Thursday, October 28, 2010


Markson, David. Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Dead Beat. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2007.

(The first of these novels was published in 1959. The second in 1961.)

I hope with this choice I have redeemed myself for my last choice for the Connecticut mystery book club. This go round, I went with these two "The Harry Fannin Detective Novels," as the wonderful, retro cover announces. I recently emailed a friend of mine, "If you want to read something fun(ny), buy this. Now." I loved both of these short novels.

Poor old David Markson (who looks like such a jolly fellow in his author photo), though. Yet again, I approached him skeptically. That's because the back cover copy tells us that "...the suspenseful Harry Fannin novels have been called 'the best since Chandler.'" First of all, having read one of Markson's experimental novels, I didn't think he could possibly be compared to Chandler. Secondly, there is that little problem of my old boyfriend Ross Macdonald, who was writing books at the same time ("since Chandler"). Nobody could be better than Macdonald.

I should have known he would surprise me, the way he did when I read Vanishing Point. No, he wasn't better than Macdonald; he was different. He knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote these two hard-boiled detective novels. He had definitely familiarized himself with the genre, and he did it with his own flair. We got all the elements one expects from the genre circa 1960: a sleazy underworld full of despicable people (this time in NYC); a tough, handsome, p.i.; such an abundance of simile and metaphor that certain sorts of critics and the creative writers they produce would be likely to commit murder themselves if they were to read it; sexism and sex; clever plot twists; racism; homophobia; a red herring or two; and men getting beat up so badly they ought to have wound up in the hospital for days, but instead, are capable of either committing or solving murder (broken ribs, faces smashed to smithereens, and all). He also peppered both works liberally with literary, artistic, and musical references (sound familiar?).

Harry Fannin is an odd bird but not too different from other well-known gumshoes. As smart as he is, he keeps falling for the wrong women. In the first novel, he marries the "tramp" of the title. They've been divorced for a year when she winds up at his apartment door bleeding from a stab wound. In the second novel, almost every attractive woman he meets winds up dead. Naturally, every woman he finds attractive (oh, and also every woman he doesn't) wants to sleep with him and lets him know it.

What is different about these stories is how erudite Harry Fannin is. He claims just to have gone to college out in Michigan to play football, not to have paid much attention to his coursework. However, he drops literary references all over the place. And, unlike Marlowe, he can sometimes find himself at a loss for words, although never dumbfounded, as you can see when he has thoughts such as this one:

A mighty fortress is our God, said Martin Luther. It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, said Emiliano Zapata. Work out your salvation with diligence, said Gautama Buddha. Everyone had something right on the tip of his tongue except Fannin. (p. 8)
In fact, he is never at a loss for funny thoughts. I particularly liked this one,

I sat down on the kid's rumpled bed and took a cigarette. I would have been happier with a cyanide inhaler, but I'd left it in my other suit. (p. 94)
I could quote all day from both these books, so I'll stop here. You'll just have to trust me that Markson's sense of humor shines through the suspense, in fact, shines more brightly than the suspense. Not that the books weren't suspenseful. I definitely wanted to know what was going to happen next as I read them, but I wouldn't say this was the main draw.

The second book is funnier than the first, a real send up of Greenwich Village's beatniks. I couldn't decide if Markson had really despised them all as posers and losers or if he had been somewhat fond of them, the way he might have thought a much younger sibling was silly and absurd but still loved him or her. When you consider the fact that the era was all about experimentation and that Markson eventually embraced experiment in his own writing, it's tempting to think the latter. Yet he's so mocking. Maybe he's the older sibling who picks mercilessly on the younger one but who beats to a pulp anyone else who does (yes, yes. Puns intended. Sorry! Secretly, though, I bet Markson would have appreciated them).

In much the same way, I also wondered whether or not Markson was seriously embracing this genre or merely making fun of it the whole time. Yes, he knew what he was doing, but, at times, he seemed a bit self-conscious and over the top. What do you think? When a detective steps on gum that clings to the sole of his shoe and comments on it, is that a bit much, or is someone being cleverly over the top?

Those of us who have read any of Markson's other works all know that he was clever. In fact, that's where I caught glimpses of the "future" Markson in these two books. I also realized some other similarities between his "epitaphs" and Vanishing Point. The latter was, surprisingly, a real page-turner, just like a good mystery (in fact, it was a lot like a mystery, as I tried to piece the fragments together to figure out where the connections were and what was happening). Literary, artistic, and musical allusions make up Vanishing Point, but Markson's love of them is certainly evident in these two early works of his. I also realized something else I'd never really given much thought, which is that hard-boiled detective novels are written in a sort of fragmentary style (read that first quote again. Leave off the last sentence, and it could easily have come from Vanishing Point). All of which is to say that reading these two books by this author was like looking at paintings by a painter who started out embracing classicism and then turned to cubism, never looking back. You might be amazed that he used to paint that way, that he even could paint that way, but if you look closely, you will see that he has always drawn his lines just so, has always favored certain colors.

What could be more fun than all that? I have surprised myself in 2010 by becoming a huge David Markson fan.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ghostly Collaborative Project Chapter Five

Dear Smithereens asked last month if anyone would be interested in writing a collaborative ghost story. How could I resist? You can find Chapter 1 here, Chapter 2 here, Chapter 3 here, and chapter 4 here. Now, on to Chapter 5.

...And I ran away as far as possible...

...which, for the second time that night, turned out not to be very far. What had appeared to be a very long corridor only moments before (or was it hours? I'd lost all track of time) now seemed to be closing in on me. I've never been one to suffer from claustrophobia, but then, I've never been one to hallucinate, either. This was to be a night of firsts, I supposed, as I had already begun to wonder if someone had drugged my soda with hallucinogens earlier in the day. Now I felt my throat tighten, my heart knocking at my chest's door, and a panicky, overwhelming need to get out of this cramped corridor, where I could still hear that symphonic music off in the distance. I don't know why (maybe I was subconsciously checking for stereo speakers), but I looked up and discovered a major source for my feelings of claustrophobia. Had I been maybe two inches taller, I could have reached up and touched the ceiling. I'm only 5'4" tall. Touching ceilings is not something I can typically do without a ladder.

When I looked back down again, I realized I was standing in front of an elevator. This was a different elevator. The sort from when? The 1930s? I've never been very good with the history of things. All I know is that it had those sorts of doors that have to be pulled open by someone, thick things that look and rattle like cages. Someone -- some elevator operator -- was opening them for me now. He opened the door and then returned to the business of operating the huge black lever that was used to get from floor to floor.

It was the same man. He was tall and thin. He was pale. His cheeks hollow, eyes sunken. But he was younger, much younger than he'd been before. His hair, which had been white before, was dark tufts sticking out from under the cap he wore as part of his red uniform. He had no lines on his face. He could have been a teenage bellboy at The Plaza back in the day.

"You didn't last long," he noted. "Make a visit to Returns?"

I stared at him, hesitant to step onto an elevator he was manning. But then I heard the barking and growling. I turned to see Angelo's dog, grown much bigger and even more beast-like. He'd be on top of me in a minute. I leaped into the elevator. The dog yelped as if kicked and immediately retreated. I just caught the image of him running back, tail between his legs, as the elevator operator pulled the door shut.

"Make a visit to Returns?" he repeated, his voice deep, almost a growl.

"No...umm...Repeats." I don't know why I answered him. I should have remained silent. Actually, I should have been praying to the god in whom I don't believe. But, somehow, I felt compelled.

"Hmmm..." he said, his voice now an octave higher. "Funny. Repeats don't usually wind up here. Oh well, it just means you'll be back."

He was mad. I wasn't coming back here. In fact, the minute I got out of the door of this godforsaken place, I was going home and typing up my letter of resignation. I wouldn't even be back to hand it in to Angelo and my boss. I'd mail it. Maybe I owed my boss more than that, but my job description had never mentioned anything about dealing with scary basement corridors and ominous elevator operators.

I was standing there, composing the letter in my head when the sinking feeling that had begun to take up residence in the pit of my stomach moved in some more furniture. Something was wrong. I looked at the operator who was staring at me with penetrating black eyes. I tried to look away. I couldn't. And then it dawned on me. The elevator, which should have been creaking and swaying was completely silent. We were standing still.

"What do you know about this building?" my companion asked.

"This...building?" I stammered. "It's...uh...where I work." (I would never win the Philip Marlowe Snappy Answers in Hair-Raising Situations Award.)

"So, you don't know what once happened here?"


His eyeballs rolled back in his head. When they returned, they were a fiery red. He grinned wickedly. I've never seen such sharp white teeth on a human. Had I been a different sort of woman, I would have fainted. Instead, my heart stopped knocking at my chest's door. I thought it might be about to stop for good, but then it began pounding. I could feel the sweat on my brow. Beyond caring about the close quarters of an elevator, I reached for that bag with the can of mace. But there was no bag. God knows when I had dropped it. I was stuck here, with him, and with no protection.

"Let me tell you," he nearly growled.

To be continued by Courtney.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The New Sedaris

Sedaris, David. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Boston: Little, Brown, 2010.

Are you the least bit surprised that I've already read this one, so hot off the presses I've had to put ice packs on my hands? It's much, much darker than Sedaris's typical collections and also, to some degree, more crass than he's been since his earliest works, but is he ever spot on. Talk about someone who really has his finger on the pulse of human nature (even if disguised as animal nature). Absolutely no one, it seems, is immune from his critical eye. This is the sort of book that ought to make everyone who reads it extremely uncomfortable because we can so easily identify our acquaintances...our friends...our relatives...ourselves.

People have complained to me that they don't see how I can like Sedaris because they think he's too cruel. Of course, my first response to that is, "Why shouldn't he be?" He grew up gay in North Carolina (granted, at least he was in the Research Triangle Area -- where, as a teenager, I was first introduced to uncloseted gays and gay culture -- and not somewhere like Mocksville, but still. It was North Carolina). He probably spent so much of his young life on the receiving end of cruelty that he has every right to be giving it back as good as he got (and while I am busy hugging cliches here, I might as well kiss "the pen is mightier than the sword" and all that). To think that he managed to keep a sense of humor growing up where he did does nothing but earn my admiration. To think that growing up where he did might have developed his sense of humor is probably why my long-time readers are rolling their eyes and thinking, "Oh God. Here she goes again, falling on her knees in front of the Sedaris altar." While I am down here on my knees, I will tell you that I've never really noticed the cruelty. Usually I've been laughing too hard.

This time, though, I was giggling, yes, but I wasn't rolling around on the floor in convulsions. That's what I did, years ago, when my sister said to me, "You must read Me Talk Pretty One Day," and I finally got my hands on it. (Incidentally, in case you ever find yourself in a room full of Michie siblings, there isn't one of us who won't engage in an "Isn't David Sedaris hilarious?" or "Did you read the latest Sedaris in The New Yorker?" conversation.) This collection of stories helped me understand why people might think Sedaris is cruel. His are not cute animals all singing "Kum Bah Yah" together while holding hands around the campfire, eyes closed, big grins on their faces, now that cat and mouse have decided they shouldn't be enemies. No, his animals are animals, and in being so, they clearly illuminate the sadness of what it is to be human. Give animals a few human traits, and instead of the absurdity that usually makes me laugh, I find a different kind of absurdity. It can be cruel to make us uncomfortable in the ways Sedaris does, to make us see an absurdity that might have us weeping if we dwell on it too long -- the ways in which we allow others to ruin our lives, or worse: the ways in which we systematically just go around ruining our lives on our own.

This is not to say that the book is nothing but a downer. I promise you. It is funny. You will love some of his characters (I'm partial to the chipmunk of the title and the owl of another one of the stories), but expect something a little bit different. And that's kind of a stupid thing to say, isn't it? I mean, of course it's different. David Sedaris doesn't usually write short stories about animals. (Or does he?)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Music Monday

"You look like that girl in Sixpence None the Richer."

Someone once said that to me. Seriously. I should have bowed down at his feet, but I had no idea what she looked like at the time, so I just took it for granted that the poor woman must be a fairly plain person. Well, along came YouTube, and, one day, I was spending some time cruising through it, looking for videos of a lot of my favorite songs. That's when I discovered what "that girl in Sixpence None the Richer" looks like.

I can assure you, I don't look anything like her. Even when my hair was short, I didn't look anything like her. About the only thing she and I have in common is a complexion that could make a ghost turn green with envy. Oh yeah, and blond hair. Other than that, you will just have to take my word for it that she is striking, and I am not. Still, how wonderful that someone once thought I resembled her. Now I can watch this video of one of my favorite songs and pretend someone might once have actually mistaken me for a pop star.

When he said that, all those years ago, though, after bowing down at his feet, I should have said, "Kiss me."

Saturday, October 09, 2010

TBR Challenge Book (Book Seven)

Maugham, W. Somerset. Cakes and Ale. New York: Vintage, 2000.
(The book was originally published in 1930.)

(Before I get started, thanks again to those of you who helped rescue me from Thornfield. I am now safely home, and Jane Eyre is back in her rightful place on the shelf.)

Boy, do I love Somerset Maugham. I loved him when I discovered him when I was nineteen or twenty, first reading Of Human Bondage, which a guy I had a crush on back then gave to me to read and which led me to read everything else I could find in our house that summer. My mother has always described to me the summer she was fifteen, when she was living in Bermuda with her parents and "spent the summer drinking Coca-Cola, reading Somerset Maugham, and pining away over boys who couldn't care less about me" (seems appropriate, then, that I discovered the author while pining away for a boy who couldn't care less about me), so we had a nice collection of his books in our house. Oddly enough, what I don't remember is what I did and didn't read of his back then, so everything I read now is as if I've never read him. When I pick up one of his books, I get a sort of sense of things being vaguely familiar, as though I am unpacking a trunk marked "Maugham," but everything that's in it, despite the trunk's well-worn appearance, is all shiny and new.

Anyway, all this is to say how lovely it was to pick up a book off my TBR challenge shelf and not to be able to put it down. Last time I wrote about Mauhgam, I talked about how he has this gentle way of pulling you in, making you think you're nibbling at a gingerbread house, and then, suddenly, you find yourself turning page-after-page to get to the end, trying to escape the horrible witch and her oven, hoping you can get out of this with your heart beating regularly, still in one piece. He did it again with this one.

Where to begin with all I have to say? I suppose I ought to start with the fact that if ever a book could lead a reader to other books, this one would be it. Not only does the reader find herself thinking she'd like to get some good biographies of the fictionalized characters (more on that in a minute), not to mention of Maugham himself, but she also finds herself needing to exercise a little restraint. Maugham name drops left, right, and center, and without said restraint, the reader could easily come away with a whole new chapter of the TBR tome entitled "Writers of the Cakes and Ale Era."

For those of us who love to read and who work in publishing, this book, which is getting up there in age -- closer to 100 now than 50 -- is both enlightening and discouraging, both fun and sad. Why? Because it very effectively highlights how readers, writers, and publishers (oh, and human beings in general) have and haven't changed. You could take quotes verbatim from this book, substitute authors' names, plop them down in 2010, and people would nod their heads in agreement, quotes like this one that our narrator makes about his acquaintance Roy Kear,

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. (p. 4).

Can't you just hear one of today's mid list (such as it is in its vanishing state) authors saying something like that about one of those who shows up time and again on the bestseller lists? The book offers such observations from the beginning and hands them out all the way to the end. Maugham often gives us long passages of such opinions because he was a Master of Digression.

His digressions are one of the other reasons I love him so. They don't annoy the way less talented writers can with their complete non sequiturs. They are extremely wry and never take away from the story. Rather, they give the air of just being one of the characters in the book, sitting round the dinner table with the other characters and joining in the conversation with their thoughts and musings.

And what is the essence of this story? The great Victorian novelist Edward Driffield has a new biographer Alroy Kear. Our narrator William Ashenden happens to have known Driffield when Ashenden was a teenager and Driffield and his wife (at the time) Rosie moved to Ashenden's village in Kent. The young Ashenden was befriended by the writer and his wife. They later pick up their friendship again when they are all living in London together and Ashenden is becoming a writer in his own right. Now that Roy Kear is writing Driffield's biography, all these years later, he is pumping Ashenden for information, information Ashenden is reluctant to give. I won't say anymore, so as not to throw out spoilers, but suffice it to say that, in typical Maugham fashion, there are scandals, and shocking revelations, and biting commentary on British social norms, all served up with your cakes and ale, in a manner that makes them all even more page-turner-worthy because you are so often taken off your guard while eating and drinking such classically comforting fare.

Apparently, Maugham swore that his characters were mere composites of authors he'd known, but nobody believes that. Kear is generally believed to have been Hugh Walpole. Driffield is Thomas Hardy.

While reading the book, I began to think an awful lot about Hardy and Tess and Rosie Driffield. Rosie and Tess, although on the surface two very different women, are -- in some ways, at least -- very similar. They are two women damned by their stations in life, both by having been born into their particular social classes and by having been born female. Yes, things were bad for men, too, but women got the worst of it. Poor Tess, a woman who was full of heart and soul, is ruined by a man and has all choice removed from her life in a society that cannot understand her. Poor Rosie, a woman who is full of heart and soul, is also ruined by a society that cannot understand her, one that is so repressed, it can't bear anyone who chooses not to be. Both of them know that to behave in ways for which a man might be forgiven means never to be forgiven.

So, you can't convince me that Edward Driffield isn't Thomas Hardy. Maybe Maugham did it subconsciously. Perhaps he was unaware of the fact that Cakes and Ale was a beautifully clever, modern rewrite of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but somehow, I doubt that.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

More Ghostly Clues

Okay, everyone, I was just beginning to get a bit tired of being here (the food is very unpredictable. Sometimes it's terrific, and other times, it's burnt porridge), but mainly (despite the fact that I think I have become quite immune to the so-called "horrors" of ghosts over the years), I have become quite frightened, because I have encountered many more ghosts, some of them more terrifying than I would have expected. I hope the ghosts I've seen over the past few days will help one of you identify my whereabouts. Here are a few who might help you:

(All of these ghosts are dressed in Victorian garb.)

1. I saw another little girl. This one was a rather cheerful ghost, though. She spoke French and seemed to want to do nothing but dance. I would have been quite content to spend time with her, but,

2. There is a dark, sort of brooding shadow of a ghost that seems to take over the whole place with a sarcastic air when he is around. He isn't always around, but when he is, he is quite intimidating. I feel as though he is testing me in some way (or that he would if he could). He's not the worst of it, though:

3. Last night, I was truly scared. I heard the most fearful, wicked, crazy laughter and thought I caught a whiff of smoke, and someone was definitely turning the doorknob to the room where I am being held, although not getting in. I was afraid one of my captors had gone completely mad, possibly setting the place on fire before coming in to kill me.

They all vanish come morning, though. It is only my nights that are filled with ghostly goings-on. Please, save me! Tell me where I am and that you are on your way with a police cavalcade to rescue me.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hostage Day Two

Okay, so now I understand that there will be a reward for the person who can correctly identify where the thieves are hiding me. (If you are confused by this, please see my previous post.) Anyway, the first person who pinpoints where I am and who names it in a comment before anyone else does will get a ghostly little gift to celebrate my favorite holiday Halloween. Here are your first clues:

1. I am being held in a fictional setting.
2. I was put on an airplane to get here, and we flew across the Atlantic.
3. They speak my language in this country.
4. There are ghosts here. Many ghosts, as a matter of fact. They kept me awake all night last night.
5. One of the ghosts who showed up at the foot of my bed was that of a child begging for help. She had a cut on her head, as if she had recently been in an accident.

More footsteps coming down the hall. It could be another ghost, but it has the distinct, heavy sound of one of my captors. Will have to wait till later to give you more clues.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Stolen (On a Sunday No Less)

Hmmm. It seems that I must have been stolen. The original thieves are under the impression that all they have done is steal my meme, but I assure you that I was taken along with it, and when I tried to get away was picked up by some other thieves who have taken me far, far away from Pennsylvania. Does that mean this blog (and thus, its valiant creator) is being held hostage? Does it mean no planned blogging break, but rather, some sudden interruption of a long and productive blogging career, or possibly, even the death of this blog? That depends on you, my dear readers. You must follow the clues that will be handed out to you (when I can manage to escape from this strange room where I am being held captive and get to a computer) to figure out where I am, so that I can be rescued and all order can be restored to Telecommuter Talk. I'm counting on you.

I hear footsteps on the stairs. Must go. More to come later...