Twitch Upon a Star by Herbie J Pilato: Meandering Memories

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Like millions of people across the globe, I grew up watching Bewitched. Although, truth be told, it was not a favourite in our house, or at least if it was, it came on after my bedtime. I did watch it later on in its many resurgences on daytime telly as it was always (and still is, I believe) one of those shows that will be re-run fodder until the end of time.

I do remember the disappearance of actor Dick York who played Darren in the beginning episodes. His absence and subsequent replacement by Dick Sargent was never explained. If I remember correctly it was handled similarly to how they announce replacements in the American soap opera world; “the part of Darren will be played by Dick Sargent.”

It was almost like he’d died, York that is, and in those old halcyon days of pre-internet the information was not revealed to mere mortals like you or I. At least not to mortals who lived in the rural areas of Arkansas.

But regardless of who played the witch Samantha’s mortal husband, the show was entertaining and a wealth of young men grew up hoping that if they couldn’t find a witch like Samantha, they could at least find an Elizabeth Montgomery.

Later when Bewitched finally shuffled off into that realm of reruns and (hopefully) reunions or at the very least a TV movie, Ms Montgomery moved on to other more challenging roles both in her work as an actress and as a person. The work side of things were documented by her body of works. Some of which I only found out about by reading this book.

I had no idea that my “ideal” woman growing up portrayed one of my “real-life” role models and literary heroes, the Pulitzer Prize winning Edna Buchanan.

Twitch upon a Star or “The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery: TWITCH UPON A STAR” which is it’s too long title, is written by Herbie J Pilato. Mr Pilato has written several books about television shows and series. This 472 page book serves as a fan’s ultimate pledge of love and devotion. So much so that he uses a grand total of 25 pages to preface and introduce the actual recounting of Montgomery’s life.

I will not say that this book did not inform, because it did. Unfortunately it informed too much of the same information. Repeatedly. While I was eager to read of the “trials and tribulations” of a woman who I felt was a damned fine actress (I’d seen her Lizzie Borden and this childhood ‘crush’ scared the hell out of me) I did not want to read the same information time and again in different chapters.

Elizabeth Montgomery as ax murderess Lizzie Borden.
Elizabeth Montgomery as ax murderess Lizzie Borden.

The book suffers from following no real chronological time line. It moves forward and backward throughout Elizabeth’s life and career. The information dealing with her marriages leapfrogs back and forth and does not adhere to events as they happened. Rather they pop up randomly based, it seems, on the tiniest of threads that Pilato feels makes the re-revealing of this information crucial.

While the tone of the book is one of reverence. (It appears to be Mr Pilato’s opinion that not only could Ms Montgomery walk on water, she was incapable of getting her feet wet) Pilato does try to infer that the woman was not a saint, but the inclusion of so many repeated variants of the same anecdotal reveals plunges the reader into stretches of boredom and disinterest.

love “showbiz” biographies. Not the “kiss and tell” warts and all type of yellow journalism that would not look out-of-place on the cover of The National Enquirer (because enquiring minds want to know) but the ones that offer true insights to a great actors background or how they achieved their goals. The personal touches that make that face on the screen become a real person.

Or perhaps the “nuts and bolts” of what made them become a performer or a certain type of person. Something that tells me once about some incident or occurrence that shaped their lives or performances. Not repeatedly going over the same old ground again and again.

I was really excited to see this book on the Kindle list of Biographies. I always liked Elizabeth Montgomery and wanted to learn more about her as a person. Unfortunately the book relies far too heavily on old interviews done throughout her career; not only to “move” the book forward, but to repeatedly support some point that one of her friends may have made about her character.

Unfortunately this book was a hard slog to get through. I came close to giving up several times. The odd interesting tidbit of information was lost in the endless repeating of information and the stepping forward and then backward through the time line of her life.

This is a 3 out of 5 star book only because there were a few anecdotes that I’d not heard and there was the odd bit of information that almost made the sheer drudgery of reading the overlong and meandering tome worth it.

Recommended for only the most ardent Elizabeth Montgomery fans and then only those whose devotion can forgive such a wandering and unguided look at her life.

Two brilliant actors - Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha and Agnes Moorehead as Endora.
Two brilliant actors – Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha and Agnes Moorehead as Endora.

Sandy Hook Shootings: the Un-Reality of Violence

Edna Buchanan, crime reporter retired, journalist, author, Pulitzer Prise winner.

In one of the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Edna Buchanan‘s books she (The Corpse had a Familiar Face, Vice, et al) wrote about a shootout at one of Miami‘s larger shopping malls in the 80’s. “The only people who screamed and ducked for cover were the cops. Everyone else thought that an episode of Miami Vice was being filmed.”

Therein lays the problem with violence in real life versus violence in “reel” life. Despite the bleeding hearts of the world who still scream to the rafters that television and films are too violent and that Mr and Mrs Joe Citizen and their offspring are becoming anesthetized to the effects of violence, I argue that the reverse is true.

Very few directors in this day and age have the cojones to show just how sickening, and let’s face shocking, real violence is. Real violence is painful, bloody, sudden, and sometimes, final. In real life no one is blasted off their feet by being shot or hurled backward (or forward) by the force of the  bullet striking their body. Buckets of blood do not flow when they are stabbed unless the person doing the stabbing has twisted the blade when withdrawing it.

Real violence takes modern men, women and children aback. It throws them off-balance and they do not know how to react. In this modern-day and age of “civilised” society where everyone is given benefit of the doubt and bad guys/gals are dealt with by the legal system, people have become sheep (aka victims) of a great lie.

That someone else will protect you.

My daughter and I were discussing the Sandy Hook shootings. It is not often that we both, Meg and I, share pretty much the same epiphany but this was one of those moments.

Looking at me over her scrambled eggs and toast she said, “It looks like only one person tried to stop the kid from shooting.” I thought about this and while trying to come up with a suitable response, she finished with, “And there is nothing in the news about the shooter except a name, Adam Lanza. No one seems to know anything about him. Don’t you find that odd?”

I do and I don’t.

The world is full of people who have fallen through the cracks of everyday society. Home schooling, the internet, the “new” version of the nuclear family all make insulation an easy lifestyle to maintain. What is odd is that this 20 year-old nut did not have a traceable history (there wasn’t even a photo of the guy in his yearbook) and he doesn’t appear on any social networks either.

What we do know is Mom was a gun enthusiast and she regularly took her boys to the shooting range to improve their aim. These trips proved to have fatal consequences for not only the adults and children Adam killed, but for her as well as it appears she was his first victim on the 14th of December 2012.

But my post is not about Adam Lanza so much as it is about the adult’s reaction to him. This skinny social inept – he allegedly had Aspergers syndrome – who, despite his guns, was not physically threatening. This was no Rambo-like warrior. This was an almost anorexic looking kid in combat fatigues who was armed.

*I would just like to point out here that the guns used by Lanza and the one found in his car all belonged to Momma Lanza and not Adam. He tried to unsuccessfully buy a gun and was denied the privilege. The point being that folks that want to use guns to kill don’t have to own them, they just have to have them; legally or illegally. So gun control lobbyist’s just chew on this fact for a while.*

What concerns me is that only one person tried to stop Lanza, the vice principal if I remember correctly, but it doesn’t matter who it was. What matters is it appears that only one individual realised that this was real. Real enough to be acted against and not just reacted to.

I have worked for the last ten years as a prison officer in the United Kingdom. I have seen violence first hand over that time. Nothing lethal, thank God, but pretty gruesome. Prison officers react quickly to threat and to violent action. We have to, it’s part of our job. What is not part of our job is recognising that a threat exists and keeping an eye on it. We try to intervene as quickly as possible to prevent more people getting hurt.

Policemen and women do the same thing, but in the civilian environment and with a lot more lethal results and weapons. The worst “weapon” I’ve seen in action was batteries in a sock that could possibly kill someone and definitely gave someone a concussion.

But the point I am trying to make is that your average person has no “awareness” of threat nor do they have the presence of mind to react assertively in the face of that threat. People now rely too much on having someone else act for them. After all, that’s what the police are for, right?

Wrong.

Police, as they themselves will tell you, are an after the fact organisation. The police will gladly tell you that there is no way in hell (my emphasis not theirs) that they are able to protect everyone. But people want to believe that in this civilised modern world that we live in, the police can and do “protect and serve.”

But we need to face the facts that unless the cops are right there when the threat presents itself, they will not be able to respond quickly enough to save anyone.

I am not saying that the answer lay with more firearms being available to more people or even that folks should start strapping gun belts on before they leave the house.

I am saying that people need to be more aware and less “politically sensitive” to others. The question everyone should be asking is this, “How in the world did this skinny 20 year-old madman get into the school to begin with?” I am not pointing a finger of blame at anyone here. The point is that no one apparently felt that something was wrong until the young man began shooting.

No one, apparently, noticed that this guy did not belong. No one was aware.

I raised my daughter to always be aware of her surroundings. Not only that but to be aware of people who did not “feel” right; that person that you pass on the sidewalk or hallway who is giving off “bad” or “not normal” vibes. The place where bushes or trees are too close to the road or path you are on; a place just perfect to get mugged or worse.

I am not saying be paranoid, but be aware. I’ve lived for over 54 years and a good portion of those I was aware of what was going on around me. I have been in strange cities all over the world and walked alone through a lot of dodgy places and not once have I had something bad happen as a result.

I have been lucky, I know that, but I have also been aware. I would also, I like to think, have tried to stop the young man.

I was trained, along with other prison officers, how to disarm someone with a knife or a gun (although the instructors always went to great pains to explain that no one is faster than a bullet) so that other people, and of course yourself, would not be hurt. I’ve never had to do either and probably never will.

But with modern societies focus on law and order and the breeding of a generation of sheep leads me to believe that the reason that more of these mass shootings (mass murders) are happening more often is because of the lack of response by those being threatened or killed. I am not talking about children here I am talking about responsible adults.

Have we lost the ability to recognise real violence and death? Like the citizenry that Edna Buchanan talks about at the Miami mall shootings, do we view all violence as a film scenario? When we hear a gunshot (providing we even realise a gun has been fired) do we automatically look for the cameras and the film crew?

Have we become so “cowed” by the sight of blood and death that we cannot react to stop the violence? I don’t mean to imply that everyone needs to have a “have-a-go-hero” attitude and be a John McClane. Sandy Hook elementary had heroes, one of which quickly hid her charges in a closet and lied to the gunman about where they were.

It would be nice to think that everyone could or would be so quick-witted. But most people when interviewed after the fact all say that the violence and death did not feel real. Sadly due to the cinematic style of violence in the movies real violence, that is still painful and bloody, is not cinematic. It is harder to recognise because it is, compared to its celluloid cousin, quite low-key and not put through a Dolby sound system.

But we must not let ourselves believe the lie that others will protect us and our families. We are just as responsible and more importantly we are probably closer to the violence when it is happening.

I know that gun control will rear its ugly head again and the NRA and the anti-gun crowd will go to battle stations once again. On Twitter some idiot from the UK said, “We outlawed handguns after our school massacre and have had no more mass shootings since.” Besides sounding like a pompous prig, this fine chap also forgot to mention the several victims in Cumbria, Wales (part of the United Kingdom) shot to death in 2010 or injured by a 52 year-old taxi driver who shot innocents with a legal shotgun.

A bit of news for you mate, a shotgun is not a handgun, all right?

The lesson that could be learned is that we need to be not only more aware, but to be more active in trying to stop the violence. I know that before I trained and worked as a prison officer, I always had the attitude that if someone was trying to hurt or kill me or someone around me, I would try to stop them. Failing that? I’d at least have slowed ’em down a bit and given someone else a chance to get away.

I pray that I never have a chance to find out if I really would or could react quickly enough to try. Of course I also pray that people start realizing that they themselves are the first person responsible for stopping the violence and for protecting themselves.

And like the NRA like to say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” True enough, but guns (besides being a damned good deterrent) are made to kill. But if someone wants to kill badly enough, they don’t need a gun. Hell a golf club can be used to kill someone and you’ll need to “get up close and personal” to do it.

Let’s leave the gun issue out of it, shall we? Let’s concentrate on being more aware.

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Sock Puppets…Trolls With a Hand Up Their Butt?

Photo courtesy of Read it again, Mom at blogspot.com

While I was writing my latest book review, Fair Game by Stephen Leather I was cruising the net for images to put on my article. I came across a picture of Stephen that stated that he liked sock puppets. I glanced at the image and chuckled. I then found an image I liked and moved on.

I then moved off the Google page of images and the engine coughed up an article about the practise of Sock Puppetry. I was curious about this “new” thing that was going on in the world of literature.

Essentially, sock puppets is another term for trolling. Okay, the article did not call it that, nor did the other multitude of  articles dealing with this practise. The explanation of sock puppetry is as follows:

” pseudonymous handles to post positive Amazon reviews of [sic] an author’s own books and one-star reviews of others.” *courtesy of the LA Times* Basically, “certain” authors are giving their published works 5 star reviews on Amazon (and presumably sites like Goodreads) and slating the competition.

It certainly sounds like trolling to me. Slating something someone else has done (usually on YouTube) and hiding behind a fake identity. The main difference of course is it that the sock puppet version of trolling is being done by someone with a vested interest is “cutting back” the competition.

Whether we like it or not, writing is a business. One that has become increasingly reliant on author participation directly related to sales. New authors (and even “established” ones) are having to resort to touting their wares beyond the “old-fashioned” route of book signings and interviews on  local and national media stations.

New authors are having to go the ‘self publishing’ route or are striving to make a name for themselves in the ever-increasing tide of eBooks that are the “bread and butter” of the kindle world. The old-fashioned publishing world exists, of course it does, with its huge slush pile of rejected manuscripts and agents on the look out for a “new” published author.

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...
Cover via Amazon

As the eBook industry  is gearing up, book reviews in newspapers and magazines are getting sparse. You can still find them of course, Reader’s Digest still has a monthly one, but, these are mostly for established writers well-known to the reading public. New authors do get a mention, sometimes.

So you are a writer and you’ve finished your book and , dammit, it’s good. You’ve got a ton of reject slips telling you so, it’s just that it’s not what the publisher needs right now. So you go the eBook route and self publish. It’s done more than you would think.

Now your book is published and out there for the world to read. It is unfortunately under-priced and the revenue coming in isn’t enough to buy a pint of bitter down the local pub. It needs some attention and a lot more positive notices so that readers want to try it out.

Now the under-pricing is impacting the sales of books in that they are driving the value of books down. As a consumer I applaud this, as a writer I am appalled. How can you make a living out of selling books that go for 99 pence a copy? I might have to work at MacDonald’s while I write in my spare time for the rest of my life.

But price matters aside (we won’t mention the “free” books) how do you drive readers to your works apart from relying on the medium that is selling your book?

Reviews.

Amazon has a section for reviews and has had for a long time. This system, set up for readers to say what they thought of their reading experience has always been open to “fake” reviews. It is part and parcel of a business that relies on “written word of mouth” to sell your stories.

The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 ...
The Pulitzer Prize gold medal award 한국어: 퓰리처상 공공 보도 부문 상인 금메달 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Buchanan wrote in one of her autobiographical books that when she worked on a small newspaper in Florida she and a co-worker wrote “fake” inflammatory letters to the editor to get a reaction and drive their readership up. On a lesser note, editors use to also write to their own Playboy magazine with “sexual exploit” letters for a similar reason.

So  could we accuse the award-winning Ms Buchanan of early sock puppetry? I don’t think so. Because no matter how we go about it, business is business. Sure it’s not the same as the old saying, ” In love and war…” There are laws and apart from a lot of authors all squealing because they got a poor review on Amazon from a fictitious fan, trolling is not illegal.

Unethical? Probably. Maybe.

Either way, it is the way business is being done in an environment that requires so much more author input into the sales of their books.

On a final note, who really pays attention to book reviews? I read them (always have) but most are written by book critics who have their own agendas. Just like internet sites like IGN  and  G4 are thinly disguised marketing tools, so are book critics. I do pay a bit of attention to fan reviews but they are opinion based and not a hard and fast picture of how good a book really is.

I can sympathise with the aggrieved authors who feel (quite rightly, I suppose) that they are being unfairly picked on, but…

I know that at least one author who has clawed his way up through electronic publishing to become a successful “traditionally” published writer has bucket loads of talent and writes one helluva good book. I think that if you are on the other side of the fence and are trying to become successful in your field you will do whatever you have to.

Success isn’t just a state of mind, it’s having the dedication to take advantage of any legal doors open to you.  This war is going to go on for sometime to come. Just because a few authors have been caught with their fingers caught in the proverbial cookie jar doesn’t mean that the practise will stop.

Oops.