Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday's Forgotten (or overlooked) Book: Joseph Finder's PARANOIA

High class thriller author Joseph Finder, in his interviews across the web, tells us that he keeps his writing motto always in plain sight at his work station:  Reverse, reveal, surprise.

Knowing that the quarterback is so fond of the reverse play, you begin to look for it, which somewhat diminishes the surprise.  This is why I tend not to read thrillers back-to-back, but space them to be read at the appropriate time, when my mood and mindset are right.

I first read Paranoia in October, thinking it would fit the Halloween mood, but it turned out that the title is misleading.  What I had in mind was a novel with raging paranoia, such as Stephen Dobyns' magnificent thriller, The Church of Dead Girls.  There is some mild paranoia in here, but mainly this is a corporate caper thriller, something like the plots you see on the quality television series, Leverage, though written with more moral ambiguity.  The Sting updated to corporate speak and cubicle farms.

There is comedy here in the skewering of corporate types and the Dilbert-like insights into the hypocrisies of the bureaucratic forms we are so familiar with today--spread from corporation to corporation in the 1990s like some kind of STD among "efficiency experts."

The novel is fun, nicely paced and nicely written.  It invites a deeper analysis, and I might do that sometime, but this is just a review and I'll give no spoilers out today.  It stands with, say, Alan Glynn's The Dark Fields which I reviewed in this space last year.

And like that fine novel, this one is also being made into a movie, in production as I type this.  The filming of Paranoia is directed by Robert Luketic and stars Liam Hemsworth, Gary Oldman, Harrison Ford, Lucas Till, and Amber Heard.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

JULIET IN AUGUST: Wednesday's Western Novel

Juliet In August by Dianne Warren, one of my top five westerns of the year so far, is one of those quiet small town novels where character is more important than plot.  Each chapter might well be a short story, but the stories and characters interconnect and the plot lines converge.  Juliet is a town in Saskatchewan and the events take place in the tail end of August.

My favorite plot line in here is suggested by the picture on the dustjacket, as it involves a stray horse, a runaway on a moonlit night in August from the campground at Ghost Creek.  His history begins in the second chapter and there are interesting revelations as the novel continues.

This fine, low-keyed modern western won the 2010 Governor General's Award, having been previously published in Canada under the title Cool Water.

And, on another note, the earworm of the day is "Ballad of a Runaway Horse," as written by Leonard Cohen and as beautifully sung by Jennifer Warnes.  

Say a prayer for the cowgirl, her horse ran away.
She'll walk till she finds him, her darlin' her stray,
But the river's in flood and the roads are awash
And the bridges break up, in the panic of loss.

And there's nothin' to follow, nowhere to go.
He's gone like the summer, gone like the snow.
And the crickets are breaking her heart with their song.
As the day caves in--and the night is all wrong.

Did she dream it was he who went galloping past,
And bent down the fern, broke open the grass
And printed the mud with the well hammered shoe
That she nailed to his speed--in the dreams of her youth.

And although he goes grazin' a minute away,
She tracks him all night, she tracks him all day.
And she's behind to his presence except to compare
Her injury here with his punishment there..

Then at home on a branch on a high stream
A songbird sings out so suddenly
And the sun is warm and the soft winds ride
On a willow tree by the riverside.

Ah, the world is sweet and the world is wide.
He's there where the light and the darkness divide
And the steam's comin' off him he's huge and he's shy
And he steps on the moon when he paws at the sky.

And he comes to her hand but he's not really tame.
He longs to be lost, she longs for the same
And he'll bolt and he'll plunge through the first open pass
To roll and to feed in the sweet mountain grass.

Or he'll make a break for the high plateau
Where there's nothing above and nothing below.
No need for the whip, no need for the spur.
Will she ride with him or will he ride with her?

So she binds herself to her galloping steed
And he binds himself to the woman in need
And there is no space just left and right
And there is no time but there's day and night.

Then she leans on his neck and whispers low,
Whither thou goest I will go
And they turn as one and the head for the plain
No need for the whip oh no need for the rein.

Now the clasp of this union who fastens it tight,
Who snaps it asunder the very next night?
Some say it's him some say it's her,
Some say love's like smoke:  beyond all repair.

So my darlin', my darlin', just let it go by
That old silhouette on the great western sky
And I'll pick out a tune and they'll move right along
And they're gone like smoke--and they're gone like this song.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Laughing Policeman: Friday's Forgotten Book


The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is not the acknowledged classic that Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman is, yet I'd hesitate to call it forgotten.  The Martin Beck series certainly has its devoted fans, an international bestseller.

I'd avoided it until now mainly because (1) it is set in 1968 Sweden and (2) because I've seen the movie adaptation which--despite Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, and Cathy Lee Crosby--is not very good.  I was only motivated to read the book by reading Jonathan Franzen's introduction to the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition, which I found collected in his book of essays, Farther Away.

Perhaps there are a number of others who have avoided this novel for the same reasons.  If so, you should add this one to your Christmas list.  It is still a very intelligent mystery, a timepiece yet one that rings true today.  The omniscient narrator is Catch-22 ironic and, while leaning to the political left, cracks wise at both sides of the political spectrum. 

The movie does some awful things to the original story.  It changes the locale from November/December in Sweden to summer in San Francisco, pushes the Vietnam War issue aside, and picks up alternate agendas.  What's worse is, it makes a composite character out of several characters and has gay-bashing Bruce Dern play them all at the same time in his most obnoxious guise.

And what's even worse than that, the script has Matthau play against type, and he slaps Cathy Lee Crosby around just to get a bit of personal information out of her.  It makes no sense at all.  That doesn't happen in the book.  Was the director trying to out-dirty Dirty Harry?
Crosby and Matthau: Against Type

Well, that's a mystery as well.  The director was Stuart Rosenberg, who previously directed Paul Newman in the marvelously authentic Cool Hand Luke.  You would expect a better treatment of humanity in a movie made from this fine novel.

And a fine novel it is.  Here's an excerpt (not among those quoted by Franzen):

"The consumer society and its harassed citizens had other things to think of.  Although it was a month to Christmas, the advertising orgy had begun and the buying hysteria spread as swiftly and ruthlessly as the Black Death along the festooned shopping streets.  The epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape.  It ate its way into homes and apartments, poisoning and braking down everything and everyone in its path.'

"Children were already howling from exhaustion and fathers of families were plunged into debt until their next vacation.  The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere.  The hospitals had a boom in cardiac infractions, nervous breakdowns, and burst stomach ulcers.'

"The police stations downtown had frequent visits from the outriders of the great family festival, in the shape of Santa Clauses who were dragged blind drunk out of doorways and public urinals. . .two exhausted patrolmen dropped a drunken Father Christmas in the gutter when they tried to get him into a taxi."

I'm a seasonal reader and had I been alerted to that passage, I might have saved this one for December.  You might want to do the same.  Sweden in the sixties was surprisingly not so different from the United States.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Halfway Through August: Shark Week

Hey, it's Shark Week, at least on the Discovery Channel, and at this link.

Jaws is the only classic shark movie.  All of the others pale in comparison.  The movie owes many things to history and to Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  It's one of those accidental masterpieces--like, say, Casablanca.  For a Zen interpretation of the movie, see this link.

I suspect that Jaws will last.  It is one of those rare movies that we can watch again and again, despite its heavily iconic saturation in our culture, with parodies and derivatives everywhere.

There are no sharks in these Kentucky woods, but this is always a good time for armchair voyages.  Sharks are usually a threat in the literary oceans.  Tim Winton's Breath comes to mind.  A few of the best sea tales of all time can be seen on the bookshelf on down below.
Gidget, the Little Mermaid, and Jaws

It's worth remembering that the cultural surfing fad began long before Jaws, with the Beach Boys and other musical groups.  Jaws was a horror movie, a wake-up call to suggest that when we deal with nature, the waters are not necessarily all that placid.  More importantly, the movie reminds us that the state tends to put the agenda of corporate interests ahead of public safety.
Soul Surfer: Life's Lessons

I like the Jaws interpretation (linked to above) of the many deeper symbols in the movie.  The Great White is the Great Blank, mindless nothingness, and the three shark hunters on the small boat represent a trinity of approaches:  fundamentalist, idealistic, and practical.  A wonderful movie, with so many iconic scenes.

Treasure Island was always a good summer beach read for kids.  So far this year we have it in abundance with the mini-series, Andrew Morton's Silver: Return to Treasure Island, as well as Sara Levine's parable search for one's true life narrative, Treasure Island!!! 

And I should mention here Robert A. Prathers' The Strange Case of Jonathan Swift and the Real Long John Silver, which I reviewed a while back.

Robinson Crusoe is another traditional summer read, and this year we have Katherine Frank's excellent Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth.  The classics never die, no matter how much we learn about them.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Not yet two weeks into August, and the heat has broken.  We're having a fall-like weekend, deep blue skies, a cool breeze, an invigorating something in the air.  We're grateful for the day.

This is the kind of day Faulkner was talking about when discussing Light In August:

" August in Mississippi there's a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there's a foretaste of fall, it's cool, there's an ambiance, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times.  It might have been fauna and satyrs and the gods from Greece..."

"It just lasts for a day or two, then it's gone.  But every year in August that occurs in my country, and that's all the title reminded me of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization."

A midsummer night's dream sort of thing.

With this magic now in the outdoor air, I plan to spend less time reading this month.  I've already read more books this year than in any previous year, enough to fill fifty new blogs even if I only blog about the very best ones.

Certainly high on my year's best list is Cheryl Mendelson's The Good Life: The Moral Individual in an Antimoral World.  If you enjoy reading Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson, this is your kind of book.  Mendelson is the author of several previous books, including some novels, but her degrees are in philosophy and law and like Berry and Robinson, she seems uniquely brilliant in her analysis of the antimorality of our culture today.

It's the kind of intelligent book I wish everyone would read, yet the kind that frequently becomes "the neglected little known gem."  Her insights will surprise you.  Don't miss it.
Dinah Washington 1928-1963

On another note, the earworm of the day is Dinah Washington's version of "The Good Life."  The way we interpret the song, the words of the title are used ironically at first.  What was popularly thought of as "the good life"  was the uncommitted life, "to be free and explore the unknown."

But toward the end of the song, there is the recognition that popularly known "good life" isn't so good after all.  That it is better to wake up and learn how to love.  And what we talk about when we talk about love is not possessive love, but unconditional love.

That's probably not your interpretation, but we don't mind.  Her rendition is simply gorgeous no matter how you take it.

It's the good life
Full of fun seems to be the ideal
Yes, the good life
Lets you hide all the sadness you feel

You don't really fall in love
You can't take the chance
So be honest with yourself
Don't try to fake romance

It's the good life
To be free and explore the unknown
Like your heartaches
when you learn you must face them alone

 Please remember I still love you
and in case you wonder why
well, just wake up--
kiss that good life goodbye.
You can hear Dinah Washington sing it at this Utube link.
Sarah Vaughn's version of the song is here. 
And Julie London's version of the song is here.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Joker, The Psychopath Test, Taxi Driver

A novel is both time travel and perspective travel, allowing us to see through the eyes of others.  The end of literature, as Richard Russo pointed out, is not escape but empathy.  But the joy of reading novels might begin as an entertainment, simply a pastime, a brief escape from our lives, and for many it progresses to no higher level.

There are people who will only read formula genre novels their entire lives.  Even formula novels sometimes contain social criticism and insights into human nature.  People are especially changed by their novel reading when, through transference, fiction affects their own notions of life's narrative.

No one is surprised when the teen addicted to reading or watching soap operas turns her own life into a soap opera.  Drama queen.
Martin discusses Hinckley and Chapman:  Killing as performance.

The narratives we give ourselves are what we live by, and our analytical carving of experience and information is what creates that narrative.
Catcher:  you saw it everywhere.

The recent Colorado shooter in the news was no doubt entranced by Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, so much that it would change his real life narrative forever and end the real lives of many other human beings.

I blogged about the joker playing card on April Fool's Day at this link. It evolved from the fool card in the tarot deck back in the 1860s, during the Civil War, and its use spread quickly.  I posted many illustrations then, but it never occurred to me to compare those jokers to the Joker in the Batman comics.
The Riddler:  Orange hair?

Comic books were for kids.  The Batman television series of the 1960s was a campy comedy, with light social criticism.  Gathered around the television on the campus of the University of Kentucky, on the first floors of female dorm houses (housing was gender-segregated back then, and males were not permitted upstairs), couples watched it and laughed.

Jonathan Lethem, in the August 2nd (2012) issue of Rolling Stone, published a feature on Batman.  Lethem says that Batman is “a veteran of the secret war of the self..Batman is death.  He’s death denied, or mediated through the crude morality of Fate.  Batman is also goth. . .his unbearable whiteness, his revenger‘s isolation, his animal-cultist’s affiliations, his occupation of Gotham City.”

Identity trouble.  Are you talking to me?
As Grant Morrison says in Super Gods, "It was Batman as Dracula, the vampire as hero, preying on the even more unwholesome creatures of the night. . ."  The Joker "dressed like a riverboat gambler, his face composed to suggest some unhallowed marriage of showbiz, drag culture, and the art of the mortician."

As Batman is as serious as death, the Joker is his natural nemesis.  The other derivative villains such as Riddler and the Penguin, are also Freudian stand-up clowns.  Lethem says that in “a deeper sense, Batman’s real enemy is joking itself--mirth, mockery.  He stands in opposition to the comical, even as he arises in the comic book.”

Grant Morrison shows how, as Batman passed from writer to writer over the decades, the characters evolved.  "Where Cesar Romero's Joker had been a gibbering, essentially harmless mental patient and Jack Nicholson's a twisted pop artist, Keith Ledger's Joker was a force of dark nature, a personification of chaos and anarchy."

Whereas Superman was pro-establishment and a creature of the sun, Batman arose as a creature of the night, a vigilante who, on his own, could set things right in the face of organized crime and the corrupt and complicit Establishment and its impotent or at least insufficient law force.  A utopian fantasy that can only exist in the comics.
Who's the guy with the orange hair?

Bruce Wayne is western angst, hollow, emptiness seeking in vain for fulfillment, hedonistic, materialist consumerism consuming itself, and Batman is death denied which he projects, naturally, into a holy war.  The Joker is the sick side of Batman, the compulsive psychopath.  The Riddler is the absurdist paradox of life that gnaws at serious Batman's psyche.  Catwoman is kleptomania and sexual taboo/fetish.  Two-Face is schizophrenia.  Batman fights himself, again and again.

A Big Mac Joker Attack

By dying his hair orange and shooting up a theater at the opening of the new Batman movie, the psychopath has publicized the fictional characters, especially that of Keith Ledger's Joker, the tarot hanged man.  No one has yet provided a list of the books and movies left in his apartment, but it would not surprise me if J. D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye is among them.
Conspiracy Theory:  That's just what they want you to think.

It is not that The Catcher In The Rye is violent, but that Mark David Chapman, the killer of John Lennon so identified with Holden, its protagonist.  Chapman was arrested with his worn copy of the book and a note inside identifying himself as Holden personified.  Another psychopathic killer, Robert John Bardo, had a copy of the book on him when arrested, and John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, also has been associated with the novel.

Like us, the Colorado shooter may have been aware of all of this.  And like us, he has probably also seen the movies Taxi Driver and  Conspiracy Theory which play on this both thoughtfully and humorously.  Jody Foster, psychopaths, guns, and theaters.  The copycat symbols and coincidences repeat and mesh again.

Mel Gibson seems typecast for his part, another taxi driver and an innocent with paranoid tendencies, brainwashed and programmed to buy Salinger's novel again and again--so that the corporate state can track him.

Art imitates life, and life imitates Art.
Pictures of people reading the book abound--some of them comic, like the one above.