Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Misery Trials

The Misery Trials

One day in high school, I found myself on my motor scooter as chunks of it began to fall away unceremoniously on the street. I was 6’2, broad shouldered, and 190 pounds despite the 4-10 miles I ran daily for the cross country team, a team I was destined to disappoint. I was too big for my clothes, my sport, and the miniature desks at school.

I was too big for the scooter as well -- a vehicle I admitted to myself that had probably been made for a smaller person -- almost certainly for girl -- but it was cheap enough for me to afford. That day as it labored up the long hill that lay between me and my school, it wheezed a little more than it usually did and little bits of its outer shell started to fall off.

I’m not a vain person, never have been, maybe to a fault, and as the wheel cover fell off, I turned to follow it with my eyes, thinking that as long as the scooter kept going, the wheel cover probably wasn’t necessary. Then, a bit off the bottom came off, and I wondered impassively why it was even put there if it had no true function. After all, the scooter kept on going.

Frankly, I felt a little like Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon, a pirate with a swagger with a vehicle that wasn’t pretty but did its job.

It’s not until the side luggage compartment popped open that I felt shock. Inside was the book that I’d been reading lately, the best book I’d picked up in a long long time, Stephen King’s Misery. I turned just in time to see Misery flutter open and spin a couple of times in the air looking for a moment like a splash of white foam in the air.

I hit the brakes and picked it up. It had landed in the gutter and gotten a little wet. The last 100 pages or so would have a crescent moon of ichor darkening the edge.

But it was still readable, and I was grateful. I had no money to buy a new copy, and Annie had just crippled Paul. I couldn’t put it down now.

The discoloration of the pages frustrated me the rest of that morning. My own Millennium Falcon had choked the rest of the way to school, and I’d arrived early enough that I could sit on the lunch benches and keep reading. The pages were slimy and difficult to see, but this was Misery after all. This was Stephen King my favorite novelist.

At least for that day.

The day progressed, and I kept reading whenever I could. At break, I sat at the lunch tables again, alone and focused.

This of course was high school in the 1980s and that meant campus was something like Thunder Dome. An upper classman came by and grabbed my book staring me in the eyes and laughing.

I was a nerd then and still am. Proudly. But what he didn’t understand was that I was a really big nerd. I’d never fought before that day, and I’ve been in only one fight since. But that day, I stood up and snatched the book out of his hand. I was a good foot taller than he was even if he had two years on me and for the first time in my life I glowered. It’s a look I’ve found particularly useful as a teacher.

He backed down.

Some time around fifth period, I was just about done with the novel, and it was building to a crescendo. I sat there in the back row of biology when the bell sounded, and I had only 10 pages left.

I’m not a rule breaker, but I kept going as well as I could over the teacher’s rude insistence that Gregor Mendel added value to our lives. Her voice crept into my brain, ruining King’s amazing story until I heard, “Brantingham, what are you doing?”

She was staring at me as was the class. I held up the book.

“Go to dean’s office.”

Oh thank God, I thought. I stepped out of her classroom and into the relative quiet of the hallway to finish the novel. Finally, some peace. It would be bought with two hours of detention where I’d be picking up trash in the parking lot, but it would be worth it for the ten minutes I needed to finish the novel. Besides, those hours in detention would be spent dreaming of what I’d read.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Two Minute Review -- James Lee Burke's Swan Peak

If you like modern day cowboy/sheriff novels that follow a hero through a quest chasing down multiple bad guys who are each richly drawn with fascinating stories of their own while he deals with his own demons and the demons of his friends and family, you'll like this. He's a great writer at the top of his game. It's both police procedural and mystery novel -- or at least, it draws from the traditions of both.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Two Minute Book Review: Timothy Egan's The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

I did most of a masters degree in history back before I knew I'd get a job teaching in college. I thought the degree would make me a more competitive junior high teacher. Masters in two fields after all. But I dropped out immediately when I got the job at Mt. SAC. The experience all those years ago taught me that I'm a dilettante in history. I don't think that's a bad thing despite the connotations of the word. I like to dip into big sprawling fun historical books.

The Big Burn is perfect if you're like me. It covers those years when the forest service just was just starting and how Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot turned the burn to their political advantage to start the modern conservation movement and the forestry service. It made me feel something for Roosevelt for the first time. I'd liked a lot of his policies, but never really the man, not with the wars of conquest that he seemed to enjoy so much. This focuses on his progressive streak, making the implicit argument that it was this aspect of his personality that was at the heart of who he was. Certainly, it reminded me of what I've always liked about Pinchot, but I'd never known that he was communing with his dead wife. Anyway, if you like these kinds of books rather than the serious tomes that I no longer read because I'm out of the field, you'll like this. It's fantastic.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Two Minute Book Review -- Lawrence Block's The Burglar Who Traded Ted WIlliams

This has always been my favorite Lawrence Block series. I prefer it to Matthew Scudder, but I think I'm alone there. Anyway, it's true to form, Bernie being fun and funny. It's light-hearted and of course Bernie gets the bad guy at the end. He always does in an Agatha Christie style round up. I love it, and if you like this kind of amateur detective story, you will like this one.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Is the American Detective Still a Knight?

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.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Two Minute Book Review -- Marina Picasso, Picasso My Grandfather

I meant to read this 12 years ago when it came out, but somehow I just kept putting it off. Anyway, I saw it yesterday in the library and picked it up.It details the cruelty that we all know about Picasso, but she never really gets to that point of transcendence. She never tells us anything except for gossip. It think this was an important book for her to write, but I could have skipped it myself. Who would like this? People who are into high-brow celebrity gossip. I'm just glad I have a Lawrence Block novel next on my shelf.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

2 Minute Book Review -- Toys by James Patterson

I am and have always been a bit Patterson fan because of Alex Cross, but this is a completely different kind of novel. In Toys, Patterson delves into dystopian literature with a world that has become corrupt because of distracting mechanized toys and personal enhancements that make some people strong and normal people weak by comparison. Normal people -- skunks -- have become an underclass and the "elites" want to destroy them.

The novel does what all good dystopias should do, and that's criticize our world by exaggerating our present faults. We are too distracted. We do rely too much on technology to forget the problems of the world around us. It's an interesting and fast-paced look at that phenomenon.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Why We Love Dick Francis!

I didn’t read mystery novels until I was about thirty. Dick Francis brought me in. I had a four-hour commute that year, and I was developing a serious addiction to audio books. In those long hours, I learned that I love Dick Francis because he treated his readers like adults.

I’m not a horse person either. I think a lot of readers are drawn to his work because he writes about that world so well. Not me. No, I like the way he writes about evil.

Evil works its way throughout his novels, and he captures its petty smallness so well. It is not a maniacal genius who is going to do you in, in a Dick Francis novel, but someone who just wants to win office or someone who wants to make a little more money at the horse races. The villains are not towering men who control the world. They are pathetic and petty, and they use whatever little power they have to hurt people in their lives.

It sounded familiar to me. It sounded like all the evil I’d ever come face to face with in my life. He was treating me like an adult exploring issues that were relevant in a real manner -- things that I’d encountered and never fully understood.

And he explored the idea of good too. His protagonists were good guys, deep down, but they weren’t sure of themselves. They never had complete clarity on their morality. They were just muddling through life trying to do the right thing at the right time. Often, they were underinformed and worried that maybe they were on the wrong side.

The race track made sense to them. On a horse, they only needed to ride. They had clarity, and that’s the way they liked it. They would ride their hardest and their best even if doing so meant they would have to take a ten pound penalty in a more important race. So the race track became a larger metaphor for who they wanted to be not necessarily who they were.

That too sounded familiar to me. So much of our lives, we are underinformed and hoping that we’re making the right choices -- worried that we’re on the wrong side, and it’s such a relief when we find our own race tracks.

Stephen King once said that we write to recapture the feeling we had when we read our favorite authors, and that’s certainly true for me. My own crime novels are in loving response to Dick Francis and a couple of other writers, like Lawrence Block and Robert Barnard.

It’s wonderful when just the right novel hits you at just the right moment when you’re feeling just the right thing. It changes you.

Dick Francis certainly did that for me.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Two Minute Book Review -- Frances Richey's The Burning Point

Because of the move, all my books are mixed up and bouncing about, and I found Frances Richey's poetry collection The Burning Point. I must have had it for a while. I don't know where it came from or when I bought it, but I sat down and read it this morning and enjoyed much of it. She does good things with Ekphrasis, but she uses the paintings as a way to see into her own life rather than simply describing them and their context. She's worked in hospices and as a yoga instructor, and that all comes through in the way that she approaches the way to live and how to die. Much is seen through a kind of detached spirituality, and she spends a good deal of time talking about her life within her family, and that becomes a way to see how we should all exist within a family.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Two Minute Book Review --Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning

Most of you have read this book, no doubt. This is my fifth or sixth reading of it, but it gains meaning each time I read it.

It's the autobiography of a psychologist who lived through the most difficult parts of the holocaust -- lived through the concentration camps --  and his discussion of how one can find purpose even in that place with that kind of suffering. What he ends up with is that man's search for meaning creates meaning and that we can achieve that meaning by creative work, love, or suffering. One should never seek suffering, but if it comes, it can bring purpose.

I reread this book to use in a class next year, but I gained more out of it than I ever have before. I have not suffered greatly, but that's not the sole purpose of the book. The purpose of it is to show how we can all find meaning in our lives. A beautiful book. Don't wait until you're down to read it. I didn't. But if you are feeling despair, it can save you.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Two Minute Book Review -- Jesse Kellerman's The Genius

Okay, I thought I'd start some quick reviews of the books I read.

The Genius seems to start out as a mystery novel, but isn't that really. It's an exploration of the art world and reminds me a bit of Burnt Orange Heresy. If you like contemporary art -- and I do -- you will enjoy this novel, which involves amateur detecting, but focuses more on the emptiness and isolation associated with genius of any sort. I don't agree that genius is lonely and empty, but the book is an interesting look at that idea.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bouncing Around the World

Want to know why I haven't blogged in over a week? Well, it has to do with the fact that I've moved!

In my 42 years of life, I’ve lived in 20 different houses and apartments. I don’t know what my friends think of this. It must be a little frustrating when it’s time for them to send Christmas cards, and sometimes I wonder if they think it’s strange. The longest I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life is five years when I lived in a tiny cabin in the forests above Los Angeles, looking down on the city. That was probably my favorite place to live followed closely by London.

I’m not really attached to places, but new experiences always excite me. I love to do new things and see the world and life from a new perspective. Luckily, my wife is the same way.

So this week we’re making another dramatic move. Currently, we live in a five bedroom house in an inland suburb of Los Angeles. It’s a nice house close to the college where I teach, and I love the neighbors. We’ve filled the place with friends and parties and even some poetry readings in the livingroom. But now we’re moving to a studio apartment near the beach.

We sat down and talked about what is important to our lives and this is what we’ve come up with: writing, art, friends, travel, and most especially each other, and we’re going to try an experiment that lasts at least one year.

It has to last that long because we’ve signed a lease.

Here is the experiment: we’re going to remove all distractions from our lives. We’re going to simplify our world, and we’re going to see how this affects our art -- my writing and her visual arts.

So often those niggling concerns get in the way of the things that we need to do. Instead of writing, I mow the lawn. I never use the lawn, and I don’t have children who play on the lawn, but there it sits, sucking up water and our time. Ann cleans rooms that no one uses. It’s nice to have a guest room, but it would be cheaper for us to put up friends at a hotel, and Ann could be doing something she loves instead of dusting a knick-knack for a visitor to enjoy.

We’ve had people tell us that we’re going to drive each other crazy living in such close quarters. Maybe, but I doubt it. We generally follow each other from room to room anyway. We work together and at the same time. We relax together. We play together. I think this is going to be exactly what we want.

For a year at least.

A year from now, who knows? Maybe we’ll want to move downtown. And writing this, something inside of me has been intrigued. I’m thinking about a little apartment right next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’d be interesting to take in all that culture. Ah, well, I have a year to think about it.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Five Rules for Audio Books

Five Rules for Audiobooks

There are some people in this world who don’t like audiobooks. These people suggest that listening to an audiobook is in someway cheating. It’s a perception that’s disappearing, but it exists.

I had a conversation with someone about this a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about a book, and he knew I’d been putting in a lot of hours driving up and down the state. He asked me when I had the time to read the whole thing, and I told him it was an audiobook. He’s the last one who told me I was cheating when I did that.


It doesn’t make sense. The only way a person could conceive of that as cheating is if he or she thought that reading wasn’t fun to begin with. I enjoy books, and I want to be around them as much as possible. They’re dangerous, however. They need to be taken seriously. I present five rules for reading audio safely.

1. Read the Synopsis and Think about Your Life

You’re probably going to be reading while driving. If you’re driving someplace important, you’d better choose the right book. I listened to The House of Sand and Fog right as I was going into a job interview -- a job that I really wanted and desperately needed. As I sat there in the parking lot waiting for the interview time to come closer, I grew more and more engrossed in the plot until (spoiler alert) my favorite characters, characters I’d grown to love and understand, started killing themselves and each other.

Shock horror. The tragedy. The sturm and drang. The horror, the horror.

Suddenly, nothing seemed as important. Suddenly even the job interview didn’t seem to matter, only the fact that they were dying, people I loved.

Thankfully, the passion I was feeling for the characters I loved turned me into an intense and seemingly complex speaker. I seemed to ooze intense passion. Of course, I did. A couple of my best friends had just died.

2. Do Not Listen to Horror at the Wrong Time.

I became engrossed with Stephen King’s The Stand just as I was going on a camping trip. I couldn’t turn it off, couldn’t stop listening. Neither could anyone else in the trip.

We couldn’t stop thinking about it either, especially out in the woods when the wind would pick up and twigs would snap and leaves would swirl and maybe that was the Walking Dude just outside the tent. One night, sometime around midnight, we gave up and sat in the car, listening to the drama play out until the sun came up.

3. No Faulkner

Actually that rule can be extended to a lot of writers. James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot. Basically anyone who needs a desk reference companion or anyone whose language you need to read slowly to appreciate. After all, it takes a lot of quiet time to appreciate a line like, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” and you want to figure out what it going on and why you’ve forced yourself to endure that kind of poem before you move on.

Don’t get me wrong. I like The Sound and the Fury as much as the next guy, but it’s kind of a slow burning appreciation.

4. Nothing Too Sexy

You do NOT want to be the guy with that look on your face at a stoplight. Keep your D.H. Lawrence at home.

5. Consider the Actor

Some actors are good. Some are too good. I drive the Los Angeles freeway system all the time. Listening to Alex Cross can be a dangerous thing especially during a gun battle when I’m changing lanes. The bad guy is just ahead and the panic in the actor’s voice works its way from my ear to my foot, and now I’m weaving trying to save the woman, that poor, poor woman.

The CHP generally frowns on this kind of listening.

No, it’s not cheating to listening to audiobooks. In fact, it’s one of my great pleasures, but it needs to be done responsibly.

The wrong book can ruin your whole life.