Friday, November 28, 2008

Forgotten Books...

With the Thanksgiving holiday and all the fun stuff this week, I don't have a book today. But I'll enjoy reading all the other books over at Patti Abbott's blog. You should, too.

I will return next week with a forgotten book.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cool Story Site (A Twist of Noir) and Fun, Fun Story

Courtesy of a link on David Cranmer's blog "The Education of a Pulp Writer," I discovered a nice story site on the internet: A Twist of Noir. The story David highlighted is "The Dumb Factor" by Sandra Seamans. The site is a place I hope to land a story one day. And Sandra's story is nice, short, pretty dang funny (I'm not sure I can watch "The Brady Bunch" the same way again), with a brutal ending.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Something to drool over that *isn't* fowl

David Thompson over at Busted Flush Press posted a teaser of an upcoming book in 2009. Two names: Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman. One book: Tower.

Read it all for yourself here.

Mourning for a favorite 'friend' and war hero (from 2003)

(Yesterday, David Cranmer graciously complimented my two sentences for Two Sentence Tuesday. He asked if he could link to the original article from the Houston Chronicle. Alas, it is no longer available online. Thus, I am posting it here. I'll admit that it is one of the pieces for which I am most proud. However, I'd much rather still be watching David Bloom, having never felt the need to write this remembrance.)

April 7, 2003, 8:18PM (Tuesday)

The war came home for me Sunday.

I hesitate to write that sentence because the war in Iraq is almost 4-weeks-old now and there have been at least 108 coalition soldiers killed. Each one of those families already has the war at home with them. The war sits down to dinner in the empty seat of the missing father. The war is in bed with the newly widowed wife, the empty space next to her now a hollow hole in her heart.

I have no relatives fighting in Iraq. In this country of more than 280 million people and about 1.4 million people who serve in the all-volunteer military, I am one of many in America whose freedom is defended by someone nameless.

But those who cover the war aren't nameless, and one of the best things to emerge from the war is the reporting by embedded journalists in the field. With new technology and 24-hour news channels, the war --with its images of reporters in military gear – is simply always on. Yet, while I admire the courage of these reporters, some of them look out of place.

One reporter who seemed exactly in his place was David Bloom, a journalist for NBC. Ever since his unit -- the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division -- moved out, David was dirty. He was the first reporter to beam live images of the moving convoy of tanks. I remember seeing these images and being astounded that I was witnessing live war footage. He had a "boyish enthusiasm" when he described military details, and he knew his role exactly: Bring home the war to the American people.

But the war details were not the entire story. He also knew that his greater responsibility was to show America the lives these soldiers were leading. He let us know that MREs were not all that bad. He let us know how big a Bradley vehicle was and yet how cramped it could be when fully occupied. He let us know how dusty it was by never cleaning up for the camera. He let us -- the ones the soldiers were protecting --know what it was like to be a U.S. soldier in Iraq.

David Bloom seemed to always be on the air. Iraq is nine hours ahead of Houston, but no matter the time of day here, there always seemed to be the word "Live" on the screen. He was live during the middle of the night talking with Lester Holt, live during the Today show and even live during the evening news, giving Tom Brokaw the absolute latest. When I flicked channels between the three major network news channels, if David Bloom was on, I stopped and listened. He was, for me and for my wife, Vanessa, our favorite reporter, a friendly voice from the front line.

He died Sunday of a pulmonary embolism. Based on what I learned that day, he took power naps and would stay awake for hours. Perhaps that is why he seemed to always be on, live, no matter the program or time. The retrospectives told us that he was a driven man, one who always had to be where the action was. He volunteered for this assignment and, I think, broke the mold as a front-line combat reporter.

I was feeding my son when the news broke. I am used to nameless numbers when the media talk about casualties, men and women who have laid down their lives for me. But when the news anchor said David's name, my heart was pierced. Tears seeped into my eyes for a man I never knew but, somehow, knew. My wife cried, too.

The embolism was a noncombat death, but it really is a combat death. David went to Iraq partly out of a duty to his profession, but also partly out of a loyalty to this country. He is a casualty of war, just as are the other fallen soldiers. They all are heroes.

I have never been a soldier, but I am a writer and I know what that is like. David Bloom and the more than 600 embedded reporters are heroes to me. With them, the war is very close.

With the intimacy of television, perfect strangers can seem like friends to us. We viewers think of Dave or Jay, not Mr. Letterman or Mr. Leno. David Bloom's constant presence on the television, his mannerisms, his wit, his focus on the ordinary humanness of our soldiers made him seem like "David" to me, a person I knew on a first-name basis. And he was, in a way. That is the nature of television.

But on Sunday, upon learning that I'd never again hear his voice, upon learning that he left his family to go and do something bigger than himself, upon learning of his ultimate sacrifice for his country and his profession, he was Mr. Bloom. That is the nature of heroes.

The war came home for me that day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Charles Ardai Interview

As I prepare to spend a gift card I won a few weeks ago on Fifty-to-One, the latest novel from Hard Case Crime, there's a new interview with Charles Ardai, the author and publisher.

Enjoy.

Two Sentence Tuesday

I discovered a fun little thing going on in the writer blogosphere last week: Two Sentence Tuesday. I first noticed it at David Cranmer's blog but, I think (and forgive if I'm wrong) The Women of Mystery started it.

For my own entry, I'm listing the last two sentences of an essay I wrote for the Houston Chronicle back in 2003 reflecting on the death, in Iraq, of NBC News reporter David Bloom:
But on Sunday, upon learning that I'd never again hear his voice, upon learning that he left his family to go and do something bigger than himself, upon learning of his ultimate sacrifice for his country and his profession, he was Mr. Bloom. That is the nature of heroes.

And my entry written by someone else, here are two from Dennis Lehane's The Given Day:
She kept her hand on the wall and lowered her head and her dark hair fell over her mouth and her teeth were clenched into a grimace tighter than Danny had see on some dead people. She said, "Dio aiutami. Dio aiutami."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Movie Review: Foyle's War: Season One

In the three weeks since I wrote my first review of a Foyle’s War episode (“Fifty Ships,” episode 1, season 2), I have had a chance to watch all of Season One. I gave thought to reviewing these films one-by-one they are so magnificent. Instead, I'll write about the entire season.

If you’ve read my earlier review—which I just did—you’ll note that I made some assumptions about things. The biggest one was Foyle’s wife. Even as “The German Woman” (episode 1, season 1) starts, Foyle is a widower, not a divorcee. That fact alone makes the old flame storyline in “Fifty Ships” that much more poignant. And, it’s yet another reason to watch this series in order. The mysteries they solve are independent of each other. It’s the character progression that is important.

For example, in “Fifty Ships,” Foyle’s driver, Samantha, ends up staying the night at the home of her partner, Paul Milner. With no context to draw on, when his wife returns home and sees them dancing, I just assumed it’s the typical man-wife thing. Now, having watched season one and witnessed Paul’s injury and recovery and seeing how it has strained his marriage, the dancing scene carries much more weight.

So, long story short: watch these shows in order if you can. You will be rewarded.

Season One consists of four 100-minute episodes. “The German Woman” is the first and we are introduced us to Christopher Foyle, a veteran of The Great War. Now that Hitler has started another war, Foyle considers his talents could best be used by the government, not in some provincial police station down on the coast. His requests continue to be rejected. until, of course, his investigation into why the German-born wife of a respected Englishman is still free (the rest of the German-born people having been rounded up and sent away from the coast) leads to a potentially damaging scandal. When the woman turns up brutally murdered, Foyle’s doggedness intensifies. As you could expect, his desire for a military post is now offered as an incentive to stop the investigation. His character is almost fully revealed in one decision: stay on the case, knowing he'd never be offered the post again. It is also in this episode where he is assigned Samantha Stewart as his driver and Foyle recruits a former policeman, Paul Milner, a man who suffered injury and an amputation of part of his leg in battle.

Episode 2, “The White Feather,” is, to date, the most emotionally engrossing entry into this series. Guy Spenser, played wonderfully by Charles Dance (of Bleak House), is a Nazi sympathizer who speaks at the Friday Club and awaits the invasion of England by Germany. He has a few allies, one of which is Margaret Ellis, who runs a hotel called The White Feather. Ironically, a white feather in World War I was a sign of cowardice. Foyle comes into the story when he interviews Ellis’s chambermaid, a Jew, who was caught cutting telegraph wires. One night, Ellis, Spencer, and a few pro-Nazi supporters are sitting in the great room of The White Feather when the lights go out and shots are fired. When the lights go on again, Margaret Ellis is dead. The suspicion is that the shooter tried to hit Spencer but missed in the dark. The chambermaid’s boyfriend, a fisherman, is distraught over her imprisonment and makes a few actions that get him detained by the police. Meanwhile, the British soldiers over in France are surrounded by the Germans at the town of Dunkirk. Every available fisherman with a boat is crossing the channel to pick up as many men as possible. Foyle agrees to release the boy and work the fishing trawler with his father. During the evacuation, Foyle discovers the true killer (in really well-done Sherlock Holmes observational style) and returns to the beach to let the young man know he’s free. As you might imagine in a story set in wartime, the young man is killed.

“A Lesson in Murder” is the third episode of season one. The Germans have begun to bomb England and many of the children of London have been sent away into the country for safekeeping. A young boy, Joe, gets into all sorts of mischief at an estate of a wealthy landowner, a judge who all but hates that the boy is in his house. When the boy is killed in a bomb intended for the judge, Foyle and Milner start investigating. This episode has a good number of historical details woven into the plot. Foyle’s initial investigation is into the death of a conscientious objector in prison. Later, we learn the details of how and why the children of London are evacuated. We get a glimpse of how powerful families were able to keep their loved ones from being drafted. And lastly, we see the power of prejudice. Foyle has a long-time friend, an Italian man, who runs a restaurant. The Italian’s son and Samantha get along well. However, as soon as Mussolini declares war on England, the townsfolk of Hastings turn on the restaurateur in a heartbeat. Again, I can’t stress it enough: it’s the non-investigatory details of this series that allows Foyle’s War to rise above your run-of-the-mill detective story.

“Eagle Day” rounds out season one. Foyle and Milner investigate the body of a man found in a bombed out house with a knife sticking out of his chest and a locket clutched in his hand. The dead man was a lorry driver for an art museum in London. The curator decided to move the priceless artifacts out of London and into the country for safekeeping for the duration of the war. Milner tracks down the locket’s owner, a young woman, Lucy, who died under mysterious circumstances months before. As the investigation continues, Andrew, Foyle’s son, is stationed in Hastings as part of top secret duty: fly his Spitfire around the area to help train the British radar operators about the new system. Eventually, Andrew is accused of treason and Foyle must find the murderer of the lorry driver, acquit his son, and help convince Samantha’s father to allow her to remain his driver.

All in all, this is a splendid collection of stories, made all the more emotional and dramatic with the World War II setting. The acting is superb by the main three with Michael Kitchen delivering award-winning work. As a man of few words, Kitchen must allow Foyle’s emotions to come out in other ways, usually through facial expressions and his eyes. Milner’s transition from wounded war veteran who doesn’t know what good he can do to loyal partner of Foyle is fun to watch. Pay special attention to this relationship in "The White Feather." And good old Samantha is like many of us: wanting to do more to help her boss, flubbing it up sometimes while outshining her two males partners at other times.

If you haven’t made time for Foyle’s War yet, I can’t recommend these movies highly enough. Let me put it to you this way: The Dark Knight is, by far, the best thing I’ve seen this year. Foyle’s War ranks as Number Two. It’s that good.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Forgotten Books: Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

I’ve come to a conclusion after reading two James M. Cain novels: Cain doesn’t think much of women and love. Or, perhaps, his life was filled with the wrong kind of women. That’s about the only explanation I can come up with when considering the two femme fatales: Cora from The Postman Always Rings Twice and her more evil literary cousin, Phyllis Nirdlinger, the dreadful black widow of today’s book, Double Indemnity.

I know, I know. You hear the words “Double Indemnity” and you think Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. To tell you the truth, I have seen the movie—once—a long time ago and barely remember it, even as I was listening to the book. That proved a good thing. It allowed Cain to tell his own story in his own way. And I can remember enough of the movie to know that the endings differ.

You know this story: Walter Huff, insurance salesman for General Fidelity of California, drops by the Nirdlinger house to get Mr. Nirdlinger to re-up his insurance. The husband is not at home but his wife, Phyllis, is. Here’s where Cain is sneaky. In many other hard-boiled novels, the female lead enters the book and the male lead is instantly in love, his eyes become hearts like the golden age cartoons and the little cartoon cherub smacks the man’s head with a huge mallet. Not here. Walter sees Phyllis thusly:
A woman was standing there. I had never seen her before. She was maybe thirty-one or –two, with a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair. She was small, and had on a suit of blue house pajamas. She had a washed-out look.
Not exactly you’re typical femme fatale. But then the next page:
“…but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.”
Yeah, that’s more like it. That’s what we expect when we read these kinds of golden age pulp stories. But even Walter himself wasn’t ready for Phyllis’s next question: “Do you handle accident insurance?” Even here, in chapter one, Walter’s all “crossed” up. If Walter were a fishing man, he’d have known that the hook was already in his mouth and Phyllis was just tugging him to his death. And it is all there in chapter one.

Phyllis and Walter scheme to get Nirdlinger to sign an accident insurance policy complete with double indemnity: that is, the company would pay double if the insuree dies in an accident. Walter is brilliant at all the angles. In fact, as the story progresses, you get the distinct impression that Walter had wanted to test his theories for a while. He just needed a willing participant. Phyllis was that participant. Except by the time he realizes he’s in over his head, he's, well, sunk.

Walter narrates the story in first person. Cain is the only writer I’ve read where the conceit of the first person narration is exposed. That is, whenever we read a story told in first person, we, as readers, have to take as faith that the narrator is, in fact, relaying the story. It’ s like a transcript but it's not. In the two Cain novels I’ve read, we discover, at the end, the main character really is writing the book that we hold in our hands. I find that kind of fourth-wall breaking to be quite clever.

It also allows for Walter to comment on his own actions. Early in the story, after the two adulterers have started their conspiracy, Walter writes “So, I ran away from the edge, didn’t I, and socked it into her so she knew what I meant, and left it so we could never go back to it again? I did not.” Cain has Walter comment on his actions regularly throughout the book. I found this type of authorial intrusion to be worthwhile and helpful. It’s almost as if the book is a warning to any future adulterers not to go through with it. Wonder if Michael Douglas’s character in “Fatal Attraction” should have read this story.

Walter’s a smart man. You learn this throughout the story as he lays out, in detail, the intricacies of his plot. What throws you off, however, is Walter’s word choice. The most egregious example is the substituting of the word “don’t” in places where educated folks use the word “doesn’t.” This type of language could have come from Cain’s time writing and working in West Virginia. Or, perhaps, it was Cain’s subtle way of letting us know that Walter isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

The story progresses like you’d suspect, even if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book. Walter and Phyllis kill the husband and stage the murder as an accident. They have all their ducks in a row and then Walter’s boss, Keyes, suspects murder. And Keyes pretty much nails how the murder is committed. Walter’s pretty scared and realizes the only way to be safe is to take out Phyllis. But, she’s already ahead of him and she takes a shot at Walter, nearly killing him. Lying in a hospital bed, Walter confesses everything to Keyes in order to exonerate Nirdlinger’s daughter, Lola, from the suspicion she pulled the trigger.

You see, Walter has fallen out of lust with Phyllis but fallen into love with Lola. Walter realizes soon after the murder that he’s killed a man to get the man’s wife…but no longer wants her. They snipe and the body's not even cold yet. And this leads to the single best line of the entire book when describing how love changes: “That’s all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.”

Which brings us back to the crux of the book: Cain’s apparent hatred of love. It was love, or, at least, lust that made Walter and Phyllis act together. Having Phyllis as the idyllic reward for his act of murder blinded Walter. After the act, their love curdled if it had even been present in the first place. In Lola, Walter did find true love but he couldn’t have it. Don’t know about you but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of love and life from Cain. But, then, we don’t read these books for marital advice, do we. No, we read them to know what *not* to do.

The ending: I won’t spoil the ending here for those who do want to read the book. I will say this. The ending of The Postman Always Rings Twice was brutal but justified in its way. The ending of Double Indemnity is bleak, desolate. Perhaps its 1936 publication date had something to do with it. The heart of the Great Depression can suck the optimism out of almost anybody. (Let’s hope we still have hope in these immediate years to come.) When it came time to film the novel, I can just imagine the director, Billy Wilder, knowing he had to change the ending just to get the cash to make the film. Yeah, it’s that dark. There is no optimism. It was long gone as soon as Walter said, “Yes, we’re going to do it.”

What I Learned As A Writer: conciseness. It’s the same lesson from my review of The Postman Always Rings Twice: never clutter up the page with useless words. Patti posted an entry yesterday about reading stories online and story length. Some of the bloggers suggested shorter stories work better online (because of the medium and shorter attention spans) and longer stories are better in hard copy. James M. Cain would have had a field day with the growing list on online e-zines (newest one is David Cranmer's Beat to a Pulp). Cain's short, concise style—not choppy, mind you—would translate well to our online world. He says only what’s necessary and we readers fill in the rest. I like that style of writing and Cain, in my experience and with appreciative nods to Hemingway and Leonard, ranks as its greatest practitioner.

For more entries in Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Fridays, head on over to her blog.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Blog Update and Blog Type

Apologies to those who've come to this blog looking for new content. The day job is picking up quite a pace and the resulting tiredness at night has not been conducive for good, thought-provoking essays on crime fiction. Plus, there is the general writing funk, as described in this previous post. I will be returning tomorrow with a Forgotten Book, as part of Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Friday.

--->One of the things I'm very excited about (as a reader and a writer) is David Cranmer's new online e-zine, Beat to a Pulp. It looks like a fun place, especially since other online e-zines are folding. I'll be submitting some material over there in the coming weeks. Y'all go on over and check it out.

--->In the meantime, I found this site: Typealyzer. It's an interesting site that analyzes a blog and delivers its take. Turns out, this blog is The Thinker. Here is the text:
The logical and analytical type. They are especially attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.
The wife's going to laugh pretty hard when I tell her my blog is "logical" and "analytical," two things I'm not when living at the house. I do not agree with the "...not good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people" comment as that is one trait I do have when not writing. Interesting.

So, fellow bloggers, take the test and see how your blogs rate.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Novel Writing Tip: Contests and Judges' Comments

I have not finished the albatross that is my second novel. Let's get that out of the way first. Had the book been completed, this essay would not be necessary. Anyway, I submitted the first two chapters to a writing contest recently. This was the same contest where I won the book review award for The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow (my review here). I knew that the judges were the same and I tried to take into account some of the suggestions from the spring contest. I liked what I wrote and submitted it.

The judges didn't. Nothing wrong with that. Judges are people and potential buyers. If they don't like a book, they won't buy it and, more importantly, they won't tell other people about it.

But it's thrown me off my game. I was all jazzed up and blowing through chapters at a rapid clip. I was going to finish this dang book and start selling it next spring. Now, I've started doubting, yet again, the book as well as the story I have to tell.

I *like* the story I have in my head and I'm still going to tell it my way. And that's the lesson here. Yes, submit your manuscripts to contests and pay that fee. It's a good way to get unbiased feedback even if you don't place. But do it after you've completed the manuscript. Then, at least you'd have the skeleton of the book around which you can adjust scenes and such. I'd suggest not doing it *while* you are writing. You might get discouraged. It's much easier to get thrown off-track when you are still building than it is to review a completed book.

Linda Richards over at The Rap Sheet wrote something similar today, about writing over your head. Write what you like, regardless of genre or how you'll sell it. Just. Write. What. You. Love. If you can't satisfy the first reader--YOU--then you'll likely not get anywhere.

Joker by Brian Azzerello and Lee Bermejo

Of all the things Heath Ledger did for the character of the Joker, making the Clown Prince of Crime a thug tops my list. I’ll not go so far as to say that the comic book version of Joker was genteel. He was always a murderous character, more so in the last twenty-five years. But you always got the sense that the Comic Book Joker didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Sure, he’s shoot you but he’s leave it up to someone else to clean up the mess.

Not so with Ledger’s Joker. He’s a thug. He’s dirty. He’s vicious. And he’d just as soon stab you with a knife and have you bleed on his hand as shoot you. It was a characteristic of Joker that I welcomed. It’s the difference between noir and pulp. Pulp is fun, gritty at times, but, in the end, kinda light. Noir is dark, brutal, always gritty, seamy, unsettling.

With the new original graphic novel, Joker, that sensibility is alive and well. Joker is noir.

The graphic novel is about Joker but it’s also about Jonny Frost. He’s the narrator, a young punk who doesn’t know what he’s getting into when he agrees to go pick up Joker from Arkham Asylum. It seems someone thought the Joker cured and got him released. Wonder if that doctor isn’t an inmate in the asylum. Nonetheless, Frost picks up Joker and starts his crash course in revenge, Joker-style.

Another difference with Ledger’s Joker is his obsession with controlling the crime in Gotham. As that stack of money burns, Ledger’s Joker announces he controls Gotham now. In the comics, you never really got the sense that Joker was after power or control. He was just out to have some demented fun at everyone else’s expense. Azzerello’s Joker is, again, more in the Ledger vein than previous incarnations. Joker, upon his release, discovers that his organization has gone to the crapper. And he’s out to fix that situation no matter how many bodies pile up.

The first body is that of Monty, the man who is a lieutenant in Joker’s army who didn’t please the master well during the master's absence. Literally, Monty is skinned alive. Frost is shocked (as are we readers) but then Joker gives a little speech. And Frost is…awestruck. The artwork by Lee Bermejo is painted, not your typical four-color art. Every frame is beautiful despite its occasional grisly nature. The frame with a starstruck Jonny Frost tells more than an hundred words. Jonny Frost is in the spell of the Joker.

The story progresses as we watch Joker, Frost, and Harley Quinn (a stripper) go see various members of Gotham’s rouges gallery. “Killer” Croc is a big-ass black man with acne scars. Croc is drawn so huge on the page that it feels like the white frames surrounding the artwork won’t be enough to hold him in. Abner (aka Penguin) is the moneyman of Gotham, something Joker doesn’t have enough of and something that he craves. Two-Face is here and he seems to be as vain as Harvey Dent used to be before a punk threw acid on his face. He’s the big cheese, too. It’s all about Joker getting back what’s his from Two-Face. And the Riddler, er, Edward Nigma, is here and he’s, well, weird.

All this is to say that this is almost an alternate universe kind of thing but it speaks to what makes the Joker tick just as good as The Killing Joke (my review here) or other famous Joker-centric stories. There’s a few scenes of honest empathy if you’ll allow yourself to feel for a psychopath. In one crucial four-page sequence, Joker takes a broken bottle to the face of another thug, blows up a building, and then, is seen crying and hugging on Harley. This is almost as shocking as the violence.

If Joker’s involved, you just know Batman will eventually make an appearance. For the most part, however, he's merely a looming presence off-screen. To be honest, the way the story moves, I didn’t need Batman to show up. I knew he was coming...and I almost didn't want him to. Just as I enjoy the Gotham Central comics (featuring the police officer of the G. C. P. D.), I was quite enjoying all the criminals without the hero. But he’s called (you’ll never guess by whom and how) and dispatched. Quick as lightening, the story wraps up.

A bit too quickly for my tastes. The ending, while decent, wasn’t the gee-whiz ending of, say, The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns or Branded Woman by Wade Miller. It was just an ending. It spoke to why the Joker was released from the asylum but never really answered the question why he was released. Unless the answer is in some subtext, I missed it.

Azzarello can do believable dialogue with the best of’em. It’s fun seeing these hardened, yet flamboyant criminals talk trash to each other. In a cast full of insanity, it’s even fun to read two of them joke about a third person:
Abner/Penguin: Someone is very sore at you.
Joker: Really? That’s wonderful news. I just like to make him sore. It’s what drags me out of bed.
Abner/Penguin: No, not him. Though I’m certain he’s not very happy about what you’ve been up to either. I’m speaking of Dent.
Joker: Harvey’s mad? Which one?
Abner/Penguin: Ha!
Joker: You think it’s funny, Abner?
Abner/Penguin: I think it’s a fair question. I don’t know how to answer it.
What about Jonny Frost? Well, let’s just say he’s us. He’s the “us” who looks at the movies and comics and sees all the havoc created by a man who looks like a clown and thinks “That’s cool. I want to be like the Joker.” Jonny Frost thinks that, too, at the beginning. He gets his first row seat to the madness that is Joker. Jonny looks into the abyss and makes a decision. It’s the most crucial decision of his life.

What this book boils down to, for me, is this: it’s a sequel to this past summer’s “The Dark Knight.” Visually, Joker is drawn as the perfect blend of Ledger’s Joker with the comic book Joker. Characteristically, he’s more Ledger’s Joker than the gentlemanly version from the comics. You get in the head of a killer. And you see things you never expected. Just be sure to go into the story with an open mind. It’s a good story and well worth your time.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Forgotten Books: Legacy by James Michener

When you think of the novels of James Michener, most likely you’d come up with an image of the brick-like tomes he produced over his long career. Heck, as Hurricane Ike bore down on Houston in September, I joked that we could use some Michener novels to protect the house. I make light of a serious thing only to illustrate that Michener’s historical novels are physically huge, incredibly researched, and focus on multi-generational sagas. When describing a Michener novel, any of them, really, I tell folks that the first line of the book is usually “And then the earth cooled.”

All of this is to say that, ironically, my favorite Michener is his shortest: Legacy. Written and published in 1987, Legacy focuses on Lt. Col. Norman Starr of the U.S. Army, his wife, Nancy, and his West Point buddy-turned lawyer, Zach. It’s the weekend before Norman is set to testify before a Senate committee looking into the Iran-Contra affair. Norman’s clean on Iran but not on Central America. If he speaks the truth when asked about his activities helping the Contras, Norman will likely do himself some serious damage.

The three of them meet over the weekend to map out Norman’s strategy. In doing so, Zach prompts Norman to talk about the Starr family, present at important points in American history. The book was originally published in 1987, the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. That document’s creation and interpretation is the heart of this short novel.

Jared Starr (1726-1787) fought in the Revolutionary War after signing the Declaration of Independence. In the years since Yorktown, Jared and Alexander Hamilton exchanged letters about the need to scrap the inept Articles of Confederation and make something new. The two patriots knew that if they openly called for creating a new government, they would get nowhere and the new republic would wither and die on the vine. Thus, Hamilton, with Jared’s help, devised a plan to assemble other leading men in Philadelphia in May 1787 officially to amend the Article but, in reality, create the new government. Jared died of gunshot wounds sustained trying to keep peace after Shays’ Rebellion in the winter of 1786-87. His son, Simon (1759-1807) took his place.

In this manner, the history of America and the Constitution is related via the prism of the Starr family. Simon Starr was instrumental with James Madison in crafting the new Constitution. Justice Edmund Starr (1780-1847) sat on the U.S. Supreme Court, said hardly a word, but reliably voted with Chief Justice John Marshall all the time, especially in the McCulloch v. Maryland case. General Hugh Starr (1833-1921), a Virginian, freed his slaves just before the Dred Scott decision but fought next to Robert E. Lee all the way to Appomattox. Emily Starr (1858-1932), Hugh’s daughter, proved to be an early suffragist who was present when the Tennessee legislature voted to approve the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Richard Starr (1890-1954, Norman’s grandfather) hated FDR with a passion, thinking the New Yorker a commie. Rachel Denham Starr (1928-; Norman’s mom) crusaded to get state legislatures to reapportion along more equitable rules, leading up to the Baker v. Carr Supreme Court case.

The crux of the entire debate about Norman’s extended family was whether or not Norman would show up at the Senate, decked out in his best military uniform, and take the fifth. It isn’t until the last chapter, the one that bears Norman’s name, do we find out the answer.

You can see Michener’s political bias in this novel. It’s conservative, not Republican but also, liberal, yet not Democratic. When discussing the creation of the Constitution or the campaign for women’s suffrage, Norman’s ancestors acted in a liberal manner. When the story gets around to the Civil War or FDR, the ancestors tend to be more conservative. When you put the two together, Michener’s book is a good example of the flexibility of our living Constitution. When times demand it, our Constitution allows extra powers to solve a problem. When the crisis is over, the Constitution contracts and brings things back in line. It’s one of the obvious yet fundamental truths of our system of government.

Michener’s prose style is plain. Heck, this short novel is basically a civics lesson more than a novel, an extended essay with walk-on characters. An appendix reprints the Constitution, the then-twenty-six amendments, and the proposed 27th, the Equal Rights Amendment. Ironically, Michener doesn’t note the drive in the 1980s to ratify what is now the real 27th Amendment concerning Congressional salaries. The amendment was put forward in 1789 as part of the original twelve amendments (ten of these are now the Bill of Rights; the original text of the twelfth can be found here) by James Madison, the future fourth president.

Legacy is a fun little book, an easy one- or two-evening read. Looking back, it was the first book I read to incorporate the Founding Fathers in a fictional context. I loved it. I loved that historical figures could live and breath and interact with fictional characters to bring history to light. Probably why, in retrospect, I wrote a novel with Harry Truman.

As we get ready to celebrate a new president and vice president, it’s good for us Americans and the world to see the peaceful transfer of power as a vital sign of our thriving, yet imperfect democracy. It is a nation composed of people who make decisions and have to live with the consequences, no matter what. The Starr family of Legacy is a good example of living with mistakes and triumphs. There are patriots in the Starr family and there are those who bucked the system. Norman didn’t particularly appreciate every forbearer of his family but he did learn from them. With them looking on, he makes his choice.

In the coming days and weeks of the transition or whenever you need a little patriotic pick-me-up, find a copy of James Michener’s Legacy. It’ll make you proud to be an American.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Treason at Hanford: Chapters 25, 26, 27 online now

(Realized I missed last week. Now, catching up.)

Chapter 25, Chapter 26, and Chapter 27 of Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery is now available over at Texas Pulp Writer.

Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Movie Review for Veterans' Day: Saving Private Ryan

“Saving Private Ryan” should be required viewing for all Americans.

I watched the movie again over the weekend. I’ve lost count how many times; more than “The Dark Knight” but way less than “Star Wars.” It’s a difficult movie to watch for a variety of reasons: the violence, the loss of life, the sheer inexorable force of the government when it wants to do something. But it’s also an uplifting movie.

Now, ten years after it was released, “Saving Private Ryan” is a staple on cable television. If you are channel surfing and happen to catch a scene or two, chances are you’ll stop. It sucks you in, from the opening D-Day sequence, to the smaller scenes of Tom Hanks in that abandoned church, to the closing sequence with the German tank division. The movie is compelling. It’s drama at the highest stakes. But it’s only a movie. We know the outcome. We know who wins. Back in 1944, it wasn’t a sure thing. I think most Americans back in 1944, in their heart of hearts would say that they did think we’d win the war. But on June 6, 1944, as the news reports trickled in, it wasn’t’ a sure thing. Democracy was put to the test and democracy won.

What I really appreciate in this movie is all the little details Steven Spielberg got right. One important aspect—so obvious you could overlook it—is in the horrific opening scenes of the D-Day landing. When Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller gets on the beach, he asks another soldier who is in charge. That soldier, seeing Hanks’ captain’s insignia, tells him “You are.” Astounded, Hanks pauses, realizing that all the careful planning has been shot to hell. What he does, and what our real soldiers did, was improvise. Hanks gathers any and all men around him and figures out a way to get off the beach and take out the pill-boxes. Hanks’ character uses his brains. Tim Sizemore’s sergeant portrays the other aspect of pride we can have in our fighting men: the complete willingness to get up, stand up, and move forward against the enemy when every fiber of their being is telling them to seek cover until the bullets stop. Improvisation won the day on June 6, 1944. From there, anything was possible.

Improvisation played out during the remainder of the film as well. When Hanks squad finds Ryan, the private is unwilling to leave his post—guarding a bridge—and Hanks group decide to stay and help. The men improvise a defense plan, an attack plan, and a final last-man-out plan. And it very nearly works. Actually, it worked long enough for reinforcement to arrive.

All the actors in this film were great but Tom Hanks just shines above them all. And it's not for the loud, battle sequences. Pretty much anybody can do that. It’s for the quiet times where Hanks’ acting abilities excel. And not just in the small speeches his gives, like in the church when he talks about how many men he has lost under his command or the speech he gives when he reveals his civilian profession. It’s the scenes without words that Hanks really honors the real men who fought in World War II and any war. The scene after his medic dies (storming a German outpost) when Hanks goes off by himself and cries, always looking over his shoulder to make sure his men can’t see him. Hanks’ shaking hand is played out brilliantly through the film, never more so than when he has his men gathered around him and a map. Hanks tells them where they need to go and pulls out his compass for orienteering. One by one, his men see his shaking hand and, one by one, they make eye contact with each other. Finally, Hanks realizes what his men see in him and he makes a choice: he stands and tells his men to follow him. They do.

On this Veterans’ Day—90 years to the day since the guns fell silent in World War I—may we all pause to reflect on the real men and women whose hands shook but who marched forward anyway. Because of them, we can live in this glorious country in freedom and peace.

There are those among us Americans who take our freedoms for granted. They don’t know the sacrifices others made in order that we can live the lives we lead. To that end, one of the best things you can do is thank a veteran. Thank them for their service. Listen to them if they are willing to talk. Some are, some aren’t.

And let testaments like “Saving Private Ryan” remind us all that freedom isn’t free. We have to earn it. Our veterans, from Lexington and Concord to Baghdad, have earned our respect, our freedom, and our eternal gratitude.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Music Review: David Bowie in the 1990s

David Bowie, in the 1990s, played the most important character of his career: himself.

Many critics and fans consider Bowie’s 1990s output mediocre. His 1993 album Black Tie White Noise is the point, they say, where the slide began. However, when you examine Bowie’s entire career, the 1990s are not a slide but a rebirth.

Even if you think that Bowie’s hits began with 1969’s “Space Oddity” and followed with 1971’s “Changes,” I think most folks will agree that David Bowie really hit it big when he became Ziggy Stardust. For the rest of the 70s, phases of his career were noted by which character appeared on stage. You had Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, the Thin White Duke, or that weird clown he played in the “Ashes to Ashes” video. Even in 1983 when he went mainstream with “Let’s Dance” he was more the Thin White Duke’s brother than Bowie himself (although, when you look at the number of songs he played on the Serious Moonlight tour, he was closer to his true self than ever before). Even in 1987 and his overtly and, in retrospect, too bombastic Glass Spider tour, you could make the case that it was the characters that mattered more than the music. Heck, if you hear “Suffragette City” or “Let’s Dance” or “Scary Monsters,” you think more of how Bowie looked than how good the songs are. Bowie has said that he staged the Glass Spider tour—with a giant, translucent spider hovering over the stage—because that’s what people had come to expect of him. The music didn’t matter. Only the image mattered.

But, for Bowie, it was the music that matters most and his 1990s catalog proves it. Many fans at the time wondered about the ill-fated experiment that was Tin Machine. Why was Bowie trying to be just a member of a band? Doesn’t he know that’s impossible? Yeah, it probably was impossible but he was doing something he needed to do: get back to his roots. Get back to why he wanted to be a musician in the first place. In the mid-1960s, Bowie, then going by his given name of David Jones, was a member of a series of bands. After he had changed his last name to Bowie—so as not to be confused with the Monkees’ Davie Jones—Bowie became a solo artist and meshed all of the smorgasbord that was 1960s London into his own unique sound.

Bowie’s Tin Machine experience placed a bookend to the first phase of his career. After putting his extensive back catalog to rest in the 1990 Sound + Vision tour, Bowie returned to what got him first interested in music: jazz and playing saxophone. Black Tie White Noise (1993) is the result. With this record, Bowie pays homage to his musical heritage that influenced him in the 1950s and early 1960s, while still sounding modern. Nile Rodgers produced the album, their second collaboration after the multi-platinum Let’s Dance album. Lester Bowie, the avant-garde trumpet player, is featured heavily and Mick Ronson and Mike Garson, members of Ziggy’s band, the Spiders from Mars, also beam into the studio. The semi-autobiographical “Jump (They Say)” is the most popular from this CD. The rest of the music, including some instrumentals, a first since the 1970s, gyrated between pop, dance, jazz, and fantastic, yet underrated ballads. Sinatra would have been proud. Oh, and while Bowie is known for his often dour outlook on life as reflected through his songs, his then-recent marriage to model Iman made Black Tie White Noise altogether ebullient.

Later the same year, he recorded and released music for the BBC program "The Buddha of Suburbia," a collection of experimental music for which Bowie is quite proud. The music--almost all performed by Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay--was fresh. You could hear Bowie's pure enjoyment in the anonmyity of the instrumental music.

Having been musically born again, Bowie reviewed his career before he tackled his next album. For all the hit records and personas, fans and critics generally agreed that his trilogy of albums with Brian Eno—Low, “Heroes,” Lodger, (1977-79), sometimes referred to as the Berlin albums named for the city in which they were recorded—marked a creative moment in time for which Bowie could be proud. With that in mind, and giving a nod to his earlier theatrics, Bowie and Eno collaborated on 1995’s Outside. A concept album, somewhat bloated by its strict adherence to the overall story, Outside marked yet another example of what Bowie has done throughout his career: take stock of current musical trends and take a step ahead. The grunge movement was in full sway but there was also an undercurrent of industrial-rock that was bubbling up to the surface.

Characterized by a furious guitar-driven wall of sound as well as the moody, ambient synthesizer of Eno, Outside is Bowie return to the familiar, desolate sound of isolation in the midst of the modern. The tour that followed, co-headlined with Nine Inch Nails, exposed Bowie to a new, younger audience who must have wondered why Bowie, the original author of “The Man Who Sold the World” but made famous by Nirvana’s Unplugged set, was covering a Nirvana song. For the older fans, Bowie’s 1995 tour was a pleasure with new, industrial readings of old songs (Scary Monsters, Look Back In Anger, or DJ) and the dusting off of rarely-heard songs (Andy Warhol, My Death, or Teenage Wildlife). Popular songs from this album were “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” (good song but somewhat out of context when heard on the radio), “Hallo Spaceboy” (pile-driving rocker with blistering guitar work), and the subtle and wonderfully melodic “Strangers When We Meet.”

After Bowie’s experiment with industrial music, he noticed that the clubs in London played what was described as jungle/drum-and-bass music. You could certainly make the case that jungle/drum-and-bass was to London what hip-hop was the America, namely, an urban musical form with its own vocabulary and styles. In the mid-90s, this style was still more a jumble of musical types superimposed on each other, the result somewhat mish-mashed. Leave it to Bowie, with his perfectly maturing voice, to inject a degree of melody on rapid-rhythm drum-and-bass on his album Earthling (1997). He created something altogether unique in his career as well as the 1997 musical scene. Highlights of this CD are “Dead Man Walking” and “I’m Afraid of Americans.” In certain concert settings, Bowie unplugged these songs, stripping away the techno music to reveal the beauty of his music and voice underneath.

When examining Bowie’s entire career, you can see trilogies emerge. The aforementioned Berlin trilogy is one, the trilogy of albums surrounding Ziggy Stardust—The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups—is another and the 1980s albums—Let’s Dance, Tonight, Never Let Me Down—is a third. The early-to-mid 1990s albums just discussed is another trilogy and, yet, Bowie gave us a fifth. Beginning with 1999’s …hours, Bowie began to reexamine his own career in a quite overt way. Upon listening to the sedate musings of the then 52-year-old man, …hours sounds very much like the answer to the question: What would Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory sound like if it were recorded in 1999? With its acoustic stylings and meditative reflections, …hours was the answer. And it was a distinct break from the previous three albums. “Thursday’s Child” was the lead single, followed soon after by “Seven” and “Survive.” Back in 1999, you had to wonder if this were one of the few stand-alone albums Bowie had released throughout the years—The Man Who Sold the World, Young Americans, Scary Monsters—or the beginning of another cycle.

In 2002, Bowie released his most critically acclaimed album in years, Heathen. Produced by Tony Visconti, the soundboard genius behind most of Bowie’s albums in the 1970s, Heathen all but returned to the sound of the Berlin trilogy. Dark, moody, introspective punctuated with loud bursts like Bowie’s cover of the Pixie’s “Cactus,” Heathen arrived on store shelves in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and seemed to pose new questions. In interviews during 2002, when Bowie was asked if the attacks had inspired any of the songs on the record, Bowie usually responded by stating that this particular pessimistic outlook on life had been a staple of his entire career. So, nothing fundamentally different but again, it was a prescient Bowie being one step ahead of the rest of us.

Then, in 2003, came his latest album, Reality. And it is here that Bowie embraces something altogether positive: the spirit and essence of New York City. Just listening to the tracks you can all but smell the odors wafting along the Avenue of the Americas or hear the sounds of the city. There are obvious post-9/11 depressive lyrics—“See the great white scar/Over Battery Park/Then a flare glides over/But I won't look at that scar”—as well as more surprisingly optimistic lyrics, perhaps as the result of his fourteen-year marriage to Iman or the joy that the couple’s three-year-old daughter bring to their life.

But there’s also something else. There’s a sly wink and a smile by Bowie to all of us. He tells us that he’s never gonna get old. During the Reality Tour, he delved into every phase of his catalogue, bringing out album cuts that hadn’t been performed live in decades. The DVD that documented that tour contains thirty songs (just drool at the set list and look at the stats of the tour), a three-hour experience that showed a performer, musician, and icon still performing at a peak many other artists would envy.

Smoking and touring finally caught up with Bowie in 2004, enough so that he had to cut the tour short. In the years since—going on five—it is the longest drought of Bowie’s career without a new record. He has recorded one-off songs here and there but performed rarely. You would be foolish to think there won’t be another Bowie album out there. But Ziggy is 61 this year and, as much as I hate to admit it, it is possible that we have all we’re going to get.

Either way, do not dismiss the 1990s albums. Collectively and separately, they constitute some of the best music of Bowie’s career. And if we do get that one, last album, you can bet David Bowie, The Thin White Duke, will probably be one step ahead of everyone and beckoning us to follow.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Forgotten Books: The Secret of Terror Castle by Robert Arthur

(My latest entry into the Friday Forgotten Books series started by Patti Abbott)

Nero Wolfe, some believe, is the offspring of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. While that may be more fantasy than gospel—it’s the spirit of the two characters that links them together—then, in that spirit, Jupiter Jones is Wolfe’s grandson…assuming Wolfe even got near a woman long enough to, well, you know.

Who is Jupiter Jones? He is the leader of the Three Investigators, a series of juvenile mystery and detective stories created by Robert Arthur in 1964. A stout, stocky, but not quite fat boy, Jupiter is, in spirit, the youthful heir to Holmes and Wolfe. He is smart, deductive, somewhat off-putting, and prone to use big words. On page four, when Bob Andrews, one of Jupiter’s partners, is frustrated his mother cannot relay the message Jupiter gave to her, she replies, “I could remember an ordinary message, but Jupiter doesn’t leave ordinary messages. It was something fantastic.”

And that’s a good way to describe The Secret of Terror Castle, the first book of the Three Investigators series. The plot is fantastic—i.e., somewhat hard to believe but very fun, nonetheless—the situations the Investigators get themselves into are fantastic, and they find a fantastic patron, none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself.

Terror Castle has the boys—Jupiter (First Investigator), Pete Crenshaw (Second Investigator), and Bob Andrews (Records and Research) searching for a true haunted house in which Hitchcock can make his next film. The corresponding publicity surrounding the Investigators’ discovery—their only fee is that Hitchcock act the part of Dr. Watson and introduce their case—will launch their career as detectives. Or so they hope.

The Three Investigators center their attention on Terror Castle, the old mansion built by a famous horror movie actor named Stephen Terrill. It’s rumored to be haunted, ghosts have been seen, the pipe organ has played at numerous times at night, and no one has been able to spend the night in the house in over twenty years without running out the door screaming in terror. Perfect, thinks Jupiter, and he and his reluctant pals set about trying to prove that Terror Castle is, indeed haunted.

The boys, in groups of two, never all together, enter Terror Castle with flashlights, a camera, and a tape recorder. They are intent on scoring proof of the ghosts and the strange phenomena of anxiety attacks by previous visitors. Along the way, they find secret passages, dusty skeletons, and a visage of the Blue Phantom, the being who plays the pipe organ located within the castle. The Investigators get warned to stay away but they don’t. Until they uncover the truth.

One of the things I liked back in the day when I first read these books and again, this week, as I re-read Terror Castle, is the relationship between the boys. Jupiter is the smart one, often keeping certain deductions secret until their truth has been proven, not unlike Holmes and Wolfe. Pete is the athlete, the legman. His strength is in his actions provided he can stop being scared long enough to do the right thing. Bob is the studious one. He wears glasses, works part-time in a library, and wears a leg brace. Each boy gets a chance to shine and bring their special talent to the fore and help the team solve the mystery.

The reason I bring up Nero Wolfe is the method by which Wolfe solved crimes. He had Archie Goodwin do all the legwork and bring reports back to his New York brownstone apartment. At one point in Terror Castle, Jupiter hurts his ankle and has to remain bedridden for a few days. Thus, Bob and Pete are dispatched with specific instructions and Jupe, as the boys call him, disseminates the data. Pure Wolfe.

Jupiter is also Sherlock Holmes. He has theories about certain aspects of Terror Castle but doesn’t tell his two partners or the reader, allowing you time to assemble the well-laid out clues along the way. One of the nice little structures for these books is that the Investigators reports to Hitchcock himself at the end of the story. Thus, there is the artificial structure that doesn’t feel artificial where all the clues can be discussed in detail. And, in a fun way to end the last chapter with Hitchcock, the director himself entices their curiosity by telling them about a friend who has lost his missing, stuttering parrot. It just so happens that The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot is the next book. Now that’s cool.

(I just realized something: Michael Chabon’s Holmes pastiche, The Final Problem, involves a missing parrot. I wonder if Chabon’s book isn’t also an homage to the Three Investigators?)

When I was a kid reading pretty much anything I could get my hands on, I discovered mysteries through the Hardy Boys. They were good and I enjoyed them (check out David Cranmer’s review last week for more on the Hardy Boys). But The Three Investigators were the ones whose stories and adventures I still remember. And I think I know why (and it’s not that their titles were cooler).

For one, they were my age, somewhere around 13-15. They couldn’t drive. They had to use their bikes or get someone to drive them. (In Terror Castle, Jupiter has won a contest, the prize being the use of a Rolls Royce for thirty days.) They were middle class. Jupiter was an orphan while Bob and Pete had families. They had chores to do and they always had to do them before going off on their adventures.

And they had Headquarters, a magnificent old mobile home hidden inside the junkyard owned by Jupiter’s uncle. HQ had hidden entrances and exits, a dark room, and other tools of the detective trade all made with things found in the junkyard. I loved their HQ so much, I built my own, complete with an entrance underground.

Re-reading The Secret of Terror Castle this week brought back some memories. I look forward to sharing them with my son. But the story itself is pretty darn good for an adult like me. It’s fast-paced and has more characterization than you’d expect. The POV is third person omniscient with Arthur in and out (and showing himself) of the heads of all three boys. But this does not detract from a splendid read and just a fun book.

Come to think of it, I may just have to read these books again before my son does.

P.S.
Here's an excellent website for lots and lots of good information about The Three Investigators in print and this website gives you some background on Robert Arthur.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

History

I am passionate about history. Even as I was training and earning my two degrees in history, I never lost the passion for history. It’s who we are, what we’ve done, and can help us decide what to do in the future. Harry Truman was the last president not to have a college degree but he was steeped and learned in history. He never stopped reading and learning and doing. In looking over his quotes, one stands out today:
There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.
Of all the personal attributes Barack Obama possesses, his knowledge of and understanding of history should stand up with his personal discipline and even-tempered persona. The President-Elect knows his history. His speech last night is but the latest example of it. He referenced Lincoln, the Founding Fathers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and echoed Franklin Roosevelt in his optimistic yet sober reading of where we are as a nation.

In a society that often does not know its own history (just groan anytime you watch Jay Leno ask history questions in his “Jaywalking” segments), it was nice to see Americans, Republicans and Democrats, know that they are living through history this year and turn out to vote. Obama’s candidacy is obvious: first African-American man to win the nomination of a major party and, now, the presidency. But John McCain is also historic. He will likely be the last Vietnam War veteran to run for the White House. The Civil War, which last four years, produced nine elections with a Civil War vet on the ballot (1868-1900). World War II, also four years, produced twelve election cycles with a WWII vet on the ticket (1952-1996). The Vietnam generation—more or less a ten-year war—produced only five elections: Clinton twice, George W. Bush twice, and John McCain.

One note about historic days: Most often, we all wake up on a historic day not knowing its going to be historic. On the morning of September 11, 2001, none of would have predicted the day would turn out the way it did. Ditto for December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, December 12, 2000, January 28, 1986, May 8, 1945, or October 24, 1929. Most days are normal until something happens, usually bad. Very few times do we know in advance a particular day is destined for history. November 11, 1918 is one and July 20, 1969 is another. For months, we have known that November 4, 2008 was going to be historic, no matter the outcome.

Now, just like September 12, 2001, December 8, 1941, November 12, 1918, or November 23, 1963, we live in a different world. Sure, the sky is still blue and the grass still green and our children still have to learn spelling words, but there feels in the air something different today. It’s history. We live it every day but, sometimes, we just have to be reminded that it is something we have to know, cherish, and learn from. Without history, how can we move forward? With history as our guide, anything is possible. Truman knew it. Obama knows it. And, today, we all know it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Movie Review: Foyle's War: Fifty Ships

(In place of my usual book review, a review about a splendid little mystery.)

I watched a DVD movie over the weekend and I didn’t realize George W. Bush was alive during World War II.*

I finally got to watch something I’ve had my eye on for a long time: Foyle’s War. This British television series ran from 2001 until this year and includes nineteen episodes. My library has most of the first three seasons but I started with “Fifty Ships," the first episode of the second season.

Christopher Foyle is the Detective Chief Superintendent for Hastings, a small town on the southern coast of the English Channel. He is played with remarkable subtlety by Michael Kitchen, a man I first noticed in the first two Pierce Brosnan Bond films, Goldeneye and The World is Not Enough. Unlike wisecracking detectives over here in America, Kitchen’s Foyle is understated, quiet, reserved, but nonetheless determined to get his man. The visage of Foyle says much about the character. He wears a three-piece suit with a longer overcoat and a thin-brimmed fedora. His voice is soft and rarely belies any inflection. You almost get the sense that he’s tired but an inner flame burns in him, driving him to do his part for the war.

“Fifty Ships” is a traditional mystery in that there is a body but the story and the details of the murder are not gory. In typical mystery fashion, there are at least three threads and one extra humorous sub-plot to keep you occupied. The story opens with the house of Samantha Stewart, Foyle’s driver, being bombed. Volunteer firemen arrive and steal the landlady’s coin collection that once belonged to her late husband. Samantha now has no place to sleep and this provides a wry humorous sub-plot: where will she sleep?

An old friend of Foyle’s, barrister Arthur Lewes, invites the detective to dinner in honor of visiting American businessman Howard Paige. While driving up the dark lane, Foyle sees Richard Hunter, a working class man, who later turns up dead on the rocky beach outside Lewes’s home later that night. Soon, Foyle and his partner, young Paul Milner, investigate the murder.

Along the way, they get word that a refugee from Europe landed on the beach not far from where the dead body was found. He won’t talk to the military policemen who apprehended him and consider him a spy but he does, eventually, talk with Foyle.

These three strands, as you would expect, begin to converge. What makes this program utterly fascinating is how the war plays on every character in ways big and small. The story takes place in September 1940: France has fallen, the Battle of Britain has started, and the US is still not in the war. The volunteer firemen who loot bombed out houses consider their plunder extra wages for a job no one else wants to do. The man washed up on England’s soil is to be executed for being a spy, something he knows and accepts, even though he may not be a spy. Foyle’s own son is active in the service and he worries about him daily. The landlady accepts the bombing of her house as the price of war but cannot stand the theft of her late husband’s coins.

*In order to relate what I mean by my opening sentence, I will have to use SPOILERS AHEAD. If you’ve seen the film, keep on reading. If you want to be surprised, go watch this wonderful film and come back later and read my take.



Secrets play an integral part in this film. Lewes’s wife, Elizabeth, was Foyle’s first love but her father wouldn’t allow the marriage. That Foyle’s wife is not in the episode means he’s either a widower or a divorcee. No matter, he’s alone now and has to rebuff Elizabeth’s entreaties. I suspect viewers who watched this series from the beginning found these scenes particularly appealing.

The biggest secret lies with the American Paige and the dead man, Hunter. They were classmates at Oxford in 1922 and, together, they invented a new gear system. Paige returned to America, patented it as his own, and got rich. Hunter lost everything, and, eventually, his son’s respect. It was Hunter who approached Paige for blackmail money in the hopes that he could send his son to aviation school, something Hunter’s son wants but cannot afford. Eventually, it’s revealed that Paige pulled the trigger and the refugee—a cousin of Lewes’s wife—is the witness.

Where George Bush comes in is how Paige carries himself. He’s smug, he knows he’s important, and he knows he’s above the law. In more than one scene, he instructs his British driver to tell Foyle in no uncertain terms how vital the American's role is. You see, he has arrived in England for high level talks to find a way for the US to start delivering supplies to Britain as she stands alone against Nazi Germany (what eventually becomes the Lend-Lease program). If Foyle has his way, he’d arrest Paige for murder. But Foyle cannot have his way because to do so would jeopardize the delivery of fifty ships to Britain. If Paige is arrested, the scandal would kill any attempts for the US to help England, thus England would likely fall to the Germans. Paige is arrogant and knows he’s just gotten away with murder. But Foyle has the last word.

This film was released in 2004, a year after George Bush took America to war with Britain’s help. Regardless of what you think about the war, by 2004, Britons had soured on the war and Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, ultimately paid the price. I could not help but see Paige in the movie as an avatar for George Bush and how the English see our president. The arrogant American gets away with murder while everyone else knows it.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed “Fifty Ships” and look forward to watching the rest of Foyle’s War. Other than the sterling performance by Michael Kitchen, watch these episodes for the history. We know and have learned the big history of World War II. Foyle’s War deals with the hidden part of war, the home front, and how people dealt with the consequences of that cataclysmic struggle in small, personal ways. At the very least, Foyle’s War can be a lessen for all of us in the fortitude we all need to keep during war or economic uncertainty or whenever bad times hit us. The darkness can’t last forever. It will be morning again someday. In the meantime, just keep on keeping on.

Tim Russert...

For all the good ways Chuck Todd has taken over Russet's spot as the Chief Political Director at NBC News--I have really come to rely on Todd's assessments throughout the campaign--I don't think I'm the only one who will miss Tim Russert tonight. He would have loved to see this day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Music Review: Wolfgang's Big Night Out by The Brian Setzer Orchestra

Brian Setzer can travel through time. Want proof? Just look at his resume.

In the early 80s, when synthesizers and flaming pop metal ruled the radio airwaves, Setzer jumped back in time thirty years when he led the Stray Cats in a pseudo rockabilly 50s revival. It lasted for something like two albums and two quite famous and toe-tapping songs: “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.” Then, for most folks, the felines on the fence got the boot thrown at them. They fell off. We all dusted our hands and nodded at a job well done.

But ten years later, in the mid-90s, Setzer went back even further in time, this time, sixty years. In a world filled with grunge, Setzer landed in the 30s, arriving just in time for the mini swing revival that crested prior to the millennium. His 17-piece big band helped to lead the movement and, for an alto sax player like me, gave me something really fun to get into. In fact, as the swing craze set the 90s ablaze, many folks had thoughts like this: “Wow. This is some good music.” Uh, yeah. What took y’all so long to realize that? Just look what they did to the Stray Cats hit “Rock This Town.”

Setzer and his band produced four studio albums (the third, The Dirty Boogie, is the best) and two Christmas CDs and a few live albums. The first Yule collection, Boogie Woogie Christmas, featured a big band, jazz rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” I remember seeing the track listing on the jewel box and thinking “Seriously?” Could a piece of music played in straight time ever come off as a swing number? The short answer: yeah, it can. And it’s really good.

So it was a natural progression for Setzer to travel back further in time and tackle an entire CD’s worth of classically inspired jazz pieces. And Wolfgang’s Big Night Out is the result. And you know what? These classical composers can swing, baby!

The album is basically a greatest hits record of classical songs and themes. “Take the 5th” kicks off the album and the music is only half the fun. All the song titles save one are themselves jazzy, Vegas-lounge inspired riffs off the original pieces. Thus, “Take the 5th” morphs from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And this piece could have come directly from Benny Goodman’s orchestra circa 1936. The thing about this track and most of the other tracks is Setzer’s guitar sound. It’s straight 50s and early 60s: very little reverb, very little distortion. It’s a clean sound although Setzer is not shy about the whammy bar. Not only do you get 30s and 40s era swing arrangements, you get 50s and 60s guitar sounds to boot.

“One More Night With You” is the only song title that’s not a direct take-off of the original piece. And this is the only vocals that Setzer delivers. The theme is Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” and the music is quite good. The lyrics are all about how Setzer doesn’t need all the bling associated with success if he has the woman of his dreams. The female backup singers channel the Andrew Sisters as they vocally prance their way behind Setzer’s warble.

You know Mozart can swing so the title track (AKA “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) is pleasant and uneventful. Ditto for “Yes We Can Can” (I don’t have to tell you what that song is from, do I?) and “Sabre Dance,” a song that keeps its title and its intensity.

Setzer is an underrated guitarist. He’s flashy but not as well known as, say, Clapton, Page, or Van Halen. Setzer’s genius is in his picking techniques, put on glorious display in “Honey Man” (“Flight of the Bumblebee”). Yes, it would be much easier to do a Van Halen and play only with his fingers on the fret board and not pick each individual note. Heck, if Setzer did that, the song could have been played much, much faster. Instead, the song blows through your speakers at a rapid clip and Setzer picks every single note. Impressive.

Perhaps the most unexpected arrangement is the modifying of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” into “For Lisa,” a gypsy jazz piece that would have made Django Reinhardt proud. In the only song that doesn’t feature the entire band, Setzer and a few mates (violin, bass, drums, clarinet, and Setzer himself on acoustic guitar) present a soft, acoustic piece that evokes Parisian cafes at the turn of the century. Setzer’s albums are usually loud and bombastic. This little piece just floats along, making you smile and wanting some coffee.

To say that there are some missteps puts a damper on the tracks themselves. None of the songs are bad; some just work better than others. “Swingin’ Willie” (“William Tell Overture”) is a decent enough track but the swing seems a tad forced. The same is true for “Some River in Europe” (“Blue Danube”), a song that stays hews close to its classical inspiration, rarely veering into swing territory.

Wolfgang’s Big Night Out showcases one true blender song on an album full of them. By blender, I’m talking about when you put a bunch of different influences into a blender and turn it on. “1812 Overdrive” does that a bit at the beginning of the song as the Latin-tinged drums and percussion give you that Louis Prima, jump blues vibe. But the shining star of blender songs has got to be “Take a Break Guys” (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”). If you count jazz and classical as the two base motifs, then you have to include Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” (tom-tom drums), surf guitar (at the beginning), an introduction that could have come from a James Bond film, and, then, the coup de grace: Jimi Hendrix. During the phenomenal guitar solo, the rhythm shifts to straight rock time and Setzer begins to shred, a la mid-70s rock gods like Terry Kath (Chicago) and Joe Perry (Aerosmith). The horns come back in for the second half of the solo but then Setzer breaks out the wah-wah pedal and does his best Hendrix impersonation (think "All Along the Watchtower" among others). From there on out, he keeps the wah-wah going but funkifies it, just like you’d hear in an early 70s Isaac Hayes tune. As much fun as the other eleven tracks are, this is the track to take home and share.

A recommendation: I first heard this CD while driving in my car. As such, I couldn’t just pick up the CD case and look at the title of the song whilst driving at sixty-miles-per-hour. So, the fun thing was to try and determine, as quickly as possible, which classical piece was Setzer’s inspiration. Some are easy: Beethoven’s 5th and "Take the 5th" both start out with the same four notes. Some are much more fun. If you’ve already bought this CD, try this: put away the track listing, set your CD player to random, and just revel in the fun. You’ll be tapping your toe in no time.

And speaking of time, I wonder where Setzer time travels next? Gregorian chants as jazz songs? In Setzer’s capable hands, anything is possible.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

I'm a Winner!

Well, it seems these book reviews I'm doing for my blog are paying off. I just got the official word that I won the book review contest sponsored by the Ft. Bend Writer's Guild. Yee-haw! The winning essay was the one I wrote about The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow. You can read it here. This marks the first time in my career that I've won for non-fiction. I don't intend for it to be the last.

Thanks to everyone who visits my blog and reads my reviews. Without y'all, this blog and these reviews and the discussions generated would be a bunch of soliloquies. I prefer dialogue.

Star Wars/John Williams a

Over at SFSignal.com, they've posted a great video. It's one guy, singing lyrics written about the Star Wars trilogy, to the tune of various John Williams theme songs. I've seen it three times now and I'm convinced it's a fantastic piece of work. He has four screens with him in each (although wearing a different shirt). He sings four-part harmony and, well, it's just muy bueno! Go take a look.