Monday, June 20, 2016

STL #120: 2015 in Reading

Yes, I'm aware it is nearing the end of June 2016. Still in the sixth month window though! I actually made these lists on January 7th, so I'll transcribe them for posterity and add whatever remarks come to mind at this later date.

I have two lists because 2015 was crime-fiction intensive (by design). At one point, last June I think it was, I read 30 crime novels in 30 days (some of them graphical and some novella length. My first list is a list of writers who impressed, based on books I hadn't read before (I reread works by Hammet and Chandler, so that didn't seem fair). The second last encompasses everything that didn't fit the rubric of crime fiction.  I'll take advantage of the long view I've incubated to see about encompassing the best of both in a single list.

List One: Crime Writers

  1. Donald Westlake (Black Ice, Sour Lemon Score,  The Dame, The Damsel, Somebody Owes Me Money, 361, The Ax, The Cutie, Dancing Aztecs (also read his collected nonfiction). He's been a favorite for years now. I'm still in the middle of the re/read of Parker. The Ax is a classic and Dancing Aztecs  is a classic that just missed and is consigned to the "dated" category.
  2. Lawrence Block (first four Matthew Scudder novels and his three books on writing). Westlake's friend. I read and loved his Sacred Ginmill so went back to the beginning of his series. Right now, I'm on Eight Million Ways to Die. All enjoyable, none quite stand out.
  3. Agatha Christie (Mysterious Affair at Styles, Murder in the Vicarage, Dead Man's Folly, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express). There are some charming moments in most of these (an accidentally erotic inner monologue at the Istanbul train station sticks in my mind), though they don't usually have much to do with the plots. A fun way to pass the time.
  4. Josephine Tey (Brat Farrar, The Daughter of Time)  I liked the former quite a lot, though the latter seems over-rated to me (and it has been rated the best mystery of all-time in certain circles).
  5. John D. Macdonald (Deep Blue Goodby, Cape Fear/The Mercenaries) Two great books. The latter more of a thriller.
  6. Chester Himes (Blind Man with a Pistol) Could be a transcendent commentary on being black in America in the late 60s. Doesn't really come together as a novel for me, but stays in the mind. 
  7. Daniel Woodrell (Tomato Red).  Loved the voice of this novel. I want more Appalachian noir!
  8. Sjo and Wahl (Roseanna, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke). Although clearly a step beyond in terms of intensity, reminds me of Maigret.
  9. Hakan Nesser (Mind's Eye). The winner of my contemporary Nordic Noir bracket. Most of the big names (Nesbo, Fossum, Mankell) I didn't really care for. 
  10. Don Winslow (The Cartel). A little pulpy. If that's a criticism. 
List Two: Works of (Non-crime) Fiction and Nonfiction
  1. Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I got into mindfulness theoretically, though struggle to practice. But to the beginner mind, that's okay. This is the best of several audiobooks I listened to. 
  2. Days of Rage by Bryan Burrough. So fascinated by the topic, I don't really have a take on the prose, one way or another.
  3. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. The inverse of the above. The prose is so spectacular, the topics don't really matter. 
  4. Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. A big, serious book. The basic argument is that religion isn't the cause of violence, it is the agricultural state. 
  5. Saints and Sinners by Lawrence Wright. See #2, though I suspect Wright is the superior writer.
  6. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I recognize this as an important book and I am glad I read it. 
  7. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Transporting experience. The unofficial launch of a year of Westerns. 
  8. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I'm not sure why I included this because I had a no-rereads rule in effect for other parts of the list. Jackson is a genius.
  9. The Tenth of December by George Saunders. Finally coming to this "new voice." And it is a new, perfect voice. 
  10. Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand. Good, but makes the list based on the fact that, as a mock 33 1/3 on a fictitious progressive British folk group's masterpiece album, it is targeted directly at me. Since I also read her black-metal murder mysteries, I should conclude I sure her sensibilities. 
List the New: How it looks half-a-year later
  1. Consider the Lobster
  2. Lonesome Dove
  3. Days of Rage
  4. Tenth of December
  5. Roseanna
  6. Deep Blue Good-by
  7. Brat Farrar
  8. Tomato Red
  9. The Ax
  10. Mindfulness for Beginners

Note: Two out of Three Falls

I was recently asked to comment on the question, "What is best and/or worst book-to-movie spec fic translation project ever?" Here is my response to the "best" part of the question:
I can think of three approaches to this question. The first and simplest is to identify the best (or worst) film that happens to be based on a work that we define as "spec fic," which I take to refer to the sf/fantasy/horror continuum. Consulting my top 100 movies of all time list, I see that that happens to be The Shining. The second, more nuanced, approach is to identify the film that adds to and/or reimagines something inherent in the source material, but elevates or transcends the source material. Using this "value-added" approach, the answer is, again, The Shining, though, look. poor blood-soaked Carrie is right behind. The third, and most nerdly, approach would be an appeal to faithfulness to the source material. So... Lord of the Rings? Watchmen? Since this method points in the direction of Zach Snyder, I prefer not to pursue it.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

STL #119: Beginning Again

Reading a book of Donald Westlake’s nonfiction last month, I came across the fact I’d come across before—that Joseph Conrad didn’t begin writing until he was 45 years old. Westlake joined this well-known case with Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe, who also made his publishing debut at the age of 45.*  As a lazy man of letters nearing that age, I was compelled as I often am around my birthday (which coincides with summer and which means, for me, more time) to return to the idea of a daily writing practice. This time it might even stick.  

Back to the primal scene of this particular inspiration. Inspired anew every year at my birthday, I pledge again to start a daily writing practice. Just an hour a day, I vowed, as I wrote the first draft of this as a free verse poem over coffee, bread with honey. To sit for an hour a day and grind it out—to make something out of pure work. “To find my own mind and soul” I wrote. Then I wrote  “Maybe even leave a mark for my life.” 

Think of Westlake himself; a working writer since a teenager, running a squad of pseudonyms publishing a short shelf of novels every year.By the time he was my age, he had half a career behind him. But is that what I am after?

I’ve tried what I bracketed as “[the writing life]” before: dreck novels in a month; an abandoned screenplay; spurts of daily poems. What about my dissertation, or a handful of academic articles (stuff I really don’t care about). The truth is, writing is hard and what I write tends to be bad. 

But maybe at 45 years of age I start to understand my real reasons—not to get into libraries and living rooms like Conrad and Stout, but to make some shape and meaning for myself and this world.  And so I make another birthday pledge (belatedly, I needed some revision time): one hour of writing, every day, in any form. I started this as a poem because it said “ah me! hear my foibles! sing my weakness!” but it broke loose to discursive prose. Maybe tomorrow I’ll find a poem, or pitch for a comic book. I’ll get back to that academic prose too, and try to make it less bullshitty. 

My practice will be simply to write, in any format so long as I record it in my notebook. It can be first drafts or revision if so fitting. I’ll be back here on the blog on a weekly basis, for any writing that is appropriate for this particular forum. 

*(A little Internet research suggest that Westlake got his facts wrong) Rex Stout I knew little about, and it seems Westlake is being deceptive. Stout wrote for the pulps as a youth, retired to business, and published his first book at 43. The larger point is that he made his mark with 33 books published from his 40s to his 80s. There are other deceptive cases of later bloomers like Raymond Chandler (44) and Davenport.