Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Dangerous Lesson, "Goose" Satterwhite

Timothy Alston “Goose” Satterwhite is my unapologetic homage to Robert B. Parker’s Hawk. Named by his father for the first major league manager to write Jackie Robinson’s name on a lineup card, Goose grew up in the late, unlamented Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago’s South Side. He makes a living collecting things for people who lack legal means to do so. Goose reads two or three books a week and is in the midst of an endless process of gutting and rehabilitation an old house; he worships Norm Abrams as a god. In another book he leaves dinner with Forte to walk an elderly neighbor’s dog, yet “menace rose off him like heat from a parking lot, even when he smiled. Sometimes especially when he smiled.”

(Editor’s note: Mr. Satterwhite meant well, but Clyde Sukeforth was actually Jackie Robinson’s original big league manager.)

Goose answered on the first ring. We arranged to meet at my house, it being more or less on the way to Romeoville.
He beat me there, even after stopping at Mrs. T’s on Boughton Road for a pizza. We sat at my kitchen table with our coats unbuttoned, narfing pizza and drinking caffeine-free Cokes while we made up the plan.
“Not going to be the easiest place to be inconspicuous in,” Goose said between bites.
“You know it?” Goose had information on places that weren’t even open yet.
He shook his head while he swallowed. “Think about it. You a face Ellison not likely to forget. That means I go in. We be at a place called Crazy Joe’s in Romeoville. How many brothers you think hang there?”
“I could call Eddie Riefsnyder. He’d come, but I don’t think there’s time for him to get here.”
“Eddie a good man, but he smell like three shades of cop. I’ll go in, look around. You don’t hear from me in five minutes, come in and look for a high sign. Like you don’t know me.”
“Close enough to a plan for me.” I stood and put my plate in the sink. “Let’s go. I want to get there in time to scope things out, see how many exits there are.”
“Don’t I get to finish my sumptuous repast?”
“We’re pressed for time. Eat in the car.”
Goose closed the pizza box. “You flunked history in school, didn’t you?”
“What makes you think so?”
“Lincoln freed the slaves, honky.”
“All the thugs in the world, and I work with the sensitive one.”
“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
“When’s the last time anyone made you bleed?”
“Getting bled on count?”
“No. It has to be your own blood.”
“You got me there.” He paused to catch my eye. “This better not be the night.”

Monday, June 27, 2016

Keepers of the Flame

The Beloved Spouse™ and I watched Saturday Night Live a few weekends ago and were solidly unimpressed with the show. This is where it’s hip and groovy to say, “I remember SNL when it was funny.” I’m not going to do that because
  1. There are still people around (me, for instance) who remember when it debuted and can speak from experience about the caliber of the show over time, and not just from “When I started watching around 1993.” Hold that thought, Junior.
  2. It was always so.
Sturgeon’s Law says, “ninety percent of everything is crap.” Absolutely. Go back to the Golden Age of Anything: TV, movies, music, art, literature, dance, pipe fitting, sun bathing, breast augmentation surgery, you name it. We remember what’s good. The rest falls by the way.

Here are some examples, chosen by picking a year more or less at random. 1950 saw the release of what some consider the greatest film noir: Sunset Boulevard. (When I say “some,” I mean, “me,” though I am not alone in this assessment.) The Oscar for Best Picture went to All About Eve. Below are some of the other timeless gems released in 1950, with their iMDB descriptions:
  • The Flying Saucer. Both the CIA and KGB investigate UFOs in Alaska: friend or foe?
  • Prehistoric Women. Tigri and her stone-age girlfriends hate all men, but realizing they are a necessary evil, capture some for potential (strictly business, no recreation allowed) husbands.
  • Radar Secret Service. G-men track stolen Uranium-238 shipment using new radar technology; they also recruit the girlfriend of a gang member as an informant. Radar helps, but it takes an undercover blonde to really get the goods on criminal masterminds.
  • The Invisible Monster. Evil villain plots to take over the world using an army of invisible soldiers.
  • The Silver Bandit. Tycoon Van Fleet Stooglehammer, owner of the Green Valley silver mine, sends his mild-mannered, milquetoast bookkeeper out to investigate the robberies of his silver-wagons... (Editor’s Note: I swear on the heads of my grandchildren I did not make that up.)
Those are five that people remembered well enough to write even a brief description about, and rated in iMDB. How many others weren’t even that good? How many were so bad the studio didn’t bother to release them?

A few months ago SNL did a sketch about alien abduction. Kate MacKinnon had everyone
on stage breaking up; host Ryan Gosling was in tears. It’s a bit that should go into the 50th anniversary special when the time comes, along with the Killer Bees and Bass-O-Matic and Gumby and “I gotta have more cowbell” and whatever your personal favorite SNL sketch is. What I’m tempted to do sometime is to go back to the 1975 shows—or whichever year you like best—and watch all the sketches, not just the ones we all know and can recite lines from. I dare say that, while some years will have higher peaks, the percentage of gold to quartz is pretty close to the same from year to year.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Professional Courtesy

As fate would have it, the new deal with Down & Out Books to publish the Penns River series went down as I was finishing the fifth Nick Forte story, Bad Samaritan. The agreement with D&OB covers Penns Rive only, so I decided to see if my new cred might help Bad Sam to find a home instead of self-publishing right off the bat.

Before we go any further, I’m looking for a publisher, not an agent, though the comments below could apply to some agents just as much as they apply to some publishers. Some, in both cases; not all. It will be easy to decide to whom this essay refers, even without naming names. Just substitute “agent” for “publisher” if that’s where the process is currently breaking your balls.

The first thing I look for when submitting to a publisher is whether they want the kinds of books I write. That seems self-evident, but I have heard too often of people sending slasher novels to Harlequin or cat mysteries to Thuglit (rest in peace) or swashbuckling bodice-rippers to Hard Case. Extreme examples, but we all know it happens. Don’t be that guy.

Then I check to see if the outlet I’m looking at is currently accepting submissions. Entering the slush pile is enough of a pain in the ass as it is. No need to make it harder. This should also be self-evident, but it’s a safe bet people who don’t check the publisher’s genres of choice don’t look here, either.

The third thing I look for—even before who their other authors are or their submission guidelines—is whether the publisher will get back to me even if they don’t want the book. It becomes more common all the time for publishers (and agents) to say things like, “If you haven’t heard back from us in 90 days, we’re not interested.” That’s bullshit. I will do anyone with such a policy the courtesy of not hearing from me at all, thus not adding to their apparently overwhelming backlog. You’re welcome.

Why am I such a hardass about this? It’s not because I don’t know small houses are primarily labors of love with small staffs and tight budgets. They are. No argument. Guess what? Nothing is more of a labor of love with a small staff and tight (read: no) budget than the actual writing of the book. It comes down to one thing: professional respect. It the author can spend a year or more writing a book and following the publisher’s sometimes arcane submission guidelines, the publisher can at the very least reject that book, especially in these days of e-mail submissions.

An e-mail response is essentially free. There is no paper, no envelope, nor printer ink nor toner. You don’t even have to type the damn things up. Here are the steps for a publisher that uses Microsoft Office with Outlook or Mail tied into Word as the word processor:
  1. Create Auto Text entries for however many form e-mails you might want to send, depending on how cold/realistic you want to be to the author. (You do this once, way ahead of time, and can re-use them as often as you wish.)
  2. On the submission e-mail, click Reply.
  3. Enter the designation you used for the Auto text entry. This can be as short as a single character no matter how long the reply.
  4. Press F3.
  5. Click Send.
Boom! Done.

If your operation cannot afford Office and is using some cloud-based word processor and G-Mail or Yahoo (which is fine, no slur intended), create a document with the reply or replies you wish to send. They’re only likely to be a brief paragraph each, so it’s not going to take long. I do this at work all the time for frequently sent responses: “The training in question was assigned at the behest of [organization redacted]. Please contact [name redacted] with any questions.” Then the rejection steps are as follows:
  1. Triple click the paragraph. (Or click Ctrl-A to select the entire document if you only have one reply.)
  2. Press Ctrl-C.
  3. Press Alt-Tab to switch to the submission e-mail.
  4. Click Reply.
  5. Press Ctrl-V.
  6. Click Send.
Boom! Done.

I realize one can’t knock out more than about ten a minute like that, but maybe you’re in the wrong line of work if your budgets for time and money are too tight to allow for that minimal effort.

The longer I’m in and around the publishing business, the stronger I feel it’s just like pretty much everything else: you get to put up with as much bullshit as others think you’re willing to put up with. Publishers treat authors like this because the publisher knows the author will stand for it. It’s not like we have anyplace else to go, right?

That’s not exactly true. There are publishers (and agents) who treat potential partners better than this. There’s also self-publishing. We’ve brought on this “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” treatment ourselves. Only we can stop it.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Fighting for the Full Range of Expression

Authors have a responsibility to enhance and enlarge the language. While it is true that most additions to the language are organic (and shit), etymologists need a fixed point where they can say “this is the first known use of this word.” While it’s safe to say few writers actually “invent” a word, we’re still the source material that will show up in the OED one day.

That said, I’d like to argue for a couple of phrases that, while not new, have been woefully underutilized. I’m not advocating “taking them back” as Randall did in Clerks 2, but in giving them some breathing room, unencumbered by small-mindedness of polite conversation that denies these potentially valuable phrases the full range of their expressive capabilities.

Example One: “Like/as a bastard.”
George V. Higgins liked this phrase, which is as good a place to start as any. Eddie Coyle said having his fingers broken “hurt like a bastard,” which is probably the most common usage for the term. Higgins shows some of the potential for the term later in the book, when Eddie, desperate to cut a deal to keep himself out of prison, wants the fed he’s been stooling for to tell the judge how Eddie has been “helping his Uncle like a bastard.”

That’s the glory of this simple phrase: it can serve as an adverb to show more than the standard definition of any verb without resorting to the vapidness “very” has attached to adjectives.

Looking for lifelike conversation? This is how men speak to each other:

“How’s the weather?”
“Snowing like a bastard.”
“How are the roads?”
“Slick as a bastard.”
“Think we should stay home?”
“Hell no. I’m hungry as a bastard.”
“Want to go to Mulligan’s?”
“Why? Their service is slow as a bastard.”

See? Pithy yet elegant, and it removes the need to look for a New Yorker-sounding construct that will send your reader to a dictionary, thus ruining the dream-like state induced by the rest of your otherwise deathless prose.

Example Two: “Breaking balls.”
To be fair, “breaking balls” already has a full and rewarding existence in various contexts. It has the rare quality to be both complimentary and insulting as few other words or phrases this side of “fuck” can pull off. To wit:

“Where have you been?”
“Down the bar breaking balls with Dave.”

“How’s Dave?”
“All that cocksucker does is break my balls.”

The minions of political correctness have unfairly limited this fine phrase’s gifts by forcing it to be gender-specific. Who are we to deny women the (sometimes dubious) privilege of having their balls broken? Women don’t have balls, you say? I am an artist, sir. The purpose of my life is to transcend he limitations of language through metaphorical exploration.

Witness the following anecdote: The Lone Sibling has come to visit me on the weekend of my fiftieth birthday. The Beloved Spouse was not yet even the Beloved Spousal Equivalent. She was still in the “Woman Who Shows Great Potential” phase. The Lone Sibling bought lunch; I paid for chicken wings for during the football game. (My birthday falls during the NFL’s Divisional Playoff weekend.) This happened around halftime of the late afternoon game:

Woman Who Shows Great Potential: Anyone else hungry? (To me.) You want to heat up the wings?
Me: Damn, woman. He bought lunch. I paid for the wings. Would it break your balls to turn on the oven?

(Note: I said this with the utmost affection. She turned on the oven, we all ate wings, and the bond that connects us to this day was set a little more securely. Go ahead. Scoff. We’re happy.)

As a writer—particularly a writer of crime fiction—it offends me when the delicate sensitivities of people unnaturally prone to the vapors place artificial limits on any form of expression. English is a beautiful, vibrant, and constantly growing language. To deny it—and us—the full range of expression not only damages us all on some level, it’s breaking my balls like a bastard.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Twenty Questions With Patti Abbott

Patricia Abbott is the author of more than 150 short stories that have appeared in print and online publications. She won the Derringer Award in 2008 for her story "My Hero." She is the co-editor of the e-anthology Discount Noir. Collections of her stories Monkey Justice and Other Stories and Home Invasion were published by Snubnose Press.

In 2015, Polis Books published the novel Concrete Angel and in 2016, Shot in Detroit.

You can find her blog at

That’s what Amazon has to say about Patti Abbott. Thin gruel. What it leaves out is the precision and attention to detail that mark everything she writes. Not to mention her influence on other writers through her blog, both through the exposure given and the good examples she provides. I sincerely doubt I would be published today were it not for the skills I learned from participating in her flash fiction challenges, which taught me not only to take a prompt I would not have thought of and make it my own, but also how to ruthlessly cut writing I thought was already tight and make it better.

Patti’s newest novel is Shot in Detroit, which drops tomorrow from Polis Books

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Shot in Detroit.
Patti Abbott: Shot in Detroit is the story of a female photographer, nearing forty, who wants to find a project that is successful artistically, financially, and most of all in terms of representing what's going on in Detroit circa 2011. When her mortician boyfriend asks her to photograph the body of a young black man who's being shipped back to the UK, she believes she has found her subject.

OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
PA: There was a female photographer who took pictures of the dead through a mortician's cooperation in Harlem. She was quite successful with her project, even getting a feature piece in the New York Times, a gallery show, a book deal. I was looking for an idea I could use to explore the deaths of black men going on in Detroit at that time (around 2007) and this seemed like a vehicle for doing it. I, of course, changed everything about the story except for this original concept. I also wanted to explore the special sort of narcissism that an artist needs to succeed.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Shot in Detroit, start to finish?
PA: That's hard to say because I wrote it, and then rewrote it, and then rewrote it. My original story had Violet Hart a lot more promiscuous, a lot more callous about what she was up to. Over time, I realized that only a sociopath could be that cavalier about her work (and her life) and so I moderated both. I would say two to three years.

OBAAT: Where did Violet Hart come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
PA: She's not very much like me in most ways. She is fiercely independent and I am not. She's not afraid to be unlikable, which I am. She's a loner, which I am certainly not. I based her on several successful female artists, writers that I know. Women who are not afraid to put their personal lives aside mostly to pursue their dream. I think we are alike in that we are using, but hopefully not exploiting, the people of Detroit in a way that might be seen as decorous.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Shot in Detroit set and why was this time and place chosen?
PA: SID is set around 2011. That was when I started rewriting it and I kept it set there because I wanted it to take place at the time when Detroit was at its lowest point financially. Before developers and artists and musicians started showing up for its cheap rents. Also at a time when the Sunday supplement listing foreclosures was the thickest section of the local newspaper.

OBAAT: How did Shot in Detroit come to be published?
PA: Polis Books offered me a two-book deal two years ago after Angry Robot pulled out. SID had actually been written first [before Concrete Angel] but it was definitely the more iffy project. Would people accept a prickly, often selfish, woman like Violet Hart? In CA, Christine balances her mother's narcissism. In SID, there is no character with as large a role as Christine to give readers someone more likable. I had to rely on three or four men to do the job.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
PA: I like to read stories about people at a crossroad. About people trying to decide how to go forward with their secret desires, how to cope with their troubles. I like stories about people at the bottom or at least below the middle economically. My favorite writers include: Alice Munro, Joy Williams, Charlie Baxter, Anne Tyler, Stewart O'Nan, Laura Lippman, Tana French, Ken Bruen, Lorrie Moore, William Trevor, Adrian McKinty, Ann Beattie, Margaret Millar, Elizabeth Xansay Holding, Ross Macdonald, Muriel Spark, Joe Lansdale, Larry Brown, Larry Watson. So many more.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
PA: A course I signed up for when I returned to college in the nineties on the American Indian had too large of a reading list to fit in with my work obligations. A poetry workshop met at the same time and I had always harbored some ideas about trying my hand at writing. Since childhood, I told myself stories to put myself to sleep so I had a large backlist. I started with poetry in that class but moved on when a wise editor told me I was really writing stories not poems.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
PA: Beats me. It was what I read most often, and what interested me when I picked up a pen. Although my earliest stories were more literary than later ones, most had a criminal or suspense element. It gave me a nail to hang the writing on.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
PA: Editing. I love to edit. I hate getting the bare bones down but I love polishing them, making them better, adding the middle and base notes. (Editor’s Note: Ah. A kindred spirit.)

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
PA: Claude Chabrol, the director. I love the way he tells a story. I love the way the French tell stories in general. They love the minutia of life as do I. Big moments elude me--it's the small ones I can linger over longest. The paintings of Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. The stories of Alice Munro.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
PA: Sadly, I am still a pantser. I am getting better though. I have an entire story in my head right now. A woman I met waiting for my plane in Krakow told it to me. How generous although she will never realize it.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
PA: I constantly edit. I start from the beginning every day with a short story. With the longer pieces I did that as much as I could until it became ridiculous. I always feel better when I am improving what is already on a page.

OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to lie happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What are you looking for in an ending: “happy” or “satisfying?”
PA: I am looking for an ending that seems appropriate to the story. Best is when it's a bit of a surprise but entirely right for what's gone before it. Sometimes that works out to be happy, sometimes funny, and sometimes sad. I certainly don't require happy endings because they usually don't feel fitting to me. None of the writers I listed above are known for a happy ending. People like me—semi-depressed most of the time—find it hard to see a happy ending ahead.

OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
PA: This is going to sound odd, but since I have been writing in my head for myself since age 7, I think I am my intended audience. That is probably a weakness. I have quirky tastes in what I read so I am probably writing quirky stories.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
PA: Read. Not an original piece of advice but I was always amazed at the students in classes I took who had read so little. Their frame of reference was so small. Also stay in the chair. I have to relearn that now myself.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
PA: Character is far and away the most important to me. When people give me their ideas for a story, they are always a concept or a plot so I can seldom use them. Tone would be next. It doesn't work if I don't get the tone or "voice" right. The rest alter in importance. On occasion, a setting can be critical.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
PA: Stewart O'Nan's Last Night at the Lobster. It is so succinct, so sad, so full of character. Second: Montana: 1948 by Larry Watson. Third: Winter's Bone, Daniel Woodrell. Same reasons for all of them. These writers create characters that chill you to the bone. Both their heroes and their villains. (Editor’s Note: Patti is the second person of taste to mention Last Night at the Lobster to me in the past several weeks. Looms like I’m going to have to find that one. I’m already all in on Winter’s Bone and Woodrell.)

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
PA: Movies, movies, movies.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
PA: That Polish woman in Krakow is haunting me. Can't wait to write it.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Dangerous Lesson: Jeanne Archambeault

Regular reader of this blog—both of you—know I am not above stealing an idea from anyone, especially when the person from whom I am appropriating is smarter than I am. (Not that this limits my range of targets) Patti Abbott has been providing backstories of characters from her new book, Shot in Detroit, as a way of giving readers some insights into the book through them. Writing up backstories for key characters is too much like work; you should know me better than that by now. The idea of letting the character carry the promotional ball a little does appeal to me. With that in mind, today marks the first in a series of excerpts from my new book, A Dangerous Lesson. Each will feature a character from the book, with a brief into, and 500 – 800 words from the book where that character figures prominently. I hope you enjoy them. I also hope you buy the book. (Those two hopes compete for primacy in my Pantheon of Hopes™ on a regular basis.)

Today’s character is Jeanne Archambeault. Her family fled France ahead of the Nazis and came to America, where she married another refugee who became wealthy through the stock market. Jeanne has asked detective Nick Forte to look into her granddaughter’s new suitor, who Jeanne finds less than exemplary.

“I must explain something of my granddaughter to you. She is my only family left alive. Her mother was an only child, married to this horrible Bosch.”
“Her father is German?”
“American, but of German blood. Vandenbusch.” She said the name as though it pained her to hear it but tasted too bad to keep in her mouth.
“Vandenbusch actually sounds Dutch to me.”
“Dutch? Perhaps. Not as if there is such a difference.” Even I realized it would be impolitic to point out that the surviving residents of Rotterdam might disagree. At least not until I had a signed contract. “He was a small man. An uncultured man. He could not distinguish Monet from Picasso.”
Heathen. Even I knew Monet was French and Picasso was…not French. Italian, maybe. Or Spanish. I nodded like I understood what a burden Vandenbusch must have been to someone of Jeanne’s refinement.
“The man was a shopkeeper. He was the manager – not the owner, mind you – of what you Americans call a hardware store.” Jeanne made it sound as though marrying a crack whore would make him a social climber. “He defined bourgeois. My Chloe was not meant for such a life, to be taken so far from what Henri and I built for her.”
“Was she happy?”
“She had not time to be happy. This – Dutch, as you say – gave her a child before the sacrament. They were married in time to avoid the infamy of a bastard, but Henri and I made them know they were no longer welcome here.” A pause for tea and a visible stiffening of her resolve. “Chloe and he were killed in an automobile accident when the child was but an infant. I have raised her as my own since then. It will be twenty years in Septembre.”
An idea of why I was there sparked far enough back in my mind not to disturb the conversation. “Your granddaughter. Does she have a name?”
Jeanne almost spoke before remembering to glare at my insolence. “The child’s name is Jeannine.” Jeanne beat me to my next comment. “It was a bald attempt to win my favor. A boy would likely have been named Henry.”
Nothing in that for me. I nodded to concede the point.
Jeanne said, “Jeannine has become involved with a man.”
“James Smith, fortune-seeking gigolo, right?”
Jeanne paused until she remembered she had mentioned Smith’s name herself. “Yes, James Smith. I believe his interest in Jeannine to be purely financial.”
“What makes you think so?”
“Jeannine is not an attractive girl.” Looking at Jeanne, I was shocked – shocked! – to think any female descendent would be unattractive. I suppressed my amazement. “Also she is not intelligent. Do not misunderstand me. I do not say she is stupid. Only she does not recognize that men are attracted more to her inheritance than to her charms.”
All of my grandparents were dead. Just as well, if this was how they talked about me behind my back. “Love is unpredictable. Maybe he sees something you don’t.”
“He knows her for only three months. I have known her all her life. I love her as a grandmother and mother, as well. I have no illusions.”
“What do you want me to do, Ms. Archambeault? I won’t run him off for you.”
“Is that why you think you are here? To be the strong arm? Tres gauche. I am very capable of getting vermin from my own home.” She coughed liquidly from deep in her chest and dabbed at her mouth with a handkerchief to catch what I guessed were pieces of lung. “What I cannot do, what I need you for, is to tell me if he should be…run off, as you say.”
“Sounds like your mind is pretty well made up.”
“I am trying to keep my mind open. I must confess it will not take much to convince me this Smith is unsuitable. If that is so, I will take whatever action is necessary.”
“That’s not always as easy as it sounds. Has it occurred to you that trying to force them apart may only pull them together?”

Jeanne’s eyes focused on me, brows drawn together. “I am a woman. I will handle the affairs of the heart. You will find out for me if I must do any handling. You are the detective, no?”

Monday, June 6, 2016

Movies Since Last Time

It’s been a while and they’re backing up, so let’s get right to it.

Papillon (1973). I hadn’t seen this one in years and was delighted in how well it held up.
How much of it is true is an open question—even the real Papillon admitted he made up some stuff—but that doesn’t remove any of the power or poignancy. Director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, The Boys From Brazil) doesn’t overplay anything here, lets his story and actors allow you to come to your own conclusions. This is Steve McQueen’s finest performance. He doesn’t get to rely on his cool to carry him and rises to the occasion. Dustin Hoffman is excellent, as always. Look for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in a cameo as the camp commandant.

The Martian (2015). There’s something about Ridley Scott. I’m not much of a science fiction
fan, unless he makes the movie. There’s Alien (Gothic sci-fi), Blade Runner (noir sci-fi), and now The Martian, which is as entertaining a science fiction movie as one is likely find. First off, who doesn’t love Matt Damon? Everyone wants to see him rescued, and that fact he plays such a well-developed character is another plus. (Not to mention he does it so well.) The ending seemed a bit much for me (the book handles it better), but even then it was done so well I didn’t mind. Recommended for everyone, regardless of tastes.

The Last Seduction (1994). Linda Fiorentino is one cold bitch. I kept waiting for one more
twist at the end and still can’t decide if I’m glad or disappointed I didn’t get it. (It would be a spoiler to say anything more.) She’s as femme fatale as it gets and Barbara Stanwyck and Kathleen Turner together were never as ruthless.

Spotlight (2015). As good as I’d hoped. I had more to say about it here.

The Big Short (2015). As good as Spotlight but in a completely different way. Director Adam
McKay breaks the fourth wall, adds unexpected humor, and generally does to the financial collapse of 2008 what Bennett Miller did for Moneyball. Michael Lewis wrote the original source material for each. Coincidence. Maybe, but probably not. Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling led a perfect cast. If you’re not pissed by the end of this movie, you make too much money.

Pawn Sacrifice (2014). A wonderful film on multiple levels. Director Edward Zwick uses the
life of chess savant Bobby Fischer to show how government made pawns of people during the Cold War, the incredible pressure of being a child prodigy, America’s underlying inferiority complex, and the risks of demonizing one’s opponents. Tobey Maguire is superb as Fischer, and Liev Schreiber shows once again the artistry of his acting subtlety. His work as Boris Spassky at the conclusion of Game Six in the famous Reykjavik match is already one of my favorite movie scenes.

Minions (2015) Sometimes a little mindless, harmless entertainment is called for. Reminded me of when The Sole Heir was but a bairn and I’d take her to the movies.

Desperado (1995) The Beloved Spouse summed it up best: “It’s every thirteen-year-old boy’s wet dream. Guitar cases that shoot and rockets and getting to fuck Salma Hayek.” Just stupid. Except maybe for the Salam Hayek part.

The Nice Guys (2016). Great fun. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling share the chemistry and
timing to make this work and director Shane Black has already shown his deft touch with this type of film in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Angourie Rice steals all her scenes as Gosling’s daughter, Holly. Yes, dear, they are the world worst detectives, but they’re not just “make fun of them” stupid. They’re greatest sin is not being as smart as they think they are, and they do have their moments. Laughter covers the few plot conveniences. One of the few movies I have ever seen where I can safely say a sequel might be welcome.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Best Reads for May

Tommy Red, Charlie Stella. As good as any of his books. Maybe better. I had more to say a few weeks ago.

What Do You Care What Other People Think? Richard Feynman. I don’t go in much for hero worship, but if I could spend a few hours talking with anyone, alive or dead, I’d pick Richard Feynman. His attitude toward life and learning and how to conduct himself seems to me to be pretty much the way to live. Fascinating in every way imaginable. This is the book where he discusses his work on the Rogers Commission that investigated the Challenger disaster and the insights he unveils through that are, as always, more than expected, no matter how much you expected.

The Digger’s Game, George V. Higgins. I can see why Higgins isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even more dialog-driven than The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Digger tells the reader nothing and shows damn little. You pick everything up from listening to conversations to piece things together for yourself. This is much like what it must have been like for Higgins as a prosecutor listening to wiretaps. It requires investment on the reader’s part—the dialog is so oblique in places it’s almost obtuse—but the payoff is always there. Writers who want to improve their dialog skills need to read every Higgins book they can find, whether they like his style or not, just to understand what he’s doing.

The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler. It’s been a while since I came back to this one. It’s Chandler’s masterpiece and never fails to remind me why I feel in love with his writing. My appreciation of Chandler as a person diminishes a little every time I learn more about him, but when his writing was good, no one was ever better.