Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween, October Surprise

October surprises are not a rare thing.  Ever since I was a kid, it seems like it doesn't take much to ruin Halloween: some urban legend about razor blades in apples, stock market crashes, real serial killer scares, acts of terrorism, and freak storms.

Happy Halloween, anyway.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Top Ten All-Time Most Beautiful Witches

First Prize in Book Art this month: Loopy Dave's Coffee-drinking Witch
This coffee-drinking witch by the artist known as Loopy Dave now ranks with our favorite illustrations from previous years.  Spiced coffee, I'd say.  I like the details in this, the designs in the back of the chair, the mouse familiar with its own hat, the teeth in the skull.

The all-time best-looking witches include:
1. Veronica Lake - She starred in I Married A Witch, based on Thorne Smith's novel, The Passionate Witch.

2. Elizabeth Montgomery - She starred in the TV series, Bewitched, based in part on the Thorne Smith novel.

3. Nicole Kidman, in Bewitched, a movie remake of the television series.  Kidman also plays a witch in the movie, Practical Magic, which we liked better.

4. Catherine Bell, who plays in The Good Witch and in a number of sequel Hallmark Channel movies.  Absolutely lovely.  She also played a beautiful witch in the movie, Death Becomes Her, which also starred Goldie Hawn and Glenn Close.

5. Kim Novak in Bell, Book, and Candle.  The comedy in Bewitched must have been partly inspired by this classic.

6. Sandra Bullock was a very good witch in Practical Magic, which also starred Nicole Kidman, previously listed.

7. Rachel Ward - She starred in Black Magic, one of our favorite witchy movies of all time, a comedy about the eternal feminine. She was simply gorgeous in it.

8, 9, & 10.  Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Witches of Eastwick, based upon the John Updike novel.
For my Witches In Red blog, see this link.

For the Wyrd Sisters blog, go here.

Monday, October 29, 2012


"A tide is coming in and the kingdom of books, with their white pages and endpapers, their promise of solitude and discovery, is in danger, after an existence of five hundred years, of being washed away."

"The physical possession of a book may become of little significance.  Access to it will be what matters, and when the book is closed, so to speak, it will disappear into the cyber.  It will be like the genie--summonable but unreal."

The quote is from noted author James Salter, in his introduction to Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves (2012).  That genie metaphor is worth taking to heart.

When I was kid, the children's story of Aladdin's Lamp was a part of the communal ocean of mythos in which we all bathed.  Barbara Eden's perkiness became a part of that ocean too.  Times changed, and that cultural ocean evolved.

Back then, the "I Dream of Jeannie" icon inspired such consumer products as Barbie Dolls and halloween customes, not so politically correct now.

But the concept of the genie is still with us, if somewhat altered.  Just the other day, I read Joe R. Lansdale's short story, "The Case of the Lighthouse Shambler," involving a modern genie, collected in Ghosts: Recent Hauntings (2012).  Before giving us the story of the Jenni, Lansdale's protagonist makes fun of the ghost hunting "reality" shows now on cable TV:

I find that kind of stuff silly and unbelievable, and mostly just annoying.  There are all those shows on TV about ghost hunters, and psychic kids, and so on, and they make me want to kick the set in.  I guess it's good business, making shows where it's all shadow and innuendo.  People saying that they hear this, or they hear that, or they see this, or they see that, and you don't actually see or hear jack.  You've just got to take their word for it.

Another thing, when they do have something, it's a blurry camera image or a weird sound on their recordings that they say is the ghost telling them to get out of the house, or some such.  I don't become more of a believer when they do that, I become less of one.  The sounds just sound like one of the investigators getting cute, and the images look a lot like my bad vacation photos.

Some reality.

Actually, this poohing of the supernormal has become a customary prelude to such a genie tale as Landsdale then delivers.  Check out Roger Ebert's review of the movie, Red Lights, at this link.  He liked the movie fine as long as it was debunking bunk, but when the plot turned into the uncanny, he was annoyed.

Just last night, we watched the 100th episode of The Mentalist in which the mentalist disavows the showmanship of the psychic, and all psychics, shortly before doing a trick with tarot cards which gives the unconsciousness of those around him more power than is observable by any scientific measure.  It is bunk in denial, or merely bunk pretending to laugh at itself for the sake of entertainment.

We like it fine and we'll applaud the act, even if we're not fooled by the trick.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Forgotten Book of the Week: INSIDE JOB by Connie Willis

Last October I blogged about the division in crime fiction between those who abhored supernormal elements in detective stories and those who took them in stride:

  • Should We Kick The Ghosts Out Of Crime Fiction?
  • We've Met The Ghosts And They Are Us

  • Life is sometimes absurd or fogged in the dreamy cloud of unknowing; and in literary metaphors, ghosts can represent many things including that absurdity, the unfathomable blank beyond the capacity of everyday human conscious experience.

    But in the typical detective novel, the ghost story is a red herring.  The ghostly evidence usually turns out to be nothing of the sort, a contrived cover story for the real murderer, or a con job used to extract money out of the gullible.  A hoax.

    Connie Willis's Inside Job concerns a professional debunker, who makes a living by investigating and explosing the false claims of professional mediums and spiritualists.  It is a crime novella in a minor key, a ghost story in the way that the movie, Ghost, is a ghost movie.  It assumes that the reader knows that such mediums are bunk, and then it throws the reader a funny curve.

    It does this in the way that Ghost does it, by having one of these con artists unwillingly and unknowingly conjuring up a real ghost, and to compound the comedy, the unwitting ghost is none other than that of hard core skeptic and humorist, H. L. Mencken.

    That's the premise, and veteran wordsmith Connie Willis pulls it off beautifully.  My only complaint is that it is a 99-page novella rather than a full length book.  I finished it, when it first came out back in 2005, wanting more.

    I reread it again just now wanting more.  Still, a funny read in a beautiful book.
    For this week's links to other selections of Friday's Forgotten Books, by other bloggers, go to the pattinase site at this link. 

    Tuesday, October 23, 2012

    Tuesdays Forgotten Film or A/V: TIME AFTER TIME

    Time After Time (1979) is a timepiece itself, with the familiar pocket watch which plays a tune and, opened, now serves as a symbol for so many other  time travel movies like Groundhog's Day and Somewhere In Time.

    Time After Time compares the pecksniffian Victorian age to the relatively liberal 1970s, using a romance between Michael McDowell as H. G. Wells and Mary Steenburgan as a modern, liberated woman.  It is a sci-fi historically connected romantic comedy, lovely to the eye and with a compelling plot.  The villain, David Warner as Robert Leslie Stevenson (an obvious reference to Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson's famous work) is a charming, darkly humorous psychopath.

    A great atmospheric movie for Halloween.

    The opening scene shows Stevenson beating H. G. Wells at chess, showing that he is possibly the smarter man, certainly the more cunning, but the movie turns on whether Wells, being the more humanist and loving, is ultimately the superior man.

    Based upon the Karl Alexander novel, there are references to Sherlock Holmes, Susan B. Anthony, and other humorous and ironic allusions.  It is simply delightful, making me hope that they will soon make a creditable adaptation Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time.  And perhaps they will find a part to play for Mary Steenburgan, as they did for Back to the Future.

    According to Cyndi Lauper, the movie inspired her song, Time After Time,

    If you're lost you can look--and you will find me
    Time after time
    If you fall I will catch you--I'll be waiting
    Time after time

    After my picture fades and darkness has
    Turned to gray
    Watching through windows--you're wondering
    If I'm OK
    Secrets stolen from deep inside
    The drum beats out of time--

    But the earworm of the day is the Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne upbeat jazz standard from 1949:

    Time After Time

     What good are words I say to you?
    They can’t convey to you what’s in my heart
    If you could hear instead
    The things I’ve left unsaid

    Time after time
    I tell myself that i’m
    So lucky to be loving you

    So lucky to be
    The one you run to see
    In the evening, when the day is through

    I only know what I know
    The passing years will show
    You’ve kept my love so young, so new

    And time after time
    You’ll hear me say that i’m
    So lucky to be loving you

    You can hear it by Dinah Washington at this link.
    This is an adjunct to Todd Mason's Friday's Forgotten (or overlooked) Film or A/V. You can read today's other selections by a bevy of authors and bloggers at this link.

    Monday, October 22, 2012

    CLOUD ATLAS VS. ATLAS SHRUGGED and other tidbits

    Soon Atlas Shrugged, a new movie version of Ayn Rand's angry novel, will be showing opposite the movie adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  Rand extols the virtues of utter selfishness, while Mitchell's novel stresses the interconnected nature of human existence.

    Some will see this as selfishness and ego versus altruism and compassion and, indeed, that's the way the novels read.
    Here's a link to David Mitchell's take on the adaptation of his difficult novel into film link.

    “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” --John Steinbeck

    You should read Thomas Frank on the Ayn Rand Fantasy at this link.

    Robert Wilson, author of A Small Death In Lisbon and other fine novels, on his love of reading:
    What value does reading have for you?
    "I used to just love it. There is nothing like the grip of a great book, one where you put life on hold because you have a whole alternative world in which to live. Now I find that that experience is very rare and that being a writer has made me more aware of the artifice. Once you become aware of that, the experience is diminished and it becomes more like study than an alternative world. I do still get it, though. The last book to do that to me was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian."
    --from Len Wanner's excellent interview with Wilson, link.
    What do you look for in crime fiction?
    "Not to get political, but capitalism doesn’t work on so many levels, it’s frightening … but it’s mostly frightening because it facilitates crime like no other economic system. America’s social structure is burdened by the disparities inherent in capitalism, and in some segments of our society we’ve returned to the Wild West (except now they use Uzi’s and AK-47’s in place of six-shooters). I tend to favor crime fiction that deals with organized crime (which at one time was a response to the injustice of corrupt policing—probably why it was first so easily romanticized). Organized crime is nothing more than capitalism without restraints; essentially what we’ve just witnessed in the banking world; sometimes we really do reap what we sow."
    --from Len Wanner's interview with author Charlie Stella, link.
    Stella is the author of the crime novel, Rough Riders, and several previous novels (Amazon link).  Noted detective novel blogger Peter Rozovsky calls him "my favorite American crime writer" at this link.
    I've yet to read any of Charlie Stella's works, but after reading the interview and seeing his blog, I'm going to have to give him a try.

    Friday, October 19, 2012

    Friday's Forgotten Book: JAMES THURBER ON CRIME

    THURBER ON CRIME by James Thurber, edited by Robert Lopresti, has a foreword by crime author Donald E. Westlake, the author of some comic crime literature himself.

    Westlake says that James Thurber and Robert Benchley taught him about gentle humor in fiction and informed his own writing.  Indeed. you can see the Thurber influence in the opening of Westlake's The Fugitive Pigeon, which I reviewed at this link, a funny of parody Hemingway's "The Killers."

    "Hell Only Breaks Loose Once," Thurber's own parody of James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice is among the many pieces included in this volume, several of which gently critique the form of the popular crime novel, such as "The Man Who Knew Too Little," "The White Rabbit Caper," and "The Macbeth Murder Mystery."

    In the last named story, an American who only reads detective novels--Hercule Poirot is her favorite--picks up a copy of Shakespeare's Macbeth by mistake, thinking that it was one of her beloved mysteries.  With the narrator playing straight man, she then commences the interpretation of the play as if it had been written as a mystery novel:

    "In the first place, I don't think for a moment that Macbeth did it."

    I looked at her blankly.  "Did what?" I asked.

    "I don't think for a moment that he killed the King," she said.  "I don't think the Macbeth woman was mixed up in it, either.  You suspect them the most, of course, but those are the ones that are never guilty--or shouldn't be, anyway."

    "I'm afraid," I began, "that I. . ."

    "But don't you see," said the American lady, "It would spoil everything if you could figure out right away who did it.  Shakespeare was too smart for that.  I've read that people never have figured out Hamlet, so it isn't likely "Shakespeare would have made Macbeth as simple as it seems. . ."

    Who do you suspect? I asked.

    "Oh, Macduff did it, all right. . .Hercule Poirot would have got him easily."
    The Wyrd Sisters

    How did you figure that out? I demanded.

    "Well," she said, I didn't right away.  At first I suspected Banquo.  And then, of course, he was the second person killed.  That was good right in there, that part.  The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim. . ."

    Thurber's crime novel expert goes on for several pages in that way, pointing out the cliches of the murder mystery and, in the process, she touches upon some of the real mysteries of Macbeth, including Banquo's ghost and the identities of the Wyrd Sisters and the Third Murderer.

    It is traditional to take in a performance of Macbeth in October, if only on DVD, a seasonal thing like the Nutcracker in December.  Last year I posted about Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters at this link.

    Thurber wrote that, at one of his favorite literary bars, "Dashiell Hammett, whose The Maltese Falcon had come out a couple of years before, suddenly startled us all by announcing that his writing had been influenced by Henry James' novel The Wings of the Dove.  Nothing surprises me any more, but I couldn't have been more surprised than if Humphrey Bogart, another frequenter of that old salon of wassail and debate, had proclaimed that his acting bore the deep impress of the histrionic art of Maude Adams."

    Thurber said that in his later investigation he was unable "to find many feathers of 'The Dove' in the claws of 'The Falcon,' but he does find some resemblances which he then names.

    James Thurber is largely forgotten, but his name lives on in the Thurber Award, given to the humorist of the year.  How many of those award winners can you name?  Not many, I suspect.  There is a list of them at this link.  David Rakoff, who won this last year, died of cancer in August.

    Last year, at this link, I blogged about Little Red Riding Hood Halloween costumes and about the variations on the tale.  Thurber has his own interpretation in here, where the wolf cannot possibly pass himself off as Red's grandmother any more "than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge."  So the girl takes an automatic handgun out of her basket and shoots the wolf dead.

    The moral of the story, Thurber says, is that women are not as naive as they used to be.

    This is just one of many forgotten books revived in blogs this friday, and as usual you can read about the others at this link.

    Sunday, October 14, 2012

    Sex, Halloween Chess Sets, the Little Death

    "Sometimes the skin comes off in sex. The people merge, skinless. The body loses its boundaries. We are each in these separate bodies; and then, with someone and not with someone else, the skin dissolves altogether; and what touches is unspeakably, grotesquely visceral, not inside language or conceptualization, not inside time; raw, blood and fat and muscle and bone, unmediated by form or formal limits.'

    “My heart was open to you, says a man obsessively in love in the Face of Another by Kobo Abe, quite as if the front of it had been sliced away. This skinless sex is a fever, but fever is too small. It is obsession, but obsession is too psychological. It becomes life, and as such, it is a state of being, a metaphysical reality for those in it, for whom no one else exists. It ends when the skin comes back into being as a boundary.'

    "Inside a person, sexual desire-or need or compulsion is sometimes experienced as a stigma, as if it marks the person, as if it can be seen; a great aura emanating from inside; an interior play of light and shadow, vitality and death, wanting and being used up; an identifying mark that is indelible; a badge of desire or experience; a sign that differentiates the individual carrying it, both attracting and repelling others, in the end isolating the marked one, who is destroyed by the intensity and ultimate hopelessness of a sexual calling.'

    "Am I saying that I know more than men about fucking? Yes, I am. Not just different: more and better, deeper and wider, the way anyone used knows the user.'

    "Sexual Intercourse is not intrinsically banal, though pop culture magazine like Esquire and Cosmopolitan would suggest that it is. It is intense, often desperate. The internal landscape is violent upheaval, a wild and ultimately cruel disregard of human individuality, a brazen, high-strung wanting that is absolute and imperishable, not attached to personality, no respecter of boundaries; ending not in sexual climax but in a human tragedy of failed relationships, vengeful bitterness in an aftermath of sexual heat, personality corroded by too much endurance of undesired, habitual intercourse, conflict, a wearing away of vitality in the numbness finally of habit or compulsion or the loneliness of separation.'
    Shades of Grey chess set
    "Having an interior life of wanting, needing, gives fucking human meaning in a human context. Being stigmatized by sex is being marked by its meaning in a human life of loneliness and imperfection, where some pain is indelible.'

    "In Amerika, there is the nearly universal conviction or so it appears- that sex (fucking) is good and that liking it is right: morally right; a sign of human health; nearly a standard for citizenship.' 

    "In fucking, one’s insides are on the line; and the fragile and unique intimacy of going for broke makes communion possible, in human reach—not transcendental and otherworldy, but an experience in flesh and love.'

    I like this innocent set.  Especially the dogs.

    "And crossing on that high and rotting and shaking bridge to identity, with whatever degree or quality of fear or courage is the ordeal that makes empathy possible: not a false sympathy of abstract self-indulgence, a liberal condescension, but a way of seeing others for what they are by seeing what their own lives have cost them."  --Andrea Dworkin

    Andrea Dworkin is thus quoted over on Jennifer Shahade's website, link, compared against the "trite" prose of Fifty Shades of Grey and connected with the jailed band Pussy Riot and Garry Kasparov which in turn connects it yet again with chess and with Jennifer Dubois's amazingly good novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, certainly one of the best novels of the year.

    Fifty shades of Kevin Bacon.

    Anyone attempting to read Fifty Shades of Grey might do better to read instead David Guy's The Autobiography of My Body.  I like the Dworkin quote too, but the mere physical merging pales beside the combined mind/body meld that true love brings.
    Apparently they even make chess pieces out of candy corn.  The pawn's kind of bland but the bishop might serve.

    When I was a kid, the available chess sets were all fairly standard.  I bought the first Napoleonic chess set I ever saw, with its knights on strikingly beautiful horses.  I still have it, and it remains my only chess set.  But I like to window shop.

    Last year, I blogged about Stephen King's idea of the Halloween tarot (link), the trumps of which easily morph into chess sets, as can be seen with a casual stroll around the web and the pictures above.

    Friday, October 12, 2012

    Agatha Christie's A CHESS PROBLEM; More Chess Mysteries and Novels

    Hey, I forgot that Friday's Forgotten Book was supposed to have been an Agatha Christie mystery.  See the list over at Patti's website at this link.  It turns out, though, that I have one at hand.

    It is a story entitled "A Chess Problem" and it was included in Sinister Gambits: Murder and Mystery at the Chessboard, edited by Richard Peyton.  It is full of twists and turns, even by Christie's standards.  The Ruy Lopez chess opening is discussed, and the plot involves chess players, but Poirot doesn't need to know anything about chess, at least not for the insight into the final solution.

    Everyone seems to have a different idea of Poirot, but I like the little guy in the PBS series.  He always makes me think of the pre-NAFTA Ross Perot, a bit heavier with a mustache and ears good enough, even then, to detect the giant sucking sound of U.S. jobs being whisked overseas.
    Over at the Rap Sheet, host J. Kingston Pierce touts Peter May's The Blackhouse, the first part of a trilogy, the last of which carries the title of The Chess MenI'm not yet sure if chess is used as a metaphor in this particular book or not, but I've learned that I can usually rely on Mr. Pierce's recommendations for good mysteries and thrillers.
    I don't care for chess novels written in the Nabokov school of anguish--as so many of them are.  My favorite chess novel is still The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis, author also of The Hustler, The Color of Money, and others.  Over at Declan Burke's site, link, thriller author Joseph Finder said he was reading The Queen's Gambit and posed the rhetorical question, "How did I miss that?"

    That's exactly how I felt.  The female protagonist in The Queen's Gambit is accomplished so well, we've wondered if fellow Kentuckian Tevis didn't have some help from his lovely wife, Eleanora, to whom the book is dedicated.  We met Walter Tevis's widow, who is also an author, some years ago at the Kentucky Book Fair.
    We saw the time travel thriller. Looper, the other day.  The movie was pretty good, but parts of it reminded me of last year's Albert Brooks novel, Twenty Thirty.  If you liked Looper, you should enjoy the Brooks novel too.

    This last week I also read Dennis Dradille's The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took On The Notorious Central Pacific Railroad.  Class warfare where Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris take on some of the greedy corporate psychopaths of the day.  A first-rate work of historical research.
    Degrees in Philosophy and Political Science

    I've read part of Jennifer Dubois's chess novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, which came out earlier this year.  The plot meanders some, but it is an intelligent chess mystery and the philosophical insights keep me picking it up again and pushing on.  This may yet become my favorite chess novel, though so far it is several lengths behind The Queen's Gambit, which pulled me in from the beginning and made me care about the characters as it briskly carried me along.

     I'm not sure what my third favorite chess novel would be these days.  Perhaps Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Flanders Panel, though its chess is not chess but a hypothetical chess problem coupled with a murder mystery.  Back in 2003, I posted this list of chess novels and anthologies at Amazon, link.  In 2011, someone posted a much longer list here.
    Jennifer Shahade
    The game has change for the better, I think.  Look how many women there are now in the tournaments and in the Olympics.  Take a look at chess champion and world class poker player Jennifer Shahade's website here.  She also has a degree in comparative literature, and it shows.