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Archive for April, 2009

RIP J. G. Ballard.

This is isn’t exactly surprising to me — I had known for a while that he was extremely ill — but it’s still a massive bummer. Ballard was not only one of the most visionary and innovative writers of my generation, he was an enormous influence on my own approach to writing (and art in general). The literary landscape will be considerably emptier without his presence.

More obituaries and tributes at ballardian.com.

READING: J. G. Ballard — THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION
HEARING: Throbbing Gristle — TG24 (Cryptic One Club, England)

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useful reading

Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See.

Saving baby robots.

Things not to say in query letters.

Anatomy of a royalty statement.

READING: Ross MacDonald — THE DROWNING POOL
HEARING: AC/DC — HIGH VOLTAGE

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I recently finished reading the Ken Follett novel THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, which was exceptional (and, at nearly a thousand pages, exhausting). It was interesting to me because I was originally familiar with Follett only through the spy novels he wrote earlier in his career, several of which I read when they first appeared in the late seventies and eighties, a time when I was reading spy novels and thrillers by a wide variety of well-known writers, particularly Robert Ludlum, Jack Higgins, and John LeCarre. (I was also inordinately fond of the books of Jack Hoffenberg, a bestselling novelist of the seventies whose work now languishes in obscurity — just more proof that the reading public is far more fickle than you might like to imagine.)

I was never all that enamored of Follett’s spy books because I found his work extremely formulaic and kind of generic, so by the time he got around to writing what is now considered his masterpiece (and by far his most popular work), I had already stopped paying attention to him. I probably would have never read PILLARS at all, in fact, had it not been for an enthusiastic recommendation from my mother, despite the fact that our reading tastes are quite different (to put it mildly).  But I’m glad I did, because it’s an amazing book. Set in the 12th century during the rise of Gothic architecture, the books follows — over a period of approximately thirty years — the story of a mason and his family caught up in the anarchy of an era beset by near-endless wars and struggles between the Church and the King in England. Most of the action is focused in Kingsbridge, England, where a newly-appointed monastery prior faces the difficult task of attempting to build a cathedral, a process that takes decades, while also dealing with the tribulations caused by several enemies (in particular an ambitious and amoral bishop and a loathsome earl who is a thorn in the side of many of the main characters). The main characters are the prior, the mason and his family, and the earl, but there are literally hundreds of lesser characters along the way, all interacting with a number of real historical figures of the time (including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, whose assassination leads to the climax of the book and ultimately results in the undoing of the earl who has been making everyone’s life difficult).

Follett not only manages to do a fine job of accurately depicting the historical setting, but keeps the action consistently moving in a believable manner — no small feat for a book this long — and does an equally excellent job of vividly bringing to life a large cast of characters. Reading the book makes me wonder why his earlier books were nowhere near as good, because he’s obviously capable of excellent writing; the only thing I can conclude is that perhaps he didn’t have as much of an emotional investment in his spy novels, whereas this book was clearly a labor of love. Now I’m definitely interested in reading the recently-published sequel, WORLD WITHOUT END, which takes place two centuries later and features descendants of the first book’s major characters.

After reading such a heavy tome I felt compelled to read something a tad lighter, which turned out to be the Joseph Wambaugh book HOLLYWOOD CROWS. The second in a trilogy of books revolving around police officers from Hollywood Station in Los Angeles, it’s a considerably breezier book (although one of the major characters does meet a grim fate at the end). The Hollywood Station books are less police procedurals than they are a series of loosely-connected black comedy vignettes featuring an often wacky cast of police officers (including two surfer dudes who spend their free time catching waves and speak in nearly indecipherable surfer lingo). The books are a satirical look at both Hollywood and the absurd bureaucratic entanglements bedeviling officers in the LAPD, and their realistic (and frequently surreal) feel is enhanced not only by the fact that Wambaugh was an LAPD officer himself at one time, but spent considerable time and effort before each book interviewing cops to gather the bizarre and sometimes hilarious anecdotes that form the backbone of each book. In some ways I prefer the earlier, grimmer style Wambaugh favored in books like THE NEW CENTURIONS, but he is definitely capable of being extremely funny. I sure wish he’d cut down on the exclamation point abuse, though.

READING: Ross MacDonald — THE DROWNING POOL
HEARING: Throbbing Gristle — TG24 (Architectural Association, London)

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Earlier this week I read THE NEW CENTURIONS, the 1971 debut novel by Joseph Wambaugh, and one of the best police procedural novels ever written. A large part of what makes it work so well is that Wambaugh was an LAPD cop himself when he wrote the book, and much of the book — including a terrifying section depicting the Watts riot from the point of view of several police officers attempting to restore order to a city under siege — is based on his own personal experiences working for the LAPD. The novel follows the progress of three uniformed officers, beginning with their enrollment in the police training academy and ending in the aftermath of the Watts riots, and was unusually frank for its time, depicting police officers as real human beings caught up in the pressures of an exceptionally difficult and dangerous job.

Tonight I watched the 1972 film version starring George C. Scott and Stacy Keach. As I expected, the film falls far short of the book, as an artistic statement and even in terms of sheer entertainment value. The book is better on every level; the novel’s complex plotting and intertwined stories are squashed by the limitations of the film’s running time and budget, and much of what makes the book interesting (in particular, the back story of the characters and the philosophies involved with their behavior and moral dilemmas) ends up being jettisoned in the movie in order to keep it action-oriented. The plot of the film isn’t significantly different than that of the book (although some plot lines have been merged and others dropped entirely to keep the running time down), but without the nuanced philosophical underpinning that Wambaugh brought to the book, the same plot is ultimately kind of boring on film.

Sometimes it’s instructive to read a book, then view the film version, and compare the differences. This is one of those times.

On an unrelated note, I’d like to offer a shout out to my brother Mark, who sold a story today. Rah rah! Fezzes for all!

READING: Joseph Wambaugh — THE BLUE KNIGHT
HEARING: Throbbing Gristle — HEATHEN EARTH

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