Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Kids Pay The Darndest Things

A few weeks ago I told my daughter Sabrina, 5 but almost 6, that I was going to my office above the garage to work on my book. I think I described it something like "work that no one pays me for." She told me to stay where I was and ran off to her room.

In a short while she came back with a dollar bill and pressed it into my hand. "Here," she said proudly. "Now someone pays you for your work."

A few minutes later she was crying out, forcing me to stop hugging her and put her back down on the ground. Which was good, because I needed a hand to wipe the tears out of my eyes.

So I've been paid an advance for my new novel, "Some Things You Die For," by a first grader. Sadly, I'm pretty sure her parents won't let her read it for a few years. Since I've sold out to my first grader, she's been telling people that her daddy's writing a book, something that they really don't need to know.

And I thought it would take a two book contract to make me happy.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Musical Chairs

I'm not a music historian. I don't even know if such people exist. But once upon a time, rock and roll was born, and it was huge. We got Bill Haley and Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry pushing big band and swing out of the popular forefront. We got the Twist which was such a huge pop music influence that Frank Sinatra even recorded a Twist album (or so I've read; I've never heard the thing - the family's probably buried it).

In the sixties, several fronts washed through. There was beach music from the Beach Boys and fresh sounds from Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, studio harmonies from groups like the Mamas and the Papas and Spanky and Our Gang. The Motown sound. Then the British Invasion arrived stomping those sounds with the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and anything with a Liverpool accent. In the later sixties came acid rock, psychedelic Jimi Hendrix licks to swallow LSD to and not remember who you were with at the concert the night before.

In the seventies music seemed to settle back down a bit, giving us Casey Kasem's Weekly Top 40 show and a kindler, gentler American Bandstand. We even got Barry Manilow. Disco arrived in full force although as far as I know Sinatra stayed away from that one. We got funk from the Ohio Players and Parliament, some really interesting stuff from Earth, Wind & Fire, and a whole host of new sounds throughout the eighties. Punk rock came out of somewhere, and heavy metal, and Seattle grunge. Some power in the universe even gave us Weird Al and Kenny G.

In other words, there have been a lot of really serious, powerful trends and forces that have shaped pop music throughout the decades of the twentieth century, since radio, records and talking pictures have had a hand in shaping our culture. These things have come and gone, leaving traces of themselves to be assimilated by following waves, the good elements establishing themselves and wackier ones going the way as novelty store vomit.

So what's the point? God, I cannot wait for this hip-hop crap to disappear from the face of our planet. Let the alien observers ninety trillion light years away pick up the crap we're beaming into space far in our own future and shake their heads wondering just what the hell we could have been thinking. Please let it go away. Soon.

Anybody got a copy of the Sinatra Twist album in the meantime? ANYTHING'S gotta be better than this...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Much Needed Perspective

Okay, so I've gushed about James Lee Burke a few times now and it occurred to me that there are a few points that can be made against him as a novelist to balance against the lavish praise I've already heaped upon him.

He went through a stretch of books where he seemed to fall in love with a saying or a phrase and then use it to excess. The best example I can think of is in the book Heaven's Prisoners where an ex-con bartender named Jerry tells Dave that he ain't no "swinging dick." At the time I didn't know what a swinging dick was. As time has passed and I've aged and matured, I still haven't got the foggiest idea. Conceding that this would have been an entirely appropriate phrase to use in the context of this conversation, Burke goes on to have just about everybody in the book use the same phrase in completely different contexts. Men say it, women say it, bad guys say it, good guys say it. Whatever it means, it must be really nifty. I just have a hard time believing it could be so universally useful.

It reminds me of a trend a few years back that thankfully went away. I don't know if it was an industry wide conspiracy or just a case of author following author following author but for a while, everybody dropped an 'as.' Instead of saying something like "the grass was as green as a Crayola crayon," the first 'as' would be dropped and the phrase would read "the grass was green as a Crayola crayon." This always troubled me but thankfully someone pulled a universal chain and order was restored to the universe. So much so that you never see instances of the dropped 'as' anymore. Clearly this is an acknowledgment of the mistake.

But back to Burke. There was another trend that seems to have died out with every author but Mr. Burke and he's been perpetuating it through a number of books now. Someone somewhere decided that males exude the "smell of testosterone." At least I know what that means, I think, but I don't know what it is. What does testosterone smell like? I've yet to come across an author who's used this phrase to actually describe it. Does it smell like a flower? A chicken? Old Spice?

First of all, I don't believe it has a smell, at least not one given off externally. So I did some research online and I couldn't find a single reference to the smell of testosterone which, I'm happy to say, seems to confirm that when I walk my manliness into a hot and humid room recently occupied by the Swedish Bikini Team, it ain't my testosterone you're smelling. But there is a caveat to this...

I found a number of references to the smell of urine which contains testosterone. Ahhh, so maybe when Burke's and these other writers' characters have incontinence issues or bedwetting traumas or some such thing. Possibly they didn't shake so well before entering the room and dribbled.
Whatever the case, it's another trend or trope whose day has hopefully come and gone.

See, I can be objective even where my idols are concerned. I can report the good as well as the bad. I think I just need to find something better to do with my time.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Book Review Sauce

Before I get to the new post, my wife tells me I already wrote one about the new James Lee Burke book, The Tin Roof Blowdown. I know I took an Ambien so it's not a surprise that I have no recollection of it. I won't read the entry; it's probably better that way. I know I didn't finish the book until after that night, though, so I will say a couple of things about it.

First, James Lee Burke is still one of the most gifted writers of all time. Classify him as a genre writer if you want to, but that doesn't change a thing. He's that rare writer whose grocery lists are probably more literary than many genre bestsellers. Anyway, this is the first Burke book I've read (which is all but three of his early, non-series books; I'm saving them) where the plot is so dependent on coincidence. This disappoints me because he is so near the top of my personal pantheon of writing stylists. I like to think he's beyond that kind of thing. But it's Burke, and it doesn't harm the book like it would with a lesser artist.

Like Michael Jordan, who could have been given the league MVP award every year he played (after he got over his broken foot), Burke should at least be nominated for an Edgar every time out. And if he won twenty of the things, they'd be well earned.

Okay, that's me gushing.

I've written before about John Sandford and how, against the trend of almost every popular author I can think of, he gets better as the years go by. For whatever reason, he's avoided the trap of falling into whatever formula he defines for himself and churning out a book a year following the same blueprint. He deserves more credit and notice for this than he's ever likely to get, though, and that's a shame.

I just finished his new book Death Watch and it was excellent. One plot move that didn't quite gel with me was all I could hold against it. Normally, novels I avoid at virtually all cost are those having to do with Hollywood, professional sports and politics. I think a lot of it has to do with the stereotypes and cliches that tend to overwhelm these books, squeezing out the originality I find necessary in a good book.

This is an exception to that rule. It's about a political consultant, working for the incumbent president's chief of staff, and how he investigates and involves himself in a murder tied up with overlapping political scandals. The president isn't compared to Kennedy, there's no mention of a "new Camelot," and all in all there's a refreshing lack of the worn out tropes you usually find in political fiction.

Which brings me to the last thought for the day. While reading the reviews for the book on Amazon, many of the reviewers compare Jake Winter (from Dead Watch) to Lucas Davenport (from his Prey series). What the hell for? Of course Winter isn't Davenport. If Sandford had wanted him to be, he would have written a different book.

I think professional reviewers are better at reviewing a book based on its own merits and not as an exercise in comparison. It reminds me of how many Amazon reviewers lambasted John Irving's The Fourth Hand because it was a departure and not the kind of book they expected from Irving. It's a fine book, funny and short (compared to his usual output) and while it may not be what these people expect, that fact alone doesn't mean anything negative about the book. It actually doesn't mean anything at all. I pointed this out in a review I posted on Amazon and the last time I checked, a large number of people had taken the time to rate it as "not helpful." So I guess they don't agree.

They'd probably take issue with me telling them they're wrong, too. I'll just go now...