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August 15, 2014

The Book that Changed Your Life

This post was inspired by the wonderful Colin Dexter (author of the “Inspector Morse” series), who wrote recently on a book that changed him.

It’s a terrific topic, though as Dickens Death Scenes go, my floodgates open widest for Smike in Nicholas Nickleby. (I am swayed, in truth, by the play: David Thewlis, as Smike, gave one of the most vivid, harrowing performances I’ve ever seen. It’s on Youtube, but make sure you opt for the Royal Shakespeare Company production.)

If I had to pick the Dickens novel that made the biggest impression on me, though, the nod would go to Our Mutual Friend. Which I’ve never read. I was in college, taking the first of what I imagined would be four years of English classes, but I couldn’t get through the damn thing. This was particularly odd because I had read almost all of Dickens before I was 15: My parents had a handsome set in the living-room bookshelf – tooled leather bindings, lovely yellowing pages, that wonderful Old Book smell – and I spent endless hot, airless summer afternoons greedily reading my way through them. But the minute the book turned from a joy into a requirement, the minute I was expected to spit out lists of themes, analyses of social commentary, papers on “The Role of the River in Dickens’ London”…I became unable to read it. And I suddenly realized, with a certainty that I had rarely experienced, that English classes would ruin reading for me. I dropped that one, faked my way through another on Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg, and ran like a refugee into the sheltering arms of the Sociology department. PHEW. Dodged that bullet.

Our Mutual Friend, then, directly influenced my course of study. But when it comes to books that influenced my course of thought…two occur to me: The Naked Hamlet, by Joseph Papp; and Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie. The first was another of the books that was knocking around my parents’ living room. It was a published version of the production handbook that Papp kept while creating his groundbreaking (and critically reviled) production of Hamlet, in 1967, starring Martin Sheen. At the time, of course, it was both fashionable and important to question, rip apart, and (maybe) reassemble anything considered iconic. Much of the time, this “deconstruction” was conducted with little more than blunt instruments and a sense of anarchic release, but Papp was meticulous; no detail was too small to be considered, tried, weighed, analyzed. By the time I got ahold of the book, in about 1974, the production was long gone, but this was the first time I had been given access to the process of creating art – to the process of creating anything, really – and it was intoxicating. It told me what I wanted to do. I wanted to create.

I was quite a bit older by the time I landed on Foreign Affairs. Lurie won the Pulitzer for it in 1985, so I would have been in my mid-20s, mired in a depressing, insufficiently successful acting career, and with any number of affairs under my own belt. The affairs were, in their way, rather more depressing than the acting career, because I cared so much less about them. I knew they were supposed to matter, one way or another, but…they didn’t. And I felt rather clueless as to what I was meant to be feeling. There were plenty of books and magazines on hand to teach me about young love, but none of the lessons really resonated.

The one that did, at last, was about people well into middle age. Even more astonishing, they were not particularly attractive. Vinnie Miner is a short, stumpy academic, with a case of self-absorbed resentment so well developed that she imagines it as a grubby, inconvenient dog that insists on following her around. Chuck, a lumbering Midwesterner down on his luck, with vulgar vowels and an even uglier raincoat, is the fool who loves Vinnie. The hallmark of his foolishness is that he somehow fails to see how small she is, insisting on seeing her as bigger-hearted, braver, better than she is. And because he loves her, she becomes the person he believes her to be.

I reread Foreign Affairs every five years or so. It makes me cry and reaffirms my faith in the possibility of change.

What books have changed you?

Paper Chase, by Bob Cook

August 14, 2014

You Think You Knew from Oldies?

When my mother died, she left behind a vast, pirate’s hoard of costume jewelry, almost all of it purchased from the Home Shopping Network at about 2:30 in the morning. I hated the jewelry, partly because I thought it was garish and ugly and badly made – which it is – and partly because it seemed to me to be visible evidence of my mom’s unhappiness. It was junk she had bought in an attempt to fill the hole that could not be filled, as if by piling sparkle on glitter on gleam she could beat back the smoggy darkness that too often clogged her head.

I hated the stuff so much that I was ready to throw it away, just toss all of it, until cooler heads prevailed and persuaded me to sell some of it on Ebay (you’d be surprised to know what you can get for a Kenneth Jay Lane cocktail ring) and donate the rest to a non-profit that outfits low-income women for job interviews. They loved the bling. There’s nothing like a pink enamel ladybug to perk up a respectable grey suit.

I was pleased to get the Ebay dough, and considerably more pleased to help the job-seekers, but I still hated the jewelry. I suppose it looked to me like a twinkling mass of accusation: If only I had been a better daughter my mother wouldn’t have been so unhappy, and would not have felt the need to buy all this shiny crap. She even bought a couple ugly, badly made, HSN-exclusive chests of drawers to hold all the dreadful stuff.

I was moaning about the jewelry one day to my business partner, Kiz, who is rather a jewelry-hound herself, though she favors carved jade and antique beads and beautiful handmade settings. And she said something that shut me up mid-moan. “I never really looked at your mom’s jewelry,” said Kiz, “but she always looked so snappy. She never did that depressing Old Lady thing of wearing the droopy beige sweaters and the SupHose. It was always a party when she walked in.”

Yes it was, and with that one comment, my opinion of The Jewelry turned 180 degrees. I suddenly saw it not as the detritus of desperation, but as a form of war-paint, as the flag she waved and trumpet she blew in her battle against diminishment. Gaudy? Loud? You betcha. And if you don’t like it, too damn bad for you.

How did I get onto this topic? Robin Williams had something to do with it; I was thinking about how hard it is to fight depression, and how often depression wins. Churchill famously called it the Black Dog, but I think of it more as the Black Fog, a pestilence in the air that poisons every breath, every thought, every pleasure. My mom seems to have chosen, as her weapons, pink enameled ladybugs, vast quantities of Swarovski crystals, and the entirety of the Joan Rivers Collection.

But as Kiz so astutely pointed out, depression wasn’t the only thing my mom was fighting: She was also up against old age – her experience of it, her assumptions about it, the world’s assumptions about it. I waded through half of this article by Penelope Lively before concluding that even the best writers can benefit from an editor. She makes some good points up front, though, and I particularly liked “Old age is forever stereotyped,” with the options ranging from “the smiling old dear” to “the grumbling curmudgeon,” with not many stations in between. It’s as though geezers come in two flavors: “Jesus loves you,” and “Get offa my lawn!”

Lively offers up some suggestions for books that offer a more nuanced portrait of old folks (and I give a very enthusiastic thumbs up to Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori). With a theme of old age in mind, I sifted through the F&M list, to see what we might have to bring to the conversation. One title in particular leapt out: Paper Chase, by Bob Cook.

The four decrepit spies at the heart of the story would be appalled to see themselves described as geezers – but then, they rather enjoy being appalled, and the late 20th century is giving them many opportunities for enjoyment. Top of their Appalling list is undoubtedly the Director, the jumped-up puppy who has taken charge of Her Majesty’s security services. Brown shoes! The man wears brown shoes! And his Latin is an embarrassment. Also, he is extremely rude.

The spies would be a delight if things stopped here – a delight but, as Lively would undoubtedly point out, also rather a cliché, fussy, Blimp-ish old duffers stuffed with their own self-importance and their yearning for an England that never really was. But things take a wonderfully antic turn when the four decide – by way of sticking a collective thumb in the eye of the Director – to write their memoirs, and glorious tales of Bond-style derring-do come racketing off the printing press. You thought you knew from Oldies? Think again.


August 12, 2014

The French Lieutenant’s Language

More on accuracy of language in historical fiction. The following is an excerpt from a Granta article by John Fowles, called “The French Lieutenant’s Diary,” about writing the novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It comes to us courtesy of the very generous and thoughtful Annamaria Alfieri.

“I am writing The French Lieutenant’s Woman at the moment and reading Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton [first published in 1848] at the same time. Her dialogue is much more ‘modern’ than mine – full of contractions and so on. Yet in order for me to convey the century that has passed since the time of the book I am right to invent dialogue much more formal than the Victorians actually spoke. This gives the illusion better. In a sense an absolutely accurate Victorian dialogue would be less truthful than what I am doing.”

Now that’s an interesting idea. What do you think?

Bertie and the Crime of Passion, by Peter Lovesey

August 11, 2014

Felonies of the Week: the “Bertie” mysteries, by Peter Lovesey

Readers who’ve been around for a while may remember the original movie of “Miracle on 34th Street,” a sticky little Christmas story (though not nearly as ickily sticky as some of the treacle that Hollywood would go on to shovel out). One of the key roles is Santa Claus, Auld Beardie hisself, played by the British actor Edmund Gwenn (who won an Oscar for it). Gwenn in fact had a wide-ranging career, playing everything from Chekhov (with Katherine Cornell and Judith Anderson) to Hitchcock films, but he is best remembered as a fairly classy comedian. Gwenn died in 1959, and there’s a story – probably apocryphal, but it’s a swell story – that a friend came to see him in the hospital. Gwenn was lying there, festooned with tubes, surrounded by beeping monitors, and the friend was overcome. “Oh Ed,” said Friend, “Gosh, this is…I’m so sorry. Dying must be so hard.”

Gwenn thought about this for a moment. “Dying is hard,” he said. “Comedy is harder.”

There are many versions of that line – and, indeed, many versions of the story, some of which do away with Gwenn altogether and substitute actors from Edmund Kean to Groucho Marx. But the underlying point never changes: Funny is really hard work.

I’m thinking of this because I’ve been musing for some time now on why certain genres of fiction get more and less respect. Over the weekend I read a piece in the Guardian, which I’ll be posting shortly, on historical fiction – a genre that tends to get sniffed at a fair amount. The widespread belief, says Hillary Mantel, is that it’s essentially “chick-lit in wimples.”

Leaving aside the jaw-dropping…leaving aside the distressing aspect of a woman referring disdainfully to “chick-lit” (you don’t want to know what I think of women who call themselves and other women “bitches”), here’s my question: “Chick-lit” is assumed to deal with “light” themes (you know, the stuff that preoccupies the little ladies). And it’s often funny, or tries to be. Why does it get dissed so badly? I’ll repeat: FUNNY IS REALLY HARD WORK. And GOOD funny…is right up there on the list of the world’s blessings, alongside baby kitties and cheeseburgers and naps. Funny deserves some respect.

And the wimples? You know that famous line about Ginger Rogers doing everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels? Well you try being funny while wearing a wimple. Or a corset and eight-button kid gloves. Lightweight requires heavy lifting, and triple that if you’ve grafted a historical theme on top of the hee-hee-hees.

In honor thereof, let us present two Felonies of the Week: Peter Lovesey’s deliciously silly (and lightweight. And funny) “Bertie” mysteries, in which the longtime Prince of Wales (would Queen Victoria ever pop her clogs???) plays sleuth. Villains everywhere were quaking in their boots. Not.

This week only, 25% off Bertie and the Crime of Passion and Bertie and the Seven Bodies. Cheapest giggles in town.

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August 8, 2014

Cozy Mysteries: The Class Element

“If you’ve got a cozy mystery, and a dog is introduced, readers’ first question is, ‘Does the dog die?’ They never ask about a cat. They know that the first rule of cozies is: The Cat Never Dies.” – K.B. Inglee, mystery writer

Cozies are the Rodney Dangerfield of the mystery world, apparently in the bathroom when the respect was ladled out. And one of the many aspects to their low-status status? They tend most often to be defined in terms of what they are not. Thus, cozies are not dark or gritty or sexy. There’s no graphic violence in a cozy, or language that would distress your granny, or upsetting things like rape or child-abuse. The protagonist is not a professional sleuth (i.e., not a cop or a private-eye), and there are no mean streets.

That’s fine. But I wanted to know what cozies ARE.

Happily, I had come to the right place: The “cozy mysteries” panel discussion at last week’s Deadly Ink mystery conference, in New Brunswick, NJ. Author Ilene Schneider’s claim that cozies are the books “you can read before you go to sleep…and still go to sleep” may have been clever, but ultimately it just restated the old-school “what they aren’t” definition: Cozies are the books that won’t stress you out.

Gradually, though, the writers came to a “what they are” consensus: Cozies are set in a world you want to visit. And what makes that world so appealing? Steve Rigolosi was the first to throw out a really meaningful suggestion: CozyLand is friendly. All the relationships, perhaps even people’s relationships with the bad guy, are warm, generous, laced with humor. Even brief transactions are pleasantly personal: The pharmacist compliments your tie, the sheriff teases you about your second-place finish in last week’s pie-eating contest.

Mind you, there is a sheriff. The violence may take place “offstage,” with someone bustling onto the scene to announce the Doc Phillpot’s been found strangled, but it does take place. These are cozy mysteries, after all. But that lone bit of nastiness acts like a pickle on a burger, the little touch of tang that serves to highlight the pillowy pleasures.

At this point, it might be possible to describe a cozy as “The Waltons” plus a dead body, but that’s not quite right. Peggy Erhart may protest that she doesn’t really write cozies, but in tossing out the word “upscale,” she nevertheless supplied one of the key missing elements. CozyLand is appealing because, baby, there’s money there.

Not necessarily buckets of it: Virginia Rich’s Mrs. Potter has rather a lot of dosh (and a house in Maine, another on Nantucket, and a ranch in Arizona), and Simon Brett’s glorious Melita Pargeter has no need to stint on the champers, but for the most part, CozyLand is solidly middle-class. Houses are clean and comfortable, with plenty of extra bedrooms and home-baked snacks for unexpected guests. The school bake-sale, the community theater, the local bookshop, teashop and orchestra all do booming business. Cars have both their taillights, townsfolk have all their teeth, and minor antiques, discreet jewelry and cashmere twinsets are on comfortable, constant display. By hitting this upper-middle sweet spot, cozies steer readers between two sets of obstacles, between the anxieties of real poverty and the lousy options that go along with it, and the yearning resentment that we tend to feel toward the really rich. A visit to CozyLand would not be soothing if it pressed our noses against a view of what it’s like to be dead-broke in 21st-century America. Nor would it be soothing if it meant hobnobbing with the likes of Thurston Howell III. Nope, upper-middle is the right class for CozyLand. There’s a slice of homemade cake with your name on it, served up on a pretty china plate.

All of this left me wondering, how important is that class element in creating a satisfying cozy? Could you create a desperately impoverished community that nevertheless embodied all the warmth and humor that cozy-readers look for, and hit the necessary buttons? Could you set a cozy on Catfish Row, or in a hardscrabble immigrant community? The world of cozies is full of sub-genres – culinary cozies, crafting cozies. Would it be possible to create a ghetto-cozy?

Interestingly, I had my most substantive discussion about this with two writers – Michael Rubin and KB Inglee – who in fact write historical fiction, rather than anything in the cozy line. Both of them were pretty well convinced that a poverty-cozy could work, but particularly if it were set in the past. Inglee specializes in the Colonial period, so that’s where her imagination went, and though Rubin’s most recent book has a Civil War setting (and he’s primarily a legal scholar), he thought a P-C might be particularly well suited to the period right after World War I, before drugs and the related violence had made serious inroads into poor communities, but also before the Depression’s real devastation had stripped from these communities so much of the expectation of a bright tomorrow, an expectation that is at the heart of a good cozy.

With that expectation in mind, I’m going to revert to the “what it isn’t” definition and say that a real cozy is profoundly lacking in cynicism. And it’s precisely that quality of unshaded optimism, of conviction that we will feel better after a sandwich and a nap, that makes it so hard, I think, to conceive of setting a cozy mystery in one of today’s truly poor communities. The great scholar (and apparently lousy husband) Paul Fussell famously claimed that World War I made irony the dominant mode of thought in the 20th century, and while I would not presume to date anything so closely, I do have a sense that sometime during the last hundred years it became impossible, in this country, to be genuinely poor and still believe – full-throatedly – in the promise of a better tomorrow. And without that belief…without that belief, I don’t think you have a cozy.

What do you think? Is class essential to a satisfying cozy? Could a “ghetto-cozy” work today? Could it work at all?


August 6, 2014

The Mystery of History: Inspired by the Deadly Ink Conference

I spent the weekend at the Deadly Ink mystery conference, in New Brunswick, NJ. The programs at mystery conferences tend to revolve around panel discussions, and all too often these discussions take the form of very thinly disguised sales pitches. Not my idea of a good time. (On the other hand, I used to go to a lot of financial-services conferences, and the panel discussions there suffered from the same problem. I’d rather listen to people pitch mystery novels than mutual funds, any day.)

To my delighted astonishment, the panels at DInk (hee! Dink!) actually featured thoughtful discussion, with a minimum of And then I wrote… I was only able to attend two, but they were both remarkably interesting. The first was on historical mysteries, and historical fiction in general, and much of the conversation concerned the problem of what moderator Roberta Rogow calls “writing foresoothly” – using language that may in fact be accurate to the period in question, but sounds awkward to the modern ear. That awkwardness may simply sound like the author is trying too hard (I remember tossing a book in disgust when the opening sentence read “It was eleven of the clock…”). It may also sound, or read, like an anachronism: One of the examples given concerned the phrase “I got the drop on him.” It almost certainly referred, originally, to dueling or gunfights: If you drop your weapon (aim it) before your opponent drops his, you can get off the first shot. More generally, it has come to mean an advantage, and though the phrase certainly dates back to the 19th century, at the very least, something about its staccato rhythm, its easy fit as a rap-lyric, makes it sound considerably more contemporary. If you’re writing a novel set in the 19th century, having your protagonist say “I got the drop on him” may in fact be accurate, but it will sound like you haven’t done your research.

Another question that came up was the extent to which it is cricket to play fast and loose with historical facts. The response to this question really ran the gamut, with some writers (Richard Belsky, I’m looking at you!) claiming “It’s fiction, so everything’s fair game,” and others staking out a radically different position (Roberta Rogow says she feels “a little guilty” about changing the day of the week on which a labor riot actually occurred in 1886). (I should note that she feels this way even thought she writes “speculative fiction,” or “alternative history,” with her current series predicated on the premise that the Moors retained control of Spain.)

For what it’s worth, and without having devoted a great deal of thought to the topic, it seems to me that there’s a difference between messing with historical events, and messing with the people who actually lived through them. It’s one thing, for example, to create a world in which Germany won the First World War, and something very different to create a world in which movie star Mary Pickford was acting as a spy for the Kaiser. Events, wars, don’t have feelings to be hurt, they don’t have descendants to be distressed by the false notion that Great-Grandma was a German spy. I think if your World War I novel needs a spying movie star, you should call her Mary Bickford or Phyllis McGillicuddy, and then make her as evil and duplicitous as you want. To insist on the Mary Pickford moniker, it seems to me, is nothing but a marketing gimmick, deployed at the expense of an actual person. While libel laws may say otherwise, I don’t believe that celebrity – one’s status as a “public figure” – requires one to forfeit the rights to decency that, in my world (speculative or otherwise), humanity inherently confers. What do you think?


August 5, 2014

Felony of the Week: City of Silver, by Annamaria Alfieri

One of the most thoughtful participants on the “historical mysteries” panel at the Deadly Ink conference, which I attended this past weekend, was Annamaria Alfieri, whose first novel, City of Silver, has a very proud place on the Felonious list. City is set in 17th-century Peru, and after two more forays into South America, Alfieri has now begun writing about British East Africa in the period just before World War I. She clearly has a jones for days gone by.

And for unusual settings – none of your Victorian London, villainous Nazis, or Regency-era rakehells, thank you very much. What on earth had compelled her to write a novel set in Potosi, a city that may once have been the largest and wealthiest on earth (true!) but that no one today has ever heard of? The answer lies in a similar question: Alfieri and her husband were traveling in the mountains of South America, and a guide took them to what he said was once the region’s most spectacular convent, home to the wealthiest of cloistered Spanish noblewomen. Alfieri’s husband was confounded. “This place is barren rock,” he said, “a zillion feet above sea level, and a jillion miles from Spain. It might as well be the far side of the moon. Why would a rich Spanish noblewoman join a convent here?”

The question lodged in Alfieri’s head like an earworm; she couldn’t shake it. And eventually she answered it by creating six nuns at the Petosi convent, each of whom had a different reason for having chosen the far side of the moon.

Want the answer? This week only, you can get it cheap: 25% off on the mesmerizing City of Silver.

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Want to learn more about the book? See also our two-part video interview with Anamaria Alfieri.

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July 23, 2014

Words, Words, Words: Another Take on the Ruth Snyder Case

Like many readers I know, I’m typically in the middle of approximately a jillion books. Actually, for me it tends to be a jillion times two – one jillion being books and manuscripts I’m reading with an eye to possible publication, and the second jillion being books I’m reading for pleasure. The latter category features a lot of non-fiction, but don’t get me wrong: I’m a novel-reader from way back. It’s just that after all the time I spend in fictional worlds, I start to need a break.

As I mentioned earlier, Martin Booth’s wonderful memoir, Goldenboy, is currently at the top of my pile. The No. 2 spot, though, goes to One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson; I’m about three-quarters of the way through. I am a shameless Bryson junkie. Every few years I reread both In a Sunburned Country and A Walk in the Woods (about, respectively, his trips to Australia and his experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail as a middle-aged fat guy), just for the pleasure of hanging out with such a funny, smart, dyspeptic fella, and every single time I find myself wheezing with laughter at the same scenes.

One Summer is neither as funny nor as peevish as some of his other books, and it features rather more about both aviation and baseball than I really want to wade through. (In fairness, by choosing 1927, Bryson bought himself a year that essentially starred Charles Lindbergh, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth: Aviation and baseball were pretty much a given.) There are, however, some fascinating supporting players, including Sacco and Vanzetti, the extremely odd Calvin Coolidge (he liked to dress up in a cowboy outfit at every possible opportunity), and – the reason for this post – Ruth Snyder, who with her lover was convicted of perpetrating what newspapers called the “Crime of the Century.”