It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the neighborhood adjacent to Lafayette Park in San Francisco. That house on the left has wreaths with red bows in the windows.
The FedEx truck has stopped at Octavia Street, and, if you look very closely, you can see the driver returning from a visit to Danielle Steele's house on the right.
Hers is the one with the hedge that envelopes the first floor. It looks like the setting for a novel by Jane Austen, or rather it would if it had rolling green lawns around it.
Instead, it is perched at the top of a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. I should say almost at the top. Lafayette Park sits a bit higher, which is how I was able to take in the view and snap this photo.
I sometimes tell myself I am walking by a fellow writer's house. Then I remember her books have sold 800 million copies. I have some catching up to do.
Ms. Steele has turned up before in my blog. The proprietor of the Argonaut Book Shop has an amusing story about her, as I mentioned in my blog post on the shop.
On a recent visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I saw an announcement for this exhibit in the lobby, thought, "That looks like fun," and trotted up to the fifth floor.
Yes, I took the stairs all the way up. I do this instead of working out.
And it was fun. As you can see, people stroll through a room full of giant spiders as if they were in a theme park. Some even like to get close:
Of course these people are a self-selecting group. Not everyone feels this way. One friend opted out, saying simply, "No. I'll skip that." Since there's more at SFMOMA than one can possible see in a single visit, I took this to mean, "rather do something else."
But perhaps my friend doesn't like spiders. In "An Arachnophobe Faces Louise Bourgeois's Iconic Spiders," Tess Thackara confesses she projected her own fears when she interpreted one of these sculptures as an image of horror.
To the contrary she quotes the artist's interpretation: “Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.” The usefulness is a reference to her mother's craft, repairing tapestries. She compares this to spiders spinning webs from threads.
Each of us brings something different to a work of art. Perhaps we should't ask, "What does this piece mean?" Instead, we should ask, "What meaning blooms when you encounter this piece?"
In The Driver (1978), Ryan O’Neal, known for playing romantic roles, convinces us he has some ice water in his veins, playing a driver who hires out to help thieves make their getaways.
As the cop determined to arrest the driver, Bruce Dern proves once again he has the perfect touch for playing playing losers who haven’t yet noticed they’re losers. The script gives him plenty of invitations to overplay his part with lines like, “I’m very good at what I do,” but he keeps it light.
Dern is really the protagonist of this noir film, doomed by his vanity to fail. O’Neal makes a fine antagonist---sinister, inscrutable, evil for no particular reason.
The film is at its best when it focuses on their rivalry. There are sequences with other characters that get unnecessarily talky, but all is forgiven as the clockwork plot winds down and nobody gets what they signed up for.
It will come as no surprise this movie has car chases. When it hit theatres in 1978, audiences had already been wowed by the iconic car chases in Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971). The Driver keeps it exciting by including techniques from demolition derbies.
Under Walter Hill’s direction, the storytelling couldn’t be any tighter.
It’s not the darkest of noir, but it’s entertaining.
Not to be confused with Driver (2011) or Baby Driver (2017) . . . but perhaps to be compared with them.
Why is there a life-size sculpture of a blue whale at Crissy Field?
Why not? Given the choice between having something this cool and not having it, I think most people would go for it.
But there's a little more to it than that. This lovely sculpture is made entirely from plastic trash collected in California.
Why make a blue whale out of plastic trash? Because, Every nine minutes, 300,000 pounds (the approximate weight of a full-grown blue whale) of plastic and trash end up in the ocean.*
*According to National Geographic.
Come on, people, we can do better than this!
By the way, Crissy Field was formerly a military airstrip. It's part of The Presidio. The whale sculpture is a joint project with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and some other great organizations. You can read all about it here.
When I saw the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had mounted an exhibit of photographs by Brassai, I hurried right over. Along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, he became one of my favorites when I started reading the Time-Life books on photography back in the 1970s.
As this exhibit shows, he was an all-around working photographer in Paris throughout the mid-twentieth century. The photos are grouped by subject: Society, Paris by Night, Pleasures, Portraits, etc.
His photos of Paris by night have made his place in history. It seems to me he practically invented Paris in the 1930s with pictures like this one:
You are seeing my cell-phone photo of the photo hanging on the wall of the museum. The definition and shades of gray are even better when you see the original.
I recall taking pictures of outdoor stairways with Kodak's Tri-X black-and-white film in my camera, hoping to create a magical image like this one. If I'd taken as many as he did, maybe I'd have learned to watch for the light to be just right.
One of the plaques says Brassai, like any working photographer of that period, made his living doing portraits and nudes. The pictures on display include fine examples of both, but nothing so memorable as these street scenes.
So his most original and inspired work was not the work that paid his bills. Many could say the same.
I grew up going to a library and taking notes for my school reports. I thought I was doing this simply to gather information, but there was something else going on.
Coin-operated photocopy machines showed up when I was in college. Instead of taking notes, I made copies and highlighted them. I thought this was more efficient.
The World-Wide Web came along, and I started cutting-and-pasting and downloading. Later I started bookmarking web pages. This seemed like a super-efficient way to gather information.
As my browser's list of bookmarks got longer, I had lots of information at my fingertips, but I found it harder and harder to use it.
Recently I decided to slow down the information-gathering and take notes . . . longhand . . . in a notebook.
I'm finding this very satisfying. It takes time and effort to read a blog post, for instance, and decide which parts to write down verbatim, which parts to summarize, and which to ignore. I become very selective because It takes even more time and effort to write the note or quotation in my notebook.
When I take notes, I not only gather information, I also think about it. I move some of it from short-term memory into long-term memory, and somewhere in my brain I must be connecting the new information with things I already know. Now I'm ready to use it when I want to write something new.
I see now that all that photocopying, highlighting, cutting-and-pasting, downloading, and bookmarking was only postponing this process. Some things you just can't automate.
There are six of these stately buildings along the north side of the Main Post at the Presidio in San Francisco. Though they look grand they were built as enlisted men's barracks in the 1880s when the U. S. Army decided to put down roots on this land by the Golden Gate.
Today they house museums, offices, a restaurant, and a hotel. One of them is home to the Walt Disney Family Museum.
We paid no attention when it opened several years ago because we thought "family museum" meant it was a place to entertain children. But instead the name means it was created by the Disney Family, as opposed to the Disney Corporation.
The permanent exhibit shows how Walt and his brother Roy progressed from doing illustrations for ads in newspapers, to creating short animated cartoons, to something unheard of at that time: a feature-length film entirely animated, Snow White.
All along the brothers pushed creative boundaries, forced technical innovations, and found ways to get paid. Creative types in all fields today might learn a lot from their model.
They also have excellent changing exhibitions. A recent one paralleled the careers of Walt and Salvador Dali. They admired one another's work, became friends, and collaborated. Who knew?
I happened to walk by this Italianate mansion on my last day in Columbus. With its limestone exterior, it stands out among the red-brick Victorians of Goodale Park. The banners told me it is home to the Pizzuti Collection of art. Alas, I had no time to visit.
Since then I've read read about the Pizzuti Collection and learned it focuses on contemporary art from around the world. Ron and Ann Pizzuti restored this building and have used it to make their art collection available to the community.
Buying masterpieces from dealers and bidding up their prices at auctions, is fine, but buying art from people who are still alive and making it has a special place in my heart. Thank you, Ron and Ann.
If I'd had time to visit, Nicole would probably have done so in Dark Mural or Dark Exhibit. Instead, the Pizzuti Collection remains a possibility for her further adventures.
The San Francisco Bay Area is rightly famous for its tech industry. Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Uber etc. . . . and those are just the consumer brands. There are also business-to-business brands like Oracle and Salesforce.
Everyone has their favorite phone, tablet, laptop, app, website, and so on. Everyone also has their nominee for dubious achievement by a tech company. Mine is the insulated cup with a built-in USB port so you can plug it into your computer and it can tell you if you're drinking enough water.
And then there's this robotic coffeebar. It's exactly what it sounds like. You can stroll into this place, tap the app on your phone that orders your drink and pays for it, and watch as a robot makes your latte, mocha, or whatever.
I've been trying to think of possible advantages for the customer.
1) Assures him he is cool.
2) Liberates him from having to deal with a barista who says things like, "How's your day going so far?"
3) . . . honestly, that's all I can come up with.
For the owner, I assume the robot is cheaper than employees.
When someone I've never met reviews my book and says, "keep food and drinks close by so you don't have to put it down because you won't want to," I know I've done something right. And that's saying a lot, because writing and publishing a book involves working alone for a long time (years, for this first book) and hoping it all makes sense.
I also appreciate the descriptions of Dark Mural in this and the other reviews. They help readers decide whether this is the kind of book they would like. Since there are lots of good books to read, we all have to choose the ones that appeal most.
There used to be two ways to find out about good new books: hear about them from a friend or read a professional review in a newspaper or magazine. Now there's a third way. Reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads let us hear from more fellow readers.
This is good for writers and good for readers.
The amateur sleuth mystery offers a pleasure not available in private eye novels, police procedurals, and legal thrillers. In all of them, the sleuth's job is to investigate crime. The amateur sleuth has some other occupation.
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple does what elderly spinsters in English villages do: gardening, charity work, and so on. To our surprise this life has given her a dark view of human nature that enables her to solve crimes.
In the decades since Christie launched the genre, readers have enjoyed stories of crimes solved by clergymen, anthropologists, nurses, flight attendants, herbalists, jockeys . . . anything you can think of really. In each instance the sleuth's specialized knowledge proves critical to answering the question "Whodunnit?'
Teachers and scholars are well-represented in the genre, most famously by Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote, a retired English teacher who becomes a successful mystery writer. I had lots of good role models for creating Nicole Tang Noonan, art history professor.
I'm thrilled that some readers have written to say they enjoy learning from my novels about art history. In particular, some have commented on Nicole's discovery in Dark Mural, which is based on a discovery I published in Comparative Drama. If you look at the fourth article in the table of contents above, you'll see it's by Richard L. Homan.
If you want to know what the discovery is, you might find Dark Mural more entertaining than my scholarly article.
Recently I mentioned reading a book of short stories by Cornell Woolrich, enjoying them, and learning some lessons from them about writing suspense. Somewhere in my subsequent reading, I saw reference to a "Cornell Woolrich Omnibus" published by Penguin in the 1990s. Amazon lead me to Discover Books, and they sold me a copy.
With most other writers, finding another collection of stories and novels would be ho-hum . . . so what? With Woolrich it is cause for celebration because he published hundreds of stories under several pseudonyms, the quality varies widely, and some of them are "rewrites" (rip-offs?) of earlier stories. Someone has to search through all those titles to find the good stuff, and it's not going to be me.
Francis M. Nevins did most of the heavy lifting in his biography of Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die. His bibliographical notes are the closest we'll ever come to knowing what Woolrich wrote.
But there's only so much one man can do, so I was thrilled to get this collection of five stories, a novella and a novel---especially so since it contains the story on which Hitchcock's film, Rear Window, was based. Published here as "Rear Window" to link it with the movie, I seem to recall Nevins saying the original title was "It Must Be Murder." I enjoy seeing what gets changed when fiction becomes film.
In Joyland, a narrator in his 60s tells about the year he turned twenty-one. It's a bitter-sweet story of innocence and experience made bearable by the knowledge that the young man obviously survived it all since he lived to tell the tale. It's full of the aches that come from foolish decisions and opportunities missed. As a guy in his 60s, I can relate.
It's tempting to think the narrator is Stephen King himself, especially when he reflects on his present circumstances, saying, "I make a pretty good living as a writer." That one made me laugh. But this is not a memoir. That becomes clear when the narrator clarifies that he is editor of an in-flight magazine.
Along with the ode to youth, there's a good murder mystery thrown in. Contrary to conventional wisdom it takes the main character a while to get around to asking whodunnit? He has other business to attend to first.
I didn't mind the delayed attention to solving the crime mostly because the genuine feel of a man telling his story was so engaging. In his book, On Writing, King stresses writing honestly about the world as you see it.
That narrator's voice makes Joyland a worthy reply to a line from a song that was popular in my youth. In "What Have They Done to My Song," the artist known as Melanie said, "Wish I could find a good book to live in." I kept coming back to Joyland, not for the suspense, but because it was a good place to live for a few days.
In Chapter 8 of Dark Mural, Nicole Tang Noonan recalls how she got her start as an art historian.
"When Mom took me to the de Young Museum, about ten blocks from our house, I didn’t want to leave. I started crying when she said it was time to go home. When we got home I used my crayons to make copies from memory of paintings I had seen at the museum so I wouldn’t forget them. When I was older, I took art lessons and started studying art, but the real lesson from my childhood was that copying and thinking about a picture could make me feel better."
Today the de Young occupies an ultra-modern building that opened in 2005. Were she a real person, Nicole would have been a teenager at the time.
But during Nicole's childhood, the de Young occupied a building created for a world's fair in 1894, converted into a permanent art museum in 1895, and expanded and repaired several times throughout the twentieth century. It is described as having "a pseudo–Egyptian Revival style."
Since the new building is on the same site as the original at the eastern end of Golden Gate Park, Nicole could easily have walked to both from her family's home in the Inner Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.
I've posted a lot of pretty pictures of California and have had fun writing about what was in them. Today is a different story.
This is not a cloudy or a stormy day in San Francisco as seen from our apartment. This is a day when the city and much of the Bay Area are enveloped in smoke from the deadly Camp Fire 200 miles away.
In less than forty-eight hours, the Camp Fire destroyed the town called Paradise ("nestled among the Ponderosa pines") and became the most destructive fire in the history of California. That's saying a lot after last year's wine-country fires. As I write this, the wind in Butte County has picked up and over 100,000 acres are blazing.
Here in the city, we are experiencing four days of "very unhealthy" air quality. Flights have been cancelled at SFO. All are advised to stay indoors with the windows closed. Fortunately our temperature is in the low 60s, so we're not tempted to open up and let a breeze through.
In the photo, the sky is gray at 1:15 p. m. The tall buildings in the picture are two blocks away. On the hillside beyond, we can see every single house on a clear day, not so much today.
Simultaneously two major fires are burning north of Los Angeles.
Climate change plays a part in postponing our rainy season and encouraging these giant firestorms. According to officials at Cal Fire (the state's fire-fighting agency), another cause is people building houses on the edges of the forests.
To protect those houses, we have put out every small fire for decades. In doing so we have not let the forests go through their natural cycle of burning underbrush. Now, when a fire starts, extraordinary amounts of fuel are on the ground.