Archive for the ‘Cats’ Category

Murder and Mayhem (on the page)

August 9, 2015

A lot of people think I’m so very very serious that the only books I would deign to read are the most high-minded works of literature and nonfiction but when I was sick in bed with pneumonia, I must have read every one of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder mystery and crime novels.

I can blame my low tastes on bad company. Friends like Domenic Stansberry whose Edgar-Award-winning novel, The Confession, had a gratifying and disturbing reception when some readers mistook this first-person narrative of a psychopathic killer as Domenic’s autobiography.
Confession_cover
I love visiting Mona Linstromberg at home in the Siuslaw National Forest, distant from bookstores, libraries and, in fact, anything resembling so-called civilization, but a place well stocked with shelf after shelf of crime novels. François Camoin writes of the mystery of existence, not books of detectives and bad guys, but he turned me on to John Burdett’s Bangkok novels featuring detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

Besides citing peer pressure, I can justify my love of well written crime fiction this way: The thing about genre fiction–especially of the noir/crime variety–is the way there’s so often a political sensibility behind the dramatic action. Police and judges turn out to be corrupt; the rich and powerful are usually guilty (if not of murder, at least of something), and neighborhoods are gentrified to the detriment of most of the human beings who live there. So today I thought I’d write some short notes about the crime fiction I’ve been reading lately, including a couple of thrillers that actually confront politics and policy head-on.

Like Don Winslow‘s remarkable novel, The Power of the Dog, published in 2005 and covering events from the early 1970’s to 2004. See, I can yak your head off about the misbegotten War on Drugs and what it’s done in Mexico and Colombia (where aerial spraying to get rid of coca instead kills food crops and poisons people and livestock), about corruption and deception on both sides of the border, about CIA (and Reagan and the Bush president #1) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels–and all my well intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Or you can get the same disturbing information from Winslow in a form that makes your pulse race. I am so grateful that people who never thought about any of this before but do read bestsellers are now exposed to this history.

download

I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, The Cartel, that picks up the story of DEA agent Art Keller who risked everything as he tried to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of a ruthless cartel.

My only complaint about the novel: Winslow obviously did much research and has so much expertise, how could so many errors slip through, all of which detract from his credibility? Martyred Archbishop Romero wasn’t Guatemalan. The whole world knows he was Salvadoran. Mexico’s telecommunications industry wasn’t nationalized, it was privatized, and more. Where was the copy editor? Is there so little respect for Latin America that errors like this and more slip right by? But Winslow is so precise, it made me wonder if it wasn’t, after all, the copy editor who was at fault. Someone who doesn’t know as much as s/he thinks s/he knows adding “clarification” and getting it wrong.

Apparently I love books that validate what I already believe. The Interrogator’s Notebook, for example, a novel by Martin Ott, former Army interrogator and critic of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, a/k/a torture. (I came across Ott through his website, but as it turns out, his next book will soon be published by one of my own publishers, Fomite Press.)

ott

His protagonist, Norman Cross, has lost his center. Poor Norman, who used to be unparalleled in recognizing the lay of the land, now blunders through his life. He used to do things (most of the time) the right way–learning all he could about a terrorism suspect, building rapport, getting the subject to trust and open up. But when he fails to control the team around him, he also fails to stop an imminent attack. Now, he makes notes to himself about what it means to be an interrogator–which means being someone who, as it turns out, again and again crosses the line he felt he’d never cross, and who at times shares the torment he inflicts. It means “I turned away from acts of torture and instead ended up turning myself into a deity of sorts….the more I reveled in my power, the more my humanity slipped away.” Cross is progressively more estranged from his family. He earns a living teaching workshops to private security operatives. He never wants to sit down face-to-face with a subject again–until he is pressured into learning the truth about George Stark, a deliciously malevolent character actor who’s been acquitted of homicide. Stark agrees to be interviewed but sets up conditions that put him in control of the bizarre and unsettling interrogation.

This is a fast, sometimes comic, read which does validate my own convictions: “The greatness or smallness of a country is defined in windowless rooms with no witnesses…”

But I also read hoping to be changed. Robert Crais, author of many crime novels set in Los Angeles has a very different take on the power of dogs in Suspect in which a former military dog and an LAPD officer–both in mourning and both suffering from PTSD–partner up. The book is so imbued with dog-love, it should have been a stretch for me, a cat person who is actually pretty afraid of dogs, but I cared and rooted all the way for the cop and the German shepherd.

Of course Maggie, that wonderful K-9, is always ready to rip the throat out of anyone approaching her wounded partner, even if that someone is trying to save his life. So I guess it’s possible to love dogs and still fear them.

And speaking of cats, to celebrate Millie’s moving in (thank you, Amanda Foundation),
Mildred

I’ve started reading the quite violent mystery novels of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. When I first laid eyes on Millie three years ago, I’d never seen anything like her. I found out yesterday she is apparently a Norwegian Forest Cat, named by King Olaf as the official cat of Norway. Does the US deserve an official cat? (Maybe let’s not go there. We could face a government shutdown with Republicans refusing to pass a budget unless Congress honors the Fat Cat.)

What else have I found out that I didn’t already know?

Sakina Murdock, author of Autotherapy, and I also share a publisher (Rainstorm Press). I’ve met her only in cyberspace where, among other things, she offered advice on how to keep track of the close to 100 flamingos I was monitoring at the LA Zoo. Her own expertise gained through geese-farming didn’t translate, requiring the use of ten fingers, not easy when you’re holding a clipboard in one hand and taking notes with the other. But her novel, featuring dead bodies drained of blood and people with secrets, also taught me stuff I didn’t know (in addition to the resolution of the mystery).

Her writing about genetic engineering (something I know a little about) and the geography of Cumbria (of which, till reading her book, I knew nothing) as well as the way to go about exploring a cave (ditto) is rendered with the kind of authority that convinced me I was in good hands as the bizarre events unfolded.

9835303

As a writer, I was intrigued by the unusual structure Murdock chose for her novel. Most crime/mystery novels maintain forward momentum–this happened and then this and then this–with some flashbacks or backstory. The dramatic action of Autotherapy is told in short sections taking place from 10:00 AM, April 17 through 1:10 PM April 23. Interspersed among these sections, and not in chronological order, we find out what the main characters said and what they withheld when interviewed in sessions taking place between 9:00 AM on April 24 and 3:15 PM on May 1.

After Shelagh Connor Shapiro interviewed me for her radio show Write the Book, I wanted to read her own fiction. Her novel, Shape of the Sky, also has an atypical structure for a mystery but that’s because though it features a homicide, a missing person, and an assumed identity, it’s not really what you’d consider a mystery. I enjoyed it so much, however, I decided to stretch the category and include this vivid picture of life in a small Vermont town. The people of Resolute, Vermont take a big risk in agreeing to host a rock concert. Sure enough, the mini-Woodstock attracts hordes of outsiders who camp outside in the rain bringing some needed cash as well as excitement, music, and opportunity as well as the disaster some townsfolk predicted.

download

Shape of the Sky doesn’t progress chronologically because each section gives us chronologically overlapping points of view as lives intersect. Shapiro offers compassionate and nuanced portrayals: a farm wife, a groupie, a town constable, a rock star, the town’s most annoying gossip, and more. The town is a place where a decades-long resident can still be considered an outsider but where newcomer-drifters are quickly offered work and where people take care of each other. Becca, for example, who uses a wheelchair after a car accident, wants to be allowed to do for herself what she can do, but also recognizes how much she still can’t, and how “…the town had healed around her like the edges of a wound.”

What I wish I could learn from Shelagh Connor Shapiro is how to write with such beauty and tenderness without ever crossing the line into sentimentality.

As long as I’m straying from my mission, I can’t overlook Jen Grow’s new story collection, My Life as a Mermaid.

grow

Though I know Jen Grow to be a very talented writer, I approached this book with some trepidation because of the back cover. Did I really want to read about the dark side of living “happily ever after”? Did I really need another book about housewives, mothers, and cheating husbands? Of course, if that’s your cuppa, yes, you’ll find fiction here about love gone wrong. I don’t mean to put any subject matter down. But really…When I first started leading writing workshops, I can’t tell you how many stories I read about unhappy wives who end up running on beaches only to throw themselves into the ocean and transform into mermaids. That is not at all what Grow’s fiction is like. Her remarkable title story instead vividly and dramatically explores the anxiety of privilege. It’s a story I’ll reread often. And if there’s a fairy tale being questioned in My Life as a Mermaid, it’s the American Dream as when Grow writes in the voice of the wife of a severely injured veteran, and spotlights the fragile communities of the down and out. It’s a moving and memorable collection.

* * * * *

Coming up soon: Cartels, politics, corruption and the US hand in Latin America. After I finally get around to reading Don Winslow’s The Cartel, I’ll write about it along with The Power of the Dog and Vanessa Blakeslee’s Juventud, a coming-of-age novel set in Colombia amid the violence of drug trafficking and civil war.

Juventud+Front+2

Till then…

IMGP5197

Playing Telephone in Senegal

June 1, 2015

Our ten-day residency in the fishing village of Toubab Dialaw was a collaborative project by Hector Aristizábal’s nonprofit ImaginAction and the Senegalese theater company Kaddu Yaraax, under the direction of Mohamadou Diol. Eight “internationals” from the US and Europe lived with Senegalese colleagues from different regions of the country, all of us engaged with using theater–especially Theater of the Oppressed (“TO”)–to promote positive social change and community health. None of this would have been possible without the help of Angelo Miramonti, an experienced TO practitioner who lives in Dakar while managing UNICEF projects in West Africa. Here’s Angelo talking to Marie, a wonderful visual artist who lives in Dakar. After she joined the group, we took full advantage of her as a Wolof-French interpreter. (And there will be better photos of her–she’s beautiful–in the next installment.)

Marie and Angelo

I say we were playing telephone because in addition to potential misunderstandings due to cultural context, our communications went through three languages, translations from Wolof to French to English and back and what I think I understood…well…you remember the game of telephone. Senegalese documentarian Moustapha Seck (who is also the author of a forthcoming book on Malcolm X–known in Senegal as el Hajj Malick) and I are going to try to parse some of this out in a collaborative bilingual essay. For now, I will give just a more touristy account of the trip as so many people have asked about it.

Much of the group assembled in Dakar on May 16 for the minibus trip to Toubab Dialaw, about 50 km south of the capital. Here are Hector and Carmen.

Carmen and Hector in van en route to Toubab Dialaw

Tiel looks out the window as we travel.

Tiel looking out van window

I saw many more horse-drawn carts than private automobiles.

more horsedrawn carts than private cars

Here’s Dior whose name is pronounced more like the Portuguese name João than like Christian Dior.

Dior

Mornings, we came to life hearing her song.

Dior always singing

Arriving.

Arrival

We shared a house–basically a hostel devoted to our group alone. Basic rooms with a mattress. Four bathrooms which were wonderful when there was water. Looking down into the patio from the second floor, you can see the sandy area to the right. Getting acquainted.

Getting acquainted

view of patio

view from above

You often find this, like a big sandbox that serves as a gathering place. It’s where we played theater games, exercises, did improvisations, created a play and rehearsed it.

rehearse

fishing improv

And where we had circles for checking in and discussion. In the Senegalese tradition, such circles are called pinch (in Wolof, spelling unknown by me). We did quite a bit of pinching.

People draw diagrams in the sand or just, as you see with this boy, make designs with shells and stones.

boy making design in sand

Mornings we had bread and coffee prepared and served by Adama and Dame. Here is Fax. Pronounced Fox. I forgot he didn’t speak English and so didn’t understand why I kept calling him Monsieur le Renard.

Fax breakfast

Exercise on the beach led by Marianne.

Morning exercise

Day by day, more and more people got curious about us. Children peeked over the wall.

spy child

People came in the door.

people looking in

Here comes lunch.

lunch is coming

lunch on head

Oilcloths get spread on the floor, we sit around sharing large platters of thiébou dienne, usually a short grain Thai rice that’s almost more like risotto or couscous topped with stewed vegetables, mostly squash and cabbage, topped with a fish and sautéed onions, flavored with some sort of spice. Eat with a spoon or with hand.

lunch we share tray of thiebou dienne

The very pregnant cat who lived in the house loved us most at mealtimes. We left before the kittens came.

cat and fishbone

A pipe broke and the village was without running water for three days. The second day we headed out with containers to the public well. We were turned away.
the public well

Here’s Anta.

Anta 3

Her relatives invited us into their home

Anta family

masonry work

and let us draw as much as we wanted from their own well.

at the wall
up comes the bucket

Marianne joins the procession of women carrying water.

procession

She lives in the South of France and did a valiant job as French-English interpreter. Marianne was concerned about how she would be seen as a Frenchwoman. There’s resentment toward the colonial power and, in addition, in Toubab Dialaw for example, many French nationals are seasonal residents, escaping the winter, and spending months but never socializing with the Senegalese. Marianne shattered that stereotype.

Marianne carrying on head

Some members of our group who did speak French preferred not to. Babacar called Wolof the happy language, as opposed to French which was imposed.

Moi? It was a trip to recover some of my high school French. I thought it was perfect. I could usually make myself understood but I spoke it so poorly no one could conceivably mistake me for a French person.

We returned able to flush the toilets. And even the cat was happy.

cat drinking water
Evening on the beach. The sun goes down and children play soccer, men exercise, come out for a walk by the water.

exercise on the beach

night on the beach

Next installment I’ll write more about people, developing our play and performing it in the village.

Animal Rites, an essay review from Talented Reader

April 23, 2015

Wow! George Ovitt of my favorite litblog, Talented Reader, reviews Confessions of a Carnivore along with The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni. Really an essay review in which he has a lot to stay about animal consciousness and our relations with animals–while citing Kant, Hume, Montesquieu and more. The New York Review of Books should hire him. Now.

The blog usually covers literature in translation that I wouldn’t know about at all if not for Ovitt and fellow blogger Peter Adam Nash. So click and read about my book, and then subscribe if you care about literature.

If you’re as tired of looking at my cover as I am, here, instead, is a photo of Ibrahim al-Koni.

Ibrahim-al-Kuni_8026

First review of Confessions of a Carnivore

April 20, 2015

When you admire someone’s fiction and his politics, it can be nerve-wracking to know he’s going to review your novel. So I can only breathe a sigh of grateful relief and say thank you to JJ Amaworo Wilson.

Confessions of a Carnivore – by Diane Lefer

Posted on April 16, 2015 by JJ Wilson

carn

Wow. Diane Lefer’s new novel is one wild ride. With all the animals involved, I mean that literally. She somehow mixes activism, alcoholism, protest theater, cat-love, animal observation in L.A. Zoo, and race politics in one story and comes out the other end smelling of roses.

This novel is about all of those things and about none of them. It’s all about the voice. The narrator talks directly to us and it soon becomes clear she’s not all there. She’s half-dead with grief, reeling from the fallout of a failed marriage to an alcoholic and now unable to love anything or anyone beyond her cat. She gets mixed up in a protest theater group (based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed) and then involved in a series of increasingly bizarre incidents.

The novel is by turns hilarious and tragic. A lobotomized woman lives, barely, among hundreds of cats; the theater group lurches from daft stunt to even dafter stunt; and the ‘baddie’, it turns out, is just a naive fool on the wrong side of the political tracks.

To try to summarize the plot would be a fool’s errand, but I found this book terrifically entertaining in an absurd, where’s-she-going-to-take-us-next? kind of way. And just when we’re waiting for the next laugh, the novel surprises us by becoming something altogether more moving.

As a follow-up to the shimmering, award-winning California Transit, Confessions of a Carnivore doesn’t disappoint. It’s full of wild ideas and crazy conceits, and still manages to warm the heart.

* * *

More info and to order.

Confessions of a Carnivore

March 17, 2014

I am very happy to be writing this post to say that my novel, Confessions of a Carnivore, will be published next year by Fomite Press. And this gives me a chance to salute the vision of Marc Estrin and Donna Bister who love cats as I do and created this “anti-capitalist” publishing house in the free city of Burlington, Vermont.

The character doing the confessing is Rae. She wants David–but he’s a cult member and gay. Lyle wants Rae–but he’s a baboon. The novel charts human and animal behavior and human and animals rights post-9/11 through life at the LA Zoo and the antics of the Gorilla Theater troupe.

slovenia

Marc Estrin–besides being a novelist and musician, etc. etc.–is an activist and a veteran of the great Bread and Puppet Theater, so you can see we’re on the same wavelength. When I showed him the image above–which may or may not end up being cover art and which to me was simply a beehive panel from Slovenia–he immediately recognized it as the “Hunter’s Funeral.” Thanks to Marc, I now know that my painted panel is the folk art version of the original woodcut by Moritz von Schwind that inspired the Frère Jacques Funeral March in Mahler’s First Symphony. You can hear a snippet of it here.

I am looking forward to working with and learning more from Fomite.

By the way, a fomite is a medium capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another. I try.

Midge Raymond interviews me for Among Animals

February 4, 2014

My story, “Alas, Falada!” is reprinted in this anthology about the connections between human and other animals. Here’s the link to the brief Q&A.

amonganimals_250


And, incidentally, Midge Raymond‘s story about a penguin researcher in Antarctica is stunning.

Interview by The Creative Atheist

December 1, 2013

Oh, my. Seems like I’m all over the blogosphere this morning. I just posted my essay in Connotation Press, and here’s Susan K. Perry interviewing me about The Fiery Alphabet. And coincidentally, in the interview I mention an essay about the juvenile in/justice system that Connotation Press published a few years ago.

Remembering Desi

August 4, 2013

We lost tatiana de la tierra on July 31, 2012. Then came the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and then Newtown and all the senseless gun deaths since. The slaughter in Syria continues, so the death of my sweet cat, Desi, on August 3rd, one year ago, seemed like a strictly personal matter. But while every day’s news fills me with outrage and grief, Desi was my companion for more than 15 years. We were fiercely attached. I’m still mourning and cannot help but write about her.

Desi healthy adult

When Desi decided (insisted) she would come home with me, I knew I loved cats but I honestly didn’t expect this little cat to love me. I’d always wanted to live with a cat and up until March 1997 it had never been possible. Without cat experience, I bought into the stereotype: they were completely independent and narcissistic. When I moved to California, I felt I had a stable place to live and stable income. So, finally.

But I didn’t want Desi. She had been weaned and abandoned way too young. Three weeks old or less. When she scurried up my arm like a little mouse, found my heartbeat and clung on, I was afraid she’d be a special needs kitty and I wouldn’t know how to take care of her. I tried to explain and apologize. I tried to remove her from my body. She shrieked and held on. I tried again. She screamed. So I told her I hoped I would know what to do. I promised her I would always take care of her the best I could and would never abandon her. And she remained as fiercely attached to me, at least emotionally, throughout her life as she was that morning.

desi as kitten
I can’t say how she discovered we were different species. For the first weeks we lived together, she copied everything I did. She grabbed the pen after I used it and pulled it over the page. She hit the buttons on the remote control. She tapped the letters on the computer keyboard and she would only eat at the table and only if I put her food on a plate that looked just like mine and her water in a matching glass. She couldn’t tie my shoes, but she loved to untie the laces. She loved water. She’d join me in the tub. I had to keep the toilet top down or she’d jump in and swim around. (OK, that’s not something she copied from me.) She slept wrapped up in my hair. One evening I put dinner on the table and she stayed on the floor, looking up at me and meowing. I put the dinner plate near her. She kept looking at me and crying. I transferred her food to a bowl. I gave her water in a bowl instead of a glass like mine. Then she purred and ate and drank and I don’t think she ever copied me again.

They’ll tell you cats don’t tolerate change. Always buy the same brand of cat litter. If you have to change their food, you’ll have to trick them, introducing the new flavor gradually. etc. etc. Desi was adaptable. She accepted any substitution without complaint, except that she accepted no substitute for me.

That made it hard to travel. I had to go to Vermont twice a year to teach. There was always someone here to take care of her, but she’d get sick from stress. Dad had a stroke. I went to New Jersey to be with him. Desi got sick.etc etc . Stress led to crystals led to damage led to her inability to control her urine. It wasn’t her fault. I couldn’t afford to keep replacing mattresses or the futon sofa. I had to stop inviting people over. But Desi had taught me unconditional love. What’s a ruined mattress compared to that?

Desi with vase
The economy crashed and three jobs evaporated. There was no work in Los Angeles. The only money I earned was from out-of-town assignments. I traveled a lot and I felt so guilty. When I returned from the last trip, she had stopped eating and I promised her I wouldn’t leave again.

001

Her appetite came back. For the next five months, I never left her, but we went to the vet over and over again, each time with a seemingly minor problem, hyperthyroidism that could be controlled, an infection that could be cured, impacted anal sacs and abscesses. There were weeks when she seemed healthy and happy and I’d think everything was fine. Then she stopped eating again. She lost pound after pound. There was so little left of her. I tempted her with her favorite–tuna fish and rejoiced when she ate. But then she refused it. She hid whenever I tried to tempt her again.

Why didn’t I trust what she was telling me? I kept putting her favorite food under her nose. She kept running from it. Those few mouthfuls of tuna she did swallow must have caused excruciating pain and there I was, repeatedly tempting her. The last morning of her life we discovered her intestine was completely blocked with tumors.

I held her and said goodbye on August 3rd, 2012.

Author Pamela Painter says her son told her “You can be between men, but you can’t be between cats.” But I can’t face adopting another. Maybe like Desi, I accept no substitute. In spite of which, I need to be among cats, so I’ve been volunteering at the Amanda Foundation. The rescue cats need some attention and affection as much as I need them.


After some time, I agreed to foster a beautiful kitten that needed a temporary home.


021

She was soon adopted.

Then I took in Johnny, the jaunty but mellow and companionable 7-year-old altered tom

more johnny 008

who stayed with me for three months before the Rascal and Chloe Rescue had to take him back after pipes broke in the apartment above me and workmen needed the run of my place to make repairs, after which I was again working out-of-town. I hope he has a loving home soon.

Don’t I get attached? Well, of course, but while it’s nice having a cat around, they are so very much Not-Desi that I miss her more than ever.

For years, I’ve tried to put into words what she taught me about trust. How she trusted me with her life without ever relinquishing her own sense of self. I could never get the words right. (Just as I failed to trust her when she asked me to understand her rejection of food.)


Trust. But Ashana M. expresses it perfectly in her blog, so after saying thanks for reading, I’ll give her the last word.

Seeking a home for a sweet and mellow cat

May 19, 2013

Take a look if you dare — you may not be able to resist.

I’ve been Johnny’s foster mom for a month. When I took him to an adoption event, he was miserable to be caged for hours so I’m hoping a video will be more effective.