Friday, September 26, 2014

ISIS: What Hath God Wrought

ISIS: What Hath God Wrought

Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought! — The Bible: Numbers 23:23 (KJV)

This is not a concise history of the world. This is an essay for those who have expressed a great deal of confusion about current events; it is a very rough analysis of what’s happening in the world today. I pretend no scholarship and attempt to draw as few conclusions, as anyone may, when observing and recording history. It’s hard not to have opinions and more often than not, these are expressed subtly when the writer pretends not to express them. Of course I have a bias, I was born and brought up in the United States of America to a family that was nominally Protestant Christian, but who had many Jewish friends. 

The phrase “never again” has real meaning for me. I grew up surrounded by survivors of the German concentration camps. My first babysitter had a number tattooed on her arm. Like many Americans, I feel certain guilt for having let so many bad things happen to so many innocent people. That does not necessarily make me a Zionist, although I have to ask, “Where else could they go?” Despite that some of the most obnoxious people I have ever met were Israeli Zionists, I still have to ask, “If we cannot be counted upon to protect the Jews, then who will?”

To my most vociferous anti-Israeli friends, mostly Jews themselves, I ask them to put themselves in the shoes of the Dalai Lama 2,000 years in the future. Having been forced to flee their home in Tibet by the Han Chinese the Dalai Lama and his followers wander the Asian continent with the pledge, “Next year in Lhasa.” I don’t see the difference.

Please note, none of this means that I am unsympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people (or the great, great grandchildren of the Han Chinese settled in Lhasa). People, who should know, petroleum engineers, have told me that the Palestinians are one of the best-educated and most industrious people in the region. I’ve heard it expressed, more than once, that a combination of Israeli and Palestinian engineering and entrepreneurship could create an economic powerhouse in the region, which could very well eclipse the existing Islamic power structure. There is also a suspicion, among Ex-pats working in the region, that the existing Islamic power structure does not want a resolution of the Palestinian “problem” for those very reasons.

I don’t know the truth or the answer. I do know that when enough people have been killed, when exhaustion sets in, that there will eventually be peace in the Middle East and not before. I would like to see it in my lifetime, but I don’t expect it.

History is confusing. It takes a millennium or two for historians to settle on an accepted story even if the accepted facts haven’t changed. In that light, please bear with me and forgive my attempt to create a (temporary) settled history. I am attempting to look at current events as a historian might a thousand years from now, hence my use of might. I didn’t say will, I said might.

I shall start with the biggest possible picture and express it, in terms a typical American should understand. No metaphor is perfect. So, please don’t nitpick the larger picture. Save that for the minutia, which I will (no doubt) get wrong.

There are currents in history, which if left in isolation would never cause a conflict, except in so far as any ideology, religion, or philosophical system is coherent internally. Yet, when these isolated currents are combined, as the “real world” tends to do, these differing currents collide and the inevitable results are conflicts. In a perfect “Hegelian” world these theses and antitheses would eventually morph into a new stable synthesis. However, in the “real world” that synthesis is often the result of one side winning or losing, with winner taking all.  It takes a single side maintaining this “winner take all” view, which ensures that any given conflict will continue.  This, preceding concept, is the central theme in my larger history of the world.

As I see things some of the longer lasting “currents” at play are:

Judaism – It’s remarkable that the Bible is one of the oldest history books in existence, predating Herodotus (the father of History) by a thousand years. Still, even more remarkable is the idea that a people, who call themselves Jews, have been able to maintain their cultural and religious identity for at least three millennia, in spite of having been forcibly dispersed and intentionally gassed all over the world. I use this as a metaphor for every deadly pogrom. After the destruction of the second temple by the Romans, the Jewish Diaspora had one perpetual prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem.”  That is the driving force behind the Zionist “current.”

Palestinian Problem – This is a new “current” born from the birth of the modern state of Israel. 
When the British mandate ended and the Jewish state was declared the governments of Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia declared war on the new state. The Arab coalition lost that war and as a result many Palestinians either abandoned their homes and fled or were pushed out by Israelis in the name of “security.”

Just to mess up the equation, a lot of Palestinians stayed within the bounds of Israel and are citizens, second-class citizens perhaps but citizens nonetheless.

The Arab powers that be at the time did not desire to come to terms with the Jews and let the problem fester until it became institutionalized. It is now in its second or third generation.
The problem might have been avoided if the Palestinians that fled were allowed to return home. The problem might have been avoided if the state of Israel had made a good faith attempt to purchase any property willingly or forcibly abandoned. It was and is a failure of international leadership that this problem has been allowed to become an open, cancerous, sore.

The irony in all this is that Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, as the founding document of their respective religions, revere the Old Testament of the Bible. Although, I get the impression that very few Muslims have ever read the Old Testament.

The problem, it appears, dates back to the birth of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau. The Jews are the children of Jacob, renamed Israel, while the Palestinians are the children of Esau. That, at least, is the popular mythology, which counts for far more than any “facts” in the case.

The conflict between these two factions dates back to the book of Genesis 25:29-34 (around 2000 BC) when Esau sold his birthright to Jacob/Israel, who was a jerk about it. It seems that Esau came home starving. Jacob/Israel had food and extorted Esau’s birthright for a bowl of stew. No wonder there is perpetual enmity between the two sides of this family. It makes the Hatfield and the McCoy feud (a famous 100 year-old family dispute in America) look tame by comparison.  Between you and me, I think the children of Israel owe an apology, at least, to the children of Esau for this uncharitable transaction.

Islam: Most Palestinians are Sunni Muslims. Hamas, which currently controls the Gaza Strip, is Sunni while Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and Syria is Shia. They don’t like each other. Confusing, I know. It gets worse.

Completely unrelated, of course, but involved nonetheless, is the giant schism between the two main branches of Islam: Shia and Sunni. This schism is almost identical (metaphorically so don’t nit-pick) to the schism between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, or, more recently, between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.

The Sunni’s are the largest denomination (metaphorically the Roman church – sort of) and are the predominant sect in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and points west as well, as in Kurdistan and Afghanistan. The relevant belief is that Mohamed did not specify a successor, but that mosque elders could choose a successor or caliph. The position started out as a democratically elected one but quickly degenerated into other forms of election (like a different family birthright). Sunni’s have splintered (like the Protestant Reformation) into a number of sub-sects mostly unforgiving and ultra conservative like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden was an adherent of the Wahhabi movement as are the ISIS fighters currently plaguing Syria and Iraqi.

The Shia are the second largest Muslim group in the world (making up about 25%) and constitutes the majority of the populations in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran, and Iraq, as well as a plurality in Lebanon and Yemen. The relevant belief is that Islam was a family business and that Mohamed’s son-in-law was his rightful successor as are succeeding members of his family. The Shia denomination is just as splintered as the Sunni (or, say, Christian Protestants) with dozens of offshoots, including the Alawites, to which Syria’s President Bashar Hafez al-Assad and Iraqi’s deposed president Saddam Hussein both belong. That said, there was no love lost between the Iranian branch of Shia Islam and the Alawites branch in Iraq, with both fighting a bloody war to a standstill in the 1980’s.

Oil – It’s impossible to discuss the Middle East without including oil in the equation. Without oil I suspect the greater conflict in the Middle East would have remained a small regional one without serious arms and far fewer causalities.

Oil is a very new “current.” It was first discovered in the region around 1908, in what is now Iran but the regions geo-political importance came into view with the birth of Winston Churchill’s oil powered modern British Navy.

Between 1900 and 1910 the British navy was converted from coal to oil, under the guidance of Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty. It was Churchill who first recognized the importance of taking the Ottoman Empire (who controlled Iran and the Arabian peninsula and hence the sources of oil) out of the First World War. That was the reason for the Gallipoli misadventure, as well as Lawrence of Arabia’s quest.

As a result of choosing the wrong side in WWI, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and the modern states (and their boundaries) were created by fiat in the treaties ending the War to end all Wars. This includes modern Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Transjordan (Palestine), and Saudi Arabia among others. Various, victorious allies became the caretakers of these newly created countries until they could manage things themselves. The British received this “mandate” for Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and Iran while the French gained Lebanon and Syria. A local warlord conquered the Arabian Peninsula and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was born. Yes, it’s that new.

The first oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938 but it wasn’t until the golden age of the 1950’s that oil flowed freely and the Saudi princes got very, very rich.

The conservative “Wahhabi movement,” which helped to bring the Saudi family to power became the dominant creed and, to quote Wikipedia: The radical beliefs of Wahhabism enables its followers to label non-Wahhabi and mainstream Muslims as apostates along with non-Muslims, thus paving the way for their bloodshed.

Money, lots of it, when combined with a radical and violent religious fervor is the poison that drove Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda and, now, the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) plague, which threatens regional and global stability.

The modern incarnation of the Palestine problem began with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which was nothing more than a letter from Britain’s Foreign Secretary to Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. It said simply:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The Balfour declaration came about largely as a result of pressure on the British Cabinet to yield something to the Zionist movement in exchange for their continued support in WWI. Again from Wikipedia:

James Gelvin, a Middle East history professor, cites at least three reasons for why the British government chose to support Zionist aspirations. Issuing the Balfour Declaration would appeal to Woodrow Wilson’s two closest advisors, who were avid Zionists.

“The British did not know quite what to make of President Woodrow Wilson and his conviction (before America’s entrance into the war) that the way to end hostilities was for both sides to accept “peace without victory.” Two of Wilson’s closest advisors, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, were avid Zionists. How better to shore up an uncertain ally than by endorsing Zionist aims? The British adopted similar thinking when it came to the Russians, who were in the midst of their revolution. Several of the most prominent revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky, were of Jewish descent. Why not see if they could be persuaded to keep Russia in the war by appealing to their latent Jewishness and giving them another reason to continue the fight?” ... These include not only those already mentioned but also Britain’s desire to attract Jewish financial resources.

The words “national home” in the Balfour Declaration was interpreted as “national state” by the Arabs and resistance by the various petty-rulers began with the formation of political clubs, called Muslim-Christian Associations, who’s primary political stance was resistance to Jewish immigration into Palestine. By 1936 armed resistance to the British Mandate and Jewish immigration broke into open revolt and attacks on Jewish pioneers became more common. Again, to quote from Wikipedia:
The attacks on the Jewish population by Arabs had three lasting effects: First, they led to the formation and development of Jewish underground militias, primarily the Haganah, which were to prove decisive in 1948. Secondly, it became clear that the two communities could not be reconciled, and the idea of partition was born. Thirdly, the British responded to Arab opposition with the White Paper of 1939, which severely restricted Jewish land purchase and immigration. … The White Paper policy also radicalized segments of the Jewish population, who after the war would no longer cooperate with the British.

There is a pretty clear historical trail following Israeli independence. However, until the flush of oil money in the 1950’s and 60’s came into force, the larger currents were held at bay.
We have to step out of the minutia of recent historical events to understand the larger forces at play.  Arnold Toynbee in his massive “A Study of History,” in which he studies the rise and fall of 26 civilizations, describes the Islamic world as being divided between the Iranic and the Arabic, (he was writing in the 1930’s) but united by Islam. We would describe them as the regions dominated by the Shia and Sunni sects. As Toynbee said, the region had a rich heritage: In the East, Persia, with its three millennia of civilization, history and conflict. In the center, the Fertile Crescent, home to Ur,  Syria, and, the legendary Babylon, and to the West with it’s 4000 years of Egyptian Civilization.
To Toynbee, a “civilization” was far more than it’s political boundaries. A civilization was bound by its language, it’s common beliefs (both religious and cultural) and it’s common heritage. Thus, a “civilization” may be crushed militarily and politically, but as long as there is a cultural and linguistic memory, the civilization persists and may reassemble, perhaps even by giving birth to a new incarnation of it former self.

All three civilizations, surrounding Mohamed around 600 AD, lay prostrate, devastated by the circumstances of “late antiquity.” The Greek empire of Alexander the Great had disintegrated into many small petty kingdoms or swallowed whole by the Roman Empire, which itself was in its death throws, at least in the west. To the man (or woman) on the ground it must have looked like the end of the world. In a situation like this it’s understandable why someone with a firm set of more or less common beliefs and a strong sense of “law and order” could acquire so many adherents so quickly. It is easy to understand why such a combination of a strong sense of morals (as defined by anything calling itself a “religion”), political acumen and good military leadership could sweep across the region so quickly. Within 20 years of Mohamed’s death his disciples had conquered all of the Persian-Sassanid Empire, Egypt, most of Syria, and were confronting both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.

Over the next 500 or so years the Islamic Civilization flourished culturally. The Caliphate of Baghdad, which quickly became the dominant power in the region, owed its riches to the constant looting of Persia, Central Asia, North Africa, and Spain which the Muslim armies had been looting from the beginning of Islam until they were brutally checked by Charles Martel in France in 732 A.D. at the battle of Tours, and reversed with equal brutality by the Mongols in the thirteenth century of the common era.

The earlier date marked the beginning of a contraction for Islam in the west and the beginning of the consolidation of power and culture in Europe while the latter date began the forcible contraction of the Islamic state overall. Between 1200 and 1258 Genghis Khan and his grandson led the Mongol attack on the Caliphate of Baghdad. These two liberated all of Persia and most of Mesopotamia from the yoke of the Caliphate, almost destroying Islam in the process. The subterfuge and savage cruelty with which the Muslims Jihad used to convert both Turks and Mongols to Islam gave Mongol horsemen a reason to make their way from Mongolia through the Muslim controlled areas (today known as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan) finally reaching Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The onslaught of Islam had led to a gradual accumulation of bitterness and a desire for revenge against the Muslims amongst the Turks and Mongols.

It was this accumulation of grievances that led to the Mongol assault on Islam which ended in the sack of Baghdad in 1258 under Hulagu Khan, egged on by his Nestorian Persian Christian wife. The attack by the Mongols on the Caliphate was the Mongol counterattack on Islam as were the Crusades, which were the Christian counterattack against Islam in the 11th century.

The truth is that by the middle of the 12th century the Caliphate was in disarray. The crusaders had conquered most of the ancient lands of Israel and the lands of Islam were ruled by dozens of Caliphs with wars breaking out between competing petty states. Islam was in retreat.

Toynbee describes the growth of civilizations as a result of external pressure that is not so great that society collapses or is unable to grow and not so little that there is no urgency to act. He sites the culture and environment of Polynesia as a society with too little pressure to trigger growth and arctic aboriginal culture as being one with too much pressure to create anything beyond subsistence living. One can spend eons debating the merits of his examples but the point is that the pressures on Islam in the latter half of the twelfth century made society ripe for a political leader and one such leader was found in Saladin who effectively put an end to the Christian counterattack and largely restored the Caliphate to its former glory. Unfortunate for Islam, Saladin died in 1193 just before the Mongol invasion.

The point of this diversion into ancient history is that from the perspective of someone living in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, or even Egypt, as well as the Muslim parts of the ex-Soviet empire and parts of Pakistan, life is not good. He (or she) might well conclude that the end of the world was near. Does this sound familiar? The conditions are ripe for another charismatic leader to emerge. One who promises to unite the Islamic world and push out the infidel (this being us)? Osama bin Laden fancied himself to be this kind of transformational leader. Was he simply ahead of his time?
Stepping back, just a bit, to review the last 35 years of history in the region. In 1980, the region was relatively united with most countries run by stable dictatorships, some friendly to the west, some not. It didn’t matter. Those with oil, had to sell it to someone. So, while the headlines were full of noise, the world was stable. Iran had a revolution where the west was made to look like bogymen but they still sold us their oil and they disliked and mistrusted the Soviet Union as much or more than they disliked us. The first policy mistake for the West (Toynbee counted Russia as a part of our “Western Civilization” and our last two world wars as nothing more than internecine squabbles) was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and our response to it for the sole purpose of discomforting the Soviets.

The West has meddled in Afghanistan for as long as the European powers have competed with Russia and it’s successor the Soviet Union over their influence in Southwest Asia. Afghanistan was in play as early as the middle of the 19th century as part of “The Great Game” between Great Britain and Russia over control of the Indian Sub-continent. Winston Churchill’s first non-fiction book published in 1898 was titled “The Malakand Field Force.” It describes a British army tasked with keeping the road through the Swat Valley (now in Pakistan) open so that supplies could flow to Britain’s clients in Afghanistan. This same Swat Valley became a thoroughfare through which the Afghani Mujahideen, encouraged and supplied by the American CIA, and lead, to some extent, by our old friend Osama Bin Laden, funneled supplies to fight the Russian takeover of Afghanistan. When these Mujahideen won and the Soviet army withdrew, the Mujahideen morphed into the Taliban and the Jihad fighters into Al Qaeda. This oversimplified things a bit but the details are inconsequential. Essentially, before the Taliban arrived, Afghanistan was slowly becoming a western patterned Middle Class society much like Turkey. The Taliban reversed whatever “progress” had been made and installed an archaic religious feudalism in its place. The Taliban, as well as Al Qaeda were and are largely funded (after the US stopped funding them) by the adherents of the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. They are well funded.

The West’s second error was invading Iraq in 2002 with the express purpose of toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was not a very nice person. But to the West, Saddam Hussein formed a check on the ambitions of Iran and their ayatollahs as well as a check on Syria. To some extent Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein as an inexpensive bulwark against Iranian ambitions but that ended with his invasion of Kuwait which the Saudi’s rightly interpreted as a threat to themselves. U.S. President George H. W. Bush (#41) attempted to restore the balance by NOT toppling Saddam, just chastising him. Of course all that ended with the invasion of Iraq by U.S. President George W. Bush (#43) in 2002.

Now that we’ve made a mess of things by disturbing the delicate balances of power in the region we must look at the religious minutia as the conflict in Iraq and Syria has, in essence, become a religious war between Sunni and Shia the outcome of which may have lasting consequences because it’s also a war against Judaism, Christianity and Western Civilization.

The Islamic Middle East is a boiling pot of local and regional conflicts, some religious, some not. What has become clear in the last few years is that the major conflict is now between Jihadists (mostly Sunni) and more conventional nationalists. Each side has attempted to enlisted local tribes or political organizations to their side and the resulting polarization is the source of most of the conflict.
The nationalists in the region generally accept the borders as defined in the post WWI era agreements with some slight adjustments. The Kurds would love to have their own nation, which would include small parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran but, for the moment, have contented themselves with a national identity and a semi-autonomous region within the bounds of Iraq. Political stability and economic growth is the main driving force behind most nationalist movements and the governments they support.

The Jihadists, almost exclusively Sunni, have a far different vision, where the perfect world would consists of a universal (Sunni) Islamic state with Islamic law governing everything. That’s the vision, in practice ISIS is behaving not much differently from the Inquisition, an institution of the Roman Catholic Church, which began executing heretics in the 12th century and continued, in a much modified form until recently. However the last execution of the Inquisition was finally carried out in Spain in 1826. Historians believe that over the past millennium as many as 150,000 souls lost their lives to the Inquisition. The institution itself still exists but with the newer title “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” Pope Benedict XVI as Bishop Ratzinger was the Prefect of this ancient institution.

The current crop of Sunni Jihadists, ISIS, began with the creation of Al Qaeda by Osama Bin Laden who had a more pan-nationalist and pan-Islamic viewpoint than ISIS (which is why ISIS has been disowned by Al Qaeda). Bin Laden grew up in the opulence of Saudi Arabia. His vision was larger than the squabbles between Sunni and Shia and his stated goal was to kick all non-believers out of the Islamic regions and rekindle an Islamic Civilization – exactly what Toynbee predicted. However Bin Laden let his vision get in the way of practical politics. Having kicked the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan (with considerable help from the CIA) he believed that the West would abandon the Islamic world through threats and intimidation. He seriously thought the US would quit the region after September 11th.

ISIS has a different agenda. The vision of ISIS is somewhat less grand than that of Al Qaeda but with an added twist that anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim is an infidel who should be forcibly converted at the least or, better still, simply killed with as much brutality as possible lest anyone else think of escaping their grasp. Their focus is narrow, military victory here and now, with the stated goal of uniting Syria and Iraq under a new Caliphate. This sounds a lot more like one side in a civil or religious war than a threat to global domination. The problem as everyone perceives it is, first the challenge to established regimes, specifically the artificially created Iraq, Syria and Iran as well as the autonomous Kurdish region. The secondary threat is purely humanitarian. It scares us to see Americans beheaded in foreign regions or whole colonies of our co-religionists murdered, forcibly converted and otherwise discriminated against. Things like that shouldn’t happen.

The truth is that what we fear most is a militant version of a renewed Islamic Civilization, which could very well compete on an equal footing with our own should they ever stop squabbling. Osama Bin Laden made it very clear that he considered his Jihad to be nothing less than a war against Christianity. ISIS fighters likely feel the same although their immediate hatred is aimed at their Sunni counterparts several hundred feet away, with a mortar and machine gun aimed at their heads. However should ISIS consolidate their power and execute their larger vision then our worst nightmares could be realized, a generalized religious war between Islam and Christianity. What is most frightening to those who are tasked with caring, our politicians, is the almost complete silence from the Imams of the Mosques in the west. Compare the silence of western Muslims to the sound of black American Baptist preachers.  This could be just a problem with our media who have no interest (at the moment) but the questions need to be asked.

Here’s where the players are right now:

Iraq is mostly Shia in the south and Sunni in the north (as is Afghanistan) much like the Catholic/Protestant split in Ireland. The Baath party which ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein began as a nationalist, pan-Arab, socialist alternative to Communist, Capitalist, or religious rule but came to be dominated by the Sunni of the north much to the discomfort of the dominant Shia population in the south. The Shia complaints were largely economic rather than religious. With the fall of Saddam, control passed to a democratically elected but Shia dominated administration, which as one might expect, encouraged the ascendancy of the Shia population over the Sunni with the tacit approval, and in some cases help, from a Shia dominated Iran. Meanwhile, the West (specifically the US) encouraged the development of a more Nationalist and inclusive approach to government. However, the Iraqi government resisted these suggestions. Resentment and a religious fervor in the northern region first encouraged, a low level civil war, followed by the emergence of ISIS in the Sunni dominated regions of Iraq and Syria.

Oddly enough, the government of Iran, dominated as it is by a committee of Ayatollahs, takes a more nationalist approach to policy rather than expressing religious fervor beyond its borders. The controversy over Iran’s attempt to build the precursors to an atomic bomb is driven by nationalist goals not religious. The sole exception to this nationalist drive is the Israeli/Palestinian issue which the Iranians view as a religious obligation not unlike Christendom’s Crusades to liberate the Holy Lands from the infidel. Indeed the language used in this context is almost identical but reversed. Iran financially and materially backs the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria to the discomfort of the Sunni rebels including ISIS.

The Baath political party and the al-Assad family have dominated Syria since 1970. It too has been a Nationalist, indeed Pan-Nationalist, in its orientation. It was the Arab Spring, which we’ll get to in a moment that upset this balance and triggered the uprising that has cost in excess of 100,000 lives and gave birth to the ISIS movement.

At the moment Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Pakistan are not players in this dangerous game but circumstances may draw them in. The countries of the Arabian Peninsula (though presenting a Modern, Western Face) are deeply religious (Sunni) at the core and have been the primary financial benefactors of Hamas, Al Qaeda, and ISIS.

The Arab Spring generally refers to a series of (more or less) democratic uprisings in 2010 and 2011 that sought to overthrow the established, mostly nationalistic regimes. Most scholars on the subject point to a repressed but growing Middle Class in the region. In some places they were successful but in others they were brutally repressed. The results of the Arab Spring in Libya and Syria was brutal repression and, in the case of Libya, the destruction of the existing government with a resulting local civil war. In the case of Syria a different outcome emerged.

The Syrian Civil War began as a protest against the arrest and beating of a shopkeeper. A month later fifteen teenagers were arrested and beaten for writing something like “the people want the regime to fall.”  The exact chronology is unimportant, what is important is that while the US and Western Europe dithered in their support for a militant but liberal opposition, the Russians sent massive military aid to their former client state, Syria.

Syria, a predominantly Sunni country was ruled by a Shia led government, much like Iraq had been with Saddam Hussein. It quickly divided along sectarian lines. When it appeared that the Assad might fall, Hezbollah, supported by Iran, decamped Lebanon to back Assad and stabilize the war. It has remained in approximate stasis ever since with minor back and forth between sides. Meanwhile in far eastern Syria, along the Iraq border, ISIS carved out a niche where it grew largely unaffected by either the Assad forces in Damascus or the Iraqi forces centered in Baghdad. When it reached sufficient strength it began to unleash its devastation upon Iraq.

In a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” we have found ourselves amongst some very strange, and I suspect, transient bedfellows.  In Iraq we are on the side of Iran, in stopping the onward rush of ISIS, while at the same time, encouraging ISIS followers in their assault on Syria. Iran is pouring arms into Kurdistan, a traditional enemy, in the hopes of stemming the growth of ISIS. Meanwhile, Israel is in the unenviable position of fighting a war against Hamas, while scratching their heads about what to do with Hezbollah. Under normal circumstances, Israel would back any enemy of Hezbollah. Yet, given the alternatives, Hezbollah looks like a civilizing force, albeit one that might turn against them on a dime. So long as there is a war in Syria, Hezbollah will remain out of Israel’s hair. For this reason, backing any Sunni opposition, including ISIS, looks, potentially, like a good move. I’m sure there is a lively debate developing behind closed doors in Israel.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, is enjoying making the US and Western Europe uncomfortable, through his desire for Lebensraum in the Ukraine and by his undying support for the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. This support is designed, we suppose, to ingratiate himself with Iran in exchange for peace and quiet in the Islamic Republics and Provinces, which line his southern border. ISIS is a much bigger threat to Russia than to Western Europe. Despite the fact that (of late) most of the ISIS rhetoric has been directed towards the US and Western Europe, even Putin must recognize that it’s only a matter of time before the wrath of ISIS is directed his way. The West, Russia aside, has largely coalesced into a federated, but unified whole, Toynbee’s “Western Civilization.” The European Union is not likely to go to war with any of its constituents and the same is true of North America. Only Russia, who resists joining “Western Civilization,” is still insisting on internecine competition. The “Great Game” is over. However, I suspect that (should our worst nightmares come true) the western part of Western Civilization may let Russia twist in the wind, for a while, before coming to its aid, if it ever does.

This, then, is the picture of current events. While our presidents, prime ministers and other potentates smile for the camera, there must be a gnawing feeling in the pit of their stomachs that all is not going well. In America the laboring classes (those below blue collar “professionals”) are becoming more and more Spanish speaking, while in Europe these same laborers are largely Muslim.  If ISIS succeeds, if ISIS morphs into a Pan-Islamic yet still militant movement, if the Imams of Europe and America say nothing, if the squabbles in the Middle East become an all out Religious war against Judaism and Christianity then what do we do? What does Israel do? What do those voices of reason and compassion throughout the region and the world do? The media loves to uses the phrase, “a disaster of Biblical proportions,” to describe any devastating local disaster. Granted, it’s been a while since the phrase could be used without hyperbole. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember that Armageddon is an actual place in Israel.

Friday, May 23, 2014

What I haven't been doing this week



I’m a writer, at least that’s my daily affirmation. It even says so on my Rotary name tag. I enjoy writing stories both real and imagined but this is the first creative scribble I’ve done all week. I have my excuses of course and they are quite legitimate. The truth is that I can’t write all the time. I need other time to think about what I’m going to write in burst mode. So I have other creative things to do while I roll around in the back of my head stories or scenes in stories that have to be worked out. I’ve been doing that, honest.

One week ago, today, I was sitting in a classroom at Grub Street in Boston, taking a class on how to write a query letter from Jenna Blum. Writing a query letter is harder than writing a novel. Writing a rough draft of POPLAR HILL took about 800 hours over three years. I’ve spent an equal amount of time trying to sell it and editing it. Three years, ten different query letters and several hundred rejections later I took a day off and paid $65 to find out what I did wrong. Here’s my takeaway:
1)      Keep the description so simple it hardly tells the story:
a.      An old woman faces death from a heart attack
b.      She has lots of stories to tell
c.       A friend of the old woman, a rural housewife becomes fascinated by the stories
d.     A pentecostal preacher tried to “convert” the old lady, over and over again
e.      Never use an adjective in the description (the story may be a tragedy just don’t say so) 
2)      The authors biography: Besides keeping it very short, taking a course at Grub Street, apparently, counts more than having already written a lot. Also being on a panel at AWP gives you more street credibility than just about anything else including having written a bunch of non-fiction trade books. Apparently I should also include the fact that POPLAR HILL was a finalist in the Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction (I won’t mention that there were 23 entries for 27 finalist sub-genres).
3)      Ultimately, the only thing that counts in a query letter is who’s name you can drop or who you know. I know Jenna Blum now.
a)      Ideally, you met the agent at a conference and they still fondly remember you. Conferences cost a lot of money and don’t do anything for your creativity except take time away from it.
b)     Second best, You know a successful author who is willing to promote your work to their agent. Hello Jenna.
c)      Third best, you got an MFA from some school where the agent also teaches. Doesn’t matter if they know you or not, it’s a contact baby!
d)     Fourth best, do some name dropping even if you don’t really know the names you’ve dropped: “Best Selling author Joe Blow suggested that I contact you.”  He probably would have made the suggestion even if only to get you off his back. That’s your rational in using his name. Note “Best Selling author” doesn’t mean what you think it means: I’m a best selling author too and I sell about 10 books a year in Amazon’s Travel>Oceania>Fiji. I’ve been in the top 20 for years. Doesn’t really mean much.

I think what I learned was worth $65. If I took a “Master Class” in novel writing at Grub Street I’d be a shoo in but I can’t afford it.  Getting an MFA is totally out of the question. I do want to retain some creativity.

So what else have I been doing that’s kept me bottled up and unproductive for the past week? I learned a long time ago that the only people who make money from writing are printers, designers and (if they are lucky) a few publishers so I learned to design books and magazines. Mostly I design books which is what I did all Friday morning.

Book design is an arcane field. It has some very rigid rules that must, on occasion, be employed very creatively. The book I was working on was one such book. The text had the annoying but very modern feature of being a series of paragraphs with no connective tissue. That is to say, the story would go on for a few hundred words then end. Normally there might be a segue sentence between scenes but not in this book. In past books like this I’ve added a dingbat to make it obvious that there is a discontinuity in the text but the author didn’t want this so I had to make sure there was at least a line above or below the break to make it obvious. I must have spent an hour trying to resolve one such paragraph. I couldn’t and eventually gave up. It stands as a tombstone.

Then I went to a Rotary function. Rotary International is my “normal” outlet. Around 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon I headed over to the Rotary District 7910 conference where I was assistant Sergeant-at-arms. That means I helped haul stuff around, put things up and take them down later. That lasted Friday night, Saturday afternoon and into the evening and Sunday morning. It is a big annual event supporting 53 clubs in central Massachusetts and 1500 Rotarians.

Most of my friends are writers and poets. That means that most of my friends are a little neurotic, creative types, for whom the act of creation is more important than, well, almost everything else. It’s hard to describe the mental state of a writer beyond saying that it’s a lonely, emotionally and intellectually intense business, fraught with failure.  I love writing; I don’t like being a writer. That’s where Rotary comes in.

My Rotary club is full of outwardly normal people. These include a soft spoken retired Air Force Colonel who thinks he should be a politician. He’s running for Selectman. That’s got to be a letdown from commanding a squadron of F-16’s and 6 or 700 people – I can’t say men anymore. He never kept up his flying license. I suspect he flew a little too close to the ground for comfort one too many times. I’m studying him. He’ll make a great character in a story someday.

Another Rotary character is the soon to be retiring chief of the water and light department who’s nervous energy alone could power a dozen houses. And that’s without drinking coffee. I imagine him bouncing off rubberized walls in the office they’ve promised him after he really does retire.  He’ll also make a good character someplace.

Yet another character looks like an ex-Sumo wrestler from American Samoa. At least that’s what I pictured when I first met him. He punctured that bubble when he finally identified himself as an African-American. That removed a lot of depth to the imagined character I was already creating somewhere “back there.” The rest are pretty “normal,” average suburbanites who just happen to like volunteering in good causes. Who can object. It’s a fun club and the projects are always engaging. I wouldn’t know anyone in town if I hadn’t joined. What is disturbing is the fact that an awful lot of people know who I am but I don’t have a clue who they are. I suppose that’s an advanced warning of what celebrity status might be like.

One of the unexpected pleasures of being a Rotarian is that I have instant friends all over the world. There are over 30,000 Rotary clubs in mumble, countries. When I had a job that took me all over the United States for weeks at a time I always found entertainment at the local Rotary club. It sure beat sitting in a hotel room alone. I once had a job teaching people from the NSA (Oh come on, who else would be in Fort Mead MD?) and I was stuck in a small Motel 6 on a strip full of McDonalds, Burger Kings and other assorted cardboard venders. I went to a different Rotary club every night. One club met in a diner near the Baltimore airport. Another met in an Antebellum mansion and yet another met in the grand ballroom of a modern motel. By the end of the week I was on a first name basis with the District Governor.

I’ve been to clubs in rural Michigan, suburban Detroit, Suva Fiji and Paris France. One of the odd things about Rotary is that no two clubs are the same. Most clubs serve a meal, breakfast, lunch or dinner, but the club I went to in Paris was a wine drinking club. By the time I realized there was no meal coming I was well under the table. In Fiji we had to drink Kava before anything else. Kava is a strange drink with the taste and consistency of old fashioned Kaopectate, a chalky and slightly bitter remedy for indigestion and diarrhea. In Fiji Kava is supposed to have sedating and aphrodisiac properties, according to the locals. My cab driver in Fiji said they drank Kava because it was cheaper than alcohol. I experienced neither a sudden urge to rut or a desire to sleep after drinking Kava.

The Rotary dinner Saturday night was the big event of the weekend. Hank Phillippi Ryan was the keynote speaker. She got her start in radio because the radio station she applied to didn’t have a single woman reporter. That wouldn’t work today, not where she works. Most of the reporters there, Channel 7 in Boston, are women. She wrote yet another mystery novel and was promoting it. I don’t know how many books she sold, a dozen maybe. Being a writer sucks, I’d rather write.

My job Saturday evening was to march a bunch of flags into the room in the right order.  We got the order wrong and we couldn’t find a Ukrainian flag (some wiseass suggested substituting a Russian flag)  and we substituted the Italian flag for a Mali flag – they look the same. What didn’t go well no one noticed. I’m sure I’ll be stuck doing it again next year. By Sunday afternoon I was tired and in gaga land. I futzed around in my garden, managing to pull a muscle in my arm which makes moving a mouse painful.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I finished the design of three books. I finally caught up with what I had not done because last Thursday I was at Grub Street learning about query letters.

Have I written a new query letter? No. have I gone back to work on one of my new novels? No. I’m taking a break from fiction and complaining, or explaining why I’m not working hard on my novels. The truth is I’m at a plot twist watershed in all thee of the stories I’m working on.

THE SOCIAL REGISTER: Is a retelling of the stories in POPLAR HILL. In that story, Kitty, the protagonist, alluded to her belief that many of her friends were spies. In the retelling of the story they are all spies, including Kitty. One plot twist is that the real members of the White Rose society were in Munich University the same time she was. There is plenty of drama but no real hinge.  I’ve written about 30,000 words but I don’t want to put much more time into it until I can plot out the rest of the story. I’m wondering if I can get away with just a spy story without any sex. Are chaise scenes a good substitute for sex?

WAR STORY: Is the story of a Vietnam War vet who sees more action than most and lives to tell the tail. 40,000 words in and I still can’t find the hinge besides having the protagonist trying to get out of the Army. So far no romance or sex but that may be in the book too. Very gory, very scary, lots of action. Rambo meets Radar O’Reilly meets Harry Flashman.

FENWICK:  I’m having the most fun with this right now. It’s a semi-autobiographical novella of how I wish my last two years in high school went. Fenwick, pronounced “Fenick,” looses his virginity, smokes pot, becomes an emancipated minor, buys a motorcycle, out runs a local bully and a cop that’s a bigger bully and accidentally becomes the local drug dealer and head of a Yiddish speaking gang (He’s not Jewish). Finally he doesn’t get into MIT and discovers that his draft number won’t be called. He’s exhausted, broke, living in an MIT frat house when he is thrown out of the building after it’s discovered that he’s attending classes for free. He ends up a homeless street urchin sleeping in the stacks at a Harvard University library.

OK, I’ve ranted enough. Time to get back to work.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Kickstart Poplar Hill

Ad many of you know I've written a novel titled "Poplar Hill." It's based on the stories my mother used to tell about her early life. I've launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to get my novel edited so that an agent will rep it. Yep, I'm looking for money and feedback. The campaign will run until May 1 with no extensions so please take a look and invest if you are so inclined.

Please pass it on if you like it.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/steveglines/poplar-hill-a-novel-by-s-r-glines

Thanks
SG

Friday, November 22, 2013

As though it was yesterday

November 22, 1963, South School Playground, New Canaan Connecticut:  We only had 20 minutes to eat lunch before the teachers would shoo us outside for recess. The younger grades ate first, first grade, followed by second grade, …. We were in sixth grade and ate last so it always annoyed us, me anyway, that we had to leave the warmth of the cafeteria after precisely 20 minutes on all but the coldest or wettest day. This was a chilly and gray November day. It was cold and windy enough so that no one wanted to play or be out on the playground. We just milled about and tried to keep warm until the 1:45 bell brought us back inside. It was the kind of day where bullies, out of boredom mostly, would pound their victims mercilessly and I spent most of my time avoiding them. Everyone knew who they were, both male and female.

It was about 1:15 when I saw her crying uncontrollably. Her father was a policeman and I had had a crush on her since first grade. My eyes followed her everywhere. My father had died in August of that year, 1963, so I immediately thought the worst had happened. I wanted to run up to her and put my arms around her but I was scared of her, I was scared of all girls then. Still I inched close enough to listen to her friends, who were now balling uncontrollably too. Someone had been shot, someone had died. "Dead," I heard them say and I thought the worst had happened, but she didn't run inside or run home. It wasn't her father. We just stood there, a growing circle of comrades, feeling an enormous weight coming over us, still not knowing what had happened or to who.

The gym teacher came out first, blowing her whistle and waving for us to come in quickly. Then, four or five somber faced teachers rounded up those that did not respond instantly to the whistles shrill. We knew the world was ending. No one said a word, no one had to, yet we still did not know what was happening. When we walked towards our classroom, teachers in the hall were crying. Men, who were men, our Principal, were crying. I felt the urge to cry … yet.

The black and white TV, the same one we had watched Alan Shepard and John Glen fly into space with, had been wheeled into the room and was blaring the static of the age. Something about Dallas, something about the President, something about the Vice President, something about a shooting. It was quite confusing. Had the President been shot? No, it couldn't be, shot at perhaps. Then Walter Cronkite came on. He looked at the clock on the wall and took off his glasses. I knew then what had happened, he didn't have to say, "The President is dead."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This I know

At the end of time, when the Universe ceases to exist, there will be no record of my existence. All history will come to an end as all grows cold and dark awaiting yet another Big Bang if such a thing is possible. Long before that happens our Sun, in a few billions of years, will swell larger and larger becoming a Red Giant. Eventually the surface of the Sun will encompass the orbit of the Earth, drying the oceans, incinerating the land killing all remembrance of life itself. If humankind moves on to a more hospitable environment can I hope they will bring a faint remembrance of who I was with them?

Long before the incineration of the earth it's likely that famine, fire or some other disaster, an asteroid perhaps, will visit what passes for Civilization, and render our lives as unknown as the pioneers of ancient Egypt, China or Ur. How many Romans do we know and remember? Did the dinosaurs have names?

I will die. That is certain. I have no progeny willing to carry forward my good name or my genetic code. I am the last of the line, already extinct. I no longer have "skin in the game."

When I was a child, when the Universe was still infinite, we played soldiers and Cowboys and Indians in our back yard, our hundred acre woods. I could not afford the specialized weapons of youth, the cowboy hat with duel cap pistols or the plastic rifle suitable for an assault on a German foxhole. Instead I found a magic stick that could be transformed, at will, into a sword, a flintlock, a machine gun or even a spaceship if the game required it.

Later I found that a pen was more convenient and the games and stories grew more involved and evolved. My legacy became the words I wrote on paper, no longer the seed of my flesh and blood. I have to ask myself, are my words good enough to live after me? Are the times willing to remember me? Is this Athens of 425 BC or the Athens of 350 BC? Is this the Rome of 100 AD or the Rome of 600 AD?  What literature was written in 350 BC Athens? We'll never know. Likewise was there a Cicero in 600 AD?  Why Shakespeare in 1600 and not 2013? Why not?

The world will end, Amen. The dinosaurs built nests that would never see children. We write to an audience that may never be born. This much I know, this much is all I know.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What is Poplar Hill?

Writing a query letter to an agent is harder than writing the book it represents. There is so much advise on the internet and from readers that my head is spinning. What is obvious is that all the versions of my query letter to date have completely failed. In retrospect I think I was trying to force a round story into a square query. (Note: I try not to torture my metaphors but I couldn't pass this one up)

I have since learned that everyone expects a "historical novel" to have a rather conventional plot that hinges around some decision or action of the protagonist: Life is good, a decision is made (the hinge), life gets very, very bad, the protagonist has an epiphany and life is good (or maybe not). That isn't the plot of Poplar Hill but that is what I kept trying to make my query into. Since I couldn't force a conventional plot line the only agent that read the MS declined it citing exactly the issue I just described - no "hinge." She expected a conventional plot and didn't get one.

This brings up a number of issues: perhaps I've written a real dog or perhaps I'm missing the correct genre. I haven't used the right buzz words to describe the piece. If it's not a historical novel then what is it? It is a fictional biography of Kitty Stevenson of Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia, Canada. After a lot of research I discovered that the proper fictional biography sub-genre for Poplar Hill is a bildungsroman or more correctly a sub-sub-genre, an entwicklungsroman. I know, I never heard of these either but then I don't have an MFA. (Do they really teach this stuff in an MFA program? Who makes up these words?)

Wikipedia describes it thus: 

A Bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive person who is looking for answers and experience. The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune. Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on his journey. In a Bildungsroman, the goal is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty. The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist and he is ultimately accepted into society – the protagonist's mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity.

There are many variations and subgenres of Bildungsroman that focus on the growth of an individual. An Entwicklungsroman ("development novel") is a story of general growth rather than self-cultivation. An Erziehungsroman ("education novel") focuses on training and formal schooling,while a K├╝nstlerroman ("artist novel") is about the development of an artist and shows a growth of the self.
 Well that changes everything. It doesn't mean I haven't written a dog but it does mean that the way I described the story in my query was at odds with what I actually wrote in the novel. No wonder the agent who read the MS didn't like it and no wonder my friends keep telling me that the query is un-inspirational and no wonder over 100 agents have rejected it, the query that is.

If you've ever wondered if anyone has actually written a bildungsroman, Wikipedia lists the following novels:

  • The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding (1749)
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne (1759)
  • Candide, by Voltaire (1759)
  • What Maisie Knew, by Henry James (1897)
  • Martin Eden, by Jack London (1909)
  • Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence (1913)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce (1916)
  • This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
  • Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth (1959)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
  • The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
and, of course, David Coperfield by Charles Dickens. So I'm in good company. If you read my last post you can compare it to this new version of a query letter.

Poplar Hill is a fictional biography, a bildungsroman or entwicklungsroman, of the life of Kitty Stevenson of Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia, Canada. Kitty learns that she will not recover from the heart attack she has suffered and must confront her imminent death. She reflects on her life. Born into a wealthy and prominent New York family she was put in an austere French convent school where she learned to be tough and self reliant. When the family loses almost everything in the Depression she is expelled from the convent and must find her own way back to America where she discovers her family struggling to survive. She gets a financial reprieve when she goes to Nazi Germany at age 18 in 1937 to spend a small family fortune that Hitler has embargoed only to discover the horrors of the holocaust. She risks everything to help a Jewish family escape, becomes a spy, is expelled from Germany by insulting Hermann G├Âring to his face, escapes on a Jewish refugee boat and barely makes it back to New York just days before the war starts. In the end she realizes that there is nothing she can do to evade death so she refuses all medical attention, confronts her l’appel du vide*, and dies peacefully. Comic relief is provided by a troupe of Pentecostal preachers who show up at the most inopportune times bent on converting the cynical and agnostic Kitty.
The major plot mirrors Paul Harding's "Tinkers" where the protagonist reflects on his life before dying. The setting is in a rural Nova Scotia full of the same characters found in Annie Piroulx's "Shipping News." Most of the novel is dialog between Kitty and her neighbor Barb, who has her own, rather parochial, view of the world. There are several Nazi subplots that could come from any one of a dozen late Pre-War novels (like those of Jenna Blum, Ursula Hegi, Philip Kerr, Kathryn Lasky, and Erik Larson).
===
* There exists a psychological phenomenon in which perfectly sane people, with no desire to die, find themselves faced with a steep cliff and experience a strong desire to leap. To jump from their safe vantage point into the unknown. This phenomenon is so common in fact, that the French have a term for it: L’appel du Vide – Call of the Void.







Friday, December 07, 2012

the agented author

Writing a novel isn't easy. It takes a lot of work then it takes a lot more to make it perfect. When it's done you want to celebrate and send it off to that big black hole called the publisher where they  magically transform your manuscript into an object of veneration (a book and/or a movie) that will entertain and enlighten people for generations to come. Unfortunately the gatekeeper, that intermediary called an agent, interrupts this natural flow between the author and his(her) adoring public by insisting on passing judgement not on the work itself but on a small summation of that work called a query.

If you think writing a novel is hard, believe me, writing the query letter is much harder. The first iteration of my query letter was sent to 10 agents. I was rejected by 6 and I never heard from the rest. The second iteration, blessed by (actually mostly written by) a literary icon was sent to 135 agents via surface mail with a SASE. At the moment I've heard back from approximately 50 agents, 45 no's, 4 "we'd like to see more" and one agent who has the whole manuscript. It's been a while so I sent out a third iteration to 50 different agents via email and got rejected from 22 almost immediately. One agent rejected me in under a minute. I guess you have to learn to read very quickly in the agent business.

One of my 500 best friends on Facebook (most of whom I've never met), an author with a stellar reputation, said my last query could be summarized as "Forest Gump meets Adolf Hitler." Obviously that isn't what I wanted my query to say so I've rewritten it yet again and this time I ask everyone for their opinion. Here is the latest iteration of my query letter:
I am writing to ask you to consider my novel, Poplar Hill.

A small valise hidden under a bed is the key to a past she's only hinted at. The book follows the life of the wealthy eccentric and very private Kitty Stevenson, a New York Socialite transplanted to rural Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia. After a massive heart attack she is told that she may only have months to live. As she confronts her imminent death she fights off a parade of Pentecostal preachers bent on converting her and resolves to settle her estate while she still can. She enrolls her neighbor, Barb, in helping her while she waits for a bed in a nursing home.  She asks Barb to fetch a small valise hidden in her room. Barbs eyes widen when she finds that it contains a Nazi flag, hundreds of German postcards, a Star of David armband, a "Jews Forbidden" poster and a photograph of Adolph Hitler autographed by Hitler and Joseph Goebels.

Prompted by items in the valise Kitty has decided that as long as she has a story to tell she won't die. Her story takes her from a pre-Depression era French Convent School in Grenoble through  pre-war Munich.  She meets Hitler, shakes Neville Chamberlain's hand and escapes Germany, just-in-time, on a boat carrying Jewish refugees to Palestine just days after Kristallnacht.  She fights the Nazi's, photographs a concentration camp, is declared persona non grata by the Nazis and helps a family of Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust. She's on the last German registered ship headed to New York Before Hitler invades Poland. Hitler orders the ship back to Germany. When the doctors tell her there is no more they can do for her she refuses all medical treatment. Will the Pentecostal preachers hovering over her convert her or will she die apostate? Will she get home from Germany or die before her story ends?

The book is historical fiction. The novel explores an era of continued universal fascination: The Depression, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Readers have said that Poplar Hill could speak to the audience of Jenna Blum, Ursula Hegi, Philip Kerr, Kathryn Lasky, Erik Larson and Annie Proulx.

The work has been professionally edited, is approximately 98,000 words and is ready for publication. There is a sequel tentatively titled "The Social Register."

S.R. Glines has spent most of his career as a journalist with a reputation as an edgy technical writer.  For five years he authored a monthly technical advice column titled Panic in Altos World Magazine.  The column was written in the voice of a fictionalized, over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived, computer engineer working for the mob. He also wrote a column titled Famous Last Words for Unix Review about products that never quite materialized or never lived up to their promise.  He is the author or co-author of  five "trade textbooks," a travelogue about teaching in Fiji and a flash fiction chapbook.  For the past seven years he has been the editor/publisher of Wilderness House Literary Review.

Let me know what you think? (Specially if you're an agent)