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.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Moral lessons in a business book—and not an oxymoron

Jeff Holler is the founder and owner of The Capital Chart Room LTD, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor, which is registered to provide advisory services in Texas and Oklahoma. He says he wrote Bigger Than Business: Real-world Stories of Business Owners Living Their Purposeto help readers understand what it means to have a purpose bigger than business and “how you can fully live that purpose in and through your business.”
The stories include a Texas carpet company, an Australian psychology clinic, a Brazilian agricultural implement manufacturer, a Tennessee crane and rigging company, a Rwandan sewing cooperative, an Indonesian palm oil corporation, a German pressure gauge manufacturer, and the American craft goods retailer Hobby Lobby. 
All are family-owned; most are large: Rasa Floors revenue was $78 million in 2017. Barnhart Crane and Rigging has over 1,100 employee in 47 branches. Hobby Lobby has about 800 stores, 37,000 employees, and revenue of around $4.7 billion in 2017.
Most started modestly, and through hard work, integrity, and customer service they prospered. The ten core values of Brazil’s Jacto Agricola are representative of all eight organizations. These are three “virtueties” (honesty, humility, simplicity); customer satisfaction (the company’s “reason to exist”); hard work; social and environmental responsibility; training and promoting from within (“if you entice someone away from another company, you are coveting; it is a sin”); recognition the larger ecosystem (customers, dealers, suppliers, partners); promote innovation; avoid debt; honor commitments; and “transfer these core values to the next generation of leaders, managers, and workers.”
Several themes run through these stories that every leader of a small business could follow with profit: Treat customers honestly and fairly. Treat employees honestly and fairly; high turnover increases the cost of doing business and reduces customer satisfaction. Cap executive salaries; it is difficult for management to make the case that we’re all in this together when the CEO earns 361 times what the average worker earns. (Hobby Lobby not only capped executive salaries, but raised the company’s minimum wage to $15.24 an hour by 2015.) Avoid debt; with cash in the bank the business can withstand business reverses and afford opportunities. When in trouble, seek outside help; in my experience too many entrepreneurs do not ask for help until it’s too late. Prepare for the future; few family businesses survive past the third generation.
We read that more and more young people want to work for an organization that is purpose-drive when the purpose is more than simply increasing revenue, growth for growth’s sake, and plundering the earth and polluting the planet. What makes Bigger Than Business so interesting is that Holler describes a world in which chance, luck, coincidence do not exist. Everything that happens is part of God’s plan. 
If your new Suburban filled with Christmas gifts catches fire and burns to the frame it is “a strong and clear message from God.” If your company fires you, it’s because “God had other plans” (to bring you back as president sometime in the future). When the company runs into troubles serious enough to threaten its existence, “God also helped me realize that I could not let our problems ruin the organization by overreacting.” When the Green family decided that Hobby Lobby would not pay for federally-mandated employee insurance that covered embryo life-terminating drugs and devices and filed a lawsuit (which they won in the U.S. Supreme Court), they believed the decision “was in God’s hands.” That is, God working through the court has decided that citizens have a constitutional right “to live their faith without the fear of interference or retaliation by the U.S. government.”
It is a world in which God has a plan for your life and through signs and signals you can recognize that plan, the purpose for which God has placed you on earth. (Because you have free will, you can, perversely, ignore that purpose, but you won’t be happy here on earth and probably not after death.)
The eight stories in Bigger Than Businessare not really case histories in the sense that an MBA student would study them for insights into marketing or operations or business succession. 
They are parables, simple stories used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. The examples Holler gives are inspiring—the Hutu woman who survived the Tutsi genocidal massacre, one of two people to be pulled still alive from a mass grave . . . the young atheist German communist who not only “came to know and accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior” but became a through-going capitalist—and affluent as well. 
While I myself do believe in luck, chance, and coincidence, it is difficult for me to identify with everything in the book. Nevertheless, if the morals of these parables inspire leaders to help employees thrive and to be better stewards of the earth, I can only wish that more people study the book for its lessons. 

Monday, January 21, 2019

All happy families are unhappy in their own way

If you want to write a memoir (and who doesn't these days?) Hervé Le Tellier's All Happy Families, skillfully translated by Adriana Hunter, would be a good model to follow. Le Tellier is a French writer and linguist, and a member of the international literary group Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, which translates roughly as "workshop of potential literature"). He's published 21 books, six of which have been translated into English, including The Sextine Chapel, A Thousand Pearls (for a Thousand Pennies), Enough About Love,  Intervention of a Good Man, Electrico W, (for which the translator Adriana Hunter won the 27th Annual Translation Prize founded by the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation), and Atlas inutilis,

One secret to writing an engaging memoir is to wait until everyone you are liable to offend by telling the truth about them is dead. Le Tellier was able to reach a certain emotional distance from his family and write All Happy Families after his father and stepfather were dead and his mother was suffering from late-stage Alzheimers and will never read the book.

Skip the chronology

Another secret is to avoid a strict chronology of the sort: "I was born on April 21, 1957. I grew up in Paris. We would go to the country in the summer . . . " Boring, boring, boring. Le Tellier is anything but boring. For example, by page 2, he's realized at age twelve he's a monster. He's been alone in the Paris apartment for the evening. The telephone rings and he imagines it to be the police reporting the death of his mother and stepfather. But it's not. It's his mother reassuring him that they were running late. "It occurred to me that I hadn't been worried. I'd imagined their demise with no feelings of panic or sadness. I was amazed to have so quickly accepted my status as an orphan, and appalled by the twinge of disappointment when I recognized my mother's voice. That's when I knew I was a monster."

Another secret is to explicate the family dynamics. Le Tellier's aunt married an exceptionally successful engineer who became wealthy. The uncle encourages Hervé's mother and stepfather to buy a studio in the Avoriaz ski area. A good deal because renting it to others during the season almost covered the mortgage and the family was able to go for a couple weeks in winter. "It was only later that I understood how much these holidays spent in luxury, thanks to her sister, exasperated and humiliated my mother. She may have been discreet in front of the whole family, but once alone with us she never stopped accusing her brother-in-law of taking kickbacks and making 'shady deals,' and—not without an element of self-contradiction—she criticized my father for being so honest or, worse still, for 'lacking ambition'; in a word for being 'stupid.'"

But sketch the personalities

Yet another secret is to sketch the personalities and relationships within the family. "My mother had complete authority over him [Le Tellier's stepfather]. He was visibly afraid of her fits of rage, which were both terrifying and unpredictable, and he had abidicated any form of resistance. She made all the decisions and she held such a hold over him that she even composed the letters he wrote to his family. He simply had to copy out her rough drafts. At the end of these letters my mother even added the name 'Guy' [the stepfather's] so he didn't forget to sign them."

Of course, for a really lively memoir, it doesn't hurt to have a character like Le Tellier's as a mother. After Guy died, she was infected by the idea that Guy and her sister had been lovers. A cousin reported a scene on the street when the estranged sisters happened to meet. Accused of the affair, the aunt shook her head in bafflement. "Well then swear to me, I mean swear to me," my mother said, "that you never slept with Guy."
    "I swear it," said my aunt.
    "Swear it on our father's grave, and I'll believe you," my mother insisted.
    "I swear it on our father's grave," said my aunt.
    There was a long silence, then my mother spat out, "I don't believe you."

It also does not hurt to have been involved with historic events—even if on the periphery. Her mother and aunt lived through the German occupation of Paris, which included deporting Jewish neighbors. His mother did not remember the girl in her seventh grade class who lived across the street and who vanished one day in 1942..

All Happy Families implicitly makes the case that all happy families are all unhappy in their own way. It is a delightful account by an astute and thoughtful writer. I was happy to make his acquaintance.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Relationships are the key to the solution

Guest review by my mystery-loving wife Marian:

Relationships are at the heart of the newest Eleanor Kuhns mystery starring Will Rees, The Shaker Murders. As a new reader of this series, I was introduced to the close relationship between Will and his wife Lydia, and waited along with these characters for the birth of their baby. Another set of relationships shown in the book is between the couple’s adopted children. And there are other family connections that affect what Will and Lydia do during the course of this sixth book in the series.

Equally intriguing were the relationships between our main characters and members of the Shaker community where Will and Lydia come to stay for two weeks, as their new baby’s birth approaches. Readers learn more about the community and the Elders as we see their reactions to sudden deaths that Will believes are murders. We also get a glimpse into the complex emotional issues some characters face as they decide whether to become or remain a Shaker.

 Will is a loving husband and father, determined to find a good home for his growing family, despite the dangers and obstacles. This is the overarching theme as the book progresses. However, his frequent angry outbursts complicate these efforts. This makes him human, but it can also be frustrating to readers like me, who wonder why Will seems to be on the edge of boiling over time after time. Still, the mystery comes to a satisfying end, with relationships the key to solving the murders in the Shaker community.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Why Michael Connelly is so great

Dark Sacred Night is Michael Connelly's latest mystery starring California police detective Harry Bosch. Harry, as a result of events that occurred in an earlier book, no longer works for the Los Angeles Police Department but is working part time as a reserve officer for the San Fernando PD. Harry is probably in his early 60s, is a widow, with a daughter in college, and has taken in a recovering drug addict, the mother of a murdered child.

In this book, Connelly introduces Reneé Ballard, a 32-year-old LAPD detective who provoked a departmental transfer when she reported the sexual harassment of a superior. Ballard now works "the late show," the graveyard shift out of Hollywood Station. By the end of the book, Bosch and Ballard have formed a team. In fact the cover of Dark Sacred Night says that this is "A Ballard and Bosch Novel."

So what makes Connelly so great?

First, although Harry Bosch has been the main character in twenty previous novels, you need not have read them to understand and enjoy this one. Too often series writers have to (or feel they have to) explain why the detective is the way he is by summarizing a previous book. We don't need to know why Bosch no longer works for the LAPD; if we care we can read the earlier book.

Next, Connelly tells his stories from the limited third-person point of view. The Dark Sacred Night story begins with a title page: "Ballard" in which we travel with her to the scene of a death. Forty-three pages later, another title page: "Bosch," in which we learn that Bosch is working on a nine-year-old cold case. While we switch between Ballard and Bosch, which gives Connelly somewhat more freedom of action  we are never in any other point of view. Too often for my taste the writer puts us in the mind of the murderer,  coyly not identifying him (or her), or in the point of view of the victim; I think it's a form of cheap—unearned, perhaps—suspense.

Finally, Dark Sacred Night sounds as if this is what police work is actually like. Both Ballard and Bosch have to spend an inordinate amount of time on tedious, boring, unproductive tasks. Connelly is able somehow to evoke this side of police work without writing a tedious, boring book. Also, Ballard is called out to investigate at least three other cases during the time the novel covers. These a're not all deaths, not all the deaths are homicides, and the homicide is solved, like most, within forty-eight hours. (I've read that if a murder is not solved within two or three days, it may never be.)

Dark Sacred Night is a police procedural, with the stress on procedure. I can imagine a complaint that  Ballard and Bosch are too focused on the work; we don't get enough of their internal, their emotional lives. I would disagree, perhaps because I am a man. Neither Bosch nor Ballard is dropped from Mars. They do have, or have had, families and current relationships. They are not lonely figures riding off alone and separate into the dawn at the end of the book. They do solve the crime (a given in a mystery), and both the crime and its solution feel plausible. With Bosch and Ballard teaming up, there's more to come and I look forward to reading it.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Women: Four views of romance in pre-war Europe

Mihail Sebastian, a Romanian playwright, essayist, journalist, and novelist, was born in 1907 as Iosef Hechter. He worked as a lawyer and writer until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. Having survived the war and the Holocaust, he was killed in early 1945 as he was crossing a Bucharest street teach his first class when he was hit by a truck. He's best known in English for his Journal, 1935-1944 published in 1999.

Women, originally published in Romania in 1933 when Sebastian was 26 years old, has now been translated into fluent and engaging English by Philip Ó Ceallaigh and published by Other Press. The book has four sections, all focusing on women in the protagonist's life: the first section covers Renée, Marthe, Odette; the second features Émile; the third Maria; and the last Arabela. Sebastian writes the first section in the third person: "It's not yet eight. Stefan Valeriu can tell by the sunlight, which has crept only as far as the edge of his chaise longue." Stefan, a medical student, is vacationing on an Alpine lake and has an affair with the wife of another hotel guest, Renée. However,  "As it turns out, Renée doesn't know how to love. Her first embrace is strikingly awkward; there is no reticence or delay in yielding, only a series of hesitations, more likely from awkwardness than from modesty . . . "

Sebastian writes the next section in the first person, the persona of Stefan: Here is his description of Émile: "I think making love was more a physical difficulty than a moral one for her. At the risk of using an ambiguous expression, I'd say that for her love had become a problem of balance. What must have seemed impossible for her about love was moving her center of gravity. Being a vertical creature and then assuming a horizontal position—that what I believed tortured her sensual dreams, if ever had any. I think the whole mystery of love was summed up for her in the fact, and she could't get her head around it."

The third section is written as a letter from Maria to Stefan describing her affair with Andrei. Here she describes him eating: "He was greedy, cheerful, and communicative, with a candor that suited him wonderfully and an absence of self-awareness that would have been an excuse for any crime or betrayal. I had always enjoyed watching Andrei eating and I think his greed is the only truly good thing in him, because (maybe I'm talking nonsense, but I'll tell you anyway) there's something childlike about a greedy man, something which tempers his roughness and self-importance and reduces the intimidating aspect of his masculinity."

The last section is again written in the first person, an older Stefan who presents himself as the technical adviser to the Ministry of Health of Romania in its relations with the International Commission for Medical Cooperation. He attends a circus performance in Paris in which Arabela stars. He falls in love with her, and they create their own act: "I was grateful to Arabela for unintentionally knocking me off my reasonable, predestined course and turning the serious gentleman she'd met that November night into somebody who forgot that he was a doctor, adviser, and diplomat and became again what he had always wanted to be: a young man."

The book feels very European in its attitudes, assumptions, and landscapes. As such, it's interesting for its observations and insights. Interesting that the telephone, radio, even the automobile barely exist. It does not feel as if it were written by a 26-year-old, although, having been born in a small city in Romania (Brăila on the Danube) and growing up a cultured Jew and experiencing growing anti-Semitism, Sebastian may have been more mature than his years would suggest. 

Women is a fascinating picture of a time and the relations between people. The citations above may suggest how well Sebastian is able to convey both the characters and their relationships. A novel worth reading more than once.