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.

 

The Pitch: It’s a Bitch

Like most writers, I’d rather be writing stories—lost in images, worlds, words, characters and their conflicts—instead of pitching my work.

We’re pitching all the time, aren’t we? We pitch to agents, publishers and readers.  Our query letters are pitches; we develop an “elevator pitch” to answer the question, “What’s your book about?” Then, when our book or story is published, we’re pitching to everybody who can get our work into the world. We pitch to bloggers, book reviewers, sponsors of literary events, podcasters, and even fellow writers who may have a yet unthought-of entity to pitch to. We pitch our damned brains out.

I hate it, and every other writer I know hates it too. We are artists, not salespeople. But it’s a built-in conundrum: Part of what makes us artists is we feel we can express something through craft and resonate with others. We don’t write in a vacuum, we crave that resonance. We want to send beauty and thought and feeling into the world; we think we can do it in a unique way and need others to see it. It’s why we write: to touch others, but ain’t gonna happen without the pitch. Lots of them.

I came to writing late in life and chafe against pitching as much as anybody, but why am I surprised at having to pitch? Haven’t I been doing it all my life?

To begin with, I’m a second-born. For all you non-first borns, you know what that means, don’t you? It means competing for attention from minute-one—to have my picture taken too; be first at the ice cream; to establish my own identity…in short, searching for the spotlight. And how is that done? Strategies vary, but in a world in which we or our writing aren’t ipso facto recognized, (“My oldest’s birthday is September 22nd; Lanny’s is sometime in the summer”), we found a way to do it. Been tap dancing all our lives.

We pitch to the colleges to gain entry; we pitch to professors for an A instead of a B; we pitch to employers to hire us; we pitch to bosses to buy our program; we pitch woo to the opposite sex; we pitch ethics to our kids…it never stops. Then, some day, we’ll be facing the grim reaper. You know what that means, don’t you? About Kubler-Ross? The “bargaining” phase? You got it: Another pitch.

So relax into it. You’re an artist. Get your work out there. Pitch whoever can help do that, then pitch some more. Make your query as good as you can; pitch at conferences; pitch your friends for reviews. But don’t be boorish about it. Stop now and then and exhale, maybe have a drink, kiss your kids or your dog or cat. Don’t let the need to pitch feel so onerous, because friend, if you’re reading this at all, if you got this far in your life, you’re already good at it.

Lanny Larcinese

Noir Fiction: Why I Love It

I love noir fiction and movies. So do millions of others. Why is that?

For me, it’s clear: Noir comes closer than any other genre to capturing the human condition. You won’t find superheroes in noir, and redemption only occurs by the cubic centimeter. When it does, it’s more likely that bad intentions get their comeuppance than a person changed for the better and now doing good for humanity. What would you expect from stories populated by damaged protagonists, femmes fatales, and enough double-crosses to line the Appian Way?

The noir protagonist is usually a put-upon person. He likely emanates from an environment that robbed much of his hope, perhaps done in by poverty, war, prison, trauma, booze or drugs or being jilted, and reckons he deserves better. He’s different from your basic bad guy. He still has a glimmer of goodness and believes someday, after his ship comes in, he’ll get himself on the right track. Meanwhile, he’s on the wrong track, so every station he goes by is the wrong station. He doesn’t see things through a moral prism; he comes from hunger. He may not even know what he’s hungry for. It’s why he’s vulnerable to the double-cross and the femme fatale. He gets outwitted; he is like a puppy in traffic and why we pull for him despite his flaws.

The most interesting relationship in noir fiction is between the protagonist and the femme fatale. What man cannot understand the magnetism of a beautiful woman? What woman cannot understand that in a world where institutions are run by men, most of whom are also physically stronger, you use everything you got? Neither the femme fatale nor her unwitting victim is a good person.  Each uses the other for nefarious ends. They are in a dance like the mating of praying mantises: You may get her, but better take wing before you lose your head; she’ll have it digested before you notice your body stops at the neck. So character flaws and their consequences propel noir stories. They tell us less how to be than how not to be; they are less morality tale than lay open the human soul to expose desire, need, unfairness, and powerlessness.

It’s said that sci-fi monster movies and books of the 40s & 50s were an artistic response to the public’s inchoate fears of nuclear annihilation. I speculate the current popularity of noir may derive in part from anxieties caused by the explosion of social media—a phenomenon with which we have yet learned to cope, given its unleashing of raw hostility and unfettered antagonisms. Noir may well be a response to our nihilistic fears, thirst for redemption, and tribal comfort through privity to alienated and alienating lives—in other words, misery loves company. As a writer of crime fiction, I have always taken a cue from Faulkner: “The work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Noir gives you a double feature: two hearts in conflict—each with itself as well as another.

Lanny Larcinese

Writing Characters II – Lacunas

In early November I posted an essay on my website (lannylarcinese.com) about my preference for “character driven” fiction – the deeper the revelation of character, the better. Of course, the writer reveals those insights by the spoonful and more artistic fashion than simply bopping around the character’s head in dense, interminable passages.

Along these lines, Faulkner provides a beacon: The work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself. Such stuff is different from the more typical motives of survival, justice, or mere misguidance. I am a crime fiction writer because crime is the most recognizable and dramatic manifestation of mental and/or social and/or character disorder.

Many crime stories tell us something about the protagonists and antagonists, usually to establish motive. Often, as with noir, characters’ bleak backgrounds may cause their world-view to devolve into cynical actions or sketchy relationships. In many procedurals, the protagonist’s character may actually be enhanced by transcending the bleak aspects of his background – drug abuse, alcoholism, or cynicism caused by too much street life – and lead to uplifting or at least satisfying actions, like taking out the bad guy to save society.

In literary fiction, about which some say, “not much happens but a lot goes on,” the plot may well be the character’s journey from one state to another, e.g., an epiphany or a reconciliation. Such writing serves Faulkner’s dictum well. But for those of us who like action beyond the inner landscape, we crave character insights wedded to significant external events, e.g., where loss of life, limb, or loved ones are at stake.

I strive to get beyond the character flaw tropes of alcoholism/drug abuse/deprivation, etc. In deference to Faulkner, I think about spaces a lot. That is the fictional garden I like to traipse and to me, the most fascinating aspects of the human condition. Examples: the space between want and need; between feelings of tribalism (which have survival value) and altruism (also has survival value); between anger and civility; between faithfulness and lust for others; between what we feel and how we act; between orthodoxy and flexibility; between self-image vs. from others; between laws and mores, etc. Each of these lacunas is fodder for conflict. They may exist within a single character or among many characters and are especially effective when they collide. No matter how such conflict is deployed, sparks will ensue.

The first draft of my novel, Dear Dad, They’re Dead (out fall of 2019 from Intrigue Publications) began as a vivid image of two high school boys having a rumble behind the gym. One pulls out an ice pick; the other, with lightning hand speed, snatches it from him and stabs him in the trachea with it. It was so compelling that I had to write it down. But at the keyboard, I asked myself, “Why were they there? What are their back stories? What would cause two boys to do this?” Like the Big Bang of a singularity and no small amount of dedication to learning craft, it evolved into an 85,000 word novel. It developed that both were nice boys who grew into good men, in fact became best friends. The story is about, among other things, the gaps between their initial circumstances as individuals and ultimate destiny, and the states of mind and bridging of gaps which let it happen.

Lacuna, it’s such a great word and opens so many story doors.

 

Review: Patient Zero by Todd Harra

Todd Harra has written a compelling techno-thriller with an optimum blend of mystery, terrorism, bureaucracy, interesting characters and science (mostly pathology & anatomy, but who knew odors have mass?) Also, given Harra’s background as a fourth generation funeral director, he provides enough dead-body stuff enough to satisfy curiosity & ease anxiety without overly dwelling on the mortician’s arts. The tone of such passages, like the comforting demeanor of those whose jobs are to deliver a modicum of calm to the grief-stricken, is informative but soothing.

The plot involves the mysterious appearance of the shigella bacterium (or is it a virus?) and a spate of bodies the custody and usual processing of which are mysteriously co-opted by government spooks.

Who are their agencies? Why are they doing this? And what in the hell is causing the shigella epidemic? Those and other questions fall into the wheelhouse of Tripp “Clip” Clipper, ex-Ranger combat medic and current funeral director, and whose particular combination of skills and temperament uniquely qualify him to delve into the mystery. He is also lover to Maggie, a pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. She lives in the apartment above Clip’s family funeral home.

As investigation proceeds and ever-increasing danger shadows Clip and those close to him, the stakes go up, culminating in Clip being shanghaied into a casket meant for a dead shigella victim & dumped into the shark-infested drink off the coast of South Carolina. (I won’t mention what happens to Maggie.) The scene is as tense as Lawrence Olivier’s Dr. Szell asking Dustin Hoffman’s Thomas Levy, “Is is safe?” However, a door opens to Tripp’s survival, only to expose him to yet more risk as he continues trying to uncover the cause of the outbreak poisoning Charleston and possibly more of the U.S.

The book’s characters are varied and blessedly human—vs. boring superheroes—yet likable. As thrillers go, Patient Zero is a four-star endeavor, and this reviewer expects readers will look forward to Clip’s release—or escape—from Witness Protection. Trouble always attracts worthy adversaries and readers will find Clip up to the job.

We hope there is a sequel.