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March 23 2013

15:35

The First of Human Qualities

ChurchillA number of years ago, my Parliamentary namesake the well-known Labour MP Tom Watson from West Bromwich East was kindly giving me a tour behind the scenes of Whitehall, where he was then running the Cabinet Office at the very center of the British Government. As I recall, Tom's office overlooked Horse Guards Parade on one side and the back garden of 10 Downing Street, then tenanted by Gordon Brown, on the other. Catching my look of historical hankering as I gazed out his windows, he took me on a whirlwind look through the passageways until we ended up in Number 10 itself (it's really all one big, rambling connected complex - but perhaps that's a state secret I shouldn't divulge).

In any event, there we were looking around the grand staircase with its portraits, the white drawing room where Presidents are photographed with Prime Ministers, and the famed cabinet room. And just before we left the building - through the black No. 10 door itself, as it turned out - Tom pointed out a rather deflated old brown leather wing chair in the corner of the vestibule. That he said, with some historic flourish, is Winston Churchill's reading chair.

I was recalling this moment of history-related generosity on Mr. Watson's part - it was very cool - as I sailed through The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, the posthumous collaboration between the eminent Connecticut historian William Manchester and Paul Reid. Manchester, the most prominent Western  hemisphere Churchillian, was the author of two volumes of a planned three volume biography of Churchill, the last of which was published in 1988 left Churchill on the edge of the premiereship - and the Second World War - in 1940. Manchester's health failed him, though he compiled acres of notes and outlines for the final volume before he died in 2003.

Like many armchair historians, Manchester's writing was formative for me. Goodbye Darkness, his account of the war in the Pacific, in part a first-person narrative, is among the great war books ever written. Manchester had the knack for weaving large-scale events into ground-level stories that imparted both the global machinations of empires and lives of actual people. So when my friend Eric Goldberg, over some Italian wine at I Trulli, strongly recommended the Manchester-Reid book - and Eric has never steered me wrong on history - a download was imminent.

I'd read the somewhat mixed reviews last fall when the book was released, but was intrigued by how Reid, who met Manchester as a reporter for the Palm Beach Post, deciphered both the old man's notes and his intentions like a one-man Bletchley Park team and produced a long, final chapter. And I'm not disappointed. Indeed, I think Reid's journalistic skills serve him very well on the vast, global canvas that was the last quarter century of Churchill's life. And I'm struck with the real generosity and ambition of the book. Certainly, the world didn't demand another Churchill biography; the Roy Jenkins book could certainly have served as the last big 20th century summation of that giant's life. Yet Reid is sure to explain - and then to demonstrate in capturing the sweep of events that defined Manchester's first two works - that this is a Manchester book and worthy of that reputation. The bones of garden are Manchester; the walls and pathways are laid out and familiar and the soil well-tilled with a lifetime's research. The plants are mainly Reid's - but they're arranged in the way that Gertrude Jekyll gardens still are decades after the great gardener's death. The grand design is recognizable.

As to Churchill, such is the cartoonish reputation still that it's always refreshing to read an open-eyed biography - one that countenances weakness, failure, and (perhaps) the immorality and folly of empire itself. Nonetheless, courage really was contagious in Britain in 1941 - and Churchill's keen sense of the Cold War's rise remains an example of actual strategic thinking by a major political leader. I'm not saying Churchill's world view should be welcomed early in this new century as a tonic for our global problems, nor that Churchill's famously loopy tactical ideas are either. But that clarity? By all means.

Tags: Books History

October 25 2011

02:27

Lucking Out

Lucking out

Bloggers are the bridge and tunnel kids of the modern media club scene. Sure, we pay the cover charge and provide the much-needed amplification for the really big voices (you know, the ones getting paid to riff on the digital stage) but too often we find we've been allowed past the ropes just so Lou Reed can drunkenly insult us at the bar.

In the Max's Kansas City of the left-leaning web - the actual Park Avenue premises of sainted memory being the scene of an ugly episode that a kid from Yonkers who bore a much skinnier resemblance to me endured at the pointy end of Mr. Reed's claws in 1979 - there's a gentle unpretentious fellow always leaning against the bar to welcome the teeming, blogging, linking masses from the precincts of deep Outer Blogosphere. To the authors and other "content creators" (a term that Jack Donaghy surely must have invented in some far off Liz Lemon day-dream) who have felt the critical sting of his blade over these last few decades at the Village Voice or Esquire or Vanity Fair, the name of this approachable blogging Bing Crosby  might come as a surprise.

For it is James Wolcott.

And before this post progresses too much farther, I urge you to hasten in the direction of the nearest bookshop, virtual or the kind with comfy chairs and cappuccino bars, and purchase his forthcoming 1970s memoir, Lucking Out, which I have been reading with real pleasure since the advance copy hit my mailbox last week.

To bloggers like me, and Lance Mannion, and Blue Girl, and Al Giordano, and Roy Edroso, Maud Newton, and M.A. Peel, and the Siren, and a legion of other fine voices, Wolcott's seminal Vanity Fair blog has often been the spigot that provides the attention and conversation that is the real currency we strive for in a world that undervalues both the written word and the earnest discussion. Indeed, he's served as a genial giant of the literary set, the indulgent rich uncle with a checkbook of links and kind words of encouragement.

God help the evil-doers of course. Birthers, neocons, hate-bloggers, Tea Party patsies, war-mongers, and every flavor of fake right-wing "everyman" Bill O'Reilly type known to man has suffered at the point of his pen - as the likes of Richard Ford and Jay McInerney famously have, the latter once splattered with this bloody buzz-killer: "Beware of a novel built upon a catch-phrase. A flip curl eventually loses its hold."

"I sometimes wince at the nasty incisions I inflicted on writers when I cross the line between cutup and cutthroat," Wolcott admits near the book's conclusion - knowing of course that his readers (and his editors) like a bit of blood in their dueling scenes. There are no regrets about his late political work, which has gored all manner of conservative blog wannabes; indeed the Wolcott blog drew so many of us to his virtual side in those gauzy early pre-Dean Scream days when DailyKos was in beta and everything seemed possible.

But this is a book about the 1970s, and there too, I came across James Wolcott. Well, the latter part of the 70s anyway - the dawn of the decade found me in late single digits. Actually, I barely caught the cultural wave that powers Lucking Out, the salty tsunami of music and grime that washed the florid ponderous rot out of rock and roll. But catch it I did, and the back pages of the Village Voice were where we pored over the black and white listings for Max's, CBGB, Hurrah, the Peppermint Lounge, Trax, Mudd Club, and the Ritz. Plans laid, bridges and tunnels thoroughly mapped, there might be time to read the articles and Wolcott's acerbic reviews often provided out-loud teenaged readings,  "Hey Maude, listen to this!" moments in the shotgun seat of the old Buick on the FDR Drive or the Broadway IRT.

There's a malign force closing in on Wolcott's black and white 1970s - you feel it throughout the book - and its color is  green. The 80s of Donald Trump (whose name doesn't stain this epic - no accident) ushered in a New York obsessed with real estate and wealth, and turned houses and apartments into the "outward constructs of your identity that required Hamlet-style agonizing for fear that at the root of your being, you might not be an 'uptown person.'" Money plays little role in the sweaty corners of CBGB or the back row of the screening rooms; all that matters is commitment to the written word and to a form of honest criticism that values the creation of art (widely defined) so highly that finely-sliced prose meant for reading is the only respectful way to respond. "Hanging tough is what divides the long-range dedicated from the dilettantes," writes Wolcott, recalling a ballsy and unbowed Patti Smith and her reaction to a serious career setback.

Patti is one of the many heroines in the rare I-was-there rock memoir that actually values women as real people, which discounts the studded leather jackets, sexual abuse, and back alley urination of typical 70s punk tales. Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth is another: "My crush on Tina was instantaneous. It was the only correct way to respond." And the stars of early mainstream porn are given their tender due as elegant actors in the grimy (but addictive) world of pre-Giuliani Times Square.

There are girlfriends, actresses and glammy femme rockers galore in Lucking Out, but there's only one true love affair. Jim creates a portrait of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael that is tender and deeply personal. Matt Haber asserts that "it's one of the dirtier tricks in Lucking Out that Wolcott uses Kael to voice some of the book's most dismissive asides," but I rather think Wolcott has another goal - a second, post-millennial public life for Kael's caustic wit and rock-solid view of what makes a good flick, and what doesn't. It's true that Kael has some of the book's best lines - "I didn't want him to think I was using his racist talk as an excuse to under-tip him" says Kael about an Archie Bunker cab driver - but she's more important as the guiding muse of criticism, as the person who constructed the right literary box for Wolcott to work his four-decade magic act. His long and, it must be said, vastly entertaining story about Kael and her crowd is more than an appreciation of one the decade's great critical voices. It's a public thank you note.

Lucking Out is not the story of the 1970s. There's a lot missing: Ed Koch, the Son of Sam, the Yankees (the Mets!), black people, the outer boroughs, disco and Nixon. But it captures the creative true grit of the small town that existed within a big city so beset and grimy that "entire neighborhoods were considered no-go areas where you never knew what the hell might fall from the fire escapes." There's a wistful quality that long-ago decade of my own adolescence, but Wolcott doesn't lay on the sentimentalism and it's unlikely that Lucking Out will add too much to popular 70s lore. Which is a good thing in my mind, because we live in a society where the thin veneer of the ever-widening "creative class" has created a manufactured version of alternative lifestyle and consumption that passes for critical thought; every hipster manque with 500 clams can grab an iPad and feel like a downtown denizen, both funky and chic. As Wolcott notes, "all that lore is what made CBGB's compelling long after it became a raucous shell, and what has kept the myth of the Algonquin Round Table alive, no matter how mid-range the achievements of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, and Robert Benchley appear today."

There is much in Lucking Out of what made popular culture today, but it's not a guidebook. It's a story, Jim Wolcott's story. And it did take part of me back to where I once belonged.

Tags: Books

December 27 2010

17:30

Book of the Year: You Are Not A Gadget

"Think For Yourself" would have been an apt subtitle for Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, my pick for non-fiction book of the year and the most important piece of writing on technology and communications to be published in 2010. Instead, Lanier and his publishers went with "A Manifesto" and it certainly is all of that - bright, opinionated, often meandering, occasionally pedantic, happily confrontational and in its totality a bold red stop sign in the path of wired society's long march toward a thin, common identity.

Not that I wanted to stop at that particular intersection.

My 2008 book CauseWired chronicled the rise of online social activism and presented a generally (but not entirely) rosy outlook for a socially-networked world with access to information and the digital tools needed to change society. I chose to focus on the development of positive, collaborative platforms like Kiva, Change.org, GlobalGiving and DonorsChoose and the creation of networks to fight poverty, disease and genocide. And I saw the ascendancy of vast social applications like Facebook and Twitter as generally benevolent to the movement for social change; greater participation could yield more democratic structures, more authentic power from below - and if more individuals could see a wider view of the injustice in the world, more of them would organize to fix it.

Yet I've never embraced techno-utopianism or served time as a social media triumphalist; back in the 90s Jason Chervokas and I would regularly rail in @ny against a form of cyber-libertarianism that argued for a self-regulated technology industry and no societal restraint on anything digital. Where some treated "information wants to be free" as a physicist's formula, we saw it as a political slogan. Chervokas and I recognized that that the "freedom" some technologists were arguing for was merely a cover for seeking power; in a new world ordered by technology, who would be in charge? Fast forward to the socially-networked Internet of 2010, and it's no surprise that a few powerful players now control vast amounts of our identities and our content.

Nonetheless, You Are Not a Gadget was a head-snapper for a me. And the intellectual whiplash was worth the collision.

The central tenet of Lanier's manifesto is the idea that humanistic values are too often lacking in widely-adopted digital technology - that in using online services driven by algorithms and marketing (and what's better for the programmer and the advertiser), users naturally adopt a less complex online personality, a less nuanced identity. In CauseWired, I relayed the wisdom of my then-16-year-old daughter, who explained that Facebook wasn't your actual self, it was "your best you."

Fitting neatly into a Facebook profile is reductive, argues Lanier, who wonders "whether people are becoming like MIDI notes - overly defined and restricted in practice to what can be represented in a computer." Twitter limits in another way, by placing severe strictures of the actual form of communications. With each message limited to 140 characters (much less with a link and a hashtag or two) it often removes the gray space. The big issues can be reduced to a half sentence and a link, really very little more than a click on the Facebook "like" button. It becomes a fantastic echo chamber, a vast din of repetition with easily-delineated sides like a soccer match. No wonder every single politician and celebrity gravitates to Twitter - the control over the messaging is fantastic (indeed, the comical early mistakes some pols made on Twitter were the exceptions that proved the rule). Marketers now understand the on/off MIDI-like notational quality of short messages - they're paying six-figures for so-called "promoted" tweets and trends, which are just a fancy and expensive method for Twitter to lie to the very userbase that built the service. Or as Lanier puts it in discussing social networks like Twitter: "Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am."

Lanier's point is that by reducing personality and the wide sweep of human thought into chunks that can fit easily into databases and digested through clever widely-popular front end designs, the possibility for horrific "crowd-sourced" activity is that much greater. To put it simply, the good guys don't always win. Throughout history, they've often been shouted down by crowds. While it's impossible to argue with the sunny opening lines of the introduction to Yochai Benkler's seminal Internet text The Wealth of Networks - "Information, knowledge and culture are central to human freedom and human development" - and to sympathize with a point of view that argues that great access to those qualities improves the lot of mankind, Lanier's warnings also seem in tune with the times.

It's not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age?

That kind of thinking flies in the face of a more utopian view of free information, embodied in hacker philosopher Richard Stallman's famous '90s proclamation that when "information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving." I'd naturally ask "what does generally useful mean?" and Lanier goes a step further, noting that the free flow of information also brings large-scale vitriol to arguments between semi-anonymous actors on the Net. "What's to prevent the acrimony from scaling up? Unfortunately, history tells us that collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."

Lanier's "digital Maoism" may be the intellectual equivalent of crying "fire!" in a crowded theater, especially one filled with venture capital-backed tech companies, media conglomerates and telecommunications outfits all mining profits from the social gold rush (not to mention the trade press that loves them). And Lanier's is a particularly well-aimed attack on geek culture: "The new twist in Silicon Valley is that some people - very influential people - believe they are hearing algorithms and crowds an other internet-supported nonhuman entities speak for themselves. I don't hear those voices though - and I believe those who do are fooling themselves."

You Are Not A Gadget also warns against an Internet-based democracy, a world of governing chaos in which "superenergized people would be struggling to shift the wording of the tax code on a frantic, never-ending basis." The remedy is our current actual democracy - "the slower processes of elections and court proceedings" - which are like calming bass waves in Lanier's musical metaphor. They reduce "the potential for the collective to suddenly jump into an overexcited state when too many rapid changes coincide in such a way that they don't cancel one another out." It's dull and it doesn't make a handy retweet. And it also argues against some of the aspects of the latest techie cause célèbre - Wikileaks, a secretive organization that claims it represents the interests of more open government but renounces public accountability. Three weeks ago, I wrote that I didn't think "Wikileaks advances the cause of more accessible government or international justice." And Lanier didn't win too many allies with his essay in The Atlantic last week that argued for more skepticism toward Julian Assange and his shadowy organization, while taking "nerd supremacy" to task for the near lock-step support of Wikileaks at the cost of traditional avenues of trust:

"The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren't hurt. But he's wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns:  low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other."

In a spirited Atlantic response to Lanier's piece, Zeynep Tufekci (who by chance I happened to sit next to on the stage for our panel at the Personal Democracy Forum's Wikileaks symposium on Dec. 11) argued that he "makes the fundamental conceptual mistake of conflating individual human beings and powerful institutions, like governments and corporations." In other words, those large organizations stand opposed to individual liberty - which the free flow of information can help to guarantee. And that idea also infused some of the criticism of You Are Not A Gadget, especially reactions to Lanier's dystopian view of a purely crowd-sourced social commons, his somewhat alarmist suggestion that "collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."

Frankly, it's part of the deeply romantic view that so many technologists hold of the Internet (I'm not immune to this) and it's an especially American viewpoint. We tend to view corporations and big organizations and "the state" as monoliths, rather than collections of many individual humans working toward a loose common cause - and we tend to welcome the new frontier than disintermediation brings. In 1997, in a column for The New York Times, Chervokas and I wrote:

For more than 200 years Americans have been driven by the myth of the frontier, the feral, boundless space beyond known civilization where opportunities are infinite, where homesteaders can discard identities of birth and inhabit instead their own identities of mind, and where law is what you make it. This libertarian, romantic myth has informed a lot of the national discourse about the Internet -- America's new "freer, vast, electric world," to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman.

That "freer, vast, electric world" still holds tremendous promise, in my view. Questioning our direction does not mean losing that promise or ending the Internet experiment. Yet Lanier's point of tends to get lumped into naysayer's category. In a tweet today, NYU press watcher Jay Rosen posited that as they age, digital people tend toward the insight that "de-excites." Some keep going, he wrote, while others "become professional debunkers." Challenged by Jeff Jarvis, he named Jaron Lanier as one of the latter - but I think that's a bit off the mark. If you dig into You Are  Not A Gadget, the sense of wonderment at the possibilities of this digital age remains intact. Lanier is more than a professional debunker. And in my view, the very questioning of the impact of crowds and networks on the social commons is welcome.

"Next to the many problems the world faces today, debates about online culture may not seem that pressing," writes Lanier. "We need to address global warming, shift to a new energy cycle, avoid wars of mass destruction, support aging populations, figure out how to benefit from open markets without being disastrously vulnerable to their failures, and take care of other basic business. But digital culture and related topics like the future of privacy and copyrights concern the society we'll have if we can survive these challenges."

I agree. You Are Not A Gadget didn't change my thinking, but it made me a think a lot more. It's the book of the year for 2010.

January 23 2010

23:13

In Kindlegarten

For the last month or so, my obsessive book-reading habit has taken on the glint of a platform shift. On the recommendation of other heavy-duty readers, I cut way back on print and paper in favor of a sleek new Kindle.

In truth, I was a reluctant convert for a simple reason: I love books. But the addiction was reaching the limits of our household budget and beyond; and the pile of books (most read once, then stacked) was clearly getting out of hand. Nonetheless, I was a hold-out - I use digital technology quite a bit, spend unseemly amounts of waking time in the wired state of connection, and always look forward each day to the darkened hours of print and paper and unplugged peace. Yeah, I'm an early adopter, but I'd opted out of the early Kindle craze.

So here's the quick review and a few thoughts on the business model.

The Kindle is for readers - This is not just a nice little device, and it's not (in my view) a multi-tasking platform for connected activities of all sorts. It shouldn't compete with smart phones and app stores; indeed, I view Amazon's plan to open the Kindle to developers with skepticism. The Kindle's simplicity is its strong suit - the best moments come when I forget I'm holding an electronic gadget at all, and am fully immersed in the 'book' I'm reading. This happens all the time.

So here's what I don't need the Kindle for: Internet surfing, email, texting, games, or social media. It's a book platform. It doesn't have an illuminated screen, and therefore, it relieves eye strain rather than adds to it. The grayish electronic ink system is beautiful in its "non-laptop" functionality.

Amazon should improve the Kindle store - Strangely, given how much it's invested in the Kindle universe, the online store linked the machine isn't particularly strong. In a month of usage and some pretty heavy browsing and purchasing, the store still hasn't changed its personal recommendations for books I should buy. And the categories aren't all that easy to get around; searching isn't intuitive. The store that appears on the Kindle screen is poorly laid out and non-intuitive.

Indeed, I've taken to using my laptop to research purchases. Amazon has done the integration between my longtime account and my new Kindle account quite well - so I shop on the regular website and specify delivery to my Kindle. Speaking of delivery: it's quite brilliant. Within a minute or two of buying a book, the file pops up on the Kindle's home screen. Even better - you can quickly download a sample of any book you're considering, to see whether it passes the "first chapter test" before buying. I find that I now read three or four first chapters for every book I buy.

Forget the Apple tablet as a Kindle-killer - Unless your eyes are as strong as Superman's, you're not going to read books on a regular basis on a backlit screen. The real competition in the e-book device niche comes from other e-ink devices like he Barnes and Noble Nook and Sony's readers. To my (tired) eye, this will always remain a real readers' niche - not a path to another big wired platform.

Publishers don't get it - I'm not sure why book publishers don't see the kindle as more of an opportunity, instead of a threat. Don't they understand that Kindle owners are the ones who buy the most books - the obsessive readers who don't have enough space on their shelves for more printed tomes? The current practice is to hold big new books back from the Kindle platform for a few weeks to give bookstores a head start on best-selling sales. This is patently insane. They should be releasing books on the Kindle first, for the hard-core readers. Now that I've got the Kindle, I'm perfectly happy to wait for a book like Game Change  to come out for the device. I'm not racing to get it in print. And if, by mid-February when the trashy political tell-all is finally due to be released for the Kindle, I just happen to forget to buy it - well, whose loss is that?

To my publishing friends, I have a message: I'm buying and reading more books now. You need to understand that, and start to aggressively market to the e-reader audience with loyalty programs and exclusives - rather than punishing Kindle readers. [As the Times pointed out today, some publishers do get it].

In any case, I'm a convert - I dig this little white machine for its ease of use and simplicity and for the amazingly quick access to a library of great books, many of which are free of charge (public domain classics are a huge Kindle segment).

Can the Kindle go social? I'll leave this with a question: wouldn't it be great if Kindle used its built-in connectivity to link readers to a system of mini-reviews and ratings via some simle social media tools - perhaps connecting reading lists to blogs, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the Amazon Kindle store? My guess is that's coming, and that social media-driven best-seller lists will begin to drive sales. Something else for 'print' publishers to pay attention to.

Tags: Books

December 14 2009

00:43

The Booklist: The Man With No Soul

My vast pile of bedside noir was dominated earlier this year by one of the most soul-less characters in literature: Donald Westlake's Parker. I dropped head-first into Westlake after his sudden death last New Year's Eve in Mexico at age 75.

Sure, I'd picked up a few Westlakes at airports and beach-side bookmarts over the years and the prolific crime writer wasn't one to disappoint. And partly,  it was Lance Mannion's tribute: Lance favored the picaresque side of Westlake, the hilarious Dortmunder gang-of-thieves novels that dominated Westlake's late career and made him, as Lance noted, "an acute social satirist."

But falling into the Parker novels was a vicious free-fall into darkness at the start of a very dark year, a year that latches onto its dangerous and shifting shadows still. And so when I tumbled into Westlake's Richard Stark books - primarily his Parker series - the sheer absence of soul was a narcotic on a par with the hardest blues, a pure vein of criminal noir without a single beam of light. In short, Parker was the perfect literary sideman for my 2009 - a glimpse into the real American heartland, a lightning flash on the dark night that shows you a truth about this country that you don't want to see: the fact that all the do-gooders in the world can't fix some people, whether they're running things on Wall Street or killing a liquor store owner in some nameless mid-western town.

Parker is a remorseless killer, but it's not the murders that hold your attention in the series, which runs to 24 precise and plot-driven novels. Indeed, the murders are generally related without the gory details - they're just stated as mere updates in unfolding events. Rather, it's Parker's criminal knowledge that's interesting: his intricate preparation for the crime, his instincts for the score, his reaction to danger. Parker's violence is vast, but it's not maniacal; it only serves a purpose in the killer's overall goal - to make some money so he can lay low for a while. Westlake told an interviewer a few years ago: "I’ve always believed the books are really about a workman at work, doing the work to the best of his ability. However, I see him more as working stiff than professional class."

The University of Chicago Press is putting all the early Parker novels back into print, and I ran through the first eight this year. The Hunter was a repeat read, but you have to start at the beginning, and it came out in 1962, same as me. My favorite is the second in the series, The Man with the Getaway Face, in which Parker emerges after identity-shifting plastic surgery to hold up an armored car at a diner in the backroads of New Jersey. That empty pre-Sopranos northern New Jersey landscape, coupled with some double-crossing dead-enders, sets a grim table for the icy lead thief. The lack of passion in the crime - Westlake's "professional class" - can hook you with barbed end:

Parker lowered the gun. There wasn't enough reason to kill these three. It was dangerous to kill when there wasn't enough reason, because after a while killing became the solution to everything, and when you got to thinking that way you were only one step from the chair.

In some ways, the Parker novels would seem to be perfect cinematic investments: they're all plot, and paced for the screen. Yet only The Hunter has been made into movies - twice, in 1967 as Point Blank with Lee Marvin, and in 1999 with Payback with a poorly-cast Mel Gibson. I can understand why: there's not much character to latch onto, no hand-holds for a leading man. Westlake said he always pictured Parker as resembling Jack Palance, and that stony presence, without even a touch of humor, is required for the part. Tough to portray, harder to film; there are no Tony Soprano remorse sessions on the therapist's couch.

So put Parker on that booklist if it's been a hard year, or if next year looks like a tough one for the noir fan nearest you. Terry Teachout was right about these books: "Anyone who doubts the existence of original sin, or something very much like it, would do well to reflect on the enduring popularity of the novels of Richard Stark."

Sometimes you need the badlands.

Tags: Books

November 30 2009

02:21

The Booklist: Eric Ambler's Noir

It's an addiction that I've never really fought, never even tried to battle in any sort of therapeutic way. I just give in and float downstream, and collateral continues to build. It's books, really. Piles of them. Dusty and finished and sitting by the bed, or in the small home office, or beside my chair in the living room. A dirty habit, if dust mites measure the effects of habituation. And it's an addiction that has me considering a methadone-like therapy this joyous holiday in the form a Kindle or a Nook or similar "e-reader" as these machines are known. (Recommendations welcome).

No, the piles must be reduced or I face a middle-aged future not all that dissimilar from the Collyer brothers, though I do get out quite a bit and the piles are only thigh-high at their worst. However, before the physical expulsion of allergen-filled material from my bed-chamber, some intellectual exercise may also prove beneficial and I find I am called upon to share my thoughts on reading with the readers of this wayward blog, book-list hungry hordes that you are. So in recognition of the shopping demands (personal and otherwise) of the above-mentioned joyous holiday season - or JHS™ - I've decided on a series of irregular posts on the books I can safely recommend from the past year's reading.

At the top of the stack lie four or five paperback reissues from the canon of Eric Ambler. Now, this choice should carry a bit of foreshadowing against future entries in the series: I fairly wallowed in detective and espionage noir this last year; I needed escape - or at minimum, brief transportation - from the difficulties of worry and creeping despair (I suspect I'm not alone in this) and what better way outside a pill bottle than dark mayhem in the alleys of, oh say, wartime London or the salons of Istanbul. There's a reason so many video games feature the thrill of machine-gunning vast squads of Nazi thugs - it brings such good cheer.

In any case, if you need an escape hatch from the sparkly holiday lights proclaiming "shop, for you must be happy!" then Ambler's the man for you - or that reader on your list.

Early this year, I read Ambler's best-known novel, his 1939 A Coffin for Dimitrios, later made into a film starring Peter Lorre. It features what became Ambler's favorite plot device - the innocent traveler caught in a web of espionage or crime. The writing is straightforward and the characters and settings always serve the plot. Ambler will sometimes allow some of his protagonists' inner struggles and fears to surface, but he also keeps things moving. Sometimes the reader understand more of the situation than the hapless, bumbling traveler - but sometimes the innocent improves his thinking and surges ahead, while the writer holds back the deduction. Ambler, an Englishman who died in 1998, inspired a generation of noteworthy noir writers, including Philip Kerr and Alan Furst.

This summer, I went  on an Ambler tear, plowing through Epitaph for a Spy, Journey of Fear, and The Schirmer Inheritance - visiting the south of France, Parish, Istanbul, Italy and Greece with a collection of unknowing Englishmen, shadowy assassins, bluster police officials, assorted femmes fatales and the odd ex-Nazi.

There is always a moment  in the Ambler novels when the dupe - a novelist, a salesman, a teacher and the like - realizes with sinking fear that they're not in a movie or an Agatha Christie tale; that the danger is real and outlook fairly grim. It seems formulaic (and it is ) but Ambler had the rare gift of lifting such tales with his spare writing. Here's that moment from A Coffin for Dimitrios:

Besides, here was real murder; not neat, tidy book-murder with corpse and clues and suspects and hangman, but murder over which a chief of police shrugged his shoulders, wiped his hands and consigned the stinking victim to a coffin. Yes, that was it. It was real. Dimitrios was or had been real. Here were no strutting paper figures, but tangible evocative men and women, as real as Proudhon, Montesquieu and Rosa Luxemburg.

Ambler was born in London in 1909 to music hall musicians and actors, and toured Europe quite a bit as a child. He uses those experiences well, and began his novels at a propitious time: as fascism was descending on the continent like acid rain. John LeCarre once referred to Ambler as 'the source on which we all draw' but I wasn't after the roots of literary noir when I fished out his novels - I was looking for a good read, and if I'm honest, a hide-away from these times. Ambler put me on a tramp steamer in an unfriendly port or on the overnight train across the Alps - and in a better place entirely.

Note: Here's the Amazon link. I particularly like the Vintage paperback covers.

Tags: Books
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