imagesMy son Omar has developed a music player that will do all kinds of interesting things and hand stands in between. If you use Zorin or Ubuntu, download phasealplayer and give it a whirl.

Not about books or writing? No, but it is about projects and dreams. Here it is again–Happy Holidays and have fun!

http://zerosweet.org/pplayer/index.phpPlay music in any direction.

marmaduke-pickthallMarmaduke Pickthall was one of the great novelists of the early 20th century, yet he has been largely forgotten, save by a few. His formidable novel, Said the Fisherman, which follows the adventures of an incorrigible scoundrel and sometimes fisherman of the Levant,  was first published by Methuen in 1903. It went through 14 British editions in 25 years. It was also published in the USA, Germany and Italy. Admirers of the book included Stanley Lanepoole, Lord Cromer, H.G. Wells, D.M Forster and D.H. Lawrence.

A good writer is not only aware of the prism-like spectrum of human nature, he or she will show there is only one way to cut a believable character, scamp or savior, out of foreign cloth. That one way is to know the culture in question–know it well enough to pass as one of its own. Pickthall, the man who would later translate the holy Qur’an, knew the culture of the Middle East.

Said the fisherman is a low-class delinquent, one who fits the Syria of his time, yet one who could easily be transposed to a con artist of today in almost any country. We all know Said and wish we didn’t. He is funny from a distance and intolerable up close. The best place for the Saids of any era or culture is in a book. From that perspective, the reader can safely evaluate the very real sincerity of Said’s manner, even when he is engaged in the most reprehensible deeds, and perhaps, occasionally, sympathize with him.th

Said’s good qualities are those of the well-meaning scamp. He loves children, feels occasional remorse for deserting his wife and his pious friend, Selim, and is sometimes generous. As a Muslim of the 19th century, he observes most of the outwards practices of his faith, to which he is fiercely loyal, as one might be to a football team.

But there is something dangerous about that flag-waving, unreasoning fervency that Pickthall tried to depict, in literary form, over one hundred years ago. Said is so careful to observe his prayer, he does so even during a very brief and disastrous sojourn in London, when “in the midst of his devotions, however, heavy footfalls sounded in the street, and a tall man, darkly clad, with a strange form of hat and a cudgel stuck in his belt, spoke roughly and hit him on the back.” Nonetheless, Said’s observance of prayer does not prevent him from being almost continually on the take, the kind of person who does little to strengthen a culture or economy or give it a good name.

This is more than just a yarn about an incorrigible Syrian peasant. Pickthall demonstrated an uncanny perception of the problems assailing the Muslims at large, clarifying in such a way as to lead the English language reader to a better understanding of and compassion towards the Muslim peoples. The writer accomplishes this feat by utterly absorbing the reader by the story and then letting the breadcrumbs drop.

For example, when Said enters the Great Mosque of Damascus to find the beneficent scholar and holy man Ismail Abbas (a sheriff, or descendant of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) in order to beg money from him, the reader becomes audience to a conversation between Ismail Abbas and two other eminent men of the city, just one among several passages in the novel that show the  wisdom and discernment of Muslims following their religion for the sake of their souls and not for pride or tradition:”Of a truth, our lot falls in a degenerate age . . . In the time of the early Khalifs, the immediate successors of the Prophets, a Muslim had something else to do than to lie and steal and betray his neighbour . . . Where is the imam, Omar el Hattab . . .And Khalid, the Sword of Allah, where is he? Is their memory clean gone from the earth? Truly the end draws nigh. Dejil is present with us in the person of the Frankish envoys. The Sultan himself is led astray.”

Whether he was writing novels or non fiction works, Pickthall had a remarkable, penetrating literary style. He had a Dickensian sense of humor by which he shaped typical Eastern habits, like the exuberant oaths uttered thoughtlessly on all occasions, into amusing twists of irony even in the most grisly scenes. In once such, Said kneels over the dead body of his adopted father, Mustafa the beggar, and gropes to find the treasure that Mustafa had promised to leave for him, yet the whereabouts of which the old man had collapsed before being able to divulge. Said vents his frustration characteristically:

“May Allah cut short his life,” he panted. “Who but a madman would have left our wealth thus exposed? By the Prophet, it is lucky that I alone was at hand to hear his last cry. . . May his house be destroyed. “Peace be to him,” he added as an afterthought.

If you laughed at the boasts of the dog in Orham Pamuk’s My Name is Red, you will cherish the humor, wisdom and panoply of Orientalist characters and scenes in Said the Fisherman. In 1986, Quartet Books of London put out the novel at the same time as Peter Clark’s biography of Pickthall. Now, in the 21st century, publisher Jameel Chishti of Beacon Books, also of London, will  once more dust off a classic and offer it to lovers of all things literary.

–thanks to http://www.leftways.com/2014/10/israel-lebanon-and-syria-19th-century/ for image of Syria.

Dear Hillary:

I want to begin by saying a simple thank you.

Given how difficult the last few days have been for me (and all of your 50 million plus supporters), I can’t begin to comprehend the magnitude of your own disappointment. You worked your entire life to get to this moment, and you deserved to be the one who finally cracked that massive glass ceiling. I hope it gives you some comfort to know that the majority of Americans agree: you currently lead in the popular vote by nearly half a million, and that total is expected to grow by at least another million before all the votes have been counted. The sadly outdated Electoral College has stolen your victory and, perhaps appropriately enough, has set our country on a path to return to the stone age, as my oldest daughter, Carrie, aptly put it last night. After all the progress our beloved country has made over the past 50 years, the men of our nation, and yes, sadly, plenty of women as well, have decided that ugly path is the one we should take. To what end, I have no idea, but I fear they shall all soon discover that a return to the Andy Griffith and Leave It To Beaver 1950s they recall so fondly is in fact not all that wonderful for the majority of Americans. Like Trump himself, those were television shows not based on any actual reality. The world has moved on, and so too must the country which the rest of the free world looks toward as its ultimate shining example.

I am writing this letter to you today because I want you to know how very much you have meant to me over the years. I was raised by my grandmother and her mother, so I know about strong, independent women. My grandmother lived to be 95, and as the last few months of this campaign wound down, I found myself wishing so badly that she were here to sit beside me, to hug and shake our heads and cry as we bask in your magnificent accomplishments. I will never forget that scene on the final night of the Democratic convention when you accepted the nomination. It still brings tears to my eyes as I write this. You are such an inspiration! Your accomplishments as a public servant are second to none, as is your ability to persevere amid the torrid of hatred spewed at you from every angle. No matter how hard they smash you down, you refuse to “stay throwed,” as one speaker from the convention so clearly noted.

Whereas most in your position would have given up long ago, you didn’t quit and I know that you will continue to keep fighting still—for our children, our mothers and grandmothers, minorities, the disabled. Everyone who dares to be “different” because it means being themselves. You are our hero, and please don’t ever forget that. As we prepare to watch the republicans grab total control of our beloved nation, we need you more than ever. Be our voice. Guide us through the next four years with your wisdom and courage. And always remember, we love you from the bottom of our hearts.

Per Julia’s request, her signature has been added to this letter.

With warm and heartfelt sincerity from us both,
Connie Kirchberg
Julia Simpson Uttutia





the-record-player-bryan-jepsonBryan Jepson’s The Record Player is a new spin (pun intended) on the story of parents who have an autistic child. Music is the leitmotif to the story; indeed, it is the reason the parents of the novel fall in love. Author Bryan Jepson, a father of two autistic children, has spent years doing medical research on autism and supporting others in their needs in dealing with/helping their autistic children. I was not at all surprised to find Jepson a medical expert (on his Amazon author page). His love of classical music is very evident in this book, and in fact, he relies on translating European languages to convey the beauty of music. For me, the translating went a little overboard, but I employed Somerset Maugham’s “fine art of skipping” to get to the next part of the story. I was fascinated to read about how much the group sessions cost the family and what was involved. Gabe is the autistic boy and after a great deal of expense, the family discovers that he calms down when beautiful music is played, learning how to use that interest. But that does not make life with Gabe easy. It seems that life raising a severely autistic child is never easy.

My interest in The Record Player is twofold: in the first case, I studied classical music as a teen: composition as well as singing and playing piano. In the second, I have a sister in law and friend who both have autistic children. The sister in law retired from her job in Saudi Arabia and moved to the USA with the rest of her family in order to help the one child with severe autism.

I loved the scene in the grocery store where Gabe begins singing to Faure’s Requiem. The ending of this book is beautiful and tear jerking. The ending makes the whole book so worth the reading and it gives huge value to the parents’ sense of purpose. (I loved the ending so much I read it twice.) The Record Player is inspiring and I do recommend it to anyone who finds these topics interesting.

the-swedeDuring the last season of Hell On Wheels (spoiler alert!!), in which the Swede (played by Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl who, when called a Swede, always replied, “I am from Norway”) was hanged, I was happily immersed in Karen Swensson’s Conversations Loosely Translated, a book in which a brilliant author is able to evoke (literally) the ghosts of her Norwegian forebears. Swensson has done a fabulous job and the ghosts are among the most amenable and interesting of any I have met in book pages or on Halloween.conversations-loosely-translated

What floored me is that her method works. Any writer worth their salt knows the tingle of joy when discovering another writer trying to carry off something difficult that SUCCEEDS. It is like a permission slip to all of us: “See? If you learn to write as well as Swensson, you too will be doing flips in the air and walking on foam.”

I can just imagine what inspired her. After all, Swensson’s American roots are in Wisconsin, in the farmhouse that burned down taking  the lives of many including her own mother. The farmhouse was built in 1845. You can read on Amazon about the chain of events that made Swensson look backwards to the past.

Watching Hell on Wheels while reading Swensson’s book brought the vivid American past into a swirling reality. But I do not think it is just Hell on Wheels fans who will appreciate what Swensson has done in Conversations Loosely Translated–Ancestry.com users and other family tree researchers will love the way she makes the ghosts interact with the writer.

Thus the “conversations” are with these Norwegian phantoms. Even though Swensson tells the reader exactly what she is doing, it all feels real.  I really felt the ghosts were there. No doubt that is because Swensson remembers to add descriptive details and weaves story patterns into the book.

I liked reading about great, great grandfather Ole relate how the Norwegian settlers arrived penniless and had to be taken in by Norwegians living in sod houses dug out in the Koshkonong area. Since the the Hell on Wheel‘s Swede’s accent was always heavy, he must have come over as a teen and had quite a few dinners with gophers digging through the wall to join him and the other Norwegians.

Swensson is a good researcher. History buffs will enjoy reading about the Norwegian ship that avoided Spanish pirates by doubling back to Europe for a day and a half, only to make a U turn to get back on track for the New World!

9781634130158 The term for people who travel via the written page: armchair travelers.

The word for people reading because they have no choice: students.

A correct synonym for reading: escape.

Reading is many things to many people. One of my favorite reading experiences this summer was a book I never expected to find: The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club by R.C. Goodwin. This collection of stories, written by a relatively new author who has worked in private practice, jails and prisons, a facility for the criminally insane, and the counseling center at a large university,”convinced me of an authenticity that only someone who has been in close proximity to such people can provide.

Each story  reveals a different side of the human soul, one that characters have been unaware of until circumstances change. The title piece of the collection has a powerful hook, starting out by detailing the intelligence quotient (I.Q.)  rank of several inmates on death row. The psychiatrist who has to talk to each inmate hits a wall of depression before meeting these men, for what on earth is a shrink supposed to do for a condemned man? Make him fit for human society?

The psychiatrist is surprised when one of the condemned prisoners asks for Stephen Hawking’s  A Brief History of Time.  The prisoner in question reads it and discusses the very difficult subject matter with clarity and precision, making the reader wonder what that inmate might have become if he had experienced a different childhood. (That question is the premise of another story titled “Blank Slate,” in which a head injury changes the character of a violent criminal.) The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club alludes to the fact that more than one prisoner reads this difficult book and is affected by it.

All the stories are excellent. I was personally struck by “One on One” in which a rapist and his victim meet, more than once. I was not even aware that such a program existed or that a convict or his victim would wish to partake. The story unfolds in unexpected fashion. Like all the stories, it held me in its grip. I highly recommend this compelling collection to all lovers of unexpectedly intelligent and interesting story telling.



Certain red flags signal to writing teachers and book judges that a book or story is written by someone who does not use a writers’ group or contests to help hone skills. Seasoned judges and teachers expect further mistakes once they bump against the first. Sadly, mistakes distract from good story telling and hurt writers’ chances for publication and attaining readers.

  1. Any story or book that starts with pronouns “he” or “she,” rather than naming a protagonist until many paragraphs or pages in, is written by a beginner. Chances are high that the story will percolate with other wannabe writer annoyances.
  2.  Misuse of punctuation.
  3. Misspelled past participles. The most commonly misspelled past participle is “lain.” People wrongly use “laid.”
  4. Misused verb tenses. Many writers do not go to the trouble of correctly using present perfect tense, relying on “just” in front of simple past: “I just ate.”
  5. Overuse of adverbs. “Even,” “just” and “basically” are ubiquitous.
  6. Starting a story with a character the reader has no sympathy for. Telling a tale through the eyes of a despicable person is hard to carry off. Readers need to bond, just like babies do.
  7. Trying to be too mysterious. (This hooks with number #1.) Writers who think they are being mysterious and refuse to give information that is descriptive and logical fall on their noses in the land of vagueness. No reader wants to be lost. This mistake always shows up early in the text.