Betsy DeVos and Winston Churchill?

Dana Milbank just quipped in The Washington Post that every time our Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks, “it feels as though the sum total of human knowledge is somehow diminished.” There’s a gravitas about that witty put-down that sounds Churchillian.

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.

 

Clement Attlee 1945My 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 for its wit and one-liners. You can find them on Amazon.

 

 

 

Be Prepared: Finishing Your Book Can Bum You Out

I’m currently a few chapters away from a solid draft of my 26th book, and even though I’m excited that it’s been going so well, I’m sad to be seeing the end.

I’ve published books in a wide range of genres–including memoir, historical fiction, erotic vampire tale, and literary novels–but no matter what I’ve written, the experience is always the same: immersive.

I may be worried about something in my own life, about a friend’s health, or about the state of our nation’s politics, but when I’m writing a book, I feel protected and cocooned.

It’s not that I don’t register what’s going on around me; I experience it all inside a kind of bubble.  The book-in-progress is always on my mind, whether I’m at the gym, grocery shopping, taking a shower, or walking the dogs.  I may not be consciously working out the next scene or chapter, but the book is as real and present as soft music coming from another room.

A book of any kind is an adventure, a promise, a series of doors that open and some that close.  It changes as it grows and I change with it.  The end point likely won’t be what I thought it would be, though sometimes the last line is waiting for me like a charming host ready to pour me a great glass of wine.

Ironically, with the end in sight, everything is clearer and I usually write faster, but I feel a countervailing pressure to slow down, to enjoy these last moments with the companion of many months–or even years.

Don’t get me wrong. I love what happens when it’s done: editing and revising, the chance to revisit a manuscript and see it with fresh eyes after a break.  And working with a good editor is one of the joys of publishing. But that’s not the same as creating something new.  When I’m done, the sense of wonder and discovery that Mandy Patimkin sings about in Sunday in the Park with George has vanished.  “Look, I made a hat…” he sings.  “Where there never was a hat.”

When the book is done and revised however many times it needs, the technical, business side is ahead.  It becomes a product in the marketplace. And though I love doing readings from my work and have a great time on book tours thanks to being an extrovert with some acting experience, I’m already thinking about the next book, the next adventure….

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Don’t Miss this Terrific Mystery from Argentina

I reviewed crime fiction at the Detroit Free Press for about a decade and had a terrific editor who loved the genre. But she quit because she got tired of being constantly pushed to do “features about Stephen King.” This was at a time when book coverage across the country was shrinking.

Her replacement actually told me, “I’m not a book person.” But Editor no. 2 had definite ideas about what I should be concentrating on in my column: best sellers. This was when bricks and mortar book stores were still flourishing and I felt that readers saw best sellers in newspapers ads and on full display in book store windows, in the stores themselves on walls, in end cap displays, on the best seller tables.

There was no reason for me to exclude best sellers, but why not keep my main focus on great books readers might miss: books by new or under-appreciated authors; books from independent presses; books that had been translated into English. That last category was especially important to me because with Americans tend to avoid books in translation.

If I did review a translated book, I only picked that novel if the translation felt smooth and natural (beyond the story being good, of course). Claudia Piñeiro is Argentina’s best-selling crime writer, someone I’ve just discovered, and her book A Crack in the Wall is all of that and more, thanks to its highly unusual structure and focus.

Pablo Simó works in a boutique Buenos Aires architectural firm. He’s a bit of a dreamer and something of a weirdo. He obsessively designs a building he doesn’t seem destined to ever build, and he takes a circuitous subway route home instead of a direct bus for reasons that take some time to become clear. What also evolves is the nature of the crime the book is built around.

In Chapter One we discover that he and his colleagues are somehow involved in a murder and its cover-up, but the how and why emerge slowly, in the context of his messy family life and all the ways in which he’s really living a life of quiet desperation. When excitement and sex enter the story it’s both a surprise,and the psychological depths the author explores drive the story forward in exciting, gripping ways. Diving deep into verities of love and marriage, the author lays bare the city’s convoluted building practices and takes us on a fascinating virtual tour of the city’s architecture, especially some of its famous Art Nouveau structures.

I’ve been reading and reviewing mysteries for years, but don’t remember anything quite like A Crack in the Wall. It’s one of those books you finish with a “Wow!” or maybe even “Damn!”

Lev Raphael is the author of eight mysteries set in Michigan along with a wide range of books in genres from memoir to vampire fiction.

Oh, Canada: Love Letter From a Neighbor

Canada was just a short plane ride away when I grew up in New York City, and its bilingualism fascinated me as soon as I started learning French in elementary school.  I eventually became my high school’s star French student, thanks to tutoring from my mother whose French was excellent. I received a certificate of achievement from the Alliance Française in New York, so a trip to Montréal seemed ideal after I graduated high school and was feeling almost bilingual.

My brother, who didn’t speak French, put me in charge of hotels and I picked one on Place Jacques Cartier which was then somewhat ramshackle and noisy, but exciting for a student like me. Just being able to use French outside of a classroom–and be understood–was thrilling. I’d been studying it for eight years but now it was alive, transactional.


Getting into the country was unexpectedly dicey, though. It was 1971 and both of us looked like hippies. Clean hippies, but hippies nonetheless. And I didn’t realize that joking with Passport Control was not a good idea. When I was asked if I had any money with me, I emptied my wallet onto the table and made some smart-ass remark like “Ai-je assez?” (Do I have enough?)

My brother claims that we were taken aside for an hour and interrogated. I have no memory of that. What I do remember was the superb food everywhere we went in Vieux Montréal and elsewhere that week and the wonderful feeling of being a different person when I was speaking and thinking in another language.

But my next trips to Canada involved a different language: Shakespeare’s English. Living in Michigan, I visited the Stratford Festival in Ontario twice as a graduate student, and later, my spouse and I became Festival members.

Though I’d seen some wonderful shows in New York, nothing beat watching Christopher Plummer as Lear in front row center seats or Martha Henry in Long Day’s Journey into Night, a play I’d seen and studied extensively in college. Her silence was more evocative and devastating than many actors’ monologues. The play left us so stunned we couldn’t vacate our seats for a good ten minutes afterwards–and we went back to see it again that summer, just as we saw other plays twice when they were terrific.

Stratford was a revelation: not just a charming, scenic town, but a place where you could run into the cast members anywhere and they were happy to chat.

And then there were several trips to Montréal and Toronto each, a week in Vancouver, a handful of celebrations we had at the Langdon Hall Country House and Spa, trips to Québec City by ourselves and with one son and his wife, and my own professional visits as an author to Windsor. I know I have a lot more to explore in Canada and luckily there’s plenty of time for more great food, wonderful people, and memorable sites.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from mystery to memoir including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Clashing with Copyeditors

Years ago a novelist friend told me that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.

I liked his phrase so much that I later made it the epigram of my second mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders. But at the time, I had no idea what he could mean. Once you got published, what could you have to worry about? Wouldn’t life be perfect?

That was before I had my first collision with a copy editor.

In my debut fiction collection, there were a number of stories about Holocaust survivors, and I was careful about having their dialogue reflect that English wasn’t their native language. Like many immigrants, they “translated” from the language they knew best, giving their English a Yiddish-inflected twist.

The copy editor didn’t get it and relentlessly standardized every line of their dialogue in one story after another. An author friend I shared this with said that a writer friend was once so enraged by his copy editor’s rampant lack of imagination that he just wrote across Page One of his manuscript, “Stet the whole goddamned thing.” I could never do that, because copy editors do catch real problems, but I’ve come to understand the sentiment.

On a recent book, I found the publisher’s copy editor aggressively changing everything—my style, my syntax, my vocabulary—to some imagined idea of good prose. The effect was to make it sound as if it had been written by a computer program slavishly conforming to grammar and style rules without any room for originality.

This person even had the nerve to commend a word I used as “a good word”–as if I were in elementary school. That was before telling me I wasn’t using it strictly correctly. But after having published nineteen books, hundreds of reviews, essays, and articles, I had my own ideas about what was correct for my book, and I said so.

The project wasn’t spoiled, but I had to put far more work into restoring my prose, excavating the dull ruin it had been turned into. I was pissed off to have encountered such tone-deaf copy editing.

And yes, I mean pissed off–not annoyed, irritated, steamed, put out, or vexed.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

The White Devil is an Amazing Gothic Thriller

It’s rare that I re-read crime fiction, but working on a new mystery of my own, I’ve been picking some of my favorite books to revisit for inspiration. The White Devil was at the top of my list, and here’s what I wrote about it for The Huffington Post back in 2011:

I’ve been reviewing crime fiction for well over a decade on-air, in print, and on-line, and always look for something original. I found it in Justin Evans’s amazing thriller The White Devil, my favorite crime book of the year.

Ask yourself what’s worse: thinking you saw a ghost or having it confirmed that you did actually see one?  Andrew Taylor faces that creepy dilemma and a lot more in a book that ingeniously mixes literary detective work, a horror story, young love, academic satire, and cultural conflict between Americans and Brits. If that sounds like a lot, well, Evans is terrific enough to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. The White Devil is truly one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read in the last few years.

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The title is an obvious clue you’re signing up for a dark thrill ride since it’s the name of a play by John Webster, one of those grim Jacobean authors given to writing about ghosts, conspiracies, and revenge.

Sinister revenge is at the heart of the book, but Taylor doesn’t want anything dark at all when he comes to the elite English school Harrow. He’s screwed up big time at his previous prep school and this is his last chance, made possible only because his father gave Harrow a lot of money. Taylor desperately needs a fresh start and good grades, but he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Lord Byron, who also attended Harrow two hundred years ago. And Byron left some bitterness behind, bitterness that reaches out from another dimension and snares Taylor.

The writing in this novel is quietly beautiful and so balanced, so appropriate to the material that despite the propulsive story, I stopped now and then to read passages aloud to my spouse or just to myself. I wanted to savor and share the excellence of a superb storyteller. When it was over, I felt lucky to have spent a weekend with this gifted writer’s second book, even though I lost some sleep because the book was so fine it was hard to let it go.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including the Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the wild world of academia.

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Edith Wharton and Secret Love

Edith Wharton isn’t a writer you tend to think of on Valentine’s day. Her marriage was unhappy and the very secret affair she had in her forties was with a faithless cad.

No wonder that love in her novels is so often curdled, thwarted, or hopeless. Think of Ethan Frome, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, The Mother’s Recompense, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence.

But there’s so much to love and admire in her work: the wit, the dissection of social fossilization, the gimlet-eyed study of women’s objectification, the elegant knife-sharp prose, the passion under the surface.

Wharton’s The Age of Innocence ends with a quiet nod to a possible lost love of Henry James, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff wrote in her study A Feast of Words. Wharton knew a touching story that James had told to a mutual friend: when he was younger, James had once stood for hours somewhere in Europe, staring up at a balcony window, hoping to see a face. He hadn’t said whose face it was and Wharton recast the story in her own way at the end of The Age of Innocence. It was a loving private tribute to a man, now dead, who might have exasperated her sometimes but whom she had been devoted to.

Wharton exasperated me with her stereotypical Jew Simon Rosedale in The House of Mirth. How could such a gifted author betray her gifts like that?

When I re-wrote her novel as Rosedale in Love, I did my own version of her gesture to James by including a secret love and giving my book a surprise happy ending. Why not? I’ve been devoted to her fiction for years and it’s inspired me in my own writing to strive for the best.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery. His other Wharton-inspired book is a mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.

6 Reasons Why Blogging Is Awesome

1—Because helpful strangers will take time out of their busy schedules to tweet or email you about the smallest typo you make and not even ask for credit.

2—Because other strangers are happily invested in your mental health and delighted to tell you that you should stop blogging forever since you’re obviously a narcissistic loon.

3—Because people feel free to diss whatever credentials you have and call you a hack when they don’t like your blog. We all need a dose of humility now and then, right?

4—Because someone’s always bound to completely misread your blog and respond to what you didn’t say, which shows you that everything in life is contingent.

5—Because what’s the point of meditating and getting centered if you don’t have people hassling you? Blog nimrods offer rich material to float away from.

6—Because if you write satire (or crime fiction) it’s always good to have new targets and victims.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres. His books and shorter works have been translated into 15 languages.

Writers: Don’t Be Ruled By “Writer’s Block”

A few years ago I heard prize-winning Michigan author Loren D. Estleman dismiss writer’s block at a writers’ conference. The problem with even using the term, he said, is that it re-frames a basic reality of every writer’s life: getting stuck.

I totally agree. When you say that you have writer’s block, you turn a minor problem into something major like depression. Suddenly you’re beset by a grave affliction and a normal, unremarkable part of the writing process can become debilitating.

I’ve felt this way through my entire career as an author, through 25 books in many genres and hundreds of stories, essays, reviews and blogs. Like Estleman, I believe that all of us sometimes get stuck, no matter how experienced we are — and Estleman’s published more than twice as many books as I have. Stuck isn’t a bad thing. It just means you haven’t worked something out, you haven’t answered some question in the book, or maybe you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Whenever I’m stuck, I do what Estleman suggested, and what I’ve advised my creative writing students over the years: I leave the writing alone and don’t obsess about it.

If you’re stuck, don’t panic. Give the problem to your subconscious. You can work on something else, or not do any writing at all. Focus on something unconnected to writing: the gym, a movie, dinner out, drinks with friends, walking your dog, home repairs, a car trip, gardening, working on your tan, cooking, music, reading a new book by your favorite author — anything that can distract and absorb you completely and make you feel good.

Of course, sometimes being stuck can mean that you’re afraid of what you want to write, afraid of revealing too much about yourself (or someone else), afraid of what people might think. That fear of exposure is shame, or the dread of shame. Calling it writer’s block confuses the issue, disguises what’s really the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a small industry devoted to helping people overcome “writer’s block,” to keep them from turning into Barton Fink, stuck on that one sentence. And because the culture loves stories about blocked writers like The Shining, there’s a perverse kind of glamor associated with this “condition.” It’s dramatic, it’s proof of how serious a professional you are. And hey, writers are crazy anyway, so of course they can’t do their jobs, of course they’re basket cases.

Let’s face it, since most people hate to write, especially in this age of tweets and texting, “writer’s block” really connects with non-writers. If someone asks how your writing is going, you risk sounding arrogant if you say, “Terrific! My new book is a blast!” Saying that you have writer’s block brings you back to earth. It comforts people who don’t write, because it confirms their perception of writing as drudgery and even torment. That’s no reason to let yourself be bullied by a misnomer.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Warning: Susan Cheever’s Alcott Biography Is a Book To Avoid

When a friend told me she was reading Susan Cheever’s book American Bloomsbury about Emerson and his circle in Concord, I was intrigued, because I’d read Cheever’s memoir about her father John Cheever years ago and had lost track of her career after that.

I went to Amazon, but was drawn to Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott biography instead. I didn’t know much about Alcott and I’m a huge fan of biographies (I have several hundred in my library). The book grabbed me based on the sample because it revealed that Alcott didn’t want to write her famous novel Little Women — her editor pushed her to.

What a great hook.

When the book arrived, though, I gradually discovered it was awful. I hadn’t bothered reading the thoughtful critiques on Amazon — I learned its varied faults myself (reviews of Cheever’s American Bloomsbury are even more scathing and more numerous).

Cheever’s assessment of Alcott is marred by trivialities. You learn that Alcott once dropped a pie box in Boston and it tipped “end over end.” Alcott was teased by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. about her height.  In Boston, she had hyacinths in a window box. None of these details–and more just as inane–add to an understanding of Alcott’s life or writing.

Cheever’s prose can also be gag-worthy: “Death is a mystery, but life is filled with light and clarity.”  Then there are dubious assertions like “good writing is almost always subversive.”

She also claims that the Transcendentalists in Concord “essentially created American literature as we know it.” But the first two American authors to be international best sellers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, got there before Emerson and company, and they had an enormous influence on major authors like Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. Perhaps to hedge her bets, Cheever loves mentioning Hawthorne as often as possible, but he was peripheral to the Concord crew and mocked them in his novel The Blithedale Romance.

Cheever misrepresents Alcott’s relationship with Henry James and basically gives Alcott credit for more books of his than you can imagine. Without her, we apparently wouldn’t have The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, The Bostonians or any of his books with a young woman character. They were also good friends, Cheever says, despite every major James biography I’ve read which barely mentions Alcott — and Cheever doesn’t offer any proof of this supposed relationship.

Sadly, Publishers Weekly gave the book an attention-getting starred review and called it “authoritative.” Somebody at PW didn’t do homework.

Why did I keep reading? Morbid curiosity. That’s right: I couldn’t believe how badly written, badly researched, and badly edited a book by a well-known author could be. In the end, it had a kind of freakish charm.

Lev Raphael books is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books of fiction and non-fiction.