Category Archives: Book Reviews


March 2nd, 2017 2 Comments



Some of you may know that Jameson Parker—late of the immensely popular television series Simon and Simon as well as many movies on screens both large and small—turned his back on Hollywood to become a writer.


It was an extraordinary step—one with little precedent in TinselTown.


The old joke says it all. The teller of the tale is at a circus parade and is shocked to see an old friend, a once-prosperous actor, following the elephants and scooping up the deposits they make along the route. Appalled, he rushes up to the man and says, “Jack, you shouldn’t be doing this. Tell you what. I’ll make a place in my office for you. Regular hours. Decent salary. Dignity in the workplace.” Jack’s response: “What? And leave show business?”


Well, Jameson did it.


He left show business, and Hollywood’s loss is the literary world’s gain, for when it comes to words, Mr. Parker has a gift. (Those of you who know him know he has the gift of gab as well, but I was thinking of words on the page.)


He has written a remarkable series of novels and stories. I recommend, in particular…


An Accidental Cowboy.   This is an extraordinary account of a man putting himself back together after a shocking assault—restoring himself through sheer physical process in much the same way that Hemingway’s Nick Adams attempts to heal the psychological and emotional wounds of war.


The Horseman at Midnight. A deeply moving story best described as Cormac McCarthy in Steinbeck country. Read it. You’ll thank me for introducing it to you.


“Teaching the Bear To Read.” Quite simply one of the finest short stories ever written.


And today Jameson makes his latest contribution to the literary world: Dancing with the Dead.


Bold. Original. Profoundly moving.


This new novella is the tale of two people from vastly different backgrounds, two survivors caught up in historic forces beyond their control. Stripped of everything that made them who they are, they come together in courage and common humanity. They, like Faulkner’s Dilsey, endure. And so will their story, the most unconventional, unexpected love story of this or any other year.


Do yourselves a favor and buy a copy now. Published by Bear Manor Media, it’s available at Amazon and most of the other usual suspects.

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April 3rd, 2015 1 Comment


Not long ago, I experienced an epiphany—one of those sudden moments of revelation that James Joyce compared to the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.


It came to me, as such godsends often do, under the most commonplace of circumstances—a tutorial with a student who alerted me to the existence of a screenwriting manual humbly entitled Save the Cat.


The book, perfectly designed for the Millennial Generation, is a wonder—so clear in its step-by-step instructions that you don’t even have to read it!


A quick glance at the table of contents tells you everything you need to know.


Make sure your hero does something nice in his introductory scene.


Include the fifteen plot points every script must have.


Take care to place those plot points on the correct page.


Do all these things, and you can’t fail to produce a guaranteed-to-sell screenplay!


If I’d only known!


Oh, the wasted years!


Watching all those movies!


Reading all those scripts!


Fumbling around, clumsily trying to teach myself the craft of the screenplay when all I’d have had to do is peruse Save the Cat.


I’m now embarked on a new adventure as a writer.


I’m attempting to write my first novel.


(Well, my second actually. I did my first back in the eighth grade, but the manuscript has—much to the regret of literary historians, I’m sure—been lost.)


I’m attempting to write my first novel, and I’ve vowed not to repeat the mistakes I made when I fumbled my way into the screen trade.


For help, I’ve turned to an old friend.


Acclaimed novelist Ron Carlson.


Author of ten or twelve books of fiction and director of the creative writing program at UC Irvine, Ron has published what I’m hoping is the fiction writer’s answer to Save the Cat.


He calls it Ron Carlson Writes a Story.




An odd title.


I myself would have preferred something along the lines of The Twelve- Step System for Writing Great Fiction.


No matter.


Let’s see what Ron considers the first step in writing a story.




Finding an idea.


Well, not finding it so much as selecting it.


Ron insists that every experience, whether the author’s own or someone else’s, is a potential seed for a story.


That’s pretty vague, Ron. Can you be more specific?


If an idea, an experience, an image or an event matters to the author, then Ron feels it’s worthy of exploration.


But what are the rules? What are the five elements of a great story idea?


There are no rules, Ron insists, and every idea is different.




All you have to do, he claims, is choose an idea or experience that you the author care about—something that you yourself would like to read about.


Ron chooses, as the subject of his eponymous story, the time he lost a mattress off the back of his pick-up truck.




…I know Ron knows what he’s doing, but…how many of us are going to want to write about the day we lost a mattress?


How is his choice going to guide us in making our own choices?


Well, perhaps he’ll be more helpful when it comes to developing a character or crafting a plot.


No. Apparently not.


He claims that when he wrote the first word of his piece, he had no idea who was speaking and even less idea where the story was headed!


He insists that writing a story is a journey—a journey of discovery, a journey that requires focus, attention and effort—and that the most important thing a writer must do after writing the first sentence is stay in the room.


Resist the temptation to refill your coffee cup.


Ignore the television screen that beckons from the den.


Forget about the chores crying to be done.


The carpet that needs vacuuming.


The lawn that needs mowing.


Barricade your mind against all the wonderful excuses you can invent not to write and stay in the room.


Stay in the room and write the next sentence and the next and the next.


Stay in the room and watch the characters reveal themselves.


Stay in the room and watch the story unfold.




Where are the steps, Ron?


Give us some rules!


Some blanks to fill in!


Some dots to connect!


It’s hard for me to admit because Ron is such a good friend, but the fact of the matter is…


…I’m disappointed.


I’d hoped for Seven Days To a Better Novel, and all he’s given me is some malarkey about the mystery of creation and some advice about how to nurse that process along.


I have to face it.


Ron Carlson Writes a Story offers me next to no guidance on how to write my own story.


I wonder.


Do you suppose the For Dummies series includes a volume on crafting fiction?


I certainly hope so.


In fact, I’m going to check into right away.


But in the meantime, I think I’ll send Ron a copy of Save the Cat.


Blake Snyder could certainly teach him a thing or two.


Yes, Ron can claim rave reviews from shabby journals like The New York Times and The Washington Post, but he’s never written anything to compare to Snyder’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.


After all, what are a Booklist Starred Review, an NDEA Fellowship in Fiction, a National Society of Arts and Letters Award, or a Ploughshares Cohen Prize alongside a Golden Raspberry for Worst Writer of the Year?



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March 27th, 2015 5 Comments



Not long ago, one of the readers of my book contacted me to inquire about the possibility of one-on-one screenwriting lessons.


It’s not something I’d ordinarily consider, but he said that he’d read everything that had ever been written about the subject and that nothing he’d encountered could come close to Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody.


He wanted, he said, to learn from a master of the craft.


It’s hard to say no to a person of such obvious taste and discrimination, and so it was that we arranged to get together for a tutorial.


I asked my student to read, as his first assignment, my own The Last Innocent Man, hoping it might serve as a springboard for our conversations about the art of writing for the screen.


He showed up eager, enthusiastic and full of questions.


His first question?


Why had I failed to save the cat in the scene introducing my hero?


I patiently pointed out that there isn’t any cat in The Last Innocent Man, and he, attempting to suppress his contempt for my appalling ignorance, explained that “saving the cat” is a phrase from a popular book about screenwriting.


The notion, it seems, is that the hero of your story must do something nice in his first scene—something like saving a cat—something that will make the audience like him and sympathize with him.


Oh, my!


What could I say?


I had clearly failed to save the cat in The Last Innocent Man.


When we meet my hero (I’d foolishly thought of him as my protagonist), he is tense, nervous, a criminal attorney awaiting the verdict in the trial of a former Green Beret accused of the bludgeon slaying of his wife.


His client is pretty obviously guilty as charged, but my guy, through dazzling turns of courtroom magic, manages to manipulate the jury into throwing justice out the window and declaring him innocent.


My hero, when he should be out saving cats, is putting monsters back on the street!




I don’t know how I could have screwed up so badly.


My one consolation?


I’m not alone in my unforgivable blunder.


Poor Robert Towne did the same thing in Chinatown, which opens with cheap detective J.J. Giddes, full of insincere sympathy, showing an agonized husband raw photos of his unfaithful wife and her lover in bed together. Giddes comes across as someone who probably doesn’t even like cats, let alone save them.


Then, of course, there’s old Joe Stefano, who opened Psycho with his heroine conducting a sleazy affair in a seedy hotel. Probably lots of stray cats in the neighborhood, but does she go out of her way to rescue one of them? No way! Instead she goes on to steal a shitpile of money from one of her boss’s clients.


And what of Walon Green and Sam Peckinpaw, who began The Wild Bunch with their hero leading his gang of outlaws into a small town, knocking over a bank, and precipitating a bloody gun battle. Pike Bishop and his friends are clearly more at home with scorpions than cats.


I blush to admit that, until my student set me straight, I had thought of each and every one of these films as masterworks.


I clearly had a lot to learn about screenwriting.


In fact, it seems that I had made catastrophic mistake after mistake in The Last Innocent Man…as well as in the twenty-four other screenplays I wrote.


My student, now my teacher, generously pointed out that no screenplay should have more than thirty or forty scenes.


The Last Innocent Man has thirty scenes in the first thirty-five pages!


What could I have been thinking?


What about the fifteen beats every screenplay must have?


Oh, my God!


I don’t even know what they are!


Well, my student informed me, you need a statement of your theme on page five.




All these years I’ve deliberately avoided such statements!


My credo has been “Show. Don’t tell.”


I actually believed that the theme would simply emerge from the action of the piece!


There are, it turns out, fourteen other beats a good screenplay must include, and mine, as my student so astutely pointed out, has only a few of these beats, all of them on the wrong pages!


If only I’d known.


For years, I labored under the delusion that screenwriting is a journey of discovery, that the characters will dictate the action, that the material determines the style and structure of the piece.


And now, I’ve learned that writing a script is really more akin to one of those wonderful paint-by-the-number books that I so enjoyed as a child.


For years, I struggled.


I agonized.


I waited endlessly for my characters to talk to me.


Waited for them to show me what was going to happen.


Waited for them to lead me to the end of their stories.


But I now realize that they gave me nothing.


No hint of where my acts should end.


No clue to where my B-story should begin.


Not even a suggestion about my debate section or my fun and games segment.


By listening to them, I not only failed to save the cat; I failed to write anything that deserves to be called a screenplay.


But thanks to my student, I’ve seen the errors of my way.


I’ve seen the errors of my way, and I make this public vow.


I will read Save the Cat.


I will paint by the numbers.


I will fill in the blanks.


I will connect the dots.


And one of these days, if I get very lucky, I will sell a script to one of the studio idiots who’ve read Save the Cat, attended Robert McKee’s weekend seminar, and now know everything anyone needs to know about the art of writing screenplays.

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January 14th, 2015 6 Comments



A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…


…I had respect, job security, and a title—Associate Professor of English!


I spent my days reading and discussing great literary works like Moby-Dick, Heart of Darkness, The Sound and the Fury, and The Grapes of Wrath.


Then I came to Hollywood.


Respect went out the window.


I was now a reader—a nameless drone in the hive of Universal Studios.


As for job security, that too was gone.


In fact, I spent three months unemployed before the Story Analysts Guild allowed me to accept the job that had inspired me to resign my academic post.


And my title?


Well, let’s just say that “reader” doesn’t inspire the same kind of awe as “ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR.”


Frankly, none of this mattered.


I was inside!


I was where I’d dreamed of being all my life.


In my film fanatic’s mind, I had just entered the Kingdom of Heaven,  and I was eager to try my wings.


I must admit, however, that I was somewhat daunted when I received my first assignment—a pile of Judy Blume books topped by Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.


It was, of course, a test.


The Story Editor, who had taken a chance hiring me, wanted to start me off with something I couldn’t screw up: the Blume books were born to be “Afterschool Specials” but had no chance whatsoever of making it to the big screen.


I passed the test and worked my way up to more serious projects like The Lords of Discipline and Sophie’s Choice, but I’ve always remembered the humbling experience of my descent from Joseph Conrad to Judy Blume.


So when I came upon Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, I was an instant fan.


Funny as she is, Chelsea is clearly a woman to be taken seriously, and when I later stumbled upon a Handler interview in which she recommended a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, I had to have it.


The book, by Mason Curry, is an account of the working habits of well-known creative talents—writers, artists, composers and the like.


It is filled with fascinating anecdotes.


Thomas Wolfe fondled his “male configurations” to spur creativity. (No surprise to this reader who has always considered Wolfe’s shameless indulgence in the purplest of prose a form of verbal masturbation.)


Proust, who remembered things past while snugly ensconced in his sheets, had many bedfellows—from Edith Stiwell, who was rumored to find inspiration by lying in an open coffin, to Truman Capote, who described himself as a “completely horizontal writer.”


W.H. Auden began his day with Benzadrine and ended it with Seconal. Edward Abbey started with uppers and finished with downers.


Alcohol was, of course, the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald and, one suspects, for his rivals Hemingway and Faulkner, though both claimed to write sober and drink only in the interval.


But by far the most popular drug of choice, it seems, is coffee. For Beethoven, it was precisely sixty beans per cup. For Balzac, fifty cups per day. For David Lynch, a mere six or seven…augmented by heaps of sugar and a chocolate shake.


What conclusions can one draw from a reading of Daily Rituals?


First and foremost, creative types are eccentrics.


They swim outside the mainstream. They are not “normal,” and it is, perhaps, their status as outsiders that inspires them to re-examine cherished beliefs, to question the norm, to look at life from unique perspectives.


Second, the vast majority of them adhere to strict routine, to disciplined scheduling of their working lives, and they rely upon some sort of external stimulus to get them through their working day.




The creation of anything—a novel, a play, a sculpture, a dance—is hard, physically as well as mentally demanding. Phillip Roth describes it as “a nightmare.” William Styron, as “hell.”


So it is that writers go to astonishing lengths to find reasons not to write.


The most common solution?


Write every day. Write at the same time every day. Write the same number of words every day. And make sure the coffee pot is always full.


The third and final conclusion to be drawn from Daily Rituals is that most creative types are loners…at least, while they are involved in the impossible task of creation.


They, like Greta Garbo, want to be alone.


They achieve this goal by retreating to a place apart.


For Robinson Jeffers, it was the remote California coast, Tor House and his “tower beyond tragedy.”


For others, it is something as simple as a bedroom, a study, a cabin…with a “DO NOT DISTURB” sign posted outside.


Or a swim in the sea.


Or a walk in an isolated wood.


Writers and other artists want to be alone…alone in the world of their creation, alone with the characters and the images they are creating, undisturbed by the noisy world that constantly threatens to intrude and send their castles in the sky crumbling down to earth.


All of these things are, I suspect, true not just of the greats examined in Daily Rituals, but of lesser talents like Judy Blume and Chelsea Handler.


I know they are true of me, and while my achievements as a writer are modest at best, I’m convinced that there may be value in an account of my own daily rituals, which will be the subject of my next diatribe.



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December 14th, 2014 5 Comments



I was a Cub Scout.


Unlike some of the less committed members of my den, I believed.


I believed in citizenship, compassion, cooperation and courage.


In faith, health, fitness and honesty.


Perserverance and a positive attitude.


Resourcefulness, respect and responsibility.


All of the core values of scouting.


I took them so seriously that I, like a latter-day Benjamin Franklin, kept a record of my successes and failures in my pursuit of these virtues…until it became apparent that my failures vastly outnumbered my successes and I wisely abandoned the effort.


My major accomplishments were in the smaller things—like learning to tie my shoes or mastering the complexities of manipulating a necktie into a perfect knot.


In spite of my moral shortcomings and my limited skills, I looked forward to the moment when I would become that most admirable of human beings, the full-fledged Boy Scout!


It never happened.




My mother—full of fear, convinced that I would die of an asthma attack or suffer a fatal fall from a cliff or be devoured by a rampaging bear—refused to let me join the hallowed ranks of Scoutdom.


I’ve spent much of the rest of my life overcoming my mother’s fears and much of the last decade backpacking the Sierras, the difficult, sometimes dangerous backcountry where I’ve always remembered and attempted to practice the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”




If you’re not, you put yourself and others at risk.




Good words to live by.


In many ways, a summary of all ten of the core values of Scouting—especially the last and most important: responsibility.


It was, I supposed, the failed Boy Scout in me that responded to the publication of a book about a young woman who, devastated by the untimely death of her mother, healed herself in her attempt to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. The book was called Wild, and its author was Cheryl Strayed.


As someone with an insatiable appetite for accounts of adventures (and misadventures) in the Sierras, I couldn’t wait to read Strayed’s memoir.


I read it…


…and I hated it.


What, you ask, is not to like?


Well, let’s see.


Cheryl loves her mother.




Her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, becomes desperately ill, and dies.


Cheryl, torn apart by her mother’s agony, is supported throughout this dreadful ordeal by her husband Paul, a “kind, tender man” who shows sensitivity, compassion, love in his effort to keep her afloat emotionally.


And how does she repay him once her mother passes?


By having one mindless, meaningless affair after another, eventually ending up with a heroin addict and becoming a user herself.


Poor thing, you say.


After all, she lost her mother.


And what, I ask, about Paul?


Do we simply dismiss him as collateral damage in the self-indulgent, self-pitying disaster she makes of both his life and hers?


Cheryl does.


After all, it’s all about her.


Her loss.


Her pain.


Paul’s doesn’t seem to matter.


Ah, you say, but this is a story of redemption: it’s not about who Cheryl was before her journey into the Sierras. It’s about who she is after she finishes it.


You know.


Like the words from that wonderful hymn: “I once was lost and now am found.”


Oh, I see.


She emerges from her trip a sensitive, giving, responsible human being.


And she does this how?


By hitting the trail completely unprepared for the journey she’s undertaking, without a clue about the kinds of things she will need out there or the kind of dangers she may encounter.


By carrying a ridiculously heavy pack, wearing shoes that invite bloody blisters and lost toenails, failing to research water sources and their locations along the trail, and neglecting to check weather forecasts.


By demonstrating the same sort of irresponsibility she showed in her personal life.


By indulging in the same sort of self-destructive behavior that characterized her marriage.


And, of course, by ignoring the possible consequences of her actions on those around her.


It’s a near miracle that she did not require the intervention of a search and rescue team, whose members put their lives on the line every time they’re called out.


This, of course, never occurred to Cheryl.


Her adventure was, like her mother’s death, all about her.


The former Cub Scout in me, the would-be Boy Scout, read her story in disgust.


BE PREPARED, I wanted to shout.




My cries, of course, went unheard.


But her book did not.


It became a runaway best-seller, thanks to Cheryl’s undeniable gifts as a writer and to Oprah Winfrey’s decision to promote her work.


And now it’s “a major motion picture.”


Everyone loves Cheryl.


Everyone but me.


Could it be that I swim out of the mainstream?


Could it be that “they” are right, and I am wrong?




But I must admit I’m curious, given the film’s 93% favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.


Curious enough to see the movie and give Cheryl a second chance.


After all, I admire the film’s director Jean-Marc Vallée, who did an astonishing job on The Dallas Buyer’s Club.


I’m a long-time fan of Reese Witherspoon, who is not only a major talent but who so believed in this project that she broke a cardinal Hollywood rule and put her own money into it.


And I’m desperate for a good movie in this slim season of Oscar worthy films.






…for next week’s report on this Scout’s reaction to the cinematic version of Cheryl and her adventures in the Sierra Nevada.



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