Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth Zelvin. Show all posts

11 January 2021

When An Explorer Is Not Equipped With A Vocabulary


 

Quadrant. Check.
Charts. Check.
Quills and ink. Check.

Before setting sail on his voyage of discovery in 1492, Columbus had to make sure he and his ships were well equipped.

EVA suit. Check.
Pistol grip tool. Check.
Safety tethers. Check.

As you can see, the equipment of a 21st-century astronaut differed greatly from that of a 15th- century navigator. But the purpose of explorers across history is always the same: not only to go out and see, but to report back to the rest of us who can't go and see for themselves.

I found a list of the "ten best" real-life adventure books, nominated by a panel of explorers, in esquire.com. The five written by the explorers themselves were:
The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1950) by Thor Heyerdahl
The Worst Journey in the World (1922) by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Lost In the Jungle (2005) by Yossi Ghinsberg
Touching the Void (1988) by Joe Simpson
Into the Heart of Borneo (1987) by Redmond O'Hanlon

And how about literary figures like the 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton? This fascinating man was a soldier, a diplomat, a spy, a translator of the classic Indian and Arabian erotic texts, and more, tarnished only by anti-Semitic beliefs. (Honestly, Sir Richard!) Isabella Bird, the first woman admitted to the Royal Geographical Society? T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, not an explorer but an articulate participant in a culture not his own? In fact, a vast body of travel literature appeared in the 19th century, when exploring became a fever and publishing one's journals and observations a goal for those who made it back. Since then, we've been able to read all about the world beyond our own experience.

But what about explorers who have no gift for describing what they see? What use are their travels to the rest of us?

This is not merely a modern problem.

Samuel Eliot Morison, the hallowed biographer of Columbus, won a Pulitzer for Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Morison, who replicated all the Admiral's voyages in his own sailboat, raves about Columbus's skill as a navigator and creator of charts a modern sailor could still use. Morison doesn't mind that Columbus was no naturalist nor complain that there was no naturalist aboard to describe the abundance of unfamiliar flora and fauna the Europeans saw.

But Kirkpatrick Sale, in Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise, complains: "To convey the lush density and stately grandeur of those tropical forests, he had little more than the modifiers 'green' and 'very.'" He goes on to quote from the Admiral's journals and letters back to Spain in late 1492: "'very green trees,' 'trees very green,' 'trees so green and with leaves like those of Castile,' 'large groves very green,' 'trees beautiful and green'..."; as well as his inarticulate expression of diversity: "'trees of a thousand kinds,' 'a thousand sorts of trees,' 'trees different from ours,' 'trees of a thousand kinds'...".

It wasn't only Columbus. Sale quotes Oxford scholar J.H. Elliott as saying that in general, "'the physical appearance of the New World is either totally ignored or else described in the flattest and most conventional phraseology [by 16th-century European explorers].'" Sale says: "This lack of interest was reflected in the lack of vocabulary, the lack of that facility common to nature-based peoples whose cultures are steeped in nature imagery."

It makes perfect sense, right? But it wouldn't happen now, we think. Twenty-first century exploration, whether to the few wild places left on Planet Earth or into space, has or will have all sorts of experts and the equipment to measure minutely and report accurately what they observe.

But who will receive this information? Our spacegoing scientists report the details to NASA, which, depending on the details, usually means the government and/or the military. The rest of us get the media-grabbing highlights. And what are those, these days?

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, we got a few words to inspire:
"One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

On May 12, 2017, the way I heard it, when astronaut Jack Fisher was asked for his impression of space on his first spacewalk, he said, "It was awesomesauce."

When I checked, it turned out what he actually replied to, "What's it like?" was "A ginormous fondue pot, bubbling over with piping hot awesomesauce.” Let that be a lesson to me and all you writers out there. Always check your sources! But that's beside the point.

If all we, the people, learn from our explorers is that what's out there is "green" or "awesomesauce," will exploration eventually be deemed not worth the effort? More likely, our culture will conclude that since pictures do the job and words do not, words have no value whatsoever.

We don't want that, do we?

Liz's Jewish historical adventure novel, Voyage of Strangers, offers an alternative perspective on Columbus's explorations. The sequel is Journey of Strangers, set partly in São Tomé off the coast of West Africa and partly in the Ottoman Empire.

14 December 2020

My Musical Hallucinations



Speaking of books, one of the things that well-meaning people say when I mention that I have musical hallucinations is, "It's too bad Oliver Sacks is not alive." Sure, I'm sorry the the celebrated popularizer of neurological oddities is dead. But not as sorry as I am that Mozart is dead. Or Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, for that matter. The author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat could have written The Woman Whose Right Ear Played "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." But I'd rather have the composer of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" itself or the guys who wrote "Over the Rainbow."  

Sacks could have told my story entertainingly. But I don't need a ghostwraconteur, thank you. I've got one in my head, as every storyteller does—along with the entity I call the Maestro, who's been giving me private concerts since June 2019. 
Don't worry, I'm not nuts. It's simply the name I've given the neurological phenomenon they call musical hallucinations. They’re not in my head, like an earworm, but more like a radio playing close by or sometimes like earphones in my ears. They come from the unconscious, from the musical archives of the person experiencing them. People who have MH have reported hearing a range from nursery rhymes to Chinese opera. Mine are particularly rich, because I have been listening to and making music since early childhood: Girl Scout campfire songs, Broadway show tunes, union songs, and Appalachian ballads on the one hand, classical music on the other. Mozart in, apparently, Mozart out. 
Musical hallucinations sit at the crossroads of neurology, otology, and psychiatry. I already have migraines and partial hearing loss, and I'm a therapist myself. And I’m Jewish. So doctors, I’ve got. They’re on it, they’re on it. And so am I. Having combed the Internet for the literature, we know a few things. It's not as rare as all that, just poorly studied and reported. The causes vary, and there are no treatment protocols. Not only older women get it as usually reported, but also "youts" (don’t you love that word?) who've been playing too much Super Mario. And not a single expert can tell us how to make it stop.

Why would I want to make it stop? you may ask. It sounds fascinating, I hear you say. At any moment, my private concert may be a  baroque string ensemble improvising theme and variations, a world class symphony orchestra, a cello cadenza (right ear) or a coloratura aria (left ear) in the shower. The stimulus of whirling fans or a humming refrigerator may elicit a choral work, eg the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth to Christmas carols in six-part harmony with pipe organ. A brisk walk may summon up a Scottish ballad with bagpipes or a marching band with tuba and bassoon. Sometimes there’s no special stimulus. The Maestro has been known to burst into a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” for no reason in particular. Everyone wants to hear the song of the Sirens, don’t they? I get them for free. So what's the catch? 

The catch is that the Sirens have no Off button. As you may remember, Odysseus had to be tied to the mast so that unearthly beckoning wouldn’t lure him to his death. Lovely as the music is,   it eventually becomes frustrating, even agonizing. The proverbial Beethoven ending of one of those world-class symphonies can become the Chinese water torture as it goes on and on and on and on and on. And while I can sometimes influence the playlist with a nudge of the mind, I don’t get to choose it. I’ve had to endure “My Grandfather’s Clock” and “Turkey in the Straw” over and over and over. And the most intractable moment is every night when my head hits the pillow and the music won't shut up.  


For many months after the MH started, I heard it nonstop throughout my waking hours. Then I started getting periods of respite. It was less intrusive if I didn't treat it as a concert, however tempting. Eventually, my neurologist started prescribing small amounts of scary medications. The neuroleptics, meant for schizophrenics (no, I am not now and never have been), didn’t work, but Aricept, for dementia patients, is beginning to.


So now, I no longer get world-class free entertainment, but only occasional tinny humming. On the other hand, because I don't have dementia, the Aricept doesn't have to fix reality for me. Instead, it's straightening out my unconscious. As a result, I'm having excessively coherent dreams. My husband says I'm making speeches all night long. When I step off a ledge, I wake to find myself with my feet on the floor. There's only the thinnest veil between dream and reality.

But I'm not complaining. I was afraid I'd never have a moment free from music I couldn't control for the rest of my life. In general, I still appreciate music. But please don't invite me to a concert any time soon.              

16 November 2020

The Mystique of the British Aristocrat



I grew up loving British novels—not wisely but too well—and one of their most reliable features was the recurring character of the British aristocrat, who could usually be counted on to have highly polished boots—the mirror-like finish applied by a valet—ride to hounds, spend more time in his London club than in his wife’s company, never mention such a vulgar topic as money, and always, always know with which fork to eat the fish. Found in the pages of Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers as well as more rarefied company, this character had a mystique. Probably mythical to begin with, he certainly exists no longer. The hereditary peer no longer takes his seat in the House of Lords by right. Today, a limited number of them mingle with the peers given lifetime appointments for a wide array of services to the Crown. Mystery writer Janet Neel, for example, bless her heart, sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Cohen of Pimlico. 

 But let’s not talk about the real-life Baroness Cohen, beyond mentioning that Death’s Bright Angel is one of my all-time favorite mysteries, maybe even in the top three, certainly the top five or ten. I don’t even want to talk about that kind and courteous model of the parfait gentil knyght, the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey. Or the Earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey, who makes a case for landowners like him as responsible for the wellbeing of the land and the people who work it. I want to talk about the meanies. Golden Age and historical mysteries are full of them, as are novels of and TV series about earlier times, when upstairs was upstairs and downstairs was downstairs. 
 
Look at Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt in Pride and Prejudice. She cultivates servility in the
vicar, Mr Collins, and other dependents and takes pleasure in being critical, blunt, and nasty every time she speaks. Furthermore, she couldn’t think more highly of herself. She believes herself a holy terror by right and makes life miserable for everyone around her. Wouldn’t it have been lovely if Elizabeth Bennett could have said to Darcy, “Your aunt is the most obnoxious old bitch I’ve ever met. If you must keep up the connection, you can visit her at Rosings by yourself. She’s never setting foot in my home.” But alas, Jane Austen wouldn’t let her. 

 There is a classic meanie in Downton Abbey: Larry, Lord Merton’s son, who doesn’t want his dad to marry the middle class Mrs. Crawley. Her deceased husband was a doctor, her late son a lawyer before becoming heir to Downton, and that’s the end of it. Being grandmother to the present heir can’t make her anything but hopelessly vulgar in his eyes. He’s also scathing in condemning the Irish socialist chauffeur Tom, who had the temerity to marry the Earl’s daughter. He even slips a mickey in Tom’s drink at the dinner table to make him behave badly. There’s well-bred aristocratic manners for you! 

 
I’m a veteran of many rants about the British aristocrat, but what set me off this time was watching, not for the first time, Nathaniel Parker play the aristocratic father of the motorcycle-riding vicar Will Davenport in Grantchester, set in the 1950s. Papa Davenport is a piece of work. Keeping up appearances in the entrance hall and dining room while the rest of the stately home—moulders away like a set for Miss Havisham’s decline. “We belong to it, not it to us,” he tells his son, not mentioning he’s about to bequeath him enough debt to bury the estate. His son is “a constant disappointment” because he’s a clergyman instead of out committing adultery, gambling, lying, bullying his wife, beating up the servants, and putting on a show with money he doesn’t have, like dear old Dad. He was terribly rude to Will’s friend Inspector Keating as well. I wanted to cheer when the Inspector didn’t bat an eyelash. His worth is based on integrity, not smoke and mirrors. 

 
I’m sure you’ve read as many examples as I have of the self-satisfied British aristocrat who despises, not the working class, with whom they believe they have an “understanding” (the working classes work, and the aristocrats take the fruits of their labors for granted), but the middle class, with their “middle class morality,” which usually comes down to making sure they have the money before they spend it, thinking paying the tailor and the grocer is more important than paying excessive gambling debts incurred while drunk, and thinking “thou shalt not commit adultery” is not such a bad idea. The aristos give them a lot of contempt for taking that one seriously. 

 So here’s my core question. What do they have to be so proud of? What are their values and virtues? Let’s assume for sake of this rant that we’re talking of the least admirable of the fictional or mythical British aristocratic class, back in the days before the concept of class began to break down. The Edwardian era was probably the last era in which they flourished, though their lands and great estates were falling prey to death duties and general economic and social modernization. 

 They go to public schools, at which they are introduced to bullying, early sexualization, and a certain amount of physical torture. They’re removed from female influence, so they lack any models for the relational side of psychological growth, ie connecting rather than competing as a way to be with others in the world. 

 For entertainment, their greatest delight is to be taken to see panto every Christmas. If you’ve never seen it, panto is a broad slapstick rendition of classic fairy tales performed in drag. The “principal boy,” ie the hero, is always played by a woman. The female lead, played for comedy, is always played by a man. Panto has been around since the 18th century and is still popular. I imagine generations of confused children thinking they’re supposed to grow up to be cross-dressers, whether they want to or not. The victim of autoerotic asphyxiation in a ballet tutu in P.D. James comes to mind. (I won’t tell you which novel.) Another feature of panto: the audience shouts, “Look behind you! Look behind you!” to the character who is about to be clobbered. Good training for those public schools and later for the Army, you may say. But the hero never listens and always gets clobbered. What’s the takeaway from that? 

 Here’s what classic British aristocrats value. Breeding: the one quality they share with their dogs and their horses. No wonder they value their dogs and their horses more than people, especially, if they’re meanies, their families and the people who work for them. Breeding is supposed to give them good qualities, but if so, where does all that rudeness come from? They value not talking about money and despise people who do. You read about it in almost all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, some of which are mysteries. They order expensive outfits to wear once to a fashionable ball and don’t pay for them—just order two more to keep the modiste hooked—but are disgraced if they don’t pay their gambling debts. If they go broke, they have to leave the country. Maybe they should talk about money and take in a little common sense. As I said, they despise “middle class morality” and are endlessly proud of screwing around. Doing it is one thing. Being proud of it? Huh? 

 And finally we come to the forks. I can think of a lot of deficits in other people that might tempt me to despise them. But if you tell me there’s a group of people to whom the true measure of worth as a human being is being able to distinguish among perhaps twenty different metal utensils, each to be used to eat a different food, I’d say, “How interesting. Where do they live? Is the tribe extinct yet? And did Margaret Mead ever get to study them before they died out?” 

 Well, they lived in England, some between the pages of a book, some in movies, and some in reality. They’re not extinct yet, but they’re going down fast. And if they want any of them to survive, they’d better get over the forks.

19 October 2020

Body Shaming and Institutionalized Contempt for Legs and Ankles


These days I always download the free sample before investing in a book by an author new to me or one I don't know well. In this case, the author was the highly praised thriller writer Zoe Sharp, the book, Killer Instinct, the first in the Charlie Fox series. Charlie is an attractive woman with martial arts skills who teaches self-defense and fitness and works as a bouncer and bodyguard. She's ex-army, drives a motorcycle, and, I'd infer, has developed a unique style as a result of her experiences. You'd think I'd like it—unless I found the violence too graphic or had finally reached my limit for female protagonists named Charlie, Sam, Alex, and Max. But no, that's not why I deleted the sample and crossed Sharp's series off my list. It was this passage, in Charlie's first person voice, that made me want to puke:
Clare's a mate...more my own age. Tall, slender, she has endless legs and a metabolism that means she can binge peanut butter straight out of the jar without putting on an ounce....I envied Clare the ability not to gain weight more than I envied her her looks, which were stunning. She had long straight hair to go with the legs, golden blonde without bottled assistance, and a sense of style I guess you just have to be born with.

Marlene Dietrich's legs
Zoe, you're killing me! Zoe, how could you? It's bad enough when male novelists bore us with the long blonde hair and legs up to here for the umpteenth time. I expect no better from hard-boiled authors like Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Here's a variation from Mike Hammer - Masquerade for Murder:
The hostess, a stunning redhead in a green evening dress with matching emerald eyes, intercepted me. ...She was ten curvy pounds the right side of plump and had cherry-red lipsticked lips with a bruised Bardot look that made her smile seem knowing and sly without even trying.
When I was 14, I would have agonized over which side was the "right" side of plump and known in my heart that flat-chested wasn't even in the running. I was too sheltered to have known that equating "bruised" with seductive and "sly" is a meta-message that women who are abused are asking for it. You get bruises from being beaten, not from any experience a real woman would enjoy—or at the least from "rough sex," a phrase I associate with psychopathic killer Robert Chambers's defense in the murder of a teenage girl.
My legs

How do we get from long blonde hair and Bardot lips to rape and murder? All too easily. I found a June 2020 article in The Guardian that reported that in the UK:

More than 60 victims have been forced to go to court over the past decade to deny that they consented to strangulation, assaults or violence, according to the campaign to end reliance on the “rough sex” defence.
Once the authors introduce the "blonde" (or redhead) and the "endless legs," they don't even need to develop her character. Back in July, Craig Faustus Buck wrote a SleuthSayers post on "it is what it is," calling it a "thought-terminating cliché," "figuratively avoiding creative solutions (a writer's suicide)." These non-descriptions of women are the same, bypassing the necessity of making the women characters real people.

Illusion: acceptable legs
Stuart Woods, in his fifty-eight Stone Barrington books, is a master of this. I found a typical example in Book 16, when Barrington walks into a restaurant. "An attractive blonde greeted us."

The character's literally a walk-on, and the sentence could have been deleted. But Woods commits crime after literary crime against women. In the same book, "the lights of Santa Catalina Island twinkled like the eyes of a merry whore." Now, there's a male fantasy for you, and not a very nice male at that. Woods wrote two fine books many years ago, Palindrome and Chiefs. Now who's Santa Catalina Island?

It's a short step from describing women in objectifying or shaming clichés to not describing them at all. In Book 56, Woods opens with a woman, Dame Felicity Devonshire, who's introduced as the head of MI6. What she's doing is not her job, but brokering a house deal for Stone Barrington and acting as a featureless foil for his insatiable lust.

Chapter 2 ends: "Then they went upstairs and went to bed, something to which they had both been looking forward."

Chapter 3 ends: "He followed her up watching her ass all the way."

The woman's the head of MI6. Woods has a gift for reducing potentially interesting women to profoundly uninteresting objects of his middle-aged itch.

Let's go back to Charlie Fox's friend who binges on peanut butter and doesn't gain an ounce. Clare's a compulsive overeater, a shame-based illness that's no fun even if your metabolism saves you from obesity. She may also be a bulimic paying for her slim figure and public admiration with private agonies kneeling over the toilet puking her guts out. These are not the "achievements" for which women should praise their women friends. If they do, it's because the shaming of obesity is so thoroughly institutionalized in our society. Listen to female standup comics and see what percentage of their shtik is based on body shaming of themselves.

I've wanted to throw up myself the many times I've read about a male character falling in love with a woman because she can eat like a horse and not gain an ounce. Ladies, is that really the trait you most want the man of your dreams to value you for? Gentlemen, how shallow and insensitive can you get?

Then there's the universal contempt for thick ankles that I've been coming across in fiction since I started reading novels many decades ago. I have thick ankles. Unlike "style," slim, breakable-looking ankles like those of a thoroughbred horse are something you "have to be born with." Does that mean I don't deserve love?

 

Alas, we're fair game and can be skewered mercilessly. Even Jane Austen took a shot at us. From Northanger Abbey:
Maria's intelligence concluded with a tender effusion of pity for her sister Anne, whom she represented as insupportably cross, from being excluded the party. "She will never forgive me, I am sure; but, you know, how could I help it? John would have me go, for he vowed he would not drive her, because she had such thick ankles. I dare say she will not be in good humour again this month…"


Brainwashing...identification with the aggressor...Stockholm syndrome...If women with slender ankles don't join in jeering at their unfortunate sisters, they might be thrown out of the carriage. And by post-feminist times, it's become unconscious.

Men, of course, have never questioned their right to pass judgment on women's looks. I found this in a short story in Cosmopolitan Magazine, November 1907:
"Don't be a fool, John. You must marry either a German or an English princess."

John Peters shook his head. "Impossible," he declared. "I have acquired your wonderful taste as regards the sex. To save my throne, I couldn't marry a woman with thick ankles." (Anthony Partridge, "The Kingdom of Earth")
The Queen's ankles
Queen Elizabeth has thick ankles, and The temptation to joke about this is almost irresistible—because we have all been programmed not to take women with thick ankles seriously or treat them with the respect we give women we consider beautiful. We've all read novels and seen movies about princes forced into loveless marriages with women who don't meet their standard of beauty who seek love with inappropriate but beautiful women. In America, the "princes" have all the advantages of class and money, while the inappropriate women have Audrey Hepburn's ankles.

There's a double standard at work here, and it's not disappearing any time soon. But there are a few things you can do.

Audrey Hepburn's ankles: remembered

Remember how wretched shaming feels to the person shamed, although you may never know they feel it.

Praise women for their interesting and admirable accomplishments—not for the length of their legs, the radius of their ankles, the color, texture, or provenance of their hair, or the shape and size of their other body parts.

Do not value women inversely by the pound. Love them, or don't, for their character, not for their eating behaviors, which aren't under their control and may not be what you think they are.

21 September 2020

TV Series I Don't Get Tired Of


Like favorite books, there are some tv series that I can watch over and over for the pleasure of hearing the familiar stories retold and revisiting beloved characters. Some of them are crime shows, all are genre fiction and its TV equivalent. Most of my favorite genres and subgenres in reading and viewing overlap.

British police procedurals
Books, a few author examples out of many: Reginald Hill, Deborah Crombie, Jane Casey
TV favorites: Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis

American political drama
Books: American political novels tend to be thrillers, not my favorite genre, but I do love character-driven traditional mysteries that explore social issues and may have a law enforcement or related protagonist, such as a judge, journalist, clergyperson, or social service worker.
Author examples: Margaret Maron, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Nevada Barr, and Dana Stabenow fall into this category
TV favorites: The West Wing, Madam Secretary

Historical and cross-genre with crime and fantasy fiction
Books, author examples: Diana Gabaldon, Laurie King, Jane Austen, Dorothy Dunnette
TV favorite: Outlander

Science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and cross-genre with crime fiction
Books, author examples: Charlaine Harris, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Shinn, Naomi Novik
TV favorite: Star Trek Voyager

And what do I write myself? The same or similar categories, for the most part.

Character-driven traditional mysteries that touch on social issues (the Bruce Kohler Mysteries)
Historical literary, mystery, and crime fiction (the Mendoza Family Saga)
Urban fantasy with crime fiction (the Emerald Love series)
And a variety of all of those, including a few police procedurals, in my standalone short stories.
I also read, write, and watch some suspense, which probably covers whatever doesn't fit elsewhere. It's limited by the fact, quite awkward in a crime writer, that I don't like being scared.

What do I like about the TV shows I've mentioned? And what do I learn that helps me as a writer?

Inspector Morse
My appreciation of John Thaw as Morse and the way the TV show tells the stories are untainted by knowledge of the books, which I've never read. As a reader and thus as a writer, I demand at least one endearing character. In Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis we have two, both fully developed and engaged in a relationship that grows and changes over time. They complement each other as detectives and as personalities, both kindred spirits and polar opposites. We don't need violence or extreme language to become and remain absorbed in the action. The sparkling dialogue, the vivid minor characters, the use of setting as character, the twists and turns of each plot—this is how it's done.

I'm not usually tolerant of fictional chronic alcoholics who don't get sober—and come to appreciate sobriety, like my Bruce Kohler. Inspector Morse is the exception. Why do I give him a free pass? I suppose it's a testament to his charm, his intellect, and what I call in Bruce an "ill-concealed heart of gold." In Morse's case, he always falls unerringly for the wrong woman, and it's a much more endearing flaw than if his mistakes were a result of his drinking.

The other outstanding aspect of the series is the all-encompassing presence of Oxford as a character. On TV, much of the impact is visual, and its impressive architectural beauty is brilliantly photographed. But it's far more than that. The crimes are Oxford crimes. They involve intellect; the sense of entitlement, tradition, and hierarchy; and the peculiar insularity of the university as well as the rivalry and mistrust between town and gown. All this makes for a multilayered episode every time.

Inspector Lewis I've come to like the Lewis series, starring Kevin Whately, even better than Morse. Inspector Lewis is an engaging character whose defining characteristic is not a flaw but what Louise Penny would call his goodness. Like his former mentor Moss, he doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he reserves his rare moment of irascibility for hidebound colleagues and the occasional arrogant aristocrat.

Lewis's sidekick, Sergeant Hathaway, is the perfect foil. He's a Cambridge man and an ex-seminarian, ie the brainy one. Lewis's apprenticeship with Morse has left him with enough knowledge of Wagner, Latin, and bits of poetry to keep up. They're both terrific detectives who drive their boss, Superintendent Innocent, crazy with their irreverence toward Oxford and its shibboleths and gods. She accuses them of "chippy copper antics" at one point when they've been rocking the boat of some socially prominent crooks. Their delicious dialogue as they work a case is a model of clever buddy banter. Watching again recently, I wasn't sure if I heard Innocent call them a "dynamic duo" or "demonic duo."

And Oxford is still an essential and fascinating character. Far more than mere scenery or dreaming-spires ambiance, it has unique mores and a varied population that lends itself to crimes that could only happen in Oxford. I'd like to think my New York in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries has a hint of that quality.

It's hard to talk about The West Wing or Madam Secretary without getting political, since they're both fictional demonstrations of how to govern the United States with intelligence and integrity in an increasingly challenging global environment—and what a very complicated job it is. But the lesson for the storyteller's art, I think, is how brilliantly each of these shows deals with huge themes while engaging the viewer with the emotional life and dilemmas of very real individual people.

These shows are also great examples of "show, don't tell" intelligent characters. They absorb and share on demand vast quantities of crucial information on science, politics, economics, world cultures, and a host of other topics. They think on their feet to maintain collaborative strategies with colleagues, political opponents, and foreign ambassadors and heads of state; and to keep adversarial situations from getting out of hand, since "out of hand" could mean anything from a single death to World War III. And they don't do it by having the protagonist shoot the bad guy in the gun hand. Or via insipid dialogue and telling the viewer the characters all went to Harvard. They do it by being a very, very smart team created by a very smart writer.

Outlander is in a class of its own as a historical series that's true to the series of books it's based on while condensing the complicated story lines for relative brevity, clarity, and drama. It's also a case of perfect casting (Sam Heughan as Jamie and Catriona Balfe as Claire), especially impressive because Jamie Fraser is one of those characters about whom many, many readers have fantasies.
I don't think a writer can apply craft to produce that kind of memorability in a character, at least not to guarantee it. When I first read Outlander, the first book in the series, I was swept away to the 18th century and didn't come back till six hundred pages later. The TV show provides a similar immersion in the historical time in which it takes place. To say, "It's a time travel romance" is so misleading, because a book or TV series so described could so easily be shallow, cheesy, anachronistic in all its elements—the romance, the time travel, and the history. Outlander sets a tremendously high standard, and I think that's what it has to teach the writer. Do your research. Love your characters. Take your time. And keep it moving.

Star Trek Voyager is "my" Star Trek, the one with the woman captain—Kate Mulgrew as the redoubtable Captain Janeway—and I watch it not for the proto-iPads and phony science but for the people and their relationships. Talk about a locked room! a handful of people on a starship thrust suddenly into the Delta quadrant, 70,000 light years from home. The lesson for me is that if you're most interested in the people, it doesn't matter what the backdrop is; you can always weave it in and make it serve the story. And remember that the story is always about people (of whatever species, not just about technology, however important a role technology plays.) Since I read much more urban fantasy than science fiction and don't write true SF at all, I'd have liked to include a Charlaine Harris screen adaptation on this list. I enjoyed True Blood, especially the first few seasons. But I'm unlikely to watch it all the way through again. Like the science in Star Trek, the gore and biting are incidental to the personalities and relationships of the humans, vampires, and shapeshifters, ie the people, for me. My very favorite Harris books, the Harper Connelly series, haven't made it to the screen. Harper's the one who can find the dead and tell you how they died. I haven't gotten tired of rereading those yet.

24 August 2020

The Joys of Writing Alone


Some writers do their best work on their laptops in busy coffee shops. You can see them keyboarding away, latte, chai, or simple tea or coffee forgotten at their elbow as they take dictation from those voices in their heads that we all love to hear.

I am not one of them. I need silence and better than silence. I need solitude, and the more absolute the solitude is, the more easily I write.

I know I’m lucky in that I have ample access to privacy for writing. It’s not exactly Virginia Woolf’s “room of her own,” but in some ways it’s even better. It’s been twenty years since my last day job, and my other career is online and intermittent in nature. My husband still goes off to work every weekday, or did till the pandemic. And when he’s home, he’s usually at the computer in his room of his own with his headphones on. The rest of the apartment is mine.

In the summer months, I have the country house. The whole house, because my husband hates the country. It’s a tiny house, eight hundred square feet total. But it’s all mine.

As for children, that perennial drain on women’s writing time especially, my little boy is fifty with a family of his own. So when other women writers yearn for writing retreats and time alone, rejoice in a week or even a weekend away from the everyday lives that make writing such a challenge, I know how lucky I am.

Am I complaining anyway? Not exactly. I’m blogging. Complaining entertainingly is one of the basic categories of blogging. To complain entertainingly about one’s spouse (in case you’ve never heard this priceless writing tip) is to mine a particularly rich vein.

My husband and I have been together for almost forty-five years. He knows that interruption breaks my concentration. He’s been told that once a train of thought has been broken, that particular thought, that exquisite turn of phrase, that connection—especially crucial in plotting a mystery or building an emotional scene—may be lost forever.

And yet he interrupts. He asks me if I have clothes for the laundry. He’s a good man. He doesn’t ask me to do the laundry. He asks me what I want for dinner. Again, good writer’s husband that he is, he doesn’t ask me to make dinner. He knows I’m writing. But he’s still interrupting. Sometimes, what he interrupts to tell me isn’t practical at all. It’s something he’s brimming over with that he simply has to share. He’s so filled with the fascination of it that he forgets I’m writing and mustn’t be interrupted.

“Do you know that Frederick the Great called Maria Theresa the only mensch in Austria?”

Yes, dear, you’ve mentioned it before. You’re an original, and it's lovable, but I need you to control it when I’m in the midst of transferring a brilliant thought that no one’s ever had before and that I’ll never have again from my brain to the computer.

He’s gotten better at not talking to me when I’m writing. Unfortunately, this isn’t good enough. He tiptoes past. Tiptoeing is still interrupting. Sometimes he stops halfway through the room. He breathes. Doesn’t he know how disruptive breathing is? I’ll throw out a hand and bark, “WRITING!” My fragile and irreplaceable thought is already at risk. But if he’ll just go away, maybe I can retrieve it. No way. He says, “Sorry!” In other words, he finds a way to exacerbate the interruption.

When he’s out of the house, I can get some serious writing done. But the hours are limited by his schedule. First, I have to wait for him to get up. My creative thinking time in bed used to be nil because he thought 9 am was “the crack of dawn.” He’s had a major lifestyle change, so he now gets up at 5 am and goes for a power walk in the park. This helps. But I still have to wait till nine or later for him to leave for work before I can focus on my writing. And once he comes home, that’s it. There’s the key in the lock. The big sigh. And my Woolfian “apartment of my own” is gone for the day.

I know it makes a difference because the 24/7 solitude I get when I’m alone in the country has an entirely different rhythm. If I wake up at 4 am and find I’m still awake at 4:15 with Bruce or Rachel talking in my head, I turn on the light and find my slippers and go turn on the laptop and and let them take over. No one interrupts the flow by saying, “What time is it?” or “Are you okay?” Sometimes having an idea at four in the morning is like carrying a basket of eggs. You don’t want anyone to jostle your elbow until you’ve had a chance to set it down.

It’s the same for the rest of the day. I’m not talking about the time I’ve already set aside to write. But if I think I’m done, and then Bruce or Rachel starts talking again, I can reorder my priorities and go back to the computer without consulting anyone. If it’s 6 pm and I’m about to put dinner in the preheated oven, I can turn off the oven. No one says, “What about dinner?” If I’m still going strong at 11 pm, no one says, “Come to bed.”

I don’t need this unlimited freedom all the time, especially since I’m writing short stories rather than a novel these days. But it’s heavenly to have it for three months. And it’s wonderful—I do know this!—to have a husband whose wife the writer drives him crazy—the secret of a successful marriage is knowing that it's a trip for two, not one, to the loony bin—but who also understands.

27 July 2020

Adverbs: A Legitimate Aspect of Voice


A couple of months ago, I participated in a lively discussion over at the Short Mystery Fiction Society e-list on the role of adverbs in good writing. The highly respected Stephen King's most pithy writing advice is, "Read read read. Write write write. And lose the adverbs." A 2014 New Yorker article reports on an app called Hemingway that analyzes text and promises “[to make] your writing bold and clear.” Among other things, "the program calls out adverbs ('newly,' 'famously,' 'seemingly')." Most of the Short Mystery folks said that an occasional adverb might pass muster, but that the great majority, like Gilbert & Sullivan's "society offenders," never would be missed. One group member took what I consider an easy out, saying:

 The perfectly correct subject-verb-adverb construction strikes me as generally clunky and prone to increase clutter. 

"He walked quickly" could be "He hurried." 
"He talked quickly" could be "He yammered."  
"She ate quickly" could be "She wolfed."   
As above, adverbs tend to be less descriptive—added to modify verbs in a more abstract, conceptual way—than choosing more descriptive verbs. 

This argument stacks the deck against adverbs by using as an example "quickly," a verb as dull and overused as similar manner verbs—"suddenly," for example—and degree verbs such as "very," "almost," "quite," and "totally."

That's not the kind of adverb I'm talking about. In the hands of a writer who happens to have an adverbial narrative voice, adverbs can be as lively and evocative as verbs like "yammered" and "wolfed" and a lot more fun to read than "hurried." Eschewing adverbs is a fashion, albeit one that has lasted a considerable amount of time—almost a century, if you want to count from Hemingway's first two novels, both published in 1926.

My very favorite adverbial voice is that of L.M. Montgomery, author of the beloved children's classic Anne of Green Gables. I’m fond of Anne, but my favorite is Emily of New Moon, first published in 1923. Like Anne, Emily is a little orphan girl transplanted to Prince Edward Island. She’s also an aspiring writer.

Here are some delicious examples of adverbial writing in context that have stuck in my mind for almost seventy years. Not only do they add color to the narrative voice. They build character just as well as the other parts of speech in the passages in which they appear.

“It was one of your mother’s aprons when she was a little girl, Emily,” said Aunt Laura comfortingly, and rather sentimentally. 
“Then,” said Emily, uncomforted and unsentimental, “I don’t wonder she ran away with Father when she grew up.” 

Emily gasped. It seemed very dreadful to be called a little cuss. But Ilse had said it quite admiringly. 
“Well, where are you going now?” asked Ilse. “There’s a thunderstorm coming up.” 
So there was. Emily did not like thunderstorms. And her conscience smote her. 
“Oh,” she said, “do you suppose God is bringing up that storm to punish me because I’ve run away?” “No,” said Ilse scornfully. “If there is any God, he wouldn’t make such a fuss over nothing.”
 
“My epic,” said Emily, diligently devouring plum cake, “is about a very beautiful high-born girl who was stolen away from her real parents when she was a baby and brought up in a woodcutter’s hut.” “One av the seven original plots in the world,” murmured Father Cassidy. 

  If Montgomery had written, “said Emily earnestly,” the adverb could have been deleted with my blessing. But “diligently devouring plum cake”—how can the reader fail to be enchanted? This passage, by the way, was my introduction to the concept of the seven original plots. Writers may disagree on the list, but we all suspect it exists.

“What do you think of us?” demanded Aunt Nancy. “Come now, what do you think of us?” 
“That isn’t a fair question,” cried Emily. 
“You think,” said Aunt Nancy, grinning, “that I’m a hideous old hag and that Caroline isn’t quite human. She isn’t. She never was—but you should have seen me seventy years ago. The men were mad about me. The women hated me, of course--all but Caroline here. You worshipped me, didn’t you, Caroline? Caroline, I wish you didn’t have a wart on your nose.” 
“I wish you had one on your tongue,” said Caroline waspishly. 

 I’ve cut some of the passages for the sake of brevity but not a single adverb.

Note also that Montgomery’s adverbs are not Tom Swifties:

“Get into the refrigerator,” he said coldly, “or I’ll shoot.
“Do you think you’re going to walk across this desert,” he said drily, “without your boots?”

It's easy to make fun of something, in this case adverbs and adverbial writing, that it’s trendy not to respect. But as writers, we owe it to ourselves not to dismiss them without investigating what they’re like when they’re done well by a master writer whose work has sold in the tens of millions and survived for more than a hundred years.

29 June 2020

"Can you help me?"


I always marvel when I read the dedication or acknowledgments pages of authors whose devoted partners read the first and subsequent drafts, make brilliant suggestions for revisions, stay up long into the night making meticulous copy edits, and wait with bated breath to read the finished product, although they've already discussed every nuance of the story with the hyperventilating author.

Not Himself. (I don't call him that, but in the mists of Irish history, his forebears probably did. Great-great-Granny and Great-great-Grandpa back in County Cavan probably never used each other's names. I bet they addressed each other exclusively in the third person as Himself and She. But I digress. Like my character Barbara in the Bruce Kohler Mysteries, I always do. Revenons à nos moutons.

My husband has read all my published work. But like pulling the proverbial teeth, it's been an arduous task getting him to do it. Before publication, we've agreed there's no point in showing a manuscript to him and trying to discuss it, much less make it better. He himself (completely different usage) said thirty-eight years ago at our wedding, before our assembled friends and families, that he was marrying me for my ability to spell. Ah, the blarney in 'im! He got a big laugh. So it was a good day for him, our wedding day.

But I digress again, and if I don't stop myself firmly, I'll tell you next about how for both of us, getting our actual teeth pulled gave us a whole new perspective of that simile, the same way having a giant cockroach in my bedroom increased my appreciation of Kafka's story, "Metamorphosis," exponentially. The point is that he's promised he'll read every novel and story on publication, and he does—but never without significant nagging. And his comment is more likely to be about whether he guessed whodunit than about the literary merits of the work.

So now that I've paid hommage to literature and writers, let me tell you what I really want to talk about: the marital language of helping, which can be as hard to decode as the Enigma that led to the Allied victory in World War II, until long experience clues you in to the fact that your partner's not really saying what they're saying, but something else entirely. It took us most of those years together to get it and the rest of them, by dint of much hard work and the fact that we do love each other deeply—even though, as we frequently shake our heads and say, we're completely incompatible—to learn how not to react to them. Thank goodness we got to the finish line on handling these moments well right before the pandemic hit the world, because we'd never have survived the Pause in New York so far without these advanced relationship skills.

Here's a brief glossary, in case your partner speaks this language, and you haven't figured out the translation yet.

Can you help me reach...
I'm not risking myself on that rickety ladder; I'm standing by, ready to scream if you fall.

Can you help me decide...
Of course I'm not going to take your advice; I just want to clarify what I want to do.

Can you help me go through...
These things of yours need to be thrown out, and don't you dare touch my stuff.

Can you help me open...

I need you to open the jar, and no, you can't have any.

Can you help me move...
You're going to the heavy lifting; I'm going to supervise.

Can you find...
When I put something away, it's still there twenty years later. You must have moved it, dammit.

Can you fix...
It must have been you. I never break things. And you're the glue expert. Feminist schmeminist.

Can you remember...
I told you to remind me. Yes, I do store my memory in your head.

In our house, it's Himself who stores his memory in my head. He's lucky I've got a lot of storage space up there. It wasn't mentioned at the wedding, but it's in the unspoken vows. But it's usually I who ask and he who's required to comply. I do sympathize with his frustration. And I ask very nicely.

Me: You're not alone, honey. If you talked to other husbands, you'd find some of them have the same experience.

Himself: It's a very big club.

Alas, as we get older, the inevitable happens even to the brainiest of us. The ultimate question came up for us the other day. It was I who said:

Can you remember what I told you I needed to remember?
If you snap at me when I forget something, we're going to have a miserable old age together.

The gloss is not the clue to the enigma. The secret is in not taking it out on each other, especially while we're all sequestered with our partners thanks to COVID-19. We've found the magic formula when our partner's requests-with-subtext irritate us. Instead of overreacting, he tells himself, "That's just Liz being Liz." I tell myself, "That's just Himself being Himself." It works like a charm.

Liz Zelvin is a once and now forever SleuthSayer, author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga and editor of the anthologies Me Too Short Stories and Where Crime Never Sleeps. She is also a therapist who has been practicing online for 20 of her 35 years helping clients on her website at LZcybershrink.com. She's available for chat, text, email, phone, and Zoom sessions, especially people who don't live in spitting distance of hundreds of therapists, as she does in New York.

01 June 2020

Where Does It Come From?


Most writers regard "Where do you get your ideas?" as the wrong question to ask a writer or at least not the most interesting question, as they get it far too often—and too often, the honest answer is a less than scintillating, "It depends." But I know the answer can be interesting when applied to a single story. I've seen John Floyd do it more than once right here on SleuthSayers. So I'm going to give it a shot— a double shot, because I keep confusing two standalones, both written in 2018 and published a year or two later in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: "A Work in Progress" and "Reunion."

My series stories are inevitably based on characters first. When a new Bruce Kohler Mystery bubbles up, it starts with Bruce and Barbara and Jimmy wisecracking in my head. If I hear Diego and Rachel or any of their kin or descendants, I know another entry in the Mendoza Family Saga is on the way.

My standalone short stories are another matter. In them, character grows organically from the ineffable yet essential quality we call voice and from ideas for plot elements and situations. The two, plot and situation, are not exactly the same thing, although situation fuels plot.

My series stories are both told largely in the first person from the point of view of a male protagonist. Bruce and Diego have strong voices that are entirely different from each other's and also entirely different from mine—one of the great advantages of writing in a gender not one's own. Bruce might say, "Jimmy thinks I'm leading with my dick again." Diego might say, "I talked seriously to Rachel about the possibility of rape, because if she were taken by soldiers, I did not want her to be taken unawares." Anyone still not understand what "voice" is?

When I wrote "A Work in Progress," I started out by setting my scene in Florida, which was the theme of the anthology I planned to submit the story to. I wrote:

Giant fans rustled all around me: high overhead, the vast leaves of the palm trees, and on either side of the creaking wooden walkway under my pounding feet, saw palmettos in constant motion as armadillos threaded their stealthy way beneath them. The only other sounds were the jingling of crickets and the occasional cry of an unseen bird.

Very pretty. Evocative. The only trouble was that it wasn't my voice. There was an "I" with "pounding feet" hiding in there among the palms and palmettos. But I knew at once that I couldn't write a whole story in that voice. I wrote:

I had to admit the little literette could write. She had certainly captured the ambience of the terrain around the North Florida center for the arts where we had both been awarded coveted associate residencies for three weeks, with the proverbial room of our own and daily workshops with an acclaimed Master Artist. Calendula Faulk was one of that rare breed, a crime novelist whom the literati took seriously. Along with her Edgars and Daggers, she'd been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The eight associate artists she'd hand picked came from all over the country. We ranged in age from twenty-two—the precocious Miss Muppet—to sixty-two. That would be me, currently refusing to divorce the man who'd left me for this clever little tart.

And so Hester the rejected wife, in whose tart (sorry!) voice I certainly could write a story, because it resembles my own narrative voice, was born.

What's any Bruce Kohler mystery about? A recovering alcoholic with a smart mouth and a heart of gold in New York. A Mendoza Family Saga book or story? A Jewish brother and sister who were kicked out of Spain in 1492, sail with Columbus, and end up in Istanbul where Rachel gets a job in the Sultan's harem—not that job. In my standalones, no matter how strong the protagonist's voice is—or the narrative voice, if the story is in the third person—that's not what animates the story.

"A Work in Progress" is about a love triangle that erupts during a writers' workshop at an arts center in North Florida. "Reunion" is about how the past strikes a woman who encounters two old friends at a college reunion. See? The characters are important. But the story is about the situation—inevitably, one with potential for conflict—on which a plot will be built as the author writes the story.

I'm going to list a series of statements from elements of the two stories that came from life—or from my head as I write. True or false? Answers will not be provided below.
I've attended several college reunions.
I've attended a writing workshop at an arts center in Florida.
I've attended a writing workshop at an arts center in Georgia.
I've been the master artist at a writing workshop.
I've had a man I loved stolen by another woman.
I've had a friend sleep with a man I was seeing after I asked her not to.
I've been rejected by a man I was in love with.
I've been rejected by every man I was in love with.
I've been widowed.
I got pregnant in college.
I had a close friend who got pregnant in college.
I've had an abortion.
I had a baby and gave it away.
I had a close friend who had a baby and gave it away.
I've had a baby by a married man.
Someone I know refused to give her husband a divorce.
Someone I know refused to give his wife a divorce.
I've had a major car accident.
I've tried to commit suicide.
I was an English major.
I wasn't an English major.
I have a graduate degree in English.
I've never taken the Graduate Record Exams.
I quit school to support a husband who later divorced me.
I've swum with sharks.
I've swum with dolphins.
I've been in a love triangle that included three-way sex.
I've been in a love triangle in which everyone got hurt.
I've been in a love triangle in which I got hurt the most.
I've never been in a love triangle.
That's thirty, and I could go on till the cows come home. Where do my ideas come from? They just keep pouring out of me.

04 May 2020

Crime Writers, Give Me Magic—And Don't Explain It Away


When I shared the good news of the acceptance of a hard-to-place cross-genre short story on the Short Mystery e-list, I said: "I didn't even consider some of the usual mystery markets. When I write—or read—magic, I don't want it to be explained away at the end." I was thinking, for example, of Black Cat Mystery Magazine's submission guidelines, which stipulate: "We do not want stories that feature supernatural elements...unless thoroughly debunked by story’s end." My comment intrigued SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti, who wrote to invite me to write a piece in defense of magic in crime fiction.

The short story in question, "Roxelana's Ring," just out in the current issue of The J.J. Outré Review, is part of my Jewish historical Mendoza Family Saga. It involves jewel theft and a visit to my longtime protagonist Rachel Mendoza by one of her present-day descendants. Readers of the series first met Rachel as a 13 year old in hiding in 1493 after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Two stories about an older Rachel solving mysteries in 1520s Istanbul had already appeared in Black Cat. (Two more are currently in press, one with BCMM, the other in Jewish Noir 2.) But for this particular tale, I had to send the 21st-century Rachel back in time, and I couldn't explain it any other way than magic.

Some novel readers complain that stories are too short to satisfy them. They say a story doesn't give them time to engage fully with the characters or that it ends just as the reader is getting to know them. I try to write each story to refute such charges. For me, stories are like little novels. Complete in themselves, they must be rich in language, plot, and especially character. My novels contain more elaboration and complexity of plot and structure. But all my characters are as whole, as lifelike, as moving, as eloquent, and as much fun as I can make them, whether I'm presenting them in five thousand words or seventy-five thousand. The key to satisfaction, for me, is my commitment to character-driven fiction, both short and long—and as both writer and reader.

So to create plausible magic or supernatural beings that don't need to be debunked or treated differently from any other element in fiction, make them character driven. Charlaine Harris does this superbly. Her characters are as real as bread, so what does it matter if they're falling in love with vampires or hearing the dead speak under their feet? To me, those traits are more probable than their hitting their mark with every shot or disarming bombs at the last moment like the heroes of plot-driven novels. What I love about the best character-driven urban fantasy, SF, crime fiction, and cross-genre work mixing any and all of these is that it is first and foremost about the people and their story, their relationships, and that spark that makes us care about them, call it soul or heart or moral center or what you will. If the characters have that, neither the genre nor the length of the manuscript matter as much as we think they do.

I feel the same way about murder methods as I do about magic. Like most crime fiction authors, I enjoy discussing clever ways to kill people a bit too loudly in restaurants. But when I'm writing, I tend to keep it simple: a cord around the neck, a pillow over the face, a bang on the head with the proverbial blunt instrument. Let's do it fast and get on with the story.

In "Roxelana's Ring," the modern Rachel is holding a necklace that once belonged to her progenitrix, the first Rachel Mendoza, when she is unexpectedly whisked back to the 1520s. How? I have no idea, and I don't care. I'm much more interested in the fact that she comes to in the midst of a wriggling, giggling pile of Suleiman the Magnificent's concubines, "dressed," as she puts it, "not unlike sorority sisters at a come-as-your-dream-self slumber party." Aren't you?

06 April 2020

The Older I Get, The More I Like Passover


The eight days of Passover begin at sundown on Wednesday, during the same week as Easter this year and four weeks since the World Health Organization (WHO) pronounced the coronavirus crisis a pandemic.

Passover is one of the few rituals my New York secular Jewish family observed. As I've aged, more and more layers have accreted to my understanding of the holiday and its observance.

When I was a kid, Passover was all about family. My father read the Haggadah in Hebrew at the Seder, the feast celebrating the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and knew all the traditional songs. My mother made the pot roast. I still use her recipe and the thick Wagner Ware pot that by divine alchemy produces gravy without any water at all. (The secret is in the onions, but you need the magic pot.) All the aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides gathered at my parents' table.

My 1978 poem, "Passover," describes a Seder that took place at my parents' house when I was in my thirties but is imbued with nostalgia for those childhood Seders.
my father revels in his role of patriarch
in velvet skullcap and white turtleneck
he looks, by some irony, like the Pope:
He works for one of our boys, says my father

this is his night in this house of women
who snub patriarchy on all occasions
whose strength overflows the crucible
of faith and family
it is his night to make it sing
we break unleavened bread together
without politics

he is telling it for all of us
the only grandchild
Do I have to listen to the boring part?
my mother, the proud Hungarian
with her doctorate and law degree
for whom even the prayer over the candles
—women’s work—remains a mystery
for me, who never went to synagogue
who never suffered as a Jew
for my Irish lover, here for the first time
to whom I am serving up my childhood
on the Pesach plates
for Aunt Hilda, who married out
and Uncle Bud, who was my friend who isn’t Jewish
thirty years ago

at 79 my father has forgotten stories
muffs the accent, sometimes the punchline
no longer knows the name of every lawyer in New York
but tonight he is clear as wine, fresh as a photograph
confident and plump as the turkey itself
awaiting its turn in the kitchen
tonight he is the raconteur I remember
as cherished and familiar as the books, the cloth, the china
the Hebrew words I cannot understand
the melody I miss at anybody else’s Seder
that my father and Aunt Anna with her trained soprano
learned in Hebrew school as children
all I have traveled back, back to see and hear

measuring his audience
expanding in the warm room like love
my father pours the wine
skips the prosy rabbis arguing
and tells instead the illustrated Bible story:
Moses in the bulrushes, cruel Pharaoh, the Red Sea parting
Let my people go
or I’ll give you what for
says my father
"Passover" first appeared in Elizabeth Zelvin, I Am the Daughter (1981) New Rivers

When it fell to me to keep the tradition going, progressive secular Jews were rewriting the Haggadah to suit the changing times and current political and cultural ideas. For a number of years, we read a passage from something called the Egalitarian Haggadah that couched the story in the language of labor and liberation movements. To tell the truth, I thought it was hilarious.
"Pharaoh was... unwilling to give up his power over the slaves. ... It was not enough to present reasonable demands. ... The oppressor had to be brought to his knees. ...[But Pharaoh finally] told the Jews to leave. Our ancestors ...collected back wages in goods from the Egyptians for 400 years of unpaid labor. Then they mobilized according to plan and marched out."
An Egalitarian Hagada, © Aviva Cantor 1982
A couple of decades later, a lot of Jewish women started putting an orange on the Seder plate along with the traditional ritual lamb shank, roasted egg, bitter herbs, spring greens, and charoseth. The orange represents marginalized Jews, rejecting sexism and homophobia in Jewish tradition. I put an orange on my Seder plate every year. And we discuss it, so my granddaughters will understand.

Now my family is a multicultural family. It includes my Irish husband (forty-plus years since the poem), my Filipino daughter-in-law, my gorgeous granddaughters (half Jewish, raised Catholic), my cousin the son of Aunt Hilda and Uncle Bud, and said cousin's two kids (25% Jewish). My son and I have the only 100% Jewish DNA at the table. When friends are invited to join us, their origins tend to be an ethnic, religious, and national potpourri.

When the girls were very little, with the attention span of fleas, I wrote a very short Haggadah they could relate to.
"Once upon a time in Egypt, there was a king called Pharaoh who was very mean to the Jews... The princess found the baby in the basket and decided to adopt him. But Moses's mother got a job in the palace as a nanny, so she got to take care of her baby Moses too."
On one level, the story of Moses is a classic folk tale.
"Moses kept trying to get Pharaoh to let the Jews go home. He kept saying, 'Let my people go!' But Pharaoh kept saying, 'No!' Bad things happened to the Egyptians, like thousands of frogs that suddenly appeared and hopped around all over them. And Moses said, 'Now will you let my people go?' And Pharaoh said, 'No!'"
This year, we're having a virtual Seder via Zoom. I've written an entirely different flash Seder for my granddaughters, now 16 and 13.
"This year we are experiencing a plague of our own, the coronavirus. Like the plagues that God visited on the Egyptians, it came without warning, it has spread rapidly, and it has fallen on many innocent people. It has affected not just one group or nation, but the whole world. We don't believe that the coronavirus is a punishment from God. But there are certainly selfish and greedy people in power who have made it harder to deal with this plague and heal the world."
We'll get back to that "healing the world."

In our house, the four sons in the traditional Haggadah have long since become four children. Traditionally, one child is wise, one rude, one "simple," and one doesn't even know to ask a question.
"We don't have any children who are rude or not very smart or no good at asking questions, so let's take a couple of minutes to ask our wise children what they think about three things: (1) God visiting plagues on the Egyptians so the Jews could get away; (2) the connection, if there is one, between the coronavirus and the kind of leadership we have right now in America; and (3) if your personal experience of living with our own "plague" has made you think or feel differently about the story of the Exodus."
My Jewish historical series, the Mendoza Family Saga, started with the Jews' expulsion from Spain on the day Columbus set sail. But until I started doing research, I had never heard of the lost children of São Tomé, two thousand Jewish children who were abducted by the King of Portugal in 1493 and sent into slavery on a pestilential island off the coast of West Africa. Their story became a major plot line in my novel Journey of Strangers. In general, the research I've done for the Mendoza books and stories has heightened my awareness of why and what we remember every year and can't afford to forget.

The concept of tikkun olam, repairing or healing the world, is fundamental to Jewish ethics. We are obligated to have a social conscience. The Seder ritual of dipping a finger in a cup of wine as we recite the plagues, one drop for each plague, symbolizes that our cup of happiness can never be completely full as long as one person still suffers, even our worst enemy.

So it's not surprising, perhaps, that the traditional ending of the Seder bothered me. After the meal, after the songs, after the final glass of wine and the final blessing, everyone is supposed to shout joyously, "Next year in Jerusalem!" L'shana haba'ah b'Yerushalayim.

In terms of modern global politics, I found this embarrassing. To the ancient Hebrews, Jerusalem was the Promised Land, the homeland that God had set aside for them. After leaving Egypt, they wandered in the desert for forty years until they were deemed worthy of it. Then they had no problem moving in. But—a big "but," in my opinion—another tribe, the Canaanites, already lived there. Oops.

So here it is, thousands of years later, and everyone still wants Jerusalem. And what a lot of trouble it still causes the world! I didn't think I had the right to throw out the punch line of the whole Haggadah. But I wanted to make "Next year in Jerusalem" mean something more inclusive than, "Let's throw the other fellows out."

So I wrote this song, with which my family now ends the Seder every year.


Prayer (Next Year in Jerusalem)
From album Outrageous Older Woman 2012 ℗ & © Liz Zelvin
Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga and editor of the anthologies Me Too Short Stories and Where Crime Never Sleeps. Her story "Reunion" will appear in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and a story in Jewish Noir 2 in September. Three of Liz's stories have just been accepted for future issues of Black Cat Mystery Magazine.