Saturday, August 10, 2019

Stories from the carnage

Alex Kotlowitz is an American journalist, author, and filmmaker, a writer-in-residence at Northwestern University. His book There Are No Children Here was a national bestseller and was named one of the 150 most important books of the twentieth century by The New York Public Library. It is the true story of brothers Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, ages 11 and 9 trying to make it in a violence-ridden public housing project. The boys live in a gang-plagued war zone on Chicago's West Side. "If I grow up, I'd like to be a bus driver," says Lafeyette at one point. That's if, not when. The book's title comes from a comment made by the brothers' mother: "There are no children here. They've seen too much to be children."

Kotlowitz has now published An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago. In the introduction he writes, "Since the publication of [There Are No Children Here] in 1991, four of the kids I befriended have been murdered . . . The numbers are staggering. In Chicago, in the twenty years between 1990 and 2010, 14,033 people were killed, another roughly 60,000 wounded by gunfire. And the vast majority of these shootings took place in a very concentrated part of the city."

He decided to report on events in that very concentrated part of the city—the black and Hispanic part—over the course of a single summer, 2013. He wanted to write "a set of dispatches, sketches of those left standing, of those emerging from the rubble, of those trying to make sense of what they've left behind." There was nothing special about the summer of 2013 (and to provide context and conclusion to some of the stories, he occasionally has to go back and forward in time).  During those three months, "172 people were killed, another 793 wounded by gunfire. By Chicago standards it was a tamer season than most."

The stories are horrific, depressing, inspiring. We meet a man who as a teenager killed a rival gang member and who, twenty years later, is still trying to come to terms with what he did. We travel with a devoted school social worker who struggles with her favorite student who refuses to give evidence in the shooting death of his best friend. We spend time with a witness to a wrongful police shooting who cannot stop thinking about
what he has seen. We visit an aging former gang leader who has built a place of refuge for himself and his friends.

Kotlowitz evokes a society in which it is all against all. The most depressing story is that of Ramaine Hill who had been the victim of a shooting by a fifteen-year-old on a bicycle. Ramaine identified the shooter who was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Then for two years the shooter's friends tried to get Ramaine to recant, threatening him, offering money, even attempting to kidnap him. Then "a man in a red hoodie and red jogging pants, with a distinctive limp" shot and killed Ramaine. It happened at 1:30 in the afternoon on a Saturday in a public park. The police identified four witnesses. The police identified the shooter, but without witness testimony the prosecution had no case. Not one would testify. And given Ramaine's experience who would?

An American Summer is a description, not a prescription. "It's not a policy map or a critique," he writes. "It's not about what works and doesn't work. Anyone who tells you they know is lying . . . Antiviolence gurus insist they have the answers. I've seen one—the founder of a local program—take credit for the reduction of shootings in the years before his organization even existed. What works? After twenty years of funerals and hospital visits, I don't feel like I'm much closer to knowing."

So what you have in An American Summer in an incredibly well-reported and powerfully-written account of certain American lives in a certain American place at a certain time. It's an unforgettable account.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Why keep a daily journal

One of the people interviewed for the book, A Better World Starts Here by Stacy Russo, was Carol J. Adams who is identified as a writer who has a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. One of the topics she talked about is the practice of keeping a daily journal.

Adams says that although she had made sporadic journal entries in the 1970s she was inspired to begin keeping a daily journal after she read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way in 1996. Cameron suggests writing "morning pages," which actually came from Depression-era book Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.

The idea, says Adams, is "you write when you first wake up in the morning. Now I know a lot of people do not handwrite any more, and that people are very busy in the morning; but this is often when the subconscious is closest to us, including remembering our dreams."

Within a month of beginning her daily journal, Adams read Morton Kelsey's Adventure Inward, and she quotes him: "It is important to remember that journal-keeping is a living process, like exercise. One does the same thing over and over to develop and maintain skill. Healthy living in body and soul and mind requires the constant repetition of certain practices." Adams says that when she gets up in the morning now she writes three or more pages in a dedicated journal.

She also rereads old journal entries. "I can go back to the journals from the time when I was caring for my mom, and there she is. If I miss her, I can go to my journal and find the sort of repartee that I had recorded just because I was recalling the day."

She says she writes the entries on one side of the page. "When I go back, I write the date at which I'm rereading it. And then I'll put comments on the other side of the page, so that the journal becomes something with which I'm interacting. I find a lot of serendipity related to which journal I decide to read at what time and how that intersects with what I'm experiencing as I read it. I think keeping a journal is one of the greatest gifts I've given myself."

I agree that keeping a daily journal is an invaluable exercise for anyone who wants to write. It's a way to capture observations, ideas, stories, experiences, snatches of dialogue. And while I do not return to my journal often, I have reread enough entries to realize what is most likely to interest my future self and improve tomorrow's entry. A journal is a gift you can give yourself—cheap, legal, and non-fattening.

Friday, July 5, 2019

A Better World: A great idea fumbled

A Better World Starts Here: Activists and Their Work sounds like a great idea for a book. The author, Stacy Russo, a community college librarian and professor at Santa Ana College, describes herself as a writer, poet, and artist. Her books include Love Activism, We Were Going to Change the World, Life as Activism, and The Library as Place in California.

Her idea: interview 25 activists in different areas about their backgrounds, ask them what set them on their activist path, and describe their organizations (or activism if they have no organization). A receptive reader may be inspired to become active, even to start her/his own organization. It's great idea for a book that could have been much better than it is.

Russo asks one soft-ball, bold-face question after another and apparently transcribes with light editing whatever she was told. These are questions like, "How do you continue to stay positive in your activism?" "Do you have any final thoughts on your work that you would like to share?" "Did you notice any differences with the treatment of women versus men in your field?" (The answer—surprise!—is yes.) The technique means that the interviews all follow a certain pattern and a certain blandness. A 300-page book of transcriptions by its very nature tends to be boring as opposed to a single page Q&A with an author, an expert, or a celebrity in a magazine.

I had another problem with the book: It's sometimes difficult to see how the interviewee is actually making the world better. The first interview is with a "trans activist/certified holistic life coach." This woman says that in 2017 she and a friend formed TranSpectrum, "a social and support group for people who do not identify as cisgender, the gender/sex they are assigned medically at birth, and those who are questioning their gender." But she's no longer leading the group, and I'd like to know what the group actually accomplished (is accomplishing). How does it support? How is it making the world better?

One interviewee is a feminist who had to abandon Orthodox Judaism to become one. But her story implies the world would be better if Orthodox Jewish women renounced Orthodox Judaism for feminism. It might be better for certain women—it apparently was for the woman Russo interviewed—but would it be better in general? It might be possible to make that case, just as it might be possible to make a general case for veganism, caring for elderly dogs, or publishing books like A Better World Starts Here (Russo interviews her publisher), but the book often assume the case need not be made. The goodness is self-evident. A skeptical reader, however, will on occasion want the case made.

The most rewarding interviews are with activists who have started an organization for which a need is apparent. Michelle Carrera began Chilies on Wheels on Thanksgiving, 2014 when she prepared fifteen vegan meals in her New York City apartment and gave them to homeless people on the street. The response was so strong, she realized the need was greater than she thought. "We have expanded to other cities and the amount of meals we have been able to provide keeps growing. Right now, we prepare about 100 to 200 meals each week in New York."

Steve Bell served nearly 17 years of an indeterminate life sentence in the California prison system. He had a BA when he was sentenced but realized in prison that a frightening number of the inmates are illiterate and that led to the Prison Library Project. Once Bell was released and discovered the organization volunteered with it. It has now grown to the point where, "we send out abut 30,000 free books to prisoners every year."

Sara Vander Zanden is now the executive director of Facing Homelessness in Seattle, whose mission is to "invite the community to be part of the solution to homelessness." And while this involves a number of activities, the most extraordinary (to me) is to actually build a small house for a homeless person in the back yard. of a host family (flipping NIBY on its head). "We think that someday it will be just as normal to think about your backyard as a platform for social justice as it is to think about your spare room as a potential income generator through AirBnB."

Inspiring as several of the book's examples are, I'd have preferred fewer and deeper stories. Over and over I wondered, where does the money come from? From grants? From foundations? What foundations? What are the major challenges you have to deal with? If you were starting again, what would you do differently? How do you find board members? Volunteers? How do you measure success? What are your results?

A Better World Starts Here is a great idea that is disappointing because it could have been so much richer, deeper . . . better.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

You got a book inside you? Get it out

Ann Marie Sabath believes everybody has a book inside of them; all they need are forty-nine targeted tips to get it out. With that as a premise, she's written Everybody Has a Book Inside of Them: How to Bring It Out.

What Self-Made Millionaires Do That Most People Don't: 52 Ways to Create Your Own Success . . .  The Wealthy Gardener: Life Lessons on Prosperity between Father and Son . . . Business Etiquette in Brief: The Competitive Edge for Today's Professional . . .  and One Minute Manners: Quick Solutions to the Most Awkward Situations You'll Ever Face at Work.
Sabath is writing from the inside. Although she's the founder of At Ease Inc. a 32 year-old business courtesy training firm, she's written nine other books including most recently,

Everybody Has a Book Inside of Them, a 177-page paperback, has forty-nine very short chapters, many answering a question: Are you ever too young or too old to write a book? (No.) Why write a book in the first place? (Nine reasons, including sharing your expertise, the book acts as your legacy, it will help you brand yourself, it can help generate additional income, and more.) How long does it take to write a book? (Sabath's answer: writing an hour a day for thirty-two weeks will give you a 180-page book.) How soon is too soon to write your second book after writing your first?

Most of the chapters, however, are common sense advice: How to identify the book inside. The value of a sounding board advisory group. Know your reader. Ways to stay motivated. Six things NOT to do with your manuscript. (Keep the only draft within reach of the dog. Give the only copy to an angry spouse. Give family members easy access to your manuscript. Store your only copy in a spot subject to flooding. Give your only copy to someone for review. Forget where you put the only copy. To which one should add: Don't back up routinely.)

Sabath has heard all the excuses why someone doesn't write her book: "I have no idea where to start." If you're reading her book, she points out, you've started. "I don't have the time to dedicate to writing a book." That's just a way to say writing your book is not a priority. "English was not my favorite subject." So what? "I would feel vulnerable writing a book." Then think twice about your topic. "I don't have the discipline to write a book." Do you the discipline to do other things, like getting to work on time? Paying your bills? Give yourself some credit.

One of Sabath's more interesting chapters (for me) itemizes the contents of her grab-and-go tote: two iPads, earbuds, iPhone, two power cords, a charging base, two pens, a small notebooks, snacks, a bottle of water, and business cards.

One of the few quibbles I have with her book is her chapter on titles. She encourages readers to trademark their catchy title to protect it and the licensing rights, recommending a trademark attorney. She does not point out that trademarking a title—if you can do it at all—is both time-consuming and expensive. She also does not note that you cannot copyright a title, so because there is no ® indicating that she's registered her title you're free to call your book Everybody Has a Book Inside of Them: How to Bring It Out (although why you would so when there's a perfectly good one available is another question).

Also, Sabath says nothing getting your book published. That's her next book: How to Get Your Book Published and Sell It as Though Your Life Depends On It. No kidding. She has a two-page chapter titled "Why the 'How to Get Published' Section Is Not Being Addressed in This Book."

With those caveats, I recommend Sabath's How To to anyone who believes she has a book inside her and simply needs a nudge—or two—to just do it. (Hey, that's not a bad title: Just Do It: How to Free the Book Within You.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A memoir, a history, a meditation all in one

Debra Gwartney's I Am a Stranger Here Myself is a memoir, a history, and a meditation. It is extraordinary and in the month between reading it and writing this, I've recommended it to a dozen people. One of my fears, in fact, is that I will praise it so fulsomely that readers who pick it up will inevitably be disappointed.

Gwartney (says the publisher's news release) is the author of Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the coeditor of Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape. She teaches in Pacific University's MFA in Writing program and lives in Western Oregon.

She is a fifth generation Idahoan, someone who grew up in a family that embraced certain Western values: "Keep the government out and the guns close by. Remember that the land is your land to use as you want. Tromp into the woods, camp in the wilderness  . . . . Let no strangers in," These are values Gwartney rejects entirely as a late-middle-aged white and left-leaning woman. The tension between her childhood in small-town Idaho and her adult awareness of impact of the white settlers and US Government on the land runs as a thread through the book.

She evokes her childhood. Her father impregnated her sixteen-year-old mother when he was fifteen. They married and apparently the two sets of grandparents loathed each other. Her father managed to move the family out of Salmon (pop. 3,000) to Boise, "so he could become the family's first executive for a corporation; he was the first man in our clan to toss off terms like pension and stock options."

But Gwartney weaves into the memoir the history of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, "the first Caucasian woman (so say the history books) to cross the Rocky Mountains, the first white woman to give birth to a white baby on the frontier (same history books). A missionary killed by the people she aimed to convert—her death, some say, changing the course of the settling of the West."

In 1836, Narcissa and her husband Marcus set up a mission along the Oregon Trail about eight miles from current day Walla Walla, Washington, in the Columbia River basin. They had come to bring Christianity to the Cayuse Indians and to provide a rest stop for settlers continuing west. Marcus named the mission Waiilatpu, "home of the ryegrass people," to honor the Native people whose traditional grounds he and Narcissa settled on.  Gwartne writes, "Tall grasses and bullrushes--tule sedge that the Cayuse used primarily to cover their long houses—were imperative to the tribe's way of life, a fact that Marcus, in what strikes me as one of his first acts of colonial indifference, ignored." He burned the grass, churned the soil, planted a garden, established an orchard, and sowed acre after acre of wheat to provide for the mission.

To discourage the Cayuse from taking the melons from the garden the Whitman's coated the melons with a drug that made the Indians sick. Worse, Marcus presented himself as a doctor, but he could do nothing to save the Indian children who died from the measles that came with the settlers. After nine years, the Whitman's had not converted a single Indian, and in 1847 a small band of Cayuse attacked the mission, killing Narcissa, Marcus, two girls, and a dozen men and boys.

Aside from relating key events in her life (almost dying on a Salmon River rafting trip; her father's recover after being crushed by a horse) and the inherent interest in Narcissa's history, I Am a Stranger Here Myself is wonderfully well written. Here, taken at random, is an example:

"In her journals and letters home, Narcissa, without a waver, asserts that she and Marcus were doing exactly what was necessary to teach the Cayuse a different way of being. The Cayuse had little interest in such instruction, but Narcissa went on instructing, and she went on insisting, for one thing, on a new notion of boundaries. Narcissa, like my great-grandmother Hazel would some sixty-some years later, stashed a rifle on the porch to warn Native people away front door and vegetable patch, and in the permanent house that Marcus finally did build to replace their first sod dwelling, she made sure an 'Indian room' was tacked on toward the back, the one space the Cayuse (though only those dressed in western clothing and recently bathed) were allowed to enter, to keep their muddy feet and sticky hands, their stinking bodies, from her parlor."

I Am a Stranger Here Myself is a moving and powerful corrective to the heroic story of the dauntless pioneers who Won the West. Gwartney, her Idaho family, Narcissa and Marcus a human beings, strangers in a strange land, as are we all.

Monday, April 15, 2019

"The Magazine" reveals skulduggery at a magazine

Kasia Moreno and her husband Hugo each have a couple decades of experience working at financial magazines such as Forbes and SmartMoney. (I'm quoting their book's biographical note; my fact-checking staff is on vacation this week.) With that background, they apparently thought, why not write a revenge thriller in which virtually all the main characters are connected to a financial magazine that is arrogant enough to call itself The Magazine?

The Morenos' novel, titled The Magazine, begins with a change at the top of the magazine's masthead on June 13, 1997. (The chapters are all dated to help readers keep track of the pell mell activity; the book ends on October 9, 1999.) The editor-in-chief is stepping down and, to select a replacement, he asks each of four candidates on the staff to come up with an outstanding story and may the best reporter win.

Rebecca, one of the candidates, sniffs out a potential blockbuster and works flat out for more than a week, ignoring sleep, ignoring food, barely drinking enough liquid to remain functional, and ignoring her widowed father's phone messages. (He's gregarious; she's focused on her story.)

At the end of the editorial competition she learns the fix was in from the beginning. The outgoing editor had chosen a successor before the contest but used it to spur the four reporters to outdo themselves for the next issue. Rebecca gets more bad news: Her beloved father had been one of many terminated at his long-time employer after Tom Richardson, a billionaire hedge-fund manager bought the company. The father who'd been trying to reach his daughter all week to tell her he'd lost the job he loved terminated himself by jumping off the company's roof. Rebecca. shattered, quits The Magazine to work for its competition.

Tom Richardson is handsome, middle-aged, wealthy, and currently single. Twenty years earlier at Yale he had an affair with an Africa-American fellow student that  resulted in a daughter, Kimmie. Richardson supported Kimmie and her mother but had no contact with the girl who, early in the book, shows up at his Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment. Kimmie, after a stint at Morgan-Stanley, obtains a reporting job at The Magazine. 

The book's fourth main character is Helen who, when she isn't named editor-in-chief, apparently becomes The Magazine's managing editor. She meets Richardson, they fall in love, and he asks her to marry him.

So, the pieces are on the board and the game's underway: Rebecca wants to avenge her father's suicide by destroying the man who inadvertently (indeed, unknowingly) caused it: Tom Richardson. Kimmie wants to punish her father for his years of neglect. Helen wants to protect her finance.

Because the Morenos are writing from the inside, virtually all of the information about financial reporting and life on a national magazine ring true: how you find stories, relationship with sources, editorial idiosyncrasies (I myself had an editor who made changes at the last moment just because he could), and more. And because the book is set at the end of the 1990s, The Magazine's publisher does not yet have to lose sleep over the internet and what it is going to do to advertising and circulation.

The novel does raise a question: What is the point of it all? The Magazine's readers are, presumably, looking for an edge. an insight that a skilled reporter can tease out of SEC filings, analysts' reports, hints, and rumors. With the insight investors can confidently buy more stock, sell what they have, or short it in the expectation the price will drop. But how, the disinterested reader might ask, does this add to the country's wealth? It doesn't add to the country's stock of scientific or technological knowledge. It doesn't build a house, school, hospital, bridge, transportation system, or anything else. But that's a subject for another book.

The Magazine held my interest all the way through and not only because I have a background in magazine publishing myself. By the time I began to be less willing suspend my disbelief in the Morenos' complex plot I was hooked. How do you destroy a billionaire who can (and does) recruit one of the best private detectives in New York City and has an army of lawyers? How does a crack reporter protect her story from another crack reporter? How do you booby trap a loft apartment with nothing more than a screwdriver? Read—and enjoy—The Magazine to find out.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Why writers should listen to Daemon Voices

Philip Pullman, the author most famous for the His Dark Materials trilogy, has collected thirty-two essays, speeches, and introductions in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling. He wrote the oldest in 1997, the newest in 2014. While there is a certain amount of inevitable repetition, they are all fascinating. Here's a working writer letting you into his head for 436 pages to show you what he's learned about himself as a writer and what he knows about storytelling.

As the editor's introduction points out, Pullman is interested in the discoveries of science, the freedoms of democracy, the evils of authoritarianism, the pitfalls of education, the arguments of religion, and "above all, in human nature, how we live and love and fight and betray and console one another. How we explain ourselves to ourselves." The essays all have a single theme however: storytelling.

To make such a variegated miscellany more accessible, the book includes a Topic Finder (and an index) to group together essays which touch on the themes. Topics include Children's Literature;  Education and Story; His Dark Materials; My Other Books; Reading; The Writer; and The Practice of Writing.

You need not have read Pullman's trilogy—The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass—to enjoy Daemon Voices. (Although if you haven't, I recommend you do for the trilogy's own reward.) Rather, if you write fiction or aspire to write fiction, you can cherry-pick Daemon Voices for the insights it can give you and, ideally, help you become a better writer.

For example, Pullman believes the basic storytelling question is: "Where do you see the scene from? What do you tell the reader about it? What's your stance toward the characters?" One way to avoid the difficulties these problems cause "is to use a first-person and present tense way of telling the story . . . So I'm not surprised when writers choose the present tense, because it helps them to feel neutral, uncommitted, objective, and to avoid making the wrong choice of camera position." But the writer is not neutral, uncommitted, objective. Not ever.

"You privilege this over that by the mere fact of focusing on it," say Pullman. "What you give up when you write in the present tense is a whole wide range of stuff that you could say, and which is available to you through the grammar—the rich field of time itself, continuing time, or intermittent time, or time that was and now is no longer, or time that might come one day."

Pullman uses the metaphor of the wood and the path to talk about stories. The wood—or forest or jungle if you will—is all of reality, the place in which anything can happen. It is everything there is, or might be, or is not but we write stories about anyway: space aliens, ghosts, travel between alternate universes, even (pace Philip) God.

The path is structure. It leads from here to there, and even when it doubles back and crosses itself it has a purpose. "Each novel or story is a path (because it's linear, because it begins on page one and goes on steadily through all the pages in the usual order until it gets to the end) that goes through a wood," he writes. "The wood is the world in which the characters live and have their being; it's the realm of all the things that could possibly happen to them; it's the notional space where their histories exist, and where their future lives are going to continue after the story reaches the last page."

As a writer, I find these ideas (just a snippet from the book) useful. Where does the story start? In what wood does the story take place? To cite examples from my own writing: In Cleveland hotel room? A Japanese town? A New York City housing project? And what does the reader need to know about this particular woodland? How little is not enough and how much is too much?

I have told writing students who didn't know better that there are no rules in writing fiction (or, there are only two rules but no one knows what they are). Pullman argues there are rules, the first is that stories must begin. You can begin anywhere, but if you start with pages describing the weather, or the history of Charles II, or the recipe for beef Wellington without any reference to human involvement, it's probably not the most engaging way to begin.

Another rule concerns consistency. Would "such-and-such a move violate a unity or destroy a mood or contradict a proposition?" If, two chapters from the end of the book, the detective is suddenly able to read minds, you've violated this rule even if it makes it easier to solve the murder. Pullman also argues for consistency of tone. And he says one rule is so important he's written it on a piece of paper and stuck it above  his desk: "Don't be afraid of the obvious." Writers violate this rule when, in an effort to avoid stock situations, stereotyped characters, and second-hand plot devices, they no longer tell a story but instead make it perfectly clear they they're "too exquisite and fastidious to be taken in by any trite common little idea." How often have you read a book where the writing—the sentences, the vocabulary—is more vivid than the story?

You may not agree with every one of Pullman's ideas, but I believe they are all worth considering. I found Daemon Voices so rich, so thought-provoking I plan to read it again.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Is that a rhetorical question I see before me?

Here I've probably been writing polyptotons much of my adult life and never knew it. And would not have known had I not read The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth.

Forsyth is the creator of The Inky Fool, a blog around words, phrases, grammar, rhetoric, and prose. He attended Winchester College in Winchester, Hampshire, England and studied English language and literature at Lincoln College, Oxford University. His earlier books—both worth perusing—are Etymologicon, "the meanings and derivations of well-known words and phrases," and Horologicon, "weird words for familiar situations."

The Elements of Eloquence concerns itself with the figures of rhetoric, "which are the techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable just by altering the wording." Most chapters are short, an explanation of the rhetorical element with examples.

For example, a polyptoton is "the repeated use of one word as different parts of speech or in different grammatical forms." To demonstrate, Forsyth explicates: "Please Please Me is a classic case of polyptoton. The first please is the interjection, as in 'Please mind the gap.' The second please is a ver meaning to give pleasure, as in 'This pleases me.' Same word: two different parts of speech." Shakespeare did it all the time.

The 39 chapters cover everything from Alliteration to Zeugma with stops along the way at Anaphor, Anthesis, Merism, Synaesthesia, Aposiopesis, Hyperbation, Diacope, Metonymy and Synecdoche, and more. And more. And more. (Which is an example of Epizeuxis.)

I am afraid that by listing these elements by names you're never going to remember (except maybe Alliteration, Rhetorical Questions, Paradox, and Hyperbole), I am misrepresenting the book. Making it sound academic and dull. Au contraire!

Forsyth is clear, informative, engaging, and fun. The examples are apt and useful. It's a book serious writers should look into every year or so to recall just what Isocolon is and how to use it in their own work. And for word lovers, The Elements of Eloquence is a treasure. Not to mention a hoot. Which is an example of something else, but I'm too lazy to look it up.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Bones of the Earth: Corruption in high places

Bones of the Earth is Eliot Pattison's tenth Inspector Shan Tao Yun mystery, the second this blog has reviewed. I reviewed first in the series, Skeleton God about two years ago.

Inspector Shan is Chinese, but he was too diligent and honest for his own good in a Beijing investigation and ended up in a work camp in Tibet where he added Tibetan to his native Mandarin Chinese and English. Over the course of the series, Shan has gained the protection and grudging respect of Colonel Tan, the Chinese Army officer who essentially rules Tibet. As a result, Shan has not only been released from the gulag, but been appointed the constable of a backwater village.

Bones of the Earth gets underway when Shan is required to witness the execution of a corrupt Tibetan   engineer. But was it an execution or was it judicial murder? The dead man had been working on the Five Claws Dam, a huge hydroelectric project in Colonel Tan's territory. When something does not seem right and Shan looks at the case file, it's obvious to an experienced investigator that the dead man was framed. And Tan, concerned that something he does not control is being built in his fief, not to mention a dead man found in a train car carrying military material, appoints Shan Special Inspector  to inspect matters.

It becomes clear almost immediately that the Five Claws project is problematic. The valley the dam's water will flood is sacred to Tibetan Buddhism. An American religious archeologist and her Chinese professor have died in a dodgy car accident. The project is destroying a couple thousand years of Tibetan history--and the site's geology is not ideal for a dam anyway. What's going on?

Shan has to figure that out while dealing with the Five Claws project director and his assistant, with the Public Security Bureau (the police), with the Bureau of Religious Affairs (charged with protecting indigenous religious artifacts), with the People's Liberation Army, with the 404th People's Construction Brigade (Shan's former prison unit and currently his son Ko's), with Tibetan patriots, and more and more. Shan has Colonel Tan's support, but given all the currents and cross currents in his world, that may not be enough to bring villains to justice.

Pattison says he first traveled to China less than a month after relations were normalized between Washington and Beijing. He worked as a lawyer helping companies understand how to invest there. "My work became a platform for me to meet people at all ranks in the government, from ministers on down, as well as a chance to mingle in the streets of cities and towns throughout China and traditional Tibet."

He says Shan became an amalgam of many people he met, "people who have endured, preserving traditions, family, and integrity despite tremendous, sometimes violent, pressures to abandon them. These include professors sent to prison for possessing Western literature, officials whose lives were ruined because they declined to be cowed by the Communist Party, herders who were forced into factory jobs, then eventually, often illegally, found ways to return to their beloved pastures, and, of course, monks who survived incredible adversity to maintain their faith and identity."

Pattison probably cannot return to China—or Tibet—given his descriptions of the Chinese depredations. Here, from Bones of the Earth, is Shan regarding a cache of illegal texts: "Tibetan books were all hand-printed, their carved wooden printing plates carefully guarded and treasured by generations of monks. Religious Affairs had not only destroyed millions of such books but also scores of thousands of printing plates, making bonfires of the often centuries-old carvings, which meant that there were probably books on Tserung's shelves that were the only one of their kind surviving, never to be printed again . . ."

One pleasure of Bones of the Earth is the incidental information the book conveys about Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism, and the texture of daily life. But the main pleasure is to follow Shan as he tries to maintain his own integrity in a broken, corrupt, and dangerous world.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Read "Early Work" for the language, not the story

Andrew Martin's novel Early Work was a New York Times "Notable Book of 2018": "This marvelous debut novel, about a male writer's romantic entanglements, is like a restaurant dish that presents multiple preparations of a vegetable on the same plate—'beets, three ways'—to capture its essence. Early Work is books, three ways."

The narrator, Peter, an MFA graduate in his early 30s, has followed Julia his girlfriend of five years to Charlottesville where she is attending the University of Virginia's medical school. They'd met as undergraduates at Columbia, and Martin's description of her is a nice example of his writing and an illustration of the narrator's perceptions and attitudes:

". . . she was brilliant, the smartest person in the class, the smartest person I'd met at school, the smartest person I'd met. She was five foot nothing but looked taller because of her long neck and excellent posture. Under that neck, she was all breasts and hips—there was no room for anything else. She had long, curly blond hair, colored, I learned later, a few shades lighter than it was naturally, and defiantly puffy cheeks that went from a default rosy pink to bright red when she was even mildly embarrassed or drunk. She sang in an early music group, despite the fact that she was a half-Jewish atheist. She was in it for the tunes."

Peter and Julia have rented a house in Virginia, acquired a dog, and Peter has found a job as an adjunct writing instructor in a community college with an extra gig, teaching a class in a woman's prison. They have a companionable sex life, watch television, go to the movies, live almost like young (childless) marrieds. Julia works six days a week; Peter tries half-heartedly to write.

In Chapter 1 they go to a party at the gigantic house in horse country of a recent acquaintance where on page 4 he meets Leslie: "In that first long look couldn't help but notice that she didn't seem to belong in her delicate flowered sundress, that her strong, tanned arms and shoulders were positively bursting out of it . . . She looked like a wild creature that had been hastily and not entirely consensually bundled into something approximating midsummer southern chic." On page 93 he and Leslie finally have idyllic, romantic sex.

With the casual sex, the drinking, the vaping of pot, the irony, the knowingness, I suspect Early Work is a faithful picture of a certain slice of young America and their attitude toward life: " . . . the gaping maw of the future suddenly [was] before me. I spent so much time on the daily logistics of just staying alive that I often went weeks without remembering that I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I knew, because I'd been told, that passivity was not a quality to aspire to. But I thought it was possible that there was some secret nobility, a logic, in letting the tides of life just knock one around, in keeping the psychic ledger balanced."

I've quoted so much of the text because Martin's sentences, paragraphs, and dialogue (take my word on the dialogue) are so apt—intelligent, astute,  clever. The novel held my interest all the way through and I enthusiastically recommend it for the language and perceptions. The story, not so much: boy cheats on his long-time girlfriend, takes up with a provocative if vexing woman, and follows her to Montana. One could read Early Work as the narrator's 240-page justification for his actions, actions that many readers will find inexcusable anyway.

I was also struck by the fact that Julia is the only character in the novel who seems to have a goal or a direction in life. She wants to be a doctor and, from what we're given, we believe she will become one even if it means graduating with a mountain of debt. Peter, as quoted above, has no idea what to do with his life other than drink, get stoned, have sex. Leslie, like Peter, is an author manqué, although by the end of the book, Martin hints that Leslie in Montana may actually be able to publish something. Conceivably, it's the book we've just read.