What I am Reading – John Grisham

 Back before Harry Potter. Before Twilight. The release of a John Grisham novel was a book event. 

It’s true. In fact, the first book event I ever attended (and the last that involved me actually purchasing a book for myself) was a midnight release for John Grisham’s The Partner. I was struggling with insomnia, not an uncommon occurrence, and I recalled a mailer Books-a-Million had sent me about the event. So, I showed up, where I joined about twenty other men, roughly the age I am now, in searching the stacks of the store for a hidden free copy of Grisham’s new release. I don’t recall finding the book, so someone else must have won, and I must have parted with a double sawbuck and few extra Washingtons ($20+ ) and came home with Grisham’s latest legal thriller.

Years later, I attended several Potter and Twilight saga midnight events.  Sometimes with Jill, often by myself…but always to pick up the new book for her. I never got into Harry Potter or the sparkly vampires, but I’ve always loved how popular these books became.  They seemed to be the foil to the doom and gloom crowd, who always wanted to remind us that “nobody reads anymore.” The people, who say this, obviously never attended one of these events. When I think about waiting in line with all those kids and their parents, and the overall level excitement they had for getting a book it makes me smile. A whole generation of new readers were born with these books.

But enough about those books I’ve never read.  

I first read John Grisham when I was in college. The first three books were out, and everywhere. I read them back to back to back, and lost sleep and valuable study time to do so. I anxiously awaited the next release, The Client (and regularly complained that it wouldn’t be available in paper for at least a year after the hardcover release – $20+ for a college kid was too steep).  That annual anticipation of a new Grisham release continued through the release of The Partner (which I could actually afford in hardcover). Then, for whatever reason, I drifted away from Grisham.

Years ago, I heard or read, a fellow writer, mention something along the lines of “I’ve never read Grisham. I tried his first book, and gave up almost immediately because it was so poorly written.” I honestly cannot remember whether this was a face-to-face discussion or online communication, and I can’t recall who said it. I only recall roughly what was said, and my kick in the gut reaction.  Now, looking back on it, I chuckle and think, “Writers,” shaking my head.  A couple reasons for this:

1) This was Grisham’s first book. Of course, it’s going to have some offenses to the silly writer rules, and yes it probably has craft elements that hadn’t matured to the level of a later stage commercial fiction writer.

2) Grisham obviously did something right.  Millions upon millions of people (including myself) have read and loved that story.

It’s pretty common to use criticism as a way to bring someone down to the critics level in all facets of life. Writers are no exception. I’m sure I have been guilty of it, and sure I will continue to be. But I’m trying to see it for what it is, and stop this nonsense. 

One of the interesting results from watching all those JLB interviews was hearing some of the other authors talk about their work, and it has me interested in getting re-acquainted with some of them (no need with Connelly, I still check in on him). So, when I heard Grisham explain that he returned to the Jake Brigance character of his first novel, A Time to Kill, for  the novel Sycamore Row, I actually made it into a bookstore (with mask and socially distanced) for the first time since March and purchased a Grisham novel. It was like 1996 all over again.

I’ll just get it out of the way right now. I lost sleep reading this one, too! And to the person, who says Grisham cannot write, I’ll just offer that any author that can keep me turning the pages with anticipation for a story about probate court is a far better storyteller than me (and probably you). 

I read this book immediately after finishing JLB’s A Private Cathedral, and admittedly nobody is going to accuse Grisham of being a match for Burke as a prose stylist. But once I got over that, I was able to sit back and enjoy it for what it was, an incredibly satisfying read with plenty of suspense and twists and turns throughout the entire 600+ pages.  

People, 600 page books are not my thing. Grisham’s book was a breeze.

No deep philosophical themes. I won’t need to re-read this to see what I missed the first time. But it was a fine story.

A third book featuring Brigance is expected to come out later this fall.  I’m anxiously awaiting it. Like I did for Grisham releases in my twenties.

It’s good to be back.

–TD

What I am Listening to – Kathleen Edwards

 My wife knows me really well. So, it is no surprise that she gifted me Kathleen Edwards’s new record Total Freedom for our anniversary. Ms. Edwards is probably my favorite Canadian Singer-Songwriter not named Neil Young. 

I will not attempt to type out the story of Kathleen’s break from music. It can be found ad nauseum all over the world wide internets. Let’s just say that it has been a loooong wait for new music from her, and in a year that has featured some outstanding new releases, this is the one I’ve been most looking forward to.  (Yes, in a year that has featured new releases by Bob Dylan, Drive-by Truckers, and Jason Isbell).  

And it is great. I have not taken it off my turntable in days.  If you are not familiar with Kathleen’s work this is as good a place to start as any (and that is saying something).

She recently recorded a live Album Release event for NPR at her coffee shop, Quitters, and it features her playing the album in full.  I’m not sure who mixed the sound, but it’s pretty damn impressive…I can’t imaging a coffee shop being optimized for acoustics.  At any rate if you’re so inclined you can listen here:

Not that it really matters but my favorite songs are the 1st, “Glenfern,” and the 5th, “Options Open.”  And the other thing of note is how great it is to see the sheer joy on her face when they launch into the first song. It seems the face of someone who is creating her art on her terms.  

“Glenfern” seems to be about coming grips with one of life’s bad rolls, and  learning to look back on it seeing the good “stuff”, while still being cognizant of the life lesson.  “Options Open” resonates with me because it’s all about realizing that at some point doors need to be shut behind you… keeping your “Options Open” only works for so long. *  

I hope she’s back with us for good.

*I believe in any art, that once it is introduced to the listener, viewer, reader they take over the ownership. So, while these may not be the themes Kathleen was exploring. I am confident that this is what the songs are “about”, because it is how they move me, the listener.

–TD

The 20th Year

 Oh, ho, oh. What is this tom-foolery, you ask?

Yes, I did celebrate my 49th birthday earlier this month, as we have already established.  I am celebrating my 19th wedding anniversary, today.

As far as I’m concerned, this is more worthy of celebration. It certainly has been more challenging, than existing for 49 years.

My wife, Jill, of course, deserves most of the credit. In fact, she probably deserve a medal of honor, of some sort. I also don’t think I’m alone in this. I suspect many of the lesser gender acknowledge the real work is done by their better half.

One of the fascinating discoveries I made early on in my marriage was that I never truly knew my strengths and weaknesses until I looked into the mirror of my wife’s eyes.  And yes, something happened when we made it official. Those eyes were more telling. A truer reflection of my good and poor qualities cannot be found outside how my wife reacts to them.  The happiness, the pride, the humor.  The anger, the disappointment, and yes, sometimes, the embarrassment.

Marriage, seems to me, is a journey all about tilting the scales in one direction. And becoming a better person because of it.

Happy Anniversary Jill Marie DeCastro, with love.

Yesterday’s Post (Links)

 It occurred to me that I could have done all of you a solid by providing some links to the JLB interviews I mentioned. I have yet to watch the Stephen King interview. It aired last night, after my blog post. There is some repetition in the tales Burke tells.  Even I have to admit to getting a little tired of hearing about the middle of his career where he wasn’t able to publish The Lost Get Back Boogie.  But if you haven’t heard it, then it is well worth the listen! It is a tale of persistence to make Rocky Balboa blush.

I’m sure most of you won’t watch all of the videos.  Keeping in mind that I’ve yet to watch the King interview, which I’m sure will be stellar. How could it not be?  My recommendation would be the Lee Child conversation. Interestingly enough, I could never get into Reacher.  But Child’s conversation, I dunno? He seems able to keep up with JLB.  No slight to the others, especially considering I actually prefer the work of Connelly and Grisham (I’ve yet to read Koryta).

Grisham:

Child:

Koryta:

Connelly:

King:

I’ll probably watch the King interview sometime today, when I have finished my own writing for the day.  IF, big if, I can keep myself away from Burke’s latest A Private Cathedral long enough to put in the hour and a half to watch it. The novel is an interesting mix of crime novel and magical realism that I think would make the late-great Toni Morrison proud, and more proof that genre fiction (and certainly Burke’s work) can be literary in nature. Even ignoring Burke’s jaw dropping prose, he is exploring themes and the human condition WELL BEYOND a simple mystery novel. Then, of course, there is the prose…I’ve yet to find a better living composer of prose…perhaps Michael Chabon comes closest (?). 95 MPH fastballs…

–TD

The 50th Year

 You being an astute reader have probably ascertained that I have begun my 50th trek around the sun. It’s true. This latest journey began earlier this month. If you are good with the maths, you probably realize that I celebrated my 49th birthday earlier this month. I may continue doing so every year henceforth.

But enough with the mental gymnastics, Jill and I watched The Karate Kid a few nights ago, and I was confronted with the terrifying realization that I am approaching Mr. Miyagi’s age. Pat Morita was 53 years young, when he created his career defining role (unless, I guess, you are a huge Happy Days fan). How did this happen? Seriously, when one of our fine young Americans refer to me as sir, it still sounds foreign to me. Just yesterday, I was struggling to make the cut on the varsity baseball team at Northeast High School. Right?

Wrong. That happened a few years after the movie was released, and I’m closing in on the old wise man from the movie.

This, of course sent me down the rabbit hole of what I’ve learned in all those years. As much, as I really didn’t want to catch up to Mr. Miyagi in the tally of orbits, it sure would be nice to have some of that wisdom.

Still I feel like a child.

My son is a Senior in High School this year. He will be taking classes virtually.  This was difficult for me to come to grips with. School is in the classroom. It’s also one of our earliest and foundation building social interaction exercises. Sure it lasts over a decade, but it takes that long. At least, this is my rationalization. Today is a different world. In a lot of ways, of course, but I fear this whole pandemic social isolation thing is a new norm for those of my son’s generation. I never could have imagined the level of global shutdown something like this could cause just a few short years ago.  Now it seems like even after we get through COVID19, there will be another season, like the inevitable hurricane crashing into our shores every summer to fall.  As far as school goes?  My wife was adamant about Dylan enrolling in virtual school for safety reasons.  As the summer crawled on and I saw our cultural difficulties with social distancing measures on display…as I saw the numbers of cases climbing… as I learned of people I know inflicted with the virus (one twice, long before the recent report of the “first case of COVID re-infection”)… as I heard of people I know succumbing to the disease, who are no longer with us… I pivoted on my strongly held belief that school is in the class room. Maybe, releasing some of my stubbornly held beliefs is Miyagi-esque wisdom?  Something, I’ve learned in my 49+ years? Maybe, I’m just smart enough to listen to my wife?  Surely, Mr. Miyagi could appreciate the wisdom in that.

Writing is a constant reminder that what you think you know as truth is often a lie. Hell, as a fiction writer, I ATTEMPT to tell the truth by feeding you lies (fiction).  I’ve had the joy of listening to a number of James Lee Burke discussions over the last few weeks.  He’s had sessions with John Grisham, Lee Child, Michael Koryta.  There is a forthcoming session with Stephen King!  Burke is fascinating and humbling. His intellect is so sharp, and his classical education obviously so much deeper than my own. I’ve never experienced what the writing mob refers to as Impostor’s Syndrome. In fact, even after having this regurgitated nearly every time I visit one of the online writing communities, I’m still not sure what it is.  I guess some feeling of inadequacy (?).  I’ve always just said  I’m just going to do my best. Try to be the best Tony DeCastro, because ultimately I’m not only the only one that can decide if that is good enough, I’m also the only one who will ever know if I’ve truly given my best.  This feels more like the wisdom of Forrest Gump, than Mr. Miyagi.  (Not meant as a slight, as Gump’s wisdom was sharp as well…remember Jenny asking Forrest what/who he wanted to be, and he simply saying, “Well ain’t I just gonna be me.”)  

Whoa, where was I going with this?  Right? Impostor syndrome. Watching these interviews, reading three of Burke’s books back to back (two re-reads), has probably left me as close to this mythical impostor’s syndrome, as I will ever be.  

When I was a Senior in High School, I was fortunate enough to play in a couple of Senior All-Star games, where the best seniors in the county got to play in exhibition games against other county’s squads. It was an opportunity to get a look from college recruiters and pro scouts… and for a lot of us, just another chance to get on the diamond and compete against others whose talents we admired. Now, I was a pitcher, and didn’t pick up a bat all season.  For whatever reason, in these All-Star games the designated hitter was not used, which meant pitchers would hit.  I was thrilled, and secretly hoped I would be lucky enough to get a chance to bat…It was an All-Star game, which meant that the coaches tried to get everyone into the games.  So, there was no guarantee that even if my spot came up in the line-up in the couple of innings I pitched that I would get my opportunity.  Pinch hitting was an excellent way to get someone into the game.

But…

I got my opportunity against the Hillsborough County All-Stars.  Against  a pitcher named Kiki Jones, who would be taken in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft that year. He was about 5′-9″ and maybe weighed 160 pounds after walking an hour through a driving rain, but God or the baseball gods or fate had reached down and blessed his right arm. I had never, and have never since, stepped into the box and had such a fast ball tossed in my direction. He threw 95 mph bee bees with the effort of someone tossing batting practice. I took three feeble swings, and walked back to the dugout thankful that Mr. Jones had command of his control.  I also then realized I would never throw like that.  Yet, the next fall, I tried to walk-on at a Division One NCAA baseball program. I failed, but I did my best.  The next year, with a year of college education under my belt, I gave it the ol’ college try again (pun intended). This time my best was good enough. Finding playing time as walk-on was an uphill battle as well…but I kept at it.  I never threw a 95 mph fastball. I never was drafted by a Major League team. But I very, very seldom ever left the field having not given my best.

So, it is with Mr. Burke’s 95 mph fastballs. I don’t have to do that. Hell, I don’t even have to step in the box against it. None of us do. We just need to do our best. 

I think we’re back to Mr. Miyagi….

Perry Mason

I’m not really a Perry Mason guy. I’m just not.

I have fond memories of hearing the famous introductory music for the old TV show starring Raymond Burr, and walking out to the living room and seeing my father watching it. In those childhood memories, I always imagine this happening in the wee hours, after my father returned from his late night shift at work.  I’m not sure that it was all that late. After all, these were the days before we had cable TV, and broadcast TV just was not on all that late.  Nonetheless, I have since watched some of those black and white classics in my adult years. And they are fine, and enjoyable way to spend an hour. I can take or leave ol’ Raymond Burr as Perry, though.

The Erle Stanley Gardner novels are not exactly to my taste either (for the record, I prefer the Cool and Lam series he wrote under the A.A. Fair pen name). If you like your mysteries to stack plot twist upon plot twist upon plot twist upon plot twist (you get the picture), then you will love Gardner’s Perry yarns.

Which brings us to HBO’s new series titled Perry Mason.  It is three episodes into its run, now. Up until episode three I have been in a wait and see mode. Episode three sees me jumping all in.

Della Street is a total bad ass, strong female character. I’ve liked her in the first two. In episode three, she is another level of bad ass female insisting the men up their game.

The Paul Drake character connects with Perry.  Drake in this version of the Mason-verse is a black cop. Now, it would be easy to write this off as a play for political correctness (or whatever they are calling not being a total douche-bag these days). But that would fail to recognize that exploring this character is fascinating storytelling. What would it be like to be an honorable cop, among a den of thieves (LAPD), in 1920’S LA?  What about a black one? It just adds some nice tension to Drake’s story… the pull of his family adding to that tension. That Drake has finally connected with Mason, probably, means we will get to see more of this tension. And I’m looking forward to it.

And more Della!

Perry, on the other hand?  Eh. I should like this Perry more than I do. He’s a gritty, private investigator rather than an attorney. That is my kind of guy. But I’m having a hard time with him, though the acting has been fine. I have to believe that this opening series is meant as backstory, and eventually Perry becomes the attorney behind that booming opening score. I do like the PI stuff. I am just having a difficult time actually liking the guy.

But, I am sold on the show,  because of Della and Drake, and great cinematography, and, yes, a twisty as hell story.

Are any of you watching?  What do you think?

–TD

Film Noir Friday – Panic in the Streets

Yes. Jill and I did this last night.

What’s that you ask?

We watched the film noir(ish) about an impending pandemic, and the race against time to contain it.

The film directed by (the eventually black-listed) Elia Kazan features oneof my favorite actors, Richard Widmark, in an atypical role, and the film debut of Jack Palance, the man with the mug born to play a film noir villain.

It’s a fun thriller with some gorgeous noir visuals set in New Orleans. Outside of the visuals and Jack Palance’s face there isn’t really much that identifies it as a film noir (other than that’s how Fox markets the DVD now that noir is a selling point), but whether a film is noir or not really has nothing to do with its quality.  And Panic in the Streets is a fine, entertaining film that I’ve watched half a dozen times, and while I’m not sure the repeat viewings provide any new discoveries, they’ve never failed to entertain. It’s sort of film’s answer to comfort food.

A foreign smuggler arrives in the port of New Orleans infected with pneumonic plague. Immediately gets down big in a poker game with some local thugs, and ends up floating in the Mississippi (or Gulf). Richard Widmark plays a good guy (I know, I know…I said atypical), Doctor for the Dept. of Public Health, who discovers the floater not only is riddled with bullet holes but was infected with a fast spreading contagion.  The race is on to find the killer and anyone who came in contact with the body to contain the plague…also to keep it all under wraps from the press to lessen the “Panic in the Streets.”

Yes, timely.

Widmark is fantastic as usual. As is Palance.  No real femme fatale to speak of.

Panic in the Streets, I believe is in the Public Domain. It’s part of the Fox Film Noir series (Spine #2 or 3 I believe). I’ve owned a copy for years, but if it is in the Public Domain, it should be found easy enough for free streaming at Archive or You Tube.

— TD

Research

It’s been some time since I posted.  Not much to say.  Things are going well.

Rattling on about writing has become a little –eh, boring.  But, I’m going to have to do a little bit of research on a topic that I uncovered in a story this morning.  So, I thought I’d share this little bit of humor.  The writers that are reading this will just nod.  Readers will probably get a kick out of it.

Here goes:

I am convinced that if I am not on the FBI watchlist. I will be soon.

Consider this –

For my first book, my internet search history includes:

  • Where to find prostitutes in Myrtle Beach, SC (this was infamously uncovered in the search history by Jill, my wife…fun)
  • Forums where strippers and their patrons post about their experiences
  • How to pick the lock of the modern hotel keycard lock

 

For my second book, at the very least, my search history included:

  • Vodun teachings on the afterlife
  • Historical weapons of Native Americans (the Mohawks, in particular)

In addition, I regularly look up stuff about guns. Despite my love for crime fiction and the violent stories found in the genre, I am for all intents and purposes a pacifist. I have never owned a gun and can only remember once shooting a shotgun.  So, yeah, call me out on it when I get something wrong (I don’t mind, actually … I do my best). My only point is … my internet search history would make me look like a budding domestic terrorist.

I won’t share what I’ll be researching during my next writing session, but yeah, it’s FBI watch list stuff.

*FBI is not a reference to JoJo Bigtree

–TD

Reset the Streak

Yep.  Already need a reset. This week has been hectic. I’ve worked an incredible amount of overtime.  I won’t put numbers to it, but suffice to say I worked overtime last week, and managed just fine to get some writing in every day. This week I worked OVERTIME.

And it’s a learning experience.  As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I’m a slow learner. (I’m also stubborn).  I swore, while I was going through the lay-off period, that I would never give myself SO much to a company like I had at the last two.  Alas, I still have a lot to learn about achieving some life balance.  And the power of saying “no.”

It was also reminder of one of my best practices.  Get what’s important to me* (writing and exercise) done first thing every day. When I do this, nothing the day throws at me can de-rail those priorities.  I failed to do this on Wednesday morning, and no writing got done. In fairness to myself, Thursday wasn’t going to happen out shear exhaustion anyway.  Friday, I probably could have/should have gotten a run and some writing in, but I slept in (until 6 a.m. haha), and chose to spend time with family* after work.  So, I lost three days. Two of those days I lost that I feel I could have written and run, but I chose not to.  One of those days, I lost because… well, because me.

So, on that ‘me’ thing, I’m trying to figure that out. I know I have to concentrate on being less busy.  On one hand, I know I perform much better when I have a regimented day. When I know I have to work my hour of writing into a relatively full day, I generally do better than when I have a ton of free time on my hands.  But it’s a delicate balance, and my days can get away from me like they did this week. I know there’s an answer.  Add this to my priorities for the year, too!

My streak ended at 7 days. I wrote today, so now it stands at One. And that’s okay, because I know I can get up and write and run (7.5 miles) tomorrow.

I re-read The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald this week for maybe the sixth time. I love the book and the entire Travis McGee series, and I just wanted to revisit it and see what I could pick up on and learn from JDM. There’s surely a lot of stuff, but what I focused on was the balance JDM achieved in his action scenes of pace and enough depth of detail that he doesn’t leave the reader filling in too many blanks. I’m currently writing a chase scene on the beach, and I am trying to borrow from the master on keeping those scales level. It’s a lot of fun to write.

I’m also nearing the finish of Pepper Pike by Les Roberts.  Also a PI novel, featuring Milan Jacovich, and set in Cleveland.  So far, so good. I feel like I’ll be continuing on with this series.

We lost Neil Peart this week. I knew I had a lot of friends, who are Rush fans, but I had no idea the sheer number until my Facebook feed got lit up with them mourning his death. I’ve never been much of a fan of Rush, or Mr. Peart, but I’ve always admired their abilities (in the case of Peart his skill with the drumsticks in his hands is undeniable). Something to keep in mind. Just because something isn’t to our tastes, doesn’t mean anything about the quality of the work.

Looking forward to the week ahead. Long run tomorrow, which I hope I won’t suffer from the missed days this week. Then, who knows, maybe I finish a book (?). I certainly don’t know how it ends yet.

*Obviously spending time with Jill and Dylan trumps even these, but I’ve learned also that if I get the writing and running done first thing it frees up the quality time in the evenings.  Of course, I failed miserably this week, and saw maybe 5 minutes of them on Wednesday (actually think I missed Dylan completely).

–TD

Words this week – 3,417

Words so far this year – 7,926

Current Streak – 1

Longest Streak to date – 7

Miles Ran/walked this year –  15.5

 

A Tribute to my Literary Hero by His Daughter

Tribute to James Lee Burke

I’ve written about James Lee Burke before, and I read this Tribute years ago when Burke was awarded the Grand Master title by the Mystery Writers of America. It came up on my Facebook feed today, and I am sharing it here as a gift…because if you have not read James Lee Burke and you are compelled to read him after reading my post, than that is what this is — a gift.

I do not believe there is a Literary genre in fiction.  And I think it’s a little egotistical for a writer to claim they are writing in the Literary genre. I believe Literary is term for quality that the reader gives to a work regardless of genre. James Lee Burke writes, mostly, crime fiction, but to say he transcends genre is an understatement on the likes of saying The Great Gatsby is a nice little crime novel.  Mr. Burke is THAT good. He is literary.

Like most of us, there are things that I see in my hero.  Things I learn or hope to learn. There is a short line in Alafair’s beautiful tribute (she’s a good writer, as well!) about Burke’s refusal to outline or see more than a couple of scenes ahead.  I first encountered this bit of Burke’s process in The Tinroof Blowdown, the post-Katrina novel mentioned in the tribute.  In it, Robicheaux comments on Alafair’s (yes, the character shares a name with the author’s daughter) writing process as she is a budding author. Intrigued, I contacted Mr. Burke to ask if the fictional Alafair’s process resembled anything in his own process.  Burke was kind enough to respond to me, that it was exactly his writing process.  From that day forward, I became a reformed “plotter” .(That’s a nudge and a wink at all of the writers out there who say they are reformed pantsers, as if somehow becoming an outliner is a higher calling.) Writing became a lot more enjoyable. Since then I’ve learned most (not all) of my favorite authors do not outline…(and don’t rewrite).

Of course, the perseverance that Burke exhibited with The Lost Get Back Boogie is heroic, and something I regularly consider and remind myself when a case of the “why bothers” hit.

But those last two paragraphs are too much about me. Do yourself a favor. Read Alafair’s tribute. Then introduce yourself to Dave Robicheuaux and Clete Purcell, or any of Burke’s other fantastic, colorful characters.

Oh, and you’re welcome.

–TD