Saturday, January 31, 2015

Small Time Crooks—Woody Allen Does it Again, Differently

Woody Allen sometimes gets accused of making the same movie over and over. He doesn’t, but even if he did, I wouldn’t mind. Someone once said Horatio Alger wrote the same story 135 times and never lost his audience. If Woody kept making pictures about neurotic New Yorkers falling in and out of love, to the same soundtrack, involving the same intellectual types who can’t use those big brains of theirs to find any kind of lasting happiness, I wouldn’t care.

But he doesn’t. In SMALL TIME CROOKS, he channels THE HONEYMOONERS, MY FAIR LADY, crime caper movies and even a little Guy De Maupassant to great effect. It’s not HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, and it’s not ANNIE HALL. It’s not a sober meditation on crime like MATCH POINT or CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. It’s not even much like TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, one of his early efforts, which poked fun at those documentary style dramas about the lives of criminals, and had what to me is one of the greatest slapstick scenes ever—the scene that shows Allen as a young, incipient (and insipid and incompetent) delinquent trying to play the cello in a marching band.

I tell people about that scene, and they look at me like maybe I should go back on my medication. Maybe you just have to be a Woody Allen fan. Something about the guy just makes me laugh. Early in the movie, Allen, who plays an ex-con named Ray who has given up burglary to wash dishes and lives with his wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), who was once a stripper and now does nails, comes home one day to find Frenchy watching TV, ooh-ing and aah-ing over one of those shows about the British Royals and all their wealth and supposed class. Look at those clothes, she says, and he replies, “don’t you know those kings and queens get everything wholesale?”

Pretty soon Ray is planning to rob a bank with a bunch of the dumbest bank robbers ever assembled. One thing Allen loves is the movies, and I love to watch him loving them. He is winking at these other movie genres and at us all through this one, and it is great fun. He takes apart movies like OCEAN’S ELEVEN, which depends on a bunch of masterminds for the success of its plot, by giving us a character (played by Michael Rappaport) who wants to be stylish even as they try to dig a tunnel under a bank vault, and so wears his miner’s helmet, with its guiding light, backwards. When the larcenous crew is playing poker Rappaport folds, only to find out the other guy had only a pair of threes. “I thought you was bluffin’” he says, and this cracked me up too.

The plan to rob the bank falls through, but Ray and Frenchy become rich anyway (I won’t tell you how, but this is great fun too). Then the movie becomes a spoof of MY FAIR LADY. Frenchy enlists the Hugh Grant character, David, to teach her to be classy. She’s convinced class is something that transcends money. She’s not a cynic like me, who believes that it is money that gives you class, and not the other way around. I think the idea that you have some kind of moral and intellectual superiority that led to you unerringly to your wealth is a myth that the rich foisted on us. And the idea that you can be classy without money is a crock, too. You can be the classiest guy in the world and you won’t hobnob with those classy types unless you have big bucks or are willing to be their lap dog. And it is ultimately the rich who are the arbiters of “taste.” It’s art only if some wealthy nincompoop is willing to spend money on it, after all.

OK, so now that we have established what my opinion is on the whole thing, back to the movie. As you would expect, Frenchy falls for David, who is a shallow type just looking to make a killing. If Frenchy had less money, he would be considered a gigolo, but when a guy pimps himself out to a really rich woman, he gets to be known as a companion or escort.

The plot takes a lot of twists and turns which are in themselves delightful. And Ray, through it all, is a low-brow kind of guy, liking nothing better than to bet on the horses and have some Chinese food and watch old movies. He is an average guy, a Joe six pack, and he doesn’t care that he is. The class humor here is also great. Frenchy starts to read the dictionary to improve her word power, which leads her to use words in ways that make everyone cringe (except her) and when Ray is told that the apartment house they are looking at belonged to Henry James, he says “really, he was married to Betty Grable, wasn’t he?”

There is even some pathos involved. Frenchy’s sister May (played by Elaine Mae) tells Ray, after Frenchy dumps him, that while there is something to Ray’s objection that Frenchy is too concerned with having class, he is not concerned enough. Ray is heartbroken, but happy to not have to do all that rich stuff. When Frenchy had asked him to accompany her to Europe to look at churches, opera houses, and ruins, his response was “what are you, a stroke victim?”

Throw in a slapstick scene where Ray tries to steal a socialite’s necklace and you’ve got a great movie. Elaine Mae steals away the scenes she appears in with her deadpan delivery of lines and the loopily stricken look she has on her face. The humor is broad, and might not have been the kind that the upper crust types in the movie would have liked, but I loved them. On a more subtle level, May is kind of a wise fool, in that she knows her own heart, even as she knows virtually nothing else. One of the funniest lines in the movie comes when May, trying to cover for Woody and her being in a rich socialite’s bedroom (Chi Chi Potter, great name, played by a magnificently upper-crusty Elaine Strich), says that she has just had a fainting spell, that she has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but it could also be Ebola or Mad Cow Disease.

So Ray and Frenchy lose it all, or they don’t, and get back together, or they don’t. The fun is in not knowing, and I am not telling. But I will say that Ray is convincing as a ham-and-egg kind of guy that really loves his wife. He knows maybe she is too good for him, and he is afraid of how much he loves her. His love for her is so deep it unmans him, frightens him, and it is what makes him bluster and roar at her while she just laughs, knowing she need never doubt that love. I think this dynamic is what endeared people to the HONEYMOONERS so much (although the threats of domestic violence have not aged well). Ray doesn’t have a refined sensibility, doesn’t pursue the sublime, or even know what the word means (maybe something a little less tangy than lime?), but he nevertheless feels a fine and rare love for Frenchy.

It’s all been done before, the “to-the-moon-Alice” thing, and the Rex Harrison/Eliza Doolittle thing, and class has been explored in movies both deadly serious and wildly funny, but I’ve never seen them all tackled in one movie, a movie that pokes fun at the movies that inspired it, but also is clearly in love with those movies. It reminds me of the episode where Ralph Kramden gets his back up over what someone is saying about Norton. The interlocutor reminds Ralph that he himself does not speak of Norton in glowing terms, and Ralph replies “what I say about Norton and how I feel about him are two different things.”

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, January 30, 2015

Nameless in Maine

A startling story appeared in the Bangor Daily News this morning. A school crossing guard in Presque Isle, Maine, was run over and killed by a woman who had fled to Presque Isle—the back of beyond—to hide from a violent stalker in another state. Because the woman had signed up for Maine's Address Confidentiality Program, the police would not say who she was, leaving the dead crossing guard's family angry and frustrated. No criminal charges were filed. The woman is the subject of a civil suit concerning the matter.

What fascinated me about this story wasn't the death of the crossing guard, which is too sad, but the existence of a state program that enables people to move to Maine and disappear. I, for one, never heard of it. The Address Confidentiality Program has been around since 2005, when it was enacted into law. According to the BDN 172 people are currently enrolled in the program, 87 of them children. A referral from a professional counselor is required before you can get in; you can't just show up in Augusta and say, "I can't stand Albert another minute, tell me where I can hide out with the children." Or maybe you can. Maybe it just hasn't caught on. All those divorcees who take their children to Florida to get away from the ex-spouse. Could it be that they're fleeing in the wrong direction?

Family law is such a morass. What a simple solution. "Albert is beating me! Find me a job as a waitress in Vanceboro." Or maybe, "Phyllis is beating me! Tell me where to go with the children." Are there men in the program? If a man tried to get into the program and was rejected, would he have grounds for a discrimination lawsuit? Can you get into the program and escape your debts as a result?

It seems to me that this law, once people everywhere start hearing about it, must result in a huge jump in the Down-East population. Like the discovery of gold in California, it must attract droves of people seeking the last available thing of value in modern society: privacy. There's not a lot of work in Maine, and the winters are beastly, but so what, it's freedom. Forty years ago that law would have occasioned the founding of many a hippie commune of the abused and stalked. The Tomah Woods would have been full of them. 172 people? Bah. The needy are waiting out there in their millions, in Texas, in California, even in New Jersey. All we need is for the word to get out. Come to Maine. Leave your name behind.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Recipe for Surviving a Blizzard (Especially a Blizzard That Wasn’t)

Sheila York

The Blizzard of 2015 just clipped us here in North Jersey: we ended up with only about 6 inches. I do not blame the meteorologists for any of it, not the cancelled train service, not the closed roads, not the fisticuffs at the dairy case. I was very briefly a weather reporter – back in the days when the guys running the TV stations thought it was just fine to call us Weather Girls – and, yipes, is it hard to predict the direction of certain kinds of storms, more so when they’re coming off the water. 

As I was writing this blog, on Tuesday, I watched a car spin a couple of 360s at the bottom of my street. And my street had been plowed. I pictured the Garden State Parkway lined with stalled cars and stranded citizens if we had got any kind of real storm and the roads had been left open. It’s freakishly dangerous when it’s dry, given too many Jersey drivers’ challenged understanding of the rules of the road. (Yes, when the YIELD sign is facing you, it means you have to do it.)

In expectation of the blizzard, David and I meticulously rehearsed our well-considered plan for being cabin-bound for days.

We have natural gas, so we were unlikely to lose heat and the ability to cook. David and I both had fully charged Kindles, so we could read even if the electricity went off. And we had plenty of food and booze. I think we could have been dug out in April and been found fat and happy.

To test Part 1 of our plan: Monday night as the temperature plummeted, the wind rose and the snow became horizontal, we invited neighbors over to share a pot of spicy vegetarian chili — warming, delicious, easy to make.

Vegetarian Bean Chili
From Martha Stewart Living’s cookbook Meatless (2013)

What you’ll need (measure out all ingredients before you begin; things go much faster)
2  tablespoons olive oil
1  large onion, chopped
1  poblano chile, ribs and seeds removed, chopped
4  garlic cloves, minced
Coarse salt
1  can (4 oz) diced green chiles
1  tablespoon + 1.5 teaspoons chili powder
2  teaspoons ground cumin
3  cups good quality canned kidney beans, drained and rinsed
3  cups good quality canned pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1  can (28 oz) diced tomatoes, with juice
2  cups water
Assorted toppings such as toasted/thinly sliced tortillas, chopped avocado, sliced scallions, grated cheese, sour cream or yogurt

What you’ll need to do
1.    In a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. 
Add onion, poblano and garlic; season with some of the coarse salt
Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 4 minutes.
2.   Stir in green chiles, chili powder and cumin; cook, stirring frequently, till spices are darkened and fragrant, about 3 minutes.
3.   Add the beans, tomatoes and their juice, and the 2 cups of water; bring to a boil over high heat.
4.   Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until vegetables are tender and chili thickened, 20 to 30 minutes
5.   Remove from the heat. Season with salt. Ladle into bowls and set out the toppings.

For Part 2: We served plenty of Blizzard Margaritas, which can be made in advance and stored in the snow if the power goes out. Hey, the roads were closed. We weren’t going to drive.

Blizzard Margaritas (David's recipe)

What you’ll need
1  cup tequila (David recommends using one of good quality)
1/4  cup triple sec
6  ounces frozen limeade
3  tablespoons lemon juice (doesn’t have to be fresh lemon; bottled juice is fine)
Crushed ice, if your blender is powerful enough to do that; Otherwise, you can serve on the rocks.

What you’ll need to do
1.    Place the tequila, triple sec, limeade and lemon juice in a blender; blend.
2.    Pour into pitcher and set aside
3.    Crush ice cubes in the blender.
4.    Scoop crushed ice into the margarita pitcher, stir
5.    Serve 

6.    For a salted rim, pour an even layer of coarse salt onto a plate. Wet the rim of the glass with water and dip lightly into the salt.

For Part 3: I finished these books, and recommend them to be added to your plan for the next blizzard warning. Or your celebration of living in a part of country that doesn't get them.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Rachel, whose drinking lost her a marriage, continues to ride the train to London every day, to avoid telling her new roommate she’s also lost her job. Every day, through the window during the train’s daily delay on the line, she sees an attractive young couple in their back garden, and day after day fantasizes, or more accurately obsesses, about their perfect life together, just paces from where her former husband has set up housekeeping with a new wife and a baby (into whose lives she continues to insert herself). Then the young, perfect woman disappears, and Rachel's spotty memory suggests she might know what happened, and might even have been involved. Her self-deception will frustrate the heck out of you (no, showing up drunk on your ex-husband's doorstep again is not a good idea), but despite her considerable faults, you pull for her and remain terrified she won’t make it, right to the whiz-bang finish.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
The story of the young Americans from the University of Washington who won rowing gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. They weren’t rich or privileged, but instead struggled to keep their heads above water during the Great Depression. Most of them had never rowed before. Brown creates riveting portraits matched by exhilarating descriptions of what was once one of the most popular sports in America, and provides a sharp history lesson about a time when Americans wondered if their country would ever recover from the crushing economic collapse and Germany prepared for the next horrific war. The young men’s story is triumphant, but you will also mourn that they were all gone before you knew they ever lived.

Copyright 2015 Sheila York

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Writing a Series: The All-Important First Novel

Je suis Albert… (with many thanks to news worlds of Paris and New York!)

I often get a good sense of a novel by reading the first and last lines. Recently I revisited Al Ashforth's superb spy novel
The Rendition.

Page 1: "It was just before 2400 hours, and it was the kind of chilly night you get in the Balkans in late March."
Page 334: "Her mascara was smudged and there might have been a tear on her right cheek."

Al capably blends the shadowy world of black ops, gutsy men and terrorism—with the deepest human emotions in this novel of suspense. A rare gift!

If you have not read this prize-winning novel—do. It packs a wallop on many levels—and makes you feel a foot taller.

Amazon ranks it # 1 in the Historical Thrillers category.

A distinguished member of MWA and ARIO (Association of Retired Intelligence Officers), Al's short stories have appeared recently in
Crime Square, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Hardboiled and KWIK KRIMES.

I am proud to welcome back an old friend and colleague of Bob Knightly and myself to Crime Writer's Chronicle.

T. J. Straw

I am writing a follow-up to my novel The Rendition. One interesting challenge is finding a role in the second book for some of the people who helped out Alex, the hero, in the first book. Events in the second book kick off in Afghanistan while events in The Rendition began in the Balkans. Is anyone around in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, who was around in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo? These countries are so disconnected that it’s unlikely, but if so, I’d like to hear from you. Maybe I can fit you into the new story. In uncovering a complex international conspiracy in The Rendition, Alex had help from his partner and fellow case officer, Buck, and from an old girlfriend, Irmie, who was a homicide detective in Germany.

Is it too much to again ask Buck to come to the aid of his old sidekick? Buck now works for a defense contractor and Alex is an old friend, so maybe he can swing it. But to ask Irmie to take time off from a demanding job and travel all the way from Europe to Afghanistan seems more than a little unreasonable.

“The first book in a series is crucial,” Reed Coleman, who has created half a dozen series characters, said when I asked. “That’s because you have to create your protagonist’s universe from scratch and you have to live with the decisions you make for the remainder of the series.” Reed, who has written 22 books and is the author of series featuring Moe Prager, Dylan Klein, Jesse Stone, Gulliver Dowd, Joe Serpe and Gus Murphy, speaks from wide experience.

Another critical factor that Reed mentioned is “the manner in which time will elapse.” I became aware of this when it seemed that some of the events that tangled up Alex’s life in The Rendition, were very nearly simultaneous with events that are taking place in Afghanistan in the second book. A famous critic, Samuel Coleridge, once said readers will grant a writer a “willing suspension of disbelief,” but I think there are definite limits to what authors can ask of their readers—and having one’s character existing in two places at the same time would definitely be high on that list.

A writer who is very precise where time and her heroine are concerned is Patricia Gussin, the author of four books about Laura Nelson, who is introduced as a student at medical school during the 1967 Detroit riots. In Shadow of Death, the first book in the series, Laura’s first patient involves her in a life-changing situation that shows her to be a resilient and able to handle the tough decisions she will face not just as a doctor but in the succeeding books in the series. In the second book, Twisted Justice, Laura is seven years older, married to a TV newscaster and already has five children. Despite these changes in her life, she is very much the same person readers came to know in the first book.

“In the final two books in the series, Weapon of Choice and After the Fall,” Ms. Gussin said, “I jumped ahead seven years between each. So Laura, a twenty-seven year-old medical school graduate in Shadow of Death, is now a forty-eight year-old pharmaceutical vice president of research and development in After the Fall.”

Ms. Gussin is not contemplating a fifth book in the series. “Following the seven-year scheme,” she says, “Laura would be fifty-five in the next book. A bit on the older side, so I think she’s phased out.” Fifty five old? I recently learned that Vanna White, the glamorous and vivacious star of TV’s Wheel of Fortune, is fifty seven.

Only time will tell whether Laura Nelson is really “phased out.” As a fan of Laura’s, I hope she isn’t. In any case, I’m reminded of Conan Doyle’s feelings toward Sherlock Holmes, who Doyle hoped was phased out but wasn’t. After letting Holmes perish at the Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem,” the roar of disappointment from readers was so great Doyle was obliged to resurrect Holmes for more stories and another novel.

There is no question that Conan Doyle got everything right in A Study in Scarlet, the novel which introduces Holmes. Watson first encounters the detective in a laboratory where he is working with blood stains. Right away readers learn that science can be employed to fight crime, an insight that is fundamental not just to the stories but to our modern way of thinking. When Dr. Watson, recently returned from Afghanistan, discovers both he and Holmes are looking for living quarters, they take rooms together in Mrs. Hudson’s Baker Street lodgings, and the all-important relationship between the two men is established. It would not change over the course of four novels and 56 short stories, nearly all of which are narrated by Watson.

When I spoke with Bob Knightly, the author of two well-received books about NYC cop Harry Corbin, he voiced sentiments similar to those of Conan Doyle toward Holmes. “Pretty much all I had to say about Harry got put into the first book, Bodies in Winter. The second, The Cold Room, revolved around the NYPD’s reaction to him and Detective Hansen Linde, Harry’s new partner.” According to Bob, “The plot alone dictated what was new. I didn’t want to write another book just for the sake of developing the character, so I have begun a series of legal thrillers about Frank Borowski, a lawyer working in the NYPD’s Advocates Bureau.”

Another problem an author of a series might face, subsequent to the first book, is repetition. Parnell Hall tells a story of what happened during the writing of his fourth book in the Stanley Hastings series. While working as a detective for a negligence lawyer, Stanley calls on a prospective client in Harlem and finds the man strangled.
“I’m writing this,” Parnell said, “and I suddenly realize I’ve written the exact same scene in my second novel, Murder. I’m devastated. I’m repeating myself. So what can I do? Do I throw it all out and start again? Instead, Stanley being Stanley, I had him say, ‘Wow! Déjà vu…. A case two years ago exactly like this one. I think we’re dealing with a serial killer.’”

Although Stanley knows his theory is laughable, when Sergeant Clark calls him into his office in Chapter 8, he says he believes a serial killer is on the loose. How Stanley wiggles out of the jam he creates for himself becomes a major plot line of Strangler. Mr. Hall’s twentieth book in the Stanley Hastings series, A Fool for a Client, comes out later this year.

I once remarked to mystery writer Shelly Reuben how much I’d enjoyed her novel Julian Solo, and when I asked why she hadn’t made Dr. Solo into a series character, she said, “Dr. Solo was destined to be his own victim. If you kill off your main character, your series is over before it begins.”

Although that is mostly the case, it is not always the case. Ask David Morell, author of First Blood, the book that introduced Rambo. Rambo dies at the end of First Blood, but when the book was made into a film, the original screenplay was rewritten so that Rambo could survive and fight on. Because Sylvester Stallone gave a memorable performance as the traumatized Green Beret vet confronting his personal demons, audiences wanted more. As a result, three more Rambo films followed the first.

Not only does Rambo live on in films, he lives on in books as well. After the success of First Blood, Morrell resurrected Rambo and wrote two subsequent books about him. The only guy harder to kill than Rambo is Dracula.

When writers consider how involving for readers some series become, they realize why they should try to get all the details of their stories right—and, of course, to make the all-important first book as good as they can get it. As Reed Coleman says, “It’s hard to get anyone to pay attention to a second or third book, if they didn’t pay attention to the first.”

© 2015 Albert Ashforth

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bernie (the movie)

BERNIE is a very funny movie. Not in the way of a movie like JACKASS where those with little in the way of worthwhile genetic material do things like trying to skateboard along a metal rail, falling on said metal rail in such a way that they are unlikely to ever be able to transmit that genetic material, although I do admit to having laughed at those movies, or in the way of a teen summer movie, where most of the jokes are about farts and masturbation and you get to see some guy make love to a cherry pie ( a pretty nice looking cherry pie, to be fair), or even a movie where the plot is merely a vehicle for a pretty funny guy or gal to deliver a bunch of funny one-off one-liners.

No, it is more thoughtful than that. The very idea of “Bernie” is funny, and while it is first and foremost a funny movie, it manages to, or even does so against its own comedic will, to raise very interesting questions about justice, guilt, innocence, identity, whether or not a whole town or society can be crazy, whether there is such a thing as collective guilt, and finally, whether Easterners like us are really that much smarter, more sophisticated and moral than Texans. Or at least East Texans.

East Texas is where Carthage is, and where the real life Bernie Tiede killed an aging widow named Margie Nugent. Young gigolos scheming on old lady-money is nothing new, God knows, and even young gigolos killing old ladies for money isn’t, but when the whole town gets behind the killer, either denying he did it, or excusing him for it, you’ve got something new.

The reason they excuse him is because, as one of the townspeople interviewed for the movie says, Margie is the type of person who would just as soon “rip you a double wide, three bedroom, two bathroom asshole” as look at you. And because they just love Bernie. Bernie manages to be loved by everyone in spite of being a twinkle-toed, limp-wristed double order of fruit salad. He is so over the top in his seeming gayness, going to the opera, doing interior decorating, and acting in the town plays, that everyone wonders what desires might be lurking beneath his ultra-Christian surface. But since he never expresses those desires, he is not held to account for them. Only the District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) accuses him of being anything other than someone East Texas could be proud of. He tells us that Bernie would hold a man’s hand too long when they shook, that he subscribed to Men’s Fitness even though he didn’t work out, and he was known to wear sandals.

These kind of straight lines are what make the movie so funny. But the movie does not merely indict East Texas, I don’t think. Bernie is every grandmother’s wet dream of a good Christian man, and as such he really has no balls. Or ovaries either. In being a good Christian man, he seems to have conquered his id with his superego, with his sexual desires dying in the process. Not only does he feel no passion, he seems to have no covetousness of any kind. He doesn’t want anything but to be liked, as one of the more astute townspeople points out.

At first, as I sat here taking notes while watching the movie, I wrote things like Jimmy Swaggart, Tony Roberts, Tammy Baker, but as the movie went on I realized that this guy was supposed to be for real. He really was a Christian, really put his fellow man before himself, was self-sacrificing and humble, and really saw the best in everyone. He wants everyone to like him, and Margie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine) is the toughest sell in town, so he goes after her. And at first it seems like he has won her over. They become a weird kind of sexless couple. Bernie is in charge of her finances. And she is in charge of Bernie. For a time she acts out of character and opens up to him. But then she goes back to her default setting—bitch. And after putting up with that for longer than even a stout-hearted Christian man could stand, Bernie shoots her in the back in what is as close to a fit of rage as he can muster.

It is a tribute to Black that he is convincing as a character not in it for the main chance. He doesn’t dispose of the body, which he could have easily done. And he spends all Nugent’s money on the people in town. When I say the whole town is culpable, I mean in the way it is complicit in this idea of male Christianity. And how much is Tiede responsible? How much are we to be held accountable for our own self-delusions? For it is that self-delusion that drives him to murder, I think. He eats a lot of shit in his lifetime, but remedies that by insisting everyone love him. And he wins everyone over but one very mean old lady. She signs over all her money to him, but in return he becomes her perpetual emotional concubine and punching bag. Would he have killed her if just once during his life he had been able to say shit when his mouth was full?

The movie doesn’t delve into the childhood or parentage of Bernie at all, and I think that was a wise choice on the part of director Richard Linklater. To have to decide what wrought such a man, nature or nurture, would be too difficult a task. Let us just assume that a man who wanted to be liked in that part of Texas had an impossible ideal to live up to, and he lived up to it until the moment he pulled the trigger.

And don’t think that only East Texas is being indicted. There are right wing conservative evangelicals all over the land who think that their town, and their country, and their God, is the best. And don’t think that jingoism and chauvinism are only the province of Red States. Of course, the kind of moral even-handedness I am invoking now is an old standby of the sneakily intolerant liberal, and serves as absolution for laughing at all those “you know you’re a hillbilly when” jokes. And finally, I must indict myself, for believing immediately that Margie Nugent’s meanness was never a cover for anything more human or humane, while it took me most of the movie to start to believe that Bernie was not a con man. If she had any goodness, and he had any evil, it was buried so deep within each it was lost forever.

The final irony, for me at least, and the most delicious one, is that the DA Davidson, who has to get the trial moved not because Bernie will get railroaded in Carthage but because even with a confession he will get off, is much more morally objectionable than Bernie. He gives lip service to justice while sticking it up anyone’s ass he can. I wrote in my notes about him “phony prick.” And then I had an unsettling thought—he might be so self-deluded that he thinks he is serving justice and not his own sadistic impulses. Bernie wants everyone to like him and so becomes a super Christian, and good old Danny Buck Davidson wants everyone to suffer, so he becomes a law man. The stated intentions of both are muddied by un-self-acknowledged self- interest. It’s an unsettling thought, to think that these two men, who exhibit such disparate symptoms, suffer from the same disease—being bat shit crazy. Still, as crazy goes, I would much rather hang out with Bernie.

At the end, we get a townsman singing an East Texas Bernie-ballad:

Oh Bernie, Oh Bernie, what have you done,
You killed poor Miss Nugent, and never even run.

No, he didn’t run. He does go off to prison, though, where he becomes the leader of the choir. And I bet most of those prisoners love him. And if they don’t, they better watch out.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Blue Rose—Excellent Show

You may or may not have heard me raving about Acorn TV. This is where you can find all those great British shows you remember from years ago on PBS—Poldark, for example, I, Claudius, or Jeeves and Wooster—and also some new crime stories that you may have missed. Things that were produced in, say, New Zealand, such as the show I've been binge-watching for the last couple of days.

The Blue Rose is a rip-snorter. It takes place in Auckland, NZ. Unlike with some of the offerings from the UK, the dialog is perfectly easy to understand, only slightly accented; New Zealanders say "dith" for "death" and "suspict" for "suspect." I'm not going to fill you in on most of the plot because much of the pleasure comes from the dizzying twists and turns. But the basic premise is as follows: Young Jane reports to the sinister law office on Monday to work as a temp, or "timp," as they say, only to find that Rose, the woman she's replacing, was found drowned over the weekend.

Rose's associates turn up at the office, fight with each other, and express interest in the contents of her desk: her ex-husband, her biker-chick bist frind, the Indian IT guy from his grubby office in the cellar. Everyone seems guilty of something. Jane herself has an ulterior motive for taking the job. Rose, of course, was murdered. Who dunnit? Villains appear only to morph into good guys. Good guys turn bad. It's hard to know who to trust, but eventually a cadre of trustworthy friends shakes out and forms a society: The Blue Rose. Everybody gets matching tattoos. They pledge themselves to right wrongs as well as finding Rose's killer, and goodness knows there are plenty of wrongs to be righted.

It's not your average legal thriller. $4.99 a month gets you membership in Acorn TV. All their offerings are worth watching. I mean, compare that to cable. If you're into chucking the cable and relying on the computer this can be part of your strategy.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Monday, January 19, 2015

Louise Penny and The Beautiful Mystery

Some writers of genre fiction claim to be limited by the constraints of the genre in which they write. These writers do little that is impressive or new, and blame it on the genre. For writers of detective fiction, the excuse is you can’t help but write two-dimensional characters because the genre emphasizes plot and calls for stock characters, detectives and criminals that possess recognizable traits and act in expected ways. Louise Penny did not give herself such an easy out when she wrote The Beautiful Mystery, and managed to create not one but two full and rich and distinctive characters in Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his partner Inspector Jean Beauvoir.

When I went to graduate school to get a Masters in English Literature (there, it’s out, and I know that having done so may very well keep me from writing an accessible and entertaining book review that makes any kind of sense, but I’ll try), we talked a lot about what we called “binaries,” which is what a normal person would simply call a pairing of opposites. We spoke of which partner in the binary was “privileged” and which was “marginalized.” Some of the more popular binaries were man/woman, white/black, rich/poor and heterosexual/homosexual. Texts, or cultural artifacts (only civilians called them books) unconsciously reflected the way society privileged and marginalized the members of these pairings.

It was all about politics, about who had been shut out and was now going to be let back in by interrogating the text and deconstructing it, and it was tedious. Not that I didn’t, or don’t, believe that we favor one member over the other in a lot of these binaries, but it seemed like it didn’t have a lot to do with writing, with the use of metaphor or narrative technique, which was the reason I had decided to go to grad school in the first place, to talk about the great books and the great writers, to learn about them and maybe about how to write like them, even just a little, and not to natter on endlessly about how unfair society is (doesn’t everyone over the age of six know that already?)

But Penny got me thinking of these binaries in a new way. In a number of new ways. Gamache and Beauvoir function in the book as surrogate father and son, as mentor and pupil, and as two parts of an investigative whole that can only function each with the other. Early on we are told of Beauvoir: “He dealt in facts. Collected them. It was the Chief who collected feelings.” And they are complementary in other ways too: Beauvoir likely to verbally assault a suspect until he confesses out of shame or rage, while Gamache practices patience, using his calm ingratiating way to make people want to tell him things.

There is another binary at the center of this book, a book about a murdered monk in a monastery in the Quebec wilderness that is lost to the world until it releases CD of the 24 resident monks singing Gregorian chants: that of the abbot, or father, Dom Philippe, and his prior, Frere Mathieu—the murdered man. Philippe is the traditionalist, wanting to not lift the vow of silence on the monastery, to make another recording and open up the place to the outside world, even if doing so might earn the money needed to save the foundation of the crumbling 500-year-old structure. Mathieu takes the success as a sign from God they go out into the world, save souls and save themselves. He is a charismatic, finding God in the music, while the abbot, who is also his great friend, prefers to find God in prayer.

Many of these opposites require us to try and find a balance between them. Other binaries require we strive towards one and reject the other, in an endless struggle to affirm right and turn away from wrong. And sometimes it is hard to know which is right.

When Sylvain Francoeur, Gamache’s superior, shows up at the monastery, it is to settle an old score with Gamache, which he tries to do by destroying Beauvoir’s faith in his mentor. Gamache feels a murderous rage, and comes perilously close to acting on it. He knows that such passion is not an excuse for such an act, that every killer feels permitted by their rage to commit their crimes, which is nevertheless what they are—crimes. Gamache knows life is a struggle to turn towards the good, the light, the just, and maybe to God, and away from the wrong, the evil, the unjust. The monks, called Gilbertines, had fled from the Inquisition to the New World, and called their place in the woods Saint-Gilbert-entre-les-loups. Gamache thinks that this means Saint Gilbert among the wolves, but comes to think it means between them, as in the old tale of a boy who tells his grandfather he dreamed there were two wolves inside of him. One wants him to be patient, courageous and kind, while the other calls for fearfulness and cruelty. The boy wants to know which of the wolves fighting inside him will win, and the old man tells him whichever one he chooses to feed.

This is why Gamache says, when he conquers his rage, that “the natural and the manufactured come together here in this far flung monastery. Peace and rage. Silence and singing. The Gilbertines and the Inquisition. The good men and the not so good.”

I won’t get into the plot itself here. It’s cleverly constructed, and a lot of fun. Still, I was more impressed and interested in the interaction between Beauvoir and Gamache. Beauvoir has only recently come out of rehab for an addiction to painkillers resulting from a shootout in a controversial case wherein a lot of the officers of the Surete (Police Force) were killed. Franceour blames Gamache and does a number of devious things to make it seem to Beauvoir that Gamache is an opportunist who botched the case and who has no loyalty to anyone but himself. In the way of sons and pupils who have the capacity to doubt their fathers/teachers, Beauvoir finds it within him to blame Gamache for the disastrous shootout and his subsequent addiction instead of facing up to his own doubts and fears. Franceour even manages to manufacture a fake prescription for painkillers and gets Beauvoir to take them again.

It’s the classic struggle to turn away from the darkness and toward the light, and to know in which direction both things lie. Beauvoir fails, and even assaults Gamache in an attempt to get his drugs back. But the loving father doesn’t reject his son. Anymore than the monk who takes the confession of the killer does: “ __________ cried and begged him to understand. And the abbot found that he did.

Mathieu was human, and so was this young man.

And so was he.”

© 2015 Mike Welch

Sunday, January 18, 2015

My Early Genius Dismissed

So my dad was in the military and after he left the navy he had trouble settling down to a civilian job. As a result I went to 10 schools in 12 years. Books always saw me through difficult times and I relied on the kindness of English teachers. I wrote quite a few stories while I was in school and frequently enjoyed having my writing read aloud by the teacher. There were a couple of pieces that were not well received. I was accused of plagiarism by my second grade teacher. Her evidence? My story had held my classmates spellbound (It was quite a feeling.)

I burst into tears when I told my mother. She dismissed it. “I know you wrote it yourself. So do you. That’s what matters.” I suppose a 21st century parent would have stormed over to the school and threatened to sue because of the injury to my emerging self-esteem. Since my parents both worked full time, they expected me to handle school on my own.

When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher assigned the writing of a short story. I remember very little about my story except that it featured a girl on a merry-go-round and I wanted to create a sense of how images blurred as the merry-go-round went faster and faster. SoIwrotethenextfewsentenceswiththewordsallruntogetherlikethis. I thought it was inspired. I was sure the teacher would read it aloud.

A few days later the teacher announced that she had graded our stories. She read a story aloud (not mine) and passed the rest of the stories back. Mine had a big “F” on it and a demand that I rewrite it with appropriate punctuation.

“Stephanie, I want to talk about your story,” she said.

She then went on to talk about an Irish writer who wrote long novels that ignored the rules of punctuation, just as my story had. “Nobody understands him because he doesn’t use commas and periods.”

My parents tended to buy Book of the Month Club selections rather than more literary works so it was several years before I realized that one for brief moment my writing had been compared to that of James Joyce.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, January 16, 2015

Today I'm Posting a Non-Post

Woke up this morning with nothing in my head that could possibly interest anybody else. This was sort of startling. Usually I can run on for twenty minutes about this and that, especially after reading the Trenton Times over breakfast.

But I'd rather stick my hand in acid than write about the latest antics of our governor, who has found a lawyer and maybe a judge to claim that the state of New Jersey is not bound by its own laws in time of self-created budgetary distress. This means that the retired state employees (like us) are fools to actually expect the state to pay them their pensions. Thank goodness the mortgage is paid off. At least we'll have a roof over our heads while we starve. Say, how would you like Christie for president? But I don't want to write about that. and you don't want to read about it.

Another thing I don't want to talk about is my health. Which is perfectly good. Years ago you didn't go to the doctor unless there was something wrong with you. Nowadays, however, people over a certain age who have good insurance (like retired state workers) are expected to go for checkups at regular intervals, sick or well. At these times the doctor will tell you all the things you are probably on the verge of getting, no matter how good you feel right now, and order a battery of uncomfortable and degrading tests. I'm in the middle of that sort of thing right now; I have to go get a Dexascan in half an hour. After the last bloodwork my doctor sent me a report that said, okay, we can't find anything wrong, but unless you change your ways you're going to be in serious trouble soon. This looming shadow of menace. But I don't want to write about it.

Maybe I shouldn't even be trying to write anything. Maybe it's time to do something else. Harold gave me a set of drawing pencils for Christmas; maybe I should go out and sketch things. Or take up the concertina again. I haven't played the concertina since before I was carrying John, and had  no lap to rest the instrument. I could play it again, with a bit of practice. There's a whole warm community of Irish musicians waiting to welcome me into their sessions as soon as I get good enough.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Psychopathy 101: What is a Psychopath?

Psychopaths—Where Do They Come From?

Today we welcome a colleague from Richmond, Virginia, who deals with psychopaths in her day job…

Psychopaths have long been a driving force in my own crime novels—a high-level corporate executive, the wife of a state governor, a former rogue CIA operator, a man abused as an infant by his doctor father who later becomes obsessed by Adolf Hitler, to name a few… as well as a story based on the real life of a woman judge in Memphis, Tennessee, who bought and sold little kids from poor Appalachian homes.

Who is a psychopath? Many of them lead otherwise impeccable lives—on the surface. Disguised by propriety… usually, we never know who they really are…

After her delayed appearance, because of an auto accident, we are delighted to welcome Tina Glasneck, a blessed mother-to-be, to the illustrious pages of Crime Writer's Chronicle!

T. J. Straw

The newspapers are filled with the macabre. Reports and stories filled with murders, brutality and senseless death. There is an impression that vileness has swept the nation, as life is needlessly snuffed out.

Criminals are made out of a combination of opportunity, environment, and gumption. The contributing factor that society plays in creating criminals, and murderers specifically, cannot be denied. People are not committing crimes in general because they are suffering from "moral insanity" nor can it be relegated to a "sin" problem as many religious people would suggest. Instead, it comes through a sociological effect, the ideologies and tendencies of us relegating life to having less value or meaning. By compartmentalizing, setting up lists of acceptable and unwanted, we've mentally given ourselves permission to do harm to others because we've delegated them as having less worth and value. For example, the murderer has come to the conclusion that his victim has less worth, and less of a right to live.

According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, psychopathy is "a former term for a personality trait marked by egocentricity, impulsivity, and a lack of such emotions as guilt and remorse…"

Additionally, Psychology Today cites psychopaths as "patients who appeared outwardly normal [but] had what they termed a “moral depravity” or “moral insanity.’” The list of traits, as listed in the article, can provide a checklist ranging from callousness to violence.

Yet, this answer is too easy.

Madness can also be the simple byproduct of something growing within the brain, taking someone who was once calm and turning him into a mass murderer, as was the case of Charles Whitman, who killed 12 and wounded 33 during the 1966 school shooting at the University of Texas. After his death, his autopsy revealed a walnut-sized tumor, located in the hypothalamus region of his brain.

Within each of us is the power to do great good or great evil. The power of free will, combined with an overwhelming desire, can lead us down the wrong road. Often with uninhibited passions, emotions left unchecked, our emotions can become the accelerant needed to incite a violent interaction. Stuck in our own tantrums, based on our own prejudices, misconceptions, or hate, we then act, creating chaos, resulting in needless bloodshed.

Seeking an answer to my question of the cause behind the psychopath, I dove in deeper to discover additional information. In fact, psychopathy is an anti-social personality disorder. The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology says that this personality disorder is "characterized by chronic antisocial behavior that is not due to severe mental retardation, schizophrenia or manic episodes. This behavior pattern, which is more common in males than females, starts before age 15 with such infractions as lying, stealing, fighting, truancy, vandalism, theft, drunkenness, or substance abuse."

With this in mind, it is good to note that a psychopath does not have to exhibit criminal behavior in order to suffer from psychopathy, but his normal moral compass is compromised. After age 18, at least four of the following will manifest: “(a) inability to work consistently, (b) inability to function as a responsible parent, (c) repeated violations of the law, (d) inability to maintain an enduring sexual relationship, (e) frequent fights and beatings inside and outside the home, (f) failure to repay debts and provide child support, (g) travel from place to place without planning, (h) repeated lying and conning, and, (i) extreme recklessness in driving and other activities."
We often find psychopaths in high power positions, and sometimes even passive aggressive in their approach.
Interestingly, according to an article in Time Magazine, the top two careers of the psychopath are CEOs and lawyers. Also making that list are police officers and clergy. But even so, most are not violent, nor are they serial killers ready to slit your throat and hang you upside down like a gutted goat. That is the stuff of fiction and entertainment like the evil stories of old to scare, and teach. It's not necessarily the crazy that we must fear, but the insane walking among us under the guise of complete lucidity.

As a post-conviction paralegal, I deal with crazy every day. I also deal with the criminality that often accompanies it. From my experience, you don't have to be afraid of the one with the shifty gaze—the one that is willing to manipulate you for his own fun. In their game, they often speak with clarity and humbleness, until you capture them in their own lying web, where the sky isn't blue and the numbers two plus two don't equal four. It is in the tiny details that you learn about the psychopath, when he is willing to play his cat and mouse game. The question at the end of the day to ask is if you're the cat or the mouse.

International selling crime fiction author TINA GLASNECK enjoys dark tales filled with murder, mayhem, mystery and more. Combining her day job as a post-conviction paralegal with her vivid imagination, theological training, and hands-on experiences, Tina infuses her stories with flavors from Richmond, Virginia, allowing the setting to add levels and depth. She is currently working on the next book in her Spark Before Dying series. Tina is a member of such great writers’ groups as Sisters in Crime, Sisters in Crime Central Virginia, Romance Writers of America, and Virginia Romance Writers. To connect with and learn more about Tina, please visit her website at

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Noir in Ireland—The Guards

Ken Bruen, in THE GUARDS, creates a character in Patrick Taylor so real I could sense his very presence as I read. In fact, I know real people less solidly authentic than Patrick Taylor.

Taylor is an ex-guard (cop, in the American idiom) from Galway who segues from the force into drinking and works as a kind of private investigator. The Irish are ambivalent about the “Garda.” In fact, Bruen tells us, there is an old Irish saying: “if you want help, call the guards. If you don’t want help, call the guards.” The people of the auld sod are not too keen on PI’s, either. Taylor tells us that during the Troubles, the hatred that developed for informers was so intense and long lasting that private investigators, with their job of uncovering secrets, are still painted with the same hateful brush.

Bruen has the classic insubordination problem all hard types do, perhaps especially the Irish. The tone of the book is set early on when Taylor, still a guard, pulls over a well-connected speeder in spite of being warned not to. The arrogant s.o.b. taunts Taylor with the words “do you know what is going to happen now?” Taylor says he does, and then punches his tormentor in the mouth.

I can’t help but think that some of Taylor’s attitude comes from having been under the thumb of both the British and the Catholic Church. When a friend of Taylor’s dear old Ma (who takes a close second to a murderer of young girls as the most unattractive character in the book), a priest, calls Taylor irreverent, Taylor responds, “No, I’m not. I’m just not reverent about the same things that you are.” I loved that one. And while I’m at it, here’s another: “There’s God and there’s the Irish version. Not that he doesn’t take an interest, but he couldn’t be bothered.”

Taylor can be seen as a kind of Irish cliché, if you don’t listen closely to what he says and does. Yes, he’s a brilliant, lyrical, and sometimes self-pitying, drunk. But he is also a voracious reader, a kind of philosopher, and he has a love for his friends that seems to come out of nowhere to surprise him into acts of great kindness, and even acts of great violence. The most impressive thing about Taylor to me, an unusual thing in any human being, is the level of self-awareness he possesses, even in the depths of his alcoholism. He knows he is a self-pitying and self-destructive fool, and he knows that the booze parades as the cure when it is, at the least, one of the causes of all his troubles.

Bruen is an absolute master of an idiom all his own, even though it has its roots in American crime novels (which the character constantly reads and references, along with poetry and philosophy), and he has a kind of perverse and grand persistence about him in the face of all that Irish corruption, violence and poverty that is truly astounding. He loses large chunks of time due to beatings and blackouts, but after the fashion of a classic Irish fighter, he never takes a backward step.

Early on in the novel, a woman named Ann Henderson (a client with whom Taylor starts a relationship, knowing it is a bad idea, but like with punching cops, he says what the hell, and a woman to whom he foretells his sabotaging of said relationship) asks him to help prove her daughter Sarah was not a suicide.

Taylor quickly discovers that Sarah was killed, partly through reading her diary, an experience that the surprisingly sensitive Taylor finds very painful. I don’t know how Bruen channels teenage-girl prose, but he does. Taylor’s reaction makes you think all his drinking and wisecracking stems from how painful he finds the world sober and quiet. He fears the depth of both his empathy and his sadness.

A wealthy businessman has killed Sarah, and the Guards (including Taylor’s old partner, now a fat and vicious and complacent Lieutenant) are protecting him. The book is not about a search for a brilliant and elusive killer, however. The killer Taylor is going to bring to justice is a perverse and somewhat pitiful one. Taylor, for all his endurance, is not a mastermind in all this. Most of the detecting is done by a computer savvy friend of his who finds the links between all the players on-line. In fact, all Taylor really does is manage to piss people off with all his questions. And get beaten and stone-drunk.

The mystery of what happened to Sarah is not at the center of the novel. The novel is about friendship and the hope for redemption, and the quest to find something meaningful to do and say in a meaningless world. Taylor and his drinking buddy Sutton confront one of the wealthy guy’s underlings, who admits what is going on and taunts the two of them that they will never bring him or his boss to justice. Taylor hits the man, who falls and hits his head on a coffee table and dies. Taylor is remorseful, but Sutton is electrified by the whole thing, so much so that Sutton goes out and almost burns to death a punk who has been going about lighting winos on fire.

If Sutton is the devil on Taylor’s shoulder, Taylor’s bartender Sean is the angel. He doesn’t push Taylor towards sobriety, but when Taylor indicates he would like to know which direction it is in, Sean is eager to point the way. Sean can see that Sutton is a bad actor, and even Taylor sees it after he is forced into detox (he is sent there towards the latter end of a blackout in which he and Sutton took part in some mysterious mayhem and which Taylor comes out of with an uncharacteristically full wallet) but whether Taylor will reject Sutton and the booze is never certain.

When Sean is run down in the street, the wheels come off for Taylor, and in a big way. He goes on a great binge, loses Ann, misses Sean’s funeral, and wins a huge bet he placed on a long shot. He spends a lot of the money on the people he has betrayed, drunkenly attempting to make amends for things he did while drunk, and is going to go to England when he finds out who killed Sean. I won’t spoil it by telling you who it was, or how Taylor deals with it, but like his plan to go to England, whether what he does redeems him or makes him worse is open to interpretation.

I applaud Bruen’s courage in creating a morally ambiguous hero, and one who is painfully aware of how compromised he is.

Bruen is doing more here than creating a great character—he does great things with the English language. Ironically Bruen, even as he uses English with such precision, uses Taylor to speak out for Gaelic, which Taylor calls Irish. Taylor tells how as a child he originally learned the Lord’s Prayer in Irish, and then had to re-learn it in English: “I never could get over the feeling I was safer in Irish.” Taylor longs for that lost childhood like only an Irishman can, turning a musing on the vinegar smell of fish and chips into something poetic: “It smells like the childhood you never had.” And in Bruen/Taylor’s language is the Irish sense of irony, too: “I dunno I was delighted or jealous, both probably, feeding off each other in the Irish fashion.” And finally, the sense of humor—when a true believer tells him that a storm is coming, Taylor asks “are you being Biblical or informative?”

It’s all great stuff, and I can’t wait to read another Patrick Taylor novel.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, January 9, 2015

Onward and Upward: The Gallison Exercise Program

Self-improvement! Am I still at it? You would think, considering the towering stack of to-do lists in the corner of my office (dating back to 1972), that I would have got wise to myself by now. But, no. Although I canceled my gym membership last month when I noticed how seldom I showed up, I am still at it.

Here's my latest plan. I bought an exercise bike and stuck it in my office.

Now, everybody tells me, and you're going to tell me, too, that riding on an exercise bike is so boring that I'll give it up in a week. But I tell you what. The bike is only half of the plan. The other half involves the Metropolitan Opera, which offers an online subscription service. You have to see this. For fifteen dollars a month (way cheaper than a gym membership) you can see any or all of 500 plus operas. Here's a link to their catalog of offerings.

Look at this stuff! Traviata! Contes de Hoffman (two versions)!

So the big idea is to get on the exercise bike and pedal away while I watch the world's greatest operas. So far I can do five or six minutes at a stretch, enough to see an aria and a bit of recitative, but I plan to get fitter and fitter.

Some of you will be unable to understand the attraction. Bah, you will say to yourself. Culture. Well, I don't like culture either, but grand opera isn't culture, anyway not in my book. It's drama, all wrapped up in gorgeous music, beautiful costumes and imaginative sets. The modern singers are fine actors and attractive people as well. Nowadays with the subtitles anybody can figure out what's happening onstage. Try it! You can have a week for free. Maybe you can work out while watching it.

Here's the sort of thing you can see, though this is Anna Netrebko on YouTube.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Very Short Book Tour

I have several friends who are writers and know that usually they need to promote their own books. In the early 1990s I contributed an essay to a collection called “The Book Group Book.” I was paid a very modest fee for my efforts and thought no more about it.

Then one day the editor of the collection called me and asked if I would promote the book at two local book stores. Well, the book stores weren’t so local. I lived in Philadelphia; the bookstores were in the Scranton area. I was bewailing this fact to a friend of mine who then said, “Oh, I can take you to Scranton. We’ll spend the night before with my parents in Elmira.”

I called the owner of one of the bookstores who was delighted to hear I would make the trip.

“Do you have any pictures of yourself you could send?”

“What kind of picture are you talking about?” I asked.

“Well, eight-by-ten glossies are the most effective.”

I started laughing and could not stop. My response to her request did not win me any friends. I have formal portraits of myself as a 17 year old from the three different schools I attended during my junior/senior year of high school, but had only snapshots otherwise. I did have an urge to send a picture of Danielle Steele, but resisted the impulse.

About an hour later the owner of the bookstore where I would actually appear that weekend called.

“I don’t want to oversell this event to you.”

“You don’t expect much of a turnout other than foot traffic, right?”

“As long as you understand,” she said.

I had a great time in Elmira. My friend Clare’s parents were warm and welcoming and acted as if I was the wittiest person they had met in some time. I always feel warmly toward people who laugh at my jokes.

“I know you’re forty, Stephanie, but don’t be surprised if my mother tucks you in.” said Clare.

Sure enough, later that night I woke and found Clare’s mom checking to see if I was warm enough and if I needed anything. Next morning we had my favorite breakfast, Eggs Benedict.

Clare then took her father and me out to Mark Twain’s grave and somewhere I have pictures of the two of us standing in front of the tomb. The Elmira leg of the adventure was the high point.

Clare and I drove to Scranton and went to the book store. The owner could not have been nicer or more welcoming. I munched on cookies and drank punch. Two people showed up to talk to me. One was a woman who thought she could sign up for the book group to which I belonged. She left when I told her the book group met in Philadelphia. The other interested party was an English teacher who came by to chat and Clare took a picture of the store owner, the English teacher and me looking as happy as if we were participating in the literary event of the year. (I do feel naturally elated when I’m around books.)

I got a call later from the lady who wanted the glossies.

“You’ll be coming back up to appear at my branch of the store, right?”

I did then explain to her that while I had had a swell time at her partner’s store, I couldn’t spare the time to do a second trip.

“Well, it’s true you weren’t much of a draw.”

Oh, well. It’s always good to be reintroduced to the concept of humility.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Bling Ring—“Reality” Comes to the Movies

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the rich are different from you and me (assuming you and I are not of the moneyed class). Hemingway is reported to have replied “yes, they have more money than we do.” The five teenagers who run around Los Angeles stealing money, drugs and clothes from the houses of rich celebrities in the movie THE BLING RING aren’t rich, or celebrities. Or very bright, for that matter, as they brag to their friends about what they have done and get caught on security cameras, which makes it about as easy to catch them for the police as it apparently is to score ecstasy or coke at a party in the Hollywood Hills—any party in the Hollywood Hills.

Mark, the lone male member of the gang, tells a reporter from Vanity Fair (I thought she was his shrink at first) that he did it because he never felt he was handsome enough, and the pretty girl who ran things manipulated him. He rails against the way we have an obsession with celebrity even as he relates he has 800 friends on Facebook.

Nicki, played brilliantly by Emma Watson, tells the camera that we are indeed a shallow culture, obsessed with appearances, with shiny surfaces, and then mentions the website people can access to read about how she is dedicating her life to changing the world (perhaps by giving seminars on how to be treated as a person of substance by demonstrating an absolute lack of substance).

What sickened me was that the ghetto kids in the rap music these ciphers listened to, the role models for these moral and intellectual Neanderthals stealing handbags and-high heeled shoes, these ghetto youths would have gotten hard time for selling a little weed, while the Feeble-Minded Five broke and entered and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars and got ridiculously light sentences. It was almost like they were executives at Enron, for Christ’s sake. I agree with Hemingway—they are no different from you and me, or at least not different from any other criminal or morally retarded person—they are just self-absorbed to the point where they don’t see any reason to discharge any responsibility towards their fellow human beings.

One of the interesting things about the movie is that it is based on real life. Real, as in reality, as in Reality TV. The movie, I think, is satirizing the cult of the celebrity and our obsession with what celebrities may be really like. Ignoring the fact for just a moment that pointing cameras at people to find out what they are like is about as useful as opening the refrigerator door to see if the light is on, I couldn’t help but think that to the kind of people that who watch Reality TV without any sense of irony, the subtleties of satire are lost. They are about as sophisticated as those people who observe Professional Wrestling with not a jaundiced eye, who take their flying suplexes with nary a grain of salt.

The “real life” numbskulls that perpetrated the crimes and served purely nominal jail time for them surely lacked such discernment themselves, or were so cynical they didn’t care. I imagine them getting out of their Club Fed jails and eagerly watching THE BLING RING, glad that people were watching a movie about them, not knowing people like me were thinking they were the silliest bunch of nitwits ever (even including Tom Cruise, Tammy Faye Baker and George W Bush), or not caring, because any attention is good attention, and might get you a contract to sell your story to some other nitwit, who will write about you for still more nitwits to read about.

I’m sure you see the irony in all this—even as I rail against our national propensity to pay more attention to manufactured news, to the fatuous and frivolous, the ersatz important and the erstwhile significant, to whether or not Bruce Jenner is going to become a woman, to whether Jenifer Aniston will ever get knocked up, and who will do the knocking, even as I ridicule the ridiculous, I am being lured into the insidious trap these cynical entertainment types set for us—even as we rail against , we are paying attention to.

It seems that being a celebrity will make you rich, and being rich makes you a celebrity, which raises the questions “just what is a celebrity, and which comes first, the wealth or the celebrity?” A celebrity is an attention whore, who gets paid attention to for the wrong reasons, for no reason at all, and perhaps, in the greatest irony, because we are dumbfounded by just how desperate they are for that attention. For these goofies and goonies, leering at us from the covers of supermarket tabloids even as we leer back, any publicity is good publicity, regardless of what all those whining stars say about the need for privacy and the horrors of being pursued by Paparazzi.

So we watch Jersey Shore, congenital morons tap dancing their way across our TV screens, the background music reminiscent of whatever they played as the Titanic went down, instead of paying attention to global warming and how the very rich we lionize are raping us yet again (we didn’t learn from the Great Depression, The S & L Scandal, the Sub-Prime Mortgage Debacle, etc.)

We say shame on you to Bill Cosby? Why do we say anything to him at all? And why do we let him say anything to us? We go to a rapist who isn’t a doctor but who plays one on TV for advice on raising kids and race relations, and then forget about what the real issues were in the first place when his off screen behavior rivals that of Fatty Arbuckle. Shame on Bill? Shame on you and me.

These kids want to be street, to be victims of the man, to be ghetto (which would entail poverty and violence on a scale they couldn’t even imagine) and to be ridiculously wealthy. Well, to be “street” I would imagine you would have to do some real crime and risk some real consequences, which they hardly do, at least according to the sentences they got.

THE BLING RING, which derides consumer culture while cataloguing all the high end brands the kids steal, is about crime, but not crime in the sense I think of. These kids weren’t committing crime in the sense that they seriously hurt anyone—they were merely dopes who stole silly and expensive shit from other dopes, a kind of transfer or wealth from the absurdly privileged to the comfortably middle and upper middle class. And while they couldn’t do much damage to their “victims,” who I am sure had insurance as well as owning a few insurance companies, they really weren’t risking any damage to themselves. When you are walking black and poor down the street in Ferguson, Mo., then you are walking a tightrope without a net. In Beverly Hills, you’re not even really on a tightrope. It’s all just make believe. Like on TV.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, January 2, 2015

Food, Friends, and Music: Happy New Year

On New Year's Eve we gave our standing party, one of those annual parties that dear friends have every year until the last one has crawled off to the nursing home. I like to cook for people, and so I made my famous chicken and sausage gumbo, which was as always well received. People brought things, too. Mostly sweet things, so that my doctor, who says I'm on the verge of diabetes, would frown if she saw me eating them. I ate them anyway.

Food is a powerful force for bringing people together. I was reflecting on that this morning as I scarfed up another Norwegian cookie, whose buttery goodness reminds me of the many people who have given me delicious cookies over the years, my grandmothers, my grandmother's housekeeper who used to make fat sugar cookies with a dollop of jam in the middle, my old flame who used to bring me chocolate eclairs. So many memories of food. Offer me something sweet and my heart is yours.

As we stuffed our faces the other night the musicians broke out their instruments and began to play Irish music. Bliss! I really am going to have to work out on the concertina so that I can join them next time, or at very least get the harp tuned. You can't make an ugly sound on a celtic harp. My cousin Harry built that harp from a kit. When his fingers got too sore to play it he sold it to me for the price of a sword he wanted, a reproduction of something that had been found in a tomb on the McCloskey's ancestral lands in Ireland. Harry had a very romantic turn of mind. He and his wife lived in a hunting lodge in the White Mountains with a hand-carved sign over the front door that read, "Enter in Peace or Leave in Pieces." You're thinking, a man like that would have guns. He did. He forged them himself in his smithy.

But I digress, although it isn't really a digression on New Year's Eve to be thinking of the beloved and great ones of the past. I was telling you about the party, and how much fun it was, in spite of the fact that it was a much quieter party than in years of yore. The children who once ran around under our feet so entertainingly have become teenagers, some of them quite sullen. Everyone tires early. I call it a standing party, but truth to tell only the party is able to remain standing throughout the evening anymore. The rest of us have to sit. We sat, we ate, we told funny stories, we played music or listened to it. We missed the absent ones. But it was a good party. We're all very fond of each other.

Happy New Year to you. May you have music, good things to eat and loving friends.

© 2015 Kate Gallison