The Trump/Nixon Nexus

King Richard by Michael Dobbs charts the calamitous fall of Richard Nixon from his landslide election victory in 1972 to the collapse of all attempts to keep Watergate from plunging his entire administration into chaos.  That happened in just 100 days.

With the feel of a firsthand diary, thanks to the infamous tapes and many diaries, the book is a mesmerizing story of overweening pride and rampant mendacity.  And it’s filled with people who are so over-the-top in myriad ways that the tragedy keeps veering into burlesque.

The dynamics of disorder and dysfunction that Dobbs describes are eerily reminiscent of the term of our previous president which didn’t end in resignation but insurrection. Trump is never mentioned, but after four years of lies and craziness, it’s hard not to think of the former president on almost every other page.

–Both Nixon and Trump were intensely paranoid and convinced that the world never gave them enough credit.

–Both men felt besieged by “enemies” and hated the media.

–Both men were surrounded by sycophants who alternated between  lavish, obsequious praise and doing their best to ignore illegal or  impossible orders.

–Both men had an unquenchable desire to be admired, extolled, glorified.

–Both men were grievance collectors and wanted to use every arm of the government to punish anyone who criticized or crossed them. 

–Both men were given to long wandering conversations and late-night phone calls which exhausted minions had to put up with.

–Both men were cowards, unable or unwilling to fire people directly, delegating that task to staffers.

–Both men falsely believed they were bugged: Nixon asserting that his plane was bugged by the Humphrey campaign in 1968, Trump tweeting crazy claims that Obama wiretapped him.

–Both men had an unhealthy obsession with a previous president who overshadowed them and got much better press: For Nixon it was JFK and for Trump it was of course Obama.

–Both men had an exalted sense of their own power.  Trump claimed “I alone can fix it” and Nixon told a subordinate “I’m the only one…in the whole wide blinking world that can do a goddamned thing.” Nixon was speaking of the exploding Watergate scandal, Trump about the catastrophic state he saw the U.S. in, from the economy to our global status.

Nixon was smarter and more successful, certainly on the international stage, up until his hubris, lies, and inattention brought him down surprisingly early in his second term.  

Dobbs has used a novelist’s tools to tell this amazing story about a President who doomed himself.  Beautifully written, filled with sharp and sometimes stunning details, the book reads like a thriller and would make a dazzling series along the lines of House of Cards

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His latest crime novel is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable.”

 

Am I Seriously Scandinavian?

The first time someone wondered if I was Norwegian I was on a beach in Israel. A Dutch man I’d briefly met at a conference nearby came over to me and pointed back to a guy further up the beach.  He said “Bjorn wants to know where you’re from in Norway.”

I shrugged it off as a fluke since I’d always assumed my family heritage iwas Eastern European Jewish, (Russian, Polish, Lituanian).  But twhen I begane traveling to Europe a lot, it started happening more often, especially in the Netherlands and Germany. I was once having dinner in Braunschweig while on a book tour for my memoir/travelogue My Germany when a man surprised me by sitting next to me at the trestle table.  He said in German, “I do a lot of business in Norway.”

That seemed like a bizarre conversation starter. I must have looked puzzled, because he said (still in German), “You’re not Norwegian?” I shook my head: “Nein, ich bin Amerikaner.” We chatted anyway through our excellent dinners in a mixture of German and English, but he looked dubious, maybe because my German was too good in his opinion to be spoken by an American?

Similar situations have happened to me many other times in different ways, and back when my hair was shoulder-length, more than one German told me, “You look like a Viking.” Flying home from Berlin on another trip, my Swedish seatmate said half-way through the flight that he was surprised when I had started speaking to him in English because he’d been sure I was Norwegian when he boarded and took the seat next to me.

I finally thought I had the opportunity to get to the heart of this mystery when I overheard some people at a hotel lobby in New Jersey who were clearly Swedish–and something else. I recognized the sound of Swedish from having watched many (un-dubbed) Swedish movies, and took a guess that the one guy in the group who sounded different was Norwegian. I hoped so, anyway. When he headed off for the men’s room and then returned, I intercepted him before he got back to his buddies.

“Are you Norwegian by any chance?” I asked.

He nodded. I quickly filled him in on my experiences being taken for one of his countrymen and asked, “So, do I look Norwegian to you?”

He scanned up and done and shrugged. “What does a Norwegian look like?”

Update 2021: My revcnt DNA analysis says I’m 5.4% Scandinavian, so all those people saw something that was always there and my family had no clue about. That could explain my deep affinity for Scandinavian crime fiction on screen like Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Wallander.  And could it explain that I felt so comfortable learning Swedish that friends with Swedish relatives said my accent was so good?

Jag vat inte.  I don’t know.  Ar jag skandinavisk?  Could very well be……

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books from memoir to mystery and he coaches writers at writewithoutborders.com. A version of this blog originally appeared on Huffington Post. 

Norwegian flag image by DavidRockDesign from Pixabay

Swedish flag image by Marie Sjödin from Pixabay

Don’t Read English Novels!

Celebrity Irish writer Marian Keyes made headlines when she said she doesn’t read male writers because their lives aren’t as interesting as women’s lives–they were “limited.”  I totally get her frustration.

Because I don’t read English writers.  I mean I know that they write books, but if I can read books by American writers, why bother?  What could be more limited than an English novel?

I hear about all those English books when they get made into endless boring shows on PBS, but what’s the point?  English people’s lives are beyond limited.  Poldark?  Seriously?  I watched ten minutes and all they did was walk back and forth along cliffs with the wind blowing through their hair, though sometimes they rode back and forth along cliffs.  That says almost everything you need to know about England.  Oh yeah, there’s also Jane Austen.  Bonnets.

The English truly have such limited experience.  I mean, come on, they live on a crummy little island for God’s sake and nobody even gets voted off (well maybe immigrants down the road thanks to Boris Johnson)  And it’s not even their own island.  They have to share it with two other countries, Wales, whatever that is, and Scotland, which at least has whiskey.

You see all those goofy soldiers at Buckingham Palace marching back and forth like Poldark without cliffs and when’s the last time the English won a war on their own without American help?  That was against Napoleon, right?

Haven’t there been enough English novels written already–can’t they just give it a rest? Don’t the English have better things to do?  Like figure out why they’re so brutal to people marrying into that hot mess royal family?  And why that whole Brexit thing has been like they were the drunk-ass party guest who keeps saying he’s going but just won’t get the hell off your couch?

So English writers, just **** off, as Marian Keyes said about her male colleagues, without the asterisks, of course, bless her heart.

Lev Raphael is the author of Department of Death and 26 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Why I’ve Never Gone On a Writers’ Retreat

Fans often ask me if I go to writers’ retreats. I never have and I’ve never really wanted to, because I live in one.

The mid-century house I bought over 30 years ago in a heavily-treed subdivision is extra quiet because it’s dead center, even though there are some major roads nearby. That means you can’t hear any road noise whatsoever whether you’re inside the house or sitting out on the patio or the deck. There’s also very little traffic through the subdivision itself, sometimes none at all. 

What you can hear is bird song of all kinds: chickadees, robins, finches mourning doves–and of course we see our share of hummingbirds because they like our Rose of Sharon trees. Oh, and I also hear people biking by, neighbors with strollers chatting on their phones, minor stuff like that that forms a pleasant soundscape.

Yes, there are lawnmowers in the Spring, leaf blowers in the Fall and snow blowers in the Winter. But as someone who grew up in New York, that seems close to silence. For a few years when I lived in Queens, I was directly under a flight path to LaGuardia Airport, and sandwiched between the roar of the Long Island Railroad and the craziness of Queens Boulevard. 

My street is lined with maples that form a canopy when they leaf out, and a sculpture garden when the leaves fall.  From my study window, whatever the season, I have a view of a tall, graceful Gingko tree. If you don’t know this tree, they have succulent green fan-shaped leaves that turn a Napoleonic yellow in the Fall and can drop all in one day like gentle snow.  It has special resonance for me because there was Gingko near my elementary school in Manhattan.


I can see the tree down at the base of the driveway while I write at my PC and while I make corrections on printed-off manuscripts sitting in my reading chair. It’s just one of the majestic trees around the house and it symbolizes home for me.   As does the enormous oak at the very back of our yard which a former neighbor told us was standing here in the 1920s when a 400-acre farm was subdivided into lots for houses.  I like to do handwritten notes on a printed-off text outside looking  at that tree for inspiration.

Growing up in New York, I had very little sense of the change of seasons, but here I can watch it change by the day–and sometimes change back,  because as people in many states say, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait an hour.”

The trees remind me that Michigan is where I became an author, not New York.
I experienced a five-year drought after publishing my first short story in a national magazine and it was only after moving to Michigan that the drought ended and my work started being accepted again.  I apparently needed a major change of scene to blossom. 

In Michigan I was fully free to become the writer I turned into, someone multiply anthologized, publishing across genres, taking the lessons my college writing mentor gave me into the classroom at Michigan State University and then beyond.  I now work with writers online at writewithoutborders.com, mentoring, offering individualized workshops, editing manuscripts of all kinds, and enjoying an even greater level of freedom than I had before.

I know that one of the appeals of a retreat is escape from where you are, but I don’t need that.  And people also go to commune with other writers, but I had that intense experience for two and a half years in my MFA program and I’ve hung out with writers at numerous conferences across the country.  I once interviewed Julian Barnes and asked who his writer friends were and he said, “They’re next door, in my library.  They’re my oldest friends.”

The books in the shelves around me in my study–biography, history, fiction– inspire me as much as the quiet of home.  This is where I’ve taken root. 

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in a dozen genres ranging from memoir to mystery.  His most recent book is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(Gingko image by Marzena P. from Pixabay)

(Oak image by Csaba Nagy from Pixabay)

Why I Write Queer Crime Fiction

I never set out to write mysteries, queer or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has secured an ex-lover a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged and then depressed and a bit crazed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.  It was comic but also focused on the struggles of being a couple years before marriage equality changed the landscape.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, my editor, “Nick and Stefan could be like Nick and Nora Charles.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school and are happily married, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because I loved the academic setting where, as Borges put it so well, you find bald men argue over a comb.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started; I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books; and I was reviewing mysteries and thrillers for the Detroit Free Press. That made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too much crime fiction, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at Denny’s as if nothing’s happened.

Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving queer couple over time and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never could have imagined.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.  And of course, the unexpected keeps happening to Nick and Stefan living in a bucolic college town that has a dark side.  Through all of it, however, their bond is never shaken.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is Department of Death, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable.” He mentors writers, edits manuscripts, and teaches writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

(fingerprint image by Kurious at Pixabay)

 

Five Great Books About Conquering Adversity

I grew up with adversity.  My parents emigrated to the U.S. from Europe with very little money and weren’t helped nearly enough by relatives.  Their early years in the U.S. were very hard.  But this cloud hanging over us was nothing compared to the nightmarish storms they had survived in the Holocaust.  I knew bits and pieces of what happened to them while I was growing up, and learned more when I became a writer and paid homage to them in a memoir, My Germany.

My mother and her family attempted to escape their Polish city into Russia in the summer of 1941 when the Nazis sent millions of murderous troops into Poland and the Baltic countries.  It was the very last train, but inside the Russian border they were thrown off because they were Jews.  Her father was eventually murdered by the Nazis, her mother murdered in a concentration camp, and she survived a ghetto and several concentration camps.

My Czechoslovak father was forced into the Hungarian army as a slave laborer on the Eastern Front with other healthy young Jews and was subject ed to sadistic treatment by the officers.  One beating left him close to death.  He still bears shrapnel in his body from when he dodged a hand grenade thrown right at him.  The grenade killed his best friend. His stories of survival are something out of a thriller.

Nothing in my own life could have possibly matched the adversity they faced for years during the war, yet their survival buoyed me up through many dark times in my career as an author.  Being a writer is the kind of career where success is fleeting and failure is always around the corner–and sometimes it’s so huge it’s stupefying.

When a new website for book lovers invited me to choose a topic and list five books that exemplified it, “conquering adversity” sprung immediately to mind as the organizing theme.  The books I chose with my writing partner are from different genres and feature wildly different people, from Winston Churchill to a Black maid in the South, but they all have that theme and are meant to inspire readers to never give uphttps://shepherd.com/best-books/conquering-adversity.

Whatever adverse situations you’re facing, I hope these five books we picked speak to you and give you courage and hope.

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Huffington Post, Bibliobuffet and other publications as well as three Michigan radio stations. 

(free image from Pixabay)

Michigan Notable Book Awards Ignore LGBTQ Books

Every year since 2004, the Library of Michigan has publicized as many as 20 Notable Michigan books “reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience.”

But that diversity has a huge gap. No book with LGBTQ content has ever been among the books annually celebrated and publicized statewide. That fact was confirmed to me by one of the judges, who had no explanation. This judge did note that the award once went to a gay writer, but there was no gay content to the book: “So that doesn’t really count, does it?”

The awards program actually stretches all the way back to 1991 under different names. It sponsors statewide author tours for the winning authors, so it’s a big deal. The Detroit Free Press describes what it means to be a winner:

While there’s no cash award that comes with making the list, there is a real economic reward for writers and publishers in terms of increased sales. Emily Nowak, marketing and sales manager at Wayne State University Press, said appearing on the list can lift sales by several hundred copies. For regional titles with small press runs of between 1,000 and 3,000 copies, that’s a significant boost and could push a title into a second printing. Many Michigan libraries often buy multiple copies of books that appear on the list.

And then of course there’s the free publicity, which is priceless, and the invitations to speak that an award generates, and the prestige.

But evidently since 1991 there hasn’t been a single book with LGBTQ content published by a Michigan press or written by a Michigan author living here or elsewhere worthy of recognition.

Think about it: No notable LGBT books by talented queer Michigan authors in almost thirty years that the judges thought deserved being honored. Not one. The Library of Michigan’s web site claims that the awards “help build a culture of reading here in Michigan.” Perhaps so, but that culture being built is limited in its diversity.

Isn’t it time for the sponsors and judges of the Michigan Notable Books to stop ignoring LGBTQ books?


Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery. Publishers Weekly called his latest campus mystery Department of Death “immensely enjoyable.”

(Image by Sammy-Williams on Pixabay)

Marjorie Taylor Greene Has Company Distorting the Holocaust

Marjorie Taylor Greene is at it again, comparing mask mandates in the pandemic to being a Jew in Germany headed off to the gas chambers.  I wonder if her dismal understanding of the Holocaust is based on reading bad novels like Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time which features a bizarre romance between a Nazi and his Jewish prisoner.  Breslin’s attempts to root the book in the Holocaust are clumsy at best and her knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture is way off.  The book’s editor also seems to have been AWOL.

Examples abound.  Why does she use the word Hakenkreuz rather than Swastika?  The latter word is one most readers would be familiar with.  Hakenkreuz is a feeble attempt to make the book feel historically accurate.  So is using Sturmabteilung rather than SA or Brownshirts.  Both of those are much more familiar to readers of historical novels or thrillers set in Nazi Germany–and more understandable.

Why field the obscure word Gänsebraten when “roast goose” would do just as well?  Surely anyone picking up this book will understand after the first few pages that it’s set in Germany.  Breslin doesn’t need to keep reminding us, as when she substitutes the word Kaffee for coffee over half a dozen times. But Kaffee isn’t italicized, which it should be since it’s in a foreign language.  Page after page, you feel she’s just overdoing it and the publisher is careless and clueless.

That’s unfortunate, given Breslin’s weak grasp of German and Germany’s history with Jews.  Breslin’s heroine is addressed as “Jude.”  That’s the masculine for Jew in German, not the feminine, which is Jüdin.  But more egregious than that, the Nazis had many terms of abuse for Jews, and simply calling her a Jew is not pejorative enough–given the period.

Breslin’s understanding of Jewish culture and religion is also grossly off-base.  In a glossary at the book’s end, she defines a yarmulke as a “prayer cap.”  No it isn’t.  It’s a skullcap that’s not just worn at prayers by observant Jews.  More incorrectly, she thinks a shtetl is a “small town or ghetto.”  That’s flat-out wrong.  It’s the Yiddish for a small Jewish or heavily Jewish village or town in Eastern Europe–not remotely the same thing as a ghetto.

If that inaccuracy isn’t enough, the glossary says that Jews in the Holocaust wore a “gold” star to identify “their Jewry.”  (MTG also thinks the stars are gold).

Breslin further makes a hash of history when she says that “Sarah” was “a term that Nazis used for Jewesses.”  That makes it sound like a synonym.  It wasn’t.  What she seems to be fumbling with is the legislation in 1938 which forced Jews with “non-Jewish” names to add “Sara” [sic] or “Israel” as middle names to their identity papers so that there could be no doubt they were Jewish.  She and her publisher also seem oblivious to the fact that the word “Jewess” isn’t just dated, it’s widely considered offensive.

All these errors come from an author who claims to love the Jewish people. As the Erasure song goes, “Who Needs Love Like That?”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres including Rosedale in Love, set in New York during The Gilded Age, which is also available as an audio book.

Warning to Writers: Don’t Diss Your Peers

“Writers should not attack their peers.”

That’s what a famous author I deeply admired told me near the start of my career, and what he meant was personal attacks.  He’d made that mistake and it launched a feud that lasted years. 

I’ve been careful in my career not say much in public when fans ask me what I think about fellow authors if they’re not my favorite writers. If I do express an opinion, I keep the comments to something technical. So I might focus on their most recent book and say I wasn’t convinced by the point of view if that’s one of the problems I saw, of course.  I don’t make things up.

Even after a reading at a reception or a restaurant when things are more relaxed, I’m cautious, because whatever you say may travel much further than you expect and end up making you look bad. And what you say can end up on Twitter in seconds.  That’s what my mentor was trying to explain to me well before social media created firestorms.  He regretted disparaging another author personally because it made him look bad and they became enemies.

I saw something similar happen in my own career, though without the feud. A celebrated American author I’d never met and who had never insulted me in the U.S. apparently decided to mock me personally in an interview in a foreign magazine when he was on tour in Europe. He didn’t know the freelancer he was talking to was an acquaintance of mine who reported the incident in detail, with some scathing comments about the author who should have known better.

Feuds come and go in American fiction, and some of them raise questions of literary taste, commercial vs. literary fiction, sexism among reviewers, but what about rudeness and bad taste?  Jonathan Franzen has been a lightning rod because critics have praised him so highly.  Is that his fault? Best-selling author Jodi Picoult has dismissed him as nothing but a “literary darling,” ditto Jennifer Weiner who’s done so while publicly reveled in her wealth and mocking those at The New York Times who’ve ignored her as balding (a “hairist” remark if ever there was one). Whatever the legitimacy of their complaints, should authors be engaging in this kind of snark?   I guess the mockery had an impact because Weiner eventually became a contributing opinion writer at the Times….

But authors let loose on reviewers too.  Franzen himself has outdone them when he attacked Michiko Kakutani a few years ago after she panned his last book, calling her “the stupidest person in New York.” And Alice Hoffman attacked the Boston Globe reviewer who gave her novel a mixed review, actually asking her followers on Twitter to call this reviewer and express their outrage. None of this makes authors look good, no matter who the target is.

A writer friend of mine was once banging out a rebuke to a reviewer when his wife came up behind him and read what was on his Mac screen. “Do you want to be respected for your work,” she asked, “or have people think you’re an asshole?”

It’s a question every author should consider when getting ready to light into a peer.  It’s one thing to talk about the work, another to diss the writer.

Lev Raphael’s 27th book is the mystery Department of Death which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(free image from Pixabay)

Kate Winslet’s Bore of Easttown

After years of reviewing crime fiction for the Detroit Free Press and other news outlets, I’m used to genre misery. Mare of Easttown is no exception. It’s set in a grimy middle-American Pennsylvania town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. The first two episodes have dealt up a suicide, a missing girl, alcoholism, lousy parenting, teens gone wild, bad marriages,  catfishing, stalking, two assaults, an angry mob–and of course murder.

That’s pretty heavy, but to be expected. It’s a show about crime, after all. What I don’t expect with a crime series is clichés swarming like bees.

Mare herself is way overdone.  She’s a stereotypical rude, super-tough detective given to wearing a parka and flannel shirts as if daring someone to offer her a makeover.  She of course eats cheese steaks in case you didn’t realize she’s in Eastern Pennsylvania, and she chugs beer out of the bottle. She also stomps around town with a sour expression like a basilisk who’s lost the power to kill people with a glance.

The murder case she’s handling has so many local complications it feels like the family tree of the Hapsburgs. People don’t trust her to solve it alone, and she’s predictably pissed off when some wide-eyed detective is brought in from out of town to assist her. She won’t even shake his hand. Isn’t that original? The ice starts to melt when he brings her coffee and she accepts it. Wow. That’s as lovely as a fairy tale and just as stale.

But things look a bit sunnier for Mare when a shabby-chic Pulitzer Prize-winning author inexplicably moves from Vermont to the small local college nearby (what’s his story?). They meet at a bar and he of course confesses his pick-up line was practiced and cheesy–and yes, he actually calls her beautiful. That’s the best the writers could do. He’s played by Guy Pearce and seems too smooth for his own good. Or hers. They hook up of course–what else?

By the way: he never wrote another book. Cliché Alert!

Failed/Successful Writer invites Mare to a college shindig in his honor. Damn, I thought, here come more clichés. And yes, they tumble out like rabbits from a frowzy magician’s hat.

Mare is going to have trouble figuring out what to wear. Check. She’s going to open up a chaotic makeup drawer and some of that mess she scrabbles through will likely be gross. Check. She’ll show up at the event looking really pretty but still be ignored—by every single person there. Because of course nobody present has ever interacted with her in a town where everyone knows everyone else. Check.

There’s more and this one’s the topper.  She’ll be offered a canapé and she’ll try it, scowl, spit it out in her napkin, wrap it up and gauchely hide it someplace–like under a cushion or tuck into the couch. Check to all of that. Oh, yes, she and Pearce will argue because she’s been ignored. Check again.

This whole sequence is apparently the Human Interest Break from the crime and grime, unless of course it turns out that Mr. Adorable is a psycho killer. Then it’s Human Interest Red Herring. Tune in if you can stay interested or want to hate watch.  I’ve only hit the cliché highlights.

Putting her through her paces the way they have, it’s as if the writers of the series consulted Crime Writing for Dummies, Chapter Seven: Low-class Miserable Women Sleuths. Winslet deserved better, and so did viewers.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-seven books including the just-published mystery Department of Death which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(Pixabay image by Robin Higgins)