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Cut To Wagstaff Gets Thumbs Up From Kirkus Reviews! July 30, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Writing.
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Ah, critical approval! We all want the professional critics to love us (Well, except for all those times Pauline Kael rang my phone at 3AM expecting booty call. I tried to tell her… “I WORK for a living, baby! I gotta get up in the morning!” But she just didn’t listen…)

Noted book review outfit Kirkus Reviews gave my novel a pretty positive write up – you can read it all here.

It’ll be interesting to see what this is actually worth once it hits my Amazon page in a few days.

I thought the last couple of lines from the review were good enough to put on my back cover:

Berkin pulls out all the stops; no big screen moment is lost in this tale. A quirky conglomeration of popular culture that’s worth the price of admission.

I can live with that. I also like when they refer to the main character as “possibly insane” since I based him on me.  At least they “got it.” The big fear of any comedian is that the jokes simply fly over the heads of the audience. That might be fun when I’m insulting someone in real life (especially if they’re bigger than me) but when my aim is to entertain and keep people turnin’ those pages, those jokes better be burning solid fuel.

So what are you still doing here? Go buy the book!

If You’re Here, Please Go Like Me On Facebook July 27, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Writing.
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I started a Facebook page for my writing & books. Most of my blog posts here will be publicized on it, so if you’re on Facebook & you like the page, you’ll get updates in your good ol’ newsfeed whenever I add something here.

Click here to go to my Facebook author page

I’ll be putting other stuff on the Facebook page as well, and getting more likes provides me with the illusion of no longer being a leper. So help out! You’ll be glad you did. Thanky!

Check Me Out On Goodreads.com & Read My Boatload Of Book Reviews There! July 24, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Writing.
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Now that I’m out flogging my novel Cut To Wagstaff (I’m kinky that way), I’ve set up an author’s page on Goodreads which you can link to here:


If you’re not already a member of Goodreads, sign up! It’s sort of a Facebook for books where you can read reviews & get recommendations based on the books you’ve rated. I added a ton of reviews of a bunch of books and tested the recommendations algorithm, and it gave me some nice results.

And think of all the work I’m saving the boys in the black helicopters who are building that dossier on me – now they know all the books I’ve read! I love being helpful.

Also, once you’re on Goodreads, add a review of Cut To Wagstaff! Eventually I’ll set up some Q&A forums and other stuff on there… I’m still learning its potential. I keep looking for “World Domination” in the menus but can’t find it. I’ll check the FAQ.

Rififi (1954) & A List Of Heist Movies July 18, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Movies.
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A good heist movie is a wonderful subgenre of crime or gangster film, especially for those of us who love to see the intricate steps of some complicated supertheft come together. After all, one of the big appeals of the crime/mystery genre in general is to watch seemingly disconnected plot threads weave together into something that makes perfect sense, especially if we didn’t see it coming. I certainly tried to put this sort of set-up together for my novel Cut To Wagstaff since I’d like to think I can play ball in the same league as the movies I’m about to go into.

The other night I watched Rififi, a great ’50s French heist film that reminded me of a lot of other films that came later & one that came before. It follows the basic formula of these things – some experienced criminal puts together a team of experts to pull off the big burglary score – and inevitably the personality conflicts of the team involved or unlucky twists of fate undo the carefully laid plans.  What makes Rififi so nice is how the mechanics of the theft become the centerpiece of the film. The entire crime, step by step, comes off with nearly no dialogue at all, as the men break through a floor into the jewelry store and crack the safe.  In the first part of the film, we mostly get character development of all the burglars as well as their criminal rivals, information that will become important to the way the plot unfolds later – and this particular exposition leads to a wonderful payoff when the 4 men look at the millions in jewels they’ve lifted and discuss what they’ll do with their share – all their answers deeply reflect who they are.  Director Jules Dassin (who also plays the Italian safecracker under a pseudonym) would also make another great heist film, Topkapi, later in his career.

Dassin had been blacklisted in Hollywood after being named as a Commie by Hollywood 10 member Edward Dmytryk (a good director as well, alas) and worked in Europe in the 1950s as a result. Even after the Blacklist era, Dassin had pretty much relocated to Greece with his new wife Melina Mercouri (star of Topkapi). I guess the overall “criminal on the run” feel was something he understood well.

Rififi owes a lot to an earlier heist film with a similar set up – John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle sort of invents the genre – the team of specialists brought together to pull off the perfect jewel heist – and also sets the stage for the various ways in which the formula’s denouments will vary in later films. Will they make one fatal mistake and get caught? Will they turn on each other? Will some random twist of fate ruin all the carefully made plans? Will they get away with it? All of these variations would turn up in subsequent films.

So here are a bunch of others worth seeing:

The Killing – Kubrick’s take on the genre, with Sterling Hayden as the leader of a group out to rob a racetrack. One of Kubrick’s best, IMO, with the tell-tale Kubrick formula of the mechanical system overwhelming individual humanity (as well as tracking shots up the wazoo).

The Dirty Dozen – this one combines the heist formula with the WW2 film, expanding the team and the specialists.  And this time we get killing lots of Nazis besides the operation for entertainment value, as well as Lee Marvin beating the crap out of people. Another combo along the same genre lines would be Kelly’s Heroes, where Clint Eastwood leads an effort to rob a German bank in the middle of the war, although that one is more uneven and Donald Sutherland’s 1940s hippie schtick gets old real fast.

The Great Train Robbery (1979)- Sean Connery scheming to steal a ton of money in Victorian England has some awfully dated dialogue, but Michael Crichton’s mechanics here are great fun.

Lock, Stock & 2 Smoking Barrels – Guy Ritchie’s cinematic tricks abound, but this time they serve the story and atmosphere. Fast paced, funny & clever.

Quick Change – Bill Murray leads a group of bank robbers in this extremely dry and often hilarious comedy, mostly about how horrible 1990s NYC is. This is one of Murray’s best movies, and it always amazes me that so many people have never seen it.

A Fish Called Wanda – while I’m thinking of heist comedies, you gotta include this one. John Cleese, Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis & Kevin Kline are all wonderful in it.

Sexy Beast – Ben Kingsley is especially great here in a tale of criminals dragged out of retirement.

And then there are films that vary the formula – there’s the failed robbery in Dog Day Afternoon, or the entire robbery being a team-of-specialists con job in The Sting, or the focus away from the actual crime and on the characters themselves that we find in Reservoir Dogs or The Usual Suspects.

Odd Man Out from Carol Reed in 1947 is more about loyalty & guilt, with James Mason’s IRA robbery going wrong and leaving him wounded and lost. This one reminded me a lot more of John Ford’s excellent The Informer more than a heist film, but I’ll list it here anyway since it’s worth seeing.

Near misses? Well,  recently there was Inception, which followed the formula but focused on stealing people’s ideas via scifi dreamjacking. While I liked a lot of it, my problem was how literal the dreams were presented. I think David Lynch, in material like Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive, handles the role switching and odd symbolism of actual dream psychology much better, and I think that approach to dreams would have made Inception far better than it was.

The Day They Robbed The Bank of England has its moments and a young Peter O’Toole, but reaches an anticlimax.

Ah well… my brain is well beyond fried after pounding out that list.

But if you’re interested in the reality behind the carefully planned burglary, or in the ways in which the police investigate the aftermath, I can recommend a couple of books, respectively – Confessions of A Master Jewel Thief by Bill Mason and The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick. Both are fascinating reads.

Celebrity Dreams July 8, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Books, General, Movies, Television, Writing.
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I remember my dreams, most of them anyway.

I dream in color, often have dreams set in the identical parallel setting which I can only describe as an amalgamation of the Providence/New England area and Los Angeles, although from what I can tell, the layout and freeway route system seem to be identical from dream to dream (!).

In my dreams, the actions of the dream world around me are separate from the stream of thoughts running through my mind in reaction to it, just like in waking life.

And then, every so often, I have dreams featuring various celebrities.

Sometimes they turn up for obvious reasons – I’d just watched a movie with them, or read about them, or some such tidbit of conscious processing during the day that churned into dream material that night. Other times, I’m not sure where the hell it comes from. Shellfish seems to have a psychoactive effect on me sometimes, but not all the time.  Taking Zantac for my stomach certainly increased my dreaming intensity, often producing lucid dreams I could direct for a while before waking up. My doc at the time looked it up in the Merck manual and, yes, around 5% of the test subjects reported the same thing.

I could have told him my brain is directly connected to my stomach.

Here’s  a typical example from the other night, after some grilled salmon: I was in a second-season episode of “The Monkees” – and how did I know it was second season? Well, even in my dream when the end credits played showing the boy’s heads, the theme song was “For Pete’s Sake” and not the first season “Theme From The Monkees.”

Yep… even in my dreams, I’m a trivia geek.

Anyway, in the episode, I was pretending to be a gangster along withe the boys, and we all wore matching black pinstripe suits for the part. The episode ended and the credits played on a wall of the set, and I wandered off the set backstage. As I wandered down the hallway, I saw Jill St. John wearing some sort of bright red showgirl outfit, and then I got to an area of another set’s backstage area.

At a small round table the size of a lunch table sat Sean Connery in his underwear, reading from a script and rehearsing with some anonymous actress (I can’t remember what she looked like, and I did not identify her in the dream).

So, I say to Sean: “Look at us. You ought to be wearing this suit, and I ought to be dressed like you.”

Sean to me: “Eeh. That suit doesn’t really mean anything.”

Me to Sean: “Really? I think I look really good in it. You’re jaded ’cause you wear stuff like this all the time.”

Sean to me: “Maybe. But what I really want is to play more sensitive guy type comic roles, you know, the kind they always give Alan Alda.”

Me to Sean: “I can’t see you like that. No one would ever believe you’d cry over a dead chicken on a bus.”

He went back to his script, and I woke up. And I thought… I’m right. No one would ever believe Sean Connery would cry over a dead chicken on a bus like Alan Alda.

I’m guessing the “Monkees” bit resulted from a recent screening of Head, which I hadn’t seen in a while & would highly recommend. It’s a mobius strip of silliness, some good Monkees tunes including a great live performance of Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” (yup, it’s really them playing) that proves they were a decent garage band when they wanted to be. It’s also one of the earliest examples of the “New Hollywood” – a film designed to appeal to the youth market with the likes of Bob Rafelson & Jack Nicholson behind it, as well as, IMHO, the only stream-of-consciousness ’60s drug era movie that actually works.

Oh – and it’s also largely a backstage deconstruction of the band – hence, my backstage experience in the dream, I’d guess.

I keep a record of the more entertaining or silly celebrity dreams I have, writing them down as immediate to the experience as I can since the memories of those dreams tends to fade with time. I mined a lot of that material for the Wagstaff Novel since the interpretation of the dreams could figure well into an offbeat comic mystery story, and I think it worked out well for the plot.

I’d recommend keeping a dream journal of sorts for any writer or artist. After all, if you have a creative mind, it ought to really get creative when your unconscious runs free, shouldn’t it?

It certainly beats the dreams I have where I’m working – dreams so detailed that after dreaming of teaching some film class & leading a discussion on something, I wake up and get depressed that I have to do the exact same thing over again and then realize, once again, that I can literally do my job in my sleep.

Tonight, it’s spaghetti with Italian sausage & I’ll finish off that bottle of Sangiovese… I’ve got a few movies in the DVR… what dreams may come? I guess I’ll find out before my cat jumps on me repeatedly @5:30am to get fed.

I’ve Been Marked Down June 30, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Writing.
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That was fast – I mean, geez… the book has only been up on Amazon now for only 2 weeks, been selling okay, and they marked me down a few bucks?

According to the powers-that-be, Amazon does this for whatever reasons they want, whenever they want. I have no friggin’ clue as to why this would happen now, as opposed to, oh, several months from now. Somehow my sales rate must have set off some preset algorithm in the Amazon pricing structure.

They said it wouldn’t affect my royalties, however, so HUZZAH!

On the other hand, it makes me feel a tad cheap without feeling sexy to go with it. And now I have nightmarish images of myself sitting next to The Starland Vocal Band 8-tracks in the $1.98 bargain bin.

Don’t forget to order your copy of Cut To Wagstaff here! Thanks!

My Novel Is Up On Amazon – Go Buy It Now! June 15, 2012

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Here it is, everyone… my comic noir mystery novel, with a main character who might seem familiar.

Here’s the description from Amazon:

“Professor Wagstaff ” – who combines James Bond & Sherlock Holmes with Groucho Marx – is the code name of a freelance intelligence agent. He’s an expert on far too many things – and an all around wisecracking nudnik. Wagstaff deciphers clues only he can see as true Jungian synchronicities. After matching them up to the endless storehouse of narratives in his overloaded brain… songs, movies, television, art…. Wagstaff follows those narratives wherever they may lead. Does it work? Does it actually solve crimes and uncover hidden international conspiracies? How could it not? Follow along with Wagstaff – he’ll be your irreverent guide to his mind and adventures. When one of his colleagues goes missing, Wagstaff follows a trail of not-so-coincidental coincidences that lead to stolen diamonds, missing lady scientists, accidents that look more like murders and a secret plot to take over the minds of everyone on Earth! After all, what else could possibly be concluded from Wagsaff’s mental mishmash of The Third Man, Diamonds Are Forever and Rigoletto? Well, there’s also a billionaire hot dog magnate who may or may not be behind it all, dreams featuring celebrities foretelling the future and random baseball trivia to round out Wagstaff’s peculiar way of seeing reality. And why does Wagstaff’s ex-girlfriend keep turning up wherever the clues lead? Surely that must be only a coincidence, since Groucho always needs a Margaret Dumont to play off of … or is she in on the plot? After all, if Wagstaff really believes in Jungian synchronicity, it means there are no such things as coincidences…

Check it out! You can read the first chapter & most of the second on the kindle preview too. Buy some & help FEED MY KITTY, never mind her vet bills. Oy.

Order in in paperback from Amazon – click here

Order It On Kindle from Amazon – click here

Coming Very Soon…. The First Wagstaff Novel! May 26, 2012

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That’s right, folks – my correction proof is on its way to Casa De Wagstaff for my last examination before mission control gets the all-systems-go alert and the book becomes available.

Most likely ETA for this will be mid-June 2012.

And you wondered where I’d been during all that time of extra-light blogging… well, BESIDES drinking & gambling & cat petting, I’d been composing the first in what I hope to be a series of comic mystery thrillers.  If you’ve liked following the blog & the weird connections I make, you’ll love the book.

Once my book is in distribution, I’ll add a section to this site providing info & links, as well as room for other books. I also have an older children’s adventure novel that I should have available after a quick edit & polish, and then my task is to write the Second Wagstaff novel, which I’ve already plotted out pretty thoroughly, thank you very much.

So be on the lookout, and enjoy the miscellany & cat comics in the meantime!

Thrift Store Reads June 11, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Cooking, Food, Movies.
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coyote1On a recent safari to some local thrift stores in search of a getting-harder-to-find VHS storage cabinet of some kind, I came across a couple of books worth having, that is, if you happen to be me.

Even if you’re not me (and I assume you’re not, unless you’re Parallel Universe Wagstaff™, complete with beard and evil personality, or then again, perhaps just a beard because you’re a Rabbi), you’d probably enjoy What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert Wolke, a nice & highly readable tour of kitchen science a la Alton Brown, complete with some simple recipes but mostly heavy on the chemical behavior of food and the physical behavior of cooking and cooking equipment. Understanding the science of what’s going on as recipes come together (and to paraphrase Hannibal Smith, I love it when a good recipe comes together) remains invaluable to any good cook, especially whenever you feel like a little improvisation. After all, what WILL happen if you decide to switch a few ingredients around?

Ever substitute cod liver oil for confectioner’s sugar? The results will surprise you.

Or perhaps they won’t. They’ll certainly make you regular, however.

The other book I found was a companion to Donald Spoto’s The Art Of Alfred Hitchcock, something I’d come across some time back – this time I found Donald Spoto’s other book on Hitchcock, the biography – The Dark Side Of Genius. I’ve only browsed through the bio so far, and while it seems to accentuate the negative, I liked Spoto’s book on the films themselves, so I’m looking forward to the same level of analysis even if it takes on a tad too much psychobabble to explain Hitchcock’s motivations and so forth.

I tend to like entertainment bios that go in that direction – it’s why I liked Ed Sikov’s book on Peter Sellers or Mark Lewisohn’s book on Benny Hill – 2 guys who always made me laugh but were somewhat damaged individuals in their private lives (though Sellers clearly wins the heartless bastard sweepstakes whereas Hill was merely a workaholic loner), so despite some of the negative reviews on Amazon, I’m guessing the Spoto book will be a winner.

Oh – and I found a very nice little mini-bookcase for five bucks that holds my excess VHS very nicely! Room rearranged & HDTV in place – on with the sports & old movies!

Achiote Chicken Tacos With A Chipotle-Orange Mayonnaise January 19, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Cooking, Food.
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achiotepasteI concocted this one by bastardizing a fish taco recipe from one of my Diana Kennedy books on Mexican cooking, and the results were pretty good, certainly good enough to post here.

First, I made a marinade/coating of 2 tablespoons of achiote paste whisked into about 1/8 cup of orange & lemon juice, and coated the two halves of a boneless chicken breast in it. I let it sit in the refrigerator for about three hours.

For the chipotle-orange mayo, I mixed a heaping tablespoon of mayo with another 1/8 cup of orange juice, a finely chopped/seeded canned chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, about a half teaspoon of the adobo sauce, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of oregano.

The chicken went under the broiler until it was cooked thoroughly and the achiote coating got nice and smoky. I cut it up into small pieces. I steamed a bunch of corn tortillas & prepared some black beans with a little chili seasoning. I’d spread some of the chipotle mayo on a tortilla before making tacos out of the chicken, beans & some avocado slices. I was thinking some chopped onion and cilantro would go nicely here as well.

By the way, the fish taco recipe is very similar – you can do it with snapper on the broiler, only you use lime juice instead of orange, and top the tacos with shredded cabbage. As Emeril always said (before he dumped a mountain of salt and pork fat onto whatever he was making, especially dessert) “This ain’t rocket science.”

Good stuff, and very filling – perfect for a day like today when I wound up skipping lunch. Otherwise, the long term results of this recipe might not be pretty.