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Archive for May, 2010

Whine Country

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The title today is in deference to Robert, who complained that I’d given up on the “whine” titles without having gotten to this one.

I hadn’t really given up on the “whine” titles.  I just felt really scatterbrained yesterday and it didn’t feel to me like the post had anything coherent in it.

Today, I think I’ll just sort of tick off the various things I’ve been thinking of:

1) For an aside, the harpsichordist–I wasn’t trying to depict a particular harpsichordist, but a particular harpsichord.  That is, one made by Peter Redstone, a Brit now living in Virginia. 

It’s one of those things.  Some day, I’m going to have both the intestinal fortitude and the funds to commission Peter  Redstone to build a dual keyboard harpsichord for me, and then I’m going to buckle down and learn to play the thing. 

I’m not the kind of person who tends to wish for things without doing something about getting them, but for some reason I’ve spent the last ten years mooning about this and I’m no closer to the goal.  I’ve got no idea why.

But I really want that harpsichord.

As an aside to an aside–yesterday was Gustav Leonhardt’s 82nd birthday.  Leonhardt is the greatest living harpsichordist, and definitely the one whose CDs you want for Well Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations.  He made his professional debut the year before I was born, which I admit makes me feel a little depressive. 

2) In regard to Bill Pronzini’s essay–neither I nor any of the other suspect-focussed mystery writers I can think of fits either of his definitions.

Both Bill’s character-driven and plot-driven categories refer to the status of the detective in the case, not of the suspects. 

The character-driven category in that essay has the problem I was talking about–in no time at all, the detective’s life must look and feel like soap opera, and leave all connection to reality whatsoever.

Most successful mystery series of that kind–I’m talking about artistically successful, here–are limited to eight or nine volumes at the most.

But when I’m talking about character-centered mysteries, I’m taking about mysteries centered on the lives of the suspects in the case, who change with the crime they’re confronted with and who are different in every book. 

3) Gregor Demarkian has, in fact, changed considerably throughout the course of this series.  He just did it in the first four or five books.

Even a suspect-focussed mystery of the kind I’ve been talking about has to have at least one book that is focussed on the detective, and that is usually the first.  In the first book of a character driven series, whehter it’s my kind of character driven or Bill Pronzini’s kind of character driven, there has to be a complete or near-complete examnation of why the detective is a detective and why it is that he’s detecting.

I don’t think that even this, though, and not even something like Bill Pronzini’s idea of a character driven series, can save the amateur detective.  The situation is just inherently implausible.

Interestingly enough, as I write, there is, in this area, an ongoing unsolved case that may or may not be a murder–it’s a missing person–in which there is most definitely an attempt by the (possible) victim’s family to investigate the case on their own.

Not only have the amateurs not solved anything–in four years–but the result has been lawsuits and arrests for harassment by the alledged “suspects,” and a police and judiicial system implacably determined to get them to butt out.

The half hearted attempts to fend off the amateur sleuth that occur in most detective novels are nothing at all like the full force opposition that would occur in real life, and I can never believe that Jessica Fletcher would get anywhere near any of the evidence, never mind a solution.

I also don’t believe that the police in subsequent cases would ask for her help.

Contrary to some impressions, Gregor Demarkian is not an amateur.  He is a consultant to police departments, a position for which he is officially hired and officially paid, except in a small number of cases where he is doing favors for friends.   And even there, he defers to police departments.  He doesn’t go running around trying to out-sleuth them from behing.

4) To answer a question from a couple of days ago from Steve Lewis’s blog–there are a number of reasons to choose to write mystery novels instead of mainstream novels.

One of them I’ve already referred to.  That is the fact that the mystery provides a frame, just as a poetic form, like a sonnet, provides a frame.  Frames are useful things to have, and they make some stories interesting where they would not have been on their own.

But I think, in the end, the most important thing is this:  the choice of a literary form is first and foremost the choice of an audience.

It’s who you want to write for, who you want to talk to, that matters in the end.

The contemporary mainstream novel is not particularly mainstream.  It tends to be “literary,” and it is aimed at a very small group of people who share tastes, politics, education and culture to an extent that is only equaled by the audience for atonal music and art installations.

People here complain about the endless “literary” novels concerning neurotic coming of age stories or upper middle class people having angst about nothing in particular–but such books exist because they speak to an audience that shares these concernes.  Ann Beattie writes not only about overeducated upper middle class neurotics, but FOR overeducated middle class neurotics. 

And, okay, I’m sometimes one of them.  She writes beautiful prose.

Mystery readers, though, come in all sorts of varieties.  There are overeducated upper middle class neurotics among them as well as working class straightarrows who always liked to read (lots of waitresses–I don’t know why).  There are conservatives and liberals and libertarians and nutcases.  Really.  You should see my mail.  There are religious people and areligious people and outright atheists.  There are vegans and carnivores.

This country has become so polarized in its politics and its culture that I can’t think of many places outside genre fiction where large ideologically and intellectually diverse groups of people come together and listen to the same thing. 

I’ve got nothing against talking to overeducated upper middle class neurotics.  I am one, in many ways. 

I just prefer to talk to a wider audience.  And there’s a lot to talk about besides whether the killer used an axe or a ceremonial sword and wanted his uncle’s inheritance or a chance to marry his aunt.

If you see what I mean. 

I think, in honor of GL, I’ll go put on the Goldberg Variations.

NEVER listen to that when somebody plays it on a piano.  It was written for the harpsichord for a reason.

Written by janeh

May 31st, 2010 at 8:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

There are days when I can get up and function without caffeine without a problem, and then there are days like today.  I think it’s partially a problem with the long week-end.  It’s not really Sunday.  It’s…

I don’t know.

Back over at Steve Lewis’s blog, Steve has posted a link to an essay on plot driven vs. character driven mysteries by Bill Pronzini, a name so far out of my past, I was surprised to see it.  But Pronzini is a good writer, and he used to be a good friend of Bill’s, and he’s usually interesting on mystery writing, the theory.  If you know what I mean.

I was thinking that even for people like me, who prefer to write and to read character-driven rather than plot-driven fiction, there is, in every mystery series, at least one book that must be about the detective.

That’s the first one.  The first book in any series is usually driven by the character of the detective, whther the writer is aiming for plot-driven or character-driven in the long run.

It’s not that I don’t care about series characters–I do.  I care about my own series characters.

It’s just that, if you want to write good books, your series character either has to appear entirely abstractly (like Poirot or Marple) without much if any detail of what goes on in his private life, or your series must be limited.

There isn’t a human being on the planet interesting enough to support the weight of twenty-two volumes. 

Writers whose books focus “on the detective” in the sense of on the detective’s private life (and not “on the detection,” if  you see what I mean), do, as I’ve said before, tend to descend into soap opera.  There’s a marriage.   A divorce.  Another marriage.   Another divorce.  A drunk driving accident.  An episode of binge drinking.  Rehab.  Relapse from rehab.  Jail for a time.  Rehab again.  A brain tumor…

It gets to be too much.

For Gregor Demarkian, there’s quite a lot in the first book in the series (called “Not A Creature Was Stirring,” at the bequest of the publisher.  My original title was “The Hannaford Will)–anyway, there’s quite a bit about him, his past, his life, his attempts to get over the death of his wife and get himself back into some semblance of having a life.

That’s resolved by about book three in the series. 

There are, indeed, after that, some developments–the romance and marriage to Bennis, for instance–but really, that’s about all I can say about the man without putting him through a lot of highly artificial meat grinder “life events” that would be pointless for any sane person.

I remember writing the first of the Gregor Demarkian mysteries, sitting in the room I am now, pounding away at an “electronic typewriter” an watching my sister-in-law–the one who died last fall–marching into my back yard because…because it didn’t occr to JoAnn to knock at the front door?  I don’t know why.  JoAnn was JoAnn.

But I remember writing it, and at the time Gregor Demarkian was largely a take on m father, another ethnic American (born here, but to immigrants) who ended up doing very well in then-largely-restricted-to-WASPs-who-went-to-Yale projects of the federal government, in his case the OSS.

When Bill died, I took a two year break from doing anything at all, and when I came back Gregor had turned into a take on Bill.

But one way or the other, there’s only so much you can put your series detective through before he begins to feel fake. 

The virtue of concentrating not on the detective, or on the detection, but on the suspects, is that you have a new field of suspects each time, and therefore the series of extraordinary events (yes, yes, I know) is specific to them.  The next field of suspects will not have all that in their background, and therefore the new series of extraordinary events will not be overkill.

If that makes sense.

What also happens, in that case, however, is that every once in a while something else can happen to your series detective, as things do in a life.  You can space significant events so that they don’t seem like you’re piling Job’s life on your poor detective.

Oh, ack.  I  seem to be a little floaty here this morning.

I’m having more trouble with the new book than I expected to, and for the oddest reason–this is not the season of the year when I’m normally doing my final, major cut.  I usually do that in January and February. 

It just doesn’t feel–normal, somehow.

I must be getting old.

Written by janeh

May 30th, 2010 at 7:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Loaf of Bread, A Jug of Whine, and Thou

with 2 comments

So–I’ve been thinking of this thing, this idea that  a detective story should be “about” a detective.

I intimated way back there somewhere that the problem with this idea for me is that any character, lead character or otherwise, has limits to the interesting parts of his life. 

The first book in any detective series does tend to be “about” the detective, because it’s in that first book that the detective’s own story has (and really must have) primary importance.  When you’re first introducing  Gregory Gumshoe, or whoever, readers need to know quite a bit about him, including his backstory.

Once you know that backstory, however, it’s hard for me to see how you can keep Gregory’s story interesting without turning the series into a long-running soap opera complete with random dramatic twists and turns that start to seem overdone and implausible sooner rather than later.

Golden age mysteries largely solved this problem by being about the detection but not about the detective.  Dorothy L. Sayers did quite a bit with the story of Lord Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane, but she also ended the series with their honeymoon.  Agatha Christie tells us little or nothing about Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot–we get a word here and there, and a little domestic crisis every once in a while, but not much else.  We know that Miss Marple has nephews who are very good to her, but we don’t know anything about her siblings except that they exist.  She mentions, in At Bertram’s Hotel, having been once in love with an unsuitable young man, and having had the relationship cut off by her mother, but who that young man was, what he was like, what her mother was like–nope, nothing.

Modern mystery novels that concentrate on the detective tend to come in two varieties:  the funny kind, where the detective is the only sane person in a field of crazy relatives, neighbors and coworkers; and the serious kind, where, by about book six, the detective starts losing his love interest to a serial killer, his dog to a drunk driver and his sanity to a bout of binge drinking that would leave any actual person in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

And this is where I have a problem.  Most of us don’t live incessantly interesting lives, and don’t want to.  The more incessantly interesting the detective’s life is, the less he is like any real, existing human beings.  And the less he is like any real, existing human beings, the less interested I am in him.  Or her.  Or it, if we’re talking about those cat mysteries.

Okay, let’s not talk about the cat mysteries.

But here’s the thing.  To the extent that a detective series focuses on the detective, it is limited in the number of decent books an author can produce in it.  The longer a series goes on, the more the writer will find it necessary to saddle the detective with outsized, unusual, overdramatic life events. 

There is, however, one other approach, although at the moment I can’t think of a series of books that uses it.

That’s the presentation of the detective as a  particular type of person, so that every title or episode is a matter of putting that type on display.  There’s still a tendency to put the detective through a life course that rivals a Puccini opera for overwroughtness, but I think that might not actually be necessary to pursuing the form this way.

I give you Christopher Foyle and Gregory House.

Let me start with House, because the writers over there are definitely in the middle of making his life an orgiastic idiocy of crises and coincidences. 

House is technically a medical show, but it operates as a detective show in that the plot is always about House and his team solving the puzzle of a patient’s odd symptoms.  The detection interests me not at all, and the plot is exactly the same show after show after show.

House’s life doesn’t interest me all that much, either, especially since he went off to rehab and decided therapy wasn’t completely crap. 

Although, in the closing episode of this year’s season, there’s an indication that he may be back to thinking it’s completely crap.  Which would be good.

What does interest me in House is House as a personality–a man with a first rate mind and absolutely no patience with stupidity. 

And stupidity here is not defined as what IQ you were born with, but what you do with the one you have.  House is actually quite good to people with limited mental capacities who are doing the best they can with them.  It’s the people who insist on being stupid as an activity who drive him nuts.

And, of course, driven nuts, House doesn’t do what the rest of us do.  He doesn’t bite his tongue and stay polite.  He listens to the mother give a lecture about how her children around vaccinated because vaccination isn’t really needed, that’s just a plot by the big drug companies to take your money–and then he lays into her in a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners sort of way that’s just so satisfying I can barely stand it.

He’s the same way when people get all warm and fuzzy about human nature, or when they spout platitudes about love and healing and all the rest of the therapeutic nonsense that’s become conventional wisdom for our time–even though most of us know enough not to believe it.  My guess is that your garden variety social worker or Psy.D. would last about three minutes in House’s office.

With Christopher Foyle, my interest is otherwise.  Foyle is presented as possibly the single most decent human being ever to have graced the planet, a man whose civilized instincts are so sure and so solid that it would be an insult to call him a saint.  He’s much better than that.

And he’s no relativist.  In fact, an awful lot of Foyle’s War consists of stories about Foyle’s fight with the endless relativism of British officialdom–and sometimes American officialdom–the “do the practical thing,” “it’s for the war effort” excuses for allowing corruption and injustice to go unpunished and unresolved.

One of the more interesting stories in the series concerns–SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THE PARAGRAPH–the killing of a young German prisoner of war by a man, a refugee from Germany, who had just that morning discovered that his entire family had been wiped out at Majdanek.  Foyle’s values are absolute, even in a case like this. 

There’s something to be said for a series that gives you a chance to see what it would look like if you did adopt a strong and nonrelativistic moral code and actually lived it.  And that the picture of that is not some plaster saint, or some hypocritical jerk, but an attractive, humane and decent human being.

That brings me back, of course, to Steve Lewis’s suggestion that  part of what readers come to Gregor Demarkian for is the values he represents–and I really wouldn’t argue with that

I’d just argue about that hometown thing.

But that’s for later.

Written by janeh

May 29th, 2010 at 7:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Kisses Sweeter Than Whine

with 2 comments


Sarah Palin and FGM by government doctors in Australia–there’s enough blood in the water to start World War III around here.

And I do want to get to Sarah Palin, and “hometown values,” eventually.  I’ve got a feeling this is mostly going to be a matter of vocabulary.

That said–back to why it is one would write a MYSTERY when one isn’t much interested in mystery plots, and what’s left of a book when you take away the plot besides a bunch of people standing around talking.

First, let me say that there’s a difference between plot and story.  The plot is the bare skeleton of events considered by themselves–

So, the plot of Somebody Else’s Music is that Gregor Demarkian agrees to look into a 20 year old murder in a small town in Pennsylvania.  One of the people involved in that case originally is now a prominent author and political talking head, and the tabloids have gotten hold of the thing and are making innuendos.  Gregor goes up to the town–where the author is also spening the summer to make arrangements for her ailing mother–and a series of events occurs, first the brutal death of a dog, then a murder, then another murder, and Gregor, looking into it all, solves it.

That’s the plot.  It could be the plot of three dozen other books, and it is.  Some of the particulars are different, but the plot itself is fairly standard.

But the story is something else again.  A book with a single plot may contain half a dozen complete stories, which are not about events but about people.

So the story in Somebody Else’s Music–the main one–is about Liz Toliver (our pundit), who finally manages to overcome the long-term effects of an absolutely epic course of childhood and adolescent bullying–

And the substories of what has happened to, and will happen to, the girls who bullied her.

I thought it was interesting that the person who wrote the comment over at Steve Lewis’s blog used Ruth Rendell as his example, because Rendell–at least when she’s writing as Barbara  Vine–is practically a textbook case of a writer in whose books plot is secondary and story is everything.

I’ll admit that I’ve only read two of the Wexfords, which I didn’t care for, but I’ve read a lot of the Barbara Vine.  The one that comes most clearly to mind at the moment is a thing called King Solomon’s Carpet. 

I’ll admit it.  I don’t remember a single thing about the plot of that book.  I don’t remember what the crime was, or who solved it, or how it was solved.

But I remember at least one of those stories so well that it’s bugged me ever since–the story of a young woman who dreams of being a classical musician and who has moved out of her mother’s house (and into range of the crime) because her mother is a world class bitch who spends all her time beating her daughter’s head in.  The daughter has no talent.  She’s nothing.  She’s never going to be anything but a loser.  Etc.

Except, in this case–the mother is absolutely right.  The girl has no talent.  She is not going to realize her dream.  And the daughter has to come to terms with that.  Her mother is still a bitch, a bad mother, and an emotional abuser–but she’s right on the facts, and classical music will not be the daughter’s escape from the mother’s maltreatment.

Part of the reason to choose to write mysteries is that mysteries provide a good, and expansive, frame for stories.

Part of the reason to choose to write mysteries is that mysteries provide a automatic point of pressure.

Stories happen when characters are in conflict, with themselves, with each other, with a situation.  The occurence of a crime automatically creates conflict in and between any of the people who are touched by it.  It’s a good pressure point.

Over the course of twenty five years writing about Gregor Demarkian and the people he comes in contact with,  I’ve been able to write dozens of stories that would never have seen the light of day if they hadn’t been attached to a mystery.

Precious Blood is, I think, one of the two or three best in the series–and it concerns the people left in a dying rust-belt city and what they’re doing with their lives, and how they’re living after a wild incident in their youths that nearly ruined all of them.

I can see the book proposal for that one now, minus the mystery. 

We are, I think, at the end of the novel as an art form.   Film does better what most people want from novels, and it does it faster and in a way that makes it possible for a broad audience to like it on some level, even if they don’t “get” the whole thing. 

Readers who once went through mountains of Hemingway, Dreiser, Fitzgerald and Melville now have very little patience for anything that isn’t quick, often resent “hard” books with complicated sentences, don’t need description because they’ve got pictures–you name it. 

A best seller today, except for the huge successes like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, sells about as many books as Hemingway did when he was a best seller.  The difference is that that reprsents a much smaller percentage of the population.

I loved mysteries from off.  They were the first full-length novels I read.  I still read them, and lots of them.  I tried writing my first mystery when I was about six.  I actually finished my first mystery when I was ten.

I love the genre, but I love it because it is a frame on which other things can be hung.  If it wasn’t, I think it would have gone the way of the “mainstream novel” a long time ago.

Sarah Palin and “hometown values” tomorrow.

Assuming I’m actually awake.

Written by janeh

May 28th, 2010 at 7:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Whining in Theory

with 4 comments

I sometimes think it’s a very bad idea to write things before I can actually see in the morning, but I’ve got stuff to do today–annoying, routine, aggravating stuff–and if I don’t start now, I won’t start until tomorrow.


You’re about to find out just how bad I spell before I’ve had the nuclear caffeine tea I drink in the morning.

First, a little aside from the comments as of yesterday.  Sweet, Savage Love is a romance novel written by one of the more singularly peculiar writers of the early Eighties romance boom, Rosemary Rogers.  My first novel was something called Sweet, Savage Death.

Ah, but that was under another name, and in another country.

And besides, the wench is dead.

But back to the fray here.  As some of the comments noted yesterday, I’d no sooner posted yesterday when a response went up at the blog where the original review was that I used as a jumping off point for…okay, this sentence is getting impossible.

You can go here and find the response:

When I finally had a chance to check it myself yesterday afternoon, there were a couple of comments that I found rather interesting, and I’m going to get to one of them in a minute.  But let me start with a quote from the original reviewer’s response, which was this:

“…I expressed my displeasure with the lack of actual detection that went on in what I assumed to be a book about a detective…”

It’s here, I think, I take issue–a detective novel may be a book about a detective, OR it may be a book about the detection itself OR it may be a book about the suspects in a crime.

All three forms of the detective novel have existed since almost the very beginning of the genre, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses as books. 

And to these three approaches we have added, fairly recently, what goes on in a cozy, because a cozy is essentially a book about the community in which the detective is embedded–which is what, I think, the original review thought I was doing with Gregor Demarkian.

But my point here is that all these things have existed in the genre since the beginning, and that they all have writers and readers devoted to them. 

The question becomes:  what does the writer have a right to expect from the reader in terms of reading skill, attentitiveness, general knowledge and knowledge of the form?

It’s not all that academic a question.  I’m in the middle of reading a book of  Vladimir Nabakov’s essays on Russian literature, and that’s where he starts–what can a writer expect from his readers, what DOES a writer expect from his readers?  And, oddly enough, the first essay, on Gogol–a writer whose work I do not enjoy, but whose life as a first class loon is pretty entertaining–is also about a writer struggling to come to terms with what he can and should expect from his readers.

In case you haven’t noticed already on this blog, I’m a little ambivalent about all of this.  On the subject of general reading skill, I’ve come to the realization that I simply cannot dumb down what I do enough to sink to the level some readers demand.  If you can’t understand third person multiple viewpoint, you’re just not going to like what I do.  Or find it comprehensible.

But that is not this reviewer’s problem, and I’m not really sure he has a problem.  He was apparently unaware that there was this third kind of detective novel, but in knowledge of the genre overall he’s still light years better than some of the people who write reviews for the prestige print media, who sometimes seem never to have read a mystery since about, oh, Raymond Chandler.

And then not to have read  Chandler, but only to have watched the movies.

That said, I tend to like to read books where a lot is required of me.  I used to think it was a difference between likeing “serious” books instead of “light” ones, but it isn’t.  I love lots of Terry Pratchett and a fair amount of Carl Hiassen.  I don’t like most cozies, but it’s not because they’re funny but because they’re lightWEIGHT–simplistic writing styles, even more simplistic characterizations, absolutely no problem even to people who think Pearl Harbor started the Vietnam War.

Okay, I’m sorry.  I still can’t get over that one. 

I know from experience that there are a lot of readers out there who think of books literally the way they think of television, as throwaway entertainment that they expect to be able to plow their way through without effort.  They don’t want to learn anything and they don’t want to be forced to think and they really don’t want to be made to feel “stupid” because they don’t know something the writer should have told them about in the first place.

You know.  Like the fact that Pearl Harbor didn’t…


On the other hand, there are writers who seem to think readers have nothing to do but to worship at their altars.  James Joyce, my old college English professor said, said it had taken a lifetime for him to write Finnegan’s Wake and it should take you a lifetime to read it–so, you know, if that’s how you want to spend your life.

Certainly there is no virtue in obscurity for obscurity’s sake, and even less in erudition for erudition’s sake.  Throwing in random references just to show that you can does nobody any good, and it makes a writer look more like an idiot than otherwise.

At the same time, I find I feel it really, really objectionable that I should keep some kind of tracking device on the things I do know so that I can anticipate when readers will not know them. 

I don’t even think that’s possible.  Most of what we know seems natural to us to know.  It also seems natural to us that other people will know it, too.  I really do expect people to know that Pearl Harbor brought the US into the Second World War and had nothing to do with Vietnam, and I can’t–and won’t–clutter up my prose with explanations to that effect for people who don’t see any reason to know anything about history.

When we get to knowledge of the genre, though, things get muddier.

I have, by this point in my life, read hundreds, if not thousands of detective novels, thrillers, romantic suspense and psychological suspense.  I’ve written in a lot of these subgenres, too, and in first person and third, and about the detective and about the suspects. 

I started writing detective fiction before my age hit double digits, knowing nothing about the field but what I found in Nancy Drew.  When I published my first novel, my knowledge of the field was wider but nowhere near comprehensive. 

And I’d been publishing for a few years before I found P.D. James and the subgenre of detective novel I now write and would now read exclusively except…you know…it’s helpful to keep up with the competition, and polite to read what your friends write.

If mystery readers trying to be mystery writers–and even a lot of mystery writers–don’t know this stuff, I’m not sure I can legitimately expect readers to know it. 

And yet, it remains the case that if you’re reading Ulysses on the assumption that it’s a guide book to Dublin you’re going to have a hard time understanding why the writer is doing what he’s doing.

If you’re waiting for me to come to some kind of conclusion here, it’s not going to happen.  I don’t have one.  I think it’s legitimate to ask what a writer has the right to expect from her readers.

I also think that Nabakov has a point–readers are part of the writing process.  The better a writer’s readers, the better the writer, in the long run. 

But in the end, we’re all going to just do what we do anyway.

That said, a couple of things:

First, I was not particularly upset about that review, except on one point:  Small town values?  Hometown values?  REALLY?  I’d rather drink hemlock. 

Aristotle, yes.  But death before Sarah Palin.

Second, I didn’t get around to it in this post, but I will in the next one: one of the comments over on the other blog asked why I’d writer a MYSTERY if I wasn’t interested in the detection, and insisted that plot was absolutely necessary–and referencing, interestingly enough, the work of Ruth Rendell.

So…why somebody interested in what I’m interested in would write mysteries, and why the plot is not essential (although story is) next time.

I’m going to go finish this tea and listen to Charlie Parker.

It’s that kind of day.

Written by janeh

May 27th, 2010 at 7:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Whine and Roses

with 6 comments

Okay, I have to start here by saying that I am an ordinary sort of person, and something of an idiot at times.  This explains why, every six months or so, I google myself and see what comes up.

What came up this time was an Internet reivew, linked here


of the kind that makes me wonder if I live in an alternative universe. 

The problem isn’t that the review is bad–it’s bad enough, but, believe me, I’ve had worse.  I can still remember what Kirkus said about my first novel, “an amateurish mess of a plot.”  They may have been right.

What confused me about this was twofold–one was the complete wrongheadedness of it in simple explanatory terms.  It’s not that the reviewer thought I was doing what I was trying to do badly.  I think that of myself all the time.

It’s as if the reviewer has no idea that anybody writing mystery fiction would be trying to do what I’m trying to do at all.  

Hmmm, the reviewer says.  Why would anybody want to read these books?  It must be the comfort they get from hearing about things on Cavanaugh Street–although there’s never much of that in the books, so, um…

Actually, there are Gregor Demarkian novels with virtually nothing about Cavanaugh Street in them, and I’m with the reviewer here.  If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re really going to have a hard time getting it.

And yet what I’m trying to do–and may be doing very badly–is hardly unique to me.  Mysteries that concentrate on the suspects and not on the detectives are out there–P.D. James does them.  So do Frances Fyfiled and Martha Grimes (sometimes).  It’s not like I invented something.

Beyond that, however, is something else–and that is the demand that mystery novels have examples of “great detection,” for instance.

Maybe I read the wrong mystery books, but I can’t think of one that does.

For one thing, by now, virtually every mystery plot available, in or out of the subgenre of detective fiction, has been done not once but a hundred times.  It’s gotten to the point where I can almost predict a set of plots that will occur in almost any series if it lasts long enough–the one where the cop is the killer , for instance, and the one where the person thought to have been dead for many years has actually been alive all that time.

Genres are like any other art form.  They have a natural history, and the mystery genre has been going on for so long, and now takes in so many authors, that pretty much everything that can be done has been done.

And it doesn’t help that Agatha Christie, good writer or mediocre writer or whatever, managed to anticipate most of them sixty years ago. 

Now, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the author of the review/blog linked above is male.  In my experience, men tend to like lots of plot and to see nothing but wasted time and space in a concentration on character. 

But even so, even most plot-besotted readers should have noticed by now that there really isn’t anytihng new in the way of plot out there, and hasn’t been for years.  There isn’t much new in the way of detection, either.   I’ve been watching my way through four and a half seasons of the old Perry Mason, and I can see the plots coming down the pike as predictably as summer follows spring.

But that’s not because Perry Mason is trite, or unoriginal.  It’s just that this particular form of narrative, with these particular parameters, has a limited number of available plots.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I can’t imagine reading a mystery for the plot, and I really have no particular use for reading one for the continuing characters, who are either going to be boring as hell in no time at all or are going to have the kind of overwrought lives that make Dark Shadows look like a children’s story.

Apparently, however, a lot of people out there are innocent of the idea that you might want to read mystery fiction for any other reason.


Written by janeh

May 26th, 2010 at 7:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tariq Ramadan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Some Further Notes

with one comment

Well, just a couple of things.

First, here’s a link, up today on Arts and Letters Daily, to a review of the book  I was talking about yesterday


A few caveats:

First, the author here quotes in defense of Ramadan–or maybe I should say as a counter to critics of Ramadan–people (like Olivier Roy) who are known to be apologists for Islamism.  Some of those same people (again, includin Olivier Roy) are known to respond to criticisms of Islam with  highly biased, vitriolic and often slanderous attacks on the critics.

This article presents a number of those people without making note of who they are or what their work has been, as if they were simply objective “experts” in Islam or Islamic relations with the West. 

Second, this article mischaracterizes Berman’s discussion of Tariq Ramadan’s relationship with his father and grandfather–also Muslim intellectuals–as an attempt at “guilt by association.”

But Berman’s point is not that Ramadam is the son of his father and the grandson of his grandfather, but that he praises the work of both, and that work was…um.  Well, the grandfather is one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, now called Hamas, not only a known terrorist organization but one that champions strict Islamic law, especially in matters pertaining to women.

I doubt if this author would have dismissed such praise if the father and grandfather had belonged to the Waffen SS, and it was that work that Ramadan was praising.

The issue isn’t Ramadan’s blood relations with these people, but his public evaluation of their ideas.  A Western writer who chose to praise the work of Nathan Forrest would be condemned out of hand, even if his critics couldn’t provide “hard proof that he UNIFORMLY adheres to their theses…”

The emphasis above is mine, but you see what the problem is.  Berman claims that one of the problems is that Ramadan is held to a unique standard that would not be applied to other intellectuals writing on other topics–and this article then applies to Ramadan a unique standard that it would not apply to other intellectuals on other topics.

In fact, the apology for Ramadan’s adulatory stance towards al-Banna (the grandfather) goes on for paragraphs–poor Ramadan, he’s probably embarrassed by his grandfather, really, so it isn’t surprising if he sort of elides a lot of this and concentrates on the few small areas where al-Banna said things that sound good to Western ears. 

Like I said, can you imagine this sort of defense of an intellectual who was behaving in a similar fashion to a grandfather who was Nazi? 

Hell, al-Banna was in fact the next best thing to a  Nazi, since Muslim intellectuals in Egypt and the Middle East were largely pro-Nazi in WWII, and the nascent organization of what became the Muslim Brotherhood most certainly was.  That’s not surprising, since al-Banna was a virulent anti-Semite, and anti-Semite is the only word.  He believed Jews should be wiped off the face of the earth, and said so–decades before a state of Israel existed to use as a reason why.

About halfway down the article, the author hits a snag he can’t get past quite so easily–Ramadan’s praise for al-Qaradawi, a present-day regular on al Jazeera says Hitler did Allah’s work and calls for the extermination of the Jews, in total.

Then he compares Ramadan’s praise with that of the praise of literary critics for people like Ezra Pound and Louis Frederic Celine, who supported (or maybe supported) fascism in the war.

But the content of  Pound’s work, and Celine’s, is not itself fascist. If I didn’t know that Pound had supported Musolini while he was living in Italy at the end of the war–and, as I said, it’s actually a little iffy that he did–I couldn’t figure it out from the poems.  There are no calls for the extermination of the Jews in Pound’s literary work, and none in any of the novels of Celine I read.  (I haven’t read them all, so there may be other things going on.)

A literary critic who champions the work of Ezra Pound can do so with a clear conscience.  There’s a not a word in the poerty that promotes fascism, anti-Semitism, or any of the rest of it.

With al-Qaradawi, however, the work IS the call to “finish” the Jewish genocide, along with Holocaust denial and a whole raft of other things we wouldn’t usually put up with.

I remember ondering what kind of response this book was going to get.  It was originally a long article in The New Republic–something Romano, the critic here, doesn’t mention—but it was originally scheduled for publication almost a year and a half ago, then disappeared from sight, and has only now been released.

This article is from The Chronicle of Higher Education, and what it mostly does is prove Berman’s point.

Tariq Ramadan is a very useful figure on the intellectual left these days–a Muslim supposed to be “moderate” who can be “appreciated” and praised without getting anybody in the kind of trouble they might get into if they supported the real critics of Islamism.

Ack.  I’ve got Vladimir Nabakov on Russian literature, and the Kreutzer Sonato, one of the few pieces for the piano I actually like listening to.

Written by janeh

May 25th, 2010 at 6:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Men and Women, Intellectuals and Infidels

with one comment

I was going to start this post this morning by saying I was feeling addled–but it occurs to me that I start most posts most days saying I’m feeling addled, and that’s because I am addled.

So maybe it’s a default state.

This morning,  I’m addled because we finally got Matt back from Philadelphia yesterday, after a week of missed trains and last minute crises that seemed to blow up in our faces when we least expected it.

As it was, we managed to pick him up around five on a Sunday night, on a day Bill Clinton was at Yale–oh, yah, New Haven end-of-the-week-end traffic and celebrity traffic at the same time.

So we got back late, cooked a turkey breast anyway, got to bed late, and now I’m up and being threatened with Iron Man 2, which Matt has already seen but wouldn’t mind seeing five more times, and Greg hasn’t seen, and I’d just as soon eat crackers in hell than see.

But I probably will, since that’s the way things go around here.

In the meantime, I’m up a little late, and not really started on the tea yet, but I did have a few things on my mind, oddly echoed by a link at Arts and Letters Daily this morning.

The link is to a review/article about Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book,  Nomad:  From Islam to America, and you can find the article here


if you don’t usually get Arts and Letters Daily and want to have a look.

For those of you who don’t know, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born woman who made her way from her homeland to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage to a man many years her senior, and who later became a member of the Dutch Parliament  and the collaborator, with Theo Van Gogh, on a movie about women in Islam called Infidel.

The movie lasted seven minutes, but it got Theo Van Gogh killed at the hands of a Muslim extremist and put Hirsi Ali under 24 hour protection for years–she’s still required to travel everywhere with bodyguards. 

It also nearly got her deported.  When Hirsi Ali came to the Netherlands she claimed political asylum, because she knew she would not be admitted if she confessed to fleeing an arranged marriage.

Which is an interesting point in itself, which  I’ll get to later.

I’d like to point out, however, that among her other distinctions, Hirsi Ali is a victim of FGM, freely practiced in Muslim families in Somalia.

The reason this article struck me particularly this morning, is that I have just–yesterday–finished reading Paul Berman’s new book, The  Flight of the Intellectuals.

In spite of the title, this is not a book about how Wester intellectuals suck.  It’s a book about a Western  Muslim “moderate” intellectual named Tariq Ramadan, and the way he’s been lionized in the Western press and by high-level Western academics as a “bridge” between traditional Islam and Enlightenment values.

Berman spends the entire small book  proving, by reference to Ramadan’s own writings and to the writings of Muslim intellectuals Ramadan praises, including the long line of Muslim intellectuals in Ramadan’s own family, that Ramadan is “moderate” only if you don’t bother to look into what he’s saying.

He will not, for instance, condemn the stoning of women for adultery. Among other things.  Mostly well known to American audiences by now.

At the end of the book, Berman includes a chapter in which he contasts the laudatory treatment of Ramadan by two international figures on the intellectual left, Ian Buruma and Tmonty Garton Ash, and the rather different treatment they have accorded Hirsi Ali.

Buruma, especially, seems to have reverted to male patriarchial type–his “criticism” of Hirsi Ali amounts to a primer for Sexism 101.  She’s “shrill.”

(For what it’s worth:  when a woman says something a man doesn’t want her to say and refuses to back down, she’s “shrill.”)

It’s all about her looks–if she hadn’t been pretty, nobody would have listened to her.  It’s about her “privilege” and the way she “looks down” on the poor Muslims in Holland.  (That last having to do with the way she was seen to wave a hand in a Dutch television shot of her in a poor neighborhood–how anybody got anything like this from a wave of a hand is beyond me.) 

And on and on and on.

When I read Buruma on Hirsi Ali, it’s like I’ve been transported back to 1965.  I keep waiting for him to ask why she doesn’t have a sense of humor.

Hirsi Ali was eventually forced out of Holland, hounded out by the indignation of Western politicians and intellectuals who declared her anathema, a neocon, a racist, you name it.

So now she’s here–at the Heritage Foundation.

Which will certainly make even more people like Ian Buruma describe her as a “neocon,” since Heritage is “right wing” in the American sense. 

On the other hand, as far as I can tell, the left wing wouldn’t have her.  Tariq Ramadan, who thinks the 9/11 attacks were justified, is offered teaching positions at American universities.  Hirsi Ali doesn’t have Ramadan’s academic credentials, but there are dozens of Women’s Studies departments across the country that hire women without such credentials because of their “life experience,” and as far as I can tell, they aren’t interested either.

(Although, to be fair, this isn’t the case across the board–the Council for Secular Humanism, for instance, is a strong supporter of Hirsi Ali and also of Ibn Warraq, author of Why I Am Not A Muslim and somebody else who has to go everywhere with bodyguards.)

Berman spends almost no time discussing the reasons for this sort of thing–he just sort of throws in a paragraph or two at the very end–and in a way, that was a relief.  There are lots of books explaining the reasons for this kind of thing.

Berman’s book, though, manages to give a more complete account of the actual issues involved in the French attempt to ban headscarves for Muslim girls in French schools–one that actually made me sympathetic to the French government position for the first time.

And he outlines the writings, ideas and practices of a whole slew of Muslim scholars now being touted in the West as “moderates.”

Berman’s book is worth looking into, and anything by Hirsi Ali is too.

And, like the writer of the article I linked to above, I’m glad she’s here, with us, in America.

Written by janeh

May 24th, 2010 at 8:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

So, it’s been an interesting world out there while I’ve been wandering around the landscape getting flat tires and trying to figure out how the air conditioning works in a class room with the heat still turned on…

I am, as I said before, reading a book, called The Flight of the Intellectuals, by Paul Berman, which is not the book it sounds like from the title.  So far–and I’m more than halfway through it–it seems to be a history of Muslim intellectuals and especially the views and commitments of one Tariq Ramadan.  Ramadan is, these days, the West’s favorite “moderate Muslim.”  Or not.

But I think I’ll finish this thing and get to more of that later.

What has struck me more forcefully these days is the absolute firestorm over the discovery, but a lot of the media here–and especially by MSNBC–that Rand Paul, son of Texas Republican Ron Paul and now the Republican nominee for, I think, Senate from Kentucky, is a standard issue libertarian.

Let me try to be a little clearer here.

Rand Paul believes–along with most libertarians–that the government has not only the right but the obligation (under the fourteenth amendment) to prohibit discrimination by race, sex, ethnicity, you name it, in any government-paid-for enterprise.  That means there must be laws against such discrimination in things like voting, getting hired for a government job, and attending the local public school or state university.

Rand Paul also believes–along with most libertarians–that such laws should not apply to private, non-governmental enterprises.  Private businesses, private schools,  privately owned apartment buildings or, yes, your house–in those cases, if you’re a jerk and you want to discriminate, the governent should not be able to prevent you.

Now, in spite of the completely hysterical explosion the “revelation” of these ideas has caused (Paul has been giving press interviews about them for years, so they’re not exactly something that had to be “discovered”) there’s nothing particularly odd or particularly out of the mainstream about these ideas.

This is the rationale the Supreme Court uses every time it decides–as it has, consistently, in case after case after case–that state universities may not institute speech codes but private universities may, and that the Carter administration was wrong and the federal government cannot remove the tax exemption of a private school or university because they happen to be all white.

But, you know, this is one of those things.  The peculiarity of morals legislation, of whatever kind, is that it looks perfectly fine to people who share the moral precepts it’s installing.

In this case, I do indeed share the precepts.   Everything I’ve ever believed in, every fondation I’ve ever been able to find credible as a basis for moral thought of any kind, begins with the command to treat individual human beings as individuals–not as members of groups, no matter what the group.

And it is an outgrowth of the need to recognize individuals as individuals and not to treat them only as members of groups that racism is wrong, that it is morally unacceptable under any circumstances.

There are a lot of things in this world that I’m interested in changing, and I’m going to go after the things that I think impinge the most on my ability to live a right and free live in this particular world.

I do understand that morals legislation, even morals legislation that upholds what seems to me to be such an obvious moral precept, in the end does more harm than good–but at the moment, it does not do more harm than good to me.  I’m not going to go after laws that do not impinge on me because they prohibit something I have no intention of doing in the first place.


I want to make a prediction.

My prediction is this:  within the decade, the talking heads on MSNBC and elsewhere who have spent the past week yelling and screaming that Paul must be a racist of the worst kind, that he must want to go back to Jim Crow and not allowing black people to vote–

Those people will get on the bandwagon of “private entities should be allowed to discriminate if that’s what they want to to” and they’ll do it loud, clear, and big time.


Because within a decade, allowing private entities to discriminate is going to be the only way to save affirmative action.

I don’t know why this has not occured to any of them, but it occured to me years ago.  This SCOTUS is conservative, especially on issues like affirmative action.  Its last decisions on AA were not terribly favorable to AA, and the court has become even more conservative since then.

What’s more, even assuming an eight-year Obama presidency, there’s simply no way he’s going to be able to make the court any less conservative.   The only available seats for replacing are liberal already.  Putting other liberals in those chairs will not change the conservative skew of the court.

My guess is that the next direct challenge to AA, AA will go down.  And then people like Keith Olbermann will have a choice.

Either they accept that AA is gone, for good, in every business, college, university, organization, you name it–and that the floodgates will open for lawsuits by whites, men, Asians, etc, from one end of the country to the other.

Or the Olbermanns of the world will get on the “private entitites get to do what they want” bandwagon, so that everybody from Harvard to Exxon Mobil can keep their AA  programs. 

Because this is not 1957.  Large businesses and major universities are not resisting diversity, they’re actively pursuing it.  And they’re doing so for largely practical reasons–especially in the case of businesses, for whom minority populations are customers they don’t want to antagonize.

Eck.  I usually like Olbermann, quite a lot.  And Greg has an Olbermann bobble doll and a new life ambition–to be a political commentator, like Olbermann or Jon Stewart, because you can do it a a kind of stand up.

But the coverage of this thing has been asinine, and, worse, disingenuous.  Paul is just as much on the record as saying that government entitites are required NOT to discriminate–so no Jim Crow laws, and no segregated public schools or universities, and no keeping black people from voting.

Which means that suggesting that he’s FOR those things because he doesn’t think it’s the proper place of government to enforce them on PRIVATE entities is simply playing dumb for effect.

But I’ll stick to my prediction.  Because it’s going to come true.

Written by janeh

May 22nd, 2010 at 8:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Economy Tire

with one comment

So, what can I say?

Yesterday was supposed to be a very simple day.  No big deal.  Nothing really scheduled.  Work on the book.  Write a blog post.  Hang out and watch Perry Mason DVDs.

But it was a really nice day, and I was restless, so I decided to drive up to Colebrook to buy some bread.  They don’t have a website, but you can see a picture of them here


And I go there because they make great bread, also great cakes.  But I went yesterday for the bread.  And I bought a loaf of multigrain, and then I turned around and came back.

And just as I was entering the green at Winsted, I blew a tire.

I never blow tires when I’m home, or on one of those stretches with thirty gas stations every two blocks.  I blow them when I’m in the middle of nowhere.  Right then, I was coming into the side of the green that would head me back home, and I ended up parking directly in front of this violently purple house that also serves as the site of a new-agey message place and an acupuncture office.

And then I called my friend Richard, same person who is webmaster for this site, and asked him to come up and change my tire, because of course I have no idea how to do that.

And we waited.  I was with Greg, and he was being impossible, so I gave him some money to go down the street and get ice cream or something at Dairy Queen, and I waited.  It takes about forty minutes to get from where I live up to Winsted,  so we waited, and Greg bitched.

Richard showed up faster than I had any right to expect him, and started changing the tire. 

At that point, a girl came out of the purple house,  barefoot and hippy-ish sort of.  She was very nice, but she was one of those people–she could talk nonstop for half an hour without having to inhale.

And she did talk nonstop for half an hour. She told us the history of the house.  She gave us all these stories about tarot card readings and that kind of thing, that the woman who originally owned the house used to do.  Now the house is owned by that woman’s grandson, and this girl is staying there because–

Well, you have to believe in Karma.  She was really drunk, you see, and she got into her car and started driving around and she can’t remember how she ended up in the driveway at the purple house but she did, and it turned out it was owned by somebody she knew, but she hadn’t known that before, but that was okay, it was the way it was meant to be, and she’s been there ever since…

…oh, and then there was the cat, left in a cage on the side of the road with a note asking if anybody wanted to adopt the kiten.  She went back into the house and got the cat.  It was a good cat, very small, very vocal, sort of frantic, but I didn’t blame it.

Then she brought the cat back into the house and came back out again and started talking about crystals.  Or something.

And that was when I realized that I was living through a scene I could have written in any of a dozen books over the last twenty years–a scene I have written a dozen times or more over the last twenty years. 

It was the oddest thing.

But I stopped at McD’s for a caramel iced coffee–the only kind of coffee I drink–and I drove all the way back to Economy Tire, and I still can’t get it out of my mind.

And there I was, thinking that I was going to write about this book I’m reading by Paul Berman, Islamism, French intellectuals, and the whole deal.

Tomorrow, maybe.

Matt comes home tomorrow.

Written by janeh

May 21st, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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