Tuesday, April 22, 2008

SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE, by Nora Ephron


I found this book on the street, with a pile of other books that must have been sitting in someone's house since before I was born. The edges of the pages have turned brown with age, and the browning-effect is so strong on the inside of the front cover that it almost looks as if the book was smoked over a fire. Reading it was like looking through a window into the 70s, which made the book both interesting and boring at the same time.

SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE collects the columns Ephron wrote for Esquire from 1975 to 1977. Her subject was the media, especially print journalism, and it's interesting to have an insider's account from those years, when the newness of New Journalism was starting to wear off. New Journalism, which started in the 60s and mostly died out by the end of the 70s, was characterized by the use of several fiction techniques (such as: including dialog instead of summarizing conversations to simple quotes; and writing from the first person, so the journalist becomes a character in the article) in the realm of nonfiction. The column that ends the book, which was also the last column she wrote during that stint at Esquire, describes Ephron's growing boredom with that style of journalism. This boredom is apparent in several of the columns leading up to her last entry, which makes the last third of the book a drag. But the two thirds of the book preceding it have some entertaining moments. Ephron can be very clever when she wants to be.

One of the interesting things about this book is how true it is to the tone of Esquire today. In the 30 years since this book came out Esquire has drifted a little toward the shallow titillation and crass commercialism so ubiquitous in today's magazines, but not as much as you might expect. Ephron's witty wordiness, her gentle sarcasm, and her ability to point out the illogical and incompetent might have a little less edge than the writing you see in current Esquire, but she's not far off.

A great example of how cutting she can be comes in her column on Brendan Gill, a writer for the New Yorker. She excoriates him thoroughly, makes him look like a dandy nincompoop. She also has a hard hand for Dorothy Schiff, past owner of the New York Post, and a whole host of other characters. In fact, it's much more likely to read Ephron trashing a fellow writer, and doing it in an intellectual and clever way, than it is to see her celebrating someone (though she does a little of that too).

Another interesting thing about this book is how it describes the beginnings of certain phenomena that have come to dominate journalism of today. A great example of this is Ephron's column describing the birth of People magazine, a magazine that became the vanguard for the only real money-making magazines still around: Celebrity Gossip rags. Nora saw the future clearly on that one, which is too bad for all of us around today.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

TERROR TOWN, by Stuart M. Kaminsky


I figured I'd stick with the Detective-Novel genre after finishing THE BLACK ECHO, so I picked this book off the pile. I was having a great time with the first 80 pages of it, too, largely because of its distinctions from Connelly's story. Where Bosch is bleak and distancing, Abe Lieberman is droll and approachable. He cracks jokes, even with suspects, but still handles things with competence and courage. He's not afraid to pistol-whip a perp if the situation demands it. And the tone of Kaminsky's Chicago is decidedly lighter than Connelly's bleak view of L.A. There is still crime and fear, and moments of shocking violence, in Lieberman's world, but these things do not dominate the lives of the characters. If anything, the characters' resilience, the fact that they continue with their lives despite the occasional rough patches, seems to typify the Kaminsky tone. It's nice to see a novel that can handle murder and extortion while maintaining a levity that doesn't slight the murder and extortion.

So for the first 80 pages, I was having fun with this book. And the fun of those first 80 carried me through to the middle before I started getting frustrated. After the middle, the fun's momentum started fading away. By the end, I was pretty fed up.

The problem arises from two of the things that make this book different from THE BLACK ECHO. The first difference relates to the character distinctions, specifically Bosch's lone-wolf approach compared to Lieberman's existence within a community. The second difference relates to THE BLACK ECHO's status as first of a series, while TERROR TOWN is the 9th of the Lieberman novels. Neither of these differences are directly responsible for the shortcomings of TERROR TOWN, but those shortcomings do develop directly from the way these differences are handled.

First of all, let's look at the problems arising from the community of characters in Lieberman's world. Besides Lieberman we've got his wife and grandchildren and daughter and brother and brother's wife--even the customer's who frequent Lieberman's brother's diner get page time. Then we've also got Lieberman's partner, Hanrahan, and Hanrahan's wife. Then there's another detective: Little Duke DuPree. Thrown in with these folks are more Police Officers, lawyers, informants, plus members of the underworld that the detectives associate with, even the criminals themselves. All of these characters have things that happen to them, stories that develop, a turn on the stage. It's way too much for a 240 page novel. It leads the author into artless text focused on filling the reader in on past stories. It's confusing and disjointed and it compels Kaminsky to make each story so simple and short that none of them have the chance to develop into anything really interesting.

The other problem actually relates to this one, too. This book is the ninth in a series, and it reads more like an episode in a larger work than a story that stands on its own. A lot of what happens in TERROR TOWN focuses on developing the individual characters' stories, instead of exploring a crime. Three crimes (one for Lieberman, one for Hanrahan, and one for DuPree) are actually used as three pivots to wind those family stories around, but none of the crimes actually connect with the others, and we also get a lot of family info that doesn't have anything to do with the crimes themselves. So there isn't any central plot to this book. It's more like an episode in a soap opera than a crime novel.

And if these basic flaws weren't enough to frustrate me, the cases themselves come to outrageous, infuriating, utterly moronic "twist" endings. Two things presented as fact throughout the novel are later revealed as untrue, though the reader is given scant evidence to foreshadow this. I felt like pitching the book in the shredder straight off once I finished it.

(I'm tempted to talk about the similarities between Connelly's Vietnam Vet angle and Kaminsky's focus on ethnicities, the way each author uses these flavors to spice the plot, because I thought the similarities were interesting. But the truth is I've had enough of TERROR TOWN, and I don't want to spend any more time with it.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No Books For Peasants


Schwarzenegger's current proposal for the California budget cuts $380 million out of the California State University system. The University I work at is responding by reducing the number of admitted freshman by 300 next year. This culling of the herd is being enacted by moving deadlines forward, and eliminating those students who don't meet the earlier deadlines. That means that a lot of students who've done everything according to the rules will be out of luck because the rules have changed. I've already been dealing with some of the parents of those 300 kids that won't get admitted, and they've got no idea what they're in for. Imagine pinning your hopes on a school, planning the next 4+ years of your life around it, and jumping through all the hoops of the application process, only to find out at the last minute that your application has been denied. In California today, where college is considered essential to the attainment of a decent life, and where no alternatives to college are mentioned, those 300 students are absolutely fucked.

The irony of this is that Schwarzenegger won re-election by a landslide. I'm guessing that a lot of the parents of those 300 students voted for Arnold. And now Arnold is screwing them.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

THE BLACK ECHO, by Michael Connelly


I know a plumber who loves taking long baths and reading. He sits in the tub for an hour at a time, nearly every night, burning through paperbacks and cigarettes. This guy reads a lot of crime writing, especially nonfiction histories of the IRA (he's an Irishman himself, from a troubled town in the North), but he also loves Michael Connelly. I'd never read Connelly, but my friend has every book that Connelly's ever written, so I figured I'd give it a try. I started with this book because it's Connelly's first, and because it also introduces Connelly's principle protagonist: Harry Bosch.

Harry Bosch is a burned-out police detective in Hollywood. He's also a Vietnam War veteran who served as a tunnel rat during that conflict. The story touches on the Vietnam War heavily, especially in the ways it affected the American troops who served there. I've seen enough Vietnam War movies that I almost started feeling false nostalgia while reading this book, so this angle definitely brought a lot of interest into the story for me.

It's a pretty long story, too. The version I borrowed comes to just under 500 pages, which is pretty ambitious for a first novel. Connelly holds it together for the length of the story, keeps the action marching, though it does slog through some mud in the middle. It also bends into a few ridiculous contortions, especially in regards to Bosch's love interest, and it stretches believability for the sake of swashbuckling. Bosch drops down into the tunnels unsupported at the end of the book, which the reader is obligated to go along with for the sake of fun rather than for the sake of realism or rationality.

In its style and its twisting plot, the book reveals a certain admiration for Raymond Chandler. Connelly even includes an oblique reference to the conclusion of Chandler's "The Big Sleep," with its musing over the mercy of death. But Connelly differs from Chandler in a few important ways. For one, he doesn't match Chandler's eloquence. For another, his world is bleaker, and Bosch is rougher around the edges than Philip Marlowe ever seemed to be. While Marlowe seemed world-weary but wise, Bosch teeters on the brink of despair, and he drifts through the events in a way that reflects an inadequate world more than it exposes Bosch's own exceptional competence.

All in all, it was a good read. I'll probably visit Bosch again sometime soon, especially because of my friend's comprehensive collection. But the truth is, this book's echos of Chandler made me feel like returning to that author's work, and following Philip Marlowe through his paces, before I come back to Bosch.