Saturday, June 25, 2016

Rant – Defeating The American Politics of Hate

I’m reposting an edited version of this rant from last year. It seems more relevant today than it did then.

I’d like to think I’ve mellowed, but lately I’ve succumbed to the other side of old: disgruntlement. With all this unbridled hate from so many Americans based on skin color and religion, I have to hold back a loud screaming, “A pox on all your houses!” Some houses are worse than others, despite the fact that many of them claim to be God’s house.

Unfortunately God, in all his or her guises, has been imagined re-imagined, co-opted, adopted politicized, interpreted, and reinterpreted to serve mankind’s baser instincts. The so-called “word” has been translated into so many languages so many times no one really knows what was intended, not even the folks who claim to have heard the word directly from God’s mouth and transcribed it for posterity. Then again, what do we usually think about people who hear “voices?”

What’s going on here and around the world really is a battle of people afraid of knowledge and science, bound instead to superstition and paranoia. They form gangs of often violent followers who demand you believe in their made-up story, not the other guy’s. There has been and will be torture and torment in nearly every land in the world because someone says Mohammed is the greatest, another says Christ, another Buddha, another Ganesha (my personal favorite).  Moses fits in there somehow. And then there’s that whole Zeus-Jupiter dispute, not to mention the sun Gods. And let me add: I think pantheists are vastly under rated.

There is enough confusion just in Christian circles. When I was growing up, I was curious about the seeming unexplainable.  A Catholic kid who lived a couple of houses away learned that my family was Lutheran and told me matter-of-factly that I was definitely going to hell. Only Catholics went to heaven.  I told a young friend of mine, an evangelical Christian, what my other friend said and he told me to stay away from Catholics because all Catholic schools had guns in their basements and planned to kill us all when the time was right. In my formative years I went to various churches, places where bodies were dunked in water, eventually sputtering, coughing, choking to the surface suddenly saved or reborn. I could do that at home, in the bathtub, I thought. I’ve always had an independent streak. I could save myself, thank you. I also listened to those souls who testified, in a state of mind just short of a voodoo trance.  

In high school, a group of us regularly met in a basement to discuss such matters without resolution or agreement, but with mutual respect and the enjoyment of a hearty discussion.  In college, nearly every night of my freshman year, often while playing euchre, we discussed the meaning of life, and sorted, with my friends, through various philosophies, Eastern and Western. Despite my focus on theatre and journalism, over the years I took elective courses in Western Philosophy, Buddhism and Hindu. And like most folks of my generation, I dipped into the popular and mysterious literature of the times, from Hermann Hesse to Carlos Castaneda.

After sitting at a bar in Bloomington, Indiana with still another group of intellectually curious friends, a young man whom I’d never met and never saw again said that everyone searches for an epistemology. I sensed truth here. Perhaps it was like hunger or sex. Something built in.  I asked about him later and no one in our little group heard from him again.  Perhaps he found his epistemology or perhaps he went off on a search. A third possibility was that he thought the whole idea was foolish and that his comment was far from an endorsement, more of a futile, disappointing observation.

He may have been puzzled at the notion that we need a rulebook at all.  At the time, I thought that by epistemology, he meant people needed a set of rules to live by. Most religions had them, it seemed. That would explain this extraordinary and to me silly dependence on so-called sacred text, no matter in what part of the world, or when it originated. Nearly everyone may be looking for the official rulebook, the one that would guarantee him or her not only an afterlife, but a damn fine one at that.  So imagine if you think you’ve found it and you did your best to live by it, then someone comes along and says you’ve been reading and abiding by the wrong rule book all your life. You are going to get pissed. Why not just try to live a good life?  You know how to do that. Do you really need a book to tell you not to do harm to others?

There are more than 4,000 religions on earth, and more than seven billion people, (a few more than can fit in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco). So maybe we, at least here in the U.S.A., need to listen to our founders who fled religious persecution and wanted religious freedom for all. That’s who we are as a nation. Work to protect all our freedoms and not be pro one religion and anti-another. So believe what you will, live as you like as best you can in a just manner, and keep your rulebooks to yourself.

Incidentally, “epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief,” according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. So we might want actual science to play a role in the outcome of our endeavors.

A final note: We, in the U.S., are approaching elections to determine who will represent American interests at home and abroad. Lately, we are experiencing a major candidate who seeks office by tapping into our fear and ignorance of other cultures and religions.  He takes advantage of world events, reshapes their meaning to ride the fear they have created. He skews statistics and blatantly lies. His party would revisit the tactics of the Nazis and use them on certain people they erroneously consider dangerous or inferior. His party would reinstate pre-Selma voting laws that would prevent certain Americans from voting. They would deny full rights to minorities based on little more than unverifiable folktales.

Let’s put the bluster of modern–day Mussolinis to rest.  Let’s keep the old-style Klan-inspired segregationists a footnote to history. Let’s ignore those who believe this is a nation that holds a single religious or philosophical belief.  I don’t regard pride as something to seek, necessarily.  However the United States of America should be proud of being a melting pot of the world. It has been our single, most outstanding accomplishment. It has been the source of our entrepreneurial energy and the inspiration for invention.  With the possible exception of native Americans — and they likely came from somewhere else, only much earlier — we are a nation of immigrants.  Many colors, many languages, many faiths. Let’s not get caught up in the cynical attempts to scare us into hate and discrimination.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016

On Writing And Publishing – Comments On The Book Industry, Plus Some Blatant Self Promotion

James Patterson is to books what Starbucks is to coffee. So big, one wonders if there’s room for anyone else. His major venture into a marketing tsunami began a few years ago when he partnered with other writers to mass produce his own novels, creating a virtual novel-writing factory. Co-writers do get second billing, so to speak.

Now, book factory foreman/ master writer/master marketer Patterson is pushing his new imprint called BookShots. These are low-priced, skinny thrillers longer than a short story and shorter than a novel (150 pages or less). They are designed to be read at one sitting.  The new venture is backed and promoted by Hatchette, one of the Big 5” publishers that dominate the book industry. Publicity for the new imprint likened BookShots to the old pulp paperbacks you’d find on wire racks in the drugstore a few decades ago. It’s a great idea, but, despite the hype, it isn’t a new idea. Also, it’s not the only product of its kind in the marketplace.  A few years ago Penguin tried to capitalize on what hey saw as a retro trend by reviving a Dutton imprint called Guilt Edged Mysteries. They hoped to get in on the Kindle craze, offering the work only in the inexpensively produced electronic format. They published a few books, including my short novel Death in The Haight, before the imprint faded to black.

There are independent presses out there publishing pulp-inspired as well as short crime fiction in print and in electronic formats. One of the best is Hard Case Crime (their Fade To Blonde by Max Phillips is one of my all-time favorites). While publishers like Hard Case are devoted to a concept, they aren’t bound by a single vision and a formula. I don’t mean to be mean to James Patterson, but I grow tired of highly branded products overpowering individual voices.  Starbucks, Bank of America, Wal-Mart, Nestle, etc. And I am reminded once again how years ago how moneyed corporations like Barnes & Noble and Borders wiped out independent bookstores and now that they have pretty much dissolved, we are left with nearly none of either.

Fortunately the spirit isn’t dead.  There is still real innovation despite not having the mammoth blunt edge of an unlimited publicity budget to get interesting work to the market place. In a slightly different way, Canada’s Orca Books has created a novel (pardon me) approach.  Their Rapid Reads program, as part of their Raven Books Imprint, not only publishes short reads, but books that are both fun and easy to read, encouraging the reluctant reader to get his or her feet wet. Unlike the Bookshots brand, these are quick reads by several different talented authors, writing at a length perfect for that flight from New York to Chicago. And they have been doing this for a few years now. Among Rapid Reads’ choices are works by such proven authors as Reed Farrel Coleman, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, William Kowalski, Rick Blechta. Vicki Delany, and Gail Bowen.

I am shamelessly including a review of my first Rapid Reads contribution, The Blue Dragon, because the reviewer’s words also cast an appropriately glowing light on the Rapid Reads series and the concept itself.

"What an incredible beginning to a new mystery series by Ronald Tierney...This cover art also provides a capsule view of the multi-dimensions of the novella and becomes more meaningful as the reader progresses through each chapter... [This was] my first introduction to “Rapid Reads” and I am enthralled not only by the individual title selection experience but also for the incredible discovery of this reading series.” (Library Thing Early Reviewer 2015-08-23)

I have nothing against James Patterson.  He is a dedicated advocate of literacy, generously supports bookstores, is by all accounts, a genuinely good guy and judging by his popularity, also very good at what he does.

My point  (though sometimes I wonder if I’m doing anything more than lighting a single match in a very big, very dark cave) is that to find something that isn’t market driven, isn’t formulaic, and to find books that are independent works from diverse creative minds, one has to look beyond the overpowering searchlight of the big 5 machine and the brands of their celebrity authors.  There are many good reads — short and long — for those willing to dig a little deeper. We might have to look beyond the “impulsive buy” rack at the check-out counter of our local super market.

I hope you’ll consider some of the crime fiction available on the links above. Talk to your bookstore about stocking books from quality independent presses.  Here is a list of mystery bookstores:  And here is a list of independent bookstores in general.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Rant — Trump For President: A Case For The Bunco Squad

If it weren’t so terrifying, it would be hilarious.  I remember the TV series “Dragnet”. I wasn’t a fan; but for some reason I couldn’t not watch it.  Occasionally they had a case of fraud, a “con’ man “ who found a “mark” and through lies and trickery took the mark for all he had.  That’s when Jack Web would say something like: “Turn the case over to “Bunco.”  The Bunco squad handled swindling, confidence games, and money-making schemes that broke the law.  Until now, Bernie Madoff may be one of the best- confidence men ever. He operated a Ponzi Scheme that cheated all sorts of folks, including charities, out of millions. He was a kind of understated con man — perhaps merely subtler than the current business model.

The current champ is made of different stuff. Here’s what Mr. Trump’s subconscious advises you to if you want to be a successful Bunco Artist.

What you do to be successful in the field is create a character.  If you want someone’s money, you must pretend you are already successful. You make a big deal out of it.  Put your name on everything. It is an effective cure for an inferiority complex or feelings of insecurity. Remember how much fun you had putting your finger in wet cement.  People knew your name! You also want to surround yourself with pretty women and hang out with A-list celebrities.  If you are a woman, find someone like me to protect you.  Otherwise you’ll never make it here or anywhere.

A Vessel Filled With Bluster and Greed
You must say you give a lot of money to charity. This shows you have heart. Also, be the life of the party, any party, by saying outrageous things. Making fun of the disabled will get you some attention. It’s especially wise to talk tough, maybe get in the ring with a lot of sweaty wrestlers (people who believe wrestling is real will likely think you are too) pick on a minority group or two or three, to show you’re not one of those politically correct wimps. Talk tough. You can tell them that prisoners of war are losers because they got caught. I gotta tell you that’s double tough, right guys? If I can pick on POWs nobody’s free from my disdain. Also don’t worry about telling lies.  The people who will follow you will never check the facts. (For example, they won’t know I bugged out on Vietnam, deferred because of a bone spur on my foot. Ouch.  Of course that didn't prevent me from skiing and playing other sports).

And IF someone actually does tell the truth about you, remind your followers the accusers are being unfair. Remind them you are being victimized again and again like me. I was victimized by the judge while I defended my business practices at my fake university, one of the thousand lawsuits I have been involved in. I was victimized by the Republican Party because they refused to yield to my wishes. (A reminder, throw a couple of tantrums when you don’t get your way.It works. I have been victimized by the IRS who would like to know a little more about my bankruptcies and other business dealings. Who do they think they are?  Don’t worry. My followers don’t understand anything. They don’t know that in those bankruptcies I didn't pay workers for their work or suppliers for their products. My followers believe I’ll create jobs.  Yeah, I will. They just won’t get paid. Suckers.

If you are running for office, don’t be specific about policies (except when you want to punish minorities for being minorities). Instead, call your opponents by childish names: “Wicked Wendy” or “Stupid Stewart.” This is especially effective during recess. Don’t worry; your audience will think you’re funny like the guy who blows 7-up bubbles out of his nose. They will applaud you for your cleverness.

More Helpful Hints From My Wonderful And Huge Subconscious:

Vocabulary, Schlmocabulary: Don’t fret about a limited vocabulary. Pick a few meaningless words and phrases and just use them over and over: Unbelievable, Great, Believe me, I gotta be honest with you, Gimme a break. You wouldn’t believe it. I gotta tell you. What can I say?  It’s huge. You don’t have to say anything to be popular.

If you want to get an idea of the way I talk, listen to Regis Philbin.  He’s been doing my shtick for years. Most important, though, don’t ever say you are sorry. Don’t ever admit to a mistake unless you underestimated how great you are.

Donald’s Angels: Get a team of young, Stepford women to appear on CNN and CNBC and Fox. Train them as spokespeople.  Make them memorize five responses to questions.  They arbitrarily rotate the answers no matter what the questions are.  Also, to show their undying loyalty and respect, these pretty little things must always refer to me as MISTER TRUMP. Make sure the men do the same thing only without the cheap make up.

Where’s the Money? Never release your tax returns.  People might find out you are not as wealthy as you say.  They might find out you pay less taxes than a Wal-Mart cashier.  They might discover you give very little to charity.  Look at what I did. In order to sell products (my book and a board game, for example, I promised to give the proceeds to charity.) Did I?  Oh, well.

Let’s You and Him Fight; Take a cue from me, the Donald.  Your physical gestures should include clenched fists.  That’s what a tough guy does, even those of us who dodged the draft. Next, you stir up the brain-washed crowd to do your fighting for you. It’s a lot of fun.  I get so adrenalin-charged when I do this, I take extra shots at the media because they victimize me too. Everybody is out to get me. Look at the Washington Post.  They said something I didn't like.  They are banned.  Banned, I tell you. Freedom of the press wasn’t my idea.

If you succeed at all this, it’s likely your followers are gullible like mine.  In other words they will believe anything. So go for those cheap and easy conspiracy theories.  Hillary murdered some guy. Obama was born in Kenya.   Just sayin.’

Make Atlantic City Great Again:  Come up with a catch slogan. I pretty much owned Atlantic City. It’s quite likely I can do for America what I did for them.

If you vote for Donald Trump, you are his mark, his stooge, his schnook, his victim. Ask Chris Christie who holds Mr. Trump’s coat and picks up his lunch.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Book Notes: Charcoal Joe, Easy Rawlins and Walter Mosley

I was fortunate to hear Walter Mosley speak during a major mystery convention more than a few years ago.  He told the story of a Hollywood studio wanting the movie rights to one of his books.  As part of the negotiation, the studio also wanted the rights to “novelize” the movie. That is, they wanted to write a novel based on the book on which they based the movie. This incredibly circular logic may help explain why writers find the wielders of power in the film capital of the world a few bricks shy of a load.
Thank goodness, Mosley said no.  The original book was the real thing.  And so, from my perspective, is Walter Mosley. More than a quarter century ago, authors Mosley, Janet Dawson, Jerome Doolittle and I had our first novels nominated for a Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award (Best First P.I. Novel). Mosley triumphed with Devil in a Blue Dress, an Easy Rawlins’ crime novel. Since those days Mosley has zoomed to super stardom.  Fortunately, he hasn’t forgotten Easy, the fictional P.I. who lit the literary fuse for this now universally acclaimed author. Easy is back.

I was also fortunate enough to receive an advanced copy of Charcoal Joe and a chance to revisit Rawlins in advance of the book’s June 14 release. Even with the fear that to judge at all is presumptuous, I’m going to do so anyway.  This is the work of a mature writer, one who has come as close to mastering his craft as most anyone. The slightest of characters is fully fleshed out.  The relationships are fully and deeply developed.

In Charcoal Joe, Mosley mixes the sacred and profane, the earthy with the celestial, the spiritual with the gritty, the sweet sorrow with the outright cruel. He provides an old white guy like me a glimpse into worlds I would be unable to imagine without his words.

In Charcoal Joe, we find P.I. Rawlins trying to clear a brilliant young black student from a murder charge in 1960s Los Angeles, a time and place the author paints with vivid strokes.  The novel isn’t all crime-solving. Rawlins must deal with the complexities in his personal life, trying but not necessarily succeeding in settling down. Just as in the real world, relationships are complex. Even so, Mosley makes sure there are enough guns, sex and suspense to stay true to the genre.

One of the best things about print versus film is that the reader brings his or her own imagination to fill in many of the details and to some extent brings meaning to the story.  One of the difficult things about reading is that there are instances when we discover we cannot bring quite enough knowledge or experience to that particular place in the author’s imagination.  Unfortunately this means we cannot fully give up our foreign status. Mosley’s world in Charcoal Joe, however distant from our own it might be, is blessedly accessible.

This year, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) bestowed Grand Master status on the novelist, which he can add to a number of benchmarks, including a PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Also, Easy Rawlins’ cements his place in the great literary tradition of American private eyes

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Film Pairings — The 1950s, When the U.S. Constitution Was Threatened By Fear And Ignorance…Hmmn

Even though most of us acknowledge that the U.S. Constitution is not just the law of the land but is also the foundation for our coveted freedom, problems arise because we disagree on how to interpret it. In 1950s America, the country’s right wing became hysterically frightened of the word, “communist,” because it described the political philosophy of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic, an increasingly influential power that, like us, had nuclear capability and, like us, had an inclination to spread their philosophy.  We were told repeatedly by the media and many politicians to be frightened of the “commies” among us. No one explained our differences in any intelligent way, only that they would bomb us into oblivion and to be very, very frightened. Bomb shelters were built. Children were traumatized by the impending doom.

Here are two exceptional movies that help shed a little light on those troubled times as well as offer a little perspective on the politics and press as we approach the November elections.

Helen Mirren & Bryan Cranston In Trumbo
Trumbo — Many of us were aware that Hollywood writers who supported unions and joined groups espousing communist views were called up in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, where they were harassed and accused of traitorous behavior in a spectacle devised by the committee specifically for the scandal hungry press.  If those summoned didn't name names of others who might have been curious about the American Communist party, they were blacklisted by Hollywood studios frightened of growing public opinion reacting to the politics of fear. Some, like Trumbo, went to prison for refusing to cooperate in what was a questionable legal proceeding.  Families and careers were destroyed.  This “red” scare” went on until the blustery, badgering, self-aggrandizing anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy (who suggested that even Eisenhower was a commie) was exposed for the bully he was by Edward R. Murrow.  Bryan Cranston creates a fascinating character in this 2015 was film directed by Jay Roach and based on the book, Dalton Trumbo, by John McNamara.  Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s wife, Helen Mirren as vicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and John Goodman, as a B-movie director are exceptional. While there is some criticism of the accuracy of all the situations presented in this bio pic, overall it is a fascinating reflection of the times, including members of the Senate abusing the First Amendment as well as exposing the wishy washy principles of many Hollywood producers.

Tom Hanks In Bridge Of Spies
Bridge of Spies — Much like Dalton Trumbo, attorney James B. Donovan, portrayed in an understated, yet nonetheless commanding performance by Tom Hanks. Donavan is a man who refuses to be pushed around and refuses to relinquish his principles even though he is paying a terrible personal cost.  Also like the movie Trumbo, Bridge of Spies recreates the mood of our country while it is battered by mammoth fear-mongering campaigns. We remain in the midst of the big red scare.  This too is a story based on real events: The trade of our spy, pilot Francis Gary Powers, shot down over the USSR, and Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy, in a subdued but also powerful performance by Mark Rylance. This too is a story that shows how scaring the public often threatens our resolve about living by the U.S. Constitution when it is inconvenient, when it seems at odds with our personal passion. Steven Spielberg directed. Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay.   Much credit has to go to the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for his vision, particularly the scenes set in East Berlin.

It is important, especially now, to be alert when the media or the politicians try to convince us to be frightened of people whose lives are not the same as ours. Our lesson is to understand that to forfeit their rights is to forfeit our own.

To accompany tonight’s high-quality 1950s visit, we might just want a good cup of coffee.  However, to counter the sobering drama, a few sips of a good whiskey – on ice if it’s hot where you are — or some vodka in honor of the red scare might be in order.