Tuesday, September 29, 2015

31 Days of Silent Horror Films Begins Oct. 1 at Film Dirt

Since I'm writing a book on lost horror films, I might be able to get away with arguing that this is a book-related post.

I'm proud and excited to announce that starting this Thursday at Book Dirt's sister site Film Dirt, I'm challenging myself to watch and blog about 31 different silent horror films in the month of October. 

If your knowledge of silent horror begins and ends with Nosferatu, you might be surprised to learn what other terrors the world of silent film has to offer.

I'd love to have some of you visit me there.

31 Days of Silent Horror Films, just in time for Halloween month.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Review: Strange by Charles Willeford

Reading The Woman Chaser made me a Charles Willeford fan on the spot. I even dug the film version, which a lot of people didn’t seem to get. (It was perfect for Patrick Warburton’s idiosyncratic style—the same one that made him the only person who could have possibly played The Tick.) I’ve been anxious to read more from the godfather of Miami noir, so I jumped when Strange showed up as an e-book deal.

Willeford is one of those authors whose own life is as interesting as the characters he created. He won a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart in the Army in World War II, then enrolled in the graduate program to study art at the Universitarias de Belles Artes in Lima. He was kicked out when it came to the university’s attention that he not only didn’t have an undergraduate degree, but also had neglected to graduate from high school. No matter. Willeford later enlisted in the Air Force, worked as a boxer, a horse trainer, and a radio announcer, and —oh, yes—wrote a bunch of novels.

It should be no surprise that the folks who populate Willeford’s books are a bit quirky. Strange feels unconventional from the get-go, though the men hanging around an apartment swimming pool swilling martinis should be mundane enough. Maybe it’s the fact that the martinis are in plastic cups. Maybe it’s the creepy vibe of the singles-only building, or the increasingly crude talk of the bachelors. There’s a decidedly swank ‘50s feel to the scene, although it was written in the ‘70s—a fact I didn’t catch on to until one of the men appears in a magenta double-knit suit and is deemed well-dressed.

The men spend most of their conversation in talking about women and the procuring of them. A good-natured argument about the best place to pick up women soon turns into one about the worst place to pick them up. After various suggestions are discarded (even church is deemed a good place to get lucky, at least to one bachelor), it's agreed that the drive-in is the worst. Women don't tend to go to drive-ins alone, they concur, and if one did, she'd probably not take kindly to being mashed on.

A bet ensues, and while one man attempts to score, the others hang around to witness what they think will be his failure. This is noir, so of course they get more than they bargained for, and a sequence of events lands a dead, overdosed 14 year-old girl in their apartment. How the men choose to deal with this difficulty is what makes the tale even more noir.

Eddie said: “What do you think, Fuzz-O?”
“About what?”
“The whole thing, D’you think we’ll get away with it?”
“I’m worried about Don.”
“You don’t have to worry about Don,” Eddie said. “Don’s all right.”
“If I don’t have to worry about Don,” I said, I don’t have to worry about anything.”
“You don’t have to worry about Don,” Eddie said.
“Good. If you don’t scratch a sore, it don’t supparate.”
“Hey! That’s poetry, Larry.”

Part of what keeps the story cool is the matter-of-factness with which it's told. There's a good, natural rhythm to it, with a nasty streak that runs throughout. The grime isn't hidden down some alley, though; it's right out in the open. Willeford spools it out at a sneaky pace, and the men, who seem pretty innocuous at first, slowly become more and more slimy and grotesque. You can easily see how women might fall for their good looks and cool words at the bar, but just as easily see how lucky they are that these men won’t stick around. 

I didn't know when I started reading it that Strange  is actually the opening segment of The Shark-Infested Custard, a four-part book. It stands well on its own, but if you aim to read all things Willeford, skip this one, and go straight to Shark. (I’m a little peeved that Amazon doesn’t make it more clear that it’s part of a larger work.) If you’re not ready to invest in the whole thing, though, Strange is a good way to get your feet wet with Willeford and with Miami noir.

Other articles you might like:

Book Review: The Big Gold Dream by Chester Himes 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

I know a bunch of fine folks who turn out all manner of books and short stories while still managing to blog on a regular schedule. You guys are heroes. Really. For me, though, making real progress on my book meant making it a priority, and I’ve intentionally neglected some things on the way. 

I'm as up to my neck in film research as Mary Pickford was in shirt collars.

The good news, though: there’s a good chance my book on lost films will be done by the end of this year. And here’s a bonus: I’m working on it pretty regularly without feeling like I’m being tortured to death, so I feel like I can now make room for some extra-curricular stuff (i.e. blogging) without everything falling apart.

I’m sure my four or five readers are thrilled.

To tide you over before I post some new reviews (I never stopped reading, or I probably would be dead), here are a couple of things you can check out:

  • A little piece of research I did for Today I Found Out on the origin and history of women popping out of cakes. It’s pretty much got everything: dwarves, strippers, murder, Tesla. I even managed to drop Lawrence Block into it. (Do you think he knows he’s part of cake-popping history?)

If you’re reading this, thanks for bearing with me. I’ve let my reading of blogs languish, too, and I’ll be playing catch-up like crazy. See you in the comments.

Monday, April 6, 2015

On Selling a Frequently-Rejected Article to an Anthology About Rejection

Rejection is so much a part of freelancing, that it’s never bothered me much. Sure, I have high hopes for every piece I send out, but there’s no time to holler about being turned down. Instead, I revise, or go to work on The Next Big Thing. I even recall being thrilled back when I received my first rejection. It felt so official, and it served as a sign that I had really started the ball rolling. (Also, it helped to know that a rejection didn’t make the world fall apart. It was survivable, which meant I was ready to try again.) 

Blood on the Floor. Available at Amazon.

That said, I once wrote an odd piece that was maddeningly difficult to place—partly because I wrote it with one market specifically in mind. A Smithsonian editor had read the pieces I wrote for the magazine’s website and contacted me to tell me she liked my voice. (An editor contacting me? Holy smokes!) She encouraged me to submit something to the magazine’s famous “Last Page” humor column. (The Last Page? I was a big fan. Even holier Smokes!)

Not wanting to waste this opportunity, I thought long and hard before I started to write something. The piece I ultimately came up with is written as if it’s an auction catalog/collector’s guide to various odd things I’ve written over the years, from my childhood hand-written newspaper and my embarrassing teenage poetry to the one-third of a mystery novel I puked up during National Novel Writing Month—each treated as if it’s a rare and highly sought-after gem. Self-indulgent, yes, but I figured it might ring true (and hopefully be funny) to anyone who has ever picked up a pen.

I held my breath and sent it off to the Smithsonian editor. She got back to me within the hour with an email that began, “Oh, shoot”—not a good sign. Turns out, the magazine had acquired a new editor-in-chief, whose first order of business was to cancel the Last Page column in favor of a photo feature. She had just received the news that same morning. I’ll always wonder if things would have been different if I’d submitted earlier. I also wonder if maybe, somehow, it was my pitch that finally killed the column. (“Good God,” they said upon reading it. “Let’s forget we ever even had a humor column.”)

After that, I sent the piece to a few places, but its format was so unusual that I think it bewildered most editors (not to mention the fact that there aren’t many print magazines left that even deal with humor). I did feel a tiny bit of satisfaction when I got my rejection from McSweeney’s. They had previously rejected anything I sent with a succinct “No, thank you.” After submitting this one, I got a little more. “This one,” the editor wrote, “has its charms.” Still a rejection, but hey, I’ve got charms!

When I saw the submissions call for an anthology on writers and rejection, I didn’t immediately think of my poor homeless essay, but when it came to mind I realized that it does encapsulate the writing life in its own weird way, and it makes reference to both unsent manuscripts and rejected ones. I made a few edits, and sent it off once again.

I’m proud to say that “Rare Manuscripts and Ephemera from the Kelly Robinson Collection: A Guide for Serious Collectors” appears in the anthology Blood on the Floor: How Writers Survive Rejection. I love the fact that the piece has its own backstory of being rejected. If there’s a Blood on the Floor 2,  perhaps I could get really meta and tell the story of how I came to be in the first one. Then again, I’m a freelancer. I’m not going to run out of rejection stories, ever.

Monday, March 23, 2015

How to Get $184 Worth of Post-Apocalyptic Books for the Change Under Your Couch Cushions

There are a lot of deals around where one can buy multiple e-books for one price, but I don’t usually bite. That’s because the packages are often filled out with lackluster titles that don’t seem worth a buck to begin with, or the range of genres is a little too diverse (I might like the mystery titles available, but not the fantasy or the young adult stuff in the mix). Most of the time when I see a package on offer, I zip over to Amazon and just buy the one or two titles I’m interested in.

That said, this Humble Bundle biz is really worth checking out. Their current package is not only themed (it’s all post-apocalyptic), but there are several big titles that are distinctly worth owning. And the kicker? You get to name your own price. For a mere buck (if that’s all you can spare), you can have eight titles, including acclaimed novels like Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness, M. K. Wren’s A Gift Upon the Shore, and Hugh Howey’s recent insanely-popular Wool novellas. 

Pay more than the average of $9.56, and you unlock more novels, and man, they’re even more tempting: Mosley’s Futureland, for starters. Pay $15 or more, and unlock three more novels, one of which is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, one of the greatest post-apocalyptic books of all time, if you ask me. That title alone is worth the price.

A couple of more reasons I’m really impressed with Humble Bundle: the e-books are available for multiple devices (including Kindle and Nook), and part of the proceeds go to charity. How much of it goes to charity? You decide. Once you enter the amount you choose to pay, you can use the slider to allot percentages of your money to the publisher, to one (or more) of the charities, and/or to the folks at Humble Bundle. 

Check the counter at the top right of the site to see how much time is left on the offer (at the time of this writing, there are nine days left to bite).

It’s one of those sounds-too-good-to-be-true deals that, for once, really is true.

Have you purchased any of the Humble Bundle collections or any other e-book packages? Were they worth it?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

10 Worst Typos and Errors of the Year for 2014

As TV and print newsrooms cut staff down to the bare bones, egregious mistakes seem to be on the rise. Some of them seem so obvious that you’d think even a staff of one would notice, but, as these gaffes show, almost anything can slip by. Here are ten of the worst slip-ups, especially in terms of embarrassment, collected throughout the year as I’ve come across them—presented in reverse order so you can ease into the hilarity.

#10) Education, schmeducation.

via The Independent

Salesian College says they didn’t see this supplement’s cover before it went to press, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of the local Star Courier. Whoever is to blame, the cringe factor is high.

# 9) They’re coming for our typefaces.

via Newscaststudio 

CNN viewers were probably perplexed after reading that rebels were targeting fonts, although most agreed that they hoped one of them was comic sans. 

#8) Team vasectomy.

via Sporting News

 It sounds like an extreme overreaction to a loss, but in this case, the Miami Heat actually won—though you wouldn’t know it from the headline. (The word in question was obviously meant to be Nets.)

#7) Rhymes with “literal.”

via USA Today 

zoom via Book Dirt—cuz I know what’s important.

It’s one thing to make a typographical error that accidentally refers to female anatomy. It’s quite another to make that error in an official government proclamation. The office of the Nevada governor has since apologized—does that mean they don’t care about these particular resources?

#6) What’s the butt chill factor?

The Kansas City TV station responsible for this graphic claims an extra ‘s’ was added, but we all know that thirty degrees in fact doesn’t qualify as ass cold—so it’s not really much of an error.

#5) Clappy New Year!

via The Drum

They still haven’t topped calling  for a moment’s violence during the Queen Mum’s funeral, but you can’t say the BBC isn’t trying. Their mangling of the Chinese year of the horse just might keep them on the map.

#4) Say it ain’t so, Bill!

via Jim Romenesko

This one, courtesy of a news station in Huntsville, AL, makes its own jokes. Have at it. (And don’t forget to make at least one about “alligations” as well.)

#3) Copy editor’s job may be pretty screwed, too.

via The Guardian

The explanation for this insane front page of the Australian Financial Review is that an early mock-up was accidentally published. “The world is fukt,” along with the other mangled headlines, is supposedly an error, then. Personally, I’m not so sure.

#2) Lucky fan.

via Sportress of Blogitude

While this isn’t technically a typo (“fan,” as I’ve come to learn, also means “to strike out”), the meaning of the sentence is so unclear as to suggest something much more lewd.

#1) Whatting the commentators?

via The Daily Edge 

I’ve been waiting all year to share this one, which appeared in The Guardian in January, much to their embarrassment. (They fixed it soon after.) The word they wanted is ranking.

Want more funny media typos and errors? Use the button on the right sidebar to like Book Dirt on Facebook, where I’ll be sharing some of the runner-ups, collected from a year’s worth of bookmarks.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Best Books Read in 2014: Another Year, Another Eclectic Round-Up

The books I read this year were an assortment of the good, the bad, and the ugly. If I have one reading regret, it’s that I perhaps spent more time reading review copies of less-than-stellar books than I did reading books I personally chose. Some of those review copies were worthwhile (Jon Bassoff’s Factory Town), while others … well, let’s not even name them. They’re best forgotten.

There were some diamonds in the rough, though, and if I have another reading regret, it’s that I didn’t write full reviews of them for Book Dirt. (Goals for the year, then: read more books from my own to-read list, and review them promptly as I do

Don’t think that because I read some clunkers in 2014 that my best-of picks only seem good by comparison. The following titles would be standouts in any year.  

I’m tempted to say very little about this unusual mystery novel, originally published in Latvian in 1972, and published in English by Peter Owen books in 1990, because I enjoyed discovering something about which I previously knew nothing, and everyone should do that sometimes. I bought The Cage in a used bookstore, intrigued by the packaging, and perplexed that I’d never heard of the author. The fact that it was translated and on a high-quality press seemed promising. It delivered. The Cage is different from other mystery novels in its almost-philosophical level of introspection, which might be a turn-off for some, but seemed refreshing to me. It concerns the investigation into the disappearance of Edmunds Berz, an architect. As we learn about what kind of man Berz was, we simultaneously learn about the detective, Valdis Struga, especially as he personally identifies with the missing man ("He had the feeling he was looking for himself"). As the book shifts gears halfway through to focus on what actually happened to Berz, it gets even deeper—and more compelling. It’s introspective and claustrophobic in a way that might be described as Highsmithian.

Some of you will be turned off as soon as I say “time-travelling serial killer,” but bear with me. What if I tell you that The Shining Girls is a book about a time-travelling serial killer that manages to be smart and literary? I’m serious. It’s best not to think too hard about why and how Harper Curtis can move through time—I’m not sure he understands it himself. But the fact is, he can, and he makes the most of it in a depraved way. The chapters from the killer’s point of view are as riveting as they are chilling. But, what sets this book apart, besides the unconventional plot, is Beukes’ treatment of Curtis’ victims. They’re all compelling women with interesting stories. They shine, which is why Curtis is drawn to them in the first place. Beukes has found a way, as impossible as it seems, to write a book about eviscerated women that manages to celebrate them at the same time. The historical details are also spot-on, whether she’s talking about fan dancers in secret prohibition-era bars or underground abortionists in the ‘60s. There’s a lot to like here. It’s several books in one, and they’re all good.

Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is high on my list of all-time favorite reads, so I could kick myself for waiting so long to try another of his books. Obsession is one of my favorite subjects, and The Collector plumbs its depths in some beautiful and provoking ways. Ferdinand Clegg is a clerk, a nobody, who wins a bit of money, and uses it to purchase a remote house. He then kidnaps the object of his secret obsession, the pretty and privileged art student, Miranda Grey, and keeps her there, much like he keeps the butterflies he collects. What’s brilliant is how, as Fowles reveals the thoughts and feelings of the two, their roles blur. It’s easier to sympathize with Clegg than with spoiled and catty Miranda, but as we learn her backstory, we see that she, too, strives to have someone understand her. Nothing here is black or white (maybe there’s a reason Fowles chose the name Grey?), and the nuances are disturbingly lovely. The Collector isn’t just one of my favorite reads of the year, but ever.

This may be the most unusual book I’ve read by Shirley Jackson, and it’s a difficult one to write about. For starters, I’m not completely certain what happened in it—and that’s a good thing. There’s a blurring of reality here that makes even the mundane mysterious. And on the surface, the story is a little mundane, as 17 year-old Natalie Waite leaves her family to attend an all-girl college. She takes walks, she writes letters to her father, she befriends a professor’s wife—all fairly ordinary. The brilliance of Hangsaman is in the telling. The writing is masterful and deeply psychological, to the point that many people, like I did, misremember the book as being in first person. Natalie’s a bit of a fantasist, and she’s maybe even a bit mad (there are shades of The Bell Jar here), so there’s a dream-like quality to ordinary events. Then there are some unusual events that are never quite explained: girls being slapped in the middle of the night, stolen items, a voice behind a wall. I didn’t find out until later that Hangsaman is based on a true event, and I’m not going to mention it here, as it makes the ending somewhat of a spoiler—though still just as mysterious. The first thing I did when finishing the book was turn to the net to see what other people had to say about it. If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

I’m not the only person to include Revival on an end-of-the-year list, and goodness knows, Stephen King isn’t hurting for publicity, but I really did enjoy this. A small-town preacher, Charlie Jacobs, befriends a little boy named Jamie, who looks to him as a mentor. After Jacobs loses his family in an accident, he questions God in a bizarre public sermon that leads to his dismissal from the church—and the town. Years later, Jamie’s life converges with Jacobs again, but now Jamie is a heroin addict and otherwise down-on-his-luck musician, and Jacobs is entertaining carnival crowds with the electrical tricks that have always been his hobby. Things, as they are wont to do in a Stephen King book, become strange. What’s appealing here, though, is that if you remove the supernatural aspects, you’re still left with a well-crafted story about life, and change, and how you can’t go home again. You could also say the reverse: remove the character sketches, and there’s a neat supernatural tale here—one with debts to Lovecraft and Machen, but still fresh. If you’ve grown up with King, you’re getting as long in the tooth as he is, and you’ll find that he does ending-of-age as well as he does coming-of-age. It’s bittersweet, but never boring.

What were the best things you read in 2014? Any specific reading goals for the coming year? Comments are always welcome.