Sunday, August 19, 2018

Why you should visit Dukla, the town and the book

Dukla is a small town in southeastern Poland on the Jasiolka river at the foot of Cergowa mountain. It has a population of about 2,200 people, a 17th century town hall, the ruins of a 1758 synagogue, the ruins of a 16th century border tax office, the ruins of a brewery. In 1944, the Battle of the Dukla Pass left 90 percent of the town in ruins. In 1997, Pope John Paul II visited and in his sermon mentioned John of Dukla, one of the patron saints of Poland and Lithuania.

Dukla by Andrzej Stasuik is a remarkable work of literature. It is memoir, travelogue, nature writing, reportage and ethnography. It contains a short essay, a novella, and a series of brief portraits of local people or events. It was translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, my workshop leader in a translation conference, and that connection led me to it. Stasiuk is well-known in Poland and has won the NIKE, the country's most prestigious literary prize for his collection of essays On the Road to Babadag. That book and four others of Stasuik are also available in English.

In Dikla, Stasuik says, "I always wanted to write a book about light. I never could find anything else more reminiscent of eternity. I never was able to imagine things that don't exist. That always seemed a waste of time to me, just like the stubborn search for the Unknown, which only ever ends up looking like an assemblage of old, familiar things in slightly souped-up form. Events and objects either come to an end, or perish, or collapse under their own weight, and if I observe them and describe them it's only because they refract the brightness, shape it, and give it a form that we're capable of comprehending."

As a writer, I've felt sometimes my weakness—inability perhaps—in describing the physical world. It is easy (relatively) to write dialogue, to explicate ideas, to write useful abstractions. It's not so easy to find the words that convey a vivid sense of place. Stasuik (and Johnston) seem to do it with ease:

"The shadows of early morning lie upon the earth as if the wind were blurring them. They're black yet hazy, because the dew atomizes the light and refracts it back at the edges. Even in the middle, the black is far from distinct—it rather resembles a reflection. Beyond Dynów the San touches up against the road with its crooked elbow. We have to flip down the visor, because the sun is shining directly in our eyes. It hangs there just above the road. The blacktop is peeling like old gilding. The river down below has the color of a mirror in an unlit room . . ."

In his Introduction, Johnston suggests that Dukla is "a languid prose poem." Perhaps. But few of the prose poems I've read are as engaging. Stasuik is not playing with language for the sake of language. He's not trying to create a beautiful, if impractical, object like a Christmas ornament. He's trying, I believe, to do what he says, to write about light, but also tom write about "things and places no one else thinks worthy of writing about," says Johnston. "Polish literature has preponderantly been urban in character; writing set in the countryside has traditionally involved country estates, and has concerned above all the life of the gentry. What goes on in the small towns and villages has . . . been overlooked."

The book includes a section describing the Pope's visit to town, but Stasuik says almost nothing about the Pope or the pomp. Rather, "I walk about and watch people. They all look like my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother my father, like all the people I've known and seen in my life. Their shoes pinch, they limp, they sweat in their wrinkle-proof outfits, and examine the goods for sale at the stalls, medallions, white busts, color prints, canvas beach chairs for four fifty; they sniff at the food on the grills, chicken breasts, sausage, bacon, dark glistening blood pudding. From time to time the sun comes out and captures their silhouettes in misty aureoles. Busy with their ice creams, Pepsis, mineral water, and children, they fail to notice this indifferent caress. . . "

I'm afraid that the bulk of this review is quotation from Stasuik and Johnston. I had to restrain myself or there would have been more. How else to convey the book's flavor? I can say it's a remarkable work of literature (and I did), I can urge you to find it and read it (and I do), but without the extended quotations I don't know how to let you know about it. I feel fortunate that circumstances conspired to lead me to it. It enriched my life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Meet Mattie Cobb, Timber Creek's K-9 cop

Killing Trail is Margaret Mizushima's first Timber Creek K-9 mystery. I wanted to read it because I enjoyed the fourth in the series, Burning Ridge. In Killing Trail we are introduced to Deputy Mattie Cobb who has just completed twelve weeks of training with Robo, the county's new police service dog. We meet Cole Walker, Timber Creek's only veterinarian, whose wife has left him and their two daughters. We meet the town's sheriff, Abraham McCoy, and another deputy, Brody, who resents Mattie because she beat him in the competition to become the town's K-9 officer. We also meet Detective Stella LoSasso who is called in from the county seat to take charge of the investigation of the crime and who, by book four, is living in Timber Creek.

Asked about her writing, Mizushima said in an interview, "Initially, I wrote mainstream, and then historical romance. I placed in a few contests but didn't get published. Switching to mystery came from my love of crime documentaries and crime fiction, as well as a little push from a friend."

In the same interview, she advises aspiring or beginning writers "to attend writing conferences where you will learn about writing craft and the publishing business. I met both my agent and editor at writing conferences; that personal introduction will get you much further than a query letter or a slush pile submission."

I suspect she also learned that a mystery series is more likely to be published than a single book, that it is best to have a spunky detective with an original or unusual partner, that a mystery needs complexity but not too much, and that it doesn't hurt to have the heroine rush into danger in the last fifth of the book.

Killing Trail begins when a forest ranger finds fresh blood on the porch of an empty cabin in the national forest outside of town . . . and Robo sniffs out the body the blood came from buried in the wilderness.

Although Mizushima is writing from the inside—she grew up on a cattle ranch in the Colorado high country and Timber Creek is a composite of several small Colorado towns—and although it took her three years to write Killing Trail, she was still finding her way in this book. The mystery is not very mysterious (experienced readers will have identified the villain by the middle) and Robo has more personality than Mattie.

Mizushima has given Mattie troubled childhood: an abused mother who disappeared when Mattie and her (now estranged) brother were small, an imprisoned father who was killed in prison, a foster home with a loving, if overworked, Hispanic woman. Mattie's been a deputy for seven years (she seems to be about thirty years old), but she seems to have no life beyond police work. Cole Walker is a potential love interest, one that is still developing by book four.

Nevertheless, Killing Trail is a creditable first effort. Robo is not a prop but an active and important character in the book. Cole's veterinary skill has consequences. And the book is good enough to justify three more installments.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Who all is buried high on Redstone Ridge?

Burning Ridge is Margaret Mizushima's fourth Timber Creek K-9 mystery and the first I've read. It's a police procedural with an interesting cop—Sheriff's Deputy Mattie Cobb and her German shepherd K-9 partner Robo who work out of small Colorado town. Mattie is romantically involved with the widowed local veterinarian Cole Walker, and the narrative shifts from Mattie to Cole and back, sometimes in the same chapter.

The action commences when Cole takes his two daughters riding into the mountains to show them some bighorn mountain sheep before he and a crew from Colorado Parks and Wildlife relocate them to another area. Redstone Ridge is high enough and remote enough it can be reached only on horseback. The outing turns grim when the family's Doberman pinscher who has been ranging off the trail returns with a charred boot that contains a foot and leg bone.

When Mattie and Robo, Cole, and Sheriff McCoy and his team return to the area, Robo sniffs out a shallow grave in which a body has been partially cremated. We learn almost immediately that Mattie has a close personal connection to the dead man. The legal team also discovers three similar graves, two adults and a child—but these are thirty years old. What's the connection? Is there a connection?

According to the book's publicist, "Mizushima lives in Colorado where she assists her husband with their veterinary practice and Angus cattle herd." In other words, she's writing from the inside. She knows the landscape, she knows how to treat of animals, and has picked up enough about police dog handling to write convincingly about it. For example:

      Mattie opened her pack, removed Robo's collapsible bowl, and filled it with water from her own drinking supply. He'd drunk freely from streams on the way up, but she wanted him to moisten his mucus membranes now to enhance his scenting ability, Besides, it was a valuable part of their routine.
     After he lapped at the liquid, she took off his collar and put on his tracking harness, his signal that it was time to search. Robo assumed his all-business face, adopting a serious attitude for the first time on this outing instead of acting like he was along for a picnic.
     "Robo, heel." Taking the ice chest [containing the charred boot and leg] with her, she led him a short distance from the rest of the group and began to tousle his fir and pat his sides. She used the high-pitched chatter meant to rev up his prey drive. "Robo, are you ready to work? Are you? Let's find something . . . ."

Timber Creek, Colorado, is a small town. Mattie has lived there all her life. Everyone knows everyone not by six degrees of separation but by two. How much mystery can there be?

Burning Ridge plausibly implies there's a lot. Rough men pass through town on their way elsewhere. Strangers move into town to make a new start. Men abuse women. Parents mistreat children. There's enough work to occupy the Sheriff, his deputies, the detective (and Mattie's friend) Stella LoSasso, the Parks and Wildlife manager, and state resources in Denver.

All of which is to say that Burning Ridge is engaging (and rewarding) because Mattie and Cole are not isolates; they are embedded in a recognizable social fabric and what they do—or don't do—seems reasonable based on who they are and where they are. Burning Ridge is interesting enough that I'm going to look up Mizushima's first in the series, Killing Trail, and will report back. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

How to go from premed to Paris detective


I would like to write about Cara Black's Murder on the Quai in such a way that it does not discourage mystery readers from picking up the book, which is a creditable effort, but also explains why I have difficulties with certain mysteries.

Murder on the Quai is Black's sixteenth Murder on the . . . series. It stars Aimée Leduc. This book, series readers tell me, is Aimée's backstory, how she evolved from medical student to private detective. Her father runs a private detective agency and he leaves Paris early in the story to go to Berlin where the Wall has just fallen. He wants to obtain certain files before the Stassi can destroy them. This subplot involves Aimée's mother who abandoned the family when Aimee was about three years old, and its resolution is, I presume, saved for another book.

In this one, the first chapter takes place in November 1989 Paris. An elderly rich man is murdered gangland style on—where else?—the quai after an expensive dinner with three rich friends. "You remember, don't you? It's your turn now," the killer tells the man just before he puts a bullet into the back of the man's head. The police have no leads and the man's daughter, Elsie, comes to Aimée's father for help. In a believable series of events, the father takes off for Berlin and Aimée takes over to investigate the one lead Elsie can offer.

Switch to Chambly-sur-Cher, November 1942, a dark and stormy midnight. The Cher river is rising. Villagers are pilling sandbags to prevent the water from flooding their fields. British planes have been bombing the railway line in Occupied France right across the river. Enter a German troop truck, lost on the Vichy side of the river. They want the French farmers to use their horse cart to pull the truck out of the mud. There are only five soldiers and one of the French young hotheads makes a move and before they know it there are four dead Germans, one missing in the river, and a truck with an interesting cargo.

Aimée, who spent much of her childhood following her detective father around and hanging out with her retired police detective grandfather, sets off to help Elsie as best she can. Which is pretty good. She is determined, intelligent, and a good liar when she has to be. It spoils nothing to tell you that there's another murder on the quai, the same M.O., and the new victim was one of the four wealthy men who'd had dinner together before the first killing. By the end of the book Aimée has assembled all the pieces into a coherent picture. 

If this is the sort of mystery that engages you—a spunky young detective, a foreign setting, past events with contemporary consequences—then you should read Murder on the Quai. It held my interest all the way through. So if that's what you like, stop reading this right now!

Because I've decided this kind of mystery—and it's not alone—is a kind of fairy tale. It doesn't tell us how the real world works, which police procedurals tend to do. It invents a serial killer who leads a law-abiding, unexceptionable life who nurses a murderous streak for years. I'm not willing to suspend my disbelief. I believe that in the real world virtually all murder is unintentional or accidental and fueled by anger or drink or both, or it has a single target—the ex-wife, the unsympathetic boss. Finally, I prefer a book where the author is writing from the inside rather than from research (unless, of course, you can't tell the difference, which does happen). 

Black "lives in San Francisco . . . and visits Paris frequently." I do not know Paris at all, and I am sure that she has correctly identified every street, every building, and every landmark. "A short walk under the bare-branched trees on the brightly lit Champs-Élysées, then right past the tiny art cinema, Le Balzac, one of her premed Friday night haunts; down narrow, winding rue Lord Byron, named for the poet who, according to her grand-pére, had never set foot here." I do not question the accuracy of this or other sentences like it throughout the book. But for some reason it sounds like research, not lived experience and I cannot tell you why. And I only noticed toward the end of the book when Aimée is running out of pages and I wanted to know what happened.

On the other hand, Val McDermid is quoted on the back cover, "So authentic you can practically smell the fresh baguettes and coffee." You should probably go with McDermid.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

If you go to Stitchings, Poland, you stay in Stitchings

Because Bill Johnston led the workshop I attended at the Bread Loaf Translators' Conference, I bought his translation of In Red by Magdalena Tulli. Johnston has published over thirty book-length translations from the Polish, including poetry, prose, and drama. He teaches literary translation at Indiana University.

Magdalena Tulli is a Polish novelist and translator and is one of Poland's leading writers. She's won the Gdynia Literary Prize and been short-listed five times for the Nike Award, Poland's most prominent literary prize. While her own novels have been translated into a number of languages, she has translated Proust, Calvino, and Fleur Jaeggy into Polish.

Tulli's novel In Red is a physically small paperback, a five-and-a-half by six-and-a-half-inch rectangle, 158 pages, around 46,000 words. More than a short story. A novella. But rich in image, rich in language, rich in vision.

It is—more or less—the modern history of a fictional Polish town somewhere on the Baltic coast, close to Sweden, but too close to Germany, too close to Russia. It begins:

"Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings. Simply take a seat in a sleigh and before being overcome by sleep, speed across a plain that's as empty as a blank sheet of paper, boundless as life itself. Sooner or later this someone—perhaps a traveling salesman with a valise full of samples—will see great mounds of snow stretching along streets to the four corners of the earth, toward empty, icy expanses. He'll see pillars made of icicles, their snowy caps lost in the dark of a wintry sky. He'll draw into his lungs air as sharp as a razor that cuts feeling away from breath. He'll come to appreciate the benefits of a climate forever unencumbered by restless springtime breezes, by the indolence of summer swelter, or the misty sorrows of autumn. He'll take a liking to frost, which conserves feelings and capital, protecting both from the corruption of decay."

Before WWI, Stitchings' three main industries were Loom & Son, merchant and manufacturer of ladies' corsets, Strobbel's porcelain factory, and Neumann's phonograph-record factory. During the war, an enemy plane managed to bomb both Strobbel's and Neumann's warehouses. Although the colonel in charge of the town's defense emptied his pistol at it, "the airplane taunted the colonel. Time and again it appeared out of the blue, only to soar upward at the last minute, before the very noses of the artillerymen. The cannon was hurriedly reloaded and fired again. The aircraft, its undercarriage in shreds, went spinning halfway across the sky, trailing clouds of smoke as black as pitch, and crashed into the black rotunda of the municipal gas works. There was an explosion, and gas lighting went out across the entire town."

After the war, Neumann's works convert to manufacturing radio sets; Strobbel's porcelain factory—now Slotsky & Co—begins producing commodes and sanitary appliances; and Loom, which had survived the war on military contracts manufacturing shoddy uniforms, becomes a munitions plant.

Aspiring writers are told (I was told; I tell aspiring writers): Read the best stuff you can get your hands on. Read In Red because it demonstrates how much can be said with relatively few words. It opens possibilities for fiction. We learn about the town; we follow its history through the war and into the post-war period; we meet a number of vivid characters: Emilka, the Loom daughter who refuses to die properly; her suitor, Kazimierz, the town counselor's haughty son; Felek Chmura, Kazimierz's orderly, who returns from the war to become the town's leading citizen; Madam at the bawdy house that services both the town's leading citizens and the sailors from the port; Natalie Zugoff, a chanteuse so imperious, so extraordinary. and so captivating she can fill Jacques Rauch's theater night after night, and more and more.

Toward the end of the novel, Tulli writes, "Whoever wishes to leave Stitchings can avail himself of two methods. If he is an outsider—for example, a traveling salesman of his own virtues, obliged to compete for a favorable market, or a collector of experiences whom life has taught humility—without a second thought he ought to ascend at dawn in a passenger cabin suspended beneath a dirigible balloon. For it's easy to sail among the clouds, where the sun casts its pink rays over the cranes of the port and the docks, over the roofs of the banks, over the stock exchange . . ." If this person wishes to leave by ship or train, "he'll quickly realize that the desire to leave bears no relation whatsoever to the calendar or the clock. The right moment never comes at any time." Without a balloon, we are stuck in Stitchings forever.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Not the worst business advice in the world

It's certainly a provocative title: The Worst Business Model in the World: A New Kind of Guide for a New Kind of Entrepreneur. It also stretches plausibility. The worst in the entire world? Worse than one that leads to divorce, prison, suicide? One like Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, LLC?

No. Author Danny Schuman is talking about aspiring entrepreneurs who sometimes "make grand plans and don't fulfill them. Other times we set a clear vision but make no plans, feeling our way and hoping we get there. Once in a while we have no plan and no vision, but we have passion and determination, so we put one brain cell in front of the other and trust that something good will come of it. It may be a terrible business model, but it's a wonderful existence." Or, it's been a wonderful existence for Schuman.

In the book he says he was an ad agency creative director. Apparently he was found redundant in the Great Recession and started a marketing consultancy, Twist Your Thinking, in January 2009. "I haven't done much planning or modeling. Most of the planning I do revolves around lunch and coffee . . . I built and grew my network without a Salesforce-type app or CRM system. I rely on diligence, humor and a pretty good memory [although he keeps good notes] . . . I mostly run my business by the seat of my pants and the usually reliable synapses of my brain. My plan would best be described as a do-good-work, figure-it-out-as-I-go kind of plan."

The Worst Business Model in the World consists of short—very short—chapters followed by a worksheet the reader can use to actually apply the advice. Much of which is unexceptionable. For example, Schuman encourages readers to do what they love. Indeed, he writes throughout about UDOTs, Us Doing Our Thing. He advises asking for the money: "Do the best job you can to estimate the project, then come as close to doubling that number as you can tolerate." He advises finding someone else to do the stuff you don't like to do or suck at. He says he now sends every proposal he writes for a prospective client to a former co-worker; she tells him what she thinks he should charge the client. "It's usually somewhere between 25-50% more than I would have charged myself."

So I have no problem with much of the advice. Indeed, I have heard myself telling prospective entrepreneurs many of the things Schuman says in almost the same words. I do think the book skates over some of the challenges many (most?) entrepreneurs face. He does give one example of taking on a project he should not have, an experience that ended badly ("I was fired the next day.") The lesson, of course, is know yourself and don't take on projects you shouldn't. But that of course is easy to say when everything is going well.

Also any entrepreneur who wants a bank loan will need a business plan. My fellow business advisors ask people who want to start a business who is going to give you money? Why will they hire you rather than someone else in the same business? How many of them are there; i.e., is there a market big enough to support your business? How will you reach them? And more and more and more. Schuman, I believe, is modest to a fault when he says he had no plan. It may not have been on paper, but based on his advertising agency experience he could see—or suspected he could see—a niche in the market that he could attempt to fill. So far, he's been lucky.

Bottom line: The Worst Business Model in the World: A New Kind of Guide for a New Kind of Entrepreneur does not describe a bad business model, nor is it a new kind of guide for a new kind of entrepreneur. Nevertheless, its hundred pages or so of chatty and breezy text offer useful advice for anyone who has some experience and contacts to take the leap into entrepreneurship.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

"Murder to the Metal": Dispoilation in Cleveland

Annie Hogsett sets up an interesting situation for her "Somebody's Bound to Wind Up Dead Mystery" series. In the first book, Too Lucky to Live, (which I have not read and which is not necessary to read to enjoy Murder to the Metal), Thomas Bennington III a blind professor at Cleveland's Case-Western Reserve University buys a lottery ticket to show a young friend that it's a waste of money and unfortunately wins the $550,000,000 MondoMegaJackpot. At that point, Tom has already met Alice (Allie) Jane Harper, who narrates both books. Complications ensue.

When Murder to the Metal opens, Tom and Allie are an item. They have hired Otis, a Cleveland ex-cop and PI for round-the-clock security (with that kind of money, they need it), and have moved into a lakefront mansion. They've decided to establish the T&A Detective Agency and use the jackpot winnings to help clients with cases the police do not regard as serious and worth more than a cursory investigation.

Like the disappearance of Lloyd Bunker, the boyfriend of Loretta Coates, a librarian at the Memorial-Nottingham Branch of the Cleveland Public Library (a real place) where Allie had worked part time. Here's Allie's description of her: "She was mid-forties and pretty, but her attractiveness was impaired by the fact that she looked worried. A lot worried. Most of the time. Her blue eyes were perpetually widened by concern. Her eyebrows tucked in toward each other in a tiny wrinkly frown. Her lips, a lovely bow when she relaxed enough to smile, stayed pursed up . . . "

Tom may be blind, but has "honed his remaining four senses and added on what he calls the 'blind man Spidey sense.' That one has proved to be almost superhuman from time to time. But mostly, he's just really paying attention . . ." An interesting theme running through the book is that Tom is aware of things other people miss or ignore.

By necessity, Allie and Tom must deal with the Cleveland PD in the person of Tony Valerio, who has already had dealings with with them. He says:"I'm going to say one more time that getting mixed up in official police business is a leading cause of death amongst wannabee P.I.'s"
     "I would take that very much to heart, Tony, if I wanted to be a P.I. I do not."
     I felt comfortable with this. It was even the truth, for a change. I wanted to do all my investigating while standing safely in the shadow of my real P.I., under the protection of his gun, with no need a tall for any gun of my own. I wanted the investigating done by me to be more of an intellectual adventure. I'd already been shot at once and I hadn't like it.

I hope I've conveyed the flavor of Hogsett's writing, but if not and because it's so much fun, here's another as Allie describes the lakefront mansion Tom has rented for them: ". .  . nothing prepared me for occupying a rental house the size of Times Square. Nine thousand plus square feet is, like, five metric tons of feet. I could have dropped our entire small-tow shuttle into the master bath. Given that we were renting and the true owner spirited alot of his irreplaceable items into climate-controlled storage, much of the house consisted of immense, gorgeously aneled, heavily fireplaced but under-furnitured spaces that took a while to merely walk through."

Murder to the Metal has an engaging narrator, an interesting cast, and a complex and plausible plot once you accept that a blind professor can win a mega-million jackpot and that bad people will go to considerable lengths to steal it. But then, of course they would. Read and enjoy.

Friday, June 22, 2018

What does it take to inspire you to write?

The Avon Free Public Library in Avon, CT, is running a Local Author Festival this summer, the fifth year in a row that the staff has promoted Connecticut authors. I have just participated in a fiction author panel in which six of us answered questions about inspiration (or Inspiration).

The June Fiction Author Panel at Avon Free Public Library
Questions like: Where do you get your ideas for a story? What do you do when you're not inspired? Do you write every day? Do you do any research in writing your books? How do you choose character names? And more.

I am always interested in hearing other writers answers to these perennial questions. After all, there is no one answer. Ideas come from everywhere, anywhere—personal experience, news stories, reading, conversation. I am hard put to say exactly where a story idea originates, although every one of my books and short stories has some connection to my own life.

And when we're not inspire, some of us write anyway—a journal, a letter, an essay, a poem. And some knit, read, watch a movie.

Not everyone writes every day. One panelist has written one book and has no plans to write another. The working writers on the panel, however, are doing something related to writing—researching, recuperating, recharging—when they're not.

Because it was an opportunity to share tips and thoughts with other writers, I thought the experience was valuable. I hope the people who attended our panel got as much out of it as I did.

Who should raise the baby?

"Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down."

So begins Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere (which is how the firemen discovered the Richardson house when they arrived) .

Ng herself grew up in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland; it is almost a character in the novel; and because I set one of my novels in Shaker Heights, I picked up Ng's novel and got sucked into the story of Mrs. Richardson (as she is identified almost throughout the book), and her four children, Trip, Lexie, Isabelle, and Moody. Mr. Richardson, a corporate lawyer, exists mainly to provide the family's six-bedroom house, cars for the children who can drive, and other material goods.

The year before the fire, Mia, a photographer and single mother, and her daughter Pearl had moved into a duplex rental that Mrs. Richardson owned. Because Pearl is a student as Shaker Heights High with the Richardson children, and because Mrs. Richardson is both Mia's landlady and a generous soul, she hires Mia to clean her house and the families begin to interact. Among the many pleasures of Little Fires Everywhere are the scenes of contemporary high school life in an upper class mid-western suburb which ring absolutely true to me.

Ng sets up an interesting dilemma at the heart of the novel. Suppose a pregnant, young, Chinese immigrant woman is abandoned by her boyfriend. Desperate and without resources she leaves her newborn at a fire station. The child is rescued and given into the care of an upper middle-class white couple who, unable to have a child of their own, have been frantic to adopt. Almost a year later, the birth mother, now with a job and resources, wants the child back. The white couple have been waiting for the adoption to go through and want to keep the infant. Who should have the baby? Her single mother whose prospects are limited? Or the white couple who can give the baby all the love, opportunities, and material goods she could ever want?

There is another dilemma underlying the novel: Is it better to accept stability and material comfort than to risk an uncertain/unstable life as an artist? Mrs. Richardson has made one decision, Mia the other. And each woman's decision, obviously, affects profoundly the lives and characters of her children. What makes Little Fires Everywhere so special is that Mrs. Richardson and Mia have made their decisions almost without thought—much the way real life works for most of us. Only when our house is burning down do we realize that actions can have unexpected consequences.




Monday, June 18, 2018

What happens when an earthquake shakes a nuclear power plant

Meltown by G.P. James raises the issue of a willing suspension of disbelief. It posits a three-unit nuclear power plant, the "Bear Mountain Nuclear Energy Site" on the Hudson River about thirty five miles north (and upwind) of New York City. At the beginning of the novel, the plant is shaken by a 6.4 earthquake along the Ramapo Fault and all hell breaks loose.

Because there is in fact a three-unit Indian Point Energy Center nuclear generating facility on the Hudson River about thirty-five miles north of New York City that sits a mile from the Ramapo Fault, it requires no suspension of disbelief to think that an earthquake could damage the plant. After all, look what happened at Fukushima in Japan.

Meltdown is the story of plant supervisor Trace Crane who is in charge when the earthquake hits alternating with the story of his wife Avi's search for their four-year old daughter, Brooklyn, who was in day care. With widespread damage throughout the area, phones are down or jammed, bridges have collapsed, buildings destroyed so Trace and Avi cannot easily communicate.

The novel is set up a a conflict within Trace: Prevent a nuclear meltdown and protect 20 million people in the metropolitan New York are from exposure to deadly radiation or save his wife and daughter? Okay, I can understand that. I don't think it's a genuine dilemma and Trace is not presented as someone for whom the conflict seems genuine. In fact, when we first meet him, he doesn't sound appealing:

"Trace rocked back in his ergonomic desk chair, his five-eleven, two-hundred-and-seventy-nine-pound body testing the hydraulics . . . He had a boyish quality defined by the pudginess of his roseate cheeks, his freckles, and the jocular contortion of his lips. There was light in his eyes. Even when he was livid a touch of glee showed through; not much stripped him of joy. However, Trace had entered a dark period over the past couple years. His face was flat most of the time, eyes, dim, lips bowing convexly. Stress, anger, and annoyance hung heavy in his jowls, ebullience springing free in unexpected smatterings of rising cheeks . . ."

He and Avi have his a rough patch in their marriage. She is a consultant for green energy and he of course knows that nuclear, properly controlled, is safe. Adding to poor Trace's burdens is the knowledge that he should have agreed with Avi when she wanted to move away from the plant even if it meant extending his commute.

James is good and convincing in describing Trace's efforts to control the damage. He has to deal with his boss who at one point tells him, "You'll give a damn when your investments turn to dust by Monday. This affects all of us! The second the accident was announced and the market opened this morning our stock dropped five points. When the news gets out about the decommissioning and phaseout talks in Washington we'll probably drop another five. That's about thirteen billion in losses in less than twenty-four hours. We're a whale with a really big harpoon in us."

I can believe a corporate executive will worry more about the stock price than anything else. What I could not believe—and it's key to the story's consequences—is that the governor of the State of New York would give an order about a damaged nuclear facility. A governor who, presumably, is not a nuclear engineer and has no concept of possible consequences (really bad). Worse, that Trace obeys the order rather than quitting on the spot, finding Avi and Brooklyn, and heading upwind.

Of course, if Trace had quit, it would have been another book and Meltdown as it stands is a cautionary tale of what could happen (might happen? will happen?) and its effect on a few of the key players in such a disaster.