Tag Archives: Literature

My Fandom is More Hardboiled than Yours: Dashiell Hammett

My Fandom is More Hardboiled than Yours: Dashiell Hammett

Not in photo: my copy of Nightmare Town. Its disappearance from my bookcase is a mystery in itself.

This blog post incorporates ideas from an earlier piece written for the San Francisco Book Review

 

“Flypaper” was the first Hammett story I ever read. It appeared as a featured classic in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and I just loved how it punched me in the gut. Its crisp, no-nonsense style opened up the noir side of detective fiction for me.

Since I adore so many authors, it’s taken me several years to  absorb as much Hammett as I can find. I haven’t gone through every single word he has ever written, although it’s safe to say that I’m more than a casual fan. I freaked out with delight, for example, when I found a bootleg copy of Wim Wenders’s Hammett (1982) in the backwaters of Metrowalk. I had a similar moment of absolute bliss when I finally went on Don Herron’s amazing walking tour. When I first contemplated moving to the Bay Area, the idea of walking the same mean streets as one of my literary heroes tickled my fancy.

All these fangirl elements came into play when I picked up a book called Hammett Unwritten. This slim novel tackles one tantalizing mystery about this literary icon: why did Dashiell Hammett stop writing after 1934?

This novel has a fanciful hypothesis. Tracked down by the femme fatale who inspired Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Hammett finally gives up the one object that she desires. He hands over a counterfeit statue, a relic from the case that inspired The Maltese Falcon. 

Unfortunately, as soon as he gives the souvenir away, his words dry up. People from Hammett’s life—real and fictional—emerge from the past to harass him. As his writer’s block worsens over the years, these people mock him for giving up the one item that had influenced his mercurial rise in society. Sometimes they feed him misleading clues regarding the statuette’s real origins and power. Verbally battered and growing old and insecure, even Hammett’s cynicism cracks under the pressure. He starts thinking there might be some truth in the lies.

Hammett Unwritten is full of brilliant one-liners and twists. Even a hardcore fan who’s read a biography or two might be surprised by all the details. Facts are cleverly sandwiched among a dozen falsehoods, and by the end a reader almost buys the half-truth that Owen Fitzstephen wrote this novel. Mystery lovers, especially hardboiled fans, should appreciate this satisfying con and double-cross perpetuated by Gordon McAlphine.

If I seem to be tossing roses in McAlphine’s path, it’s because I’ve read some cringe-inducing pieces that feature Hammett as a character. Not all fictional versions of Hammett ring true. He’s a complex man, and some attempts I’ve read just feel reductive. He played a lot of roles in his life, and not all of them are pleasant: private detective, communist, womanizer, absentee father, Hollywood scribe. So far, Hammett Unwritten is the only book that does justice to his complexity. It deserves the honor of sharing shelf space with Hammett’s own masterpieces.

 

Authors versus Editors

Authors versus Editors


Last Saturday, my class in substantive editing wrapped up its final meeting. To commemorate this personal milestone, here are two short quotations, taken out of context and put together for my own amusement.

Editors are ghouls and cannibals.
—Harriet Vane to Salcombe Hardy in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)

If only Harriet knew her editor’s feelings, every time she went off on a walking tour, stumbled on a corpse, and was late with her next book!

The author has a constitutional right to be an idiot.
—a veteran editor I know, who wishes to remain anonymous

Thankfully, I know a lot of veteran editors, so finger-pointing will prove difficult.

 

P.S.

I would like to point out that I’m both a writer and an editor, so you can only imagine the arguments I have with myself. 

Writers are Criminals

Writers are Criminals

They didn’t shake hands but drew nearer one another.

“I never expected to meet you in a place like this,” Madrid confided. “A prison exercise yard, with a number stenciled over your heart! But then, being a detective is not far from being a criminal, is it?”

“It’s been a long time since I was a detective.”

“Ah yes, you have become a writer. Quite famous, too. I’ve read your books. Well, being a writer amounts to the same thing as being a detective. In terms of being essentially criminal, I mean. Writers steal people’s lives. Isn’t that not so?”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been a writer.”

 

—Madrid addressing Hammett in Owen Fitzstephen and Gordon McAlpine’s Hammett Unwritten (2013)

Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

I found the original draft of my Last Unicorn graphic novel review. This is completely different in tone and length from what was  published in the San Francisco Book Review last January 4, 2012.

This review has comments on the ending. To read the hidden spoilers, highlight the invisible text with your mouse.

 

A nice addition to the graphic novel section of the library. Not in photo: my Hellblazers and Alan Moore.

Peter S. Beagle is a familiar name to most fantasy readers since his introduction graced many a paperback copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Yet for me, growing up in the Philippines, that was the only contact I had with the name for years. Even back then I knew he must be an important writer, because unimportant writers don’t write introductions to other people’s books. But as to coming across one of his books, lack of access was an issue.

 Some college friends were lucky enough to grow up with The Last Unicorn. In hindsight I envy them. I didn’t have any luck finding a VHS tape of the animated version, either, in that part of the world. After a few years of curiosity I simply gave up.

So getting a copy of the new graphic novel adaptation in the mail was nothing short of a dormant dream come true.

I was a little worried about being too old to like it. There are some texts that should be read at the appropriate age. I remembered feeling incredibly let down when I read C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew a couple of years ago. i I feel the need to apologize to all hardcore Narnia fans but I simply could not stand being talked down to by that insufferable man. It reeked of the overbearing Catholicism I couldn’t stand since elementary school.

Thankfully, The Last Unicorn is more accessible to my adult mind, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt there were some gaps in the narrative, probably caused by condensing a novel to its graphic novel form, but the basic story still worked well. The art by Renae de Liz and Ray Dillion was also apt and beautiful.

I was worried that after a few pages, The Last Unicorn would explode into full-on shoujo sparkles and glitter, but no, it didn’t happen. The unicorn’s transformation into a mere mortal was incredibly painful to read. I found it awful that she forgot about her quest at one point, but I suppose enchantments will do that, even to a strong character.

The Last Unicorn’s last plight ultimately reminds me of the subtle tragedies of childhood, and how a little experience can taint everything. I probably would have cried buckets if I read this as a child. That it can affect me, even now, is probably a mark of a brilliant piece of fantasy.

Review: Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez

Review: Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez

The first part of this review previously appeared in the San Francisco Book Review last December 8, 2011. 

 

Even readers who have consumed a steady diet of South American literature since the boom era may find immense pleasure in reading Tomás Eloy Martínez’s last novel. It’s a gut-wrenching tour de force. Purgatory revolves around Emilia Dupuy and her husband Simón, two newlywed cartographers who are torn apart by the Argentinean military regime of the 1970s. Either by malice or accident, Simón joins the ranks of the “desaparecidos,” one of the many thousands who disappeared during this turbulent era.

Now living in New Jersey and exhausted by years of searching for Simón, Emilia is surprised to find her husband at a local cafe, looking exactly as he did on the day he disappeared. Is this encounter real or is Emilia being haunted by her memories and desires? Martínez gives no easy answers to the central mystery, preferring to peel back, layer after layer, each moment that leads to Emilia and Simón’s separation and reunion. The novel travels back and forth between the past and the present, with casual cameos from a Nazi pseudo-scientist, Spanish royalty, and even Orson Welles.

Disguised as a spectral romance, Purgatory is really a lamentation for the missing and for those left behind. It is a brilliant, bittersweet narrative that keeps a reader up at night long after the last page has been read.

. . .

So ends my formal review for Purgatory. Now comes my informal reaction to the book:

I had an entirely visceral response to this novel. I suppose it’s a mix of several elements, including my university degree and my interest in Latin American literature. Maybe it’s also my personal experience—an acquaintance of mine, Sherlyn Cadapan, is among the disappeared in the Philippines. You can read about her case here. I was not particularly close to her and I had not seen her in years before her abduction by the Philippine military.

It was impossible for me not to be bothered on a primal level. This was someone who used to tease me to buy her lunch when she was broke, which was the case pretty often. This was a familiar face I saw in Vinzons Hall during my last years in university. To consider the worst fate possible just renders me speechless. In the back of my head, it’s hard not to think, “if I was a stronger person, if I had pushed further and done more community work, that could have been me.”

Some of my former colleagues would call it “lie low guilt.” Lying low, in the parlance of NGO or nonprofit work of the last decade, was to take a break from the intense, grueling lifestyle connected to social work in the Philippines. It usually involved crawling back to one’s family for a couple of months and recuperating from diseases like malaria or amoebiasis. (For some people—myself included—lying low means never returning and being slowly ripped apart by one’s conscience for abandoning the cause of social justice.) This is something easily misunderstood by those touched with apathy, and even those active in the movement (the grim and determined types.) After all, it’s easy to dismiss something as intangible as mental suffering.

It is in this frame of mind I found myself finishing Purgatory. It was impossible for me not to relate and sympathize with Emilia. When I think of everyone I’ve ever met who lost a loved one this way, I just want to curl up into a ball.

It’s painful to consider these things, after all these years. But I have to say, Purgatory is such a beautifully written trigger for self-examination.

Side Comments for the Month II

Side Comments for the Month II

1. I am ashamed to say that my book backlog is piling up with no end in sight. While wading through research on nineteenth century history, I am also concurrently reading Jacqueline Raoul-Duval’s Kafka in Love and Jorge Amado’s The Discovery of America by the Turks. I’m studying for my finals, too.

In the midst of this mental over-exertion, I was lucky to receive a complete set of Dream of the Red Mansions for free. My copy editing class had a field trip to Sinomedia, a San Francisco-based publisher that specializes in Chinese and Asian titles. While touring their facilities, I had a nerdgasm because they had stuff like a hardbound boxed set of the complete Lu Xun.

So many books, so little time.

Chinese literature happens to be a frustration of mine since my university days, when I was unable to take the survey course on the topic due to scheduling conflicts. The literature department never offered the class again, either—for someone who took six units of Chinese language, it was unbelievably infuriating. (I decided on Chinese because all the hip cats were taking Japanese for their language requirements.)

Since those days I’ve managed to read some of the classics in translation on my own—Journey to the West, the Tao Te Ching, the short stories by Lu Xun, and a lovely poetry anthology edited by Wai-lim Yip. (I also have an anthology edited by Cyril Birch but I prefer Yip’s translations for some of the overlapping material.)

Despite these forays, my sense of self-education always felt incomplete because I hadn’t tackled Dream of the Red Mansions. Also known as Dream of the Red Chamber, it is one of the four masterpieces of classical Chinese literature. I felt that if I was worth my salt as a student of Asian literature, I just had to read it. (A similar moment occurred after taking the survey class on Japanese literature, when my professor announced we would not tackle the entire Tale of Genji. I’m proud to say I read that on my own too, even if some of the hip cats sneered at me for the effort. I was told by these well-meaning types that “real” Japanese kids don’t bother with it. I thought this was a ridiculous argument for being too lazy to even try.)

Good intentions aside, a complete, unabridged version of Dream of the Red Chamber proved difficult to find in Manila back then. So you can imagine my disbelief and excitement when I was presented with these volumes last week! Just receiving these copies ends an on-and-off search that started in the late 90s.

As soon as I can concentrate on it, I will definitely sink my teeth into these books. I hope I am up to this challenge.

 

A low-res shot from up front.

2. In more news of Things I Should Have Experienced Fifteen Years Ago, my sister and I watched the Toad the Wet Sprocket gig in San Francisco and it was a satisfying musical experience. I was happy that the audience wasn’t terribly geriatric, like the time I watched Brian Wilson (the Beach Boy, not the SF Giant.)

A local band called Luce opened for them and I think they were the best front act for me to encounter all year. Toad played through the entire Dulcinea album and I was ecstatic to hear Stupid, Nanci, and Windmills live after all this time. Even at the height of their popularity, I don’t think Toad even toured Asia. Back then I resigned myself to never seeing one of my favorite bands… and this was even before they broke up. It’s nice that they got back together again, and more importantly, they are in the middle of writing and recording new material.

If you wish to live vicariously, Toad recorded some tracks from their San Francisco gigs and it’s available for digital download over here. All proceeds from the EP will be going to Amnesty International, if you care about those things. So please don’t be an ass and try to pirate the EP, okay?

At the gig I picked up Glen Phillip’s Coyote Sessions. I’ve been following Glen’s solo career since Abulum and a new release is always a welcome addition to my iTunes. I’ve given the entire CD a couple of listens and my favorite tracks are “Still Carrying You” and “The Song is Still Here.”

 

3. On the anime manga front (can there be such a secret organization in existence… The United Anime-Manga Front? Instead of Internationale their theme song will be Fly Me to the Moon and its card-carrying members will wave red flags featuring the profiles of Hayao Miyazaki and Totoro? My imagination is running away with me on this cold afternoon…)

As I was trying to say before I interrupted myself, Adam and I finished Ergo Proxy and revisited Baccano!, courtesy of the official Funimation channel on YouTube.

A DVD cover for Ergo Proxy featuring Vincent Law.

Ergo Proxy was all sorts of confusing. Each subsequent episode left me slacked-jawed and mumbling strange things to myself. As far dystopian science fiction goes, it’s a competent, elegant series, as soon as I had all the jigsaw puzzle pieces of the plot firmly in my head. It’s not a series to watch in the midst of a debilitating depression or if you have the attention span of a goldfish.

Baccano!, of course, is famous for its skewered nonlinear storytelling — it hopscotches all over the place. Some people may argue that it’s a waste of time to re-watch a series, but Baccano! is one of those odd gifts that keeps on giving.

On a meta level, this time around nothing quite gave me the giggles as much as imagining Ichigo Kurosaki delivering Claire Stanfield’s lines. Graham Specter’s ridiculous declarations became more tolerable when I imagined Kyon delivering them to Haruhi Suzumiya, too. (Perhaps I should stop looking up voice actors and all the various roles they’ve had.)

Lastly, we are in the middle of watching the time-traveling series Stein;s Gate. I admit I got curious about this series due to this fan video. So far, the worst thing about it is its blatant misuse of punctuation in the title. Otherwise, the lab-coated main characters are adorably paranoid and madcap. I hope it continues to be satisfying.  Nothing is more infuriating than a good concept marred with a muddled, prolonged end (Eden of the East, I’m looking at you.)

 

4. I don’t know if I will find the time or energy to send postcards this year. In case I don’t write at length again in the coming days, happy holidays, everyone! I hope everybody I like (and a few I don’t) gets stuffed with food, drunk on spirits, and manage to do lots of silly things they will regret the next morning. That’s really the best I can hope for everyone.

Henry Tilney as a Grammar Nazi

Henry Tilney as a Grammar Nazi

Presenting Mr. Henry Tilney, snark master and Grammar Nazi.

In this passage, my favorite Austen hero teases our dim-witted heroine, Katherine Morland:

 

“But now, really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

“The nicest; by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend on the binding.”

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “You are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is for ever finding fault with me for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “And this is a very nice day; and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! it is a very nice word, indeed! It does for everything. Originally, perhaps, it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

 

— from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817)

 

 

Sir Thomas on Inadequate Parenting

Sir Thomas on Inadequate Parenting

….He gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they never heard from any lips that could profit them.

— Sir Thomas Bertram’s parental reflections in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814)

 

 

Side Comments for the Month

Side Comments for the Month

A month-long hiatus from my blog may speak of carelessness. Yet when caught up with the actual business of living, I sometimes find it impossible to sit down and write anything. When things move too fast, I feel the need to stay away from words to process what is happening to me.

I suppose you can call me an old-fashioned creature since I think it’s unnecessary to document every single moment. This is obviously contrary to the current behavior that incessant social media encourages. I’m mildly suspicious of people who can only have fun if they are posing for photos they will share right away with a thousand of their dearest friends on Facebook (or Twitter or Tumblr).

Then again, I’m also the person who once enjoyed a five-day silent retreat in a Jesuit seminary. Zero electronics permitted, no talking was allowed, and the accommodations were as spartan as a medieval monk’s cell. So yes, I suppose my distaste of over-sharing makes sense.

Maybe I’m just a crank and you should get off my lawn now.

The last three books I read for review.

Enough digressions, though. Here are some moments of my August and September:

1. I just finished reading Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy and as silly as it seems, I totally forgot to mention what I thought about the title essay in my review. Do’h. Two hundred words is not enough space for anyone to wax poetic about one of their favorite theorists. In any case, the review should come out next month.

2. I had the pleasure of watching Batman Live with my nephews last weekend. Jesus H. Christ on a stick! I was expecting campy and the production exceeded all expectations on that score. It was like Adam West and Joel Schumacher had a secret love child and the poor thing was raised to be a Las Vegas showgirl.

If the show was aiming to be America’s next guilty pleasure, I think it succeeded well. The production has great visuals and props, a slick Batmobile, and a cheeky Poison Ivy. If you are easily infected by the enthusiasm of little children, it’s worth checking out. If not, I recommend boozing up before the show.

3. I’ve avoided Naruto for years, but Adam persuaded me to give its ridiculously cute spinoff a chance. Even if I know nothing about its parent material, Rock Lee’s Springtime of Youth is so silly it’s impossible not to laugh.

As a spin-off featuring chibis, it falls somewhere between The Melancholy of Haruhi-chan Suzumiya and Petit Eva: Evangelion@School. I suppose this genre only appeals to people with an immoderate sense of humor.

For people who like their manga with a slice of serious, three new chapters of Chico Umino’s Sangatsu No Lion were translated by fans when I wasn’t looking. As much as I adore Honey and Clover, I worry (rightly so?) that Sangatsu No Lion does not have the same mass appeal. The chances are slim, but I do hope they come out with an authorized English translation in the future.

. . .

I was going to write about my recent culinary adventures but that would take too much time. Another time, perhaps. Good food always deserves its own post.

Merlyn’s Cure for Sadness

Merlyn’s Cure for Sadness

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

— Merlyn in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958)