CORONAVIRUS AND DRAGONWYCK By Francine Paino

Feeling confined? Suffering from a bit of cabin fever? Getting Stir Crazy?  While we shelter in place, we have an excellent opportunity to find new OR reconnect with outstanding, thought-provoking, uplifting, and entertaining old books and movies.

Yesterday, I was channel surfing, searching for something that would keep my on the treadmill, and I ran across that marvelous old movie, Dragonwyck. Many years ago, I’d read the book written by Anya Seton in 1941, and made into a film in 1946. The movie starred Vincent Price and Gene Tierney (gosh, she was so-o-o beautiful).

This is a deliciously gothic tale of life in 1844, on the upstate New York estate of Nicholas VanRyn, a fictitious member of the very real “Upper Ten” New Yorkers, as described by a leading journalist of the time, Thomas N. Baker, professor of history at SUNY Potsdam.[i]

The story begins at the home of independent farmers, Ephraim and Abigail Wells, and their children in Greenwich, Connecticut. A letter arrives from Abigail’s rich and powerful cousin, Nicholas VanRyn, who admits that he has looked into her background and decided that she and her husband are worthy and of good character, even if only farmers.  He invites Abigail to send one of her daughters to him to be a companion and governess to his eight-year-old daughter, assuring her that the girl will receive every advantage that his wealth and position can provide.

The Wells must decide whether or not to send either Tabitha, who has no desire to leave the farm, or Miranda, who spends her time daydreaming of a different life. Miranda, of course, very much wants to go. Ephraim relents despite his misgivings, and Miranda is allowed to go the VanRyn home, where she becomes enchanted by Nicholas and his wealth.
Miranda realizes that something is amiss in Nicholas’s relationship with his wife Joanna, and both are both distant from their daughter, Katrine. From the servants, Miranda hears  that the VanRyn bloodline is cursed. It’s rumored that the VanRyns hear the harpsichord played by the ghost of Nicholas’s great-grandmother Azilde whenever misfortune befalls the family. These stories, however, do not dampen Miranda’s obsession with Nicholas and his wealth.

Soon after her arrival, Joanna dies and Nicholas quickly marries Miranda. It is only after marriage that she begins to see the strange, dark side of his character. Now begins the big reveal of murder, madness, and the road to the final tragedy.

In the movie, the pretty pictures in Miranda’s head begin to fracture when Nicholas objects to the woman she’d hired as a personal maid because she limped, but when Miranda tells Nicholas that she is pregnant, he gives in.  After the birth of their baby boy, Miranda demands that her son be baptized immediately because of his defective heart. Nicholas objects but in the end allow it, and just in time.  The baby is christened and dies in his mother’s arms, and Nicholas’s personality becomes more sullen. Life at Dragonwyck becomes stranger, and more threatening.

Anya Seton’s inspiration for the story was the historical framework of the “manor system,” the anti-rent wars, the Astor Place massacre, and the steamboat races on the river, that often resulted in crashes and deaths. It was all part of life on the Hudson, with its brand of Yankee gothic and ghosts, and where there existed houses and mansions “not unlike” Seton’s Drangonwyck.

The atmosphere in the book is set immediately with Edgar Alan Poe’s poem Alone.  From childhood hair, I have not been as others were—I have not seen as others see—I could not bring my passions from a common spring. The opening lines describe both Nicholas and Miranda. He for his hedonist/atheist dark madness, and she for her discontent with the life to which she was born.
Seton uses some of the major conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century in her story. In both the movie and the book, Nicholas’s tenant farmers are ready to rebel against his feudal control; their discontent is woven throughout the book. Nicholas, however, insists that he would never relinquish the lands that had been in his family since they arrived in America.

In the Hudson Valley Magazine, David Levine explains. “Feudalism was declared illegal in New York State in 1782, but the practice continued. After the War for Independence, many farmers found themselves still beholden to these old aristocracies. The farmer paid all taxes, while the landowners paid nothing. The farmer had no right to buy the land, even though, in many cases, the landlords did not have legal title to the land they were renting out. They could be evicted for failure to pay the rent even if they had enough personal property to cover the debt.” Farmers began to question why, after their ancestors had fought for freedom 50 years earlier, were they still held under the yoke of another European master.” [ii]

Seton also uses The Astor Place Massacre of 1849 as a major turning point in Miranda’s and Nicholas’s story. By May, 1849, Miranda is in a constant state of anxiety trying to please Nicholas. While in New York City, they go to the theater with friends on May 10. The great actor William Charles Macready is starring in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When they arrive a mob has already formed in front of the theater. At the end of the play, the theater manager tells the audience to exit through the back doors and they would be led to safety. Nicholas refuses and seems frighteningly elated by the prospect of bloodshed. He insists on exiting through the front doors, “the same way they came in.”

Nicholas involves himself in the fight and is wounded.  After the incident, he and Miranda return to Dragonwyck, where he becomes more morose and distant, spending most of his time in his tower room. Nicholas’s and Miranda’s marriage and their lives together disintegrate, and the story climaxes, as it must, in an attempted murder and death.

Although the movie takes certain liberties with the story because it cannot delve deeply into all of the author’s characterizations and historical events, it hits the major points well, and Vincent Price as Nicholas is the outstanding performer. Both the movie and the book are well worth becoming (re)acquainted with while confined to home.

In addition to Dragonwyck, if anyone is interested in the Astor Place Massacre, I highly recommend Nigel Cliff’s The Shakespeare Riots, which I intend to re-read while sheltered in place.
Stay well, and stay safe!

__________________________________________

[i] https://www.history.com/news/before-the-one-percent-americans-resented-the-upper-ten 
(accessed 3/30/20)
[ii] https://hvmag.com/life-style/history/history-of-americas-other-revolution-the-anti-rent-wars/ 
(accessed 3/30/20)



Love in the Time of Coronavirus, or Pulling Poems Off the Shelf

by Helen Currie Foster

Maybe you recall an interview like this, a chance for a fellowship.

Three dour English academics at eight a.m., staring skeptically at me, siting tense in my penitentially hard wooden chair.

First question: “Do you like poetry?”

“No!” I blurt.

“Not even Keats?” – the horrified response.

I try, fruitlessly, bootlessly, to explain, a la Marianne Moore. Poetry requires the reader to take a deep dive, to concentrate, commit time, hoping the poet isn’t just producing a clever crossword puzzle with arcane clues, but offering a key to the universe. To the meaning of life. So I don’t “like it” like one likes, say, certain music.

End of interview.

A murder mystery, in contrast (I’m still arguing this decades later), invites the reader to notice the clues and…participate. Even have some fun.

Fun!

Here are three poets who offer not only fun, but some good advice for mystery writers.

Do you know “Passengers” by Billy Collins, about the airport waiting room? The first couplet grabs all of us:

At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats

With the possible company of my death,…

We’re there. We’ve been in those blue seats, we remember the people near us, the girl eating pizza, the kids on the floor, the guy on his interminable work call.

Collins does this so craftily. “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.” Yup. And as we board, doesn’t the thought cross our minds that this plane may be the death of us? He’s got us in the first couplet.

Here’s another, “The Lanyard.” First couplet:

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly

Off the pale blue walls of this room…

We’ve all felt like that, bored… then:

I found myself in the L section of the dictionary

Where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard

That word lanyard! We all know one use for a lanyard. We’re straight back to camp, trying to braid gimp into a present for, yes, probably our mom. Billy Collins got us with “lanyard” in the title, and with his “ricocheting slowly” off the walls, which is just how we feel sometimes. In two lines he has our full attention. We’re already there with him, remembering the gimp, the braids, the other campers, and letting our eyes go down the page to see where he’s taking us.

Or how about Elisabeth McKetta’s collection, “The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell”? Take, for example, “An Occasional Elegy for Milk,” with its first couplet:

         Weaning my daughter felt

         Like breaking up with her.

In short poems in the last sections (2009, 2014) of his vast collection, Oblivion Banjo, Charles Wright takes us outdoors to face big themes (time passing, mortality). Here’s the beginning of “The Evening Is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away”:

         The mares go down for their evening feed

                  Into the meadow grass.

         Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—

                  Some sway, some don’t sway.

We’re there. Present tense, two mares, evening feed, pine trees. I won’t tell you how it ends: you’ll want to get there yourself. Similarly, his “Tutti Frutti”:

         “A-wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop-bam-boo,”

                  Little Richard in full gear—

         What could be better than that?

Obviously you want to know the answer. In eleven lines you’ll have it and be riffling through the pages for more.

Well! Here’s a poem worthy of time and attention. This insight, this simile, zooms straight to the heart and the brain. It’s real. Memory stirs, and we are there inside the poem. Not locked outside waiting to grasp the oh-so-secret clue, but right in the room.

We mystery writers seek vivid images, strong verbs, intriguing details. Like poets. We too want readers picking up each clue, following our character to the end. These poets, these poems, show how a first line can convince the reader to go on to the next line, and the line after that, not feeling that the writer’s just showing off erudition, or hiding a great meaning we’ll be lucky to find, but as if we’re invited into the enterprise, we’re in the waiting room, we’re watching the mares, we’re all in it together.

P.S. If only I’d read Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” before that interview! I could have said something about how we don’t want to “torture a confession out of” a poem….Oh well.

An Interview with Crime Writer Alexandra Burt

by Laura Oles

Reading a novel by Alexandra Burt means you must be prepared to ignore everything else because her stories will keep you captive until you reach the last page. Skilled in short stories, true crime and crime fiction, Burt delivers two fantastic reads this year. I asked Alexandra to share her thoughts on world building , true life haunts, and how she approaches the craft of writing suspense.

It looks like 2020 is a big year for you.  You have a new novel and a true crime story coming out this year.  Let’s start with your contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories.  What can you share about your story?

My contribution to The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns is a cold case that happened in my hometown in 1983. It was the height of the Cold War and at its core it is about the threats I faced, literally and figuratively. My hometown, Fulda, is a baroque town in central Germany located between the Rhön and Vogelsberg mountains. Seemingly plucked from Grimm’s fairytales, but Fulda has a dark history. Nothing about the rolling hills and farms dotting the landscape hints at Fulda as the place where Armageddon was supposed to happen. Fulda Gap, two lowland corridors, two obvious routes for a hypothetical Soviet tank attack on West Germany from Eastern Europe were the likely invasion route of Russia, the spot where U.S. and Soviet soldiers pointed hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles at each other. The threats were ever-present. When I hiked in the marshes by the border, East German look-out towers with guards and spotlights stared back at me in the distance. 

In 1983, I happened to be close to the scene of a crime, a quarter of a mile, the way the crow flies. A child died and the killer remains at large, the case was never solved, the killer never apprehended. There’s the story of a life cut short, and then there’s my story. Thirty-seven years have passed and the Cold War summer of 1983 still clings to me like a second skin. I have raised a daughter and I write crime fiction but I have never forgotten the girl that lost her life before her life even began. I have made a life for myself in the Hill Country of Central Texas, in the southeast part of the Edwards Plateau that is not unlike the Hesse highlands of my childhood. But I never learned to trust the world with my daughter’s life. I’ve learned that a watchful eye is not enough, that a simple moment of inattention, a minute of carelessness, can turn into something that cannot be undone. And little girls don’t always make it home alive. And every day I don’t know what to do with the evils of the world, and so I write about them. 

Shadow Garden is your latest crime novel.  Tell us a bit about what inspired this story? 

My previous book The Good Daughter was released days after the election in 2016 and during that time I felt as if the majority of the country fell into a dark hole. Including myself. I had the urge to examine if the same was as stake for all of us, if people of wealth, power, and affluence deploy a different set of principles when confronted with crime. It started out as a moral thought experiment, wondering about all the complicated ways money messes with morals. We know wealth impacts our sense of morality, our relationships with others, and our mental health. Is it true that the more you have to lose, the harder you fight to keep it, whatever ‘it’ may be? Money, a reputation, a standing in the community? Is being rich inherently immoral and if so, but what are the consequences? I imagined Donna Pryor, a woman of humble beginnings, who has everything but the truth of what happened to her family. From there I allowed the story to unfold organically and I sat by and watched them get to the truth of who The Pryors really are. Shadow Garden’s initial title was “The Many Incarnations of Donna Pryor” and I mention it because the book had quite a few incarnations itself. It started out as detective novel, purely comprised of interviews, then it turned into a family saga spanning decades before and after a crime occurred, just to arrive at Shadow Garden, an estate at the end of a rural road and a life of privilege that begins to crumble and somewhere in the ruins is the truth.

Many who read your work comment on your ability to combine heightened suspense with fully drawn characters in a compelling setting.  Is there a certain aspect of word building that comes more easily to you?  Is there a part that’s more challenging?

First of all, that’s a huge compliment. Thank you. The beginning of a novel is a very long period of imagining the setting and the people and I don’t take notes nor do I examine plot but I create the characters’ world. There is nothing else for a while, the characters really live at my house and eat at my table and not until the first draft is complete are they allowed to huddle and regroup. I don’t struggle with world building since it is ground zero at the beginning of a new project and anything is possible. There’s huge freedom in the vast scope of a new project.  I am always very sure of the setting but the plot changes endlessly and often and the characters usually end up needing work. It’s a matter of having a great editor, which I have, and revising draft after draft, after draft. 

When I was younger I wanted to be a painter and I went to art school but then abandoned that path. There is still a lot of visual artist left in me. It’s the first thing I imagine in any project, novel or short story—what is the essence of it; a still-life in oil or a landscape in watercolor—and the setting becomes a place and then it becomes a world and a clock ticks in the background to give it pace and there is structure and meaning which turns into a theme. Long story short: once I commit, I’m all in for however long it takes to make that world come alive the best way I know how. 

Readers are often curious about their favorite authors’ habits.  What is your daily or weekly schedule like?  Do you ever get stuck?  If so, how do you find your way out?

Unfortunately I’m still struggling to keep a schedule and all writers are powerless to real life happening as they work. I take it day by day, keep my fingers crossed, and hope for the best. It’s a best-laid plans kind of thing; most days writing doesn’t turn out as well as one hopes. One should not expect for things to always turn out to plan. My daily schedule looks something like this: after a workout (more often than not a workout competes with falling into a two-hour social media hole), I sit at my desk and pick up where I left off the previous day. Sometimes there’s an abundance of oxygen for that task and I just kind of go with it, other days it’s just not flowing. Be that as it may, there are deadlines and word goals and I swear by something I have discovered a few months ago: focus music. It promises laser productivity and a boost in focus. Simply put, it is music void of both ultra-low and overly loud bass and high pitch sounds that tend to become annoying over time. There are no ruptures, no pauses, no breaks or major volume deviations. The type and number of instruments remains constant through hours of play and the music follows a particular pattern mimicking the brain waves present in a focused state and eventually the brain waves mimic the music. It’s my secret weapon. I will write and look up and realize three hours have passed. It may not be a way ‘out’ but it’s a way to remain ‘in’, if that makes sense? 

I do get stuck at times and I wish I knew of a magic potion but I kind of obsess about it and just keep my fingers crossed and hope to spot the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.  Sometimes all you can do is chip away at a problem and hope for the best and so far it’s served me well. Still wouldn’t mind some sort of a potion though. 

Alexandra Burt was born in a baroque German town in the East Hesse Highlands. She moved to Texas and worked as a freelance translator. Determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations, she decided to tell her own stories. She currently resides in Central Texas. Remember Mia (2015) is her first novel. The Good Daughter was published in February 2017. Her third novel, Shadow Garden, is forthcoming in July, 2020. She is working on her fourth novel. She has contributed to Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime, and The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns. Her short stories have appeared in publications and literary reviews. 

Read a Book, Save the World

By K.P. Gresham

My hubby and I make it our mission to see all of the films nominated for the Academy Awards’ most coveted prize—the Oscar for Best Picture. This year was no exception. We saw Ford V Ferrari, The Irishman, JoJo Rabbit, well, let’s just we say all of them. So on February 9 of 2020, we sat down with friends, champagne glasses in hand, and watched the Academy Awards show. I agreed with most of the winners. Renee Zellweger knocked it out of the park as Judy Garland. Brad Pitt was awesome in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. For damn sure, 1917 deserved the award for Best Cinematography. But when Parasite was announced as 2019’s best film, I didn’t get it. Then again, I didn’t get the movie either. The poor living off the rich.  The rich living off the poor. Who was the bad guy? Which was the parasite?

So, I got out my cell phone, went to Dictionary.Com, and looked up the word.   The first definition that came up was the one that stuck with me. It read, “an organism that lives on or in an organism of another species, known as the host, from the body of which it obtains nutriment.” I thought of the mosquito who bites humans and sucks their blood. They feel no remorse, no guilt. It’s what they do to survive. How exactly did this definition apply to the movie Parasite?

Then my book club (Remember them? I bragged on them several blogs ago.) had as its monthly selection  Hyeonseo Lee’s book titled The Girl With Seven Names. It was the author’s true story of escaping from North Korea, via China, and finally arriving in South Korea. As she made this dangerous journey, she used seven different names to remain off the authorities’ radar.

Lee’s descriptions of growing up in North Korea were very unsettling. There are over fifty layers of societal classes in the country, each with their own set of privileges and restrictions. The only constant among all of these “castes” is that the supreme ruler (first Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un) is to be worshipped and glorified. (It is believed that Kim Jong-un was born in a lowly stable and that a bright, huge star announced his birth. Seriously?) As for the other laws, not so much. The main rule is Kim Jong-un first, and, as long as you’re not stupid, you are allowed to do pretty much whatever you have to do to survive. Bribery of officials to look the other way is the norm. (Hey, they have to make a living too.) This is how people learn to deal with famine, pestilence, and unemployment.  There is no guilt in doing what one must do to survive.

Further, the society has no guilt in doing what it must do to survive.  Bingo. I finally figured out what the movie Parasite was all about. A different culture. A different value system. A guilt-less survival instinct.

Books teach us things. Oh, yes, books entertain, but they also take us into worlds beyond our own experiences, histories we never learned, and points of view we never considered. Had I not read Hyeonseo Lee’s book, I would not have understood the movie, or the culture. More to the point, I understand that America’s culture has different norms, different thought processes, and a different hierarchy of what’s acceptable. We may think that the characters in Parasite and Lee’s book should feel remorse for how they live. But for them, it’s what they must do. And if their culture is all in on this “no guilt” survival, doesn’t that reveal something of their leadership?

For me, The Girl with Seven Names was a real eye opener.  Books teach us about folks who are not of our national or personal culture. We can learn why they live how they live. Maybe, even, we can learn how to live with them.

It might make the world a safer place.

So Many Blogs, So Little Time #ROW80

Originally posted on Ink-Stained Wretches. https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/2020/02/23/so-many-blogs-so-little-time-row80/

by Kathy Waller

blog 

noun

  1. a website containing a writer’s or group of writers’ own experiences, observations, opinions, etc., and often having images and links to other websites.
  2. a single entry or post on such a website:She regularly contributes a blog to the magazine’s website.

Dictionary.comAccording to GrowthBadger, there are over 600 million blogs online today. Over 31 million bloggers in the United States post at least once a month. Over 2 billion posts are published each year worldwide.Alas, no matter how hard I try, I can’t read them all. I have some favorites, however, and in this post I’ll profile two of them.*

FRIDAY FICTIONEERS

Which is easier to write—novels or short stories? How about short-short stories? How about short-short-short . . .

Each week, a photograph is posted at Rochelle Wisoff-Fields—Addicted to Purple. Using the photo as a prompt, you write a 100-word story—complete with beginning, middle, and end—post both photo and story on your own blog, and link to an inLinkz list of other Friday Fictioneers’ stories.

Prompts are also posted on the Facebook Friday Fictioneers page.

Rules and February 21 photo prompt appear here.

Photo prompts are not in the public domain. They’re to be posted only for Friday Fictioneers, and photographers are always to be credited.

The week’s inLinkz list is here. Currently, 56 writers have added their names here.  Below are five stories I’ve chosen at random.

“After All This Time” 
“Diluted”
“Rosey, a buggy and a heap of hay”
“Secrets”
“Why Should I Go to Pakistan?”
“How Much?”

Here are some of my own past efforts:

“You’ll Be Fine”
“‘Shrooms”
“Lovestruck”
and more here.

***

A ROUND OF WORDS IN 80 DAYS: THE WRITING CHALLENGE THAT KNOWS YOU HAVE A LIFE

Many writing challenges set goals for you: Write 1,000 words every day. Write five chapters every week. Write write write . . .  And then life gets in the way, and goals are not met, and the challenge ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

ROW80, on the other hand, allows writers to set their own goals. There are four 80-day rounds in a year. At the beginning of a round, you set your goals, write about them on your blog, and then post about your progress on Sundays and Wednesdays.

As with Friday Fictioneers, posts are linked so other participants can keep up with your progress.

Progress is the operative word. Goals can be modified at any time.

Everything you need to know about how the challenge works is on the ROW80 site:

What Is Row 80?
How Do I Join?
I’m Lost . . . FAQ
Accountability Partners
Blog

If you miss out on the beginning of a round, you haven’t missed out. Just set goals, write them up, and post on the next Sunday or Wednesday that comes along.

***

I missed the beginning of 2020’s first ROW80 round, but today is Sunday, so I’m going to jump in.

Round 1 ends on March 26–31 days away.

Goal: By March 26, I’ll add 4,000 words to my WIP.

*

I hope you’ll check out Friday Fictioneers and ROW80. Now I have to post.

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.

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. )