One Bite at a Time




Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Another Step Down the Road


From the article in eReads: 

New language in the termination provision of the Harper’s boilerplate gives them the right to cancel a contract if “Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales.” The consequences? Harper can terminate your book deal. Not only that, you’ll have to repay your advance. Harper may also avail itself of “other legal remedies” against you.

I can only think of one thing to say to HarperCollins and its owner, Rupert Murdoch:

Fuck you. The horse you rode in on shouldn't turn its back on me, either.




Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Sopranos

The Beloved Spouse and I recently finished a trip through all 86 episodes of The Sopranos. This is our third trip through most of them, the first since the series went off the air, and it's interesting to see how our perceptions have changed.

First, I remembered Seasons Five and Part One of Season Six as not being as good as the rest. I didn't see that at all this time. The stories were consistently tight, and the pacing was solid throughout each season. Yes, Tony's coma dreams after Uncle Junior shot him went on a bit long, but my memory of things dragging when Vito's homosexuality drove him out of Jersey didn't hold up. True, that wasn't their best sub-plot, but it wasn't dead weight, either.

The greatest accomplishment of David Chase and his writers has to be making us care for seven years about people who are, frankly, bad people. Not evil; that implies two dimensions. Everyone in the show had their virtues, but they didn't make up for being duplicitous, whining, conniving bastards the rest of the time. James Gandolfini is brilliant week in and week out, but Tony is, as he describes himself more than once, a malevolent prick. Yes, he loves his kids and animals, and does occasionally go out of his way to be nice. Not to get all Biblical, but were he to be weighed in the balance, he'd be found wanting.

Carmela is worse than a whore in her way. At least with a whore you know it's a cash transaction. AJ sets new standards for being a whiny little pussy. Meadow had her snotty bitch period as a teen, but in the end is probably the most likable character. She grows and matures while everyone else revels in their dysfunction. Of the hoods, Bobby Baccalieri is the most sympathetic. He's a violent criminal, too, but his loyalty--to his dead wife, his children, to Janice, and to Tony--is touching.

I've had almost four years to think about the famous last episode and its ending. Time to place it in context, use what I've learned about story in the interim to better appreciate it, so i was looking forward to it again. It's still a chickenshit cop-out. Chase didn't know what to do, so he did nothing. Granted, after seven years of being relentlessly non-judgmental about his characters, he didn't want to turn the ending into a morality play. Fine. He owed his audience better. Even Deadwood had a more satisfying ending, and David Milch didn't know that show was going to end when it did. (Though it was Milch's fault it did end, the selfish bastard.)

Now Tony and Paulie and Sil go back on the shelf until we've worked our way through Lonesome Dove, Generation Kill, Deadwood, and The Wire again. (Plus whatever else strikes our fancy in the interim. Justified? Terriers, even though it was canceled?) We'll be back to visit with The Sopranos in a couple of years. I'm sure we'll see different things again when we do. It's that good a show.

If the Shoö Fits

In IKEA the other day with The Beloved Spouse, I noticed their faux Swedish name for wastebasket is "Dokument."

Insert your own pithy comments at will.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Outliers

I see a lot of Internet postings lamenting the sad state of American culture. Seems a lot of bloggers are upset over the quality of books that get published, televisions shows that get aired, or movies that make it to the multiplex. The lack of public standards is sometimes taken personally, not only as an affront to good taste, but actively hindering talented people from making the living they deserve.

Get over it, folks. You want to bitch about something, get into a snit over the sun rising in the east. It's about as likely to change.

What we too often forget is that those of us who take the time to read and write (hopefully) thoughtful blogs are the outliers. No one is going to wager large sums of money on our tastes and preferences, because there aren't large numbers of us. It's a sucker's bet.

Another thing to keep in mind is that is has always been this way. We look back at writers who have stood the test of time and forget that 99.9% of their contemporaries were shit. We all know the stories of artists who starved in their lifetimes, only to find an audience, and redemption, after their death. Fat lot of good it did them. There are similar artists among us now; we just don't know who they are. We're too busy wading through the 99.9% contemporary shit quotient.

An elevated state, appreciative of art and the finer things in life, is not the normal human condition. Most people spend too much time holding things together to worry about whether Dan Brown's latest potboiler passes muster as literature. The average guy wants to come home after work and read something--if he chooses to read at all--that doesn't require a lot of mental heavy lifting. He's tired, bills have to be paid, and the kids are making too goddamn much noise in the other room for him to concentrate on David Foster Wallace or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or even James Lee Burke. He doesn't want to have to draw cosmic conclusions from veiled inferences. He might be willing to play at putting together a puzzle if it's not too demanding, but probably not if he just did his taxes and found out the thousand dollar refund he'd hoped for is actually a five hundred dollar bill owed, and he doesn't have the five hundred.

That doesn't mean we outliers shouldn't try to meet our own standards, or to seek out those who share them. It does mean that if we choose to lament the state that makes us outliers, we're never going to be satisfied. Let people enjoy what they're going to enjoy. They will, anyway.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Best Reads of 2010

I read a lot of good books last year; here's a list of those I recommend most highly. Many that made monthly lists don;t appear here; some who did not make the monthlies may. I looked at the list of what I'd read, the notes I'd taken, and thought of which books left me with the best impression. it's not a science.

Books are displayed in the order in which they were read. No ranking is implied.

Deadwood, Pete Dexter. Fantastic book. Told primarily from the perspective of Charlie Utter, the book seeps with dry humor and realistic Western bits. The dialog is superb. I've read that David Milch used this as source material for the TV series, and that Dexter was not happy with what Milch did with it. Both are great; both are different. Don't experience one expecting the other, and you'll love them both.

Gun Monkeys, Victor Gischler. I'd been meaning to read Gischler for quite a while, finally got around to it. Funny, while retaining believability, and the plot twists are a delight.

Let it Ride, John McFetridge. (Swap outside the U.S.) The third of McFetridge's crime novels shows the evolution of his style toward George V. Higgins. As always, the dialog sounds like people talking, and the plot and characters are presented without judgment or apology. He's been described as Canada's Elmore Leonard (a reasonable comparison, especially to Leonard's earlier, grittier books); he may also be turning Toronto into the 21st- Century's version of Chandler's Los Angeles.

Bury Me Deep, Megan Abbott. Holy shit. It took me a chapter or two to get into what seemed to be an archaic writing style that turns out to be critical to setting the book in time. As noir as it gets, without the neo-noir mannerisms of perversion and violence for their own sakes. Brilliantly based on a true story.

Johnny Porno, Charlie Stella. Stella writes about the aspects of organized crime most forget: not bosses, but the knockaround guys who grease the money wheels. A matter of fact telling of how easy it can be for someone to fall from respectable blue collar worker (as well as a reminder that blue collar work is, indeed, respectable) into the periphery of crime, and how there is no real periphery to crime. No one writers this kind of story better.

The Queen of Patpong, Timothy Hallinan. Every year I say Hallinan has outdone himself, and every year the Poke Rafferty series gets better. It's hard to believe he can write a better book than this. it's hard to believe anyone can write a better book than this.

Cop in the Hood, Peter Moskos. Not your ordinary cop's diary. Moskos worked for a year-and-a-half as a Baltimore cop to prepare his Masters thesis, so his opinions are those of an outsider who truly went native. This gives the Cop in the Hood a depth many allegedly similar books lack, as Moskos is able to step outside the moment when necessary. The history of the effects of drug and alcohol prohibition at the end of the book is an eye-opener.

Clockers, Richard Price. I discovered Price through The Wire, and there's a lot of The Wire in Clockers. A true crime novel, where the crime is the inciting action of a story about people's lives. As with Freedomland--the other Price book I've read--the resolution of the crime doesn't seem to matter so much by the time you get there. It's what happens to the people, and how they got there, that's important.

The Night Gardener, George Pelecanos. A lot of Pelecanos's writing escapes me. I can understand why he's so highly regarded, but something about him doesn't resonate with me. (Probably due to the frequent references to popular music of the 70s and 80s and cars.) In The Night Gardener he hits all his marks dead on and creates a book you'll not soon forget.

The Rare Coin Score, Richard Stark. I've loved Donald Westlake's books for years. Why it took me so long to read my first Richard Stark is a reasonable question for which I have no good answer. ("not as smart as he thinks he is" comes to mind.) This is, so far, my only Stark, so I can't say where it falls in his oeuvre, but even if it's the best, the others will still be worth reading.

Every Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage. Brazilian federal cops in a story Ed McBain would have enjoyed. The relationships--some better, some not so good--between the cops drive the story. The plot is just complicated enough, the clues just tantalizing enough, and the ending falls together nicely. This was my first Gage, but won't be my last.

Boyos, Richard Maranick. Another unapologetic, non-jedgmental look into the lives of criminals. Wacko Curran is not someone you'd like to know, but everything he does makes sense when iewed from his perspective. Pay attention as the ending comes together and you'll look forward to the next installment in Curran's saga.

Dancing Bear, James Crumley. I read The Last Good Kiss a couple of years ago and appreciated it without really enjoying it. (Of course, I had mononucleosis at the time, which could have had something to do with it.) Dancing Bear was such a good read I'm going to give Kiss another chance. Crumley was a hell of a writer, with a sparse--not Spartan--style, wo knew exactly how do insert humor, and how much.

Honorable Mention:
Complications, Atul Gawande
Fiddle Game, Richard Thompson
The Fourth Protocol, Frederick Forsythe
Gutshot Straight, Lou Berney
Tonight I Said Goodbye, Michael Koryta
Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville
Romance, Ed McBain
Eight Men Out, Eliiot Asinof

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Decembers Best Reads

Sex, Thugs, and Rock and Roll - Todd Robinson, editor. Thuglit's second collection. Maybe not as consistent all the way through as the original (Hardcore Hardboiled), but still a first-class collection by excellent writers. Probably out of print, but worth looking up.

Moonlight Mile - Dennis Lehane. The much-anticipated sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone. Also not quite as good as the original, but Lehane now has a much broader oeuvre for comparison. The story is excellent, if somewhat constrained by Kenzie's inner angst over his work. Could use a little more Bubba, but Yefim the Russian gangster is a prize. 

Below the Line, John McFetridge and Scott Albert. Big fun for anyone interested in how movies get made, or don't. A pastiche of fictional stories of what happens on a movie set, drawn from the authors' experiences. The book is good throughout, but the scene where the transport captain takes the star to a hockey game is worth the entire cost. Definitely out of print, worth picking up at a used bookstore if you can find it.