Saturday, April 1, 2017
A few folks had recommended to me Altered Carbon (2002) by Richard Morgan. Likely this was due to my interests in science-fiction and detective/ noir fiction. Not a bad call, that. The book is more or less a detective story with a decidedly noirish bent set in a far-flung future of high technology and interstellar travel.
While our characters live in a fantasyland of technological wonders and possibilities, the technology the book is most preoccupied with is the digitization of the human consciousness, allowing minds and personalities to flow freely between bodies or into virtual environments as specters, even crossing the cosmos for business meetings into rented "sleeves". While mankind lives at a point where genetic and chemical manipulation of the human form is common practice, the same ills that always plague humanity are no further off. War, hunger, institutionalized economic disparity, religious mania... all still present hundreds of years from today despite the colonization of many new worlds and the discovery of alien artifacts.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
On Monday around 3:07 Pacific Time (I was flying back from Berkeley, CA), I finished the final Parker novel by Richard Stark, Dirty Money (2008).
It's a hell of a thing to say I read all 24 Parker books, plus the four Grofield spin-off novels. That's certainly a first for me, when it comes to books. Back in the 1990's, I read about five or six books with a tight continuity by William Kennedy, and I've read a lot of Hammett's "Continental Op" short stories - but 28 books by one person feels like a lot, airplane reading though they were.
Dirty Money doesn't conclude the series except for the fact that Donald Westlake (Stark's real name) passed on December 31, 2008 without producing any additional Parker novels. Parker doesn't die, doesn't go to jail, doesn't give up on crime to have 3.5 kids and become a manager at Hardee's. Butcher's Moon, the 1974 near-conclusion of the Parker series, also didn't feel quite like a finale, although the bodycount in the novel certainly had the sort of thing you didn't imagine Stark wanting to top. But it did make for a satisfying conclusion of sorts.
Fortunately, so, too does Dirty Money make for a fantastic conclusion to the 90's-00's Parker rebirth. The story ties together the plots of the two prior books into one continuous novel of sorts, refusing to gloss over the complications that I had, as a reader, half forgiven Stark for, thinking he had maybe written the other too quickly, hadn't really paid the same attention to detail he once did in that 1960's-70's heyday that produced the first ten novels of the series.
Saturday, March 4, 2017
Ask The Parrot (2006) is the penultimate Parker novel. Frankly, I'd been dreading hitting this book based on the title alone, which sounded like one of those caper novels that would get turned into a movie with Dennis Farina that was funny, but not *that* funny, and mostly forgettable.
It's a strange, small book, playing well to several of Stark's strengths and his interest in exploring multiple characters and POV's in a single book. He sticks with the winning formula, maintaining a limited omniscient narrator's voice but using the 3rd section of the book to jump from person to person in the situation, setting up what would happen in the explosive fourth portion of the novel when everything comes together to fall apart.
Monday, January 23, 2017
Like everyone else, I didn't think about Alexander Hamilton a whole lot other than knowing he was on my money, invented the Fed, and somehow got into a duel (and lost) with a more obscure Founding Father, Aaron Burr. The Revolutionary War era and the founding of the United States is such a deeply complex time in history, I've never really had my head around it, and as that history in broad scope tends to work best for me when woven into biographies, I'd long intended to read biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and a George Washington bio written by Ron Chernow that was given to me by NathanC that's been collecting dust for way too long.
Part of my issue is that most of those books are the "why is this 900 pages long?" variety, and I've been so buried in Roosevelt biographies, I've not really made enough time or room in my head for much else, but I've been working to change that.
Of course, along came the Grammy performance of the opening number to Hamilton, a fact-laden number intended to get us to the start of the action but laying out Hamilton's childhood story (which is enough to fill a book itself), and - like for so many of the rest of the people who saw this or listened to the soundtrack recording (or the lucky few who've seen the show), I was compelled to know more. Maxwell suggested the Chernow bio, so I burned an Audible credit and picked up Alexander Hamilton (2004). And, 37 hours of audiobook later, here we are.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
After reading The Haunting of Hill House, one or two of you (I know Max was one) suggested I check out more of Shirley Jackson's work. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) was the lead recommendation, and as I'd really liked the other novel, when October rolled in, I selected it as my Halloween read.
That may or may not have been the best selection specifically for Halloween as it's not necessarily the stuff of the monsters and pumpkins and ghosts I usually associate with the holiday, but everyone does it differently. Rather, the closest comparison I could draw would be along the lines of Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. But even those are a far cry from this book.
Still, depending on how one were to read it - this book is horror. Not the creeping uncanny spirits of a ghost tale, or even the realization that the normal is face-to-face with the supernatural. It's the reader wrestling with an untrustworthy narrator and a creeping descent into something not necessarily sinister but tragic and mad.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Signal Watch Reads: Hero of the Empire - The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill (by Candice Millard, 2016 - audiobook)
The study of history in practice can be maddening if the bar you hold up is trying to read up on every single thing anyone ever did before this very moment. If that's your standard, then I'm a little behind in developing my all encompassing eye into the past. Example: I'm a publicly educated kid from the burbs who focused on North America in obtaining his history undergrad degree. Aside from the bare-bone basics, I know very, very little about Winston Churchill, but I figured I had to start somewhere. But, why not with a book by a terrific author and starting at the beginning?
I'd previously read Candice Millard's two prior full-length books, The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, and I can honestly say they were some of my favorite books of the last decade. Both books covered events which usually appear as footnotes or brief interludes in other historical retellings, diversions in the telling of longer, more expansive stories. Yet, Millard managed to craft one of the most harrowing stories of real-life adventure you're likely to read in the Theodore Roosevelt starring The River of Doubt, and in Destiny of the Republic, she sets out to set you weeping about the unjust passing of President James Garfield, shot by an assassin and victim of the limitations of his times, just on the precipice of modern knowledge we now take for granted.
I would argue that, by zeroing in on a specific time, place and people, she was able to say more about those people with a greater degree of eloquence - using historical fact, reconstructed timelines, letters and post-facto primary sources - to shed light on moments and giants of our history.
Here in her third book, Millard demonstrates why she's becoming a favorite of many more readers than just myself. Whether you're a history buff who's already schlepped your way through a number of Churchill biographies or - like yours truly - you find yourself embarrassingly ignorant in regards to the biography of one of the modern West's greatest leaders, Millard's spun Churchill's life as a young man into a narrative in the mold of epic adventure, all while reporting the facts.
Monday, October 3, 2016
This was the Parker novel I accidentally skipped when I grabbed Nobody Runs Forever off the shelf and plowed through that one. While I was more than able to follow Nobody Runs Forever - the books are episodic enough that you can tell Stark never counted on anyone having had read the other books, let alone in order - thematically, this book points toward Parker's state in life, and maybe something author Richard Stark realized was far more inevitable in the early 00's than in 1962 when Parker first walked across a bridge into New York. By 2002, technology had made heisting far harder, the work of cops far more efficient, and the likelihood of escape from a high-profile job that much harder to swallow for the general public.
So, Breakout (2002), is less about a heist and, instead, about Parker getting caught by the law and the difficulties of extracting himself from the situation as complication after complication rears up. You can almost see how Stark/Westlake might have wanted to use the concept for comedic purposes - the almost insane domino effect of getting compromised within first two or three pages, with nothing following going particularly well. The premise could make for a trials of Job situation or it was going to make for a white-knuckle thriller and Stark chose the latter.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
The last time I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I was about 15 and had a fairly hard time keeping up with a narrative that wasn't an easily digestible Isaac Asimov plot and which didn't work with a Bradbury-esque flow to carry me over the rough patches. I didn't know anything about Philip K. Dick other than that he was the name of the guy who wrote the book upon which they'd based Blade Runner, at the time one my new favorite movies (and, of course, still a favorite). But, I had heard the novel and movie were different.
I really don't know why I decided it was time to read the book again other than that, like most books I read 25+ years ago, my memories of the details were fuzzy. I mostly remembered feeling that - as screwed as the Rick Deckard of the film had been, the Deckard of DADoES? was in a far more precarious state. I recalled a "fake" police station, Roy Batty seemed less a threat, and the world of the novel existed in a state of decay that went well beyond even the night-time drizzling menace of the film.
It's not that I had a hard time understanding the story from an A to B to C to D perspective, but Dick's books always seem to be doing what science-fiction can do intensely well, and that's act as allegory for some more universal story or truth or as a thought experiment to explore those ideas. I'm sure I got it in that "I read what was on the page" sort of way, but there was no way for me to really relate. Add in my trouble reconciling the differences between the book and movie and expecting the themes and plot to better dovetail, and it was a recipe for forgetting a lot of what was interesting or special about the book as repeated Blade Runner viewings had quashed a lot of what I might have remembered.
Upon a re-read, I'd argue you need to see the two narratives as separate and attempting different stories with different meaning. There are certainly resonant thematic issues, but in making many of the changes Ridley Scott and Co. went with, Blade Runner is far more a product of expectations of films (no matter which cut we're discussing), of roles within films, and the limited running time of a movie and what can be in that story.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
My mistake - packing for our Seattle trip, I just reached onto my shelf and grabbed this book without checking the reading order. So, after reading 24 of the Parker/ Grofield novels, I finally accidentally read one out of order.
Mostly with Parker novels, it doesn't matter, they're self-contained. But of course, after 24 of these things (if you count both Parker and Grofield books, and I do), this one ends on a cliffhanger. I kind of want to know what happens next rather than go back and read Breakout, the one I accidentally skipped. So, we'll see.
But we're here to talk Nobody Runs Forever, the 2004 Parker novel by Richard Stark.
Of the post-hiatus Parker novels, this one has Parker feeling, perhaps, the most like Parker again, even if much of what occurs around Parker feels less like an old-school Parker strategy session and execution of a heist and, instead, Stark spends his page count and energies on exploring the cast of misfits around the heist, seeming to want to explore new characters he introduces, possibly for a spin-off series.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
If you've seen Apollo 13, you've seen Ed Harris as the vest-wearing Flight Director Eugene F. Kranz. Kranz served with NASA from the Mercury missions straight through into the mid-90's. Truly the case of The Right Person in the Right Place for the Right Job, Kranz is famous for his post Apollo 1 disaster speech at NASA where he defined the "tough and competent" mantra of NASA's Mission Control Center. He was, as evidenced by Ed Harris playing him in the film, also one of the Flight Directors on Apollo 13 who helped pull together the plan to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth.
But Kranz was there during Gemini, working out procedures and flight plans, debating the wisdom of rushing our first EVA to catch up with the Russians, and he was there for Apollo 11, landing Aldrin and Armstrong.
As you can imagine, the history alone is worth the read, and I'll be picking up some more memoirs and. or histories of the race from Mercury to Apollo 17 and beyond (I mean, my earliest solid memories are around the Space Shuttle, and so a history of the development of the Shuttle Columbia would be more than welcome). But Kranz's personal take is as absolutely fascinating as it is inspiring.
The view from the Flight Commander's Control Console takes us to the point of teeth-gritting responsibility. While thousands have contributed to building the rockets and space-craft, and many, many others have been involved all along the line, it's the MCC that makes the decisions to abort, must know their systems, the craft, the management of the astronauts, etc.. well enough to make moment by moment calls and respond to each challenge as it surfaces. Each decision impacts lives of the astronauts, and every choice could be the one that leads to disaster.
And, the Flight Director is, ultimately, the person who is leading his or her control team and responsible for the calls that manage the Flight during their shift. Anyway, my job suddenly seemed a lot easier.
Thursday, August 4, 2016
After two great movies in a row, the third installment of the Thin Man series, Another Thin Man (1939) feels like a project that just didn't gel as well as it could have.
I recently completed reading The Return of the Thin Man, which is less a book and more the lost story-treatments and scripts that Dashiell Hammett worked on during his tenure in Hollywood and some editorial/ historical notes about what was going on with Hammett in relation to the work. Frankly, you're probably better off just watching the two movies it covers - After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man, but completionists will find the book worth checking out.
The gist of the notes about this third movie indicate that not only was Hammett sort of done with Nick and Nora before he even started work on the movie, the credited screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett - who had worked with Hammett on the two prior films - were also ready to call it a day.
All in all, the film does work. Let's not call it a troubled film. But the alchemy that caught everyone's attention in the original that semi-carried over to the sequel, is fizzling a smidge by this installment.
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
What's most surprising about reading a 1913 Tarzan novel is, really, in many ways how modern it feels. Whether ERB was reflective of a particular brand of cliff-hanger storytelling or whether he shaped a lot of what I think of as a feature of modern adventure entertainment - it's pretty amazing how much you can see of how the adventures of Tarzan work, structurally, in comics and adventure television of all stripes (and probably books, but I don't read that much of this sort of thing).
Tarzan's origin is detailed in the first half of the first book, most of the rest of the book providing the set-up for the ensuing adventures (or, more of the origin, I guess). This second book picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first as Jane takes off with not-Tarzan, aka: William Clayton (but Tarzan's cousin, who is Lord Greystoke as far as the world is concerned).
It's important to point out that ERB's Tarzan is not the "me Tarzan, you Jane" of the Johnny Weissmuller films. He's a hyper-intelligent super human who picks up languages the way I pick up unnecessary action figures. You kind of have to dump everything you've ever read about actual feral-children, maybe one of the saddest things you're likely to read about, and buy into the premise that Tarzan is a really well-adjusted guy in many ways for someone who eats raw flesh and speaks gorilla.
That said - the arc of this second novel is about Tarzan deciding who and what he will be. And, putting up with a shady Russian who keeps turning up like a bad penny.
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
I wound up finishing my book I planned to read to and from Boston (note - last night's post on Firebreak) and decided that rather than read the trade paperback I had in my bag, I'd pick up another book at the airport.
I don't know why, exactly, but after a few minutes of perusing the shelves, I was absolutely certain I wanted to read a Neil Gaiman book I hadn't yet read, of which there are plenty, and so I found the one Neil Gaiman book they had on the shelf, bought it, and started it at the gate and finished it by the time we were touching down, with at least a half hour of airplane-nap tucked in there. So I can tell you - it is possible to read this book between Boston and Austin in a single flight.
The book in question was Gaiman's 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I believe had won a few awards and was (or is) a best-seller.
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
While I'm glad that Stark came back to try Parker again in the 90's, and then, with this novel released around 2001 (and a few more afterward), there's no question that the tone had changed. The first two books back were nearly comedies. Firebreak (2001), has moments of delving back into the Parker of The Green Eagle Score, and, especially, The Sour Lemon Score, but Stark was no longer able to tap into near nihilism that drove the first third of the series again until Slayground and Butcher's Moon.
Here, you can feel Stark doing some hand waving as he deals with the fact that the world of heists has changed since Parker was pulling armored car heists and knocking over rare coin shows. By 2000, security systems were everywhere, surveillance was commonplace, and the internet was still called "The Information Superhighway" by dopey newscasters.
Stark wants to deal with these modern touches, but when he does, it's half-satisfying. Every once in a while he states how something works, and you want to say "well, no... Not even in 2001.". And he's saddled the heisters with a character he's concocted to bridge the books into this new age of technology (which was already well underway when this book was released).
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
In some ways it's a goddamn crime that the version of Tarzan that Millennials grew up with was saddled with Phil Collins music and Rosie O'Donnell's voice blasting like an air-horn throughout. I recently tried to re-watch the Disney version of Tarzan, and for all the technical achievements of the film, that "let's do things tied entirely to what's popular in the moment", upon reconsideration, makes the film a grating mess.
I guess Gen X may have been the last generation to be given Tarzan to enjoy in steady doses. I remember watching black and white Tarzan on TV as a kid, and I have to assume it was Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan with Cheeta. It's also possible we were watching later movies, the 1960's TV series... Who knows? Tarzan has known a lot of incarnations in film and television, including maybe the version that really informed me most about Tarzan, the 1970's-era cartoon show.
Before the release of 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Marvel put out a Tarzan magazine comic which covered the first half of the first Tarzan novel.
And this was really what informed me as to the more detailed version of Tarzan's origin.
Like a lot of kids, we played "Tarzan", even if I can't really recall what that meant other than climbing whatever we could get a grip on around the yard and imagining we'd made friends and foes of the 10 or so jungle animals we could name. But being able to talk to monkeys and lions seemed like a pretty good deal to us. The 70's and 80's were still safely within the 20th Century, and the notion of High Adventure was still very much a marketable commodity at the time, across nearly all genres, and Tarzan was right at the center of that.
I finally watched the original Johnny Weissmuller movie and read the actual Edgar Rice Burroughs novel of Tarzan of the Apes just last year. The book is a book of its time, as is the movie, and both have their place in history. While the prose of the novel may be purple and many ideas in the book would now seem dated, the story still holds as an adventure and romance. And if we're looking for our own cultural DNA, both Tarzan and ERB's John Carter are vital to understanding what was to come with superheroes and superhumans in fiction and popular culture, and - of course - that's now escalated to culture writ large with fifth generation offspring of Burroughs' creations throwing shields in billion dollar movies.
All that to say, I was a bit pre-disposed to want to see a new Tarzan movie, and, yet, I've seen very, very few of them to date. Not even Greystoke, which I am told again and again is not worth seeing.
Sunday, June 26, 2016
Signal Watch Reads: "The Elephant to Hollywood" a bio of Michael Caine by Michael Caine as read by Michael Caine (audiobook)
Normally this sort of thing isn't my bag, but a while back my pal SimonUK gave me a print copy of this book, and I picked it up and started reading it only to hear Michael Caine's voice reading the book in my head. "Well," I reasoned to myself, "why not see if he actually did an audio recording of the book." And, indeed, he had.
I don't know much about Michael Caine and I'm not up on his filmography. But, you know, who doesn't like Michael Caine?
This was actually his second memoir, and I suspect the first one probably played up a bit more of his exploits and wild, free-wheeling ways in the 60's and 70's. But this one is more or less Caine's reflections on being a bit of a lad from an area of London called The Elephant and Castle, a down and out neighborhood both during his youth and at the time of the book's writing (circa 2010). He grew up working class, a father serving the army in WWII, and Caine himself evacuated. Post-war, he grows up a bit tough, decides on theater and acting as a career, and as a young man pursues the idea with dogged determination, even as misfortune and the challenges of life heap up.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Full disclosure: this novel was written by a buddy, and I was predisposed to like it for that reason. I read about 100 pages of the first release of the book in PDF, then purchased the first self-printed run of the book - started that, and then Jason alerted folks that he'd actually landed a publisher, and to hang on a minute. So, with my third copy of the book, I started over (again) and just wrapped the book Sunday afternoon.*
Old Green World (2015) is the first novel from Jason Dewey Craft, and it's a curious mix of science-fiction and fantasy, though it's unclear where or if the reader should bother to draw a line between the two genres. It plays off of villages and castles while taking place in a future far removed from our own present day, a post-post-apocalyptic world on an Earth returned to something closer to a state of nature or without deep impact by humanity (depending how you mean).
I'm not much of a sci-fi reader, but part of why I abandoned the genre and had a hard time picking up sci-fi and fantasy was the weirdly patterned and mannered approach to sci-fi and fantasy writing, an overly descriptive method of world building and character which seems more in love with thinking up gadgets and whatnot and less with a reason for telling the story. The tack can lead to a lack of narrative novelty as writers happily cut from the same few templates, the fandom and limited approach of authors showing through in the execution.
From the first pages, Old Green World seems to co-opt and then transform the conventions of the fantasy building, creating an understandable world despite economical detail in the prose, never bothering to fall into the trap of purple exposition, but, rather, simply describing location, character, scene, etc.. where necessary. Much is left for the reader to imagine, to parse, to fill in the gaps. The approach leaves the text subject to interpretation, of course, and many of the ideas that drive the conceit of the story rely on abstraction.
Thursday, June 2, 2016
|if you are not pleased with what follows, Queen Elsa has some words for you...|
Honestly, I have no idea if I was reading Devin Faraci back at BadAss Digest before it became Birth.Movies.Death., and I couldn't tell you exactly when I started seeking out his writing in particular. Pretty recently, I guess, like maybe even in late 2015.
Well, a few days back it seems Faraci went and accidentally lit a spark under the butt of the collective hive-mind of the internet, and whatever was under that butt wasn't just flammable, it was atomic rocket fuel. He wrote an article called Fandom is Broken, but I don't need to tell you this. Because chances are, if you read this site, you've already read the article elsewhere. It's certainly been making the rounds. If you haven't read it yet, here's the link. Go read it and then come on back. These 1's and 0's will still be here floating in the interwebicon.
Back? Excellent. We missed you. How are you?
One more to read - it's that Onion AV article Faraci linked to, and it's also required reading. Sorry. So, off with you if you didn't read that, too.
Sigh. So... For this week I had already planned to write about the upcoming Ghostbusters film, the grousing going on about this new movie ruining some peoples' childhoods, and I thought I might outline why - frankly - that's a really weird stance to take on a 30+ year old movie that was never, ever going to be the same again no matter whether it starred the same four guys (which we should have just let go of since Raimis' passing), four other different guys, four women, four guinea pigs or four plates of nachos.
But we're not going to park it on Ghostbusters. Oh, no. Because these two article made me think about a few things, and, in ways big and small, I am certain I am part of the problem, too. And so are you, buddy, so don't feel so smug.
At this juncture I think it's important to take a breath and have a moment of self-reflection rather than take to the twitters and prove Mr. Faraci absolutely correct by threatening him.
Sunday, May 29, 2016
The Little Sister (1949) is the fifth Raymond Chandler novel starring Phillip Marlowe, the detective character made most famous in The Big Sleep. Clearly written after Chandler's stint in Hollywood (he would team with Billy Wilder during the writing of Double Indemnity), Marlowe's time in LA finally gets him crosswise with Hollywood machinations and mob ties.
A fairly prissy but possibly pretty young woman with the unlikely name Orfamay Quest from Manhattan, Kansas appears at Marlowe's office. She's seeking her brother, Orrin, who has been in LA for a while, but seems to have disappeared. Taking Midwestern thriftiness to extremes, she hires Marlowe at half-price (also, because Marlowe is bored and has no other clients that day) and it soon becomes clear the touchy Orrin may have been in deep into something shady, and, because it's a Chandler mystery, deadly.
Monday, May 9, 2016
Here's what I know after reading Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture (2016) - I would love to spend a couple hours at a bar with author Glen Weldon knocking back a couple of cocktails and talking comics.
The book is a perfect compliment to the sort of discussion we've been having here at The Signal Watch the past few years, from our Gen-X Recollection Project (still ongoing! Send in your posts!), to trying to contextualize what we see in movies of the past and present as seasoned dorks.
As a matter of course, I've read a few Superman retrospectives, but very few feel like an honest conversation. Les Daniels' works read like what they are - honest if fairly sanitary historical accounts of the rise of Superman in all media. The very-well-selling Larry Tye book felt like a lot of research into something the author felt would move books but for which he had little personal affinity and seemed surprised that Superman wasn't the character he remembered from his years watching The Adventures of Superman. Author Tom De Haven has the strangest relationship with Superman, having written a full novel re-imagining the character from the ground up (in ways that often seemed far, far off the mark), and then a sort of retrospective that made it clear - he kinda hates Superman.
But aside from Les Daniels and a few excerpts in books like Ten Cent Plague and Men of Tomorrow, I haven't read up as much on Batman. I actually heard of author Glen Weldon when he put out a book called Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. I purchased the book, but hadn't read it as I had a stack of books I was making it through. Still haven't read it, honestly, aside from the first few pages, which had me cackling in recognition of someone who truly knew their Superman. But, two days after I picked up the Superman book, Weldon announced on twitter his Batman book was coming, and as I'd just finished the Tye Superman book, I figured - I'll just wait for that one.
I really can't recommend Caped Crusade enough. This is a "run, don't walk" sort of recommendation.