On The Table . . .



You almost never see blogs or posts about books here at The Express, unless they are mine.  There’s usually a pretty good reason for that, which is part-superstition, part-professional courtesy.  Mostly it has to do with not going potty where I eat my lunch.  But someone pointed out recently that, in spite of my best efforts to extricate myself from it, I’m still kinda sorta in the film business, and I’m sure as hell not afraid of ranting for days on end about movie-related stuff.  So, really, what’s the difference?  All this is by way of explaining that I’m a very disorganized and compulsive person who spouts off whatever random shit enters into his tortured brain at any time, and, like all those other disorganized compulsive people who spout of whatever random shit enters into their tortured brains at any time, I invent legends about my craft, get into bizarre jags in both my reading and writing habits and make up personal and professional rules for myself that I quite often break.   In other words, I’m just like you.  Probably.

So here’s something I almost never do.  A blog about books.  I’ll try to do more of these in the future . . . but here’s the thing . . . I’d usually rather be READING than blogging in my down time, what little I get between writing projects.  I have to read.  It’s my sport.  Words are magic.  Stories are magic.  I am a slave to them, the same way I am a slave to really bad monster movies.  I have this bizarre “security blanket” habit of pulling books off my shelf and flash-reading them cover-to-cover on impulse, often losing hours of sleep in the process.  Combined with this, I have an even stranger habit of stacking those books on my bedside table when I’m finished, often not putting them back on the shelf, because I’m never truly DONE with a story once it enters my tortured brain, and these books are my friends and I want my friends around me all the time.  Or something.  That’s another obsession of mine.  I’m hopeless.


See this?  It’s my bedside table.   It represents about a third of what I’ve been absorbing and re-absorbing for the past four months or so, and the stack has just gotten out of control lately.  There are other piles like this in my house.  They tower over me while I sleep and crack bad jokes, wondering when I’m gonna grow up.  Here’s a run down on what you see here:

THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe.  I re-read this in less than six hours the other day, after seeing the movie for the first time in ten years or so.  This book is truly amazing.  Tom Wolfe has a batshit style here that truly captures the period and the frenzy of being a test pilot and an astronaut.   I’m actually re-reading it again, a little slower, and highlighting all the good parts.

BILL THE GALACTIC HERO by Harry Harrison.  I supported Alex Cox’s student film project version of this on Kickstarter before I realized I never actually read the book.  Never been a very big Harry Harrison fan.  But I got myself a copy and it’s really not bad.  Forgot it was a comedy, which kind of makes up for a lot.  Robert Heinlein apparently stopped speaking to Harrison after he read this.  Because it’s fascist propaganda or something?  Actually it’s a spot on parody of Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS, which really IS fascist propaganda, more or less.  I grok ya, Bill.

THE DESTROYER #51: SHOCK VALUE.  Any series of trashy adventure novels that number over a hundred is damn okay by me.  And it’s REMO, man!  I only own about seven of these, but they all make me very, very happy.  (FUN TRIVIA:  One of my best friends legally changed his name to Remo Williams a few years back  . . .)

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE by Ian Fleming.  I’ve been working through the entire James Bond film catalogue in a marathon weekly movie festival with my friends this year.  (Think about that, man—all 23 films.  That takes SIX MONTHS, at one film a week.  We begin the Pierce era next thursday, with GOLDENEYE)  At the same time, I’ve been working though the books, which I’ve mostly never read, at an even slower clip.  I find them to be pretty dry overall, but this one is cool.  Bond almost dies at the end and loses his memory.  You can tell Fleming just couldn’t figure out what happened next.

IT’S SUPERMAN!  By Tom De Haven.  Nice post-modern deconstruction of the most famous hero on earth, with a ton of really excellent lived-in backstory, written in a very cutting-edge you-are-there style, like a Don Winslow novel.  It’s a period piece, set in the fifties, and contains lots of great historical detail and holy-shit moments.

THE LATHE OF HEAVEN by Ursula K. La Guin.  When I was younger, I never noticed, but she has guys spouting off dialogue that sometimes goes on for entire pages.  Does anyone talk like that in the real world?  Doesn’t matter, I still fucking love this book.  It’s about a guy whose dreams come true.  Literally.  They made a very impressive PBS movie out of this in 1980 and a very unimpressive A&E movie out of this in 2002.  One of those Really, Really, Really Bad Ideas the network had, like remaking THE PRISONER.

THE ICE STORM by Rick Moody.  Yeah, yeah, I’m one of those guys who never knew about Rick until I saw the Ang Lee version of this in a movie theater.  This is still a pretty good book.  I could do without the rather whiney afterword detailing how much he hates the film, though.  He does that in an interview on the Criterion edition of the movie too.  To be fair, I actually wish I’d read this before I saw the movie.  It’s very good writing, and I think the image of Kevin Kline as Ben Hood sabotages certain pleasures in it.  Maybe Rick is right, after all.  Sigh.

MUD  Screenplay by Jeff Nichols.  Didn’t care for this, but it was a freebie from the WGA, along with the screener.  As I sometimes do, I actually read the script before I watched the movie.  I like that because, as a screenwriter, it allows you to “workshop” the material, discovering the difference between script and finished film.  If you have any experience at all in the “game,” it becomes obvious why certain things were changed, scenes rewritten, lines altered.  It’s fun and very good homework for your craft.  I did the same thing last year with THIS IS 40, when the script/screener kit arrived at my front door.  In the past, I have done this with many other first-run films, such as ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and  . . . well, THE ICE STORM.  (Still wish I’d read the fucking book first, though, instead of just the script.)

THE GAME OF THIRTY by William Kotzwinkle.  This guy is my favorite living author, for reasons to varied too list here, and this is one of his masterpiece moments, an excellent crime thriller about a tough guy and his holistic girlfriend, who solve a murder.  An old editor I worked with at Little Brown used this is a model for ‘the perfect thriller’ when chastising his other writers on the “way this shit is supposed to be done.”  This is awesome, because Bill isn’t exactly a thriller writer, per se.  He’s done anything and everything and is a master of all of it.  READ HIM.

THE TROOP by Nick Cutter.  This is an ARC I got from my editor at Simon and Schuster and burned through in several sittings.  It’s a horror thing about a group of boy scouts who run afoul of a disease that makes you really, really hungry.  I like horror “throwback” stuff like this because it’s throwing back to something that’s actually good.  The writing is also really crisp and on-point, the characters well defined and interesting.  I gave “Rick” a jacket blurb.  That’s not his real name, by the way.

THE CASE-BOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I love it when the Queen knights guys like this because they’re, like, a badass artist or something.  Makes me wonder how scrappy old Arthur might have been in a real fight.  Anyway, this is research for my new book.  Most Sherlock stuff is in public domain, but my publisher told me I couldn’t have anything in there that even remotely resembled stuff from THIS BOOK, which the estate still owns and guards carefully.  Yeah, I’m writing a Sherlock Holmes book right now, so what of it?  

DARING GREATLY  by Brene Brown.  Self-help thing recommended to me by a friend, who never actually read it.  Everybody’s hopeless.

BLISS by Elizabeth Gundy.  Pulled this off my shelf a few weeks ago and, to my horror, realized it was crumbling apart in my hands, having made a tour of many used bookstores in Austin since my original purchase of it.  (It was stolen by an ex girlfriend, then became a gyspy for a while, before I found it at a Half Price Books I used to work at.)  One of my faves from Liz, a great slice-of-lifer with very realistic dialogue and hot sex scenes.

HELL HOUSE by Richard Matheson.  The movie they made out of this, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, is my absolute FAVORITE ghost film of all time, and the book is a stunner, too.  It never fails to teach, enlighten and creep out.  Aspiring horror writers need to READ shit like this.  Just like they need to read I AM LEGEND.  The BOOK, Okay?  Not that Will Smith movie, you jerks . . .

STEPHEN KING ON WRITING.  This never leaves my bedside table.  EVER.   Because if it does, that means it’s getting lent out again and I’ve done that too many times already.  This is maybe the fifth or six copy I’ve owned in fifteen years—and it’s MINE!  MINE, DO YOU HEAR ME!!!!???

A VERY PRIVATE GENTLEMAN by Martin Booth.  Here’s one I read before I saw the movie, which ended up being a George Clooney thing called THE AMERICAN.  The book is truly well written and kind of “important” in tone, which is rare in the thriller biz.  I highly recommend this to anyone who doesn’t like suspense stories.  It’ll kick your ass . . . but, you know, in a really smart way.  Or something.

JOYLAND by Stephen King.  I like this book a lot.  It’s got a folksy, brief quality that much of his later work does not.  Not sure what this is doing on the Hard Case Crime imprint, but what the hell—good business is where you find it.

SURVIVOR by Chuck Palahniuk.  My favorite Chuck by a very wide margin, mostly because of the ingenious way he gets his hero out of the Superbowl trap at the end.  That was a real reading MOMENT, man.  “Oh, you miserable bastard—you DIDN’T just have him do that!!!!”

FUN AND GAMES and HELL AND GONE by Duane Swierczynski.  I totally just spelled Duane’s name correctly without looking it up!  That’s because I actually spent an entire hour one day teaching it to myself phonetically, like a six-year-old retard watching The Electric Company.  I did that with Chuck’s name, too.  Oh, and FUN AND GAMES is a funny thriller.  I like it a lot.

HIGH FIDELITY by Nick Hornby.  The book is better than the movie.  Read the fucking shit.  If you are a writer, it will make you ten times better at what you do.

NIGHTMARE OF ECSTASY by Rudolf Grey.  The life of Ed Wood is way more dark, depressing, harrowing and hilarious than the film that was based on this book.  (Which is a bittersweet irony, since it’s Tim Burton’s best movie.)  I keep Ed around for gallows laughs and a few lessons in life, now that I’m sober.  He was a true American original, a typical American tragedy and one of the greatest artists that ever lived.

WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.  I got this back recently at the end of a process not unlike what happened with BLISS.  It’s never ever leaving the table again, man.  EVER!

THE PUNISHER: AN EYE FOR AN EYE by Carl Potts and Jim Lee.   The first few issues of PUNISHER: WAR JOURNAL collected as a graphic novel is an interesting case-study in comic book history, if that’s your thing.  I like the bit where Frank “takes out” two punks while flat on his back and reeling from a lethal dose of contact poison.  As dated as some of this is stylistically, it still would have made a better Punisher film than those last two misguided missiles.

THE DIRT by Motley Crue with Neil Strauss.  The fella who gets the “with” credit—who actually turned all of Nikki, Tommy, Vince and Mick’s interviews into the greatest rock biography of all time—actually wrote a series of self-help books on how to pick up women before this.  I find that eerily, crushingly appropriate.  I hope they never actually get around to making the movie.  These stories are way too amazing and legendary to be acted out by Tom Hardy or Val Kilmer.

DR. BLOODMONEY by Philip K. Dick.  I have a love-hate relationship with this Dick guy, mostly because I think about 2-thirds of his novels and stories were written in a sort of absentee-zone haze, while the fella was tripping on dope.  I hate that because I was never able to write at all when I was on dope, and DR. BLOODMONEY is way too amazing to be the product of a process I can’t understand and never will.  The good doctor snipes at me from the table, telling me I’m a fraud, now that I’m clean.  Fuck you, doc.

STRAY DOGS by John Ridley.  An ancient ARC copy of the book that eventually became U-TURN, the Oliver Stone film starring Sean Penn.  It’s still my favorite book of Ridley’s and my favorite film of Stone’s.  That’s probably because there are very few deviations from the source material.  Stone often needs a guiding hand through his madness. In fact, as short and tough and lean as this fabulous one-damn-thing-after-another white trash caper/horror novel is, and taking into account that Ridley was a screenwriter by vocation before (and after) he did this, it’s pretty obvious STRAY DOGS was probably a movie script first.  Ridley is black, by the way.  He wrote UNDERCOVER BROTHER.  I often point this book out to people who believe that works of art should be confined within an author’s own gender, sexual orientation or race.  That philosophy is, quite simply, Just Plain Bullshit.

FUCKIN’ LIE DOWN ALREADY by Tom Piccirilli.  Anything with a title like that has to be on the table FOREVER.  Never mind that it’s a really good short story.  It’s about a guy who cruises around with dead bodies in his car, with the air conditioning turned up real high so they don’t get too ripe.

CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE by Don Winslow.  There’s a section of this book (which has been on my table for over two years now) involving the backstory of the bad guy that I re-read again and again.  Prose like this makes me feel invincible later at my word machine.  Just genius stuff.

ALL IS LOST  Screenplay by J.C. Chandor  Another one of my script/screener kits.  It’s the Redford movie that’s out now where he’s stranded at sea and dies over eight agonizing days.  Notice how thin the book is?  That’s because the screenplay is only 30 pages long.  Weird, huh?  Yeah, they’ll pretty much give anybody money to make a movie these days . . . except me.  Thank god for small favors.