Monthly Archives: July 2011

Stieg’s cause

A great many things can be done in the wake of the horrific Christianist terror attack in Norway. While it’s far from the most important thing, I’d like to see the discussion of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally popular “Millennium”  novels — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — shift away from Larsson’s personal life and toward the journalism he made his life’s work. Anders Behring Breivik is exactly the kind of right-wing psychopath Larsson worked to expose and discredit, and while we’re waiting to see what becomes of the unfinished manuscripts Larsson left behind, I’d like to see some enterprising publisher put together a collection of his best exposes, with editorial notes to help readers outside Scandinavia keep track of the context.

As this Guardian piece points out, murderous right-wing whackos are a staple of Scandinavian crime fiction, and maybe a journey through the works of Henning Mankel, Jo Nesbo, and Jonas Wergeland will offer some insights into our own homegrown, FoxNews-fed breed of creep.

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Friday finds

So far this summer has been regrettably short on stories about killer sharks or giant squid. Fortunately, this 18-foot saltwater crocodile will suffice for the time being.

Moomins versus Totoros. Only this intrepid blogger dares to compare.

Zen monks fighting a wildfire in Big Sur? Tell me more.

Gloucester, Mass., as an inspiration to Edward Hopper. Via Lance.

“The relationship between fathers and sons is always very competitive. I’m jealous of my kids too. As you get tired and get older, you see these kids having a great life, you think: fuck them. You’re furious. This is part of the difficulty of the relationship. Thinking about how much you hate your own children as much as you love them, and how much they hate you sometimes, and why all these things are intertwined is a crucial part of parenting. My Dad was very annoyed at my success, which he thought was undeserved compared to his own genius and brilliance. It was very smart of me to not take any notice of that and carry on working and allow him to live with his own failure, which was very difficult for him.”

The rise and fall of Limburger cheese in America.

Ambrose Bierce has joined the Black Jacket Club! It’s long overdue, as I could have told you years ago. It just so happens I have a few other suggestions.

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In memoriam

But I do grieve, grieve still;
a continent, an
ocean and a year
removed from you, I still
find it impossible
to think of you as past,

and I know too well
by now there’ll never
be anything like
a persuasive
reconciliation
for your having gone.

What there is instead
is knowing that at least
we had you for a time,
and that we still have
evidence of you, in
your work and in the love

which eternally
informs the work, that
one love which never ends.

– C.K. Williams
“Elegy for an Artist/ Still”

Writer’s Block

Lawrence Block has a blog! Who knew? If you know the author of the Matthew Scudder detective novels (as well as two genuinely helpful and valuable books about writing, Spider Spin Me a Web and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit) you’ll add it to your bookmarks, like, immediately.

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Big Brother knows what I like

Big Brother’s steady incursions into my privacy have had one beneficial effect: whenever I go to a website with those ads for the zZounds music store, I get bombarded with images of Les Paul-style electric guitars, both of the Epiphone and Gibson varieties. That’s because, for me, guitar ads are the same thing as Page Six girls, and I can’t resist looking even though I can’t afford any of them.

What’s impressive to me is that whatever programming thingy is used on the ads remembers my predilections so thoroughly: the images are always those great, womanly-shaped Les Paul models, even the lower-priced numbers Ibanez puts out. (Look at this Artist model and tell me you don’t want to give it a try.) Only once did I accidentally click on a Fender model, which meant Strats and Teles were sown through the Les Pauls for a while, but now they’re pretty much gone. I can’t deny the appeal of a Stratocaster, but Big Brother knows what makes my heart go pitter-pat.

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The long goodbye

Pal Joey’s new book, 19th Nervous Breakdown: Making Human Connections in the Landscape of Commerce, most of which is based on his experiences working at a store in the expiring Borders chain, gets a mention from a columnist in the Plain Dealer. Meanwhile, Lance Mannion points out that most of the obituaries for Borders omit certain crucial facts concerning the cause of death.

It may be too late for Borders, but it’s just the right time to get a copy of Joe’s book. I’m just sayin’. It makes a nice palette cleanser after chowing down on the latest George R. R. Martin.

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Black Angel Revue

That’s what we’re calling tomorrow night’s joint reading between Your Humble Author and poet John Marron, slated for 9 p.m. at The Raconteur in Metuchen. The Raconteur is worth a visit all by itself, and with the likes of Hart and Marron reading . . . geez, how could you pass it up?

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Turn the page

Aside from the fact that as a writer I have a vested interest in seeing lots of venues for selling books, I felt a little twinge at the news that the Borders Books and Music chain is about to be sold for scrap. When the East Brunswick Borders opened in the early Nineties, it was the first time I’d been in a big box bookstore with enough stock to rival my beloved Coliseum Books (during its reign just below Columbus Circle). And since I was covering East Brunswick for the News Tribune (another brand since gone extinct), stopping by Borders for a couple of cups of java and a stroll through the stacks made for a nice prelude to meeting nights. It certainly adds a note of poignance to friend Joe’s book 19th Nervous Breakdown, which grew out of his time working at a Borders store in the Bay Area.

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Say hello to Lauren

Lauren Curtis,who worked up the cover art and design for We All Fall Down, has a nice post about the novel on her art blog. She asked me to talk a bit about the inspiration for the novel, which I was happy to do, since there was nothing murky about the reasons I came up with the character of Karen McCarthy and concocted a story through which she could move.

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Mild about Harry

So that’s that. On to the next franchise.

The second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows serves as a reminder that while J.K. Rowling’s novels were acts of inspiration and wild creativity, the film versions have been all about boosting and solidifying corporate brands.When I watched the first half of Deathly Hallows last year, I was struck by the radical differences in pacing and mood from the earlier flicks, and thought something genuinely different and moving might be in store for the conclusion. Nice to know I can still  be an optimist after all this time. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is just one final wringing-out of the old cash mop.

It’s far from a disaster — nothing like the fiasco that was Return of the Jedi, for example. It doesn’t do anything egregiously wrong, it just doesn’t do anything particularly great. It’s less an adaptation than a dutiful trot through the second half of Rowling’s immense book, with each plot point ticked off. Escape from the Gringotts vault? Check. Forces of good rallying to defend Hogwarts? Murder of Severus Snape? Check. Fiendfyre? Spectral meeting with Dumbledore? Beheading of Nagini? Check, check, and check. Everything is done correctly, but hardly anything is done right.

The Return of the King was widely mocked for its multiple endings, but Peter Jackson and crew were striving (often clumsily) to bring emotional closure to a sprawling epic narrative, and the film ended with a genuine sense of lives going on after the conclusion of a great task. The ending of Deathly Hallows conveys mostly relief at finally being shut of the paraphernalia of broomsticks and dragons and magic wands. When Harry breaks the elder wand and flings it into a chasm, you don’t think of Harry bringing a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom to bear on a tainted weapon — you hear Daniel Radcliffe thinking, “That’s the last time I’m going to have to dick around with one of these things again.”

The siege of Hogwarts adds up to little more than a pretty light show, with the Death Eaters shooting sparklers at a gleaming membrane above the school. Never once does the battle convey any real sense of danger or madness, even as XBox-ready giants and Buick-sized spiders storm the walls and students watch people they’ve literally grown up with get blasted to atoms. When Crabbe unleashes a torrent of sentient flames in the Room of Requirement, Rowling’s point about evil consuming itself with its own weapons (Crabbe not only dies from his own curse, but he further wounds Voldemort by destroying another horcrux) turns into just another excuse to show people running away from special effects. And the revelation of Snape’s secret heroism, the emotional climax of the novel, is more confusing than dramatic — I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t read the book would understand any of it.

David Yates also directed the Half-Blood Prince adaptation, and that film’s creative fumbles play directly into the final movie’s failings. The biggest strength of Half-Blood Prince was the detective work into Voldemort’s past, and the decision to jettison those crucial scenes to make room for more teen romance cuts the legs out from under Deathly Hallows. This is the first time we get to see Voldemort as something more than a closing-scene boogeyman, but while Ralph Fiennes imbues the villain with touches of vulnerability and doubt, the script doesn’t give him enough to work with. Rowling showed us how, but for a few accidents of fate and character, Harry could have ended up as twisted and malignant as Voldemort. But the Half-Blood Prince film ditched her exposition to focus on teens making out, so when one of the Hogwarts ghosts in Deathly Hallows tells Harry he reminds her of the young Voldemort, the line that packed a punch in the novel barely warrants a shrug in the film.

I guess the sad thing about the Harry Potter films is that by the time genuinely talented directors were brought in to amp up the films, the novels had grown beyond anyone’s control. After giving the first two films to career hack Christopher Columbus, who brought exactly the kind of anonymous competence needed to establish a corporate brand, the producers were daring enough to hire Mexican visionary Alfonso Cuaron for the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, to handle the story’s more ambitious themes. Azkaban had plenty of heart and brains to match, but each of the next four novels was of such Brobdingnagian proportions that the next directors, Mike Newell and David Yates, were reduced to traffic cops keeping the special effects on track while dumptruck-loads of exposition rumbled past.

There’s an old theatrical maxim about scriptwriting: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” For all the knocks that can be aimed at J.K. Rowling’s books — their bagginess, their stretches of overwriting, their need for editing — there’s no doubt that she put the real stuff into every one of her novels. The best the films can manage is to remind us of that. Where Harry Potter is concerned, the magic is all on the page.

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