Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2 Minute Book Review

Winston S. Churchill's The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan

Okay, I didn't finish this one. I was too filled with disgust with Churchill as I went through it. I know enough about history to know that he harbored a lot of old-time racist views, but that's part of why I read him. He's a fantastic writer, of course, but his racism creeps in. That's part of the historical moment, and it should be read as a more complete way of understanding the time. The real danger would to have that incomplete and adoring vision of him that so many do.

In this book about the reconquest of the Sudan however, it was overwhelming. So much of what Hitler was arguing about race, he just kind of takes for granted here. I'm not going to compare him to Hitler. That's a ridiculous game to play. The big difference is that he saw other races as being inferior and wanted to save them from themselves. Now, I know that's not a good way of seeing life, but it is much better than whole-sale genocide. Churchill's kind thinking led to the destruction of many people and cultures. Anyway, it's right in your face here as he describes the problems of people as being the result of their inferiority.

Will I continue to read his work? Yes. He's a fascinating figure and his life touched the world in so many ways that Americans don't often think about. After all, he's not our leader. He was in the world during a time of extraordinary change, and he had a good view of all of it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

2 Minute Review

Christopher Buckley's Varieties of Religious Experience

Not all of these, but many of these have a dense complexity of spirituality mixed with an intellectualism that makes the whole collection dense. This is just to say, it's not a collection that you're going to want to read in one sitting. I've been bouncing between Winston Churchill and Christopher Buckley in my reading and of the two Buckley is definitely the more moving. I've been a fan for year, and I enjoy this collection a lot. I love its scientific and metaphysical, and it definitely stretches the brainpan.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2 Minute Review

Gerald Locklin's Deep Meanings: Selected Poems 2008-2013

Okay, full disclosure, Gerry's an old friend and my former professor. In a lot of ways he taught me to write, so I am biased towards him. And so maybe it's no surprise that I love this book as I have loved all of his work. There was a time when I thought I'd maybe do a Ph.D. dissertation on him until I got smart and realized that I didn't want the Ph.D. Still, he would have made a great dissertation.

And what about this book? If you know his work, then you will know the kind of personal poetry he often writes and writes well. Here, he does that. We get poems about his adulthood and childhood and love life. He also does a number of poems about paintings. He is a master of that, with a broad understanding of 20th century art -- and art beyond that too. My favorite section is a long discussion of a number of Edward Hopper pieces. Like so many Americans, I have a great love of Hopper, and so -- it seems --  does Gerry. He also has a great knowledge of the towering genius and develops a keen awareness of his work relating it at times to his own life.

If you like good, honest Long Beach poetry. Read it.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

2 Minute Book Review

John Grochalski's The Noose Doesn't Get Any Looser After You Punch Out

A fantastic collection of poetry, but you have to be in the right mood for it. Our narrator is dealing with a job he hates, and frankly it feels like he's working up reasons to drink every day. He's depressed, but gets by with the love of his wife and writing poetry. The work is clean and straightforward, and he feels a lot like the voice that bounces around my brainpan some of the time. It's so familiar and what I work so hard to get away from. I'm glad he's out there saying what I feel better than I could say it. He has a clear and strong voice, and I'm going to look for more of his work.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2 Minute Book Review

All right. Well, I'm back. I've been away from writing for a while. I've read like crazy over the semester but couldn't get to the computer enough to post reviews. Anyway, I wanted to get back on it. I'm reading in my sloppy, unfocused way, but who said it should be regimented, after all.

Anyway, I got to Tobias Wolff's The Night in Question. I've read a lot of Wolff's work. This was a short story collection, and I thought I wasn't familiar with any of these things. I picked it up after having much to drink one night at Sean's Gatsby Books, which is a great bookstore in Long Beach. Given my drunken state, it was almost at random.

Strange, I got halfway through it and realized that I'd read a lot of these stories in journals over the years including his incredibly powerful "Bullet in the Brain." You don't think that one's going to be powerful, but it does all kinds of thing to your brainpan, and come to think of it, the character's as well. Anyway, I've read many of these over the last 20 years or so. And actually, I read one of these when I was 15, so that's longer than 20 years. All of them had stuck themselves into my being, and I remembered not only their plots and character, but what I'd been feeling as I read them all those years ago.

Tobias Wolff can slap together one hell of a story.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Letters to Myself

I didn’t know it at the time, but I started a collection of poems when I was up in Canada a few years ago. I was up there to give readings and talk to students about being a poet and a Californian, and although I’d brought the medication that I generally take to help even out my depression, I forgot to take it.

It’s not a powerful dose, and people deal with much more powerful depression than I do. Still, it’s necessary and without it, I have a hard time. I had a hard time then even though I felt I was hiding it well. Maybe I was and maybe I wasn’t, but it didn’t occur to me that I’d forgotten it. I was just back in that old place I always go without it.

It would have been an easy thing if I had just remember that I had meds, but I didn’t. Somehow it just didn’t occur to me until the last day of the trip to take them. Instead, I tried to work my way out of that place with writing and with community. I was staying with my buddy and his family, and I took every opportunity that I had to hang out with them, talking to my friends or playing soccer with the kids. When they weren’t there, I sat alone and wrote my poems. I wrote and wrote.

I wrote about Canada and California. I wrote about New York, where I would have lived had I not moved to California as a child. I wrote about the little things I saw there, the people I met and talked to, and those things that were universal.

And as I wrote a kind of theme emerged. Without understanding it consciously, I was writing letters to myself about how to work my way back to a kind of emotional equilibrium. It had to do with focusing on the small things in life. Watching the little changes in the world around me, focusing my attention on anything other than myself, was what would get me through the worst of it.

I came back from Canada, and my wife reminded me to take my medicine, and I did, and things got better, but I kept writing. I was working myself into a better place and lucky for me, I didn’t stop.

I worked on that collection straight up into 2013, and it’s out now. I wrote myself to knowledge. Writing saves me all the time. So does my wife. Whatever it is that you love saves you. That’s maybe the most important thing that Canada taught me. Maybe it’s the most important thing I will ever learn.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is the American Detective Still a Knight

I sometimes teach detective fiction, and a really easy place to start any discussion is with the idea that the American detective is usually a knight.

The usual interpretation goes that American detective writers were helping to continue a tradition that began with the myth of the American cowboy. We were trying to create a mythology that every culture has -- knights, samurais, soldiers, cowboys, detectives -- the lone figure with little more than courage and a moral code as a guide.

The Europeans didn’t need to make their detectives knights because after all they had ... well ... knights.

I’ve been teaching Chandler and Stout and Hammett, and to a greater or lesser degree (lesser with Hammett) this stands up. But the world has changed and with the advent of new voices and smaller presses and a mythology that has been created, the detective as knight is disappearing or being replaced in many circles.

Just to be clear, the detective as knight still exists. Kinsey Milhone is a favorite among so many, and she’s a great example of the type. However, more and more writers are moving away from that kind of detective.

On television, so many of our detectives are the hyper-geniuses who are isolated from society -- the hallmark of the European detective. House, The Mentalist, Monk, Psych, and Bones  are just a few of the shows that highlight these kinds of detectives. It’s as though we as a society no longer have the need to define ourselves in this way.

In fiction, there has been a larger change, especially in the small press world. The Christy Bristol novels by Sunny Frazier for example follow an astrologer who occasionally works for the police and there have been a number of psychics who work for the police.

Where does this fit into the knighthood trope? If we were going to try to push this into some kind of shape that fit the updated medieval idea, well, I suppose they’d be the witches or the wizards taking over the job of knight. Good for them. Those characters have been sidekicks and villains too long already.

There are others too like William Doonan’s archeologist detectives from The Mummies from Blogspace 9, just out on Kindle this last week, and the serious professor in Horona Finkelstein and Susan Smiley’s Walk-In. These characters are both geniuses and knights.

What I always kind of hated about the knight trope is so many writers made their knights slightly stupid. The idea among these lesser writers was (I think) no amount of intelligence was needed as long as someone had the right morality.

The message now is different. What is it? Well, with so many people reading and writing now, it’s far too complicated to say.

That’s a trend I love.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Finally, a Day to Breathe

Finally, A Day to Breath

I took my first day off in a long time yesterday. It's been Writers' Week at Mt. San Antonio College where I teach and help to run the creative writing program, and that means chaos for me. Writers, students, and teachers have differing needs. All of those needs make a lot of sense, but it just means that I'm working like crazy all the time. I'm hoping everything slows down now. I have some editing work to do.

But I took yesterday off. It's nice to have a Saturday off. What did I do? Well, if you know me, you know that I Nero Wolfe-ed out. I took a morning run on a treadmill at a blank wall listening to a novel. Then I came back and watched a Nero Wolfe DVD with my wife Ann and my dog who’s name after one of the characters in the books. Then I read a couple of the novellas.

So why in the world would I spend the day doing that? How does that mellow me out?

I've talked to a lot of people who have said that they don't like mystery novel series because in each novel, everything needs to be reestablished. That is, of course, true, but what they don't get is that the reestablishment of the setting and character is the joy.

A mystery series like Nero Wolfe is all about the danger outsiders bring to the paradise of the novel. We who love these novels love being in that safe and fantastic place. We fantasize about being there. That sounds strange, but it's easily translatable into any genre that you love.

SciFi fans love the starship Enterprise. The joy of that show is returning again and again to the helm to watch the paradise of the crew working together to find morality in a world of chaos.

Fantasy fans love Rivendell. It's a place of permanent peace and art and music, completely safe from Sauron, and whatever is going on at the office.

Romance fans have the stability of the home that all of their characters journey towards.

That's the joy. That's the comfort.

The tension and conflict that the novels have is with the idea that the paradise might be destroyed. That's what keeps us reading the Lord of the Rings. Rivendell might fall. Hobbiton might be destroyed. That's the conflict in every single Star Trek episode. The Enterprise is under attack. It's the reason after I've had a hard time, I read my Nero Wolfe novels. There aren't a lot of guaranteed safe places in this world, but Nero's office is certainly one of them.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Kneeling Before Shakespeare

I took a group of students from the college where I teach to England a few years ago for a study-abroad program. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon for the theater there and to see the sights.

Shakespeare is buried in the local church. He’s never been moved to Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner because he left a curse on his grave forbidding people to move him. The gravestone is at the front of the church just beyond the altar rail, and at a funny angle, so to see it clearly and well, you have to kneel at the altar rail, kneel to the great poet and playwright.

There’s something sacrilegious here, not that it stopped me from looking at the famous grave and then buying a rubbing of it. But kneeling before a man because he had talent seemed wrong, and that’s not all that was wrong with it either. For me, it symbolized the way that some people come to reading, it’s the way that a lot of my colleagues teach reading. Everything was very quiet, very somber, very boring, and we must kneel before these unquestioned gods of literature.

That’s not who Shakespeare was though, and it’s not the way that writing should be approached. I spend so much of my time as a college creative writing professor trying to convince students that they can and should be a part of the greater literary world. I spend so much time showing them that it’s not a distant thing for people who have some kind of mystical genius. That’s one of the effects of making them read long dead poets who don’t use the same kind of language as they do. They’re left intimidated and confused.

And then I and they knelt before Shakespeare.

How to undo that kind of lesson? It’s not easy, but it takes trips to poetry readings with people who are reading modern poetry. Not inaccessible black-turtled-necked poets smoking their cigarettes and speaking vaguely of Baudelaire, but people reading about love and loss and all kinds of things.

And then it took a trip to the Globe Theater, where the students were groundlings. Where real actors interacted with them and knocked into them and performed their parts.

That’s when my students started to love Shakespeare. After all, Shakespeare and poetry and books in general aren’t meant to be read in the silence of a church. They’re meant to be a vital part of life that makes all the rest of your life meaningful and even tolerable.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Genre v. "Literary"

My wife mentioned to me this morning that someone did a study somewhere that proved people who read literary fiction were more empathetic than readers of genre fiction.

This study proves a number of things.

1. Researchers have completely run out of pressing matters about which to research.

2. There are people out there who believe that empathy is a testable thing, and that empathy reveals itself in fixed ways. They believe that empathy is simple, and a quick test reveals universal truths about people.

3. There are people out there who believe that literary fiction is not a genre itself. They believe that if a story has an enigmatic ending with a character who may or may not have grown and is meant to reveal complex human truths it somehow resists the rules that define what genre is. As though this is not a rule in and of itself.

4. There are people who believe that all genre books are the same.

5. There are people who believe that if a book is written for a particular group and that group isn’t who they think are the important people, then that book is less good. They believe that a book written specifically for women is less good than one that is not. They believe that a book written for a thirteen year old boy is less good than one that is not.

6. There are people who think that romance novels, while escapist, are not capable of teaching empathy. They believe this of horror, scifi, and mystery too along with a large group of other genres.

7. There are people who think that escapism is a bad thing and that literary fiction does not include elements of that.

Don’t get me wrong. I write literary fiction too, and the main focus of my career has been poetry although I’m trying to jump to crime now. These kinds of proclamations annoy me to no end. What kind of thing are those researchers trying to prove? What could their goal possibly be?

Monday, October 14, 2013

I Hate Teacher Movies!

I met a couple of retired police officers who told me why they hated cop shows, couldn’t watch them. The cliches were just too unrealistic. No police officer would ever act in that way.

It got me thinking about my own profession, teaching. I’m a professor at a community college, and I never thought there was much mystery to what I did, but apparently there is. I cannot watch movies about teachers. They make me so very very angry for a number of reasons, but the cliches put forth in them make me think the general public has no idea what teachers go through. Here’s a list of the worst of them:

1. Teaching isn’t about the money.

Imagine the scene in any number of movies. Robin Williams goes home to his little hovel. All day long he’s been fighting with bureaucrats who flat out hate all students and teachers. They’ve been insulting and condescending for the worst possible reasons. The students have been fighting, doing the foolish things that they do, and now his reward is to come home to his mini one-bedroom apartment and stare out the window, wondering how he can get through to these kids. A single tear drop slowly works its way down his cheek, but he’s fighting the good fight even if he lives in a dump and has to even buy his books used.

“Teaching isn’t about the money” is something I hear not only in the movies, but in news reports, on the radio, and from people who don’t teach. Of course, it’s about the money, at least in part. Teaching is a really difficult job, and although I love it, and I never expect to get rich, I would like to be able to afford a two bedroom apartment and a decent meal just like everyone else.

People don’t make this claim about any other profession. Sure, there’s nobility in teaching, but there’s nobility in medicine and the law too, and no one’s asking doctors and lawyers to forgo a decent paycheck. You don’t ever get the scene of Sam Waterson going back to his tiny RV and sipping a thin cup of tea from a tea bag that’s been used and reused.

Up yours, Robin Williams!

2. Teacher and Administrators Are Natural Enemies

How many times have I seen a movie administrator with a cynical smirk on his face talking about how he has bigger concerns? I’ve worked with a lot of deans, vice presidents, presidents, board members, and others. Some of them have been terrible people. But no more so than anyone else in any field. Mostly they are kind, intelligent people trying to do the hard job of helping students to learn. Most of them are former teachers who thought they could make a bigger difference by guiding the school.

They make more money than teachers do. That’s because it’s not as fun as teaching, and they need to be recruited into that profession in some way.

They’re at odds with teachers during contract negotiations. Of course they are. That’s their job.

They’re not a group of evil yes men bent on conformity any more than the teachers who are supposed to be heroic are.

3. Good Teaching Requires a Great Deal of Loss for the Teacher

Michelle Pheiffer goes into the class full of kids who need her so desperately. The only way to get through to them is to first put herself on the line physically. She has to fight! Oh, she might take a beating, be permanently disabled, killed even, but if that’s what it takes, it’s a small price to pay. Somehow, she stands up to them and lives, but she doesn’t bother to get help from security. No, earning their respect was enough. Now it’s time for the second loss. Now, she must meet students and tutor late into the night. That’s fine. She doesn’t have kids. She doesn’t want free time. Dating, pfff! She’s a teacher damn it and that means sacrifice across the board.

I think Hollywood thinks that when people become teachers they have entered a kind of priesthood. They have accepted the idea that their life is over, and they will now devote themselves to the prospect of slow death so that others might learn.

Are they out of their minds? When people treat teaching in this way, they burn out fairly quickly just as anyone would burn out working these kinds of hours under these kinds of conditions. You can’t teach well if everything is always sacrifice.

Anyway, I know these cliches make for a more dramatic movie and that people love them. I understand why people love them. It’s just that I can’t watch teacher movies any longer.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Three More Habits of Highly Effective Readers

A few weeks ago, I wrote about three habits of highly effective readers -- habits that made readers look like good people, well adjusted people. I think that this view of readers is common, but the truth is that we have some pretty bad habits as well, habits we cultivate because of our obsession -- books.

1. Highly effective readers are slothful.

We don’t look like we’re slothful, do we? To the outside world, it looks like we’re always engaged in bettering ourselves, making sure that we’re getting smarter, furthering our education. And that’s all true, but it’s also true that we’re not reading for any of those reasons. We read because it’s fun for us.

I’m often faced with a friend or student who is overly impressed with how much I read. The person says something to the effect of, “Man I can’t believe how much time you put into that. I really admire that.”

Why disabuse those people of that idea. If you’re like me, you’ll just nod wisely and keep your mouth shut.

2. Highly effective readers are rude.

We read at the dinner table. We read during high school graduations. We read at social functions. We put on audiobooks in the car instead of what our friends want to hear. We read during coffee breaks at work instead of listening to the latest office gossip. Is Tom having an affair with Nancy in HR? Who cares? Scarlett is marrying Rhett down at the library.

On top of everything else, we’re thinking about Rhett and Scarlett as we’re doing dishes and laundry and going about our otherwise mundane lives. When you come up to us and talk to us and see that rather glazed look on our face, don’t be fooled. We’re not paying attention. We’d like to pay attention. That’d be nice. We just don’t have it in us.

3. Highly effective readers are gluttonous.

Maybe this is just me, but the only thing that goes better with a book than tea is tea and a sleeve of Fig Newtons. And the moment I’ve lost myself in a book, I tend to forget everything else including the fact that I’ve just eaten the first sleeve. And the package comes with two sleeves. Ah, well.

And let’s face it. When given the choice of finding out what happens to Rhett and Scarlett and going down to the gym where you can’t really focus well on the book you just started, the gym generally loses out.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Almost Famous

Back when I was just starting out as a writer, I went to a writing conference in Santa Barbara to see what I could learn a little more about writing and networking. It was a good time and a good conference, and I learned about what I should do and what I should never do. I learned about the kinds of agents I wanted to work with and the kinds that I should avoid at all costs. Mostly I learned not to be intimidated, which really isn’t a natural state for me to be in anyway.

Everything I did there was enhanced by the fact that I wasn’t the only Brantingham in Santa Barbara at the time. Brantingham isn’t a common name, but someone named Barney Brantingham had been writing for the local newspaper for decades, and he was apparently beloved by anyone who ever lived in Santa Barbara and the surrounding areas. He was especially loved by the local writers, and the moment they saw my name tag, all of them, to a person, began to tell their tales of devotion.

The first couple of days, I corrected them. No, I wasn’t related, wasn’t his son. No, I didn’t know him, had never read a word of his work. He seemed like a good guy, but he just wasn’t my family. They’d look at me a little disappointed and go away a little sad.

And I know why they’d assumed I was his relative. Charles Schultz’s son was there teaching, a good writer on his own. John Steinbeck’s son Thomas was there too, also a terrifically good writer. They saw my name and assumed that sons of the greats were part of the pattern of this conference.

But I got something that I don’t think Steinbeck or Schultz got from the fandom. Everyone respected and loved the megastars, but there was a dreamy affection when they talked to me about my non-father. There was something there, and after a while, I pinpointed it. Their memories always revolved around his stories that they’d been a part of. He was a local journalist, and they’d made it big when he’d written about them. The other writers were merely geniuses. He was a community builder.

After a while, I stopped correcting them until after they’d told their stories about their love for Barney Brantingham. Why take them out of that special place of joy they’d found, after all? They’d found their community in reading his words all those years, and they were finding it again with me.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Fog and Dreams

Back when I lived in the mountains above Los Angeles, I used to walk Archie, my dog, to the rim just about every day where I could look out over the city, and the dog could pad around, sniffing and exploring, chasing a lizard or squirrel. I loved looking down like that on the city I commuted to every day, but I liked it so much more when the hikes were foggy.

There’s something about walking in fog in the middle of a forest. Someone told me once that one of the effects of playing the didgeridoo is that the player is in a kind of trance dream state. It’s an interesting feeling and a little of what the forest fog walks are like. We’d be out there in the middle of the woods listening to the slow drips of dew, lost in our own world of thought, and then a bear would come ambling by. Neither I nor Archie would be surprised. The bear wouldn’t be either. She’d just move on her way.

There were other things that might have seemed surprising too, cars abandoned where there were no roads, a coyote who thought he was alone and playing with an old rag like a pup, stones stacked as monuments by local kids. Nothing was surprising here, and it felt like everything was as it should be out in the cool, nearly silent morning air.

The only thing that’s ever been comparable is that willing suspension of disbelief when I’m reading. It’s dreamtime same as the didgeridoo, same as fog walks. I love a writer who can drag me out into the fogscape and make me believe that not only do I belong there but so does everything else I’m seeing. Pat Barker’s been taking me back to World War One lately. Bonnie Hearn Hill took me on an adventure the other day.

Even better than that though is when I do it to myself. When I get into that space in my own stories, that’s a magic that I haven’t felt since I was ten years old and my conservative teacher forbid me from reading J. R. R. Tolkien. That was the best gift that person could have ever given to me.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Graham Greene Saved Me That Year

The first year of teaching is hard. If you do it right, every year of teaching is hard, but the first is the most difficult. I was a year out of an MFA and part-time teaching all over Los Angeles. Part-time teaching is badly named. When people start teaching at the college level, they teach part-time at three or four colleges or universities. I was teaching eight classes that semester, twice as many as full-timers were supposed to teach, and I was a bit burned out.

So I picked up Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair during finals week. We’d read a lot of Greene in grad school of course. I’d admired his work without ever loving it, but this one hit me in just the right direction at just the right time.

Good books can do that to you. They don’t always do that, but they certainly can. I started reading the night before finals started. I had a stack of research papers to return to students, and I used the novel as my break, snatching six or ten pages between the volumes the students had poured themselves into. I wasn’t used to the heartbreak that students go through or the triumph either. I wasn’t used to seeing college from this side of the chalkboard.

It had been a year of firsts.

And in that year of firsts, I had decided to stop being a writer without knowing I had. I was in love with teaching. I still am. And that love for watching students adapting to the college lifestyle had pushed too many things out of my life. I’d lost friends. I’d stopped going to family functions. I had stopped writing and worse, stopped reading for pleasure.

The End of the Affair brought me back.

It’s probably not Greene’s best book, but it’s up there. A narcissistic writer makes claims like “Anyone who loves is jealous” and “I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.” By the end, we see our hero’s slow conversion to Catholicism, see that he’s a bad person, but that we like him. We admire and hate him. It’s a fantastically complex book in writing and idea as all Greene’s work is, as Greene was complex himself.

So I read it during lunch and dinner and to my wife, and I read it after they filed out of the finals, and I realized that yes, I was a teacher, but I was a reader too, and that I still truly did still want to be a writer.

And when I finished his novel, I still had papers to grade, but between them and during meals and whenever I could, I started to put together a poem that had occurred to me while reading The End of the Affair.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

2 Minute Review -- Rex Stout's The Mother Hunt

The Mother Hunt is of course the best novel ever written just as all of Rex Stout's books are the best books ever written. Here we follow Archie and Nero as they try to find who has left a child on a rich woman's doorstep. Fantastic book. The best thing ever written along with everything else he wrote.

The thing to think about and concentrate on through the novel is what is the nature of evil? How does it manifest itself? What does it look like in another person? I read this while exercising and it was almost too much for the brain.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

2 Minute Review -- Rex Stout's Too Many Cooks

Too Many Cooks is, of course, the best book ever written just as every book by Rex Stout is the best book ever written. It follows Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe as they travel down to the South for a cooking competition of sorts. Someone dies and it's up to Wolfe to solve it.

The book dives into Stout's ideas about race relations and feminism and all of those things that were exploding in the 20th century (and still are). Beautifully done by the master of the mystery novel.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Exercising While Reading Rex Stout

I was a runner in high school and really since then, but I ran competitively in high school. There was always a point in the middle of a race when I knew that I had reached the moment of decision. The moment would come when I would know that if I reached down into myself I could do better than I had ever done before. I knew that I was tired, but I could push myself and achieve more.

And I can remember every single time thinking to myself that if I pushed it, if I found something new in myself that I’d never found before, if I passed the people in front of me, all of them, it would still be completely meaningless. After all, I would think, it’s just a high school race.

That’s how I knew I’d never make an athlete.

True athletes have that competitive thing inside of them, and I just don’t. I liked distance running, but not because I wanted to win anything. It was a great way to do some long distance thinking. As long as I didn’t go too fast, I got a lot of the same things from running as I did from reading.

Flash forward twenty-five years and way too many pounds and I still love running, but every day is a race-level struggle, but I realize now that there are stakes that go beyond a high school race. It’s my health now, but thank goodness for audio books and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels.

It’s a great thing when you’re overweight to jog as you listen to Stout’s famously fat detective. It makes me feel less bad about everything. No matter how slow I am or how made out of butter I’ve become, I’m still doing all right when compared to Wolfe who is kicking back in his brownstone and eating and eating and eating.

So I’ll probably never win a race. I still could smoke Nero Wolfe with my plodding jog.

Okay, so here’s the pitch part. I’ve started a blog, Exercising While Reading Rex Stout. Come on by and join in on the Wolfe conversation!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Best and Worst Cars for Detectives

I’m always telling my creative writing students that the objects charaacters have with them help to define who they are to the readers. With mystery, crime, and suspense, the object that often defines characters most clearly are the cars they drive.

Want to nail down characters’ strengths or weakness? Put them in a car that sticks out.

Below is a list of some of the best and worst cars in film, television, and books.

Great: Thomas Magnum’s Ferrari is the perfect symbol for the character and a fun car too. In Freudian terms, Magnum P.I. was the story of a superego trying desperately to be an id and failing. What? He was a person who lived by a code and followed rules, but after the horrors of Vietnam, he was trying to break out of that role, but it was his code that saved him every time. The Ferrari was the ultimate expression of that desire and of the failure too. It was a free sports car, but it came with all of Higgins’s rules.

Terrible: Kinsey Milhone’s broken down VW. Sue Grafton’s novels are set permanently in the mid-1980s with Kinsey right at the start of her career. The car reflects her lack of money, and the car is always reliable but right on the edge. This is also a perfect metaphor for Kinsey, that great character who is so wonderfully reliable but always in danger.

Great: Steve McQueen’s mustang in Bullet. Never has anyone been cooler than Steve McQueen, and never has there been a cooler car. Both were stronger than everything out there, faster, better. Never has a chase scene been more exciting than McQueen on the streets of San Francisco.

Great: Nick Mancuso’s stingray in the short lived television show Stingray. I cannot remember anything about that show except how great the car was. I suppose that means the show wasn’t strong, but I’ve dreamed about owning that car. How well does it reflect the character? I admit defeat here. I can’t remember anything that happened in any episode.

Terrible: Gus’s Blueberry in Psych. Gus drives his company 2002 Toyota Echo, which is a perfectly good car. It’s reliable, but it helps to highlight that these two are not action stars in any way. The scenes that capture them the best are when they see a murder and go running away squealing in horror.

Great: Nero Wolfe’s ever shifting collection of cars. Because Wolfe keeps himself rich and he’s terrified of contraptions, Archie Goodwin goes out and buys new cars to keep Wolfe’s paranoia at a minimum. Each year, they have a new Heron or Rolls Royce, cars that will keep Wolfe safe and fuel Goodwin’s sense of style.

Great: Mike Hammer’s Jaguar in Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve never liked Mike Hammer. He’s too evil, takes too dim a view on humanity. He’s nearly impossible to like except for those moments when I want to feel some schadenfreude for the bad guys, and those moments are few and far between. His Jaguar captures his personality though. It’s tough and fast, and he’s always pushing it to the edge. Say what you want about Hammer, the man knew his cars.

Great: Jim Rockford’s brown Firebird. To me, this was more iconic than Magnum’s car. It’s a sports car, yes, but really the best car a person who has almost no money can afford. It never breaks down or gives up, like Rockford himself, who keeps going even when he’s thrown into prison.

Terrible: Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy’s collection of broken down cars. Lovejoy is an antiques dealer, so he never has much money, but he always needs to transport his goods. Generally he has old trucks he’s afraid to push over twenty miles an hour. Luckily he’s generally in the middle of an affair with any one of a number of rich women who are always willing to give him a lift.

Having started this list, I realize that I could go on for days. I’m missing cars and detectives that I love here, but where to end? The car is so often a vital character in detective fiction. Who am I blatantly missing? What cars do you love and love to hate?