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How to Visit Seattle Like a Native Even If You're a Newcomer

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On a recent trip to Seattle, I asked my husband to ask me a question, any question. This is a good way to keep things interesting in a long relationship, as you learn something new every time, even if you've been together for years and think you've heard each other's stories already. He asked, "Of all your journalistic articles, which one do you think is your best?" Funny thing, I didn't even have to think about it. 

It's been almost a decade now since I wrote for the new media web site Crosscut. A for-profit startup back then, the skeleton crew of publishers and editors had high ambition that we were going to save journalism. Of course, that was a tall order during a time of massive newsroom layoffs, many papers across the country swallowed up by larger entities or simply folding. But Crosscut is a thriving non-profit now, and I moved on to writing games and books.

During those heady years of '07 to '09, I served as deputy editor and wrote more than 60 articles for Crosscut. Two of them stand out as my best, or at least my favorite, as it's hard to be objective about one's own writing. They're both travel pieces, which surprises me, as I'm not particularly well-traveled, although I've certainly lived in a lot of places. Both express a joy for local travel in and around Seattle. I share them with you now to help inspire your own travel to the Emerald City, my beloved home for a decade. Both excursions are still do-able today; Agua Verde is alive and well, as is Kalaloch, though I suspect they've since swanked the place up. 

 A newcomer goes kayaking

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Six years in the Northwest and I’d never set butt in a kayak. Not that this should be that surprising. I know people who’ve been here for 20 years and haven’t so much as touched a kayak’s plastic skin. A friend of mine in her 30s who’s lived here all her life hasn’t been on a floating vessel of any kind except for the bridges and ferries.

But I used to edit Fishermen’s News, a gig that gave me access to 100-year-old halibut schooners and 100-foot ocean trawlers. I live in Ballard, where one sees intrepid kayakers come through the locks on a regular basis. There was no excuse.

On the kind of freakishly warm, sunny day in late September that makes Seattleites feel as if they’re getting away with something illicit, the hub and I went down to Agua Verde Paddle Club to brave the waters of Portage Bay.

| Kayakers look free, but they look awfully vulnerable, too.

At the check-in counter, they make you sign a release form. There’s nothing like a release form to up the anxiety meter. Not that I was feeling anxious. OK, a little. The kayaks are small and sit atop the surface of the water, and the ships passing by are very large in comparison. Kayakers look free, but they look awfully vulnerable, too. My kayaking experience thus far in 36 years of existence was limited to the waters off Miami, which were warm as a bath, and a basin in the Florida Keys where the water was actually hot. This Puget Sound water is so cold, I can’t stand to be in it further up than my knees, during the hottest part of the summer — you know, that one week in August when you partially break a sweat.

To say that I had a healthy regard for the realities of the situation would be euphemistically accurate. To say that I had a perhaps paranoiac fear of the water wouldn’t be inaccurate...

[Continue reading at Crosscut.]

It's stormy, and the Pacific coast beckons

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Seventy-three miles long but just a few miles wide, the ocean beaches of Olympic National Park in Washington have been — miraculously — left wild. There are no fried fish stands, no motels; no one beckons you to parasail or buy a hot dog. You are not to drive your car along the beach as is done with scandalous complacency just 20 miles or so to the south. To get to most of Olympic’s beaches, you must be willing to work, to walk in sturdy shoes for some time, and to climb a bluff or two, perhaps pulling yourself along by the fixed ropes provided for your safety. You must pay attention to the changing tides, as the beach may be for hundreds of feet decidedly walkable when you wake up in the morning, the sand seeming to stretch with flat, mirror-like grace to the far retreating surf, only to, by afternoon, disappear under the swirl and toss of water against the base of a bluff. The beach is there, and then it’s not.

| The beach is there, and then it’s not.

Visitors flock to Olympic National Park in ever increasing numbers — visitation grew 10 percent this past year over last – but a trip during off-season is a good way to avoid crowds and experience the beach in its wildest state. The hub and I stayed at Kalaloch Lodge over a three-day weekend in late fall, when the lodge had ample vacancy, and we nearly had the beach to ourselves, especially after sunset.

The Quinault word “kalaloch” means “a good place to land,” and that utilitarian mindset still characterizes it. Kalaloch Lodge is no high-end resort; nor is it a gem in the national park lodge tradition. Disabuse yourself of any vision that includes a massage, stone fireplace, 300-thread-count sheets, or complimentary cotton robe. The accommodations are old-school and basic. Not rustic – you’ll find showers, alarm clocks, and coffee makers in most rooms. But you won’t find a TV, phone, or wi-fi. The furnishings and decor are several decades out of date, and that’s not such a bad thing...

[Continue reading at Crosscut.]

I hope your travels are full of wonder and discovery. Happy Memorial Day!

All photos by me, with the driftwood image appearing previously on Crosscut. Want to read more of my articles for Crosscut? Visit the author page.


What's the Motive? Lily Iona Mackenzie

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Readers of my Dreamslippers Series will undoubtedly recognize kindred spirits of Amazing Grace in Fling! Author Lily Iona Mackenzie talks about the real-life inspiration for her eccentric characters in today's What's the Motive post.

Lily Iona Mackenzie:

I began writing Fling! because I was curious about my mother’s mother, someone I had never met. Early in the 20th century, my grandfather, a former schoolmaster in Scotland’s highlands, immigrated to Calgary, Canada, hoping to find a better life there for himself and his family. Meanwhile, WWI broke out. A passenger ship was torpedoed, preventing his wife and five kids from joining him for seven years. When they did, my grandmother couldn’t adjust to the brutal winters or to her husband’s behavior. 

After being in Calgary for a year, my grandmother moved out, refusing to put up with my grandfather’s verbal and physical abuse. She found work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family. Soon, she and her boss became lovers, and he took her to Mexico City with him. When he returned, she didn’t. Some time later, my grandfather received a letter from a Mexican priest that she had died there.

Though I never met my grandmother, she was a strong, ghostly presence throughout my childhood. Who was this woman whose genes I shared? How had she found the courage in the early ‘20s to flee a difficult situation? And what did she do during those years in Mexico City? What motivated her to leave her kids and travel to Mexico, a country very different from what she had experienced in largely protestant Canada and Scotland? And what effect did her behavior have on those left behind, in particular her daughter and granddaughter?

These were the questions that sent me off on my quest to uncover this mysterious woman. I wanted to recreate what life might have been like for her once she left Canada. That impulse brought in a number of other characters that inhabit the novel. So while 90-year-old Bubbles and 57-year-old Feather are the main focus initially, very loosely based on my mother and myself, it’s Heather, my imagined grandmother, who is at the novel’s heart. 

When I started out, I planned to write a lyrical family saga. But Feather, an aging hippie, and her fun-loving mother Bubbles soon took over the narrative and brought their own distinctive humor with them, with plenty of hilarious moments as members of this family reunite in Mexico. 

Feather and Bubbles’ journey begins when Bubbles receives mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

But they also make unexpected discoveries in Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist. Feather gains a sense of who her mother really was. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known, ancient rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. She doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in her. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams, one of the things I discovered from writing this novel.

For me, Fling! turned out to be a meditation on mothers, daughters, and art. It suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what all the characters discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does. And I’m hoping that my actual grandmother partook of it, too.

Review Fling! on Amazon and Goodreads.

Follow Lily Iona Mackenzie on Facebook or through her blog.

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Lily Iona MacKenzie has published poetry, short fiction, and essays in over 150 Canadian and American publications. Her poetry collection All This was published in October 2011. Her novel Fling! was published in July 2015. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy, will be released in 2018.


The Big, Fat Book Tour!

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 It's rare that authors are treated to headlining book tours these days, if there ever was a day when that happened. Especially as an indie, my marketing budget comes out of my own (very small) pocket. So there was no book tour for the first installment in the Dreamslippers Series, and for the second book, the tour was almost entirely virtual, meaning online-only.

 While this is all well and good economically speaking, I craved the opportunity to connect with readers in-person. We writers live a solitary existence, going through our days mainly alone, talking only to the cat. So when it's time to turn our book babies out into the world, it's only natural we'd want to interact with others.  

By the time I was ready to release the third book in the series, I'd built up enough momentum that in-person opportunities just showed up. Here's a run-down of what became my big, fat book tour for the release of Bound to the Truth.

Nia Jam to Benefit Standing Rock

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 I dance at a local studio, Embody, which has not only given me a beautiful new practice in Nia but a supportive community as well. Nia features prominently in Bound to the Truth, so when I found out there would be a Nia Jam and fundraiser, I donated five copies of the book, which were awarded at the event by raffle. Separate from the studio itself and hosted entirely by Nia teachers who gave generously of their time and talent, the jam raised more than $1300 for Standing Rock. We danced for two hours straight that night. I couldn't imagine a better way to celebrate the book's release date. It's exactly what Granny Grace would do.

Book 'n' Brush Author Event

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 Honestly, I can't say enough about how terrifically supportive the community here in Lewis County is. As an indie, I completely struck out trying to get my books into Seattle bookstores, even ones in my own neighborhood I'd frequented for a decade. But the owner and manager at Book 'n' Brush here in Chehalis have been enthusiastic supporters. They carry the whole Dreamslippers Series as well as the poetry collection, and in turn, I drive customers to the store whenever possible. It's a win-win. I felt honored to be included in their recent author event, along with others I've come to know, some of whom also have new books out.

   Booknbrushgroup1

 Authors Julie McDonald Zander, Texie Gregory, Kyle Pratt (who wasn't part of the event but stopped in to buy books), and me.

 Book 'n' Brush is a gem of a store, anchoring downtown Chehalis. As the name suggests, they sell both art supplies and books, for a perfect mashup of creative pursuits. We had a great write-up in the local paper about the event, and The Chronicle also covered my book's release.

Human Response Network Masquerade Ball

  Masksjpg

 My husband and I, incognito for a cause.

 A good amount of what you might call spiritual, humanitarian intention went into the Dreamslippers Series. I've written female-centered narratives peopled with a diverse spectrum of characters. I've tackled homophobia and tried to explore organized religion with humanity and compassion. I shed light on corruption in the art world and illuminated a corner of darkness that is the illegal child pornography industry. And finally, I celebrated sexual liberation and told the stories of those harmed by sexual abuse and repression. All while honoring the importance of plot and pacing, and I hope, without ever coming across as preachy. Everything I write is in service to the story.

 I always want to do more than this. I tied sales of Cat in the Flock to a donation to Jubilee Women's Center, a highly effective organization in Seattle that helps women transition out of homelessness and into independence. Here in Chehalis, I support the Human Response Network, which provides advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Masquerade Ball was the organization's first major fundraiser, done in an attempt to ramp up service in response to an overwhelming increase in requests for help.

Auction_table

Copies of the books on auction.

Seattle University Talk 

 I've presented at Seattle University twice before, and it's always a pleasure to meet creative writing students there. This time, I discussed what it takes to get credits and bylines in three different arenas: books, games, and journalism. I related tales from the trenches in all three and managed not to bore them. While it feels odd to call myself a master of anything, the below slide did garner a few smiles.

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 The students asked great questions and seemed encouraged by my career transitions from one arena to another, AKA the survivor mentality that has kept me consistently employed. Props to the university bookstore for carrying the Dreamslippers Series in connection with the event, and to the creative writing program for their incredible hospitality.

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 Seattle U souvenirs: Reflections picked up for free in the campus chapel, and the student lit mag, Fragments.

 An Evening with the Authors at the Lewis County Historical Museum

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 The last in-person event on my schedule for this book launch was the only repeat for me, as I'd attended the same last year. Located in a former train depot, the museum features local history displays and a gift shop. The authors event is a great party and opportunity to meet other writers as well as new readers. Poetry seems to resonate best with this crowd.

 So there you have it: This is how we do things in indie land. My family and I hosted Thanksgiving at our house in the midst of this, so I'm hoping December is a bit less eventful? Or not. I really did enjoy myself. Welcome to all the new readers who stopped by my tables, came to the talk, or danced by my side. I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.


An Interview with Award-Winning Author Qui Xiaolong

Qiupeacehotel

Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He is the author of the award-winning Inspector Chen series of mystery novels, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006), Red Mandarin Dress (2007), and The Mao Case (2009). He is also the author of two books of poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003) and Evoking T'ang (2007), and his own poetry collection, Lines Around China (2003). Qiu's books have sold over a million copies and have been published in twenty languages. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter. 

Qui and I are old colleagues and friends. I served as a beta reader for his first novel before that was even a thing, and the two of us worked together teaching English at St. Louis Community College. During me recent trip to St. Louis, he told me about his interesting indie project, a poetry collection written in the voice of Inspector Chen, a character he's developed over the course of a multi-book series. Chen trained in poetry, and it informs his thoughts and is a compelling aspect of the series. But this is the first time the poems have been gathered into a collection.

Lisa: Poetry has been an integral part of your Inspector Chen series since the beginning. Why fuse these seemingly disparate genres—poetry and crime—into one?

Qui: To begin with, I love poetry, and I cannot but have my Inspector Chen love it, too. In an age with few people reading poetry, it's just my way of smuggling poetry into crime fiction. But it's also more than that; in classical Chinese novels, there're more poems than in my Inspector Chen novels, usually with a poem at the beginning of a chapter, and another at the end of it, and more with a new character being introduced. And I think it is justified for varying lyrical intensity in the narration--like the use of blank verse in a Shakespearean play, so it sort of carries on the Chinese tradition. But more importantly, at least so for myself, I want Inspector Chen to observe not only from a cop's perspective, but from a poet's as well. The two sometimes come into conflict, which may also make the character more complicated. 

Lisa: That’s really fascinating; I didn’t realize Chinese novels integrate the poetic form so much. And yes, I enjoy the two sides of Chen’s brain, poet and inspector. Together they lead him to a sort of third way of doing things that seems to be a negotiation between the two. There’s a lush, philosophical quality to his thoughts that make his perspective such a pleasure. I’m curious: What have readers said about this unique poetry/mystery mashup? I know we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. your foreign readers. Are those abroad more receptive to reading poetry with their plots? 

Qui: I believe it’s something worth trying for a writer to write in the genre, but at the same time, to push the limit of it—if that’s what you call the unique poetry/mystery mashup. From what feedback I’ve gotten from my readers, I think they like it. Yes, we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. readers elsewhere. For instance, Poems of Inspector Chen have been translated and published by my Italian and French publishers, and during my tour in France in October, one of the most rewarding experiences there was the discussion with 300 high school students in Lyon about that poetry collection, which they studied in class. But I want to add, readers here are also so enthusiastic about the poetry. During a recent conference sponsored by the Ahmanson family in L.A., for instance, the host offered the poetry collection to everybody attending the conference. A very large audience indeed. It’s just her way of supporting poetry and Inspector Chen, which I understand and appreciate. 

Lisa: With your background in literary poetry and fiction, what drew you to the detective genre in the first place?

Inspector Chen poems

Qui: I've always loved crime fiction. But the way I started writing in the genre was accidental. In the mid-nineties, I went back to China for a visit after staying in the States for seven or eight years. I was so impressed by the changes taking place there that I wanted to try my hand on a novel about the society in transition, but I had not written fiction before, so I had a hard time putting things together. Then the knowledge of the crime fiction genre came to my rescue, so to speak. I reshuffled the contents, and used the genre as a ready-made framework for what I wanted to say. In fact, when I submitted the manuscript for Death of a Red Heroine to my publisher, I was not even that sure it was a real crime novel. But my publisher liked it and wanted me to expand it into a series. So here I am, with book number ten of the Inspector Chen series coming out in French in September. But because of the accidental entry, you may still notice the sociological traces in all these books. 

Lisa: Wonderful—that explains so much. It’s interesting to hear you say your original plan was to write about society in transition. You weave this into the plots well, or rather, you deftly use plot as a vehicle for immersing your reader in that transitional society fully. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the series. How has that waxed and waned over the course of the series? You say now with ten there are still traces…

Qui: With so much happening in contemporary Chinese society, I’m capable of putting each Inspector Chen investigation in a specific social, political, cultural backdrop, in which the crime and the investigation are directly or indirectly commenting on it, and also commented on by the society in transition. For instances, Death of a Red Heroine against the backdrop of the split personality imposed on individuals living under an authoritarian regime, Red Mandarin Dress against that of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake against that of China’s ecological crisis, Enigma of China against that of governmental cyber control, and Shanghai Redemption against that of uncontrollable corruption under the one-party system… And with so much still happening there, Inspector Chen has a long way to go with a sociological perspective. After Becoming Inspector Chen, the manuscript I’m working on also has such a background focus on the lack of an independent legal system in China.  

Lisa: Let’s talk about your latest book, a collection of Inspector Chen’s poetry in one volume. It’s a brilliant, yet curious choice. Are there other models for what you’ve done, taking a fictional character and making him the “author” of a book of poetry? What made you decide to do this now?

Qui: For myself, it’s not exactly a curious choice. I don’t think I had any models in mind while compiling the collection, but I benefitted from the “mask” theory elaborated by Yeats. According to him, a poet could speak behind the mask of a character. And I found the experience truly liberating, for I could suddenly write about things familiar, relevant to the inspector, but not necessarily to me. It’s also experimental in exploration of the reversible interrelationship among the creating and the created in the process of fiction writing. 

Lisa: I’m also intrigued by your decision to self-publish this book of poetry. What has been your experience so far, as someone whose work has always been traditionally published—first with SoHo Press and now with St. Martin’s—stepping out into the wilds of publishing on your own?

Qui: The Poems of Inspector Chen was published traditionally in France and Italy. But I’m quite  aware of today’s difficult poetry market. For me, it’s a labor of love, but not necessarily so for every publisher, which I understand. About a year ago, I happened to talk to a friend about it, and he helped the project greatly with his expertise in the field of self-publishing. It’s really to his credit that the poetry collection came out here like that.    

Check out Qui Xiaolong's web site for book links and more.

Quiontour

 


You Win Some, You Still Win Some

Lisa and martha

Here I am with fellow finalist Martha Crites.

I'm honored to be a finalist for the prestigious Nancy Pearl Book Award. A huge congratulations to New York Times-bestselling author Carla Norton, who won for her novel What Doesn't Kill Her.

Being a finalist has been a heady experience. I mean, Nancy Pearl is the biggest thing that's happened to books since the Kindle. She has her own action figure:

LAF

And everyone who's heard I'm a finalist for the award named after her gives me impressed eyes and immediately rushes out to buy my book.

OK, not really on the book-buying, but I'm sure that's going to happen any day now. And I did experience my first in-person fangirl gush last night at PNWA when a newbie writer I met last year told me she has all my books and reads all my stuff and omigod I'm like a real writer! Still in shock about being a finalist for the Nancy Pearl, I was not prepared for this fangirl and am convinced she thought I was someone else.

The best part of last night's award ceremony was social hour at my table. In my own genre there was fellow finalist Martha Crites, whose novel Grave Disturbance was published by the new indie press Rat City Publishing. I can't wait to read Martha's book! 

Next was Charlotte Stuart, a finalist in the mystery category for her unpublished novel-in-progress. Interesting double coincidence: Charlotte and I both left tenured teaching positions due to the lure of the sea. She to join her husband on a fishing boat in Southeast Alaska, and me to serve as the first and only woman to ever edit Fishermen's News, which is also the same paper Charlotte's husband wrote for in the 90s. How weird is that?

Finally, I can't say enough good things about upcoming historical author Mary Gregersen, who secured second place in the unpublished contest for her novel-in-progress, The Narrow Door. She and I had a great conversation about our writing process, Irish heritage, dreams, and how we came to focus on fiction. Mary's the only author I know to have actually made good on that dream to work in a writer's cottage in the backyard.

All in all, I'm thrilled to be a finalist. I lost to a super pro novelist and true crime writer who's a New York Times-bestselling author, and I was in great company with the other finalists. Of course, there's always next year.

Most importantly, I made new friends. And that newbie writer fan girl? She placed third in her category. So you never know what's ahead.

Nancy Pearl Award Ribbon

 

 

 


The 1944 Movie 'Laura' Reveals Just How Broken Publishing Is - and Maybe the Whole Economy

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Sometimes I like a good film noir classic, as in the 1944 movie "Laura," named one of the 10 best mystery films of all time by the American Film Institute. This one was just right for a Saturday night movie binge because it features a young Vincent Price as a pretty boy gigolo, if you can imagine that, and a victim who's made a life for herself as a successful advertising exec, a rare career woman for her time.

 What I didn't expect in this strange but clever whodunit is that one of the main characters and ongoing suspects is an eccentric writer, a dandy who pens columns while sitting at his bathtub desk. From his posh penthouse apartment in New York, he brags about making fifty cents a word on his writing.

 Hold up, I thought. Fifty cents a word? In 1944? 

 Those of you who've never tried to make a living with your words probably don't know this, but fifty cents a word is considered a good rate today. Yeah, in 2016. I'm part of several online freelancer forums, and there I regularly see rates of $150-300 for a 700-word article, which works out to about 20-40 cents per word. The top echelon magazines reportedly pay their freelancers $1-$2 dollars per word, and there are a rare handful of freelance writers making bank, but the vast majority of words that get written in America today sell for far less. Disturbingly, there are plenty of publishers who expect writers to work for "exposure," or for mere cents per word. 

 Here's what writers today should be making per word, if we take 50 cents in 1944 and adjust it for inflation: $6.82.

 That would be almost $5K for a 700-word piece, which is a far cry from reality. And you wonder why so much of what's out there is written in listicle format and laden with gifs! Even if the 50-cents-per word bit were a dramatic embellishment, and let's say the actual writer pay at the time was half that, at 25 cents per word, or a quarter, at 12 cents per word, which is about what I make today on stories for my local paper, we're still looking at serious stagnation, or even devolution. Depending on whom you ask, the publishing industry is either experiencing a glorious renaissance or is in its death throes. If it's the former, writers on the whole aren't experiencing the golden part of this age, and if it's the latter, then I suppose things will only get worse from here on out. 

 In my overly long, SEO-designed headline above, I promised I'd mention how this relates to the overall brokenness of the economy. This writer wage stagnation/devolution is another example of how we've been shafted in the last generation as productivity has actually gone up but salaries haven't kept pace, pay for CEOs and others at the top soared while most other pay stagnated, and benefits such as pensions and employer-paid health care became a thing of the past. I'm no economist, though, so let me refer you to these nine sobering wage stagnation charts put out by the Economic Policy Institute.

 Sure, EPI is considered by some to skew liberal and/or is tainted by its labor backing. But you know what? It's hard to argue with the data. For example, since 1979, middle-class wages rose only 6% and low-wage workers' salaries actually fell by 5% while those with the highest salaries saw a 41% increase. Here's another: In the 1960s, CEOs typically earned 20 times what a typical worker earned, but today they rake in 296 times what a typical worker makes.

 So writers in this analysis are low-wage workers whose salaries have fallen over time. Our economy is one big film noir movie, but the villain is greed and the policies that support and enable greed. Spoiler alert: The mystery of who killed Laura, the advertising exec, is far more fitting and poignant than anyone in 1944 could have imagined. Yep. You guessed it. The writer did it.*

* Or at least, he thought he did (plot twist!).

  


What I'm Reading: Capacity for Murder: A Professor Bradshaw Mystery

Capacity for Murder: A Professor Bradshaw MysteryCapacity for Murder: A Professor Bradshaw Mystery by Bernadette Pajer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting read that will scratch two itches if you're a lover of history and science. Three if you're also mad for mysteries. Pajer is a skilled researcher who blends historical and scientific facts into an engaging story of murder and mayhem. Through the perspective of the thoroughly likable Professor Bradshaw, readers become immersed in a seemingly impossible-to-solve case. Impossible, that is, unless you're in tune with both scientific detail and the darkness that drives some to extremes, as he is. At times his excessive rehashing of the facts can feel tedious, and the female characters come off less developed by comparison. But this academic sleuth is a compelling, sympathetic guide through a fascinating moment in the history of electrical technology, as revealed through the crimes of the day.

View all my reviews


The $6 Million Dollar Man in Today's Dollars

 

The other day I thought about how much I wish I had a bionic spine, and I remembered that back in the 70s, they totally promised us bionic everything when "The Six Million Dollar Man" debuted on television. Here it is 40 years later, and still no bionic dude.

The show only ran for four years, but in the monoculture of the time, everyone watched it. We kids fantasized what it would be like to have superhuman powers, which seemed well within the reach of science. "We can rebuild him," the narrator intones. "We have the technology." This is a great example of what I like to call "hand-waveology." Whenever science is used to further a plot without tackling sticky improbabilities like resource scarcity, return on investment, or actual scientific laws, the writers are sort of waving their hands, expecting us to accept it, no questions asked.

The other thing about the show is that it suggests technology can turn us into a better version of ourselves. Not some clunky inhuman cyborg but a man who's only a robot on the inside, where it doesn't mess up his man-ness, and the robotics only serve to make him stronger, faster, less vulnerable. And all for only $6M. I can remember that sounded like a lot of money back then. It doesn't anymore.

I wondered what that $6M would be in today's dollars, and it turns out it's $29,118,985.80. So the remake would have to be called "The Thirty Million Dollar Man." 

Of course, if they really did try to "rebuild" an astronaut today (LOL), assuming he's given permission to use his body as a science experiment (apparently not an issue for 1970s viewers), and assuming for the sake of argument that the technology actually does exist, it would probably run at least a billion, and there'd be cost overruns and delays. It would cause a huge controversy in a number of areas: government spending, the whole scary robots-taking-over-the-world-thing, the ethics of experimentation, etc., etc. There'd be lawsuits and counter lawsuits. #whyamisocynical #howcouldinotbe #thatisall


My Stepson, the Rapper

Zar

We thought the kid would turn into a nerd like his parents, but he's following his own path. So I'm the proud but somewhat bewildered stepmother of a rapper.

He goes by the handle Zar, and as you can witness here at his SoundCloud page, he's got chops. I'm thrilled with his clever rhymes and smart poetics, like this:

But these flakes are

hurtin' me

ignorance from certainty

Let's face it

that's racist

fin to cop a bassist

Your girl be like basic

My aggressors are Asics

Get some cash and save it

Take a shot and chase it

--From "See Me"

I also like the way he's referencing and paying tribute to other rappers a few bars down:

My flow is raw though

Close to Diablo

It's like close to Picasso

Layered like tacos

His "flow" is his style, which is made up of his rhyme scheme and intonation. The last two lines reference a band called Nacho Picasso.

By the way, his passion for language and facility for lyrical rhyme gave him a love of Shakespeare, so I'm doubly happy. Zar knows the Bard was the rap star of his time. Rap is a real art form, and if you don't believe me, here's a great breakdown of rap innovations and progression over the past thirty years.

 

But yeah, as you can imagine, his passion for rap has raised some issues. He's (painfully) aware that, unlike many of the rap stars he idolizes, he's a white kid from the Seattle north side, with all the privilege that entails. All of his parents have had ongoing conversations with him about the sexist representations of women and glorification of drug culture and street life that are the genre's tropes, as well as the charges of cultural appropriation he might incur as a white rapper. 

I'm pretty happy to see him highlighting what distinguishes rappers from others in terms of stereotypes:

ZarTwitter

As for the drug stuff, yeah, that's been harder than you can imagine for us to stomach. For the record, the kid's totally clean, so his actual experiences of some of the things he raps about are strictly textbook. We're sort of at the mercy of the legalization of marijuana in Washington state on this one. Our beloved "Zar" will be a senior in high school this fall. Of course all the high school kids are obsessed with the whole phenomenon, even though they are not of legal age to partake, a point Zar's parents and grandparents have practically emblazoned on signs throughout our houses. It doesn't help that in Seattle the almighty weed is everywhere. When I was still working onsite for the company, I once saw a coworker light up a joint right after work, as soon as he got to our bus stop across the street. Dude, you couldn't even wait till you got home?

It's also common with creatives when first starting out that we often adopt the style of those we look up to, as the first stage toward developing our own voice. If you don't believe me, I'll show you my wanna-be Virginia Woolf journals from undergrad, with their stream-of-consciousness musings and overuse of the semicolon. Every male writer I knew back then tried to write his own version of Ulysses. When it wasn't Woolf for me it was Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid. Like Zar looks to today's urban gods, I mimicked my own heroes. I keep telling myself--and my stepson--that his raps will progress into something else, maybe history or social issues! But you never know. Hip hop culture is what it is, and I'm no expert.

We try to give him some leeway. And all that said, it's incredibly exciting to see him grow and develop his talent. If you can get past all of the above, they're quite good. If you're into the music, and even if you think you're not, give Zar's tracks a listen. There are six here, some done in collaboration with others.


What I'm Reading: The Game of Love and Death

The Game of Love and DeathThe Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a brilliant premise for a novel, a game between Love and Death, two supernatural beings who can inhabit human form. The author, who loves games and has written for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit, pulls this off with an engaging drama that is both poignant and satisfying. Though the chapters are unusually short, the reader comes to read them as "moves" in the game. The game itself is riveting, the moves of both players almost never failing to surprise. Set in 1920s Seattle, this is also an historical novel, and Brockenbrough's recreation of the time and place seem deeply authentic. Both pawns in the game are heroes well worth rooting for, but darned if you don't end up caring about their crafty, strategizing players as well. A highly recommended read.

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