Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z is for ZERP #atozchallenge #ermahgerd

(Frerm Werkerperdier:)

"Zerp. Perstmahdern lertererter ers lertererter chererctererzd ber herver rerlerenc ern terchnerques lerk frergmahntershern, perederx, ernd questionerberl nererters. Ermahgerd."

Sterv Rergers being ZERPPED. Therlernius Lerddel nerterces thers percture ern the nervel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY. Ermahgerd.

Sterv Rergers being ZERPPED. Therlernius Lerddel nerterces thers percture ern the nervel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY. Ermahgerd.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y is for YARD #atozchallenge #shakespeare

In Shakespeare's day, the Yard was where the groundlings stood. It cost a penny to stand in the Yard and watch a play for a couple of hours. Cheapest seat in the house ... only it wasn't a seat.

We tend to lose sight nowadays of the practical reality that Shakespeare's first job as a writer was to keep the groundlings in the Yard amused, or at least engaged. 

All the sword fights, battle scenes, shipwrecks, dances, dirty jokes, and drunkards in his plays are there, at least in part, because the folks in the Yard needed something to keep them interested. Without such interludes, they might shout, throw something, or otherwise disrupt the proceedings.

As near as we can make out, the most financially successful of Shakespeare's plays during his lifetime was the one with the highest body count: Titus Andronicus. That seems to me to have something to do with the preferences of the Yard.  

One of the characters in my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, Becky Firestone, is an amateur Shakespeare scholar. She's got a thing for The Tempest, a play with a body count of zero. 

The lack of onstage violence may have frustrated the groundlings in the Yard when The Tempest premiered at the Globe Theatre back in 1611. The play does have a marvelous shipwreck scene, though, as well as a monster, a lot of magic, and a trio of amusing drunkards

Becky doesn't find anything amusing about drunkards.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

X is for XENOPHOBIA #atozchallenge #Islam #islamophobia

If I may be so bold as to attempt to speak on behalf of three million or so people ...

The big challenge we face as American Muslims is that we so frequently find ourselves treated as foreigners in our own country ... and loathed foreigners at that.

This delusional pattern has intensified over the past decade.

It presents itself whether we were born here or not, whether we were born into Islam or we accepted it as adults, whether we condemned religious extremism publicly or condemned it in one-on-one conversations. 

Not everyone we run into treats us like foreigners. But more people treat us like foreigners than is healthy for the country. So we need to make it clear. We are not foreigners.

"Why is he on a rant about this?"


This problem is getting steadily worse in the realms of media and government.

When American Muslims are portrayed on major (or minor) news outlets, and when they appear on episodes of TV dramas, they are likely to show up on our television screens with a heavy accent, with unflattering lighting, or both. What they say and do on those programs is likely to be underscored with music and/or visuals that emphasize fear, uncertainty, and danger. Is it really that hard to find a native-born Muslim who doesn't have an accent? Do we really need scary music to tell us how to feel about one religion over another? And do we really have to watch an entire "news" network devoting itself to spreading religious intolerance? Are we, as a country, willing to accept that level of mainstream religious hatred? 

And in the governmental realm, the trend is just as obvious and just as disturbing. For legislators to hyperventilate about whether (for instance) Muslims want to impose Sharia law on the rest of the country is a little like hyperventilating about whether Orthodox Jews want to impose Kosher dietary restrictions on the rest of the country. Voters and politicians: You can relax. Orthodox Jews don't want to make you follow their religious law. We don't want to make you follow ours. We accept the laws of this country, and we always have. But pointing that out doesn't attract votes for reactionary politicians.

It is a symptom of a kind of disease within the body politic when a country directs XENOPHOBIA against a targeted group of its own citizens, based solely on their religious affiliation. 

In mainstream US media, you can't promote stereotypes at the expense of African-Americans, American Jews, or any other minority group, and you can't pull votes (anymore) based on your explicit, clearly stated prejudice against African-Americans or American Jews. Yet when it comes to American Muslims, somehow we are the exception to this rule. We're fair game

Our message to the portion of country that is fomenting this stuff is a simple one. Drop it, please.

We live here. We love it here. We have been patient for more than a decade. It is time now for us to speak to you clearly, as fellow citizens of this nation. 

When it comes to civic involvement and responsible engagement with our communities, we are proud of what we do. 

If you think we are more likely to own a gun than the average citizen, more likely to deprive anyone of their civil rights than the average citizen, more likely to bomb a doctor's office or anything else than the average citizen, you're wrong. 

Treat us like your neighbors, please, because that is what we are. 

Together, we can come together as citizens, make the right choices, reject extremism in all its forms, and celebrate both our differences and our similarities. That's the guiding idea behind this great country, after all. 

We're not foreigners. 

Thanks in advance for remembering that.

Islamophobia and xenophobia are topics covered in my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, an excerpt of which you can read here.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

W is for WOW (#atozchallenge)


So the reviews thus far on the book excerpt are quite good. It has a 4.8/5.0 average, with 34 reviews in. Please add yours! The excerpt takes about 10 minutes to read.

#abna #novel #generalfiction #JIHADI: A LOVE STORY

Friday, April 25, 2014

V is for VERISIMILITUDE (and its limits)

This is the impression one gets that what one is reading is (note the quote marks) "real." Perhaps a better word than "real" would be "authentic."

Veri (from the Latin for "truth") + Similitude (from the Latin for "resemblance")

Realism is a technique, a trick, involving the use of details that are likely to strike the reader as plausible or consistent with past experience. Realism is one road -- though certainly not the only road -- toward the willing suspension of disbelief. 

Personally, I find most exercises in realism a little boring.

Great writers are not slaves to realism. Some of them are masters of it, by which I mean that they tell it what to do and what not to do. 

Nabokov and his dead mentor Shakespeare, for instance, each blend authentic-sounding details with the habit of twisting and bending and distorting the familiar ... until a distinctive "reality" emerges that is consistent only with the world the writer is creating. 

So: In LOLITA, the dead-on descriptions of cheap roadside hotels circa 1947 feel like "realism" ... while the protagonist's name ("Humbert Humbert") feels like anything but. 

The scene in MACBETH immediately after Duncan's murder, in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth interrupt each other, feels like "realism" ... but the Porter's speech, which follows that scene, feels more like what we would now call a vaudeville act. 

These juxtapositions pull us into the work, somehow, rather than pushing us away from it. 

I'm not sure what you call this fusing of realism with more versatile, flexible, and evocative literary tools, but I know it can deliver a heightened experience that transcends "realism." This painting, A PERFECT VACUUM by Jeremy Geddes, evokes the writing style I'm talking about:

Whatever you call this style, it's what I went for in JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, an Amazon excerpt of which you can find (and review) here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Dear Whatever Your Name Is:

Thank you for writing concerning your recent novel submission to the Greater West Covina Transgender Publishing Collective. We regret to inform you that your manuscript has been incinerated.

Our incineration adjudicator this year is that Grand Old Dame of Literature, Carla Bright. Carla started writing last year when she retired from her golf club chairwomanship (ladies' committee). She doesn't ask for much, but she likes a big font, alas. She says to tell you she's a sunny individual.

Your novel was destroyed because you went with fourteen point Arial instead of twenty-four point Hattenschweiler, and because Carla’s guidelines state that submissions must not contain any overt racism, gender bias, improper verb-pronoun agreement, references of a sexual nature, or linguine. Also, all manuscripts must be submissive, as she is dominant. However, your novel may feature characters who are prone to discriminate against others based on shoe size, and may describe no more than five (5) kicks to the testicular region of a male character's anatomy - provided these kicks do not take place in a bedroom.

Last year, the senior Collective administrator, Agnes (no relation to anyone) cut her finger on a staple when removing an entry from the mail. As a result, no manuscripts are now permitted to be bound via staple. Only Idiot-Proof Brand Paper Clips (size: JUMBO) are accepted as a means of binding your work. All other submissions will be rejected, regardless of standard. Of paper clips.

This new guideline has led to questions from applicants about contingency plans in the absence of jumbo paper clips. Best method: If you are sending your entry via the postal service, we suggest that you manually punch a hole in the top left corner of each sheet of paper, and run a string of cotton wool or used dental floss through the story. 

In keeping with last year's restrictions, any envelopes containing anthrax dust will be returned unopened.

You may perhaps be curious concerning the fate of your $250 submission fee. All transactions related to these submission fees have been erased due to a hacking incident plausibly attributable to Al Qaeda. We have reported the incident to Interpol, the FBI, and the West Covina Chamber of Commerce. Please do not make inquiries to these or any other law enforcement agencies. We will keep you up-to-date via smoke signal.

Sorry it didn't work out this time. There's always next week. 



And submit again. 

(Note: This was composed in collaboration with the alleged Richard Gibney, whose continuation of my blog's stated theme this month is clickable here. Thank you, Rich. We brought you the grapes.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

T is for TERRORISM (#atozchallenge)

Have you noticed? Many people who use this word don't seem to be able to formulate a viable definition of it. 

Either this word "terrorism" has an objective meaning or it doesn't. 

Responsible journalists, lawmakers, and policy makers shouldn't use language that expands and contracts on demand, in Orwellian fashion. Yet there is a long list of public figures in these categories who have a history of using language in just that way. Congressman Peter King, for instance, has a definition of "terrorism" that includes Al-Qaeda but excludes the Irish Republican Army.

If the word doesn't have any objective meaning, then perhaps we shouldn't use it at all in policy, legal, or journalistic environments. Is it asking too much of government officials, lawmakers, and reporters that they be able to describe what they actually mean when they use the word "terrorist"?

By the same token, if the word "terrorist" does have an objective meaning, we should be precise in our usage of it. So: What do I mean by "precise"? I mean that we should apply the word "terrorist" consistently to those people whose actions merit the use of that word. 

Not their nationality, not their mental state, not their religion -- their actions.

If we were to adopt a definition of "terrorism" that says "Terrorism is the intentional wounding or killing of civilians in order to achieve a political or military objective," and if we were to apply that standard consistently, then we would be on the path toward precision in our usage of the word. 

A note from our sponsor: Terrorism, as I have defined it, is forbidden by Islam.

Notice that the definition I am proposing doesn't say, "Terrorism is the intentional wounding or killing of civilians in order to achieve a political or military objective with which I, the speaker, disagree."

That definition would take us out of the realm of objective meaning.  I might use that definition to label someone as a terrorist who would not be a terrorist to you. Or vice versa. We would be talking past each other, possibly forever, under this definition. It would be like me saying, "A square inch is that quantity of space which feels square-inch-like to me." We wouldn't promote any kind of rational discussion.

Moving on. The individual pictured below (now dead) had the political and military goal of expelling US military forces from the Arabian peninsula, and he killed civilians in pursuit of that objective. Now, understand, we're not talking about scale here. We're just talking about what category he belongs in. 

Q. Was he a terrorist? 

a) No, because no one is a terrorist.
b) No, because he had a complex personal history, job-related stress, and/or psychological problems that made his true goals obscure.
c) No, because the word "terrorist" is impossible to define.
d) No, because no one of his nationality could be a terrorist.
e) Yes, because he killed civilians while committed to the pursuit of a political and/or military goal.

Ask 100 sane people this question, and I suspect all 100 will choose response e). That's my response, and I hope it's yours, too. 

Notice that we don't conduct all kinds of in-depth psychological analysis on why this individual, whose very name disgusts me, acted in the way he did. He had a complex personal history. Yet his complex personal history doesn't have anything to do with whether or not he was a terrorist. And using that personal history to justify or excuse his actions would insult the memory of his victims and insult the surviving family members.

If you doubt anything I've said in the paragraph above, ask yourself: Would the nineteen people who executed the mission that flew jet planes into the World Trade Center not be terrorists ... if they could be shown to have endured significant stress in the months before the attacks?

Again. This is all about action.

Moving on. The individual pictured below (now in jail) was part of a military unit tasked with the political and military goal of subduing the Taliban in Afghanistan. He confessed to killing sixteen Afghan civilians on the night of March 11, 2012, including nine children. At least one of those children was only two years old.

Q. Was he a terrorist? 

a) No, because no one is a terrorist.
b) No, because he had a complex personal history, job-related stress, and/or psychological problems that made his true goals obscure.
c) No, because the word "terrorist" is impossible to define.
d) No, because no one of his nationality could be a terrorist.
e) Yes, because he killed civilians while committed to the pursuit of a political and/or military goal.

This is where the discussion gets a little dicey for some people. 

They either change the subject, or they start advocating for some different option in the list of possible responses. These instincts, I have noticed, can be very strong.

Of course, there is a case to be made for showing patience, tact, and compassion to people who have those instincts. I would submit, however, that following the desire to change the subject, or following the desire to come up with a new list of possible responses, or following the desire to set a different standard for Americans, comes at a cost: Admitting that you are using the word "terrorist" in a way that promotes political propaganda over reasoned discourse.

This subject, a big one, is one I examine through the lens of fiction in my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Follow JIHADI: A LOVE STORY on #Pinterest

I don't know what it is about guys and Pinterest. Most of them seem to avoid it like the plague.

Not me. You can follow my Pinterest board for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarterfinalist JIHADI: A LOVE STORY by clicking here.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

S is for SHARE (as in "When are you sharing more of your novel?") #atozchallenge

Lots of people have asked when I will start sharing larger chunks of JIHADI: A LOVE STORY. 

Here's the answer.

TODAY. Take a look at the AMAZON excerpt of my ABNA Quarterfinalist novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY.This is the first 5000 words of the book, the biggest upload so far. 

The Amazon judges want to see what people think of these opening chapters. Your opinion matters!

JUNE 13. If the book makes it to the next round, I will upload another excerpt from the novel, via this blog, to celebrate that. 

JULY 8. If JIHADI makes it to the Final Five, I'll upload another excerpt!

Right now, the very best way to help us reach the point where I share the whole book with the whole world (by, um, winning the contest) is to write an Amazon review of the FREE Kindle download of chapters one, two, and three of JIHADI: A LOVE STORY.

 Click the image to get a Kindle excerpt of JIHADI: A LOVE STORY,

Please click here, read the excerpt, and leave a review!

R is for RINGO. #atozchallenge

R is for recycling, too, but that's a topic for another day. :)

Across the decades, I've noticed a popular tendency to minimize the drummer's accomplishments within the Beatles ensemble. 

Perhaps this is because because he wrote the fewest songs and drew the fewest headlines. Here are five factors to take into account before dismissing Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr, as "one of history's most charming bit players." (One book on my shelf uses those words!) 

1) Starr gave the Beatles something to shoot for when the band was not very good. Only the historians remember it now, but the Beatles were, for some time, playing catch-up to Liverpool's real band, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Their drummer? Starr, who reminisces as follows: "I met the Beatles while we were playing in Germany. We'd seen them in Liverpool, but they were a nothing little band then, just putting it together. In fact, they weren't really a band at all." Of the same period, Harrison recalled: "Ringo seemed to us to be cocky. Relative to what we were like at the time, the band he was with were very professional.... (Our manager told us,) 'You'd better pull your socks up because Rory Storm and the Hurricanes are coming in, and you know how good they are. They are going to knock you for six." The two bands played epic all-night sets in competition with each other in Hamburg.

2) The Beatles did not explode until Starr replaced Pete Best. And once he did, the band became a national phenomenon in Britain. To compare the relative drumming skills of each, consult the first Anthology disc. No contest. Before Ringo Starr joined, the Beatles were an interesting local act. After Ringo Starr, they were a national phenomenon. The impeccable backbeat with which he propelled their numbers just happens to have preceded their breakthrough in the UK.

3) Starr was the most popular Beatle in the United States at the time of their breakthrough here.  People tend to forget this. In the critical year of 1964, Ringo fans easily outnumbered fans of the other three. Ringo-themed merchandise vastly outsold John-, Paul-, and George-themed merchandise in the US.

4) Starr was the only one of the four capable of holding down the lead role in a film.  To be blunt, he was the best, and perhaps the only, actor in the group. Whether or not he was ever going to win an Oscar is beside the point. A Hard Day's Night (the film) consolidated the band's global dominance, and in it, Ringo Starr delivers a charming comic performance. Thus, at yet another critical point in the band's career, Starr took center stage, leaving one to wonder once again what the band's trajectory would have looked like without his contribution. (He repeated the trick in Help!)

5) Alone among the four, he revolutionized his instrument. Steve Smith, best known as the drummer for Journey, may have put it best: "Before Ringo, drum stars were measured by their soloing ability and virtuosity. Ringo's popularity brought forth a new paradigm ... we started to see the drummer as an equal participant in the compositional aspect ... His parts are so signature to the songs that you can listen to a Ringo drum part without the rest of the music and still identify the song."

Ringo was the most important Beatle. I suppose I should say here that I'm assessing Starr's importance to the group's career, not his impact as a songwriter. Regardless -- give the man his due. 

Ringo makes an appearance in my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, an excerpt of which you can now read and review on Amazon.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Q is for QUARTERFINALS (#abna extract for #JIHADI: A LOVE STORY) (#atozchallenge)

Up to now, the novel I worked on for six long years, JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, has had only a brief chunk from the beginning of Chapter One available for public inspection. That all changes today.

The book has been named a QUARTERFINALIST in the big Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. 

As a result, all of Chapters One and Two, and part of Chapter Three, are now available as a Kindle download. Free.

This is the biggest portion of the finished novel yet released. I do hope you will download the free extract by clicking here.

Then leave a review so the judges know what you think!

Here's an early review of this Kindle excerpt from the novel:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

P is for POINT OF VIEW (#Nabokov #PaleFire #atozchallenge)

"If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation, our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece." -- from PALE FIRE

Point of view is the "vantage point" from which a story is relayed to the reader. A story may unfold from one point of view or from multiple points of view.

Vladimir Nabokov's choices concerning point of view in his masterwork PALE FIRE have inspired a half-century or so of debate among scholars -- a fact amusing in itself, given the amount of space the novel devotes to the theme of academic and pseudo-academic obsession. This eternal, unresolvable debate may well have been Nabokov's intention.

Half a century after the novel's publication, the paper SHADE AND SHAPE IN PALE FIRE by Brian Boyd offers an overview of the intricate point-of-view arguments that PALE FIRE, my single favorite piece of fiction, still inspires.

"The longest-running and the fiercest disagreement in the interpretation of any of Nabokov's works has been over the internal authorship of PALE FIRE. Nabokov wrote the novel in 1960-1961, and published it in 1962, but Charles Kinbote signs the Foreword on October 19, 1959, after having also written the Commentary to John Shade's 999-line poem, "Pale Fire," [which is included as part of the text of the novel, and] which [Kinbote] reports was composed between July 2 and July 21, 1959. Kinbote has evidently also compiled the Index ... (S)ome critics have suggested that Shade seems in fact to have written the entire volume, not just the poem; others have argued instead that Kinbote wrote it all, poem included; still others maintain that Nabokov undermines the apparent dual authorship but deliberately leaves attributions unresolved, so that while there is evidence that either Shade or Kinbote could have written the whole, the reader, like someone looking at the perceptual psychologists' pet image, now sees duck, now rabbit, but cannot settle on a single stable response."

How many points of view does PALE FIRE encompass? This is one of the great literary riddles of the twentieth century, and I don't pretend to have the answer. Fascinating question, though.

If you haven't read this book yet, you should.

If you've only read it once, you should read it again.

And if you've read it twice ... you get the idea.

Book-as-narrative-maze is a special genre unto itself, and one not necessarily for every reader. Lots of people start this book and don't finish it. Yet somehow Nabokov's audacious, wildly risky story keeps popping up at or near the top of various lists of the greatest modern novels in English.

That is no accident. PALE FIRE is a singular triumph of the human imagination.

I don't think I'll be giving away any trade secrets by acknowledging that PALE FIRE was a major inspiration for my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY. But there need be, thank goodness, no endless debate over the number of points of view in my book. There are two.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

O is for Old English

My Papa, Yuri Toropov (1937-2007), didn't speak Old English, but he knew why it was important. It was the language in which the great epic poem Beowulf, the adventure of adventures, was written. My father read a modern English translation of that poem to me, at about the time the photograph below was taken. Let's call it 1970.

The poem stuck. I don't remember who did that translation, but I remember being thrilled by the passages about Beowulf defeating Grendel. A masterful 2001 translation by Seamus Heaney (incorporating Heaney's brilliant modern English verse, juxtaposed with a phonetically rendered Old English text) has since vanquished, with comparable finality, all its competitors.

There are two fairly obvious thematic evocations of the Beowulf tale incorporated within my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, but you won't be able to find them until I get the thing published. They don't show up in the small excerpt I've posted. 

I think of my Papa whenever I read them. 

N is for #Novel

Some people launch their first novel comparatively late in life. I am one of those people. (I'm 52.) It turns out I am in pretty good company:

* Charles Bukowski published POST OFFICE at 51.

* Laura Ingalls Wilder published LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS at 64.

* William S. Burroughs published JUNKY at 40.

* Raymond Chandler (to whom I pay tribute in my own first novel) published THE BIG SLEEP at 51. 

To read an excerpt from my first novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, click

Monday, April 14, 2014

M is for #MADE IT! (atozchallenge) (#abna third round)


After six years of work on my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, I got word today that the book made it into the third round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. 

MADE IT! 10,000 global English-language entries have now been winnowed down to 500, and Thelonius Liddell is still standing.

I've had lots of requests from people who want to read the book. Good news today: Very soon, you will be able to read an excerpt from the novel on Amazon and leave comments for the ABNA judges. 

They will cut the field of competitors down to a mere 25 on June 13, and they want to hear from you. Stay tuned for a post on how to access that (lengthy) excerpt once it's on Amazon.

For a brief excerpt of JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, click here.

For a video of me reading the same passage, click here.

To follow JIHADI: A LOVE STORY on Pinterest, click here.

Many expressions of gratitude are in order here. My thanks go out to Honorary Beta Reader Martha Alderson, who hasn't read the manuscript yet, but whose PLOT WHISPERER program allowed me to finish a book that sometimes seemed unfinishable. Thanks are also due to the patient, gifted beta readers who shared their insights as I wrote this book: Ksenia Anske, Nina Anthonijsz, Mary Cain, Daoud Ali Chavez, Eustacia Tan, L. T. Dalin, Richard Gibney, Reazul Islam, Julie K. Griffith, Paul Kater, Kim Korte, Becka McIntosh, Brian Meeks, Katya Mills, Nina MJ, Bill Morrison, Claudette Anne Pearson, N. M. Scuri, C.M. Skiera, Ann Smyth, and Adella Wright.

I will post more updates as I get them. 

A great day!

L is for #LITERATURE (#atozchallenge)

"Literature" is one of those words that expands to fill the space you allot for it.

If you buy an inflatable plastic swimming pool, and if that inflatable plastic swimming pool happens to come with a sheet bearing written instructions, those instructions are, technically, literature. If you buy a book that starts as something small enough for you to hold in your hands, but ends up being big enough to hold a whole world to which you wish to return again and again, that too is literature.

In the sense that distinguishes the sheet of swimming-pool instructions from The Sun Also Rises, we mean, I think, "Fictional or poetic writing that makes you want to read it twice.

Once you accept a definition like this, you also notice that this wanting-to-return-to-it-sense may mean that some things are literature for me that aren't literature for you.

I don't think it's possible to write a book that works for everyone as literature (in this restrictive sense), and that is okay. But I think making you want to read something again, whether or not you actually do, is what serious writers aspire to.

We are talking about intention here. A good carpenter aims to build a house that lasts. A good writer aims to build a book that people want to read twice or more. I hang out with a lot of writers, and it's interesting to me how many of them are focused on writing something that will attract interest, rather than something that merits repeat reading. 

I've now read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises twice -- once in my teens and once in my fifties -- and both times I finished it glowing, with a promise to myself that I would someday read it again. I just pray it doesn't take me another three and a half decades to get to it the next time. 

So: I believe Hemingway was out to create, not just a book, but a book that people would want to come back to. This is a high standard, and a lot of work, but it's what I tried to hold myself to with my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY.  It took me a while, but I think that, for some people, that's the kind of book it will be. 

Literature is my jihad. Click the image below for a video excerpt from JIHADI: A LOVE STORY.

 Click this image for a video excerpt from JIHADI: A LOVE STORY

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Second Novel, #FREED (#amwriting)

This morning, at a moment when I found myself in desperate need of distraction, +Bill Morrison weighed in with feedback on the first chapter of my new novel FREED. Over the last week or so, I've been rewriting this piece in intermittent OCD mode, trying not to obsess over ABNA.

Here's what Bill had to say about the first of the novel's anticipated forty-five chapters. I've been working on this chapter for about three months.

I loved the chapter and give you no advice at all... The transition into the plot, where you give very specific details about the experience of the lady with the twin was a great piece of pure narration, like a Shakespearean character turning to the audience and explaining the setup ... There is an American literary tradition that, in my humble opinion, comes from Damon Runyon and runs through to Vonnegut, where the hero has a very strong anti-hero voice that comes across both in how they speak and in their internal monologue. This chapter reads like that: full of character detail, then a shock of plot. Can't wait for the book.

I swear I am not paying this guy. But if I were, I would have told him to compare me to Vonnegut. 

Thank you, Bill! On to Chapter Two. Cue the writing music playlist. Regular readers of this space can guess who leads it.

If you're interested in beta-reading my second novel FREED, drop me a line.

If you'd like to read an excerpt from my first novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, click here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for #KANGAROO

YT and RG 

YT: My friend RG attempted for months to work a kangaroo into the plot of my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, but he was unsuccessful. Rich, two questions. First, why were you so fixated on this? And second, are you yourself, as so many have suggested, a kangaroo?

RG: This is a kangaroo court you have me in front of, Yusuf. I will not kowtow to your accusations. I simply implied that your novel - which deals with the frequently bellicose nature of US foreign policy, the poisonous attitudes of a minority of its servicemen, conversion to Islam, extremism in the Middle East, and a cat - could have also done with a kangaroo. I asked you on numerous occasions to turn your hate-filled imam into a kangaroo, and to counter this by turning your more sympathetic and beautifully rendered character Fatima into a kangaroo, for the purposes of balance. But these suggestions fell on deaf ears.

YT: Are marsupials anywhere to be found in your forthcoming epic sci-fi hilarity THE QUANTUM WHISPERER, wherein time traveler Keir Tremayne attempts to escape a black hole, rewrite his own plotline, and keep the universe safe from nefarious Russians? And why didn't you directly address the issue of your own personal kangaroo-ness? Something to hide? Well? Don't stare at the colored lights. Say something.

RG: I might throw in an extraterrestrial koala. A Mars-Supial? If you check my blog, I have only once mentioned the word kangaroo. I have no marsupial bias either way, and I resent the implication.

YT: I'm changing this channel. But beware. I have photographs.

Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for #JUMU'AH (Congregational Friday Muslim prayer) #atozchallenge #Islam #jumuah

Jumu'ah ( صلاة الجمعة‎ ṣalāt al-jum`ah, "Friday prayer") is, for Muslim males, a mandatory congregational prayer (ṣalāt) held each Friday at midday. The Prophet, peace be upon him, permitted women to attend Jumu'ah. Special accommodations must be made for them. 

Today is Jumu'ah, a pleasant synchronicity with the A to Z Blog Challenge. 

O ye who believe! When the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday (the Day of Assembly, yawm al-jumʿah), hasten earnestly to the Remembrance of Allah, and leave off business: That is best for you if ye but knew! And when the Prayer is finished, then may ye disperse through the land, and seek of the Bounty of Allah: and celebrate the Praises of Allah often, that ye may prosper.

—Qur'an, sura 62 (Al-Jumua), āyāt 9-10

Jumu'ah is analagous to the Sunday religious services held by Christians, and the Saturday sabbath observed by Jews. 

My novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY once had a lengthy scene in which the protagonist, a recent revert to Islam, made his way to the local mosque for congregational prayers. I ended up cutting the scene to improve the pacing. The book, which generated a lot of unused scenes like that one, took me six years to finish. 

Jumu'ah mubarak! (Blessed Jumu'ah!)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I Is for the "I" Voice: First-Person Essays in Hugo's #LESMISERABLES

In a previous post, I shared my belief that Victor Hugo's sprawling novel operates on at least three levels, only one of which (the first) shows up in the popular musical adaptation. Here they are again:

1. The Drama (an often-corny plot)
2. The Diversions (lengthy discourses on politics, history, sociology, sewers, etc. that seem not to move the plot forward)
3. The First-Person Essays (Hugo's own personal experiences, which are what we're looking at today)

These three worlds intersect to create a single world for (patient) readers, a world of seemingly endless interest, complexity, and resonance, a world meant to be comparable to the real world you and I inhabit in its variety and scale. Of course, this is an illusion -- a literary trick -- but it's the best one I've ever seen.

Easier to miss than the drama (level one) and the diversions (level two), is Hugo's careful, conscious decision to weave his own personal perspective into the book, by means of a number of first-person essays.

These "I" essays may at first give the appearance of being tucked into one of the other two compartments, but they are not. They constitute a separate narrative thread.

Despite what I have called them, the "I" essays do not always make use of the "I" voice. They are more likely to refer to "we" or to "the author of this book." Even so, Les Miserables is a personal journal of sorts. It is Hugo himself who tours the silent battlefield of Waterloo decades after the battle, and Hugo who shares his own personal memories of the barricades of 1832 as an insurrection raged in Paris.

These "I" reference-points -- there are dozens of them -- may go unnoticed the first time through, because the reader is still off balance, trying to take in all the larger episodes, lectures, and rants. The "I" entries become clearer, and more obviously essential to the novel, on the second read. Again: Reading this book once is not enough. It is designed to be read multiple times.

Although the two instances I have given -- the tour of the ghostly Waterloo battlefield and the memory of having been caught in the crossfire in 1832 -- are extended ones, Hugo's "I" episodes are sometimes very short. He uses this perspective, for instance, to add a special emphasis and moral indignation to the petty crime that wins our hero Jean Valjean a long prison sentence: "This is the second time, during his studies on the penal question and damnation by law, that the author of this book has come across the theft of a loaf of bread as the point of departure for the disaster of a destiny."

This reference to the "I" experience constitutes a kind of literary "close-up" on two overlapping crimes: the theft of a loaf of bread, and society's theft of a man's life. (Of course, society no longer steals the lives of men. This is all nineteenth-century stuff, I'm sure.)

The first-time reader never knows when, why, or for how long these powerful "I" passages will present themselves. Yet they keep materializing, and it's likely their cumulative impact is meant to register subconsciously. Hugo goes out of his way to establish and re-establish his own identity as an individual.  He is careful not to establish himself as a character interacting with other characters in the drama involving Jean-Valjean, Javert, Cosette, et al. Yet we are never allowed to abandon his presence, just as we can never abandon our own. With these first-person essays, Hugo presents himself as the subtle analogue to the reader's own "I" point of view.

There's nothing else like LES MISERABLES. It's still a radical book, both thematically and structurally, and the more closely I examine it, the more astonished I am that it exists. Even a twenty-first century author, armed with a word processor, should not have been able to make a half-million-word manuscript sing, enchant, confound, and demand repeated readings as this one does. That a man in exile, equipped only with vast supplies of paper and ink, was able to do so suggests that all his tricks are worthy of close study. I've shared only three, and I'll shut up now and move on to other blog topics, but the book remains an inexhaustible source of inspiration to me and to others.

This book took Hugo seventeen years to complete. Full disclosure: I include several homages to LES MISERABLES within my novel JIHADI: A LOVE STORY, which only took me six years to finish, and is less than an eighth the length of Hugo's massive tale. Not in his league, of course but give me time. I've started another one, and might just live another seventeen years.