I Wonder How Many Writers Feel This Way?

Heartburn is a short autobiographical novel based on Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein, her second husband.
Near the end of the book, she has this exchange with her friend about painful incidents recounted.
—-
Vera said: “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?”
So I told her why:
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.
—-

I sense writer wisdom there. Do you? ###

“OC” Doesn’t Stand for Ocean City

  “O.C. ” DOESN’T STAND FOR OCEAN CITY 

  A book review by Ben Leiter

I’ve always despised, feared, hated OC. That’s not “Ocean City”—like in Maryland or New Jersey. Or, the old TV show about Orange County.

It’s Organized Crime, what I’ve always called the Mafia. It has brethren, offspring, associates: the Russians, the Mexicans, Wall Street, and other gangsta relatives.  

Why my strong aversion? 

Maybe their ruthless bullying? 

Maybe because my upbringing—Red, White, and Blue American—pledges that’s not how we roll as a country. So we tell ourselves. 

Or, not playing by the rules? I’m big on following the rules, and coloring within the lines. 

Or, could be my firmly imbedded RC personal religious strictures, with their two thousand year history of proposed guidance on how to live godly, even though I’m not the pious type and have been known to laugh uproariously at medieval dogmas.

So, even though I enjoyed The Godfather I, II, III, et al. I still took offense at the manifest, unapologetic, irredeemable viciousness underlying the films. I probably didn’t mind the bad-guy-on-bad guy violence, but I was always put off by the cowardly abuse of the weak. 

Now, I’ve just finished another fantastic Don Winslow book, The Winter of Frankie Machine. 

Our protagonist, Frank Machianno, fronts as a bait shack owner on the San Diego oceanfront. Frank does part-time work as a hit man for The Families, as requested. They term it “a personal favor.” But, you better say yes. So, I really, really don’t like Frank. 

Then I start to appreciate him more because he has become reflective later in the book and in his life, the accumulating years catching him in their inevitable final embrace.

Here’s Frank, with more gray hair.  “…It was something in the paper about a crackdown on organized crime, and Frank just went off on a rant.

“Nike pays twenty-nine cents to a child for making a basketball jersey, then turns around and sells it for one hundred and forty dollars,” Frank said, “And I’m the criminal?

“Wal-Mart sends half the mom-and-pop stores in the country the way of the buffalo while they pay the kids who make their cheap crap seven cents an hour. And I’m the criminal?

“Two million jobs have gone adios in the past two years, a working man can’t afford a down payment on a house anymore, and the IRS mugs us like drunks at an ATM, then sends our money to a defense contractor who closes down a factory, lays off workers, and pays himself a seven-figure bonus. And I’m the criminal? I’m the guy who should get life without parole?” 

Well said, but yeah, I’m still not ready to pardon Frank, despite his philosophizing and his love for his daughter which threads through the book. Frank does take out some bad dudes—not on a date. 

I usually anticipate your average literary surprise. No spoiler alert, but Winslow caught me off guard with a wonderful twist at the end. Good for Winslow and good for Frankie Machine.

A brilliantly entertaining read.

Las Migras, by Ben Leiter

[Note: This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, GOD’S BETRAYAL: QUANTUM RESURRECTION, told from the point of view of Father Gabriel Garza, a renegade Roman Catholic priest who always puts the right-thing-to-do ahead of the rules. That’s why bad players have placed him on The Watch List.]

LAS MIGRAS
I knew they’d be coming sooner or later, especially with all the Trump anti-immigrant rhetoric. After all, St. Anthony’s rectory, down the street from Catholic University, was only a seventeen minute drive, with no traffic, from the White House.
 
I answered after the bang-knock on the heavy wood rectory door. I looked through the peephole. It was 4 p.m. and I thought to myself, was that preferred Nazi arrest time, when they took people out of their homes?   
 
Standing on my rectory front porch were three uniforms; one said ICE, the other two were local police-blues. I knew the neighborhood Blues personally, jutted my chin out and up in acknowledgement, they looked down and studied the spit shine on their police-issue footwear.
 
I blazed my anger at the ICE leader, “Got a warrant?”
 
“Father Garza, with respect, let’s do this the easy way. I’m just doing my job. You understand.”
 
He looked Hispanic to me. The small metal name plate on his uniform pocket said Juan Carlos. A small gold crucifix peeked out from under his top shirt button, right behind the official, cheap, black tie. Didn’t know if that cross was an accidental reveal or pre-planned attempt to win me over.
 
“Crappy job,” I said. “No me holas.”
 
“Father, Father. Come on, ’mano. I’LL BE BACK! You know, with a warrant,” he said.
 
“I’m not your damned ’mano and you better bring Arnold with you, instead of just the locals.”
 
The locals looked up at that, thin smiles to match my own.
 
“That a threat?” the ICE man asked.
 
I eye-lasered him, all the way to the back of his skull. 
 
***
 
He returned in ninety minutes. Stood on the porch.
 
Knocked.
 
I opened the door, reached for my cell phone, pulled it out, and started punching numbers with my thumbs.
 
“Don’t bother,” ICE declared. “It’s cleared up and down the line. We’re coming in. Now. Got it?”
 
I took two steps back, raised my right arm and threw three rapid signs of the cross in the air between us, angrily yelling in Latin the names of all the saints I could think of and when I ran out of names, I yelled the opening  of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres . . .”
 
When I ran out that narcississt’s historical, genocidal polemics, I supplemented with the opening of Virgil’s Aneid, “Arma verumque cano . . .” for the first two pages I had been required to memorize in seminary about men and weapons in the Trojan War.  I was running out of material, and started to use the old Latin Mass intro, “Introibo ad altare Dei . . .”
 
“Wha . . . what’re you doing?”  said ICE Officer Juan Carlos.
 
“First, I am excommunicating you from receiving the sacraments or even attending any Christian church of any denomination while you engage in your unholy work. I have special dispensation from the Archbishop to excommunicate in grave emergencies.”
 
“What? You’re kidding me, right? You guys don’t do that anymore.” A hint of doubt creased his now furrowed brow.
 
“And,” I added, “I am damning you and your entire family to eternal hellfire by calling on all our known angels and saints in heaven who bear witness to your persecution of these chosen people of our faith.”
 
“Yeah, right,” he said, with a wannabe sneer that didn’t quite make it, along with a nanosecond flicker in his left eye. He paused, turned to the accompanying officers, and then stared back at me.
 
His mouth opened, closed. 
 
A hoarseness grew in his voice as he threw it back across his right shoulder, “Okay, guys. Enough of this foolishness. It’s past end of shift. We don’t need this crap. Let’s go.”
 
As he turned around on the porch,  I saw him scratch out the rectory address on his official ICE clipboard.        
 
I was more on edge than normal, given who had been residing in my basement for the last two weeks until I could get them placed somewhere, somehow.
 
A skinny thirteen year old boy and his eleven year old sister,  journeyed all the way from Chiapas in southern Mexico, right next door to Guatamala. They had ridden trains, starved and frozen in the cold nights on top of boxcars, and finally crossed the Rio Grande at a desolate place where the water appeared shallow in the starlight. But they had almost drowned when they lost their footing in the swirls of the deep, dirty river.
 
I couldn’t image how they made the trip alone with only a few pesos. Then, it came out. His pretty sister had to do things they refused to talk about. The Mexican gangs, their own people, were a bigger threat to their personal safety than the Mexican federales or the American border patrols.
 
Those gangs, I really would like to damn them.    
 
Three days later, Juan Carlos returned to St. Anthony’s rectory under the cover of darkness and apologized.
 
We worked out a system. He’d always come to the rectory, without a warrant, I’d refuse to admit him, he’d come back the next day with the paperwork, which gave me enough time to move the terrified immigrants with no place to go, over to some parishioners who were part of the active underground.
 
I handed Juan Carlos a three by five index card to take with him. I had written out Ezekiel 13:10: 
I will tear down the wall that you have whitewashed and level it to the ground, laying bare its foundations. When it falls, you shall be crushed beneath it: thus you shall know that I am the LORD. When I have spent my fury on the wall and its whitewashers, I tell you there shall be no wall, nor shall there be whitewashers.
 
Then I said, “Tell your ICE friends Hispanics are the Lord’s new Chosen People. And, the Old Testament God doesn’t screw around.”
 
Ezekiel was a Hebrew priest and prophet. He held that each man is responsible for his own acts. I was a priest. We were both priests, useful ones.
 
Many of the Jewish prophets were killed by their own people.
 
My explanation for the two basement apartments always stayed the same. Whenever someone on Juan Carlos’s search team got suspicious about the rumpled, dirty sheets, I’d say, “Careful there, the D.C. homeless carry some exotic, viral, fellow-travellers. Don’t touch anything without your latex.”
 
They always left the basement within ninety seconds of my helpful medical advice. And then seemed in a hurry to raid some other hapless facility saying things like, “We’ll finish our paperwork out on the street.” Or, “Let’s get back to the vehicles in case other calls have come in.”
 
***             
 
What? You think they’re going to arrest a priest? Let them try it and see what happens.
 
Daniel Berrigan was my hero.



DON WINSLOW, I LOVE YOU!

A fan’s book review of The Border.
Never met Don Winslow, or saw him on TV. Just read his books. If I had written his books, I could leave this life tomorrow totally justified that I had stared down true evil with my “faction”—that’s fiction which is totally true. And, that my life had meaning.
Winslow’s fictional protagonist is Art Keller, former DEA Agent, now high up in the Washington DEA bureaucracy. He took a “time out” years ago and spent it in a monastery raising bees. Also, kept a big Sig Sauer under one of the hives, you know, just in case. He was trying to get his head straight from the brutal personalized combat he experienced in the Mexican drug cartel wars. He figured they might come for him one day.
The key protagonist in my books is Father Gabriel Garza. Like Art Keller, bad boys are after him too. While Keller is still on The Watch List, my protagonist got moved to The Hit List.
Unlike Father Garza, but like me, Keller is married to a Latina. Only Keller’s Mexicana was shot up by the cartels and he cares for her in her crippled state. Good man.
In The Border, there’s this blip on the radar screen in 2016 called a Presidential race. One candidate, John Davidson, who becomes President, has a son in law who owns a very expensive building in downtown Manhattan; beautiful building, but seriously short on cash flow, like hundreds of millions short and it’s time to refinance. Help is needed. A German bank looks like it might step in, but the source of the money is . . . ah . . . murky? Perhaps Mexican pharmaceuticals?
Later in the book, less Winslow hinting and more telling about the son-in-law’s situation: “He’s working with bankers, government people and some people in our business to loan $285 million to an American real estate group owned by the son-in-law of the new president. The syndicate has basically bought the American government for a paltry three hundred million. It’s the bargain of the century.”
As the DEA Head, Keller’s tracking all this and people have died to get the Intel. And now Keller is being offered plato o plomo after the American election; take the silver or the lead.
Keller has choices: see, hear, no evil, especially where the new President’s family is concerned; or Keller could ride off into the sunset with his federal pension and minister to the health of his beautiful and previously shot-up, wife, Marisol. Or, Keller could do neither and keep on in his usual bull-headed, self-righteous fashion—risks understood.
I’m only half way through Winslow’s 715 page, 2019 book, The Border. Absolutely compelling. Can’t put it down, but I have to; can’t read it before I go to bed, or else I won’t sleep. It’s not just the powerful, realistic writing, but the awful allegations behind the writing that are hinted at.
The hints are brought to life when we read the actual daily issues of the Washington Post and the New York Times in real time, in real life.
I am not a wannabe Art Keller, Winslow’s protagonist. I could not see what he has seen. I could not hear the horrific cries of torture he has heard. I could not face the evil he experienced. I could not endure the daily rumors of being on the hit list of Mexican cartels. But, like you, I know bravery when I see it.
The book carries subtle threat, intimidation, and the continual unease that bad-things-are-going-to-happen-to-good-people—on every page, thanks to nuanced writing by the author. This proposes an unrelenting tension because you know the truth of what the author says. And his truths make lies of our national self-image and what we say we represent. With Winslow, there isn’t even a Kennedy-Camelot to distract us with its politically manufactured myths.
Winslow’s written Savages, The Force, The Cartel, and The Power of the Dog.
This man and his contemporary writing is a national treasure.
He calls them all out.

Footnote: Don Winslow is a “former investigator, antiterrorist trainer and trial consultant,” according to the book jacket. Personally, I think that’s for public consumption. This guy knows way too much and it’s way too disturbing and if his current book bothers you like it does me, because the bright brutal light of truth tends to hurt, put it down and pick up some pleasant Western Romance.

Footnote: Years ago, in one Western city where I served as city manager, we hosted an investor from back East. I don’t recall exactly how the connection was made, other than it was political, and apparently above my pay grade, since I wasn’t involved in the meeting. The politico who briefed me after the fact, said he had asked the portly Italian man with a heavy Jersey accent, “What is the source of your investment funds?
The smiling man waved his pinky-fingered hand, “Mexican pharmaceuticals.”

book review: Leaving Ah-wah-nee

Book review: Leaving Ah-wah-nee, by Harlan Hague

Settled comfortably on their old frontier farm in western Kentucky, the pioneer itch strikes Jason and his family. They pull up stakes, head for the promised land of California. There’s gold in the creeks. You just throw seeds on the ground of your new farm and orchards spring up, not overnight, but pretty darned fast.

If it were only so.

Tragedy strikes and the now despair-filled protagonist has lost everything. He eventually finds solace in his rescue of an abused Miwok Indian woman who hails from the beautiful, remote Yosemite Valley. But that creates its own set of challenges, some violent.

You see, there’s a whole bunch of Anglo-American illegal immigrants taking over California and pushing everyone out who have a little color in their skin; especially the ones who have called this place home for thousands of years. They’re now called hostiles. They’re also the ones misnamed “Indians” by Cristoforo Columbo, one of history’s precipitators of genocide.

The author is a professional historian and award-winning novelist. His book captivates you with its detailed authenticity and its insights into how people behave.

The author spins a good yarn with all the right ingredients: loss, love, family, conflict, heroism, villainy, and endurance. You will not be disappointed. I finished the book at 2:30 a.m. and had one of my best nights of sleep in months, taking away peace from tragedy.

However, me-thinks the author runs deeper. He never moralizes or preaches—just lets the story tell the story. But I wonder if the storyline of the union between a pretty decent guy, Jason, and the abused, lovely and loving Tahnee suggests a metaphor for what should have been the gentle merging of two cultures: an energetic immigrant American Manifest Destiny with a nomadic tribalism grounded in its respect for the Earth.

The so-called “Christianity” of these historical, invading White hordes should be questioned. That’s me speaking, not the author. I think.

Time to talk about real reparations?

Daniel Hobbs, writing as Ben Leiter, author of GOD’S BETRAYAL: THE CREDO.
On Amazon.

I WANT TO TURN THE PAGE!

Good suspense writing technique for ending a chapter. Definitely makes the reader want to turn the page. 

===

Devon’s pleasant, middle-class street was peaceful. No one was trying to murder her, or Tyson, or me, but this was about to change.

===

“Was” is considered a weak verb in good writing. Stronger, more descriptive verbs are recommended.  But, Crais has rhythm, and it works here.

From, The Wanted, by Robert Crais, one of my favorite crime-thriller authors.

WHAT TO CUT?

“WHEN REVISING, WHAT DO YOU LOOK TO CUT? WHAT IS THE HARDEST MATERIAL TO CUT?”

[These responses are from three writers, excerpted from THE SECRET MIRACLE, THE NOVELIST’S HANDBOOK, edited by Daniel Alarcon. Interesting, but very different]

DINAW MENGESTU: The hardest material is always the material that I fought and struggled to arrive at. There were chapters that I had spent months writing, that I had revised and edited until I thought they were nearly perfect. The problem, however, was that they no longer fit into the novel. They had no purpose, or in one case took the novel in a direction it could no longer sustain, so they had to be cut, or saved under a different name so I could always find them again, just in case.

MICHAEL CHABON: As much as possible. I love cutting. It hurts for a second but it immediately feels great afterward. You feel lighter, relieved of bad dreams and heavy burdens. 

I can watch two or three hundred pages go down the tubes with the equanimity of a lab assistant gassing a rat. 

ANNE ENRIGHT: Some evening, toward the end of the process, I drink a lot of whiskey and go through the damn thing with a red pen. The question, in the morning, is not what I have cut but what I have left in.  ###