Letters: A Velocity of Being

by Kathy Waller

The definition of reading readiness is the point
at which a child goes from not reading, to reading.
Sight and Sound Reading

But, Gwammy, I can’t wead.*
~ Jenny, five years old, after one week in kindergarten

 

When I was five, my Great-aunt Ethel gave me an ancient primer. She had found it in an old school building, abandoned when consolidation sent children in my hometown to a school two miles away, and then used only as a polling place. The primer had also been abandoned, and Aunt Ethel, election judge, liberated it and gave it to the youngest member of the family (youngest by about forty years; it was an old town).

My parents read to me almost from day one. The story goes that, as a toddler, I met my father at the door every evening when he got home from work, saying, “‘Ead a book, Daddy.” (Unlike Jenny, I had no pwoblem pwonouncing my ahs; I just dropped them.)

We didn’t have a library nearby, but I plenty of books: a Bumper Book, Little Golden Books, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which I didn’t like, in part because they were dark (“The Little Match Girl”), but mostly because the end papers sported a hairy black thing with an ugly humanish face and enough long, winding legs to qualify it as a spider. Grimms’ tales were more pleasant.

When I received the primer, I already knew the alphabet. In fact, a year before, I’d written my name in red adhesive tape–the gooiest, stickiest adhesive I’ve ever come across–on the inside of the kitchen door. It stayed there for years.

Anyway, armed with the primer–a school book, for reading–I set about teaching myself. While my mother did housework, I trailed behind, spelling out words.

“T-h-e”

“The”

“m-a-n”

“man”

“s-a-i-d”

“said”

I don’t think I taught myself to read. But the next year, when I entered first grade–no kindergarten back then–I was ready. I took right off on the underwhelming adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally (siblings who never had a decent disagreement) plus Spot and Puff, who came and ran a lot.

In second grade, I got a Little Big BookGunsmoke–that had one hundred pages. I read it on Saturday and reported the accomplishment in our Class News at school on Monday. Later I got a literary Little Big BookHuckleberry Finn. One sentence confused me: a dead man’s leg was stuck out at a strange angel. I was about thirty when I realized angel was really angle. I was also surprised when, in high school, I learned that the Little Big Book had been severely abridged.

Then I discovered comic books. They were more educational than most people think. From Scrooge McDuck, I learned that emeralds come from South America. Unfamiliar with physics, I pronounced Atom Cat as A-Tomcat. Seemed reasonable.

The next year, thanks to a Christmas present from my grandmother, I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy had a blue convertible and drove around wherever she wanted, and her father never grounded her. I envied Nancy her freedom. I didn’t like her, though; she had a tomboy friend, George, who said, “Hypers, you slay me,” which was fine, but her other friend, Bess, was plump, and Nancy often referred to how much Bess ate. I presume in later editions, Nancy behaved better. But her treatment of Bess didn’t stop me from reading about her. I wrote letters to Joske’s Department Store in San Antonio: “Please send me one copy of The Hidden Staircase and one copy of The Clue in the Jewel Box. Please charge my account.” They each cost two dollars. My mother kindly signed the letters. It was her account.

I soon outgrew Nancy, but, like many other mystery readers and writers, I credit her for getting me hooked. I read a couple of Trixie Beldens–Trixie was sickeningly enthusiastic when her mother made her dust the living room before going out to solve mysteries, but she did manage to sneak out at night. I read some Kathy Martins. Kathy, a nurse, often suspected her (nice guy) brother for whatever (minor) crime had been committed, which I thought strange, but she was more mature and more realistic than other characters. No convertible, no sneaking.

Young Adult novels didn’t exist as a genre until the late sixties, when increased federal money became available to schools, and authors found a new audience. Born too soon, I moved from children’s books into adult fare: Zane GreyThomas B. CostainCharles DickensAldous HuxleyJane AustenHarper LeeDaphne DuMaurierRafael Sabatini (Scaramouche: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”) Noticing that I read the classics, the bookmobile librarian, unasked, brought me a copy of the scandalous Madame Bovary. I was fifteen. He’s still my hero.

On the bookmobile, I rediscovered mysteries in the real thingSherlock Holmes. I cried and cried when he and Moriarty went over Reichenbach Falls. Nobody told me he would be back.

And another real thingAgatha Christie. Which led to Marjorie AllinghamNgaio MarshRobert BarnardJosephine Tey, Donna LeonKarin FossumElizabeth George, and so many others.

But enough about me. The point is that reading was, and is, important to me.

And that this week I’ve been reading A Velocity of Being: Letters to Young Readers, edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick. The editors compiled 121 letters from “scientists, musicians, artists, philosophers, composers, poets, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contributions.” Each letter is paired with an illustration to “bring it to life visually.”

Many letters describe books as portals to the universe, to other worlds, to adventure, to curiosity and questions, to dreams, to logic and imagination; they’re boats and planes and magic carpets. Contributors write about hating book reports, and being hellions when they were little and refused to listen to Goodnight Moon at bedtime because they wanted dinosaurs, and being called antisocial when they preferred to read instead of play with friends.

But other contributors take the subject to a deeper level:

Author Alain de Botton writes, We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel . . . That’s the moment to turn to books They are friends waiting for us, and they will always speak honestly to us. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Screenwriter Shonda Rhimes says, Reading saved me. When I was twelve, I spent most of my day trying to be invisible. The year before I’d been the new girl in school, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to be accepted. . . . The very desire to bend and twist to fit in–assures your rejection They did not like me. They hated me.
I spent a lot of time alone. I rode the bus alone. I spent weekends alone, I ate lunch alone. Except I was never alone. I always had a book in my hand. If you have a book, you don’t need to bend and twist to fit–you’re there. You are in. . . .
If you have a book in your hand, you can stop being invisible. Because you’re a little more invincible
.

Venture capitalist Chris Sacca says that books are dangerous: If you keep reading, you might learn so much that you can take over for the adults and then you kids will be in charge! You all could be the journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, professors, authors, doctors, explorers, scientists, and even the leaders of our countries! Then what would the grown-ups do? Live in a world run by brilliant, interesting, innovative, and compassionate young people. Ugh. No, thank you.
So please stop reading before you become really smart, successful, and happy.

But seriously, books are dangerous. Holocaust survivor Helen Fagiwrites about life in the World War II Polish ghetto, where being caught reading by the Nazis meant anything from hard labor to death. But books were smuggled in, read by each person for only one night, and then, for the sake of safety, passed on. She stayed up all one night reading Gone with the Wind. Then she decided the children she secretly taught needed not dry information, but stories. And for one hour each night, she told them the story of Scarlett and Melanie, Rhett and Ashley; and for that hour they “escaped a world of murder.” Then “a knock at the door shattered our dream world.” Years later, she met one of only four of the students who survived. The woman called her “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”

Composer Mohammad Fairouz shares a story that I cherish from my upbringing; . . . 1400 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, a meditative prophet named Mohammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel who came to him with a message: “Read” . . . This was the first word of the Quran.
In the years following the prophet’s death, his followers built an empire where they contributed to every branch of knowledge, from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions: that includes space stations, glasses, aspirin, your iPad.
They were able to do this because they were inspired to seek out the power that comes with being to read. You deserve the same power . . .

Years ago, I knew a young man who had never learned to read. I don’t know why; he just hadn’t. As an adult, he took a literacy class. He said that when he traveled for his work, he was always scared, because he couldn’t read road signs, and he was afraid he would get lost. At the most basic level, reading is power.

And consider: At one time in the American South, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. If they were literate, they might be able to read signs that would help them escape. They might also read some inconvenient truths: “. . .  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” Inconvenient for their owners, that is.

Does reading fiction make better people? Research doesn’t give a definitive answer. But “at the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. . . .

“So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.

“It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.”

Philosopher and professor Martha Nussbaum gives an example: The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison said that a novel like his Invisible Man could be “a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment” on which America could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal. He’s referring here to Huck Finn and Jim, who got to know one another as full human beings, rather than just as a white man and a black man, when they traveled down the river on a raft together. On the raft, they had to look at one another, listen to one another’s stories. In our divided society, such encounters happen all too seldom in real life, and are fraught with mistrust when they do. Reading can create such encounters in the head, so that the ones that happen in the world are a little less crude, a little less deformed by fear and anger.

Huckleberry Finn has for years made the American Library Association’s list of most often challenged, banned, or restricted books–a novel that can teach us to be better people.

Design writer and educator Steven Heller extends the idea that reading is power and issues a challenge: Books are weapons in humankind’s battle against ignorance. I don’t mean like lasers and drones. I mean that knowledge is strength and the kind of knowledge you get from books is not the same as the quick fix that Googling gets you. What’s more, books can’t be hacked. But they can he censored, which means blocked or forbidden from being published. And this is why they are so valuable to us all. Often in fighting ignorance, the ignorant take books prisoner. If you don’t read books, then those that have been censored over the ages will be lost and forgotten. So kids, don’t let them down. Read them, savor them protect them. Don’t let others make books irrelevant.

*

*Jenny soon learned to wead. And to pwonounce her ahs.

*

I’ve gone on too long. If you’re still with me, thanks for sticking. And one more thing: Despite the title, A Velocity of Being isn’t just for young readers. It’s also for adults who need to be reminded to make reading part of their children’s lives.

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68. She’s published short stories and memoir and is working on a novel.

While writing this post, Kathy was watching/listening to an old TV series of Dorothy L. Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Bless Youtube and all who post on her. (Opinion: Ian Carmichael was the best Peter Wimsey by far.)

What’s That Smell?

by Helen Currie Foster

In the back of the closet I recently unearthed my mother’s old Caswell Massey “Gardenia” bubble bath. The resulting bath held astonishing comfort and nostalgia. It smelled like her house.

Mystery writers can use smell to reinforce not only setting and character, but powerful plots. Here are strong examples from the first chapter of Lethal Whitethe fourth in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series. Chapter one begins with the wedding of Strike’s former co-detective Robin Ellacott and her long-time (but insufferable) fiancé Matthew Cunliffe, arguing while the wedding photographer tries to get some decent shots. Strike has fired Robin, partly from fear she’ll be killed. Without her job, Robin’s miserable. Matthew’s furious because of the joy he saw on Robin’s face when Strike arrived for the ceremony, heavily bandaged from capturing a killer. And now, arguing with Matthew, how does Robin feel? “The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.” The hot smell matches Robin’s itchy misery as she second-guesses her marriage to Matthew.

The country hotel setting smells beautiful, in stark contrast to Strike’s emotions: “For a while he lurked at the end of the bar, nursing a pint…and then repaired to the terrace, where he had stood apart from the other smokers and contemplated the dappled evening, breathing in the sweet meadow smell beneath a coral sky.” Sweet meadow smell; miserable situation.

Robin finally reaches Strike on the stairs as he’s leaving: “They were holding each other tightly before they knew what had happened, Robin’s chin on Strike’s shoulder, his face in her hair. He smelled of sweat, beer, and surgical spirits, she, of roses and the faint perfume that he had missed when she was no longer in the office.” The scene is almost shocking in its sensory overload. We feel their powerful attraction. Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) brilliantly gives us not only the protagonists, but the pain of their predicament, using scent to remind us of Strike’s injury (surgical spirits) and the fact that he has missed her perfume because she’s no longer in the office.

We already know that Chet, the heroic detective dog of Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series, is a dog of admirable olfactory sensitivity. He feels sorry for his human partner, Bernie (who labors under the misapprehension that he, not Chet, is the detective), because Chet knows human limitations, olfactorily speaking.

Chet and Bernie search for lost young campers in Spencer Quinn’s The Dog Who Knew Too Much. Chet’s nose moves the plot along: I smelled ashes, plus chocolate, the way it smells when hot chocolate gets burned in the pot, and….the remains of a not-too-long-ago campfire. I knew fire pits, of course, went over and took some closer sniffs. Burned hot chocolate, yes. There’d also been Spam and something eggy. I stuck my nose just about right into the ashes. They were cold.” Oh, the advantages of a detective dog as protagonist.

Well, Chet, don’t underrate us. Research shows we humans can detect at least a trillion odors! Bill Bryson, The Body, at 90.

Furthermore, as Chet the dog already knows, we humans each have our own unique scent: “It’s like a fingerprint,” says Johan Lundström, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, in “The Sense of Smell in Humans is More Powerful Than We Think, ” by Marta Zaraska–an interesting article.

Didn’t we already know we can identify the scent of the loved one? Mothers can recognize their newborns by smell (and vice versa). Bryson says olfactory information goes directly to our olfactory cortex, next to the hippocampus, where memories are shaped, which is why some neuroscientists think certain smells evoke memories. Oh, didn’t Proust mention that? Scent brings back the dead, if only for a second. In my Ghost Cat, after the death of his wife Holly, Russ confesses that when he walks in the house, he lifts his eyes and inhales: “I always hope for a little whiff of Holly.”

However––some odors fly under our radar. We may feel, but can’t always articulate, how certain smells arouse our emotions. We say fear is contagious but we haven’t known how. Zaraska cites research showing when we smell body odor from a stressed person, we ourselves become more vigilant. When we smell body odor of a close relative, per Zaraska, we can recognize family, and our dorsomedial-prefontal cortext can light up. Maybe some of this we’ve known without really knowing it.

Plus, we apparently have sensory radar for genetic information. For mating! A woman inhaling body odor of a potential mate senses how genetically related the two are––by sniffing a gene family that links body scent and the immune system, called the “major histocompatibility complex” or “MHC.” This capacity is useful: we like our mates to be related enough––but not too much. My protagonist Alice, lawyer and amateur sleuth in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, is well aware how much she likes the way her love interest Ben Kinsear smells––he “smells good”––but she hasn’t put words to the smell the way Chet the dog has. He defines his own smell as “the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupcon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir.”

Could you define your own smell? With aromatic detail? Probably not. A loved one might be able to.

Smell can deepen a scene, define character, highlight plot. Ann Cleeves, in Dead Water (her Shetland series) describes the reception desk in the hotel, a key setting, as “all dark wood, with the smell of beeswax.” The sweet smell, the dark venue.

Elly Griffiths in The Crossing Places shows us her protagonist, archeologist Ruth Galloway: “Climbing the danksmelling staircase to her office, she thinks about her first lecture: First Principles in Excavation.” Danksmelling…excavation. Her job.

Louise Penny, in A Better Man, uses smell to reinforce the humiliating demotion of her protagonist, Quebec Inspector Armand Gamache. A former subordinate now bosses him. A giant ice storm with crashing ice flows and high water threatens Quebec. Worried the Champlain bridge will break, on the way to a police meeting, Gamache gets splattered with mud trying to see whether the dam will hold.

“I see some of the crap thrown at you today on Twitter has stuck,” said the senior officer from the RCMP, gesturing at Gamache’s clothing.

Gamache smiled. “Fortunately, it won’t stain.”

“But it does smell,” said the Mountie, with a wry smile. “Helluva first day back on the job, Armand.”

A great metaphor for the smelly attacks on Gamache that have led to his demotion.

In A Cinnabar Sky’s opening scene, Billy Kring uses smell to build dread and suspense around the locked trunk his protagonist Hunter Kincaid and her companion Buddy are about to pry open. Buddy says, “Now the smell is more like a really bad swamp, right?” When they pop the trunk, it’s “like an abandoned slaughterhouse gone fetid and rotten in the summer heat.”

The “smells” article sent me to poetry. Back to the bookshelves. Poets, in their compressed genre, seem to convey scent by evocative words, words that already define a smell, name a smell. Wallace Stevens has only to say, “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” in Sunday Morning and we smell them. Shakespeare has only to write “The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem/For that sweet odor which doth in it live” in Sonnet 54. He doesn’t have to define the “sweet odor”: he knows we know it. Coffee? Oranges? Cigar smoke? The word itself gives us the smell. Robert Frost, In Neglect: “I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant…” We do too. Billy Collins, Canada: “O Canada, as the anthem goes,/scene of my boyhood summers,/you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table…” The smell of sneaked cigarettes of youth.

Wallace Stevens did try more extensive fragrant description in Approaching Carolina: “Tilting up his nose/he inhaled the rancid rosin, burly smells/Of dampened lumber, emanations blown/From warehouse doors, the gustiness of ropes,/Decays of sacks, and all the arrant stinks…” We sure know what he means. But is this too much? I wonder if he wondered.

In the upcoming Ghost Daughter, seventh in my series, Alice quizzes a young friend about a new boyfriend. Alice blurts, “So he smells good?” She realizes her own standards for a lifetime companion involve “someone who smelled right…” Probably you’ve all had that experience. Maybe that’s how humans perceive certain under-the-radar scents, as “right” or “not right,” as “good” or “threatening.” Based on Zaraska’s article I suppose “good” may mean “right” in terms of the mysterious “major histocompatibility complex.” Not sure that’s how I want to describe it, though.

I’ll keep working on aromatic pages.

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Read more about Helen Currie Foster here.

I Am Not a Moral Pauper

by Kathy Waller

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world.
I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
~ Mark Twain
(or possibly W. C. Fields, or . . . )

*

It seemed a valuable medical course, and I recommended it to a lady. She had run down and down and down, and had at last reached a point where medicines no longer had any helpful effect upon her. I said I knew I could put her upon her feet in a week. It brightened her up, it filled her with hope, and she said she would do everything I told her to do. So I said she must stop swearing and drinking, and smoking and eating for four days, and then she would be all right again. And it would have happened just so, I know it; but she said she could not stop swearing, and smoking, and drinking, because she had never done those things. So there it was. She had neglected her habits, and hadn’t any. Now that they would have come good, there were none in stock. She had nothing to fall back on. She was a sinking vessel, with no freight in her to throw over lighten ship withal. Why, even one or two little bad habits could have saved her, but she was just a moral pauper. ~ Mark TwainFollowing the Equator

*

So I decide to write about New Years’ Resolutions, and some I’ve made and why I don’t make them any more, and of course, to write about that, I must quote Mark Twain’s remark about smoking, and while searching for the quotation I wonder whether Mark Twain really said it, so I check other  [more reliable] sources and learn that he probably didn’t, and now I’m so fired up about errors in attribution–and errors in everything else–flying around the globe even as I type, that I’m too emotionally jangled to settle down and write about resolutions.

Isn’t that just the way?

Well, whatever. Back to resolutions.

I don’t smoke, never have, so I can’t give it up–well, when I was ten, I did try to smoke a section of mustang grapevine, which my grandfather had warned me would make my tongue sore, but I was afraid of holding a lighted match so close to And another time, three cousins and I–we were eleven or twelve years old–lit one of their mother’s Winstons and each took one puff. Then we decided we’d done something entirely too daring, and their mother was probably already on her way home from town, less than a mile away, so we put the cigarette out, placed the butt on a piece of shingle one of them dug up from somewhere, carried it with great ceremony and a lot of giggling to their burn barrel, and disposed of it.

I guess that means I have smoked but resolved to give it up. One resolution kept.

I am not, however, a moral pauper. I have not neglected my habits. I have plenty of freight I could throw overboard. And I’ve tried, how I’ve tried. But what I intend as jetsam floats back and attaches like barnacles, as it were, to my hull.

I’ve never lost ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty, or any set number of pounds; or completed grad school papers (or blog posts) with more than a few hours to spare; or abstained from chocolate; or organized my purse, office, car, house, or self; or left my keys, reading glasses, or shoes where I could find them; or reached any other goal listed on a December 31st contract.

I know I’m not alone. A proper Victorian girl, Louisa May Alcott was taught to strive for self-improvement but had difficulty following through. At ten years of age, she wrote in her journal “A Sample of Our Lessons”:

‘What virtues do you wish more of?’ asks Mr.L. I answer:—
Patience, Love, Silence,
Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance,
Industry, Respect, Self-denial.
‘What vices less of?’
Idleness, Wilfulness, Vanity,
Impatience, Impudence, Pride,
Selfishnes, Activity, Love of cats.

Alcott is famous for her industry, perseverance, and generosity, but also for wilfulness, impatience, and activity–and thank goodness she retained those “negative” characteristics. American literature would be in a sad state without them.*

Does breaking resolutions bother me? It used to. I have a broad streak of Puritanism. I want to do better. To get it right. When the Methodist minister inquired about me one Sunday morning and my mother told him I was at home trying to finish a grad school paper before slamming into the deadline, he asked, “Is she a perfectionist?” My mother said yes. “I thought so,” he said.

But that was then, and this is 2021. I’ve been at this resolution thing for a long time. A woman at my age and weight** knows how things work.

Contracts can be renegotiated. And when I’m the only party, I’m allowed to set new terms to suit myself. Or to say, “So what?”

Award-winning columnist Ellen Goodman*** wrote something about resolutions that has stayed with me for over ten years:

We spend January walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.

I like that. I think Alcott would have liked it, too. In fact, maybe that’s what she did all those years. She saw her own potential, got down to business, and didn’t let up.

That’s the trouble with potential–once you’ve found it, you have to do something about it. Like work.

I suppose the trick is to learn to love the work. Alcott and Twain must have loved what they did. Even when they hated it, they loved it.

Well. What got me thinking about resolutions that I don’t believe in making?

Anthony Trollope. I binge-watched the miniseries adaptation of his The Way We Live Now a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time. And then I watched the adaptation of Dr. Thorne. And I’m looking for the adaptation of The Pallisers series–I believe it’s seventeen episodes, and I’ve seen it at least three times, but I’d love to watch it again. And The Barchester Chronicles, which is so funny, and I’ve watched it so many times, I’ve practically memorized the dialogue . . .

I love Trollope. I decided to marry my husband when he told me he’d read many of Trollope’s novels. He hadn’t asked me to marry him, but I decided. If he’d read Dickens, I might not have been so impressed. But any man who’d read that many of Trollope’s novels just because he wanted to had to be a man of substance.

If you look at the reviews of The Warden on Amazon, for example, you find, “boring… boring… boring… boring… long and boring…” And, “I couldn’t get into it.” (Good grief, people, it’s a Victorian novel. What did you expect?)

But that is a matter of taste. Some of us think his novels delightful. Satirical. At times, drop-dead funny. The Eustace Diamonds, in The Pallisers series, is a murder mystery.

Trollope wrote forty-seven novels, plus short stories, plus a ton of travel books. He set a writing goal for each day. When he finished one book, he immediately began another. In an autobiography published posthumously, he admitted to writing for money rather than for a Muse. (The admission led to a decrease in sales, because writing for money was considered crass. I don’t know what readers thought Dickens was writing for.)

And Trollope was a civil servant, worked for the British postal service, where he invented the mailbox. 

Now. My dirty little secret is that I’ve never read The Warden. I’ve read its sequel, Barchester Towers. But that’s the only Trollopian novel I’ve read. I have, like many writers of high school book reports, seen the movies.

So I made a resolution: In 2021, I’m going to read all the novels of Anthony Trollope.

If I read one novel a week, I’ll finish with two weeks to spare. My Kindle initially said I could read The Warden in 3 hours and 53 minutes, but a few pages later, it said I could be finished in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Beats me.

In the two weeks left over, I plan to read Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten, which was recommended by a former student, and something by Ann Patchett.

Furthermore, after looking for potential, I’ve resolved to finish writing my own novel. It’s been in the works for a while. Bits and pieces are stored in approximately 3, 508 files on my hard drive (and in the cloud).

I worked on it today, revising an ancient scene for the umpteenth time, and was stuck on whether an Afghan hound named Katie Couric should wear eau de lavender or eau de peppermint when I remembered I had to write this post.

By this time tomorrow I expect to have that issue solved and to have moved on to the next, which will probably involve a goat and a climbing rose.

I don’t write as fast as Trollope.

***

* I’m sure that if Louisa May Alcott stopped loving cats,  she had to do it thousands of times.

** The phrase “A woman at my age and weight” is an allusion to Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, a little book in which a thirty-nine-year-old woman gets tired of taking care of her bachelor brother and takes off with the owner of a horse-drawn bookstore who made a door-to-door stop by the farm and invites her to come along. When the brother catches up with them, he blesses her out:

“Look here, Helen,” said Andrew, “do you think I propose to have my
sister careering around the State with a strolling vagabond? Upon my
soul you ought to have better sense–and at your age and weight!…” ~ Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels

I read Parnassus about fifty years ago and thought that phrase funny, and have waited all this time for an opportunity to use it.

***I know Ellen Goodman said this because it read it myself in her column in The Austin American-Statesman. She was one of my favorite columnists.

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Images of authors from Wikipedia, public domain
Image of notepad by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay
Image of book cover from Amazon

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Kathy Waller’s stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers’ Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and in Kaye George’s Day of the Dark. She is co-author with Manning Wolfe of the novella Stabbed. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

Five Mysteries You May Have Missed

 

 

 

by Scott Montgomery

Today we have a guest author, honorary AMW member, Scott Montgomery. He’s well-known in the Mystery community and is a book seller at Book People in Austin.  His most recent work appears in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes From The Panhandle To The Piney Woods anthology, which was nominated for a 2020 Anthony award. Available at Book People here.

 

 

When the pandemic hit, it affected the book world like the rest of society. Authors who had books out in the spring and early part of the summer got word of their work lost to book stores being down, publishers strategizing, and the plain fact people had other things on their minds. As a bookseller there were novels I was excited to promote. Two authors whose books I loved were scheduled to do an event on the first day we shut down. To hopefully get the word out some more, here are five books released during that period, you should go back and find.

1. A Familiar Dark by Amy Engel
If you are looking for a sunny novel to take you away from current troubles, look down the list. If you have the fortitude and interest for a truly bleak rural noir, grab this immediately. Engel follows a single mothers’ quest for answers and revenge when her twelve year old daughter is murdered along with her best friend and she struggles not to become like the person she most feared, her drug dealing mother. The story gets darker and darker, yet more empathetic, as each character’s secrets get revealed and it hits its gut punch of a climax.

 

2. Poison Flood by Jordan Farmer
This book has one of the best protagonists of the year, Hollis Brass, a hunchback musician who ghostwrites songs for his first love who has now become a popular American performer. To finance his own recordings, he meets up with the rebellious son of his Appalachian town’s chemical plant, to sell some of his music memorabilia. A storm breaks out, setting of a chain of events that lead to a chemical leak from the plant and a murder Hollis witnesses. Hollis deftly moves through this story, populating his book with broken characters in battle with thier angles and demons. The writer reaches out with understanding, sorrow, and hope for them all.

 

3. That Left At Albuquerque by Scott Phillips
Scott Phillips was in the middle of his book tour after a hiatus from writing when the pandemic hit. He deserves new fans with his take on Southern California lowlifes trying to live the high one. When a drug deal he arranged blows up in his face, scheming lawyer Douglas needs money quick. He hatches an art fraud scam involving some very shaky folks including both his wife and mistress, a flaky forger, and an aging tv producer with fond memories of his casting couch days. Pillips matched a rich plot with even richer characters, poking at social mores and social climbing that occurs as people chase after their American dream by any means necessary. Scott Phillips once again finds that perfect apex where noir and comedy meet.

 

4. The Lantern Man by Jon Basoff
Jon Basoff created the most unique and ambitious thriller of the year of a dtective reopening arson-suicide case committed by Lizzy Grenier connected to the relationship with her other two siblings. Basoff tells much of the story through Lizzy’s journal, newspaper clippings, and photos, creating a meditation on family, media, and the elusiveness of truth.

 

5. Lost River by J. Todd Scott
This book creates an epic out of a dark violent day that entwines the lives of a Kentucky lawman, DEA agent, and EMT around a southern drug ring, weaving through a population of desperate characters pushed to the edge. Scott, a practicing DEA agent, gives a ground eye view of the opioid crisis. I put this up there with Don Winslow’s Cartel Trilogy at capturing the war on drugs.

 

You can get more excellent book recommendations from the Mystery People website at https://mysterypeople.wordpress.com

Bullet Books Launch at the Texas Book Festival

No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.

Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: Today, the Texas Book Festival  opened on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin.  Exhibitor tents and food trucks line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— are speaking, signing books, and appearing on panels. There are books for display and  for sale.

And in Exhibitor Tent #4, a new mystery series is being launched: BULLET BOOKS SPEED READS.

BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.

Twelve Bullet Books are being introduced. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies. There’s something for mystery lover.

A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:

Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.

Bill Rogers – KILLER SET DROP THE MIC
Billy Kring – IRON 13
Helen Currie Foster – BLOODY BEAD
Mark Pryor – THE HOT SEAT
Kathy Waller – STABBED
Jay Brandon – MAN IN THE CLIENT CHAIR
Kay Kendall – ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME
Suzanne Waltz – DANGEROUS PRACTICE
Scott Montgomery – TWO BODIES, ONE GRAVE
Laura Oles – LAST CALL
V.P. Chandler – THE LAST STRAW
Elizabeth Garcia – THE NEON PALM

The first twelve Bullet Books are available from Amazon in both paper and ebook formats.  Another thirteen volumes will be released in 2020.

Authors will sign their books at the Starpath Books booth, # 405 in exhibitor tent #4, this Saturday and Sunday, October 26-27.

By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe  will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.

Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m

If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.

And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.

LONE STAR LAWLESS Is Here!

LONE STAR LAWLESS:
14 Texas Tales of Crime

by

Austin Mystery Writers and Friends

Paperback and Kindle formats  available from Amazon.com 

Proceeds to be donated to Ellis Memorial Library in Aransas Pass, Texas
to help replace collections destroyed in Hurricane Harvey

Wildside Press, 2017

***

 And watch for Laura Oles’ first mystery novel 

DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN

November 14, 2017

 

 

Pets and the Fourth

 

Today we have a guest blogger who is a former AMW member, Kaye George.

 

If you’re reading this, you either like to read or to write, right? Or you’re a loyal friend of one of the Austin Mystery Writers. I’ve seen an odd connection between lovers of the written word and the love of animals. Or maybe that’s just a universal thing, or a thing with people who hang around in cyber space. Anyway, I’d like to appeal to those of you who love animals.

running dog

If you have a dog or cat, take care of it tonight! Please don’t leave it outside. Between July 4th and July 6th, animal control services nationwide see a 30% rise in missing pets!* If you live in Texas, among many other places, fireworks will start well before the 4th, so you’ll need to take precautions in the days leading up to Fireworks Day, as well as the days afterward.

 

If you have an animal that is overly anxious, you might want to give him medicine to soothe him during the height of the booming. Hugging or wrapping tightly can help some dogs. If you can distract your pet with other noises, that might help. Also, it’s good to have at least an ID tag, at most a chip, just in case he gets out and runs away, confused and frightened by the unusual noises.

 

If you should see an animal running loose and scared, you can report it here:

https://www.petamberalert.com/report-a-pet-sighting/

 

One more if. If you’re fortunate enough to have a laid-back furry buddy who can ignore fireworks, count yourself lucky and enjoy the holiday. Happy Fourth!

 

*https://www.petamberalert.com/blog/keeping-your-pets-safe-on-the-4th-of-july/

The Novella in Your Line-Up

Some writers never struggle to find enough words; they struggle to prune over-long manuscripts. Other writers, like me, start out with a premise and work through an outline to a rough draft that is . . . short.

As I expand on my first draft, I worry about length. Optimal length for a novel (most genres) is between 70,000 and 90,000 words. What if your story comfortably winds up in the low range, 30-000-50,000?

You have a choice: complicate and expand to novel length or call it a novella.

In an article for Writer’s Digest, Chuck Sambuccino addresses this choice. His advice: Expand your story until it’s a novel. But he is talking to writers who want to query agents and land contracts with major publishers. Print publishers will rarely take on a novella, and “rarely” probably means “never” for the unknown first-timer.

heartThe novella has taken on new life in recent years, however, with the rise of digital publishing. Remove the cost of hard copy printing, binding and distribution, and the shorter literary forms are more than viable—they are attractive to readers and authors alike.

The novella is a time-honored and well established literary tradition—I need only mention Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemmingway. An interesting article on the novella in Wikipedia includes a reading list that will keep you happy for a couple of months at least.

What the novella can do for you

Everybody knows that after the blog tour and the boosted posts, the best way to keep your book selling is to write more books. With a very small publisher, or by self-publishing, you can get new titles out there about as fast as you can write them. But if you once make the leap to the big-time, the process slows down. How do you stay on the radar in this fast-paced market?

Thought I Knew You is currently #11 in the Paid Kindle store on sale for $.99 (as of today, August 17, but not for long)

Thought I Knew You is currently #11 in the Paid Kindle store on sale for $.99 (as of today, August 17, but not for long)

One way is to write a novella. Case in point:

Bestselling author Kate Moretti debuted her knockout first book, Thought I Knew You (Red Adept Publishing), in September 2012. She followed with Binds That Tie a year and a half later, in March, 2014. About that time, TIKY hit the New York Times bestseller list, and Moretti caught the eye of literary agent Mark Gottlieb at Trident Media Group. Gottlieb parlayed this fast start into a two-book deal with Atria (Simon and Shuster).

Moretti had momentum and a growing fan base. But by stepping up to the big five, she was facing a two-year gap between book two and book three. How to keep her fans engaged? Enter the novella.

At half the length of a full novel (and proportionately fewer subplots and complications), the novella can be written in half the time. A small independent publisher can turn the ebook around in half the time it takes a major print publisher to get a novel out the door.

wywgWhile You were Gone is a tangent to TIKY, with all new characters, as engaging as we have come to expect from Moretti, plus a tight, fast-paced story, and a strong twist at the end. It is available for pre-order now, at $2.99, and will be released on September 1, 2015.

From a fan’s perspective, this is perfect—a short (130 pages) dose of Moretti’s unique blend of mystery/suspense and women’s fiction between the longer works. From the author’s perspective, she stays out front on the market with a book and keeps building her fan base in preparation for The Vanishing Year (coming in 2016). This is what a novella can do for you.

Kimberly Giarratano has done the same thing. Readers loved her YA mystery with ghosts, Grunge Gods and Graveyards (4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon, based on 74 reviews). That book came out in May 2014, and Giarratano followed up just one year later with a spin-off novella, The Lady in Blue, which she self-published.

ladyinblue

Giarratano takes the logic one step further. In between GGG and LIB, she self-published a lovely YA ghost story, One Night is All You Need—just 21 pages, but hey, it’s free! And a reader who gets a taste of this story and likes it (how could you not) will surely take a look at one of the other books.

All this is good news to me. When I start working on a story and doubt assails me as to whether I have material for a 90,000-word novel, I relax. If it comes out short, I will have written a novella.

I love reading them myself. More than a short story, less than a novel, just the right length for a late-summer afternoon curled up in the reading chair. Perfect!

Elizabeth BuhmannElizabeth Buhmann is the author of Lay Death at Her Door: “The bill for lies told decades earlier comes due for Kate Cranbrook, the complex narrator of Buhmann’s superior debut… and more blood is shed along the way to a jaw-dropping, but logical, climax that will make veteran mystery readers eager for more.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

2015 Reading Challenge

Wouldn’t it be great to have a list of every book you’ve ever read? An aunt of mine kept such a list.  We found it when she died at ninety. It would be a wonderful gift for a child, to give her a blank, lined notebook along with the idea of keeping such a list.

In January, I started writing down what I’ve read this year, and I’m curious to see whether I will read 100 books in 2015. Along the way, just for fun, I’ve already completed a reading challenge:

Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2015 Reading Challenge

2015-Reading-Challenge

You’re supposed to read 12 books in each category–that’s a lot! I read one in each. My twelve books:

A BOOK I’VE BEEN MEANING TO READ: The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters. She does not usually write in the murder/crime genre, but here she does. Loved it!

A BOOK PUBLISHED THIS YEAR: YOU, by Caroline Kepnes. I amended this category to “a book published within the last year.”

A BOOK IN A GENRE I DON’T TYPICALLY READ: The Battle for Saigon, a military history by Keith Nolan. I read it because I am writing up a friend’s experience living in Saigon during the 1960s and ‘70s. I glossed over the jargon, hardware and acronyms, of course. When he wrote about an NCOIC and three augmentees in a M113 APC with a .50-cal MG, I took this to be a bunch of guys in a truck with a big gun. I don’t like war, but this was by turns interesting, appalling, and exciting. Well researched, too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A BOOK FROM MY CHILDHOOD: I couldn’t think of a book from my childhood that I wanted to reread (Nancy Drew doesn’t work for me anymore), so I listed Winterdanceby Gary Paulson, because it’s such a great and perennial favorite of my inner child. It’s about sled dogs and the “fine madness” of running the Iditerod. Charming, wonderful read (especially if you’re foolish over dogs like me) (and out of 295 customer reviews, a whopping 255 are 5 stars–read this book).

winterdance

crackingrailwaybazaar

A BOOK MY MOTHER LOVES: The Sleep of Reason, by CP Snow. My mother didn’t love this book. I am not even sure she read it. She mentioned it in such a funny way that, fifty years later, I was curious enough to read it. Weird.

A BOOK ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE: The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino, a fabulously well-plotted murder mystery.

GOTpayingA BOOK “EVERYONE” BUT ME HAS READ: Ugh, do I have to? I bounced off a few of these—there’s a reason I haven’t read them—and finally settled on The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. This book will mess with your year-end total—it’s 800 pages long! A Pulitzer Prize winner with 21,000 Amazon reviews.

A BOOK I CHOSE BECAUSE OF THE COVER: Malice, also by Keigo Higashino.

A BOOK BY A FAVORITE AUTHOR: Last Train to Zona Verde, by Paul Theroux. This is a reprise of Dark Star Safari, which you should read instead. In fact, if you are not already a fan, start with The Great Railway Bazaar.

A BOOK RECOMMENDED BY SOMEONE WITH GREAT TASTE: Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidhwa.  Thanks for the recommendation, O you with great taste, Kathy Waller! I loved it.

A BOOK I SHOULD HAVE READ IN HIGH SCHOOL: Moby Dick. DNF. Once again.

A BOOK THAT IS CURRENTLY A BESTSELLER: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Great read. Inspiring that a mid-list author rolled the dice with a genre shift and hit the big-time!

Elizabeth BuhmannElizabeth Buhmann is the author of Lay Death at Her Door. An old murder comes unsolved when the man who was convicted of it is exonerated.

Murder in the Far East

Elizabeth BuhmannBy Elizabeth Buhmann

Continuing the series, Murder in Exotic Places.

The digital image below hardly does justice to the exquisite jacket on Keigo Higashino’s most recent murder mystery, Malice. I paid top dollar for the hardcover because it was just so beautiful. Loved the book, too, a murder mystery set in modern-day Japan.

maliceI liked Malice enough that I also read The Devotion of Suspect X, a major bestseller in Japan a couple of years ago. And WOW!!! The best, most ingenious murder plot EVER. Sorry to shout, but seriously, this plot is one in a million. Move over, Agatha. Really. What a murder!

Shinju, by Laura Joh Rowland, is first in a series of more than a dozen detective mystery/thrillers set in 17th century Japan, in the days of Samurai and the corrupt, cutthroat, intrigue-ridden court of the Shogun Tokugawa. Rowland’s detective, Sano Ichiro, is one of the most admirable and lovable protagonists ever. Shinju, about an apparent ritual suicide between two star-crossed lovers, was almost too unbearably suspenseful for me!

ookaI cut my teeth as a mystery lover on the Tales of Ooka, Solomon in Kimono. The books I read as a child in the 1950s, by IG Edmonds, are hard-to-find collector’s items now. The character of the wise Judge Ooka is based on a real 17th century magistrate, Ooka Tadasuke, who rose to fame and high position with his famously wise and fair administration of justice as well as his incorruptible character.

A favorite Ooka story: the case of the stolen smell. A rich, miserly restaurant owner complains that a poor student is stealing the smell of his food. He wants to be paid! Ooka hears the case and demands that the student produce all the money he has. It’s only a couple of coins. Ooka tells him to drop the money from one hand to the other, then rules that the merchant has been paid for the smell of his food by the sound of clinking coins.

calamitousShamini Flint is an attorney who lives in Singapore and has traveled extensively in Asia. Her mysteries are set in India, China, Singapore, Bali  and Malaysia. I loved them all! I will suggest starting (as I did) with the one set in China: A Calamitous Chinese Killing.

Speaking of China, and if you like characters based on real-life historical figures, Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series is a must-read. Dee was a seventh century Chinese magistrate (read about him in Wikipedia). Here is the Amazon list of the Judge Dee books.

lakebell

mazedee

The Celebrated Cases Of Dee Goong An is an honest-to-goodness 18th century Chinese detective novel based on Dee’s legendary career. The book was translated by Van Gulik (who was quite the Sinologist). His foreword about early Chinese detective fiction is fascinating. Many features of these books (the supernatural elements, the torture, their length) make them a tough read for the modern and/or Western reader. And in fact, what I recommend is that you read Van Gulik’s own Judge Dee novels first, rather than this one.

chanI’ll close with a cheat and a post-script. The cheat: Charlie Chan! A cheat because the books are not set in China, and Earl Derr Biggers had nothing to do with China. The House Without a Key is set in Hawaii, but at least Charlie is Chinese. Charlie Chan is not as well known as he once was (read about the books and films). I say he’s due for a revival.

Finally, a postscript to last month’s Murder in Africa. At the time, I had just picked up a novella by Kwei Quartey. When I finished that I tried his Darko Dawson series, and I must add it to the Murder in Africa list—love this series! The first book is Wife of the Gods. I guarantee that you will go looking for the rest of the series after you finish it. Dr. Quartey, I am anxiously awaiting the next book!

For more murder in the far east:

Elizabeth Buhmann is author of Lay Death at Her Door, and Amazon Top 100 Bestselling mystery about an old murder that comes unsolved when the man who was convicted for it is exonerated.