Cruising the Green of Second Avenue

Wild Child Publishing has issued the second volume of short stories in Cruising the Green of Second Avenue. The tales take up where Vol. I left off — bringing back Klein the Biker, Straight Charlie and Sammy the Madman while introducing new characters stumbling over life’s difficulties in the late 60s. Vol. II is an e-book published by Wild Child Publishing that you can download, save as a pdf (Adobe) file and print. Read both volumes and see that life isn't all that serious. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online book sellers.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Passport to the Past

Historical novels are an enchanting genre that leads readers into the dark corridors of the past. We walk unseen next to characters — some we’ve heard of and some fictional — who are explorers and adventurers, romantic lovers and nefarious brigands. Politicians are exposed, the self-righteous are quashed, and the meek inherit the earth before everyone goes home for the day.

As much as I enjoy sitting down with a new historical novel (or an old one by William Safire or Gore Vidal), I find one hand on the book and my other hand crossing fingers in skepticism. This doubt, which has led to cynicism, began with Killing Lincoln, written by Fox TV anchor and conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly and wordsmith Martin Dugard. (O’Reilly and Dugard published the formulaic Killing Kennedy soon afterwards. They’ve now given the “portable history treatment” to Jesus.)

They unroll the drama leading up to John Wilkes Booth’s infamous act while unveiling a band of amateur conspirators. In fact, history classes tend to skip over the widespread rabid hatred of Lincoln and the motley group that conspired to murder the President. Perhaps it’s good to be reminded of such things.

But how true is their fictionalized treatment? A seven-page index offers no sources, nor does the prologue, but the authors fill the work with interior thoughts and imaginary conversations the way an ├ęclair is puffed up with cream filling: light and airy, but not nutritionally good.

This is a non-fiction adventure set against a historical backdrop. Dare we imagine the gaunt President walking alone through the cheering throngs, heedless to the warnings that he might be assassinated? Do we gasp seeing General Grant show up at the Appomattox peace table with muddy boots to remind the impeccably dressed General Lee how Grant was upbraided for sloppiness during the Mexican War? Do we titter to hear the conversation between Lincoln and his wife in the closed carriage en route to Ford’s Theatre?

Readers should gasp at having paid for populist literary drama, in which the past and the present exist contemporaneous with each other. It’s branded as “history” that really isn’t history, drawing-room drama that could be played out today in a soap opera or on a cable channel.

Theirs is less a “bad” book than thin gruel after wading through work by Drew Gilpin Faust and Bruce Catton. We’ve embraced the narrative tricks of snappy writing, short sections and quick cutting worthy of “breaking news” on CNN. What the readers have lost is a certain Truth.

Artist and writer Douglas Coupland calls this new literary genre Translit: “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place.” The contemporary reader is tossed into the past without having to leave the present. It’s almost as if, Coupland says, one “can travel back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb.”

William Safire tackled an extremely difficult subject in Scandalmonger, an account of charges against Alexander Hamilton brought by Thomas Jefferson published in 2000. Safire was kind enough to write in the foreword, “The reader of historical fiction wonders: ‘What’s true and what’s not?’ As docudramas blur the line between fact and fiction, the reader is entitled to know what is history and what is twister.” Much appreciated, Mr. Safire. All your characters were real people, the dialogue was based on contemporary letters, diaries, news accounts, and court transcripts. And thank you for an extensive bibliography and indexed epilogue.

Andrew Miller’s Pure ventures into pre-revolutionary France. The book has been hailed for its narrative style and freedom from pastiche. But still, there was the question by The New York Times Book Reviewer that “Some stories are too wonderful — too filled with wonders — to be set in the present. They can’t really be called historical fiction because they don’t serve history so much as plunder it to invent what might have been.”

Readers should plead with writers to tell as much of the “truth” as they can. James Wood wrote in The New Yorker (May 21, 2012), reviewing HHhH by Laurent Binet, that “invented facts — invented characters, for that matter — have no place in historical fiction, and weaken it both aesthetically and morally.” Binet himself writes, “Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence.” This, Wood stated, would abolish most historical fiction. Yet, Binet has managed to write a historical novel not quite full of invented details that certainly uses invention. His fidelity to the historical record, and obsessive urge to analyze those moments where guesswork and invention replace fact, makes HHhH as much about the technical and moral processes of writing a historical novel as it is a historical novel.

At the end, this is what concerns me. There is a speculative fiction genre called “alternative history.” This, I suspect, is what we are often given in lieu of the real thing.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Reviewers: “Don’t Turn Your Back on Me!”

One negative review does not go unpunished. Back in January of this year I downloaded a copy of Rejection: A Lou Drake Mystery written by Thomas Matthews. The several reviews posted at Amazon uniformly gave it five stars. I was frankly underwhelmed, gave it one star, failed to understand why all the other reviews were five starred, and went on with my life. Take a look, at

Soon, an e-mail popped up from someone named Stacy Matthews. “As an editor I would beg to differ and so many New Yorkers have come forward and said there was nothing wrong with the way the setting was staged. The structure was classic contemporary fiction. Take at look at Patterson, Kellerman, Reich and other thriller and suspense writers. [non sequitur, Stacy.] Beside two small typos this book was well crafted, well characterized and devoid of the clich├ęs you claim. One question... you seemed well versed on the content. If you hated it so much why finished reading it? There must have something here that held your interest.”

My negative review had resulted in a literary “fatwa” Argumentum ad hominem. Was this a dutiful wife, daughter or sister pumping the book?

A second irritated reviewer said of my critique, “Wow, I don't agree with a single thing you wrote. I got this as a freebie, wasn't expecting much, and ended up thoroughly enjoying the book.

A third irked reader chimed in, “So by your argument we should also avoid any of the Scott Turow books set in the fictitious Kindle County? Please...”

I replied, thoughtlessly thinking this was a literary discussion, “My concerns were for a lack of accuracy and sloppy writing and editing." By then, Thomas Matthews personally sent me an e-mail apologizing for the errors and typographical oversights. But his wife (sister, daughter?) came back with “Wouldn't listen to this guy. The book is great.” and a few days later, “Christopher Reich, Lee Childs, Marry [sp] Higgins Clark and Lisa Genova all may disagree with you. 5 stars across the board. Can all these best selling authors be so stupid they wouldn't know good writing if they saw it? Just saying, you know?” My criticism, I think, was giving her sleepless nights.

Then, as though Jesus Himself came back to crit the Bible, Jerry Shapiro wrote, “You sound like someone expecting to read your morning newspaper. This was a novel. A fictional story. This wasn't an English exam. I doubt you'd have praise for a hack writer like Mark Twain. No, I'm guessing you're a pompous wannabe. Get a life. BTW... I AM the Jerry Shapiro in the novel!”

What have I learned? (a) the Amazon star system is manipulated by friends and family. (b) If you post a review for a very poor book, as I once did for Jerzy Kosinski’s Cockpit, the lap dogs will yip and yap at your heels for months! And (c) Any form of literary discussion and criticism of small-time authors is being held hostage to the rush for sales, ranking and fame.