Monday, August 19, 2019

Book Report: Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Annamaria on Monday

I have a penchant for re-reading books by my favorite authors.  This past week I started in on the the too-long-neglected early works of one of my absolute all-time favorites, Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut in my house

I began with his debut novel: Player Piano, published in 1952.  I found it more delightful, more inspiring, and mirabile dictu, more prescient than it was when I first read it in 1964.

The setting is what was then imagined to be the near future, a dystopian America, where machines have displaced just about the entire workforce, except the engineers and managers.  The story follows two central characters: Dr. Paul Proteus, a top engineer who develops doubts about the dehumanized society men of his ilk have created and the Shah if Bratpuhr, spiritual leader of six million in an imaginary country.  Who would have thought then how a Middle Eastern potentate in a story would resonate as he does today?

By Vonnegut's own admission, he "cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We."  He was disteressed when reviewers called the book "science fiction," a genre he felt was "shoved into drawer which most reviewers regularly mistake...for a urinal."  That rule of thumb to the contrary not withstanding, the book got some great reviews.  It was nominated for, but evidently did not win, the International Fantasy award in 1953.

For me, it is amazingly relevant to our times. Look carefully at the first edition cover above.  "America in the Coming Age of Electronics" it says.  The domination of the world by electronics was not on most people's radar sixty-seven years ago.  Today talk shows and podcasts regularly discuss the dehumanizing  effects of people staring screens all day long. But in the 1950s, so soon after WWII, mass proaction was seen as an unalloyed blessing, considering that the might of US manufacturing had won the war for the Allies.
Vonnegut's  story is prescient in other ways too.  My favorite this time around is his portrayal of the President of the United States.  In Player Piano, he is described as a man who "had gone directly from a three-hour television program to the White House.  In giving a speech, he reads “order out of chaos” as “order out of koze.”

Then there are the insights into the human condition and the prose style.

“Well, you know, in a way I wish I hadn’t met you two. It’s much more convenient to think of the opposition as a nice homogeneous, dead-wrong mass. Now I’ve got to muddy my thinking with exceptions.” 

And this:
"The machines and the institutions of government were so integrated that trying to attack one without damaging the other was like trying to remove a diseased brain in order to save a patient."

And this:
“Bodies lay everywhere, in grotesque attitudes of violent death, but manifesting the miracle of life in a snore, a mutter, the flight of a bubble from the lips.” 

And... Oh, heck!  Read the book.  

Personal Aside:
"Joe Taylor"
I have been completely in love with Kurt Vonnegut since the first of his books that I read - The Sirens of Titan.  (I am rereading it now and loving it again the third time through.)  One morning in 1973, I came face to face with my idol. About a year into starting my own consulting practice, I became a charter member of the nascent New York Women Business Owners Association.  At our first Breakfast Gala, we honored three women - Gloria Steinem,   Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Jill Krementz (who I knew was married to Kurt Vonnegut).  At the reception before the meal, mimosa in hand, I strolled over to a round table to collect some crackers and cheese. There across from me, doing the same, was a man with an an unmistakable face and head of hair.  But his name badge said "Joe," something - maybe Taylor.  He looked at me.  I asked, "Truth be told, Joe, who are you?"  He pointed to his badge and said, "Joe Taylor."  I said.  "Would you do me a favor, Joe?"  He said, "Sure."  I pointed to my badge and said, "If you ever meet Kurt Vonnegut, would you tell him that Patricia King loves him?" He promised he would.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Lasting Tribute "to an Unknown God"

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Kasuga Taisha (Shrine), in Nara City, was established over 1,300 years ago, shortly after Nara became the first permanent capital of Japan.

The purification fountain at Kasuga Shrine

According to shrine historians, Kasuga Taisha was constructed after the Shintō deity Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto appeared atop nearby Mt. Mikasa in response to prayers for protection of the new capital city.

Mt. Mikasa, as seen from neighboring Mt. Wakakusa

Takemikazuchi and three other Shintō deities are enshrined inside Kasuga Taisha, in an elaborate set of buildings where both Shintō and Buddhist ceremonies are conducted regularly.

The worship hall at Kasuga Taisha

Sub-shrines on the expansive grounds of Kasuga Shrine (which encompass a large portion of Nara Park) honor more than five dozen other deities, and the priests conduct hundreds of individual ceremonies to honor these deities every year.

Nara's famous deer: formerly considered sacred because the deity appeared on Mt. Mikasa riding a white deer

One of the most important of these "other deities" was discovered at the time of the shrine's construction, and remains a mystery to many visitors.

Directly in front of the shrine's main gate, a simple wooden fence surrounds a stone embedded in the sandy earth.

The fence is lower left, in front of the stairs. 

This sacred stone was unearthed during construction of the shrine in the 8th century. Shrine historians say that a deity appeared on this stone (and also inhabits the stone, depending on the translation). The deity is older than the shrine, and even older than Shintō faith, and although the deity is not given a specific name, it is said that this deity is even stronger, and older, than the Takemikazuchi and the other deities enshrined at Kasuga Shrine.

The deity is (in) the stone.

For that reason, the stone was not removed, or covered over. Instead, a fence was constructed and ceremonies and prayers are offered in honor of the god whose presence the stone reveals.

The decision to leave the stone, and honor the deity it represents, is emblematic of the way Japan's indigenous Shintō faith respects all evidence of the divine. Although the grounds of Kasuga Shrine were clearly dedicated to Takemikazuchi and the other deities for whom the shrine was built, the priests not only felt no need to "erase" the deities that formerly inhabited the land, but took enduring steps to respect and honor them as well.

The sign (only in Japanese) explains about the sacred stone.

Unfortunately, the current sign explaining the meaning of the stone is written only in Japanese, so many Western visitors pass by without understanding its significance. However, I understand that a new sign, written in English as well as Japanese, is under consideration. I hope it gets approved, and built. Until then, the simple stone will remain a unique, and under-appreciated, element of Kasuga Taisha's history: a lasting tribute to an ancient god.


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Basic Building Blocks for Mystery Writers


Oh what a three weeks it’s been. I’ve been back from Mykonos hiding out at my farm for the month of August. The place looks greener and lusher than I can ever remember, though my impression is largely based on what I can glean of it through the lone window in my third floor garret—where I sit fingers glued to the keyboard.

It’s been weeks of fifteen-hour days (a) finishing the latest draft of the new book, (b) reducing a full-length manuscript to a 750-word synopsis (i.e., think in terms of taking a chainsaw to key plot points, characters and scenes), and (c) going back to rewriting that same manuscript. ARRGHHHH.

But I shall return to Mykonos in ten days. AHHHH.

Hopefully that introduction summons up sufficient sympathy for my plight to justify my running a post I wrote several years ago for a different blogsite. It’s based on the mystery writing course I taught at Washington & Jefferson College for pour souls out there looking to get into this glamorous, wild, and carefree writing life.

So, here is my “brief but spectacular take” on the inherently controversial subject of mystery writing’s basic building blocks, with observations borrowed from true experts on the craft whose names I no longer remember.
I look forward to enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…along with the strong opinions of those of you who may disagree.  

As you no doubt will recall, Snow White had seven dwarfs helping her create her story.  I’m no Snow White, and I’ve only got six to rely upon, but to me they’re just as dependable, even if not as cuddly. Permit me to introduce you to Characters, Dialog, POV, Plot, Setting, and Tension.

1.         Characters drive the engine of your story.  They convey what you want the world to know. They are the product of your innermost thoughts, your views of life, but to really get to know them you must spend a lot of time earning their trust. It’s an investment well worth it, for your characters are who will make you famous.  Readers remember characters far after the plot has faded, e.g., Dirty Harry, Harry Potter, Hamlet, Pudgy Wombat.

As for where to find those characters, I’d say look into the very core of your being for their essence. I know, that sounds all artsy-fartsy, but think of your heart as a storehouse of emotions and subliminal impressions collected over a lifetime of encounters.  As for character traits and appearances, I tend to pick those up through direct observation of passersby and jotting down notes. Accept that you’re a body snatcher, storing up parts and gestures to flesh out the souls of those characters you’ve found lurking about in shadowy places within yourself…and enjoy.

2.         As to how we bring our characters to life, my favorite building block on that score is dialog. Good dialog is like eavesdropping.  Read your dialog aloud. Does it sound natural, does it fit into the setting, and most importantly, does your dialog bring your character to life consistent with your vision of that character’s unique voice?  To grasp what I mean, I recommend reading poetry and great plays, as you’ll gain an appreciation of how cadences and rhythms bring dialog to life.  For those of you adventuresome enough to attempt the most difficult of all dialog—dialects—I recommend you read Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga.  Once you’ve made it through its first 50 pages you no longer need dialog tags, for he’s masterfully caught your ear with a unique dialect for each of his characters—including the narrator.

3.         With that mention of narrators, we arrive at POV, more formally known as Point of View. POV is what holds all the other building blocks together.  Indeed, how could any of us have made it through Moby-Dick without Ishmael telling us the story from his POV?  One should never underestimate the value of a likable narrator.

Most writers choose between first person and third person points of view.  First person is harder to pull off because the reader knows no more than does the protagonist, and that can lead to some awkward devices straining to get information before a reader that the protagonist could not otherwise be expected to possess. Third person POV allows for greater flexibility, but lacks the immediacy of first person telling. And of course, there are some notable POV shifting authors.  Ultimately, it’s your book, expressing your POV on POV. 

3.         Which brings us to Plot. Everyone struggles with plot.  Stephen King suggests tossing your characters into situational conflicts and letting them figure their own way out, advice consistent with the classic admonition that you should never try to fit your characters into your plot.  Once you have a basic story line in mind, let the plot evolve through your characters. 

Yes, I’ve drawn a difference between plot and story.

Story is a narrative based on time, a series of events flowing chronologically (The King died, and then the Queen died.).  Plot is a narrative based on what caused events to happen, a series of events deliberately arranged to create dramatic significance (The King died, and then the Queen died of grief.).

The same story can be told using different plots. Queen died because she too was murdered, or because she partied too hard celebrating the King’s death, or her horse threw her and kicked her to death on the way to the King’s funeral.

Plot is what makes your way of telling the story come to life, so make certain your plots are vivid and continuous, and don’t leave any loose ends hanging out there to frustrate the reader—unless you mean to.

5.         Setting is my personal favorite of the six elements, which makes sense since my books are named for places all across Greece.  Still, that’s not in any way inconsistent with my belief that characters are what drive a mystery.  I say that because, in my books, settings are characters.  For some, setting is of little concern beyond serving as a generic venue for telling the story, so a particular location doesn’t matter beyond being a city of a certain size, a farm, an ocean, a manor house, or a boxcar.

But no matter the level of importance you attach to the setting for your work, always bear in mind that nothing turns off a reader’s faith in an author more quickly than a story setting Chicago on the ocean—barring a tale set in post-apocalyptical climate change America.

6.         And now we’ve arrived at tension, the emotional roller coater ride element so beloved by readers of our genre. Tension heightens interest by relying upon the same basic three-step process used by comedians in telling a joke: setup, buildup, payoff.   One simple way of achieving tension is to reverse the polarity of a scene.  If a scene starts out positive for the protagonist, have it end on a negative note. That keeps your reader turning the pages, which after all, is our goal.

Here’s an example.  At the beginning of the scene it’s dusk, and we find our hero racing his super-charged police cruiser across an empty, two-lane, West Texas badland blacktop highway headed for the kidnappers’ hideout; a place he’s discovered through two days of knuckle-busting, call-in-every-favor, no-time-for-sleep police work.  Our hero’s thoughts are focused on how he’s going to rescue poor Nell without any back-up, and we, his readership, have no doubt he’s going to do it.  At least not until three mule deer dart out of the brush directly in front of him doing nowhere near his cruiser’s 90 MPH.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my garret calls.


Friday, August 16, 2019

Still life

When my father passed away, my mother wanted to give something to the church to commemorate his life. He had always run the annual flower show, so a donation of a silver trophy for best gladioli or best carrot was an obvious choice.

All categories had been taken, trophies already covered.

Except the photography section.

So the winner of the photographic section  is now awarded The David Mitchell Cup.

For various reasons ( maybe the fact Dad is not running the show with his draughtsman's precision ) the numbers of entries for all categories have plummeted. Last year's show was woeful - a couple of spuds and a knitted scarf.  They relaxed the regulations so families and friends could enter. Mum asked me to put in some photographs. Alan put in some too, so did Mathilda the dog.

The categories were;

My favourite place.
A Scottish building.
Weather ( in Scotland???)
Flora and Fauna.

I am not a photographer. I take pictures of things I like.

I have a glass cabinet where the cameras of the family are displayed. My gran's box brownie, my sister's Diana flash, my first point and click and my Dad’s camera that was brought back from the days of his national service in Hong Kong.  You need to do a lot of stuff with light meters and hand held flashes to get it to do anything but it is a lovely piece of engineering.

Now I have a Canon body and two basic lens. A patient of mine,  in her 90’s, decided she no longer needed  the majority of her lenses, and filters, bags and things I don’t know the name of,  so she gave them all to me as it's l compatible with my Canon and I now set off with a different lens and try to work out what is going on.

She was a member of Paisley Photographic Society but got disillusioned by pictures being photoshopped  and digitally altered. I think there is now a breakaway faction, of ‘real’ photography.

It was this society who judged the competition. And I had noticed that there was a lot of other entries, their  alterations obvious.

However, on the day, by the time my mother got back to the table where the photographs were post judging, the cards had been moved. So we had no idea what picture had won what. ( Would never have happened in my dad’s day!)   

I had won overall, but did I win a 'best photo'  in any category?

No idea. I did find out that I didn’t win best photo overall.

But I did win my dad's cup.

Here are the pics put in by Ramsay Incorporated.

A South African crime writer told me this was a Black Hooded Night Heron.
Taken in a nature reserve in Florida.

 Some flowers from the botanical gardens in St Petersburg.

Nice crew members on a barge in Stratford upon Avon.

A prince and a pigeon.

The river Avon.

Kilchurn Castle, I know NOW that this is a very famous castle to capture on camera.

A boat cruising past us on the beach at Indian Rocks, Florida.
And, the only one I have had made into wall art. Loch Lomond.

The Florida sky while a hurricane was a blowing a hoolie a few miles to the north.

Caro Ramsay

Thursday, August 15, 2019


Stanley - Thursday

Going to a convention which Yrsa Sigurdardottir is attending always bring the possibility of surprise - culinary surprise. I remember a few years ago when we were at Crimefest in Bristol, UK. We were enjoying a pleasant evening drink on the patio outside the bar. Then Yrsa arrived with an Icelandic delicacy - hákarl or fermented shark. It is sometimes called rotten shark in English. As she opened the package, people at surrounding tables began to leave. Within a few minutes, even people inside at the bar had gone to find less odorous pastures.

I have to admit, hákarl had a terrible smell. Fortunately, the taste wasn't as disgusting as it smelled. It was merely awful.

But Yrsa had anticipated the reaction to her surprise. She then opened a bottle of brennivín, a Nordic drink, known as jet fuel elsewhere in the world. Its purpose? To cauterize the tastebuds that were struggling to survive the scourge of the fermented shark.

On another occasion, Yrsa produce flattened sheep heads and on another, sheep-testicle paté. 

All these episodes  reminded me of a common disdain amongst my friends in the USA of offal. I grew up eating liver, kidneys, and sweetbreads. 'Ugh!' my American friends would say.

Now I have another food source for my friends to avoid: bugs.

At a recent mystery conference, Michael retaliated against Yrsa's onslaught by producing mopani worms - a common food in Southern Africa. They are actually caterpillars from a species of emperor moth. They are an important source of protein for millions of people.

A mopane worm

Fried mopane worms with spring onions

Emperor moth
I read recently of a South African company, Gourmet Grubb, that operates a pop-up food outlet in Cape Town called The Insect Experience, where dishes feature insects as the main ingredient. Amongst its offerings is an ice cream made from an insect-based dairy alternative they've named EntoMilk. The insect in question is Hermetia illucens, the black soldier fly.

"We sort of wanted to try and create a viable protein alternative that is sustainable and ethical and could really create quite a positive change going into the future," said food scientist, Leah Bessa, one of the owners of Gourmet Grubb. "Edible insects are incredibly healthy. They're high in protein, for one -- a quality protein that has the right amino-acid profile for human consumption. They're also high in iron and zinc, high in fibre, and they have a healthy fat profile."
Chef Mario Barnard wants to produce tasty food that looks so good that people's mental blocks don't get in the way of trying it. Some photos are below. I can't wait to get back to Cape Town.
Pasta with black soldier fly larvae, garnished with mealworms

Polenta fries made from mopane worm flour
Mopane worms more elegantly presented


Deep fried dark chocolate black fly larvae ice cream sprinkled with black fly larvae protein balls.
Photo Jay Caboz
There are more than 1,900 known edible insect species consumed around the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And about 2 billion people globally consume insects, primarily in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
So, if you're looking for something for your kids to study, perhaps you should consider entomophagy -- the consumption of insects by humans. It is a field that is growing quickly as the global demand for food strains traditional resources.
Bon appetit.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mystery's Magic Number

Sujata Massey

A crowded party is almost always considered successful. When the guests pile in and you can’t even reach the buffet, it means you are at a happening place. This is why there are maxims like, don't spread a party too thinly through a house and garden. Get everyone in the living room, or around the pool, so the energy explodes.

In books, it’s a different matter. Too many characters can subtly derail the story, no matter how necessary and fascinating they seem. The chief problem is readers forget who they are.

One of the biggest challenges for me as a writer is whittling down the characters coming to the party. It isn't until a book is close to done that I realize I allowed in too many characters.

I'm writing mysteries set in  Bombay. Even in 1921, the city was crowded. I can rationalize all the way from the docks to the hills that my story must have plenty of characters because that's the way that cities are. Regardless of time period, most mystery series have "regulars" reappearing in various books who might be fellow crime-solving associates, family members and friends, and the suspects. The trick is giving everyone just enough time--and vacations away, if they really don't serve a purpose in a particular story.

Daily activity in early 1900s Bombay

Right now, I’m working on a mystery set mostly in a Bombay college. I've been writing for almost a year. During this time, I've created five important undergraduates, five professors, two adminstrators, a college guard, two servants, and the college lawyer. That's 16 people--about half of the total number of players in the novel, which certainly includes protagonist Perveen Mistry, and Perveen's family and friends, police and legal figures.

This week I started a reducing plan, but only three have been cut so far. The process made me wonder whether there is a magic number of characters in a mystery.

I am too frantic to take time away from my book to read several others, so I took the easy route and spent 90 minutes streaming a high-quality mystery program. I am entranced by Endeavour, which features a young Inspector Endeavour Morse in 1960s Oxford. An excellent show in Season One, "Trove," had nineteen characters of note, with eight supplementary characters (aka extras) speaking just a line or two.

I felt like I followed it all brilliantly. A few days later, could I recount the names of the show's characters excepting Morse and his boss Fred Thursday?

Absolutely not. That is the big difference between visual and literary storytelling. Watching Endeavour, I only had to recognize a character by sight--and what others said about that person--to know who they were. 

There were some things, though, that Endeavour's writers did that led me to think about some self-improvement. There were rarely more than two characters of the same type--ie, two people who were friends, two people who were coworkers, a family unit such as mother and child. I could eliminate a few characters that are very similar. Do I really need four boys under the age of twenty? 

Another question I’ll ask myself is why each character needs to be in a novel.The most important characters are emotionally rich, not just information-givers. These are recurring players in Perveen’s life, or are people with enough suffering they might feel tempted to commit despicable acts, or shield such acts from knowledge.

Perveen is a lawyer, and I enjoy writing scenes where she is collecting secrets from various characters who've been disregarded by the British colonial authorities. Yet I realize Perveen can still learn about minor characters when other people narrate what they said. And fewer interviews mean fewer scenes, and the heavy cloud of cigar smoke begins to lift. 

Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None has a tight cast

I might throw a party when I finish writing this book. It will not be a standing-room-only bash: the kind of party that I would have loved twenty-five years ago. The gathering I'm thinking about it looks more like one of the early dinner parties in And Then There Were None. 

Not too large, and not too small.

And without terminal losses.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Seventy-five years ago in Paris

 Seventy-five years ago in Paris tumultuous events were leading up the Libération. After four years of German occupation, in August 1944 ordinary Parisians rose up, led by resistance fighters supported by workers, women and even priests to throw off the Nazi yoke after four years.

Following six days of street clashes, random attacks and armed barricades, they were joined by French and US soldiers and victory was confirmed.
 On August 19th, trains and Metros ground to a halt in a general strike.

Men and women in small groups attacked German soldiers and vehicles. There were bloody street clashes.

About 16,000 German soldiers and 80 tanks were in the city under the command of General Dietrich von Choltitz, who was holed up at the central Hotel Meurice. Under Hitler's orders he'd mined the city with explosives,
If you've seen the film or read the book, Is Paris Burning? you'll recognize those words as Hitler's as he kept calling von Choltitz with that question. To his credit von Choltziz disobeyed the Fuhrer. He never issued the command to blow up Paris.

From August 22nd barricades started going up, made out of burned-out vehicles, manhole covers and even Paris' infamous street urinals.

The Resistance gradually extended control over whole neighbourhoods and took city hall, confining the disorganised Germans to certain areas.

Around 3,000 policemen, already on strike, occupied their headquarters at the Préfecture, across from Notre Dame. Fighting there over the following days claimed the lives of nearly 170 policemen.

Today, you can see bullet holes in the Préfecture's walls if you look close enough.
Cara - Tuesday