Friday, October 30, 2009

Reality catches up to fiction

On page 111 of my 2003 novel Season's Revenge appears this paragraph from the Porcupine County Tribune of October 24, 1932:


Mr. and Mrs. Simon Talikka, Mr. Arthur Weser and sons Arthur Jr. and Elmer, and Heinrikki Heikkila, who have lived at Greenfield for several years, left Thursday for Kontupohja, United Soviet Social Russia.

A farewell party was given for them at the Farmers' Hall at Greenfield Monday evening.
The paragraph was reproduced nearly verbatim from the October 24, 1932, issue of the Ontonagon Herald, the actual weekly paper of the Upper Michigan county that is the model for Porcupine County in my mystery fiction. All I altered was the real name of the paper and the real name of the town, Green. I added a fictional character, Heikkila, to support a subplot of the novel.

That subplot involved the historical reverse migration of more than 10,000 struggling Finnish farmers from Upper Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario to Karelia, a Finnish-speaking Soviet province next door to Finland, during the Great Depression. Most of the farmers were never heard from again, presumably having perished during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. Many of their American properties were abandoned for taxes and sold to greedy land speculators -- giving rise to a possible motive for murder.

This morning I sat down at the computer to the following e-mail:

Dear Mr. Kisor,

I was shocked when reading your book Season’s Revenge when I came across the section that talked about Karelia and Simon Talikka, Mr. Arthur Weser and sons Arthur Jr. and Elmer, and Henrikki Heikkila, who have live at Greenfield for several years, left Thrusday for Kontupohja, United Social Soviet Russia.

The reason why I was shocked is because your fiction story as it relates to Karelia was more non-fiction to me. You see, I have been searching for decades trying to find out what happen to my missing relatives that went to Karelia from Green, Michigan. They are: Simon Talikka, Mr. Arthur Wesa (your book says Weser), and sons Arthur Jr. and Elmer, and Eero. I find your story of them more than coincidence. Simon Talikka and his wife took in (unofficially adopted) Arthur’s boys shortly after Olga died (Arthur’s wife). Arthur also lost a very young son named Onni.

I pray that you might have some information (letters, news paper articles, etc) of my missing relatives. My family was from Green, Michigan, not from the fictitious Greenfield noted in the story. After Simon Talikka and Arthur Wesa and the boy’s went to Karelia sometime around October 29, 1932, we lost contact with them in 1936. According to Mayme Sevander's book titled "Of Soviet Bondage" has a listing of "Vesa, Arthur; from Green, Mich. US 1931." in Appendix 5, titled Wartime Labor Camp Victims. This suggests that they may have become victims of Stalin's purges.

The last time anyone heard from Arthur and the boys was in a letter written by Simon Talikka in 1936. Simon writes; "At this time he was no longer living in Karelia, but rather in a different area of Russia working in a gold mine. Wesa [Arthur] stayed with his boys in Karelia. They are working there in the woods. Young Paavo [Walter Kytöneva - Wesa] is a teacher in Tunkua.” [Tunkua is a town in the northern part of Karelia]. This was the last piece of solid evidence that Arthur and the 3 boys were still alive.

Thank you for your time and would appreciate any help you can provide.

Kevin Levonius
Gilroy, California
Cell (408) 710-6606

Accompanying the e-mail was a reproduction of a listing of the members of the Wesa family (also with their mother's maiden name, Kytöneva) who had emigrated to Karelia -- and three photographs:

Left to right: Onni, Eero, Lauri, Paavo and Viljo.

Arthur Kytöneva-Wesa

Olga Kytöneva-Wesa

I had to tell Mr. Levonius that I had no further information on his family, but that I would post his letter on this blog in the long-shot hope that someone researching the Karelia period who might know what happened to the Talikkas and the Wesas would discover it during a Google search.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Agincourt and the Whiskey Rebellion

Family lore, especially legends about heroic and illustrious forebears, gives us a sense of rootedness. But just because a story has been handed down through the generations doesn't make it true.

For a century or more, one branch of my family has taken enormous pride in the belief that its first American ancestors arrived in this country from Northern Ireland in 1770, settled in the Monongahela Valley and fought in the storied Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94 against arbitrary federal taxation of alcohol.

Now my brother, a retired professor of economics and a trained researcher, has discovered two strong bits of documentary evidence suggesting that the family did not get to this country until 1798, far too late to have participated in the Whiskey Rebellion.

Such are the vagaries of oral history, of unsupported memory. We don't, as a rule, remember things as they actually occurred; we tend to remember events the way we want them to have happened.

These musings are spurred by an article in today's New York Times suggesting that the Battle of Agincourt, fought on this date 584 years ago, may not have been the impossible victory against overwhelming 1-to-5 odds that Britons have celebrated for nearly six centuries, helped along by these stirring lines from Shakespeare's "Henry V":

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Indeed Agincourt was a great win for the English against the French, some modern historians now say, but involved closer to 1-to-2 odds (and maybe less) than literary posterity has claimed. Like my brother, the revisionist historians have taken a hard look at actual documentary evidence -- in the case of Agincourt, military and tax records -- and come up with a different truth. It isn't what traditional historians and popular dramatists have said it was all these centuries.

Why is this stuff important? The Times article points out that the recent discoveries have led to a "new science of military history" that today's generals in Afghanistan and Iraq are carefully consulting in making their command decisions. If he who ignores history is doomed to relive it, so is he who relies blindly on national myths.

It's great to believe stirring stories, but it's better to have the truth.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Soaring cliches

Film critics are like sportswriters; all too often they reach for a peach and grasp a chestnut instead. In their reviews of the new, almost universally panned movie about Amelia Earhart, many of their cliches sound either like third-rate Saint-Exupery or cribbed from 1940s comic books about intrepid birdmen.

"Soar" and its ilk were a sad favorite:

"Mira Nair's unfocused direction never allow[s] Hilary Swank's performance as legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart to soar." -- Lou Lumenick, New York Post

"A film that should have soared . . .Like her subject, the filmmaker gets lost in the clouds." --Betsy Sharkey, L.A. Times

"Amelia goes airborne but never fully soars." -- Claudia Puig, USA Today

"The result is verisimilitude without engagement — a risk-taker's story told entirely without narrative risk — and a movie that consequently never takes flight." -- Bob Mondello, NPR

"A director can do only so much with a script . . . that feels like it’s on the runway, waiting, even when it’s up in the air." -- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

"Most of all, Earhart wanted to be able to fly free as a bird above the clouds . . ." -- Ray Bennett, Hollywood Reporter

One writer scored a trifecta:

"Though this traditional story about a defiantly nontraditional woman doesn't always soar, it fits Hilary Swank, its producer/star, like a jumpsuit. . . . Earhart came to love Putnam, nicely played by Gere as the wind beneath her wings." -- Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

(This is just ignorant. In real life aviation jumpsuits, or coveralls as they are properly called, are hardly form-fitting but loose, baggy and grease-stained. What's more, wind does not make wings fly.)


"The onslaught of cliches brings the movie down in flames." -- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

"To say that Amelia never gets off the ground would be an understatement; it barely makes it out of the hangar."— Justin Chang, Variety

Some images were just puzzling:

"Trying to import feeling into the movie's stilted dialogue is like trying to fly a plane blindfolded." -- Sam Adams, A.V. Club

"Amelia Earhart's disappearance is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. 'Amelia' clips its wings." -- Stephanie Zacharek,

(Wing-clipping keeps chickens from flying, but in aviation it increases an airplane's maneuverability.)

"Amelia is the Mack truck of flight. Heavy and lumbering, it delivers the goods, but there's not an ounce of magic in the thing." -- Rick Groen, The Globe and Mail

(How did Mack trucks get in there? Why not an Airbus or a 747? They lumber, too.)

Some images did seem fresh:

"Swank rides the thematic turbulence like the star she is." -- Ty Burr, Boston Globe

"The next generation of American women grew up in her slipstream." -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

And there was some sharp wit:

"With any luck this biopic of Amelia Earhart will also vanish without a trace." -- J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader

"Amelia Earhart is still missing." -- Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Newspaper corrections columns sometimes raise suspicions that the papers are trying to cover up their really egregious screwups with a smokescreen of trivial "skinbacks," presenting an illusion of journalistic candor and honesty.

Case in point is this from yesterday's Los Angeles Times:

"Bear sighting: An item in the National Briefing in Sunday's Section A said a bear wandered into a grocery story in Hayward, Wis., on Friday and headed for the beer cooler. It was Thursday."

I'm so glad that's been cleared up. Now I can get on with my day.

(Thanks to Regret the Error for the tip.)

Meanwhile, in today's Washington Post, pundit George F. Will commits the run-on sentence of the week:

"Three years before Rep. Wilbur Mills, the Arkansas Democrat who then chaired the Ways and Means Committee, had his fling with a stripper named Fanne Foxe, a.k.a. "The Argentine Firecracker" (Mills joined her on stage at Boston's exquisitely named Pilgrim Theater, which specialized in what Time magazine primly called "ecdysiast exhibitions"; this was after he had a fracas with Ms. Foxe that provoked her to jump into Washington's Tidal Basin across from the memorial to Thomas Jefferson, who really believed that democracies could behave rationally), he decided to seek the Democrats' 1972 presidential nomination."

Umm . . . Maybe someone stole the period from Will's keyboard.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nook e-books?

Gales of blogosphere laughter greeted yesterday's announcement of Barnes & Noble's new "Nook" e-book reader, and justly so.

"What you readin', bud?" says one straphanger to another.

"A Nook e-book."

"A what?"

If you don't get it, ask a teenager. Or a dirty old person.

Let's face it. Anything with "ook" is never going to be a good name for an e-book reader. Imagine:

Cook e-book? Only for chocolate chip fans.

Eook? What?

Fook? Please.

Gook? Korean War combat vets might go for that, but nobody else.

Hook? Fisherfolks?

Jook? What?

Iook? What?

Kook? Is Edd Byrnes remembered anymore?

Look? For kids and illiterates.

Mook? Sounds like a Spike Lee role.

Oook? What?

Pook? For stuffed-animal juveniles.

Qook? E-books for Inuits.

Rook? Beginning readers.

Sook? Does that mean anything?

Took? Steal this book!

Uook? Can that even be pronounced?

Vook? Already coined for e-books with video components. (It won't last.)

Wook? Chewbacca might read this.

Xook? Sounds like a cloud computing website.

Zook? Enough already.

Wonder how much Barnes & Noble paid the marketing firm that came up with Nook.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Up-to-the-minute (?) news

The revelation in today's New York Times that commuter railroads around Manhattan cheat on their timekeeping is a shocker, shocker, shocker.

For years, says the Times, the 7:55 has been the 7:55. Now we discover that for years on secret employee timetables it has been the 7:56, simply to give sprinting commuters an extra minute to make the train.

This is dismaying. Train times used to be sacrosanct, a source of national pride. You could set your watch by the express as it departed the depot. Now the old Timex might be a full 60 seconds off, ruining all your careful calculations. That three-minute egg might in fact be a two-minute one; no wonder it's so runny.

On the other hand, there is always another hand, and it's not the one that counts off the seconds.

Amtrak (which admits it fudges on departure times but won't reveal which ones and where) shamelessly pads its arrival schedules.

An example:

The westbound California Zephyr is carded to depart Chicago Union Station at precisely 2 p.m., arriving in Naperville, the next stop, at 2:34 p.m. The eastbound Zephyr is scheduled to call at Naperville at 2:23 p.m., arriving at Chicago Union Station at 3:30 p.m.

Why the 19-minute disparity over those 28 miles?

That "slop" is built into the schedule to allow a train running late to "make up time." It doesn't, really. It can't run any faster than trackage rules allow. The only thing that's being made up is the "facts."

No need to bash the railroads for playing fast and loose with the truth about time. The airlines do the same thing.

At least in America, where close enough is good enough.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Silent but deadlies

Here's more on auto industry fears about silent hybrid and electric autos that sneak up on you unheard.

And what about us deaf pedestrians? Isn't anybody looking out for us? We can't hear noisy gas-powered cars -- how do you expect us to know when a silent-but-deadly hybrid is almost upon us?

I know what you're going to say: What difference does it make?

And our response is: Hearing folks, get over yourselves. Use the old Mark One Eyeball on that otherwise useless swivel known as your head. That's what we deaf folks do, and it works for us.

When was the last time you heard about a car hitting a deaf pedestrian? Come on, have you ever?

As for blind pedestrians, the National Highway Safety people say that in 2008 the United States suffered 4,700 pedestrian deaths . . . of which 5 were unsighted people. (Not one was killed by a Prius.) Where's the fire?

Finally, for hearing pedestrians, there's the horn button, which has purposes other than allowing drivers to vent their road rage.

In my humble but irascible opinion, soundmakers for silent cars are nothing more than transparent attempts to relieve drivers of their responsibility to stay alert, yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks and keeping a weather eye out for jaywalkers.

Far more lives would be saved if cell phones behind the wheel were banned -- and the ban enforced with substantial fines.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Nobels and American education

That education of the masses in the United States is in deep, deep trouble is undeniable, and something must be done about it pretty soon before everybody starts dropping out of school and becoming a knuckle-walking right-winger. (Just kidding, Republican friends.)

Still, American education does allow cream to rise to the top. This year, nine of the 12 Nobel Prize winners are U.S.-born and U.S.-educated. That should count for something, if only to show that our educational system is still able to serve very smart people -- and perhaps it can be fixed for the rest of us.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Here's where to stash the vic

Tangled cedar logs on the rocky shore of Lake Superior in Michigan's Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. (Photo by David Braithwaite)

One of the vital tasks for a mystery writer who bases his settings on reality is to locate good places to hide dead bodies.

In the past I've been able to tramp all over Ontonagon County, the area in the west of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that serves as the basis for my fictional Porcupine County, and find splendid sites to stash stiffs.

But now I'm a gimpy geezer and my mobility is limited. My days of strenuous hiking through the deep wilderness lie in the distant past. What to do, then?

Trust to serendipity.

Last summer the Lady Friend took long power walks west on the Lake Superior shore for exercise, and on one of them she met a retired psychologist named Barbara Braithwaite, who with her husband Dave lives in a house on the beach.

Dave is a park ranger retired from a long career in the nearby Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park -- the Wolverine Mountains in my novels. He is also an accomplished wildlife photographer (his pictures of loons make me gnash my teeth in envy). And, marvel of marvels, he likes to help out mystery writers.

I told Dave of my problem: A serial killer stalks a deer hunter through the snowy December woods to the lake shore, drops him with a single shot, and secretes the body where searchers are unlikely to find it until the spring thaw. I needed a good place for that, not so much to render the setting believable to the expert reader but to be able to describe it in detail. (I'm not that imaginative.)

Dave came up with the perfect site -- deep inside a tangle of cedar logs, piled up as a windbreak by backpacking campers, in the trees hard by a rock outcropping that lines the shore between the mouths of the wild Big Carp and Little Carp Rivers. And he had taken a photograph of it.

Did I say perfect? Before and after the winter freeze, the wild lake would send high waves crashing through the logs, sluicing away clues that would help forensics investigators determine cause of death and deepening the mystery for Sheriff Steve Martinez.

Dave had also photographed the two-bunk wilderness cabin at Mirror Lake in the park's interior, a suitable place for my serial killer to lie in wait until the victim ambled past. The park trusts hunters who rent its cabins to close them up every November 30, and they aren't visited again until February when the rangers snowmobile in to shovel the deep snow off the roofs.

This is all I need to get me off the dime and back to work on Hang Fire. Thanks, Dave.

The two-bunk cabin at Mirror Lake deep in the interior of the Porkies at the end of January. (Photo by David Braithwaite)

Friday, October 9, 2009

'The Lost Symbol' is found . . . wanting

If you are looking for a reason not to buy Dan Brown's latest, The Lost Symbol, all you need to do is read Maureen Dowd's devastating pan in this weekend's New York Times Book Review.

Brown's previous knuckle-dragging potboiler, The Da Vinci Code, persuaded me that he is the reincarnation of another blockbuster-bestselling author, Robert James Waller, the fellow who wrote The Bridges of Madison County (1992) and later spilled several more drums of the literary equivalent of methyl-ethyl bad shit.

Of course Mr. Brown, like Mr. Waller in his day, is keeping the long-ailing book publishing industry alive. Argh.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Electrifying news from Israel

See here.

If this pans out, maybe the Interstate System could power half the United States. Or maybe it's too good to be true . . .

(With thanks to Lew Golan for the heads-up.)

THURSDAY: The Israeli idea, or something like it, is also being promoted in the U.S. See here.

On another matter, the other evening I saw a television documentary (or maybe it was a commercial) on a subject I've forgotten; its most notable feature was a buxom young woman in the background wearing a tight white T-shirt emblazoned "SAVE THE MEMORIES." What was that all about, besides being an enticing pun?

Schott's Vocab, the New York Times blog on language, has the answer.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Arches and Canyonlands

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park (National Park Service photo).

Last week's PBS-Ken Burns series on the U.S. national parks, interminable as it sometimes seemed, has fired up the Lady Friend and me for another trip to see the nation's natural glories.

By Amtrak, of course. We're both rail buffs, and whenever we need to go somewhere and time isn't pressing, we'll take the train.

The two most obvious candidates for a train trip from Chicago to a national park are Glacier Park in Montana (via the Empire Builder over the old Great Northern's High Line) and the Grand Canyon (aboard the Southwest Chief along the old Santa Fe main to Los Angeles). We've done the former three times, the latter once.

So where to go? How about Rocky Mountain National Park (just north of Granby, Colorado, on the route of the California Zephyr over the old Denver & Rio Grande Western line to Salt Lake City)? That would be doable, but the Rockies, grand as they are, have become overly familiar to us. We need something new and different.

Aha! Just off the beaten path are the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in southeastern Utah, where the naturalist-writer Edward Abbey was once a park ranger and gathered notes for his celebrated Desert Solitaire. We've never seen the world-renowned high desert rock formations of the region, reputed to be heaven for the amateur photographer.

A little research reveals that we could take the California Zephyr (in sleeper, of course) to Denver and through the Rockies to Grand Junction, Colorado, where we'd stay overnight and rent a car for the two-hour road trip southwest along the Colorado River to Moab, Utah. We'd use a bed-and-breakfast in Moab as a base for day trips to the Arches and Canyonlands, driving in, parking, and hiking to the sights.

I'm a short-range hiker (two miles or less) owing to arthritic joints, but both parks feature several easy trails for gimpy geezers like me.

And so I've set to planning the journey, a task that's almost as much fun as actually taking the trip. More later.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Can you imagine pulling out your iPod Touch and perusing a novel that, in certain chapters, includes embedded X-rated video passages? Just think of it. You're reading a hot bodice-ripper when, suddenly, the two characters portrayed on the "jacket" magically appear in a window on the screen of your reading device. Before your eyes they hungrily strip off each other's clothes and, grappling in a passionate clinch, fall onto the fourposter . . .

The "vook" -- a hybrid e-book enhanced by video -- is now appearing on the literary stage. According to this story in the New York Times, some authors are delighted by the possibilities of a new means of multi-media storytelling -- and some are appalled.

In my view, this hardly means the death of the printed book -- Mark Twain and Henry James will live forever between covers -- but it does suggest that our reading habits are changing faster than we had imagined.

Many of us are now absorbing most of our text on Kindles or iPods, but that is just a shift from one reading medium to another, from words on a device made of ink and paper to words on a device made of plastic and electronics. With the vook, is the the textual experience itself now changing, engaging a different part of our brains?

Maybe the idea is not so radical as one might think.

We've long had illustrated books in which paintings or photographs enhance the reader's understanding of the text. We've long had moving pictures, simply a different storytelling medium. Now the two familiar media are being melded, in many cases also with sound.

I do think the vook is one big new wave of the literary future, and can hardly wait to "read" one. Here are the first few offerings.