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.