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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Favorite Fictional Heroes

Down in the Zero by Andrew VachssStorm Front, US Hardcover


I generally gravitate to series when I'm looking for fiction. If I fall in love with a character, I want to read more about them. Here are some of my heroes. These are the books I pre-order instantly, hardly able to wait until they arrive from Amazon. These are the men to whom I've given my heart, in no particular order, because I can't choose between them.

- Gabriel Allon, the complex Israeli art-restorer/assassin, brain child of Daniel Silva. Gabriel is the epitome of cool intelligence, devising a complicated plan for his team to catch a spy or save a victim and carrying it out with calm daring. 

- "That fuckin' Virgil Flowers" - John Sandford's off-shoot of his Prey series (incidentally, I'm a great fan of Lucas Davenport too). Virgil is a down-home cop in jeans and cowboy boots, who'd rather be out on his bass boat than catching murderers. He's seemingly easy-going and has an eye for the ladies which generally steers him wrong but he gets the job done with insouciance and wit though he often gives his superiors heartburn with his methods.

- Burke - If I absolutely had to pick a favorite of all time, it would be Burke. Unfortunately, Andrew Vachss ended the series at 16. These are some of the few books I'll read the second or even the third time. The Burke novels may not be for everyone. Burke and his "adopted" family live in an alternate world from most of us - the gritty New York City of cops and ex-cons and pimps and hookers and child molesters (Burke's particular nemesis). Their morality is off-the-beaten track; their ethics are twisted by their experiences. They remain off the grid and take vengeance on their enemies in the most clever and creative ways. 

- Jack Reacher. Of course. Who doesn't love Jack? (And oh, God, no, he is nothing like Tom Cruise!) Ex-Army, he cruises the country staying under the radar of the authorities until some wrong piques his interest and he's forced to get involved. He takes on powerful entities, like corporations and the military, and out-wits them. When he's accomplished his mission, he takes the next bus out of town with only the clothes on his back to disappear into nowhere.

- Micah Dalton - David Stone's Micah is a fixer for the CIA, coming in to clean up after the mistakes of others. He is self-sufficient and relentless, having no conscience about killing those he believes need to be eliminated. He thinks quickly and acts decisively, navigating the dangers of the spying life with sardonic humor. 

- Jamie Fraser and Lord John. Diana Gabaldon offers a double treat the Outlander series for I adore both Jamie Fraser and Lord John/ Jamie, the red-headed Scot, is the ideal elemental male - courageous, protective, decisive, bold - sometimes pig-headed but capable of romantic moments as well. Lord John, on the other hand, is handsome, suave and sophisticated....and gay. The two men have a relationship that is complex and conflicted although they have enormous respect for one another as well. I'm only writing about heroes in this piece but if I were including heroines, Claire Fraser, Jamie's wife, would be at the top of the list. They are one of the great fictional love affairs of all time. 

-  Charlie Parker, Louis and Angel by John Connolly. Charlie Parker is an ex-cop, private investigator with a talent for tapping into the supernatural. His wife and child were brutally murdered and still appear to him to urge him on in fighting evil. His best friends are Louis and Angel, gay partners and assassins. Louis is black and dashing and fearless. Angel is an ex-con, small and sloppy and passionate. The dry humor among the three of them alleviates some of the brutality in the books.

- Sean always have a special spot in your heart for your first love and Sean Dillon is that for me. The ex-IRA enforcer, blackmailed into becoming a British spy, was for me the consummate courageous, creative, daring adventurer. To some degree, all the spy heroes who've come after were modeled on Sean. These days, both author Jack Higgins and Sean himself, have aged and slowed but I'll continue to read every book about him until there are no more.

- All the men in Tim Hallinan's series including Poke Rafferty, Simeon Grist and Junior Bender. They are all characterized by being unwilling heroes. The humor is snappy and clever and funny. 

Also Much Loved

Sonchai Jitpleecheep - John Burdett

Myron Bolitar and his lethal friend, Win - Harlan Coben

The Gray Man series - Mark Greaney

John Rain by Barry Eisler

Ed Loy by Declan Hughes

Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch - Robert B. Parker's western series

Joe Pitt (vampire) and Hank Thompson - Charlie Huston

Elvis Cole and Joe Pike - Robert Crais

And, of course, let us not forget Christian Gray who broke new ground in hot romantic fiction. A very unique hero but definitely intriguing.

I'm sure there are more. I might have to make another list for now these are some of my favorites. I would recommend any of them.

Monday, October 14, 2013

My Possible Future Self

Times Have Changed

My mother is temporarily in a nursing home, which we very carefully call, a rehabilitation facility when are talking to her.

She had a stroke about ten days ago. I knew something was terribly wrong when she got up and her speech was totally garbled. A call to the doctor was followed by a visit to the emergency room which was followed by a week in the hospital which was followed by a transfer to Wellbrooke, the newest and nicest of the nursing homes in our county.

Mom's stroke left her with weakness on her right side - she couldn't use her right hand to grasp at all at first- the above-mentioned incomprehensible speech and a drooping right eye. The worst problem, however, was difficulty in swallowing. Since this happened, she has been on a pureed diet (and trust me, no matter how hard the kitchen staff tries, they cannot make pureed roast beef look or smell appealing) and they have her on antibiotics because they are concerned that she will choke and aspirate some material into her lung, causing pneumonia.

Mom is a spunky little 94-year-old who works hard on her exercises because she wants to come home. She's improved in every area except her swallowing. I'm taking her for a swallow test tomorrow. I'd feel comfortable bringing her home if they could get that situation squared away.

My mother-in-law was in a nursing home for 9 years - during most of the 90's. I visited her two or three times a week, taking her for rides or bringing her home to dinner and the I.U. games if she felt up to it. At the time, her facility was also the newest and nicest in the area but those nine years left me with a horror of ever being condemned to such a place myself. I keep a loaded gun beside my bed for protection and I always said I'd shoot myself before I'd go to a nursing home....only half kidding.

But times have changed since then and living in a nursing home now seems not quite so unbearable, at least one as modern as Wellbrooke. My biggest phobia was always having to share a room. My mother-in-law had roommates who cried all day, roommates who groaned in pain, roommates who repeated the same stories over and over. She finally had a partner who was a sweetheart but who was blind and almost deaf, so her radio had to be tuned to high. I often thought to myself that if you entered that place totally sane, it wouldn't take long before you disappeared into dementia in self defense.

I have a lot of friends and I enjoy social occasions but for the most part, I'm a rather solitary person and I prefer quiet. I always thought I could live in a broom closet, as long as I was alone there.

Now, at Wellbrooke, all the rooms are private. Oh Holy Day, no more being crammed into a tiny space with someone who comes in as a total stranger and with whom you may have nothing in common. They may prefer televangelists over NASCAR! Or, even worse, Fox instead of MSNBC! Or have hordes of nice but loud family members as my mother-in-law's roomie had.

The private rooms were a happy revelation and then I asked if Wellbrooke was set up for WiFi and they are! (I was asking for my future self because my Mom wouldn't even know how to turn on a computer). "That's assuming," the aide said, "that your mental and physical capabilities are up to using a computer." Well, yeah, there's that. That practical observation put a bit of a damper on my pleasure at discovering that nursing homes had joined the modern age.

But still, generally, I have a "have privacy and laptop, will travel" attitude about my own elderly future should it ever come to that.


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

A Possible Cure for Writer's Block

I have always been fortunate as a writer because I've never experienced writer's block. I attribute that to having always worked under deadlines as a columnist. Deadlines force you to make something happen. I've always said I could write 500 words about anything.  I once had one of my creative writing students challenge me. He picked up a candy wrapper off the floor and put it on my desk. "There," he said, "write about that." I ended up writing a short story that I sold to Seventeen magazine.

One of my techniques for coming up with ideas if they're coming slowly is to interview someone, almost anyone. There is not a person out there that doesn't have a fascinating story in them if you can get them to tell it (and most people enjoy telling it to someone who is truly interested). 

Take my mother, for instance. She grew up on a ranch her parents homesteaded in Arizona in the late 20's-early 30's. They weren't pioneers in the Conestoga wagon sense of the word. Instead, they came from Illinois to California in a Model T Ford in a time when roads were primitive, gas stations were few, motels were non-existent and tires blew out at the drop of a hat.

At first the family settled in San Francisco. My grandmother was happy. She had a nice house. My grandfather's business was to go to all the better restaurants very early in the morning in a dump truck to collect the leftover food, which he then fed to 2,000 hogs he and his partner kept at a farm outside of town. 

Then Grandpa got a burr to move to Arizona to homestead a ranch so the family moved to the high desert and staked their claim. At first, they slept out-of-doors and Grandma cooked for her family of five on a campfire. A house had to wait a'while until Grandpa dug a well and grubbed out enough clear land to plant a garden and a small crop. When he did construct the house, it had railroad ties at the bottom and screening on the top along with a mud roof and dirt floors. 

Grandpa became a U.S. Marshal and a mail carrier, which meant Grandma was often alone with her kids, far from the closest neighbor, with only a German Shepherd, named Troy, for protection. (You would have never recognized that tough woman in the dainty little lady she became in her later years). The mail came by way of the Southern Pacific. The trainman threw the saddle bags of mail over a pole with a hook as the train roared by, then Grandpa picked it up and delivered it to recipients.

My Grandpa's parents eventually moved to prove up a claim to a ranch next door. My Grandma thought her grandchildren needed milk so she bought a cow. She also thought they need some culture, so she had a player piano shipped in on the train. That joyful sound created quite a stir! 

Cattle were, of course, free-range then, which meant branding. Ranchers got together and helped one another. It was a tough job. When the work was over for the night, Mom loved listening to the cowboys playing their guitars and singing, their music drifting across the desert. The cowboys were the glamorous figures in that society because they were tough and independent and brave and they drifted on as the inclination moved them, not willing to be captured by land or family. 

When the neighboring area had a party, they actually built a dance floor from scratch and roasted whole cows. People traveled miles to come join the celebration. Local talent made the music so that everyone could dance. When it was over, they took the dance floor back up until the next time.

When anyone needed a horse, they simply lassoed one from the vast herds of wild mustangs that roamed the high plains. Mom's horse, Bill, was caught that way though he had a Mexican brand so he must have once been domesticated. He wouldn't let anyone ride him but my mother. At one time, she disliked her teacher. When they had a barbeque at the school house, the teacher imperiously insisted she wanted to ride Bill. Mom simply handed her the reins. Of course, the teacher was promptly bucked off. My grandmother gave Mom a whipping for not warning her but Mom thought the satisfaction was worth it.

The kids rode their horses to school, which was in a railroad car. An Anglo child and a Latino child each shared a desk and in that way, the Mexican kids learned English and the Anglo kids learned Spanish. (There was no big deal about "Americans" learning Spanish because the Mexicans had been their first!) Mom almost always had a soup bean sandwich on homemade white bread. Meanwhile the Mexican kids had a refried beans wrapped in a tortilla. The children looked forward to trading their lunches for the taste of something slightly more exotic than their usual fare.

It was a different kind of life than kids know now and hearing Mom tell about it, it sounds adventuresome and free. Parents seemed to barely pay attention to their kids. They didn't worry about them riding half-broke horses or running across rattlesnakes or wild bulls or getting lost. Certainly, they never worried about people. That wild land was peopled with characters running from one thing or another. Some had murdered and some had stole. Many of them were living under false names so no one ever knew their histories but no one thought of any of them being child predators. 

When my Grandma needed something from the grocery, she sent Mom off on Bill to the nearest store in Aztec about 7 miles away. 

Grandma had an abortion while she was in Arizona with Grandpa's agreement. She simply couldn't face the thought of yet another child to care for under the circumstances of her life. Grandpa took her to Yuma for the procedure and she almost hemorrhaged to death on the 70-mile trip home. 

After they'd proved up their claim to the ranch, my grandfather died of tetanus. Immediately after the funeral, Grandma put her kids on a train and head back for the civilization of Illinois, abandoning the ranch and the stock and the vehicles and the furniture to her in-laws. It was eventually bought for back taxes. 

That's my Mom's story. Pretty interesting, huh? I guarantee you, there's not one old person in a nursing home who doesn't have one equally as compelling. So, if you're stuck for an idea, go talk to them.