One Bite at a Time




Friday, February 20, 2009

Letting You Down Easy

This alleged rejection by a Chinese financial magazine was sent in by a friend. Probably a legend, but still funny.

We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Twenty Random Things About Me, by Sam Spade

1. After drinking with the Fat Man, I now sometimes say, "When."
2. I don't miss Archer. He used to eat lunch at a cheap Mexican joint and fart all afternoon.
3. I don't have to try to look tough. I always wear shoes two sizes too small. My feet are killing me.
4. My draft board classified me 4-F when they caught me coming out of Mitchell Brothers at four in the morning wearing nothing but a leather vest and chaps. I said I was working under cover. I don't think they believed me.
5. I wish San Fransisco had Thai Town. I hate Chinese food.
6. Sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out if I had met Joel Cairo under different circumstances.
7. I can talk out of the other side of my mouth if I want to. I just never want to.
8. I might have played the sap for Ingrid Bergman.
9. I never said that "Stuff that dreams are made of" bunk. Polhaus made that up so people would think we were tight.
10. Mrs. Spade didn't raise any children dippy enough to make guesses in front of a district attorney and a stenographer, but I do sometimes roll naked on the beach in the moonlight.
11. I put little umbrellas in the glass whenever I drink alone, even if it's straight bourbon.
12. I'm jealous Mike Hammer gets all the broads.
13. Some days I think I should have stayed a Continental Op.
14. That smart ass Jake Gittes drives up from LA twice a year just to ask me what it was like in "the old days." I hate him.
15. Some people think it's deep, but I have no idea what that Flitcraft story means.
16. Sometimes late at night I think about Iva Archer and Effie Perrine together.
17. I invented the word "gunsel" but no one gives me credit for it.
18. I smelled Brigid's undies when I searched her room.
19. Marlowe is always working on chess problems, but I whip his ass whenever we play.
20. I knew Brigid was lying, and I never thought $200 was more than enough to make it all right. That was all Archer's idea, the hound.

(Thanks to John McFetridge for the idea.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sean O'Brien on The Given Day

Sean O’Brien has written a rambling, somewhat disjointed piece for The Times Online titled “Laws of the Thriller: Sean O’Brien on the ups and downs of thriller writers.” (Thanks to Sarah Weinman’s terrific blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, for making me aware of this. While we’re at it, Happy Birthday, Sarah.) Where “laws” comes in is debatable, and O’Brien seems more interested in finding downs than ups, but he’s a critic. He may consider it part of his job to be controversial, and all of his criticisms are of matters about which reasonable minds may differ.

Almost all.

He devotes a good-sized paragraph to Dennis Lehane’s latest, The Given Day, which I read a few weeks ago. He makes several comments I disagree with, all of which fall under the “reasonable minds” disclaimer above. There is, however, one comment that makes me wonder if he read the same book I did:

“…the political dimension of the book – Boston is teeming with socialist, Marxists, syndicalists, Wobblies and anarchist bombers – causes Lehane some anxiety. He repeatedly takes an oath of loyalty to capital by denouncing and deriding the ideas and the characters of the Left.”

Where O’Brien sees this anxiety in Lehane’s writing escapes me. The book clearly is on the side of the workers. Comments to the effect that the Communists and Socialists spend too much time drinking and arguing are in the context of law enforcement’s efforts to lump those groups together with anarchists as “bomb throwers.” The point of the description is to show the relative harmlessness of the political groups when compared to the violence advocated, and perpetrated, by the anarchists.

Lehane makes this clear by depicting the efforts of law enforcement and the political establishment to associate these “subversive” groups as a way to maintain the status quo of the social order in place as the book begins. Lehane has been quoted as describing his politics as “left of Canada;” nothing in The Given Day would cast doubt on that. Class warfare is a key theme throughout the book, and it’s plain where his sympathies are. It’s one thing to differ about quality, something else to get the point of the book so completely wrong when the author has made it so plain. O’Brien might as well say Steinbeck took the side of the banks in The Grapes of Wrath.

I’ll confess to being in the tank for Dennis Lehane’s work since I read A Drink Before the War; I think The Given Day is brilliant, worthy of the five year wait. That doesn’t mean I’m right. On the other hand, O’Brien’s comment in a respected publication has missed the mark by such a wide margin that one must wonder if The Times has joined the Obama Administration as organizations in need of an overhaul to their vetting processes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reviewing the Reviews

Book reviews have received a lot of attention lately, largely been because newspapers are dropping them faster than a banker can endorse a bonus check. Various web sites are picking up the slack. Most online booksellers post reader reviews, which may be of dubious merit. Some are written by the writer’s friends; others may be written by competitors with an ax to grind before placing it directly between the author’s shoulder blades.

Other sites dedicated to the review and discussion of books and writing. Some are strictly amateur affairs, and show it. Some are the work of dedicated volunteers whose quality of product is hardly amateurish. Still others are professional operations deserving the respect previously accorded only to the traditional print media.

As the primordial ooze of Twenty-First Century book criticism sorts itself out, another, often ignored question comes to mind: what is a book review? Based on what I’ve read, some are little more than plot synopses, with a brief coda to say, “It’s okay,” or “Don’t bother.” Others are more like book reports, summarizing the story, discussing a theme or two, and maybe concluding with a recommendation.

Another category discusses the writing, and its various strengths and weaknesses. These can also be a mixed bag. Some are little more than opinion pieces without example or justification, telling more about the reviewer than about the book. Others cite examples to back up their opinions, though even those who strive to be objective are prone to cherry-pick only citations that support their opinions.

Authors, readers, and reviewers all read this blog. What do you look for in a review? What are the primary reasons for having book reviews at all? If we can stipulate all reviews should pass the Twenty-Five Dollar test (Is this book worth $25?), should the reader expect more than a synopsis and recommendation?