Monday, November 26, 2018

EBOLA EPIDEMIC

The newspapers recently reported an epidemic of Ebola fever in the Republic of the Congo. Ebola is one of the viral hemorrhagic fevers that has a high mortality. This outbreak, with 267 cases and 170 deaths, is the worst ever experienced in that country. This number pales when compared with the pandemic of Ebola that occurred in 2014 in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The number of victims far exceeded the available beds and shelters and infected persons had to be turned away. In response to a plea from President Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, President Obama dispatched nearly 3000 troops including the 36th Engineering Brigade and elements of the 101st Airborne to Liberia. The Americans set out to do what they were good at – building. They constructed wooden Ebola Treatment Units in Monrovia and the surrounding countryside.

At the time of this outbreak there were no vaccines or treatment available other than supportive. The Ebola virus attacks the blood vessels causing hemorrhage, shock, and often death.  The virus is present in every body fluid, tears, saliva, mother’s milk, blood, urine, vaginal fluid, semen, and feces. If any of these reaches even the slightest break in the skin, infection is sure to follow. Health workers, mostly Doctors Without Borders and volunteers from other countries must wear personal protective equipment, PPE. Work in the PPE is limited to about one hour due to the heat.

By the time the West African pandemic ended, Liberia experienced 4,806 deaths, Guinea suffered 3,955 and Sierra Leone had 2,536 for a total of 11,297!

Ebola virus is believed to be present in some macaque monkeys and the first human infection probably occurred when an infected monkey was eaten in 1976 in Sudan.

Ebola infection occurred in the United States when imported macaque monkeys were being dissected by workers from a military unit studying biological weapons.

A complete discussion may be found in my book The Ebola Connection. The book describes the lives of two brothers tragically shattered by war and calamity. One is wounded in Iraq ending his career as a combat medic until the Ebola Pandemic ranging in Africa provides him with a second chance. The other survives prison for vehicular homicide only to lose his wife and unborn daughter in childbirth. Each recovers to lead separate lives when a phone call from Australia changes everything.


Friday, November 16, 2018

COLOMBIAN ADVENTURE

In 1981 I received a letter from a Colombian physician asking to spend time in my laboratory. Dr. Alberto (last names will not be used) indicated his plan to open a clinical laboratory in Medellin and his need to learn microbiology. When I wrote to tell him I had no funds to support him, he phoned to tell me that was not a problem. He, with his wife and two young children, arrived in the U.S., rented an apartment in New Jersey, and showed up in my laboratory where he spent a year before returning to Colombia. 

Not long afterwards, another letter came from Medellin, this time from Doctor Angela, the Director of Microbiology in a hospital there. She was an internationally known mycologist. She wanted me to give a series of lectures on the normal bacterial flora of humans, under a program of the American Society for Microbiology. Connie would accompany me. In July, after taking our kids to camp, we landed in Medellin.

I gave the lectures in English but was able to respond to the questions in Spanish. I had the opportunity to meet with some Public Health Officials who related their current problem with rabies due to the bite of vampire bats. 

After the course was over, Angela gave a party for Connie and me. We were surprised to see all the women going into the bathroom to don their jewelry. We learned that it was dangerous to wear jewelry while driving, since thieves can snatch rings and bracelets at a stop sign.

Colombia is famous for emeralds, and Doctor Angela knew a friend who sold them. Connie was invited to take one of the gems over night to make her decision. The emerald cost over two thousand dollars, but Connie decided not to buy it when she learned that emeralds could shatter when dropped. 

That weekend we visited the laboratory of Dr. Alberto. Together with Alberto and his wife, we traveled to the farm of his mother-in-law in the mountains. 

I had originally planned to spend a week dove hunting in the North, but was advised not to go there because of the guerilla activity. Instead, we opted for a trip up the Amazon. 

We flew to Bogota and then to Leticia. This city, at the southern tip of the country is known as the “ass hole” of Colombia. It is well named. We spent the night in a hotel where the swimming pool resembled pea soup and the bed linens were dank. At breakfast the waitress sat on the arm of my chair to take my order, and we saw a dead horse lying in the street. We took a small boat up the river to Monkey Island where we spent the night. In the morning we were awakened by the sound of monkeys running across the tin roof of our small shelter. The next day, we traveled further up river to visit a Ticuna Indian village where we traded beads, cigarette lighters, and ballpoint pens for a necklace of piranha teeth and blow guns for the boys. The Ticunas were friendly and traded their blow gun poison to other tribes. Both sexes were completely naked except for a small skirt. 

We spent a few days in Cartagena, a lovely city on the Caribbean. We were greeted by one of the natives who held a live sloth and offered me an opportunity to hold it for a photo. Connie was experiencing some nausea from the Chloroquin we had to take to prevent malaria. We waited almost an entire day for our flight home since it turned out that Avianca had only one aircraft for the trip to New York. 

I used our experience on the Amazon for an episode in my book And Evil Shall Come



Friday, November 2, 2018

THE IRISH

James Joyce was one of the greatest Irish writers. His novels Ulysses, the Dubiners and Finnegan’s Wake won him wide acclaim.  Other outstanding Irish writers are Frank Delaney, who’s Ireland, Tipperary and Shannon and Frank McCourt’s  Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis are widely read. I have read and enjoyed most of the above.  W. B. Yeats is my favorite poet. When I read their lines I can hear the characters speaking. I like to listen to Irish being spoken, whether a brogue or just a slight blarney. As a matter of fact, I like the Irish culture.

What is remarkable is how such a rich culture developed under adverse conditions. Ireland was invaded and occupied centuries ago by the English. The Irish were basically an agricultural people speaking Gaelic. The occupation was often severe and brutal.

The Rebellion of 1798 failed, but a Rebellion in 1916 established the Irish Republic.

Irish Music is diverse with songs like Danny Boy and the wonderful pub music of Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers as well as The Chieftains. Some songs of failed uprisings are sad like Gavin Bury. There are many humorous ones like Meg Flaherty’s Drake, and others extolling whiskey like Whiskey You’re the Devil. (Irish whiskey is unique, but ale and Porter are also popular.)

I have always wanted to visit Ireland, but I don’t think that will happen. However, there is a small Irish enclave just down the street from where I live.  Mr. Michael Maher is one of its occupants. Michael is one of my faithful readers, and I treasure his comments. Perhaps sometime he will walk over for a visit. I happen to have an unopened bottle of Jameson’s, which I would be delighted to explore with him.


Friday, October 19, 2018

TAIWAN ADVENTURE

In 1982 I was still a professor at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, yet on the night of August 20th, I sat on a jet bound for Taiwan, the Island Nation contested by China. Sitting along side of me was Dr. George Chang, my last post-doctoral fellow. After completing his 2 year fellowship with me, Dr. Chang was able to get the Government of Taiwan to invite me to give a series of lectures at National Taiwan University Hospital known as Taida. We landed in Taipei in the early morning hours, and after clearing customs, we were led to a waiting limo. We arrived at Taida, the largest hospital in Taipei with 2400 beds. The hospital director greeted us and showed us to our guest rooms in the VIP suite. We were left for the rest of the day to recover from jet lag. 

That evening George and I were guests at a welcome banquet. The dining room had two large round tables, each with six waiting diners and an empty chair. George was seated at one of the tables and I at the other. After a welcoming speech by the director, the meal began. I noticed a small glass at my place filled with Chinese brandy. One of my fellow diners addressed me. “Dr. Ellner, Ganbey! (Cheers!)” He drank his brandy in one gulp, laid the glass on its side on his outstretched palm to show me. I responded with “Ganbey”, drank the brandy, and laid the glass in my palm. Within the next hour, each of my fellow diners toasted me in the same manner, and I responded to each one. When the meal was half over, George and I were obliged to switch seats. The toasting routine started again and when the meal ended, I was not quite drunk, but so impaired that I had to be helped to my room. This made our host very happy. 

The following Monday I gave my first lecture to about one hundred doctors all of whom understood English. I tried, in vain, to convince them to be discriminating in their use of antibiotics. I explained that each antibiotic had unique properties and the patient’s “bug” had to be isolated and tested. I lectured to this group every day for the next two weeks, but I don’t believe I converted any of them. When their patients failed to recover, they just chose another doctor. 

George and I wanted to visit the ancient Chinese garden at the summit of Alishan, the Dragon Mountain, to experience the sight of the sun rising above the clouds. We found the railway and boarded a narrow –gauge rickety train that ran to the summit. The trip took five hours. 

As we climbed, we left the rice paddies and entered the terrace with thousands of tea plants. We entered a jungle landscape. As the train continued its steep climb the landscape changed to pine trees, entering the cloud layer, finally emerging into the sunshine at the summit where there was a Buddhist monastery and a small hotel. We dined on a simple meal of rice and vegetables and shared a tiny bedroom. 

We were awakened at 5 am, drank hot tea, and a guide led us along a path to a clearing, on one side of which was a steep precipice. We waited shivering as it gradually grew lighter, and we could see a solid deck of clouds far below us. Suddenly, the sun emerged and rose over the clouds, a truly spectacular sight. After the sunrise, we returned to the hotel for breakfast, and then we were free to explore the very unique landscape that is Alishan. We spent the day wondering through the mostly wooded garden. One of the trees we saw was said to be a thousand years old. This was a trip worth remembering. 

Back in Taipei, George and I had a few days to ourselves. I was invited to a hospital out in the country to give another lecture. Following my lecture, George and I were taken by the hospital’s doctors and nurses for a thank you banquet. We sat at the usual round table where I was seated next to the Chief Doctor. He confided me “Dr. Ellner, we have a big surprise for you.” During the meal, I became aware of a pretty young woman who stood behind my seat during the meal and helped me by cutting my food. When the meal was over, the Chief Doctor turned to me, smiled, and said “And now, Dr.Ellner, the surprise.”  He indicated the young woman. I soon realized that I was expected to go off with her and enjoy her favors while the rest of the group waited. I said to George, “You’ve got to help me.” George replied “No problem, Dr. Ellner, they pay.” I protested that I was too tired so the disappointed Chief Doctor told the young woman to sing for us. After she sang a few songs, the Chief Doctor then demanded that I sing. Stunned, the best I could do was “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. 

The next day, George and I headed back to New York.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

MEMOIRS

I believe that memoirs are the most popular of all the various forms of non-fiction including biographies and essays.  Memoirs are the thoughts and recollections of the writer. They are usually associated with an emotional experience or feeling. Autobiographies are the complete story of the writer’s life.

I recently read a terrific memoir, one of the best I ever read. It was recommended by President Obama and called Educated by Tara Westover.  The protagonist is Tara, a young woman who writes about her life growing up in a family of survivalist Mormons. Survivalist refers to their belief that they will be the only people left after the “end of days”. Tara was born in the small family home in the mountains of Idaho and like her siblings was home schooled and forced to work in her father’s scrap business. Despite these hardships, she was able to graduate from BYU, earn a Master’s degree form Harvard and a Ph.D. from Cambridge.

There are numerous lists on line of memoirs considered to be essential reads. The memoirs described below are those that I have read and really enjoyed. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot is the intriguing story of two Irish veterinarians and their patients. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen describes an aristocratic woman’s experience on a coffee plantation in darkest Africa. Deserted by her husband, she falls in love with a white hunter and becomes involved in schooling the natives and a war. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is filled with the author’s anecdotes of his early life in poverty stricken Limerick, Ireland and living in New York City with an alcoholic father. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom recounts the touching visits of a former student with his dying professor. Walden by Henry David Thoreau is the classic story of a non-conformist philosopher who abandons city life to camp alone for a year near Walden Lake in Massachusetts. One of his oft repeated thoughts are “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away . . .”

One of my memoirs is called Thursday Nights at Bloomies describing humorous experiences during my visits as a divorced professor to a famous New York department store. It can be found in my collection of short stories Bright Figures, Sinister Shadows.

I would welcome questions or comments from my readers who may remain anonymous if they wish. I promise to respond.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

VAMPIRES AND EROTICA


      A few years ago I accosted a young woman customer in Barnes & Noble.
“You look to be about the same age as my granddaughters, recent college graduates,” I said. “I want to buy them books for their birthday. What are you guys reading these days?”
She brightened immediately and with a laugh said, “Twillight by Stephanie Meyer.”
“What is it about?” I asked her.
“It’s a fantasy romance about a girl who falls in love with a vampire. It’s a trilogy. It’s a popular book among young women right now.”
I thanked her and bought two of the books. My granddaughters loved them.
This brief encounter piqued my curiosity. I remember seeing the Dracula movie based on Bram Stoker’s book. The Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi played the vampire, Count Dracula.
I assumed that vampire stories were just an offshoot of the horror tales by H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King I used to read in pulp mags, but I was wrong. Vampires first appeared in 18th century poetry before becoming a stock figure in Gothic fiction.  The first vampire story in English, The Vampire by John Polidori, appeared in 1819.  Many short stories and novels about vampires followed, leading to the Twilight books my granddaughters enjoyed.
What is it about vampires that attract young girls and even mature women? Vampires are usually depicted as grisly creatures who spend their days in coffins, emerging at night to kill their victims by drinking their blood. Vampire lore usually includes descriptions of them as powerful, pale men who don’t reflect in a mirror and are repelled by crucifixes and garlic.
Author Anne Rice wrote a series of novels whose vampires ranged from gentle and shy to vicious and savage.  Her novels are often erotic, stimulating sexual feelings without the need for pornography. Psychologists suggest that women are drawn to vampires because they are super beings, powerful and often wealthy.  Go figure.
  So vampire stories are just another form of fantasy that adults and children enjoy. They range from Superman, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Star Trek.  I feel a debt of gratitude to those authors whose imagination and skill have provided us with escapes from the monotony of every day life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

AMERICAN READERS


As a writer I thought it might be interesting to get an overview of what my fellow Americans are reading. The first statistic is that 24% of Americans haven’t read a book or play in a year. Most of these folks are low-income workers, high school equivalent or less, or immigrant Latinos who can’t afford the money or the time for books. Gutenberg must be writhing in his grave. Of the remainder, only 30% buy their books from brick-and-mortar bookstores. Older classics like Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers are seldom seen in bookstores. These tomes are well over 1,000 pages and take up too much space on bookstore shelves. The rest of us buy our books online. Electronic books are popular, and 28% of us own an e-reader device, although the demand for print books is coming back.
Most Americans don’t read fiction, but younger people and women do. The Holy Bible has always been a best seller, but no one dares to classify it as either fiction or not. Men tend to read non-fiction and biographies, tales of travel or discovery are popular.
Fiction, primarily novels, is characterized by genre or sub-genre such as Chicklit, Westerns, and at least seventeen others. The most popular are Fantasy e.g. J.R. Tolkian’s Lord of the Rings, Sci-fi e.g. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling, Children’s Fiction e.g. other Harry Potter books, Suspense-Thriller e.g. The Davinci Code by Dan Brown, and Romance e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer is popular with young women.
Poetry is not a big seller, however a surprising number of small presses offer volumes of verse.
Having considered all of the above, I might decide to take up rock climbing or skydiving.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

GUIDE DOG

         
I want to tell you about Ray, my guide dog. About fifteen years ago when we moved to the condo community in the Litchfield Hills, I experienced a major change in my life. I became blind. Something called Macular Degeneration. I still had some peripheral vision, but I could not see the food on my plate or the toothpaste on the brush. 
         I had led an active life, marketing, cooking, writing fiction, flying airplanes, gardening, fishing, and succeeding in a second career as an expert witness in microbiology and infectious disease. Suddenly, all that changed, and I became dependant upon others for basic functions and getting around. I could only write by dictating to a typist.
         Guide dog organizations in Connecticut and New Jersey rejected me because of my age, but Guiding Eyes in New York State accepted me after a year of tests. 
         Connie drove me to their Yorktown Heights campus. An instructor showed me to my room. The next day, she entered my room carrying a container of dog food accompanied by a handsome, black Lab on a leash. 
         “We think this is the best dog for you,” she said. “He is three, a little older than the others, but then,” she said with a smile, “so are you.” 
         How do they know he’s the best dog for me?
         “Let us know how you make out. His name is Ray.” She dropped the leash, turned and left me alone with the dog. 
         Ray walked over to where I was sitting, dragging the leash and wagging his tail tentatively. I detached the leash and patted him on the head. He sat and looked at me staring into my eyes. Was I getting a message? He was telling me something. If you want me I’ll take good care of you. 
         “Yes, I want you. I need you,” I told him. He thumped his tail rapidly on the floor and lay down at my feet. For the rest of the day, he and I interacted, each growing more trusting. 
         In the days and weeks that followed, Ray and I worked with the instructor. She showed me how to put on his harness and pick up his poop. We rode in vehicles together, worked on city streets learning when to cross, on country roads, in department stores with escalators, and in restaurants. Ray seemed to know all of the commands and responded as if he had done this before. When graduation day finally came, my family proudly watched as Ray and I sat for a photo. 
         At home, Ray quickly became a family member, but he was really my dog. He makes it possible for me to get around, leading me to the post office and on walks through woodland trails. Ray became familiar with the six miles of roads and three miles of trails of our community. After two years my vision worsened, and I am now almost completely blind. Ray sensed this change. I no longer need to use verbal commands for direction when we walk. I am still able to write by dictation to a typist. 
         Ray accompanies me into restaurants, doctor’s offices, ER’s and hospital rooms. He is infinitely patient. 
         Ray and I are very close. Although he has his own bed, he sleeps on the floor next to mine and wakes me gently in the morning with his nose against my neck. He loves when I massage him, rolling on his back with his legs in the air. He understands more than 200 words and phrases of English, responding with body language and his tail. Ray and I have grown closer than two humans. I love him like I love my children, and he loves me. Labs generally live seven to twelve years, and I hope that he will survive me. 
         
         

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

PUBLISHING TODAY

Why do writers write? A few in every generation decide early on they want to be writers, get a Masters in English or Creative Writing and hunt for a do-anything job in a publishing house. Many begin to write in the evening and, after a year or so, complete a novel or a memoir. Some are fortunate to have their effort read. However, only a few may actually get published. One of these writers may become the darling of a publisher, write a book every year, make the N.Y.Times Best Seller list, and live happily ever after. 

At the beginning of the 21stcentury the publishing industry experienced significant changes. Technology like e-books and Print on Demand became available, bookstores changed ownership, publishing personnel changed jobs, and new presses appeared. Men and women of all occupations with computers and printers decided they had a story to tell and wanted readers. Manuscripts from butchers and bakers, doctors and lawyers and even a professor proliferated like dandelions on a summer lawn, and thousands of unsolicited ones unread filled publisher’s waste paper baskets to overflowing.
            Surely, among those myriads of manuscripts awaiting the shredder, there must be a few gems, which will never be published. I think of a verse from Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyardthat goes,

            “Full many a gem of purest ray serene, 
             The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear: 
             Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen, 
            And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
            
  Literary agents increased in number and self-publishing presses offered frustrated writers the opportunity to “publish” their work. For a healthy sum, such presses will accept a manuscript and produce printed copies of books for the author. Marketing of these books is left to the author who can use them to distribute to friends and family to satisfy his desire for readers. As my wife would say, “It is what it is”. 
            


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

FAMILIES

Connie and I recently attended a family party at my daughter Diane’s home in Westchester County.  She and Ronnie, gracious hosts as always, called her grown offspring to greet us. Two of them with their spouses presented their kids to me, my four great grandsons! The boys regarded me with a lack of interest and promptly ran off to play, leaving me to calculate that I was responsible for a family of 20 souls including six spouses.

I suppose the family first appeared among early humans when a few of them banded together for protection and support. In later eras, love and affection also became motives.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd had lots of time to think about his family while he spent many months alone beneath the Antarctic ice with only a radio for company. In his memoir Alone, he wrote:
At the end only two things really matter to a man, regardless of who he is; and they are the affection and understanding of his family. Anything and everything else he creates are insubstantial; they are ships given over to the mercy of the winds and tides of prejudice. But the family is an everlasting anchorage, a quiet harbor where a man’s ships can be left to swing to the moorings of pride and loyalty.
I wonder if the family will continue to exist in the distant future. Nevertheless, I expect that my family will continue to grow and I hope, to prosper. (I quoted Admiral Byrd in my novel Incident in Geneva.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

COPY EDITING

         
The past week has been a busy one. On the 21st, our planet decided to return closer to the Sun again, guaranteeing at least one more fall and winter for us. As an incurable optimist, I am looking forward to a fall with gorgeous foliage and a winter with moderate snow and temperatures for outdoor activities. Hopefully, by that time all the children on the Mexican border will have been restored to their parents. 

       Back to writing. Before sending a manuscript to a publisher, it needs a close review. Copy editing is the process of checking a document for spelling, capitalization, grammar, and punctuation, the nuts and bolts of writing. Almost anyone with a good basic education and a sharp eye can do copy editing. 

         Programs like Word and Pages include checking grammar and spelling. I often utilize a robot program called Edit Minion for copy editing. To use it, I paste the manuscript into the program, which illuminates weak words, preposition endings, unnecessary adjectives, passive voice, etc. in different colors, providing the opportunity for correction. 

         Copy editing is quite different from reviewing a piece of creative writing for style. The latter, called editing, involves a consideration of voice, cliché, plotting, character development, and other aspects of the craft. Editing requires considerable experience and as stated in my previous posts, is often best left to a professional.

Friday, June 8, 2018

A PROFESSIONAL EDITOR

I worked on my second novel, And Evil Shall Come, for more than ten years. It was to be a thriller about biological weapons. The protagonist was an enthusiastic young woman reporter, and I researched the storyline. Creative writing has become competitive with publishers discarding unsolicited manuscripts unread, so mine had to be good.

I revised the manuscript eighteen times with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style alongside the computer, but the story was still not right. It was interesting but leaden. I had never studied creative writing so I attended a few writing workshops. These were not helpful, and I spent my time trying to interest publisher’s agents in my work.

Among the many how-to books on writing, two of them by Sol Stein, Stein on Writing and How To Grow A Novel, were helpful. I read them cover-to-cover, highlighting important sentences, and I tried to incorporate the changes in my manuscript.

Finally, I decided to call Sol Stein and ask him for help. He told me he was too busy and suggested I call his sister Toby.

Toby Stein was a Barnard graduate and a professional editor and writer with a number of published books and novels. I called her and described my novel.

“Sounds interesting,” she said. We talked fees. “OK, send me the manuscript and a check.”

After a few weeks I received a package from Toby containing about fifteen pages. She had read and critiqued every chapter, paragraph, and line.

“You are a good writer with a remarkable talent for dialogue,” she wrote, “and we will build on that. You should consider minimizing the use of narrative summary to explain the story. This is a novel, not a textbook. Let the characters move the story on by their actions or by dialogue.”

Toby’s pages were filled with the craft of writing, and I still refer to them. She critiqued every line I had written, often suggesting elimination, substitution or modification. Occasionally she praised a sentence or paragraph and I glowed with pleasure. I learned a great deal from Toby as I rewrote my novel. I sent it to the publisher with feelings of satisfaction and pride.

I’d like to be able to say And Evil Shall Come became a blockbuster or a best seller, but this was not the case. Marketing books is more difficult than writing them and is itself an art or science.

I turned to Toby again as I wrote The Ebola Connection, and once again she provided excellent guidance.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

REVISING


“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

I am a compulsive reviser, but I must admit to having ambivalent feelings when I rewrite a manuscript. I find revision to be a constant challenge, in the absence of professional editorial input.

This is the way things used to be. When the muse was with me I could often write a first draft without stopping for food or rest. This could take many hours, but I usually finished with a sense of satisfaction that was short lived.

Writers are often advised to put the manuscript aside and let some time pass before revising it.  When I pick up the draft again, my emotions have cooled, my eyes have become jaundiced, and I recall Hemmingway’s dictum that “all first drafts are excrement.” Barnaby Conrad reminded us, “Books and stories aren’t written-they are rewritten!”  Irwin Shaw said that he rewrites, shows finished drafts to his publisher and a close friend, and then does a revision.
I yearned for criticism, but my sole critic, my roommate, pal, lover, and wife is inevitably away at work when I need her.  I endure the wait by removing unnecessary dialog tags, adverbs, and adjectives.  I try to replace narrative summary with dialog, I check tenses, search for clichés and stronger verbs.

The moment the door opens I pounce on her.  “Hi. I’ve written something.  I’d like you to read it.”

She insists on removing her coat and expresses the need to visit our facility first. Don’t they have bathrooms where she works? I thrust the manuscript into her hands and hover. Her typical response after a rapid perusal is “It’s good.”

Sol Stein maintains that when applied to a manuscript as a whole, such a response can be destructive.

“No,” I demand.  “Read it critically.”
“Can it wait until after dinner?”
“Could you just read it now?”  There’s a pleading note to my voice.
“I read it already,” she tells me as I follow her into the kitchen.  I’m hungry, but I need a critique like an addict craves a fix.
“What do you think?” I persist as she pours oil into a skillet.
“I told you, it’s good.”  She starts to slice an onion.
“I mean what do you really think of it?”

Criticism even when solicited is sometimes hard to accept and often provokes defensive explanations, but total deprivation of an analytical assessment can be frustrating.

Sometimes she makes a good suggestion that I incorporate into the next revision, but today she says, “Look, I’m not an expert.  What do I know?  You need an expert.” Further pleas and demands are futile.  She is totally absorbed in culinary activities.  Exasperated, I return to the computer with my oil-spattered manuscript.

I’m anxious to move on, to write more, eventually to submit something to an editor.  The work usually improves with each revision, but when does one stop There is always the risk that further revision will diminish the draft.  Each revision takes the story further from the original.

This is how things are now. “Never ask a family member or a good friend for a critique. This is as useless as tits on a boar hog. The inevitable response will be, ‘It’s good.’ ” Paul D. Ellner (1925-20--)


Thursday, May 24, 2018

MAGNETS AND LADDERS

Behind Our Eyes recently honored me when they included an excerpt from one of my novels in their spring edition of Magnets and Ladders. Behind Our Eyes Inc., a writers group, was created in 2006 and includes members from all over the United States. Members of BOE meet twice a month by moderated teleconference. Each Sunday night, they alternate between working critique sessions and listening to presentations from writers, poets, journalists, teachers and people in the publishing industry.The only requirement for membership in BOE is that the writers have a disability such as blindness. Their material is varied and includes poetry, short stories, essays, etc. 

Magnets and Laddersis published quarterly, and is edited by a member elected for that purpose. In my case, the editors were gracious enough to include an excerpt from my novel And Evil Shall Come. This was a large excerpt describing how Kate Morrison pursued by the Al Qaeda takes refuge in her best friends apartment and how the friend betrays her. 

I am grateful for this opportunity to promote my book. The editor, Mary Jo Lord, purchased a copy of my most recent collection of short stories Bright Figures Sinister Shadows.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

THE DISTANT FUTURE?

I cannot help thinking about global warming, climate change, countries developing nuclear weapons, Muslim terrorism, random shootings, etc. and wondering what will happen.  In Incident in Geneva I decided to use myself as the protagonist and the novel to determine what would or could result from these potential catastrophes. So I, thinly disguised as Professor Charles Handler, and his wife, residents of a tiny hamlet in Northwestern Connecticut, find themselves on a train in Switzerland. They are coming from a visit with a colleague in Zurich heading to see family in France before returning home. En route, Charles plans to tour the Hadron Collider in Geneva, considered to be the world’s largest machine.  While there a freak explosion propels Charles into an alternate universe, where he finds himself back in Connecticut five hundred years into the future.  The people are survivors of a thermonuclear war and a worldwide pandemic.  Society, political structure, religion, and customs have all radically changed. Many of the social changes appear to be beneficial while others are baffling and difficult for him to accept until he learns that everyone has been genetically modified to eliminate aggressive behavior and greed. Charles is accepted into society until a warrant for his arrest from the World Court leads to his arrest on charges of attempted manslaughter of the Human Race.

How these many problems are resolved or addressed make interesting reading as you contemplate their possibility or probability.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

READERS AND WRITERS

I think all writers are serious readers. Some of them may be checking the competition or looking for ideas, but I believe they all read for pleasure. I’ve always been an avid reader. Since my retirement in 1989, I read (listen to) about three books a week, usually novels.

Many detective, thriller, and spy types are so predictable that by the time I finish the second paragraph I can guess the ending. My preferences are stories that deal with universal concepts. The books cited below are examples that meet these criteria.

Cider House Rules by John Irving relates how young Homer Wells grows up under the tutelage of Doctor Wilbur Larch, the obstetrician and abortionist at St. Cloud’s Orphanage in Maine.

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is the story of poor Oklahoma farmers trying to escape the Dust Bowl by migrating to California.

In the Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, three families in Appalachia lead lives entwined with each other.

Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey is a nonfiction gem that describes the lives of dolphins and how they interacted with humans since ancient times.

Irma Joubert, Afrikaans novelist has written Girl from the Train, the touching story of two disparate characters, six-year old Gretl, the sole survivor of a train bound for Auschwitz that is destroyed, and Jakob, a Polish freedom fighter who bombed the train. Jakob finds Gretl and cares for her before arranging for her safe life in South Africa. But they never forget each other.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is the saga of seven generations of Koreans striving to survive under the domination of the Japanese who despise them.

You do not have to read these books. I only list them as examples of wonderful stories of the human condition. Our book club has read and enjoyed some of them.





Thursday, April 26, 2018

BROTHERS



A toxic relationship between two brothers with tragic consequences continues to be a subject of particular interest in many cultures. From Cain and Abel to The Brothers Karamazov, hostility developing between brothers still elicits an emotional response somewhat akin to murder. Perhaps this is because fraternal love that changes to hate is almost as difficult to comprehend as the deliberate taking of a human life.

I decided to write about two brothers in the modern era who experience such a change. With my background in infectious disease, the Ebola pandemic raging in West Africa serves as a critical episode in their lives. This novel is clearly character-driven. Once the two protagonists appear, they take over and write the story.

Howard and Frank Frazer grow up in Hartford, Connecticut, raised by a loving mother who tries to impart moral behavior.  Their father is killed in an industrial accident when the boys are young.  They have an affectionate relationship until puberty, when their paths take different directions. Howard is basically a do-gooder helping everyone, while Frank is more self-centered. Situations occur that radically change Howard’s feelings for Frank to hate, but initially Frank doesn’t care. I believe that the way their lives unfold to a dramatic conclusion should make interesting reading. See my website for more information. The novel is called The Ebola Connection.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A COOKBOOK ?

A cookbook, why not? I have been cooking and baking for more than half a century. I titled the book First Steal A Chicken, an old joke about the Hungarian recipe for chicken soup, which starts: First, steal a chicken. The Romanian version is: First, get someone to buy you a chicken. My attempt at humor in food preparation is not unique. For a few belly laughs, read Charles Lamb’s A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig. Please excuse the pun.

I collected hundreds of recipes from friends, neighbors, chefs, newspapers, magazines, books, and the Internet. Some are even my own concoctions.  I tried to credit the source e.g. Ann Seranne’s Rib Roast of Beef, Diane’s Brisket, Hilde’s Mom’s Lemon Pound Cake, and Paul’s Cumberland Sauce. I tested most of the recipes and rejected some that didn’t taste good or were too complicated. All types were included from appetizers to desserts. There were Chinese, European, Southern, early American, etc. I never published the book but printed a few copies for family and friends. Later I decided that if there was to be a 2nd edition, there would be some rejections and inclusions, but that never happened.

I love cooking and baking bread. My kids, now grown, Diane, David, and Jonathan, are all good cooks to the considerable satisfaction of their spouses.


Cooking can be a creative enterprise like painting, sculpture, and writing. Each of those requires considerable effort, but the reward is the pleasure that comes from the satisfaction or delight of the taster, viewer, or reader. This pleasure comes in arithmetic progression in that the more tasters, viewers, or readers, the greater the pleasure.

Friday, April 20, 2018

MARY ENGEL - A BENEVOLENT LIFE



I wanted to get a dog. Our home had been burglarized, and we needed protection. I learned of a woman who raised Dobermans and went to see her. Her name was Mary Engel, and her bitch had just whelped so she had some puppies. Mary sold me a puppy, and when I brought her home, I named her Heidi. As she grew, Heidi proved to be an excellent guard dog and my close companion.

During the 12 years Heidi lived with us, Connie and I occasionally encountered Mary at social occasions or cultural events. She was a psychology professor at City College, approaching retirement, and introduced us to some of her friends. One or two of these friends told me of Mary’s unusual background.

Mary was born in Budapest to a wealthy Jewish family. She was named Marika, Hungarian for Mary. Her mother was a socialite and largely neglected her. Mary’s father was an American who distributed films in Hungary. Mary attended Catholic school and endured virulent anti-Semitism. When Mary was fourteen, her mother committed suicide and not long after, her father died of a heart attack.

With the onset of the Holocaust, Mary lived with friends, one of whom could forge documents. To avoid starvation, the girls sold those documents, which Mary distributed to Jews escaping the death camps. Captured and arrested by the Hungarian Nazis, Mary was condemned to death only to be rescued at the last minute by the invading Russian army.

At sixteen Mary immigrated to New York and lived with an Uncle. She attended college, majored in psychology, and eventually earned her doctorate. She became the second woman professor at Harvard University and was appointed to an important government position. In these years, Mary had several unhappy marriages.


On a visit to Hungary, Mary found an old friend who had loved her, brought him back to America where they soon married. Unfortunately, Mary became ill and died only a few weeks later. Dismayed by her tragic death, I decided to write Mary’s story, a partially fictionalized biography called Marika. I hope that some of you will read more about the book on my website.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

GRANT, A SUPER BIOGRAPHY

Biographies have seldom been my first choice of a book, until I read Grant by Ron Chernow. Clearly America’s greatest biographer, Chernow brings to life one of America’s greatest generals, and finest, but underappreciated presidents.

Ulysses S. Grant, a Midwesterner, graduated from West Point and entered the army as a second Lieutenant. He distinguished himself in the Mexican War, but resigned from the army in disgrace with accusations of drunkenness. Grant reentered the army in the Civil War and rose rapidly to the rank of General. The civil war was America’s bloodiest, the numbers of killed and wounded exceeding those in World War I, World War II, Korean War, and Mexican War combined. Grant prevailed in the battle of Shiloh and the Vicksburg campaign, endearing himself to Lincoln to become his most trusted general and the strategic genius of the war. Grant’s two-term presidency was beset by corruption and scandal, but he sought freedom and justice for black Americans and worked to crush the KKK. After his presidency, he wrote his memoirs with the aid of Mark Twain. Grant’s successful struggle with alcoholism gives the reader a deeper understanding of the man.

I found Grant to be a fascinating book. It remains a best seller. I too have written a biography. It is about a young girl who emerges from the horrors of the Holocaust, to become a prominent psychologist anxious and able to help children. Watch for my next Blog.

Friday, April 6, 2018

STORY STARTERS

        People sometimes ask me where I get the ideas for my stories. Some authors plot a story and then find the character while other authors start with a character and sort of let the character write the story. With the exception of three of my short stories, I usually rely on my imagination, often playing the “what if” game. For example, I’m in a market and bump into a woman causing her to drop her purchases. As we both bend down to pick them up, I notice that she has an unusual tattoo on her wrist. What if she is a…?
        The three exceptions referred to above were actual events I experienced and used in short stories. One of these was my adventures in a large New York City department store. The second was what happened to me riding a New York City police horse, and the third was when I was mistakenly censured for flying over the White House. In one of my novels, Incident in Geneva, I patterned the protagonist after myself in describing what I thought life might be five hundred years from now.
I was not always old and blind. Except for the last fifteen years, my vision was 20/20. It was only when my copilot in the Civil Air Patrol mentioned that my landings were getting bumpy and tactfully suggested I see an ophthalmologist who told me my flying days were over.
As a medical school professor I wrote a number of medical and scientific books and many articles in scientific journals. I never learned touch-typing, but I could “hunt and peck” at a pretty good rate. My non-scientific writings began with poetry, which came easy to me. I wrote a book of poems, which I never published. Nobody buys poetry, but people like my poems, and now I post them on Facebook.
After I retired from Columbia, I found a second career as an expert witness, continuing to type my opinions until my vision failed. My last two nonfiction books where Understanding Infectious Disease (Mosby 1992) and The Biomedical Scientist as Expert Witness (ASM Press 2005). This last book continues to sell a few copies. My first attempt at fiction was Stranger in Time, which I self-published in 2010. It took me less than a year to write, but when I became blind I was obliged to utilize professional typists. This turned out to be a pleasant experience as I enjoy interacting with them.
Books have always played an important part of my life. Most authors are enthusiastic readers. As a kid, I read under the covers with a flashlight and continue to be an ardent reader. I read two or three books a week. After losing my vision, I’m able to continue with audio books.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A POTPOURRI OF READING ENTERTAINMENT

Do you like short stories? They have the appeal that one gets to meet the protagonist, learn about his or her particular problem, and enjoy the final resolution all in one sitting. I came to like short stories with surprising endings. In my recent book, Bright Figures Sinister Shadows, I have tried to craft stories with a “twist” at the end. Here you will find a man who hears his long dead father’s voice on the phone, and other stories about everyday people who suddenly encounter a time warp, living elves, a mermaid, or an alternate universe leading to bizarre consequences.

Read more about Bright Figures Sinister Shadows on my website www.ellner.com.

Monday, March 19, 2018

CREATING A HEROINE


You have just finished reading a novel you liked. In particular, there was one character who impressed you. As a matter of fact, you identified with him and cared what happened to him in the story.
You may have wondered how the author was able to create such a realistic person.

There are a variety of techniques that authors can employ to make their characters 3-demensional, but sometimes the character comes out of nowhere to insert himself into the story. This is how Kate Morrison, the protagonist (my favorite character) in And Evil Shall Come, came into being.

One evening my wife and I were in bed watching a movie called You’ve Got Mail. It was a cute story about a young man and woman who found each other in a computer chat room and finally met for a happy ending. When the film ended, my wife went to sleep, but I lay awake intrigued by the novelty of the concept. I knew that chat rooms were vehicles designed for online dating and approaching 70 with three grown children that was not my interest. I was curious though to see what one was like.

I tiptoed into the next room where my computer lived and somehow found a chat room. To my surprise a young woman from Nebraska selected me. Her name was Carol A.  She was excited to meet a professor from the east coast where all the intellectuals lived. It quickly became obvious to her that I was not interested in dating. I was enthusiastic to meet a professional woman from the Midwest.  We exchanged names, brief bios, and email addresses. We promised to meet the next evening.  Would she actually contact me? The next night I received an email from Carol asking questions.   We began to correspond. Carol was a reporter for an Omaha agricultural newspaper, with an abusive boyfriend. She dreamed of becoming an investigative reporter for a major newspaper. Over the next nights, weeks, we told each other about our childhood experiences. In time our exchanges became personal. Carol gave me much more than I gave her. She related dreams and even sexual fantasies. She wanted to talk, and it was almost as if I was a surrogate therapist. I admired Carol’s dedication, persistence, and courage.

I now had reams of printouts of our conversations over the months. I decided to use the material and write a book called “Pen Pals”, but soon dropped that idea because it wasn’t exciting enough. During my professional career I was actively involved with the U.S. Public Health Service and had accumulated a great deal of information about biological weapons. That would be the subject of my next novel. It took 11 years and 19 versions to finish the book. I would call my protagonist Kate Morrison and utilize many of Carol’s characteristics as well as a few interesting incidents she had related. Characters in my future novels would be more challenging.



Monday, March 12, 2018

A BIOTERRORISM THRILLER


When Kate Morrison, a young reporter, accidentally comes upon a U.S. Army camp in a desolate area of Nebraska, she is irritated and perplexed by the bizarre treatment she experiences. Kate, who dreams of writing for a major newspaper, investigates and is amazed that the army denies the existence of the camp. As she continues her investigation, she learns that the camp is actually an Al Qaeda operation manufacturing and distributing biological weapons to terrorist groups. Masterminded by a sinister Japanese who has compelled the acquiescence of a U.S. senator, the Al Qaeda carry out biological attacks around the world. Together with FBI Special Agent Matt O’Neill, Kate is able to forestall a biological attack on the U.S. Capital, but the Nation is left in turmoil when a devastating anthrax attack on the auto show in New York City leaves thousands dead. Thousands flee the city in panic when a miniature nuclear bomb is planted in Grand Central Station. In this gripping tale Kate is kidnapped, experiences betrayal, and faces beheading by the Al Qaeda.
Although my novel is fiction, it is based upon the details learned about bioweapons during the years writing the book. I actually visited sites of fictional attacks such as an Israeli kibbutz, an Indian village far up the Amazon in Colombia, a camping area near Washington, D.C. and, of course, the Javitz Center in New York City. Attacks with bioweapons are different in that the target may not know that it has been hit until hours or even days later when large numbers of victims suddenly develop similar symptoms.

Unit 731 really existed and so did General Ishii Shiro. See my previous post on BIOTERRORISM.

You can learn more about this thriller And Evil Shall Come on my website, www.ellner.com. You can even read a four-chapter excerpt.