The Plot

the plot book cover

You can’t copyright a plot.

As a writer, people sometimes approach me with book ideas. They have the idea, they just need someone to “write it up.”

Sometimes, they even offer to split the profits with me. They’ve done the hard part, after all – thinking up the idea – and just need someone to put the words on the paper.

But an idea is nothing. It’s like saying that you have an idea for a bridge and just need someone to build it for you.

Which is why the central dilemma of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz didn’t resonate with me. In the novel, Jacob Finch Bonner steals the plot for a novel from one of his students.

Bonner turns the idea into a best-seller. And then is blackmailed by an anonymous figure who accuses him of being a thief. Bonner then desperately tries to cover up his “crime” while trying to figure out the identity of his accuser.

But it’s not a crime. As Bonner himself says, plots are in the air. They’re narratives we’ve heard a million times before, from the Odyssey to Star Wars. They’re stories we hear from friends. Things we read about in the newspaper. Tales we overhear on the bus.

All these plots – they say there are only seven of them – slosh around in the culture and get recycled time and time again.

Where would we be if we couldn’t use the material around us? My short story collection, Likes, is based upon things I experienced, heard about or read about. I take the stories that are in the air and refashion them into tidy short fiction.

Which is why I didn’t understand Bonner’s guilt in The Plot. Or why he was trying to unmask his blackmailer.

It’s the expression of the idea – not the idea itself – that is the real thing. Jacob Finch Bonner took a plot and turned it into a novel. He did the hard work. He did nothing wrong.

So, if you’re around a writer, be careful. We may steal your stories. And not feel guilty about it.

A Thousand Ships

A Thousand Ships

If you liked Circe by Madeline Miller, then you’ll enjoy A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.

This is a novel about the Trojan War, but from the women involved, from meddling goddesses to ordinary mortals, all caught up in a civilization-ending cataclysm.

I love contemporary takes on Greek mythology. For this book, it helps to know a bit about the Odyssey and the Iliad. If not, there’s a guide at the beginning of the book to the characters.

In this novel, the muse Calliope sings, but of the women. The goddesses Hera, Aphrodite and Athena who forced Paris to make a fateful judgement.  Hecuba, enslaved, with her city destroyed. Clytemnestra slowly plotting revenge against her husband.

My favorite part was Penelope musing as she hears increasingly fantastical tales about her long-missing husband, Odysseus, and his wanderings through the known world after the fall of Troy. Supposedly on his way home, he sure gets kidnapped by beautiful women a lot.

Like Circe, this is another book where the man of twists comes off badly.

Which is why I liked Circe and A Thousand Ships so much. Both novels deconstruct Greek fables and force us to look at them with modern eyes. Maybe The Odyssey isn’t a tale of adventure and perhaps Penelope wasn’t as faithful as she appears. What woman wouldn’t get impatient with a man who goes out of his way to piss off Poseidon?

These stories have endured over the centuries because they are complex, with many layers, and contain dilemmas and challenges that even modern readers can appreciate. A Thousand Ships breaths life into these ancient tales to create a beautiful novel of women’s voices.

The Glass Hotel

Ever since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it’s felt like we’re in the wrong timeline. History is supposed to move forward toward greater equality. Instead, we fell into the abyss, with a clumsy fascist at the helm and a deadly plague in our midst.

Emily St. John Mandel is an interesting writer to read during these strange times. The Glass Hotel is ostensibly about a Ponzi scheme that goes awry. But that doesn’t happen until halfway through this lyrical, meditative novel.

The book is about the idea of the counterlife, what your life would be if you didn’t make that choice. For some, it’s backdating a stock transaction. For others, it’s deciding to go out on New Year’s Eve. Choices (and dumb luck) propel some characters toward wealth and others toward poverty. They question their lives, whether they deserve their fates, and if things would be better in the counterlife.

Interestingly, characters from her earlier novel, Station Eleven, make cameos in The Glass Hotel. In this version of reality, the pandemic that devastated the world of Station Eleven was swiftly contained.

Ranging across time and space, The Glass Hotel considers the idea of reality, as worlds and lives blur together into a melange of possibilities.

Station Eleven is a better novel, since it has a definite before and after. The Glass Hotel is a more challenging read, with less of a fixed point to hold onto.

But if you like complicated, literary fiction, check out The Glass Hotel. Emily St. John Mandel is a wonderful writer that I would follow anywhere. She’s written a kind of ghost story for the mind, one with a particular resonance for those of us stuck in the horrible year of 2020.

Lincoln on the Verge

Lincoln at National Harbor

The Lincoln statue was a surprise.

I had biked to National Harbor to look at The Awakening. During this pandemic year, one invents activities to pass the time.

The Awakening is an aluminum sculpture of a giant emerging from the earth. Formerly at Hains Point, it was moved downriver a few years ago to National Harbor, the hotel/casino/shopping complex in Maryland.

The sculpture was blocked off by fences so I took the opportunity to bike around the abandoned streets of National Harbor, idly coasting by shuttered restaurants and stores until I spotted the Great Emancipator.

The rail splitter can be found on American Way, right by South Moon Under,  up the steps from Potbelly. Lincoln overlooks a video screen (“Good morning from National Harbor: Capitalize on it all!”) and a massive Ferris wheel on a pier jutting out into the Potomac.

I just finished Lincoln on the Verge, the powerful and moving story of this common man advancing toward death and destiny.

If his statue in National Harbor could come to life, what would he think of America in 2020?

I think he would be pleased that we lasted so long.

He would be delighted by people of all races enjoying a stroll along the promenade. The bright colors and carnival wheel would be charming diversions to him. But the old boatman would be most pleased to be within sight of a river.

Plague would not surprise him. Death and sickness were old friends. He often talked with the dead, believing that they existed in a spirit world that was within reach.

Leaving his home in Springfield in 1861, he did not expect to return. Just getting to Washington required providence, as he was nearly done in by overly exuberant crowds and gangs of assassins, as depicted in Lincoln on the Verge. Four years later, he returned home, in a coffin, his route retracing his earlier rail journey.

Unlike other politicians of the era (who remembers anything James Buchanan said?), Lincoln’s words live on because he spoke clearly and directly. We’d call this authentic. To the people of 1861, who had suffered decades of sophisticated oratory to protect the institution of slavery, this was electrifying.

Elites in the cities scoffed at his homespun tales. But if he was liberated from his bronze, and was free to walk around National Harbor, he’d have a comforting story for listeners:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses!

This too shall pass. Lincoln inherited a broken country and in four short years created an America worthy of its ideals. He knew he didn’t have long. But he endured and triumphed. We will too.

Can there be a Kramerbooks without Dupont Circle?

Kramerbooks closed at eight on a Sunday night

Kramerbooks may leave Dupont Circle.

In this year of loss, this news struck me hard. Kramerbooks is urban life. As a college freshman, the experience of visiting the store defined the city for me.

The RA in my dorm at American University had led a bunch of us on a tour of the monuments. On the way back, we got off at the Dupont Circle Metro. As I rose out of the earth on the escalator, I was immediately enchanted by this bohemian neighborhood of art galleries, record shops and bookstores.

Kramerbooks defined cool. More than just a bookstore, it was open late, served brunch and you could even get a drink there.

It was the height of urban sophistication. When I moved back to DC after a few years in Florida, I made sure to be within walking distance of Kramers.

On the weekends, I’d amble around the city and stop off at the bookstore. There, I’d browse through the new books and imagine myself as an author.

Joe Floods reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.
Joe Flood reads Victory Party at Kramerbooks. Photo courtesy of Kramerbooks.

Years later, my dreams came true. My short story, Victory Party, won the City Paper Fiction Competition. I did a reading at Kramerbooks. Staff pushed back the stacks, chairs were set up and there I was in the window of Kramers, sharing my creation with an audience.

And perhaps inspiring another writer, like I once was by the Kramerbooks experience.

Location, Location, Location

DC is all about real estate – Kramers is no exception. Behind the fantasy of a clean and well-lit place for literature is the brutal reality of dollars and cents. Dealing with three landlords, as Kramers does, is complicated.

And Dupont Circle is no longer fashionable; it has become old and tired. The record stores and dive bars that were its peers are long since gone. Storefronts are empty and tents for the homeless have sprung up on the sidewalks.

All the energy of the city has gone east. Why stay in a cramped building on Connecticut Avenue when you could move to a larger space in a shiny new neighborhood like H St or Yards Park?

Kramerbooks is Dupont Circle and Dupont Circle is Kramerbooks. Their brands are married in a bohemian embrace. It’s hard to imagine Kramers anywhere else.

But cities change. That’s what makes them so interesting.

The bookstore I fell in love with as college freshman. The piles of novels I dreamily browsed there on Sunday afternoons. The experience of reading Victory Party before a crowd.

If the Coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it’s to cherish those precious and unrecoverable moments. Kramers may change but the experiences it created will endure.

Dreams of El Dorado

Dreams of El Dorado

History gives you perspective: things could always be worse. Rather than sitting at home with Netflix and DoorDash during a pandemic, you could be:

A fur trapper, stripped nude and forced to run for your life for the entertainment of Native American warriors.

A family on the Oregon Trail, bamboozled by your guides, and left for dead in the mountains.

A San Francisco resident during the Gold Rush watching the city burn down for the second time in a week.

The settling of the West, as told in Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands, is the story that we’re all familiar with – human endurance in the face of hardship – but it also takes apart a host of comforting American myths.

Rugged individualists did not last long in the West. In an inhospitable landscape full of deadly people and things, you needed to work with others to survive.

For example, the wagon trains that set out for Oregon were cities on wheels, with experienced leaders, rules and a daily schedule. Fur trading was a multinational affair, with trappers from different countries working in teams and then partying at the end of the season as they exchanged their goods. The lone gold miner might find a nugget or two but the real money was earned by companies who organized workers and sluices to shift whole mountainsides.

And none of this success would’ve been possible without the tribes of the West. The Sioux, the Crow and other Native peoples were allies and competitors until they were exterminated or forced into reservations by the American invaders.

The story of the West is also the story of the federal government. Everything west of the Mississippi started out as federal land, when Jefferson purchased it from Napoleon. California and other territories were taken from Mexico. While Texas won its independence, the Lone Star State would not have survived without annexation by the U.S.

The West, unlike the settled states of the East, is a creation of the American government. Through the Homestead Act and other laws, Washington controlled who got land and (more importantly) water in region, unlike anywhere else in the country.

Yet, we cling to our myths of the open frontier, for they express the American ideal of endless reinvention.

Dreams of El Dorado describes how, for a few short and brutal years, freedom could be found in the West, often at a terrible cost, before it became just another region of America, a dry landscape that you glimpse from a window seat as you fly over the country.

Fleishman Is In Trouble

Fleishman is in Trouble

I have a thing for novels about the problems of wealthy New Yorkers. One of the first novels that made an impression upon me was The Bonfire of the Vanities. Of course I was going to pick up Fleishman Is In Trouble.

Rich People Problems

Toby Fleishman is doctor making $300,000 a year who still feels poor. Possessed with rage against almost everything, but especially his ex-wife, he drowns his sorrows in a never-ending cornucopia of app-based sex.

And then his ex disappears, leaving him with their two children.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner dissects with anthropological precision this tribe of rich (but not rich enough) New Yorkers who always want more. Another million, another beach house, another trip to Biarritz while they relentlessly self-improve through spinning classes and Goop-level quackery.

But buried in this sharp satire is a love story. It’s a story about loving yourself. What do you do when all this hustling leaves you empty? How do you cope when your spouse turns into a stranger? When is enough enough and how do you get off the hedonic treadmill?

I nearly gave up on this book. Brodesser-Akner doesn’t believe in chapters and the novel unspools in novella-length sections. Fleishman’s sexual adventures get a bit tiresome and you start to wonder where all this is going.

But, the last fifty pages of the novel are incredibly moving, tying together all the disparate strands of narrative and revealing the truth beneath them.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a book about the trouble all of us will confront, a kind of middle-aged malaise that will eat away your soul. Brodesser-Akner writes about finding meaning when everything falls apart.

I had expected a satiric novel about New York. Fleishman Is In Trouble is so more than that, a compassionate guide through the dark wood of the midlife crisis.

Searching for Joy in Little Free Libraries

Go for the Moon

What do you make of these times? It’s an age where we salute past wonders, like the moon landing, while we keep children in concentration camps. A President spews hate while the rest of us just try to get along with our neighbors.

Washington is a place where you can be killed sitting in a park. But it’s also home to Little Free Libraries where you can discover a dream land of pagans, dark forests and a 99.9% literacy rate.

We’re driven mad by the distracting devices we cannot bear to part with, though we know they’re charging our minds in unseen ways. Time itself has become compressed, sped up, out of control.

To the Moon

Fifty years ago, we went to the Moon. I went to the Washington Monument on a hot evening (it would get hotter) to see the Apollo rocket that took them there projected onto the marble spire.

It was a reminder of American greatness. We’ve always been great. Thousands filled the National Mall to watch a reminder of our past achievements.

Inspiring, what we can do. Or could do. A half-century ago, engineers sent a man to the Moon. Today, our engineers design a better like button.

But the memory remains. May it serve to inspire a new generation to do better.

You Acclimate

Robert remembers his friends

The society that conquered space is unwilling to prevent drivers from killing people. Two homeless men died sitting in a park. The driver went through the park with such violence that they destroyed trees and benches. I talked to a witness who said that the SUV went airborne.

A remembrance was held in their honor. It has become the grim task of my friend Rachel Maisler to organize these events. Her banner “We demand safe roads” signed by so many with so much hope has become faded with time.

My hope comes and goes, flickering like a candle. Is change possible? A week earlier, I attended the unveiling of DDOT’s plans to rebuild Pennsylvania Avenue to make it safer. It will happen, some day. Too late for the men killed at midnight.

“It could’ve been me!” Robert, a friend of of the men, cried, tears rolling down his cheeks. I stood in white, a mourner, a small crowd in a park at the end of a weekday.

The temperature increased, rising to nearly 100. You acclimate. You learn to adjust.

I played soccer on Saturday. Though we started at 8 AM, after an hour I was approaching heat stroke.

The Joy of the Little Free Library

Pagans

On Sunday, I biked in brief spurts between bouts of air conditioned comfort, making a tour of downtown on Capital Bikeshare. Coffee shop, Greek place, more coffee and then someplace new: the Latvian Little Free Library.

I had spotted it on earlier jaunt, located outside the Embassy of Latvia on Embassy Row. I returned to drop off a copy of The Swamp – I like leaving my  novels in Little Free Libraries.

Not surprisingly, most of the books in the little free library were about Latvia. A beautiful white tome caught my eye: Latvia 100 Snapshot Stories.

Opening the book at random, I read about how the pagan tradition survived in one of the oldest civilizations in Europe. A country that loved books with a 99.99% literacy rate. A democracy that embraced women. A place that overcame Nazi and Soviet occupation to regain their independence through nonviolent resistance in 1991. Also, bicycles, beer and saunas in a nation that is still half-covered in primeval forest.

Paging through the book as the temperature climbed toward a record, I was swept away in a cold dream of bikes, books and women.

 

Varina

No one writes better about the South today than Charles Frazier. The best-selling author of Cold Mountain gets more than just the flora and fauna right (though he is expert at that) he expresses the feeling of the South being part of America and yet apart from it.

His new novel, Varina, explores what makes the South different from the rest of the country by looking at the tumultuous life of Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy.

The daughter of a wastrel, she was married off to Jefferson Davis, a rising politician in antebellum Mississippi. Renowned for her wit and beauty, her years in Washington before the Civil War were the happiest of her life. But trouble was coming – she saw it in prophetic dreams.

A Sham Enterprise

A sense of doom settled over her and Jefferson as the South seceded. Both knew that the Confederacy was a sham enterprise.

Yet, Jefferson believed that the states had a right to quit the USA. More importantly, he asserted that slave owners had a right to do whatever they wanted with their property – it was guaranteed in the Constitution.

Jefferson led this nation into a disastrous war, one that smashed the lives of millions. As Richmond fell, Varina packed what remained of her family into a wagon and fled, nearly making it to Florida before she was caught.

Jefferson Davis never got his day in court to argue the legality of slavery; instead, he received exile and poverty. Varina Davis suffered further tragedies but reinvented herself as an author and advice columnist. Notable among her friendships was the widow of Ulysses Grant.

“The right side won,” she would say later in life.

Varina tells her story, jumping around in time, as she explores her memories in response to a visitor with a mystery of his own.

It’s a beautiful novel, an exploration of the moral cost of an immoral system. Like many of us, Varina doesn’t directly challenge the evil around her, though she knows that there will be a terrible price to pay. That’s what makes her voice contemporary and relevant for our own times.

Behind the Scenes of a BikeDC Conspiracy

Ghosts of Bowser

The conspirators gathered at dawn. Working quickly, they unloaded the truck on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Out came bikes, walkers, canes, shoes, helmets, scooters and car parts – all painted white. It was ghost memorial for the 128 victims of traffic violence in Washington, DC. 128 men, women and children killed during the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser.

These were the Ghosts of Bowser.

A How-To Manual for Conspiracy

Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday outlines how conspiracies form, organize and succeed as he tells the story of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the gossip web site Gawker.

Conspiracies begin with a crime. An outrage. An offense that people can’t bear, something that makes them willing to leave their ordinary, conspiracy-free lives behind and sacrifice to right the wrong.

For the members of #BikeDC, the rolling community of people who bike in the nation’s capital, it was the death of Dave Salovesh, killed by a driver on Florida Avenue. Plans to redesign the street to make it safer for cyclists and pedestrians have been on the books for years, yet the city has done nothing. A protected bike lane might have saved him.

In response to his death, a ghost bike was installed on Florida Avenue. A bike painted white to memorialize his death.

This wasn’t enough. Dave was a beloved figure, someone who everyone in DC knew – including me.

Two days after he died, another person was killed by an out-of-control driver in DC. Abdul Seck, visiting Washington, struck on a sidewalk.

While memorials were held for Dave and Abdul on the streets where they were killed, the Mayor attended neither.

A Conspiracy is People Working Together

I yelled at the Mayor. Caught her at an event on K St. Confronted her over her failure to fix Florida Avenue – she said these things take time. Over her failure to respond to the more than 100 people who emailed her. Or to show up at Dave or Abul’s memorials. She replied that too many people were killed in DC for her to make an appearance at every memorial.

Me. An individual expressing my rage.

But to the move the world, you need a group of people acting in concert. A conspiracy.

As Americans, we think that conspiracies are a bad thing, forgetting that our country was formed in conspiracy, 13 colonies acting against the Crown.

“When they go low, we go high,” is a sentiment that the men who fired the first shots at Lexington would’ve found hopefully naive. If you want independence, then you have to act in secret using every tool available.

Conspiracies Require Secrecy

Fortunately, we have better communication methods than Paul Revere riding in the dark. Modern conspiracies are organized by time-expiring emails and password-protected Google Docs.

Days before the Ghosts of Bowser installation, teams of people scoured the city for objects to represent the deaths of 128 men, women and children killed in traffic violence. From junk yards, garages and alleys, they emerged with car parts, bikes and shoes that they painted white. A conspiracy requires a village, a large group of people who share your outrage and desire for change.

Secrecy is the essence of conspiracy, from the classical era to today, as Holiday points out in his book. Roman slaves were rewarded for informing on their masters. If the city had learned of Ghosts of Bowser before it was constructed on Pennsylvania Avenue, they might have stopped it.

Conspiracy Controls the Narrative

Modern conspiracies, like Ghosts of Bowser, must balance secrecy with the need for outreach. You want the media to show up at your protest. Ghosts of Bowser had talking points, artwork and a hashtag #ghostsofbowser ready to debut on social media.

Reporters, and allies like me, were told to expect something in front of the Wilson Building, without being told the exact details.

In the light of dawn, as the Ghosts of Bowser installation was taking shape outside the Wilson Building, home to the DC city government, a pair of security guards emerged.

The volunteers, busy piling white bikes and strollers into a parking space marked for councilmembers only, knew what to do. They had been briefed. There was a script for descalating conflict with the police.

Which was not necessary. The guards just didn’t want bikes on the steps of the Wilson Building, where they might trip people up, a request that was easily accommodated.

A Conspiracy Has a Clear Goal

Conspiracies need a clear goal. For Peter Thiel, offended that Gawker had outed him as gay, the objective was to bankrupt the gossip site.

Conspiracies also need people willing to do whatever it takes to win. Thiel found that in Hulk Hogan, whose sex tape Gawker exposed to the public. He would be the instrument that Thiel would use to get his revenge.

#BikeDC wants streets that don’t kill people in DC. You shouldn’t die riding your bike or walking down the street in Washington. The city has plans to implement safe streets but has failed to act upon them. Protected bike lanes, road diets, banning right-turns on red and reclaiming streets for the people all could save lives, if only Mayor Bowser would act.

Often conspiracies exist within broader movements for change – think of the network of spies that Alexander Hamilton ran during the American Revolution.

Sherri Joyner shows her mangled bike

Hours after the ghost installation, the Washington Area Bicyclists Association held a die-in on Pennsylvania Avenue. As the names of 128 traffic victims were read, hundreds of people lay down on Pennsylvania Avenue. Every member of the “transportation community,” as Mayor Bowser would call it, was there – bike commuters, casual cyclists, walkers, runners, environmental activists and their friends and family.

“All eight wards” is a slogan Mayor Bowser uses to represent the entire city. It was right outside her window that day, if only she would look. This is a community ready to do what it takes to build safe streets in the nation’s capital.

Conspiracies Have a Cost

Conspiracy has a cost. The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor, knowing that they had committed treason. There was no going back.

Peter Thiel won his battle against Gawker, after spending millions of dollars and years of his time. Aiming to protect his privacy, he ended up with even worse press, as his role as the banker behind the Hulk Hogan lawsuit was exposed. Believing that he now understood the common man, he went on to endorse Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican Convention. Thiel has lost his privacy and his reputation, becoming just another Republican tarnished by Trump.

That’s the point Ryan Holiday makes in Conspiracy – the endgame is the most dangerous part of a conspiracy.

Confronted with evil times, from Donald Trump pushing America toward dictatorship to the deadly traffic toll on DC’s streets, we need to conspire to make change.

The good guys don’t always win. The long arc of history does not bend toward justice, it is pushed and prodded that way by people acting together in conspiracy.