Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Pulp Jungle

Frank Gruber
The Pulp Jungle

Sherbourne Press, 1967

This book is like an accountant ledger. Is it boring? No, absolutely not. It is fascinating.

Gruber lists all his sales during his pulp years, tells how much money he’s made for each story, what rates magazines paid in those years, what markets were the most prestigious. In these dry facts and not less dry and matter-of-fact numbers we feel that era like we can feel the era smelling old pulps.

Gruber started with Sunday school papers, and then made his goal to become a writer after his first sales. Like Tarzan, he went to the pulp jungle – New York - where most of publishing companies were (and still are) – and made it into big time. But not right from the start. Before he conquered New York and dozens of pulp magazines (and subsequently Los Angeles, working later in Hollywood), he lived through years of struggle, barely selling a couple of stories a month and literally starving on the streets of NYC.

It’s a fascinating account of a professional who works and works non stop and who knows that hard work will pay off some time in the future. His story of success Gruber ornates with recallections of other pulpsters, who also made successful careers (some after that vanished somewhere).

While reading this book, one can easily see how many differencies there were between publishing businesses now and then – and how many similarities. Gruber wrote thousands of short stories and novelettes before he’d moved to writing novels (and screenplays). It was not easy, to just write a novel and sell it without establishing your name first.

The book, though, is roughly written and feels like a first draft. But damn, the masters of pulp always wrote only one draft – the first. They couldn’t afford to write many drafts and rewrite their stories. And we shouldn’t ask for more.

That’s the memoirs everyone interested in book history should read.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Kim Jong-il Production

Paul Fischer
A Kim Jong-il Production

Flatiron Books, 2015

The most successful couple of the South Korean cinema, Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, during a few decades earned the love of their fans. Shin was a famous director, the founder of an independent film studio which released numerous films each year. Choi was a star of the silverscreen, beautiful actress and the founder of an actors school. Choi, before the fame reached her, was the wife of a war vet, invalid with a short temper, who beat on her time from time. She played almost for free, and had only a modest fame. Shin helped her made big time, they hit it off, though not publicly, keeping in secret their affair. Then gossips started to sip in, the scandal broke out, and the actress left her husband, having chosen Shin. The couple made even larger success as a pair, doing together films, spreading their businesses, receiving awards.

Later financial troubles started to bother the couple, Shin couldn’t make more films due to high censorship and competition, and with money love also went away. The couple divorced, Shin started to work on his invitation to film in Hollywood, to restart his career in America. Choi had focused on her actors school.

And then they were kidnapped, by the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

Young film producer has written a debut non-fiction book, that is on the level with best examples of spy fiction. The only thing absent is heavy involvement of intelligent services, the rest of the necassary elements are all there – powerful villain, brave heroes, sinister plot, mysterious kidnapping, surprising rescue.

Fischer even stylistically sticks to belletristic approach to his narrative. He presents the main heroes’ biographies (and antihero’s who plays as important role as the couple of heroes), makes enough geographical and historical digressions, leads to a culmination, the kidnapping itself, then switches to heroes’ lives during their captivity, their reborn as filmmakers, and then to the final with the rescue. The epilogue tells us the oucome of their lives.

The book has 360 pages of exciting prose, and even when Fischer retreats to the historical background, it still is a fascinating read. These digressions are necessary if only to place this kidnapping into the world context. During the book we’re told of the birth of a dictatorship in North Korea, rivalship between two Koreas, the general place of North Korea in the world. Fischer describes a number of methods used by Kim and his people for kidnapping people. Shin and Choi were not the first victims of Kim’s dangerous games, the couple will even meet some other kidnapped victims. This is the evidence to that the couple weren’t the only victims of Kim’s crimes, neither they were the first. Their case is not unique, possibly, it’s the most spoken of and resonance.
Digressions about, for example, Korean labour camps are the heart-wrenching reading in itself. Atrocities and cruelties commited in those camps were not less shocking, probably even more than the ones in Stalin and Nazi camps. Fischer doesn’t restrict his descriptions of tortures forced upon Shin the camps. To survibe, Shin had to make some sacrificies, had to step on his principles and agreed to work for the man who ordered the tortures.

It’s hard to say, yet after reading this book I’m of the opinion that Shin made his best films during his prisoner years in North Korea. That means that only being not free, he could reach the highs of his talent. And does it overcome these tortures he had suffered through, this chance to be reborn in your art and make the films you’ll be remembered after? That’s the question one can hardly will find an answer.

The book also can be read as a chapter from a film history textbook. Fischer includes in the book a short history of the North Korean cinema, Choi and Shin’s achievements, their post-kidnapping period, and legends of Kim Jong-Il as a father of North Korean films and omniscient expert on the world cinema.

A Kim Jong-il Production is written quite frivolously, without stating the sources of the obtained information, and that’s understandable: this books is aimed at the wide audience, not at academic world. The story of kidnapping of Shin and Choi already for dozens of years raises questions and doubts. Paul Fischer is quite sure that the couple was abducted and worked on Kim after the fear of death. The other believe that they at their own will crossed borders when their careers went downhill. The story is, withoubt doubt, mysterious, controversial, it’s possible it will be left thus for ever. It is one of those historical events, like Kennedy’s assassination, US moon landing and disappearing of the group from Dyatlov pass, that people can’t come to one point. There is plenty of information all around, but what are the truth and what are the lies – it’s all wrapped in the mist.

This book will let you sink into one of the secrets of XX century. First rate non-fiction book.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Holy Cow

David Duchovny
Holy Cow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

Cow Elsie lives on a farm among other cows. She “can think, feel, and joke”, gets milked by her owner’s sons. She’s not dumb, she knows Homer and Internet jokes. This memoirs Elsie writes for NYC publishing house editor, keeping in mind possible movie adaptation.

Elsie knows the main principles of life, both human and animal’s. But there are a few moments she doesn’t know. For example, why her mom “disappeared one day, like all cow moms do. We’re taught to accept that. That a mom is not forever and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you if she leaves without saying goodbye once the job of raising you from a calf is done.” Elsie doesn’t know where her mom had gone. Elsie has a “bff”, Mallory, “Mallory is seriously gorgeous, like she could definitely model. She could be the cow on the milk carton.” Elsie and Mallory keep an eye on young bulls, which are kept in a different paddock. Then two cows case a plan: when two owner’s sons will forget to lock the gate, the cows will use this to escape their paddock and at nighttime join young bulls and play with them. Thus adventures will start.

David Duchovny has joined the already significant number of stars who are not satisfied with Hollywood fame – they want literary fame as well. Actor, director, screenplay writer, musician mounted another top – has written a novel. To my surprise, the result is not bad at all. I’d even say good.

Holy Cow can’t be categorized, as it doesn’t stick to one genre. Duchovny plays in literature: his novel is a parody on Madame Bovary (the novel’s protagonist and the heroine of Flaubert’s novel share the name), a postmodern fairy tale, a fantasy screenplay (a number of dialogues in the book are presented in a screenplay form), a very funny coming of age novel. Any mysticism is absent here (and that may seem like something strange), unlike plenty of good laughs (there is no shortage of them).

The novel is written in teenage slang, especially its first, “farmer”, part, with jokes, particular kind of words, dialogies a la cartoons with animals like Ice Age and such, and this recklessness of the style suggests that Duchovny had written his book during three nights while he took a bath. And still. The important thing is that the book is written in one uniform style, the novel’s narrator has her own voice, and I can’t say that this book is a potboiler written solely for the money. Even the level of jokes has interesting variety, from toilet or poop jokes to Torah jokes.

Throughout the novel Duchovny (or his protagonist) jokes that this book sooner or later will be adapted to the screen. There is strong chance it will. Nevertheless, the author tirelessly makes fun of Hollywood (and of publishing industry, too), yet the books is so postmodernistically done, that it’s unlikely it will ever find a suitable and talented director who will make a worthy adaptation. This is so _written_ book, that holds for the paper, not adaptable at all.

Duchovny, though the dialogues between Elsie and the editor, translates one more important aspect of the book. What are the audience it was written for? For adults or for young adults? Yes, the books has enough teenage slang, teenagers jokes, the whole plot is rather coming of age. I wouldn’t stick Holy Cow to the YA department. Duchovny sometimes uses not so young adult language, plays with adult reader, he’s open for both categories of readers.

Americans, having this book finished, will cry “holy cow!”. And they are right: holy cow indeed, smart, funny, engaging novel.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Anthony Quinn

Head of Zeus, 2014

Retired Special Branch agent David Hughes, suffereing from Alzheimer, disappears from his home, where his sister is looking after him. Because the old spy is almost helpless, the police assumes Hughes was kidnapped or even worse. Soon a retired legal clerk is found murdered and tortured under the tree. The victim, Joseph Devin, had a murky past, and his death is somehow connected to the disappearance of Hughes.

The main protagonist of the story, transferred from Belfast to small town in Northern Ireland, Inspector Celcius Daly doesn’t know that. In fact, he even doesn’t realize that both men worked with Special Branch, where Hughes was a detective, and devin was an informer. Daly is assigned to investigate both crimes, he hits many dead ends (no surprise because Special Branch doesn’t want Daly to mess in their business), until he makes a connection, linking Devlin and Hughes to another disappeared man from 1989, Olilver Jordan, who, it’s been said, was an informer for Special Branch while being in IRA.

I expected from Disappeared something more, and after finishing it it became evident to me that behind us is a mediocre thriller, poorly written, poorly structured and not involving at all.
Sentence by sentence, Quinn writes not that bad, for he was a journalist, and he mastered a bit of a craft. Once sentences start to form paragraphs and chapters, the prose become one crumbly bulk barely moving forward. The novel suffers from the need to follow all the rules of modern british crime thriller, and these rules, it seems, are handed out to writers by editors. Here we have a lone sleuth, who returned home, secrets of the past, chapters written from POV of many side characters only making already muddy picture more blurred. Quinn as a slave obediently follows these rules, only as a storyteller he is nothing special, with not enough abilities to pull his novel, relying on clichés and types, through. After promising start with the background of Northern Ireland after the Troubles, the story bogs down, turning into a beaten plot when policeman hunts down the murderer.

Dragging style is complemented with emotional void of the prose. Tragedies of the past and modern political atmosphere in NI as important topics aren’t worked out. Behind us is a mystery, or thriller to be more precise, where not sufferings of soul and analysis of an issue matter but only when the main hero catches the villain.

Disappeared is a poorly structured thriller, it shouldn’t be called a mystery. The final disappoints, first, because instead of fiar solution Daly would present, we get unconvincing confessions from the main villain, and second, the villain itself and his motives materializes from the air, so much for the fair play. All motives are motivless, the final reveals plot holes, and the novel leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Piercing topic of lives in NI after the bombings and killings stopped was trampled to the ground.

I will add the author to my blacklist, where 90% of British thriller writers already are.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Shovel Ready

Adam Sternbergh
Shovel Ready

Crown, 2014

Near future New York. After two terrorists attacks where dirty bombs were employed several smaller attacks followed, which caused panick and climate changes. The Big Apple soon was abandoned by most, few remained, and class differencies divided remaining citizens into seperated ghettos. Poor started camping in not so long ago public spaces, and the rich retreated to the comfort of their homes, for the comfort you only needed a few bodyguards. Without any will to live in a dirty, dangerous city, the rich have chosen another reality, the limnosphere, Internet of the new type, where one can live a life he creates for himself. The more money you spend on virtual reality, the more real it will be. You don’t need to live in reality, your body in coffin-like bed will be taken care of by a hired nurse, and your home will be protected by bodyguards. If you thought of that.

If not, the your are an easy prey for a hired killer, who can crawl into your home and kill you in your sleep. This method is the favorite method of Spademan, the protagonist of this novel. He’s ex-garbage man, after one incident turned to murder-for-hire business. “I kill men. I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.
I do it for money. Sometimes for other forms of payment. But always for the same reason. Because someone asked me to.”
He doesn’r ask questions and he doesn’t need to hear clients’ stories. New client hires Spademan to track down young girl Grace Harrow, and kill her. The girl leaves a blood trail beside her, and when Spademan finally has caught up with her, he can’t kill her. Because she’s five month pregnant. He’s signed up to protect her from the client who hired him, he’s also girl’s father.

The novel is selling as a hired killer novel, which is misleading, because it isn’t. And that is the first step to disappointment. Spademan is only nominally a hired killer, soon after the start he turnes to the role of private eye in a cyberpunk world, honest knight on a white horse, who is ready to defend every girl. Sternbergh sould be on the same shelf, as such masters of hired killer novels like Thomas Perry, Max Allan Collins, Lawrence Block. “Shovel Ready” has only a few similarities with the works of this sub-genre, among them is powerful beginning where Spademan describes the rules of his work.

All in all, the book is one big cliché, mediocre cyberpunk thriller, with only one correction that it’s written almost in free verse and that Sternbergh doesn’t use quotation marks in dialogues. The main problem with this book, as I see it, is laziness of the wit and anbsense of enough real-life experience to write believably about fanastical world. For his world Sternbergh borrowed too familiar tropes and elements from old SF. His idea of virtual reality Maxtrix-style and retreat of the rich to virtual world while their bodies are taken care of is that old and was used so many times that rarely an author from SF community will use it. Half-abandoned, dirty New York is detailed with love and care, yet tis is more like an ode to the favorite city, writing with a nostalgic tone, than a proper world-building. Sternbergh lets too much nostalgie sink into his novel. Instead of creating new ideas Sternbergh utilizies a few old ones: the protagonist uses “old” Internet, reads newspapers, avoids the limnosphere, uses subway. The world-building of the city is so-so, it’s just dirtier and more corrupted version of NYC.

Employed for his own purposes old SF elements, plot-wise the author employs elements of thrillers and action novels. A hired killer, instead of killing his client, starts to protect a victim – We have seen a hundred times. A team of the protagonist’s helpers almost in it entirety came from a different sources. Pregnant runaway girl, crazy pastor, hired muscles, dead protagonist’s wife – Shovel Ready should be called novel-collage. Through these clichés Sternbergh tries to satirize class-divided world, only fails when his satire drowns in a large pool of blood, guts, and mindless action scenes tiring you out.

The plot is predictable from start to finish, and all what’s you are left with is to pay attention to the style. Sternbergh relies heavily on dialogues, and they are nothing outstanding, and experiments with the prise, writing short, abrupt sentences, similat to free verse. It works in some scenes (particularly in the beginning and when Spademan recalls his first victims), and fails in others. Dull thriller written in verse is still a dull thriller.

Spademan already became series character, yet after this debut you feel no need to pay attention to the series. Where is my shovel? I need to bury this book deep.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ross Thomas on race

My theory is that we either ought to give the niggers their rights—not just lip service, but every blasted right there is from voting to fornicating, that we ought to make them have all these rights and enforce their right to them by law, and I mean tough, FBI-attracting law, until every man jack of them is just as equal as you middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I said either and I mean it. Either we give them the right to marry your daughter, if you got one, and fix it so that they’ll not only have the same social and educational rights that you have, but the same economic rights—the same ways and means that you’ve got to the pursuit of happiness out there in one of those fine suburban developments instead of in a slum. And then they’ll be just like you white folks with all your sound moral values, your Christian virtue, and your treasured togetherness. ’Course, they might lose something along the way, something like a culture, but that ain’t nothing. Now I say either we do that for them—make ’em just like everybody else—or, by God, we ought to drive ’em down in the ground like tent pegs!

- from The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas

I'm afraid Americans have chosen the latter.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Somebody Owes Me Money

Donald Westlake
Somebody Owes Me Money

Random House, 1969

Part of Forgotten Books Friday

NYC hack Chet Conway gets a tip from a shady underworld character to bet on a pony that should bring good money to Chet. Young cabbie, who happens to be an obsessive gambler, places a bet, the horse wins, Chet, happy as a horse (if horses could experience happiness) and almost $1000 richer, goes to his bookie’s apartment to get his winnings. The bookie is killed, the widow is screaming murder, and Chet suddenly is not sure who does he get paid from. And all bets are off.

In the beginning of the novel there has been a snow collapse in NYC. We survived a pretty intense snow collapse in last year’s October. It was two meters of snow in two days. And though NYC of the 60s is not small town Russia of 2010s, let me tell you that all that running around and racing through the streets as it happens in the novel is close to impossible. Not less impossible is also running around in summer clothes only. Why would Westlake need to create this collapse for his book? Argh, so much for realism in fiction.

Though it is considered as a comic caper, Westlake used a couple of new approaches more suitable for his serious enterprises. His Mafia-type characters started to have Italian names (and that is before Slayground; Westlake was there before Stark), their speech became closer to life. I think in this book mobsters for the first time for Westlake spoke with Brooklyn accent.

Once again the theme of corruption in the police reoccurred here, as it constantly were in Westlake’s previous books. This time it’s not some patrolman, but a homicide dick. One would begin to doubt if police in the US ever held a non-crooked cop. Still, I was skeptical, while reading, that a homicide cop would be bought (yes, history has seen some examples), and this cop would be bought by this particular family. Homicide detectives work in pairs, and it’s doubtful that Golderman could be useful to Mafia in this case.

I myself have similar attitude to police. Every cop personally whom I knew and know, are honest and hard-working man. I enjoyed working with cops, while I worked in paper, I enjoyed learning from them how their work is done. My school history teacher after some years in school quit, and had gone on to be in investigator, analogues to D.A. investigator in the US. While he was a teacher, he had been very friendly with me, we were always joking with each other, always messing and kidding around. I even supplied him with VHS cassettes, me, 13-year-old kid. Then he became sort of a cop, and died very early from a heart attack. Was he a bad man? Absolutely no.

Yet the whole police system, as always any system, is rotten to the core. Good people, evil system. And I don’t have any single reason to like this system.

That being said, I found it difficult to believe that Chet would go to Golderman for help, being on the run from the mob. Mob first rule is never talk to police. Chet, going to police, signed his death warrant (only that the cop was bought, and no one cared). Slippery plot move.

Another thing that made me wonder is Chet’s age. He’s 29, roughly my age, he’s a cabbie in NYC, and probably I am applying modern realities on New York of the 60s, but how many young men today in NYC work as hacks? Westlake clearly stated Chet’s age, yet for me the protagonist does seem older, maybe early 40s. His habits, his world view, his character features, they all scream at you: older!!! The protagonist’s occupations was also a useful plot feature.

I found this novel not in the least funny. I liked it fine, mostly because of the usual set-up of Westlake’s gangster stories, where the protagonist first talks to all other parties involved, and then gathers them in one room to reveal whodunit.

There were a couple of moments that made me smile (particularly the scene in Goldman’s house), but that is all. In fact, I laughed more reading Westlake’s serious works.

I liked Somebody Owes Me Money fine, but I’ve read better Westlake.