Thursday, December 7, 2017

If you know the situation you know the story

I am not the audience for romance novels so you romance lovers should take this discussion with healthy skepticism or stop reading right now. Pamela Gossiaux's second novel, Mrs. Chartwell and the Cat Burglar, is billed "A Romantic Mystery." It is a romance, but not what most mystery readers would call a mystery (there's no dead body).

Abigail Chartwell, 30 years old, has thick red hair and green eyes. "She was a beautiful woman, and most men couldn't meet her eyes for more than a few seconds before becoming tongue-tied." She was married briefly to her true love, but he was killed six years ago, a death for which Abigail irrationally blames herself and for which she has locked down her emotions. She wears fake glasses, her wedding ring, dowdy clothes, and her hair in a bun, all to discourage any man who might find her attractive as a librarian in the map department of an unnamed city that has a university, a river, and a lot of snow.

Abigail might have lived out her days, guilty, solitary, and emotionally stunted but one night as she happened to work late, Tony Russo, 32, stunningly handsome with thick, curly black hair, a muscular body covered in black spandex, a tantalizing aftershave, and smile that would the coldest heart drops in. Literally. He descends from a skylight into the map department on a rope, intent on stealing a certain map.

Abigail manages to set off the silent alarm (Tony has disabled the rest of the library's security system, an skill he uses to burglarize stores and mansions), but does she describe him and their conversation to her friend, Jimmy the Cop, who arrives? Of course not.

Abigail cannot understand her own feelings. Feelings for this charming, movie-star handsome  burglar. Someone she trusts when he tells her about his dying grandmother and his quest to find a long-hidden painting, one painted more than a hundred years earlier by the internationally famous Antonio Rosso and today worth millions—millions!—a painting of Tony's great-great grandmother who was Antonio's lover for three rhapsodic months in Paris, a painting Antonio's wife tried to destroy (she settled on burning down his studio), a painting Antonio managed to finish before her pregnancy began to show.

And Tony has seen something in Abigail's lovely green eyes that provokes feelings he's never really known. Deep feelings. Feelings that make him think of giving up his side business as burglar and go straight. If he could find the painting, he'd be set for life.

Mrs. Chartwell and the Cat Burglar is the kind of book that to sketch the situation is to give away the story. Will Tony melt Abigail's frozen emotions? Will Abigail help Tony find the hidden painting? Will Tony's grandmother live? Will Abigail and Tony find happiness together with an apt Shakespeare quote?

(The answer to all of the above is yes.)

Of course there are obstacles. In fact, Shakespeare himself gets quoted: "The course of true love never did run smooth." Midway through the novel Tony needs $10,000 to buy a single dose of an experimental cancer drug that might help his grandmother. In a restaurant he meets an older, attractive, wealthy woman with whom he's been intimate in the past to sell her a stolen diamond necklace for the $10,000. Although Abigail generally stays home after work, this evening she goes out to do some grocery shopping and happens to spot Tony and the woman together. Not only talking, Tony actually kisses the woman's hand! "Abigail couldn't peel her own eyes away from the scene. Her heart started pounding, and she felt her stomach churning. She felt like she was going to throw up."

Does she confront Tony the next day? Does she ask him about the woman? When she cuts him dead, does Tony make any connection between his client in the restaurant and Abigail's abrupt change of heart? To ask the questions is to answer. And do they get back together? Silly you; of course they do.

Because, as I said at the beginning, I am not the audience for romance, I cannot say where Mrs. Chartwell and the Cat Burglar might fit on the continuum of superior to godawful. I think it's somewhere in the middle. As the man says, if this is the sort of thing you like, you'll like it.


Monday, December 4, 2017

The book or the movie? Let's see . . . ?

Red Bones is billed as a Ann Cleeves Shetland Island thriller. I would call it a mystery because in a thriller the reader generally knows who the villain is and the hero's task is to thwart him (her) before he assassinates the president, murders the girl, destroys the world, or all three. In a mystery, neither the detective nor the detective know who committed the murder.  

Red Bones begins with a what appears to be an accidental death—the half-drunk hunter who may have fired the fatal shotgun blast has no reason to kill the old lady. A second death midway through the book seems like a suicide, although mystery readers know that the moment a character telephones the detective to say at the end of a chapter, "I've got to talk to you! Not on the phone! I'll meet you tomorrow," you know that character will be dead in the next chapter. So, two bodies in Red Bones.

The BBC has made a series based on the Shetland Island mysteries. For the first time, I read the book and watched the movie so close together I could compare and contrast one with the other. The movie is the same but different, and part of the pleasure is trying to decide why the scriptwriter and movie producers made the changes they made.

For example, most of the book's action takes place on Whalsay, one of the small islands off the east coast of Shetland. Most of the movie's action takes place on Bressay, another small island off the east coast. It seems like a change without a difference; both are windswept, barren, and picturesque.

Jimmy Perez, the inspector, works alone in the book. He has a young female assistant, "Tosh," in the movie. Adding her to the story allows the scriptwriter to create bantering dialogue between the two and gives Perez someone to order around.

The two deaths are handled similarly, an old woman killed at night and a young woman is an apparent suicide. The reader and viewer also learn about the "Shetland Bus," the effort during WWII to take agents and money to German-occupied Norway and bring escapees back. The red bones that turn up in an archeological dig on the murdered old woman's land may be those of a 15th merchant, a Norwegian traitor, or someone else. The discovery of the bones is really the story's inciting incident.

By necessity, the scriptwriter had to condense and simplify Cleeves's story. With a book, one can always go back and reread a key chapter that explains motivation and sequence of events that may not be clear on a first quick reading. Not only are the characters in the movie necessarily less fleshed out (the producers had only two hours to work with after all), the mechanics of the plot are also simplified to the degree that the murderer in the movie is not the same as in the book. That makes for an interesting aesthetic experience regardless of which you encounter first. Because I read the book first, I was disappointed by the movie although I could understand why the scriptwriter made such a basic switch.

Bottom line: Watch the movie first, then read the book. They each offer their own pleasure. Together, the pleasure is, if not doubled, at least significantly increased.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A complex plot with an unconvincing villain

I have been thinking about the problems I had with A Carrion Death by Michael Sears and Stanley Raynes, writing under the name "Michael Stanley." If you have not read this mystery and think you might, stop reading this right now because it is going to be filled with spoilers. Okay? Stop.

A Carrion Death is set in Botswana and introduces a Gaborone police detective, Assistant Superintendent David Bengu who is large enough and heavy enough to have the nickname Kubu, which means "rhinoceros." The mystery begins when a park ranger and an anthropologist find the remains of a body the hyenas have feasted on. There's enough left to know it was a white male. A tourist who took a wrong turn? Not likely. All the teeth had been knocked out of the skull and one of the arms was missing. So we know the man was murdered and his body dumped. But no white man has been reported missing.

Before the book ends, the bodies pile up: a geologist who works at a diamond mine and suspects smuggling, another geologist from the mine, a blackmailer, the hitman who killed the blackmailer, the heir to the mine, and maybe more (I didn't keep track). There is sculduggery in high places: the mysterious death years before of the man who founded the mining company, video recordings of important people doing naughty things with women not their wives, a letter that seems to suggest an involvement with "blood diamonds," and a plot so complex that when I closed the book could not make sense of all the twists and turns.

There are many things to like about A Carrion Death. Kubu is an appealing character, a responsible husband and devoted son (there's a scene with Kubu, his wife, and his parents). Sears and Raynes obviously love Botswana and dislike what development does to it: "Despite its relatively small size and attempts to avoid excessive environment damage, the Maboane diamond mine complex interrupted the arid vista like a scar. It was an open-pit mine that corkscrewed down, following the kimberlite host rock into the depths. Nearby the crushing, washing, and sorting plant stood waiting . . . " Their scenes involving corporate types in executive offices ring true.

The story hangs on the villain's ability to imitate voices and accents on the phone so well that the listener does not realize he's not talking to, for example, a school chum, someone he knew well enough to be nicknamed "rhinoceros" by him. A separate killer is willing to do the villain's dirty work—and the work is truly dirty—without every having met the person giving the orders over the phone. At one point the villain has to dispose of an inconvenient confederate who is in a luxury hotel in Portugal. When he opens his door to an attractive (female) stranger, he's set upon and his throat slit. Problem solved for the villain, but some readers will wonder how the mechanics of such an assassination can be set up, especially since the villain is just a garden-variety sociopath, not a head of state who can use the secret service. Nor is it clear what the villain gains from all the slaughter. Finally, one of the henchmen manages to escape which may be realistic—or he's being saved for a future book—but given the blood he'd spilled I found his escape unsatisfactory.

A Carrion Death is the first of seven Detective Kubu mysteries. Readers who would like a version of Botswana different from Alexander McCall Smith's might want to start with one of the later books. On the other hand, just because I found the plot of A Carrion Death overly complicated and the villain preposterous does not mean everyone will find them so. Or they will enjoy the book anyway. That there are six more Kubu mysteries tells me that he has some devoted followers. You might try one of them.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Young men and fighter jets . . . written from the inside

"This novel about flying," writes James Salter in his Forward to Cassada, "is drawn from another earlier one, The Arm of Flesh, published in 1961 and largely a failure. It lay forgotten for a long time until Jack Shoemaker, the editor-in-chief of Counterpoint, suggested that it might be a companion piece to another book he had republished, The Hunters, which was my first novel."

Once Salter reviewed The Arm of Flesh almost 40 years after its publication, he realized it had "serious faults and needed to be rewritten completely" and retitled with the name of one of the principal characters. 

Cassada is a novel about flying. Robert Cassada is a young US Air Force jet fighter pilot, fresh out of flight school, who joins a squadron in Germany in the 1950s. On his checkout flight, Grace, the lead pilot, takes him through such extreme maneuvers, Cassada throws up. But he files the aircraft.

Back on the ground, Grace's superior asks him, "Do you know what I expect of you?"
"Yes."
"No you don't. If you knew, you'd never do a stupid thing like that. What do you know about whether this man can fly or not? You don't. That's what the transition missions are for. If the major found out about this he'd take away your flight."
"Captain, I'm sorry. It wasn't good judgement. He seemed to be doing pretty well and I just got carried away."

Cassada is in fact a terrific pilot.

Cassada is a novel about group dynamics, a group that happens to be fighter pilots. Cassada loves to fly. But for no obvious reason he doesn't fit in to the group. He's teased, and at one point he's provoked into making a bad bet, which he loses. For the most part, we don't know his thoughts, although Salter does give us a sense of the man. Here is an example. The squadron's planes are out on patrol and are told to return immediately because snow showers are closing in their field:

"Cassada, hearing it—the calls, the other formations inbound—still new to it, felt a kind of electric happiness, a surge of excitement. Their speed was building. The air was heavier and more dense as they came down, nearing the cloud tops, then skimming them. He was confident they would get back to the field and at the same time felt a nervousness; it was in his arms and legs. The radio was alive with voices. From all directions planes were coming home."

Because Salter was a US Air Force fighter pilot (he flew more than 100 combat missions in 1952 during the Korean War) and because he was was stationed in Germany and France, promoted to major, became a squadron operations officer, in line to become a squadron commander, he writes about flying and squadron life from the inside. After twelve years in the service, he quit to write full time. I think his descriptions and his dialogue are exceptional. Here are two pilots chatting:

"Looks like it's melting," Godchaux remarked. "Did you hear what Cassada said at lunch?"
"No, what?"
"He said he wanted to pack some up and send it home to his mother in a box."
Cassada had never seen snow.
"Oh, yeah? Where's he from? Alabama?"
"No, he's from Puerto Rico."
"Puerto Rico? You'd never know that from looking at him. Was he born there?"
 "I think so. His father died or they got divorced. He lived with his mother."
"Puerto Rico," Harlan said. "Well, how'd he get in the American Air Force?"
"Puerto Rico's part of the United States."
"Since when?"
"I don't know. A long time."
"I must of missed hearing about it."

Reportedly, Cassada didn't sell well. It was published in 2000. I found my copy in the local library. Salter died in 2015 at age 90. I'm sorry I cannot write him a letter to tell him how much his book moved me. This will have to do.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Why precognition ain't all it's cracked up to be. Until it is.

It's a good thing I wasn't reading Daryl Gregory's Spoonbenders in a public space. My giggles, chortles, and gasps disturbed only my wife. It's rare to find a novel that has sympathetic and plausible characters, a complex and satisfying plot, and is laugh-out-loud funny.

You do need to suspend your disbelief enough to accept that astral projection (traveling outside one's body), precognition (the ability to see future events), psychokinesis (the ability to move objects by mental ability alone), and the ability to truly know if someone is telling the truth (psychoveritas?) are real. Because something like 42 percent of the American public believe in ghosts, this should not be a big stretch for many people.

Spoonbenders is the story of the Amazing Telemachas Family and some impatient readers may be put off by so many names, so many relationship, so quickly in the book. If so, they'll miss a lot: Teddy, a charming con man and card shark; Maureen, his wife who has genuine psychic powers; their three children, Irene, Frankie, and Buddy, who each have a psychic power. Teddy takes his young family on stage—Irene is only ten, Buddy five—and after a year is booked onto the Mike Douglas Show, an opportunity for the family to show its stuff and crack the big time.

The performance is a disaster. The family is discredited on national television. Maureen dies of cancer (a family tragedy Frankie attributes to the public humiliation), the children grow up. Irene has a son, Matty. Frankie marries a single mother, the parent of Mary Alice, and they have twins. And Buddy lives with his father in suburban Chicago. All this and more is essentially backstory. The novel begins in Matty's point of view:

"Matty Telemachus left his body for the first time in the summer of 1995, when he was fourteen years old. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that his body expelled him, sending his consciousness flying on a geyser of lush and shame." He has been looking through a peephole at his sixteen-year-old cousin and her girlfriend as they lay suggestively on a guest bed, struggling to observe one of his own commandments: "Under no circumstances should you touch yourself while having lustful thoughts about your cousin."

We follow Mattie, Teddie, Irene, Frankie, and Buddy into a complex plot involving a secret US government Cold War program, Chicagoland gangsters, a couple of improbable—but convincing—romances, and more.

Aside from the engaging plot, Gregory writes wonderful sentences. Here are a couple examples:

"Buddy sought our Irene's eyes with a classic Buddy look: mystified and sorrowful, like a cocker spaniel who'd finally eviscerated his great enemy, only to find everyone angry and taking the side of the couch pillow."

"Mitzi's Tavern was starting to fill up with the after-work crowd, if you could use the word 'crowd' to describe the dozen wretches who huddled here for a beer and a bump before facing the wife. The décor was Late-Period Dump: ripped-vinyl booths, neon Old Style signs, veneer tabletops, black-speckled linoleum in which 80 percent of the specks weren't. The kind of place that was vastly improved by dim lighting and alcoholic impairment."

And here's how to write dialogue. Irene is talking to her father before she leaves on a trip: "She would not let him forget about the time he babysat Matty when he was two. 'He's a teenager now, not a toddler,' said Teddy. 'This time if he drinks a glass of gin it will be on purpose.'"

All in all, I say Spoonbenders is a delightful novel that deserves to be read by anyone who wants to spend some time with an unusual, but still human, family.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Clearly, we don't know our own minds

Michael Lewis is the author or Moneyball, the story of how the Oakland Athletics used big data to supplement—or replace—expert opinion. After it was published in 2002 a pair of academics pointed out that Lewis "did not seem to realize the deeper reason for the inefficiencies in the market for baseball players. They sprang directly from the inner workings of the human mind . . . " Lewis admits, "My book wasn't original. It was simply an illustration of ideas that had been floating around for decades and had yet to be fully appreciated by, among others, me."

Ideas about the way the human mind works or fails to work when we form judgments and make decisions were explored and described by two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They wanted to know how did someone arrive at a conclusion when faced with uncertainty? How do we process evidence? What is it about people's minds—including the minds of experts who ought to know better—that leads them to misjudgments? The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds is Lewis's clear and engaging effort to explicate those ideas.

If you've read Daniel Kahneman's best-selling Thinking Fast & Slow many of the ideas and examples in The Undoing Project will be familiar. What makes the book so interesting is the biographic information about Tversky and Kahneman, the stories about their collaboration and eventual separation, and some of their work's consequences. But even if some of their insights and observations are familiar, Lewis is able to help the reader understand where they came from and why we tend to think and act as we do.

Both Kahneman and Tversky. Israeli psychologists, served in the Israeli military, Kahneman helping train fighter pilots, Tversky as a paratrooper. They both graduated from Hebrew University, and both immigrated to the U.S. Kahneman was teaching a graduate seminar at the University of Michigan when he invited Tversky, who he barely knew at that point, to give a guest lecture. Tversky talked approvingly about cutting-edge research then being done at Michigan on how people respond to new information in their decision-making. Kahneman thought the study's premise was, in academic terms, bullshit and said at much to Tversky, who was seen as a boy genius and unused to being contradicted.

But when he considered Kahneman's criticism, he began to wonder certain assumptions economists had always made. Back at Hebrew University in 1969, the pair began talking, and what these talks evolved into was an intellectual collaboration as intense as a close marriage. Anyone who wanted Kahneman could find him before lunch. Anyone who wanted Tversky needed to call late at night. "In the intervening time, they might be glimpsed disappearing behind the closed door of a seminar room they had commandeered. From the other side of the door you could sometimes hear them hollering at each other, but the most frequent sound to emerge was laughter." Their fifteen-year collaboration and the papers they wrote together ultimately blew up the economics profession.

Until Kahneman and Tversky began publishing, economists assumed that people made decisions, economic and other, as if they understood the underlying economic factors. As if, in other words, people were rational economic beings. We're not.

Or not always. We can be influenced by the way an issue is framed: "Holy Father, is it a sin to smoke while praying?" Yes, it is. But: "Holy Father, is it a sin to pray while smoking?" Of course not, my son; go and smoke in peace. Tversky and Kahneman discovered among other things that "simply by changing the description of a situation and making a gain seem like a loss, you could cause people to completely flip their attitude toward risk, and turn them from risk avoiding to risk seeking."

The Undoing Project is a fascinating dual biography that introduces readers to two remarkable scholars and their work that changed the world. Lewis has known Kahneman since 2007. (Tversky died of cancer in 1996.) He has interviewed their students and absorbed their papers (cited in the bibliography). Because Lewis is such an exceptional writer, his book about two academics and their work never flags. Anyone who is curious about his/her own mind—and how to avoid being tricked by it—should read The Undoing Project and then Thinking Fast & Slow.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

What it's like to grow up on Washington's mean streets

I think Simba Sana's memoir Never Stop is worth two blog entries. This first is an introduction to the book, the second will be—if I can pull it off—a discussion of Sana's life lessons and philosophy.

Simba Sana was born Bernard Sutton in Washington, D.C. in 1968. His mother earned a bachelor's degree and a high school teacher's certificate in North Carolina. She began a relationship with a Herman Sutton, married him and divorced him when he moved from North Carolina to Michigan. She moved to Washington and at age 35 became pregnant. She stopped working and Sana knew her only as a single mother who would tell him nothing about his father. As an adult he tracked down Sutton, but apparently Sutton had separated from Sana's mother long before her pregnancy.

The first half of Never Stop is an account of growing up as a black child in the District's black neighborhoods. He and his mother were evicted from their apartment at one point and spent time in a homeless shelter. Sana hung out with the neighborhood kids and, as he got older, tried to avoid the turf of rival gangs. He says he managed to avoid much of the drugs and violence. Because he was so shy he managed to lose his virginity relatively late compared to the experiences his buddies claimed. He hung out at a local gym, learned to box, and as an adult he was much involved with world of boxing.

His mother converted to Roman Catholicism so that the Archdiocese of Washington would cover Sana's expenses at a private Catholic school. While he spent a lot of time on the streets and hustling to find work for pocket money and, later, to help his mother, his grades were good enough he was admitted to Mount Saint Mary's University in Pennsylvania. On graduation he took a job with Ernst & Young, the giant public accounting firm, although he'd become involved with the African Development Organization (ADO), a black nationalist/pan-African group.

As a young child living in a black neighborhood, Sana was barely conscious of color. Before he left for college, however, "several older black people gave me unsolicited advice about dealing with racism on campus." It wasn't the overt or blatant racism but the "emotional and psychological impact of racism . . . Implicit in their words was the idea that I needed something white folks had . . . I didn't adopt this view . . . I felt the streets of DC had been the toughest thing I'd faced, and that nothing white folks could ever throw at me would match up."

The second half of Never Stop is Sana's life as an adult: his career as an entrepreneur, his love life, his marriage, his involvement with boxing, and what happened when everything went smash.

Sana and an acquaintance from ADO began selling black-themed books from a card table. They expanded to a kiosk in a mall in Prince George's County, Maryland, and became Karibu Books. Sales were strong enough they rented as shop in the mall. The business continued to grow helped by Sana's tendency to be a workaholic. Eventually Karibu had four stores, almost 50 full- and part-time employees, and was planning a major expansion. It was perhaps the most successful black-owned bookseller in the country.

When the 2006 recession hit, however, it hit Karibu violently. Sales fell. Relations between Sana and his partner deteriorated. There was a question whether Sana would buy out his partner or vice versa. As a throwaway comment, Sana notes that in the year before the company's first-ever board meeting in 2007,  he had loaned the company $400,000 of his own money (!) to keep it afloat. Adding to his stress, he was enmeshed in a bitter custody fight with his ex-wife over the custody of their two children. Some 25 pages from the end of Never Stop he writes, "By 2009, my business and all of my money were gone . . . All the real estate I owned  . ..was facing foreclosure. Worst of all I wasn't seeing [my two children] Zendaya and Talib."

Never Stop is well-written (Sana had gone on and obtained a M.A. from Howard University in African Studies), but the second half suffers as Sana tries to explain—and justify—actions and decisions that even sympathetic readers will seem irresponsible. I think it's a problem with memoir in general: How to write about a failing business or a deteriorating marriage, say, without seeming like a patsy or a bully. Sana does not cut himself a lot of slack, particularly when he writes about a time when he had an uncontrollable need for sex and what he did to get it. But unfortunately it's possible to read the passage two ways: Ain't I a stud to have such a passionate sex drive? Or: Ain't I pathetic to be so overwhelmed by my need for sex?

While reviewers should never complain about the book the author didn't write, my own feeling is that Sana actually offers three memoirs in Never Stop, any one of which (or all three) could be strong and engaging: His life growing up in Washington; his involvement as a child and an adult in boxing; his experience as an entrepreneur with Karibu Books. Each of these filled out are interesting stories. Nevertheless, Never Stop did hold my interest and will give readers insights into a world(s) they know little about.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Margot Livesey shows fiction's hidden machinery

The director of the Michener Center for Writers, James Magnuson, has high praise: "There is no finer teacher of writing in America than Margot Livesey." Livesey has published eight novels. a collection of short stories, and is a professor of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Tin House recently published her small paperback, The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing.

I suspect, based on the titles about writing on my shelves, that at a certain point in their careers most authors knows they have a book about writing in them. For many of us, writing about how to write is easier than creating one more goddamn novel. Also, for many of us who buy these books, it is easier to read about writing than it is to write. All that said, The Hidden Machinery is special and worth virtually any author's time. (The exceptions are those who know everything they need to know.)

Livesey's first essay begins with a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: "Life is Monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. . . " What this means in practice, I think, is that even a 'slice of life' story
succeeds or fails not in how 'lifelike' it is but how carefully the author has been able to hide the machinery of fiction from the reader, and often from herself.

She writes, "I am using the phrase 'the hidden machinery' to refer to two different aspects of novel making: on the one hand how certain elements of the text—characters, plot, imagery—work together to make an overarching argument; on the other how the secret psychic life of the author, and the larger events of his or her time and place shape that argument." To illustrate, she uses works of E.M Forster and Henry James. This first essay caused me to consider (as best I can) the effect of my psychic life and the events of the time and place in the past about which I am currently writing—and the effects of current events.

Her second essay discusses creating vivid characters. "Vivid characters are not necessarily the sine qua non of memorable fiction, but they certainly a significant part of it and an enormous part of all fiction." (And as I wrote in my last blog post, they are critical in mysteries.) Livesey confesses that she has trouble creating characters that leap off the page, and has come up with a list of prompts, rules. and admonitions for herself and her students: "Name the character . . . Use myself or someone I know . . . Make her act . . . 'Bad' characters must have some strength or virtue: perfect pitch, the ability to recognize edible mushrooms . . . When creating a character very different from myself I often need to create her or him from the outside. I give the character a house, a job, activities, friends, clothes, and, in the course of doing so, I gradually figure out her or his inner life  . . ."

While it is tempting to continue quoting (my copy of the book has a dozen sticky tabs marking passages), I am going to stop myself with a few of Livesey's words about dialogue: "But if all dialogue does is appear natural, then its artifice is wasted. Good dialogue serves the story. It must reveal the characters in ways that the narration cannot and advance the plot while, ideally, not appearing too flagrant in either mission. And it must deepen the psychic life of the story. We should sense the tectonic plates shifting beneath the spoken words. There is text, and there is subtext. Too much dialogue without subtext can quickly become tedious."

The Hidden Machinery has ten essays that explore various aspects of both craft and theory of fiction. In addition to Forster and James, Livesey employs Jane Austin, Virginia Wolfe, Gustave Flaubert, Shakespeare and her own work to illustrate her points. In addition to the essays about creating characters and writing dialogue, she has an essay she titled "How to Tell a True Story: Mapping Our Narratives onto the World" and "He Liked Custard: Navigating the Shoals of Research"; either one alone is worth, in my opinion, the price of admission.

While these essays will be most useful to working and aspiring authors (Francine Prose blurbs on the back jacket, "If only I'd been able to read The Hidden Machinery before I began my first novel. It would have saved me so much trouble!"), any reader with a serious interest in fiction and how it works—or doesn't—can learn from Livesey's insights as an author and teacher.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What makes a great detective—at least in fiction?

Not long ago I had lunch with an acquaintance whose hobby is genealogy. He had recently broken through a brick wall (genealogy talk for dead end) through the use of DNA. Having solved his personal mystery he remarked that it would make a good book. I didn't contradict him but a good book, mystery or otherwise, generally requires an engaging, memorable character. The mystery is secondary, almost irrelevant.

Which is why The Lineup, edited by Otto Penzler, is such a valuable book for anyone who wants to write a mystery. The subtitle gives the game away: "The world's greatest crime writers tell the inside story of their greatest detectives." It's the inside story behind Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Precious Ramotswa, Inspector Morse, John Rebus, Spenser and fifteen more fictional sleuths.

Otto Penzler is the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. Several years ago, attacked by big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and the online retailer Amazon (this was before Amazon drove Boarders to the wall), the Bookshop was struggling. "Not being wealthy," he writes in the Introduction, "partially by accident of birth and the failure of my parents to leave me an obscene fortune, I was faced with the increasing difficulty of supporting a business that was bleeding money—some months a mere trickle, others a rushing, roaring hemorrhage. To illustrate the level of desperation to which I had fallen, I called for a staff meeting . . . "

For several years, Penzler had commissioned an original short Christmas mystery from one of the authors he knows. The store printed the stories in pamphlets and gave them to customers as a Christmas present to thank them for their patronage. What about commissioning authors a biography or profile of their series characters, produce only 100 copies of each in hardcover, and sell the autographed, limited-editions to those collectors who also buy a book or five?

"More than two years after initiating this series—" The Lineup was published in 2009. "—we're still in business, which, against all odds, has picked up nicely. Many clients come in, call, or write each month to ask who will write the next profile, and then buy books in order to get a copy."

The profiles vary as much as the original books. But the articles are fascinating. Here's Lee Child writing about the creation of his Jack Reacher series: "Character is king. There are probably fewer than six book every century remembered specifically for their plots. People remember characters. Same with television. Who remembers the Lone Ranger? Everybody. Who remembers any actual Lone Ranger story lines? Nobody. . . " Also. "If you can see a bandwagon, it's too late to get on. . . "

Here's Ian Rankin writing about the creation of John Rebus when he, Rankin, was a 24-year-old graduate literature student. He became fascinated by contemporary literary theory, "enjoying the 'game-playing' aspect of storytelling. Eventually I would name my own fictional detective after a type of picture-puzzle, and the mystery of his first adventure would be solved with the help of a professor of semiotics. That's the problem with Knots and Crosses (and one reason I find it hard to read the book these days)—it is so obviously written by a literature student . . . It seems to me now that I wasn't interested in Rebus as a person. He was a way of telling a story about Edinburgh, and of updating the doppelgänger tradition . . ."

Again: While The Lineup should be of interest to serious mystery readers if only for all the books cited in its pages, it is invaluable for anyone who aspires seriously to write a mystery.

Monday, August 7, 2017

How do you defend the indefensible?

Delayed at an airport and finishing my last book, I browsed the terminal for a novel that would distract me from airplane malaise. I picked up a John Grisham, a brand name author, maybe not great literature but sure to please and who can focus on great literature while his flight is delayed . . . and delayed . . .and delayed?

Rogue Lawyer distracted, impressed, and engaged me through my wait, the flight, and then some. You know you're in good hands from the first paragraph: "My name is Sebastian Rudd, and though I am a well-known street lawyer, you will not see my name on billboards, on bus benches, or screaming at you from the yellow pages . . . I carry a gun, legally, because my name and face tend to attract attention from the type of people who also carry guns and don't mind using them . . . The law is my life, always consuming and occasionally fulfilling . . . ."

Rudd is a rogue lawyer, working alone, though he does have a bodyguard/driver/associate. He is "paid by the State to provide a first-class defense to a defendant charged with capital murder." Grisham does not identify Rudd's state or city (for good reason—U.S. libel laws) and one might wonder how well the state pays, but he gets by. Rudd does well enough, in fact, he's able to buy a piece of a rising cage fighting star. Watching cage fights is one of his diversions.

I thought for the first hundred pages or so that Rogue Lawyer was a collection of short stories, sort of a "My Most Memorable Cases." It turned out to be far more complicated and interesting than that however, as Rudd's old cases and new come to affect, influence, and shape one another. It's not really a mystery; in one of Rudd's cases an elderly man shot a SWOT cop thinking his home was being invaded. In another, an arena full of people watched a fighter commit murder. The mystery is whether Rudd will be able to save his client from execution or worse, life in prison without parole.

Rudd—and I am going to assume his creator Grisham—has a sobering view of police and prosecutors. Police routinely fabricate evidence and coach jailhouse snitches. Prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence. (The Sunday New York Times Magazine of August 6, 2017 carried an article of such a case in Memphis; the innocent woman spent nine years in prison.) As Rudd ruminates, "Like so many, this trial is not about the truth, it's about winning. And to win, with no real evidence, Huver [the prosecutor] must fabricate and lie and attack the truth as if he hates it. I have six witnesses who swear my client was nowhere close to the scene when the crime was committed, and all six are scoffed at. Huver has produced almost two dozen witnesses, virtually all known to be liars by the cops, the prosecution, and the judge, yet the jurors lap up their lie as if they're reading Holy Scripture."

To even the competition slightly, Rudd has cultivated a source within the police department: "Spurio is a thirty-year veteran of the police force, a genuine, honest cop who plays by the book and despises almost everyone else in the department . . . Over the years, Spurio has refused to play the political games necessary to advance and has gone nowhere. He's usually hanging around a desk, filing papers, counting the days. But there is a network of other officers who have been ostracized by the powers that be, and Spurio spend a lot of time tracking the gossip. He's not a snitch by any means. He's simply an honest copy who hates what his department has become." So Rudd is a voice for honesty in a corrupt and lying world.

Rudd may work alone, but the book is filled with people. Rudd has a son, an ex-wife and her partner; he has his cage fighter and that family; he has to deal with his son's school teacher; and he has clients, ex-clients (including a mob boss Rudd was not able to save from an execution sentence), prosecutors, judges, and more. Grisham never has to jump into another character's head; Rudd tells the entire story.

Because I am no lawyer, I cannot critique the book's points of law. I do wonder about a prison system that is so porous that correctional officers are able to smuggle cell phones into prisoners. Also, in the prisons with which I am familiar, no one—not even an inmate's lawyer—can bring in a cell phone. But this is only a quibble. Rogue Lawyer offers a fascinating view of a subspecialty of the law, defender of the indefensible.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

But what was in Marilyn Monroe's unknown script?


John Herrick had an interesting idea: What if Marilyn Monroe wrote a screenplay while she was married to Arthur Miller? What if she gave it to a young friend, properly stamping each page with her thumbprint to prove authenticity? What if the friend, Del Corwyn, packed the script away and forgot about it? What if today, 72-year-old Del, now facing bankruptcy, discovers the script, which Marilyn titled “Beautiful Mess”?

That’s the armature on which Herrick builds his new novel, Beautiful Mess. If stories about Hollywood, the stresses of fame, the dangers of false gods, and a happy ending are the sort of book that attracts you, stop reading this review right now and add Beautiful Mess to your to-read list. You’ve been warned.

It’s not a bad book. I admire Herrick’s industry. He’s published four earlier novels and a book of non-fiction (8 Reasons Your Life Matters). Beautiful Mess comes with a reading group guide, interview with the author, and a stand-alone short story. In his answer to the question of what motivates him to select one book concept over another, Herrick gives three elements, gut feeling, commercial and target-audience appeal, and “potential to inspire or encourage the reader.”

Expanding on motivation number three, he writes,”The same collection of words triggers diverse responses among readers. It can serve as entertainment for one person. It might inspire another to reach for his or her dreams. And that same novel could uplift someone enduring pain or contemplating suicide. It’s such a privilege, and it’s like fuel during my writing process.” Which may account for my problems with the novel.

Herrick’s main character, Del Corwyn is an actor who almost won an Academy Award years ago. He has a big house in Malibu, runs every day to keep himself in shape, never married, has been living beyond his means, but seems to have no inner life. He was Marilyn Monroe’s friend when is was barely out of his teens and had an acting career that never went anywhere.

Del meets a 25-year-old actress, Nora Jumelle, who is up for an Academy Award for a breakout indie film. Nora is adventurous enough—or screwed up enough—to have a one-night-stand with Del. They agree a May-December relationship will not work (although reportedly the sex was fine) and become friends. Several of the chapters are written from Nora’s point of view.

Del meets Felicia, a minister of certain years (much more age-appropriate for Del) and they become friends. We never learn much about Felicia’s religious calling or what denomination she represents. Del and Nora happen to meet Tristan, a 30-something online wellness coach who makes a good living dispensing “Dear Abby” style advice anonymously and for money.

None of the four main characters seem to have families, friends, or much of a backstory. (Del does have an accountant and an agent.) Herrick, I suspect, started with his concept, then needed characters to move around to make the concept work rather than starting with the character(s) and letting the story grow out of their personalities and experiences.

Another problem for me is the Monroe script at the heart of the book. We never see it, although we do read Marilyn’s letter to Del when she gives him the script. People talk about it, how incredible it is, how the biggest studio in the country is willing to go all in to obtain it. But nothing, really, about it. It is a McGuffin, “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a McGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.” Alfred Hitchcock could get away without explaining the specific nature; I wanted to know more about Monroe’s script.

I also had problems with the writing. Here’s Nora regarding Tristan: “He inspired in her a sense of security, and as she sneaked glances at those blue eyes, her heart told her he was a a guy with romantic potential.” Dell regarding Felicia: “. . .Del could see in her eyes that her heart reached out toward his.” (In Herrick’s world, hearts are wonderfully articulate.) “Del invited Felicia to speak a blessing over their meal, then they began to partake.” Who partakes these days? And then there’s poor Nora; she cannot get a break. She attends the Academy Award ceremony dressed in Armani with Del as her date. However, “Little did she know, the following day, critics would balk at her attire and label her the ceremony’s worst-dressed attendee.”

As I said at the beginning, if the premise intrigues you, read the book. It intrigued me enough to read and review it, but I am afraid that on balance I came away from Beautiful Mess agreeing only with the title’s second word.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Two mysteries, one book, and too clever by half

I did not care for Anthony Horowitz's best selling Magpie Murders but I feel that anyone interested in writing and publishing should read it because, aside from the stories it tells, it includes a wealth of information about publishing, mysteries, and the writing life.

The book begins with Susan Ryeland, a British editor, introducing "Magpie Murders," a new mystery by Alan Conway, the house's most popular author. The next 213 pages (separately numbered, different type) is that manuscript minus the last chapter. The rest of the book is Susan's story of tracking down the missing last chapter and trying to understand why Conway has just committed suicide. Or has he?

Horowitz has (at this writing) written over 40 books including the teen spy series Alex Rider, which he adapted into a movie. The Conan Doyle estate commissioned him to write two new Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Moriarty and The House of Silk, both bestsellers. The Ian Fleming estate commissioned him to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. As a television screenwriter he created and wrote Midsomer Murders and Foyle's War.

Alan Conway's "Magpie Murders," ostensibly the ninth in the August Pünd series, is in the style of Agatha Christie set in a 1955 English village complete with a brilliant, if opaque, private investigator; his faithful, much younger, sidekick; a helpful, if dim, police inspector; two murders, and a half dozen suspects with reasons to kill. That is, everyone but the actual killer which Pünd has to finally expose.

I did not care for either "Conway's" mystery nor the mystery in which it is embedded because they are both puzzle boxes with red herrings, lucky (or unlucky) coincidences, and—for me—unconvincing murderers. Interestingly, we learn that Conway himself did not care for the character and the series that had made him wealthy, and one of the book's many pleasures is learning the connections between Conway's life and his book.

I am in awe of Anthony Horowitz's ability to write in the style of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and others of the period. Here is "Conway's" third-person, omniscient POV introduction to Pünd:

"Dr. Benson examined his patient with a certain amount of puzzlement. The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers—a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler's concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin—or perhaps it was Vienna—and after arriving in England he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on  numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable. And yet there was something else . . ."

By contrast, here is Susan Ryeland's first person POV description of Alan Conway:

"I didn't like him. I'm sorry to say it but he just struck me as a bit of a cold fish. You'll have seen photographs of him on the book jackets, the slim face, the closely cropped silver hair, the round wire-framed glasses. On television or on the radio he'd always had a sort of eloquence, an easy charm. He was nothing like that then. He was puffy and a little overweight, wearing a suit with chalk marks on the sleeves. His manner was at once aggressive and eager to please. He wasted no time telling me how much he wanted to be a published author but he showed almost no enthusiasm now that the moment had come. I couldn't work him out . . ."

And here is a sample from the thankfully brief excerpt of the kind of book Conway would like the be known for:

"Lord Quentin Crump comes slumping down the staircase, lording it as he always does over the cooks and maids, the under-butlers and the footmen that exist only in his anfractuous imagination, that have in truth slipped hugger-mugger into the adumbration of family history. They were there when he was a boy and in some ways he is still a boy, or perhaps it is more true to say that the boy he was lurks obstinately in the fleshy folds that fifty years of unhealthy living have deposited on the barren winter tree that is his skeleton . . ."

I believe any aspiring mystery writer could study Magpie Murders to understand how a consummate professional describes character and place, drops clues, and propels the story forward, in this case both stories. While puzzle box mysteries are not to my taste (I agree with Edmond Wilson; who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?), I learned a great deal from the book that I plan to use in my own writing.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

History pokes its nasty nose into truffle country

Martin Walker is an interesting guy to be writing mysteries. He's the Senior Director of the Global Business Policy Council at A.T. Kearney, the management consulting firm. Membership in the Council is by invitation-only and the symposium is closed-door. Members include academic, corporate, and government thought leaders, who meet annually to discuss issues that affect the worldwide business climate.

He spent 28 years on the staff of The Guardian newspaper, working as bureau chief in Moscow and the US, European editor, and assistant editor. Passed over as editor in 1999, he jointed United Press International, is now editor-in-chief emeritus of UPI. He's a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at The New School in New York, and a member of the board of directors of the Global Panel Foundation. Born in 1947, he and his wife have a holiday home in the Périgord region of France—truffle country.

And that's where Black Diamond, the third mystery featuring Benoit "Bruno" Courréges is set. Bruno is the police authority in the town of St. Denis, which is on the Dordogne River. There seems to be a problem in the truffle market in nearby Ste. Alvère, and Bruno is asked to investigate.

Black Diamond, which is one way to describe a good-size truffle, is an interestingly complex novel. Although it is set in contemporary rural France, the country's colonial history in French Indo-China and Algeria pokes its nasty nose into present-day affairs. And when Hercule Vendrot, Bruno's elderly friend, hunting companion, former secret agent in Vietnam and Algeria is found brutally murdered in the forest, that history has invaded Bruno's patch.

Bruno is an interesting cop. He's a gourmet cook (don't read this book if you're hungry), still plays rugby, and is former soldier who was wounded on a peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.  He's had an affair with a policewoman who's moved on to bigger things in Paris, and he has a relationship with an English woman who lives in St. Denis. He never carries his official pistol and "has long since lost the key to his handcuffs," but he also has good relations with the larger police organizations and knows the neighborhood and the people.

Given Walker's background, the book feels unusually rich. We learn not only about truffles—how they are found, graded, and marketed—but France's current challenge of illegal Chinese immigrants, friction between the Chinese and Vietnamese, and—not the least—what ordinary life in a French town is usually like.

Black Diamond satisfies my three criteria for a decent mystery: an engaging protagonist/detective, a convincing setting, and a plausible murderer. I'm going back to the first two Bruno mysteries in the series.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why does Michiko throw the man under the train?

A successful mystery for me, I've concluded, is an engaging mixture of character, place, and plausibility. If the detective, the killer (you have to have a killer), and the supporting cast are not convincing, the mystery fails. If the author is able to evoke a place and the local culture—Bangkok, Tibet, Ghana, Sicily, places I know nothing about first hand—so much the better. Indeed, following an interesting detective around the landscape as he/she interviews witnesses, collects clues, and makes associations is almost all I want in a novel.

Which is why the plausibility factor spoils so many mysteries for me. Who is the killer? What are his/her motivations? (Pure naked viciousness isn't good enough.) Was the murder planned or impulsive? Generally I'm dissatisfied with elaborate puzzle boxes because I find them preposterous, the kind of mystery that concludes with the detective gathering all the suspects in a room and explains the steps that reveals the murderer.

Michael Pronko's debut, The Last Train: A Tokyo Mystery is doesn't do that and in fact is satisfying on all three counts: character, place, and plausibility.

According to his bio, Pronko has lived in Tokyo for twenty years. He has a BA in philosophy from Brown, an MA in comparative literature from Wisconsin, and a PhD in English from the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University and has published three collections of essays about Tokyo. He says about The Last Train, "My book goes into the realities of Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, looks at the injustices of economics and the unfair position women are put into. It's not just 'set in' Tokyo, it's about Tokyo, in and of Tokyo."

The book begins by following a lovely, and determined young woman as she throws a drunken man into the path of the night's last express train.

In Chapter 2 we meet Hiroshi Shimizu, a police detective specializing white-collar crime, and his senpai, Takamatsu. A senpai is a senior, superior, predecessor, mentor; someone whose calls you take. The body on the tracks is a problem for the police: An American businessman. No sign of robbery. Unlikely to have simply fallen. Yet not someone who would kill himself. The American consulate is interested, as is the American Chamber of Commerce. Takamatsu wants Shimizu on the case because Hiroshi, after college in Boston and a romance with an American woman, speaks fluent English.

Pronko tells his story from the points of view of both Hiroshi and Michiko Suzuki, a woman strong enough and skillful enough in akido martial arts to throw a man in front of a train (and a former sumo wrestler through a plate glass window). Both are well-rounded and their motivations comprehensible. Pronko has lived in Japan long enough to understand the nuances of Japanese culture and behavior. We understand—if not agreeing with—Michiko's decisions, which echo those of the 47 ronin, the loyal retainers who took revenge on the lord who caused their lord's disgrace and death.

We follow Hiroshi and Takamatsu (until he ends up in the hospital after tangling with Michiko) and Sagamichi, the former sumo wrestler, as they visit the Roppongi entertainment district, goes to temples, corporate offices, and industrial wasteland in their effort to make sense of what they learn. In a set piece at the end, Hiroshi fights his way through the maze of Shinjuku Station, something anyone who has been there can empathize with. You don't have to know anything about Japan to enjoy The Last Train, but if you do, much of it will resonate—even learn something new as I did.

Monday, July 3, 2017

What happens if you just walk away from your life?

Am I the only husband who has thought once or twice about walking away from his wife and children? Just taking off and leaving one life behind for an entirely unplanned, unstructured, utterly free new life? That's what Thomas (no last name), a middle-aged, middle-class Swiss accountant does one evening.

He and his wife Astrid have just returned from a vacation in Spain to their small town in Switzerland. They are sharing an evening glass of wine in their garden when a squabble between the children draws Astrid into the house. After she settles Konrad and Ella, rather than return to the garden she goes to bed exhausted after the drive home. And Thomas walks away, leaving his wine unfinished.

So begins Peter Stamm's short novel To the Back of Beyond, his fifth. It is of a piece of his earlier work. The Financial Times wrote of an earlier novel, "Stamm eschews middlebrow concerns of plot and resolution . . . his narrative is centered on the ruptures in his main characters' lives and their consequences . . ." Stamm never gives the reader a neat, pat explanation why Thomas leaves. We can infer possible reasons from what he does, but different readers will make different inferences.

Astrid's first reaction is to lie to the children, lie to Thomas's secretary. When it seems he won't turn up after a day or two, she goes to the police.

The book has no chapters as such, but the narrative switches point of view as first we follow Thomas's peregrination, then Astrid's with almost no access to their thoughts. "Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes . . ." Is about as close as we get to his inner life.

Rather, we watch them do things and move through the landscape, often with precise and lovely descriptions smoothly translated by Michael Hoffmann: "Ahead of him grew his shadow as cast by the streetlamp behind, then it merged into the life of the one following, which cast a fresh shadow behind him, which in turn grew shorter, overtook him, and hurried ahead of him, growing all the while, a sort of ghostly relay of specters accompanying him out of the neighborhood, across the circular road, and into the business district that sprawled away from the village out into the flat land."

If "plot" is what happens to characters in a story, To the Back of Beyond clearly has a plot (pace Financial Times). Astrid does try to find Thomas. The police are as helpful as they can be, although as one sympathetic officer tells her, "An adult has the right to disappear." (Some readers, I know, will be put off by the novel's lack of quotation marks; others like myself will have no trouble following the dialogue.)

Among the novel's strengths are the questions it provokes in the reader: Is the life we're living the one we want? What motivates us to obey our routines? Can one person ever truly know another? In a sense the questions are unanswerable, but Stamm's To the Back of Beyond makes a fascinating stab at addressing them, at least for this very ordinary, but extraordinary, Swiss couple.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Following Elena Ferrante's extraordinary journey, Part 2

Elena Ferrant's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewer and reader questions. In Part 1 of this blog, I wrote about her unusual relationship with her publisher. I now want to quote her extensively on writing, starting with her observation that "when you begin a story, you have to be the sole source of the story, you have to get lost in it, because there are no predetermined maps; and if perceptible traces of what you have learned from books remain, they have to be eliminated without indulgence, assuming it's possible. Because it's not always possible, nor is it good: writing is also the story of what we have read and are reading, of the quality of our reading, and a good story, finally, is one written from the depths our our life, from the heart of our relations with others, from the heights of the books we've liked."

It should be clear to anyone who reads her novels that Ferrante has written, if not for the ages (as if one could), but from as deeply within herself as she can. She is not interested in the well-plotted story in which all the pieces fit together neatly, all loose threads tied off by the last page. Nor is she interested (pace MFA programs) in "beautiful" writing. She wants to write a story that has the energy to create a world, "not because it strings together metaphors. . . . The problem, if anything, is the cult of the beautifully wrought page, a recurring feature that I've long struggled with in myself. Today I throw out the pages that are too written—I prefer the rough draft to the final version."

Frantumaglia is full of gems for working fiction writers like this observation about dreams in novels. They are "difficult to relate; as soon as you write them they force you to invent, to put in order, and they become false. In novels especially they are so shamelessly functional to the requirements of the psychological construction of the character that their artificiality becomes intolerable."

One of the questions serious writers ask themselves often when no one seems willing to publish their books is: Why write at all? Is it simply a form of self-pleasuring? Pure solipsism? Apparently Ferrante has always believed that a book will find its readers. Her international success has validated her belief. She asks therefore, is it possible to make an immaterial organism of language, ethics, stories, experience "a concretely narratable object, that is, to employ techniques capable of conveying that organism to the reader as one does with the wind, the heat, the feeling, the events that make up the plot? To control that noisy permanent fragmenting in your head, explore that transformation into words that lasts as long as the story lasts is, I think, the secret ambition of anyone who fully dedicates himself to writing."

She notes that writers ask themselves "what experiences do I know I can be the voice of"? But that, says is not the most urgent question. "The more pressing questions are: what is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what is the suitable tone for the things I know? These seem like questions of form, of style, all in all secondary. But I am convinced that without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing alive and true emerges."

As I hope I've indicated in this quick review I believe Frantumaglia to be interesting and inspiring for anyone seriously interested in serious writing, that is someone who believes she has something deeply truthful to say and wants to express it in a profound and profoundly honest way. The book may also interest readers of Ferrante's novels for her notes on her characters and why she has insisted on remaining anonymous. And asked whether readers can expect to see more from her, she gives perhaps the one rule of writing: "If you have nothing worth writing, don't write any more."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Following Elena Ferrant's extrarordinary journey, Part 1

This is the first of two posts about Elena Ferrante's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey. The book offers too much to readers and writers to pack into a single note.

"Elena Ferrante" is the pen name of an Italian author, who, I suspect, has very mixed feeling about the success and consequent attention her recently-published extraordinary tetralogy My Brilliant Friend has provoked. (Rights sold in forty countries, New York Times best seller.)  

"Frantumaglia" in the Neapolitan dialect means "a jumble of things." Ferrante describes it as the word her mother used to name "a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain." The book is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewers, a jumble of things all related to the author's writing, literature, feminism, and what she has attempted to do in her novels.

Ferrante's first letter in the book, dated September 21, 1991, informs the publisher of her first novel, Troubling Love, that she will do nothing personally to promote the book—no TV, no radio, no personal interviews. "I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won't." What, after all, do we need to know about Shakespeare's childhood, methods of working, or thoughts about other playwrights to appreciate and enjoy his plays? Until very recently when an Italian reporter apparently revealed Ferrante's identity, she had been able to remain anonymous—no book jacket author photo, no potted author biography.

It's a position that contradicts everything I know about American publishing today that, in general, believes an author is a brand and should be marketed as such. What the author produces is almost secondary. Faithful readers are buying King, Steele, Roberts, Cussler, Patterson, Grisham, Woods, Child; their books have to meet a certain level of interest, entertainment, engagement but not much more. With the tens of thousand of books published and self-published every year, how else is an author going to stand out enough for readers to find her.

What I find extraordinary in Ferrante's journey as a writer is that her publisher, Edizioni E/O, with whom she has stuck through nine books, was willing to make that deal. An editor had to fall in love with Troubling Love and be willing to defend it as a publishing investment without the author's participation. Ferrante (and the publisher) were also fortunate that an Italian movie director fell in love with the book and made a well-received film based on it. Ferrante commented extensively on the script, and Frantumaglia includes her observations about and suggestions for the script.

Her publisher was also willing to wait ten years for her next manuscript. Ferrante says that she wrote constantly during those ten years, but produced nothing she felt met her own standards. For her next novel, however, The Days of Abandonment, she had softened enough to answer in writing and at considerable length (70 printed page, including outtakes from the manuscript itself) five relatively short questions from an Italian magazine. To sell foreign rights to My Brilliant Friend, the publisher promised an e-mail interview with Ferrante . . . which is why I suspect she has mixed feelings about the book's popularity.

Finally, I found it extraordinary that Ferrante wrote all four volumes of My Brilliant Friend—1,682 total pages in the English edition—in one go. She writes that she does not think about how long a book should be (or not be) when she's writing. She tells the story that has to be told . . . and I imagine the publisher had to figure out how to put it into a  form a bookstore can actually stock.

So one appeal of Frantumaglia to Ferrant's fans is the insight the author can give to the characters and their stories, all skillfully translated by Ann Goldstein. If you enjoyed The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, The Beach at Night or the Neapolitan quartet: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child you should find this collection of self-contained
fragments a fascinating appendix.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What happens after the terrorist's bomb explodes?

We read about or watch news stories about terrorist bombers. So many dead, so many wounded. A group claims response or doesn't. The bomber dies or doesn't. And that's it. There's a blast and then it's over. But who are these people? What do they want? What's the point? And what happens to the survivors? Their relatives? The bystanders? The authorities?

The Association of Small Bombs, a novel by Karan Mahajan, published in 2016, was a National Book Award finalist, and named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. The author was born in1964 and grew up in New Delhi. He's a graduate of Stanford University and the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin.

It is not an easy book. It is populated with Indian characters and a casual reader may have difficulty keeping names and relationships clear. It begins with a bomb set off in a neighborhood market in Delhi in May 1996. Three boys, friends, have gone to the market without parental permission. Two brothers are among those killed, the third wounded.

It's only a small bomb. The Kashmiri activitists who planted it are disappointed that it killed only a handful of people, but the psychological damage it does to the families of the dead boy and the surviving boy is incalculable. Much of the book is the story of how these extended families cope or don't with the tragedy.

Moreover, Mahajan takes the reader into the mind of the bomber and shows us his actions, his drives as, in the course of the book, he initiates a Delhi resident into the movement. The Indian police do arrest an activist and torture him, but he is only (only!) a theoretician of the movement, not a bomber himself. On the evidence given in The Association of Small Bombs, the men who prepare and set the bombs, foot soldiers in a murky war, don't really understand the larger point, have no coherent political goals themselves. It's also difficult (impossible) to see how killing innocent Hindu and Muslim shoppers helps the cause unless it boils down to: "You want to stop the bombings? Give us Kashmir."

And the red thread running through the novel is the tension—hostility—between Hindu and Muslim. For the boys, the difference hardly mattered. Once two are dead and the other survives, the difference matters to the families and swells over time.

Aside from the power of the story, which at times is almost too strong to read, Mahajan writes lovely passages like this: "Vikas [the father] was awfully partial toward Tushar [one of the dead boys], though he would nave never acknowledged it. Nankul [the other dead boy, his brother] was popular in school, good at sports, intense, competitive, moody—just like Vikas, in other words—whereas Tushar was lumpy, effeminate, eccentric, troubled, getting pushed around in school, and moseying up to his mother in the kitchen with the halting eyes of an abused animal, always eager to please, reading the newspaper and engaging his father in incessant chatter about politics, a pet topic for him, one he had honed through quiz competitions in school, the one area in which he shown."

The action in the book concludes in 2003, and it feels as if we have lived with the characters through their entire lives, pre-bomb and post. The Association of Small Bombs engages the reader in a exotic yet comprehensible world. I think it's an important book, and the world is one in which more and more of us seem to be living with every news cycle.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why we argue even when we can't win

Prolific Stanley Fish, perhaps best known for How to Write a Sentence (which I reviewed in this blog), has just published his eighteenth book, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom.

The title is a double entendre. It could mean "here's how to win arguments" or it could mean "here are arguments that win." The jacket flap copy author took the latter meaning: ". . .  Stanley Fish . . . reveals how successful argument can be used to win over popular opinion." Actually, it doesn't.

Indeed, Fish argues (you'll excuse the word) persuasively that a successful argument only provokes further argument. "Argument could produce certainty only if we lived in a world where a settled dispute stays settled because its resolution has been accomplished by a measure everyone accepts and accepts permanently." But, as he points out, we don't live in that world.

Rather than tell readers how to frame their arguments for maximum effect, Fish does something much more interesting. He indicates why no argument is going to persuade a Trump supporter or a Clinton supporter to change. No scientific data will persuade a climate-change denier that it is real or man-made. No husband's entirely reasonable defense of working late will ease his wife's feelings of abandonment. No academically certified Holocaust denier will find a job teaching a university that prides itself on being open to all ideas, even the most abhorrent.

Fish, who is a professor of law at two universities, does point out that it is possible to win an argument in a court of law, but it's not the participants who decide who won. It's a judge or a jury. (The same is true in an academic setting in a formal debate.) In a courtroom, unlike in a political debate, in a bedroom, or in a classroom, formal rules constrain what can be used in one's argument. No discussion of a criminal defendant's character for example. But even a decision of the US Supreme Court can be overturned (eventually). After all as Chief Justice Taney wrote in 1857, "[Negroes] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." And a civil war, not argument, changed that decision.

Rather than explaining how to win an argument or providing examples of winning arguments, this relatively short book helps the reader (this reader at least) understand the function of argument in life, when not to argue (an argument with one's spouse is almost always a bad idea), and how to spot a flawed argument (not that it would change your mind anyway).

Fish gives an example of this last point: In any issue involving science—smoking/cancer, human activity/global warming, immunization/autism, evolution/intelligent design—there can be no absolute and conclusive answer. A research consensus "is merely the present thinking of fallible men and women." New evidence or discovering a flaw in the source data can always disrupt the consensus. (Too bad for those who want clear, unambiguous conclusions.) Therefore the consensus should not be the basis for action. I.e., we shouldn't spend money to discourage smoking or regulate acid rain until there's conclusive evidence that smoking causes cancer, human activity causes global warming, immunizing children causes autism, and more and more and more.

But! But! But! We've just argued that, for a scientific question, the evidence is never all in. As Fish writes, "if incomplete evidence is the inevitable condition of inquiry, you can't cite the incompleteness of evidence as a reason for failing to act on the evidence that is in."

Much as I enjoyed Winning Arguments, I would have enjoyed it more if it had an index and a bibliography. Fish bases some of his points heavily on other works and it would have been handy to have them easily available. Still, the book is a provocative and fascinating discussion of an important topic.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Revenge as a dish best served cold

The Hogarth Press was founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917. It was relaunched in 2012 as a partnership between Chatto & Windus in the UK and Crown in the U.S. In 2015 Hogarth launched the Hogarth Shakespeare program to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. "The project sees the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership." Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's take on The Tempest.

When the novel opens, Felix Phillips is the Artistic Director of a Shakespeare Festival theater in Ontario (shades of "Slings & Arrows," the Canadian TV series), rehearsing a production of The Tempest and starring himself as Prospero. His wife died shortly after childbirth, a late marriage for him, and three years later his daughter, Miranda, also died. In his grief, Felix buries himself in the artistic side of the festival, leaving all administrative, fund-raising, director-massaging activities to Tony, the festival's second-in-command. Tony forces Felix out in a board-room coup, claiming artistic mismanagement. By page 35, Felix has withdrawn from the world, is living in an isolated two-room shack, and communicating from time to time with his daughter Miranda's living spirit.

Nine years later, Felix spots an opportunity to teach in a nearby prison. He convinces the woman responsible for the job, a woman of a certain age who has known and admired Felix in his earlier life, that a program of mounting Shakespeare's plays in the prison would be valuable. He's hired to work three months a year, and produces Julius Caesar, Richard III, and MacBeth employing inmate actors and technicians. The plays are recorded on video and played through the prison's CCTV system (no assembling a large inmate audience in a medium-security prison) and well-received by the prisoners and administration.

In his fourth year at the prison Felix learns that Tony Price and Sal O'Nally, the two who colluded in sacking Felix from the Festival and now both government Ministers, will be visiting the prison in the spring: "The one place in the world where, with judicious timing, he might be able to wield more power than they could." Felix decides to produce a contemporary version of The Tempest, a revenge play as a vehicle for revenge.

Margaret Atwood is a sorceress. She never slips into mechanically moving her characters around to fit the plot while she does manage to set up echoes and resonances with Shakespeare's play.

—Felix, as theater director, is the wizard controlling events as he plays Prospero who employs magic to enchant his enemies.

—The prison might be an island.

—The relationship between Price, O'Nally, and Felix echo the relationship of Antonio, who usurped his brother Prospero's title as Duke of Milan; Alonso, the King of Naples; and Prospero, the rightful Duke.

—O'Nally brings his son Freddie into the prison to watch the production where he's attracted to the actress who plays Miranda; Alonso's son Ferdinand, also magically shipwrecked, falls in love with Miranda.

—Felix spends twelve years in his cell of a shack; Prospero spends twelve years before Alonso's ship strays close enough to his island that he can use his magic to simulate a shipwreck.

Because this is a contemporary production, in a prison, with inmates, directed by a man willing to push theatrical limits, Felix's Tempest includes raps that the cast—i.e., Atwood—writes. For example:

I'm the man, I'm the Duke, I'm the Duke of Milan,
You want to get pay, gotta do what I say.
Wasn't always this way, no, no,
I was once this dude called Antonio,
I was no big deal and it made me feel so bad, so mad,
Got under my skin, 'cause I couldn't ever win,
Got no respect, I was second in line,
But I just kept smilin', just kept lyin', said everything's fine . . . .

You don't have to know The Tempest to enjoy Hag-Seed. You will have to suspend disbelief if you are familiar with prison routine (although, to be fair, perhaps Canadian prisons operate differently than American). If you know your Shakespeare, however, I believe you'll find Hag-Seed a marvel and a joy.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Whose writing tools should we use?

The New York Times Book Review has an interesting opinion piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen, "Your Writing Tools Aren't Mine." It begins by pointing out that American literature is being read around the world and that the American way of teaching writing is also spreading. "The writing workshop, with all its unexamined assumptions, has spread to Britain and Hong Kong, a model of pedagogy that is also an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself."

Nguyen touches on his own experience as a refugee from war, from an Asian country in a workshop that deliberately or otherwise, "produces a particular kind of writing." He says that workshops typically focus on "strategies of the writing 'art' that develop character, setting, time, description, theme, voice and, to a lesser extent, plot."

They generally do not have anything to say about politics, history, theory, philosophy, or ideology. Writing teachers avoid these subjects for fiction, not because they put off readers or because the teachers are unqualified to teach them, but because they threaten the workshop's origins.

As an institution, Nguyen writes, "the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that 'Show, don't tell' is universal when it is, in fact the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male."

It's an interesting argument. (And it echoes themes in Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I discussed recently.) If nothing else, the piece is sending me to read Nguyen's novel The Sympathizer, which won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize and a ton of other awards. I am curious to see how his own fiction reflects his ideas. In any case, his fiction provokes strong feelings among readers as few minutes skimming through the 1,478 Amazon reviews suggests:

" . . . simply superb. Written with an unflinching eye and great humor . . ."

" . . . boring. Nothing actually happened, there was no plot . . ."

" . . . a fabulous book that brought so many memories of my two Viet Nam tours . . ."

" . . . overrated, predictable, no plot twist at all . . ."

" . . . a very serious story, but with wonderful humor interlaced with the tales of political intrigue."

" . . . a potentially interesting theme and plot ruined by the narrator's flippant attitude to everything . . ."

But you get the idea. And I wonder how far Nguyen is willing to go. 

Should writers not develop character, describe a scene, set a time, have a theme (in my experience, a work has a theme whether you want one or not), tell not show? Which is not to denigrate or dismiss politics, history, theory, philosophy, and ideology. It seems to me that the more tools a writer can employ effectively, the more engaging, the richer a work is likely to be. 

I'd be interested in hear other opinions.