General Kelly takes on a new assignment

I keep telling myself I won’t write about politics anymore; it’s too depressing. But I keep making an exception for John Kelly, the ex-Marine general who headed Homeland Security and now will be Chief of Staff in the Trump White House.

I make the exception because Kelly is my age and from my home town. Many of the same forces that shaped me presumably also shaped him. But here we are. One could imagine a military guy agreeing to take on Homeland Security — it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Better someone who is competent that an idiot or an ideologue. But if competence leads to an outcome like this, give me idiocy:

Colindres always thought of America as a dream refuge. He fled Guatemala in 2004 to get away from the drug trafficking, from the murder, from the country where one of his family members was killed. He came across the border through Texas — where many of those he traveled with were caught. He decided to turn himself in and he was released into the US on a provisional waiver.

What he did not know, until after he married Samantha and began legal proceedings to become a US citizen, was that he had missed a court date in Texas. New England Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Shawn Neudauer said an order of removal was issued by a federal judge in 2004.

Colindres maintains the system failed him, too. Officials had his name and address wrong, he said, so he never knew about the court date or resulting order.

“I’m not a criminal. The only thing I did wrong was miss a court (appearance),” he said. “I didn’t know, I was just 20 years old. I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I think that’s all I can say.”

And now Kelly will apply his competence to–what? It will all end badly, for Kelly and for the country. He is likely to end up a dignity wraith, to use Josh Marshall’s brilliant term, having accomplished nothing except ruining his reputation and, like his predecessor, expressing gratitude to the great man who has humiliated him.

Killing off your characters

A while back I listened to a podcast about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel North and South. The panelists made a persuasive case that it is still worth reading. So I downloaded it and read it. The panelists were wrong.

It’s not, you know, terrible. But there’s nothing distinctive about it, and it falls too easily into Victorian attitudes even as the author sometimes seems to be pushing boundaries a bit. Dickens does the same thing, of course, but you can forgive him because he’s so brilliantly funny and inventive; Gaskell is neither. The panelists pointed out that she tries to fairly represent the points of view of capital and labor in the new industrial society that was transforming England. That’s admirable, but those points of view feel pretty dated 150 years on.

Here’s one distinctive thing Gaskell does: she shows no qualms about killing off her characters. Half a dozen major-ish characters die in the course of the novel, several of them for no apparent reason. That is to say, the plot would have worked just as well if the heroine’s mother hadn’t died, followed by her father, followed by her godfather… It’s Victorian England, of course, so it’s not unreasonable for someone to cash in his chips without any warning in his mid-fifties. But it happens enough in this novel that it feels like an authorial tick.

I’m intrigued by this because I’m approaching the climactic scenes of the novel that I’ve been working on. I’m clear on the general direction of the plot, but I haven’t worked out the details–like who’s gonna die. A bad guy or two, surely, but what about the good guys? It seems unlikely that they’ll get off scot-free. Unlike North and South, in my novel people are actually fighting each other (to be fair, there was a pretty good union-busting scene in North and South, but no one died in it). But which good guys? At this point I’m pretty fond of all of them.

I’m interested in finding out how this all turns out. Which is why I haven’t been blogging much lately.

Botticelli: Madonna and Child and Young St. John the Baptist

I forgot to mention this strange, haunting masterpiece from late in Botticelli’s life (now leaving the Museum of Fine Arts):

Note a great photo, sorry. The writer of this article noticed what I noticed: the Virgin and Child have the same face, almost–certainly the same expression. And they seem to be pushing their way off the canvas. What’s going on?

Botticelli, Matisse, Big Papi

We went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see its exhibitions on Matisse and Botticelli. (Sorry you missed them.) Here is my favorite Matisse: (“Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table”, from 1947):

My wife’s favorite was “The Burning Bush” from 1951:

And here is my favorite Botticelli: “Saint Augustine in His Study”, a fresco from 1480:

It’s also the summer of David Ortiz at the MFA. Here’s a display of Big Papi’s three World Series rings and his World Series MVP ring from 2013:

Did Botticelli or Matisse ever accomplish anything comparable to what Big Papi accomplished in 2013? Of course not. Will Big Papi still be remembered half a millennium after his death, like Botticelli? Of course he will. Why are you even asking these questions?

100,000

I just noticed that the odometer in Microsoft Word ticked past 100,000 words on my new novel. I think I have about 15,000 words to go. Is this good or bad? Portal weighed in at about 103,000 words, Barbarica at about 84,000. But I’ve got a bunch of characters and a lot of loose ends to deal with. I could imagine splitting up this thing into two books, but that doesn’t feel quite right.

I have plenty of time to change my mind, I suppose.

In which Alexa reads my novel to me

My wonderful kids got me an Amazon Echo Dot for Father’s Day. This is an awesome little toy. Alexa (the thing’s voice) can play music and set a timer and tell me jokes and do math problems and lots more. It didn’t take me long to discover that Alexa could read books in my Kindle library. So of course I told her to read one of my own books–in this case, Terra.

The first problem was that she insisted on narrating all the front matter–copyright statement, ISBN, etc. There should be a way to turn that off or skip through it, but I couldn’t figure it out.

Then she started reading my deathless prose. She will not be replacing professional audiobook narrators anytime soon. The meaning is reasonably clear in her narration; she pronounces the words correctly (except for the oddball name “Polkinghorne”) and she pauses between sentences. But her emphasis was consistently a bit off: she said “post OFFice” instead of “POST office”; “cell PHONE” instead of “CELL phone”. And she didn’t do dialog right: you need to drop your voice a bit when you come out of a line of dialog to identify the speaker: “Larry said” or “Vinnie said”. She didn’t do that. And of course she made no effort to characterize the speaker; they all sounded just like Alexa (she sounds great, but she doesn’t sound like Larry Barnes). I couldn’t imagine listening to her for a whole novel. I gave up after about a page.

By the way, one of the most popular posts I’ve written is the one where I contemplate whether Jeff Bezos is the Antichrist. Apparently people Google that question a lot, and my opinion comes up second, just after Jonathan Franzen’s.

Maybe I’ll ask Alexa what she thinks.

PORTAL on sale for 99 cents!

For some reason my novel PORTAL is now on sale for a mere 99 cents at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I really think you oughta buy it. Here’s its great new cover:

And here’s a random quote from a satisfied reader:

A Terrific Read! I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this. Would the promising story idea deflate once it got past the initial set-up, as so many other books do? It definitely did not, and stayed entertaining all the way through – I could not put it down. I have kids around the same age and I really felt for these boys – they’re lost and are doing whatever they can to stay alive, stay together and hopefully get home. Glad the book was complete in itself, but it would be great to see them have more adventures like this. Overall, two very enthusiastic thumbs up!