05 March 2017

Behind Closed Doors


by Leigh Lundin

Paris — Behind Closed Doors
B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors represents another in a long series of HIM— ‘husband is monstrous’— novels, also known as HIS, HIT, HIC (husband is sociopath, toxic, cruel) etc. They’re everywhere. The last one I read (and saw as a film) was The Girl on the Train. Both were recommended by my writer/editor friend Sharon.

It comes as no surprise that half the population devour these books with glee. The key to bridging the gender gap in Women Good / Men Bad literature is whether the author can bring the bad guy convincingly to life. Therein lies the strength of Closed Doors but also its main shortcoming.

Behind Closed Doors is the story of a woman whose nightmare begins when she marries a lawyer. Bad first move of course, but matters immediately grow worse, much worse. No matter how stepfordized she becomes, her situation can never improve but only deepen and darken.

I didn’t fall easily into the story. I wrote Sharon,
“I’m finding Behind Closed Doors … well, uncomfortable. 160 pages in, I keep looking for a place to grab hold, mainly a character to really like. It’s not that I dislike the protagonist but it’s taking time to reveal her. … The writing is a bit high-schoolish with godawful word substitutions for ‘said’. One I remember was “Blah, blah, blah,” he smoothed. But I’m trusting the plot will pay off.”
Eventually it did.

The part about ‘said’ refers to speech tags, which Rob Lopresti calls unnecessary stage directions. Fancy speech tags ‘tell, not show.’ In other words, if the dialogue is strong enough, a writer shouldn’t have to sit down with a thesaurus and tell the reader what to think or feel. The rule isn’t absolute, so we’re taught if we must use supplemental speech tags, to make certain they actually mean to communicate, to pass on words through talking. ‘Frowned’ and ‘smiled’ fail that test but it didn’t stop the author from employing them.

Right about now, the author is probably sticking voodoo pins in a Leigh doll ($5.99 at the SleuthSayers store), but bear with me, our policy is to write why we like books. Besides, this is a first-time author, so getting a book out in this market is a success in itself.

After finishing the book, I wrote to Sharon again,
“The payoff in the last chapter was worth it– I really liked how Esther involved herself. The writing became stronger as it neared the end, where her internal dialogue of her fear and hope takes over as events wrap up in Thailand and she rehashes everything in her mind during the flight home.”
As I touched upon earlier, characterization proves to be the author’s weakness and great strength. Until the final fifth of the book, I found it difficult to identify with the narrator/heroine. I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t quite decide why– after all, she’s a devoted sister and a potentially loving wife. Yet one gem leapt out to bring our protagonist into focus. As an artist, she created a large painting for her fiancĂ©, literally kissing the canvas using differing shades of lipstick. That’s a lovely hint what she’s like and I wanted more. This is why I stayed with the book despite early reservations.

Behind the Door
Behind Closed Doors is another in a series of novels brought to my attention by my friend Sharon– teacher, editor, writer, my friend Steve’s inamorata. She analyzes recommendations from magazines, the Oprah Book Club, and featured reads from her local library web site. Of her choices, Gone Girl remains my favorite.
For once, I would have loved to know more about secondary characters, especially Esther, but as we discover, Esther isn’t merely a secondary character.

Unlike The Girl on the Train, the author doesn’t play around trying to fool us. From the outset, we learn this man who came into her life is one sick, well… I can’t think of a sufficiently awful word to describe him.

Paris has created one of the most evil antagonists ever, one who makes Gregory Anton / Sergius Bauer / Jack Manningham (Gaslight) seem like a maladjusted schoolboy. For someone who breaks a heart for enjoyment, there should be a special Dantean subcircle, but this fiend goes several levels worse. I reached a point I felt no ill could match what this guy deserved.

Shortly past the halfway mark, I began to see how this must end. The payoff was worth the trip. In approval, I sipped a glass of sherry, a special red from the Montilla region of Spain. Taste the story; I think you’ll like it.

04 March 2017

Let's Do the Twist



by John M. Floyd



In his book Spunk & Bite, author and publisher Arthur Plotnik says, "Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another."

How true. And what works in language/style also seems to work--at least in this case--in plots. Readers, and viewers too, like it when the story takes a sudden and unforeseen turn. Sometimes it's just a side street that eventually leads us back to the freeway, but occasionally it's a major roadblock that sends us off in a totally different direction, or even headed back the way we came.

Off-balancing act

FYI, I'm not talking specifically about surprise endings, like those in Shutter Island, Primal Fear, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Planet of the Apes, Presumed Innocent, The Usual Suspects, "The Lottery," "The Gift of the Magi," etc. The reversals I'm talking about can also occur earlier in the story.

Nobody who reads fiction (or watches movies) wants the characters to have an easy, carefree ride. We want our hero or heroine to be challenged, and not only with that initial "call to adventure." We want him or her weighted down with burdens and decisions and constantly-changing threats. And the main thing, here, is changing. Since we as human beings are always worried about changes in our own lives, we as readers are worried when characters face changes--illness, death, divorce, a new job, loss of a job, a new location, strangers who come to town, and so forth--and have to deal with them. It adds to the "uncertainty of outcome" that's such an integral piece of storytelling. This happens in all good stories, but a part of that, especially in genre fiction, is injecting twists and turns throughout the tale.


Shock treatment

I always enjoy movies and novels that contain those in-flight reversals. There are many examples, but the following stories--all of them are films and most were books as well--come to mind because they feature a sudden 180-degree switcheroo in or near Act II: A Kiss Before Dying, Psycho, L.A. Confidential, Executive Decision, Ransom, Gone Girl, Deep Blue Sea, Marathon Man, etc. And I don't mean a slight swerve off the path; I mean a clap-your-hands-over-your-mouth and bug-out-your-eyes stunner that completely changes the course of the story.

The reversals in the movie versions of Psycho and L.A. Confidential were especially memorable because--in each case--the best-known actor in the cast was unexpectedly killed in the middle of the story (early middle in Psycho, late middle in LAC). That also happened when the most famous actor in Game of Thrones bit the dust (well, his severed head did) in the final episode of the very first season. It left viewers thunderstruck, and understandably wondering what other off-the-charts events might happen, and when. If long-term tension is what you're trying to create (as a writer/director) and what you enjoy (as a reader/viewer), this is a pretty effective plot device.


It occurred to me, while I was writing this, that one definition of the word reversal is "a setback, or a change of fortune for the worse"--as in, I suppose, a deep dip in the Dow Jones--and I think that definition holds true for today's topic as well. Reversals in fiction are often for the worse, and that can help the story. More conflict, and more agony for the protagonist, means more suspense.

A sense of misdirection

Other tales that had big mid-story twists: The Maze Runner, Reservoir Dogs, The Departed, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Life of Pi, Sands of the Kalahari, A History of Violence, The Hateful 8, Blood Simple--and almost any short story by Roald Dahl and any novel by Harlan Coben. Those two authors were/are masters of the plot reversal.

With regard to endings, Lawrence Block had an interesting observation about that in his book Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. He said, "The best surprise endings don't merely surprise the reader. In addition, they force him to reevaluate everything that has preceded them, so that he views the actions and the characters in a different light and has a new perspective on all that he's read."

At the risk of repeating myself, I think the same thing applies to twists and reversals during the course of the narrative. If you're good enough, you can use reversals to keep a reader off-balance and still maintain the central storyline. The diversions, when included, should be there for a reason, and not just for shock value and entertainment. The twists should fit in and be logical, and should--ideally--make the journey more interesting to the traveler.

Questions

Do you agree? Is that something you try to do in your own writing, or look for in your reading and/or viewing? What are some of your favorite reversals in movies, novels, and stories? Can you think of some that didn't work well? Which ones surprised you the most? I think I actually spilled Coke on the people around me in the theater when Janet Leigh met her fate in the Bates Motel (that bombshell seemed to drop almost as soon as I got settled into my seat), and I choked on my popcorn when the guy pushed his date off the roof of the building in the first half of A Kiss Before Dying. I'll remember those scenes always. And that's more than I can say for a lot of the novels I've read and the movies I've seen lately.

In real life, certainty and security are comforting. In fiction, the future is always unpredictable.

Or should be.





03 March 2017

Reviewing the Reviewers


By Art Taylor

One of the courses I'm teaching this semester at George Mason University is titled "Crafting and Publishing Reviews," and we've been looking not only at the various types of reviews out there (a big difference between a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books, for example, and a three-paragraph review in Entertainment Weekly) but also at the longer history of reviewing and the larger landscape of questions about how reviews are read and how they should be written. I've been fortunate to contribute reviews to a number of publications over the years, including the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene, just as a sampling, and I've been grateful during this course to welcome the voices of even more experienced critics into the classroom via Google Hangouts, including Washington Post critic Ron Charles and freelance critic Mark Athitakis so far; next week, we'll host Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books to talk about book blogging and book advocacy, and more guests are on the syllabus ahead.

This past Wednesday's class was focused on the ethics of reviewing, and I'll share links to some of that reading here (click on the titles to reach the articles):


I'm not sure how the nuanced and troubling the students found the readings (the view from my side of the class discussion likely much different from their view), but I was struck by many of the conflicts and even contradictions in different viewpoints.

The column on John Updike's rules champions the "role social responsibility of the critic" by building on E.B. White's call for writers to "life people up, not lower them down." A couple of the columns stressed the need for fairness in reviewing—not only in terms of being fair to the book being reviewed by specifically by avoiding conflicts of interest in several directions: reviewers shouldn't be friends with the authors they're reviewing, nor should they be enemies, perhaps for obvious reasons.

And yet in contrast, there are concerns that too much politeness might lead, in Julavits' words, to "dreckish handholding" and a "trumpeting of mediocrity," and Shafer said more frankly, "The point of a book review isn't to review worthy books fairly, it's to publish good pieces"—and he pointed to the "British model" of assigning "lively-but-conflicted writers" to create greater tension (and perhaps draw more readers).

Perhaps most interesting to my mind was the idea of how to approach a book in the first place. An earlier reading from our syllabus—Lynne Sharon Schwartz's "The Making of a Reviewer" from the collection Book Reviewing, edited by Sylvia E. Kamerman—championed the idea of treating a new book as a "strange new geological treasure" to be judged for "its intrinsic, living qualities" (a contrast to what Schwartz called "negative criticism," the idea of appraising a book "on the basis of what it has failed to accomplish, with these failings usually derived from the critic's own notion of how he or she would have handled the subject"). In Julavits' essay, however, New Yorker critic James Wood is praised for his "idealism": 

Wood is peevish, even occasionally mean, but never snarky. He is perpetually disappointed with “us,” (if you’re a writer, even one he’s never written about, you cannot help but feel you’ve let him down)—which is certainly better than being too jaded to be much more than dismissively irritated, too disdainful of fiction to do much more than toss clichĂ©d disparagements around... and call it criticism. Wood makes people hopping mad, yes, but despite his grumbly excoriations there’s usually room for a dialogue with Woods, which indicates there’s something to wrangle over, i.e., his claims are based on a strongly-held (and felt) belief system, and he’s an intellectual, which means he likes to be forced to defend that belief system. 

Approach a new book with some naivete or innocence? or with the full force of your belief system behind you? 

I recognize that not all readers here are reviewers, but we are indeed readers—and I'm curious how you approach a new novel. Filled with expectations and armed with standards? Or willing to see where the author might take you? Or can there be overlap between those approaches? 




02 March 2017

"L'Etat, C'est Moi"


by Eve Fisher

Louis XIV of France.jpg
Louis XIV, in his glory
Years ago, I used to teach a class on the Age of Louis XIV, which basically became a class on the man himself.  He may or may not have said "L'etat, c'est moi" ("I am the state), but he certainly lived it.  He was the first, and greatest, of the absolute monarchs of post-Reformation Europe, and during much of his 72 year reign, if someone - anywhere in Europe, not just France - said something about "the King", it was assumed they meant Louis.

Louis XIV (1638-1715) became king when he was five years old.  Of course, they didn't let him actually rule at that age - he had a minister, Cardinal Mazarin.  (Suspected by some of being his mother's lover and/or husband.  But not by me:  Anne of Austria was a true European aristocrat, who would sooner have eaten merde as have anything physical to do with a jumped-up Italian.)  Mazarin, according to Louis XIV, kept him living in poverty, barely educated.  It could be true.
NOTE:  Children, even royal children, weren't as prized back in the day as they are now. Classic example, Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Perigord, the eldest son of his house, who was put out to nurse in the countryside for his first few years.  He returned lame.  His parents then made his younger brother the heir, and put our boy into the Church, where he became the most dissolute, loose-living, atheistic Bishop of Autun since...  who knows when. (Eventually, he joined the French Revolution, managed to switch sides with such persistent effectiveness that he survived everything, from the Reign of Terror to Napoleon to the Bourbon Restoration...)  
SECOND NOTE:  Louis XIV's only sibling, his younger brother Philippe, who was universally called Monsieur, had a VERY interesting upbringing.  He was deliberately raised to be a homosexual, or at the very least a transvestite; his mother and her ladies encouraged him to dress up in women's clothing, make-up, jewelry and hairstyles.  He was deliberately kept from any formal education other than the 3 r's, and any knowledge of statecraft.  All of these were so that he'd never be a rival for his brother.  The result was a man who was bisexual, surprisingly martial, and through his two marriages, became the "grandfather of Europe", ancestor of every Roman Catholic royal house in Europe.  You never know...
Back to Louis, who would have been infuriated by that digression.  Louis' childhood influenced him in many ways, but it was the Fronde (1648-1653) that created his ruling style.  The Fronde was a multiplicity of rebellions that had no order, rhyme, or reason to any of it.  Of, by, and for the nobility, the Fronde's goal was to return to the good old days when a nobleman could rule his lands and provinces as a petty king, with absolute power.  And there had been no jumped-up clergymen (Richelieu and Mazarin) to try and make them knuckle under to some Bourbon king.
NOTE:  Part of the problem was that in class-ridden pre-modern Europe, the Bourbons weren't that old a family.  One of Louis' mistresses, Madame de Montespan, often bragged to his face that her family, the House of Rochechouart was MUCH older than his, and it was.  Hers went back to the 800s; his only to the 1200s.  
Episode of the Fronde at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine by the Walls of the Bastille.png
Episode of the Fronde at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine by the Walls of the Bastille
(i.e., when the royal family had to flee Paris.  See below)
The Fronde failed, because they really had no goal, no organization, no leadership, and kept bickering.  But Louis would never forget it.  At one point the Fronde made the whole royal family flee Paris, which was probably THE major humiliation of Louis' life.  He decided that the nobility was untrustworthy, Paris was rotten, and came up with the following maxims of government:
  • The nobility will have no role in government at all.
  • All non-military government roles, positions, and titles will be given to the bourgeoisie (that way, Louis can fire them whenever he wants).
  • Parlement's only role will be to rubber-stamp his decisions.
  • Paris can rot.
  • He, Louis XIV, will rule personally, absolutely, with no prime minister, all his life.
Nobody believed any of this.  For one thing, Louis, who was always a master of etiquette, waited politely until after Mazarin's death in 1661 to take the reins of power.  And by then there had been 50 years of Prime Ministers ruling France while the kings played.  Louis played, and he played hard - but he also did exactly what he said he would.

And the key to doing that, successfully, was:
  • to appoint good bourgeois officers (Jean-Baptist Colbert, Comptroller-General; Michel le Tellier, and his son, Louvois, both Ministers of War and Chancellor, among others).  
  • to personally work like a horse, non-stop, day in and day out
  • to distract the nobility with endless perks, entertainment, prizes, all dependent upon HIS favor. 
Welcome to Versailles.  


Versailles was the old hunting lodge of Louis XIII, 12 miles south of Paris.  Louis XIV loved it, despite the fact that it was in the middle of a swamp.  He had it remodeled - in fact, it was being remodeled for his entire reign, and some say that the construction is still on-going - and announced, early on, that Versailles was the seat of government.  If you wanted to be close to the king (and who didn't?) you went to Versailles.  And everyone who could went.

Louis de Rouvroy duc de Saint-Simon.jpg
The Duc de Saint-Simon
It was a desperately uncomfortable place to live.  It was so huge that people could and did get lost in it; only the extremely important people - Louis, his Queen, his mistresses, his endless children, and Monsieur and his wife and children - had beautiful apartments.  Most people were crammed into very small rooms, often without windows.  The Duc de Saint-Simon, the most celebrated diarist of the period, had three small rooms, one looking out the stables (which stank), the other two of which were the size of walk-in closets without have windows.  And these were considered the best suite in Versailles.

But things were different then.  Comfort, so important to us today, was held in contempt.  The mark of a man of quality was "indifference to heat, cold, hunger and thirst."  Magnificence was the order of the day. The nobility lived in chateaus that were drafty, cold, smoky, and reeked of human and animal waste (there was no indoor plumbing).  But the rooms looked beautiful.  The nobility wore velvets and satins and brocades in summer as well as winter, and the clothes always stank because they couldn't be washed, and people generally stank because they didn't bathe, just kept pouring on the perfume.  Louis himself just got rubbed down with scented alcohol every day.  But by God they looked marvelous.

Versailles almost bankrupted Paris.  Louis never went there.  He frowned on any nobility who went there.  When the court needed a change of air, they went to Fontainebleau and Marly.  Paris was ignored.  For decades.  But their revenge would come in 1789...

Versailles almost bankrupted Louis (although he never admitted it, and burned the receipts)...

Versailles bankrupted the nobility.
  • Living at Versailles meant, for one thing, that the country estates (and in France, being noble meant you had a large country estate that supplied you with an income) were managed by someone else, who certainly wasn't going to send you all the money.  
  • The King expected his nobles to be well-dressed, and the velvets, silks, and satins, with gold and silver embroidery did not come cheap.  And he expected to see new outfits for weddings, births, Feast Days, parties, etc.  The Duc de Saint-Simon spent 800 louis d'or for new outfits for himself and his wife for the Duc de Bourgogne's wedding - that was equivalent of $96,000.00 in today's money.  
  • While much of the constant entertainment at Versailles was free (watching Louis was the major entertainment, from his morning rub to his official coucher with the Queen), including hunting, music, plays, concerts, dances, and the usual amount of drink, drugs, and sex (all right, sometimes more than the usual amount) there was also gambling almost every night.  They played vingt-et-un, which is blackjack, as well as roulette and dice.  (The King preferred billiards.  He generally won.) The stakes could run exceedingly high:  Madame de Montespan (of the excellent bloodline) lost 3 million francs in one evening.  
  • You have to have servants, sedans, dogs, horses, hunting equipment, stable rent, bribes, and... let's put it this way, books of the day said that a single man of wealth and nobility should have at least 36 servants, 30 horses, etc....  Of course, if you married, expenses doubled, and if you had children...  
So how did the nobility afford all this?  They went into debt.  And when they were broke, they ran to Louis, who was usually happy to help them out with a little something, enough to keep them in Versailles.  He kept them poor and completely dependent on him and his favor.  And his favor wasn't given to anyone who wasn't regularly at Versailles, waiting on him, watching him, being present.

And Louis was always present.  How he lived his life I do not know.  Louis spent his entire day, from 7:45 a.m. to midnight, in public.  (We know where he was every second of every day, because he followed a time-table as rigid as that of a German railroad.)  He had an iron constitution, an iron will, an iron work ethic, and he was always on stage.  He was never alone, even when he was sleeping, using the toilet or having sex. Not only was someone there, there were a lot of people there, perhaps discreetly looking away. (Probably not.)  This was rule by King as rock star, the first total celebrity, the first reality TV show. To see him, to be seen by him, to watch him eat, drink, dress, dance, walk, ride, hunt, etc., was everyone's obsession.  And it was considered as much of an honor, if not more, to attend him while he was using the bathroom as when he was holding full court.
NOTE:  To show how great the obsession with Louis was - and how tough a bird he was - in 1686, he underwent an operation, without anesthesia, on an anal fistula.  In public.  Amazingly, he survived. Even more amazingly, a huge number of nobles went to the doctor to be checked to see if they had an anal fistula, and those who did boasted about it!  Now THAT's toadying.  
Portrait sculpture of 18th  C.
French peasants, by
artist George S. Stuart
Museum of Ventura County
Louis had a few weaknesses.  Women.  Food.  (He ate like a horse.)  But his chief weakness was the pursuit of personal glory (la gloire) through building (Versailles, Marly), personal magnificence (clothing, furniture, jewels, etc.), his court's constant magnificence, and on war.  Endless war.

In case you're wondering, this was an age in which it was assumed, by everyone, that government had nothing to do with and no obligations towards the common people (peasants and artisans, who made up 95% of the population, along with a smattering of merchants), other than to collect taxes from them.  The wealthy paid no taxes at all.  Neither did the Church.  The peasants paid for everything.  They got nothing.  Any improvements, in roads, bridges, canals, etc., were paid for either by the goodness of the local lord or a whim on the part of the king.  There were no social services, no pensions, no health care, nothing.  Peasants worked until they dropped, and then died. Government was there to support the king, the nobility, the Church, and to wage war.

William of Orange defeating
Louis XIV at Naarden
And war was expensive, then as now.  Louis XIV fought many wars because everyone knew that that was what powerful kings did:  fight and win wars.  The trouble is, none of them were winnable, none of them mattered, and Louis himself was a lousy general.  He didn't get anything out of them except a tremendous load of debt, a couple of minor victories, and a lot of dead soldiers.  He fought three wars alone trying to conquer the Netherlands.  He lost every time, and only succeeded in making William of Orange, the prince of the Netherlands, his enemy for life. When William became king of England in 1689 (William was married to Mary, daughter of James II of England, who was booted out during the Glorious Revolution to make room for her - history is so messy...)  Anyway, when William became King of England, it meant that England and France would be at almost perpetual war (simmering or boiling) for the next 150 years.  Including a couple that involved the American Colonies, The Nine Years War a/k/a King Williams' War (1689-1697), and the War of the Spanish Succession a/k/a Queen Anne's War (1701-1714).

Louis succeeded in what he wanted to do.  He kept the nobility powerless and he kept himself absolute monarch for 72 years.  But he almost destroyed France in the process.  He came to the throne of the most powerful, most populous, most wealthy country in Europe, and left it in debt, surrounded by enemies, crippled by a tax system that, depending as it did entirely on the poor, was so bad that in, 70 years, it would spark a revolution.

Much the same results came from all the absolute monarchs of the 17th and 18th centuries - endless wars, fighting over and over and over again over the same territories, bankrupting entire countries, and leading, finally, to the almost constant revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries.  The pursuit of war and glory - by leaders who cannot be told "No" - and its results can be summed up by Thomas Gray:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
                - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1751



01 March 2017

Breaking into Showbiz


by Robert Lopresti


Usually I put a picture of myself at the top of this piece, figuring you should suffer in order to read my wisdom.  However, that is not me over there.  It is Charlie, who likes to sit on the desk between me and the screen.  He decided to co-author this piece, sort of.

Years ago  I saw an artwork by Robert Rauschenberg entitled ERASED de KOONING DRAWING, which was just what it sounded like.

And such is the case here, with me playing de Kooning and Charlie as Rauschenberg.  (You get to decide which is the bigger stretch.)

See, after I had poured hours of research into this piece and done most of the writing Charlie stuck his paw on my keyboard and erased it.  (Blogger is unforgiving about some things, as all of us SleuthSayers know.)    I put it back together as best I can.  When you go to Heaven perhaps St. Peter will let you read the Platonic ideal of this blog entry. Unless, of course, St. Charlie gets there first.


Today I am offering a quiz of a type I haven't seen before. I am going to give you a list of familiar characters from popular culture.  (You may not know all of them, but trust me, most will ring a bell.)  The question is: How did each of them start out?   The answer is, in one or more of the categories you see on the left.

Here is an example, not on the list below: Zorro originated in a short story by Johnston McCulley. See how easy?

One warning: Some of those categories on the left might get used more than once, or not at all.  Okay.  Go!

Rosie the Riveter.

Smokey Bear.

Harley Quinn.

Arthur Dent.

Topper.

Boba Fett.

Ma and Pa Kettle.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The Cisco Kid.

John Henry.

Dr. John H. Watson

Made up your mind?  Here are the answers.

http://groundedparents.com/2015/05/08/a-fond-farewell-to-rosie-the-riveter/
Grounded Parents page
Rosie the Riveter.  Song.  The iconic symbol of women in the World War II war effort originated in a song created by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb in 1942.   The image most associated with her during the war was an illustration by Norman Rockwell, cheekily based on Michaelangelo's portrait of Isaiah.  The illustration we associate with Rosie now ("We Can Do It!") was created by J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse factories, and didn't get its Rosie connection for decades.

Smokey Bear. Advertisement.  A lot of people think Smokey started with the black bear cub rescued after a fire in the Lincoln National Forest in 1950.  But the cub was named in honor of the Forest Service symbol who first appeared in ads in 1944.  By the way, the real-life bear lived to old age in the National Zoo and was so popular he had his own zip code (20252).

Harley Quinn. Television.  In the Batman universe Harley Quinn was a psychologist who tried to shrink the Joker.  She went nuts and wound up as his sometimes lover/sometimes enemy. She was the only character who made the jump from the animated TV series to the comic book.  Her portrayal by Margot Robbie was generally considered a highlight of the unloved movie Suicide Squad and is supposedly scheduled for another flick this year.

Arthur Dent.  Radio.  Poor confused Arthur Dent has wandered  throughout the universe (usually in a bathrobe) in a multitude of media but Douglas Adams' brilliant Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy started on the radio. It then became a series of wonderful novels, a clever TV show, and a dreadful movie.

Topper.  Novel. Cosmo Topper was the mild-mannered bank clerk who bought a car possessed by the ghosts of the Kirby's, a fun-loving, hard-drinking couple who dedicate their afterlives to making Topper's life more exciting, whether he wants excitement or not.  Before it became a movie and a TV series (with the wonderful Leo G. Carroll in the title role) Topper was a novel by Thorne Smith.  If Hollywood paid Smith fairly for all the ideas they cribbed from him, his descendants would be heating their mansions by burning thousand dollar bills, just to keep them from cluttering up the place up.

Boba Fett. Parade or Television.  Boba Fett, the iconic bounty hunter from the Star Wars movies, right?  A lot of people know that.  Some fans know he appeared earlier in the legendarily-despised Star Wars Holiday Special.  But two months earlier he marched, with Darth Vader, at the San Anselmo County Fair Parade.  Why?  Well, Lucasflm was headquartered at San Anselmo back then.  

Ma and Pa Kettle.  Real Life or Memoir or Novel.  You tell me.  In 1945 Betty MacDonald published The Egg and I, a comic memoir of life on a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula.  Among the characters were the disreputable Kettle family, a lazy and not-too-bright couple with many children.  The movie version was a hit and the Kettles were so popular that they were spun off into a series of popular comedies.

Later the Bishop family, ex-neighbors of MacDonald, sued her, claiming that the Kettles were based on them and they had been libeled.  They settled out of court but when they sued the publisher MacDonald testified and swore she had made the whole thing up. Okay, she said the characters in the book were all composites, not based on real individuals. The jury believed her, or  maybe they didn't care for the plaintiffs, and found in her favor.  So: Memoir or Novel?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Advertisement.  Robert L. May created the ninth reindeer for an ad for Montgomery Ward in 1939.  A decade later May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote the famous song, growing a number one hit for Gene Autry, and a permanent part of our holiday culture.

The Cisco Kid.  
Short StoryThe idea for this blog entry came when I read this piece in Dear Rich, a wonderful advice column about intellectual property issues.  Turns out the Cisco Kid originated in a story by O. Henry of all people.  In "The Caballero's Way," he was an American outlaw, and a nasty one at that.    By the second movie (1928) he was a Mexican good guy.

By the way, Dear Rich concludes that Cisco is in the public domain but his sidekick, Pancho, is still under copyright.

John Henry.  Real Life.  Most scholars seem to agree that the song (songs, really) about John Henry were based on an African-American prisoner working on a railroad tunnel after the Civil War.  (They have reasonable doubts about the steam drill contest, however.)  The problem is they disagree as to which tunnel was involved, with major candidates in Alabama, Virginia, and West Virginia.  I lean toward the Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, because I have read Steel Drivin' Man, by Scott Reynolds Nelson.  His choice was a resident in the state prison with the right name, although he was a slim young man from my home state of New Jersey. Nelson provides one convincing bit of evidence:  Some of the old versions of the ballad say that the hero was buried at the White House, which sounds like the craziest of fantasies.  However, see the postcard of the Virginia Penitentiary?  That white building in the middle was the work house and when they tore it down they found 300 skeletons in unmarked graves, just outside.  They realy did bury prisoners at the white house.

The ballad of John Henry became very popular during the left-leaning folk revival of the 1950s as a metaphor for the noble worker battling soulless automation, but the early songs about him written by and for African-Americans mostly had a different message: Don't let the bastards work you to death.  Tom Smothers spoke truer than he knew when he summed up the song as follows: "Dumb smart alec.  Thought he could beat a steel drill."

Dr. John H. Watson. Novel.  Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. Didn't you know that?

28 February 2017

Best New TV Show of the 2016-17 TV Season


by Barb Goffman

There are a lot of new TV shows this year, and while I haven't seen them all, I am staking my claim here and now: NBC's Timeless is the best new TV show of this season. And I am not alone in this belief.

What is Timeless? It's hard to believe I need to pose this question, but I know I do. Not everyone has heard of, much less seen, this great show.

Timeless is an hour-long drama involving time travel. (Don't stop reading if you don't like sci fi. This is worth it!) The show begins with a so-called bad guy, Garcia Flynn (played by Goran Visnijic), stealing a newly invented time machine and going into the past to change history so he can keep his late wife and children from being murdered. For reasons that are explained as the season goes on, Flynn's quest requires killing a number of famous people in the past in an attempt to stop a powerful secret organization called Rittenhouse, which aims to change the past to control the future. The government has a second time machine, and it sends a team of three to follow Flynn each time he jumps, trying to stop him from hurting people and changing the past.


Each episode showcases different famous historical times and figures. The main "good guy" is Lucy Preston (played by Abigail Spencer), a whip-smart historian. Her backup, Wyatt Logan (played by Matt Lanter), is a military guy with his own reasons to want to change the past. Rounding out their trio is Rufus Carlin (played by Malcolm Barrett), also super smart, who is a scientist and the only one who knows how to drive the time machine.

I heard someone ask if Timeless is a reinvented Quantum Leap. That's a big no. Nothing against Quantum Leap, but that show from the 1980s was highly episodic; it didn't have the overarching storyline that ties every episode of Timeless together.

So what makes Timeless so great? Let's count the ways. I interviewed a few friends who love the show, and I'll share their and my thoughts below.

Time Travel

First of all, time travel is interesting and cool and fun. You just have to say time travel, and I'm intrigued. But so many time travel shows follow what fans of Star Trek might know as the Temporal Prime Directive: don't change the past; don't tell anyone in the past about the future or else it may be changed. In Timeless, the good guys believe in the concept of the Temporal Prime Directive (though they don't use that name), but they don't succeed in following it, and that has interesting ramifications. Imagine if the Hindenburg didn't catch fire, as happened in the pilot. Or if Eliot Ness didn't get to take down Al Capone. And imagine if changing these events in the past changed the personal lives of our main characters in the present. Lucy returns from the past in the pilot episode to find that the sister she's had all her life has now never existed. She's determined to change the past again to bring her sister back.

"I was kind of meh on the first episode," author Janet Halpin said. "But when they actually changed history with no do-over (the Hindenburg lands, no fire!), I was all in."

Fan Michaela Shannon-Sank agreed. "I love Timeless! It's a classic time travel plot with a twist--when things are changed in the past, they stay changed in the present. I was at first confused about it. Like, really? They're seriously rewriting history? The Hindenburg? But it works, and it works well."

One reason it works well is the show's writers really know how to draw the viewer in. This isn't a show just for people who like time travel. It's a show for people who like history and complex characters and romance and angst. Yep, it has it all.

History

As the good guys follow Flynn into the past, they go from one historical episode to another, giving viewers a glimpse into the past--the people, the dress, the limitations, and the real history (until it gets changed). Thinking about the Al Capone episode, author Sherry Harris said, "I've learned something new in every episode. Al Capone had an estranged brother who was a cop? Wow!"

Friend Meghan Gray agreed. "The dramatization of historical events is what we are enjoying. Particular favorites are the Lone Ranger and the NASA plots." In the latter, the characters travel to Houston, Texas, in 1969 and interact with African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson. "I love that they are putting people who have been erased from these stories back into the narrative," Gray said.

Even the characters get excited by history--learning it and participating in it. Lucy goes all fangirl when she meets Abraham Lincoln and his son. In another episode Rufus is excited to learn that the Lone Ranger was black (as he is). When the trio team up with the Lone Ranger (identified as Bass Reeves), Rufus excitedly says to Wyatt, "We are in a posse with the Lone Ranger!" And when they all team up with Eliot Ness, Rufus says quietly, "We are so the Untouchables right now." The show has pop culture references weaving throughout the episodes that add an extra element of fun.

Complex Characters

But the show is more than fun. It has complex characters, which in turn results in angst and big questions. Wyatt is a soldier. He is trained to follow orders and do the right thing, but he is compelled to try to change the past when the opportunity presents itself. His wife was murdered a few years back, and he'd do anything to fix it, no matter the cost. It's a good way to encourage the audience to consider if the ends really can justify the means.

Rufus's race figures into several of the episodes. In the pilot, he's not too keen to start on these adventures, saying, "I am black. There is literally no place in American history that'll be awesome for me." Harris remembered watching that scene with her daughter, Elizabeth, and said that Rufus's take on time travel was Elizabeth's favorite part. "It really puts things into perspective for both of us," Harris said.

But it's not just the good guys who are conflicted. In another episode, Flynn goes back to the beginning of the Rittenhouse conspiracy, during the Revolutionary War. He could save the future, he believes, by killing a certain child. He'd hate to do it, but he would. In the meanwhile, Lucy has come to believe Flynn is right--but she won't let him take that drastic step. We see Flynn struggle throughout the episodes. In one, he sits in church for hours, seeking absolution. In other episodes, he tries to show Lucy how the people she works for aren't really all that good after all and he's not a bad guy. Rather, he's trying to right history, not ruin it.

"I love that the lines start getting blurred between saving history/doing what's right/self-interest," said fan Abby Fabian. "I also love the character Flynn, because even though he is the 'bad guy,' he's also a 'good guy,' which can make things confusing for Lucy, Rufus, and Wyatt."

"I don't know about anybody else," Shannon-Sank said, "but I completely sympathize with Garcia [[Flynn]] and would be actively helping him. Except for his killing so many people."

Of course.

"As a writer," Harris added, "I admire how much I care about the characters. I root for them, feel sad with them, and get scared for them. I hate the villains and every week I can't wait for the next episode. It's what every writer hopes they can do in their own writing."

Love and Romance

For those who love a little love in their stories, don't worry. Timeless has this too. We see characters risk their lives for others who they love or grow to love--friends and family. We see sparks growing between Lucy and Wyatt. We see romance bloom between Rufus and Jiya, a computer programmer with whom he works. And as a bonus for the viewer, all these actors are "easy on the eyes," as Harris said.

But perhaps the thing that stands out the most to those of us who loved history in school is that the star of this story is Lucy, a woman who is the brains of every episode, who figures out what Flynn is up to each time he jumps, who knows the history in an instant, and who can figure out how to try to save the future by saving the past. Perhaps Halpin said it best: "a freaking HISTORIAN is the one who saves the day."

What's Next?

I'm thinking about Timeless as I write this on Monday night because it should be on at 10 p.m. Eastern time. That's it's normal time. But the show had its season finale last week. Yep, that's pretty early in the TV season. Timeless is on the bubble, I understand. And NBC needs a push to keep it on. That's where we come in. If you love this show, join the Facebook Timeless page. Every follower pumps up the show's credentials. And tweet about it too. Tell NBC to #savetimeless. And if you haven't seen it yet, you can stream the entire season. It's well worth your time. Every viewer helps.


Shannon-Sank summed things up well, saying the show "is so well written and acted and I hope so hard that it gets renewed and lasts for many, many seasons. I mean, they have a lot of things to set straight."

If you love Timeless, please share your favorite parts in the comments. Maybe someone at NBC will read this. #SaveTimeless!

27 February 2017

Lockhart Texas Book Club


by Jan Grape

This past Friday, the 24th I was invited by my Sister-in Crimes friend, of over 20 years Janet Christian, to be the guest of honor at the Irving Book Club in Lockhart, Texas. The Irving Book Club, named after Washington Irving is the second oldest according to the Federation of Women's clubs, formed in 1896.  Lockhart is known as the BBQ capitol of TX but, that is disputed by several other Texas towns. Lockhart is also one of Austin's bedroom communities, thirty miles south and slightly east. Since I live 45 miles west and slightly north, it was a 78 mile drive one-way. (I know that's 3 miles short but I'm going by map mileage here and not actual driven miles.)

The book club meets in the Dr. Eugene Clark Library which has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating library in the state, founded in 1899. The members of the club brought finger foods including desserts, everything homemade. Many of the members wear hats and you are immediately reminded of the hats on display at the Kentucky derby. I have a Cowgirl hat and a black and a red hat that are sort of fedoras, Private-Eye style but, the weather was too hot for any of those.  I searched my closet shelves and found a lovely hat box with three hats inside that I had forgotten about. The hatbox and the hats I had inherited from my bonus mom and the one I picked was a black mini-pill box hat with a veil. It more or less sits right on the top of your head. You can pull the veil down but that didn't work for me. I pulled the veil to the back and only a small part shows on front and side.

I had fun talking about how I first starting writing and sold my first short story for $100 and how I'm so glad I didn't quit my day job because I didn't sell anything else for 5 years. Also how I was writing a female private-eye novel that never sold but, I sold probably 12-15 short stories with the characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn and likely made more with those that I ever would have with the novel.

Also told about how I took Citizen's Police Academy Training that was offered by the Austin Police Department which was set up to help folks who were interested in being part of the Neighborhood Watch Program. I applied for the program and was accepted. It was set up once a week for three hours, meeting for ten weeks and you learned a lot about each department of APD. Homicide, Robbery, Fraud, Firearms, and we got to ride along for a full shift in a patrol car with an officer. That's when I realized that every single call the police answered could turn-out to be dangerous. This was in the early 90s when police officers weren't being slain very often...at least not in Austin.

One fun thing after the ten weeks training we could join the Alumni Association and we could go out to the academy where the cadets were training and got to role-play and be a bad guy. Once I played a lady who had a warrant out for her arrest. The training officer who was watching the role-play had told me when the female cadet arrested me he wanted me to be rude to her, call her names and try do things to make her angry. The idea being that each cadet needed to learn to deal with a belligerent public and he wanted to see how she'd react. So when the cadet put the handcuffs on me, I cursed her up one side and down the other. I called her every name in the book. The only time in my life I got to cuss out a cop and get away with it. Then I told her the handcuffs were too tight. She finally loosened them one notch. Then put me in the squad car. I have small hand and wrists so I was able to slip the cuffs off. When they came to let me out of the police car I handed the cuffs to them. The cadets were not supposed to talk to each other but they did. All the remainder of the day, cadets put the handcuffs on so tight that everyone would have been mad at me if they had known it was my fault.

My next story was how while I was taking the Citizen's Police Academy training this woman named Zoe Barrow started talking to me in my head. Voices in my head happens to me all the time and the astonishing thing is no one calls the men in the little white coats to come after me. Zoe (rhymes with Joe) turned out to be an Austin Police woman and is the main character in my first book, Austin City Blue. In my second novel, Dark Blue Death the first chapter is almost word for word of a role-play scene out at the Academy. I was in a vehicle with a Training Officer and two cadets were out side. One on the driver's side and one on the passenger side...my side. They both stood back a bit from the vehicle. I could see the driver side cadet in the rear view mirror. When the training officer was asked for her name and phone number, she gave her name and then her phone number as 1-800-GOODSEX.  I could see the cadet trying to contain his laughter and almost choking.

The training officer had suggested I get out of the car and see what the cadet on my side would do. I opened the door and started to get out, the cadet says, "Ma'am, please stop. Police get back in the car. Please ma'am." I said, "I have to go to the bathroom." She said, "Ma'am, you must get back into the car." I said, "I'm pregnant. If you don't let me go now, I'll pee all over this car seat." Like I said, the ladies of the Book Club were so attentive and laughed in all the right places. They asked interesting questions and everyone told me afterward how much they enjoyed my talk.

These events are a lot of fun for me and you get inspired because people who love to read are there listening to you. I LOVE READERS  


26 February 2017

Paint It Black


by R.T. Lawton


Last November, I received an e-mail invitation to write a story for one of those noir anthologies named after a city or an area. You know the ones, Brooklyn Noir, Seattle Noir, etc. Anyway, this one will be titled Rocky Mountain Noir and will be edited by Laureen P. Cantwell who also edited Memphis Noir. Naturally, I was pleased and even flattered to be invited to submit a story to this anthology, knowing that an invite is almost a guarantee of having one's story accepted as opposed to submitting a manuscript in reply to a general call for submissions and ending up in a vast slush pile.

One small problem on my side.

In the past, I had written biker stories, children's stories, historical stories, comedy capers, traditional mysteries, horror, sci-fi..,,and some other stuff. But, I had never written anything in the noir genre. Where to start?


Fortunately for me, at one of our monthly MWA meetings several months ago, an author gave a presentation on noir. And, I had taken notes during that meeting, even though I had no intentions at that time of doing anything in the noir genre.

In short, here's what the notes contained:
 ~ it is an amoral world
 ~ it's about sex and greed and violence
 ~ the protagonist is always flawed, a loser with great humanity
 ~ the plot may be where nothing is as it seems
 ~ the ending may be a twist that no one saw
                                                                                        coming
And, my favorite, the part that stayed in my mind: In epics, the hero falls from the heavens, but in noir, he falls from the curb.

There was also a suggestion that we should read "The Simple Art of Murder" essay by Raymond Chandler. Okay, so I did that.

Further research on Wikipedia showed that noir "is a literary genre closely related to hardboiled genre with a distinction that the protagonist is not a detective, but instead a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator." The website goes on to say that the protagonist has self-destructive qualities and is opposed by a corrupt system which puts him in a no win position.

Surprisingly, there are now sub categories of noir. For instance,Mediterranean Noir where the cities of the Mediterranean are looked upon as broken and distorted by crime. In this sub category, authors explore the duality of local foods, fine wines, close friendship, warm skies, blue seas and joyous living against a backdrop of greed, violence and the abuse of power.

There is also Urban Noir, where the story is set in the underbelly of various large cities or certain areas vulnerable to crime. Akashic Books has published several of these, and is the proposed publisher for the noir anthology from which I received the invitation. At this point, my story submission is finished. Now, it's up to Akashic Books to accept the proposal and for the editor to accept my submission.

If the proposal or the story acceptance goes bad--hey, noir is French for black--then I can always submit the story to AHMM or EQMM.

Either way, wish me luck.

Never say die.

Oh, wait a minute, in noir everything goes wrong and the protagonist usually does die.

Damn.


POST SCRIPT ~ How little did I know that the last five paragraphs would turn out to be prophetic. Seems I wrote an e-mail to the editor in late January inquiring if she would like to receive my story in advance of the proposed schedule. Her reply e-mail said the project died aborning. Akashic Books did not accept the proposal at this time. Maybe sometime in the future. In which case, I'm off to remove some of the sex and violence from the original manuscript to see if EQMM or AHMM will find the story a home.

PPS ~ As of 02/16/17, the time of this article's final editing, the story will have been at EQMM for twenty days. Their usual rejection turnaround is about two weeks, but then Janet Hutchings, the editor, may be busy elsewhere.

Catch ya later, as I'll be gone when this is posted.

25 February 2017

Know the Rules You’re Breaking (THE most controversial post you’ll see from me)


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

The rules, the rules…

Always, in my Crafting a Novel college class, beginning students are alarmed to find out there are rules to writing.

I’m not keen on rules in general. After all, I became a writer so I could thumb my nose at reality, right? Control the world of my fiction in a way I can’t control my real life.

All that said (and I could make a blog post out of just that line above) there ARE rules to writing. A bunch of middle-aged guys behind a baize door didn’t make them up for no reason (double negative – Ha! Rule-breaker, you.)

The rules are there for a reason. They’re all about logic. Here are two that are perhaps least understood. Let me make this clear:  You don’t have to follow them (more on that later.) But you do need to know them first, so that you know when you are breaking them. Here goes:

Present Tense:

This isn’t a rule. It’s more about savvy marketing. Most novels are written in past tense. Did you ever wonder why?

The trouble with present tense is it defies logic. If what I am reading is happening NOW, then how did it get written down on this page?

Approximately 60% of people (stats from a publisher) have trouble with this. Big trouble. I’m one of them. Our brains can’t accept it. Every time I hit a present tense verb, I’m thrown out of the manuscript. My reading is disrupted every paragraph. Ergo, I will not read present tense books.

Some students tell me they like to write in present tense because to them it ‘feels more immediate.’ (The classic way to do that is by increasing tension, I subtly remind.)

Here’s what I tell students: if you are writing your first genre novel, it might be wiser not to write it in present tense. Publishers know that present tense reduces the potential market because of morons like me who can’t read it. Why put another obstacle in the way of getting published?

(Publisher story: one popular YA dystopian fantasy novel was written and published in present tense. The publisher instructed her to write the second book of the trilogy in past tense.)

First Person Viewpoint Switches:

Many, many people don’t know the rules to first person viewpoint. So here goes:

The rules of writing in first person are simple: The protagonist becomes the narrator. As a writer, you make a promise to the reader. The person telling you the story is telling their story to you directly. No third party writing it. You are in her head.

I love first person. I *become* the protagonist, when reading or writing first person. But first person has huge limitations for the writer: the person telling the story must be in every scene. Otherwise, they won’t know what is going on in that scene (unless you employ a second person to run back and forth, telling the protagonist. Note the use of the word ‘tell.’ Telling is ho-hum. You won’t want to do that often.)

If your story is in first person, you can’t be switching to another character’s viewpoint. Ever. Nope, not even another viewpoint in first person. Why? Because your reader thinks this: “What the poop is happening here? The book started in first person. The protagonist is supposed to be telling the story. Now someone else is telling it. What happened to my beloved protagonist? Are the original protagonist and writer number two sitting next to each other at twin desks writing the story at the same time and passing it back and forth?”

In a phrase, you’ve broken your promise to the reader.

The rule is simple. If you need to write the story in more than one viewpoint in order to show every scene, then write the whole novel in third person. That's the advantage of third person, and why we use it. You can use multiple viewpoints.

One additional first person restriction: if your protagonist is telling the story directly, then he can’t die at the end of the story. This should be obvious: if he died, who wrote the darn thing?

Should you break the rules?

If you want to break the rules, have at it. You can write what you want. That’s the delight of being an author.

But in my class, you will hear this: The rules are there for a reason. Of course you can break the rules, but if you do, you will lose something (usually reader continuity and engagement.) It’s up to you to decide if you gain more by breaking the rules than you lose by doing so. BUT: If you break them in your first novel, publishers (and savvy readers) will think you don’t KNOW the rules.

So at least go in knowing the rules. And then do what you damn well please.

Final words: Don’t publish too soon. Take the time to learn your craft. And then…be fearless.

24 February 2017

Cat's lunch


by
O'Neil De Noux

The explosion outside sent my inside cats scrambling out of the room. I knew what it was because the generator kicked on automatically and the lights flickered back on. Transformer. No damage to my computer. Laptop wasn't plugged in. It was midday and the summer air thick with humidity, clinging to my face as I stepped outside and over to the light pole.

inside cats

A whiff of white smoke rose from the gray metal transformer atop the pole and I punched 911 into my cell phone, told the emergency dispatcher the transformer may be on fire and gave the intersection of the light pole and the twelve digit number on the pole and waited.

A fire engine crawled up, red lights flashing but no siren and two firefighters in orange uniforms climbed out, shielding their eyes to the sun as they looked up at the transformer. They declared no immediate danger but would stay around until the electric company repair truck showed up. Twelve minutes later a white truck pulled up and a woman in blue work clothes stepped out, greeted me and the firefighters. She looked up at the transformer, nodded and reached into the back of her truck for a long yellow pole. She lengthened the pole, pulling out extensions until the ten-foot pole was long enough to reach the top of the transformer.

She maneuvered the hook at the end of the pole to the transformer and that's when I saw the woodpecker. One of the pretty ones with a bright red head and throat, while belly and black feathers along its back and tail. The woodpecker was frozen in electric death above the transformer. It had pecked the conductor atop the transformer until the conductor struck back. The hook of the pole lifted the woodpecker off and it tumbled to the grass.



I moved to it, saw the feathers were ruffled, feathers normally neatly alighed as the pretty bird fluttered through my neighborhood. The feathers stuck out like porcupine quills and the bird's skull lay cracked open.

As the electrical worker positioned her truck so she could climb into the bucket of its cherry-picker to rise and replace the conductor, I asked the firefighters if they had a glove and one gave me a rubber surgical glove. I worked the glove onto my left hand and picked up the woodpecker, took it to the side door of my house and laid it on the concrete driveway next to my wife's bright red car. As I walked back to the telephone pole, I spied one of the feral cats we feed to keep the urban rodent population down as it came out from under my raised house to sniff the dead bird. This was a gray cat, one of the big onces. A male. He didn't seem interested in the bird and turned away. A black and white cat, thin, a young female, darted from under the red car, snatched up the dead woodpecker and took it under the house.

 outside cat on fence

Fifty-one minutes after the explosion the electricty was restored to the area, my generator kicking off. The fire engine crept away and I thanked the electric worker who took her truck to the next call. I moved to go back inside and spotted the black and white cat just under the house, her yellow eyes watching me as she gnawed the woodpecker's breast.

I looked up, shielding my eyes from the sun and thought - if one death was due today, I was glad it was the woodpecker, although it was a lovely bird. Somewhere in that sky my wife was in a silver jet, flying to visit her mother. If God, or the devil, or fate or whoever was due a death, let it be the woodpecker because everything dies. I thought of the heart surgery I survived a few years ago as I stepped back into my house and wondered if something else died the day the doctors saved me. Most likely.

Back at my computer, I picked up where I left off in the novel I was writing before the woodpecker interrupted me. Only I could not envision the characters or the scene. I saw the red-headed woodpecker fluttering low to the ground, passing from one tree to another and felt sad. Damn transformer. Damn humans with our endless contraptions.

But the sadness was short lived because I remembered the hungry yellow eyes of the cat as she had her lunch.



This was a true story

www.oneildenoux.net


23 February 2017

In The House of Sick


by Brian Thornton

Now ain't that a catchy title?

It narrowly beat out such colorful runners-up as "The Vomit Wheel," and "It's Thursday, So This Must Be Bronchitis."

This is not what I'm talking about when I say it's time to "Sell the Buick."

In other words, Casa Thornton has seemed more like Casa Enferma lately.

And by "lately," I mean, "Since September."

And what happened in September to get this party started?

You guessed it.

My four year-old started preschool!

And for those of you in the audience who are kid-free (whether by choice or nature, no judgements either way!), that sound you just heard was every parent reading this (all three of them!*rimshot*) saying collectively, "Oh yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh..."

And it's not this type of "Technicolor Yawn"!

Our pediatrician referred to preschool as an opportunity for our child to "build immunity," since he's an only child, and although he has cousins and other kids he plays with, it's not the same as having a sibling at home to help double his exposure to germs that bring maladies such as cold, flu, pneumonia, and bronchitis.

And since we share this home with our child, we get exposed, too. I don't have to draw you a picture for you to visualize what that has been like, do I?

Since September we've had all of the above. Some of them several times (our son has had pneumonia and my wife and I have had bronchitis. We've all had multiple colds and several rounds of several different types of the flu.).
And this? NOT what I mean by "Instant Bootcamp."
What's worse than getting sick yourself?

Witnessing your little boy or girl getting sick.

What's worse than that?

Trying to nurse your sick kid back to health while you've been flat-on-your-back-sick too.

Anyway, we finally all got the flu shot, and that seems to have helped with the colds, and the illnesses that follow in their collective wake. Over the last month, we've stopped playing such fun Cold and Flu Season games as Musical Snot, and Cold, Cold, Who's Got The Cold?

Which left us all down with the stomach flu this past weekend.

But!

(And I knock wood as I type this)

We are all feeling much better now!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don't have a more substantive blog post for you this rotation!

Tune in in two weeks' time for an interview with a very funny man of many hats, comedian, DJ, and crime fiction Bill Fitzhugh!

22 February 2017

Walking the Plank


David Edgerley Gates


I'd like to preface this post by saying it's not meant to be partisan. I'm not taking sides. Everybody's got an axe to grind, but let's check our grudges at the door.


The recent resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor is what started me thinking. More than one train of thought, as it happens. Let's review the bidding, in case you don't know what happened. Flynn was in Trump's kitchen cabinet, and it was no secret he was in line for a red hat. What laid him low, before the paint was even dry, is that he'd had inappropriate contacts with the Russians while Obama's crew, although they were hanging up their cleats, still had the duty watch. They were in fact announcing sanctions against Moscow at the same time that Flynn, through a back channel to the Russian ambassador, was saying they were shooting blanks - once his guy was in office, any sanctions would be rolled back.

Now, first off, this runs counter to good manners, common sense, and longstanding convention, when a new team is relieving an old one. It's also a violation of federal law, the Logan Act. Unauthorized civilians don't make U.S. foreign policy. Period. Another curious thing is that Flynn apparently did it on his own, without telling anybody else. You might find this hard to credit, but you have to look at Flynn's back story. This isn't someone with a modest opinion of himself. On the other hand, there are a fair share of people who didn't think he walked on water, no. The best guess is that he was showboating, or a little too persuaded of his own self-importance.

Here's where I'm coming from. An intelligence professional's job is to give the best possible advice, based on the available evidence. Are your sources credible? What's the collateral? Does the narrative add up? You don't cut and paste the facts to fit a convenient fiction. Bush 43 was ill-served by his Director of Central Intelligence because George Tenet massaged the message. You have to be ready to contradict the received wisdom, or fixed ideas. The problem being, if you keep blowing your nose on the curtains, pretty soon they'll stop inviting you for drinks and dinner.

There's a further corollary. When things go south, which they do more often than not, a good soldier falls on his sword. It's attached to the pay grade. Jack Kennedy famously said to his DCI Allen Dulles, after Bay of Pigs, that if we had a parliamentary system, then he, Kennedy, would have to resign, but the way things were, it was Dulles whose head was going to roll. Presidents don't like being caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

It's important to remember that when you take a job close to the president, you only have the one client. What's called in the intelligence world a consumer. In this case, and I've said this before, you can't be distracted. You have no other constituency. It doesn't matter that State, or Defense, or Homeland Security, or whoever, may have competing interests. You keep your ear to the ground, for sure, but you don't dilute your brand. You are owned. You protect your principal, at whatever cost to yourself.

The other thing I want to say about this episode is that people sign on to government service for any number of reasons, including preferment, connections, expediency, and money, but sometimes they simply choose to serve. Michael Flynn was career military, 33 years. Whatever his politics or his personal ambition, he understood duty. Duty not as an abstract, or background noise, but duty defined as an obligation to something outside ourselves, something larger than our own parochial concerns. I'm probably beating a dead horse here, but this is where my real disappointment kicks in. Michael Flynn had a responsibility, to something larger than his private benefit, and he dropped the ball. Not to mention, I'm kind of taking it personally. The guy wanted to feather his own nest, okay, there's enough of that going around. But why did he have to give the rest of us a bad name? Flynn sold his honor cheap.