17 December 2021

Annual Tradition: A Very Tom Waits Christmas

 Every year, since about 2006 or so, I've always posted a riff on Tom Waits around Christmas time, supposedly from the point of view of one of the reindeer. I've posted it here at least once, and since next Friday is Christmas Eve...

Well, here we are.


By Jim Winter

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
Christmas Eve was dark, and the snow fell like cocaine off some politician’s coffee table
Rudolph looked to the sky. He had a shiny nose, but it was from too much vodka
He said, “Boys, it’s gonna be a rough one this year.”

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
The elves scrambled to pack up the last of the lumps of coal for deserving suburban brats
And a bottle of Jamie for some forgotten soul whose wife just left him
Santa’s like that. He’s been there.
Oh, he still loves Mrs. Claus, a spent piece of used sleigh trash who
Makes good vodka martnis, knows when to keep her mouth shut
But it’s the lonlieness, the lonliness only Santa knows

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And the workshop reeks of too much peppermint
The candy canes all have the names of prostitutes
And Santa stands there, breathing in the lonliness
The lonliness that creeps out of the main house
And out through the stables
Sometimes it follows the big guy down the chimneys
Wraps itself around your tannenbaum and sleeps in your hat

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
We all line up for the annual ride
I’m behind Vixen, who’s showin’ her age these days
She has a certain tiredness that comes with being the only girl on the team
Ah, there’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix
She’s got a tear drop tattooed under her eye now, one for every year Dancer’s away

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh and
I asked myself, “That elf. What’s he building in there?”
He has no elf friends, no elf children
What’s he building in there?
He doesn’t make toys like the other elves
I heard he used to work for Halliburton,
And he’s got an ex-wife in someplace called Santa Claus, Pennsylvania
But what’s he building in there?
We got a right to know.

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And we’re off
Off into the night
Watching the world burn below
All chimney red and Halloween orange

I’ve seen it all
I’ve seen it all
Every Christmas Eve, I’ve seen it all
There’s nothing sadder than landing on a roof in a town with no cheer.

16 December 2021

My Brain on Old Movies

Notes from my brain as I rewatched Otto Preminger's Laura:

My God, look how young Vincent Price was in 1944. This was nine years before he began his career in horror movies. Otherwise he'd never have gotten the 4 year gig on radio as The Saint.  But I have to say when I was young I read my way through a stack of Charteris' The Saint novels, and Price's was certainly not the voice I ever imagined for that British swash-buckler.  (You can listen to the episodes  HERE.)  Meanwhile, Price's Shelby is tall and soft and definitely a gigolo, which makes the idea that Gene Tierney's [breathtakingly beautiful] Laura would fall for him a real problem. Judith Anderson's Ann Treadwell (Laura's aunt) is more understandable, although I think they should have had Agnes Moorehead reprise her role as Emily Hawkins in Since You Went Away. She would have eaten Shelby alive, purring the whole time.

Musing: Agnes Moorehead is the main reason to watch Since You Went Away, because I find the movie pretty saccharine, not to mention trite, melodramatic, and I get tired of watching Claudette Colbert only being filmed from one angle. Oh, and I keep waiting for Jane to run into one of the posts as she runs after Bill's departing train. They spoofed that in some movie, but I can't remember which one.

BTW, Dana Andrews (Detective McPherson) and Gene Tierney had real chemistry.  I looked it up, and they ended up doing 5 movies together - Tobacco Road, Belle Starr, Laura, The Iron Curtain, and Where The Sidewalk Ends. BTW, my favorite Dana Andrews movie is The Best Years of Our Lives.

And my favorite comment about him comes from Radio Days, where all the kids are down at the Rockaway shore and talking about their favorite actresses:

Young Joe's Friend #1: My favorite is Rita Hayworth.

Young Joe's Friend #2: I like Betty Grable.

Young Joe's Friend #3: I like Dana Andrews.

Young Joe's Friend #2: Are you kidding? Dana Andrews is a man.

Young Joe's Friend #3: She is? (IMDB)

And I'm always happy to see Clifton Webb. 

He alternated between character actor and leads, nominated 3 times for an Academy Award - Laura, Sitting Pretty, and The Razor's Edge - and deservedly won it for The Razor's Edge (and if you've never seen it, watch it - Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney are the leads.)  He also played Frank Galbraith in Cheaper by the Dozen (with Myrna Loy as his wife), and his character, Mr. Belvedere (in Sitting Pretty and Mr. Belvedere Goes to College) was the model for Mr. Peabody in my favorite cartoon series of all time, Rocky & Bullwinkle.  

Excuse me while I wallow in nostalgia:  Mr. Peabody, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, Boris Badenov, Natasha & Fearless Leader, Fractured Fairytales, Aesop & Son, Bullwinkle's Corner & Mr. Know-It-All...  

And Myrna Loy was also Frederic March's loyal wife in The Best Years of Our Lives, which brings us back to Dana Andrews, and back to Gene Tierney:

Very beautiful, with great range. Watch Laura, and then watch her Oscar nominated performance in Leave Her to Heaven and The Razor's Edge. Great success, interrupted more than once by tragedy.  Manic-depressive before anyone knew what that really was, and the shock treatments made her lose much of her memory.  And of course, hers was the source of the tragedy in Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd:  her daughter, Daria, was born deaf and mentally disabled, because a fan broke a rubella quarantine and infected the pregnant Tierney while she volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen.



Otto Preminger was a great director. Here are the ones (besides Laura) that I remember watching a long, long time ago:

The Man With the Golden Arm 
Bonjour Tristesse
Anatomy of a Murder
Advise and Consent
Bunny Lake is Missing (this one will twist your head off)
Hurry Sundown (Michael Caine in one of his many appalling American accents, but otherwise, like all of these, very educational for a young girl/teen in the 1960s…)

Oh, and can anyone point me to where I can find a maid like Bessie Clary, Fidelia (Since You Went Away), Matilda (The Bishop's Wife), etc., etc., etc.?  

Oh, damn - the movie's over. What's up next?  
The Bishop's Wife, or The Man Who Came to Dinner?  
Monty Woolley's in both, 
        and Bette Davis is in The Man Who Came to Dinner
               and she starred with Humphrey Bogart in Dark Victory
                       and Bogart starred with Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray in We're No Angels...


15 December 2021

Ngrams, or How to Be Groovy in 1864.

 Let's get a bit convoluted, shall we? Last month on the Short Mystery Fiction Society* list Judy Penz Sheluk pointed to a blog piece she wrote about a webinar Iona Whishaw gave.  Her subject was Ngrams.  According to Wikipedia "an n-gram (sometimes also called Q-gram) is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sample of text or speech."

And what the hell does that mean, you may ask. Take a look at the diagram below.  This is an ngram of Google books showing how often the terms crime fiction, detective fiction, mystery fiction, and noir fiction showed up in each year.  More accurately, it indicates what percentage of pairs of words published in a given year consists of the pair you are looking for.  So detective fiction was the most popular term until 2011 when crime fiction surpassed it.  I would have guessed that happened decades earlier.

Pretty cool?  But wait: we are just starting.  Not visible at the bottom of the screen is the fact that you can look up all the books (magazines, law codes, etc.) that contain your phrase in a given year or time period.

If you are writing historical fiction you have just acquired an amazing new tool, thanks to Sheluk and Wishaw.

 I wrote a story earlier this year set in 1967 and I used the word groovy.  So let's see how that word does in the ngram world.  The diagram below shows the word was very popular in 1967, although it peaked in 1970.

But wait - why do we see that huge jump around 2010?  A quick click on the 2009-2011 button reveals a programming language called Groovy. And sure enough, if we make the ngram case sensitive Groovy becomes briefly more popular than its lower case sibling.

But I learned something even weirder. Groovy was being used long before the flower children's parents were even born. I found this quotation from the Saturday Review, January 1864: "For a groovy parent trains a groovy child, and the groovy child must be father of a groovy man."

How hip those Victorian English dudes were, you may be saying. Alas, the anonymous writer did not mean it as a compliment. He was talking about being stuck in a rut, thinking inside the box. Very much not groovy.

I am also writing a story set in 1959 and one of the characters is socially awkward, has certain verbal tics, and can do amazing mathematical feats in his head. Today most of us amateur diagnosticians would say "he's on the autistic spectrum." But would anyone have used that term sixty years ago? We can go to ngrams again, but this reveals a weakness of the tool.

Because when I search for uses before 1960 I find publications that supposedly have that date, but were really published later.  There is a 1992 edition, for example, of a psychiatric manual which was first published in the 1950s, and Google Books can't spot the difference.  There is a similar problem with journals that were founded a long time ago.  (HathiTrust, another great free tool for historical sources, suffers from the same limitation.)

On the other hand... A few weeks ago Leigh wrote a fascinating piece here about words and concepts that started in the 1980s.  His source claimed that "eggs benedict" wasn't given that name until 1984.  Google Books Ngrams quickly found it in a  the Hotel St. Francis Cookbook, 1919 edition.

And now I'm hungry.  But before I head to the fridge, much thanks to Judy Penz Sheluk and Iona Wishaw for pointing out this cool tool.  You can play around with the Google Books ngram viewer here.

*I am the Society's current president and I hereby invite you to join.  It's free but new memberships are not accepted between January 1- May 1, so hop to it here.

14 December 2021

One Way or Another: Anthology Types

Although there are some minor variations, editors of anthologies of original fiction find content in three primary ways:

Michael's first

Open Call. An open-call anthology is one for which anyone may submit.

Limited Open Call. A limited-open-call anthology is one for which only a limited number of people may submit, and how many writers are included in the limited call can vary from a few dozen to several hundred. For example, various Sisters in Crime chapters produce anthologies that allow submissions only from chapter members.

Invitation Only. An invitation-only anthology is one for which only writers who have been specifically invited may submit.

There are hybrid forms as well:

Invitation Only/Open Call Mix. The Bouchercon anthologies and several anthologies I’ve seen promoted via Kickstarter campaigns combine invitation-only, by which they acquire stories from a handful of well-known authors, and open-call, by which they acquire the balance of the content.

Invitation Only/Limited Open Call Mix. The Mystery Writers of America anthologies acquire a few stories via invitation and then have a limited open call for the balance of the content. In this case, the call is limited to MWA members.


Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, and anthology editors must weigh the pros and cons of each when deciding how to approach any particular project.

Open Call. An open-call anthology has the potential to attract contributors unknown to the editor, and those contributors might be talented and have a unique approach to the anthology’s theme that results in great stories.

The downside is that a widely announced anthology with an appealing theme might attract a great number of submissions of wildly variable quality and appropriateness, potentially overwhelming the editor.

Limited Open Call. The advantages and disadvantages of a limited-open-call anthology are quite dependent on which writers are included in the call. Limiting the call to writers with whom the editor has previously worked will likely result in submitted stories that meet or exceed the requirements, and it may prove difficult to narrow the selections.

On the flip side, the quality of submissions to a limited open call where the submission pool is defined by membership in a particular organization may be quite variable depending on the organization and, because the editor may not be able to seek submissions outside the defined pool, may require the editor to do more work bringing all the accepted stories up to snuff.

Invitation Only. From an editor’s standpoint, this may be the best way to assemble an anthology. By inviting only writers with whom the editor has previously worked and/or writers the editor admires, it almost guarantees that every submission will be appropriate. Almost.

The downside is that inevitably one or more of the invitees fails to deliver, and if the editor hasn’t planned ahead, this can lead to some last-minute scrambling to complete and deliver the project to the publisher on time.


I edited five open-call anthologies for Wildside Press and Betancourt & Company in the early 2000s and then spent several years randomly pitching anthology concepts that, at best, received “We like this, but” responses and, at worst, were completely ignored.

I returned to anthology editing in February 2017 when Down & Out Books greenlit The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (2019). I’ve since edited and co-edited nine more (if I include the two due out later this month), and I’m in the process of editing or co-editing four due out in 2022, four tentatively due out in 2023, and one that does not yet have a release date because it does not yet have a publisher.

I have used all three methods (and some hybrid methods) to create these anthologies.

The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019) was an open-call anthology, though there was one exception. During a conversation at Bouchercon in Toronto I mentioned a specific historical event in Texas that I was surprised no writer had used in a story. That conversation turned into an invitation when the writer I was speaking with said he could use that event in a story.

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 (Down & Out Books, 2020) was an Invitation Only/Open Call Mix. I invited four writers to submit and three of them did; the balance of the content came via open call. Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 2 (Down & Out Books, 2021), which was officially released yesterday, and MF3 (scheduled for 2022) were both open call. I recently released a limited open call for MF4 and have not yet decided if I’m going to switch to an open call.

Jukes & Tonks (Down & Out Books, 2021), co-edited with Gary Phillips, was invitation only. We each wrote a story and invited five other writers, for a total of twelve contributors. I don’t know how Gary chose his five, but my five were all writers with whom I had previously worked, that I knew could deliver what I wanted to see when I wanted to see it, and who I thought had at least a passing familiarity with the anthology’s theme.

Guns + Tacos (Down & Out Books), a serial novella anthology series co-created and co-edited with Trey R. Barker is an anomaly. Each novella is released as a separate e-book. Ultimately, though, all of the the novellas are gathered into three-novella anthologies. Volumes 1 and 2 were published in 2019, volumes 3 and 4 in 2020, volumes 5 and 6 later this month, and volumes 7 and 8 will appear in 2022. Guns + Tacos is invitation only, and Trey and I arm wrestle each year over which writers to invite. If there are additional entries in the G+T series, they will continue to be by invitation only.

Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties (due out April 2022) began as a single open-call anthology. I received more good stories than I could fit into a single volume, so I held back—with contributors’ approval—enough for a second volume with no assurance that there would even be a second volume. By the time Down & Out Books greenlit the second volume—More Groovy Gumshoes (due out in April 2023)—I’d lost a few stories to other publications. So, I invited two writers to come aboard at the last minute, making More Groovy Gumshoes an Invitation Only/Open Call Mix.

The other projects—which will go unnamed—include two invitation-only anthologies and a limited-open-call anthology I am co-editing.


If you’ve worked your way through the above overview of the various anthologies I have edited or am in the process of editing, you’ll note that I’ve slowly moved away from open-call anthologies toward invitation-only anthologies, with a few hybrids along the way.

There are two key reasons for this decision:

Success. It is, perhaps, egotistical to say this, but the first two anthologies I edited since returning to this side of the editorial desk resulted in an Anthony Award nomination for Best Anthology, six stories receiving or nominated for major awards, and two stories included or long-listed for inclusion in a best-of-year anthology. Writers want to submit to editors with this kind of track record, so the number of submissions has increased substantially with each new open-call project.

Other editorial responsibilities. As editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, which remains an open-call project, I read a significant number of submissions from writers of all experience levels and across all the crime fiction subgenres. (See “Killing Dreams One Rejection at a Time, the Sequel” for a glimpse at what it’s like evaluating 264 submissions.) Thus, I am exposed to, and have the opportunity to work with, many new and new-to-me writers.

So, to reduce my workload without reducing the number of projects I edit, I’m increasingly relying on limited-invitation calls and personal invitations to acquire content.


These days, I appreciate it when I’m asked to contribute to an anthology, but early in my career I had no idea how to get on an editor’s invitation list. The first few times I was approached I had no idea how the editor selected me. (See “Pay It Forward” to learn how I was invited to contribute to Max Allan Collins and Jeff Gelb’s Flesh and Blood: Guilty as Sin.) That, combined with the number of times I’ve seen beginning and early career writers asking the same questions I’d once had, leads me to offer a few suggestions.

Write, Submit, and Get Published. If you’ve never been published, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be invited to submit to an anthology. So, write, submit what you write, and improve your skills. Once your work is being accepted on a regular basis via open-call projects, create a formal or informal list of all the editors you’ve worked with and would like to work with again. Then cross-reference that list with editors of invitation-only projects to determine where you might have opportunities to step up your game.

Be Professional and Easy to Work With. I wish this didn’t have to be restated, but, unless you’re a creative genius, your work will be edited. Meet deadlines at every step of a project. You must complete ancillary paperwork—contracts, author bios, story blurbs—so be available and easily reached via mail, email, and telephone. Understand how to use Microsoft Word.

If you have proven yourself professional and easy to work with on an open-call project, you increase your odds of being added to that editor’s list of potential writers for future invitation-only projects.

Make Your Desire Known. This last suggestion requires a bit of finesse. Do it wrong and you look like a suck-up. Do it right and your opportunities increase.

If you have worked with an editor, enjoyed the process, and would like to work with that editor again, let the editor know. A simple email stating something like: “I enjoyed working with you on Project X and would appreciate the opportunity to work with you again. Please keep me in mind for future projects.” I regularly work with writers who have sent me similar emails.

If there’s an editor you think you would like to work with, you can send a similar email: “Although we’ve not previously worked together, I have enjoyed reading Project X, Project Y, and Project Z. I write in the same subgenre, my work has appeared in Magazine A and Magazine B, and I would welcome the opportunity to be considered for one of your future projects.” One of the contributors to the Guns + Tacos series approached Trey and I with a similar email.

If you do these three things, you will increase your odds of having your work included in an invitation-only anthology. If you write a great story, act professionally, and let the editor know you’re interested in doing it again, odds are great that your name will be included on that editor’s list of “writers to work with again.”


If I receive several hundred emails today from writers who want to be included on my invitation list for future projects, I’m going to put y’all on my suck-up list. You need to wait long enough for me to forget I wrote this so that I’ll think your emails are truly heartfelt.

And if nobody sends me an email about this, I’m going to have to rethink my entire approach to editing.

My “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer” was the bonus story for subscribers to Season 3 of Guns + Tacos, and it accompanied Andrew Welsh-Huggins’s “A Smith & Wesson with a Side of Chorizo.”

13 December 2021

Fifty Opening Lines

Back in 2018, Leigh Lundin posted an opportunity for SleuthSayers readers to identify 100 books and authors by their opening lines. His source was American Book Review's list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels. I got about 25 of them and recognized more that I couldn't identify off the cuff. Let's play again. My list of 50 includes some of ABR's, some culled from various other lists, and some favorites of my own.

As I compiled this list, I realized that the body of common knowledge it depends on is shrinking, but not because people are necessarily reading less. In the culture many of us have lived most of our lives in, to some extent, we all read the same books.

Even crime fiction readers, until ten or twenty years ago, could talk about the classics and favorite current authors and series in the expectation that most other readers of the genre would be familiar with them. That is no longer true. Attendees of Malice Domestic and of ThrillerFest may have widely divergent reading lists. On eclectic mystery lovers e-list DorothyL, reading recommendations have grown exponentially more varied. In the past couple of years, members' Best of Year lists have had almost as many titles as submitters, with only a handful of authors garnering five or six votes. And this year, as we all know, two widely circulated anthologies of the best mystery stories of the year have included widely divergent representatives of the genre. How many lines from any of them, if any, will be remembered in fifty or a hundred years?

So while we still can, let's savor and honor these memorable lines and see how many of them you can identify by title and author.

I was in a parade. I walked just behind the gossiwors and just before the king. It was raining.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a giant cockroach.

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

You better not never tell nobody but God.

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.

It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I'm thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

In the ancient city of London, on a certain autumn day in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, a boy was born to a poor family of the name of Canty, who did not want him.

When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife.

It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.

"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

George is my name; my deeds have been heard of in Tower Hall, and my childhood has been chronicled in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. I am he that was called in those days Billy Bocksfuss—cruel misnomer. For had I indeed a cloven foot I'd not now hobble upon a stick or need ride pick-a-back to class in humid weather. Aye, it was just for want of a proper hoof that in my fourteenth year I was the kicked instead of the kicker; that I lay crippled on the reeking peat and saw my first loved tupped by a brute Angora.

A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace.

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

Mother died today.

Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling. Stared at it with loathing. He knew by heart every last minute crack on its nice clean surface. He had made maps of the ceiling and gone exploring on them; rivers, islands, and continents. He had made guessing games of it and discovered hidden objects; faces, birds, and fishes. He had made mathematical calculations of it and resdiscovered his childhood; theorems, angles, and triangles. There was practically nothing else he could do but look at it. He hated the sight of it.

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

I took the battery out of my arm and fed it into the recharger, and only realized I'd done it when ten seconds later the fingers wouldn't work. How odd, I thought. Recharging the battery, and the maneuver needed to accomplish it, had become such second nature that I had done them instinctively, without conscious decision, like brushing my teeth. And I realized for the first time that I had finally squared my subconscious, at least when I was awake, to the fact that awhat I now had as a left hand was a matter of metal and plastic, not muscle and bone and blood.

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robed clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in the stuffy court, but he showed no sign of fatigue.

His green-and-vermilion topknot was as colorful as a parrot's, and in Colleton County's courtroom that afternoon, with its stripped-down modern light oak benches and pale navy carpet, a cherryhead parrot couldn't have looked much more exotic than this Michael Czarnecki.

"I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get."
"That's what you said about the brother."
"The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability."
"Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He's too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else's will."
"Not if the other person is his enemy."
"So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?"
"If we have to."
"I thought you said you liked this kid."
"If the buggers get him, they'll make me look like his favorite uncle."
"All right. We're saving the world, after all. Take him."

The day they drowned Dendale I were seven years old.

...it was green, all green, all over me, choking, the water, then boiling at first, and roaring, and seething, till all settled down, cooling, clearing, and my sight up drifting with the few last bubbles, till through the glassy water I see the sky clearly, and the sun bright as a lemon, and the birds with wings wide as a windmill's sails slowly drifting round it, and over the bank's rim small dark faces peering, timid as beasts at their watering, nostrils sniffing danger and shy eyes bright and wary, till a current turns me over, and I drift, and still am drifting, and...

A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and in a shield, the World State's motto, Community, Identity, Stability.

On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, in which the author of Romance of the Rose was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it. Many citizens, seeing the women flying toward the High Street, leaving their children crying at the open doors, hastened to don the cuirass, and supporting their somewhat uncertain courage with a musket or a partisan, directed their steps toward the hostelry of the Jolly Miller, before which was gathered, increasing every minute, a compact group, vociferous and full of curiosity.

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best as I could, but when he went upon insult I vowed revenge.

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see twinkling lights. This had happened before as I came out of a blackout. I rolled my head heavily sideways on the pillow. The light came from a drooping strand of blinking bulbs flung over a dispirited looking artificial pine. A plastic Santa, looking as drunk as I remembered being when I went into the blackout, grinned at me from the treetop. I had an awful feeling it was Christmas Day.

And for extra credit: Which opening solves a mystery in the first four words?

12 December 2021

The Perplexing Patterns of Antisemitism

My daughter and I were discussing the rise of antisemitism during the pandemic. She asked, “Why? What they’re saying makes no sense at all. And there are so few Jews, so why them?”

So, this is an article for my daughter and everyone who is simply perplexed about what antisemites are saying - because it has a history and that’s why it makes no sense, continues to exist and is dangerous. 

During the plague outbreak in 1712, Hamburg forbade Jews from the city in an attempt to stop the plague and the cholera outbreak of the 19th century in Germany was also blamed on the Jews. 

To discourage smallpox vaccines, anti-Semitic propaganda leaflets were distributed blaming them for the vaccine. 

So, there’s a long history of both blaming Jews for diseases and blaming them for measures to stop diseases. We shouldn’t focus on the obvious lack of logic: it is the hatred evoked that matters.

Dr. Gavin Yamey has written poignantly on this issue, both in articles and on twitter. He has often outlined the perplexing mix of Jews both being blamed for the pandemic and for the vaccines and lockdowns.

In Australia, IKEA was, “defaced with the hateful words, “NO JEW JAB FOR OZ”  while other “antisemitic posts are flourishing on many Australian anti-vaccine networks, including outright finger-pointing at Jews for creating and unleashing the virus.” 

Like many students of psychology, I’ve studied the antisemitism of WW II, and there is a great deal of evidence tying authoritarian parenting and societies to antisemitism. However, this pandemic teaches us a crucial fact: the history of antisemitism, in all its lack of logic, is passed down in families and to others, so these patterns evoke emotions and make sense only to a twisted mind of an antisemite. 

Which brings me to my daughter’s point, “There are so few Jews.” 

Indeed there are.

In Canada, a country that prides itself on tolerance and lack of bigotry, “Jewish Canadians are the most targeted religious group for hate crimes…those numbers are particularly troubling since the Jewish community accounts for only 1% of the population and yet are the targets of 17% of police-reported hate crime.” 

"As of 2021, the world's "core" Jewish population (those identifying as Jews above all else) was estimated at 15.2 million, or 0.19% of the 7.89 billion worldwide population.” 

So why have so few shouldered so much hatred? The answer is complicated and certainly I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are excellent resources on the subject that discuss family and societal factors that we should all know. 

However, these strange patterns - such as being blamed for making a disease worse and also for any measures to make it better - are history being repeated, literally. They make no sense.  However, we should all learn these patterns so we can watch for them, know them and help in any way we can. We should also explain to our children the inexplicable: how the twisted minds of antisemites have passed these patterns down through centuries to place an immense burden of hate on such a small group. 

For us, these incoherent statements merely perplex us, while to the antisemite they evoke hatred. And that hatred often translates into action. 

An annual report by Tel Aviv University's researchers on anti-Semitism shows that online antisemitism has risen, as have desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, memorials and synagogues. They also warn that, while in person hate crimes have decreased as a result of the lockdowns, there is every indication that they will increase when lockdowns are reduced. 

For children who haven’t learned these patterns and have no hatred to muster against Jews, leaving them perplexed by incoherent and strange statements by antisemites isn’t enough. We should explain the history of these patterns and that, when they reemerge, it harkens a dangerous time for Jews. Our children need to know that and do everything they can to help, because when we are long gone, that will be their job.

11 December 2021

Shelf Inspirations

I'm not superstitious. Much. For example, if I stopped keeping mementos on certain shelves that may or may not increasingly qualify as shrines, no writing gods will descend to strip my creative powers. Maybe. Proof would require my not keeping those mementos, and that sounds rash.

Over my desk are two glass shelves, each with a mishmash of smile-bringers. Who is up there? Bigfoot. Got his sticker in Oregon one year. Isn’t a Bigfoot sticker on your shelf? 

There’s Bigfoot, Zoltar, a screaming goat. There's Hamish, a Highland bull we met near Loch Lochy. You gave Hamish a carrot, and he was your man. Once, driving through the Painted Desert, no other human in theory for miles, here comes the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile bound west for glory. Or at least Winslow. A mini Weinermobile abides on my shelf. I have Twain’s “The Million Pound Note,” Westlake, and pets who shared this space. 

And there are, I should mention, other shelves.

Behind me are twin bookcases with favorite authors and reference books. In a tight spot, and I get in those, it helps to re-read how a master handled a particular situation. Shakespeare is back there, as annotated. He splits a shelf with Colin Dexter and a Poirot smattering. There are past travel reminders, a Bond / Steve Zissou mash-up, and my Mysterious Shelf. It's vaguely foreboding after sundown. 

Look, both Peter Pan and hard science would back me on my shelves. Psychologists have shown that centering rituals improve related task performance—if you believe it enough. 

The Mysterious Shelf

Consider: Baseball hitters go through a whole scratch, sniff and soft shoe routine before they step into the box. Keith Richards--that Keith, of the eternal high-energy run--reportedly threatens not to take the stage unless he’s had the first slice of a fresh shepherd’s pie. Picasso wouldn't throw out his trimmed fingernails. He swore the clipping yet held his essence. Artists, pilots, sailors, religious ceremonies, yoga, if people have doing it long enough, people have rituals to get themselves feeling empowered and connected to the job. 

Why would creative writing be any different? 

Writing can be editing drudgery or unruly ideas or heartbreak when a manuscript doesn’t sell. Any list of now-revered authors also says who navigated a snootful of frustration while producing that revered fiction. The troughs are unavoidable. I need reminding the high points are worth the lows.

Rituals can be discarded when their purpose is served. I've done it, but I've kept three and recommend them however they might work for you. First, pre-session exercise, whatever you can do. Holding and fashioning ideas requires brain sharpness and surprising endurance. I need treadmill time or a brisk walk before writing, along with whatever music I associate with the work. This gets both my circulation and intentionality firing before I hit the chair. Even stretches can do pre-session me a solid. 

Second, a success celebration. After any first draft is hauled forth, I go about adopting it into the files, introducing it around, giving it a row on my Excel tracker. I sip on a nice wine that night. Writing a complete story, any story, is a big deal. If that story ever sells, a huge deal. I descend into a flurry of refiling and list-checking and much rejoicing that another one got over the line. 

Which brings me back to my third keeper ritual: the arguable shelf-shrines. Wins need celebrating for a long time, not just on rare days. My shelves have writing milestones and covers from AHMMs that ran a piece of mine. Past sales tell me, “Look, you’ve done it before.” Past sales tell me, “Listen, man. Don’t let us down.” The shelves know if I'm phoning it in. They totally know. Quality control is also why Stadler and Waldorf are up there stage left. Grade A heckling like theirs ensures my head only balloons so much. 

There it is. I have a shelf ritual. It helps me care about the process, about seeking my best mindset. To smile when the going is hard. When the trick works, I’m a better and more dedicated writer. 

Is there risk in putting this much writing faith in Bigfoot and a fainting goat? Hey, it’s my ritual, and I'm sticking with it. 

Not that I’m superstitious or anything.

Patterson-Gimlin, via the CBC

10 December 2021

A Serious Case of Libations

There’s a moment I loved at the beginning of all the Dr. Sam Hawthorne short stories written by the great Edward D. Hoch. Before Dr. Sam launches into another tale of an impossible case he cracked back in the day, he generously inquires if his visitor cares for a libation.

Spotted in an airport.

I love that word and enjoy seeing it pop up here and there. The Latin means pouring out a liquid as an offering, or as part of a ritual. That’s worth calling to mind that next time you see a studious mixologist mixing up a beverage using hand-crafted ingredients.

This used to be a time of year when we humans gathered together in rooms to shut out the cold. We lifted glasses to each other. We ate happily. We laughed. We even breathed freely and shamelessly in each other’s presence.

A Harry Potter text, by one Libatius Borage.

I feel sure those days will come again. Perhaps they are already here in your neck of the woods. But even if you are not gathering in such a manner this season, you might enjoy knowing about these handful of books that I keep on a special cocktail/entertaining shelf.

Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader), edited by Nick Mamatas and Molly Tanzer (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017)
I’ll start with the one mostly closely aligned with short stories. Mamatas and Tanzer have pulled together a lovely collection of 17 short pieces by writers working in various genres. Each story references a cocktail or two, whose recipes are then shared after the story, 25 recipes in all. You’ll find plenty of classics here—the Old fashioned, martinis, the negroni, etc.—but also fashionable overexposed beverages such as the Moscow mule. This time of year, you might want to check out their recipe for a smoking bishop—the beverage reformed Scrooge promises his man, Cratchit, at the end of the Dickens tale. Before this book came along, I tried to recreate that beverage years ago, and bungled it, mostly because many of the traditional ingredients do not have easy modern substitutes. This recipe, accompanied by Robert Swartwood’s hilarious tale, goes down easy. This is a small, attractive volume suitable for gift giving.

The Imbible: A Cocktail Guide for Beginning and Home Bartenders, by Micah LeMon (University of Virginia Press, 2017).
The book is so beautiful that you will probably not want to keep it on your bar while you are mixing your beverages. It’s a standard-sized hardcover with a coffee table feel. Lavish photographs on glossy paper throughout. In the intro, LeMon tells us that he was raised in an Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian family. So of course for one of his first jobs he ends up behind a bar, where he has no idea what he’s doing. “I thought God might strike me dead with lightning, give me leprosy, or inflict some equally biblical punishment just for touching the stuff,” he says. Luckily for us, he studies the craft and distills every great cocktail to three critical ingredients: a spirit, something sweet, and something bitter or sour. Using this as his template, he then marches us through a multitude of classic drinks, showing us how you can easily mix and match to arrive at something delightfully quaffable. If you’re ever in Charlottesville, Virginia, you’ll find him tending bar at The Alley Light.

To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, by Philip Greene (TarcherPerigee, 2017). Boy howdy, that Ernest Hemingway fellow sure liked to drink, huh? I like this book because it doesn’t just talk about Hemingway’s prose, and the beverages that crop up in his writing. Along the way, we also get stories about the actors and production anecdotes associated with the movies that were made out of his books. There are plenty of movie posters, artwork of long-gone nightclubs and bars, and candids of Bogie and other actors to spice up the mix. And yes, absolutely, you will find a ton of recipes to fortify yourself before you step into the ring with a bull.

What’s a Hostess to Do? 313 Ideas and Inspirations for Effortless Entertaining, Including 121 Recipes for Spectacular Party Food, by Susan Spungen (Artisan, 2013).
Not a drink book, per se, but absolutely indispensable for those of use who want to throw a party but whose imagination fails them just as they depart the tortilla-chips-and-salsa aisle. Spungen walks us through five very different entertaining scenarios—the cocktail hour, the buffet, the dinner party, holiday entertaining, and outdoor parties—and proceeds to blow your mind with her food editor brain. She presents two cocktail menus side by side, asking: “What’s wrong with this [first] menu?” Complicated cocktail party menus force guests to juggle too many things: napkin, silverware, plate, and drink. The best snacks for these sorts of parties can be eaten with one hand. Duh, but I’d never think to drill down on that. This is a fine paperback for hostesses (and hosts!) alike.

If all else fails, you could just throw caution to the wind and treat yourself to this little bag of Mixology Dice. Toss ‘em, assemble the ingredients, and Good Luck quaffing the hand fate dealt you.

I wish you all the best this season, however and whenever you choose to raise your glass.

* * * 

See you in three weeks!


09 December 2021

My Gift to You

You know how you read a new book or watch a new TV show, or see a new movie, and you want to tell your friends all about it, but struggle to set the hook without giving too much away?

How about if every recommendation came with a pithy summary sentence, about the same length as one of those infamous "elevator pitches" we are hear about so often in this industry?

Well look no further! Here it is, my holiday gift to you: my take on some of the most recent movies/TV series currently available on a number of streaming platforms!

See below for the good, the bad, the essentials, and the hard passes, all in no particular order. Let's get started!

15. Ted LassoRecently rewatched both seasons of this Apple TV series about an American football coach (Jason Sudeikis) as a fish-out-of-water coaching an English premiere league football team. 

Pitch: "Believe the hype."

14. The Wheel of Time: Expensive epic fantasy series that appears to be Amazon's calculated attempt to capture the Game of Thrones audience.

Pitch: "'Wheel of Time'? 'Wheel of Waiting-For-Something-To Happen,' more like!"

13. Manhunt, Season 2: Martin Clunes (of Doc Martin fame) heads a formidable cast in a based-on-a-true-story procedural about police tracking a serial rapist known as the Night Stalker.

Pitch: "The best stories don't require gore or extended action sequences to render them compelling. Manhunt is one of these stories."

12. The Cleaner: British comedian Greg Davies stars as a state-certified crime scene cleaner in this comedy-drama with Helena Bonham Carter guesting in the pilot.

Pitch: "Greg Davies has managed to clean all of the laughs out of this one. Absurdist humor you want to laugh at, but just can't seem to. Scrub this one!"

11. Mr. and Mrs. Murder: This 2013 Australian series accomplishes what The Cleaner can't. Husband and wife crime scene cleaners solving the crimes they're hired to clean.

Pitch: "Imagine The Cleaner, only with twice the cleaners, and three times the laughs!"

10. Father Brown: Mark Williams (Harry Potter series) stars as G.K. Chesterton's crime-solving cleric.

Pitch: "'Father Bore' would be more accurate. A real plodder!"

9. The Kid Detective: Adam Brody (The O.C.) stars as a child prodigy crime solver still solving the same small-time crimes twenty years later.

Pitch: "Imagine Encyclopedia Brown all grown up and with his own detective agency. And a never-ending hangover."

8. The Madame Blanc Mysteries: An antique dealer's husband dies under mysterious circumstances in a small town in the South of France, so she packs up and moves there to try to solve his murder.

Pitch: "This cozy mystery series actually manages to make the South of France less interesting."

7. Dalgliesh: New spin on the classic PD James police inspector, starring Bertie Carvel and set during the 1970s.

Pitch: "Strong writing, solid plot and unforgettable performances make this series a must-see for any fan of classic British procedural mysteries. Bertie Carvel is a revelation."

6. Professor T: Based on a Belgian series of the same name, Professor T is set in Cambridge and features an obsessive-compulsive criminal procedure professor with a complicated relationship with his free spirit artist mother, who is dragooned into the local police as a consultant.

Pitch: "The scenes between mother (Frances de la Tour) and son (Ben Miller) alone are worth giving this series a look."

5. Bosch: The final season of the highly acclaimed series based on Michael Connelly's best-selling series of novels (Connelly also serves as a series producer).

Pitch: "Titus Welliver is one of those actor's actors one could easily enjoy watching read the phone book. Instead, you get to watch him in one of the best police procedural series ever filmed. And L.A. has rarely been given a better or more balanced treatment."

4. What We Do in the Shadows: A spiritual descendant of the New Zealand film of the same name about modern-day vampires Down Under. This FX series (streamed on HULU and produced by Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, the minds behind the original film) moves the setting to Staten Island.

Pitch: "As if the talents of British comedians Matt Berry, Kayvan Novack and Natasia Demetriou weren't enough, you get the hilarious Mark Probst (The Office) as an "energy vampire": a day-walking soul sucker who drains energy from humans by boring them into a stupor (picture that guy in your workplace. The one who goes into excruciating detail about mind-numbing topics such as his sock collection). You'll find this show anything but boring!"

3. Free Guy: Ryan Reynolds plays a non-player character in a popular first-person shooter game who suddenly becomes self-aware.

Pitch: "Come for Ryan Reynolds, stay for 'Dude.' Both are hilarious."

2. Jack Irish: Guy Pearce is probably best known in the States as "that guy who always plays the bad guy and makes him interesting." In his home country of Australia though, he plays "Jack Irish," the hero of a series of incredible crime novels by the great (and underrated) Peter Temple. This is the final season, and it's both grim and compelling.

Pitch: "Come for Guy Pearce actually getting to play a good (well, mostly good) guy for once. Stay for the plot that grinds inexorably to a shocking finish, with plenty of emotional prisoners taken along the way, and for the stellar supporting cast, especially the unforgettable Aaron Pederson, who plays an aborigine enforcer and right-hander man to a horse-race fixer friend of Jack's."

1. Shetland (Seasons 1 through 6): Douglas Henshall heads an all-Scottish cast in this procedural set in the titular Scottish islands. Based on a series of novels by British super-author Ann Cleeves.

Pitch: "Don't let the title fool you: there's nothing small about the pay-off from watching this superb series, a near-perfect balance of light and dark, compassion and vengeance, humanity and violence. Start with Season One, but make sure you've got plenty of time available to you. This one's a binger's dream!"


And that's it for me this go-round. 

See you in two weeks!