The catchphrase, forever associated with the Watergate scandal, hinges on the culturally accepted definition of knowledge as a body of facts. These days, facts, it seems, mean different things to different people. Opinion masquerades as fact, and sentiment obscures the hard edge of reality. But when truth itself becomes a matter of opinion we’ve sailed too far from the shore. Lately the news feed has me feeling seasick.
For me, reality is best endured with a touch of whimsy and chaser of mad romance. I need the comfort of music, literature, and films. Of course I don’t believe we can teach the whole world to sing in perfect harmony with just one song, or one book. Yet every now and then a film comes along that moves the global ball a little closer to the goal.
I’m not talking about important great films of days gone by like “On the Waterfront” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Nor do I care to weigh in on the blockbusters of more recent times such as “The Godfather” series or the “Star Wars” saga, though each of those has had a profound effect on our country at least.
I’m partial to films that shed light on the complexities of modern life. One such film came out late last year that dealt with the challenges of living with autism. Directed by Ben Lewin, “Please Stand By” tells the story of a young woman with autism who runs away from her caregiver to enter a Star Trek writing competition. It’s not easy even for a relatively stable person to write something original, and then to muster the courage to do whatever it takes to get that work critiqued. Dakota Fanning plays the autistic writer, and she’s fantastic in the role of a fragile-seeming woman who discovers her own inner strength in the pursuit of her dream. The cast also includes the gifted Toni Collette as the caregiver, and the always droll Patton Oswalt in a small but essential role as a police officer who understands Klingon.
That’s how you know.
When a writer, in this case Michael Golamco, isn’t afraid to leaven the drama with a touch of, you know, silliness, then I dare to hope that things won’t end in tears. And that’s what I look for in a satisfying film. If I want tears there’s the daily news.
Sometimes it’s important to take a breath of hope. A spoonful of fantasy makes the bitter pills go down.
However, in the past decade or so, as public social platforms have become a virtual mosh pit for wide-eyed optimists and gun-toting vigilantes alike, my urge to, ahem, air my views has been tempered by the sheer god-awfulness of what passes for reality these days. I mean, really? Aristophanes himself would have been aghast by the “cloud cuckoo land” which passes for normal in the current millennium.
So lately I’ve been trying to distance myself from the fray. But it’s not as easy at it once was to get away from it all. And maybe now isn’t the time. Now more than ever it’s time to look after this planet, and perhaps move to higher ground.
Sorry, fiction fans, I don’t believe the answer lies in outer space. At least not any time soon. If we can’t keep from wrecking this amazing planet we’ve got no business heading out to trash another one.
Okay. That’s the rant. Moving on.
About a year ago a weighty novel came out to much fanfare. Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” was compared to Melville’s masterpiece “Moby Dick” in terms of its cultural significance and literary merit. When I learned that the author wove multiple story lines all sharing a common theme of trees, I was intrigued and determined to read it. I mean, I love trees. I love reading. I’m a fan of fiction. What could go wrong?
Well. It’s an amazing book. I’m glad I read it. But I wouldn’t read it again. It’s too painful. Too real. And it’s not at all like “Moby Dick” unless you’re measuring by length. “The Overstory” is not as funny or lyrical, or just plain wondrous. But what makes it like Melville’s staggering work of genius is the compelling brilliance of the story, which weaves history, science and the heartbreaking paradox of humanity into a sobering cautionary tale for our times.
The mind-blowing science at the heart of the plot centers on the relatively recent studies documenting how trees communicate with each other. Modern skeptics may scoff, but the evidence is overwhelming. Trees have their own “heartbeats.” They can live hundreds, even thousands of years.
Short-lived humans, who value speed above thoughtfulness, have long taken trees for granted, slaying them by the millions every year. We humans are so easily distracted by noisemakers. Yet we once admired the strong silent type. John Wayne, not known for his environmental stand, earned the respect of generations by following his own rule, “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.”
As another Earth Day approaches politicians will make new promises. I wish I could believe them. But it’s been almost 50 years since the first Earth Day. The ocean is rising faster every year, while the forests are silently vanishing.
It’s a pity we can’t hear the trees. But if you read “The Overstory,” you may be convinced. The planet is fighting back.
Today is Groundhog Day, a holiday which will forever be linked in my mind with Bill Murray.
Maybe I’ve watched the movie too many times. What can I say? It resonates with me.
In case there’s anyone living under a rock, or in a groundhog burrow, who hasn’t seen the film, the plot centers on a flawed character (Murray) who finds himself stuck in a time loop on Groundhog Day, doomed to repeat the same 24-hour period. He goes through the usual stages of grief, denial, anger, etc., before he realizes the silver lining of his predicament — by changing his own behavior he gradually becomes the master of the rewind cycle, and finally gets it right.
It’s a brilliant conceit. In its own weird way, the film Groundhog Day sheds light on the value of second chances. As a writer I appreciate the process of self-editing that Murray’s character undergoes. When I’m writing, characters sometimes arrive in my mind fully-formed. Other times they come with a lot of unnecessary baggage that does nothing to enrich the story. I’m learning to trust my instincts.
When I first began writing, I was reluctant to eliminate a single word from my precious prose. Now, older, and I hope, a bit wiser, I’ve come to enjoy the process of revision. In writing, as in life, less is sometimes more.
With this in mind, at the beginning of 2016 I decided to republish my 2011 urban fantasy The Goddess of Green Lake under my own imprint. This second edition offered me the chance to eliminate clutter and cut to the chase. It remains the story of a musician whose life gets complicated after he falls for a passionate environmental activist and helps her liberate an orphaned baby otter from a public aquarium. There’s also a bit of Green Man magic and a mermaid backstory which ties in with the underlying “save the oceans” theme.
But in a broader sense, the story is about finding the courage to live your own life, to work your way through the dark times without giving up on the things that matter. Nothing worthwhile comes without effort.
I feel for the groundhog. Any creature that hides from its own shadow doesn’t have much of a chance in this life. But maybe it just takes practice. A little shadow boxing can help you hone your skills before you take on more substantial foes. Carpe diem.
I’ve been binge reading throughout this seemingly endless heat wave, and, as even the most diehard fans of Jane Austen know, there comes a time when you simply can’t reread all her books more than once a year, and the search to find novels of a similar caliber is an exercise in frustration.
So many novels are embellished with blurbs and quotes hailing this or that young darling as the “new Jane Austen,” yet, in spite of my sincere desire to find even one who comes close to that droll tone of refined humor, I’ve yet to find a writer who can walk a mile in Jane’s shoes. Or write a page with her pen, whatever.
However, last week a friend loaned me his copy of an out-of-print book by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It hit me like a cool breeze in this stifling August.
I had completely forgotten about Warner, though her name rang a distant bell. She was an English poet, born in 1893, and her writing reflects something of the constraints of her time. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes, starts out in the mold of many Victorian novels, as the story of a young woman forced to abandon her dreams of independence. When she is unwilling to marry, she’s condemned to a life of familial servitude in her brother’s household. For twenty years. Right? Twenty years down the tube, minding the nieces and nephews and helping out around the house in the name of propriety. I was reading this feeling the sort of bitchy twentieth century irritation and hoping for some sort of improbable romantic twist, but what happens took me by surprise.
Spoiler alert. She sells her soul to the devil to gain her freedom to live her own life. Yeah. I know. I didn’t see it coming either. But what makes it great, what makes it funny, what makes the story such a breath of fresh air, is that the devil isn’t some badass guy with a pitchfork and an evil agenda. No sirree. He’s just a genial character doing business, like his competition on the top floor. He’s out to capture the soul market, and he’s willing to make a deal.
The conceit here is classical, but the writing is so deadpan, so finely tuned to the fierce passion of this plucky spinster, that you can’t help but cheer for her. Okay, so maybe she’s a little bit nuts. But who isn’t?
Anyway. The underlying issues of women’s rights and the mystery of life in general set the novel apart. The writing dances on the borderline between fantasy and philosophy, an area Warner continued to explore in her second novel, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, which upends the trope of the missionary who goes to a remote tropical paradise and attempts to convert the natives. He is spectacularly unsuccessful at this, but, to his astonishment, he is utterly transformed by the friendship of one charming native boy. Laced with gentle satire and wisdom, the story further illustrates Warner’s wit and compassion.
I was surprised to learn that Lolly Willowes was chosen as the first selection of the Book of the Month Club, newly formed in 1926. Somehow I would have expected them to launch with a more conventional story. Yet I guess they knew what they were doing. Nothing sells like controversy with a hint of scandal. It was true in 1926. Still true today.
Yay! A fresh crispy New Year to spend on whatever mad caprice strikes our fancy! Buy something random! Go somewhere undiscovered (good luck with that). Or begin that brave new adventure, quick before Winter remembers where it left the blizzard.
Some people find inspiration climbing great heights, or diving deep into oceans. Me, I’m more of an armchair adventurer. But every now and then, lured by the promise of restorative vistas and therapeutic exercise, I venture beyond the gravitational pull of my own inertia.
Such was the case not long ago when I hiked up Pilot Mountain, near Pinnacle, North Carolina. The mountain has been a landmark for centuries. The Saura Indians, who once lived in the region, called it Jomeokee, which, I’m told, means Great Guide or Pilot. Since the name must have been given long before the days of air travel, I’m guessing Great Guide is truer to the original moniker.
Call it what you will, it’s an impressive pile of rock, and one that draws legions of intrepid climbers in these thrill-seeking times. While I prefer my thrills without rope burns and terror, I empathize with the desire to set goals for yourself.
Each New Year I look back at the list I made at the start of the previous season cycle. The list never gets shorter. Usually when I manage to check something off, two or three eager ideas push their way onto the new list and clamor for attention, even as some of the older projects complain about my neglect. It’s hard to please everyone, even when they’re all inside your own head.
Up on Pilot Mountain I enjoyed a brief respite from the nagging demands. Up there, the air is clear and cool. You can see for miles. The problems of a few fictional characters hardly seem to matter. Which is good, because I’m giving a couple of them some time out to work on their issues while I attend to other business. The Goddess of Green Lake, for example, will be off on a spirit quest for a few months. But I’m confident that when she returns she’ll be stronger, bolder, and more magical than ever.
Sometimes we all need a fresh start, even if it’s only fictional. Onward and upward.
I was working on a book in which softball figured prominently in the plot. As far as I knew, there weren’t many rules. I had no experience with the game, aside from a very brief attempt at playing on the girls team in high school, and the only games I’d watched as an adult had been casual field games in rural Virginia in the ’70s when rules were made to be bent.
Anyway, I thought it might lend some credibility to the book I was writing if I learned a thing or two about baseball. So I turned on the TV and found the Mariners game and started watching. I don’t remember anything about that particular game, but the next day there was another game on, so I watched that one too. And then the next day …
I hadn’t planned to become Mariners fan, of course. It takes a special kind of person to root for a team that loses a lot. A lot. But there wasn’t much else on TV, and I got into the habit. I became addicted to the soothing sound of Dave Niehaus’s voice. I didn’t know then that Niehaus, the announcer for the Mariners for 33 years, was already in the Hall of Fame. But I instantly appreciated the warmth and generosity of his on-air manner. From him I learned what a can of corn was, and also a grand salami. My oh my.
By the time I left Seattle it had happened to me. I had somehow become a baseball fan. The obsession might have ended when we returned to D.C. had it not been for my brother Bill, who took a job at the Nats’ ballpark in 2008. Talking about the game became just another thing we did.
In many ways the Nationals are a very different sort of team from the Mariners, but the most jarring distinction to me is the catchphrase “Natitude.” The Mariner’s current phrase is “True To The Blue.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with “Natitude.” But the way it’s framed in the team’s marketing suggests a kind of pugnacious sense of entitlement. I appreciate the important of confidence in sports. You can’t play if you don’t think you have a chance. And belief is a powerful thing. But there’s a world of difference between quiet self-possession and noisy boasting.
This season has been particularly tough for the Nats, who started out at the top of many lists of likely playoff contenders. Now they’re eight games back from the surging Mets, and only the diehard crazies are still clinging to the hope of a mathematically possible miracle for a post season.
There was a time I wouldn’t have known or cared what any of this meant. I’m not even sure I care now. But I have learned a bit about baseball since that first Mariners’ game. I understand the infield fly rule and the ground rule double. And I know what will happen when the Nats get the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning and they’re trailing the Marlins by four runs and there are two outs and Ian Desmond comes to the plate. I sit on my couch and mutter, “He’s going to strike out and I don’t care.” This is called defensive indifference.
When I was a child I read a lot of fairy tales. Way too many, probably. The guiding principle in most of those stories was that truth and justice will eventually triumph over evil, that love will find a way, and that lasting happiness is achievable if you work hard enough.
These are comforting ideas when you are child. Children are small to begin with, and forced to take orders from much larger beings, who are themselves compelled at times to submit to all sorts of cultural practices, many of which are a huge waste of time and emotional energy. Fortunately, the average child is resilient and resourceful, and soon enough learns either to manipulate the system or to avoid it altogether.
I chose the latter route. Fiction was my hot rod Ford out of dreary convention.
Of course even in fiction conventions thrive which perpetuate the system. However, authors at least have a choice to follow the rules or bend them.
My newly released novel “On The Wing,” Book Three of The Greening trilogy, is a bender’s tale of hopes and dreams, young and middle-aged love, vengeance and heroism. In it the characters who fought and fell and got back up again in Books One and Two band together to save the world one more time.
Eva Carter, who ran away from home as a teenager to find the father she never knew, finally learns the truth about Shiloh Carter’s “day job” when she returns to help her mother in the struggle to repair damage caused by destructive magic sown in the Greening. In the process, Eva reconnects with her emotionally wounded father, her haunted grandfather, and a winsome sprite with otherworldly Green connections.
But when Destiny comes calling, Eva and Shiloh join forces with a ragtag crew of not quite superheroes as they head into the final battle. Sooner or later one of them will have to pay the ultimate price to save the world from going up in smoke.
I’m not good at goodbyes. But I was ready for the departure of Don Draper and his conniving crew long before Matthew Weiner wrapped up the much-lauded television series.
True confession: I am a TV junkie. Not that I have to have it every day, but everyone has a weakness. I’m a sucker for stylish characters delivering neat lines in dramatic scenes. I don’t require violence or tension necessarily. Humor is a must. And a touch of romance, in my view, makes everything better.
Mad Men, which ended its seven season run on AMC last Sunday, had everything going for it. Style, strong acting, and a dramatic arc that took viewers from the end of the Korean War to the quagmire of the Vietnam era. As history would have it, this allowed the writers to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of cultural phenomena, all of which added to the show’s curiously addictive appeal.
While I was initially hooked by the elegant opening sequence, which remained just as seductive in the final episode as it was in the first, the show’s use of music to underscore plot developments and character studies was unmatched. From the moment Amy Winehouse crooned “You Know I’m No Good” at the conclusion of the first episode, the template was set. I could have listened to her for the entire series. Somehow, her tragic death seemed to foreshadow the dark parabola of the show’s narrative direction.
Yet, week after week, year after year, I found it impossible to join the rabid fans who gushed about Don Draper’s irresistible charms. I can only assume that the character of the alpha male who bluffs his way to the top of a corporate hierarchy while women continually throw themselves at him must resonate with a lot of people.
He irked the hell out of me. But then, so did most of the male characters in the show. The carefree air of self-satisfied entitlement and male-chauvinist patronizing was all too familiar for any woman who experienced the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in the United States. Maybe it was different in other countries.
But, that said, my hat’s off to Weiner for the female characters who battled their way through Mad Men. Each of them represented some aspect of the challenges women faced during those decades when women’s rights were still viewed as a kind of novelty by the majority of men in power.
True, Betty seemed a little psychotic at times. But after all, she smoked her way through seven seasons, and that stuff will kill you. Joan and Peggy fared a bit better, in spite of the shabby treatment they endured from most of the men they encountered along the way. But at least they fought the good fight and both of them emerged stronger at the end.
For a time part of my huffy attitude toward the show was lodged in the concept of advertising itself. Was I supposed to care about people who spent their lives writing advertising? I have a mute button and I know how to use it.
But my resistance eventually collapsed after a certain episode, one of many in which one of the writers pitches a campaign to a group of executives. Peggy stands in front of a group of skeptical men and tells them a story about a working mother trying to feed her family. And so compelling is her story that she draws them all into it, until they get it. For a moment they feel that transcendent lift that a good story delivers, when it allows the reader, or viewer, to see things from a different perspective.
In the end, that’s what the best stories and television shows do. We may not buy into the dubious premise that “Coke is it.” But when we see hundreds of fresh-faced people standing in the sunshine with bottles of sugar-saturated soft drink, we don’t care if it’s good or bad, because for one brief shining moment, perfect harmony seems only a sip away.
Everyone reads Dickens in high school. Trollope not so much.
As an English major, I read a lot of literature. But somehow the works of Anthony Trollope never made the must-read list. I would pick up one of his dozens of classic novels and glance at the hundreds of pages of dense text and think, maybe some other time.
That time finally arrived last month when I was looking for a good long book to provide a portable door (thanks be to Tom Holt) through which to find respite from the exhausting realities of current problems. I was intrigued by the title: “The Way We Live Now.”
Anthony Trollope was born on April 24, 1815. The “now” in which his characters strive and scheme and pine is a far cry from the “now” of 2015. Thus, in some ways reading “The Way We Live Now” now was, for me, rather like watching one of those soporific BBC series in which a rigid sense of propriety locks all the characters into their places on the social scale.
Trollope’s writing style, however, offers surprising turns of wit and wisdom delivered with unhurried grace. Published in 1875, “The Way We Live Now” is driven by issues which remain relevant today: women’s rights, entrenched economic disparity, and the power of audacity to sway public opinion regardless of evidence. The story bustles with life. And there’s a good bit of romantic foolishness as well, with young women pining for handsome cads while worthy heroes suffer in silence.
The contrasts between the now of Trollope’s world and the now in which we live are too numerous to count, and perhaps modern people living in the First World feel secure enough in the embrace of technology to ignore the ideas of a writer so two centuries ago.
We moderns think we’re so free.
Yet in spite of all our jets and handheld gadgets and security surveillance, freedom remains a complex challenge. Freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom of speech — these concepts we cherish must be rooted in respect for the dignity and worth of all life on Earth, regardless of gender or ethnicity or religion or age. Without compassion for each other, all our so-called sophistication is worse than meaningless. It’s a fraud.
The flags will be flying at half-mast all over the Discworld today.
Yesterday the grand master of satirical fantasy, Sir Terry Pratchett, died at the age of 66.
The author of more than 70 books published worldwide and beloved by millions of fans, Sir Terry wrote literature that defies classification. While best-known for his creation of Discworld, a sort of alternate universe complete with wizards, witches, trolls, dragons and all the traditional fixin’s of the fantasy genre, Sir Terry upended that world with his brilliant wit, droll social commentary, and engaging cast of characters.
One of his most endearing characters was Death, who always spoke in all caps, and had a mordant sense of humor that cut straight to the bone.
My explorations of Discworld began in the early ’90s, soon after I read “Good Omens,” Sir Terry’s collaboration with Neil Gaiman, in which a plucky gang of kids averts Armageddon. A familiar story these days, but back then it was fresh, and no one had ever done it with more dark humor and hope.
The Discworld series brims with characters struggling to fight crime, poverty, gender discrimination, blood feuds, religious nuts, and rogue magic—all in a day’s work for the Night Watch in Ankh-Morpork, the city that never sweeps.
I’m grieving today, because Terry Pratchett made me laugh. So much.
It would be hard to pick one favorite among all his books, though the top five would likely include “Soul Music,” in which a young man’s rock and roll dream takes an unlikely turn, “Reaper Man,” in which Death takes a holiday, “Mort,” in which Death takes an apprentice, and “Wyrd Sisters,” in which we meet Granny Weatherwax and her partner in outside-the-box thinking, Nanny Ogg, who breathe new life into the tired tropes of witchery.
For these and many more I am deeply grateful to Sir Terry. There are few writers about whose work I feel so passionate. That’s why, when I learned in 2003 that he would be speaking in Washington, D.C., I had to go. At the time I lived in Fauquier County, a good hour’s drive away, and the event was on a weekday evening.
It was a gathering of fringe elements. Geeks and freaks who had been chuckling and grinning madly alone in their rooms for years emerged blinking into the light to offer praise to the master. The seats were filled with white-haired old ladies, blue-haired punks, obese loners hugging book bags stuffed with scribblings, lean academics and gnarly eccentrics, bubbly college girls and pimply adolescent boys with hungry eyes and insulting T-shirts.
The room was packed, standing room only. During the entire half-hour stage wait of buzzing anticipation the girl seated next to us read aloud without pause at breakneck speed from “Good Omens,” until finally we were delivered from her spell when a small man dressed all in black leather approached the podium.
And I was struck with a sudden horrible fear: what if TP turned out to be less than delightful? Of course I loved his writing, the dark fizzy outlook of his books, but what if in person he was small and mean? What if he was cold and self important? Or had an ugly voice? Or an annoying mannerism that dimmed his aura of perfection?
All these fears evaporated as he stood before the crowd—us cheering wildly, him raising his arms as if to raise the volume (which we did), then lowering them to get us to bring it down (which we did), then lifting one arm up and one down, to throw us into a state of confusion, where we merrily tumbled, cheering even louder. We loved him! We wanted to have his baby!
And when we obediently hushed, he began to talk, and his voice was perfect—English accent, but not snooty, more a kind of Python-ish shade of dry wit. He said so many funny insightful things in the next two hours that my smile muscles grew tired. He was kind, patient, wise, generous, and thoroughly entertaining.
Afterwards there was a book signing, a thing I usually avoid. But I wanted a chance to thank my hero for all the times his books had lifted the gloom that plagues my soul. So we got in line.
It was a long line. After the first hour, Sir Terry got up from his seat and walked in his stocking feet to the back of the long line to get a sense of how much work still lay ahead of him. As we neared the two hour mark we appeared to be no closer to him. Did I mention this was a school night? But I was determined, and I had given a lot of thought to what I would say. Just one line.
But when my turn finally came, and he reached for my book, he glanced up at me wearily and I was overcome with grief. I was so close, and he was too tired. I tried to say my line. He looked puzzled. He didn’t quite catch it. I repeated, “I wanted to thank you for lighting a flame-thrower in my life.”
Something jogged in his face. He looked up at me and said slowly, “Well, it’s better to light a flame-thrower…” I joined him to finish the line, “than to curse the darkness.”
I smiled as well as I could, holding back inexplicable tears. I owed this man so much. He lightened my sadness so many times.
In 2007, when he was diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, I grieved, knowing this was the beginning of the end. I lost my mother to the disease in 1995, but she lost her memory years before she died. I’ll never forget her.
Millions of readers around the world will never forget Sir Terry Pratchett.