Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April is the cruelest month: The most depressing books I have ever read

Now playing on the iPod - "Main Title (Sorcerer)" - Tangerine Dream

“April is the cruelest month” begins T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece “The Waste Land.” I don’t agree, myself. I always find January, with its post-holiday letdown, to be the most depressing month. September isn’t much better with its blazing weather lingering long after summer has worn out its welcome. But Eliot is my favorite poet and until I can write something as good as “The Waste Land” or “Ash Wednesday” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or “Marina” I’ll defer to him.

In honor of the cruelest month I offer the most depressing books I’ve read. And they are all, in their own ways, good books. They aren’t depressing in the “trees died for this” way but in the bleak, brutal beauty of their stories and the empathy they generate for their characters.

1984 by George Orwell

Probably the grand-daddy of excellent-but-depressing books. These days Brave New World is more relevant to our society, but at least in that dystopia most of its inhabitants are having what they think is fun, at times. But 1984’s world is a grim, shabby place where even the Inner Party members lead lives devoid of much in the way of comfort or sensual enjoyment. Combine that with the ruthless efficiency of the brainwashing and the inevitable betrayal and renouncing of humanity, and you’ve got one downer of a book.

The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Wangerin’s sequel to his popular Christian fable The Book of the Dun Cow is an example of truth in advertising: its very title tells you this is a book brimming with sadness. Mind you, The Book of the Dun Cow wasn’t exactly a rollicking fun time: Rooster Chanticleer and the animals he’s lord of must fight for their lives (and their souls) against a demonic half rooster/half snake beast called Cockatrice and his horde of poisonous snakes; the battle is won by the self-sacrifice of humble dog Mundo Cani. The Book of Sorrows takes up shortly after the battle has been won, but implies the war may be nearly lost. The losses of the battle, particularly of Mundo Cani, weigh heavily on Chanticleer as he descends into depression and paranoia. As a brutal winter takes its toll on the remaining animals, the characters who triumphed over external enemies start to succumb to those within, facing starvation, infertility, suicide, the semi-accidental killing of a mother and child, and more. It’s a beautiful book, though, with marvelous characterization and effective use of both Christian and pagan stories and myths. But very hard going at times.

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kozinski

Kozinski’s 1965 novel is somewhat overshadowed by its author’s personality and by his claims about the book’s inspiration (once described as largely autobiographical, it was later revealed to be not so autobiographical after all). But despite that and some occasionally clumsy writing/translation, it’s a stark, grim novel that’s more frightening in its depiction of the depths humans can sink to than many horror genre novels. The story follows a nameless child in World War 2 Poland, sent to the country by his parents to escape persecution (it’s implied he’s Jewish, though he’s at times assumed to be a gypsy). When his guardian dies he’s left to wander alone in a countryside that’s populated more or less exclusively by ignorant, savage peasants. Halfway through the book (right after he’s tossed into a cesspool to drown after he accidentally drops a Bible during Mass) he’s so traumatized he’s unable to speak. It ends on a (not entirely convincing) happy note, but the horrors witnessed by the child linger in the reader’s mind, as does the suspicion that this kid is going to end up as one seriously messed-up adult.

The Bridge by John Skipp and Craig Spector

What do you get when you combine no-holds-barred splatterpunk with apocalyptic environmental horror? You get The Bridge. The titular bridge is in a small town called Paradise, and is the favorite dumping ground of the local polluter. At least until the toxic waste becomes this sentient, unstoppable force that mutates everything it contacts, inhabits the minds of every living thing, and takes over the world in a matter of days. What makes the book frightening is that the toxic force doesn’t kill – everything from plants to people just becomes an extension of the force, trapped forever in a kind of living death. What makes the book so depressing is the inevitable doom for everyone, including some very likable people.

The Brave by Gregory McDonald

Fans of McDonald’s lighthearted Fletch series definitely had to reach for the Xanax after reading his 1991 effort The Brave. Young Rafael lives with his family and some other lost souls in a shantytown community in the Southwest. There are no jobs, no government assistance, no money, and almost no food. The primarily Native American populace’s life consists of foraging in the nearby dump for food and for other goods they use to survive. Alcoholism is rampant, even among children, and if the people aren’t shot by the dump’s armed guards they die quickly in accidents or lingeringly from untreated cirrhosis or cancer. So when Rafael is given an offer of $30,000 to be tortured and murdered on camera for a snuff film, he agrees – to give his family and friends the means to escape the shantytown, and to have the chance at a quick (if agonizing) death instead of his miserable existence. And his sacrifice will help his family and friends, because the sort of people who make snuff films would never go back on their promise to give his widow thousands of dollars, and they’d never use a phony contract to bamboozle a na├»ve, illiterate young man. Would they? The Brave is a very good book but bleak doesn’t begin to describe it – it’s for those who thought Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle just wasn’t grim enough.

Now, I can hear rumblings from the peanut gallery – people asking why on earth I read these in the first place. Well, I don’t really have an answer for that. I’ll blame some of my early reading, particularly Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, a children’s book that’s grim, almost existential fare. And those Choose Your Own Adventure books – no matter what I did, I always got the “and you were never heard from again” endings. Just lucky, I guess.

Of course, not every bleak book works – there has to be a point to the bleakness, and the characters have to be people you care about. When that doesn't happen, bleakness becomes misery porn. But that’s a topic for a future post.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: American Psycho

My review of Bret Easton Ellis notorious novel American Psycho is up at Horrorview. com. Enjoy.

Fun at the Festival of Books!

Now playing on the iPod - "Questions in a World of Blue" - Julee Cruise

Every April I look forward to the L. A. Times Festival of Books. Held at the UCLA campus, it's a full weekend of devotion to all things bookish. This year's Festival was particularly dandy for me, as I got to meet one of my favorite artists.

Started off the day by getting to UCLA campus half an hour before the Festival opened. We were blessed with pleasant weather, which was welcome (2008's event had some truly hideous heat). I spent the morning shopping (and learned the hard way that books are heavy, especially when you lug them around UCLA's hilly campus). Took a break for lunch (which I'd acquired earlier from Noah's New York Bagels, so I didn't have to spend precious time waiting in line at the Festival's food court), and then headed over to the Book Soup booth to get a book signed by David Lynch.

I hadn't known until the night before the Festival that Lynch would be there; I only learned by checking his Twitter (I'm guilty of following a few Twitters, sue me). He was scheduled to be at the Book Soup booth at 2 to sign his book Catching the Big Fish (which I've discussed elsewhere in this blog) and one other item. So I was there with Catching the Big Fish and my DVD of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (underrated movie that doesn't get nearly enough love from Lynch fans). I actually showed up at 1, wanting to be on the safe side. I wasn't the only one with this idea and soon a line had been set up for the Lynch signing. (I can't help wondering if T. C. Boyle, who had the 1 p.m. signing slot, was miffed at seeing all those people line up for someone else.)

I waited patiently, and about 1:40 happened to glance to my right, where I saw a familiar figure. Average height, wearing baggy brown pants, a white shirt buttoned up to the neck, a black jacket, and shades. Gray mad scientist hair. The one and only David Lynch, a man I've been a fan of since I saw The Elephant Man in theaters (I must have been 12 or so).

Lynch took his seat at 1:45, and he signed my book and DVD. It was one of those quick signings where there's no time for conversation (he was only scheduled to go til 2:30 and the line was LONG). But I didn't mind. I got to shake his hand and thank him for his work. If the day had ended then, I'd have been quite satisfied.

But there was more fun to come. I met up with my friend Karen to chat and compare our loot. Then I headed over to catch the 3:30 panel with James Ellroy, moderated by Joseph Wambaugh. In line I met up with my Readerville/BookBalloon friend Lynn, and I sat with her for the panel. Mr. Ellroy was his usual delightfully profane self, and he and Wambaugh had excellent repartee. Afterward I got books signed by Ellroy for myself, and for my friends Gerry and A.J. Only disappointment was that unlike last year, Ellroy did not compliment me on my hat. :(

Then, more shopping until it was time to go home!

And what did I buy during all this shopping? Glad you asked.

Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics by Grant Geissman
Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion
Junky by William S. Burroughs
The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler
Night Walker by Donald Hamilton
Push by Sapphire

I also bought books for my husband and my son. Also coming home with me were some non-book items, including some of David Lynch's signature coffee beans (which come in this seriously awesome tin), a purple pen for signings of self-published works, and some other bits of book-related gear.

All in all, a splendid day!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Watch this now: Final scene from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

It's the 20th anniversary of the TV show Twin Peaks - was it all really that long ago? Tempus fugit!

So in honor of the show and of its underrated movie Fire Walk With Me, here's the final scene of Fire Walk With Me, combining David Lynch's imagery and one of his best moments of transcendence, Angelo Badalamenti's score, and Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer. Enjoy "The Voice of Love".

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Writing craft: What a difference a decade makes

Now playing on the iPod - "Mauna Kea" - King Benny Nawahi

I just finished a book. For the second time.

Back in 2000 I completed a manuscript, then titled The Place of Solitude (title taken from T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday"). I was very proud of it. All writers should be proud of their first completed novel. Many people talk about writing a novel. Fewer start. Even fewer finish. That first book took years - many of those years I spent writing and rewriting selected scenes over and over again. Then about the time I was close to thirty, I realized the time had come to finish the damn thing. By hook or by crook.

I did, and I was proud of it, and I even tried to sell it. With no luck. Because there's a reason most first novels don't sell. They are first novels, and they have two major problems:

  1. You're still learning your craft as a writer. You can read all the "how to write" books you want to; some of them are helpful. You must read a lot, and absorb the lessons you learn; you need to not only recognize good writing, but bad writing as well so you can avoid the pitfalls. But most of all you have to learn the craft by doing writing, and lots of it.
  2. You may well be young in terms of life experience as well. This isn't a "write what you know" thing. But as you get older you learn more about the human condition, and ideally what you learn should inform your characters - how they behave, the dynamics of their relationships, and so on.

As time went on I wrote more and read more, and realized that the book I'd spent years on had many flaws. At the same time there was a lot of good in it as well. The characters, in particular. And a setting that has become part of my imaginary world (like Stephen King's Castle Rock, only a much nicer place!). There were also themes that I felt were important but couldn't at the time articulate to my satisfaction.

I let the book sit in the drawer and went on to write more. And read more. And learn a bit more about life. And from time to time I thought that one day I'd revisit that book and give it a do-over.

If I'm able to complete a book (and not all my ideas pan out - I've a few nonstarters in my desk drawer), most of the time when I'm done I feel satisfaction, and a sense of closure. I'm able to move on from it. There may be small things I'd go back and change, given the opportunity, but for the most part, when I'm done, that's it. I'll think about the story, but not in an "I wish I'd done that differently" way. More like replaying my favorite scenes in my head, to entertain myself.

But that never happened with The Place of Solitude. I'd re-read it and there'd be chunks I skipped over because they seemed amateurish or boring. There were parts that didn't ring true. There were gobs of exposition at the beginning because I didn't know how to tell the story more efficiently. What it did have, though, was a certain amount of sincerity and compelling characters. And the characters were what eventually saved the story. I liked them (and felt sorry for them after what I put them through). I decided after a while that I'd rewrite it one day - for me, so I could get things as right as I could this time; and in a way for my characters as well, so I could do right by them. They deserved better than I was able to give them the first time.

"One day" arrived last year when I finished my mystery Undertow. That book takes place in the same imaginary town as The Place of Solitude, and some of Solitude's characters made cameo appearances in Undertow - it got me inspired.

I decided to go ahead and instead of revising, just rewrite the whole thing from scratch. That was the best decision I could have made, for it made me change things I otherwise might not have, and I feel fairly confident those changes improve the book.

The basic story arc and character setup remain the same in the later version, but many other things changed. Some characters' roles expanded, others' were diminished, and a whole slew of secondary characters emerged. Background was no longer served up in unwieldy chunks, and the narrative drive was greatly improved. The timeline of the story was rearranged, and the beginning interaction of some characters, which had never satisfied me before, worked much better. The book got a new title as well: The Day After Yesterday. *

I miss a few things about the old version, primarily some of the dialogue that ended up getting cut. But I feel that sense of closure I never did with the earlier version. I've no plans to publish it (it's mainstream and I have no desire to write more mainstream books - any ideas would just be rehashes of this book). But dialogue can always be used in different books. I'm satisfied with the book now. And ready to move on to another, which is how it should be.

If it sounds like work - it was. A full year of it. But it was one of my more enjoyable writing experiences, not least because I was able to see how much I'd improved as a writer over the decade. That was something I didn't expect to discover, and it was very rewarding.

I'd be remiss if I didn't thank William Peter Blatty - he rewrote his early comedic novel Twinkle Twinkle "Killer" Kane into the much more mature work The Ninth Configuration. His was the example I kept in mind when I decided to rewrite my book.

And I'd like to thank my constant readers. And silly as it may sound, I'd like to thank the characters. I did it in part for them and I'm glad we had this time together.

*This new title, suggested by my friend Erik, is the name Paul Giamatti's character gave his manuscript in the movie Sideways. At least mine doesn't take up two manuscript boxes...

Review: Gymkata

Now playing on the iPod - "King" - Belly

1970s kitsch meets 1980s cheese in the craptastic "let's turn a gymnast into an action star" movie Gymkata. Remember, I watch bad movies so you don't have to.

Why yes, I *would* like to go to the show, Mr. Waters

Roger Waters is putting on a tour of The Wall this year. He'll be here in Southern CA in November and December.

I was too young to see Pink Floyd's original performances of The Wall (1980 - how long ago that seems) so you can imagine I'm looking forward to this - something I never thought I'd see and will never get the chance to see again, most likely.

The Wall was the first Pink Floyd album I ever owned. I got it for my 12th birthday. And while I'm not as enamored of it as I used to be (mostly because I'm no longer an adolescent and have gotten out of my "nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I'll go eat worms" phase), it's still an album that holds a very special place in my heart. (And it's still my go-to album to play when I'm pissed off.)

Moreover, a live performance represents the pinnacle of rock-music-as-theater. And now, God willing, I'll finally get to see it.*

Cannot wait!

*Provided Roger doesn't bail on me the way some of my idols did last year. Ennio Morricone and Nathan Fillion, I'm looking at both of you.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Watch this now: One of the only cool moments from Maximum Overdrive

Now playing on the iPod: "The Air That I Breathe" - k. d. lang

I'm a huge Stephen King fan, but I'll be the first to admit that Maximum Overdrive, the movie he wrote and directed, has — oh, how shall I put it? — certain flaws.

The first 15 minutes or so are great, though, and include the best of King's cameo appearances (Creepshow doesn't count as it was more than a cameo). Watch Steve's encounter with an ATM.