Monday, November 29, 2010

Grinding gears and what are you reading?

Books, books, books. I'm in grinding gear mode pedalling up the steep slope to meet my manuscript deadline tomorrow. Now it's hunting for a better word, polishing a detail and wait...that middle of the night sit up right in bed bolt of panic...I grab the Paris map and realize my detective would never go down that street it's one way!
So my apologies for a short post.
Tomorrow I'm looking foward to READING again at midnight after I send off my ms. Yrsa spoke about finishing a manuscript and for me, this home stretch is the best and the worst, it's that sheer moment of terror before sending a child off to college, you've prepared, prayed you've done your best and when the child goes that's it. Your child will come back, changed, smarter, more sophisticated, polished and different. But it's in the hands of god, the editor.

Tomorrow night I can't wait to READ. To dive into my big TBR pile. There's submissions for the Edgar committee, a Paris anthology of short stories to review and Yrsa's book that she kindly gave me at Bcon.
But I'm a snoop and scan what people read on the plane, on the Metro in Paris

in the doctor's office, check the book poking out of their bag, what title's on the seat of their car. Or the newspaper

Do you? During a break in a conversation, do you ask "What are you reading?" I find people love to talk about a book that touched them, how they learned something or how it inspired them to think in different ways. A book is a journey, one we we all want to take.
I check out bookstore windows, too. This month in Paris I saw RJ Ellory's Vendetta and I'd just met him at Bouchercon.

So what are YOU reading?
Cara - Tuesday on deadline

Class Warfare

From what I can judge, by scanning European and American newspapers on the internet, the coverage of the violence in Rio de Janeiro this week has been pretty extensive.
But I do have something to add, something you are unlikely to have heard about unless you live in Brazil. First, though, for those of you who might have skimmed over the press coverage, here’s a résumé of the situation:

The great favelas of Rio de Janeiro, home to hundreds of thousands of the underprivileged, have long been infested by drug gangs. So numerous and powerful are these gangs that they’ve assumed virtual control of their neighborhoods. Until now, the law-enforcement establishment has lacked the manpower to suppress them.

And not all of the residents want them to.

The drug gangs support crèches, community activities and samba schools. They pay kids to act as lookouts and offer (illegal) employment opportunities to many.

But now, finally, an operation is underway to break their stranglehold on their communities.

SWAT units from the civil, military and federal police forces, working together with elite units from the Brazilian military have launched an all-out attack.

The photo above shows the arrival of more ammunition. In the last week, they’ve fired a lot of it
Some folks say the government has been compelled to act because Brazil will play host to both the Football World Cup, in 2014, and the Olympics in 2016. And, if tourists stay away, the investments currently being made won’t be recouped.
Others say the politicians took the initiative because violence has begun spilling out of the favelas and into the neighborhoods populated by the privileged and influential. And the privileged and influential aren’t about to stand for that.

And then there are those who think it’s been done to benefit the folks who live in the favelas. (They’re few and far between – and I’m not one of them.  The politicians have had years to better the lot of the innocent in those favelas - and it’s not just coincidence that they’ve chosen to do it now.)
Okay, so much for the situation. Now, for what I wanted to tell you about.

It’s this, a statement issued by a joint committee representing the three principal (and rival) drug syndicates. It begins by asking that Rio’s poor join with them in their struggle against “police repression” and the “cowardly spilling of blood”. They ask that people take up arms and show their support by shooting at buildings and imported automobiles and by looting businesses, shops and markets.
They decree that “for every innocent poor person who dies at the hands of the police, two rich people will die.”
They further decree that “for every member of a drug syndicate who dies, two policemen and their families will be executed.”
They go on to blame the “middle classes” and the “rich” as the root causes of the troubles “because they’re the ones who buy the drugs.”
And call for a revolution against those “who wear suits and neckties.”
It remains to be seen whether the gangs are going to be able to recruit enough people to make good on their threats.
But this document is nothing less than a declaration of class warfare.
And it’s scary.

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Blog For Your Life

This may not be kosher, but I'm afraid there's been a falling off in the quality of my posts here, and I want to explain.

58 days ago, for no good reason at all, I began what I call THE STUPID 365 PROJECT, which is a commitment to blog every single day for a year, over on my other site. I had no idea when I kicked it off -- on a probably misguided impulse -- how much energy it would require.

It requires a lot.

In addition to the daily 300 words or more, I announced I'd write an original short story for every major holiday. So far I've whipped one up for Halloween and Thanksgiving, with Christmas and New Year's coming right up.  This turns out to be the writing equivalent of opening a vein in a nice, warm tub.

I guess I thought I could get up in the morning, look at my shoes as I put them on, and do 300 words on them -- how each scuff and nick has a story attached to it or something equally vapid.  But it isn't working that way.

Unexpectedly, it's a lot like writing a novel.  I've always thought that one thing that set novels apart from short-form writing is the fact that the sheer length of one exhausts a writer's fund of cheap tricks, easy glibness, and snap judgments.  Sooner or later, just to get to the end, you have to put something on the page that's really you.  It's the same with the daily blog.

I was scraping bottom 20 days in.  Then, as always happens when writing a book, I discovered a new bottom, with some interesting stuff in it.  And one under that.

I'm not claiming this is Remembrance of Things Past -- a lot of it is pretty silly (my Thanksgiving story is a shining example).  But it's taking a toll on me, and when I add the daily blog output to the work I'm doing on my current book, I don't come here as fresh as I once did.

I'm going to do everything I can to keep both commitments, so I'll keep showing up here, as often as possible with something interesting to say.  Anyway, I've only got 307 blogs to go.

If you want to watch me crash and burn, the blog is here.

Oh, and just to say one thing that's not self-referential, Leighton's new book is getting GREAT reviews.  Bruce Tierney of BookPage, for example, wrote a rave that includes these words:  "Every Bitter Thing works well on many levels: as a tense police procedural; a political thriller; and a look at the juxtaposing of the haves and have-nots in a society not far removed from its Third World roots."

Why I Didn't Become a Writer Back Then

Leo Tolstoy
Undiscouraged writers are all alike; but every writer was discouraged in his or her own way.

Apologies Leo, but you know that’s true.  Even you, the great Tolstoy admitted discouragement to your diary as you struggled through your first novel, Childhood: “Do I have talent, in comparison with the new Russian writers?  Assuredly not.”

I doubt there’s a true writer out there who at some point early on didn’t question his skills or wonder how she could contribute something that measured up to what’s already out there, let alone offered more.

I’m not talking about the critical self-judgments writers impose upon their works in progress—that’s a whole different subject.  I’m talking experiences that flat out discourage you from thinking you’re qualified to take pen to paper or put fingers to keyboard. 
Downtown Pittsburgh

My initial discouragement—one of several to follow—occurred in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  But that’s also where many years later serendipitous encouragement brought me to my senses and led me to abandon my well paying career as a New York City lawyer for the vagaries of the writing life.  Thank you, Pittsburgh.

That’s where I am now, spending the Thanksgiving holiday with family in da ‘burgh.  A lot of fond memories here, but the discouraging one that has me smiling now occurred when I was a freshman in high school.  Peabody High School was distinguished then as a school that gave opportunities to mill town children willing to learn, regardless of their circumstances or origins.  This year it will close forever.   Perhaps that’s another reason I’m remembering the story.

Peabody High School

My freshman English teacher, Mrs. Morrison, was a legendary disciplinarian who thrived on language as the source of all things.  I was a kid from a neighborhood where all things revolved around sports, so what mattered most to me was playing high school football.  Besides, “who needed English,” only sissies read.  But Mrs. Morrison knew that.  She’d been teaching in this inner city school for years.  She had a way of getting you to think you might actually be able to write something if you put your mind to it.  She had me secretly believing I might be a writer.  Then came that fateful day.

She told the class she wanted us to hear what someone who applied himself to writing could do.  She introduced a senior to read his composition.  I knew him; he came from an even worse neighborhood than mine.  We’d been on the football team together and though he was a star he hadn’t finished the season.  We had a genuinely terrible team that year, and one afternoon after a particularly ignominious loss in which he’d taken quite a pounding, his mother stormed into the locker room and dragged him out of there in his football pants, t-shirt and cleats.  She was screaming something along the lines of, “You’ve got a full college scholarship for basketball and I’m not going to have you ruin your future by getting hurt playing for this lousy team.” 
John Wideman at U Penn

As I sat in that English class listening to someone only three years older than I read his work I thought, “Man, I could never write like that, and if a jock from that neighborhood can do that, just think how many others out there must be able to do better.  I'll never make it as a writer.”

Years later I realized his mother was right about his future and I was wrong to be discouraged.  Today, my teammate counts among his honors, a Rhodes scholarship, the American Book Award for Fiction, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction (twice).  He is one of America’s greatest living writers, John Edgar Wideman.
August Wilson outside his childhood home at far right

And then there’s that kid who lived up behind my aunt’s grocery store in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  Not only was he younger than I, he never finished high school.  Thankfully, I had no idea back then of the extraordinary writing talent that would later win him, the late Tony award winning playwright August Wilson, two Pulitzer Prizes.  Otherwise, I might have thought writing genius was everywhere and been discouraged beyond hope.  
A then discouraged me.

Bottom line.  Don’t let discouragement get to you, especially if you’re from Pittsburgh. 

Jeff – Saturday

Friday, November 26, 2010

Frey's a Jolly Good Fellow

Or is he? What to make of the latest James Frey controversy? Have you heard of it? I must say I've followed it with fascination, but as a jobbing hack as well as a mystery writer, it struck a chord.

For those that don't know, Frey - famous for writing a very readable but also very made-up memoir, which sold 8m copies - is back in the publishing spotlight. I think most of us, having been exposed as inventing much of a book which purported to be truth, might have laid low for a bit. Frey, on the other hand, seems to have embraced his notoriety and the publicity. He founded a 'writing factory', called Full Fathom Five, in which books would be produced collectively. The reason for its existence being, he says, all the fabulous ideas he comes up with which he personally doesn't have time to write.

To help bring those ideas to life - they are not just his ideas but sometimes those of the writers he hires - he contracts various young scribes, many of them struggling along on college and writing courses, to do the writing under his watchful, beneficent eye. It has so far proved successful; he has 30 writers in his stable and has sold 12 books, including three series, and some movie rights.

I'm concerned for a few reasons. First of all, I like to think I have lots of good ideas for books. However, for me, the fun only comes if I write them. I don't see the point in contracting out the writing part. Sure there are financial rewards, but there cannot be much artistic satisfaction to be gained from knowing someone else put in the hard yards. Writing a book, as we all know, is a bloody long hard slog, sometimes joyful and sometimes tortuous. When you have finished writing one you often don't think you can do it again, nor do you want to. Yet a few weeks or months later when the finished product lands in your hand, or you see it sitting on the shelf of a bookshop, you can reflect with pride on your achievement. Because it is always an achievement.  I celebrate every publication, every submitted manuscript, every signed contract, every royalty cheque, every  successful step with champagne, because I also know how tough the literary world is, how swiftly fortunes can change, and how perilous a writer's existence can be. Those rare glasses of bubbly are earned by hard work. I'm not sure it would taste as good if I farmed my ideas out to a college stripling.

Then I worry about other authors, who don't have Frey's millions. They need to earn a living; perhaps they haven't had the breaks. Many of them would like, and take, the opportunity to write one of Frey's books, rather than being overlooked in favour of ambitious young things with bumfluff on their chin and a head full of literary dreams.

However, when you see the terms Frey is offering, you can see why he's going for youth. Reports claim he pays $250 dollars upfront to write the thing. Then 30% to 40% of any royalties. He retains creative control, all copyright, and puts in place a system of fines to punish the writer if they break the contract. I know exactly what any credible writer, not to mention their agent, would say to such a contract. The first word begins with F and the second with O, and I don't mean 'fabulous opportunity'. But this is a competitive world, times are hard, kids will do anything to get a break, including writing a book for a pittance and with no credit, and Frey is signing them up.

Frey defends himself by saying the contracts differ according to writing experience, he is giving people an opportunity, and going forward he plans to credit them on the cover, as well as publishing more ideas originated by the authors themselves (I'd argue they would best doing it on their own rather than taking his terms.) He denies any accusations of exploitation, claiming he's only doing this because he loves books. I'm sure some of the books are good, and there is an argument that a writing factory for books is no different to the ones in Hollywood that churned out so many classics. Though I bet those screenwriters were better paid and not plucked from the campus and lured into the forcing house.

It's one thing being influenced by Dickens - it's another thing to be Dickensian.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Getting it Right

Kubu's house?
Stan and I have just returned from a short visit to Gaborone in Botswana. We were researching our fourth book. Much of our time was spent talking to interesting people about issues that range from police procedures to Bushman land rights in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and murders for witchcraft. This is the really important stuff: developing a balanced understanding of the issues facing the country, what people there think about them, and how they impact the culture. It’s essential for us to put the time and work into that because although Botswana shares much with South Africa, it is a very different culture and society and we feel that it’s critical to reflect that appropriately in our novels. We never write about any place or town where we haven’t been and spent some time. We try to learn about the place, how it originated, what sort of people live there and so on. We also feel it’s important to get the small things right – street names, political parties, the names of the road-side stalls. Sometimes we get embarrassingly finicky about detail. On this visit, we made a special trip to the airport to check out the current colors and models of rental cars...

So the question is: why? Wouldn’t it be just as good to make all this up? Wouldn’t it possibly even be better, allowing us more freedom? Why spend all this time on detail when we could be getting on with writing the story?

I’m sure you are now expecting a carefully reasoned defense of the importance of doing all this work. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not really all that sure why we do it.  We just feel much more comfortable reflecting things as they are – at a physical, cultural and political level – rather than as we’d like them to be for the convenience of the story.

A favorite restaurant in Kasane
The state that the reader enters when reading an absorbing tale has been described as “the willing suspension of disbelief” and also as the “fictional dream”. I really like the latter phrase. It conjures up an image of the reader drifting into a different reality which flows smoothly and believably.  For me, nothing interrupts the dream as completely as some fact that I know is wrong. Flying from Johannesburg to Cape Town in half an hour? It can’t be done – it’s a thousand miles. Thompson’s gazelles in the Chobe Game Reserve? They only occur much further north. Two minutes on the internet is all it takes to get that sort of stuff right. Of course these things matter to me, but 99% of readers not only wouldn’t know they are wrong but wouldn’t care if they did. In reality, a novel is about the story and the characters.

Goodluck Tinubu's school in Mochudi
Photo: Peter Muender

Sibusiso's office is somewhere here
 Of course, Stan and I have backgrounds in academia. Research for both of us is a matter of getting things right and hopefully deducing insights from that. And there is also the fun of coincidence. Often we write first and then check out the location or situation on our next trip. In our fourth book we need a school of the right level from which you’d walk past open bush, past some shops, to not very affluent homes. We spent a day looking at appropriate schools and found one that fitted our image almost perfectly. Now we can use its name and have a street for the character's home. Maybe it makes no difference to almost every reader, but we feel that we can weave the fictional dream more tightly because we have a real location firmly in our minds. The density of that weave is important. Of course the characters and events are completely fictitious, it is only the backdrop that is real.

Somewhere in Kachikau
Maybe it’s because we’re South Africans writing about Botswana. The people who live there know more about the country than we do, and our books are read there. We feel getting it wrong would be an insult to those readers and an embarrassment to us.

THE gas station in Hukuntsi
And there are issues of detail that can have a big impact on the plot. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is not fenced. If it were, the scenario that kicks off A Carrion Death wouldn’t work. There is only one gas station in Hukuntsi. That matters in Death of the Mantis. And be careful about those autopsies; the official ones are all done in Gaborone no matter where the death occurs. This is a big, hot country. Enough said.

Then again maybe the real reason is that we learn so much, and enjoy it so much, every time we go to Botswana that checking detail is just an excuse.

I’d be very interested to hear from other authors with murders elsewhere...

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Changing the Constitution

Small warning. If you are offended by nudity, although not full frontal, do not scroll down.

On this coming Saturday Icelanders take to the election booths to vote for a new "people's parliament" that is to debate, discuss and propose changes to our constitution. This is something not done before, we have made various amendments to this document since its introduction in 1944 but never in this manner, i.e. giving the public an opportunity to take part in the process. Anyone able to come up with 30 supporters’ signatures was able to run and as a result we have 535 people to choose from. I would have preferred 5 to 10.

Don‘t get me wrong, I love democracy and I vote, but I am having a difficult time mustering up enthusiasm for this upcoming election. Our constitution is probably quite due for an overhaul, but there are too many candidates and on top of everything you need to select 25 to enter onto the ballot, not by name but by some random classification number each has been allotted. The way the votes fall is also complex, there is a slideshow explaining it available online but by the time you have gone through it you just have to hope they know what they are doing as it does not seem to make much sense. Because the system is so complicated one needs to do homework prior to going to the polls, write down the numbers of those you like and then copy them from the trial ballot onto the regular ballot once in the election booth. This probably does not sound so bad but when voters who can‘t vote on Saturday were allowed to pre-vote, the news reported that at least one of them took a full 30 minutes to complete the process meaning we might be in for long queues and waiting.

Here we moved the voting age down to 18 years of age some time ago, something that I just do not get. Hardly anyone at that age in Iceland has yet entered the grown up world, most live at home and have only held summer jobs, their sense of obligation and commitment not matured at all. In addition one would assume these young voters would be the ones easiest to influence with propaganda and as Iceland is growing population wise, these vintages are the most numerous and will be targeted for sure. So it just does not seem right. They are too young at 18. One story I heard was a guy whose daughter has just reached the voting age and when she opened the trial ballot sent to her for copying the 25 candidate numbers into she said “Wow. Cool. What is it? Yatzee?” Sort of says it all.

But aside from this snag in our voting regulations the more pressing issue for most of us here is which of these 500 plus candidates to vote for. There is a special web page where you can browse through them but you soon lose concentration because of the sheer number of people to evaluate. A special booklet with basically the same information was distributed into every home but at the moment my mail is not being delivered as the door containing the letterbox is no longer there and the house is temporarily surrounded by a 6 foot deep moat that the postal service is not too fond of. So my family and I have not received our copy of this wonderful brochure and cannot rely on it to fill our hearts with constitution gusto. Anyway, having spoken to a few who have braved through its pages, I am not sure we missed much.

The candidates, all being independent, try to draw attention to themselves in one way or another. One used a picture of his naked backside to ensure you remember him (see photo above) and to get the papers to interview him, while some are already public personas and get media coverage without such drastic measures. The funny thing is thought, of all the candidates I best remember the naked guy. I have no clue what he wants to do to our constitution, probably make nudity mandatory while mopping or something as ridiculous. The public radio is obliged to inform the nation about the candidates and must not show any favoritism, meaning each must be given the exact same amount of airtime, decided at 5 minutes, which multiplied by 535 meant just under 45 hours of programming, not including the introduction of each prior to their speech. No one has tuned in as far as I know.

On the official webpage for the elections you can search through the names using tidbits of information namely names, gender, occupations and postal codes. None of this really gives you as much as a hint about what these people stand for so what I decided to do, having no other plan in place was to make up a list of 25 people from varying occupations and hope that this would provide me with a pretty good set of people from all corners of our society. I began by searching for fishermen.

No joke, guess who came up? Naked ass guy.

It is my destiny to vote for him. Better get used to mopping in the nude.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ancien Resistant

“But no one...rien personne... acknowledges what the Jewish Resistance did.” Naftali Skrobek, 84 years old - the same age as my mother - gestures from his desk in his apartment in the Marais. Balding and short and with kind red-rimmed eyes that water frequently he offers me coffee. “The documents, I have the documents. The accounts written after the war are here, if you look for them.”
Toli, as he tells me to call him, has sat me down by a bookcase filled ceiling high with books. A veritable history collection in Yiddish and French of World War II. I’m to learn, he says, the structure of the Francs-tireurs et partisans – main-d'œuvre immigrée (FTP-MOI) who were a sub-group of the Francs-tireurs et partisans (FTP) organization, a component of the French Resistance. A wing composed mostly of foreigners and Jews, the MOI maintained an armed force to oppose the German occupation of France during World War II. The Main-d'œuvre immigrée was the "Immigrant Movement" of the FTP.
We spend a long afternoon that goes into the evening. Toli insists I understand the political and organizational structure of the Workers Communist party before he tells me his story of being in the Resistance here in the Marais, the same quarter where he lives now, from April 1944 until Liberation in August. After awhile he shows me a picture of him and his father.

Emotion clouds his face when he shows me the last picture of his father taken by the Germans in Strufhof-Natweiler concentration camp near Strausbourg before he was gassed in 1943.

I’ve found Toli through an Armenian association who promotes the activist story of the Armenian Resistance part of MOI which were recently profiled in the film The Army of Crime - a story of Isak Manouchian, an Armenian poet who ‘led’ sabotage acts against the Germans and immortalized in the famous poster l’affiche rouge...a poster that became the emblem of resistance before the group were executed in 1943.
But Toli has agreed to meet me, spend time with me, only if I get the real story. Manouchian did lead the FTP MOI group - but for three months - until a traitor revealed the group to the Gestapo. Patience, he said, and I would hear the story of his father's work in the Resistance.
Toli was born in Poland of activist Communist Jewish parents - his father was a journalist, magazine editor and militant in the Warsaw trade unions, who fled Poland in the 30’s when the government targeted him. Toli’s family found sanctuary in Paris when he was eight years old.
But given my less than perfect French and Toli’s sidetracking when I ask specifc details, we’re still in the 1930’s when it gets dark. Toli's son comes to visit and agrees to translate the intricacies of trade union organizations that I can’t ferret. ‘My father, he’s obsessed, with this.’ His son rolls his eyes. And I’m still no further in my goal of hearing Toli’s role as a 16 year old here in the Marais in the Resistance before Liberation. My real goal.
When I ask specific questions, his son translates and they argue. ‘He insists you understand the framework, the context of the time, these men who formed the organization,’ his son says throwing up his arms. Toli accuses his son of not caring or being interested. It gets uncomfortable. Finally, his son smiles and says, it takes time with my father. Bear with him. And leaves at least they’re on speaking terms.
I’ve taken notes, recorded several hours of Toli’s account and feeling still at sea, when Toli says. “Want to go for a ride? See where I lived, the bordello across the street, my school?’
Sensing this would be a way into his story, his way, I jump at the chance. Off we go. Toli, drives slow, which in Paris is more dangerous than driving at the usual breakneck speed. I close my eyes several times as taxi’s zip past almost shaving his headlights, missing a bus by centimeters but then living dangerously becomes my motto that night. If Toli fought in the Resistance against the Germans Paris traffic was nothing, right?
Over several weeks Toli and I had several more adventures, meals together, more hours at his desk and the crowing highlight was to be his guest at the November 11th armistice commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe and sitting with him and ancien combattants in the rain as Sarkozy strode past to honor the unknown WWI soldier at the eternal flame. More to come.
Cara - Tuesday

Who Elected That Clown?

Ummm…well, actually, the electorate of the State of São Paulo did.
Here’s the story:
In this country, the lower house of the national congress is called A Câmara dos Deputados, The Chamber of Deputies.
A deputado federal, summing up salary and allowances, earns the equivalent of about 23,000 U.S. dollars a month.
The average salary of a production worker about 1,500 U.S. dollars a month.
Is it any wonder that lots of people want to become federal deputies?

Enter this clown, Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva.
Yes, folks, that’s right.
He’s a clown.
A professional clown.
His stage name is Tiririca, which, loosely translated, means “scoundrel”.
He had little formal education, came from a very poor family, and at the age of eight, began working in circuses in his native State of Natal.
By the time he was forty he’d launched a number of CDs and had appeared numerous times on television, but his was hardly a household name.
Until the national elections of 2010.
And then, with no history of politics, Tiririca launched his candidacy for the Chamber of Deputies.
On television he used appeals like, What does a federal deputy do? Actually, I have no idea. But vote for me and I’ll tell you.
He also made up a rhyme, and set it to music, which he used as a jingle. Part of it translates as It can’t get any worse, vote for Tiririca.
He also made a sincere promise to give money to the poor, especially his family.
Here is one of his television spots. That’s his father on the left of the screen. His mother is on the right. Tiririca tells us that “everybody” (meaning the other politicians) has started showing their families because it moves people emotionally. So he’s decided to do it too.
“Ask, Dad,” he says, “ask them for their votes.” And his Dad dutifully asks people to vote for his son and gives his son’s number on the ballot, 2222. Then Tiririica asks his mother to do the same. She does. He then says, “Smile, Mom. Smile, Dad.” And they do.
No platform. No campaign promises. Nothing.

But, on the 3rd of October, 2010, Tiririca was elected a Brazilian Federal Deputy with the second-highest plurality ever awarded to any candidate in the history of the elections in the State of São Paulo.
Hang on. Don’t stop reading just yet. The story isn’t over.
One of his opponents launched a suit to have him disqualified because he held the congress up to ridicule.
That was thrown out of court.
Then one of the major newsmagazines published a story that he was illiterate.
That was a serious charge.
There is a law that all federal deputies have to know how to read and write.
And part of the process of candidacy is to sign an affidavit testifying to that fact – which Tiririca did.
Instead of responding immediately – he disappeared, claiming he was exhausted by the election process and in need of a rest.
He surfaced three weeks later and was immediately subjected to a number of tests.
His lawyers claimed that he suffers from a motor deficiency that makes it impossible to hold a pen properly, but that he is able to read, scratch out letters and use a keyboard.
But they had a harder time explaining why he was able to understand only about 30% of a newspaper article.
Whether Tiririca will be seated, or not, is a matter still being judged by the courts.
But those of us familiar with the Brazilian congress tend to agree with him in one thing:
It can’t get any worse.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Paradise Postponed

The elections that were supposed to have been held in Thailand this month have vanished into a haze generated by the bad intentions of the Kingdom's ruling elite.  There were widespread expectations, which I shared, that riots would follow any postponement of the people's next chance to elect a representative government after three popularly elected prime ministers in a row were tossed out of office.

But not so far. There are multiple theories to explain this.  The most obvious reason is that a lot of people were killed in the last demonstrations -- riots, from the government's point of view.  Thais killing Thais in the nation's capital is not a frequent occurrence in a country that prides itself on consensus, civility, and harmony.  The Red Shirts were expecting opposition, but no one anticipated that so much blood would flow in the streets.

Another reason is that the Red Shirt leaders -- those who aren't in jail -- are in hiding.  Lots of towns, especially in the general region of Bangkok, are under heightened surveillance -- "martial law" might be an overstatement, but not by that much.  So this is not a climate in which travel or large meetings are easy.

This is very un-Thai.  There has been no apology from the government, no official attempt at rapprochement. The lid has been kept on good and tight.  It's as though the policy is to isolate the opposition and hold it down in the hope that it will splinter under pressure into disagreeing factions that will eventually natter each other to death.

The movement has always been less monolithic than it looked from the outside.  Although the government was probably correct in charging that the rebels were funded for some time by Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecommunications mogul who attained the prime minister's office only to be overthrown by the coup, not all the Red Shirts or Red Shirt sympathizers actually supported Thaksin.  The issue was always broader than Thaksin or any individual politician: At root, it was simply about whether democracy actually exists in Thailand, whether the people have the right to vote in the government of their choice.  Three times now, the power elite has tossed out of office prime ministers who had won the largest share of the popular vote.  The current prime minister, Abhisit, won the office through legislative manipulation of the shadiest kind.

And now a new wave of revolutionary sentiment seems to be building, critical of the entire government, including the previously sacrosanct institution of the monarchy.  Thailand's lese-majeste laws are vigorously, even aggressively, enforced.  It has been a byword for decades that Thais at all levels of society hold the monarchy almost sacred.  Some people question whether the talk of this new anti-monarchical sentiment is real or whether it's disinformation designed to isolate the rebels from the populace at large.

Whatever the situation, the Thai people deserve a chance to cast their votes, and the power elite sooner or later will have to loosen its grip.  The question is how much damage will be done to the ties that hold the nation together, and how high the cost could be in Thai lives.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

It Was the Best of Times, It Was...

A Mykonos "winter" sunset with Delos in the far distance
What the dickens does it matter, it's over.


It’s over.
Old Mykonos town harbor

It’s now winter here.  Yes, technically it is autumn and each Mykonian could wish the other a “good autumn,” kalo fthinoporo, but no one ever does that.  Mykonians go right into winter wishes, kalo heimona.

Mykonos' most prominent citizen
I never bothered asking why that was.  It’s a tradition with a source I think best left to the imagination.  You know the kind, ones that take root one day and flourish without anyone knowing exactly how or why it happened; but if you ask a local you’ll get a definitive answer and if you ask another you’ll get a just as definitive—and different—reason.  

I like to think there’s no autumn greeting because Mykonians think only in terms of two seasons: tourist and non-tourist.  Summer is for tourists and business, winter is for locals and preparing for business.  I think I’m right, too, because neither is there a greeting for springtime.  It’s just straight into summer and kalo kalokairi.

Baptism at Monastery of Panagia Tourliani
Another possibility is that as soon as tourist season ends there’s such a rush to catch up on baptisms and weddings that everyone’s so busy wishing each other kalo riziko (“good roots”), na zesete (“long life”), and vion anthosparton (a marriage “full of flowers”), that there’s no need to gild the autumn with additional good wishes.  Nah, I think the “two-season view” is the answer.
My favorite taverna, closed

Whatever the answer, winter is here.  Beach tavernas shuttered closed months ago, and most others are or soon will be.  The last cruise ship arrived and departed yesterday and the old harbor seems strangely deserted. 

Only the small, brightly painted caïques of local fishermen are tied there now, the mega-yachts are gone.  Of course, some harbor tavernas remain open, for they are where Mykonians gather everyday, year round, to discuss and change the world. 
Awaiting election night results

They’ve had a lot to talk about so far this season.  The election for mayor of Mykonos ended last Sunday in a runoff decided by seventy votes.  Greeks take their politics seriously, and passions ran deep.  Now it’s winter, a time for healing.
A citizen voter licks his wounds

But the surest sign that winter has come to Mykonos is happening as you read this post (assuming it’s Saturday).  I have departed Mykonos and am on a plane bound for New York.  It’s back to the United States.  But it is not to a bleak house I travel (that one’s for you Beth), for there’s Thanksgiving and family waiting for me there, and my book tour begins in January for PREY ON PATMOS: An Aegean Prophecy (Poisoned Pen Press, Piatkus Books/Little Brown, January 2011)

Before I know it winter will pass and I’ll be back among my Mykonian kalo kalokairi well-wishers.  Until then it’s time to share my Grecian memories and create new ones of eastern snow, western sunshine, southern hospitality, northern ways, and the joys of different day, different city travels. 
See you next summer, says Petros the Pelican

Kalo heimona.

Jeff — Saturday 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

I'm going to resist the temptation to blog about the recently announced Royal Wedding. The world does not need any more detail on the union of Prince William and Kate Middleton; between now and the day itself we are likely to drown under a deluge of it. My only observation is that at least Kate knows what she's getting - William is practically bald already, so no secrets there.

No, there are far more interesting things ahead. Not least the upcoming cricket series between England and, wait, come back! Honest, it's interesting, even if you think cricket an unfathomable bore, because the relationship and rivalry between England and Australia, still a colony, is a fascinating one, which has been played out on the cricket field for decades now.

The team play for The Ashes, surely the most underwhelming trophy in international sport on first glance. It is a tiny brown terracotta urn said to contain the ashes of a burnt cricket bail (no one dare open it and see, for fear it would disintegrate). It was presented to to the England captain Ivo Bligh in 1883 when he took an England team overseas after Australia had won its first ever game on English soil the previous year. In  response to this shocking defeat - remember Australia had been 'founded' as a penal colony only 100 years or so before - the Times ran a mock obituary, 'In affectionate remembrance of English Cricket which died at the Oval on 29th August 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. R.I.P. N.B - The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.

So, from the pen of one wit a celebrated sporting rivalry was born. Bligh went to Australia vowing to regain 'the ashes.' Continuing the gag - those Victorians eh? - a group of Melbourne women presented Bligh with the urn when England won, and he took it to back to England where it has resided since. Even when Australia win they never get the Ashes themselves, merely a replica, which is held up rather meekly by the captain to celebrate their victory, in striking contrast to the usual show of triumph in other sports where they hold vast trophies aloft. That wouldn't be cricket, though.

Ever since that time Australia and England Test matches - usually a five match series, each game lasting for up to five days - have been known as The Ashes. Few other sporting rivalries match it for intensity and competitiveness. In 1932 diplomatic relations between the two countries were almost severed when Douglas Jardine - in Australian eyes, a sort of uber-aristocratic crafty Pom (the word Aussies use to describe us Englishmen, usually preceded by the word 'whingeing') - took a team Down Under to play against an Australian side featuring the best batsman of all time and Australian folk hero, Donald Bradman. To stop Bradman, Jardine ordered his fastest bowlers to bowl at the batsman's body, a tactic which became known as Bodyline. It worked. Bradman prolific run-scoring dried up, and England won. However, the crowds were disgusted at the tactics, began to voice their displeasure, and when Aussie batsman Bert Oldfield was hit in the head there was almost a riot. Terse telegrams were exchanged between Sydney and London and a crisis was only narrowly avoided. Jardine remained unrepentant. He had gone to win and win he did. But Bodyline was made illegal and he has entered into infamy.

It gave, if it were possible, more spice to the encounter. From the Second World War onwards each series appeared to grow in importance. In the latter end of the 20th century, and early years of the 21st, Australia, as they did in many sports, excelled at cricket, building a team for the ages, who at times seemed simply unstoppable. Anyone who has been there will marvel at the marvellous climate, the wide open skies and rich natural resources, and understand why sport plays such a defining role in the national psyche. Stuck away on the far side of the world, with little global influence, it was as if becoming great sportsmen and women was the way they could make an impact. I have played cricket with and against many Australians and there is one shared characteristic; a joy of competing, playing to win, and then shrugging it off afterwards and sharing a beer (or several) with the men and women with whom you did battle.

They take great pride in representing their country, of which they are very proud. In England we're all bit tired and jaded; patriotism is a wee bit tainted, and maybe we've become a bit blase about such accolades. Allied to the fierce competitive nature and a desire to stick one up the Mother Country - or Old Dart as some Australians know us - it is no surprise that for many years The Ashes became very one-sided. It usually began with a few English hopes being raised, and then crushed mercilessly under the Aussie jackboot. The imagery is crass but more apt than you might think - the only country who seemed to beat us at sport with such regular monotony was Germany.

Despite the rivalry, the relationship between England and Australia is more fraternal than some would have you believe. Many thousands of English people have emigrated to Australia, seduced by the climate and those big skies and the promise of a new start. Meanwhile, even more young Australians flock to the UK each year, many of them holding dual nationality passports, attracted by the proximity of so many European countries to visit, and friends and relatives to see. Many end up staying for far longer than they planned, taking jobs, marrying English men and women. London is populated by thousands of Australians (I once read that in London you were never more than three metres from a rat or an Australian...) and we all live in close harmony, sharing much friendly banter. This extends to the stands during matches. The travelling band of England fans who follow the cricket team all over the world - known as The Barmy Army- have a reportoire of songs with which they like to try and wind up the opposition, 'God Save Your Queen' being one, while several others include the word 'convict.' For their part the Aussies take it in good heart, easier to do when your team is whipping the other out of sight and you're laughing your head off. An Australian friend of mine opined that the Aussies domination on the cricket field was revenge for a combination of things: an age-old inferiority complex, the removal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Queen's Governor General, Bodyline, and the massacre at Gallipoli in World War 1 when thousands of young ANZAC soldiers died, so the story goes, at the hands of English incompetence, and the fact we English still viewed the place as some sort of colony for undesirables, the unwanted and the uncilivised (Sample joke: English man at passport control in Sydney. Immigration officer asks: 'Do you have a criminal record?' Man: 'I didn't realise you still needed one.') He didn't have much time for my theory they were just better than us at cricket.

But it felt rather sweet for many Australians. For many years their culture was a second-hand English one. TV, films, theatre, literature and music were often pale imitations of existing English programmes, movies, plays, books and songs, bowing down to the artistic output of the mother country and looking upon their own with some embarrassment, strange as it might sound now when so many Australian writers, musicians, actors and other artists are making their mark. 'The cultural cringe' as it was known. In England, awed by their prowess on the playing field, we adopted a 'sporting cringe' to mirror it. We would never be as good as them again, we thought.

Of course, such fatalism turned out to be misguided. We won the Ashes back in 2005 amid scenes of national jubilation rarely seen for a sporting event (thousands turned out to see the team ride an open topped bus through London to Trafalgar Square). Twenty years of hurt and humiliation ended. Now The Ashes are a contest once more. All great eras end and the Australian team is in a rebuilding period, while England have a settled and talented side, marginally the favourites. The forthcoming series is being held in Australia, which means it will be screened through the night. Despite the needs of work and family, I will be unable to stop myself staying up all hours to watch, so if the next few weeks of blogs are rather garbled then don't blame me, blame The Ashes.


Dan - Friday