Monday, June 14, 2021

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area. After graduation from Michigan State University, he studied under Leo Strauss, Joseph Cropsey and Hans J. Morgenthau at the University of Chicago where he earned both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in political science. He received his J.D. degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Buffa was a criminal defense attorney for 10 years and his Joseph Antonelli novels reflect that experience.

The New York Times called The Defense "an accomplished first novel" which "leaves you wanting to go back to the beginning and read it over again." The Judgment was nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel of the year. The latest Joseph Antonelli novel is The Privilege.

D.W. Buffa lives in Northern California.

Here is Buffa's take on Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim:
Time moves backward, all our dreams of the future become part of an irredeemable past, what happened long ago the mark of Cain, if we are unfortunate, the burden of our existence, something we do not want to remember and can never forget. It is what Joseph Conrad tells us Marlow tells a few friends, seamen like himself, men who often listen to Marlow tell stories about the sea. Marlow tells them, not just what he observed about a young ill-fated Englishman called Jim, not just what Jim has told him, but what others told him as well, the partial stories that shed their different light on a man who wanted to be a hero and, on the occasion when he could have shown great courage, acted the coward instead. Marlow tells the story of a failed romantic, a hero in all his youthful 19th century dreams, the story of how, because of that failure, he became Lord Jim.

Marlow tells the story, but only after the story is well under way. Jim is a young officer on a rusted out old merchant ship called Patna which is transporting eight hundred Muslim pilgrims across the Indian Ocean. Staring out across a calm and endless sea glimmering in the light of a thousand shining stars, he “seemed to gaze hungrily into the unattainable, and did not see the shadow of the coming event.” His thoughts were “full of valorous deeds: he loved these dreams and the success of his imaginary achievements.” Suddenly, without warning, the ship hits something and the bow starts to rise straight up. Jim hurries below to inspect the single thin bulkhead and discovers that it is about to buckle and break apart. There are only minutes, perhaps only seconds, before the ship sinks and everyone on it goes down to their death. The captain and the other officers make for the lifeboats and with great difficulty manage to get one of them into the water. But Jim will not leave the ship. Out of their heads with fear, they scream that the ship is going down, that there is not anything he or anyone else can do, and he has to jump. As they pull away, the lights of the Patna disappear. The ship and its eight hundred passengers are lost.

But the Patna does not sink; everyone on board is safe and the ship makes it back to port. Facing an official inquiry, the captain and the others run away. All of them except Jim. It is now, when the inquiry has started, that Marlow meets Jim and begins to tell the story. Jim tells him that the captain and the others, “all got out of it, one way or the other, but it wouldn’t do for me.” One of the judges, a captain, someone “second to none - if he said so himself,” asks Marlow to give Jim money so he can get away. Marlow considers Jim’s refusal a “redeeming feature” in his case.

Jim believes that he had done, “as any other man would have done in his place, that the ship would go down at any moment….” He tells Marlow that “he wouldn’t be afraid to face anything,” and that “there was nothing he couldn’t meet.” To show he means it, he insists that when he was in the lifeboat and the chief engineer said that he had seen the ship go down, “It seemed to me that I must jump out of that accursed boat and swim back to see.” Marlow is astonished. It was as if Jim’s “imagination had to be soothed by the assurance that all was over before death could bring relief.”

A long time after the inquiry, Marlow meets a French lieutenant who had been on the ship that found the Patna and brought her safely to port. He had spent thirty hours on the Patna and left no doubt that it was something of a miracle that it had not sunk. Marlowe then tells the French lieutenant what happened at the inquiry and, as best he knows, what happened to Jim during the next three years. Stripped of his seaman’s papers, Jim goes from one job to another, always driven out of each place he goes by the rumor of what he did, until Marlow helps him find a place where he can, finally, be left alone. From the shadow of death Jim had been brought to the shadow of madness, cut off from “the rest of mankind, whose ideal of conduct had never undergone the test of a fiendish and appalling joke.”

For those who have an interest, a serious interest, in how a great writer writes, it is important to notice what Conrad is doing. For the first thirty pages, Conrad narrates the story the way any author would do, as the impartial, anonymous voice that sees everything, including what goes on inside the mind of each of the novel’s characters. Then Marlow, a character of Conrad’s invention, takes over, and instead of a neutral, omniscient narrator, the story is told the way you or I would tell it, through a single, and singular, set of eyes. But while Marlow tells the story, part of the telling is telling what others have told him.

Marlow has spent his life at sea, and knows what it is like for someone like Jim to stand “on the brink of a vast obscurity, like a lonely figure by the shore of a sombre and hopeless ocean.” All that would soon change, as Marlow anticipated. “The time was coming,” Marlow explains, “when I should see him loved, trusted, admired, with a legend of strength and prowess forming around his name as though he had been the stuff of a hero.” The legend would begin from a place where stories of Jim's past would never be heard, “three hundred miles beyond the end of telegraph lines and mail-boat lines,” where “the haggard utilitarian lies of our civilization wither and die, to be replaced by pure exercises of imagination, that have the futility, often the charm, and sometimes the deep hidden truthfulness, of works of art.” A place, that is to say, where the legend of Lord Jim would not be a legend at all.

Virginia Woolf, who wrote a review of Lord Jim in the l920’s, observed that although Conrad’s “characters remain almost stationary, they are enveloped in the subtle, fine, perpetually shifting atmosphere of Marlow’s mind; they are commented upon by that voice which is so full of compassion….” Ford Madox Ford wrote that he got to know Conrad as “little by little, he revealed himself to a human being during many years of close intimacy. It is so that, by degrees, Lord Jim appeared to Marlow, or that every human soul by degrees appears to every other human soul.” And then he added, “Conrad was Conrad because he was his books. It was not that he made literature: he was literature….”

Read this Joseph Conrad story, read the story Marlow tells you, the story, the tragedy, of this failed romantic, a hero in all his youthful l9th century dreams who became notorious as a coward and who then became known as the heroic Lord Jim. The story, when you read it, is not fiction, a made-up story of the past; it is more real, because more lasting, than anything you read in the papers or see on television. The story Lord Jim is what being timeless means.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Debra Bokur

Debra Bokur is the author of The Fire Thief and The Bone Field (Dark Paradise Mysteries, Kensington). She’s traveled the world as a writer, journalist and staff editor for various national media outlets, with more than 2,000 print pieces carrying her byline to date. Her work has garnered multiple awards, including a 2015 Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism. For more than a decade, she served as the poetry editor at a national literary journal, and her poetry and short fiction have been widely published. Among her favorite writing credits are a series of original literary essays commissioned by the Celestial Seasonings tea company that appeared on the artfully illustrated boxes of ten separate tea flavors. She continues to travel in her capacity as the Global Researcher and Writer for the Association for Safe International Road Travel, and as a monthly columnist for Global Traveler Magazine.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

My husband gave me a copy of this book as a gift years ago, following a long discussion about how the perception of time can be highly subjective: Not to discount the veracity of clocks, of course, but how an actual segment of time—like a minute or an hour—can seem to pass at a different speed for different people. This can be heightened by the season, with winter seeming to last forever for everyone except me; or how summer may appear to be fleeting. The speed of time might even depend upon what you’re doing. For me, no matter how long I try to linger over a slice of apple cake, it seems like time flies by and the cake is gone before I know it. Lightman, who is both an author and a physicist, takes this thought and presents it in a series of chapter-stories; each of which presents the passage of time in a different way using Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity as context. This theory suggests that the passage of time, or the discernment of it, is relative to the lens through which it is perceived. Context becomes everything, and in this small book, Lightman treats the topic with brilliance and imagination. The writing is consistently lyrical and mesmerizing, and I pick it up every so often to enjoy again, always discovering something new and beautiful in each reading. It’s become one of my favorite books to gift to others.

Call this Room a Station by John Willson

I’ve long been a fan of the compelling poetry created by poet John Willson, and was pleased to discover that he’d published a collection. In Call This Room a Station, Willson has assembled his poems in a way that reflects a journey through joy, loss, and a return from despair while employing imagery from an actual expedition across the world as framework and setting. Nature is one of the recurring themes in Willson’s moving poems, and I find myself repeatedly returning to specific pieces, including “Eagle, Border Waters,” and “Morning,” which ranks as one of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever read.

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

As a rule, I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but anything by author Michael Pollan is an absolute exception. Pollan teaches writing at Harvard and the University of California, and readers of The New York Times Magazine will be familiar with his byline. I’ve found his previous works on plant life, the human relationship with food, and how we experience the natural world to have been exceptionally enthralling. Right now, I’m in the middle of one his latest works, How to Change Your Mind, which explores the human fascination with psychoactive plants and delves deeply into ongoing clinical and scientific research into psychedelic drugs including LSD, psilocybin, Ayahuasca, and 5-MeO-DMT. Pollan details research being conducted at Harbor UCLA Medical Center, Johns Hopkins, Imperial College in London, the University of Zurich, and NYU, all of which is seriously examining how even a single psychedelic experience may offer curative benefits for numerous conditions including depression and addiction—while also providing perspective and comfort to patients with terminal illnesses regarding suffering, death, and the very nature of existence. It’s a truly compelling read.
Visit Debra Bokur's website.

Q&A with Debra Bokur.

The Page 69 Test: The Fire Thief.

My Book, The Movie: The Fire Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 7, 2021

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area. After graduation from Michigan State University, he studied under Leo Strauss, Joseph Cropsey and Hans J. Morgenthau at the University of Chicago where he earned both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in political science. He received his J.D. degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Buffa was a criminal defense attorney for 10 years and his Joseph Antonelli novels reflect that experience.

The New York Times called The Defense "an accomplished first novel" which "leaves you wanting to go back to the beginning and read it over again." The Judgment was nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel of the year. The latest Joseph Antonelli novel is The Privilege.

D.W. Buffa lives in Northern California.

Here he shares some reflections on the enduring relevance of Brave New World (1932):
Some authors are unfortunate in when they were born, writing books that might have had an audience a generation or so earlier, but not much of one now. But some authors are unfortunate in when they died, none more so than Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, who died on November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Given a few short paragraphs near the back of the newspaper, his passing was scarcely noticed or, if noticed, paid any great attention. The country had other things on its mind. In l931, however, when he wrote Brave New World, everyone paid attention. The critics, who seldom agreed on anything, dismissed it as “a thin little joke,” a literary work so bad that “nothing can bring it alive.” The public, on the other hand, could not get enough of it, which might have been a warning that the world Huxley foresaw had more of an appeal than he might have imagined.

The story is set in the distant future; a future, however, anchored in the immediate present, the present in which Aldous Huxley was living in l931. Christianity has been abolished, and with it the system of recording historical time. Instead of A.D., from the death of Christ, the years are counted A.F., from the time of Ford. Yes, that’s right: Henry Ford has taken the place of Jesus Christ. The top of all Christian crosses have been removed so that the sign of the cross has become the sign of the ’T,’ as in the model T, the first of Ford’s creations. No one swears “Christ!” anymore; they say “Ford!” when they give way to their anger or frustrations. The choice of Ford is not accidental, the random selection of a famous name. Mustapha Mond, the Resident Controller for Western Europe in the year 700 A.F., explains:

“Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production deepened the shift.”

The shift has been completed. Eugenics and chemistry have abolished natural reproduction; human beings are produced in laboratories, the mass production of endless sets of twins made to fit the categories of a hierarchy, from the lowest, the epsilons, who do not need human intelligence, to the highest, the alphas, who will know more than anyone else. Created without the need for parents, they have no relatives and no attachments. Conditioned through infancy and childhood, they believe that the collective is the only thing important, and they believe, all of them, that they are happy.

And they are. They have everything they need; especially the eight-ninths of the population that never have to think. They spend seven and a half hours every day at work, the work they have literally been born for; work, as it is described, without strain on the mind or muscles. It is when work is over, that real happiness begins. They have games they play and movies they watch, movies called ‘feelies,’ in which electric impulses stimulate the emotions to match, and to intensify, what they see on the screen. To take care of their own emotions, any sadness or uncertainty, they have drugs; or rather they have one drug, Soma, which is taken every day and always makes them feel good. The greatest source of permanent happiness, however, is sex; not just occasional sex, but unrestricted copulation. There is no such thing as chastity or even restraint; the only decision is whom to have sex with next. As I said, the critics hated it, and the public loved it.

Despite all the precautions, all the conditioning, there are still, occasionally, a few human beings who sometimes doubt that everything is as it should be. One of them, Bernard, who is rumored to have had the wrong chemicals mixed in when he was born, goes out on a date with a young woman, Lenina, who is proud of nothing so much as that she has slept with perhaps as many as six hundred different men. She wants to play “electro-magnetic golf;” he objects that it is a waste of time. “Then what’s time for?” she asks, with some astonishment. He suggests they might go walking and talk. She thinks it “a very odd way of spending an afternoon.” The next day, he regrets that they went to bed together on their first date. She reminds him, and does so quite “gravely,” what they have all been taught: “Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today.” When he tells her that he feels “enslaved by my condition,” she is truly horrified: “You say the most awful things.”

Unlike George Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World does not describe a nation, or even an empire; it describes the planet. Universal peace has been achieved. There are no wars, and there is no conflict. Everyone is happy. Almost everyone. There are still a few places where “savages” still exist, human beings who still practice the customs of primitive people, including even the disgusting and morally reprehensible act of producing a child through sexual intercourse. One of these unfortunate children, John, was born to a woman who had gone to the New Mexico reservation as a weekend tourist with an alpha who left her there.

John, all grown up, is discovered and brought to London, hopelessly ignorant, a savage in every respect. Taken to Eton, where the alphas are educated, he is so simple-minded as to ask about the students: “Do they read Shakespeare?” It is explained to him, with all the patience needed when dealing with abysmal stupidity, that, “Our library contains only books of reference. If our young people need distraction, they can get it at the feelies. We don’t encourage them to indulge in any solitary amusements.” A statement that sounds a lot like what an American college president might say today in defense of a curriculum weighted heavily on the side of computer science and televised sports.

It takes an effort to keep everyone happy. It requires first of all keeping everyone together. Any suggestion that the purpose of life is anything beyond the maintenance of well-being of everyone is subversive of good order. Solitude is to be avoided, of course; but then, in Brave New World, no one wants to be alone anyway. Except, of course, John.

He goes to live in an abandoned lighthouse. He grows a garden and makes, as he had been taught by the Indians in New Mexico, a bow and arrow to shoot small game. No one has ever heard of anything so strange. A reporter comes with a camera and, when a movie is made, John becomes an international sensation. Everyone wants to see him now; John and the lighthouse become a tourist destination. The only truly human being left on the planet, he becomes the ape in the zoo, laughed at by automatons who think they are human. The year 700 A.F. begins to resemble the year 2021 A.D.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 22, 2021

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area. After graduation from Michigan State University, he studied under Leo Strauss, Joseph Cropsey and Hans J. Morgenthau at the University of Chicago where he earned both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in political science. He received his J.D. degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Buffa was a criminal defense attorney for 10 years and his Joseph Antonelli novels reflect that experience.

The New York Times called The Defense "an accomplished first novel" which "leaves you wanting to go back to the beginning and read it over again." The Judgment was nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel of the year. The latest Joseph Antonelli novel is The Privilege.

D.W. Buffa lives in Northern California.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I first read The Great Gatsby by accident, when I was twenty-four, late one night at the end of my second year in graduate school, the night before I left to spend the summer in New York. I had finished packing my tattered second-hand suitcase and the small string tied cardboard box of books I was taking with me. With nothing left to do, I picked up a slim paperback edition, a copy of Gatsby, and started to read. It was, if I remember, a little after midnight when I started and a little after four in the morning when I finally finished it and knew immediately that I would one day read it again. And I have, at least half a dozen times, the last time just a few days ago. The astonishing thing is that each time is like reading something you have never read before. You remember that you have read it, you remember the story, you remember whole lines, but it still, somehow, comes as a surprise, the way Fitzgerald makes you feel that you know these people as well, or better, than anyone you have ever actually met.

It is like listening to a story told by one of your uncles about relatives you never knew, the story he tells you each time you see him and always manages to change, until finally you decide that he is only telling you things that someone had once told him, but because it is mostly a story made up of the fragments of other people’s now forgotten lives, because it does not concern itself with a too careful attention to the literal biographical facts, tells you something more important about who these people really were, what they thought and what they felt, and what, sometimes without quite realizing what they were doing or the effect it would have, what they did. It is that way with Gatsby, the novel that will tell you more about what America was like in the bright, dizzy days between the Great War and the Great Depression when money became the only thing anyone wanted and the only thing needed to make you what you had always wanted to be, when everyone danced through the Jazz Age, the phrase Fitzgerald invented, when life for those rich enough to afford it was a party that lasted all summer and summer, banishing the seasons, lasted all year.

Driven by the dream of the girl with whom he fell in love, Gatsby, Jay Gatsby, did everything he could to become what he thinks he has to be to have any chance with her. He buys a huge estate across the Long Island Sound from where Daisy, the girl with whom he had been engaged before he went away to the war, lives with her husband, Tom Buchanan who, like his wife, has always been used to a life of wealth and privilege. Every night, Gatsby looks across the water at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the green light that represents everything he hopes for, the justification for everything he has done. Hundreds of guests, invited and uninvited, come to the colossal parties given by Gatsby every weekend, and one of the rumors that circulate about their host, a rumor that tends to make him even more mysterious in the eyes of all those anonymous intruders, is that he once killed someone. It is a rumor that seems to discredit itself when they suddenly find themselves in the presence of his inimitable smile. “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Gatsby, who had nothing when he met Daisy, when he was a young soldier about to go to war, lied about where he had come from; he lied about everything, including his name. After the war, he became rich selling liquor when selling liquor was a crime, and became richer still by his involvement with the man who had fixed the l9l9 World Series, the thing that more than anything else taught Americans that nothing was sacred, that everything could be had – even the loyalty of baseball players, even the integrity of the game that America loved – for a price. Whether or not he had ever killed anyone, Gatsby was a liar and a thief, and yet, more than any of those who had been born into the wealthy, established families whose palatial estates lined the waters of the sound, Gatsby had a purpose in his life and a sense of honor. All the others, Tom and Daisy and their spoiled friends, lived their careless lives and let others try to put back together all the things they had broken. Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car, kills a woman who dashed into the street, the same woman who had been having an affair with Tom Buchanan. Gatsby, a passenger, lets everyone think he was driving. Daisy does not mind. The woman’s husband, deranged by grief, murders Gatsby in his pool. Tom Buchanan thinks he deserved it.

At the end, Daisy’s second cousin, Nick Carraway, who is telling the story, goes back to Gatsby’s enormous and abandoned house and wanders down to the shore.
I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning –

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
But Gatsby stays with us forever.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Rob Hart

Rob Hart is the author of The Warehouse, which has sold in more than 20 languages and been optioned for film by Ron Howard.

He also wrote the Ash McKenna series, which wrapped in July 2018 with Potter’s Field. Other entries include: New Yorked, which was nominated for an Anthony Award for Best First Novel, as well as City of Rose, South Village, and The Woman from Prague.

A few months ago I asked Hart about what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished Devolution by Max Brooks, which is the best bigfoot novel I've ever read. It's also the only bigfoot novel I've ever read, but it's pretty incredible. I finished it in a day. I sat down after
breakfast to read it and was done by dinner. I think I skipped lunch. It's wildly smart and entertaining.

Right now I'm reading The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and it's intoxicating. Just ridiculously moody and atmospheric and beautiful. In contrast to Devolution, it's the kind of book I feel compelled to take my time with, so I can really savor the prose and the story.
Visit Rob Hart's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Warehouse.

--Marshal Zeringue