Two Gripping Thrillers

A great deal of attention has been paid to the need to escape from the constant anxiety of each day’s news, especially during this past year of the pandemic. You can turn off notifications on your phone and avoid reading the news online but it will still find you, somehow.

Streaming TV has been the most widespread diversion for most, but these days one has to dig deeper into Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu et al. to find something truly engaging. And even at its best, TV has a hard time matching the kind of transcendent escape provided by a really engrossing book.

I’m going to recommend two such books, each of which provides a wonderful diversion from daily tasks and worries. Both generate plenty of tension but it’s good tension—the kind that keeps you turning pages and temporarily rising above whatever happened in the wider world today. Both books are thrillers (though they’re quite different), and both are very well-written, and featured on last year’s New York Times100 Notable Books” list.

A new twist on noir. Image: us.macmillan.com.
A new twist on noir. Image: us.macmillan.com.

S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland is a thoroughgoing delight—if you like classic noir, you’ll love this book. Set in Virginia, its depiction of criminals and criminal life in the South reads as completely authentic. The novel’s protagonist, Beauregard “Bug” Montage, is torn between his past life as a getaway driver extraordinaire and his current desire to live as a good citizen, husband and father. The tension between these two roles helps fuel a fast-moving plot that grabs you tight and won’t let go. Full review here.

A nasty piece of work. Image: penguinrandomhouse.com.
A nasty piece of work. Image: penguinrandomhouse.com.

Lawrence Osborne’s The Glass Kingdom is an altogether different kind of thriller, and a nasty piece of work it is (I mean that as high praise). This novel’s setting is bustling, shadowy, dangerous Bangkok, where 30-something Sarah Mullins winds up after scamming $200K using the reputation of a famous American author. Sarah gravitates to a high-end collection of high-rises known as the Kingdom, supposedly secure from the chaos and growing civil unrest on the streets of Bangkok below. There she mingles with other expats from around the world, all of whom have sketchy backgrounds of their own. The book’s tension builds steadily and becomes almost unbearable toward the end. Full review here.

Read either or both of these novels and enjoy a well-deserved vacation from the news cycle. Have a good trip!

Last Chance, Long Odds

Without phenomenal luck and remarkable courage, the United States will soon be over.

Where to begin? The events of January 6 represent one of the darkest chapters in American history, and point the way toward a very bleak future—toward no future at all, where the country is concerned.

Today’s Republican Party is an active threat to democracy, truth and life itself. Yet it retains, and appears as though it will continue to retain, tremendous power. The fact that Trump will almost certainly be acquitted by the Republicans for his nihilistic and seditious behavior speaks for itself. So do the 74 million votes cast on his behalf in the recent election.

Although Democrats have achieved nominal power, this is deceptive. America’s built-in structural inequities guarantee that President Biden’s, and the Democratic Party’s, power remains very fragile. It’s good to see the flurry of Biden executive orders attempting to undo some of the damage Trump has done, but those orders themselves are fragile—they can easily be undone by the next right-wing president—and they don’t do enough to address America’s ongoing medical, political and societal emergencies.

President Biden's inauguration. NBCNews.com.
President Biden’s inauguration. NBCNews.com.

What can be done? In an ideal world, in a sane world, a world governed by logic, the Democrats would employ their current shaky majority to attempt radical, structural change, despite the odds against achieving such change. And I’m not talking about economic or racial inequality here, because unless the nation can successfully address the emergencies referenced above, those are moot points.

Some ideas, none of which are likely to be implemented:

  • Criminalize disregard of public health precautions during the pandemic. Make anyone not wearing a mask or observing social distancing do substantial jail time and/or pay a crippling fine. America’s current laissez-faire attitude toward life itself is a disgusting perversion of the founders’ conception of individual rights.
  • Shut down social media. All of it. The ignorant and the destructive have no inherent right to spread their craziness among the population at large. The use of social media does not equate to free speech when such use produces obvious widespread damage.
  • Implement re-education camps (yes, just as the far right fears). Much of today’s appalling ignorance and susceptibility to lies and conspiracy theories stems from the 40-year-plus failure of America’s educational system. But instead of barbed wire and guard towers, try using America’s best and brightest teachers—we still have some—to show the benighted Trump public what gullible, harmful dupes they have been. Pay those people to obtain the education they should have obtained years ago (the carrot), and punish non-compliance (the stick).
  • Try the worst Republican politicians for treason. From Trump on down, Republicans have done their damnedest to undermine faith in the country’s democratic values, and their blatant spread of lies and misinformation has cost hundreds of thousands of lives during the Covid–19 pandemic. Republicans have also seriously weakened our standing in the world and they have made democratic governance almost impossible.
  • Use the National Guard, where appropriate, to clamp down on violence, including police violence (witness the cops’ typical double-standard at work on January 6). And while we’re at it, root out right-wing radicals from the Guard and from police departments nationwide.
  • Outlaw all militia groups and go for their guns. I don’t mean to be facetious here—400 million guns floating around the United States virtually guarantees that many of the 74 million Trump voters will eventually use them, and relatively soon, to “take back their country.” Offer a combination of money and National Guard force to mandate compliance. Allow the retaining of individual weapons for self-protection where appropriate (it usually won’t be).
The assault on the Capitol. USAToday.com.
The assault on the Capitol. USAToday.com.

How likely do you think it is that any of these six suggestions will become reality? Right—none of this going to happen. Therefore, the intelligent thing to do is prepare for what comes next as we hurtle toward disaster. I’m not talking about Civil War (though that is a distinct possibility), but a negotiated separation. Now is the ideal time to begin this process, while Democrats do wield some sort of power.

Governors of blue states and mayors of major cities should start the discussion now. The one way out of America’s downward spiral, the one chance that some semblance of America’s best moments in history and its leadership role in the world can be salvaged, is to say a permanent goodbye to Trump, to his voters and to the Republican Party at large. Let them go their own way. And let the rest of us regroup to try and salvage a sane and healthy American future, even if it’s on a reduced scale.

Criminal

As this incredibly dysfunctional and deadly year nears its end, I’ll close 2020’s posts on a personal note: it was a tough year for writing, at least for me.

Many wonderful novels, stories, poems and non-fiction works were published this year, to be sure. Yet I know I’m not alone in feeling the effects of distraction and isolation on my writing. When every day is “Blursday,” it’s tough to focus. Not to make excuses—one must try, and I did. I published a grand total of one poem and one story this year. (Actually, the story won’t appear in Gargoyle until next summer.)

So, not a productive year. I can’t blame it all on the pandemic. Part of the responsibility is mine—I should have found more and better, more consistent, ways to focus, and I didn’t. Part of the responsibility lies with a fundamentally flawed literary marketplace, especially the minor leagues of literary magazines and chapbooks. There are myriad problems here which will likely be the subject of a future post.

The one poem I published, “Criminal,” appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Poetry Quarterly. I’ll reproduce it below, since its subject matter and especially its title seem relevant to the horrific year we’ve just experienced.

CRIMINAL

I know it was a crime
at least as cold as
the fluorescent light that
bore down on my father’s deathbed.

But I still can’t grasp the
betrayal, or the indifference
that enabled it. No
conscious thought was involved.

Dad had been declining for a year,
dropping faster toward the end,
life’s last, careless insult
a needless broken hip.

It was the fall that did me in, he
told me when I flew out to
see him in San Jose.
When I first arrived his head was thrown back

and his mouth gaped. It was awkward.
He was propped up in the hospital
bed, and later that
day I spooned out soup.

He slurped happily, as though life
hadn’t changed all that much.
But then he knew again
it had—his time was nearly gone.

You’ll stay with me? he asked, eyebrows raised.
I can’t, Dad, I told him.
I have to get back.

He died the next evening,
after I’d returned home.
Distance helped blunt the news.

—Thomas Pletcher

Here’s hoping for a better new year.

Yes!

Today, November 7, 2020, is a day for celebration. Donald J. Trump, easily the worst president of the modern era and a contender for worst president ever, has been vanquished. Joe Biden will become America’s 46th President.

What’s more, Kamala Harris will become America’s first woman and woman of color to serve as America’s Vice President. In light of the country’s long record of racial and gender inequality, this is icing on the cake.

President-elect Joe Biden. Photo: Wikipedia.
President-elect Joe Biden. Photo: Wikipedia.

Biden’s ascension to the presidency will not automatically solve America’s myriad problems, which are severe. But there will be ample time to focus on these problems, and their possible solutions, after the new president and his team take office. For now, every thinking American owes Mr. Biden their gratitude for his defeat of the malignant Donald Trump.

Celebrate!

 

 

 

Time to Vote

Well, here we are again—on the eve of The Most Important Election Ever. This time, it may be true.

Image: cnn.com.
Image: cnn.com.

However, if (like me) you’re not convinced that a Biden victory on November 3 will fix everything, then I offer you the following. I published a slightly different version of this poem four years ago, and I believe its message remains useful today.

“A Villanelle for Election Day”

When the world begins to disintegrate
And the country begins to fall apart
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

Every campaign lie is defined by hate
And every campaign is a lie at heart
When the world begins to disintegrate.

If fear expands and gathers too much weight
And you fear carnage is about to start
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

Some will tell you it’s really fucking great
And it’s time to upset the apple cart
When the world begins to disintegrate

The darker it grows, the more it grows late
And you know compassion won’t play a part
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

Perhaps the end is really up to fate
Perhaps it’s finally time to grow smart
When the world begins to disintegrate
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

To a new beginning.

 

Break It Up

It’s the day after the New York Times published its scoop on Trump’s taxes, and while I hope the news helps the Democrats in November I don’t plan to focus on it here. Instead, let’s take a brief look at what happens after the election, regardless of who wins.

It’s been said many times that Trump is merely a symptom of America’s dysfunction and I believe this to be true. We’ve had appalling Presidents in the past, and we’ve always had plenty of truly deplorable citizens. So, defeating Trump in November (or December, or January) will not resolve the nation’s problems.

In fact, you could argue—and I do—that nothing can or will “fix” America as it’s presently constituted. This is also the argument that Nation contributor Richard Kreitner makes in his much-discussed new book, Break It Up. Kreitner reviews the long history of this country and demonstrates it has never been truly united. The “union” has been held together by one morally abhorrent compromise after another, right up until the present day.

Break It Up, by Richard Kreitner—an instructive look at America's past and a possible path to America's future.
Break It Up, by Richard Kreitner—an instructive look at America’s past and a possible path to America’s future.

But now we’re running out of time. Consider:

* We have 200,000+ deaths from Covid–19, and the pandemic continues.
* Climate change is here now—witness unprecedented West Coast fires, producing the world’s worst air quality.
* America’s built-in, historical social injustice is being confronted almost daily on the streets but little tangible progress has been made.
* We have a dysfunctional two-party system with entrenched safeguards against genuine democracy, resulting in minority rule.
* America lags behind other “advanced” countries in nearly every measurable quality of life indicator.

Imagine the Democrats win the White House and the Senate. More than 40% of the citizenry would still be adamantly (perhaps violently) opposed to any new agenda the government might offer. The country’s judicial system has shifted to the right. Right-wing militias are on the rise, and America has more guns than people.

Is progress likely under such circumstances? Can we really address the myriad emergencies facing this country?

Now imagine another scenario, one in which “red” and “blue” states agree to go their separate ways. Secession is a fraught issue but it is one that has always been with us, as Kreitner shows. Let’s say, for the moment, that each side of the country agreed to negotiate a peaceable separation which would possibly entail a common defense but also two new charters or constitutions for the two new nations. Granted, such negotiations would be extremely thorny. But each side’s desire to be free of the other would be a powerful motivator.

And what possibilities might ensue! A Blue America could follow a charter that guaranteed truly equal opportunity for all, a sane health care system, a dedication to fighting climate change and a rational system of justice. There would be no Second Amendment and no widespread gun ownership. Police forces would be college-educated and professionally trained; they would not have military equipment at their disposal. Prisons would not be capitalistic enterprises but would instead be focused on reform. Education would again become one of the country’s most revered professions. And on, and on. We could have a social democracy built on the Nordic model and strive to improve it further. We could have a country that people of good will, empathy and conscience could take genuine pride in.

I’m not naïve; I realize that dividing the country into separate nations would not be easy, nor would it produce a utopia. But it could produce a hell of a lot more genuine progress than we’re likely to get under our present flawed system. Given the intractable division in the U. S., and given the various states of emergency we confront, it’s time for another carefully considered look at the benefits which could accrue from secession. Reading Break It Up is a good place to start.

Update: Scrivener 3 on Linux

Update, 1/30/21: there is a bug in the recent Scrivener 3 betas which prevents Scrivener from launching successfully after installation. You can resolve it by using winetricks to install speechsdk. This is now fixed.

It goes without saying that these are troubling times. Politics and the pandemic, bound tightly together in this dysfunctional country, will be with us through the end of this year and well beyond. So let’s focus on something small and potentially positive, only tangentially related to the larger world.

There aren’t many fiction writers who use Linux as a regular platform, I’d wager. Yet there are a few, including me. I believe that open source at its best serves as a role model for how the larger society should function. This quality in itself attracts some socially conscious creative people to the platform. The problem, of course, is that commercial software remains dominant, and not all of it can run on Linux. It is possible to write with existing open source solutions. But the best solution for aspiring novelists is the carefully crafted Scrivener, developed by a small, quality-focused software team at Literature and Latte in the UK. And Scrivener no longer runs natively on Linux.

Good news—Scrivener 3 will work with Wine.
Good news—Scrivener 3 will work with Wine.

To the company’s credit, a version of the Scrivener Linux beta remains available, and this can interface with the current Scrivener 3 on the Mac by translating documents from Scrivener 2 format to Scrivener 3, and vice versa. But the need to “translate” back and forth is a less than ideal solution.

For a while, Wine had come to the rescue—Scrivener ran just fine “out of the box” on default Wine installations. But that changed sometime back, as Scrivener 3 for Windows development evolved. Wine stopped working, and I turned back to Scrivener on macOS to continue work on my novel. Apple still leads the pack in terms of both ease of use and options for writers (but Linux exemplifies the moral high ground, as noted above).

Now that the new version (20.04.1) of Ubuntu LTS is out, I decided to take another look at the situation, and I have some good news for the small audience of writers on Linux. The latest beta of Scrivener 3 for Windows does run on Wine. You just have to do a little extra work to enable this.

A quick disclaimer: while I worked as a developer for many years, I now focus on writing. As a writer, I can’t afford to be distracted by any particular tool. If something doesn’t “just work,” I’ll find an alternative that does and concentrate on the writing. That’s why I hadn’t wanted to get down into the weeds to figure out all the nuances of enabling Scrivener 3 on Wine. But when I took a quick look, I discovered that things weren’t that bad. My Wine configuration is probably a little wonky, and I’ll likely do a complete reinstall when Scrivener 3 for Windows is officially released, supposedly sometime this fall. But getting the software to work again isn’t all that much work.

Scrivener 3 in Composition Mode on Linux.
Scrivener 3 in Composition Mode on Linux.

The latest beta, 2.9.9.9 (RC9), would seem to indicate that the official release is near (fingers crossed). The beta expires in mid-September. Here’s how to get it working.

If you already have Wine installed, you have two choices: you can create a new prefix for Scrivener, or you can update the parameters of the default .wine prefix. (I’ve tried both, which is why my configuration is not as clean as it should be.) If you don’t have Wine installed, then installing it should be your first step. It’s straightforward, and I won’t describe the process here.

If, like me, you only plan to use Wine for Scrivener and one or two related programs (Literature and Latte’s Scapple “brainstorming” software runs fine on the default Wine install), then I recommend updating the environmental settings for the default prefix .wine to meet Scrivener’s current requirements. The process described below applies to Ubuntu Focal but should be translatable to other distros.

The core requirements are Windows 7 or higher and .NET v4.6.2 or higher (Wine 5.0 will let you use .NET v4.8).

Once Wine is installed, make sure you have 32-bit architecture enabled. This is needed for various reasons overall, and also to register Scrivener. The command is:

sudo dpkg -i –add-architecture i386

Following that, run this:

env WINEARCH=win64

Now you’ll need to install Winetricks. Again, this is straightforward. Once you have it installed, run the following commands. The first one is:

env WINEPREFIX=$HOME/.wine winetricks dotnet corefonts

This is necessary for Times New Roman, the most popular font for submitting your work to publishers. If you already have the font on your system (it might have come with or been installed by another program), you can omit the above command.

Next run:

env WINEPREFIX=$HOME/.wine winetricks win7

And then:

env WINEPREFIX=$HOME/.wine winetricks dotnet48

Now you should be able to right-click on your downloaded Scrivener 3 beta file and use Wine’s installer to install it.

Scrivener will create a .desktop file than you can use to launch the program (which didn’t work in my case, because my overall Wine installation has some issues—as I said, I’ll clean this up when the official version is released). You can then add the launcher as a “favorite” in the dock.

An easy alternative for launching is simply to hit the Super key to bring up Search and type in the first few letters of “Scrivener.” Once you see the program just hit Enter to launch it.

Or, if you like the command line, make a little shell script like so:

!/bin/bash

cd ~/.wine/drive_c/‘Program Files’/Scrivener
wine Scrivener.exe

Then you can run it with:

./scrivener.sh

from whatever directory you placed the script in. That said, a launcher is probably the best way to go and that’s what I’ll use once I clean things up.

And there you have it—a little work, but well worth it for those who want to be able to use the best long-form writing program on Linux.

A Burning

My intent this time out was to forgo the increasingly bleak political and societal scene in the US and examine a compelling work of fiction instead. The book under review here is A Burning, by Megda Majumdar, and it is a debut novel. Don’t let the word “debut” put you off, though—this is one of the most powerful and accomplished works I have read in quite some time.

A stunning debut and a savage indictment.
A stunning debut and a savage indictment.

However, if you sometimes read fiction to “escape” the cascadingly unpleasant realities of day-to-day American life, I cannot in good conscience recommend A Burning, even though it is set in and intimately concerned with India instead. While the societal particulars are quite different (and in some ways, as bad as ours have ever been), and while there is no pandemic underlying the action, this novel is a razor-sharp examination of basic aspiration in a capitalist society of grotesque inequality, and the ways in which universal human nature can be twisted in such circumstances. Indian setting or not, this book will not let you escape life in the United States.

The plot is streamlined and increases in intensity throughout the novel. A Burning will in fact grip you like a thriller. A poor young woman whose principal ambition is to achieve a middle-class existence is unjustly accused of a horrendous crime. The lives of two other Indians striving to make their way upward in a fundamentally flawed society—a physical education teacher who falls in with a right-wing political party and an engaging Hijra who is determined to achieve film stardom—intersect with hers in ways that seem inconsequential at first, and then increasingly heartbreaking.

If calling a novel “the book of the summer” once conjured up beach reads like Jaws, this novel will instead make you freshly aware of just how much we all have left to achieve. It truly is the one novel you should read this summer, and experiencing Majumdar’s brilliant and savage dissection of Indian society will help fortify you to face the enormous challenges remaining in this country.

This is a stunning and immensely rewarding book.

Why We’ll Never Fix the Police

In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder in Minnesota and the resulting nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, there’s been a lot of hopeful talk about the possibility of structural change.

It’s not going to happen.

Granted, there have been positive steps taken around the country. New York State, for example, just put in place several reforms—including the banning of chokeholds and the opening up of police disciplinary records—that should make it easier to prosecute individual cops who commit murder. That’s the theory, at any rate.

Derek Chauvin, in the process of murdering George Floyd. Photo: theguardian.com.
Derek Chauvin, in the process of murdering George Floyd. Photo: theguardian.com.

But already, ambitious reforms are running into age-old roadblocks. This is certainly the case in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, and it will prove to be the case elsewhere as well.

Structural change is hard. Especially when the conditions for it do not exist. And the conditions for it do not exist in these so-called United States.

To actually change the system, a great majority of the populace must agree there is a great need to do so. But in the U.S., a substantial portion of the population does not agree such a need exists. A substantial portion of the population does not agree on anything.

While earnest and appalled citizens were taking to the streets to protest racism, millions of others were challenging them, on the streets and, especially, on social media, with “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” taunts. Others have signed on to the so-called boogaloo movement, which wants to incite civil war and overthrow the government. And that movement has plenty of company on the far right.

Meanwhile, the nation’s government itself works against the interest of its citizens on a daily basis (see Covid–19, America’s failure to respond) and pays the most token of lip service to protesters’ demands for change.

As much as all reasonable and empathetic citizens would like to change America, we must face the truth of life in this country today:

  • Racism is built-in. It’s not going away.
  • America’s cultural and political divisions may have reached an all-time high, and there is no fix for this on the horizon.
  • There are many good cops, as the truism goes. But there are many more bad cops. They join the force from warehouses and fast food restaurants and become drunk with their newfound salaries, benefits and power. What’s more, they become part of a cool blue fraternity that always sticks together. I contend that the worst young men and women in America aspire to join the police precisely because they will be able to commit violence with impunity.
  • America’s two-party system is hopelessly hamstrung in terms of flexibility and rapid response. And it, like the people it supposedly serves, is also crippled by cultural and political divisions, likely beyond repair.
  • There are too many stupid politicians and too many stupid cops. If we don’t have a competent and professional government, how can we expect to have a competent and professional police force?
  • The ideal solution to eliminate killings by the police would be to disarm them, as in Britain and other countries. Oh, wait—there are more than 300 million firearms floating around the United States. Guess that’s not such a practical idea.
  • Well then, what if we got rid of all the guns, then disarmed the police? Yeah, good luck with that one. Refer to all the points made above.

Our country is irremediably broken, folks. Outrageous police brutality is just the latest systemic problem we will not be able to resolve, at least not as the U.S. is presently constituted. And racism, of course, is our original sin. It endures.

It’s not just police departments that need to be dismantled and rebuilt more intelligently.

It’s the nation itself.

Learning from The Plague

Several months in, it seems to me that too many Americans have begun to accept the ongoing pandemic as some kind of “new normal.” Perhaps not the millions who have recently lost their employment, and certainly not those who have been directly impacted by COVID–19, but many, many others seem to have become quite acclimated to America’s current state of affairs. This may be due in part to the rash/rush of “openings” in the past few weeks.

Casual accommodation is not a realistic viewpoint, as the majority of American health officials continue to maintain. Not with a death count of more than 100,000 and rising. If you’d like a corrective dose of reality, you could do far worse than read Albert Camus’s classic novel, The Plague. I reread the Stuart Gilbert translation a couple of months back and it is a brilliant work of art and philosophy which goes straight to the heart of what it means to experience a pandemic.

Albert Camus's exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.
Albert Camus’s exemplary novel still packs a punch. Jacket photo: Penguin Random House.

The novel describes the sudden disruptions, growing fear and increasingly desperate measures taken to fight the invading disease in ways that are now intimately familiar to thinking Americans. Its protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux, exemplifies the heroic medical personnel fighting on the front line of today’s pandemic. Moreover, the book is a gripping read in and of itself.

But perhaps the novel’s greatest contribution lies in its depiction of human nature, vis-a-vis the outbreak. While it’s true that the townspeople in Camus’s novel did not have to contend with deluded far-right “patriots” determined to expose themselves and others to the disease in the name of “freedom,” they did have to contend with many other dark strands of humanity. The novel’s invading plague is often cited as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. One might make a similar comparison of the COVID-19 pandemic and what passes for “government” in America today.

Our broken and corrupt national government will certainly need to be dealt with, and soon. But so will COVID–19. The current policies being implemented, especially in Middle America and the South, are not going to work.

Odd as it may seem, reading The Plague today is a strangely uplifting, even hopeful experience. This is because, while it tells stark truths about human nature, it also shows people at their best, as with Dr. Rieux. The book is both cautionary and morally instructive, as shown in its final paragraph:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.