Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Annual Promise to Not Watch The Oscars

 Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood: After This, the Fun Ended

First, I owe all who read last year’s rant an apology. An apology for breaking my promise.
Yes, I swore—right hand on Katz’s Film Encyclopedia,  left on my heart, blue eyes on a clear heaven--I would not watch last year’s Oscar telecast.

But, I must confess, my pledge was not kept.

But it is only because I was tricked. Deceived, I say! Curse you Tim for your deceptive invitation! Curse you, Aaron and Marcy for your cruel enabling by plying me with fine liquor to keep me from nobly walking out of that cursed Oscar Party, my head held high, my soul unsullied.

. . . but I just had to stay to watch Jeff Bridges get some reward after so many years of fine work . . . .

Again, I apologize.

Now: on February 25, 2007, the Italian composer Ennio Morricone strode onstage at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood to pick up another of the awards that he’s been collecting for over 40 years—one he’d earned dozens of times over—that gold-plate hat stand nicknamed Oscar. With Clint Eastwood gamely translating, he delivered an emotional acceptance speech in Italian, with a special dedication to his wife, Maria (who was seated with Quincy Jones—what an endorsement!).

As Morricone strolled offstage to his well-earned standing ovation, I smugly feasted on my satisfaction that the world had caught up with me. Then I grabbed the remote: PBS was showing a Nature documentary on the Andes, no music by Morricone, but featuring set and lighting design by some fella name of God, who never wins (and maybe that's why the world always seems to be ending).

I—almost--haven’t watched the Oscars since.

FADE IN: The Year, 1974 ((David Niven and the male streaker “parading his shortcomings”). The place: a theatre party in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I watch in amazement as The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, takes home nine statuettes.

What, my young mind swoons, was that about? An ex-movie reviewer and sensitive young theater artiste and high-minded—but rather bad--actor, I’d been patient over the years as much better films by Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick  et al were shut out, ignored. What is this Sting, this ornate, but forgettable romp, doing floating away on clouds of acclaim as though it were Ben Hur, which, even fifty long years later, still rolls and storms with genuine oomph and artistry?

For sixteen years after, I blindfold myself on Oscar night.

CUT TO the late 1980s: I commence a major push into the screenwriting profession. Whatever profession you choose, you educate yourself about it, explore even its most arcane corners. And so, subscriptions to Daily Variety, Premiere and screenwriter-related publications. I become one of those irritating pedants, able to tell the tale of the screenwriter who claimed to direct the final scene of Casablanca, as I pontificate how screenplays themselves might someday be recognized as a form of epic poetry (I’m still waiting for that Nobel.)

I travel to screenwriting conferences from Hollywood to Austin, Texas, where I pitch and grovel to agents and producers, to the point where a friend occasionally asks:

“Don’t you wash your nose once in awhile?”

In the meantime, I start to watch the Oscar telecast again. Every single year.

In the end, I’ve never so consistently embarrassed myself with my neediness and greed; nor will I ever be subjected to such fruitless encouragement (most of the people I met were nice).

But my screenplays did get better and better until--

CUT TO: September 11, 2001. I realize that no one, including me, will be in the mood for my terrorist-plot screenplay. And by the time that cloud has passed, I’ll be too old, by industry
standards, to even be acknowledged as a breathing life form. (“People over forty,” the saying goes in Hollywood. “Don’t their teeth turn brown and fall out?” Yeah, I made that up, but keep reprinting that legend, please.)

Even then, I am already souring on screenwriting. A fellow screenwriter who ripped up her roots to move to Hollywood with her children told me a story of being shown around her son’s new private school and seeing the following sign (quoting from memory):

“Please be aware that many pupils of this school may be parented by employees of the film and television industry, so please use caution in expressing your opinion about any production or program.”

Joseph Stalin would have loved Hollywood.

But even as this latest dream swirls down the sink, I watch the Oscars ev-ery, sing-le year until 2007. And, right now, I’d share with you some dear memories . . . but I don’t have many: 

An irritated Billy Crystal finding himself upstaged by old lion Jack Palance (“I crap bigger than him.”), followed by Jack’s set of one-armed push-ups. Something about Stanley Donen dancing with Oscar. Clint Eastwood getting his statue for Unforgiven. There was Letterman, Oprah, and Uma. A glimpse of Lee Van Cleef’s cruel visage in the tribute to il Maestro.

I have more fun in those nightmares where I'm naked while appearing in Death of a Salesman.

Nothing fun has happened at the Oscars since the days of Sacheen Littlefeather, Mr. Niven, or Clint desperately
covering for a traffic-jammed Charlton Heston. The Academy has put itself in the untenable position of putting an entertaining live show where nothing messy—therefore entertaining--happens.

During my Oscar-watching years, the mouths of friends would extrude with tangy foam as they ranted about how unfair, unjust and a Crime Against Humanity that Silence of the Lambs (1990) won Best Picture instead of JFK. I shrugged, the All-Knowing Sophisticate. As a wannabe screenwriter, my
interest in the awards had turned pragmatic and political: I could be happy for Clint and charmed by Stanley Donen, but the reasons the Academy decided to award their awards became more interesting to me.

As I grew increasingly fidgety (while suffering through those almost-always terrible Best Song productions), I saw my own fascination lay in the fact that I wanted to become one of them. It was an industry in which I wanted to be employed.

And so, to me, its actually mattered little who won. Really,  Silence of the Lambs is no more distinguished than The Sting  . . . or Going My Way (Best Picture, 1945) or Slumdog Millionaire (2009). Not a damn one of those pictures is fit to play in the same multiplex as Citizen Kane

Braveheart (1995) was no Ben Hur, but Mel Gibson won best director because everyone who works in Hollywood knows that 1) making an historical epic even halfway decently is extremely difficult and should be credited; and 2) they all still liked Crazy Mel back then. 

A lot of insider politics with a little of the personal and sentimental, less box office than you would think and not too much ART: That's Entertainment!

For a moment, let’s pretend that I’m not writing about Hollywood, but the American Association of Widget Makers. Every year, the AAWM holds it annual convention in ohhhhhh . . . Turlock, California.

The  widget industry’s brightest stars from all over attend. They show off last year’s widget models. Toward the end, after waves of drunken hoo-hahing, there’s an awards ceremony: Best Widget for a Toyota Gas Pedal, Best Widget Used on the Titanic, etc.

Sure, there are major differences between the AAWM and the Academy and their parties, but I want to point to two major similarities and one major difference that are germane to this discussion.

First, a similarity: Both the AAWM and the Academy parties are private industry affairs, held for the benefit of manufacturers and their employees.

Now, for that single overarching difference: You and I cannot watch the AAWM party on our viewing devices. We can’t even get in the door.

The other major similarity: Both parties don’t give even half a damn what we think.

Nor should they. At all.

In fact, if Hollywood really wanted, they could return to 1928, when the first Oscar ceremony took place behind closed doors, sans media. They could cut that carpet up for cat scratching posts, roll drunkenly out of taxicabs, turn away the Media like Jesus whupping the ass out of the money lenders and lock the doors, all the while jabbing middle fingers in the air like the Koch Brothers: “We’ll award Best Picture to Birdemic: Shock and Terror if we want to, you stinking proles. Deal with it!”

Maybe you are wonderful Roger Ebert or you are Ain’t It Cool News, Whoever we are, our opinion doesn’t count. Me, I don't care. I took my dog out of that hunt.

Of course, there’s too much money involved now for Oscar to close its door to the public, even as audiences dwindle. Hollywood’s desperate glitter has become too infused into Worldwide Pop Culture Web for them to follow the best practices as defined by the AAWM. After all, what if we stopped going to the movies?

Or, what if you stopped going to the movies. Because, Oscar or no Oscar, I still love the movies. To me, the movies are the cake and the icing. The chefs can pat themselves on the back and drink until they pass out, face down in the gravy boat, without me.
Every year reviewers write inherently boring articles about how boring the Oscar telecast is, like one of those boring Michelangelo Antonioni movies about how boring life is. I only glance over them to see if James Franco chewed his arm off, Meryl Streep suffered a bile attack, or Charlie Sheen strangled a puppy while singing “I See the Light.” Then I’ll watch the clip on YouTube.

So, on Sunday night, instead of expending our better emotions on a dreary parade, Elizabeth and I have this DVD to watch, entitled The Secret in Their Eyes. It’s from Brazil. I think was
nominated. Last year? This year? Not sure. Shoot me an e-mail if you know. I’ll look at it Monday morning.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Snake in the Alley: Lee Van Cleef's Film Noir

Very bad, very big trouble;
probably a publicity still
from Guns, Girls, and Gangsters

[The following was contributed to a blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Film for a Film Noir Foundation Restoration Drive:

All fans of movie villains know—or should know—the name and the face: Lee Van Cleef, the veteran character actor who snaked through over 90 movies and 100 TV appearances. One of the movies’ most enduring and endearing bad guys, he’s mostly remembered for starring in spaghetti westerns, especially his superbly creepy turn as Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—his terrorizing of the poor farmer at the opening remains one of the most unnerving portrayals of stalking evil I’ve seen on screen.

If snakes could walk, they’d all strut like Lee Van Cleef.

For awhile after, Van Cleef became a big star in Europe, his high-boned sneer appearing in movies of varying—and declining—quality. In the years before stardom, though, Van Cleef enlivened many a crime drama with his handsome reptilian coil and low menacing growl. His steely presence and hawk-like visage lit up even the worst movie or TV show. The camera simply loved him, even though bigger stardom never really came his way, like his many fans—including me--hoped it would. (Even David Thomson writes a fond tribute in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film.)

Two of Van Cleef’s most notable roles were in two famous noirs from the 1950s: The Big Combo (1955) and Kansas City Confidential (1953).

In The Big Combo, Van Cleef plays Fante, one of a pair of gay hit men (the other, Mingo, is played with puppy-like winsomeness by Earl Holliman). The two perform wet work for gangster Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), who, in turn, is being obsessively pursued by Lieutenant Diamond (Cornel Wilde).

(In an interview some years ago—and I’m working off memory here—Holliman admitted he and Van Cleef were well aware of Fante and Mingo’s relationship, even wearing each other’s pajamas.)

Fante and Mingo are relatively small prey in this cat and mouse game, but both Van Cleef and Holliman are helped by Phillip Yordan’s script, Joseph H. Lewis’s direction and, maybe, best of all, John Alton’s superb black and white cinematography. Alton—who also shot  the main dance sequence of
An American in Paris—created one of the starkest palettes in film noir, shooting in high contrast black and white in nearly every scene, especially the violent ones—absolute black shadows cut with white light and blasts of smog. The whole film smells like a an alleyway garage. (Visit this site to see some of his striking work).

Alton marvelously exploits Van Cleef’s unique presence. In some scenes—especially in the torture scene involving poor schmo Brian Donleavy—Alton lights him to look like exactly like an alley rat. Van Cleef is such a strong personage, we’re a little sorry to see him killed, as he mostly was in picture after picture.

Van Cleef had a much chewier—and more delightful role—two years earlier in Kansas City Confidential, a crime drama starring John Payne, Preston Foster and Colleen Gray. Confidential is a trip to what I call Bad Guy Heaven, because two of Van Cleef’s accomplices in this heist-gone-wrong picture are bulldog-faced Neville Brand and sweating, wall-eyed Jack Elam, two other fine villains from that golden
era of character actors. All three make for a perfect Three Bad Stooges.

Van Cleef has easily the best role as the wonderfully sleazy Tony Romano, one of the three thieves hired by chief bad guy Foster to pull off a heist and then hide out at a Mexican resort to divide the loot there. Tony Romano is a romantic manqué: an idiot drenched in the delusion that he’s smart and sexy
catnip to the ladies and cleverer than both his treacherous boss and good guy Payne.

It’s a delightful role for Van Cleef—the best from that period in his nearly 40-year career--and he plays this cheerfully brutal moron like he was born to it, while cinematographer George Diskant never misses a chance to frame the actor’s handsomely cruel face to full advantage. (Visit his fan site and take note of the large number of women who post there).

While a limited actor, Van Cleef is such fun in this movie, it’s frustrating to realize it didn’t immediately open the door to bigger things—say in Zachary Scott-type roles as fiendish romancing cads. Much too soon, he fell to the back row with his fellow character villains, sometimes in support of lesser players in boring movies. 

Lee Van Cleef was more professional actor than ambitious star-artist, a man who went where the jobs were and always tried to do his best, the most professional of actors and one of those I most love to hate.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Brief Adventure of Crazy Tom the Bookseller

 Somewhere Between John Brick and James M. Cain, lies Dragon's Ark
I stood with notable and distinguished bookseller Bill Maxwell (not long after his silver-throated wife, Wendi, purchased my bongo drums), looking at the rambling ramparts of book-packed boxes I’d constructed for the yard sales I held as Elizabeth and I at last departed from Emeryville.

“I can’t believe I bought so many books,” I moaned, guilt's tarry stain sinking deep within, “and read so few of them. And now I’m getting rid of them.”

Bill said something about thirty percent and I said, “What?”

“Thirty percent,” Bill repeated. “Among book collectors, about thirty percent of what they buy doesn’t get read.”

“Cigarette smoking used to be popular too,” my thoughts grumbled, dismissing the appeal to common sloth. So much money spent to so little effect. But I may have learned a lesson. When I was a Spartan bachelor, rooming in various warrens, I was particular about what was shelved. When I became a married man in a big house, the restraints melted like hot steaming putty. I rarely asked, Yes, but will I read it?

The luscious cover, the fancy of its spine gleaming from the shelf were what entranced me. As I write this, I recall few of the unread books I sold or donated to the Oakland Public Library’s
Bookmark bookstore, except for a few obscure, arcane reference books; an apparently unsuccessful
vampires-in-the-White-House novel called A Taste for Blood; a novel called Count Dracula, purporting to be about the historic Vlad Tepes, that looked to be poorly written when I glanced through it awhile ago; my lifelong fascination with Dracula failed to save either of those novels from exile; the rest were undigested potboilers.

As the Man from Bookmark, crawled into his station wagon, its rear packed with my books, I joked: "Who knows? I may stop by your store and buy 'em back."

"Yup," he said, "I done that myself."

I have memories for the books I sold or gave away and did read. Farewell Operation Mincemeat. Adios to the fine Loren Estleman westerns as they galloped off into the sunset, though I held back a few to sell on E-Bay (whenever I get that scheme going). Good-bye to Book Club editions of Westlake et
al. Friend Tim Stookey picked up the two volumes of Stephen Ambrose’s Nixon biography. I also forced on him a paperback of the wonderful The Case of the Journeying Boy by Michael Innes. Some books simply deserve good homes. I’m not sure what happened to Because of the Cats by Nicolas Freeling,
another delight. Goodbye to the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe mysteries I read, too. I hope you paint the same smiles on other readers that you did on me.

At some point in those three, long, back-ripping weekends, the idea floated up into consciousness that the most valuable objects—whether it’s Michael Innes or that first edition Hemingway worth $2,000—are the things to be bestowed on friends and loved ones for free.

Three sales over three muddy Saturdays. I sold nowhere what I needed or hoped, but every weekend, at least one person carted away at least one box of books. After the first time, I started making bargains: books fifty cent each when you take a whole box. This didn’t seem to help any, even when I
advertised it on Craigslist. One man, a Berkeley grad from the Ukraine--who I recall, said he actually saw Ennio Morricone perform live in London—came twice, the second time with a friend.

For a brief moment, I pondered advertising myself like a classic L.A.-used car salesman, you used to see at

“Come on Down to Crazy Tom’s Used Bookstore! Signed first editions of Ulysses for FOUR BUCKS! With deals like that, he must CRAZY!”

But I decided to spare you. At least for now.

I maybe got rooked for selling my vinyl LP collection (except for the hundred-plus Morricone scores, which I’m trying to place in the care of Greg in Arizona) at one dollar each. This giveaway included my Beatles collection, but market research indicated that the vinyl collector’s market—indeed the
collectors’ market in general—rests in a marketplace Marianas Trench. Not likely to float to the surface again. Unless it’s signed by the Fabs, you won’t see much coin for that first Capitol pressing of Beatles ’65. Too many goods chasing too little interest.

What’s left? Lots of first editions in our new large garage, books I consider worth some money, if not a lot, including a first of Madonna’s Sex;  signed firsts of Anne Rice and Clive Barker; firsts of various books that are simply good and for which I should get something for, even it’s only four bucks. Maybe they’ll bring in beer money.

Also precious: a large collection of horror anthologies I’ve accumulated over the years, including all 22 volumes of the DAW Year’s Best Horror, all six original paperback editions of Barker’s Books of Blood (signed); a near-complete run of Twilight Zone magazine and quite a few other paperbacks by
little-known authors, including Luke Short and Clifton Adams, two nearly forgotten genre writers who need champions.

Upstairs, in the house, the core collection remains: Eric Ambler, Ramsey Campbell, Alan Furst,
Vladimir Nabokov, illustrated editions of Dracula; Peter Straub, Richard Stark. I’ve recently added the brainy, witty and inventive Mr. Innes.

New rule now: For every book I bring home, at least one has to go. So far, I’ve been pretty good. I’ve actually sent away three books for the two new books I’ve brought in.

We’ll see how well I stick with that.

Photos by Author

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Monday, February 14, 2011

At Home, At the Top of the Hill

We’d been staring into the snow-colored plaster walls in the dark house in Emeryville for five days last December, sunk by the dousing of a lovely light, when I turned to Elizabeth and said, “What do you say we get out of here?”

We found our new home in mid-January. After the worst move I’ve ever made (and I’ve made nearly 40), we officially arrived under tilting and sagging towers of bankers boxes—reminding me of medieval siege machines--on February 1. We’re by no means done unpacking yet, but, every once in awhile, a happy cry rises to the ceiling: “Look, dear! Floor!”

We’d been talking about moving to the Piedmont Avenue area for some years. We played often along the avenue and become familiar, friendly faces to a variety of merchants, bartenders and other habitués.

“When we move, maybe we should try to move here,” I sometimes said, while darkly aware that after decades of aiming at and missing every neighborhood I ever wanted to live in, I’d likely shoot wide again, hit something like E-ville. Maybe downtown Hayward. By the freeway. Across from the Southland Mall.

Our new place is a two-bedroom quarter of  a 4-plex near the top of the hill in the hilly Grand Lake neighborhood, California, located between Piedmont and Grand Avenue, east of the 580 freeway, a few blocks west from the independent enclave of Piedmont.

The apartment is estimated to be 900 square feet, a significant shrinkage from our 1,500-foot-square beautifully tiled E-ville palace. We shook off and shed away many objects—at least a good third of my books and Elizabeth’s grand piano. Yet, skin and scale remain. Except for perhaps the piano, there’s been little mourning, at least by me. Tear the bandage, pain bursts and fades quickly.

The front of the new building isn’t much to look at: a plain yellow adobe face, windows at the corners. The garage is what nabbed our attention: no light, no plumbing, but huge, especially by Bay Area standards.

We enter our place on the left, up concrete steps and a paved path between rows of greenery--juniper, fuchsia, Agapanthus, lavender--to a heavy, weathered oaken gate that won’t click

shut; right, up short brick-red painted steps and we’re at our front door in the rear. Shoes off.

The living room—at the back of the unit—is large, cozy and welcoming. It has that beige color now ubiquitous in apartments everywhere—Dentist Office Decor, I call it. I theorize this scheme is popular with landlords, because it provides a blank canvas on which prospective tenants can better paint their own room-scape. Still, nothing beats a well-planed wood floor. In greener circumstances, I’d walk away from such blandness, but when we saw the stacked washer and dryer in the kitchen, we decided to sign on.

Other sacrifices: Both bedroom and office—at the front of the house--are 11’ x 11’ each, whereas the bedroom and office in E-ville were large to enough to swing a pride of lions. Large to where, like the rest of the house, they were difficult to keep clean. The new bathroom is amusingly tiny, with the entrance door and closet door opening into each other, but the shower head is extremely soothing: millions of tiny fingers drum on my sore back. (Among the startling facts I learned from this move, one is that I am now in my mid-50s).

We had DirectTV for eight years and were fond customers, but, unfortunately, the DTV tech and the landlord couldn’t reach agreement about the dish placement, so, with vast trepidation fed by a visit to Yelp!, we signed up with AT&T U-verse—sponsors of the iPhone, a device that so overwhelmed us with fabulousness that we got rid of it before it could empty our pockets. As for the U-verse, so far, so good. The DVR is a definite improvement in the age of atomized individual. I can easily keep up with International Mystery and TCM’s 3:00 am screenings of foreign films and other obscurities.

A more significant loss—to the amateur chef—is the kitchen. The drawer and shelf space is somewhat less than the E-ville house (which had been imaginatively, if not conveniently, designed), but the counter space is smaller, to where there’s likely no room for a microwave. I’ll get used to that again. Until I moved in with Elizabeth eight years ago, I’d never had one, ever. Pots and pans will hang on what wall space we have, a set-up I once found homey and attractive, until it was ruled corny and unfashionable sometime in the 1970s (a stupid era design-wise anyway).

The dining area is also small, so we’ve decided to buy a drop-leaf table, both to save space and to increase the prep area. I’m researching on how to cook well in a small burrow. Advice welcome.

But the biggest, most profound sacrifice of all is this—we can’t have a cat. Memories of Flo and the framed photo of her I gave to Elizabeth will have to do. We listen for her calling from the Shade.

In the Great Scheme, though, these are minor failings. Our new home is warmer, cozier and so much easier to take care of. The acoustics are warm: Bach and Ellington sound softer and sweeter in the soul than they ever did in the grand cave of our E-ville auditorium, as do Ennio Morricone's ecclesiastical scores.

Because we’re on the first floor, there’s little direct sunlight, but the neighborhood is so open to the sky, reflected sunlight softly filters in everywhere, a gold and silver shimmer. At dusk, we can see the golden redness in the west from our bedroom window.

As I edit clients’ material, write these essays and struggle to get Dragon's Ark to market, I look out the soft-curtained window into a wide, bright neighborhood. If I’m lucky and alert, I sometimes see the postman coming up the walk.

It gets better. Come back and see.

(edited on 2/16/11)

Photos by Author

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Unfinished Business #6: Reassurance

 Dragon's Ark: The Music of Hunger at Sunset

In Hollywood and Big Publishing, it often happens like this. The announcement goes out that the release of Young and Hirsute: The Profound and Epic Life of Justin Bieber (or whatever that movie’s called) has been delayed. Sometimes the flack offers an excuse, usually scheduling conflicts with other releases; perhaps outside, real-life events make the release of Justin inappropriate or ill-timed—a sudden epidemic of juvenile alopecia, for example.

Even before the last echo fades into the deep shadows of news cave, mouths flatten and lips curl at either end as snickers pepper the mediascape like buckshot, all bearing the severe message, in that I-might’ve-known tone of voice:

“That means it sucks.” Back to the editing room, back to the soundstage, back to the keyboard to save the unsavable, the child already drowned and lost.

So, to muffle any carping from the peanut gallery, let me reassure everyone that the publication date of Dragon’s Ark is being pushed back from March 15 to April 26, 2011, not because it sucks (which it does not, because David Corbett told me so), but, really, for very banal--and unsurprising--technological reasons, which I’ll explain right now:

With all my emphasis on publishing and distributing Dragon’s Ark as a trade paperback POD, available in local bookstores, I’ve also been determined to see it properly distributed as an e-book. When I decided to start this venture long, long ago--last May--there was really only one e-reader—the
Kindle—standing astride the market and two main online publishing platforms: Scrib’d and Smashwords.

Back in that ancient time, it was simply a matter of an author uploading his book to Smashwords and Scrib’d and then strolling away, swiping his palms, his work done.

No more. As outlaw Pike Bishop might say, “Those days are closin’ fast.” An eternal year has passed and now dozens and dozens of e-readers clatter across the market table like spilled dominoes and, along with them, dozens and dozens of file formats. The digi-scape has churned into such complexity,
the independent publisher-author can no longer distribute his book from his own humble keyboard. Smashwords and Scrib’d are no longer the only dogs in the junkyard and could even—as I mentioned in an earlier essay—fall quickly from sight.

And so, as he has already done with editing and layout and cover design, the independent author-publisher—or at least the ones with ambition--must hire others for help in getting his book to the world, in this case employ the service known as an e-book distributor.

Of course, I’m hardly the first in cyberspace to note this. As evidence, I point out that my first selection for this service—E-book Architects from Austin, Texas, known as the first company to offer this service and still regarded as the main player—has a huge line of customers ahead of me, and all of
them are sure our books are great. As of now, there’s a delay of about 11-12 weeks. No way can I meet my original publishing dateline.

And that's all. Technical issues, pure and simple. You may sigh with relief and needn’t shake your head in pity, for I’ve not earned it. If anything, I hope the wait, the quivering anticipation,
makes readers even more eager, to open that lonely creaking door.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: My layout designer, Joel Friedlander of Marin Bookworks, has done the hard work--and it was hard, as you will read--of cobbling a directory of current e-book conversion companies. My first choice, discussed above, is so backed up with customers now, I may have to go elsewhere! Thanks Joel for this tremendous aid and good luck to everyone!

(Edited 2/10/11)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Late Arrivals: The Books of 2010

 Inspiration Waiting for Sunset in its Banker's Box Coffin

Sure, it’s late for reviewing the books that blazed or drifted under my eyes in 2010 (the Precambrian Era in Internet time), especially now that everyone else is handicapping the best of
2011, but I’m not to blame (though I won’t say that, because that would be whining). 

Besides, no one stands apart like the guy late to the party . . . especially when the host staggers out of bed at 11:00 am to find his tardy guest declaiming to an empty living room.

Poised on the blue peak was my Annual Classic from The Canon, The Complete Fictions by Jose Luis Borges, dazzling shards of world-making by an author I’ve heard of all my reading life, but never got around to until last year. Borges packs so much color, invention and joy into such wondrously small literary cloakrooms, I’m now mortified to take even a whole sentences to say what I can in half.

Also near the snowy summit was David Corbett’s bracing, complex pungent thriller Do They See Me Running? part gripping suspenser in the Greene/Ambler/LeCarré tradition, part caustic look at the politics poisoning the immigration debate, expressed with vivid poetry, evoking stinging sweat and crushing anxiety. I felt the mud slip under my feet, the grit crunch in my teeth, and the pangs of sorrow and fear of desperate people compelled to take a grim journey. A fine work throughout.

Easily my favorite nonfiction was Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre, the truly true thriller of one of the most successful espionage operations of World War II—how a team of British intelligence agents (vividly drawn by MacIntyre down to a dead man) snookered the Nazi empire about their real invasion plans by floating a corpse packed with false invasion plans off the Spanish coast. Never has the fight against evil seemed so inspiring.

Another nonfiction pleasure was The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, the story behind one of the first homicides to face investigation under the magnifying glass of modern police techniques—the horrid 1860 murder of a child, committed in the Elysian English countryside. Told
like the best detective novel, it’s a great true story and a fascinating tour behind the grubby curtains and secret mahogany interiors of Victorian middle-class life. It also shows how the case dovetailed with the rise of crime and detective fiction. The murder remained unsolved for sixty years and even then, another century passed until this marvelous book came long to reveal a fascinating, troubling dénouement.

Back to fictional mysteries: I loved A Private View (from 1951; also known as One Man Show) by Michael Innes, an erudite writer of elegance and wit from England’s Golden Age of Mystery. This sly, funny novel about the alleged theft of a van Meer painting right from under the high-tipping noses of art gallery patrons in 1930s England is worth the time of both art and mystery lovers.

Speaking of erudition, my ongoing, mostly self-guided, exploration of the magic ink-trail left by Vladimir Nabokov continued with second readings of his first novel Mary and the first novel of what is called the “Disaster Trilogy,” King Queen Knave. Mary is a slim sweet slipper of a first novel about a young Russian émigré’s stay at Heartbreak Hotel, while KQK remains a dazzling comic-tragic “gay brute” farce about a naive blunderer’s affair with his wealthy uncle’s wife. I normally leave novels about adultery snug in their dust-coated jackets, but Nabokov’s skill at conjuring enchantment out the grayest material hardly ever fails.

First readings of Nabokov’s Despair and Invitation to a Beheading were, admittedly, somewhat less rewarding. Despair is the third in the “Disaster” trilogy. (Number two is the sublime Laughter in the Dark.) This particular edition was retranslated by Nabokov in 1965. Here, Hermann Karlovich, Russian émigré and pompous twit (and ancestor to Lolita’s villainous paramour, Humbert Humbert) stumbles upon his
supposed exact double, a homeless man, then plots to murder him and switch places with the corpse so he can collect on his own life insurance.

Nabokov also makes this scoundrel a bad writer—a Jack Benny of letters, if you will. My research informs me that Nabokov intended this as an unaffectionate parody of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but your untutored reviewer found himself thinking of James M. Cain (who likely read “Dusty,” as Nabokov calls him). This very dark comedy about a man whose mind is a false mirror is funny for awhile as fatuous Hermann prattles on about his illusory brilliance—like the murderer in Crime and Punishment--but the narrative flattens at the end.

I found Invitation to a Beheading so baffling at first, I started over after a hundred pages. I didn’t mind, though, as Nabokov’s glittering and dreamlike puzzle pieces dropped into their distinctive pattern the second time through. This is a surreal and convoluted trip into the soul of a lonely man awaiting execution for the crime of “gnostical turpitude.” (Translation: being eccentric.) This novel is often compared to Kafka’s The Trial, but Nabokov claimed he didn’t read Kafka until years after he completed this book. Despite the beauty of its writing and Nabokov’s imaginative touches, I found it to be overall as cramped as its setting, and unmoving. As Professor
Nabokov might put it, my spine shivered only a little.

Speaking of exiles, 2010 was the year of the independent author-publisher and the first of these books I’ve liked so far is Farrago: More Stories by Bay Area writer Lucille Bellucci. This is a pleasing collection of stories and feullitons. Ms. Bellucci is a truly multicultural person—born in Shanghai to an Italian-Dutch-Indonesian father and a Chinese mother, she and her family fled from Shanghai to Italy after World War II—from hot pan of revolutionary China to the dismal coal of postwar Italy. To say that puts her apart from much of the rest of us is understatement. Her stories—some of them sketches actually--vary in interest, but the best ones deal with her experiences as a young woman in Italy. Definitely worth a go.

Another small press publication worth your attention is The Space Between, five striking stories by noted by noted bridge rambler John Law. Bring your Dramamine and don’t look down.

The best horror novel I read all year was Ramsey Campbell’s twisting staircase of terror Thieving Fear. While I didn’t see Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter as ranking among my favorites, I adored the volume 1 of his two-volume American Fantastic Tales anthology, a treasure box of gems, some of them unknown to me, including Robert W. Chambers' marvelous The King in Yellow.

Next up: my favorite novels of 1999.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

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Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.