Monday, February 28, 2011

Disaster in Samba City

Samba City, a complex near the port area of Rio de Janeiro, is where the warehouses of the major samba schools are located.

The warehouses, immense spaces with ceilings twelve meters high, have been built to accommodate the huge floats displayed in the parades.

The costumes are tailored and stored there – and so is everything else the schools need to put on their shows.

There was a time when the production and preparation was done in the neighborhoods where the schools were founded. Floats were constructed in the open air. Costumes were stored in the homes of the women who sewed them.

But the Cariocas (citizens of Rio de Janeiro) pride themselves on making every Carnival bigger and more elaborate than the last.
And bigger and more elaborate shows demanded more space for preparation.
So the schools began transferring their operations to abandoned factories.
Those factories were often in the outlying districts, making them difficult to get to.
Or in poorer areas, making them dangerous to visit.

Samba City, an initiative of the municipal government, was designed to end all of that.
Space was provided for each of the Class One samba schools.
The vast warehouses placed at their disposal could be used to hold social gatherings, do rehearsals, even put on shows for tourists – and thereby earn much-needed funds.

The neighborhood selected for the project wasn’t in the best part of town.
But the area inside the fence was to be heavily patrolled.
And the schools were promised a state-of-the-art sprinkler system that would protect them from fire.

The directors of the schools rejoiced.
The complex opened in 2005.

And, six years later, disaster struck.

A fire broke out.
The vaunted sprinkler system was faulty and inadequate.

Four of the fourteen warehouses were destroyed.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time.
It takes a year for a samba school to produce a show.
And, this year, there isn’t a ghost of a chance that three of them will be able to recover prior to the event.

In financial terms, the damage has been estimated at four million US dollars.
That’s big money for folks who live in shantytowns.

But the major damage, the emotional damage, is immeasurable.
The members of the samba schools live for carnival.
It’s the center of their existence, the most important event of their year.

The tourists aren’t going to be happy either.
As many as 700,000 foreigners are expected to attend Carnival in Rio this year.
And they’re not going to be able to see the show they might otherwise have seen.

If you’re unfamiliar with samba schools, or how the event is celebrated, I suggest you take a moment to read my post of February 7, 2010:

I posted it one year to the day before the fire.

This year, Carnival begins on Friday, the 4th of March. We'll be up all night throughout the weekend, watching the desfiles (parades) on television.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Taking Offense

My website is on the cover of my books, and I get anywhere from 10-20 e-mails a week from readers.  These letters mean a lot to me.  In fact, one of them arrived at just the right time and said just the right things when I was seriously considering junking THE QUEEN OF PATPONG.  Without that letter, I probably wouldn't have finished the book.

I noted this in the Acknowledgments section of QUEEN and specifically invited readers to write to me.  Since then, the average flow of letters has doubled from 5-10 a week to the present level.

Three days ago I got a letter from a woman who opened by saying how much she'd enjoyed parts of the two Poke Rafferty books she'd read and talked about how much talent I have.  I was feeling tall, handsome, talented, and flattered when she opened her third paragraph by saying that she was sorry she'd be unable to read the other books in the series because of "sexist, misogynistic and politically Neanderthal" views I had expressed.

Well, that got my attention.

I backtracked through the books to find the passages to which she'd referred.  (She didn't identify all of them, but she was quite clear about four things that had really pissed her off.)   And here's what I discovered.

She was confusing a characters's opinions with the writer's opinions.

All the characters whose sentiments had peeved her so were either villains or were morally neutral in the scheme of the book and expressing sentiments that helped to establish who they were.  The opinions were not expressed in the narrative.  They were not given to characters who might logically be mistaken for the writer's proxies in my books, to the extent that I have any.

My first reaction was to see whether I could get this reader's Novel Reading License yanked.  Novels hold up a mirror to the societies in which they're produced, and one of the ways they do that is by exploring the words and actions of those who live outside the polite boundaries every society establishes.  Any novel that takes itself even halfway seriously will teem with objectionable characters.

The only valid defense I can find for her objection would be if I were, in fact, trying to have it both ways: pretending to condemn these views and actions while actually using them to titillate my readers.  And, sure enough, she had titillation in mind: one of the things she objected to were the "pages and pages" devoted to prostitution in the two books she read.

Well, I defend my right to write entire volumes on prostitution.  I'll write pimps, johns, tricks, madams, whole brothels.  I'll write psychopathic Blackhawk operatives and mass murderers, sadists and corrupt cops, card cheats, sex addicts, merchants who misrepresent the age of cheese, consumers who rip the DO NOT REMOVE tags from mattresses, and anyone else I can think of.  And I'll check once in a while as I write them to make sure I know which way is North on the book's moral compass, and if it's where I thought it was, I'll keep writing.

Several people wrote to tell me that they couldn't finish A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART because of the violence done to children.  I understand that, and in that book I agonized over how to present it.  I wound up never showing it directly: it was either filtered through Poke's (revolted) consciousness as he viewed it, or told by the victims who survived it.  Still, I can understand not wanting to read about it.  I can even sympathize with it.

But I can't sympathize with the person who reviewed it on Amazon and called it "child pornography," nor can I sympathize with the woman who can't tell the difference between a character's conviction and the convictions of the book's writer.  In spite of both of them, I'll pretty much go wherever I want to go, morally speaking, as long as I'm comfortable with my reasons for going there.

Some readers, I guess I just don't need.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Cowboy Story

I want to write about cowboys.  Probably because I’m in Denver, about to head back east after a month or so on the western leg of my book tour.  I like Colorado, always have.  Bought three authentic western shirts at a store close by to where I’m staying.  It actually started the western look and is a hallowed stop for “folks in the know,” like country western and rock stars.  The shirts will go nicely with the boots I bought in Houston…and the matching belt.  If only I could sing.

Rockmount Ranch Wear, Denver
At the moment, though, I’m sitting in the atrium lobby of Denver’s venerable Brown Palace Hotel where a month ago, as a highlight of Denver’s 105th National Western Stock Show (as in cattle, not Wall Street), the prize-winning bull was paraded into the lobby.  He’s not here at the moment, though I haven’t checked to see whether he might be hanging out (ouch) in the adjoining decidedly non-vegan restaurant.

I first came to Colorado in the early seventies, fell in love with the mountains, and camped out here during the late summer for many years.  Lowell Thomas said it best, “I come to the Rockies to recharge my batteries.”

I stopped my pilgrimages a half dozen years or so later when I found a farm back east that sparked the sort of feelings I had for a place I knew near Golden, Colorado.  A home away from home, so to speak.  Then I discovered Greece and all bets were off.

Still, there is a unique magic to the Rockies and I could use some of it at the moment.  The tour’s been a great success—two live TV and four radio interviews in Denver alone—but after five weeks on the trail, this ol’ cowpoke has come to a conclusion he just has to share.

BUY BOOKS.  And I mean the printed kind.  And I don’t care whose they are, as long as you buy at least one hardcover or two trade paperbacks a month from your local independent bookstore.  That is, if you still want to see them around your neighborhood this time next year.  These days, I’d be surprised if most independents don’t qualify for not-for-profit status.

They’re battling not only the e-book frenzy and a no disposable income for books economy, but landlords looking for more.  Yes, the stories I’ve heard over these last few weeks are anecdotal, but considering the size of the bookselling community, two or three stories here and another few there begin to add up to a groundswell of evidence.

Baked by Murder By The Book, Denver
This isn’t about writers protecting their outlets.  It’s about communities protecting themselves.  E-books and piracy issues are not the source of the problem I’m talking about.  It’s the people who love books and can afford to buy books who chose to purchase them elsewhere.  Either online or for cheaper prices in places I need not mention.  Fine, continue to do that, but don’t forget to buy from your local bookstore, too.  Or three.

I know, I’m preaching to the choir and it’s all been said before.  But it can never be said enough.  If you want to hear it differently, since I’m sitting at the moment in cowboy central, permit me to put it this way: Let’s not let another local bookstore [née sheriff] ride off into the sunset because the town folk won’t back it up.  There will be no new one coming to town.  If you’re lucky, you might find some fancy-pants operator way over yonder, but don’t bet on it having any idea who the hell Lowell Thomas was.

Brown Palace Hotel, Denver
Time for a bit of humor.  I’ve been typing away on my laptop for over an hour, sitting in this massive hotel lobby as far away as possible from a piano player valiantly (and adeptly) plugging away for the same amount of time.  He just walked over to me and said, “Hi, you don’t recognize me but we met in Mykonos a couple of years ago.  I’m a friend of so and so.” It was the perfect tiny bit of ego tickling I needed to get my mind off the dark and dreary.  Then he added, “It took me a while to recognize you, you look older.”

I still tipped him.

Jeff — Saturday

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Greedy Ghost

I have blogged before about the threat from the UK's delightful coalition Government to the Public Lending Right, the annual payment made to authors according to how many 'lends' a book gets from a library. I received my latest payment recently and very welcome it was too. My books seem to do well in libraries. This means I have a vested interest in saving libraries. Because forget the PLR, as that's merely gravy: many of Britain's libraries are under threat as a direct result of Government cuts. A campaign is now underway to try and save them. A Save our Libraries day earlier this month attracted a great deal of attention, and more protests are planned as the threat of cuts, in the dread name of 'efficiency,' loom larger.

As well as income, which is comparatively meagre, I also have a library to thank for switching me on to great literature. During my 'gap year' between school and university, instead of travelling the world like most young folk seem to do now, I ended up on the dole, working as Father Christmas and then as a cashier in a bank, Pudsey library played a vital role in alleviating my boredom and providing me with free access to the world of imagination. I wonder how many other millions of people over the years, skint and and at a loose end, have found solace or inspiration or escape in a library? To lose them is short-sighted and wrong, and everyone who is involved in books should rise up and do all they can to protect them, because they foster readers and writers, and without those what do we have?

Then there was the local studies section of Kensington and Chelsea library where I did much of the research that made up The Blood Detective. Without it, it would have been half the book. I doubt Kensington and Chelsea library, being a true blue Tory borough, is under threat, but many libraries out there with local studies collections are, so other authors, researchers and students will suffer. Libraries also give a community its focal point, a place to gather and meet. The death of libraries is just another part of the destruction of any concept of community.

I could go on, but others have put it far more eloquently. Philip Pullman for one. He gave a speech protesting about proposals to close 20 out of 43 libraries in Oxfordshire. Apologies for the length of this quote (you can read the full speech in its entirety here and you should, even if Oxfordshire and its libraries are and seem a very long way away) but it pretty much sums up not only what's so boneheaded about closing libraries to save money, but also what's going wrong with the whole book industry. Book shops are closing too, as we all know on here, mainly because, as far as the UK is concerned, the greedy ghost also told publishers that they could sell a lot of copies of books in huge supermarkets for £2. Of course, once people realised that, why the hell would they go to a bookshop, who can't afford to take that kind of hit, and buy a book for £6? Anyway, Pullman...

In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.
Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him. Look at this list of last year’s books: over half of them weren’t bestsellers. This year you must only publish bestsellers. Why are you publishing this woman? She’ll only appeal to a small minority. Minorities are no good to us. We want to double the return we get on each book we publish.
So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit.
The greedy ghost is everywhere. That office block isn’t making enough money: tear it down and put up a block of flats. The flats aren’t making enough money: rip them apart and put up a hotel. The hotel isn’t making enough money: smash it to the ground and put up a multiplex cinema. The cinema isn’t making enough money: demolish it and put up a shopping mall.
That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My heart breaks....

In South Africa hitchhiking is widespread and accepted, mainly because many families don’t own a car.  Also, in many parts, public transportation is sparse and taxis hard to come by.  Wherever you drive there are people on the side of the road, often waving some money, indicating they are willing to share expenses, or a cardboard sign with the hoped-for destination handwritten on it.
 Where I live, in small-town Knysna on the Indian Ocean, there is a flourishing taxi business.  Taxis in South Africa come in two flavours.  There are the taxis that are the same as elsewhere in the world.  They are either in ranks, prowling the streets for fares, or can be summoned with a phone call.  More common are the minibus taxis.  These are privately owned and usually operate in some ways like public buses in that they have a more or less fixed route.  Where they differ is that they will stop anywhere on the route, usually without signaling, to pick up or let off passengers.  They also drive wherever they want in order to progress towards their destination, including the pavement (sidewalk) and the shoulder of the road.  And it is seldom that the number of passengers equals the number of seats – there are usually far more passengers than legally allowed.  However, without these minibuses, most of the labour force of South Africa would not get to work.
In Knysna, the minibus taxis only go to destinations if it is worthwhile for them.  That means many people don’t have an easy way of getting around.  So many people walk – sometimes long distances – every day.
Anytime I drive between the centre of the village and my home, I give a lift to anyone walking.  As I have a car with 7 seats, I am quite popular.  The other day, there was only one person walking, a well-dressed woman, and I stopped for her.
Usually there is not a lot of conversation on these 10 minute trips, sometimes due to language difference – I don’t speak Xhosa, the prevalent local language – or sometimes because there is not a lot of common ground.  But I always try to initiate an exchange.
Stylish African woman
After the usual pleasantries, I asked her how long she had been in Knysna.  Eighteen years, she said.  Where are you from?  From East London, she replied. 
East London is a town about 600 kms away. 
Did she have a family? I asked.  Three sons.  How old?  Eighteen, seventeen, and ten.  And your husband?  Does he work?
“I’m divorced!  For ten years.  I divorced him because he always drank too much.  Then he would beat us.  The boys and me.”
“That’s terrible.  Did you report him?”
“No.  The police don’t do anything, and anyway it would make things worse.  I just divorced him.”
“Does he support you and the kids?”
“No.  He’s with another woman now, with two kids.”
“His kids?”
“No, hers.  They live not far from me.  He beats her too.  He works only sometimes, for the fire department, and still gets drunk. Where does he get the money?  I am hungry and my kids are always hungry.”
“Do your kids see him?”
“No.  The older ones still remember what he did to them.  They don’t want to see him.  The young one was only three months when I divorced him.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“When the young one sees a fire engine, he points and says his father is on it.  He’s never spoken to his father.”
“We are always hungry.  And it is so expensive to have three boys at school.  And taxis are expensive.”
“Do you have a man in your life?”
“No.  There are no good men.  They all are lazy and drink and beat their women.  I gave up men for God.  He listens.  I know he will provide.”
“Do you have a full-time job?”
“No.  Two days only.”
I shook my head, knowing that likely meant a weekly income of less than $40 – to feed and clothe four people.  Plus school supplies, books, etc., etc.
How do they do it? I wondered, glancing at the immaculately dressed woman, strong and proud.
How do they do it, the poor of the Third World?
And my heart broke - so many people who suffer poverty with more grace than we the privileged can muster.  So many people for whom the future must look endlessly bleak.

And for those of us who care, making a difference appears a Sisyphean task.  We know where to begin, but where is the end?

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stray cat

We have not moved in yet. I feel as if I am going bananas, especially considering that although as of tomorrow we will have our house back, we must for the time being share it with tradesmen from varying professions. One mentioned to me that he was looking forward to coming to work on Friday morning and having bacon and eggs with us before starting his tiling of our bathroom. Little does he know about our early morning cooking – or enthusiasm to keep him from his work by catering to him.

Before we moved out there was a stray cat living in the neighborhood that we would feed, once in the morning before going to work, and once at some point in the evening. The cat was a bit scraggly, parts of his ears had been lost somewhere along the line, but despite this the animal had a lot of charm. I cannot put my finger on it exactly but it has something to do with the cat's independence. He had the best of both worlds in some respect – food aplenty from those who would prefer to domesticate him, without having to compromise his freedom one bit. This does not mean that his life was a dance on roses, the elements here are something to be reckoned with and not many places provide much of any shelter.

There have been snowstorms so bad that we believed the poor animal would die of exposure if it did not get in from the cold. As it is wild, it will not under normal circumstances come into our house, but during such times it has been willing to step into the entrance, if we leave the front door open and close the door separating this space from the rest of the house – and us. We have thus numerous times left our house wide open over winter nights in order for this little black cat to be able to curl up on a woolen blanket and get some shelter. The snow on the floor the morning after was a small price to pay for the warm feeling it gave us to know that the cat was safe and warm.

When I was in Santiago I was shocked at the number of stray dogs everywhere. According to my local source Harpa, these dogs are fed by city officials to prevent them becoming ferocious in the hunt for food. Although this made me feel a bit better I still felt sad when I saw these poor animals, most of which had at the beginning of their lives been beloved pets that were thrown out or got lost after the cute puppy stage was over – again according to Harpa, my local source of information.

During a break from one of the meetings I attended I went outdoors to smoke. A scraggly dog came and lay down in the shade from one of the flower pots decorating the office building’s grounds. I cursed myself for not having anything edible on me, but became a bit happier when I saw a coffee shop/restaurant in the adjacent building. I hurried over there and was handed a menu which was all in Spanish. Stressed that the dog would wander off I tried to explain to the waiter that I wanted to order meat - and no I did not want a table or any side dish. Just meat. He thought I was crazy for good reason and it did little to make me appear more sane when I told him I would rather have the meat raw than wait for any cooking to be conducted on it. The only thing that saved me from him calling the police was that his English was not all that good and for this he gave me the benefit of doubt.

I ended up with a lot of precooked bacon in a plastic box and to my great joy the dog was still there when I returned with it. He ate it happily and I felt good for what remained of the meeting. After that I always kept meat with me in my purse and managed to feed a few more dogs during my stay in Santiago. But I could not live there because of this. My heart would break at some point.

So how does this fit in with not opposing whaling or game hunting? I have often thought about it and come to the conclusion that I admire and respect life, not death. By this I mean that it is of more importance to me how an animal lives than how exactly it dies. For most animals death is but a fraction of life, and if I use myself to mirror what I want from my existence, it is to live free and happily - how exactly I die is not of much consequence to me. For this reason I do not like meat from commercial farms, where animals usually live a horrible existance although they may very well die painlessly.  Aside from the dog incident in Chile I have stopped buying pork because of the treatment of pigs here in Iceland after the banks took over the bankrupt pig farms. Opposed to pigs and chicken for example, whales and game at least have a life prior to their killing. This might seem odd but to me it makes perfect sense.

Our stray cat has sensed that we are coming back and tonight he was outside the house when we arrived after work to see what had been accomplished today. Like in Chile I had nothing edible on me, but a quick trip to my parent’s nearby house fixed that and canned tuna seemed to hit the spot when placed in the same place we used to put his food. Yet again that tattered, scruffy animal has managed to evoke within me great happiness and fulfillment.

Tile guy however will not be getting any bacon on Friday.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

a man walks into a room with a gun....

Raymond Chandler is quoted as saying whenever he ran out of ideas when writing he always fell back on having a man walk into a room with a gun.
Today we'd want to know the model and a plethora of other things about this gun. And of course nowadays really shooting one is almost mandatory if you're writing crime fiction.

I get a lot of questions about ‘flics’. That’s the term for police in Paris my French friends use. I use flic in my books and people always ask does that mean ‘cop’ and I say oui. Some Parisians still call police ‘poulet’ which means chicken. It’s not prejorative but stems from the ancient days when the Prefecture, the Paris central police building, was built over the old chicken market. Go figure but the name’s stuck over the centuries. “Gendarmes’ aren’t exactly police since 1) they’re under the Ministry of Defense kind of para-military 2) they only operate outside Paris

Paris has it’s own force so to speak and yet there are lots of divisions and bureaus and some fall under the Ministry of Interior and some under the Ministry of Defense. It gets ‘tres complique’ as they say and I’ve got the organizational charts and diagrams a Police commissioner gave me somewhere but hey…I’d rather tell you about a memorable occasion with the flics when I got to shoot a gun. Over the years researching in Paris for my books, I’ve met private detectives, flics, some ministry officials who greatly contribute to details and procedure in my work. They help me a lot and I’m eternally grateful.

But it happened by chance one day that I got to go a Paris Police firing range. Pure luck and incredible timing, as a lot of things do in Paris; the right time, the right person and my friend’s cousin. My friend, (name withheld to protect the undercover officer’s ID), is a Paris Police officer, she used to be a ‘flic’ and walk the street beat for ten years in the Bastille area. Now she’s in a mobile undercover squad and can’t tell me the name of it – secret – but at this time she walked the beat. We were having lunch in a Montmartre bistro and I was asking about her cases, her co-workers and somehow we got around to gun practice. I think I said, ‘so I guess you have to go outside of Paris to keep up your skills or something, right?’ I mean I couldn’t imagine a densely populated city like Paris with firing ranges. She blinked ‘Not at all, I practice not far from here. Matter of fact my cousin supervises the range.’ Needless to say, after I ordered her a special dessert she said ‘Like to see it? I’ll call and see if he’s there.’

It was a hot September day, I wore flipflops and light pants but that didn’t deter me.’I'd love to,” I said and thank God I had my camera. After several calls and arrangements, we hopped in (name withheld) car and ended up under railway lines in an old rail warehouse. Nothing official, no signs only a fence to cross. Not far from the the Gare du Nord but in Paris. (Name withheld) cousin seemed thrilled to see her and there was lots of cheek kissing with him and with all the ‘flics’ and CRS the riot squad guys there practicing. I think we kissed about six guys. Can you imagine doing that here? But in France that’s what you do, even if you don’t know each other. It’s like a handshake.

Inside it was pure warehouse with redpaper figure targets at one end, a tar-like stretch with white lines in between and just plop yourself where you like and start shooting at the end. I mean all the distance markers were in meters and I felt clueless. One flic smiled, pointed at the target ‘take it from here’ then he handed me a Manhurin hand gun.

(They now use Sig Sauers but in 2005 when I went to the range – and my hair was red then – the flics still used Manhurin.) Just like that. Weren’t you supposed to wear ear muffs and visors? I must have looked surprised because they all burst out laughing ‘Silleee amercaine’ then handed me ear muffs and a visor. I shot beebee guns when I was a kid, but only a real pistol once at a practice firing range in San Francisco. And that had been six years before. I smiled and said ‘(Name withheld) you go first.’

Well (Name withheld) did and hit the target’s face bullseye about ten times. Now my turn. Everyone was smiling and watching me, standing in a skirt and flipflops. The Manhurin was heavy and I kept closing my eyes every time I fired…a big no no. Total amateur me. The upshot being I at least hit the paper 7 out of 10 times. I don’t think those flics ever laughed that hard at the firing range before.

‘Don’t you want to bring your trophy home,’(Name withheld) asked. So we tramped over the tar-like stretch with spent bullet casings and got them. I picked up a few spent shells, put them in a Baggie so I’d have them to refer to when I got home. Outside the range they figured they’d have more fun and decided to handcuff me.

Flashing ahead…back home in San Francisco two weeks later, unpacking my suitcase. There’s the baggie with the shell casings…how in the heck did that go through security in my luggage? I’d forgotten about it. And then I put my flipflops on but they were scruntchy and hard. So I turned them over and found the flipflop soles studded with bullet casings. They must have melted in from tar-like surface. And these had gone thru security too…Make you wonder doesn’t it about TSA…
Nothing to do with this post but a photo from CrimeFest in Bristol with Peter, Emily and Stan after a whiff of Yrsaa's shark!

Cara - Tuesday
Book Launch next week

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rio - The Movie

Rio – The Movie

It’s been a long time since the city of Rio de Janeiro formed the backdrop for a major work of feature film animation.

The last time was when Walt Disney released The Three Caballeros, back in 1944.

That’s about to change.

Carlos Saldanha’s Rio will be debuting in April.

Saldanha is a Brazilian animation director, a native of Rio de Janeiro, who’s been working in the United States since 1991.

You might not know his name, but the odds are you’ve been exposed to his work.

Like the scrat.

The scrat is Saldanha’s saber-toothed squirrel from the Ice Age series.

The one that loves acorns even more than he does the scratte, his female counterpart.

Now, Saldanha is hoping that Blu will become equally well-known to the movie-going public.

Blu is nerdy “flight challenged” macaw who, as the film begins, is living happily in his cage in Minnesota.
Happily, except for one thing: he believes he’s the last of his kind.
But then it’s discovered that there is another surviving bird of the same species.
She’s a female, and she lives in Rio de Janeiro.
Where he goes to find love.

To get the visuals right, Saldana brought a gang of animators, writers and artists to Brazil.

Where he put them through an intensive course of study in one of the most photogenic and three-dimensional cities in the world.

They flew over the city by helicopter.

They participated in a rehearsal of a samba school.

They went up to Pedra Bonita and risked flights on the hang gliders. (This is work?)

 You can’t tell a story about Rio without music, so there’s a lot of that, too.  And, to execute it, Saldanha was able to count upon the collaboration of one of Brazil’s musical greats, Sergio Mendes.

The movie looks like it’s going to be great fun, but under it all is a serious message, one with which I’ll be dealing in my December release, A Vine in the Blood.

It’s the trafficking of exotic animals.
And by the time I launch the book, no one will ever believe I wasn’t inspired by the movie.

The world premiere of the movie will be in Rio de Janeiro on March 22nd with the full cast. Here's one of the trailers:

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, February 20, 2011


This is that most awkward of times, both the "best of" and the "worst of."

I'm between books.

For the past 10-12 weeks, I've been towed through my days by the ending sequences of PULPED, the book I finished last Tuesday. The closer I get to the end of a book, the more completely it dominates my consciousness.  If someone had thrown pop quizzes at me in the last month or so to see whether I knew what day of the week it was, I would have failed every time.

And then, at the very end, a sort of panic set in: This is going to be over soon.  I'm going to have to leave this story.  I managed to prolong the actual conclusion of the writing process by going back and papering over some of the scabbiest patches, but now even that's done.

I've even read it to my wife, and today was devoted to making the changes that emerged from that reading -- shortening the passages where I found myself speeding up, enlivening the pages that were met with snores.  Sharpening the sequences that had her sitting up and staring at me as I read.  Doing a little structural carpentry.  All that's finished.  The book has been sent to its beta readers.

Am I the only one here who goes through something like Kubler-Ross's (now largely discredited) stages of grief when a book is finished?  All the characters I've come to love and hate with such intensity over the past six months -- gone.  The landscape I've described in such detail (I could diagram the placement of every rock structure in the part of the Joshua Tree Monument where the first big action scene takes place) -- gone.  The ideas and concepts I've been twisting around like pipe-cleaner animals -- gone.

So what do I do now?

I know what I should do: I should go straight to work on the fifth Poke Rafferty book, now that it appears we have a publisher.  But I'm not Anthony Trollope.  Trollope worked five hours a day, no excuses, no matter where he was or what he was doing.  He wrote in stagecoaches, on sailing ships in the middle of the stormy Atlantic, on buckboards traveling the raw new roads of America.  If he finished a novel when he had four minutes remaining in his five-hour session, he put it aside, reached for a new piece of paper, dipped his pen, and started a new one.

Well, the hell with him.

I could celebrate the fact that I have my life back.  When I started PULPED, when I was pushing it uphill, trying to get the flywheel (as Haruki Murakami calls it) cranking, when I felt like every word weighed five pounds, my life was infinitely interesting, ripe and rich in unexplored territory.  It dispatched sirens on a regular basis to call to me.  Then the book enveloped me and surrounded me and began to turn itself inside out, the way a starfish turns itself inside out to ingest its prey, and my life no longer interested me.  What interested me was what was happening to Simeon and Madison, what was happening in Joshua Tree and in the Limbo that pulp-fiction series characters inhabit when their last book goes out of print and is pulped for newsprint.  And how the twain would meet, and what would happen when they did.

What interested me was my book.  My life, right now, feels like black-and-white, and not very well shot, either.

I know, I know.  This too shall pass.  I love my wife and I love my life and . . . and there's this new book waiting for me.  I'm not there yet, but I can catch glimpses of it, sort of glimmering at me.

So -- what do you guys (in a non-gender-specific sense) do to recover from the ending of a book?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Tales of the Piano Bar, Part 2

By popular demand, here is another cabaret story (and cocktail) from Mykonos’ Montparnasse Piano Bar, the Greek Aegean’s own La Cage au Folles, sans dancers.  This is where the ages, races, genders, ethnicities, national origins, and sexual preferences that make up Mykonos’ legendary 24/7 in season lifestyle gather amid other tourists, locals, yachters, Broadway and West End performers, for one hell of a good time—as they have for thirty years.
Ancient archival photograph

The Piano Bar is the creation of Nikos Hristodulakis and Jody Duncan, and they’re behind the bar every night, amassing more stories than O’Henry.  They shared one with us here about a month ago and, as death threats stayed to a minimum, they’re daring to venture out with a second accompanied, of course, by another of their dynamite cocktail recipes.

One word—so to speak—of caution.  There is a punch line word to this story that I never use in my writing.  Not because I dislike it by any means, but because to some its use is offensive and I respect that.  Still, this is not my story and its use is seminal to another’s tale, therefore I cannot bring myself to serve as censor.  However, in fairness to the sensitivity of others, I feel compelled to alert those who may not chose to go further, WARNING “FELINE” AHEAD. 

Montparnasse Piano Bar Tale #2:  “The Sneaky Snake,” as told by a blond Jody leaning over the bar and ignoring the dark-haired Niko (still) making faces behind him.

Mykonos' Little Venice
Each season very talented, some might say offbeat, entertainers stop by the Piano Bar for a surprise guest appearance or two.  And we love it when they do, especially Niko.  It makes him feel normal.  A few years back, we decided to book a duo of “unique” professional entertainers as headliners for a September gig.  George Sanders, the vocalist of the duo, specializes in comedy and most of his songs revolve around characters he created and intricate costumes to match.  His partner, Shawn Curran, can best be described as George’s “accompanist,” but theirs is not a children’s party act and Shawn is not the traditional sort of accompanist.

Their most famous routine, Sneaky Snake, involves a costume capable of concealing Shawn beneath and behind George, for in the midst of George’s delightful vocal performance, Sneaky Snake makes his unexpected appearance through George's until then decidedly open but unnoticed fly—manipulated by none other than Shawn the skillful.  Need I say more?  Of course I must.  Shawn’s Sneaky Snake puppetry involves certain creative hand manipulations in George’s nether regions that still have me laughing every time I think of them.
George, Shawn, and Sneaky

George and Shawn quickly became an established hit on Mykonos.  One night they arrived about an hour before scheduled to go on.  Shawn went to spend the time sitting outside, while George sat at the bar exchanging stories with Niko.  Unbeknownst to any of us, in that brief interlude away from George Shawn found true love, in the angelic form of a three-month old cuddle-bunny of a neighborhood kitten (if you can say that for a kitten).  It was a mutual love affair; so much so that by the time for Shawn to prepare George to go on, kitty was draped across his shoulder sound asleep.
Scene of the assignation

Not wanting to disturb his new amore, sleepy-on-the-shoulder stayed on Shawn as he went inside and set up George in his Sneaky Snake costume.  Now it was time for the act to begin but still kitty snoozed.  Shawn did the only thing he could, he went on with the show, carefully keeping kitty hidden from the audience behind George’s backside.  Once again they brought down the house. 
A star is born

At the conclusion of their act, George and Shawn dismantle their costume in front of the audience to reveal the “secret” of Sneaky Snake’s masterful manipulations.  This time Shawn's shoulder unexpectedly fell under a spotlight, catching an irresistible, golden kitten draped across it.  At that precise moment kitty chose to rouse, yawn, stretch, and return to her place on Shawn’s shoulder.

The applause and cheers for George and Shawn quickly turned to love-smitten awwwwwws for the newest member of their troupe. 

Timing being one of George’s strong suits, he waited until miss kitty and the crowd had reached a state of shared karmic bliss before quipping, “First time I've ever been upstaged by a pussy! And, my God, I actually enjoyed it!”

That’s all folks, but for those still reading, here’s the Sneaky Snake’s favorite Montparnasse Piano Bar cocktail, The Hypnotic Martini:  Mix 1 ½  ounces vodka, 1 ounce Hpnotiq liqueur, and 1 ounce lemon sour mix or sweetened lemon juice together in an ice filled cocktail shaker.   Shake well and strain into a chilled martini glass.  Garnish with a twist of lemon. 

And by the way, here’s the link to George’s and Shawn’s Sneaky Snake Films website…if you dare…


Thanks, guys—and I’ll forward the emails to you. 

Jeff — Saturday