Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Category: Books Page 1 of 25

Clearing the mind in these troubled times

Run! It’s Guilala!

Sure, I’m watching. The Trump presidency looks like one of those time-lapse videos of a dead pig, where you see it being consumed by decay and maggots. Fascinating and terrifying as it is, I sometimes have to walk away for my own peace of mind. I seek normalcy through culture.

Music. I often have Pink Floyd on the stereo when I’m writing, which is happening right now. But a few minutes before this typing started, I was listening to a new piece of vinyl I picked up today at Record Archive. “John Cage presents Variations IV” sounds like a man trying to find a station on a dashboard radio while driving the car with the windows down, adding ambient sounds from the street to the mix. This is Cage trying to shake us of the notion of what composition is generally understood to be. The liner notes on the back of the album suggest this is a “music-as-experience” experiment. The sounds supplied are of each musicians’ choosing; a chart prepared by Cage creates random opportunities for sound to be applied.

It is not conducive to writing.

Books. Which one I’m reading sorta depends on what room of the house I’m in. Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is in the living room, where I can usually find a block of an hour or two to focus on this amazing story. It’s going to take me a few more months to get through those 1,000 pages. Because upstairs, on the nightstand, waiting, are the final few pages of George Saunders’ experimental novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It gets a little easier once you understand that most of the main characters are dead.

Oops, sorry, I’m a little late on this spoiler alert…

And then there’s the book My Friend Michele gave me, Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees.” That’s the one I read on the bus on my way to work. Or when I’m taking a lunch break. And when I’m on the bus on my way home from work. It’s the kind of book you can pick it up, set it down, and pick it up the next day and you’re right back in the redwoods. I am learning so much. Like, what happens to the human body when it falls 50 feet out of a tree (a lot happens, none of it good.) And redwoods are the largest living organisms on the planet, unless you count the mostly underground fungal mass, three square miles big, in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon. And some biologists prefer to see that fungus as many individual mushrooms.

That kind of stuff is what biologists talk about at cocktail parties.

Cuisine? I will not eat anything until I have confirmed that it is dead.

But this self-inflating narrative that builds my case for Renaissance Man completely falls apart when the discussion moves to film. Because, I really like bad movies.

Oh, not just any bad movie. You couldn’t get me to sit through one of those Hallmark Channel things if you propped my eyelids open like Malcolm McDowell being drugged with illness-inducing drugs and forced to watch violent films in “A Clockwork Orange.” No, I want 1950s movies where the careless spread of radiation from nuclear bomb tests creates gargantuan insects. I want slow-moving actors in lizard costumes crushing Japanese cities.

Like “The X From Outer Space,” from 1967. I watched it last week. That one has it all. A team of scientists on an expedition to Mars encounters a flying saucer, which attacks it by spraying it with spores. The Earth scientists gather one of the spores and take it inside their ship, which offers the familiar, non-science special effects: Flames erupting from the rear of the spacecraft, with fumes curling up lazily, like a cigarette sitting in an ash tray. When the spacecraft returns to Earth, the tiny spore soon grows into an armor-plated chicken with glowing red eyes, 200 feet tall, weighing 15,000 tons. Not again! Poor Tokyo! Excellent use of model tanks and aircraft. Lots of tense dialogue, delivered with gritted teeth and easy-to-read subtitles. Men who dress like generals point at a huge wall map, tracking the creature’s movements with a red cut-out of the monster that they happened to have in a drawer somewhere, perhaps from when the last monster flattened Tokyo. They’ve even named it, Guilala. It moves on from Tokyo, kicking over things – what the hell’s wrong with these creatures? Now it’s up to the same team of astronauts and scientists who carelessly brought this thing to Earth to stop it. Which they do, with jet fighters – at least the ones Guilala doesn’t swat out of the sky – dousing it with something called “Guilalanium.” Which shows you how ahead of its time “The From Outer Space” is, as we haven’t even invented the stuff yet. All with a superbly out-of-place jazz soundtrack, and one of the female love interests wrapping up the film with an inexplicable comment about Guilala teaching her about love.

One year later, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released. The technological gulf between the special effects of these two films is immense.

But I don’t clear my mind with 90 minutes of lousy science fiction because I’m interested in learning something new about space travel. Or to discover how easy it is for a 15,000-ton creature to sustain itself by feeding on nuclear fuel, which is plentiful and poorly stored throughout the Japanese countryside. No, I’m here for the stuff that you never see in movies that take themselves too seriously. I’m here to watch astronauts slamming down a few cocktails and dancing on the moon.

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Show some respect, trees died for this

Free words, at the door of The Little Theatre.

The internet is of limited authenticity. Anyone with access to a computer can type a manifesto, oblivious to spelling, grammar and logic, and launch it into the clouds.

Printed books are so much more superior. The book has been passed from the writer to editors, to designers who select type faces and the weight of paper and a photo for the cover, to marketers who decide the best way to present the finished product to the public.

Book are the gems of our culture, treasures. We give them as gifts. We quote from them. We recommend books to friends, what we’re reading is always a subject of conversation.

So when we walked out of The Little Theatre on Sunday night, after watching the excellent documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” I took a moment to peer into the free library box at the front door. One of those sprightly painted cabinets where people can drop off books they no longer want or need, and someone else stops by, browses for a moment and maybe walks off with a book on trimming shrubs. Useful stuff. Or a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s hallucinogenic, anti-Soviet novel, “The Master and Margarita.” Heady stuff. Free books, a person-to-person transaction of advice or literature. Just as I always look at a book store’s display of picks by its employees, I’m curious as to what readers have taken the time to pass on to a stranger.

And there, in The Little’s free library box… was my book, “22 Minutes.” The story of my friend, Ernie Coleman, the legendary Lake Ontario sailor, carpenter, dancer, survivor of the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy, the Battle of Savo Island.

What did this mean, stumbling across something I’d written, on a Sunday night, right next to a James Patterson novel, and a Ralph Compton western, “Ride the Hard Trail,” free for the taking? Perhaps someone bought it, started reading and then decided, “Nah, it’s not for me.”

Was it one of the copies I’d autographed? I pulled it from the shelf and opened the book. Yes, someone had written something on the blank first page. But it wasn’t my autograph.

A great read by local author Jeff Spevak about a Rochesterian of note! Also follow Jeff on Facebook and at jeffspevak.com for regular thoughtful blog posts! Enjoy!

Perhaps the words of a friend, I don’t know. The second sentence reads like a commercial. The best review I could have ever asked for. And then, a second comment, in printing that looks like it might have come from a different hand:

Remember: Trees died for this!

Was this a criticism of the book, as a waste of paper? Or the wail of a millennial coming to the defense of eBooks? Read into it what you want. I prefer to think those words were the work of a conscientious human, a defender of the environment, offering yet another reason to pass on a book to the next reader.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Thinking of kind of a dystopian thing

More than 100 aspiring authors gathered at Rochester Riverside Hotel a week ago. All had signed on for Writers & Books’ The Ladder Literary Conference. Aspiring authors, all levels of wordsmiths, both fiction and non-fiction, sizing up each other, evaluating the odds that their brilliance might be recognized by one of the literary agents on the panels. Panels such as “Crafting Character” or “How Not to Be an Amateur Poet.” Perhaps these aspiring authors would pick up a brilliant morsel of advice that opens the seemingly airtight door between them and literary acclaim.

We were quietly asking each other: “Sooooo, what’re you working on?”

“I’m thinking of kind of a dystopian thing…,” My Friend Patrick said.

Dystopian. I heard that word quite a few times over the course of the day-long conference. Not exactly a word that comes up in everyday conversation. Let’s look it up.

Dystopian (adjective). Relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

Here are some well-known examples. The titan of dystopia, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the temperature at which books burn. H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” imaging a world in which Japan and Germany win World War II. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” for our conservative friends. Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange.” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a world in which women are reduced to breeding machines. And most recently, Omar El Akkad’s “American War,” published in 2017, a story of civil war fought over climate change.

That’s just a sampler. I’ve read most of them. Tragedies for any taste. I guess I like bad news.

That was the vibe I was picking up on, from these writers at The Ladder. Writers, they’re the barometers of bad times.

And what storm is it that now drives these thoughts, sending them flitting across our laptop screens like pages from a newspaper blown down a deserted street? Donald Trump, of course. Dystopian Donald. The new inspiration for today’s fiction writers.

And, the man who destroyed my dystopian novel.

I wrote it a few years ago, after My Friends Paul and Liz allowed me to paw through a handful of first drafts left behind by Liz’s father, who had died a few years earlier. Leslie Waller wrote best sellers such as “Dog Day Afternoon.” He even ghost-wrote the book accompanying Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The challenge: update for the contemporary reader one of Waller’s in-utero manuscripts, pounded out on his typewriter. I selected from the pile a thriller about eco-terrorists kidnapping a Nixon-like president. Working feverishly at the crack of dawn virtually every morning, I updated that character as a president who now sounded suspiciously like George W. Bush.

In “The President’s Confession,” I used Bush’s actual words to create a portrait of a corrupt, morally-challenged former president who lies the nation into folly and is now being tortured into confessing the sins of his administration. Lies that are broadcast to the rest of the world.

I even worked on this thing for months with a veteran agent, before she seemed to lose interest. I’ve had a few experiences like that on other manuscripts; agents who are like kittens playing with a ball of yarn, until someone tosses a new ball of yarn onto the floor, and they start playing with that one.

Either the idea of an American president as the center of an international thriller is brilliant, or it’s too obvious. Because last year former President Bill Clinton teamed up with mega-typist James Patterson and beat me to the publishers with “The President is Missing,” a best seller – I hear it’s also going to be a Showtime mini-series – featuring a president who slips away from the Secret Service so he can do his work unencumbered by watchdogs.

My president, Frederick W. Field, does the same thing.

So, partially because of the new literary team of Clinton and Patterson, I guess “The President’s Confession” is dead. But mostly, it’s dead because my fiction can’t top the reality of today’s White House. The women paid hush money to keep silent about affairs, the threat of war used as political theater, obstructing justice by firing the people investigating him, creating distractions such as a disease-bearing caravan of immigrants bearing down on our southern border, caging children, deregulating environmental controls, disputing science, mining the presidency for personal profit, golfing on taxpayer money, colluding with Russians, saying he’d welcome dirt offered by foreign governments offered on his political opponents, ignoring the murder of a journalist ordered by the Saudi Arabia and selling them fighter jets, ignoring Russia’s cyber attacks on our political system, calling neo-Nazis “good people,” encouraging violence against Muslims and journalists, stripping women of the right to control their bodies, mocking fellow citizens, criticizing the work of American intelligence agencies and the FBI in favor of what Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il tell him, and the lies, lies, lies, a Niagara of lies. And more. Amazingly, there is much more.

“The President’s Confession” simply can’t compete with all that. For a writer, it’s implausible to create a character who is that corrupt.

But I did nail one detail. An excerpt, from Chapter Sixty-Five, the scene is an outdoor concert celebrating the creation of a political party ostensibly driven by concern for the planet, but with darker intentions:

One by one, Urs the Father spits and roasts the chemical companies, the politicians, the arms manufacturers, the corrupt enforcement agencies, the killers of wildlife, the destroyers of forests and the nuclear industries. Fearless in a nation of banking, he includes the banks that finance all of this.

“Who is to be held accountable?” he bellows. “There! There is the Specter of Greed and Death itself!” He turns and points over his shoulder, beyond the stage. “There!” he shrieks. Thousands look skyward as artificial smoke billows from behind the vast video screen, with yellow and red lights flickering deep within it, as though a tunnel into hell has opened. Something is moving in the darkness, something huge, obscuring the night-sky stars. An unwieldy bulk, growing larger, looming over the stage like a zeppelin. A head, then two outstretched arms, then a torso. “There!” Urs the Father shrieks. “There!”      

“It’s him!” Zimmerman screams to Jane over the exploding roar of the crowd, also recognizing the image depicted by the giant balloon. Indeed, the boogeyman chosen by Free Your Mind to be the face of evil is the former American president, Frederick W. Field.

That’s right. “The President’s Confession” foresaw The Trump Baby.

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