Good To Be the Ghoul: Zombies

Z Nation will count the body parts when The Walking Dead Season 5 starts up this weekend.

Kristen Lamb posted an essay on her blog, which I follow (and you should, too) in July about the appeal that zombies have on us. I don’t want to summarize all that she said, but one picture – the guy in his cube, head cocked back and presumably snoring – and one phrase almost said it all: “We’re medicated, caffeinated and indoctrinated.”

She’s right. I have watched tight formations of people texting on their phones while walking on the sidewalk, their smartphones held up as proof of their stupidity. My mind flashes back to the picture-book image of Sumerian scribes with cumbersome clay tablets, their styluses sharpened. One misstep and it is a punctured lung, or a splash into the Euphrates into the mouth of a hungry alligator. The reality is that the modern phone diva will crash into you and then give you their hate face because it is your fault. You hadn’t dared to make way for them. I did witness the miraculous once: a guy was texting as he walked into traffic, oblivious to the traffic light and those pesky blocks of metal on wheels that rely on Fred Flinstone to stand on the brakes with both feet in order to stop them in mid-Tweet. Talk about faith in the modern age. One consolation, though: Destined-for-the-Afterlife idiot did his stupendous act of insanity in front of a hospital so it was one-stop shopping, from Splat to ER. Proof of insurance first, please.

What puts the Z in Zombie for me? I was alive to see George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) in a Cineplex. Side note: I saw The Godfather in a drive-in, and The Exorcist terrified me for years. The scene where Regan walks up the stairs spider-like…Shivers. I digress. The scene in Dawn that had made an impression was the chaotic mall scene. The mall was to the eighties what the roller rink was to the seventies.

To add to Kristen’s War on Ideas, I do think that zombies are a metaphor for our mindless Conformity (thunk an original thought lately?) and Consumerism. Education pays lip service to the idea of a liberal education – more like a rigorous-beat-you-down-for-that-pellet-of-praise-for-the-flock-of-parrots process. “Socrates defied the Athenian authorities and he had to drink hemlock, so do as I say,” said the teacher, who reminded his charges that there was only one answer. ONE and it is HIS. No wonder homeschooling is on the uptick. There will be no, “I walked barefoot five miles in the snow for my Ritalin.”  In nearly every class I had in college there was the Fool who raised his or her hand and said, with absolute honesty and sincerity, “What do I have to do to get an A in this class?” Bless their brave hearts since they didn’t know the meaning of double entendre.

The Scarecrow in the film version of The Wizard of Oz was prophetic when he sang: “If only I had a brain.” That was 1939, in color, and before World War II. Never mind that L. Frank Baum’s Wizard was published in 1900. He was the JK Rowling of his day. We don’t have flying monkeys like we used to – they are all CGI now. *Sigh*

The point is that we don’t think critically anymore. Everything is a fast-fix like fast food. Sentences that are too long enfeeble minds. Perhaps we are continuously interrupted, distracted, as Kristen argued, but I think the truth is closer to the early scene in Good Will Hunting, where some elitist dweeb hits on Skylar, played by Minnie Driver. He selects and plagiarizes academic texts to get her interest, until Will calls BS on his unoriginality. Conformity is a soul-killer, yet everyone is as special as a snowflake and has to have self-esteem. Why think when you can consume someone else’s thoughts? Can’t think? Nom on some brains. Makes you rethink student loans, doesn’t it?

Whether we work more for less, 40 hours or more, find out that the Koch Brothers own everything, or everything is an act of manipulation, we can control what our eyes consume. We can control the amount of stimuli that puts everyone in React Mode the second the light turns green. The answer? Turn off the television and pick up a book.

Shameless plug: my short story Zombees will appear in Big Pulp (April 2015).

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The Third Man Disappeared

Villain. Victim.Voyeur.

Once upon a time and not long ago, the Detective was the third man in crime fiction. I’m not exactly sure when that changed, but it did. I believe crime fiction changed when the criminal became either sympathetic, or a marvel unto himself. The criminal became Lou Ford, Tom Ripley, and Dexter, or Gloria Denton and Crissa Stone. The Anti-Hero is a guilty pleasure. The reader was always there as a voyeur, complicit in the crime since he or she tries to solve the crime with the protagonist as the pages go by; the coda of satisfaction is the sight and sound of pieces that dovetail at the end, the arc completed from dead body discovered to suspect in cuffs, or otherwise punished. I will go so far as to say that the modern reader of crime fiction is sensitized and desensitized to unspeakable violence and cruelty.

The detective was self-educated, often a polymath, and a paragon of rationality, even when the detective had some serious flaws. Holmes had his fondness for cocaine. Marlowe boozed and chain-smoked. In the end, however, they got the job done: the bad guy got his, in or outside the courtroom. Then a curious thing happened. Sometimes the criminal is a careerist with the bad luck of a Eddie Coyle. Crime fiction started involving the man on the street, the Joe wronged, who — in effect – was given the task of figuring it out. The detective – stand-in for some kind of Justice — all but disappears. He is as faceless as the Continental Op; nameless as the Sergeant in Derek Raymond’s Factory Series, or absent altogether in Nabokov’s underappreciated thriller Despair.

Two things happened with crime fiction: it sold a lot of books and made for great film. American cinema, influenced by German émigrés such as Fritz Lang, emphasized the darkness, and shadow. British noir had had a delayed premiere on the silver screen because censors nixed anything negative to the wartime morale. When the British film directors did put noir up on the screen, their influence came from across the Channel; not from Germany, but France. Marcel Carné’s trilogy: Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938); Hôtel du Nord (1938), and Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939) set the tone. There were shadows and lots and lots of fog, but there was also poetic-realism and Gallic grittiness. This is where Kipling’s phrase is appropriate: “never the twain shall meet.” He was speaking to the chasm between the British and Indian people. The same could be said about American and British noir literature — “never the twain shall meet” — and probably the same can be said of noir literature from other countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Sweden, and so on. I’ll limit myself to a sliver of the American and British tradition of crime fiction.

The wrong decision, the fateful choice characterized noir, from keeping the found money to chasing the femme fatale.  Another hallmark trait is snarky repartee, that entertaining banter dished out between the PI and the bad guys, or whoever is at the bar or across the desk. Chandler’s Marlowe casts his best lines at figures of authority. American noir readers know the scene: there are good guys, bad guys, and those who, like the Continental Op, operate in the shadows. The structure of society is loose, although the cops can’t be trusted and fast money and faster women talk loudly. In Hammett’s Red Harvest, it is clear that Big Money is what animates life in “Personville called Poisonville.” Chandler was not so naïve about the dark alleys, but he did get upset when Jim Thompson had broken rank and started writing crime from the criminal’s point of view. Then it wasn’t a matter of bad choices; there wasn’t any hope; no need for the detective at all. He could just disappear. The criminals could just police themselves, whether it was along the lines of clans or ethnicity.

As I had stated above, British noir got a late start, but, when the dark flower had finally bloomed, it made up for lost time. British crime fiction has a genteel pedigree. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are but two examples. Class is always in the background in all of British literature. Derek Raymond, who is considered the godfather of British noir, is – blasphemy of blasphemies – quite French, quite the existentialist. The violence in his work will nauseate. An editor lost his lunch after reading an excerpt. The Sergeant’s frustration with his superiors in The Factory is palpable. Raymond’s dialog cuts like a rusted razor.

The blackness in Raymond’s writing isn’t the crimes, or the bleak surroundings, the endless parade of lowlifes, though all of them are bleak, depressing, über-violent and unsettling. It’s the disappearance, the anonymity of Victim and civil servant. He is ‘Sergeant.’ He works in the Unexplained Deaths Department within ‘The Factory,’ a mindless and thoughtless grind of an institution. His superiors are bureaucratic idiots, but class-conscious: one knows their place in the pecking order.

In the first of the Factory books, He Died With His Eyes Open, the victim is a John Doe, a man beaten to death. In a word, he has been pulped until he is unrecognizable. In Factory Book 2, The Devil’s Home on Leave, a man is not only found dead in a warehouse, but his remains inside five bags. The third outing, How The Dead Live, is a missing-person’s case, but retracing the woman’s hours is like a depressing documentary on blight and social decay outside of London. In the fourth installment, I was Dora Suarez, a woman and her elderly neighbor are bludgeoned to death. In this particular novel, Dora was dead woman walking. Sergeant discovers that she is dying from AIDS. The last Factory book, Dead Man Upright, published posthumously, is part procedural to catch a serial killer, while the second half of the book is a conversation between the serial killer and his shrink. He isn’t a Hannibal Lechter.

Raymond is an uneven writer. He was the darkest of the dark for his time. British noir writers after him are, if anything, even more violent in their descriptions. Unfortunately, the red bloodbath turns purple quickly. Raymond may seem British but he is as pessimistic as Beckett, who loved French pulp fiction, and as morally twisted as Genet. He is a social critic in that he criticized Thatcher’s Britain (the first of the Factory novels appeared in 1984). He has an ear for argot, which can make him more of a curiosity. His first publication, The Crust on Its Uppers (1962) is unreadable without the glossary in back. Coincidentally, A Clockwork Orange, famous for its unintelligible mélange of Cockney rhyme, Russian and British adolescent slang, appeared the same year.

I may have stretched the argument in saying that Derek Raymond was more French than British since I hadn’t mentioned some of his French peers, such as Jean-Patrick Manchette or Thierry Jonquet (read his Tarantula), with whom he shares some affinities, or that the French make distinctions in their crime fiction: roman noir (dark novel), roman policier (procedural) and roman polar (hardboiled thriller with a cinematic quality). I do feel that one aspect of Raymond’s Factory Series has been overlooked: his compassion.

Sergeant reconstructs the gruesome crimes. True, it is part of the detective tradition, but read Dora Suarez and you see a nameless man identify and relive a woman’s emotions. His compassion – not his sense of justice – is what drives Sergeant. The title I Was Dora Suarez can read as victim statement or investigator’s identification with the victim. In the universe of crime fiction, where characters are unlikeable and protagonists are dysfunctional, Sergeant is uncharacteristically empathetic. He uses the same MO in He Died With His Eyes Open. Sergeant knows that Justice is easily compromised, a matter of the right lawyer and deep pockets, of who can reach out and corrupt law enforcement. That the victims are often the marginalized members of society, those the upper crust merely tolerate as necessary, says something about Derek Raymond’s vision.

Derek Raymond was the pseudonym for Robin Cook. He changed his name to avoid any confusion with Robin Cook, the author of Coma. Cook was an interesting character. Born to wealth and privilege, he dropped out of Eton, and spent the majority of his life slumming with London’s underbelly. Like the troubled Alexander Trocchi, known best for Young Adam, and a man of many faces, Raymond wrote pornography and frequented the dark side of life. He drank. He was an art smuggler and a shadowy associate of the infamous Kray Brothers. The prolific Derek Raymond would write a memoir, The Hidden Files, before he died in 1994 from cancer at the age of 63.

In the Introduction to his memoir, Raymond conveys a sense of disappearing into writing, of having hidden files, unbreakable codes, as if he were a computer.

These memoirs are an attempt to break the codes and gain access to them, although even when open they will not have the readability of a novel; after all, the files only describe functions.

The fact that I am this machine and not a different one, better oriented to the other, and that I am deceptive exactly because the hidden files are present although unseen, is a source of distress to me as well as those close to me. Yet none of us, apart from minor modifications, have any choice but to be what we are.

Just as the Sergeant was a nameless cog in the machinery, so Raymond disappeared into himself, seeing himself as a machine.

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Marcelle Sauvageot: Love’s deceptive pirouette

The best works of literature speak to the eternal, the human condition, irrespective of historical context, their original language, or the author’s gender. Marcelle Sauvageot’s Commentary belongs to world literature because it depicts the human situation and because it defies interpretation. Ugly Duckling Presse published Commentary: A Tale in 2013, with an Introduction by Jennifer Moxley, and it includes the preface to the last French edition by Jean Mouton (1986), a preface and then a note from the first and second editions by Charles Du Bos (1933 and 1934, respectively), with Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis as the translators.

(A Tale) is in parenthesis on the cover, silent and contained as the rage and confusion within. The story is simple: a woman, who is suffering from TB, travels to a sanatorium, where she receives a Dear Jane letter from her boyfriend. She is not only dumped, but he informs her that he is marrying someone else. She faces her illness alone. Imagine if Fanny Brawne had friend-zoned Keats before he departed to Italy to enter “his posthumous existence” (Keats’s own words there). The cruelty is devastating. The rest of the ‘tale’ is her private reflection on and response to the dead relationship. She cycles through all the emotions of grief: forced isolation, anger, not so much bargaining as rationalization, depression, and then acceptance.

Just as the greatest works of literature offer the reader a little bit of everything from the cupboard of genres, Commentary is many things: a funeral wreath of philosophical analyses (St. Augustine’s Confessions and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu); an attempt to explain perception (Montaigne’s Essays); the tell-all un roman à clef such as The Devil Wears Prada, except these are lettres pas envoyées, for the text’s format is that of angry journal entries meant as letters not to be sent to the offending party. Commentary even offers an element of mystery: we do not know the narrator’s name. Readers don’t know if the text is fictional or autobiographical. There are hints, but no real key; it defies definitive interpretation. All that readers know for a name is her nickname for him: ‘Baby,’ and he gets boxed into several corners of her mind. In the end, from her “small corner of conscience,” she is done with him. She has excoriated him, herself, and the inherent blind nature of love. The ‘tale’ is less than one hundred pages long, a novella, and it is a tour de force deconstruction, a meditation, on love and the differences between the genders, and how the eyes deceive the heart.

I read both the translation and the original, which I was shocked to discover is available from Amazon for free. The French text is clean, free of errors, and a true labor of love from the folks at ebooksgratuits.com. Readers who don’t know French have to understand that French is an allusive and elusive language, and literary French is not the same as spoken French. I mention this for one simple reason: Sauvageot’s written French is colloquial, spare and lean, although there are limpid, periodic graces. She is not Proust nor does she want to imitate him or any other writer. She is her own judge and jury. The problem is that none of this is explained to the reader because there are no notes from the translators, which is a great disservice to the reader and an injustice to the author’s prose; in fact, there is little to no biographical information on Marcelle Sauvageot, which is a shame, especially when curious readers discover that her Wiki page is in French. The dearth of biographical information diminishes her accomplishments.

Marcelle Sauvageot was born in 1900 in Charleville. This is significant. Charleville borders Belgium, and readers of French poetry will instantly recognize it as the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud, who despised it because it was provincial and parochial. He also disliked the French spoken there. Georges Simenon was another writer who took potshots at Belgian-influenced French in everything he wrote, which says a lot since he was such a prolific writer. Sauvageot, born in ‘the sticks,’ became a professor (un professeur agrégé de lettres), which is a remarkable achievement for a woman in her time. Sense of perspective: Madame Curie was the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in France in 1903. Furthermore, Sauvageot was close friends with several members of the Surrealist movement. Readers learn from the Mouton essay that André Malraux and his wife Clara got into an argument over it. Paul Claudel and Paul Valéry also appreciated it.

Translations revive and revisit classics. John E. Woods rendered Thomas Mann anew. Several translators have refreshed Proust. In Sauvageot’s case, there is more at stake because this is her only work and it appeared and disappeared in the last eighty years. First, the title is a problem in both languages, although that is not the fault of the Ugly Duckling Presse and the translators. The original French title in 1933 and 1934, Commentaire, or Commentary, denotes intellectual analysis, whereas the 1986 title was amended to Commentaire: récit d’un amour meurtri, or, Commentary: a tale of wounded love, which subtitles the intimacy of pain; and then in 2004, it appeared as Laissez-moi: commentaire, or Leave me: a commentary. Confusing, I know, but the Laissez-moi title comes from within the text itself, when the protagonist tells off her boyfriend, but even here the colloquialism is truncated. The lady is polite when she says, “Leave me,” whereas the full expression in French is, ‘Laissez-moi, allez-vous en,’ which is one way of telling someone to go away for good.

To have a better appreciation of Sauvageot’s rage, there should have been a note of some kind to indicate just when the pen as knife turns in the flesh. It is easy to recognize, the French text says, “pirouette.” In French, the intimate form of ‘you’ is tu. You use this form with close friends, family members, and certainly, lovers. Not Sauvageot. In the text, she says, “I have to end my sentence with a pirouette.” She then uses the formal ‘you’ or vous. Yes, she wavers back and forth at times with tu, but vous is the preferred form for her, and it is a crucial decision: it is symbolic for the distance that she has placed between herself and him. There is no footnote, no nothing in the English translation for this critical shift in tone. It would have helped the reader to know how Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis approached the text.

The sick woman has been told in writing that he will marry another, that they have their “friendship.” Cold and cowardly, no doubt, but the reader will discover that the two of them were not in an exclusive relationship. He had women friends and she had male friends; in fact, she is upset at one point with one of her male friends and turns to her boyfriend for comfort. She, in turn, knew of his future wife. Her pain is that of betrayal. He chose Her instead of her. In the text she is capitalized as d’Elle (her). It is inferred that he had chosen a younger woman, someone closer to his age. I am not splitting hairs about morality or hypocrisy. My issue is with the untranslated nuances. The translation does not inform the reader that the French text does not distinguish the nature of the relationship. Petit ami is boyfriend and petite amie is girlfriend. Diction matters to Sauvageot, for she had not written copain (buddy) or copine (female buddy). Clearly, they had friends with benefits. No matter how liberated and carefree she thought she was, his decision hurt her. I can’t help but think of Simone de Beauvoir, who was deeply hurt by Jean-Paul Sartre’s affairs.

The heart of the matter is that he chose someone else. Had they had “an agreement”? We don’t know. What we know is that she was a trophy. He was younger than she was, and his college friends approved of his ‘conquest.’ The narrator informs the reader once that she had been his “gal” – the French text says, “ma grande.” She recalls a time when she visited him at his college and his friends were behind him and she saw their approving gaze. In the Introduction, much is made of the ‘male gaze’ and, while there is merit in that feminist argument, I think that Sauvageot is far more critical of herself and romantic love. She had felt deceived, first by him and then by herself.

This is a feminist text and more. The writer calls out sexism in a curious way: men start to think of social consequences in their choice of a partner, and women see marriage as a merit badge. She finds the ‘my husband…’ phrases out of women’s mouths elitist and tiresome. I also found it strange that Sauvageot put the word “feminist” in double quotes. I’m not sure whether she identified with it or not. She does not take kindly to the notion that a woman’s happiness is dependent on a man, that women are to parrot their husband’s opinions. Women were not made for men, she tells us, although both genders are selfish in love. In a great, dismissive line, she questions the societal construct of relationship, “Is the man caressing a beautiful Siamese cat hoping to find out what the animal’s light eyes are saying?” She had hoped to find her Platonic “double,” so she could be made whole, completed. She realized that that had been a mistake, another false step in “romantic diplomacy.” She does wonder why she had accepted less.

Sauvageot’s protagonist questions love as illusion because lovers see what they want to see in the Beloved, which is why she later says that friendship (amitié) is the highest form of love. In French, there is an etymological connection that traces back to Latin between the words for friend and soul, or l’âme. The Mouton essay and the Du Bos note discuss the Augustinian concept of love and friendship. Authentic love, which she had thought she had for him, accepted him, warts and all. Bébé is not an attractive man. He reminds me of the pedantic dilettante Paul in the movie Midnight in Paris. Paul had insisted that Camille Claudel was Rodin’s wife to the tour guide, played by Carla Bruni, no less! Bébé is that guy. She loves him even when he is gauche. All she wanted was for him to be himself and he was: he thinks of himself as an intellectual, yet she calls him a petit commerçant. The English translation says ‘shopkeeper’ but petit (small) and commerçant is a double insult, for it is akin to calling someone lower middle-class, lest we forget that European society has class distinctions. Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet had manners, even if she didn’t have money. In the end, she would conclude that he was “mediocre.”

Moxley alludes to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain in that Sauvageot’s anonymous woman is like Hans Castorp: the main character goes away to recover. Commentary belongs to the genre of literature of sickness and recovery, illness and realization. As the text progresses, Sauvageot’s sick woman realizes that life is fragile and precious, that she hopes for health restored, for the cure that never comes. She had hoped that he would be there when she was well again, but he is not. I am reminded of Margaret Edson’s play Wit, except that Sauvageot finds no solace in poetry. She finds resolve and determination within to face her illness alone. That she was forsaken while ill is heartbreaking, yet no one has expressed outrage at this abandonment, though those who face serious illness often find themselves abandoned because those close to them don’t know what to say, or how to comfort them. Like the aged elephants in Babar, she went off alone to die, so as not to be a burden to the herd. Anton Chekhov, John Keats, DH Lawrence, and George Orwell all wrote with their bloodstained handkerchiefs from TB clutched in their hands, to the end. Marcelle Sauvageot, in and out of sanatoriums, would die of the “romantic disease.”

Moxley makes this remark: “Du Bos would have us bathe her in the saintly light of la petite fleur, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who also died young of tuberculosis.” The comment misses the mark, for Moxley ignores the mores of Sauvageot’s day. France then was (and still is) a Catholic country. Both the Du Bos and Mouton essays are dated with respect to the liturgical year. In context, Du Bos mentions Saint Thérèse of Lisieux after he quotes Sauvageot. She was on her deathbed and she had named the prayers that she recited and found comfort in. The two of them received Holy Communion together. Du Bos had traveled to Switzerland to meet her and to get her approval for the Foreword that he had written for the first edition. Sauvageot died the day after he returned to Paris, on 6 January 1934, as he noted, with the church bells calling “believers to salvation in honor of the Epiphany.”

Ugly Duckling Presse has offered English-speaking readers and feminist scholars a milestone text, a canonical piece of literature subject to debate and discussion, as relevant today as it was when it first appeared, almost a century ago. Commentary appeared on several Best Translated lists in 2013.

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Wednesday’s Woman: Joan C. Ryan

Today’s Wednesday’s Woman is Joan Catherine Ryan, author and counselor from New Hampshire. I met her and her son, also an author, at the 2014 New England Author Expo. Michael W. Schwartz writes the Ratarra Series.

Joan is appearing Saturday, the 20 September 2014 at Barnes & Noble, Manchester, New Hampshire at 10am.

Please spend a few minutes reading some important words from this wonderful woman and her cause. Here is Joan….

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Like many women, I came down with breast cancer and survived. My baby granddaughter, Zoe, came down with brain cancer and is going through a grueling recovery process. Zoe’s web site offers updates on her and provides information on wellness.

We all know that not everyone survives this disease. My son, Eric, came down with glioblastoma, an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer. He passed away, 20 April 2012. During his 41 years of life, he was an awesome demonstration of positive thinking and he led by example. He held us all to a much higher standard than we were/are comfortable with. To this day, his family members hold themselves accountable to Eric’s spirit in their daily decisions. I can think of no greater legacy.

profilepic1-300x225 Before he left us, Eric co-founded a company, studied International Relations, and served in the United States Air Force’s 52nd Fighter Wing. Although Eric was active in many areas, his chief passion was helping ‘first generation students’ – those kids who are first in their family to attend college — apply for, get accepted, and receive financial aid to attend college. He didn’t just talk the talk, he sat down with each student and guided them through the college application process, helped them produce all the necessary paperwork; he took the student on campus tours, applied for public and private scholarship monies. He also taught them how to study and learn their college courses. Eric stayed with his students as a mentor for support long after the acceptance letter.

Our family has created the Eric W. Schwartz Memorial Scholarship Fund, a $2,500 scholarship that solely goes to a first-generation student.

As Eric’s mother, it is important to me that his name, his passion and his spirit live on; that he is not forgotten. By purchasing an application or my book Scholarship Matters, A Parent’s Guide to College and Private Scholarships, you can help your own children or sponsor a student.

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Please know that our entire family is grateful for all the love and support that you give, have given, us in our cancer-crisis lifestyle. You have buoyed us up beyond that which is humanly possible so that we can get through one more day with hope and confidence.

Joan’s web is here.

Home of M.W. Schwartz’s Ratarra Series.

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Wednesday’s Woman: Susan Fleet

Today’s Wednesday’s Woman is author, trumpet player, and music historian Susan Fleet. She is the author of the Detective Frank Renzi Series, two books on serial killers, and WOMEN WHO DARED: Trailblazing 20th Century Musicians. You can listen to a sample track from her Baroque Treasures for Trumpet and Organ CD here. Visit Susan’s website.

Amazon and Bookbub is offering Jackpot, Book 4 in Susan’s Renzi Series, for a limited time only. Here’s Susan…

Girl Power!

CROP-MoenDAVIS-lossHow about that Mo’en Davis! This 13-year-old girl with the blazing fastball is an inspiration to us. During the recent Little League World Series, she tossed a 2-hitter to lead the Philadelphia Taney Dragons to a 4-0 victory. She pitched the complete game, the first female pitcher to throw a shutout in Little League World Series history. Using her 70mph fastball, the five-foot-four dynamo struck out 8 batters and allowed only two hits.

Accolades from other sports women

When fitness blogger Stephanie Tuck grew up in Newton, MA, she was the only girl on her Little League team, the only girl in the league. “[Mo’en] will not only inspire other girls to play,” Stephanie says, “but she is helping to remove the ‘specialness’ of girls playing at that level. Over time people won’t be amazed that a girl is so good. They will simply be amazed that a particular [player] is so good. Gender won’t matter.”

But gender mattered at the 1999 Little League World Series. Alicia Humbolt started at second base for a team from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, but Alicia says, “One opposing coach refused to let his team play against me.”

Donna Orender, a former president of the WNBA, believes Mo’en will help to dispel the “biases we’re taught as kids about the boys’ roles and the girls’ roles.” She tells girls to pursue their dreams no matter what. “Do what you think you want to do, and do your best.” Donna helped to found Generation W, an organization that supports inspiring women and girls.

Throw like a girl?

These days that phrase takes on a whole new meaning. One woman said her 10-year-old nephew started to make a crack about “someone throws like a girl” but stopped. Not because he knew she would disapprove. He had seen Mo’en pitch in the LL World Series on television. “He thought about Davis,” the woman said, “and actually said her name.”

I wish this story ended with Mo’en and her team winning the Little League World Series. But the Taney Dragons lost their second game. Mo’en was the starting pitcher but did not finish. However, the game drew the largest TV audience for a Little League World Series game in network history, largely due to the interest in Mo’en Davis.

CROPMoen-DAVIS-littleleagueMo’en is the first Little League player ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but she’s modest about her success. “I never thought I would be a role model at this age, so I just have to be myself.” It’s unlikely that Mo’en will make it to the major leagues, and there are no professional women’s baseball teams. But she does have a dream. Her first goal is to play point guard for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team. Then she wants to play in the WNBA. Stay tuned!

A Dynamite Golfer

RESIZOlivia-teenWclubsImagine winning the triple crown of golf; the US Open, the Masters and the world championship. That’s what Olivia Prokopova did this year in the hyper-competitive game of professional miniature golf. Most of her competitors are middle-aged men, but that doesn’t bother her. “At a tournament, it feels like we are one big family,” Olivia says. “We see each other regularly and [they] are very supportive.” Asked if they mind being beaten by a girl, Olivia said, “I have once beaten the same player in sudden-death playoff three times in a row. He was a little upset and walked away briskly, but even then, he later came back and offered his congratulations.”

A Mini-golf Professional

Most people don’t even know there are professional mini-golf players. But 19-year old Olivia is a celebrity in her native Czech Republic. The subject of a book and a documentary, she has corporate sponsors and her own website. People all over the world play mini-golf for fun, but professional courses are far more difficult. They feature a series of AstroTurf putting greens, with variations in elevation and pitch. Skill is more important than luck. Players must sink their shots in one or two strokes per hole.

This is where Olivia excels. She won the 2013 World Crazy Golf Championship in Hastings, Scotland, by a margin of 21 strokes. “There’s no fear in her,” says Rick Alessi, 57, who will compete against Olivia in the 2014 US Open Miniature Golf Tournament. “She just loves the game.”

A Prodigy

Olivia began playing mini-golf at the age of three. “My dad worked as a sports reporter and he took me with him to an interview he did with a mini-golf trainer. I tried to play and really liked it. I kept asking when we could go back to play more.” She was seven when she played her first US tournament.

“It was amazing,” she said. “All the other players would stand around me and cheer, some of them screaming and jumping in the air.”

She travels with her parents, her brother, and Ales Vik, an employee of her father’s miniature golf course-building company in the Czech Republic. Olivia speaks only basic English. Her father, Jan Prokop, speaks no English at all, so an interpreter translates for her at press interviews. But sometimes it gets lonely. “Because I play all the time, I don’t have many friends, but I like the players here. They are like my second family.”

Prizes in miniature golf are nothing like those in the “big” golf world. Adam Scott took home $1.4 million for winning the Masters. The Minigolf Masters has a total prize fund of $12,000. Although the entry fees are not high, Olivia and her family have large travel expenses. Fees from exhibitions and corporate sponsors help to pay them.

For Olivia, mini-golf is a full-time job. Six days a week she practices 8 to 12 hours a day, and has already undergone operations on one wrist and both knees. On Wednesdays, she does schoolwork from 3 to 8PM.

Despite her celebrity, Olivia is modest. “I haven’t got any talent, I just practice every day.” To explain, she punches words into Google Translate, then reads aloud what appears on her cellphone. “Diligence.” Asked if she has a dream, she says, “We have challenged Tiger Woods on several occasions, mainly through the media, but he never responded. Maybe he is afraid?” she joked.

Two other girls dared to follow their dream

RESIZ-Edna-Maud-age7Trumpeter Edna White and violinist Maud Powell thrilled millions of listeners at a time when most women stayed home to raise a family. Read more about them in WOMEN WHO DARED: Trailblazing 20th Century Musicians.

Frank Renzi

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World War I: The Unspoken Legacy

The traditional interpretation of the Great War’s ending is to examine how the map of Europe changed after all the carnage. The Austria-Hungarian Empire broke into the two discrete nations of Austria and Hungary; at the same time, two other nations were formed, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. That other empire, the Ottoman, ceded their lands in Asia but kept a presence in Europe as Turkey. Poland, long a playground of the Austrian-Hungarians, Germany, and Russia, was reconstituted. The new lands of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania came out of Russia. The history lesson often closes with how the terms of the Treaty of Versailles for Germany seeded the rise of Adolph Hitler. There is another haunting, much less discussed consequence of the First World War, an unspoken legacy, which is the violent and volatile situation in the Middle East.

Step back for a moment, back before the war, to 1907. Leaders from around the British Commonwealth met in London for a conference to discuss the status of self-governing British colonies. The London Colonial Conference would confer dominion status to the colonies, but not before expressing concerns about an Arab threat to British imperialism and Europe. The report and its recommendations to Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman are chilling:

To promote disintegration, division, and separation in the region.

To establish artificial political entities that would be under the authority of the imperialist countries.

To fight any kind of unity—whether intellectual, religious or historical—and take practical measures to divide the region’s inhabitants.

To achieve this, it was proposed that a “buffer state” be established in Palestine, populated by a strong, foreign presence that would be hostile to its neighbors and friendly to European countries and their interests.

Move forward in time: Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, declared his support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the area known as Palestine, an area of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The month: November. The year: 1917. The problem: the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, had already entered into an agreement with the Sharif of Mecca, Husayn bin Ali, through a series of letters written in the years 1915 and 1916 in which McMahon promised lands in exchange for Arab support against the Turks, a German ally. T.E. Lawrence, embedded amongst the Arabs, shaped Arab dissent against the Turks.

Balfour and McMahon were not examples of one hand not knowing what the other hand was doing. The Balfour Declaration was addressed to Lord Rothschild, intended to solicit his support (he bankrolled British work in the Suez area of Egypt), the support of British Jews and their American relations. The United States entered the conflict in April of 1917. British diplomacy did not end there. In 1916, Britain brokered the Sykes-Picot Agreement with…the French, with Russia’s approval, to divide Arab lands with the Ottoman Empire into provinces ruled by Great Britain and France. The gentlemen’s agreement was being discussed at the same time McMahon was writing and receiving letters from Sharif. The unexpected Russian Revolution of October 1917 provided another unexpected result: the Bolsheviks exposed the duplicity. The Arabs voiced their displeasure. T.E. Lawrence, instrumental in the Arab Revolt against the Turks in 1916, voiced his own displeasure with his superiors in London: The Home Office had compromised his reputation with his Arab allies.

The Sykes-Picot division was such that British took land (southern Iraq) and, more importantly, access to the Mediterranean (Jordan, the Jordan River). The agreement would establish the British Mandate, a set period of time after which the British would vacate the land. The French took a part of southern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon; they, too, established their own mandate, the French Mandate. Russia would get Istanbul and the Turkish straits. The Arabs, who had helped the British, were left outside the tent. Of the two Mandates, the French Mandate expired first, but not before the French established the “confessional” model of government in Lebanon. In short, positions in the government’s cabinet were decided along religious lines, thereby seeding sectarian discord and violence. Lebanon would become the smoldering matchstick in the haystack.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau managed to do some clever footwork to negate the Hussein–McMahon agreement. Letters between men of honor meant nothing. It would seem that the Balfour Declaration would come back to haunt the British, or was the duplicity part of a greater plan? The League of Nations backed the British Mandate in 1922 and 1923 respectively. Throughout the 1930s, both Arab and Jewish nationalism fermented: the British would quash the Arab Revolts of 1936-1939. The British Mandate was set to expire in 1948. The British administered Palestine, west of the Jordan River, and ceded the land east of the river to Hussein bin Ali for his help against the Turks with T.E. Lawrence. The British in effect had both sides of the river. The eastern side would become independent in 1946.

In the eleventh hour of 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine before the British Mandate expired. The UN resolution, in addition to spelling out the details of the British departure, recommended independent Arab and Jewish states. The emphasis is on two independent ethnic states. The majority of Jewish leaders accepted it. Arab leaders, for the most part, rejected it because it violated the UN’s own charter for national self-determination. The General Assembly approved the resolution. At midnight, in the last minutes of 1947, the British terminated the Mandate, and the UN recognized the State of Israel. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria attacked Israel. The result is the 1948 Arab-Israeli Civil War. The flood of refugees from the conflict has not stopped since.

Its colonial empire in the ether, the British kept a presence in the Middle East until they surrendered the Suez Canal in 1954. The financing of the Canal was another feast, another opportunity for foreign investors. There is no doubt that the discovery and documentation of the horrific magnitude of the Holocaust added to the urgency for an ethnic Israeli state, but the debacle had begun with colonial imperialism and politics, with opportunities while the world was at war, 1914-1918.

The Number One recipient of defense aid from the U.S. is Israel, and not far behind is Lebanon.

Odd bedfellows: the haystack and the match.

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Wednesday’s Woman: Yvonne deSousa

Meet Wednesday’s Woman: Yvonne deSousa. I met the irrepressible Yvonne at the 2014 New England Author Expo.  I invited her here to introduce herself and her book on living with MS.

MultipleSclerosis.net says: “In the US, the number of people with MS is estimated to be about 400,000, with approximately 10,000 new cases diagnosed every year (that’s 200 new cases per week).”

What’s so Funny about Chronic Illness?

One day four years ago I got myself up and headed to work where I was expecting it to be pretty busy. No big deal, of course, we all have busy days at work and I was prepared for it. My legs had been tingly and numb for the last several weeks and so I was shuffling around my office like a drunken sailor. But I could still function. And I happened to like drunken sailors so it was all good.  Then I received a somewhat unexpected call from my doctor who told me to leave work and get to a hospital two hours away immediately as my recent test results showed I had multiple sclerosis. The head of neurology at that particular hospital was waiting there to save me. Oh, and I should be prepared to stay in the hospital for several days.

Did I mention that this all took place one week before Christmas?

Shocked, I managed to do what I was told but I was in automatic pilot mode. Actually, automatic co-pilot mode as I was able to reach my little brother who drove me to the hospital. Once there, I met the aforementioned head of neurology who issued this informative declaration- “I’m not going to lie to you, MS sucks.”

Sucks???? That’s the best this well studied doctor could come up with? I could pretty much guess that myself and I didn’t even go to medical school.

Luckily, I didn’t have to stay at the hospital and as my brother walked me out of the building two hours later he desperately tried to cheer me up. In so doing, he said something that would change my life for the better in the aftermath of this terrifying news.

“You know, you could totally get one of those handicapped-parking plates now….”

I couldn’t believe it. Yes, technically a handicapped parking plate could be a small bonus to this sucky news but seriously, I was overwhelmed. I had just been told I had a chronic, debilitating, no known cure disease of the central nervous system. And Christmas was in just a few days. Parking was the last thing on my mind and I told him so. He responded, “Seriously, if you don’t want to use it right away you could let me borrow it.”

It was then that I doubled over, with laughter. You see, this brother of mine was a semi-pro dirt bike rider who drove a huge Ford F150 pickup truck with two dirt bikes in the bed. I pictured this monstrosity of a vehicle backing into a handicapped spot and I couldn’t help myself. The laughing just hit and I couldn’t stop, even losing my breath a bit.  Weird thing was, when I stood up and got myself together I realized I felt better.  It was as if my little bout of mirth released a spat of feel good emotions that helped beat up on the not so feel good emotions I was battling. It was a realization that would stay with me in the days to follow.

Sure, I would get a little upset when I started to process the diagnosis and the changes it would mean in my life. (I now had to give myself shots – yes shots, three times a week!   And the shots were made from, I’m not kidding here, Chinese hamster ovary cells. How does that happen? What was wrong with the Portuguese hamster’s brain cells or the Italian hamster’s liver cells? And why hamsters? Did the scientists even try goldfish or guinea pigs or any other pets?) But more than angry, I would become frustrated. Here are some of the chronic illness frustrations that well, basically, sucked.

One of the most dreadful MS symptoms, a vise like squeezing of the abdomen, is called a hug. Who thought THAT name was a good idea?

Stress is very, very bad for chronic illness. If you have a chronic illness, don’t get stressed. But what is more stressful than being told you have a chronic illness?

Overactive bladder is a symptom of MS. To treat it, you can take medication. The medication however causes the most vicious dry mouth known to man. To treat that, you must drink more water which will negate the benefits of the medication. (I was trying to work through this frustration as I moved my pillow and TV into the bathroom.)

Before I knew it, my life with MS found me in the midst of a series of bizarre and frustrating adventures. It was immediately apparent that if I was going to keep what little sanity I had while dealing with the insanity that is life with a chronic illness, I was going to have to use my sense of humor.  And like that, I was surviving an MS diagnosis. No, scratch that. I was thriving through an MS diagnosis! And giggling. And before long, I started writing too.

The result is MS Madness! A “Giggle More, Cry Less” Story of Multiple Sclerosis.   It details the journey of my accepting MS and the wacky adventures that followed.  Adventures such as: becoming a secret agent to pay for my new drugs, experimenting with legal speed, “accidentally” kicking an annoying male doctor in the crotch, getting married in a grocery store, shouting the F-bomb in my church parking lot just as Mass was starting and many more.

MS happened to be the suckiness that I was dealing with. But don’t we all have a little suckiness in our lives? The goal of MS Madness! is to show everyone that with a strong sense of humor, you can survive almost anything.

cover-halfI like to think of my book as the story of what would have happened had Bridget Jones been diagnosed with MS. Except I don’t wind up with Colin Firth in the end.

Not yet anyway…

MS Madness is @ Amazon in Print or Kindle

MS Madness is @ Barnes & Noble in Print or Nook

In addition to her book, MS Madness! A “Giggle More, Cry Less” Story of Multiple Sclerosis, Yvonne deSousa also writes a weekly blog on her website, www.yvonnedesousa.com, where she continues to use a giggle stick to beat up on chronic illness.

Yvonne is on Facebook. On Twitter with the handle @YvonnedeSousa

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