Wednesday, November 29, 2017

An Open Love Letter to Men

Dear Men,

Recently, a female acquaintance commented that I seem to bowl better in my Thursday night mixed league than in my other three women-only leagues. I told her that year to year, I have the highest average (not to mention the most fun) when I bowl with men. She seemed perplexed, perhaps naturally, so I hastily blurted, "Well, I just enjoy the company of men more, present company accepted, of course!"

Truth is, I bowl better with you guys. I like the no-nonsense approach you have. I like the way you incessantly analyze the ball trajectory against where you stand against the current oil pattern. I like how you exercise your minds until the world makes sense. I like how you keep the cattiness down and gossip to a minimum - it might interest you, but not for two hours like it does the women.  I like the way, when I throw a gutter ball, you look me in the eye and say, "What the hell was that?"  Without smiling. I don't want to be coddled; I want to be expected to get my shit together by the next turn.

The world does make better sense around you men. When it's ugly, you know exactly why. Sometimes, you're the cause of the ugliness, but if you don't own up, you do manage to make each other pay in the end. I like the way you confront each other. Women smile to your face while plotting your future pain just because they don't like the color you wore yesterday. But a man? He'll make you miserable right on the spot, without apology (at least not immediately - that would be pointless), and he'll have a damn good reason to do it. A reason that is, well, reasonable.

Men are rarely intellectually lazy. They can't afford to be, because they have to earn a complete living. The least educated knows his way around an engine, crop fertilizers, a meth lab. Men take real joy out of verbal sparring - some annoyingly have never learned to combine that urge with self-control. But all that jousting forces them to use their brains, constantly. They don't give each other an inch, or a break. Just a good hard contest.

Men value things like integrity and honor and courage. Check out some novels written by women - they also present some higher ideas - often love, sacrifice - but it will be those written by men who contain sweeping and profound truths about the human condition.  Men ponder these things - with regularity. Men tend to contemplate and comprehend patterns of the universe, realities of war, subtleties of affection, hope, loss . . .

Men spend a lot of effort and time shielding their loved ones from difficulty. I see this a lot - and it often goes unnoticed. Their female companions take it for granted. Women whose fathers, boyfriends, brothers, husbands all protected them, rarely note the ways in which they are shielded from too much hardship. Those of us who have had little such care or protection in our own lives, though, notice it all the time, everywhere, with so many men.

Women often have some shield to hide behind, some safety net to catch them. Most men don't. So you have to be brave - there isn't another choice. And you are brave, so often, and often in quiet ways. Every once in a while, one of you will do something spectacularly and idiotically cowardly - being men, you always go big - but when that happens, your fellow men call you out on it loudly. You don't get to pretend it didn't matter. It will always matter if you behave as a coward, when you're a man. For that reason, you must be terrified when fear comes. Women fear other things, men fear themselves most. That's what I would guess.

Men don't pussyfoot around. They insult you, they tell you off, they acquire disgusting habits. With men, you get exactly what you see in front of you. There isn't a lot of secrecy, manipulation, backbiting. It's all laid out on the table. When I was 30 years old, I informed a doctor that I liked to be given the respect of being told the truth up front. So he looked me in the face and told me, two days before emergency surgery, that I would be wise to "put your affairs in order this weekend", because my life as I knew it might be over. Or simply over, actually.  I trusted him from that moment. Here was a person who put sentiment aside and prepared me for reality to hit. My mom on the other hand told me, "I know everything will be all right, honey."  I wanted to scream, "NO YOU DON'T."  I did not trust her advice, believe me. Even today, when a female friend coos, "It'll be all right."  I feel little but rising disgust at her disingenuousness - but I know that's a learned trait in females.

I like the way you smell. I love your cologne, and your skin. I love the stubble on your chin. I love the ease with which you swing an ax - and the joy you have in doing it.  I love the way you set a fencepost straight and then pound it in. I love the way you hold fast to the rope and squint up at the rearing horse above you, knowing your brain will keep you from being trampled. I love the way you love that suicide bike you refuse to sell. I like the way you snap the briefcase closed and swing it off the desk. I love the way you smile at your daughter across the table. I love the way you throw a baseball. I love the way you smooth your hair back and turn your face up into the shower after an exhausting day. I love the way you plan surprises, and how you worry about whether your wife, or kids, or grandkids will have to pay too much tax on your holdings when you die before them.

Oh, I know some of you cheat, many lie, too many of you walk around thinking your dick is bigger than it actually is - both figuratively and literally. I know some of you are inexplicably and unforgivably selfish to the core. I married one of you once, and that twenty years was enough to last a lifetime.

In today's world, too many of you are being maligned. You're blamed for that which isn't your doing. You're shamed for carrying testosterone. Your natural instincts are treated as threats to be suppressed. Today we refuse to acknowledge that your hunger for progress built empires, your beautiful curiosity and need to conquer brought technological innovation, your soaring spirits brought the biggest piece of the world's great literature, art and music; your tendency to protect what you love fought and won wars for peace we take for granted now. How many of you willingly ran toward a sword, a spear, a fire, a gun, a bomb, for something you understood was far greater than your one life?

Yes, over a beer, or a bowling alley, I do love your company. I love the candor, the stumbling lack of finesse, the mental gymnastics, the uniquely male insight on the world, the instinct to protect. I know that so many of you are bombarded daily with reminders that you as a gender have somehow failed your species. I'm here to tell you that's hooey.

You're wonderful and glorious and beautiful to look at. You're strong. You're good for the world. And ultimately - no matter what you're made to feel - you are necessary. What you were on the day you were born, and what you have grown into, will always be exactly what you are supposed to be. In my book, that's pretty damn good.



Thursday, June 22, 2017

Protecting the Vile

I had a disturbing encounter this evening with a person who mistook one of my comments. This person was a conservative, someone who knew nothing about me and the fact that I have written on the dangers of radical Islam for over a decade, extensively, under a pen name.


In response to a call from someone to ban the Muslim advocacy organization CAIR (Center for Arab-Islamic Relations), I had suggested that banning wasn't the answer, since banning organizations starts us down a dangerous road, as Americans. The conservative in question jumped on me, shrieking that I was defending an organization of "pedophiles" who believe in beheadings and female genital mutilation. When I explained that they had in fact misunderstood my tweet, they screamed that I was being condescending and repeated the accusation that I was defending the likes of CAIR.

It got me thinking about something that has become more and more disturbing as the country's political stances grow further apart, and the rhetoric gets hotter and hotter. There seems to be a trend amongst young people - with the best of intentions - to "ban" anything they don't agree with. We have to ban organizations, ban houses of religion, ban publications (the Koran), ban even ideas. These people are the product of an educational system that has failed to help them understand why our First Amendment exists, and specifically what it protects. Furthermore, they seem to have no comprehension of a world where we have tossed that most important amendment away.


Out of this zeal to ban what we don't like, rises movements like the current Antifa movement and its droves of indoctrinated, wide-eyed and loud-mouthed eighteen year olds, who storm the buildings and auditoriums hosting conservative speakers at college campuses. For two years, those of us who do understand the value of the First Amendment have cringed to watch these incidents, and grown nauseous at each failure of school administrations to stop it. This casual determination to allow the silencing of speech - and thus ideas - is terribly dangerous to our entire way of life. But how do you communicate that to an entire generation that never learned the concept of freedom of expression? They have grown up free to speak their minds - they never had to pause to question that ability. Worse, they have never had to stop and consider the real potential evil of forcibly taking it from another person.


It was a small light in this dark, turbulent political night we have been living in, when this week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against censorship of freedom of expression, stating that no right exists to prevent another person or entity from using a brand name that others may find offensive. Apparently, a pop band made of Asian musicians, which calls itself "Slant" was sued by some social justice warriors who just had to point out that the name could be interpreted as a racial slur; they appointed themselves the PC police and took the poor kids in the band to court, with the attempt of actually forcing them to change their name - something the band has stated they use with a sense of pride. (But never mind how the people with the slanted eyes actually feel about it. What has that to do with anything, in this world where we must correct others for thinking the wrong thoughts?) The ruling of SCOTUS is an enormous pro-First Amendment statement. The owners of the Washington Redskins, to name just one nervous entity - not to mention their many fans - are breathing a hopeful sigh of relief.


This is not about allowing anyone to be insulted. It isn't about supporting an offensive slur, gesture, or book. What it is about is freedom and respect. It's about giving each other the respect to back off and allow another to decide what is right and wrong for them; it's saying that we cannot appoint ourselves to be the thought monitors of other people.


I have been more than a little disturbed by the public celebrating this past week when a conservative journalist, Laura Loomer, rushed the stage at a Central Park, Shakespeare in the Park performance of Julius Caesar in which the lead character is a Trump lookalike, and of course undergoes the inevitable assassination. Conservative talk show hosts were cheering Loomer right and left, for standing up for civility. But from where I stand, she was simply lowering herself to the same tactics the Left has been using for two years, and somehow doesn't understand the hypocrisy.


In this political climate, it's always going to be the other side who is wrong. It's always their hypocrisy when they perform exactly the same act that we ourselves might feel morally justified in doing. That's why it is so imperative that we hold ourselves to a higher standard. The problem is, we lose all legitimacy to complain about protesters interrupting conservative speakers the next time that happens, when today we applaud the likes of Laura Loomer, who did exactly the same thing. Remember, the 1st Amendment doesn't exist to protect speech we like, it exists to protect the most vile of speech. If we start censoring this thing... why not that thing, and the next and next?


Then it gets very messy, because the question becomes - who decides what speech is going to be acceptable? The Left? The Right? No... THE GOVERNMENT. And then there we are, in Big Brother territory. We just can't condone the actions of Loomer, if we want to stand for Freedom. It's true that the First Amendment comes with exceptions - but these are inevitably exceptions that have to do with imminent public safety - never with censoring ideas. Never.


Some might argue that when the protected speech has to do with killing our president, it's gone too far. There have been cries of "inciting violence" - a totally inaccurate application of that legal concept (the violence in "inciting violence" must be under very specific conditions, and it must present immediate public danger). But actually we have already said as a nation - through previous rulings of the Supreme Court - it hasn't gone too far. We allow for example the burning of a flag - an act that so many of us find so vile and heartrending that it is almost beyond words. But because it doesn't pose immediate public threat, it is protected expression. We have decided as a nation, that the expression of a passionate political idea - no matter how disgusting - is more important than is stopping the expression of that which some may find objectionable.


Laura Loomer is wrong. If she wishes to complain about students banning conservative speech on campuses, she must allow a Julius Caesar Trump, and furthermore she should allow the audience the respect to view the play and make up their own minds. (It is worth noting that the play's entire theme is anti-assassination and anti-violence; the assassination scene is intentionally performed as tragic and emotionally alarming). And those who want CAIR banned are wrong. CAIR is suspected to be a funder of Hamas, and has been declared a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia. But in this country - where we don't regulate the thoughts of citizens - and where CAIR has yet to commit a violent act - we don't ban organizations for their ideologies.


We have to start correcting our younger generations when they talk about "banning" what they don't agree with. Our forefathers - and in cases like my father, our ancestors - shed their very blood for the idea that a person should be free to express themselves politically as they choose. We can't let these commitments to the First Amendment change, if we want to remain America.



Monday, August 15, 2016

REVIEW: "Polarity in Motion", by Brenda Vicars


Genre:  Young Adult, Coming of Age, Whodunnit
Publisher:  Red Adept, 2014
Length: 266 pages


This book was recommended to me as being an especially good representation of the genre. I almost never read young adult novels - they just rarely interest me, and so few are well-done. So it was with a little reluctance that I began Polarity in Motion.

About ten pages in, I was hooked. The opening was expertly-written, immediately grabbing the reader as it should. As I read, it occurred to me that I would like to use it as an example to beginner novelists I am working with as a mentor and/or editor, as I try to instill in them the terrible importance of a great opening to a novel. At that point, I double-checked to see how many books the author had under her belt; I was surprised to find out that this was her first novel.

The next thought I had was that she had an excellent editor. Not only was the text clean (I think I found two typos and one grammar error - this is present in any novel, no matter how thoroughly edited), but the book was structurally extremely sound. This wasn't an easy task for a beginning novelist: the book is at its core a mystery, and with that type of book plot structure must be near-perfect: in order to keep the reader wondering and the story flying along, a writer has to do some painstakingly careful plotting. Foreshadowing must be continuous but not overwhelming; tension must be maintained to a high degree; most importantly, all the strings of plot must come together neatly at the end. The reader must be surprised by the ending, and yet satisfied and not surprised at all by what they learn. This book, for the most part, accomplished that.

Polarity in Motion is about a young girl caught up in a sexting scandal at a high school - one in which she is victimized. We follow her as she is removed from her school and home, and - during the impending formal investigation - becomes a temporary ward of the state. I really liked this section of the book, because I think it deftly illustrated the confusion, helplessness and anger of a child in such a situation. The main plot revolves around the discovery of who set her up, where the photo originated, and how it came to be a tool of bullying as it was disseminated among the peers in Polarity's social and academic world.

This book is entertaining and suspenseful and would entertain anyone from 12 to 80. It contains a lot of teen angst, crazy teachers, annoying parents, bullies, cute boys and a little romance. It really is a bang-up debut young adult novel, and is far above most others out there in terms of both quality of writing and of story.

As an editor, I did have one reservation about it, and it is one particularly interesting for me to bring up because it concerns all beginning novelists. This book makes one mistake that is very common in first books: it wants to be too many things. It hovers between being a mystery novel and meandering into various social issues that really have little to do directly with the plot. Although these passages do build layers of character and add atmosphere, they are a bit clumsy and neither advance the plot nor affect the outcome of the story.

I want to take a moment to speak about this in general terms, for the benefit of writers. Oftentimes, first-time novelists try to work a social issue that is near and dear to them personally into their story. This is perfectly fine, as long as the issue is shown within the plot of the story and has some effect on the plot's outcome. Too often, a new novelist wanders occasionally from the narrative of the plot to get on a soapbox of some sort. In terms of the technique of writing there are a few problems with this:

1 - It slows down the tension of the plot. In some cases pontificating about some moral concern goes on for paragraphs, in the middle of what should have been a continuous build of dramatic tension. The new writer will justify this as "well,  but the main character is talking about it, so..."  I appreciate that it is worked into the character's thoughts or dialogue, but that isn't enough. It still has to advance the plot, and be directly related to the story.  Otherwise the impatient reader is skipping those passages in frustration.

2 - A reader is satisfied by a well-defined theme. A great reading experience requires that the book know what it's about. As I said above, this problem is so common with beginning novelists - especially the intelligent, involved, engaged people who have real passion about a cause - and I often find myself saying to someone I'm editing, "Do you want to write a good novel, or do you want to do some real research and write a good non-fiction book about this issue? Because you need to pick one." When the narrative is interrupted by paragraphs of moralizing - even when it is part of the characters' thoughts - and that moral message doesn't directly affect the plot or move it along, it causes the reader to get an overall sense of disorganization in terms of theme. It's very hard to explain to someone inexperienced with writing that a novel is not the place to lecture the reader about social issues. Which brings me to my next point...

3 - Readers don't like unsolicited lectures. The reader of a novel is in it for two reasons. The first is enjoyment. An uninvited, unexpected lecture on a moral issue can be annoying and takes away from the enjoyable experience of being told a story.  But secondly, some people like to learn something as well from a novel. It may be argued, in fact, that the greatest novels in literature explore the social issues of the day. I would absolutely agree with that. But I guarantee you that every one of those great novels presents that social issue in a way that it is 1) incidental to the fabric of the story (that is, it never interrupts the flow or reads like a lecture to the reader) 2)  completely and intricately woven into the plot itself: that is, the social issue is the primary cause of tension, affects the plot, and affects the outcome.  It takes some very experienced writing to deftly work a moral lesson into the weave of a good story, and the best writers learn to do it well... which brings me to the last point...

4 - Readers don't need to be beaten over the head. Especially not with the author's life philosophies. Not outright, anyway. Ask my editing clients how many times I said to them, as we worked on a first novel, "Less is more. Less is more."  What I mean is, if you are going to work in philosophizing - and you certainly have the right to as a the author - work it in subtly. Most beginners don't understand how smart the reader is going to be, and how much a reader likes to work things out for themselves. Do you remember when you were a child how your mom used to tell you the same thing over and over to make her point, and how annoying that was?

Beginning authors explain way too much about the meaning and morality of the tale. They need to show it, not tell it. Too much telling - in this case talking about this social or moral issue or that (regardless of who is doing the talking) - feels to the reader like being hammered over the head with a moral. Especially when there are several (let's define that as three or more) places in the novel where that happens. I would argue it doesn't ever need to happen in a well-written novel, because the moral message should be conveyed subtly by the very action of the tale alone, and never have to be stated outright.

In the case of Polarity in Motion, the moralizing is separate from the plot. There is a lot of talk about race, and a lot of talk about inequality of privilege as regards race. But within the story this point is not illustrated: all the kids at the school seem to have the same opportunities for success, and successful individuals are presented in all races. Consequences for characters have everything to do with action, and nothing to do with race. Everything that happens in the story could have happened regardless of what color everyone's skin is. There is some suggestion that only kids of color end up in juvenile detention, which anyone who has worked with teen offenders knows is hooey  (I can say from personal first-hand work experience that many are white). There is suggestion that the kids of color are less often guilty of the charges that put them there - but it is never shown positively that this is true. And again, it's a side-plot.

One disturbing element was Polarity's many descriptions of her love interest's skin color - so many that the reader wonders if the girl is a bit obsessed with him precisely because he is black. Which would be in itself, of course, a type of racism, wouldn't it? And that would be a subject for a whole different story and possibly a legitimately interesting plot it itself. But it doesn't belong here - because in the end his skin color has nothing to do with anything.  I think this feeling comes, again, because the reader is being beaten over the head by the fact his skin is brown - the implication being isn't it cool that this white girl can fall for this great black guy. But I think most modern 13-year-olds already know that.

At the end of the book, to her credit, the author valiantly tries to tie together bullying, racism, economic under-privilege (of white "trailer trash" and blacks), and then other various notions about inequality, all together... but it ends as a jumbled bit of yet more philosophizing (not to mention some bad poetry - such as that our 15-year-old character would in fact write) and it ultimately feels out of place - because there is too much effort to make it fit neatly in to a package. The mystery story works well, and would have felt more organized, if this moralizing had all been left out or had been worked into the actual plot with subtlety.

I don't mean to seem to pick on this book - I want to state again that it is overall well-done and an exceptionally competent first effort at a novel. I simply want to clearly illustrate for potential writers who read my blog how easy it is to get caught up in trying to convey one's personal passion and political philosophy; and without the skill to do it right, you can end up lowering the quality of the novel for the reader.

I did some research on the author of Polarity in Motion after reading it, and find that she has an extensive background in secondary education. This was apparent in the book, in which the reader is taken into the inner workings of high school administration.  Ms. Vicars has openly stated her passion for questions of inequality among teens, and I'm sure that it was tempting to try to work some teaching into her novel.  I really hope to see another novel, and perhaps some of these sub-themes worked in again, but less blatantly and more closely with the plot line.

Polarity in Motion is widely available and can be found at Amazon, where I posted a portion of this review.



Friday, April 29, 2016

Me, He, and She: A Writer's View on Infidelity

So I'm sitting with a long-time friend recently, chatting about our mutual lives and people in them, and she alludes to something that causes me to glance up at her in astonishment.

"You knew I had a boyfriend, right?"

I burst into astonished, semi-amused laughter. "No, I did not know that."

This friend has been married for nearly thirty years to the same man. They were married very young. I have never asked, but knowing their background, I would say that they probably got married because everyone expected it, and were too young to really have a clue about anything beyond puppy love. Four kids and several grandkids later, things have soured. Her husband has health issues and a problem with erectile dysfunction. Despite her pleading with him to seek medication and/or marriage counseling, he has refused to show any interest in fixing the problem. The problem being not so much that he can't get it up, but that he doesn't want to, and she is a good-looking, red-blooded and often horny woman. This isn't a novel. This is a real adult life.

My writing buddy recently asked how my new book was coming along, and as I heard myself enthusiastically relay some possible plot twists I had considered, it occurred to me that I am again writing about - and maybe obsessing about? - infidelity. It's a subject that is so interesting to me that I can't stop working it into my plot lines.

As a writer, I have learned a lot about the subject of infidelity; I have learned more as a writer, perhaps, than I did years ago as a cheated-on wife. Now, there is something I never would have thought possible.  I thought you all - writers and others - might like to hear about some of that.

My book Gentlemen's Game involved quite a bit of cheating. Some of it was mindless "for fun" cheating - where the spouse doesn't find out and the perpetrator feels no guilt.  Some of it was "I'm cheating because you have given me no choice by your behavior".  I think that it took many years for me as a person to understand that sometimes, there is justification.  Sometimes, as in much of life, the issue isn't all that black and white. I had to laugh at the many reviews for G Game that mentioned the infidelity, usually in the vein of "there is cheating, but . . ."  and some praise of the book as a whole.  People really, really don't stomach infidelity easily.  And I noticed more than once that it is the young, the more recently-married (say less than ten or fifteen years), who are the least tolerant of the notion.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that fidelity as a concept should be morally acceptable! I'm saying that for me, there was a point in life where I realized that cheating is common (more than it should be), that all who cheat are not pigs, that people can be good spouses and still cheat, that people can be good people in much of their lives, and still cheat.  It's more complicated than we want it to be.  I am speaking about tolerance of the notion in the sense of a writer - that when one has the maturity to tolerate the thought of infidelity enough to try to understand it and allow one's mind to explore it, a given book might be more enjoyable and more of an enlightening experience than simply an emotionally difficult one.

Infidelity in the publishing world is interesting. In literary, mainstream fiction, it's acceptable.  In the romance genre, it most often isn't; publishers' guidelines will state outright that infidelity is not to be presented. Most interesting to me, many publishers of erotic romance - the most X-rated - also don't like to publish infidelity, unless it's a group sex thing where the spouse/significant other is involved. This is amazing to me:  so often the conflict of relationships, in real adult life, involves some sort of infidelity, whether strictly emotional, or sexual. And yet it makes readers of romance so uncomfortable that publishers are shy about it.

I confess that I was once one of those readers. Well, I never could stand romance novels - haha! - but I was that kind of person. I could not read about infidelity. I could not watch a movie about it. I was terrified. I did a lot of thinking about why I was terrified (I'm a writer, it's what we do - obsess about the whys of human behavior).  This is what I believe:  I could not allow my mind to go to a dark place where everything I wanted to believe in would be rendered, perhaps, null and void.  I was afraid the book or film in question would present cheating in a sympathetic light. And then what would that mean for my beliefs and my views of the world?  Would it suddenly have to be a place where The Cheaters were not so bad, and we - the ones who would never cheat - were doomed to be deceived, lied to, hurt? What kind of backwards Hell would that be?

If you've read this far, I'm going to reward you with a juicy personal story. I want to tell you the story so that you understand how my feelings about cheating evolved as a writer to a point where I can write a sympathetic character that happens to be cheating. And there will be a point to all of this, I promise. Here goes.

I was about thirty-five or so. I'd been married for about a dozen years by then. I was fairly attractive, I had a lot of friends. As a wife I was fun, kind, if a little bullheaded. My husband was not so kind, not much fun, and I had married him too young to know that someone who is egocentric doesn't get better through the years, but worse. But I was raised with some old-fashioned values, which is probably why I hadn't walked out years before, and as long as he was faithful, I was committed.

He had a colleague and best friend, whom I'll call Mark. He often hung out with us. I didn't care much for him.... he was fairly young, maybe late twenties, and he had a high-school level locker room style humor that often offended me. And I had nothing in common with him. Plus, my forty-year-old husband acted like an immature ass when they were together. But Mark never knew my feelings. His maturity level wasn't his fault. And they had known each other and worked together for several years by then.

The day came when Mark suddenly got married, to a girl from his hometown he'd known for a few
years and dated off and on. He said his parents didn't like her - I wondered why - and didn't explain further why the relationship hadn't been more on than off.  But at any rate, now they were married, and he brought her to our area to live and work.  My husband met Angela, came home and mentioned how gorgeous she was. She was from another country and culture originally - not unusual in our circle, since my husband was also foreign and many of our friends were immigrants.

They married on Valentine's Day.  Within a month, the four of us were spending a lot of time together. Angela was also much younger than I was, and I had little in common with her either. She was nice enough, but a little full of herself. I chalked it up to the age and maturity level, and did my best to help her feel at home in a new place. She adored me. She used to bring me little gifts, tell my husband how wonderful I was. I liked being looked up to.

Meanwhile, my husband insisted we spend a lot of time with them. Maybe two evenings a week, plus time on weekends. I gradually started to resent it. Before, we had always had Friday as a "date night". Now the date was always a double date. Always. When we weren't with them, he was talking about them. I started to go a little nuts with it. But the months went on, and I didn't say a lot. After all, Angela was getting used to being married, in a new place, and she often sought my advice.

 Once, she confided in me that she appreciated my friendship, because she had never had a lot of female friends. "Women don't like me. They always think I will steal their boyfriends." She laughed. I thought it was a rather arrogant thought on her part. But I couldn't argue, she was a very pretty and very, very sexy girl. She was from South America, and displayed an easy physical sensuality that so many Latina women have. In addition she was funny and charming, and had just finished a law degree. I imagined she might invite a lot of jealousy from women.

And advice she needed. They both did. The fights were often, and childish. My husband and I spent not a few evenings with them indulging in a bit of impromptu marriage counseling. But they seemed to be a good match, and Mark certainly loved the girl. I never could quite figure how she felt about him, but I didn't want to judge something so personal.

I spent early evening of Halloween at their apartment. Angela had summoned me there, saying she was in some crisis and needed to talk. I remembering listening to her and wondering what the issue actually was. She rambled on about the usual, her frustration with Mark, their fighting. But I didn't get a feeling of crisis and wondered why I had had to drop everything and drive over there. It was weird, and I felt rather manipulated. Mark and my husband arrived at some point, and things were even weirder. Mark seemed oblivious. My husband seemed annoyed. Have you ever had that feeling that something is definitely going on in a room, but you haven't been made privy to it and can't put your finger on it?

Next morning, my husband nervously told me he had to tell me something. I remember him shaking as he told me - sitting there on the side of the bed, this man who usually didn't care what I thought about anything - that he and Angela had been having an affair since May. Since two months after her marriage. He was having an affair with his best friend's wife.

Now... this is where it gets really interesting. Because this is where I started learning what infidelity really is, and what it really means.  It isn't about someone having sex with someone. That is just a tiny detail in the end.  It hardly matters. (Believe me, it doesn't.)  What matters is that your judgement failed you.  You failed to see the signs. Your mind failed to protect you from your worst nightmare. You were deceived by the person closest to you. Everything you believe about yourself, and the reliability of your intelligence, explodes around you. He would not have told me because of an attack of conscience, mind you. He told me because they had quarreled and she had threatened to tell me. He had merely beat her to it.

I didn't scream. I didn't yell. I was numb. He asked if I was going to leave him. I told him I didn't know. I cried a little.  It was immediately apparent to me that this man who was often so cold, so arrogant, so dismissive of me, was now shaking, so small and terrified that he would lose me. I wondered if he was surprised too. (Looking back, I know he was. He never saw her again. Hilariously, after that day the fun of it was gone for them. The sneaking around made it interesting. They didn't even like each other much as people, and both were painfully aware of it in the end, much to my great amusement. Last laughs, poetic justice, all that, you know.)

And then as I watched him sitting there wringing his hands, I said something that surprised me as much as it did him. And I am proud of it to this day, because I learned how terribly strong I was, and I knew in that moment that of the four of us, I was the strongest. And I knew he knew it too.

I said, "I don't know what will happen. But I will tell you this: you have 24 hours to tell Mark. If you don't, I will."

He said quietly, "You would do that, wouldn't you?"

I said, "Try me. He deserves to know the truth about his life and what he is married to. He deserves better than her. And better than YOU."

In the end, he told Mark, after begging me to be present. He told him like a man, apologized like a man. A few hours before, Angela, forewarned, had gone crazy. She begged, threatened, cried to me, "You don't understand! Mark isn't like you! He isn't going to understand and he'll divorce me."

Tough cookies, little girl.  You made this bed.

Not like me?  Who said I wasn't going to leave?  What did she imagine I was? A saint? I was no saint, but I was no fool either.

Mark surprised me, moved me, and humbled me by his reaction. He was calm, he didn't try to kill my
husband. Within weeks, he'd forgiven him and they were working out together. He did file for divorce the very next day.  I didn't feel sorry for her one bit.  I did feel sorry for Mark. He did deserve better. Anyone would.

I stayed in my marriage for several years, but I should not have. It took time to get my mind to stop obsessing over the deception.  Because that's what you obsess over. It isn't flashes of possible sexual rendezvous. It's memories of the moments your partner looked you in the face and lied. And questions about how you were so easily fooled.

Here was another surprise. A revelation. It took a while to come to me. But finally one day I said to my husband, "You know... I have a feeling that Angela's sleeping with you had something to do with..."

"... fucking you?  Of course it did. It wasn't about me at all."  He finished the thought for me.

Infidelity is ultimately a terribly selfish act. It's the deliberate deception of the person who relies on you to keep them emotionally safe in this emotionally brutal existence we all share. It's the ultimate betrayal from the ultimate friend. It's ugly.

It's also selfish on the part of the co-cheater. Angela wanted to stick it to me: someone she couldn't be. She called me, in fact, a few months after the divorce. "Mark and D-- are still friends. Why can't we be friends?" she whined.

"Are you crazy?  You fucked my husband. That is why we are not going to be friends. I have no respect for you. Now get the hell off my phone."  I knew that she knew I was a bigger person than she was. That was enough for me. I hope she grew from it, but I really don't care. She was a big girl, she destroyed a marriage and nearly two. She knew what she was doing. Now for the rest of her life she gets to know what she did and regret it.

When I was younger and more innocent, I thought infidelity was always unacceptable. I don't believe that now, despite the ugliness of what Angela and my ex did. I think of relationships, particularly marriage, as a literal contract. You screw me, prepare to be screwed.  I used to tell my husband in those latter years, "I guess you owe me a freebie."  Meaning that I could, without guilt, sleep with a man of my choice for a few months. At any time. I enjoyed watching him squirm, wondering if I'd do it.  I never did. Because in the same way he chose to live deceptively, I chose to live honestly.  Like I said before, I should have left him immediately after. But I was young and dumb. Marriages may survive infidelity but they are never the same again. This is the bottom line: A person who is capable of that level of deception will always be capable of it. Each individual has to chose whether living with such a person and the fear of the havoc they can wreak in your life, is really worth it. When I did leave him finally, he knew that I would always deserve better than he had been. Because I never would have done to him what he did to me.

Characters are never interesting if they are saints. Sometimes good people do bad things. Selfish things. Maybe even unforgivable things. The wounded party, after an affair, understands this as no one else can. All of this makes for multi-layered relationships, real multi-layered characters, and interesting stories. Affairs are common. We all know the stories. We all can predict every scene and the ending.  But can we all understand the emotions? The nuances of the experience?  I think that is where one can weave a unique tale. And we are all individuals, certainly experiencing infidelity differently, both as the offender and the offended party.

I do believe that some philanderers have good reason - or at least an understandable reason. Coming up with those reasons as a writer is the fun part, and does allow me to reflect and invite the reader to reflect, on some of the more difficult aspects of human behavior.  Jack Miles, in Gentlemen's Game, came to believe he was in a terrible, bad marriage, to a selfish person, and strayed to explore who he really was. Jack was basically a good man who did some bad things.  In my story Frozen, Ethan is a selfish man who keeps a young gay man on the side, masquerading as a straight and happily-married man with small children.

My friend, after bowling me over with her announcement that she had a boyfriend on the side, quickly explained that her husband knows and doesn't seem to care.  I listened for half an hour, and at the end of our conversation, I said, "Good for you, Girl!"  And I meant it.  Her boyfriend is also married, his wife knows, and this works for all of them. Divorce for either couple would affect children and many lives, and isn't the best option. For them it is not a moral one.

Life is messy. People are messy.  A writer that is afraid of looking at messy never gets their hands dirty, and misses a lot of fun playing in the mud.  Okay, my writing buddy Becky is the Queen of Metaphors and I'm not, but you get my point.  Wallow in the mud, Writers!  Figure out the real whys of why people do what they do.  Putting all behavior in a "this is good" and "this is bad" box is cowardly for a writer, and will stifle your voice and imagination. Don't be afraid of exploring the darkest places.

You are not your characters.  I would never do what Jack Miles did. I would never live as Ethan's piece on the side.  I am infallibly honest to my friends and lovers.  But then . . . I'm much less interesting than my characters are. ;)

Gentlemen's Game and Frozen can be found at Amazon.com and other online retailers. See reviews on this page and at lichencraig.com .  

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Tragically Disappearing Value of Letters

I have a letter dated 1852. It is written by an ancestor - Reuben Peacher - to his son-in-law Zachariah Elkins and his daughter Nancy Jane. The young couple, who had been married some three or four years by then (she had been only fifteen, but he almost a decade older), were living only a few counties away, but in an age when there was no email, no phone, no motorized vehicle, it was a few days journey. They both came from large, tight-knit families, and it must have been a big decision to leave; in a few years more, they would join the wagon train on the Oregon Trail, going from Independence, Missouri, to a new home at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

The letter tells us a great deal about them. It is written on light blue, unlined paper. The weight and quality is such that it has survived intact for 164 years. The black, uneven ink pen lines belie the use of a fountain pen. The hand is neat and well-schooled, the grammar good but not perfect. Spelling wasn't yet standardized. Reuben was educated. Zachariah was obviously capable of reading it - although he had been raised in the wilderness of Kentucky and later Missouri. I don't know whether Nancy Jane could not read or whether common custom dictated that the men should write to one another and bypass the women.

At any rate, Reuben had a bit to say, over two pages.  Although the details are mundane, they paint a picture of domestic life for a frontier family, and the very real individuals who lived what we can hardly imagine now. Imagine their world, where one couldn't exist without a horse or a plow or an ax or a rifle or a thorough knowledge of agriculture and hunting. Imagine staining your fingers with ink as you wrote, knowing that news of a death in the family or a new baby would take a week to get there. Imagine that visiting on a whim was impossible - a move across country meant saying goodbye for a very, very long time, if not forever. Imagine that our journeys of a few hours took days or weeks. This is the world the letter allows me to visit - and as I hold it in my hands I wonder about the hands that first made the creases in it and sealed it with wax, and then saddled the horse or hitched him to the wagon, to travel several miles to post it.

The point is, these letters can be held in a hand, my experience of it mingling with a man's of 164 years ago, his skin cells mingling with mine. Letters are a tangible piece of the evidence of lives of the past. And they are quickly fading from our experience.

When I was young, letters were a fact of life. There was no internet, no email. I wrote and received
letters from relatives who lived four states away, across the prairies and cornfields of the Midwest and West. I still have a few of those letters. When I was maybe about ten years old - my favorite grandmother taught me about writing a proper letter.  She said it had to begin with some personal news. Then, a good story - which must include some description or drama or something else of entertainment value to the recipient. And it should end with affection and some plan to write again or to see the loved one again. I have a few of her letters in a box; she's been dead for a few decades now. When I look at them I remember the way she formed words, and the slow, careful way she spoke. She had a wonderful, warm chortle in her voice. I marvel at the uniqueness of her hand and her style.  And I experience her again as an individual and miss her. Without those letters, I don't think I could get so close.

The earliest letters I have read were those written between kings in the early medieval period. Such as letters from Charlemagne, king of Franks (and part of what is now France) and the great Mercian (England) king, Offa. They survive on vellum, a material made from lambskin and dried. They are written in Latin, which in that world enjoyed the universality similar to today's English. They show the personalities, the daily concerns, and the world, of two powerful men in the eighth century. Twelve hundred years ago. I envy the researchers who protect these letters, and who have held them in their hands. A part of me believes that the energy of the past world travels through such objects - what a gift it is to reach back through time and touch the eighth century.

Letters exist between family members, friends and lovers, that reveal details of famous lives. Mozart's wife understood the enormous value of letters to reveal secrets: she burned all of the great musician's letters upon his death. I can almost forgive her - Mozart was mentally ill and so difficult to live with that she had left him years before and they lived apart. But in the end she was there, and his friend, and she had the foresight to protect his privacy.  She robbed us all of a glimpse into his mind and genius, of course.

The great Persian poet, Kahlil Gibran, enjoyed a decades-long romance with a woman through letters. It is believed that although their letters are affectionate and romantic and show devotion and respect, they never met face-to-face.

In December of 2015, a New York man was remodeling the fireplace of this vintage home and found letters over a century old - written by the two young children of an Irish immigrant family that had once lived in the house, to Santa Claus. Ten-year-old Mary's words reveal much about their lives, their values, and the thoughts of a generous-hearted little girl:

"Dear Santa Claus . . . My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to  bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best. - Mary   P.S. Please do not forget the poor. "

Letters reveal the most intimate relationships of the famous people of the past, and also the lives and cares and dreams of people who no one would remember if not for a surviving letter - a bit of a person that survives for decades or centuries beyond death. What are we losing, as we allow the art of letter-writing - in my generation something so common - to fade from our experience?  What are we sacrificing?  How will people, hundreds of years from now, know how we spoke and how our experience of the world around us differed from theirs?  How will they know the things that letters have preserved for us about our past?

They will have books, of course, but letters are different. They are informal, intensely personal, and reveal personality more clearly than any carefully-written prose ever could.  How sad it is that people in the future won't hold the leaves of a letter, with beautiful handwriting and a lingering scent of perfume, in their hands and glimpse the private life of someone else who has passed away?

From now on people will not know the joy of receiving into their hands a personal letter - its paper once handled by the hands of a distant loved one or a lover, the individual's unique handwriting decorating the front. They won't know the surprise of finding a feather, or a piece of lace or fabric, a lock of hair, or other surprise. Or the familiar welcome scent of cigar smoke or perfume. The intimate nature and privacy of a letter is forever lost in the age of computers and emails.  Now, with schools discontinuing the training of children in handwriting skills, future generations won't be able to write a letter if they want to.

I have made a decision that soon I will have that old letter laminated, so that it will survive for decades to come. I won't be able to touch it anymore in the same way, and that bothers me greatly, but it's time to give that up in favor of its preservation. I hope that someone in a coming generation appreciates it as much as I have, and the view of the past and three pioneers' lives, that it offers.

----------------------------------------------------------

NOTES:

Reuben Peacher lived to old age and is buried in Howard County, Missouri, on the land that once belonged to his farm, from where he wrote the letter and many others. His grave still exists. His own father had come from Virginia and wealth but had been ousted from the family by his father, along with his brother. The two, once the heirs of a rich Eastern family, would eventually be hanged in the wilds of Kentucky for stealing horses. But their children, Reuben and his wife and first cousin Anne, would live the quiet life of farmers in Howard County, Anne preceding her husband in death by a few decades.

Zachariah Elkins took his young family by wagon train to Colorado around 1861. He worked as a cattle rancher on the eastern plains of Colorado Territory, until his death in 1880. In 1870 a census taker asked him what year he was born in, and he wasn't certain, according to a marginal note. But I know now that it was about 1825. Funny that I know and he didn't. He did know that he had been born in Missouri, but when asked where his parents were born he didn't know that either; it was Kentucky - of that I am certain. He died in his fifties, in 1880. His grave has been lost.

Nancy Jane Peacher Elkins was married to the boy who lived on the farm next door, about 1848, at fifteen. It must have been a bittersweet day, because only a few days earlier her 13-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister had both drowned, in the creek that divided the two farms. One can safely assume the brother died trying to save the sister, or the other way around. Several children still survived, including Nancy Jane, and life had to go on. She is buried in Colorado, between her son and his wife on one side, and an infant grandchild on the other. She lived well into her nineties, and was photographed with four younger generations, including my grandmother who is an infant on her lap.

I wonder if they would smile to know that I have and treasure that letter.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Art of the Short Story, Defined

Back when I was getting my creative writing/classic literature degree, we did a lot of short story writing. Within a class setting it made sense: professors were trying to assess whether we each understood how to develop a plot, characters, etc. and who has time to write a novel, during university?  (Well, not if you take your classwork seriously and are in a demanding program!)

I got a journalism degree at the same time, and pretty much immediately went into news writing and editing. So I put the short story aside for many years and thought little about it. Those years at school had left me with a healthy respect for the form, and I still admire people who do it well.

Recently I had a discussion with a friend about how long a short story needs to be. I suggested to her that it needs to be long enough to develop certain elements - characters, solid conflict, tension, enough description to establish an atmosphere, etc. Personally I have seen someone do that maybe three times through the years, in under say, 1500 words. Skilled writers can do it under 5,000, and many legitimate short story contests ask for stories around that length. But I would say at least 2,000 and up is best. Oh, there are a lot of 1000-word "short stories" out there, and almost all are crap.

But not all. In recent years I ran into a short by British writer Clayton Littlewood that was astounding - it is called Grindr. He used to have it up on his blog, and I recall that when I read it I found my jaw on the floor. I was so moved because of the quality of his writing, but also because the thing was so short. It must be maybe 3-4,000. No more. Here was a short-short story in the hands of a truly skilled storyteller; he knew exactly what he was doing with an often difficult form. He seemed surprised - gracious and humble - when I wrote to express my congratulations on it, but Littlewood is a master of language, and well-versed in building plot and suspense, even within the confines of a small word count. He has removed it from his website now, but has it published within an anthology of short pieces called Six Stories.

One can spend a few hours on Twitter or at writer-oriented blogs and run into a plethora of contests for writing short stories. Lately too many of them involve such silly premises as writing a short story of 250 words or less. I ran into one that wanted short stories less than 100 words!  Ugh! These are not short stories!  They are exercises in writing a succinct paragraph, perhaps, but they are not short stories. Am I being a snob?  Insisting upon a specific, narrow definition?  Or am I protecting the integrity of an ages-old genre?

From before our ancestors were literate, the short story has entertained. It took a bit of imagination, and not a little amount of memorization skills, to hold an audience captive for a bit with a short narrative. In a time before the novel, these narratives involved the necessary elements of characters, plot and structure, atmospheric description.  There had to be a stated conflict, and someone in the story had to move toward resolving that conflict. This has formed the basis of story for us - whether the story happens within a novel, film, or short story. Notice I say "basis" - in the modern era, many influences have changed the structural rules of each of these forms so that there are instances of each which stray from the traditional ideas.

It is said that the advent of photography changed art forever. Where once a painting recorded the scene before the artist's eyes - and used light and color and movement to emphasize certain truths about that scene - photography replaced that function.  The photograph could record reality as never before.  So painting was forced to find a way to convey truths beyond black and white reality. Thus, new forms were born - impressionistic painting, abstract painting, and others.  It is no coincidence that the masters of these styles worked at the forefront of art in the decades following the birth of the photograph.


In the same sense, the advent of film pushed the novel and the short story. I think it may be argued that before the development of cinematography as not only a recording of moving pictures but an art form in its own right - probably by the latter 1930s - novels contained more detailed descriptive passages. But the reading public soon became accustomed to a panoramic atmosphere unfolding before their eyes; they were taken through an entire story in a few hours. Perhaps they lost patience in the end for description in dime store, mainstream novels. (I would argue that this factor diminished forever our ability to imagine detailed visual scenes without the crutch of film - which feeds it to us in such a way that we don't have to do the work, but that is a blog for another day.)

Films did even more to change short stories.  Because most films in the early decades of the medium ran a logical narrative - story with character and traditionally structured plot - short stories were pushed to find a new, innovative path of expression.  This is the root of the modern tendency of the short story to offer alternative and highly unusual structures.

It may be argued that America contributed more to the birth of the short story than most places. The genre rose as the world of magazines grew in America.  It flourished in the late-19th and early-20th century popular magazine bought by a large part of the American population and beyond - where ever issue contained either a short story or a piece of serialized novel. Categories such as the romance story, the murder mystery, the sci-fi story, the western, and others - were established during this period. In the early years, the narrative structure was traditional. But, of course, then came film . . .

In more recent decades, writers have experimented with various styles in the short story form. Now, a short story doesn't necessarily need a traditional narrative plot (although many still have one).  So then, what constitutes a short story now, in 2016?  If we have stretched tradition and invited innovation for decades, often very successfully, then what constitutes a true short story? Can it be defined?

Of course. And it is because of this definition that I have to scoff at contests for 250-word "stories".  A quick study of the modern definitions of "story" in various dictionaries might leave the researcher confused: most definitions involve words like "narrative" and "tale", which of course mean the same thing as "story".  But I like this one, from the Cambridge Dictionary: "a description, either true or imagined, of a connected series of events". That gives us something to begin with. Descriptions from every major dictionary go on to add that a "story" informs, teaches, amuses, entertains, and/or changes a reader or listener.  Also inherent is the idea that the narrative somehow evolves.

A writer cannot evolve a narrative in 250 words. A writer cannot successfully persuade or change, either the narrative or the reader. You may amuse. You many even entertain for a few minutes. But you have not used narrative as an art form to guide the reader through any evolution. You have merely written an amusing few paragraphs, and although it is a useful exercise it isn't any great accomplishment fit for a contest! As a writer, you will learn nothing serious about the art of the short story.

So my argument is in the naming of the contest a "short story" contest. A "short story" is far more than that.  If you want to learn the form, and do it well, following these guidelines:

  • Establish tension early on. As with any fictional work, you are obligated as a writer to catch the reader's interest early and hold it.  In novel-writing we speak of establishing conflict - you may or may not have time - within the confines of the first few paragraphs of a short story - to attempt something that grand. But you should establish an uncomfortable feeling in the reader and/or a large question in their minds. Drive, which has its birth in conflict, is absolutely necessary in a good short story. 
  • Work toward change, above all. Something must evolve.  Either the character must change/grow/learn, or the situation must change in a surprising way. I would suggest that the best stories might combine both.  But you must have a different truth at the end of the story than was present at the beginning. The reader must see the world differently than they did a few pages ago. 
  • Don't be overly mindful of length, because it stifles your creative urge; don't try to keep it short nor try to achieve a certain length. If you are gearing it toward a contest where the length is say, 5,000 words for example, you should have a feel as a writer for the difference between 5,000 and 10,000 or 15,000, right from the first word you write.  So you know whether you are in the ballpark as you write. When you finish you can edit to correct word count. But for now, be more mindful of the structure - the drive and the evolution - and just get the story down. 
  • Never forget that the same elements which make for a great short story are the same that make a great novel, and don't lose sight of them. Keep in mind elements such as:  description and establishing a mood or atmosphere; narrative drive (already discussed); characterization (strong characters make a strong story); catch and hold the attention of the reader; avoid  clich├ęs and work on being original; employ the use of elements such as metaphor; mind that dialogue sounds true to the characaters, and that each character speaks differently; watch the misspellings and grammar.  You get the picture. Treat your short story with the same technical respect that you would treat a novel. 
Meanwhile, I won't discourage you from participation in the sillier contests for "short story" writing. Just make sure you aren't wasting time; the best of us get caught up in online games and useless exercises that help us avoid the real work of applying ourselves to our writing. And make sure you are truly going to learn something valuable that you can apply to real writing.  If that is to write a more interesting paragraph or scene, fine. But call it a paragraph or scene. Out of respect for an art form that has entertained, taught, and helped us evolve for centuries, call something lesser what it is.


Clayton Littlewood is much underrated short story writer, diarist, journalist and playwright. You can see his Amazon page at Clayton Littlewood .  His personal website is at http://www.claytonlittlewood.com  .  

See my short stories:  Frozen, Lightning (my first attempt at the paranormal!) and Quandary, at Amazon and BarnesandNoble .


Sunday, November 29, 2015

BBC Series "The Last Kingdom" Ends With a Battle and a Bang


In 878 A.D. (C.E.) a battle took place in a field in what is now southern England, which determined the very existence of the country. How odd it is now, to consider that of the few thousand fighting men and women present that day, some gave their lives for what they thought was the small kingdom of Wessex - the last remaining stronghold of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, after years of Viking raids - but in the end, they gave their lives so that the United Kingdom would eventually come to be what it was centuries later . . . one of the world's greatest and most productive empires. How surprised they would have been to learn that their sacrifice was the foundation of so much more than what they could have imagined.  

The final battle, with the shield walls dividing enemies.
The Battle of Edington (aka the Battle of Ethandun) was arguably the most important battle in English history, and it is fitting that the first season of the magnificent The Last Kingdom from the BBC gave us this battle as its finale. For many reasons, the first season has been an impressive debut for what has become a standout series, and it has in a short time built a strong fan base who must have been, as I was, cheering a little inside as our hero rode off into the final sunset with a narration promising more adventures ahead. Given the enthusiasm of a growing fanbase, the BBC would be foolish not to be planning for a second season.

The series is based upon the Saxon series of nine (so far) books, from renowned historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. The story follows the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the son of a Saxon Northumbrian ealdorman (the precursor of an earl). When the Danes (Vikings) invade and kill his family, he is taken as a child slave into the Danish household of Danish warlord Ragnar, where due to his intelligence, loyalty and charm, he is eventually raised as a son. But fate is not kind to Uhtred, and a warring clan of Danes kills off his adoptive family as well.  Uhtred is left without a country, rejected as a Saxon by Danes and a Viking by Saxons.  He has to fight his way into acceptance by those he must trust - including the future King Alfred "the Great" of Wessex and later of all England - in order to gain back respect and his birthright.  His story is told against the backdrop of the fierce wars of the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries of England against Danish invaders intent on making the British Isles part of a Scandinavian kingdom. This was a time when battle was eye-to-eye brutal, life was cheap and dearly won, and Pagan and Christian strove to coexist.
Lord Guthrum of the Danes is baptized.
The series was produced by the executive producer of Downton Abbey, Gareth Naeme, who obviously understands how to capture and hold an audience. Unlike some of the others in the current parade of Dark Ages and Medieval fantasy series, this one follows much more closely actual historical events and incorporates characters based firmly in historical reality (even Uhtred of Bebbanburg existed, and is a distant ancestor of Cornwell, although little is known of his actual history). As can be expected from the BBC, production values are held to a high standard. 

David Dawson's King Alfred battles for Wessex.
The eight-episode season was shot mostly in Hungary, with some additional work in Wales and Denmark. From the reconstructed villages and wooden/stone palaces of the Saxons, to the costuming (reportedly done with an intentional "modern edge"), to battle scenes, one is easily transported back in time to a place that actually existed, and a people who were caught between two worlds and facing an uncertain future. The film is saturated with warm, rich red tones which bring out firelit interiors, skin, and setting sun, and also green tones which exploit the wild, earthy feel of a time when life took place mostly outdoors. Camerawork is consistently expertly rendered, and interesting without being distracting.

Not enough can be said about the cast. Heading it up is the relatively unknown Alexander Dreymon, whose anonymity will come to a screeching halt with this project. The well-trained young actor has delivered a performance worthy of an epic - always competent, nuanced, and fascinating. He understands the value of accent, the glance of an eye, posture, and all the small moments that raise a performance from passing to mesmerizing. His Uhtred is multi-layered, enigmatic, superbly physical (check out the horseback stunts and the fight scenes - his martial arts training shows) and by turns quietly emotional and fiercely warrior-like, as he cries over a friend's betrayal or his dead child, then rushes into battle swinging a broadsword with an intimidating fury-birthed grimace. He is never less than 100% male, as a ninth century warrior had to be in order to survive.

Also excellent are David Dawson as King Alfred, Adrian Bower as the knight Leofric, Eliza Butterworth as Aelswith, Ian Hart as Father Beocca, Emily Cox as Brida, Harry MacEntire as Athelwold (a fan favorite, to be sure!), Charlie Murphy as Iseult, Rune Temte as Ubba, and many others.

Wessex has finally won everything, while Uhtred has lost all.
Fans of the books will love the series, but may be a little put off by a few instances of straying from the novels' storyline. As a writer and a film fan, I have no issue with the changes: many are necessary in order to make a series play to a film audience without confusing them with too many characters and subplots; after all, film is a much different medium, and must have different requirements for the sake of clear storytelling.  Other changes added to the stories, such as the screenwriter's decision to flesh out Uhtred's love relationships, where in the books they are too often mere mentions. This change in particular makes the film more interesting to a wider audience, and Uhtred's character more multi-dimensional. It also, in this writer's opinion, raises the quality of the story. Like many a male, Cornwell tends to write from a testosterone-laden point of view. In much the same way that some female writers are unwilling to write a great battle scene, he shies away from love scenes or any scene of emotional romantic depth. The screenwriter has understood the value of fixing that, and brings a story accessible and interesting to everyone.

Hild the Nun takes no prisoners.
Which brings us to the battle scenes. These are some of the best you will ever see on television; each battle-cry to raise the shield wall gives the viewer goosebumps. The filmmakers employ stunts and special effects and camera work to increase tension and authenticity -which is expected - but they go further. In an era of television and film when rape and massacre are too often exploited for entertainment (this means you, Game of Thrones), this series neither shies away from tough scenes nor does it present them as purely entertainment. There is brutality, but not the glee of excessive butchery; there is rape, but not a script or camera that lingers over a woman's torture and humiliation for the sake of titillation. These filmmakers understand the difference between realism and exploitation, and it raises the production to a higher level than any other historical out there.

Uhtred and his Danish brother "Young Ragnar" loyal enemies.
Just about the only quarrel I had with the series, and one present also with the books, was resolved in the last episode: that of the treatment of various religions. In the books, Christianity is presented nearly always in a bad light - never as a force for good or the power of justice and peace, against poverty and blind brutality, but as a particularly malicious form of oppression. As an amateur historian of the era, it troubled me because it doesn't give a complete picture. I have always been fascinated in the question of why the new religion swept over a culture as quickly as it did (given that there was no mass communication). Through the years I
have read the suggestions of many historians - it encouraged the value of the individual life, and raised the value of life overall; it offered a way out of a pattern of personal vendetta and inter-clan wars; it raised the value of literacy and learning; it established the first social programs such as orphanages, schools, and soup kitchens; it improved ties to the Continent and the Roman Empire and the rest of Europe, which meant trade and improvement of quality of life. Cornwell has said in interviews that he holds a personal bias against Christianity given his upbringing, and while I can't fault him for that, I do think it's a shame that it kept him from writing more realistically about the gentle slipping away of the pagan world, and the gradual establishment of the Christian. Historians agree that for the vast part, it was a peaceful transition for England, and I for one think it would be a fascinating question for the novels to have explored more. 

But here, the screenwriters have rescued the story from one-dimensional Christian-bashing. In the final episodes, pagan Uhtred comes to reconcile the two philosophies in his own mind, Christian King Alfred comes to appreciate that his god may have a broader point of view than he originally thought, Father Beocca realizes that God works even through pagans, and - as happened in history - the leading warlord of the Danes, Guthrum, offers himself for baptism as part of a peace treaty. (In reality, Alfred stood as Guthum's godfather for baptism, and Guthrum took the Christian name Athelstan, after Alfred's deceased elder brother.)  In the last minutes of the final episode, we have nuns and priests taking up the spear and raising the battle-cry for Wessex and rushing headlong into the battle - a scene which, given the politics of the moment in time, I agree is highly imaginable. Even the religious would have understood that the saving of a way of life demanded every heart and weapon available, and that defending one's life and land was a justification for war when the invaders were at one's doorstep.

As I watched this series, I was often moved not only by the story of Uhtred and his companions, but by the story of England's birth, and the comparisons in my own mind to our political struggles today. Surely the people of Wessex were increasingly frightened as the Viking menace first tickled their shores, and then made its way inland to kill and conquer. Perhaps at first they - preoccupied with everyday survival at their little farms and trades - would have heard stories of the pillaging and murdering and thought of it as a far-off thing, of not much consequence. They would not have understood that it was growing bigger, that it was a force that did not share the values they had embraced with Christianity, and would spare no one until they were all dead or subjected. Even good King Alfred imagined the Danes as people who would be reasonable, could be negotiated with and then trusted to obey a peace agreement. But he was wrong, and it is to England's luck that he learned it in time enough to get serious about defending his people.

Today we face a similar situation, as a force intent on the destruction of our way of life moves closer and grows larger, while still our leaders and a vast majority of our citizens play blithely along at their day-to-day pursuits, without understanding what is at stake and the choices we will have to make in a very near future. I wonder if we still - we peoples of the western world, who have built civilizations on a specific set of values and beliefs, whether we acknowledge that fact or not - possess the courage it will take to keep the right to decide our own path into the future. 

As Uhtred told us in every episode of The Last Kingdom, "Destiny is all."  In the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, Destiny ("Wyrd") was a reality predetermined before one ever took a first breath. But they believed also that individual choices could affect destiny.  Let's hope that our destiny is as hopeful and kind to us, as was that of the brave Anglo-Saxon men and women who won their future with blood.

Do yourself a favor and watch The Last Kingdom in its entirety. You'll get a great history lesson, a glimpse into the past of a great people and land, and a rollicking good time.

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Writer Bernard Cornwell with "Uhtred" Alexander Dreymon.


Bernard Cornwell's series can be found at Amazon.com, at bookstores, and elsewhere all over the web. The popular books are well-researched and well-written, and I highly recommend them.

The Last Kingdom is currently finishing up its run in the UK and Europe, but is finished with the first season's run in the US.  It can be purchased online as a DVD, or downloaded from Amazon or ITunes. If you are like me you will be watching each episode about four times.