Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

17 February 2020

When They Say It's Not About Politics...


My daughter gave me The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter's newest novel, for Christmas and I tore through it in about three days. Slaughter is one of my favorite writers, and the first half of the book felt like a freight train with no brakes careening down a steep hill. I turned pages quickly enough to leave a trail of smoke and risk uncountable paper cuts.

I seldom pay attention to online reviews, but when I finished this one, I looked on Amazon out of curiosity. Slaughter is one of several authors I read who gathers mixed reviews because she takes chances and doesn't adhere to the standard template. Sure enough, The Last Widow had 795 reviews, 63% five-star, and 9% one-star.

The one-star reviews often complained that Slaughter let her politics get in the way of the story. Well, a group of white nationalist kidnaps Sarah Linton, the female protagonist, as part of their deadly plot, and, given that premise, it's hard to be apolitical.

That's why I usually ignore online reviews.

In one way or another, MOST art is political because artists deal with important issues in life.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King as a reaction to the contemporary debate about predestination. His play takes the issue head-on, and his opinion is clear. Euripides leaves no doubt what he thinks of war in The Trojan Women. Nice people don't throw the child of a vanquished rival off the battlements and turn the surviving women into sex slaves.



Shakespeare's 37 (or 40, or 50, depending on whose count you believe) plays constantly involve politics.
Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear discuss, among other issues, who succeeds to the throne. Measure For Measure asks tough questions about women, love, sex, and relationships, and offers no easy answers (The main "good guy" has a creepy voyeuristic streak, too).
All the histories involve kings and, usually, war. Even comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night discuss the roles of women in society, and the misuse of power, still timely as the Me Too Movement and Roe vs Wade are still crucial issues.

Jane Austen and Emily Bronte present the situation of women in the 1800s, unable to vote, own property, or inherit. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bennet with five daughters who will starve if he can't marry them off to husbands who will support them. Wuthering Heights is built around the British Law of Entails, a devious way to control who inherits property if no sons succeed.

In America, Twain looks at slavery through bitter eyes in Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in our country's schools, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, which looks at the same issue from 80 years later...although we haven't advanced much. Uncle Tom's Cabin, far more racist than either of the others, was a blockbuster best-seller before the word existed.

Robert Penn Warren gives us All The King's Men, a fictionalized vision of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor who used graft and kickbacks left and right...and used the money to build highways and hospitals. Alan Drury won the Pulitzer in 1960 with Advise And Consent (102 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and later a film with Henry Fonda), and that's all about politics.

Other novels, off the top of my head: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (if you haven't read these, do so before the second of the three books appears next fall on HBO.)

I know almost nothing about painting, but even I can point to Picasso's Guernica.

Plays: Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods is about two arms negotiators meeting to talk during the Cold War. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (maybe my least favorite play of all time), All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and Death of a Salesman. Miller always looked at the shafting of the little guy by big business or bigger government. Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, which the Religious Reich should go see sometime.

Films: Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

The classic western High Noon asks if we deserve freedom and law if we won't fight to defend them.Many in that production were blacklisted because of their involvement, and I still don't understand why. What about The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck dodged a death threat after writing the novel, and the film, made on an 800K budget, still gives me chills when I listen to Henry Fonda deliver
Tom Joad's farewell speech in that flat monotone.

Beethoven first called Symphony #3 the "Bounaparte," but changed it to "Eroica" after Napoleon became Emperor.
Where would American folk music be without Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger, and the Weavers?  Or their descendants, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Doors ("The Unknown Soldier") and Country Joe & The Fish (I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag--remember "Gimme an 'F'?).

Politics should be separate from art. Yeah, right.

Maybe flavor should be separate from food, too.

This list barely unscrews the lid from the jar. What other works can you name?

16 January 2020

Fearless Predictions for 2020


All right, all right, I'm late to the party, but what the hey.  I got distracted, which is at least better than lured.

Last weekend I spent at an AVP workshop at the penitentiary - one of our best, actually, which may or may not have been because the temperature outside was 10 degrees for the high, which meant that in the chapel (where we were assigned) it hovered around 55-60 degrees.  I've read before that it was the Ice Ages that made us humans cooperative, compassionate, and creative - so maybe the weather did the same for us.

Then, when the weekend was over, we came back home to a house that was at 55-60 degrees.  The furnace had died.  We got it repaired on Monday, and then went promptly out to hock our valuables to buy a new one, which will be installed before the next Ice Age. Which looks like it's going to be tonight.  So, before the woolly mammoths come over the rise,

Fearless predictions for 2020!

Between House, Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential races, the 2020 elections will surpass the $1.6 billion on advertising, polling, etc., spent in 2016.  This leads me to predict:
  1. The media will make out like a bandit.
  2. Someone will figure out that $1.6 billion is the GDP of a number of smaller countries, and make memes about that.
  3. Someone will figure out that $1.6 billion could be better used elsewhere.
  4. Nothing will change.  
Whether or not violence increases in our cities, nation, or worldwide, most people will believe that we live in an incredibly dangerous age, mostly because the media talisman is "if it bleeds it leads" and that's what we see.  This despite the fact that, in 1340s, the homicide rate was around 110 per 100,000, whereas today, in the US, it's 5 per 100,000.  And there were a lot fewer people around in the 1340s (and about to get fewer in 1347, thanks to the Black Death).

Woolly mammoths will be cloned, and will become the hot new pet of 2025.  (The last woolly mammoths were on St. Paul Island, Alaska, and were pgymies - they stood 5'6" - and I want one!)

President Trump will continue to tweet at the same rate most of us breathe.

There will be new record fires in California, and new record flooding all along the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  Climate change will continue to be considered a radical theory of why such things are happening by some.

Sloths will become the hot 2020 Christmas toy / doll / sling purse / baby carrier.

© The Far Side cartoon Imbeciles of the World Unite
© The Far Side
The anti-vaxxers will continue to spread complete bulls***. My "favorite" is this meme: "Let's bring back chicken-pox playdates to stave off shingles!"

Uh, shingles is a reactivation of the chicken-pox virus. No chicken-pox, no shingles… But by all means, make sure to give your children a virus that could very well cause them chronic pain, neuropathy, and even blindness, if not in childhood then as an adult.

To continue raging/ragging on the above, old teachers cannot stop fighting against deliberate ignorance, and the amount of time I spend trying to combat it is a major reason why I will never write enough fiction to satisfy my inner taskmaster.

Most people will go for popcorn, bathroom break, or a quick nap through the following Oscar categories:  make-up, costumes, sound, and short-film (animated and live action). Some will start streaming something on Netflix until the next "big" award.

The winners of the Super Bowl LIV (2020) will be PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg's, Mars, Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, and the Pabst Brewing Company.  Yes, and a team will actually win the game.

Axe throwing will remain a popular activity at many bars here in the Upper Midwest, because the winters are long, and nothing could possibly go wrong,

Xi Jinping will remain President for Life of China.  Vladimir Putin will make himself President for Life of Russia.  (Russian government resigns)  Major pissing contest follows.

Antonio Banderas will indeed get sexier with age.

Brexit will happen.  Almost no one, including Brexiters, will like it.
UK location in the EU 2016.svg
Brexit/Celtexit map
(Wikipedia)
Future quote: "It isn't what I expected it to be. I thought everything would be cheaper, we'd have more freedom, and all those foreigners would be gone."
Speaking of Brexit, even money that:
  • Scotland will vote for independence.
  • Northern Ireland will vote to join the Republic of Ireland. 
  • Scotland will join Northern Ireland and Wales in a Celtexit from Great Britain.  
    • Normandy and Brittany will consider joining them.  The beginning of the Great Celtexit from Europe will begin.  Catalonia will try to join, but will be told to cabrear.  
American troops will remain in the Middle East, mostly wherever Saudi Arabia wants them.

Anthony Trollope will become the hot new Victorian author in print, Kindle/Nook, movies, and television.  (And with 70 novels / short stories, there's a lot to mine.)  Speaking of Trollope, join the rest of us fanatics at https://trollope.groups.io/g/main.

Fake news and deepfakes will receive their own category at the Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, and Oscars.  No one will ever know who truly wins.

Ford v. Ferrari will not win Best Picture Award.

11 August 2019

Canada responds to the U.S. on mass exportation of our drugs: Sorry.


Rarely does American primary politics impact Canada, but Senator Bernie Sanders’ ‘Insulin Caravan’ has certainly led to a situation that has ruffled Canadian feathers.

First, let’s be clear on why Sen. Sanders came: “By traveling to Canada, which has a single-payer, government-backed health care system, he was also making an implicit case for his "Medicare for All" plan, which would create a similar system in this country."

The people who came in the caravan didn’t come for political reasons but, rather, for heartbreakingly personal reasons: “Kathy Sego, who made a 7-hour trip from Indiana with her son, Hunter, who requires insulin and has rationed his intake, became emotional as she described choosing between paying a power bill or for the teen's medicine.”

What is the response in Canada? The average Canadian believes that healthcare is a human right and this compassion is best expressed by the Canadian mother of an eight-year-old Type 1 diabetic : "When I see headlines of people passing away because they're having to ration their insulin and they can't afford it [and] when you live with someone with Type 1, I can't imagine," she said. "What if it was your mother? Your brother? Any family member? I would give anything I could to afford the insulin to buy it — but we shouldn't need to do that.”

Then this happened: “[The Trump] administration said it was weighing plans to allow for the legal importation of prescription drugs from Canada to help Americans coping with skyrocketing drug prices in the United States.
The response from Canadians? Sorry, but back off.”

Why such a different response to the individuals coming for drugs and the American government promoting a mass importation of Canadian drugs? It is because Canada has a small population of 37M compared to the massive population of 325M. We already have drug shortages and cannot sustain a mass exodus of our life-saving drugs.

In fact, “the Canadian Medical Association and 14 other groups representing patients, health-care professionals, pharmacists and hospitals wrote last week to Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor. The supply simply does not, and will not, exist within Canada to meet such demands…John Adams, the chair of the Best Medicines Coalition, an advocacy group for access to drugs that signed the letter last week to the health minister, said he’s not encouraged by the Canadian government’s “nonspecific” response to Trump’s proposal.
He called it “a clear and present danger” to the health of Canadians.
This is not the sort of thing that good neighbors do to each other.”

This is Canadian-speak for no, we won’t do that.

So, the consensus seems to be this: if you are in dire need, come here and we’ll share.

 If you want - as a nation - to pull drugs away from Canadians, then no. And no again. 

Perhaps it’s time that Americans use the Canadian method of price regulation. “The reason for the discrepancy is because Canada regulates drug prices through the quasi-judicial Patented Medicine Prices Review Board designed to prevent gouging...In the U.S., market forces are the lay of the land.” 


In speaking to the character of Canada, I would like to thank the Canadian who invented insulin: “Banting famously sold his patent for $1 because he believed his discovery belonged to the world and not for profit.”

I hope America takes Banting’s message and actions to heart and creates a system where citizens can access drugs at a fair price. However, when it comes to pilfering Canadian drugs on a large scale, Canadians have clearly said, sorry but no.

In case our response is misunderstood, translated into American speak, the answer is, “Hell no.”

10 June 2019

Muddling or Mulling Mueller


Last week, I poured gas on a Facebook fire when I took people to task for bitching about how hard it was to read the Mueller Report. They complained that it was obscure, confusing, drenched in legalese, etc., etc., etc.

I disagreed.

I downloaded the cheapest version I could find onto my Kindle. That edition is 770 pages long and has no page numbers. It only tells me how much I have read and how much time I need at my current rate to finish the whole document. When I entered that discussion, I had read 25%, roughly 190 pages, and had more than three hours left in Volume I. Without timing myself or having page numbers to check, I guess I was reading about 60 pages an hour.

I am 72, have acute astigmatism in my right eye, have had cataract surgery in both eyes, and am mildly dyslexic. I also have a condition called "auditory subvocalization," which means that I hear a voice saying the words when I read. I can't read faster than the words in my head can be spoken. I don't know how fast that is, but in spite of all these "issues," I had no trouble grasping the content of the report.

OK?

My perception is that the average American doesn't read enough to be skillful, the academic equivalent of the guy who plays golf once a month and wonders why he doesn't get better. I see many (usually older) people reading at my health club, often on tablets, eReaders, or their cell phones, but few read a "real" book anymore.

Seeing a few words on a small screen changes the impact and effect of the prose because you may not be able to see how long or short a paragraph is, and it makes a difference. A paragraph is a form of punctuation.

Years ago, Chris Offutt warned writers at the Wesleyan Writer's Conference to proof-read and revise from hard copy instead of on a computer. He warned us about the "screen-sized paragraph" because it changes or removes context and rhythm.

As we dumb-down reading lists in schools and people read on smaller devices, they lose the ability to absorb and process words in a larger context. I suspect that's one reason so many people have trouble grappling with Mueller's report. That said, I give them credit for trying to read it at all. I don't know a single other person at my health club who has made the effort. Conversely, two of my musician friends have read more of it than I have (As I post this Friday morning, I have finished Volume 1).

Remember, Mueller was not trying to write a page-turning best-seller. He is a lawyer charged with investigating issues and presenting a report to the legal branch of the United States government. He was constrained by departmental guidelines and the rules of law and evidence. Naturally, the document uses legal jargon. My biggest surprise is that it doesn't use much more of it.

This passage is where I stopped reading to write the first draft of this post:

On February 26, 2017, Manafort met Kilimnik in Madrid, where Kilimnik had flown from Moscow. In his first two interviews with the Office, Manafort denied meeting with Kilimnik on his Madrid trip and then--after being confronted with documentary evidence that Kilimnik was in Madrid at the same time as him--recognized that he met him in Madrid. Manafort said that Kilimnik had updated him on a criminal investigation into so-called "black ledger" payments to Manafort that was being conducted by Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau [REDACTED: Grand Jury].

Manafort remained in contact with Kilimnik through 2017 and into the spring of 2018. Those contacts included matters pertaining to the criminal charges brought by the Office and the Ukraine peace plan. In early 2018, Manafort retained his longtime polling firm to craft a draft poll in Ukraine, sent the pollsters a three-page primer on the plan sent by Kilimnik, and worked with Kilimnik to formulate the polling questions. The primer sent to the pollsters SPECIFICALLY called for the United States and President Trump to support the Autonomous Republic of Donbas with Yanukovych as Prime Minister, and a series of questions in the draft poll asked for opinions on Yanukovych's role in resolving the conflict in Donbas. (The poll was NOT SOLELY about Donbas; it also sought participants' views on leaders apart from Yanukovych as they pertained to the 2019 Ukraine presidential election.)

The Office has NOT uncovered evidence that Manafort brought the Ukraine peace plan to the attention of the Trump Campaign or the Trump Adminstration. Kilimnik continued his efforts to promote the peace plan to the Executive Branch (e.g., U.S. Department of State) into the summer of 2018.

The passage uses long sentences (the average is about 28 words), but few subordinate clauses, appositives, or modifiers (I could do with a few more pronouns, but the repeated proper nouns are clear). It's less convoluted than Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, Trollope, Hardy, or most of the other Victorian behemoths we were forced to confront in undergraduate days. In the 20th century, Faulkner, Pynchon, Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy are much more complex. In a good translation, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are easy to read, and Mueller's excerpt has a lot in common with the Russians (Yes, I see the irony).

The excerpt is not difficult to read because of the vocabulary, except for the unfamiliar Russian names. The normal structure is subject, verb, complement, over and over. The four words in bold caps are the only adverbs in the entire passage, and two of them have the common "-ly" ending. If you read the passage aloud, it moves smoothly and quickly. If the names are a problem, substitute "Smith," "Brown" and "Jones" for Yanukovych, Kilimnik and Manafort and listen to what I mean.

Mueller's document illustrates how adverbs weaken prose. Chris Offutt (above) said that adverbs are the weakest words in English, but I didn't appreciate how right he was until now.

Strunk and White bury their advice to "Avoid Qualifiers" on page 73 of my current coy of The Elements of Style, and they discuss "Little," "Pretty," "Rather" and "Very" in one paragraph. They don't expand to explain how and why adverbs in general are weak, but Mueller demonstrates it for us. Adverbs QUALIFY or LIMIT a verb. They don't add, they subtract. A strong verb DOES or IS. When you add an adverb, it DOES or IS only to some extent.

For vigor, Mueller's writing reminds me more of this writer, whom you might recognize:

Two other people had been in the lunch-room. Once George had gone out to the kitchen and made a ham-and-egg sandwich "to go" that a man wanted to take with him. Inside the kitchen he saw Al, his derby hat tipped back, sitting on a stool beside the wicket with the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun resting on the ledge. Nick and the cook were back to back in the corner, a towel tied in each of their mouths. George had cooked the sandwich, wrapped it up in oiled paper, put it in a bag, brought it in, and the man had paid for it and gone out.

This paragraph from Hemingway's "The Killers" averages about 22 words per sentence. The average word in the Mueller excerpt is 5 letters long and in the Hemingway passage 3.8 letters.

I wonder how many people who had trouble reading the Mueller Report are still reading THIS.

23 August 2017

Bread and Circuses


This post is prompted in part by Barb Goffman's piece, from last week, about bearing witness to wrong-doing.

I'm not a fan of scoring political points in my stories. That doesn't mean I steer clear of political situations, or real-world issues. Of course, when they're safely in the past, that's a help. I've used the Viet Nam antiwar movement (and the FBI's counterintelligence programs) to what I think is good effect. And even in the present day, there's no reason to put stuff off-limits, unless it breaks the glass. 

There are easy ways to lose your reader's trust. You can make an obvious mistake, with geography, or firearms, or stamp collecting. Get one thing wrong they know about, and they won't believe it when you tell them things they don't know about. Ironclad rule. And the same is true of introducing your visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. You're going back on the deal you made. Not that we agreed to provide utterly mindless entertainment, but that we promised a convincing alternative reality, proxies of our common disquiet. I once reminded a friend of mine that most people are murdered by people in their own families, a wife by her husband, for example. She said, that was why she'd rather read about Hannibal Lecter. It was vicariously frightening, instead of familiar.

I get aggravated when Steve Hunter backhands Obama. It's gratuitous. In fairness, I'm equally annoyed if John LeCarre gets on his high horse about Thatcher and the Tory legacy. In either case, they're spoiling the illusion. Sometimes it's fun to see the man behind the curtain, what Orson Welles called showing you how the model train set works, but that's a different order of things. I don't frankly care what your personal political sympathies are. I don't want to hear them. I'm with Samuel Goldwyn, if you want to send a message, use Western Union.

Let's get it out front. It can't be any mystery that my own politics are somewhere Left of Steve Hunter, if maybe on the less radical side of LeCarre. I'm a social liberal, I don't have a problem using the tax system for income redistribution, and I'm pro-Choice. I also served in the military, and own guns. Are these inconsistencies? Men in this line of work are not all alike.

I don't think our politics affect how we tell a story. Allen Drury was by all reports a fair way to the Right of Genghis Khan, but Advise and Consent is a cracking good book all the same. I think, on the other hand, that our politics have a lot to do with the stories we choose to tell. As a for instance, both T. Jefferson Parker and I have written about the present-day border wars, drugs and human traffic coming north, money and guns going south, the so-called Iron River. What's going on is deeply corrupt. Jeff Parker and I agree Mexico is a failed state, and that the U.S. is complicit, but nothing we've written about this is prescriptive. We're not telling you how to vote.

Maybe it's a matter of degree, or emphasis. Wearing your heart on your sleeve. "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." Casablanca is, in the one sense, overtly political, and on the other hand, it's intensely personal. Why, the captain asks, can't Rick go back to America? Well, for one thing, he fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side. Which makes him what used to be called a Premature Anti-Fascist. He's politically suspect. He might even be a Red. The picture takes place in late 1941, but it was made in '42, and we were already in the war by then. Rick's earlier sympathies can be forgiven. In any event, this is context. It's not what the picture's about. "Who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren't you the kind that tells?" That's what the picture's about.

We could say, then, that it comes down to story. Not a theme, or a setting, or the atmospherics of dread - be it Nazis, or Commies, or the surveillance state - but the through line. Who the characters understand themselves to be, and how they act (or choose not to act), and what the consequences are. I wouldn't call this a failure of nerve, I'd say it was knowing your lines and showing up on time. Political posturing isn't persuasive. Emotional investment is. The beating of your heart outguns the cannon fire.

The question Barb Goffman raised was about cowardice, and moral imperatives. Don't we have an obligation to speak out, at the least, against violence and hatred? And if we're silent, or indifferent, isn't that collusion? If you were a Jew in Hitler's Germany, would you fight, or hide? It's worth remembering that acts of conscience, in a lot of places, and even today, can cost you your life. We're not just talking about the Third World here, and primitive goons like Boko Haram. The First World has its own fatwas. We don't pretend we're doing it for God, or supposedly.

I don't have any prescriptive answer for this riddle, either. There are safe choices, and dangerous ones. We can all hope we'd rise to the occasion, if our courage were put to the test. But we don't really know whether we'd collaborate, to save ourselves or buy time. As for making our voices heard, I think we owe it to those other voices that are so deafeningly silenced. Just this week, a Turkish writer with German citizenship, Dogan Akhanli, was arrested in Spain on an Interpol warrant issued by the Erdogan government, requesting Akhanli's extradition. It's a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment. We forget in this country that speech isn't protected in much of the world. Dogan Akhanli has had the bad manners to write about the Armenian genocide, which in Turkey invites jail time for sedition.

Heroics aside - standing up against tyranny - we still don't seem to have decided the issue. What place do our politics have in our writing, mysteries or thrillers or any fiction at all? The key here, I guess, is the adjective 'our.' Lots of stories have a political dimension, and we could name any number of plot engines that do, from conflict diamonds to extraordinary rendition to black market transplant organs harvested from convicts. On the other hand, I'm not going to inflict my own politics on you. It's not hard to make that distinction. Don't tell people what to think. Stories are about movement. If something gets in the way of that forward motion, and makes the reader break eye contact, then it doesn't belong.



15 August 2017

Thoughts on Cowardice


This is Robert Lopresti, butting in where I don't belong with some bad news that should not wait.  We just learned that our beloved fellow blogger B.K. Stevens has passed away.  Art Taylor will be writing at length about her in this space on Friday, but I wanted to let you know.  She will be missed more than I can say.  I apologize to Barb for stepping into her space.  - RL 

Barb here: Before we get to what I wrote earlier about cowardice, let me express my shock and sadness upon Bonnie's death. I've known her for more than a decade, and she was always such a warm and welcoming presence in the mystery short-story world. To Dennis and Bonnie's family: I'm so, so sorry. And now, I guess, onto my regularly scheduled post.

by Barb Goffman

Am I a coward?

I've been sitting this morning, thinking about it. Thinking about what happened this weekend in Charlottesville.

I'm a Jewish woman. I'm not religious, but I am Jewish. And when I read some of the signs of the neo-Nazi protestors in Charlottesville, especially those condemning Jews with vile, hateful words, I cringed. I was saddened. And I was angered. And I was scared.

It reminded me of one set of my maternal great-grandparents, who were killed by the Nazis in Poland. It reminded me of my paternal grandfather, who fled the Cossacks in Russia. He escaped to America but never truly became free--I understand they haunted him in his dreams all his life.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a boyfriend back in college, nearly thirty years ago. He asked me--if we were ever put in a position to have to hide or fight from the Nazis--would I deny who I am, pretend to be otherwise to survive? I said yes. I considered myself pragmatic. He thought it cowardly. He surely would have fought, and I expect wherever he is today, he's doing his part.

Am I cowardly?

I work as a crime-fiction editor. I often tell my clients to avoid hot-button issues. Unless your character is actively involved in politics for plot purposes, why give the character political views? You'll end up turning off some potential readers. There's no upside.

That's a phrase I use a lot. There's no upside. It's why I rarely post about politics on Facebook, my preferred social-media platform. The people who agree with me on political issues don't need me to weigh in. I'd be singing to the chorus. And the people who disagree with me--I'm not going to change their minds. And since I can't stand arguing with people, I refrain.

It's gone so far that I have a short story coming out soon with a character named Don. He was named after a friend's husband, but this weekend I worried about it and emailed the editor to see if there's time to change his name to Dan. I didn't want people distracted from the story by the other Don. I didn't want to invite any comments that tied me to him.

Perhaps I am cowardly.

Perhaps I've been wrong about there being no upside to addressing political issues in fiction and in real life. Bigotry grows in darkness. It festers in corners when no one is looking and tries to infect those around it. And then, when it feels it has some strength, some backing from those in power, like now, it slithers out, surprising the rest of us who thought that way of thinking was long gone except for a very few outlying people.

So maybe I've been wrong not to post about politics more often. Maybe shining light, even among those who agree with me, will push the evil that has taken root in our country to die off, bit by bit. Maybe it would be a good idea for authors to create plots or subplots involving hot-button issues such as racism, anti-Semitism, women's rights, and gay rights. It amazes me that these are even issues in the twenty-first century, but they are. So instead of backing away from these topics, perhaps crime fiction characters should tackle them head on. Will authors who take on these issues lose some readers? Maybe. But maybe they'll gain new ones. Maybe they'll make a difference in the thinking of some of the ones they already have.

Maybe that would be worth it.

Maybe the way to not be a coward is to take just one step that's scary or risky, or both, because it's the right thing to do.

This is what I'm thinking about today. Mystery readers and writers, I welcome your thoughts.





13 January 2016

Seven Killings


A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, by the Jamaican writer Marlon James, came out in 2014, and won the Man Booker the following year. It isn't a mystery or a thriller, not exactly, but then again, neither is THE GREAT GATSBY. What it is, is a dark meditation, lit from below.

First off, we're talking about Kingston, which is of course one tough town, and we start by going back more than forty years, to December 1976 and the attempted murder of Bob Marley. In this telling, it's very much political, a war between two Kingston ganglords who've been bought off by each of the major parties, and a proxy fight over the next election. Marley's headlining a free concert, advertised as a peace overture, but widely seen as support for the government in power, and that this is a spoils system goes without saying. The police are corrupt, everybody feeds at the trough, devil take the hindmost.



"This is the first mistake God make. Time. God was a fool to create time. It's the one thing that even he run out of." SEVEN KILLINGS covers quite a lot of time, actually, but there's a disquieting sense that time is static, and inertia (or entropy) is the only gravitational force. This in spite of the attrition rate, and the turnover in senior management, with gangs cranking up the firepower, and killing each other off. It's not like we notice measurable improvement in the quality of life.


The story's told in many voices, most of them Jamaican, but a couple of outliers - the local CIA station chief, a rock groupie from Rolling Stone. One device is to have somebody speaking to us from beyond the grave, but that doesn't necessarily make them any the wiser. Each of these voices is individual, none of them are omniscient, Everybody takes it personally and nobody pulls back from the tight close-up, which is claustrophobic. Then again, it's total immersion. Like traffic slowing for an accident scene, you can't look away.

The use of dialect is supposedly a deal-breaker. So is using real people or actual historic situations in a fictional medium. The argument being that it removes a barrier, and the author's own voice intrudes, which spoils the illusion. You're being shown the mechanics, the levers and pulleys, you're made aware that the narrative isn't seamless, that in fact it's been constructed, built out of air. Both reader and writer agree to a pretense that the story has a life apart, and if the reader stubs his or her toe on the writer's building materials, it shakes their confidence. I see the point, but I don't entirely agree. It depends what kind of story you're telling. In the case of SEVEN KILLINGS, it's not so much that it depends on suspension of disbelief as that you're persuaded by the last voice you hear, and you soon realize that all the narrators are unreliable - which could mean the author's voice, as well. This is quite the tightrope walk. How the guy keeps his balance is what creates surface tension.



One other note. This isn't a novel that 'transcends' genre, whatever that's supposed to mean. It's a book that uses generic conventions in vigorous and unsettling ways. I've never really subscribed to the idea of low culture or high - most basically literate people know the difference between good stuff and crap, what Chesterton calls "printed matter." That being said, SEVEN KILLINGS is violent and coarse. There's nothing shy about the language. Women are manhandled with disturbingly commonplace contempt. The context is Darwinian. It adds up to a familiar noir world, although one which happens not to be invented. At least not for dramatic purposes, or a convenient shorthand. It's a world of brute force. If not the world most of us would choose to live in, it is the world many people have no choice but to live in. It isn't metaphor, or literary convention. There's no agreement to keep faith, or suspend disbelief. Human voices wake us.





11 June 2014

Treading Water


[I was of two minds whether to post this at all, since it's bound to piss people off on both side of the divide, but it's really more a piece about politics, than in itself political. You're welcome of course to take issue with me, but I'm not trying to tell you how to vote.]
The biggest mistake John Kerry made in his campaign for the presidency was not to slap down the Swift Boaters right away and call them out as liars. (Not that Kerry had any particular qualifications to be president, other than coveting the job since he was an underclassman at boarding school, but you could say the same about Mitt Romney.) The point is that the Swift Boat 'controversy' should never have gotten legs, but Kerry thought the story would dry up and blow away. He woefully underestimated the venom of his opponents, and the shelf life of a Big Lie.

We've been seeing a page out of a similar playbook, lately, and it's equal opportunity. Bush was roundly detested by the Left, and Obama is violently disliked by the Right. Not to rehash the rights and wrongs of going into Iraq, or the disputed failures or successes of affordable health care---I'm talking about three things that have recently dominated the news cycle: Benghazi, the VA scandal, and the prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

I might as well be clear about my sympathies. Maybe all the facts really aren't in yet, but I think Benghazi is a Republican fever dream. Of course, the real target's Hillary Clinton, and Obama's just collateral damage. The questions raised are what Ambassador Stevens was doing there in the first place, without adequate security; why CIA apparently didn't put State in the loop, that they had contractors in Benghazi; and whether the attack was mounted as a planned terror operation, not a popular demonstration that got out of hand. There's also the issue of whether air support could have been scrambled in time, but that's a non-starter. The fleet commanders in the Med say it would have taken a good two hours to get their planes in position over the target area, and without ground observers to call in fire, you wouldn't know who you were dropping ordnance on. You can research this on your own, and look at the after-action reports. The plain fact is that it was a security failure. It's not a cheap shot, either, to point out that Congress cut the State Department's budget for protective services. In other words, there's enough blame to go around, but I think that game has been pretty well exhausted, and the only purpose of a select committee is to keep the story alive, and to try and make HRC the goat.

On the other hand, the VA scandal is all too real, and a shameful lapse. It may go back to the Bush administration, but it came out on Obama's watch, so he owns it. It's unfair that Eric Shinseki had to fall on his sword, but that's how it goes. Jack Kennedy reportedly said to his CIA director Allen Dulles, after Bay of Pigs, that if this were Great Britain, and a parliamentary system, I'd have to resign. But it ain't, and your head has to roll. This is the hard fact of duty. We hang on princes' favors. Nor is Shinseki entirely blameless. The VA system is enormous. It serves eight million vets, at last count, and its budget numbers in the billions. Gen. Shinseki couldn't possibly be a hand's-on manager, but as they say in the military, you can delegate authority, but not responsibility. I have to say that my own experience with the VA health care system, here in New Mexico, at both the Santa Fe clinic and at the hospital in Albuquerque, has been first-class. I can't speak for other people, but I got timely treatment, I was respected, and there was remedial follow-up. The hospital food sucked, except for breakfast, and even then the coffee was terrible, but what do you expect?

Let's talk about Sgt, Bergdahl, though. This is the one that really gives me a cramp in my bowels. These are the facts as we know them. Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban in 2009. He was held captive for almost five years, and for much of that time, there was no proof of life. In the end, we made a deal. Him for them. Was it honorable, or honest? We got him back. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former Afghanistan commander, has said that that's the point. You don't leave a guy behind on the field. (I doubt, too, if Stan McChrystal is much of an Obama fan. The guy fired him.) What else do we know? There's been some selectively-released information, some of it from unnamed DoD sources, muddying the waters.

The most damaging charge is that Bergdahl deserted his post. Then, when his unit sent out patrols to find him, it got guys killed. The train of thought, here, leads from dereliction of duty, meaning it was his own damn fault he got picked off by the guerrillas, to the suggestion that he didn't deserve to be rescued. It wasn't worth the cost, and Bergdahl's got blood on his hands. This is pernicious. The trending storyline seems to be that if you discredit Bergdahl, then everything that followed is the fruit of a poisoned tree. We should have written him off, and anybody who advocated a recovery effort was being careless with men's lives. WTF? No responsible commanding officer or platoon sergeant in the field would sign their name to this. It would damage morale and unit cohesion, for openers, and probably end up getting you court-martialed. You don't abandon your people. It's the first rule of war.

Then there's this whole other narrative. John McCain and Nancy Pelosi – strange bedfellows, they – complain that the oversight committes weren't put in the loop. I'm sorry, but no. That's utter baloney. Trading the guys from Gitmo, and these same five guys, by the way, has been part of the conversation since late 2011. And why is McCain stepping on his dick? He's on record as supporting a trade for Bergdahl the last two-and-a-half years, and all of a sudden he claims he never did. It beggars the imagination, spreading snake oil on troubled waters.

Last but not least, the mantra that We Don't Negotiate With Terrorists. Hello? This is more hooey. Even the Israeli government, who despise Hezbollah, sat down with them to cut a deal for IDF prisoners captured in Lebanon, and released hundreds of suspected terrorists in custody to get their soldiers back. And who in fact were we negotiating with? Not the Taliban leadership, but a subset, the Haqqani network, a CIA client during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and now deeply enmeshed with Pakistan's spook shop, ISI, the very same who admitted no knowledge of Osama bin Laden's safe house in Islamabad. We've been in bed with these dirtbags for years---"I'm shocked, shocked"---and turned a blind eye to both criminal activity, like the drug traffic, and support for terrorism (India suspects ISI involvement in the Mumbai attack, for example).

What are we supposed to make of this? I guess there might be some smoking gun to the Benghazi story, although I don't believe it myself. And for sure the VA health system mess is way beyond damage control, or maybe even repair. It's a complete management failure. But fitting Bergdahl for the noose is something else again. There must be enough ways to poke a stick in Obama's eye, people who think he usurped the presidency, and he's dangerous for America, or just in over his head---not that people of a different political persuasion didn't think the same of George Bush---and I don't why I'm surprised these people have no shame, but it sticks in my craw. It's humiliating. We deserve better. Years ago, during the Red Scare of the 1950's, and the rise of Joe McCarthy, my dad remarked to a friend of his that McCarthy represented the worst product of democracy. This being liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, she said, "Isn't it terrific that it's embarrassing a Republican president?"

Makes you wonder, really, about whose ox is being gored. I think we start with the political process, and what we actually hope to accomplish by it. Politics is the art of the possible, not scorched earth. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

25 May 2014

The Rare Specimen


When I read stories in an anthology, I check mark the ones I want to reread. Looking over the table of contents of the anthology of literary crime fiction, Murder & Other Acts of Literature, I realized I had read only three of the stories and had marked only one for rereading. “By A Person Unknown,” a puzzling story by Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006). Mahfouz was the first Arab writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988). 
In the foreword, editor Michelle Slung explains why she compiled the anthology: “The most fun about compiling a book like this one is finding the stories themselves, with some tracked down like rare specimens and others hiding in plain sight.” Reading the foreword reminded me why I marked Mahfouz’s story for rereading. It is a rare specimen.
“By a Person Unknown” is a police procedural about a serial killer terrifying a community in Cairo. The only clue is the mark of a cord around the neck of each of the six victims. Unlike most serial killers, except for the mark, there is no pattern to the killer’s modus operandi. The killer “makes no distinction between old and young, rich and poor, man and woman, healthy and sick, a home, a tram, or a street.” The lack of clues takes its toll on the investigating officer who believes, “The sole accused in this case is myself,” because he cannot solve the case.
The superintendent of police, feeling that he must prevent further panic, concludes news of the murders will no longer be published because “news disappears from the world once it disappears from the press.” For him “Life must go on as usual, people must go back to feeling that life is good--and we shall not give up the investigation.”
I’m not sure if the story is about the emotional toll the investigation takes on the investigator or, considering the superintendent’s decision, Egyptian politics, especially since Mahfouz has acknowledged that most of his writings deal mainly with politics: "In all my writings, you will find politics. You may find a story which ignores love or any other subject, but not politics; it is the very axis of our thinking.”
No matter the subject, “By a Person Unknown” is a rare specimen because it has no ending , or least not a satisfactory or appropriate one. Nothing in the story suggests the killer’s identity or that he or she will be caught despite the ongoing investigation. Nevertheless I enjoyed the story, and I’ll probably continue to think about it because I’ll reread it a year from now to again puzzle over the meaning. 
After I finished the story, the first descriptive word that came to mind was ambiguous (personal or political), next absurd (a crime “has been committed without a criminal”). I’m still wondering if either of the adjectives applies.

As usual, I’m probably over-analyzing. Does meaning really matter if I enjoyed the story?

21 September 2012

To Weave a Tangled Web


E.B. White
When is a children's book not just a children's book?

When it was written by E B White.

My youngest son and I are reading Charlotte's Web. And, to be frank with you, I probably hadn't looked at the thing since I was in the 4th Grade myself.  Maybe even the 3rd Grade; I'm not sure when we read it in class.

Why address a children's book on a mystery blog?

Because I wish, now, that I'd re-read it several years ago.  There's so much to learn about writing, inside.  And, so much the book keeps reminding me about.

A Bit of a Shock

"Well, pull the book out of your backpack, little buddy, and let's take a look at it."  That's what I told my son, when he said he had to read Charlotte's Web for a school book report.

A moment later, the book was in my hands -- and I was floored!

I'd read the book as a kid.  But, it was only as an adult that the author's name lept off the cover at me.  "E B White?" I cried.  "Son!  This is written by E B White!"

As if that would mean anything to him.

My wife stared at me, too.

I stared back, mouth open, no sound coming out, except a very thin: "But . . .  It's E B White."  How could I explain? How could I make them understand about those three or four copies of Elements of Style that I'd murdered over the years -- not through book burnings or neglect, but through long, hard, rough use.  Those little white paperbacks had been literally "dog-eared to death."

I felt a bit as if I'd just learned that God, himself, had taken pen in hand to write the Mother Goose Stories.

It was a much more powerful surprise, even, than the time I bought Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! at a garage sale, only to discover it had been written by Ian Flemming.  That's right.  In case you didn't know,: the same Ian Flemming who wrote the original James Bond novels wrote  Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang!Which makes sense in the context of the book, because -- when you think about it -- Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! (the car in the book) is really a kids' version of a James Bond spy car.  And, the novel (obviously quite different from the movie) reads (IMHO) as a children's spy or mystery/suspense story.

Further: For those who think only "little old ladies" write mysteries with recipes inside, I think it might be interesting to note that my copy of the book came with a recipe for brownies on the back page. And, clearly, Ian Flemming put it there, because, when the kids eat brownies, in the novel, there is a little aside explaining where to find the recipe, so the reader can try them him/herself.

But, what gets me about Charlotte's Web has nothing to do with flying cars or brownies.

It's the Subtext

Several SS writers (myself included) have touched-on or examined differences between "literary works" and what are often referred to as "genre" works.  But, one element I don't recall seeing explored in enough depth is that of subtext, or multi-layered meaning.  This concept is very near-and-dear (let me know what you guys think of the hyphenation there) to those who love so-called "literary works", and it's one of the hallmarks critics point to, in order to determine if a work has literary merit.

I'm not talking about "Theme" here.  I'm talking about the ability of a written passage, or passages, to be understood in an entirely different way, depending on the reader's viewpoint and experiences.  On the most superficial level, the passage is an integral part of the work, and reads and functions that way: it moves the plot forward, and characters continue to grow or change.  Perhaps the reader gets a better feel for important setting details, or clues. Yet, at the same time, the passage is also open to interpretation, as a metaphor for one or more other ideas; ideas quite different from the surface action or meaning.

My son and I have only made it to Chapter 4 or 5, so far.  Wilbur the pig just recently met Charlotte the spider.  And, this is a children's book; it's simple.  Or, at least, appears to be simple.  Yet, I was surprised to find several elements that veritably screamed at me with different meanings, all in such a short span of pages.  Leave it to E B White to sew this incredibly rich subtext in such a small plot of fertile words.

  But, a person may well ask, did E B White intend us to see this subtext?  Or did he write a simple children's story and I'm loading it down with ideas that were never planted by the author?  According to the literary critics:  It doesn't matter.  The fact that a reader can view subtext -- even if that reader had to bring his own baggage along, to do so -- is what counts.  Subtext is different for each reader, the idea goes, because everyone brings his/her own experience to the table, and this is how readers interact with literature.  It's an important part of what makes Literature literary.

So, please permit me to examine a little of Charlotte's Web in these terms.

Lassie?  Or something darker?

When Wilbur temporarily escapes from the barn, for instance, the farmer lures him back into his pen with a bucket of slop while the goose screams words to the effect: "Don't fall for it!  It's the old Slop Bucket Trick!  You'll be sorry."

My son, who looks at the book through the lens of an innocent nine-year-old, sees the farmer as acting in Wilbur's best interest.  The farmer cares about the pig, and worries about him -- for Wilbur's sake. He helps Wilbur by returning him to the safety and security of the barn, and by feeding him warm food.  My son equates the farmer with the way he would see a police officer or collie dog that helped him get back to the warmth of family and home, were my son to get lost.

As a nearly-fifty-year-old, who once had the dubious honor of slaughtering a cow with a sledge hammer, and has interacted in the sometimes (though not nearly as often as Hollywood would have us believe) duplicitous world of Military Intelligence and Special Operations, I understand that the farmer's caring has less to do with helping Wilbur, than it does with not letting Christmas dinner get away on the hoof.  The farmer only cares about Wilbur, at this point, in the context of the pig's usefulness. The return to warmth and security is important because these elements are necessary if the farmer is to get the ham he plans to harvest near the holiday season. And, the slop bucket that Wilbur is lured back by, is an important part of that plan.  Thus, Wilbur is lured back to a false security by his very love for the thing that will increase the value -- in the farmer's eyes -- of Wilbur's eventual slaughter.

So, my son views this passage in terms of Lassie Come Home while I view it as something more akin to Orwell's Animal Farm, in which (if I recall correctly) the leader-pigs sell the old draft horse to the glue factory.

Is Charlotte a Capitalist  . . .  Or just industrious?

Cavatica or "Barn Spider"
Shortly after Wilbur's return to captivity, he hears a disembodied voice that promises to be his friend.  The next morning, he discovers that this voice belongs to Charlotte, the spider who built her web overhead, in the eaves of the barn.  Her full name is Charlotte A. Cavatica.

Now, I'm constantly fascinated by the thought process behind naming fictional characters, and may explore the field more fully in a later post.  In this case, however, a quick online search yielded a photo of a Cavatica spider -- otherwise known as a Barn Spider.  Thus, Charlotte's name tells the reader (and the pig, if he has internet access or a good encyclopedia at hoof) what Charlotte is.  At least on the surface.

But, what is she really?

Almost immediately after meeting Charlotte, Wilbur is horrified to watch as she sews-up a fly that got stuck in her web.  And, he's further shocked and disgusted when she tells him that she plans to suck the fly's blood.  When the little pig expresses his feelings, however, Charlotte basically tells him:  "Well you may talk.  You have your food brought to you.  But, I suffer a much more precarious existence than you do, and have to work for my food.  It may seem mean and vicious, but it's what I have to do to survive."

On the surface, a main character is introduced and we learn about her.  We also see the beginnings of Wilbur's horrified loss of innocence.  And, a key theme -- the seeming necessity to kill for nourishment -- is introduced.

Just beneath that surface, however, the two passages -- which comprise two back-to-back chapters -- can be read as a metaphor similar to The Ant and the Grasshopper.  Here, Wilbur is an ignorant version of the lazy grasshopper, in pig-form ("swine-a-morphised" perhaps??), while Charlotte is cast in the industrious ant's role (aracnimorphised? ;-). And, Charlotte is trying to explain these facts of life to a lazy (or simply ignorant) little pig.

On a third level, however, (And perhaps my earlier comparison to Animal Farm, which sprang during the reading from I know not where, contributed to this interpretation.) the two chapters can be seen as an allegory for political, social or even economic ideas.   Charlotte and Wilbur, who live in such close proximity, yet experience life in vastly different terms, may perhaps be considered to represent citizens of Capitalist nations (Charlotte), who have to fend for themselves and face the reality of quite possibly starving if they don't work hard and effectively to secure food and shelter, and citizens of Communist or Socialist nations (Wilbur), in which people tend to be more state-reliant for their sustenance

That Charlotte has to build and maintain her own web (which might, therefor, be seen as belonging to her), while Wilbur is housed and fed by an authority figure (the farmer, who clearly owns the barn and food, which  keep Wilbur alive and well), lends further credence to this view.

A right-wing reactionary might even view Wilbur's state of false-security (He's warm and happy now, but the farmer will kill him when the time is right) as being illustrative of the "evils of communism."  Wilbur has been "tricked," in this viewpoint, into surrendering his freedom for what seems like security.  Meanwhile, Charlotte is the rugged individualist who stands on her own eight legs.

A left-wing radical, on the other hand, while still viewing the selection as a comment on Capitalism vs. Communism, might note how it stresses the innocence and trusting nature of the (socialist) pig, versus the greed and callousness of the (capitalist) spider.

Two chapters in a simple children's book.  But, at least three or four different ways of looking at it.  Such a tangled web of meaning, in so few words.  Now that, to me, is Subtext.

Deconstructing a children's book may seem ludicrous on a blog that's about writing for adults. . .

But Charlotte's Web has reminded me that my favorite books are those loaded with subtext.  Books and stories that have several layers of meaning; layers I can sit back and consider, weigh and examine, long after I've finished reading.

If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that my writing suffers from a certain lack of subtext.  And, putting it in there is a tricky business -- to say the least!  I'm reminded now, however, of the importance of trying to get it in there, of trying to push the boundaries of the meaning behind the words on the paper.

We often speak of the necessity of making words carry as much work as they can -- particularly in short stories, where the space is so limited.  But, are we succeeding to the best of our abilities if we don't try to make the work of those words include creation of subtext?  I can only answer -- with a guilty "No" -- for myself.

Meanwhile, my son and I will continue to read Charlotte's Web, and we'll continue to discuss the surface context, while I gently try to get him to consider subtext as we go along.

He wants to keep reading because the little girl who rescued Wilbur from being slaughtered as a runt hasn't visited Wilbur in quite some time.  My son and I both think she'll return for a visit before the book is over.  He wants to see this happen, so he can learn why she disappeared for so long, leaving the little pig lonely and sad.

I'm nearly fifty, and I've known a lot of little girls.  I'm not surprised by her disappearance. Yet, I too, await her return -- with great anticipation. Because I want to see how both the pig and the girl have changed in the interim.

See you in two weeks!

--Dixon