Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Short Assignments

Photo: Bird by Bird, front cover, from

Well, the ol' writing hasn't gone well lately, and a harsh bout of strep hasn't helped, so we're back to the basics.  I've gone over some good ideas from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird--which I reviewed here--and I've taken some advice from a writer who's been nice enough to answer some questions for me.  (That would be Dr. Julie Holland, author of Weekends at Bellevue, which I reviewed here, on Goodreads, and here, on this blog.  I'll be posting the Q & A between us, broken down in a few posts, coming soon.  I thank her again for doing that for me.  Her tips about writing were helpful and often eye-opening.  I hope she comes out with another memoir soon.  Buy Weekends at Bellevue.  On another side note, she is unbelievably fast responding to emails and interviews.  I've taken longer to respond to a direct question, with the person standing right in front of me.)

But I digress.  Helpful hints.  Back to basics.  Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.  By the way, if you haven't read Bird by Bird, you should; if you've ever considered writing anything at anytime, for any reason, you have to read this.  Often.  I've re-read it now many times; I always find something new in it.  It's funny; it's helpful; it's well-written.  I think I'm finding new things in it at different times because I need different types of help at different times.  (And I always need help.)

So the helpful hint today that I'm going with, via Bird by Bird and Anne Lamott, is: short assignments.  Too often I'm aghast at all the ideas I have, all the writing I want to do.  All the novels, the short stories, the articles, the memoir pieces, all the chapters and characters--they come at me fast and furious, and lately they've buried me.  I'm paralyzed.  Too much going on.  And having the living room wallpaper taken down, the walls painted, the carpet ripped up, the floors sanded and treated three times each, living in the small and cluttered den downstairs because I can't walk on the treated floors for 8 hours, paying all these guys, and an overwhelming time with mountains of work to do at and for the job--and throw in everyone's birthdays all in the last week, plus the swollen throat and ears because of the strep--oh my lord, who wouldn't be snowballed?  Oh yeah, there's been that, too.

I've been going a little nuts and stir crazy over here.

So, short assignments.  Narrow it down.  Break it down.  Do something small, but productive.  So, today I'll work on just one scene from...(the wheel spins)...The Gravediggers.  Okay, no problem.  I have to choose something, because there's revamping another novel in 3rd person to do yet, and...okay, whatever, block it out and work on just one scene from The Gravediggers.  Which scene?  I don't know...there are so many.  Okay, let's....let's start revamping the novel in 3rd person instead, and see where that goes.  I think it'll go in a great direction that I'm very excited about, so...okay, let's do that.  Revamping a work into the 3rd person.

Wish me luck!!!  Oh, wait.  Which scene from that?  Easy choice--the first one.  Okay.  Now wish me luck.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Thank You

Photo: Dr. Julie Holland, from the Bio and C.V. page of her website, here.

Soon  to come on this post is a little (okay, a long) Q & A with the author of Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych. ER, which I reviewed positively here, on this blog, and here, on Goodreads.  Dr. Holland was nice enough to see my review of her book and to send me a short email.  Not to let a good thing go unpunished, I asked for an interview.  She accepted, and I sent an obnoxiously long list of questions, which she was gracious enough--and fast!  Just over 24 hours!--to answer.  Her answers were very succinct and thorough.  The combination of my obnoxiously long list and her thorough answers made me decide to break the thing up, into two or three different entries.  So look for those, coming soon.  In the meantime, read her book.  I'm not just saying that to pander to a guest on my blog, either (though I am not above doing that, of course); it's a really good read.  Makes you want to write a memoir of your own.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Photo: Cover of the Swedish first edition, on its Wikipedia page

A pretty good read, not as good as the first two; it pales in comparison, especially, to the second one because of ...Played with Fire's intensity at the end.  There's not much intensity in the last one here.  This stands to reason--Salander is inherently the only super-intense character, and she's stuck in a hospital room, a jail and a courtroom for most of this book.  When she's out, she gets involved in some intense action almost immediately.

Larsson again gets away with a lackluster first half--or the whole middle--of the book, and this time it really grated at me.  There are some frankly unnecessary scenes, and there's a subplot with someone stalking Erika Berger that is excessive and unnecessary.  (A guy she ignored in high school is harassing her at her new job.)  The only interesting part of this is that Lisbeth helps her find who it is.  (Remember that Lisbeth saw Blomqvist and Berger together at the end of the first one.)  But this part rings a bit untrue: Lisbeth, I think, would help Berger find the harasser because a) Lisbeth hates men who hate women, and b) she's excessively bored, and hacking into people's computers to expose them is interesting to her.  But what's false is that Berger wouldn't have accepted her help, no matter how desperate.

There are other problems.  The most glaring is that a senior citizen hitman was able to shoot a former nationally-important espionage agent in a hospital.  This spy had no sort of bodyguard, no police protection, no nothing.  He also would never have stayed in the same hospital as his original attacker, who was just a few rooms down.  They definitely wouldn't have both been unprotected, especially her, as she was a hated and sought-after person for a long time.  There are many more items of this sort, though this was the most obvious.  Naturally two people who just tried to kill each other--and who are nefarious and related--wouldn't be placed within a few rooms of each other in the same hallway.  And they'd have guards.

The trial was practically an after-thought, and not very realistic, either.  The prosecution, glaringly, had no case, and you would think they'd have bolstered it considering they were dealing with an infamous celebrity by that time.  All they had was a psychiatrist whose testimony a kid in a mock trial could've annihilated.  He clearly had preconceived notions; Lisbeth obviously had reasons not to talk to him or anyone else in authority.  And when everyone swore to the hills that her guardian was a great guy who she murdered, they proved that the prosecution had no evidence that she'd killed him--and then they played the movie.  End of trial.

All that's left over is to find her half-brother, which she does--though every cop in the country, and tons of lawyers representing her father's estate--should have investigated the property she goes to.  The relationship between Blomkvist and a cop is not convincing, and once again a beautiful, independent woman couldn't keep her clothes on in front of him.  The chances she takes after living a life of professional independence is unrealistic.  People do dumb things--but every woman he meets takes a dumb chance because they have to have be with him.  This includes a married woman (whose husband goes along with it, rather happily), an emotionally and psychologically bereft young woman, and a previously missing millionairess who'd been abused by her father and brother until her mid-teens.


Having said all that, the book works while you're reading it, though the above examples had begun to get to me after awhile.  The second book also excelled because the women in it mostly kept their clothes on in front of him.  It was all mystery, intrigue and tension, and zero forced relationships.  Had he lived, I bet Larsson would have realized this, and gone back to that winning formula.  I suspect that his love interest here would've been disposed of in the next book, a la the Bourne movies and its like.  Certainly we would've finally met Salander's elusive twin sister.

The book ends well, as we knew it had to.  He had, after all, stuck by her and saved her in the second book, and basically in the third.  It says in the end that she realized she no longer had any feelings for him in that way, and that also ends like it should, though I don't buy it for a second.  Their relationship, and his with Erika Berger, were clearly the most realized and realistic.  Had there been a fourth book, I suspect there would've been maybe a little more tension there, and Berger very clearly tells his current flame that she'll try and stay away from him, but makes no promises.  He doesn't, either, for that matter.  This wouldn't sit well with her.

Odd and interesting thing about the books is that it shows that getting old is hell.  Every old man is dying of some kind of cancer, or is shot but lives for months as a vegetable, or is set on fire, loses a hand and foot, gets shot a few times, and then finally dies after getting shot a few more times.  Or has a stroke but recovers fairly well, if not painfully.  Old men do not age or die well here.

Lisbeth Salander is by far the most thoroughly and realized character in the books, and rightfully carries the distinction of being one of the more realistic and defined female characters in the genre.  No helpless lady in distress here, and no femme fatale.  She is only herself, and by the end was beginning to realize who that was.  Unfortunately, even she is a pale shadow of herself in the last book, but even that is enough to distinctly define and carry on her character.

I'm very interested in Lisbeth, Berger and Blomkvist.  I hope Larsson's partner and his father and brother can resolve their issues before too long, and that someone lets her finish his book, as I agree with her that she is the only one in a position to know what Larsson himself wanted to do with these characters.  Some hired gun shouldn't take over the series and throw his own beliefs into Salander.  Larsson was trying to say something important through her, and only he--and, second best, his partner--have any idea what he wanted to say next.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Girl Who Played with Fire--Stieg Larsson

Photo:  First edition front cover of the Swedish book, from its Wikipedia site

Second book of the deceased author's Millenium trilogy, in many ways superior to the first.  It continues the trend of bucking the solid rules of publishing--jumping between even more 3rd person limited characters than the first one did; not getting to the crux of the mystery until well after page 100; many pages of frankly unnecessary pages of exposition...But, again, it all works.  And, of course, that's what matters most.  If it works, do it.

To be honest, this one actually dragged a bit in the first half, but it really took off in the second.  Lisbeth, who Larsson must've known was his most intriguing character when he was maybe a quarter into the first manuscript, is largely out of the picture; she's been accused of three murders, and she's hiding.  The reader, through some clever trickery in Larsson's 3rd person limited narration, has to admit that maybe she did kill Bjurman (I thought so); but it won't take an ingenious reader to see that Larsson leaves us with Lisbeth at the apartment of the other two victims, hoping we'll think she killed them.  You won't think so.  But I'll bet, if you've already read it, that you thought she did kill Bjurman.  It happened according to how she'd threatened him in the first book; he was naked, kneeling and begging.  When it was disclosed that she hadn't killed him, I was surprised.  So that's a good thing about this book--you're somewhat surprised by the actions (or, the non-actions) of a now-familiar character.  (If you weren't fooled like I was, more power to you.)

The plot mostly follows Blomqvist and the many minor characters this time.  Larsson ingeniously pulls a Bram Stoker/Dracula move here: Lisbeth is largely absent through the majority of the book, noticeably visible only in the beginning and in the end.  In the meantime, all of the characters, major and minor, are looking for her.  She's the Hitchcockian McGuffin.  But as Dracula was more of a force in Stoker's book precisely because he was absent and sought after throughout most of it, Lisbeth here is, too.  Everybody talks about her; everyone's looking for her; some are trying to slander her (notice the similarity to her name there; I'll bet Larsson had an extensive outline for all three books at once, and so knew that slander would be how most of the characters attacked her in all three novels--I'm halfway through the last one now) while others are trying to unsmear the many smear campaigns.  And so by omission, her character actually becomes stronger and more dangerous.  And more poignant: when she finally re-appears, the reader is happy to see her again.  Her character is the dessert that you cherish because you're not allowed to have it very often.

And when she does re-appear in the last small percentage of the book, she owns it.  She's a force, not just for the reader; not just for the characters she (righteously) beats up.  She's simply a force, in of herself, like the waterspout she sees in the beginning.  (Which remained a largely unnecessary section, but for the theme just mentioned.  Hopefully the second half of the third book will tie that together, but I'm not feelin' it.)  She is the force that all of the other characters revolve around, are attracted to, and are repelled from.  She is their Sun.

Which is not to say that all is perfect.  A nationally-famous boxer comes to the rescue at the last minute.  (That scene reminded me of one in one of Robert B. Parker's books--which Larsson undoubtedly read, as the constant allusions to the authors of the genre show--in which Spenser and Hawk have to bring down a monster of a man, which they are barely able to do, even together.)  Again, it works, and it shouldn't have.  Lisbeth survives a premature burial, a la Uma Thurman in Kill Bill 2.  She gets out by digging with a cigarette case, after getting shot three times, including once in the head, which exposes a bit of brain.  (How that didn't get infected by all that dirt, especially when she touched the brain with one dirt-encrusted finger, is a mystery.)  This sounds ridiculous, but the scene (and the ones immediately following) was remarkably effective, so much so that when I awoke at 3 a.m. afterwards, for no reason, it was the first thing I thought of (though getting up for work in three hours should've been), and even just the memory of it was smothering.  (This is a high compliment from me.)  The remaining pages is as much of a suspenseful page-turner as you are likely to read.  You will find yourself actually rooting for a character you know is not real.  This is not something I do often, even with books and characters I like a lot.  I amazed myself at doing so.

P.S.--Accolades must now be given to the translator of all three books, Reg Keeland.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sherlock Holmes--A Game of Shadows

Photo: Movie poster, from its Wikipedia page.

Very visually appealing, fast-paced, intelligent, fun and styled film that stretches the limits of Conan Doyle's character--but not as far as you'd think.  You'd have to read the stories to appreciate this, but Basil Rathbone's Holmes was only a small part of the total person; he wasn't all big hat and big pipe, deducer and inducer.  He was also a boxer, a fighter, an addict (which this film strays from somewhat) and many of the things that Downey's Holmes is--though, of course, not to the degree that Downey and Ritchie play him.

The sets are awesome, though I suspect that there's more CGI then I think...a lot more.  But they are still impressive, especially to a lover of the 1890s as I am.  You'll never catch all of the small things that Holmes sees and induces and deduces (though I was proud to have caught the dead plant), so don't try to hard.  As Roger Ebert says in his mostly-positive review--it's not the creaking-stairs and super-intellectual 1890s that you'll see here, so just sit back and enjoy the ride.  I wanted to see this because I became a great fan of the first Downey film, and if you liked that one, you'll very much like this one.  There's more scenery, more action, more thinking ahead, more clues, and a villain that is, in fact, Holmes' equal, intellectually and physically.  The only thing you won't see more of, sadly, is Rachel McAdams, and her statement of warning to him at the end of the first film is a harbinger of sorts here.  Or is it?  One never knows.

As a follower of the stories, most of the elements are here in the film, including the dive into the falls that so famously ends one of Doyle's stories.  It's the one where he tried to kill Holmes off, as Doyle was sick of him, and he wanted to write more of what he thought was more important--his histories and mysticism books.  The general public and even Doyle's own mother disagreed, to the point that they, and she, ordered Doyle to bring Holmes back.  Which he did, but in an unfortunately tortured and twisted way.  The movie, I have to say, handles it much better.  Nothing is, indeed, what it seems.  But, then again, we live in a world of seems.

Robert Downey is again very, very good.  True, he's an American playing a Brit, with nothing close to an accent, but what the hey.  Jude Law is very good as well.  They are both charismatic and they get along very well on-screen.  (In a way, theirs is the true relationship--and, yes, that's hinted at, as well.)  Noomi Rapace is good, in a limited role.  I suspect that her Lisbeth Salander from the original Swedish films was much better.  (Seeing the dubbed originals is on my list of things to do.)  Jared Harris is super as Moriarity--so much so, that you hope to see more of him in the next, too.  (Though I doubt it.) 

Go see it.  Read the stories, too, but forgive the filmmakers for the liberties they take.  They have been surprisingly faithful to the character and to the gist of the series.  The direction is top-notch; can't say enough about it, especially their travails through the forest.  It's stop-action of a different sort (not of the King Kong 1933 type, if you've seen that).  It's a combination of all the mystery, clues, action, direction, sets and overall Victorian-ism--with 21st Century direction.  A really intelligent action film.  What's more old/modern than that?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mission Impossible--Ghost Protocol

Photo: Movie poster, from the movie's Wikipedia page.

Not a bad movie, with plenty of unbelievable stunts and pacing just good enough for a nearly 2 1/2 hour film.  The worst part of the movie, in fact, were the idiots I sat near.  Every unbelievable scene got a verbal and loud reaction from these clowns.  They talked only at these moments, which in a way is worse than those who talk during the whole thing.  At least, after awhile, you can drown them out.

Like all action films, some parts defied credibility--For example, is it really that easy to get beneath the Kremlin?  Or that building in India?  And why was there just one security guard (in the world's tallest building) on in some scenes, and why would just one guard in charge of watching fifty surveillance screens?  But with this kind of movie, one expects this kind of thing, and you just have to deal with it.  No one cared, for instance, when in The Dark Knight, the Joker dropped Batman's love interest out a window--while searching for Gotham's galloping D.A. and scaring the hell out of Bruce Wayne's guests--and then, seemingly, was left to lord over the penthouse after Batman and the (for the time being, saved) woman crashed atop a taxi.  Did the Joker just leave the penthouse without bothering anybody else?  The continuity is lost, but nobody cared--or even noticed.  Because you go see an action film for the action, and all else, including plot and characterization, be damned.

A few other notes:

Tom Cruise himself was lead producer on this movie, sans Paula Wagner, his partner of many years (and films), who seemed to drop him after his Oprah debacle, unnecessary rants about religion and anti-depressants, and slide in popularity.  He took many very good supporting roles (and a few very bad lead ones--but don't they all?) before he was able to muster the money and steam to make this one.  And, really, what was the big deal?  So he got a little manic about...well, something...on Oprah's couch.  Aren't you supposed to act a little crazy about someone you love?  Of course, the Scientology didn't help, and even worse were his comments about anti-depressants and religion and God knows what else.  But who goes to a Tom Cruise movie because they care what he thinks about those things?  Nobody.  We go to see him run around and act self-confident.  That's what I paid my money for.

The other actors in the film, including Jeremy Renner--who's in everything these days--just fulfill their roles, mostly without aplomb.  I thought the most interesting supporting characters were, in fact, the two lead bad guys, and the pretty blonde hitwoman who never said a single thing.  (The real actress is a model and is represented by a firm named Silent Models, which is particularly apt here.)  Michelle Monaghan and Ving Rhames make very brief cameos here--so brief, you wonder why.

The camerawork and choreography were outstanding, as were the locations and directing; those things, plus the style of action--especially the dropping car near the end--were more Jason Bourne than Ethan Hunt, but that was okay with me.  If you have any interest in seeing this, do so in the theatre rather than at home.  This is one of those movies that's better on the really big screen.  It cost $145 million to make and has already made over $362 million, according to its Wikipedia page.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Shunned House--H.P. Lovecraft

Well-written story that shouldn't be as well-received as it has been, even by me.  When people think of Lovecraft's good stuff, it fits this mold: bizarre delivery of a bizarre idea; local setting; big words and even bigger sentences; vague specificity; unfocused focus--and Providence.  Always Providence.  (You can read more about the guy in a previous blog entry, here.)  Scenes that could've been very scary--the disfigured people staring; the insane woman howling in the upstairs room--are mentioned briefly and done away with.  Instead the focus is on the basement dirt, the uncle, the foul odor, the tenants throughout the years who had died or gone insane.  And the elbow, of course.  Spooky stuff that seemed vampire-like are glossed over; how we got vampires from the giant evil residing beneath the sand floor is a mystery.  How acid poured on a giant elbow can drive away a giant evil--and in the form of a misty vapor--is just as confusing.

The story simply should not work.  But it does.  And well.  It is scary.  It is catchy.  It is fluent and stylistic and creepy.  It's got style.  Creepy style.  If only all of his stuff could have this quality, he would've been much more respected, much more published...His fans have been very kind to him as they continue to strongly celebrate the good and blissfully ignore the bad.  All fans do that, of course...but there's been a lot of bad.

This story isn't one of them.  It's a keeper.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--Book

Photo: Original Swedish book cover, from its Wikipedia page

I suppose you already know the sordid background of the author: how he died climbing up seven floors because his lift wasn't working; because he'd been at least a three to four pack a day smoker for a long time.  You probably know that his real job was as an editor of magazines that exposed things that the bad guys would rather have left alone; that he didn't get married to his long-time partner because he'd been getting death threats and so didn't want his address in the public records; about how, since there was no will, his partner was legally entitled to nothing, including the royalties to the mega-selling books; about how his father and brother--whom he was estranged from--have therefore made millions of dollars (and kronen) from his work.  She has since sued them; supposedly they have offered her a few million to go away.  About how millions more are coming in for royalties to the movies, and about how she's basically blackmailing everybody by saying that she has the manuscripts for most of the fourth (about three-quarters) and some of the fifth installments of the series (there might have been ten had he lived to write them all).  And, finally, about how she says she has all of his notes and outlines for the fourth book, and therefore should be the one to finish it.  (You can bet that someone will; much like how Robert B. Parker finished Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs, and how others are now writing his many series.)

Well, if you didn't know all that, there you are.  Sounds like a murder-mystery in of itself.

I'd rather write about how this book sort of breaks the mold.  It essentially does everything that many agents and publishers say they don't want: shifting 3rd person POV (if you want to say that Lisbeth is a co- major character, remember that the other intrusively tells us what Frode, Martin, and other minor characters are thinking, often in snippets); waiting 50 or so pages before the main mystery is established; titling the book after a minor character (admittedly, Larsson chose the first book's title, and maybe the second, but definitely not the third.  They're published in his home country under very different titles); carrying on the book for over 100 pages after the main mystery has been solved.  Many examples of author intrusion, especially when he has to step in to tell us how a magazine office runs.  You get the idea.

All no-nos.  But Larsson does them all, and manages to pull it off.

Partly this is because he digs so deeply into the characters that they themselves, rather than the plot, carry the novel.  The writing tone is consistent throughout, regardless as to who's being focused on.  The detail is super, from the weather, to the towns, to the characters.  (He hedges a bit on how all the hacking and financial disbursements are accomplished.)  The dialogue is mostly good (though all the characters talk in compound sentences, with a "," followed by an "and."  Lisbeth especially would not do this, and it makes all the characters sound somewhat alike; I'll bet Larsson used to talk the same way).

The themes and issues are there, most notably the ill-treatment towards females in Swedish society.  It's apparently just as pandemic as Henning Mankell's assertion about how immigrants are treated in Sweden, as well.  (One wonders with a shudder how the female immigrants are treated.)

But, most importantly, once the staples of the mystery come out--the pictures, tracking down the onlookers who took them, the interviews and the research--he runs with them, even while acknowledging that the plot is essentially a locked-room mystery on an island (like Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None), and that women, regardless of age, apparently can't keep their clothes on around the major character.  The pace picks up and you turn the pages.  It takes awhile to pick up, and there's a long descent, but there's obviously a story arc, just like every writing teacher has ever told you to do.

And so he unconventionally connected the dots, I guess you might say.  And he did it well.  It's too bad he couldn't complete all ten.  Someone else will undoubtedly (and probably later, rather than sooner, because of the courtroom drama) run with it, but it won't be the same.  No other writer, for example, would have littered the book's landscape with mystery writer allusions--and even make a character hide under the name of Victor Fleming, the director of most of The Wizard of Oz and of Gone with the Wind!  We won't see that audacity again.