Monday, February 26, 2018

Violence Against Women

Violence against women has been in the news lately. Not that it’s new; men have likely been abusing women since before there was language to describe it. A lot of frustration and anger overflowed its dam after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, which were revelations only to those outside of Hollywood, where Weinstein’s predatory behavior was an open secret, making a bad situation even worse.

This is a writing blog, so I’m not going to discuss the Right or Wrong or the politics of it. Franky, I don’t see what there is to discuss in the Right vs. Wrong arena, which means I don’t understand why it’s a political issue at all, but that’s me. We’re still not going there.

But this is a writing blog, and writers have things to answer for here. I’m not talking about any sexual transgressions writers may have committed themselves, though I’m sure there are many. I’m talking about our attitudes toward it, and there’s no way to discuss that without discussing the attitudes of readers.

Placing a woman in jeopardy is a quick and easy way to ratchet up tension in a story, as women are the more vulnerable members of society. (Children and the elderly even more so, but they are so vulnerable writers go there at their own risk.) It’s an effective and legitimate technique when used in moderation and as an organic part of the story. Women are in jeopardy. A lot. To ignore this fact is to write unrealistic fiction.

The problem comes when the author too often uses a threatened woman in this manner, or reaches outside the logical construct of the story to do it. Then it’s cheating. There are many other ways to create tension, but you have to work a little more than if you just tie Pauline to the railroad tracks and fire up the engine. To consider it acceptable as a routine device to get readers—or viewers—on the edges of their seats is a tacit acknowledgement that it’s accepted in society, or we wouldn’t see it so much relative to the use of children, the elderly, or pets. (Dear God, don’t hurt a pet.)

I’ve written two books where violence against women—or the threat of it—were the focus. A Dangerous Lesson was my serial killer novel and I’ll never write another. I was noodling around with an idea I won’t describe here because it gives away the ending and I know several of you haven’t read the book yet, and having a serial killer made sense. I’m not fan of serial killer stories, but I was curious as a writer, so I went for it. I think the book works for what it is, but it is my least favorite.

The current book, Bad Samaritan, deals with crimes against women in two different ways. Soccer mom Becky Tuttle is also steamy romance writer Desiree d’Arnaud. Becky goes to extraordinary lengths to keep her personas separate, even hiring an actress to make personal appearances as Desiree. Still, someone figures out her ruse and sends letters that, while not overtly threatening, are certainly disconcerting, if only because he knows who she is and where she lives.

Researching Bad Sam led me to the primary apologists for crimes against women, men’s rights advocates. While I was uncomfortable writing A Dangerous Lesson I felt like I needed a shower every time I spent more than twenty minutes looking into these evolutionary cul-de-sac degenerate motherfuckers. (Feel free to pass that along. Any day one of them has a harsh word to say about me is a good one.)

As the father of a daughter I became much more sensitive to the multiple threats women face about 27 years ago. Researching the MRAs brought the lesson home. The recent #metoo revelations are the icing on the shitcake. If authors want to be taken seriously as coming down against such behavior they must be sure not to risk normalizing it. If you’re going to place a woman in danger, don’t do it just because she’s a woman. Make her someone another character decided needed to go, like any man might be. If you are going to place her in jeopardy solely because of her gender, do it for a reason other than cheap suspense. Give your readers something disturbing to think about after they finish the book.

Readers are not blameless. These things get written because publishers know people will read them. If you would not want to see a woman terrorized then don’t read about it just for the “entertainment” value. It says something about you, and what it says isn’t flattering.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A Conversation With E.A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen, Editors of The Night of the Flood

The Night of the Flood is one of the more eagerly anticipated anthologies to come out in some time, dropping early next month from Down & Out Books. With contributors including E.A. Aymar, Rob Brunet, Sarah M. Chen, Angel Luis Col√≥n, Hilary Davidson, Mark Edwards, Gwen Florio, Elizabeth Heiter, J.J. Hensley, Jennifer Hillier, Shannon Kirk, Jenny Milchman, Alan Orloff, and Wendy Tyson, it’s a…well, let’s just have the two driving forces behind it tell you about it: the editors, Sarah M. Chen and E.A. Aymar

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Night of the Flood.
Sarah M. Chen: It’s a novel-in-stories told from fourteen different perspectives that centers around one night of chaos in Everton, a small fictional Pennsylvania town. It all begins when the first female in modern times is executed in Pennsylvania. This sets off a group of passionate female activists to blow up the town’s dam in protest. What follows is an opportunity for crooks and killers to wreak havoc on the town while with some folks, it’s all about survival.
E.A. Aymar: Sarah couldn’t be more wrong. < Reviews her answer> Oh no, that’s right. She’s right.

And that, my friends, was a live example of how Sarah and I work together as editors. Ta-da.

OBAAT: As a Pennsylvania native myself, I have to ask: Why Pennsylvania? And what part of Pennsylvania is Everton in?
SMC: I was brought in after Pennsylvania was decided upon so had no say in it (because I would have definitely championed SoCal!). Then when I was trying to plan my character's route as she drives from New Jersey to Indiana (she's a reluctant truck driver), I needed more of an exact location so I could name specific highways and interstates. This was central to my story. We settled on a small town south of Pittsburgh near the Monongahela River. I wrote New Eagle in my notes after Ed and I had our first phone pow wow so that must be the town. I never argue with my notes.
EAA: We picked Pennsylvania because we needed the worst state we could think of and Ohio was taken. Ha ha, just kidding; obviously, Arizona is the worst state. On a serious note, Pennsylvania made sense both logistically and artistically – J.J. Hensley and Wendy Tyson both lived in PA (as does Tom Sweterlitsch, who was originally going to be involved), and the state is close to a number of the other contributors. That was important for local familiarity and if we wanted to do some sort of launch event in PA. And Pennsylvania is one of those states like New York or Virginia, where you have that discordant mix of urban and rural, and that environment gave us the freedom to draw from any number of approaches for our characters.

But SoCal was never an option.

OBAAT: How did you two get together on The Night of the Flood? Who had the idea first?
EAA: Actually, JJ. Hensley had the idea first. J.J. works with a bunch of us on ITW’s The Thrill Begins, and he had the idea of everyone putting together a shared-theme anthology. We screwed around with the concept and it eventually turned into The Night of the Flood. Then we needed to make the project a bit longer, so we brought in some friends.
SMC: I was brought in later by Ed. Thanks, Ed!

OBAAT: “We screwed around with the concept and it eventually turned into The Night of the Flood” is kind of vague. What sort of iterations did it go through?
SMC: Dana is totally looking right at you, Ed.

EAA: J.J.'s original suggestion incorporated characters from each writer's work, sort of similar in concept to the Match Up anthology that ITW published. But there were contractual concerns with that, as well as issues like not every writer has a series (in the end, I think J.J. and Angel Luis Colon were the only writers to incorporate characters who have appeared in their other work). I liked the idea of a cataclysmic event that every writer has to respond to and, when this book was discussed, Trumpism was on the rise and anger in the country was palpable. We ended up tapping into that anger, specifically in the town's riots and, conversely, (although this was well ahead of the Women's March and the #MeToo movement) in the sense that a group of women have simply been pushed too far. We had a firm sense of the novel's conflict, and an intentionally soft approach to how each writer was going to address it. We didn't dictate how the flood and riots would play out – that happened organically. And Jennifer Hillier's epilogue does a fantastic job of wrapping the story up.

OBAAT: That’s an impressive roster of contributors. How did you decide who to ask?
EAA: We had nine from The Thrill Begins, and when we decided to ask more, we just
E.A. Aymar (Photo courtesy of E.A. Aymar)
tossed some names around. Sarah was the first person we asked – everyone in TTB knows her and likes her personally, and respects her writing tons. And the four others (Alan Orloff, Hilary Davidson, Angel Luis Colon and Mark Edwards) each has something unique in their voice and varied in their style. Not everyone knew everyone, but we got a good sense of each other through collaboration.
SMC: It was a collaborative effort amongst all of us. <> Awww, OK, Ed’s answer is way better. Mine sucks. Get rid of it.

OBAAT: Given the caliber of writers involved in The Night of the Flood, how did you decide who got which part of the night? Was there any pushback from writers who wanted a different slot? How much direction did each writer receive about their slot?
SMC: There was a Google doc we all shared and worked off of. Each writer chose an hour on the timeline and sketched in their story idea. There were a few of us who couldn’t make up their mind between 4am and 11pm. (OK, maybe that was just me.)
E.A. Aymar arriving at interview site.
EAA: And, to be honest, a lot of it was luck. Nobody’s story was problematic. Everyone did what they wanted, and it ended up working perfectly. People played off each other really well. For me and Sarah, that made our job a lot easier.

OBAAT: So what exactly was your job? Fourteen talented writers write fourteen stories around a common theme. I’m sure discerning readers want to know, what does an editor do in a situation like this?
SMC: Ed and I talked at length over the phone after reading all the stories. This was our first round of edits. We wanted to be sure all the stories were consistent across the board in terms of landmarks, business names, how high the water had risen at what time, whether it was a full moon or half moon, and character names / descriptions if they appeared in more than one story. Stuff like that. We also went over things like confusing plot points or if something needed more development which wasn't really as much of an issue. Mostly, we needed to ensure that we were all on the same page with setting and story concept set-up. And of course, my favorite: proofreading! Seriously, I love proofreading.
EAA: I'd just add that Sarah has a ferocious memory for detail and that was so important when it came to things like street names, landmarks, and characters. I think Sarah and I did a good job of catching things the other might have missed, which is really the necessity of a good editor for an integrated anthology. Chris Rhatigan, who edited the book for Down and Out, was also a tremendous help and we're all indebted to him. But, truthfully, the benefit of working with good writers is that they're hard on themselves and catch a lot of their own errors. We lucked out with this group.

On the way out, Sarah pulled away to make the following comment:
I really enjoyed working with Ed. I think we make a good team. The same goes for everyone involved in this anthology. I feel so lucky and grateful that this talented group of writers brought me on board. They're awesome to work with and I've had a blast. Also, the Down & Out crew has been fantastic as well. They do so much for us.

I guess that was three things I added. Thanks, Dana!

And then Ed returned her dog unharmed.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Conversation With Editor Rachel Peck

Fledgling writers—and more than a few more experienced writers—often wonder what an editor can do for them. Do they need one? What kind of editing do they need? What do the different terms for editing even mean? They’re legitimate questions and more than once I wished I had good answers.

Well now I do.

Rachel Peck is the founder of Full Spectrum Editing, as well as a companion voice-over service called Rachel Reads. Rachel has a BS in Linguistics from Georgetown University and her clients have included the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC),
Planning Research Corporation (PRC), Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), Electronic  Data Systems (EDS), Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), DXC Technology.

She works with her husband, Michael Peck, who writes for The National Interest, Politico, Foreign Policy, Forbes, Forward, Aerospace America and others.

Rachel was kind enough to stop by today and answer questions I think will be of interest to many writers.

One Bite at a Time: Rachel, tell us a little about Full Spectrum Editing.
Rachel Peck: Full Spectrum Editing aims to provide "one-stop shopping" for writers. It includes the full spectrum of services from proofreading to copyediting to substantive editing to writing and rewriting.

OBAAT: Let’s break that down a little for some of our readers who might be wondering what editing assistance they might need. What’s the difference between copyediting and substantive editing? Between substantive editing and writing and rewriting?
RP: This can vary somewhat depending on whom you ask, but basically, copyediting involves changes that have to do with accuracy and style and do not involve close collaboration with the writer. Examples are spelling, grammar, missed words, misused words, and following a style guide such as Associated Press or Chicago. When I say there is not close collaboration with the writer, the copyeditor does not need to check in with the writer when changing "can" to "may" or "hone in on" to "home in on," because one is correct and one is incorrect. Likewise, a style guide dictates whether or not to use serial commas and when to hyphenate words.

Substantive editing, often called content editing, involves changes to wording and organization and is done in close collaboration with the writer. Examples include eliminating wordiness, moving sentences and paragraphs around for more logical flow, that kind of thing. Or, the editor may just note problems he or she sees with suggestions for fixing them.

That said, the copyediting and substantive editing can overlap depending on the particular situation. A writer might give a copyeditor latitude to fix wordiness, or to suggest organizational changes, for instance. With Track Changes and other mark-up features and the paradigm shifts occurring in the writing and publishing world, roles and expectations are changing, too.

And substantive editing can and does overlap with rewriting. One way in which I would say they differ, which may be subtle, is, for example, changing the type of writing. For instance, a marketing company might want a press release turned into an article suitable for shopping out to various publications. The article would be written in a very different way with a different slant, possibly for a different audience.

Writing involves taking an idea or concept with some direction as to tone, audience, and so forth, and creating an original piece.

OBAAT: What do you find the most challenging thing about working as an editor?
RP: Arriving at a mutual understanding with the writer as to exactly what level of editing he or she wants (or helping him/her figure that out; often writers are not aware of all their options) and not going beyond one's remit. Ultimately the writer, not the editor, owns the written piece. The editor's job is to help the writer express his/her vision clearly, correctly, and readably. Again, the writer and editor must agree up front on what the writer expects and the latitude given to the editor.

OBAAT: I’m happy to hear you say that. I’ve never worked with an editor at the developmental phase of a book and fledgling writers sometimes come to me asking if they need an editor. To me, if they’re asking, there’s a good chance they do, but too many I see go seeking an editor hat in hand, half afraid to stand up for their vision of their own book. I always ask them two things: whose name will be on the cover? And who’s paying who? Or whom? (I can use an editor myself here.) How much back and forth is there when you work with a writer who has a distinctive style or voice?
RP: The amount of back and forth will depend a lot on what stage the written piece is at and what he/she wants me to do. In general, there should be enough back and forth that the writer is aware of the editor's direction and further communication can take place. This will be the case regardless of distinctive style or voice.

To me the important question when a writer has a distinctive style or voice is: How does an editor give suggestions for improvement without interfering with the writer's voice?

By being as vague as possible. (Wait, what?!?) Instead of telling the writer what to do or how to do it, I prefer to ask questions and make comments for the writer to respond to. To point out something that left me confused or wanting more information. It is up to the writer decide how (or if) he/she will change the manuscript. Of course, the writer certainly can ask for suggestions and an editor should be prepared to give them.

Examples could include:

What is the character thinking or feeling at this moment? (There are quite a few ways the writer can fix this.)

This chapter/page/paragraph interrupts the flow of a tense part of the piece. Could this same information go elsewhere? (The writer might decide to move or delete.)

The couple is on their way to meet his parents for the first time, but I need a little backstory. How long have they been dating/together, what has he told her about them, how is she feeling about the impending meeting, etc.

I'm not sure how this interlude relates to the text before and after it, or how it adds to the story. I need more information. (Writer may decide to delete, give backstory, add more information, here or earlier.)

Hero's action and described mental state don't seem to match.

This character doesn't seem to have much impact on the plot. How would the story be different without him/her? (Writer may decide to flesh out character more or remove character.)

You want to help put the writer in the reader's shoes. The writer knows everything about his characters, their motivations and plans, making it easy to leave out or confusingly place information the reader needs or that will enhance the reader's experience. Often, a reader may feel lost, irritated, unconvinced, bored, etc. The editor can help the writer spot and resolve potential reader problems.

OBAAT: What should an author keep in mind before coming to you that will allow you to provide the most benefit?
RP: Determine what it is you want the editor to do. Know your weak points. What would bring the most benefit to your written piece? What stage is your writing at? If it is at an early stage, perhaps a first draft, you might benefit most from a substantive edit. If the writing is past that stage and you are happy with organization, flow, and wording, you would probably benefit most from a copy edit.

OBAAT: You also have a voice-over service, Rachel Reads. What kinds of things are you looking for?
RP: The world of voice over narration covers a lot of different things---audio books, commercials, videos, movies, distance training and education (such as e-learning and computer-based training), interactive voice response (IVR), and video games. There are probably more I haven't mentioned. At this point, I'm primarily looking for short reads, which means commercial, educational, and short stories or very young children's books, which are also short. In the future, I hope to do full-length audio books.

OBAAT: I find many writers do themselves a disservice when reading in public because, quite frankly, they stink at it. A public reading is a performance and must be approached that way, though stopping well short of scenery chewing. You have to read the words of others and make them convincing. What are some of the things you do to prepare to record a story?
RP: Reading the story is just the beginning. I ask myself, What is the author trying to convey with this character? How is the character described in the story? How can my reading help to convey that? Pitch, inflection, expression, tone, accent if appropriate. Then comes practice and more practice. I want to be familiar enough with the text to read it smoothly, without hesitation or mispronounced words. This is practice before recording. Next, recording and listening to several practice runs helps me nail down the best delivery. It's like acting, only with a reset button when you fluff your lines.

Interested? Want more information? Here’s how to contact Rachel and Mike at Full Spectrum Editing.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Conversation With Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and the story collection Life During Wartime, both from Down & Out Books. Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”

He is also the person to follow—maybe not literally, Facebook will do—when in an unfamiliar city and you’re looking for good eating establishments. Notice I didn’t say “restaurants”; I said “good eating establishments.” I’m a writer. Word choice is everything to me. Anyone who followed his recommendation for The Priest’s Burger in Toronto knows what I mean.

The kitty man was lovely enough to sit down with us to talk about his new collection, Life During Wartime (and Other Stories).

One Bite at a Time: What are the origins of Life During Wartime (and Other Stories)? Was
the original plan to write a collection, or did you find yourself with a bunch of stories you liked and want to gather them together?
Thomas Pluck: This is a collection of my best and fan-favorite stories from 2011 to the present. I had a few Kindle-only collections and readers kept asking for a print collection. When I joined the Down & Out Books team, we thought that would be a great follow-up to my first Jay Desmarteaux novel, Bad Boy Boogie, and the new collection includes "The Last Detail," which bridges Jay's first book with the next one, which I am writing now.

OBAAT: I’m a huge fan of Denny the Dent and I’m glad to see he’s in here. Where did you get the idea for him? Do you have continuing plans for him?
TP: Denny was inspired by a boxer I met in a cigar shop, a very intense guy. He had a little friend with him, kind of like Chester & Spike, the cartoon dogs, and the big guy said "I ain't smart but I listen good." and Denny was born. The dent comes from a shooting victim's surgery I saw online. The boy was literally walking around with half a head, until doctors built a replacement skull plate. Denny's injury isn't that extreme. We tend to think that big guys are dumb, and I wanted to give him a little something extra to make people underestimate his intelligence. Readers have asked if Denny is a special needs child. If you read his stories, he has been treated as if he's special needs his whole life. When I write Denny I go back to how I felt as a weird kid on the playground, when my best friend was a special needs child named Mindy, until the teachers dragged me away and said I should talk to "the other kids." That left a deep impression. I've volunteered with Special Young Adults, I have friends who are special needs (Hello, Dylan!) and I don't like separating us that way. We're people.

OBAAT: Jay Desmarteaux from Bad Boy Boogie also makes an appearance. I’m a big fan of cross-pollination in my writing. Not only is it a good way to bring in new readers, it’s a great way to work out story ideas for novel characters. Did you approach writing Jay differently knowing this would be a short story?
TP: I don't draw on Jay's background as much when I write short. I prefer to jump in the action and you can figure Jay's ways as we go along. A short story is like fighting in a phone booth, you have to work within the space you're given, so he gets introduced with a few lines that encapsulate what he is. He's an outlaw, the rules don't exist for him, and he looks out for number one. In "The Last Detail" he has no choice but to partner up with someone, which was interesting to me, because Jay is an outsider and a loner. I wanted to force him to work with someone as stubborn as he is, and give him zero time to adjust to it.

OBAAT: I know picking a favorite story is like picking a favorite child, but I’m going to ask you to it anyway because that’s the kind of person I am. Which of the stories in this collection means the most to you and why?
TP: I put my heart into stories, which makes them harder for me than novels. Not that I don't put my heart into a book, but a story is like a one-inch punch from Bruce Lee, and a novel is a ten or fifteen round fight, where you get breaks and some love from the cut man between rounds. They all mean something, but I'll focus on "Freedom Bird" because I just read it to an audience, and it still hits me. It's about a teenage son of a Vietnam vet dad who means well but expects a lot from his kid. There are so many "bad dad" stories--and I've got plenty of my own--that I wanted to go in a different direction. Harve Chundak is based on a vet named John Chundak who was a coin dealer I met at the VFW as a kid, at a coin show, when I was collecting wheatback pennies and silver dimes. I started working for him on Sundays, just watching the table. He was a quiet guy and serious most of the time, but had a smile as big as Christmas when you made him laugh. I wanted to pay tribute to him for giving me that job, and teaching me integrity, and that you could be a Green Beret who did six tours with hands that could crush a man's forearm like a wolf's maw, and have a good heart and nothing to prove, none of the tough-guy fronting my father had. So Harve is a tribute to him.

OBAAT: You’re as socially responsible as any writer I know, especially as regards children. It was you who turned me on to PROTECT. Tell us a little about PROTECT and why social issues are so important to you.
TP: I'm a bit like Jay, that way. The five words I hate most are "it is what it is." Because it is... because we let it. "You can't fight city hall" is another five stupid words. You can fight them if you don't play by their rules. I won't say anything further as in this climate it may be illegal soon. PROTECT's mission is to fight child abuse, and they concentrate on the most egregious, online predators who lure children. The two Protectors anthologies have raised nearly $5000 for that cause. I hate any abuse of power, but adults who abuse children especially. I wrote a bit about it in Jay's book. I give him the mythical "five minutes alone" with a truly awful human, an actual psychopath, and he realizes he is just feeding into the man's beliefs: that whoever holds the hatchet makes the rules. So he takes a different tack with him, because torture for this guy is like foreplay. I don't believe in the death penalty, because I don't believe people should give the state that power. Containment protects us and punishes the offender. And I don't mean the middle-class fantasy of "jail yard justice." If a chi-mo bodybuilder walks into gen pop, no one's gonna shank him for rep and risk getting their throat crushed. If you see Jeffrey Dahmer or some weakling rapist get murdered, it's because he was weak. Most go into protective custody, anyway.

OBAAT: And now for the classic wrap-up question: what’s next?
TP: I'm working on the second Jay Desmarteaux novel, Riff Raff, set in Louisiana. We meet Jay's "family" and some new folks who could only come from that unique state, and it takes us everywhere from the bayou to Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the rigid north of the state where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. I have a book I call "the beer bar Nazi hipster rock'n roll cozy" that's getting another round of edits, about Scotty Wierzbowski, a pogue rear-echelon shirker and his Falstaffian buddy who inherit a decrepit old man bar and try to make it trendy, only to have it infested by hipsters, who they can't get rid of, until one winds up dead. Scotty's mom tells him his father is Bon Scott, of AC/DC. It's a lot of fun, but it's weird, and weird is a hard sell. But it will find a home soon. (Editor’s Note: I have never read an author’s description of a book that made me want to read it more than this.)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Movies Since Last Time

Ladybug Ladybug (1963) This could have been good. Started out as a twist on a 60s nuclear apocalypse story by taking the perspective of schoolteachers and the kids in a rural school where communications aren’t very good and showed the kinds of confusion that could result. That only lasted half an hour or so and things deteriorated into the standard dreary “end of the world” 60s flick. The highlights were seeing young versions of William Daniels, Estelle Parsons, and Nancy Marchand.

Cool Hand Luke (1967) One of those movies that gets better every time I see it. It operates on multiple levels and works on all of them. George Kennedy richly deserved his Oscar for supporting actor, and Paul Newman would have won Best Actor in most other years; he lost to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night. Full of iconic scenes that hold together just as well in another century, there are elements here that might be even more worthy of attention today than fifty years ago.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Another movie that gets better every time I see it. I can damn near recite the whole thing now, which leaves me free to notice little things. I’ve written about it before and I’m sure I will again. Without doubt one of the five greatest crime films ever made.

The Imitation Game (2014) Yet another one of those. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the man who led the team that broke the German Enigma machine codes and shortened the war by as much as two years according to British MI6. The film moves between Turing’s work at Bletchley Park, his days in boarding school, and his arrest for homosexuality in 1951. It’s inspiring to watch Turing struggle to complete his machine, heartbreaking to watch him lose his only friend at school, and depressing to see how all his contributions to the war effort meant nothing in the face of his homosexuality. It’s not just a blight on British history, but a condemnation everyone needs to find a way to get past.

Get Shorty (1995) One of my favorite comfort movies. There’s no way I feel anything but chipper by the time it runs its course.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Yes, I watched it again. It’s sorely underrated as a Christmas movie and I had a rough couple of months. Sue me.

The Big Lebowski (1998) The annual New Year’s Eve viewing. See Get Shorty above for the review.

Godless (2017) Not a movie, but the kind of thing movies wish they could do. Most of the promotional attention is paid to the city of women—which is well enough done to merit the praise—but there’s a lot more going on. Jeff Daniels plays against type as one of the meanest SOBs ever on the screen, though he has his own moral code. Sam Waterston plays a US marshal, but I didn’t recognize anyone else. Didn’t matter. All the actors inhabited their roles to make Godless a uniquely successful project. Scott Frank, better known (to me at least) for his successful adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, wrote and directed all the episodes, which should move him into the realm of those who can be trusted with anything. I have nothing bad to say about this show.

Roadside Prophets (1992) Easy Rider for the punk set. An entertaining film that has the prime virtue of not trying to be more than it is, and what it is is time well spent. The humor is offbeat and fresh, the cameo appearances by Arlo Guthrie, John Cusack, Bill Cobbs, Timothy Leary, Don Cheadle, David Carradine, and Stephen Tobolowsky are great fun, and—best of all—it doesn’t talk down to its presumed audience. A nice choice if you’re looking for something off the beaten path.

True Grit (2010) Fun no matter when I watch it, but even more so less than a week after seeing The Big Lebowski, to realize that’s The Dude pulling all this Rooster Cogburn shit. Superior to the original film in many ways, not the least of which it its closer adherence to Charles Portis’s wonderful novel. Bridges is better than John Wayne (though I admit it’s one of The Duke’s better performances), Matt Damon is far better than Glen Campbell, and Hailee Steinfeld is perfect as Mattie Ross. The Coen Brothers’ do well in keeping their idiosyncrasies subordinate to the quirkiness of the novel. The end result is a movie worthy of one of my favorite books I’ll happily watch again.

Wheelman (2017) Turns out this isn’t based on Duane Swierczynski’s excellent novel. Jeremy Rush's use of the title is a non-stop action movie made for people who like more than non-stop action in their non-stop action movies. There are more things done well here can I can mention: the lighting, the spot-on performance by Frank Grillo as the title character, the use of his cutesy cell phone ring tone in the tensest moments, and the fascinating concept of telling pretty much the whole story from the point of view of the cars. Eighty-two of the most entertaining minutes I’ve spent in a long time, and an outstanding surprise.

L.A. Confidential (1997). Uh-huh. Again. For my birthday. And I’m still finding things to appreciate.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Outstanding Western until its leisurely pacing outlives its welcome and you end up resenting its length and wish it would just end, already. The acting is outstanding, the story is an interesting take on a legend, and the production values are first-rate. At 2:39 it’s just way too damn long for what it is.

Friday, February 2, 2018

January's Reads

January was a strange month for reading. There’s only one book I can wholeheartedly recommend, and one more I’m sure my comments will spark controversy over. Let’s start with the positive.

Vivid and Continuous, John McNally. I pull out this concise volume of writing advice every couple of years to see if anything resonates with me I wasn’t ready for before, what might validate what I do now, and just because it’s fun to read. The title is taken from a comment in John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, that a writer should try to create a “vivid and continuous dream” that “other human beings, whenever they feel like it, may open his book and dream that dream again.” I try to remember this whenever I feel I’m becoming too authorial, and McNally’s little book is full of advice and tips to help me to make it so. (Full disclosure: John McNally taught the Jenny McKean Moore workshop at George Washington University when I participated in the winter and spring of 2002. I was the only genre writer chosen and I doubt very much I would have reached even my current level of success had it not been for the confidence he showed in my writing and what I learned there from John and my fellow fellows.)

Now the flip side:
No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. I read Blood Meridian several years ago. It was one of the two most unpleasant reading experiences of my life; the other was James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand. I was saved from ignoring Ellroy by a request to review Blood’s a Rover—which I loved—and have since become a Ellroy devotee. Having chosen exactly the wrong Ellroy book as an entry point, I gave McCarthy the same benefit of the doubt and read No Country For Old Men because I’d seen the movie and had heard it was McCarthy’s most accessible novel.

It’s certainly not as much of a slog as Blood Meridian, and the story seems less nihilistic. It’s still not my cup of tea. I could cite several reasons why the writing doesn’t move me. It lacks any lyricism to my ear, for one thing. “Whoa,” you say. “You love Ellroy and don’t like McCarthy because he lacks lyricism?” That’s right. Ellroy may be percussive, but there is a rhythm to his writing. It’s a rhythm not to everyone’s taste—his words sometimes read the way Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring sounds—but it’s his own hip voice and I dig. McCarthy lacks that.

What really turns me off about McCarthy was described above: he never lets me settle into that vivid and continuous dream. Part of this are his affectations regarding spelling and punctuation. No apostrophes are jarring, but not as bad as the lack of quotation marks, which requires me to always have to pay attention to who’s speaking when I should be getting lost in the story.

Bo Catlett summed up what hurts McCarthy most for this reader. I know words weren't spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it at all. It distracts me when it should draw me in.