Monthly Archives: January 2012

Shop talk

When can you call yourself a writer? When can you call yourself a professional writer? And when can you call yourself a good writer? John Scalzi, who certainly qualifies as all three, addresses these questions on his blog, and if you are interested in any of them, reading Scalzi’s thoughts will be worth your time.

Personally, I think the answer to the first question is: When you have completed something. When I was running the bookstore, I welcomed writing groups to hold their meetings in either the front or the back room. Time and again I would hear somebody reading aloud a paragraph, or a sentence, or every once in a while a chapter, but never a finished work. And that’s what separates the writers from the dabblers. Though I was a salary-drawing journalist a year after leaving college, I did not account myself a true writer until a decade later, when I finished my first novel. Like most first novels, it was unpublishable, but I had known the incomparable thrill of willing something into existence that only I could bring into being. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a discernible narrative arc. It wasn’t very good, but it was completed. And that was enough.

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Letter from Hong Kong

I get letters from readers every now and then, but this is the first one to cross the international date line:

Dear Steven Hart:                                                                      January 20, 2012

I’ve had an on-and-off interest in public transport, and so occasionally seek books on the subject to read.  Your book isn’t about public transport, but it is in the same section in the library.  That’s how I came across it when I was seeking books on the former.  Since the book was concise and seemed highly readable, I borrowed it.
Having grown up in New York after emigrating there from my native Hong Kong, I knew the book would bring back memories.  The first time I recalled seeing the Pulaski Skyway was 30 years ago when I took the PATH train from Manhattan to Newark for the first time.  After the train left Journal Square, it hit open country (or should I say the some of the grimier parts of Jersey).  When the train crossed a river, I saw a long black bridge some distance away and thought, What an ugly bridge!  I was looking at the Pulaski Skyway.  I tried to find it on the PATH map that I picked up at the World Trade Center Station (the one that gives a 3D bird’s eye view of Lower Manhattan and vicinity.  The skyway is shown, but (if I remember correctly) it didn’t look as ugly on the map.
Later, after I’d learned to drive, my father advised me that if I was heading south on the NJTP, I shouldn’t take the turnpike (Newark Bay) extension, or I-78, right after I exit the Holland Tunnel.  Instead, I should take US1-9 South, which would put me on the skyway, and enter the NJTP at Exit 13A rather than Exit 14, saving a few cents.
Your description of Frank Hague (whom I’d never heard of before picking up your book) and his hardball brand of politics make much of today’s politics look tame.  With union-busting Dems like Hague, who needs Republicans?
I’ve never really visited Jersey City, treating it as a transit point rather than a destination (similar to what you said about the entire state).  But I’ve visited other parts of Jersey, like a family friend’s home in Nutley that my family used to visit every year.  In fact, despite having seen the grimy areas of Jersey as I passed through them on the PATH train, I didn’t regard Jersey as a dump when I was younger.  Instead, I regarded it (at least the parts I visited) as a safe haven away from New York, which I saw as a place to escape from rather than the unofficial capital of the world.
Well, I finally did escape New York, having returned to Hong Kong over ten years ago.  But while you can take me out of America, you can’t take America out of me – at least not entirely.  That’s why I try to keep up with news in New York as best as I can.
A few copies of your book sit on the shelves of Hong Kong’s various libraries.  I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the first to borrow my copy.  I don’t know when I’ll return to New York for a visit, but if I do, I may pencil down a trip to Jersey City on my itinerary.  It’s only a train ride away.  I’m sure it’s doable in a day.

Sincerely,

I find it very cool to think that The Last Three Miles is available to read in Hong Kong libraries.

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Atlas Drowned

John Scalzi once remarked that people who took Atlas Shrugged seriously tended to be people who (a) imagined that they would wind up on top of the heap if the novel’s comprehensive societal breakdown actually took place, and (b) would in reality last about five minutes in such a situation. John Shirley’s maliciously entertaining new novel Everything is Broken (Prime Books) brings the Ayn Rand scenario to an isolated California coastal town where the libertarian mayor has done away with all those Big Government encumbrances like publicly funded police and fire services, just in time for an earthquake-generated tsunami to smash what’s left of the local infrastructure. Dead bodies are everywhere, Galt Gulch is a debris-choked canyon under armed guard by a band of thugs, and the closest thing to Midas Mulligan is a meth-snorting psychopath in league with the increasingly delusional mayor. A mean book for mean times, Everything is Broken is a bracingly realistic disaster novel with a much-needed political chip on its shoulder. Even a Ron Paul follower should think twice about knocking it off.       

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The Wednesday Westie

January morning idyll, taken in 2009. I hate using flashes — it’s natural light or nothing, for me. Sadie’s usual look of indignation contrasts nicely with the dreaminess of Dances With Mermaids.

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Chapter Four

Mahatma Gandhi stared down from the wall. Theresa tried to ignore him, and when that didn’t work she simply stared back at him and the message beneath his smiling face: The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

“The way you’re glaring at Gandhi,” Lynne said, “it’s like he owes you money.”

“It’s that line about forgiveness,” Theresa said. “It’s pissing me off like you wouldn’t believe.”

Lynne’s hair was an infinite variety of gray strands, light and dark, swirling across the shoulders of her black cardigan. Her face was lined and creased with decades-old smiles, and her heavy-lidded eyes were bright and curious. Theresa guessed her age at late sixties. Theresa devoutly hoped she would look that good when she was pushing seventy.

“Let’s talk about that,” Lynne said.

Theresa reached across the table and pulled a sheaf of tissues from the cardboard box. “I guess it’s because of the first counselor I went to, after everything happened,” she said. “Did the county people tell you about me?”

“Some. It’s better to hear it from you.”

“I got jumped,” Theresa said.

“You mean attacked?”

“Yeah.”

“Sexually attacked?”

“Raped,” Theresa said. “I was raped.”

“Was it . . .”

“There were five of them. They jumped me as I was getting to my car and they took me to an out-of-the-way spot and they made an all-night party out of me.” She automatically touched the scar along her lower lip, and the counselor’s eyes followed the movement. “Three of them had wedding rings on. They were slapping me and punching me, doing the most disgusting things to me, and I kept fixating on those wedding rings. Can you believe it?”

Lynne nodded.

“So the first rape counselor, it started out okay,” Theresa continued. “She, uh . . . she . . . had some good advice at first.” She clutched the used tissues in her left hand and groped for more with the other. “She pushed me to be, you know, physically active, get back to doing physical things, as a way to reclaim my body. That was the best advice she gave me.”

“What happened then?”

“She started throwing Jesus in my face, which I didn’t much like. What tore it was this long speech she gave me about humbling myself, about being fit to give and receive forgiveness. I almost knocked her head in with a paperweight.”

“You didn’t try with somebody else?”

“No, I . . . ” She stopped to take a deep breath.

Theresa glanced up at the poster.

“Something I don’t get about all that,” Theresa said. “About letting go. I mean, about forgiving. How do you do that? How could I do that? They did everything they could think of to me, then they used me for their toilet, and they left me for dead. They left me wanting to be dead. All right? I wake up in the morning and I think how good it would be to just die and not have to remember all the things I’m gonna remember. I can’t even stop thinking about what they did to me, and I’m gonna forgive them? How can I do that? Why would I do that? I can’t see that working for me.”

“Get them out of your head. Keep them from having their victory over you.”

“Oh, they won.” Theresa’s laugh was dry and bitter. Without thinking, she pushed up the sleeves of her blouse and rubbed her eyes. “They won all right. They came out of nowhere, right? They had their sick fun and then they just disappeared. I don’t know if they’re going to pop up again, or if they’re still watching me, or even if they live next fucking door to me. And if they all got the death penalty tomorrow, I’d still have them in my head. That’s never gonna … ” She stopped, too surprised to react as the counselor reached forward and took her hand. Her stomach knotted up as the woman touched the pink razor scars along her arm.

“What about this? Does this work?”

“Let go of my hand.”

“Tell me about …”

Theresa’s voice was hard and deliberate. “Let . . . go . . . of . . . my . . . fucking . . . hand . . . please.” Lynne released her, and she rubbed her wrist, hard. “You can’t do that,” she said.

“Was I hurting you?”

“It’s too much like being held down. It reminds me of too many things.”

“But the scars . . . ”

“I’m not proud of that. I know it’s bad. It just makes things easier sometimes, you know? It lowers the volume for a while. I got plenty of other scars, too. Whenever I started drifting too far away from them, they burned my tits with their cigarettes. Bring me back to the here and now, you know?” She drew a hand across her chest. “You wanna see where one of the animals bit my nipple off?”

Lynne closed her eyes and held up a hand. “I’m on your side, Theresa. They tried to destroy you. There isn’t a moment that goes by without you remembering that. So now you hurt yourself before they can hurt you?”

The blood drained from Theresa’s face. After a long pause, she said: “I guess other people have done that?”

“You’re definitely not the first. But hurting yourself . . . it’s like you’re doing their work for them.”

Theresa sighed. “Lisa says that.”

“Friend?”

“Sister. She’s . . . ” Another laugh. “She’s the only reason I’m even alive right now. I’m completely see-through to her. She knows I’m built to spill.”

“What does that mean?”

“She knows I need somebody to take care of me. Since I’m kind of legendary for my ability to pick shitty guys, Lisa has taken the job.”

“What is it about the men?”

“You name it. Drunks, hitters, rednecks, loudmouths, whatever. If there’s an alpha dog asshole in the room, I’ll find him.”

“Are you with somebody now?”

“No. There was Rob. I . . . he’s the reason I went to stay with Lisa. I was living with him when I got raped. I could tell he didn’t like it that I didn’t just jump right back into my girlfriend duties, but he was okay at first. Then he got really drunk and we had a really bad fight, and he started sounding like he was gonna be rapist number six. I just ran out of the house and got to my car and drove to Lisa’s house. No shoes, no pants, just underwear and a t-shirt and my bag. I spent the whole night screaming and crying in Lisa’s lap. Rob started banging on the door and Lisa went after him with this gigantic butcher knife. Mister Yankee Confederate Rebel, muscles on his muscles, and she’s maybe half my size, and she’s chasing him around the yard. Give me one excuse to use this on you, you worthless shithead fuck.”

“She sounds fantastic.”

“You have no fucking idea. All those years when she was the kid sister, I’m smoking and screwing and hanging out with the roughnecks, and it turns out she’s the tough cookie. If anything happened to her, I would be so fucking alone . . . ”

“No other men since?”

“No. This guy Vinnie, I was supposed to go out for a drink with him the night . . . that night, when they grabbed me. I’d been working all day and I was just going to get a couple of things from my car. He thought I’d stood him up. He texted me all these nasty messages. The animals had a lot of fun reading them to me whenever they took a breather.”

“Oh Christ, Theresa . . . ”

“He tried to visit me in the hospital, but he came the same time as Rob. That didn’t turn out so hot for him. He probably would have been a big step up from Rob, but you know, what tore it for me, I’m in this hospital room, every inch of me is either bruises or stitched up, I’m all doped up so I can use the bedpan without fainting from pain, and he’s whining about how it isn’t fair to shut him out. He went home disappointed that night and I spent the night getting my womb ripped out. How’s that for his not-fair. The high point of fall for me was being able to walk to the toilet without crying. Maybe he’d like to switch places with me. Fuck him and his not-fair.”

Theresa slumped in her chair. Her eyes were swollen and red.

“I carry all this around every minute. So where does forgive come into it?”

“It’s not about forgiving them,” Lynne said, “it’s about forgiving yourself.”

Theresa hunched in her chair. She wouldn’t meet the counselor’s eyes.

“Yes,” Lynne said.

Theresa stared off to the side. There were pictures of Lynne standing on glaciers and mountains, Lynne with swarms of little children, Lynne kayaking across lakes and oceans. Everywhere she looked, Theresa saw things that wrenched her heart.

“These are great pictures.” Theresa’s mouth was a tight white line. Her voice was slow and heavy with emotion. She pointed. “Grandkids?” she whispered.

“Yes.”

“I wish these were my pictures,” Theresa said. “I wish I had all this great stuff to look back on. I don’t want this to be the biggest thing in my life, you know? Getting mauled by a bunch of creeps – poor Theresa, that’ll be the name on my gravestone. I don’t want that.”

“That brings us back to forgiving yourself. Because that’s the biggest hurdle for you right now. It’s not the only one, but . . . ”

“I was stupid,” Theresa managed to blurt out. “All right? I went down that ramp in the dark without even looking. I shouldn’t have parked there in the first place. I set myself up. I was an idiot.”

“You were a human being.”

“I was an idiot. Women have to be careful. That’s just the way it is, all right? It’s like I served myself up on a platter.”

“You were a human being who’d worked her butt off all day and you were going to have a drink with a man who liked you. Do you think you deserved to be raped? For being careless?”

Theresa covered her face and rocked back and forth. She shook her head.

“The guilt is on them. The responsibility is on them, not you. They chose to attack you. They hunted you. You aren’t living in some stupid action movie, you can’t be prepared for something like that. You’re not a predator.” She handed Theresa some more tissues. “You don’t think that way, you’re a good person . . . what?”

Theresa shrugged. “Nothing.”

“You rolled your eyes. When I said you were a good person. You disagree?”

Theresa’s voice was shaky. “It’s not that.”

“You’re not a good person? Do you think you’re a bad person?”

“I dunno about that. But I am pretty much of a fuckup.”

“What do you mean?”

“Lisa’s getting ready to open her own business, she’s got a guy she wants to marry, and I’m in my forties and I’m miles from even starting to get my shit together. Look, could we . . .” So many griefs welled up that she could barely keep herself talking. “This conversation has gotten way heavier than I thought it would. I thought we would . . . introduce . . . “ She gritted her teeth, but a faint keening sound came out anyway. “I need to go somewhere and rest because . . . ” She had to stop talking for a moment. “I wanna stop thinking about myself for a while. I wanna be blank for a while.”

“You know, it’s times like this, when your emotions are boiling over, that talking can do the most good.”

After a few tries, Theresa said: “I need . . .”

“You need to come back here. There’s a lot we need to talk about.”

Theresa hugged herself. She opened her mouth and drew in a deep, shuddering breath. As she exhaled, she seemed to collapse into the chair.

Lynne nodded. “Can you come back in two days? I really want you to do that. And I think you want to, too.”

Another deep breath. She tried to say yes, then after a couple of tries she simply nodded.

Lynne put out her hand. “I won’t grab your hand again. I’m sorry I did that. But is it all right if I hold your hand a moment?”

Theresa’s hand was bigger than Lynne’s. It felt solid and warm, not loose or weak. Lynne came forward and held it against her cheek. When she looked up again, she saw Theresa had been startled by the gentle contact.

“Don’t hurt yourself again. Okay?”

Theresa’s eyes were wide and dark.

“Between now and when you come back. I won’t ask you to promise.” She ran her other hand along the inside of Theresa’s arm, along the grid of small pink scars. “But don’t hurt yourself anymore. Okay? Stop hurting yourself.”

Theresa hunched over in her chair, as though her whole body was clenching into a fist. Her face was deeply red. She gave Lynne the quickest of nods, and then she was out of the chair and rushing down the narrow stairs, fumbling for her cell phone. She sent Lisa a text message and waited in the downstairs foyer, staring hard at the parking lot, willing the van to appear.

Bob Anderson

Bob Anderson, who just died at the age of 89, was second only to William Hobbs when it came to staging swordfight scenes in films. He started out showing Errol Flynn how to swing steel in The Master of Ballantrae (1953) and stayed busy right up through Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. Along the way he choreographed the briefly glimpsed sword work in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, along with the Antonio Banderas Zorro films (gotta love the idea of undressing Catherine Zeta-Jones during a duel — swordplay as foreplay) and the first Pirates of the Caribbean flick. At the time of his death he was back in Middle-earth for the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit.

The clip up top features what is probably Anderson’s most beloved work, the duel between Inigo Montoya and Westley in The Princess Bride (1987), a perfectly shaped parody cum homage to the old clash-and-flash school of Hollywood swordplay. Another highlight was the bruising saber duel in the James Bond film Die Another Day, which you’ll find below.

For my money, Anderson’s finest work was the three-part duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I first wrote about it as part of a series on what I consider the best movie swordfights of all time, and I still think it’s the jewel in Anderson’s crown, right up there with William Hobbs’ brilliant choreography in Rob Roy and Ryu Kuze’s almost hallucinatory climax in The Sword of Doom.

This is superb work: action revealing character every step of the way. It starts with Luke’s flashy, grandstanding challenge, and the insultingly casual way Vader activates his weapon in response. It continues as Luke throws everything he has at Vader, who keeps ratcheting the pressure on the young wannabe until the brutal final act, when Vader uses brute force to bring Luke to the brink of disaster. Though Vader’s costume was usually worn by the hulking David Prowse, Anderson himself donned the black visor for the fight sequences, simply to ensure that Mark Hamill (who wore no protective gear) wouldn’t get his head knocked off. Even when he was being a villain, Bob Anderson was a gentleman. Now that’s a class act!

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