Sunday, May 28, 2017

The pain of being a violinist

I spent some time talking with a friend the other day about just how hard it is to play the violin. Not so much because learning to put your finger in the right place and produce the right pitch is a major problem - children gradually learn how to do this, and learn what the correct sound is and what isn't.

Nor is it a matter of the bowing, which is like learning to juggle by adding more and more items to what you're throwing around. Anyone can do it...!

No, what we were talking about is the sheer awfulness of the way violins have to be held, and the way the left hand has to twist back on itself in order to put its fingers on the strings. At speed. Accurately. For long periods of time. (We watched the 45-minute Sibelius Second Symphony being played last night. The violinists were on the go almost all of the time; only the horns played less, I think!)

Viola players have this to contend with too, but go down the scale to cellos and basses and you find they have a much easier road to hoe. Their left hands are in a relatively natural position. And they don't have to keep their right hand - the bow hand - up in the air all the time either. So if you're going to play a stringed instrument go for the cello or the bass. There's a bit of stretching involved for the left hand, compared to violinists and viola players, but that's still easier than dealing with two hands/arms twisted up in front of your face.

Of course musicians who play string instruments in the orchestra aren't the only ones who have to suffer the backwards left hand problem (unless they're left handed, in which case they may suffer the backwards right hand problem, if you're still with me). People who play acoustic guitars, for instance, also have to cope with this, though at least their right hand isn't struggling with a bow at the same time. They only have a pick (something that's likely to cause arthritis in the long run through the concentrated hold on such a small device) or they use the fingers to strum. Once they've got past callouses, they're okay.

Sadly, while it might seem like a good idea for violinists/violists to situate their instrument somewhere else, the practical fact of the matter is that under the chin is the best place, for bowing, for support and for poking your neighbour in the eye if you're sitting too close to each other.

But it has health problems. Here's an old piece about tendonitis and musicians and a more recent piece about musicians' cramp, or dystonia. 

Maybe it might just be better to encourage children to take up a different instrument....

Collaborative writing

While reading The Making of Some Like it Hot, by Tony Curtis, (with Mark A Vieira) a couple of days ago, the following piece on co-writing struck me as interesting in terms of the different ways collaborators work together. 

'Billy' is Billy Wilder, the writer and director, and 'Izzy' is I.A.L. Diamond, his second major co-writer. (Wilder had previously worked on several films with Charles Brackett.)

The work wasn’t glamorous. Billy compared himself and Izzy to bank tellers, coming in at nine and plugging away at the thing all day. But writing is mysterious. How do you do it, especially with another guy? First of all, they divided the labour, in part because they were different. Billy was kinetic. He liked to move around. He didn’t like sitting. He was always pacing back and forth, throwing ideas around the room, some of which Izzy would catch, some of which floated into the ether. Izzy was content to sit at the typewriter, like he was driving a car. He’d take everything down, all the crazy thoughts. He liked typing. Billy didn’t. He didn’t like being stuck behind the typewriter. It made him uncomfortable, and it was boring.

They would work on the overall structure first, then make sure all the funny ideas fit. That’s probably how they knew that the musicians needed only one disguise. That was funny enough. But who knows what they really thought, what ideas were flying around that office? I heard that they acted out scenes to make sure they played. Billy would play one character, Izzy would play the other. They would decide every element there, rather than having Izzy go off and dream something up and come back to show it to Billy. No. They agreed where the thing was going, get it down, and then Izzy would go home and type up the draft. The next day Billy would look at it. “Mm hm,’ he would say. ‘Okay. Now...let’s see what we can do to make it better.’ There’d be a lot of smoking, maybe a cocktail at lunch, but mostly batting ideas back and forth. Once in a while they’d hit a dry patch, and there would be silence for hours. But not often. Once they’d gotten rolling, they had momentum.
One thing I found interesting: they would start a picture with an incomplete script. As they were making the picture, they saw it go in directions they hadn’t expected, and they wanted to be able to follow that lead.

Famously, the last line in the film - 'Nobody's perfect' -  wasn’t decided on until a few days before it was shot. It had originally been in a completely different part of the script and was cut. 

The two writers didn’t allow the actors to change anything. One day during the shoot was horrendous in this regard because Marilyn Monroe couldn’t say the line, ‘Where’s that Bourbon?’ without altering something in it, and Wilder wasn't willing to have any of the three words altered. Eighty-one takes later she got it right. (Pages 165-7) Nevertheless, Wilder and Diamond would change lines overnight when they saw the actors giving new life to the original script. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Anne with an Eeek.

We've watched the first three episodes of Anne with an E on Netflix over the last couple of nights. Increasingly it's become apparent that this is a reconstructed Anne of Green Gables, as if the writers/directors wanted to change as much as possible within the overall framework of the story, and to add in stuff that made it more 'up to date,' if that's the phrase I want.

Sadly it isn't working. Not for us, anyway. Anne, in this version, is at odds with everyone, whereas in the original story she endeared herself to people and found friends - even if at first they had to rethink their views. Anne was an original, someone whose background should have knocked her into the ground, but didn't. She rose above it.

Here, she's constantly struggling. She's almost a drama queen - albeit one who has some reason to be one - and her imaginations seem a bit cockeyed because the world keeps hammering against them, however positive she may be. Several reviewers talk about her having PTSD (which might be translated as post traumatic stress drama.)

Marilla and Matthew (both wonderfully played, by Geraldine James and R H Thomson respectively) remain much as they were, except that they have vastly more to deal with than before. Matthew even goes chasing off after Anne when Marilla sends her back because of the apparent theft of a brooch. This leaves Matthew wounded, exhausted, without funds and desperate over two or three days. Dramatic, certainly, but not true to the story.

There are flashbacks to Anne's former life in an orphanage, and with a horrible family to which she acts as servant. These are made as unpleasant as possible. And then there's the relationship her first (male) teacher is having with one of the pupils, and Anne's subsequent discussion of him having 'intimate relations.' When she tells the other girl pupils about this, they react in horror, and talk about being tainted by her. But the discussion leaves the viewer feeling queasy too. It's as if Anne has no sense of boundaries.

There are many other changes and additions - we haven't seen all of them, but they're discussed in various articles about the series, such as this one, or this.

Bring back Megan Fellows, I say, and the wonderful cast of the 1985 version, which remained much truer to the books.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cant is my wont

This piece of nonsense first appeared in Column 8, a column that featured in the Dunedin Midweeker, and for which I wrote for five and half years in the 1990s. In spite of this piece's age, the problem of the apostrophe hasn't yet gone away.

In the latter days of the last World War, Lancelot Hogben published a series of books, Primers for the Age of Plenty: a fairly optimistic title considering that rationing still had a ways to go. Hogben and his writers looked towards a new world order in the basics of education. Mathematics for the Millions, Science for the Citizen, The Loom of Language, and History of the Homeland, would educate the masses. More than that, they aimed to simplify complex matters for the man in the street, (as he still was).

In The Loom of Language, author Frederick Bodmer writes about a matter that, fifty years later, still concerns letter writers to the Listener, and often concerns the Otago Daily Times' Prester John, that is, the misuse of the apostrophe. Bodmer's solution to the problem was radical. 'As much as I think the English language is the greatest, I wonder if it isn't time to take up the proposals made by language reformers such as Bishop Wilkins, George Dalgarno, H G Wells, G B Shaw' - and Bodner - 'and rid ourselves of something that is, after all, only a visual aspect of English.'

English as she is spoke doesn't contain a single apostrophe.

Apostrophes are completely silent partners when English flows from our mouths. Can you imagine the difficulty we'd have if we had to speak any of the apostrophised words I've already written?
Let(apostrophe)s face it, the apostrophe is atrophied, and it(apostrophe)s only because we are used to it(no-apostrophe)s appearance on the page that we consider it at all. If we've changed our laws to accommodate adultery, de facto relationships, illegitimacy and abortion, why are we still fussing about whether apostrophes have any validity?

It's plain that the majority of schoolteachers have either given up the battle to get apostrophes in their right places - or don't know the difference themselves. Consider the endless examples appearing in every sphere: "it's" when "its" is meant; shop's for two shops; CD's; tomatoe's (good grief).

The first example is the notorious one - I have a computer manual of some hundred pages of "it's" when they mean "its." (We could blame the spellchecker, except that it should recognize both forms.)

Is this battle worth fighting? Couldnt we read English perfectly well without apostrophes? Wouldnt we get used to their absence soon enough? (Did you?)

Banning the apostrophe entirely would ensure our eyes would at least cease to be offended by apostrophes in the wrong places. (These potatoe's wer'ent old, its obvious.)

And since we understand spoken language without apostrophes, how often would we get caught out by the written version? "My cant is my wont," would be acceptable with or without apostrophes, although it's a phrase we'd be fairly unlikely to find.

The possessive use of the apostrophe - "Jenny's department's dealings," or "Ruth's budget's bites," or "Winston's brother's voters' choice," - is an antique visual convention. None of these phrases, if we were to use them in speech, would lose their sense. (Since these phrases have political overtones, however, I'd prefer not to use them at all.)

If apostrophes are invisible in conversation, what do they add to the printed page? Without them, what would we lose except a certain "look" that we know to be English?

Agreeing to changes in the language doesn't always happen by word of mouth: legislation is an alternative. China revolutionized its language by decree; France tries constantly to keep its language "pure," and prior to WWII, Norway's Government changed the nation's spelling and grammar three times in forty years.

However, since our Government will be having such a time tackling consensus, couldnt we show them how its done? We could start by agreeing to delete the apostrophe.


Some notes: The Otago Daily Times is one of New Zealand's oldest newspapers, and still independent. It took over The Evening Star at one point, and kept its name on for a period in the Star Midweeker, the freebie I wrote for. Various local writers have been 'Prester John' in the ODT's opinion pages over many years, including Gordon Parry and George Griffiths.
Jenny, Ruth and Winston were all politicians; Winston Peters, now in his seventies, still is. 

Giving Column 8 a new lease of life

Back in the 90s I wrote five and a half years of weekly columns (apart from the holiday period each year) about all manner of subjects under the title Column 8. I'm now gradually adding these to this blog as I get them typed up again.

It was great having a free hand like that - the sort of benefit few writers probably have just to let their hair down and go for it. Sometimes having such a wide range is inhibiting, strangely, but in general something got written each week that was worth reading, and, in a few cases, worth forgetting.

The column began when the previous columnist announced, rather out of the blue, that he was quitting. I rang up and - amazingly - got the job on the strength of a couple of hastily-written pieces that were eventually among the first published columns. It ended even more abruptly when I received a letter from the editor (a change from sending him one, I suppose) telling me that due to 'restructuring' (that wonderfully abstract word) my services were no longer required.

I had one more column to write and in it told the readers that I'd been summarily dismissed - and amazingly, got away with it. I don't know the real reason for my dismissal, though I suspect it might have had something to do with the column I wrote (one of my occasional religion-focused ones) in which I said that in spite of their claims, the Mormons were not part of the wider Christian church.

It may have had nothing to do with that. It may have been that the editor felt the columns were getting tired. (Sometimes they were.) It may have been that I was employed by one editor and fired by his replacement. It may have been that they preferred to save $50 a week (or was it $30?) and use the space for advertising.

Certainly they did restructure the paper, quite some time later. Columns were no longer included - at one point there had been several writers going on about their favourite subject week after week (like fishing). Gradually similar columns have been re-introduced over the years, and we now have policemen/women writing, or politicians. (The fishing column has moved to the daily newspaper.) The paper has survived, which is extraordinary in itself, and it's actually one of the best freebies I've come across.

I have plans to post some of the old columns on this blog, randomly, in keeping with both this blog's title, and the nature of the original column. Column 8 wasn't my choice of a name, by the way. It was decided by the editor: all it meant was that the column began in the eighth column of the newspaper, which was conveniently placed inside the first page. It actually occupied columns 8 and 9, in part, but we won't quibble about that. Suffice to say it that it was a prime spot in which to blog...I mean write.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review Tales reviews The Disenchanted Wizard

Another review of The Disenchanted Wizard, this time by Jeyran Main, on her blog, Review Tales.  Here's an extract from it:

This children’s book has everything suitable to engage and intrigue the young mind. It is full of action, thrills, educational and positive messages, as well as the fun and exciting adventure one normally looks for in a tale.
The plot and the characters were very well aligned together, eliminating any loopholes or questionable events. The paragraphs and the layout of the work were in good standing and the pace of the story was not fast or slow enough to challenge the young mind. I believe this book will be a great addition to the series and I look forward to reading more from this author.
I'm pleased to see that the we'd eliminated loopholes with this book: that was one of the reasons it took so long to write. Every time we'd fix something, something else would fall over!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review of Disenchanted Wizard

Just a quick note: a friend of mine read The Disenchanted Wizard and put a review on Facebook. Since it'll vanish from there quickly, I'm adding it here as well. (She's going to put it on Goodreads when she gets back from out of town, I believe.)

Just read 'The Disenchanted Wizard' by my friend Mike Crowl. Simply amazing what an author with a vivid imagination can do with the love of soccer, the discovery of a map, a long ago act of revenge and two youngsters - oh, and lots of extras in between. 
A fabulous read for children (I would say 8 - 14yrs) and also for adult children like myself.
Seriously, it really had me captivated. 
This is an exciting, fast-paced, and at times 'on the edge of the chair' read, with beautiful use of language particularly in the descriptive passages.

Affordably available on Kindle

Sunday, May 07, 2017

New review of Grimhilda!

Very pleased to get such a positive review of my first children's fantasy, Grimhilda!, from Rosie Malezer of Readers' Favorite

Grimhilda! is the first fantasy children’s book in the Grimhilderness series, written by Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks. Eight-year-old Toby Ashton-Batchelor barely remembers the days when his parents had paid him some attention. Over the past few years, George and Sylvia Ashton-Batchelor had always been too busy with their own hobbies and social lives to continue any interaction with their son. One by one, each babysitter had been asked never to return, due to their mollycoddling of young Toby. George and Sylvia are surprised, however, when Miss Pimplay appears on their doorstep, eager to see Toby’s parents out the door, on their way to another night of socializing. When Toby and his toys realize what Miss Pimplay’s real motives had been, they each devise a plan to rescue Toby’s parents while, at the same time, hoping to put a stop to Grimhilda’s dastardly deeds once and for all.

I gained tremendous enjoyment in reading Grimhilda!, while laughing along at Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks’ clever usage of humour. Toby’s parents seemed to have quite the knack of mispronouncing Miss Pimplay’s name as Miss Pimple at every turn, causing much amusement and enjoyment as I read on. The fear and confusion of Toby being left with such a strict and scary woman immediately raised red flags in my mind, causing me to question the babysitter’s true motives. The blend of comedy and suspense was perfectly timed, and my home was filled with laughter as I continued to read on. Grimhilda claimed ‘ownership’ of all parents who had seriously neglected their children, initially leading me to believe she was somebody good, such as Nanny McPhee or even Mary Poppins, but when it became clear that she was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the suspense in the story fully took hold, as I was left on the edge of my seat, rooting for young Toby, and praying for his parents' safe return. I thoroughly enjoyed Grimhilda! and recommend it to young readers aged 7-14, who enjoy fun, adventure, magic ... and who are not afraid to let themselves believe.

P.S. Yesterday we went to a benefit concert, and the two boys who'd played Toby in the original production of the musical version of Grimhilda!, Max Beal and Kelland O'Neil, were both performing. Nice coincidence!

Guest post from Laura Libricz

Today I'm presenting a guest post from Laura Libricz. 

Welcome to Day 3 of my #RRBC “SPOTLIGHT” Author Blog Tour. I would like to thank the RRBC and my host for this great opportunity. Today I’d like to talk about the inspiration behind my first novel The Master and the Maid.
Tales of masters involved with their maids have as much allure today as they did in history. In the news, we read sordid tales of Hollywood stars romantically involved with their personnel and the scandal reports of shameless household help preying on vulnerable celebrities. But what makes these relationships so intriguingly immoral? Is it the element of adultery because many of the employers are married? Or is having a relationship in the workplace what makes this arrangement taboo?
Laura Libricz
Analyses of the behavioral patterns between employers and employees fill volumes of psychology books. A certain power imbalance arises when two people enter into a vocational relationship. The employer has the upper hand, holding not only the threat of termination over the employee’s head but also holding the purse strings. One could say, the employer holds an employee’s very existence in his hands. As with any power imbalance, there is a risk that this power could be abused. Or a more commonplace risk could arise: a romantic relationship could develop in the workplace. These risks compound the intrigue, especially when the employees are working in private homes.
Let’s concentrate on the recipe for a good master and maid tale: a household hires a housekeeper. The household does not fit into the modern concept of the nuclear family in a loving marriage. Maybe this is a marriage arranged for business and social reasons. For some reason the husband and wife live together but separate. The husband may travel frequently. The wife may be preoccupied with childbearing. The housekeeper has daily and intimate contact with the master. A kind word, a smile, a wink, a touch, a kiss…The master feels he has the right to take his maid, however he desires, with her consent or against her will. Maybe some gratuity changes hands.
These tales often concentrate on male employers and their use and misuse of their female help. Surely, male household employees are misused as well, but the majority of these cases involves women. The proof of female employees caught in unsavory circumstances is often obvious in the form of an unwanted pregnancy and the subsequent fall from grace forever.
In his book The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Foundlings, Orphans and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany, Joel Harrington reports the case of a young maid and her descent into disrepute by bearing a child, the result of an unwanted pregnancy caused by her employer. During Harrington’s research, he notices that the legal records were crammed full of reports of maids involved in fornication, abortion, abandonment and infanticide cases. He reasons that “domestic service entailed geographic and thus social displacement. Most young women…served fairly near their homes but far enough away to require a new social network.” Considering the stage in their development, that being late teens and early twenties, the young women were exposed to a multitude of “voluntary and involuntary sexual relations.”
They were almost completely dependent on their employers for food and board and leaving even abusive circumstances would result in forfeiting pay and termination of the contract, as well as shame to their families. “A maid impregnated by her employer was in fact the most common adultery scenario among married men throughout the early modern era.”
As with many historic vocational relationships, payment would only ensue at the end of the employment contract, be that a year or two years, and termination could mean forfeiting all the wages due. Historically, the best-paid women employees, like cooks and nannies, were maybe paid as well as their worse-paid male counterparts. But there were ways maids could better their positions. The master may have hinted that there were extra jobs to do and money would change hands. Maybe even a promise of marriage would precede a sexual encounter. Although, in his book, Joel Harrington says, “…marriage was at best a cruel delusion.”
To be fair, there are reports in historical records of genuine love and affection between masters and maids, even if the relationships between them did not end in marriage. A famous example of a master involved with his maid(s) is that of the Dutch painter, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Born in 1609 in Leiden, Holland, and educated there too, he soon made himself a name and moved to Amsterdam in 1631, a promising career budding. There he met his art dealer’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, he married her. The couple lived in better circumstances even though a dark cloud shrouded their affluence. Saskia bore three children and none of the three infants survived. Then in 1641, Sakia gave birth to their son, Titus. Saskia sadly died a year later. During the time of Saskia’s illness, Rembrandt hired a governess, Geertje Dircx, to help him raise Titus. Around that time, he also hired a housemaid, Hendrickje Stoffels.
Rembrandt’s relationship with Geertje was an intimate one, to the point that he gave her a silver marriage medal, a symbol of engagement, although not engraved. At this time, he painted his most sexually explicit works like The French Bed and The Monk in the Cornfield, considered pornographic for the 1640’s. He also gave Geertje some of Saskia’s jewels. Although Rembrandt and Geertje were betrothed, even though he later disputed this, they never married. He would have lost Titus’ trust fund, money set up in Saskia’s will, had he remarried and he could not afford to do that. Even though Rembrandt was a successful portrait painter, he was known to live above his means and had money problems.
When did the relationship between Rembrandt and Geertje sour? When did Geertje notice that Rembrandt preferred the young maid, Hendrickje? Maybe when Geertje noticed that Rembrandt looked “…at the young woman (Hendrickje) an instant longer than was quite necessary between a master and a maid,” as reported in the book Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama. Maybe when Geertje began to hint that a Christian marriage was what she really wanted. Maybe the problem escalated when Geertje noticed that Rembrandt took Hendrickje into his bed and no longer wanted her.
In 1649, Geertje was ousted, out of the relationship and out of the house. Rembrandt demanded that Geertje make a will leaving the jewelry he gave her to his son, Titus, should Geertje die. Geertje could ‘use’ the jewels, promising never to sell or pawn them, and he would pay her a yearly stipend, as long as she made no further demands on the artist. Hendrickje was even summoned in front of commissioners to testify that Geertje had agreed to this arrangement in front of witnesses and had no further claim on Rembrandt. The situation escalated further when Geertje pawned the jewels and continued to escalate until Rembrandt testified that Geertje was of “unsound mind.” Her detention ensued. In 1651, Geertje was confined to the Gouda Spinhuis, a correctional spinning house for wayward women. Even after her release in 1655, she continued to pester him.
In the meantime, Hendrickje proved to be a valued companion for Rembrandt, although he never married her, either. The immoral relationship did not go unnoticed by the Dutch Reformed Church. Hendrickje was summoned by the Church Council in 1654 when the swellings of her pregnancy were noticeable. She was “informed of the full depths of her depravity and wickedness…and formally banned from the Lord’s Supper, the Calvinist communion.”
Rembrandt painted what was considered the most beautiful of his nudes, the last nude painting of his career, in 1654, Bathsheba at her Bath, supposedly modeled by Hendrickje. They had a daughter, Cornelia, in 1654. Hendrickje remained with Rembrandt as his companion and business administrator until she died in 1663.  Rembrandt died in 1669.

Where do you get the inspiration for your stories? As a reader, what sort of story would you like to see put into a novel?

* * *


She’s lost her work, her home and her freedom. Now, harboring a mysterious newborn, she could lose her life.

In 17th Century Germany on the brink of the Thirty Years War, 24-year-old Katarina is traded to the patrician Sebald Tucher by her fiancĂ© Willi Prutt in order to pay his debts. En route to her forced relocation to the Tucher country estate, Katarina is met by a crazed archer, Hans-Wolfgang, carrying a baby under his cloak. He tells her an incredible story of how his beloved was executed by a Jesuit priest for witchcraft right after the birth and makes Katarina—at sword point—swear on her life to protect the child. But protecting the child puts Katarina at risk. She could fall in disfavour with her master. She could be hunted by the zealots who killed his beloved. She could be executed for witchcraft herself. Can Katarina's love for the baby and Sebald Tucher's desire for her keep the wrath of the zealots at bay?

Set in Franconia, The Master and the Maid is an accurate, authentic account of a young woman's life in Germany in the 1600's, her struggle for freedom and her fight for those she loves.

* * *


Laura Libricz was born and raised in Bethlehem PA and moved to Upstate New York when she was 22. After working a few years building Steinberger guitars, she received a scholarship to go to college. She tried to ‘do the right thing’ and study something useful, but spent all her time reading German literature.

She earned a BA in German at The College of New Paltz, NY in 1991 and moved to Germany, where she resides today. When she isn’t writing, she can be found sifting through city archives, picking through castle ruins or aiding the steady flood of musical instruments into the world market.

Her first novel, The Master and the Maid, is the first book of the Heaven's Pond Trilogy. The Soldier’s Return and Ash and Rubble are the second and third books in the series.

Twitter - @lauralibricz
Facebook - @LauraLibriczAuthoress

Saturday, May 06, 2017

RRBC and The Computer Heist

As part of marketing my latest book, I've got involved in an online reviewing and support group, Rave Reviews Book Club, (or RRBC for short) in the last two or three weeks. Certainly it's a busy and energetic group, with plenty going on. At the moment I'm keeping up with the pace!

They select three books from their members for review each month and you can choose which book you'd like to review. You're only required to do four reviews a year - no biggie - and these can be from other books as well as the chosen few.

Anyway, my first review, which also appears on Amazon and Goodreads, is of Michael P King's The Computer Heist. 

This book whips along at a great pace, with multiple viewpoints and innumerable twists and turns. There doesn't seem to be a character in sight who's not out to do all the others down, and money is a considerable motive for everything that happens here. There are one or two improbable things: the idea that there would beno backup to a new computer program - as at first appears to be the case - seems unlikely. And Joe and Tess, the husband and wife team who are the mainstays of this series of books, have a knack of not only being right 99% of the time, but also always capable of coming up with a new idea when caught in a corner. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable and not overly violent noir novel. 

Friday, May 05, 2017

How to lose your reader and/or your viewer

My wife and I watched the first half of a movie the other night: Small Crimes, which is streaming on Netflix. It's based on a book by Dave Zeltserman which gets mostly rave reviews on Goodreads. (Usually with Goodreads, I find, you have to ignore half the positive reviews in order to get a real balance of views on a book, but that's by the by.) 

So it sounds like the book is worth reading, if you're into noir, and unreliable narrators, and subtle characterisation. The movie has a reasonable amount of noir, but beyond that - and you have to bear in mind I only watched half of it - it treats its viewer very badly. How so? By giving him or her so few clues as to what's going on that the viewer can barely keep up. 

An ex-cop, Joe Denton, who's just leaving gaol at the start, seems a bit hard done by. In the opening scene a prison chaplain empathises with him, and you think: Okay, let's hope it goes well out there for him. But then there's a scene with a detective who abuses him verbally, before some other guy (a D.A, we eventually figure out) walks in and seems to be on Joe's side. Except that in the next scene it's the cop who's on his side - though with some provisos - and in a later scene the DA not only turns out to be one of his victims from the past, but is definitely not on his side. 

And then there's a scene where the main character goes to visit an old Mafia guy who's on his deathbed. After some pleasantries, Joe tries to suffocate him - as you do - until interrupted by the old man's nurse. And then not long after he's chatting with the nurse in a coffee bar - until some stranger comes along and spits in his food. No explanations are given for any of this, or why he gets beaten up outside the old man's house, or why a young girl picks him up and traps him into yet another beating. 

What's this got to do with an author losing his reader? I'm guessing that Zeltserman made a better fist of explaining things in his book. I hope so. Although many authors currently take the line that not introducing anyone in a story is a great idea (movies do it too), and that the reader should expect the book to be like a cryptic crossword, where nothing makes sense until twenty pages in. If you're lucky. 

I enjoy cryptic crosswords, frustrating as they can be. I don't mind books where I have to figure some things out. But I do get a bit peeved when the author is so concerned to hide information that you have to read and read...and read...before you understand who's doing what, when and why.

Last year I read I'm Thinking of Ending Things. By the time I had finished it (which was an achievement in itself), I was wishing the author had thought of ending the book long before he published it. I wrote on Goodreads at the time: 

I thought at first maybe I'd been a bit dense about the thriller aspect of this book, until I had a look at the reviews on Goodreads to see what other people thought. The majority thought it was rubbish...not even well-written rubbish. The story has long sagging bits where nothing is really happening. It attempts to make us feel scared and creeped out but pretty much fails because what the main character does is so stupid you can't believe she'd do it. The other character isn't any better. There are odd bit-players floating in and out giving strange warnings, and probably if I went back and re-read it some of these might make sense. Worse, by 3/4 of the way through you've guessed what's going on, pretty much (at least as far as it's possible to tell what the heck is going on), and from then on it's a matter of the author trying to maintain a scary story that hasn't really ever been scary in the first place. 

It was fine that the author in this case hid a major plot point from us; that was meant to be the surprise. But pages with someone else's voice on them tossed in at random and chapters in which the woman narrator rambles on about stuff we're not even sure happened or is happening just makes the reader tired. Especially when you have to keep asking Why, Why, Why?

I understand perfectly that an author has to reveal the secrets behind the story bit by bit, and that this gives the readers surprises and a reason for wanting to read on. This is a major part of structuring a story. But making everything incomprehensible is testing your reader's endurance and patience to no good end, as far as I can see. 

I review quite a few books in a year, and increasingly I'm refusing to read past a certain point in the book if I have no idea what's going on and if the author doesn't seem to want to tell me. I don't mean after a chapter, but after fifty or a hundred pages. Basically by that time he or she has had their chance. If they want to keep making it difficult for me, it's very probable I won't be reading any more of their books. Which could be a pity. 

So, in summary: if you want to grip your reader's attention - and keep on gripping it - let them have enough information early on to know who's who, and where and when things are set and something of what this story is going to be about. This doesn't mean going back to the old approach of laying everything out as though the reader was some dolt - exposition is best scattered throughout the story - but it does mean offering your reader a chance to get involved, because they have some idea of what's at stake in the story.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Downbeat Mamet

A few days ago I wrote about the possibility of listing the movies I watch. I'm not sure that my enthusiasm at that point has continued. I may just carry on writing up movies in my journal and on here, in the blog. At least then those that hit the spot in either a negative or positive fashion will get remembered a bit better.

I watched House of Games last night. It turned up on Maori TV, which was a bit odd, although they do have a reputation for showing offbeat movies - more often foreign than English. My feeling about House of Games, which dates back to 1987 and was written and directed by David Mamet, is that this is a movie best-forgotten. Roger Ebert, who can be relied upon in general to come up with good commonsense and taste in regard to movies praises it highly. In fact there are two reviews of it by him online. He revisited it in 1999, and saw it as one of the great movies.

Um. I have to say, Mr Ebert, that in this case I'm puzzled. It's a typical Mamet movie; amoral characters, lots of nifty dialogue and a storyline that has potential. However, Mamet's direction is very stagey, the actors are often placed is quite unrealistic poses, and the star of the piece, Lindsay Crouse, exhibits almost no expression from beginning to end. Well, not quite. She smiles once, in one of the last scenes, because she's got away with murder, literally, and now also has the idea that stealing from other people is some kind of triumph. She's supposed to be a psychiatrist, but doesn't appear to have much idea what that job is actually about. And apart from the last-minute smile, Crouse goes through the role as though she's dead behind the eyes. Perhaps this was intentional. Maybe Mamet asked her to be like that.

The men in the cast are all good, particularly Joe Mantegna, and play their confidence trickster roles with ease and subtlety. Which makes it all the more odd that Crouse is so deadpan. If the story is meant to be about a woman who's really venal underneath but has been hiding it, then it makes little sense in terms of the role she plays early in the piece. If she thinks that being a confidence trickster is an acceptable job, even though she's reminded on a number of occasions that it's a criminal's job, she pays not attention. In the end you don't have much idea what goes on in her head. With the result that the scene where she murders the main male character makes little sense. Yes, she's been conned by him, but she knew who these guys were, and allowed herself to be taken in. She's no dupe, after all, and stands up to people without difficulty, most of the time, including a young patient threatening to kill himself with a gun, in her office.

Mamet seems to delight in unpleasant characters, ones we find it hard to sympathise with. (I had to switch off Glengarry Glen Ross because the Alec Baldwin character was so foul-mouthed and bullying, and because the world the salesmen inhabited was so utterly bleak.) It's as if his view of the world is focused so much on the dark side of things that he can't see the light. Incidentally, in spite of the black and white, film noir look of the poster, the film is in colour, though many scenes take place at night, with gloomy interiors. Crouse wears some of the most awful 80s costumes I've seen in a while, and her hairstyle is more masculine, somehow, than feminine. Maybe this also was intentional.