Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Blabber about a book blurb

Cloistered recently among the shelved books at Barnes & Noble, I read the jacket blurb of Nicholas Reynolds’s new book on Ernest Hemingway, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy, and burst into laughter. When you laugh loudly at the publisher’s description of a book that isn’t supposed to be funny, it probably presages a problem for the author.
I wasn’t laughing at the author’s bona fides as they are impressive. That of being a historian at the CIA Museum and a onetime U.S. Marine Corps colonel and of having been trained at one of the world’s great universities, Oxford.
What made me laugh, and should be an embarrassment for Mr. Reynolds, is publisher William Morrow’s wet-behind-the-ears blurb-writer stating that the author “began to uncover clues” of Hemingway’s “spycraft” in 2010. One good thing about being old is possession of a long memory. Someone should tell the William Morrow blurb-writer that Hemingway’s work as a “spy” was disclosed in 1954(!) in an Associated Press story under the headline “Hemingway Helped Spy, Saboteur Hunt.” The story was widely carried in American newspapers. His publisher dim-wittingly made Nicholas Reynolds look at best like a Johnny-come-lately on the subject and at worst like a fool by boasting that he “began to uncover clues” of Hem’s spying in 2010, which, even if you suck at arithmetic, you can figure it's in excess of a half-century after it was disclosed.
For the author's sake let’s hope the publisher changes this sophomoric blurb in later editions.
I’d write a review of Mr. Reynolds’s book, which I am sure he worked diligently on, but cannot. I didn’t buy it because I noticed other “problems” in the blurb, which is supposed to entice you into buying the book not putting it back on the bookstore shelf. While these didn’t make me laugh they tended to suggest the book was too superficial for a person who has read a lot on Hemingway. For instance, the blurb mentioned material that can also be found in a 106-page confidential FBI file on Hemingway that author Jeffrey Meyers pried out of the agency in researching his 1985 biography, Hemingway. Much colorful detail about the great storyteller’s spying activities (for the U.S. government) still makes Meyers’s biography of particular interest. The new spy book’s blurb seems to rehash this FBI stuff, which reminds me of a rule of writing: if you know the dog is brown, does it really matter how many different ways you say it?
The blurb also suggests Hemingway might have been a commie spy by stating Reynolds discloses Hemingway’s “troubling recruitment by Soviet spies to work with the NKVD, the forerunner to the KGB.” Even in pre- and post-war America when J. Edgar Hoover suspected everybody of being a Red, the FBI was unable to unearth proof Hemingway was a communist, let alone spying for them. The bureau’s Hemingway file details his “associations” with communists. Which was understandable. Many fighters on the loyalist side against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War were communists who were supported by the Soviets, and Hemingway knew and drank with them. There is no question commie fronts in the U.S. duped Hemingway into signing petitions and lending his famous name to their letterheads. Which brings me to the main reason I passed on Mr. Reynolds’s Hemingway spy book, released in March. The blurb tried to boot-strap him into being a communist by making a big deal of his “wartime meeting in East Asia with communist leader Chou En-Lai, the future premier of the People’s Republic of China.”
Well, if he met a friend of Mao’s he’s a commie, right? Not hardly.
Anybody who reads the account of the Chou En-Lai meeting in Martha Gellhorn’s excellent (and funny) 1978 memoir, Travels with Myself and Another, knows she and husband Ernest Hemingway’s meeting with Chou was perfunctory. She recalls a lot of merriment happening but little substance because, as she puts it, “we didn’t know who Chou was.” Her husband showed scant interest in Chinese politics, and failed to ask Chou any salient questions about the communists. Plainly, at this time (1941), but for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Spanish Civil War (which he featured in For Whom the Bell Tolls), Hemingway didn’t give a rat's patoot about politics and communists, Chinese or otherwise. He didn't want to go to China but his journalist wife dragged him along, as she had been assigned to write a magazine story on it. 
Now for a nit picky footnote on the spy book. The full title of Nicholas Reynolds’s work is Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures 1935-1961, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy. I might mention that the only “secret” thing Hemingway did in 1961 was to quietly walk past his sleeping wife Mary’s bedroom on the morning of July 2, get his favorite Boss shotgun and kill himself. While I’m on it, how cleverly original is the title considering the title of the real spy classic by John le CarrĂ©, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1974?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

BURN OVER released!

BURN OVER is out and available in e-book and paperback. A fictional account of a true, and truly disastrous wildfire in Southern California, it’s peopled with characters I liked hanging out with for the months of writing, and I hope you will as well.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb: “April Reynolds is a happy young bride who dreams of having a baby with her studly fireman husband Kyle in the Mount San Gorgonio region of Southern California. Kyle has a dream too: to finish building their house on an idyllic mountainside, into which he has sunk all of their money. But life’s dreams are as fragile as kindling when confronted by a rarely seen “perfect fire storm,” which ignites a massive blaze, destroying lives and homes, and chars April’s heart by unleashing the deadly foe wildland fire fighters fear the most – a Burn Over.”

It's written to be a fast, yet thrilling and touching read.

Find e-book and paperback at Amazon: R.D. Byron-Smith, Burn OverAnd thanks for reading this, my 20th book.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Of automobiles and computers

Novelist Booth Tarkington first published The Magnificent Ambersons in 1918, which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The novel is about the downfall in finances and prestige of the richest family in Indianapolis. A key plot point is introduction of the automobile by inventor Eugene Morgan at the turn of the last century. A scene in Chapter 19 takes place at the dinner table during a party, and a main character, George Amberson Minafer,  who is still stuck in horse-and-buggy times lambastes Morgan’s invention, saying: “Automobiles are a useless nuisance . . . They’ll never amount to anything but a nuisance. They had no business to be invented.”
After the personal affront, Morgan is forced to defend his invention powered by the internal combustion engine. His words are particularly prescient, seeing author Tarkington wrote them around 1916.
Now let’s pretend the novel was written in 2016, a century later, and George Amberson Minafer has just lambasted the “computer” as a “useless nuisance” and “had no business to be invented.” And let us further pretend that Eugene Morgan invented computers rather than automobiles, and is forced to defend his invention.
What follows is Morgan’s soliloquy in The Magnificent Ambersons, with two changes. I’ve substituted the word “computer” for “automobile.” And in one instance I’ve inserted “central processing unit” for “gasoline engine.”
Give this one-hundred-year-old paragraph a read.
“I’m not sure he’s wrong about computers,” Morgan said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization – that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls. I am not sure. But computers have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of computers; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the central processing unit, but would have to agree with him that computers ‘had no business to be invented.’”

R.D. Byron-Smith’s novels and non-fiction works are available in paperback at Amazon.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Don't Be Chicken to Write Your Memoirs

First blog in a long while because I was polishing a new memoir, just out. YOUR STORY, MY WAY: A Memoir on Memoirs and How to Write Them (e-book and paperback at Amazon) is a different kind of beast.
It’s a memoir on how to write a memoir.
It is also written for folks who want to pen a “family record” for later generations, and speak to them in immortal voice if you will.
While the title might remind some of “my way or the highway,” it won’t stand over you and beat you with a wooden ruler. Anything but didactic and schoolmarmish, it’s written in an easy-going style, often fun and conversational, maybe a touch sinful. Still, I had ages from teen upward in mind when I wrote it.
The book’s heart is a treasure trove of writing tips and tools I learned the hard way by doing them. Hey, I went to J-school, but things I reveal in this memoir weren’t taught at the university, and they won’t be found in any other book on writing memoirs, either. I got them when ornery editors jammed them down my throat. Yet I assure you, you won’t feel any pain.
The book has a personality and is richly lavished with personal stories and anecdotes, just like my 2015 best-selling memoir, TRUE STORIES I Never Told My Kids.
Here’s a quick taste from the new book, a humorous little ditty on using colloquialisms in writing a memoir.
I grew up in Michigan where we called dragonflies “sewing needles” – don’t ask me why. Each region has its own colloquialisms, or slang words and expressions unique to it, and these can brighten writing when used in a way that provides enough context for readers to understand what’s being said. Yet, if there is one overarching rule in using slang phrases, it is this: be damn sure you know what they really mean.
Like this: a Wall Street Journal reporter once quoted a guy who said that he had had more “fun than choking chickens.” Day of the story a reader from the South called the newspaper. “Down here choking chickens means masturbating,” the caller explained, with a laugh.
Neither the Journal reporter nor his editors knew what the colloquialism “choking chickens” really meant. Had they known there is no way a quote essentially saying someone had more “fun than masturbating” would have been printed.

– From YOUR STORY, MY WAY: A Memoir on Memoirs and How to Write Them (2017), available at Amazon and other booksellers.