NEW ORLEANS – A CITY OF MYSTERY, MAGIC, HISTORY AND THE WORLD WAR II MUSEUM

 

Francine Paino

Written by Francine Paino

 

New Orleans is known for many things.  It is a city of magic, mystery and a creole culture. New Orleans offers fabulous Cajun food, jazz and traditions born of hundreds of years of French, Spanish and American influences melding to create one of the most exciting cities in the U.S.

 

February marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras culture of masks, beads, and jazz music on every corner and in the streets, and the closer it gets to Fat Tuesday, the more frenzied the partying becomes.

 

Somewhat out of character in this atmosphere, however, New Orleans has a very sobering institution. Surrounded by the city’s distinctive and ornate French architecture, surrounded by the mysterious atmosphere, and surrounded by celebrations and festivities, stands a stately monument.

Flying the Stars and Stripes, high above its roof, is the National World War II Museum. Visitors who take time off from the city’s fun events to come here experience the sacrifices made by so many in defense of other nations, as well as our own.

A 2017 TripAdvisor rated the World War II Museum the number one attraction in New Orleans, and number two in the world.  Again, in 2018, it was rated one of the top ten museums in the world.

Well planned, the museum’s design provides immersive exhibits, multimedia experiences, and a vast collection of artifacts. Spanning the nation’s pre-war domestic manufacturing, preparation to enter the war, and its industrial efforts on the home front once the U.S. entered the conflict, the exhibits pay attention to the women on the home front who took over the industrial work when the men were sent overseas.

Upon entering the museum, one looks up to see a  C- 47 transport plane suspended on cables. The C-47 carried many of the young men sent to fight and die in Europe and Southeast Asia. Beneath this plane is a Nazi anti-aircraft gun, the type used to shoot down the C-47s, and alongside the gun is an Andrew Higgins landing craft.

Throughout the museum, there are displays of weapons, the soldiers’ back packs, communication equipment, and first-person oral histories, as well as unique immersive exhibits—all included in the admission price.  One interactive exhibit is The Dog Tag Experience, which encourages visitors to choose a soldier from the kiosk of registered combatants and follow him through the war.

For those who prefer to go from exhibit to exhibit on their own, the displays are labeled and arranged to move the viewer from event to event, but also included in the admission price are guided tours.

These guides are well versed in the areas they cover, and they provide the details and connective tissue that turn specific events into full histories.

Then there is the 4D movie. Shown on a panoramic screen, and narrated by Tom Hanks, Beyond All Boundaries covers the epic story of WW II. The film is a very intense experience and not recommended for young children.

Although there are many stories of inspiration and courage, all war is hell, as is clearly shown here. No one sane wants it, but in the words of the first president of the United States, in his first annual address to Congress, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” (George Washington, January 8, 1790) To that point, there is an exhibit board displaying how unprepared the U.S. was in 1941. Japan had 1,700,000 men in uniform, Germany had 3,180,000, and the U.S. had 335,000.

In a separate pavilion, connected by an indoor bridge are two roads. Each one occupies a full floor. One takes the visitor on the combat road to Berlin, starting with the battles in North Africa, and the other, on the road to Tokyo, weaves in and out of the island fights in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

New Orleans was selected for the museum because it is the city in which Andrew Higgins built the landing craft used in the amphibious invasions.  As the Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower believed the landing craft was one of the five essential inventions that helped win the war. New Orleans is better known, however, for its free spirit, fun, food, music, multicultural events, and Mardi Gras festival.  Having the museum here is a solemn reminder that the freedoms and celebrations we enjoy carry a hefty price tag.

The men and women who paid the price in the mid-twentieth century are almost gone. One day soon, all that will be left to tell future generations what happened to the world between 1932 and 1945 are these stories of the citizen soldiers, the men and women who fought the battles in Europe and the Pacific, and the odds they faced. Their records, personal oral histories, and photographs taken by military photographers in real-time ensure that they will be remembered forever.

The World War II museum is comprehensive, and it is not possible to see and experience everything it has to offer in one day. Nonetheless, any amount of time spent there is worth the price of admission.

Interview with Bonnar Spring

by. V.P. Chandler

For today’s blog post I’m interviewing writer Bonnar Spring. Her debut book, Toward The Light, has just been released and it’s already receiving great reviews!

VPC– Hello, Bonnar! First things first. Congratulations of your debut novel! And secondly, I’ve heard that you were raised in Texas. Where are you from? (As a Texan I’m obligated to ask that question. LOL)

Bonnar: I grew up in Beaumont, Texas, where my dad’s family has lived forever. He was a chemical engineer and so was his father. Until I was a teenager, I though all dads were engineers who worked at the refineries!

VPC– That’s so cute. It’s funny how our world views are formed when we’re young. So tell me about the book. It sounds exciting!

Bonnar– Luz Concepcion returns to Guatemala to murder Martin Benavides, the man who destroyed her family. Benavides rose from guerrilla leader to president, and now runs a major drug network. Assisted by the CIA, who has its own reasons for eliminating him, Luz gets a job as nanny to Benavides’ grandson, Cesar. Her plans unravel when she gets caught up in the world of drug traffickers and revolutionaries and falls in love with an expat who keeps as many secrets as she does—and with Cesar, a lonely boy whose world will be ripped apart if Luz succeeds in her mission.

VPC- Everyone asks authors this question, how did you get the idea for the story?

Bonnar: Yeah  🙂 . . . well, in my case, it’s sorta convoluted. Here’s the short version to give the idea and then, I hope, conclude before your readers’ eyes glaze over: Imagine a cocktail party years ago when the Middle East was in turmoil. (Okay, when is it not!) But this happened when a certain dictator was pushing all our buttons, and the conversation turned to a question much on our minds at the time of when/if was it acceptable to kill someone evil, someone who was the leader of another country (Yeah, could’ve been ripped right from 2020 headlines!).

Questions swirled: If you could you do something like that, should you? It started to feel like a personal, moral compass moment: What would I do? And then—how would I make decisions if I was in a situation where all my choices going forward were bad choices?

I’ve worked for many years with refugees and immigrants. In that time, I’ve heard countless stories about hardship, war, fear, family, and escape. I began to think about framing the idea as a story.

I know nothing more than I read in the news about the Middle East, so I transposed the setting to Central America, where I’ve often traveled. It has a similarly tumultuous history of strongmen, violent political factions, corruption, and drugs. The settings in Toward the Light are fictionalized versions of real places in Guatemala.

VPC– I’ve read that you’ve received some nice reactions to the book. It was on the list of Apple Books “Winter’s Most Anticipated Reads” list! I was also impressed that Hank Phillippi Ryan and Hallie Ephron have given it their stamp of approval. Brava!

Bonnar– You know, people say all the time how generous the writing community is. Hank’s and Hallie’s willingness to read the ARC and write a blurb are good examples. I’d met them a few times at MWA events, but it’s not like we were buddies or anything. So I emailed and asked – and both said yes. In fact, I think I sent out about 12 emails in total asking for early readers to write blurbs. Of those, all but 2 or 3 wrote back. A couple of authors were busy with life/books and begged off. The others, including several authors whose books I’d read and enjoyed but never corresponding with, also agreed.

Apple’s “Winter’s Most Anticipated Reads” – now that was a complete delightful surprise!

VPC– So now that it’s been out for about a month and you’ve been at book events, what has it been like? Any surprises? Anything you’ve learned? Any advice for other writers when they go on tour?

Bonnar– Setting up book events is still a little scary, but once I get to a bookstore or library and start talking, signings have been more fun than I expected. I’m not a very outgoing human. I’ve taught at the college level for many years, though, and have a ‘teacher’ persona I can dredge up when necessary. I was initially worried that wouldn’t happen with book stuff, because these events are all about my story, my characters, and me in a much different way than standing in front of a class and talking about gerunds.

Questions that have surprised me so far: Have you ever been to Guatemala? (Seriously? The answer is yes—I don’t know how else I’d have the nerve to write about it.)

And: How much money do you make? (I dodge that one/ The answer is “probably not much,” but I say, “I won’t know anything for months!”)

VPC- So I’ve heard that you’ve been very busy with more writing. You’ve written two more novels?

Bonnar– Yes, I have two other completed mss. One is another international thriller and the other is a mystery. Because I revise endlessly, it will be a while before either is ready to send out into the world.

VPC– Any other advice for writers of thrillers and mysteries?

Bonnar– Being asked to give advice when I’m still so new at this makes me smile. I learned early on what works for one person doesn’t necessarily fit all sizes!

That said, careful editing was invaluable for me in landing an agent and then a book deal. As I said a minute ago, revision is crucial to polishing a ms. It’s not ‘done’ the first time you type The End. Keep at it (put it down for a few months if necessary to return with fresh eyes) until you’ve smoothed out all those not-quite-right spots that nag at you, until the sequence of scenes and transitions is clear, until you’ve eliminated your “filler” words. Btw, my biggest offenders are just, actually, also, and somehow.

VPC– I’m always forgetting about my filler words. Thanks for the reminder! And thank you for granting my request for an interview!

Bonnar– I’ve enjoyed our virtual meeting so much, Valerie!

            VPC– And I’d like to tell all of the people in the Austin area that if you’d like to meet Bonnar, she’ll be at Malvern Books on March 4, 7pm-9pm. Come on by and see her and buy her book!

Tell Me a Story!

by Helen Currie Foster

P.D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction, 2009

“Tell me a story,” begs the child.

“Tell me a story about before you met me,” the lover entreats the loved one.

“Tell me the story about how you met,” we ask the new couple.

“Tell me the scariest moment,” the reporter demands of the returning explorer.

“Tell me a story,” we whisper to the books on the library shelf.

After an astounding career as master of detective fiction, P. D. James finished Talking about Detective Fiction in 2009, when she was nearly ninety. This small but hugely thoughtful book touches many topics: the history of detective fiction, authorial arguments over point of view and whether or not the murderer can be a protagonist, variants in the genre. Then James tackles the importance of setting, the importance of character, and the importance of plot.

As to setting: “If we believe in the place we can believe in the characters.” She notes that one function of the setting is to add credibility to a story. For James, credibility is particularly needed for crime fiction, which often offers not just dramatic but bizarre or horrific events. (This this immediately brought to mind Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike series, including The Silkworm.) According to James, “My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character.” She says her Devices and Desires was born when she stood on a deserted beach in East Anglia, then turned and saw the vast outline of a nuclear power station.

Character: her characters “grow like plants” while she’s writing but still bring surprises, so that “at the end, no matter how carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned.”

As to why people love this genre? For the story. For the story! Here she quotes E.M. Forster:

“‘We are all like Scheherazade’s husband in that we want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story….Qua story, it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.’” [E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel]

Our mystery genre has at its heart, of course, a mystery, and we know that by the end it will be solved, more or less. Of course, we readers relish solving the mystery, but, as James says of herself, if that were the only attraction, we wouldn’t reread our old favorites. Which many of us do.

Why do we reread? Not just for the solution, but for the story. Once upon a time there was [a character] who lived in [a setting] and one day, a [terrible awful amazing startling promising exciting bizarre weird shocking hilarious unexpected] thing happened. And what do you think happened next?

We can’t wait. Bring it on. Because we want a story, in a setting we believe in, even if surprising, so we believe in the characters, and––even when we’re re-reading an old favorite–– we want to keep turning the pages so we can know what happens next.

Thank you, P. D. James, for this rich small book, and for all your books with their settings, characters, plot intricacies…and story.

Favorite Fictional Detectives

During a recent panel event at BookPeople on private detective fiction, we were asked to list some of our favorite characters in print and television/movies.  While it was difficult to narrow down, here are a few of my few favorites.  If you haven’t read Lisa Lutz, Sara Paretsky or Laura Lippman, I hope you’ll make a beeline for your favorite bookstore and give one (or all) of them a read.  I think you just may find your next favorite series.

Isabel (Izzy) Spellman: Isabel Spellman has been described as “the love child of Dirty Harry and Harriet the Spy,” which is one of the many reasons I love this character. As a licensed investigator in her family’s firm, she’s extremely capable and sharp, even as she navigates the pitfalls that come from working with her dysfunctional family. Her cleverness has an edge that keeps me turning the pages, and her sarcasm always sticks the landing. 

Tess Monaghan:  I discovered Tess during a time when my career required a great deal of travel. I picked up Baltimore Blues and never looked back. Tess’s investigative journalism background and her balance of strength and compassion compelled me to continue with the series. Laura Lippman gives us such a layered and authentic view of Baltimore through Tess’s eyes. And Tess ventured to go where few female detectives have dared—motherhood.

V I Warshawski:  I’m drawn to a strong and complex female protagonist, and VI absolutely fills this role. Sara Paretsky was one of the first authors to introduce a complicated and fully formed female private investigator, and readers will be forever grateful. Vic doesn’t apologize for who she is and how she makes her way in the world. She’s skilled in a street fight, appreciates Torgiano red wine and doesn’t suffer fools. What’s not to love?

TV:  Jim Rockford:. When I think about private detectives on television, my mind always goes to Jim Rockford. Maybe because he kept me company in my childhood. An ex-con who served time in San Quentin and then was later pardoned, he ran his investigative business out of a mobile home in LA and preferred fishing to most other pursuits. His father never felt being a PI was a real job, and the fact he was often getting shorted by clients didn’t help his end of the argument. Jim Rockford was fallible times, skilled at working cold cases but not always coming out on top in a brawl. He rarely used his gun. He was human, and I find that particularly appealing. And that theme song is pretty catchy, too.

Mary Shannon/In Plain Sight: I’m going to color a little outside the lines on this one. Mary Shannon is a U.S. Marshall working for the Federal Witness Protection program, not a PI, but she’s a skilled investigator with a highly tuned (and hard-earned) understanding of human nature. Her complicated family backstory (her father is on the FBI’s most wanted list) informs her views on her cases and charges, but she’s first and foremost an outstanding hunter and protector. And her banter with her partner, Marshall, is pure gold.

What about you? Who are your favorite series characters? What keeps you turning the pages or tuning in? –Laura Oles

What Makes A Good Story, Or Is Joseph Campbell Bossing Me Around?

Written by K.P. Gresham

Writers (or at least me) despise (rightly so) the idea of formulaic writing. I am creative! I have my own ideas! Ain’t nobody gonna tell me how to write!

But what if this “formula” came from inside ourselves? What if I create it in my thoughts, my actions, my psyche? What if this “formula” is actually an internal pattern shared by all humans?

Joseph Campbell was a pattern finder. As he studied different cultures, different mythologies, different religions, he developed his theory that the journey of the archetypal hero is at the very soul of what makes us human. He called it the “Monomyth” and, drawing on Carl Jung’s theories, he proposed that a psychic unity is shared by all humankind, and that our lives AND stories are all mythic narratives as variations of a single great story.

Boulderdash, my creative spirit cries! But…shoving hubris aside, what does the evidence show?

Okay. Enough of Campbell. I’m not smart enough or deep enough to even begin to understand the intricacies of his studies or theories. So I did what most of us do. I looked for someone who could “explain it to me.”

For me, those answers came from reading Chris Vogler’s The Writers Journey. Mr. Vogler breaks down this inner self-generated pattern of how humans think and act into twelve understandable, progressive steps.

Step One-The Hero’s Ordinary World (Everyday Life Before the Insanity Begins)

Examples: Dorothy’s life in Kansas before the tornado tosses her into the land of Oz. Luke Skywalker’s mundane life on Tatooine before the C3PO and R2D2 show up. Your life when you’re in your comfort zone.

Step Two-The Hero’s Call to Adventure (Introduction of Something that Must Happen)

Examples: Bilbo Baggins appalling invitation to go with the dwarves to reclaim their treasure in The Hobbit. Captain Pyke’s challenge to James T. Kirk to join Starfleet in the latest Star Trek movie iterations. Your college acceptance letter taking you to a life you’ve never lived before.

Step Three-Refusal of the Call (Ain’t No Way I’m Gonna…)

Examples: Humphrey Bogart doesn’t want to take Kathryn Hepburn on The African Queen. Indiana Jones not wanting to investigate his father’s hogwash theories of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Your unsuccessful job hunt that presents you with the one offer you’d most dislike doing.

Step Four-Meeting with the Mentor (Somebody help!)

Examples: Robert Redford getting Paul Newman to help him get even with a murdering crime boss in The Sting. Charlie is guided by Willy Wonka through the Chocolate Factory. Your new boss’s admin takes pity on you and shows you the ropes of the career foisted upon you.

Step Five-Crossing the First Threshold (Taking that first step on the new journey.)

Examples: Alec Baldwin jumps from a helicopter to help find Sean Connery’s Russian sub, The Red October. Cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) leaves his Detroit home to discover who murdered his friend in Beverly Hills. You pack your belongings in a car and leave home.

Step Six- Tests, Allies and Enemies (Life Happens)

Examples: In Casablanca, Rick’s Café is frought with desperate refugees, thieves, spies and intrigue. In the recent movie, 1917, the two soldiers meet with countless dangers and pitfalls in their efforts to save 1600 British troops. You have to figure out where to live, who are your friends and who are your enemies, and how will you pay for it all.

Step Seven-Approach to the Inmost Cave (Facing Your Worst Fear)

Example: In The Matrix, the Oracle tells Neo that either Neo or Morpheus must die, and Neo has the power to choose which goes. Nala asks Simba to return to the Pride and take back the throne in The Lion King. You realize that you must make peace with the parent who never loved you.

Step Eight-The Ordeal (Your fight within the belly of the beast.)

Example: In Spiderman, Norman figures out that Peter Parker is Spiderman and kidnaps . In The Odyssey, Odysseus must go to the underworld to find the way home and is almost killed. You have no choice but to declare bankruptcy in a financial matter.

Step Nine-Reward (Hero Achieves Goal)

Example: Luke reconciles with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Robert Redford and Paul Newman pull off their “Sting” and get away with it. You and your creditors come up with a plan to pay off your debt. Step Ten-The Road Back (Trouble’s Not Quite Over)

Example: The moonlight cycle ride of Elliott and E.T. as they escape government bad guys. Harry Potter’s walk on Hogwart’s Bridge to destroy in the Elder Wand in Deathly Hallows II. Your ride home from a hospital visit with medicines in tow and physical therapy sessions in sight.

Step Eleven-Resurrection (Death and Darkness Get One More Shot Before Their Destruction)

Example: In Divergent, Tris’s mother dies, but Tris and Four defeat the Erudite coup. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly witnesses the Professor getting killed (again), only to learn the Professor was wearing a bullet proof vest. You discover your long lost sister only to realize she’s dying.

Step Twelve- Hero Returns to Real World with Elixir (Back at Home, but You’re Not the Same Person You Were When You Left.)

Example: Dorothy goes home to Kansas knowing that she if loved by her family. In the Hunt for Red October, Ryan is able to sleep on the airplane going home. Turbulence isn’t a problem—he’s seen a lot worse. You realize you’ve gone through hell with a certain issue, but you’ve come out alive and stronger.

Now folks have taken these steps and created beat sheets (I’m referring specifically to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! fifteen step beat sheet), diagrams, pie charts, whatever. But the basic monomyth theory is the same: a hero’s journey. Formulaic? Perhaps. Or maybe a pattern observed in the psychic unity of mankind. Is this something foisted upon us or something that originates from the very core that makes us human?

High brow questions for a low brow thinker. All I know is I love a good story.

CHRISTMAS IN TEXAS – ITALIAN STYLE

            We Italian-Americans take our Christmas tradition seriously – as do Texans. I’m fascinated by some of the “Texas-American” customs, including Fried Turkey, on Christmas Day, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting. My son-in-law, a fabulous cook, promises that one day he’ll do it for us.

I cannot, however, separate myself from my cultural heritage being only a second-generation American, and more of an immigrant than I’d ever realized, having grown up in an immigrant community of Italians, in Corona, New York. I’ve lived my life until six years ago, in New York surrounded primarily by other Italians and Jews, many of whom graced our home and table to share our Christmas Eve rituals. Many are no longer with us in this world, but my love for them spans time, distance, and death – Here’s what they shared with us, and what I brought to Texas with me.

           The tradition of the special Christmas Eve dinner for La Vigilia (the vigil), came over with the unwanted Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the U.S., it evolved into The Feast of the Seven Fishes

Hundreds of years ago, until the reforms of the 1960s, the Catholic liturgical calendar specified several days of abstinence from food and meats altogether; Christmas Eve was once such day. Although no longer required by the Church, preparing meatless meals and specifically fish dinners on Christmas Eve is still a widespread tradition across Italy and other predominantly Roman Catholic countries.  Its origins, however, were rooted in the impoverished areas of southern Italy, where locals relied on fish because it was considerably less expensive than meat. 

Some of my warmest childhood memories of Christmas Eve are of my grandmother preparing a range of fishes. Baccala (dried cod) salad, followed by spaghetti with a red sauce with eel (which I never ate) and/or Linguini with clams and anchovies (I always picked out the anchovies – which got me into a world of trouble.) Following the pasta dishes were lots of vegetables, fried smelts, maybe some baked flounder or redfish (what she bought depended on price). Fruit, coffee and hard biscotti ended the meal – and we all looked forward to the sumptuous dinner we’d have on Christmas Day.

For many years, in my home in New York, the Vigil dinner on Christmas Eve brought family and close friends to our table to share food, fun, stories of my husband’s and my backgrounds, as well as the tradition of our friends of other cultures who’d join us.

Typical menus always started with appetizers, followed by salads, then at least two different fish dishes. When my mother-in-law was alive, she’d prepare my husband’s favorite, a Sicilian dish of codfish in a red sauce with potatoes and capers. Linguini with white clam sauce was a constant, as well as bakes flounder and shrimp scampi. We always had an array of vegetables and the meal ended with coffees – espresso, American and decaf, as well as fruits, and cakes. (For our non-Catholic friends I always had roasted chicken and beef), but I held my family’s feet to the fire: No Meat on Christmas Eve! 

           When my children were very young, we made a big production of Santa’s arrival at midnight (Yes, that’s the one night a year I’d wake them from a sound sleep to greet Santa). Well, children grow, life moves on, many of the elders pass away, and we moved to Texas, where new traditions add to the old.

This year, on Christmas Eve, we were a scant fourteen because only one of my daughters lives in Austin.  She, her husband, and three children were here, along with my son-in-law’s mother and my friend, our Scottish/British friends and their triplets, and, of course, my mother, the still cooking and baking nonagenarian.

I decided for this Vigil dinner, I would prepare a seven fish menu. We began with appetizers of sardines with jalapeno cream cheese on crackers with hot sauce; smoked salmon on toasts with cream cheese and capers; a halibut salad, anchovies, and spicy green olives, shrimp cocktail and an assortment of other olives and cheeses.  Most of these were consumed with pre-dinner drinks – gotta keep those appetites going!

The first course at the table was a green-bean and sliced pepper salad – then came the star of the evening: Cioppino – Something I’ve adopted as my Christmas Eve tradition 

            Cioppino traveled from west to east. Created in the late 1800s by the Italian fisherman in California, this tomato-based seafood stew contained leftovers from the day’s catch, and cooked on the boats while at sea. 

There are some myths concerning the origin on the word Cioppino; it is not the fractured English of fisherman asking each other to Chip-a EENO. The immigrant fishermen were predominantly from the Genoa region of Northern Italy. In the Ligurian dialect, the word “ciuppin” (chu-pin) means “to chop” or “chopped,” which is an apt description of the process of making Cioppino.

Here, almost 200 years later, in my home in Austin, my Cioppino contained cod, shrimps, clams, scallops, and crabmeat. ( All store-bought, by the way. I’m not a fisherperson.)  I served Texas toasts and crusty Italian bread to soak up the delicious liquid in the bowl. Stuffed, we then refreshed our palates with fruits and took a rest to track Santa’s progress from the North Pole.

The meal ended with an assortment of cakes, from cheesecake to my mother’s homemade apple turnovers, biscotti, and pound cake – Yes, at 96, she still bakes. 

Before everyone departed to rush home before Santa arrived, the children gathered around the crèche. I passed the figure of baby Jesus from child to child and last to received Him, placed Him in the manger. The next day we’d celebrate His birth. This is a new custom I’ve started to remind them why we celebrate Christmas.

I don’t know what the next iteration of our Italian-American/Texas Christmas Eve traditions will be, but I’m confident the constant will be family and friends. 

Buon Natale  e felice anno nuovo a tutti!

(Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. )

John Le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (October 17, 2019)

by Helen Currie Foster

Originally posted on Ink-Stained Wretches. https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/2019/12/23/john-le-carre-agent-running-in-the-field-october-17-2019/

Okay, you already know I’m hooked on le Carré. Never did I think any of his characters would buy my allegiance more than George Smiley, the nearsighted brilliant cuckold, a scholar of German romantic poetry, capable of thinking many chess moves ahead. Smiley can spin a web to catch a traitor. Smiley’s heroic.

But now, Nat’s got me. Nat, 47-year old field man from the British secret service or “Office,” has returned to his London home from Europe, at loose ends. He has proudly served his Queen, his country, his Service. He’s a jock, loves running, loves to play ferocious strategic badminton at the Athleticus, a club near his home. He’s Club champion. He loves his wife Prue, who as his spouse actually served the Office when they were stationed together in Russia. Prue now handles big pro bono legal cases and Nat likes to drop in to watch her courteous destruction of the opposition. Nat, with his German-Russian-English-Scots background, speaks Russian like a native. Now he’s expecting to be made “redundant,” put out to pasture, offered dead-end private sector jobs in, say, security.

Meanwhile, at the Athleticus he is challenged by a tall, bespectacled, socially awkward guy, Ed Shannon, who demands a match with the Club champion. Nat assesses this approach:

And the voice itself, of which by now I have a fair sample? In the time-honored British parlour game of placing our compatriots on the social ladder by virtue of their diction I am at best a poor contestant, having spent too much of my life in foreign parts. But to the ear of my daughter Stephanie, a sworn leveler, my guess is that Ed’s diction would pass as just about all right, meaning no direct evidence of a private education.

How deft is that description? So deft. Part of le Carré’s genius is to compose sentences which effortlessly expand the characters and scenes he’s building. Here Nat describes himself using (italicized) info from his own employment file:

I possess rugged charm and the accessible personality of a man of the world.

I am in appearance and manner a British archetype, capable of fluent and persuasive argument in the short term. I adapt to circumstance and have no insuperable moral scruples.

What a great ploy, letting the narrator use other peoples’ descriptions to present himself. Nat’s voice is irresistible.

Nat’s at a turning point. Now at home, waiting for some assignment from the Office and wondering about his future, he suspects his college student daughter thinks dad’s job performance is mediocre, far outshone by Prue’s legal career. It grates that his daughter doesn’t even know what he’s done:

I’d like to have told her why I’d failed to phone her on her fourteenth birthday because I knew it still rankled. I’d like to have explained that I had been sitting on the Estonian side of the Russian border in thick snow praying to God my agent would make it through the lines under a pile of sawn timber. I’d like to have given her some idea of how it had felt for her mother and me to live together under non-stop surveillance as members of the Office’s Station in Moscow where it could take ten days to clear or fill a dead letter box, knowing that, if you put a foot out of place, your agent is likely to die in hell.

When Nat goes in for the interview where he expects to be put out to pasture, we get an eyeful and earful of the infighting and sharp elbows within the Office. To our pleased surprise, Nat seems well able to handle those elbows. Furthermore, Nat wins the badminton match against the importunate Ed. When they drink a beer later, and after subsequent matches, Ed inveighs passionately against Trump, Putin, and the parlous situation of post-Brexit Britain. Meanwhile, instead of being terminated, Nat is asked to manage the Haven, a London sub-station of the Office, including supervising an intense agent named Florence who’s pressing the Office to approve Operation Rosebud. Operation Rosebud would insert eavesdropping equipment into the lush English home of a Ukrainian oligarch with well-documented links to Moscow Centre and Putin. Here’s Nat’s description of Florence:

And in Florence, as Giles [whom Nat’s replacing] was at pains to inform me over a nocturnal bottle of Talisker whisky in the back kitchen of the Haven, Rosebud had found an implacable if obsessive champion…

With Operation Rosebud about to begin, a sleeper Russian agent––currently acting as a double agent for the Office­­––requests an emergency meeting with Nat. It may be possible, the agent says, for Britain to capture a very big fish…well, no spoilers. Nat travels to Karlovy Vary to meet an informant who can identify the fish. The informant grills Nat, in dialogue so sharp on current world politics it hurts:

“So what are you?”
“A patriot, I suppose.”
“What of? Facebook? Dot-coms? Global warming? Corporation so big they can gobble up your broken little country in one bite? Who’s paying you?”

Like a set of Matryoshka dolls, le Carré’s plot holds secrets within secrets within secrets. Le Carré fans know his plots, in hindsight, seem prescient: he brought us big pharma in Africa and disaster in Chechnya before those issues hit the world stage. Now he zeroes in on the Europe of today’s news broadcasts, with Putin looming to the east, Trump to the west, and Britain bent on Brexit. I found myself wondering––fearing––how real the most treacherous plot in this Matryoshka might turn out to be.

Meanwhile, I know Nat’s got hidden depths. I’m rooting for Nat––and Prue––all the way.

*

John le Carre. Agent Running in the Field. Viking, October 2019.

Cover photo of Agent Running in the Field via Amazon.com

Image of Matryoshka dolls by Schwoaze, via Pixabay

Spinning Stories

About three years ago, I did something I never thought I’d do.

I joined a gym.

I’d walked through the doors in search of a way to deal with stress, and I knew that exercise was an effective method of managing it. And I liked the fact that it was a community gym, one that welcomed people of all ages and at all stages of athletic ability. Almost immediately, I found a supportive group of friends who helped me adjust as I tried new classes, learned to use the equipment, worked up to heavier weights.

In the midst of this, I discovered that many of my gym friends were also avid readers.  In particular, my spin class is filled with men and women who love to read books, discuss books and trade books. In the few minutes before class, we’d catch up on what we were reading, what we loved and what we planned to read next.  When I had discussed an effort to gather books for donation for the Ellis Memorial Library, which had been devastated by Hurricane Harvey, Trisha Taylor quickly set up her own network and had collected so many boxes of books that it took over half of her garage.  

I had found my people.

The Texas Health & Racquet Club Free Library

Encouraged by the knowledge that so many members of my gym were readers, I asked the manager for permission to set up a small free library in the lobby.  He was very supportive, and soon I brought a small cabinet and filled it with some of my favorite books.  

Our little library skews pretty heavy towards crime fiction, but that hasn’t been a problem. The books disappear, and other members are bringing in their own favorites to share. I love introducing my gym friends to my author friends (through their work), and I’m thrilled when someone tells me she ordered another book in a series because she loved the one she picked up from our library.  

We have also entertained the idea of combining a spin class with a book club but none of us are coordinated enough to pull that off. So for now, we’re content to go to class and discuss our latest reads during warm up.  We’re too exhausted to say anything else once it’s over, but every now and then, I see someone leave with a book—or a leave a book—and I can’t help but smile.

–Laura Oles

The New Girl Will Scare You Stiff

By KP Gresham

Originally posted on Ink-Stained Wretches

I can’t put down THE NEW GIRL–Daniel Silva’s latest book, that is. I have long been a fan of Silva’s series featuring Gabriel Allon, art restorer and master spy. The New Girl(Harper Publishing, July 16, 2019) is the 19thbook featuring Allon, and, in my opinion, the best. It’s a fast-paced, fact-filled, emotional, beautifully written suspense thriller, that mirrors the times we are living in.

It begins with the kidnapping of the Saudi Crown Prince’s daughter. Allon, head of Israeli intelligence, is directed by his Prime Minister to help the prince find the girl. The two become unlikely allies in a race against time to stop a Russian move to take control of the Middle East.

The book weaves fiction into the baffling aspects of Middle East intrigue in a way that actually helps explain what the heck is going on “over there”. Usually when I read such a book I spend my time wondering, how much of this is fiction and how much of this is fact. Luckily, I accidentally did something that provided a clear vision of where that line is drawn.

I mostly listen to audiobooks during my dog’s three miles walk every morning. (I tag along as company.) By mistake I played the end of the book complete with Mr. Silva’s acknowledgments and comments. I’m glad I did. I recommend this “oopsie” to those who pick up Mr. Silva’s book. He clearly sets out what is fact and what is not. This makes the reading of this suspenseful page turner even more meaningful because I could trust the author. He wasn’t trying to pull the wool over my eyes. He was trying to tell a good story, yes, and he was making it even more realistic by using facts to back up his plot line.

Full disclosure, because I enjoy a good night’s sleep, I wish the book had included fewer facts.

I love Bob Woodward’s quote about Mr. Silva’s book. “At times a brilliant novel tells us as much about the times we live in–and the struggles of the world, the global deceptions and tragedies–as or better than journalism. Daniel Silva’s The New Girl is such a novel.”

Pick up this New York Times (and USA Today and Wall Street Journal) #1 Bestseller. You’ll be enlightened.

And scared stiff.

The New Girl by Daniel Silva Amazon Link

https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/2019/12/09/the-new-girl-will-scare-you-stiff/

A Mind Unhinged

Posted by Kathy Waller

So you start writing your post about the incomparable Josephine Tey’s mystery novels two weeks before it’s due but don’t finish, and then you forget, and a colleague reminds you, but the piece refuses to come together, and the day it’s due it’s still an embarrassment, and the next day it’s not much better, and you decide, Oh heck, at this point what’s one more day? and you go to bed,

and in the middle of the night you wake to find twenty pounds of cat using you as a mattress, and you know you might as well surrender, because getting him off is like moving Jello with your bare hands,

Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail

Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Attribution: Ingrid Fisch at the German language Wikipedia.  GNU_Free_Documentation_License

so you lie there staring at what would be the ceiling if you could see it, and you think, Macbeth doth murder sleep…. Macbeth shall sleep no more,

and then you think about Louisa May Alcott writing, She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain,

and you realize your own brain has not only turned, but has possibly come completely unhinged.

And you can’t get back to sleep, so you lie there thinking, Books, books, books. Strings and strings of words, words, words. Why do we write them, why do we read them? What are they all for?

And you remember when you were two years old, and you parroted,

The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat,

because happiness was rhythm and rime.

And when you were five and your playmate didn’t want to hear you read “Angus and the Cat,” and you made her sit still and listen anyway.

And when you were fourteen and so happy all you could think was, O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!, and you didn’t know who wrote it but you remembered the line from a Kathy Martin book you got for Christmas when you were ten.

And when you were tramping along down by the river and a narrow fellow in the grass slithered by too close, and you felt a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.

And when you woke early to a rosy-fingered dawn and thought

By Dana Ross Martin, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), via flickr

By Dana Ross Martin, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,
A ribbon at a time,
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –

And when you saw cruelty and injustice, and you remembered, Perfect love casts out fear, and knew fear rather than hate is the source of inhumanity, and love, the cure.

And when your father died unexpectedly, and you foresaw new responsibilities, and you remembered,

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise.

And when your mother died, and you thought,

Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!-
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

Fentress United Methodist Church. © Kathy Waller

Fentress United Methodist Church. © Kathy Waller

And at church the day after your father’s funeral, when your cousins, who were officially middle-aged and should have known how to behave, sat on the front row and dropped a hymnbook, and something stuck you in the side and you realized that when you mended a seam in your dress that morning you left the needle just hanging there and you were in danger of being punctured at every move, and somehow everything the minister said struck you as funny, and the whole family chose to displace stress by laughing throughout the service, and you were grateful for Mark Twain’s observations that

Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it … we have to join in, there is no help for it,

and that, 

Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And when you fell in love and married and said with the poet, My beloved is mine and I am his.

And when, before you walked down the aisle, you handed a bridesmaid a slip of paper on which you’d written, Fourscooooorrrrrrre…, so that while you said, “I do,” she would be thinking of Mayor Shinn’s repeated attempts to recite the Gettysburg Address at River City’s July 4th celebration, and would be trying so hard not to laugh that she would forget to cry.

And when your friend died before you were ready and left an unimaginable void, and life was unfair, and you remembered that nine-year-old Leslie fell and died trying to reach the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia, and left Jess to grieve but to also to pass on the love she’d shown him.

And when the doctor said you have an illness and the outlook isn’t good, and you thought of Dr. Bernie Siegal’s writing, Do not accept that you must die in three weeks or six months because someone’s statistics say you will… Individuals are not statistics, but you also remembered what Hamlet says to Horatio just before his duel with Laertes,

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

And by the time you’ve thought all that, you’ve come back to what you knew all along, that books exist for pleasure, for joy, for consolation and comfort, for courage, for showing us that others have been here before, have seen what we see, felt what we feel, shared needs and wants and dreams we think belong only to us, that

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her t...

Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her tutor Anne Sullivan on vacation in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

everything the earth is full of… everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.

And about the time you have settled the question to your satisfaction, the twenty pounds of Jello slides off, and you turn over, and he stretches out and leans so firmly against your back that you end up wedged between him and your husband, who is now clinging to the edge of  the bed, as sound asleep as the Jello is, and as you’re considering your options, you think,

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar…

and by the time the Pussycat and the Elegant Fowl have been married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and have eaten their wedding breakfast with a runcible spoon, and are dancing by the light of the moon, the moon, you’ve decided that a turned brain has its advantages, and that re-hinging will never be an option.

###

20 pounds of cat. © Kathy Waller

20 pounds of cat. © Kathy Waller

###

http://nfs.sparknotes.com/macbeth/page_58.html
https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1315.Louisa_May_Alcott
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171941
http://www.vintagechildrensbooksmykidloves.com/2009/06/angus-and-cat.html
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182477
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epithets_in_Homer
http://biblehub.com/1_john/4-18.htm
http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2002/10/15
http://www.twainquotes.com/Laughter.html
http://biblehub.com/songs/2-16.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Music_Man_(1962_film)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge_to_Terabithia_(novel)
http://www.shareguide.com/Siegel.html
http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/page_320.html
http://www.shorewood.k12.wi.us/page.cfm?p=3642

***

“A Mind Unhinged” appeared on Austin Mystery Writers on February 25, 2016.

*

Kathy Waller writes crime fiction, literary fiction, humor, memoir, and whatever else comes to mind. Her short stories appear in the Silver Falchion Award winner Murder on Wheels, Austin Mystery Writers’ first crime fiction anthology, and in their second, Lone Star Lawless, as well as in other print publications and online. Her novella STABBED, co-authored with Manning Wolfe, was released in October 2019. She blogs at Telling the Truth–Mainly.

Memories of growing up in a small town on the San Marcos River in Central Texas, and life in a large extended family, inspire much of her work. She now lives in Austin with two cats and one husband.