31 December 2009


I woke up far too early on this the last day of 2009. I was somewhat compensated, however, by the view from the bedroom window of the moon setting over the Hollywood Hills. Groggily, I went for my camera:

28 December 2009



I don't like Top Ten lists. For one, I usually have more or less than that to go on the list. For two, I tend to see most things in a bewildering array of shades of gray. For three, I break things down into an enormous number of concise categories. (Not just "books." Not even just "mysteries." Not even "mysteries," "thrillers," "literary fiction," "non-fiction," etc. I'd have to have dozens of Top Ten lists and I don't have the time, or the inclination.) For four, some of my favorite things came out prior to this past year and I just now got around to them.

So here's some stuff I liked this year. (Don't worry, to maintain my somewhat cranky reputation I'll get to some stuff I didn't like, below.)

Among the books I especially liked, loved even, were:

INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, Luis Alberto Urrea. It was fun, allegorical, magnificently written, smart as all get out, political, sexual, social and about nearly anything and everything worth giving a damn about. The beautiful, but not sappy, side of the human condition.

BEIJING COMA, Ma Jian. One of the most depressing, disturbing, fantastically written novels I have ever read. It is awfully hard to think anything kindly about China after reading this book. It is about the ugly, brutal, avaricious side of the human condition. Dostoevsky would have been proud to have written it.

THE KINDLY ONES, Jonathan Littell. Okay, another depressing novel. And really gross and hard to read in places, too. The fictional argument for Hannah Arendt's "Banality of Evil." Makes you think about things you probably don't want to think about.

MIRRORS, Eduardo Galeano. A history of the world through snippets of biography, memoir and quotes from people who are real, mythological and no one knows for sure. Wildly entertaining, easy to read, and thought-provoking.

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, Bill Bryson. Extremely amusing and informative. Intelligent science for us non-scientists.

I tend to avoid too much pimping of my friends' books, even though I buy and read all of them, or as many as I can. I'm sure to forget someone. Sometimes I might not like a friend's book (as they might not like mine) and so I don't feel like I can be honest. And, well, at this point I know too many fellow writers. I have a hard enough time keeping up with my own blather on this blog.

But, that said, I do want to add my voice to the growing chorus that is singing the praises of the first novel by Sophie Littlefield, A BAD DAY FOR SORRY. It is one very damn fine read from a writer who I know works harder at her craft than many of the rest of us; certainly more than myself. I'm looking forward to her future books.

I liked some movies this year, too, but for the most part I think it was a lousy year for movies, so I'm having a tough time remembering them. Not that many appealed to me, so I didn't see as many as usual. Among the ones I do recall are:

THE HURT LOCKER. About as suspensful and riveting a movie as I have ever seen. I got so wound up watching it that I felt like I had to do stretches and take deep breaths when I got out of the theater.

THE HANGOVER. It was funny - even the second time. (I saw it again at Thanksgiving with my family.) And I find so few comedies actually funny, that that was enough. But it was smart, too, and somewhat sabotaged it's genre - which I appreciated.

That's about it, at least that I can recall. I tried jarring my memory by looking at the current rash of Top Ten lists online, but I just didn't see much that I loved at the movies this year.

On the other hand, this is the year that I finally decided television is capable of being a whole lot better than movies. I think this is because of the medium itself. Most movies are anywhere from 90 to 130 minutes long. That has nothing at all to do with artistic or storytelling decisions. It has to do with the fact that in the past movie theaters were set up to best handle films that involved a certain number of reels of film, and that they also need to squeeze in a certain number of showings per day to make a profit. (And overpriced popcorn and sodas, of course.) That severely limits the amount of character and plot development any movie can engage in. In some cases, it's a good thing. Too many movies are already too long.

But I have come to see movies as the equivalent of short stories - no matter how big their scope. While television series can stretch out, much like a novel. Perhaps that is a reason why the best movies adapted from previously published works, tend, with a few exceptions, to come from short stories, rather than novels.

I read, and enjoy, and write, more novels than short stories. So here's some of the television series that I have most unabashedly enjoyed in the past year:

BREAKING BAD. As dark, complex, bleak and yet at times funny as anything I have ever read or seen.

MAD MEN. Ditto, but also about the very human struggle against the brain-numbing responsibilities of daily and family life.

BIG LOVE. Sexual and religious politics to the max. A Shakespearean drama that has the ability to make me squirm.

UGLY BETTY. I dunno, I just like it. I think it's smart, funny, charming, touching and sometimes makes some pretty good points.

THE BIG BANG THEORY. The only half-hour sitcom I have ever liked this much. Very smart, very funny, politically incorrect. If laughing really is good for you, this show is medicine for me.

Okay, I could go on and on and on if I wanted: music, websites, restaurants, art shows, etc. But enough's enough.

Here's a short, incomplete list - in no particular order - of some (domestic only) things I didn't like this year:

The Supreme Court
Big financial institutions
Many unions
Glen Beck
Keith Olbermann
All TV "news"
Sherlock Holmes - the movie.
Bored To Death - tv series.
American Airlines
About 77.8 percent of what I see on Twitter
Celebrity obsession
Bob Dylan's Xmas album
"Reality TV" (other than Top Chef, which I have a weakness for.)
A Prairie Home Companion
The NY Yankees

There's plenty more where those came from, but it's time to wrap up this year end wrap up.

I hope, as I always hope, that next year is better. Although on the whole, for me at least, this year's been pretty good.

18 December 2009


Not exactly, not really. I stayed on the Strip at the Wynn Encore. I walked up and down the Strip numerous times. It's excellent exercise - two miles from the Encore to the MGM Grand if you stick to the sidewalk (2.6 miles to the Mandalay Bay), somewhere between 2-1/2 to 3 miles to the MGM if you detour in and out of casinos and shopping malls, etc.

And, even if you don't gamble, go to shows or get driven by touts to strip clubs - none of which I bothered with - there is still a lot to see along the Las Vegas Strip.

Foremost is, of course, the people. It is very fun people watching. It's also international. I gave up counting at overhearing 16 different languages - at least the ones I recognized.

There is also some amusing, and now even some truly great, architecture. Parts of the new City Center development - some five years and $8.5 billion in the making - opened this week, and I gotta admit I loved it. Here's some photographic arguments (click on the photo if you want to see it bigger) for why:The two, yellow-checkered buildings really do look like they tilt away from each other and at an angle to everything else. It's disconcerting and fun. The multi-angled building in front is the shopping center. (Interior pictures below.)
A Henry Moore sculpture just outside one of the entrances to the shopping mall.
Bird chairs just outside the shopping mall.

Interiors and fountain/sculptures.The ice melts and refreezes, the water swirls and gurgles.

There is, of course, the more traditional, bizarre architecture to be found along the Strip, both inside the hotels and out:

There's art, too. In the Paris Hotel and Casino I saw a very fun exhibit of cover art from Harlequin Romance Novels. And Paris is also home to the world's largest equine mural - painted by my uncle, Fred Stone:
And in Mandalay Bay, right across from Michael Mina's Stripsteak - order the off-the-menu Angus Ribeye Cap, it is one of the best steaks in the world - is more art (not, however, by my Uncle Fred):
There does seem to be something about the Las Vegas Strip that brings out the religious side of commerce:

But all is not lost. Bettie Page apparently has her own store right next door to True Religion:
Some of the greatest art in Las Vegas is neon. The Neon Museum is one of the great things to see in the city. (The museum itself is being built. At the moment you have to take a tour of the "boneyard" - a dumping ground for old neon signs. It is well worth it, a true highlight of any visit to Las Vegas. Click anywhere on these sentences to link to their website.
They are very strict about publishing pictures taken in the boneyard - even on blogs. But here's some pictures of neon signs in downtown Las Vegas, where some of the best are to be found:

Okay, so it is the Holiday Season. I suppose I'll sign off with some Christmas Cheer - Las Vegas style:

Well, maybe not. I don't want to upset those of you who know me to be the grinch that I am. On Christmas Day my tradition is Chinese food and a movie matinee. Here's a picture taken from Las Vegas' surprisingly large and interesting Chinatown, followed by the sort of thing that most people who know me well associate with me and Christmas:

Happy New Year. I can get behind that.

15 December 2009


I don't know that I want to write much at the moment. There's a whole city full of crazy stupid stuff going on some 61 floors below me and soon I want to descend into it. I'm on a three day visit to Las Vegas for no good reason other than that I got a really good deal on a room at the Wynn Encore and wanted to get out of L.A. to somewhere - anywhere.

I'll give you plenty of gory details later. I will tell you, though, that one of the highlights so far is that the only Christmas music I have been subjected to was in a taxi. The driver was playing "White Christmas" at near deafening volume. He was a Muslim from Nigeria. He loves "White Christmas" and it had just come on the radio. Go figure.

Here is a small preview of some photos from the trip so far:The very way cool, new, City Center Las Vegas.

The always ridiculous Venetian.

$4,200 per pair Manolo Blahnik shoes.

What $4,200 shoes make me want to do.

More to come.

10 December 2009


You sure do, or at least I sure do, eat a lot of stuff that is lousy for your blood this time of year. And that got me to thinking about the fact that I haven't had my cholesterol and other such things checked in a while.

Strangely, I like blood tests. I don't mind the needle. I even sort of like watching my blood bubble up into the vial. (Maybe it's because I have good veins; they're unmissable.) And blood tests seem so efficient. A comprehensive blood test is pretty much the human equivalent of when you take your modern car into a modern shop and the first thing they do is plug into your engine's computer to get a big readout of what's going on.

I probably won't live to see the day, but I imagine that eventually, once a year you'll go to an office or pharmacy or wherever, and pop a needle into a vein. Rather than drawing blood, the needle will be connected via a USB cable, or whatever the next thing is, directly to a diagnostic computer. As your blood flows past the sensor in the needle, the computer will instantly tell you what's wrong, or right, with you. I'd be more impressed by that than, even, by personal jetpacks. (Jetpacks scare me. Think of the accidents.)

So, it's time for me to have a blood test. In the past, I would have simply called up my doctor, made an appointment, gone to his office, then paid all the bills when my crappy insurance paid only a small portion of them, or not at all. I once paid over $700 for a doctor's visit that amounted to little more than a blood draw and the subsequent lab fees.

No more. Earlier this year I shopped around for a colonoscopy I could afford. It turned out to be cheaper for me to simply pay for it as a cash customer, than it would have been to try and use my insurance. (I'm still haggling over a fee that was mistakenly charged to me when a doctor's office ran something through my insurance company rather than understanding I was a cash customer and wasn't using my insurance.)

I've made some calls.

If I go to my regular doctor's office - admittedly, a high-end Beverly Hills physician - don't use my insurance and don't even see the doctor, simply have them draw the blood and send it to the lab, they'll give me a 20 percent discount off the lab fee: $666 minus 20% = $532.80. My guess is that I'll also be charged something for coming into the office and having a nurse draw the blood.

If I go through Direct Labs.com - sign up online, find a lab near you for the blood draw, have the blood sent to the company, get back your results - the same test will cost me $59 if I do it this month. (In January it goes back up to the regular price of $97.)

But there's a lab in Los Angeles where they really know their blood. They have to. AIM Healthcare - The Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation - does the HIV and STD testing, among many other services, for the porn industry. Us non-industry types can use it, too. (Sometimes for a slightly higher price and at a lower priority for speedy results than people in the industry. That seems only fair.) AIM runs a couple of real-life, standard, highly-regarded medical clinics, staffed by doctors every bit as good as any other clinics, and with access to some of the most up-to-date, high-tech medical laboratories anywhere. They'll do comprehensive blood panels as well. They charge $38.

Guess where I'm going to get my cholesterol checked?

In September I paid my annual insurance premium - $5,020 - for a policy with a very high deductible. Every now and then I flirt with the notion of simply dropping it. But, like everyone who bets against themself - which is essentially what insurance is - I worry about what would happen if something major were to befall me. If it were major enough, even with my insurance I'd probably have to sell my house. But I might come out with something left.

So I keep forking over the big bucks, year after year, paying for something that I hope I never have to use and that actually costs me money to use unless something catastrophic occurs.

I wish I saw something that might help me out in all the jumbled stupidity pouring out of Congress about healthcare. But I don't, not much anyhow. Maybe I'll be able to buy into Medicare earlier than I would have been eligible. But an increasing number of doctors, clinics and hospitals are refusing to accept Medicare patients. Supposedly Medicare doesn't pay enough.

But that's another thing that doesn't make sense to me. How much does medicine cost? Who the hell knows? If a simple, comprehensive blood test can range in price from $666 to $38, what possible hope is there for figuring anything out?

But, it's the Holiday Season. I shouldn't think about this sort of stuff. I should just go drown my sorrows in ham, tamales, turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, cookies, pies, have another scotch - a big one, a very big one. And keep away from the shopping malls. And try to avoid the Holiday-addled drivers on the roads. And take deep breaths, close my eyes and do my best to stay calm when confronted by Christmas music or Starvation Army Santas and their damn bells.

I can get my cholesterol, and blood pressure, checked next month. After it's all over. And I know just where to go to do it.

01 December 2009

Write Like Your Readers Are Dead

Okay, so I'm cheating, a little. This blog post appeared yesterday as a guest post on The Lipstick Chronicles. But I have a pile of work to do, my sister is in town visiting and I don't have time to write a whole new blog post. And I think this is an interesting topic. So, here, recycled, it is:

An important note to my readers: I love you, I do, I really do. I think about and care about you a lot. Just not all the time. That’s what this is about. That said…

Let’s get the hard part of this over with first. I killed Ray Sharp, my series hero. I killed him halfway through my most recent book, SHANGHAIED. He was the narrator, too. The narrative duties were taken over by his sidekick, Wen Lei Yue, who will now take over the series as well.

That made some people mad. “You killed Ray Sharp??? I'm finished with you. I read 3 of your books and liked them but no more. Forget it from San Diego.” – A recent email.

Only one outraged reader has threatened physical violence, although I have been warned to steer clear of some others by friends and some bookstore owners.

One frequently quoted bit of sage advice to writers is: “Write like your parents are dead.” That has always struck me as sensible. Self-censorship seldom gets the job done. But how far can you take it?

Should I write like my readers are dead?

Part of the problem is that there are all kinds of readers. I have received a few emails from people who thought it was “way cool,” “fantastic,” “astounding,” “brave,” etc. that I offed Ray.

And some readers, you just can’t be quite sure what they think. SHANGHAIED, which mostly got excellent reviews, got one review that said: “Sleazy! That’s how I would describe this book. With lesbian relationships and heroin usage, these are topics that many of us have not experienced and do not intend to experience. Through much of the novel there is constant adventure…” The review went on at some length in a way that made it seem like the reviewer really liked my “sleazy” novel. Go figure. (I kinda like sleazy novels myself, sometimes. So maybe it was meant as a good review.)

The worst review any of my books has ever received, was also for SHANGHAIED – an Amazon review. Oh boy did that reviewer have some terrible things to say about the book, and about all of my books, which he/she hasn’t liked since the start. But they’ve read all four of them, carefully, apparently. (Maybe it was for the sex scenes. I’m cool with that.) Hmmm.

My father doesn’t like the sex scenes in my books. They make him uncomfortable. Well, too bad, Dad, I’m writing like you’re dead anyhow.

At one point, my father was considering writing his memoirs. (He has had a memoir-worthy life.) But then he came up against the fact that he only wanted to be so honest in his memoirs, knowing that his kids would read them. Hmmmm, so I guess you have to write like your kids are dead, too.

Does all this mean that we writers have to write like everybody’s dead?

Writing is a solitary profession. Is it a selfish one, too?

There are, unfortunately, those people who we writers do have to please: agents, editors, publishing company sales and marketing people, reviewers (well, some of them, some of the time, anyway) and booksellers. Unless we want to simply write for the sheer enjoyment of it and then put the finished products away in our closets, there is only so solitary we can be.

But, how much can we allow that to affect us and still write the books we want to write?

The fact of the matter is, that when I killed Ray Sharp I didn’t give a moment’s thought to what my readers would think. I was thinking about the story, and the characters, and how to challenge and excite myself creatively. As for my readers — they might as well have all been dead when I wrote that scene.

And the ones who like my writing, like my books, even most of the ones who liked Ray, are okay with that. They get a better, more interesting book to read because I didn’t take them into account. Just like my parents. Just like my Dad could write a really great memoir if he wasn’t worried about me reading it. (Come on, Dad, I can take it.)

None of this is to say that I don’t love, cherish, respect, desire, lust after and suck up to my readers. I do. I want them. I crave them. All of them. I need them. I need and want you, whoever you are.

But the way in which I can repay readers for the time they spend reading my books and the dollars they spend buying my books is to make every effort to write the best possible books I can. And for that, they are pretty much stuck with trusting me.

It’s implicit in the bargain we’ve made. If they buy and read my books they are welcome to like them or not as they see fit. And they’re welcome to let me know how they feel about them. (I’d prefer not to get punched, however.) And I always listen, and 99.9 percent of the time respond, politely.

But I gotta tell you, when it’s just me and the computer and the leaf blowers and barking dogs and delivery trucks and vans and the occasional helicopter overhead outside, everybody else is dead to me. And if you want me to keep writing books that some of you are going to love, and some of you are going to hate, that’s the way you want it, too.