Thursday, October 15, 2020

BOOK IT, DANO (AGAIN)!

 When last we spoke, I recommended books to read for those who might be stuck at home during the pandemic. Since very little has changed, I’m going to recommend some more, once again plumbing my bookcase, which is full of books I read years ago and now, occasionally, re-read.

Local libraries are reopening — or delivering — and, of course, there are other ways to get older tomes via the internet: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, etc. I can’t swear that I haven’t mentioned these books in previous columns, so, if I have, shoot me an email. It would be nice to have some new correspondence. Give me something to do other than staring at my bookcase.   

The Best of Robicheaux (The Author’s Choice) by James Lee Burke. Now, I don’t know if the great Burke actually chose In the Electric Mist with Confederate DeadCadillac Jukebox, or Sunset Limited as his “best” Dave Robicheaux books. His publisher probably just put the anthology together. (Personally, I like Burke’s Heaven’s Prisoners.) But these three are great thrillers and a terrific introduction to the reformed-alcoholic Louisiana detective. Burke is an atmospheric writer, so be prepared to get a hankering for Cajun food.

The Pigman & Me by Paul Zindel. A crazy title for a small and hilarious book by the author better known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Heck, that’s a crazy title, too! Anyway, The Pigman & Me is allegedly a true story about Zindel’s life on Staten Island, New York City’s “forgotten borough.” It details Zindel’s formative years. Having spent my own formative (or deformative) years on Staten Island, I can attest that Zindel’s interaction with, among hundreds of other oddities, the apple tree, the water-headed baby, Cemetery Hill, and Nonno Frankie Vivona (the Pigman) are probably not exaggerated. In fact, let’s do away with “allegedly.”

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean. Most people remember the great Brad Pitt movie made from this book. “I am haunted by waters,” Maclean writes at the end of the title piece, which contains his recollections of life with his father and brother as they fished the Big Blackfoot River in the Rockies. You will be haunted by this book, which is more about life than fishing. Maclean published River in his 70s (giving us all hope). One of his earlier works, Young Men and Fire, about Montana’s Man Gulch forest fire of 1949, has resonance to this day, as we are all sadly aware.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve mentioned this great comedic thriller before, but it, and I, bear repeating. The plot is pure genius. A Miami loan shark named Chili Palmer finds himself embroiled in Hollywood intrigue — and is right at home! John Travolta — aided by a terrific cast that included Renee Russo, Gene Hackman, and Danny DeVito — played Chili perfectly in the film of the same name. It’s one of those movies that, if you come across it while channel surfing, you ignore the grease fire in the kitchen to watch. The novel is just as addictive.

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. At one time, horseracing was one of America’s premier sporting events. And this true tale of an undersized, non-thoroughbred-looking Thoroughbred who captured the imagination of a Depression-ravaged America belongs in every reader’s winner’s circle. Hillenbrand is now probably better known for Unbroken, the true story of a man who survived Japanese torture during WWII. But Seabiscuit, which is as much about the people and an era as it is about the horse, is justifiably a classic.  

Olivier by Terry Coleman. The definitive biography of the greatest actor, stage or screen, of the 20th century. Who doesn’t remember his performance as the sadistic Nazi dentist in “Marathon Man” (“Is it safe?”), drilling Dustin Hoffman’s teeth without Novocain? But my first memory of Sir Laurence is his mesmerizing portrayal of the tortured Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights.” There is not one movie with Olivier in it that is not special. In this biography, Coleman brilliantly defines a man who somehow weathered an affair (and marriage) to the great but depressive Vivien Leigh, debt, many serious illnesses, and, of all things, crushing stage fright!

Saturday, September 12, 2020

WHAT'S OLD MAY BE NEW!

 

It occurs to me that it has been a while since I wrote a column in which I recommended books to read. Since many people are presumably stuck at home, now is probably a good time.

However, unlike many such lists, I will highlight books that may not be particularly current. Why? Well, mainly, because I am also stuck at home staring at my bookcase, and it’s full of books I read years ago.

Some of those that I mention may be hard to find, but heck, that’s what Amazon is for, right? So, here goes, in no particular order:

 FICTION

 Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. This massive 1985 tome is probably my favorite science-fiction novel. The plot is believable. An alien race consisting of a species (whose members look a lot like pachyderms) attacks and then invades Earth. What makes this story so compelling is that the invaders have their own moral code (we see things from their perspective), and their weapons are not all that superior to ours. I won’t give away the ending, but I will tell you that the battle is touch-and-go, and the human race produces some very unlikely heroes.

 The Complete Father Brown Stories by G. K. Chesterton. I have been watching past seasons of the BBC’s excellent Father Brown series, in which the inquisitive umbrella-carrying Catholic parish priest solves cases the local (and exceedingly dim) British constabulary bungle. So, I decided to spring for some of the original short stories written by Chesterton in the 1920s and 30s. (The BBC series has been updated to the 1950s.) The Wordsworth Classics paperback contains more than 50 of the stories and with preface and introduction clocks in at almost 800 pages.) Not to worry! It is available on Amazon for $4.99! That’s not a typo or the 1950 price. Snap it up.

 The Cape Cod Lighter, by John O’Hara. Another collection of short stories, by the great Philadelphia Main Line writer. O’Hara stripped the pretenses from well-to-do Americans better than just about anyone. And he did it in the 1960s, before a lot of the people he skewered even knew they were pretentious.

 The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald. Macdonald’s real name was Kenneth Millar and he wrote this thriller, which many critics consider high art. Some readers may remember the movie “The Drowning Pool” that starred Paul Newman as private eye Lew Harper. In the book, he was named Lew Archer. I don’t know why they changed the name. But, then, I don’t know why Millar changed his. In any event, both book and movie, which deal with corporate greed and family hatred in California, are terrific. Get hooked on Millar/Macdonald. He wrote 24 other great thrillers.  

 NON-FICTION

 Oh, Florida by Craig Pittman. Readers of my Facebook rants know that I think the state of Florida, where I live, is full of people nuttier than I am – and that’s saying a lot! I offer this book as proof. If I had put it the FICTION section, nobody would have noticed. Pittman details some of Florida’s most-outrageous crooks, shysters, charlatans, scams, schemes and politicians in a fun, rollicking and well-researched compendium of corruption. And, yet, you can’t help but realize that he still loves the state. As do I. How nuts is that!

 Iwo Jima, Legacy of Valor by Bill D. Ross. Lest folks think that I am a political malcontent, I offer this sobering book about unbelievable heroism and self-sacrifice. William Manchester said it best: “Moving and dramatic; a tribute to those who sacrificed their futures that we might have ours.” At a time when I often think that the “Ungrateful Generation” is betraying all the things the “Greatest Generation” won for it, Iwo Jima, Legacy of Valor, is a stark reminder of how great Americans can be.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

I HEAR YOU!

A couple of years ago, I devoted a column to the popularity of audiobooks. I recounted how some members of a golf group I occasionally joined were enthusiastic audiobook aficionados. I was asked why my books weren’t part of the “lucrative” audio market.

I don’t see many of those golfers much anymore. I’m not the president; I don’t really play all that often. Besides, the pandemic shut down the course for a long while, and when it reopened, only walking was allowed. After 18 holes in the heat (and it’s been brutal), returning golfers look like they were at a casting call for “The Walking Dead.
I walked only nine holes until golf carts were allowed back. You have to ride alone now, unless you’re with your wife (the rationale being, I suppose, that couples who golf together want to kill each other anyway.)

But if I do run into those duffers, I can’t wait to tell them that I now have an audiobook in the works.

To recap, there are three ways to create an audiobook: You can narrate your own; you can hire a narrator and pay an upfront fee; or you can hire a narrator who will accept a percentage of future sales rather than a fee.

The first two choices are modestly expensive and very expensive, respectively. The last route, the revenue-sharing one, has no cost. But the author will give up some royalty income which, believe me, isn’t that great to begin with.

I don’t want to narrate my own books. Thus, I needed a good narrator. The audiobook universe is expanding exponentially thanks to downloading technology and the pandemic’s stay-at-home effects. And there are plenty of narrators out there; many artistic types have to supplement their incomes. But finding a suitable narrator isn’t that easy.

The Amazon ACX platform, where audiobooks are created and reside, has its own online “university” to explain the process, as well as how to find and interview potential narrators. I read the ACX instructions, which appear to have been written by the same folks who put together the Florida unemployment website.

Fortunately, a narrator found me! Wayne Miller, an old friend and actor who likes my thrillers and mysteries, contacted me and wanted to know if I was amenable to a revenue-sharing deal. He has done some voice-over work on TV and has his own little recording studio in his house. He even sent me a chapter of one of my books as an audio file.

I was thrilled both with his suggestion and the sample. He’s now working on the whole book. I have my fingers crossed, hoping that it will be successful for both our sakes. After all, I have more than 20 other books, in three series, which I believe lend themselves to audio…  

Saturday, May 16, 2020

TRUTHINESS

Before I was rudely interrupted by a plague, I had promised to reveal whether some of the following actually happened to me and appeared in my fiction. To recap, in abbreviated form:
  • The Poison Pen: A man is outraged because the poison-pen letter his wife receives doesn’t accuse him of fooling around (as other husbands on the block were) but instead criticizes his yard work.
  • The Log that Wasn’t: A fisherman in Cuba almost steps on a huge barracuda he assumed was a floating log.
  • Religious Experience: A full-service bar below a church sacristy was once a speakeasy and is now used for Rosary and Altar Society meetings.
  • A Head for News: A young reporter with a hangover looks in the back seat of a car and sees the head of its decapitated driver.
Well, all these instances happened to me, but only the first three made it into books. Of course, the last incident will eventually make it in, too!

In case you are wondering, the Cuba incident occurred at Guantanamo Bay when I was in the Marines and went fishing in my spare time. I had achieved the lofty rank of lance corporal, which meant I was basically in command of my bunk, which, I am happy to say, survived the Vietnam War happening 7,000 miles away.

I was thinking about the Marines the other day as I went through some old photos. I recalled that, many years ago, when I worked at the New York Times, the paper printed a story on the anniversary of the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima in the Pacific. The reporter said that the iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was “staged” by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press.
This falsehood, which intimated that the picture was posed, started gaining traction just after WWII and was repeated ad nauseum. The Rosenthal photo was neither staged or posed. He took a shot of the second, larger flag going up, ordered by commanders because it was easier for men on ships to see.

I contacted Al Siegal, an assistant managing editor at the Times, who was the in-house authority on all things and who co-authored the New York Times stylebook (which I still have!). I told him that the photo was not staged, and that a Marine Corps cameraman, Sgt. William Genaust, had taken synchronous film to prove it. Al, as he always did, checked it out, and the paper issued a retraction. (An aside: Genaust and three of the six men who raised the flag were soon killed in action.)

I mention this because I keep getting Facebook, YouTube, and other posts which are either obviously fabricated (in some cases, photoshopped), or which claim that someone is an “expert” speaking on behalf of “thousands” of other experts, and which promulgate all sorts of conspiracy theories. Was covid-19 really started on the grassy knoll by an autistic deliveryman from a Chinese restaurant who was vaccinated against it?

My point is, while truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, in today’s non-gatekeeper world, lies are often taken as fact.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

A POX ON ALL YOUR PROSE!

Wow. It’s amazing how events can overtake us.

I promised in my last column to continue my “truth is stranger than fiction” ruminations, detailing scenes in some of my thrillers and asking you to guess which I imagined out of whole cloth, and which actually happened.
Seems a bit of overkill now, with what’s going on pandemically.
But, just to finish the thought: ALL the incidents I have already mentioned REALLY happened to me. I may have embellished them in my writing, but, hey, that’s my job. I also changed the names to protect the guilty (me). When things calm down, I hope to revisit the topic.

The New York Times recently ran an interesting piece by an author who opined that this might not be the best time to start writing a virus-disaster novel. It’s fine to take notes, but perhaps we should let the dust settle to provide some perspective.
However, in a similar light, don’t you find it weird that many novelists and screenwriters in the past have written about “unlikely” catastrophes that are now in the headlines: “The Andromeda Strain,” “Outbreak,” “Contagion,” “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” and, of course, one of my favorites, “2012” (a movie that came out in 2009!).

Thank God our politicians are always prepared for the worst. Not! 
I myself have written a couple of thrillers (The Viron Conspiracy and Thawed), in which the world is threatened by disease. Fortunately, we all survive, mainly because most of my thrillers are in series form and, well, you know. Of course, in Thawed, I do manage to mess up the Kentucky Derby, and, sadly, so has the current pandemic.

I have four grandkids. The three in Connecticut (ages 14, 12, and 10) are readers. So, I ordered some age-appropriate books for them which I hope mitigates, somewhat, their cabin fever:
I also have a toddler grandson in California who can’t read yet, although I’m pretty sure he can handle an iPhone better than I can.

Finally, there is a letter making the Internet rounds, purportedly written by F. Scott Fitzgerald while he and his wife, Zelda, were under quarantine in France during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1920. It is a parody, easily vetted by his claim that Hemingway punched him in the stomach when told the bars were closed (F. Scott supposedly asked Ernest if he’d washed his hands).

However, there is a great line: “The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy.”

Friday, February 7, 2020

A HEAD CASE?

I won’t belabor the controversy surrounding American Dirt. I see both sides of the debate about whether an author who does not have personal experience of a culture can write about that culture.
But if push comes to shove, I’d probably be more sympathetic with the argument that fiction writers can say whatever they want (and live with the criticism, of course).
I certainly wouldn’t want to censor their books, because that smacks of book-burning fanaticism. 
I’m often asked where I get my ideas for some of my bizarre plots and scene descriptions. Some of the folks who do the asking look askance at me, especially if I’m holding cutlery.
So, what follows are brief synopses of scenes already in my thrillers and mysteries, or that will eventually make it into future books. Try to guess which actually happened to me, and which just popped out of my addled, martini-influenced brain.
  • The Poison Pen: A man is concerned because his wife is one of the few women on the block who hasn’t received a scurrilous note about spousal shenanigans (fanny pinching, propositions at parties, etc.). He and his wife are, of course, prime suspects, although innocent. His wife finally gets an anonymous poison-pen letter accusing him of maintaining a messy yard. Outraged at this perceived slur on his masculinity, he asks a cop friend to find out who’s sending the letters.
  • The Log That Wasn’t: A fisherman in Cuba has a lure caught on a tree branch. He can reach it by stepping on a log jutting out from the shoreline. But the “log” isn’t a log. It’s a huge barracuda nuzzling by the bank. When it rolls its eyes and flaps its fins, the fisherman somehow stops in mid-stride and mid-air, avoiding becoming dinner.
  • Religious Experience: A priest takes some friends down a winding staircase into a large room below the altar. The room contains a full bar, complete with burly bartender on duty. The place, with a door opening to a street behind the church, was once a speakeasy. Now, church groups such as the Rosary and Altar Society use it for meetings.
  • A Head for News: Just after dawn, a young reporter visits the site of a just-discovered car wreck from the night before. He is allowed by the police to peer into the front seat, where the driver lies dead. The corpse has no head. “Check the back seat,” a cop helpfully suggests. Sure enough, there it is. The driver had been decapitated by a pole. The reporter, who’d had a bad night (although not as bad as the driver), doesn’t lose his breakfast (as the cop probably hoped), but instead can’t wait to write his lead.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

GET RICH SLOW SCHEMES

In a recent column, I addressed the black cloud that hovers over most writers: the fear of rejection.
I pointed out that some of the world’s most famous — and eventually richest — authors (Jack London, Jack Kerouac, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, Mario Puzo, and Alex Haley, to name a few) could have papered the Superdome with the letters they got from agents and publishers who told them they couldn’t write.
I was, of course, talking about “traditional” publishing. Now, thanks to Amazon and others, anyone can publish a book, both in digital and print form. There are millions of such books out there. Many are self-published by people who went the traditional route and were rejected.
One has to wonder if some of the authors mentioned above would be household names if they wrote today. I mean, suppose if a modern Jack London decided after, say, 300 of his total 600 rejections that he would self-publish White Fang on Amazon!
A few self-published authors strike it rich, such as Andy Weir with The Martian (one of my favorite books and movies). But most desperately struggle to grow their readership. And, thus, they become prey to gurus who claim to offer the secrets of success.
Now, I’m not saying that ALL the advice available is worthless. Some isn’t. Amazon itself offers great “how-to” instructions on publishing and hints on marketing. Smashwords, too.
And I’m not talking about the plethora of self-published writing and publishing guides, mostly digital, available on Amazon and elsewhere. I have a couple on Amazon myself. But it’s definitely caveat-emptor territory, even though many of them are very inexpensive.
I am talking about the email solicitations I and thousands of others get for “free” marketing training. If you register for one of these “seminars,” which usually run an hour, you are told when and where to sign in electronically. At the appointed time, your computer screen is taken over by one or two gurus who offer PowerPoint presentations. (I don’t mean that your computer is literally taken over; you can always sign out.)
If you hang in there, you will be given 10 minutes of background on the presenters, who have “sold” millions of books using their systems (begging the question of why they are giving seminars). The backgrounds usually highlight how they left boring careers and are now independently wealthy (more begging needed). They also occasionally include pictures of their adorable children and dogs.
After that, there is usually a list of crucial ideas they will cover, and then interminable explanations of the obvious. I say “obvious” because most of the ideas are basic and free on Amazon or available for a pittance as an e-book. Reader magnets (look it up), email funnels (I think this has something to do with magnets, but I’m a bit hazy), advertising, Internet links, etc.
(A disclaimer: My writing guides deal mainly with characters, style, and tone, and state shamelessly and repeatedly that I hope people read my thrillers.)
Near the end of the “seminars,” participants are usually encouraged to sign up for a paid course. The initial sessions are interactive, and participants are encouraged to type in questions and comments. I suspect this is a way to identify people inclined to sign up.
None of this is illegal or as egregious or expensive as, say, Trump University. And if you want to devote an hour to being told you are wonderful, or if you need a boost to continue writing, go for it.
But, as you might guess, these seminars are aimed at getting into your pocket. There’s a cottage industry devoted to aspiring authors. There are writing workshops, conferences, retreats, and the like, often very costly. I’m not saying that they should be avoided. They are a good way to meet other authors, some famous. Everyone likes to schmooze once in a while. I’ve attended one or two conferences and came away energized and inspired.
I’ve even participated as a speaker at the Independent’s own Washington Writers Conference. I was brilliant, by the way, and got some nice photos with Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame. That conference was much more enlightening than a huge circus-like one I attended years ago in Manhattan, which I wound up parodying in my book Killerfest.
Then there are courses offered by some prestigious magazines, which offer “online writing workshops [to] cover every aspect of writing; from how to get started all the way to getting your project published.” They feature classes “for every type of writer, no matter your skill level.” Ouch!
Some even allow you “to gift courses to your fellow writers!” Wow!
 Here are some courses offered:
  • Building Your Novel Scene by Scene, for those who “want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down.”
  • Writing the Personal Essay, which helps writers “identify values expressed in their stories and to bring readers into the experiences described.”
  • A Boot Camp that “will teach you how to put together a dynamic yet professional submission package that will show agents you take your potential author career seriously.”
Other courses include: Advanced Novel Writing; Fundamentals of Fiction; 12 Weeks to a First Draft; Writing the Mystery Novel; Writing the Paranormal Novel; Writing Women's Fiction; Writing Nonfiction 101; the Art of Storytelling 101: Story Mapping and Pacing; Writing Science Fiction; and Advanced Horror.
“Advanced Horror” is advertised as a “workshop.” You couldn’t pay me to take that class!
My gut instinct about all of this? Your time would be better spent writing.   

BOOK IT, DANO (AGAIN)!

  When last we spoke, I recommended books to read for those who might be stuck at home during the pandemic. Since very little has changed, I...