Amor Towles entertains with history, how he writes

Towles coverAmor Towles started with history.

Towles, who wrote “A Gentleman in Moscow,” told a full Benaroya Hall, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, the history of the Kremlin, Red Square and the surrounding area, including the Metropol Hotel, the setting for his novel.

The hotel opened in 1905 and was the first in Russia to have hot water in the rooms. This was during the era of “grand hotels” from 1890 to 1910, to “serve the great new wealth that came out of the 19th Century,” Towles said.

The Metropol was mostly used by Muscovites until 1917 when it found itself in the middle of a proletarian revolution. The tsar’s government housed soldiers in the hotel with snipers at the windows. When the Bolsheviks took over, they kicked out the soldiers and all the windows.

Towles told the story of John Reed, who wrote “Ten Days that Shook the World” about the Russian Revolution, and his checking into the Metropol. The desk clerk said that would be fine “if the gentleman doesn’t mind a little fresh air.”

When Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in Russia, they moved the capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow, taking over three hotels to give government officials suites, making the Metropol the single biggest bureaucratic building in the country.

By 1922, the European nations were starting to recognize the Communists as the legit government of Russia, opening the way for business representatives to start arriving in Moscow to start turning a agricultural society into an industrial one – and turning a profit. We can’t house these people in ratty hotels, the new Russian leaders decided, and the bureaucrats were out of the Metropol, the place was spruced up and an orchestra playing American jazz moved onto the bandstand.

The Communist leaders started hanging out at the Metropol even though it was supposedly off limit to Russians. Towles said that only about 10 percent of the Russian population were members of the Communist Party, a status that brought along privileges, rights doled out to them. Special stores where they could shop, schools their children could attend, or maybe a meal or a drink at the Metropol.

Ninety-five percent of the Russian population before the revolution were illiterate, Towles said, mostly peasants working other people’s lands. The Communists started a rapid reversal of that, using “five-year plans” for a quick industrialization of the country. To pay Western nations for help and material, the government needed hard currency, and it had little of it. But citizens did, stashed under mattresses, etc. in case who knew what might happen. So the Metropol was opened to all Russians, as long as they paid in Western currencies.

The decade of the 1930s was a bleak one for Russia, with the five-year plans failing and starvation taking millions of lives. But inside the Metropol, it was like “F. Scott Fitzgerald describing the Plaza Hotel in New York City.”

Towles

None of that, Towles said, is in the book.

The book is about individuals, especially the Count, the gentleman who lives through this history.

Towles came up with the idea about where to place his individual when working in finance, traveling around to do presentations in different cities. He noticed that many of the same people were in the lobbies of hotels where he stayed as he returned year after year. In 1998, he visited the Metropol.

Next came the outline. He said he spent a year and a half designing “A Gentleman in Moscow.” His outline included a description of each chapter, what would happen in it, some poetry, some events, some language that could be used.

Having a structure for the book freed him to let his subconscious go, to choose the right words, to let the “flow” of creativity happen without worrying about where the book goes or how it gets there.

It took him another year and a half to write the first draft of the book. “I write the first draft for myself,” he said. “Everything goes in, anything I want to do goes there.

“I had to ‘spend’ 32 years with a different person placed in a situation I’ve never been in, all presented to me through the craft of writing.”

The tone of voice in the book, the tone of the voice of the character gets decided as Towles writes. Who Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov would be was decided when Towles wrote this passage, which appears on Page 10, about being escorted to the hotel by two guards:

Version 2

“That’s the guy,” Towles said during his speech. He may be imprisoned in a hotel, but he still takes charge.

What about historical research? “Pre-research,” Towles said, too often comes out as “clunk, clunk, clunk.” And he gave an example:

Let’s say you wanted to write about a child in the 1960s, arriving in the kitchen where her Mom is preparing dinner. Research would tell you what the room looked like and that the mother probably unwrapped a box of frozen Birds Eye peas and dumped them into a pot of boiling water. But what the child might remember is the solid brick of green peas, maybe some frost clinging to it, her reaction to that, her feeling toward her mother and what she might have said.

“And all that goes on in that room (goes there) so that when you go back and read it again, you say, ‘Oh, that’s when all that happened.’”

The research has to be there at some point for Towles to know whom the count is mostly likely to meet throughout the years in the hotel. But it never comes off as clunk, clunk, clunk.

He wrote the first draft for himself, but the revision is for the reader. Time to get rid of redundancies, use as few words as possible, clean up your own work and create the covenant with the reader. “I write with an audience in mind.”

That audience will probably be expanded in the next year or two as “A Gentleman in Moscow” is being made into a television series.

And Towles is working on his next book.

Using women’s instinct to protect African wildlife

Once you have seen animals in the wild, protecting them can become an obsession, as it did for Damien Mander, who came to talk and show photographs Oct. 29, 2019 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. It was the first event we have signed up for called “National Geographic Live.” I found out that I have fallen out of practice taking notes in the dark. So here’s from memory and the brochure handed out in the entry hall.

Damien

It seems that Mander is obsessed with more than saving wild animals. In fact, it looks as if he goes into all stages of his life in an obsessive fashion, out to do it all well, energetically and to the nth degree. Born in Australia, he was obsessed with water, could not stay out of the sea. He became a “clearance diver” in the Australian Navy.

Then on to Special Forces as a sniper and then a trainer in the Iraq War. He served three years there before abandoning it.

“The second mistake we made there, besides getting into it, was disbanding the Iraqi army,” Mander said. That took the jobs away from not just the soldiers, but also the income to the extended families depending on those jobs, alienating millions who probably were not sorry to see Saddam Hussein go and might have signed on to rebuild the nation.

Mander bounced around South America — photos of what looked like a good time in bars, but maybe not, as he also mentioned the statistics on Iraq War veterans’ suicides. Then to Africa where he was introduced to nature and had an epiphany — my word — when looking into the eyes of a buffalo that had ripped itself apart in a trap set by poachers. As his companion shot that animal, putting it out of its misery, Mander had found his next obsession.

In 2009, he founded the International Anti Poaching Foundation to preserve an ecosystem by “training and equipping rangers to fight the poaching crisis in Africa.” Given that a pound of ivory from an elephant’s tusk is worth $35,000 in Vietnam, it is no wonder that people in Zimbabwe, where 72 percent of the population is below the poverty line, would be attracted to poaching. So arresting poachers was taking the income from many families there, causing conflicts with local communities.

In 2017, the IAPF started “Akashinga,” which means Brave Ones in the Shona language. The idea was to empower “disadvantaged women to restore and manage a network of wilderness areas as an alternative economic model to trophy hunting” and poaching. As the brochure says:

“The women of Akashinga have built strong relationships with the locals, de-escalated conflict and invested into their communities. The community response to this was to work with us in conservation, rather than against us.”

Akashinga

A squad leader, Vimbai Kumire, who barely reaches up to the chest of Mander, also addressed us at Benaroya. Despite her diminutive size, she showed that passion could be more powerful than bullets. She told of the importance of animals to their culture and country and explained that it was not only an honor to protect them but was also providing income for her family and dignity for herself.

Many of the arrests made — “without firing a single shot” — are related to organized crime and the use of poisons.

“Syndicates have been broken open and we have been advised of an 80% reduction in elephant poaching across the region since 2016,” the brochure says.

The organization now has the responsibility for protecting wildlife in more than one million acres. The most asked question, Mander says, by those arrested is not “Why am I being arrested?” but “Why am I being arrested by a woman?”

“For so long, our vision has been clouded by ego from seeing the most powerful force in nature — a woman’s instinct to protect.”

It may take all of that and more to protect the wildlife in Africa. With more than two billion people living on that continent by 2040, the loss of wildlife habitat will continue to grow. According to an article in the Oct. 10, 2019  edition of The Times of London (picked up in Amsterdam on our way home from Africa), many countries have lost their rhinoceros populations because of habitat loss: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad.

Because of poaching, the rhino population in Botswana could be wiped out in two years, the article said. Rhino horns fetch $50,000 per kilogram in Asia, where they are used in traditional therapies. Botswana has fewer than 400 rhinos and has lost one a month in 2019, a rate that is still increasing. Conservationists blame part of that on President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who has disarmed the anti-poaching unit. His predecessor, Ian Khama, had an “unofficial shoot-to-kill” policy.

PlaqueThe rhinos we saw in Kenya were kept under armed guard. Not chained up or penned, but accompanied by the guards. Theirs is a dangerous way to make a living. A plaque on the overlook into the Ngorongoro Crater listed conservationists who have lost their lives, including six killed by poachers or bandits.

“In truth, there are really only a few things that matter: character and spirit,” Mander writes in the brochure. “If you don’t have those things, you don’t have a chance. CV’s, references, qualifications and fitness levels mean nothing here. We don’t want perfect. We want scrappers. someone that knows what it’s like to have to fight for survival. The rest will be learned.”

 

 

Rugby World Cup ends, back to normal sleep patterns

First hopes were on the United States Eagles. Just win a game, maybe get beyond pool place in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. A hopeless cause, and unfulfilled.

Then I turned to Ireland. They could win the whole thing, until they could not. Then Wales, another hopeless cause when South Africa destroyed them.

Lastly, I turned to England, who played so well eliminating New Zealand from the finals.

That hope died this morning when South Africa took the championship by overpowering England’s scrums, containing their running game and out-kicking them in penalties. The score was 18-12 at one point, all on penalty kicks, which makes a boring game. Then at 66 minutes into the game, the Springboks opened up scoring with two tries before the game ended, 32-12.

A more interesting game was Friday morning when New Zealand clobbered Wales 40-17 to take third place. One of the announcer said of Wales’ desperate effort to get back in the game, “it’s not tidy, not pretty, but there is a certain freedom in that kind of rugby” — throwing the ball around recklessly like kids on a playground playing keep-away. That’s what keeps me glued to this form of football.

No more 2 a.m. start times for rugby games, at least not until 2023 when the Rugby World Cup moves to France. Or, we could be in that time zone, just down the road a piece to queue up to get into the stadium. Maybe not a hopeless cause.

What really went on in Africa. Anna tells all

Anna is a much better journalist than I. She can take notes in the back of a bouncing Land Cruiser on a dirt road in Kenya and Tanzania. She asks good questions. She can hear out of both ears, and she writes faster than I. And does so very well. She sends out stories about her and Ian’s travels in a newsletter, which should be a blog or a book.

I’m on her email list, and when I saw this, I asked permission to use it here as my way of tell madcapschemes.com readers what really went on during our two-week trip to East Africa.

Hope you enjoy it.

John B.

 

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Uncomfortable, grateful or perplexed about U.S. secret war?

Turse

Is knowing that the U.S. military is fighting a war in Africa, unknown to most Americans, enough to make you uncomfortable, grateful or perplexed?

Kathy fell into the latter camp after hearing Nick Turse speak at the University of Washington graduate school on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Turse is an investigative journalist who has written or contributed to seven books. He is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com, a contributing writer at The Intercept and the co-founder of Dispatch Books. He has a Ph.D in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University.

He told the filled Kane Hall auditorium about the 36 operations directed by AFRICOM, which runs the U.S. military in that part of the world. More operations there than anywhere else in the world, he said. More troops in the Mideast, but more operations going on in Africa.

He told us much more, but Kathy came away from the talk unsatisfied. What’s it all mean? How am I supposed to take the information he gave us? A good thing for America, keeping Russia, China and fundamental Islamic terrorists from taking over there? Or the beginning of another endless war with little in it for the United States except for loss of treasure and lives?

In the editing world, we used to call that putting the bow on the story, wrapping it up with facts and what they might lead to. Or, another editor might say, give the readers the facts and let them decide what they think it means.

Here are some of the facts Turse gave us: Mostly AFRICOM will say they are there for humanitarian reasons and are training troops for some nations. However, the battle that brought Americans’ attention to Africa was a counterinsurgency operation in Niger in October 2017. Four U.S. soldiers were killed when Islamic militants attacked their convoy. The Islamic State (ISIS) leader who instigated the Niger attack, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, is still at large despite a $5 million reward.

Turse said that there are many more military missions than humanitarian ones. Several are against the Boko Haram, a terrorist group that wants to establish an Islamic state that will practice Sharia law. Some support French troops in Africa. One is a Naval surveillance operation to support drone strikes.

Another reason for African missions is to set up other places to launch drones, including an air base in Niger. So far in 2019, Turse reported, there have been 55 drone strikes in Somalia alone, mostly against al-Shabaab, a jihadist group aligned with al Qaeda and possibly Boko Haram. AFRICOM’s claims of few civilian deaths “fly in the face” of human-rights organizations, local reports and foreign journalists, says Turse.

Most of these operations are carried out by U.S. Special Forces, Navy SEALs and other commandos. And that, says Turse, should be no surprise, according to retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who served as commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) from April 2015 to June 2017. Bolduc, who is running for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, says the U.S. military has operations in more than 30 African countries.

Turse says the number of active militant Islamic terrorist groups has doubled in Africa since 2010 and violent events across the continent have gone from just under 300 a decade ago to more than 2,000 now. But the U.S. operations and the reaction to them might not be the cause — or the only cause — of the increase in violence. In countries where more than half the population is under 30, the big question is: Will there be jobs for these young people, especially men? If no jobs, more instability, more attraction to radical groups. Turse cites “back channel” communications between AFRICOM and Congress mentioning climate change, which could lead to “resource wars” over water, food and other materials.

During the time left for audience questions, one man brought up another reason for the increase in violence and terrorist groups in Africa: ISIS and other terrorists are being driven out of the Mideast and heading to Africa. Turse cited one example of that with the “Libyan debacle.” It looked like an easy win for the U.S., but after Muammar Gaddafi was killed, his arms and supporters spread out across Africa.

Is this anything the United States wants to stick around for, or should Trump “bring our troops home,” as he likes to say?

The troops going home are “only those who have homes in western Iraq,” says Turse. Actually many of those troops Trump sent home from Syria will stay in Syria. The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, announced Oct. 25, 2019, that troops — and mechanized equipment — would stay to secure the oil in Syria. And other troops were being assigned to Saudi Arabia at the same time Trump was announcing the withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Pentagon may be “slow rolling” Trump on reducing forces overseas, as if they don’t want to do that. Maybe they don’t like abandoning allies like the Kurds. Or maybe they wanted to wait around long enough to complete their plans to assassinate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader in Syria, which happened over the weekend. Or maybe they realize that if Trump stops the United States’ “endless wars,” their jobs will end.

So there are the facts, says this editor, who will let you decide.

 

 

 

 

Down they fell: Ireland, Wales and now what?

Ireland looked like a contender in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but they fell to Japan and then New Zealand.

I thought Wales could become a winner that had never taken home the Webb Ellis trophy before, but they lost to South Africa, 19-16, this morning. The Springboks head for the finals next Saturday, while Wales plays for bronze against New Zealand, who were stopped by England in their attempt to win the RWC for a third time in a row.

Both England and South Africa have captured the RWC championship before, but I’m probably going to root for England, who played an excellent game against New Zealand and did so poorly in the 2015 RWC when they became the first host nation that never advanced beyond pool play. Winning the World Cup might help English fans get over that lingering malady.

Wales and South Africa kicked and kicked, the kind of game a former teammate calls “Ping-Pong.” Back and forth when running seemed a good option. Even the scoring was mostly from penalty kicks with the game tied 9-9 on penalties until the 44th minute when the Springboks scored a try and conversion. Wales answered with seven points 10 minutes later, and the 16-16 tie held up until the last five minutes of the game when South Africa kicked another penalty for the 19-16 win.

So I’ll be singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which the English fans sing in the stands, which does seem an odd choice. but so did “Bread of Heaven.”

 

England in the finals; rooting for a matchup with Wales

“England started well and never gave us a chance to get into the game,” said New Zealand’s captain Keiran Read in a good summary of their 19-7 loss to the English side.

Manu Tuilagi scored 1:37 minutes into the match and George Ford added four penalty kicks. England had two tries called back because of infractions, one for obstruction and one for a call rarely seen: a ball slipped forward in a maul.

England’s defense kept the New Zealand running game bottled up, and we saw more missed passes and penalties from the Kiwis than we have seen in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Their only try came on a poorly thrown or lack of communication on where to ball was supposed to end up in an England lineout. It ended in the hands of a New Zealand player who went untouched five yards for the score.

It’s the first RWC game the All Blacks have lost since 2007, and they will not three-peat.

Tonight’s game — make that 2 a.m. tomorrow in Seattle — could bring a non-RWC winner into the finals if Wales can get by South Africa. Then beat England in the finals, and the Welsh will win their first RWC championship. A tall order, but we’re still singing “Bread of Heaven.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Wish he had a chance to say more

Water 1Let’s start with the complaints and then get to the good stuff. Kathy and I arrived early — or so we thought — to get into Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak on Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. But we spent the hour between 7 and 8 p.m. in a line that wound around the outside of the hall, waiting to go through security.

I can’t blame Coates for asking for the extra security. In “Between the World and Me,” a book Coates wrote as a letter to his son, he said: “And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”Between world

There are American who don’t like to hear that. They are the ones who, as Coates says, have succumbed to the “apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not inquire too much. And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.”

Death threats against journalists are not uncommon, especially for columnists, especially for those of color who write about the “great evil done in all of our names.”

But I wish Benaroya Hall and Seattle Arts and Lectures would have planned better for getting us in out of the rain. There are five interior entries into Benaroya Hall, and the security points were set up there, wanding each member of the audience as they entered and checking through what they had emptied from their pockets and handbags. The staffers could have moved checkpoints to the row of exterior doors across the front of the building. It would have pushed the crowd out into the weather, but we were there anyway.

Coates 2The event was supposed to start at 7:30; we weren’t led to separate seats until 8 o’clock (only singles remained). Things finally got started at 8:15 but were halted 15 minutes later to take the buzz out of the microphones. By 9:20, it was over.

They are also trying out a new technology to display on your cell phone captions on what is being said. Great idea for someone like me with hearing problems. But I could not get it to work.

Charles Johnson, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and author of 24 books, including “Middle Passage,” a National Book Award winner in 1990, interviewed Coates. Too much Johnson; not enough Coates.

And now for the good. Our ticket included a copy of Coates’ new book, “The Water Dancer,” and I can’t wait to start reading it. It’s Coates’ fourth book and his first venture into fiction, about Hiram, born into slavery, fathered by the plantation owner who sells the mother when Hiram is still a child. He can’t remember his mother, but he is endowed with magical powers. That’s how it starts, and Coates said: “At the end, there is still slavery.”

He spent 10 years writing it and doing research, reading slave narratives, going to Civil War battlefields and plantations. He said his book agent got him interested in writing fiction, but Coates had other reasons.

“After the Bible, the second biggest seller of fiction is ‘Gone with the Wind,'” he said. Why is there such a romantic view of Civil War participants? Why is Robert E. Lee always gallant and heroic in his struggle to maintain slavery?

So there is a need for “inversion,” some way of creating another kind of hero. That could be putting a black man on a horse and giving him a gun, which sounded a lot like the movie “Django Unchained.” Taking the white man’s image and painting it black.

It sounds to me like Coates wanted to make the slave the hero, in a more quiet way than Jamie Foxx blazing away with a six-shooter. When I read the book, I’ll be interested in seeing if he did that.

Coates also touched on teaching writing: “Think of the writer as the forest ranger. People come to be guided through the national park. They don’t want the ranger to get lost.”

On Trump: “I wrote a column when he was elected, and anything I said now would be redundant.”

And about reconstructing the understanding of race in America: “Listen as much as I can and talk as little as I can.”

Wish he had been given a chance to say more last night.

P.S. Got this as an email today: “We’re so grateful you could join us for an evening with Ta-Nehisi Coates. We are dedicated to producing the best events possible, and we know that last night both the long security lines and delayed start were enormously frustrating. We are currently working with the venue to ensure these issues do not happen again.

“If you would like a refund, please email the SAL Box Office at boxoffice@lectures.org, or give us a call at 206-621-2230 x10, and we will be happy to refund your order.

“We are so sorry for the frustrations you experienced. I want you to know that we learn from each and every event and mistake, and I promise you that we will strive to make future events better.”

No need for a refund, but I hope they get things straight by our next event.

 

This week, I will be a Welshman singing “Bread of Heaven”

The suspects have stepped forward to the lineup, and they are the usual suspects: England will play New Zealand, and Wales will take on South Africa in the semifinals of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Probably the best bet for beating New Zealand comes from England, who did away with Australia, 40-16, as Saturday started here in Seattle. Owen Farrell scored 20 of those points: kicking four conversions and three penalties. Jonny May had two tries, and the ref and the two teams’ front rows could never get together on how to keep set scrums from collapsing.

I struggled to get the iPad working at 3 a.m. to watch New Zealand against Ireland. By the time I got NBC Sports Gold running, the All Blacks were up 17-0. The Kiwis were mechanical, perfect and almost boring in how predictable they were in beating Ireland, 46-14. New Zealand may be headed for a three-repeat, winning the RWC in 2015 and 2011.

Of the four teams headed to the semis, Wales is the only one that has never won a World Cup. So I will be Welsh this week, hoping against all hopes that Wales can beat South Africa and then either NZ or England in the finals on Nov. 2. That’s betting on a doubtful outcome, like my handicapping for horse racing. But maybe . . .

Wales beat France, 20-19, after the Frenchmen showed how to link up backs and forwards in a fast running game. The turning point came when six-foot-eight Sébastien Vahaamahina got a red card for foul play. And foul it was. First he had Wales’ Aaron Wainwright in a headlock in the maul, dropped that and then elbowed Wainwright in the face. That will teach him for scoring Wales’ only try up to that point. Then it took Wales most of the second half to come up with another score against a team playing a man short. Wales goes on with a 20-19 win over France.

In their game against South Africa, Japan never got their thrilling running game going that they displayed so well against Scotland in the final game of pool play. They scored a penalty kick and held South Africa to 5-3 in the first half. And that was that, losing 26-3.

So if you hear me singing, it will be the song the “Bread of Heaven,” the song the Welsh fans sing in the stands as they are headed to victory and their first Rugby World Cup championship.

 

 

 

Kenya and Tanzania in a 38-photo slideshow

Still sorting through my photos from the recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania and realizing it will take forever to put them in some sort of arrangement that will be perfect. So I decided I would not let perfect be the enemy of good.

Here are some of what I think are some of my best in a slideshow. Hope you enjoy them.

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Then I realized I had left out the cheetah. Didn’t want to cheetah you.

Cheetah