Sunday, July 21, 2019

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Criticism would be better if there were less of it. Today anyone with an internet connection can post any nonsense opinion they want, with little regard for taste or even basic grammar. So with this review what I want to do, more than anything else, is to explore a little of my own methods, techniques and feelings on the nature of criticism, how I approach it, and what I think it’s limitations are, and perhaps, most importantly, why you should even be listening to me in the first place.
I suppose I wanted to be a critic from an early age, mostly because they got to do the things that I always wanted to do but was denied. They lived the kind of life that I wanted. I could never get to the theatre to see a play for example, so I read all the theatre reviews I could get my hands on. Likewise, the few novels that I could get my hands on were great, and always welcome, but it was always the book reviews that really stood out to me. More often the criticism was perfectly satisfying in its own right, complete and fulfilling enough to make anything more seem superfluous. However, the great majority of book reviews published today often give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is being dealt with.
And so, for me, when it comes to criticism and reviewing, two points are always paramount: (a) make your criticisms as honestly and forcefully as is appropriate, and (b) try to find any redeeming features in even the worst performance. Point (b) is perhaps the most egalitarian: hardly any book is completely void of some good qualities. It’s also important in a book review to convey accurately and succinctly what the author has to say before offering any evaluation whatsoever. Few books are perfect and many are defective in one way or another.
Whenever you read a review by someone that contains nothing positive at all, but only criticism, you should be especially suspicious, the reviewer obviously has an agenda or a vendetta or simply wants to look tough. A good reviewer must above all be fair, even when highly critical; so he or she should try to be as equally positive as well as negative. This is not to say that this will always be possible, or compatible, especially if the reviewer is at all honest. Tone and style are also both crucial tools in the critic’s belt. Although, the greatest difficulty, as Elizabeth Hardwick has said, “ making a point, making a difference, with words.”
My ostensible goal when crafting a review, is to celebrate the good and condemn the bad, but I am at every turn thwarted by the sheer mass of mediocrity with which I must contend with. Until one has had some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover just how bad the majority of them actually are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’ But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse.
In essence then, criticism is highly subjective. But it is a sort of subjectivity which strives towards a universal objectivity. We all agree that things such as beauty, truth, pleasure and pain exist. But we don’t always agree on which forms in which they manifest. And really, what meaning is there in the word ‘good’ anyway?
Better Living Through Criticism attempts to answer this question, and is composed of six chapters and four dialogues, which opens with an imaginary, or perhaps not so imaginary, interviewer asking the critic: “What’s the point of criticism? What are critics good for?” And it says, just before it closes, that where criticism is concerned, “nobody has ever figured out where to begin, or what to conclude.” But does this mean we have gotten nowhere?
Well, no. Critics perform a vital service in the creative continuum, deconstructing movies/albums/books/plays down to their requisite pieces and casting the bones in an effort to call forth larger cultural themes and ideas. Henry James wrote that criticism showed the mind engaged in “a reaching out for the reasons of its interest,” and Scott, says something similar toward the end of his buoyant and argumentative book: “Let’s say that a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.”
In other words, the nature of the critic, is to try to unpack the underpinnings of artistic endeavor. But most people simply do not care enough to read about criticism, and so aren’t likely to read a defense of it, and people who are already committed to criticism don’t need it defended. Who, then, is Scott attempting to persuade?
This uncertainty about audience is one of the most important and symptomatic facts about the book. It appears most clearly as a problem of reference, which is always an issue in criticism. A critic must assume a certain community of knowledge with the reader, or else the argument can never get started. But Scott is hesitant to take for granted any prior literary or historical knowledge on the part of the reader. No matter who or what is mentioned, Kant, H.L. Mencken, Henry James, Louis XIV, he introduces it with a journalistic tag: e.g., “Moby-Dick, (Melville’s) grand, tragic, philosophically ambitious narrative of an ill-fated whaling voyage.” This says both too much, who is the potential reader of Scott’s book that doesn’t know Moby Dick is a whale?, and too little, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, three adjectives aren’t going to give you any real sense of it. Which makes the book extremely unfocussed in a way and I struggled to understand just exactly what the author wanted to accomplish. His measure of good criticism is almost too relative, too hard to nail down. Which is a function, primarily, of his laudable unwillingness to try to characterize what is good art or good literature given the variability of all forms of both and the tendency for many arbiters to see "quality" through a Western lens. But I would have preferred that he was a little more prescriptive about the principals behind what makes for good criticism which you would think is distinct from what is being critiqued. As a result, Better Living Through Criticism, ended up being a different book than what I was expecting. It was more personal and more abstract, really almost philosophical in it's approach to criticism. However, Scott does make a strong case for the inevitability of criticism as a feature of any society that values thinking of any kind and in the process, ends up providing an interesting history of criticism itself. Still yet, I do feel that the subject matter would have been better treated in essay form, rather than a full length manuscript.
Elaborating on what is perhaps the boldest argument Scott puts forth in the book, “All art is successful criticism.” Sukhdev Sandhu writes, “All artists find themselves reckoning with the past, judging its achievements, assessing its relevance for the present, revolting against or carrying the baton for it. Huge swaths of contemporary culture – from hip-hop, to the films of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers – are constructed from borrowing, quotation, and meta-commentary, much of it bracingly original. Seen in this way, they are not just poster children for postmodernism, but direct descendants of Shakespeare who ransacked the cupboards of high and low literature, history and folklore in search of viable scenarios, cobbling together scraps of Ovid, Holinshed, Latin comedy, and commedia dell’arte sketches.”
But criticism, even when it is not literary criticism, is still, nevertheless, a literary activity, it is a kind of writing. And a culture indifferent to writing will be indifferent to criticism. And criticism is always addressed not to fans, but to independent minds, people who express their enthusiasms through debate and analysis rather than dogged collecting and esoteric one-upmanship. And regardless of what may be believed, I do think it still matters what an unusual mind, capable of presenting fresh ideas in a vivid and original and interesting manner, thinks of books as they appear. I’ve written about a hundred book reviews since starting this blog and I believe the book review is one of the most valuable literary forms and not at all easy to do well. And I would encourage everyone to write them and to take them seriously.
Whatever its occasional pandering, Better Living Through Criticism, does exemplify the rhetorical virtues it so enthusiastically celebrates as being peculiar to the critic: attentiveness to detail, alertness to context, and a hunger for larger meanings. Reminding us that in the end, it is the job of the artist to free our minds, but it is the job of the critic to help us figure out what to do with that freedom once we have it.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Ode to a Bluebird

There's a scared little boy that lives inside of me.
But I pretend he's not there, pretend he grew up.
Yet, I can hear him crying now as I write this.
But I’m too tough for him. So I beat him down and flick his ears and tell him to be quiet before someone hears him. 
And the strangers I meet never know he's there.
But late at night, when it's just the two of us, I let him out and tell him that I know he's scared, but not to cry.
And when morning comes I put him back.
And we subsist like this, with our
shrouded understandings, and it’s enough to make a man weep.
But I don’t weep.
Will you?

Saturday, July 13, 2019

A Gift and it's Discontents

The response I invariably give to the question, “What would you like for your birthday, Christmas, etc.?” is, “Nothing.”
People naturally assume that I’m just being modest, or at worst humble, and insist on getting me something anyway and of course it’s generally something that I couldn’t possibly want any less, something that even the most die-hard pack rat would look at and say, “Throw that out!”
And then they always ask me that most pretentious of questions, "Do you like it?” And I'm forced to say yes while a smug smile spreads across their face and I struggle to keep from choking on my own disappointment while simultaneously hoping that this piece of shit came from a retail store nearby and can be exchanged just as carelessly as it was purchased. Believe it or not there are some assholes out there that will go to such extremes that they'll do whatever it takes to prevent you from returning their gift. God help you if they happened to have made it themselves.
“But it’s the thought that counts.”
Really? How much thought could possibly go into a set of dish towels? My guess is practically none.
“Whose name did we draw this year honey?”
“Johnny’s “
“Ok here, lets get him this, so long as he has something to open.”
Who hasn’t had this conversation before? Anyone who has ever drawn names at the office or has forgotten someone on their shopping list. It’s the thought that counts? Come on, even if this were true nobody believes it. 
When you give someone a gift you are essentially attempting to evoke a response from the givee preferably a favorable one. But why do we want this? Is it because we want to make someone happy? It ultimately doesn’t matter; your interest in giving the gift will always remain self-serving since all purposeful actions benefits the self by the mere fact of the self-wanting to do them. Not to mention the phenomenon of me-gifting. Besides giving someone a gift they didn't want or ask for and then saying it’s the thought that counts is like a plastic surgeon, since your already under, adding an extra nose to your face because he thought you might like it and then expecting you to be grateful about it. What kind of bullshit is this? Not only does it obligate me to return the favor but I must now be grateful at having been made to do you a favor.
You know what "gift" in German means? Poison. We're all being slowly poisoned to death by people with supposedly good intentions. Leave it to the Germans to know a bad idea when they see one, except Nazism, they really dropped the ball on that one.
The only kind of gift anyone truly wants are the expensive gifts, and thats only because expensive gifts have no sentiments attached to them, which is what makes them desirable in the first place. It relieves us of the burden of having to get close to each other, allowing us to keep our distance while we engage in this consumer fueled emasculating barter system we call "gifting.’’

Friday, July 12, 2019

Notes on Reading

The first time I picked up Dean Koontz‘s novel, The Voice of the Night, I was still in high school. And I finished the book in one sitting after reading it for the entirety of an afternoon, one winter, in my grandfathers small convenience store, sitting by an old coal fired stove, used to heat the place.
I have actually longed to reread it, but I fear I might hate it this time around. It’s a legitimate fear of mine. I think if I was to reread it, I would be a lot more hardened towards it, simply because I’ve read a lot of books over the years since then. But I will always remember and cherish this one as one of the first, and certainly among the few, novels that have left a lifelong impact.
I also remember the first time I read, what would later become my all-time favorite novel, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. I was again still in high school and it was fall or winter. Some of the best reading I’ve done has been during those dreary winter months. This time however, I was at home by myself reclining on the couch in our family room.
I remember reading the description Judd Crandall gave about the first person to ever be buried in the Pet Sematary, Timmy Baterman. As I read this section of the book I imagined the road that he shuffles up and down on at all hours of the day, as being the same road we used to get to our house. A real road that ran through the neighborhood.
Not long after I had finished reading this passage I received a call from my grandmother asking me to come over to collect some leftovers she wanted us to have for dinner. So I ventured out into the night. A cold chill still in the air. Nothing to light the way except one or two street lights that seemed to work capriciously.
Upon reaching the middle of the road I stood and looked down it as far as the light would allow and was suddenly overcome with the sensation that Timmy Baterman was shuffling towards me in the dark.
This is the only book that has ever truly scared me and I’ve reread it several times and it’s always had the same effect.
Once I was reading a short story collection, Queen of Cold-Blooded Tales, by Roberta Simpson Brown. Brown was a Kentucky native born in Russell Springs, at the edge of the Appalachia mountains, and our school librarian had read a few of her stories out loud to our class in preparation for our Halloween festivities. I liked the stories, so I decided to read the rest in her collection and checked the book out that very same day.
The story that I remember most vividly from that collection is, The Handle. The title referring to the handles that can be found running along the outside of a casket. Chills shot down my spine as my closet door slowly began to open right at the exact moment in the story when one of the handles turns up in Ernie’s room. The latch on the closet door was broken and would occasionally open on its own. It was nothing unusual, but it was always unnerving whenever it happened, made more so this time by the story I was reading. A story about a boy who comes back from the grave to claim his friend.
Then there’s Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. I was around eleven when I first read this one, an especially vulnerable age for tales of well-dressed self-loathing vampires wrestling with existentialism.
Everyone knows by now about the tragic child vampire Claudia, trapped forever in the body of a child, never to be independent, never able to live or to be treated like an adult. But what was so interesting about her was the fact that, for all intents and purposes, she didn’t have a human life before becoming a vampire. She was only five years old, so, unlike others, Claudia didn’t have a humanity to remember and to influence her. She was turned before she understood the difference between right and wrong, before she understood the value of life. And because of this she was cold, cruel, and vicious in her own unique ways, but she also suffered in her own unique ways too.
I have a lot of memories reading these books and whenever I think back on my adolescence, these are some of the books that come to mind. They all helped to shape me as a reader, and maybe even in some ways, as a person. Which is also what makes books so powerful. They allow us to reach back in time and, in a way, transcend it. Even now whenever I’m reading a book that I’m really enjoying, it feels as if I'm a child again, peering in through the crack in the door and spying on the adults in the other room. But, ordinarily, I’m always a little sad after reading a book I really enjoyed. I’ll never have that same feeling or experience again. It’s that same thrill that I’m forever chasing. I may enjoy rereading it, but that first initial experience of unmitigated enjoyment will be, as Roy Batty in Blade Runner said, “lost forever, like tears in rain.”

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Short Story Review: The Garden Party: a selection from, The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Miss Mansfield does not write what one usually thinks of as a “short story.” She is interested in people, not plots, in the substance and color of life, not the chess patterns that can be made with it. Her impressive ability to extract the beauty and vitality from whatever subject, no matter how mundane or difficult it might be, is not only greatly appreciated, but is revealed in full magnificence in her story, The Garden Party.
As the title suggests, The Garden Party centers around an annual party held by the Sheridan family at their home. The Sheridans are a well-off upper-middle-class family, made evident by the very idea of a ‘garden party.’ One of the Sheridan children, Laura, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, is looking forward to the party and is keen to become involved in its preparations. But, while the Sheridans are preparing for their party, news arrives that a working-class man who lives in the poorer part of the village has been tragically killed when his horse reared up and threw him from his cart. Laura, filled with sympathy for the dead man and his family, pleads with her mother and siblings to cancel their party in light of the tragedy. How can they hold a party, with music and guests and laughter, when a family nearby is in mourning for the death of their husband and father? Laura finds, however, that the rest of her family are not as sympathetic as she: they assume the man was drunk, revealing their class prejudice, and that those types of people don’t expect sacrifices from the likes of them. Laura gives up trying to persuade her family to cancel the party, and retires to her bedroom to get ready before the guests start to arrive. Here she catches sight of herself in the mirror, all dressed up, wearing an elegant and fashionable black hat, with a decorative gold pin, and decides that maybe her mother was right and it would be silly and wrong to cancel the party. She decides to attend the party, and return to thinking about the recent tragedy only afterwards.
The party itself is treated in the space of just a few short paragraphs and after the guests have left, Mrs. Sheridan, suggests that Laura should take the leftover food from the party to the family of the man who has died. Laura does so, and finds the poor family grieving, with the dead man laid out in one of the rooms. She is encouraged to go in and see him and when she does she is overcome with an odd feeling, not of sadness, or of despair, but of happiness. Joy. Release. Contentment. She leaves the house, finding that her brother Laurie has been sent to look after her. And as they walk back home together, Laura tries to put into words how she feels. She cries, but whether they are tears of joy or sadness remains unstated. The story finally ends with Laura attempting to convey to her brother how she feels about life, but finds she cannot think of the words.
Clearly, the story Mansfield tells us is ultimately a story about failure. Unlike the others, Laura sees the situation as it is, she recognizes the injustice and the need to react, but in the end she is unwilling to accept the consequences. In the end she's more deplorable than any of the rest because she had the faculties but lacked the integrity to use them. And instead we witness her betray what was her innermost and honest, unspoiled nature.
But the beginning of the story seems to speak of something else; of an awakening and hope, of change and choices, where Laura's youth and character stand out so beautifully. There's something thoroughly offensive in her family's response: they can't call off a social occasion every time "a drunken workman" happens to die; we are made to sympathize with Laura's doubts and her reluctance to conform, gently seduced to take her side against the families staid social conventions. And when she surrenders in the end we feel the blow of that defeat.
Admittedly, this story offers us many things. It offers us a critique of the class system, a story of initiation into the adult world of sex and death, an amusing examination of family dynamics, and it offers us a touching portrait of a child struggling to establish herself as an independent entity in the face of nearly overwhelming parental influence. But once we juxtapose these competing perceptions, we begin to apprehend something a little more abysmal. That sooner or later we all escape into the comfort of the customs in which we we’ve been bred. Allowing all the “garden parties” that are yet to come, to take place. If they do or if they don't, it makes no difference. People will suffer as before, but the trick you must master, as Mrs. Sheridan might have put it, is to somehow learn to ignore them.

You can read the complete short story: here

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Exclusive Interview with Author Timothy Jay Smith

You have a new novel out now, The Fourth Courier, set in Poland. What’s it about?

The Fourth Courier opens in the spring of 1992, only four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A series of grisly murders in Warsaw suddenly becomes an international concern when radiation is detected on the third victim’s hands, raising fears that all the victims might have smuggled nuclear material out of Russia.
Poland’s new Solidarity government asks for help and the FBI sends Special Agent Jay Porter to assist in the investigation. He teams up with a gay CIA agent. When they learn that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb is missing, the race is on to find him and the bomb before it ends up in the wrong hands.
My novels have been called literary thrillers because I use an event or threat—a thriller plot—to examine what the situation means to ordinary people. In The Fourth Courier, Jay becomes intimately involved with a Polish family, giving the reader a chance to see how the Poles coped with their collective hangover from the communist era.

How did you come up with the story for The Fourth Courier?

The Fourth Courier book goes back a long way for me. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Solidarity won the first free election in Poland in over sixty years. In the same year, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new cooperative laws in the Soviet Union, which was an area of my expertise. I was invited to the Soviet Union as a consultant, which led to my consulting throughout the former Soviet bloc, eventually living for over two years in Poland.
At the time, there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across. While on assignment in Latvia, I met with a very unhappy decommissioned Soviet general, who completely misunderstood my purpose for being there. When an official meeting concluded, he suggested we go for a walk where we could talk without being overheard.
I followed him deep into a forest. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. Finally we stopped, and he said, “I can get you anything you want.” I must have looked puzzled because he added, “Atomic.”
Then I understood. In an earlier conversation, there had been some passing remarks about the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal in Latvia, for which he had had some responsibility, and apparently still some access. While my real purpose for being there was to design a volunteer program for business specialists, he assumed that was a front and I was really a spy. Or perhaps he thought, I really did want to buy an atomic bomb!

Have you always been a writer?

In the sense of enjoying writing, yes. I actually wrote my first stage play in fourth grade and started a novel in sixth grade, but I didn’t become a full-time fiction writer until twenty years ago. The first half of my adult life I spent working on projects to help low income people all over the world. I always enjoyed the writing aspects of my work—reports, proposals, even two credit manuals—but I reached a point where I’d accomplished my career goals, I was only forty-six years old, and I had a story I wanted to tell.

What was the story?

For over two years, I managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians following the 1993 Oslo Accords. One thing I learned was that everyone needed to be at the negotiating table to achieve an enduring peace. So I wrote a story of reconciliation—A Vision of Angels—that weaves together the lives of four characters and their families.
If anybody had ever hoped that a book might change the world, I did. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to bring about peace in the Middle East, but I’ve continued writing nevertheless.

It’s obvious that you know Warsaw well. Other than living in there, what special research did you do?

Warsaw is a city with a very distinctive character. It’s always atmospheric, verging on gloomy in winter, and the perfect location for a noir-ish thriller.
I had left Warsaw several years before I decided to write a novel set there, so I went back to refresh my memory. I looked at it entirely differently. What worked dramatically? Where would I set scenes in my story?
It was on that research trip when all the events along the Vistula River came together for me. There was a houseboat. There was Billy’s shack, and Billy himself whose “jaundiced features appeared pinched from a rotting apple.” There were sandbars reached by narrow concrete jetties and a derelict white building with a sign simply saying Nightclub. Fortunately, Billy’s dogs were tethered or I wouldn’t be here to answer your questions.
My main character is an FBI agent, and I didn’t know much about it. A friend, who was an assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, arranged a private tour of the FBI’s training facility in Quantico. That was before 9/11. I don’t think that could be done now. Maybe for James Bond himself but not for a wannabe writer.
If I was going to write a novel about smuggling a portable atomic bomb, I needed to know what a bomb entailed. Weight, seize, basic design, fuel? How would a miniature bomb be detonated? So I blindly contacted the Department of Energy. I explained what I wanted and was soon connected to an atomic expert who agreed to meet with me.
We met on the weekend at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in Rockville, MD. We met in line and were already talking about atomic bombs before we ordered our coffees. He had brought basic drawings of them. He was an expert and eager to share his knowledge.
Can you imagine having that conversation in a café today, openly looking at how-to schematics for building an atomic bomb while sipping skinny lattés?

You’ve mentioned ‘scenes’ a couple of times. I know you also write screenplays. Do you find it difficult to go between the different formats or styles?

The sense of scene is crucial to my writing. It’s how I think about a story. Before I start new work, I always have the opening and closing scenes in my head, and then I ask myself what scenes do I need to get from start to finish.
I think it comes from growing up in a house where the television was never turned off. My sisters and I were even allowed to watch TV while doing homework if we kept our grades up. Sometimes I joke that canned laughter was the soundtrack of my childhood. I haven’t owned a television for many years, but growing up with it exposed me to telling stories in scenes, and it’s why my readers often say they can see my stories as they read them.
For me, it’s not difficult to go between prose and screenplays. In fact, I use the process of adapting a novel to a screenplay as an editing tool for the novel. It helps me sharpen the dialogue and tighten the story.

In your bio, you mention traveling the world to find your characters and stories, and doing things like smuggling out plays from behind the Iron Curtain. Was it all as exciting as it sounds?

It was only one play, and yes, I confess to having an exciting life. I’ve done some crazy things, too, and occasionally managed to put myself in dangerous situations. Frankly, when I recall some of the things I’ve done, I scare myself! By comparison, smuggling a play out of Czechoslovakia in 1974 seems tame. But I’ve always had a travel bug and wanted to go almost everywhere, so I took some chances, often traveled alone, and went to places where I could have been made to disappear without a trace.

It sounds like you have a whole library full of books you could write. How do you decide what story to tell and who will be your characters?

I came of age in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, so I developed a strong sense of social justice. That guided my career choice more than anything, and when I quit working to write full-time, it was natural that I wanted my books to reflect my concerns. Not in a “big message” way, but more in terms of raising awareness about things that concern me.
For example, take Cooper’s Promise, my novel about a gay deserter from the war in Iraq who ends up adrift in a fictional African country. It was 2003, and in a few days, I was headed to Antwerp to research blood diamonds for a new novel. I was running errands when NPR’s Neal Conan (Talk of the Nation) came on the radio with an interview of National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb about a project on modern-day slavery. It was the first time I heard details about human trafficking, and was so shocked by its enormity that I pulled my car off the road to listen.
I decided on the spot that I needed to find a story that touched on both blood diamonds and trafficking. When I went to Antwerp a few days later, I visited the Diamond District as planned, but also visited a safe house for women who had been rescued from traffickers.

In The Fourth Courier, you team up a white straight FBI agent with a black gay CIA agent. Even Publishers Weekly commented that it seemed like an ideal set-up for a sequel. Do you plan to write one?

Probably not. My to-be-written list is already too long.
I’m close to finishing the final edits on a book set in a Greek island village, which is more of a mystery about an arsonist than a thriller. I’ve already started a new novel set in Istanbul about a young refugee who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with ISIS. I’ve never written a novel set in the States but I have the idea for one.
To date, my books have been stand-alones with totally different settings, characters, and plots. I try to write what I like to read: smart mysteries/thrillers with strong plots and colorful characters set in interesting places. I suppose like me, I want my stories to travel around and meet new people.

You’ve had gay protagonists or important characters since your first novel over twenty years ago when gay literature had not yet become mainstream. How would you say that affected your choices as a writer, or did it?

Friends warned me that I shouldn’t become known as a gay writer because it would pigeonhole me and sideline me from consideration as a serious writer. At the time, I think the general public thought gay books were all about sex and more sex. Of course, already there were many emerging gay literary writers; it was more stigma than reality.
The world of thrillers and mysteries is still largely uninhabited by gays. Hopefully I am helping to change that. I also hope that my novels expand my readers’ understanding of homosexuality in the places where I set them. In The Fourth Courier, the gay angle is key to solving the case. In my other novels, too, the plot turns on something gay, and the way it does is always something that couldn’t have happened in the same way anywhere else because of the cultural context.

What do you want your readers to take away from The Fourth Courier?

What motivated me to write The Fourth Courier was a desire to portray what happened to ordinary Polish people at an exciting albeit unsettling moment in their country’s history. I hope my readers like my characters as much as I do—at least the good guys. The people are what made Poland such a great experience.
The Fourth Courier is my thank-you note to them.

(Extended interview below)


What made you want to become a writer?

A couple of things came together for me at the same time. I had a very exciting career working on economic development projects to help lower income people, first in the US and then internationally. My own specific career goal was to design and manage an overseas project that had some real significance. That happened. I designed and managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians after the start of the peace process. When that project ended, I was 46 years old and had accomplished what I had set out to achieve in that career. Anything else felt like it would be redundant. I also had a story to tell (and believed it might contribute to Middle East peace). I had grown up a Zionist (though I’m not Jewish) and ended my career helping Palestinians. I knew, understood, and appreciated both sides of that conflict, and felt compelled to write about it. That became my first novel, A Vision of Angels.

Do you write alone or in public?

Always alone with my office door closed. Even if I am home alone, I close my door. If the door to my room is open, I feel distracted and anxious.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?

I tend to write stories either from multiple perspectives, or only one perspective. With the former, readers sometimes complain they are initially confused by who’s who, but by the time they make the complaint they are already sorting it out. I wouldn’t call it tough criticism, though.

What has been the best compliment?

That readers have learned something about issues that motivate me to write my stories in the first place. When I am deciding what to write next, I always ask myself: what issue or concern or matter of social justice do I want to highlight. Then I sort out what plot best that lets me do that. I’ve written about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (A Vision of Angels), human trafficking (Cooper’s Promise), and the impact of the fall of communism on average working class families (The Fourth Courier). My next published novel will deviate from that formula somewhat. Fire on the Island is really an homage to Greece, where I’ve cumulatively spent about seven years. But I am already working on my fifth novel, The Syrian Pietà, about a gay refugee living in Istanbul who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with Islamic State.

What is the most amusing thing that has ever happened to you as a writer?

I can’t think of anything especially amusing. Now I’m worried about myself!

What do you love most about the writing process?

The words. I’ve always loved language. It’s what sets us apart from other species. We have a past and future that we convey through language.

Do you have a day job in addition to being a writer?

No. I work at writing full-time. I easily put in eight hours a day. During the day, I combine editing, marketing, research with everything else I have to do in life: shopping, exercise, running errands. By about 5 p.m., when I allow myself my first glass of wine, I try to put everything else aside and concentrate on new writing. Most days, I work until midnight. There are lots of things we have to do in life. I simply organize them all around my writing.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Neither. It’s how I want to spend my time. I watch very few movies, don’t own a television, and while I’m a social guy, I also try to make sure I don’t let socializing steal all my time—especially since I prefer to write in the evening.

What are some common traps for aspiring writers?

Loving your darlings too much. Trying to be too clever (it always shows). Not trusting your reader. Giving too much information too soon (always hold it back as long as you can). Giving someone’s backstory in one big dump. Ignoring the rule of Chekhov’s Gun. Wanting to surprise the reader with twists that ultimately don’t feel organic to the whole story. Resisting feedback.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

I’m not sure that it’s a question of ego per se. You have to have thick skin and be able to take critical feedback without becoming defensive or crushed.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

If you’re asking what weakens me as a writer to the point of destruction or impotence, the answer is nothing.

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

I laugh at my funny scenes, cry in my sad scenes, respond to my sex scenes, and choke up almost every time I give a reading. All of that emotion is in my writing. I’m passionate about what I write about. I can’t imagine being a dispassionate writer.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Writing is a craft that takes a long time to learn well. Be devoted to learning it. Don’t kid yourself that you’re better than anyone else and thus can break the rules because your greatness will shine so brightly that the whole world will recognize you for the great writer you are. Writing really doesn’t work that way.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Growing up, I was told my first word was “more”. I reached out my hand and said it. I’ve never really stopped asking for more. Not in an especially greedy sense, but in the sense that I want to experience as much of life as I can.

What does literary success look like to you?

Walking down the beach and seeing someone reading my book.

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

No. I see it as dedicated work. It’s emotional but it’s not a spiritual practice. You can’t imagine how I experience all of my stories emotionally. It’s what I hate the most about readings; that I choke up. I know my characters so well that even their most mundane traits or moments carry emotional weight.

What period of your life do you find you write about most often?

In three words: all of it. Writers constantly plumb their own psyches and experiences to create characters and situations. All of my life infiltrates all of my stories.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good or bad ones?

Of course I read reviews from such sources as Publishers Weekly, Booklist (American Library Association), Kirkus Reviews, and other prominent reviewers. After a book is released, I follow reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for the first couple of weeks, but not very carefully after that. Bad reviews? I shrug them off.

What is the most difficult part of your creative process?

The third rewrite.


What are five books you loved? For one of them, why did you love it?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Burial Rites by Hanna Kent
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
American War by Omar El Akkad
I loved The Luminaries. It’s set at a time and place I knew nothing about (New Zealand’s Gold Rush in the 1800s). Catton also took a style page from Balzac by having an introduction to each chapter alerting the reader to what is about to be reported. For example, one reads: “In which Charlie Frost forms a hunch; Dick Mannerling buckles on his holsters; and we venture upriver to the Kaniere claims.” It’s very clever, and eventually these intros are actually longer than the chapter itself.

What is a book you didn’t like, and why?

That’s easy. The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. It’s been years since I read it, but I still recall how nothing worked for me in this book. By the end of the book, all I felt I knew about the main character (Robert Langdon) was that he had a quirky smile. But worse, there were just things that stretched incredulity, and even in fiction things need to be somewhat plausible. At one point, Langdon just happens to have a friend who lives nearby and has a private jet that he flies to England—without paperwork, flight plan, or official clearance. In the real world, the military would’ve given chase and shot him down.

How did you first fall in love with books?

I suppose I have to give my mother credit for that. She was always reading, more often than not bestsellers, and claimed she had read every book in her small hometown’s library. In my hometown, the local library always had a summer reading challenge for kids, and I loved competing in that. But basically, I grew up in a household that respected education (my mother was the first woman in her family to get a college degree), and if you’re going to be educated, you have to read.

What book or books are you planning to read soon?

The Moscow Rules by Antonio and Jonna Mendez
I Will Never See The World Again by Ahmet Altan
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Maze of Cadiz by Aly Monrode

What book do you always recommend?

One book? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It conveys five stories about humanity at different moments in time: past, present, and the dystopian future. He even creates a new (and understandable) vocabulary for one of the stories set in the future. Brilliant.

What was your favorite childhood book?

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Do you have any favorite literary journals?

Not really. I don’t read much short fiction except for short stories in The New Yorker.

Have you ever read anything that made you think differently about fiction/nonfiction?

Yes, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Despite the title, it’s actually essays that, taken together, constitute a memoir. It made me rethink my notion of memoir. Memoirs have always struck me as a little boring (“first I did this then that”) or thinly veiled efforts at pop psychology. Chee tosses out the whole notion of a chronological memoir and doesn’t fall into the blame game of blaming parents or upbringing for everything that didn’t work out in his life. Instead, he chooses seminal events in his life (e.g., the AIDS crisis) that he describes from the perspective of how they caused him to develop as a person.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. People tend to think of Zorba the Greek when Kazantzakis is mentioned, but this book is equally as good and actually more powerful. It humanizes Christ in ways that make him more accessible and believable. I’m not a believer of any religion, but when I finished The Last Temptation, I recall putting it down and saying aloud, “If there’s one book that could convince me to be a Christian, it’s this one.”

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

I can’t think of one.

What book have you read that most influenced your life?

Hunger in America by Robert Kennedy. It converted me to a life dedicated to helping others.

Who are your favorite writers?

Robert Goolrick
John Le Carré
Graham Greene
Nikos Kazantzakis
Yasmina Khadra
Margaret Atwood
Isabel Allende
Ernest Hemingway

End of Interview

Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. En route, he’s found the characters that people his work. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he’s hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that’s seen him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.
Tim brings the same energy to his writing that he brought to a distinguished career, and as a result, he has won top honors for his novels, screenplays and stage plays in numerous prestigious competitions. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel. Previously, he won the Paris Prize for Fiction (now the Paris Literary Prize) for his novel, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012. 
Tim was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. His stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award, and his screenplays have won competitions sponsored by the American Screenwriters Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Fresh Voices, StoryPros, and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater.

To purchase a copy of The Fourth Courier click here 

Friday, July 5, 2019

Movie Review: Mother!

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mother! tells the story of a nameless couple, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, who live in a beautiful Victorian house in the middle of nowhere. Bardem is a poet, a creative genius who is unable to create, Lawrence is his overly dedicated lover. Their house was almost destroyed in a fire, some years ago, and Lawrence spends her days meticulously restoring it to its former grandeur, while Bardem struggles to write. Their tranquil existence is interrupted, however, by a stranger, a person known only as “Man.” Man, we learn, is a lifelong fan of Bardem, and is invited to stay in the house, to Lawrence’s unease. Soon he is joined by his wife, Woman, who is openly hostile to Lawrence, followed by their feuding sons, and then their extended family and friends. All of the strangers appear to dislike the subdued, patient Lawrence. Her home is her pride and joy, and her uninvited guests seem to delight in damaging it. Bardem, on the other hand, is absolutely adored by the strangers, and he adores them in return; he doesn’t care about Lawrence’s discomfort in the slightest.
The Washington Post has pointed out that, before settling on Mother! as a title, Aronofsky toyed with another marquee clue, giving his film the working name of Day Six—a nod to the day in the book of Genesis on which God created humanity and gave it dominion over the Earth. The Telegraph built on the Genesis parallels, adding the following context: “You see, God’s creations have a tendency to go wild, leading him to continuously wash away his work and start anew over and over until things run more smoothly. Bardem’s character is also obsessed with a mysterious crystal that he keeps in his office, which nobody is allowed to touch, and often takes advantage of Lawrence’s kindly nature. But she takes it in her stride, insisting that her husband is a very special sort of genius and needs time and space to create his next work.”
This is The Gospel According to Aronofsky, with the whole of the tale from Genesis to Armageddon retold as an abusive marriage between a self-involved, praise-addicted god and the world through and upon in which he creates.
But, the search for creative fulfillment from art or religion or politics is presented here as a selfish impulse, just as the writer’s love for his wife and child are selfish, a need for the validation and approval at a personal level that he also desperately craves in the public sphere. Lawrence doesn’t come off much better initially, passive and needy and looking to the “great man,” the artist, to fulfill her. It’s when she becomes pregnant, however, that the reality of who and what we are becomes clear to her. And it’s at this point of recognition, that, Lawrence, understandably, seeks to protect her new child from the “evils” swirling within her own household. She stays awake for days, refusing to hand the baby over to Bardem for fear he will share her child with his worshippers. When she falls asleep, Bardem does exactly that. And his worshippers swiftly snap the baby’s neck in their frenzied excitement, dismember him, and consume parts of his body, literally consuming the body and blood of Christ. Overcome with rage and refusing to listen to her husband, who pleads with her to forgive the worshippers, Lawrence takes it upon herself to destroy everything in the home she has created. And in a nod to Hindu religion which states that God created and destroyed the universe infinite times, the cycle begins again: ashes, crystal, a new home, a new Mother!
The film then is allegorical. And Aronofsky frames this perfect allegory, around a vision of Christianity that identifies God as a compelling but ultimately neglectful and abusive husband and father. But, at its core, Mother! is really a film about the male ego, the female instinct, and the most horrifying thing in the world: people who want more from you than you can possibly give. Making this film one of the most haunting pieces of cinema in recent memory.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Poem Review: The Genius of the Crowd: a selection from, The Roominghouse Madrigals by Charles Bukowski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of Bukowski’s longest works, one in which he steps out of the genre and becomes, for a brief moment, a metaphysical lyricist.
The poem itself is all about the false pretenses that life accords us and serves as a caution to the reader to stay away from those individuals who hide their internal thoughts which are always much more contradictory to what they propose to preach.
Bukowski’s use of metaphor and personifications are likewise employed in simple and unambiguous ways, with words such as “the average man” and “the average woman” that, along with several other key phrases, shape the meaning and interpretation of the poem rather acutely. Which in turn, becomes the true genius of the poem. Making this particular composition, his lasting counsel to the world. 

The Genius Of The Crowd

There is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average human being to supply any given army on any given day 

and the best at murder are those who preach against it 
and the best at hate are those who preach love 
and the best at war finally are those who preach peace 

those who preach god, need god 
those who preach peace do not have peace 
those who preach love do not have love 

beware the preachers 
beware the knowers 
beware those who are always reading books 
beware those who either detest poverty 
or are proud of it 
beware those quick to praise 
for they need praise in return 
beware those who are quick to censor 
they are afraid of what they do not know 
beware those who seek constant crowds for 
they are nothing alone 
beware the average man the average woman 
beware their love, their love is average 
seeks average 

but there is genius in their hatred 
there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you 
to kill anybody 
not wanting solitude 
not understanding solitude 
they will attempt to destroy anything 
that differs from their own 
not being able to create art 
they will not understand art 
they will consider their failure as creators 
only as a failure of the world 
not being able to love fully 
they will believe your love incomplete 
and then they will hate you 
and their hatred will be perfect 

like a shining diamond 
like a knife 
like a mountain 
like a tiger 
like hemlock 

their finest art.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Movie Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The ancient Greeks tell the best stories. And tales such as Homer’s The Iliad have been recycled time and again, its themes ever-resonant even centuries later. Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis is another such timeless story, similar to the biblical tale of Abraham and Issac in its exploration of faith and sacrifice. It tells the story of the Greek king Agamemnon who accidentally kills a sacred deer that belonged to Artemis, goddess of childbirth. And because old-school Greek storytellers were all about the eye-for-an-eye style of justice, Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter as penance. Which serves as the skeletal plot for Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2017 film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It’s a de facto reimagining of Iphigenia, in all its futility and absence of moral checkpoints.
Dr. Steven Murphy, Colin Farrell, is a heart surgeon who, by his own fault, has accidentally killed a patient. Years later, he’s visited by Martin, Barry Keoghan, the son of the deceased, who dishes out the doctor’s punishment: either he kill his daughter, Raffey Cassidy, son, Sunny Suljic, or wife, Nicole Kidman, or all three will lose the ability to walk, stop eating, start bleeding out of their eyes, and stop living—in that order.
For readers who’ve yet to have the pleasure, Lanthimos is a Greek director, now based in London, who specializes in venomously funny, bourgeois-baiting absurdism, think Chris Morris by way of Luis Buñuel, or Michael Haneke with a better joke book. Lanthimos has long been intrigued by the comedic power of the uncanny and its close relationship with dread. And in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he keeps both sensations in constant flux.
The film is chilling in its directness: less a character study than the ballad of a coward who has to face consequences. It’s a film about what happens when you have to face a punishment that you don’t want to admit you’ve earned. Making the movie’s subject become, almost by default, the bankruptcy of upper-middle-class mores. Through all of it, Dr. Murphy manages to keep his reputation intact simply because of the hospital’s status system. Even working friendships are transactional. When Anna asks Matthew to tell her the real story behind the death of Martin’s father, the anesthesiologist demands a hand job first. The families home life revolves around mealtime rituals and household tasks and extracurricular accomplishments, such as Kim’s singing. It’s meant to be poignant and sardonic when Kim begs for her life by vowing never to forget her assigned chores. But the scene is just brutal. Lanthimos is working in a deeply metaphorical register, using an impossible situation to illuminate relatable human fears.
It’s not even necessarily that the characters are good or bad, but the warped playing field that enables devastation and good fortune to be visited upon innocents and perpetrators alike. But if further meaning could be distilled from the film, it may in fact come from the tension generated when the forces of mobility come into conflict with the forces of immobility. Nevertheless, the end result is a mesmerizing thriller that asks questions with no good answers and traps us within its terrifying and bizarre situation with little hope for a happy ending.
In an interview for the film, Farrell, summed it up rather severely when he said, “At the story’s core lies this very black and insidious sickness—a kind of carcinogen or poison that courses through the film.” Adding, “We don’t get an answer to what the poison is.”
That an ancient myth could be used to root both a family drama and an explosive exposition of body horror in the modern American experience signifies a director that is entering the master-stage of his craft. Unruly tensions abound across multiple levels, simple and complex, and it just might be that unique film that has no answers; as with the catharsis that comes at the end of great tragedy. It’s undoubtedly one of the decade’s opaquest films.