Killed by Illegal Abortion: May Burns, My Great Grandmother.

GIVEN THIS WEEK’S EVENTS, I AM REPRISING A PIECE I WROTE SEVERAL YEARS AGO.

Bruce DeSilva's Rogue Island

Before Roe v. Wade, untold numbers of America women died from illegal abortions. One of them was May Burns of Middleboro, Massachusetts, shown here in her only surviving photograph.

She was my great grandmother.

May, an Irish immigrant, was married to William H. Archibald, the son of a Scotsman who crossed the Atlantic to Nova Scotia before taking his family south to find work in Massachusetts in the late 1800s.

When William grew to manhood, he got a job as a steam shovel operator on road projects. He and May had four children together.  John, the oldest, was my maternal grandfather.

After May’s youngest, Anna, was born, she didn’t want more children. Raising four in Middleboro, MA, was difficult enough on her husband’s meager pay. Unable to find anyone to help her, she performed an abortion on herself. John was seven years old when she died in the last…

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Peter Swanson’s New Thriller Riffs On a Mystery Classic

The elderly owner of a decaying hotel in Kennewick, Maine, is shoved to the ground, dragged to a tidal pool, and held there face down until he drowns. When police arrive, they find a crumpled piece of paper clutched in his hand.

On it is a typewritten list of nine names. Nothing more. But the hotel owner’s name is among them.

Meanwhile, in cities and towns scattered the length of the country, eight other people receive the same list in the mail. They include a struggling actor in Los Angeles, a college professor in Michigan and an FBI agent in New York. Some of them are men and some are women. Most, but not all, are middle-aged. They appear to have nothing in common.

The only name any of them recognize is their own.

Before long, another person on the list is murdered. And then another. Realizing it’s a kill list, the FBI scrambles to locate and offer protection to everyone left — no easy task since some of the names are common.

Mystery fans will be quick to recognize that the plot of Peter Swanson’s “Nine Lives” resembles Agatha Christie’s classic novel, “And Then There Were None.”

For the full text of my review for The Associated Press, please click here.

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My Review of Phillip Margolin’s Dreary New “Thriller”

Plot elements in The Darkest Place, Phillip Margolin’s fifth legal thriller featuring Portland, Oregon, lawyer Robbin Lockwood, include a bitter divorce, a looted investment firm, a surrogate mother who wants her baby back, a kidnapping, a pair of thuggish debt collectors, two criminal trials, torture and four brutal murders.

Yet the novel is so tedious that reading it is a chore.

The writing is clear but often drab and graceless. Except for Lockwood, the characters are not well developed. Minor characters, including some who appear only once, are pointlessly described in detail. The courtroom scenes are annoyingly repetitious, regurgitating details that were disclosed earlier in the text. The dialogue rarely resembles the way real people talk, the voices of police detectives, lawyers, expert witnesses, and thugs so similar that speakers are indistinguishable without authorial attributions.

The author, whose 25 previous thrillers have sometimes made The New York Times bestseller list, does too much telling and not enough showing. He relates key developments in a ponderous, droning narrative instead of developing scenes that could bring the story alive for the reader. He does this even when revealing the depravity of the villain of the piece in the book’s closing moments.

To read the full text of my review for The Associated Press, please click here.

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My Review of Alex Finlay’s “Night Shift”

New Year’s Eve, 1999. Four teenage girls working late at a video store in Linden, New Jersey, are savagely attacked. Only one, Ella Monroe, survives, and she is still haunted by what the killer whispered as he stabbed her.

“Goodnight, pretty girl.”

Thanks to an anonymous tip, police discover the murder weapon in the locker of a high school student named Vince Whitaker. But before he can be brought to justice, he vanishes.

Fifteen years later, four teenagers working late at a Linden ice cream shop are attacked, and once again, only one, Jessica Duval, survives. She, too, heard him whisper as he stabbed her.

“Goodnight, pretty girl.”

So begins “The Night Shift,” the second novel attributed to Alex Finlay, the pen name of a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who has written other thrillers under his real name.

For the full text of my review for the Associated Press, please click here

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Joanna Schaffhausen’s “Last Seen Alive.” — My Review

When the police work is finally completed and the plot-points resolved in Joanna Schaffhausen’s “Last Seen Alive,” the author breaks the unwritten rules for such books by writing another 75 pages. In them, writing with empathy and psychological insight, she reveals how FBI Agent Reed Markham and Boston police officer Ellery Hathaway at last come to terms with the nightmare they shared through five fine novels and how they plan to live the rest of their lives.

It works not only because it is beautifully crafted but because, unlike nearly all other serial killer books, these novels were never about the killer and his pursuers.

They were about Reed and Ellery, and by extension, all victims of this brutal brand of violence.

In doing so, Schaffhausen has set a new standard for how such books can, and perhaps often should, be written.

For the full text of my review for The Associated Press, please click here.

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My Review of Tim Dorsey’s “Mermaid Confidetial”

Tim Dorsey’s slapstick-noir novels about obsessive-compulsive serial killer Serge Storms are apt to offend those who believe that drug abuse and grisly murders are unfit subjects for humor. However, his fans find an abundance of chuckles and belly laughs in his best books including “The Big Bamboo” and “Hurricane Punch.”

The trouble with humor, however, that it has to be funny, and occasionally, Dorsey’s attempts fall flat. For the most part, “Mermaid Confidential” lacks the hilariously clever observations and satirical pokes at the weirdness of Florida that characterize his best his work.

For the full text of my review for The Associated Press, please click here.

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My Review of Nick Petrie’s New Thriller

Long haul trucker Roy Wiley is handsome and charming, so when he stops at a gas station in dreary Coldwater, Montana, the lonely 19-year-old girl working behind the counter begs him to take her with him.

But Wiley is not what he seems. Months later, Helene Johansen finds herself pregnant and married to the murderous leader of a gang professional thieves. Terrified of him, she decides to escape.

Enter Peter Ash, the Marine vet with post-traumatic stress disorder and the hero of six previous thrillers by Nick Petrie.

To read the full text of my review for The Associated Press, please click here. https://apnews.com/article/entertainment-book-reviews-wiley-arts-and-entertainment-315420047c1f3b40f7b4259536ca4811

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The Inverted Pyramid Is the Dracula of Journalism

Q:

Hello Bruce.

Ben Forbes is a freshman at Salem State University and he asked me to ask you why you have such strong feelings about the inverted pyramid. He is writing a paper about Journalism, and other journalists say that it is their preferred method of writing for time and space reasons. They also say that it is what the reader expects. How can a journalist write quickly and effectively and grab the reader’s attention with another approach. Thank you!

A:

Your friend Ben needs to understand that the inverted pyramid NEVER had anything to do with writing, readers or the news. It came into common use about 160 years ago as an accommodation to the requirements of the newspaper’s back shop and as a hedge against the vagaries of a new communications technology–the telegraph.

Before the 1860s, journalists covering events that occurred a great distance from their newspapers sent their reports in by mail. They “corresponded” with their newspapers, hence the word “correspondent.” Often, these stories really did read like letters. But during the American Civil War, hundreds of journalist found themselves covering far-flung news that was clearly urgent.

Fortunately, they were sometimes able to transmit their news via the telegraph, which had been invented in 1843 and was just coming into wide use. However, doing so was risky.  

Sometimes, the new technology failed. Sometimes the rebels cut the transmission lines. Sometimes, when a reporter was only partway through sending a story, a military officer commandeered the line. So journalists learned to send their news in short bursts, most important stuff first, second most important stuff next, then third most important stuff, and so on. That way, at least SOME of it would make it to their newspapers.

Editors receiving these stories plopped them into their newspapers without changing the way they were organized. They did so because it was the easiest thing to do on deadline, but also because organizing information this way was a good fit for the way newspapers were printed. News stories were set in type, and the type was made of LEAD. The lead type had to fit into a space the newspaper had available among other stories and advertising.  If the story was too long for the space, it had to be cut.  And if a late-breaking story came in, the story would have to be cut again.

The only practical way to cut a story set in lead type was from the bottom.  Unless you wanted to cut it from the top, which never seemed like a good idea.

But tell me. When was the last time journalists sent their stories via telegraph? Meanwhile, newspapers stopped setting stories in lead about 50 years ago.  Once they did, stories could easily be cut ANYWHERE, not just from the bottom. And now, when much of our news appears online, stories don’t have to be cut for space at all. There is no hole for them to fit into. They can be as long as they need to be to tell the news.

In other words, the reasons for writing in inverted pyramid form no longer exist. They’ve been gone for a very long time. Nevertheless, journalist continue to use it and journalism professors continue to teach them to do so. It is the Dracula of journalism. No matter how many times writing coaches like me drive a stake into its heart, it keeps rising from its coffin.

This is the longest-running case of professional malpractice in history.

Why do I say that? Because the only practical use for the inverted pyramid today is what newspaper journalists call “briefs,” short news items of three paragraphs or less. For anything else, the form is the single WORST way to organize a news story short of just randomly emptying your notebook.

Here’s why that is so.

  1. The inverted pyramid makes stories unnecessarily difficult for readers to understand. As former AP Managing Editor Mike Silverman once put it, “We keep throwing facts at people without telling them what happened.”
  2. It bleeds stories of any inherent drama they might otherwise have. That’s why life can be remarkably interesting until you read about it in a newspaper.
  3. It makes it more difficult for writers to compose their stories on deadline.
  4. And it makes one of the most important elements in any story—a good ending—impossible because inverted pyramid stories, by definition, pitifully dribble to an end.

Basically, the inverted pyramid form looks like this:

The most interesting and important stuff

     Less Interesting and important stuff

          Marginally interesting stuff

                What I could leave out

                       And crap

Defenders of the form often say journalists need to write this way because readers don’t read stories all the way to the end. OF COURSE THEY DON’T. The inverted pyramid teaches them not to.

Fortunately, there ARE a good number of elegant story structures available to journalists, and the best news writers use them all the time.

The most useful one for most breaking news is known as the martini glass.  This is for stories about events that unfold on the clock.  An airplane crash. A bank robbery.  A court verdict. A forest fire. A tornado. A police chase. A night of rioting. Election night . . . .

You should begin with one to three short paragraphs that deliver the very top of the news. Think of it as what you would include if you could only write a brief. Or think of it as what you would shout if you were standing at a bus stop, the bus was about to pull away, and somebody leaned out the window to ask, “What the heck just happened?”

Once you’ve done that, begin at the beginning and tell the story chronologically, just as it unfolded in life.

There are compelling reasons for writing this way.

First of all, it’s the only way to convey the drama of an event. Drama REQUIRES chronology. It’s about how something started, what happened next, oh my God what’s going to happen next, and then what follows after that. 

Second, chronology makes a story much easier for readers to understand.  If you just organize information in order of its importance, readers never get a clear picture of what and how it happened.  Ever get confused when a friend excitedly tries to tell you something that happened to her? What do you do about that? You tell her, start over, begin at the beginning, and tell me how it happened.

Third, writing this way allows you to craft an actual ending. Why is it that except for journalists devoted to the inverted pyramid, everyone who writes anything at all understands that the ending is the most important part of any story? Novelists know this. Magazine writers now this. Children’s story writers know this. Script writers know this. Speech writers know this. Hell, anyone who has ever written a love letter knows this.

The ending is the last word, your chance to nail the point of the story to your readers’ memory and give him or her something to think about before turning on the TV.  Besides, don’t you think readers who go all the way to the end deserve some reward for getting there . . . and at least a signal that the piece of over?

Finally, writing the body of the story in chronology makes it much easier to organize it on deadline. After all, once you write your summary top, you don’t have to make any hard decisions about what comes next. So you can write much faster.

Interestingly, ONE part of every newspaper has recognized all of this for a very long time–the sports department. Sports writers never write their game stories in inverted pyramid form. They understand that doing so would make it impossible for readers to understand the flow of the game.

 Sports writers typically begin with the top of the news:

After falling hopelessly behind by a score of 28-3 in the Super Bowl last night, Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to an improbable 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

They then convey the game’s key moments IN CHRONOLOGY so readers can follow and understand how that happened.

Of course, not everything journalists write about unfolds over time. Sometimes, our stories are essentially explanatory in nature.  What is in the bill that Congress just passed? What do the new Covid guidelines mean?  What does the latest government job report say and why does it matter? Why did that Congressman unexpectedly lose his election?

Writing those stories in inverted pyramid form is always a disaster.  It is simply not possible to explain something clearly by organizing information in the order of its importance.  Explanations require a structure that resembles essay writing. You gradually build from the simple to the complex.  To understand the whole picture, first you need to understand point A. OK, now we can move on to point B.  Now you are ready for point C. And so on until the entire picture becomes clear.

One elegant way to write such stories is known as Wall Street Journal block organization—because editors at that paper invented it about 50 years ago and have been employing it to great effect ever since.  I don’t have the time or space to describe it in detail here, but you can learn about it in “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by one of the paper’s former editors, William Blundell. Don’t be deceived by the title. It’s not about light features. It’s largely about writing explanatory stories.

A number of other structures are also available to journalists, but I lack the time and space to go into them here. Generally, however, they are variations on Blundell’s block organization or on using chronology (or narrative).  Journalists need to learn them. And journalism professors need to teach them instead of indoctrinating students in an archaic form that out-lived its usefulness a half century ago.

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Author Ben Coes Throws Another Tantrum

      I just received this infantile email from author Ben Coes in response to my review of his latest, breathtakingly bad novel, “The Island.” It’s a lot like the email he sent a year ago when I reviewed his previous novel.

     My favorite part this time: He says “everyone knows” that he writes well because he once won a writing prize in college. Here’s the full text.

     “Hi, Bruce

      “So you’ve struck again? Thank you! Your negative review of my last book helped drive sales and fingers crossed your unintentional magic hopefully will work again. The only thing your badly written reviews do is reinforce hatred of assholes. Everyone knows I write well. In fact I won the writing prize at Columbia. Did you? Oh that’s right you didn’t. You don’t even mention where you went to college on your website. I’m pretty sure you didn’t go to Columbia even though you attempt to cloak yourself in its halo because you were a janitor there. My guess is you didn’t attend college? Fortunately you have royalties from Mulligan to live on. And your wife’s nationally known poetry. My favorite of her oeuvre? “My Husband Bruce Desilva Wears Womens Lingerie” a terrific poem.

“See you next year fuckhead

“All my best,

“Ben”

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One of the Finest Popular Science Books of This or Any Year

First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human, by Jeremy DeSilva, is being released by Harper Collins on April 6, and it is destined to be one of the finest popular science books of the year.

Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus both have given it starred reviews. The latter said in part, “A renowned paleontologist takes readers behind the scenes of one of the most groundbreaking investigations into the origins of humankind.”

Personally, I think it’s brilliant–a beautifully written book that reports on the latest findings about human origins, introduces us to the personalities (including the author) responsible for them, and transports us to the places, from Vermont to South Africa, so we can observe science being done.

This excerpt from the book’s introduction provides the gist:

The year 2016 set a record for kills in the annual hunt to cull the swelling population of black bears roaming free in rural and suburban New Jersey. Of the 636 taken, 635 were dispatched with only a few howls of protest from animal lovers.[ii] But when news broke that one particular bear was dead, there was outrage.

The killing was called “an assassination.” The hunter thought to be responsible received death threats. Some advocated that he, too, should be hunted and killed. Others called for his castration. Why such fury over one dead bear?

Because he walked on two legs. Although he fed on all fours, an injury prevented him from putting weight on his front limbs, so to move, he reared up and walked upright.

We are drawn to animals when they behave like us. We post videos of goats yelling like humans and Siberian huskies howling “I love you.” Perhaps more than any other behavior, though, we are awestruck by bouts of bipedalism. Plenty of animals rise on two legs to scan the horizon or strike an intimidating pose, but humans are the only mammals that walk on two legs all the time.

When another animal does it, we are mesmerized.  When humans do it, it is ordinary. It is, you might say, pedestrian. We are the only striding bipedal mammals on Earth—and for good reason.

In the following pages, these reasons will become clear. It is a remarkable journey, which I’ve organized along these lines.

Part I investigates what the fossil record tells us about the origin of upright walking in the human lineage. Part II explains how it was a prerequisite for changes that define our species, from our large brains to the way we parent our children—and how those changes allowed us to expand from our ancestral African homeland to populate the Earth. Part III explores how the anatomical changes required for efficient upright walking affect the life of humans today, from our first steps as babies to the aches and pains we experience as we age. The conclusion examines how our species managed to survive and thrive despite the many downsides of walking on two, rather than four, legs.

 Come, take a walk with me.

Did I mention that Jeremy is my son? OK, but 50 years as a writer, editor, and book reviewer has made me very clear-eyed about writing. This is a great book.

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