Tag Archives: Lance Mannion

The thriller of it all

All readers are critics, but not all readers (and definitely not all critics) are created equal. So when this reader-blogger offers a critique of a thriller, it’s useful to pay attention. I particularly liked this observation:

There are three ways to go with a thriller.  You can write what’s essentially a horror story.  You can tell a morality tale.  You can make it a comedy.  It seems like most contemporary thrillers—books and movies—are horror stories. The bad guys are monsters, inhumanly evil, irresistible, relentless, and possessed of an almost supernatural ability to cause harm and get away with it.  John D. McDonald, Raymond Chandler, and Robert B. Parker told morality tales. Most of the crimes in their novels arise from decent people’s moral failings rather than from the intrusion of an outside evil.

That certainly gets at the core of what I like most about John D. MacDonald’s novels. His Travis McGee books are not as consistent as, say, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport series, but the only out-and-out stinker of the series, The Green Ripper, goes wrong because MacDonald has his hero tangling with a terrorist cell disguised as a bizarre religious cult. (Great way for terrorists to avoid attention.) There’s also the tired device of having the hero out to avenge the murder of his beloved, but even that might have been less wheezy if MacDonald had kept his villains within the realm of crooked sheriffs, sleazy developers, petty mobsters, and rustic psychopaths — territory MacDonald made his own over the course of dozens of novels.

I’m not crazy enough to equate myself with MacDonald or any of the other authors in Lance Mannion’s piece, but my own fiction rests comfortably within his definition of a morality tale. I tend to nod off when reading about eeee-vil global conspiracies and bands of maniacs with Hitler’s head tucked away in the freezer. I like human-scaled heroes and villains, and I prefer the evil acts to arise from recognizable human-scale behavior.

That’s the case with my first novel, We All Fall Down, and it will be the case with my second, Echo, coming out in about ten months or so. But I’ll get back to that in due course.     

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Friday finds

The Top 29 chalkboard gags from The Simpsons, thoughtfully compiled with images. Funny stuff, but what happened to “It’s ‘potato,’ not ‘potatoe,'” the show’s tribute to the administration that early on provided it with so much material.

Lance Mannion reads Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel and finds . . . something like his past.

When I heard that Nicolas Sarkozy wants to award Albert Camus a posthumous honor, my first thought was, “And George W. Bush wants to give Noam Chomsky the Medal of Freedom.” But whatever.

The oldest book in Scotland gets dusted off. Take a look.

Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s novel about a rape-murder victim watching events unfold from the afterlife, is lacking in backbone, according to some critics.

“‘Richard Dawkins points out that he could with equal validity, though with less impact, have called his famous first book not The Selfish Gene but The Cooperative Gene.'” Well, that’s nice to know after all these years, now that three decades of popular-science enthusiasts have convinced themselves that Nature herself speaks in the language of Ayn Rand. One hopes the word will get around.”

A fond tribute to Rick Danko, underrated bassist and songwriter for The Band, on the tenth anniversary of his passing. And a tribute to folk icon Lead Belly on the 60th anniversary of his passing.

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Fifteen big ones

Via Lance Mannion, I have discovered the meme known as 15 Books That Will Always Stick With Me. This meme is so powerful that one needn’t be tagged directly to succumb to its awesome level of Not Lameness. In fact, I’m going to emulate Lance by dividing the books into pre-high school, high school and college categories. And once you’ve read it, don’t consider yourself tagged. Consider yourself invited to participate with a list of your own special books.

Pre-high school

THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, Ray Bradbury: A tall decanter full of dreams. If memory serves, I got into Bradbury via the film version of Fahrenheit 451, which was on TV quite a bit for a while, and which I liked mainly for the glorious music by Bernard Herrmann. I had already devoured R Is For RocketThe Illustrated Man, and The Golden Apples of the Sun, but this is the collection I always think of when somebody asks me about Bradbury in his prime. These stories were culled and revised from Bradbury’s first book, Dark Carnival, and are some of the most macabre stuff he ever wrote.

WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, Bertrand Russell: The title essay is the reason I never finished confirmation classes at the church my parents were flogging me into every Sunday. Does a book’s impact get any more personal than that? 

DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? Philip K. Dick: My introduction to PKD came from a small library of paperbacks that lined a couple of shelves in my seventh-grade science teacher’s classroom. The back cover promised all kinds of smutty science fiction fun. What I got was a cage-rattling meditation on the nature of human identity, and an undertow of tragedy that just about knocked me sidewways at my tender age.

THE ASCENT OF MAN, Jacob Bronowski: My introduction to Bruno came via the Channel 13 broadcast of the BBC series, and as soon as it was done I got a copy of the hardcover book by joining the Literary Guild. Did I understand everything I read. Of course not, but the effort did me good.

GODS, GRAVES, AND SCHOLARS, C.W. Ceram: A great popular history of archaeology, loaded with Indiana Jones stuff as well as some excellent leads on other works of history. I learned about Cortes and the conquest of Mexico from this book, which led to a lifelong fascination with the subject.        

THE HEIGHTS OF MACCHU PICCHU, Pablo Neruda: My introduction to the greatest poem by one of our greatest poets came about through a science fiction story, “Come to Me Not in Winter’s White” by Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison, which I read in Ellison’s collection of collaborative stories, Partners in Wonder. Art is where you find it. 

High school

CANNERY ROW/THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN, John Steinbeck: After coming across a beat-up copy of Travels With Charley in a Sea Isle City bungalow, I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years reading every Steinbeck title I could get my hands on. For my money, these are his two best novels.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS/IN OUR TIME, Ernest Hemingway: The next summer was spent plowing through the big guy’s works, which didn’t take as long as the Steinbeck Summer, so I filled out August with a few Herman Hesse titles. (This was the mid-Seventies, when high schoolers looking for stirrings of transcendance felt obligated to read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf.) Since I was also going through my Sorrows of Young Werther period, the romantic longings in A Farewell to Arms really struck a deep chord, and I continue to admire the spare music of Hemingwway’s short stories.   

THE GLORY AND THE DREAM, William Manchester: Mid-20th century American history, from the arrival of the Bonus Army marchers in Washington D.C. to the eviction of Richard Nixon from the White House. Narrative history at its finest. I think it’s a tragedy Manchester never got to finish his three-part Churchill biography.   

WRITINGS AND DRAWINGS, Bob Dylan: Lucky me. Not only was Blood on the Tracks my first Bob Dylan album, but 1975 was a great year to be a Dylan fan. Blood on the Tracks came out in January, The Basement Tapes was released (in water-down form) in June, and all through the fall I followed the glamorous wanderings of the Rolling Thunder Revue in the pages of Rolling Stone, and Desire came out so early in January that I have a hard time remembering it as a 1976 release. Somewhere along the way I acquired  this collection of lyrics, album cover notes and poetry in a slick tan cover, which is the reason I knew most of Dylan’s other albums by reading them before I listened to them.

INTERVIEW WITH HISTORY, Oriana Fallaci: I never made good on my teen fantasy of having an affair with the diminutive hellraiser, but I did the next best thing and spent a lot of quality time with this collection of interviews, in which Fallaci made Yasir Arafat, Henry Kissinger and the Shah of Iran (among others) deeply and profoundly regret the day they opened their doors to her. Kissinger once said that agreeing to talk with Fallaci was “the stupidest thing I ever did.” Years later, when I found myself bumping shoulders with Kissinger at a buffet table, the only thing I could imagine saying to him was, “Damn, Henry, Oriana really pounded that one up your ass, didn’t she?” And yet I kept quiet! What demon possessed me, that I behaved so well? 

College

RED HARVEST, Dashiell Hammett: After the farm wagon dropped me off at Livingston College, I batted some of the straw out of my hair and headed for the campus bookstore, where my very first purchase was this detective novel by a writer I’d been hearing about for some time. It has the most perfect opening of any noir book I’ve read. I think I spent the rest of the semester talking out of the side of my mouth.

MATTERS OF FACT AND OF FICTION, Gore Vidal: I’d long had a vague idea of Gore Vidal, but it took someone lending me this book while I spent several weeks recovering from a bout of mono to show me what I’d been missing. Exemplary essays and reviews that opened up a lot of new horizons for me. In fact, one of the reviews led me to . . .

THE POWER BROKER, Robert Caro: When I wrote The Last Three Miles, I had in mind doing something with a bit of the same historic sweep that makes this massive biography so engrossing. Robert Moses’ heroic image as the master builder of New York City was overturned by Caro’s examination, which takes in virtually every significant trend affecting mid-20th century America and New York City, and shows how one man really can make a difference — for good and for ill. The book’s level of detail is daunting, its argument commanding, its scope breathtaking.      

PATRIOTIC GORE, Edmund Wilson: My introduction to the Civil War as something more than a collection of dates and battles with odd names came through this massive collection of essays on the era’s literature. Abraham Lincoln’s ritings, William Tecumseh Sherman’s diaries, Mary Chestnut’s diaries . . . and Carl Sandburg’s cornpone myth-mongering, praised and/or debunked as the occasion demands.

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A Lucas epiphany

Dances With Mermaids was recently bitten by the Star Wars bug, and she’s seen all the movies now. Nothing I’ve seen has made me re-evaluate my opinion of the series: The Empire Strikes Back remains not just the best of the bunch, but the only one worth differentiating. I mean, who cares if Attack of the Clones is slightly worse than Return of the Jedi, or slighter better than The Phantom Menace? That’s why God invented fanboys — to engage in those kind of arguments.  

But I still have enough fanboy DNA in my personality to take note when Lance Mannion, hearing George Lucas interviewed ad infinitum on the bonus disc of Star Wars ephemera, hits on what may be the reason most of the flicks are so lame:

I don’t think the mild-manneredness or the modesty are phony.  But humilty is not incompatible with a large ego.  In fact, that’s why humility is a virtue.  You have practice it and the bigger your ego the more virtue there is in your humility.  Lucas knows he didn’t do it all on his own and he’s happy to give credit where he believes credit is due.

I just think that he gives people the wrong kind of credit.

I noticed this when he was telling the interviewer about how the great illustrator Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art helped him sell his, Lucas’s, vision of Star Wars to the suits at 20th Century Fox.  Lucas was grateful to McQuarrie, but he didn’t seem to realize that McQuarrie had done the actual work of creating the look of the Star Wars world.  He seemed to think of McQuarrie as the artistic equivalent of a stenographer and what McQuarrie produced as the equivalent of taking dictation.   It didn’t occur to him that along with influencing the studio execs’ images of what the movie would look like, McQuarrie was influencing Lucas’s own.

In other words Lucas appreciates everybody who works for him as extensions of himself.  He doesn’t really see them as artists in their own rights and especially doesn’t see that in many cases they are far better artists than he is.

So he doesn’t learn from them.

I don’t think he knows how much of the first two Star Wars movies he owes to not just the artists, model builders, costume designers, set designer, cinematographer, and special effects technicians but to Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Frank Oz, and (yes, Trish Wilson) Peter Cushing.

I think Lucas’ inability to learn from the people he works with explains why as Lucas has asserted more and more control over every aspect of the movies. each movie since Empire Strikes Back has been sillier than the one before. Not being able to learn from his actors has especially hurt him.  In the new movies he has assembled a much more talented collection of actors:  Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Jimmy Smits.  I even think Hayden Christensen’s doing a good job.  And he’s wasted them.  Every one of them.  Worse, he’s made Natalie Portman look bad.

I have enough geek cells in my bloodstream to have a copy of the two-disc Empire DVD that includes the original version of the film, before Lucas started dicking around with the special effects and dubbing in new dialogue. I decided that if I ever watched the film again, it would be the version without the awful girl-man screech inflicted on Luke as he let himself fall down the Cloud City ventilation shaft. That’s the version Dances With Mermaids has seen, I’m happy to say.

I wonder how many Geeks Of A Certain Age have insisted on showing their kids the movies in the order of release, rather than the canonical order cooked up by Lucas? Wil there be two schools of thought, going forward, on which is the better way?         

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