31 March 2007

The vagaries of history

Will Durant said "most history is guessing, the rest is prejudice." Caroline Alexander's exhaustive (and exhausting) The Bounty: the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty tackles this notion with diligent scholarship. Then-Lieutenant-later-Admiral William Bligh is a polarizing figure, as is his antagonist, Master's Mate Fletcher Christian. Bligh, by all accounts, was a serious and dutiful officer having served with distinction under the two greatest Captains in British Naval history--James Cook and Horatio Nelson. His epic journey in an open boat after the mutiny is one of the great feats of seamanship by anyone anywhere. For all that, a reputation as a cruel and tyrranical martinet has dogged him for 200 years, while Christian elicits sympathy as a Romantic adventurer, cutting loose the bonds of oppression to find freedom and a new life in the blue Pacific. Never mind he marooned his erstwhile shipmates and former patron to what everyone at the time thought was certain death. Funny how things play out. The Age of Discovery, embodied by men like Cook, gave way to War with Napoleon and Nelson's heroics, soon followed by the Romantics, amongst that was industrialization, abolition, the decline of monarchial power, in short, cataclysmic changes in the social order of the Empire. Bligh and Christian were alternately hero and villain depending on who was writing history at the time. Ms. Alexander gives an unflattering portrait of Christian as a bit of a spoiled brat, but well-connected, and his mutinous actions as indicative of an immature, unstable personality. Bligh, the quintessential mariner and scrupulously loyal public servant, has the bulk of her sympathy. At the time, a Royal Navy sea captain was the closest thing to God among men, and sailors were expected to endure unbelievable hardships. What was normal at sea was unimaginable to most landsmen. Safe in our armchairs, we can ruminate on history and pass our judgments. Alexander's book, for me, was a journey back to the 7th grade when I discovered the Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy. Older and wiser 35 years later, it was nice to sail again with these timeless characters, although they were closer to flesh-and-blood men this time.

30 March 2007

Best laid plans . . .

Hey, so who sez I gotta do what I said I was gonna do? I told myself I would blog about all things reading and writing, especially since I have a reading problem. (My problem is I don't get to read ALL the time.) I had a flurry of fiction writing, that tapered off, and I'll pick up again soon. (My job sucks out my brain--have I mentioned that?) So what has made the biggest impression on me lately? Easy--Children of Men. Not the novel by P.D. James. Haven't read it (yet). No, the movie. An outstanding film! It just came out on DVD, and I so rarely go to the cinema the DVD release is like Opening Night for me. Children of Men is a powerful hard-boiled SF tale of the near future, with an understated lead from Clive Owen and a brilliant supporting role from Michael Caine. All the acting is strong throughout, but the rich visuals and striking camera work are the real stars. Whether you are in police-state, terror-prone London or the green English countryside, fear and paranoia lurk beneath every surface. The rebels are as corrupt and morally ambiguous as their enemy, a fascist government, and feral youth gangs menace everyone. The movie is mostly a long chase, with Owen finding himself as a reluctant hero safeguarding a woman who might be humanity's salvation. The stunning ending sequence in the squalid refugee camp has echoes of Bosnia, Baghdad and Gaza, you will grip your seat throughout. A dark and complex movie around a simple tale, so beautifully constructed and photographed that the few far-fetched plot elements quickly become minor quibbles. Highly recommended.

28 March 2007


Nothing I like better than small press, independent literary ventures. And the latest to grab my attention is OUT OF THE GUTTER: Pulp Fiction and Degenerate Literature. Issue number one is now available and going fast so head to http://outoftheguttermagazine.blogspot.com/ and get your copy NOW! If you have perused DZ Allen's Muzzle Flash site as I suggested in an earlier post (http://www.dzallen.blogspot.com/) then you will get the OOTG vibe. (DZ is an assistant editor for the magazine.) Noir, pulp and hard-boiled fiction seems to be making a comeback of sorts, although it has been updated and modernized for a 21st century audience. While crime and mystery fiction is widespread and at least as old as Poe, the hard-boiled story is a uniquely American, post-WWI phenomenon. I wonder what Robert Bellem ("my roscoe went chow-chow") and Carroll John Daly (of Satan Hall fame) would make of OOTG. I suspect they'd dig it.

27 March 2007

Basque noir

Continuing the theme of loaned works, my enthusiasm for the brand of fiction many of us call "noir" resulted in Robert Laxalt's A Cup of Tea in Pamplona on my reading pile. My colleague Kevin, a French-speaking Mexican-American of Irish and Basque ancestry, introduced me to Prof. Laxalt, and his highly-regarded 1985 novella. I was immediately drawn to the world of smugglers, the rainy nights in the high mountains, and the themes of honor and identity among the Basque peasants. Crime and criminal organization is the center of the story, and a tragic death the key plot element. But is it noir? It lacked the lurid and sensational aspects of, say, Mickey Spillane, or the grim violence of Jim Thompson. But it had the crisp dialogue of the Cains (both James M. and Paul) and the fatalism of Hammett and Chandler. Laxalt gained fame as a chronicler of the Basque emigration to this country, in particular their unique stamp on the rural West. A Cup of Tea reads more like a memoir than a novel, the people are rough but not uncultured, the portraits loving but not sentimental. My sensitive and scholarly friend doesn't wrestle with silly distinctions about whether or not something fits the definition of noir, I imagine he's happy to leave that to me and other noir junkies. I'm just glad he knows a good read when he comes across one.

26 March 2007

Aimee's on a bender

Pal Stephani loaned me Aimee Bender's 1998 short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Ms. Bender has a deceptively simple style--the stories have the feel of fairy tales or even Aesop's fables. But the landscape they inhabit includes a mermaid and an imp in high school, a hole where a stomach should be, a nymphomaniac librarian (very appealing!), a devolving lover, a ruby that turns the ocean red, a man who deforms himself into a hunchback, a woman who gives birth to her mother, a backpack made of stone, and, well, some other stuff, too. Weird, funny, serious, light, deep, smart, contradictory, confusing, cockeyed and dead-on, Bender is on to something. Or on something. Then I got to thinking about pal Stephani. I mean, it is her book. And she thought I'd like it. Hmmm.

25 March 2007

The Commodore

"Thick weather in the chops of the Channel and a dirty night, with the strong north-east wind bringing rain from the low sky and racing cloud: Ushant somewhere away on the starboard bow, the Scillies to larboard, but never a light, never a star to be seen; and no observation for the last four days." (This is the opening paragraph in Patrick O'Brian's The Commodore, #17 in the Aubrey-Maturin series.)

There are days, usually cold, gray, rainy days, when I'm battened down with The Captain and The Doctor, somewhere off Brest, Gibraltar, the Macassar Strait, or the wide blue expanse of the Indian Ocean, and I'm convinced--certain, in fact--that Mr. O'Brian is the finest writer in English, nay, the greatest master of the Mother Tongue to have ever put pen in hand. Just look: how many guys can put a colon and a semicolon in the same sentence without blushing, not only that, the sentence is perfect, grammatically speaking, and that same sentence is a complete paragraph and capsule summary of a week's action; not to mention a precise, beautiful and vivid description of place. Imagine twenty novels. Imagine them to be the same story, the same characters, the same setting. Now imagine being enthralled from cover to cover twenty times over, and you will have some sense of P. O'B.'s appeal. Despite my earlier hyperbole, I do know for certain that the aforementioned Doctor, Stephen Maturin y Domanova, is my all-time favorite fictional character. In fact, I know him and love him like a brother. This series, this gigantic 20-chapter sea story and adventure novel, is a meditation on friendship, love and loyalty, and a study of the peculiarities of relationships and the social conventions that bind and break them. O'Brian's grasp of history and language, his astonishing erudition, his encylopedic technical knowledge of ships and sail, his feelings for nature, his keen eye, and his sense of cosmic wonder leave me speechless with awe. There are writers who can do things better than O'Brian, but I'm hard-pressed to find those who can do all the things he can do as well as he can do them. The World Cup of Cricket is happening in the West Indies right now, and that quintessentially English game gives us a term, "all-rounder," describing an athlete who leads his team both batting and bowling. That's Patrick O'Brian.

24 March 2007

Shameless self-promotion

Enough lit crit. Time for some old-fashioned American hucksterism. M.C. has his own stuff to show off and brag about. (Soon I will have a website, and you, Gentle Reader, will go there and get it.) Today I am bragging about my Summer of 2006 Project, which was a travel memoir of my Summer of 2005 Scotland Odyssey. If you are catching on to the Summer Theme here, you will understand the hopeless mental rut of the professional schoolteacher. School year = brain and soul sucked out by carnivorous youth. Summer = joy, bliss, and self-indulgence. Repeat. Retire after multiple repetitions. Sorry, back to shameless self-promotion. My creative efforts resulted in a chapbook, 8 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches, 4o pages with map and photos. I have a lovely little program called "ClickBook" (vers. 9) from Blue Squirrel that lets you format word processor documents in a variety of print-ready layouts. After some hilarious errors, I managed a tidy booklet of about 9000 words. I called it Whisky Tales. If you send me money, I will mail you a copy. WT is the gripping tale of a lad and his lass searching for the perfect spirit. Over hill and dale, moor and mountain we journeyed, drinking nearly unpronouncable drams which we pronounced eminently quaffable. I think it is one hell of a read and can't believe the Scotch Malt Whisky Association hasn't seen fit to make me their Grand American Poo-bah because of it. Alas, there is no justice in this world.

23 March 2007

Crumb's treasures

Robert Crumb is well-known among aficionados of the Bay Area comic scene, and, due to the biopic Crumb by Terry Zwigoff, something of a celebrity these days. Many 45 to 60-somethings have indelible Crumb images (like the "Keep On Truckin' " t-shirts that were ubiquitous in the 1970's) in their brains. "Mr. Natural" and Zap Comix are 60's detritus of iconic status. Mr. Crumb's style, in particular his outrageously proportioned females, is so distinctive as to be unmistakable. Less known is Crumb's devotion to American roots music. Working from old photographs, Crumb released a series of portraits in 1980 of pioneering country, jazz and blues artists from the 1920's. These were put out as trading cards and were quickly gobbled up by collectors. Recently reprinted and commerically available, they have, fortunately, been assembled as a book. R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country is published by Abrams of New York and includes an excellent CD with 21 tunes. Signature-bound on heavy paper, the 5 1/2 by 7 inch hardcover is an absolute treasure. The art, both Pantone and watercolor, is rich, warm and lovingly done. The musicians featured have new life breathed into them, and look out at you from the pages with all the confidence and intensity of serious performers. For any fan of the music, R. Crumb, or simply fine art, this book is a must-have. Search for ISBN 0-8109-3086-2 at your favorite bookseller. (I found mine at Edward R. Hamilton!)

22 March 2007

Hard Case Crime

The most exciting thing in publishing these days (from this desk, anyway) is Hard Case Crime from Dorchester Publishing, q.v. http://www.hardcasecrime.com/index.shtml. Once a month, starting in September of 2004, a new paperback has been released, and it seems that Dorchester is committed to continuing that at least through 2007. About half of the titles are reprints of "classic" noir (A Touch of Death by Charles Williams) and some are new authors (Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie). Famous names like Stephen King, Pete Hamill, Donald Westlake and Erle Stanley Gardner show up alongside emerging stars like Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Russell Hill and Richard Aleas. The books are consistently good, some are brilliant, but the eye-catching covers give the series a distinctive trademark. The artists have captured the lurid flashiness of the heyday of mystery and thriller paperbacks. They make you want to own the books, show them off on your shelf, and best of all, open them up. Noir fiction is alive and well! M.C. sez "check 'em out."

21 March 2007

DZ, Joe Bob, and the Bloggers

My writing juices have only recently begun to flow again, and I have to spread the blame around. First on the list is DZ Allen, creator of "Muzzle Flash," devoted to all things pulp. noir and hard-boiled. Take a look at http://www.dzallen.blogspot.com/ and you'll get the idea. If you haven't figured out the "writer I greatly admire" from a previous post, one who has a penchant for saying "check it out," then you've missed one of the best. Joe Bob Briggs can be found at http://www.joebobbriggs.com/. M.C. sez "check him out." Finally I have to give kudos to the baseball bloggers, especially the Giants fans. These fellows are funny, shrewd, observant, and passionate, in short, everything mainstream sportswriters are not. Thanks guys, not only for saving my baseball soul, but for inspiring me to new adventures at the keyboard. Just a few of the many include Grant at http://www.mccoveychronicles.com/, Lefty at http://www.leftymalo.blogspot.com/, and John J Perricone at http://www.onlybaseballmatters.com/. M.C. sez "check 'em out."

20 March 2007

JCO shorts

I'm new to Joyce Carol Oates and my recent forays into flash fiction and short stories piqued my interest in The Assignation. It is a collection of her "mini-narratives" from the 1980's. From her afterword, she describes a typical piece as "a single head-long plunge toward a conclusion" and the whole work as "radical distillations of story." Being that she is the famous JCO and I'm merely M.C. I have to acknowledge she says it better than I do. Some of the stories ("The Bystander" and "Shelter") have a lingering quality, the unusual characters and circumstances leaving an after-image on the brain. Others generated nothing more than "eh?" She has a long-winded, meandering style which I'd grow weary of in a novel but it works here. Ms. Oates applies her considerable literary muscle to what we might call horror, fantasy, mystery, and SF if we were to apply genre categories to the works. She, of course, has no need to limit herself, and that might be the most appealing thing about The Assignation--Oates writes what comes out, and we go along for the ride.

19 March 2007

Too Easy

Consistent excellence is often overlooked. I've been reading Walter Mosley since 1994 and I forget to mention his name when asked "who do you like to read?" The latest installment of the brilliant Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins series Cinnamon Kiss is another superbly crafted "hard-boiled" mystery that continues the characters and colorful titles that began with Devil in a Blue Dress. Like John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, Easy is a philosopher and social critic as well as a rugged adventurer and problem solver for those whose problems go too far outside the law. Mr. Mosley has a clean, straightforward style, stripped of literary affectation, yet powerful and polished to a high art. If you like SF, Mosley has contributed to that genre as well, and has also written more "mainstream" novels. One of his latest, The Man in My Basement, is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read, yet thoroughly gripping and deeply satisfying. To borrow from a writer I greatly admire, M.C. sez "check him out."

18 March 2007

You Got Nuthin' Comin'

Just finished Jimmy Lerner's You Got Nothing Coming: notes from a prison fish. I had no idea it would be so funny. The "peckerwoods" or white-trash cons our narrator spends his time with are meth-fueled neo-Nazi hillbillies with a penchant for gangsta rap lingo. The stories depressingly remind me of my daily charges in the "alternative" department of a public high school district. The inside world of a Nevada penitentiary is creepy, especially when you see Correctional Officers with the same mentality and behavior displayed by the prisoners. The book lags a bit as the daily routine settles in for Mr. Lerner, but it finishes well with a poignant description of his friendship with a Lifer named Chico, and the harrowing memoir of his descent from middle-class "normalcy" into drinking and drug abuse (and, ultimately, manslaughter). Interestingly, Lerner's satiric send-up of his days as a corporate clone might be the best part. He has a smart-aleck's knack for hitting the right buttons, and the constant use of management jargon to describe prison events works beautifully. Imagine a hard-boiled, bitter Dilbert. In fact, Lerner notes that Scott Adams, the now-famous cartoonist, was briefly a cubicle away from him when they both worked in Danville, CA at a phone company HQ. I picked up this book on remainder from my favorite source--the Edward R. Hamilton catalog. If you don't get ERH, you are missing out.