Tag Archives: reading

Going Back to the Past

At this writing, I’m reading Signal by Patrick Lee. This isn’t a review, or even a recommendation as such, though I’ve read a couple others by him and have to say he’s a good writer.

Ft Irwin

Ft Irwin

I guess this is more like a reminisce.

The book opens at the site of a freshly burned trailer south of Barstow, California, out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, at something like four in the morning. An FBI agent has been called to the scene because it has to do with a child predator she’s been tracking for some time now.

As she steps out of her car, she’s assaulted by the smells, one in particular reaching out to her: burnt flesh. Before she approaches the trailer, however, she takes a look around, seeing the smudge of lights that is Barstow to her north, and to the west, the lights of Edwards Air Force base and the foothills of the San Gabriels outlined by the glowing haze of LA. Other than that (and the crime scene, of course), these are the only lights she sees. The desert night is pitch black.

Reading this, it took me back. I’ve been to the Mojave on two different occasions, and I don’t think I’ve seen a blacker night than you see out there. Of course, the smells are different for me, since I’ve never had to investigate a trailer fire with burnt bodies inside. I remember the dry, dusty desert smell that eventually permeated everything.

I went in August of 1985 and again in January of 1986 to Fort Irwin, thirty miles south of Death Valley, and a little less than forty miles northeast of Barstow. Back in those
days, Fort Irwin was the home of the National Training Center, or NTC (the military do love their acronyms and abbreviations), and we went out there for a month at a time. August, as you can imagine, was hot, while January was cold, this being high desert.
And those are the things I think about when I remember that time: the dusty smell everywhere—a scent that’s impossible for me to describe and one I’ve never encountered anywhere else—and the black, black nights.


Milky Way over the Ozarks

I grew up out in the country, so I’m used to nights with little or no light pollution. Nights where you can see the Milky Way like a mystical trail across the sky, the stars scattered across the grayish black hard points of light twinkling and beckoning to you. Trees and hills outlined in black against the heavens, letting you know just where you are while you listen to the noisy insects of summer or the almost dead silence of winter, broken only by the soft whisper of a cold breeze. Or, on those nights when everything is black, the hiss of falling snow.

I remember one night—and I think I’ve written about it here before—during my January visit to NTC. It was dusk, and we were looking for a place called Hidden Valley, or maybe it was Lost Valley. The convoy had stopped while the sergeant major and his driver went ahead in the jeep to see if we were close. To my left, there was this large stand of rocks sticking up out of the desert floor, with another, smaller one ahead of me. We were facing east, and the moon was just coming up, huge on the horizon, butter yellow, hovering over that smaller lump of rock. The air was so clear it felt like I should be able to reach out and touch the moon, maybe even balance it on the tip of one finger. I stared at it, mesmerized, knowing I was seeing something I’d remember for the rest of my life.

The night wasn’t black that time, for the moon was full. We went on to bivouac a few minutes later, and I fired up my truck and drove off reluctantly to the site. But I kept that moment in my heart, just as I did some sights I saw in Germany a little over a year earlier when we went there for forty-five days.

moon over mojave

Moon over the Mojave

These days, thirty years later, I have to write lists to remember a lot of things. I have to put my shopping list on my cell phone because otherwise I’ll write the list of things I need, then go off and leave it at home—forgetting it, of course. I have to do things in routines so I don’t forget to do or take something important with me. It’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s just me being me.

But I can crack open a book, see a passage talking about somewhere I’ve been, something I’ve experienced, and I can see it in my mind’s eye as if I’m standing there with the character.

That’s the beauty of books. They can take you anywhere, and sometimes anywhen. I’m not talking about the usual thing of reading about a time period from the past or future, though that’s a treat within itself. No, I’m talking about those rare occurrences like this, when a book or a scene is set somewhere you’ve been, somewhere memorable, and even though the scene isn’t in the time period when you were there, it still takes you back, makes you smile as the visions from the past billow up in your mind.

For just a moment, you’re back there, younger, feeling and experiencing everything in ways your older self can only barely remember and can’t really live through again.

That’s the power of books, and the power of imagination.



Every now and then, you pick up a book that hits all the right notes. There’s action, drama, intrigue, romance, danger, all of that. You read the book, turning the pages till you reach the climax, and you think, I’d like to read more by this author.

And then you have time to think about it, and you realize something’s missing. But what is it? You go over it in your mind, and everything’s there. The plot unfolds the way it should, the three-act structure is in place, all the pieces fit together.

But still, something’s missing.

200px-MichaelCrighton_StateOfFearI’ve read more than my share of these kinds of books, some by some pretty famous authors. For me, Michael Crichton comes to mind: good books, thoroughly researched (the man was a demon when it came to research; he spent three years researching climate data for State of Fear), all the right characters to advance the plot…but there’s always something missing from his books.

It’s like walking into a show house. Everything is in its place. All the décor matches, and there aren’t any throwaway pieces of furniture. I remember going to an American Log Homes show house back in the nineties. One of the things about log homes is that most dealers live in one of the homes, and their houses tend to be the model home as well. This one felt a bit like an exercise in lunacy, as each room was totally different to show that log homes could fit into any décor style. Take each room by itself, it was okay. But there was no theme to the home, if you get my drift. And, what’s more, because it was a model home, even though the dealers lived in it, it didn’t have that feel of being a home. Everything was too perfect, too clean.

Books that are that way remind me of when Watson was on Jeopardy! Yeah, he got all the right answers, and he won. But, to me, it felt like a cheat. After all, as good as the two human champions were—and though I’ve never actually seen the episodes Watson was in, I know the two humans were the best players the show’s ever had—there was still the fact they were human. Watson had instant recall. He was never subject to that feeling we often have of knowing something, it’s right on the tip of my tongue, if I can just think of it….

Watson didn’t have that problem. And on top of that, he didn’t have to go through the physical act of pushing the button to say he had the answer. His reactions were faster-than-human. The only real satisfaction the humans could take was that it took a supercomputer to beat them. No mere computer was up to the task. That’s like saying it took a superhero to win the fight against some normal guy.hal_9000_wall2013_by_vectorgeek-d5sp2sr

That’s how these books are: all the right answers are in place, but they might as well have been written by HAL 9000 for all the humanity that’s in them. It’s like you’re reading programming code turned back into English. All the action is there, but the emotion feels fake. Like that model house, there’s no dirt in the corners, no throw pillow out of place, no dirty fork left lying on the counter. The curtains hang just right, the dining room chandelier doesn’t have any burnt-out bulbs, and even the eight-year-old remembered to make his bed that morning.

Grit. Soul. Bottom. Call it what you want, it’s not there. It’s got the rhythm, but it can’t feel the beat.

And yet, for me at least, it’s hard to point at any specific point in the story and say, “Here’s where and how you can fix that. This is where you can put that jazzy feel that gives it bottom.” I can’t do it because I suspect either the writer has it or he doesn’t. And no amount of books from Writer’s Digest will ever infuse his (or her) prose with that all-important feeling if it’s not already there.

542692_10150749842905379_252657169_nNow, we’re all different (duh). So maybe all writers feel that way to at least one other reader out there. You may find Michael Crichton’s books to be full of feeling. Maybe it’s that so many of his characters tend to be professionals of one sort or another, and most of them in fields I know very little about, so I find it hard to relate. Maybe my stories of common folks caught up in webs of crime will feel sterile to someone who immerses themselves in Crichton’s works.

So I can’t offer up a solution. Part of the reason this blog exists is for me to make observations about the reading/writing world, and this is one I’ve made over the years. I doubt there even is a solution, especially in light of the what I said in the last paragraph. I’m simply saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed this. Have you?”

And by the way, I still read Michael Crichton on occasion, and enjoy his stories.


I Wanna Do That

The novel I’m currently reading is entitled Japantown by Barry Lancet. Japantown is a section of San Francisco to which our protagonist, one Jim Brodie, is called as a consultant to view a murder scene. There he finds an entire family of Japanese tourists killed with gunfire—two children and three adults. While he is there, he notices a hanji—one of the characters Japanese use in their writing. It’s exactly like the hanji that was outside his home in Los Angeles a couple years earlier when his wife and in-laws died in a house fire.

I’m still in the early stages of the book, so I won’t go into all the details. I just needed to give you that much of the story (in my opinion, anyway) so you’d understand it when he realizes later—after an altercation with a rather disagreeable fellow who pulls a knife on him—that, even though this murder was done in a public place and has the SFPD investigating it, for some reason whoever did this crime is more worried about him than they are the entire police department of a major city.

I wouldn’t say Barry Lancet is an exceptional writer—at least not so far—but he’s good enough to hold my interest. Our protagonist grew up in Japan, so he knows the culture, and he’s also a specialist in Japanese art, and owns an art/antique store in San Francisco as well as runs his late father’s private investigation company in Tokyo. He straddles both words and that makes him uniquely qualified to consult with the police on this case.

So the writing is good enough to keep me interested, and I always like reading about characters in Jim Brodie’s position of more or less bridging two worlds while never quite fitting into either. But the passage where Brodie realizes that the person who committed this crime fears him more than the entire SFPD—I really liked that. Made me wish I could write a passage like that.

How many times have we as writers done something like that? Read something from an author—whether new or an old favorite—and wished we could do that?

It occurs to me that we probably do. And I don’t mean that in some arrogant way.

Look, I get lots of folks tell me I’m a good writer. Some even say I’m a very good writer. But it doesn’t change the struggles I go through to put words on paper, or how much I wrestle with getting plot elements to work just right. Maybe it’s that struggling and wrestling that, in the end, makes my writing good, I don’t know. I certainly hope so, ’cause if not, I need to find another method.

But all of us are unique writers. I’ve read passages by pretty much every writer in my group that I wished I coulda written. And if it’s not particular passages, it’s a concept or storyline. We all see things we wish we would have done or thought of ourselves.

So if so many other writers are doing that, it stands to reason we’re at least occasionally doing something that those other writers wish they’d come up with. It’s a far too common occurrence for it to be otherwise.

Things is, we’re too close to our work to see it.

We start out imitating. I’ve got an old short story still hanging around that reads like somebody imitating Stephen King. We have to start out imitating someone else to find our own voice. It took me years and switching genres to find mine.

It’s the same with every writer who sticks with the craft. We find our own voice, make our own mark in the world. We do it every time we sit down at the keyboard. Maybe the passage we write today won’t be the one that makes another author go, “Gee, I wanna do that,” but then again, maybe it will.

Either way, it’ll be in your voice.

So next time you see a particular passage and think I wanna do that, realize that you are. For somebody out there. Just as they’ll someday do it for somebody else.

And so the circle turns.