t … if I were 17, how much time would I have, given the unlimited alternatives of art and communication?  Might I really think about stealing three or four days from my allotted existence — devoting that time instead to Thomas Mann’s Joseph And His Brothers at 1,492 pages?

Writers of skinny books occupy many spots on my favorites list in large part because they write skinny books..  Georges Simenon is at the top of it. Not his Inspector Maigret series. He wrote 200 novels, all relatively slender volumes and 75 about Maigret. He wrote 150 novellas that had nothing to do with his famous detective, though many of them had to do with criminal behavior.  I like those.  

Instead of having universal endless knowledge of the characters and the need to express it all, there is a sense f voyeur in Maigret’s, of a delicious peeping Tomism. When I read, (actually when I write as well), I’m siting in the darkness outside a stranger’s window observing what is happening in the lit interior. There is brevity in description because there are limits to what can be observed in time and space (as life really is) and a writing style that appears to be very direct, almost telegraphic.  The writer writes what can be seen and heard.  The reader interprets. Short books. Where are the contemporary versions of this?

I apologize for not remembering the source; but a while back there was an informal poll asking readers if they would purchase a novella and if not, why not? The overwhelming response was ”no.”  While many didn't want to give up that fat book that would take them days to read, presumably on a big soft sofa in front of a fire with a glass of wine, the reason most gave for not wanting a novella was that they are too expensive for what they get.

But times have changed. For all the horror the Internet and E-books have wrought on the romance of reading, I believe there are now opportunities for the novella to bloom again. It might be the perfect form for an E-book for the more mobile, less materialistic, increasingly time-challenged reader.  And the electronic book does not require anywhere near the production cost of a book in print. The novella I argue is the best choice for that flight from San Francisco to New York or those city-to-city train trips in Europe and Japan. Complete in a sitting. How many novellas can you carry in one small electronic reading device? Certainly all 150 of Simenon’s novellas.

The truth is I am puzzled by the slowness of the public to gravitate toward the smaller work. The system and the culture at large must adjust to the changes, I guess. For example, major reviewers rarely touch any book unless the first edition is in hardback.  If the publishers aren’t producing hardback novellas and reviewers are avoiding E-books launches, the system is stacked against them both.

The evolution or revolution is not without pain either. How do we, or can we incorporate the bookstores and libraries into the process? These two entities are the very roots of the book reading culture throughout the world. How do we not lose them? We know that technology often moves faster than the ethics needed to cope with changes.  I suggest that in terms of general values, quickened technology can risk our losing sight of valuable traditions.  (There are serious discussions about the need to teach cursive handwriting.)

One more: How can we apply some sort of quality (however you define it) filter to the tsunami of self-published books without squelching the beauty that technology is affording new talent? How can we get publishers, bookstores, reviewers and others to present novellas as legitimate in whatever format (ink or electronic) they take?

Perhaps, that is for the marketplace to solve.  Meanwhile, there is a practical opening for books of all lengths. And it is time the novella reclaims a prime position. Literarily, it has always been legitimate even as it has been unwelcome here in the U.S.A. where we keep falling for the bigger is better philosophy of everything.

As a writer, in the last few years I have moved in the direction of the novella.  It has given me new joy in writing in what are my otherwise waning years. Writing a novella is a different challenge.

To paraphrase Ian McEwan in a New Yorker article, while the novel is often sloppy, the novella, he says is “the perfect form of prose fiction.”  I would add or qualify that statement, though I’m hardly qualified to do so, by saying that the novella is more likely to be made perfect.  To be perfect requires the reader and writer to conspire perfectly, also harder to do in the more rambling novel.

With a few novellas under my belt, I am continuing in that vein with a new series for Orca Publisher’s Rapid Reads program dedicated to short, easy-to-read fiction (under 20,000 words). The first was The Blue Dragon last September, which is to be followed by The Black Tortoise in March, 2017.  My most recent release  (May 1) was the final book in my Shanahan series, Killing Frost, a shortish novel.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

No man ever steps in the same river twice – Heraclitus

No one wakes up being exactly the same person who went to sleep. The brain does what it has to do.  In the morning, dreams have done whatever dreams do. Cells were born, and cells died. Memories were embedded, others disintegrated or were relegated to he deepest recesses of our gray matter.

To Heraclitus’ point that a flowing river is always changing, and that the water whirling around your feet a split second ago has gone down stream. It is a constant theme in all things, perhaps the only constant, possibly. The heavens aren’t arranged as they were a few microseconds ago.  The world — the universe all in constant change — is never the same place. It is not only without a conceivable beginning and an end, it is without permanent form, and likely without purpose at least as we understand the word.

As humans we are struggling with the notion of time.  And we have become devoutly curious about dimensions we, as humans, now believe exist, but cannot perceive.

We can understand more of the endless processes, and that seems to be desirable for our curious species to the extent our organism’s capability allows. Organisms act and are acted upon accordingly. We can explore and record what we discover, develop theories and prove some of them at least for now — if the word “prove” is adequate and “now” is accurate.  But we cannot be sure that our perceptions are the only perceptions that can be made.  Or whether they mean anything at all.

I remember, as a child wondering about those we inappropriately said were living in the loony bins.  I wondered if they knew something most of us didn't, saw things we were unable to see, maybe even lived in a dimension we could not conceive. Certainly some of our greatest artists and scientists colored way outside the lines.  I have always questioned and still question the idea of “normal.” Being normal doesn’t lead to invention, rather convention.

I think about this now because, while I’m definitely not the oldest person on the planet, my increasing investment in the Golden Years has placed me in greater proximity to some of the side effects of old age – senility, dementia, and inertia. Of course, there is the other hand — acceptance, an odd and at times irritating (to others) patience, and a deeper appreciation of dark humor.