Inspirational

Say you were a bigoted, lying, lazy, heartless, abusive ignoramus. Say your name was Donald Trump. But I repeat myself.

Bad guys add weight to every story they populate. How many ideas has the Orange One already inspired? How many fiction writers –like those folks who write for late-night TV–are already enthusiastically mining the mother lode of material he’s providing, getting it down quickly because it’s coming so fast.

Need some conflict for your protagonist to overcome? Some characteristics and actions you can borrow for your fictitious, mouth-breathing antagonist? We got your guy right here. Your cornucopia of rotten fruit and moldy grain.

Too bad we can’t restrict him to the pages of a book, where he couldn’t do any real harm.

Fall from Grace

Fall from Grace

Once upon a time (but not long ago), there lived an orangutan. He looked like most other orangutans—shaggy, orange, hulking—but inside he wasn’t like most other orangutans, who tend to be gentle and curious and interested in caring for their families and sharing and elevating the welfare of their neighbors. If you look up the word “equality” in the orangutan dictionary, you’d see a bunch of orangutans sitting around and sharing tropical fruits and a variety of fermented tropical drinks.

Our orangutan, whose name was Equivocado Mal (but we’ll call him Mal to conserve space and because that’s what his handlers settled on even though it had been their idea to saddle him with the mouthful of names in the first place), had led a unique life for an orangutan. While most of his fellow orangutans had been born in the jungle, nurtured simply for a reasonable time, and turned loose at a young age to fend mostly for themselves, Mal had been born in a gated enclosure and raised by handlers who pampered him at every turn.

This was good and bad.

Good, because Mal didn’t have to worry about the things other orangutans had to worry about. Food, shelter, disease, accidents, conflicts with other orangutans and dangerous beasts of the jungle, helping defend his territory against predators. Learning stuff. His entire well-being was in the hands of (naturally) his handlers, who were slightly higher on the scale of primate development.

Bad, because over time, Mal’s relatively small brain began to think the world revolved around him. If it was good for Mal, then it was good for the world. If he focused on his own happiness, then everyone else should be happy too (not that he cared, but if anyone asked him, that would be his answer). If he was happy stealing from his neighbors, thumping his chest, farting, saying nonsensical things, grabbing females by their private parts, everyone else should smile and “let bygones be bygones.” They should “get over it.” And for the most part, that’s what happened.

Mal never learned any of life’s difficult lessons, but for an orangutan who’d never been interested in learning, that was a perfect situation. Although he never figured out how to fend for himself in any legitimate way, he eventually came to believe that’s what he was doing. He may have been born in a gated enclosure, but he thought he’d built it. And stocked it with all of life’s necessities. And an admirer or two whenever needed. Someone to keep his inflated ego sufficiently inflated.

But his handlers didn’t worry about what was going on inside Mal’s head. That was beside the point. He may not have fit in the group of collegial orangutans pictured in the dictionary, eating tropical fruits and drinking tropical drinks, but the handlers didn’t care. They had an orangutan, and people liked orangutans. For the most part orangutans were gentle, and friendly, and cute in a homely kind of primate way. An unevolved—but endearing—version of Homo sapiens.

So when Mal was still young, his name and likeness began appearing on various products and properties. His name and likeness appealed to people. An orangutan? Charming! What could go wrong? They lined up to buy and rent the products and properties. Often that didn’t go well, but the people were reminded to “let bygones be bygones,” and “get over it.”

Mal met orangutan “celebrities.” He began to think of himself as a “celebrity.” He (and his handlers) began to think he was capable of anything. They took and publicized photos and videos of him eating from fine china, drinking champagne, driving a Bentley, sitting in a group of “adoring” females, all of whom had their hands strategically—if furtively—placed to shield their private parts from any of Mal’s sudden advances.

Mal was given his own TV show. In the TV show, Mal’s handlers had him “talk.” They provided absurd subtitles for all of his vocalizations and expressions. They also came up with absurd subtitles for all the other orangutan participants in the show. The lines were funny. They were hilarious. The dialogue was the most hilarious anyone had ever come up with. Everyone thought so. The handlers dressed up Mal in a suit and starched shirt and a too-long tie (all made in a far-off land) and invited the other orangutan celebrities to take part in a team competition to come up with successful business plans. Mal spent a little time trying to get across the importance of “teamwork,” but since he’d never really been part of a “team,” his “talks” always turned into testimonials for himself—how “prominent” he was, how everyone loved him and his products and projects, how even though his hands were small, no females had ever complained about the rest of his appendages.

The TV show was popular at first, but then some viewers (the ones who were under the impression that this was a serious show) came to realize that Mal was only pretending to be an authority on business and success and teamwork and relationships. There were rumors of failed businesses and skullduggery and runaway chest-thumping and crude vocalizations and unwanted crotch-grabbing. And once Mal realized viewers were laughing at him, he grew angry. Mal had no sense of humor, especially when the humor was at his expense. So the hilarious dialogue stopped being hilarious. The audience dwindled. Mal began pointing his small fingers and blaming others for his decline in popularity. Soon he was replaced by someone who was slightly more evolved and who actually had once been a “celebrity” himself.

Mal’s handlers had made a lot of money so far, but they had another idea: a two-night TV “special” with Mal in the starring role. They’d seen parrots talk and horses count to ten and elephants paint with oils using their trunks and get paid big bucks for the “paintings”. And over the years, they’d noticed that Mal’s small hands (and fingers) were especially good for one thing. He was a typing phenomenon. And he liked it. He liked the way the keys went down when he pushed them and he liked the sounds they made (they reminded him of the clapping of an appreciative audience) and he loved the squiggly characters that showed up on the screen when he pressed the keys.

The handlers believed that if Mal could be coaxed (with praise and assorted treats) into intense typing sessions, he would periodically type actual words. Then before the second night of the “special,” the handlers could take the actual words and arrange them into a coherent “message”: what Mal “really meant.”

So the “special” was scheduled. There was much publicity. Mal was “interviewed” on many TV shows. He responded with chest-thumping and crude vocalizations and unwanted crotch-grabbing, but a significant portion of viewers loved it. They’d missed him. They were impressed that he was a “straight-shooter,” that he was an “outsider.” They were sure that if they could understand his crude vocalizations, they’d represent exactly what was on Mal’s “mind.”

On the first night of the special, Mal sat down and went to work, while a huge TV audience watched him pound away at the keys. The “words” appeared on a large display over his head. Most of them were gibberish, of course (he was still an orangutan), but Mal worked fast, and soon one of his handlers, seated nearby, picked out a genuine word, and then another. He compiled these words in a separate document that also appeared on the large display so the TV audience could see them. They were impressed. And surprised. Because many of the words seemed to share a train of thought. Also, some of them were fairly long, which was unexpected. Among the first words were “loser” and “weak” and “lying” and “huge” and “crooked,” and “murderers” and “illegals” and “build” and “low-energy” and “birth certificate” and “emails” and “little” and “wall.” He continued to type mostly gibberish, but the handler was good at picking out the actual words when they appeared (some of them were short everyday words like “the” and “a” and “on”) and display them on the big screen so the appreciative audience in the studio and out in TV land could Ooh and Aah. They liked the words. They liked that Mal was typing them. Clever! They couldn’t wait for the words to be sorted out and rearranged into what Mal “really meant.”

When the second night of the special came, the audience was even bigger, and the TV network loved it. They began thinking of more projects for Mal. But first things first. While Mal sat on the stage surrounded by “adoring” females (with hands strategically placed) and made guttural sounds (with “sophisticated” subtitles), one of his handlers, dressed in a tweed sport coat and glasses to look like a “professor,” read Mal’s reconstructed work. It turned out to be a story, nearly three hundred words long, about a heroic orangutan who rides in on an angry elephant to vanquish his “weak” enemies, especially the ones who don’t look like him. He slaughters the “losers” and “low-energy” “little” people and locks up the “lying emailing crooks.” He rounds up the “illegals” and “murderers” and “rapists” and the hordes of “unvetted criminals” and “terrorists” with no birth certificates streaming into the country. He sends them packing and builds a huge wall to keep the “undesirables” from returning.

A lot of people loved the story. They loved Mal’s “meaning,” and that he said what was on his “mind.” They loved that an orangutan could actually type 300 real words and that when organized, they almost made sense. They loved the “special.”

The TV executives came to Mal’s handlers with an offer: We’ll pay you millions if Mal can take part in another TV “special,” only this time the two nights will be devoted to him writing a feature-length script. If he writes a feature length script (with your “interpretation” help, of course), we’ll hire a producer and director and film crew and real human actors and make his story into a big-budget movie and set up distribution for a theatrical release.

The handlers were overjoyed at the prospect of another big payday. Because it would take much longer for Mal to “write” a feature-length script, they proposed that most of his “writing” would be pre-recorded and edited, so the home audience would see only a small percentage of the keyboarding (the highlights) and wouldn’t get overexposed to (and bored by) an orangutan pounding away on a keyboard for hours and hours.

Again, the network publicists did their job. People were eager to see Mal back in action. They were eager to see what words he came up with and how his handlers interpreted what he’d “meant to say,” this time as evidenced in a real-life movie.

The “specials” went off like clockwork. A huge audience watched snippets of Mal churning out gibberish sprinkled with actual words. Many of the words, surprisingly, were the same ones he’d churned out earlier. It was almost as if he’d intended to write them. His “professor” handler dutifully mined the gibberish for words and recorded them so everyone who hadn’t detected them themselves could see them on a separate list.

It was a long list, long enough to turn into a script. But after it was completed, the handlers and TV executives and producer and director noticed a discouraging trend. The pages and pages of words consisted of the same ones over and over again: “loser” and “weak” and “lying” and “huge” and “crooked,” and “murderers” and “illegals” and “build” and “low-energy” and “birth certificate” and “emails” and “little” and “wall” and the others that had shown up on the first list. There were a few new ones (like “Russia”), but they were similar.

What to do? The handlers and movie-makers couldn’t cheat by adding words because they’d agreed to have the accounting firm of Crunch and Loving Inc. audit the lists to certify their validity and ensure to the network and audience that there’d be no hanky-panky. So they were forced to arrange and rearrange and rearrange over and over what boiled down to one page of Mal’s “words” to create a hundred-page script. It was difficult. Many of the creative people had doubts. But nobody had a choice. And besides, they’d already been given money, and they weren’t about to give it back. They—producers, directors, cast, crew, publicity people—plowed ahead with the project.

The movie—Noyph Saves the Day—was completed. No one was allowed to preview it, so there was much anticipation when it opened at thousands of movie theaters across the country and around the world.

Unfortunately, Noyph was a disaster. Repetitive (of course). Amateurish. Childish. People had been willing to watch a free TV show with a cute orangutan pounding out gibberish and occasional words, but this was a real movie with their time and money at stake. Before the movie was ten minutes old, people were streaming from the theaters, demanding their money back. When they were refused, crowds gathered to protest. Word spread like floodwater. Almost nobody (except a few curious drunks) came to the second showing.

The media carried stories of how bad the movie was (although no critic had actually sat through the whole thing). They published and broadcast stories about the disgruntled crowds and lawsuits and why anyone had thought it was a good idea to have an orangutan, even with the help of his handlers, write a “script” for a real movie that people would be expected to pay good money to see.

By the second day, Noyph Saves the Day was closed down, replaced by the new Beverly Hillbillies reunion movie, which everyone agreed was much better.

Mal was oblivious to all of this. Based on all the attention he’d gotten earlier, he thought he was the best writer ever. He thought he was the best at everything he tried. And even everything he hadn’t tried. So when his handlers approached him with their new idea for milking some money out of his “celebrity,” he willingly went along with it. He was a show-orang, after all. He loved the limelight.

Vegas, the handlers said. A major venue. A huge audience. And you on the stage, swinging from a trapeze. Doing acrobatics. You’re perfect, for it, Mal, they said. A natural. You’re an orangutan, after all.

The show was booked. The people came.

Alas, Mal was done in by his large body, his larger ego, his small brain, and (even more relevant for this endeavor) his small hands. When he leaped from his high platform to catch the trapeze, his tiny fingers failed to get a grip. They slipped off. He plummeted (the best plummet ever, he thought on his way down), and splatted on the stage floor. The best splat ever, his audience thought.

The story of Mal’s death made the back pages of the newspapers the next day, mostly with references to the disastrous movie. There was some interest (mostly on the part of his handlers) in rerunning his TV “specials.” But that didn’t happen. In general, people just wanted to forget about Mal. They thought his performances were juvenile and his “vocabulary” was offensive. They wanted to forget that they’d been duped into spending their time and money on him and his “abilities.”

So Mal was pretty much forgotten. He was buried in a pet cemetery. His headstone wasn’t the biggest or best one there. It was small, like his disloyal hands. On it, below the name Equivocado Mal, his handlers had commissioned an engraved saying: A Legend. Below the saying, some disgruntled graffiti artist had added, In His Own “Mind”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sixth Extinction–Review

This one won the Pulitzer, so it doesn’t really matter what I think, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus of cheerleaders anyway.

To sum it up, the book is more enlightening than an evening with Einstein, more nerve-wracking than an afternoon walk in a stand-your-ground neighborhood, scarier than Donald Trump’s hair, more ominous than a mushroom cloud, more honest than Abe.

Elizabeth Colbert is a terrific researcher and a wonderful writer. What sets creative nonfiction apart from everyday, humdrum, dry, boring nonfiction, is voice. And she has given this piece of writing an engaging voice, loud and clear and undeniable (unless you’ve just arrived from Venus, where things are a lot hotter) and full of life and interesting facts and yes, humor, even in the face of tragic tales of what man is doing to the planet. She (I’m not going to say literally, because the word literally has become a metaphorical pain in the ass) traveled the globe, talked to the world’s most respected scientists in their fields, got out in the wilds of such diverse places as South America and New Jersey, got dirty, hot, cold, tired, wet, to do her research.

She does a great job of cataloging and explaining the five earlier extinctions that have affected earth (the ones that happened naturally), and the ongoing (and unnatural) one. The Sixth Extinction. Sadly, it’s the only one that we can do something about, but very little is being done about it. Even more distressing: We’re the culprits.

Is it too late? Have we passed the tipping point? Some scientists think so. Others think it’s approaching, rapidly, and by the time societies wake up, by the time the deniers and don’t-cares and money-grubbers and incompetents and other fools have been silenced, finally, the opportunity that remains, the chance to reverse the tide of disaster that will fall heavily on the shoulders of our grandchildren and great grandchildren, will have vanished.

This book should be required reading for anyone signing up to run for public office. They should have to listen to the audio version as they drive around in their luxury V-8s and fall asleep at night in their air-conditioned 4,000 square-foot homes. They should be tested on it for comprehension and given lie-detector tests to find out if they believe what they’ve heard and read.

No one will require those things of you. But if you haven’t done so already, read the book.

Review–WOLF BY WOLF

Win the race.

Kill Hitler.

Or die trying.

There you go. That’s the story. Sorry about the spoilers (not really–those are the three lines of the cover blurb).

I won’t tell you everything that happens in and around those lines, but I will tell you this: if you like adventure and suspense and speculation and fine writing, you should read this book. The author, Ryan Graudin, has written a near-perfect story based on the premise of the U.S. staying out of World War Two and Hitler having his way with Europe and forming an alliance with Japan that is still governing (terrorizing) Europe, Africa, and Asia into the 1950s, when this story takes place.

The protagonist is a girl with a devastating past, a heart full of determination, and talents that exceed anything you’re likely to imagine. She’s brave beyond words but also human, and you’ll pull for her as she takes on her assignment and carries it to the edge of reason and beyond.

Another World War Two story? you say. Not really. And so what if it is? The horrors of Nazi Germany aren’t one-dimensional and singular. They aren’t something we can simply compartmentalize and say, well, that couldn’t happen again. Look around. It could. To a certain extent, it already is. WOLF BY WOLF isn’t a “message” story, but the message is there nonetheless. In many countries today, tyrants rule, and citizens have no rights. Terror is a constant companion. In a democracy, we have choices, but if we make the wrong ones, or if we don’t exercise our right to vote, we could end up in the same situation.

I’ve been asked in the past when I’m going to move on from writing kids’ books to writing something for adults. The implication is that writing stories for kids is easier, and that the product is inferior, and that a “real” writer would be focusing on the adult market. I generally try not to get defensive. I usually point out that some of the best writing being done is done for kids, and then I refer the person to books that rival anything being done for “big people.” I could give you a list here, but if you’re reading this entry, you probably have your own.

In any case, the next time someone suggests to me that I need to graduate to adult books, I’ll give them my usual spiel on books for young people, and suggest they try WOLF BY WOLF.

The ending cries out for a sequel, and just as I finished WOLF I learned that there is, if not a sequel, at least a companion book. It’s apparently an e-book only at this time, and focuses on another character in WOLF. I hope a true sequel is on its way.

Review–THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA

This book is far from new, but like a lot of the things I read, it’s been on my radar for a long time. And fortunately (or unfortunately), the story is timeless. Set during the early years of World War Two, it’s the imagined tale of the isolationist faction of the U.S populace finding a hero who promises to keep them, and the country, out of war.

With no political or governing experience but with notable accomplishments in more visible theaters, with admitted admiration for fascist leaders and their philosophies and disdain for Jews and other minorities and FDR’s Democratic leadership, the heroic figure rallies huge crowds who swallow his empty promises and right-wing rhetoric. Then he waits in the wings while the Republican convention delegates fail to nominate a more traditional and moderate candidate. With great fanfare he shows up at the convention and gets nominated and saves the day. He barnstorms the country, winning over more and more voters, and when the 1940 election is held, the least qualified candidate in the field, and in all of history, defeats President Roosevelt in a landslide.

The hero? The new president? Charles Lindbergh. The world-famous aviator. The first man to fly solo across the Atlantic. The man who associated with Nazis, who was given a Nazi medal and wore it proudly. Not such a stretch for Philip Roth.

Hard times follow, of course. Europe struggles against the Nazi onslaught. In the U.S., Jews live in fear. Laws are passed. Crowds of Jew-hating and -killing thugs go unpunished. And so it goes.

As you would expect with Philip Roth, the writing is admirable. The characters, real and imagined, are engaging and memorable. The story, either the one he tells or the one we can extrapolate from it and apply to the current atmosphere in this country, is well-imagined and -told, and above all, scary.

Review–LOSING JULIA

I’ve read a lot of books–fiction and nonfiction–set during World War Two recently. I’m currently reading another. I’m writing still another. But stories set during the First World War have mostly eluded me. I’m happy this one didn’t. It’s a story of war, with many of the experiences and awakenings and conflict and trauma and pointlessness and heartbreak common to any war, but it’s also a story of love and yearning and missteps and regret and loss and remembrance. The characters are engaging. You care about them. If you’re looking for a strong story largely set in a time that is now nearly a hundred years in the past, during a war with causes and results more ambiguous than the one that created “the greatest generation,” I’d recommend this one.

 

Overoptimistic

Okay, so I know I might’ve mentioned something about a new e-book being out in time for Halloween and it’s way past Halloween and there’s no book. But I’ve got a list of excuses (none of which I’ll bore you with) and most of them are true, so there’s been a delay. But don’t give up on me (or the book). It’s still in the works and now I’ve got a great piece of cover art and all I have to do is put the pieces together. I’m not going to make any more promises or even semi-promises on timing, but I’ll keep you posted. Look for UNEASY PICKINGS (relatively) soon.