The Spawn is at work, Mrs. M is at the Y, and the Hound of the Basketballs is dozing in her laundry room bed. I took care of a bolus of grading yesterday, with Gradeapalooza not quite a couple of weeks away. Why not some potpourri?
Before I went into grading mode yesterday, I read 1953’s Black Wings Has My Angel, by Elliott Chaze. It would have been difficult for the book to live up to its reputation — a number of my friends in noir assert that it’s one of the greatest of its genre. I don’t know that I’d go that far — there’s plenty of doom, but not on the pitch of Cain or Thompson at their best — but it’s a fine book and it kept me entertained yesterday morning.
I borrowed the book from my colleague David Rachels, and we chatted briefly about it between classes this morning. David put forward an idea that made a certain amount of sense to me: Is it possible that some of the book’s mystique comes from the somewhat poetic title. Does the title endow the book with a literary aura that a more “traditional” noir title (I dunno, something like “The Girl With the Lavender Eyes” or “The Plan”, either of which would have worked for the book) wouldn’t have?
And that reminded me of Broken Glass Waltzes. When I started writing it one rainy evening in Lexington, KY, my working title was Die, Die, My Darling, from the Misfits song I was listening to when I got my idea. A day or two later, I discovered that (as they often did) the Misfits had taken the title from a Grade-Z horror film, and I decided that wouldn’t do. For some reason, the words “broken glass waltzes” had bounced around my head for a few weeks, and so I decided to use those unless something better came up. And as I wrote over the ensuing months, I found ways to make the phrase and the idea connect with the story and so it stuck.
But something that a lot of folks don’t know is that typically the publisher, not the writer, has control over the title a book has when it hits the marketplace. (In fact, this happened with re-releases of Black Wings, which were called One for My Money and One for the Money in 1962 and 1985, respectively. I don’t know how often publishers exercise that particular option, but it does happen from time to time. When it does, I wonder if it affects not just how a book does upon release, but how its reputation develops over the years and decades that follow.
But as I said, Black Wings Has My Angel is a fine book, and if you’re essentially going to be a one-hit wonder as Chaze was, it’s good to make the hit count like this one.
Another book I read recently was Memory, by Donald Westlake. He had written the book in 1963, but it didn’t find a publisher, so he filed it away and it was rediscovered after his death in 2009 and published by Hard Case Crime. I found it a few weeks ago at the local Goodwill store and picked it up.
The lead character, Paul Cole, suffers a head injury that devastates his short-term and parts of his long-term memory, and the novel is essentially a chronicle of his efforts to rebuild a life — whether it will be his old one or a new one is in some ways the essential conflict in the novel.
I can see why the book had a hard time finding a home — it isn’t quite amnesia noir, but it doesn’t precisely fit other common genres either. I think the most remarkable aspect of the book is Westlake’s ability to reproduce the slow, stumbling tone of Cole’s recovery, the learning and relearning of people and things as he (re)constructs his life. The ending is appropriate, but somewhat anticlimactic, and seems deliberately to refuse satisfaction to the reader. At the same time, it pulls the reader along from moment to moment, scene to scene, and while I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending, I didn’t feel cheated either. (As a side note, I heard echoes of Lawrence Block’s novella Resume Speed as I read Westlake’s book. I doubt it was intentional on LB’s part, but the resonance was there for me.)
In any case, I’m glad the book was recovered, and if you don’t mind your packages wrapped a little loosely, Memory might be the book for you.
As I was noodling around Twitter this weekend, I found a reference to a Romanian band called Phoenix in their home country and Transsylvanian [sic] Phoenix internationally. The band’s backstory is remarkable — they were founded in the 60s and morphed into a proggy group with elements of their native Eastern European music as the years went on. They also explored medieval sources for their song structures and lyrical concepts. None of this, however, endeared them to the Ceaucescu regime, and at one point, the band members had to escape to Germany, hiding in their equipment crates.
So I listened to a dozen or so of their songs, and thought I’d share a couple before I close today. Fans of Focus might dig this one, “Norocul Inorogului”, adapted from an Old French poem:
This one has more of a 60s heavy psych feel:
And this is the one that really engaged me:
A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Professor (and former Romanian paratrooper) Florin Curta for his recommendations.
See you soon!