Even though my fiction is set in the past, what makes it tick for me is whether the issues are relevant. Sadly, gender discrimination, political unrest, religious violence and oppressive government are not a problem anyone's solved yet.
These days, I have been watching The Rachel Maddow Show quite a bit. I feel it gives me a suspenseful, truthful analysis of the day’s political news. In my opinion, Rachel Maddow has become the bravest voice in television. The veteran MSNBC journalist doesn't hesitate to call out corruption or talk about the deaths in the immigrant detainment camps established by the Trump administration. Rachel Maddow reports all of this without bombast or name calling, although she is not afraid to show her indignation and grief, and at times, uses black humor . Watching her, I often have the bizarre feeling she has focused her attention so it really feels she's speaking directly through the screen. It is a rare gift and makes my connection with her different than when I watch other news programs.
This Stanford public policy graduate and Oxford PH.D. in politics is also a powerful writer. Her current nonfiction book, Blowout, was written over the course of four years and paints a chilling long-term picture of the fight to control oil with an emphasis on Russia’s role as a rogue state. The book is carefully researched and was written over the last four years, so It is an astonishing coincidence that its publication around occurred shortly after a whistleblower reported on Trump’s phone call with the President of Ukraine requesting that he investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who Trump fears could beat him in the 2020 election.
The Rachel Maddow Show (TRMS) has become the most popular news program in the country, although CNN’s News and Fox’s Sean Hannity news talk show are also close behind. During early October, as the impeachment inquiry began, TRMS viewership rose from 2.2 million average to 3.3 million per night.
No matter what side of the political spectrum one favors, it is generally agreed that Americans (and people around the world) have had had a very hard time since the 2016 election. The family divides that began at the Thanksgiving tables that year have morphed into people simply not eating together or speaking anymore. One of the things I really appreciate about Maddow is that she doesn’t mock or demonize Trump supporters. And she presents the news with a mini-recap of things came to be, which makes it accessible to someone who might not have absorbed honest information about the government until that moment.
And she also offers hope. “When this is over,” Rachel says after she’s concluded talking about something that seems impossibly bad. When this is over. Please.
Maddow’s success as a truth-teller reminds me of the another important radio and TV personality: Edward R. Murrow. Their surnames are eerily similar, for a start. Both journalists are both tall, dark and good-looking and partial to tailored dark suits. They are known for their furrowed brows. Loads of people became fixated on them, making them the most-watched newscasters of certain intense political eras.
These are big claims, but if you also were were not alive when Murrow was a star, I'll share a little about what I've learned. This longtime CBS news host became famous in the 1930s, when he was in charge of CBS’s European Bureau and reported on Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Murrow stayed vigilant in Europe, bringing America reports of Hitler’s danger at a time that most lawmakers were urging non-involvement in Europe’s troubles. Murrow warned he could not be ignored, and his reports were instrumental in changing America’s emotional opinion of the faraway crisis.
Edward Murrow stayed in Europe through the war, never entering a bomb shelter once to protect himself, and doing such things as flying on bombing raids and interviewing everyday people rather than the elite. He hired a small group of intrepid reporters nicknamed “Murrow’s Boys” who went all over Europe to bring the human cost of Hitler’s aggression home to America.
Murrow had a television show on CBS called See It Now during a time that the country faced a similarly dark time. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy hated Communists, and with the race to build deadly nuclear weapons in the 1950s, people lost sleep fearing attack from the USSR. McCarthy took advantage of this paranoia by speaking constantly of a Communist menace. He conducted hearings designed to expose secret Communists, charging many people who had no relation whatsoever with the political party.
Murrow was friends with CBS head Bill Paley, who admired the newsman so much he allowed him to report on any topic he wished. Murrow wanted to address Sen. McCarthy from the beginning of his reign of terror, but he knew if he jumped the gun, he would not have enough material to make the show succeed, nor would the public be receptive to it. If McCarthy successfully fought him, Murrow might even find himself and his colleagues at the network blacklisted. In the end, Morrow went to Michigan and interviewed a young air force officer fired because his father and sister had been accused of reading a book considered suspicious. Many viewers were horrified by what happened to this family and wrote to CBS in support of Murrow’s reporting. A second See It Now program used clips of the senator’s own speeches and testimony to paint a picture of his real motivations. The national outrage stirred up against McCarthy by that program may have been an important factor in leading the senate to formally censure him, which brought the destructive hearings to an end. Yet because of the controversial show, a major advertiser left CBS, and See It Now was shifted to another time slot to avoid further damage to corporate coffers.
When Murrow signed off at night, he always said, “Good night, and good luck.”
Rachel Maddow doesn’t have a stock phrase like that. Instead, she greets Chris Hayes, the host of MSNBC’s following news program. MSNBC’s wish must be that readers will not recognize a clear ending to her show and will continue watching the network for many more hours.
But at ten o’clock, I am usually off to bed, sometimes extremely charged up, and other times a bit more reassured as I dream of, when this is over.
Annamaria on Monday
If you have not heard me holding forth about something I learned from listening to RadioLab, you and I have not had enough conversation lately. Insights from listening to RadioLab come to my lips very often. In my opinion, it is the best radio program in the universe—a combination of entertainment and information unparalleled in anything else I experience on a regular basis.
With all the talk--world wide, I believe--about lying for political gain, I think it's time to look into lying, from a scientific perspective.
The Radio Lab episode I have in mind today, is one called “People Who Lie.” It analyzes why people lie and reveals why some people are so much better at it than others. Here is a link a podcast where you can hear the whole story:
To summarize, what neurologists have discovered is that, in addition to little gray cells made famous by Hercule Poirot, we all also have white matter in our brains. The white matter provides the pathways between one part of the brain and another. What happens when people lie on the spur of the moment is that several disparate parts of the brain light up and put together a story to tell instead of the truth. Bing.bing.bing! And voila’! “My baby brother vomited on my homework.”
Good liars, it turns out, have a lot more white matter than the less skillful fibbers on the planet. The extra white stuff allows stored images in their brains to link together more often, more creatively, and a lot faster.
As soon as I heard this, I wondered if anyone has ever looked at the brains of fiction writers to see if we have more than the usual supply of white matter. I would not be at all surprised if we do. I have heard that in Philadelphia there is a group of writers called The Liars Club. Makes sense to me. And there seems to be a scientific explanation for it.
My musings here about how I make up a story are VERY current for me right now. I am within about three thousand words of the end of my WIP. And my brain is producing all kinds of unedited twists and runs in the story. Here’s what my little gray cells think my white matter is doing.
With no outline or serious game plan, I draft my stories fast and furiously. I set myself a word count goal for each day, every day, and I don’t stop for the day until I have reached it. I force myself past the mental demons who laugh at the dreck I am producing, and I power along despite my fears of gross plot inconsistencies and jejune character motivations. I tell myself, that it does not have to be good, it just has to be there. Then, making it better and better will become the job.
Right now, with a fair amount of frequency, facts, images, connections show up in the story that come across as quite apt. Yet I have no recollection of producing them in order to call on them now. How could they have gotten there with little or no effort on my part? All I can think is that they happened Bing.bing.bing and then ran down my arms and out my fingertips onto the keyboard, practically unnoticed at the time. The white matter did it.
My prejudice is that the best art is like watching Fred Astaire dancing. It looks effortless. Almost nothing I ever do is effortless. But every once in while, there is a precious moment when the little gray cells and the little white cells cooperate and surprise me.
Recently on the news there have been a lot of pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, mounted on an eye-catching white horse, riding through snow up the sacred Mount Paektu, the highest mountain in the country.
Kim Jung-un and grey horse on sacred mountain
It struck me when I saw those pictures that there was something vaguely familiar about them. It didn’t take long to recall why. Back when I was a horse-mad small child (and indeed, a horse mad NOT-so-small child) I had a wonderful book about famous horses through history. One of them was a small grey Arabian stallion, Marengo, who belonged to the Emperor Napoléon I of France.
Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard pass in the Alps,
painted by Jacques-Louis David
Napoléon apparently once told an artist who inquired how he’d like to be portrayed, “Paint me calm, on a spirited horse.”
It is said that the Emperor owned 130-150 horses during his career, but the most famous of these is probably Marengo.
Napoléon Bonaparte was noted for liking small, agile horses although it is said that he was not a particularly skilled horseman. He was raised modestly on the island of Corsica, and did not learn to ride until beginning his military career. He had joined the artillery and was serving as an officer when Revolution broke out in France in 1789. Capitalising on the opportunities provided by the Revolution, he climbed the ranks very rapidly—he was a general by the time he was twenty-four.
Marengo was small for a war horse—only 14.1 h.h. (1.45m). He was apparently bred at the El Naseri stud and was imported into France from Co Cork in Ireland before being acquired by Bonaparte as a six-year-old in 1799.
Arab horses are noted for their stamina, speed and courageous nature. Marengo was no exception. He carried Bonaparte safely through numerous battles, including Marengo in Italy in 1800—Bonaparte named the horse after his victory here.
Some reports claim the pair would go on through Austerlitz in Moravia, Jena-Auerstedt in Prussia, Wagram in Austria and finally to Waterloo, although whether Bonaparte rode the same horse throughout this time, or a series of horses, is unclear. After all, by the time of Waterloo in 1815, the original Marengo would have been twenty-two—a good age for a horse in a far more sedentary occupation.
By this time, though, the sight of a spirited grey Arab horse, ridden by the figure in the bicorn hat and plain grey overcoat, had become part of Bonaparte’s legend. Although the village of Spinetta Marengo in northern Italy was already well-known for producing cloth in a dark brown colour with white speckles, after the battle it became synonymous with a grey or black fabric shot through with white or pale grey thread, as popularised by Bonaparte.
After his defeat at Waterloo, Bonaparte was forced to leave the wounded Marengo behind and escape by carriage. It was reported that the horse was found by Lt Henry Petre, 11th Baron Petre, who recognised the emperor’s saddlery and the imperial brand on the horse’s flank of an N topped by a crown.
Petre nursed the horse back to health and shipped him to London. When his career as a spoil of war was over, Petre sold the stallion to William Angerstein, a wealthy Grenadier Guards officer.
Angerstein put the horse unsuccessfully to stud, then retired him. Marengo finally died in 1832, when the original horse would have been thirty-eight. Angerstein then had his skeleton reconstructed by surgeons and it is now on display at the National Army Museum. The horse’s two front hooves were retained, however, and turned into ornamental snuff boxes. Another was used as an inkwell. His skin was put aside to be stuffed but was apparently lost.
This week’s Word of the Week is donnybrook, which comes from the annual Fair held in Donnybrook, which was then a suburb of Dublin. The Fair was noted for the consumption of alcohol and the number of both fights and hasty marriages that took place during it. In the end, the Donnybrook Fair was abolished in 1855. The name for a general ruckus remains.
Not long until Furness LitFest next month. (Wow, is Christmas creeping up on us, or what?) Helen Phifer and I will be taking part in Thriller Writers Talk With Margaret Martindale, starting 9:30 am on Sat, Nov 02 at the Dalton Community Centre on Nelson Street in Dalton-in-Furness. Tickets available from the website.