Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Solve the mystery, win a free book

I am a contributor to a terrific new anthology, You Don’t Have A Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens with a Teacher's Guide (Arte Público Press), which was published a month ago and has been receiving stellar reviews.  From Booklist, the anthology won a starred review.  Kirkus called it “a consistent, well-crafted collection.”  The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books said, “The mix of realistic and fantastic mysteries guarantees broad reader appeal for this impressive collection.”  Much credit should go to our editor, Sarah Cortez, whose careful guidance throughout the project was exemplary.

This anthology is chockfull of writers I admire: Mario Acevedo, Carlos Hernandez, Diana Lopez, René Saldana, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Richie Narvaez, Gwendolyn Zepeda, Ray Villareal, Manuel Ramos, Daniel Olivas, and many others.  I am proud to be included among them, writing mysteries and encouraging teens (and all of us, for that matter) to read.

So herewith is a challenge, to all intrepid readers in cyberspace and beyond: whoever can solve the mystery of my story “Nuts” in this collection, and email me what really happened to whom and why, will win a book signed by me and mailed to you.  The first three individuals (teens, I hope) to send the correct answer to my email inbox at SergioTroncoso(AT)gmail(DOT)com will win a free book.  Will you have a clue?  Well, that is the question.  Read the following paragraphs carefully.

I wrote “Nuts” because I wanted to write a story to make the reader think about what really happened in the story and to prompt the reader to figure out the puzzle.  I believe in ‘close reading,’ that is, reading so that every word is weighed carefully for its meaning, so that every detail is understood for why it is there.  “Nuts” is written for that careful reader who will not miss any detail, and whether a detail matches other details in the story.  I also want the reader to ponder what is in between the lines of the story, to understand the relationships between the characters, and to appreciate what is left unsaid between them.  I have two teenage sons, and one of them is allergic to tree nuts, so I also wanted to write about that hidden, quotidian danger he faces.  By the way, my sixteen-year-old figured out what really happened in “Nuts” on his first reading!

So about those clues.  First, the cookie clue.  Think about the cookies, and every instance in which the cookies are mentioned.  Compare these instances.  What do they tell you about what really happened?

Second, have you seen the movie “Juno”?  You better run to Netflix, if you haven’t.  Remember the relationships between Juno, Bleeker, and Katrina de Voort?  How is a scene in that movie and what is meant (but not said) about these relationships important to understanding what Zendon is feeling about his friend Ethan?  Are there any other clues to indicate what Zendon is thinking, but not saying, to his friend Ethan?

Third, sometimes we hear names incorrectly, especially during an emotionally charged moment.  Does 'Sookie' sound like 'Soupy'?

Fourth, isn't that a strange name for the person who writes Ethan that email at the end, ‘Doable HePrey’?  Did you know that ‘Sergio Troncoso’ can also be ‘Cooing Roosters’ or ‘Scrooges Riot On’?  I love anagrams, don’t you?

Finally, once you decipher the meaning behind the above clues, what can you tell me about Ethan’s moment of decision in the email, the response he almost sends, versus the response he actually sends at the end?  That is the coup de grâce to understanding the meaning of this mystery.

For the prize, I will give the three winners a signed copy of You Don’t Have A Clue.  You can give your friends your unsigned copy, challenge them to solve and understand the mystery, and you can keep your prize book.  We need to encourage everybody to read.  I hope if I see you at a reading you will say hello, and tell me how you solved the mystery and how you can’t wait to get into another story to solve the puzzle, to explore a new world, to gain a new perspective, to relish that shiver scurrying up your spine when you say to yourself, 'Aha!  Now I know!'

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Obama's Focus

I like the photo released from the Situation Room, with President Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Robert Gates, Joe Biden and others riveted by the live screen as our Navy commandos enter Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and put a bullet in the terrorist’s head.  President Obama looked apprehensive, serious, and tough.  But above all, focused.  He took a gamble to get Bin Laden with commandos, rather than deciding to bomb the hell out of the compound.  The man from Chicago would either win big or lose big.

But the gamble was a good one.  The risk was commensurate with the reward: it was high risk to have our military men in harm’s way, to risk a fiasco where they get killed, but it was also high reward to identify Osama Bin Laden, to kill him, and to prove to the world that the deed was truly done.  What mattered was not only that our commandos were terrific, and that they completed their work without U.S. casualties.  What mattered most of all was this focus from President Obama and why we were there.  What 9/11 was originally about, and why we should ever risk putting our military in harm’s way.

Too often, in the aftermath of 9/11, fear and paranoia were manipulated to focus on targets having little to do with what happened on that awful Tuesday in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.  I experienced that day as a New Yorker, and it is the day I became in my heart a New Yorker.  But it is also the day I began to see this country twisted by opportunists and demagogues to focus not on Al Qaeda primarily, not on Bin Laden, but on agendas having little to do with what and who wounded us so profoundly.

Why did we start a war in Iraq?  For weapons of mass destruction?  But they weren’t there.  For vague Al Qaeda connections?  But the terrorists who harmed us were principally in Afghanistan, and later we now know, Pakistan.  My opinion is that President Bush started the war in Iraq to finish his daddy’s work, to pay back Saddam Hussein for targeting his daddy, to prosecute a personalized, blustery foreign policy that put our military in harm’s way.  For the wrong reasons.  For the wrong target.

Hussein was a creep and a dictator, but that isn’t a national security reason necessary to commit to a war.  And of course, once you start a war, as Eisenhower warned us, the military-industrial complex, from generals to lobbyists to anyone else who profits from wars, will make sure the ill-begotten war continues for years, with thousands of people dead, with hundreds of billions of dollars wasted.  Attempt to stop a war we should have never started in the first place, and how many right-wingers will smear you as soft on ‘defense’?  How many in the public will believe them?  How stupidly can we keep going round and round without the right purpose?

Here was another wrong target and wrong focus.  How did we allow what happened on 9/11 to be twisted first into fear about security within our borders, then into paranoia about border security, and finally into attacks against undocumented workers?  We allowed idiots like Lou Dobbs to manipulate our fears into a full-throated xenophobia against anyone dark-skinned, anyone ‘not like us,’ anyone whom we could easily blame, anyone weak and close at hand.

We couldn’t get to Bin Laden, but we could kick these Mexicans pouring concrete on our sidewalks and slaving away for pennies, yes we could kick them in the ass and feel good about ourselves.  It might have been false, this feel-good kick, but it was something, and it was what we had.  How many of us stepped up, said no, and yelled at the xenophobes, to tell them they had the wrong target?  How many pointed out that our lack of work ethic, and our lack of focus on educating our kids, and our adoration of a superficial, materialistic culture were primarily to blame for our not competing effectively against nations like China?  Believe me, right now dying Detroit could be revived if civic leaders just rolled out the red carpet for one million, hard-working, undocumented Mexicans.

Obama, in that picture from the Situation Room, was focused.  He was focused on the right target.  He was focused on what should have been the target all along.  Al Qaeda, and all it represents.  Period.  Now that this commando mission has been completed successfully, perhaps we in the United States can start focusing on our problems straight on.  Our real problems.  Not our prejudices.  Not our fantasies.  Not our petty vendettas.  But the problems that matter, to solve them and to make us a better country.  To overcome even the worst of our days.