Travels Through Europe’s Troubled Borderlands

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father grew up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.  His country of birth doesn’t exist anymore, either: it’s now two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it was variously part of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It was also twice invaded and ruled by the Germans in her lifetime.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in “borderlands,” as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Blessed with fluency in Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns that have been swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of just the right quote or anecdote as Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate of borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories of others, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Marie Kondo Joy Isn’t Just For Humans!

My six-year-old Westie loves watching television, even if there aren’t any dogs, horses, or other animals to bark at or observe. When we’re done with our dinner, he’ll sit close by and wait for his cue. When I say “We’re going to watch television,” he troops off to the living room, picks a chair, sits or lies down facing the large screen and waits for us to start the evening’s entertainment.

He’s a big fan of action scenes and chases, but more than that he enjoys dramatic close-ups when couples are arguing or just having an intense interaction.  I’ve watched his ears flick back and forth, his eyes widen as he surveys what’s happening.  Sometimes he rears back when he’s startled.

He was especially fond of Babe, which had lots to keep him focused, and sat through a whole hour of it, then wandered off, perhaps over-stimulated.  After the movie, though, he came back, stared at us and moved his lips just as the animals in the film seemed to do.  Maybe he was asking if there was a sequel.

So given his responsiveness, I thought I’d have him watch some of Marie Kondo’s show, and while he’s not very good at folding, he did seem fascinated.  That’s when I thought it might be time to organize his toy basket because some of the stuffed animals looked pretty disreputable after a few years of chewing, tugging, and chomping.

He clearly rejected several of them by turning his head away.  Between us we managed to reduce his toys by 1/3 and the ones that stayed clearly give him joy-joy feelings as they say in Demolition Man.  He’ll play tug of war with them, throw them around as if subduing a rabbit or some other yard demon, and basically have a great time.

I wonder if he’ll be willing to consult with me when I de-clutter my library.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Research is One of the Best Parts of Writing!

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn about writing as a career in my MFA program.  One of them is how enjoyable and even exciting researching a book can be.  And I don’t just mean tracking things down online or spending time in an archive.  I mean talking to experts.

Working on book after book, I’ve found how helpful experts can be, and how much they enjoy opening up about their fields of expertise.  One of the first was a county Medical Examiner I interviewed because my firts mystery had a body found in a river.  We talked about decomposition and a lot of other aspects of the situation, and went very deep (pun intended in our hour-long chat.

I’ve spoken with lawyers, cops, private investigators and have never found anyone unwilling to talk about what they do and love.  I tell them who I am and why I’ve contacted them and ask if they have time.  The majority of interviews get done in person, but once or twice I’ve had to work on the phone if the expert was an inconvenient distance away.

These interviews don’t just help ground my books in reality, whatever the genre, they also take me out of my own world into worlds I don’t know and find fascinating.

In my current novel-in-progress, music plays a role and so I’ve interviewed a cello played I know and a friend who’s played the piano for years, and a professor of piano at Michigan State University.  I have eight years of piano behind me, but don’t know much about repertoire and the kinds of issues professionals deal with and the talks have been fascinating.  I’ve also interviewed a fire chief and the head of an advertising agency.  Each one has been unfailingly generous with their time and of course will be acknowledged when the book comes out.

It may not take a village to write a book, but it definitely takes human resources who live in very different worlds than I do, and enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience.  Talking to them doesn’t just augment the reality of whatever book I’m working on, it almost always opens up new possibilities.  Better still, it breaks the isolation of writing a book, and that makes me very grateful.

Even if you’re shy, contacting the expert you want is easy via phone or email.  What’s most important is thinking out your questions in advance and being prepared for the book to go in a different direction or take on aspects you hand’t imagined, based on what you learn.  As Henry James advised a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in many genres including the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder.

Literary Snobs Aren’t The Only Genre Snobs

Writing in The Guardian, author Emily Maguire complains about literary snobs who look down on the sorts of books she likes to read, without listing any of them.  In general, though, they’re not in “the canon,” not written by :”dead white men.”

As if the canon has never changed and has never included Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton–and many others.

Literary snobs may have gotten in the way of her self esteem, but genre snobs  come in all shapes and sizes. The owner of Michigan’s wonderful mystery bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s, once griped on Facebook about academics in her college town dissing mysteries, and rightfully so. But mystery fans themselves aren’t above genre-bashing.

I’ve been on a mystery readers’ and writers’ listserv for about fifteen years and way too often a predictable thread emerges. Somebody complains about being sneered at for reading mysteries by somebody else off-list who thinks they’re silly, trashy, mindless “escape reading.”

The list starts to seethe: some of the “victims” quickly turn victimizer and start trashing “Literature” or “literary fiction.” What’s that? Well, as defined by a best-selling mystery author at a conference I attended years ago: books where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting. Wasn’t he insightful? He certainly knew his audience—people roared their approval. Snobbery clearly works both ways.

What usually happens next on the list is that more people chime in with complaints about Proust or whoever they think is highfalutin and boring. That expands to include all Modern or Contemporary Fiction, however it’s defined, which is usually whatever book that person doesn’t like. Or disliked in high school. Or was told was brilliant but they hated. Or anything dubbed “classic.” And the authors and their fans are of course elitist.

The contempt these mystery readers sometimes feel directed at them seems to get recycled as they express disdain for books which have been written and enjoyed by people they have to denigrate. That’s not an argument or even a defense: it’s insecurity.

Sometimes they’ll point to all the crime writers on the bestseller list and sneer that literary novels only sell “a few copies” and are usually written “for the author’s friends.” Or they’ll make lavish claims and say something like “Anne Perry is a better writer than George Eliot.” I’ve had dinner with Anne Perry and I doubt she would make that claim. I’ve also read Eliot’s novels extensively. You can’t compare the two authors.

I’ve done radio and print book reviews since the early 90s and I’ve found plenty of bad writing in every genre. If you don’t like a certain kind of book, don’t read it. But trashing a whole genre doesn’t make you sound authoritative or thoughtful, it only makes you sound like you’ve got a giant chip on your shoulder.

Lev Raphael is the author of The State University of Murder and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Looking for Sexy, Exotic, Escapist Fun? Try “Tidelands”!

After the Polar Vortex kept me housebound for a few days, I was in the mood for something on the trashy side, so this past weekend I binge-watched the Netflix Original from Australia, Tidelands.

This exotic, eight-episode series is set in a small seaside town in Queensland (northeast Australia) and its heroine Cal–who resembles a young Isabelle Adjani–has just been released from prison where she served 10 years for murder after being incarcerated at 14. Those years have made her tough, indomitable, and resilient.

Growing up, Cal always felt a bit different, even freakish, and the town she returns to is every bit as weird as she is. Apparently sirens–those mythical creatures luring men to their deaths with their song–are real and have been preying on the town’s men forever. The men drown, but later on the sirens give birth (you can fill in the blank).

There’s a whole small community nearby made up of Tidelanders, half-human, half-siren who all have mommy issues. Their queen is Adrielle, an imperious woman given to satin nightgowns as daywear. Fans of the Fast and the Furious movies will recognize the actress as Elena.

While Cal is trying to discover how she wound up in prison as a teen and why the town is so screwed up, Adrielle has one of those fantasy thriller missions: assembling the shards of an object that will give her tremendous power. It’s been broken and scattered around the world and finding the pieces costs a fortune, which she can spend because of her involvement in a drug smuggling ring.

Don’t ask why the dingus wasn’t pulverized in the first place.  Or why Russian mobsters play a big role in the story.

There’s lots of murder here along with magic and a mysterious prisoner.  The handsome cast also has lots of sex at unexpected moments, and not always with the partner you might expect.  There’s even a soft core orgy scene.

Cal’s full name is Calliope who was the Greek muse of epic poetry. There’s nothing poetic about this show, but it does resemble the musical instrument calliope. It’s goofy at times, fascinating at others, and perfect popcorn entertainment. This is apparently the first series in Australia combining a thriller with supernatural elements. No word yet on whether there’s going to be a Season 2.

Lev Raphael is the author of the supernatural novella The Vampyre of Gotham and 25 other books. He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithotuborders.com.

Marie Kondo Doesn’t Understand Book Lovers!

Marie Kondo is all the rage when it comes to de-cluttering, but her advice to cull your books by only keeping the ones that “bring you joy” reveals that she doesn’t understand all the different meanings that books can have for their owners.

I’ve kept books that I read years ago in college not just because I might re-read them, but because they remind me of classes, teachers, and even fellow students.  They’re part of my history.  Some of them helped inspire me to become a writer.

Other books relate to my professional life. I have a whole book case of review copies of books I reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other newspapers as well as on various public radio shows. I might re-read some. I might not. What matters is that those seven packed shelves, carefully alphabetized, are a window opening to my life as a reviewer.  They remind me of the editors I worked with, the deadlines I met, and the way I learned to write and revise with tight deadlines.

Then there are the books in my den which track my reading interests over the years: The Tudors, Shakespeare, Ancient Rome, The Middle East. Few of them spark joy, but they leave me with a sense of contentment and there’s always a chance I might re-read one or more. They’re certainly useful resources if I need them for some project.  They, too, are part of my history.  Likewise, as a writer of memoir, I’m not planning on emptying my revolving bookcase of memoirs because I may want to consult them at some point, and many of them inspired me in my own memoir writing.  There presence is encouraging, supportive, invaluable.

The several thousand books in my study are more varied and go deeper: biographies; Judaica; drama; poetry; American fiction, British Fiction, French, German, and Russian fiction; books about France and the French language; Psychology; The Gilded Age.  And then there are twelves shelves of books by and about Henry James and Edith Wharton, two of my favorite authors.

I also have multiple copies of a number of novels because I wrote notes in my books and when I want to re-read one that’s heavily annotated, I start over.  Likewise, there are books that contain notes I made about a book or story I was working on while reading them.  Get rid of them?  That’s almost as silly as her advice to tear out the pages that give you joy and pitch the rest.

That’s not de-cluttering, that’s vandalism.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His forthcoming academic mystery is State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

My Life With Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is often on my mind, and not just this week, which saw her 156th birthday.

I fell in love with Edith Wharton’s novels and short stories in college, given that I grew up in Gilded Age New York. The building on upper Broadway I was raised in was one of two massive apartment blocks built circa 1900 by Harry Mulliken with gorgeous tapestry brickwork and stone detailing, like Mulliken’s more elaborate Lucerne Hotel on 79th and Amsterdam.

The public library I visited every week was a Venetian palazzo designed by McKim, Mead, and White. It was a temple of books, a sanctuary, and a doorway to another more elegant world. Perhaps most enthralling for me as a young boy was our family’s regular bus route downtown: along Riverside Drive past one Gilded Age mansion, brownstone and apartment building after another.

The past was all around me as it might not be in other parts of New York City, and so discovering Wharton in college was like claiming part of my own history. I bought every single book of hers then available in Scribner paperbacks and read them many times, awed by her wit, her powers of description, and her sharp eye for hypocrisy and foolishness. In the summer of 1975 I read R.W. B. Lewis’s riveting Pulitzer-winning Wharton biography that launched the revival of her work, and through reading about Wharton’s life I felt even more inspired to pursue my own career as a writer.

That career of publishing in many genres has led me back to Wharton three times. In the early 90s I published a study of the emotion of shame in her writing and her life, something that had never been discussed before. A few years after Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame, I invented two fictional Wharton societies and pitted them against each other in an academic mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.

More recently, I re-entered her world in a whole new way.  Undoing Wharton’s anti-Semitic stereotyping, I’ve re-imagined The House of Mirth from the point of view of Lily Bart’s suitor Simon Rosedale, giving him a home, a family, a history, and a tormented heart. In writing Rosedale in Love, I haven’t tried to imitate Wharton’s style, but I have written the book in a period voice, after immersing myself in writings of all kinds from the early 1900s.

I don’t know how she would have felt about my novel, but for me, it’s been one of the most exhilarating adventures of my writing career.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  After close to twenty years of teaching at the university level, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Elise Blackwell’s Novel About Musicians Is Dazzling

I was an early reader, and back in elementary school, if I liked a book, I read it many times. So often, in fact, that my parents would ask why I wasn’t reading something else. It struck me as a strange question and my answer was always “But I love this book!”

I still have my childhood copy of The Three Musketeers and the binding is loose, pages have disappeared and it looks like it might have gotten mixed up in one of their sword fights. My copy of Cheaper by the Dozen, a story of a colorful family of twelve kids, is almost as battered.  Just looking at them brings back happy memories of sinking into magical narratives.  Both books inspired me to become a writer myself.

Later on, I would find myself drawn back to favorite novels from college courses like Women in Love and The Portrait of a Lady.

But as my range of interests expanded, there were so many books I wanted to explore than I’d re-read something only occasionally. And when I became a book reviewer for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other papers, keeping up with my assignments meant that there wasn’t time to re-read books.

Now that I review less often, I’m able to visit with books I especially enjoyed and my latest rediscovery is Elise Blackwell’s An Unfinished Score.  This is actually my third encounter because I read it a second time when I assigned it in a creative writing workshop.  Students loved it, and it’s not hard to see why.

In glistening, powerful, evocative, poetic prose Blackwell takes us into a world many of us will be familiar with–a troubled marriage–and one more remote: the life of a woman violist who’s a member of a string quartet, is married to an aloof, unhappy composer, and has been having an affair with a famous conductor.

Despite her secret life, this world is full of camaraderie and joy.  However, making music itself can be sad because “something real and loud in the air…disappears from all but memory.  Sometimes Suzanne strains to imagine the music still living, playing on in some version of reality not organized by time, all its notes together like colors in black paint or white light.  It might be a place, she thinks now, in which you can love two people without diminishing either.”

The book opens with a shock: Alex, the conductor, dies in a plane crash and as soon as she hears the news, Suzanne’s life becomes painfully bifurcated.  There’s everything normal she does each day, and there’s the howling void inside of her. Not long afterward, a phone call from out of the blue changes her life, and the book becomes even more dramatic as Suzanne is drawn into a bizarre new relationship.

Blackwell deeply understands the routines of the musician’s life, and the mysteries.  As a writer, she excels at sense detail, at creating idiosyncratic characters, and imbuing every page with a love of music.  And there are plot twists worthy of a mystery.

Reading An Unfinished Score made me sorry I’d given up piano lessons years ago, but even if you’ve never played a single note, you’re likely to find Blackwell’s novel thrilling, passionate, and hypnotic.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Did Winston Churchill Really Say That?

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

–A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

–A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

–An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one above. She also credited Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

When I looked for the source, the brilliant line didn’t show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a cinematic connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

The line’s political lineage extends further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. He put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers. You can find them on Amazon.  Lev teaches online writing creative workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Stephen King is Wrong: Books Do More Than Just Tell a Story

Stephen King once said on CNN Money that books themselves aren’t important since they’re basically just a delivery system for a story. But they’re much more than that: they’re canvases. I know. I’ve been painting on mine for years.

It started in college when I first bought books that weren’t required reading. I’d already been highlighting textbook passages with yellow marker, and scrawling my name inside, so of course I wrote my name on the first page of these books, too. But I also put down the date of the purchase, the book store, a recent event, and who I was with at the time.

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These scrawls sometimes proved amusingly opaque years later. Like: Great news on Wednesday. What about? Or: Argued with N. Who was N? And why were we arguing? Was it before I bought the book, after, and was the book connected in some way? I’ve tried going back and comparing my journal at the time, but the cryptic notes don’t open up their secret to me. More often, though, the inscription refers to a lunch with a lover or friend, and the scene opens up for me in a whole new way.

Having known for a long time that I wanted to be a writer, once I started buying books as a matter of course, anything I read was also a subject of study. I underlined passages, circled words I didn’t know or wanted to use, bracketed or starred phrases worth remembering and quoting. Sometimes arrows would point to another page so I made sure I remembered a connection for later.

Great lines got the full treatment, and I’d note their pages in the front or back of the book, along with an identifying word or two, sometimes the whole phrase if it was memorable.

The more dedicated I became to writing as a career, the more the books I owned became a repository of ideas, notes, questions, descriptions of dreams inspired by the book, even short journal entries. It usually felt more immediate to keep the source of my inspiration and the idea closely connected. Some books have story titles, metaphors, character descriptions, opening lines written in the back or front — and even in-between. More than a few have whole scenes worked out.

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My books are also unexpected time capsules. I’m always running out of bookmarks, so many older books have had receipts, notes, to-do list and even letters tucked into them.

Once I started reviewing for The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and magazines in the early 1990s, the intensity of my entrance into each book deepened. Though I wrote drafts on my PC, I usually started the review somewhere inside the book unless I wanted to pass it on to a friend or relative later. Then I’d have to restrain myself, keep pencils and pens away from the book at hand. It wasn’t easy.

Biographies are a passion of mine, and whether I’m reviewing the book or not, they still seem to call out running commentary as I compare my life to the one I’m reading about. But I don’t tend to write much snark no matter what the genre, because if a book pisses me off that much, I’m not likely to finish it. I do correct typos now and then. I can’t resist.

Occasionally a book feels so much like a freight train car covered with graffiti that if I want to reread it, I just buy a new copy of the book. There it is, virginal, unmarked, waiting for me to dive right/write in. But I also keep the previous copy or copies because they form a small diary of my relationship to that text.

I do have dozens of books on my iPad, but while I enjoy the convenience and speed of downloading, I miss the physical interaction. Every book tells its own story, but the books in my library tell my stories as well.

Lev Raphael is the author 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.