Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gone Over Gone Girl

It seems to us that the hype for the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 debut novel exceeds pretty much anything we've seen for a while. Right now it almost seems possible that the film will do as well as the book. (Which was very well, indeed.)

Next up in the ever-growing lineup of Gone Girl stuff to look at is this television spot for the film, which opens October 3rd. The spot offers more glimpses of a steamy Ben Affleck and a few more clues: did Nick do it? Or not?


Monday, August 25, 2014

Crime Fiction: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

(Editor’s note: The following short review was written by Hannah Stevenson, who comes from Bridport, Dorset. She studied undergraduate English Language and Literature at the University of Chester and is currently working on a Masters in English at Exeter. Her main research focus has been the similarities between very different styles of detective fiction, such as hard-boiled and Scandinavian crime tales.)

Fans of the Harry Potter series will doubtless already be tearing through J.K. Rowling’s latest foray, The Silkworm (Mulholland), which she wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. After the lukewarm reception given her first non-Potter novel, 2012’s The Casual Vacancy, Rowling has moved on to crime fiction, with this new book being the follow-up to her first Galbraith novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013).

Once more we’re placed in the company of Cormoran Strike, the illegitimate son of a rock star, who’s now a wounded military veteran turned perfectly dysfunctional detective. The Silkworm finds him accepting the case of a missing writer, Owen Quine, whose delusional wife is tired of taking care of their disabled daughter alone. The ensuing investigation turns up many people who resent the self-centered Quine, but it’s Strike’s hunch regarding a house Quine co-owned with an ex-friend that finally leads this sleuth to the gruesome discovery of the author’s mutilated corpse. As police begin probing the homicide, they settle their focus firmly on Quine’s spouse, whose attitude is both surly and distracted.

Delving deeper into the mystery, Strike discovers that the circumstances of Quine’s murder copy those in the final scene of a libelous, unpublishable novel he’d been working on -- one that threatened to disclose the carefully concealed secrets of many people within his circle, including members of the publishing industry. Myriad suspects thus come into play, from the author’s embittered agent to the staff at Quine’s publishing house. Quine had more enemies than friends, it appears, and as Strike tries to move forward with the case, he is hindered at every turn by those adversaries, all of them fighting to prove their own innocence and question someone else’s.

Rowling’s real skill here is to be found in the way she sets her tale. She elicits a brilliant sense of the ingrained grime of Quine’s world, moving Strike through a succession of identical offices, apartments and posh Devonshire townhouses. Free of the need to distinguish one of those places from another, she can let her animosity toward nearly all of her characters filter through more clearly.

Although The Silkworm is no groundbreaker, it is certainly a solid literary effort, one that’s likely to leave fans hungry for a third Strike outing. ◊

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Way Too Much of a Good Thing

I began paying attention to the annual, altogether whimsical Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest back in 2009. Sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University, it’s named for George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), whose 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, began with the oft-ridiculed phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Ever since 1982, organizers have asked people to submit the worst opening sentences from never-to-be-completed books. This year’s contest featured categories ranging from Adventure, Crime and Children’s Literature to Historical Fiction and Purple Prose.

The 2014 grand prize winner was Elizabeth Dorfman of Bainbridge Island, Washington, who picks up the understandably pitiful sum of $150 for her groaner of an entry:
When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered--this had to mean land!--but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose.
Naturally, after such a start, I must highlight a few other category victors and runners-up. Here’s St. Petersburg, Florida, resident John Holmes’ first-place Historical Fiction entry:
In the late 1480’s, one of Henry VII’s spies in Milan picked up on what Columbus was up to, caught a gypsy caravan to Barcelona, a strawberry wagon to Lisbon, a crazy noble’s carriage to Marseilles, a worn stagecoach to Paris (which broke down), a hike to Calais, a rowboat to Southampton, arriving in London a year after Columbus landed in America, the imminent sailing for which the next year the spy, by now headless, had come to report.
Terri Meeker of Nixa, Missouri, claimed second-best honors for this submission in the Purple Prose category:
Cole kissed Anastasia, not in a lingering manner as a connoisseur might sip a glass of ’82 La Pin, but open-mouthed and desperate, like a hobo wrapping his mouth around a bottle of Strawberry Ripple in the alley behind the 7-11.
Winning this year in the Crime category was Carl Turney of Bayswater, Victoria, Australia. Here’s his submission:
Hard-boiled private dick Harrison Bogart couldn’t tell if it was the third big glass of cheap whiskey he’d just finished, or the way the rain-moistened blouse clung so tightly to the perfect figure of the dame who just appeared panting in his office doorway, but he was certain of one thing … he had the hottest mother-in-law in the world.
Suzy Levinson of Sunnyside, New York, took the top prize for Science Fiction with this deliberately peculiar entry:
The spaceship hovered like a saucer, only rounder, deeper, the product of an unholy union between dessert plate and finger bowl, as any of the villagers familiar with traditional service à la russe dining could plainly see.
And State College, Pennsylvania’s Stan Hunter Kranc captured the Grand Panjandrum’s Special Award for this excessive bit of writing:
As he girded himself against the noxious, sulfurous fumes that belched from the chasm in preparation for descent into the bowels of the mountain where mighty pressure and unimaginable heat made rock run in syrupy rivers, Bob paused to consider the unlikely series of events that had led him to become the Great God Vulcan’s proctologist.
Click here to read (or groan at) all of this year’s top contenders.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

From Behind Prison Walls

Since its completion in 2002, the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp--an American military prison located inside the older Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, on an island off the southeastern coast of Cuba--has reportedly received 779 male inmates. Hundreds of detainees have since been sent to other destinations. But not until now has a “Gitmo” inmate released a book about his experiences at that facility. As The Christian Science Monitor explains,
Canongate has just announced that it will publish “Guantánamo Diary,” the prison memoirs of Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the first Gitmo account to be released by a detainee still imprisoned at the camp.

“Guantanamo Diary” will be published simultaneously around the world on Jan. 20, 2015, as part of an international campaign to free Slahi, who has been held at the camp since 2002 despite never having been charged with a crime. Little, Brown has acquired the U.S. rights to the book, The Bookseller has reported.

The memoir details the harrowing conditions to which Slahi was subject, including beatings, sexual humiliation, and round-the-clock interrogation. Slate published an excerpt of the memoir last year.
The Monitor’s Husna Haq tells more here. And copies of Guantánamo Diary, edited by Larry Siems, can already be ordered here.


Saturday, August 09, 2014

From Retreat to Resignation

Thank goodness for Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, which reminds us that it was on August 9, 1854 -- 160 years ago today -- that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, his book of reflections upon living simply in natural surroundings, was first published. The Almanac explains:
Walden described two years in Thoreau’s life, during which he lived in a cabin by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, on land that belonged to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the spring of 1845, Thoreau borrowed an ax from Bronson Alcott and began clearing white pine for a space to build his home. The one-room cabin was 10 feet by 15 feet and cost $28 to build.

Thoreau never claimed that he would be a total recluse during those years; he wrote in
Walden: “I am naturally no hermit.” There were busy roads nearby, and he lived just a mile and a half outside of Concord. He went to town to see friends, do laundry at his parents’ house, or purchase supplies, and his friends often stopped by to see him -- Emerson of course, and Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts. …

People regularly asked Thoreau questions about the day-to-day details of his life at Walden: what he ate, whether he got lonely, how he made a living, and how much money he spent. In February of 1845, Thoreau agreed to give two lectures in Concord about his life at Walden, focused on his personal economics. By the time Thoreau left Walden Pond in 1847, he had compiled his journal entries and lectures into a rough draft of the book that would eventually become
Walden. He wrote: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
Today’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac also notes that it is the birthday of English author Izaak Walton (The Compleat Angler). And it was 40 years ago when Republican U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal and with impeachment proceedings against him set to commence in the House of Representatives, became the first and only American chief executive to resign the office. You can watch his announcement of that decision by clicking here.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The Peripatetic Detective

For once, it seems, I am perfectly positioned to appreciate an itinerant display of particular interest to crime-fiction aficionados. As the Mystery Scene blog explains, the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes, which debuted at the Oregon Museum of Science and Technology in Portland last year, and is traveling through 2017, will make a stop in my hometown of Seattle about 26 months from now. The schedule shows it opening at the Pacific Science Center on October 13, 2016. Do you think it’s too early yet to buy tickets?

An article published back in March of this year in The New York Times defined the scope of this presentation: “From original manuscript pages from ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ to props from the current BBC hit ‘Sherlock,’ the exhibition aims to engage all levels of enthusiasts. Galleries feature an examination of [Holmes creator Arthur] Conan Doyle and late 19th-century London, the science behind the Holmes stories, and pop culture artifacts, past and present. There is also an immersive interactive Victorian-era murder mystery that visitors are asked to solve, clue by clue, after an introduction to Holmes’s scientific methods of crime-solving.”

The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes is currently situated at Columbus, Ohio’s Center of Science and Industry through September 1. After that, it will relocate to the following locations:

• October 9, 2014: St. Louis Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri
• February 12, 2015: Perot Museum of Nature & Science,
Dallas, Texas
• June 11, 2015: Discovery Science Center, Santa Ana, California
• October 15, 2015: Denver Museum of Nature & Science,
Denver, Colorado
• October 13, 2016: Pacific Science Center, Seattle, Washington

Additional stops may be added at a later date.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

My TV Book Addiction

(Editor’s note: Perhaps not surprisingly, author-screenwriter Lee Goldberg -- who’s concocted scripts for such TV series as Diagnosis: Murder, Spenser: For Hire and Monk, and penned more than a dozen Monk TV tie-in novels -- is a big fan of television history books. In the piece below, he assesses the strengths [and often multiple weaknesses] of several entries in that specialized genre. He wants it known that he purchased all of these books. They were not provided to him for review.)

I have an addiction -- I love books about television, even if they are about shows I don’t like or have never watched. I buy them on the off-chance I will learn something about the business, or about production, or about writing that I didn’t know before. I especially like books about old TV shows, because then I also learn something about television history. I’m telling you all of this so you’ll understand what possessed me to buy Jonathan Etter’s 640-page book devoted to Here Come the Brides, a boring, utterly forgettable Western series that lasted a mere two seasons in the late 1960s and is known, if at all, for a catchy theme song (“Seattle”) and for featuring Bobby Sherman and David Soul among its cast.

I don’t care about the show -- the few episodes I’ve seen were lousy -- but I really liked Etter’s Gangway, Lord: The Here Come the Brides Book: A Behind-the-Scenes History of the 1968-70 ABC-TV Series from those crazy folks at BearManor Media (they’ve got to be crazy to publish books like this … but I love them for it). So why did I like the book if I could care less about the show? Because it’s packed with fascinating information about other shows. For instance, William Blinn, the creator of Here Come the Brides, spends a lot of time here talking about writing the TV series Bonanza and Shane, and that’s great stuff. And Brides star Robert Brown talks about almost starring in Hawaii Five-O, and his work on the unsold pilots The Yellow Bird, with Carroll O’Connor, and Colossus, with William Shatner, among others. So it’s for those golden nuggets that I was willing to slog through seemingly endless, pointless chapters about actress Bridget Hanley (who?) and her marriage to director E.W. Swackhamer, or the tragic details of Mark Lenard’s multiple melanoma that took his life long after the series was over. This book desperately needed a good editor, but I’m glad it didn’t have one, because it’s the stuff that had nothing to do with the show -- the stuff that should have been cut -- that I liked best. If you are one of the dozen living fans of Here Come the Brides, you will absolutely love this book. Every episode is examined in-depth and every regular and guest cast member, and almost every crew member, with the possible exception of the caterer, is interviewed about his or her life and career.

Here’s the irony, though, of my liking a book so much about a show that I could care less about: I bought David R. Greenland’s The Gunsmoke Chronicles: A New History of Television’s Greatest Western, also from BearManor Media, because I love Gunsmoke (1955-1975), and yet I got nothing out of it at all. It’s a pointless book, a bland rehash of material presented better, and in more depth, by other books about the show. Oddly enough, Greenland acknowledges that fact in his preface: “By 2006, three books about the show had reached the marketplace, and even I conceded that the world did not need another.” Yet, he wrote one anyway, and shouldn’t have bothered, because he adds nothing new or particularly interesting to our understanding of the series. It’s filler masquerading as content. Unlike the Here Come the Brides book, there’s no gold here about other shows to make it a worthwhile purchase. Skip it.

Martin Grams Jr.’s The Time Tunnel: A History of the Television Series (BearManor) is much like the book on Here Come the Brides. It’s a massive work (nearly 600 pages in length) about a TV failure (The Time Tunnel lasted a single season, from 1966 to 1967) that’s packed with lots of interesting information … about director-producer Irwin Allen and his other shows and about the TV landscape of the late 1960s. Everything you could possibly want to know about Time Tunnel is here, from the original pitch to information on all of Allen’s attempts to do another time-travel series after it was cancelled; from the number of pages shot on a particular day to the cost of individual props; from the notes written by ABC-TV censors on each script to lists of the stock music cues in each episode; from exhaustively detailed synopses of each broadcast episode to detailed descriptions of the episodes that weren’t shot. There’s almost too much stuff. It’s as if Grams decided he had to put every single fact that came across his desk into this book just because he had them. The upside is that there’s something for everybody here, whether your interest is in TV production accounting or screenwriting. The downside is that it makes for tedious reading, even if you are really into the show or into TV history.

As I said, I love BearManor Media; it, and to a lesser degree, McFarland & Co., are my pimps. BearMedia publishes TV books that no right-minded publisher would ever touch. Who else would release books about the Western Temple Houston or the sitcom Good Morning, World, two shows that barely survived for a single season each back in the 1960s (and that I’ve never even seen)? You could probably fit all the potential readers of these last two books comfortably in a motor home for a dinner party.

Jeffrey Hunter and Temple Houston: A Story of Network Television, by Glenn A. Mosley, is a mess of a book (though it’s much better than his volume about the TV series The Deputy). As the title suggests, this work isn’t quite sure what it’s about. Is it about actor Jeffrey Hunter? Is it about Temple Houston (1963-1964)? Or is it about network television? Basically, it’s three lengthy magazine articles -- one on the very short-lived Temple Houston, one on the aborted Robert Taylor Show and one on Jeffrey Hunter’s disappointing career, all of them stitched together into a thin, and yet very padded, book. Still, the stories of Temple Houston and the never-aired Robert Taylor Show are fascinating, and with a cover price of just $14.95, this book is well worth the time for any student of TV history to read.

The more apt title for this book might have been A Perfect Storm of Bad Decisions. It recounts how Warner Bros. chose to replace the president of its TV division with actor-director Jack Webb, how NBC decided to cancel the drama The Robert Taylor Show four episodes into production without ever airing an episode, and how the network’s determination to rush Warner Bros./Four Star’s Temple Houston into production to fill the void, doomed them all. Mosley sums it up in his introduction.
In making the decision in the manner that it did, NBC effectively sealed the fate of two television franchises. The Robert Taylor Show would never see the light of day and, in the end, Temple Houston hardly stood a chance. NBC, Warner Brothers, and even Four Star would all end up in weaker positions as a result … Temple Houston has most often been dismissed as simply a failed, one-season Western on television. Fair enough -- so it was. But the story of Temple Houston is more than that; it is also the story of the intersection points between careers, Hollywood Studios, and network television.
And it’s a great untold story, one full of mistakes that neither NBC nor Warner Bros., or any other network or studios for that matter, learned from … and so were doomed to repeat many times over. There’s a lot of filler in this 154-page work, but on the strength of the Temple Houston and Robert Taylor Show stories alone, I recommend it for your TV reference book library.

Sadly, I can’t be as complimentary of Good Morning, World (BearMedia), by Tim Colliver, who wrote this very thin, heavily padded book because the short-lived, 1967-1968 CBS sitcom about a radio station inspired him to become a DJ. The problem is, that show just wasn’t very good and there wasn’t anything remotely interesting about it on any other level. As both Joby Baker, the long-forgotten star of the series, and the author of the book put it:
[Baker] also thought the scripts could have been better … a lot better.

“The reason I had trouble memorizing the lines is that they were horrible fucking lines.” … Throughout the course of the series, Baker thought the scripts were “corny” and the show “not really funny at times.” In all fairness, in looking back on the episodes now that they are on DVD, he was on to something.
Which begs the question, why write a book about a lousy show? Or better yet, why read one? My answer to both questions is: don’t. ◊

(This review has been edited from a two-part post that appeared originally in Lee Goldberg’s blog -- part I here, part II here.)

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Monday, August 04, 2014

Going to Extremes

Having long been intrigued by historical arctic adventure tales, I listened enthusiastically this last Saturday as National Public Radio host Scott Simon interviewed Hampton Sides, author of the new non-fiction work In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (Doubleday). Sides, who was previously best known for his epic tale of the Old West, Blood and Thunder (2007), spent three years researching and writing In the Kingdom of Ice, which tells of a hopeful but doomed, 1879 expedition to the North Pole, financed by loopy newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett and led by Jeannette Captain George Washington De Long.

Earlier today, the Amazon blog Omnivoracious hosted another interview with Sides. Two parts of that exchange between Chris Schluep and the author convinced me this book must soon be added to my library.
CS: Describe your research. Was there a key piece that made you think "now I know how to frame this book"?

HS: In the early going of my research, I lucked into one of those priceless situations that I think all of us historians dream about: An invitation from a little old lady to come sift through a trunk full of yellowed letters that she had literally rescued from her attic. In this case, the trunk contained the personal papers of Emma De Long, the wife of the
Jeannette expedition’s captain, George De Long. Once I read the stuff, I knew that I’d found a powerful new way to frame the book: It was not just an adventure tale, but a love story as well. Emma De Long’s letters to her husband, and his letters to her, are elegant, eloquent, and moving, and as the drama unfolds, they become truly heart-wrenching. Really, that trunk full of papers formed the emotional spine of the book. …

CS: Did your work on the book lead you to draw any conclusions about climate change?

HS: Yes. One of the big problems that climate change researchers have grappled with is finding a way to know what the polar ice cap truly looked like a century ago in order to compare it with today’s Arctic ice conditions. To understand that, you’d have to go back in history, build a research station, and dangerously trap it in the drifting icepack for years.

As it happens, the
Jeannette kept meticulous records of the ice as it drifted two years, and a thousand miles, across the frozen sea. After the ship sank, De Long’s men lugged dozens of heavy meteorological logbooks containing troves of information about the icecap and Arctic weather -- the hard-won product of their daily labors for two years. When they reached Siberia’s shores four months later, De Long buried those logbooks in the sand, and miraculously, they were later found by Navy rescuers, eventually ending up in the National Archives in Washington, where they’ve gathered dust for 135 years. Over the past year, however, NOAA scientists have digitized those logbooks, and have been analyzing De Long’s data. The story they tell is a sobering one: The polar ice cap, at least in that 1,000-mile swath of the High Arctic, has shrunk, weakened, and thinned far more dramatically than anyone realized.
You can enjoy reading Omnivoracious’ entire interview here.