Ian McGuire, “The North Water”

the-north-waterColm Toibin put it perfectly in The New York Times:

The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”

It’s a brutal book. It’s violent, gritty and harsh. And it’s a big old chunk of pure storytelling.

Set in the late 1850’s, much of it on a whaling boat called the Volunteer, The North Water is one part adventure, one part crime story and all parts tale of brutality, survival and the limits of human endurance. McGuire writes with a present tense style that has the sensibility of a documentary.

This happened and that happened and so on. Now and now and now. Cinematic? Uh, yes.

At the core of the story are the ship’s surgeon, the drug-addicted Patrick Sumner, and the wickedly vile Henry Drax. The North Water starts in Hull and as the ship is preparing to venture off north toward the Arctic and from there it’s all downhill as the numbers of shipmates dwindle, as the ship busts apart (that cover illustration tells you all you need to know), as the survival begins, as the sense of bleakness and dread leaves a few tiny little human figures struggling against the vast white (where there isn’t blood) emptiness. If there’s a human bodily fluid or key internal organ that goes unmentioned, I’d like to know. It’s literally as if the inhabitants of this novel are turned inside-out.

Of course we have a hunch that not all will perish and McGuire adds a final coda back on dry land that deals with the moral fallout from a bigger crime that’s been underway all along, and partially forgotten as we have shivered and flinched and worried.

It’s a brilliant piece of writing. McGuire’s got a great eye for detail. The story flies. We don’t stop to learn about anything. McGuire leaves out all the parts that would Tom Clancy would not. We are simply immersed in a world that exists and asked to hang onto the gunwales, our knuckles whitening with each toss of the cold sea.

Finally, I have to point out that I listened to this on audio, narrated by John Keating. I firmly believe his reading enhanced the whole experience.

Keating has a bright, clean style. You can almost hear the smile in his voice, which contrasts so starkly with all the abject misery that voice is required to relay.

 

Dusty Baker, “Kiss the Sky – My Weekend in Monterey at the Greatest Concert Ever”

 

kiss-the-skyUm, yes, that Dusty Baker. The writer is the former hard-hitting outfielder (Braves and Dodgers) and long-time manager (Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nationals).

First, what a great idea for a series of books. Second, this should make anyone a Dusty Baker fan; he comes across as a very likable, laid-back guy.

Third, the subtitle is a bit misleading. Yes, he was at the Monterey Pop Festival as a teenager. And, yes, he was there as an enthusiastic music fan with a wide range of tastes. But the festival comes and goes in the first few chapters and then the rest of the quick book (135 brisk pages) races across Baker’s life, skipping back and forth between music and baseball. The book is heavily weighted on Baker’s early life and decisions about his baseball career.

But, yes, music. Lots of music—and you have to tip your hat to his omnivore appetite for tunes, from reggae to jazz to rock. Baker liked everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Paul Simon, from Otis Redding to Jimi Hendrix. (And Baker claims a bit of fame for having once shared a joint with Jimi on the street in San Francisco in 1968; Baker was a huge Hendrix fan.)

Baker credits Joel Selvin’s Monterey Pop account for some of the detail that goes into describing the festival itself—and it’s a good thing. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that an 18-year-old was taking notes on what song kicked off Big Brother and the Holding Company’s opening night set. What’s easy to grasp is Baker’s sheer enthusiasm for how music made him feel.

Janis Joplin “didn’t hold anything back, not a damn thing. Any time I saw Janis sing, and that was not the only time I caught her, it left me feeling both jacked up and kind of exhausted. That was how intense it was listening to her. At Monterey when she finished ‘Ball and Chain,’ Big Mama Cass was sitting up near the front, shaking her head and just mouthing ‘Wow.’”

“The (Jefferson) Airplane were the ultimate San Francisco psychedelic band as far as I was concerned, after seeing them the month before in Santa Clara, and their second album, Surrealistic Pillow, had just made it to the Top Ten. At Monterey they jumped right into one of their hits from that album, ‘Somebody to Love’ and just tore it up.”

Baker recalls the look of “exultation” on Hendrix’s face between songs and compares it to the feeling of hitting a home run for fans. “And I know he had some chemical help with that exhilaration, but what you saw was a childlike joyousness and ease, a sense of complete comfort, since he knew he was tapping into major talent and everyone else there knew it, too.”

Robert Christgau or Greil Marcus need not quake in their boots over this new music writer; there is hardly a deep thought anywhere in the book. The whole point is the joy and feeling of being a music fan.

Baker touches on his relationships with Hank Aaron (Baker was on deck when Aaron hit his record 715th home run) and Satchel Paige and other musicians and players, too. Personal life is almost non-existent in this overview along with skipping-stone references to criticism or troubles he experienced as a player or manager.

The focus is music and Baker’s passion for it, from Van Morrison to Bob Marley and 2Pac. Baker has turned his kids onto artists and they’ve done the same in return. He’s certainly got one of the most eclectic, open-minded approaches to music as anyone you’d want to meet.

Mindy Mejia, “Everything You Want Me To Be”

everything-you-want-me-to-beMy review of Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

2016: Top Books

Highlights from reading in 2016.

Rank means nothing here, just my favorites from the year.

Fiction.

One.
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Short stories in the inimitable Campbell style.

Two.
The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Get ready for Among the Ruins (coming early in 2017) and get to know Esa Khattak.

Three.
The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic by Christopher Merkner
Short stories. You want your weird and surreal, Merkner’s got you covered.

Four.
Northline by Willy Vlautin
All four Vlautin novels are fantastic.

Five.
Shaker by Scott Frank
Beyond me why this didn’t make more of a splash. A crime story in an earthquake zone.

Six.
Mortal Fall by Christine Carbo
Thoughtful, in-depth mystery in Glacier National Park. This is #2.

Seven.
Brighton by Michael Harvey
Movie, please. Great suspense, fantastic finish.

Eight.
City of Secrets by Stewart O’Nan
I finished this one and started over. That doesn’t happen very often. O’Nan is amazing.

Nine.
Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner
So British, so well written.

Ten.
Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day
Intense character study and tight crime story. And 2017 brings The Day I Died.

Eleven.
Naked Shall I Return by Christopher Bartley
Hard-boiled gangster stuff (and a main character who contemplates the universe). This one is set in San Francisco. It’s the 1930’s.

Twelve.
Nothing Short of Dying by Erik Storey
No holds barred. For fans of action.

Thirteen.
The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton
Great plot, good ending.

Fourteen.
The Homeplace by Kevin Wolf
Beautifully written. Out on the eastern plains of Colorado.

Fifteen.
Blood on the Tracks by Barbara Nickless
Holy smokes what a book with a big sweep and many layers.

Sixteen.
Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall
Attitude, attitude, attitude.

Seventeen.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
If I had to pick one book from 2016. See, I told you the order meant nothing. Incredible short stories. Life as short story.

Eighteen.
Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin
Long may Ellie Stone run.

Non-Fiction

One.
Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood
A cautionary tale. And brilliant idea. Hilarious, too.

Two.
Forensics by Val McDermid
Crime writers, you have no excuses not to get it right.

Three.
Conan the Grammarian by Susan Mackay Smith
Geared for writers. Grammar is good for you.

Four.
H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald
If pressed to pick ONE book from BOTH fiction and non-fiction, this might be it. One-of-a-kind memoir.

Five.
Immersion by Ted Conover.
For reporters and long-form writers who care about their craft.

immersion-ted-conover

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forensics
playing-dead
Second Life Nick MasonNothing Short of Dyingnaked shall i return






Stewart O'Nan City of SecretsBrighton - Michael HarveyMortal Fall 3Willy CD 1411hmzqv7tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_H is for HawkMothers Tell Your DaughtersThe Language of SecretsShaker - Scott FrankLittle Pretty Things

Ted Conover, “Immersion”

immersion-ted-conoverTed Conover’s Immersion is a tidy, thoughtful handbook for writers and journalists interested in “going deep” with their subjects.

Conover has produced five eye-opening works of non-fiction and a slew of long-form articles for magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s and many others. He rode the rails with hoboes for Rolling Nowhere, crossed the border with Mexican immigrants for Coyotes, guarded prisoners at Sing-Sing for Newjack, and explored overlooked communities and the issues of roads around the world for The Routes of Man. More recently, he was hired as a meat inspector for the USDA and wrote a long piece for Harper’s.

If you aren’t familiar with his work and enjoy outstanding non-fiction, start with Rolling Nowhere and Coyotes and work your way through the books. There’s a reason they’re all still in print today. Conover has a singular, engaging voice. You’ll soon recognize his style. Plus, he’s an exacting reporter who takes incredibly detailed notes and turns around and tells compelling stories about real—and often overlooked—citizens of the world. I read Routes of Man twice and took away much more on the second spin (on audio). Here’s hoping that someday there will be a book-form compilation of his best magazine work, too.

For Immersion—A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, Conover imparts the lessons he’s learned. In addition to his ongoing projects, he’s an associate professor of journalism at New York University and this brisk book (152 pages before the end notes) lays out an approach to thinking about this unique form of journalism. In typical clean Conover fashion, the book is presented in six chapters—Why Immerse?; Choosing a Subject and Gaining Access; Once Inside; Undercover: Moving Beyond Stunt; Writing It; and Aftermath.

There are many ways to dive into a subculture and Conover offers a wide range of tips and ideas for going about your business as a writer and reporter, particularly the tricky business of building trust “inside.”  Conover is upfront about some of the mistakes he’s made along the way, both in identifying his role as he moves into the world he intends to cover and as he builds relationships within.

Conover draws from his own experiences and dozens and dozens of others—the bibliography offers an extensive list of reading suggestions from Katherine Boo to Sebastian Junger to Alex Kotlowitz. One doesn’t doubt he’s read and studied them all. Drawing examples from his many cohorts who practice the same style of reporting endeavor, it’s clear Conover recognizes himself as a member of large community and part of a long tradition.

It’s easy to see that Conover’s standards for ethics and integrity are set the highest level. He’s a stickler on notes and fact checking (as any writer for The New Yorker should be, would be).

“If you are seeking out an experience that you intend to write about, taking notes should be a major part of it,” he writes. “Maybe, if you’re a committed personal essayist, it will just be a journal you update over coffee, or before bed. Or, if you’re a literary journalist, it can be lines scribbled in a small spiral notebook and/or typed into a laptop or mobile device more or less continually during the day. The point is two-fold: (1) notes will only bolster your memory, not detract from it; and (2) specificity … gives writing power. It also gives you the option of writing journalism, which requires the citing of factual data, not just best-I-could-remember data.”

The care Conover puts into his writing is obvious when you read his work. Precision rules. There’s a genuine confidence, along with an easy-to-read style that is utterly engaging. That’s in part because Conover always makes it clear he’s from another world, though trying his best to empathize with the lives and cultures of others.

Since he uses first-person (judiciously, I would argue), Conover’s chapter on “Writing It” includes some cautionary ideas about writers using the “I” voice. Conover makes a convincing case that you have to “earn” that voice and that it has to contribute to the larger story as you draw from your own experience and reveal to the reader the struggle involved in the immersion itself. It’s a tricky tightrope of trust for would-be immersionists and there are a host of ethical issues to trip over. This book will help you think through those issues and, perhaps, save you some trouble.

I would suggest, in fact, that Immersion would be useful for “regular” journalists too—in how they think about their relationships with their sources and think about the larger story they want to tell. Any beat reporter is, essentially, living among his or her subject for a long period of time (a City Hall reporter, say, or anyone covering a single organization for an extended period). No, it’s not the same as hopping freight trains with hoboes, but there is an overlap in technique, standards, and maintaining integrity.

Given the political landscape and what (I hope) is a resurgence in the strength and numbers of news organizations, now we need the production of high-standard journalism, immersion or not, like never before. We all need better windows in the lives of others, in this country and all around this big old world.

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Previous Q & A with Ted Conover – The Routes of Man.

Previous reviewThe Routes of Man.

Previous reviewThe Fair Opelia.

Ted Conover’s website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q & A #53 – Susan Mackay Smith, “Conan the Grammarian”

cover-conan“Clarity is what matters to readers.”

That’s the clarion call of one Conan The Grammarian, a.k.a. Susan Mackay Smith, who has been writing columns in the monthly newsletter from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers for about ten years.

Now, Conan is out with a handy reference guide that distills those columns into an inspiring volume titled, handily enough, Conan the Grammarian, Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers.

Remember Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation? This book would sit handsomely on your shelf alongside it and all your other writing resources.

Conan sets a high bar for writing. And writers.  Cool plots, Conan argues, can be enhanced by the nuances of language.

But, fear not. This is a light (near breezy) read that will leave you feeling encouraged and emboldened, not depressed or over-anxious. In fact, Conan talks a good game but, in the end, has “his” forgiving side, too.

Lawyers and journalists may get use out of the book, says Conan, “but this book is meant for novelists, who have their own requirements and, yes, rules. Which, like Jack Sparrow’s rules of piracy, are more like guidelines.”

Susan Mackay Smith is the past president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and a frequent judge of the Colorado Book Awards, has been writing a monthly Conan the Grammarian column for over ten years. Traditionally published in fantasy under the nom de plume, Mackay Wood, she is a second-generation Colorado native with a degree in history and (more important to her) a BHSAI from the Porlock Vale Riding School in Somerset, England.  She lives in Boulder with the most wonderful man in the world.

A full review follows.

First, a Q & A with Conan / Susan:

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Question:  Okay, we’ll start you out with a softball. Do you ever have to look anything up related to the rules of grammar or usage?

Susan Mackay Smith: Certainly – everyone does. For the column in particular, I often double-check that my instincts are correct. I also check terminology, because my brain is full, and I no longer remember the terms for every little nuance of the so-called rules.

Question:  Your book makes learning and understanding grammar look easy. Why do the rules of grammar have to be so hard?

Susan Mackay Smith: They aren’t hard. The terminology is arcane, but English grammar is so stripped down, compared with other languages, that to call English grammar “hard” throws up a barrier to learning. English spelling is hard, but English grammar is simple. Learn a few basics (first person personal pronouns, verb tenses, subject-verb agreements, how modifiers dangle) and the rest is easy.

Question:  Do you have a grammar pet peeve? If you were benevolent dictator over all of the grammar universe, would you wave your magic wand over one specific issue and make it go away?

Susan Mackay Smith: A hard choice! Instead, let’s ask what I would make universal, and the answer becomes easier. Proper punctuation, and the aforementioned correct uses of first person personal pronouns (I, me, myself). Maybe this boils down to teaching the mechanics from an early age again … then no one would have to worry.

But two peevish misuses set my teeth on edge: it’s used for a possessive, and I’s, used at all.

Question:  What is the number one biggest, most frequent grammar issue that you find that writers stumble over and/or wrestle with and/or seem to ignore the most?

Susan Mackay Smith: In the narrow realm of grammar, writers these days seem oblivious to what modifies what, how, and why. Dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers abound, leading to confused readers or to readers who end up sneering at the writer’s ridiculousness.

An example: At age six, Johnny’s mother gave birth to twins. Think about it. One sees similar errors everywhere. It’s as if writers and copy editors think, oh, the reader will figure it out. But the reader shouldn’t have to! Stopping reading for even a fraction of a second to figure it out interferes with the critical suspension of disbelief that creates enjoyable reading. Don’t we want readers to enjoy our work?

On the other hand, the biggest problem I see in fiction writing isn’t a grammar issue but one of craft: recognizing what’s not on the page. That is, what you intended to show or have the reader understand versus what you actually show, so the reader fails to grasp what you meant. Even multi-published, successful writers face this problem. Good critique groups can be vital in pointing out where something—motivation, rationale, emotion – didn’t translate from imagination to page.

Question:  Conan the Grammarian is a funny book. It’s hilarious in many ways, including in its bluntness and certainty. But you also make it clear that the rules can be broken. Can you point to some good examples of rule breakers? And how to break the rules in the correct way?

Susan Mackay Smith: All good writers break the rules: e.e. cummings’s no capitals; James Joyce’s loaded run-on sentences; Shakespeare’s neologisms; Elmore Leonard’s skipping dialogue tags; Kent Haruf’s neglecting quotation marks; Dorothy Dunnett’s using foreign languages and atypical viewpoints; Carol Berg’s dropping -ly in most adverbs…

Breaking the rules correctly is quite a droll concept, but my maxim – Conan’s maxim – is that writers have to know a rule to break it effectively. Sometimes a fragmented sentence is merely strange and hard to read, but in a good writer’s hands, a fragment gives evocative emphasis to the prose.

Question:  How did you come to care so much about the right and wrong way to put sentences together?

Susan Mackay Smith: Isn’t that a writer’s job? Writers should care – words and sentences are how stories get told. Words and sentences are how we humans communicate.

Question:  As a longtime judge for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold contest (and other contests, I’m sure), can you tell within a page or so whether a writer has a firm grasp on grammar? And has a good writing “voice”? How?

Susan Mackay Smith: Less than a page, for the basics. That first mistake alerts me, and if more crop up, I look for those instead of focusing on the story. “That’s not fair,” some contestants may say; but life isn’t, editors and readers aren’t, and that’s reality. Contests are a teaching tool – teaching entrants how their work is perceived by readers who are strangers, readers who see only what is on the page. If what’s on the page is replete with errors, that’s no one I care to read, however great the story buried in the mistakes may turn out to be. Mistakes make for hard reading. Life’s too short.

As for voice, those who have a good one, whether their own storyteller’s voice or a good character voice, are immediately apparent, from a great first line that flows organically into the next line, then the next, consistent and real, with some spark that says, this character is a person, or this writer has a unique clarity and way with words.

Question:  You’ve been writing the Conan the Grammarian column for RMFW’s newsletter for years. How did you go about the process of culling through those and shaping them in book form?

Susan Mackay Smith: I reread all the columns and sorted them into rough categories – punctuation, grammar, craft, and so on – then realized I had several that were pep talks or moral support rather than about mechanics or language. Those became the introductory and concluding sections, which provided a starting place and a goal for the rest. Then it became a process of combining or deleting duplicate columns from within the rough categories, and working for a good flow from topic to topic. It was fun (I’m a re-writer anyway).

Question:  I learned a new word I did not know reading this book: swivet. Good one! There were many others as well, especially in the “Toward More Colorful Writing” chapter. How does a writer know when a choice word is the right one and not just, you know, showing off?

Susan Mackay Smith: Why not show off? But the trick is, make sure your word fits your character and/or your time period and genre, and be sure odd words or non-standard uses are clear in context. (Critique groups help here!) For example, if your scene shows your protagonist freaking out, and another character tells her, “Don’t get in such a swivet,” it will be clear in context. But if the opening line of the novel says, “Mary Sue was in a swivet that morning,” not so much.

Question: In the age of Twitter abbreviations and emoticons, where is grammar heading? What is the future of grammar? What will the nuns be concerned about if they don’t have grammar to fire up their sense of order and discipline?

Susan Mackay Smith: I’m not a psychic, nor do I play one on TV, but (easiest point first) I don’t think emoticons will ever substitute for evocative writing. Emoticons set tone in a Tweet or email, where the brevity might not allow the writer’s intent to be clear otherwise.

As for Twitter, etc., pray we never get to the stage where novels are written full of three and four letter acronyms! Tweets ignore punctuation because of character limitations, but I sincerely hope that doesn’t become standard in all writing, because punctuation serves Conan’s God of Clarity, making communication easier.

That said, limiting yourself to 140 characters can be a useful exercise in clear and concise writing, which helps any writer hone basic skills.

Question: What are you working on now? What’s next?

Susan Mackay Smith: I am finishing the revision of a YA fantasy, the first of a projected two-book set. What should be next is starting the submission process again. A couple of years ago, I had given myself a vacation from submitting, then life got in the way, as it is wont to do, so I’ve neglected the be persistent aspect of a writer’s job. Time to get back on the horse named Never Give Up.

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Conan the Grammarian  cover-conan

Podcast interview with Susan Mackay Smith on The Rocky Mountain Writer.

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REVIEW:

Do the rules of grammar turn your knees to jelly? Do you cower at the mere mention of relative clauses, the past perfect tense, or participial modifiers?

Me, too.

But I’m getting better. And now I’ve got Susan Mackay Smith’s Conan the Grammarian: Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers on my side. I mean, right by my side.

Drawn from Smith’s decade of writing the ‘Conan’ column for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ monthly newsletter, this book is not only handy and useful, it’s inspiring.

Yes, grammar can be inspiring.

If you think that reading this would be the equivalent of getting your knuckles rapped by an irascible nun, think again.

Conan the Grammarian is funny, breezy, and wicked smart. (Wickedly smart?)  Smith places the idea of understanding and appreciating grammar in a more powerful context. And that, quite simply, is the desire to help writers tell their stories with more sharpness, precision, and impact. Thinking about grammar is thinking about writing—and writing clearly.

Writes Smith in the introduction: “To begin at the beginning, this book examines the craft of fiction from the perspective of grammar and usage. This is not a book of Rules. Though it includes many grammatical terms, the purpose isn’t to teach terminology but to elucidate how the language works so Careful Writers can wield their tools to best advantage for their stories For what matters isn’t only the story; it’s how the story is told.”

The book is divided into six parts: On Language; In the Beginning Was the Word; Structure and Bone: Grammar; The Sinews: Punctuation; Heart and Soul: The Novelist’s Craft; and Battle Scars.

Smith writes in second person as “Conan,” an alter-ego with a stern sensibility.  But Conan is nothing if not funny and entirely self-aware and “his” particular, enjoyable voice makes this volume eminently readable:

Herewith, three examples

Example 1:

On Euphemism

“A euphemism is the substitution of a less negative or more general word or phrase for a blunt or embarrassing one. Conan, as readers are learning, prefers specifics for fiction, which is why euphemism comes under Bad Habits. Lots of swear words are euphemistic—drat and darn for damn; heck for hell; shoot for—you get the idea.”

Example 2:

The Passive Voice

“What is passive voice? Why is it uniformly castigated as Bad Writing? Why is it wrong, and why should you care?

“First, let’s discuss what passive voice is not. Someone has perpetrated a heinous canard that passive voice equates to using the verb to be, e.g., was and were. Whoever is responsible, please stop! While Conan has elsewhere explained that to be forms are state of being words and, when used instead of more muscular verbs, may impart limpness in writing, that doesn’t mean they are passive voice. Got it? Stop spreading this pernicious fallacy, or Conan will get grumpy, and that’s something nobody wants. It’s never a pretty sight.”

Example 3:

The Serial Comma

“Conan believes the serial comma is never wrong. You the writer aren’t the best judge of your text’s possible ambiguity, since you know what you intended to say. Make a habit of the serial comma and let the editor remove it, the lunkhead.”

Writers, Conan the Grammarian will give you a few dozen different ways to approach your revisions and self-editing, from clichés of characterization (watch those head nods) to dialogue tags to that dreaded first sentence. It’s also a handy reference guide (with a thorough index to boot).

Conan approaches grammar as a writer who cares about good writing and not as a authoritarian technocrat only interested in The Rules. In fact, Conan makes a good argument about knowing the rules first in order to break them. And, along the way, Conan shows a depth of knowledge about the history of language and the power of good writing with references to everyone form Shakespeare to Flannery O’Connor. A bibliography runs for a couple of pages; you will be very busy trying to keep up.

Finally, Conan is beautifully designed and I did not spot one typo or word out of place.  You have to figure, on that basis alone, that Conan knows “his” stuff.Q &

Conan the Grammarian only costs $10.  Okay, to be as precise as Conan, $9.95. A steal. Get it.

You’ll have a goldmine in your hands.

 

Manuel Ramos, “My Bad”

my-bad-3My review of My Bad by Manuel Ramos for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

Previous review of The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories (including Q & A with Manuel) is posted here.

Previous review of Desperado is posted here.

Q & A #50 – Stephen and Joyce Singular, “Presumed Guilty”

presumed-guilty-coverUtter the three syllables out loud—JonBenet—and you’re bound to get a reaction. Everybody has an opinion. If you haven’t studied the case, even in cursory fashion, a brief glance at the murder will hurt your head.

Let’s say the murder didn’t happen but a scriptwriter today pitched the exact same storyline, as fiction, to “CSI.” Nobody would believe it as a story close to credible, possible, or within the realm of possibility. The facts of the murder were plenty bizarre, only to be eclipsed by the strange investigation and wacky decisions by those in charge of finding the killer. Or killers.

It’s almost 20 years since JonBenet’s death. It’s been 17 years since Stephen Singular published Presumed Guilty, An Investigation Into the Jon Benet Ramsey Case, the Media, and the Culture of Pornography. That book took Patsy Ramsey, JonBenet’s mother, off the hook. It made a strong case for looking at the broader context for the murder—specifically the world of child beauty pageants and its connections to pedophiles and child pornographers. The most vocal mouths of the media (talk radio, ahem) didn’t buy it. It’s impossible to forget the certainty with which these blathering microphone hogs carried on. It was a circus.

So much has transpired since the murder that Steve and Joyce Singular have completely updated the original book. It’s entirely worth reading now. A review follows. First, Steve and Joyce (The Spiral Notebook, Shadow on the Mountain, The Wichita Divide, When Men Become Gods and many others) were kind enough to answer a few questions by email.

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Question: Did you watch the two-part CBS television show that attempted to deconstruct the case and all the theories? If so, what did you think?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  First of all, thanks for asking us to participate. We’ve just put up our 1999 book about the case, Presumed Guilty, on Kindle/Amazon. It’s been updated with about 70 new pages from the original version, bringing the story into the present. Anyone looking for a truly alternative explanation for JonBenet’s murder will find it here.

The CBS program was a mixed bag. The show’s suggestion that scenarios exist other than the Ramsey parents committing the crime (making them totally guilty) or an intruder coming into the house and killing the child (making the Ramseys completely innocent) was good. CBS did a fine job of depicting that a crime scene inside the Ramsey home was staged. They also did good work decoding the 911 call Patsy Ramsey made to the police the day the body was found. But they never addressed the more complicated questions raised in the years since the murder. In 1999, a grand jury concluded that a) the Ramseys did not kill their child, but exposed her to the circumstances that led to her death and b) the parents helped cover up the crime. Instead of exploring what the Ramseys may have exposed the child to, CBS leaped to the conclusion that 9-year-old Burke beat his sister to death with a flashlight because she ate a piece of his pineapple on Christmas night. Think about it for a moment: the program alleges that while covering up the crime, the parents wrote a nearly 400-word ransom note, fashioned a highly-complex garotte for JonBenet’s neck, choked her severely with it, and sexually assaulted her—but somehow forgot to hide the flashlight and left it out on the kitchen counter, in order to make their son look guilty.  This simply doesn’t make any sense and there’s no actual evidence of any kind—DNA or otherwise—to support the idea that Burke killed his sister. CBS walked right up to the edge of going below the surface of the case, and asked some provocative questions, but then stopped and did the predictable.

Question: Same kind of question—did you see JonBenet’s brother Burke’s appearance on “Dr. Phil” and, if so, what did you think?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  Burke came across as rather awkward and odd, but there’s nothing in his behavior or again the evidence to suggest that he killed his sister. One of his first comments to a psychiatrist—in unguarded circumstances following the murder—is that someone must have stabbed her to death with a knife. In other words, he’s clueless. Right after Patsy called 911, the Ramseys sent Burke over to a friend’s home, which was filled with strangers, who were visiting there for the Christmas season. Ask yourself this: If the Ramsey parents knew that their son had just viciously murdered his sister, and they’d covered up the crime for him, would you send him into house full of people he doesn’t know, where one slip of his tongue can put you in prison for many years to come? Or would you try to protect him and keep him away from others because of the inherent risks involved? You can only send him away like this because he doesn’t know anything incriminating—and that’s exactly how he comes off 20 years later with Dr. Phil.

Question: Your points in the book about the nature of Boulder—influence, power, politics, persuasion and how those might have influenced how the case was prosecuted—are compelling. Do you have any reason to believe that things have changed? That favoritism in another high-profile case isn’t a possibility today? Do you think the police and prosecutorial systems in Boulder have changed, been reformed?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  No, Boulder protects Boulder—very much as Aspen protected itself recently in the aftermath of a high-profile murder in that town.  Boulder DA Alex Hunter asked a grand jury to look at the evidence in the Ramsey case for a nearly-unheard-of thirteen months. In legal terms, that’s the equivalent of forever. After all their diligent work, the grand jurors told Hunter to indict the Ramseys on the two counts mentioned above. He refused. Why? Getting a conviction on these charges would have been much easier than getting a

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

Stephen and Joyce Singular. Photo by Kerry Ransom.

Murder One conviction. Hunter went on to seal the indictment and it stayed that way for the next fourteen years. In 2013, the DA’s office was successfully sued, but it still decided only to release four pages of this 18-page document. Why was the rest concealed from the public? What’s in the remaining 14 pages? Are other people named as suspects? We suggest in Presumed Guilty that Hunter refused to prosecute the Ramseys because it would have opened up a much larger set of problems for Boulder. The grand jurors, after looking at all the evidence, did not say that Burke Ramsey killed his sister. They said that the Ramsey parents exposed JonBenet to events and a person or persons, which led to her death. What events and what person (s)? Whose DNA was left behind in several places on JonBenet? Is it possible that the scandal around her death touched prominent people in the community and no one wanted that to come out?

All these questions would have been explored in a Ramsey trial—and Hunter and the powers that be in Boulder weren’t going to let that happen. On the CBS show, ex-Boulder cop Steve Thomas quotes Hunter as saying that the decision to charge or not charge the Ramseys was going to be “political.” We think that both Hunter and Thomas were telling the truth. But what was the political issue here? What was Boulder trying to protect—or hide?

Question: Can you even count the number of ways this prosecution was fumbled within the first few hours and over the ensuing weeks, months and even years? What do you think is the biggest thing the cops or prosecutors should do today, if you were running the case?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  Go back and interview the pageant mothers around JonBenet at the time of her death. Learn from them about the photographers taking her picture then and how they behaved in the aftermath of the murder. Look for who insisted that he did not kill the child. Look for pictures of JonBenet on the Internet or elsewhere holding potential clues and suspects. Look into the criminal pool of child predators, some of whom operated on the edges of the pageant world…This area is where we began our investigation of the case in early 1997 and we feel that over the past two decade it’s been quite fruitful. We continue probing these areas today and there are a few people who’ve told us more about the case in 2016, when we re-interviewed them, than they did in 1997. They’re older now, they’re children are grown, and they’re less fearful about sharing important information that suggests a wider scandal in Boulder than the murder of one child. We’d tell the authorities to go to these people and start asking questions that go far beyond the Ramsey family as the only suspects. Dig into the issue of child exploitation in the Boulder area…in the years before the crime.

Question: Do you think the grand jury report will ever see the light of day?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  That seems very unlikely.

Question: You’ve managed to get close to some major cases—O.J., Warren Jeffs, JonBenet, the BTK Killer and others. How were you received in Boulder compared to those other cases? It almost seemed as if they were willing to share information and they offered the semblance of an open door even if they didn’t say much. Thoughts?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  Early on, Alex Hunter was quite willing to listen to outsiders and even reporters. A few months later, he stopped doing this. He told Steve face to face that he wanted the Internet/child porn angle investigated, but the Boulder police wouldn’t do this because they were fixated on the Ramsey parents. So the DA suggested that Steve look into this—an outlandish and astounding idea in a high profile murder case. To do what Hunter was asking, Steve would have had to break the law and that wasn’t going to happen. Steve also approached the Boulder police a number of times, but they were a brick wall when it came to receiving or exploring new information.

Question: You two invest so much of your own resources—time and money—into this case. What drove you to keep pursuing leads and making calls? Has it gotten easier or harder to make yourself part of the conversation in cases like these, given the way that journalism has changed?

Steve & Joyce Singular: The case just keeps finding us, as it has throughout 2016. It goes away for a year or two, but then someone contacts us with new information and our work lurches forward. Above all, this homicide remains a world-class murder mystery, so it holds its own level of interest for anyone who likes this sort of thing. It’s the only known murder where a body and a ransom note were found in the same location. There has to be an explanation for this. Neither CBS nor any of the other shows currently being aired on the case has explored this in any depth. That’s what our book is really about—and it gives readers more than two answers in the case. It also raises troubling questions: What keeps everyone involved with the murder quiet for two decades? What shuts down a legal process? What scenario makes everyone in Boulder look bad? What causes a family to spend a fortune protecting itself? What causes important legal documents to remain sealed? If a boy had killed his sister over a piece of pineapple, we believed the murder and its aftermath would have been resolved long ago.

Question: There are apparently over 30 books about the crime; other than yours, what is the best one out there?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  Lawrence Schiller’s Perfect Murder Perfect Town is a good collection of facts about the case from its early days. We believe that clues are buried inside that book, which were never really focused on or investigated enough.

Question: One thing you touch on the book but don’t really get into is the intense media frenzy that this case generated back when it first happened twenty years ago. Even “reporters” took strong, self-assured opinions about what must have happened. You mention one story about how you were treated by fellow reporters, care to share any other stories about how you were treated? Why did you think this case was elevated to this extreme fever pitch?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  There was a vacuum left behind after the OJ case. The general population and the media were hungry for a new murder narrative. The Ramsey case had just about everything: murder, mystery, money, sex, beauty, possible corruption in high places—and cable TV was now fully in motion, eager to fill up its 24-hour news cycle. The case was made for that. And more than a few legal or media commentators were willing to jump in and tell the world they’d solved the murder—when law enforcement was having a very hard time doing exactly that. Careers were made with people accusing the Ramseys of murder on TV and radio and the Internet, just as they’d done with OJ. It was a seismic shift in how these cases are portrayed to the public. Opinion crushed the known facts. Presumed Guilty was thrown into a trashcan on live national television because it dared to suggest another explanation for the crime, beyond the Ramseys as killers. All this has culminated with CBS, formerly the gold standard—the “Tiffany Network” of TV news—accusing a 9-year-old boy of murder when there is nothing at all to substantiate this. This media pattern makes doing any real journalism around the case much more challenging…and leaves the deeper questions behind: Why does a legal system and a city government decide not to prosecute the most visible case in Colorado history when it has an obligation to do so after spending $2 million of the public’s money on an investigation? What’s the real mystery behind the paralysis in this case?

What’s your best estimate for how this case will be resolved—or will it?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  It’s very unlikely it will ever be solved, unless there’s a DNA match with a currently unknown killer who left multiple DNA samples on the child and her clothing.

Question: What’s next for you two?

Steve & Joyce Singular:  We’re writing a fictional screenplay with our son, Eric, about an alternative energy resource. We’re working on a couple of other stories and when they’re more developed, we’ll post them on our website: www.stephensingular.com  Also posted there will be a notice about Steve’s upcoming appearance on the Lifetime Network for a program on the JonBenet Ramsey case, once the date is set.

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REVIEW:

Follow the facts. Keep asking questions—and keep asking questions. Without a concrete answer to the death of JonBenet Ramsey, obviously, questions remain. As Stephen and Joyce Singular put it in Presumed Guilty, some murders just won’t leave you alone. And as they make painfully clear in this updated version of their 1999 book, there are still questions to be asked—still work that could be done.

I’m no expert on the case. But the Singulars do two things simultaneously—and they do them well. First, they look closely at the human behaviors of those immediately involved. Second, they widen the lens and look at the bigger picture. It’s very hard to read this book and not come to the same general conclusion—that the answer to this case lies in the troubling sublayers and dark underground of child beauty pageants and sick underground tunnels to child pornographers.

The murder alone is puzzling enough. The police work and prosecutorial efforts that followed were worse. As the Singulars write, “the case remains a world-class conundrum. The murder of JonBenet is the only example in the annals of American homicide where a body and a ransom note were found in the same location. Somehow, some way, there is logic behind that, but Boulder’s legal system was never able to explain what it was. Or perhaps it did, a long time ago, but we’ve never fully understood what this means.”

In the years following the murder, the Singulars write, their questions ran head-long into either “pervasive fear” or “absolute silence.”

Looking back, they write: “The most potent aspect of the Ramsey phenomenon was the stillness around it — from the family and its legal team, from Boulder cops and the D.A.’s office, from parts of the media, and in the very uneasy quiet that clung to the crime, even as the authorities tried to put it behind them. Presumed Guilty suggested that there were powerful reasons for this silence and the effort to bury the murder, rather than solve it. The book stood alone in speculating that there were more than the two ironclad scenarios the media and the police had laid out for the child’s death from the very beginning: either the Ramseys did it and were totally guilty or an intruder had come into their home and killed the girl, leaving the Ramseys completely innocent. A huge gap lay in between these poles and Presumed Guilty explored that space.”

As recent television news shows make clear, that space still remains. The Boulder police (in a videotaped message to the community at large, recorded in anticipation of the huge media onslaught coming with the two-decade anniversary) maintain they are actively pursuing leads to this day. I hope so. Perhaps they should start by reading this book; the Singulars lay out some compelling places to start.

It also suggests what we all largely suspect to the case—that deals were struck, that money and wealth got the privileged kid-glove treatment it thinks it deserves. Nothing else explains the actions of Boulder law enforcement in the days, weeks, and months following the murder.

In the updated version (I did not read the original), the Singulars take readers along for the ride. The book takes each thread and unspools it in a very conversational style.

These two get very close to the main players in the case; as independent journalists they brought information forward to Alex Hunter and others, with mixed results. The book becomes a series of interviews and conversations with those around the Ramseys—and a series of reactions by the authorities to what is brought forward. What did they find? See above. Pervasive fear and/or absolute silence. I won’t go blow by blow with each encounter, but the Pam Griffin conversation here certainly suggests there is more work to be done. (Griffin was the seamstress for JonBenet’s pageant attire and knew Patsy Ramsey very well.)

Presumed Guilty is a fascinating book, well worth a read; it’s brisk. The book concedes that it has only identified the what for the case, not the who. Until there is an answer, isn’t it a good idea to be open to all possibilities? And follow the facts—not the noise.

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Q & A #39 – Ray Daniel, “Terminated”

TerminatedI met the ever-friendly Ray Daniel in Long Beach at Boucheron in 2014. We’re both fellow ‘Inkers.’ That is, we’re published by the same cool house, Midnight Ink. I’ve run into him at other writing conferences and he’s a fellow board member with Mystery Writers of America.

Terminated is the first in the mystery series featuring uber-geek and hacker extraordinaire Aloysius Tucker.

The Boston Globe called it “a smart novel with plenty of witty asides (and) slam-bam action.” Corrupted Memory followed and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review (“compulsively readable”). Coming this summer is Child Not Found. 

Daniel’s short story “Give Me a Dollar” won a 2014 Derringer Award for short fiction and “Driving Miss Rachel” was chosen as a 2013 distinguished short story by Otto Penzler, editor of The Best American Mystery Stories 2013.

Daniel’s short fiction has been published in the Level Best Books anthologies THIN ICE, BLOOD MOON, STONE COLD, and ROGUE WAVE; as well as in the Anthony-nominated anthology MURDER AT THE BEACH (Down and Out Books).

A full review of Terminated follows but, first, Daniel was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail.

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Question: So much crime and mystery fiction has been set in Boston, did you find it a challenge to do something different with the setting or did you just go with the flow? And, by the way, why is Boston such a great setting?

Ray Daniel: I know authors who worry about setting books in a city popularized by Parker and Lehane, but that comparison has never worried me.  We all live in our own version of our cities.  The aspects of the city that strike me aren’t the ones that struck previous authors.  Also, Boston keeps changing, so there’s always some new wrinkle to examine.

There are several reasons that Boston is a fantastic setting for stories. The first lies in the varied neighborhoods crammed together into such a small space.  It’s only a 45-minute walk from the North End to Fenway Park and in that walk you’ll pass Faneuil Hall, Downtown Crossing, the Boston Common, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay.  It’s easy to cram different types of people together in Boston.

Another reason that Boston makes a great setting is that it has been a great setting many times.  Readers and moviegoers are familiar with Boston and so feel grounded in stories there.  It’s been said that people argue whether New York or L.A. are the best settings, but both sides agree that Boston is next on the list.

Ray Daniel

Ray Daniel

Question: Software designers and software debuggers—is it really two different camps? Two different mindsets? Will designers ever be able to design a hack-free computer or device? Is there always a weakness? And why don’t the debuggers sit in when the architects are working and point out mistakes?

Ray Daniel: Three great questions. As to the mindsets or camps, you might compare it to authors vs. editors.  While it is possible to have someone who is good at both roles, people definitely have strengths in one direction or the other.

The author/editor split also applies to the question of having debuggers involved in the architectural process. The problems a good editor solves are not usually apparent until the entire story is written.  The same can happen with software.

As for whether it’s possible to create hacker-proof computers or devices, it is possible as long as the device doesn’t do anything.  A brick is pretty hacker-proof. Once you start adding functionality you are almost certain to create security holes that can be exploited.  Even something with no electronics at all, a lock, can be hacked (or picked in that case.)

Question: Terminated relishes the particular joys of the modern day industry convention. You sound like an old pro and these things. Do you enjoy, hate, endure…or a combination? Any convention survival tips you’d care to share?

Ray Daniel: I’m an extrovert who feeds upon the energy of crowds, so I love conventions and conferences. My biggest tip is that if you are working a convention (for example if you are at the American Library Association Conference signing books in your publisher’s booth) never stand on your booth’s carpet.  Always stand in the neutral walkway carpet.  This keeps out you there meeting people.

When you meet a new person always ask, “Have you seen our booth yet?”  That way you have a next step whether they answer “yes” (“What brings you back?”) or “no” (“Let me show you around.”)

Question: Tucker’s three days in Terminated are, to choose one word, harrowing. How did you determine how many close shaves he could handle?

Ray Daniel: Poor Tucker takes it on the chin every time I think the audience may get bored.  Since I’m paranoid about boring my audience, he takes it on the chin a lot. Also I’m a big fan of books in which the main character is in real physical danger, so again Tucker bears the brunt of it.

My biggest challenge as a new author was learning how to write the scenes where Tucker responds to his close shaves.  Being in danger is an emotional experience, and it would be flat if Tucker didn’t respond to the danger.

Question: The exchanges between Tucker and his dead wife Carol, who materializes at surprising moments, are both colorful and, again, funny. How did you develop this idea? Have you ever had an experience like Tucker’s, seeing and talking with the dead?

Ray Daniel: Carol was an in-the-moment inspiration when I was writing the scene where Kevin had left Tucker alone for a moment in his office.  I wanted conflict in the scene, but Tucker was alone, and the idea for Carol popped into my head at that moment.

Once I had the idea I wanted to make sure that Carol didn’t fall into the category of “My sainted dead wife.” That’s become something of a cliché.  That’s why they fight so much.

Also, once you’ve been married long enough, you don’t need the other person around to have the fights.

Question: Favorite Boston (or New England) writers—go. And, sure, feel free to mention any others you like, maybe a few unsung heroes of yours.

Ray Daniel: This question and the next question have the same answer: Robert B. Parker.  I used to tell people that I liked reading “First-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries.”  So, when I started writing I wanted to write first-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries, and I do.

Question: Who or what inspired your mystery writing career?

Ray Daniel: <above>

Question: What’s next?

Ray Daniel: Tucker’s third book, Child Not Found, publishes on June 7th. Tucker takes his cousin’s daughter sledding on Boston Common and loses her in chapter one.  I really liked what Kirkus had to say about this book: “As usual, Daniel is more than generous with the violence, guilt, tweets, craft brews, and compassion.”

I love the fact that I’ve reached a point in my career where a reviewer can use the phrase “As usual.”  It looks like I have a recognizable style!

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Ray Daniel’s Website

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Review:

Terminated begins with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind. The first two words of the book, however, offer a somewhat helpful clue. “Morning sex…”

The five days of plot in this brisk novel, after the opening action, never let up. Our erstwhile techie hero Tucker manages to get in a few stops for various bits of Boston nosh and beverage along the way. This guy needs a drink. Or four. He’s had it rough and it’s going to get worse.

Tucker and his wife Carol developed controversial security software. They were a team, of sorts, at a company called MantaSoft (what a great name). Carol was viciously murdered in their home six months prior to the gauntlet of mayhem that takes place from Sunday to Thursday within the pages of Terminated. It turns out that Tucker and Carol’s marriage had plenty of bumps and not much going on in the bedroom. But that doesn’t mean Tucker doesn’t care who killed her. He cares, in fact, very much.

But now “Carol” follows Tucker around and he can often be seen having conversations with her in public, though the Bluetooth gizmo prevents others from questioning his sanity.  Yes, this is a familiar device but Ray Daniel’s uses it sparingly and Carol pops up, appropriately, at some wonderfully inopportune times. And they continue to bicker about what went wrong. Hilarious.

A few pages into Terminated, Tucker’s pal at the FBI is letting him in a new lead, a somewhat worrisome photo of a woman, someone Carol once hired when she worked at MantaSoft.  She’s dead. And someone thinks Tucker may have played a role in the woman’s demise, further fueling Tucker’s need to find out what’s going on at his old company.

Tucker can hack or debug anything. “You really solve puzzles through a flash of insight,” he says. “Then you work your way back through the logic so you can explain it to others. After years of debugging software, I was good at generating flashes of insight.”

And he’ll need them. By the time Tuesday rolls around, Tucker makes Jack Reacher look like nothing more than the captain of a Swan Boat in Boston Garden.  Tucker isn’t likely to take on five big men with only his fists, but he seems to attract as the violent type. He’s a mayhem magnet.

Humor and violence live side by side in Terminated. And Daniel flashes some very funny lines.

“If you took a bowling ball, taught it to talk, and bought it a custom bowling-ball suit, you’d wind up with Agent Bobby Miller.”

“The prosperity of the 1960’s blew past Boston’s dying textile industries. While other cities were making money and dropping down the architectural equivalent of bell-bottom pants, Boston was too broke to build.”

“The beach still curves gracefully toward Nahant, but the only noted attraction is Kelly’s Roast Beef, which is ‘World Famous,’ according to its sign. I’d once asked some folks from Budapest if they had heard of Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere and they had not. It was very disappointing.”

Tucker has lots to sort through. Not everybody is what they appear to be. And Tucker will soon realize, despite a sharp ability to debug anything, that his smart aleck ways are helping leave an easy trail for would-be assassins to follow.

Terminated (a title that probably carries quadruple meaning here) is a fun and hair-raising romp through the streets of Boston. It ends, like it starts, with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind.

 

 

 

 

Q & A #37 – Christopher Merkner, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic

411hmzqv7tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Skip this intro!

Go down to the Q & A.

Then find yourself of copy of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic.

What, you’re still here?

Okay, know that Christopher Merkner is worth following. He teaches classes through Lighthouse Writers here in Denver, so go get yourself some Merkner.

He’s teaching a class on Deborah Eisenberg and Joy Williams beginning in April; check it out.

Last summer, Merkner’s volume won the 2015 Colorado Book Award for best short story collection. Also among the finalists was the previously quizzed Wendy J. Fox.

So, now: read the Q & A.

Oh, a full review follows.

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Question: Short sentences. What gives? Are you comma adverse? Sure, you have some long sentences but it seems as if you really prefer them short, punchy. True? And why?

Christopher Merkner: With Scandamerican Domestic, my position was Less Is Best. The primary characters are all white heterosexual men feeling very badly about themselves for no objectively defensible reason. So, while I have little doubt that these men “in reality” would have no qualms about carrying on and on, eloquently and otherwise, my thinking was that it seemed appropriate and necessary to neutralize them with a language they more fully deserve, which is a language with as few words as possible.

Question: “Scandamerican” – is that a thing? And what about the domestic aspect here? Did you know when you gathered these stories that there would be a lot of child rearing, coupling, and painting walls? Of negotiating roles and responsibilities?

Christopher Merkner: As far as “Scandamerica” is concerned– it’s definitely a thing, Mark. C’mon! It’s huge! Next time you’re in Rockford, Illinois, stop by the Stockholm Inn. Very much alive, Scandamerica, I assure you, and when you are there they will treat your just right.

As far as the domestic aspect, my whole life is my wife and kids. I haven’t had a drink outside our house in perhaps five years. I have three friends, maybe two. I have no hobbies. I listen to my parents complain on the telephone from their home in Illinois. I haven’t spoken to my sister in Wisconsin in about two years. I dwell on and lament memories of my youth, when I had what some would allege was “a life.” I go to a grocery store between ten and fifteen times a week. I try to play catch or Frisbee with my daughter and son. I drive the kids to swimming lessons, then back home again, sometimes strongarming them into a grocery store on the way home. I find this life pretty rich, and I really enjoy it, so I write about it – not my life, necessarily, but the life that exists around me as I conduct this life with my family. Maybe that makes me imaginatively narrow. I’m sure it does. And for now that’s okay.

Scandamerica built up around these stories and this life, not the other way around, and I just feel grateful daily that someone was kind enough to say, “Yes, this is a book.” I could not be more grateful, nor could I be more aware that I should be grateful, given the amount of important creative work being created out there that isn’t getting published.

Christopher Merkner

Christopher Merkner

Question: Why is the family unit such a source of amusement, if that’s the right word, to you? Or terror? Do amusement and terror live side by side?

Christopher Merkner: Amusement and terror, at least for my writing, are just aesthetic tools. Family by contrast is a concept, and it’s a really important concept for me, very close and dear to me, and amusement and terror are the tools I apply to the expression of that concept because I personally find them both vastly better fits than their alternatives in helping me say what I want to say about family and families in America today.

Question: The Missouri Review said: “In Merkner’s stories, the things that tempt us come to pass.” There does seem to be a free-fall to some of these stories. You can’t believe a husband is going through with, say, holding a party for his spouse’s ex boyfriends. All of them. Do you agree with The Missouri Review’s conclusion? Is that a fair thread? Care to discuss?

Christopher Merkner: It became pretty clear, pretty early on, that Scandamerican Domestic would not be interested in realism, anyway, so in many ways this idea that wouldn’t “likely happen” doesn’t really apply. But I guess I’m also pretty confident that the men who tell the stories in the book definitely see their lives in free-fall, just as most Americans like these characters do. And this is of course ridiculous and founded on all of the most ridiculous foundations of their privilege. There really isn’t a narrator in the book that isn’t authoring the hardship by which they find themselves feeling victimized. I have very little patience for men, especially angry and stunted-feeling white ones in the middle and upper-middle class, and I imagine that must be creating this sense that things that “probably shouldn’t happen” are happening to them. They author these things in a world where they are free to author almost anything they want. They set themselves up, foolishly, and I’m just helping them find their inevitable realization. Maybe that’s too political. And maybe that’s just too cruel and unfair. I don’t mean it to be.

Question: There are several (many) stories that involve negotiations between husband and wife and that show the struggle with roles and responsibilities. Why does this space draw such interest? And does your wife check your work before you submit?

Christopher Merkner: Molly reads everything I write. If I have anything as a writer, I owe it to her. And we’re both in agreement that the “crises” of the characters in these stories are as incriminating as they are authentic.

Question: “Last Cottage,” I must say, is particularly warped and fantastic. Can’t we all just get along? You write that one from the collective “we” perspective, almost like the “we” is the whole community’s consciousness. The town wants every spare bit of shorefront commercialized—or else. What sparked this one and using that larger “we”?

Christopher Merkner: It has to be pretty normal to discover your creative work is really nothing more than an unwitting synthesis of your personal concerns, feelings, memories, attitudes, ideas, people, anecdotes, etc. Imagination is part of it, of course, but I think imagination is servant to these other pressures. Or, at least, that’s what’s going on here with me. This story started off as a sort of warm, commemorative note on the town I really grew up in—Wauconda, Illinois. But I feel like there’s no way to control this sort of thing, at least not with such an oppressive constraint as “commemorative,” so in revision it just kept expanding, drawing more fully from a fuller range of attitudes, issues, and practices I’d experienced in that town, with those people, my parents, friends, and my sister. And myself. I think it’s important to say that I am very much part of this “we” in this story, not in any sort of literal way, but in the way that one is invariably drawn into one’s own metaphors. Anyway, the deeper that story went into revision, the more fully it became clear that the characters were complicit in their own demise, all parties, all of them white and fairly, relatively solidly upper middle class. Why can’t we all just get along, indeed! But that’s the point or function of the book as a whole: Americans who really have no actual or real problems, relative to the broader world, working diligently to create problems for themselves.

Question: For folks out there like myself who have spent a long time working on full-length novels, what is the advantage, do you think, of working on your short story craft? I saw in another interview that you might be working on some longer pieces. True? Is it a difficult transition?

Christopher Merkner: For me, anyway, there are no advantages. For me, stories pester tirelessly. They are indefatigable, incessant naggers, and I think that’s because there are just so many of them to be attended to, always desperately needing something. The novel, I’m finding, is always beholden to these demands. The novel is louder, yes, but it frankly can’t compete with the multitudes of nagging, needy voices, at least not without becoming angry – and anger doesn’t flatter the novel, at least not for me. Maybe it’s a maturity thing, the way that grandparents can “handle” grandchildren with relative indifference to their annoyance, and still carry on their daily lives without being upset by or having their days ruined by the demands of their grandkids. But at this point in my life stories are just very much needing constant attention and the novel is just like a teenage kid doing its own thing, off a bit on its own, capable of enormous damage, moving toward something awesome but forever stepping on the brink of its own demise, but the stories…I just can’t stop paying attention to their needs. And the transition between the two is annoying when I think of it as annoying. I just try to just stay in contact with them both and give them each the kind of attention they seem most pleased to receive…and of course I’m inadequate to the cause. I mean, that’s the prevailing feeling, inadequacy.

Question: Lydia Davis. Is there anyone else out there like her? Who considers each word with such surgical precision and who gets so much done in so little space?

Christopher Merkner: Lydia Davis is the gold standard, at least for me. I am so grateful to her. If I look past her, back to the writers that I admired before I’d really started valuing Davis, I have to admit that it was Donald Barthelme who opened the door to the room in which I found Davis, and so I could not possibly forget him. Other writers that I find in this same room with Davis? Let me just say it this way, as I’ve said it before: I think everyone should spend some time reading Selah Saterstrom (Slab), Meg Pokrass (Damn Sure Right), David Leavitt (The Marble Quilt), Padgett Powell (The Interrogative Mood), Josh Russell (My Bright Midnight), Margaret Luongo (If the Heart is Lean), Imad Rahman (I Dream of Microwaves), Chris Bachelder (The Throwback Special), Tara Masih (Where the Dog Star Never Grows), Spring Ulmer (Benjamin’s Spectacles), Josh Harmon (The Cold Season), Wendy J Fox (Seven Stages of Anger), Luke Rolfes (Flyover Country), Danielle Dutton (Sprawl), Greg Howard (Hospice), Sara Veglahn (The Mayflies), Chris Narozny (Jonah Man), Erik Anderson (The Poetics of Trespass). These are good people writing good books.

Question: What’s next?

Christopher Merkner: What’s next, indeed. I have to try to get my kids to the mountains once more this winter; I have to get groceries for their lunches; I have a birthday party to get my daughter to Sunday, and my son needs to do his physical therapy stretches more consistently. They both have homework. The entrance to the house needs to be vacuumed. The laundry is backed up. It’s hand-to-hand combat here in this house, Mark, and what comes out of it all, in terms of writing, is still in process, and I won’t know it until it’s let me know it, I’m confident. But I’m grateful for you asking!

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Christopher Merkner’s Website

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Review:

A few of the words that came to mind while reading The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic:

Acerbic. Biting. Caustic.

And absolutely, in spots, hilarious. In a sort of morbid fashion.

Christopher Merkner doesn’t waste time revealing his sensibilities. He kicks things off with the first-person narrator of “Of Pigs and Children” worried about how he’s going to explain how he “accidentally gaffed” his uncle in the temple “with one of my musky bucktails on a very simple and heaving backcast.” He needs to explain what happened to his mother but she’s distracted by her Vietnamese potbelly pig. The story of Uncle Ackvund’s demise comes to us in bits and pieces and we soon learn all the grisly facts, from wheelbarrow to “slop in the culvert,” about the narrator’s miserable attempts to save his uncle’s life.

The opening sentence of “In Lapland” is a perfect example of Merkner’s breezy, easy style: “On Thursday my wife returns from work and says she needs some color in the house, can’t live in this cell-hole another minute, what have we done to bring ourselves to this way of living at our age, we aren’t twenty-five-year-old twist, not anymore.” When the couple encounters a color snob in the form of saleslady who tries to talk them off the “Country Rill” green they are chasing, they bottle up their wrath. “We’ve reserved all this direct outrage for the car ride home and really let the car windows have it,” the husband reports.

The painting project is really, in fact, all about their sexual dynamics and sexual tension between the couple and Merkner isn’t subtle. He goes after the blush.

“Friday, the brush is frayed and starchy, limpid and stiff at the same time—caked in a sort of translucent lacquer and generally incapable of offering a stroke of Country Rill that does not somehow ruin a previous stroke. My whole rhythm is off. I’m doing harm. My wife just winces, says things like ‘Oh, Guud.’”

Merkner finds humor in the ordinary. The stories seem to ask, why are things the way they are? Do we have to accept them just because? How did I get here?

Merkner pushes the envelope, surreal in spots and sardonic in others. Merkner’s characters seem to simultaneously participate in the story and turn to at the reader and say, “can you believe this is happening?’ You catch a wink like Kurt Vonnegut, a flash of humor like the best of Tom Robbins, and then a fun patch of prose a la John Updike.

The titles are ample clue to the tone, “When Our Son, 26, Brings Us His First Girlfriend” and “Check the Baby” and “We Have Them To Raise Us,” a story about a wife who goads and cajoles her husband into helping plan a party with her ex-boyfriends—all 36 of them. (“We Have Them To Raise Us” would make for a great episode of “Portlandia.” So would a few others.)

The last story is a doozie. “Last Cottage,” told in the collective “we” third-person that speaks on behalf of an entire community that’s in favor of “progress” in the sense of commercial development. The “Larsons” have been coming to Slocum Lake for fifteen years and possess the only waterfront property that has not succumbed to The Borg.

The Larsons have been subject to a series of bullying tactics but so far seem oblivious to the collective message to give up their quaint family ways and see the light. So a plot is hatched to electroshock the lake and cover the Larsons’ beachfront in dead fish. The Larsons greet the escalating affronts with pluck, resourcefulness and an innocent shrug. How infuriating!

The ending borders on Kafka country and reminded me of Thomas Berger’s fine novel “Neighbors” in its ambiguous moral compass around a tale set in a place where we’re all supposed to get along.

“Getting along,” in fact, might be the dark undercurrent here—the notion of what we’re supposed to do in middle class, Midwestern America versus how things actually play out.

Merkner’s characters reference the general suburban-Scandinavian-porcelain gene pool, but seem to recognize the pros and cons of their heritage. “My specific roots are northern Midwest, settlers near Green Bay,” the narrator of “We Have Them to Raise Us” informs us, “and while we know our way around the labyrinth of deception, because we are half the time misleading ourselves, we are not actually well prepared genetically for the confined chambers of overt and sustained lying.”

Such explicit self-analysis is rare. More often than not, Merkner’s characters are genetically well prepared for standing in wonder. They don’t often fight. The sabotage in “We Have Them to Raise Us” is sweetly mounted but only after we get some insights on the benefits of passivity. These are not journeys of self-discovery but surreal views of family intimacies that turn the world cock-eyed and make you wonder what we all take for granted.

Two quotes to keep in mind as you read The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic:

Salvador Dali: “Surrealism is not a movement. It is a latent state of mind perceivable through the powers of dream and nightmare.”

Frank Kafka: “I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

Darkness and, in the case of Merkner, a healthy dose of humor.

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan – “The Language of Secrets”

The Language of SecretsEsa Khattak is just too cool.

He’s thoughtful, careful and analytical. He sees the world in subtle, complex ways. Best of all, he knows who he is and what he’s up against. He’s a Muslim. He’s a detective. He works in multi-cultural Toronto. And he just happens to work in the special community policing division, handling sensitive cases. And he’s coming off a rough outing for how he managed the investigation of the murder of Christopher Drayton (in The Unquiet Dead). That case required diving into a tight community of survivors of the war in Bosnia and, more specifically, the massacre in Srebrenica.

Licking his wounds, and fully aware of his shaky reputation among his superiors, Khattak is handed a new case in The Language of Secrets. Again, Khattak wades into tricky, pricklish turf. The murder victim, Moshin Dar, was an estranged friend. Moshin “believed in the Islamic nation, a supernatural community whose faith transcended language, sect, ethnicity, and borders, tied together by a spiritual commonality.”

But when he was murdered, Moshin Dar was on an undercover mission for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And Khattak is asked by the federal intelligence agency to figure out what happened all while not disrupting or giving away the ongoing undercover work into a terrorist cell that operates out of a Mosque and is running commando training in the suburban woods. To make matters worse, few cops trust Khattak. He’s constantly being reminded of his missteps and, occasionally, being baited into “anger and indiscretion.” Oh, and one more thing. Khattak’s sister is involved with the erstwhile leader of the Muslim cell.

These are just a few elements that frame this layered novel. As in the first installment, Khattak works with his partner Rachel Getty, as purebred Canadian as they come. But agnostic Rachel must first go undercover to the mosque as a potential new recruit, as someone who is thinking about converting to Islam. The only religion Rachel cares about is ice hockey. While Khattak turns to prayer to ease the “ferment of his thoughts,” the only thing she’ll pray for is to have her cherished Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.

Khattak and Getty are a terrific pair. One of my favorite things about these two is how considerate they are of each other. The cliché approach requires tension between odd-couple protagonists. The cliché approach requires quick-fire repartee and rapid retorts, but Khan avoids the tired tropes and puts two real people on the page who are struggling with their own self-doubts and struggles. She admires Khattak’s “understated elegance” and hopes to emulate it. He wants to expand their relationship to genuine friends—just because. He shows her a few things about how to approach the case, but he would never ask her to moderate her partiality to the “young and dispossessed.” They like each other, get along. The point is to see this case from two different vantage points and Khan slips effortlessly back and forth, alternating chapters as we absorb Khattak’s more nuanced intake of the clues and as Getty bounces, more youthful and a touch wide-eyed, into the heart of the fray.

It’s Khattak’s ongoing struggle with his identity that gives The Language of Secrets its weight. It’s also his ethics and his interest in simple truths about how the story of his people (his faith) is being skewed and skewered in public. Khattak is fully aware of his secret fears. He has ample reason to sink into an abyss of cynicism and anger, but he remains a believer in peace even as his dusk prayer breaks his heart anew each night. Ultimately, of course, it’s Khattak’s keen knowledge of the culture that begins to break the case and soon Rachel Getty finds herself in deep jeopardy. In the tense finish, Khan takes full advantage of the rugged Canadian winter and Rachel’s familiarity with ice.

Language across cultures (meaning, emphasis, subtleties, nuance) and secrets (between people and within both Rachel and Essa) play critical roles in unraveling the conspiracy, which is based on a real-life case from 2006. Esa Khattak, in a beautifully written scene, isn’t afraid to whisper to an “unseen presence.” He’s also not afraid to listen—and observe—with care. The whole issue of subordination to existing authority versus a higher spirit, in Esa’s case, is fascinating. What makes these first two Khattak-Getty novels click is the space between two interesting, contrasting characters who model thoughtful, mutual respect.

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Previously reviewed–The Unquiet Dead, including Q & A with Ausma Khan.

Unquiet Dead

 

 

Helen Macdonald – “H is for Hawk”

H is for HawkDon’t we read, sometimes, to be surprised? H is for Hawk is one of those books. It’s almost indescribable.

How many topics does it weave together? Brit Helen Macdonald trains a goshawk. She explores grief over the death of her father, a news photographer. She reflects on writer T. H. White, who wrote his own manual (in 1951) about training the goshawk. She shows us the connection between White’s personal life and his approach to telling tales about King Arthur (The Sword in the Stone). She ruminates on  oppression, World War II, homosexuality, repression and oppression. She is also very aware that she is writing another animal book—and that they don’t always end well.

And, somehow, she pulls it all together.

The training of the hawk, which she names Mabel, becomes a prism for processing her thoughts. She’s an experienced falconer before her father dies, but the goshawk (much feistier and edgier than some birds of prey) represents a new challenge and so does her state of mind: “While the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.”

The goshawk is part alien. It’s a loner. T.H. was part alien. And a loner. At least, he knew he was different—and Macdonald’s dredging up the business about White’s fantasies about spanking boys, while not easy to read, shows Macdonald’s drive to confront as many of those “hurts of human life” as possible.

Macdonald pours herself into Mabel, lives through her—and kills alongside her. Her father taught her to look through a viewfinder as a way to distance herself from the subject and to compose photographic, organized thoughts about the images coming through the lens. Mabel becomes Macdonald’s viewfinder and she hopes to find herself in the training and hunting and, yes, killing. The two connect. While I found it a bit hard to believe that a bird’s moods could be deciphered as easily as say, a dog’s, Macdonald convinced me.

This is a mesmerizing memoir. It’s slow in parts. It skews dark. I’ve seen some other comments that Macdonald comes across as self-absorbed but that never occurred to me; she stirs the pot with so many other issues and ideas and observations that I was never bored.

A sampling of the writing as Macdonald meets Mabel for the first time:

“A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within. ‘She’s got her hood off,’ he said, and frowned. That light, leather hood was to keep the hawk from fearful sights. Like us.

“Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.”

(Porpentine…arachaic for porcupine.)

“Nature books” don’t get much more rich than H is for Hawk.

It’s about nature – including the human kind. In looking at herself so deeply at a time when she was going off the rails, and pulled herself back up, she looks at all of us, from our darkest moments to the brightest. H is for Hawk is like “daylight irrigating a box.”