The sensation novels of 1860

Posted On: December 3rd, 2020 | Posted By: miketrial

The ‘sensation novels’ were a short-lived, but fascinating, sub-genre of mid-nineteenth century English literature. They were the first crime thrillers, combining the day-to-day characters and settings of realist novels with the suspenseful plots and lurid crimes of the gothics. American novelist Henry James stated these novels introduced into fiction ‘the most mysterious of mysteries, those mysteries which are at our own doors.’

The most famous sensation novel is The Woman in White written by Wilkie Collins, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. It was a best seller in 1860.

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Deadly DNA and CRISPR technology

Posted On: October 9th, 2020 | Posted By: miketrial


I’ve just finished writing a novella titled Deadly DNA which will be available in print and ebook next month. It is the story of Francesca Mechlin, a graduate student at Iowa University who must battle against a foreign power intent on pirating the gene editing technology she is developing. Francesca is fictional, but theft of American intellectual property by foreign nations, especially the Chinese Communists, is an unfortunate reality. Genome editing is also a reality, and a very positive one. It is opening up vast possibilities for medical practitioners to improve human health. Just this week it was announced that the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be awarded to the two women who developed CRISPR-Cas9: Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. Here’s a link to the announcement:

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Posted On: September 15th, 2020 | Posted By: miketrial

I have liked robots ever since I began reading about them as a kid. This picture is the cover of science fiction paperback I’ve read and reread ever since it was published in 1956. In those days Asimov and many others envisioned robots in the shape of people, but the robots that are at work today seldom need to look like people.

Manufacturing firms have been using increasingly sophisticated robots – automation in various forms – since the 1950s. Now as software and sensor designs improve, agriculture is increasingly utilizing them.

With automation comes increasing job opportunities for bright young people, a strengthened and modernized US manufacturing skill base, and reduced risk to our food supply chain.

It’s all good news.

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Lots of good news (from space) recently

Posted On: August 4th, 2020 | Posted By: miketrial

This is a picture of an unmanned Mars rover named Perseverance launched on July 30. The launch vehicle was a current-generation Atlas rocket (the Atlas 541) whose genealogy goes back to our first ballistic missile way back in the 1960’s. It was a flawless countdown followed by a beautiful Florida dawn launch. The rover is scheduled to arrive in Mars orbit in February 2021. Perseverance is even carrying a tiny helicopter designed to fly autonomously in Mars’ thin atmosphere. As Spock so often remarked: ‘fascinating.’

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Posted On: June 4th, 2020 | Posted By: miketrial


Despite the difficulties many firms are facing keeping their employees on the job in a COVID-19 environment, our 100 plus farm ‘employees’ are on the job and doing fine. Must be the influence of Capricorn (or in our case 100 little Capra’s, i.e. goats.) Our ‘employees’ are goats, which we use to browse grass and various invasive shrubs between the trees on our tree farm.

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Seventeenth century intrigue…

Posted On: April 24th, 2020 | Posted By: miketrial

Henry VII, an upstart Tudor, takes the throne of England in 1485 after the death of Richard III (more about him later) and enters into an arranged marriage with Elizabeth Woodville in the interesting 2017 Starz mini-series, The White Princess. The marriage, which neither King Henry nor Elizabeth really want, is intended to permanently end the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster (The War of the Roses.) Tthere are all the usual plot turns: threats against Henry’s life from within the castle and without, secret letters, potential usurpers of the throne, threats from foreign powers, people whose loyalty is questionable, etc. The primary sub-plot is the growing attraction between Henry and Elizabeth. It’s a nicely paced, nicely acted, and nicely photographed, historical drama. There is even a plague in the land at one point—no social distancing back then, but people do wear rather fantastical plague masks.

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Somerset Maugham

Posted On: March 11th, 2020 | Posted By: miketrial

Although for a time he became the highest paid writer in the world, William Somerset Maugham is seldom, if ever, taught in literature classes. Why is he so underappreciated, especially by literary critics?

I think this is for several reasons. One is that during his lifetime he broke many of the social rules with his Bohemian lifestyle, his closeted sexuality, his divorce, his absentee child rearing.

Another reason, important at the time, is that he would often portray characters in his fiction that were clearly modeled on people he knew – to their consternation. This sometimes resulted in lawsuits, which he shrugged off.

But perhaps the most important reason is that he was financially very successful while at the same time maintaining the highest literary standards in his fiction. Critics have commented that his writing style is too simple. But that deceptive simplicity, like the music of Mozart, is also his strength.

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I Love to Fly

Posted On: January 16th, 2020 | Posted By: miketrial

I’m not talking about sitting in an economy class seat in a Boeing 737, I mean sitting behind the controls of a Cessna 150, flying through a clear summer sky. Flying light planes is wonderfully addictive. Especially flying out of country airports when nobody else is in the air and you have the whole runway and traffic pattern to yourself.

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Why go to a class reunion?

Posted On: December 11th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial


The answer to that question is: Because they are fun.

I occasionally hear people remark, “I will not go to a class reunion.” And sometimes it is for legitimate health reasons. But more often it is for some indefinable sense that it “would not be fun” or that “I would not be accepted.” I try to convince people that those assumptions are entirely wrong.

Reunions actually get more fun as the years pass. At the early reunions, say those before the twentieth reunion, some of us felt a bit tense, perhaps a bit competitive, or defensive. Each of us wanted to show ourselves in the best possible light.

But by the twenty-fifth and thirtieth reunions and beyond, all those insecurities have faded away. We can sit down with anyone in the room and feel welcome. The conversation that ensues is always fascinating (and is always prefaced by the self-deprecating statement “I really haven’t done that much…”). But, as we talk we find we have all done a great many interesting things. We come away amazed by the endless variety of life experiences our classmates have enjoyed.

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The Jane Austen that never was

Posted On: November 17th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

What if Jane Austen had lived longer than the 41 years she did, and had written more than the six novels she did?


I recently explored this question in a presentation I did for the University of Missouri’s Lifelong Learning Institute.

Despite her relatively small output, she is one of the most loved, researched, discussed, parodied, admired, and copied writers in the English language. She pioneered realism, writing insightfully about genteel families in small English villages in the early 1800s. And then she died young of what some researchers believe to be Addison’s disease.

It’s fun to speculate about what she could have written. For example, what if she had completed a novel during the two years she lived in Southampton? I think she could have written a spectacularly good novel during this period. It would have had all the wit and humor and irony of her maturing talent, but could been backgrounded against Britain’s Navy, Britain’s growing Empire, and the Napoleonic Wars. This ‘lost novel’ I envision would have been a transitional novel, like Mansfield Park, but would have incorporated a broader sweep than her previous novels Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.

In reality she wrote no novels while she was there, but she did incorporate the naval lore she learned from her brother Francis (with whose family she was living) into the characters Charles Price in Mansfield Park and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.

That ‘lost Southampton novel’ does not exist, which is our loss.

Here’s another speculation: what if Jane had lived as long as the rest of her family? Her sister Cassandra lived to be 72 years old. If Jane had lived longer she would almost certainly have written at least three or four more novels. And it is highly probable she would have written her best work during this latter period of her life.


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Posted On: October 21st, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

Movie actors on the screen are ghosts.  They pretend to be someone they are not; they live and move in a world that doesn’t exist. When an actor dies whose films we have enjoyed, we feel a certain sense of loss as though we had known that person. While of course we have known only the character that actor played.

I have always been intrigued by movies, by the sense of combined reality and unreality, and sometimes the speculation “What if those characters in that movie really were alive in some alternate dimension?”  I tried to express that in a short story I wrote called “A Life in Pictures” published in 2017 in my collection of short stories called Edge of Reality. It’s not quite, but almost, a ghost story.

The 1944 film, The Uninvited, is a ghost story. A nicely photographed and very  atmospheric haunted-house story. The bonus track of the DVD includes a great  essay by Michael Almereyda, in which he discusses the film and the actors, but he ranges beyond that, elaborating on why, for him, movies are a ‘shared dream.’ That description seems right to me, since while we are watching the film, we—and the phantoms on the screen—both inhabit a non-existent dream world. Virginia Woolf noted that when viewing a movie we experience simultaneously being present and not being present.

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Eliza, the British Empire, and the novels of Jane Austen

Posted On: September 18th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial


Eliza Hancock, Jane Austen’s cousin, was born in 1761 in Calcutta, India to British parents. Eliza’s mother, Jane Austen’s aunt, (intriguingly named Philadelphia Austen) had gone to India specifically to find a husband, and she did. Six months after arriving in India she married T.S. Hancock who was doing quite well as an employee of the EIC (The East Indies Company) a British trading firm chartered by the British Crown in 1600, to trade for spice, and anything else profitable in the “East Indies,’ which Britain defined as “everything between Suez and Japan.”

Over the years, the EIC became enormously profitable and enormously powerful. Through political influence in Britain, its charter had been expanded to include coining money, raising an army, acquiring a navy, and governing much of southern India. It had become a nation in all but name, with an army bigger and better-armed than the British Army itself.  “East Indiamen,” the armed trading ships of the East Indies Company, ruled the Indian Ocean. And the Governor-General of the EIC ruled much of India.

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Remembering Days of Change

Posted On: July 28th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial


I’m a bit disappointed that the University of Missouri, my undergraduate alma mater, has made no mention of the 50th anniversary of the student unrest of 1969. Other Universities have. Harvard has a retrospective underway, and there is an indie movie in circulation called ‘Underground 68’ which views those days of student protest through the eyes of one of today’s Harvard undergraduates.

I think that sort of retrospective is useful. To look back from time to time to see who we were and how far we’ve come. For many of us the student protests of 1968 and 1969 were life-changing events, even though we may not have realized it at the time.

And I believe protest was justified then, since in those days the University of Missouri administration still felt that its control of the student population should be firm, sometimes excessively firm. You remember dorm hours, dress codes, etc. Freedom of speech was the central issue at first, protests against the war in Vietnam came later.

Talking about freedom of speech vs. firm control…in 1968 several MU students were arrested and given 45 day jail sentences (later commuted to public service) for chalking ‘Gentle Tuesday is coming’ on sidewalks.

The irony of this harsh sentencing was apparently lost on Columbia police and University administrators, but not on the students and faculty.

Soon a ‘chalk-in’ was organized and some 1500 students from MU, Stephens, and Columbia College (then Christian College) marched from the MU campus to the Boone County courthouse where they chalked quotes from the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence on the courthouse steps. No one was arrested.

The ‘chalk-in’ march was particularly notable in that it was led by an MU faculty member and the president of the student association.

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Radio Pacifica

Posted On: June 15th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

In 1978 I lived in Monterey, California, and would occasionally drive up the coast highway to San Francisco. As I neared the Bay I could pick up radio station KPFA-FM, Radio Pacifica, which I thought was named for the wide blue Pacific Ocean. I liked its eclectic mix of music and opinion.

But Radio Pacifica is not named for the Pacific Ocean, as I thought, but for the now almost forgotten political movement called Pacifism, a total rejection of all war.

The story of KPFA-FM in Berkeley, the first non-profit radio station in the U.S. is a fascinating one. Lewis HIll, the founder, was a Pacifist, a WWII Conscientious Objector, interested in creating a means of encouraging the breakdown of ideological barriers. He wanted to communicate through a medium which would also be completely free of the influence of commercial advertising. At first he thought to start a magazine, but later was inspired to found an FM radio station, the first listener-supported station in the world.

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Axis Sally

Posted On: May 2nd, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

In a small cemetery in Lockbourne, Ohio, there is an unmarked grave, the last resting place of Mildred Gillars.

Her story (well told in a book titled “Axis Sally” by Richard Lucas) is of a rootless childhood, a failed acting career in New York, and a rise to infamy as Axis Sally in Nazi Germany. She was born in Maine, but grew up in Ohio where her dysfunctional family eventually settled. Mildred attended Ohio Wesleyan University, but left for New York in her senior year to try to become an actress.

But her acting career never took off. She visited Europe several times, liked it, and stayed there as WWII began, becoming involved with a man working for Reichsradio in Berlin. She hoped they would marry, but he died in 1944 and by then it was too late for her to leave Nazi Germany. She was by then fluent in German, and was rather successful doing American-accented English language propaganda broadcasts, for what was at the time, a generous salary. For a time, she was better paid, and listened to by a wider audience, than she ever would have been in New York.

I do not think she was purely an opportunist, she was certainly not a rabid Nazi, nor was she a helpless victim trapped in a dictatorship from which she could not escape. She stayed in Germany voluntarily despite US State Department notices advising all American citizens to leave Germany. In part, I think, it was because she had nothing to come back to in the USA. So why did she become a part of Reichsradio’s propaganda machine? I believe it was just a series of decisions that step-by-step lead her in the wrong direction.

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The Novels of Anne Bronte

Posted On: March 21st, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial


To me, the Bronte sisters’ novels epitomize mid-19th century English literature.

You’ve not read any of their works? Intimidated by the length of most 19th century English novels, their flowery language, and the unfamiliar social settings? Well, I used to feel that way, but I’ve changed. Part of my resistance to 19th century English lit. was the fact that some truly worthless 19th century novels are taught in literature classes, each surrounded by a cloud of scholarly effulgence. Not good.

But there are some good books and interesting writers. Among the more interesting writers are the Bronte sisters. We’ve all heard of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but I find the works of Anne (the quiet little sister) to be equally intriguing. For example, Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte is a short, quiet, but nicely written, novel about a governess in Victorian England.

An easy, no-cost, way to try it is to go on-line and download a chapter (I recommend chapter 18 as a taster.) It’s free since all the Bronte books are now public-domain. This site also has the novels and poetry of Emily and Charlotte Bronte.

But before doing that, I recommend you get some background on the Brontes by watching the video “To Walk Invisible”, a 2016 PBS bio-pic, which is not free, but is fascinating.

Anne, when she was growing up, was babied by the family, so determines to go out into life and make her own way. At age 19 she takes a job as governess (one of the few occupations open to women.) She finds the reality of being a governess a nightmare. Isolated from neighbors, looked down on by the servants, tyrannized by her employer (an incompetent mother of three hostile and mean-spirited children) Anne grits her teeth and works literally day and night, seven days a week to try to teach the children something, anything. Despite her efforts, at the end of nine months she is fired.

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Zarabeth and Loneliness

Posted On: February 13th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

The original Star Trek series was on TV when I was in college, and my girlfriend and I, and my roommates and their girlfriends regularly watched it (yes it was difficult for all six of us to see the 19” black and white TV set we had at the time.) We invariably commented on how laughably crude the sets were and how inept much of the acting was, but we would always be there the following week to watch the next episode.

The reason was that, beneath the TV simplicity, some interesting literary themes were being explored.

A memorable episode aired March 14, 1969, titled “All Our Yesterdays.” It’s best feature was a subplot concerning love, loss, and loneliness between characters played by Leonard Nimoy and Mariette Hartley (that’s her in the picture.) To save a life, Zarabeth (played by Hartley) must give up the man she loves and condemn herself to a life of loneliness.

The script, originally titled “A Handful of Dust’ was written by a reference librarian at UCLA named Jean Lisette Aroeste. She had two Star Trek scripts produced, edited an academic reference manual, then disappeared from the literary world. I have often wondered what she was like and why she stopped writing; her treatment of loneliness in this Star Trek script was actually rather profound.

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Darkness Defines the Light

Posted On: January 12th, 2019 | Posted By: miketrial

Paintings with very strong contrasts of light and darkness, like this one by Georges de La Tour, help us realize that what we see is defined in part by what we don’t see. The image quality called Chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and darkness in a painting, dramatizes this. From Caravaggio to Rembrandt, darkness colors the emotions their paintings evoke.

I think memory is somewhat analogous. Darkness – what we don’t remember – shapes us as much as the light – what we do remember.

Our memories inevitably fade with the passage of time, like the fading of a painting. Sharp emotions dissipate, images fade to sepia, and eventually may disappear entirely. In addition to this natural fading, our subconscious works to subtly reshape our memories so that they better support the persona we want to present to the world.

Another kind of memory reshaping can occur when someone we trust informs us that what we remember is not the truth. Our minds adjust, but we are irreversibly changed, and it is sometimes a wrenching, change. We may remain uncertain what to believe.

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Good News

Posted On: December 6th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

 We’ve recently gotten some very good news, and most people don’t seem to be aware of it.

A NASA telescope, launched in 2009, and named Kepler after the famous German astronomer, has recently confirmed that there are many, many, many, earth-type planets orbiting other stars.

This is great news. Why? Because it means for the first time in mankind’s history we know for certain that there are other worlds out there. New worlds to explore, the possibility of life, and of other intelligences. The number of planets in temperature zones similar to Earth’s makes the likelihood very high for some planets to be able to support some form of life as we know it.

NASA has made an interesting video summarizing the Kepler mission findings which you can view here.

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Coming home

Posted On: November 12th, 2018 | Posted By: miketrial

People who have lived for a length of time in another country often find that when they return home, it takes time to readjust to American culture.

Last year I posted some comments from a friend of mine, Tamara, who was working for the Peace Corps in Madagascar. She has now returned and I asked her to share her first reactions to being ‘home.’ She sent me the following comments, which I think are quite interesting:

“I keep having a dream that I am back in my village in Madagascar, with no running water, no electricity and no toilet. I have been back home three months, and my life in Madagascar now seems like a strange dream, even though by the time I left it felt quite normal. Although I appreciate the convenience of electricity, running water and a toilet, adjusting to life in the USA has held a number of less-than-pleasant surprises.

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