Black Wave by Michelle Tea

When I was in college, I was friends with a group of women who shared a flat on Divisidero Street in San Francisco, decades before it became a trendy neighborhood.  In the 1980’s, four college students living on four or five hundred dollars a month  each could come up with enough money to rent a flat.  As longs as no one spends all the rent money on cocaine.

One month, that happened.  The leaseholder, who collected all the cash, spend the rent money on cocaine.  When the land-lord came to call, they almost all ended up on the street.  One of them managed to convince the landlord to give them an extra month to come up with the money and to move the lease over to a different room-mate.

The former leaseholder, the one with the fondness for cocaine, was evicted by consensus.

So, yes, I do understand that addiction is a disease, but the rent is the rent.

Which is why I have less patience for stories of addiction than I might have.

Which is why I had a tough time with Michelle Tea’s novel, Black Tea.  I should have liked it more.  The first half of the story is set in San Francisco, much later, some 30 years or so, than my college days, but familiar territory that I am fond of. The main character is a lesbian woman who shares the flat with a series of roommates and girlfriends.  She even works in a book store.  But, boy does she use a lot of drugs. I kept thinking as I read her story that her roommate should throw her out.

So I found it all very tough reading in the same way I found Charles Bukowski’s Ham and Eggs tough reading.  I just don’t have much interest in stories of how far addicts go to serve their addiction be it alcohol or hard drugs.

Still, since Black Wave is in the Tournament of Books this year, I kept reading.  I think I’m glad I did.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!

Just short of halfway through the novel, the story shifts to Los Angeles.  The main character then turns to the reader to admit that not all of what she has told us so far is true.  The girl she introduced briefly as a sort of one-night-stand was really a long-term girlfriend.  She just didn’t want to be included in this “memoir.” Other details had been changed as well. So what’s really going on.

In Los Angeles we discover that the world is about to end.  Things are decaying around the main character who manages to get a job in a bookstore like the one she had in San Francisco.  Things get worse, gradually then dramatically.  It’s an unclear end of the world scenario that features the main character in a bookstore strewn with unshelved books, reminding me of Paul Auster’s wonderful novel In the Country of Last Things.  But Mr. Auster and Ms. Tea are up to very different things.  Ms. Tea is doing something much more in line with Samuel R. Delany’s Dahlgren in which a city, probably New York, decays in chaos while the hippie-like main characters build a temporary utopia amid the soon to be ruins of civilization.  I loved Dhalgren and came to enjoy the second part of Black Wave.

But what really surprised me about Black Wave is how moved I was at the ending. Even though I was enjoying the book by the end, I did not expect to care about the main character, this drug addled hipster with an attitude she is in no position to hold.  But I was.  The final scene, her last moments of life, struck me, profoundly struck me.

I did not expect that, not at all.

So I think I’m recommending Black Wave. 100 pages into the book I was ready to lay it aside for good, but by the final words on the last page I was thinking I might read more by Michelle Tea.  I think that’s a recommendation.

Drive by James Sallis

Drive is the best movie I have seen in a long, long time. I loved it so much I watched it twice in a row.

And then went out and got the book.

The book is very good, but the movie is better.

The story concerns a young man who works by day as a stunt driver for movie productions in Los Angeles and by night as a driver for various criminal gangs.  There is no better driver around.  All he does is drive.  He does not carry a weapon, he does not participate.  He’ll drive you to an agreed upon destination, wait exactly five minutes, and then drive you safely away.  If you take longer than five minutes, or if anything goes wrong, he’ll leave.

He is neither hero, nor anti-hero really. He just drives.

Until he meets the young woman who has moved in next door with her young son.  He soon becomes involved in their lives on a level he has never experienced before.  Maybe it’s love, maybe not.  Before he has a chance to find out, the woman’s husband is released from prison and moved back in with his wife and son.  The driver helps him with one last job, robbing a pawn shop, that goes horribly wrong.

Both the book and the movie have this same basic plot structure and the same set of characters.  The movie also has a sense of visual style that I’ve found missing from most films I’ve seen lately.  The use of color, the warm tones, the way the costumes, settings and color palate resonate with 1980’s style serve to create a noir shadow world.  The script contains very few words.  The driver and the girl next door hardly speak at all.  Instead images and music tell the story.  The music reminded me of the 1980’s French noir film Diva, not because the music was like the music in Diva, it wasn’t, but because of the way the director took unusual music that really shouldn’t be there, but managed to make it all work very well.

The book is different enough from the movie, and good enough to earn my recommendation and to win Mr. Sallis one more fan.  In the original story the driver is a much more fleshed out character.  We get his complete back story along with glimpses into aspects of his daily life and thought processes that the movie leaves out.  There is less of a romance in the book, more of a man on his own just trying to survive.  We also get a different take on the bad guys, one that sheds more explicit light on what the movie only suggests.

There is a sequel to the novel that I just may check out someday.  I’d like to know what Mr. Sallis has in store for his hero. But it’s my sincere hope that it’s never made into a movie. The film version of Drive stands alone and should always stand alone.  There’s no way Diva II would have done anything but cheapen  the first movie.  Here’s hoping Hollywood either knows enough to let Drive be or never notices it enough to bother.

See it.  Read it.

Drive.

 

Looking back today at several clips of the movie on YouTube it’s possible that I may be gushing over the film a little bit more than it deserved.  Back when I first ran this review in early 2012 I was thoroughly in the thrall of Drive. I kind of want to go and watch it again today to be honest.  But, I’ll admit, I may have over-stated its greatness  a little bit, but just a little bit.  

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In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

In 1947, an excellent thriller needed only four characters: two women, one a respectable policeman’s wife the other a woman of questionable character, and two men, one a police detective the other a serial killer.  With these four characters and a small supporting cast, Dorothy Hughes created an excellent noir thriller In A Lonely Place that can more than hold its own against any of her male contemporaries.  I’d argue it can hold its own against anyone writing crime novels today, as well, and it may end up one of my top ten favorite reads this year.

The Los Angeles of In a Lonely Place is in the grip of a serial killer, a strangler who has murdered one woman every 30 days for the past six months, when Dickson  “Dix” Steele decides to contact his old war buddy Brub Nicolai.  The two have lost contact since the war ended and they each returned from England.  Brub is married now–his wife Sylvia is nervous about the strangler and worried for her police detective husband who has been working the case for months.  Dix tolerates Sylvia while milking Brub for details about the strangler case claiming they will help him with the detective novel he is writing, secretly excited by the thrill of being so close to the police officers who are hunting him.

Dix stays in the apartment of another war buddy, Mel Terris, who has left Los Angeles for a job in Rio.  His neighbor is Laurel Grey, twice divorced wanna-be movie star.  The two quickly fall into bed and then into love, but Laurel knows that Dix is broke, living on the charity of a rich uncle, and the terms of her divorce are such that she loses all alimony if she remarries.  Their affair is doomed long before she begins to suspect Dix has not told her the truth about where Mel Terris has gone.

Although In a Lonely Place is about as bare bones as a detective thriller can get,  Dorothy Hughes creates a tension filled, page turning noir story without depicting a single death.   The reader learns that Dix is the killer by the end of chapter one.  The rest of the novel follows him as he grows closer to Brub and becomes more involved in the investigation of his own crimes.  Knowing that he is the killer gives each scene in the book an undercurrent of dramatic tension that builds nicely as the pages turn.  All the narrator has to do is tell us Dix is alone in the room with Syliva, and the reader becomes concerned for her.

It makes for a fun book?

But why is it a feminist book?  (My edition is part of The Feminist Press at the City University of New York’s Femmes Fatales series of pulp fiction re-releases.)  For one thing, while she is not well know today, it’s clear that Dorothy Hughes can write a detective story as well as any of her male peers.  Take this description of Laurel from her first meeting with Dix Steele:

She was like all women, curious about your  private life.  He laughed at her; she’d find out only as much as he wished.  “An old friend,” he laughed.  “Pre-war.  Princeton.”  Princeton meant money and social position to her, calculation came quickly under her skin.  She was  greedy and callous and a bitch, but she was fire and a man needed fire.  “I’m from New York,” he threw in carelessly.  It sounded better than New Jersey.

She was fire and a man needed fire.”  Okay, that’s a bit cheesy, but it’s true enough and certainly a driving force in noir fiction of the pulp era.  There’s an undercurrent of sexuality in noir pulp that exploits as much as it illustrates the moment in American history that produced it.   But how does In a Lonely Place advance a feminist critical stance?

In her afterward to the novel, which is well worth reading, Lisa Maria Hogeland makes the case that Ms. Huges is critiquing Dix’s misogyny as she depicts it.  Take the quotation above and the way it links the hatred of women with lust for them.  The novel stays focused on Dix throughout, though it is not a first person narrative and no attempt is made to offer a psychological explanation for Dix’s psychopathology.  Ms. Hogeland believes this is itself a feminist writing at a time when bad mothers and early experiences with women were often  blamed for misogyny.  Think of how sorry we are meant to feel for Pyscho‘s Norman Bates once we learn how terrible his mother was.  Additionally, Ms. Hughes never places blame on Dix’s victims.  They are never “that sort of girl” like the victims in 1970’s  and 80’s slasher films so often were.  Even Dix himself never puts the blame on his victims, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That crimes against women are solely the responsibility of the men who commit them was a strictly feminist notion in 1947, it may still be today.

Ms. Hughes never depicts Dix’s crimes on the page which Ms. Hogeland reads as a feminist stance in that this makes it impossible for anyone to enjoy their depiction.   Watching the murder of a woman is not  part of the fun in In a Lonely Place the way it is so many detective thrillers.

Ms. Hogeland argues that Dorothy Hughes present three possible motivations for Dix’s crimes.  Early in the novel he is presented as a veteran having some difficulty readjusting to civilian life.  A former pilot, he is nostalgic for the life he lived during the war.  Even at that time the psychotic war veteran was a familiar trope in pulp fiction.  Before he knows who the killer is, Brub argues that the strangler is a killer because he kills, refusing to look further than that for a motive.  By the end we discover that Dix’s murders began when he killed the first girl he ever loved out of jealousy.  Whatever the reason for his crimes, Ms. Hogeland believes that what matters in the end is how normal Dix appears to be.  The fact that he is not visibly different from the men around him is meant to bring the masculinity of the late 1940’s itself into question.  It’s not a comforting idea.

Dorothy Hughes published 14 crime novels during a ten year period, ending her work to take care of her ailing mother. She continued to publish criticism and biographies of the mystery genre and its authors until her death in 1993.  Today only two of her books remain in print.

Maybe a publisher could  re-issue them with fancy covers and new titles, say “The Girl in a Lonely Place.”  I’d love to read more of Dorothy Hughes.

 

Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are,  C.B. back in late 2011, thrillers with the word ‘girl’ in the title continue to sell very well.  What does that say about modern readers?  Why are so many still captivated by “the girl”? Will we ever grow up enough to be as equally interested in “the woman?” 

That bit of snark aside, I admit I had totally forgotten this book until I read the first paragraph above.  Then it all came back to me.  It’s a terrific book.  I highly recommend it. And I highly recommend taking some time to re-read your old blog posts.  You’ll be surprised by how much you have forgotten and by how much your remember. 

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Man, what a ride!

Back when the giant “Hollywood” sign still ended in”Land,” Walter Huff, long time agent for a small time Los Angeles insurance company stops at the Nirdlinger home to get Mr. Nirdlinger’s signature on a routine renewal form.  Nirdlinger’s wife Phyllis informs Huff that she’s alone.  The two quickly begin an affair that ends with a plot to kill Mr. Nirdlinger and claim his 50,000 dollar accident policy for themselves.

Since Mr. Huff knows his business well enough to fool any insurance investigator, the police won’t be a problem.  The two take their time, plan the murder to the smallest detail, wait for the right moment, and almost get away with it.

And that’s all I’ll tell you. Except to say that the book is different enough plot wise and ending wise to surprise fans of the 1944 Billy Wilder movie starring Fred McMurry and Barbara Stanwyck.  It’s just as sexy, too, even if Mr. Cain does go places we might not rather he did.

Walter Huff narrates the novel in classic noir fashion with an attitude jaded from years in the insurance business, but it’s Phyllis Nirdlinger we want to follow.  While Mr. Cain portrays Phyllis as softer in nature than Barbara Stanwcyk does in the Wilder movie, she’s still manipulative, cut-throat, willing to do whatever she needs to gain control of Nirdlinger’s oil money.  She manages to conceal the complete extent of her criminal nature from everyone but Nirdlinger’s teenage daughter and Mr. Keyes, head of the claims department at the insurance company.  To hear Keyes talk, no one ever died of natural causes or actual mishap.  No one with life insurance anyway.

Because Double Idemnity‘s plot will rule the book in the end, Mr. Cain sketches in the setting and the characters with just a few key details.  He manages to provide all we need to know about his Los Angeles setting with a few remarks: Nirdlinger’s Spanish style house with a red tile roof like all the others;  blood-red draperies hanging from an iron rod; a Spanish looking tapestry of a castle, made in Oakland, over the fireplace; Spanish furniture “the kind that looks pretty and sits stiff.”  When Huff first meets Phyllis he sees “a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair.  She was small, and had on a suit of blue house pajamas.  She had a washed out look.”   She has a washed out look, and the book has a washed out feel.  The reader can fill in the rest of the details as needed; Mr. Cain moves quickly on to the action.

And action there is plenty.

James M. Cain was a failure in Hollywood before he was a success.   Early in his career he worked as a screenwriter, but his name appears in the credits of only three films.  However, three of his novels–Double Idemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce–became cornerstones in the film noir genre earning multiple Oscar nominations and placement on most top 100 films of the 20th century lists.  Below is a clip from the first scene Fred McMurry and Barbara Stanwyck share in Double Idemnity.  The dialogue is mostly by Billy Wilder’s co-writer, Raymond Chandler.  The two felt that Mr. Cain’s dialogue worked only on paper.

This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  back in late 2011.  I’m currently reading a book about noir author’s in Hollywood called Heartbreak and Vine, just about to start the chapter on James M. Cain.  So, no, I have not lost my love of noir thrillers.

Of Flesh and Fur by Duncan Barlow

file_001-1It’s not easy to find these books.  Small, very small, independent press books each of them clearly a labor of love at every step of the way.

I found The Cupboard Press at a writer’s and writing conference in Los Angeles last year, two young people sitting at a table in the vast exhibition hall.  I liked their little books, each small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, just about, the length of a novella whether it really is a novella or a small collection of stories or a slightly experimental long form poem.

My subscription gets me four books a year, one per quarter.  Duncan Barlow’s novella Of Flesh and Fur is the third one I’ve received.

I liked it quite a bit.

What happens after a pack of coyotes has been spotted near a Southern California suburb? A man, recently divorced decides he wants to have a child.  There are women who want his sperm, but none who want him to be involved with the resulting baby.  He turns to cloning. Soon he has a baby boy.

Though he loves his son, clones frequently do not turn out the way their “parents” had hoped for.  This child is fine for a while, kind of wonderful really, until the coyotes appear. Then the boy begins incessantly crying. Day and night, non-stop. Finally his “father” is forced to take drastic action.

I thought it was terrific.  An entertaining story that had me thinking.

I look forward to the arrival of the next edition.

You can order a copy of Of Flesh and Fur or subscribe here.

 

Americans and the California Dream by Kevin Starr–Chapter I: Prophetic Patterns 1786-1850

This doesn’t count as a resolution, but on New Year’s Day I finally embarked on reading Kevin Starr’s history of California which currently stands at six volumes, last time I checked.

A few years ago I read his single volume history California and loved it.  Entertaining and informative, a clear eye-ed history of the state written by a man who’s been in love with the place for years.  Kind of like me.

I admit it, I’m a chauvinist.  I love it here.  On my first trip to Europe, the first time I spent the night outside of the United States, a woman selling tourist maps in Dresden asked me if I was from America.  I reflexively corrected her, “I’m from California.” She laughed and pointed at the gray, drizzly sky above.  Why would you leave California for here?

However, like most people in California, I didn’t really know much about the state’s history until I dedicated part of my reading to it.  Quite a few books later, I’m more of an expert than I need to be at least until I retire, move to the gold country and start giving historical walking tours to tourists.  All of which I plan to do someday.

Meantime, I’ve many volumes of Kevin Starr’s history of the state to peruse.  He keeps on writing them, too.

This first chapter is focused on the period when California was part of Mexico. Basically post Mission Period to the Gold Rush. During this time some of the missions were still operating but they were all in their final days.

Some key things I learned:

What the Americans admired about California was also what they condemned about it. During this time there are about 1500 “Europeans” living in California. The Mexican government was never able to convince large numbers of people to immigrate here due to its distance and isolation.  The Californians lived an easy outdoor life according to the written accounts.  There was little work to do since agriculture was so easy. People spent most of their day outdoors, living a largely communal lifestyle.  Wedding parties and other celebrations went on for days.  Races intermingled freely. Class lines were fairly easy to cross.  One Black man, a sailor known only as Bob, jumped ship of the coast,  changed his name to Juan Cristobal, became Catholic, married a local woman and spent out his days as a prosperous land owner.

All of this was both admired and condemned by the Americans who visited California in the first half of the 19th century.  Condemned as a land full of lazy racial mongrels who did not have the enterprize necessary to make California as prosperous as it could be.  They lived comfortable lives along the coast, never bothering to settle the interior which was just waiting for New England farmers with a solid Puritan work ethic to move in and get to work.

Though this was only a brief period of time, a single lifespan is all you need to see the founding of the missions through to their closing, it remains a foundational part of the California mythos.  An agricultural paradise where the living is easy, the people friendly, and the celebrations last for days.

Very early on California figures in the ambitions of the young nation. Secure it and you’ll have a base for trade with Asia making the nation a continental power. Spain, France, Russia and Mexico are all interested as well, attempting to gain a foothold in California’s many harbors.

It’s America with its ethos of Manifest Destiny and its unending stream of migrants heading west that will win out.  The smart money would have bet on it even before gold was discovered.  The Bidwell party arrives in 1841, the first group to make the trip overland.  The Bidwell’s do very well, by the way, even without find gold.

Of course, we should ask about the Native American population.  What happened to the indigenous people is not one of Mr. Starr’s concerns here.  Perhaps this is because the book was first published in 1973, but that’s three years after Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published. Perhaps this is because Mr. Starr’s book is cultural history based on written accounts and other cultural documents which tend to exclude the Native American point of view.  I suspect if he were writing this book today, more space would be devoted to this issue.  He does address pre-contact California in his more recent history California. 

He does point out that while the Mission period was far from an ideal one for Indigenous People, the Americans were the ones who openly put a bounty on Indian lives as a matter of government policy.  A mark of shame on our state and our country.

Top Ten Favorite Reads for 2016.

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Clovis sitting on my reading sofa.

I’m going to stick to my guns here, enforce my long time rule for selecting the top ten list which is “Do I want to read this book again someday?”  The answer must be yes to qualify. Which means there are many books that I loved reading that will not make the list. Lots of books are great books, great reads, but not something I’ll ever read again.  Plot driven books, the sort that rely on surprise to keep your interest. Once you know how it all turns out, you know how it all turns out.  There’s no need to read it again.

To make this list, a book has to offer something more than a terrific first read.  It’s tough standard which means some good stuff, a few bits of great stuff, will be cut, but that’s my rule.

Here in no particular order are my top ten favorite reads of 2016.

  • The Lonely City by Olivia Lang A wonderful non-fiction meditation on living alone in the big city, Chicago and New York. Ms. Lang provides fascinating biographical information on the artists she writes about, men who lived and worked largely alone, but it’s the lyrical writing that won me over.  The Lonely City contains some of the best writing I read all year.
  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles I loved this account of an old man trying to take a seven-year-old girl, raised by Indians, home to her white family across several hundred miles of post Civil War Texas.
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino A catalogue of the cities Marco Polo visited as an ambassador for the great Khan. I loved it and will definitely be come back to it again.  And since it was so much fun, I now have several more by Italo Calvino in my TBR stack.
  • Please Look After Mom by Kyun-sook Shin   I have been somewhat haunted by this story of a South Korean family looking for their vanished mother since I read it last summer. While there is an element of suspense in the story, it’s really the tale an entire society masked as the tale of one particular family.
  • The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks I am very late to the party here.  The story of how a small town bush crash affects both the town overall and the lives of a few key people.  Told from multiple points of view in a way that works to make the whole even greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Mother Tongues by Theodora Ziolkowski  A very small book by a very small press The Cupboard.  you’ll have to visit their website if you’d like to get a copy.  The is a fictional collection of source material the Brothers Grimm decided not to use in their collected tales.  I loved it.  And I love the cover.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante I may not be sticking to my rules here. This is the third book a series of four.  The chances that I will one day re-read them all are slight, I realize. But, in a way, read through to book three should count for something, so I’m listing the third book here.  I intended to start book four today, but found that I don’t have a copy.  Guess I’ll have to go to the book store tomorrow.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Seven Places of the Mind by Joan Didion Classic non-fiction, mostly about California in the 1960’s.  I find quite a bit of non-fiction on my top ten list his year.  The best writing I read in 2016 was found in non-fiction.  This was a surprise, frankly.  If you’ve never read Joan Didion before, this is the one to read. I loved it.  More please.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson I just finish Ms. Woodson’s new novel Another Brooklyn which is very good, but not as good as Brown Girl Dreaming. I’ll be teaching it to my 7th grades late this year.  Wish me luck
  • The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher M.F.K. Fisher invented writing about food.  Maybe not, maybe someone did it before she did, but no one every loved food as much as she did.  Not even me. The opening section on her first oyster is not to be missed. More excellent non-fiction writing.

I’ve already started 2017 with two contenders for the top ten list: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon which I loved and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Castorbridge which is holding up pretty well. this is the third time I’ve read it.

Since I’m not running the TBR Dare anymore, I was planning on joining in The Tournament of Books this year but The Dare has been resurrected by Annabel and Lizzaysiddal.  They have even given it its own website here.  I admit, I was both flattered and happy to see it continue so I immediately signed up.  However, according to the rules, which are still as loose as ever thank you, I could put all the tournament books on hold now so I can still join in.

You can see why I have never 300 books in my TBR stack.