Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lemmy. R. I. R. (rest in rock)

Lemmy Kilmister has died. He was the frontman, bass player, and heart and soul of the band Motorhead. I won’t rehash his story. It’s easy enough to find on the net, especially since his death. What I will say is that I’m sorry to hear of his loss. His music was important to me. As I’ve often said, I don’t typically respect specific people, although I might respect certain behaviors that folks exhibit. Lemmy is probably about as close to a whole person I could respect as there exists out there. Death owes us all an apology for taking Lemmy. Here are my top five favorite Motorhead tunes.

5. Killed by Death: Something has to take you out. Might as well be death. 
4. Ace of Spades: My introduction to the band. 
3. In the Year of the Wolf: Remembering how we were when we were young. 
2. Just Cos You got the Power: An anthem for the little man. 
1. Deaf Forever: The best heroic fantasy song ever written. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Very Zombie Christmas

Since finishing a major writing project, I’ve been playing quite a bit of a Undead Nightmare the past few days. This is a zombie video game based on the western Red Dead Redemption. I’m having a lot of fun. There are four different kinds of zombies, including fast crawlers and “retchers” that spew green puke at you. There are also mythical animals like the sasquatch, the chupacabra, and the four horses of the apocalypse, which you can catch and ride. So far I’ve only caught “War,” who is on fire and burns all the zombies he touches.  Last night, zombies entered my dreams, and the results were quite hilarious. I was living in a zombie apocalypse but wasn’t a zombie. To survive, I was mimicking their behavior. Here’s the tale:

I’m shambling along when I bump head on into another zombie. He snarls at me and I snarl back, but neither of us will give way. We start battering against each other with our heads and upper bodies, trying to knock the other aside. I look more closely at the other zombie after a moment and realize he’s the chef from my favorite restaurant. I still won’t give way and keep battering. Gradually I seem to be winning.

Then, three other zombies come over and start beating at me with their fists and arms, and I realize it is to make me leave ‘their’ favorite chef alone. The next thing I see is a quick cut of the restaurant itself, which looks like a wooden plank shack on the side of a river. The door pushes open and dozens of zombies start stumbling out and coming toward me. One is carrying what looks like a hoe. I realize that they too are angry at me for attacking their favorite chef. In the final scene, I’m lying on my back, victorious after my battle with the chef, and I’m holding up his mandible. I shout at the zombies coming toward me: “let’s see him talk to you without this.”

Had I written this instead of dreaming it, I surely would have had my hero holding up the chef’s hands and shouting: “let’s see him cook for you without these.”

I can’t help but add one more scene that seemed to follow this dream. I appeared to be a real zombie this time, and shambling back and forth across a stage that had been set up for a rock band. Suddenly a bra landed on the stage at my feet. I guess I’d earned a fan!


Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Reader's Choice"

Speaking strictly as a reader now, and not as a writer, I want to say a few things about the kind of advice that new writers are often given. I may be something of a unique reader, so for all of you who want to write, take my comments with a grain of salt. I know you need readers, not just one reader, not just me.

First, many recent writing guides suggest that starting with dialogue is a good idea. As a reader, I absolutely hate this. Most of the books I’ve picked up and put back down after a few sentences are ones that began with dialogue. Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is an example. Some writers can create truly excellent dialogue, but the fact is that I don’t care about what the character says until I begin to get a feeling for the inner nature of the character. That means, I need to see them acting, not talking.

Second, I’ve been told all my writing life that you never start a story with the weather.  As a reader, I absolutely love it when writers do this. Now, it needs to be good strong weather, and the character needs to be pitted against it, but—for me—opening with a character fighting against a storm, or freezing cold, or violent high seas instantly catches my attention and brings me into the tale. There is immediate intense conflict. Many of my favorite reads begin with the character facing off against nature.  Westerns often begin this way. Perhaps my favorite short story of all time, Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” begins this way. Note that, for me, a beating sun or a cold, dark night also constitute a form of weather. 

As far as openings that catch my attention, what do I personally like as a reader? A character placed in a strong setting with conflict looming, or at least with a question as to why the character is in this place. Here’s the opening to the book I’ve reread more than any other, To Tame a Land, by Louis L’Amour.  “It was Indian country, and when our wheel busted, none of them would stop. They just rolled on by and left us setting there, my pap and me.”

Here’s the first two lines of The Road, my favorite of Cormac McCarthy’s books:  “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.”

Here’s the opening paragraph of Teot’s War by Heather Gladney. It’s got everything I crave for an opening, and poetry too!  “Heat beat down on my shoulders, my face cloth. My armor dragged at the riding sores underneath. Little sparkles danced behind my eyelids, and the strains in my joints were cramping to knots in the muscles. It had been a long ride. A grating call made my shoulders twitch. The carrion crows, who glided after us day after day, were waiting.”

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tarred with a Dangerous Brush

Final exams began for me on Wednesday  (December 9) and I’ve got tests also on Thursday and Friday. After that I’ll be grading so I won’t be visiting blogs for a few days, probably not until Monday. I did want to share a little something before hunkering down with a red pen, though.

Those of you who know me, know that I’m a Liberal. You may or may not know that I’m not a fan of the current GOP front runner. I’ll call him the “Grump” in keeping with the season of the Grinch. I’ve never had any positive regard for the Grump, never watched his TV show, never had the remotest interest in his thoughts about the world. However, I now find myself in the unpleasant position of having to defend him on one, very specific matter.

In the last couple of days I have seen the Grump accused—and “accused” is very much the right word—of having “read” both Mein Kampf and the speeches of Adolph Hitler. This is clearly an attempt to paint him with the Nazi brush. Despite the Grump’s rather uncanny physical resemblance to Il Duce, and despite disagreeing with everything I’ve heard out of his mouth so far, I don’t find the “he’s a Nazi” attacks terribly compelling. That’s not my point with this post, though. Others have made a closer study of his behaviors and can certainly express their opinions on the matter.

No, what I’m saying is that you can’t judge an individual’s personality simply from his or her reading material. Maybe Grump considers Hitler his role model, but you cannot make that judgment based just upon what he’s read. You literally do not know what his reasons were. I’ve also read both Mein Kampf and many of Hitler’s speeches. I read them for a couple of reasons. First, I was a history minor in college with a particular interest in WWII, and I thought at one point I might go to grad school in history. Second, as a psychologist, I’m also a student of people, and of why and how people do the things they do. Reading these works both educated me on the dangers of fascism, and also helped cement my own opposition to it.

Reading Mein Kampf does not make you a Nazi any more than reading the Bible makes you a Christian, or reading the Quran makes you a Muslim, or reading Roots makes you African American. As a reader, I protest anyone’s attempt to say differently. Would you want to be judged on the basis of that one erotica novel you read? As a liberal, I think this kind of tactic is beneath us because it is irrational. There is plenty enough to criticize about the Grump without reaching for straws, and this is a very dangerous straw indeed.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

The First Five Parker Novels

      I just finished reading The Score, which is #5 in the Parker series by Richard Stark. I’ve been reading them in the order they were written, although I’m not sure that’s really important.  I did not grow up reading crime fiction, other than John D. MacDonald’s work. So I was very late discovering the Parker novels. I had certainly heard quite a bit of good stuff about them before I ever tried one, but it wasn’t until November 2014 that I got to the first one in the series.  I was bowled over by that book, The Hunter, and immediately bought the next 12 or so in the series.  Here are my reviews of the first five books:
      The Hunter: (4 stars). I had never read anything by Richard Stark, or by Donald Westlake, which is the author's real name. The Stark books feature a character named Parker, who is generally described as a thief, although he certainly does plenty of killing too. This is the first one in that series and there are at least 23 more. This one has been filmed at least twice that I know of. I enjoyed this one a lot and am irritated at myself for waiting so long to read one. I'd been hearing good things about them for years. 
     What we are looking at with this book is a stripped down, noir tale. No wasted motion, no wasted words, no wasted description. This makes it a quick read. I didn't quite get through it in one sitting but came close. 
      I like books with rich, sensuous description, but this one doesn't have any of that and I liked it too. I suspect that I wouldn't want to read three or four of them back to back, but it's a quick, hard hitting work that you can mix in among other, perhaps more leisurely, reads.
      The Man with the Getaway Face: (4 stars). This is the second in the Parker series. Not quite as compelling as the first to me, but still very good. Parker is a real SOB in many ways and you don't necessarily root for him, but the combination of the intensity of that character and the compelling plot line keeps you turning the pages. I've just started the third in the series.
      The Outfit: (4 stars). Third in the Parker series. Parker went to all the trouble to get a new face that was revealed in book 2, but finds by the end of that book that his new appearance has been revealed anyway and the "Outfit," (Organized Crime) is out to kill him. Parker strikes back as only he can do. Good one!
      The Mourner: (3 stars). This is still a good read, but I liked it least of the four Parker books I've finished so far. One reason is that Parker is actually only on the scene for a little over half the book. Quite a bit of the book follows another guy named Menlo, who has betrayed Parker. Still, it was a quick, enjoyable read.
      The Score: (3 stars). This is the longest of the Parker books I’ve read so far and I’d rank it about where I ranked #4, The Mourner. It was good, but not as good as the first three. In this book, a man comes to Parker and some colleagues with an idea for a huge score, one in which they’ll essentially rob an entire town. Everything seems to be going well when the fellow who initiated everything turns out to have a private agenda. Hell breaks loose. I thought there were a few slow spots, particularly where Parker’s crew is hiding out for a while. Parker also had less to do with the resolution of the story than in the previous books. I still enjoyed it quite a lot, however. And fortunately I have quite a few more of these books on my shelves!