I participated in the Book Bazaar at the Mechanics' Institute Library. I must say it felt good to see the four Nicole Tang Noonan Mysteries all together on the table. I sold a couple of books and learned a lot from readers. One frequent question: Where are they set?
"Mechanics" has become my literary community. For four years I've participated in writers' critique groups that meet there, attended talks by authors, and hung out at events like this. I've done most of the research for my mysteries at this library. I also enjoy readers' groups for mysteries and short stories.
As many have said, writing is a solitary activity, and I treasure that time by myself, but I need to come up for air a few times a month. There's nothing like getting to know other writers who are at the same stage I'm at and comparing notes on what's working and what's not.
The Mechanics' Institute Library has been around since the Gold Rush days, when its name was accurate. It was founded to teach people skilled trades. After about 20 years, it became a general interest library. This was before San Francisco had free public libraries.
It has always been a subscription library, and remains so today. For about the price of a years' subscription to a newspaper, all this is yours. And, yes, when I go there, everybody knows my name.
It would be easy to miss how good this movie is. The dialogue is limited to what people would really say in the circumstances. That means most of the storytelling is visual.
When Mickey asks a doctor to write a prescription so she can get oxycontin for her father, the doctor asks what her plans for college are. She has none. Later, she sneaks into a doctor's office to steal a prescription form and accidentally spills some rosewater, wipes it up with her sleeve, and wipes her hands on her pants. The doctor's influence is now real. Nothing need be said. This film is full of such clues.
Publicity for the film says, "a young woman dreams of living life on her own terms." That's soft-pedaling it. Mickey is devoted to her father who suffers PTSD from his combat in Afghanistan. He tells her boyfriend the reason to have kids is, "When your shit starts to look look sewage, they're there to clean it up for you." As the film goes on her dreary situation turns dangerous.
Mickey and the Bear is full of powerful performances from little-known actors. Camila Morrone as Mickey and James Badge Dale as her father are so good you forget you're watching a movie. With a bigger budget, the director could have had Scarlett Johansson and Bradley Cooper, but they would not have made a better film.
A lot of people say there should be more women making films in Hollywood. If that's going to happen, we have to pay admission to see films like this one by first-time writer and director Annabelle Attanasio. Her accomplishment as a director is all spelled out in the 100% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
We took a walk in Muir Woods, a bit of primeval forest just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is what northern California looked like when the Gold Rush of 1849 touched off a building boom. Only a few places like this are left.
These old-growth Redwoods were designated a National Monument in 1908. Since then the National Park Service has done its usual excellent job of preserving the site while also making it available to the public. Most importantly the Park Service provides information: signs, talks by rangers and volunteers, publications, and website.
Since Muir Woods is near several big cities, and tourist destinations, it is extremely popular. Therefore "making it available" has meant charging admission to cover increased costs of protecting it, providing shuttle buses, charging for parking, and now parking by reservation only.
I love the woods, and I have nothing but praise for what the National Park Service does here, but the whole situation reminds me of a lyric by Joni Mitchell, "They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum."
Recently I discovered Joe R. Lansdale in a book of short stories, and liked his story so much I sought out some of his novels including The Thicket. He likes stories in which an average guy or underdog gets some help and takes down a bully.
Cold in July, his novel from 1989 puts some interesting twists in this type of story. It starts with a man shooting a thief who breaks into his house in the middle of the night. The aftermath is not pleasant, and the complications are both frightening and thought-provoking.
When I learned it had been adapted for film in 2014 with Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson in the principal roles, I wondered why I'd never heard of it.
Wikipedia explains why the film was difficult to market. Even with three A-list stars it didn't make money. But it is available through streaming services and it's entertaining, so long as you don't mind the violence.
It begins, as some of my favorite books do, with an obviously dumb proposal. Matt is talking to a friend in a bar. The friend has a foolproof plan for a kidnapping. He just needs Matt to be the driver. Matt knows this friend is an addict and even when sober is incapable of making rational decisions. So of course Matt turns him down.
But Matt has money problems and other problems that come with being a single parent. The parents of his late wife think his daughter would be better off with them. The pressure on Matt builds. He runs out of options and decides he may as well take a chance on his friend's plan.
From there on, it's not a question of if something will go wrong but of when, and what the consequences will be, and how far Matt is willing to go to survive them.
Much of the pleasure in reading this book comes from its perfect construction. Each complication plays out just long enough, the next one comes along just in time to boost the tension, and it's usually something we didn't see coming but makes sense once we've seen it.
Given the hero's compromises, we know the ending won't be sunshine and puppies. It's a question of how dark the shad of gray will be. This is a very satisfying crime novel.
Twisted City compares well with the noir masterpieces of the early and mid-twentieth century. The prose is crystal clear. It is admirably brief. And it is a voyage into the heart of darkness, to borrow Joseph Conrad's title.
In the first scene, David Miller, the narrator, fumbles his attempt to chat up a woman in a bar. And his wallet is stolen. We sympathize.
As we follow his efforts to get his wallet back, we learn he has recently lost his job as a financial journalist with the Wall Street Journal, and has signed up with a less ethical publication. And his sister has recently died. We sympathize more.
He gets a chance to retrieve his wallet. He gets chances to improve his love life. He gets chances to advance in his career. But things keep going wrong. He seems to be wallowing in quicksand.
The plot compares to those of Cornell Woolrich. The theme reminds me of James M. Cain. The first-person narrator is worthy of Jim Thompson. And the banality of this evil recalls Patricia Highsmith.
This novel from 2014 belongs with the classics of noir.
Scott Phillips builds suspense quietly, bit by bit. His hero, Charlie Argliss, visits the strip clubs he helps to manage and notices this is the last time he will see these places, speak with these people and do these things. The reader wonders why. Is he ill? Are the clubs shutting down? Is he going somewhere?
The possibilities are whittled down as his plan is revealed. When we see what he's up to, we wonder, can he pull it off? Eventually things start to go wrong, and we wonder how far Charlie is willing to go to see his plan through.
Along the way, we learn a lot about the people who work in strip clubs and those who patronize them. Phillips plays up the irony of their casual acceptance of the bizarre nature of their business. And it doesn't hurt that this is all happening on Christmas Eve.
Ultimately, this novel from 2000 is a dark story, as dark as those by writers like Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, and others, half a century earlier. That's quite an accomplishment.
It's a fairly simple story. A young man's sister is kidnapped. He gathers an unlikely crew to rescue her. The wonder of this book is in the details of the time and place where it takes place is set: East Texas, when most people still ride horses and automobiles are just beginning to appear.
Essentially the book is one long chase. Along the way we get to know a lawless land. European settlers skirmish with Commanche. Gangs of psychopaths on horseback overrun homesteads, take what they want, and leave no witnesses. In the towns and on the roads, violence rules.
The details are not pleasant. This is the stuff of nightmares. But the author, Joe R. Lansdale, makes it worth reading by revealing the ideals, failings, regrets, and hopes of his principal characters. These are real people.
In an interview about 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen was asked what mattered most when making a great movie. He replied, "Story, story, story." Writer and Director Bong Joon Ho could teach a master class on that subject.
Parasite has twists and turns, but it's never smarter than the audience. You see each one coming, or suspect something is coming, or know you could have seen it coming. Every event, every character, every prop, almost every line of dialogue has an echo later in the film. The craftsmanship is amazing.
A family of four---mom, dad, adult son, and adult daughter---live in a tiny apartment in a slum. They all work at whatever they can to get by. The son seizes an opportunity to get hired as a tutor in the home of a wealthy family. He fudges his university degree to get the work, but he's fully up to the job. As scams go, it's pretty benign.
This sets the two families on a collision course. I won't reveal anything beyond the opening minutes of the movie, because you should enjoy each delicious revelation for yourself.
Let's just say the movie is completely satisfying for its suspense, its social satire, and its profound questions. Usually we're satisfied if a movie does one of those things well. How rare it is to get all three in one movie.
Apparently, sail boats---the big ones that cost a lot of money---can be stolen. Some one sneaks into a marina in the dead of night sails it away. This is what Ingram, an experienced sailor, is accused of doing when police arrest him at the beginning of Aground by Charles Williams.
Ingram comes up with an alibi and is promptly hired by the owner of the stolen boat to help her find it. Not surprisingly for this genre, she is young and beautiful. Eventually, they find the boat has run aground, as the title suggests.
So we have two people failing in love on a sailboat, miles from shore, unable to move, and there is a dangerous man aboard. Williams generates considerable suspense from this seemingly impossible situation just as effectively as in another of his nautical thrillers, Dead Calm.
Of the two, I like this one better. The principal couple are more dynamic, the villain who makes their lives miserable is easier to understand, and the structure and pacing are flawless.
Also as in Dead Calm, Williams use correct nautical terms to describe Ingram's ingenious and heroic efforts to float the boat off a sand bar. I understand few of those terms, but that didn't stop me from following the action.
Dark Portrait, the fourth mystery featuring Nicole Tang Noonan, is available for pre-order on Amazon pending release on October 31. Here's how it begins:
Out on the trails in the Presidio, a long walk will usually soothe my soul, but it didn’t on that Thursday morning. The winding paths, the smells of the forest, the relief from city noise—all the delights that come with a visit to San Francisco’s national park were not enough to stop my mind from working overtime.
I’d been walking in this section of the park a lot as fire season turned to rainy season in northern California, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. I had enjoyed my research leave up to that point, but each passing day brought me closer to returning to the campus in Ohio where I’d taught for four years. When that time came, I would have some hard decisions to make.
As I rounded a bend, I saw someone lying along a path connected to the trail. He wore a floppy canvas hat, a hiking vest over a denim shirt, loose gray pants, and hiking boots. His backpack and walking stick lay next to him. Since this was an unlikely place to lie down and rest, I wondered if he was injured. “Hello?” I called. “Are you alright?”
I heard footsteps on gravel about forty yards away, down a hill and across an opening in the forest. I looked that way just in time to see a man disappear into some trees. He was going in the direction I had come from.
After walking a few steps down the path, I leaned to one side and looked at the man on the ground. His eyes were open, but they weren’t focused on anything. His skin was gray.
I skipped backward a half-dozen steps without taking my eyes off him. I don’t know why I did that. He certainly wasn’t going to do anything to me. Maybe I was trying to rewind to the moment before I had seen him. Maybe I wanted to go back to the trail I had left, continue on my walk, and enjoy a day that did not include finding a dead body.
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To spend an afternoon watching the Smuin Ballet company dance to the music of Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash, and Carl Orff, is to see humanity perfected.
Watching these dancers do such difficult things so that we can feel joy and sadness and wonder makes me think maybe we're not such a bad species after all.
The Fall, 2019, show starts off with new work by Rex Wheeler set to Dave Brubeck's, "Take Five," "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and other classic recordings. These are fun, full of chuckles and surprises.
The show also includes James Kedelko's "The Man in Black," a suite of dances set to songs from Johnny Cash's last album, The Man Comes Around, (2002). Listening to Cash sing songs like "If You Could Read My Mind" and "Hurt" moves us into the realm of classical tragedy. They are that deep.
Kedelko's dances put three men and one woman into costumes fit for line dancing at a cowboy bar, right down to the boots. Those boot heels play percussion on some numbers. The blending of vernacular dance with the power of classical ballet matches the intensity of Cash's recordings.
The company keeps alive the legacy of its founder, Michael Smuin, with his dance to Carmina Burana, a choral work from 1936, based on a collection of poems from the middle ages. The dance is as startling as the music. I would have to see it again to comprehend its symbols, rhythms, and physical daring.
As usual at a Smuin dance series, never a dull moment.
We enjoy going to the neighborhood movie houses in San Francisco, though there are fewer each year. I've lost count of how many have closed since we moved here twelve years ago. I wrote about one, The Clay, last year. It's still up and running and is thriving on art films and midnight showings of The Room, The Rocky Horror Show, and Halloween.
We recently went to the Balboa to see The Rock, the 1996 action flick set in San Francisco. Among other things, the movie is a contest to see who can deliver the best tough-guy line. Competition was intense between Ed Harris, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery , but, judging by audience reaction, Connery was the favorite.
However, the biggest cheer of the night was for the aerial shot of the bay blanketed by fog. Fog rules!
The retrospective showing was organized by two columnists for the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight and Peter Hartlaub. They hosted a trivia quiz before the movie started and handed out prizes. Then a guy in full Scottish tartan marched down the aisle of the theater playing "Scotland, the Brave" on bagpipes.
"Well," I thought, "why not?" Later my dear one suggested to me that this may have been a subliminal effort by local Scots to boost Connery's profile with the audience . . . as if Sean Connery needs an boosting!
This pedestrian mall interrupts Buchanan Street in the neighborhood called Japantown. This is where immigrants from Japan settled in the early twentieth century, but back then these blocks where covered with typical San Francisco Victorian-style houses.
All those houses were bull-dozed as part of an urban renewal project in the 1960s. That was possible because the neighborhood had been ruined by the internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
Today this development covers six square blocks and includes shopping malls, hotels, churches, and cultural institutions. The Buchanan-Street mall includes several sculptures by Ruth Asawa, a renowned artist who as a child was interned along with her family.
Although it was never again a Japanese neighborhood, Japantown became a living history museum for the Japanese community.
The store on the right is Soko Hardware. "Soko" was the immigrants' nickname for San Francisco.
Perhaps because I just finished writing and editing my fourth mystery novel, I am feeling the need for some perspective on the craft. I enjoyed Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print so much when I read it in 2017 that I read it again last year. I thought about reading it again this year, but somewhere I saw that Block had written several books on writing.
At first I wasn't enthused about Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, because it is described as "a collection of his slightly re-edited fiction how-to column from Writer's Digest." But I am finding in this book the same comfortable blend of instruction and memoir that I found in his first book for writers.
For instance, his chapter on "Creative Procrastination" clarifies my thoughts on when to let an idea ferment and when to get on with writing it down. He illustrates with the story of how his idea for Code of Arms was with him for a few years before he wrote it.
You don't have to take my word for the usefulness of this book. In her introduction, Sue Grafton wrote, "In the early years of the Kinsey Milhone series, I made a point of reading Telling Lies for Fun and Profit before beginning each new book."
By the way, my fourth mystery novel, Dark Portrait, will be available next month! I'll send out the details next week.