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Archive for February, 2015

Sometime in the late 60’s and continuing for a decade the Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö embarked on an ambitious scheme to write one mystery book a rear for ten years. The books were to be connected in a series called “The Story of Crime.”

Ruth turned me on to the series. Where most modern mystery stories over the past forty years generally feature a brilliant if somewhat odd sleuth who solves the mystery usually by either cleaver deduction or by the impact of his or her particular psychosis (for example by beating people up or getting drunk), these are stories about Swedish police detectives who solve cases using the routine that are the lot of most public employees. They get bored, sick with colds and have bad marriages. The criminals more often than not are sympathetic, driven to murder by social circumstances they cannot control and now and then they even get away with it.

Despite being over 40 years old the novels grapple with issues pertinent today such as militarization of policing, the social desperation that drives people to crime and the impact of replacing personal interaction between the police and the public with impersonal violence that begets even more violence resulting in the collapse of the morale of both.

“More and more often one was obliged to initiate an investigation by trying to sort out what the police had been up to. Not infrequently this proved harder than clearing up the actual case.”
Sjowall, Maj; Wahloo. The Locked Room: A Martin Beck Police Mystery.

My two favorite books in the series are The Laughing Policeman and The Abominable Man.

Pookie says check them out.

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spinoza-final

Driven indoors by the rains and tired of bad movies and worse novels, I decided to curl up with a little Spinoza.

Spinoza’s first name is either Bento as his Portuguese family named him or Baruch as the Dutch Jewish community referred to him or Benedictus as Christians called him. He lived in the mid-Seventeenth Century at the start of the Enlightenment. Many consider him along with Bacon, Descartes and Locke one of its founders.

To me at least, I think Spinoza and Francis of Assisi, are two of the few Saints produced in the 1200 years of western historical tradition (a small list that includes Groucho Marx, Hildegard of Bingen and Maria Callas). Although they may appear to many to be polar opposites, one rational the other transcendental; one believed in avoiding pain; and the other welcomed it; one thought this life is all one has to live and the other welcomed an afterlife, they have many similarities.

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They both believed God and Nature were one and that to live a moral life we should behave frugally, and treat generously ourselves, humanity and nature. They also believed acceptance of ritual whether religious or social, although they may be necessary for one to live comfortably in one’s culture, are often independent of and at times inimical to a moral, kind and generous life. Spinoza refused to accept the rituals of his Jewish culture were synonymous with rational thought and morality and so willingly suffered excommunication (cherem) from the society he loved. Francis, who rejected the materialism of his society as inconsistent with his ecstatic morality, also separated himself from those he loved.

If Francis is the patron saint of the environment, Spinoza most certainly could be considered the patron saint of science.

Spinoza Factoids: On the Chair’s table in the Dutch Parliament, Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus is one of three books, thought to be most representative of the beliefs and ethics of the Dutch people; the other two are the Bible and the Quran.

In the early Star Trek episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the antagonist, Gary Mitchell is seen reading Spinoza and the dialogue implies that Captain Kirk also may have read him as part of his studies at Star-fleet Academy (which may be the reason why to me Kirk always appeared a bit constipated. On the other hand I am sure Captain Picard read Spinoza and he was better off for it.)
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So, here I am in La Canada eating breakfast at a café called “Hill Street.” My friend Monty dropped me off here after we got lost on our drive this morning to Glendale where I was going to spend the next few days. Fortunately, I found a bus that stopped directly across the street from the café and deposited me a block away from my destination. The bus had some sort of senior discount that allowed me to ride for free. Instead of the usual denizens of public transit I find in SF, the bus rapidly filled up with relatively well dressed seniors. Glendale, is America’s own little Armenia. There are perhaps more Armenians here than in the capital of Armenia itself, another example of the melting pot producing stew and not sauce.

After I arrived, I was immediately put to work shelling Tamarind, followed by squeezing limes for the Margaritas to be served at the Day of the Dead party this evening. Then I took a nap.

After my nap we travelled around downtown Glendale looking for Marigolds.

That evening the guests arrived all were Armenian except a distinguished physician of Mexican descent and me, the Sicilian rhapsody. Mostly the guests conversed in a mix of Arminian and English. We drank Tamarind Margaritas, the first taste of which was like some horrid medicine, but immediately thereafter grew on you until it became delightful and habit-forming.

Against one wall in the living room stood a Day of the Dead altar containing skulls, the marigolds, candles and photographs or mementos of the departed.

Among the guests was an artist and the owner of the gallery in which his works are exhibited. There was also an author on Armenian matters and local talk show host on the Armenian television station. He was bald, rotund and sported a beard that would make Trotsky proud.

I had an interesting discussion with a child psychiatrist and his wife a medical anthropologist who had set up a foundation to oppose infant scarifications (circumcision), cesarean births and support breast-feeding and the removal of infants from cribs and into their parents beds.

In the discussion with the psychiatrist, I learned that the Armenian nation that existed in eastern Anatolia for several thousand years until it was destroyed in the Armenian genocide during the early part of the 20th Century, being surrounded by muslim and other societies that practiced ritual circumcision and sought to impose them on the Armenians, steadfastly resisted, having the tips of their wieners chopped off.

Think about it, for thousands of years people have fought and killed one another over whether the bit if skin covering the end of the penis should remain intact, and the battle still is not over.

Another guest was introduced to me as an anarchist. With his flowing white beard and his ponytailed white hair he reminded me more of a rabbi than an anarchist.

Toward the end of the evening the psychiatrist and his wife and the physician got into a heated discussion regarding circumcision and childhood development. The physician said something that interested me, that since Roe v Wade, the number of abortions and the number of immigrants into the US have balanced each other because, since labor was necessary for a healthy economy, a political decision was made to balance the loss of future laborers from abortion through immigration. While I felt the latter part of his assertion was bullshit, I wanted to find out if indeed abortions matched immigration.

So the next day, I researched the issue and found that, in fact, abortions almost tripled the number of immigrants. In addition, a fact that should surely fuel the paranoid inclinations of my old classmate Pat Buchanan, the number of abortions by white women were in itself larger that the number of immigrants and except for abortions among black women which almost matched immigration, the abortion numbers among whatever other politically inspired classifications we score things by today was miniscule.

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Myrceugenia correifolia is a species of evergreen woody flowering shrub native to South America belonging to the Myrtle family, Myrtaceae. The common name of this plant is Petrillo.

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Why any plant should have a so-called common name “Petrillo” I have no f***ing idea. Why not Schatzman for example? Besides, I resent the appellation “common.” There is nothing common about a Petrillo; weird or strange perhaps, but common, never.

Nevertheless, you may be interested to know that one notable characteristic of the noble Myrtle family is that the phloem is located on both sides of the xylem, not just outside as in most other plants.

Chew on that for a while.

While on the subject of things Petrillo, as you may recall in a previous post I introduced the notorious murdering Petrillo cousins from Philadelphia, Herman and Paul. They supposedly killed as many as 140 people in a life insurance scam in which a woman confederate of the cousins would marry someone, purchase insurance from the agency owned by the cousins, murder the bridegroom usually with poison, and collect the insurance payout.

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Recently, I also learned that someone named Dominick “The Gap” Petrillo introduced Joe Valacci to the Cosa Nostra.

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In 1953, he was gunned down in a bar near Arthur Avenue in the Bronx by three well-dressed men.

As coincidence will have it, Dominic Petrillo is also the name of a character in one of Sheldon Seigal’s books. Sheldon tells me that he modeled the character in part on me. Dominic is a fairly despicable individual. I seem to remember he ends up killing himself.

Sheldon is not the only well-known author to include an unflattering description of me in his novel.

In “Roses are Red,” James Patterson‘s protagonists attempting to solve a series of baffling bank robberies go through files of hate mail from the banks that were robbed. One letter, in particular, draws their attention. The man who wrote it lived nearby. The man’s name is Joseph Petrillo. Petrillo wrote a hate letter every week for the last two years. Petrillo also was a former security guard who was laid off by Citibank. The letters were intelligent and well written. They go to see Petrillo who shoots at them. Once backup arrives they burst in, but find Petrillo had blown his head off. ( “sic transit gloria”).

For those with some interest in the matter or in strained coincidences, my daughter briefly dated James Patterson’s son. I understand it was a relationship that she would just as soon forget.

Oh well, as long as I am on a roll with Petrillo and mayhem, I may as well add one particularly gruesome and tragic story.

On September 25, 2009, Annie Morrell Petrillo, daughter of slain newspaper heiress Anne Scripps Douglas leaped to her death from the same bridge her stepfather Scott Douglas jumped to his death from on January 1, 1994, after murdering his wife. According to a witness, she stopped her car on the Tappan Zee Bridge and got out and jumped. A suicide note was found and its contents released on the ABC show 20/20 in 2010. Family friends stated that Annie never got over the senseless tragedy of her mother’s murder and she had been hospitalized several times for depression. At the time of Annie’s death, she was finalizing a divorce from Petrillo and that also may have contributed to her despair. (Knowing the Petrillo clan as well as I do, her marriage into our esteemed family, I am sure, was more than a contributing factor in Annie’s death. Just ask my mother.)

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Just in case you have gotten the impression that the Petrillo clan is only associated with death, dying and violence, I will have you know that apparently we also like music (and of course sex).

It seems that the Grand Prince of Tuscany Ferdinando de Medici (1663-1713), also known as the “Orpheus Prince,” principal delight, aside from music, was in intimate liaisons and affairs, often with men. These included someone named (you guessed it) Petrillo. Petrillo was a musician (male), famous for his beauty. The over-sexed prince also had an affair with a Venetian castrato by the name of Cecchino (I could be wrong but, I think Cecchino means either “little garbanzo bean” or “Frankie”).

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Fernando de Medici who loved music as well as a Petrillo.

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To celebrate my free day, observe the ending of the world and visit Bill’s new venture the “Winchester Gun Club,” a “gentleman’s” club in Jomtien Beach, I decided to travel to Paradise by the Sea and spend a few days there. After a not too unpleasant two-hour bus ride, we arrived and tried to find a room at the little guest house that we usually stay in.

Alas, it was the time of the year for the mass migration of Russians from the frozen Steppes south on to the ragged edges of the Indian Ocean. The only similar migration of which I am familiar was the sweeping of the “alters” from the frigid streets of New York and the depositing of them like dice rolled in a street corner craps game upon the burning sands surrounding Biscayne Bay, there to remain until their internment in some recently reclaimed bit of the Everglades.

Even though the area in which the little guest house was located was downscale even by Russian standards (but not so for American expats on Social Security) there were no accommodations available in any of the 50 or so small hotels in the two block area. All that was left were a few tiny windowless rooms usually reserved for short time rentals. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term “short time,” try to think of what activity requires the rental of a hotel room for three hours or less.)

The streets, hotels restaurants, bars and massage parlors in this little neighborhood teemed with Russians; Slavs with their inverted banana ski-jump noses and the denizens of the Caucuses and the Steppes with their grand potato schnozzes.

Now some of you have commented on my obsession with probosci of all sort. That infatuation, however, is not engendered by a fondness for my Mediterranean ancestors spread along all sides of that remarkable inland sea who sport some of the most gargantuan and bizarre examples. You probably do not know this, but one of the first physical changes that separated us from our cousins the chimpanzees and bonobos was the movement of our nostrils from within the plane of our facial plate outward, to dangle in space at the end of a slightly flexible hunk of cartilage. So when you hear the phrase, “follow your nose,” it does not mean to follow the smell since that sense had diminished greatly from the capabilities exhibited by our simian relatives when we obtained our proboscis, but to follow the ascent of the various permutations of civilization these inquisitive appendages, for better of worse, have gotten us into.

We chose a room in the place I usually stay at. The street level floor is an open shop front with a counter. The proprietor sits behind the counter. She is almost always accompanied by her child who appears stricken with severe birth defects, rendering her immobile and deformed. When not dealing with customers, the woman spends her time rubbing down the child’s limbs, feeding her or speaking or humming something softly into her ear. The woman has a look of intensely deep sorrow. It is beyond anything I have ever seen in Thailand. Everyone else in the country seems to hide their feelings behind either the ever-present smile or a blank emotionless face that leaves one often wondering if anyone is at home. I do not know why I always chose to stay at this particular guest house, but I do.

As I said our room is windowless that means if there is a fire we die. Since the world was going to end in two days anyway, I was willing to take the risk.

The next morning we got up early and went out for our walk along the beach. When we got onto the sand we were greeted by the sight of hundreds’ of exposed boobs, both male and female glistening brightly like bleached bones in the morning sun, destined to glow a bright cherry red when the sun reached its zenith and turn a dark mottled brown like burnt toast when the sun sets that evening over the gulf of Thailand. On a pure tonnage basis, including my own, not insubstantial, addition, I reckon that the males have the females on that beach beaten by the proverbial country mile.

As long as I am discussing humanities difference from other simians, I should point out that at about the same time the protuberance made its appearance in the middle of our ancestors faces, perky little sprouts bloomed upon the chests of their pubescent females that contrasted greatly with the determinedly consistent flat chested aspect of our ape cousins. Another advance in the humanity’s march to dominate its environment. Another time, if asked, I will explain the role in the development of civilization of the disappearance of hair from most of our ancestor’s bodies and Sophie’s Choice that it presented to the human body louse. (Speaking of Lice, did you know that Napoleon’s army was not destroyed by the Russians but by typhoid bearing lice. It was a lousy way to go)

I took a long walk along the water’s edge. The water was as warm as freshly spilled blood. Now and then I would leave the sand and run across the road to look at the condo sale and rental ads in the windows of several of the real-estate agent’s shops that lined Beach Road. I still hoped to return to live there some day.

After the walk, we returned to the room to rest and escape the midday heat. While dozing I dreamily watched a television news program showing a security camera tape of a child, about two years old, playing near the rear wheel of an automobile. Suddenly the car backed up running over the child. It then moved forward running her over again. Shocked, I screamed, ran into the bathroom and started retching. I could hear the television reporters describing the scene as they played the tape over and over again. When I finished retching, I returned to the room and quickly shut off the TV, threw on some clothes, left the room and ran down the steps to get some air. LM ran after me, “Wait,” she said, “Good Luck. Baby lived.” I ignored her. Outside, I walked rapidly back and forth in front of the hotel wondering what kind of culture would show such a thing on television. At least there were no hoards of reporters seeking out the child’s pre-school classmates in order to get exclusive interviews on what they thought about the situation.

I no longer felt like visiting Bill’s new place and after a brief evening walk along the beach, I went to bed and slept badly. Thankfully, my dreams were not about run over little children or even those shot with assault rifles. Instead, the blackness of my dreams were filled with giant translucent jellyfish-like those that wash up on the beach here in great numbers. They resembled giant oozing glowing boobs that loomed up out of the darkness. They chased me along the beach. I tried to scream when they caught up to me but I couldn’t because they began to smother me, and then, of course, I woke up. Interestingly, I did not dream about noses. I probably do not fear them as much.

In the morning, another walk on the beach followed by a van ride back to Bangkok. For the first time in over a decade, I did not feel sad at leaving Paradise by the Beach. I guess that will pass, eventually.

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Since I have returned to California I have experienced a sudden decline in almost everything; vision and hearing, strength and endurance. Perhaps it is temporary and will pass. In the past during my bouts with depression and its physical effects, I have always been able to convince myself they would soon be gone. Now I feel like a specter or ghost watching life go on around me through an ever darkening scrim, unable to do anything about it until I eventually disappear into the wherever or whatever; something like the ineffectual angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I wonder if I will get my wings after it is all over. (This last is an allusion understandable only by those over 70 years old.)

After finishing Sheldon Siegel‘s book and being in the mood to read more in the Jewish policeman genre, I began Michael Chabon‘s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” It is a novel of dazzling style and inventiveness but lacking a soul. I prefer Sheldon’s relentless humane optimism to Chabon’s unrelieved cynicism.

I like William Kotzwinkle however. He is an incurable optimist like Sheldon. He wrote “ET.” I do not think he was all that proud of it. But hell, it’s a living.

Like Chabon he could unleash the literary pyrotechnics. In one book, he was able to fill an entire chapter with the single word, “dorky.” Dorky repeated 400 times a page for the 10 pages of the chapter, 4000 dorkys (or is it dorkies?) in all. And this was while everyone was still using word processors.

Chabon, were he the one writing the same chapter after about the first hundred or so dorkys would probably write something like, “Shit, if I have to write dorky one more time, I going to plunge a zhmenye of cyanide up my tokhes” or something like that. Like I said Chabon is a real stylist.

To Kotzwinkle’s character, however, Dorky Day was the day he looked forward to. It was the day he said nothing except dorky. It was his favorite day, better even that Christmas or Passover or even Presidents day.

Speaking of President’s Day, what’s that all about? Why did we change from honoring two of our greatest presidents, one who wore wooden false teeth and liked riding his horses almost as well as sleeping with his slaves and the other who had a glandular dysfunction and was always hearing voices in his head, to honoring them all, even the non-entities and borderline loonys? Do we really want to honor, Chester A. Arthur, George Bush or James Buchanan at the same time as we honor Washington and Lincoln?

Buchanan by the way was our first openly gay president. He was called “Miss Nancy” by his political enemies and affectionately “Aunt Fancy” by his friends.

Miss Nancy was born on April 23rd. Wouldn’t it be appropriate for that to be the day to celebrate gay freedom, or better yet marriage equality day? April 23 is celebrated in England as Shakespeare’s Day. It is also the feast day of St. Adalbert of Prague, National Book Day in Canada and English Language Day in the UN. Unfortunately, I do not know the actual date of Dorky Day, but April 23 would be as good as any.

While I am at it and since I have little to do for most of the day except sit around the coffee-house and fool with my computer writing messages to myself like this,… why do the self-proclaimed serious literary critics appear to so often look down on “genre” fiction? Why do we so often consider the literary pyrotechnics of the borderline depressive, even a humorous one, serious literature while gentle optimism is dismissed as superficial? I am sure Ruth knows. She seems to understand these things.

Is it simply the strictures of plot required of genre fiction somehow make it more artificial than the meanderings through the minutia of life of much of modern “serious” fiction, even if that minutia is outside anyone’s experience, or beggars credulity? I mean, have you read “War in Peace?” Do your really give a shit about Pierre or Prince Andrei? As for other characters in the serious literary pantheon, most were despicable. Roskolnikov, Ahab and even Achilles were assholes. You can add Heathcliff to that list and don’t even mention Dorian Grey. OK, I admit Jane Eyre has something to recommend her, but talk about missing the obvious…. Did the reprobates that peopled Faulkner or Williams’ novels really do anything for you. The characters dreamed up by Elmo Leonard or Carl Hiaasan probably appear just as real, perhaps even more so, to most of us.

If one reads at all, by all means, one should read the classics and as much so-called serious fiction as he or she can digest but not too much. It can give one gas.

Nevertheless one should also read those authors not cursed with seriousness. Authors like Leonard, Hiaasion, Siegel, Weber (the Honor Harrington books the rest of his books suck), Terry Pratchett, Nora Roberts and on and on; even Danielle Steel (well maybe not her). There are thousands and thousands of people out there writing fiction. Even if they have little to say, they say something.
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Elmo Leonard’s tips on writing fiction.

Alas, in the age of u-tube and instant communication among perfect strangers, most of whom appear quite willing to spew out the most intimate and often embarrassing details of their lives, who needs fiction anymore? Maybe we are all becoming ghosts, viewing life through a LED display in a darkened room or an internet café somewhere.

Even that may be a passing fad. Given the amount of time we spend on our computers or smart phones socializing and collaborating or whatever, who has the time any more to take a video of oneself trying to jump off a roof into a tea-cup? Will future generations feature prehensile pinkies and double jointed thumbs?

Stay tuned to life, it always surprises.

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Mystery novels and thrillers written by lawyers or ex-lawyers have become almost a sub-genre in themselves. Of course, what impels them to give up the emotionally rewarding vocation of an Attorney for the insecurity of a literary life remains a mystery in itself.

Except for books by my friends Sheldon Segal and Chris Moore, I try to avoid books written by fallen members of that class of parasites who often see themselves as counselors to society, or at least to that segment of society who can afford their fees. Alas, so many are writing books now, it is difficult to avoid them completely.

The Big Kahuna of this group of authors is John Grisham. For some reason, every now and then, I pick up one of his works to read. He appears more stylistically accomplished than many of his brethren and quite clever in his plotting and story telling. But, what distinguishes him is that he may be this generations muckraker in chief.

Many of his stories concern an individual attorney with little power engaging in lonely and dangerous fight with representatives of formidable economic interests. Grisham devotes much of his books to describing how the particular economic interest exercises its will to the detriment of society. His latest, Gray Mountain takes on big coal in Appalachia.

Pookie says, “Check it out…”

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