San Francisco is famous for its grand Victorian houses. For instance the "Painted Ladies" around Alamo Square are three and four stories tall, have become a tourist attraction, and are featured in an annual open-house walking tour.
But throughout the city there are pockets of lesser Victorians. On a walk yesterday, I chanced upon this little gem, just one-story tall and probably 25 feet wide. Nonetheless it has a fancy cornice to make it look taller, a hood over the door, a bay window, and lots of trim. The proud owners have given it a three-color paint job.
Local historians can date a house by its decorations. After the Gold Rush of 1849, the city was built up with plain square houses. In the decades that followed, as businesses flourished, new houses became more ornate.
Bay windows became popular after small factories were set up south of Market Street, where they could be fabricated. They were then carted to the building site and attached to the front of the house.
It's amazing to see so much ornament lavished on such a small house. It's even more amazing to see a one-story house surviving in a city where every square foot becomes more precious every day.
Successful writers seem to agree that to be a writer you must be a reader. For me, this becomes more urgent as I write more. Even re-reading an old favorite yields revelations. "So that's how she does it!"
Usually I read what I write, mystery and suspense, but a friend recommended this book (Thanks, Doug!). It's full title is Colorless Tsukuru Takazi and his years of pilgrimage.. I think it's fair to call it literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction (mystery, suspense, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, etc).
Opinions vary on what makes a novel literary or genre. I got my definitions from an article by Laura Miller, book critic at Slate. Here's my summary of her discussion. In literary fiction, the action is like real life: mostly things happen to people. In genre fiction, the action is what life would be like if we had control over our lives.
In this novel, things happen to the title character. The first half of the novel describes the things that happen from the time he is in high school until he is in his mid-30s. At that point, he discovers something that changes his and the reader's understanding of the earlier part of his life.
If this were a suspense novel, it would start with this discovery. Tazaki now has what one genre writer calls a story question. What really happened when he was in high school?
In the second half of the novel, he talks to his friends from high school and comes to understand what really happened, just as the hero of a suspense novel would do. But he does so while continuing to accumulate experiences, as he did in the first half.
The author, Haruki Murakami, has an impressive list of published novels and awards. Clearly people enjoy his books. Those people might find a suspense novel too focused on action. Readers of suspense might find this book too leisurely in its descriptions. We all get to like different things.
I admire Murakami's writing, though I can't see myself writing what he writes. And, by the way, the English translation by Phillip Gabriel is a pleasure to read.
I've already posted a map of Fuchs College and a map of Blanton, Ohio. These are fictional places where most of the action in the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries takes place. This map shows the spatial relation of the college and the town.
I imagined a rural campus located about ten minutes by car from the nearest town. The dotted line indicates a footpath across an open field. Students use it as a shortcut for walking into town. This is central to the plot of Dark Mural, the first book in the series.
The road shown in the upper-left corner crosses a creek and leads to Chillicothe, the only real place indicated on these maps. This fictional road would take the driver to the real route 35.
This area of Ohio is in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, very pretty country with winding roads through wooded hillsides. The land further south flattens out. It would have been farmed by the first Europeans to arrive here, who were English.
The German settlers who came later would have made do with the steeper land. In my imaginary history, they formed a commune, as was frequently done in the mid-1800s. By the late 1800s, their descendents left communal life, sold some of the land, and devoted the rest to establishing the Eden Independent School, which later became Fuchs college.
When we first walked down this section of Pine Street, I wondered why the builders of these houses put the front door so far above the street level. Why not just put it down one floor and call it a three-story house?
I met some folks who are local history buffs and asked about this. To begin with, those garages are not original. These houses were built in the late 1800s. Cars showed up about 40 years later, and garages were added.
Furthermore, these houses were built at the peak of a hill. At that time, the street was higher, much closer to those front doors. Later, the city re-graded the streets to flatten the peaks and make this neighborhood less hilly. For the homeowner that meant, "Build a longer stairway!"
At my library the other day, I was working on publication of the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery (more on that later this month). I needed to be sure about the physical dimensions of the book, but I hadn't brought a copy with me.
Then I remembered the library has a copy in its collection, so I went downstairs to the second floor where fiction is shelved alphabetically by author. After scanning past "Hoffman" and "Holmes," I came to where "Homan" should be and found . . . "Hopper."
After wondering why my book wasn't on the shelf, I ran to the catalogue, looked up "Dark Mural," and discovered it is "Due 01-18-19." It's checked out. Someone is reading it. The first Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, published last September and placed in the collection shortly after, continues to attract readers.
I know this is what we expect books in libraries to do, but this was the first time I became aware of my book doing it.
Last fall I was thrilled every time someone emailed a photo of paperback copies of Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, along with the padded envelope they arrived in.
I've been thrilled every time someone tells me they got the ebooks.
I've been over the moon when someone says they stayed up late to finish one of the books so they could find out who done it.
Compliments and favorable reviews on Amazon are great, and it's nice to sell copies. But the real thrill is just knowing that people are reading them.
There is much to be said about this delightful little book. For now, I'll focus on the most wonderful thing about it, IMHO: it got published!
At about 30,000 words, it is half the length of Stephen King's Carrie. It is also around half the length of most of Agatha Christie's novels. Though it is labelled "a novel" above the author's name, a work of this length has traditionally been called a novella.
For instance, Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is about the same length. It was first published in Liberty magazine and then in a book entitled Three of a Kind, containing three novellas.
In a previous blog post, I wondered why traditional publishers currently demand longer books. My guess: big books justify big prices.
So how did Elevation get published? Stephen King has earned a large following. He sells lots of books. Even if this one is less profitable than, say, The Outsider, the publisher will do just fine.
And that's wonderful! Short books are enjoyable in their own special way, and anything that delivers an enjoyable experience for the reader is good.
Can an author who is not a superstar write and publish a novella? Yes! Look for them wherever ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks are sold.
Recently I saw a description of The File on Thelma Jordan that called Barbara Stanwyck "the Queen of Noir." Her performance in Double Indemnity opposite Fred MacMurray alone would nominate her for that title.
A few days later, walking through the library, I saw this biography propped up, facing out. Unlike the many private eyes who say, "I don't believe in coincidence," I do. This book is proving to be a revelation.
As Wikipedia succinctly puts it, "Orphaned at the age of four, and partially raised in foster homes, by 1944 [at age 37], Stanwyck had become the highest-paid woman in the United States." She made eighty-four theatrically released films in thirty-eight years, playing the lead in all but three, and went on to a long and distinguished career in television.
According to Callahan, Stanwyck's acting was so expressive that in Ladies They Talk About (1933), her character was "a three-dimensional, finally unknowable person, even in the confines of a movie that can only claim to be a first-class, churn-them-out entertainment. Stanwyck dominates the whole film, and it's a classic case of the star as auteur (this picture had two credited directors and a lot of writers)."
This is why I'm putting this post on an actress in the "Writing" category of my blog. Her acting told the story.
And then there's this detail. Stanwyck made five films with director William Wellman, whose "best-known film is probably the first official version of A Star is Born (1937), a property that was based on the embattled marriage between Stanwyck and Frank Faye, a union that Wellman was able to witness firsthand during the filming of the first three movies he made with her." Thus, while making movies with Stanwyck, Wellman also made a movie about her, starring Janet Gaynor.
As the current version of A Star is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, wins awards, the press is full of comparisons with the previous three film versions. So far, I've seen only one other reference to the real-life story that probably started the phenomenon.
I went to Shoplifters expecting a crime-caper, a film full of ironic humor about a rag-tag bunch who survive through petty crime, but are good people underneath it all. I was not expecting noir, but I'm forced to the conclusion that's what I saw.
I doubt anyone thinks of noir when they see the trailer or advertising for this award-winning Japanese film. Most of it happens in broad daylight. The colors are pretty. The people are happy. Where is the darkness that gives noir its name?
Without wading into the quagmire of defining noir, I will recall that in noir films, novels, and stories, the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. This is where Shoplifters throws us a curve. The tone is not grim. It is upbeat.
But the morality is ambiguous to say the least, and . . . well, you'll have to see it and decide for yourself whether the worldview is ultimately pessimistic. A case could be made for that.
At the beginning, it appears to be a crime-caper film. A man and a boy move skillfully through a grocery store plying their trade with hand signals and deft deceptions. It's hard not to celebrate with them when they go out for snacks afterward.
On the way home, they come to the aid of a little girl crying outside a house where adults are having a violent altercation. When they take her home with them, it seems obvious they are rescuing her. But soon the question arises: is this a kidnapping?
Throughout the film, we are accomplices in each of the survival schemes, and we cringe as we learn more about what is really going on beneath the pleasant exteriors.
It's noir enough for me.
We were walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco when we came upon this. The Embarcadero is where you embark. Once upon a time that meant getting aboard all kinds of ships. Today that means boarding a ferry to take you across San Francisco Bay.
The whole point of building (and rebuilding, and maintaining) the Embarcadero was to let you keep your feet dry while walking to the dock and stepping aboard the boat. As you can see, that's not working so well any more.
That fence between us and the splashing water is a recent addition. Behind it is a set of stairs that used to descend to sea level so you could tie up a small boat, step out of it and walk up to ground level. The city fenced off the stairs because now it's a rare day when more than two of them are dry.
To be fair, this picture was taken on a day when we had a king tide, defined by Wikipedia as ", , , the highest tides. They are naturally occurring, predictable events." So the Embarcadero is not like this every day. On the other hand, this is now predictable.
As you can see in the "Noir" section of this blog, I've been happily commenting on various films as examples of film noir. In doing so, I've relied on Otto Penzler's definition.
Now I learn there's more to it than that---much more. In the table of contents for the Wikipedia article on film noir, the first item is "Problems of definition." It turns out there are so many problems, and they are so complicated, that, "There is no consensus on the matter."
Yet the article tells us that in film noir the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. Penzler says essentially the same, and this article refers to Roger Ebert's description, "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending."
All this sounds depressing, yet film noir (and neo-noir such as Chinatown, Raging Bull, Basic Instinct, Body Heat, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Training Day and many more) remain popular for the same reason tragedy has always been popular (Oedipus the King, Hamlet, A Doll's House, Death of a Salesman).
We hope that Good conquers Evil and that Love is the answer, but we know those statements are are not always true. Too often in life a force greater than ourselves overwhelms our best efforts. The Greeks called it fate. The twentieth century called it socio-economic conditions.
We watch a play or a movie about an imperfect man or woman who struggles for happiness, knowing all the while they will lose. We suffer with them as they fight the good fight. When they lose, we experience a purgation of fear and pity, which Aristotle called catharsis. And we feel better.
Blanton is a fictional town near the fictional campus of Fuchs College, which is the setting for the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries.
The only reference to reality on this map is the note, "To Chillicothe," on the upper left. Thus, the town and campus are in the southeastern corner of Ohio.
Based on the history of the area as told in the first book of the series, Dark Mural, this part of Ohio was settled by immigrants from England in the early 1800s. They gave the creek an English name, Ware.
Although there really is a Ware Creek in Virginia, this fictional creek is in no way connected with it. Names of places were repeated all over the continental United States, the most famous example being "Springfield." There's one in every state.
As is typical of such towns, settlement began along the creek and spread outward. Buildings were erected wherever was convenient and paths worn between them. Later these paths were paved to make streets. As a result the town is not laid out on a strict grid pattern.
I have marked only places mentioned in the books so far. As you can see, there is a lot of unclaimed real estate in Blanton, but more books are on the way.
Reading this autobiography of Samuel Fuller, I met a man who lived a remarkable life and became a remarkable artist. He grew up poor, became a crime reporter while still in high school, wrote novels, fought in World War II, and succeeded as a screenwriter and director in Hollywood.
I'll be absorbing the lessons to be learned from this book for a while, but for now I'm focused on two ways in which Fuller exemplifies Stephen King's approach to writing as described in his memoir, On Writing.
King says the "Great Commandment" is "Read a lot, and write a lot." Fuller certainly wrote a lot: 42 produced screenplays, 11 novels, and 19 unproduced screenplays over a period of sixty years. Since he also directed the films made from most of those screenplays, his accomplishment is even more impressive.
Apparently he also read a lot since he often refers to ancient and modern works of literature as inspiration for characters and plot devices in his screenplays.
King also earnestly advises writers to write truthfully about their subjects. Fuller returns to this theme again and again, especially in reference to his movies about the Second World War: The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, and others, including The Big Red One.
Producers, Pentagon officials, and J. Edgar Hoover all pressured him to portray American troops as heroes, dedicated to fighting for liberty. In each instance, he refused.
As a soldier in the First Infantry Division (the Big Red One), Fuller survived amphibious assaults in Northern Africa, Sicily, and Normandy. He was one of those who liberated concentration camps and fought all the way to Berlin. He knew there was nothing heroic about war. He portrayed it as chaotic and terrifying.
Sometimes he got to make the movie he wanted to make, sometimes his project was cancelled. He never compromised.
Fuller made other kinds of films, notably Pickup on South Street (1953), a cold-war espionage thriller and Shock Corridor (1963), set inside a mental hospital. I'm ready to see some of his films.
Why would someone take a photo of the surface of the ocean? No boats, no waves breaking, not even a bit of sky above the horizon.
But this is a drawing, not a photo. Graphite on paper. Pencil.
Why not simply exhibit the photo? Presumably because the subject---the surface of the ocean---is not the point. Apparently the point is the act of drawing.
This is one piece in a large exhibition of work by Vija Celmins. There is a room full of these ocean pictures. And a room full of night skies, and a room full of desert floors. Dozens of drawings made over decades. Minimal subjects, maximum technique.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art says, "these 'redescriptions' are a way to understand human consciousness in relation to lived experience." Lived experience? What other kind of experience is there?
For some reason these remind me of Marcel Duchamp's ready made sculptures. He exhibited a metal rack used for drying milk bottles and a porcelain urinal as works of art. Those were minimal subjects and minimal technique, but, like these, the whole point was to draw attention to something.
The Three works collected in this volume are Serenade (1937), Love's Lovely Counterfeit (1942), and The Butterfly (1947). They illustrate what a great writer James M. Cain was, and also why he is little appreciated beyond his first two works of fiction, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1936).
Serenade is about an opera singer whose career ends when he is seduced by a gay man from high society. Love's Lovely Counterfeit is about a driver for a mob boss who becomes the boss in a corrupt city. The Butterfly is about a moonshiner in Kentucky whose long lost daughter shows up to live with him.
Not only does Cain treat widely different subjects in these stories from the 1930s and 1940s, he does so in distinct voices. Love's Lovely Counterfeit is told in gangland slang. The Butterfly captures the stark poetry of Appalachian speech.
No one would say Cain should have continued writing about a man plotting with a woman to kill her husband, which is the subject of his first two books. But he might have stayed closer to his original material.
Instead, Cain seems to have set out to prove he could write in different styles about different worlds. He challenges his readers to try new experiences, but many readers want more of the same.
The three stories in this book have one thing in common with "Postman" and Double Indemnity. Each centers on a man trapped by his own compulsions. Cain's wrote consistently in the tradition of the naturalistic novel, but he strayed from the sub-category called noir.
Christmas in San Francisco is complicated.
In some ways it seems normal. Macy's provides the backdrop at Union Square, center of the downtown retail district. People scurry about on foot and in cars.
The Christmas-tree lights on the palm trees seem normal, but the trees themselves are not. All trees in San Francisco are exotic species. In its natural state, this peninsula was nothing but sand dunes.
The white shed on the right, glimpsed beneath the trees, is part of the ice-rink concession, another exotic import. There is no naturally occuring ice here, but we have three ice-rinks downtown.
In the upper-right corner there seems to be an angel topping the giant Christmas tree, but she really stands atop The Dewey Monument, placed in 1901. At the time it seemed like a good idea to celebrate the admiral's victory in the Spanish-American War. So our angel celebrates war rather than peace on earth.
In the lower left corner a crane and fencing around a construction site have become familiar sights over the past three years, and they will be there for a while yet. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is digging a tunnel for a north-south subway line. We have several major transit projects underway that seem to be taking a little longer than expected.
So we celebrate the season in our improvised, incoherent, semi-imaginary city, where so many things seem to be coming soon. Merry Christmas to all. Be of good cheer.