Thursday, October 17, 2013

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Gran, Sara. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

This was October's Connecticut mystery book club read. What an appropriate title for October (although I actually read it back in September).

I've never been to New Orleans, but I've always wanted to go. It's one of those American cities that mesmerizes me because it seems much older than it can possibly be, a city that must be at least 500 years old and teeming with all kinds of good and bad spirits, the two sides constantly struggling for control. Sara Gran's first Claire DeWitt mystery didn't disabuse me of this notion.

Gran's New Orleans is seedy, romantic, gothic, mysterious, evil, spooky, passionate... She's done a wonderful job of painting the city in a way that brings countless numbers of adjectives to mind, many of which are polar opposites. Having never been there, I'd say she's also done a wonderful job of capturing the city in all its complexity. And something about her brought Caitlin Kiernan to mind, even though the two authors are not of the same genre.

You'll get no unbiased review here. I loved the book from the minute I started reading it. Claire DeWitt is an interesting sleuth who, with the exception, maybe, of "the cozy", draws on all types of fictional detectives, rolling them into one to produce someone truly unique. Much to my surprise, I also found her truly believable, which she probably wouldn't have been in the hands of a less talented writer. She's part hard-boiled Phillip Marlowe (although with the 21st-century twist of turning more to drugs than to booze to numb all the horrors her chosen career forces her to face), part whacky Stephanie Plum and her ironic sense of humor, part Charlie Parker and his insight into the supernatural, and there's a little Hercule Poirot, since her mentor from the grave is a French mastermind. She's even a bit like Mary Russell, although she never apprenticed with the Great Detective himself the way Mary did with Sherlock Holmes. Claire, instead, apprenticed with another apprentice, who is also now dead and lives only in Claire's memory, dreams, and hallucinations.

Claire, who grew up in New York (Brooklyn, to be exact) is a former resident of New Orleans but is living in California when she's called back to the city that is swarming with her ghosts, to help find out what happened to a lawyer who disappeared in the aftermath of Katrina. With the help of some of those ghosts of hers, her own wit and ingenuity, not to mention consultations with the I Ching and the occasional hallucinogen, she manages to figure out that this "nice guy", just like this "nice city", might have had a seedier side. Along the way, she meets some interesting new people and reconnects with some old. I, for one, was quite surprised to discover whodunit and why.

Happily, there's a new Claire DeWitt novel. I'm quite content to add this series to my growing pile of mystery series I read.

Monday, October 14, 2013

50 Scariest Books I'VE Read

Thanks to Susan, I discovered this. The scariest thing about the latter is that, despite being a lifelong fan of horror and the supernatural, I've only read 17 books on the list of 50 (well, and part of 2, both of which spooked me so much, I had to put them down and never picked them back up again). Even scarier is that I'd never even heard of some of them. Maybe I haven't been reading that many scary books after all; maybe I can't really claim to be a fan; maybe I'm a mere piker when it comes to the spooky. No coward, I, I decided to face this fear head on, think of all the scary books I've ever read, and see if I could even come up with 50 to name as the scariest.

Happily, I discovered I'm no piker. I came up with tons of scary books and had to try to figure out how to narrow the list down to a mere 50. The first thing to do was to take a cue from the originator and include only one book by any given author. That made it a tad bit easier, but still, this was no easy task. I finally found myself boiling it down to books I remembered keeping me up at night; or those propelling me go downstairs to be with others, if the other members of the household were downstairs and I was upstairs alone (or vice versa); or encouraging me not to look out windows; or inspiring me to lock myself into rooms where I felt (sort of) safe. That meant including some titles that aren't necessarily horror classics, or that don't even fall into the horror genre, but just that, for whatever reason, scared the bejeezus out of me when I read them. I'm sure some of them wouldn't scare me in the least if I were to reread them. Others, however, I've read multiple times and can depend on to do the job when I'm in a masochistic sort of mood and actually want to feel the need to lock myself in the bedroom and dive under the covers.

I share with you my list (in alphabetical order by title), which does overlap with the "50 Scariest Ever" list. In compiling it, I've thought about how (like everything else about reading) subjective "scary" is. Vampires have terrified me all my life. Zombies? Not so much (except for the movie Carnival of Souls. Why, I don't know). I'd love to know which of these books others have read and found scary and which they haven't.

(I'm way too lazy to go find cover images for all 50 books, so, in keeping with a good supernatural tale, you'll just have to conjure up your own images.)

1. 1984 by George Orwell. Yes, the world he painted can only be described as horrific.

2. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. Okay, now we know that it may all have been a hoax, but I didn't know that when I read it in my early teens. To this day I don't take too well to gatherings of 3 or more flies on windowsills.

3. Best Ghost Stories of J. S. Le Fanu by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. A longtime fan of Uncle Silas, which didn't scare me at all, I made the mistake of reading this when Bob was away, and I was all alone. Lots of things went "bump in the night" in my house that night.

4. Best Stories of Algernon Blackwood by Algernon Blackwood. All the stories are good, but on really, really windy nights, or when I'm racing against time to get off a hiking trail at dusk, it's "The Wendigo" that always comes to my mind and sends shivers up my spine.

5. Blood Games by Jerry Bledsoe. Dungeons and Dragons game players and murder in my home state of North Carolina? Nothing scary about that, right?

6. The Bog by Michael Talbot. If books were classified the way movies are, this one would be a B movie. Completely predictable and stupid and about something that shouldn't have scared me at all, and yet, when a friend urged me to read it back when it came out, it spooked me to death.

7. Broken Harbor by Tana French. All of French's novels have had a spooky element to them, but this one was the one that got to me the most.

8. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt. Ridiculous to think I'd be scared of doll-sized figures wielding sharp weapons, but I was. Maybe it's the psychology or the voodoo (which has scared me since I was a kid).

9. A Candle in Her Room by Ruth M. Arthur. Well, I guess dolls can be very scary, and the doll in this book was one of the scariest I'd ever encountered when I first read it as a child. She was still scary when I reread it as an adult.

10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Not scary so much as just so damn creepy and horrific that I didn't want to be alone while reading it.

11. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Forget that it's Christmas and has such a feel-good ending. Marley's ghost is damn scary. 

12. Coraline by Neil Gaiman. It's those blank, button eyes. 

13. Couching at the Door by D.K. Broster. Some ghost story collections are uneven. This one isn't. I may be wrong, but I recall being spooked by all of them. 

14. The Deep End by Joy Fielding. This is probably a really dumb book, but when it first came out, I read it, and it terrified me with that whole telephone-caller-is-even (really, really)-closer-than-you-think-thing.

15. The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Loraine Newman by Gerald Brittle. I'm still amazed that something so hokey had me so terrified. All I can say is don't read it at night if you have a dog who might suddenly start barking at nothing (or if you have a Raggedy Ann doll in your house. I was glad I didn't).

16. Dracula by Bram Stoker. No, it shouldn't have been scary. I knew the story when I finally got around to reading the original. Stoker was not the best writer of his time. Still, it got me (and did again when I listened to it while jogging through the woods one fall).

17. Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. If you want to feed a fear of vampires with plenty of blood, read this one.

18. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Reread it last year to see if it's really as scary as I remember. Yes, it is.

19. The Falls by Ian Rankin. Just enough of a hint of the supernatural and things like grave robbers to send many shivers up my spine.

20. Famous Ghost Stories edited by Bennett Cerf. It's a short collection, but it has so many of the classics that can keep me awake if I read them too late at night (Oliver Onion's The Beckoning Fair OneThe Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs, The Phantom 'Rickshaw by Rudyard Kipling, to name a few). 

21. Ghost by Katherine Ramsland. Some of this was quite stupid (okay, a lot of it). Still, parts of it spooked me (a lot).
22. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James. James was the master. When I want to study the craft, I return to him. "The Mezotint" will always have me staying in one safe room and avoiding looking out windows at night.
23. Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton. Maybe it scared me so much because I never thought of Wharton as a writer of the supernatural, so I was surprised by her ability with the genre, or maybe it's because, like Henry James, she had such a good handle on "Is it a ghost or all in your mind?" Whatever the reason, it kept me awake at night. 

24. Ghost Story by Peter Straub. This was one that spooked me so much, reading it when I was on a business trip by myself, that I had to put it down. I've been meaning to try it again ever since.
25. Green Man by Kingsley Amis. The ending was over-the-top, but parts of it made me wary of trees (and, again, looking out the window at night, especially in areas heavy with trees) for a while.
 26. The Haunted by James Herbert. The surprise is, yes, surprising. The movie also scared the crap out of me.

27. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Every time I read it, I think, "It can't possibly scare me this time. I know it too well." I'm wrong about that. Every time.

28. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. This is the stuff that keeps a teenager up, reading until the wee hours of the morning and then, wide-awake, unable to sleep, hearing all kinds of strange noises in the house.

29. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. See Helter Skelter, only substitute teenager with forty-something who lives out in the American middle of nowhere.

30. The Killing Kind by John Connolly. Some very weird stuff that is very scary when you're reading it in Maine.

31. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Sprezi. I listened to this one while out walking and remember constantly looking over my shoulder. It's terrifying on two levels: serial killer + being falsely accused of something while living in a foreign country.

32. The Omen by David Seltzer. It led me to believe that there isn't much that's scarier than a scary child. (Oh, and see Helter Skelter and that part about being a teenager up all night.)

33. The Overnight by Ramsey Campbell. Got so spooked by it (fog is scary) that I couldn't finish it.

34. The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I don't really remember why I found this one so scary. I just remember that I did.

35. People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. A well-known psychiatrist writing about the psychology of evil and his belief in demon possession? You know how you study abnormal psych and begin diagnosing everyone you know? Imagine when the "disease" is evil and possibly demon possession, and you'll get an idea of where this one took me.

36. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories edited by Michael Newton. Ghost story collections can be hit or miss, but this recent collection was pretty much hit, and the ones that scared me (that I hadn't read before, and even some I had, like the aforementioned "The Monkey's Paw") really scared me.

37. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg. A study in evil, more terrifying in what it suggests than in anything that actually happens.

38. Psycho by Robert Bloch. You thought the movie was scary (which it most definitely was)? Read the book.

39. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. I found this one so much scarier than Silence of the Lambs. I think it mostly had to do with the way the killer chose his victims.

40. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. I don't really know why, but John Sandford scares me. Maybe it's his ambiguity when it comes to defining good and evil. But that ambiguity shows up in plenty of mysteries that don't scare me. Anyway, I won't read him when I'm alone (just like I won't watch Criminal Minds when I'm alone).

41. Salem's Lot by Stephen King. Word to the wise: don't read this one when you're fifteen-years-old and baby sitting, a sleeping toddler being the only other one in the house with you.

42. Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Before there was Erin Morgenstern and The Night Circus (which had its moments), there was Ray Bradbury and Something Wicked this Way Comes (more than just mere moments), discovered in one's teens.

43. Strange but True: 22 Amazing Stories by Donald J. Sobel. This was a Scholastic book I got circa age 9. I blame it to this day for my addiction to horror. I reread it a few years ago, and yes, I can understand why.

44. Tales of Horror and the Supernatural by Arthur Machen. Includes plenty of good tales, but the one that scared me the most was "The Terror", a perfect study in mass hysteria.

45. This is the Zodiac Speaking by Michael D. Kelleher and David Van Nuys. I'm surprised I didn't buy a gun to protect myself while reading this one.

46. Threshold by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Nobody, but nobody writing in the 21st century does "here's a nightmare: is it real or not?" better than Kiernan (and I loved the Beowulf connection here).

47. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Still the ghost story to beat all ghost stories.

48. The Undead edited by James Dickie. Another one to feed the imagination of someone who's vampire-obsessed.

49. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski. One of those books that makes you glad you're not a Victorian woman surrounded by men defining how sane you are (or are not).

50. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe. Good old Edgar is another one to blame for my early addiction to the spooky unknown.

(And one to grow on). Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I know, I know, call me a wimp, but that scratching at the window? I still don't like to hear branches scratching at a window.

Okay, I can see the pattern here. If you want to scare me include one or more of these elements (either real or imagined): ghosts, vampires, serial killers, demon possession, scary dolls, and maybe, if the conditions are right, a bog monster (especially if it's scratching at a window with long, bony, gnarly-nailed fingers).

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Guest Post: Stephen King and His Movies

Today is Stephen King's 66th birthday, and this week I will have in my hands our library's copy of Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining. I've been reading Stephen King for over 30 years, and I'm looking forward to this new book, out just in time for Halloween reading. So, when Brandon Engel asked if he could write a guest post here comparing two of King's books to the movie versions, I agreed, not only because I love Stephen King, but also because I'd like to support a fellow blogger who is making a living through writing blog posts. Brandon's post follows with some of my own thoughts and comments included in italics.

This September, author Stephen King will be celebrating both the release of his new book Dr. Sleep (a long-awaited sequel to The Shining) and his 66th birthday. Over the course of his career, King has authored over 50 novels, several of which have been used as the basis for feature length films -- with some adaptations adhering to King’s stories more closely than others.

Let’s take a look at two dramatically different examples…

The Shining

One film which still gets some Stephen King fans riled up is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining -- which Stephen King himself was incredibly vocal about disliking upon its release in 1980. In more abstract terms, the film differs from the book in that the film places greater emphasis on the instability of the Jack Torrance character, portrayed in the film by Jack Nicholson. King’s stated intention was to portray the character in a more sympathetic light and to show his declining mental health as being more symptomatic of the corrosive influence of the spiritual entities who inhabit the Overlook Hotel. King’s chief criticism was that the Kubrick treatment made the film more about a domestic disturbance, and downplayed the supernatural elements of the story.

EB: I'm disappointed to discover that King disliked the movie version, although his reasons make sense. I love Stanley Kubrick, and The Shining is one of my all-time favorite horror movies, one of the few that I still find terrifying, even though I've seen it many times. It's not as good as the book, of course, but as far as movies go, it's hard to beat.

There are several other key differences between the book and the film though. In the book, there are large topiary animals who come to life. Kubrick’s version does away with the topiary animals, substituting them with a hedge maze. 

EB: And I always wondered why he chose to do that. It seems like it would've been a great special effect in a movie. Those moving hedges were one of the things that scared me most when I read the book, circa age 15.

In the book, Jack Torrance dies when the boiler room explodes. In the film, he freezes to death in the hedge maze. In the book, Jack Torrance doesn’t actually kill anyone. In the film, he kills the Dick Halloran character (played by Scatman Crothers.)

EB: One of the things that always impressed me about the movie was how scary it was despite the fact that so few characters died, especially since it came out during the height of the slasher movie craze. It was a great lesson for me, who was just beginning to discover horror movies other than what was available on late-night TV: people don't necessarily have to die (or be turned vampires) in order for a movie to be really scary). 

The key difference here, though, is that so much of King’s work is permeated by his ambiguous spiritual beliefs, which usually seem to have some foundation in the Christian narrative, whereas a defining characteristic of most of Kubrick’s work is his biting cynicism and religious skepticism.

EB: Which is probably why I love both of them, because I have to admit I'm a bit of a voyeur when it comes to others' views about religion and spirituality.


Carrie was historically significant as it was King’s first published novel, and director Brian De Palma’s first feature. There were a couple of notable differences between the novel and the film. One was the appearance of the Carrie White character, who was described as being overweight in the novel, but was portrayed by the wispy Sissy Spacek in the film.

EB: This is a movie I haven't seen (I know. I know!), but I always wondered about that myself. Everyone who's read the book knows that Carrie is overweight. Also, everyone who knew me in junior high thought I looked like Carrie (Sissy Spacek), which was a terrible thing for a skinny, junior-high kid and made me (unfairly) hate Sissy Spacek until years later.

The most notable difference between the movie and the book, though, is perhaps the ending. In the end of the novel, Carrie destroys the entire town. In the end of the film, Carrie has essentially killed all of the teenagers from the town, but has left the parents to grieve -- which is, by this blogger’s estimation, infinitely more chilling.

EB: I had no idea that the movie ended that way, but I'd agree that that was a good change. 

On the whole, though, the film hits all the major beats from the novel -- the character is a social outcast; there is one sympathetic character who conspicuously arranges to have her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom (although both King and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen clearly attempted to lampshade this); and the vindictive teenage girl antagonists conspire to further humiliate Carrie for menstruating. What embellishments were made for the sake of filming were ultimately in the service of the same end as the novel.

EB: Okay, yes, I must see the movie version now. 

Thank you, Brandon, for this birthday gift to Stephen King.

About the author: Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger for who is an avid consumer of gothic horror literature and vintage horror films. Among his favorite writers are H.P. Lovecraft, William Peter Blatty and, of course, Mr. King. Among his favorite directors are Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and John Carpenter. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Now and Then by Robert B. Parker

Parker, Robert B. Now and Then. New York: Berkley Books, 2007.

It's funny, the last CT mystery book club book was one in which a dead body doesn't make an appearance until page 60 or so. In this one, we have no dead bodies until page 70 or so. But the two books couldn't be more different. The Earl Derr Biggers, as I noted in that blog post, was a genteel read. If I hadn't known everything I was reading was leading up to some sort of mystery, I never would've guessed. Here, we hit the ground running, just waiting for at least one, if not multiple, murders.

I've been meaning to read Parker for years and am glad I now have. This wouldn't have been my choice for first of his to read, being the anal-retentive sort of reader who likes to start at the beginning of a series, but now I've had a taste of him and realize it doesn't really matter whether or not I read the Spenser books in order (that's true for most mystery series, but there are some for which it really does make more of a difference, like Jacqueline Winspear). Probably one of the reasons I've been reluctant to get started with this series is that Parker was so prolific, and I've feared it would take me forever to read through all the books. Silly worry. Now that I've read one, I'm aware that even a slow reader like me could probably plow through all 30+ novels without taking the better part of a year to do so, unless the others are very different from this one.

Much of this novel, which begins when a man hires Spenser to find out whether or not his wife is having an affair, is told through dialogue. That could be problematic in the hands of an unskilled writer, but it isn't here. The dialogue is good, and Parker doesn't waste your time letting you eavesdrop on a conversation in which one character explains something to another that should be perfectly clear (you've heard me rant against that elsewhere  -- see #7 -- here at Telecommuter Talk). No, Parker's characters talk to each other with the understanding that they don't need to fill each other in on background information. In other words, they talk to each other the way we talk to each other in real life. Parker's genius is that he manages to do so while also providing enough clues for the reader who may not know any of the back story to get up to speed. I like that. He's a good one to study for anyone interested in writing and improving dialogue (like me).

Anyway, as you might guess, this tale turns into one that's about much more than a wife having an affair. We've got FBI agents here and anti-government organizations and stolen identities. But I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't read it. I'll just assure you that if you're looking for a real page-turner (yes, I stayed up way too late one night because I just couldn't put it down), you won't be disappointed.

Spenser's an interesting character, and I was drawn into his relationship with Susan, a psychiatrist who also happens to be his long-term girlfriend and who plays a key role in the book. I'm gathering she's played a key role in others, as well. Although I enjoy P.I.s like Philip Marlowe who can't walk down the street without having multiple women throw themselves at him, I like coming across those who are involved in monogamous relationships like Spenser is. It adds a depth to their characters that makes them a little more human. Women apparently throw themselves at Spenser, too, but when he shows restraint, it's because he knows he's got something that means more to him than a one (or two or three) night stand, unlike a Marlowe, who does so for any number of other reasons (like the woman is just too pathetic). Spenser and Susan have obviously had their problems, but they're mature in their relationship.

Finally, I loved the setting. For some reason, I've read quite a few books lately that take place in and around Boston. I haven't read any mysteries set in the city, though, in a very long time. The last was probably Linda Barnes's Carlotta Carlisle series. It was nice to be back. Boston's a great city, whether I'm hanging out there for real or hanging out there in my imagination. Parker was good at making me feel like I was hanging out there for real.

Great beach read? Yep, and definitely a step above so much that falls into that category.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers

Biggers, Earl Derr. The House without a Key. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2008.

(This book was originally published in 1925.)

If your thing is thrillers that jump right into a murder before you’ve even figured out who the main characters of a book happen to be then The House without a Key isn’t for you. You won’t find any dead bodies until you’re about 1/4 of the way into the book. I do happen to like those types of thrillers – in the right place and at the right time – but I absolutely loved this, the first of Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan mysteries.

To be honest, when this book was chosen for the Connecticut mystery book club, I had no idea what to expect. I’ve never seen a Charlie Chan movie. I hate to say it, but my only real knowledge of this particular detective comes from the nods given by Saturday morning cartoon animators in the 1970s. I can’t even tell you which cartoons (Hong Kong Phooey, certainly, but he wasn’t very Charlie Channish. Bugs BunnyScooby DooThe Flintstones?) sometimes featured Chinese detectives based on the character. Repeated exposure to cartoon images of the detective did help the young me figure out that Charlie Chan was a movie character, but, you know, those were old movies, like, from my father’s time, when it only cost 10 cents to go see something in black and white.

If this first book is any indication, I’m surprised that Earl Derr Biggers isn’t the household name among readers that an Agatha Christie or a Raymond Chandler is. Maybe that’s what happens when Hollywood truly gets hold of a character but not the author who created the character. I mean no one talks about Hercule Poirot movies or Philip Marlowe movies. The authors of the characters are the names people know. I’m quite sure that if I asked your average reader, “Have you ever read any Earl Derr Biggers?” the answer would be, “Who?” He really deserves more than that.

I loved the slow start to this book that lured me in and made me forget I was reading a “murder mystery”, so much so that I was a bit shocked when I finally encountered The Body. We’re given details that bring both the setting (Hawai’i) and the characters to life. Biggers definitely knew about patrician families and the “black sheep” of such families. He paints a dream-worthy portrait of Hawai’i, a place whose trade winds can mesmerize even the most Patrician members of a New England patrician family, causing them to lose all sense of themselves (maybe even to forget proper grammar). I could just taste the pineapple and smell the leis made with fresh flowers.

Books like these are the ones that make me hate the notion of “genre fiction” and everything it implies to most critics. Then again, I have to admit that I’m a bit elitist in my own way when it comes to genre fiction. Tell me you love to read 21st-century romances, or mysteries, or (popular where I live, the relative newcomer) inspirational fiction, and I’m highly likely to judge you as a rather superficial reader. But tell me that you love the romances or mysteries or inspirational fiction (most of Louisa May Alcott, for instance) that have proven the test of time, and I’ll judge you as a “real reader”.

There are pages in this book that you could’ve handed to me before I read it, asked me who I thought the author was, and I might have responded, “Henry James?” Or someone of his era and disposition. So, yes, there is a murder, and we eventually get caught up in all the things I love about a good murder mystery: whodunit? why? which clues mean something?, etc., etc., but there’s also an undeniable focus on class distinctions, racial distinctions, family dynamics, and gender issues, all set against the backdrop of these exotic islands. So exotic are they, in fact, those from the mainland keep forgetting it’s a part of America. No, you don’t have to worry about converting foreign currency. No, you don’t have to learn another language. My one visit there led me to sympathize with these notions of being in a foreign land, because it really is like being in another country.

It takes a while, but finally, enter stage right: Charlie Chan. I didn’t remember from cartoon portrayals that he’s such an obese man, but obese he is. I guess this helps him loom larger than life, initially. Once you get to know him, though, he certainly doesn’t need girth to loom larger than life.

Again, I don’t know what I was expecting, a Chinese Sherlock Holmes? More likely than not, yes. But Chan is not a Chinese Sherlock Holmes. First of all, rather than being the center of attention, he’s almost a minor character. And he is far, far more patient than Holmes, not only with his “stupid” associates, but also with life in general. He’s a man who just calmly goes about solving mysteries, never racing to any locations, but being exactly where he needs to be when he needs to be there in order to receive the information that just comes his way, almost obedient to his expectation that it will. Meanwhile, he enjoys his life while waiting to receive such information.

I have to admit that I had my eyes wide open for early 20th-century racism to rear its ugly head. I’m sure (maybe that’s unfair, coming again from someone who’s judging without having been exposed to something) that the movie versions of Chan were full of it. Here, I was hard-pressed to find it. Yes, Charlie Chan speaks a very interesting version of English, but he speaks it eloquently and intelligently. He’s not portrayed as some strange “Chinaman” who “put pee-pee in your Coke” and who goes around with chopsticks ready to attack cats for dinner. He tends more toward that sage “Confucious say…” Chinese stereotype, but even there, he seems to draw a line and to come down to nothing more than a brilliant observer of East and West, an ability that serves him well in his profession. All I can say is, “Kudos to Bigger for being so far ahead of his time and place.” (Then again, I’m a white, Southern, Anglo-Saxon female. Those from different backgrounds – Chinese Americans, say – might heartily -- and have every right to -- disagree with me.)

One other thing I loved about the book was the humor. Bigger knew how to play off the weaknesses of the aristocracy, and he did so with such grace. It’s funny how often I’ve been surprised to find myself laughing out loud over the books we’ve read for this group. I love funny books. Why do I assume most murder mysteries won’t be funny? Is it because I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie? She’s not real funny, but you know, the likes of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald (or to make it more recent) Donald Westlake and Janet Evanovich sure knew/know how to make a reader laugh.

Finally, we get to the whodunit? itself (we always do, don’t we?). I love an author who can surprise me, and Earl Derr Biggers did. It isn’t that I didn’t quickly peg who I thought was the murderer, it’s just that I fell for the killer’s alibi until the end of the book when I was finally told how it didn’t hold up. I love a good mystery, especially one that does such a good job of surprising me and that includes a little romance on the side (I suppose, today, this book would be slotted into the "romantic mystery" genre, but, like any good book, it's so much more than that). Need I say I’d like to make Earl Derr Biggers a household name?

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Why, yes, here I am. Has anyone even noticed that I’ve been MIA? Probably not. Before I get started on this long-overdue post, I wanted to let those of you who don’t already know and who might be interested in my more contemplative side that I’ve got a new blog this year over here. I can't promise that I’m any better about writing there, though, than I am about writing here. I can promise that books play a major role, as they always do, no matter which side of me you’re encountering.

Now, I thought maybe some of you might be interested in a glimpse at a week in the life of a writer who is hard at work on the second draft of a novel. She’s been working on this second draft for well over a year, had been sure it would be done by now. This, she has discovered, is what happens when one writes the first draft constantly saying to herself, “Just get it down, get it down. You can look that up, work that out, fix that, etc., etc. when you get to the second draft.” (Okay, maybe this didn’t all happen in one week, but it’s sort of an “average” week and very easily could happen all in one week.)

Writer has just been informed by a high school swimmer that the high school swim season is in the fall. Writer could just pretend to ignore this fact, calling on “poetic license,” and could let her teenage character live in an area where swimming is a spring sport. After all, the book takes place in a town that doesn’t exist. Why couldn’t it have an imaginary swim season? But writer is anal retentive and always wants basic facts to be accurate. This necessitates a complete reorganization of the book, because a major episode in the book revolves around this teenager who is on the high school swim team.

“Thank God for computers that allow one to cut and paste. This shouldn’t be too difficult to do…Oh, wait a minute, if this section is moved here, and this section is moved there, then I’m going to have to change that whole boat section, since most people don’t go boating in Massachusetts in the middle of January. Oh, that’s perfect, the fight between [character A and character B] works much better now that it’s been moved. Oh, but wait a minute. Oh shit, [Character A] can’t be pissed at [Character B] for [Action C] when [Action C] hasn’t even happened yet. Damn! How am I going to fix that? Will it help to move Action C to Chapter 3? No, not unless I get rid of [Character C] in Chapter 3. But I don’t want to get rid of Character C in Chapter 3. That’s one of the best parts of Chapter 3. She deserves to stay. Hmmm…maybe if I cut this section, move that to Chapter 6, and add a bit here about why Character A and Character B won’t see eye to eye? There. Oh, hell, Chapter 3 is now 78 pages long, and Chapter 5 is only 3. Oh, and the vernal equinox has taken place in early August.” (It’s worse than one of those old-fashioned, uncreative, math “word problems” isn’t it?)

At which point, writer goes and pours herself another cup of coffee and decides to check Facebook and email and respond to neglected friends and family members.

No matter how difficult it is, writer is determined to sit at the computer, working on the second draft of the novel for at least two hours (the minimum she has allowed herself to put into it every day).

“Okay, I’ve got this figured out now. Just need to add a scene to Chapter 4 that will help Chapter 5 make sense.”

Writer opens her saved working outline of the book to see where this new scene might make sense in Chapter 4. The outline mysteriously stops after Chapter 3. The book has many more than 3 chapters.

“Huh?! What’s happened to my outline? I can’t work without my outline! Don’t tell me I accidentally cut a huge chunk of my outline and saved it that way.”

Writer resists the urge to cry, takes the deep breaths well-meaning friends always tell one to take in these situations. Anyone else notice that they rarely ever seem to do a damn bit of good? She scrolls up and down the document in the hopes that the rest of the outline will magically appear. Then, she looks at the title of the document and realizes it says “Outline 2.” It’s not The Outline, but rather, a confusing document she created when playing around with cutting and pasting the true outline. Writer is thrilled and immediately changes the name of “Outline 2” to avoid confusion in the future, then gets to work writing the new scene.

“Oh, I love that. This is perfect. I wonder why I didn’t think to put that in there when I was writing the first draft. This is gonna be so good!”


Writer is now reading the new scene she wrote yesterday.

“Huh? This makes absolutely no sense at all. [Character D] sounds like a robot. Nobody talks like that, and could [Character A] be any more of a cliché? “

Writer spends well over an hour rewriting the scene and still isn’t happy with it.

“Oh well, I’ll work on that in the third draft.”


You may be wondering what happened to Day 4. So is writer. On Day 4, there was a massive storm, and water began to pour through the light fixture in the upstairs bathroom. Writer and her husband had to find multiple buckets, mops, etc. and deal with the mess, which was an indication that the house needs a new roof. In the midst of that, one of the elderly members of husband’s congregation (did I mention he’s a minister?) went to have cataract surgery. His wife was supposed to drive him home after the surgery, but she got dizzy and passed out while waiting for him. The hospital wanted to admit her, but she insisted on going home, so they called the church (because their children couldn’t help) and minister and wife (because, you know, she’s just trying to write a novel and doesn’t have a real job) were enlisted to pick them and their car up to bring them home.

So, now it’s Day 5. Writer has gotten to a section in the first draft of the novel where she has a sticky note that says “Research post-partum depression.” She figured, when she stuck that sticky note there, that she’d just do a quick online search to see if what one of her characters was doing might be typical of someone suffering from post-partum depression. Writer goes online to discover that there’s postpartum depression and then there’s a very rare thing called postpartum psychosis, which seems to be the better diagnosis for her character.

“God, I don’t want her really to be that sick. She’s got to bounce back and be okay and return to the way she was when she was first married. What am I going to do?”

Writer spends her time doing more research than she’d wanted to have to do, then figures out how to keep her character just sick enough to be able to retain the key elements she needs to make the story work but not so sick that she drowns all 3 of her kids in the bathtub (a subplot that would ruin the book).


Writer spends half her time poring over details about the character with post-partum depression from the beginning of the book to make sure they make sense. Once satisfied, she begins rewriting and revising a relatively straightforward section of the book that doesn’t need many changes.

“This is so much fun. I love writing!”


Writer reaches a section she realizes needs about three extra scenes if it’s going to work now that she’s had to rearrange everything according to a different calendar. She looks to see if cutting and pasting other scenes and changing some of the details might work. Nope. In fact, she’s discovered that she just might have to delete some of those scenes (one of which she’s already re-written twice and now loves), because they don’t really make much sense anymore. She begins writing one of the new scenes and is completely dissatisfied and frustrated. She double checks to make absolutely certain there isn’t something she can just cut and paste and use here. Nothing. She gets up and does some yoga stretches. She sits back down and hates everything she’s written. Even though it’s only 10:30 a.m., she contemplates fixing herself a vodka gimlet.

“Now I know why Hemingway and Faulkner were alcoholics.”

Instead, she closes the laptop and picks up a book to read. Nothing like a little distance to get some perspective. Tomorrow, she’ll start again.

There you have it, all those of you who might wonder how an aspiring author spends her week. I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone who’s always dreamed of writing a novel and hasn’t begun yet. If I have, please reread "Day 6" and focus on that. For some reason, the ecstasy of that one day far outweighs all the agony of any of the others. What can I say? It's one of life's best highs, and you keep going waiting for the next one.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Do I Need Shoe Shopper's Anonymous?

Okay, forget all your preconceived notions of dowdy, matronly librarians. I happen to work in a library with six paid staff members, and only one of us is someone who just wears whatever is comfortable (casual pants and a casual top most of the time. To tell you the truth, I adore her, but I don’t pay that much attention to what she wears, so I can’t really describe it). The others? Oh my God! They make me feel like I need to start attending fashion shows. Each has her own style from Bohemian to funky to classic tweed, and they all pull it off beautifully.

I was beginning to feel a bit intimidated surrounded by all these glamour librarians (Ms. Musings and Zoe’s Mom, where are you when a gal needs a trip into Philly with personal shoppers?). Then, one of my colleagues came to the rescue. She’d been checking out books on fashion that we have in our countywide library system, and some of them looked quite good. I immediately began putting my own reserves on them and checked out a few that we actually had on our own shelves (she pooh-poohed these because they were all at least 7 years old – way too old for the truly chic).

My books all came in, and I began to read them. My two favorites were Wear This, Toss That by Amy E. Goodman (although I didn't always agree with her), and The Lucky Shopping Manual by Kim France and Andrea Linett (my colleague was wrong about being out of date when it comes to this book published in 2003. It has timeless, practical advice). I like these two because they’re heavily illustrated and have all kinds of great hints and tips. Also, neither one insists you define your “body type” and dress accordingly. Did I ever tell you about having my “colors" done back in the 1980s when that was all the rage? The woman who did it, ultimately couldn’t figure out if I was a “spring” or a “summer". Guess what. I have the same problem with body type. I guess I really did break some mold somewhere.

The Lucky Manual is terrific, because for each article of clothing, it provides a page of specific illustrations. I (who have never been very up on fashion terminology) could look at its dress page and know exactly what a “shift” is. I also like it, because for each article of clothing, it has a section that tells you how to build your closet for that item. It starts off, “You’re totally covered if you have…” letting you know which basic pieces you need and also what to add if, for instance, you’re “a gal who loves dresses.”

I’m busy thinking, “This is terrific!” It means I can shop my closet, streamline, get rid of what I don’t need, and buy those items that will keep me totally covered. Shopping with specific items in mind, as long as I can find them (and basics should be pretty easy to find) is far more appealing to me than aimlessly shopping, unless, of course, I’m shopping for shoes.

Which leads me to the shoe section. And this is when I realize that maybe I have a bit of a problem. Maybe I need to attend a shoe shoppers support group. I mean, up until I’d reached this section, I’d found the book to be so practical. “Okay, I need 2 good white tees, 2 good black ones, 4 tanks, 1 striped tee, and 1 henley (whatever that is) or polo. That I can do.” Then I began browsing the shoe section. Let’s just say, my blood pressure was on the rise.

Okay, first of all, it opens with this page that pictures a gorgeous array of shoes to illustrate what a platform or a clog or a flat or an ankle boot is (funnily enough, I have no problem with shoe terminology). I will forgive this section for not portraying a single sneaker or such classic footwear as topsiders or espadrilles. I mean, if we’re going to be told, basically, that we should never be caught dead in clunky athletic footwear outside the gym or off the running track – a sentiment with which, by the why, I happen to whole-heartedly agree – and should pair our tee shirts and shorts with a sleeker pair of sneakers or other casual shoes, well, you know, give us some pictures to show us what you mean. I guess I don’t sound too forgiving here, but, really, I was (how could I not forgive a book with such a gorgeous photo of shoes?) until I got to the “You’re totally covered if you have…” section.

My reaction to this section leads me to believe that when I attend that shoe shoppers support group, I will have to stand up and say, “My name is Emily. I am an acknowledged book slut, but, it seems, I am also a shoe slut.” I’ll probably never attend that meeting, though, because I’m quite sure I have valid reasons for thinking Lucky is just plain wrong when it comes to shoes.

The manual informs us that if it’s winter, here’s what we need to be totally covered:
2 pairs of knee boots (yes. That makes perfect sense. One brown, one black. Although, 4 is even better: one pair of flat black, and one pair of heeled black, and same in brown.)

1 pair of good office shoes (if you work in an office, you’re there 5 days a week. Say you wear your two pairs of boots two of those days and your good office shoes on the third – and who says you want to do that? Perhaps you’re not in a boot mood. Granted, not being in a boot mood has never happened to me, but it could, you know -- then, you wear your one pair of office shoes. Are you telling me you must wear two pairs of those shoes twice in one week, showing up to work on Friday in Mondays oh-so-tired-by-the-end-of-the-week boots?)

1 pair of evening shoes (okay, most winter evenings I’m rarely wearing anything other than pajama bottoms, a warm pullover, and slippers, so that makes sense)

1 pair of casual shoes (again, I ask, “One? Only one? I’m sorry, but I cannot be monogamous when it comes to casual shoes. I mean, think of all you have to choose from here: cowboy boots, ankle boots, clogs, loafers, ballet flats, and what about snow boots? I bet my friends in New York and New England won’t be wearing sneakers this weekend).

And that’s it, people. The book claims you’re totally covered with only 5 pairs of shoes for winter. Am I the only one gasping for air here? It goes on to say that “if the sky is raining shoes, add another pair of knee boots, ankle boots, and a flat office shoe.” Let’s not get distracted here by the idea of the sky raining shoes, which is a lovely image, isn’t it? If the sky were to open up and pour shoes, surely even I, who, when I was a kid, always came away from a broken piñata with about 3 pieces of candy, would be able to get around to collect enough pairs of shoes to have more than 8 in my winter wardrobe. Especially, since, you know, I’m not one who is comfortable doing her workout videos in knee boots, and I don’t see athletic shoes mentioned anywhere in the “totally covered” list.

Here’s what I supposedly need to be totally covered for summer:

2 pairs of good office shoes (even fewer choices in summer for the office than in winter. The sexist in me assumes your male colleagues probably won’t notice, but can’t you just hear your female colleagues referring to you as “that woman who wears the same shoes all the time”?).

1 pair of good flat sandals (surely this is a misprint. They meant 3, right?).

1 pair of flip flops (oh, good grief. Flip flops cost about as much as a pack of Lifesavers, and certainly I need one pair in each of the five flavors).

I pair of strappy, sexy sandals (again. How could you ever decide on one color? If I own only black or white, it seems I find myself choosing a dress that screams for a pair of red or silver or light pink).

If it’s a summer thunderstorm of shoes (and they don’t pour down with scorch marks all over them), I can add more strappy sandals (oh, good. Hello, red, silver, pink, and green) and some light-colored office shoes.

Again, I ask you, where are the sneakers? I don’t know about you, but I must have at least 2 pairs of cute sneakers (not athletic shoes, mind you, but sneakers) for summer. I’m just not into the strappy, sexy sandals and shorts look at my age. I may be a shoe slut, but I certainly don’t want to look like one.

Okay, so tell me, do I need help? 16 pairs of shoes for one year just isn’t enough for me. Also, I forgot to mention the fact that I will happily wear an impulse buy once or twice and decide to get rid of it once I discover that I’m hobbling around like an ancient Chinese bride after they’ve been on my feet for 3 hours. Perhaps I’m just one of those gals whose hormones are a little different. I need 40 pairs of shoes when others need only 16. Does that make me such a bad person? As Rizzo, in Grease, might sing, “There are worse things I could do than go with a pair of shoes or two (or 40).” While I ponder all this, I think I’ll take my DSW coupon and head off to see what they’ve gotten in since I was last there.