I came back from my first Bouchercon, the conference for mystery lovers, with several books to add to my already lengthy “wanna read” list. Here are the books and the reasons they’ve made the list.
The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne. Because the book won a prize at the conference.
Under my Skin, by Lisa Unger. The novel is about a woman murdering her husband, or maybe she just wants to murder him. I can’t remember. My writing group talked about doing a book in which ten or twelve women write stories on how to murder your husband, so I’m viewing this as research.
She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This book was shortlisted for several prizes and won one. Also, Jordan Harper was on one of the panels and the author seated next to him said to the audience, “If you buy only one book at this conference, let it be this one.”
Murder in the Marais, by Cara Black. Her books are set in Paris and sound intriguing.
Any book by Nick Herron. I don’t remember why this wound up on my list, but it was in my notes.
Pieces of Her, by Karin Slaughter. I listened to her on two panels and she was hilarious. Also, her book made my list because she’s from my home state of Georgia.
Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk. This isn’t a mystery, but I’ve been planning to read it for a long time so when someone at the conference mentioned it, it moved up several notches on my “wanna read” list.
In front of Robert Burn’s cottage in Ayrshire
I sometimes need a dictionary to decipher it, but I love Robert Burn’s poetry which runs the gamut from lyrical love poems to acerbic blasts against injustice. As only a Scotsman can, he derides and lambasts with humor, holding nothing back in his blunt political and civil commentary. He was a liberal, a feminist, and a socialist. I learned all of this in high school from a very good-looking English teacher. (Note: the English teacher in The Lady was so closely modeled after him that my classmates recognized him immediately.) What we didn’t learn was that Burns was an inveterate womanizer. English class was like Sunday School in that they left out all the good stuff.
Burns fathered twelve children from several different mothers – his wife Jean, his mother’s servant, a woman from church, a friend. His first child was born to a servant about the same time he got his future wife pregnant with twins. At last count he had six hundred descendants from these various women. Which leads me to a question. Were some of those lovely love poems he wrote a peace offering to his wife? Did he, instead of bringing home a bouquet of roses, present her with My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose or Ae Fond Kiss? Oh my, English class could have been so much more fun had we discussed questions like this.
Gracie Di Nardo collected more than 400 new and slightly worn dresses and 150 pairs of shoes so girls in her town could have a nice outfit for graduation. Last week, girls in the 5th, 8th, and 12th grades descended on the community center which allowed her to display the clothes. Most of the outfits had been tagged with handwritten notes such as “You are loved,” “You are strong,” and “You are beautiful.”
Gracie’s project started in May when she and her mother were talking about how fortunate Gracie was to have a new dress for a dance and one for graduation. She knew that many of her schoolmates were not so fortunate, and so she decided to do the dress drive so that other students could feel special on their graduation day. She called her project “Giving Grace.”
Gracie approached the director of a local middle school’s local services center and the family resource directors at two different elementary schools. The center directors spread the word, inviting girls to the shopping event and asking people to donate. Soon high schools were joining in. Social media posts helped bring in dresses. Gracie’s volleyball teammates also helped.
In addition to dresses and shoes, girls could also shop for accessories. One family donated some of their late mother’s jewelry collection. Next year, Gracie plans to enlarge her project to include prom dresses.
Women scientists were a rarity in Britain during the early twentieth century. The country employed two million women as domestic servants but there were only 200 women doctors and 2 women architects. That changed during The Great War. Patricia Fara tells the stories of some of these women pioneers in science in A Lab of One’s Own. Fara, who studied physics at Oxford, also recounts how many advances made by women during the war were rolled back afterwards.
A Lab of One’s Own is an engrossing account of uncelebrated women scientists who innovated and experimented during a period of grand historical events. Fara’s underlying argument is that there is nothing unusual about feminine involvement with science. We know that today, but the story of a time when that wasn’t true makes an interesting read.
No one writes a first draft as bad as mine. They couldn’t possibly! Because of this, I avoid classes, conference sessions, critique groups, or anything else where I’m required to write from a prompt. Before I learned my lesson, I found myself in a few of these prompt-writing situations. Even when I could decipher what I’d written after scribbling, marking out, circling, underlining, drawing arrows from one part of the composition to another, it sounded like chicken you-know-what.
I discovered something interesting in one writing class (a community night-class). A third of the students were, or had been, in a university creative writing degree program. They wrote beautifully. The rest of us wrote clumsily, and had every bad writing habit known to man or woman. But none of the students who wrote beautifully had a story. Notice that I didn’t say: The didn’t have a good story. They didn’t have a story period!!!! Several of us who didn’t write so terrifically had great stories. Mine (The Lady) eventually won a prize.
I will never be a Shakespeare or a Jane Austen, but I’ve worked at the craft and have learned and improved through classes, books, critique groups, reading. I’ve had to do as much un-writing as I have writing. At first, I tried to sound “writerly.” My critique groups kept knocking me down for that. And talk about wordy? I’m the queen of wordiness! The craft of writing is something that can be learned, but if someone doesn’t have a story to tell, then why bother? So, I no longer fret about having the absolute worst first draft in the world. If I have a good story, then I can fix all those things that are wrong with my terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad first draft.
What a surprise to see that a neighbor from my Perkasie, PA days has published a book! Frank and Leila Clymer lived next door for twenty-nine years, and if I had to rate them on a scale from one to ten for their “good neighborliness” I’d give them a twelve or more. Among other things, it was impossible for me to get through a half-week’s meals without running next door to borrow something. Also, I believe my son considered their house part of ours. He was under strict orders not to leave our property without informing me. He was quite good about that except that no matter how many times I told him our neighbors’ house wasn’t part of our property, he’d still go over to talk to Leila without telling me. When my husband died, Leila took him out to buy shoes when I was too busy taking care of all those things that have to be seen to. I handed her my credit card which I hadn’t signed. The shoe salesman forced her to sign it, and so for years I had to forge my own signature on sales slips when I used the card.
I haven’t read Frank’s book, but from the review I see that it is narrated from the view of a young boy growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch community. He describes life in a small town during the era just before and after the second World War, including his family’s involvement in the war and its impact on the community. I’m sure the book must have some interesting observations, and I wish him much luck.
This past week I got a letter saying that the city of Philadelphia will be pleased to forgive my debt relating to an old parking ticket which I received while I was living in Qatar. When I first received notice of the ticket eighteen year ago, I furnished the traffic department official documents offering proof that I was living outside the country when I received the alleged ticket. They didn’t buy. They continued to harass; I continued to protest. I re-sent the original documents and added others: a letter from my director, copies of passport pages recording my entry into Qatar, my work visa, all of them proof that I couldn’t possibly have been in Philadelphia on said day. Still, they persisted.
I gave up. Let them come and get me, I thought. Crazy thing is, according to the letter I received last week, I now owe for two parking tickets, both issued when I was living outside the country and no longer had my car. Yes, TWO! They don’t document what car I was supposed to be driving. I suppose it must have been a phantom car.
But you can’t fight the city of Philadelphia. Obviously! So, I’m going to take my sneaky self back to Pennsylvania, scope out the traffic department, and find out who’s in charge. That person — lock, stock, and barrel, and all the way down to his underwear— is going to appear in my next novel as the villain! Watch out, whoever you are; you’re about to become as villainous as Darth Vader and as unlovable as Uriah Heep.
I was in San Francisco recently and visited City Lights Bookstore, the first all paperback bookstore in the country, founded by the poet, Ferlinghetti. The bookstore is mentioned in one of my favorite scenes in The Lady. My young heroine, Quincy Bruce, is in English class, and on this particular day, the students have to announce which American writer they will be doing a research paper on. Quincy’s nemesis, Mary Watson, reveals she’ll do hers on Ferlinghetti. No one else in the class, including Quincy, knows who Ferlinghetti is. Quincy, afraid she’ll be outdone by Mary, offers up a quick prayer that the schoolroom floor open up and swallow Miss Know-it-all. Quincy’s prayer does get answered, although not by the floor opening up and swallowing Mary Watson. I won’t give you the details here in case you read the book later, but it was a fun chapter to write.
City Lights Bookstore iss one of those wonderful old bookstores that sells nothing but books. I felt my literary IQ notch up a few numbers just by breathing in the air as I stood amid the overloaded bookshelves.
When I was in the fifth grade, Little League came to town. I hated it!
In the Deep South, we played baseball or softball (depending on what kind of ball we had access to) year-round. Our village didn’t have a baseball field or even a park, so we played in fields or backyards, or wherever we found space. We grabbed what we could to serve as bases —pot lids, stones, sticks, someone’s jacket. Sometimes the balls we used were questionable. But we played and had fun.
There was no adult supervision. No one directing us, telling us how it should be, or who should be the pitcher, or what we did wrong. I’m not sure we even knew the rules. But we improvised. We figured out how to deal with uneven team numbers, how to settle disputes, how to improve our playing field.
And then the day of doom! Little League!
Even though I was the second-best player in the neighborhood, I wasn’t allowed to play because I was a girl. Condemned to watch from the sidelines, we girls mourned. Joining us on the sidelines were the boys who weren’t so good at the game. The adult supervisors only wanted the best players. Little League was a devastating blow to our neighborhood fun, so when I saw an article in The Lexington Herald-Leader (Feb 28) entitled “Kids once learned negotiating skills in sandlots,” I rejoiced. John Rosemond expressed everything I felt and then went on to review a new book, The Self-Driven Child by neuropsychologist William Stixrud. Stixrud claims that child and teen anxiety and depression are largely due to parental over involvement and micromanagement in everything from children’s social lives to their homework. I haven’t read his book, but I suspect he’d agree with what I have to say about Little League.
I discovered a marvelous old-fashioned bookstore on the Alameda in San Jose, California, The Recycle Book Shop. There were none of the canned displays prominent in chain bookstores, nor the well-layed-out, equi-height shelves. No Starbucks in one corner. No stuffed animals or gewgaws for sale. Just books! Stacks of them. On the floor, on tops of shelves, on counters. People sat around on the floor dipping into the merchandise, trying out this book, or that book. It smelled like a book store, too. Dusty jackets. Old paper. Long forgotten titles jumped out at me from the spines, along with authors’ names that I hadn’t thought of in years. There were newer titles, too, but I had the distinct feeling that every book in the store had merit. I wound up with Book Two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and I’m already well into it.