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Scandinavian Murder Mysteries

Is Finland in Scandinavia? Is it a Nordic country? And what is the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic? Like most Americans, my geographical knowledge is pitiful-- I must take a class sometime soon—and I always have to Google countries. I’ve traveled to Norway and Denmark, but never to Sweden or Finland. Finland has a border with Russia and is just miles from St. Petersburg. Russian, Swedish, Finnish, English—these four languages are almost interchangeable in Finland. Who knew? I didn’t.

We can learn a lot from murder mysteries. Right now my husband, Jim, and I are hooked—and bingeing on—“Bordertown”—four episodes to go. And before that we watched “Trapped,” from Iceland, which is not Scandinavia exactly, but feels as though it was chopped off from Scandinavia in an earthquake millennia ago.

And both of these series are wonderful. Why? The production values are high, the scripts are gorgeous—both character and plot driven with little or no gunfire. And we get a taste of a landscape and culture, albeit fictionalized and idealized , that is uniquely strange, yet familiar in its Western mores. It’s pure escapism, which is what we—Americans—seem to need these days. Texts fly from friends and family with suggestions of series newly discovered on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Stream me, baby, I’m ready for more fairy tales to vent my fears and discontents. But are these stories fairy tales? Or are they real? And what is real? And how close to real are these scripts? The murders are often grotesque, portrayed so graphically I often have to turn my head away. But the detectives are so imperfect, quirky and humane, I want to invite them over for dinner.

I had a Norwegian student when I was teaching at the University of London who invited us to her home four hours north of Oslo. High summer, lots of swimming in a fiord just minutes from her home. Her father was a Lennsmannkontor—the town’s mayor, notary republic and sheriff. He had a very impressive sign on his car with lights on top. But there was little danger; everything about the life in this small town seemed safe, stable. The population in Norway at the time was still homogeneous—no refugees. And there were no Scandinavian murder mysteries hitting the international bestseller lists then, either. So, perhaps, the success of these books and streamed series has something to do with the influx of desperate, migrating populations into the EU, and the transformation of once homogeneous societies into something else, or more, or different. All the Nordic/Scandinavian countries have been generous in welcoming refugee families. And they have suffered attacks. The most recent has been in Finland when an 18-year old Moroccan citizen, denied asylum, and known to authorities, went on a stabbing rampage. Two people were killed.

Undoubtedly, this tragic episode will stir the imaginations of Finnish writers as 9/11 has stirred the imaginations of American writers. After that world-changing event, I got a phone call from a reporter at the LA Times. She wanted to know if I thought the destruction of The Towers would show up in literature any time soon. All that we were writing in the wake of the attack was raw and insistent; it had not yet been transformed into literature. Beyond that, I really didn’t know. Who can predict these things? Years later, after 9/11 had mulched and settled, I wrote a murder mystery myself, “Say Nothing,” which, to my surprise, tapped into the trauma of 9/11 big time. The female detective is an Iraq vet. And she's very quirky and humane.  Read More 
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Jazz Journal

It’s a summer Monday, I’ve been away for a few days, the emails and Facebook posts have accumulated, and I am saddened—and frightened—by the events in Charlottesville. I attended a peaceful rally and stood with uptown New York City neighbors of every ethnicity and age, some carrying candles or signs, a new literary genre since 45 was elected. I am sure someone will eventually collect them into a book.

I began this blog post thinking about free speech vs. hate speech, and how propaganda—words and images—are often prequels to violent action, an historical truism. Hitler’s “willing executioners,” as Daniel Goldhagen, a Harvard historian called the ordinary people of Germany during Hitler’s rise, are too easily led, too unquestioning, too virulent in their verbal expressions of loathing and exclusion. Hatred obliterates conscience, humanity and rational thought. And this being unequivocally true, a bizarre question surfaced in my writer’s mind: I wonder if bigots listen to jazz? And, if not, what is their music of choice?

I listen to all kinds of music, but it is only jazz—its melodies and riffs, the improvisation of the next unscripted note—that satisfies during hard times. And this has been true for me since high school. Only my really cool friends listened to jazz on the all-night station in New York, unbeknownst to our parents, of course. We were supposed to be sleeping, not talking on the phone about the latest Jimmy Breslin editorial in the New York Post, or listening to the radio. We were going to a progressive, politically engaged school. Andrew Goodman, an alumnus, had just been murdered during a voter registration drive in Mississippi, a murder that remained unsolved until 2004.

Jazz. I spent my late adolescent years in Boston, New York and San Francisco, in affordable jazz clubs instead of rock clubs. For the price of one drink, we could stay into the night and all night. Jazz lovers and jazz clubs were integrated. What an amazing word! Some of the musicians were white, some were black. Did it matter where the music originated? Yes and no. Its African and slave origins were embedded. Tunes held the pain of the Middle Passage, the celebration of survival, hope for the future. The British imitators I knew when I lived in London—George Melly, Johnnie Dankworth, Cleo Laine, in particular—were in awe of its power and did their best to honor the musical tradition, making their own contributions.

So I ask again: do bigots listen to jazz? Should we pipe this indigenous American music through the air ducts of offices and bus stations, supermarkets and Walmarts? And, if we could do this, would a bigot’s brain waves shift from hatred to love? Would they begin to absorb the true meaning and promise of America? Would they stand down and turn in their guns?  Read More 
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Fly Me To The Moon

I dreamt I booked passage to the moon. I opened the brochure and Frank Sinatra started singing Bart Howard’s love song, “Fly Me To The Moon.” That mellow voice. It was very relaxing.

What are you doing to relax, dear reader? Taking care of yourself, I hope.

I went to see my PCP yesterday to check out a small worry spot, and while we were commiserating about the mess in DC, we exchanged reading lists. I am totally into John Le Carré’s “Night Manager,” and also watched the mini-series (compelling, highly recommend), and he is reading a lot of junk and can’t even remember all the titles. When he is not reading junk, he is glued to MSNBC, not a good idea before sleep, I said. You are probably right, I have worry spots, too, he said. I put my husband under a headset when he watches MSNBC late at night, and I listen to music and read, I told him. I should do the same, my PCP said. Listen to music, that is.

I am a writer, I need to keep my mind clear. About a week ago I noticed that my Facebook feed was flooded with all kinds of news outlets because I had “liked” this and that. I couldn’t find my friends anymore, all those sweet pics of flowers and children and holidays. So I unliked as much as I could. It was like cutting away the fat on a piece of meat. And I don’t eat meat, so forgive me, but I cannot think of another analogy.

I should stop eating meat, too, my PCP said.

What would life be like on the moon?, I asked him. I woke up with this question in my head. Would night and day be all mixed up like we are here on earth right now? Because I do think we are all mixed up right now. Yes, my PCP agreed. Then he told me to get going, to move on. Sooner or later, there’ll be another worry spot, he said, but for now, when you leave here, rest assured that this one is okay, and that you are okay.

But even after I left the office, I kept thinking about living on the moon. Would it be an outdoor or indoor life? Would I be able to teach an advanced writing workshop? Find a bookstore? Order books from amazon.com? Would my cell phone work?  Read More 
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