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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, 2012Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Movies.
Tags: Movie recommendations, netflix suggestions
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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, 2012Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Books, General, Movies, Television, Writing.
Tags: dreams, Head, lucid dreaming, Monkees, Sean Connery
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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, 2012Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Writing.
Tags: cut to wagstaff, mystery, publishing, 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.
My Novel Is Up On Amazon – Go Buy It Now! June 15, 2012Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Writing.
Tags: humor, mystery, thriller
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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.
Coming Very Soon…. The First Wagstaff Novel! May 26, 2012Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, General, Writing.
Tags: humor, mystery novels, thrillers
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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, 2009Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Cooking, Food, Movies.
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On 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, 2009Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Cooking, Food.
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I 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.
Dropping Like Flies January 2, 2009Posted by Jim Berkin in 1960s, Books, General, Television.
Tags: celebrity death
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What an end-of-year rush on death it’s been. I pick up the paper today and see that my old Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell has died of Parkinson’s at age 90. Pell’s claim to national fame would be the Pell Grants that go towards education. He also engineered some federal moolah towards a gifted education program that I benefited from way back when, back when someone finally realized that those of us outside the mainstream on the upper end of the scale (no false modesty here, sorry) could be well served by an alternate approach to school. My own memory of Pell is somewhat better however – one time while walking in downtown Providence, I nearly slammed head-on into a fast pacing Pell, all six foot whatever of him – his head in the clouds, almost in a daze – I stepped aside, he looked at me, shook his head, said “Sorry, didn’t see you” and wandered off in what looked like a trance. I’d like to think he was stoned. I voted for him the one time I could while living back in Rhode Island – I figured I owed it to him for my 4th through 6th grade experiences.
Also passing was prolific mystery writer Donald Westlake, who had been pumping out entertaining mysteries under his own name and numerous pseudonyms for more than forty odd years. I don’t think I could ever get into such a “zone” and write as much as that guy, especially considering how long it took for me to churn out one novel and what a pain in the ass it’s been to finish a second.
And a little while back, we lost one of our Catwomen when Eartha Kitt died. She had a better purr than Julie Newmar, but unfortunately the Batman producers would nix the lovey-dovey gags between her & Batman as Julie had played them since the interracial aspect scared them, and that was too bad since that provided most of the comedy when it came to that character.
So long, kitty. 😦
I’d Buy That For A Dollar November 30, 2008Posted by Jim Berkin in Blogroll, Books, Food, Movies.
Tags: stock market
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Just when I thought they had packed up and gone away forever when the space became the always-dreaded seasonal Halloween store back in October, the every-book-for-a-dollar store has RETURNED to beautiful downtown Burbank! What a pleasant surprise for me as I walked to the post office & bank the other day to run some leisurely errands.
It looked like they were about 80% of the way through restocking the shelves from the boxes of books they had packed up in storage, and after about an hour of systematic browsing through the place, I came up with a few good finds: The first was another one of those “Introducing….” whatever series, this one on Stephen Hawking, which does a pretty decent job of simplifying his ideas on the origins of the universe and the nature of black holes. I put it next to their volumes on Quantum Theory & Chaos so I could have a mini-row of the incomprehensible together (perhaps I’ll put the Bruce Vilanch autobiography I got as a gag gift next to it as well, to continue the theme).
I also found & already devoured the enjoyable The United States of Arugula by David Kamp, a cultural history of how foodie culture in America has pretty much developed in the last 50 odd years or so, beginning with James Beard, continuing with Julia Child, and blossoming into our current Food Network/celebrity chef/gourmet market/every ethnic food you can imagine sold all over culture. I’ve read numerous books on culinary history, mostly ones that cover the development of various styles of cuisine or cooking in general over the ages, going back to Rome and Medieval times – this is the first one I’ve found on the modern American food & cooking culture that does a thorough (and entertaining) job on the subject. Shortly after I graduated Brown, I returned for a reunion and met Kamp. He had inherited the editing post of the only real humor publication on campus at the time from the people who had inherited it from me. I remember reading the guy’s stuff, not only for the humor publication, but also longer articles he’d written for a couple of the college magazines, and thought that he was probably the best pure writer to hold the job. Kamp’s sharp wit & impressive command of the language was obvious from the first few sentences. It’s not surprising to see he’s had a nice career at Spy and GQ and Vanity Fair. His blog is pretty good too. I doubt he remembers me, unless someone reminds him of that angry little guy who once wrote the bulletin before him who made endless jokes about wanting to nail Phoebe Cates (and I think I’d still tap that, if you’re curious).
The last two finds were a short investment guide centering on when to sell a soon-to-be falling stock by William O’Neill, the chief guru behind the Investors’ Daily. It’s heavy on chart analysis which I’ve always felt was a great example of 20-20 hindsight in action, but his general ideas on stock screening and the database his paper provides are extremely valuable. I have a vibe that this might be a good time to actually buy stocks, looking at Obama’s economic team picks and seeing that they are surprisingly not a bunch of lefto whackjobs, but then again, I’m the guy who picked Vanderbilt two weeks in a row. Don’t listen to anything I say.
On the other, more artistic end of the Wagstaff interest scale, I found a first edition hardback of the 1982 version of Danny Peary’s very first Cult Movies, a book I remember endlessly reading & rereading in college as I tried to see as many of those movies as I could, back in those pre-Netflix & Eddie Brandt days of waiting for the local repertory theater to get them or scanning the TV listings to see what was going to turn up at 2AM on Channel 5. I’ve seen most of the movies in the book, nearly all the ones I think I actually want to see, but then again, now I’m OLD.
Welcome back, dollar bookstore! Glad to see you looking healthy again.