Sunday, November 30, 2008

French Existential Novels Suffer

[Right : The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette Published by Serpents Tail]

I am alarmed to see that the woes of the global economy which have reached Publishing, have now spread to the shores of the Seine reports The Guardian from London.

They salvaged books from raids on aristocrats' libraries during the French revolution and hid resistance material during the Nazi occupation. Paris's bouquinistes - the hundreds of booksellers whose open-air stalls along the river Seine carry Unesco world heritage status - have survived four centuries of censorship, floods and political upheaval. But now they are under threat from a new enemy: cheap, plastic Eiffel towers.

Bouquinistes' sales have dived as their carefully collected stocks of rare and out-of-print books face competition from online dealers and a change in Parisians' reading and shopping habits. Many now sell tourist trinkets to stay afloat, cramming their stalls with souvenirs.

But Paris city hall, alarmed that the garish knick-knacks are damaging Paris's "cultural landscape", has launched a battle to protect the literary soul of the banks of the Seine. Bouquinistes have been invited to crisis talks at the city hall in an attempt to promote more intellectual merchandise. But some warn that if they cannot adapt to the changing market they will "die of hunger".

The stalls stretch for about 2 miles along both banks of the Seine, and about 200 sellers offer more than 300,000 books in the biggest open-air bookshop in the world. Since the 16th century, they have attracted literary Parisians. But what Balzac described as "catacombs of glory" that devoured the time of "Paris's poets, philosophers and scholars" are now so stretched for trade that some complain that in winter they might make only €20 (£16.50) a day.

I wonder what Jean-Patrick Manchette and Albert Camus would have thought with the fall of the Bouquinistes

Read the full story here

The Surreal world of Jim Steranko

I am huge fan of the surreal artist / writer Jim Steranko, especially his run on Marvel Comics’ NICK FURY: AGENT OF SHIELD during the late 1960’s. Some of his art and concepts were existential, blurring the psychedelic imagery of the times by combining the drug sub-culture, the James Bond / The Man from Uncle / James Coburn’s Flint films and the counter-culture rock n’ roll roar. Some of Steranko’s best covers are available here

My own favourite Steranko cover [pictured right] is from Nick Fury, Agent of Shield #7 published in December 1968 and features a curious blend of Salvador Dali with a 1960’s high-tech espionage motif.

Have a look at more surreal Jim Steranko cover art here

Friday, November 28, 2008

'Salem's Lot [The Illustrated Edition] by Stephen King

Hodder and Stoughton's : ‘Salem’s Lot [The Illustrated Edition] by Stephen King

In the spirit of Patti Abbott’s Friday Forgotten book project, let me add Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot :The Illustrated Edition”, even if perhaps it is not forgotten by the legion of King’s readers.

This illustrated edition is beautifully bound and a substantial book, and does justice to one of the finest novels of terror I’ve ever read. Making it additionally special is the new introduction and afterword by King, we also get some previously deleted scenes that didn’t make the original version. Unlike the re-issue of ‘The Stand’, these deleted scenes are not re-instated into the novel but appear as vignettes of which the gory rat-attack is an interesting piece [which was removed from the original text as the US publishers considered it to visceral]. Also included are the short stories, ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’ and ‘One for the road’ which are related to the novel [and were originally published in his first short story collection ‘Night Shift’]. The icing on the cake however is the array of surreal photographs [by Jerry Uelsmann] that capture the tense sense of dread perfectly; making this illustrated edition a must for your shelf.

Re-reading this masterwork over twenty years later in this new edition proved to me the power of King’s writing. Not only does ‘Salem’s Lot stand the test of time, but it felt as fresh today as it did for me in 1975, when the horror genre was blossoming. An updating and sort of love-letter to Bram Stoker, we have a vampire tale rooted in contemporary America, that would soon become the structure and trademark for King’s future work. It should also be noted that for readers of King’s fantasy cycle ‘The Dark Tower’, ‘Salem’s Lot is required reading.

The novel is a claustrophobic tale of writer Ben Mears returning to his hometown Jerusalem’s Lot and has to confront the fear of The Marsten House, where a madman resided. Mears watches the town change when the mysterious Mr Barlow and Mr Straker arrive. Soon a young child is found dead, and then the town really changes as the dead come back to life. Mears befriends a young boy Mark Petrie who is fascinated by scary monsters and horror movies and soon they find themselves in the centre of some real-life terror. Mears and Petrie then realise that the town is overrun by vampires and that the sinister Mr Barlow and Mr Straker are at the epicentre of the evil, and decide to take action. The final sections of the novel lead up to a cliffhanger that shows that evil can hide in plain view and to destroy supernatural forces may not be easy, if not impossible. This is nightmare inducing fiction, and I believe in future decades the novel - ‘Salem’s Lot will be become as infamous as Stoker’s Dracula.

Such is the power of this novel, that it went onto be filmed to great effect with David Soul and James Mason in 1979 as a TV Miniseries, and a sequel followed in 2004 featuring Rob Lowe. But you really must read the source material to understand its true power and this edition from Hodder & Stoughton is in my opinion the definitive edition of this wonderful book.

May the King never be forgotten.

Maslin's 2008 Top Ten Picks

Laura Lippman and Dennis Lehane at Bouchercon Baltimore

So first of all can I wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving Day – and trust you all enjoy The Given Day; which is a subtle way of indicating that NYT’s Janet Maslin has listed Dennis Lehane’s opus THE GIVEN DAY as one of her top 10 reads of 2008

THE GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane. Shades of Doctorow and Dreiser color this fierce, sweeping historical drama, set in 1919 and told by the bard of Irish Boston. Mr. Lehane, the author of “Mystic River,” outdoes himself with something even bigger than a great detective tale.

Click here to discover the other nine books she’s selected.

I have a real passion for Dennis Lehane’s work and was so delighted to finally meet him in person at Bouchercon in Baltimore in October with my friend Roger Jon Ellory. Note that Lehane’s The Given Day is his first novel since the mind-altering Shutter Island.

Also for fans of Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro PI thrillers, you will be pleased to hear of this news.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Outsider Looking in

The Importance of Crime and Thriller Fiction
by Ali Karim

A little while back Kevin Burton Smith wrote an interesting piece on the
Akashic’s Toronto Noir collection, which provoked thought especially as it touched upon that old chestnut – literary vs. genre. Kevin wrote this line “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, “transcend.” The line is used to describe literary writers and their ability [or lack of ability] to write within the framework of the crime genre. It seems that people often used the term ‘transcend’ when describing a work that reaches above the confines of a genre. As Kevin stated in his piece, it may well be considered a ‘slight’ upon the very genre they purport to have transcended. Crime and Thriller fiction is the genre that probably unravels the human condition better than any other, due to it exploring the eternal struggle between the good and evil that lurks within us all.

I thought about the crime fiction genre when I struggled to understand my own obsessive fascination with Stieg Larsson’s work, especially the soon to be released Vol II of his Millennium series “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, Kevin’s article bounced around in my head. A line from Albert Camus came into my mind, a line that helped put these thoughts into some sort of context. Camus stated that "A novel is never anything, but a philosophy put into images." This line put some perspective into my thoughts, especially as Larsson’s journalism work was slanted toward revealing the evils of Neo-Nazism, as well the levels of brutality inflicted upon the most vulnerable in society, such as women, dispossessed, the marginalized, minorities and the underprivileged. Some of Larsson’s thoughts naturally found themselves into his novels as the line from Camus indicated. When looking at human beings we find that when we’re good, we can be truly remarkable, but when we’re bad, we can be horrifically evil. Recently I have been re-reading, and reminding people about the terrible events that occurred in Germany 70 years ago between 7th to 9th November 1938. These horrific events we refer to as ‘Kristallnacht’. In fact while at Bouchercon in Baltimore, Roger Ellory and I visited and paid our respects to the Holocaust Memorial. As human beings, when we are bad, we can be evil in the extreme as those events, and many other shameful events in the history of mankind illustrate.

So as I sat down to write my review of Larsson’s follow-up to ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, I got into some debate on the 4-MA mystery group where there is spilt opinion onto the merits of Larsson’s debut novel. I also realize that at times I come across as a reader / reviewer who gets somewhat excitable on certain books. So I decided to do a little navel gazing, and delve into why I am fascinated by crime and thriller fiction so much, and why I read and write obsessively. What resulted was an email post at 4-MA that grew into a long essay, and one that I realized I actually wrote for myself. However I posted it anyway, and then when I read it back, as well as receiving feedback from the 4-MA gang, I decided to re-edit and submit it to Jeff Pierce at The Rap Sheet. So before I write my review of Millennium II and publish the insights from Stieg Larsson’s father, I thought I’d write about why some books haunt me and make me want to tell the whole world about them.

I guess I spend a lot of time contemplating life, death and society, from the mirror that is crime / thriller fiction; that's why existential work strikes such a resonance in my psyche. I guess I am always looking for meaning, or purpose in the sheer randomness [or absurdity] of our existence. Every so often a line, a paragraph or perhaps a whole book has such insight. I consider as human beings, we are deeply flawed as I previous mentioned. Therefore crime / thriller fiction is a perfect art form to view [and reflect] the human condition; as crime novels link the good and bad within us all. The best fiction novels of crime offer the reader to take his/her own side of the moral compass. There are some novels that really help you understand the sheer comedy and tragedy of our existence. Larsson’s Vol II falls into this bracket. These books I consider as [quoting George Easter of Deadly Pleasures Magazine] "WoW Books"; as they are books that transcend entertainment, but not genre.

Of the two books from Larsson that I've read, he does provide a moral framework in his narrative. He examines evil but often that evil is banal and relates to the unleashing of base emotions released from moral constraints. I know that the Salander character irritates at times, as she is such a misfit, but like Camus' main character in The Outsider, perhaps we're all 'outsiders' looking in. Even beneath the gun-fetish world of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels; we find that Reacher is an outsider looking in. The best crime fiction in my opinion features an outsider as a protagonist looking inward, and reporting what he/she uncovers and then restoring order. In Larsson's Vol II, the unsocial and mentally unstable misfit, Lizabeth Salander is let loose to do what she does best. Salander’s story is just so hypnotic; I still think about it often as it does what all important art does, provoke thought and ignite passion, and therefore spilt opinions. No one is right in saying that Larsson's work is brilliant equally no one is right in stating that it is rubbish - but isn't it wonderful to have such strong opinions. ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire’ has a great story; it provokes thought about our motivations and how some people can't control their more bestial instincts. It also raises the perennial question how some men, allow their baser needs to harm others. You can get books that are worthy but boring, or irrelevant, but Vol II is a great story, filled with interlocking and quirky characters, but striated across the narrative is meaning, but this 'meaning' is so hidden from view that it permeates from between the lines, the paragraphs and makes one examine ourselves closely. Hey, I know that makes Larsson’s work sound so 'worthy', but his novels are very fine reads in themselves; the insights he reveals about our natures’ should be considered as a bonus. Larsson's insight into existence by way of a crime thriller - is most interesting. It is also hugely cathartic, as it is good to have the bad guys dispatched, when in real life, that often does not happen. But it often takes an outsider to carry out that retribution and restoration of order, that's why characters such as Jack Reacher, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Tom Ripley, Philip Marlowe, Harry Bosch, Nick Stefanos, Lew Archer, Patrick Kenzie, Spenser, John Rambo, et. al. are required - because that's what they do best, just like Lisabeth Salander [to restore order]. To defeat the grotesque evils these outsiders uncover require often employing the same tactics of the 'Bad'. That is why in all of us, we have the latent ability to be 'Bad'. You only have to read Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith to see that. When I first read 'Gone Baby Gone' by Dennis Lehane I was shattered. I put the book down, brewed more coffee and sat in the 4am silence and thought, contemplated, and deliberated the moral dilema the book posed. I still often contemplate the moral dilemma that lies at the heart of that story, and why it caused a rift between Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. That book transcended the medium [not the genre] that it was crafted from. John Connolly's THE UNQUIET is another unsettling book, and one that makes us view our own lives through a prism. Shutter Island by Lehane also did that, but many got irritated by the mechanism of that particular prism.

Several French novels often deploy these themes, as in France, crime fiction is often lauded as a legitimate art-form as opposed to a 'guilty pleasure' as it is in the UK and US. Two years ago, I spent two weeks over Christmas in Ireland with my family. Despite saying that I loved spending time with my kids, wife, relations etc etc, the real treat [if i am truly honest] was discovering Jean-Patrick Manchette, and reading two remarkable novels by him -The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill - These two novels still resonate in my mind. Both are slim and pithy tales, and each can be read in a few hours, but those hours spent have given me many more hours of contemplation [and I mean many, many further hours]. The stories and characters still haunt me. They are Existential with a capital 'E'. Both these novels have a very strange way of looking at life and death as well as love. I can not recommend them highly enough. And as for Derek Raymond’s Factory Novels, well reading them is like becoming a rabbit trapped forever in the headlights of an oncoming truck. Just don’t look for a warm feelgood ambience when you put them down, as they will haunt you and make you question what you see around you.

I must warn those of a more sensitive disposition that Raymond, as well as Manchette's work is brutal, and very violent. But who ever said that when we internally inspect our inner-self, it would be pleasant because of the flaws within ourselves [if we are truly honest]. It's not pretty looking into who we are, because for us to have escaped from the cave, we would have to have traits that in a civilized society can raise real issues.

I guess I read so much; write so much; and observe life, trying to find out more about myself and the world that surrounds me. Every so often I discover something from the viewpoint of another person that makes me challenge my own thinking, and makes me look at the world in a different way. Larsson does that for me. He challenges me, and makes me see things from the prism of his mind, not mine. I used to work in the Middle-East in shipping [during the first Iran / Iraq war], and spent a lot of time on massive crude oil and chemical ships that went through the Straits of Hormuz. It gave me a lot of time to meet mariners from all points of the globe, and to think about life and death. I also read crime fiction furiously. I was young at the time, so not as scared being in a war-zone, as I would be now [in the same situation]. As the years roll on, life becomes so much more precious. I recall with clarity reading all night, and then watching the sun rise on the deck of a ship in the Arabian Gulf; putting my book down [‘The Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris] and then seeing the sun under a different light, from a very different viewpoint – precious, seeing the same stars as Clarice Starling. I have traveled around the world but wherever I travel, you will always find a book in my back pocket or my luggage. Being a bibliophile one insult often thrown at me since childhood has been –

"Reading is like experiencing the world second-hand".

It used to annoy me, but now, being older and hopefully a little wiser, I feel perhaps that I have a much more interesting outlook upon life, because I have seen it from so many different viewpoints. The most perceptive being the one from the edges of existence, like those viewed from a crime novel. The view from the crime fiction vantage point I find the most revealing about life and death. So now when confronted with the ‘living life second hand’ jibe, I reply coolly -

"Just because it's your viewpoint, doesn't make your view right; it's just another way of looking at it; in fact your own viewpoint is shaped by what has happened to you, your prejudices and agenda. Reading helps clean the lens that you view the world through as well shifting the angle of view.”

I read to live, and I live to read, because in my journey to try and understand what surrounds me and how I fit into this random chaos we term as life and the consequences of death - books are always my guide.

So what else could one ask for from one’s entertainment? And to add to my pretentious mood this morning I will quote Albert Camus again -

"After all manner of professors have done their best for us, the place we are to get knowledge is in books. The true university of these days is a collection of books."

That is why I spend so much time reading, and why I consider a life without books as meaningless, and why I get anxiety if not surrounded by books, and why crime thrillers reveal more about life than any other genre - In my very humble opinion [and I qualify that statement by making it clear that I do read widely, not just crime], in crime fiction I find all of life’s rich tapestry.

Oh, boy this is yet another exploration of me trying to understand why I have become so obsessed by the words of the late Stieg Larsson, and justifying myself on why certain books have knocked my viewpoint ever so slightly, and that is why books are dangerous, but dangerous in a good way - they alter the way that you think. Larsson's work does just that.

But remember that the sword cuts two ways as all totalitarian regimes burn books, because books are dangerous and in the wrong hands they can be used as tools of manipulation as evidenced by the term propaganda.

Even Politicians read, and those from the left have a greater leaning toward Crime and Thrillers.

I should delete this self-indulgent essay, as I only wrote it for myself; trying to justify and understand why I read crime fiction so obsessively; and why some novels I read make such a deep gash into my psyche. "The Girl Who Played with Fire" sits in my mind like a knife wound that won't heal. I apologize for inflicting my injury upon you – Ali Karim

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Global Economy Hits Publishing Hard

I indicated recently at The Rap Sheet that as readers, we need to support our publishing industry as the economic downturn is now hitting publishers and booksellers hard. Today, Publishers Weekly broke some ominous news

It’s been clear for months that it will be a not-so-merry holiday season for publishers, but at least one house has gone so far as to halt acquisitions. PW has learned that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has asked its editors to stop buying books.

Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts” across its trade and reference divisions. The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.

Last week we heard that Random House, America’s largest trade publisher announced some chilling news

Random House Inc., the world's largest general-interest book publisher, has frozen its pension plan for current employees — and eliminated access to it for new hires.

"Effective Dec. 31, benefits in the Random House Inc. Pension Plan will no longer grow — but they will not be reduced," a spokesman for the publishing house, Stuart Applebaum, said in a statement to the Associated Press. He also said that effective January 1, no new employees will be enrolled in the Random House pension plan.

It is vital that we as readers, go out and buy books as presents during the holiday season, and yes I know we are all cash-strapped currently, but we must support the industry. The San Francisco Chronicle puts the problem into context here -

Elaine Katzenberger, executive director of City Lights Books in San Francisco, which operates both the bookstore and a publishing division, said she has seen the major chains begin to order fewer books.

"One side of the argument that I hear is that books are impervious to a recession because they're small purchases," Katzenberger said. "On the other side, though, you are aware that people are buying less of everything. So you look around and you're not feeling optimistic."

City Lights publishes 20 books a year and might have to scale back to 17 or 18 titles a year, she said.

Still, Katzenberger noted that with any downturn, there's always some upside.
Certain books seem to be benefiting from the white-knuckle economy. This week's best-sellers include the Warren Buffett biography "The Snowball"; Donald Trump's "Trump University Commercial Real Estate 101: How Small Investors Can Get Started and Make It Big"; and "I.O.U.S.A. One Nation. Under Stress. In Debt" by Addison Wiggin and Kate Incontrera.

Other books were not so well timed, including "Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Banker," published in August. The book jacket features a preppy banker in Hermes tie and French-cuff sleeves, seated at a desk littered with a wad of cash, Dom Perignon on ice, a Rolex and a statue of a charging bull.

Monday, November 24, 2008

When the Bubble Bursts

I had a surreal experience recently meeting up with Mark Sanderson, who writes the Literary Life column for The Telegraph [UK]; and who is publishing a crime-novel ‘Snow Hill’ in 2009 for HarperCollins. The surreal angle is that when we met at the HarperCollins crime dinner recently, we discovered in a surreal twist of fate that Mark and I both attended the same primary school in a village in Cheshire in the 1970’s.

During that excellent dinner, I also discovered that HarperCollins’ uber editor Julia Wisdom’s first rock concert was seeing the British Heavy Metal band Hawkwind, who also happened to be one of my all time favourite bands, as well as that of Ian Rankin. Over the meal, Wisdom and I discussed the merits of Heavy Metal and Hawkwind’s psychedelic brand of space opera, especially their ground-breaking 1973 concept double album ‘Space Ritual’ which was recorded live in London and Liverpool in December 1972. This album is an astounding mesh of Science Fiction, Drugs and Heavy Rock. It in fact features writing from British SF writer Micheal Moorcock, as well as poet Robert Calvert and the whole Hawkwind entourage, including Lemmy [aka Ian Kilmister who later formed Motorhead].

So with Hawkwind in my mind currently; I am pleased to announce that a book “Reasons to be Cheerful” by Paul Gorman is being released next month in the UK. It celebrates the short life of graphic artist Barney Bubbles who helped design the covers and imagery of many Hawkwind albums including ‘Space Ritual’ and the definitive ‘In Search of Space’. Bubbles also designed graphics that Hawkwind used in their concerts. But Bubbles worked with many other British acts, and the title of Gorman’s book relates to the iconic Ian Drury and the Blockheads single of the same name.

It seems Bubbles made the transition from Hawkwind’s brand of SF Heavy Metal to the raw pulse of the emerging British Punk rock scene reports The Sunday Times

Soon Bubbles was designing record covers for Hawkwind, an explosion of ideas that pushed their freeform space-rock into a new dimension. The 1971 classic X in Search of Space, which unfolded into the shape of a cruciform hawk, was an elaborate triumph of sci-fi nouveau. “It was in the days of LSD, and I think Barney used to take the odd acid tab when he was doing the sleeves," laughs the Hawkwind co-founder Dave Brock. “You can probably see the results of that in his artwork, like Space Ritual.” Indeed, with its sleeve panels of cosmic embryos, nipple planets and sonic waves, Space Ritual combined Bubbles’s ideas on philosophy, theatre and art. Still he refused to sign his work, though his reputation was growing apace.

By the mid-1970s, Bubbles made the transition from hippie to punk, reshaping [
New Musical Express] NME’s logo and landing a job as in-house designer at Stiff Records. His graphics gave the fledgling label a sharp, smart new identity. He created sleeves for Nick Lowe, the Damned, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and more — many of which cleverly subverted art movements such as dada and constructivism. It was a fiercely intelligent streak he carried through to F-Beat, Radar and Go! Discs. “His sleeve work was sensational,” asserts the Stiff photographer Brian Griffin. “And his work rate was phenomenal. I never saw Barney sleep, ever. Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick is one of the great art pieces of the 20th century. It’s mind-blowing. I think it’s up there with a Picasso painting.”

To have a look at some of Bubbles’ work from Word Magazine click here

However Barney Bubbles like many creative people was a troubled soul who tragically ended his life as reported by Mark Paytrees at the Hawkwind fansite Starfarer

Barney was struggling. The regular outlets for his work were drying up. He was underpaid for the work he was still doing, and a love affair crumbled around him. "I used to do this magazine with him called Y," recalls Brian Griffin. "And one day we had this argument about the rude words in the text. It was the only argument we ever had. I went round to see him and patch it up, and he'd lacerated his face with a razorblade."Nik Turner also witnessed a more desperate Barney around this time. "I got a call from his girlfriend, who said, 'Come round and help us, Barney's threatening everyone with a knife.' I did and he said, 'Look, I'll kill you too.' Then he threw the knife on the ground. He was having a nervous breakdown. Soon afterwards, he committed himself to a hospital."But Barney never recovered. "He phoned me up on the morning he committed suicide," Griffin remembers. "He said, 'Beej, I really feel terrible.' I recall him being worried about his VAT. I said, 'Don't worry, after I've finished shooting this Echo & The Bunnymen video I'll come straight over.' I finished early, mid-afternoon, and I phoned up. But it was too late. His sister came to the phone and said, 'Barney's killed himself.'"

To understand the world of Barney Bubbles and his contribution to the art of music design, why not have a look at his life and work from Paul Gorman’s ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ book; before Barney’s bubble finally burst. Mark Paytrees said of Bubbles’ later career –

He designed books, and moved into video, shooting a remarkable short for The Specials' Ghost Town that captured the urban night in all its blurry, isolated glory. And then, one day in November 1983, he placed a bag over his head and suffocated himself.