Monday, August 18, 2014

The Free Bin: Cliffhangers, Notebook Hacks, and the Worst Possible Opening Lines

It’s been a busy week at Book Dirt HQ. If you don’t believe it, check out Film Dirt, the new sister blog to this one, which will feature research and stories related to lost films (the subject of the book at which I’ve been hammering away). Posts will still be aplenty here, such as last week’s posts on a rediscovered pulp novel how-to, and an analysis of the latest reason people are freaking out about a book cover. 

If you have a few more moments, have a cup of coffee and scrounge around in the Free Bin, where I've collected some of the best links I've found of late.

A Hamlet caricature, possibly by George Cruikshank. One of the thousands of images recently uploaded by the Folger Library.

  • The Folger Shakespeare Library (whose exhibit hall is always worth a visit in DC—they constantly rotate the displays) has released over 80,000 images into the digital commons. The collection includes not only Shakespearean material, but plenty of images related to history, art, and everyday life in the Renaissance.

  • The results of the 2014 Bulwer Lytton contest are in, and there are plenty of laughs among the winners, each of whom have outdone themselves in crafting the worst possible opening sentence. Some of the runner-ups are as good (or better) than the top picks, depending on your sense of humor. Example: "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."

  • The Interesting Adventures Of A Hackney Coach, (As Related By The Coachman). How It Happened That I Was Born. Nubilia In Search Of A Husband.The Three Perils Of Man, Or, War, Women, And Witchcraft. —Just a few of the fun titles on a list of 18th century novels compiled by The Toast. 

  • If you're a note-taker like I am (I'm never without one of my Moleskines), you might appreciate this notebook hack. It's a clever way to quickly find what you're looking for in a jumble of scrawled text. 

  • The New Yorker has a fantastic piece on the history of the cliffhanger, from Dickens to Mad Men, with stops along the way including Twin Peaks and the Perils of Pauline. Most exciting of all, though, is ... [tune in next week].


Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Review: Pulp Fiction by Robert Turner

This week’s forgotten book was almost truly forgotten. The fragile pamphlet on crumbling pulp stock was found in an old bookstore, rescued from obscurity, and is now available (for cheap) as an e-book. The pulp fiction how-to first came to my attention as one of blogger Randy Johnson’s entries into the Friday’s Forgotten Books event, and now it’s one of mine. After reading Pulp Fiction, I believe it deserves even more attention, especially from those interested in the age of pulps, whether as readers, writers, or both. 

Click to order Pulp Fiction—a penny cheaper than when it was published.

Robert Turner was a prolific writer for the pulps in the ‘40s and ‘50s, turning out stories for a list of magazines as long as your arm: Manhunt, Dime Detective, Thrilling Detective, Crack Detective and Detective Tales, for starters. He also wrote for dozens of romance and western pulp titles, comic books, and later, for slick publications like Playboy. He produced some stand-alone novels under his own name, and ghost-wrote some action series titles like those in the Shaft and Mafia series. Turner also worked as a Tv screenwriter, most notably for Mike Hammer.

The bottom line is, this guy could write. And he did. A lot. He was a real, working writer who produced more stuff in the ‘50s alone than a lot of writers will produce in their entire lifetimes. It stands to reason that he’s got a few things to say about the writing biz. He gives an insider’s view of the pulps that’s entertaining, readable, and surprisingly relevant to modern writers. The pulps may be gone, but the world could still use compelling writing. Turner also worked as an editor for a few titles, and his insight into the pulp slush pile is a nifty look into history.

Perhaps the best thing about Pulp Fiction is that Turner dispenses all of his writing advice with humor, style, and a lot of action. It’s easy to get a sense of why he could write a good story. I started off highlighting interesting lines as I went along, and ultimately abandoned the idea—because almost every line was interesting.

I’m sure you’ll find plenty of favorites of your own, but here are some of my favorite examples of Turner’s advice (and often: wit).

On technique:

“So I say, right here and now, phooey to technique, as such. Too much importance has been attached to the bare mechanics of story structure and not enough to injecting life and blood into a yarn and making it pure and simple entertainment.

On characterization:

“You don’t need a lot of fancy pyrotechnics to attract the editor’s attention to your characters. They don’t have to jump and stomp around, or blow bubble gum. Just make a character some poor slob, with troubles and emotions, even as you and I.”

On why you don’t need fancy words:

“If you have read a lot from the time you were a kid—and if you haven’t, chances are that you wouldn’t be interested in being a writer, anyhow—your vocabulary will see you through.”

On varying the action:

“Emotions harden. If you stay too long, fooling around with one particular emotion, or keep working on the same one in the same way, too many times, it will lose its effect. If you saw a child knocked down by a car every day for a long period, if this were a usual, ordinary occurrence, your emotions would become numbed; they would harden.”

On the typical advice to “make the dialogue advance the plot”:

“That is another nice, pat bit of instruction that is sometimes taken too literally. I am a bit leery of putting it to you so baldly. After a writer has had this tidbit of advice hurled at him, I’ve seen scripts written wherein every time a character opened his mouth, brother, does he advance that plot.”

As is the case with most books on writing, different bits will resonate with different writers. To those who simply read pulp stories, I think there’s still plenty here to like, especially for the price. It’s like peeking into the office of a pulp writer. Highly recommended.


Written as part of the Friday's Forgotten Books event.

In looking for information on Robert Turner, I found that there’s little online. If you know anything at all about the man, please share.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

People are once again outraged over a book cover. (You might remember the kerfuffle over the romanticized cover of Flowers in the Attic or the chicklit-esque Bell Jar.)

This time it's Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that has readers reacting viscerally over graphic design. The new cover, part of the Penguin Modern Classics series, will debut for sale  in September.

Penguin Modern Classics edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Cue the outrage.

Following the cover reveal by Penguin, criticism began to appear swiftly on social media. To say people were appalled would be an understatement. The words "Lolita-esque" and "worst cover ever" appeared frequently. Many questioned how Penguin could do this to a beloved children's classic. Others offered their services to the graphics department, who clearly must not know what they're doing.

Typical responses. (I wonder if they're aware that Dahl wouldn't let the book be filmed again in his lifetime because he was upset that it had been made to seem too sweet?)

They're missing the point. A few of them, in fact. The first is: this cover design is not meant to be shelved in the children's section. It's meant to stand alongside other Penguin Modern Classics—and it's pretty cool that Dahl's book was chosen to be, according to Penguin's description of the line, one of "the most exciting, groundbreaking and inspiring works of the last 100 years."

I think the cover does a swell job of blending in with the others. (Here's a handy collage I've made so you can judge for yourself.)

Examples of the style of the Penguin Modern Classics series.

The other thing people seem to be overlooking is just how dark and strange Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is beneath the candy-coated surface. From the Dickensian-level poverty and hunger that open the book, to the profane and sadistic Wonka ("Burp, you silly ass, burp"), it challenges traditonal children's lit in every way. As the story progresses, nasty children (the products of even nastier parents) are dispatched in creatively fiendish ways befitting a horror villain.

Part of the charm of Dahl is how he imbues the ordinary with a creepy magic. Even breakfast: "Whipped cream isn't whipped cream at all if it hasn't been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn't poached eggs unless it's been stolen in the dead of night."

And don't forget that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been sanitized. The original publication had the black-skinned Oompa Loompas hailing "from the very deepest and darkest part of the jungle where no white man had ever been before." The original descriptions were changed decades ago, along with the illustrations that depicted them as Pygmy jungle savages.

The reaction people are having to this cover tells me that Penguin has done its job. "Who would tart up a child like that?" is what some are asking, and the answer is: people like Veruca Salt's parents. The reaction we're seeing is the reaction Dahl wanted to evoke with his awful children and their self-absorbed families. They should horrify people.

Penguin has defended the cover, as it should. I hope it sells well to people who still buy and read classics. And to those who like their fiction a little on the depraved side, well, this edition will fit nicely with Dahl's adult titles like Switch Bitch and My Uncle Oswald.
Distinctly adult titles by Roald Dahl. (Click photos for more info.)

For more on outrage over book covers:

People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of The Bell Jar

People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of Flowers in the Attic  

People Are Freaking Out About Morrissey's Autobiography Being a Penguin Classic

What do you think? Weigh in below. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Free Bin: Lawrence Block, Hotel Libraries, and Book Dirt’s New Companion Blog

  • I can’t help but be biased: the biggest news in this round-up is the launch of Film Dirt, a Book Dirt spin-off where I’ll be sharing some of my research on lost films, plus reviews and articles on silent film—plus a few modern obscurities. While I’ve reprinted some film-related Book Dirt content to get the site started, new articles will debut this week, so bookmark or subscribe to be among my first readers. (You can also find additional content on the Facebook page.)

  • NPR talked to Lawrence Block while walking around New York City. You can read the article, but you’re missing out if you don’t listen to the audio version—not just to hear the man himself, but the sounds of the city that Block credits with writing his first Matthew Scudder novel. You read that right: “The town was writing that book," Block says. "The hideous crime that Scudder talked about on the next day's writing was the one I read about on the subway downtown. And, you know, the city never failed me. It always provided something."

  • During my Ireland trip last year, I was pleased to find one of my hotel room stuffed with books. I can hardly imagine how I’d react to find an entire library. Huffington Post has collected a list of hotels with interesting libraries that would make any traveler leave the Kindle at home. Don’t miss the photo of the thatched-roof reading room in Curacao. 

  • In the wake of the release of Dave Egger’s newest novel, written in all dialogue, The Rumpus takes a look at other all-dialogue novels—plus some dialogue-heavy books like The Friends of Eddie Coyle. 

  • The Guardian has a list of what they’re calling “The weirdest Frankenstein books ever.” While some are more experimental and/or literary than flat-out weird, it would be hard to disagree with the strangeness of a book deemed a cross between Frankenstein and Field of Dreams.

If you enjoyed any of these links, do let me know. Heck, if you thought they were dumb, I’d still be interested to hear about it. Let me know why, and we can bicker.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Corrosion by Jon Bassoff Is .99 on Amazon, and You Really, Really Need to Buy It

Jon Bassoff’s Corrosion is on special in the Kindle edition for .99 for a couple of days, and I’d like to remind Book Dirt readers and noir fans that this is a book I raved about at full price. I chose Bassoff’s debut novel as one of my top five reads in last year’s “best” list.

Corrosion: a must for noir fans, especially at this price. Click for more info.

My blurb from the round-up:

She was less than human, and aren’t we all.” - Joseph Downs in Corrosion.

I recently reviewed this psycho-noir from independent publisher DarkFuse for Hellnotes, where I agreed with others who have called Bassoff a cross between Jim Thompson and David Lynch, though I threw in Flannery O’Connor for good measure. The truth is, no string of literary comparisons are going to tell you enough, because this debut author has a singular voice, and he’s written a hell of a disturbing novel—one that digs down into the roots of depravity, violence, and obsession. (It’s just occurred to me that I could make an additional comparison: to Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, another book that grows more unsettling as history is revealed.) The book opens with Joseph Downs, a war veteran with a horribly-scarred face, having vehicle trouble in a small town he’d meant to pass through. Who Downs is, how he got that way, what he’s done, and what he will do, are all things that reveal the very origins of evil, and the repercussions of growing up damaged.

You can also read my full review of Corrosion at Hellnotes.

There won’t be a better time to nab this one, and I highly recommend reading it before Bassoff’s Factory Town comes out this fall. Don’t have a Kindle? Spring for the paperback. It’s worth it. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Launch of New Companion Blog: Film Dirt

As some of you know, a lot of my time lately has been spent researching and writing a book on lost film. While I've posted about it here and there, it's never felt right to take up space on a blog devoted to books to talk about film curiosities.

That's why I'm excited to reveal that I've officially launched Film Dirt, a blog devoted to lost and forgotten films. I've accumulated a lot of stories during my research, and I can't wait to share them with film fans—or anyone who likes forgotten history.

The blog launch party is in full swing. I've got my big fork! (Norma Talmadge in 1918's The Ghosts of Yesterday)  

The first few posts will be familiar to regular Book Dirt readers, as I'm moving over some of the film content that never really felt at home here to begin with. That means that Book Dirt can focus solely on books and writing. Win/win!

Please drop by Film Dirt and say hello, and subscribe if you're so inclined. You can also follow the Film Dirt Facebook page, which has been operating for some time as a place to share some of my film finds.

Let me know what you think, especially as I work to build the blog up from its bare bones state. Hope to see you there.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Free Bin: Unidentified Film, New Stephen King Projects, and Writing Opportunities

Stuff I’ve been doing, stuff I’m excited about, and stuff I’ve been reading. A little less book-centric than usual, but all (I hope) of interest.

  • I recently attended an event I’d been anticipating all year long: The Mostly Lost festival held by the Library of Congress’ film preservation center in Culpeper, VA. For three days, attendees viewed films (and film fragments) that are unidentified, in an attempt to properly label and archive them. Audience members were encouraged to yell out anything that could be of use to I.D. the films, from actors’ names to locations. Fashion trends and car models even helped zone in on a time frame for some films. It was a great chance to see some pretty obscure film with others who still appreciate the language of the silents. NPR did a story on the event, and I highly recommend listening to the audio segment. (You can also spot me in the back right of one of the photos on the site.)

The audience attempts to identify a '20s-ish film with Masonic overtones. Is it German? Russian?

  • If you’re unfamiliar with Lucy Morgan, the twice-retired, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and asskicker of Florida media, check out this interview. Don’t miss her explanation of how she was dragged into the newspaper biz because she checked out a lot of library books. 

  • Here’s a list of every Stephen King-inspired TV and movie project currently in development. Some might be dubious (an It remake), but a few are particularly exciting (a Joyland film, a Shining prequel). Hat tip to Bill Crider’s blog. 

  • I love to read what great writers have to say about the work of others, which is why this piece on J.G. Ballard’s Crash is such a provoking one. Zadie Smith examines why she was initially repulsed by the novel, and how she ultimately came to understand it. Worth a read even if you’re only familiar with one of the two writers, but especially worth a read if you enjoy them both.

  • Ben and Emily Dreyfuss chat about the ridiculousness of Jaws, one of their famous father’s best-known films. The whole conversation at Mother Jones is a hoot. 

  • If you’re a writer as well as a reader, you might appreciate that the Book Dirt Facebook page is now posting calls for submissions along with other book-related content. Click “like” on the sidebar to make sure you see all the calls.

Let me know if you’ve enjoyed any of these links, or what you yourself are busy doing/writing/reading.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Free Bin: Pre-Code Superheroines, Deadly Fashion, and Homicide Hunter

I’ve had a wildly exciting week (which you’ll learn more about if you read the whole post), but I still found a little time to read, relax, and scour the net for fascinating stuff.

  • Tumblr blogger Saladin Ahmed has a cool piece on pre-code comic book heroines, rounding up forgotten female characters like Lady Satan, The Veiled Avenger, and a bleach-blonde jungle spirit who might well be the first woman with superpowers to appear in comic form.

  • The Guardian is calling it “the kinkiest secret in the Soviet Union”: a collection of erotic and pornographic works confiscated from aristocrats after the revolution. Deemed “ideologically harmful,” the vast collection of literature, artwork, photos, and film was off-limits to the public, but supposedly enjoyed by high-ranking officials. Because it was kept secret, most of it is remarkable well-preserved.

  • Victorian fashions could be as deadly as they were beautiful. From poisonous arsenic dyes to madness-inducing mercury-laced top hats, just getting dressed could turn a person into lunatic or a corpse. A new exhibit in Toronto is exploring the allure of deadly fashion and the desire for beauty at all costs.

  • The Pablo Neruda Foundation has reported the find of twenty previously-unknown poems by the Nobel Prize-winning writer, calling it “the biggest find in Spanish literature in recent years.” The poems are said to be of high quality, matching that of some of his best works.

  • Actress Scarlett Johansson is reportedly bringing a lawsuit against an author and his publisher because the book features a character that is described as looking like the celebrity. Good luck with that.

  • In personal news, I spent most of last week filming an episode of the ID television series Homicide Hunter. I can’t reveal a lot because of spoilers, but some time around August, you can see me in a pretty plum part as a strip club owner/murder suspect. After the show airs, I’ll be sharing some of what I learned about structure from the show’s script, which dices up real-life murder stories and presents them in a way that makes the outcome a surprise.

Monday, June 16, 2014

On Losing a Manuscript

I suppose it could be deemed ironic that while working on a book about films that have gone missing, I lost my work. 
Photo: Sarah Wynne/Creative Commons License.

It’s not been very long since I returned from my writer’s residency, during which I completed the introduction and three chapters to my book—enough to begin sending out the samples required for a non-fiction proposal. To my horror, one of those chapters has now disappeared. The file is gone. It’s irretrievable, which I’m only just now admitting.

To make matters worse, the missing chapter is the one on which I spent most of my days during my residency, making me feel as if my time there was wasted. The section was on Drakula Halala, a lost Hungarian horror film, and the first to feature a character inspired by Stoker’s Dracula. I knew it would be a challenging entry in my book, so I chose it specifically to work on during my time of solitude in the cabin. I felt a major sense of accomplishment after completing it, because it had a lot of puzzle pieces, and I knew it was one of the most difficult chapters I would write.

So, what happened? I discovered the chapter’s absence when I started putting together my package to send to a publisher. (That step is on hold now, because the other sample chapters are not as strong without it.) I save all my work on Google Docs, where I’ve saved thousands of files. I’ve never had a problem with it, and appreciate that not only can I access my work online or off, but it saves automatically, even saving the previous versions of your work when you edit. Thanks to a glitch, my Drakula Halala file was deleted, and the previous versions disappeared along with it.

Normally, restoring an earlier version of a document is the simple way of restoring an accidentally-deleted file. Barring that, it’s usually found in the trash. Because I had the file opened in two different windows, it seems that I created confusion between the documents, and, not knowing which one to save, Google picked the blank file. It’s unlikely to happen again, as it required an elaborate series of goofy errors, and I know how to safeguard against them now. None of that will recreate my lost work.

While I regret not having downloaded my work immediately (it’s what I was doing when I deleted the file), I realize that almost no method of backing up your writing is 100% foolproof. A computer can be stolen. A house can burn down. Perhaps the only true safeguard would be to send duplicates of all your work to a secure and far-away location (not exactly practical for a freelancer like me with dozens of pieces in various stages of completion).

So, really, all writers risk the permanent loss of a work in progress to some degree.

It helps a little to know that it’s happened to others, and in much more devastating ways. I feel bad for lamenting my one chapter when Jean Genet had the entire manuscript of Our Lady of the Flowers confiscated in prison and destroyed. He simply started from the beginning and did it all again. Ernest Hemingway had a suitcase stolen from a train station in Paris in 1922 that contained everything he had written up to that date, including part of a novel. In my review of My First Book, I mentioned how Robert Louis Stevenson’s original map for Treasure Island was lost en route to the publisher and never found. While he recreated it, he admitted that the second version “was never Treasure Island to me.”

And that’s what gets me in the gut as I’ve gone through stages of grief. Yes, I went through a denial phase (“The file will turn up, somehow!”), and burned right through some anger and depression. Now I’m faced with the task of reconstruction, and it makes me nauseous. On the one hand, I know it can be done. After all, I did it before. On the other hand, I know what it took, and it took a lot, not to mention the fact that I wrote it during my residency, under ideal circumstances which I can not recreate now.

A friend advised me to put it back together a little bit at a time. It’s good advice for when I’m ready. I’m not ready. For now, my plan is to work on other things. I feel like I could face any chapter but that one. Eventually, I’ll write again about Drakula Halala. I’m sure it will be a perfectly fine chapter, but I’ll bet that, just like Stevenson, I’ll always know it’s not the same as what I did before.

Has your work ever been lost or destroyed? How did you handle it? Any advice for beginning again?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Blog Milestone Giveaway: Lawrence Block’s Borderline and a New Mike Hammer Novel

I recently took a peek at my blog stats and noticed that Book Dirt has reached more than 250,000 page views. That’s a quarter of a million times people have stopped by. While some of those views go to people Googling “nude owls” or visiting just to see the yearly weird calendar round-up, many of them go to you: the loyal readers who actually bother to read my reviews of dusty crime novels or my thoughts on bizarre book news.

While I think it’s a pretty cool milestone, you know who else thinks it’s cool? The folks at Hard Case Crime/Titan Books. They’re helping me celebrate the milestone by offering a copy of Lawrence Block’s Borderline to one lucky Book Dirt reader, and King of the Weeds, a new Mickey Spillane novel completed by Max Allan Collins, to another.

Lawrence Block's Borderline. See details at Amazon.

With Borderline, Hard Case Crime has brought out a Lawrence Block title that hasn’t been in print for 50 years. Originally published as Border Lust in 1962 and attributed to the name Don Holliday, the book was written when Block was really beginning to pick up steam as a writer (the great Grifter’s Game was published a year previous, under the title Mona). This one is as raw and gritty as anything you’d expect from Block in the paperback-boom era. Says Booklist: “This one makes the most of its seedy border-town setting, jumping between El Paso and Juárez, as the paths of a gambler, divorcée, hitchhiker, stripper, and psycho killer come together in an inevitable bloodbath.”

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins' King of the Weeds. Details at Amazon.

Critics were hostile to Mickey Spillane (and his penchant for sex and violence) when Mike Hammer first appeared in I, the Jury in 1947, but 225 million book sales later, readers have had the last word. Spillane died in 2006, but not before making a deal with friend Max Allan Collins to finish his work. That’s exactly what Collins has done, and the latest Spillane novel is King of the Weeds, in which Mike Hammer is tracking a serial killer focused on killing cops. Crime readers know Collins for his Hard Case Crime titles and the great Nathan Heller series that was launched with True Detective, but those less familiar with his work might still recognize his work on the graphic novel Road to Perdition.

Both books are brand spankin’ new releases that only hit the stores in the last few days, so you can be among the first readers.

How to enter: simply leave a comment. If you’re pressed for words, let me know your favorite Hard Case Crime title (or one you’d like to read, if you’re new to HCC).

I’ll draw a different winner for each title on June 3. If you already own one of these, let me know if you’d only like to be considered for one of the titles. Also keep in mind that the winners must share their name and mailing address with me via email.

Good luck, and thanks for being one of my 250,000 page views.