Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Poetry and Prose on January 14, 2017

December 30, 2016

Saturday, January 14th, at 4:00 PM

I’m gonna be the prose filling in a poetry sandwich! Thanks to Brendan Constantine (who will serve as emcee and I expect will be LA’s poet laureate one of these days), I’ll be reading for the first time from a new novel-in-progress. Poet Elizabeth Iannaci – who is also an actor and singer and has been known to play the drums – is sure to offer a spirited reading. And my friend and comrade-in-arms, Natasha Sajé, will be in town from Utah with her restless and witty explorations of etymology, the alphabet, and the contested meanings of our lives. Brendan says the date marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Anaïs Nin. Does he have something in mind?

Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA 90291

Members admitted free.

Others: $10

Reception to follow the reading.

A Black Expatriate Writer and Fear of Hashtags

July 25, 2016

(published today in LA Progressive)

When the review copy of Harbors by African American expatriate Donald Quist came in the mail, I’d been looking forward to it ever since one of the essays in the collection appeared a year ago on the Awst Press website. In it, we find Quist mouthing platitudes on behalf of a South Carolina town during a racially inflammatory police dragnet even as he himself is profiled by cops and only let go when one recognizes “the boy who writes for the mayor.” I kept telling people You’ve got to read this and I certainly wanted more from this man and his hard won perspective.

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But when the book arrived, I was engrossed in the TV production of The People v. OJ Simpson and I was struck by something that hadn’t registered in the past: A Black man suspected of a brutal double homicide evades police. They know he’s armed with a (presumably loaded) handgun. The pursuit brings police out in force. No shots are fired. There are phone conversations and negotiations till Simpson ends up in custody. The OJ television series shows me it isn’t merely that celebrities are treated differently. It’s that when the orders are clear–the suspect is not to be shot, injured, or killed–the police are able to do their jobs while showing restraint.

As we know, this is not what usually happens. I hadn’t lived in LA very long when a Black man with whom I was collaborating on a project was shot and killed in what the police almost immediately acknowledged was a tragic mistake. And now? I’ve been struggling with this essay-review as each time I sit down to write another Black man is killed, more officers are ambushed. It’s easier to watch TV–and be reminded that the OJ case also opened the window on racism and police misconduct in the LAPD. When Simpson was acquitted, those who believed in his guilt–mostly white Americans–should have recognized how their interests, too, were harmed by racist policing. There was nothing simple about the case, its context, its outcome. It was complicated. And as I watched the series, I became weary of how our necessary discussions of race, class, and violence rarely acknowledge what’s complicated or take us past familiar easy categories.

Damn it, we know better. The media has (albeit briefly) told us that the son of Dallas Police Chief David Brown was a cop-killer and was himself then shot dead by the police. I support the Black Lives Matter movement and also rode for months as a civilian observer in the backseat of NYPD patrol cars and some (note I say some) of the officers I rode with were truly there to serve the community and are among the finest people I’ve known. We live in a country where many people have life experience that should make it impossible to see issues and events from only one side.

When Donald Trump says he’ll make America safe, safety means something very different to many people I know. My African friend who fled his country and came here to save his life now sits nervously in the back of the mosque, keeping an eye on the door, wondering if each man who enters is the one who will take out a weapon and kill all the Muslims present. My Honduran immigrant friend didn’t feel safe when stopped by police on the false claim that his car registration was expired. Taken from his vehicle, he was pinned face down on the ground with police officers on top of him. He wasn’t resisting, he explains, but yes, he moved his body, trying to push them back and lift his head because he couldn’t breathe. (Until you’ve felt, literally, the full weight of the law, you are not going to understand why people don’t simply “cooperate” and lie still.)

So I find myself longing for complexifiers, not simplifiers, and then catch myself, somewhat shamefaced, because that’s what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said we needed as, from his elite position, he studied the Black family and then saw his work used to stigmatize and harm. Was that what he intended? Maybe not, but perhaps that’s the inevitable consequence when white people with influence address themselves on the subject of people of color to white people with power.

Now along comes Donald Quist.

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I finally open his slim volume and find the author in all his complex experience and identity. The bullied child who shuttles between his father in low-income housing and the world of his professional, middle class mother–and finally explodes. He’s the eccentric, beret-sporting Francophile communist vampire in middle school intent on becoming a writer who becomes the spokesperson for a smalltown Southern mayor who becomes a restaurateur with a short fuse. He’s the “dirty little secret” of his white girlfriends, then the beloved husband of an immigrant from Thailand with whom he chooses to start a new life in her homeland where he becomes a teacher and graciously answers the sort of questions that would be offensive back here. And he’s got questions: How to make sense of the kindness of people responsible for reprehensible acts, how to recognize virtue and vice. And why is it that in Thailand he at last feels free?–though the country is under the kind of military control that made his father leave Ghana years ago to settle in the US.

But I’m just listing information. This is a literary project: Quist teases out elusive truth by assembling fragments, memories, conversations in which his own words and thoughts shift and run into the words and imagined thoughts of his wife. In one essay I wasn’t always sure who was speaking or what was real as the form of the text itself communicated uncertainty. In Quist’s writing, boundaries get blurred to reveal people in all their complexity and contradictions as well as the shifting lines of privilege and oppression.

Some of these essays have nothing to do with race. The more I read, the more I’m reminded of how little we know of a person when what we see first is the obvious visual: color. And I remember standing before a college class, a sea of white faces, citing works by people of color and speaking up for more inclusion of minority faculty and minority voices and not only is this welcomed by the group, but I slowly learn how many of these white students have a partner, a child, a half-brother or sister, a stepparent of a different race. When you look at people, Black or white, how dare anyone presume to know their life stories or which “side” they are on?

And yet … for all this individual diversity of experience, African Americans–I dare say without exception–share much that puts this nation to shame. Here, Donald Quist speaks for himself, posting on social media during a visit to the US after his book had already gone to press:

1. Every time I return to the States I’m reluctant to drive, because I’m scared of being pulled over by police. 2. Every time I come back to the USA I try to limit the amount of time I spend out in public. When I am outside, I walk fast and try to stay mindful to keep my hands out of my pockets even if I’m cold. I try not to gather outside with friends, unless the majority of the group is white. 3. Every time I come back here, it takes weeks to pack a suitcase. I mull over every shirt and garment to try to ensure my appearance is “nonthreatening.” 4. Every time I return to this nation I’m reminded of the endless concessions I make in order to survive here. I bend and bow and remember to smile even when my blood is boiling, because I’m selfish, because I want to make it to my next flight. 5. Every minute I’m in America I am always afraid–of being made into a hashtag. ‪#‎AltonSterling‬ ‪#‎PhilandoCastile‬,

The hashtag #DonaldQuist should refer us instead to this complex, talented author.

If I learn nothing else from these essays, may I always remember how Quist concludes his visit to Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine: “Press your palms together in respect for what you don’t know.”

* * * *

Donald Quist is co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast.

Harbors in paperback can be pre-ordered from Awst Press; free shipping if purchased through 8/9/16. awst-press.com/. It will be on sale through the usual online booksellers and independent bookstores starting 9/22/16. An e-book will follow in December or January and readers placing pre-orders for the paperback by 8/1 will also receive a free copy of the e-book once available.

Now I’m a Snowflake

July 6, 2016

Today I’m happy to share a link to the site Snowflakes in a Blizzard where journalist and author Darrell Laurant surprised me by choosing to feature my 2007 short story collection, California Transit. His site is dedicated to bringing renewed attention to books that came out some years ago and can be lost from view in the blizzard of millions upon millions of published pages.

Darrell is the author of a novel, The Kudzu Kid, and another work I’ve just finished reading: Inspiration Street, a nonfiction work of local (Lynchburg, Virginia) history. We’ve never met but since he contacted me I’ve gotten to know him a bit via email and through Inspiration Street.

Till now, I thought Lynchburg was notable only as the home of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Unlike me, Darrell has (in his capacity as a journalist) actually met Falwell, and he told me that while he disagreed with much of what the man had to say, he also recognized what was good in him. From that and other email exchanges, what comes through to me is that Darrell is the kind of person who believes in mutual support and cooperation rather than competition or antagonism. So I can see why the history of two blocks – the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pierce Street – appealed to him. The African American residents of those city streets didn’t accept messages that said people like you don’t, people like you can’t. Without much fuss, they just went ahead and they did and they could. Anne Spencer and her son Chauncey, Dr. Walter Johnson, and Clarence W. Seay (to name just four) may not be widely known in the US, but the impact of their lives, work and influence resonated far beyond Lynchburg. The people living on two short blocks in an often overlooked city brought change that affected us all.

Maybe that’s something for writers – for everyone – to remember: fame is not, after all, the measure of our lives.

PS: This is the cover image I wanted to use!

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From Russia, with self and alter ego

December 16, 2015

Sonya found that taking on a male alter ego let her write freely. Leaving Russia for the US lets her live freely. Her story, the latest at Second Chances LA.

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Interview at Awst Press – Beautiful ideas cross borders

December 11, 2015

Liz Blood was in the process of leaving Austin, TX for Tulsa, OK but still caught up with me and edited our interview for Awst Press. If you check it out, I also highly recommend the essay by Donald Quist.

and for something lighter and happier, the latest cat photo.

Millie and plant

Escape into a novel

December 5, 2015

With so much heartbreaking and terrible news around the country and the world, I was happy to escape into Damnificados, JJ Amaworo Wilson’s new novel.

Damnificados

Read the review here.

Trafficking Fiction: US Novelists on Mexico and Colombia

September 9, 2015

My piece in today’s LA Progressive.

The writer and activist KJ Noh recently sent me a link to a new program launched by DARPA, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Narrative Networks, in the words of our Defense warriors, purports to discover “how narratives influence human cognition and behavior and apply those findings in international security contexts.”

As a writer of fiction as well as a sometime journalist, I don’t need a research project to validate my belief that a well-told story engages both heart and mind, affects attitudes, and embeds itself in memory the way, I regret, journalism too often does not. As for advocacy journalism, we’re often addressing people who already agree with us, but a good novel can reach and influence readers who have never before stopped to think about the issues we try so hard to bring to public awareness.

Consider this Amazon review of Don Winslow’s 2005 bestseller, The Power of the Dog. “This is not a subject of much interest to me, but… [h]is characters are fully believable and spring off the page with great force and achieve a totally convincing documentary-like reality that grips you from start to finish. Believe me it’s tough to put down for a moment the characters are so mesmerizing.”

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Winslow’s subject is our misbegotten War on Drugs and the damage 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 first Bush president) complicity in drug trafficking and the rise of the brutally violent cartels.

I’ve written articles on the subject year after year and I can yak your head off about US policy–and all my well-intentioned talk will bore you half to death. Winslow offers the same disturbing information but in a form that makes your pulse race.

So rather than write one more article about Mexico or Colombia, I want to talk about three works of fiction, The Power of the Dog; Winslow’s new follow-up novel, The Cartel; and Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud, (available for preorder now; officially published on Oct 13), in which a privileged young woman comes of age during Colombia’s seemingly endless civil war.

At the center of both exhaustively researched Winslow novels is DEA agent Art Keller, trying to make amends for inadvertently facilitating the rise of the ruthless Barrera family, causing a massacre, and bringing about the abduction, horrific torture and murder of Ernie Hidalgo, a fellow DEA agent. Keller has had blood on his hands before. Serving in Vietnam, in Operation Phoenix, he put names on lists knowing that the people he named would be assassinated. In Mexico, he will have to decide if he’s willing to become, himself, an assassin.

In The Power of the Dog, I was particularly gripped by Ernie Hidalgo’s fate at the hands of traffickers (with the complicity of representatives of the Mexican and, apparently, US governments), a fictionalized version of the killing of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985.

Years ago, I briefly crossed paths with Camarena’s widow. She wanted his true story told, outraged by the Mexican government cover up. The whole story has yet to be revealed but in the last few years former agents and at least one cocaine pilot have come forward to claim that the US government and CIA were complicit in Camarena’s horrific death. Why? To discover a leak in the trafficking organization and to find out how much Camarena knew about the Reagan White House scheme by which the CIA trafficked drugs to finance the provision of arms to the rightwing Contras in Nicaragua.

The Cartel picks up where The Power of the Dog left off but offers no further revelations about “Hidalgo’s” death. Winslow goes off in another direction. He stopped my heart starting with the two dedication pages, name after name in small print. I counted them. 131 in all. Followed by this note:

Journalists murdered or “disappeared” in Mexico during the period
covered in this novel. There were others.

Journalists are among the most vivid characters of the book.

The Cartel isn’t as fast-paced and easy to follow as The Power of the Dog, and it certainly is not for the squeamish, but it may do better than any news report to explain what fueled the bloodshed and what this meant to cities, towns, and the vast majority of Mexican people. From Juárez to Tamaulipas to Veracruz and Michoacán, rival crime organizations battle for control of territory, border crossings and shipping routes while making and breaking alliances with each other and with police, military, and two government agencies at the highest levels in both Mexico and the US including the White House and Los Pinos, its Mexican counterpart.

In both novels, Winslow underscores US responsibility: Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking wouldn’t have developed without the insatiable demand in the US for the product; NAFTA eased the passage of cocaine; weapons and training provided by the US under the Mérida Initiative are easily transferred from corrupt institutions to the cartels. Winslow writes about the Zetas, psychopathic cartel killers and the Kaibiles, perpetrators of Guatemala’s genocide against the Maya, both elite fighting forces originally trained and equipped by–you guessed it–the US.

The climactic event occurs with a US-sponsored (through a private contractor) attack on the traffickers’ drug stronghold in the Petén rainforest of Guatemala. In the novel, the traffickers have taken over the village of Dos Erres. But Dos Erres is where, in 1982, Guatemalan military forces carried out an infamous massacre of the indigenous population. At first I thought this was another of the novels’ regrettable errors–like referring to martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero as a Guatemalan rather than Salvadorean, or citing the old name of Ciudad Juárez as Paseo–when it should be Paso–del Norte. (Where was the copyeditor?!?!) Turns out Winslow knew all about Dos Erres and chose it for his fictional raid in order to work the history of the massacre into his novel.

Where this sprawling, often horribly brutal work of fiction stands out for me is in its portrayal of the people of Ciudad Juárez and the Juárez Valley. Even before the drug war massacres, beheadings, and mutilations, to North Americans the city across the river from El Paso was synonymous with debauchery and sin. When US states tried to limit divorce, Americans got “quickie divorces” across the border. When divorce laws in the US were liberalized, Juárez was still the place to go for bars and brothels. When the maquiladora factories set up on the Mexican side of the border with jobs attracting thousands of young women, “Juárez” became synonymous with the femicidio–the abduction and killing of young women.

But Winslow writes about the city and surrounding rural areas not just with respect, but with love. The war for the soul of Juárez is horrific not just because of the daily atrocities but because as seen through the eyes of Winslow’s characters, the city is worth living for and dying for: a place of beautiful plazas, a lively cultural and intellectual life, civilians of almost unfathomable courage. These women of Juárez may risk their lives and may die but they never die as the anonymous victims of the femicidio: 19-year-old Erika becomes the police chief (and sole cop) in Valverde after the men have been killed or have fled; Dr. Marisol, Art Keller’s lover, continues to treat her patients and becomes Valverde’s mayor when there’s no one else willing to fill the seat. There’s Jimena, the baker and community leader, and Ana, the journalist whose unshakeable integrity shames her colleague Pablo Mora. He broods over his moral exhaustion:

You start by being idealistic, morally strong if you will, but then the rock of your moral strength is eroded,
bit by bit, until you’re well, exhausted, and you do things that you never thought you would. Or you do things
that you always feared you would…

The novels excel not only in twists and turns and betrayals and corruption, but also in moral ambiguity. In The Power of the Dog, the elite hooker Nora becomes Adán Barrera’s mistress but truly loves (platonically) a cartel-compromised priest, and I found myself rooting for the Irish American hit man from New York’s Hells Kitchen. In The Cartel, Chuy is a depraved killer, but we also get to know him as a victimized child who was taken in by the Zetas and forced to commit unimaginable acts from the age of eleven. Crazy Eddie Ruiz (who prefers to be known as Narco Polo) thinks of himself as the good trafficker as he alone refuses to kill women and children.

If the spine of The Cartel is the enmity between Keller and his former close friend Adán Barrera–Keller comes out of retirement to hunt Barrera down while at the same time Barrera has put a multimillion-dollar bounty on Keller’s head–it’s the portrayals of dozens of characters in the supporting cast that make the novel so memorable.

There’s plenty of moral ambiguity in Juventud (Youth) as well, but Vanessa Blakeslee’s focus is on the experiences of her narrator, Mercedes Martínez, rather than in exposing and criticizing policy. From the opening pages, rich in detail and suspense, her novel is vivid and full of life.

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Mercedes, mysteriously abandoned by her North American Jewish mother, grows up with her adored father, Diego, amid thousands of acres of sugar cane, coffee on the steep hillsides, alpacas and horses on the warm valley slopes and hacienda workers who call her princesa. She expects this life to go on forever and takes for granted the armed bodyguard/driver who escorts her every day from the countryside to school in the city of Cali.

At age 15, Mercedes is exposed to bus hijackings and the desperation of men, women and children driven from their land by violence, but her main preoccupation is finding a boyfriend. She has the perspective you’d expect of someone of her social class who would also get her views from the conservative mainstream media. Realistically, she assumes that all the atrocities she hears about are the work of the guerrillas from the FARC and the ELN. (Similarly, later, when she tries to connect with her mother in Israel, her perspective is again partial, informed by her fear of terrorism and her affair with a special operations officer in the IDF.)

The retrospective narration allows Blakeslee to acknowledge the violence wreaked by the government and the Army’s allies in the rightwing paramilitaries forces. And the man Mercedes thinks of as Uncle Charlie, her father’s associate, is none other than the real life Carlos Castaño, founder of the AUC, the rightwing paramilitary organization which was financed in part by drug trafficking and notorious for brutal murders and the massacres of thousands of civilians.

A more conventional author would have had Mercedes fall in love with a charismatic guerrilla. Instead, she becomes involved with a Catholic youth group that advocates and demonstrates in favor of peace and negotiations. Her friend Ana, a youth group member, prays for everyone. “Even the drug traffickers, the paras, the guerrillas?” Mercedes asks. Ana answers, “God lives in everyone, even the worst.” (Or, one might suggest, even the best make deals with the Devil.)

Through Ana and the youth group, Mercedes meets and falls for Manuel, a guitar-playing carpenter, six years her senior. The lovers meet secretly. But is Manuel interested in her only to uncover the dirt about her father’s past as a drug trafficker and his links to rightwing violence? Does her father’s disapproval put Manuel in danger?

As the novel goes on, with revelation following questionable revelation, nothing and no one can be trusted.

If Juventud does have an agenda it must be this: As Colombia seeks peace–as in any other conflict zone on this earth–Blakeslee’s novel makes us ask how a person forgives and moves on when the truth remains veiled, when you can’t even be sure who or what is to blame and therefore who you must choose or refuse to forgive.

So what is the agenda of Narrative Networks? According to the DARPA website,

The program aims to address the factors that contribute to radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency, and
terrorism among foreign populations, and to support conflict prevention and resolution, effective communication and innovative
PTSD treatments.

Conflict resolution? Treatment for PTSD? Sounds good, but only, I guess, if you still believe Defense means defense. That bit about “effective communication”? Surely the Pentagon isn’t interested the way the novelists are in complexity and ambiguity. The Pentagon wants narratives that get results. The project, Noh believes, is aimed at learning how to weaponize stories.

But fiction writers were there first. The fictional world can reflect our own experiences back to us but most important, it encourages us to identify and empathize with characters different from ourselves, living through circumstances we ourselves have not had to face. What we read can change us.

Stories as weapons. My thanks go to Don Winslow and Vanessa Blakeslee for taking up arms.

And to poets like Ruth Goring. An American who grew up in Colombia, Goring has returned again and again to stand with villagers threatened by paramilitary forces. Her new collection, Soap Is Political, explores the experience of adjusting to a new environment, a new language, but also makes us see the displaced, the disappeared, the dead as individuals.

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In one poem, women circle a jail, calling out names, planting them like seeds.

In another we meet Deiner, age eleven, his father and his stepmother as they clear brush around the cacao trees. Armed men emerge from the trees and Goring warns the reader:

Now you may need to turn the page.

For if you stay, and travel with the search party,
at the river you will find three
entangled bodies, boy’s head tossed
to one side, flesh gouged by vultures.

On the days when, even as activists, we find ourselves tuning out the news, novels and poems can still compel our attention and hold it and stop us from turning away.

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.
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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Till then…

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Books, Theater, Race Politics, Austerity

July 7, 2015

Thank you, Dick Price and Sharon Kyle of LA Progressive magazine for also hosting LA Progressive Live and inviting me yesterday to say whatever was on my mind.
You can watch the show on Youtube here.

LitReactor review of Confessions of a Carnivore

April 27, 2015


Bookshots: ‘Confessions of a Carnivore’ by Diane Lefer

REVIEW BY DEAN FETZER APRIL 27, 2015

IN: BABOONS BOOKSHOTS DIANE LEFER REVIEW

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Bookshots: ‘Confessions of a Carnivore’ by Diane Lefer

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review

Title: Confessions of a Carnivore

Who wrote it?

Diane Lefer, a playwright, activist and author of ‘Nobody Wakes Up Pretty’ and ‘California Transit’ (awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize, Sarabande Books, 2007).

Plot in a Box:

In the lead up to the second Iraq war, retired high school teacher Rae, now a volunteer at the LA Zoo, spends hours observing baboons, chimpanzees, gibbons and various other primates, but spends her free time driving around with her best friend Jennie, drinking margaritas from a flask. Feeling she’s closest to her cat, Molly, Rae drifts, not feeling anything. After a near miss on the freeway, she and Jennie join a theatrical activist group protesting the treatment of animals. In the paranoia of the period after 9/11, a pregnant Jennie disappears, presumably taken by the authorities for possible terrorist activity. Meanwhile the only person who can possibly clear Jennie has become involved in a religious cult fixated on clean colons.

The only person who can clear her friend has become involved in a religious cult fixated on clean colons.

Invent a new title for this book: I would call it: The Mating Rituals of Drill Baboons Humans [Fetzer has a strikethrough over Drill Baboons. I couldn’t make that come out in this post]

Read this if you liked:

I had trouble deciding on one book. It’s sort of The World According to Garp crossed with Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus.

Meet the book’s lead: Rae is a 50 year old retired teacher with suppressed feelings toward anything but her cat. Like many at a mid-life point, she seems to be drifting, falling into situations and wondering how she got there — and always looking for some focus, be it a lover, purpose, or job. Her ex-husband’s an alcoholic and in jail, her best friend has disappeared and she’s not sure how to find her again.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by: Kristen Wiig

Setting: would you want to live there? LA in the heat and smog — not my idea of a good time.

What was your favorite sentence? I was arrested once, in 1968. I waited for Des the first time he went to jail. But now? Getting busted was, to use Devon’s turn of phrase, so over.

The Verdict: To start with, I wasn’t sure how this was going to pan out: the narrative feels like a series of snapshots and reminiscences told in no particular order and was confusing at first. That said, I soon had a handle on the characters and there is a thread tying the various vignettes together, mainly through the person of Rae, a retired teacher now observing the sexual behavior of primates at the zoo.

It soon becomes apparent after she joins Gorilla Theater with her best friend Jennie that the observations of primate sex parallels the relationships of the humans she comes into contact with. Through the theater group, she and Jennie meet new people and Rae meets the father of Devon from the group; David works at a lab with primates, but not observing, doing experiments on them to better understand how they relate to us. Between protest performances, marches, visits to a cult called the “Neo-proctologists” and a local Native American reservation, the book covers a lot of ground, both physically and metaphorically, and spends a lot of time talking about George W. Bush and the actions of the US — and within the US — in the wake of the attacks on the Twin Towers.

This book walks a fine line between preaching/informing the reader about how scary things are in the US for average citizens and telling a story; but it must have worked for me, as I wanted to know what happens at the end. The adventures of Rae and the descriptions of how the various primates behave made for a compelling read and I will be looking for her back catalog.