To we who are elderly

To we who are elderly, let’s neither avoid nor swim in the times of our youth long gone. We are not decrepit versions of then, rather we wear different costumes of wrinkled skin, generous girths, and the unblinking stare of knowing nothing is new. We are comprised of both then and now.

I know some to whom it’s painful that they are no longer young. Not me. I am friends with that young self. I am still amused at the callowness of my youth, so jejeune, a time when all things seemed possible, when the jadedness of older folks made them self-limiting; when love and achievement and something spectacular might occur the very next day, the very next handshake, the very next smile; when nobody could tell me I couldn’t.

Then, middle age happened, and reality impinged on unbounded confidence and hope. So, life, after all, is a bit of a slog, where persistence, experience, and effort had more currency than raw energy and optimism. Yet, that, too, was a wonderful time, one in which self-measures were tested and sanded by competition and fate and pain built muscle; one in which being grounded meant standing in dirt instead of clouds. Building happened—family, children, careers, financial security (if that was to be), and the importance of grasping hands reaching up from the abyss.

After all that, we finally find ourselves at the head of the table. Solid and secure, we have nothing left to prove and much to give. We see those directly behind us who will soon enough take our place. They are good and strong and up to the task, and in many ways, better than we, if not a tad more to learn. Their presence gives us peace. We wear well their regard and respect; they have been privy to our race and seen us to the finish line.

The sixteenth century printer and book seller Henri Estienne said, “If youth but knew, if age but could.” I don’t know the circumstances or context in which he said those words, but it must have been more toward the end of his life than the beginning. How else could he have known?

Writing Can be Crafty

I suspect much of the reason that I, like many writers, need editing is because the act of writing and telling a story is such an immersive, mental experience. As we write, we exquisitely picture our characters, their demeanors, their states of mind and their tones as they speak and react to others. We picture their surroundings in minute detail—every rose bush, crack in the sidewalk or reflection in a pane of glass—and know what or who is around the corner. At the same time, we are aware that all those writerly pixels may or may not work in service of the story. Too much bogs down the action; too little sacrifices the visual experience which brings the reader into the story and identification with the character. The “fresh eyes” of an editor or knowledgeable beta reader are of great assistance in determining the optimum balance of detail vs. action, (i.e., as adjusted for the writer’s awareness of the editor’s or reader’s own literary values.)

Speaking of fresh eyes, ever notice how vicious we can be editing our own work after it’s been in a drawer for a while? “How in the hell did I write that? Strike it!” “Nobody cares how much research I did! Delete.” “This dialogue is going nowhere. Expunge.” Why didn’t we know those things at first blush? (See pgh. 1).

When I decided to write fiction, I carefully read all the well-known “how-to” books. I still have about four feet of shelf space filled with them. Yet, the best writing advice I ever got was, “Just write your damned book.” The how-to books described the elements of storytelling, but like most advice, were struck dumb by the question, “Well, yeah, but how do I do that?” Similarly, I imagine a primer on painting would say: “This is a brush, this is a canvas, these are paints, here’s a color wheel, apply paint to canvas.”

Now what?

My latest endeavor in pursuit of craft is to take a cue from the great Philadelphia architect, Louis Kahn, aka, the brick whisperer. “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ And you say to brick, ‘Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.’ And then you say: ‘What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says: ‘I like an arch.'”

Applied to us, the anecdote suggests we should not only tell our stories but listen to them. Ask as we are writing, “What do you want, story?” (We know the story bricks—stakes, tension, rising action, obstacles, mystery, etc.) If we truly let the story talk to us, it will say, “I want tension,” and we will say, “Yes, but this description is beautiful writing,” and it will say, “I want tension.”

Only then, when we acutely listen to the story, will we be able to strike, delete, or expunge as needed and do much of the editor’s job before it gets to her desk. And, for those of us gentle of spirit, it’s far less violent than to “kill your darlings.”

Lanny Larcinese

Book Review: In Things Unseen by Gar Anthony Haywood

After you’ve closed the covers on a book and still feel it two days later, you’ve been privy to something special. If you’re still thinking about it by the third day, you’ve been exposed to compelling questions. And when you talk about it ceaselessly with friends, you’ve been seriously privileged.

In Things Unseen by Gar Anthony Haywood is such a book. But don’t expect his usual award-winning crime output, think instead of a work of literature with both horizontal and vertical layers. The horizontal layers are story stuff—mystery, conflict, and stakes; the vertical tiers are epistemology (how do we know what we know?), the consequences of faith or lack thereof, and what to make of the unknowable. However, it is not a religious screed or polemic. Instead, it frames its questions and issues within, and as a byproduct of an engrossing story.

The book’s premise has a ghost-story vibe but with deeper, delicious complexity. A child is killed in an accident and suddenly reappears as if nothing happened, and only four people remember his death from the accident. All traces of it—news coverage, physical features of the place it occurred, his funeral, his grave, his surroundings, and everyone who knew him have no idea the accident ever occurred, as if time was backspaced and memories erased, allowing the accident and earthly changes following it to be re-written or continued as if never occurred. The book plunges immediately into the story within the first few pages when the boy, Adrian, comes into his normal classroom and causes his teacher to act out in panic, questioning her own reality. She is one of the four who knew about his death, yet here he is. The others are his parents and the man who lost control of his car that killed the boy.

The mother was the first to recognize the miracle, and fears anything less than full-throated acceptance may be tantamount to questioning God’s grace and thereby undo it. Gradually the father also accepts it, and later, the driver of the injurious car. However, the teacher, whose hysterical response upon seeing Adrian in the classroom caused her suspension and probable end of her career, does not cotton to miracles. She is an atheist and has concluded a fraud by the parents is afoot. The story proceeds propulsively as the parties contend with their secret knowledge and consequences of public perception if discovered, while a reporter and the teacher attempt to uncover the nature of what really happened, the revised history, and apparently stunning resurrection.

The prose is clean with just enough writerly flourishes to clue the reader he/she’s reading a skilled novelist versus a newspaper account. E.g., “she smiled a small flag of surrender,” “the bitter aftertaste of failure,” “mining the business of others for her own entertainment,“ etc. Changing points of view among characters are deftly handled. I liked the short chapters. Sub-plots, stakes, suspense, and mystery reveal a sure-handed author. Those features alone will grip the reader, yet the book offers so much more.

The deeper layers add a mélange of thought to the entertaining plot: Is there such a thing as a god? If so, how does God express his will? Given that one may believe so, does God intervene in human affairs? Sometimes? Never? How? What is grace? Do miracles exist, or only inexplicability, the answers to which may someday be discovered but meanwhile no more mysterious than some inchoate “god.”

There were a few lapses, almost quibbles; nor do they detract from the story or intellectual challenges between the lines: A dialogue between the father and a co-worker was uncharacteristically a little tell-y, albeit only one page; a typo of antenna vs. antennas or antennae; I would have liked the rabbi, a minor character introduced late in the book, to have been foreshadowed.

“The mighty novel” is called that in part because of the thought it requires, by which I mean that plot, sub-plots, characterizations, and other elements must be thoroughly thought through for plausibility that makes sense, not lead to dead-ends, and without raising more questions than they resolve. This author clearly has given deep thought to thorny, philosophical issues, as well as the basis on which they could be challenged. I liken it to a lawyer cross-examiner who must know in advance what the witness will say, where assertions might be inconsistent and how to counter them, and how to frame the questions to result in suitable answers. In Things Unseen is, indeed, rendered in such masterly fashion.

To conclude, Gar Anthony Haywood’s In Things Unseen is a well-written, wonderful and tense drama with enough food for thought to keep the reader’s mental motors going long after the covers are closed. It has already led to spirited discussions between me and friends. This book is why book clubs were created. It would also make a marvelous movie.

Five stars to author Gar Anthony Haywood.

Thanksgiving 1981 – The Loneliest Day Of My Life

It is my first holiday alone, following a breakup with the woman for whom I moved east from Chicago. I have no family nearby. All our friends are hers.

Anxiety becomes acute as night descends, it’s the time we would have been celebrating with family and friends and I have not yet mastered being on my own. But I am a serious runner, so I put on my shoes and a long-sleeve T and head out for a twelve-mile run.

It is late-November-chilly with a steady rain. The civic Christmas decorations are already up but the streets barren — not even a Hopperesque solo passenger in a well-lit bus or a forsaken druggie in a dark doorway to assuage my feeling of isolation. As I pass the festooned display windows of the downtown department stores, even the attractive, well-dressed mannequins mock the splashing footfalls of my saturated New Balance shoes. But I press on, determined.

I round the Philadelphia Museum of Art (think Rocky steps) and enter Fairmount Park’s East River Drive — breathing is rhythmic, pace is steady and almost effortless. Man, it’s dark, and what began as a steady rain becomes a heavy downpour. I can’t even see the Schuylkill River adjacent to the sidewalk, and the usually busy East River Drive is empty of traffic. I feel like the lone occupant of the huge park. Still, I press on.

Finally, in the distance, I see headlights. My feelings shift from loneliness to mere aloneness, and my spirits begin an ascent from the cellar. But as the car passes, it inundates me with a tsunami of freezing, filthy, oil-mixed water splashed from the roadside. I must stop and clear my vision, but in that moment, that very moment, my flimsy façade of self-reliance suddenly dissolves to reveal the throbbing of my aching heart and desperate loneliness.

Still, I run, and complete the loop, and refuse to rage against cold wet darkness and hostile world. More importantly, I find a way to forgive her. It helps me to let go. It helps me see that I am the author of my own story. It helps me to heal.

The night becomes more than frigid wetness and unalloyed misery; Thanksgiving, 1981 is my baptism into a life of emotional discernment and the tenderness of vulnerability.

To this day, I am grateful for it.

Review: The Borderland Between Worlds by Ayesha F. Hamid

Hamid was a child of six when her family emigrated from Karachi, Pakistan, and came to the U.S.

Her memoir, The Borderland Between Worlds, is a tale of alienation deriving from cultural imperatives, socio-economic class conflict, parents vs. children, between friends, and ultimately, the self. Even the self-alienation has permutations. Shall I live within my own values, or conform to others? Dress for myself, or for others? Live for myself, or for others? What, really, do I feel? Though such dilemmas are common among first-generation immigrants, Hamid’s temperament, best described as, “Beware, nothing is certain, and the end is always near,” exacerbates and sculpts typical immigrant, adolescent, and gender conflicts into high relief.

Written in a clean, spare style that doesn’t intrude on the tale of navigating psychic and emotional conflicts arising from culture clash, it is intimate and candid without being self-pitying. I read the book’s 132 pages in a single sitting—not simply because of its clear exposition, but because I liked this person and wanted to see how she extricated herself from the obstacles in her young life. She turned them into challenges, and while her difficulties sometimes caused her to flag, she pushed through, relying mainly on a love of learning and formal education. (That, all by itself, can set one apart from less driven peers.) Throughout the book, you are cheering for this girl and later, woman, whose character prevails over pain and despair, yet not without battle scars—which is why many memoirs are written.

Hamid is generous regarding the U.S., deferring to its diverse culture and the difficulties presented by a free, capitalistic society, and worlds different from the paternalistic, highly controlling orientation of her parents. Though I expected it, she never mentions, or at least doesn’t dwell on, anti-Muslim prejudice. Given that much of the story is post 9/11/2001, I found it unusual that she didn’t experience the hostility, or if she did, it didn’t impact her, of if it did, she didn’t discuss it. On the other hand, she and her family come off as secular, their Pakistani cultural values and traditions more dominant than any religious expression.

Memoir is typically written with many things in mind. Among others, they include catharsis through conjuring emotional memory in order to re-experience it and apply a more mature, retroactive perspective; or to even scores for long ago injustices; or for posterity; or to connect with an earlier self, resulting in the sense of life as continuum; or to teach; or out of love of writing; etc. No matter its provenance, the reader of memoir is treated to intimacy with a real, actual life. Connection is the reason we read, and the good writer succeeds at creating it.

I have only a few minor quibbles about the book. In one passage, relating an incident of a family illness when the author was a small child in Karachi, a point of view slip occurs, i.e., conversation and actions are described that defy belief they could have been directly witnessed and remembered in such detail by the author. It in no way undermines the rest of the story, which takes place within the author’s direct experience or ken.

Also, there are a few words that eluded the editor’s eye—amuck vs. amok, click vs. clique, peaked vs. piqued, and a few others. Such errors are not unusual in a lengthy writing, and here, only minimally interrupt the story being told. Nor do they diminish the charm of the author’s candid disclosures of her emotional vulnerabilities. Considering one of the author’s double majors was French, and who read Proust in the original, she may smack herself in the forehead to learn of these. As a man who speaks one language versus the author’s three (that we know of), the reader is well served to give these minor lapses a mulligan.

This book should be read by everyone between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, as well as those seeking acquaintance with a strong and intelligent woman, extremely likable person, and fine writer.

Well done, Ms. Hamid

Lanny Larcinese 9/22/2020

August 21, 2020

I turned 77 last week. To some, that’s old. To me, it’s getting there. It comes with many strange sensations, one of which is a feeling of satisfaction at having managed, sometimes conquered, the numerous vicissitudes of a long life.

Speaking of long, there is also a sense of the long view, of having seen it before. If it’s good, savor it, it’s ephemeral; if it’s bad, this too shall pass.

And people have come and gone through death, estrangement, or the inertia of our respective attempts to thrive or at least survive. Every one of them has been an inspiration, and I would not dismiss a single encounter from my memory’s relationship pantheon.

Then there’s grace, the stuff of good fortune even though we may not merit it. I’ve had enough for a hundred men.

And, of course, regrets. As the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Sinatra, said, “I’ve had a few, too few to mention.” But see “grace” (supra).

Yet, no room for smugness. Anything can happen. Stay poised for it; stay resilient, and no matter what, remember the grace.

Review: Shamus Dust by Janet Roger

The plaudits Janet Roger’s Shamus Dust have received are well-deserved, not the least of which are its world-building of 1947 London, classical noir chops, excellent plotting, sly class observations, and admixture of American and British voices. But unlike some reviewers and readers, this writer loves beautifully deployed language, by which I mean breezy yet eloquent, poetically rhythmic and wielded with strong command. Think Cole Porter.

Shamus Dust is, among many other things, a noir murder mystery with more than a hat-tip to classic Chandler—more a deep curtsy—yet a testimonial to the saw, “all stories have been told, different only in the manner by which they are told.”

“The silhouette of a single-engine Lysander skimmed a fret of trees, silent as a gull clipping wavetops, crossed the Oxford road close to stalling and floated weightless out of a sky dripping starlight. It yawed and dipped over a frozen swell of Quonset huts at the airfield perimeter, adjusted its trim and for a long moment let you hear the whisper of its motor, then glided in over a curling ground mist. It kissed the strip twice lightly…”

As we might say in the States, does that put you in the scene or what? It’s an example of writerliness that for me, renders story telling in a strong voice and with deftness. Some readers may prefer crime writing in thriller style—spare, a lot of white space to the page and the forward motion of a dragster, a la Elmore Leonard. Some say of literary writing that not much happens but there’s a lot going on. Shamus Dust gives you both the beauty of language as well as forward motion, maybe not a Ferarri that gets you there fast, but sure-footed and elegant, a well-crafted vehicle beautiful to be in and gets you there just the same.

Who inspires you most?

As originally appeared on the blog, Locks, Hooks & Books on January 14, 2020

This is the simplest question yet the most perplexing. I really needed to sit back and think about it. My answer: No one person, but artists in general. They are people dedicated, indeed compelled, to sift their experience through their aspiration for beauty and wisdom, reconfigure physical stuff or words or images or other display in astonishing ways, and present it to the world. Though undervalued, at least in our society, it is their imagination, their selfless persistence that makes our lives worth living. It is not merely “entertainment” (though it can be that), it is wisdom presented in an aesthetic way, a uniquely human search for beauty that informs us all as to what and how we should be and relate to the world. Art, is, indeed, the highest parts of ourselves.

My long-time mate is an accomplished painter, currently interested in ceramics (she likes to paint “big” and her house can’t accommodate the size canvasses she prefers.) As a mostly abstract painter, it came as no surprise to see her ceramics work: no pots or dishes for her, rather strange configurations of multiple hands clasping, or a forest of sticks the size of rulers all glazed differently, some like twisted pretzels ascending out of a base like frozen, colored lightning strikes. Who thinks that way? Who looks at lumps of clay and sees those shapes? But her work meets my simple definition of art: if you want to keep looking at it, hearing it, or reading it and it resonates with both mind and heart, it’s art.

As a writer, to be sure, good story-telling demands a mastery of craft; yet, sometimes after writing a sentence or paragraph, I revel in front of my keyboard that in the entire history of people on earth, nobody, not once, ever, configured that sequence of words or images or rhythm as I just did.

So yeah, art. It inspires me. And the people who do it are gifts to my life.

Writing Love and Sex Scenes in Crime Novels

This essay first appeared on the blog, The Phantom Paragrapher on January 13, 2020.

Who cannot be aware of the well-deserved ruckus concerning cultural appropriation? It is no longer acceptable to ape features or stereotypes of another gender, race, ethnicity, or any demographic we do not personally occupy. Each such group in its own way has been culturally, economically, or otherwise deprived, and now demands its place in the sun.

What is the fiction writer to do? We create all kinds of characters, and though it is wise to consider submitting certain of our work to “sensitivity readers,” some of us are loath to do that for a variety of reasons, mine being I don’t want anybody besides a professional editor telling me how to write. Yet, there is peril.

My own response is to write characters within the confines of universal responses and feelings. It’s safe to say we all feel threatened when our lives are in danger or to be robbed; or we all want our children to do well; or we want earn a good living, be independent, etc. Eighty percent of what we are is universally shared. But there also are responses to events or images or representations unique to certain classes of people different from the one I occupy.

Take women. I as a man don’t know the kind of vulnerability women must feel knowing that half of the world’s population could physically overpower them if it wanted and not constrained; or as a black person what it’s like to be followed around a store on the assumption I am suspect, as they commonly experience. So, of course there are matters which groups are sensitive to and must be respected in our depictions.

The once-rigid silos our respective groups occupied have evolved into cyclone fences: They still contain us but make us more visible to one another. If I as a white male write a female character through the sole prism of my masculinity, I may distort the presentation of her, whereupon my story’s verisimilitude for female readers goes poof. On the other hand, I can no more suspend my male-ness and have every right to possess and express it as she her female-ness. Nor do I want to try to become female. I couldn’t do it with any honesty. The obvious answer is to hear her hopes, fears, aspirations and respect them and her. On the other hand, what do I, as a male writer, do with the bad boy-as-lust-object phenomenon which makes no damned sense to me? Writing sex is no less complicated than real life sex.

Then how do I write a heterosexual love scene? Submit it to a female sensitivity reader to make sure I got her part right? What then happens to the exquisite dance of fantasy, power, control and submission integral to real life sex? In real life, those things get acted out in subtle ways which sexual partners make known and accede to, even crave. When asked if sex was dirty, Woody Allen said, “If you’re doing it right.” What does that mean to a woman? Sex at midnight on the Spanish Steps in Rome? And when? Always? Sometimes? What does it mean to men? Silly costumes?

Death in the Family contains three passages involving sex. Each is different. One is a power play; one is lovemaking; one is lustful. The story is written in the first person, its protagonist, Donny Lentini. In writing each scene I was ultimately guided by the scene’s purpose and motivations of the couple. I was also aware that just as there is no one way to do sex, there is no one way to write it. Further, I gave up on the idea that anything I’ve read or heard or discussed about women’s sexuality and constellation of feelings surrounding love, lust, and sex would enable me to, as Woody Allen suggested, do it right. I had no choice but to write those scenes as a man and hope that my deep respect for women and Donny’s respect and need and love for Pepper would render the writing true. I also can’t deny, it was kicks writing them. You don’t write a scene without visualizing the action and breaking it down second by second and act by act as if under a strobe light.

In my novel, I Detest All My Sins, the sex was not between two consenting lovers, but violent, perverse, controlling, unwanted, and by a despicable character written for the reader to hate. It is a case in point regarding my argument about (some) sensitivity readers. Bad guy Deadly Eddie Matthews takes a woman captive and sexually abuses her. Although thoroughly distasteful, it was written to establish a moral lesson concerning justice, power, and righteous vengeance. In many ways, writing wrong sex is easier than writing right sex. In that book, the female character metes out vengeance in an especially delicious way.

And a final consideration: No two people are alike and they change from moment to moment, depending on the stimulus. Life is dynamic that way. A sex scene in a crime novel is a snapshot of two characters under specific circumstances in a particular moment in time.

If the writer’s heart and mind are in the right place to begin with, he is much more apt to get the scene right.

Writing Characters III

All writers have their own process. Mine begins with character(s). They present early on. I pay no mind to back-story, physical characteristics, or even their role at this initial stage; rather, I contemplate how their emotional construct impels their actions. Writers recognize this as: What does the character need? What motivates him?

Where I part company with some is to require a refined sense of what that need is. Saving the world, getting vengeance, finding love, etc. arise from a constellation of experiences and mental, emotional, and often cultural constructs before emerging. For example, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” There is a lot of back-story packed into that Big Bang of an opening line from “Pride and Prejudice,” such that it led to attitudes, feelings, assessments, strategies and inter-character dynamics unfolding throughout the entire, fascinating novel.

I am not referring to the best way to reveal or mete out characters’ motivations; I am saying I need to comprehend the underlying geology before I can explain a volcano’s eruption.

When I created Eddie Matthews, the despicable bad guy in “I Detest All My Sins,” I wanted to humanize him, so gave him a violent childhood. But it wasn’t enough to confer complex emotional depth beyond expected anger and violence. He wants his captive, Louise, to want him emotionally and sexually. He’s more than willing to handcuff her in a closet and abuse her in the meantime, yet he still longs for her. He’s by no means sympathetic; he’s otherwise self-serving, evil as hell, and a little ego parading as a big ego. But who can’t identify with feelings of longing? It contributed to the favorable Kirkus review of the book, including the remark, “…there’s an appealing neatness to the author’s careful psychological studies.”

            The more clarity we possess regarding our own inner landscape, the easier to project it onto our fictional characters; yet not simple. We have defenses, ways of rationalizing unpleasant events and feelings about ourselves that may arise from them. I’m no shrink, but I frequently pause at the keyboard, lean back, and conjure my own history before I can imbue it into a fictional character. Perhaps this is why writing is often cathartic.

I am fascinated by training in method acting, i.e., techniques to access long-ago emotions locked in a closet out of self-protectiveness for use on the stage—crying real tears when the scene calls for it—then putting the grief back into the closet when the klieg lights go off. There, the actor isn’t “acting” per se, but in that and other moments “becomes” the character.

Finally, not everybody needs to plumb depths of their own psyches to create fascinating, complex characters. Some have great radar or are blessed with intuitive understandings of psycho-dynamics. Me? I need to dig within myself. I need to access feelings of fear, longing, love, hate, frustration—the panoply of emotions attendant to being human—and bring them to the surface, examine them from all angles, recall what they meant to my life and how I reacted for better or for worse, and what the consequences were.

Once I do that in me, I can put it in a book.