Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

17 June 2022

Five Things That Convinced Me to Dump Social Media

I recently deleted the last two significant social media accounts I used for years, Twitter and Instagram. I have plenty of reasons for taking that step, but rather than dwell on those, I think it might be more interesting to share with you some of the resources and examples that inspired me to take this step. I’ll devote a future post about reasons, feelings, and choices I’m making going forward.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier (Henry Holt and Co., 2018).
Lanier is a virtual reality pioneer and technologist. I met and interviewed him while writing an article for Discover magazine in 1999. He impressed me then as a profound thinker, but not until I read this book did I perceive him to be a decent, compassionate person and father who is concerned about what social media algorithms are doing to our brains. As he explains it, Silicon Valley has a very high opinion of its social media software, but it is still quite crude, designed primarily to hook us and enrich its creators. Apps distort politics, promote bad behavior, cultivate binary thinking, stoke triggering behavior, and make us cranky. Before reading the book I thought I could simply delete the apps from my phone and just take a break from social media. (I did this one year and was impressed.) An optimist, Lanier believes that the software can be written to be more decent, but he argues that the firms involved won’t change their game until a significant number of people delete their accounts. Big difference. 

The Social Dilemma (Netflix, 2020).
The most compelling thing about this documentary is that all the talking heads are people who worked for major firms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and came to see how destructive their products were. It’s fascinating to hear their arguments for why social media must change—and their fears. The line that gets repeated often: “If you're not paying for a product, you ARE the product.” If you could take back some of your own autonomy, agency, and privacy, wouldn’t you? I also recommend the documentary Fake Famous (HBO, 2021). Journalist Nick Bilton chooses three young people at random and tries to see if he can transform them into Instagram influencers overnight. The secret of his success? Buy them a bunch of bots! It feels like a trivial project and film (lots of fun, lighthearted moments) but it’s scary how many millions of people are playing this pathetic game for real.

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport (Portfolio, 2019). Georgetown University computer scientist Newport is probably best known for his book Deep Work, which I’ve discussed before. The newer book helps professionals put technology in its place. He recommends reducing your online and screen time to the bare minimum for, say, a month, then only add back what you really need. If you need Twitter in order to do your job effectively, then you need to carefully set up a system that allows to you get in, get out, without turning your brain to mush. (And yes, there are such people, like the scientist who analyzes language on Twitter to track epidemics.)

Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again, by Johann Hari (Crown, 2022).
I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say that they just can’t read or finish books anymore. This comment usually comes from longtime readers, who are surprised that they can’t sit still, focus, and blow through a book in a matter of hours, the way they once did. They profess shock and shame, but British-Swiss journalist Hari says none of us are to blame. Our attention spans have been steadily eroded and fractured by 12 forces in modern life, which he carefully distills by interviewing a phalanx of scientists who are studying various aspects of the phenomenon. Yes, he says, social media and smartphones are one reason, but it’s not as simple as deleting your apps or depositing your phone in a time-locked safe. You might enjoy this brief interview with Hari in which he says:
I went away without my smartphone for three months. I spent three months in Provincetown, Mass., completely offline, in a radical act of will. There were many ups and downs, but I was stunned by how much my attention came back. I could read books for eight hours a day. At the end of my time there, I thought, “I’m never going to go back to how I lived before.” The pleasures of focus are so much greater than the rewards of likes and retweets. 
Then I got my phone back, and within a few months, I was 80 percent back to where I had been.

The example set by Wiley Cash.
Wiley is not a resource, he’s a New York Times Bestselling author of dark literary fiction, a two-time Gold Dagger award winner, and an Edgar finalist. He’s also a friend here in North Carolina. (At the 2015 Edgars, Wiley—far right—had the distinction of wearing a tux more handsomely than Stephen King!) A longtime Twitter user, Wiley deleted his account a couple of years ago, even though he previously enjoyed using the platform to comment on books and the politics of our day. He is in the process of de-platforming entirely from social media, seeking ways to engage with readers via a new creative program, This is Working, launched on his website. I’ve always admired his writing, and his principles. For years, he was the guy we knew who dared to give up his iPhone. Sensing that he was becoming distracted by the device’s bells and whistles, he “down-teched” to an older model flip-phone. I don’t think I could do the same, but I understand the logic behind it.

See you in three weeks!


27 May 2022

The Lambs Will Never Stop Screaming

Conventional wisdom says that books are sold on the basis of word of mouth. This rule of thumb is usually interpreted to mean the spoken word. Your friend tells you about a book that they loved, and you rush out to get it, or at least put it on your to-be-read list. A harried buyer dashes into a bookstore looking for a “good book” that they can take on a beach vacation, and a quick-thinking bookseller presses a book into their hands that does not disappoint. Good booksellers are part-clairvoyant, part-psychologist, but I digress.

Sometimes the sale happens exactly the way that the book industry wishes it would. A prominent critic writes a glowing review in a major newspaper—and people buy it on the strength of those few words alone. There’s even a school of thought that says reviewers must carefully choose the right buzzwords that will tell readers if the reviewed content is right for them. After all, even if the reviewer hates the book or movie, the reader might perceive it to be their cup of tea, if the review is crafted correctly.

In 1988, I was that mark. I read a review in the New York Times then bought the book, even though it was still only available in hardcover. I was 23 years old, working a crappy editorial job out of college, and I didn’t buy many hardcovers. I was all about paperbacks back then, mostly used. But there was something about that review that made the book sound irresistible. For some reason I cannot explain, it’s the only review of a book that has stuck in my mind. The reviewer happened to mention that he liked a specific quality of the author’s skill set. It was only last week that I tracked down the review to nail down the paragraph that spurred me. Here it is:

“[Mr. Harris] knows about strange things, like the life cycle of lepidoptera, the legal spacing of fishhooks on a trotline, moths that live only on the tears of large land animals, and the amount of brain matter it takes to tan a hide. The scene where Clarice Starling explores Dr. Lecter’s tip by forcing her way into a storeroom and investigating the back seat of a vintage Packard is a tour de force of descriptive economy.”

Cover of the first edition.

The book, of course, is The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, which was published 34 years ago this month. (I assure you that I too am appalled by the passage of time.) The book spawned an Academy Award winning movie, and a media franchise that has included four books, five films, a TV series, and, horrors, a musical.

I don’t consider myself to be a Hannibal Lecter fan. Nor am I a Thomas Harris fan. Nor do I actively seek out serial killer fare. Cannibals? Yuck. I believe Silence just hit me at a formative time in my career, and I proceeded to read Harris’ first two thrillers, Black Sunday, about a terrorist plot to detonate a bomb at a Super Bowl game, and Red Dragon, the first novel to introduce Lecter. Dragon was made into a 1986 movie by Michael Mann, called Manhunter, which went straight to VHS. 

I’d forgotten that I’d seen that movie on the strength of a recommendation by a college roommate—word of mouth again!—and I loved it, more so than the 2002 remake starring Edward Norton. And I also loved the Foster-Hopkins film.

Lately, I’ve been trying to understand why I like the books and media that I like. Is it the writing? The plot devices? What the hell was I hoping to glean from an author who “knows about strange things”? Why did I bring a notebook to the theater on my second viewing of Silence and take copious notes on its structure?

Well, besides the fact that I’m a kook, I think there are some boxes in my crime fiction interests that those early books and movies ticked.

I’m a sucker for psychological elicitation scenes, where a brilliant (or insane) shrink gets at the heart of the protag’s issues with a couple of quick questions. The Lecter/Starling relationship, which was hinted at in Christopher Lehman-Haupt’s Times review probably hooked me. Besides analyzing Starling, Lecter nutures her career, asking questions that prompt her to crack the case: “How do we begin to covet, Clarice?” Foster and Hopkins make the movie, but their onscreen time together amounts to a mere four scenes. If I dig deeper into my mystery fiction background, I was probably cued to enjoy shrink scenes from my early reading (and re-reading) of Ellery Queen novels, particularly Cat of Many Tails.

Cover of the first edition.

I’m a sucker for the hurting/wounded protagonist who is still remarkably competent. Starling and Will Graham, the Red Dragon protagonist, both fit the bill. Jonathan Demme, the director of Silence, said in interviews that he went out of his way to portray the FBI as competent. Graham’s problem-solving thought process, as portrayed in both the book and film, is fascinating. I still get chills when the Manhunter Graham announces ruefully that he must visit Lecter in prison to “recover the mindset.”

I don’t want to gloss over the franchise’s issues. More than any other author, Harris put serial killers on the map, for better or for worse. I’d argue the reason so many crime writers don’t want to do serial killer POVs is because Harris’s imitators did ’em worse. I too don’t care for those kinds of books, although I did enjoy an early Tony Hillerman novel that brought us inside the mind of a hired assassin, making the guy seem poignant. Silence caught flak for its homophobic/transphobic content, and the later Hannibal books are just…well, don’t get me started.

That all said, I did really admire Harris’s writing in those early books. It’s clear that he is a reporter-turn-novelist, like Michael Connelly, and a lifetime of shoe-leather research ends up on the page. He really did interview FBI profilers, visit their offices, and meet trainees at Quantico. One scene I draw inspiration from is the very opening of Red Dragon.
Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.

Jack Crawford looked at the pleasant old house, salt-silvered wood in the clear light. “I should have caught you in Marathon when you got off work,” he said. “You don’t want to talk about it here.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anywhere, Jack. You’ve got to talk about it, so let’s have it. Just don’t get out any pictures. If you brought pictures, leave them in the briefcase—Molly and Willy will be back soon.”
The “descriptive economy” that Lehman-Haupt praised in that old review is clear. One sentence and we know where the scene is taking place. By the third graf we know that we’re in the presence of two men with a history. We sense Will’s reluctance to return to the work of profiling; his regard for his family is urgent, palpable. The single, mysterious word “it” says what the two men don’t say. It is the horrific darkness at the center of the novel. All told, a simply wonderful scene that I reread from time to time, just to recover the mindset.

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See you in three weeks!


06 May 2022

A Visit from Dr. Disaster

I’m ceding my time and space this week to one of my nonfiction writing collaborators. Dr. John Torres is the senior medical and science correspondent at NBC News, MSNBC, and The Today Show. He’s also an emergency room physician and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who trains NATO Special Forces on such topics as bioterrorism. During the pandemic, Dr. Torres and I kept ourselves safe and marvelously entertained by writing a book together that grew out of his observations covering natural and medical disasters all over the globe. That book, Dr. Disaster’s Guide to Surviving Everything (HarperCollins/Harvest, $16.99) is out this spring in paperback. — Joseph DAgnese

Hi everyone. I’m happy to visit SleuthSayers. I have seen my share of medical mysteries, and I much prefer the fictional kind. As a young doctor, I’d sit back and mock TV medical dramas for their lack of reality. These days, as a ruggedly-handsome-but-maybe-not-so-young doctor, I can still appreciate a good medical drama even if gets little details wrong. I enjoy spotting the errors and theorizing why the director or producers made the choices they did.

Dr. John Torres

For example, in real life, when you administer chest compressions to someone in cardiac arrest, you have to keep your elbows straight. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to deliver the life-saving pressure to restart the heart. In movies and TV, the doctors always bend their elbows. Why? Well, I think it looks better. The actor playing the doc is popping up and down. It’s dramatic. Also, if they didn’t bend their elbows, they’d seriously harm the actor playing the cardio victim.

In the world of make-believe, you always get a scene of the lone doctor performing CPR to save the life of the patient. In real life, in a hospital setting, a coding patient is swarmed with doctors, nurses, and technicians, each of whom are performing one disparate task to keep that patient alive. Hospital staffers are required to retrain for CPR on a regular basis, because we don’t do it all. We work as a team. If we didn’t retrain often, we’re liable to forget the critical flow of CPR.

A few other gaffes from fiction that docs alone are likely to notice:

If your private eye takes a bullet to the shoulder, chances are the scene is over, and so is their career. The shoulder is awfully close to important blood vessels, the lungs, and nerves. The bones leading from the clavicles to the arms are fragile. A bullet would so shatter them that it would be impossible to keep fighting the bad guy. If you want to sink a bullet into your hero, put it in the outer thigh. There’s nothing truly life threatening there, as long as you miss the bone.

Avoid having your hero save the day with a tourniquet fashioned from a leather belt they whip off their waists. The key to a good tourniquet is flexibility. You need to be able to twist it tighter as that becomes necessary. And you won’t get many twists from a nice leather belt. Better to use a scarf, tie, or the shirt off your back, with a sturdy stick or tool to act as a windlass (i.e., the “handle” part that twists).

When in doubt, give your doctor heroes more paperwork. As much paperwork as you would heap upon hapless police detectives in your fiction. In fact, give your doctors some of mine! In the old TV show, ER, George Clooney would saunter off into the sunset at the end of the day, to carry on the important work of being dashing. That drove me crazy! Staying late to do paperwork was half my job!

You can never go wrong as a writer tossing crazy relatives into a medical scene. True story: A beautiful, eighteen-year-old girl showed up in our ER looking as if she’d overdosed on…something. The narcotics tests all came back negative. We finally determined that she’d attempted to end her life by swallowing a copious quantity of iron pills. In large doses iron is so toxic that it will obliterate your liver. If she hadn’t ended up in the ER, she would have died in 24 hours!

I found her parents in the waiting room. “I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but your daughter needs a liver transplant.”

“Will it leave a scar?” Mom wanted to know.

Well, sure…

“You can’t do that!” Mom protested. “She’s a beauty pageant contestant. She’ll never be able to wear a bikini again!”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I shot a look at Dad. “The question is, is she going to be alive?”
Mom started up again, but Dad shouted, “Shut up!”

I have no idea if the patient ever competed ever again, but I know she left our care alive.

Get to know your region of the world intimately. I guarantee you that there are awesome medical stories that have yet to be used by other writers. In Colorado where I live and work, every summer I’d see teens, usually young boys, arrive in the ER in a near-comatose state. If the patient was… a) blind as bat, b) mad as a hatter, c) red as a beet, and d) dry as a bone (i.e., not sweating), chances were good that they had ingested the seeds of a plant native to North America called jimson weed (datura stramonium), a known hallucinogen.

Jimson weed seed pod.
Photo by Olivia Haun on Unsplash

Kids looking to get high will brew the plant’s seeds into an intoxicating tea. The plant is found all over the U.S., but in semi-arid environments like Colorado the plant’s toxicity is a moving target. In wet years, a single seed is not that powerful, so you’re obliged to pop several into your tea to get stoned. But in years of drought, the plant produces fewer seeds with a more concentrated payload. One dry-year seed could be as strong as three or four wet-year seeds! Jimson’s active ingredients are anticholinergics; they attack the central nervous system. Within hours the victim begins frothing at the mouth. The toxicity spreads to the heart. From there it’s all downhill—seizures, coma, death.

Which reminds me: fictional doctors are always saving the day by pumping a patient’s stomach. We actually don’t pump that many stomachs because you don’t get much out. If the person has arrived in your ER, the toxin is most likely flowing in their bloodstream, not swimming in their digestive juices. Unfortunately, you must treat the overriding ailment.

In closing, let me share my foolproof, Dr. Disaster method for murdering someone. (This is offered for entertainment purposes only. Do not actually do this!) Recall that doctors often only check for poisons that they suspect, that they know about, that are common in their locality. My Colorado colleagues and I could always spot a jimson weed victim because we saw them every summer day. But if you lob a zebra at a doctor or medical examiner, you’ll stump them every time.

So here’s my crazy murder scenario. I keep waiting to see someone use it on TV or in a mystery novel. You’d get pufferfish toxin and add it to your enemy’s spray bottle of nasal decongestant during allergy season. I guarantee you that the vast majority of doctors in North America will not test for pufferfish toxin. Maybe the murderer is a disgraced doctor who’s now slumming as a sushi chef—or vice versa.

I shared this idea with my kids recently, both of whom are physicians themselves. They both shook their heads, perhaps wondering if I watched too much TV.

“But Dad, where are you going to get pufferfish toxin? It’s very difficult to extract.”

I shrugged. “Who cares? It’s fiction.”

March 2021, a snowy day in Colorado when the hardcover copies first arrived.

Connect with Dr. Torres via…

A note from Joe: If you happen to buy a copy of Dr. Torres’ book, kindly contact me via my website and I can send you a bookplate signed by Dr. Torres to paste down in your copy. We can mail to USA and Canadian residents while supplies last. Just let me know how many you need. Dr. Torres is traveling overseas this month, but I will get him to respond to any comments left below. Be sure to tick the “Notify me” box. Thank you.

I will be back in three weeks with more delightful shenanigans.


15 April 2022

What the Well-Dressed Writer is Carrying

Back in college one of my closest friends was a hyper-productive young journalism student who organized her life with Post-It notes, which she pasted down in her daily planner. She lived for that moment when she was able to cross a to-do off her list—so much so that she sometimes wrote down a to-do for the sole purpose of crossing it off. She often joked that her Post-It notes had baby Post-It notes.

When I got out of school, this was how I organized my daily life.

It’s called a piece of paper. To get it to fit neatly in my back pocket or my backpack, I folded it into eighths. That gave me 16 little quadrants (front and back) in which to divide my daily or weekly tasks. Each quad could represent a single area of responsibility—work, home, groceries, friends, appointments, and so on. When the paper became cluttered, messy, or mutilated, I transferred the outstanding tasks to a new sheet. Before the advent of mobile devices, this is how we rolled, kids.

My note-taking became more complicated when I went freelance in 1997. I was juggling more writing assignments for more editors. Each new article I was working on had its own reporter’s notebook.

Portage Reporters Notebook (left); Field Notes brand notebook.
Sadly, the latter is beautiful but pricey, causing you to think twice before using it.

I was also spending more time in stationery stores, scoping out beautiful writing “instruments” and tools. And I got religion, of a sort.

By 2004 I had read Getting Things Done, a book by David Allen, a productivity consultant who made his bones helping busy executives winnow down the mountain of paperwork that threatened to bury them. I have mentioned Allen’s work before.

The essence of his system was to religiously collect all your to-dos in one place so you could routinely process things in efficient waves. His theory was that the act of “capturing” your thoughts, to-dos, and ideas on paper unburdened your mind. So much of the stress we feel is caused by intrusive rumination about things we need to do. A well-tended notebook or to-do file, went the theory, shall set you free.

Of course, you had to “process” those action items if you ever hoped to be #gettingthingsdone. Allen recommended a weekly review to see how you were doing.

His first edition of his book, pubbed in 2001, focused primarily on getting paper under control. (A new edition pubbed in 2015, and addresses digital tasking such as emails more directly.) His principles were embraced by legions of software developers and stationery designers, who cleverly cranked out all sorts of products you simply had to have if you were going to practice the so-called #GTD lifestyle.

I drank the Kool-Aid. For a while there I was downloading and free-testing a ton of GTD software. It didn’t work (for me). Once I typed a to-do into a digital environment, I promptly forgot about it. The action item that was once so important was consigned to a hard-drive limbo.

German stationer Leuchtturm makes two varieties of Bullet Journal.
See Version 1 and Version 2 here. 

A few years ago my wife and I jumped on the Bullet Journal train. You can watch the compelling videos of this system here. It’s all about returning to paper and analog tools. The to-do lists, habit trackers, and monthly project pages of some “BuJo” practitioners approach the level of fine art. They are stunning to behold. Much as I admire paper-and-pen thinking, I jumped off the BuJo train when I tired of re-entering my to-dos every month and toting around the official, 5.5x8-inch, hardcover notebook everywhere I went.

Inside the Bullet Journal is...paper.

I slummed during 2020 with an old-fashioned reporter’s notebook. Easy to carry around the house, highly disposable. As soon as the vaccine arrived and I was leaving the house more, I switched to 3.5x5.5-inch pocket notebooks.

My pocket notebook, circa 1995 (left).
My current to-gos: Field Notes (stapled) and Write Pad (perfect-bound) notebooks.

The ones from Write Pads or Field Notes are an affordable luxury. Depending on my mood I carry them “raw,” or tucked into indulgent leather covers.

Notebook covers by One Star Leather Goods, Los Angeles, CA.
They fit both Field Notes, and Write Pads (with some trimming).
(I tried very hard to obscure some of the letters, but you get the idea.)

Everything fits in a back pocket or wide shirt pocket, and I’m never without paper to write down to-dos, ideas, tasks, that I can carry with me. I’m a sucker for fine pens, but I learned long ago that disposable pens are best when I’m leaving the house. I’ve lost too many nice pens that people have given me as gifts.

All of which brings to me to the key question. I’ve been obsessed with stationery since I was a kid. As a writer, it seems only natural to be interested in the analog tools of the trade. My living room is decorated with two vintage typewriters. I remember once watching a documentary about Ross Macdonald and being enthralled at the sight of him outlining one of his novels in a marble composition notebook. I love hearing about and telling the story of John Steinbeck sharpening his pencils every morning. Simple tools resonate.

But I think it’s fair to say that I am also chasing a figment. It once dawned on me that workwise, I really only had one to-do, and I didn’t need to write it down. I just needed to shut up, sit down, and write.

However, the point of all this nonsense is to sweep away my worst fear: that I will be struck with a brilliant idea and have no way to capture it. It’s a very real fear that many creative people have. The best expression of this I’ve ever found was in a magazine profile of the musician Tom Waits, written by Elizabeth Gilbert. She reports that Waits was struck with a great idea for a song or bit of music when he was driving. In no position to capture the idea, he railed at God through the windshield.

If I can’t record a thought when it comes to me, it does not matter how many pretty pens and notebooks I have. Being without pen or paper is like leaving home naked.

Every now and then, I come across a scrap of paper on my desk or in a short story file that spells out the plot points of an old story. And I smile. Ecstatically. It’s like unearthing your own personal Rosetta Stone, and being grateful you were able to navigate the fleeting intersection of paper-pen-hand-mind so handily.

Snippet of plot points that helped write my short story
 Mr Tesla Likes To Watch (AHMM,  May/June 2021).

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See you in three weeks!


25 March 2022

All's Fair in Death and Cherries

cherry blossoms
© 2022 Joseph D'Agnese

The cherry trees are blooming in my neighborhood as I write this.* Each year, my wife and I go out of our way to shoot as many photos of this spectacle as we can. We love watching the petals of the blossoms flutter across the yard like pink snow. Truly magical, and bittersweet, because by the time they begin dropping you know the show is nearly over. Indeed, by the time you read this, the bloom may well have ended.

Countless poets, writers, and artists in various cultures have drawn inspiration from those trees, and I’m no different. But because I’ve spent my life consuming crime novels and stories, my cherry-tree thoughts turn each year to the tale of a miserable exploited writer. The story comes not from a mystery or some work of literary fiction, but from one of my favorite cookbooks. Here’s the intro to the recipe on Cherry Pudding:

The cherry season is very short and one is always touched with sadness when it comes to an end. Sad too is the story of the song which is still passed on from one generation to another, ‘Les Temps des Cerises.’ In 1867 a young poet, Jean-Baptiste Clemént, sat in a shabby room watching at the death-bed of a friend. To cheer her a little he composed the first verse of the song, which he recited. The dying girl murmured, “It’s charming. Go on,” and he improvised the whole poem.

The girl died and the poet wept and the song was written. One day the poet suffered from the cold. He went to a publisher and exchanged his poem for an overcoat. Whilst the publisher made two million francs from the song the poet, in a moment of need, pawned the overcoat for fourteen francs, and that is all he got out of his lovely song.

The North Point Press editions.

The author of these words is Edouard de Pomiane (1875-1964), who was a food scientist who lectured at the Pasteur Institute for 50 years. It’s hard to get a solid grasp of his biography. Articles say that his specialty was digestion or digestive juices, but he became a celebrity in France during the 1930s for radio shows in which he expounded clever ways to bring tasty dishes to the table. By the time he died at age 89, he had authored 22 cookbooks. The two that are most easily found in English translation are Cooking With Pomiane (the 245-page volume from which the cherry song story is excerpted) and French Cooking in Ten Minutes.

“Modern life is so hectic that we sometimes feel as if time is going up in smoke,” Docteur Pomiane tells us in the introduction to the latter, which clocks in at a mere 142 pages. “But we don’t want that to happen to our steak or omelet, so let’s hurry. Ten minutes is enough. One minute more and all will be lost.” He was speaking of the hectic life as it was perceived in 1930, when the book was published.

I love dipping into these small paperbacks from time to time, because they make me smile. The prose is refreshing, clear, and charming as heck. Pomiane was a master of the conversational tone. He wrote at a time when many French people were leaving the country for cities and the allure of steady office jobs. The shortages of WW-I were still well remembered. How could these proud people cook wholesome, traditional meals on schedules that were no longer their own to make?

On his radio program, Pomiane made his prejudices abundantly clear: French cooking as we’ve come to know it is unnecessarily complicated. Let’s leave fussy cooking to the professional chefs, if they feel they must cling to it. When you cook at home, keep it simple. That’s sensible advice for home cooks—and writers, to boot. The first chapter of Ten Minutes begins like this:

First of all, let me tell you that this is a beautiful book. I can say that because this is its first page. I just sat down to write it, and I feel happy, the way I feel whenever I start a new project.

My pen is full of ink, and there’s a stack of paper in front of me. I love this book because I’m writing it for you…

His first piece of advice:

The first thing you must do when you get home, before you take off your coat, is go to the kitchen and light the stove. It will have to be a gas stove, because otherwise you’ll never be able to cook in ten minutes.

Next, fill a pot large enough to hold a quart of water. Put it on the fire, cover it, and bring it to a boil. What’s the water for? I don’t know, but it’s bound to be good for something, whether in preparing your meal or just making coffee.

I’ve never been able to figure out if the famous cherry song he references, which is renowned as a song of political rebellion, is describing cherry blossom time, or the season some months later when the fruit is actually harvested. I suspect it is the latter. Pomiane appears to adore the fruit, because he gives us at least a half dozen cherry-based recipes. Clafoutis. Cherry Pudding. Piroshki with Cherries. A homemade cordial called Cherry Ratafia. And on and on. Here he is, describing the extraction of the Cherry Tart from the oven:

Don’t be discouraged. Cut the first slice and the juice will run out. Now try it. What a surprise! The tart is neither crisp nor soggy, and just tinged with cherry juice. The cherries have kept all their flavor and the juice is not sticky—just pure cherry juice. They had some very good ideas in 1865!

© 2002 Joseph D'Agnese

Another food scientist-writer would have lectured us on how butter melts in the pate brisee and creates air bubbles and blah blah blah, snooze snooze snooze. Pomiane knows the science. He also knows we don’t need to know it. He focuses instead on telling details and imagery that you cannot shake from your mind. When the flesh of cherries are broken, he says, “they seem to be splashed with brilliant blood.” And indeed, in the song, the color of the cherries came to symbolize the blood of rebellion.

That should not surprise those of us who have read widely in the mystery genre, where death is often paired with food. But when I read Pomiane, I sometimes wonder if I am reading a cookbook or watching a piece of Grand Guignol theater. In the larger of the two books, he recounts a 1551 legend about a jealous baker who finds his wife in the kitchen with a younger man.

He’s just an assistant I hired while you were out of town! she tells hubs.

“Very well,” the husband says, “I am prepared to believe your story, but if this young pastry cook cannot prepare eighteen cakes immediately I shall stab him with this cutlass and then slit your throat, Madame.”

The young man prays to St. Madeleine for guidance, and lo and behold, miraculously turns out the legendary cakes that bear her name.

I suspect that Docteur Pomiane’s adoring fans would have been far more shocked if they knew a little-advertised truth about the mustachioed, grandfatherly man who crafted these best-selling books on cuisine. You see, Pomiane was born in France, but his birth name was Edouard Pozerski Pomian. His parents were immigrants. Quelle horreur! The man who taught the 20th century French to cook, the man whose ideas many say influence farm-to-table French chefs to this very day, was of Polish descent.

A happy spring to you all!

The cherries seen most often in one’s neighborhoods are ornamental, not fruit-bearing, trees. On occasion, if weather and pollinators align properly, an ornamental might well bear tiny fruit, which are fit for crows, not humans. Ask me how I know.

See you in three weeks!


04 March 2022

Reading in Soccer Bars: The Egypt Game

April is 11 years old when her airhead Hollywood actress mom sends her to live with grandma in Berkeley while Mom gets a little Me Time. Grandma is little off-putting, probably because, as much as she loves her family, she doesn’t relish being the de facto long-term caregiver for her granddaughter. However, it’s not long before April makes two new friends in the Casa Rosada, Grandma’s old apartment building—Melanie and her younger brother Marshall. While playing in the backyard behind an old antiques store, the children discover a beat-up plaster bust of Nefertiti. They carefully install it in a ramshackle outdoor shed, creating a temple to the ancient queen, and then embark on an imaginative, Egyptian-themed role-playing game that will occupy what remains of their summer and alleviate the boredom of life when the new school year begins.

That’s the premise of a middle grade children’s book titled The Egypt Game, the first in a short series numbering just two titles. The first book was published in 1967. The author is Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who wrote 46 books for kids, and was awarded three Newbery Honor awards for three of her titles. Snyder lived and taught school in California, where this book is set. She died in 2014 at the age of 87.

I confess that I’d never heard of the book, or its author, until it was mentioned by the crime writer Laura Lippman during a Bouchercon panel. She described the book as a fascinating work for a specific reason I won’t divulge just yet. I read it last summer at the soccer bar in town, hunched over a pint and some food truck tacos. And as the book wrapped, I wept, so sweet was its conclusion.

At first the two girls and the younger brother are the only players of the game. After reading a book about ancient Egypt at the local library, they design hilarious costumes from everyday items, and concoct bizarre, scary, and often accurate Egyptian rituals which they enact at their homemade temple. Every random piece of junk they find in their urban environment is repurposed in some way for their games. Eventually, as they make more friends, the initial core of three players grows to four, then six, when two older boys join the fun.

It sounds like a sweet, wholesome story. But their neighborhood harbors a horror that most children’s book writers would not dare touch, in 1967 or 2022. As you might imagine, that is the point Laura Lippman made on the panel that day.
“By the next day it was common knowledge. A little girl who lived in the neighborhood had been killed. She hadn’t gone to Wilson School, so April and Melanie had barely known her, but her home was only a few blocks away from the Casa Rosada. Like all children in the neighborhood, and in all neighborhoods for that matter, she had been warned about strangers—but she must have forgotten. She had been on her way to the drugstore—the very one where April had purchased her eyelashes—in the early evening, and she had never returned. The next day her body had been found in the marshland near the bay.

“It was a terrible and shocking thing. But there was something more terrifying and threatening to the parents of the neighborhood. It had happened before. Almost a year before, a little boy from the same area had disappeared in almost the same way; and the police were saying that it looked as if the guilty person was a resident of the neighborhood.”
Mysteries aimed at kids tend to focus on murderless crimes such as stolen objects, secrets, missing people and pets, and the like. A subplot concerning the murder of a child is unthinkable fare, especially in today’s timid publishing market. The new murder appears about a third of the way into the book, and from that point on, all the action is played out against the backdrop of those killings. I read on, wondering just how in the heck Snyder was going to pull this off. She chooses to be completely up front and matter-of-fact about everything, trusting that her readers are mature enough to handle whatever she throws at them. And so we get scenes of anxious parents and teachers trying to micromanage the children’s lives and schedule. And we have the kids sweeping away fear so they can sneak off and play the Egypt game. Along the way, they stumble across clues, mysterious characters, and scenarios that make them wonder such things as, “Why is the man who runs the antiques shop so reclusive?”

I have to admit that I’d be too chicken to attempt such a story. But Snyder gets high marks for creating a very realistic world in the first place. In her preface, she tells us that the kids in the book look like the kids she taught in her classroom back in the day. They are white, African American, Asian, Latino. The grown-ups feel like real people who are struggling with the usual grown-up concerns and trying to put on brave face for the children in their care. There’s a scene where April gets a letter from her vapid Mom. April reads the letter three times, Snyder says, “and felt around inside herself for reactions. She found some, all right, both good and bad; but not nearly as much either way as she would have expected.” That’s a very easy prose for a child to read and understand. It conveys so much. April has grown in the course of the novel. She’s not nearly as concerned as she was in Chapter 1 about her mother’s flakiness. The whole scene subtly teaches how human beings might analyze their emotions in a non-judgmental way.

The dark mystery is indeed resolved by the book’s end. The kids get to play detective, though it’s not their primary focus. They just want to have fun and get on with their adventures. They wish grown-ups would not be so weird.

Ancient Egyptian crown, fashioned out of a plastic bowling pin, and cardboard.

It’s funny, the mix of reactions I’ve gotten on the tale. Lippman is a fan, as is an author friend of mine who writes for kids. (Both are bestselling authors.) Because I was reading this book in a public place, my choice of reading material became fodder for discussion. One woman, a schoolteacher, told me she had the book in her classroom and had used it as a prelude to teaching Egyptian history. “It’s so boring,” she said, guzzling her cocktail. Another woman, slightly younger, ran across the bar at half-time to tell me that this had been her favorite book in childhood. “Are you loving it? I totally looooooooved it!”

Know what? I totally did.

* * * 

11 February 2022

A Greatness of Their Own

Anyone who writes knows—or thinks they know—what readers are expecting when it comes to characters. The Big Why.

Why is this make-believe person the way they are? What made them this way? And we writers have two tricks up our sleeve for giving readers what they want. (At least, I think there are two. Feel free to debate.)

Method #1: We can dig our heels in and stubbornly refuse to give any backstory. We set down on the page a person who is a cipher, and we let the reader determine who they are on the basis of the character’s actions.

Remember that classic scene in The Silence of the Lambs—the book, not the movie—when young Clarice Starling goes to administer a questionnaire to Hannibal Lecter? The sadistic doctor toys with her, mocking the notion that a “blunt tool” can dissect the mysteries of his personality. “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.”

The sound you hear you is the cheering of writers up in the nosebleed section of the literary pantheon. Good for you, Thomas Harris! Way to create evil on the page. Don’t tell us anything! No back story. No exposition. Yay!

And what did poor Harris do? The more popular his Lecter became, the more he yielded to popular demand. His 1999 novel, Hannibal, hinted at Lecter’s childhood in war-torn Lithuania. His 2006 novel, Hannibal Rising, is all prequel. Critics have said that the last two books are the weakest in the series, perhaps because they fill in the blanks on Lecter’s past.

Don’t blame Harris. He did exactly what writers are expected to do when wielding Method #2: something in our character’s childhood shaped them into the person they become. Usually it’s some sort of trauma. I don’t want to get into Lecter’s. Suffice to say it’s, um, delicious?

The point is: Bad thing in past equals character.

I suppose you could play with this paradigm and change it up. Good thing in past equals character. Bad thing in one’s recent adult past—a divorce, a call to God, beating alcoholism—equals character.

The paradigm is strictly cause and effect. Because this happened, I happened, to quote Dr. Lecter.

Ages ago I read an interesting book that has had me questioning the nature of literary character ever since. Is it possible that we writers have absorbed lessons about character that derive from schools of thought outside the realm of literature? Is our view of character distinctly American?

We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse consists of a series of conversations and essays between the arts journalist Michael Ventura and the Jungian psychologist James Hillman. The book is 256 pages long, and filled with provocative concepts, but I always think of the idea that is expressed on one page of the text.
HILLMAN: The principal content of American psychology is developmental psychology: what happened to you earlier is the cause of what happened to you later. That’s the basic theory: our history is our causality. We don’t even separate history as a story from history as cause. So you have to go back to childhood to get at why you are the way you are. And so when people are out of their minds or disturbed or f*cked up or whatever, in our culture, in our psychotherapeutic world, we go back to our mothers and our fathers and our childhoods. No other culture would do that. If you’re out of your mind in another culture or quite disturbed or impotent or anorexic, you look at what you’ve been eating, who’s been casting spells on you, what taboo you’ve crossed, what you haven’t done right, when you last missed reverence to the Gods or didn’t take part in the dance, broke some tribal custom. Whatever. It could be thousands of other things—the plants, the water, the curses, the demons, the Gods, being out of touch with the Great Spirit. It would never, never be what happened to you with your mother and your father forty years ago. Only our culture uses that model, that myth. 

VENTURA (appalled and confused): Well, why wouldn’t that be true?

HILLMAN: Because that’s the myth you believe.

Kristina Gadeikyte via Unsplash

Hillman gives a couple of examples. Winston Churchill stuttered as kid, and struggled with language. The great bullfighter Manolete was once a frightened boy who clung to his mother.

If you were creating a fictional character named Churchill or Manolete, you’d spin that person’s story using Method #2: Because he was weak speaker as a child, Churchill applied himself—and lo and behold, he became a great orator! The frightened mama’s boy overcompensated and fought bulls in manhood! Ta-da! Character tied up in a bow, fully and thoroughly explained.

Bull dinkies, says Hillman. No freaking way. 

When a puny acorn falls from a tree, it’s coded to become a mighty oak. Likewise, each of these men came into the world with a soul that knew from Day 1 what its purpose was. Of course the soul called Churchill had trouble speaking. It knew that its destiny was to save the western World through the power of speech. 

The soul called Manolete clung to its mother because its future terrified it; it knew from Day 1 that it was destined to step into a ring to fight massive angry creatures with horns.

Hillman suggested that therapists learn to “read a person’s life backwards.”
“Suppose we look at the kids who are odd or stuttering or afraid, and instead of seeing these as developmental problems we see them as having some great thing inside them, some destiny that they’re not yet able to handle. It’s bigger than they are and their psyche knows that.”
In the course of the book, Hillman expounds on his theory, going as far as saying that every person has a daimon, “guiding ghost,” angel, or genius that leads them on their path.

I love this concept, but I admit that I have trouble knowing how to apply it to characters I’m creating. Yes, readers have come to expect the Big Why as childhood backstory. But wouldn’t it be fun sometimes to work with a convention that breaks the mold? 

Hillman, who died in 2011 at age 85, is no longer around to help writers bring this concept to fruition in their work. But I think a writer can perform a mental exercise inspired by Hillman as they are creating a character. Do the links in the chain of the character’s life make sense in both directions?

Not every character is destined for greatness. But every character has the right to a greatness that is uniquely their own.

* * *

I first shared the work of Michael Ventura in my New Year’s Eve 2021 post.

You can read more in We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura (HarperCollins, 1992).

Best of luck on this most palindromic of Februaries!

See you in three weeks!


21 January 2022

For the Love of Enola

For a guy who likes to think he’s up on children’s literature, I’m ashamed to confess that I had not known of the writing of Nancy Springer, an American writer based in Florida. She has one of the longest (and possibly the most poignant) author profile I’ve ever seen on Amazon’s site. (Read it here.)

Trailer to Enola Holmes

Suffice to say, Springer has been through the emotional wringer, and her life has given her insight into how women might have fared in earlier eras. Writing, she says, saved her mind and soul. In this powerful essay, she writes that she is especially interested in books that focus thematically on “the lost who are alive.” Springer has written about fifty books for middle grade and young adult readers, largely in the science fiction fantasy and mystery genres. A practitioner of what she calls “murderless mysteries,” she is a four-time Edgar finalist, and a two-time winner in the Edgars’ juvenile and young adult categories.

She didn’t come across my radar until last January, when the robot brain of my Netflix queue started insisting that I watch a film called Enola Holmes, based on a series of books by Springer.

How well the robots know us! The film is wholesome as heck. Solid family entertainment. Enola, the daughter of a late British squire, awakes on the morning of her 16th birthday to discover that her mother has disappeared from their country estate. After a short investigation, Enola (whose name spells you-know-what backwards) wires her brothers in London for help, and rides out on her bicycle to meet them at the station.

When the two chaps disembark, we are shocked to discover that Enola’s elder siblings are none other than Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes! Of course, they are the most strapping, youthful, and ridiculously handsome versions of themselves that have ever been committed to film. Mycroft is shocked, shocked, to find their ancestral home is an overgrown shambles. Where are the gardeners and servants and governess he has been so generously paying for?

Well, obvs, dude, Mother (played delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter) has been pocketing the money for some mysterious purpose. She has stuck around long enough to tutor her only daughter in such valuable subjects as physical fitness, chemistry, physics, art, natural history, chess, anagrams, cryptology, and the power of original thinking. You see, Mother values personal freedom above all else; she just has never been able to seize it for herself. “There are two paths you can choose, Enola,” Mother says at one point. “Yours, or the path others choose for you.” Her work seemingly done, Mother vanishes! A scandal in Bohemia, indeed.

Mycroft, stubbornly determined to reenact the family drama that no doubt led to mother’s disenchantment, enrolls Enola in a stuffy finishing school so that she can become a Proper British Lady and be transformed into suitable marriage material. A childhood marked by Mother’s afternoon lessons in archery, tennis, fencing, and the womanly arts of pugilism and jiu-jitsu have spoiled Enola on the merits of learning how a lady sips soup. 

The game is afoot, after all. Enola runs off to find Mother, and becomes embroiled with a dishy teenaged Marquess who is running away from his own family scandal. A scandal, I might add, that might well shake the Empire to its very core! Bwahahaha…

What’s not to like? The actors are wonderful to watch. Millie Bobby Brown as Enola. Henry Cavill as Sherlock. Sam Claflin as a very uncanonical Mycroft. The costumes and sets are appropriately atmospheric to the period. Enola breaks the fourth wall throughout the film to elaborate on her deductions. And the producers stuck close enough to Springer’s first book—The Case of the Missing Marquess—to win my approval. I found the film great fun, and have since been urging my neighbors to get their preteen daughters to watch it. (Especially the kid who keeps telling me she loves mysteries!)

For some reason, my neighbors haven’t yet done so. I can live with that. But clearly someone likes the film. Warner Brothers originally acquired the rights to Springer’s series and shot the film, intending to release it in theaters. When Covid lay waste to the land, WB palmed the project off on Netflix, which unveiled it as a streaming release in September 2020. Enola Holmes has since become one of the most highly watched Netflix “originals” in the streamer’s history, with 76 million homes watching the film during its first four weeks of release.

You know what that means. Just this month, the squealing of fans nearly broke the Internet when it was announced that preliminary shooting of the sequel—based on the second Springer book, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady—had wrapped. I assure you that you can find countless freaking YouTube videos of fans dissecting the minutiae of the photos and trailers that have already been released. Some impatient fans have even cut their own Enola 2 trailers, using footage from the first film.

As of this writing the sequel will be released in late summer 2022. I expect to watch it the way I watched the first one—on my phone, at a bar, drink in hand, while my wife screams her lungs out watching a Roma soccer game. I hope sweet Lord Omicron will allow this fantasy to happen.

Springer has written seven Enola books. The most recent installment, Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche, pubbed in August 2021, with a new publisher and cover artist. I admire the author, the series, and this film franchise, if only because they all stared down a lawsuit from the Doyle estate, which quibbled with the producers’ portrayal of Holmes. The central complaint? The production gave Holmes too many feelings. (The suit was dismissed, probably due to a settlement.)

I’m not saying I absolutely dig this Sherlock and Mycroft. In my mind’s eye, I will always see Paget’s Holmes, or Jeremy Brett’s. But it’s fun and necessary to reinvent Holmes for each new generation. In recent years, we’ve had Cumberbatch, Miller, and Downey, Jr. If we don’t continue to mix up the characters and canon, how will they survive the brave new world that awaits them in the public domain?

It’s interesting to contemplate how Sherlock might have treated a younger female sibling who shared his gifts. I enjoyed the scenes between Cavill and Brown. They felt authentic in a way I had not anticipated. Holmes is present, feeling, and yet still somewhat distant. You can tell he loves his sister, but the expression of that love will always come as a celebration of, and the nurturing of, her intellect. There’s a marvelous moment when Sherlock realizes that Enola has beaten him. I won’t give it away, but his reaction is perfectly Sherlockian. I can’t imagine Rathbone or Brett selling it better.

Why shouldn’t we consider the possibility that Sherlock and Mycroft acquired their remarkable gifts from their mother? And why shouldn’t we spin a series that has historically appealed to young boys as one predominantly aimed at girls and young women?

At the end of the film, Enola observes:
“To be a Holmes, you have to find your own path... I am a detective. I am a decipherer, and a finder of lost souls. My life is my own. And the future is up to us.”

Quite so, I thought. Indubitably. Elementary. Thank God Holmes lives, and lives forever.


See you in three weeks!


31 December 2021

Writer, Feed Thyself

 Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash
I was all of 23 years old, and working at what would be the first of many Crappy Editorial Jobs. I had recently reconnected with a college buddy of mine, who would call from time to time during office hours so we could chat and stave off our mutual boredom. I was working at a teenybopper magazine in Teaneck, New Jersey; my friend was designing corporate stationery for an accounting firm in Washington, DC. Back in college, the two of us had majored in journalism. But who were we kidding? In our hearts, we knew we were fiction writers. At least, we hoped so.

Nearly every time he called, my buddy would ask: “What are you working on?”

I’d start to describe for him whatever the current project was that I was doing for my employer. He’d cut me off immediately. “I don’t care about that,” he said. “What’s going on with your writing? What’s up with the fiction?”

And I’d lapse into a long diatribe about how exhausted I was writing magazine articles. By the time I got home each night, I had no desire to touch my own work. Someday, I assured Stuart, I would make time for the work that mattered to me. Just not now.

A few calls later, my friend lowered the boom. “I hate to break this to you, but someday you’re going to die. Life is short. If you want to write, you have to make time for it now.”

Of course I was pissed at him for bringing this up. Offended, even. Who the hell was he to remind me of my mortality? He was literally two months older than me.

At age 23, you don’t just think you’re immortal. You are immortal.

But even at that age, Stu was somewhat wiser than I was. (He still is.) The truth of what he was saying sunk in, and I finally committed to my own work. I started a novel that year that would became the first I wrote as an adult.

This was a good decade before email was available in the workplace. So when Stu or I came across a cool article, we shared it the old-fashioned way: snail-mailed a photocopy to the other person’s home.

Some years later, I opened an envelope from Stu to find a piece he’d come across on a trip to the west coast. The article, “The Talent of the Room,” which first appeared in LA Weekly, was written by a writer named Michael Ventura. The piece was so powerful that I’ve re-read it nearly every year since, and have shared it with many writers. Ventura makes it available for free at his website; I hope you will take the time to read it. It’s the best gift I can give any writer as we hurtle toward the end of another year.

The gist of Ventura’s lesson is this:

If you’re going to be writer, you have to have to be comfortable hanging out by yourself, alone in a room, for hours, days, or years at a time. The irony is that what the outside world feeds you, you bring back into that room. When you’ve used up that nutrition, you’re obliged to seek out more of it in the outside world. Whether you accept it or not, this is the struggle all writers face. To put words on a page, you must enrich yourself or you dry up.

We’re going on two miserable years, folks, when it has been hard to sate ourselves on the company of friends, family, and loved ones. I know that I have felt the loss of that restorative influence; I’m sure some of you have too. When I do get out in public these days, I’m astonished how giddy I am, and how seemingly innocuous conversations linger in my memory for hours or even days later.

“I was really very hungry,” M.F.K Fisher says in one of her classic essays, and though she is renowned as a food writer, you get the sense that it wasn’t just food she craved.

If you are a writer, you are always hungry. Your psyche must be fed. It’s drinking in snatches of dialogue, sopping up real-life anecdotes that can be repurposed as plot points, and absorbing emotions that emanate from other peoples’ voices. We do this instinctively, often without noticing what we are doing. It is our superpower. The horticulturist perceives leaves and sunlight. The fashion designer notices fabric, weave, and drape. The mechanic hears the rasp of an ailing engine. The writer sees, hears, and breathes story. But if we don’t get what we need to fashion story from the real world, we wither.

I’m not one for resolutions. Staring down the last dregs of a calendar should not be the thing that forces me to make a promise to myself. If something is worth resolving, chances are I’ve sensed it long before midnight tonight. I’m not in my twenties any more, and I’m long past fooling myself.

I am hungry, but I’ve always been. Time is short, but it always has been. Those two things should be enough to carry me into 2022.

I wish you all a beautiful, lustrous year, filled with sustenance and stories.

* * *

See you in three weeks!