Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Remembering Paul Newman

Paul Newman was many things: actor, director, race car driver, philanthropist and much more, but I’ll always remember him as the actor who got screwed out of a Best Actor Oscar too many times:

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) - lost to David Niven, Separate Tables

The Hustler (1961) - lost to Maximilian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg

Hud (1963) - lost to Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field

Cool Hand Luke (1967) - lost to Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night

Absence of Malice (1981) - lost to Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond

The Verdict (1982) - lost to Ben Kingsley, Gandhi

The Color of Money (1986) - won

Nobody’s Fool (1994) - lost to Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump

The loss I remember most was the one to Ben Kingsley. Don’t get me wrong, Kingsley is a fine actor but I remember thinking at the time that he was literally born to play that part. Newman made Frank Galvin come alive as a drunk, ambulance-chasing lawyer that’s had the case of his life dumped in his lap, a case that can set him for life as long as he doesn’t screw it up. Newman never overplays the role, but you can look at him onscreen and rest assured that most of what he’s doing isn’t in the script. It’s a mostly quiet performance, but a virtuoso one.

Some of the other losses were just bad timing. At the 1982 Oscars, Henry Fonda was literally on his deathbed. There was no way in the universe that Fonda wasn’t going to win. Newman would’ve had to give birth on camera to beat him and I’m not even sure that would’ve helped.

Hud and Cool Hand Luke both contain excellent Newman performances, but again, the time wasn’t right for him, not like it was for Poitier and Steiger, for many reasons. But Newman should have won for The Hustler. I challenge anyone to look at Newman’s performance in that film, then look at Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg and tell me who’s left standing. But Nuremberg was a highly emotional film released at the right time.

By the time Newman finally won a Best Actor Oscar for 1986’s The Color of Money, you could tell he didn’t really care. But Katherine Hepburn once said you never get the Oscar for the film you deserved it for. I think she’s right, but what I always remembered was that Newman just didn’t seem to give a rip about it. He just kept doing what he was good at, taking the roles he wanted, giving them his all. The body of work we’re left with is what counts.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

Paul Newman died Friday at the age of 83. I'll have more to say about Newman, one of my favorite actors, later. If somehow you've lived on this planet for more than 18 years and have never seen a Newman film, correct that situation right now and rent Hud, The Hustler, Hombre, Harper, Cool Hand Luke, The Sting, The Verdict or just about any film he ever made.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The New York Trilogy (1985, 1986) - Paul Auster

You hear the term “Postmodern” thrown around a lot, but it’s hard to find a definition of the term that you can carry around in your pocket. Even that bastion of knowledge Wikipedia claims “Unfortunately, there is no authoritative definition yet.” Maybe that’s the point. The best definition I can come up with is found in the entirely of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

The book consists of three short novels (each originally published separately), City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room. In City of Glass, Quinn, a writer of detective novels, receives a call from a man who mistakes Quinn for a private detective named Paul Auster. (Don’t even think about getting confused yet, okay? Just bear with me.) The man wants to hire Quinn/Auster to find and follow a man named Stillman, whom the man believes is out to kill him. Quinn decides to play along, taking the case.

Ghosts, somewhat similar in plot to City of Glass focuses on Blue, a detective hired by a man named White to spy on a man named Black.

The book concludes with The Locked Room, something of a departure from the other two novels in that it involves more characters (some from the previous stories, including Auster), more settings and more to reflect upon, often referring to the other two stories. A man’s childhood friend named Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind a wife, a baby, and several unpublished manuscripts. But what happened to Fanshawe?

Again, all three stories are connected in many ways. They all include writers (including Auster, sort of), detectives, New York and the search for identity. They all examine the role and purpose of writing. What does writing do? Does it influence people? Can it and does it change the way the world works? Do writers lose their identities in the process of writing? When I’ve finished writing a novel, a story, a play, how can I be sure that I’m not actually a part of what I’ve just written and that I’ve somehow lost part of myself to the work I’ve just completed?

In most of the situations in these stories, we don’t meet real detectives, only writers who get wrapped up in acting like detectives, trying to be someone that they’re not. In the process, they segregate themselves from the normalcy of their day-to-day lives, sometimes with devastating consequences.

And what about Auster himself? Is he really writing himself into the stories or is this an unrelated Auster?

Is this life just an exercise in futility? Do we really know who we are and why we’re here or are we caught up in trying to be something or someone we’re not? What is reality? Who are we?

The New York Trilogy is very readable and succeeds in being a flat-out great story, but it also works on so many other levels, asking the reader to look at it from several different angles, each of which shine a different light on what’s going on. The fact that Auster (whomever he might be!) is able to pull this off is stunning. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I Hate This Time of Year

Actually it could be any time of year. That's the problem. That's right, it time once again for book purging.

There's not an official Book Purging Season, like there's football season or deer-hunting season or Spring Cleaning Season (which isn't actually a season, but I hate that one, too.). I wish we did have a National Book Purging Season, but that presupposes that everyone actually owns books, which would be a good thing, and that they would donate their surplus books to worthy organizations (like The Book Thing, also a good thing) that would disperse the books to those who need them.

Anyway, something's got to go.

Case in point: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It's a great book. I got an ex-library copy for 10 cents about a year ago. Again, it's a wonderful book, but I doubt I'll ever read it again, and if I do, the book is everywhere you look. Plus it's a brick. I can probably take it off my shelves and replace it with two, maybe three medium-sized books. Or bench press it.

I know I need to go through my library and give hundreds of books the One-Page Test. If I'm not gripped after one page, out it goes, especially if it's something I can get anywhere, anytime.

The problem comes when facing all the books I have that are somewhat rare. Not $1,000 rare, but things you hardly ever see like Peter Crowther's Songs of Leaving, a short story collection (again, an ex-library copy) that's been sitting on the shelf for years. It's not a book you come across every day.

Neither is The Vampire: His Kith and Kin by Montague Summers or From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredrick Brown. I might never see 'em again! What to do?

I guess I'll get rid of the common stuff first, stuff I can always get from the library or a good used bookstore. Then the One-Page Test. Then?

Plus, they keep coming out with new stuff I've just gotta have. Like this. And this. Okay, throw this one in, too.

See what I mean?

Then you've got this place, which is just pure evil. They know what tempts me and parade it front of me. Evil people, no way around it.

I hate this time of year....

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Gold Mine or the Kiss of Death?

Interesting that since Oprah picked David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for her newest book club selection, the book's composite rating on Amazon has gone from 3.5 stars to 2.5 stars. Also of interest: Although both Oprah's and the regular editions of the book retail for $25.95, the book with the Oprah sticker sells on Amazon for $14.27; the regular edition for $15.57. (But if you want to buy it on the cheap, just wait a few months. It'll be on the shelves of every thrift store in the country, alongside all the other Oprah Book Club picks.)

Obviously, as a result of having Oprah anoint him, Wroblewski will make even more money from the book, but he will also be ostracized by many in the literary community? Is this a no-win situation? Or a win-win situation? Or something else entirely?

I guess I shouldn't be surprised at Oprah's pick. It's the type of book she goes goo-goo over. I actually thought the book was pretty good, but now that's she's picked it, I have the urge to distance myself from it. I know that's not logical, but there's something about that "corporate ownership" sticker that's unsettling. Maybe Jonathan Franzen had the right idea in snubbing Oprah with The Corrections.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Does Anybody Really Know What Day It Is?

Things are so busy I literally woke up this morning not knowing what day it is, which determines whether I will go to one library for training, my home library for a regular shift or stumble around with a new story. But I think it's Wednesday. Right?

Somehow in the midst of all the madness, I've managed to read/listen to a few books: John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which should be read/listened to in as few sittings as possible. Unfortunately I didn't, but I still enjoyed it. To help make up for it, I checked out the DVDs from the library, all three of them. Of course they're a 3-day rental. Here we go again....

I also read a non-fiction YA book I'd head a lot about: Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by Alex & Brett Harris. More on this one later.

Finally, I'm enjoying Andrew Davidson's debut novel The Gargoyle, although the first chapters are some of the most graphic, stomach-turning reading (mostly of a medical nature) that I've ever experienced. I'm listening to it in the car, so when things really get graphic, I just sing at the top of my lungs until the nastiness has passed. It works, but I'm sure I look like a freak at intersections.

More tomorrow. Which is Saturday, right?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Outsiders (YA 1967) - S.E. Hinton

S.E. (Susan Eloise) Hinton's The Outsiders first appeared in 1967 when there was no such thing as a YA category. Yet the book was and continues to be a huge seller among teens. I was fortunate enough to purchase a signed copy (not a first edition, however) of the book a few months ago, although I did not get to meet Hinton. I wish I had. I would have asked her how in the world she managed to write The Outsiders at the incredible age of sixteen.

I saw the 1983 film version of the book when it first came out and thought it was pretty good. I was 21 in 1983, about the same age as the character Darry. The movie made a connection with me and probably would have made more of a connection had I been fourteen or fifteen or maybe even seventeen. To be honest, I didn't really think about the film all that much after walking out of the theater.

Now, after reading the book at age 46, I'm even further removed from the ages of the kids in the book. It's not really like I'm standing outside the window looking in, but remembering, trying to put myself in Hinton's mindset as a sixteen-year-old, all the while reading as a 46-year-old.

It really is remarkable that a 16-year-old wrote the book. The passion in it, the conflicting emotion, the characterization - all are quite good. But you can tell it was written by a 16-year-old. The tone is uneven and some of the plot devices are a bit clunky, but still - a book this good from a 16-year-old? I'll take it. When it was over, I knew that Hinton had captured something at 16 that none of us will ever have again. I don't mean that to sound pretentious or grandiose, but honest. We can't go back. But we can go back to how she felt about what was happening around her at 16. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad we can't go back. But it's nice to see a glimmer every now and then of what was.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I Can Take It. You Can Too

I received another rejection letter (or rather, email) this morning, but it wasn't too bad:

"We are saying no to this, but I hope you will send more."

Interesting that the person who sent the email said "We are saying no to this, but I hope you will send more." I can envision a conference room filled with editors sitting at a table, each with a copy of my story in their hands. One of them stands up, vehemently arguing that my story deserves, no, demands to be included in the next issue!!

Okay, well, maybe not.


I've sent stories to this market before and have received the usual form email, so this response isn't bad at all.

Lately I've met several other writers, some of whom work at libraries. "I know I should send things out," they usually say, "but it's hard."

What they mean, I think, is that rejection is hard. I tell them that in 99.9% of the cases, the editor/reader doesn't know you, that they are evaluating your story, not you. "But..." No. You are not your story. Yes, you created your story, you and the muse, but you are not your story. You're bigger than that. I'll bet you probably have more than one story, huh? See, you're bigger than that.

So send stuff out. It's not personal. Really. Don't make rejection hard. See it as an opportunity for someone else to experience your writing. Expanding your audience, if you will.

What is hard, at least for me, is finding another market to send the story that's just been rejected. That can take longer than writing the blasted story itself. I usually have a pretty good idea of what type of story I've written and can come up with at least two or three big markets where the story might potentially fit. Then comes the hard part: You've exhausted the "big" markets and are left with those that pay $10 or $5 or only contributor copies. There's nothing wrong with that; it's not about the money, but it is about (at least part of it is) finding a venue that's legit and has some standards.

To say nothing of a market that will actually respond in, say, a six-month period.

So the big markets are done for this story. We now start the second-tier journey.

Hello, Ralan's! What'cha got?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

DO Think Twice, It's NOT Alright

The good news, for Dylan fans, is that Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 will be released next month. The two-disc set includes demos, live versions, alternate takes and several songs that didn't make it onto albums such as Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind and World Gone Wrong. 2 discs, 27 songs and a 60-page booklet for $16.99 on Amazon.

The bad news is that you can get the deluxe edition for the super-deluxe price of $135.99. (Hey, the retail price is $169.98!) Yikes! So what do I get for that extra $119?

One more disc with twelve songs. A 150 page, 8" x 8" hardcover book of Bob's singles artwork. A 60 page booklet with rare photos, essay, credits. Is this the same 60-page booklet included in the $16.99 version?

Okay, we've got an extra disc; add another ten bucks to the price tag and I'll buy it for $26.99. But the only other thing you're going to give me is an 8" x 8" hardcover book? THAT constitutes a $100 price increase? That sucker better be signed by Bob himself! Sorry, Columbia, I'm not buying. That's outrageous. I've seen Bob live six times and God bless him, I don't know how he's still on this earth, but I'm not paying $135.99 for a dozen more tunes and a book of singles covers I can probably find on the Internet anyway. Give me the $16.99 version. World Gone Wrong indeed.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Too Many Women (1947) - Rex Stout

Rex Stout wrote other stories and novels having nothing to do with the detective Nero Wolfe, but I haven't read any of them. I have, however, read all 72 Nero Wolfe novels and novellas and am currently reading them for a second time. I just finished Too Many Women(1947), the twelfth story in the series. Wolfe's wise-cracking assistant Archie Goodwin has taken both an alias and a job at a Wall Street firm to investigate who killed one of the firm's employees. The firm is filled with, of course, beautiful women, any one of which could have knowledge of the murderer's identity.

As with nearly all the Nero Wolfe stories, who killed whom is of secondary importance. As I reread them, I can never remember who did it anyway. What is important is character, setting and tone. Wolfe, whom Archie frequently reminds us weighs in at "a seventh of a ton" (which is only 285 pounds, but that was probably whale proportions in 1947), guzzles beer, religiously spends four hours a day tending orchids in his upstairs plant rooms, never leaves the house, and has an utter, complete lack of understanding of all things female. Did I mention that Wolfe is a genius?

All of the stories are narrated by Archie, a bachelor who lives with Wolfe and does the legwork for him. Archie is brilliant in his own way, a detective with total recall who can report any conversation (and frequently does) to Wolfe verbatim. (Pictured here portrayed by Timothy Hutton in the A&E television series) He understands everything about women that Wolfe does not, a skill which Wolfe depends on in emergency situations such as those found in Too Many Women. The minor characters are far more than window dressing, although Saul Panzer (the best freelance detective in New York, and probably the world) rises head and shoulders above Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather and the rest, at least in this tale.

Each time I encounter a Nero Wolfe story, I'm struck by how good the characters are, how smart Stout was and how I never tire of the adventures. I give them Wolfe's own highest compliment: "Very satisfactory."

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

August Books Read

All in all it was a crazy month, what with my new library job and dealing with some family health issues...but I was still able to squeeze out a few reads. Here's what I read in August:

Our Lady of Pain (2008) - Elena Forbes

I got an ARC of this one from the Amazon Vine program (which you should check out). In a dark, secluded part of London's Holland Park, art dealer Rachel Tenison's body is found frozen, naked and bound with duct tape. Detectives Mark Tartaglia and Sam(antha) Donovan have few clues about the murder and even fewer about Rachel Tenison's strangely secret private life. But the case is eerily similar to another murder committed only a year before.

I enjoy fast-paced crime fiction, especially police procedurals that track one or more detectives attempting to solve strange or unusual crimes with very few clues. Our Lady of Pain succeeds as a fast-paced mystery/crime novel, but I found myself disappointed in the book for many reasons:

I wish more had been made of the London setting. The story could have taken place in any metropolitan (or even smaller, for that matter) city, but I felt the author could have done more to make the city a more integral part of the novel, especially Holland Park, where the body is discovered.

The shifting points of view didn't bother me as much as the amount of melodrama connected with several of the characters. Sure, it's important to know what the characters are thinking and feeling, but many of their inner personal thoughts felt unfocused and unnecessary to the story. Many of the minor characters seem to appear as window-dressing, only to serve the functional purposes of a scene, then exit.

I was surprised by the ending, yet found it rather implausible based on the events in the first half of the book. Ultimately, I was disappointed.

Running Blind (2000) - Lee Child

I read the first few of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels when they first appeared years ago, but hadn't read one in quite awhile until lately. You can count on a Jack Reacher novel to have at least a few scenes where Jack kicks butt, and this one did, but unfortunately, that was about as entertaining as it got. You can read the Amazon synopsis; I won't go into it here. The entire plot was completely implausible and by the time I got to the ending, the wheels had come flying off. A huge disappointment.

Brave New World (1932) - Aldous Huxley

Neil Postman was right: Orwell's 1984 doesn't adequately describe where we are now, but Brave New World does. Boy, does it ever. I hadn't read this novel since I was in the ninth grade, which was....well, let's say a long time ago. If you've never read it, do so. Then take a look around you and see who comes closer to hitting the target: Orwell or Huxley.

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow (NF YA 2005) - Susan Campbell Bartoletti

A great read, but not only for the YA audience. I listened to the book on audio, so I can't speak for the photos. From what I've heard, the entire package is excellent. A Newbery Honor Book.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (2008) - David Wroblewski

So do you believe the hype? Just how much do you need to know about Hamlet to understand Wroblewski's debut novel? Well, I haven't read Hamlet (yet), but I do think the novel is quite good. Too long? Yes. Overwritten? Maybe. Effective? Yes. I wasn't completely convinced or satisfied with the ending, but thought it was a good read. I would suggest that you go into the book with as little information as possible, thus I am disclosing little here. If you've read it, let me know what you think. Whatever you think, it will be interesting to see what Wroblewski does next.

Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy (NF 2008) - Steve Monsma

Read this one for a Sunday school class last quarter. Monsma covers a lot of ground, asking what should Christians do about several public policy issues such as poverty, genocide, global AIDS, global warming, terrorism, etc. Monsma contradicts himself at a few points and seems to either lack or fail to provide relevant scriptural references to back up some statements, but the book is a great starting point for good discussion. Definitely worth your time.

Out Stealing Horses (2007) - Per Petterson

I really enjoyed this quiet, little book from Norwegian writer Petterson (translated by Anne Born). Trond Sander is a man nearing 70 who lives in self-imposed isolation, contemplating the entire scope of his life. He happens upon a childhood friend and begins rethinking the events of 1948, the last year he spent with his father. If you're looking for a page-turner, forget it, but if you're in the mood for a quiet, reflective novel with plenty of power, check it out.

Eighth Grade Bites: The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, Book 1 (YA 2007) - Heather Brewer

I was helping select some books for Teen Reads Week and ran across this title. I really wasn't expecting much, but was pleasantly surprised by Vladimir Tod and his predicament: Vlad's parents died when he was eleven, three years before this story begins. Since his father was a vampire and his mom was human, Vlad exhibits only some of the common vampire characteristics: he can go out during daylight, but he still needs to drink blood, supplied by his aunt Nellie, who just happens to be a nurse! Sounds lame, but the book is full of humor, action and a sensitive look at adolescence.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (NF 2008) - Timothy Keller

Tim Keller isn't going to beat you over the head with his Bible and he isn't going to beg you to become a Christian, but he is going to address your questions/statements about Christianity head-on, such as "How could a good God allow suffering?" and "The Church is responsible for so much injustice" and "How can a loving God send people to hell?" and much more. He fields questions like these all the time at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Highly recommended.