Sunday, September 27, 2015

Another First Day at School

What I remember most about my childhood homes is leaving them. Just as my life threatened to dry up in one small town or another, the United States Navy, my family's own deus ex machina, would appear to move us to a new and always dangerously innocuous location. My friends, many of whose lives were dictated by military maneuvers, found themselves in various parts of Europe; I toured various parts of Maryland. While many of my peers were only a short drive from Vienna—I was only minutes away from Busch Gardens. When I complained to my father that we never went to Europe, he would do in one breath what Atilla the Hun could not accomplish after numerous invasions—reduce the continent to the rubble of inconsequence.

“I've been there,” he'd say, “you wouldn't like it.”

So I learned to accept the small corners of America as my lot in life. I grew to enjoy moving; it seemed a nice trick that I, whose movements were circumscribed by leg braces, should become the master of the quick getaway.

Indeed movement became my chief talent. I changed schools so frequently that at an early age I developed the forced gaiety of a road company Blanche Du Bois. Too often I felt as if I had just sold Belle Rive and was going to depend on the kindness of yet another stranger.

My first day at school was a familiar ritual. My father, absent on so many other occasions of my life, was always impressed into service for this event. These were always uneasy times because my father always displayed how really little he knew about me. I feared being placed in the wrong grade because he always believed me to be two years older than I was. He would peer at me quizzically—as if he were nearsighted and I was a total stranger—when forced to answer the questions about my coloring that appeared on the school registration form.

As if to make up for having blown his lines in this part of the performance he would ask to speak to the school principal. While I was never sure what my father said to these administrators, I was convinced that he assigned to me qualities that would have made Little Eva look hopelessly jaded.

The principal, usually a blue-haired woman, would emerge from her office misty-eyed; if my father had given a bravura performance, she would be wiping away tears. She would gaze forlornly at my braces and then give me a smile reserved for children about to undergo operations from which they might not recover. My father, under the guise of giving me lunch money, would pull me aside, wink at me slyly, and say, “Well, kid, I paved the way.”

Since I never remembered putting in bids for roadwork, this final comment always perplexed me. Dad would square his shoulders and straighten his tie secure in the knowledge that he had given a performance that any actor worth his Stanislavski would envy. The principal would turn her still moist gaze on me, take me by the hand, and lead me to the classroom.

I always dressed inappropriately for these occasions. As a rule my mother bought me demure pastel dresses that called no particular attention to my physical appearance. However, perhaps in apology for our constant wandering, she always allowed me to choose the dresses I wore on my many first days.

“Gaudy,” my mother would say as I picked out bright colored dresses—I favored odd shades of purple and red—in flimsy materials.

“You have the taste of a taxi dancer,” she would add.

But I adored these dresses. My leg braces might thunk unbecomingly, but these cheap gauzy materials swirled so effortlessly around my knees it really didn't matter. I never let my mother know how often I heard teachers whisper “Who dresses that child?"

Since I always seemed to make my entrance just before recess, I was plunged immediately into the task of making myself known to my classmates. Though the world of the jungle jim and the seesaw was not my natural mile, I pretended I was hosting an urban garden party and prepared myself to be a receiving line of one. With my gauzy clothes and my air of coming from a different and much more interesting planet than the one I was visiting, I managed to antagonize my audience. I braced myself for the inevitable question, posed this time by a small boy who displayed both curiosity and chutzpah.

“Why is that stuff on your legs?”

I would usually meet the query with the authority of the Surgeon General.

“I have cerebral palsy. It's a birth defect.”

But that day I was a little weary and a little less gracious and I remembered what a drunken relative had said to me when I complained of unceasing questions.

“Tell the little bastards you're in the tertiary stages of venereal disease.”

I said it. I loved saying “tertiary.”

The kids had no idea what I was talking about. My teacher did.

The principal I faced after recess was not the woman reduced to mawkishness by my father's charm. I was suspended for two days for “conduct unbecoming to a lady of such tender years.”

Clearly the principal shared my love of affectation.

As I was leaving her office, the principal said “Your father told me you were shy, painfully shy.”

A poster child. I bet he made me sound like a poster child.

Later that night, at home, when I repeated the principal's parting shot to my mother, she replied, “Next time you talk to her, tell her she's not the first woman he lied to.”

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Killing Them Softly

KILLING THEM SOFTLY is about politics, crime and business, and about how often we should use those words as synonyms. In the final scene, Brad Pitt (as hit man Jackie Cogan) makes the argument that “America is not a community, but a business (and I want to get paid!)” By then, I was convinced he had a pretty good point.

The first scene of the movie is about poverty and degradation, and it is linked to the final one with a story line familiar in mobster movies, but which nevertheless shocks with the pitiless and violent nature of its characters, who are not above begging for their lives, even though they are offended when they are doing the killing and the victim imposes on them by begging for theirs. Hence the title KILLING THEM SOFTLY, which Jackie professes is his approach to killing for hire, because up close and personal killing, unlike assassination at a distance, leads to all that begging and pleading and crying, all those appeals to God and mother, and that, to him, is “just embarrassing.”

We fade in on a city scene which could be anywhere USA, any dying city in the USA, where they don’t have gated communities and golf courses, but where there are cracked sidewalks and shotgun houses, warehouses and pawn and porn shops, South Boston or East St Louis, maybe North Philadelphia, places where you can have anything you want, if you have the bucks to pay for it, as long as you don’t wish for anything crazy, like ever leaving the blighted place for a better life.

Like in PULP FICTION, there is a lot of philosophizing done by the low and mid-level gangsters that inhabit this movie. Everyone has a philosophy about everything, often a pretty nihilistic one, but then again I guess coal miners are pretty pessimistic, too. These guys are the grunts, the day laborers, in a business more upfront about the violence inherent in it than most are. Pitt is fairly loquacious, especially for a hit man, which I, for whatever reason (older movies?) always thought were Clint Eastwood types (but not avengers) men with no names, strong, silent and sociopathic, if not outright psychotic.

The whole thing, of course, takes place at night, in freezing rain, down mean and lonely streets. And whenever a car radio plays, or characters talk in a bar, a politician is trying to make political hay off the 2008 bank bailout. It’s hard times in America, and apparently for the mob too.

The wasted and bleak guy walking down the wasted and bleak city street at the beginning is named Frankie, and he’s just out of jail, and is clear on how the only way he will keep from starving is by making a score. He meets up with Russell, a desperate heroin addict who is trying to make ends meet by stealing pure-bred dogs and taking them to Florida. One of the funniest scenes in the movie takes place when Russell tries to drive a car full of terrified dogs to Florida during a storm, and they shit all over and he can’t open the windows. It’s funny, and terrible, and the irony is that Russell is so disgusting that you can’t imagine a little (or a lot of) shit is going to make his smell, or situation, any worse.

Russell and Frankie meet up with Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) and Curatola brokers a scheme whereby the dynamic duo will rob a mobbed-up card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). They are all upset by the woeful state of the economy, and Johnny is insulted by Russell’s smart- ass attitude (he’s an Aussie, and maybe that accent makes things worse)—kind of like the way John Travolta gets pissed off at Harvey Keitel in PULP FICTION. Anyway, Markie already robbed his own card game once, and they figure he’ll get blamed for setting up this hit too.

It doesn’t work out exactly that way, and the movie is not suspenseful in the sense that it does not make you wonder if any of the major players are going to get out of it alive. These guys would have gotten caught, even if Russell had not been so stupid as to have talked about the job to a guy he wrongly thought he could trust (does someone always talk in these movies?)There is a kind of awful fatalism in this movie, in that there is only the game, the knock around life for these knock around guys, and you are playing against a house that never loses in the end.

Jackie is called in, and he recommends to Driver (Richard Jenkins), a kind of liaison between the suits and the soldiers, that they hit Markie, whether he is responsible this time or not, to “restore confidence” in the card game (like Bush and McCain exhorted us to remain confident in the Stock Market) . And pretty soon Johnny and Russell and Frankie are on the list, too.

Three scenes, one of drug use and two of violence, really hit me in the gut. In one, Markie gets hit repeatedly in his gut, standing in the freezing rain (for as long as he can stand up, anyway), and in the face too, and as he begs for mercy from his tormentors (‘it’s just business, Markie, take it like a man’) they become more and more incensed , turning what should have been a merely serious beat down into a near-fatal one. In another, Russell and Frankie converse while Russell is tripping on heroin, and the stylized way the point of view of the nodding Russell is shot makes the use of drugs look pretty seductive. And of course there is the scene where Markie is shot, in slow motion (a la NATURAL BORN KILLERS) as you watch rain drops fall on a spiraling bullet that imbeds itself in Markie’s head. Is this what they call pornographic violence? I am not sure, but there was something sexual and seductive about it, the absolute opposite of the scene where the beating is delivered, which was grotesque, pitiful, and deeply disturbing.

The rest of the movie is carried by the dialogue Jackie and Driver, and Jackie and Mickey (James Gandolfini), an out of town hitter hired to help out with the sudden need for four (count ‘em, four) hits. Mickey is depressed, addicted to booze and hookers, terrified of going back to the joint, unable to function. He has come to the conclusion that “none of it means anything.” And he looks like he means it. Tony Soprano knew he was in hell, perhaps, but if he was, he figured he was going to rule there. Mickey is just a tired and defeated foot soldier, and after Jackie sets him up to go down to his third felony, Jackie takes on all the killing himself.

Anyone who has ever gambled with cards or stocks knows that the only winners are the guys who run the game. The sub-prime mortgage crisis was merely an elaborate Ponzi Scheme made possible by loosening the regulations that kept investment and commercial banking separate. When it came down, we were told we needed to stay confident in the very scam that brought us down in the first place. The regular guys, men and women, water carriers, the non commissioned officers, the rank and file, paid by losing their homes and retirements.

In the end of this noir nightmare, the politicos blather on the bar TV as Jackie and Jenkins argue over his payment (Driver’s superiors are cutting back). Pitt, who has a genuine menace to him, is nevertheless not going to whack Jenkins and we know it. Jackie knows that he is even more replaceable than Jenkins is (Jenkins not being exactly the CEO of Murder Inc himself). The only real tension between the two comes when Jenkins tells Jackie not to smoke in his car, and Jackie ignores him and lights up. It’s anticlimactic and kind of silly, because you know they both know their place in the hierarchy, and this is real life ( not some movie). Jackie is not going to off Jenkins and take on the mob singlehandedly (what kind of confidence would that inspire?) That would be a different kind of movie.

In this movie, Jackie just wants to get paid. He says Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who sold freedom to a bunch of dopes so that he (Jefferson) could stop paying British taxes. For the average guy, winning the war was not winning anything. The movie is asking if we need to play the game at all. But robbing the card game, making a score, any kind of score, is all there is for the hoods of Skid Row. For us, the corporate shell game, the old bait and switch, is the only game too.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Editing for Fun

Welcome to Terry Shames!!

I've followed eagerly her meteoric rise to fame since I couldn't put down
A Killing at Cotton Hill and her wonderful character Samuel Craddock.

Killing was a true winner—of prizes as well as hearts of readers!

And so was
The Last Death of Jack Harbin—and I think Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek and A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge will also capture your hearts and minds.

Terry serves on the North California Boards of both MWA and Sisters in Crime and as far as I can tell her fame has not caused her to buy a bigger hat!

Word has it that Samuel Craddock is one of the most engaging new central characters in American Crime Fiction!!

Yep - has my vote too!!

Thanks by stopping by our ranch, Terry. As a finalist for a Macavity Award for Best Mystery—hope you win!

T.J. Straw

I don’’t know about everyone else, but I’’d rather edit anyone else’’s work than my own. When I read another person’s WIP, I am clever, astute, and forthright. I can give terrific advice, and know that I’’m helping someone write a best seller.

When I tackle my own, on the other hand, I’’m something of a dullard. But that is only true when I actually sit down in front of the draft to start editing. Before that, in my head I’’m turning turgid, bloated sentences into elegant, dare I say “poetic” prose. My characters, who for the past 90,000 words have hidden behind corners refusing to join me, leap off the page with just a few brilliant key strokes. Plot lines that are as tangled as a Gordion knot suddenly reveal themselves to be masters of ingenuity.

Humph. Daydream all you want, honey, the first go-round of edits will barely get you headed in the right direction. Your characters will begin to wake up and stretch, laughing at your attempts to goose them into action. You will read your plot in the next two books you pick up, not to mention that it will happen in real life and your plot will be revealed in a series of newspaper articles. That poetic prose? Pedestrian at best.

You will wonder why you thought you could write scenes set in a city you not only don’’t know well, but have never visited——in fact that you never even wanted to visit. You’’ll wonder why you didn’’t set your book in Paris or Florence, or even New York City——places you actually love. Why Kabul? Or Minsk? Or Ames, Iowa?

Why did you think you knew anything about hacking computer code? Or about the intricacies of banking——or that you could make either of those things interesting? How did you think you could get into the mind of a 30-year-old woman when you left your thirties in the dust a long, long time ago? In your own series you write successfully about a geezer, so how does that give you confidence that you can get inside the head of a forty-year old man?

In the first go at a draft, I have to keep reminding myself that it’’s not a work all done; it’’s a work in progress. I might have to dig a little deeper to understand how a thirty-something woman thinks these days. I have to read articles and books about what it’’s like living in Kabul. I have to make sure the names I’’ve chosen for my Middle Eastern characters are actually workable and that I’’m not naming an Afghani man a name that only an Iranian man would have. I have to check a slew of facts——and then recheck them. And that’’s apart from getting to know my characters deeply, and making sure the plot doesn’’t have gaping holes.

Bottom line: That’’s what editing is——not the fun part you get to do when you read someone else’s WIP, where you point out a little discrepancy and then go on your merry way, but the hard grind of smoothing, rechecking, discovering, and making it work.

Update: The next Samuel Craddock book, The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, comes out in January, 2016. I am currently working on a thriller about a terrorist threat to the banking system of the United States.

Terry Shames
A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, April 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Joe Queenan has written book reviews for the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW and many other periodicals, and he has written a number of books himself. His memoir CLOSING TIME, about growing up poor with an alcoholic and abusive father and manic depressive mother, was the best memoir I have ever read, and I have read quite a few. Though not as many as Queenan, I would bet, since this guy seems to have read everything ever written, all the classics (he claims anyone could read all of them in five years), plus some of the most obscure stuff I have ever, or never, heard of. He’s got a wife and kids and, frankly, reading all those books, I don’t know why they haven’t left him. And he claims to not skip any passages, which I must shamefacedly admit to doing. Not a very visual person, I am apt to skip over descriptions of anything but people. And I am not big on memoirists who spend all their time in prolix self-justification, and writers who try to use obscurity to hide an inability to think I skip out on also.

Queenan is not arrogant about all his reading (and his amazing retention of so much of it, and his ability to say intelligent things about it all). He is as likely to be generous to an author as to pan him or her. Queenan admits he could never keep up with the great Winston Churchill, who reportedly read a book a day, while also saving the world for democracy, coming up with all those witty quips, and being drunk off his ass.

So when I saw good old Joe had written ONE FOR THE BOOKS, I was intrigued. A book about reading books by a guy who does it for a living. And so I could then write a review of a book by a guy who writes book reviews. Kind of Postmodern, that, which (Postmodernism) is one of the many things Queenan has no time for.

Which is refreshing. Queenan is grumpy and I like that. CLOSING TIME was a kind of anti-EAT, PRAY LOVE (which Queenan hates, by the way), an unapologetic rant about the futility of his lost childhood and the parents who stole if from him. The forgiveness he finds in his heart for his parents is stinting and sparse, and he is honest about it. No epiphanies here. Books to him were a way out of both physical and emotional poverty, and also a way for him to feel arrogantly superior to many of those he grew up around. He is not the kind of guy to spare himself from his own acidity. He admits he used books to put off a lot of things perhaps he shouldn’t have, and that reading did not make him a better person. He also unabashedly loves books, the way they can evoke a time and place far away from our grim one, and he even credits books with holding out a hope that real life can’t.

This really is a book about books. It is not an excuse, a gimmick, a flimsy scaffold, that he uses to write another memoir. We learn that he quit drinking many years ago, but there is only one sentence about it in the whole book. We learn his wife has different tastes in reading than he does, and that he got tired of her always buying him books by or about Winston Churchill, but that is about it about her. And he doesn’t mind burning bridges here, I don’t think, as there are a lot of writers he damns outright, or damns with faint praise, so that they are never going to write a blurb for a book jacket for a book he writes.

The writing is not about Queenan. He doesn’t use his words to call attention to how bright or funny he is. He does, however, call attention to how good or bad the writing he reads is. At the same time, he concedes that sometimes, when you are in a shitty mood, you aren’t going to enjoy something, or not as much as you would otherwise. This is something I have always wanted a critic to admit—that a bad review might have as much or more to do with a messy love life or indigestion than poor plotting or wooden dialogue.

Queenan does not apologize for the “important” books he has refused to read. Early brushes with Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Hardy put him off both. He is afraid, however, that one day all those books he spurned may “overpower me. Then, I will find myself bound, gagged and bolted to the floor in the musty library reading room, and forced to suffer through the complete works of William Styron or, if my assailants are in a particularly sadistic mood that day, all four volumes of Joseph and His Brothers.” He doesn’t apologize for never having gotten through FINNEGAN’S WAKE, or ULYSSES, for that matter, or even MIDDLEMARCH. This made me feel better, and I may never go back to PARADISE LOST again. And I won’t feel bad about it, either.

While you might expect Queenan to champion bookstores and libraries (he does, but takes them to task for stocking only popular titles), he does say some provocative things. He thinks book clubs are kind of stupid, in that they encourage a kind of consensus about a work when a good book should induce “discord, mayhem, knife fights, blood feuds.” He also says that “they pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation.”
As if that wasn’t snarky enough, listen to what he has to say about Mary McCarthy: “McCarthy overwrote and was none too subtle. She reminded me of countless peevish jazz musicians whose dazzling technique ultimately led nowhere.” I never read her, but I got a good laugh out of that anyway, since, if that description doesn’t match her, it does match many writers I have tried to read and had to put down over the years.

And Queenan welcomes the online anonymous reviewer, because they are able to at least be honest, if often wrong (at least according to Queenan): “Their courageous sniping from behind the bushes, emulating Ethan Allen and the Swamp Fox back in 1776, reaffirms that democracy functions best when you fire your musket and then run away.”

Queenan can be a bit of a snob, I guess, but he would probably be willing to own that. And he did for me what I am always looking for writers to do—he mentions a lot of writers he likes, which opens up a new world of possible reading for me. Just like SELECTED SHORTS led me to Etgar Keret, and John Irving to Robertson Davies, Queenan has convinced me to try Georges Simenon and Penelope Fitzgerald. And maybe some non English speaking authors in translation. But not too many. Like Queenan tells us Miles Davis said, “Genius is knowing what to leave out.”

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, September 18, 2015

Writing Exercise

Here's an exercise for you. Think of a thing that appears every day in your life, and then write down all the memories that you can associate with it. Or the first few.

I'm going to do "Refrigerator."

For me the refrigerator has many associations. We'll start with Crystal Lake. We had a big refrigerator in our house there. In the winter of 1949-1950, one of the coldest on record, my mother went on a business trip with my father. She had just come through a radical mastectomy and needed cheering up, so he took her to New Orleans for the month of February. While they were gone a friend of theirs, a widow, moved in with my sister and me along with her two sons, boys about our age. Boys in the house! Neat! Mrs. Houlberg made us hot cocoa every morning for breakfast, and squeezed us fresh orange juice, too, until the refrigerator went on the fritz. It wouldn't stop chilling. The oranges froze. I can still remember the look on that dear lady's face when she took the rock-hard oranges out of the fridge. How was the problem solved? I don't know. I was just a kid. The frozen oranges were probably simply tolerated until my parents came home, and then we just moved to Plainfield and left the refrigerator behind.

That's one refrigerator story. Then there's my Canadian grandmother's ice box. A man came around every couple of days with a big block of ice to keep it cold, and in the meantime a pan underneath had to be emptied of melting water, usually by me. When my mother got a new electric refrigerator (where were we living then? I can't remember) she gave the old one to Granny. How they got it up to Canada I don't know. Things like that just happened when we were little. Entire households of furniture were whisked thousands of miles across country as if by magic. One small refrigerator with a tiny ice compartment for ice and frozen food could hardly have presented a problem to the moving elves. You know what I wonder? I wonder whether the march of electric refrigerators didn't tear a little hole in the social fabric. No more ice man. That's one person you don't interact with anymore. Add to that the disappearance of the bread man, the milkman, the Fuller Brush man, and the knife grinder, and pretty soon you're all by yourself in this wicked world.

When first we moved to Plainfield, having left Crystal Lake, the refrigerator in our apartment was amazing. It used to make loud noises and walk across the floor. It ran on gas. I don't know whether you can still get a gas refrigerator, but this one was a doozy. We would be sitting at the kitchen table having supper when the thing would start up, chugga-chugga, and begin to stagger across the linoleum. The noise it made evoked a make-and-break boat engine, so that my father would spout nautical lingo at us while we ate. He had been in the Navy, you know. Also he was very witty. I wish I could remember exactly what it was that he said.

Many years later, after the collapse of my first marriage, I took an apartment in Trenton whose landlords furnished it with a castoff refrigerator refurbished by Goodwill. Why not? They weren't paying the electric bill. It was the seventies, I was reinventing myself as a Hippie, and so I painted this antiquated refrigerator bordello purple and stuck Peter Max white doves all over the door. That was the year that the water in Trenton all ran out of the reservoir and back into the Delaware River, you may recall, due to the malicious actions of a disgruntled water department employee. What water you could get out of the taps wasn't fit to drink. I knew that, but nevertheless I had a cup of coffee at a coffee shop on Hanover Street, not thinking until later that their coffee maker might not heat the water long enough to sterilize it. Within weeks I had a full-blown case of Type A Hepatitis.

I understand that people get sent to the hospital for that, but not me. Nobody told me to go, and I couldn't afford it in any case. There's nothing you can do for Hepatitis A anyway besides rest and maintain a good diet. I lay on the sofa and watched TV, stumbling out to the kitchen from time to time to feed myself. The first thing that happened was that the refrigerator died.

So I called the landlords, and they had another second-hand refrigerator trucked over from the Goodwill. But the guys who delivered it refused to take the old one away, simply pushing it into the middle of the kitchen floor and leaving it there. I was quite unfit to do anything about it for a month and a half, during which time it sat in the middle of my kitchen floor, horribly purple, growing more and more stinky while I lay on the sofa. So much for my dream of the artistic life.

It's possible to make other associations with refrigerators, ones not associated with my personal affairs. I could meditate on the invention of refrigeration itself, surely a revolution in food storage. And again, a small tear in the social fabric, for it is no longer necessary to go the market every day and talk to the butcher and the grocer. Or I could discuss refrigerators in the movies. 9 1/2 Weeks. Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger standing in front of the refrigerator doing lewd things with the food.

If you want to you can do the exercise, and if you like what you come up with, send it to me to run on the blog. Try one of the following: Front door, Automobile, Dog, Dining table, Kitchen sink. Or something else entirely. Pick an object and riff on it. See what shakes out.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Summer Reading

(which truth to tell is not that different from my winter, spring or autumn reading)

Several of the British literary magazines I subscribe to do these features where notable authors and others talk about what they’re going to read during the summer. What I have in mind to read at any given time changes so often that any list I prepared at the beginning of summer would be a piece of short fiction, but good luck to the person I read about who was planning to read a three volume biography of Napoleon in French.

The books below are listed in the order I read them. Books I discussed earlier on the blog are not here. If I wrote about them I liked them.

Disclaimer by Rene Knight. A woman picks up a book and realizes that it describes incidents in her life. It’s difficult to discuss this book without revealing key plot details. Suffice it to say the author of the book is not a friend.

Life After Life by by Kate Atkinson. Every time Ursula Todd dies, she is born again. She drowns, she falls off a roof. When she dies in the London Blitz she appears again as the wife of a Nazi officer who hangs out with Eva Braun. This is very cleverly done. Don’t be put off by its description as “postmodern,” it’s a page turner.

On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller by Richard Norton Smith. If I had not followed politics during my childhood and seen a lot of Nelson Rockefeller I would find it unbelievable that the man described here was a Republican (FDR and Harry Truman urged him to switch party affiliation). There was no realistic chance that he would ever be the Republican nominee for the presidency and his marriage to Happy Murphy and the rise of the right wing of the party certainly doomed him in 1964. He was a fascinating man and you get a real sense of how the Republican party and the role of government has changed in the past 50 years.

The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim. Mr. Swaim admired Mark Sanford and offered his services as a speechwriter. I kept thinking it was a pity he didn’t read Never Work for a Jerk. This is short book that is as much about enduring a job you hate as it is about politics. Mr. Swaim is a good writer. It’s a pity Mark Sanford didn’t understand that.

A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of George III by Janice Hadlow. An entertaining look at what many consider the first modern royal family. George III was more than just the bete noir of the American colonies. This book teaches you that being royal, especially if you’re a woman, is quite tedious. This account is enlivened by contemporary diaries and letters.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware. This is a contemporary country house murder complete with snow storm, non-functioning landline and cell phones that won’t work in the middle of nowhere. Nora gets an invitation to a “hen party” (bachelorette party) for her best friend, Claire. However, she and Claire have not seen each other for ten years and Nora is not invited to the wedding. The questions: Who invited her and why?

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer. On a Memorial Day weekend Carrie and Michael, who are engaged to be married, drive out to Clausen’s Pier for a picnic. Michael is paralyzed after diving into shallow water. Burdened by guilt and the expectations of others, Carrie drives to New York City and a new life. Eventually, Carrie has to decide where she will be happiest. I understand that readers, frustrated by her decision, have hurled the book across the room. My Kindle is pricy so I didn’t go that far.

Erasure by Percival Everett. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is an African-American author of experimental novels. He gives talks on the theory of the novel at academic conferences.

When the family from whom he is estranged unravels, he realizes he needs to make some money so he writes “a ghetto novel” like those sometimes favored by talk show hosts. This is satire with humanity and a novel within a novel.

In the last weeks of the summer I saw the documentary “Best of Enemies” about the Buckley/Vidal skirmish during the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions. This inspired me to do a little reading about the 1960s. I started with Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the 1960s by Kevin M. Schultz. Though I think the subtitle overstates the importance of the relationship, it is interesting to see two such combative people try to understand each other. Then I tried Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Pete Seeger, Dylan and the Night That Split the 60s. I learned a lot reading this book. I knew far more about Dylan than I knew about Seeger. The problem with the book is that it never made me want to listen to the music and in a book like this that’s a major flaw. Finally, I moved on to Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein, the first volume of a trilogy, is fascinating if deeply dispiriting. The book was a bit too detailed in spots for me. I didn’t really need to know all the factional fighting within the Young Americans for Freedom but I was otherwise riveted. The message? All those people who thought LBJ’s landslide crushed the right wing of the Republican party were wrong. The right is very patient. Barry Goldwater was the wrong messenger, but Ronald Reagan, as befits an actor, was waiting in the wings.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Bill James

Bill James, in his book POPULAR CRIME: REFLECTIONS ON THE CELEBRATION OF VIOLENCE, says a lot of provocative things, and some of them don’t make sense. And some of them have nothing to do with crime. After he said that top-level environmentalists routinely exaggerate the threat of things like global warming, I looked him up on Wikipedia to see if he has said anything else absurd. It didn’t take me long to find one (actually three): James defended Joe Paterno’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky incident(s), saying alternately that Paterno didn’t try to cover up Sandusky’s crimes, that it wasn’t Paterno’s responsibility to turn Sandusky in, and that he (James) didn’t think it unusual for grown men like Sandusky to shower with young boys, and so there was nothing shady or suspect for Paterno to have been suspicious about.

You would think that someone who says such ridiculous things would be wrong on most everything else, but I think James is often right in POPULAR CRIME. Still, for someone who parades himself around as a firm believer in common sense, in saying when the Emperor has no clothes, he sometimes just seems to come out of left field. And yes, that is an apt metaphor, because this is the Bill James famous for inventing Sabermetrics, a statistical analysis of baseball that purports to predict everything a baseball fan needs to know, which makes you wonder how bookies can still make a living, but somehow they do.

While James ignores facts when addressing things like Global Warming and Paterno, he does his best to ground other observations firmly in fact, although he doesn’t really use many statistics. Sabermetrics purports to take the aggregate of everything you can measure about a ballplayer and magically yield an absolute measure of that ballplayer’s worth to his team. I am not even a baseball fan, and I can see that this is a fool’s errand. How do you measure the stolen bases not stolen because a pitcher has a great pick-off move? How do you measure how many homers a number three batter hits because other teams can’t pitch around him, since the batter in the four spot is even a greater slugger than he is? How do you measure the ability of some players to elevate not only their own games come the playoffs, but those of their teammates?

You can’t, anymore than you can find an algorithm to choose the MVP. James loves those stats, though, and he puts put forth a system of scoring at trials that will regularize things by assigning points based on probabilities about different factors he deems indicative of a claimant’s guilt. He argues that this is a less hit–and-miss approach than we have now. He also says he realizes it is not workable. But he nevertheless presents it. What he doesn’t really address is the fact that the assignment of “points” is just as open to interpretation and abuse as the present system. Still, he does a good job of pointing out that the present system gets sidetracked by lawyers and legislators (who are often the same thing), so that truth and justice become casualties.

He also claims that seeing the problem of crime through the liberal/conservative binary, where the alternatives are (conservative) longer and harsher sentences or (liberal) a focus on prisoner’s rights that gives hardened criminals sentences that are too easy and short, misses the point. His solution is to focus on crime at its inception, and not when the criminals are so inured to the “life” you can’t reach them. Kind of like Giuliani did in NYC with his “zero tolerance” policy. Crack down on the little stuff and the big stuff won’t happen. I don’t know if that really works, or if it is just supported by statistics, which can be used to lie just as well as anything else, and maybe better, as they give the illusion of being sacrosanct. Still, James is wrestling with a huge problem, and he tries.

Somehow I think that allowing statistical analysis into the courtroom will result in the same kind of problem you have now in criminal insanity cases—experts contradicting each other. Even if you get the numbers right, you have to interpret what they mean, and that is a lot less cut and dried than the numbers themselves. Hence Mark Twain: “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

James doesn’t do much to analyze what relation Popular Crime--books, movies, TV, radio and newspaper and magazine articles—has with the popular culture that consumes it. You have the crime itself, sure, but what of our reaction to it? And how does that reaction become part of the culture popular media is trying to describe? What crime do we focus on, and in what way? Is public opinion driven by media coverage or the other way around? James doesn’t say, although he raises the questions. He does say some things, and some of them are interesting. He says that for different reasons the yellowest of the yellow journalism about crime started in the Gilded Age and ended with the Lindbergh kidnapping. It was largely a product of the penny press. He says a kind of yellow journalism reasserted itself with the case of OJ Simpson. He is mute on the question of whether our lurid obsession with crime increases the likelihood of that kind of crime being committed.

He’s got a lot of interesting stuff to say about American History, even if he doesn’t back it up with statistics. He depicts the early 20th century as a time when we were close to a civil war between the haves and the have nots. This is why we were fascinated with stories like The Stanford White Murder and Sacco and Vanzetti. He says Sacco and Vanzetti were not choirboys, but probably not guilty. James enthusiastically approves of the Palmer Raids, but at the same times condemns the rich of the Gilded and Progressive era for acting like pigs.

All interesting stuff. He points out that until 1980, there was no real concept of “serial killer”—those who repeatedly kill strangers—the received wisdom being that murderers always killed someone they knew. He says police forces were not always professional, and once, long ago, were even sometimes composed of guys who had prison records. James admits that the media can ruin trials, and he also takes to task those jurists who allow defense team motions to withhold evidence. And he says on balance that we are better off with an unfettered press than with a judiciary and bar acting in secret, since lawyers and judges have their own agendas, and those agendas don’t always coincide with justice. Yeah, Bill, but the media are always looking out for us, right?

One thing James doesn’t address is what I would call the folklore of crime. I read somewhere that kids are in no more danger today than they ever were, and that hitchhiking is no more dangerous than taking the bus! I would have liked to see old Bill look at this kind of thing more. What kind of political and social agendas are advanced when you have everyone thinking things are more dangerous now than in some golden long ago? James also doesn’t address gun control, the militarization of the police, the use of police to crush political dissent, and what it must be like to be a cop when everyone has a smart phone with a camera. James does say that Manson and the Symbionese Liberation Army helped sound the death knell of “The Movement.” No one can really say, but that’s an interesting thesis.

Where James is at his best is in digesting all the books there are on a particular crime and coming up with a convincing argument about the guilt or innocence of those convicted or exonerated. Here is a run-down of those cases he analyzes with convincing skill:

  • Sam Shepard—innocent (and the inspiration for a great TV show in THE FUGITIVE)
  • John and Patsy Ramsey—innocent
  • Bruno Hauptmann—guilty
  • Lizzie Borden—innocent (in spite of the gimmick in the TV movie wherein Elizabeth Montgomery commits the crime naked to avoid getting blood on her clothes)
  • Sacco and Vanzetti—not guilty but still not very nice guys
  • OJ Simpson—guilty
  • Albert DeSalvo (who claimed he was the Boston Strangler)—innocent, but still a scumbag
  • Leo Frank—innocent (and a victim of Anti-Semitism)
  • Rabbi Fred Neulander—can’t tell, but not enough evidence to convict

James sounds a familiar note when he takes on the insanity defense, calling the traveling psychologists who testify for a price whores, and stating that Dan White and the infamous Twinkie Defense were the death knell of that defense. He also points out that a lot of serial murderers had prostitutes for mothers, are usually perceived as failures by themselves and those around them, and most often have trouble rubbing two nickels together (how do you find stats on those things?) Finally, and this is very interesting, as well as disturbing, James says serial killers usually don’t have a clear or identifiable motive for what they do, in spite of what profilers might say.

One other thing I would have liked him to address: Are police profilers charlatans? Not psychics-- we know they are charlatans. But are profilers nothing more than puffed up fortune tellers, feeding suggestive but basically empty predictions to a credulous audience? I suspect they are but would have liked to see an intelligent discussion about it.
Some more interesting contentions—murder rates in the US shot up between 1840 and 1885, and have yet to go back down. Motive, means and opportunity don’t count for much, as you can find tons of people in most cases who have all three. At one time the names of jurors were made public, they were routinely bought off by crooked lawyers, and rich bail jumpers were routinely allowed to escape justice by jumping bail.

James addresses the question of popular crime and culture by not addressing it when he says “crime stories embody the unusual, not the normal, and despite that they seem much the same across borders and centuries, and thus tell us more about human nature than the vicissitudes of culture.” That’s a pretty soft and squishy statement for a statistics man. All vague abstractions. What is this similarity in crime stories across cultures? And why does he oppose human nature to culture? Can’t the study of culture tell us anything about human nature, even withstanding those nasty and ill-defined vicissitudes? Bill is a big proponent on rating things on a scale of one to ten. I give him a 6.5 for this book.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, September 11, 2015

When to Stop Collecting Things

Many years ago, so long ago that I've forgotten his name, so long ago that he called all the women in the office his "girls," though we ranged in age from thirty-something to sixty-something, I had a boss who collected tape cassettes of old radio shows. He was interesting in other ways, too. His five-minute rant on why he never ate chicken was breathtaking, and if I could remember it I would repeat it to you; it had to do with the quantity and toxicity of the chemicals the poor birds were stuffed with before they were offered for human consumption. The radio shows were particularly interesting to me, as a nostalgic child of the forties. They were harder to find in those days than they are now.

So when I came upon a source of them somehow—it might have been in Yankee Magazine, there was no internet—I naturally offered to pass on the information to Mr. Whatzisname. He smilingly declined. "Last year I turned fifty," he said. "I don't collect things anymore."

At the time I was not yet fifty, not even forty, and I collected things very happily whenever I had the money and the space. Sweaters. Dishes. Puppets. Musical instruments that I hadn't time to learn to play. The idea that collecting must come to an end in every life went over me like a bucket of ice water. It seemed tragic. I felt sorry for him.

Now I am no longer thirty, nor yet forty, nor even fifty or sixty, and I look at all the stuff I have collected over the years and think, not only is it time to stop, but it's time to get rid of a lot of it. Not the sweaters, of course. The moths take care of that. I can scarcely keep up with replacing what they spoil. Or the dishes. We have to eat off of something, and who wants to use the same old dishes day after day? But maybe the puppets. I haven't performed with puppets in almost thirty years.

My sister once bought me a set of Pelham puppets depicting Henry the Eighth and all his wives, collectible puppets whose strings are too short to make them good performers. At one time I was going to fit them up with longer strings and put on a show. I will not do that now. First of all I don't feel like it, and secondly it would ruin their monetary value. I can just hear the dealers on Antiques Road Show telling one of my descendants how much they would be worth, if only Great-Granny hadn't boogered up the strings.

In fact I would sell them today if I had a buyer. I have their boxes and certificates and everything. Furthermore I no longer think it's tragic to stop collecting what fascinated you once, not even tragic to lose interest in the passions of your youth. Not as long as you have new passions. I might have a passion for a stark and tidy living space, one where everything has a place and occupies it, preferably out of sight. I might go clean the kitchen now. Or I might put my feet up and listen to something from my record collection, which I will never weed, no matter how old I get.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Executive Orders

I was going to write the skinny to the lineup of guys and gals who want to be the Nation's Chief Exec…

…excluding Dumpty Trumpy, who simply doesn't have the right shoe size to cross the threshold of 1600!

But Tom Clancy beat me to it!

In 1996… his inspiring novel Executive Orders… 874 pages

The wonderworker, who once sold insurance, sets out the rules: How to Be the Chief in the Oval Office… far better than all the university and wily beltway pols…

Some of you have read, learned and inwardly digested Clancy’s rules for the Big Chief.

I’d like to share with you some of my favorites written by this gentle giant…

1. “Every state on the Gulf feared Iran for its size, for its large population, and for the religious fervor of its citizens. For the Sunni religious, the fear was about a perceived departure from the true course of Islam. For everyone else, it was about what would happen to them when ‘heretics’ assumed control of the region…” P. 133

2. For how to behave as a new POTUS: “God, it’s like a narcotic, Jack thought, understanding just then why people entered politics. No man could stand here like this, hearing the noise, seeing the faces, and not love the moment. …He WAS the United States of America. He was their President, but more than that, he was the embodiment of their hopes, their desires, the image of their own nation, and because of that they were willing to love someone they didn’t know, to cheer his every word, to hope that for a brief moment they could believe that he’d looked directly into each individual pair of eyes so that the moment would be forever special, never to be forgotten. It was power such as he had never known to exist. This crowd was his to command.

“THIS was why men devoted their lives to seeking the presidency, to bathe in this moment, like a warm ocean wave, a moment of utter perfection.”

“What made him so special in their minds? …it was they who’d done the choosing… They thought him different and special and perhaps even great… but that was perception, not reality. The reality of the moment was sweaty hands on the armored podium, a speech written by someone else, and a man who knew he was out of place, however pleasant the moment might be…” P. 313

3. “America is your child. America is a country forever young. America needs the right people to look after her. it is YOUR job to pick the right people, regardless of party, or race, or gender, or anything other than talent and integrity.” P. 638.

4. And if any man or woman wavers on an unsteady decision — I urge him or her to read, learn and inwardly digest these lines:

“Finally, and I say this to all nations who may wish us ill, the United States of America will not tolerate attacks on our country, our possessions, or our citizens…

“Whoever executes or orders such an attack, no matter who you are, no matter where you might hide, no matter how long it might take, we will come for you.

“I have sworn an oath before God, to execute my duties as President. That I will do. To those who wish to be our friends you will find no more faithful friend than we. To those who would be our enemies, remember that we can be faithful at that, too.

“Let us recall the words of President Abraham Lincoln: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” P. 872

Clancy ends the book with a quotation by Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr.

“It is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.”

God bless our native land…

Thelma Jacqueline Straw, born in Massachusetts, of a Tennessee mother and a New Hampshire father… proud to be an American…

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Death of an Expert Witness

PD James is a master of detective fiction. She even wrote a book about it called, appropriately enough, TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION. And in DEATH OF AN EXPERT WITNESS, she follows her own rules to a T. That is, she gives you a closed circle of possible murderers, and directs us skillfully away from the truth without ever lying. Virtually everyone in this vicious circle of suspects has a motive, and James gives us all we need to know to solve the crime. I didn’t, and I don’t think most people could have, but I didn’t feel cheated at the end. It was there to be figured out, but by a more cerebral fellow than myself.

At the center of it all is her great detective Inspector Dalgliesh. He is quite a bright fellow, this Dalgliesh, and he carries the pain of having lost a child within him, and the daily pain of having to watch the brutal things people do to each other. James is pretty smart herself, is an intellectual writer (and I mean that in a good way). I wonder if the habit of plumbing the depths of human depravity is as taxing to a writer as it is to a detective.

Dalgliesh is more of a Holmes or Poirot than a Marlowe or a Sam Spade. He solves crimes not by insulting and punching and having sex with suspects until the whole thing unravels, but by piecing the puzzle of violent death together with a surgeon’s precision. He does have the keen sense of human nature that Marlowe and Spade have, and he knows how to get what he wants from an interrogation, becoming all things to all people in ways that always serve his purposes.

I think there are three kinds of murder mysteries: the kind where everyone has a motive (like this one), the kind where it seems that no one has a motive, and the kind where the only person who seems to have a motive didn’t do it because in reality there is one other person who secretly had a motive. In this novel, there are two murders, and the action is framed by the investigation of a third, which happens mostly offstage.

If you go to a job with people you don’t like every day, take heart, because you don’t, at least, work at Hoggatt’s Lab. The people there are petty and vindictive in the most extreme ways, and before the novel is over we will have seen bullying, serial adultery, a vicious custody battle, extortion, a brother- sister relationship that gets very, very close to the incestuous, a semi-psychotic child, a corrupt cop who is a red herring, and who sells cannabis seized as evidence to supplement his retirement, two murders, and more. Dalgliesh feels, as he wades into this cesspool, that he should have worn boots, then waders, then a haz-mat suit.

The men in this tome are often feckless milksops, and the women can be hard and cruel. But I don’t think there was a stock character in the bunch. Everyone’s a round character (to steal a phrase from EM Forster). The cruel show compassion, the stupid have flashes of insight, the cowardly show a little gumption every once in a while. And people’s motives are never tidy as they struggle with their demons, not wanting to give in to their darker urges (but they do, oh they do).

And through it all, James handles characterization and action with a tough and terse poetry. In the final scene Dalgliesh he visits a clunch pit, a kind of peat bog, an ancient place in a rough and ready rural place near the North sea called the Fens, a place that is kind of like a parking lot or an alley in the worst part of town you can imagine, but it is a beautiful and sunny day and for a moment he forgets that death carries life around in the palm of its hand, and we are forever in danger of it deciding, as if on a whim, to close it:

Even the discarded beer cans glinted like bright toys and the wastepaper bowled along merrily in the wind. The air was keen and smelled of the sea. It was possible to believe that the Saturday shoppers trailing with their children across the scrubland were carrying their picnics to the beach, that the clunch field led on to dunes and marram grass, to the child-loud fringes of the sea.

Dalgliesh can never forget the cruelty of the world for long, though. Every character in the novel is driven by unconscious or even conscious desires. Even Dalgliesh, who admits that the death of his son has hardened him. And yet, existentialist, nihilist or cynic (or all three) that he is, fully aware of the blind malevolence of the universe he inhabits, he tries to impose a rough kind of human justice on it.

The pit is the place of the initial murder in the book, and is a much more forbidding and foreboding place at night. When Kerrison, a kind of M.E., a British Quincy, arrives on the scene of the murder, he finds an rusted out old vehicle in which a dead girl’s body sits lit by a pair of arc lights: “Thus brightly lit it looked, to Kerrison, like some grotesque and pretentious modern sculpture, symbolically poised on the brink of chaos.”

And when he encounters the girl, he thought she had “the vacuous look of an adult clown…the body, still outwardly so human, looked an absurd burlesque, the skin of the pallid cheek as artificial as the stained plastic of the car against which it rested.” These brief passages carry a lot of punch per pound, and they occur all through the book, forming a backdrop, a mood, that you just can’t shake.

So, who is the murderer, or murderers? Take your pick from this litter of lunatic losers. I thought I had a lot of borderline, narcissistic, sociopathic types at my job, but this goes beyond even civil service! And the irony, of course, is that those at Hoggatt’s Lab are there to provide justice to society, while they deny it to each other. Something about James’s prose makes me think of her as a nice lady, but if she isn’t evil, she certainly knows what evil is.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Learning from the Masters: 101

Here I begin a series of blogs that I have been thinking about for a long time.   As I have confessed in these precincts in the past, I regularly reread the classics.  Often I find an author from the past, in the midst of telling his story will address the reader directly and talk about what he is doing and why.  The last one I have come across who got away with such shenanigans was John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  But that was nearly fifty years ago.  One cannot get away with that sort of the thing in the 21st Century.  But these musings can be very instructive and consoling to the modern writer.  Readers will also find them amusing, I think, because they open a peephole into the way writers think.  Today I offer a preface to Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale.  It doesn’t exactly fit my bill because it was an addendum, not part of the novel’s original text, but it sure speaks to me about what it meant to be a novelist a hundred years ago, and how similar it is to today—when it comes to inspiration and when it comes to pleasing one’s publisher and one’s readers.    

In the autumn of 1903 I used to dine frequently in a restaurant in the Rue de Clichy, Paris. Here were, among others, two waitresses that attracted my attention. One was a beautiful, pale young girl, to whom I never spoke, for she was employed far away from the table which I affected. The other, a stout, middle-aged managing Breton woman, had sole command over my table and me, and gradually she began to assume such a maternal tone towards me that I saw I should be compelled to leave that restaurant. If I was absent for a couple of nights running she would reproach me sharply: "What! you are unfaithful to me?" Once, when I complained about some French beans, she informed me roundly that French beans were a subject which I did not understand. I then decided to be eternally unfaithful to her, and I abandoned the restaurant. A few nights before the final parting an old woman came into the restaurant to dine. She was fat, shapeless, ugly, and grotesque. She had a ridiculous voice, and ridiculous gestures. It was easy to see that she lived alone, and that in the long lapse of years she had developed the kind of peculiarity which induces guffaws among the thoughtless. She was burdened with a lot of small parcels, which she kept dropping. She chose one seat; and then, not liking it, chose another; and then another. In a few moments she had the whole restaurant laughing at her. That my middle-aged Breton should laugh was indifferent to me, but I was pained to see a coarse grimace of giggling on the pale face of the beautiful young waitress to whom I had never spoken.
I reflected, concerning the grotesque diner: "This woman was once young, slim, perhaps beautiful; certainly free from these ridiculous mannerisms. Very probably she is unconscious of her singularities. Her case is a tragedy. One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she." Every stout, ageing woman is not grotesque—far from it!—but there is an extreme pathos in the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.
It was at this instant that I was visited by the idea of writing the book which ultimately became "The Old Wives' Tale." Of course I felt that the woman who caused the ignoble mirth in the restaurant would not serve me as a type of heroine. For she was much too old and obviously unsympathetic. It is an absolute rule that the principal character of a novel must not be unsympathetic, and the whole modern tendency of realistic fiction is against oddness in a prominent figure. I knew that I must choose the sort of woman who would pass unnoticed in a crowd.
I put the idea aside for a long time, but it was never very distant from me….I was already, in 1903, planning a novel ("Leonora") of which the heroine was aged forty, and had daughters old enough to be in love. The reviewers, by the way, were staggered by my hardihood in offering a woman of forty as a subject of serious interest to the public…. I have been accused of every fault except a lack of self-confidence, and in a few weeks I settled a further point, namely, that my book…must be the life-history of two women instead of only one. Hence, "The Old Wives' Tale" has two heroines….I was intimidated by the audacity of my project, but I had sworn to carry it out. For several years I looked it squarely in the face at intervals, and then walked away to write novels of smaller scope, of which I produced five or six. But I could not dally forever, and in the autumn of 1907 I actually began to write it, in a village near Fontainebleau, where I rented half a house from a retired railway servant. I calculated that it would be 200,000 words long (which it exactly proved to be), and I had a vague notion that no novel of such dimensions (except Richardson's) had ever been written before. So I counted the words in several famous Victorian novels, and discovered to my relief that the famous Victorian novels average 400,000 words apiece. I wrote the first part of the novel in six weeks. It was fairly easy to me, because, in the seventies, in the first decade of my life, I had lived in the actual draper's shop of the Baines's, and knew it as only a child could know it. Then I went to London on a visit. I tried to continue the book in a London hotel, but London was too distracting, and I put the thing away, and during January and February of 1908, I wrote "Buried Alive," which was published immediately, and was received with majestic indifference by the English public, an indifference which has persisted to this day.
I then returned to the Fontainebleau region and gave "The Old Wives' Tale" no rest till I finished it at the end of July, 1908. It was published in the autumn of the same year, and for six weeks afterward the English public steadily confirmed an opinion expressed by a certain person in whose judgment I had confidence, to the effect that the work was honest but dull, and that when it was not dull it had a regrettable tendency to facetiousness. My publishers, though brave fellows, were somewhat disheartened; however, the reception of the book gradually became less and less frigid.
With regard to the French portion of the story, it was not until I had written the first part that I saw from a study of my chronological basis that the Siege of Paris might be brought into the tale. The idea was seductive; but I hated, and still hate, the awful business of research; and I only knew the Paris of the Twentieth Century. Now I was aware that my railway servant and his wife had been living in Paris at the time of the war. I said to the old man, "By the way, you went through the Siege of Paris, didn't you?" He turned to his old wife and said, uncertainly, "The Siege of Paris? Yes, we did, didn't we?" The Siege of Paris had been only one incident among many in their lives. Of course, they remembered it well, though not vividly, and I gained much information from them. But the most useful thing which I gained from them was the perception, startling at first, that ordinary people went on living very ordinary lives in Paris during the siege, and that to the vast mass of the population the siege was not the dramatic, spectacular, thrilling, ecstatic affair that is described in history. Encouraged by this perception, I decided to include the siege in my scheme. I read Sarcey's diary of the siege aloud to my wife, and I looked at the pictures in Jules Claretie's popular work on the siege and the commune, and I glanced at the printed collection of official documents, and there my research ended.
It has been asserted that unless I had actually been present at a public execution, I could not have written the chapter in which Sophia was at the Auxerre solemnity. I have not been present at a public execution, as the whole of my information about public executions was derived from a series of articles on them which I read in the Paris Matin. Mr. Frank Harris, discussing my book in "Vanity Fair," said it was clear that I had not seen an execution, (or words to that effect), and he proceeded to give his own description of an execution. It was a brief but terribly convincing bit of writing, quite characteristic and quite worthy of the author of "Montes the Matador" and of a man who has been almost everywhere and seen almost everything. I comprehended how far short I had fallen of the truth! I wrote to Mr. Frank Harris, regretting that his description had not been printed before I wrote mine, as I should assuredly have utilized it, and, of course, I admitted that I had never witnessed an execution. He simply replied: "Neither have I." This detail is worth preserving, for it is a reproof to that large body of readers, who, when a novelist has really carried conviction to them, assert off hand: "O, that must be autobiography!"

I have taken out a few sentences, but this is pretty much the whole preface.  I laughed out loud when I read “Neither have I.”  I hope you find it as amusing as I did.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Every picture tells a story, don't it?

How often do we get to quote Rod Stewart - not often enough IMO. But enough about Rod.

Who are these women? Famous? Infamous? Distant relatives? None of the above.

For my first (and not quite finished) historical novel I did a tremendous amount of research. Sadly most of it is now sits on a clipboard, perhaps never to see the light of day. But it was not time wasted. Everything I read or did related to my time period (1899) was worthwhile - except perhaps the trip to Chicago to see the museum exhibit on the 1893 Columbian Exposition. That was a bust. Should have just re-read Devil in the White City…or waited for the movie.

One of my fave research activities (and way cheaper than flying NY to Chicago) has been collecting old photographs. It's all well and good to read about the whalebone and the mourning jewelry or see it in a museum but it's pretty cool to see real women of the time. To wonder who they were and why they had had these pictures taken. Were they given to sweethearts? Sent off with men going to wars in the Philippines or Cuba? I started to channel the older woman in these pix whenever I wrote about my heroine's stepmother. The younger woman became her best friend. The little girl with the flowers could have grown up to be my heroine.

New technologies - including tintypes - and the proliferation of studios with painted backdrops and props brought the cost of portraits down to a penny a picture. And they took less time than daguerreotypes. On the back of my toddler pic are the words Instantaneous Portraits of Children, A Successful Specialty.

So who were they? I'll never know. That's for me to make up. To be inspired by.

One special find - a stereograph viewer and a box of pictures. Two images side by side on a card but when viewed through the handheld device they appear as one - in 3D. I didn't bite the first time I saw them. Kicked myself for the rest of the day and then went to a second estate sale held by the same company and scooped them up. Endessly inspiring including pix of the Columbian Exposition! That prompted me to check out Pinterest - which up until that point I thought was for pix of shoes and desserts. Wrong. Positively addictive. I was able to search some of the places my heroine visits on her picaresque journey and see what they really looked like. Particularly helpful if they no longer exist.

I'm not even going to get started on the vintage books, maps and newspapers I've been collecting. (My office is beginning to look like my last name should be Collyer. Google Collyer Brothers if you don't get it.) As I said, much of this info will never make it to the printed page but hopefully my total immersion in the time will come across in the writing.

So what non-traditional things have inspired your writings?

© 2015 Rosemary Harris