Tuesday, February 22, 2022

What Are the Famous Books of the 1990s?

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman. I’d never heard of him but the book’s cover caught my attention. Couple that with my son’s musical tastes currently residing in the 1990s and I thought why not take a chance with the new book.

It’s a fascinating read and I thoroughly enjoyed. I annotated my audible file with interesting clips and I’ve got the ebook on hold via my library to potentially re-read some passages.

Klosterman focuses on pop culture, politics, TV, music, movies as a means to explain that last decade of the century. It was only by the end that I realized something: I don’t think he mentioned any books. Which got me to thinking about an obvious question:

What are the famous books of the 1990s?

Okay, do something with me. Think about that decade and see if you can recall any titles or authors but do not use the internet. Heck, don’t even look at your bookshelves. Just see if you can come up with any famous books strictly from your memory. I’ll wait.

Okay, so how many did you remember? Truth be told, as I’m writing this, I have not yet turned to Google. I’ve not even turned my eyes to my various bookshelves. In real time, I’ve been thinking about this question, off and on, for about a day, and only in the last few minutes did I remember an author and book that emerged in the 1990s: John Grisham’s The Firm.

I struggled to even remember many books. I went through my mental Stephen King list but could only remember Bag of Bones from 1998. Grisham’s status as the premier writer of the legal thriller instantly brought his other books to my mind. And I think Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a 1990s book. But those were all I can remember.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to Google now. I suspect I’ll have more than a few “Oh, right! That book!” forehead slaps but such is my memory.

And I’m back, and I’ve slapped my forehead more than once in the category of “How could I have forgotten that book.” Among the titles that slipped my mind are Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990), The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum (1990), Truman by David McCullough (1992; my historian cred just went down the tubes), The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller (1993), Men Are from Mars, Women are From Venus by John Gray (1993), Primary Colors by Anonymous [AKA Joe Klein] (1996), and many books by Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clark. I used this site to get the Top 10 books per year and not what someone thinks are the important books.

How many did you remember? More than me? That’s good. Heck, I couldn’t even remember all the Stephen King books of that decade. And how many mystery/thrillers did you recall? The presence of Clark and Ludlum tells me that our genres was at least at the table—as was Tom Clancy (more than once) and James Patterson. 

Update: reader Jeremy sent me an email to remind me that Harry Potter was released in 1997 (UK) and 1999 (US) and publishers spent the next 15 years trying to chase the next big young adult craze. He also mentioned that the first Game of Thrones book was published in 1996. That brought Snow Crash (1992) to my memory although I didn't read it until the early 2000s. Ditto for the Potter books (I read them all in 2007).

Here’s a larger question: how many of those books were influential? How many changed things? I’ll come back to the Truman biography. I was in grad school and in 1992, many of my professors grumbled at McCullough’s book because it was too popular. Like the study of history had to be impenetrable to be good. I, for one, appreciate it when a historian writes a popular enough book that it becomes a bestseller (or a Broadway musical). I saw more history books written in McCullough’s style after 1992 than before.


What is the Nevermind of Books?

What about fiction? Is there a Nirvana moment (there was a Before Nevermind and then there was an After Nevermind) or a Matrix moment (same concept) for books? Historically, I’m guessing something like Agatha Christie or Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) or Raymond Chandler’s work (The Big Sleep?) or Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer’s first book) or Ian Fleming (was he the first huge spy writer?) or Tom Clancy (techno-thriller) or Grisham (legal thriller). I guess Grisham in the 1990s can count as the guy who put legal thrillers back on the map (Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason was king but I can’t think of any other ones other that Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent in the interim).

Now, I also admit that I also did a more specific search for mysteries and thrillers in the 1990s. Here is that link. This is likely not an end-all, be-all list, but something is obviously apparent if you scan the list: the large majority of top mystery books in the 1990s involve series characters. I counted twelve out of 100 that were not series related. My guess is that a respective list for the 2000s, the 2010s, the 1980s, will reveal the same thing. Series sell. It’s a testament to a certain type of writer who can publish different stories within a genre and not do a series.

This essay is a thought exercise but also a real question. Were there any truly game-changing books published in the 1990s? Did they influence pop culture? If not, when was the last time a book sat in the middle of pop culture and dominated the national conversation or, at least added to the greater conversation? (I’m mainly talking about fiction because there are certainly non-fiction books that have made their mark on society.)

Monday, February 14, 2022

It’s Okay to Adjust Your Goals

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote a post about finding time to write? The thrust of the piece was that there are lots of little chunks of any given week to devote to writing. I stand by that assertion, but two things happened in the past week. I realized I wasn’t leaving time for all the other things an indie writer needs to do, and I was getting worn down.

When do I edit my stuff? When do I create covers for my stories? When do I do the website upkeep? These activities are crucial to being an indie writer/publisher in 2022 and I simply wasn’t giving myself time to do any of it. Why would I? Doing those things meant I would write less.

But, but, but I have a minimum word count of 1,000 words. How am I supposed to do all that other stuff and still get in my thousand?

I’ve been trying and doing reasonably well. Actually, that may not be entirely accurate. I have been working in the editing and the cover creation, but doing it by sacrificing sleep. The Olympics didn’t help because of the time zone difference, I’d be up watching live coverage prime time through 11pm yet still getting up at 5am. That, of course, wouldn’t last, but it crystalized just how much time in the day I had at my disposal. It is finite and there are things I need to do, and keeping myself healthy is high on the list.

But what about that minimum word count? What about hitting that thousand? Well, if the words are crap and you’re just writing to hit a number, then what’s the point? I intuitively recognized my internal self was stretching out scenes just to meet some arbitrary number. For example, the short story I’ve been working on is nearing 10,000 words. Are they all needed? A critical edit will tell me the truth, but there’s a sense I’ve been padding the story to reach that 1,000/day threshold.

But to do this, to accept that I’d be doing less in the given time allotted to me, I’d have to give myself permission to downshift and try something else. That’s a big mental hurtle for many of us, myself included. We want to be super productive, but if that productivity either ruins our health or delivers sub-par writing that you’re going to have to fix anyway, what’s the point?

Better to be efficient even at a slower pace than the opposite.

So I gave myself permission to drive the writing career at a slower speed. My goal is to create better content at a consistent pace without sacrificing my health, both the body kind and the mental kind.

What also helped me reach this conclusion was this week’s post from Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She links to an article ostensibly about “Covid Cloud” and how we can overcome our concentration issues, but the author, Jessi Gold, makes a point about doing less. “Normalizing doing less feels uncomfortable, vulnerable, and might even make us feel like a failure. This is because we often measure our success by our productivity.”

Yup, that was me. And it’ll still be there, truth be told, but I am trying something different. Still writing everyday, but allowing myself time to breathe and do the other things required of me, like re-reading a novel to determine next steps.

Do y’all ever have moments like this? What do you do?

Monday, February 7, 2022

Setting Off For Adventure with Agatha Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit

Well, I’ve finally read my second Agatha Christie novel.

The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) was the January 2022 selection from the good folks over at AgathaChristie.com. It’s part of the Read Christie 2022 project. For the past two years, they’ve done something similar. This year, they’re focusing on Christie’ love of travel and selecting books with that theme.

I didn’t do the challenges the last two years, but opted to read this novel, Christie’s fourth book. Our lead heroine is Anne Beddingfeld, a young woman, on her own after her father passed away. With her whole life in front of her and with her mind swirling with the drive for adventure, young Anne finds all that and then some.

In a London subway station, Anne sees a man look at her in shock right before he plunges over the edge of the platform and dies. An odd-looking man swoops in to examine the body, claiming to be a doctor. But Anne questions the newcomer’s intentions. Couple that with a piece of paper dropped by the supposed doctor and Anne starts to see a mystery.

The mystery leads her to a ship bound for South Africa. On the ship, strange things occur and she’s introduced to a number of other characters. One is Sir Eustace Pedler, a member of Parliament, who brings with him a pair of secretaries, Guy Pagett and Harry Rayburn. Also of note is Colonel Race, supposedly of the British Secret Service, and Suzanne Blair, a married woman who befriends Anne on the voyage.

Lots of things happen on the boat and they continue when they get down to South Africa. It’s fascinating to read what was dubbed a thriller circa 1924 and compare it to what we think of as a thriller nowadays. Like many a mystery story set between the two world wars, there’s a quaintness to this novel. There’s the tendency of the bad guys to expostulate to the heroine, laying out the bad guy plan in detail. There’s the somewhat coincidental nature of some of the plot points, like what happens on the boat at night that just so happens to have Anne present.

Then there’s how the story itself is presented. A prologue shows us a few characters basically told from the author’s point of view. Then the novel switches to the narrative Anne writes herself. Spliced amid Anne’s reminiscences are those of Sir Eustace himself. It’s a clever trick because it enables Christie to show the reader certain things Anne and the others don’t know.

I’ll admit there was a time or two I’d have to think and remind myself which character Anne was referring to. I listened to a well-done narration by Emilia Fox and it wasn’t her fault. It was my own disjointed listening schedule. But by the time I was on the final homestretch, I was deeply into the story and barreled ahead until its conclusion.

And I rather enjoyed learning the identity of the mysterious antagonist nicknamed “The Colonel.” [No, it’s not Colonel Race. Christie obviously didn’t read all those how-to-write-a-mystery books in which you’re not supposed to name characters with similar names or titles.]

I enjoyed it, but it’s certainly not what I think of when I think of Agatha Christie. No Poirot, no Marple. But that’s likely the point of a reading adventure like the one planned for 2022. It looks like they’ll feature books that aren’t always on the top of people’s mind when they list favorites from the Queen of Mystery Fiction. Granted, the February book is Death on the Nile (to coincide with the new movie), a title I do know, but I’m looking forward to the rest of the selections throughout the year.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

David Bowie's Earthling at 25: Still An All-Time Favorite

I didn’t really know what to expect on 3 February 1997 when I bought David Bowie’s new album, Earthling. All I knew or cared about was that there was a new album. Little did I know I would  come to consider Earthling among the Bowie albums to which I return frequently.

I’ll admit, the album, with its drum-and-bass, jungle music had me initially scratching my head. Without the internet, I was unaware that, in the London clubs, there was a new musical style. Like many things in those days, I was introduced to new things via established artists like Bowie experimenting with them. His previous album, 1995’s Outside, saw Bowie experiment with industrial sonic palettes and I mostly enjoyed that album. By that point, I owned all of Bowie’s albums and knew he’d take me on an interesting musical journey. In fact, I’d come to expect it, and he delivered with Earthling.

Many of the tracks on the album came across then as a mishmash of styles, beats, and instruments. Anchored by guitarist Reeves Gabrels, Bowie created various grooves over which he and others could sing, play, and solo. But they are not mere jams like Miles Davis’s electric era. All these tunes are songs, conforming to a logical structure, and meant to be played on the radio or in clubs.

Despite how intense many of these songs sound, Earthling further establishes the basic fact that Bowie, as a singer, is basically a crooner, especially on my favorite track, “Dean Man Walking.” The beat of the song is relentless yet Bowie sings in long, slower, melodic passages. It’s that juxtaposition that really enamors this album to me. I like it when artists I appreciate take a thing—Bowie with drum-and-bass; Sting with Arabic rhythms and structures, Paul Simon with African beats—and put a new spin on it. I almost always do a deeper dive into the source material, but the interpretation is where I start. 

Reeves Gabrels is the co-star of this album. His guitar work is often blistering in its intensity, and I’m not sure I’ve heard a player more in love with the whammy bar than Gabrels. But he, like Bowie, was more interested in creating an atmosphere of music than traditional songs. If there’s a most-blistering moment, it’s the slow buildup during his solo in “Looking for Satellites.” 

Then there’s the brilliant Mike Garson. I’ve loved and enjoyed his piano work on Bowie’s songs since his famous turn on Aladdin Sane. In fact, his presence on many of Bowie’s 1990s albums and in his touring bands is often my favorite part. There’s nothing quite like a furious beat with crunchy guitars over which Garson plays his discordant piano solos (“Battle For Britain (The Letter)”). His solos might sound dissident, but they are nonetheless melodic. Also of note is his trilling up and down the keys at the end of “Dead Man Walking.”

By 1997 and the success of MTV’s Unplugged, going acoustic was all the rage and Bowie was no stranger to stripping down his songs down to their essence and delivering unique takes. He did it for old songs like “Quicksand” and “Scary Monsters” but how would these songs from Earthling sound without all the techno trappings? Turns out, pretty damn good. He revealed the beauty of his music and voice even at the age of fifty. It was during 1997 and the years following that I’d scour record stores hoping for (ahem) bootlegs of shows I couldn’t see, many of which featured the acoustic versions. He performed one on Conan O’Brien’s show, a performance Conan himself re-broadcast when Bowie passed away in 2016. 

One holy grail bootleg was the concert to celebrate Bowie’s fiftieth birthday in January 1997. He performed seven of the nine songs from Earthling, all with guest stars. I got only bits and pieces back then, but courtesy of YouTube, it’s all there.

Speaking of the album’s rather limited track list, it’s not as few as Station to Station’s six, but I appreciate Bowie’s restraint on Earthling. After the previous album’s nineteen tracks, nine seemed like a good number, especially with all the moods they elicit. 

I freely admit I was one of the listeners who discovered Bowie via Let’s Dance. Actually, it was when I had Queen’s Greatest Hits and wondered who the other guy was on “Under Pressure.” But over the years, I have a tremendous fondness for Bowie’s 1990s-era material. His performances in the Earthling era are particularly great. Not only does he play a huge chunk of his new material, he reinterpreted older songs like “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Fashion” with a techno/grungy vibe. In fact, I recently discovered the full concert for the 1997 GQ Awards and thoroughly enjoyed it. Bowie himself called this band, which included the wonderful Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and vocals, among the best he had. The proof is in the music where folks like Gabrels get chances to expand solos and Garson layers over his piano work across all the tunes.

I have purchased this album at least three times. There was the original album, all the special CDs available in random places (like the Earthling in the City CD glued onto an issue of GQ), I bought the double disc in 2004 that included a ton of remixes. Then, just last year, I picked up the Brilliant Adventure box set showcasing the entire 1990s era. 

If you haven’t listened to Earthling in a long time—or perhaps you never have—give it a spin, but do yourself a favor. Don’t just listen via the small speakers on your laptop or phone. Plug in some earbuds or headphones and listen to all the sonic goodness David Bowie delivers on Earthling. It may be twenty-five years old today, but it still sounds fresh and energic, the portrait of an artist trying out new things, constantly looking forward rather than backward.