Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Big Sleep for Mr. Parker

Yesterday, the world lost the mystery writer Robert B. Parker. He died at age 77 at his desk. I hope he was writing, and I hope he was so engrossed in his story that he didn’t even realize what was happening to him. I can’t think of a better way for a writer to go.

Mr. Parker was probably best known for his Spenser novels. But in saluting his life, we must note that he held a Ph. D. in literature from Boston University. His dissertation was a study of classic mystery writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. What better foundation for a craftsman of this particular genre?

I’ve read a fairly large stack of Mr. Parker’s novels, but last night I was moved to hunt down his very first. It’s The Godwulf Manuscript, published in 1973, and it’s the first Spenser novel. Here’s a line from an early scene in the book:

“She was wearing something in purple suede that was too short for a skirt and too long for a belt.”

Ah, they don’t write ‘em like that anymore.

Rest easy, Mr. Parker. Thanks for the many years of entertainment you gave the world. Thanks for your attention to the details of your craft. And thanks for showing the rest of us how it’s done.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lessons from American Idol

You know you’ve watched too much American Idol when you can unerringly predict a contestant’s performance based on his or her pre-audition interview. If the young lady cares for her aging grandmother and has a sweet face, she’ll sing like an angel. If she’s dressed as a character from Star Trek and says her friends think she’s better than any previous contestants on Idol, she’ll screech like a stray cat in the alley. Or slightly less in tune than the stray cats.

It shouldn’t surprise me to see such a similarity between American Idol hopefuls and unpublished writers, but there it is. The more a person talks about how great his manuscript is, the more I know it’s going to suck. Please don’t tell me that your mother, sister-in-law, daughter’s English teacher, etc. couldn’t put it down. Don’t tell me how much they loved it. Especially don’t add the phrase, “and they don’t usually like this type of book.”

Your fate is sealed. I know it’s going to be a stinker.

I’m at a point now where I can spend one evening with a classroom of fledgling writers and determine which one’s homework I’m going to look forward to reading and which one I’m going to dread.

Talent does not need a sales pitch. If you’ve made it to the audition room in front of Randy, Simon and Kara, then shut up and sing. Similarly, if you’re invited to submit your manuscript – publisher, class homework, friendly critique group, whatever – shut up and hand it over.

I’ll repeat here some words of wisdom I picked up long ago from an author I knew casually (and whose name I’ve forgotten): “The only person whose opinion you should listen to is someone who is in a position to write you a check.”

It’s great if your grandmother loves your short story. But she’s your grandmother. She’s supposed to love every little thing you do. This is, you’ll remember, the woman who recorded your first deposit in the Big Potty. You want to wrap that up and send it to an editor? Didn’t think so.

So let’s take a lesson from our Idol viewing: Shut up and sing. The public will ultimately decide whether to keep you or vote you off.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I Left My Heart...

In the Seventies, my mother and I went to the airport to pick up some family member or other who was flying in from somewhere. This was a time, boys and girls, when just anybody could walk right up to the gate and stand around without a boarding pass, a body search, or even a relative to meet. As we walked down the smooth corridor toward the arrival area, we noticed a man sitting on one of the waiting benches alone. He was quite nattily dressed in trousers, blue blazer, and a dapper tweed hat. We glanced at him, he smiled, we kept walking. About ten yards past, Mom and I turned to each other and almost simultaneously said, “That was Tony Bennett!”

Indeed it was.

Last night, I saw him again. This time, at a concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, FL. His 27th appearance at that venue.

The thing about this particular hall is that, although it comfortably seats over 2000 the atmosphere is intimate. During the hour-and-a-half set of standards and hits, I felt as if I were sitting in a rather elegant nightclub about as close to Mr. Bennett as I had been that night at the airport. His showmanship was a large part of that feeling. No doubt he was absolutely delighted to be there. He loves what he’s doing. It shows in every step, every strong note, every accolade to his four-piece band.

Although he’s well past his 80th birthday, there was no lack of energy, no lack of strength. For me, the highlight of the show was his version of “Fly Me to the Moon” completely free of microphones or any electronic amplification. The ol’ guy can still belt it out to the very last row.

Sure, everyone who goes to San Francisco leaves a little bit of the heart. But nobody does it with so much style as Mr. Bennett.

And how many times are you going to hear a story that begins with, “My best friend, Frank Sinatra...”

Thanks for a great night. Here's to many, many more.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

THE HELP Could Use Some Help

I know I’m behind the curve in reading The Help. It’s been out for almost a year, and I’m only just now getting around to it because I got it for Christmas. I don’t normally read best sellers or Oprah’s picks. But I’d heard a lot about this one, so I approached it eagerly.

If you’re one of the half-dozen people who hasn’t read it yet, here’s a quickie explanation: The story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. It is about the ‘colored’ domestic help who work for the white ladies. There are three main characters, two of whom are maids. The third is an unusually enlightened Caucasian young woman who wants to bring ‘their story’ to the world.

If you look around the blog-o-sphere, you will find many complaints about Kathryn Stockett, a white woman, writing in the supposed voice of the African American women. There are some who say the dialect she adopted for the two maid characters is demeaning, if not racist.

I disagree there. The dialect is not remotely as demeaning as Mark Twain’s in Huckleberry Finn and yet we continue to revere that book. Having lived in the South my entire life, I think I’m qualified to say she did a good job with the southern language. She should have. She grew up with it, too.

However, I do have a major complaint with Ms. Stockett’s work. My problem is with timing. It is late 1963. Skeeter is listening to the radio and hears Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A-Changing.” Not possible. That song was not recorded until 1964.

Later on, in January of ’64, she hears The Rolling Stones on the radio. Again, not possible. The Stones’ first album was released in April of 1964. In January of that year, The Beatles had not even been on The Ed Sullivan Show yet. We’d barely heard of them, let alone The Stones.

At another point in late ’63, Stuart, Skeeter’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, goes to San Francisco to face his issues with his ex-girlfriend. He finds her wearing a prairie dress and peace sign jewelry. Sorry, Ms. Stockett. Not in 1963. The Summer of Peace and Love was 1967. The Hippies to which you refer a few times were not even a blip on the socially conscious radar screen in ’63.

I could go on, but I’ll rest my case with those examples and assure you there are several more. In her acknowledgements, Ms. Stockett admits she tooks liberty with time and uses the Bob Dylan song as an example. My question is, Why? What point does she make by moving events around? Is the Dylan song central to the plot? No. Does the girlfriend need to be a Hippie? Of course not. These are tiny asides that don’t advance the plot or reveal character in any way. So why bother?

What she does accomplish is destroying her credibility for me. If she’s not right about these little things, what other truths has she bent to fit her story?

On her own website’s Q&A, the author responds to a question about her research of the times by saying she went to the library and read old phone books and newspapers.

Ten minutes with Google would have been a better choice.