Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Load up that ereader or tablet! - Wander Home free through year's end with coupon code

If you have a brand-new Kindle, Nook, iPad, or other device that makes reading ebooks easy, here's a start to filling it up: my new novel Wander Home is free in multiple formats on Smashwords through the end of 2012! Just use Smashwords coupon code HG55Q on Wander Home's Smashwords page.

If you download, and read, and like the book, please tell a friend about it!

Here's a bit about the book, if you'd like to know more before clicking through:

Death is what you make it. . . .

Eleanor never wanted to leave the daughter she loved so much. The overpowering urge to wander -- to search, without knowing what she sought -- drove her away. She left little Cassidy in her family's loving care. But Cassidy and the others died in an accident before Eleanor could find her way home.

Now, they are all reunited, in an afterlife where nothing is truly lost: places once loved may be revisited, memories relived and even shared. Surely this is a place where they can understand and heal. And yet, the restlessness that shaped Eleanor's life still haunts her in death. Somehow, she must solve the mystery of her life -- or none of them will be at peace.

Happy reading, and Happy New Year!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Nightmares, Reality, and the Unfathomable

There are so many painful thoughts, this evening. I am a mother, and I imagine -- for just an instant at a time, before I flinch away -- specific thoughts and images that might be possessing me at this moment, if one of those children had been mine.

And of course, there are the grown men and women whose families are mourning as well.

And then there is -- or was -- the killer. I was going to say that I cannot bear to put myself in the place of his mother. But of course, he killed her too. 

From what I've been reading, which may or may not prove to be accurate, the killer was 20 years old, and "socially awkward." I don't know whether he was bullied, and if so, whether the trail leads all the way back to experiences in that same school. I don't know whether he was striking out at the school, or if he attacked children because he had to do something obviously, ultimately evil and unforgivable, to put an end to the exhausting possibility of personal redemption.

I have had dreams in which I did something terrible, and gradually started to realize it, and to wonder why, and to look for some escape from having done it. I wonder whether Adam Lanza had a moment a little like that, after it was much too late. I wonder if he looked around at the blood and the little bodies, and thought it must surely be a dream, and tried to wake up.

It does no good at all, to anyone, if he had such a moment. But the possibility lets me feel a tentative and conditional sorrow for him as well. I would rather feel that than hatred. But then, I am one of the lucky ones. My children are grown and almost grown, and I've seen one tonight, and spoken to the other.

If it were otherwise, then I would hate.

But for tonight, I will allow myself the luxury of not having to hate, and of sorrow instead.

Who might like getting the Wander Home paperback for Xmas - while it's on sale

Well, the paperback of my new novel Wander Home has made it to Barnes and Noble's online store! What's more, they've put the book on sale  -- instead of the usual $10.99, it's currently $7.01. :-) The paperback should also appear on Amazon any day now.

This seems like a good time to remind people about the book, and to speculate on which readers might particularly enjoy it.

Here's the blurb:


Death is what you make it. . . .

Eleanor never wanted to leave the daughter she loved so much. The overpowering urge to wander -- to search, without knowing what she sought -- drove her away. She left little Cassidy in her family's loving care. But Cassidy and the others died in an accident before Eleanor could find her way home.

Now, they are all reunited, in an afterlife where nothing is truly lost: places once loved may be revisited, memories relived and even shared. Surely this is a place where they can understand and heal. And yet, the restlessness that shaped Eleanor's life still haunts her in death. Somehow, she must solve the mystery of her life -- or none of them will be at peace.


As the blurb suggests, this book may appeal to readers interested in family relationships, unfinished business, and forgiveness. And of course, if someone on your holiday gift list is fascinated by varying visions of the afterlife, I really believe they'd enjoy adding this one to their collection.

The description doesn't reveal another point of possible interest: marriage. Wander Home contains three quite different happy marriages. There's another marriage that succeeded well enough until the principals encountered the conditions of the afterlife. As the wife put it: "We don't know how much of what we do is habit and the expectations of others, until everything is different around us, and no one expects anything."

So the book has something to offer those who like exploring different ways in which marriages do and don't work.

Finally (for now), Wander Home plays around quite a bit with the idea of what it means and how it feels to be different ages. (In this afterlife, you see, one may be any age at any time, depending upon one's mood and the needs of the moment.) The book may offer amusement, or something more, to young people trying to imagine what it would be like -- and how it could be bearable -- to get older; or to mature adults, recalling or trying to recall what it felt like to be a teenager or a child.

So there's my pitch for buying this newly available paperback, at a bargain price. The ebook is also available in multiple formats (on Amazon, the Nook Store, Smashwords, iBookstore, and I've lost track of where else), for the laughably low price of $2.99.

A final caveat: the most recent proof of the paperback had too much pink in the cover (visible in the faces), although not everyone who's seen it finds the color objectionable. I have good reason to believe that the issue is with the proof, rather than with the source file or CreateSpace's overall process. However, if anyone orders the paperback and receives an excessively pink cover, I'll cheerfully replace it with an autographed copy at no charge. Several websites that include ways to contact me are mentioned in the back matter of the book.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

In praise of Scrivener

I don't exactly feel like blogging about Scrivener. I feel more like testifying, in the religious sense, with people hollering "Amen!" and "tell, it sister!" from the pews. But this will do.

Scrivener, a shareware program from Literature & Latte, is software for writers. Its purpose is to make writing anything from a novel to a screenplay to an article easier than it would be otherwise. It succeeds magnificently.

I downloaded the trial version of Scrivener for Windows for the first time at least a year ago, and found myself intimidated by all its features and options. This fall, I decided my preparation for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) would include getting comfortable with Scrivener. I went through the interactive tutorial at a manageable pace, not trying to absorb too much information at any one sitting. I kept the PDF of the manual open at the same time, and bounced back and forth frequently. By the time I'd gone through the tutorial, I felt that I understood the simpler aspects of the program -- and decided to leave the more exotic aspects for later on. In fact, I didn't use the "corkboard" view, "index cards" or "labels" until after I'd passed the 50,000 words required to "win" NaNo, and had the leisure to experiment.

Here's what I found most valuable in Scrivener:

1. It's easy to see the structure of your piece, and to change that structure with minimal difficulty or confusion.

You set up folders, titled however you like, and then put as many sub-folders or documents as you wish in each folder, again with your choice of title. The "binder," on the left of the usual screen (if you choose to display it), shows the folders in order, with or without their contents. I had one master folder containing my rough draft, and multiple sub-folders for chapters, with each scene a document in its chapter folder. The names of folders and documents are displayed in the binder.

Any time you decide that a scene should have been in a different place in your draft, you simply drag that document to its new location in the binder. If you've been numbering scenes, it's easy to rename the relocated scene and subsequent scenes to fix the numbering. You use the same procedure to insert a new scene -- add it wherever you like, and then drag it to where it belongs.

2.  Notes for use in later editing are easy to make and easy to see.

On the right of your screen, when you choose to display it, is a pane called the Inspector. It shows the name of the current folder or document, plus any label or status (I'll describe these later) associated with that folder or document. (This grows cumbersome -- I'll just say "document," generally meaning either.) If you've taken any "snapshots" of any version of the document, you have the option to display a list of those screenshots -- which will have either an automatically generated name, or a name you assigned at the time. There's a large area in the Inspector where you can add any notes that you want to see whenever you're working on that document in the future. You can also change this area to show Project notes that apply to your entire draft.

3.  You can pull all your research materials into one program and consult them with no hassle.

You can import images, documents, files, charts, or web pages into Scrivener, store them in a folder (mine was unimaginatively called "Research"), and display them as easily as you display any of the documents that make up your draft.

A related and extremely handy feature: you can view two documents-or-whatever at once, either side by side or one above the other. So, for example, if you're writing a description of a place, you can have the image in front of you while you write, without opening some imaging program. When  you're done, click and it's gone; if you reconsider and want to look at it again, click and it's back. I used this feature mainly to display my current scene next to my list of likely scenes.

You can also display a selection of documents pasted together: for example, all the scenes involving a particular minor character. This makes it easier to avoid contradictions and keep track of what you have and haven't shown or told the reader. Any change you make in the text of a scene, even when it's displayed as part of such a collection of scenes, is made in the scene itself.

Any time you feel your view is too cluttered, you can hide the binder and/or Inspector and switch back to the single-document view.

4.  It's easy (again that lovely word!) to export your work in any number of formats, for backup, submission  or publication purposes.

Scrivener auto-saves very frequently, unless you set it to do so less often (which can make sense if your program files are in "the cloud" and you're somewhere with a slow Internet connection). It also saves a backup of your project whenever you close the project or the program. (The default setting saves a zipped file to conserve space.) If you're planning to leave the program and project open for an extended period, you may want to do a manual backup now and then. Once you close the program, you can reopen it and the project from the backup file. (Scrivener has a setting for reopening recent projects where you left off, but at least in the initial trial version, this was buggy. I got a bit of a scare when I reopened the program and saw a much earlier version of my project, lacking several days' work. Fortunately, I had done manual backups, and restored my project from one of them.)

You can export the current document in any of a long list of formats, to any location on your computer, and under any name. You can also use the Compile function to export a selection of documents or your entire set of documents, again in any of a large number of formats, with a bewildering array of options. For example, you can compile your project in manuscript or screenplay format, with or without various headings; or you can turn it into a PDF, .epub or .mobi file, ebook-ready.

5. You can use labels to help you see various structural aspects of your draft.

Once I decided I was more or less finished with my rough draft, I reread the User Manual's sections on index cards and labels. Each document can be represented by an index card, and on that card one can place a small colored label -- which can be any color you choose and mean whatever you want it to mean. I chose to label my scenes according to the POV (point of view) or POV's employed in the scene. I could then use the "Corkboard" view to look at all the scenes in a chapter at once, and see immediately whether one or another of my multiple POV's dominated the chapter. The label for the scene also appears, along with the meaning of the label, in the Inspector panel.

Another similar tool is "Status." If you assign a document a "status," that status appears in the Inspector, and in the Corkboard view, the status is written in translucent text diagonally across the document's index card. Initially, the choices for "Status" had to do with the document's stage of completion: rough draft, etc. In my most recent Scrivener project, I've reset the options to show the physical setting of each scene and chapter. Going into Corkboard lets me see at a glance whether my several story threads are evenly balanced. (They weren't, but I'm getting there.)

Scrivener was a joy to use at the rough-draft phase, and I'm finding it even more useful in editing. As a NaNo 2012 "winner," I got a 50% discount on the $40.00 price, but I would have paid the full amount without hesitation.

In short, I love this program. Praise be! ("Testify!")

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Literary Matchmaking: Mary Doria Russell, Meet Laurie King, and Vice Versa

I don't know whether two of my favorite contemporary authors, Mary Doria Russell and Laurie King, are already fans of each other's work. If not, I believe they could be. I'm not quite bold enough to contact either author directly and make the suggestion, but if either or both use Google Alerts or something similar, I may get to play literary yenta.

These authors research diligently, with a great eye for the telling detail; they create or re-imagine memorable characters; and they write beautifully, with especially satisfying dialogue.

So: Ms. Russell, meet Ms. King; Ms. King, meet Ms. Russell. Happy reading!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book review: A Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

Coming from Rowling's Harry Potter series to her first book for adults, I had not anticipated how much it would remind me of the novels of Jane Austen.  Austen famously worked with a small canvas, focusing on the foibles and concerns of residents of small and insular communities. Rowling does the same. If one imagines Austen transplanted to the present, freed from any pressure to adhere to romantic conventions, and urged to give reign to all her darker and more cynical impulses, we might have something like this novel.

To be sure, the Harry Potter series does showcase Rowling's impressive ability to paint compelling and unflattering portraits. But in those books, characters like Cornelius Fudge and the wonderfully detestable Dolores Umbridge act as antagonists or foils for likable and admirable characters.  In A Casual Vacancy, they comprise most, if not all, of the human landscape. One's response to almost every character is essentially: “My God, I hope I'm not like that.”

Some reviews have stated that the only likable or admirable character in this book is the man who dies at its beginning, and whose death occasions the entire plot. I would qualify this statement in two ways. First, there are a couple of other characters who do worthwhile jobs as best they can, against discouraging odds. However, even these characters are sufficiently flawed and foolish in various aspects of their personal lives as to prevent the reader from wishing to identify with them. Second, this limitation extends to some extent to the soon-departed Barry Fairbrother. While there are reasons (starting with the character's unsubtle name) to believe that we are intended to side with him in the dispute over Pagford's responsibility for the Fields housing project, his view of that project and of certain of its residents could be fairly characterized as somewhat one-sided and optimistic. It is even clearer that his tireless advocacy leads him to neglect aspects of his family life.

 At one point, Rowling has a character recall the W.B. Yeats line, “A pity beyond all telling/ is hid at the heart of love.” For much of the book, one might question whether Rowling feels that pity. In the end, I was more or less persuaded that she does. She ultimately succeeds in making the reader care, to a varying extent, about the fates of these deeply flawed characters. The book is thus eventually moving, rather than merely disheartening.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Preview of Hoosier Gadfly column re Civil Obedience aka Red State Evolution

My extremely knowledgeable husband, The Hoosier Gadfly (HG), is planning to do a blog post about the next step for those who still hope to preserve our republic as per its constitutional framework. However, he may not get to it for a day or three, so I am putting together this preview in the meantime, based on some notes he threw together.

Five secession petitions, concerning five states, have appeared on the whitehouse.gov petition website. Secession is hopeless, and makes for lousy PR -- but there is another state-based approach that may offer a hint of promise, if a sufficient number of states follow it.

Article VI, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution requires all legislative, judicial and executive officers of the states, as well as of the federal government, to swear or affirm that they will support the Constitution. That Constitution includes the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."  HG paraphrases this as saying: "When we talked about a federal government of limited, enumerated powers, WE MEANT IT."

It is also worth noting, as well, the language affixed by the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate to the proposed Bill of Rights when it was circulated to the states, including the following: "The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added . . . ."

Finally, we must keep in mind that at the time the Constitution and then the Bill of Rights were debated and ratified, the citizenry as a whole was expected to be able to read and comprehend them. They were not considered arcane and mysterious documents that only exalted judges in robes could interpret.

Add all this together, and you have an obligation and responsibility for state governments to uphold the Constitution as reasonably understood, even when any or all branches of the federal government have tossed it aside as antiquated or inconvenient.

We have seen some movement in this direction in the recent election, where a number of states passed referenda legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, a drug the federal government has (with no constitutional power as a basis) declared illegal, or proclaiming that health insurance or health care will remain a province of state government, not subject to federal fiat. HG suggests a more comprehensive and coordinated campaign, which could be called "Civil Obedience," and/or "Red State Evolution." As many states as possible should declare that they will neither enforce nor allow the enforcement of any unconstitutional federal statutes or regulations within their borders. Any federal agents attempting the latter will be restrained and escorted hence. If enough states take this stand, it will be impractical to take action against them.

If any "blue states" find this situation intolerable -- let them talk of secession. The states exercising Civil Obedience have no intention of leaving the Union -- nor of letting it be further subverted by those also sworn to defend it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hermione Didn't Belong in Ravenclaw

From time to time, I've wondered for a moment why the Sorting Hat didn't place Hermione Granger in Ravenclaw. After all, Ravenclaw is for the intellectual elite of the school, isn't it? And wasn't Hermione "the cleverest witch of her age"?

Pausing on the question for a bit longer the other day, I decided Hermione really didn't belong in Ravenclaw, after all. Ravenclaw is for those of an intellectual and philosophical bent. Remember the entrance riddles for Ravenclaw Tower and their solutions? Somehow I can't see Hermione caring greatly for that sort of thing. She has a brilliant and inquisitive mind, but her interests are more practical. She reads history, but in the magical world, as in ours, history often sheds an important light on current problems. I would imagine that many students in Ravenclaw read and discuss literary fiction. I doubt Hermione even makes time for novels.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Preface and Chapter One of Wander Home

As promised, here's the (very short) Preface and Chapter One of Wander Home.


This book is set in an afterlife: what sort of afterlife, the reader may decide.

Chapter One

  Cassidy stood tall and watched the wave approaching. Fifteen was a good age for confronting the ocean. That morning she had been five years old, playing happily in her sandbox;  from sand to beach, from beach to ocean waves, seemed a natural progression.
  The wave loomed above her, glowing turquoise and green. She dove under the crest, through the surging water, and popped up behind the swell, bobbing in the follower waves. The water held her and rocked her; over the hiss and roar of the waves, she could hear the distant squawk of seagulls. All around was the smell of seaweed and salt and sunshine.
  Once, her mother had held her, carried her, rocked her, surrounded her with love and safety. She had no idea how long it had been, but she remembered. Remembering, she let herself slip younger as she floated on the swells. But larger waves were coming, so she grew again, six, ten, sixteen; then caught a wave and rode it into shore.
  Her grandparents and her great-grandmother were waiting for her. Great-Grandma was young today, slim and blonde and straight, standing like a dancer just before the music starts. Grandma Sarah and Grandpa Jack had chosen to be older, gray-haired, with the comfortable look of a couple who for years have weathered each other’s moods and followed each other’s thoughts.
  Cassidy ran up the beach toward them. She slipped to eight years old as she reached them, so Grandpa Jack could pick her up and toss her in the air. The sun flashed in her eyes as she flew up, and again as she fell back toward his hands. He set her down again and flopped onto the sand, patting the space next to him. She sat, folding her legs tailor fashion; Great-Grandma flowed gracefully down to sit on her other side. Only Grandma Sarah remained standing, younger now, her hair in a long red braid.
  Grandpa Jack and Great-Grandma both put their arms around her. Cassidy looked at Grandpa Jack. He was blinking as if he had something in both his eyes. She swiveled around toward Great-Grandma; Great-Grandma nodded toward Grandma Sarah.
  Cassidy threw her head back, looking up at Grandma Sarah and squinting in the sun. Grandma Sarah squatted down in front of her. "Cassie, love, we have some news for you. Good, important news."
  The seabirds were calling as if they wanted to be first with the message, whatever it was. Grandma Sarah leaned forward to kneel in the sand, reached out and took Cassidy's hands.
  "It's your mother, sweetheart. She's coming. She'll be here soon. We'll all be seeing her again."
  Cassidy felt herself getting smaller, small. She was two years old. She scrambled to her feet. "Mommy!"  Her own shrill voice frightened her, and she called even louder, twisting from side to side, searching the beach and the water. "Mommy!  MOMMY!"
  Great-Grandma had slipped old, white hair shining in the sunlight, her cheeks pink, soft wrinkles in her face, smelling of flour. She pulled Cassidy close, crooning, "Hush, hush. It's all right, baby. Shhhh."  Cassidy burrowed against her and breathed the comforting scent. She thought she might feel better if she got big again, but nothing happened.
  She heard Grandpa Jack speak. "Mama, Sarah, let's go somewhere cozier."  Then the sun, the waves, the seabirds were all gone, and they were in Great-Grandma's living room. She was snuggled up next to Great-Grandma on the big shabby couch. There were shortbread cookies on the coffee table. Grandma Sarah sat on Grandpa Jack's lap in the big armchair, Grandpa Jack playing with Grandma Sarah's hair.
  "Cassidy, honey, it's time to be a big girl. We have more to talk about."  Great-Grandma stroked her cheek, then kissed it.
  Cassidy squeezed her eyes tight. "I'm trying. It's hard. Why is it hard?"
  Grandpa Jack spoke. "Well, baby, you were just this age when your mama left. You're remembering it so hard, right now, that you're maybe a little stuck. Relax, honey, and know that everything's all right. It'll come."
  Cassidy took a deep breath, and another, and another. Great-Grandma skootched away to give her room. Cassidy opened her eyes. She was thirteen years old. She reached for a cookie.
  "There, that's better, isn't it?"  Great-Grandma picked out a cookie for herself and took a hearty bite.
  "When will she be here?  When can I see her?"
  Grandma Sarah brought Cassidy a glass of milk, then sat back down on Grandpa Jack's lap. "Honey, those are two different questions. She'll be here very soon, and you can see her just a little while after that. It's going to be —"
  "Why can't I see her right away?"  She didn't want to yell at Grandma Sarah, but she felt like yelling. It was always harder to be patient at thirteen. She slipped to twenty, but it felt wrong, too big, too grown up for a little girl missing her mother. She slid back to ten.
   "Cassie, you were so young when you got here, only six years old. You weren't set in your ways yet — you expected to learn new things every day, to have adventures and surprises. Coming here was just another and bigger adventure. But it's different for older people. It's more of a shock. We think it'd be best if Great-Grandma welcomes her first, and explains things."
  "How long will that take?"  Cassidy swallowed tears and washed them away with a gulp of milk.
  Great-Grandma moved back over and hugged her.  "Not as long as it will feel to you. I'll bring her to see you as soon as I can."

  Eleanor felt very strange. Where was she? The pain that had seized and crushed her heart had vanished. She had been in an ambulance; but wherever she was now, the space was not in motion, and everything was quiet. And she could breathe again, freely and easily — no longer gasping for air, but breathing in and out as she had done for twenty-nine years.
  And the room around her kept changing. One moment it looked like a Red Cross donor center, one of the many at which she had given blood from time to time. Then the cot became a bed in a motel room: a room with orange and brown plaid curtains, a tan shag carpet, a small television, a double bed and one hard chair. She had been in that room just once, years ago, and had never wanted to see it again. And now appeared a room from long ago, with pale blue walls and a white window shade, white wooden furniture, a small and overflowing bookshelf; and Eleanor found herself sitting up in a single bed with a wooden bedstead, feather pillows, and a lavender quilt.
  Grandma's house!  Whenever she spent the night at Grandma's, it had been in this room. A room in a house that someone had bought and torn down, years ago, to put up a big modern showpiece, a blue and copper box with patios instead of grass.
  Something lay lightly on her shoulder. It was her hair, long again, its chestnut color restored. And her shoulder and arm were curved, cushioned — no longer gaunt from months of neglecting her needs.
  Eleanor felt a sudden urgency to get out of bed, to get up and go downstairs while this was still Grandma's house, before she found herself back in the horrible motel room. She pushed back the quilt and stood up, looking around wildly; then ran to the door, threw it open and stood, breathing hard, in the hall near the worn wooden stairs. She waited to stop trembling before walking slowly to the stairs and down to the lower floor. She could hear someone moving around downstairs, in the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards or drawers.
  At the foot of the stairs, she stopped, clutching the banister. For four years she had stayed away, in hotel after friend's couch after cheap apartment, assuming that home and family would always be there waiting for her. And then, after the car crash, when it was too late and they were gone, she had longed so desperately and hopelessly to see them all again — Cassidy most of all, of course, but also Mom and Dad and Grandma. She had wanted so much to tell them how she loved them, to apologize, to try to explain. Now, in this impossible place, she might have that forfeited chance — and she had no more idea than ever what to say.
  The stairs ended in the front hallway. The kitchen was toward the back, past the living room. Eleanor walked with small hesitant steps into the living room, stopping to touch the armchair, the couch, the coffee table. There was the framed poster from Grandma's ballet company, advertising one of their galas. Under the poster, on the mantelpiece, stood the row of photographs.
  Dad and his brother, camping in their back yard, lying in the blue tent with their heads sticking out of the flap and grins on their grimy faces. Mom and Dad on their wedding day, with Mom in her gown and Dad in his tuxedo, both in climbing harnesses, hanging from a cliff wall somewhere in Argentina. Grandma and Grandpa on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Then a much older photo of a much younger couple: Amanda and Stan, no one's grandparents yet, in black and white, standing near an old-fashioned car.
  And then the picture that made her turn away, turn back, and walk closer, reaching out:  Eleanor, on the living room couch, holding tiny baby Cassidy, just two weeks old.
  "Is that you, dear?"
  Eleanor froze in place. She forced herself to speak. "G-Grandma?"
  "In the kitchen, Nory. Come on. It's all right."
  Eleanor headed on into the kitchen. There sat her grandmother, looking just the same — soft white hair, soft wrinkled face, flowered apron, thin rounded shoulders. Eleanor stumbled forward as Grandma got up from her chair. They stood for a moment, face to face, Eleanor speechless, Grandma seeming to feel no need for speech.
  Eleanor found her voice. "Grandma. I'm so sorry. Oh, God, I'm sorry."  She started to cry.
  Grandma opened her arms. "Oh, Nory. We'll talk about that later. Come here and hug me just as hard as you can! and then sit down. I've made some good strong coffee. Pour yourself a cup. I've got things to tell you."

New novel Wander Home now available!

Well, my new novel, complete with title and cover (finally!), is now available as an ebook on Amazon, the Nook Store and Smashwords. :-)

Wander Home is a family drama with mystery elements, set in an afterlife of my own devising. Here's the description that will probably end up on the back jacket of a paperback edition:


Death is what you make it. . . .

Eleanor never wanted to leave the daughter she loved so much. The overpowering urge to wander -- to search, without knowing what she sought -- drove her away. She left little Cassidy in her family's loving care. But Cassidy and the others died in an accident before Eleanor could find her way home.

Now, they are all reunited, in an afterlife where nothing is truly lost: places once loved may be revisited, memories relived and even shared. Surely this is a place where they can understand and heal. And yet, the restlessness that shaped Eleanor's life still haunts her in death. Somehow, she must solve the mystery of her life -- or none of them will be at peace.


I'll be posting the first chapter separately (as part of signing up with 1 Chapter Free.com).

If anyone would like a free copy in return for a review, please contact me at kawyle@att.net.

Happy release day to all! :-)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

PBS Funding and the Boston Tea Party

As Boswell to my husband Paul Hager, who blogs too infrequently, I wanted to report his latest political observations.

Romney has taken some criticism for focusing on PBS' funding, given that it apparently amounts to $1.25 per family. (I'm not sure whether Biden made this point during the vice-presidential debate.) Notes Paul: the British did not predict, and could not understand, why the colonists would throw perfectly good tea into Boston Harbor when the price of tea had been cut in half, and only a very small tax imposed. Principle? Did these colonists actually care so much about principle, when their pocketbooks would be spared by the change?

We've drifted very far from our founding foundations, but perhaps there are some vestiges remaining.

In the interest of accuracy, Paul also notes that Romney may not have been thinking of federal government overreach or the constitutional limits on federal power, the founding principles involved. However, a similar analysis may apply to what Romney did say, which was that any federal expenditure at this point should pass the test of whether it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

American Feminists and Malala Yousufzai

It may not have been reported -- many things aren't, these days -- but I've heard nothing about any American feminist organizations expressing outrage at the Taliban attack on Malala Yousufzai.
Malala, a fourteen-year-old Pakistani girl, became famous -- or from the Islamic extremist point of view, notorious -- three years ago when she blogged, and later spoke publicly, about extremist attacks on girls' schools. Last year, she received a national peace award from the Pakistani government, and was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize. Yesterday, the Taliban boarded a school bus and shot her in the head.
American feminists have been conspicuously silent about the Islamist desire to keep women powerless, subservient and uneducated. For essentially historical reasons, our feminist organizations tend to be left-wing in character, and leftists are nothing if not respectful of other cultures -- even those whose values they should, according to their own fundamental values, abhor. And of course, it's safer not to criticize homicidal zealots.
I would guess that American feminists feel (without necessarily having examined the feeling) that they can afford to stay away from the vexing subject of Islamist misogyny, even its murderous variant, because there is no danger of this ideology becoming powerful in the United States. I also think it unlikely that American public schools will start excluding girls or requiring them to wear burqas, or that our courts will give American men -- in general -- carte blanche to beat and confine their wives and daughters. I do not expect to see these trends even in Europe, with its growing and increasingly militant Islamic population. However, I consider it a good deal more likely that in Europe and the United States, there will be growing pressure to accommodate Muslims by allowing them to apply sharia law within their own communities.
Our constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, and our equally longstanding respect for the freedom of contract, arguably allow a Muslim woman to enter into a marriage agreement that severely limits her rights during marriage and in the event of divorce. However, one needs freedom to contract freely, and we should not hold anyone to a contract she was coerced into making. Similarly, parents have a constitutional right to determine the upbringing of their children -- but that right has limits, and if the parent 's decision greatly reduces the chance that a girl will be prepared for full citizenship, those limits may have been reached. These issues need attention and discussion -- and feminists should take part in that process.
Meanwhile, at the time I write this, Malala is still alive. She may be flown to the United Arab Emirates or to London for further treatment. If she survives, it might lift her spirits if those women in our country who claim to value women's freedom most highly would acknowledge what Malala has done for that cause. Perhaps they will find the courage to acknowledge hers.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Short story review -- "Iphigenia in Aulis"

If anyone knows of a website where one can post short story reviews, please let me know in the comments -- because I'd like to tell as many people as possible about this wonderful short story by Mike Carey. I found it in the anthology An Apple for the Creature, edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner, subtitled All-New Tales of Unnatural Education. Most of the stories are paranormal fantasy. "Iphigenia in Aulis," on the other hand, is essentially science fiction. I checked Amazon and see no evidence that Carey has written other SF (most of his novels belong to one of two paranormal series) -- but I hope he writes more of it! Ultimately, however, it makes little difference: Carey's beautiful way with characters, plot and language will no doubt be evident whatever his genre.

The title refers to a Greek legend, previously immortalized in a Euripedes play. How the subject matter of that play is woven through the story is just one of Carey's many masterful touches.

I am particularly anxious to avoid spoilers where this story is concerned, so I will say only that it provides an unusual take on a fairly common theme, and that it will break your heart -- "in a good way," as my daughter might say. This is a story that clutches at you and stays with you. I haven't yet finished the anthology; so far, I have enjoyed some of the other stories, and leafed through others. But this one story, at least, is not to be missed.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Input time -- two versions of cover of new novel

Well, I finally picked a title for my upcoming novel -- Wander Home. And I have a cover -- almost.

Here are two versions of the ebook cover. (Neither is totally cleaned up -- my designer and I produced these mockups for discussion and comparison purposes.) Please comment with your preference, if any! (If you hate both of them, you are free to say so -- but I probably won't listen.) Thanks!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Left and Civil Liberties This Week

I grew up in a home where liberal politics and defense of civil liberties were thoroughly intertwined. I like to tell people that I grew up in the ACLU the way some people grow up in the Catholic church. It took some years for me to realize that there are plenty of people on the leftward end of the political spectrum who have either no great attachment to civil liberties, or only a thinly rooted attachment to same, easily dislodged. The events of the last week have provided plenty of examples of liberals and leftists whose commitment to civil liberties is fickle at most.

I'm getting tired of hearing people say that making an offensive anti-Muslim movie is "like yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater.' " Even on its own terms, that example is not exactly an unquestioned ancient legal truism. Most commentators will reluctantly accept that yes, actually using language to cause a panic with immediate physical danger to numerous people is probably something the state can prohibit and punish. Extending this example beyond literal application to the realm of metaphor is inappropriate for anyone who values freedom of speech to any significant extent.

What kind of speech needs protecting? "I love sunshine and flowers"? Only speech with potential to offend, upset, and disturb some listeners requires protection, and allowing a mob-violence version of a heckler's veto would thoroughly undermine the principle.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why now: Obama and the Muslim protests

Whether the wave of violent Muslim protests around the world, including multiple attacks on American embassies and the murder of our ambassador and several former Seals, is a response to an offensive anti-Muslim video or a coordinated wave of attacks predating the release of that video is really beside the point. Why are these attacks happening now? Is it a coincidence that they're occurring on Obama's watch? I highly doubt it. (And BTW, it is utterly outrageous that a President sworn to uphold our Constitution, including our Bill of Rights, is capitulating in a backhand manner to Muslim demands that we "punish" the maker of that video.)

Quite likely some of the protesters would be happy to be martyrs on behalf of their religion -- but I doubt that every member of all these mobs has that immediate ambition. They're breaching our embassy walls, tearing down and burning our flags (and in some cases replacing them, on September 11th, with the flag of the organization that attacked us on that date), and murdering our people because they believe they can get away with it, without triggering the sort of retaliation that the world might once have expected. They believe that militant Islam's time has come, that Islam is in the ascendancy as a worldwide imperial movement, and that the West is in the process of capitulating.

I wonder why? . . .

P.S. The mobs may have been pleasantly surprised (if they didn't already know) that embassy security consisted of nationals of the host countries plus American security prohibited from carrying live ammunition. Now there's a symbolically telling detail.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pondering 2008 - Voters Saw Obama as Shortcut to the Future

I've been pondering how Obama got elected in 2008.

During a crucial portion of the campaign, he presented himself as a trans-racial candidate. That idea had such appeal that voters overlooked the way he pivoted and started scolding people about their supposed racism (not to mention his association with Rev. Wright). Obama became a symbol of what people of good will wanted this country to become. More than a symbol, voters tried to use him as a shortcut to the future: a future in which Americans would indeed, as Martin Luther King Jr. foresaw, be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. But shortcuts have their shortcomings.

Ironically, Obama's success proved that we had not, in fact, attained that admirable national state of mind. I certainly could be wrong, but I very much doubt that a white man Obama's age, and with his very limited experience, would have had much of a chance. As I know others have said before me, he became our first affirmative action president.

I had hoped that four years would be long enough for this symbolic appeal to decline in importance. But I'm not sure it has. And if we pay for our impatience with four more years of fumbling, then God help us.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Tag, I'm It -- Answering Eleven Questions

Well, Danusha Goska of the blog Save Save Send Delete tagged me to answer the following questions, and I'm doing it. . . .

1.) If you could not be a writer, and you had to be some other artist – a singer, a painter, a mime, a puppeteer – what kind of artist would you be and why? (For Kim and anyone else who is primarily a visual artist who also writes: reverse the question. If you could not be a visual artist, what other art would you choose?) 

--I would probably choose to be a singer, if I had that talent. I've always liked singing, and loved listening to good singers. I have a range that allows me to sing about two songs well, and I sing them in the shower with great enjoyment. It's also an easy talent to share with others.

2.) Who would be the dream interviewer to quiz you about your work? Sixty Minutes' Mike Wallace? Fresh Air's Terry Gross? Johnny Carson? Larry King? Entertainment Tonight?

--I'll go with Terry Gross. I enjoy her interviews, and I actually listen to her occasionally, unlike the other choices.
3.) Your favorite childhood fictional hero or heroine.
--Probably Sara Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess.
4.) Have you lived up to what you dreamed when you read about your favorite childhood fictional hero or heroine?
--I don't think I would ever have dreamed up my own rather hodge-podge conglomeration of careers and accomplishments.
5.) Your happiest moment as a writer.
--I'm not good at picking favorites in anything, including moments, but candidates include "winning" National Novel Writing Month (by completing the rough draft of my novel) for the first time, actually publishing my first novel, and getting my first rave review.
6.) Are you a tuxedo / evening gown writer, a broken-in jeans writer, a nude writer, a flowing caftan writer … ?
--Broken-in jeans on the weekends, more businesslike slacks during the week; or (in summer) comfortable skirts.
7.) Your personal writing deity?
--I'm not the worshipful sort, but I admire many authors, including Mary Doria Russell and Elizabeth Moon (current), and Jane Austen and George Eliot (deceased).
8.) Hard copy, screen, handwritten in ink, typewriter & whiteout?
Screen, followed by hard copy at the umpteenth-edit stage.
9.) If you had to choose between your writing moving people deeply, or your writing educating people factually, which would it be?
--I feel I should prefer the latter, but I actually would choose the former.
10.) Has being a writer helped or hurt your romantic life?
--Given that I first quit writing as an unattached college student, and resumed it when I'd been married for decades, it hasn't had much effect.
11.) How do you reward yourself? 

--By reading, or by modest amounts of dark chocolate.

I'm also supposed to post eleven facts about myself:
1.) I'm getting shorter as I get older.
2.) I'm getting heavier as I get older, which I should be able to control, but am not controlling very successfully.
3.) My politics have become very different than those of my very political parents, which makes for some awkwardness all round.
4.) I could eat breakfast food for almost every meal without tiring of it.
5.) I enjoy and admire historical fiction, but am intimidated at the thought of tackling it myself.
6.) My most serious and abiding character flaw is impatience, which manages to creep into many aspects of my life.
7.) I'm a first-generation American. (My parents were born in Poland and Germany, and left Europe just in time to escape the Holocaust.)
8.) I'm delighted when one of my daughters masters some skill I never had.
9.) I've read science fiction for so much of my life that I have trouble keeping track of what's actually been invented.
10.) I took sign language (both ASL and Signed English) in college, and might have become a sign language interpreter if I'd been more talented at it.
11.) When I'm bored or irritated, I mumble to myself in fingerspelling (aka the manual alphabet).

And finally, I'm supposed to tag eleven other people. This is the tough part, for me -- tough enough that I'm going to stall, and try to come up with a list in a separate post. (I also break chain letters. So it goes.)

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Unseen Convention, or How Romney Can Win

I must preface this post with an acknowledgment of my own conflict on the subject.

I believe another presidential term for Obama may well be disastrous, not only for this country but for the world -- as I also believe that the vitality of both our representative democracy and our economy is crucial not only within our borders but far beyond them. Yet I cannot ignore that Mitt Romney is willing, and some of his allies are eager, to roll back full civil and human rights for our GLBT citizens, one of whom is my marvelous and admirable older daughter.

I both hope and believe that the societal trend, at least in this country, toward full GLBT rights is sufficiently strong that even a Republican sweep of the institutions of federal government will not reverse it, or not for long. On balance, therefore, I believe that my daughters and their generation will overall, and eventually, benefit from a Romney victory.

Those who heard the Tuesday and Wednesday night speakers at the Republican National Convention may well be excited and optimistic about the future of the Republican Party. A host of past, present and potential Governors and members of Congress, female and/or from various ethnic minorities -- including Mayor Mia Love, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Gov. Mary Fallin, Senatorial candidate Ted Cruz, Former Rep. Artur Davis, Gov. Nikki Haley, Gov. Luis Fortuno (pardon my ignorance of how to insert a tilde), and Gov. Susana Martinez -- showed that Republicans are by no means an exclusive collection of old white males.

Similarly, those hearing the speeches Thursday evening have reason to be excited and optimistic about the Republican presidential candidate. Speaker after speaker spoke from personal knowledge of Mitt Romney's drive, decisiveness, and business acumen, as well as his warmth and caring as a human being, his willingness to step forward and intervene with all his energy when he knew that help was needed.

The problem: almost no one heard these speeches. NBC and MSNBC generally cut away from the Tuesday and Wednesday speeches I've listed, perhaps finding them too challenging to the preferred liberal narrative about Republicans. Not even Fox News covered all the speeches by those whose businesses Bain Capitol  saved, or who witnessed Romney's hands-on turnaround of the 2002 Olympics or recounted his community and charity work. And how many potential voters waited until Romney was due to speak to tune in, or never bothered at all? Only those attending the convention and those who watched C-SPAN throughout it got the full benefit of this expertly crafted presentation. (Of course it was planned to present Romney and the Republicans in the best possible light. To the extent the Romney campaign was involved, the competence of that effort is its own kind of testimonial.)

For those who want Mitt Romney to win election -- those for whom his positions on social issues are either unobjectionable, or are not an insuperable objection -- there is a simple way to substantially increase the chances of that victory.

Get on YouTube, or your favorite search engine, and find videos and/or transcripts of some of these speeches. Share the links on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, or any other social media outlet. (Of course, you can do the same for any inspirint narratives that may emerge from the upcoming Democratic convention.)

It's that easy for each of us to increase voter knowledge of the alternatives in this election.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Update re book whose author I interviewed in January

Back in January 2012, I posted an interview with author Terri Morgan about her novel Playing the Genetic Lottery. So here's an update: the book is now available in paperback on Amazon and on her website (at http://terrimorgan.net). Check it out!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Refinements for the Lifesaving Car Seat Idea

My husband and daughter had some good suggestions to add to the idea of a car seat with thermometer and cell phone built in:

--The seat should phone the parent(s) first, at a lower temperature, and if no one comes and extracts the child, then phone the EMT's.

--Since it may take some time for help to arrive, the car itself should somehow be part of the setup so that after the first call, the car windows could be rolled completely down. (This might be a feature one could turn off, depending on the neighborhood where the car will be left -- although the risk of kidnapping or other harm to the child from an accessible interior is probably far less than the risk of leaving the windows up.)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Someone needs to produce this car seat and save some lives

Another summer, and more children's lives lost when parents -- generally parents whose routine has been disrupted in some way -- forget a young child in the back seat of a car, and don't remember until too late. I've done a bit of reading about this horrific situation, and it can happen to loving, conscientious parents under particular circumstances.

I read something somewhere about the idea of having cars that would sound an alarm if there were weight in a car seat and the interior temperature went above some set amount. That's a beginning -- but current technology would let us do better. Why not have a car seat with a built in thermometer and a built in cell phone (GPS included)? If there's a child-shaped object in the seat, AND the temperature gets too high, the phone could call 911 or some other emergency responder with a pre-programmed message explaining that the situation and inserting the location.

I'm not trying to patent this idea. I'm hoping people will re-post it until someone with some connection to the right company can take it and run with it. If you think this idea makes sense and could save lives, please spread it around!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Republicans Need to Stop Defending Akin

Since Representative and would-be Senator Todd Akin came out with his moronic comments about how women's bodies reject the sperm of rapists (I paraphrase, but do not distort), I've seen a number of tweeted attempts at damage control. Most of these compare the harmful effects of Democratic policies and opine that these dwarf the importance of Akin's statement.

I know how important it is for Republicans, and for Independent fiscal conservatives, to get a majority in the Senate. But there's a limit. Akin revealed ignorance of a dangerous, offensive and toxic nature. Unless he demonstrates that he has learned something profound from the public reaction -- and I'd love to see that happen -- he should lose any election in which he's running.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

First look at blurb for my next book

Here's the most recent draft of the jacket copy/blurb for my upcoming (and still untitled) novel. Comments are welcome! -- as are title suggestions . . . .


Cassidy has her grandparents, Jack and Sarah, and her Great-Grandma; and they have her. And all of them have what may be eternity. Memories can be relived, or shared. The wonders of the world they left behind are only a thought away. And the one-way tyranny of aging is no more -- a white-haired and stooped great-grandmother one moment can be a laughing young playmate the next.  But nothing can ease Cassidy's longing for her mother, Eleanor; and Jack and Sarah know better than to hope that Eleanor's life has been a happy one.

Eleanor never wanted to leave the daughter she loved so much. The overpowering urge to wander -- to search, without knowing what she sought -- drove her away. She left Cassidy in her family's loving care. But Cassidy and the others died in an accident before Eleanor could find her way home.

Now, they are all reunited, with the chance to understand and heal. But the restlessness that shaped Eleanor's life still haunts her in death. Somehow, she must solve the mystery of her life -- or none of them will be at peace.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The human condition

In this big ol' world, horrible, tragic, undeserved things happen to who knows how many thousands of people, every single day. We can make a difference here and there, to one person or a few, but if the day is coming when horror and agony will be truly exceptional, that day is a long way off. Most of the time, most of us don't have to think about that very depressing reality. Events like the massacre in Aurora punch through the protective membrane we usually live in -- and need to live in, or be poisoned by the pain.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

P.S. -- some links re the ACA decision

Here are a few links to interesting, informed and/or amusing reactions to the Obamacare/ACA decision:








The Supreme Court: Giving with One Hand, Taking (and Taxing) with the Other

In the comments to a recent poll about what to expect from the U.S. Supreme Court's decision about Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act), an astute court-watcher noted that feelings on the Court seemed unexpectedly convivial, with none of the sniping and vented frustration that might be expected if Obamacare was to be overturned. That, together with Justice Roberts' known concern about divided and divisive decisions, led me to expect some kind of compromise. And that's what we got. In an attempt to avoid dividing the country, the Court -- in particular, Justice Roberts, the swing vote -- split the baby. In plain and resounding language, the Roberts opinion reaffirms our constitutional structure, with its federal government of limited powers, and explains how upholding Obamacare under the Commerce Clause would essentially dismantle that structure. Yet the opinion, with remarkable insouciance, authorizes Congress to overreach to the same extent under the taxing power.

First, Roberts summarizes the role of the federal government in our constitutional system:

In our federal system, the National Government pos­sesses only limited powers; the States and the people retain the remainder. . . . [R]ather than granting general authority to perform all the conceiv­able functions of government, the Constitution lists, or enumerates, the Federal Government’s powers. . . . The Constitution’s express conferral of some powers makes clear that it does not grant others. . . . The same does not apply to the States, because the Con­stitution is not the source of their power. . . . The States thus can and do perform many of the vital functions of modern government—punishing street crime, running public schools, and zoning property for development, to name but a few—even though the Constitution’s text does not authorize any government to do so. Our cases refer to this general power of govern­ing, possessed by the States but not by the Federal Gov­ernment, as the “police power.”

Roberts then runs through the history of judicial interpretation of the Commerce Clause, the enumerated power allowing Congress to "regulate Commerce . . . among the several States." Over the last eighty years or so, this power has been interpreted so expansively as to allow Congress to regulate any activity with a "substantial effect" on interstate commerce, even if the activity took place entirely within one state, and even if it involved no direct commercial activity. In the most extreme example, the (to some) infamous Wickard v. Filburn case, the Court upheld a price control regime which penalized a farmer for growing wheat to feed his own livestock -- on the ground that by so doing, he reduced his need to buy wheat in the marketplace, conduct which could, if engaged in by many farmers, substantially affect interstate commerce in that commodity.

Where Obamacare breaks new ground is to require individual citizens who would rather not engage in commercial activity -- in this case, the purchase of health insurance policies -- to do so anyway, or pay a monetary penalty. The proponents of the law have argued that these people's inactivity had a sufficient effect on the health care marketplace that Congress had the power to force them into buying insurance they did not believe they needed. Their financial sacrifice would help to fund the elaborate scheme established by the statute, which would otherwise collapse in short order.

Roberts goes on at some length about the distinction between commercial activity, previously held subject to federal regulation, and the new frontier of commercial inactivity. In inspiring language, he draws a line and says, Thus Far and No Further.

Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Con­gress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast do­main to congressional authority. Every day individuals do not do an infinite number of things. In some cases they decide not to do something; in others they simply fail to do it. Allowing Congress to justify federal regulation by pointing to the effect of inaction on commerce would bring countless decisions an individual could potentially make within the scope of federal regulation, and—under the Government’s theory—empower Congress to make those decisions for him. . . . People, for reasons of their own, often fail to do things that would be good for them or good for society. Those failures—joined with the similar failures of others—can readily have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Under the Government’s logic, that authorizes Congress to use its commerce power to compel citizens to act as the Government would have them act.

That is not the country the Framers of our Constitution envisioned.

So is that the end of the individual mandate? Well, no. Because, in the service of what is often called "judicial conservatism," Justice Roberts casts about for a way to salvage this key provision of the statute, rather than invalidate an act of Congress. And he finds one. How? By defining Obamacare as exactly what its supporters earnestly claimed it was not: a tax.

Apparently, the Framers did envision a country where the federal government could tax countless decisions that citizens make, and compel them -- on pain of paying money they can ill afford --  "to act as the Government would have them act."

[T]he mandate can be regarded as establishing a condition—not owning health insurance—that triggers a tax—the required payment to the IRS. Under that theory, the mandate is not a legal command to buy insurance. Rather, it makes going without insurance just another thing the Government taxes, like buying gasoline or earning income.

Well, Your Honor, as you explained so eloquently in connection with the Commerce Clause, inactivity -- choosing not to do something -- is a very different sort of "thing" than activity, e.g. buying gasoline or earning income. What happened to the Framers', the Constitution's, and Justice Roberts' concern for the fundamental framework of our system of government?

Roberts does get around to addressing this: 

There may, however, be a more fundamental objection to a tax on those who lack health insurance. Even if only a tax, the payment under §5000A(b) remains a burden that the Federal Government imposes for an omission, not an act. If it is troubling to interpret the Commerce Clause as authorizing Congress to regulate those who abstain from commerce, perhaps it should be similarly troubling to permit Congress to impose a tax for not doing something.

 Yes, indeedy. (I initially used a more vulgar phrase referencing a certain famous detective, but deleted it out of respect for the office of Chief Justice.)

 Roberts goes on to list three "considerations" that "allay this concern." The first of these has at least a superficial appearance of  technical merit. Roberts notes that the Constitution allows a "capitation" tax -- a tax on every individual -- under certain circumstances relating to how it's apportioned, even though such a tax doesn't depend on activity, but merely on existence. Moreover, a number of federal taxes have been upheld even though their intent was not only to raise money, but to influence individual behavior. So a tax unrelated to activity, and intended to shape individual conduct, has some legal precedent. Today's decision arguably demonstrates that these previous cases "proved too much," providing the entrĂ© to essentially unlimited government coercion.

Roberts' second and third "considerations" involve the limited nature of this coercive power. He asserts that the tax is not sufficiently punitive and destructive to justify much concern, particularly since the statute provides that one may not be subjected to criminal prosecution for failure to pay it. I do not find this as reassuring as the Chief Justice, but opinions will vary.

Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito filed an opinion agreeing with Roberts as to the Commerce Clause and disagreeing as to the taxing power. (There is some pretty plausible speculation that their opinion was initially the majority opinion, and that Roberts changed his vote.) I am less familiar with the case law on the taxing power than on the Commerce Clause, but Scalia et al. have what sound like solid rebuttals to Roberts' approach.

For example:

We have never held that any exaction imposed for violation of the law is an exercise of Congress’ taxing power—even when the statute calls it a tax, much less when (as here) the statute repeatedly calls it a penalty. . . . So the question is, quite simply, whether the exaction here is imposed for violation of the law. It unquestionably is.

(The opinion goes on to quote the relevant language, quite convincingly.)

Then there's this straightforward bit of textual analysis, to which I didn't notice Roberts responding:

That §5000A imposes not a simple tax but a mandate to which a penalty is attached is demonstrated by the fact that some are exempt from the tax [i.e., the payment due if one doesn't buy insurance] who are not exempt from the mandate—a distinction that would make no sense if the mandate were not a mandate.

To Roberts' point that the penalty is to be collected by the I.R.S., the dissent responds: "The manner of collection could perhaps suggest a tax if IRS penalty-collection were unheard-of or rare. It is not."

Finally, perhaps my favorite line from Scalia's opinion, winner of Best Understatement of the Year: "Taxes have never been popular, see, e.g., Stamp Act of 1765. . . ."

I could go on -- there's much more to discuss, from Justice Thomas' short and cogent separate dissent to the majority's restriction on the statute's Medicaid provisions. But that's enough to set the stage. Now we'll see whether Congress will take advantage of the Court's permission to tax us into whatever the mood (or junk science) of the moment deems the most healthful and societally beneficial behavior -- and whether the voters will let them get away with it.

Preview of coming attractions: post on Obamacare ruling tonight or tomorrow

I've been reviewing the Obamacare (or, if you prefer, Affordable Care Act) opinions and extracting portions for Facebook comment. By tonight or tomorrow, I hope to put together a post with my impressions and my selections of key passages. Tune in tomorrow if interested!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review of The Bow of Heaven, Book One

After an unconscionable delay, I'm finally posting my review of Andrew Levkoff's The Bow of Heaven, Book One: The Other Alexander -- A Novel of Ancient Rome.

This is an engrossing and often moving account of events during the latter days of the Roman Republic. The emotional center of the book is the narrator, Alexandros, a Greek slave trained in philosophy, who belongs to the Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus. The focus shifts back and forth between key events in Roman history, in which Crassus participates, and the world of Crassus' household. The reader follows Alexandros' ongoing struggle to come to terms with his own enslavement, with all its implications, as gradually revealed both to the reader and to Alexandros himself.

Levkoff has vividly imagined the life of an intelligent man in a position of relative -- but not absolute -- powerlessness, always at risk of pain and degradation. He also examines how two men who might well have been friends in other circumstances interact when they find themselves in the position of master and slave. Crassus appreciates Alexandros' abilities and even, to some extent, his reluctance to be entirely servile, while exercising his prerogatives as Alexandros' master whenever it is in his interests. Alexandros develops some loyalty to and perhaps affection for Crassus, and is sometimes lulled into a sort of contentment, until events force him to confront the basic nature of their relationship.

Alexandros is given to lush, poetic, and often original descriptions of the world around him. These added to my pleasure as a reader, and while they were at times a mite obtrusive, they were still consistent with the narrator's character.

There's a short Preface relating how the narrative was supposedly discovered. This would be a good place for a bit more historical scene-setting. I know a little about the late Roman Republic, and still had some trouble getting my bearings; someone with no prior knowledge of the period could end up rather lost.

I downloaded the book quite a while before I read it, and in the intervening time forgot that it was a Book One. I hope Book Two will be out soon!

Here's the link to the Kindle edition on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Other-Alexander-Book-Heaven-ebook/product-reviews/B005UO0QMI/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Lugar's Defeat and Negative Campaigning

Yes, Dick Lugar was old. Yes, he'd lost touch with Indiana. Yes, he's anything but a small-government Tea Party type. But let's not forget one other factor contributing to his resounding defeat in the Republican senatorial primary: the way he and his allies conducted the campaign.

I moved to Indiana in 1989, and for all the years since, until a couple of months ago, Lugar had a rare reputation as a statesman and a gentleman. Some of his positions and decisions could legitimately be described as insufficiently conservative for the current political climate, but he could have found ways to remind voters of his accomplishments. Instead, almost all we saw, ad nauseum, were heavy-footed, disingenuous attack ads. You know the kind -- where the same old voice actors use the same melodramatic phrasing. To put it mildly, it does not encourage me to vote for a candidate when that candidate assumes I mindlessly respond to ominous tones and nasty adjectives. And the ads kept coming, even after their distortions were exposed.

We're all used to this approach by now, and it may not be feasible to penalize every candidate who indulges in it, short of plugging our ears and refusing to vote. But when a candidate who should know better and is assumed to know better stoops to this kind of campaign, we can hold him accountable. And we did. I've been reading the recaps, and it's clear I'm not the only one who found the tactics of Lugar et al. offensive as well as surprising.

I have my concerns about Indiana losing the benefits of Lugar's connections and seniority. My husband works at Crane, and I think it likely that Lugar has been protecting Crane effectively and would continue to do so. (FWIW, I firmly believe it's worth protecting. Crane does a great deal of valuable and high-quality work, the giggle potential of a naval base in Indiana notwithstanding.) I don't know whether Mourdock -- or, for that matter, Donnelly -- can provide comparable protection. But not only am I a small-government Independent with tea party sympathies, but I could not bring myself to reward Lugar for diving into the slime pit.

Retire in peace, Senator. I'm sorry you left this way.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Common Sense 101: Tailgating

Look, I get it. I do. Impatient is my middle name -- or would be, if my parents had had the chance to get to know me ahead of time. When the driver ahead of you is moving too slow, it's natural to want to noodge them into speeding up by pressing on their automotive space bubble. BUT . . . you really know better. You do. Don't you?

Well, just in case you don't:

(a) Tailgating Is Dangerous. Your vehicle looming in my rear view mirror distracts me. When you distract me, I'm less likely to react in time when something changes up ahead. And maybe I crash into the deer or bicyclist or car or toddler, and then you crash into me.

Not good enough? Well, try this one:

(b) Tailgating Is Counterproductive (at least, when you tailgate a careful driver). When I see you driving up close to my rear, I don't speed up. I slow down. And I'm not doing it to frustrate you -- at least, not primarily. The less room I have behind me, the more room I'll need in front of me. If I see an obstacle up ahead, and I slam on the brakes with you right behind me, you'll slam into me. The slower I'm moving, the more time I have to brake gradually before I reach the obstacle.

And if I slow down, you'll have to slow down. (Or pass me. PLEASE. But you could've done that without tailgating me first.)

So take a deep breath, and BACK OFF.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Twilight, Fifty Shades, and Copyright Law

Part of the continuing Internet conversation about E.L. James' Fifty Shades trilogy concerns its degree of similarity to its original fanfic version, Master of the Universe. See, e.g., However, this should be only the starting point of any inquiry about the appropriateness and legality of Fifty Shades' publication. What matters – legally and perhaps ethically -- is how similar Fifty Shades is to the Twilight saga that inspired it, and whether it has attributes that should protect it from any legal action, similar or no.

Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, of course, involves the overwhelming attraction between Edward Cullen, a young (in appearance), devastatingly handsome, rich vampire, and Bella Swan, a human teenage girl. While Edward and his (adoptive) family have forsworn consumption of human blood, it still tempts him, and this particular girl's blood is the most tempting of all. Over the course of the four books, the couple face various perils and crises, and their relationship reaches certain key milestones. James' original fanfic, Master of the Universe, retained the names of Edward, Bella and various other characters, and used many of the same plot points, but eschewed the supernatural entirely. It's difficult to say more without spoilers (which I'll keep to a minimum until the end of this piece), but Edward in particular -- while just as handsome as before, and possibly even richer -- acquired a compelling and psychologically plausible back story, and confronted Bella with a very different sort of danger. James also added a whole lot of sex, both "vanilla" and kinkier varieties.

The characters and plot of Master of the Universe were sufficiently different from Twilight that the retention of the original character names at times seemed forced or inappropriate. When Master of the Universe became Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight-derived names were mercifully abandoned.

And now, with Fifty Shades secretly stashed on innumerable Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, and more and more women sidling into Barnes & Nobles nationwide and asking whether they carry the print version, it seems likely that lawyers for Stephenie Meyer, her publisher, and/or James' publisher have been reviewing some basic principles of copyright law and how those principles are usually applied.

17 U.S. C. §§ 101 et seq. governs copyright in the United States. (I'm not going to clutter this account with citations to particular sections, or to cases applying them -- but please feel free to ask for such citations in the comments.) Basic oversimplified overview: the author of an artistic work owns the copyright from the moment of the work's creation, assuming it's in fact an original work and the author hasn't contracted away his/her copyright. The owner of the copyright has exclusive control of the work (unless and until s/he contracts away certain rights). Copyright doesn't cover ideas, such as "the idea of hunting a formidable whale at the lead of an eccentric captain" (an example used in one federal case), or, closer to home, a rich handsome fellow with a scary secret falling in love with an inexperienced young woman. Rather, it protects the particular expression of an idea. The dividing line between an idea and the expression of an idea can be elusive.

The copyright owner has the exclusive right to prepare or authorize preparation of "derivative works" (those based on or adapted from pre-existing works). If anyone puts out an unauthorized derivative work, or otherwise infringes a copyright, the copyright owner can get a court to enjoin (prohibit) the offending work's publication, distribution, etc., and to order impoundment (seizure) of all copies and any plates, etc. used to produce them. The statute hasn't been revised to reflect POD or ebook publishing, but presumably, any impoundment order nowadays would include some appropriate measures to prevent the use of digital files.

The copyright owner can also sue for damages. S/he has the choice of asking for the infringer's entire profit from the derivative work, plus any damages s/he has suffered from the work's publication, or of receiving preset amounts set forth in the statute (the exact amount to depend on various factors as weighed by the trial court).

Case law (court decisions, in this case federal court decisions and particularly those of the Circuit Courts of Appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court) adds some wrinkles.

To prove copyright infringement, you have to start by proving that the copyright work was -- copied. You do that by proving (1) access and (2) "substantial similarity" between the original work and the work alleged to violate the original's copyright. The defendant (the one being sued) can still get out from under by proving that s/he created the work independently, without any reliance on the copyrighted work. (This makes copyrights different from trademarks: if someone has a trademark, you can't use the same brand name or logo or whatever, even if you thought of it in a public place, shouted "Eureka!" at the top of your lungs, and described it on the spot in excited detail.) Given the history of Fifty Shades, there's no question that Ms. James had access to the Twilight saga, and no claim that she dreamed it up independently. There is, however, room for debate about its "substantial similarity" to Twilight. This question gets tangled up with some related issues: the "fair use" exception and the idea of a "transformative" work.

There are various tests for "substantial similarity." One is "literal similarity," the verbatim copying or paraphrasing of the original work. The other kind of similarity is "nonliteral" similarity, most important if there is "comprehensive nonliteral similarity," where "the fundamental essence or structure of one work is duplicated in another." Some courts default to relying on that mythic figure, the "reasonable observer," and ask whether that admirable arbiter would find the works, as a whole, substantially similar.

There's very little verbatim copying of Twilight in Fifty Shades (with the exception of the overused adjective "mercurial" and countless descriptions of Edward's and Christian's hair). Nor did I notice Fifty Shades paraphrasing a great deal of Twilight's text. There are, however, many similarities between Fifty Shades and the Twilight saga. While defining a plot point or character trait is an intrinsically fuzzy and subjective matter, I counted possibly thirty or more parallels of plot or character. Some are central, some unimportant, and some important in Twilight and unimportant in Fifty Shades (e.g. the couple's appreciation of how the other smells). The POV of the two works is similar: Bella narrates the Twilight series, except for one sizable chunk of Breaking Dawn, and Ana's is almost the only viewpoint in Fifty Shades. (There is, however, a difference in tense: Bella's tale is told in past, Ana's in present.) While one cannot copyright a single idea, the doctrine of "comprehensive nonliteral similarity" suggests that at some point, a series of ideas becomes copyrightable material. It would take time I'm not willing to spend (since nobody's publisher is paying me) to research where and how consistently previous cases have drawn that line.

A finding of substantial similarity would not end the legal inquiry. The "fair use" of a copyrighted work isn't an infringement. Whether a use is "fair use" depends on a few factors, similarity being only one of them:

"(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; "(2) the nature of the copyrighted work; "(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and "(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work."

Fifty Shades is a massively commercial use of a work whose nature is equally commercial. No basis for finding fair use there. The language of subparagraph (3), with its reference to a "portion" used, seems to concern verbatim copying -- so Fifty Shades doesn't take a hit there. What of subparagraph (4)?

Twilight was a cultural phenomenon. Fifty Shades may turn out to be another: sales have been stratospheric, and the series has generated a great deal of discussion, head-scratching, hand-wringing, etc. As someone who's read and enjoyed both, I don't believe that the success of Fifty Shades is in any way harmful to Twilight's future commercial prospects. I suspect the truth is just the opposite: that many readers of each series will seek out the other. Twilight, while classified as YA romance, has appealed to a great many mature women. These readers, hearing of a series with roots in Twilight but featuring adult characters and plenty of steamy scenes, may well be intrigued. More to the point, readers who appreciate Fifty Shades at least as much for its compelling characters and romantic world view as for its kinky sex scenes -- and I'd bet there are many such readers -- may well decide that Twilight is worth a look-see. Neither scenario deprives Stephenie Meyer or her publishers of any revenue, and the latter would provide some.

There is one aspect of the notion of "fair use" that comes from case law, rather than from the copyright statute: the notion of a "transformative" use. As one case put it, a "transformative" use "adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new . . . meaning, or message. . . . [T]he goal of copyright, to promote science and the arts, is generally furthered by the creation of transformative works. Such transformative works thus lie at the heart of the fair use doctrine's guarantee of breathing space." An oft-cited commentator put it this way: "[if] the secondary use adds value to the original -- if [the original work] is used as raw material, transformed in the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings -- this is the very type of activity that the fair use doctrine intends to protect for the enrichment of society."

There is at least one group, the Organization for Transformative Works, pushing for the recognition of fanfiction in general as meeting this definition and thus falling within the "fair use" exception. Without taking a position on that broad question, I submit that the Fifty Shades trilogy is in fact a "transformative" use of its Twilight source material.

WARNING: SPOILERS (though rather vague and general ones) AHEAD.


























In arguing for Fifty Shades as a protected transformative work, I am not talking about its addition of heaping portions of sex. If Fifty Shades were simply Twilight plus sex and/or kink, the way Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is simply Pride and Prejudice plus the undead, then I would consider it exactly the sort of derivative work that an author should have the right to veto. It is the changes James has made to the essence of the story that lead me to defend her right to publish.

Instead of a supernatural romance set against a backdrop of vampire factions and werewolves, we have a thoroughly human love story. Instead of drawn-out suspense about whether Bella will embrace the advantages and disadvantages of bloodthirsty immortality, we have Christian's struggle to overcome his hideously traumatic past, move beyond his carefully maintained defenses, and allow himself to love and be loved. Both series are page-turners, and each relies for part of its suspense on external threats, but in Fifty Shades, the more deeply felt suspense concerns the nature of Christian's and Ana's relationship, and Christian's struggle with his inner demons. One sympathizes with and roots for Edward and Bella; but the reader's feeling for Christian is far closer to Aristotle's "pity and fear." For Aristotle, it was tragic drama that evoked these emotions, and Christian's tragic past is always lurking, threatening to destroy his and Ana's happy ending.

Fifty Shades, despite some amateurish touches and occasional poor editing, is a worthwhile addition to our collective store of stories. Its legal status is unclear. All in all, I hope that Stephenie Meyer, or whoever else has the power to decide whether to drag Ms. James into court, decides to refrain.