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?

Monday, September 2, 2013

2 Minute Book Review -- Ara Shirinyan's Syria Is in the World

I rolled out of bed and my eyeball landed on this title almost immediately this morning. Given world events, I thought it was proper. Shririnyan is an intensely interesting poet. His mission is to do found poetry about the world, but everything seems to come back to the Middle East. This was his first collection, and I've read it several times, each time getting something new. It's a bit like staring at a collage for a long time and realizing that the more you look, the more you get from the connections and ideas. In any case, it's a challenging kind of book and I enjoy it's scatological approach to understanding how each country sees itself and the idea of sovereignty and nationhood. You have to be in the right mood and frame of mind, but it's a great read if you like post-modern poetry. I do.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

2 Minute Review -- Pat Barker's Toby's Room

I've let this drop off in the last week. Sorry everyone. I've been busy with everything that comes with the first week of class. But I'm back now and ready to jump back into the blog. The first bit is a new review. I've been reading a little every day. Not as much as I like, but a little.

Pat Barker can really do no wrong. I think soon, I'm going to just go through her whole library. Once again, we have a complex novel about WWI and the lives of the artists that were nearly destroyed by it and those who lost their lives in it. This time it's visual artists -- painters -- who we follow including the real life Henry Tonks who eventually painted the faces of the men with head wounds. His work is powerful and painful, and Barker's is as well. Check out his paintings but be ready for the pain he's channeling. This book is incredible. Read it.