15 February 2013

A Day for the Heart


by R.T. Lawton

Okay, so it's the day after Valentine's Day, which means that my turn for an article comes up one day late to land directly on the 14th, but I hope you'll allow me a little leeway here. See, Valentine's Day is my wedding anniversary, so just pretend that everything is correctly aligned. Naturally, I'm supposed to be sentimental during this holiday of the year and thus, shall we say, exposing my softer side to my significant other. One further fact to know, if all goes according to plan, she and I should be lounging in Maui for the umpteenth time even as you read this. (I strongly suspect that Kiti slipped that little clause into the fine print of our marriage contract when I wasn't looking.)

Anyway, Valentine's Day speaks of lovers, romance, flowers, chocolates, roughly anything that melts the female heart and makes it go all gooey. At this point, you, the reader, will have to reflect back into your own Valentine's Days of the past and dwell pleasurably for a couple of moments on whatever worked for you.

In my case, my wife has a little red book stashed away in the lingerie drawer of her dresser. This particular hard-bound book is filled with hand-written poems composed by yours truly whilst gripped in the all encompassing embrace of infatuation. I'm sure most of you have been in some form of that condition at one stage or another of your life. To that end, I wrote all these poems in order to win the hand and heart of my lady love, and in the process filled up every page in that little red book. And no, you can't read it.

Most of the poems are very personal and/or have meaning only to the two of us. Realize that these scribblings aren't exactly sonnets by Shakespeare. Furthermore, need I remind you that when I returned to college shortly after my twelve month tour of Southeast Asia, I took my war poems into the WSU English Department seeking further guidance along these lines and was promptly not encouraged to continue any efforts in the field of poetry. But due to persistence (some would politely suggest hard-headedness) it turns out that the heart likes what the heart likes.

As a sample of my beginning strategy in this win-the-heart endeavor, here's part of an early poem during the courtship:

Please forgive my muddled mind,
it's seldom on the path.
It's not so good in English
and even worse in math.

But as I recall the contract
or the game as it is played,
one poem for one kiss
was the bargain that we made.

*  *  (okay, skip to closing)  *  *

I have no fear about the debt
for as I can plainly see,
you are a lady on your honor
and would not a debtor be.

Oh yeah, working on getting that kiss. Okay, so you had to be there. Shelley or Byron, it's not. Probably not even as good as the first recorded Valentine poem written by Chaucer in 1382 for King Richard the Second to give to his intended bride, and that one was composed in the language of Middle English, but mine are at least a step up from the "Roses are red, Violets are blue..." category. My main point being, hey, give the love of your life some personal hand-written poetry and watch their eyes light up. Go ahead, it's not too late even if Valentine's Day was actually yesterday. It doesn't need to be a professional job, it just needs to be from you, from your heart.

Yep, you can bet I got kissed with them poems. A lot. A whole book full, you might say.

14 February 2013

References, Anyone?


by Eve Fisher

I know that you can get everything on the internet any more, but I still think it's handy to have a shelf of reference works.  I still have a big fat dictionary, a Roget's thesaurus (the on-line ones are awful), Bartlett's Quotations (the on-line ones are almost all modern), a Dictionary of Science, of Language, of Foreign Terms, of Japan, of various other things, as well as the following foreign languages:  Spanish, French, German, Gaelic, Greek (Demotic and ancient), Latin, Chinese, Japanese, and (my personal favorite) Colloquial Persian. 

There are history textbooks, of which I have shelves, and also certain history books that I consider mandatory for giving you the real flavor of a time and place (what I call time-travel for pedestrians"). 

Liza Picard has written a whole series (and I have them all) about London:  "Elizabeth's London", "Restoration London", "Dr. Johnson's London", "Victorian London." 

Judith Flanders has written many works on Victorian England, of which I have:  "Inside the Victorian home : a portrait of domestic life in Victorian England", and "Consuming passions : leisure and pleasure in Victorian Britain."   What she doesn't tell about Victorian daily life isn't worth telling.  Her most recent work - just out, which I have got on order even as I write - is "The invention of murder : how the Victorians revelled in death and detection and created modern crime."  Woo-hoo!

Speaking of every day life, there's the "Everyday Life in America Series", which includes "Every day Life in Early America," "The Reshaping of Every Day Life 1790-1840", "Victorian America", "The Uncertainty of Everyday Life 1915-1945", etc. I have them all. 


As some of you may remember, I used to teach Asian history at SDSU.  I have TONS of books on Japanese and Chinese history, and making a list of them...  Well, what do you want to know?  Let's just hit some highlights about Japan for today:

The File:Tosa Mitsuoki 001.jpgfirst thing to read is Ivan Morris' "The World of the Shining Prince", about Heian Japan, specifically the 11th century Heian Japan of the Lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of "The Tale of Genji" (Note about Genji - there are 3 good English translations, and I have them all.  I LOVE THIS BOOK.  Feel free to e-mail me any time to discuss it; it's one of my obsessions.)

"Legends of the Samurai" by Hiroaki Sato - from the 4th century to the 19th, these are the stories the samurai told about themselves, building the mythos of the samurai - slowly - over time.

"Japan Rising:  The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe 1871-1873" compiled by Kume Kunitake. See the USA and Europe through the eyes of Japanese who had never been West before - and weren't particularly impressed.  (And who foresee the need for Japan to oversee the Pacific Ocean.)

"Memories of Silk and Straw:  a Self-Portrait of Small Town Japan" by Dr. Junichi Saga - Japan before WW2.


John Gunther (1901-1970) wrote a series of "Inside" books in the 1930s and 40s which are snapshots of Europe and Asia.  I am the proud possessor of two:  "Inside Asia - 1939"; "Inside Europe - 1938".  I consider these priceless because they were written, fairly objectively, before World War II:  and not all the portraits are recognizable by today's standards, especially those of Hitler and his gang. This is BEFORE the world was willing to accept that they were crazy.  Did you know that Mussolini was considered an intellectual?  Did you know that Putzi Hanfstaengl played piano to put Hitler to sleep every night? 

Don't forget diaries.  St. Simon's diary of the Versailles under Louis XIV and Louis XV; the diary of Colonial midwife, Martha Ballard; Lady Murasaki and a host of other upscale women of Heian Japan all kept diaries, and let us never forget Sei Shonagon's "Pillow Book"; Parson Woodforde's diary of 18th century rural Britain; Samuel Pepys, of course; and any others that you can get your hands on for the period/time/place you're interested in.  WARNING:  what I've found is that reading a diary of a period/time/place I'm not particularly interested in can generate a whole new passion...

And then there are maps.  Besides collecting all this other stuff (and I didn't even get to the Chinese daily life histories, etc.) I have atlases galore, including a couple that are very old.  (One came with a church insert that explained the League of Nations, which in itself was worth the price of the book!)  I have regular atlases, an Atlas of World History, of the British Empire, of the Middle Ages, of War, of Ancient Empires, etc.  And a bunch of plain old road atlases.  If nothing else, when I'm really stuck, I can pull them out and plan my next road trip...
I'm not sure where it is, but I'm interested in going there...

13 February 2013

Herbert O. Yardley: The American Black Chamber


by David Edgerley Gates

Herbert Yardley was never a household name, but among his peers, he was almost godlike.  He was, in effect, the father of American codebreaking.  (He was also, it happens, one hell of a poker player. You do the math.)

Yardley started out as a code clerk at the State Dept., in 1912.  His first significant coup de theatre came when he intercepted a coded message to President Wilson from Wilson's close personal aide, Colonel House.  This was before America entered the European warm and House had been sent to meet the Kaiser: here was his confidential report.  On a dare, we might say, Yardley broke the encrypted traffic in two hours, and realizing just how vulnerable American diplomatic cipher systems were, he took the results to his boss.  The fuse was lit. In 1917, with America now in the war, Yardley got a commission and went to work for the War Dept., heading up MI-8, codes and ciphers, and eventually turned it into the first real U.S. cryptographic intelligence operation.  1918 found him at Versailles for the peace conference, and his shop encoded American traffic, while secretly decoding those of their Allies.  Of course, the French and the British were doing the same thing, and Yardley by this time was no innocent in duplicity.




The war over, Yardley headed home, assuming he was out of a job.  But meanwhile, Military Intelligence and the State Dept. had decided to pool their resources, and establish a full-time clandestine eavesdropping organization, with a black budget, hidden from the Comptroller General.  Yardley was given the mandate.  They were up and running by May of 1919, and in December, Yardley hit the jackpot, when he cracked the Japanese encipherment protocols, and opened up their coded military and diplomatic cables.  This was a big deal, and it gave the American negotiators at the 1921 disarmament conference an enormous advantage.  The object of the conference, between the five major naval powers, the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, was to stabilize the ratio of seapower tonnage.  Basically, each navy would agree to a limit on warships, relative to the navies of the other countries.  Japan was aggressively pursuing a higher limit for the Imperial Navy, and even at this stage, U.S. and British military strategists were disturbed by Japanese ambitions in the Pacific.  But what Japan's admirals said publicly at the negotiating table was undercut by their secret instructions from Tokyo, which conceded political realities.  Yardley, knowing his way around a game of stud poker, compared this to knowing your opponent's hole card, and in the end, the Japanese caved.  It was high-water mark for American intelligence capacities, and for Yardley, personally, who never minded the attention.

There were, however, clouds on the horizon. Wartime cable censorship was over.  Communications were supposed to be private.  Yardley, or high-ranking military surrogates, approached the major telegraph companies, and strong-armed them into continuing to supply their cable traffic.  This was, of course, completely illegal, unless you got a search warrant, and Yardley couldn't blow his cover by doing any such thing.  His operation flew under the radar.  He turned to the Signal Corps, but State spiked the idea of setting up Army listening posts. Yardley had started his operation with fifty people, and expanded with the heavy demand.  By 1929, with the Depression, his staff was down to seven, and badly demoralized, their astonishing successes forgotten.  Times had changed.  Hoover was president, now.  Yardley gambled it all on one last throw of the dice.  He went to the Secretary of War, the newly-appointed Henry Stimson, and put his chips on the table.  Here, for example, are the recent Japanese decrypts, he told Stimson.  And perhaps as a joke, or just to show off, Yardley said he could read the Vatican's private communications.  Exaggeration for effect?  We don't know.  The joke apparently fell flat.  Yardley had bet into a stronger hand.

We imagine a moment of stony silence.

Stimson then comes up with a next to legendary line, in the clandestine world.  He looks at Yardley, and says---wait for it---"Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail."  And with this, Yardley is put out to pasture, his operation dismantled, and their efforts ignored, if not disgraced.

Yardley, in his uppers, writes a book, THE AMERICAN BLACK CHAMBER.  Published in 1931, it's a sensation.  Washington hunkers down.  William Friedman, another big-time cryptologist, now chief of Codes and Ciphers, is in a fury, because Yardley's book gives up sources and methods.  He has a point, since the Japanese immediately change their encipherment programs.  Friedman won't break the Purple Code until late in WWII.  But the government can't embargo Yardley's book.  He's not in violation of any existing security laws.  And it's something Yardley's thought about.  He himself wonders if he's letting the genie out of the bottle.  But, he decides, men like Stimson have their heads in the sand.  He goes ahead with publication, in spite of his own doubts, and the ship pushes slowly back against the iceberg. Inertia bows to necessity. 

Yardley works for the Canadian government, and later the Nationalist Chinese.  He writes another book.  Suppressed, for whatever reason, by the U.S. government, but afterwards declassified.  Not exactly a victim, like Alan Turing, but sort of forgotten.  Yardley was a tireless self-promoter, a guy who never shunned the limelight, and maybe took credit for other people's labors, but for all that, he's still the man behind the curtain. 

NSA is the largest of the American intelligence agencies, dwarfing CIA.  National Reconnaissance had the bigger budget, because they put satellites in orbit, but Ft. Meade has the personnel, and the brute mainframes, and the black budget.  They can suck the air out of a room.  This is perhaps Herbert Yardley's legacy.  Not that he thought of it that way.  I doubt if he imagined a world where they can read all our mail.

He would have preferred to read all the cards.

[Many of the specifics here are taken from David Kahn's book THE CODEBREAKERS, and James Bamford's THE PUZZLE PALACE, two excellent resources.]

12 February 2013

Gone South (with Travis McGee)


by Dale C. Andrews
Sunset, Gulf Shores Alabama

    Just like last year, this month finds my wife and me transplanted from Washington, D.C. to the sunny south.  February, despite those limited number of days, is clearly the longest month in the year when spent in North Eastern climes, a fact that Boston has recently seen underscored.

    It always seemed to me that whoever made February the month with the fewest days was on to something.  Better still, it should have had 21 days – allow it three weeks and no more.  Then slip that extra week into June where it would be  appreciated instead of cursed.

    Anyway, when Pat and I retired back in 2009 we vowed to never spend February in the District of Columbia.  That is why on this “Shrove Tuesday” (or “Fat Tuesday,” as it is more popularly referred to) we find ourselves ensconced in a rented condo unit on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. 

John D. MacDonald
    As in the past I try to keep my every-other-Tuesday from becoming a travelogue simply because I am away from home.  But I also try to find inspiration in locale, and that is particularly easy to do as I look out onto the Gulf and think one state (and one shore) to the left.  What first got me thinking about the Florida Atlantic shore this year was an article by Jonathon Yardley that appeared in the Washington Post back on January 13 reporting (joyously) that virtually the entire John D. MacDonald library is being re-issued this year.  This includes all 21 of MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, each of which is being offered by Random House in brand new, handsome trade-paperback editions. 

    Two weeks ago in my article on Francis Nevin’s new Ellery Queen work The Art of Detection I quoted Mike Nevin’s observation that as a general matter “when the author dies, the work dies.”  In a similar vein, Jonathan Yardley’s article in the Washington Post noted that while
[t]he McGee novels have remained in print in mass-market editions . . .  most of the other books by this prodigiously proficient writer long ago vanished. . . .  To be sure, some characters in suspense fiction have long outlived their creators – think Lord Peter Wimsey, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe – but mostly they just fade away, a fate that surely seemed in store for Travis McGee.

What a shame that would have been.  Kurt Vonnegut once predicted that  “[t]o diggers a thousand years from now . . . the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.”

    And what has been the catalyst for this MacDonald (and McGee) revival, saving us (at least in the near term) from such excavation?  Well, according to Random House it is (counter-intuitively) the blooming e-book market.  The anticipated new appetite for e-book versions of the McDonald library is projected to be strong enough to propel new issues of e-books and paper versions as well.  So this rising tide appears to be enough to lift all boats.

    And that happily  includes the Busted Flush.  For any of you unfamiliar with the series, the Busted Flush was Travis McGee’s 52 foot houseboat, on which he resided at Slip F-18 in the Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The ship’s name is derived from the poker hand that allowed McGee to win the Busted Flush from its previous unnamed owner.

    And Travis McGee?  Well, McGee advertises himself as a “salvage consultant.”  He recovers otherwise hopelessly lost property for a fee of one-half the value.  As McGee explains it in The Deep Blue Good-by, the first volume in the series, “I like to work on pretty good sized [projects].  Expenses are heavy.  And then I can take another piece of my retirement.  Instead of retiring at sixty, I’m taking it in chunks as I go along.”  As McGee also explains, there is always a need for the services he offers.  We live, McGee notes, in “a complex culture . . . .  The more intricate our society gets, the more semi-legal ways there are to steal.”  His simple role is putting things back to right.

    What made these novels such great reads?  Well, principally the taut writing and prolific imagination of John D. MacDonald.  The books follow a formula, but a pretty wild one.  All the reader really knows is that the hero, our friend Travis, will prevail and will still be around by the last page.  This is also true of his sidekick, Meyer, an economist who lives (first) on his neighboring ship the John Maynard Keynes and later on the successor vessel, the Thorstein Veblen.  But aside from those two compadres, all bets are off, and virtually every other character struts and frets the pages in danger of extinction.   

    The success of the series also rests on the likeable shoulders of the characters MacDonald created.  Some writers leave their central character to the imagination of the readers (Ellery Queen, for example, unraveled mysteries for decades virtually un-described; Bill Pronzini’s hero doesn’t even have a name.)  By contrast, we know a huge amount about Travis McGee, including what he looks like and how he thinks..

    McGee, we are told, is a shambling brown beach bum with a 33-inch waist, who wears a size 46 long jacket, and a shirt with a 17½" neck and 34" arms.  He is likely to rail against anyone abusing the fragile ecosystem of his beloved Florida, and he wears his views on his shirt sleeve.  MacDonald, writing for the first-person narrator McGee, describes our hero’s views as follows in The Deep Blue Good-by:
 I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.
I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.
. . . .
I am also wary of all earnestness.
We get the picture.

    The Travis McGee series spanned 21 volumes, beginning in 1964 with The Deep Blue Good-by and ending in 1985 with The Lonely Silver Rain.  Each volume sported its own color.

     Rumors persisted for years that a final volume, usually titled A Black Border for McGee, had been completed and that the book would kill off McGee.  MacDonald himself alluded to the volume in several interviews, saying that it would be published following his own death.  Almost certainly no such volume was ever written, and McDonald stated in later years that he would never kill off McGee since this would create a brooding ending hanging over the heads of new readers discovering the series.  We do know, according to letters written by McDonald to Mickey Spillane and to Stephen King that at the time of MacDonald's death following heart surgery in 1986 he had completed four chapters of what was to have been the 22nd Travis McGee adventure.  MacDonald also said that the story would be in two parts, spanning twenty years, and that it would end with with McGee still very much alive but slipping the lines off the pier and moving the Busted Flush to new moorings.  The completed chapters alluded to by MacDonald have never been found.

    Since MacDonald’s death in 1986 various offers to otherwise end the series, including one from Stephen King, have been rejected by MacDonald’s heirs.  Just last year MacDonald’s son Maynard explained this decision to leave the series at the 21 volumes written by MacDonald:
[T]he offers to extend my father's work have run from a tacky, blatant, commercial knock-off to a respectful, professional postscript to his work by a true friend [i.e., King]. And between those extremes there have been many well-crafted manuscripts that were done with warm regard and sincere admiration for my old man.
As these offers and manuscripts continued, and the enthusiasm from Random House snowballed, I was forced to finally define and face my own personal resistance to the idea of a sequel.
Given that I am not immune to the money, why refuse?
It is because I have never seen a really good imitation, be it art, literature, or music, that carries that poignant echo of the original artist- as a man. Even if the work itself is excellent, there is an inevitable flatness on that most intimate level, the level where the artist reveals himself.
To me, a work of art is a souvenir of the artist. It is a reflection of his inner and outer experience. It represents who he is and where he has got to at that moment of his life. In this sense, the creative process defies copying. I enjoy my father's work immensely. Part of him is still there, present on each page. Trying to echo that by imitating it is like trying to paint like Van Gogh by cutting off an ear. It also strikes me as a question of fairness. The dead cannot answer back and I feel it is presumptuous and disrespectful to play with their work.
    As someone whose published mystery output consists solely of pastiches I have some perhaps understandable quibbles with Maynard’s view.  But hey, it’s not my decision.  So while we can expect no new McGees, we, in any event, will soon have new editions of all 21 existing McGee novels.  As for what might have eventually happened to McGee, we are left to our own musings and those of others, including Carl Hiaasen:
Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale
[P]ossibly the old houseboat is tied there still; McGee on deck, tending to fresh bruises, sipping his Boodles; watching the sun slide from the sky over Las Olas Boulevard.  Anyway, that's what I want to believe. If he's gone, I prefer not to know.
Welcome back, McGee! 

11 February 2013

Travel In Style



Jan GrapeTRAVEL IN STYLE

by Jan Grape



On most Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, I go to a nearby restaurant on Lake Marble Falls to hear live music. (That's opposed to Dead Music, which I can’t seem to ever understand because they're dead.) On Tuesday nights, it's Mike Blakely and friends singing Tex-Americana. Mike not only writes and sings his original songs, he is also an author of Western Historical fiction, and has won Spur awards for a book and also for a song. He has a new book due out early summer, written with Kenny Rogers about the music business (www.MikeBlakely.com).  

On Wednesday nights, it's john Arthur martinez (small caps on first & last name is correct). jAm was on Nashville Star a few years ago and placed second behind winner Buddy Jewel. Miranda Lambert came in third this same season. jAm sings a wonderful mix of original Tex-Mex-Americana-Blues-country-funk ( www.johnArthurmartinez.net). Anyway, another fan of the live music nights is Lenora, who happens to be a great travel agent. She set up a Texas Music Cruise with Mike and jAm on Carnival Triumph, which left Galveston last Saturday, February 2nd, and sailed to Progresso and Cozumel. The cruise was for friends, family and fans of the musicians and I signed up last summer to go. 

I drove with my cabinmate, Lottie Issacks, to Galveston last Friday as we planned to spend the night in a hotel before boarding the ship on Saturday. We followed the instructions to the hotel, which was located on Seawall Blvd, but I think we got turned around when we stopped to refill the gas tank so we ended up lost in the dark, driving around for about an hour. I mean, Seawall Blvd runs for blocks and blocks along the beach but we just couldn’t seem to find it. Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of the downtown streets were blocked off because Galveston has a mini Mardi-Gras celebration and parade. Every time we thought we could get somewhere we'd run into blocked dead-end. Finally, after passing a parked taxi the second time, we pulled over and asked the driver for directions. He hemmed and hawed and started to tell us three different times then said, "Ladies I'll have to show you, I can't direct you from here." He led us through several turns and eventually we wound up on the back parking lot of the hotel. We got checked in and into our room a 9:15 pm. We washed our faces, smoothed our hair and headed down stairs to the bar for a much needed glass of wine. We asked our server about dinner and were told that the dining room closed at 10:00. Since it was only 9:35 at this time, we did get food. The next morning, we watched the Mardi-Gras parade from our eighth floor balcony.
 
At 1:30 we hopped on the shuttle which took us to the Pier. Aboard the Carnival Triumph, we had a wonderful cabin with a balcony so we were excited about being able to watch for dolphins. This was Lottie's first cruise and at first she couldn't believe all the food was included. There were two dinning rooms that served three meals a day. If you didn't like what your ordered, say your grilled fish wasn't all that good, all you had to do was send it back and order Lasagna. Or, if your lobster tail and shrimp didn't fill you up, you could order a prime rib. And the desserts were out of this world! My favorite was the molten chocolate cake which is sort of a pudding cake with vanilla ice cream on the side. Yummy. Besides the dinning room, the aft deck had deli food, burgers & fries, hot dogs, soups, Chinese, Italian and pizza. If you were still hungry, you could order room-service 24/7. No wonder people complain about gaining weight on a cruise. 

Our musicians put on a two-hour show on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They were listed as private functions but we could invite anyone we wanted and if someone wondered in, that was okay. The music was super and everyone had a great time. 

Our first port of call was Progresso, Mexico. Lottie and I accompanied jAm and his wife, Yvonna, and we walked to the oldest restaurant in town and had a wonderful meal. We were sitting near an open window with a wonderful view of the water and beach. After lunch, we walked over to the beach and while jAm got a massage, we gals sat under a palapa and drank margaritas. A young man came along, selling silver jewelry. We each bought something and within seconds, we were set upon by people selling everything. They hit like vultures to fresh roadkill! Our next port of call was Cozumel. Since I had been there twice before, I stayed on board ship and read one of my books.

 Later, we all dressed up for formal dinner night and enjoyed a great meal. Then it was on to the casino, where I managed to win enough to keep playing for a while. That last night at sea, we experienced a rather wild storm that had the boat rocking. It wasn't enough to make us sea-sick, but it was a little scary for Lottie who said that if the first day had been like this she would have put on a life-jacket and swam back to shore! Because of the storm, our captain put the pedal to the metal and we docked two hours early at Galveston Pier Thursday morning.

To me, this is a fantastic way to travel. Even without our musicians, there's so much to do on a cruise ship: bingo, trivia, Broadway shows, comedians, magic shows, shopping, card-playing, swimming, sunning, fitness room…the list goes on and on. However, you are constantly walking while on a ship. It seems like everything I wanted to do was almost always at the other end of the boat from our cabin. Good thing, as it keeps you from gaining too much from all that wonderful food!

  Then, just tonight on the news I heard that the Carnival Triumph, the ship we were on for five days, and that put out to sea for a new cruise just hours after we disembarked, had a fire in the engine room and was adrift in the Gulf! No one was injured and all the passengers are safe but the ship will have to be towed back to Galveston. I didn't know anyone going on board the ship, but the stewards and wait persons we met and who befriended us are on board. May they all be safe. But please, don’t let that deter you from taking a cruise...it’s one of the best ways to travel.
 

10 February 2013

Spy in the Sky


by Leigh Lundin

Dones part 2: Spy in the Sky

Last week's article sparked debate both on-line and off. I hadn't planned a followup article, but from our friend Vicki comes another Hightower newsletter that addresses questions that have arisen. A couple of days later, the President announced he'd make available the legal justification for drones, presumably military UAVs. Now, a handful of officials in Washington, both liberal and conservative, are asking questions. How far can spying go?

unmanned Predator drone
Limitless, if we do nothing. Suppose your friend (because you wouldn't do such a thing), thinking her property is sacrosanct keeps a few marijuana plants in her back garden, away from prying eyes. What happens when her property's seized now that police eyes in the sky? Is this a warrantless search?

Sty in the Eye

What if a police drones sporting IR/UV capability peeked in your neighbor's house and discovered five people instead of three thought to be living there? It could mean Constitutionally protected free assembly, but it might also imply illegal aliens, a terrorist cell, or… visiting cousins from Michigan or a private prayer meeting.

Of course an armed UAV with penetrating audio capability might sort that out. Whether illegal pot grower, terrorist, teenage boyfriend, secret Christian prayer group, or someone wanting to get away from the spy machine– a drone can take them out with a variety of weapons from tear gas and tasters to live ammunition.
all-seeing eye
US Government seal

Posse Comitatus

Our military is not supposed to operate on US soil, but again, these fine points of the law have been swept under the carpet. Not counting a myriad of police agencies rushing to embrace these new gadgets, our own military has built 64 drone bases throughout our nation and the Pentagon plans to add 33% more in the next few months. Military bases, with drones, watching you.

And beware: Insect-sized nano-robots are presently flying in nano-technology laboratories. Leave a door or window open in the not-too-distant future, and they could be inside your house or your office. Singly, current weaponized capabilities are barely there, but en masse, the potential could be powerful like a swarm of bees. Recalling some of the sophisticated Soviet assassination techniques, might we some day encounter a nanobot that stings or drops a radioactive pellet in a cup of tea or glass of beer? (13:00 paragraph update to the original article)

We are supposed to have government oversight. The House Unmanned Systems Caucus, led by funded supporters of drone manufactures, doesn't view their rôle as defending individual rights. Instead, they promote "the overwhelming value of these systems." They clearly state their intent to "rapidly develop and deploy" more UAVs.
eyes
© FreeWorldAlliance

Drone of Another Sort

In other words, your congressmen have become a Chamber of Commerce for manufacturers who want to spy on you. Lobbyists forced through a law written by the industry instructing a reluctant FAA to speedily approve new drones– brainless machines sharing the same airspace as our passenger airliners. Experts calculate drones will outnumber airplanes almost five to one. If a seagull can bring down a passenger plane, what can an electronics-packed drone do?

On and On


When the misnamed US PATRIOT Acts I and II were implemented with barely a whimper within Congress, a colleague flummoxed me when he said he was happy to trade civil liberties for better security. It reminded of a line in the film Little Murders where barbed wire was going up around apartment buildings and a character approved. "We're talking about freedom," he cries.

Yes, we are, but I'm not sure our definitions are the same. I welcome other opinions.

09 February 2013

Chipping Away the Stone


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Everybody knows that Michelangelo, widely accepted as the greatest sculptor ever, explained how he created his magnificent marble statues, including the David and the Pietà, by chipping away the stone until only the form imprisoned within remained. Writers, at least those who know that every first draft needs some revision, go through a similar process.
Instead of quarrying the raw material, they create it by putting words together in a form determined by the mysterious process we call creativity. In fact, what writers initially do with words is much like what sculptors in clay do: building up one small bit at a time until a rough form is achieved.

After that, how sculptors revise a clay figure is a combination of of building, removing, and smoothing. We could say that writers do that too. But recently, after many years of writing, I think I’ve reached a new level of ability to critique my own work, and it feels more like chipping away the stone to reveal the story pared down to its essence, containing not one wasted word. At least, that’s the goal. Not being Michelangelo, I never achieve perfection. But the process feels much the same.

When I first joined Sisters in Crime’s Guppies chapter with the first draft of my first novel burning a hole in my computer, among the first pieces of advice I heard were these:
  • Don’t query agents or editors with a first draft.
  • Join a critique group.
  • Kill your darlings.
If I had followed all these dicta immediately, I might have sold my first mystery a lot sooner than I did. Or maybe it was meant to take the time it took to learn by my mistakes. I was so excited about my manuscript that I couldn’t wait to send it out, so I experienced many rejections—and got many good suggestions—before it got published in a form far different from that original first draft. I did join a critique group. I understood what “kill your darlings” meant. But for a long time, I couldn’t do it. Every clever phrase and carefully chosen word was so precious to me. How could I take any of them out, even in the interest of a tighter story? And not only my attachment to them, but also the fear that my creative well might run dry at any moment, prevented me from revising as ruthlessly as the material needed.

I know exactly when the shift took place: in 2006, during a three-week writers’ residency with Edgar-winning author SJ Rozan, who builds rather than chips (she used to be an architect) but doesn’t waste a single word. (I’ve said before that her prose is built like a brick you-know-what. Read her novels, and you’ll see.) Some time during the second week, she said, “Liz, you need to give us less, not more. Two clever lines in a paragraph are enough—three or four are too many.” I went back to my room and took another look at the manuscript I was working on. What I needed to cut leaped off the page before my eyes. I could suddenly see the difference between the shape of the story and the bits of literary marble I could chip away.

Writing short stories has accelerated my ability to chip. As a rule, the first draft is the story I need to tell, which I write without thinking about how long it’s going to be or leaving out anything that needs putting in, whether it’s plot, characterization, dialogue, or setting. Sometimes they need a lot of revision, sometimes not so much. And depending on my motivation for writing the story, eg for submission to a particular market, I may need to abbreviate a particular story. Seldom do I have to extend it. The most recent story I’ve written was on the way to becoming a first draft of 2,800 words when I realized I needed between 3,500 and 7,000 words to submit to the anthology I meant it for. But rather than continuing on and then padding, I thought through a structural improvement—three encounters between the protagonist and the antagonist instead of just one, building tension with each one—that made the story organically longer.

So just as I’m an into-the-mist writer (I hate the term “pantser”) rather than an outliner, I’m a chipper rather than a padder. I’m particularly proud of a recently published work that started life as a substandard 70,000-word novel and ended up as a tight, funny 20,000-word novella from which a lot of the adverbs and, I hope, all the preachiness had been purged. If I say so myself, that’s some chippin’!

08 February 2013

The Reins of Narration


by Dixon Hill

Perhaps you’re like me, and you sometimes find yourself wrestling with a story or novel that has developed an explosive side-tension which threatens to derail your plotline. Sometimes, this is a good thing. On other occasions, however, you may want to continue to explore the plotline you’ve already established, but can’t quite figure out how to quell the raging tension you’ve stirred up in the wrong location. If you’re like me in this way, and you’ll bear with me through what may at first appear to be a bit of meandering, I believe you’ll appreciate and enjoy learning about a discovery I recently made, which may help to address this specific type of problem.

When I think of “Narration” my mind usually leaps to two recollections before all others.

The first thing I tend to recall is the voice of John Huston when he narrated the 1982 film Cannery Row, based on John Steinbeck’s books Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. I wasn’t a Steinbeck lover back then. I’d read some of his stuff, but couldn’t seem to gain any traction. John Huston’s film narration changed all that.

Suddenly, within the deep timber of Huston’s voice, I heard what I’d been missing -- that little “twisted-lemon rind” of humor that tinges so much of Steinbeck’s work. It renders his prose in a tart life-giving flavor, the way a bit of rind or an olive enlivens certain cocktails. Thanks to John Huston, I learned to love Steinbeck, and -- odd as this may seem -- through this experience, I also came to love Hemingway.

And, for some reason, recalling John Huston’s narration always conjures memories of The Hobbit in my mind. The Hobbit is a novel written in a format that clearly mirrors the inflections of an ancient oral tradition. Read aloud, it sounds like the sort of story that’s been verbally passed from one generation to another, verbatim, so that a storyteller many generations down the line recites the words as if s/he were present and personally saw the events described as they happened.

Yes, the voice of the narrator can have a great impact on a story: setting the tone, establishing a cadence, pulling a reader in deep, or serving to hold the reader at arms length if needed.

I knew the power that a narrator can have. I believed I understood that power. As, I suspect, we all do.

However, prior to two days ago, I’d never realized how the age of a narrating character might permit a fiction author to rein-in extremely powerful – or even potentially overpowering -- aspects of a storyline.

The Lone Rider

As I’ve noted before, here, many mysteries -- both stand alone and series -- contain an element we might call the “Lone Rider”: a person (usually male) who roams the countryside seeking solace for a yearning heart.

The Lone Rider is a searcher. His past has left him emotionally scarred, or perhaps with a psychological void that he longs to fill. He’s like an anthropomorphized puzzle-piece doomed to wander about the table, looking for the spot in the puzzle where he fits -- the piece he’s designed to click into. The forever-missing piece, which could fill that hole gaping in his side.

When well-handled, the Lone Rider plotline introduces an instant sense of mystery (Who is this person and where did he come from?), a tingle of danger (Is s/he bad or good?), and an inverse sense of the “Call of the Wild” (inverse, because the protagonist is usually led by a call from his Wild or lonely existence, into Civilization and connection with fellow wo/men). In the very best case, the story achieves a transference of this “yearning feeling” from the protagonist’s heart into the reader’s.

In the series format, we usually follow the Lone Rider. Every time he spots somewhere he might fit, he stops and tries to click-in-place, but something prevents him from achieving success. These attempted fittings, and the obstacles overcome during the resulting course of events, comprise the episodes of the series. They make mighty fine reading, at times, and -- when handled well -- can result in major authorial success, such as the Reacher series.

In the stand-alone version, the reader usually meets the missing puzzle-piece element (the “set piece”) first, then the Lone Rider appears and the plot kicks-in in earnest. Because the reader often encounters the people and place where the Lone Rider is going to try to fit in, before encountering the rider himself, additional tension can be garnered -- such as sexual tension, when the reader wonders if the rider will become romantically entangled with a certain set-piece character. Overall tension may be greatly increased, as the reader tries to forecast the incoming rider’s impact on the carefully balanced little “ecosystem” already established.

I’ve read quite a few Lone Rider-type books and stories, both stand-alone and series versions, because I tend to enjoy them. But, I’d have to say that few could match, and none exceed, the one I read earlier this week: Jack Schaefer’s Shane, first published in 1949.

Shane

This is the Lone Rider’s name.

He arrives in a Wyoming valley in the summer of 1889, a valley in which farmers have staked-out and homesteaded on land claims where a large rancher used to run his cattle. The rancher has obtained a contract that will require the use of the land now occupied by the homesteaders, who don’t want to move.

This much of the plot was probably well-worn, or even worn out, by the time the novel was written.

Schaefer introduces an element, however, that charges the novel with a power surge on the quantum level. That is to say, it infuses the novel with a force that is not immediately apparent to the eye, but is none-the-less all-pervasive and even subtly dictatorial in nature.

Early on, when Shane reins-in at the Starrett homestead, to wash the trail dust of a long ride off his skin, he’s invited to stay for supper by Joe Starrett and his wife, Marian. But, the story is told neither through the voice of Joe Starrett, nor Marian -- nor even through the voice of their young son, Bob Starrett.

Instead, the narrator’s voice is that of Bob Starrett -- after he’s grown, and (one gets the idea) is perhaps now an old man -- telling us how he saw things transpire when he was a young boy. That’s important. The narrator is not a young boy, incapable of understanding why certain elements he doesn’t understand need to be brought to light, which can lead to confusion on a reader’s part. Nor is he just an adult, fully versed in the nuances of sexual desire, human greed or lust.

The genius of Schaefer’s narration, is that the old man tells us the story as he saw it, through the eyes of a young boy. This permits him to sometimes let the reader know that he, as a boy, knew there were undercurrents going on that he didn’t understand, but it relieves Schaefer of having to explain those undercurrents -- without ignoring them.

What do I mean?

Well, for one thing, this odd narrative juxtaposition results in one of the most fascinating literary experiences I’ve ever encountered: when love blossoms between two heterosexual men as they work in concert to pull a large tree stump.

Described directly, like this, it sounds ridiculous perhaps, certainly somewhat melodramatic. Yet, the scene, as written, is vital, virile, beautiful – full of sound and fury, and signifying EVERYTHING. The two men grow to love each other in the bond of friendship, as Shane comes to a personal understanding that farm work can actually provide the sort of challenge he knows that he needs in life, if he’s to enjoy living.

The scene lasts for thirteen pages. In the beginning, Shane works alone, feverishly chopping at the stump’s roots with an axe. But, soon, Joe Starrett works with him, chopping at the roots on the other side of the stump. Neither of them speaks. They just keep working like fury, sweat pouring out, axes ringing against ironwood, stopping only to sharpen their blades or to eat.

During all this, the boy, Bob, watches for awhile, then tries to go play, because – on the surface, at least – watching two men spend hours pulling a stump is tedious and boring. So, Bob wanders off. He tries pitching stones across a nearby stream, he tries to do other things. But, the hidden undercurrent of what’s taking place at the stump keeps drawing him back, magnet-like. He can’t stay away, but as a boy he can’t understand why he’s so fascinated by what’s transpiring.

The adult, narrating what he saw as a boy, however, can deftly tell us: “I simply could not grasp how they could stick at it hour after hour. It made no sense to me, why they should work so when routing out that old stump was not really so important.” And, he can describe finding his mother spying on the two men through a barn window, displaying behavior that clearly indicates she has become excited by watching them -- very probably sexually excited. And, when he describes helping his mother in the kitchen as “the steady rhythm of double blows” carries clearly to where mother and son sit, we realize her libido is very definitely aroused by the mysterious and exciting stranger who only recently appeared at their doorstep.

The boy understands none of this. The adult he has grown into, however, understands it all. And, telling the story through the eyes and ears he had as a young boy, he can render the story in a manner that makes it very clear to the reader that Mrs. Starrett is smitten with Shane, and later becomes torn between her passion for the mysterious and exciting stranger, and her love for her steadfast husband and young son -- all the while using the boy’s perception to keep a firm lid on the burgeoning psycho-sexual tension, as well as the fear and jealousy of potential cuckoldry.

And, the reader understands, as the boy does not, that it’s the love between the two men, which holds Shane in check. Shane’s philia (as the Greeks might put it) for Joe Starrett is what keeps the love triangle from possibly morphing into another dimension -- a dimension with the potential to destroy everyone involved.

All of this creates a tension so great, it could hijack the plotline, if the narrator weren’t relating the story as he experienced it when he was a young boy.

And, this is what I learned by reading Shane. Which, by the way, is a darn good story!

See you in two weeks!

--Dixon