Writing Exercises 


 July 14, 2013


Horror As Metaphor.  Horror is most effective when it is hooked to something in the psyche.

     Isn't the fearsome werewolf the dark side of human nature? Some true crimes seem so strange - so brutal or so causeless - as to seem not the work of a human being. I can easily imagine how, in times past, people would believe such crimes were committed by some demonic being.

     The vampire is clearly a psychopath, those beings who look like us but are not like us, who use us and drain us and discard us. The type has surely been around since before history. It has been seen, its pattern observed; but there were no psychological terms to apply to it in some attempt at explanation. Stephen King's Salem's Lot uses the spread of vampire infection through a community as a metaphor for the spread of fear and corruption through a community, a meta-phor that illustrates anything from the spread of lynching to Nazism and the camps.

     Demonic possession has long been the metaphor for anything irrational that holds a person in its grip - from wildly destructive fits to heroin addiction. Really, doesn't addiction look like a demon which has a death grip on a person?

     Dragons and other creepy critters surely represent the forces of Nature, which we are only beginning to understand, even though we imagine we can control them.

     Stephen King's Under the Dome has a great many plots and messages in one narrative.  Most vividly described is the deterioration of the atmosphere within the Dome, the enclosed world from which no one can escape - as no one can escape from our own beautiful, polluted Earth.

     When you write horror, keep in the back of your mind the fearful truth the monster of your story symbolizes.


July 9, 2013


Real Writers As Fictional Characters.  I like stories in which writers appear as characters - real writers, not fictional ones. If anyone out there knows of any novels and stories besides the ones I discuss here, please write me at blj99@hotmail.com.

Ernest Hemingway was an outsized man who lived an adventurous life. It's  hardly surprising that he figures in a number of novels, as an action hero. The Crook Factory, by Dan Simmons, is about Hemingway's time patrolling for German U-boats during WWII. This was a serious danger, and people in New Orleans do believe that a U-boat got into the Mississippi bent on mischief. Catching Hemingway's Trout, by Laurie Anderson, is a collection of stories about a writer who retraced Hemingway's steps in hopes of finding some traces of  him - and succeeds. Craig MacDonald writes a series of mysteries starring a crime writer, Hector Lassiter. Three of the novels he calls his "Hemingway Trilogy" because they feature Ernest as...second banana.  One True Sentence is set in expatriate Paris. Hector and Ernest meet in Gertrude Stein's salon. In action, Ernest acquits himself as a Hemingway hero should do. When wounded, Hector is attended by no less than Dr. William Carlos Williams and Alice B Toklas sends him a batch of her special brownies. Toros and Torsos moves on to the bullfights in Spain, Hemingway's finca in Cuba, and the Black Dahlia, with Orson Welles assisting in the investigation. MacDonald makes much of the Dahlia's injuries resembling some Surrealist paintings. Print the Legend deals with Hemingway's tragic last years. Hemingway is so shaken he cannot load his shotgun, so Miss Mary has to assist him. In The Paris Pilgrims, by Clancy Carlisle, Hemingway is not seen in his own eyes but through the eyes of people who knew him then. Chapters are narrated by: Sylvia Beach, Hadley Hemingway, James Joyce, Chink Dorman-Smith, Ezra Pound, Margaret Anderson, Mike StraterBill Bird, Lincoln Steffans, Gertrude Stein, Robert McAlmon, Alice B. Toklas, Renata Borgatti, John Dos Passos, Djuna Barnes, Eugene Bullard, and Pablo Picasso.

     Rommel and the Rebel, by Lawrence  Wells, brings in William Faulkner. General Rommel, the only one of Hitler's generals who has any glamour or tragedy, admired General Bedford Forrest, whose fast-moving cavalry style could be adapted to tanks. Faulkner also admired Forrest and used him as a character in a story. In this novel, a State Department official accompanies General Rommel to Mississippi to see Forrest's battle sites and incidentally to meet Faulkner. They visit Bedford's grave at night, and as Faulkner is along everyone gets roaring drunk.

     Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is the hero of a mystery series by Peter J. Heck. The stories are narrated by Mr. Clemen's prissy Yankee secretary, Wentworth Cabot. Heck performs the difficult task of showing a character through the eyes of someone who does not understand him. The titles are amusing:  Death on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee in Criminal Court, Guilty Abroad, The Prince and the Prosecutor, The Mysterious Strangler

     English literature is full of intelligent, observant spinsters who solve mysteries. Was there ever a more intelligent, observant spinster than Jane Austen? She is the star of a mystery series by Stephanie Barron, Jane and..... The series follows along known events of Miss Austen's life. The first one, The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor begins with the famous episode when Jane becomes engaged in the evening and breaks the engagement in the morning. She never met her Mr. Darcy, but I've always supposed she met her Mr. Collins and just could not go through with it. Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron has the recently published novelist meeting England's leading literary light, George Gordon, Lord Byron. He is smitten, but of course Miss Austen cannot receive advances from a married man. In the latest one, Jane and the Canterbury Tale, Jane stands in the rain for several hours. Prelude to tuberculosis?

     With All My Heart, by Margaret Campbell Barnes, is about the marriage of Catherine of Braganza and Charles II of England. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, has a cameo. Barnes is really good about working artists and writers into her historical novels whenever she can.

     The Walsingham Woman, by Jan Westcott, is about Frances Walsingham, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth's spy master. Frances, who has been described as "indefatigable," was married to Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Essex, and the Earl of Clanricard.

     William Shakespeare is now the most famous writer - ever. In his lifetime, a playwright was little esteemed, so few details of his life were recorded. In Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott, the writer bows to the Earl of Leicester, and Sir Walter comments briefly that immortal genius bowed to the royal favorite. Much Ado About Murder, edited by Anne Perry, is an anthology of stories about Shakespeare or his characters. The Bard himself is in "All the World's A Stage," by Jeffrey Deaver; "Exit Pursued," by Simon Brett; and "The Serpent's Tooth," by P. C. Doherty. Shakespeare has a walk-on in The School of Night, by Louis Bayard. The Book of Air and Shadow, by Michael Gruber, goes between modern and Elizabethan times, as an intellectual property lawyer comes across a lost play, about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Commissioned by James I to write a play sympathetic to his mother, Shakespeare also became interested in the mind and emotions of Elizabeth. If only!

     The Intelligencer, by Leslie Silbert, is about Christopher Marlowe. It brings in writers he knew, Thomas Kyd and Sir Walter Ralegh. Sir Walter is remembered as an adventurer; he should be remembered as a poet. He also figures in The School of Night, by Louis Bayard.

     Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet form to England. He will figure in any novel about Anne Boleyn, historical novelists' favorite tragic heroine. He was in love with her, and he may have been the man who deserved to get the chop when she was beheaded for adultery. He wrote many lovely lyrics to her. He figures most appealingly in Margaret Campbell Barnes's Brief Gaudy Hour.  In Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, he is shown as a staunch, principled man, protected by his patron, Thomas Cromwell. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, who brought blank verse to England, has a brief, ungracious scene in Bring Up the BodiesDear Heart, How Like You This, by Wendy Dunn, is an historical novel about him, using his adventures as a diplomat in Italy. Other novels are Anne Boleyn, by Evelyn Anthony; The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, by Robin Maxwell; The Queen of Subtleties, by Suzannah Dunn; and The Lady in the Tower, by Jean Plaidy.

     Geoffrey Chaucer was another poet-diplomat. He travelled to Italy and met many of the artists and writers who were shaping the Renaissance. He is a supporting player in Within the Hollow Crown, by Margaret Campbell Barnes, and Katherine, by Anya Seton. Katherine is about his sister-in-law's romance and eventual marriage to John of Gaunt. He is also the hero of a mystery series by Phillipa Morgan. Chaucer and.....is the overall title.

     Francois Villon, the poet-thief of Medieval Paris, is the hero of "A Lodging for the Night," a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson.

     Zenophon, Plato, and Euripides are young soldiers in The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault. Socrates, not a writer but a teacher of writers, also figures in this novel, in which the tragedy of Athens in the Peloponnesian War proceeds as inevitably as any classic play. Plato is also in her Mask of Apollo, about his efforts to put his philosophy into practice with Dionysus of Sicily. Aristotle appears in the last scene, with his young pupil, Alexander of Macedon. She writes that though most tragedies were of people meeting, this was a tragedy of people not meeting. What Plato could have done with a pupil like Alexander.....

     Simonides, who composed odes, narrates The Praise Singer, by Mary Renault. Bacchylides, Anacreon, and Aeschylus also figure in the story. This story is set at an important cultural turning point, the time when literature began to be written down, not only saved in the memories of bards. Simonides dictated the works of Homer to a scribe when Pisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, wanted them preserved in writing. Simonides is an old man who is somewhat skeptical about trusting one's work to writing, not to one's memory, and is shocked to see his nephew, Bacchylides, composing by writing, not in his mind.

     Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Prynichos figure in Farewell, Great King, by Jill Paton Walsh, about Themistocles. Phrynichos was famed in ancient Greece as the father of tragedy, and his Taking of Miletus was one of the few plays with a contemporary theme. Nothing remains of his work but fragments quoted by other writers.

     The work of the classic Greeks is now the bedrock of Western culture. It survived incompletely and by accident. A civilization as advanced and artistic as ancient Egypt must have had a great literature, but hieroglyphics cannot capture tone and subtle shadings as can the alphabet.


 June 24, 2013


Travel in Fiction.  Often, we want to travel to places because of something we've read. The places come to represent something to us. Travel has a place in fiction, starting at least with The Canterbury Tales. It is natural for a writer to want to make use of a memorable setting, but most cannot really write from within a foreign setting unless they have lived there many years. However, a story of travelling has many possibilities. A good travel story takes the protagonist on an outward journey and on an inward journey into  himself. Self-discovery on the road is a time-honored theme. Good examples that come to mind are: On the Road, by Jack Kerouac; Ship of Fools, by Katherine Anne Porter; Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes; Nights of Rain and Stars, by Maeve Binchy; The Empty Quarter, by David Marion Wilkinson; Eternity Road, by Jack McDevitt; Every Man for Himself, by Beryl Bainbridge; Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens; The Way West, by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.; Murder Takes a Holiday, anthology edited by Cynthia Manson; Daisy Miller and almost anything by Henry James; anything by Somerset Maugham. If anyone out there can think of anymore  good travel fiction, please write me.


June 16, 2013


Research Fiction.  Generally, writers stick with what they know, for good and sufficient reasons. However, a writer can set herself to learn more. This is necessary, of course, for historic fiction. It can also add to fiction with a current time and place. Learn a little about a different job field from the ones you know, about an interest people have that you don't share, a place or an art that is strange to you, even a very common profession - such as doctor - or a very common low wage job - such as Wal-Mart cashier - that is not your own. This will help you to break away from stereotyped perceptions. It will surely add a few characters and plot lines that you would not otherwise have had.  Even if you do not directly use your research, the wider the perspective you  bring to writing, the deeper your perception will be. So, research, whether by reading or talking to people, anything that can take  you beyond your own expertise and out of your own skin.



June 9. 2013 


Out of Control First Draft.  This is the problem I am confronting now. My first draft is unfinished - and already too long. I read over the whole thing. I realize that I got into some byways following minor characters, just because they interest me. Now, Charles Dickens could get away with that and people read him at least partly for his byways and supporting characters. But that is not the way it works today. What to do? Junk the whole thing as hopeless? Go back and revise now, then plunge in again? Keep on going, then see about cutting out novellas from the byways? I haven't decided, but I know I have to. If you get yourself into this fix, take a mental step away from the story and look at it as objectively as possible. Remember all those writers who admit in The Writer and Writer's Digest that they had to cut their manuscript in two to  get something publishable.

June 2, 2013


Steal From the Best. This exercise is also known as "pastiche." This means you deliberately write something in someone else's style. You can do this to copy a zillion seller, in hopes of at least a million seller. You can write in the format of another period, only with more sex and violence; get the nostalgic readers who are used to the ways of today's fiction. Or  you can do it simply as an exercise in writing. You rewrite a scene in a classic short story from another character's point of view, but you stay within the framework of the story. This sharpens you as a reader, as you see how the writer you've chosen set things up. You might even get a little real insight into how that writer worked.


Books About Writing Books.  Books about how to write books can be helpful - as long as they are not those books that promise to teach you  how to write a sure fire best seller and make a million bucks.  You can pick up tips on technique and, importantly, encouragement. Technique in Fiction: Second Edition Revised and Updated for a New Generation, by Robie Macauley and George Lanning, came out  in 1987. The first edition came out in 1964; there is probably a third. They write, "Fiction, an art of many resources, has no absolute rules or laws. Its whole code of technique is built on precedent alone."  They illustrate their points with many examples from distinguished writers, of how these writers solved a technical problem, often using contrasting examples. They mention past techniques which are no longer used and warn against copying these, no matter how much you like to read those old masters. They move in a workmanlike manner from getting the idea of a story, though beginning, style and speech, characterization, POV, setting, pace, the difference between plot and story, and finally the deeper meaning. Their concluding point is that, in the end, the writer must go it alone. My experience with books about writing books is that, as long as you don't read them in hopes of learning a set of rules, whatever jumps out at you is probably the answer to a subconcious question.



May 13, 2013


People Have Pets. There are a lot of things people do that seldom show up in fiction, even apart from going to the bath-room.  People have pets, they spend a lot of time with their pets, they talk about their pets.  Another caseworker in an office where I worked once griped to me, "When I say something about my son, everyone starts talking about their cats and dogs. It's not the same!"  Yet a pet in fiction is a rarity. Andrew Vachss has his Neopolitan mastiffs; Jonathan Kellerman has his French bulldogs. Other characters who would in life have a pet, in fiction just...don't. This occurred to me some decades ago, in NYC, when another caseworker kept me informed on the mischief of Brandy and Sherry, the Siamese cats she kept house for. When I realized something was being left out, I went back to my as-yet-unpublished proto-woman's lib, college girl manuscript and inserted a cocker spaniel who added so much to the psychology of Joey. Think about pets for your characters.


April 29, 2013


Reading Poetry Helps Prose.  Poetry is naturally concise and vivid. Prose seems naturally to be somewhat...prolix. Reading poetry can set the imagination on the track of brief, vivid phrases, particularly with description. Even poets as rapturous as Keats and Shelley have their precise phrases, striking because so original. A few examples. How many can you all find?


"I am the rose of Sharon,

and the lily of the valleys."

    Song of Songs

"Haughty war-workers..." (Vikings)

    Anglo-Saxon , Battle of Brunanburh

"O brave new world...."

     William Shakespeare

"....the big wars,

That make ambition virtue!"

     William Shakespeare

".....life's lustful joys...."

     Thomas Nashe

"....the knell of parting day...."

     Thomas Gray

"O my luve is like a red, red rose

     That's newly sprung in June...."

       Robert Burns

"....lonely as a cloud..."

      William Wordsworth

"....blithe spirit!"

     Percy Bysshe Shelley

"St. Agnes' Eve - Ah, bitter chill it was!

  The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold."

     John Keats

"And drunk delight of battle with  my peers...."

     Alfred Tennyson

"Lo, body and soul - this land,

     My own Manhattan with spires, and   

      the sparkling and hurrying tides...."

      Walt Whitman

"And that pale sustenance,

       Emily Dickinson

"The garland briefer than a girl's."

       A. E. Housman

"When I see birches bend to left and right

 Across the line of straighter darker trees,

 I like to think some boy's been swinging them."

  Robert Frost

"I  lkve by squeezing from a stone

The little nourishment I get."

     Elinor Wylie

"Stone-cutters,fighting time with marble."

     Robinson Jeffers"

"God, I can push the grass apart

   And lay my finger on thy heart."

         Edna St. Vincent Millay





April 22, 2013

Take Series Characters Out of Their Comfort Zones.  One of the pleasures of reading a series of novels is the continuing development of the supporting characters. The sleuths know their town and their resources there; however, difficult the crime may seem to be, they are in their comfort zones. My cousin, Lynn Jones, followed Tony Hiller-man's Navajo series; but when he came to the novel that took the Reservation police officer back to Korea, he was puzzled. Why? I remembered some series which took the lead character away from his usual setting. We worked out the theory that a series should take the sleuth out of his comfort zone, throw him on his own resources, and let him find out how well he can do. Robert K. Tanenbaum's Absolute Rage takes his quintessential New Yorkers, Butch Karp and Marlene Ciampi to West Virginia, to investigate the murder of Marlene's friend. In Blossom, Andrew Vachss's Burke goes to Indiana to a small, heartland town far from the mean streets of NYC and away from his "family", to answer a call for  help from an old cell mate. In The Web, Jonathan Kellerman sends Alex Delaware and Robin Castagna to a small Pacific island, a paradise with terrible secrets. Alex is on his own, except for some long distance Internet help from Milo Sturgis.  Mma Ramotswe leaves her beloved house on Zebra Drive, in Alexander McCall Smith's Tears of the Giraffe, to go to a village and farm on the edge of the dry Kalahari to investigate the case of a missing American. Precious relies on the wisdom of Clovis Andersen and her own good sense. In Anne Carroll George's Southern Sisters Mysteries, Murder Makes Waves, Mary Alice and Patricia Anne take a vacation away from Birmingham (and its giant statue of Vulcan, with what Mary Alice calls "his great ass") to go to Destin, where they keep stumbling over bodies. Karen Kijewski gives her Kat Colorado two getaways from Sacramento, in Katwalk to Vegas, in Copy Kat to a small resort town. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone lives and breathes California, but L Is for Lawless sends her halfway across the country - with some very bad company. Janet Evanovich takes her bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, from Jersey to Vegas in To the Nines; then in her between the numbers Plum Spooky Steph gets far enough out of the Hood to wake up the Jersey Devil, who drops a load of road apples near her. Jack McDevitt's series characters, interstellar antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath, pilot and Watson, operate on planets far out of our Solar System. So how can they ever get out of their comfort zone into something unusual? By going, in The Devil's Eye, to a planet that is actually outside the Milky Way galaxy - and in denial that doomsday is on its way. In these stories, characters have to think up new responses and figure what to do without the friends who usually have their backs. This can really liven up a series and show the characters in new lights. For contrast, Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield suspense series, starting with Vanishing Act, always has Jane going across country on her missions. Jane has no comfort zone. How does she manage?


April 15, 2013


The Three F's of Female Fiction.  The Three F's of Female Fiction:  Food, Fashion, Furniture. Women writers are known, and sometimes satirized, for lavishing detail on these themes dear to their readers' hearts. Other writers tried to be spare, lean, tough - above all those details, unless perhaps the scene needed alcohol. However, it is now recognized that most books are bought, and presumably read, by women. A number of the other writers are now incorporating judicious amounts of food, fashion, and furniture into their scene settings. They may even realize now that the Three F's throw indirect light on character and on the character's aspirations. Historical fiction does need these details of setting to bring the past to life for the reader. Romances live and breathe by this kind of Cinderella detail. Westerns, war, and action need all the information the reader might  not already know, carefully brought in, not dumped. Regular literature and mainstream are enriched by drawing a picture as vivid in words as the camera shows it in movies.



April  8, 2013


Taking Off.  Thinking along familiar lines is one of the worst patterns a writer can fall into. But don't we only know what we know? People, situations, personal obsessions - we often frame our plots using the same material. For some writers, this works very well- though they do manage to ring a few changes on every scenario. Most of us need to take off onto  a new line now and then, if only to bring a fresh perspective to our usual way of working. The TV guide in the newspaper generally lists movies and gives a sentence or so gist. Take that gist and see what kind of story it suggests to you. Sketch a plot outline. Important: It should only be a movie you have not seen. Examples of gists.

l. A woman investigates the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend at a hospital.

2. A chorus girl wins a contest, leaves her boyfriend and joins a Broadway show.

3. The emotional scars inflicted by a soldier's tour of duty in Iraq are almost too much for him to bear as he tries to readjust to civilian life.

4. Communists blackmail a San Francisco shipper and recruit his wife's brother with a blonde.

5. Two American men and a British woman decide to spend a carefree summer touring Europe.

6. A reporter uncovers the sizzling nightlife of vampires and demons while researching a story on after-hours clubs.

These gists could take off into any genre.

1. Abandoned. 2. Cover Girl. 3. The Dry Land. 4. Woman on Pier 13. 5. Three. 6. Haunting Desires.




April  l, 2013


Two Time Frames.   Some current novels are using a new format: two time frames. Scenes set in the present and scenes set in the past are interleaved throughout the narration. The Visitants, The Summoning God, and Bone Walker - the Anasazi Mystery Series - by Michael and Kathleen Gear are set in a present time archaeological dig and in the time of the Anasazi cliff dwelling the archaeologists are excavating. In the first two novels, the present time people dig up evidence of murders and the war chief of the past time is the sleuth who solves the crimes. The war chief's duties are the protection of the people, so it fits that he would be the sleuth. In the third, one of the most likeable characters on  the archaeological team is murdered; the motive for the crime involves the black arts. The sites that are dedicated to these arts are the same for past and present, so that ties the two time frames together. In The School of Night, by Louis Bayard, the plots switch between antiquities collectors in Washington, D. C. and the circle around Thomas Hariot, the scientist who worked time of James I.  The Intelligencer, by Leslie Silbert, goes back and forth between a modern day PI and Christopher Marlowe.  The Forgery of Venus, by Michael Gruber, goes between the art scene of modern NYC galleries with their portraits of blobs and geometry and the artists of Velazquez's day. The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, has time frames of two generations; a young scholar investigates Vlad Dracula and much later, his daughter takes up the quest. If anyone out there knows of any other examples, please contact. So far as I know, no one has as yet established a genre formula for this type of novel, which could be all to the good. The only absolutely necessary point is that somehow the two time frames are tied together. 



March 25, 2013


Use the News.  Use news photos, that is. They are all around us; and frankly, they do shape a lot of our view of the world.  Magazines or newspapers, it doesn't matter. Respectable or tabloid, it doesn't matter. A portrait of a person. Describe the person in detail, then take off into what the person is doing. Ask the person what he or she is doing, why, what he or she thinks about it anyway. A picture of a group or social gathering. Describe the background and characters. Then wander through the scene asking what the people think about it all. This can be anything from a high society function to a fire disaster. A picture of a landscape. Describe the landscape in detail, looking for vivid similes and metaphors. Ask yourself what kind of action could happen in that landscape. Try this out. You may shake loose from you habitual ways of seeing, which is always good. Or, you may come up with a story idea you really want to write.

March 18, 20013


The Unreliable Narrator.  Do you believe everything everyone tells you? Why? Writers are generally taught that when using first person, the narrator must be telling the truth, the whole truth, etc. Of course, liars can appear within a narration, as long as the narrator proves they are lying.  However, some people wouldn't know the truth if it rose up and bit them. Humbert Humbert, of Lolita, is the most famous example. In the common pattern of  child molesters, he protests that she seduced him. The reader is supposed to have enough sense to know better. Another unreliable narrator is Elly Dean, of Wuthering Heights. Though regarding herself, and being regarded by others, as a model of virtue and humility, she recounts how she hated and abused Heathcliff when he was a child. Wonder why he came out bad?  Another narrator not to be trusted is Jason Compson, of The Sound and the Fury. Cold, selfish, limited, he sees everything and everyone through his own ugly filter. Benjy, of course, is unreliable - but in a very different way. Benjy sees and tells  about everything, but he cannot understand what he is seeing or even grasp the time frame. (Don't start Faulkner with this book. Work up to it.) So, think of a story told by someone who is lying, to others or to himself or to both. Just give the alert reader some clues to the truth of the matter.




Februrary 11, 2013


Wisdom from Faulkner.  William Faulkner said, "Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself." If you are successfully published, don't let yourself do what you know people expect you to do. If you are not yet published, or are barely published, still don't form a pattern. Don't think about your "sentence" or your "world" or your "genre" - anything easily identifiable. Be always looking for a new goal, a new story, a new challenge to yourself. You cannot know what you can do or cannot do until you try it. You will learn something and you may surprise yourself. Faulkner also said, "A writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." 




January 25, 2013


The Basic Element. So many elements go into the making of fiction : plot, theme, character, style. Which is the most basic? The thing fiction cannot do without? We may remember characters more vividly than storyline details - but what makes us remember those characters? We may read for insight, for stylish use of the language, for ideas - but what makes those elements vivid? The plot. It may be intellectually embarassing to read a book just for a terrific plot, and it may be that many books written for plot do scant all the other elements. However, the plot is the foundation and has been ever since early homo sapiens gathered by the fire and someone said, "Tell me a story." The plot makes the characters real (or not) because it is what the characters do. A plot can range from the human heart divided against itself all the way out to war and peace. There are no categories of plot. However a book is classified, the plots draw on the same inspiration. There has been some critical commentary and debate about how many plots there are. Classically there are: man against man, man against society, man against nature, man against himself, man against the gods. That about covers it. I think there is only one plot. The protagonist wants something very much. It is a matter of life or death - or it is so important to the protagonist that it feels like life or death. Someone or something stands in the way of the protagonist reaching the goal. The protagonist must struggle. Whether the protagonist attains the goal or not is irrelevant. The story is the struggle.


January 11, 2013

What I Did Last Summer. This is a joke, isn't it? The dreaded school writing assignment - dreaded the most by whom? The students who had to write it? Or the teachers who had to read it? It is an article of faith with writers (or should be) that every topic has potential, if  you can just find a way into it. Did you take a trip  or plan a trip? The way there is obvious: the adventure and setting of the travel or whatever it is that makes you so excited to plan a trip there. Or, did poverty chain you to your job, if you are lucky enough to have one? You can write about disappointed hopes, or about new hopes. You can write about the job as if it were a place you are exploring - the setting, the quaint customs of the natives, the local politics. Wouldn't it be natural to skip from here to fiction? Exploring a foreign place - from Henry James to Star Trek - has endless possibilities for stories about crosscultural communication and miscommunication. There is a reason these stories are always popular. If you stayed put, or went to a family gathering, or went to your second home or shack on the lake, or did your National Guard service, run your mind over the time and the events and the people. Make a few disconnected notes, keep writing until one set of notes seems to sprout, consider the connections that are possible. So, think again about "What I Did Last Summer." Only this time, make it interesting.


December 20, 2012


Symbolic Value. We value things for what they mean to us, perhaps even more than for their dollar value. The symbolic value holds our dreams and our values and what we think of ourselves. The best known literary example may be Scarlett O'Hara's Tara. The plantation was more than a money-maker for Scarlett; it was something she would sacrifice for. Tara was part of her. People who spend out-rageous amounts for big hair houses are buying something that represents their dreams. Same for the clothes, cars, memberships, etc. All the characters in your story will have some possession they treasure or something they dream of possessing, not only for its practical good to them but for what it represents to them. Think about what each would value, whether or not they actually own the item. Perhaps there is a way to work this into the story, maybe through the action or through the character's meditations.

December 7, 2012


Show AND Tell.  Writers trying to learn are always counseled to, "Show, don't tell."  This makes sense. You want your story to be vividly seen, so you need to show it through action and talk, not just stating that such and such a thing happened. Unless the such and such a thing is not vital to the story.  Do you need every detail of your character's life? Do you need to describe everything he saw and everyone he passed on his way to the pawn shop to buy the murder weapon? You might show him with the pawnbroker, who might need to remember him for your plot's sake;  you can just tell how he got there - drove, took a bus, walked, whatever.  If your character gets a money order to send off for the murder weapon, you don't have to trot along to the store with him; after you show him deciding what weapon to get, you tell that he got a MO and mailed it off; then you could show him gleefully opening the package when it arrived.  You want to show the details that set your scenes. The scenes can't just happen in generic sites; they happen in specific places. You have to decide what needs to be shown in full detail, what can be indicated.  //Personal opinion on showing or telling sex scenes. Read or skip. There are only so many holes in the human body. There is only so much that can be done with any one of them. Don't waste your word count on graphic description.//




November 16, 2012


Point of View.  The point of view is vital to a story. Who is seeing or telling the story? Deciding this can be the point that makes a story sucessful or not. Think back to an event you have been part of.  Write a short story from your POV. But then write it again from the POV of three other people. How would they see the scene and the players? Wouldn't each see it at least slightly differently? The villain of the piece would hardly see himself as villainous, as the worst people so seldom do. A total snob would interpret differently than a more amiable person, not only about the events but the possessions of all the players. Imagine the points of view of a policeman, a social worker, a resident in an old folks home, a third grader, a grad student, a small business owner, a corporate CEO and COO, a  housewife, a waitress, a car mechanic - imagine how their job experience and training would influence POV, just as their life experience would do. When all the players may seem to be the same type - as ladies who lunch or a team of athletes - focus on how they are different as individuals. Considering point of view is one way of avoiding stereotypes.


November 10, 2012


Come to Realize.  It happens that we sometimes see our own past in a different light than we used to.  If we were young and inexperienced when something happened, it is likely enough we will not know how to interpret the event. We might trust someone who has an interest in getting us to see the event their way. We might relate it to some ideas we have picked up - from any source, books, general opinions of people we know, even newspaper editorials, or something confided in us by someone we like or something stated by someone we do not trust. Later in life, we may see the event and the people involved, even the people who counseled us, in a different light. Write a story about something that was only partly understood at the time it happened. Then years later, the character comes to realize what really happened. And then what? 

October 26, 2012



Story Within Story. A story shown or narrated within another story can add depth. The two stories can comment on each other or show two sides of the same theme. They can add to the effect of the theme or give a contrast. "Pennsylvania Story," by William Faulkner, is a good example of a story within a story. It is set in Pennsylvania Station, New York City, not a setting usually associated with Faulkner. Two men, of the type known when Faulkner wrote the story as bums but now known as homeless, seek refuge from the snow in the smoking room at Penn Station. One is an old man, long in this street life, who has been in Florida and come back to NYC for his sister's funeral. The other is a young man wearing Army surplus clothes, new to the street life. The old man tells the young man about his sister and how she worked to be sure she had her funeral money saved. The story changes to her son, who had beaten a murder rap and was now in Chicago with a good job.  The mother, in her brother's narration, emerges as self-sacrificing or enabling, depending on the reader's outlook. The son takes her funeral money. In the context of the times, the reader assumes the son's Chicago job involves a gang. The old man tells the story as if he believes the son, yet Faulkner conveys another story. The Penn Station guard clears the bums out, and they go to Grand Central.

August 24, 2012

Advice from F. Scott Fitzgerald.    "Don't read books.  Read authors."  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that advice in a letter to  his daughter, Scottie.  When you come across a book that appeals to you, whatever your criteria, look for other books by that same writer.  Get to know the writer's world view.  If the writer expresses a liking for another writer's books, see what  you think of that writer.  You begin to know the characters, settings, stories, and interests likely to turn up in a book by your writer.  In fact, by all your writers.  You will see that each one has particular interests that appear in many of the books.  Each writer will have  different interests.  After all, everyone has different tastes.  Everyone has a set of values.  You can see how the writer has developed this outlook over time.  By reading deeply in a writer, you begin to know the writer's mind.  By reading deeply in a number of writers, you begin to see how each writer's individuality shapes the way the writer sets up the story.  You learn that there is no check list of things that you must, or must not, include in your own stories.

August 9, 2012

Eavesdropping.  You're not supposed to do this - right?  Well, cut yourself some slack.  If, say, you are in a public place - say, a cafe, a bar, a line in a store or post office, a classroom before the teacher comes in, a church function, a protest rally, in the office, walking down the street - and someone says something loud enough for you to hear it, it isn't exactly private, now is it?  If you have heard it, it becomes part of your experience.  You can use it.  Of course, you have to make up all the surrounding details.  The tasty morsel is just your starting point.  You then use all the techniques you have learned - and the unexpected gift might just start you off in a new direction.  You don't have to depend on chance.  You can go out, preferably alone, and keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut.  It really is amazing what people will talk about when they are out in public and ought to know better.  Especially if they are on their cell phones.

July 25, 2012

Crossroads.   Stories show the protagonist at a turning point.  To prime the pump, think back over the turning points in your own life.  There must have been some occasions when what you decided to do - or not to do- made all the difference.  Perhaps even more difference than you realized at the time.  The subtlety in Frost's poem is that "the road less traveled" and the other road looked pretty much the same, at the time.  Start writing about a significant life-changing experience you've had. Write it as an essay, a brief memoir.  Most likely, it will start to shape up as a story. In retrospect, you can see clearly the role others played in this event which was so important to you.  There must be some way to draw a story out of this event, whether short story, long story, novella, or novel.  Do not feel you have to make your fiction autobiographical.  In recent years, there has been a bit too much of an ideal that a writer, particularly a literary writer, explores himself.  Surely, writing fiction is one way to explore the world.  Take your memory as a jumping off point.  What if - ? 


July 13, 2012

Osmosis.  The best way to learn to write is - to read.  A lot.  When you read the books you like, when you see the stories unfolding in your mind (better than any movie), you just do naturally get a grip on how to bring in a character, how to set up a plot, how to select the details that make the story vivid.  It is good to try to sample every writer, though naturally you will prefer some over others.  At least, you will have preferences if you are reading because you like to read.  It is good to sample every category.  (In my opinion, there are only three categories:  good, bad, and indifferent.  But publishers, critics, and bookstores say differently.  What do I know?)  Even if you do not naturally care for a particular category, you can find a writer whose interests intersect with yours.   If you do not like romance, you can find romances set in an historical period that interests you.  If you do not like crime stories, you can find crime stories set in a place that interests you; and setting is vital to crime stories.  Westerns, family sagas, political or corporate or international spy maneuvering, glitz, even grim life as currently lived in these anonymous times have all got writers whose interests are broad enough to intersect with yours.  So, while you absorb by osmosis the general principles of writing, you will also absorb the details that make a story of interest to many people.


June 29, 2012 

Starting to Write.  (Just personal.  Read or skip.)  I started to write when I was twelve.  I read Margaret Irwin's historical novel, Young Bess, and was fascinated by her word portrait of Bess's mother, Anne Boleyn.  I thought Anne deserved a novel all her own, so I started to research and write.  I didn't know Anne Boleyn was the favorite tragic  heroine of historical novelists. I liked to write.  I even liked writing book reports and writing assignments.  Mrs. P. G. Underwood, a high school English teacher, noticed this.  She persuaded me to enter the Ready Writing Competition, and I won the local Dallas prize.  She encouraged me to go to college, not a given in those days; and she found the information about the Rusk Co-Op, a form of scholarship at Texas Womans' University.  Over the years I have read esteemed writers talk about the books that changed their lives.  They always name something serious, profound, worthy.  What can I say?  Young Bess changed my life.

June 14, 2012 


Fitting Format to Purpose.  It is crucial to clarify the purpose of writing a particular piece.  The purpose dictates planning choices, shapes the text, and guides revision.  the principal task of revision is to clarify the writer's purpose for the readers.  The structure is called the "writing plan" in writing lessons; and the plans you might consider to put across your meaning are:  informative, definition, sequence, comparison-contrast, cause-effect, response, collections, and assertion-subordinant.  You need to decide which plan can best put across your purpose.  A personal essay and a scientific essay require very different plans.  For example, if your purpose is instruction, sequence is your best plan; sequence relates events or steps in a process.  Touches of personal charm are out of place in a scientific paper, while they may be the very soul of a memoir.


June 1, 2012



What if - ?   You know what happened to you.  Have you written about it?  You know what happened to someone else.  Have  you written about it?  Oh, but what if all that happened to a different person? How would that person have reacted?  What would that person have done?  Could there be another, maybe better, story in that other person's possible reaction?  After all, when we've seen a friend take some action, make some mistake, haven't we all said, I would have done such and such?  So then what?  An extrovert faced a dilemma - but what if it had been an introvert?  Or the reverse?  Shake yourself loose from factual recountings and reimagine events as affecting different characters.  The best example I know of was in someone's (whose?) commentary on Shakespeare's characters.  What if Iago had pulled his schemes on Hamlet?  Hamlet would have figured it all out in minutes.  What if the ghost had demanded Othello avenge him?  Othello would have drawn his sword and rushed to judgement.  So, there wouldn't be a story?  Or would there be different stories?  Think about events in the personal sphere - or in the broader social, economic, political spheres - and reimagine them as happening to different people.  What if - ?




May 11, 2012 


Mining Nonfiction for Fiction Ideas.

Ideas are everywhere.  You just must always be open and always have a tablet or notebook with you to jot down anything that comes to you.  When you read nonfiction, keep part of your mind alert, not just for the points the author is making but for how you might find a story in there.  // Set apart because this recounts the way I wrote a story.  Read or skip.  When I read Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star and Larry McMurtry's Crazy Horse, the story that particularly struck me was about the rich Easterner who paid the hungry  reservation Indians a large sum of money to show him the man who killed Custer.  Since they didn't know who killed Custer, they chose someone for the dubious honor of suffering the revenge they assumed the man wanted to take - but he just wanted to look at the warrior.  I made a note of this for a story.When the Western market seemed to be dying, I threw away all my Western story notes.  Later, when I was going to the Ozark Creative Writers Conference, I saw that Dusty Richards, the Western novelist, sponsored a contest, the Oxbow Award, for a Western story.  I remembered the man who killed Custer, even without notes.  I wrote the story, it won honorable mention in the contest, and was published in The South Dakota Review.  I guess something about the idea was important to me.//   If you take an interest in a subject, follow up on it,no matter how irrelevant to your life it seems to be.  It probably has some underlying importance to you that will become apparent later.  At least, you will have a fund of information to draw on when shaping your characters and their world. 



May 4, 2012


The Peripheral Vision Approach.  Sometimes you just get stuck on some fool thing.  How do you bring someone into a room?  When you cannot  get the story moving again by looking straight at it, try a peripheral vision approach.  Get scrap paper that you can throw away, so you won't feel married to anything you write on it.  Shaking loose is one of points of this exercise.  Purpose.  Explanation, not storytelling.  What is the purpose of this scene in the story?  What is the purpose of this character in the story?  What is the purpose of this object in the story?  Describe. Use phrases, lists, words, don't worry about complete sentences here; stay loose. Describe what the mood of the scene is supposed to be.  Describe characters' action/thoughts/feelings during the scene.  Describe the object with a list of words or phrases.  Compare.   You are not alone, you are not the first, you are not inventing the wheel.  Get out a number of books by different writers - the more different they are, the better for this exercise.  See how each of them has handled the problem.  How did they bring someone into a scene, move a scene, end a scene?  How did they bring someone into a setting similar to yours - office, town, village, street, foreign time or place?  How do they go about describing characters?  How do they get across to the reader something the point of view character does not know or understand? How is this object or idea brought into the story?  Do not think this will lead to copying someone else's style or to the dreaded unintentional plagiarism.  If you are comparing how a number of very different writers do the same thing, this will help you find your own way to do it.  Once you've made your notes, look them over and see what words, phrases, ideas keep repeating.  What you are looking for is probably slipping in that way. 






April 20,  2012


Historical Fiction Techniques Applied to Contemporary Fiction. One reason for reading historical fiction is to learn about life as it was lived in another place and time.  (I'm not talking about historical romances whose covers feature buxom beauties ripping the doublets off strapping young studs.  I mean scholarly writers who want to bring the past alive to their readers, such as Mary Renault and Elmer Kelton.)  Historical fiction writers will bring in the clothes, songs, food, literature, popular entertainment, morals, and ideas of the day.  If at all possible, historical figures will make cameo appearances.  This gives a picture of the time in which the plot is unfolding. Since the past is "another country," the setting is vital to making many plot turns explicable to modern readers.  Contemporary fiction often takes knowledge of the setting for granted.  Perhaps including these details may fill out the picture for the reader.  In any case, many classic novels which were perfectly clear to writers and their first readers do require a few footnotes to explain things to the current reader.  For example, why was it so awful for the whole Bennett family if Lydia messed around?  It could have affected the marriage prospects of her sisters.  So, when sketching out your next story, consider what the characters would be seeing and doing in their particular world.























April 6, 2012


Writing about ideas.  Ideas, ideals, and causes inspire a high degree of mental energy.  A writer who believes strongly in anything will naturally want to write about it and to make it real.  The idea  can add force to the story; the idea can bring to public consciousness something that was barely observed, or not seen at all.  This is good.  There is a catch:  The idea can override the story and the characters, it can result in editorial insertions, it can divide the characters into stereotypes of good and bad.  The writer must have the idea absorbed into his world view in order to write it effectively.  The world view is much more than the cause of the day.  The world view is the writer's approach to characters and events - the way the writer looks at life in general.  The important thing to remember is:  Propaganda is one-sided; literature has multiple sides.  The idea, ideal, or cause should be shown through its proponents, remembering always that character is revealed by speech, action, and inner feelings.  The opponents, so necessary to the conflict of the plot, must also reveal their own viewpoints forcifully and eloquently.  That can be the hard part:  giving some kind of credit to someone whose core beliefs the writer opposes.  This is necessary to create a story that offers truth to the reader.  It is not enough for characters to talk about the idea, ideal, or cause. It must be central to the plot - or at least to an important subplot that tracks alongside the main story and offers a different light on the story.  In writing about an idea, the writer must proceed in the usual way of writing any story - with attention to plot, character, setting, style.














March 30, 2012


Synchronicity.  "Synchronicity" is the new word for "coincidence."  It is supposed to have a deeper, almost Jungian, meaning than mere coincidence.  Somehow, things come together for us, if we recognize the connections.  Too much coincidence is a criticism of fiction, frequently applied to Dickens, that damns a novel to the remainder bin if it is not already a treasured classic.  How to use synchronicity?  In our own lives we have made use of synchronicity, perhaps the contact that helped us get published (if we have been published) or the teacher who changed our lives or the invention, trend, ad, whatever that came along just at the right time.  Or perhaps we have not used synchronicity - because we were not able to recognize  it, for whatever reason.  Think about the "it might have beens" you know about.  Many writers seem to have been tuned in to what was about to happen in the changing times. 











March 23, 2012


The Hemingway Challenge.  "Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about."  A Moveable Feast.   You probably know about more things than you think.  Make a list of the things you know about: jobs, places, sports, arts, intense (not casual) interests, other people's experiences that they've told you a lot about, properties such as cars or houses or boats or jewels, various emotions.  In his days writing over the sawmill, Hemingway drew on his birthplace, the Indians there, Paris, the horse races, even the job as a news reporter which gave him some insight into people he wouldn't have come across otherwise, including the killers.   Sketch a few lines about the flavor of each place or person or thing, to get yourself started. This is especially good for settings, so use every place you've ever been.  Sketch story ideas about each thing on your list. As you go along, other things might break loose and present themselves to you, so add them to the list.  Sketch story ideas for each thing on your list. Think about emotional interactions - love and hate with specific details of each, ambition that you've felt or seen activate someone, jealousy, generosity, self deception and self knowledge - you've seen it all.  Jane Austen wrote about her "inch of ivory" and William Faulkner about his "postage stamp of earth."  Their imaginations were not limited.  The important thing is to use what you have got that no one else has got.






March 9, 2012


Proverbial Wisdom.  Proverbs distill the wisdom of the common folk.  Based on observation, over centuries, they are ready made themes for stories.  Sketch out a story based on a proverb. Do not quote the proverb - just let it be implicit in the story.  To sketch a story, jot notes about scenes; it begins like so, they do this, then they do that, it ends like so; do the sentence  by sentence writing later.  This is the way an artist sketches out the idea for a picture.  Here are some likely proverbs to get started with - but use your own favorite.


   For a writer, bad company means good material.

   A fool and his money are soon parted.

   Revenge is a dish best served cold.

   Some trees grow tall.

  The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog knows but one.  A good one.

   A man may smile and smile and be a villain still.

  Don't foul your own nest.

   If a thing looks too good to be true -- it is.

   Beauty is only skin deep.  Handsome is as handsome does.

   Living well is the best revenge.

   Who will guard the guards?  Watch the watchdogs?

   A stitch in time saves nine.

   Marry in haste, repent at leisure.

   The past is never dead.  It isn't even past.

   Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

   For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the knight was lost.  For want of a knight, the battle was lost.  For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.  All for the want of a nail.





February 24, 2012 


Brushstrokes.  Art students copy masterpieces.  We often see them with their easels set up before the great masters on museum walls.  They are not planning to paint like Rembrandt or Picasso.  They learn through experience the brushstrokes, the pigment, the perspectives the great ones used to make their effects.  They take what the great artists have to teach them into their own hands and brushes .  Then they use these lessons in their own way.   There is a way writers can learn through a similar technique.  Pick a paragraph by a writer whose technique you admire.  The paragraph should have varied sentence structure and rhythm.  Write a paragraph using the chosen paragraph as a template.  That is, writing on a topic of deep interest to you, use the sentence structure of the chosen writer.  If the writer starts with a simple declarative sentence, or a complex sentence, or a question - start your own paragraph on your own subject with such a sentence.  Keep going this way.  If there are dashes for an aside, be sure you do the same thing, but on your own topic.  We fall into patterns in the way we write.  This is meant to shake you loose and get you to thinking of new means of expression.



















February 10, 2012


Automatic Writing.  When mediums take pen in hand and let their minds go blank, then write what the spirit on the other side dictates to them, they call this "automatic writing." They say the spirit guides their hand without any intervention from their conscious mind.  A writer can use this without the help of a ghost, to access a train of thought outside her customary patterns.  Take a magazine, any magazine, and open it at random.   Put your finger down on a sentence.  That sentence becomes the first line of your story.  Let your consciousness stream.  Write for ten minutes, whatever goes from your sub-conscious to your pencil.  Don't stop, don't change anything, don't edit, don't even correct spelling.  We all have our own themes, which can become much-traveled roads in our writing.  Automatic writing, with its random associations, might shake something else loose.  You may even hit on something you want to use or save.       














Recommended Reading



 Under the Dome, by Stephen King.   Stephen King is confined - mistakenly - to a genre ghetto. If readers and historians of the future want a vivid picture of life as it is lived in our times, they can read Stephen King. This is much as readers can get a picture of Victorian life from Dickens, Trollope, and George Eliot, or anyone who wants a picture of Regency life can consult Jane Austen. This cannot be said of many current literary writers, who do seem to be proud of their exile from everyday America.  And King can toss off a phrase when plot or characterization call for it...."his most carnivorous sociable smile....."

     A Dome appears around a small New England town. It can't be flown over or dug under. It is isolated. It feels like an experiment under a microscope. Of course, fear spreads through the town. An explanation - or at least a scapegoat - is sought for. People find themselves doing and accepting things they would never have imagined.

     The book offers a map and three pages listing most of the main characters, including three important dogs. There are a great many characters, and each character has his own plot within the overall plot. The book is long, but no longer than War and Peace or Gone With the Wind. If you are a Constant Reader, you might as well read one Under the Dome as any two other books.

     The main characters include these. Dale Barbara is an Iraq War vet, a drifter with a dark secret. The only Army officer in Chester's Mill when the Dome descends, he is promoted to Colonel and   put in charge by the President. This is not accepted by Big Jim Rennie, a two bit Hitler with malignant religiosity. The Dome suits him just fine. He has the power. Julia Shumway runs the town's newspaper and tries to oppose Rennie. Rusty and Linda Everett, a male nurse and a police officer, are in the middle of things as a health crisis and a social crisis spread out. The town's two preachers are polar opposites - a male fundamentalist and a female Congregationalist. There is also Rennie, Junior, who is being eaten by a brain tumor. Did the tumor do the things he did - or would he have done them anyway? Andy Sanders, druggist and First Selectman, is in with Big Jim in running a huge meth ring. He can persuade himself it was all for the greater good. Until he gets hooked on his own product. Stephen King has admitted his own past addiction. He surely makes good use of that experience now, in depicting how someone can be lured in by the satisfactions of the drug and how painful it can be to withdraw. The addiction is shown through Andy Sanders and the withdrawal step by step through Andrea Grimmell. "You'll want those suckers for the rest of your life."

     A number of children and teenagers are important to the story. Scarecrow Joe McClatchey, a skateboarder and genius, helps solve the mystery of the Dome. It's hard to depict young'uns realistically, and Stephen King is one of the best at doing this. Perhaps his time as a high scho0l teacher, before Carrie hit big, gave him many close observations of the workings of the young mind. And he, for one writer, did not forget.

     Barbie's secret is a war crime in Iraq. So far as I know, Stephen King is the only novelist to touch on this subject. It reminds me of the client I had, back in the 70s, when I was a caseworker for the NYC Department of Social Services, commonly known as "the Welfare." One of my clients was a Viet vet who was addicted to heroin. I talked about the case with the Medical Social Worker. She said that quite a number of the vets got addicted over there; it calmed their nerves in that war without a front line and they believed a myth that smoking heroin was not addictive. Of course, it is. The VA was not acknowledging the problem or doing anything to help the vets.  I based a short story, "Marisol," on this for an anthology, Writing on Walls. A little while ago, there were stories in the news that the pilots who direct the drones were troubled because they could see via TV camera the people they were about to bomb. That story suddenly dropped out of the news. Why? I do wonder how King came up with the character of Dale Barbara, a rounded figure. Did he meet a vet and get the vet to talk to  him?



 Chaucer and the Doctor of Physic. by Philippa Morgan.  This novel is one I discovered at the Garland County Library Book Sale. Aren't these accidental finds often among our favorites?

     The novel has a scope beyond Middle Age England. It opens in the Middle East, with an alchemist and his larcenous nephew. The alchemist has brewed what is supposed to be the elixir of life. A vial of the elixir makes it way to Genoa, then to England, on a ship which is wrecked by being lured onto rocks by a gang of scavengers. Geoffrey Chaucer, who has just returned from an embassy to Italy, is dispatched to Devon to look into the matter.

     Chaucer stays with Richard Storey, a rich doctor of physic who is famous for having treated the King himself. Storey is married to a much younger woman and has a sulky son and rebellious daughter. The young wife's dog is poisoned, then the wife herself is beaten to death. In the meantime, two of the scavengers are killed by the law, represented by Storey, leaving the third, the woman, hungry for vengeance.

     Chaucer has to investigate the murder along with the shipwreck, which he does with the coolness and understanding one expects of a diplomat.

     By the way, on his trip to Devon, he falls in with other travelers. One is a woman based on the Wife of Bath, who in the story becomes the model for the Wife of Bath,.

Nights of Rain and Stars, by Maeve Binchy.  The cover is a beautiful painting of the  harbor in a small Greek island, by Francis Livingston. The cover is reproduced on the front and back end pages; as this is something one seldom sees anymore, it is a clue that the publisher values the author and the book. Andreas, the elderly owner of a taverna, is thinking of his estranged son, Adonis, who is somewhere in America. He sees a tourist boat go up in flames in the harbor, just as a group of tourists arrive at his taverna. The tourists - from America, Germany, Ireland, and England - are not on a guided tour but travelling separately; but witnessing the tragedy in the harbor draws them together. Their lives and Andreas's life and the village become entwined.  All are at turning points. Their real journeys are into themselves. Thomas is a professor on sabbatical; recently divorced, he is trying to maintain contact with his son. Elsa, a TV news star in Germany, is running from a man she loves, who will not commit. Fiona, a very young Irish school teacher, is with Shane - the young man everyone has warned her against. David, from England, is trying to escape the future his father, a self-made rich man, wants to make for him. Shane, well, Shane has  no inside to travel to and will never change. Oh, and there is Vonni, from Ireland, who has lived in the village thirty years. The novel begins with Andreas thinking of his son and ends with Andreas welcoming Adonis home.


Background to Danger, by Eric Ambler.  Eric Ambler is generally credited with inventing the modern espionage novel. His plots thrust an ordinary protagonist into political intrigue and danger. The settings are gritty and reflect what is probably the unglamorous real life of spies and counterspies and double agents. Alfred Hitchcock, who liked the idea of an ordinary man having to live by his wits for his movies, called Ambler "a phenomenon."

     Background to Danger came out in 1937, so it must have been written in 1935-6, before Europe exploded into war, again. The novel is introduced with a quote from World Petroleum, a magazine which I don't know is real or made up for the occasion. It cites the appearance Europe gives of "an armed camp in which an incident, unimportant in itself, would be sufficient to ignite a conflagration...the question of supply of raw materials and particularly supply of petroleum is of the first importance." As we know, the conflagration was ignited and spread beyond Europe. What is especially interesting now is that access to the supply of petroleum is still shaping world politics.

     Kenton is an impecunious reporter in the days before they were media stars. He meets a man on a train and agrees, for money, to carry some papers over the border for him. Then the man is murdered and Kenton is running for his life from assorted Nazis and Communists and Big Business.  The most dangerous men he encounters are the cut-outs, the middle men between Big Business and the actual dirty work. The papers involve oil. "It was difficult, Kenton had found, to spend any length of time in the arena of foreign politics without perceiving that political ideologies had very little to do with the ebb and flow of international relations. ...The Big Business man was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules."

     How much has changed since Eric Ambler's time?

     Once you go through Ambler's  novels, which are short, you might try Alan Furst's The Spies of Warsaw, an historical novel set in Ambler's world. Did Ambler dictate it to Furst through a medium? Or did Furst time travel, possibly in the mysterious Nazi bell?




 Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.  Charles Dickens is always timely and relevant. Hard Times takes up ridiculous educational fads, income disparity, and contempt of the rich for the workers. The setting is a factory town in the north of England. The mills produce cloth, and the looms are compared to the bobbing heads of mad elephants.

     The educator is Mr. Gradgrind, who tolerates only Facts. The students, including his own children, are not allowed to wonder or to imagine. The mill owner is Mr. Bounderby, who is a bully and a liar, a man who is convinced that he alone works and that "the help" will expect to be fed caviar with golden spoons, if he gives them living wages and decent working conditions.

     Gradgrind's daughter, Louisa, accepts her father's arrangement of a loveless marriage to the much older Bounderby. Gradgrind's son, whose education has left him with no inner resources, goes to work for Bounderby and expects Louisa to supply him with money for a lifestyle of gambling and indulgence, in as one would expect today. The cast of characters includes a corrupt labor agitator. So, the workers really have nowhere to turn. Several workers' stories are followed. Stephen Blackpool is framed for a robbery committed by Gradgrind's son Tom, generally referred to as "the whelp." Rachael, Stephen's friend, helps clear Stephen's name, after his death; and she offers invaluable assistance to Louisa.

     There is a charming rogue of a born gentleman, James Harthouse, who resolves to seduce the lonely, unhappy Louisa. Mrs. Sparsit, Bounderby's housekeeper, observes Louisa's descent down the dangerous staircase toward, possibly, Anna Karenina's plight with great satisfaction because she hates Bounderby. Louisa fears her own feelings, in proper Victorian style, and flees both her husband and her prospective lover. Only back to her father; but Gradgrind does come at last to some realization of the harm he has wrought. That is the closest this novel, somewhat atypical Dickens, comes to a happy ending. However, when it comes to addressing matters of contemporary import, Dickens does it again.


Black Dahlia  White Rose, by Joyce Carol Oates.  If Elizabeth Short and Norma Jeane Baker never met when they were struggling starlets in Hollywood, they should have. And now they have. In the title story of Joyce Carol Oates's new collection. Oates tells their story - with her characteristic intensity - and also offers what she thinks is a clue to the killer of the Black Dahlia,through the character of K. Keinhardt. He took pinup photos of the girls - including the picture of Norma Jeane which he modestly admits is the pinup of all time. Oates writes brilliant description, and so the two starlets and LA are memorably presented. It may have seemed that, if one were to come to a bad end, it would be the vulnerable seeming Norma Jeane, not the tough Elizabeth.

     There is a set of family stories, told as only Oates could tell them. "I.D.;"buzzed from a beer before junior high, slow learning Lisette is called out of class by two detectives who want her to see if a body is her mother's, whom she hasn't seen in days. Lisette says no, though she is mainly fearful about what would be the "right" thing to say. Oates gives a clue that maybe the body is that of the often absent mother. "Deceit;" a mother strung out on prescription drugs has a conference with a teacher about her daughter, who shows signs of abuse; the mother is intense, but just  not there. "Run Kiss Daddy;" this story brought to mind the Casey Anthony case, though the circumstances are different. "Hey Dad;" a very short stylistic flourish. "The Good Samaritan" is one of the Oates stories I can't understand; someone does something that is incomprehensible, for  no reason.

   There is a group of stories that get the characters out of their usual setting, though not out of their own heads. "A Brutal Murder in a Public Place;" a woman sees a bird trapped in an airport waiting room. "Roma!" brings into play all Oates's powers of description. A middle-aged couple travel to Italy - looking for the youth they had let slip by them. "Spotted Hyenas: A Romance" is aother one of the stories I can't understand, but the trip to the hyena farm is fascinating. There are two stories drawn from Oates's time as a volunteer teacher at San Quentin. The observations, surely drawn from reality, will function as research material into prison life as well as good stories.


Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland, by Judy Nickles.  //Disclosure. The book I am recommending is by my litcrit reading buddy. Judy Nickles, who also writes under the name Gwyneth Greer, writes romance and romantic suspense, which she keeps realistic. She keeps me focussed and working and kindly claims that I keep her realistic.//  Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland  is romantic suspense - deepened by presenting a realistic picture of contemporary small town life. Dreamland is a town in Arkansas near Little Rock where Al Capone and that crowd hung out before they moved over to Vegas. Trixie Collins, after many years away, is returning to take care of a legacy left by her grandfather. She meets her estranged, cocaine-addled mother, who is messing around with the villain of the piece. She contacts people she used to know. She encounters an attractive young man - son of the villain - who may or may not be involved with what she learns is an old plot. It seems, the Al Capone days have left a legacy, besides some purely modern financial goings on. Secrets come out from everywhere - including that her beloved grandfather had known, even been involved with, Al Capone's business. There is a surprise villain besides the obvious one.  Did this respectable, always reliable man turn - or was he that way underneath, all along?  The discoveries and turns of plot don't let up. This novel is free for Kindle on Judy's site, judythewordplace.blogspot.com. Just click on "older posts."  The blog gives a button to her website. There is information about her previously published books, from Champagne Press, and her upcoming work. She is very up on and enthusiastic about all the new social technology as a means for selling books and is now going into independent publishing. She is putting up her latest, a series of romantic suspense novellas, The Penelope Papers.  I had the pleasure of reading the Penelope stories as a work in progress.



 Legend, by David Wood; The Wolfer, by Loren D. Estleman; Of Wolves and Men, by Barry Lopez; and Wolfen, by Whitley Strieber. Wolves are beautiful and noble creatures. Not that I want to meet a wolf up close and personal. They are perfectly designed to be what they are: the predator at the top of their food chain. I skipped last week's entry because I was caught by a cascade of wolf books. I read Legend, then remembered The Wolfer, then picked up both novelists' source material, Of Wolves and Men - all about real wolves, not a werewolf in the pack. But Wolfen is about a new breed of were-wolf, not a man turned beast but a separate species living alongside man and wolf. I was happily enthralled to wolves and lost track of time. Don't you love it when one book leads to another?

     //Disclosure. Legend, a book I am recommending, is written by a friend of many years, though Davy and I have never met face to face. He most kindly listed me among the first readers of his manuscript. I am not recommending the book only because it is by a friend - as you all will find out when you read it.// Legend, by David Wood, is about a wolf pack and about the men who hunt them. The chapters alternate between the POVs of wolves and men - and the Shadow Wolf, a lone wolf who is the protector of packs and the bane of humans. Wolves and humans are observed throughout by three ravens right out of a folk tale. The wolf pack is led by Pawsore, the One. It has its well-observed wolf laws of behavior; but Wood bases this on a wolf religion, which is passed on from the One to the cubs. This religion sounds like the beliefs of Native Americans and of the East, particularly Buddhism. Come to think of it, those two belief systems stem from the same source. The men,  known to the wolves as Twolegs, are dedicated wolf hunters, particularly Cutter, a hard-drinking brawler. They hunt down wolves with their "thundersticks" and Jaws and from Bigbird, a helicopter. One hunter finds a wolf caught in a trap, the Jaws, and he enjoys burning the wolf to death. Cutter has a particular vendetta against the big Shadow Wolf, who scarred him. This wolf was met face to face in a den by Dean, a biologist who wants to study wolves. The wolf claims Dean. Dean is suicidal. His sickness seems to parallel that of Deerchaser, a wolf infected by worms and given to seizures. But Deerchaser is a visionary, valuable to the pack, and protected by Pawsore. There is an implication that Dean also is valuable to his pack. The Hunters of the pack are paralleled by the Twoleg hunters. The Twolegs, though, do  not have a wise leader like Pawsore. Wolves, though hunted by ranchers, avoid livestock. They have a belief that "unsacred meat" will drive a wolf crazy. However, two blizzards right in a row drive the desperate pack down to a ranch. After that, the wolves are hunted down. The only survivor is Rabbitrunner, whom the story follows from blind newborn cub to - the next Shadow Wolf? Ordering information is at murmaid@tampabay.IT.com.

    I remembered Estleman's The Wolfer and got it out again. (Is a 1981 Pocket Books first printing valuable? In any case, I like to surround myself with the books I've liked. They have symbolic value to me.) I enjoyed this book when I first read it, but I didn't fully appreciate it until now. I have discarded the idea of categorizing books and then ranking the categories. The only categories are good, bad, and indifferent. The Wolfer is in the good category. Estleman writes historical fiction set in the Old West. This is the story of a legendary wolf hunter and the also legendary rogue wolf, Black Jack, that he is hunting for a formidable bounty. Nothing of story, setting, and character will be familiar to a modern reader. So, Estleman uses the tried and true method of telling the story from the POV of an outsider. R. G. Fulwider is a tubercular journalist from NYC. Fulwider is told that Asa North, the wolfer, got his record kills by "becoming one of them." As Fulwider rides along with North on the hunt for Black Jack, he observes behavior that does make it seem that North not only thinks like a wolf in order to track them down - but feels like a wolf. North can tell the age and health of a wolf by looking at a paw print. After hunting adventures in which Fulwider learns a lot and proves his mettle, North corners a pack. "North had chosen his stand well: The wind was blowing in the wrong direction for the quarry to know they were being watched. And then they knew, but by then it was too late." The final confrontation with Black Jack is too good to ruin for you by telling. In the end, Fulwider learns that the wolfer died like a wolf - teeth bared and howling,

      Of Wolves and Men, by Barry Lopez, has a beautiful cover picture of a wolf. I keep it on a hall table under some pictures of wolves. This book by the noted  naturalist has many wonderful pictures. Lopez begins by pointing out that we actually know little about wolves. Our picture of wolves is mostly drawn from fearful imagining,. Interestingly, Lopez recounts a situation he saw which parallels David Wood's development of the outcast, Deerchaser. I can find sources for many of the scenes in the two novels here. Lopez points out that wolves very rarely prey on domestic stock; but American ranchers, unlike the Nunamiut of Alaska, don't accept any predation as being in the course of things. So wolves are close to extinction. Lopez believes something which I've never heard of before: that the bounties for wolves are sparked, not by predation on livestock, but because so many places depend on revenue from game-hunting tourists. The wolves live on deer and caribou. Of particular  interest is the section on the history of wolves and men's attitudes to wolves. Wolves established themselves all across the Northern Hemisphere, except in North Africa and the Gobi Desert. Now they are extinct in  many places. Though Indian hunters felt a kinship with wolves, the hunters,  most other people have feared wolves and demonized them. In the Dark and Middle Ages particularly, wolves seem to have borne the projection of everything people feared in themselves. Werewolves were burned at the stake along with witches. No telling how many people afflicted with seizures, Downs Syndrome, schizophrenia and autism perished painfully. Some people, turning to the opposite of the society that made them outcast, may have believed they were witches or werewolves.

    Then I remembered Whitley Strieber's Wolfen.  //Forget about the movie of that name, even if it does star Albert Finney. The producer had an idea that he could make a movie about something  he was interested in, American Indians, and use the title of a best seller. Not a good idea. I was very disappointed, because the movie didn't even have a good plot - and the novel is a thriller.// Two  cops working the auto dump in Brooklyn are attacked and killed. The detectives who catch the case see it as some kind of cannibalistic sadism. George Wilson, the senior detective, is a grouchy loner who dislikes the new idea of women in police work. So of course his partner is a  young, very capable woman, Becky Ness. The tension - and respect and loyalty -between the two is interesting. Not so interesting is the later obligatory romance; but this is not a formal review, just me babbling about why I like books. It takes a little doing, but the police come to understand that, yes, there are werewolves loose in NYC. They are helped by Carl Ferguson, of the Museum of Natural History. The paw print they show him is not a wolf's or any other animal he knows of. The were-wolves in this story are not men turned into beasts - but a separate species which has lived alongside humans. They view actual wolves as dumb animals. The story switches between human POV and were-wolf POV, with the werewolves concerned about maintaining their secrecy in the middle of populous cities. They survive by culling the herd, taking the street people no one will miss. Ferguson goes to the New York Public Library (description makes me nostalgic) to look up werewolves and finds much material in the Rare Books Room. He finds something so old and rare and fragile that he can look at it but  not touch it.  A librarian holds it and turns the pages for him. In 1597, Beauvoys de Chauvincourt wrote Discours de la Lycanthropie, ou de la tranformation des honmmes en loups.  The werewolves of those days had human helpers, called vamppires, who lured prey to the werewolves. There was even a language of signals for communication. Ferguson resolves to try it out. When I first read Wolfen, I tried to find out if this book was for real or made up for the occasion. I couldn't get any info, but now there is the Internet. I looked it up; it is for real; but all the articles I found are in French, so I can't read them.



The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt.  The Renaissance ideal was a man both active and thoughtful, a courtier and a poet. Sir Thomas Wyatt fulfilled that ideal. He is known today for his love poems written to Anne Boleyn, presuma-bly before she married Henry VIII. He was a diplomat stationed in Italy, and he brought the sonnet form back to England. He was put in the Tower at the time of Anne's downfall and execution. He was  never charged,though he may have been the one man who deserved to get the chop. He was protected by his patron,Thomas Cromwell. On a later mission to  escort the Italian ambassador to England,Wyatt - a  healthy man in his thirties - suddenly took sick and died. Poison?

     English was changing rapidly in Wyatt's time. His rhymes don't always rhyme today, though a term (which I have forgotten) used in early 20th Century poetry for a sort of half rhyme could apply. His rhythm is irregular, but it suits modern poetry which sounds like speech. He brought from Italy some very intricate verse forms. "Tangled I was in Love's snare," rhymes aaabbb cccbbb - and so on for six verses. "I am as I am and so will I be" is another poem with amazingly difficult rhymes - ten verses of four lines each, the lines in each verse rhyming. Incredibly, his meaning flows easily through these patterns.

     His love poems follow a standard theme of the times - a lover betrayed by a beautiful woman. This theme was never again so popular until 20th Century country music. There is real feeling in Wyatt's love poems, written presumably for Anne. First lines of the best are:

     "The long love that in my thought doth live...."

      "I feel no peace, and all my war is done"

     "Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind...."

     "To wish and want and  not obtain..."

     "My pen, take pain a little space..."

     "And wilt thou leave me thus?"

      "Forget not yet the tried intent..."

     "What should I say...."

     "Driven by desire I did this deed..."

And the loveliest:

 "They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,

     With naked foot stalking in my chamber.

I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,

      That now are wild and do not remember

      That sometime they put themself in danger

To take bread at my hand, and now they range

Busily seeking continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise

    Twenty time better, but once in special,

In thin array, after a pleasant guise,

   When her loose gown did from her shoulders fall,

    And she me caught in her arms long and small,

Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,

And softly said, "Dear heart, how like you this?"

It was no dream; I lay broad waking.

   But all is turned thorough my gentleness

Into a strange fashion of forsaking;

   And I have leave to go of her goodness,

   And she also to use newfangleness.

But since that I so kindly am served,

I would fain know what she hath deserved."

     Wyatt did not write of love alone. The worldly knowledge of a diplomat and courtier appear in a number of poems. "Caesor, when that the traitor of Egypt....."  "Right true it is, and said full yore ago...." "He is not dead that sometime hath a fall...." "Venomous thorns that are so sharp and keen...." "Throughout the world, if it were sought...." And a poem mourning Thomas Cromwell, which is about the best thing anyone ever said of Henry VIII's chancellor, "The pillar perished is whereto I leant...."

     Wyatt wrote some whimsical verse letters to friends, Sir Francis Weston and John Poinz, poets whose work has been lost. Anne herself was a poet, but her only surviving poem is a lovely lyric she wrote in the Tower. Her brother George's poetry is lost. How much else has been lost to time and indifference?

    Wyatt's poetry is available in many anthologies. Mine is Five Courtier Poets of the English Renaissance, edited by Robert M. Bender. Sir Thomas Wyatt. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Sir Philip Sidney. Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke. Sir Walter Ralegh. Not one of these poet-politicians died in his bed of old age.

     Wyatt figures in many novels set in Tudor times. I especially recommend Brief Gaudy Hour, by Margaret Campbell; Dear Heart, How Like You This?, by Wendy J. Dunn; and Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel.



Kinsey and Me, by Sue Grafton.  This is a collection of short stories. "Part Two....And Me" is completely unlike what readers expect from Grafton. In an introduction, Grafton explains a little about growing up as the child of two alcoholics and how she started to write. "I realized early in the process of the writing that I could take any moment I remembered and cut straight to the heart of our relationship. It was as if all moments - any moment, every moment - were the same." These stories about Kit Blue are moments - "character-driven" is the litcrit term - of pain, gradual understanding, final forgiveness. Very moving. "Part One: Kinsey" is a set of short mysteries starring the wise-cracking, tough but soft-boiled PI, Kinsey Milhone. Grafton writes,"Kinsey Milhone entered my life like an apparition....She arrived by degrees, insinuating herself with all the cunning of a stray cat who knew long before I did that she was here to stay." "Between the Sheets" begins when a new client tells Kinsey there is a dead man in her daughter's bed. A story could go anywhere from that beginning."Long Gone" is a missing person case. "The Parker Shotgun" is about the murder of a small time drug dealer; the police think it was drug related; the widow thinks it was personal. "Non Sung Smoke" involves some liers whose lies get them into a mess they could never have expected. This almost cures Kinsey of telling lies. "Falling Off the Roof" has Kinsey pretending to be an insurance investigator in order to investigate a case. "A Poison That Leaves No Trace" involves a mother and daughter pair of con artists who try to take each other. "Full Circle" begins with a traffic accident that turns into Homicide. "A Little Missionary Work" finds Kinsey investigating two fading movie stars, with help from an old friend in prison. "The Lying Game" opens with Kinsey doing uncomfortable outdoor sur-veillance on two brothers, alleged murderers. It gets more uncomfortable. Grafton writes about writing mystery stories in the "Preface" and about the private eye novel in an "Entr'acte." You can learn a lot.

    Grafton's novels can be read in any order. I started in the middle with K Is for Killer, in which a young hooker hires Kinsey to investigate the murder of her best friend, another call girl. The story has a poignance that is unique in Grafton's novels.




True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life, by Kevin Sorbo.  "Inspirational" is a term usually applied to a kind of generic Christian writing with a message. Kevin Sorbo's book about nearly dying and recovering slowly and rebuilding his life and career is inspirational to anyone. And it is not generic. Sorbo is an actor whose classic face and body are now indelibly  imprinted on the image of Hercules. Yet, Sorbo suffered three strokes at the age of thirty-eight, something neither he nor anyone was prepared for. The strongest man in the world - suddenly fragile? As appearances are almost all in entertainment, the TV studio revised scripts and shot around Hercules to cover the star's absence. Though I knew Sorbo was not on - making a movie,  maybe? - I didn't really know what was happening  until later Michael Hurst, who played Iolus, said Kevin had a "life-threatening emergency." Now, Sorbo relates his illness and struggle to recuperate; and he intersperses the story of his illness with stories about what life is like in television. Sorbo has a sense of humor and an under-standing that many readers would like a picture of the real life and work in the TV world that is so much a part of modern culture. The work is much more intense than movie work. There are no allowances for a delay in the schedule or for running overbudget. 18 hour days, figured from door to door, are common. Sorbo, who was in almost every scene, also did a lot of stunt work; and he really poured himself into it all out, as an athlete would do. One chapter, "Quinn," is about working with Anthony Quinn, who played - who else? - Zeus, King of the Gods. Sorbo had just become engaged to Sam Jenkins, an actress who played his love on Hercules, when he had the strokes. Sorbo, when he understood his situation and doubtful prognosis, became clinically depressed. He was given anti-depressants, which he says make a man impotent. Most men would never talk about this, let alone publish the story; but maybe it is different when you are - Hercules! In the event, Kevin and Sam got married and have three children. Kevin's book includes chapters written by Sam, Michael Hurst, Bruce Campbell, his mother Ardis, and Eric Grundemann, the producer. This gives a varied look at Kevin's ordeal and the work of a TV series. When particular shows were mentioned, I got out my Hercules CDs and watched them again. In only one did I think Kevin Sorbo looked ... not strong. Kevin writes that while still sick, he did think about the 700 people who worked for the show, who depended on it, thus on him; so he went along with keeping the full information about his condition from the media. He writes, "Thus began the best acting of my life - acting like I was  healthy." By taking care, they kept the show going for several more years, until it was ready for syndication. His next show, Andromeda, was not so much focussed on one man as on the ensemble. It is inspiring how he worked to recover to the fullest possible and to accept himself as he is now.


The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova; Dracula, by Bram Stoker; Unholy Hungers, by Barbara Hort.

Dracula will never die.

The Historian combines intellectual passion and horror. Time frames within time frames. A young scholar discovers a strange book of her father's - very old and blank but for a dragon pictured in the middle, with a letter addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor." Her father tells her in bits and pieces the story of his own mentor during his days as a scholar and his mentor's disappearance - and his search for Dracula throughout Eastern Europe. (The next best thing to a trip to Eastern Europe.) The young woman and her boyfriend embark on their own quest for her long-missing mother and for the secret of the book and Dracula. The girl's and her father's time frames are interspersed with letters from her father's professor, Bartholomew Rossi. The dragon book appears mysteriously to a professor - always to an historian - whom Dracula has chosen to be his lifeblood.

If you have not yet read Bram Stoker's Dracula, shame on you. It is a landmark of the culture, and it is a very suspenseful novel. The book falls into three parts, each with its own kind of suspense. In the first part, a lawyer on business to Transylvania gradually discovers the truth about his host. In the second part, a group of friends in England are being stalked by the vampire; they do not know what is happening to them, but the reader knows. The third part is the search for Dracula in order to kill him for good and all. The three kinds of suspense build on each other.

Unholy Hungers, by Barbara Hort, is a Jungian interpretation of the vampire myth. Psychic vampires - people who prey on us, use us, drain us, discard us - yet seem emotionally dead  - are the basis for the legend. The book analyzes the vampire in literature, from Oedipus Rex to Silence of the Lambs. It ends with tentative suggestions on how to cope with the vampires we meet in life - or how to  kill the vampire within ourselves.


 Easter Island, by Jennifer Vanderbes, and "Twilight at Easter"  Jared Diamond.  Before I read this novel set on Easter Island, I read Jared Diamond's Easter Island chapter in Collapse. The island is famous for its enigmatic moai, giant statues. There is no entirely logical explanation for how they were quarried, moved, and erected. The island, now barren, was once heavily forested; deforestation and envi-ronmental fragility caused the collapse of the island's civilization. While I was at it, I read the Pitcairn chapter.  Another book with much Easter Island information is Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, by Robert M. Schoch. He is the geologist who dates the Sphinx to the end of the Ice Age, and he dates the moai to that period also.

     Easter Island evokes the haunting atmosphere of the island. It is also a novel about intellectual passion. In 1913, Edward and Elsa Pendleton sail to Easter Island so that Edward can research the moai. They are accompanied by Elsa's sister, Alice, who is afflicted with amentia.  After her father's death, Elsa had to leave her post as a governess in Germany - and the man she loved, Max - to assume guardianship. However, her father's bad investments left her penniless. Edward's offer of marriage seemed like the perfect answer, though it turns out Edward perhaps has an inappro-priate interest in Alice. Alice becomes crazily jealous of Elsa. Elsa discovers her true passion, in a quest of her own to uncover the meaning of the rongorongo. A German navy sails in, and so they learn about WWI. The admiral is Elsa's Max - Admiral van Spee. They admit their love in his cabin; but he must sail away. He is doomed and he knows it. In 1973, Dr. Greer Farraday, a palynologist, arrives in Easter Island to do research. She sees a crazy old woman who lives in a cave on the beach, and she learns the woman is a Brit. The reader assumes this is Alice. Greer, in researching the angiosperm, also comes to realize her own truths. Her late husband, her PhD mentor, stole her equation, the research she had first done for her PhD. In later years, he lost his tenure and reputation when he used forged data and got caught. Greer had never let herself acknowledge what he did to her because it would mean the man  she loved did  not really exist. The crazy old woman gives her a fossil which provides tangible evidence of her angiosperm theory. Her fictional Easter Island work on pollen analysis, based on a real scientist's work, brings her acclaim that restores her own position in the scientific world. As she leaves Easter Island, a native friend gives her an old set of books - initialed EPB, Elsa's books. There are rumors circulating around the scientific and academic worlds about idea theft and forgery - even that Einstein stole his equation from his first wife, though that may be jealousy. //Personal observation. Read or skip. When I worked in a hospital office, where all the doctors were supposed to be teaching med students, my boss would attach his name to every research paper a student produced for publication, even though he never did any work on the paper other than fancying up the language a little. The students did  not have the power to  protest,  not if they valued their future prospects.//

     (Spoiler alert. Read or skip. The crazy old woman living in the cave is not Alice.  She is Elsa. Man-hungry, amentia Alice stowed away on a German ship. Elsa's sacrifices and responsibilities left her wound too tight. Her story shows her gradually unraveling. She is last seen beating her head against the cave wall.) There is so much more: many Easter Island characters, many scientists, a leper colony, and between the scenes of the two women, scenes from a fictional biography of Admiral von Spee.


The Lost Empire of Atlantis,, by Gavin Menzies.  The book is about the lost empire of Crete. Menzies believes that it was a trading empire, that the Cretans were ship builders and sailers and traders. The image of Crete, inspired by the beautiful murals, is of a peaceful country that never went to war. However, they had plenty of real, quite serviceable weapons; and their appearance in classical mythology shows them taking hostages from Greece to dance before the bulls, to die. (Theseus, the bull dancing, and the destructive flood are in Mary Renault's The King Must Die. Highly recommended.)  Menzies's idea is that Crete, which was destroyed overnight by a volcanic tidal wave, was the Atlantis of legend. I doubt that, but as a story about a fascinating civilization the book is wonderful. Menzies does make a very good case that the Cretans mined copper around the Great Lakes, getting there up the Mississippi. It was the Bronze Age. To make bronze, copper has to be alloyed by tin or arsenic. Working with arsenic is poisonous; significantly, the metal-working gods, Hephaestos and Vulcan, were crippled in a way that suggests arsenic exposure. It would be understandable if the Cretans ranged far afield looking for metal after they used up their own mines, but Menzies points out that nearby mines were abandoned before they were exhausted. Why? They used up their fuel. The Bronze Age was fueled by wood much as the Industrial Age is fueled by oil. Crete and the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean was not always barren, as it is today. The Bible speaks of "the cedars of Lebanon;" Hammurabi warned against felling trees without royal permission; Plato wrote of the dangers to the land of deforestation. So, the Cretans set up colonies farther and farther afield looking for both metal and the wood necessary for civilization. Artifacts discovered in ancient mines around the Great Lakes are in the style of Cretan work. DNA studies show that a certain haplotype common in Crete and the Middle East is common in places the Cretans are known to have settled - and in Native American tribes that would then have lived around the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi.  If I were ever to write anything about Crete, it would be about the people left behind and slowly understanding that the ships were not coming back for them but never knowning why. When the Santorini volcano blew, it caused a great wall of water maybe 98 feet high to sweep across the island. That would certainly be enough, as Plato wrote, to destroy a civilization "in a single day and night." However, I don't really think that Crete was Atlantis. First, Atlantis specifically lay outside the Mediterranean. Then, consider this: Homo sapiens sapiens first appeared 100,000 to 200,000 years ago;but civilization is generally regarded as having begun only around 3,500 BC. Could a species as curious, inventive, and aggravating as H. sap sap sit around all that time just flaking arrowheads? More likely, a civilization was formed and destroyed. The fall of Crete does show  how that can happen. There is a speculation now that a massive solar outburst ended the Ice Age suddenly, and the meltwater raised the sea level drastically. Some interesting Atlantis books ( though they don't all use the A-word) are: Gateway to Atlantis, by Andrew Collins; Civilization One, by Christopher Knight; When the Sky Fell, by Rand and Rose Flem-Ath, with introduction by Colin Wilson; The Atlantis Blueprint, by Colin Wilson and Rand Flem-Ath; Watermark, by Joseph Christy-Vitale; Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock; Underworld, by Graham Hancock; and Heaven's Mirror, by Graham Hancock and Santha Faiia. If anyone out there knows of more good Atlantis books, please contact.


The Forgery of Venus, by Michael Gruber. The novel is set in two time frames, the modern art world of NYC and the palatial art world of Velazquez's day. Or it is set in a man's mind when he is reasonably straight and when he is hallu-cinating, or having remarkably vivid and accurately detailed LSD flashbacks. The framework has Charles Wilmot seen at a party by an old friend; Wilmot gives the friend a CD telling his story. And Velazquez's? Chaz is a commercial artist who uses the techniques of classical artists ironically - to sell products, and to comment on the current art scene with its portraits of blobs, geometrical shapes, etc. The kind of painting Chaz seems most able to do would never receive any respect in the present art world. However, a shady art dealer is interested in Chaz's potential - to forge previously unknown classics. (Krebs, the dealer, has family connections to the people who stole art for Hitler. This is an interesting subplot.) Chaz is hired to restore a Tiepolo ceiling - a job which he knows is more creating a new Tiepolo than restoring the destroyed one. Chaz begins having flashbacks - to Velazquez's memories? Or is he time- traveling? If he is hallucinating, how did he know all those details of life back then? He talks to one of the dwarfs, the royal pets that Velazquez painted. Finally he produces a beautiful forgery of one of Velazquez's lost Venuses, to be "discovered" by the art dealer under another painting by a mediocre artists. The process, including obtaining period canvas and brushes to deceive any museum authenticator, is fascinating. While reading the novel, I got out my ancient copy of Time-Life's The World of Velazquez to look at the pictures mentioned. Then the shady dealer tells Chaz the picture really was discovered and is authentic, and that if Chaz thinks differently it is because he had a breakdown. The reason for the framework of the CD given to a friend becomes clear in a detail at the end. Some of Chaz's emotions may be drawn from Gruber's early career as a ghostwriter.


.,The Intercept, by Dick Wolf. After reading a thriller I don't recommend, I picked up The Intercept by Dick Wolf, known as the creator of Law & Order. This thriller about jihad terrorism in New York City is plausible, terrifying, and grounded in reality. The novel opens like an episode of Law & Order, with an incident of an Arab man driving across country to NYC. His errand is revealed only by an almost throwaway line: "The detonators were securely fish-lined into the passenger-side air-conditioning vent." This man is taken down by the NYPD Intelligence Division before he can detonate a bomb in the Times Square subway.  This introduction to the Division, like a city CIA, brings in Detective Jeremy Fisk; as I read I saw the face of Jeremy Sisto, one of the detectives in the last, too-soon-cancelled Law & Order. His partner, and love interest, is Krina Gersten, who comes from a long line of police officers. POV shifts between jihadists and detectives. The characters are not drawn in depth but are differen-tiated enough to be more than stereotypes. The scene shifts to Abottabad, Pakistan. Osama bin Laden makes his debut in fiction, as far as I know. He will surely join the other villains of history as ...material for secular Western art. Next, Fisk is assigned to Ramstein AB in Germany, because he knows Arabic. He helps with analyzing the contents of Osama bin's house. The computer geniuses there view Osama bin's famous porn stash and recognize that the porn was used for steganography - transmissions of messages by coded images on the Internet, the most public of mediums. They learn another attack is being planned. "They must be made to believe that we repeat ourselves out of a desperation to act."  A few years pass. A would-be hijacker attempts to take over a plane from Sweden, but the passengers overpower him. They become media heroes known as The Six. Wolf, who is from television, gives an inside view of media fame and the varying reactions of people to it. Meantime, Fisk has learned the attack is to be, not on numbers of people, but on a symbolic target. Blow up the Statue of Liberty? That would be terrible. With that possibility in mind, I couldn't sleep till I finished the story. The "mad bomber" was really a beard for another jihadist. Scenes segue quickly from terrorists to investigators. An American convert to militant Islam, an ordinary-looking woman, plays a part. There is an unexpected but believable, and frightening, twist at the end. Fine descriptions of NYC; the setting is different from the NYC I knew when I lived there 1966-1983.

There is a paragraph I find alarming. "The FBI had conducted various undercover terror stings since the dawn of domestic terrorism. For every terror plot that arose organically, which is to say without domestic law enforcement inter-ference - the underwear bomber in a jetliner over Detroit, or the planned attack on Fort Dix, New Jersey - two others originated with the prodding of undercover federal agents. Not unlike actual terror cell leaders, they radicalized vulnerable Muslim suspects by fomenting anti-American dissent and supplying the conspirators with dummy materials, such as fake C-4 explosive or harmless blasting caps. These paper conspiracies were then passed off as major law enforcement victories, vanquished threats to homeland security. But it was no exaggeration to say that the FBI had instigated more terror plots in the United States since 9/11 than Al-Qaeda." If this is a true practice, then it is wrong for several reasons. This is entrapment, which is illegal and can cause dismissal of a case. It is best to let sleeping dogs lie- don't wake them up and stir up trouble. Most of all, if such a scheme is set in motion, something is certain to go fubar.

Marilyn in Fashion: The Enduring Influence of Marilyn Monroe, by Christopher Nickens and George Zeno. Marilyn Monroe was and still is one of the most beloved movie icons. A great star is popular not just with men or with women but with - everyone. A great star transcends stereo-types. This book by Nickens and Zeno looks at Marilyn, surely one of the most familiar images, from a new angle: Marilyn as a style icon. The book is lavishly illustrated, from a preblonde Marilyn with masses of brown curls to Marilyn smiling for the fans shortly before her death. There is an idea that Marilyn was fat. The pictures prove otherwise (unless anorexia is your ideal.) A picture of Marilyn with her hips over her head in a difficult yoga pose proves she had a great figure. The authors do admit her weight fluctuated. 36B to 38B. The book makes clear that this smart blonde was very much in charge of her image. She had definite clothes preferences.  Tight as opposed to the Fifties  crinolines. Slightly touseled waves instead of every-hair-in-its-place curls. Famously, no underwear - unless it was a stripper's G string for a translucent gown. She knew what suited her and insisted on it. The studio designer had originally intended a fishnet and rhinestone  body stocking for the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number; but fortunately Marilyn wore the beautiful pink silk gown and gloves.

I got my copy of this book from Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller, the mail order remainder bookstore. I discovered Edward R. Hamilton back in the 70s when I lived in NYC. There must have been a real Edward R. Hamilton who had the idea, but whoever runs the company now still does it his way.


The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. When a book becomes as popular with all ages around the world as this one has (the movie, too), it is clearly making a connection on a deep, maybe even subconscious, level with readers. The gist of the story   - teenagers killing each other as a game - is well known even to those who have not read the book or seen the movie.  Many are concerned that The Hunger Games springs from a modern culture of violence, as if history is not a story of violence and as if all violent stories claim such a readership. The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic story; if it must be categorized, it belongs more in science fiction than in young adult, even if the protagonists are young. After many natural disasters, droughts, storms, rising seas, fights for food, wars among groups for bare subsistence, the country called North America no longer exists. There is now a country called Panem (Latin for "bread") with a gleaming Capitol that lies safely West of the Rockies - safe from rebellious attacks by the Districts it rules. The poorest District is 12, which once was called Appalachia. The people of the District mine the coal but have to ship it to the Capitol, then buy back what they can afford at steep prices. This is like the Dark Ages, with the barons in their strongholds and the serfs verging on starvation. Every year the Capitol requires the Districts to send tributes, a boy and a girl chosen by lot, to fight to the death until only one is left alive. This harks back to the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, but also to the Roman gladiator games because the Hunger Games are televised and shown to all of Panem. This is the ultimate in reality TV. When Katniss Everdeen's twelve year old sister draws the fatal lot, Katness volunteers to take her place. Both Katness and the other District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark, are Christ-like figures, who sacrifice for others. Katness is a huntress (a poacher who could be executed for killing game to feed her family, as in the Dark Ages), so she and Peeta can find food when many of the other tributes can't. Collins shows the sensation of hunger and thirst more vividly than I have ever read it anywhere else. This, I think, leads into what gives the book its great appeal, beside its attractive characters and well-written storyline. People have been hungry, verging on starvation, through most of  history and probably before history. Starvation is real in much of the rest of the world today. Lately, the US has had droughts and storms which killed crops and cattle and raised the cost of food. An economy that turned out to be surprisingly fragile, on top of an apparently fragile climate, suggests the future will be dire. The Hunger Games links myth and history, present conditions and the likely future in a way that taps into the subconscious fears of people today. If anyone out there has an idea of why The Hunger Games is read so avidly, I'd like to know what it is.










 After Dark: A Collection of Haunting Tales, edited by Diversion Press.  (Disclosure: I have two stories in the anthology I am recomending.)  As the title says, this is a collection of tales about ghosts, critters, paranormal, supernatural, werewolves, vampires, all your favorites. It includes short stories, poems, and nonfiction from writers in the United States, England, Canada, and Australia.  "Le Cypriere" is, I think, one of my best stories. Narrated by a Cajun observor, it is about an hubristic developer who drains and fills in the marshland bordering the Gulf in Louisiana; Nature takes her revenge. "La Belle Dame" is a vampire story excerpted from an as yet unpublished novel of mine. Vicky Gilpin's "Posted on a Tree" is something I never expected to read: a funny werewolf story. "The Figure," by James Benjamin, is a scary story in itself. It is even scarier to me because the heroine feels as I did when I was scared of the world. It is about "the day she realized that some fears were not meant to be faced." The nonfiction is recollections of ghostly encounters. "An April Evening at Point Lookout," by Dawn M. Muir, is about a haunted light-house. In "The Monroe Ghost," by Terry Weber, two little girls who live in a house said to be haunted sense something lurking in the basement. "My Sister's Ghost," by Laura Madeline Wiuseman, is about another strange basement room and a Ouija board controlled by something other than the little girls. "Nights of the Living Dead," by Justin D. Garcia, is about a summer as a camp counselor, which no one will look back on fondly.For a long time, vampires were the favorite critter, and they do have more personality than zombies. Beside my "La Belle Dame," the anthology includes "The...Flavor Is the Life," by Vicky Gilpin. The story takes off from you-know-who. "My Nightmare," by Antonio Thompson, is a tale of premonition which has twists all the way to the last sentence, when you learn who the narrator is. Lovecraft is someone I read when I learned he scared the young Steven King. I've never gotten into Lovecraft's invented mythos; I prefer the monsters and fears which have welled up for ages out of the deep Jungian collective unconscious. However, Lovecraft must have been onto something because now writers are exploring his Cthulu in their own ways.. There are two Lovecraftian stories in the anthology. Casey Clabough's "The Shadow Over Lynchburg" pays tribute to Lovecraft's Necronomicon, and In "The Empty House" Tony Eccles puts a Lovecraft-like Magonia into England's Somerset. Lots of ghost stories; the idea of the dead not being really gone has been important to all cultures in all times. "Sudden Death" by Ray Juricich finds terror in high school football, of all ordinary things. In Kathy Warness's "Losing Out in Lover's Lane," a jilted boy friend kills himself and then - you guessed it - haunts lovers. "The Fetal Position," by Daniel Pearlman is really different. He makes you think that maybe an unborn twin, absorbed in utero by the stronger twin, could haunt his brother. Do even ghosts have to keep up with technology. The narrator of Jessie Bishop Powell's "Terms" has to teach a ghost how to communicate by using a cell phone. "Sock Monkey" by Amy Thompson is a ghost story that intersects with an evil toy story. It reminds me of a Twilight Zone story everyone talked about at school the next day. Christa A. Bererson's two poems are atmospheric lyrics about spirits. "Haunted Theater," by Deborah Finkelstein, is about another kind of haunting, when college drama students rehearse in a condemned building; great atmospheric buildup. A curse is always good for a story; so in "Turkey Shoot," by Tom Lovagnino, a major cuss is laid on four golfers who lied about their game - and so much more. What is a horror collection without a time-travelling Jack the Ripper? Check out N. S. Mariner's "The House With the Many Eyes." Some stories are enigmatic, maybe supernatural, maybe not. Is "My Friend Eddy," by Donna M. Marbach, an imaginary friend or a real demon? Is "The Voice in the Night," by Larry Boisen, all creepy atmospherics suggested to the narrator by the Poe stories she's reading - or a real critter trying to draw her into a vortex outside? The Past, whence our terrifying legends spring, is always good for a story. Michael Pickering brings backthe dark, desperate times of Medieval Germany. In "A Night At Monk's Hall," by TiffanyBergin, an American historian on a research trip to Cambridge, England, finds that the ghosts of the monks who were buried where the Hall now stands are  not happy about being displaced. All the critters of our terrifying tales are as nothing, though, to what abnormal humans can get up to. If you doubt this, read "A Friendly Shadow," by Candace Dodd. This book is best read alone at  night. Go to diversionpress.com for information about ordering or local bookstores.



"Yachts and Things," by Truman Capote, in Vanity Fair.   The December, 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, the one with supermodel Kate Moss on the cover, has a recently discovered Capote fragment and an essay by Sam Kashner about the author.  "Yachts and Things" is probably a discarded bit from Capote's unfinished (or lost or destroyed) novel, Answered Prayers.  Without a plot, Capote's piece should be considered brilliant travel writing. The narrator and "a distinguished and rather intellectual woman, whom I shall call Mrs. Williams" tour the Greek islands on a rich Italian's (Gianni Agnelli's?) "supremely elegant" yacht. Capote really gives you the sense of being on that luxurious yacht in that beautiful setting. Also, the sense of the meltemi, "a raucous wind filled with bits of sand dislodged from disant deserts." When they sail into Turkish waters, a delightful porpoise follows the boat; but the porpoise would not leave his home waters. The narrator and Mrs. Williams go onshore to investigate a Turkish festival and invite the village back to the yacht. The essay ends with everyone, guests and crew, high on hashish. That could be an autobiographical note. Esquire published "La Cote Basque" and the other surviving pieces of Answered Prayers. It has been published as a book.

      "La Cote Basque" kicked off a storm among socialites, which surprised Capote and cost him his friendships with these people. (Someone called Slim Keith gave outraged interviews that Capote had betrayed her. I'd never heard of her before she gave the interviews. I assumed she did it just to draw attention to herself, but maybe not.)Becoming a social outcast probably tipped him over into his decline. Litcrit people also turned against him for writing about the jet set. The story is about - the people who own the country; their talk reveals them. I have thought that if Capote had set the exact same story, same dialogue, same style, same type of characters, in a small Southern town where the powers  there gathered at a local diner for their chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and cream gravy - and talk about the local scene, including a quite Gothic murder - Capote would have been hailed for his brilliant social commentary.

     Capote's fragment and Kashner's essay are the important stories in the magazine. The cover story is about Kate Moss, with pictures of her bare breasts. The cover story is not always the most  important piece in a magazine. It is the piece mostly likely to sell the most copies. I have no problem with that, since everything has got to be paid for some way. I just hope that once readers have feasted their eyes on Kate Moss's glories, they will read the Capote story and also a piece about the French Foreign Legion, by William Langewiesche. He actually went along with a Legion patrol in French Guiana.




The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson.  There seems to be a flowering of noir fiction in Scandinavia, though the American perception of that culture is that it is quite law-abiding. The weather in this novel goes from winter when the temperature at night is -35F to summer when the nights are light. Fascinating setting. The book opens with an old man receiving the birthday gift he has dreaded every year for forty years - a pressed flower. He and an also elderly detective believe he is being taunted by whoever murdered his beloved niece all those years ago. The hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is introduced just as he learns he has lost a trial for libel. He is a financial reporter and part owner of a magazine which exposes corruption. This gives a look at the world of finance reporting, which I have never thought about before. Mikael is hired by the elderly birthday boy, ostensibly to write the family history, really to investigate the death of the girl, Harriet Vanger. The Vangers are a very rich family that makes the Borgias look wholesome. The event happened on a small island with only one way to the mainland, a way that was blocked by a flaming vehicle accident at the crucial time. Like a locked-room mystery, Blomkvist thinks, only a blocked island mystery. The girl's body was never found. When Blomkvist learns that Vanger had him investigated before he hired the reporter - and the investigator dug up things he didn't think anyone knew - he naturally wanted to hire Vanger's investigator to help him in his assignment. This is Lisbeth Solander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, a waiflike punk who is a world class computer hacker. By the way, the sex in the novel confirms American notions that Scandinavians are always messing around; but it's not graphic, just healthy exercise. Also by the way, there is a passing reference to "the Saami people," which sent me to the Internet; it is what the Lapplanders call themselves. Have any Scandinavian novelists set a mystery in that interesting culture? Blomkvist and Solander do solve the mystery. //Spoiler alert. Read or skip. The Vangers had sprouted a father-son pair of serial rape murderers. Harriet found out.//  The team employs a lot of high tech research on the computer, which includes locating and studying, enlarging and clarifying, numerous snap-shots taken that day. Also, quite a bit of old-fashioned interviewing and deducing. Lisbeth's own story is that she is probably Asperger's and seems a natural victim to a psychopath in her own world. The investigators are targeted and almost killed by the Vanger who is the original serial killer's son. The conclusion goes back to the world of financial reporting. Blomkvist gets the material to bring down the industrialist who brought the libel charges and gets his reputation back. Solander, after learning to care, is alone again. 


The School of Night, by Louis Bayard, and The Intelligencer, by Leslie Silbert.  The two novels share a structure, a shifting in time from Sixteenth Century England to Twenty First Century America. There are long-secret documents which connect both time frames - and which someone in the modern world would kill for.

     The School of Night was the name of an informal gathering of Elizabethan intellectuals - Thomas Hariot, known as "England's Galileo;" Francis Bacon; Christopher Marlowe; the "Wizard Earl" of Northumberland; and Sir Walter Ralegh (as they spell Raleigh's name now.) They dare to examine any question, at a time when that could be considered treason or heresy. The modern time frame is connected to that period through Henry Cavendish, a disgraced Elizabethan scholar who sees a chance to redeem his career if he can find a missing letter written by Ralegh to Hariot. Hariot loved a woman who was his housekeeper, then  his assistant in his researches when he discovered her intellect. Several other women in this time frame are jealous or bitter because they have been denied a chance to accomplish. The love interest in the modern time frame believes she is the reincarnation of Hariot's love and she has visions of the School of Night. The Renaissance atmosphere, particularly the plague, is vivid with details of a daily life almost completely unlike ours.

"Intelligencer" was the Elizabethan term for a spy. Christopher Marlowe, the playwright, was a spy who acted as a double in the rival intelligence networks of Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex. (Yes, that Earl of Essex. Silbert's view of the Virgin Queen is that she was....not.) She has uncovered the identities of many members of these networks and uses these characters to drive the plot. One hopes that perhaps a later novel in this projected series will tell us who Arthur Dudley really was. The modern time frame also revolves around spies and secret documents. Kate Morgan is a PI whose agency is a CIA front. She is still mourning the death of her fiance. But then the fiance turns out to be not dead, but a prisoner in Iran, a CIA spy who was betrayed. Who betrayed him is not told in this novel but maybe will be in a later one. I speculate that Senator Donovan Morgan betrayed the spy for campaign financing. Kate, searching for a missing document and art treasures, closes in on the story behind Marlowe's murder. Or did he really die? She finds herself likely to share his fate as she is caught in a web of international intrigue.

Both novels draw fascinating pictures of the English Renaissance time frame, one of the most interesting periods  in history. Both use the minutia of daily life in that period when death was always around the corner to great dramatic effect..

Collected Stories, by William Faulkner. Faulkner's story, "Mistral," crossed my mind because of the interesting structure: Two American boys are hiking through Italy and get different pieces of a village story from different people; in the end, they see the girl all the trouble was about and could have followed her down the street themselves. The mistral, "a steady moving wall of air," is a virtual character in the story. Collected Stories is arranged in six titled sections. "Mistral" is in VI, Beyond. This includes a ghost story, a supernatural story, and stories set in places abroad which Faulkner had visited. "Divorce in Naples" is an example of Faulkner's flakey sense of humor, a story about two sailers who were a happy couple until the younger one discovered girls. V. The Middle Ground, moves across the US or back into Civil War times. It includes "Golden Land," Faulkner's LA story, is about a real estate invester who came from poverty to  have a fortune, a fine house in Beverly Hills, a platinum blonde wife who hates him, a cross-dressing son, and a starlet daughter who is starring in a tabloid murder case. Faulkner had been in LA for awhile, writing scripts for Howard Hughes. IV. The Wasteland is Faulkner's WWI stories. The horror of this war affected all the writers of his generation. He went to Canada to train for the RAF, but the war was over before he could serve. When he was young and sillly, he claimed to have flown a number of missions. When he got over that, his training let him write knowledgeably about planes. III The Wilderness tells stories about an almost forgotten people, the Choctaws who had lived in Mississippi. I. The Country and II. The Village are in the Mississippi setting most associated with Faulkner and include famous stories such as "Barn Burning" and "A Rose for Emily." All through, Faulkner's flakey sense of humor is uniquely mixed with a sense of the tears of things. I recommend reading the book from back to front, as I did this time around, in order to get a fresh look at a familiar writer.

The Pat Hobby Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Are you interested in the classic movies made during Holllywood's Golden Age?  F. Scott Fitzgerald was a screenwriter then, mainly for money to support his family.  He wrote a series of stories about a hack screenwriter that draws on his observations.  Most of the other "fine writers" who visited Hollywood didn't write about it,.  These stories were published by Esquire magazine, back in the days when Esquire was really good. Arnold Gingrich, the magazine's publisher then, writes the foreword to my copy; he gives his personal memories of Scott and also defends the literary quality of the stories about this hack screenwriter.  As he points out, just because the subject is a hack, doesn't make the stories hackwork.  Fitzgerald skillfully balances the stories on that fine line between comedy and pathos.  Pat Hobby was a top screenwriter during the days of the silents, but he did not make the transition to the talkies.  He is an alcoholic who hangs around the studio, cadging drinks and jobs, and dreaming of the days when he had wives, money, and a swimming pool.  At times, he even sneaks into the studio to sleep on a set, a sofa where Norma Shearer had acted that afternoon.  The stories are sprinkled with names of real people.  You will also meet an assortment of characters from story to story, which somehow just do seem true.  Studio heads, the studio bookie, directors, aspiring directors, other hack writers and a literary sort, a beautiful starlet who can't speak English, a girl who is "the real thing."

This is probably the closest any of us will get to a tour of the Hollywood studio system when it still existed.  Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald was on the scene.

Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel.  These novels, the first two in a projected trilogy, are character-driven historical fiction.  They are set in Tudor times; yet the players in the political games could be reimagined in today's  world.  Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's low-born counselor, is the hero.  He is usually cast as the villain.  Everything is seen by him in a third person point of view that is as tight as first person. The tense is present, an unusual choice for historical fiction, but one which gives suspense to a story the reader already knows.  The first book opens with fifteen year old Thomas, who'd been a battered child, running away from home  - and from a murder charge.  His actual biography is unclear and was much speculated upon in his time.  His great patron, Cardinal Wolsey, liked to make up stories about his secretary's ruffian past  - stories which Cromwell saw no need to refute.  After a time as a mercenary soldier, a laborer in an Italian banker's house, then an accountant for the banker, then a wool merchant traveling over Europe, he went back to England and became a lawyer.  The Cardinal employed him and sponsored him, and he loved and was loyal to the Cardinal. Mantel describes Cromwell: "He is a man of strong build, not tall.  Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable:  an expression of stifled amusement....He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house, and fix a jury." He is a man of many skills, and he wants to know how things are done so he talks with craftsmen, laborers, merchants, boatmen, artists and musicians.  He has read Machiavelli's new book and considers it trite.  He is sympathetic to the new Reform movement and knows the New Testament by heart.  He shows no reaction to the snubs and insults of the noblemen he must work with - and use.  The first book covers years and events, from the fall of Wolsey to the coronation of Anne Boleyn to the death of Thomas More. Some time ago, I gave up my idealized view of "the man for all seasons."  More respected his own conscience - but no one else's.  The contrast between More and Cromwell is strongly drawn.  Cromwell loved his wife and children, and he trained the promising members of his household, and treated his servants with respect.  More was cold and abusive to his family (except favorite daughter) and to his household; he was sadomasochistic, actively persecuted Reformists, and had something to do with betraying Tyndale to the Inquisition.  Cromwell, who saw an old woman burned at the stake for heresy when he was a boy, helped Reformists escape  - and even tried to get More to save himself.  The contrast between the two men in the story is as fascinating as the contrast between their images in history.  The second book covers little over a year, from Henry tiring of Anne after the birth of Elizabeth to the execution of Anne.  As a diabetic, I have looked up the history of the disease and came across a paper putting the case that the Tudors were diabetic, that this was the reason so many died young or were so sick.  Henry VIII's only healthy children were the ones he had by the Boleyn sisters, and he didn't treat those girls right.  In a crucial scene, Henry is thrown in the joust and is knocked unconscious, or dies and is brought back to life by a thump on the chest from Cromwell.  Today, we know about traumatic brain injury and its affect, if untreated, on the personality.  After this time, the historical Henry VIII had slight control over his worst impulses, and I speculate this was the result of TBI.The political parties of the day were called Catholic and Protestant. Cromwell had to walk a fine line.  When he is charged with the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn, he proceeds like a lawyer building a case, putting it to himself that such and such could have happened in such and such a way, the adultery, even the incest.  In the Tower, Anne touches his arm and asks if he believes in his heart that she is guilty.  "He feels himself on the edge of something unwelcome: superfluous knowledge,useless information." Cromwell protects his friend, Thomas Wyatt, the great lyric poet, one of the most interesting characters in the book - and possibly the one who was Anne's lover.   The executions are witnessed in moment by moment detail.  When it is over, it is clear that Cromwell has avenged the Cardinal on all the men - and the woman - who hounded him to his death.  All, that is, except the King. I am eager for the next book, which will cover Anne of Cleves and Kathryn Howard, and Cromwell's downfall and execution.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer.  This is one of the first collections of short stories.   One of the interesting things in reading works from times past is seeing how differently people thought then and how similarly they felt then.  Chaucer's framework is a collection of pilgrims going to the shrine of Saint Thomas a Becket; the jaunt is clearly as much a vacation as a religious observance.  The assortment of folks from most  levels of fourteenth-century England are formed into a group by the host of the Tabard Inn, who proposes that everyone tell a story along the way.  The tales usually begin with citations from the Bible and the ancients; apparently it was the Medieval way to invoke old authority to give validity to new work. Tastes change over time.  The courtly romances that must have been entertaining then are too far removed from reality today.  They were probably unreal then.  The bawdy tales (aka dirty jokes) are timeless.  Women are passive creatures in the romances; they are active characters in the bawdy tales.  The Wife of Bath, that supreme comic creation, tells a funny and entirely sensible story about how to  have a happy marriage.  The "perfect, gentle knight" is an accomplished killer.  His tale of courtly love - two friends become deadly foes for the love of a woman neither has actually met -- comes to life only when he relates a battle between two bands of armed knights.  One thing that doesn't change is illustrated when the Monk  begins to tell a tragic tale, and the company cuts him off because they only want happy tales.  The mysogony behind many of the stories stands out to modern eyes, though perhaps it was not exceptional back then.    The Franklin's tale is a litany of women who killed themselves to restore their honor after they were raped, as happens in parts of the world today; this is presented as a model of virtue.  The Clerk is most appealingly described as one who "gladly would he learn and gladly teach."  Yet his story of Patient Griselda came as a great disappointment because I  had expected better from him than a celebration of what is clearly, to modern eyes, S&M.  Of course, it is most likely that eight centuries from now our great classics will seem odd to readers who wonder, "Did they really think like that?"  The byplay among the pilgrims is the best part of the tales.  These characters do not conform to any of the types in the tales they tell; they seem like types we can see today.  I have no idea what a manciple, a pardoner, or a summoner did; but they could find their shady niches today.  (Chaucer was free to present their work without mincing any words, so apparently the corruption was known.  No wonder there was a Reformation.) The Pardoner's story stands as a chilling horror tale of evil, as vivid today as it must have been shocking then.  An incongruous note:  The Prioress is depicted as a delightful lady; yet she tells an anti-Semitic tale that owes much to the historic Little Hugh of Lincoln. Is is accepted without comment, and that explains how Hitler got so far.  I don't recall hearing much about the Manciple's Tale in classes or reading much mention of it in commentaries; so perhaps it is an underappreciated masterpiece.  Chaucer's last entry is not a story but a sermon on the vices from the Parson, which is in what I understand to be the Medieval style of defining and categorizing and subcategorizing.  It does come with a sense of character slipped into the categories:  "Another kind of lying is born of mere delight in lying, for which delight they will fabricate a long tale and adorn it with all circumstances, where all the groundwork of the tale is false."  These touches must come, not from old authority, but from Chaucer himself.  Geoffrey Chaucer is a supporting player in the historical novels Katherine, by Anya Seton, and Within the Hollow Crown, by Margaret Campbell Barnes.


The Ages of Gaia:  A biography of Our Living Earth, by James Lovelock.  Lovelock is a doctor of medicine, a biologist, evolutionary scientist, and - most interestingly - a NASA scientist who worked on the Moon and Mars probes.  He understood that the atmosphere of Mars is inert; therefore, there could be no life there - unless our probes, instead of being sterilized, were allowed to export samples of life to Mars that might actually take root. His insight is that an atmosphere is not the result only of the interplay of chemistry and physics.  The atmosphere of Earth and the Earth itself were shaped by the interplay of the life on the planet with the planet itself.  Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis is that Earth is alive, an organism with many parts, all interdependent and interrelated.  The book tells the lifestory of Earth from the earliest time, called the Hadean, down through geologicall eras to the present.  He feels that we are now approaching the end of one of those long periods.  What lies ahead may, at least partly, depend on us.  "Any species that adversely affects the environment is doomed; but life goes on."



The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by  Alexander McCall Smith.  McCall Smith was born in what is now called Namibia and lived for years in Botswana.  His heroine, Precious Ramotswe, deeply loves her country of Botswana.  She is a lady of many virtues and one delightful foible, her vanity about being "traditionally built."  She opens the No. 1  Ladies Detective Agency armed with her own good sense, her late father's wisdom, and The Principles of Private Detection, an important book by that great American authority, Clovis Andersen.  I am not the only reader who Googled Clovis Andersen to find out if he is real; he is fictional.  The mysteries Mma. Ramotswe solves do not always involve a murder, but they are urgent matters to her clients, on which life's happiness or unhappiness depends.  McCall Smith writes with humor and wisdom.  His books remind me of a literary debate which seemed important decades ago:  Does tragedy or comedy give deeper insight into human nature?  Using "comedy" in the old sense, not of a laugh a minute, but the account of daily life, McCall Smith makes a good case for the penetrating insight of comedy.    Can this series be read out of order?  The mystery part of the stories presents no problem if the reader takes up any book in any order.  However, this is a continuing story of family and friends and colleagues over years, so from that point of view the books are best read in order.  For sure, you will need to have read the first book in order to get the most from the latest, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection.  You must understand what Clovis Andersen means to Precious Ramotswe.  The great authority visits Africa, works a case with Mma. Ramotswe, and learns from her.


The Cotton Field of Dreams, by Janis F. Kearney.  Kearney tells of growing up in a large - 19 children! - family of sharecroppers in the Deep South during the years of the civil rights struggle, one of the formative times in our national history.  Young Janis was aware of the tides of change, but she tells it as a personal story.  The book begins and ends with her beautiful, brilliant, tragic sister JoAnne.  The narrative is full of sensory details, so that the reader can feel the setting of the rural South.  The book is framed as story-telling.  One shocking story is how Janis, young and naive, narrowly excaped being raped by a white man.  She takes a chapter each to tell the stories of her parents, James and Ethel Kearney, who valued learning and knowledge.  One wonders what they could have accomplished had they been able to get educations.  All their children went to college, did well there, and have good careers.  Kearney vividly describes chopping cotton under the sun - but then getting to spend their cotton money on the annual, special shopping  trip to Pine Bluff to buy their things for school.  Janis, JoAnne, and three brothers integrated a high school.  The boys were natural athletes who reflected glory on the school, so they were popular.  It was a different story for the girls; it is shocking now to read the way the white teachers treated them.  Love, and an unplanned preganancy, sidetracked her for a few years; but during that time she learned that life is a matter of trade0ffs.  She met and worked for Daisy Bates, and she gives a remarkable pen portrait of this woman so important in American history.  She took over Bates's newspaper.  Kearney ends the book before she goes to work for President Clinton, who contributed the foreword.



Lost Civilizations:  Mysterious Cultures & Peoples, by Markus Hattstein.  This book begins with the earliest known civilization, Catal Huyuk in Turkey, and goes through time and around the world to Easter Island.  My sister gave me this book for Christmas; she knows what I like.  Hattstein reflects on the possible reasons why Neolithic hunters and gatherers settled down and relates the establishment of laws to the need of people in settlements to have an understanding of what peaceful coexistence required.   Climate change and the establishment of agriculture and animal husbandry went hand in hand with the building of temples and towns, then walls for protection.  The book is lavishly illustrated, with many pictures of excavation sites, surviving art and artifacts, maps, and timelines.  There are also quotations from the period,when available.  Hattstein muses on why these civilizations passed away.  It seems direct affects of some climate disaster such as drought, as with the Mayans, or indirect affects such as nomadic people finding their homelands no longer liveable so invading other cultures and taking whatever they could get.  This probably happened in prehistory, too.  You will find the background of many Biblical stories and the histories of many cultures which the US interacts with today, without knowning much about.  Hattstein is a German freelance writer who has researched early cultures for over 30 years.




 The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, by Nathan Wolfe.    Wolfe is a biologist who specializes in microbes, the general term he uses for viruses, bacteria, and parasites.  I've never known of anyone to be so excited about microbes.  His description of the remarkable nature of the rabies virus is memorable. He has spent much time in a number of research programs working in African villages far off any road, and the people interest him and teach him a lot. He describes  how microbes and humans evolved together.  One of his most interesting hypotheses is that homo sapiens' ancestor probably left the jungle for the savannah because he was so outnumbered and dominated by chimpanzees that otherwise he would have gone extinct. Microbes have gotten into humans by jumping species, usually through contact with a slaughtered animal's blood.  Most epidemics seem to start in Africa, though various flues got their starts in China.   Wolfe makes the case that "bushmeat" of all kinds, not just monkeys, has brought the killer viruses to humans.  He recognizes that the hunters in the tiny African villages where he has worked actually need to hunt to feed their families.  He writes of the conflict between needing to preserve certain endangered species with knowing the hunters and how hard they work, how poor they are.  Wolfe believes that a computer network can be set up to monitor what he calls the "sentinel people," those with first exposure to any new harmful microbe coming along - and then prevent outbreaks.  His "sentinels" are the hunters.  Wolfe  believes in this so strongly that he gave up a rare tenured university position to found Global Viral Forecasting to detect the start of potential epidemics and then control them.




Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith.  This novel, set in the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion, came out in 2004.  I read it then and remembered it at the time of the Fukushima disaster.  Recently, with news stories about Fukashima debris washing up on the West Coast, a Nature program about the wolves and other wild animals in the Zone, and an Internet story about the babushkas - old women - who have moved back to their villages, I read the book again.  More timely than ever. In an interview, Martin Cruz Smith said that when he thought about writing this book, he visited Chernobyl, though he was warned not to.  Through his character, Smith gives the readers a guided tour of the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion.  You see the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl and the "black villages" that squatters, poachers, and scavengers have moved into; you meet the people and learn why they are there; you find out that radioactive wild game turns up in fancy restaurants in Kiev and Moscow and that hot wires, auto parts, and icons are on the market; you see the reactor in its sarcophagus which is supposedly impregnable but really "leaking like a sieve;" you see the wild animals which have lost their fear of man; you paddle a rowboat in the reactor's cooling pond; and you sample a Ukranian beveridge that makes vodak seem weak.  The story opens in the New Russia, "with the neon of casinos in Revolution Square."  It ends in the Zone where a radioecologist offers frontline humor:  "To the Zone! Sooner or later, it will be everywhere!"  The hero is Inspector Arkady Renko, a Moscow homicide detective.  A New Russian millionaire, once a physicist with a Chernobyl connection, either jumped or was pushed to his death from a tenth floor window.  Renko finds the apartment is littered with salt, which turns out to be radioactive.  Poison by radiation.  One of the businessman's partners, also a physicist with Chernobyl connections, is found murdered near the reactor.  The Moscow detective is sent to the independent Ukraine to investigate the connection; really, to get him out of the way.  He meets Alex Gerasimov, the radioecologist who is no respecter of persons and who has a Chernobyl connection.  He falls in love with Dr. Eva Kozka, who was a ballet student in Chernobyl when the reactor blew.  Instead of becoming a ballerina, she became a doctor, a woman hollowed out by radiation-caused cancer.  Of the many pictures from Chernobyl, one of the abandoned Ferris wheel at the amusement part seems especially symbolic.  The climax of the story is played out in front of that Ferris wheel.  Renko is a series character.  The books can be read in any order and be perfectly clear.  A cousin, Lynn Jones, gave me Polar Star, a Renko novel set on a Soviet factory fishing boat.  He thought I'd relate to the workers desperately trying to "make the quota," because I was at the time a Texas civil servant trying desperately to "make the stats."






 Every Man for Himself, by Beryl Bainbridge.  Beryl Bainbridge's novel about the Titanic came out in 1996, about the same time as the movie.  I read it then and remembered it now there is publicity about the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the unsinkable ship .  I read it again and liked it even better the second time around.  Isn't it great when that happens?  The point of view character is a fictional nephew of J. Pierpont Morgan.  (Why not?)  The young man is somewhat oblivious to anything but a young man's concerns - love/lust - but Bainbridge performs the difficult feat of clearly showing to the reader characters and events the POV character does not see or is barely aware of.  The focus is on the upper class, with vivid descriptions of the luxury details.  But young Morgan does get a glimpse into steerage - and into the #10 coal boiler room.  Morgan is a draftsman who is recruited by Thomas Hayward to do something, which gives him a new sense of purpose; this does make explicable the risks he takes to get people onto the lifeboats.  His main concern is his love for an exquisite young girl.  Then he finds out this idealized creature is having sex with another man - b&d at that! - and he is cured.  She doesn't even look so pretty anymore; that is the way boys think.  The historical characters are vividly drawn - the unsinkable Molly Brown, the devoted Straubs, Thomas Haywood, Ismay, the Vanderbilts, the captain.  Ismay seems like a man who'd save himself at the expense of others. There are a host of fictional characters:  Morgan's friends, his beloved, the tailer Rosenfalter, the opera singer Adele.  Some details skid by Morgan, such as a sailer being unable to find the key to unlock the cabinet where the binoculars are held; but the importance of this is clear now.  (By the way, the officer responsible for the binoculars was fired the day before sailing and probably walked out with the key in his pocket.)  Bainbridge's descriptions of the night the ship sank  are memorable:  the clear night sky, the berg, the impact of the water as it sweeps Morgan overboard.  He was hauled aboard a lifeboat.  Of all the possible reasons why the Titanic sank, Bainbridge goes with the fire in the #10 coal boiler, which had begun even before the launch.  Heat weakens metal,  so the beautiful vessel was already at risk when she sailed full speed ahead into an ice field.  Later study of the wreckage showed an inferior grade of rivets in the impact section.  Bainbridge also suggests IRA sabotage.  The History Channel had an anniversary program which showed that the Titanic did not go over on her side, as the Concordia and other liners have done; so perhaps she was unsinkable except under extraordinary stresses.




Victims, by Jonathan Kellerman and Blue Belle, by Andrew Vachss.  Child abuse is such an ugly thing that people prefer not to think about it, let alone read about it.  For quite awhile, child abuse was "the secret" and the victims were "children of the secret," to use Andrew Vachss's words.  Jonathan Kellerman, a child psychologist, and Andrew Vachss, a lawyer who is a child advocate, write mystery novel series with "the secret" as the subtext.  Dr. Alex Delaware, Kellerman's amateur sleuth, is a psychologist who is on call to the Los Angeles PD, to consult about homicides with an apparently abnormal psychology element.  Delaware's police contact is homicide detective, Milo Sturgis, who happens to be gay, a story in itself.  Victims, Kellerman's latest in the series, is one of the best.  A Black Dahlia-style murder naturally brings the consultant on the case - but it leads to a string of similar grisly murders, which have no common thread connecting the victims.  Apparently.  Alex's investigation connects a mental hospital with secrets to a smarmy chic psychiatrist with secrets and a former child inmate with secrets.  The novel addresses the distinction between evil and madness.  Blue Belle, Andrew Vachss' third in his Burke series, presents Burke as someone offbeat even for a tough guy private eye.  A Jack the Ripper type killer in a grey van, "the ghost van," is killing the prostitutes of Times Square.  The ladies are afraid to work, so their pimps get together and hire Burke to stop the killer.  They don't care whether Burke gets the guy arrested or kills him, as long as the ladies go back to work.  Burke, "a child of the secret - a child of the State," has no family but the band of friends who live outside the law and help him in the case.  This series has been described as, "The good guys are bad - the bad guys are worse."  Some series are best read in order, some can be read at any point.  A cousin, Lynn Jones, gave me Over the Edge,the third in Kellerman's series, because he knew I'd worked for the Bureau of Child Welfare.  I could understand  who the characters were, and I think Kellerman's books can probably be read in any order.  I read Vachss's Blue Belle first because a newspaper review made it sound interesting.  I caught onto the characters and their relationships.  However, I don't think the Burke books would be understandable much after Blossom without already knowing about Burke and his "family."  Kellerman and Vachss write good stories with fascinating characters - and their cause for extra horsepower in the engines.



The Profession, by Steven Pressfield; "The Warrior Class," by Charles Glass in Harper's Magazine; Achilles inVietnam and Odsysseus in America, by Jonathan Shay.   As an example of synchronicity, I had just read The Profession, a novel about mercenary armies set in the near-future, when I read Glass's article about mercenary soldiers or guards in the world today.  The article draws the picture without specifically raising the question of where all this is going.  Pressfield must have had the idea and wrote the novel, got it out, and all the business of selling a book well before Glass wrote about the trend he observed.  In the novel, the mercenary "armatures" have become powers in themselves; and their general, a Julius Caesar figure, assumes power in the United States.  Reading the two so close together rang alarm bells.  What is Pressfield onto?  Two slightly older books are also examples of synchronicity, current news with the books.  PTSD is nothing new under the sun.  Homer observed it, as surely people have throughout history, though without giving it a name.  Achilles in Vietnam considers the warrior a classic case of PTSD, sent over the brink by his commander's betrayal.  Odysseus in America relates to the trouble many veterans have in fitting back into the home world.






Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway.  This novel is in three parts, which can be read as separate novellas, but which do build on each other.  Part I, Bimini.  Thomas Hudson, an artist, has his three sons for their annual visit.  He takes them fishing on his beloved boat.  The sea and islands are described as an artist might see them, a subtle touch of characterization.   The fishing trip becomes a rite of passage for one of the boys.  David hooks a big fish and just will not give up the struggle, for hours, to land the fish; then the line breaks.  In another scene, David is in the water; and his father on the boat sees a fin moving toward the boy.  Thomas Hudson shouts, the fin keeps moving; he tries to shoot, the fin keeps moving.  It is like what Hemingway said, that you leave something out but you know what is under there.  Part II, Cuba.  Thomas Hudson is visited by his exwife, a movie star who is doing USO shows for the troops.  She is described in vivid words that bring to mind Marlene Dietrich, with whom Hemingway had a long, unconsummated flirtation.  In the novel, the Hemingway hero and the movie star go to bed.  Part III, At Sea.  This part is drawn from Hemingway's experiences patrolling for U-Boats off American shores in WWII.  U-Boats really were a danger; one got into the Mississippi above New Orleans.  Many fishing boats  were pressed into service as volunteer watchers.  On his patrols, Hemingway must have thought:  What if - ?




 Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, by Stephanie Barron.  English literature is full of observant, intelligent village spinsters who solve crimes.  Was there ever a village spinster more observant and intelligent than Jane Austen?  Barron's Jane and... series takes off from that idea.  The "unpleasantness" at the manor is a murder.  The widow and her new beloved are the suspects.  In that day, the accused was guilty until proven innocent. It is up to Miss Austen to save her friend from the gallows.  The first novel begins with the famous event of Austen's life, when she got engaged to Mr. Bigg-Wither in the evening and broke the engagement in the morning.  She never met her Mr. Darcy, but I suspect she met her Mr. Collins and just could not go through with it.  For which literature is grateful.  The series has scenes from Austen's life (real and invented) in the background.  There is "a man of the cloth," a season in Bath, a season in London, first publication, a meeting with Lord Byron which leaves him smitten, Napoleonic espionage, Maria Fitzherbert, a barque of frailty (expensive hooker), and assisting a brother who, as justice of the peace, was responsible for overseeing criminal investigations.  As the series went on, I wondered how Barron would end it, because the time frame was approaching the end of her heroine's brief life.  The latest, Jane and the Canturbury Tale, has Jane standing in pouring rain for hours and catching a lung complaint.  Prelude to tuberculosis?  The series has the framework of an editor preparing newly discovered  Jane Austen diaries for publication and bristles with scholarly footnotes.










 The Afghan Campaign, by Steven Pressfield.   Pressfield, a former Marine, has written a novel about Alexander the Great's campaign in what is now Afghanistan.  Pressfield says on his web site that in reading about Alexander's campaign, he was struck by how much it resembled our war.  He has visited Afghanistan, and his site runs an interview with an officer who fought there.  This was the one place Alexander could not defeat easily; it took three years. He prevailed only by marrying the princess. The story is told from the point of view of the common soldiers, who called themselves "Macks" for Macedonians.  Matthias is an eighteen year old son of a military family.  He enlists with ideals of military glory and courage.  Alexander does not face a country with a standing army but a confederation of tribes who can fight a battle when they choose, ambush when they choose, fade away and come back when they choose.  The Westerners have a humanist, secular philosophy; the Afghans are fiercely religious, barbaric, and fatalistic.  There is no meeting of minds.  (Tribalism is discussed in The Better Angels of Our Natures.) The Afghans commit atrocities that shock the Greeks - until they resort to this themselves.  Alexander wages a scorched earth campaign.  Matthias is hardened.    "Show me one whose heart has not been riven by the pitiless horrors of war."  Yet he finds love with an Afghan girl, Shinar, a complex character.  There is an honor killing - somnething that far predated Islam.  Pressfield is subtle in showing the brother does not really want to kill Shinar but is pressured by his peers.  Alexander appears in several scenes; it is made clear why he was a great warrior beloved by his troops.  The Macks, sergeants, captains, a poet warrior based on Archilochus, a war reporter called a "two obol Homer," the crafty tradesmen who supply the army are all drawn in a way particular to the time yet universal.




 The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker.  It seems counterintuitive that violence in this old world has declined.  However, Pinker uses paleontology, recorded history, and statistics to prove that the world is safer now - after WWII-than it has ever been before.  Most skeletons from the hunter-gatherer days show signs of violence, and the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes are quite violent.  After disposing of the myth of the noble savage, Pinker then studies the progress of war from Biblical and Homeric times, through the Middle Ages,the Wars of Religion, through the Age of Enlightenment up to the present.  Total war, genocide, and atrocities were such a commonplace throughout history that they were not even named or mentioned.  I've often thought that the much-maligned Twentieth Century was a turning point.  There were total wars, torture, abuse of women and children, and every form of prejudice before then; but no one ever questioned it or tried to change it until it reached its peak in WWII.  Pinker has the statistics to prove my hypothesis.  Pinker discusses how some violence, such as germ warmfare and nuclear warfare, changed from being acceptable to being a taboo - something not even to be considered.  Rape is a topic he developes in detail to show changes in attitudes from acceptance to taboo:  throughout history rape was almost a commonplace, besides being the woman's fault; in the Twentieth Century this changed to be a crime against a woman - and from being a crime to being such a taboo that it does not even  figure in the new generatiron's most violent video games.  (At least in Western civilization.  Pinker does point out that the changes are not uniform worldwide.) This long book contains a lot of information, history, and philosophy, written with touches of humor.  A less skilled writer than Pinker would have needed an encyclopedia to get so much across.  The index is excellent. You can look up any topic - such as crucifixtion, taboo, rape, duelling, infanticide, nuclear bombs, riots, wars and war literature, and even the 21 worst things people have ever done to each other. Number One, which I never heard of before, is the An Lushan rebellion.



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