Wednesday, 29 July 2015

RAGNAR JONASSON'S SNOW BLIND

Ari Thor Arason is a trainee policeman who on an impulse accepts a posting in Siglufjordur, in the far north of Iceland. He leaves his medical student girlfriend behind in Reykjavik, and arrives in the small and isolated village, once busy with the fishing industry but now just a sleepy bywater, where he is told 'nothing ever happens'. Of course, within weeks there are two corpses – one a famous writer found dead at the foot of the stairs of the local theatre on the eve of an amateur production, the other a woman living with the man playing the lead in that production, discovered almost naked, bleeding red into the newly-fallen snow.

Ragnar Jonasson's novel is very much a traditional murder mystery, closer to Yrsa Sigurdardottir than Arnaldur Indridason, which gains much from the isolated setting, in which a whole town is trapped, in effect, by the snow. Amateur dramatics and murder in an isolated setting make it sound very Agatha Christie, but as with Sigurdardottir it's the nature of the people in their isolated society, a world of extremes of light and darkness, that perhaps makes difficult the shadings of gray. It's a tangled web, with each character's back story suggesting more knots, and the past is woven deeply into it: thefts and murders, abuses and illicit loves: sometimes it seems as if no one in this Icelandic milieu possesses a life free of serious damage. And that includes Ari Thor, whose relationship with his girlfriend seems unlikely to survive the great distance, both real and metaphoric, between them.

Ari Thor is an oddly unfinished character, which may suit his relatively naiveté, but it stands in sharp contrast to the more telling bits of exposition the various suspects and victims receive. There's a fascinating dynamic between him and his boss, Tomas, whose
live and let live attitude sometimes seems to take on a more sinister connotation, and sometimes seems almost comic: casting him in the film version is an amusing exercise.

In some ways, because Ari Thor 'solves' both deaths, but doesn't get a full measure of justice, this becomes the story of his adjustment to a world much different from the 'big city' of Reykjavik; an adjustment which was at the heart of Indridason's Erlendur series too. The novel's end leaves that story unfinished....

Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson
translated by Quentin Bates
Orenda Books £8.99 ISBN 9781910633038

Thursday, 23 July 2015

E.L.DOCTOROW: THOUGHTS ON MY FRONT ROW DISCUSSION

I was on BBC Radio4 Front Row yesterday, discussing E.L. Doctorow with Samira Ahmed. Although I was saddened by his death, it was a privilege to be able to convey some of my enthusiasm for his work, and for him as a person, to a wider audience. You can link to that broadcast here; our segment starts about 16 minutes in, but really it's worth listening right through from the start, it's that good a programme.

Doctorow's work is always about relations of power—whether class, financial, racial, physical or whatever, and how the imbalance of those relations is at the core of the American experience, if not the core of the American Dream. It is always about the problems of America, the way those at the bottom experience the City on A Hill. It's easy to miss, because the stories themselves are so engrossing, the characters so well drawn: his historical figures blend with his invented ones, reinforcing his insistence that he was not writing historical fiction. Take The March, published when he was 74. It's as good a Civil War novel as anyone had written in a long time, but at heart it's about the way, even before the war was over, the rebellious southerners were being welcomed back into the fold, and the newly 'freed' slaves were being found a status not much different from slavery.

I met Doctorow once, at a debate organised by the New Yorker (with whom I was on good terms at the time, though never good enough to sell them anything) and the Sunday Telegraph at Cheltenham Ladies College, probably about 25 years ago. I was standing by myself at the pre-debate reception, and two guys standing next to me drew me into their conversation. 'Hi, I'm Joe, this is Ed,' one of them said, and a few seconds later I dissolved into fan boy status as I realised I was talking to Joe Heller and Ed Doctorow. It was one of the finest half-hours I've ever spent: the discussion never got near literary gossip; it covered real topics, and had mobile phones been invented I would even no be bombarding you with selfies.

Doctorow was maybe the last of the politically involved novelists from the time writers of fiction (and excellent non-fiction) were considered important pundits, rather than the screeching beltway hacks who now populate the airways and leech into print. He was younger than Vonnegut, Mailer, or Vidal, but like them he accepted a public presence. He and his Kenyon classmate Paul Newman helped keep the Nation, America's pre-eminent left-wing weekly, afloat for years, and Doctorow contributed many fine essays to it. And like Mailer, and Roth (who is two years younger) he may the last of that generation of novelists educated in New York's public schools and then WASPy private colleges. I mentioned on Front Row that Doctorow's academic career reads like a character from a Philip Roth novel (Marcus, from Indignation, actually).

What was important from Doctorow's time at Kenyon was his study with John Crowe Ransom, one of the godfathers of 'New Criticism'. There's an interesting essay to be written about how New Criticism's analysis of Modernism helped generate Post-Modernism. Mailer and Vidal followed the modernist greats, with Vidal picking up a post-modern sort of irony; but Vonnegut and, with less flash but more variety, Doctorow, clearly embraced a post-modern sense of narrative. I mentioned how Doctorow's narrative strategies changed with each book: Loon Lake, perhaps the most extreme example, might be compared with John Hawkes.

But it was Doctorow's sense of history that inevitably defines his writing. John Updike hated Ragtime, saying Doctorow was 'playing with helpless dead puppets...in a gravity-free faintly sadistic game'. But I can't think of a writer less sadistic to his characters. One often has the feeling the author wishes the characters could be something other than what they are, but that what they are is simply too powerful, too real, to change. The famous story about staring at a portrait of J.P. Morgan by Edward Steichen to 'research' his character rings absolutely true. It's also why I like his first novel, Welcome To Hard Times, so much. Many of the obituaries repeated the line that the book started out as parody, but even were that Doctorow's original intent, his sense of parody became one of deconstruction. I look at the book as a precursor to Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, and Berger's novel as a sort of precursor to Doctorow's bigger novels. The film of Welcome To Hard Times isn't great; Burt Kennedy's scripts were always better when someone else directed them, but you can see Henry Fonda gets what the book was about. In passing, it's odd how that great wave of post-modern novelists: Heller, Doctorow, Vonnegut, Mailer, Berger, Barth, Pynchon, were etither ill-served or served not at all by Hollywood. I sometimes wonder if too many of Doctorow's novels end in melodrama and violence, and if those genre novels he edited at NAL did affect him, but it occurs to me that an imbalance of power in society is almost always enforced by violence, and protested by violence. Hard Times is about what happens when society is ill-equipped to deal with rampant evil; that's a classic western trope, but Doctorow's idea is that it is really endemic in our society.


I mentioned the New Criticism; Doctorow was a fine editor at New American Library and Dial Press. His obits mentioned the big names he edited, everything from Mailer and Baldwin to the unlikely pairing with Ayn Rand. But Ed Brubaker wrote today about how it was Doctorow who commissioned Jules Feiffer's The Comic Book Heroes; the first serious study of comics, and one that looked wryly at the America those early super-heroes represented. I mentioned to Samira that World's Fair might be my favourite of Doctorow's novels, and I spoke of the sense it gives me of the time in which my parents grew up; but I realised too that part of my pleasure in that book is the way our knowledge of what became of the world since then burnishes the memories of 1939. It was published in 1985, as if to say, look what we came out of, look at how high our hopes were, and now you want to turn the clocks back to the age of greed?

I ought to explain as well that I don't consider Waterworks his best novel, but in its style and structure it may be his best piece of prose writing. I haven't even mentioned Billy Bathgate or The Book Of Daniel, either of which might head many people's list of favourite Doctorow books, but we do mention them in the Front Row talk. I recommend his short stories too, and especially his essays, which approach literature and politics with the same caring that he shows his fictional characters. He gave a graduation address at Brandeis, and when the college edited the copy for its magazine, The Nation published it in full. It was almost a Jeremiad, an effort to remind the students of the world they were about to enter, and remind them more of what they could bring to it with the learning they had just received. Couching his words in almost literary theory, but using an uncharacteristic vituperative approach, he talked about how we were seeing a 'national regression to the robber baronial thinking of the 19th century—nothing less than a deconstruction of America...as if we were not supposed to be a just nation, but a confederacy of stupid murderous gluttons.'

Monday, 20 July 2015

MARK STRAND: THE LOST TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

I wrote the following piece in early December for the Daily Telegraph, but for some reason it didn't appear in the paper immediately, and then it just drifted onto the spike. I was never taken with Strand's poetry, though I did enjoy his book on Hopper. But researching his obit made me appreciate some of the convergences between his life and his work. I was particularly fascinated with the idea he studied with Josef Albers, and then moved from art to poetry via Wallace Stevens: as if placing a cube in Tennessee...

Mark Strand, who has died aged 80, once said 'Poetry tries to lead us to relocate ourselves in the self.' Relocate seemed to be the key word for Strand, who has died aged 80. In his often spare but always elegant poetry, Strand seems to be looking at the world, and at himself, from the outside. 'The poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world,' Strand said, and at his best he achieved the paradoxical success of bringing readers closer to the very worlds from which he felt distanced and alienated.

That sense of dislocation may have begun in childhood. Strand was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island 11 April 1934. His father's work took the family to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Montreal before moving to Philadelphia, where Strand started school as an outsider, speaking English with a heavy French-Canadian accent. His father's new job with Pepsi-Cola took the family to Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, but the young Mark returned each summer with his mother to St Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, and memories of that seacoast and its pine forests reverberate through his work. Still feeling less than comfortable with English, he intended to become an artist. While earning a BA from Antioch College (Ohio) he spent a summer an assistant to the Mexican muralist David Siquieros, painting 'the kind of art I learned to despise while I was working at it.' He moved to Yale, taking a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree studying under the painter Josef Albers. The contrast between Siquieros' social realism and Albers' abstract focus on the language of paint itself might be seen as template for Strand's later poetry.

While at Yale he immersed himself in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and began to move away from painting, placing poems in the New Yorker. A Fulbright grant took him to Italy to study 19th century poetry; when he returned he took a creative writing MFA at the University of Iowa, America's most prestigious programme. In 1965 he received another Fulbright, to teach in Brazil. His first collection, Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964) was published by a small press in Iowa, but in 1968 the influential editor Harry Ford at Athaneum published Reasons For Moving, establishing Strand as a major voice. He moved to New York and taught at Columbia, Brooklyn College, Yale and Princeton. There he became close to Richard Howard, Charles Wright, and Charles Simic, poets whose work incorporated elements of surrealism, what Wright and Robert Bly labelled 'leaping poetry'. But Strand's closest affinity might be with John Ashbery, particularly in their shared roots in painting.

He published three more collections whose titles are revealing: Darker (1970), The Story Of Our Lives (1973) and The Late Hour (1978), as well a long prose poem about immortality, The Monument (1978) and translations of the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti and the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade. But following publication of his Selected Poems (1980) he gave up writing poetry for a decade. 'I didn't like what I was writing; I didn't believe in my autobiographical poems,' he said. He moved to the University of Utah to teach and wrote three childrens books, a collection of essays on art, The Art Of The Real (1983) and a monograph on the artist William Bailey (1987). That year he also received a MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant'.

Strand marked his return to poetry with the 1990 collection A Continuous Life, and spent a year as America's Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. His new publisher was Alfred Knopf, a relationship which survived an argument over reissuing The Monument labelled as prose. Dark Harbor (1993) received the Bollingen Prize, and in 1994 his monograph on Edward Hopper was a magnificent exercise in affinity, as Strand's minute breakdown of Hopper's paintings speaks of the waiting, the sense of time, and the position as observer of the poet in his own poems.

His 1998 collection, Blizzard Of One, received the Pulitzer Prize, deservedly so as it was perhaps his finest work. It includes the long meditation 'Delerium Waltz', reflecting on life as a waltz 'we think will never end'. He followed with the surprisingly brighter Man and Camel (2006), New Selected Poems (2007) and this year his Collected Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award.

Strand died 29 November 2014, of liposarcoma, at his daughter's home in Brooklyn, to which he was moving back after living in Madrid. His two marriages ended in divorce, and he is survived by his partner Maricruz Bilbao, his daughter Jessica and son Thomas.
'Poetry tries to lead us to relocate ourselves in the self,' Mark Strand once told an interviewer. Relocate seemed to be the key word for Strand, who has died aged XX. In his often spare but always elegant poetry, Strand seems to be looking from the outside, at the world and at himself. 'The poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world,' he said, and at his best Strand achieved the paradoxical success of bringing readers closer to the very worlds from which he felt distanced and alienated.

That sense of dislocation may have begun in childhood. Strand was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island 11 April 1934. His father's work took the family to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Montreal before moving to Philadelphia, where Strand started school as an outsider, speaking English with a heavy French-Canadian accent. His father's new job with Pepsi-Cola took the family to Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, but the young Mark returned each summer with his mother to St Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, and memories of that seacoast and its pine forests reverberate through his work. Still feeling less than comfortable with English, he intended to become an artist. While earning a BA from Antioch College (Ohio) he spent a summer an assistant to the Mexican muralist David Siquieros, painting 'the kind of art I learned to despise while I was working at it.' He moved to Yale, taking a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree studying under the painter Josef Albers. The contrast between Siquieros' social realism and Albers' abstract focus on the language of paint itself might be seen as template for Strand's later poetry.

While at Yale he immersed himself in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and began to move away from painting, placing poems in the New Yorker. A Fulbright grant took him to Italy to study 19th century poetry; when he returned he took a creative writing MFA at the University of Iowa, America's most prestigious programme. In 1965 he received another Fulbright, to teach in Brazil. His first collection, Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964) was published by a small press in Iowa, but in 1968 the influential editor Harry Ford at Athaneum published Reasons For Moving, establishing Strand as a major voice. He moved to New York and taught at Columbia, Brooklyn College, Yale and Princeton. There he became close to Richard Howard, Charles Wright, and Charles Simic, poets whose work incorporated elements of surrealism, what Wright and Robert Bly labelled 'leaping poetry'. But Strand's closest affinity might be with John Ashbery, particularly in their shared roots in painting.

He published three more collections whose titles are revealing: Darker (1970), The Story Of Our Lives (1973) and The Late Hour (1978), as well a long prose poem about immortality, The Monument (1978) and translations of the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti and the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade. But following publication of his Selected Poems (1980) he gave up writing poetry for a decade. 'I didn't like what I was writing; I didn't believe in my autobiographical poems,' he said. He moved to the University of Utah to teach and wrote three childrens books, a collection of essays on art, The Art Of The Real (1983) and a monograph on the artist William Bailey (1987). That year he also received a MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant'.

Strand marked his return to poetry with the 1990 collection A Continuous Life, and spent a year as America's Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. His new publisher was Alfred Knopf, a relationship which survived an argument over reissuing The Monument labelled as prose. Dark Harbor (1993) received the Bollingen Prize, and in 1994 his monograph on Edward Hopper was a magnificent exercise in affinity, as Strand's minute breakdown of Hopper's paintings speaks of the waiting, the sense of time, and the position as observer of the poet in his own poems.

His 1998 collection, Blizzard Of One, received the Pulitzer Prize, deservedly so as it was perhaps his finest work. It includes the long meditation 'Delerium Waltz', reflecting on life as a waltz 'we think will never end'. He followed with the surprisingly brighter Man and Camel (2006), New Selected Poems (2007) and this year his Collected Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award.

Strand died 29 November 2014, of liposarcoma, at his daughter's home in Brooklyn, to which he was moving back after living in Madrid. His two marriages ended in divorce, and he is survived by his partner Maricruz Bilbao, his daughter Jessica and son Thomas. As he wrote in Blizzard Of One, in the poem 'A Piece Of The Storm':

A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed.
That's all there was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

THE COLOURS OF CHLOE: A POEM (AFTER EBERHARD WEBER)

I wrote this poem in January 1977, in my hometown of Milford, Connecticut. I had left Montreal in late November '76, having completed my master's thesis in August, and was about to fly to London with Theresa. I can't say I ever imagined I would stay more than a few years.

The title, of course, comes from the title song of Eberhard Weber's first ECM record, which was one of my favourites in the tiny flat Theresa and I shared on Lorne Avenue, and I'm sure I set my simple stereo up on my parents' porch, listened, and wrote. I may have been looking at Maya Weber's cover painting while I did. And it may have been the last thing I wrote before I arrived in England.

It seems it was published in something called Chock, which may have been the same as the Chock Freesheet, in October 1979. I've probably got a copy of it in storage somewhere. But this is its first appearance since then, 35 years ago...


THE COLOURS OF CHLOE      (Eberhard Weber)

Why is she sleeeping
           underneath
the rain

while her cello sits
unbowed just out of
the shadows
                         cast aside
by a cypress, reaching down
to touch her?


                         She surrounds
               the sunset in
                                       her eyes.

The path of her dreams can be
followed on her face
                                     by anyone
                who drifts by
& happens to look.

As slowly as the music lures
her back to consciousness

she sees a spectrum
rising, below the horizon

the redness of angry
sky, crackling louder
than the cold blue of crying

          than a yellow straw forgetting

colours

broken in the wind.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

RICHARD LANGE WINS THE CWA SHORT STORY DAGGER: A JUDGE'S TALE

The Crime Writers Association awards dinner June 30th was great fun, and I was privileged to attend as one of the judges for the Short Story Dagger award. It was my first experience of judging, and it was a long slog, with shall we say, an avalanche of stories from all different published formats--including one, Neil Gaiman's 'The Case Of Death And Honey' which we had been sent and all liked but then discovered had actually been entered for the Dagger the previous year!

Eventually Laura Wilson, our chair Ayo Onatade, and I each submitted long-lists of about 12 stories. I collated them, and it quickly became obvious that our short list had created itself. Two stories appeared on all three of our lists, three on two of the lists, and in correspondence we found the Dashiell Hammett story was on one long list (mine, as it happens) but had just missed the other two. It became our sixth story, and I was grateful to see it in print in what is a very fine collection for anyone keen on the progression of detective fiction from cosy to hard-boiled.

This was our short list, with the descriptions I wrote for the CWA's releases:

Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane 'Red Eye' (from Face Off, published by Sphere) Connelly's Harry Bosch travels from LA on the red eye to Boston to arrest a suspect his cold case file has turned up, and finds Lehane's Patrick Kinsey on a stake out of the same suspect. A tale whose understatement brings out the sharpness of both authors' handling of character, highlighting the differences between the two detectives in order to reveal their ultimate sameness at the core.

Dashiell Hammett 'The Hunter' (The Hunter & Other Stories/No Exit Press): In this story a detective who might be seen as a variation on Hammett's famous Continental Op uses ruthless bullying to try to get a confession, and in Hammett terms, something like the truth. This story, never published in its time, reminds us that the essence of hard-boiled is not cracking wise, ready violence, or blazing roscoes, but the world view which seeks solutions for their own sake, even though solving the crime does not necessarily bring society or its citizens (or its detectives) any closer to satisfactory solutions for their lives.

Richard Lange 'Apocrypha' (Sweet Nothing/Mulholland Press): An ex-convict called B works as a security guard in a jewellery store and lives in an LA flop house, where a couple of would be players who mock him as 'McGruff the Crime Dog' plan to rob his store. Lange reveals small bits of B's character with off-hand remarks about his past, but it's the fatalistic view of life, and the dark clarity with which it is drawn, that make this a subtly powerful neo-noir story.

Richard Lange 'Sweet Nothing' (Sweet Nothing/Mulholland Press): Richard Lange's stories of Los Angeles lie somewhere between Charles Bukowski and George Pelecanos. In 'Sweet Nothing' Dennis is a drug addict who's lost almost everything, including his children, and is trying to make himself respectable again. He shares an apartment with Troy, who weighs 450 pounds, and works as a manager in a Subway store. One night he meets a woman whose daughter is on life-support at a nearby hospital, hit by a car while jaywalking. Lange's characters are simply trying to get by in a world which sometimes seems casually antagonistic; this story is a very brightly lit piece of LA darkness.

Stuart Neville 'Juror 8' (OxCrimes/Profile Books): If you remember 12 Angry Men you will recall Juror 8, the older man with his own business who is the first one persuaded by Juror 9. But, asks Neville, what if Juror 9 weren't such a noble Henry Fonda, but more like the Fonda of Once Upon A Time In The West, and what if the boy accused of stabbing his father to death actually was guilty?

George Pelecanos 'The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us' (OxCrimes/Profile Books): In 1930s Washington DC, Greek immigrant Vasili is just starting his climb to the American Dream of success, and the one non-Greek friend he makes in his restaurant job turns up dead. Pelecanos' story is, like much of his writing, about the values of work and family, the struggles of little people in a world where those values aren't always followed. Vasili is written with such honesty the contradictions become plain, even in his own attitudes, but at heart he is a man of honour, and this is a dark look about what it means, or meant in those days, to be a man.
The two stories that appeared on all three long lists were 'Apocrypha' and 'The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us'.  When we met for lunch to decide the winner, it wasn't an easy decision, hence the commendation as runner-up for the Pelecanos, but in the end we were probably influenced by the overall quality of Lange's collection, the quality of the second-nominated story, 'Sweet Nothing', which is sweet nothing at all like the winner, and indeed, just passingly a 'crime' story at all, and the freshness of the voice.

What was fascinating to me was the similarity between our two finalist stories. Both are tales of men of low status working in jobs they feel lucky to have, whose choice of whether to act to do what they perceive as being right runs the risk of losing their job, if not creating the kinds of problems with the law and with the unlawly, that vulnerable people always face.

There was a small debate about 'The Martini Shot', the title story of George Pelecanos' first collection. I thought it was an impressive story, but there was some discussion whether it actually ran too close to novel length (which didn't bother me).  In the US, awards for novellas (indeed sometimes 'novelettes') are common but I don't see that as necessary. In the event there was also some discussion about the sex scenes in this one, whether they were necessary to the story and whether they distracted from it. But it should be noted Pelecanos came close to having two stories on the short list too. 

But Richard Lange was a new name to me, and having discovered his work was compensation enough for judging the award, even before the dinner. It was richly deserved, and you are advised to read him.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

LAWLESS: BRUBAKER & PHILLIPS' CRIMINAL CONTINUES

Tracy Lawless has spent 18 months in the hole; locked up in a military prison, no contact with the outside world. Then he's handed the personal effects left behind by his brother, murdered nine months earlier; news the Army kept from Lawless. Two days later, he's gone: headed back to the city to avenge his brother's death, because that's what guys like him are supposed to do.

The brothers grew up in crime, and Tracy knows that if he tracks down Rick's last crew he's likely to find the killer. So he makes a small heist of his own, and infiltrates the crew without anyone knowing. But huge burn scars from his soldier time in the Middle East make him easy to identify. And the crew is preparing for a big heist, and of course there's a woman too, who happened to be his brother Rick's girl.

The beauty of this installment of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips Criminal series isn't so much the noirish setting, which Phillips' dark art gets well-night perfect, nor the relentless pace of the story, which Brubaker takes through twists combined with the usual noirish inevitability. But what makes it really stand out is the way it shifts times: flashbacks to the Lawless childhoods, to Tracy's Army service, and the story of why he's behind bars at the start, and of course the caper which he intends to use as the stage for his revenge. They segue smoothly, but what's impressive is the way the stories mesh together, providing characterization and motivation that makes precise sense, even down to Lawless' names. And it connects, in the end, with previous chapters of the Criminal story.

Being noir, nothing works out as planned, not relationships, not revenge, not the noirish femme fatale, and of course not the heist. But the ending is perfect noir, and there aren't many writers around, in any medium, who get it as well as Brubaker does. This series moves from strength to strength.

Criminal Volume 2: Lawless
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Image 2015, £10.99 ISBN 9781632152039

Sunday, 28 June 2015

ROBERT WEINBERG'S DREAM OF MARS: A Guest Post

I met Bob Weinberg (on the left, with The Shadow, receiving an award with writers Hugh B Cave and Robert Bloch) at an sf or maybe even comic convention when I was still a teenager, and bought from him a few bound volumes of the Ki-Gor jungle pulp. Ki-Gor was a taste I soon outgrew, but as Bob's business expanded, we kept in touch via his catalogues, and for years in London I accumulated far more books, magazines, and artwork than I needed (as I am learning to my distress as I downsize following my divorce). I followed his careers writing and, even more so, editing; his reprints and studies of the pulps, especially the Shadow, were essential reading for me (I wrote my American Studies colloquium paper on The Shadow for Richard Slotkin). I still love the pulps even though I find myself not reading them much any more. 

Bob and I would exchange notes, keeping in touch, but I believe I've seen him only twice in the past 50 or so years; the other time I detoured from a working trip to catch him at a convention where he was a guest of honour; I think it was in Chicago when I was producing World Cup coverage in 1994. We got back in touch a few years ago because I wanted his response to an obit I'd written for the Guardian of Edd Cartier (you can link to that here) and he's the recognised authority on pulp and sf artists. Now we keep in touch via Facebook, and I can follow his tomato growing skills too. Bob's had a rough time medically recently, and a  few days ago he posted the essay that follows. It moved me, and made me remember the power and importance fiction can play in our lives, how much the joy of reading has kept many of us on track. This is only the second guest post on this blog. I hope you enjoy it.



A DREAM OF MARS 
By Robert Weinberg

I became a science fiction and fantasy fan while attending Hillside Avenue Grade School, in Newark, New Jersey. I was in the fifth grade; I was ten years old. Our reading assignment in our American Literature Textbook was “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” I had never read the story, nor anything else by Stephen Vincent Benet’, but when I did, I was hooked. Not only did that story become my favorite piece of fiction, but I knew what I wanted to do in life--- become a writer. It’s been a long, long journey, but with more than a hundred short stories, several dozen novels, a handful of non-fiction books, and a bunch of comic book scripts all to my credit, I feel safe in saying I fulfilled my dream.

Now I am fairly old, sixty-eight, and not in the best of health. In February 2012 I suffered totally unexpected kidney failure. Luckily that day I was being examined by my doctor. She rushed to me to the hospital and over the course of three days I had 67 excess pounds of fluid removed from my body.

I have been on kidney dialysis three days a week, four hours at a time, ever since. Unfortunately, due to other health disasters early in my life, I do not qualify for a kidney transplant. So, my life is measured by how long I can survive on dialysis. The bad news is that the average life span of someone on dialysis in two years. James Michener and Art Buchwald grew bored with the treatment and went off it; neither of them survived very long without it. About 20% of dialysis patients stop treatment every year. So at three and a half-years on dialysis, I’m already beating the odds.

Here’s where the “Dream” comes in. Most of my life, at least from fifth grade on, I’ve been a Science Fiction fan. Remember Daniel Webster! Part of being an SF fan, I think, is having a strong belief in the wonders of outer space and of space travel. Once I discovered SF and fantasy fiction, I read every book and story I could find. Some of the fiction was minor, but much of it was not. I came to believe one of those tenants that define an SF fan: I believe with all my heart and soul that someday man will travel to other planets in our solar system.

In my lifetime as a fan of science fiction, I have already seen one of those dreams of SF comes true. Man landed on the Moon and spent time exploring it. Now I believe it is our destiny to send explorers to Mars. NASA hopes to launch a manned trip to the Red Planet during the next few years.
I plan to be alive when that happens. Despite all the medical problems associated with kidney dialysis, despite many patients who end up committing suicide because of the pain, discomfort, or just plain boredom, I am going to survive the worst the illness can manage because the meaning of my life ties in with man conquering Mars. For over a half-century I’ve read stories and novels about that happening. Such an event defines my life. I plan to be alive when that happens, dialysis or not. Even more than that. I promise to still be alive when an Earthman stands on the surface of Mars. I promise!

Remember these words of mine because they are going to come true. Along with “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” I had another favorite story from those school days. The story was and is, 'The Million Year Picnic'. How appropriate that it came from Ray Bradbury’s collection of tales, The Martian Chronicles. More than any other story, I’ve ever read, it defines my thoughts regarding the Red Planet. Read it. Remember it. Think of me. And my dream of Mars.

June 22, 2015

Thursday, 25 June 2015

DEFLATEGATE: LETTING THE AIR OUT

With Tom Brady's hearing with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell just completed, I went back and found this column I'd written, but not published, back in the end of May. It remains relevant, although you'll see by the update that the questions around the so-called 'deflategate' are even more unresolved now than they were then....

There is a basic question in the 'deflategate' 'scandal' which has not even been addressed. Why? Or as the lawyers might say, 'qui bono'?

If we accept that, as the Wells report says, the refs left the Pats' balls at 12.5 (before releasing air when they extracted their gauges), and we accept that, again according to the Wells report, Brady preferred the balls at 12.5, was there any good reason for Boston's second most famous Bird to allegedly take the dozen balls into the toilets and deflate them all in a minute a half, allowing time for him to wash his hands? If the balls were as Brady wanted, why even bother?

Ted Wells is Roger Goodell's equivalent of 'Lord' Hutton—the famous safe pair of hands who will get you the inquiry result you want. Reading his report was less like reading an inconsequential version of the Warren Report and more like reading Gerald Posner's apology for Warren. Evidence is presented selectively. Evidence that points against his conclusions is buried in footnotes. Conversations are interpreted, often against logic, to reinforce his conclusions. And of course the physical 'evidence' is laughable, and the major witness' own best-recollections are accepted in every instance except the one that would make that evidence laughable.

The most interesting bit of Wells is the series of supposedly incriminating texts between Boston's second-most famous Jastremski and Bird, now known as 'the Deflator'. Interesting because they have nothing to do with the Colts game, but date back to a Jets game in October when the officials had the balls pumped up to nearly 16psi, far higher the legal max of 13.5. The officials will not suspended, obviously. Brady was livid because he felt the game balls were like Aaron Rodgers balloons (Rodgers has said he regularly over-inflates the balls to 16 before games, hoping the refs don't bother to let much air out). He, and other QBs are prima donnas on this issue, and the reality is it's probably more psychological than anything else, but all the NFL needed to do was supply the game balls themselves, and not leave it to each team and their quarterbacks. That's what most sports would do. Anyway, the text exchange was in October. Brady's message had months to sink in. Now I accept you can assume his wrath was such that the equipment guys felt compelled to deflate balls already at 12.5, but that assumption doesn't seem to me any more likely than the idea that they might have just left the well-enough 12.5 alone.

Ignore the fact the Colts seem to have done their own air-check during the first half, thus further deflating at least one ball, which in itself was illegal. It lends to the appearance that they seemed to have a carte blanche from the league to pursue the Pats. Ignore than a former Jets-front office employee now working for the league was on the sidelines and told a Pats' official 'we've got you now', though in language more colourful than that. Ignore than someone from the NFL office, possibly the same person, released to the press untrue readings, much lower than the officials' half-time ones, immediately after the game, which seemed to make a serious case for tampering which of course was not made. The script for the 'scandal' was laid out before anything that might suggest otherwise could be considered. It was dubbed 'deflategate', and once the suffix 'gate' gets attached to anything in the media nowadays, it takes on an import whether it deserves to or not.

Lots of people wondered if the Wells report were being delayed in order to create another big story for May. Certainly it was leaked before the punishments were announced so the league could try to gauge the psi of public opinion as accurately as Walt Anderson and his crew did the balls. But this was not the kind of publicity the NFL needs, or didn't they listen when the commissioner was roundly booed every time he took the stage in Chicago to announce draft picks (unless he was accompanied by Dick Butkus)? If he thought to curry favour with the majority of NFL fans who are Pats haters, he may have guessed wrong wrong.

Tom Brady will appeal his four-game suspension, and it will inevitably be reduced. The NFLPA will fight hard for a neutral arbitrator; Goodell has long since forfeited any neutrality, and has an 0-3 record vs real arbitrators so far. But the odd thing is there is no benefit for Goodell himself to cave in on the punishment; he can wait for legal appeals and neutral arbitrators to do that, if Brady wants to pursue it further.

But more fascinating was the reaction of Pats' owner Robert Kraft, a staunch ally of Goodell's who was demanding an apology back in January, and after the report came out issued a rebuttal which effectively destroyed it. But then he announced he would not appeal the fine against his team: $1 million, a first and a fourth-round draft pick. Even if you accept Brady and his ball bunch were guilty, given that Wells himself exonerated the team, coaches, front office and owner from any knowledge, much less participation in the scam, this seems draconian. And in front of a neutral arbitrator, indefensible. I think the implications of removing the commissioner's authority vis a vis the teams (and their owners) in favour of an arbitrator was a can of worms Kraft did not want to open, in the best interests of the league itself.

Which is a shame, because we came in here discussing the draft, and by taking away draft picks you are punishing the team and its future, you're punishing the players already there, and you are punishing the fans. Punishment is supposed to fit the crime. But in this case, most of the air has been let out of the magistrates.

UPDATE: A number of independent reports, most notably from the American Enterprise Institute, have torn the Wells Report to shreds, pointing out flaws in the basic assumptions that were exacerbated by its slipshod methodology. In the light of those reports, it would be in Brady's interest to argue that there was no tampering whatsoever, and if eventually Goodell or an arbitrator agreed, the penalties against the Patriots would have to be overturned as well. No date has been set for when a ruling from the Commissioner on whether he will judge himself to have made a mistake or over-reacted will be released.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

JAMES HORNER: AN APPRECIATION


James Horner, who has died when the plane he was piloting crashed, first caught my ear with his score for John Sayles' wonderful pulpy The Lady In Red; he also did the equally fine Battle Beyond The Stars with Sayles, and the score for another pulp gem, The Rocketeer. His obits mostly led with his big, schmaltzy score for Titanic, and he did the schmaltzyesque scores for, just as a sample, Field of Dreams and Braveheart. But his schmaltz always seems to have an edge to it, more Nielsen than say John Williams' Sibelius. There's more than a little Copland in Field Of Dreams too. It's a quality which made him perfect for lots of sf, and for the many sequels and remakes which he did, especially pulpy ones like Legend Of Zorro or Mighty Joe Young where he was often able to suggest the best tone of the original while going in new directions.  which is OK. It also means he was able to do more off-beat epic scores for unusual films, like Apollo 13, Glory, Apocalypto, The Perfect Storm or Legends Of The Fall, where his music highlights the smaller tensions beneath the epic ones. And as I discovered when Nate was young, his How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a gem. Check out his credits: he could do any kind of movie and do it well. RIP.

GRAY VOICE: A POEM

I wrote this poem in December 1986, in New York City, though the particular circumstances escape me. That may have been the time I did a reading at The Ear Inn; I'll have to find my old diaries to check. It was published in New York, in a New York poetry magazine called Giants Play Well In The Drizzle, and in December 1987 (in English) in a special jazz issue of Hollands Maandblad, published in den Haag, which remains one of my favourite poetry appearances. Its inspiration was the Jan Garbarek song/album called It's OK To Listen To The Gray Voice, which takes its title, as do all the songs on the record, from lines in poems by Tomas Transtromer. So it's a third-generation inspiration. I was particularly looking to reflect the sheet-like wave of sound David Torn's guitar makes on this album, the only one on which he played with Garbarek.


GRAY VOICE

The bright recurring dream whose wings glow with fire finds
A place behind your hands, moving as they begin to move,
Shadowing every splash of light their flapping reveals.
You are the surface of a mirror that has started
To fragment, a single crack reaching out to all
Four corners of the glass, without disturbing the reflection:
Either you, or me, or parts of each, or either, scarred.



JAMES SALTER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of James Salter is up at the Guardian's web-site (you can link to it here); it should be in the paper paper Tuesday. The published version was edited somewhat for space, and some of what was lost I thought was important, so you can read my original copy below. What I thought was most telling was the last quote, from Light Years, discussing Viri's view of fame and greatness. It seemed so apt, if not prescient, even written 25 years before Salter would achieve a modicum of fame it laid out a bit of his writer's fate.

I also thought it important to define 'frotteur'; its sexual connotations give Salter's description of himself writing a certain piquancy. The French influence was strong in his work, and life; he had an important affair in France and told a story about seeing the woman again, 40 years later, at a party celebrating his success. And I wished I had room for the story about Anatole Broyard giving Light Years a bad review in the New York Times, complaining about the 'exoticism' of the characters' names. Salter wrote him a letter, saying, 'Come on. Anatole?'

You will also note I didn't write that Salter found Hemingway's 'womanising' character distasteful. In fact I didn't say 'womanising' and Salter didn't enumerate what parts of Hemingway's character he was talking about. I would assume it was the machismo and perhaps the guilt that required Hem to marry each woman he cheated with that Salter might have resented. That form of womanising, perhaps, but it is certainly not how I interpreted it. Salter was a womanizer too, after all, one who appeared to understand women, which is one of the keys to his writing. As Salter said in another interview, 'the major axis of life is a sexual one; the music changes but the dance is always the same.'

One thing I found fascinating was how many influences Salter would acknowledge, handfuls of them, all different, in separate interviews. I don't doubt this was sincere. I would have particularly liked to have mentioned Henry Miller, with whom he bears a lot of similarities despite the seeming differences in style and tone. I found an interesting comparison with John Singer Sargent: 'direct observation and an economical use of paint', which may have been as good an influence as any. Most importantly, Salter said he considered himself 'completely American...but I admire European ways.' That resonated with me.

It would have been nice to go into more depth about with his film career, or repeat his reaction to Charlotte Rampling, chewing gum and smelling awful, on the set of Three. And the way Jack Shoemaker and North Point Press came to re-establish Salter's work was wonderful; that esteemed publishing house deserved its own obit when it folded. You'll also note the unnecessary difficulty the paper has with the Military Academy at West Point, as well as its weird policy of capitalization (or not) of words.

There have been few novels about the Korean War; The Hunters followed James Michener's The Bridges At Toko-Ri, and preceded MASH and may well be the best of the bunch. It might have been nice too to detail the dawn of jet fighter combat, the F-86 Sabre jets against the Soviet-made MiGs; there was a new kind of glamour to jet fighter pilots. I would have liked to have noted his envy when some of his former colleagues in MiG Alley wound up walking on the moon, or his joy when he was offered the chance to fly an F-16 many years later. That quote about pilots being royalty was heartfelt.

Finally, Salter's charm was legendary; I know women on whom it was not lost even when he was in his late 80s. He was almost the epitome of the cultured New York WASP establishment, like his friends George Plimpton or Peter Mathiessen, despite his Jewish roots. Apparently he kept careful track of their summer touch football games out in Long Island, the statistician inside him. There's a whole deep story in that change of identity from Horowitz to Salter to which I wish I could have done more justice. His is the writing of a gentleman, which brings us back to Hemingway and grace under pressure, to being able to stand apart from the chaos, the desire, and the sadness behind our fleeting pleasures, and write so meaningfully about them. RIP...

JAMES SALTER

For six decades, in which he published only five novels and a collection of stories, James Salter, who has died aged 90, was a cult writer, whose cult was headed by his fellow writers. 'James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today,' said novelist Richard Ford, but Salter's work generated mixed reviews and small sales. Only in the new century, following his memoir Burning The Days (1997) and his second collection of stories, Last Night (2005), did the mainstream catch up. When his sixth novel, All That Is, appeared in 2013, Salter quipped, at an Oxford Street bookshop, that he'd signed more copies of All That Is than he'd sold of all his previous books.

Salter wrote painstakingly, once calling himself a 'frotteur', French for someone who draws pleasure from rubbing; he liked to 'rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that's really the best word possible.'

His precise prose saw him compared to Hemingway, whose writing he admired, but whose character he 'found distasteful'. Courage, Hemingway's 'grace under pressure', is tested in his work, first by war and later by the conflict between the comfort of relationships and thrill of erotic adventure. Salter said 'you can live both. Can you live them simultaneously? That's difficult'. He once wrote that 'man's dream and ambition is to have women, as a cat's is to catch birds, but this something that must be restrained.' In that restraint lies a very French sense of sadness, intensified by Salter's skill with his female characters, whom he saw as those who face 'the harder task'.

Salter was already in his thirties when his first novel, The Hunters (1956) was published. A war story based on his experience of more than 100 sorties as a jet fighter pilot in the Korean War, it's focussed on the conflict between a squadron leader in search of his first kill and his reckless wingman, who wants to become an ace. Salter did shoot down one Korean jet, but that kill was registered under his real name.

James Arnold Horowitz was born 10 June 1925 in Passaic, New Jersey, but grew up in Manhattan, where his father was successful in real estate. At the elite Horace Mann school he edited the literary magazine, whose contributors included a post-graduate football star named Jack Kerouac. His father had graduated first in his class from the United States Military Academy, at West Point, New York; James allowed himself to be persuaded to follow in his footsteps in 1942. He qualified for an accelerated flight programme, but a month before graduation, on VE day, in May 1945, he got lost on a training flight and crashed into a house in Massachusetts. The war ended before he saw combat, but after completing a graduate degree at Georgetown he was assigned to the tactical air command in Virginia, which he left to volunteer for Korea.

He was a major, stationed in Germany in charge of an aerial demonstration team, when The Hunters appeared, credited to 'James Salter', a pen-name he'd chosen both to hide his identity from his comrades and to avoid being type-cast as 'another Jewish writer from New York'. His close contemporaries Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal made their names with first novels set during World War II; Salter's remains the best of the few novels set in Korea. With a $60,000 payment for the movie rights (the 1958 film starred Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner) he found himself able to pursue his dream of writing, but the choice was difficult. 'As a writer you aren't anybody until you become somebody. As a pilot you're nobility from the very beginning. It was worse than divorce, emotionally.'

He had married Ann Altemus in 1951 and begun a family. Living up the Hudson River from New York, Salter sold swimming pools while working on his second novel, The Arm Of The Flesh (1961) based on his experiences in Germany. He rewrote it completely and retitled it Cassada when it was reissued forty years later. With a neighbour he began making documentary films; Team Team Team, the story of the Army cadets gridiron team preparing to play against the Naval Academy, won a prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. He wrote film scripts while finishing his best-known novel, A Sport And A Pastime (1967). The story of an affair between a Yale drop-out and a girl he meets in France, its frank sexual content saw it turned down by his publisher. Eventually, George Plimpton got Doubleday to publish it under his Paris Review imprint, in a small edition which failed to sell. It was perhaps too salacious for the high-minded, too subtly crafted for the prurient.

He then turned to screenwriting, and saw three films released in 1969. An early screenplay eventually became The Appointment, a disappointment. More successful was the documentary-style skiing film, Downhill Racer, starring Robert Redford. And with help from his friend, the novelist Irwin Shaw, he wrote and directed Three, which fused elements of A Sport And A Pastime with Jules et Jim, and starred Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston.

His 1975 novel Light Years, arguably his best, chronicled the coming apart of a loving marriage, the sadness of unfilled expectations, which both reflected his own and anticipated that of his closest friends, on whom he modeled his characters. In their case it became a self-fulfilling prophecy based on his observation of things they has not seen in themselves. He and Ann divorced in 1975; by now he was living between Brideghampton, Long Island, and Aspen, Colorado, where he met Kay Eldredge who became his second wife. He wrote travel articles (collected in Then And There, 2005) and interviews for People Magazine of writers like Vladimir Nabokov. A mountain climbing film script turned down by Redford became his fifth novel, Solo Faces (1979).

His short stories appeared in Esquire, the Paris Review, and Grand Street, and in 1978 a new small press in San Francisco, North Point, offered to publish a collection, and brought some of his fiction back into print. Salter took ten years to write the two stories he wanted to fill out the collection, Dusk and Other Stories, which won the Pen/Faulkner award in 1988. He'd been struck by tragedy when, in 1980, his eldest daughter, Allan died in an electrical accident the day she moved into an outbuilding at Salter's Aspen house. It was one part of his life he could not write about, saying in his memoir, 'the death of kings can be recited, but not of one's child.'

In Light Years the husband, Viri, reflects on whether fame equates with greatness. 'He was sensitive to lives that had, beneath their surface, like a huge rock or shadow, a glory that would be discovered, and one day rise into the light'. It wasn't until his ninth decade that James Salter rose into the light, and finally achieved both.

His rediscovery following his memoir saw him publish six books in his last decade, and finally have a story accepted by The New Yorker. All That Is led to his receiving one of the first Windham-Campbell awards from Yale in 2013; the $150,000 prize gave him a measure of financial security. He died in Sag Harbor, New York 19 June 2015, while doing physical therapy. He is survived by Kay, two daughters and a son by his first marriage, and a son by his second.


 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

JUSTIFIED: THE FINAL SHOW

I've just watched the final episode of the last series of Justified, a triumph of serial scripting that both ties up loose ends and brings the show full circle to the point where it began. Just to make sure I wasn't giving Justified some sort of nostalgic benefit of the doubt, I went back and watched the very first episode, and it was as I remembered--full attention was paid to detail and the show held firm to its six-season focus, which was primarily the relationship between Marshal Raylan Givens and the man he comes to Kentucky to get, his childhood buddy Boyd Crowder.

The sixth series maintains a frantic focus, resembling nothing more than bloody Shakespearian drama, as the betrayals and the deaths come thick and fast. Old blood feuds mix with modern greed, traditional outlaws butt heads with 'modern' corporate criminals, and the reason is the coming legalisation of pot in the Bluegrass State--a modern form of coal that could turn Harlan prosperous once again. Raylan of course is in trouble with the authorities, including Art, back on the job and played with the usual avuncular grace by Nick Searcy.

The outsiders are played by Mary Steenburgen (chilling as a cold-blooded gangster bent on revenge against the man she thinks betrayed her husband) and Sam Elliott, cast brilliantly without moustache as both a charmer and a killer. With handlebar, Elliott is a natural hero, deep-voice and solid jaw. But take away the fuzz, and it reveals a weak-lip, and a much more interesting character, the same kind of tic that makes Jere Burns as Wynn Duffy so effective too. Their machinations, with Boyd hovering between and amongst them, are worthy of the best revenge tragedies.

The other ongoing betrayal is between Boyd and Eva, out of prison on a deal to be Raylan's informer. In some ways Joelle Carter is at the center of this series: her decisions are sometimes hard to interpret, her feelings even moreso. But Justified ends with a couple of twists, and the first of them explains her motivations perfectly, as her actions and consequences make perfect sense.

Perhaps the weakest part of the series is the introduction of Boone, Sam Elliott's hired gun, who's even more of a neo-cowboy gunslinger than Raylan. It is building to a shootout between the two, of course, and the way that shootout ends is another twist that has been set up, deftly, by just an off-hand bit of dialogue.

The ultimate confrontation, however, the one that the whole series has been building, is the one between Rayland and Boyd. It too has a twist, one that harkens back to the very first episode. But before that happens, we get a superb bit of scene-setting episode after episode, as Walton Goggins gets to go more and more over-the-top, his white teeth flashing and his revivalist dialogue making him seem an almost-mad king seeing his dreams drift away. The show's fulcrum has always rested between Goggins' fire and Timothy Olyphant's ice, and it works so perfectly because they play it so well, and each time they do it takes us right back to the beginning.

In the first episode, before Raylan shoots (but does not kill) Boyd, Boyd has asked if Raylan is going to kill him, and Raylan says 'if you make me I will'. Those words resonate here. Graham Yost and the writing team have kept this series true to the spirit of Elmore Leonard. And the ultimate line is the one that resonates the most, again returning right back to that first episode, which established Raylan's 'anger' (as Natalie Zea described wonderfully at the end of that very first episode) and his coolness (as the very opening shootout showed). It's a simple line, but it speaks about Harlan, about work, about men. It echoes of Leonard. 'We dug coal together.' It was Justified.