Friday, September 24, 2021

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's latest novel is The Privilege.

Here is Buffa's take on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot:
We have all heard, though usually in a bad movie or in a bad book, that your whole life flashes before your eyes in the moment you are about to die. But what really happens, what does someone really think about, in the moments before death? Is it about the past, about the life that is about to end, or is it, strange as it may seem at first, about the future? In one of the great, if largely forgotten, Russian novels of the 19th Century, Fyodor Dostoevsky describes what went through the mind of a man moments before his execution. He describes what had actually happened to him when, in l849, he was arrested with thirty others for crimes against the state and taken to St. Petersburg to be shot.

Dostoevsky stood there, his hands tied behind his back, while the firing squad was assembled and everything made ready. The soldiers took their positions and, at the order, aimed their rifles, the commander raised his arm ready to give the order to fire. And then…nothing, not a sound, until the firing squad was ordered to lower their rifles and the prisoners were informed that their death sentences had been commuted to exile in Siberia.

There is a marvelous line uttered by the marvelous Dr. Johnson in the l8th century: “Tell a man he is to be executed in the morning, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Tell a man, a man who will become one of the world’s great writers, that as soon as the firing squad is ready he will be shot to death, it produces a sensitivity, an insight into the meaning of existence, that twenty years later will allow him to write The Idiot and to create in Prince Lyov Nikolayevich Myshkin a character unique in world literature, a young man everyone thinks an idiot and everyone knows is wise.

Dostoevsky has Myshkin tell Dostoevsky’s own story, the story of a man who with others is led to the scaffold to be shot for “political offenses.” and then, fifteen or twenty minutes later, given a reprieve. “Yet in the interval between those two sentences…he passed in the fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes.” The condemned, according to Myshkin, “remembered it all with extraordinary distinctness.” He remembered how they were all led out to the courtyard, how they were tied up, how the priest came to each of them in turn with a cross, how, with only a few minutes left, he still felt that he had “so many lives left in those few minutes that there was no need yet to think of the last moment,” but what was really “dreadful” was the “continual thought, ‘What if I were not to die! What if I could go back to life - what eternity! I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing. I would count every minute as it passed. I would not waste one!’ He said that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly.”

It did not happen. The condemned man did not treat every moment as an age. He discovered that it was impossible to live like that. Myshkin, for his part, “somehow can’t believe” that it cannot be done; he believes that it should. Someone asks if he thinks he “will live more wisely than anyone?” “Yes,” he replies, “I have thought that too sometimes.” And then admits that he has “lived less than others” and “knows less of life than anyone.”

Just returned to Russia from Germany where he was treated for a long, debilitating illness, Prince Myshkin has neither wealth nor any immediate family. None of his distant relatives want anything to do with him until, inheriting a fortune, they cannot get enough of him. His intense emotional nature, his willingness to speak his mind honestly, openly and without regret, is dismissed as nothing more than the inexperience of youth. When he remarks that children “understand everything,” and can give “exceedingly good advice,” it is all the proof needed that he is, himself, still a child. A child they quickly come to like when he explains that he had been ill, so ill that he “really was almost like an idiot;” a child a few of them begin to suspect more grown up than the others around them when he adds, “But can I be an idiot now, when I am able to see for myself that people look upon me as an idiot?”

Everything in The Idiot is, one way or the other, connected with the absolute importance of every moment of time. Everything of real importance, everything right and true, is known, or rather felt, immediately; everything else, all the ordered duplicity of civilized society, the misguided conventions of a world filled with corruption. No one understands this better than Nastasya Filippovna, a woman of astonishing beauty who does not hide her disdain for all the poor fools willing to sell their souls to have her.

“Everyone is possessed with such greed nowadays,” she announces with a glittering smile to a gathering in which Myshkin sits as a kind of disinterested observer; “they are all so overwhelmed by the idea of money that they seem to have gone mad.” In front of everyone, she tells Gavril Ardalionovitch, who wants to marry her for the money she has acquired through her relations with other men, that he is a “shameless fellow! I’m a shameless woman, but you are worse.” And then, turning to Prince Myshkin, whom she has only just met, asks with all the pride and contempt of which she is capable, “Would you take me as I am, with nothing?” Myshkin does not hesitate. “I will, Nastaya Filippovna.”

Some think Myshkin like Don Quixote, a fool, an idiot, willing to idolize a fallen woman and worship her as the incarnation of pure beauty. Others have the vague feeling of something they had once been taught, the lost memory of what Christian love was meant to be. Taking Myshkin at his word, Nastasya Filippovna dismisses his offer, and does it in a way that suggests a depth of feeling, a knowledge of her own fatal flaw, that only Myshkin understands.

“You may not be afraid, but I should be afraid of ruining you, and of your reproaching me with it afterwards.”

She turns to a villainous character, Rogozhin, so desperately in love with her he would rather see her dead than with anyone else, and asks him for a hundred thousand rubles. She throws it into the fire and with hatred in her eyes tells Gavril Ardalionovitch, who wanted to marry her for her money, that he can have it all if he can get it out before it burns. And then, just before she leaves, she tells Myshkin he should marry someone else, the young girl Aglaia Epanchin, instead of her.

The frenetic, half-crazed conversation of Nastasya Filippovna, the strange, demented confessions of what she thinks about herself and everyone else, is not some brief digression, a single stand alone psychological study of a woman in distress; it is what goes on through six hundred closely printed pages. One intense conversation after another, one long disquisition on what some tortured soul wants the world to know and then, later on, what someone else decides he or she has to say, do not just move the action forward; they are the action of the story, action that holds the reader in its grip from the first page to the last. There is a reason why Friedrich Nietzsche thought Dostoevsky without equal in the ability to lay bare the deeper workings of the human soul and the twisted imaginings of the human mind.

Aglaia Epanchin, the youngest of three sisters, is so beautiful, Myshkin tells her, “that one is afraid to look at you.” She treats him as if he really is an idiot, mocking him, behind his back and to his face, but still tells him things she would never have told anyone else. After a young man, dying of consumption, tries to shoot himself in front of people he knows despise him for his poverty and radical ideas, but fails because he forgot to load the gun, she admits to Myshkin that she had “thirty times…dreamed of poisoning myself, when I was only thirteen, and writing it all in a letter to my parents. And I, too, thought how I would lie in my coffin, and they would weep over me, and blame themselves for having been too cruel to me…. Why are you smiling?”

Aglaia “asked rapid questions, talked quickly, but sometimes seemed confused, and often did not finish her sentences.” She was in love with him, but the question was whether she would have been if he had not been “looked upon by every one as an idiot.” That her family was upset by her feeling about him was a joy to her. What she felt and why she felt it was a mystery, what Dostoevsky calls, “the fantastic strangeness of the human heart.”

Prince Myshkin may be an idiot, but he is still a prince, a member of the Russian aristocracy, and, through inheritance, a wealthy man. Aglaia’s family invites the most important people they know to meet him. Most of the people who come to meet Myshkin are “empty-headed people who were themselves unaware, however, that much of their superiority was mere veneer, for which they were not responsible indeed, as they had adopted it unconsciously and by inheritance.” Myshkin tries to explain to them what they are lacking, and how serious their ignorance.

There is no “idea binding mankind together today,” he insists. The belief in progress, in western ideas of material improvement, in the greatest good of the greatest number, is nothing but a vast charade. “And don’t try to frighten me with your prosperity, your wealth, the infrequency of famine, and the rapidity of the means of communication. There is more wealth, but there is less strength. There is no uniting idea; everything has grown softer….”

Myshkin is not talking about national greatness or national power; he is talking about the Russian, and perhaps not just the Russian, soul. There is “a spiritual agony, a spiritual thirst, a craving for something higher,” that has to be satisfied. Myshkin, who like Dostoevsky himself, suffers from epilepsy, finds that meaning, that lesson, in what happens, not when he is facing his own imminent death, but what happens to his mind and heart when, during an epileptic fit, he feels “the direct sensation of existence in the most intense degree.” In that one moment, “worth the whole of life,” he seems “somehow to understand the extraordinary saying that ‘there shall be no more time.’”

Lyon Nikolayevich Myshkin did not believe what everyone else believed; he did not believe in what the world thinks important. He believed in the importance, and the integrity, of the human soul. Myshkin was an idiot. Would that more of us were fools like him.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Louise Guy

Louise Guy has enjoyed working in marketing, recruitment and film production, all which have helped steer her towards her current, and most loved, role – writer.

Her passion for writing women's fiction is a result of her love of reading, writing and exploring women's emotions and relationships. Women succeeding through hard work, overcoming adversity or just by owning their choices and decisions is something to celebrate, and Guy loves the challenge of incorporating their strengths in these situations into fiction.

Originally from Melbourne, a trip around Australia led Guy and her husband to Queensland's stunning Sunshine Coast where they now live with their two sons, gorgeous fluff ball of a cat and an abundance of visiting wildlife - the kangaroos and wallabies the most welcome, the snakes the least.

Guy's novels include Her Last Hope.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Guy's reply:
I usually have two books on the go, one on audio and the other on my kindle. I’ve just finished The Marriage by K L Slater and Her Last Words by Kim Kelly.

Full of lies and deception, I’m always drawn into the worlds K L Slater creates, and The Marriage was no exception. Why on earth would you marry your son’s killer? That’s the story's premise and one that kept me ruminating throughout as to what the real motive could be. Full of twists and turns, this story kept me guessing right up until the end, which is why I love this author’s works. When I read a K L Slater I find myself totally engrossed in the story when I’m reading but also when I’m going about my normal day, sifting through the what ifs? And could that person be responsible for this, and a million other questions.

I have also just finished the audiobook of Kim Kelly’s Her Last Words. Set in Australia, this story is full of contrasting emotions. From love to grief, from betrayal to hope. The characters are wonderfully relatable, and as a secondary storyline, the insights and commentary on the publishing industry were hilarious. This was my first Kim Kelly book and it was the narrator, Caroline Lee, that had my try this author. I saw a Facebook post recently where somebody said they could “listen to Caroline Lee narrate the phone book” and I agree. Her narration takes a story to a whole other level.
Visit Louise Guy's website.

The Page 69 Test: A Life Worth Living.

My Book, The Movie: A Life Worth Living.

Q&A with Louise Guy (November 2020).

My Book, The Movie: A Winning Betrayal.

The Page 69 Test: A Winning Betrayal.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 27, 2021

Avery Bishop

Avery Bishop is the pseudonym for a USA Today bestselling author of over a dozen novels including the newly released One Year Gone.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Bishop's reply:
Like many writers, I'm often reading several books at the same time, and I often like to read in many different genres. Usually I'm reading a book on my Kindle, an ebook on my phone, a hardcover or paperback, and listening to an audiobook when I'm driving or shopping or walking the dog.

On my Kindle: Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. A short novel, not even 45,000 words, but it's dark and gritty and has a lyrical quality to its prose. I'm currently halfway through and really enjoying it.

On my phone: The Cipher by Isabella Maldonado. A thriller about an FBI agent who got away from a serial killer when she was just a girl, and now the killer is back and targeting her. I'm only a few chapters in and so far I'm enjoying it. (Usually the books I read on my phone lean toward the thriller end of the spectrum: fast-paced with short chapters that I can leave for a few days and jump back in at any time.)

Hardcover: The Push by Ashley Audrain. I just started this one but am already loving it. The prose is tight and smooth and compulsive. I'm a huge fan of second person POV (see A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan), and this novel uses it well, though it's more the narrator utilizing it as she speaks to her ex-husband as opposed to the second-person narration by the protagonist.

Paperback: Unclean Jobs For Women and Girls: Stories by Alissa Nutting. I love short story collections but often take my time with them, reading a story here and there as opposed to consuming a collection within a few days. Nutting's stories are quirky and dark and very entertaining.

Audiobook: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling, read by Jim Dale. I've been slowly moving through the whole Harry Potter series. For a time I'd taken a break and am now trying to finish. The books are fun, of course, but I'm finding this one to be a bit bloated. However, an audiobook narrator can make or break the entire experience, and fortunately Jim Dale is an amazing narrator so I'm happy to be along for the ride.

As an aside, I'm trying to read more translated works, especially thrillers. A few weeks ago I read Heatwave by Victor Jestin. It's billed as a novel but it's only 25,000 words long. Still, it holds quite a punch, and the writing is great. In terms of the story, the 17-year-old narrator is on vacation with his family and one night he comes across another boy his age who's asphyxiated by the ropes on a swingset. The narrator, feeling culpability for some reason, decides to hide the body, and as you can imagine, things spiral out of control from there. (It's no surprise it's being compared to Albert Camus's The Stranger.)

A few other translated works on my TBR pile include Central Park by Guillaume Musso, Confessions by Kanae Minato, and The Others by Sarah Blau.
Visit Avery Bishop's website.

Q&A with Avery Bishop.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson is the author of Brass Lives and eight previous Tom Harper mysteries, seven highly acclaimed novels in the Richard Nottingham series, and two Simon Westow mysteries. He is also a well-known music journalist. He lives in his beloved Leeds.

Recently I asked Nickson about what he was reading. His reply:
I tend to have a few books on the go at once. As a rule (though not always) it’s non-fiction downstairs, and a novel for bedtime.

Currently, I have Tracy Borman’s biography of Thomas Cromwell on the couch. I’d loved the Hilary Mantel trilogy and the TV series of Wolf Hall. This gives the real man, yet it also emphasizes the difference between fiction and biography: a good novel can take you deeper into the person than most biographies that are shackled by facts. The further you go back in time, the truer that becomes, and with someone like Cromwell, where much of his early life is shadowy…well, he was made for the novelist. Still, it’s a fascinating book and portrait of a man.

I also have Sailor Song by Gerry Smyth, a book of and about sea shanties. I’ve had a fascination with folk song for much of my life, and I’ve used it in books. Shanties come under the folk song umbrella, although I know little about them. Once I’ve read this, I hope I’ll know a little more. On first glance, some great illustrations, too.

Upstairs, it’s re-reading The Cartel by Don Winslow, the second in his Border trilogy. A big, masterful book. With these, he really found his voice, and takes us into a world so few of us know. Once I’ve finished that, next on deck is Love, the new one by Roddy Doyle, one of my favourite novelists. It’s impossible to read his dialogue and not hear it in an Irish accent, which is a remarkable achievement.
Visit Chris Nickson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 19, 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 Ford Madox Ford’s Parade's End:
Winston Churchill described the Victorian Age, which ended, not with the death of Queen Victoria, but in l914 with the First World War, as a time when “the world belonged to the few, and the very few.” Thirty years later, in l944, the fact that the pilots who fought the Battle of Britain had not been the sons of the British aristocracy who attended Cambridge or Oxford, but the sons of the British middle class, showed Churchill that the few, the very few, had lost the moral authority to govern the nation. It had been a very long time since they had been able to rule themselves.

The last one who knew, not just how to rule himself, but what it meant, may have been Christopher Tietjens, the central character in the four novels that together are known as Parade’s End, the extraordinary attempt by Ford Madox Ford to describe England as it really was when the world decided to destroy itself. The first novel, Some Do Not…, was published in l924; the second, No More Parades, a year later, in l925; the third, A Man Could Stand Up—, the year after that. The fourth and concluding volume in the quartet, The Last Post, came out in 1928. They were published together as Parade’s End in l950 by Alfred Knopf in a volume that runs a little more than eight hundred pages. The novels, either individually or combined into one long consecutive story, would never be published today.

Parade’s End is too far outside the normal experience. It is a novel about war and sex in which there is not any violence, and there is not any sex. There is not, in the way we have, at least most of us, learned to understand things, any action at all. Or so we think at first. But then, suddenly, somewhere in the back of our mind, we remember that while everything, every word, has to advance the story, conversation, what people say to other people, what they say to themselves, is the most compelling form of action there is. And then we begin to realize that Parade’s End captures, like nothing else we have ever read, a vanished civilization, what life was like before the First World War, the Great War, destroyed the last vestiges of what the world once thought decency and honor.

Parade’s End is a love story in which sex becomes more a human failing, love’s poor substitute, for those who never learn love’s meaning. It is a novel in which nearly everyone hates the novel’s main character, precisely because the main character is so much better than themselves. He makes no sense to them, and half the time he makes no sense to himself. In all of English literature, Christopher Tietjens is unique. Considered by some to be the most brilliant man in England, his wife, Silvia, one of the most beautiful women anywhere. They were married because she was pregnant; Tietjens is almost certain she was pregnant by another man.

Silvia, according to her own mother, “hates her husband,” and, though she may have slept with a number of them, regards all men as “repulsive.” At the very beginning of the novel, Silvia has left Tietjens to go abroad with another man. She has been gone for four months when, one day at breakfast, Tietjens receives a letter from her asking, “without any contrition at all, to be taken back.” Asked by a friend, if he will do so, he replies simply, “I imagine so.” When his father asks him if they might divorce, he replies, with what today would be thought utter madness: “No! No one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce.”

Tietjen’s father may be the head of Groby, a baronial estate that for centuries has been part of the established order, but, though the youngest but one of his children, Christopher is the one who has that order, that sense of duty and obligation, in his bones. He does not read novels, because nothing worth reading has been written in England since the l8th century, “except by a woman.” An old woman who happens to be the mother of Valentine Wannop, a suffragette, a pacifist, and, in her twenties, a woman who still believes that somewhere, far away from the dismal necessities of men who “over-ate and neighed like stallions, there were bright colonies of beings, chaste, beautiful in thought, altruist and circumspect.”

Instead of the world she dreams of, the world she lives in has entered upon the Great War, a war Tietjens has predicted and which he believes will do nothing but bring “unnumbered deaths.” If he stays in England, he will be one of those planning and directing the war, and rather than do that, he will go to France as a soldier. His conscience will not let him use his “brain in the service,” but he has “a great hulking body,” which he is willing that his country should use. As he explains to Valentine, he has “nothing to live for: what I stand for isn’t any more in the world.” He is an idealist, and idealists “must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable.”

Tietjens tells her this, and more; he tells her that he will “put to you things I have put to no other human soul.” They are drawn to each other. Ford describes this in a way that makes you believe something like this was then really possible, and makes you wish that it still was: Valentine, he writes, had “beautiful inclinations toward Tietjens, for she could not regard it as anything more…” And Tietjens, she knows, has “beautiful inclinations toward her.” And still, underlying it all, is a passionate longing made all the more intense by the fact of its suppression. All Tietjens had to do was “approach her to make her feel as if her whole body was drawn toward him….The moon so draws the tides.” The word love was never mentioned; every word they spoke confessed it.

Tietjens has one night left before he goes to France. He asks Valentine to be his mistress, and she says yes. “But we didn’t. We agreed that we were the sort of persons who didn’t. I don’t know how we agreed. We never finished a sentence. Yet it was a passionate scene.” For Valentine, “abstention not only strengthened her in her predilection for chastity; it restored to her her image of the world as a place of virtues and endeavours.”

Tietjen’s wife, Silvia, is waiting for him when he comes home at two in the morning. He had “never been spoken to with such hatred.” Not because he had been unfaithful, but because he had not. She wanted him to sleep with Valentine, because that “might satisfy my affection for the girl…and feel physical desire for her….But she knew, without my speaking, that I had not….” Silvia threatened to ruin him, to drag his name “through the mud….I never spoke. I am damn good at not speaking. She struck me on the face and went away.”

Later, after suffering shell shock and losing, for a time, half his memory, he again goes to France, now certain that he will be killed. Before he goes, he has another scene with his wife, who blames him for everything that has happened.

“If you had once in our lives said to me: ‘You whore! You bitch!….May you rot in hell!….’ If you had only once said something like it…you might have done something to bring us together.” Worse than his failure to call her the names she deserved, which would at least have shown some real feeling for her, is his near perfect rectitude. He has never done a dishonorable thing in his life. In “the name of the Almighty, how could any woman live beside you…and be forever forgiven? Or no: not forgiven; ignored!”

In France, waiting for death, Tietjens tries to write down, to get straight in his no longer reliable mind, a clear account of what had happened. He has no doubt that he has developed "a sympathetic, but not violent attachment for Miss Wannop,” a feeling she returns. However, and this is a measure of how much the world has changed, “Neither Miss Wannop nor myself being persons to talk about the state of our feelings, we exchanged no confidences.” He saw Miss Wannop sometimes at his mother’s house or on social occasions. “No expressions of affection on the part of either of us ever passed. Not one. Ever.”

Shortly before he left for France this second time, Tietjens was walking along a railing above some tennis courts. For a few brief moments, he watched white clad players who look like “marionettes practising crucifixions.” And with those three words, Ford Madox Ford captures perfectly the scenes of slaughter in which millions, an entire generation, the best of England, did what those who held the strings of power told them to do, and in the fields of Flanders played their final deathlike game. Quite willing to be one of them, Christopher Tietjens somehow survives the war. What he and Valentine feel for each other survives as well, but nothing else is the way it was. Whether for the better or the worse is a question that, whatever you and I might think a hundred years later, Christopher Tietjens would not have had the slightest doubt how to answer.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Sarah Warburton

Sarah D. Warburton lives in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. For ten years she was the lead writer for the monthly magazine UpClose. She has studied writing with Pam Houston at the Taos Writers Workshop and with Justin Cronin in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Southern Arts Journal, Women on Writing, Embark Literary Magazine, and Oyster River Pages.

Warburton's first novel, Once Two Sisters, was a Publishers Weekly pick of the week, a Crimereads recommended debut, and a PopSugar featured title.

[My Book, The Movie: Once Two SistersQ&A with Sarah WarburtonThe Page 69 Test: Once Two Sisters]

Her new novel is You Can Never Tell.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Warburton's reply:
I always have a few books going at once. While I drink my morning coffee, I actually like to read culinary memoirs. Right now I’m rereading Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef's Journey to Discover America's New Melting-Pot Cuisine by Edward Lee. Each chapter takes Lee to a different part of the United States known for a (sometimes unexpected) immigrant cuisine. The writing is beautiful and it’s a luxury to travel vicariously. Lee’s also generous with his own personal story, so that it’s easy to understand why people open up to him. And he includes recipes at the end of each chapter that put his own personal spin on the food he’s experienced.

As a member of five book clubs, I’m always either reading or supposed to be reading a book for one of them. I listened to Being Mortal by Atul Gawande on audio, but have bought that one to read again and pass on. It’s the most uplifting book on a dark subject: how we’ve medicalized the experience of aging and what we do with the elderly. Gawande uses the personal stories of individual people to create the same kind of empathy novelists hope to inspire through their characters.

I’m almost done with One by One by Ruth Ware. This one is sheer fun for anyone who loves a locked room, Agatha Christie-style mystery. From the first page, we know four people won’t make it and as the avalanche comes and the power goes out, the tension builds. I’d actually been saving this one as a treat, and it’s delivering!

And while I’m saving Dream Girl as my next treat, I am reading Laura Lippman’s book of essays, My Life as a Villainess. Love her Tess Monaghan novels, love her stand-alones, love her Twitter feed, and I love these essays. Despite the difference between fiction and narrative nonfiction, I think there’s a recognizable voice throughout. Good reminder that you don't have to be nice and you don't have to be thin to like how you look. Smart, sometimes snarky, and so relatable.
Visit Sarah Warburton's website.

Q&A with Sarah Warburton.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Ellen Byron

Ellen Byron is the Agatha Award-winning author of the Cajun Country Mysteries. The USA Today bestselling series has also won multiple Best Humorous Mystery Lefty awards from the Left Coast Crime conference. She also writes The Catering Hall Mysteries (under the pen name Maria DiRico), and will launch the Vintage Cookbook Mysteries (as Ellen) in June 2022.

Byron’s TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Fairly OddParents. She’s written over 200 national magazine articles, and her published plays include the award-winning Graceland. She also worked as a cater-waiter for the legendary Martha Stewart, a credit she never tires of sharing.

A native New Yorker who attended Tulane University, Byron lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and rescue chi mix, Pogo. She still misses her hometown - and still drives like a New York cabbie.

Byron's new Cajun Country Mystery is Cajun Kiss of Death.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
The other day I found myself short on reading material, which is kind of ridiculous because I have tons of physical books in my house and e-books on my Kindle Fire. But I think I was propelled by the urge to do something denied to me during the pandemic – pay a visit to my local library and browse its shelves. As I scanned the books, I came across the Ian Rutledge series written by the mother-son duo that goes by the pseudonym Charles Todd. I adore historical mysteries. It may be my favorite genre. I read and loved the Todd’s series in the past because it features a British WW1 veteran-turned-Scotland Yard inspector who suffers from shell shock, which we now know as PTSD. I’m fascinated with WW1 because no matter how often someone tries to explain to me what triggered it, I don’t understand. I also have an odd fascination with trench warfare. (For the best description of that, I recommend Robert Graves’ autobiography, Goodbye to All That.)

Back to the Todds. I checked out their 2019 release, The Black Ascot. The title refers to the first Ascot horse races after the death of King Edward VII, when attendees all dressed in black from head to toe, eschewing their usual colorful outfits and chapeau. I’ve just begun the book, which revolves around a man who may or may not have committed a murder shortly after the Black Ascot, and then disappeared. Ten years later, Inspector Rutledge hears a rumor of a sighting and sets out to find the man and possibly absolve him of the charge. I’m in my happy place when I’m reading one of the Todd’s fine historical mysteries.
Visit Ellen Byron's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Ellen Byron & Wiley and Pogo.

Q&A with Ellen Byron.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Veronica Bond

Death in Castle Dark is Veronica Bond's first mystery in the Murder and a Mystery series; as Julia Buckley she writes several series for Berkley Prime Crime, including the best-selling Writer's Apprentice Series.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
This summer I have immersed myself in audiobooks, and though I love many of the mysteries written by men, I focused on female writers of the British Isles: specifically Elly Griffiths, Tana French, Denise Mina, and J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith. (Also Elizabeth George, though only her protagonist is English). I have plowed through the series of each writer, enjoying the threads that tie the various novels together.

Elly Griffiths won me over long ago with The Crossing Places, an atmospheric mystery set in the Salt Marshes on the English Coast. Griffiths makes great use of her setting while writing about the solitary Ruth Galloway, an archeologist called in by police to determine whether a body is the result of a modern murder or the displacement of ancient bones. Griffiths' recurring themes are the mystery of time, the notion of God and how people perceive, or disbelieve, in the existence of a higher power. One of Ruth's best friends is a Druid, while the police inspector she works with is a Catholic, and Ruth herself is an atheist. The mystery is compelling and beautifully written, and I have caught up with the series up to the latest book, The Night Hawks. I highly recommend that people read them in order.

Denise Mina writes the wonderful Alex Morrow police procedurals, which explore the gritty crime world of Scotland. Alex Morrow is tough and brave, yet vulnerable in unexpected ways. She is a hero worth rooting for, and I have done so through five books now, starting with Still Midnight. I also highly recommend Mina's novel Conviction, a standalone that is alternately horrifying and hilarious, thanks to the unforgettable narrator, a woman who begins by telling us that she has a past which has caught up with her.

Tana French was a late find for me, despite her popularity. Her writing is undeniably compelling and intelligent, as I found when I began with The Wych Elm and later with In the Woods. French draws readers in with a strong first-person narrator; in her Dublin Murder Squad series, this narrator changes from book to book. Each narrator has some compelling thing that drives him or her; in In the Woods, the detective who tells the story was himself a victim of a terrible crime that happened in his childhood; it resulted in the disappearance of two of his friends, and he has driven the trauma from his memory. The specter of this old mystery looms over his investigation of a new murder that brings him back to the place where his childhood terror occurred. French is brilliant with twists and cliffhangers and I anxiously await her next title.

I didn't expect to like the Richard Galbraith books, I'm not sure why, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I loved them. The character of Cormoran Strike, the one-legged private detective (formerly a military policeman) is quirky, loveable, and admirable despite his many bad habits. In the first book he meets a young woman sent by the temp agency. He can't afford her in his one-man operation, but he promises to pay for a week. The woman, Robin Ellicott, soon becomes indispensable to Strike, and the two make a wonderful and often funny duo. The murders are grisly, the motives dark, but Strike and Robin keep the books from unrelenting grimness with their ever-evolving relationship. I plowed through all five books in short order, starting with The Cuckoo's Calling.

I was also delighted by the books of Jane Casey, specifically the Maeve Kerrigan mysteries. Casey's protagonist is tough and ambitious, and though she is only "PC Kerrigan," she has been selected for an investigative team by a man she admires and she hopes to make a good impression in the first novel, The Burning. What I have come to love most about these gritty mysteries is the unexpected moments of humor, which come from the relationship between Maeve and her insufferable superior, DCI Josh Derwent.

Finally, when I ran out of books in those fine series, I decided to return to the Elizabeth George books I had read in the 90s. They hold up nicely thirty years later, still compelling and impeccably written. George delves into the details with a poetic gift for description, and her contrast of the sophisticated, Eton-educated Inspector Thomas Lynley with the working class, highly sensitive but smart as a whip Sergeant Barbara Havers is a brilliant pairing, one that becomes richer with time, and which often provides wonderful moments of humor in the novels. George is not tied to happy endings, but her themes are powerful and remain with the reader after the books are closed.
Visit Julia Buckley's website and follow Veronica Bond on Facebook.

Q&A with Julia Buckley.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Joe Clifford

After spending the 1990s as a homeless heroin addict in San Francisco, Joe Clifford got off the streets and turned his life around. He earned his MFA from Florida International University in 2008, before returning to the Bay Area, where he currently lives with his wife and two sons (Holden and Jackson Kerouac). His autobiographical novel, Junkie Love, chronicles his battle with drugs and was published by Battered Suitcase (2010). He is the author of the award-winning Jay Porter series, as well as several standalones including The One That Got Away, The Lakehouse, and the newly released The Shadow People.

Recently I asked Clifford about what he was reading. His reply:
I’m (almost) always reading more than one book. As I write this, I have just returned from vacation, where I finished three. I am starting a new one tonight. So it’s the rare time I’m technically not reading anything. (Give it an hour.)

You have to have been living under a rock not to have heard about Shawn Cosby, whose Blacktop Wasteland and now Razorblade Tears are taking the crime world by the lapels and shaking the shit out of it. I just finished the former, which was as advertised: amazing. I also just wrapped up Josh Mohr’s latest memoir, Model Citizen, which might be the best memoir I’ve read since Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight. Also: Hilary Davidson’s Her Last Breath (which I was able to score an ARC of!). I just bought Riley Sager’s Survive the Night. Riley is one of those authors I read immediately. So I’m glad I was able to finish the others before his new one dropped. Mary Kubica will have a new one out soon. And like Riley, she is an instant pick up, drop everything, and read. There are myriad other titles that I have downloaded and will occasionally read from, like a Day Keene pulp or Catcher in the Rye, Alice Cooper’s Golf Monster (I’m a huge golf fan, and like Alice, an ex-addict), stuff like that. Despite what the above list may imply, I’d say ninety percent of what I read these days are domestic suspense thrillers, primarily written by women. Shawn and Josh’s books were the first time I’ve read two books by men not in that specific genre in I can’t tell you how long. My go-to list is Mary, Wendy Walker, Hilary, Jennifer Hillier, Paula Hawkins, et al.
Visit Joe Clifford's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Lakehouse.

My Book, The Movie: The Lakehouse.

Q&A with Joe Clifford.

My Book, The Movie: The Shadow People.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 15, 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 Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon:
The unfortunate, if well-meaning, advice too often given to a new author is to write about what you know. It does not tell you how much you need to know or how you need to know it. Some things, important things, we learn by accident: the look of a girl passed on a street late one magical night in Manhattan, a girl we will never see again and, perhaps for that reason, will never forget. Some things we learn, or try to learn, on purpose. We go somewhere because it is the only place to discover what we think we have to find. It was the reason Hemingway went to Spain, to learn about bullfighting, something he thought he would hate but loved so much he wrote what is perhaps the greatest book ever written about it, Death in the Afternoon. The title itself seems to tell a story, four words that convey a sense of solitude and makes death seem an act of heroism and something to be proud of.

Hemingway was in his twenties, trying to write. He had been an American volunteer in the First World War, an ambulance driver in Italy. He was there, on the battlefield, whenever the fighting stopped, picking through dead bodies, looking for survivors. Death was all around him, but he did not yet know what he thought he needed to know.

“The greatest difficulty,” he insisted, “aside from knowing what you really feel, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.” He was trying to write, “trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all, and the most fundamental, is violent death.” He had seen death, but not life and death together, the moment when, suddenly, death, violent death, takes life away. The only place you could still see it, “now that the war was over, was in the bull ring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it.”

Death in the Afternoon is not a novel, but neither is it what normally is called a work of non-fiction. It is not even a memoir, an autobiography in which Hemingway tells stories about himself. It is a book about bullfighting, but only because of what bullfighting teaches, or used to teach, about death. Bullfighting, Hemingway is quick to tell us, is not what we tend to think it is: a sport, an equal contest, “or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man.” Bull fighting is a “tragedy,” certain death for the bull and danger, and possibly death, for the man. In an equal contest, all the advantage would be with the bull. This is why the matador has only fifteen minutes to work. Any longer than that and the bull, who learns rapidly, would learn to ignore the bullfighter’s attempts at deception. A bull who survives the bull ring is never allowed to fight again.

Hemingway introduces, from time to time, a woman - he calls her the “old woman” - with whom he carries on a frequently interrupted but never abandoned conversation in which she often asks questions about such things as the love life of the bulls. She is gratified to learn that while one bull is sufficient for fifty cows, a bull sometimes becomes so enamored of one in particular that the two of them try to wander off together, somewhere alone. Hemingway tells her that the best bull fights are held in Madrid and where the best places in the arena are to find a seat with an unobstructed view and at least partial protection from the blazing midday sun. With an expert’s eye he describes what makes a bullfighter great: the bravery, the calm indifference, when a thousand pound bull passes so close that “the horns almost touch, and sometimes do touch, his thighs while the bull’s shoulders touch his chest.”

In the 1920s, which were, in the judgment of many contemporaries, a period of decadence in bullfighting, Joselito, one of the greatest bullfighters Spain had ever seen, first arrived on the scene. He was attacked, as is usually the case, by those who admired the best known names of the time, “who fortunately all retired and at once became incomparable.” Watching Joselito, for Hemingway, was like “reading D’Artagnan when you were a boy.” The test, the real test, of a matador came with “his first severe horn wound,” because until then you cannot tell what his “permanent value will be.” Joselito was gored badly three times, and killed 1557 bulls. He was then gored a fourth time and died. Joselito is only one of the bullfighters Hemingway had watched closely. There was El Gallo, “a great bullfighter and the first one to admit fear,” and Manolo, who was refused police protection from the crowd on the reasonable ground that if he fought as well as he should he would not need it. Hemingway describes them all, and then, just when you have been drawn so closely into this misunderstood defiance of death that you begin to think yourself one of the bullfighters he describes, he tells you something about writing that reminds you how little you know.

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have the feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”

The drama of the bullfight comes in what is called the faena, the “sum of the work done by the matador with the muleta in the final third of the bullfight.” The muleta is a heart-shaped scarlet cloth folded over a tapered wooden stick with a sharp steel point used to perform a series of passes “of more or less aesthetic value with the bull,” the passes that bring the bullfighter and the bull closer and closer. The
first edition
complete, the perfect, faena makes you feel “immortal while it is proceeding,” a feeling “as profound as any religious ecstasy,” a feeling that builds with “the increasing disregard for death that leaves you, when it is over…as empty and as changed and as sad as any major emotion will leave you.”

The perfect faena is seldom achieved, but it is the standard for what should be looked for. It is, for Hemingway, the one indispensable thing, the one thing you should require of yourself: “to know what is good and what is bad, to appreciate the new but let nothing confuse your standards.”

The last chapter of Death in the Afternoon tells you what has not been written. “If I could have made this enough of a book it would have had everything in it.” It would have included the Prado, and the “bright Madrid summer morning; the bare white mud hills looking across toward Carabanchel; days on the train in August with the blinds pulled down on the side against the sun and the wind blowing them….” And then, at the very end, there is this: “The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.”

Death in the Afternoon is all about bullfighting, and it is not about bullfighting at all. It is about the meaning of courage and what it means to live and to die well. It is about remembering that, “It is easier to be stupid and naturally brave than to be exceedingly intelligent and still completely brave.” It is about the nobility of honorable lives.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: D.W. Buffa on The Great Gatsby

Third reading: D.W. Buffa on Brave New World.

Third reading: D.W. Buffa on Lord Jim.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Tracy Clark

Tracy Clark is the author of the highly acclaimed Chicago Mystery Series featuring ex-homicide cop turned PI Cassandra Raines, a hard-driving, African-American protagonist who works the mean streets of the Windy City dodging cops, cons, killers, and thugs. Clark received Anthony Award and Lefty Award nominations for her series debut, Broken Places, which was also shortlisted for the American Library Association’s RUSA Reading List, named a CrimeReads Best New PI Book of 2018, a Midwest Connections Pick, and a Library Journal Best Books of the Year. In addition to her Cass Raines novels, Clark’s short story “For Services Rendered,” appears in the anthology Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Authors. A native of Chicago, she works as an editor in the newspaper industry and roots for the Cubs, Sox, Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks equally.

Clark's new Cass Raines mystery is Runner.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I am lucky to be reading an advance copy of Death at Greenway, by the fabulous Lori Rader-Day. I love her writing. The strength of every sentence, the easy rhythms, her rock-solid plotlines. Awesome always.

Death at Greenway is a historical novel that is set at, get this, Agatha Christie’s estate, Greenway House! Okay, right off the bat, Lori’s got me. I cut my writing teeth on all things Agatha Christie, and how she artfully weaves the Great Lady into the story is absolutely captivating. We get sneaky little glimpses of Christie throughout -- she’s there, then she’s not, like a ghost, but her aura looms large over every page. It’s giddily fascinating.

The book takes place in England during WWII. Nurse Bridey Kelly has signed on to escort and then care for ten evacuated children fleeing from war-torn, bomb-ravaged London. The “vacs” are relocated to Christie’s estate in Devon, spitting distance from the English Channel. At wartime. With enemy planes flying overhead. Loaded with bombs. What? Wouldn’t have been my first choice for a safe refuge, but…

Bridey’s running away from some heavy stuff that happened in London that she’s keeping secret, and she’s hoping to redeem herself through her work at Greenway. But in true Christie fashion everybody at the estate has something to hide. All’s relatively well, the kids are settling in, until, bam, a body is found in the quay. He’s been murdered.

You’re never quite sure who’s on the up and up and who’s leading you down the proverbial garden path in Death at Greenway. I like that. In that, the book’s a great hat tip to Agatha Christie, who was the mistress of misdirection.

Rader-Day’s attention to detail, from the way the characters talk to what they wear and how they live, will transport you back to those frightening, turbulent times when the world was at war and nothing was certain, not even your next breath. You can feel the tension, the uncertainty as you follow Bridey through a maze of intrigue and murky motivations, as you wait for the other shoe to drop.

And then there’s “the death” at Greenway. You can’t forget that. Somebody killed that poor guy. Sounds like the perfect case for Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple, but Lori had other ideas.
Visit Tracy Clark's website.

Q&A with Tracy Clark.

My Book, The Movie: What You Don’t See.

--Marshal Zeringue

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.
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--Marshal Zeringue