Voting Buddies

Jennie Walters always dresses her best when it’s time to vote. She’s doing her civic responsibility, an effort of extreme importance. She’s never missed an election, and she’s never even tried to shirk her way out of jury duty, like some she knows, like even her own husband, God rest his soul. “This is a representative democracy,” she tells anyone who will listen, “and I aim to represent my own part in it whenever I’m given the chance.”

But she had some trouble convincing her grandchildren. They’d just sit and roll their eyes when Jennie went on about voting. “People around the world have fought and died for this right,” she’d say, standing between them and the television. “Don’t you ever go taking that for granted.”

Her grandson, Spencer, could never be reasoned with—he had far too much of his mother in him—but her granddaughter, Deidre, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, was so proud to show Jennie her sticker proclaiming that she’d voted. They’d been voting buddies ever since. They made it special. They’d go to the firehouse together, stand in line, check in with the volunteers—half of whom Jennie had known since childhood—and then celebrate afterward. She’d make a fancy dinner until she could no longer manage so well in the kitchen. Deidre took over the honors at that point, first in Jennie’s house and then, when she moved out and got married, in her own. They didn’t get to vote together anymore, as Deidre lived in a different district, but there was always a celebration afterward. Year after year after year, even when Deidre had children of her own and moved to a bigger house in the next county. And even then, they’d all get together, and Jennie would tell stories about the first time she voted, and who got elected, and how even one person’s vote could make all the difference.

But then Deidre moved up north for a new job, a wonderful opportunity. That took some adjustment, and Jennie was happy for her granddaughter, but she felt terribly sad on Election Days. Even though they chatted on the computer thingie, it wasn’t even close to all of them being together.

This November she felt even worse. A fall had left her laid up temporarily, and Jennie didn’t even know if she could get out of the house to go vote.

“Get an absentee ballot, Grandmama,” Deidre said over the phone. “It’s easy. Lots of people do it.”

“That ‘lots of people’ is not going to be me! I am going to that firehouse if I have to call a fireman and have him carry me there.”

There was a long silence on the line. “Grandmama. You don’t have anyone there taking care of you? What happened to that nurse’s aide?”

“Pfft. She doesn’t even believe in voting, can you just imagine?”

“You get that ballot,” Deidre said.

Jennie promised she would, but it was all so confusing. First she had to get to the right website, then find a form to even apply for a ballot, then wait to get the ballot, then mail that in…how could she trust all those people? What if her vote didn’t get counted because she was not there to see it? She wasn’t too proud to admit that she cried a little while sitting at that computer in her wheelchair. But it didn’t sit easily on her that this would be the first election year in which she wouldn’t vote.

In fact on the big day, she didn’t bother getting out of bed until close to noon. She didn’t even look at the television while she got herself together. Just played some old music and wheeled herself to and fro doing this and that. When the computer thingie rang, she knew it would be Deidre, and she doubted she’d have the strength to talk to her without crying.

But she didn’t want to worry her, so she answered, to find two beautiful great-grandbaby faces grinning at her and waving. “Hi, Grandnonna!” they both yelled, giggling like they had a secret.

And then the doorbell rang. In walked Deidre, beautiful in her best dress, and behind her… Spencer. All decked out in a suit and a tie.

“Put your hat on, Grandmama,” Deidre said. “I know you didn’t get that absentee ballot. So we’ve come to help you vote.”

The Council, Reflective: Flash Fiction

Earl’s eyes were warm and kindly as he poured Forty-four another beer, then busied himself behind the bar, leaving him his privacy. Or as much privacy as he could have with two Secret Service agents guarding the door. He was grateful for their service, thankful for all the people who’d helped him through the years. Toward the end of his second term, Forty-four had grown wistful about returning to civilian life. He and Michelle had made plans. But given the circumstances of the world and the existence of the secret Council, he’d resigned himself to the reality that his life might never again be truly his own.

Michelle was okay with that as well—to a point. From the tension he plainly saw on her face, they’d reached that point. When he’d told her about the package that had been intercepted, she nodded, said she needed to call the girls, and spent the rest of the afternoon in her garden. He knew better than to bother her there.

Was it too soon for the Council to meet again? Forty-one said that it “wouldn’t be prudent” to risk a meeting so close to the election, then added, “Remember that Jim Comey fellow and all the trouble he caused.”

But Forty-four felt a need for their collective wisdom to help unburden his soul. As Thirty-nine once told him, when at a loss for direction a few months after leaving office he’d come down to Georgia to help nail up some drywall, many hands lighten a load. At least the dastardly mailings gave him an excuse to call Forty-two and Forty-three-and-a-half, ask how they were doing. The connection and Bill’s sense of humor did help somewhat. “Keep in touch, Barry,” Madam Secretary said as they wound up their call. “Just don’t expect any emails.”

He slipped his phone back into his pocket and tried to focus on the basketball game on the TV. It wasn’t working. He tapped a long finger on the bar. “Hey, Earl?”

He turned, his face brightening. “Something I can get for you, Mr. President?”

“No, I’m good here. I just want to know…how’s it going for you, for you and your family?”

Earl shrugged, his hands busy polishing glassware. “Can’t complain much. Wish certain things didn’t cost as much as they did. Wish I had a little more to leave the grandchildren.” He lowered his voice. “Wish that fool who took on after you would go back under that rock he crawled out from”—at this Forty-four nearly spit his beer across the counter—“but time will out, don’t it always?”

“Amen,” Forty-four said, lifting his glass.

“I like what you said, on the TV.” Earl nodded toward the set above the bar. “About getting the kids out to vote, not standing for hate and such. Ah, makes me wish we could change that law about you only getting two terms.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that. Of course he’d heard plenty about how his two terms were two too many.

“You coulda done so much more good,” the barkeep added, tightening one wizened hand into a fist.

If you only knew, Forty-four thought. “Thank you, my friend. It’s always good to hear.”

When he left, he pressed two twenties onto the bar and wouldn’t take no for an answer. After the agents saw him home, he was in some ways pleased that Michelle had already gone to bed. He had some phone calls to make. Yes, he could get behind a microphone and hopefully inspire a few people, but it would be nothing compared to the clarion call they could all make together.


Thank you for reading. If you want to catch up on this sporadic, whenever-I’m-inspired series, you can read the first one here, the second one here, and the third one here.

The Council: Notorious

A little story inspired by current events. Warning: satire alert.


The Council: Notorious

In case he’d been followed, Forty-four looked right and left before disappearing inside the door. Once again, they’d had to change locations. Once again, he blamed that on Forty-two, chatting up the waitresses. But Forty-four could always trust this place. A few times he’d escaped from his official duties and enjoyed a draft and part of a basketball game here.

“Evening, Earl,” he called to the barman, noting with some satisfaction that he was the first to arrive.

The barman nodded, already at work procuring the beverages. “The usual, Mr. President?”

“Now, you know you don’t have to keep calling me that.”

“Yes, sir, but you know I always will.”

As he took a seat at the big table in the back, he decided to give Earl twice the usual payment. Not only was he closing his whole business down for the night to cater to them, but good people who could keep a secret in this town were worth their weight in gold. If anyone cottoned to what they were doing, not only would the Council be driven deeper underground, but the current occupant of the Oval would waste no time splashing the fact of their existence all over the media, with his fool jibber-jabber about “Deep States” and “enemies of the people.”

Earl brought Forty-four’s beer, set the tall, frosty glass on a bar mat. “Any new ‘usuals’ I should know about this evening?”

Forty-four ticked off the orders on his fingers. “Two Diet Coke and rum, one iced tea”—he was about to give Forty-one’s and Thirty-nine’s orders before he stopped himself, feeling a hint of sadness that they were too infirm to make the trip, that their time on this planet was growing shorter. “And we’ll be having a special guest, but I’m not sure what she’ll be drinking.”

Earl grinned. “I know just about everyone in this town, Mr. President. You tell me who and I’ll tell you what.”

“Notorious in a black robe,” was all he said, and Earl laughed.

“Oh, my lord. Last time she was in she schooled me on wine and made me order a case of a particular vintage of California red. Might have a bottle or two left.”

Soon the others began trickling in. Madam Secretary, whom they’d christened “Forty-three and a half,” looked more relaxed than he’d seen her in years. After some brief chitchat, Earl made himself scarce and they got the two missing members on the line and settled down to business.

“First of all, thank you for your time, and to those present, thank you for coming out in this weather. Especially you, Justice. I know I speak for…well, most of us when I say I don’t want any harm befalling you.”

“Here, here.” Madam Secretary hoisted her glass, her husband following her lead.

“No need to worry about me,” the deceptively small but iron-tough woman said. She flicked her stiletto-sharp eyes, huge behind her giant glasses, toward Forty-three. “You, on the other hand…”

Forty-three gave one of those humble Texas-boy shrugs that made so many, including Forty-four’s own wife, overlook his history. That made quite the picture, him handing Michelle a piece of candy on national television during McCain’s funeral. “I know y’all want to take me to the woodshed for whipping up the undecideds for the Court nomination, but I hope I made up for it by getting Fox News to stop airing those ridiculous rallies.”

“And we’re grateful for that, at least,” Madam Secretary said.

Forty-four frowned into his beer. He’d had a long talk with Michelle about picking his battles post-presidency, and certainly it stood to reason that those on the other side of the aisle were doing the same. He preferred those battles where they were all standing together. Like the one they regretfully had to address again tonight.

“Now. As you’re undoubtedly aware, our last attempt to restore order in the Oval has failed. Apparently Mr. Putin feels his work is done and has focused his attentions elsewhere. That’s why I’ve asked the good justice to join us this evening. Not in her official capacity, of course.” He eyed each member of the Council in turn to gauge their discretion, and he felt reassured. Even by Forty-three.

The justice sat up straighter. “I have the evidence you need.”

“Please let it be a blue dress,” Forty-two muttered, and his wife speared him with an elbow.

“It is airtight,” the justice said. “And it is damning. You are not to ask how I procured it. Let’s just say that not only does our newest associate not hold his liquor as well as I do, but he becomes quite talkative. About many, many sensitive subjects.”

Forty-three grinned. “You drank him under the table and he spilled his guts?”

“In vino veritas.” Then she stood, took one last sip of her wine, and started for the door.

“Wait,” Forty-four said. “You have security?”

The diminutive justice laughed. “I have an army of women. And a black belt. I’m good.”

The Translator

This week’s flash fiction bit was inspired by current events. With a twist. I hope you enjoy it.


The translator had dreamed in different languages before—bits of this and spots of that blending together into linguistic soup, or the frustration of not remembering words she needed to say. But never dreams like this. Nightmares, really. The men’s faces loomed like mountains over her head, their eyes laser-sharp. “Tell us,” they said. “Tell us what you heard.” This time, they’d locked her in a small room, left her alone in the dark. It was cold and damp and she was hungry and they’d taken her shoes. The door bashed open, the shock so great that she’d woken, sweating, heart racing. The comfort of someone sleeping next to her would have been welcome. The steady breathing, the warmth. The thing she missed most about him.

Comfort had come in a cup of hot tea, a breath of the night air. She had both on her small terrace, and she curled into her chair, imagining the stars through the orange-black haze of the sky. Stars that didn’t need human language.

A light winked on and her neighbor’s terrace door slid open. Sam stepped out, a robe over his pajamas, both hanging loose on his thin frame. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“No, it’s okay.” She sat up, straightening her nightgown. Their terraces shared a railing. A feature she hadn’t been crazy about when she took the apartment, but Sam and Trish were considerate neighbors, both retired from their government desk jobs, and the translator traveled a great deal. “My body clock is still messed up from traveling. Seems I’ve forgotten when to sleep.”

“Occupational hazard?”

He didn’t know the half of it. She wouldn’t lie about that occupation when asked, but she didn’t like to advertise it. She detested the inevitable questions—if she’d met such-and-such world leader, if she’d ever translated something wrong and caused an international incident. “Something like that.”

“Boy, I tell ya.” He scrubbed a hand over his receding hairline. “The news lately is what’s keeping me up at night.”

She nodded. “That, too.” There were so many voicemails on her phone that she’d turned it off. Her palms grew sweaty, her throat tight when she remembered what a colleague had called to warn her about. That Congress would try to subpoena her over what was said in Helsinki, a breach of her professional ethics. Never again, she thought. Never again would she take a job where there was no press, no backup. She had the seniority to refuse an assignment; perhaps it was time to start.

Perhaps it was time to retire. Would she then need to keep what was said confidential? For the good of the country, could she reveal the startling and worrisome things the men had discussed? The thought gave her more comfort. The dark SUV across the street did not. “Sam.” She tipped her head toward the road. “Has that car been sitting there for a long time?”

He squinted into the distance. “Not sure. I think I saw it this morning. Why? Think they’re up to something?”

It could have been any of them. An agent with the subpoena. Or someone from either side who wanted to shut her up. She swallowed and said, “Follow me and close the door behind you.” As quietly as she could, she set down her tea, got up, walked back into her apartment, and started repacking her suitcase.

After she briefed him on her situation, he said, “Is there something we can do?”

“Yes. If anyone asks you, tell them you don’t know where I’ve gone.”

His thick white eyebrows knit together. “But you haven’t said—”

“Exactly. It’s safer for you and Trish that way.”

He put up a hand. “Just give me a minute. Please.”

She didn’t know why she waited. Maybe the suddenly serious glint in his gray eyes. She continued her packing. Passport. State Department ID. All the cash she had on hand. Then her door opened. Sam, fully dressed now, had Trish with him. Trish was stuffing what looked like a gun into the waistband of her jeans. A shoulder harness peeked out from Sam’s jacket. “Let’s go,” Trish said, flashing an FBI badge.

The translator couldn’t get the words out. In any language. She stammered, “Am I…under arrest?”

“No.” Sam picked up her suitcase. “We’re taking you someplace safe.”

The Language of Payday: Flash Fiction

Becky can’t speak much Spanish, but she knows the language of payday. She knows when it’s five o’clock on Thursday, at least during the growing season. That’s when the men in the red T-shirts pile in to cash their checks and buy groceries. Some of her coworkers complain that they’re loud and stink of sweat and the fields, but Becky smiles just seeing them in the parking lot, tumbling out of a series of yellow buses. She thinks they’re cute—well, some of them—and they’re always friendly to her and very polite.

She has her eye on the last worker in line at the check-cashing counter. The other men call him Pablo. It’s only his third week. Even though the rest of the men are laughing and joking around, Pablo doesn’t speak. Last Thursday, he came to her register, unloaded his items as if they were treasure, counting on his fingers and pursing his lips when he realized he was one bottle of Pepsi over the express line limit.

“No problema,” she said, and checked him through. His smile so gentle, his eyes so sweet, his relief like a word balloon over his head before he plucked up his bags, mouthing “gracias, gracias” as he hightailed it for the bus.

“Hey, is this the express line or what?”

A flush runs up Becky’s cheeks when she realizes she’s been ignoring her customer.

“Sorry.” She hustles items over the scanner.

“Can’t you do something about that?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

The woman, bone thin with a bad dye job and overplucked eyebrows, waves a hand toward the men at the counter. “I don’t know, like not letting them in all at once, or something?”

“They’re just cashing their checks,” Becky says.

“And I wanted to buy my Camels. Now I have to wait. Since I can’t buy them at the register anymore.”

“I can get them for you, if you like.”

The woman sniffs. “Hello? Express lane? Then you’ll be making everybody else wait and they’ll be looking at me like I’m the bad guy.” She turns to the six customers behind her. “All of you mind waiting while Becky here gets my cigs?”

Nobody makes a peep. The third customer turns to the fourth, and they share an eyeroll.

“It’s no trouble, ma’am, and it won’t take very long. Or I can ask someone else to—”

“Forget it,” the woman says. “I’m running late. Just ring me up.”

Becky catches Dave the supervisor out of the corner of her eye, already warming up his unhappy-customer smile. “Is there a problem here?”

“You should open more registers.” The woman stares pointedly at the line of men.

“I’m sorry you had to wait. I can offer you a coupon for twenty percent off your next—”

She’s still watching the men. Becky wonders if she’s aware that her hand has tightened around her pocketbook. “Are they even legal?”

Becky’s neck muscles stiffen. She can’t even get the first word, the first thought out before the woman, eyes narrowed, marches over to the check-cashing line.

“You don’t belong here,” she shouts. “Lemme see some ID.”

Pablo bolts for the door.

“Watch my register,” Becky says to Dave. “Please?” She runs after him. Finds him huddled in the last seat in the last bus.

His Spanish is rapid and she thinks she hears the words for “family” and “work” and he looks like he’s trying not to cry.

“I don’t understand.” She eases toward him. “No hablo…that fast. Pablo… How can I help you? Is there someone I can call?” She wracks her brain for the words. Teléfono, she knows. Then she remembers from some long-ago high school Spanish class: “¿Puedo ayudar?”

He stops talking and looks up. His eyes. So sweet. He pulls a worn wallet from his dirty jeans. Shows an identification card, next to a picture of two small girls. She’s seen ID like that before. It’s an H2-A visa. All the migrant workers have them.

She looks at him, puzzled. “You’re legal, you’re here to work on the farms. Why didn’t you just—?” Of course. He must have heard the threats. “Here.” She pulls a pad and pen from her apron. “What do you want?”

“¿Que?”

“Food. Groceries. ComidaTú quieres…? Tell me. Yo quiero pagar…” Damn, what was that word? Not to pay, but to buy. “I want to buy it for you. And I’ll get you”—she pointed to his paycheck—“dinero. Until next week. You can pay me next week. Or whenever.”

When she had him all squared away with the few items he needed, plus a bottle of Pepsi and an extra twenty bucks, Becky returned to her register. “Thank you,” she told Dave. “Did that customer get her cigarettes?”

“No,” he said. “And she won’t be a customer anymore. At least not here.”

Give the MLB All-Star Game to the Minors

David "Big Papi" Ortiz celebrating another long ball...

I love the Home Run Derby. A fairly recent addition to the All-Star Game festivities (it’s televised tonight, at 8PM, check your local listings), it pits the big bats, like David Ortiz and Prince Fielder, head-to-head in a contest to see, you guessed it, who can hit the most homers. It’s fun. It’s a family thing. Some of the players bring their small children onto the field with them, and they sit together on the sidelines in special tiny uniforms. I could squeal from the adorableness of it. Even though David Wright was never quite the same hitter after whacking a record 16 home runs in the first round of the 2006 competition, the HRD is one of my favorite pro sports events of the year. (‘Cause according to Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, “chicks dig the long ball.”)

But the All-Star game itself? It’s become a charade. Who cares who gets voted in? Who cares that your kid voted, like, a thousand times for Derek Jeter, C.C. Sabathia, Mariana Rivera, José Reyes, Justin Verlander, A-Rod, or Chipper Jones? They’ve already been yanked out, substitutes announced, either because their managers don’t want to risk injury to their superstar players, or, in the case of José Reyes and Alex Rodriguez, they’re already injured.

And if the superstar pitchers nominated by the managers of their respective teams have pitched in the last couple of games before the break, like Rivera and Sabathia, they are automatically yanked because of rules Major League baseball has set up to protect the pitchers.

I understand injury prevention. I’m a Mets fan. Half our team is injured at any point in the season. We just lost José Reyes, the team sparkplug, to a hamstring pull. Even if he was healthy, he might’ve been yanked. What manager these days wants to risk their best players for a game that essentially doesn’t count, is nothing but PR?

But if the superstars aren’t going to come out, that not very good PR.

So I think they should ditch the All-Star game altogether. Save our overpaid thoroughbreds for the pennant races. And how about using all that great media time and goodwill (and still give Major League players a few days off midseason) to highlight the accomplishments of minor league ball players? How about an All-Star game for the guys coming up? I still crow about watching José Reyes play for the Binghamton Mets, before the Mets drafted him. Wouldn’t it be great to see, in prime time, the next A-Rod? The next Derek Jeter? These guys work hard, often on their own time, or for not very much money. Give them a shot at the big time, or a bonus; give them some publicity, a big hand for how hard they work, and let the MLB superstars spend the break on ice.

I’d definitely watch that.

Books and the City

Had a great time at the Book Blogger Convention in New York on Friday. I’ve become acquainted with a few book bloggers during the pre-release promotion for The Joke’s on Me. But what an awesome opportunity to meet a whole lot of them at once! While it’s unfair to generalize about any group, these bloggers, mostly younger women, displayed one distinct quality: passion for the written word over nearly all else. Or, as one blogger put it, “I have books; what else do I need?”

They love books. They breathe books. Even with stupendously busy lives that include (in some combination) college, motherhood, partnerhood, writing their own novels, and multiple jobs, they regularly read and write about books.

As part of the convention, I participated in an event that was a kind of “speed dating” between authors and bloggers. It was the first year the BBC had done this, I was told, and it got a bit chaotic, as way more authors showed up than anticipated, and far more young adult book bloggers chose to partake than adult-book enthusiasts. But I got a good chance to circulate among several tables of very engaged book-lovers. Like most things in life, turns out I was some people’s cup of tea, but not others. I appreciated the direct yet tactful way these women have learned to say no to what’s not in their wheelhouse. (If only I had that skill when I was younger; I could’ve saved myself a lot of problems.)

We authors, too, got to mingle throughout the day, swapping war stories, swag ideas, and business cards. Most of the authors I met have books that have either just been released or are on the cusp of dropping. From them I learned important lessons: bring an ample supply of swag to book events, drink plenty of water to keep from losing your voice, and your ranking on Amazon is like your weight: don’t check it too often because it will make you crazy.

All in all a great day. Regrets? That I hadn’t been able to get to the four days of the Book Expo that preceded it so I could get books signed by some of my fave authors, like Jeffrey Eugenides, Erica Jong, and Dave Barry, and meet celebs like Jane Lynch, Florence Henderson and John Lithgow. And that I hadn’t brought one of those cute little rolling backpacks to carry the books I’d collected. Hey, I live and breathe them, too.

And now a question for you: Besides the book, what kind of giveaway goodies do you like sticking in your swag bag at literary events?

Novels Best (And Worst) Adapted For the Screen

Kudos to The King’s Speech for its twelve Oscar nominations; I can’t wait to see it. While many of the nominated movies were made from original screenplays, like The King’s Speech, some were adapted from best-selling books, some done better than others. Having seen so many of my darlings crucified on the screen, I let out a sigh of relief when a favorite novel is adapted well or at the very least, respectfully. Here are some of my favorite adaptations and some that are simply a waste of electricity. As always, your actual experience may vary.

Among The Best

1. The Color Purple

Thanks to the ministrations of Steven Spielberg, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel of an abused young woman’s journey to freedom was done and done well. Whoopi Goldberg (before Star Trek and The View) shines as Miss Celie, a shy, young woman kicked around by her father and given away in marriage to a man who neither loved her nor respected her. This was also Oprah Winfrey’s first feature film, and she was terrific. Although The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it didn’t win a single one, although other organizations gave it high honors. (Suck on it, Academy.) Although it bugs me that the lesbianism angle was stripped from the book, except for one fleeting kiss. I guess that wouldn’t have been acceptable to film audiences thirty years ago. Still a great movie.

2. The World According to Garp

Because his novels are often so inward-facing and long, John Irving doesn’t always translate well to screen. Released in 1982, Garp was the first of Irving’s movies to hit the screen, so he didn’t yet have the clout to control the script as he did in The Cider House Rules. But under semi-legend George Roy Hill’s directorial hand, the movie was magical. It had so many beautiful moments, and Robin Williams was born to play the lead character, T.S. Garp. John Lithgow is uncharacteristically understated as transsexual ex-football player Roberta Muldoon. Glenn Close plays Garp’s mother, Jennie. Great film!

3. The Accidental Tourist

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my favorite Anne Tyler novel. I think it might be too subtle for cinema, but The Accidental Tourist made a brilliant movie. William Hurt is phantasmagorical in the lead, an emotionally wounded man who travels but never wants to leave the comforts of home. This movie put Geena Davis on the map, and earned her an Oscar. She does a beautiful turn as the quirky woman who starts to put William Hurt’s character’s pieces together again. I worried about the movie losing some of the beautiful subtle moments of the book, but it didn’t. The director quietly added a brush stroke here, a dab of paint there, and made it almost as good as if not better than the book.

Why Did They Even Bother?

1. Dune

Oh. My. God. David Lynch took Frank Herbert’s brilliant, iconic, multiple-award-winning science-fiction series and turned it into not just, by many accounts, the worst film of 1984 but laughable fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It took me years to get the image of Sting in a metallic diaper out of my head. (Bonus trivia: Patrick Stewart and Alicia Witt had small roles in this film.)

2. The Road to Wellville

This is one of TC Boyle’s earlier novels, and I think the first he undertook about a historical figure. Along with a boatload of short stories and novels, he wrote several more stories of complicated men in this vein, including The Women, about Frank Lloyd Wright, and The Circle, about Alfred Kinsey. Wellville centers around Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg, played by Anthony Hopkins), told from the perspective of a rich young man (Matthew Broderick) who brings his wife (Bridget Fonda) to his Battle Creek Sanatorium. The 1994 box-office-bomb was played for cheap, scatological laughs and decimated Boyle’s book. Even sadder, it was filmed at New Paltz, NY’s Mohonk Mountain House, a resort about a half an hour from me. I can’t go there without thinking of this travesty.

3. Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

This novel by Gail Parent, previously a television comedy writer, has been called the Jewish girls’ answer to Portnoy’s Complaint. The story is essentially a suicide note by a young, single, overweight Jewish woman in New York who can’t find a husband (because that was essential, back in the day). I read it when I was in my teens, over and over and over again because it was spit-milk-out-your-nose funny. When I heard it was to be made into a movie, I was really excited, but it became a complete and utter disaster. Jeannie Berlin, the actress chosen to play Sheila Levine, was skinny, gorgeous, and didn’t even look Jewish, even though she is Elaine May’s daughter. I give this bomb two thumbs down and a kick in the Balzac.

This is but a small sample of the many. Which of your favorite novels have adapted well to the big screen, and which ones just made you want to scream?

One Man’s Freedom Fighter Is Another Man’s Antisecrecy Group

Listen to the news sometime. I mean, really listen, beyond the sound bytes, hairstyles, and the cringe-worthy way some of them pronounce “often” and “inundated.” Or that one American network that thinks we’re so stupid, a world map graphic is now used to show where each news story is occurring, even those in large US cities. Try to catch the way anchors, correspondents, and political officials pronounce the names of countries. Take note of the adjectives used to describe potentially inflammatory individuals, situations, or groups. It’s really fascinating. Can you imagine the groupthink that went into those decisions? I see a bunch of suits in a room, bandying about various phrases, cringing in anticipation of the angry letters they might get if certain terms are used. It’s lead to some interesting tweaks of the English lexicon.

For instance, my Journalism 101 professor, who looked exactly like J. Jonah Jameson, said the word “try” is a big tip-off to media bias. As in, “The president tried to rally foreign leaders to get behind his peace agreement.” Meaning, “Our editorial slant is that we disapprove of the president and hope his flawed, imprudent agreement fails.”

But that’s old news. With a 24-hour news cycle, who has time for subtlety?

How newscasters and politicians pronounce the names of Latin American and Middle Eastern countries is also a clue. The late Peter Jennings, Canadian by birth, suddenly became Latino when he had to say “Nicaragua” or “Ecuador.” It’s silly, really, a politically correct nod to our neighbors to the south, whom I’m sure are lovely people, but probably wouldn’t mind if we pronounced their countries’ names with our American accents. Do you hear that on the BBC? I don’t think so. Listen now, as President Obama pronounces “Pakistan.” PAH-ki-stahn. Are you guessing that news outlets rooting for his failure probably doesn’t pronounce it that way?

Certain terms are also buzzwords pointing to editorial slant. Remember Ronald Reagan? (Google it, kids.) Remember his dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras? This band of fighters resisted the Sandinista government that took control after dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was overthrown in 1979. Taking a cue from the French Resistance in World War II, the contras were called “freedom fighters” by the CIA and the Reagan administration. The contras themselves preferred to be known as “commandos.” And I’m pretty sure the Sandinistas (and those on the American left who supported them) didn’t call the Contras “freedom fighters.” Probably more along the lines of “rebel scum.”

The US media had a little tussle with itself after 9/11, about the use of “terrorist,” an emotionally charged word that was often applied indiscriminately to refer to people who weren’t “actual” terrorists. This led to terms like “enemy combatant,” which the Obama Administration dissed in 2009.

And now, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has journalists scratching their heads again. Some outlets debated the use of “whistleblower,” and if Assange is truly thus. The New York Times now calls WikiLeaks an “antisecrecy group.” Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden call him a terrorist. So now, one man’s terrorist is another man’s antisecrecy advocate. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

What euphemisms have you heard rolling off the tongues of those on the news? How do you think we should pronounce Pakistan? Join the discussion!

Don’t Censor Huck Finn

Next month, an updated, combined edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be published by NewSouth Books, minus two-hundred-plus total instances of the “n-word” and several other racial slurs used at the time.

According to Twain scholar Alan Gribben, English professor and editor of the new release, as reported by Publisher’s Weekly, “This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

But Gribben’s choice of expression (mainly changing the “n-word” to “slave”) hobbles the sheer force of that word, a word so powerful many of us (myself included) refuse to speak or write in its entirety.

I can understand why Gribben, in his many years as a teacher in Alabama, found it more comfortable (for himself?) to replace the offensive expressions when he read the works aloud to his students. I’ve seen people flinch when the n-word spits from someone’s mouth like snake venom. As a Unitarian Jew, I’ve had my share of epithet-bombs lobbed my way, but I have no way of understanding how that particular word might feel to a young African-American reader. But whitewashing the ugly from America’s past is doing all of us a greater disservice.

Because if we selectively edit our nation’s history, how will generations after us remember? Could we just as easily remove references to Japanese internment camps in breathtaking works like David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and Jane Smiley’s Private Life? Indian massacres? The shame of the 1921 Tulsa race riots? Lynchings? Matthew Shepard and other young men murdered for being gay? Could some future “scholar” come along and hack up Lolita because some may find the themes of pedophilia too offensive? Or The Help because of its racial overtones? The Godfather because some complain of its ethnic stereotypes?

Where will it end?

And why are we altering an artist’s original intent? That’s what I find wrong about censorship. Twain expressed the manner and mannerisms of a particular slice of America, told through the eyes of a particular American boy. (Make that two American boys.) The uneducated and ignorant people in the universe of Twain’s “boy adventures” used the “n-word” in reference to anyone of African descent, whether they were enslaved or free. (Therefore “slave” is, while true in some cases, not a 1:1 replacement for the ugly epithet.) If this book is to be taught in school (and many have banned or challenged it, as early as one year following its 1884 publication date to 1998 in Tempe, Arizona), it is to be taught in its historical context and in a greater discussion of racial conflict in America. Upper high school and certainly college students are mature and intelligent enough not to condemn an entire, important work because of the one or two words that people used at the time. I think they’re smart enough to know that those who use that word are showing their own ugliness.

Yet Gribben sees it from the opposite angle. Local teachers wanted to teach both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but felt they couldn’t. “In the new classroom,” he said, “it’s really not acceptable.” He also said that for “…a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.”

You can kill the word, but you can’t kill the concept, Professor Gribben.

Count me among the “textural purists” whom Gribben believe will be “horrified” by this act of censorship. We are all entitled to know the history of our culture – the good, the bad, and especially the ugly – as told by the road map of our great literature.